The Fish Who Climbed Trees



I’ve always been a good worker bee. I like having an assigned job, I enjoy a deadline, I love making lists, and I love to cross things off those lists even more. I like to score student assignments and put them in the gradebook right away so that it is up-to-date and accurate. I like knowing that someone is depending on me to complete something, and I strive to get it done early. I suppose, then, that I’m task-oriented. However, I am pragmatic. I know that I can’t get everything done at a dependable pace. My superpower is teaching, not accomplishing everything on a list in a single day.

That being said, I know my task-oriented nature has led me to seek out (and be sought out for) leadership opportunities in various capacities. One such capacity was being asked to be a 6th-grade team leader at my middle school. I remember the summer my principal called me to ask if I was interested in the position. I was so thrilled that someone saw me as having leadership potential, and I eagerly said yes. I prepared and scrambled the best I could through my rookie year, noting things I wanted to change for the following year. My second and third years were improvements, but a string of unpredictable behavior issues and poorly executed team-wide systems both years left me feeling discouraged, defeated, and like I had let down the people who had seen something great in me. Was it me? Was it something I said (or didn’t say)?

Feeling defeated (aside from those days that every teacher has and will continue to have) is not a feeling I often wrestle with. I know that I do a darn good job of creating and maintaining relationships and community in my classroom each year. I also feel confident each year that if I accomplish nothing else, I’ve made a safe place for students to fail, to try again, to find themselves, and to be themselves. I’m a people person, and I love trying to find out what makes people tick.  So where did I go wrong as a team leader? Needless to say, I was thankful at the end of last school year to be asked to consider moving up to 7th grade to teach language arts. I willingly said yes, reminding my principal that I will always go where I’m needed if it’s a decision that will positively impact students. I breathed a sigh of relief that someone else would be my team leader and that I could go back to being the satisfied worker bee that I am.

But I still felt that I had other ways to lead. I wasn’t prepared to give up on honing my capacities, so I began rethinking how I could use them differently. I sought out the Kentucky Teacher Leadership Framework, and the answer was staring me right in the face. Often when I’m faced with seeking deeper truths, they often appear much more simply than I expect. Just like Glinda tells Dorothy in the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” Leave it to a childhood favorite to pave my yellow brick road to realization- I lead best from the classroom. I’ve known this all along, yet I sought it out elsewhere. This is not to say that I won’t continue to dabble in other forms of teacher leadership- I do with great passion. But I let one experience with one type of leadership shake my confidence, instead of celebrating the talents I already possessed.

Always the life-long learner, I look to how I can apply this in my daily work the classroom. I’m reminded of popular wisdom that is often attributed to Einstein- “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I must give my students ample opportunities to find out if they are their best when they swim, climb, fly, crawl, or burrow. In other words, students need chances to try many different approaches to a math problem, a grammar question, a scientific inquiry, or a dance routine until they find out how they do it best. And teachers need to honor their students’ quests to find out how they learn best by giving them those chances.

Fast-forward to the present and I’m actually back in 6th grade again this year (the move to 7th grade was reconsidered, but a new team leader, logically, was assigned in my stead). I’m back to being my happy, buzzing, worker-bee self and I love knowing that my team leader can rely on me to accomplish what needs to be done for our kids. Today, I am relieved of a position that I once coveted, but now delight knowing that I can pour my leadership qualities into places where they’re best suited for me.