Disruption and Leadership

I've been thinking about these words a lot the past few days, and about how so much of authentic, progressive leadership is disruption. Disruption of the way things are, disruption as an impetus to progress, and even how the nature of disruption itself can be used to force things to go topsy turvy solely for the sake of improvement. 

My school district was rocked and shocked this weekend when we lost a successful and disruptive leader in a terrible car accident. Dean Taylor was the newest and youngest member of our Board of Education and beloved across our vast school district. Though he had only a few years of experience serving on the Board, he certainly made good use of them. He was active in all (literally ALL, impossible though that sounds) schools across the district, and everywhere he went he looked for ways - both large and small - to be helpful.

He was out to our school for lunch just a few days ago, which apparently he did frequently for many schools, and gave the cafeteria manager $20 to put in the account of any kid that was overdrawn and struggling. A teacher friend at another school told me that her custodian said he made a point to speak to her on a recent visit and thank her for the great work she was doing to keep the school so clean. He asked her name, and she couldn't believe that someone so important would ask her name. When visiting another friend's school, the first thing he asked her was what she needed for her classroom. He really, truly wanted to know and understand, and if he could fix the problems (though not always possible), he truly would work to do so. 

I think we all looked to him as a sort of hero. If he couldn't fix it, he would at least listen and validate a teacher's concerns. That goes a long way with a group of people who tend to feel anything but heard or validated these days.

Like others, I followed his journey on Twitter and often wondered how he managed to do it all. How did he visit so many schools and have real conversations with people? How did he keep up with what everybody asked of him? How did he become a person of influence so quickly? How did he sustain the level of passion and dedication and energy he poured out into our enormous pool of educators and students?

Dean Taylor was disruptive in his consistent advocacy for boots on the ground, for those educators on the front lines of teaching and learning in our district. He fought passionately against a mass of lay-offs proposed at one point in time and, though not single-handedly of course, was credited with saving the jobs of hundreds of employees. He was a proponent of teachers having the freedom to use social media to network with one another, model appropriate use for students, and to tell the stories from our classrooms and libraries. He was a vocal advocate of libraries and librarians, and not only did he "get" the role of school librarians in modern schools, he had really fantastic and visionary ideas about how to implement those in the future!  

I met Dean through Twitter. In his mid-thirties, he was young and very hip to the social media scene, and one of his first strategies after being elected to the Board for reaching out to the learning community was to go through the district's hashtag and find active educators to help him understand how teaching and learning really work in our district. That's how we met. He followed me on Twitter (I didn't understand this at first; he was a Board Member. He was the Board PRESIDENT...and me? I was and am a complete nobody!), paid attention to/retweeting my posts, and within a month he was making the first of many visits out to my school, that particular time to observe what we were doing for the Hour of Code computer science event. I remember that he was so impressed by the work of our students, with the involvement of two parents in particular who were painting one huge wall of the library for us, and he in turn impressed all of us by asking real questions about what we do and what we need in order to do more for our kids.

Dean was disruptive in that he had the courage to ask questions, and to ask them of the people who never ever get asked: teachers.

It was a foreign concept for a nobody like me to be asked the big picture questions, but Dean Taylor taught us all that with him, there was no such thing as a nobody. Any time I would thank him for coming by an event or encouraging a group of teachers (he often popped in to professional development sessions), he would quickly wave it off and respond with "Oh no, thank YOU. You guys are the rockstars. I just get to hang out."

I remember talking to him that first day about our personal kids and all we hope to see them do, about how scary and wonderful it is to be parents, and our common goal in pouring our life into this school district because we wanted our children (personal and otherwise) to have every opportunity to receive a great education experience. From my perspective, every single decision he made and battle he fought over the next few years was fueled by that same mission. 

Dean visited my school and several others' many times, and he was even scheduled to return tomorrow to speak to a group of kiddos who struggle with behavior issues and share his story. He shared recently with me and a few other teachers at our Career Day last week (at which he was one of the volunteer speakers) that he actually was that same type of kid when he was in school, and he was eager for the chance to tell them that if HE could make something of his life, then so could they.

I couldn't resist pointing out that if he didn't have such a rebellious, disruptive streak as a child, he might not be exactly the type of leader our district needed. And I'm grateful he reminded me that there are other kids just like him who have disruptive types of futures in store for them as well,  and that if HE could make a difference by helping whoever and wherever he could, then so can they.

Though I'm sure he would be the first to tell us all that A) We're being ridiculous for grieving over him and B) He was far from perfect, the loss of Dean Taylor has and will affect many of our people because he gave so much and made such a difference in such a small amount of time. As one friend's husband put it, "It sounds like this man really wanted to leave a mark on this world and from what you're telling me, I think he did."

He sure did. There's just no better way to put it.

I will certainly miss his disruptive leadership, friendship, and kinship in a mission to serve people well, but I'll never ever forget him.