Not on Her Watch: Fostering a Leader’s Heart

By Bernadette Nicholas

On a sunny afternoon, shortly before our winter break, I walked over to Azelie as she worked near the rosemary bushes, curious about what she was working on. I wondered about the small piles of sand I saw, on top of which Azelie was carefully arranging pieces of rosemary she had picked off the bushes. Other children had come and gone from the area, but Azelie remained, fully immersed in her work.

I didn’t have to ask her what she was doing. Shortly after I came over, she offered an explanation. “I’m making a restaurant. It’s for anyone who wants to eat,” Azelie informs me. We begin to talk about the types of food that her restaurant has. Each sand pile is assigned a different dish offered at the restaurant. She then asks, “Bernadette, what do people who don’t have food do?”

Her expression so sincere, I did my best to offer an honest answer. I told her about food banks, places where people who need help can go to get the food they need. I told her that sometimes people might look through trash to find something they can eat. “And,” I concluded, “if they can’t find any food those ways they may have to go without food.”

My response prompted a look of shock on Azelie’s face. “Well,” she replied, “not on my watch!” At this, she reiterates her commitment to having a restaurant that feeds everyone and continues working.

Azelie’s proclamation, not on my watch, stuck with me, though it was not at all surprising considering the source. Azelie is often the one to invite the child being left out to play or to find a peaceful resolution to conflict amongst peers. At a young age, she has shown herself to be a leader that leads from the heart.

Observing Azelie makes me wonder under what conditions children can be their most altruistic selves. Is it mostly due to personality or more so a result of specific actions of those who care for them? From what I’ve learned and what I believe about human development, my estimation is that once children feel secure in the knowledge that their needs will be met, they are then free to turn their attention to the needs of others. This being my belief, it follows that my next question should be what am I doing to foster this sense of security in children? In considering this question, I wonder how effective I am in comforting and guiding children through challenging moments? Am I consistently communicating safety in my words and actions? Do I help the children feel seen and understood? Are children free to work towards being their best selves on my watch?

The world needs more leaders like Azelie. Part of my life’s work is to continue to ask and honestly answer these questions of myself so that I can do the best I can to support developing them. As educators, we have the privilege and responsibility of influencing our present and future leaders. In the age of global pandemic, it is becoming increasingly imperative that more and more people, young and old, are empowered to find the issues about which they are willing to boldly declare, “not on my watch!”

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