“What am I doing?”
I started this school year in a new office and a new position. I switched gears from being an Assistant Athletic Director to a Dean of Students for the Class of 2026, with 159 new students. I have worked in sports for the last ten years, and the decision to make athletics only one function of my job – coaching varsity lacrosse – rather than the center of it, did not come easy. I thrived in the world of athletics. I was an athlete and gained many of my leadership skills through participation on competitive teams. It is the language I speak and life I live. So, what am I doing in a Dean’s Office? Let me digress…
gcLi started with an exercise talking about our “Why?” I had two big “Why” moments that led me to where I was at that point: one, being the moment I realized working in corporate America was not for me. The other occurred when I had a long conversation with a mentor of mine. I’d felt a little lost in my career direction and I asked her, “What am I doing?” She replied without hesitation, “You’re developing girls into leaders. You are doing leadership.” Fast forward four years, a move, and a pandemic later … I am at gcLi 2021 having another “Why” moment. I am doing this because I am passionate about leadership, I believe in the abilities of my students, and I want to have an impact.
I did not love my answer when I asked myself “What am I doing in athletics?” I was doing scheduling and logistics. I was uploading videos and plugging in rosters. I was not doing leadership. After gcLi and what I would call my rejuvenation and reenergizing, I put a lot of my focus into a leadership program for athletes. I had so many ideas and so much confidence, thanks to my gcLi family, that I was ready to launch. After giving it some thought, I decided to keep the program limited to sophomores who identified as athletes. I believed sophomores had a handle on the culture of the school, but at the same time had plenty of time and growth ahead of them. I knew they could embody the leadership ideals I wanted to teach. I was excited, and I had thirty-five athletic-identifying students show up at 7p.m. on a Tuesday night to engage in leadership training. I decided to start the program how gcLi began at the Leadership Lab. What was their “Why?” I asked them to be honest and raw: this was a safe space. Of the thirty-five students, approximately twenty of them said “for the pizza.” Did I forget to mention, I enticed them with pizza? I thanked them for their honesty and immediately thought, “WHAT AM I DOING?”
I began redlining a bit and realized that being a leader, whether it’s of my peers or a group of 15-year-olds, can be challenging. I reminded myself where I was at age fifteen and yeah, I liked pizza. I got them there, and more importantly, they made a choice to be a part of this, and I was determined to make it worthwhile. We did a few team-building exercises that went incredibly poorly. It was loud, it was chaotic, I lost control of the room. Yet another, “What am I doing?” moment. I got a little pissed if I am being honest. I worked so much on this idea, and it was failing in front of me. I pulled all the kids in and decided I should share my “Why” and why I felt strongly about this program that I was building and why it meant so much to me. It was a moment that brought me back to what I always loved about being an athlete. You can be outwardly upset about a failing situation, but you could find motivation within. I remembered Tuckman’s model: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform. We were forming and storming. This is where leaders emerge, and I was to be that leader. Not only that, I had my next lesson.
We had twelve meetings during the remaining eight months of school. I stopped bringing pizza and the attendance remained solid. We covered an array of topics, many borrowed from gcLi and many spontaneously came up in discussion, and we rode the wave. The students had moments of “what are WE doing,” and I continued to have mine. We were discussing leadership: A topic we loved, lived, and were (are!) still figuring out. The Pelican Leadership Academy will continue this year, and we will add a component of PLA juniors facilitating discussions with the sophomores.
Fast forward to today and I am in my new role with all of these new students, and I have the opportunity to continue with leadership lessons. What am I doing? How am I supposed to take my ideas from a group of thirty-five pizza-loving athletes to a much more diverse group of freshmen? I am not sure I have the budget for all that pizza, but I know I have a great team of people around me and a fellow gcLi graduate at the helm of my new department.
I don’t know entirely what I am doing, but I know I have tools, resources, experiences to draw from, curriculum to borrow, and many people to call on for help. I guess that is my leadership journey. Constantly feeling lost and having no direction but figuring it out because that is what leaders do. Leaders find a way, adapt, and make it work. And we always know where to order the best pizza.
Stephanie Bissett currently serves as a Dean of Students at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. In addition, she is the Head Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse Coach and Assistant Girls’ Varsity Basketball Coach. Stephanie is the creator of the Pelican Leadership Academy and leads the Loomis Chaffee Athletic Association. Prior to becoming a dean, Stephanie was the Associate Athletic Director at Loomis, following her seven-year stint at The Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island. There, Stephanie was a class dean and taught physical education to students in nursery school through eighth grade. She was also the Head Coach of Girls’ Varsity Basketball and Lacrosse, as well as the Assistant Girls’ Varsity Soccer Coach. Before Wheeler, Stephanie worked at ESPN in the Programming and Acquisitions Department. Stephanie graduated from Syracuse University, where she played four years of lacrosse, and she earned her Master’s Degree in Sports Leadership from Northeastern University.