By Dr. Vickie L. Markavitch, Superintendent of Oakland Schools
Isn’t life amazing as an educator? Truly think about it. Our purpose is built into our job through our students, and we can go to work every day feeling good about what it is we are there to accomplish.
I read a book in college that has stayed with me my entire career. It’s a little tiny paperback by Viktor E. Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wrote it in nine days after his liberation from a Nazi concentration camp, and in it he analyzed why some people survived the camps and why some people didn’t. His observation was that those people who believed they had a task yet to do were the ones who prevailed. So his book very clearly said to me that man’s meaning in life is to have something important “yet to do”, and that the something has to be bigger than yourself.
Isn’t that what we do in education? Our purpose is in teaching our students and taking this generation to the next level. If we could put leadership in one word, for me it would be purposeful. I think leadership evolves from purpose and passion.
This quote made a huge impression on me:
True leadership is never about “I want to be principal, I want to be superintendent, I want to be president” – if it’s about the role, then your purpose is shallow. When it’s about the goal of the work, when it’s about what you are passionate to accomplish – that’s when leadership happens.
WHY, not What.
Great leaders always focus on ‘why’, not on ‘what’. In education, we frequently talk about the what or how: what’s our reading program, what’s our intervention, how do we do this or that. Think back to when you last talked about the why of public education; the leadership process always starts with a compelling ‘why’ because it centers squarely on purpose.
If you try to lead without purpose, you’re just going to be bossy. Communicating ‘why’ engages everyone’s hearts and souls in a purposeful mission.
WHY do educators want to take back the agenda for public education? Is it because we want to feather our own nest? No, we step up to lead because kids are suffering. We want to take the education agenda back because there are people profiting off of public education and it was never intended for profit. We want to take it back because we don’t have students where they need to be at and we can’t be distracted from what they need to be learning. Getting people to understand the ‘why’ of our education agenda is the first step.
Personally, I see our work contributing to the happiness, satisfaction and citizenry of the next generation…who will go on to create the next generation…who will create the next generation. Our work as teachers is crucially important; we own a critical ‘why’, and we have to talk openly about it so that we share the purpose and passion of what we do.
Whether I was the teacher in the classroom, the principal in the building or the superintendent of a district, I had to keep the focus on education because there was constantly people and things and agendas and calendars and schedules and politics that tried to distract us from our purpose of student learning.
Politics is a huge distract-er, but purpose can prevail over politics every time if you keep ‘why’ at the front and publicly address what needs to be answered. We should never let the political agenda be the driver of our work if that political agenda does not meet its purpose for our students.
There are two sets of politics we need to be aware of: as a smart leader you have to attend to the internal politics of your organization because if you don’t, your organization will not be able to deliver on its purpose. When you have a healthy organizational culture, you will have healthy politics.
A leader must of course also be aware of the external politics in Lansing and Washington DC; sometimes we get so bogged down in our teaching that we don’t pay attention to the forces that still want to take over public education.
We can use the fact that we are teachers, and we know how to educate. Imagine if we used our voices to educate our Lansing legislators. THEY are scrambling to try to figure out what the education answers are, and WE have the voice, the background and the pedagogy to teach them about real solutions that support student learning.
Teachers ARE politically astute.
Think about what you do every day at school: you read your audience every time you’re in front of students, parents or staff; you know your content, and you adapt and adjust how you are delivering that content. You know how to stay on point and problem-solve when you’re in the classroom, parent conference or school improvement meeting. And, as teachers, you are driven by truth and data, which adds to your public credibility. Without realizing it, you have been seriously ‘political’ for most of your teaching career…
If you take the political astuteness that you have in your Teacher DNA and simply put it out in a different arena, you will be amazed at how many people listen to you!
You know that teachers and public education are being bashed across the USA, and that hurts. We are not used to using our voices outside of the classroom, but if all we do is complain privately about ineffective or punitive legislation, we’re going to get mentally and physically unwell.
We have to stop complaining and move to constructive action. We have to remember our purpose (you look into their faces every school day!) and why we chose to teach, and we must let our passion fuel our actions as leaders for the future of public education and our students.
This post is excerpted from Dr. Markavitch’s keynote speech on education leadership at Oakland University’s School of Education and Human Services Graduate Symposium on May 16, 2015.
Also VIEW: Working Together for Public Education 2015 by Dr. Markavitch
Blog Editor: Jean MacLeod, Communications/Oakland Schools
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