In praise of champions

My favorite English teacher passed away last week. Mrs. Wilkins was a powerful woman at Cathedral Girls School. I remember a moment in grade nine when she used the word “labyrinth” in a sentence then called on me to state its meaning. Now, I was a classic good girl – well-behaved, smart and somewhat timid so when I took a guess, and got it wrong, I was expecting the usual “good try” response. Instead she did something that no one had ever done to me before. She looked right at me, then she screwed up her face and shouted as if astonished…. “NO”. She sure got my attention.

I always got this feeling from her that she knew I was capable of more, and she wasn’t going to let me get away with less. And I delivered – I worked harder for her than any other teacher and I wrote poetry, short stories, and even a play on nuclear disarmament that was performed at a student assembly.

Out of the blue I wrote to her this summer to thank her for her belief in me. I never heard back from her, and I was disappointed. I really considered myself her favorite.

Her obituary said, “She dedicated her life to teaching young people about the merits of the English language and encouraged them to succeed through language. She was proud of the accomplishments of her former students. We were proud that many approached her in later years to thank her”.

Clearly Mrs. Wilkins had many many favorites, which is of course, the secret to great teachers, that they can make everyone feel special.

So in honour of Mrs. Wilkins’s love of language, and more importantly, in honour of her belief in me and others, I am using a word that is not in my Collins dictionary (although it does appear in an on-line version): championing.

I attended a Klingenstein session called “24/​7 Learning Leadership on the Job”. I took notes on the traits of leaders: they demonstrate certain personal characteristics (empathy, intelligence, optimism, integrity and open-minded); they have a higher than normal work ethic; they show evidence of leadership interest (attend grad school, seek feedback, and volunteer for extra projects); and they have a high level of professional competence (organizational savvy, collaboration, instructional leader and good communicator).

But I was particularly interested in the difference between women and men in their approaches to leadership: many women don’t ask for feedback and they wait to be identified rather than ask for opportunities. Someone in the room said that women needed more than a mentor, they needed a champion. What’s the difference?

A champion is “a person who defends a person or cause”. In our setting, I think a champion is someone who is looking out for you, advocating for you privately, suggesting opportunities that are best for you, offering honest (even brutal!) feedback and who is a good listener…there are arguable many other traits…

I’ve spoken many times about the current leadership challenge – we have great people in our schools but not enough of them are ready to take on the top administrative jobs.

So we need a national initiative to be championing women and men. For starters, in addition to a module on Change Leadership, we are offering a Women and Leadership module at the spring LI in Montreal. I challenge each school to send someone.

Who is your champion? Who are you championing?

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