There are a few lessons I learned from my mother that are so strongly ingrained in my mind that I use them as lessons even today with my students — like the moment I learned what it truly meant to be a boss, rather than just being bossy.
As a kid I was your typical middle child, always looking for attention. Whether the neighborhood kids were putting together a football game or deciding who would go first in double dutch, I was often the loudest and most pushy about enforcing the rules. Middle children tend to have an innate sense of equity and fairness that is of the utmost importance to them in matters of games and play. To this, I was no exception. My older sister, Erin, would be left “in charge” when the parents were out of sight, and I often fought for that right and battled with her in ways that seem silly now in retrospect.
During the summers, all the neighborhood kids usually ended up at our house to play games. There was a spacious play area in the cul-de-sac where we lived and we spent time playing there and running in and out of my house. One day, my mother caught me being a tyrant with my friends. She pulled me aside, as tears of frustration ran down my face because no one was listening to me. Very gently, she began talking to me about my behavior.
“Kelly,” she said to me, “There is a big difference between being a boss and being bossy. You’re leaning towards bossiness and that will mean that no one will want to be your friend and play with you.”
I was instantly angry with her. She wasn’t helping at all and I wanted to stomp off to my room, except that wasn’t allowed in our home. Since I couldn’t leave her presence, she continued while giant bubbling tears rolled down my face.
“Do you want to be the boss someday,” she continued, “or do you want to continue being bossy? Because, unless you make a choice right now, you’re going to find that no one will want to listen to you.”
Whatever happened next, however she continued to explain … I cannot recall. But her words were so powerful and jarring that I was forced to really consider them in that moment. They stayed with me my entire life, and came up again when I was in grad school and our class was discussing school leadership.
By this time, I was in my thirties and had children of my own. My professor had asked us why we wanted to move into leadership positions. My response was something along the lines of knowing that leadership was my calling, much like people feel the unmistakeable responsibility to be the leader. Sometimes, it’s because others don’t step up and other times it’s because those who have stepped up aren’t really being good leaders. To use my mother’s terms: they’re just being bossy, but not really being the boss.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I found my “people” when I started working with middle grade students 19 years ago. I had recently moved from teaching at a high school to a middle school and whereas before I made the transition I never would have thought I could identify with a 7th grader, I soon learned differently. They’re moldable in a way that I love — even when they’re being brutally honest with me. Things like, “Mrs. Wickham, those shoes don’t really match your outfit” and “What kind of dress is THAT?” come flying out of their mouths at an alarming rate. The flip side is that they are also quite honest about themselves, too. For instance, when I ask them if they’re putting forth their best, 100% effort in the classroom not one has ever said, “Yes, this is the best I can do.” Instead, they tell me they are putting in 65% or that they know they could be doing better. All this honesty makes it easy to discuss important life lessons with them — like knowing the difference between being a boss and being bossy.
As a school leader, I now view many of the daily occurrences in middle school as a “Boss vs. Bossy” situation. It’s easy to spot the leaders who command — not demand — the attention and respect of others. This is especially present when I’m speaking with young girls. As a rather staunch feminist with an understanding of intersectionality, I wield my own power over this with great care. Girls whom I identify in my school as having the Boss vs. Bossy struggle within themselves get invited to my office for a private telling of this story of my mother’s guidance so we can process this important life lesson together.
Young girls have an unique opportunity to be taught about leadership qualities by strong women in positions of authority. More importantly, powerful women have a responsibility to instruct girls in ways that are not demeaning, condescending or have negative connotations that force them to behave.
I have never wanted to hear from anyone an accusatory, “You’re being bossy,” in my role as a leader. In case they do, I’ll relate this story to them and tell them, “No, quite the opposite. I’m the boss. You’d do well to remember that.”
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