My colleagues and I spent several years in workshops and doing interviews with public school teachers who had been objectively identified as highly effective. These teachers tended to be self-actualizing people. They told us about many unconventional things they do and how they came to acquire the unconventional map that gives rise to their unusual behavior. Here is an example.
Kelli is a teacher who brilliantly illustrates how to acquire a more positive and complex mental map. She told us she was passionate about “reaching every student.” She told us her job was not to put math into the heads of her students; her job was to create a hunger and love for learning. She wanted every student leave her with an expanded sense of self; empowered people who could learn in any situation. To do this she had to convey high expectations while going the extra mile to understand and support the needs of her students. Like all transformational leaders, she needed to be high on task and high on people. The conventional orientation is to be high on task or high on people.
Kelli acquired the positive mental map from a challenging, personal experience. She started out as a good teacher. Her first year was “heaven” and her second year was “hell.” After figuring out how to succeed, her mental map was challenged by the presence of a number of troublesome children. One child was so difficult, she had him removed from the class. After doing so she became depressed and went to some colleagues for advice. In trying to help, they did something conventional. They said, “You have to realize, early on, you are not the key to every door.” They were trying to help by telling her to lower her expectations.
Kelli had a surprising reaction. She rejected the advice and made the unconventional decision to grow into the ability to reach every child. The decision would turn a good teacher into a great teacher.
Over a long period Kelli consciously brought troubled children into her world. She analyzed their way of thinking. She developed respect for them. She learned how to both challenge them and make them feel safe. Today her principal puts troubled children in her class because “Kelli will know what to do with them.”
As Kelli recounted her developmental story, she looked at me through tears and said, “Today, I am the key to every door.”
No matter how constrained the student, Kelli finds some way to help the student grow into a better version of self. Kelli rejected the beliefs of her conventional culture and with her higher purpose in mind, transformed and empowered those around her as well.
We do not normally think of public school teachers as leaders. Yet great teachers are great organizational leaders. Every year they meet a new group of strangers. They then envision and create a positive organizational culture. In that positive culture learning accelerates and lives change for the better.
Positive organizing can occur in any profession. It usually occurs because of a person who has acquired a more mature and complex way of seeing and being.
Instead of having a job they have a calling. They love what they do. Instead of going through the motions, they fully commit. They go the extra mile to engage their people. They envision and create positive cultures where collaboration, learning and performance peak.
Why did Kelli become a highly effective teacher?
How does her decision apply to my life?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?