Leading Successfully Means Leading as Who You Are

Changes to Make for Yourself and Your School Community as We Enter 2021

I never did well with the school administrative good ole’ boys club.  And oh, I tried so hard.  I watched baseball games, which for me were pure boredom, in order to talk to the boss about his favorite team at the next admin meeting. I laughed at gags about his favorite college team when I didn’t understand a word of what was going on, and I tried to dress the part. Suits...gray, black, brown, navy, and a little beige for summer months.  Hideous for me, but I did it because I wanted to work my way to the top. And I struggled in a persona that really wasn’t mine.

Many moons ago, I worked in a higher-level office position where I wasn’t supposed to give an opinion, or the one I wanted to give when prompted, and wasn’t really standing up for the community that I was hired to stand up for because I couldn’t.  I wasn’t really supposed to be me. Many times, I felt like a cyborg with prompted responses that sickened me from time to time. I got exhausted with the emotional load of being locked inside myself.

Why did I take that role?  At that time, I was naive. I thought I could work my way up and change people’s beliefs by being kind and sweet. When I reflect and look back on things, I should have realized it my first days in the office.  One instance, after the Eid Holiday (a Muslim celebration), I arrived at work with traditional henna patterns on my hands. As I walked over to the front desk of the office, I got some “oohs and ahhs” and answered questions from our clerical staff and colleagues. Later that afternoon at our administrative meeting, my boss looked at my hands and cringed. At that moment I brushed it off but, later when I reflected on it, I kicked myself for not realizing that I and what I represent wasn’t a fit for that organization at that moment. 

In school districts we preach about “equity.”  My message to superintendents, district leaders, and school leaders is that equity starts from the top. Does a person wearing a suit and grunting about sports really make them a great school leader?  We need to find ways in our organizations to have equitable treatment of all staff regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, religious views, and sexual orientation—regardless of whether or not they watch the boss’s preferred sports teams. People need opportunities to lead based on skill sets, experience, and knowledge.  Equity starts in our administrative offices, board rooms, and teacher’s lounges before we can expect it to have an impact in classrooms and with students. We need to lead by example in 2021—especially in light of the mess 2020 has left us to clean up.

Two years ago, I started working in an EL Education school as a Director of Language and Equity Programs. I also support English language learners in classrooms during part of my day. I traded my uncomfortable suit jackets—business suits are very hard to come by in modest lengths and fits for women who wear hijab like myself—for colorful kimonos with an array of cultural, colorful prints paired with t-shirts from my social justice collection, flowy skirts and tights. I traded the uncomfortable loafers and heels for sneakers. (I rocked the Chuck Taylors even before Kamala made them très chic.) And the statement jewelry—my husband calls it my “uniform.” I lead in what makes me comfortable. I lead better that way.

Being in an EL Education school has reminded me of the human side of education. It’s the reason that I made the decision 20 years ago to follow the path of becoming an educator.  We need to focus on what EL Education would call “teaching kids to be smart in order to be good.”  This “better world” learning comes from minds working together in boardrooms, administrative offices, and teacher collaborative work spaces to create the best possible educational experiences for all children. 

Leading in education is about bringing people of different perspectives together to create the best learning communities.  We don’t know everything as school leaders.  We hire people who have expertise in areas that we don’t and backgrounds different from ours to create more well-rounded teams that support all students. Educators should have opinions of their own—and they don’t need to wear suits.

My regret: 

In the past, I didn’t try hard enough to fight the social norms of some of the organizations that I led in to advocate for change. 

My advice for 2021: 

Much has happened in our country and so much of it has impacted our education system. We need to change how we lead and the types of leaders we hire and promote. Our school leaders need to be empathic of the communities they lead. They need to work like influential change-makers. 

If my story sounds familiar to your experiences:

Be unapologetic of who you are and what you stand for. You will only create change in your system by staying true to who you are.

Sarah Said is GW26qYQY_400x400the Director of Language and Equity Programs at an EL Education School in the Chicago Suburbs. In her role, she oversees support programs for Multilingual Learners, works with others to create a community that fosters success for students from the diverse communities her school serves, helps strengthen school to community outreach, and coordinates Title grants. In the past, she has been a Director of ELL, Dean and Curriculum Coordinator. In addition to her role in her building, she is a contributor for ELL Confianza and has written a variety of blog posts online. She is a member of the #ELLChat and #ELLchat_bkClub where she helps advocate for Multilingual Learners. Follow her on twitter: @MrsSaid17