Written By Guest Blogger: Principal Raevan Askew
“Nobody’s built like you, you design yourself” ~Jay Z
As a twenty two year old teacher, still living at home with my mom who was a principal at the time, our morning conversations would mostly sound like this, “I know you don’t think you’re wearing that to work!” Me, looking at my cute top, jeans and sneakers, “Yes ma’am I am!” “Well if you worked at my school I’d send you home.” Me with a casual shrug, “Welp good thing I don’t work at your school, see ya later have a great day!”
My mom was never a fan of my fashion choices for work. To be honest I don’t think my administrators were either. Though I established great relationships with my students and established a community of learning and high expectations, when I was ready to venture into new roles, I wasn’t taken seriously. I remember telling my principal that I was ready to take on administrative course work and she supported it by saying, you have great potential, but you have to learn to show up and look like a leader. I think you have what it takes, but you’re not ready yet.
Years later when I became an assistant principal, although I no longer lived with my mother, I remember getting dressed for work, hearing her voice and seeing the image of her and so many other school leaders that I had previously encountered and felt the need to change. I didn’t just change my clothes, I changed my approach. Traded my sneakers for shoes, silliness for subdued and being personable for what I thought was more professional. I second guessed everything and at times it felt like I was losing sight of who I was and what I had really started out to do. I wasn’t ineffective as a leader but I didn’t always feel like I was being myself.
When I became a principal the stakes were different. I was replacing a school leader that had unexpectedly passed away. I walked into a building that was grieving a devastating loss, navigating a traumatic transition, and very resistant to change. I learned quickly that my fashions were a non-factor. To say that I was climbing an uphill battle was an understatement. I knew that whether I liked it or not, I would be leading in the shadows of a giant. The comparisons would be endless and trying to compete with a person that I’d never met would be a losing battle. I was double dutching into this role as principal, trying to engage with the community and establish a presence though most people were conflicted about if and when I should be embraced as the school’s new leader.
Almost ten years into this position and there are days that I feel I’m still recovering from my first six months! Very early into the journey, I remember telling my husband that I would be really surprised if I lasted to the end of the year; it just felt like things were going so bad. He said to me “I don’t know how long you will keep this position but if you’re going to do the job, stop trying to be who you think they are looking for. If you’re gonna go out, at least know that you went out being yourself.” The snotty nosed kid from Brooklyn was right – just be who you are, lead from where your heart resides. There is no recipe to authentic leadership, but there are tedious ingredients to perfecting your secret sauce. Here is what I’ve leveraged over the years to make this work unapologetically my own:
It didn’t really matter what I thought a principal should look like or what others were expecting from me, I understood the assignment. I honored emotion but I prioritized teaching and learning. My school had a strong foundation, but we had to build on it. Elementary school is the start of an academic journey so we have to get it right and set our babies on a path of excellence through encouragement, exploration, confidence building and character development. As principal, I know how I want the adults to feel about their interactions with children. As a parent, I know what I want for my own children. These beliefs frame the work and continue to serve as my guiding principles.
Leading with a sense of self awareness empowers you to see others for all that they are. There is strength in being vulnerable. When you can be open about your thoughts and intentionally lean in to learn about others and make positive connections, you will find that the relationships you build will be grounded in trust. If you expect people to give more of themselves, you must honor who they are as people in and out of the classroom. Meet people where they are and challenge them to leave their comfort zones by validating their hopes and fears.
You can extend grace and lead with compassion without accepting mediocrity. Build capacity in others by honoring your role as a public learner and inviting others to take the journey with you. I make no secret that there are some days, I literally have no idea of what’s going on! Let go of the unrealistic expectations that you will always get it right and engage with people and problems in a way that allows everyone to grow from each encounter.
You are nothing without your word, and that is only solidified by the consistency of your actions. On any given day, you are juggling demands of the district, meeting the needs of people and your ultimate responsibility which is meaningful teaching and learning. Integrity is an internal measure before its external. To be completely honest (keeping it 2 Virgils), there were times that I found myself making decisions just to shut people up – to show that progress was being made, to make them feel better or to even offer temporary relief for myself. Integrity is ensuring that your moves add value to those that you serve in a way that builds capacity and empowers others. Whether people like you or not will change and can be debated differently by people sitting in different rooms, however what should not be debated is the validity of your decision making and its alignment to having a positive impact on children and your larger school community.
Impactful leadership is not extreme, it’s consistent. What you do everyday matters. The work is sustainable when your mission is clear. Your habits will set trends. When my casual Fridays started on Wednesdays, the intensity of my work never waivered. My leadership is strategically random and though I’m always navigating a million thoughts, there is an energy in how I show up and how I work without losing sight of the needs of the whole school. The heart of the work is getting others to develop their own energy and sense of urgency. I strive for alignment through on-going reflection. When I am intentional and consistent, the goals are attainable.
If you carry nothing else into your leadership, you must lead with your heart. My good brother, Akbar Cook, an amazing school principal in Newark, New Jersey, wrote a book called “Focus on the Love” and it’s premise is something that I couldn’t agree with more. In education we are in the business of developing people. See yourself in service of others, advocate for those in your community, secure resources, offer assistance, be a coach, intentional mentor and be the light that guides the way for others. Leading with your whole heart means remembering your sense of humor, curating moments of joy and creating policies that promote equity, access and positivity.
Rounding out the list of things I’ve learned is the value of taking care of yourself. Although this is a high priority, it’s at the end of the list because it’s one of the last lessons that I learned. What unfortunately gets lost in this work is that we give our heart to everyone but ourselves. Self-care is crucial. I fell victim to not seeing the intrinsic value of focusing on myself. I was ready to quit my job because I felt like it was killing me and I had no idea of how to save myself. Self care is more than a mani-pedi and brunch on Sundays(Shout out to the bottomless mimosas); it’s also creating and sticking with systems that allow for rest, therapy, and reflection so that you can prioritize your goals and carry out plans for both your personal and professional life with more ease.
Make no mistake, this system does not love you back. Leading authentically means setting healthy boundaries so that you can protect yourself while pouring into others. You are vital to this work, but the biggest lesson that I’ve learned since taking on this role is that it can and will be done without you. If you are not intentional about caring for yourself – even though your family, friends and your school community will miss you, the system will immediately replace you.
Raevan Askew has been a passionate educator within the New York City Department of Education for over 19 years. Driven by her desire to impact change on a larger scale, Raevan has served as teacher, guidance counselor, and assistant principal. Always committed to redefining her role as working mom and community pillar, Raevan currently serves as a proud principal, leadership coach and educational consultant.