The Struggle Is Real

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is in rarified air. As a leader of my undisputed heavyweight favorite class of all time (2004) she represents so much of why ours is a most powerful profession. She’s the kind of teacher we all want on staff: able to inspire students, to lead colleagues, and to reflect on her practice. Like so many of my “formers,” I’m thankful that we stayed in touch.

Chasing Leadership

When I started my journey to become an educator, I didn’t want to be a teacher. Sounds weird, right? I still don’t want to be a teacher. I am one, I have been one for ten years, but I have always wanted to be a school leader. I’ve always thought that my perspective on education transcends the four walls of the classroom and the page numbers of curriculum. I want to do more, be more in the world of education, but I have been met with struggle on my path to a school leadership position.

Struggle #1:  Age. I can hold my own in a room full of men and women of any stature in a school district, local organization, or national council. I’ve served as a leader in many capacities within my school district, in my content area, and among my local education association. However, I always feel like the “kid” in the room because more often than not I am the youngest.

Personally, I’ve combated this feeling by never considering my age (32) as a reason to not take me seriously as long as my input was meaningful and respectful. In fact, I decided early on to overcome this struggle by commanding respect through leading by example, working in the trenches along with my peers, and communicating effectively. I was so thirsty for  leadership opportunities that I put my name in for elections for a leadership position of my local education association as a non-tenured teacher. Yea, I’m a little crazy. What won it for me eight years ago? Respect. Respect is the reason why I still proudly hold the position. Respect trumps age in my book.

Struggle #2: Opportunity. I never shy away from an opportunity to lead, both formally and informally. Mine is the first name on the volunteer list for every school committee and district initiative. I jump at the chance to show that I deserve to be considered for leadership opportunities. But what happens when after ten years the opportunities are running thin and the big jobs aren’t available? I fear that all of my hard work, time, and dedication will be forgotten.

How do I stay relevant in the minds of my superiors? Do I leave the comfort of a quality district to find leadership opportunities elsewhere? This is an area where I feel networking and professional relationships are extremely valuable. I have to remind myself that it is okay to share my struggle with those who have come before me and who can advise what my next steps should be.

Struggle #3: Family. I am at the point in my life and in my marriage where having children is the life path I want to follow. This means that I’ve had to slow down my leadership chase so that I could chase my almost two-year old daughter, all while I prepare to have another child as we just found out that I’m expecting. Now I find myself weighing my priorities of holding a school leadership position against the needs of my family.

My dad was a school leader for many years and for many years he wasn’t home for dinner, he wasn’t able to make it to my soccer games, he wasn’t there in the summer months at the beach. As a mother, I question if I can continue to dedicate the time and effort to school leadership and balance the demands of family at the same time. I’m eagerly seeking balance when it comes to being a woman in leadership.

In the meantime, I’m still chasing leadership, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s not my time for the “big role.” I still have the desire to lead, but have fulfilled my need to lead in smaller ways, like continuing my education in order to learn more about this profession I love. That’s what I can do right now because my struggles have caused my priorities to change.  I’m taking a detour at the moment, but I’ll be back when the time is right.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is a middle school Spanish teacher in Medford, NJ. As a graduate of the beloved Audubon High School class of 2004, Monica enrolled in Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. After the “best four years of her life,”  she landed her first (and current) teaching job. She later added to her portfolio a Master’s degree in School Leadership, a NJ Principal certificate, and an English as a Second Language certificate. At home she enjoys the endless loop of Trolls and Moana movies with her daughter Jade and fancy dinners with her “foodie” husband Ryan.


3 Replies to “The Struggle Is Real”

  1. Monica,
    I enjoyed reading about your journey. I experienced the struggle that you are now feeling between leadership and family. I want to encourage you to be patient and enjoy each phase of your life. I stepped away from education right when I was ready to apply for to be an Assistant Principal. I raised three children, staying home for 8 years and then teaching again. I am now in my early 50’s and serve as Dean of Instruction at a large comprehensive high school. I never lost my desire to lead, but along the way I thought I had given away that dream. If I had only known during those years how much time I would have once my children were grown. Lean into your family for now. Wishing you a great journey.

  2. I’m so proud of you Monica. Following your dream and making the world a better place by being a wonderful roll model, to teach, and educate our future.

Comments are closed.