Written By: Sally Rusk
Mrs. Markov stepped on the conductor box and her students immediately lifted their instruments with precision. They played beautifully and looked at her with adoration and a hope approval. The next day I complimented her and their performance and she immediately launched into all the mistakes that were made. The next day her students also highlighted mistakes that my untrained ear could not discern.
As a young advisor, I wanted that. I wanted that precision and I wanted that adoration. It’s embarrassing to admit that I wanted that adoration, but I’ve learned to lean into honesty and vulnerability. Did I ever say, you must be perfect? Of course not, but my subtle message was, now that I’ve taught you how to be a good human, you must be a good human. ALWAYS. When teachers told me about my leadership students’ mistakes in other classrooms-I came down hard and discussed how they were embarrassing the program when it was really they were embarrassing me. Unfortunately, it took me years to learn that I was teaching them that perfection was the goal and behave because Ms. Rusk, the moral police was on the lookout for ways that they were messing up. Human beings mess up all the time but my process wasn’t honoring the journey. I wasn’t someone that they could go to when they were struggling because they were working so hard to please me and be perfect in that process.
Being a teenager is hard. It’s messy. Being a teenager in the era of social media and digital communication is even messier and one that I don’t think those of us that grew up excited when we got a landline in our bedroom can even begin to understand. After 9 years of guiding over 250 kids a year through social and emotional learning, I’ve grown tremendously in my approach and in my support of students.
Here’s what I’ve learned. Modeling vulnerability and growth is critical. I mess up all the time and sometimes in my biggest mistakes, I’ve grown the most but only because I was willing to admit the mistakes and reflect. Tell your students your mistakes. Model your thought process and be willing to be vulnerable when you’re working through some tough things. I don’t believe I have all the answers and I won’t stand up in front of them and act like I do anymore. I believe this modeling has allowed students to see this 43-year-old is still growing. I always tell my students that the world is doomed if they’re done growing at 12,13, and 14 years old but I also think it’s doomed if I’m done growing at 43. Every week I put my character goals on the board. Every week I tell them if I hit my goals or if I drove the struggle bus that week. Some weeks, I drive the struggle bus and they know when I do.
Allowing for growth reduces burnout for you and your students. I used to make a big deal about how servant leader burnout is real and how we all have to be on the lookout for it. I realized in a meeting with a former student recently that I don’t really talk about it anymore with students. Now don’t get me wrong, I still get drained in the gauntlet of activities but because the focus is on growth and not perfection, I feel more aligned with my purpose and I believe my students do too. We write down our WHY every week and model character goals based on our why each week. We talk about how if our goals start to get away from our WHY we may be moving too far out of purpose. Most will agree that when we are rooted in purpose, we feel far more energized and are able to continue the servant leader journey.
An emphasis on growth activates trust with your students. Trust is key in any relationship and especially when working with teenagers. They have an almost inherent distrust in adults at this age and we must work to build that trust for them to allow us to speak into their lives. If students come to us they are not only trusting us to keep things confidential, but they’re trusting us that we won’t condemn them when they are grappling with serious issues in their lives where they need guidance and support rather than judgment. When students know that you expect mistakes, they’re far more likely to own the mistakes and reflect which we know is critical for growth.
I had the privilege of seeing so many of my former students I adore play their last home football game at Eastlake High School. It was senior night and I was honored to cheer on former students on the field, in the band, on the cheer squad and dance team. So many former students came to say and hi with big smiles. As I drove home, I reflected that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to going but I really wanted to cheer on some of the senior players. At times when I went up to the high school, I wasn’t always greeted with big smiles. I think so many of them saw and remembered what it felt like being around someone that was far too demanding. But when I had this group as 8th graders, collectively, they were kind of a hot mess. There were many challenging kids in that class and they made many mistakes. That year, I didn’t have the luxury to demand a perfect symphony from them. I couldn’t conduct and expect the notes to always sound perfect. We struggled, we cried, and we grew. We were messy and we honored that mess in the hopes that we would all keep striving to be our best self even when we fell short. The most challenging group taught me far more than I taught them. They allowed me to embrace the messy human symphony of teaching leadership.
About the Author: Sally Rusk is a leadership teacher and ASB Advisor at Inglewood Middle School. She is currently on a planning team to open a brand new middle school in the Redmond area. Previously she taught in the Edmonds School District and Bellingham School District. She was the 2018 Washington State Middle Level Advisor of the Year and firmly believes she has the greatest job in the world teaching leadership and helping kids work on developing their best self.