Friday, January 18, 2013

Following The Leader

When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.     ~Derek Sivers

Back in our pre-preschool days, years before I ever considered becoming a teacher of any kind, my daughter Josephine and I used to attend a Gymboree class once a week. It was essentially an open gym with lots of mats and climbing apparatuses appropriate for the under 2 set, followed by a robust circle time lead by a woman whose name I've forgotten, but whose energy and enthusiasm lives on in me almost every day.

It was never explicitly stated whether or not the adults were expected to join in the singing and group large motor activities, but after a couple sessions it was clear to me that the parents who sat and watched this circle time tended to have the children who sat and watched, whereas those of us who jumped up and down and wiggled our fannies along with the teacher had children who participated.

Those who know me today may find it hard to believe, but overcoming the sense that I would look like a great big oafish fool was a major challenge for me, one only made possible by what I considered to be the best interests of my child. I was impressed by this Gymboree teacher, an adult woman, no longer young, who threw herself into this activity without any apparent shame or reservation. So while carefully avoiding eye contact with any of the moms in the room (and they were all moms in those days) I threw myself into it, following her lead the way I wanted Josephine to do it. But the Gymboree teacher forced her eye contact on me, just like I was one of the kids, welcoming me with a smile, drawing me into the center of this movement of children and parents, swinging our hips and chanting things like, "Wishy washy, wishy washy, wishy washy, weeeeeee!"

It's just one kid sitting on the giant tube.
The first follower is quickly followed by the second.
And now we have a movement!

Most of us, if pressed, would admit to wishing leadership skills on our child, and we should, I think. The ability to lead with confidence is a relatively rare and vital talent. What we don't say aloud, however, but what is far more important throughout most of our lives is acquiring "followship" skills. It's hard to even write that because, of course, no one wants to raise their child to be a mere follower. The word connotes mindless devotion, giving into peer pressure, being a lamb lead to slaughter. We want strong children who know their own minds, who can say, No!" when it doesn't feel right, who can blaze their own trail, and all of those things are true, but what is also true is that we spend much more of our lives as followers than leaders, if only because it's exhausting to always be at the head of the parade.

There is great power in following, more than is generally credited. The ability to unselfishly look at what someone else is doing and, with an open mind, say to yourself, That looks great. I want to do it too! is really the foundation upon which all meaningful human activity is built.  I was inspired yesterday by a video a friend forwarded to me, and the commentary by Derek Sivers, founder of Muckworks and Now Now Now. It struck me as I watched the video over and over that as much as we claim to value leadership, we spend most of our time with young children helping them learn to contribute as followers in a proper and meaningful way. In our leadership roles as teachers we strive to make things so simple that they are instructional. When we're at our best we understand that the children following us are our equals. And if we really watch what's going on in our classrooms, the rest of the kids are, more often than not, following the other children, not us the teachers.

When we fail as teachers, and we all do, I think it's often because what we are doing simply isn't great enough or instructional enough to attract that first follower. But when we succeed, once we've inspired that first follower, watch out!

But just watch the video, it says it much better than I can:

"The first follower transformed the lone nut into a leader. The best way to make a movement is to be the first follower and show others how to follow." As the tipping point is past in this video and all of those people who were once uncomfortably, perhaps mockingly, watching a lone hippie dancer begin to leap to their feet and rush to be part of his movement, it moves me almost to tears. What a powerful thing we become when we are able to move beyond our self-consciousness, our sense of shame, and leap into something new, even if, this time, it's only because we feel hidden in the larger group. Maybe next time, we'll be the first follower.

Indeed, as teachers we do spend most of our time helping our charges learn followship skills. And that's as it should be because they, like all of us, will spend most of our lives not leading, but making judgments about who and what to follow, then following them, not just because others are following, but because they see a lone nut doing something great and have the courage to stand up and join in.

That's why we must, as much as possible, give kids a choice about whether or not, and when, to follow. Compelling children only teaches obedience to leaders, a dangerous thing. But choice in the classroom gives them the opportunity to really practice how to follow, to learn to think for themselves, to not follow blindly, but rather with the idea of expanding the great thing that lone nut is doing.

And when we're the lone nut, we'll know how to treat our followers.

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