By Jacek Polubiec
Most of us agree that the idea that leaders just lead, teachers just teach, and students just learn is a thing of the past. Innovative schools have been blurring these traditional boundaries for years, and most people understand that being flexible, open minded, collaborative, and proactive are critical attributes of those who want to succeed in the contemporary workplace. The expectation is that leaders distribute their influence among the staff, teachers assume roles in policy making, and students take ownership of their own learning. For the adults in the school building, this paradigm shift comes with opportunities to assume official roles such as lead teachers or coaches, as well as less formal opportunities to impact school communities while building leadership skills.
You don’t have to have a leadership position to be a leader, and even though there are hundreds of ways to conceptualize leadership, for our purposes let’s just narrow it down to one definition: Leadership is an attitude, a state of mind, and a set of behaviors that positively affect other people. I don’t have any secrets on how to help someone get the leadership job of their dreams, but I can give you some solid advice on how to make yourself noticeable, valuable, and impactful, so that when great opportunities open up, your chances of being considered will dramatically increase. If you’re interested in professional growth, having an impact on the profession, and growing your potential for success, keep on reading.
Above all, be a learner. Go out of your way to expose yourself to new ideas that you can find around you, then expand your horizons beyond your field. Education is a human endeavor, so many other disciplines are or can be connected to our work. All content in psychology, sociology, culture, health, technology, and so on, is fair game. Scan articles, books, and videos on topics that might benefit you, your students, your colleagues, and your school or district. Make connections with diverse ideas and your practice. If you think like a master learner and keep your mind open, you can learn and grow from almost anything. As you research, ask yourself reflective questions: How does mindset affect achievement? What is the role of innovation and tradition in human development? How do people learn, reason, remember, and apply knowledge? What biases are we susceptible to? How do our classrooms reflect our society as it is and as we would like it to be? What is the purpose of our work?
These are just a few of the many insightful questions that will run through your mind as you continue quenching your thirst for knowledge. Don’t stop asking and keep going wherever your mind takes you.
Take small steps to share the ideas you came across and find ways to implement them in your classroom and anywhere else you can. Volunteer to facilitate small initiatives that demonstrate and model your new learning. Every time you learn something new, try to share it with your students, your peers, and your leaders. If you feel resistance, research what you can do to overcome it. Even if you are just starting out, be brave and do not shy away from assuming formal and informal roles that contribute to the profession and the well-being of your colleagues. Be the leader, the facilitator, the mover and shaker. Ask yourself: What meeting and professional activities can I facilitate? What small activity can I contribute to something others are facilitating? What can I do to go beyond what’s expected of me? How can I fill the gaps between common practice and research? What small projects can I lead that would contribute to my profession?
Constantly look for ways to motivate everyone around you, and start by maintaining your own intrinsic motivation. We are all wired to have that inner flame that drives us forward, so go ahead and be the one who brings it out in others. Focus on intrinsic aspects of human motivation: autonomy, collaboration, purpose, meaning, fun and enjoyment. Ask yourself: How can I help others add more meaning to what they are already doing? How can I make mundane tasks as fun as possible? (HINT: It is always possible!)
Consider the following paradox. When you feel stressed and overwhelmed, create a task or initiative for yourself that provides you with joy and satisfaction, even if others see it as one more thing on your plate. Having autonomy (after all this is your task) and feeling accomplished will counter that extra work and help you maintain your intrinsic motivation.
Check around to see if anyone needs assistance and what you can do to help them. Sometimes people are hesitant to ask for help, so building trust might be a critical first step. Don’t limit your support to the technical aspects of your work, either. Students might just need to know that their voice matters; colleagues might just need a cup of coffee, friendly conversation, or someone to give them warm feedback. Double check that everyone you are attempting to support actually feels supported, and guide your behavior accordingly.
Becoming a leader is not a one-time event. Leadership is an ongoing process that involves specific actions, reflection, and adjustments. When done right, it is not a circle but an upward spiral that propels us and the people we influence to get better and better. One thing we learn leads us to another to be learned; one action we take impacts more actions to be taken. The inspiration and quest to motivate is ongoing.
People who are engaged in this lifelong process stand out above the rest and put themselves in situations where they will have a positive impact on others. I cannot promise that, as you implement the learn-and-lead framework, you will have less work than your colleagues. In fact, you will almost certainly work harder and be involved in more projects than the colleague who leaves school as early as possible. However, I can promise you, unequivocally, that if you subscribe to this paradigm shift, you will have a personally fulfilling career that you would not trade for anything else. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell them “Dr. P thinks you are wrong!”
Dr. Polubiec is a founder of DRP Learn and Lead, LLC, a global community of learners who lead and leaders who learn. Dr. Polubiec draws on more than 20 years of experience as an urban educator and has eclectic interests in human motivation and leadership to mentor, support, and inspire educators and educational leaders.