Frequently, when I introduce myself to people and explain what I do, they express some surprise (sometimes, not very politely) that someone in her twenties is serving in a leadership capacity at a large, public high school. Usually, these types of positions are reserved for people with more experience and whose experience extends beyond the classroom. This wasn’t the case for me; prior to this school year, I hadn’t served in any type of position beyond classroom teacher, and I only had five years of experience at that. The circumstances surrounding my transition into a teacher-leader are a little complex and partially reliant on being in the right place at the right time, but, looking back on my (albeit short) career, there are definitely a few things that I did to land myself in that right place, at that right time.
For one, I’ve never been afraid to take on extra responsibilities. Pretty much as soon as I took my teaching position I started tutoring, teaching summer school, and attending optional trainings. Sure, these are all instructionally-based (meaning, they don’t involve leading teachers) but being willing to work in these positions demonstrated that I knew how to manage my time and go above and beyond the minimum requirements of my basic teaching duties. Even though it was a struggle at times to juggle all of my responsibilities, I refined my scheduling skills and made sure that I had enough time to get everything done, and done well.
Second, I signed on to teach a more challenging course-load during my second year of teaching, and then upped the ante with a second AP class in my third year. Teaching advanced classes is extremely time-consuming; it involves planning more complex lessons and devoting more time grading essays and homework assignments, so my willingness to take on the challenge showed that I had grit. To be honest, there were times when I doubted my ability to handle this. I even had a few private meltdowns under the pressure of having to prepare my students for their AP exams. But I pushed through the fears and doubts and got the job done.
Third, and probably most important, I spoke up. The school that I teach at is Title I, and we’re always looking for fresh ideas to meet the challenge of teaching students who come to school with a variety of issues that impact their academic performance. I never hesitated to put my ideas out there, even if they might get shot down or not work out for whatever reason. And many didn’t – I’ve made some solid suggestions that continue to benefit my school to this day, I’ve also definitely floated some epically bad (or unreasonable or overconfident or whatever) ideas. But the point is, I never worried about tossing those ideas out there. It shows that I’m thinking hard, trying to come up with solutions to complex problems.
The common thread in all these examples is that I had to put aside my concerns about screwing up. I could totally have sucked at teaching AP classes, and my students could have all bombed the exam. I could have bitten off more than I could chew with my tutoring programs. I could have gotten laughed at for a bad idea about solving a problem in the building. That all definitely could have happened, but no boss wants to promote someone who lives in fear. Being willing to take risks (and recovering gracefully from sometimes missing the mark) is a quality that leaders in all industries look for when choosing other leaders. Sure, it’s scary and stressful and sometimes a little gut-wrenching, but if you’re not willing to take chances, you’re probably going to be treading water at work for a long time.
What’s your number one tip for getting ahead at work?