Eyes Wide Open

About a week ago, on a hot afternoon in Arizona, I stopped at a convenience store near work for a bottle of water and a soda. As I was walking in, I noticed a young lady leaning against one of the store’s cinder block columns. There was something vaguely familiar about her. I searched my memory for a clue. Former student? Parent? A sibling of one of our kids? Nothing. It was evident that she was in some distress. Perhaps, it was exhaustion, a rough day (or a rough life), or simply the heat. She avoided eye contact, so I continued into the store where I made my purchase, grabbing an extra bottle of water.

I’m not sure why, but as I was making my way back to my truck, I turned and asked, “Young lady, are you okay?” For the first time she looked at me, and asked if I could spare any money. I handed her the two dollars in my pocket and a bottle of water. She thanked me and said, “God bless,” and that was the end of our interaction. I wasn’t able to make any connections and she either didn’t recognize me, or chose not to acknowledge if she did.

However, several days after the encounter, I have been unable to shake the thought of how frequently I walk by people without consideration for their circumstances. Some of them, like this girl, are obviously “in a battle.” In other cases, it might not be so apparent — an averted glance, a solemn quietness, or perhaps, nothing. Almost unnoticeable. It’s like voluntary blindness. Oblivious to the problems of anyone but myself.

I recently began reading the book Refugee by Alan Gratz. One of the characters in the book, Josef, is a young Jewish boy fleeing Germany as Hitler began his reign of terror. In the story Josef described the yellow Star of David he was forced to wear as a “talisman that made him disappear.” Others acted as if he did not exist. As if he wasn’t even there.

The people chose not to see them.

How often are we guilty of this? How often do we “choose” not to see those who are in distress, those who are suffering injustice, those who are grappling with burdens too large to bear without assistance. It is easier to walk on by, to turn our heads, or to simply wander with our eyes proverbially closed. Perhaps we are afraid to fully acknowledge the pain and injustice in our world because to do so we be an admission that we feel incapable, or that we are unwilling, to do anything about it.

The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. – Marcus Borg

I don’t have a solution. I have a feeling it isn’t two dollars and a bottle of water. I do think it has something to do with acknowledgement. Acknowledgment that we are all in “this” together. Acknowledgement that we have the capability to help one another.  Acknowledgement of our shared humanity. 

One of the best books I have ever read about recognizing the immeasurable value of all human beings is Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle. In fact, it is one of the best books I have ever read…period. It is so good, that I am currently listening to the audio version. Again.

In one particularly poignant anecdote, Father Greg describes Carmen — a heroin addict, a prostitute, a fighter, a lady who is dealing with a tremendous amount of baggage and trauma. She stops to see him just prior to a baptismal ceremony he is scheduled to administer. She tells Father Greg she needs help and begins a narrative of her issues. Time ticks away and the scheduled baptism grows closer.  Father Greg grows impatient. As they talk, she tilts her head toward the ceiling and her eyes fill with tears. She looks at Father Greg, and says, “I…am…a disgrace.” The next line in the book is extremely moving, and convicting.

Suddenly her shame meets mine, for when Carmen walked through that door I had mistaken her for an interruption.

There are boundless opportunities for us to be difference-makers in the lives of others. Daily. To do so requires that we live with our eyes wide open — ready to receive others, to acknowledge their existence, to recognize their worth, and to view them as human. Not an interruption.

May God grant me the patience, the perception, and the willingness to do this. To live my life with eyes wide open to the needs of others.

 

 

Our Lenses Matter…

I used to have 20/20 vision. I could see perfectly, except for the fact that I have a bit of red-green color blindness which — at worst — led to me wearing blue instead of my preferred purple ties.

But, time…

And age…

Now, I am unable to read anything without the aid of a pair of glasses with relatively strong transition lenses. Nothing. My lenses make all the difference.

Yesterday I was reading, with a little too much intrigue (and with my glasses), the comments on a Facebook post about the current immigration crisis — specifically the separation of children from their parents. It reminded me that the lenses through which we see the world are highly individual and shaped by many different factors. So many variations that no two people see things from exactly the same perspective. Even, perhaps, when we should (i.e. in cases of injustice).

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth. — Simone de Beauvoir

I certainly don’t have this all figured out, but I am aware of the lenses through which I view what is happening around me and I’m fairly certain I have not always possessed that awareness. I grew up in a fantastic community (a small town in Kansas) which I still consider home. When I was living at there, I was unaware of diversity in the community because at that time (using the lenses I had available) diversity meant race, or ethnicity, and the overwhelming majority of people in my hometown were white.

My first teaching job was at a public school in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. I chose to student teach — and then take a job — at this school because it was so dramatically different from anything I had ever experienced. I was an ethnic minority on campus. There was overwhelming poverty and violence in the surrounding community. Many of our students experienced unspeakable trauma. The culture was extremely different from what I had experienced in Kansas.

During my time teaching in Phoenix my lenses began to change. This change not only impacted how I viewed my present situation, but it changed how I viewed my past experiences. In that small Kansas town that seemed to lack diversity, I now recognize families who undoubtedly struggled with poverty. Friends who experienced the pain of broken families, abuse, and other forms of trauma. People with a plethora of diverse experiences and stories. The diversity was there — it just wasn’t in a form that I was able to recognize or define.

I will never know what it is like to be a person of a different race.

I’ve not personally experienced poverty.

I am fortunate that I have not been a victim of abuse, or trauma.

I’ve never had my child taken away from me (although I have experienced an agonizing separation).

But privilege does not prevent me from stepping back from a situation and listening to the perspective of others. In this way, I am able to catch a glimpse through their lenses. This allows me to develop understanding and demonstrate empathy. Upon careful inspection, in many cases we share common perspectives (as a parent, a sibling, a spouse, an educator, a human). The willingness to momentarily pick-up the lenses of our fellow human beings is ultimately a critical factor in our ability to treat one another with the respect, dignity, and infinite value that all people deserve.

Our lenses matter. Our ability and willingness to look through the lenses of others matters most.

There is nothing insignificant in the world. It all depends on the point of view. — Goethe

Have We Forgotten that We Belong to One Another?

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Disclaimer: as with all posts on my blog, the views expressed in this post represent my personal opinion and are not intended to be associated with my employer. This was posted with my daughter’s permission.

My daughter is an immigrant.

Perhaps not in the “legal” sense, but by Google’s definition she would qualify. She was born in the Russian Far East, adopted by us, and traveled to the United States (on a Russian passport) just before her first birthday. She was a newcomer. She was a nonnative. She was an outsider. Now, she is a beautiful teenager who just finished her freshman year of high school. She is the pride and joy of her parents and the best thing I have ever done in my life.

Those of you reading this who are adoptive parents know that the process is long and arduous. During the two trips we made to Russia, we experienced multiple miracles — more than enough to convince me that this beautiful little girl was always meant to be our daughter. But, those are stories for another time.

Recently, the United States has begun a “no-tolerance” policy for deportation of illegal immigrants. As a result of that process, children — seventeen and under — have been torn from their families. At the time of this writing, the Los Angeles Times reported that 1,995 children have been separated from their parents. This is a tragedy, an immoral abuse of power, and a policy that demonstrates a lack of value for human life. It is wrong, and it must stop.

Regardless of political leanings, I would hope that most people would agree that children should not be used as pawns in the fight over immigration policy. The fact that our current politicians are incapable of working cooperatively to develop a reasonable solution to the immigration issue is no excuse for taking actions that are clearly detrimental to kids. And, although I am not a religious scholar, I feel confident in saying there is absolutely no biblical basis for separating children from their families. However, I can reference many verses that indicate we should love our neighbor, care for children, and act justly.

Imagine the level of trauma inflicted upon a child who likely does not speak English, has just endured a difficult trip, and is now ripped away from their family. Their “legality” has absolutely nothing to do with our ability to treat them as fellow human beings of infinite value, worthy of respect and empathy.

We began to bond with our daughter and love her the first moment we saw her. We immediately wanted to provide the best care we were able to offer her. Fortunately, we had the means and privilege that allowed us to complete an adoption, navigate oceans of paperwork, and bring her to the states legally — as our daughter.

The parents who are currently bringing their children to the United States are undoubtedly seeking the same things we wanted for our daughter — the best possible care, education, and opportunities. Unfortunately, most are coming from poverty and do not possess the material, financial, or political capital necessary to navigate the immigration process. They are not people of privilege. We are.

This is not a post about immigration policy, it is simply a plea to do the right thing for kids and keep them with their families. I work in a profession where we are taught that the best interest of kids should always come first. That should be no different in this circumstance — the needs of children should come first. As Mother Teresa so wisely stated,

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.

I fear this may be true. We have forgotten that we belong to one another. I pray that our citizens will make it clear that the current situation is unacceptable and that our leaders will step in and do the right thing for the sake of these kids. We must demand nothing less.

5 Reasonable Ways to Begin to Address Childhood Trauma

cc photo by J. Delp 

Friday was a tough day. I had a long list of things to do — things I had carefully arranged on my calendar to be certain they would all be completed. The day began as planned, with the final session of a book study on The Happiness Advantage with a small group of staff members. We discussed the final few chapters, talked about possible applications in our work setting, and perhaps most important, we laughed and socialized. Next, we kicked off the school day with an excellent guest speaker from NotMyKid who talked about his experiences as a youth, the challenges of life as a teenager, and spoke to our kids about making positive choices. Check. Check.

Things were off to a good start. Then I was asked to help with an issue that was going to involve some student discipline. The situation required an investigation, talking with other students who had witnessed the incident, getting written statements, and ultimately — consequences for a few students. As I spoke with one of the students, they became increasingly frustrated, visibly agitated, and finally extremely angry. Profanities were thrown around my office as the student attempted to engage me in an argument. Our interaction ended when I was told, “Do whatever you f***ing have to do. Nothing I do, or say is going to make a difference.”

I had already spoken to the child’s parent, but they requested the opportunity to call home. I obliged. The conversation between parent and child (of which I could only hear one side) was heartbreaking. Frustration. Loss of hope. A sense of failure. Desperation. Anger. All spewed out by the kid in a tirade of venomous language punctuated by a plea for help. I was at a loss — devastated by what I was hearing and my inability to help. I called for one of our counselors (we have two who are absolutely top-notch). She was able to help the student deescalate…so much so, that the kid was calm and apologizing to me as they left my office. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s not you.”

This student was correct. It wasn’t me. At least not all me. Whatever happened on Friday morning, and the subsequent fallout, was enough to pull the scab off of a much deeper, insidious, and festering wound. A wound left by innumerable traumas in this child’s life.  Even after having done this job for years, I was so shaken that I spent the rest of the day retracing the investigation, double-checking all of my information–just to be sure I had everything right. To be certain that I was not “piling on.” While the actions of the student required consequences (it was not a “minor” incident), what the student really needed was a significant amount social-emotional help. The child is still responsible for the decisions made, but their ability to make those decisions has undeniably been shaped by their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This students issues extend well-beyond the confines of school.

I was recently reading a dated article entitled, Why a Great Principal Burned Out — and What Might have Prevented It.  The subject of the article, Principal Nat Pickering, is quoted as saying:

The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.

I believe that these two brief sentences may be the most powerful synopsis of the struggles of public education (especially for schools in high poverty areas) I have ever read. Situations like my experience on Friday are not unusual. On a daily basis, my counseling, administrative staff members, and teachers confront the realities of a society and school system that places tremendous amounts of pressure (academic and social) on our kids, many of whom are suffering from both acute and chronic trauma. Students are asked to deal with high stakes testing, pressure to get on a high school “success track” (AP, honors, etc.), GPAs, and class rank — just to name a few. This can be daunting for grounded kids with a strong support network, but it is extremely doubtful that students who come to school hungry; are the victims of verbal, physical, or sexual, abuse; and live in extreme poverty will be able to focus on what they need to do to be academically successful. Many are just trying to survive. Their success depends on the school and community’s ability to address a plethora of mental health, social-emotional, medical, and financial needs. It is an overwhelming task — for school staff and students. Trauma in our schools is real, and it has a significant impact on our students and our educators.

Childhood trauma can be a significant issue, even where it might not be expected. For example, my school is located near downtown Chandler, Arizona — certainly a more impoverished area of the city, but not considered to be “too bad” compared to other parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. However, according to a 2015 report, published by the Superior Court of Arizona, our zip-code has the highest number of referrals to the juvenile justice system in the county (see page 64 of the report). This is not to say this is necessarily the most impoverished, or crime ridden area in the county — but it does highlight the fact that high levels of trauma can be hidden in schools and communities where they might not be expected. In addition, one should not misconstrue this data to suggest that Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma are a “poor school” or “poor community” problem.” Students suffering from ACEs are in attendance at every school in our country. That is why we need more attention, empathy, and support for what our educators do on a daily basis. Just like many other professions, education has become increasingly complex and the stakes for our children have never been higher. For some, it may truly be a matter of life, or death.

So what do we do? In addition to continuing to learn about this complex issue, here are five reasonable ways to begin to address childhood trauma.

  1. I would suggest we take a closer look at the issue of trauma in our communities and how it might be impacting kids in our local schools. It is not a problem we can ignore without a lasting and detrimental impact. We need to have an understanding, an accurate picture, of what childhood trauma looks like in our schools. Know the who and the what.
  2. Provide support and encouragement to those who are engaged daily in helping meet student needs — emotional, social, medical, and academic. In spite of what some might believe, or say, about the education profession — serving the needs of the whole child is a taxing and stressful occupation. Those who choose to dedicate their professional lives to working with our children deserve our accolades, encouragement, and support. I am extremely thankful for my staff and specifically our two counselors. They are absolutely top-notch and the service they provide far exceeds their compensation.
  3. If you are an educator, begin to intensely examine the “why” behind student behaviors. Understand that when kids are walking around wounded on the inside, they are likely to display symptoms on the outside (attitudes, actions, and behaviors). Become informed about ACEs and trauma informed practice so that you can be a contributing member of the team that is needed to meet the needs of the whole child.
  4. Consider what you can do to tie into, or support, important community organizations. For example, food banks, health clinics, mental health care providers, and shelters. In our community, the Chandler Care Center, Live Love, ICAN, The Boy’s and Girl’s Club, and Fans Across America are just a few of many organizations that provide resources to combat the effects of childhood trauma.
  5. Contact your state legislators and ask what they are doing to provide adequate levels of financial support to our schools — funding for appropriate facilities, adequate staffing (including counselors, psychologists, health assistants, behavioral specialists, and teachers). If you are in Arizona, this is especially critical. Our schools are woefully underfunded and current efforts to expand charter schools and school choice are leading to defacto segregation and underfunding/understaffing of some of our schools with the greatest need.

We need to understand the enormous task we are asking of public educators and be willing to support their efforts. I will close with another paragraph from the article about Principal Nat Pickering.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socio-emotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.

Right now, at least in Arizona, the “wrap-around services” Nat mentions are either lacking or stretched to their limits. Children are falling through the cracks and it is time to demand the support needed to give every child hope for their future.

Everyone deserves hope.

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 😉

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.

What If We Are Only As Good As Our Fifth Runner?

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St. John, Kansas Cross Country Team – State Champions 2016

I love cross-country.

You know, the sport where you run off-road, up hills, and around trees.

I was an average cross-country runner in high school, but I learned a lot from the sport and really enjoy my teammates and camaraderie. Here is a link to article that does a pretty good job explaining some of the life lessons that cross-country teaches young people. But this post isn’t about those lessons, it is about how the sport is scored. Yes. Scoring.

Cross country is a team sport in which the finishing position of the top five runners is totaled to arrive at final score. The lower the number, the better. For example, a perfect score in cross-country would be fifteen (1+2+3+4+5). The important thing to consider in this scoring method is that a team is only as good as its fifth place runner. A team that puts four runners in the top ten could still lose a meet if their fifth runner struggles. My brother coaches cross country in Kansas, and last year his team won a state championship with only two runners in the top twenty. They won the meet by one point. Every position mattered — even (or especially) that fifth runner. In the sport of cross country it pays to invest time in EVERY runner, from the fastest to the slowest, because any of the runners on your team could be the difference between winning and losing.

That’s a great philosophy to apply in a lot of situations. Perhaps, there are times when we are only as good as our proverbial “fifth runner.” Our greatest challenge. That means we not only need to invest in building upon our strengths, but also in overcoming our weaknesses.

From a individual perspective, perhaps you excel at many aspects of your job, but you struggle with accepting what you can, and can not, control (I don’t know anyone who struggles with that….eyeroll). It certainly makes sense to continue to build on your strengths, but getting beyond frustrations over what can’t be controlled is probably going to be a limiting factor to success (a “fifth runner”). It makes sense to invest some time in addressing this challenge.

From a organizational perspective, you may be the leader at a school where many students do exceptionally well and make tremendous yearly growth. But, perhaps you should consider defining the success of your school based upon the students who struggle the most (the “fifth runners”). It can be a real challenge to support these kids without doing so at the expense of the high performing students, but it is worth the investment. At least from an educational perspective, how many students can you “leave behind” and truly be considered an exceptional organization? I have heard this concept applied at the adult level by saying that a teaching staff is only as good as the teacher on staff who struggles the most, or a district is only as good as it’s school that faces the greatest challenges.

Finally, from a societal perspective, perhaps we are only as good as the way we care for the most marginalized in our communities (and our world). We can have thriving neighborhoods, a strong economy, and any number of success indicators, but maybe the true evidence of our success as a society is our advocacy for the poor, the homeless, the victimized, and those who experience discrimination — our unwillingness to accept these conditions (the “fifth runner”) as inevitable.  In a world that is so focused on success and status, this can be a real challenge. Whenever I consider those on the margins — in our schools, neighborhoods, and our world — I am reminded of the words of Father Greg Boyle (a man who has dedicated his life to working with some of the most despised and marginalized people in our society — hard-core gang members).

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

Sometimes it can seem counterintuitive to invest time, energy, and resources into the proverbial “fifth runner,” but perhaps that is actually the key to our success as individuals, schools, organizations, and as a society.

Don’t forget the fifth runner.


NOTE: if you are interested in learning a little more about the sport of cross-country, and its potential life lessons, I would suggest you check out the documentary The Long Green Line.

I also recommend watching this ESPN 20 for 20 clip called Run Hopi — an inspiring and heart-wrenching story about cross-country on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.

Run Hopi from Scott Harves on Vimeo.

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.