For the majority of my teaching career, I worked for an amazing principal. When he moved from a middle school to my current high school, he asked me to come with him. He explained his reasoning by referencing a business book by Jim Collins—Good to Great. Collins analyzed the performance of leaders at consistently top-performing companies to see what made them great. My principal told me a story from the book. The first step in great leadership, he said, was to get the right people on the bus, and then once you’ve got the people you want on the bus, you can move them to the right seats. He asked me to get on the bus.
I could write for days about all the reasons that was the best professional decision of my life, but those stories will come over time. Mr. W. was an amazing principal and now that I’ve been without him for a year and a half (he retired), I’m realizing he was an even stronger leader than I knew.
It was 14 years ago when he asked me to get on the bus. When I accepted the invitation, I read the book. Then I gave it to my brother who works in the business world because although I found it interesting, I thought it applied to him much more than me. Now, through my reading challenge, I’ve realized that Mr. W was onto something with the business books.
Schools haven’t changed much—I have a book from graduate school, called A Long Way Together—written to chronicle the first 67 years of the National Council of Teachers of English (it was published in 1979). I remember being amazed when I read it twenty years ago, that J.N. Hook wrote of many of the same problems with schools and students that we were facing in the 1990s. Skimming it today, I came across this quote from 1912 that explains the organization of the typical high school English curriculum:
The favorite plan was to read the books in chronological order and to write themes to illustrate the “forms of discourse.” The question of motive, of actual use and reality, was for the most part not suggested. There was much complaint of the excessive number of pupils assigned to the teacher, of the lack of opportunity for conference with individuals, and of the fact that local conditions must be ignored because of the influence of the college requirements. (43)
Despite changes in our environment, our resources, and our people, our practices largely remain unchanged—and as teachers, we continue to fight the fight, hoping that this, too, shall pass. But as any experienced educator will tell you—and the quote above demonstrates—it’s all cyclical. We just wait and see what the next mandate will bring—and it’s probably something that’s been tried unsuccessfully before—but we’ll play along because we know we can shut our classroom doors and do our best to do what’s best for those kids in our classrooms.
Businesses, on the other hand, are forced to keep up with the changing environment, resources, and people. If they don’t, another company is ready to step in and take over. The leaders of successful businesses respond to change and implement practices within their companies to make sure their employees are willing to go along with the change, too.
Yes, as teachers, our hands are tied, somewhat. We have to answer to the principal, who answers to the district, which answers to the state…the bureaucracy is what it is. But, just as we’re willing to shut the door and teach, why can’t we shut the door and take the lead? What if we started to look at ourselves as the CLO—Chief Learning Officer—in our classrooms?
This idea was the premise of two conference presentations I gave in October. Each focused on different aspects of leadership within the classroom and both were somewhat rushed. Since I have this forum, I thought I could use it to flesh out my ideas in more detail. So, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I’m going to share the ideas I’ve gleaned through reading about business leaders and psychology, and I’ll explain how we can apply their strategies for success to our classrooms.
Unlike business leaders (and principals), teachers don’t get to choose who gets on our bus, and we can’t alter the destination, but we do have a lot of control over how we get there. By taking charge and developing our leadership potential, we can make the ride better for everyone on the bus!