What Counts?

This year, I have been lucky enough to work with a talented group of educators who have helped me process, plan, deliberate, challenge, and fail. That last one is of course what I’m holding right now as I push myself up off the floor.

Failing is what we say we want to be open to, and yet when you are in it, you can’t help but think “I don’t want to do this again. Thanks, but no.” It is how you hold, describe and live inside “the fail” that allows you to learn from it. So here goes…

Learning how to be a leader has allowed me to continually modify what I think leadership should look like. There are times when the image I see in my mind is that of a ship’s captain, at the bow, telescope out, checking the horizon for storms, pirates, or land.

While that leader is brave and secure, in control and courageous, he or she is also the only one with the looking glass, the only one with vision and sight.

That type of leadership is not only lonely, it is probably highly ineffective. Why? Because as the sole person responsible for deciding the path, that leader then must tell people what to do and how to do it rather than utilize the collaborative energy and strength of the team “mates” around her. There is no ownership for the others on board, and there is no shared sense of purpose with or for the leader.

Luckily, I’ve had a recent and very different experience. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team of people who are smart yet open, passionate yet cautious and always ready to lean-in to work collaboratively on a task.

As a group, we have wrestled with big questions around who we are as a school and how we can best serve the children in our care. Our backgrounds are different; two of us are directly from the US, while the others have taught internationally for years. We have different views on what should be, but a collective idea that schools are here to serve the needs of the children within them.

So how did we fail exactly?

The team failed in execution, not in the process. The work we embarked on required a system for discussion, analysis, and thoughtful planning. On that journey, minds were made up; then minds were changed. The individuals in the group were willing to stretch because the group itself was working toward a common collaborative purpose: “How can we serve the children in our care?” Together we made some difficult recommendations. Recommendations we felt best for those children.

However, those recommendations were not heeded and a very different path was taken. Which left the team questioning our purpose, our goals, and even, our own beliefs. (Collaboratively and individually.)

The toughest part of my leadership journey has been these severe right turns. When what we had been working on is suddenly and inexplicitly changed. Often, without developing the understanding of those that have been working through or living the experience every day.

However, knowing that this failure is a result of the outcome and not in the collaborative process itself is what encourages me to continue. To move forward, this team needs to go back to and reaffirm the good, human work they presented. The stage is set up for this team to try again.

As I leave this school and job for a new one next year, it is the experience with this particular team that I will take with me and grow from. I’ve learned that while you can go all-in, the outcome still might flop. However, it isn’t the failure that counts. What counts, is showing up and trying to do what’s right, while working to really understand the people next to you.

Everyday. Again and again.

About Jen Munnerlyn

Jen Munnerlyn is the Elementary Principal at the American School of Warsaw. Her international experience began back in 1980 when her parents first started teaching overseas. Jen blogs about her own experiences as a Third Culture Kid, the adventures of being the mother of a TCK, and about elementary education in an international school setting. Her picture book The Adventure Begins, about the first day at an international school, is a favorite among adults and students abroad.
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One Response to What Counts?

  1. Melissa Maples says:

    Love this post, Jenn! I’m sure the timing of this article will ring true for many. I also love that you’ve experienced a truly collaborative team. I wonder how many people feel adequately prepared to work collaboratively? I once read that we sorely underestimate living this “peopled life.” That’s one thing I love about education– we get to start again and again!

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