Leading Like an Artist

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I never left the classroom.

Four years ago, I made the most pivotal and sacrificial choice in my professional life: I accepted a position in the professional development department as an instructional coach thus relinquishing my physical classroom and its customary roster of 200 high school students.

As I placed each well-loved classroom library book into boxes, the individual students’ stories whose lives touched those pages sung to me. I sat down on the hand-me-down futon sandwiched in between dusty and barren shelves and sobbed.

But, I never left the classroom.

Since that day in 2010, I’ve carried my classroom with me into numerous contexts and four very different positions. First, I took my classroom with me into the role of an instructional coach where I sought to be a servant-leader. Then, with unexpected twist of fate, my classroom followed me into an intermediate dyslexia services position where I had time and space to consider where I might lead next. And, once again my classroom accompanied me cheerily back to the high school I loved, where I resumed the role of a servant-leader, expanding the influence and role of the library media center.

Now, to an outsider, it might seem that I’ve removed myself from the classroom even further by becoming that dangerous “A” word…a district administrator. I’ve crossed the line; I am an “other” a “them” in a see of teacher “us-es,” who solemnly shake their heads at those who’ve “left the classroom,” opting for cubicle space and cabinet meetings over the chaos and connectivity of campus life.

I never. left. the classroom.

And, I will never leave education.

I’m seeing more and more educators throw up their hands in despair and frustration at the system. Resigning their own and their students’ futures to the current condition of public education, some of the best and brightest are saying enough is enough and truly leaving their classrooms and generations of students behind, turning to reinvention in order to maintain their sense of purpose and identity. Nothing saddens me more than the exodus of teacher-artists.

In her blog, “Dear Teachers of 2014-2015: Welcome to the World of Art,” my friend and mentor Jennifer Isgitt calls for a new manifesto for teachers in this current sad state of the profession.

Every other day, it seems, I read another account, another memoir of a gifted teacher who just can’t handle the bureaucracy, the administration, the politics, the poor pay, the lack of recognition in education. Every year another teacher throws up her hands or writes his broken-hearted resignation letter for the national media.

In August before the new school year even really took root, Jennifer wrote about the pain educators are experiencing. It was in her blog that I saw myself there in black text as part of the problem–at least the traditional role and the role of my new set of colleagues and office partners. Her blog led me to a book that helped me re-define a vision for my (somewhat reluctantly) adopted role–that of a district administrator.

As a new curriculum coordinator, I resisted the title administrator for all of those same reasons that Jennifer included the word in her list of barriers that I don’t need to list here. With all of my reluctance to accept the heavy label, I clearly remember when my close friend and fellow coordinator finally said to me, “Audrey, you are an administrator.” I decided then and there to actively seek and create a definition of what that word could mean in a system that is crying for reinvention.

Jennifer’s blog planted the seeds of artistry. In her call to educators to “teach like an artist,” I heard a voice within me call, “lead like an artist.”

I’m slowly reading and processing Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, thinking critically about the evolution of our society away from industrialization–in which our current educational model and those policy makers who dictate static and dying conventions and conditions for educators and learners are deeply embedded –and grappling with the role of public education in the connected society where artistry is the only real commodity.

Growing up, I never saw myself as an artist or a leader–not in the traditional sense of either words. I had no particular talents, ambition, or desire to be followed. In fact, sometimes the two roles seemed opposite from one another; I had no model for what it could mean to be both–none that I could immediately see at least.

In the connected society, however, one must be an artist in order to lead and vice versa.

Godin revealed to me that I am already an artist. Since boxing up my classroom four years ago, I’ve continually redefined and reinvented my comfort zone, finding comfort in the risk-taking behaviors that make it safe for me to move forward. I’ve adopted the stance of an artist, “creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected” no matter the job title or bulleted list of responsibilities and roles.

I’ve adopted a new definition of an artist:

…Someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo…[taking] it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those who we seek to connect with) personally.

I’ve decided to be courageous:

Courage doesn’t always involve physical heroism in the face of death…sometimes courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say…Courage is necessary because owning our point of view brings risk. When you speak your truth, you have opened a door, allowing others to speak to you, directly to you, to your true self.

I’ve found a new definition of an educational leader that I am not afraid to own:

Leadership puts the leader on the line. No manual, no rule book, no uberleader to point the finger at when things go wrong…Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling, and they are taking us to a new place, not to he place of cheap, fast, compliant safety.

And, I’ve recognized my greatest asset is my ability to connect and to form connections between people.

In my new role as a leader-artist, I practice these things everyday: artistry, courage, and connection.

It’s through the stance of an artist that I’ve found comfort in the unknown. I don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” I imagine that there are many more roles and official titles that I might try on that haven’t even been invented yet, thanks to a rapidly evolving educational and economical landscape.

Regardless of how I might lead in the future, I will always be in the classroom. Educators are my tribe; education is my only true alliance.

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