Effective leadership skills learned in one profession usually transfer to most new jobs, so I decided to make a change.

After 18 years working and serving in numerous roles in Juvenile Corrections (JC), I changed my career path. It was a very hard decision to make after 18 years. I worked with a lot of great and talented people over the years.

Many of those people became good friends, or were loyal followers who made me look good through the outstanding work they did on a daily basis serving at risk youth and their families.

My success in JC is solely because of them and I will always be indebted to them.

Effective Leadership

One of the main reasons I left JC was that I no longer was receiving the job satisfaction I once did. To be an effective leader, your passion shows by your actions and the way you communicate with others. I truly believe, as a leader, you must be passionate about what you do.

Once you are no longer passionate about what you do, it’s time to rediscover something you can be passionate about.

I have been provided the opportunity to use my prior military experience and now I serve as a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp Leadership Instructor.

This position allows me to work in our large school district and most importantly will allow me to continue to serve youth. I will primarily be working with middle school students’ 6th – 8th graders who choose to join the leadership program.

Martin, You’re In

After about three weeks on the job, I was asked by my Principal to help cover in a classroom for an hour until additional coverage could arrive due to an unforeseen circumstance with the regular teacher.

The classroom could not legally be in session without a certified teacher even though there were two seasoned paraprofessionals assigned to the classroom. This request came during a time I would not have students in the classroom and I gladly said “no problem. “

As my boss explained the assignment to me, I begin to have this vision of the high school basketball coach, who is down by two points with less than two minutes to play. All his experienced players have fouled out and he looks at the end of the bench and sees me, the rookie freshman.

He looks back out at the court, up at the clock, back down to the floor, shakes his head and finally says, “Martin, get in there.”

The Last Option

I had this vision as my Principal was explaining to me that I needed to help cover in the elementary autistic program for the next hour. I immediately thought thatI have had no formal training in working with this population. And “yes”, I later discovered, I was the last option.

As I silently entered the classroom, the paraprofessionals were hard at work, working with the five students in the room. The two looked at me as to already know why I was there, but what they did not know that I was also present to learn from them.

The activity I joined them in was finger painting. I sat at the table and all the kids looked at me, but then continued to work.

One young man who I sat next to leaned over and he immediately started to smell my shirt sleeve.  We will call him Student A.

Keen Sense of Smell

One of the paraprofessionals told me that Student A has a strong sense of smell, and that is how he gets acquainted with you. As we continued to work, Student A kept me pretty busy and entertained. He spoke in a very monotone to very loud unexpectedly verbal outburst.

He would ask me questions. And at times, I would strain to hear as we finger painted. I would answer his questions the best I could in my effort to communicate with him. While working with him, he continued to lean over and smell me to help satisfy his keen sense of smell.

The hour flew by. I was able to not only learn from Student A, but also through my observations of the paraprofessionals who were in the classroom with me and how they interacted and managed the students in a very busy classroom.

Understanding and Respect

As I sat in the classroom observing and working with Student A, I could feel my heart sink and a sense of sadness within me. I tried really hard to keep my eyes from tearing as I begin to think how grateful I was to have healthy kids.

I was able to gain a better respect for what the parents of special needs kids experience, and for the teachers and support staff who work with kids with special needs on a daily basis.

After clean-up, the speech therapist arrived in the classroom with the working dog and the kids gravitated to them both.

I was relieved of my duty in the classroom, but I stayed to watch a session the therapist did with the students. It was amazing watching her, the dog, and the way the students interacted with the both of them as they worked on their speech either verbally or by communicating with their picture books.

I’ll Be Back

After the session, I thanked the paraprofessionals for the lessons learned and for allowing me to be an active part of the classroom. Right before I was about to exit, Student A came over to us and he tugged on my shirt. I leaned down to hear what he wanted. It was hard for me to understand and the paraprofessional did sign language with Student A. He then replied back in sign language.

He had asked if I would be back. I nodded my head yes. He then smelled me one last time and went back to play with the others.

The Best Plans

Finally, I’m sure there will be several lesson plans I will develop and present in the future. My short experience in this special needs classroom room showed me that even when leaders are faced with the unknown taking on the challenge can be rewarding.

Sometimes, the best plans are not the ones scripted out, but the ones you experience.

I have a good feeling I will continue to learn a lot about myself, my new work surroundings and leadership from a young seven year old autistic boy.

How Do You Learn Effective Leadership?

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Greg Martin
Greg works for Sedgwick County Department of Corrections and owns Martin Leadership & Management Development. He is a U.S. Army veteran & holds a MS in Leadership and Management from Friends University.