Leading, Living, (Un)Learning: A Reflection on My Year as Department Chair

Yesterday was the last official day of my interim term as department chair.

Although I’ll be staying on to actively support the transition of the department and our new chair, I am grateful to return to faculty life for the fall semester before making my next big transition to a new position in a new institution.

This was not my first rodeo in administration. Having served as program chair for a year at a small liberal arts college gave me lots of preparation for my year as interim department chair. I felt confident last year that, surrounded by a supportive department and leadership team, I was in the best circumstances to support my department (and college) through some key searches and transitions. I knew I was only in it for a year and thought that this year would be focused on professional leadership, as I had multiple leadership roles in professional organizations at the state and national level.

I learned a lot and healed a lot in the past year. I realized that while I’m good at administration, it’s not something I love. I do love being a contribution, supporting the work of others, and engaging with ideas alongside other leaders. I appreciate being trusted to make decisions and to move work forward effectively. I liked having more clearly defined boundaries on my time (if I had the strength to keep those boundaries in place). However, I missed teaching and interacting more directly with students on a regular basis. I missed having greater autonomy over my time and space, where and how I do work, with whom I do the work, and what work has to be prioritized.

Beyond this, I learned about the limitations of what is workable and sustainable for myself and my family. I was bone tired multiple times during the year and pushed through those times in ways that led to major health scares. I withdrew from my community during certain periods because I had such limited energy, space, and time. I felt like all the things were getting done, but not in the ways I was truly capable of doing them. But, of course, they were getting done in the ways I was capable of doing them in those moments, moments of survival and endurance.

I am learning to make space for and listen to my heart and my body as much as my mind, in doing truly humanizing work. I am learning that I am wholly imperfect as a leader and as a person, but that people most often show grace and accept me even when I can’t do it all, when I make mistakes, and when it’s not good enough for me. I am learning to lean on team a bit more and my own strength a bit less. I am learning to breathe.

I am leaving this position in a good place, for myself and for our department. I will still lead, but from alongside instead of from up front, in a different way, that also allows space for other parts of my personal and professional lives that bring me joy.

I am grateful.

I am always and ever (un)learning.

I am moving towards sustainable, whole, embodied ways of living.

I am working towards leading in community.

Now, at a healthier pace from a more present space.

Stepping into Leadership; Stepping into Community

When I was in 6th grade, I really wanted to win the middle school leadership award.  It was given to one student from each graduating 6th grade class and was basically an invitation into middle school ASB.  I was academically one of the top students in my class, had sung with the mini-6th grade chorus for graduation and was on the edge of my seat as they announced that the winner of the award was…

Not me.

Clearly, this was devastating enough to my 11-year old self that I remember it, 30 years later.  I remember this incident with such clarity because I wanted so much for my teachers to see me as a leader, as more than just the smart kid who brought in fortune cookies and egg rolls from my aunt’s Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year (I know the Chinese do not have a monopoly on the Lunar New Year, but when I was little, that’s what I knew) and got good grades.  I wanted to lead. I wanted to be involved.  And the teacher’s belief in me was my ticket in the door to participate, as I couldn’t just convince my mom that I could “walk on” to the middle school leadership team.

I pretty much have spent a lot of the last 30 years consciously or sub-consciously trying to prove that I am a leader.  It didn’t go that well for the first 21 years of my life. I mean, I did fine. I was many things to many people.  I worked hard and did well.  But, I was not a leader.

Then I became a teacher, and pretty quickly, people started seeing me as a leader.  I began leading professional development at my school site, coaching at the district level, co-directing our local National Writing Project site.

When I transitioned into teacher education, I also became a leader fairly quickly, with the core course I teach, in my department, college and in various professional organizations.

Now, I’m even a church elder, a PTSA board member — it seems that leadership is everywhere.  I am all  that 11-year old me wanted people to see. I am a leader.

But, what 11-year old me didn’t quite see was that, in craving leadership and recognition, what I really was craving was community and the belief in my contribution.

On the other side of these many opportunities to serve as a leader is the humility of realizing that while leadership holds much responsibility, it is so valued and valuable because of community.  Without a strong community, leadership can just become one more thing to do, one more role to fill, it can be empty. What I wanted as an 11-year old was to be seen as a leader, but more importantly, I wanted others to see me for the contributions I could bring, whether in a leadership role or not. I wanted to be a part of community and to contribute.

I’m grateful to so many people in my life that support me and love me as I serve and I lead from my heart and with my heart. On the days where I’d like to step down from all the things and hide under my covers, telling my 11-year old self to be happy she wasn’t selected for the leadership position, I hold my community close and they remind me why contribution and leadership are important.

That’s what I’m stepping into, in these first few weeks of 2020, into leadership, into community, into humility, into humanity.

Thanks for seeing me here.