Common App Essay #3

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This one is easy – you can just ask my current principal.

For some reason, when I was hired for my current job at the very young age of 26, I entered on even ground. My then principal assumed I was a leader, so I lead. My gifted education supervisor assumed I was skilled, so I showed my skills. The assistant superintendent wanted my opinions, so I gave them.

I was treated as an equal by everyone in the institution, as was everyone else. People who did not know each other assumed that every other was good at what he/she did and, when put together, we could solve any problem.

I have worked (and argued) with so many talented people: high school principals, central office administrators, a Harvard professor working with the district, even the superintendent. At one time in my career, I was able to walk into the administration building and be warmly welcomed by everyone even at the highest reaches. About 10-12 years ago, because of the capacity to explain and engage thinking, I was a co-lead in an achievement initiative for the whole district with an adjunct consultant. God, how lucky I have been to have had my talents needed and encouraged, even though I was “just a teacher.”

I know not all teachers have this purview, but I did, and it was incredible. Not because of the informal power that was vested in me, but because of the trust. To have been seen and known and counted on? Well, that’s an ideal professional setting, no matter what the profession.

I especially loved to get in a room with the assistant superintendent to throw down. We would and could debate about nearly everything. When trying to begin a new initiative, we would wrestle with all of the yes-buts and the what-ifs. If I felt strongly about a certain course of action, I would share those feelings (bolstered by reason, of course) and we would maneuver toward or away from the given path to find the best solution. When she needed insight, she would call me. When an established procedure was not working, I would call her. So too with all of the people I worked under. I gave, I took. It was mutual, this grinding. And, I loved it.

One time, the superintendent was thinking about making a big change to an established program, and when he put his idea into the mix on a professional day session he was attended along side the rest of us, I vehemently disagreed and made my opinions clear. I did so assertively, just left of the edge of impropriety. He listened – as did the rest of the room, somewhat shocked by the strength of my tone and argument. He asked more questions. He weighed my input.

It was, despite my accelerated heartbeat, exactly what should happen in a strong institution. Grounded in the belief that we all want to do our very best for our charges and honor the immeasurable trust the community gives us, we should go at it. Disagree until we agree, debate until the waves abate.

And, even now, with my colleagues in my school, I think – I hope – we welcome disagreement. Not the petty kind, of course, but we are willing to wrangle with differences. And doing that? It builds capacity, it cements understanding, it brings out a more resounding quality of thinking.

Now, at the end of my career, that kind of healthy deliberation has become more limited. Maybe it’s because of my age, maybe I have been there too long, maybe because people don’t know about my intellect or don’t jibe with my style. Maybe there has just been a shift in shared decision-making. I’m really not quite sure.

Luke Arthur states that workplace conflict benefits business in five ways: It engages people, gets employees’ attention, improves relationship, morale and ideas. That’s the most important claim: when people trust each other enough to disagree, then the flow of ideas is wider, deeper and stronger. Collectively, the group can refine a good idea to great.

I guess I have always known that instinctively and wish that I could move through the last part of my career with the same fervor I was granted earlier.

At least I have my principal, my favorite debater and co-conspirator. When I drop by for a quick chat, we end up discussing the pluses and minuses of, well, anything, everything really. The rotation of PD days, the use of leadership team time, painting the blacktop. Neither of us would have it any other way. Our relationship is founded on the deep and exercised belief that we can figure it out (it being anything) and, in doing so, we will disagree for the greater good. Sometimes, the conversation walks itself all the way to my car when I am trying to go home. Sometimes, it involves a late night “but maybe” text. I love it, the engagement, this overt display of respect.

So, have I challenged a belief or idea? Yes, every damn day, 185 work days a year. Would I make the same decision? Yes, thank God, always yes, yes, yes. Not because of what I gained but because of my deep held belief that when we fight, we are fighting our way to excellence.

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