Every teacher can lead
I was tempted to begin this column with Webster’s definition of what leadership is, but I have never found formal definitions in documents to be terribly enlightening. Perhaps that’s because I tailor descriptions to fit my needs or the needs of others at a particular time and place. When it comes to leadership, I have always allowed each specific situation and solution to mould my leadership style in that moment.
While it is undeniable that leadership is often modelled after mentors who have gone before, I believe that it is also guided by circumstance. This is not to say that I have not had leaders whose skills affected my own, but time and place have also had great influence throughout my leadership journey, so that’s where I would like to focus.
I began my leadership journey as a student at a very small satellite campus of Okanagan College in B.C. There were few students who were interested in student politics and I found myself the vice-president of the student union. When the president was not available to attend the AGM of the B.C. Students Federation, it was up to me. I was outspoken on the issues of small institutions and that got me elected to the provincial executive.
The next year at Concordia College in Edmonton I once again expressed opinions that were contrary to the operating rules of the time and again became student union VP, but this time the president resigned shortly after and I was left with that job. While I was not successful in changing some of the “Victorian” rules affecting resident students, I did expand my skills as an organizer and delegator.
At the University of Alberta I became special events coordinator for the Music Education Students Association while working to get our band some gigs. Here, I developed my negotiation skills while trying to improve the socials in the education building basement!
As a first-year teacher I attended the initial local council meeting of the year. The work seemed like something I could get into, and I became alternate school representative. I later became secretary of the local so I could get to the Annual Representative Assembly. My mouth during the Klein cuts got me into the leadership of our Economic Policy Committee and from there I moved on to president.
Shortly after the strike of 2002 I stretched myself a little when I stood with ATA president Larry Booi and challenged the Klein government to use its draconian legislation to have us arrested. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but my wife still disagrees. Then my district representative decided to run for vice-president and the vacant PEC spot had somewhat of a siren’s call. I was also encouraged by the other presidents of Edmonton District. I had been at ARAs since 1990 and was impressed by the work of council and wanted to be a part of it.
After 10 years as a district representative, it seemed important to move on or move up, so I sought election as a vice-president of the Association. Now, four years later, I’m ATA president.
So that was my journey. How did it affect my leadership style and ability? In each situation I learned something of what others expected and, as time went on, of what I expected of myself. There were no profound aha! moments, but over time I discovered that working for the rights of the collective gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction—not accolades, especially, but pride in making things better for my colleagues and for my profession.
Why have I told you the story of my journey? Well, back when I was a young student in B.C., I didn’t dream that taking on a small leadership role could lead to greater things, but here I am, the president of one of the most respected teacher organizations in the world. Teachers often tell me that they are not leaders, but I completely and wholeheartedly disagree. Each of us leads each and every day in our own classroom. We all have the skills to lead—it’s just a matter of using those skills in other ways.
Large steps can be very scary, but evolving through small steps is often quite painless. My story illustrates this well, I believe, and I would encourage others to try this model. Find a small niche that interests you and take that first tiny step. It might be your only one, but it’s more likely that it will lead to another and many more after that. You might be surprised by where you end up, but I guarantee the journey will be fascinating.
The excitement of a child’s first step can be yours if you are willing to risk it. I encourage you to take that chance.