I’m proud to host this personal and powerful guest blog from my friend and colleague, Dr. Anthony McConnell.
Anthony McConnell is the Superintendent of Schools at Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in Deerfield, IL. and the co-author of The Principled Principal: 10 Principles for Leading Exceptional Schools. Anthony writes and speaks on school culture, innovative learning, and leadership.
It is interesting to think about our own personal leadership journeys. Until recently, I have mostly thought about my story in the sense of who my mentors were, how I became an administrator, and so on. However, the truth is that my leadership journey started long before I entered the field of education.
A popular question to ask of people is, “What is your earliest memory?” It gets people talking and you can rest assured that the answers are almost always unique.
My earliest memory is helping my mother look for change around our trailer home. The memory comes to me as a game I was playing with my mom, seeing who could find what kind of change and where. The memory always begins with a vision of the plaid couch that I was digging my little hand into in search of pennies. We were digging for change so that we could scrounge up enough money to buy food.
That game I played with my mom yielded enough discovered change that we were able to eat that evening. I remember us walking down the country road on which we lived to the only store within miles. It was a simple general store made of wood, like something you would see in an movie about the old west. Our change finding efforts had allotted us enough money to purchase a can of biscuits, but only the biscuits, no butter, jam, meat or anything to go along with them.
I remember walking home through the country with the happiest feeling in my heart. We ate the biscuits that night with each other and talked about how good they were, just enjoying each other’s company.
As dire as this situation may seem to me today, or as it seemed to my mom 40 years ago, it doesn’t take the shine off the happiness of the memory. And this is undoubtedly where my leadership journey begins.
When I tell people I am from Kentucky they always ask me about Louisville, or Lexington, or horse farms and the Kentucky Derby. Although I know a bit about horses, I am undoubtedly not from that Kentucky. I am from the Kentucky that was 50 miles from the nearest interstate. The Kentucky of dirt roads and small forgotten towns with populations in the tens, maybe hundreds. The Kentucky where teachers at the local school were seen as the bourgeoisie because they had a college education and a steady income. Across the country today in states like Oklahoma, teachers are striking because they are so grossly underpaid, so imagine being so poor you thought an elementary school teacher in rural Kentucky in 1980 would be one of the richest people you would ever know.
My mother had me when she was 17 years old, just weeks after she graduated from high school. My father, just a year older than her, began working in the coal mines. They made a go of marriage for a while, but after two years they got divorced. I am sure it was not a complicated divorce, as they were so poor I was easily the only asset they needed to work out. It was then that my mother and I moved to the trailer down the country road that held my earliest memory.
I am sure the memory of digging for change is not as fondly remembered by my mother as it is by me. For her, that memory came at a time when she was living in abject poverty and struggling to figure out how she was going to provide the next meal for her young son.
That earliest memory is the starting point of my life in a sense. But, it is the memories and experiences of what came next that undoubtedly shaped me into the person, father, and leader that I am today.
Over the next several years my mother raised me as a single parent. I watched her, determined not to let our story end down a backwoods county road, put herself through college. She would work full time, and some weeks more. When she wasn’t working, she would drive an hour each way to the local community college to take classes. She took classes during the day, at night, and on the weekends. Of course, I spent a lot of time in and out of in-home daycares or with my grandparents. But sometimes, she had to bring me along to her classes, particularly the ones that met on Saturdays. I remember sitting beside her in one of her nursing classes with my pencil and paper trying desperately to make sense of what the professor was saying. It could not have been easy for her to be in that class full of people and have to bring along her child. To try and pay attention and take notes while I asked questions and squirmed in my seat must have been a struggle. But, she never lost patience with me and whenever she was tending to me, she always had one eye on the professor. She never lost sight of her goal, to make a better life for us.
Eventually, my mother graduated from college and became a nurse. This allowed her to gain steady employment, and slowly but surely provide a better life for us. She eventually even got her masters degree and now, at nearly 60 years old, she runs a clinic in Kentucky as a nurse practitioner. Her clinic serves many people in the exact situation we were in when I was a child , the rural poor with a difficult path ahead and little support to help them.They offer near no-cost health care and never turn people away for lack of insurance or inability to pay. I am sure she is at times a hero to people, as she certainly was and is to me.
I think that I learned any leadership qualities I possess from my mother during this early time in my life. I cannot recall a time that my mom discussed leadership with me. Instead, she just showed me what leadership looked like in every step she took and in every stressful situation she turned into a happy memory for her son. I learned that leaders are humble, often quiet, rarely recognized, and never caught complaining.
But more than anything, I learned that the most important person we will ever lead is ourselves. I learned the best leaders do not make excuses, start with whatever they have, and simply put one foot in front of the other. And they do this while having empathy and compassion for everyone around them, all of whom are on their own journey.
These lessons have obviously stuck with me, as almost 40 years later I did my doctoral research on the idea of self-leadership in school principals.
So while I have had amazing mentors and other leaders that have supported me in my career, I had no better teacher than my mother. She faced adversity and led through example so that I would have the opportunity to be the person I am today.
It is important and necessary that we recognize women in leadership, not only in education but in all industries. We must continue to argue and fight for more leadership opportunities for women and for equal pay for equal work. But, most importantly we must realize that strong female leaders are nothing new, they have been there all along. They are women just like my mother that through adversity and challenge refused to give up.