Bite the Bullet: Learning to Lead

Empty Desks

Profile James Toland
I clearly remember sitting in the gym at my high school graduation and being confused as I noticed the eyes of the audience members which had turned to look at me.

The people on stage had just announced that they were presenting the American Legion Award for Leadership (which wasn’t surprising, given the nature of the ceremony) and that I had won it (which was, given the nature of my four years at RHS). I had never really considered myself a leader, more of a class clown. For some reason, that moment had a very profound and lasting impact on my life.

Fast forward through five years of college, I emerged (after four changes of my major) as a bright-eyed, first year teacher and coach.

Coming out of college, I wanted to be liked; hell, I still do. Before my first teaching job, I went to a toy store in the mall to buy things for my first real teacher’s desk. When the opening day arrived, I had all kinds of toys from Koosh balls to action figures to toy dinosaurs lined along the front edge of my desk, waiting to greet the kids on their first day.

Initially the junior high students looked at the enticing lineup with awe and wonderment trying to figure out both what they, and subsequently I, were all about. There is a very long version of this story, but the short one ends with me having to start class everyday for a week going around and arguing with students to get all the toys put back before we could begin class. By the end of August, the only thing on my desk was my name plate, a red pen and my lesson plan book.

My shortsightedness was not limited to my classroom. When I began as a coach, I wasn’t much older than some of my high school athletes. I love sports and I had dreamt of being a coach for as long as I could remember. The problem arose when it came time to discipline my athletes. Unlike the carefree “cool guy” approach I tested out in with my classes, I took an opposite demeanor and coached the way I had been coached: yelling, berating and, when all else failed, making them run.

But as difficult as these early experiences where, they helped to mold me into a leader.

In my early years as a teacher, my desire to be the fun, hip (kids still say, “hip”, right?) teacher was what I thought the answer would be after so many teachers who I had witnessed continuously scream at their classes and punished en masse for the actions of a few trouble causers. Because of this, I developed a mentality that if I could be fun and cool, kids would just automatically listen to me and fall in line.

While being funny can be a strength in the classroom, if you don’t have consistent rules and standards, they will never take you seriously when it comes time to have to discipline them. I was told by other veteran (see: grumpy and negative) teachers to “not smile until Thanksgiving.” This seemed extreme so I ignored it (additionally I noticed that their classes were full of students who hated them and found new ways to antagonize them almost daily).

What I have developed since that time is the ability to start the year with a clearly defined set of rules and expectations. Organizing my classes from day one and getting to know students, while playing into their strengths has provided much more success that any pile of toy bribe on my desk.

Coaching was the opposite. While I struggled to balance discipline with humor in the classroom, toning down my yell first, ask questions later approach to coaching took me longer to figure out. Luckily I was able to assistant coach under some great people who mentored me along the way. I also read books like Season of Life by Jeffery Marx which had a profound influence on my coaching philosophy and my personal life as well.

When change happens, it takes a big man (or woman) to admit when they have been wrong.

What I learned is that being called a leader is one thing, but making the decisions necessary to be one is a product of experience. Luckily for me, I bit the bullet and learned from my mistakes sooner rather than later. Because of this revelation, I now consider myself a student of life and hope to pass these lessons on to my students, athletes and my own kids as well.


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