It’s Not About Me, Or You

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cc photo art by J. Delp

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. – C.S. Lewis

True story.

On Friday, I had just completed supervision of the first of two lunch periods at my school. I was standing in the center of our campus, greeting students as they passed on their way to afternoon classes (happy Friday, have a great afternoon, only a few more hours before the weekend, etc.). One student stormed passed me — fixed eyes and their face a picture of angry determination. Uh oh. Problem. I can help. I should help.

We are still relatively early in the school year, so while I recognized the student, I didn’t have a name. I politely asked if they were okay and was met by a glaring glance and silence. They kept walking. I turned and followed the student, asking them to stop for a moment. Nothing. Now I was really concerned. I quickened my pace to catch up with the student.

“Stop for a second.” They glanced at me, but kept walking, so I asked, “What is wrong.”

The response came in a low growl, “Don’t worry about it.”

“What is your name?”

“Don’t worry about it. Back off.” The student continued walking.

I followed. Now frustrated.

“I want you to stop, and tell me your name.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Now I was offended. I tried to order the student to follow my directions. That didn’t go well. Finally, I walked the student into their classroom where the teacher gave me a name. I told the student that I was going to leave them, but that we would talk later. I left the classroom feeling frustrated, disrespected, and a little angry. That did not go well.

I messed up. As I write this, I feel a little like I was an actor in one of those scary movies where you know the person shouldn’t go outside to check on the noise in the shed, but they go anyway. All the signs of impending doom are there, but the person presses on — against their better judgement. Those situations, like the one I experienced, rarely end well. And here is the problem: I demonstrated a lack of humility and chose to make this situation about respect for me instead of true concern for the student.

I knew I had made multiple mistakes, and as a veteran principal, I should have known better. I started with good intentions — I was truly concerned about the well-being of the student — but then I allowed myself to become offended by the student’s behavior. I felt disrespected, angry, and then I became stubborn (I can be that way). If you re-read the narrative, you can see the moment that it quit being about concern for the student and it became about me. My motives changed from helping the student to making them comply.

During my supervision of the second lunch period, I was miserable. I worked really hard to justify my actions:

  • I was concerned about the well-being of the child
  • They should have stopped when I asked them to stop
  • It was reasonable for me to ask the student for their name
  • I am the principal of the school, I should have been treated with respect
  • “Junior High Jeff” would have stopped immediately, given his name, and would have spoken with respect

But, this wasn’t about “Junior High Jeff.” This wasn’t about “Principal Jeff.” This was about a student who was upset and hurting. While I began with good intentions, I allowed the situation to escalate and I made it about me.

The life of an educator should be spent in constant pursuit of humility. It’s easy to make it about self, but it must always be about kids.

Tweet: The life of an educator is spent in constant pursuit of humility. It’s easy to make it about self, but it must always be about kids. – @azjd

For a brief moment, I failed to remember that many students come to school with anger, frustration, pain, and trauma and that these kids often lack the social skills necessary to deal with their emotions. For many, it is something they have to be taught — something they need to learn.

“Uh, Jeff. That would be part of your job.”

In the heat of the moment, I expected that student to handle their anger in an appropriate and respectful manner, and in the process I provided an example of exactly what not to do. To make matters worse, I am a staunch advocate for the education of the “whole child” and meeting the social-emotional needs of students. Sigh.

After a miserable forty minutes of lunch duty, I walked over to our counselor’s office to give her the name of the student so that she could follow-up and hopefully get more information about why they were upset. Low and behold — there was the student. The counselor waved me in and I was greeted with another glare and mumbling from the student. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. I immediately apologized to the student, letting them know that I should have left them alone, respected their space, and followed up when they were in a better place to visit. I told them I could see they were having a bad day and that I was sorry if I made it worse. It took every ounce of self-restraint, to not add — you should have stopped when I asked, you should have given me your name, you were very disrespectful. The student was still visibly angry. They chose not to acknowledge me. But, that was okay, because they were getting some help, and this situation was not about me.

As an educator, our actions and decisions should always be about what is best for kids. It is not about us.

Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that students should not be responsible for their actions, or that they shouldn’t be respectful to adults. But, I hope you can see that my response in this situation only made the situation worse. It is a constant challenge to be humble and patient enough to step back from a situation and carefully consider appropriate responses that will model the behaviors we want to see from students. Hope that makes sense.

I Am Not In Control

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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 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 that than I am of 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…