Christal Hollinger is the guest blogger for today’s That Thing You Do segment. I’ve had the privilege of knowing Christal for almost a decade. We worked together as literacy coaches before Christal moved on to an assistant principal position in our district. Late last year, Christal accepted a principal position in a nearby district. I am so pleased that Christal is sharing her heart and expertise about leadership. You can follow Christal on Twitter @chollinger1
I found out I was pregnant at age 35. Right now you are probably rereading the title to make sure it said school leadership and not parenthood. Bear with me.
I am not sure if it was my age or that I had been waiting for motherhood for as long as I could remember, but as soon as I found out I instantly felt the enormous impact of being responsible for a life. I was a basket case. I worried about everything I ate and drank. I wondered if certain activities or movements would harm the little life growing inside of me. I read every book I could get my hands on to make sure I would know what to do once the baby arrived. Then the little bundle made his appearance into the world. He was beautiful. I was absolutely overjoyed. Looking at him, I instantly experienced a deeper understanding of love.
One might think that would be enough to stop the spinning insanity… and one would be wrong. I was obsessive about the right schedule, right routines, the right way to do this or that, why he wouldn’t do it exactly like the book said, and on and on and on. I was an educated 35-year-old woman who had lost every bit of sense I had ever had. After two weeks of complete insanity, I called my resident baby expert, a friend who had triplets. Her words changed my world and my life. I told her my worries and concerns. She listened empathetically, and then said, “He’s only two weeks old. He will get it and so will you. Keep up the structure and routines but enjoy the baby. Don’t get so focused on getting it right that you lose focus on him.” WOW! At the time, her words provided instant relief and refocus. What I didn’t realize at the time was how those words would be a guiding force for all areas of my life.
After maternity leave, I began a new adventure as an Instructional Coach. It was a first year for the position and we were all navigating it together. Fortunately, my compass had already arrived in the form of a newborn. The sweet experience of being a new mother, coupled with the power of my dear friend’s words, paved the roads on my journey of school leadership, granting me an unwavering commitment to center the journey on a single goal: people.
If you’re an educator, this will come as no surprise to you, but it must be said… education is not for wimps! It is hard work and an incredible responsibility! I taught in the classroom for eleven years and enjoyed every one of them. My kids called me “school mom.” I loved them like they were my own. I loved my teams and formed lifelong friendships. I was born to be an educator — there is no doubt about that. But having a career that was also a calling didn’t make it one bit easier! Each move from teacher to instructional coach to assistant principal to principal brought on a heightened sense of awareness. The sense of urgency and the understanding of the importance of the work is something that never goes away for me. Like with my newborn, I have a consistent choice to make. I can choose to focus on the worry of getting it right and all of the things that aren’t, or I can focus on the people doing the work and the ones for which the work is done.
The people in education are the entire reason it exists. Have you ever walked through a school building during the summer when no one is there? It immediately helps to grasp the real reason we do what we do. It’s not about a building, the curriculum, the resources; all of those things are nothing without the people! As leaders, we are responsible for lives. Let that really soak in for a minute. We can alter a life with our choices, our actions, or even with a single word. I wholeheartedly believe that every adult in education is a leader. The trick is getting them to believe it!
Leaders influence others, serve others, care for others, remain positive, and are steadfast. Isn’t that what we want to see in all adults in education? Of course it is, and we absolutely can! One misconception in education is that there is one, two, ten school leaders. If we subscribe to that belief, then those who don’t see themselves as leaders relinquish their responsibility of leadership, which means they can easily surrender their ability to influence, serve, care, and remain positive and steadfast. That cannot happen! Every adult must fully commit to those things if we want to truly do right by kids! We must be a community of leaders. A community willing to do whatever it takes!
Building a community of leaders begins with the most basic of basics — helping people believe! Belief in themselves, in others, and in what we do is critical. We have to learn that we are more alike than different. We have to learn that we are on the journey together. We have to see that we share core beliefs. We will be different. We will bring different strengths to the table, but we must align and agree to shared core beliefs in order to truly move forward as a community. Aligning core beliefs then leads to aligning our fundamental purpose. This is a foundation on which all other work should be built. However, having aligned core beliefs and a mission will only take us so far. It is like the aforementioned routines, structure, and book knowledge that led me to spinning aimlessly without the correct focus. It’s all necessary, but focus must remain on people. People must always be the priority! That’s easy enough, right?
Worth it? YES!
This is where it gets messy, the best kind of messy. This is where we find beauty in the mess! People bring all kinds of things to the table when you come together to build a community. Take me, for example: my life was rather difficult and full of crazy chaos until I was about 30. Not many people knew it because I worked hard to keep it together on the outside so that no one knew what was going on behind the scenes. I would just handle it and keep moving forward. What I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t fully available to others because I was so focused on keeping myself and my life together. I divorced at 30, something I said I would never do. It was an extreme hit to my pride and to my attempt to keep it together.
It was also one of the best learning experiences I have had. I had to learn to own it, all of it, all that had happened in my life, all of the experience that I had been given. I had to own it, learn from it, and use it! It had been given for a purpose. While I had been trying to hide it, what was really needed was for me to share it, to be genuine. Other people were going through the same things and more. They needed to know I was a mess so that they could accept their mess and we could move forward together in relationship. After all, isn’t true relationship a necessity for community?!
I will never forget the first time I shared a very personal story with my staff. I was a blubbering mess and so were they. That moment was a game changer in trust. They knew I trusted them and in turn they felt more apt to trust me. That was about six years ago; I haven’t looked back. This year I started a new journey with a new staff. From the get go I committed to vulnerability and genuineness because I know those are essentials for us to move together in a relationship that impacts one another and the work we do as a community. I am amazed at what has been accomplished in this area in the few months we have been together. They are willingly sharing their messes! The beauty in the mess is relationship; it is genuine connection; it is absolute community. It is being united by much more than beliefs and mission. It is being united as humans, humans who truly care for one another, and that is an absolute thing of beauty!
Deep, genuine connection, shared beliefs, and a common fundamental purpose yield investment. When we are invested in one another, it is easier to invest in the work we do together. We can commit to learning together in order to better serve each other and our kiddos. We can step out of our comfort zones to experience true growth. We learn that with great risk comes great reward. We learn that this too is difficult but very worthy! We learn while we work. We figure it out together.
There is not one person who holds and dispenses all knowledge. There is a leader who works with other leaders to refine structures and systems to make the work more efficient. There are experts in one area or another, but we are all on a quest for growth. Learning together is how we grow professionally, and it requires the personal relationship aspects of trust and vulnerability. It requires a focus on people! It takes such a committed investment to maintain balance and avoid joining the aforementioned spinning insanity. Learning together continues to strengthen a community of leaders — it is empowering! Empowered leaders empower others. It is the perfect plan of the ripple effect. It ripples through colleagues and right on over to kids!
At the center of our educational world are kids. Kids who watch us, learn from us, and who are changed by us. We do what we do for kids. Along the way, we learn that we need each other to do it! We better serve kids by serving one another. We are the people they aspire to be. We are life changers. If that isn’t enough to convince you that every person in education is a leader, I don’t know what will. We must commit to being a community of leaders who influence others, serve others, care for others, remain positive, and are steadfast. It really is about more, and kids are worth it!