In December 2016, school leaders from across the Big Picture Learning network gathered to discuss what it means to lead with Courage, Conviction, and Community. We've collected these narratives and are releasing them as part of our Big Picture Learning Leadership Stories podcast. Catch the whole series here, and listen to our latest episode -- featuring Eunice Mitchell - below.
We were a new school in the third or fourth month of the school year when this incident happened. A few gang-related students convinced a freshman to “jump” another student. A fire alarm was pulled, students spilled onto the sidewalk and as we stood there waiting for clearance, they circled around the student as the freshman boy threw him to the ground and began kicking him.
Afterwards, I stood trembling before my small school community of brown and black faces after a serious incident of violence. Fighting back tears and forcing my voice not to crack, I looked into the eyes of each student, advisor and staff.
“This is not who we are. This is not what we do. You are my children and I am treating you the same as I would my own flesh and blood,” I said.
And I meant it. In that moment I was hurt, disappointed, angry at once. Like many educators, I loved my students and was desperate to see them achieve, succeed, thrive. But there was a space between my conviction and our (or better their) reality. I didn’t know it then, but my feelings were not enough and pushing or pulling them to something “different” could not simply be about what I wanted or thought was best.
So, there I was standing in center of a circle that was our sacred Pick Me Up space, fuming. What kind of leader was I that I could not convince my students to want more out of life? I was as raw and vulnerable as I could be. I stood feeling every part of the tension between high expectations and undeniable needs, between good pedagogy and survival of the fittest mentalities, between love and distrust. In time, I realized that leadership has less to do with what I believed, the skills I possessed and my plans. It is the manifestation of being humble yet convicted, present yet visionary, collaborative while courageous. It is having the fortitude to know when to stand up and sit down. It is seeing beauty in the diversity of us while seeing our unity.
That day, my students spoke up, telling me what problems existed in our school community and what our school was from their perspective. And I learned I was both leading and following.