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Teaching Is Leading: How to Be Your Best Self

February 4, 2015
Teaching Is Leading: How to Be Your Best Self

On Christmas Eve, I received a text message that a dear friend of 12-plus years was in the ICU in critical condition from an ongoing eleven-month battle with cancer. I met Zack in August 2002 at summer camp for children with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease; cancer was likely a result of medicine he was taking to stabilize the chronic disease we shared. With every day that passed of winter break, I sat by my phone waiting for an update on his condition. In January, Zack was taken all too soon from his family, his fiancée, his friends, and his camp family.

During Zack’s last days, I went back to school after break. Explaining the difference between Allied and Central Powers during World War I, I felt so minuscule knowing in the back of my head that many people I love and care about were suffering immensely. How do you be there for students when your mind and heart are grieving in another place? In a meeting, I sat across from an academic dean going through a unit plan. “Tell me what you were thinking about as you were breaking down this standard?” the dean asked.

To be honest, I wasn’t thinking much when I broke down that standard, or made my unit calendar, or wrote my lesson plan. Is that fair to my students? To neglect them because I can’t get my emotions together? Is it fair to leave them to attend a funeral? What if I’m not there to help them through our challenging lesson scheduled for that week? Who is more important: the students or yourself? A mentor told me that she had missed a friend’s funeral because of teaching and continues to regret it.

She went on to tell me that being a teacher is not just making sure your students know who won the Civil War, but also setting an example of how to live, including how to take care of yourself. She told me that leaving Nashville to fly to Philadelphia for a funeral is teaching your students the importance of always being there when a friend needs you. That is teaching.

Perhaps they’ll forget where Missouri is located on a map, but I hope they will never forget the importance of compassion, friendship, and knowing that you need to be there for yourself in order to be there for anyone else. Teaching goes beyond the four walls of the classroom, and it’s incredibly easy to get bogged down and lose sight of the little things. Something I love most about Zack was his ability to lead by example. Anywhere he went he carried himself with strength, with positivity, and with an open mind. He didn’t have to think about it; it was just his nature. Teaching is leading, and leading is living by example.

Which draws a simple conclusion: Do what you need to do to be the best, healthiest, most positive you for your students, and hopefully they will do the same. If that means responsibly prioritizing your personal needs before school ones, then do so. Teach your students to take care of themselves, but you have to do it first.