Today I was struck by something as I perused the Twitter feed and blog of Dr. Tim Purnell, superintendent of Somerville Public Schools in NJ: “He is a real person.” I have often wondered how important, or realistic, it is for school and district leaders to position themselves as approachable, “real” people who are not on a fictitious pedestal or otherwise elevated in some way that causes them to seem so far removed from the individuals who work and learn within their organization. Sometimes I am even jealous of the people who work in districts where everyone, from the top down, is accessible as a lead-learner. Would I enjoy that type of situation? Would I have fewer crises of conscience where my values seem so far removed from the actions of those leading the direction of the district?
The comment of “being real” is something I keep coming back to, thanks to a friend of mine who said it as she recounted her adventures seeking a new teaching job for the 3rd year in a row, in reference to a prospective school where people have been uncharacteristically friendly and responsive throughout the hiring process.
“They act like real people. I really want to work for real people.”
She has been working in a school that is generally unresponsive, having had very few interactions, observations, and feedback conversations all year, and is feeling left to her own devices to grow as a 2nd year teacher. She wants feedback, wants to work for people who care about her as a professional, who invest in her growth and success, and who come across as real people with real strengths and challenges. Lately I have been yearning for these closer relationships as well – I’m missing the dynamics that come with being on a supportive team who is there to bounce ideas around with or who ask for your input on something. Maybe this comes from missing the close-knit community that schools are known for, for better and for worse. Either way, there’s something about these dynamics that helps people feel appreciated – that they are “seen” and valued – and reminds them frequently of how their contributions are impacting people positively.
All of this has caused me to pause and wonder: Am I coming across as a real person? Do I do my best to be approachable, to model my strengths and weaknesses, and to be a caring human being who wants to invest in others? Sometimes I think this message comes across, but at times I feel like I am becoming disconnected from the actual people who I care so much about supporting. After all, when you sit in meeting rooms talking about helping “teachers” and “students” and “school leaders” that is different than asking yourself, “How will this project make teaching more manageable and invigorating for Mattea?”, “How can blended learning help Anahi and Israel learn English and be supported emotionally?” or, “Will this professional development support Matt as he builds a new school and helps his staff understand personalized learning?”
The farther I get from my time in the classroom, the more I worry and wonder about my credibility and ability to stay connected to my teacher heart. The wider my group of district “stakeholders” becomes, the more perplexed I am by how to create and sustain relationships. And the more people who I connect with online, who become part of my PLN or who join the #BFC530 community, the more distant I feel from what I consider the most valuable aspects of my PLN and online presence. The words aren’t fully formed, but there’s some sort of floating aspect – a distance even – that causes me to feel more like an observer than an integral part of the relationships and communities I desperately value and crave.
As I write this I realize that the questions about specific students, colleagues, and friends are ones I asked myself daily the first few months out of the classroom – every time a decision was to be made I saw the faces of my beloved kiddos and considered how they might be impacted. I was constantly pulling from the very raw, real experiences I had over the years as a teacher. While I think I could have, and still can, do a better job of considering a wider range of experiences and needs than just those I carry personally, I do believe that this approach is extraordinarily valuable if I am to help change the education system in the way I set out to do when I left my classroom. I can’t become desensitized to the realities happening in all of our schools every day. I cannot forget that for every stressor or challenge I am trying to overcome, professionally or personally, the life of an educator is full of urgency and empathy and constantly striving to be the absolute best they can be for their students. Someone asked me recently if perhaps in the absence of a classroom of 30 kids in front of me every day I might be carrying some of the burdens of the entire system – considering the needs of all teachers and all students in some way. Maybe in my own way I am, but I wonder if one way to relieve some of that burden is to re-focus on the individuals who are very real, very valuable members of the whole system – each of the “teachers” and “students” and “school leaders” who are right in front of me. Maybe the way I get to influence the system is through these individual relationships with the real people who matter so much and care deeply for their colleagues and kiddos.
Maybe the way I can change the system is by being, as my friend called it, a real person.