She wiped away a torrent of tears from her eyes with a tissue that she withdrew from a black leather handbag with large looping handles. After taking a deep breath she looked at me with deeply hurt, red-rimmed eyes, “Don’t let them do this to you, Pete!” As she was finishing her sentence she stood abruptly and left the cubby hole that served as the teachers lounge, in this, the old Annex, of the middle school-high school.
Miss Blaine was a first year teacher and it was December. She was not going to come back after the holidays. I’d been asked to spend a week with her before she left in order to get a feel for her classes. The kids had really gotten to her. She had no control of the class. They had seen her cry, and although I’m sure each child was a wonderful soul individually; as a group, they had gotten a taste of “blood” and were mercilessly attacking their wounded teacher.
This was going to be my first teaching job. I was filled with all the confidence of a 22 year old. I convinced myself that what was happening to her had nothing to do with me. I was a big guy, a well-known star on my college basketball team and the third leading scorer in the school’s history. I had been proclaimed an outstanding student teacher. I was hot stuff. Little did I know that this would have no impact on the class, for they cared little about teacher resumes. It was all about teacher presence.
It wasn’t long before I learned that kids have a special radar; a “clear vision”, that senses much more than the words that the teacher is speaking. This “clear vision” picks up on how grounded, confident, and present, their teacher appears. False confidence is sniffed out immediately. So, when I took the class as my own in January, I faced the same trials and tribulations as Miss Blaine, the beaten and defeated teacher that preceded me. My size didn’t intimidate them. My basketball stardom earned me no points. They couldn’t care less about my student teaching experience. They toyed with me.
Frankly, I deserved it. My first weeks in the classroom were all about me, not them. I wanted them to like me. I thought the way to win them over was to show them that I wasn’t like the older teachers. I was young and cool. I wasn’t into all the old rules. I wouldn’t say, “No” so often. They picked up on my neediness in that regard. They pressed to see how far they could go before I would enforce the rules and before I would begin to apply “old teacher” discipline and consequences. It was way too late when I did and it was done amateurishly.
I wanted to teach them things I felt were interesting. I didn’t listen to hear what they thought interesting. They were experts at taking things that I cared about and belittling them. After a time, I withdrew and held back the things about which I felt most deeply. I didn’t want to share anything important with them. They’d only trash it, and me in the process. Of course, I didn’t show my hurt the way the Mrs. Blaine had. There weren’t going to be any tears with me. I displayed my hurt feelings as anger. The angrier I got the more they sensed they were in control. It was one of the worst months in my life.
The classroom is a beautiful place to learn leadership. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, to paraphrase a famous lyric. Generally, adults are polite to people in authority who are poor leaders; not so with kids. They made my life miserable.
What did my classroom experience teach me about leadership?
It’s less about what you say, than who you are. A teacher and leader needs to have a grounded presence. He needs to be confident, open, and connected to those he seeks to teach/lead. If you pretend, they know it.
If all you care about is your own agenda, you will have difficulty winning the hearts and minds of those you teach and lead. Listen to them; learn what interests them, and weave this into a narrative that engages them. It’s really not about you. It is always about them. Be in service to them at all times.
It takes courage to teach and lead. You put yourself and the things you love and are passionate about into the public domain and discourse. It is that courage to be open and passionate, not cool and aloof that inspires others to come forth to share their own passions.
There are many, many lessons in leadership that my students taught me. This is not the time to describe them all. Being a teacher and leader is a commitment to the path of the learner; a path that never ends.
It is a joy to walk it.