In Teaching And Leadership, It Is About More Than Vision. It’s About Philosophy.
By: Daniel Lopez
As a teacher, winter break takes on an added significance beyond time spent with loved ones and days to sleep in. It becomes a time to recharge, to reflect, and to prepare for the many seasons of the spring, whether ‘testing season’ or in my current role, ‘decision and matriculation season’ and the pressures coming with it.
I did not always take time to reflect on how I was doing – mentally, physically, and emotionally. In my first year as an 8th grade English teacher, I was in a constant state of survival. My first year was a cycle of scrambling to create engaging lessons, grading assignments/projects, making 2,000 decisions a day, and feeling guilty my students did not have a more equipped teacher supporting them on their journey. Rinse and repeat.
By the end of my first year in the classroom, I had survived. Barely. Survival came at the expense of my way of being – my mental health, mindset, and physical health. I was depressed and felt like a failure who had disserved so many great students. This weight of emotions hit hard given my personal connection to my student’s experiences, most of which were Latino students still learning English and needed transformational instruction. I saw the great work so many of my other colleagues were doing and it made me feel worse about my ability to help students learn and grow.
In the summer after my first year, I remember thinking to myself, ‘what happened?’ Circumstances in my life did not always used to look or feel this way, why now did it feel like my world was crashing down? Why did I always feel like I failed?
I had lost my mojo.
One year prior, I was walking across the stage at Boston University feeling tremendous pride in myself for graduating with a bachelors and master’s degree in four years. As a first-generation college student, I kept the promise I made to myself and my family. Though the selective college environment felt foreign to me, I consistently asked questions and for help, found my village in a Latino cultural group and fraternity: Alianza Latina and Phi Iota Alpha, and never let setbacks deter my vision.
Why now 12 months later had these practices and my mindset shifted so much?
The summer entering my sophomore year of teaching, I had the opportunity to attend the KIPP School Summit, a national gathering of educators from the KIPP network and its partners. I can recall walking into a vast auditorium full of enthusiastic educators from across the country; we were preparing for a session hosted by Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade.
His words completely changed the way I viewed education and my role as an educator. I became entranced with Dr. Duncan-Andrade’s words as he proclaimed “teaching is messy almost every day and the best teachers can find the lesson within the lesson. Your goal is to get off script and to bridge the lesson with the needs and feelings of young people.”
Within his own classroom, I saw how Dr. Duncan-Andrade also drew inspiration from everywhere. He did not keep the subject of English siloed to the traditional textbooks. He drew inspiration and texts from sports and culture, the NCAA college basketball tournament, and the Maori haka dance.
Hearing his words, I began to feel like myself again. I felt reconnected to my original vision and motivation for serving as a teacher.
Beyond the practice of drawing inspiration from the world around us, not just conventional principles of teaching/education, what I took away from that day and have translated into my career is the importance of having a philosophy.
While some may see philosophy and a vision as one in the same, for me, there was an important distinction I felt I missed in my first year as an educator. A vision is the place embodying the end goal, but a philosophy includes the universal truths which allow you to operate towards your vision and goals.
In reflecting on the previous year, I realized a lack of philosophy was a large contributor behind my deflated mindset and sense of guilt. Though I had a strong vision and values, when your vision and values are being put to the test daily, if you do not respond in a way that honors your beliefs, it can breed guilt and resentment. A philosophy serves as the anchor which empowers you to make decisions in honor of your values and vision, rather than in spite of.
Like Dr. Duncan-Andrade, in cultivating my philosophies, I looked to sports and sifted through philosophies from heroes within basketball and football to help extract truths which aligned to the values I carried with me. In doing so, I stumbled upon a gold mine of ideas from John Wooden, one of the winningest college basketball coaches and former history teacher. I buried myself in Wooden’s world, reading every book I could find on his philosophies and practices. With each page,I felt energized by the clarity and hope that came with learning what other successful coaches and educators had done.
Entering my second year, I came into the classroom not just with a vision, but with a philosophy.
My vision was for my students to emerge as stronger readers, writers, and thinkers, because doing so would empower them to navigate our complicated world and engage with the tools they needed to advocate for themselves, their families, and communities.
Beyond this vision, I began to operate from four philosophical pillars that became my anchor for making decisions in and out of the classroom:
- Run your race – you should only be comparing yourself to one person: you.
- In this age of social media, it can be very easy to internalize a deficit mindset because we are constantly comparing ourselves to one another and feeling guilty when our lives do not appear to stack up to someone else. The reality is, we only ever see the wins and do not see the challenges and failures it took to get there. I began to ask myself daily, “am I a better educator today than I was yesterday?” If the answer was yes, I could be proud of the growth I saw and look to improve further the next day.
- Small actions consistently lead to big growth.
- We always think change must arrive in gigantic strides, but the reality is, it takes time to build successful practices. Making small changes and doing the right things again and again will lead to tremendous growth over time. No one starts off learning how to read, but if you learn how to read one word every day, eventually you will be able to read a 500-page book.
- Success is a process, not a result. Success is a state of mind, a moment where you feel satisfied and grateful along the journey.
- In college, I equated success to achievement. Within the field of education and life, you are not always going to be given a trophy or award for progress, nor should that measure your self-worth. The personal growth you see along the way, no matter how small, should be celebrated.
- Embrace the climb.
- Rather than focusing on the end point, enjoy the ride. See every challenge and obstacle as an opportunity to learn from, rather than a setback
The presence of a clear philosophy improved my mindset, which, in turn, impacted the classroom. My second year of teaching was a transformative experience for me. Bringing in a philosophy allowed me to bridge my vision to the values of my students (and my own values). Our philosophy kept our vision at the forefront of our work, which made it easier to ground ourselves in the ‘lessons within the lesson’ and to push back on institutional priorities not aligned to our values. I found my students were deeply invested in the texts and lessons we explored. I also felt closer to them, like there was a feeling of trust, respect, and care in the air where one did not exist last year.
Since then, I have transitioned into working for EMERGE program in Houston Independent School District, a college access program which seeks to empower high performing students to apply and attend selective colleges across the country, I find these philosophies allow me to show up as my best self for my colleagues and students in this role as well. I have also noticed many of the colleagues and students I support are willing to be vulnerable with me about the struggles they are experiencing, which allows me to better coach and support them.
As we begin a new decade, a great opportunity for self-transformation comes with it. Take time to reflect on your philosophy; draw inspiration from those you look up to. Ask yourself – what makes them tick? What are they constantly saying? What do they believe? The process can be challenging and exhausting but doing so will allow the philosophies and vision you already carry in your heart to manifest themselves into your mindset and actions. In moments where your vision and values are being tested, your philosophy can serve as the anchor you need to make the right choice for you. Our students are worth it. Our colleagues are worth it. You are worth it.
About Daniel Lopez
Daniel Lopez is tasked with leading the selective college advising and coaching efforts for high school seniors across 43 high schools as a senior manager for the EMERGE program within Houston ISD. EMERGE empowers and prepares high-performing youth from underserved communities to attend and graduate from the nation’s top colleges and universities. Daniel’s journey into the education space began with his service as a Teach For America corps member where he served as a 8th grade English teacher in Spring Branch ISD. His professional growth and perspective on school district functions also grew with his election and service as the at-large representative for the Spring Branch District Improvement Team. Daniel graduated from Boston University with a B.A. and M.A. in political science. He originally hails from San Bernardino, California. Daniel is passionate about creating access and breaking down barriers which hinder first-generation, low income students from matriculating to selective colleges.