Overcoming Challenges to Find Your Calling

Inky Johnson’s inspiring story of overcoming adversity after a career-ending football injury to find his calling is a lesson to school leaders to continue to show up every day for children and the schools they lead.

This past school year was one unlike any other. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it was truly the most difficult year in my educational career. Inky Johnson could not have been a more perfect closing keynote speaker at the NAESP Pre-K–8 Principals Conference that recently took place in Louisville, Kentucky.

Johnson is the truest example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

He shared that it was a teacher who later became a principal who made all the difference in his life. That educator told Johnson that he had greatness in him. He said that his life—a kid’s life—was worth it. That teacher showed up every day for him—literally coming to his house every morning to make sure he got to school.

I think about the students in my school. Even though the past several years have been difficult, I have shown up every day for all of my students. It certainly hasn’t been comfortable or convenient, but as principals and educators, it’s what we do.

Overcoming Adversity

If you haven’t heard Johnson’s story—his full story—you need to hear it. He shared with all of the school leaders in the audience, “I am the product of the spirit of what you all do.” When he was in school and could have taken the other path, the one of gangs and drugs, it was an educator who guided him down a better path. When he was in the hospital after an injury during a football game and contemplating how he could move forward after his arm was paralyzed and his football career was over, it was educators who came to his hospital room and guided him down the next path. They reminded him that they didn’t do all they did for him over the years so that he could play football; they did what they did so that he could become a decent person who would go out and do good in the world. When Johnson was at a low point and unsure of what to do next, his principal said to him, “Use this situation to go out into the world and add value.”

Showing Up for Our Calling

As school leaders, coming out of a pandemic and returning to the job after several incredibly tough years, we all need the reminder to use the pandemic, use the adversity and challenges we faced to go out and make a difference in this world. How will we as school leaders add value to our schools and districts?

We can learn a lot about this from Johnson. He could have allowed his injury to stop him from showing up, from finishing what he started. But he didn’t let that happen. The educators in his life wouldn’t let that happen. As school leaders, we can’t allow COVID and the pandemic to stop us from showing up for our calling.

The educators in Johnson’s life saw something in him that he couldn’t see in himself. They saw greatness in him. We have a choice this school year. Do we let the challenges of the past years push us down? Or do we get back up and remember why we lead? Our mission, our purpose, impacting students, seeking out the greatness in each of them, or “the GPS on what we do every day,” as Johnson would say. We must remember our why and lead with purpose.

Johnson wrote the foreword to Thomas Murray’s book Personal and Authentic: Designing Learning Experiences That Last a Lifetime. “I believe you are not defined by your circumstances or your situation,” he said. “You are defined by your decisions and your choices. Every day I make a decision to make my life count. Every day I’m going to work to inspire someone. Every day I’m going to work to encourage someone. As an educator, you get to do the same.”

School leaders, you have a choice to make this year. Carry Johnson’s message with you in your heart. Make the choice to encourage and inspire your students and staff every day.

Liz Garden is principal at Henry P. Clough Elementary in Mendon, Massachusetts.