Indispensable

In the 1993 social satire Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a recently laid off defense contractor who, quite frankly, loses his mind as he treks, on foot, across Los Angeles to attend his estranged daughter’s birthday party. 

As he makes the modern pilgrimage, he encounters a cast of characters who either validate his journey or fuel his rage. At one point, he fixates on a black man, dressed very similarly to him, who is holding up a sign that reads “Not Economically Viable” as he rails against his recent firing. At the end of the scene, the two men lock eyes, and the black man, now in the back of a police cruiser, says, “don’t forget me,” to which Douglas nods imperceptibly. 

A late year meeting with my superintendent was probably long overdue. That year, my 4th as the Chief Academic Officer (nee: curriculum and instruction) of a K-12 district and 19th in education, was my worst as a professional. The combination of being a year from tenure in a district I love, during a contract year for our staff, while negotiating the looming feeling that “it was time to start looking” made for a level of perpetual discomfort I hadn’t felt as an educator. Plus, I simply wasn’t my best. Ideas I had landed with a palpable thud. Interpersonal issues among our team could no longer be ignored.

Something had to give. 

“You need to make yourself indispensable. I don’t know what the budget will look like beyond next year,” he told me. 

Suddenly, there was a very real possibility that I was no longer economically viable. 

Curriculum and instruction positions are a beautifully flawed cog in the leadership wheel. With an aerial view of the district’s mission and vision, we provide our district with identity and our teachers with support. Because of the aerial view, however, we are wholly ignorant to the daily grind of building leadership, we don’t interact with parents often, and, let’s face it, there are no curriculum emergencies. 

Then, quite miraculously, a shift in the leadership team included me switching places with one of our K-5 principals, a woman I respect and admire deeply and who provided me guidance as I navigated the first couple years as CAO. Suddenly, I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory, like those dreams where you come to school naked. 

But I was coming to school fully clothed and ready to lead this group of talented teachers. 

At the end of my first year, one in which I found myself having to replace five teachers, all of whom had children, a long term sub left me this card. 

Well played, universe. Well played.

Ultimately, my superintendent was right. I hadn’t made myself indispensable. In fact, I was woefully dispensable during that slump year. Now, that word is emblazoned on my psyche, like an invisible tattoo, demanding that people “don’t forget me.”

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