I started teaching back in 1992 as a substitute. I had graduated college the year before and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my Bachelors in English. I fancied myself a writer and applied to grad school for creative writing, only to face rejection. I got a full-time job in a local company to pay the bills and I waited for something to happen. Nothing really opened up and I found myself missing being in school, being in a learning environment. I put my paperwork in with the School Board of Broward County, FL to become a sub. I had an agreement with my boss to allow me to take a day off once a week to explore teaching as a sub. It was exciting from the get go. I would be called at 5 in the morning and offered an assignment in any of the high or middle schools in the county. I couldn’t be picky. They would call and expect me to accept the position, otherwise I would run the risk if not being called again. One of the jobs was at a middle school run by more former 7th grade science teacher who had “moved up” to become a principal. I always remembered him fondly because he was the kind of teacher that was very personable and he got students interested in science by being supportive and not jamming content down our throats. I still remember being encouraged by Mr. Friedman to explore how crystals grow and it became my science fair presentation.
I subbed a couple of days for Mr Friedman and soon called me down to ask if I’d be interested in filling in for a teacher who would be out for a long-term illness. I agreed and took the position and said good-bye to the other job. Just like that
I was teaching an 8th grade business course. I didn’t know much about business but the classroom was equipped with a dozen or so PCs and so we focused in keyboarding, writing business letters, and doing simple spreadsheets. Because we were doing lots of hands on activities in which students were building very concrete skills, the students behaved well and it became fun for all of us.
Because I solved a problem for Mr. Friedman and seemed to be good at directing groups of 8th graders through skill-based activities, he encouraged me to apply for a position that would be opening up mid-year due to a maternity leave. I followed his advice and was hired as a 7th grade Language Arts teacher. Just like that, I was now responsible for 150 seventh grade students. Even though the numbers were intimidating, I felt capable thanks to my degree in English, a supportive team of teachers, an encouraging principal, and an expert mentor. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with teaching. Nova Middle was a great place to start my career.
But the key to my story comes a year into this job. I was 23 years old and still had dreams of seeing the world. When an opportunity arose for me to go to live in Italy thanks to friends I had made while working summers at a sports camp in Switzerland, I began to consider leaving this wonderful job for a year. My dilemma was that I didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the team that had taken me in and given me so much encouragement and support. I didn’t know who to talk to about this idea. I second-guessed myself, thinking that maybe I was just running away from hard work. My parents were quite happy that I was earning good money and paying off my student loans, and I couldn’t see a scenario in which they would support what would have seemed like a rash, fool-hardy decision. I was stuck.
After keeping quiet about this wacky idea for a month or so, I decided that I needed to get some advice from someone I trusted. During a prep period, I walked down to have a chat with Steve Friedman. I told him that I needed his advice and that I had an opportunity to follow my dreams in Italy. I had once again secured the summer job in Switzerland and then I was thinking of taking over the lease on an apartment that a friend was vacating in Bologna in September. I understood that this was not a decision to take lightly and I needed to know from him if I should banish this crazy thought and continue to do what is practical.
So Steve’s job as principal required him to make decisions to ensure that all students had highly qualified and prepared teachers and to maintain the culture of excellence at the school. He also was in charge of leading teachers in growing professionally. He had to answer to a community of parents who demanded highly skilled and professional teachers. He had already invested quite a bit of time and human resources into helping me establish roots at his school. I could understand how he would see the issue through the lens of manager and advise me to count my blessings and stay put. But Steve wasn’t just a manager. He was a leader. He looked me in the eye, smiled, and, understanding how much this opportunity meant to me personally, told me that he thought I should do it. As he went through his reasons–that I was young, already a good teacher, with a whole career ahead of me, and that I could get a teaching job anywhere I chose–I felt the confidence within me welling up. For the first time in my professional life, I felt empowered, capable of doing great, difficult things. So, with the full support of my principal and former 7th grade science teacher, I took what would end up being one of the most important decisions of my life. I resigned my teaching position.
I lead today because education is about people. All people have things in common but each us deserves to be treated as an individual. Every individual is unique, like a crystal. What works for one, doesn’t work for all. A leader has to have the courage to make decisions that are in the best interest of the individual student or employee, even if that decision causes the organization a little discomfort.
Thanks to Steve Friedman I went to Italy. Thanks to Steve Friedman I stayed in the profession for my entire life so far. Thanks to Steve Friedman I learned how to trust my instincts. Thanks to Steve Friedman I learned how to trust in leadership.