When the Tennessee Foreign Language Teacher Association (TFLTA) issued the theme for their yearly language conference, I was excited about the phrase “Lead with heart”. Our society’s collective happiness and sense of fulfillment depend on us, teachers, leading with heart. What does this mean? To me, it means connecting, honestly and meaningfully with our students and colleagues. Leading with heart is a lot of pressure though, and it is exhausting. How do we lead with heart when “that class” is about to walk in our classroom? How do we lead with heart when we are constantly bombarded by mandates we are not sure will benefit our students? How do we lead with heart in November? Only when we have identified what grounds us, what brings us energy and makes us happy, can our hearts be ready to lead.
So, here are a few things that ground me and give me the energy to lead with heart:
#1 Having a mentor
I have had several mentors throughout my career. Mentors are people who are always on your side. They have seen you shine, they have seen you fall, and they patiently lift you up to achieve your highest potential.
A few years ago, I taught in a K-8 school. It was my first time teaching K, 1st and 5th grade. It was a difficult year, especially with my 5th grade class, and I found myself calling a friend who had just retired from a teaching career in Elementary. She listened to me, she acknowledged my insecurities, my fears, my perceived failures, she gave me advice and taught me to have compassion for myself. I never formally asked her to be my mentor, and she never formally offered. It just happened organically for the duration my heart needed it for.
My dear friend and work soulmate, Megan Hayes, has taught me not to take breathing for granted, and to use it to recenter myself when needed. I now breathe more purposefully, and I also use community breathing with my students when we need it. In fact, would you please allow me to take you through a breathing exercise? [Five finger breath]
#3 Having a trusted peer or peer group
When I moved to Chattanooga in 2015, it was the middle of the school year, so I chose to support my family in our transition and did not look for a job. This created a sense of isolation and a lack of professional purpose I had a hard time dealing with. Fortunately, IFLT, a wonderful language conference, came to Chattanooga that summer and I met some of my local peers. We decided to create a local Teaching with CI group, which became an amazing source of support, growth, and collegiality. I really looked forward to these monthly meetings, to be surrounded by and exchange with like minded professionals.
By the way, online groups don’t count – while Social Media is a wonderful exchange platform and I know a lot of us are very involved in various professional groups on Facebook or Twitter, to me these groups don’t count as a trusted peer group. I am really talking about a basic face to face human interaction here. Social Media does not feed our hearts, it feeds our brains and our egos, sometimes in unhealthy ways.
#4 Going to conferences
So, how do you find your trusted peers? If you are lucky, you find them at your school. Last year, I worked at an independent school where both the World Language department head and myself were new to the institution. We both taught in a hallway in the basement of the building; we were the only adults in that hallway. This created an instant bond between us. Our backgrounds were very different (She was a university professor, I was a public school teacher) but we quickly realized we could trust each other to be there for each other when we needed it. If you do not have access to a trusted peer at your school or in your district, then conferences is the next place to go. I love conferences because you learn, you meet great people, and you get re-energized. Conferences are good for our hearts.
#5 Blogging (journaling)
I know journaling is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I personally find writing and blogging very therapeutic. Sure, teachers tend to blog about what they are proud of and I am no exception, but some of the most read pieces I have written on this blog were related to my shortcomings and my insecurities. Why? Because teaching is exhausting and we need to hear we are not alone, we need to hear that other teachers have tough times, the same tough times we are experiencing. Our hearts seek comfort in knowing we are not alone.
#6 Leaving the building
I can’t tell you how many catastrophes have been avoided by me leaving the building to get some fresh air before addressing a situation. Fresh air + physical activity = re-energized heart.
#7 and finally the big one: Saying NO
As teachers, we tend to feel ownership for basically everything: our students of course, but also our extra curricular activities, our field trips, our trips abroad, our professional development, our department initiatives, our building initiatives, our district initiatives, our state initiatives, our field of World Languages in general, etc. We feel so much ownership that it is very hard to say no.
Two weeks ago, I was asked to sit on a jury for a local French video contest among High Schools in Chattanooga. I was flattered to be asked, and also I felt ownership over this project as I had started it the year before at my school. However tempting this was, I made myself stop and say “I will let you know as soon as possible”. Giving myself that extra pause allowed me to think through what this actually meant: driving 4 hours back and forth from Nashville (where I now live) to Chattanooga for one evening, right before TFLTA. Giving myself a chance to reflect, I was able to politely decline the offer. Throughout the process, my heart was fretting but the minute I decided to say “No”, I felt relieved and at peace.
These are the things that ground me, these are the things I go back to when my heart needs refilling so I can continue to give to my students and my colleagues. This list is by no mean universal or exhaustive, but I hope it will make you think about your own list. What gets your heart ready to lead?
[AATF Tennessee Luncheon and business meeting 2019 – Honored Guest Remarks]