There was a quote spoken twice over a week-long span that resonated with me. The first time I listened to it I tweeted it out. It was a great thought in a presentation full of them. The second time the quote was said, I understood it. There was a difference.
The quote was, “Leadership is what happens after you leave the room.” Irvin Scott, Deputy Director of Education at the Gates Foundation said it during his evening keynote welcoming us at ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching). A week later, after hosting 50 New Jersey educators at a professional development event on digital leading and learning, Matt Hall, Supervisor of Science and Technology in Bernards Township said the same thing.
So why did it take me two times to truly figure out what they both meant?
It’s a complex thought: the idea that what you do and how you do it will show itself (positively or not) when you’re not there. The rationale is that if we’ve created the right environment, empowered the people in it to be involved in the environment’s creation, agreed upon very specific norms about what’s expected and why when we are there, the people who inhabit the room will continue to follow it when we’re not.
Why? And, how does this apply to teacher leaders, site-based leaders, and the students they serve?
Whether you’re a teacher or an administrator in a building, chances are, if your environment is running smoothly it’s because you’ve created an expectation about ‘how things are done here’. There is buy-in because those involved were given a voice and a choice in how ‘things here’ operate. Then, once rules and guidelines were established, the teacher or administrator made sure to reinforce expectations when needed, but in a positive way so teachers or students retained their dignity. This created an atmosphere of trust between those in the room and the person in position of power. It’s clear to all who witness a private exchange take place that even if they can’t hear what was said, the way the teacher or administrator handled it was respectful. When a teacher asks a student to step outside for a moment and then never refers to it again, or gently whispers something in a student’s ear and continues their room rounds, the student knows, ‘if I mess up, I’ll be held accountable for it, but I won’t be embarrassed publicly. It’ll be a private thing.’
The same holds true for when a conversation like this is held between an administrator and teacher. When an administrator visits a teacher in their room and has the hard conversation in private this may make the teacher uncomfortable, but it also creates mutual respect. At some point, just as other students know a conversation took place but don’t know the details, teachers know when an administrator spoke to a peer. Someone always sees or hears something. And, when (or if) it’s our turn having that conversation, we’re going to feel comforted knowing it will be handled the same way we know it was handled before. That shows caring.
As a teacher, the note I love to read from a guest teacher when I am absent is: ‘your students were wonderful. They were just a pleasure to teach.’ This lets me know that even when I’m not there, my leadership still is. It’s there because I have empowered my students to be leaders. They police themselves, support each other, have the hard conversation, and hold all accountable (even themselves). Because, they want to. My hope is that when they become a leader in their own field, they will continue to model these qualities and the cycle will continue.
The next time someone says, “Leadership is what happens after you leave the room,” remind yourself of the time spent in the room to create the environment that functions well when you’re not there. Because, the students aren’t doing it by themselves. They’re modeling leadership in the room you taught them in.