5 School Responses to #Charlottesville

Like many of you, I have watched with a great deal of sadness as this weekend’s events have unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. The brazen hatred, smugness, and pride emblazoned on the faces of marchers bearing torches is stomach turning. However difficult it may be, I would encourage you not to turn away from the images and the stories. Allow them to serve as a reminder of the fallibility of our world and that gross hatred and prejudice still exist.

While these overt examples of racism are easy to condemn, as a society we are far too dismissive of subtle actions of prejudice that erode the fabric of our society. Unfortunately, these behaviors happen far more frequently and are perhaps more damaging.

As a public educator at a very diverse school, I have experienced both extremes. I have had a parent tell me they were withdrawing their child because our school is “a little too brown” for them. With all the politeness I could muster, I assured them this was a good decision for their family. While most people won’t come right out and make a statement like that, I know that many potential parents see our diversity as deficit — not a strength. I have also witnessed how public schools that serve high minority and low socioeconomic populations are at a financial and resource disadvantage and are often unable to provide their students with the same classes, opportunities, resources and sports equipment as schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

This issue of racial justice is a real challenge for me. I am a white male from the middle class serving as the principal at a diverse urban school. I have not personally experienced racism or discrimination.  I live with the advantage of privilege that, if I am not cautious, can lead me to be dismissive of the very real challenges and discrimination faced by minorities and those marginalized in our society.

This weekend’s events have me thinking about how we, as educators, should respond. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list (nor do I claim any expertise on this subject), but here are a few of my ideas:

  1. Talk about what happened in Charlottesville this weekend, and what has happened in our history. As adults (especially adults with privilege) we often want to “shield” our children from images and events that are disturbing, or that we struggle to explain. Don’t “gloss over” or ignore issues of hate and racism (current or historical). Our kids need to have the opportunity to talk about their feelings about events of this nature. This doesn’t need to be a political discussion. It does need to be a discussion about justice, respect, dignity, safety and value.
  2. Openly discuss and celebrate the diversity in our schools. Recognize that diversity is not only about race. Ethnicity, economics, academic strengths, interests, and experiences all contribute to a wealth of diversity in our schools. Help students understand that this is a strength — lending a variety of perspectives to the learning process. Create a school culture where diversity is truly valued and celebrated.
  3. Acknowledge the need for diversity in hiring practices. As I previously mentioned, I have never been the victim of racism, nor do I claim to have any particular expertise in dealing with it. However we have worked hard to develop a diverse school culture and I am fortunate to have many staff members who are able to lend me perspective, share their experiences, and help me have a better understanding of the nature of prejudice and how we confront it in our schools. They push back when needed, encourage the use of culturally relevant resources, and they are outstanding role models for our students. Diversity in our staff helps keep all of us accountable for a maintaining a culture that values all members of our community.
  4. Advocate for students who are in the minority, come from poverty, or are marginalized by society. I am in my ninth year as an administrator at my current school. I’ll be honest, I have a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to my students (and my school). I bristle when I hear someone say “those kids” or when others make generalizations about our school based upon its location, or our student population. I am easily frustrated and pretty vocal about the inequities I witness. I know our kids aren’t perfect — they make their fair share of mistakes — but it has nothing to do with their race. It is because they are kids. Unfortunately, we have an education system that often funnels resources away from areas of need and we are backsliding into a system that is segregated and unequal (see this article: Separate and Still Unequal).
  5. Take responsibility. We ALL have a role to play in creating a world where everyone feels safe and valued.

 

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another. – Mother Teresa

 

As educators, and citizens, we must look out for one another. We need to take time to reflect on our attitudes, our practices, and our policies to ensure that we are not contributing to a climate of discrimination, stereo-typing, or hatred.

I have no doubt that the overwhelming response to this weekend’s incidents in Charlottesville will be condemnation. There will also be attempts to explain, and rhetoric that attempts to minimize the gravity of these actions. But, there is no excuse. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, our daily actions will speak more loudly than our words. Let’s make sure we take steps to ensure that our schools are places of peace that recognize the immeasurable value of every student and member of our community.

Authors note: as I have said several times in this post, I do not proclaim to be an expert on issues of race, justice, or discrimination. However, I do want to learn and I value the perspectives of others. I welcome your comments and respectful dialogue about this incredibly important issue.

School Climate is a Journey

cc photo by J. Delp

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill

The school I am honored to lead is dynamically diverse. We serve students with an extremely wide range of prior life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and academic needs. Our students come in a wide variety of colors and cultures. Some come from middle class homes, others from poverty. We serve kids from stable and functional families as well as those who have broken, dysfunctional, or non-existent family units. Many of our kids are polished, well-mannered, and “get” the norms of the school environment. Others are tough, a little jaded, and still learning the skills of effective communication and appropriate behavior. Many have experienced trauma that would bring the average adult to their knees. We serve academically gifted students, students who require a great deal of academic support, students with special needs, English language learners, immigrant and migrant kids, and those you might consider “average” junior high students. That is all to say, we are a true public school.

We view diversity as a strength of our school. We support a microcosm of the world on our campus. Our students have the awesome opportunity to learn with others who bring an extremely wide variety of experiences to the table. At least that is how we see it. Most people I speak with, will agree with the notion that diversity in school is a good thing — at least in theory. But many of those same people would never choose to send their children to our school. One unfortunate side effect of diversity, is the attribution of a set of assumptions, judgements, and even fear about students who may look, or act, differently than what is seen as the norm (“those kids”). It is not fair, but I am certain that many of my students are judged more harshly for their behavior than their peers at less diverse, more affluent schools.

It is for this reason, that we have worked extremely hard to establish a climate of acceptance, trust, and respect at our school. We focus on three core values, centered on the expectation that everyone on our campus must feel safe and valued. We talk openly about our diversity and creating a school where we can all be proud to work and learn. I am fortunate to have staff members who truly care about our kids–understanding their strengths and challenges. We have teachers, counselors, and para-educators who work extremely hard to meet the individual academic, behavioral, and emotional needs of the whole child. They are tireless advocates for EVERY student on our campus.

We have made huge strides in our efforts to create a positive school culture and climate. I truly believe we have earned the trust and respect of many of our parents, and I know from surveys, and talking to our students that an overwhelming majority of our kids are proud of our school.

While I am proud of this progress, I also understand that school climate is a journey, not a destination.

As is the case at any school, our staff (myself included) and students are far from perfect. We all suffer from mistakes, misjudgments, and missed opportunities. While I know these things happen at every school, I still lose sleep over every one. I feel responsible for the safety and happiness of everyone on our campus — in our school community. I worry that we will pay a particularly disproportional price for our missteps. I don’t worry because I am concerned about my reputation, but because I don’t want the response to inappropriate behavior, bad decisions, or honest mistakes to become how we are defined — how our kids are defined. They are just kids, learning to navigate life, sometimes with the constraints of extremely challenging circumstances.

When it comes to school culture, you don’t ever “arrive” — it takes constant commitment to maintain and promote the positive in a school community.

We will continue to do everything within our power to support the success of ALL students and to make our school a place where everyone feels safe and valued. As we strive to make this vision a reality, I simply ask our community, those at other schools within our district, and our state and local leaders, to be fair in your judgment, slow to condemn, show grace and empathy to our kids, and be a staunch advocate for public schools.

Thank you for considering…

Just Three Things

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Today I was searching for a document in Evernote and I stumbled across a list I created a few months ago. I took a few minutes and read the entire list. I smiled.

Every bullet point on the list identified something for which I am grateful. People, experiences, specific situations — a hodgepodge of happiness. It was created when I committed to recording three things for which I was grateful, for thirty days. I’m not sure why I stopped, because as I re-read the list, not only did I feel better, but I remembered how writing down those three things improved my daily outlook.

In his book, The Happiness Advantage (highly recommended), author Shawn Achor writes:

When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives.

Cultivating the habit of searching for the positive in our lives can certainly improve our daily outlook. It won’t solve all of your problems, or make the struggles go away, but it will remind you that there are things in your life to be happy about.

I have decided to recommit to recording three items a day on my gratitude list. Join me. Give it a try and see if you aren’t a little happier. Just three things.

1. ______________

2. ______________

3. ______________

In Defense of the Public Educator

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Today we finished our first week of the 2017-18 school year. It was a great week. Our students were genuinely excited to be back on campus and our teachers did an absolutely wonderful job of welcoming them and beginning the process of developing meaningful relationships.

It seems that with each passing year public educators face an increasing amount of scrutiny, but one week back at Willis Junior High School has reconfirmed my conviction that I work with the most amazing staff of educators in the state and that sadly, teachers continue to be overworked and under-appreciated. For just a few minutes, I would like you to consider what I ask of the staff members on my campus.

  • Take the time to know your kids. All one-hundred and twenty of them. Familiarize yourself with their academic performance levels, their individual needs, and their personal interests. Use that knowledge to ensure that they receive appropriate interventions and/or enrichment, and engage them with activities that are relevant and purposeful.
  • Build positive relationships. As James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Invest heavily in building safe classroom environments, an atmosphere of trust and respect, and a community where students understand they have infinite value.
  • Be vigilant. Always. Keep a constant eye out for students who are struggling academically, socially, or emotionally. Watch for changes in academic performance or interest, recognize signs of bullying or anti-social behavior, and be aware of the potential side effects of trauma or abuse.
  • Be a tireless advocate. This is especially true in schools that serve a high poverty population. We must always advocate for the poor and the marginalized. A school system that has become increasingly competitive rewards schools for avoiding risk when it comes to “selecting” students with whom they are willing to work. You are failing a class? This school isn’t for you. Behavioral issues? Don’t come here. Struggling with attendance? We can’t take you because you might hurt our school letter grade. However, as public educators, it is our job to advocate for everyone — to be a voice for the kids who don’t have one. We work for the benefit of all kids.
  • Be patient. As a public school teacher, you will most certainly have any number of students who will push your buttons, challenge your authority, treat you disrespectfully, or just disengage. Don’t quit on kids! In all situations, remain calm, model decency, and treat students with respect and dignity.
  • Teach your subject. Teach other things. Know your subject matter. Design purposeful lessons aligned to standards (and don’t forget to address the individual needs of students). In addition, be ready to teach kids anything they may not know that they need in order to succeed in school and in life. Teach them empathy. Teach the how to communicate effectively. Teach them appropriate behavior. Teach them kindness and humility.
  • Keep learning. Take the time to stay abreast of current best practices. Read books, literature, and blogs. Attend professional development sessions. Collaborate. Model for students, and colleagues, what it means to be a life-long learner.

These are just a few of the critical responsibilities that my staff tackles each day. I ask a lot of them. Are there any of these responsibilities you would suggest I take off their plate? In addition, they attend meetings, write individual education plans, respond to phone calls and e-mails, plan lessons, grade assignments and assessments, supervise students on campus, tutor after school, sponsor clubs, coach, mentor, and counsel. In short, all great teachers go way above and beyond their assigned responsibilities to support children, yet year in and year out, our leaders who control education funding fail to provide little more than lip service to the incredible sacrifices of public educators.

At Willis, I ask our teachers to have high expectations of our students and back that up with a high level of support. I have high expectations for my staff members, and I do my best to provide the support they need to be successful. It is a constant challenge, and by no means do I feel like the help I give is adequate. Unfortunately, our state (along with many others) has extremely high expectations for teachers and schools, but they provide little or no support.

Praise and encouragement are great, but it only goes so far. We are well beyond the point of needing to “put our money where our mouth is” when it comes to valuing our teachers. If we truly appreciate the work of educators, and we believe that ALL students should have the opportunity to learn, it is time that our actions make our beliefs evident. Our public schools that serve “high needs” populations take the brunt of criticism, stereotyping, and stigmatism, while often drawing significantly less in financial support (student activity fees, tax credit money, donations, etc.). Fair is not always equal.

Your actions speak so loudly that I can not hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need to recognize the critical role that teachers play in the lives of our children and provide them with the financial and human resources necessary to be successful. Our future depends on it.

Don’t Quit on Kids

I'm not opposed to success, I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones. – Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

J. was one of my favorite students.

J. was a kid who dealt with circumstances that forced him to become an adult at a very young age. Plagued with instability in his family, he bounced from one place to another — at times, living homeless. Family issues were abundant. He endured pain, violence, indifference, and rejection at the hands of those with whom a child is supposed to place their trust. He was tough as nails.

At school, J. did an admirable job in spite of his circumstances. However, he was a student we would now label "chronically truant," and from time to time, he would have issues with a teacher — primarily due to his insistence on being addressed as an adult. Remember, this was a kid who in all other areas of his life was forced to assume the responsibilities of a grown-up. J. also had a great personality and sense of humor — once offering to drive when I went to pick him up for school (even though he was only 13) and pointing out that I was "getting a lot of gray hair" in the midst of a conversation about his need to display school appropriate behavior. While there were many things working against J. and his prospects for success, he possessed tremendous heart: a quiet strength, and determination to pursue something greater.

Today, I saw J. again for the first time in years. By all measures he is now an extremely successful young man — a high school graduate, with a good job, and giving back to others through community service. I could not be more proud of what J. has accomplished. During his high school years, J. found several adults willing to heavily invest in his future — people who brought stability to his life. They recognized the importance of walking alongside a kid who had encountered more than his fair share of trauma. J.'S determination to improve his circumstances, along with the advocacy of caring adults, lead to positive results. He brought resolve and resilience to the equation. His support network of provided encouragement and hope.

The opening quote in this post provides a powerful warning about the potential pitfalls of failing to support a truly public education. When it came to the probability of good test scores, a high class rating, or absence of behavioral issues, taking a chance on J. was not a good bet. It is highly likely he would have been a school choice casualty. But, because there were adults and educators in J.'S life that were more concerned with him as a person than his potential to bolster a school letter grade, he became a success story.

I am so proud of this young man, and I am incredibly thankful to the people who have chosen to invest their time and love in his life. In my humble opinion, J. and his support network are true heroes!

Don't quit on kids.

Beginning the School Year: 5 Things to Remember

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Each year, prior to the arrival of students, I write a note to the staff members of our school. I do my best to let them know they are valued throughout the year, but by writing, it is easier for me to find my words. Below is this year’s letter to the WJHS staff.

July 21, 2017

Dear Willis Junior High School Staff,

As we prepare to welcome our students back to campus on Monday, I want to take just a few paragraphs to reiterate the critical role you play in the success of our school community. Your advocacy for our kids, your steadfast commitment to ensuring they have every opportunity to learn and grow, and your willingness to continually reflect upon (and improve) your teaching practice make you a very special group of people. In my humble opinion, you are the absolute best!

On Monday, and as we make our way through the school year, I would like you to keep the following things in mind:

1. Take One Day at a Time
Every day is a new day. Past successes, failures, and frustrations are behind us. What matters now is that we make the best of each moment. Recognize the daily opportunities we have to build relationships and connect with our students and colleagues. Be present in each moment!

2. Know Your “Big Rocks”
With each day, each lesson, each action – recognize what is truly important and invest your time and energy accordingly. Do your best to avoid the “tyranny of the urgent” and focus on what matters most. Remember: people are always the priority.

3. Assume the Best
Give every student, parent, and colleague the benefit of the doubt. Assume that they have the best of intentions and be willing to generously dole out grace – even (or especially) when it is not easy, or when you feel it is undeserved.

4. Be a Family
Being involved in education (regardless of your role) can be taxing and stressful. We need to take care of ourselves, and each other. Constantly be on the “look-out” for your colleagues. Help encourage and lift each other up. Be willing to ask for (and accept) help when you need it. We are in this together!

5. Be Kind
Don’t ever underestimate the power of a smile, an encouraging word, or a random act of kindness. We are responsible for maintaining a safe and positive culture on our campus. You will never regret being kind. As the saying goes, “Throw kindness around like confetti.”

In closing, please know that you are valued and appreciated by your principal. Education is not a just a profession, it is a calling. You have my utmost respect and admiration for the work that you do. Regardless of your role on our campus, you have countless opportunities to have a positive and sustained impact on the children who will walk through our gates on Monday. For some, it is not an exaggeration to say that you may be their most vocal advocate. Treat them with love, give them hope, model empathy and compassion, and challenge and support them in their growth as students and human beings. Working together, we are going to make this our best year yet!

Highest regards from your grateful colleague,

Jeff

11 inspirational Quotes for Educators (and Social Good)

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I love reading and collecting quotes that challenge my thinking and lend a new perspective to how I approach my work and interactions with others.  Someone recently asked me about inspirational quotes I’ve encountered so I decided to turn the compilation into a quick blog post.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes about serving others. They are great for educators, but also applicable to almost any occupation, or just our daily approach to navigating life.

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized. – Haim G. Ginott

I believe this popular quote by Haim Ginott is an extremely poignant statement about the power of our words and actions to influence others. His words paint a vivid image of the harm we can inflict, or the hope we can provide to others. 

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.  – Desmond Tutu

We can always do something to make the world a better place. At my school, our third core value is that “doing little things can make a big difference.” We want our students to know that their positive actions (regardless of the perceived significance) make a matter.

Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This Emerson quote is such a convicting statement. How often have we been disappointed when others have behaved in a manner that does not reconcile with their words? How often have we been guilty of the same? The way we choose to act — the way we treat others — overshadows our spoken word.

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win. – Jonathan Kozol

Successfully navigating life often involves wisely choosing our battles. In some instances you must make a decision and stand with conviction. In other situations it is best not to engage at all. 

When the world says, “Give up,” hope whispers, “Try it one more time.” – Author Unknown

Hope is the lynchpin of life. This quote emphasizes our critical responsibility to foster hope in those we serve. Many of the skills we attribute to success — perseverance, critical thinking, empathy, etc. — require a renewable source of hope. They way we treat others can provide a life line.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.  – Goethe

With this statement, Goethe makes a stand against the tyranny of the urgent. Time is our most finite resource and almost everyone can relate to the idea of being pulled in many directions. Understanding what is truly important, and investing our time in these things is a challenge, but a critical skill to develop.

We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget he is someone today.  – Stacia Tauscher

Live in the now! As an educator, I want my students to understand that they matter now. They do not need to wait to “grow up” in order to make a difference. As adults, this quote reminds us to be present in the moment because what we do today is important.

Kids who think they are going somewhere behave differently than kids who believe they are going nowhere. – Pedro Noguera

This is another quote about hope. As educators, we owe EVERY student the opportunity to understand their infinite value and have confidence that their life is meaningful. For some kids, a trusted adult at school may be the only place they hear “they are going somewhere.”

Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. – Alan Alda

Assumptions are dangerous. My belief is that we must always assume the best in others, however, this is much easier said than done. Taking the time to step back from our interactions and contemplate situations from the perspective of others helps us keep our “windows” clean. 

The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world. – Dr. Paul Farmer

ALL humans are infinitely valuable. If we treat others in a manner that implies they are anything less, we are doing our world a disservice. We have a long way to go on this one.

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. – Father Greg Boyle

Sometimes, you just have to be there for others — even when their actions or behaviors would beg a different response. It is not easy to “stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved,” but we need to recognize that these behaviors are often a cry for help. Sometimes others just need patience and empathy as they weather the storms of life.

Please — take a few moments to share a favorite quote about social good, service to others, or education in the comments. I would love to hear from you!