Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Leadership with Purpose: Great Expectations

Long before I ever became a school leader, I knew that the status quo wasn’t good enough for my students. I knew that if I wanted my students to go to college and graduate, if I wanted them to be able to craft greater opportunities for happiness and self-sufficiency, I had to push harder and demand more. That, my friends, was not easy, especially having students who entered high school reading at the primary level. I had both students and colleagues alike tell me that I expected too much. In fact, my expectations were often the very things cited by parents: “If she’s always gotten A’s in English,” they’d say, “it must be you who are the problem. You want way too much from these kids.”

“No,” I’d reply. “I’m not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that teachers have never pushed her beyond her comfort zone. Because she’s quiet and compliant, teachers have felt compelled to give her A’s.” I had no such compulsion. I wanted all of my students to read and write and think on a level that would prove that they were college-ready, even before the term was an overused almost cliche.

At the time, though, I didn’t realize how much of a “problem” I really was. The arrogance and snarkiness of a young, high school English teacher in an urban setting allows a certain level of detachment. “In my room,” I’d say, “the expectation is….” How foolish I was! I truly believed that I was making a difference. I really thought that I could affect change within the confines of my classroom. And I did, on some level, with individual students. I got the emails: “Thank you for pushing me last year! I’m earning all A’s in my college English courses!” or “I’ve decided to become an English major! Thanks for inspiring me!” It was better than nothing, but was it enough?

I often look back on my years as a teacher as I navigate this role and question myself: “What would I have needed from my school leadership? What would have helped me develop into a better teacher? What would make me buy in to the vision more willingly?

“But, Marilyn, it’s not only about you!” (Yes, my internal voice calls me by name.)

While it’s okay for me to remember, it’s not okay for me to dwell. While it’s okay for me to relate, I can’t always relay. I’m not at the table in that way. It’s not about what I would have needed but about what the students, teachers, and families I serve need, and as much as I can reminisce and project and intimate, the reality is that the experience I had is different from the ones my new school community has, and I need to adapt. But I can ask, “What is the level of expectation here?” And that is always valid.

As a leader, regardless of whether it’s school leadership or some other type, the level of expectation will predict the level of performance. Believing, truly believing, that the people you surround yourself with are more than competent, but the right people for the job, can do wonders for a team and its output. The key about great expectations is that they often come with great accountability. I don’t mean those accountability conversations that leave one party a deflated mess and the other feeling superior and in control, but the ones that leave people feeling like there is equal opportunity for growth, awareness, change, and responsibility. The accountability I’m talking about is the type that is mission-driven, unalterable, and to a great degree, just as personal as it is interconnected. And as the school leader, I have to be more vulnerable and willing to look at the reality of our performance against the goals and plans laid out than anyone else.

So as I work with my team to wrap up another school year, I ask myself  (and later my team) these things:

  • How were our expectations and those of other stakeholders realized?
  • How and when did we fall short? Why?
  • What informs decision-making for next year? What are the resultant expectations? What strategic plans and accountability measures do we need to create and enact to reach goals?
  • When our expectations run contrary to those of others “on our team,” what’s our move? Why? How will we make this transparent?

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One thought on “Leadership with Purpose: Great Expectations

  1. mdj7 on said:

    As always I love reading your blog!

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