What I Learned By Opting Out of My Office

cc photo art by J. Delp

For the past several weeks, I have been sending the following email to my teaching staff. I call it, my office opt out.

If you would like some principal assistance, I have the following openings available for this week: [this is followed by specific dates and class periods]

I am willing to:

  • Give (or monitor) an assessment and allow you to work elsewhere, run an errand, make copies, etc.
  • Work with a small group
  • Be an extra set of eyes and help answer questions, while you are teaching
  • Run a lesson (with some direction), so you can catch-up on email, IEPs, paperwork
  • Participate in an activity with kids — THIS IS MY FAVORITE ūüėČ

First come first serve…let me know how I can help and I will do my best to make it work.

So far, it has been a pretty successful endeavor. It has allowed me to spend “non-evaluative” time in classrooms, visit with kids about their learning and school experience, and hopefully help out some teachers. I have run a small group, participated in activities with students, monitored a class while a teacher administered a student assessment, assisted with a math intervention class and observed a number of outstanding lessons.

On Friday, I was asked to visit one of our classrooms and participate in a small group discussion. This is something the teacher periodically does with her students, and the topics vary¬†dependent upon student interest. For this particular group session, the students chose to talk about family units — specifically fathers.

We circled up our chairs and the class took a vote to allow me to participate. The group consisted of approximately ten male students, the teacher, and a few staff members — including myself. The teacher reminded the students of the norms that the class had agreed upon and then the session began.

In the interest of privacy, and respect for each individual student, I am not going to give much detail about the discussion. However, after everyone introduced themselves and gave a quick rating (1-10) on how their morning had started, students went around the circle and talked to the group about their dad — with the teacher asking a few follow-up questions.

I am in my ninth year at my school, and my seventh year as principal. In that time I have seen and heard a lot of things. Almost to the point that nothing shocks me any more. I know of students who have experienced unspeakable trauma in their lives. Working with kids in these situations is not a yearly, monthly, or weekly occurrence. It happens every single day. That being said, I can honestly say I was not prepared for what I was about to hear from these young men in their small group.

As we went around the circle, each boy described the absence of a father in their life. Some described a dad who “ran away” from the family. Several explained that their fathers were in prison. One described a father who passed away several years ago. I kept waiting for someone to say, “My home life is great. I live with both my parents.” But, it never happened. ¬†The closest we came was a young man whose father had spent several years in jail, but was now back with the family. The shocking fact is that these students were not “selected” for this group discussion, or class. It just so happened that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM had suffered loss or trauma in their family. ¬†The session drew to a close, with one of the boy’s explaining that he had recently gone with some friends to participate in an outdoor activity. He stated that it was a lot of fun, and then explained,”For a few hours, I was able to forget about everything.”

My heart felt as if it had been crumpled, and balled up, like a piece of scratch paper.

What an incredible experience. I was humbled to be allowed to participate. I was heartbroken for the boy’s in that room. I was thoroughly impressed with the respect, empathy, and compassion they showed one another. I was in awe of the strength demonstrated by those kids. As emotional as it was, I walked out of that room proud of the students, proud of the teacher — with hope.

For me, this experience reinforced several of my core beliefs about education and working with young people:

  • Don’t assume you know. It is so critical that we take the time to know our students and, as best we can, understand their circumstances. This isn’t so we can “feel sorry” for them, or lower our expectations, but so that we are able to provide the supports they need in order to be successful. It is no secret that relationships matter, but I still think we underestimate their power to make a positive difference with those we serve. There is no way students would have openly had the discussion I witnessed if they did not have a trusting relationship with their teacher.
  • Social and emotional elements of teaching (especially at the middle school level) are just as important — if not more so — than core content.¬†We do not invest enough in addressing the social/emotional needs of kids. We need to be teaching and practicing the social skills kids will need to be successful adults. In addition, left unchecked, emotional crises and trauma are capable of derailing any students access to a quality education. Many of our students carry around so much emotional baggage it is unreasonable to think they can focus on academics. They need help.
  • Teachers and counselors are saints and they deserve a lot more — respect, training, salary, and support.¬†A teacher ran the group I sat in on and she did an exceptional job. This is not a requirement, or expectation, but she knows this is what her students need. I dare say that she didn’t learn this in her teacher preparation program…she figured it out on her own. Our schools are desperately understaffed for meeting the growing social and emotional needs of students. Counselors are stretched WAY too thin, and most schools operate without social workers. Even assistant principals and deans are underappreciated, underpaid, and ill prepared for the emotional toll of dealing with the level of trauma, discipline, and chaos they encounter on a daily basis. If we want to see true change in education, start investing in the people who are “in the trenches.” I guarantee it will make a difference in our schools and ultimately our communities and economy.
  • Most of us have privilege and we need to be aware of how that shapes our perspective and approach to working with young people.¬†I am a white, middle class, male with a strong family unit. I grew up with loving parents who, to this day, provide consistent support and encouragement. I have privilege in the areas of race, socio-economic status, and family structure. All of those things have helped pave my way to at least some degree of success. ¬†They are not solely responsible, but they afforded me opportunities that are not available to others. I am not ashamed of that, but I am also aware that this is privilege — I did not earn my race, my socio-economic status, or a wonderful family. As an educator (and human being) I must recognize the role that privilege plays in providing opportunities, be cognizant of injustices, and advocate for those who are at a disadvantage. Fair is not always equal.
  • Seeing is believing.¬†We have to be deliberate about what we choose to see, what we want to know, and sometimes, what we may be avoiding. It is hard to witness and accept injustice. As I mentioned, I thought I had seen everything. I didn’t know I could be shocked anymore. I was wrong, and the only way I discovered this was by taking the time to participate in a class activity. By being present.

It is impossible to see the challenges of educators and students without being in classrooms, so my “office opt-out” days will continue. ¬†Not teacher evaluations. Not simply checking classroom visits off of a list. Deliberately spending time in classrooms to serve my staff and my students — witnessing their daily challenges and successes.

I am grateful for the EVERY DAY efforts of my staff. Spending meaningful time in their classrooms is the best way I know to show my appreciation.

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