Ambition. Prestige. Honor. Position. These seem to be elusive destinations that some trek towards or elusive suitors to be pursued and won. There are many individuals hung up on title and rank and feel their own self-worth is defined by the signature line on their email or the letterhead on the company stationery. I know some in a school setting who use the word “just” as a modifier for their position. I’m “just” a teacher. I’m “just” an assistant principal. I’m “just” at a school site. The implication is that their job is not important or can’t make a true difference because they aren’t occupying another seat on the system’s bus. It can also be a coping mechanism to deflect responsibility and accountability. “I’m just x…” implies it isn’t my decision. I’m just taking my marching orders. Don’t get mad at me. It’s not my fault.
I worked with a colleague a couple of years ago to present a workshop for educational leaders in our state. Our presentation was called “‘School Leader’ is not a title!” Ellen Vannoy helped make the point that we all have a role to play in making things better for students at our sites. She told our group that it’s more than compliance, and it’s more than data crunching or spreadsheets or titles or the desk chair we sit in. It’s all about the kids! We all have a voice we can lift for those around us. We can all choose to make a difference for students and staff in our hallways.
If power lies in a title, influence and advocacy can be taken away simply by removing that title. Conversely, if I am unable to act in ways that better those around me because I lack a title, or a specific title, how am I to spend my time until I arrive? Am I to just march in place?
As a former history teacher, I find comfort and inspiration in those who have faced life’s challenges before me. Abraham Lincoln served one term in the US House of Representatives from 1847-1849 before being defeated for re-election. Prior to that he had served in the General Assembly in Illinois, although he lost a race for Speaker during that period as well. He ran for a US Senate seat and lost in both 1854 and 1856. He was a self-taught attorney who continued to challenge insurmountable odds and speak truths even when he didn’t have a title to rest his authority upon. We know eventually, he was elected to become the 16th president of the United States in 1860.
A friend of his wrote letters grumbling about his military position in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. Major General David Hunter, a West Point graduate, was not pleased that he was transferred from Washington DC to Kansas and had sent a series of letters bemoaning that fact to the new president. Lincoln responded with exposition from an Alexander Pope poem in a letter on December 31, 1861, and said:
I have been, and am sincerely your friend; and if, as such, I dare to make a suggestion, I would say you are adopting the best possible way to ruin yourself. “Act well your part, there all the honor lies.” He who does something at the head of one Regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.
Your friend as ever,
It is interesting that Lincoln quoted the poet Pope, who faced challenges such as being denied a formal education after age 12, serious health issues and physical disabilities. Lincoln could also provide this type of insight as he did not have a pedigree or lofty social standing. His work ethic and what we might now call “people skills” facilitated much of his success. It could be said he was a president that spoke for the common people which perhaps colored his hope in the Gettysburg Address that “…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln seemed to be telling Hunter to do his job well, no matter how big or small it might be considered by others and regardless of the rank someone uses to address you. What a great piece of advice. What a great friend to be able to speak that kind of truth into someone’s circumstances.
Another president, Theodore Roosevelt, provided wisdom with a similar sentiment in chapter IX of his Autobiography. Roosevelt wrote:
And as for a life deliberately devoted to pleasure as an end – why, the greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done…There is a bit of homely philosophy, quoted by Squire Bill Widener, of Widener’s Valley, Virginia, which sums up one’s duty in life: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
I knew assistant coaches who sat back and waited for the day they would become an offensive or defensive coordinator so they could prove their coaching prowess and coordinators who waited for the day they would become head coaches so they could truly shine. How many missed opportunities went by with players who weren’t fully developed or invested in while an assistant was waiting to fully engage and commit? Waiting to contribute or waiting to step up is a choice and students suffer from missed opportunities when adults make those choices. Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. In more modern phraseology, grow where you’re planted!
There’s no such thing as “just” a teacher or assistant principal or site leader unless that person is content and complacent to let someone else carry the load and lead. Some of the most incredible educational leaders I’ve known led from their classroom teaching students, coaching colleagues, and even encouraging those with titles in their schools and districts. That doesn’t mean we all have the ability to correct all the wrongs we see or develop all the plans we’d like implemented, but we aren’t to wait to make a difference until we’re bestowed with the elusive title we’re chasing or we feel is being withheld from us.
Some people are hung up on titles. They think titles either give them power or prevent them from using it. It really isn’t about power anyway. If a leader has to leverage “power” to get something done, are they really a leader or just someone wielding a club to demand compliance?
So, act well your part. Like Pope said and Lincoln quoted, “there all the honour lies.” Do what you can for those in your family, your class, your school, your organization. Do it for those who are counting on you to step up. Do it for them!
For more on the context of the Lincoln letter and Hunter, you can check https://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/letter-to-david-hunter-december-31-1861/
You can find Pope’s Essay on Man at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2428/2428-h/2428-h.htm)
More on the Roosevelt quote can be found at https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Quotes/Do%20what%20you%20can%20%20with%20what%20you%20ve%20got%20%20where%20you%20are?from=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.theodorerooseveltcenter.org%2FSearch%3Fr%3D1%26searchTerms%3Ddo%2520what%2520you%2520can
as well as an interesting blog post from Sue Brewton at https://suebrewton.com/tag/do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have-where-you-are/