Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Leaders and Followers

As we move out of an era in our country that I don't ever want to see repeated, I find myself trying desperately to understand how to move on and respect my fellow citizens again, knowing that half of us were perfectly happy keeping things the way they were.  And I find myself thinking about leaders.

We are all, at times in our lives, both leaders and followers.  Throughout my lifetime, I have followed: my teachers, my principals, my government, my police, the rules.  And, I have led: as a union rep, as an educator, as a parent, as a speaker.  Leadership is much easier.  I get to make the decisions, right or wrong, and I get to do things the way I believe they should be done.  And that is what is dangerous about leading.  The ability to do things the way you want them to be done.

I have worked under six principals, who were all very different types of leaders.  My first, in Dallas, Texas, was kind, caring, and told me to teach the way I was comfortable and successful.  She also told me that, when she came to visit for an observation, I had to adhere to the Six Steps of Teaching that Texas was following at the time.  She had to grade me according to the steps.  But the rest of the time, she said, do what works because, she said, my students were learning more than the other fourth graders.  My test scores were much higher and I was only a first year teacher.

This kind of leader was great for me but not so great for the rest of the staff.  Most of them followed and believed in the Six Steps.  And she allowed that to happen, knowing full well it didn't work.  And there was no money in the budget for retraining teachers.  So she was an ineffective leader, knowing what was right but not knowing how to get there or trying to find out how to get there.

My second principal, in Brooklyn, NY, was scary.  Her form of leadership was to bully the teachers into doing what she thought was right.  And when we questioned it, she raged even more.  I was so scared of her that I would literally forget how to breathe when she walked into my classroom.  I did whatever she told me to do, although, for my kids, I did fight back on things like their allotted bathroom time, which came in the afternoon after breakfast and lunch.  And I did fight back on the no-field-trip rule, taking my children successfully on many free city trips.  But I don't think my children learned much, beyond staying quiet and dressing appropriately for our weekly assemblies.  Many teachers complained about her but none did anything to change it.  I left after two years and she was promoted to district superintendent.

My move to Herricks was my last school move.  I began with a principal who was a mixed bag.  He was a great educator, helping me when I struggled to get my students to understand a topic.  But he didn't really support the teachers, just kind of left us alone to do our own things.  So some of us soared and some of us failed,  meaning some children soared and some failed.  But I think about the staff under his tenure.  He had his favorites, people he went to for support, and he wouldn't listen to anyone else's opinion. There was massive bullying allowed among the staff.  When someone complained to him, his response was to have the complainer talk to the bully.  He did not interfere.  Things were so bad under his leadership that we had a faculty meeting with the district psychologist to help us hash things out.  Nobody talked.  

My next principal was a kind woman who trusted her staff.  She encouraged us to try new things.  I won all my awards under her leadership. I looped with my classes three times under her leadership.  I became a global learner and a technology user under her leadership.  For me, she was a great leader.  For others, they enjoyed their classes, got along with each other, and generally did well.  The principal encouraged us all to work together and, for the most part, the bullying in the school stopped. Some teachers retired, some moved to other schools, and the building was a place both teachers and students wanted to be.

My third principal on Long Island was a teacher in the building first.  She was a stickler for rules, insisting we all do the same thing.  She brought in Lucy Calkins' work, she looked into block planning (only the union stopped that one) and she pushed us to be better than the other elementary schools in the district with our test scores.  Stress increased tremendously, teachers retired or asked for transfers, and nobody who left ever wanted to come back. I fought hard to keep my program and then learned how to work my program into her demands.  She won and I won.  Until I couldn't do it anymore.

I left the classroom and moved into a position that, ultimately, had no administrator leading us.  We were three teachers writing the curriculum ourselves, for a gifted program and a new PLTW science program.  We were left alone and I was happy.

So what does all this have to do with our government and its leaders?  It makes me think about the people who are followers.

In Brooklyn, teachers complained but did nothing to change the system or the leader.  When I left, I spoke with the lead teacher in the building about it.  She told me the principal would have welcomed any input on teaching styles.  I don't believe that.  She wanted a lock step program and she got one.  Nobody, I mean NOBODY, pushed back on that.  I would like to think that now, with my experience and my age, I would, but I don't know.  I would probably just close my door, do my own thing, and fit her lock step program and rules into my classroom the best I could. I really liked the teachers I worked with.  The children liked their teachers.  But it wasn't a good place to be.

With my first principal on Long Island, the teachers became bullies.  There were clear sides, everyone joined, and nobody did anything to try to make it better.  Until we did.  A couple of us tried by having a monthly breakfast, hosted in various classrooms.  It was fun and brought us together.  But after about six months, the bullies started complaining that it was too much pressure, because we created a calendar for people to sign up to host.  And the bullies won.  We stopped trying. I made some friends during that principal's tenure but mostly I kept to myself.  As did so many of us.  It was not a good place to be.

With the principal who allowed us the freedom to be, we were the happiest.  The children thrived, teachers each had their own special units of love that they covered, we worked together, and the school was a great place to be.  Mostly.  Some bullies got quiet.  Some just reverted to complaining at every meeting.  But these people, who thrived under the first principal, were primarily shut down and kept to themselves. I did, during her tenure, end up on a grade full of bullies. The first year I tried to work with them and learn from them, having never taught the grade before.  Then I stopped trying and moved online to connect with like-minded people.  I made many friends, found partners, co-wrote a book, and won awards.  All without anyone else in the building.  I communicated primarily with teachers from other grades or teachers from other parts of the world.  My grade just...well, it didn't work.  But I was fairly content and my students loved coming to school.

A leader creates the atmosphere. Teachers create an atmosphere for the students.  Teachers decide if bullying is allowed, if empathy is key, if differences are welcomed or shunned.  Students look to us to decide how to behave.

Principals create the an atmosphere for the school.  Principals decide if bullying is allowed, if teachers are trusted, if students and teachers can offer opinions or not, if teachers will be shunned by others or not. Teachers look to principals to decide how to behave.

By the same token, governors and presidents create the atmosphere for the country.  They decide if bullying is allowed, if citizens can have a voice or not, if some will be shunned or not.  And we have seen this magnified by our latest president and all the governors, senators, and representatives who follow him.

So what does all this say about the followers?  Most of us are, after all, mostly followers.  Do we stand up and say, "No. I will not bully."? Do we stand up and say, "No. I will not shun others or make fun of others."?  Or do we just follow along, doing what we are told, even if it makes no sense?  And what does that say about us if we do?  Is it acceptable that some of us decided to go along?  Is it okay that some of us decided to pull out our most despicable characteristics to go along?  Is that what we do as followers?  

It seems to me that we all had a choice to make.  For some, the choice was to follow what everyone around us was doing.  Wear a mask or don't.  Hang a Confederate flag or don't. Post a Trump sign on your lawn or don't.  What is everyone around you doing? Do that. 

There were times in my life when I mostly went along.  But not many.  My first year teaching I fought for my kids not to get paddled if they misbehaved.  But I said nothing when the assistant principal called me in to be a witness when she was going to paddle one of my own.  I cried instead, right in front of the child.  My second year teaching, I fought for my kids to go on field trips and for my kids to get a good bathroom time.  My first year on Long Island, I fought for my students when an author was visiting and all the students had time to make pins for her but mine.  I went to the principal and asked him to tell the librarian to give me the button maker to use in my classroom.  She fought back but I won and my students won.  And the bullies in the school were impressed with me and, mostly, left me alone.

I'm not sure why I am always able to stand up for others, when I find it very hard to stand up for myself.  But, in this election, I voted for others.  I'm doing fine under Trump.  No better, no worse.  I don't worry that my rights are being taken away because the rights we are losing as a country won't really affect me.  But I always stand up for the rights of others.  As a teacher, I always stood up for my students.  As a mom, I always stand up for my child.  As a wife, I stand up for my husband.  And I will always stand up for respect and empathy for all.

So how do I get past the last four years?  How do I forgive those followers who did what everyone around them were doing, simply because that's what everyone was doing?  I did, ultimately, end up being good friends with one of the bullies of my grade.  But she recognized what she had done and made amends.  And I was able to be pleasant and friendly to the others because, well, I saw them every day and it just made it easier for me to do so.  And I guess, that's how I get past.  Be pleasant and friendly, don't talk about the bullying and the rest, and keep standing up for those that need support.

What I've realized is all of us have the ability to stand up and all of us have the ability to just go along.  There is hate in us all.  For now, I guess, I will look for the love instead of the hate.  I will keep standing up and keep hoping that most of us do.  And I will relish the new leadership we have coming in January.  Maybe the haters will put their hate back underground and we will make some real changes for those that need it.  How will you move on?

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