I Am Not In Control

img_9213
Lightning – cc photo by J. Delp

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. – Mother Teresa

On Friday evening I was on a connecting flight (with my daughter and wife) from Chicago to Wichita, Kansas. We were all engaged in our own activities — sleeping, reading, listening to music — when my daughter, who was sitting in the window seat, tapped my shoulder and nervously pointed outside of the airplane. The night sky was flashing and popping in a magnificent display of lightning. From our flying altitude it seemed especially close, awe inspiringly spectacular, and perhaps to my daughter, a bit frightening.

But I wasn’t worried.

A couple of times each year, I travel to Haiti to visit friends and work with a few schools. Haiti can be incredibly beautiful, but it is also shockingly poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly chaotic. A normal drive through Port-au-Prince can be a harrowing experience, but I have also driven up steep, narrow, mountain roads that are not made (or maintained) for vehicles. I have seen demonstrations and even been caught-up in a protest, narrowly slipping past a road block designed to shut down a major highway.

But I wasn’t worried.

A few times each week, or even each day, I receive an email, a phone call, or I have a situation that arises at school — something has gone wrong, someone is upset or angry, a student has had a bad experience, or a staff member is facing a challenge. I become overly anxious. How can I resolve the problem? How can I keep everyone safe and happy? How can I be responsible for my students, my staff, and my school community? Countless situations call for action, but I feel often feel paralyzed by indecision.

I worry.

So, how is it that I am able to function with a reasonable amount of assurance in Haiti, or remain calm (and even enjoy) a lightning storm at 35,000 feet — but allow an email, an upset individual, or a growing task list to trigger anxiety. I believe the answer lies (at least in part) in the fact that I have fooled myself into believing that in the latter situations I am ultimately in control.

I am not a pilot, and I am clearly unable to influence weather patterns and storms. In Haiti, I am at the mercy of my good friend to get me safely where I need to go, translate, and monitor the surroundings for potential risk. Even if I wanted to, there is very little I could do to influence outcomes in these situations. I must rely on faith — in others and in God. I understand this and so I don’t allow those things to be stressful or create anxiety.

While it is true that I am responsible for the actions in my day-to-day life, it would be absurd to believe that I could control another person’s response, or that I am solely responsible for the attitudes and happiness of everyone around me. I am no more capable of doing than controlling, a lightning storm or dispersing a protest in Haiti. It just isn’t going to happen.

This doesn’t excuse me from responsibility. In fact, it is absolutely critical that I make deliberate, thoughtful, and responsible decisions in the moment– doing my best to positively influence outcomes for the benefit of those I serve. But once those decisions have been made, or actions have been taken, I have to rest in knowing that I did my best, have faith and understand that final outcomes are beyond my control.

This is not an easy thing for me — or most people for that matter. I struggle to stay in the moment. I am easily distracted. I am overconfident in my ability to influence outcomes and I want everyone to be happy. I struggle to distinguish what is truly important from what is trivial. I want to be in control — but true control is an illusion.

I am convinced that my daily success depends on a few key elements:

  • Taking the time for quiet reflection
  • Identifying what is most important–the big rocks…the things that really matter
  • Staying in the moment — being present and caring for the people in front of me
  • Doing my best, and then having faith that things will be okay — letting go

None of it is easy, but for me, letting go is the biggest challenge. I have to continue to work at accepting the fact that I am not ultimately in control. I have to do my best, keep my attention on what matters most, and then have faith in the outcome.

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

cc photo by J. Delp

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

cc photo by J. Delp

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

cc photo by J. Delp

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