Leading Next to Students

March 6, 2018

Teachers want to lead. We want to influence students and the education profession in positive ways while remaining in the classroom. The dilemma is that on this leadership pursuit, many teachers aren’t able to find ways to stay in the classroom. Early in my career, I had the false notion that leading in education meant aspiring to be a school or district-level administrator, so I embarked on the journey and spent ten successful but somewhat unsatisfying years outside the classroom preparing for and working in administration until I finally said to myself, “Wait, this is not what I meant.”

What I really wanted was to focus on students within the classroom, on relationships with them that build their confidence and knowledge, on elements of human potential. I wanted to be back in the classroom learning alongside young people.

I consider myself an artist. Not an artist in the traditional sense of the word. I neither paint nor sculpt nor perform on stage. However, I have a strong creative side and proudly proclaim to be an instructional artist. I am also a scientist, though not in the traditional sense. I do not don a lab coat or enter research labs. As a teacher-scientist, however, I pursue research-based strategies that increase the likelihood of my students learning. My scientific method includes self-initiated study of the work of Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, and Katie Wood Ray, to name a few. I work to adapt their research to my students’ needs. By artfully crafting research-based lessons, I can lead from the classroom and make a difference. Along my journey as an artist and scientist in education, there have been two watershed events that transformed me and enhanced my propensity to lead: National Board Certification and mindfulness.

Like no other experience, earning my first NB certification opened my eyes to self-reflection and keen awareness of what I needed to do to improve as a teacher and leader. I never looked back after realizing professional development must be organic to be most effective. When I embarked on the NB journey, I had twelve years under my belt and already had been a participant in numerous in-service professional development endeavors and many teacher evaluation tools while teaching in South Carolina. But National Board got my attention in ways no other professional development had. My classroom blossomed into a student-centered, reflective, workshop environment. Convinced of the value of NB, I soon took the lead to create a support group in my district and encouraged other teachers to attend weekly help sessions while pursuing certification. We are a high-poverty, rural school district and have won numerous awards. I believe our success is due to a culture of excellence which the National Board process has had a hand in promoting, a culture that encourages reflection and growth.

The journey eventually led me to self-initiated growth in mindfulness which bolstered my view that we need to teach students how important reflection and inner dialogue are to learning, setting goals, and ultimately succeeding. It is likely that the majority of people have heard of mindfulness, either in light-hearted jest – there are many references arising in popular culture with the concomitant eye-rolls – or as a consequential concept being applied in many walks of life including the medical, business, military, and professional sports worlds. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that it is “a particular way of paying attention… awareness that arises…a way of looking deeply into oneself in the spirit of self-inquiry and self-understanding.”

Through mindfulness, we are able to become more clear-minded, self-aware, and calm, less mentally cluttered. When we develop mindful awareness, we live more fully in the now, unfettered by yesterday’s events or what we imagine is in the future, free of judging the moment. Seeing the results of this practice over the last few years in myself, my colleagues, and my students steadies my resolve to continue on this path. It is not a paint-by-number process; it takes practice like anything else, but like one of my most challenging yet lovable students told me enthusiastically, “Ms. Lancaster, you know that breathing stuff you taught me? It works!”

It has been easy to maintain passion and commitment to the profession because of the rewards inherent in building relationships with students and learning alongside them. My two National Board certification experiences and the power of mindful awareness have reinforced my commitment to lead from within the classroom. As a teacher at heart, it is reassuring to know that to be a leader, I do not have to be anywhere but right beside my students. I have the power to bring about real change from the place I love most in education.

In a subsequent post, I will share how the mindfulness journey transformed me professionally, as much as and because of what I learned during the National Board certification process. I will share how I have brought mindfulness to my school district and have contributed to its growth in my state to help teachers take better care of themselves before they teach students the transformative process.

Debbie Lancaster, NBCT

Debbie Hammond Lancaster knew she wanted to teach and coach when she was in high school. She was in the first wave of women who received college athletic scholarships after Title IX legislation. Graduating cum laude with a BA in Secondary Education from Clemson University, she earned letters in both basketball and volleyball, and went on to receive her MED in Administration with Phi Kappa Phi honors from Winthrop University while coaching women’s volleyball and basketball there. She is twice National Board certified in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts, teaches sixth grade reading and writing, and chairs the language arts department. She has taught and/or coached nearly 2500 students over her 32-year career and is currently her school district’s Teacher of the Year. Debbie enjoys practicing and teaching mindfulness and competing in sprint triathlons. She and her husband David, a Special Education assistant after a career in mica mining, have four children, three children-in-law, and one handsome, smart, daredevil grandson.