Why I Am A Follower

Last week I was having a conversation with my principal and she told me that I was a leader in our school. The comment surprised me because I don’t really think of myself that way. I have become much more confident in my teaching abilities over the past few years, but if I were asked to list the teachers at my school that I consider leaders, I would not have placed myself on that list. I don’t have a formal leadership position and I don’t have as much experience as many of our teachers.

I recently ran across this really excellent article from The Atlantic that addresses American colleges’ and universities’ emphasis on leadership in admissions decisions. It dared to question whether our glorification of leading over following or working completely independently is really a good thing. It resonated with me because it put words to the disconnect I always felt when I was in Teach for America. Everyone kept talking about leadership, leadership, leadership and seemed to believe that everyone in the organization was a Type A innovator with an entrepreneurial spirit, which is basically the opposite of my personality. It made me question whether or not I really belonged in the organization and I think it hindered my growth as a teacher because I was trying to fit myself into that mold for awhile.

I don’t exhibit the traits that we in America traditionally associate with leadership. I am not a big-idea person. I am not a self-starter. I am not decisive. I’m very rarely the first person to notice a particular detail or develop a solution to a problem. I have zero experience motivating and inspiring adults and my go-to method for attempting to motivate and inspire students is to just be ridiculously, over-the-top in love with the things we read and write about.

I am, however, a follower. I always have been. When I was a kid, I would see other people breaking rules or being rebellious and I would think to myself, “That looks like a whole lot of work.” It always just seemed easier to do what people asked me to do rather than to constantly try to swim upstream (not that I didn’t have my defiant moments, as I’m sure my parents can tell you). In elementary school, getting my name on the board could reduce me to tears and I only had detention twice in my entire middle school and high school career. I liked going with the flow, following the rules, being the good kid.

I’m not an innovator. If you have ever heard me say something you thought was profound, I guarantee you I got it from an article I read or a conversation with a friend or an argument I overheard. I am a collector of ideas, a watcher, an aggregator of sorts. I soak up all the information I can get my hands on and let it bounce around in my head for awhile, and then try to express the amalgam in a way that will make sense to whatever audience I’m addressing. That’s what I do when I write blog posts, when I argue about politics with my dad, and when I teach my students.

Following and watching are not seen as commendable traits in our society. They are seen as markers of someone who is passive or lazy or unintelligent. Strong people go after what they want; weak people do what they are told. Strong people blaze trails; weak people retread safe ground. Rebellion is cool; doing what is expected is mundane. We’ve created this false dichotomy and I don’t think it’s made us better.

When I started working at my school, one of my favorite things was that the expectations for teachers were so clear. I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing to help build the school culture and be an asset to the school. In our particular setting, a great deal of success in the classroom depends on the teacher buying in to what the school is trying to do culture-wise. And I love what we are doing with our school culture! So from day 1, I have been on board and have been following my school leadership. That doesn’t mean I agree with all of the decisions, but it does mean that I trust that the people running our school have reasons for their decisions and that the best thing I can do for my students is to follow.

And so that’s what I’ve done. I’ve followed the vision our Head of School puts forth. I’ve followed the lesson plan template. I’ve watched other teachers and listened to other teachers. I’ve taken the things we talk about in professional development sessions and let them bounce around in my head until I could get them in a form that made sense to me and worked in my classroom.

As I thought about my principal calling me a leader in our school, I realized she may kind of have a point. I’m someone who frequently speaks up in faculty meetings and professional development (mostly because I hate awkward silences or my friend is leading the session and I’m trying to help out). The Latin teacher has come to me a few times this year to ask for advice on how to effectively incorporate more writing into his class. We’re doing peer observations this month and one of the middle school teachers has asked to come observe me. But I don’t think I got to this position by leading in the traditional sense of the word; I think I got here by watching and following. And I’m good with that.

Leave a comment


  1. Joel Altsman

     /  January 23, 2014

    Leader or follower – you are simply the BEST!!!

  2. It sounds to me like you are a synthesizer; you listen to and read many things and have the ability to pull them together when needed, as necessary. With this ability, leading or following doesn’t really matter, as long as you have the respect of those who will listen to your new way of seeing things.


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  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

    Twitter: @rachel_heather
    Email: raltsman@gmail.com
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