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Champion Leaders Are 'Alive, Awake, and Alert'

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For some powerful reason, Diana Nyad was not going to stop until she swam the 110 mile stretch of hazardous water from Cuba to Key West. This was her fifth try. The odds were against her. She had failed 4 other times. Her recent feat of physical, mental and psychological endurance was even more notable because of her age. At 64, she was still motivated by a deep passion to be the champion distance swimmer she was called to become at 5 years old. Brava! This week, we came across a compelling TEDxBerlin talk published on YouTube in December 2012, which was before her successful swim. It is well worth watching and it caused us to think about leaders.

She chose not to discuss the difficulties she faced growing up, but told a powerful story about her father igniting her sense of self as a champion swimmer. At 5 she felt important. She was connected to history, was unique and had a sense of destiny. She spoke about life, turning 30, and then 60...how perspectives and motivations change. Her connection to her passion endured. Can educators make such an impact on 5 year olds? Can we find our destiny at every age? How do we prevent our passion flame from being "burned out"?

We, too, are swimming in waters that feel hazardous and it is a distance swim. There may even be sharks in our waters. Daily, minute by minute, we must remember why we are doing this work in the first place. Let's not allow the current pressures to turn us away from the passion that brought us to education and to leadership. We need to stay connected with our purpose and remember the influence we can have in the lives of our students. If we lose that, it's time to find other work.

We know what every student needs. They need to learn with us and grow beyond us. They need to feel our genuine interest in them, our dedication to their success, and our belief in them. They need to feel safe and know they are accepted for who they are. They need our comfort and understanding when they are feeling badly, and our support and encouragement when they are struggling. They need to feel their own uniqueness and capability.

We have the ability to help our students discover and develop their particular passion. We can also extinguish it. We are dream makers, creating possibilities, seeing what others cannot, offering knowledge and skills for use along the way. Tests are not the end; achieving the dream is. This is our job. Tests may measure amounts of knowledge, but not the size of dreams.

How can we support the big dreams of little dreamers, if we have become disconnected from our own passion? These are difficult times. We are told to focus all our attention on student achievement. We struggle to contextualize that as we teach and lead. We need to remember this life and work is ours. As long as new children arrive at our threshold, be they eager or reluctant, happy or angry, the sparks of enthusiasm and optimism and the joy of learning that brought us to this profession must engage them. It is not a matter of implementing regulatory changes OR reigniting our passion for this work. We must do both.

We still can make the difference for children, if we commit ourselves to remembering why working with children was our calling in the first place. The most astounding thing we can accomplish this year is to lead our schools with that in mind. In Diana Nyad's words, "Find a way." In each interaction with teachers, in memos, email, meetings, chance conversations, help teachers remember the impact they can have if only they remain connected with their passion. Champion the purpose of schools. Do it with passion for learning and for children. Be the biggest dreamer and be willing to swim the greatest distance. Let them all know why you are there and why you are "alive, awake and alert." And watch Diana Nyad talk about daring to dream.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter.

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