Stepping Back to Move Forward

by Jeff Fouquet, Leading Educators Fellow in Kansas City, Cohort 2012

As the chair of my district’s secondary English Language Arts department, there was a time when my team’s lack of progress caused me great frustration. Try as I might, I could not convince my colleagues to try new teaching strategies, collect and analyze data, or discuss rigorous and aligned interims as a basis for increasing collaboration. Research endorsed these as “best practice” and I was supercharged to keep pushing toward educational excellence!

But it felt like nobody wanted to come with me.

For more than three years, I struggled with the disconnect between our students’ needs and my team’s indifference – at times, it felt like outright resistance – to instructional improvement. The harder I worked and the louder I pleaded, the more frustrated I became with our stagnation. Why didn’t anybody see things my way?

My involvement in Leading Educators gave me clarity, and I began to see that I was the one who needed perspective. Through a series of self-assessments, reflections, and readings completed during Summer Intensive, a week of professional development sessions, leadership began to take a new shape. For the first time, being a leader wasn’t about what I thought needed to be done, but about finding the keys to invest every member of my team in a shared vision so we could find appropriate solutions. Summer Intensive revealed leadership as a form of social and emotional intelligence, but the style of leadership I had been using put getting results before valuing people. It was humbling to see studies that perfectly described what I had been doing as ineffective leadership; it was also an incredible breakthrough.   

Since that first Summer Intensive, my emotional intelligence and self-awareness have grown immeasurably. Instead of pushing members of my department to accomplish my vision, I have spent several months cultivating trust, discovering our shared goals and values, and working with the whole team to co-create a list of cultural behaviors that will demonstrate to one another (and to our students) that we are committed to excellence. Now when we discuss new initiatives or ways to move instruction forward, nobody feels accountable to me. Instead, we each feel increasingly accountable to our group’s vision and values. In other words, I’ve gotten better at encouraging team effort rather than demanding it.

It’s difficult to admit that I was ineffective as a leader. However, I now know what true leadership requires of me, and I appreciate the incremental gains I am making with my team. We’re nowhere near perfect, but we are much closer to being perfectly aligned in our purpose, and that’s how I know we’re moving in the right direction.