Leading with Patience

Jean PlumLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership® Questionnaire, Student Leadership, The gcLi Presents: The Interview

It is so hard to be patient. As a kid, I waited for what seemed like hours to be picked up by the bus each morning and then later to be dropped off, both times at the end of the route. Without a cell phone of course, I’d also wait for what seemed like forever to be fetched by one of my parents after athletic practices. Mass at church, too, seemed ungodly long (excuse the pun), as did the time waiting in the car with my siblings thereafter, as my mom ran into the Piggly Wiggly, purportedly only for a gallon of milk. Christmas morning, Dad’s business trip returns, Mom’s post-PM nursing shift donuts, …it has always been hard to be patient.


Perhaps my greatest lesson in patience, though, came at the age of 11. My youngest brother Daniel was hit by a car when crossing the highway in front of our home. He was eight and a half, a “lucky” young age still for the uncertain journey that he faced ahead. Among a handful of broken bones, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent nearly a month in intensive care in a coma. As a language teacher, I appreciate greatly what has been said about the difference between a comma and a coma: the length of the pause. Waiting out a coma is unimaginably hard for all concerned. For my family, too, it was a patience mandated like no other and answered often with Mom’s reassurance: “He’s holding his own.” Assuredly, he was. 


Dan’s re-awakening is remembered most clearly by his reaction one day to a particular greeting card among many. Seeing “Get Well Soon” across a field of jelly beans, he burst out slowly and in a scratchy voice: “Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, loves jelly beans.” It was the early 80’s indeed, and that next decade would be filled with the greatest juxtaposition of patience and impatience that a family of parents and adolescents could muster. Dan had survived, and we were in continuous survival mode. 

I never intended to become a teacher. While I could not have known it then, as a typical angst-filled teenager, Dan’s accident would make me a better human and a far better teacher. My parents applauded me then for being instrumental in Dan’s recovery, visiting him almost daily at the hospital and then at the rehabilitation center, talking to him, reading him funny stories, and encouraging each motor skill among many that he needed to relearn. There was no forgetting his laughter: a loud guttural screech. Always hypersensitive, I cried a lot, at both sad and happy moments. The only girl and a middle child, I felt like a cog in the wheel, delicately balancing my need to keep the family in one piece as we slowly inched forward, albeit in scattered directions. The loss of our dad to lung cancer a decade after Dan’s accident was especially hard on me, he having been my greatest mentor and cheerleader, one who valued education above all else.


Patience itself is a great mentor. We learn in both the ebbs and the flows. Working with Dan over the next four decades of his life has provided me with an unexpected mentorship in how to lead my own life and how to mentor others. In an increasingly fast-paced and demanding world, having the capacity to ground oneself in patience has given me the essential time to notice, reflect, and see many more dimensions in any given situation. As a child and now an adult with disabilities, Dan has needed so much patience, as have, more recently and even more acutely, our aging parents. My own greatest mentors in school were those who showed the most patience, taking the time to notice things and to appreciate in me what I could not appreciate in myself. Aside from the more obvious financial benefits, perhaps that learned patience motivated me to become a three-year Resident Assistant in college, too, and then, ultimately, a teacher.


Patience via helium stick. I am among a rare breed of educators who are graduates of both the 2020 and 2021 gcLi Leadership Labs. My 2020 Zoom cohort discussed topics of student leadership as much as we did our anxieties regarding what the 2020-2021 school year might look like, while my 2021 group was decidedly a much-needed escape into togetherness. Amid all the beautiful connections of personhood and philosophy made there, one of the most poignant moments for me personally was the helium stick challenge. My small group, like several others, experienced great frustration early on in this activity. I was convinced that I myself could not be the one to take the lead, a teacher of language rather than physics. What I didn’t know then was that the gift that I had to add to the puzzling equation was precisely the patience that I had come to need and know so well. To push us through to our goal, I held steady, becoming the proverbial metronome that we all needed. We were SO proud of our accomplishment. I was actually in tears trying to process it. WE were the meter stick, measuring our own patience the whole time.


The student connection. The 2020 documentary film The Octopus Teacher, a documentary and a must-see for all, but especially those who work in the field of education, is an example of how we can find mentorship and leadership in the most unexpected ways. It is also an example of how patience begets greater focus. We must be patient enough to notice finer details and poignant moments. We must be patient enough to commit to a process and work through messiness. Fostering leadership takes time, and leadership itself must include patience. We can always get a better view overall when we allow ourselves to first take a few steps back.


Jean Plum is in her twenty-sixth year of teaching, the past 15 years at the University School of Milwaukee. Alongside teaching Spanish she has deeply enjoyed the rewards and challenges of being a Freshman Class Dean for the past 8 years, helping with admissions and coaching girls’ soccer, too. Finding new ways to improve an old craft for each new round of students is what she likes best about her job, and she feels strongly about supporting social justice efforts both at school and within the larger community. Jean feels fortunate to have benefited from professional development opportunities over the years including trips to Guatemala, Cuba, Panama, and Spain, and the last two summers at the gcLi Leadership Lab (‘21) and the Stanley H. King Institute (‘22), respectively. She credits most of her learning to family life and all of its challenges over the years, including extra caretaking responsibilities. In her downtime, Jean enjoys catching up with her husband Michael and three adult children, gardening, running, and playing with their new kittens!