Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

John Dewy, American philosopher and educational reformer

Excellence in Leadership. I want my student artists to be leaders. Leaders in the theater. Leaders in the school. Leaders in the community. Leaders in the variety of vocations which they will pursue after this place. 

Before I get ahead of myself, like with the other elements we’ve discussed, what does being a leader mean? What does a leader look like? And how do we help students recognize the power inside of them and willingly step into the role of  leadership? 

For me, I think of a good leader as someone who leads by example, who puts the needs of the group first, most often demonstrated as serving others and a willingness to humbly do to the hard things within the framework of a growth mindset.

That’s a lot. I know.

It really, really is. And it should be.

I think we as educators have a responsibility  to model ethical, loving, inclusive, strong leadership for our students and expect them  to rise to the occasion, especially those who clearly have an aptitude for leadership. We need to model for them, because they may not be getting a plethora of healthy  examples outside of our space. 

Being a leader is hard. 

It should be. 

It should be a great honor for students to reach a level of maturity, character, artistry, inclusiveness and excellence in a way they are recognized by their educators and more significantly their peers. The vibrancy of the program is dependent on the  students in the program and the health of the community, often modeled by the student leaders. It should be a position of honor. Those who step into that role are being entrusted by the group and the significance of that cannot be overstated. Being a leader should be a big deal.  

It should be a BIG FREAKIN’ DEAL!

And from the very first day all of our  student artists should know that it is a big deal. They should see it. The students who are in positions of leadership within the program need to be advocates of and ambassadors for the community and within the community.

What I’m saying is the program has to be about “us”, not “me”.

AND THAT can be hard for me. Mr. Shelton. It can be hard for me to let go of centering myself in the program. I’ve been an actor/director/writer/heck, an artist the vast majority of my life. I’m a theater educator because I love it and I’m meant to do it. It’s my calling.  

Education in this country has a long and complicated history with white supremacy as well as cultural, systemic and institutional racism. It’s built into the system to oppress and control. One of the areas of education in which that oppression rears its head is in the expectation that the educator is the fount of all wisdom and knowledge and the students are vessels waiting to be filled by our impartation of wisdom.

The default structure in education is centered around myself. I am the one who grows the program. I am the one who does everything. I am the one, who by sheer magnitude of personality must wow students into engaging. I am responsible for the whole kitten kaboodle, my job insecurity can be dependent on whether I am able to “grow” the program. I am the life-force by which this whole house of cards stands and if at the end of my race I’ve done enough of the above, maybe they will give me an award or name a dressing room after me and I will forever get to join those who have gone before me in hallowed halls of a faded headshot on the wall of remembrance.

I, I, I… 

Me, me, me… 

Mine, mine, mine… 

No, no, no…

Please hear me. I’m not saying I as a person shouldn’t strive for greatness. I’m saying my view of leadership requires that I seek to serve, seek to walk with, seek to inspire others to step forward in their own power, NOT try and gather it for myself.

Replace “I” with we. Replace “me” with us. Replace “mine” with ours.  Leadership should be about building community and community should be about we, us and ours.

In fact, get ready for it, I feel so passionate about this I’m dedicating a whole blog to “cult of personality”.

Back to the point at hand…I believe this default, this structure of the educator as the center and every one else in orbit around the educator should have no place in education. Every student who walks into the theater is powerful. Even if they don’t know it or believe it yet. Every student has a voice. Every student is uniquely human, every student has the capacity for greatness AND every student needs to spend time working on the skills needed to bring all of these powerful, unique varieties of experience, gifts and abilities into a collaborative and healthy community. 

I have an incredible opportunity, nay responsibility to see that. To believe that. To walk alongside them. To pour into relationship and community, to model service and excellence, expect them to show up as their best selves AND expect them to hold myself accountable to show up as my best self. 

To finally, once and for all, even if it only in my space and my small sphere of influence, break the shackles binding us. We are in this together. My students daily take my breath away and sometimes I just need to STFU and get out of their way. 🙂

And other times I need to step in. Or redirect. Or discipline or encourage…you know how it goes…:)

On a more serious note, if the program is to be healthy, it cannot devolve into a cult of personality. It cannot become a place that exists because I, Mr. S exist. It must, it must, it MUST be about all of us. Inclusion in the theater space means we are all  included. We are all valued. We all are accepted for who we are and we recognize that  each of us matters and each of us enhances the community. 

We are all better because of each other.  

If my students recognize this is OUR community, they have power, they have agency, they have a say…they have ownership…if I can model that and get them to believe that, wow, what magic may we conjure? What dragons may we slay? What walls may  come tumbling down when our students come together and use the diversity of themselves and their art for good?

Whoops, this is for another post…Focus… 

The point I’m trying to make is that the health of the community is paramount and that will not be the case if I can’t figure out how to de-center myself from the program. There have been life-changing theater educators before me, there will be life changing theater educators after me. I stand on the shoulders of all those who have gone before me and done the work so we can be here in this space, in this place, at this time. 

The community existed before me and it NEEDS to exist after me. What we do in the theater space, the stories we tell, the art we create must be the life-breathe of the community NOT the vanity projects of Mr. S.  

What a great legacy…What a great life’s work to pour myself into a healthy community and when my race is run, to be able to know the community is strong, the foundations are strong and I contributed, in my own small way, to the sustenance of a  community which truly makes the world a better place and will long outlast me. 

I know you all know one of our banners on in the main hallway of the school is enter to learn, leave to serve and that is so deeply impactful. I step into my best self when I have the tools, the experience, the heart to serve in all I do. With grace, with humility, with passion and with authentic integrity.

Down, down to the very core of who I am.

Enter to learn. Leave to serve.

Shelton