I came home after work a few weeks ago to find a note whose color and size told me it could only have been from school. Typically these are permission slips or forms that ask us to fill in how many minutes our kids read each night (and no, I don’t ACTUALLY track how long they read. Not when I can simply enjoy the blissful quiet or ability to speak in uninterrupted sentences with my husband that this time allows. I will, though, admit to having removed the battery from a clock once or twice to extend the time. Survival mechanism).
This note read differently though. It was an invitation for one of my daughters to come to school 35 minutes early for the remaining Fridays of the school year for some extra help with math. There was a group of 6 of them that were being ‘offered’ this opportunity – to come have tea with their math teacher and do some extra practice. When I read it, I braced for the reaction since math has been a challenging topic in our household. For one daughter, it comes easily as she whips through her homework typically getting all of the problems right. Her sister equally rips through her homework – either quickly completing them all – with the majority incorrectly – or ripping the page itself in frustration. And then slammed doors, crying, and an hour or two of hurt feelings and frustration.
Thankfully – she adores her new math teacher. Her teacher is what I haven’t been with her – patient, adaptable to how she likes to learn and cheering on her wins rather than focusing on her misses. So when my daughter came to tell me about her tea – she shared it with the pride she clearly felt in having been selected. So with just a tinge of jealousy on how this teacher had made more work seem like more fun, I set out to learn a bit more about her.
What I learned reminded me of the training of my friend Charlie Sheppard – one of those that has stuck with me and changed my own approach over the years – the premise of which is that Leadership is a Choice. Many of us are taught the difference between management and leadership – though the two often seem so synonymous in the business world that the distinction can be tough to see. The point of the delineation though, and Charlie’s synthesis (which I’ve oversimplified here), is that everyone gets to choose whether or not they want to lead. We choose it in how we show up, in how we assess situations, in how we give and receive feedback and on and on. As Charlie points out: “we find three fundamental identities that a leader must have: being a catalyst, being a visionary and being a coach/mentor.” And what I realized was that this teacher was a fantastic example of all three.
Notice though that she’s not the principal, she’s not the superintendent. She’s not even the ‘lead teacher’ amongst her grade peers. This isn’t her first career, but one she moved to years after she graduated. And when she decided to teach, she put her own inimitable mark on her role. She brought yoga into the classroom, introducing her elementary school students to the calming and focusing effect that yoga can have. She created a book club for teachers –which caused one of her peers to tell her that ‘you need to get a hobby’. Whenever I’m playing with my kids at the schoolyard on weekends, if there’s a teacher there, she’s the one.
It was a clear reminder that in fact, leadership IS a choice. We all get to choose whether we want to lead, regardless of title or role. No one asked this teacher to lead. But she did anyway. She saw a need, she knew enough about her own skills and passions, she knew she could make a difference and she created change. I can’t imagine some of these changes were easy – I can envision the questions she was asked – ‘yoga? REALLY?’ – from skeptical parents and administrators alike. But she pushed through, she became a difference maker and I can say in our own household, she has changed the math experience.
She doesn’t get paid extra for the additional prep and time spent with kids, or for the tea she serves. But she is every bit the visionary, the catalyst, and the mentor. And a fantastic reminder that leadership is not about title, role, salary or the size of one’s team – but that it IS a choice. In the case of my daughter’s teacher, it’s one I’m most thankful she chose.