Starting her leadership journey in a Baltimore classroom
Before joining Teach For America, I had held several leadership positions--the kind that look good on paper and probably helped me get accepted into such a selective teaching corps -- but the truth is that I knew very little about leadership until I became a teacher.
As a Teach for America corps member, I served two years as a French teacher at a struggling high school in Baltimore. Fresh out of college, I was "Mademoiselle Patusky" with nearly 100 students depending on me to learn basic French. The responsibilities I held, and the weight of the achievement gap I was trying to narrow, pushed me to be a leader every day.
Fortunately, Teach For America provided me with a heavy dose of leadership training at Institute, the five-week summer boot camp all corps members attend before entering our classrooms. In a course called "Teaching as Leadership," we learned leadership principles patented by business guru, Jim Collins.
Most memorably, we learned the importance of setting a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for our students--and working relentlessly to help them meet our ambitious expectations. We talked about assessing our students frequently to measure their progress and engaging in constant self-reflection to learn from our mistakes and successes.
But knowing the extreme challenges my students faced -- growing up in poor, violent neighborhoods with a broken education system -- pushed me to think bigger. Many of my students had reached 10th grade without acquiring basic reading and writing skills. If I was going to teach them French, I knew I'd have to do more than set ambitious goals and work tirelessly to help my students meet them. I also would have to teach with enthusiasm and courage myself.
In my Baltimore classroom, I set a BHAG for my classes -- that all students would demonstrate mastery of at least 85% of national foreign language standards for basic French -- and tried to get my students pumped about it. I worked to create a "culture of achievement" in my classroom by celebrating high-achieving students on a regular basis. At the front of my classroom, in the center of a 2-D Arc de Triomphe, I posted a weekly list of Les Triomphants--all the students who had aced the prior week's quiz.
Every Monday, students would rush into my classroom to find out if they had made the list, and they would beam if they saw their name. On my drive home from work, I would assess my own progress. I made mental notes of the games and activities that thrilled my kids and vowed to never make that day's mistakes again.
Knowing that French is a subject many low-income students are denied, I sought to make the most of every lesson. My students teased me for teaching so energetically, but the good work they produced suggested that some of my enthusiasm rubbed off on them. As for courage, it's what allowed me to demand excellence from my students.
Despite their initial protests, I assigned my students substantial homework and expected them to study regularly--which, unfortunately, was not the case in many of their other classes. It wasn't easy to stand my ground, but it paid off when my students started gaining fluency and taking pride in their French skills.
Courage also kept me from quitting, especially after two fights erupted in my class during my first year and police removed an armed student from my classroom in my second year. Courage helped me return to school every day and seize the precious opportunity I had to teach my students something new.
Since my Teach For America experience, I've continued leading; first at a Boston charter school and now, at a national nonprofit organization. With every professional opportunity, I gain new insights into effective leadership. But in the two incredible years I spent teaching in Baltimore, I learned my most valuable leadership lesson so far: that when it comes to our biggest challenges, courage and enthusiasm are not only helpful but essential.
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