I recently heard a superintendent recount that she had been asked what she is looking forward to as students and staff return this fall. Sadly, she admitted that she struggled to give an authentic, positive answer. The pressures, stresses, and struggles of the past year combined with uncertainties regarding the lingering presence of the pandemic have robbed her of the excitement and anticipation that usually accompany the start of a new school year.
The admission was particularly striking to me because the superintendent is a skilled, committed, impactful leader. We can ill afford to enter the year already feeling defeated. It is particularly difficult to engage, inspire, and lead those who depend on us if we are not confident about and motivated and inspired by what lies ahead.
Rather than give in and allow what lies ahead to defeat us, now is the time to take stock and focus on how we can make this coming year the most impactful and successful of our careers. History is filled with examples of great leaders and leadership that prevailed in the face of what seemed like insurmountable challenges. Consider Winston Churchill’s circumstances as a leader in the early days of World War ll. England was standing alone in the face of Germany’s aggression. Its major cities were under daily attack, and many of Churchill’s advisors lacked confidence in his leadership and doubted his decisions. Yet, he knew that the strength of the nation was in its people and their resilience. His challenge was to engage their resilience and inspire their hope. In the end, the bombings they endured were a source of strength and pride, and a major force in their eventual success.
As we consider the start of a new year, we do well to identify the opportunities to lead and make a positive difference through our leadership. Those around us are depending on us and need our best thinking, judgement, and ideas. Here are some places to start as we position ourselves to lead and become inspired in this difficult, but potential-filled time.
We can remind ourselves and those we lead of what we accomplished, how we persevered, and why it matters now. We have learned much in the past year about ourselves, our work, our learners, and what can help us to succeed. We can give people permission to let go of regrets and less than successful efforts in favor of gleaning what was learned, celebrating successes, and taking pride in our resilience and persistence. We do not know what lies ahead, but we can be confident that we are better positioned and prepared than we were when we first faced the pandemic. We are more skilled, better informed, and a more potent force as we face the future.
We can continue to prove that educators matter. We need to celebrate the crucial role we play. The past year brought more attention to and appreciation for what it means to teach, guide, support, and protect learners and learning than any time in recent memory. Ironically, the current controversies about teaching are evidence that what we do matters. These times also call on us to be courageous on behalf of our students and their learning experiences. Now is the time when we can make the greatest difference in our work and for our profession.
We can make this a year for healing. We can look forward to rebuilding a culture of caring, belonging, and mutual support. Many of our students have experienced trauma and chaos in their lives and need understanding, acceptance, and tolerance as they recover. The same is true for our colleagues. Our opportunity in the coming year is to be there for people who need us. To support each other as we provide support to our students. This work can be truly inspiring and difference-making.
We can be a source of hope and optimism. Importantly, being optimistic is a choice. We can choose to focus on what is difficult and discouraging, or we can focus on building a path to a better future. We can claim hope and not allow the frustrations of the moment to distract us from long-term goals and eventual success. Hope and optimism are not “soft ideas” to be dispelled when challenged. Rather, they can be life sustaining and success-building tools that inspire despite our current reality. The people in our organization will depend on us as a source of hope and optimism to draw energy and inspiration from.
Interestingly, each of these items will have the effect of making our lives and work better, even worth looking forward to, as we make life, work, and learning better for others. Of course, we need to take care of ourselves, too, but making a difference in the lives of others is a great way to make our own lives better.