Confronting Social Disadvantage

Poverty and Education (Part II)


This is a time of year when many students are preparing to graduate from college and join the work force. It’s a time when the gap between the have’s and the have not’s reveals social disadvantages. Students with social capital research opportunities in their field, apply for jobs, learn to network, prepare for interviews and receive support from their immediate social circle (parents, colleagues of parents, family friends, relatives, etc.). They get feedback to strengthen their resumes and guidance on what the job market wants. Students from backgrounds of poverty and others who are the first in their families to finish college need these opportunities too but may not be able to access them easily.

Are we preparing all students well enough to be successful when the time is right? If we give them a strong academic training, will they have the support structures that will open doors? If and when the doors open, will they have what it takes to step in? Students who live in poverty have many challenges to overcome. Are we doing enough to help them gain the tangible and intangible skills and qualities needed to be successful in college and beyond?

Recently, I shared these thoughts with a wise colleague who agreed that students need more than just a good education – they need to be prepared to seize opportunities when doors open for them. She restated my thoughts very simply.

“When opportunity knocks, will they be ready?” — Zula Barnett, Teacher

At a time when unemployment is an issue, potential employers are complaining about an unprepared workforce. Schools have a dual role – to give students the knowledge base that will allow them to choose a college education and gain the ‘hard skills’ the job market needs, and to help them gain the ‘soft skills’ or intangible qualities that will help them succeed in these settings. Schools need to do three things to level the playing field:

(1) Set a high bar for quality work. This will be an expectation in college and later in the work place, so we need to start early, have high expectations and support students in meeting them. This means no shortcuts. We must ask for quality work and not give kids a pass simply for showing up or putting in the effort. We must show them what high standards look like so they understand our expectations and then support them in reaching that level of quality in their work.

(2) Guide students in being courteous, caring, cheerful, empathetic, pleasant, positive, and hard working. We need to teach them how to present themselves with regard to their appearance, verbal skills and writing skills in contexts of opportunity. We need to give them opportunities to engage in teams.

(3) Build connections within the community so that employers become more intentional about reaching out and bringing opportunities to students from backgrounds of disadvantage. When businesses partner with schools to bring in mentors, tutors and volunteers, relationships are built which can lead to networking opportunities as students grow older.

When I hire new staff I search for soft skills – a positive tone, a cheerful attitude, an interest in connecting with others, an enthusiastic spirit and a sense of humor. These are the intangibles that sway my decision. These qualities lift my team and strengthen its resilience. I can train reasonably competent people in the hard skills they will need to do their jobs well.  I can’t say the same about soft skills which are learned and integrated early in life. In every grade, if we make a concerted effort to model these intangible skills in our own behavior, and expect them from students, I have no doubt that these qualities will become ingrained in the culture of our schools, and spill over into society.

We are coaching kids for the game of life! School is about more than just academics. We must be purposeful about growing the soft skills students will need for the rest of their lives. When opportunity knocks, will our kids be able to step out and compete directly with their privileged peers? I hope we make sure that the answer is a resounding yes.


Learning & Leading

I changed the tag line of my blog today. It used to be… ‘Thoughts About Learning and Growing’. I had those words on the covers of binders, journals and notebooks. It feels like I started just yesterday as a principal, yet all the trials, challenges and successes make me realize that I’ve spent almost a decade as a school leader. Right from the start, I knew I would be learning and growing. I had trained for this role when, as a teacher, I felt my job was on auto-pilot. I was ready for new challenges.

“Leadership is a scary thing. That’s why few people want to stand up to the plate… There are many people who want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar” — Steve Farber

Oh! I know what that feels like! I said I wanted challenges and they came my way! There are all kinds of issues that crop up on a regular basis. A principal connects with a variety of stakeholders and each group has its own take on what is needed from the school. So the school leader is pulled in different directions while always having to maintain a steady focus on what is important (our goals), and remembering that all of these stakeholders are important to the school.

When I took this job, I had some things that were important – relationships, respect and responsibility, then after some years on the job I added rigor and resilience. These five R’s still ground my work. I’ve always loved a challenge. It gets me into problem-solving mode. Throw something tough at me and I’ll tackle it. Sometimes, it may feel like I have 2000 pounds of bull charging after me, but I always walk away, perhaps not unscathed, but each time having learned how to be a better matador!

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, based on mission that troubles your heart.” — Harriet Rubin

Yes, it was a personal quest – to advocate for children and educators. I enjoyed engaging with problems and finding solutions. I was directly involved in making the learning environment more effective. I partnered with my team to streamline our work. Reviewing, reflecting and revising what we did became second nature. At the same time I was starting to learn about leadership. I read books by people in the business world and happily enough, I learned that their work was in sync with my R’s. In addition to learning about curriculum and instruction, I was learning about how other people led their organizations, and their work influenced my role as a leader. I was learning and growing.

Today, the world of education is shifting and changing. I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability, however, now there are regulations that affect what educators do – it feels like we’re working inside a box. Merit pay is now part of our world and the relationships I worked hard to build over the years seem to be disintegrating. I have always seen myself as one among the team, and it feels like that’s changing. Now I am the evaluator whose hand is on the livelihood of the state’s employees! So much for shared leadership and connecting with my team, huh? I still believe in those things. They now see me differently. They see the role, not the person – I am the principal, not a colleague who can partner with them. There is less that I can do directly as a leader on a curricular and instructional level as well. My job is less about charting the course, and more about following the Trip Tik. I can determine the stops along the way but the path is set.

Well, not everything is wrong about this… in many cases, what is determined is good for students. Yet, what drew me to my work – my interest in engaging with challenges and finding solutions to address them – has morphed into something where the solutions are set by others. As someone reminded me, this is how many teachers feel across the country. No doubt, leaders of districts feel hemmed in as well, because what’s happening in the field of education affects them too.

There are days when this gets me down and I have to remind myself to keep my chin up! I wondered one day about the notion of learning and growing… how would growing help me in an arena where I have responsibility without much authority to do more than influence? What was my new challenge now and how could I tackle it?

“When we are doing something we’re passionate about, failure becomes a non-issue… Pursuit of a dream rarely leads to regrets… Too many of those with unrealized aspirations have set them aside due to fear of failure” — Farson and Keyes

It’s a long weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day, and my thoughts kept me company as I puttered about the house doing the things I don’t get a chance to do on school days. Mulling over the lay of the land in education and seeing how I still fit in it was a helpful exercise. After the required whining (to self) about the things that bug me, I thought about what had not changed. I still love my job as a school principal. I still want to advocate for students and help them see the possibilities that lie ahead. I still love connecting with the people in my ‘school’ life. I still want to partner with my team to meet and exceed our goals. I still thrive on challenges and will always love learning.

I realized that to feel I can contribute in education I now have to redefine how I see my job. It’s no longer sufficient to think that building relationships will be a stepping stone towards partnering with my team in this arena of merit pay. I have to learn how to lead in a new atmosphere where educators feel like they are collectively under fire. It’s now about finding a way to ensure that the people at my school feel challenged to do their best every day and believe they’re getting a fair shake – I need to remember that time is an important variable in this. It’s about maintaining the R’s that ground my work and making them more transparent. It’s about realizing that when I feel boxed in, I have an even more important challenge – leading with my beliefs intact in an atmosphere where what I did before might not work. It’s about finding a way to solidify the trust I have earned over time, which now seems to be on shaky ground because of circumstances over which I have no control.

Therein lies the story of the change in the name of my blog. It now reads: From the Principal’s Pen… Thoughts About Learning and Leading. The learning still comes first. And leading… well it’s a fascinating challenge with new dimensions and I will continue to tackle it!

Learning and Leading

I have found that spending a day learning is a great way to renew my interest and belief in the things that are important to me. It could be a great day of learning when I am inspired by a someone or something (a book, movie, etc.) or perhaps a day when I might disagree with what I’ve heard or read, and learn anyway! Either way, if my brain starts humming, I know something good will come from that experience. Today I attended a conference and spent the entire day learning from a talented educator whose work resonated with me and helped me work through something I’ve been wrestling with recently.

I believe that the most important aspect of my job is to help my team members be the best they can be. I am also a principal in a state where teacher evaluations have been revamped and will soon be linked to their salaries. Naturally, this is new and unnerving for many educators who worry about how this will affect them. Will their evaluators gauge their work fairly? Will they know what they need to work on in a timely manner? They wonder what kind of an impact this system will have on their careers and lives. On the other side of the equation, I believe this system has raised the bar for school leaders with regard to how we conduct evaluations. We must continue to focus on helping teachers be the best they can be, without going into what I call ‘gotcha’ mode. My assistant principal and I have talked a lot about this and tried to communicate to teachers that we’re not interested in doing the punitive ‘gotcha’ thing. We want to partner with them in meaningful ways so that our team continues to gain strength and raise student achievement by doing the things we are charged to do, without being punitive. Yet, we realize that until this school year unfolds and people can gauge our actions, they will only have our words to rely on. Change is not easy. And, when it has the potential to affect our purse-strings negatively, it may cause stress and anxiety, and affect trust between the parties.

In my book, accountability is not a bad word. Increasing student achievement and helping students achieve success at the highest levels is a non-negotiable goal. Advocating for all children to be able to have access to opportunities that will allow them to dream big and aim high is a worthy aim. Preparing them to be able to do whatever they want to do when they grow up is, to me, why schools exist. I want to make sure that these are not diluted in any way for children and by the same token, something in me says helping teachers improve what they do is also about making a difference.

Enter Robyn Jackson, founder of Mindsteps Inc., who has strong beliefs about the core principles that should ground teaching and learning. I had read some of her books over the past year and found her work engaging and inspiring. She had three different presentations at the conference I attended today. I made it a ‘learn from Robyn Jackson’ day, and I am glad I did! What I learned today will allow me to structure the conversations I have with my team and meet the guidelines of the new evaluation system while continuing to honor the beliefs that undergird my work.

She gave a simple and important point as the rationale for her work. If we believe every child can learn and succeed (and we should believe this unequivocally), then by the same token, we should believe that every teacher can teach at the highest levels. Today she shared her belief that every child deserves to be taught by a master teacher and that any teacher can become a master teacher with the right support, guidance and practice. She engaged us with her ideas about how strategic conversations between supervisors and teachers have the potential to help teachers hone their skills and refine their practice.

Why is this valuable to me? If I want my teachers to believe that every child can learn and if I want them to find ways to reach children and help them succeed, then in my role as an instructional leader, I must believe that every teacher deserves the same from me. I have to find ways to support them and help them succeed. I have to find a way to help them be the best they can be and help every child succeed. Just as I don’t want anyone on my staff to give up on kids, I must ensure that my assistant principal and I don’t give up on our teachers. What I like about Robyn Jackson’s book is that it gives us a structured framework to guide the work we do with our team members – to work thoughtfully as we support them in achieving their goals.

An important aspect of her message is about encouraging supervisors to have a series of strategic conversations that support teachers in increasing the effectiveness of instruction. These conversations will likely happen outside the realm of evaluation observations and meetings. However, by engaging in them, supervisors have the opportunity to influence the quality of instructional practices. This is bound to help with bringing ‘no surprises’ during the evaluation. It is how we would want our own work to be evaluated.

I’ve often said that we are collectively responsible for increasing student achievement, and that I want to partner with my staff – “We’re all in this together.” However, in a high-stakes environment, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them see this as just words. Robyn Jackson’s comments about wanting to find a ‘different way’ to supervise her team resonated with me because to her, the other way simply had a punitive ring to it. She reminded us about the reasons why people embrace a career in education and reiterated the idea that we need to consciously structure our schools so that those reasons remain alive even as educators continue their journey, year after year. We want teachers to inspire students. Don’t we as school leaders have a charge to inspire our teachers?

My professor and mentor, Dr. Terrell once said, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” I remember his words often on the job. Dr. Jackson reminded me today of why I became a principal and helped me renew my commitment to the goal of supporting teachers to be the best they can be. She gave me a road map with her framework for engaging in strategic conversations with teachers. I will still need to figure out which turns to take, whether I will travel quickly on highways, or drive more patiently down country roads, whether I will get to my destination quickly or if the situation warrants a more measured pace. Either way, she has given me a structure to chart a course towards differentiating leadership and supporting team members meaningfully, while holding on tightly to my beliefs. For that I am grateful.

Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!

“Are You Indispensable?” Hint, Hint… Please Say, “No!”

“Hope you’re feeling better! Things here are going well today.”

That was in an e-mail from one of my teachers this afternoon – I was ill today and had stayed at home. “Hmm! So it takes my being ill for things to go well, huh?” was the first thing I thought, grinning at my own joke! I believe in the adage, “No one is indispensable.” And, that was the next thing that popped into my mind.

As a school leader, I’ve always believed that my school is not about me or the person who sits in the principal’s chair. It should always be about the school community. Indeed, no one is indispensable, and so, if someone in a leadership role leaves, ideally, that should not rock the boat of the school. I thought about that again today. Obviously things hummed along pretty well at school in my absence today. Not only did the daily routine of school move smoothly, but my staff probably made good decisions, problem-solved through issues that came up, consulted people who needed to provide input, and generally managed the myriad details that crop up on a daily basis and need to be addressed. They know they can call me if they have questions or need me, as they have done sometimes. Two teacher leaders even took up the responsibility of facilitating a committee meeting. They took the information I would have presented had I been there, and ran with it. I had no qualms about leaving this responsibility in their capable hands. Until now, I would say that I have taken all of this for granted.

However, today, I heard from one person new to our school, who plays a leadership role. This person said it made a difference that I trusted the people at work – trusted them to make the best calls in my absence. We talked a little more and I’ve been mulling over that conversation this evening. I’m not surprised it found its way into my blog.

It was an unexpected comment which allowed me to reflect on the things I sometimes do in auto-pilot mode. It is very rewarding when things we do quite naturally are appreciated. If I look deeper into that comment, it was really feedback about something important. It was a comment that said people appreciate it when leaders don’t micromanage from afar – when they don’t hound their employees on day-to-day issues. When people feel they are entrusted with important responsibilities, they are eager to step up and do more – they are confident about holding up the fort whether or not the leader is present.

I love quotes, as you’ve learned by now, and found one by Michael Ende (quite possibly lines from one of his books), that fits beautifully.

“She became so important to them that they wondered how they had ever managed without her in the past. And the longer she stayed with them the more indispensable she became, so indispensable in fact that their one fear was that she might some day move on.”

If anyone, in any role, is in the position of being the only one holding the fort up, that would be unhealthy for any organization, because life happens! It might be an illness today, a new and exciting job opportunity tomorrow, a move out of the city, or a tragic family event. Life happens, and people move on or away. Wouldn’t it be sad if we hire people because we believe that they are the best for the job and then bind them up with so much cotton wool that we suffocate their creativity and independence? Cotton wool, you ask? OK, call it bubble wrap if you must! If we are unwilling to let our employees stretch to make professional decisions without padding them up on all sides because we worry about something going wrong without our rubberstamp on it, then we are slowly sucking their energy, creativity and confidence dry. When the moment calls for it, they will be so busy second guessing themselves that the professional skills we hired them for will simply become words on their resume.

As much as the feedback today was rewarding, it was also an important reminder to me and anyone in a leadership role, that our roles begin and end with other people. Leadership is a ‘people’ business. And, fostering the leadership of others is an important charge. Keeping it all to ourselves is not meaningful to our organizations. It is critical to give team members the freedom to think through issues, work through problems, come up with solutions, and know they have our trust to tweak and refine what they do. And should things go wrong, as they sometimes do, if we are consistent in our responses they will come to us and let us know, rather than opting to hide mistakes from us out of fear. Together we can work on figuring out how we respond as an organization to fix them, learn from them and put things in place to prevent future mistakes of the same nature. It then becomes an integral part of our culture.

I believe that it is in giving trust that we earn more of it. This is an important lesson for me to remember, too. In writing this, I’ve just realized that ‘learning and growing’ as a school principal doesn’t happen only on the job. Sometimes, stepping back (or staying away as I ended up doing today) teaches me as much about what is important in my role as being at school.

Do You See What I See?

It’s fun to be around kids. They entertain us with their curiosity and irrepressible comments. They are so engaged in the world and their experiences. It would be difficult as an educator to avoid picturing them as adults. At school, we don’t just see little kids… we see future scientists, mathematicians, authors, police officers, fire-fighters, educators, musicians, artists, leaders of the world… and we can’t resist talking to them about these roles and how their skills and knowledge might lead them to interesting careers in the years ahead.

So, here I am, a school principal, working with people who have already selected their careers… people who I hope will remain in the field of education, and continue to influence and strengthen it. I can’t resist thinking about where they will be five or ten years down the road. My own career has taken so many twists and turns. I started out in fine arts and soon realized I wasn’t good enough at art to make a career of it. I then became a travel agent and in about three months switched to volunteering at a school for kids with disabilities. That led to several years as a special education teacher before I found my niche in assistive technology. Some years later I knew I wanted to make a greater difference and aspired to the role of an elementary principal. So much has changed for me in just over a couple of decades. Who knows what lies ahead! I’ve learned that careers do not have to be static.

I have also learned that the most important part of my job is to help teachers be the best they can be. I see strengths in my teachers and can’t help dreaming about the things they can aspire to. I talk to them about their role as teacher leaders. I ask about where they see themselves in five to ten years, and how I can help them get to their goals. Granted, if they take on some roles, they may move away from our school, however, they will have a bigger impact in the world of education as future principals, curriculum directors, workshop presenters and school leaders. Sadly, there are teachers who sometimes turn away from their dreams and new opportunities because they fear how their principals will react to their thoughts about moving out of their current situations. “What if I don’t get that job? How will my principal treat me knowing I wanted to leave?”

I hope my teachers know that I will not hold them back – they are free to dream and grow. I have talked to many of them about this. When they seek new opportunities, I want to support them. I try to link them up with resources, nudge them in conversations and provide them with experiences that will help should a new role materialize. If someone wants to become a principal in the future and has experience only in primary grades, I try to suggest that they teach in an intermediate grade to gain experiences that will help them in that role. If someone is interested in taking graduate courses, I love to talk to them about where they see themselves in the future and how the courses may have an impact on their goals. I share books and resources that might inspire them. I talk about qualities I see in them that will be an asset when they are ready to make the leap. I talk about their leadership skills to people at the helm of our organization – perhaps this will open some doors for them for leadership within our organization. I know that the years will pass quickly and when they get the itch to spread their wings, seeds of leadership would already have been planted in their minds. I am delighted when teachers with whom I have worked in the past call out of the blue saying they are considering a new opportunity, and ask my opinion about it. What a great experience it is to be trusted so, and indeed, to spend time talking with them about their dreams.

I was fortunate to be at the receiving end of such attention. Long before I aspired to a leadership role, my husband had taken a peek into my future. He would strike up conversations where he nudged me to consider looking past my role as a teacher, and consider becoming a school administrator. “Never!” I would say vehemently. “Are you kidding me? I couldn’t do that.” But, that didn’t stop him at all – look where I am today! He saw something in me long before I recognized it in myself. Some years later, taking the step towards being a school leader seemed like a natural thing to do. As Christopher Reeve said, “So many of our dreams seem impossible, then improbable, then inevitable.” I guess Superman knew what he was talking about!

But it doesn’t have to end there. We are sustained by those who still see something in us and dream about what we can do in the future. I am fortunate to have people in my family, school community and circle of friends who stand by me, share words of encouragement, offer wise counsel, give me pep talks, offer constructive criticism and reiterate their belief in me. They see something in me that I might fail to recognize sometimes, and through their voices I continue to learn and grow.

So, what do YOU see in the future of the people around you? Your colleagues? Your friends and family? Your kids? How do you nurture and encourage them? Undoubtedly, there is immeasurable joy in growing the leaders of tomorrow. The fun begins when they begin to see what we have seen all along!

“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” — David Gergen

“And when we think we lead, we are most led.” —Lord Byron

One of the hardest questions to answer is, “What is the most important aspect of my role?” It doesn’t matter what our professions might be – it is easier to create a list of things we believe our roles entail, rather than define what our most important charge is. A leadership role is complicated. There are multiple dimensions that cannot be ignored, stakeholders who are integral to the organization’s well-being, goals that need to be achieved, challenges that must be addressed and resolved, a vision that needs to be defined. Where does one begin? How do we identify one critical aspect that connects to all the others? I did not set out to ask myself this question, but my teachers led me to the answer.

As a special education teacher who supported students in different buildings, I had worked with multiple principals. I knew how they ran meetings but did not see the nuances of their work. As a result, when I became a principal, I quickly realized that there were things people needed of me that I was not even aware of. My head was full of ideas about leadership, but I needed to begin with the nuts and bolts. Somehow, the packing list for those was incomplete!

Having worked in this role at four schools by now, I have realized that what people want of a principal at one school may be completely different from what people want at another. I expect this is true in most organizations. Thankfully, a kindergarten teacher came to see me one day, and offered to let me know what people were used to, what they needed and when. This was a really big deal. Here was a teacher, who had the presence of mind to see that there was a problem, and the wisdom to speak to a newly hired principal and say euphemistically, what would bluntly have been something like, “Hey Subha, you’re messing up royally, and you’re not even aware of it!” She offered her help and I took it gratefully. Anybody in a new role knows that you can only ask questions about the things you know. How does one figure out what one needs to do if it’s not even on our radar? We wait for other leaders to step up to the plate! One of them had graciously led me to the first turn in  my journey as a school principal and pointed me in the right direction.

I am happy to be called a bookworm. I love to learn! A great deal of learning happens when we deal with challenges – good and bad – and my mind is restless when it comes to ideas. Some of my best learning has come from conversations where my colleagues (yes, my teachers are my colleagues) and I have wrestled with ideas, often looking at things through different lenses. Sometimes we’ve pushed and pulled and then revisited ideas, and each conversation has stretched us. I like to share resources with teachers and during our conversations I’ll often share a book I’ve read, point out a strategy or link one educator with another. It’s fun to reflect on what is happening around our school, share and see the ideas grow. Early in my leadership role, I had the privilege of working with a couple of teachers who were masterful at their craft. I watched them and learned something new every time I stepped into their classrooms. We often talked about education and I would mention authors and share books and articles that connected to what they were doing. They had strong opinions and so did I. Our conversations were sheltered by an umbrella of mutual respect. And then, at the end of our first year together, both of them came to me, independently of each other and said that in one year, they had grown more as teachers than they had in years before. They said they were better teachers as a result of our engagement, the resources I had shared and the support I had provided. I was embarrassed – never having been very good at being on the receiving end of a compliment. I felt I had done nothing special – in fact, they were the ones who had made my work very rewarding.

That summer, I reflected on their comments and realized that they had brought new meaning to my work. They had defined something I was already doing and given it tremendous importance. I realized that if I asked myself what the most important part of my work was, it would be to help teachers be the very best they could be. That, in itself, had the potential to influence just about everything that happened at our school. It would have a ripple effect on all the other things I did as a principal. Dr. Terrell used to say, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” This was about taking care of their growth to strengthen our school.

I continue to be fascinated by where my teachers and other stakeholders at our school lead me. Through their eyes, their ideas and questions, my role continues to be influenced and defined. Staying open to their voices and creating a space for our engagement is something I strive to do deliberately. Reflecting on our conversations keeps my role exciting and fluid even though the beliefs that undergird my work are firm. Bringing out the best in others is not easy but it is a critical part of my role. It keeps me learning, and helps me constantly strive to be better than I am!

Byron was right. Here’s to many more years of learning, leading and being led!