Seven years ago, I accepted a leadership position at my school and asked the Lead Change community if having a title would matter. You can see the original post and discussion here.
Seven years. For seven years I have held the title of Math Department Chair and led a team of ten wonderfully talented and dedicated teachers. We did so much good work together. I learned so many skills I never knew I didn’t have.
In a few weeks, I will begin a position at a new school to spend more time with my family. The new job does not include a titled leadership position. I am willingly and happily reverting to being a full-time teacher and coach, but before I return to my roots, I thought I might share what I learned and attempt to answer my original question.
A few thoughts on leadership that should probably be obvious, but now I know them to my core.
Treat people as professionals. Expect them to act accordingly, reprimand them privately if necessary, and praise them publicly and often when appropriate. Act professionally yourself.
People are more effective when they help to build the plan. People must feel like their input and opinions matter. When they do, they will move heaven and earth to make things work. Plus, collaborative plans are usually better.
Allow people to choose their own “hell.” When you must ask people to do unpleasant or difficult things, they take it better and complete the work more effectively when they are given choices.
There’s no easy way to tell people no. If you are good at your job, you can get them to see things your way, but sometimes you fail to change minds, even when you know you are right. Still say no.
Passion for your work is important, but it can eat you alive. Don’t lose sleep. Learn to admit and accept failures. Then work hard to learn from them, fixing what you can and always improving.
You can’t do everything you did in the past. Leadership teaches you to prioritize, delegate, and compromise. This doesn’t make you happy, but you come to know it as truth.
There is no job that is beneath you. It is worth every second to spend some time doing the same difficult work everyone else must do.
Make your expectations crystal clear. Communicate often and in writing.
Know your people. Know their families and personal challenges. Ask about their children. Follow up on their requests. Share their adventures. Genuine compassion matters.
As for the question, does a title matter, it turns out it mostly mattered to me. Being a titled leader gave me incredible opportunities to grow and learn. It stretched my skills, broke my heart, and made me a better colleague. I am better at communicating. I am calmer in difficult situations and more willing to work outside the box to solve problems. I appreciate the work of others more fully and better understand what is reasonable and fair to ask of others.
What a title didn’t do is make me a better teacher. I failed at balancing the work of being a department chair and being a teacher. I have known for years that the compromises I made to be the department chair meant I spent less time on teaching. That didn’t make me terrible. It simply left me with the niggling truth that I could do better.
As I step into a new title-less position, my number one goal is to refocus my attention on the students in my classroom and giving my all to their needs. I won’t miss the difficult meetings or the mountains of paperwork, but I will miss all the people at my school and the team I have grown to know and love.
I used to think that a title would define me. It turns out the work I did defined the title.