Jaded, disheartened, constrained, controlled, disillusioned……how many times have we heard teachers in recent years describe themselves in such terms? I have heard so many librarians tell me that their programs are not understood or respected, nor their place in school valued. Most of us enter this profession because we love children and have an interest in shaping who they are as human beings and in turn making the world a better place. But when we try to do just that, we find so much stands in our way and those lofty and idealistic goals descend into self-preservation and survival.
Most teachers who are feeling negative aren’t feeling that way because of the children. It is the children who keep us going. But in the age of the common core, big-data, and assessment, it is very easy to feel like your hands are tied. I have worked for administrators who simply try to control their teachers, to fill teachers' time with endless paperwork – they leave little or no room for professional freedom and flexibility. Many simply do not trust their teachers. I have heard administrators remind teachers that there is no shortage of other people out there just waiting to fill their position and who could do the same job. The clear implication is that teachers just need to do what they are told and be grateful they have a job. I have been in situations myself in which I have reached out to my administrators for help when entering some uncharted territories and have been told that I went to college and was hired to teach and that is what was expected of me. No help should be needed.
Such negativity and lack of professional respect breeds contempt and creates an environment where morale is low and teachers are not able to perform to their best; ultimately this affects the children. To counteract all of this, day in and day out, on my own time, I turn to my personal learning network (PLN). Social media, blogging, communicating and learning from people in education all around the world has inspired me each day to take some of the best practices on offer to help myself to grow professionally and to continue to be effective.
I am happy to say now that I am now in a place in my career where the sky is the limit, and my virtual PLN is now an integral part of my school day. Why? The reason is simple. I find myself working with a principal who understands the imperative of professional respect and who understands the leadership that every one of us is able to practice when given the chance. His name is Eric Sheninger.
Eric is, fundamentally, our lead learner in New Milford High School, New Jersey, where I moved to at the beginning of this school year. Sixteen years into my career he has empowered me and encouraged me to innovate, and through innovation to make an impact. He has taught me the power of trust and autonomy and how they can breed change. Eric looks at each challenge we face in education today as an opportunity – and the wonderful thing is that I now feel the same. New Milford High School is flourishing in the age of the common core and assessment. Teachers and students are learning together, creating, and innovating in amazing ways.
The gift of autonomy wasn’t an easy one for me to accept when I started at NMHS. When I first arrived, I simply could not take a step without consulting Eric first, because this is what previous experience as an educator had programmed me to do. Each and every time I went to Eric, he was supportive and patient, and reminded me that he trusted me and that I had complete autonomy. I think I am only now just beginning to understand what that means and it has completely transformed me and my career in just a few short months.
Eric’s style of leadership has reinvigorated the integrity of the teaching profession for me. It is a style that promotes real leadership at all levels, and that doesn’t fall back on the familiar top-down leadership that we are all familiar with in schools. It is a form of leadership that constantly pushes us forward and makes us all better educators. It works for me, for sure.
My first encounter with Eric was in Washington DC at a School Library Journal Leadership Summit , in which Eric was the keynote. During his talk, he presented his pillars of digital leadership. I was struck by the substance and the structure of his talk, his ideas, and how he delivered it. I emailed him afterwards to tell him so and he generously offered his help and guidance, and since that day, he became an invaluable part of my PLN. Each day here at school and through social media, Eric inspires and empowers us all to take risks and to flourish in this digital age.
Now, Eric has taken his ideas around the ‘Pillars of Leadership’ as well as the good practice that he himself promotes, and has encapsulated it all in a new book, just released this week. The book is called Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times and I can truly say it is a must-read for all. Don’t make the mistake of thinking his book is simply another book on technology or one aimed only at school administrators. His book is one for real educational leaders, at every level in education, and that means everyone who has a stake in education.
So, after 16 years in teaching and librarianship, Eric has empowered me and taught me that we are all leaders and that pushing education forward is a collaborative effort. I do believe that everyone who reads his new book will feel that same spark of inspiration to do more and to do better.