The spaces between

By Barrett Keene

After graduating from college, I moved to the vibrant, bustling and astoundingly diverse city of Miami, Fla., to teach agriscience.

Since I was starting a new program, 200 middle school students were pulled from the elective courses they had originally signed up for and were stuck in my class. I was the only white male older than 14 in the school, and my Southern accent was downright confusing for many of my students, who were 98 percent Latino/Hispanic.

To make matters even more interesting, within the first month, seven fish (including one I accidentally decapitated) and two birds died and I accidentally poisoned (kind of) an entire class of students by having them add the rock salt to the wrong bag in the extremely uncomplicated “Ice cream in a Bag” activity. Despite the challenges we faced, it just worked. We had an incredible year together, and more than 80 percent of the students signed up for a second year of agriscience.

After the unbelievable experience of teaching middle school in Miami, I accepted a position teaching high school agriscience in Tampa. Naturally, I quickly began to employ my now tried-and-true methods to connect with, inspire and challenge students. Unfortunately, instead of classes filled with engaged, excited students, my efforts were met with resistance and frustration. It was not until three years later that I fully understood where I went wrong. I incorrectly assumed that what worked for me as a leader in one context would often work in another. I assumed that the impact of my leadership predominantly consisted of my traits, abilities and behaviors.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of accepted theories and approaches to leadership, (consequently, most leadership training) have a deep-seated weakness. Leaders all across the world are trained on what to do and how to be, with the assumption that if we develop the right skills and do the right things, we will rock the world. This approach ignores the reality that leadership is found more in the spaces between people than inside “the leader.” Leadership expert Dr. Kenneth Blanchard echoes these sentiments by exclaiming leadership is something we do with people, not to them. Another expert, Joseph Rost, even described leaders and followers as “in the leadership relationship together—two sides of the same coin.”

In fact, it is the space between an event and a person’s reaction to it – the place where members privately make sense of the speech, the conversation or the leadership conference – where it actually becomes an event for that person. One of the greatest mistakes you could make is to treat people you are attempting to lead as constant, unchanging entities. Each chapter is completely distinct from every other chapter, every member distinct from everyone in their chapter, and every person is even distinct depending on the circumstances they face on a particular day, even moment. This is why a one-size-fits-all, self-centered approach to leadership is not likely to impact the lives of the majority of people you attempt to teach this year.

After going through extensive leadership training as a state and national FFA officer and teaching leadership to 200,000 people before I began to teach agrscience, I honestly (and obviously incorrectly) thought I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to do to lead students in a mighty way. My hope for you is that you will choose to connect with each every student you attempt to lead and teach, engage them exactly where they are, and focus more on understanding that person or group of people than displaying your skills and abilities.

Focusing first on understanding, appreciating and connecting with people where they are will allow you to be much more effective when working with not only students in urban or rural schools but also with other teachers and sponsors. The beauty of focusing on those we serve and the spaces between our actions is that we have increased clarity into those relationships and develop a better understanding of how we can assist that person more effectively.

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan said, “What the eye sees better, the heart feels more deeply…Seeing better increases our vulnerability to be recruited to the welfare of another. It is our recruitability, as much as our knowledge of what to do once drawn, that makes us of value in our caring for another’s development.”