May the Fourth and Other Teachings from a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.
It’s May the 4th and, as a Star Wars fan (I cannot truly say “life-long Star Wars fan” as the movie came out when I was seven), I decided to use this edition of Teach & Serve to mention some of the lessons Star Wars taught me and the ways it inspired me as a teacher. I have often apologized to The Cinnamon Girl, my wonderful wife, because I don’t know if she realized, when we married, that I am in a perpetual state of story, that tales of heroines and heroes move me and that I cannot and do not want to shake heroic myth.
I took every class in my English major that related to heroes and myth. I found a way to work Star Wars into conversation, into essays, into my academic work. I was an undergrad in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though it is hard to imagine now, back then Star Wars wasn’t particularly hip. Neither was I. That’s easier to imagine.
In my early years teaching, I was assigned British Literature classes. Brit Lit was not my specialty or focus in college and I knew I needed to find a way in for myself, a way to love the subject matter so I could convey some passion to my students. The way in? Star Wars and the Hero’s journey. Long before teachers world-wide began talking about Harry Potter as the paradigm, Luke Skywalker was Gilgamesh, was Beowulf, was Odysseus, was King Arthur. The Force was with me.
When the initial preview for The Phantom Menace was released, my school had just spent a bundle installing Smart Boards in every classroom. As a teacher, I was just mastering the technology. As a Star Wars geek, however, I knew what to do with it: stream that preview on the giant smart board time and time again. And invite friends. I really have no idea how many times I and other like-minded nerds watched that thing. More than a handful to be sure…
I wrote about what Star Wars means to me on the day The Force Awakens was released. I’ve never written, though, about the lessons Star Wars taught me. So, in no particular order and off the top of my head, here are Ten Lessons from Star Wars I brought into the classroom.
“There’s always another fish” – Qui Gon Jinn was a wise Jedi, indeed and his metaphor is spot on. Just when you think you’ve caught the biggest catch, there’s another one coming. Just when you feel you’ve lost the greatest opportunity you’ll ever have, another shows up.
“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view” – Teaching English afforded me and my students many things… what it rarely afforded (outside of grammar rules) was absolutes. Obi Wan was right.
You can be princess and warrior – Princess Leia was royalty and beautiful along with being tough and savvy. Not a bad role model for young women and I told them so when I taught them.
“Already know you that which you need” – Yoda knew what good teachers now – the process is not about information transfer, it’s about awakening what is already
We need mentors who don’t coddle us – Obi Wan and Yoda didn’t coddle Luke. Qui Gon Jinn didn’t coddle Obi Wan. They all loved their charges, let them know that and also held them accountable, just like good teachers do.
If you want to succeed, you have to believe – Remember when Luke didn’t believe he could use the Force to lift the X-Wing? That was why he failed.
Choose peace – Jedi do not use the Force for attack, but to center themselves, to connect to those around them and to learn.
Don’t get cocky – Thanks Han. Enough said.
Beware of “always,” “never” and other absolutes – “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” so we shouldn’t. Ever.
Know what you stand for and stand for it – Yoda sums up a mission statement as only Yoda can: “Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.”
During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
Mentoring That Changed My Students’ Lives
I completed my student teaching at a co-ed Catholic school in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, just over the Virginia state line. I was as intimidated as hell going into the practicum, as we called it, and nervous to meet the teacher with whom I would share a semester of my young life. The cooperating teacher to whom I was assigned seemed very, very seasoned. He was a veteran among his peers. I noted right away how they deferred to him and I felt that I’d been stuck with the “no fun” guy. One of my classmates was working with a gentleman who had already made it clear how to use personal days to the utmost: “never get caught at the end of the year with one” he told my friend. Later, this guy proved he lived by this mantra has missing a 3 days before and 3 days after the Kentucky Derby. I got the sense the 3 days before were so he could get tuned up and the 3 days after were to recover.
My cooperating teacher turned up his nose at this.
As I said, very seasoned. Frankly, he looked old.
That is my perspective now, 20 years after I worked with him. He was probably younger than I am now.
He taught me much, mainly through osmosis. I watched what he did; emulated his cadence. I learned strategy and management and craft and all of that was critically important and I began to fill my tool box, as it were, with things that he did. I reach into that box all the time.
One thing he said, though, has remained with me all these years. Working through his students’ final exams with him before summer break, I was surprised to see him change a grade. I won’t pretend that I remember what the exact numbers were, but I watched him move a student’s grade up a few percentage points – certainly more than one. He must have picked up on my surprise and he said: “If I don’t know these kids by now, I’ve done something wrong. Aren’t we paid to make these distinctions?”
In thinking about this blog, I went and google searched my old cooperating teacher. He retired last year and has published a book of prayer through Paulist Press. That’s one I’ll pick up.
22 years after I worked with him he’s still taking me to school.
Just How Old Do You Think I Am?
Teaching is sometimes – often? – an exercise in humility. I stopped short of writing “humiliation,” but that word is probably more accurate. When you stand in front of 4 – 5 collections of 25-odd young people daily, whether they are interested in what you have to say or not (spoiler alert – usually not), they are, in large part, staring at you. Sometimes they like what they see. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are judging you. Sometimes they are judging you.
Yeah, I wrote that twice.
I remember, in my first year teaching when I was 22 years old, standing in front of a class on Halloween. It was All Hallows Eve 1992. I had assigned them homework – this year, Halloween was in the middle of the school week – and was deflecting the complaints coming at me like fireflies to a light. They had plans, these juniors in high school. They were going to Trick-or-Treat. They had parties. They weren’t interested in whatever I wanted them to do.
I teased them. I told them that, when I was their age, I stayed in on Halloween and Christmas and worked. I loved school, I continued, and would skip parties and movies to be dedicated to my studies.
“Sure,” a girl in the front row said, “that’s what kids did. In the 1960s.”
So that happened.
An Apology Never Proffered
When I moved into administration it was as Dean of Students for the all girls Catholic high school at which I currently teach. In our model, the Dean of Students is responsible for maintaining student discipline and correcting serious student behaviors. It was, frankly, not a position I was dying to fill when it was opened, but I did want to move into administration and felt lucky to have the job.
I lasted two years.
In those two years, I dealt with a gun on campus, drugs in a bathroom, infractions against our dress code policy and various other sundry offenses, some highly notable, some not so much. I presided, most unfortunately, over the expulsion of one of our students – my worst day on the job – and was forced to recommend it for others. These things tore me up. The Dean job and I were not entirely compatible.
There was a drinking incident that I fondly remember because of its hilarity. On one of the last days of school – it may have been the actual last day of school and I do remember it was a Friday – rumors started flying among our very small student body (this was in the first year of existence for the school and we only had 172 students, all freshmen and sophomores) that a freshman had been drinking after school and was going to get on the bus drunk. The bus was going to take our students to Catholic Schools Night at Denver’s Elitches amusement park. The other administrators and I found the information we had credible and by “credible” I mean iron clad.
I had the fifth of vodka, disposed of hastily in a garbage can in the cafeteria
I had a Mountain Dew can which many girls reported seeing this freshman consuming that smelled – strongly – of alcohol
I had the student in my office which, upon her arrival, most suddenly smelled strongly of alcohol
I had written statements from at least 10 different students who had seen her drinking and heard her sharing her John LeCarre-like master plan of how she sneaked the vodka from home to school – in her book bag!
But the kid denied it. She denied it up and down. Asked me to “ask anyone!” Told me what a good kid she was and that she’d never, ever had a drink. Swore on a bible (not really; we don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore).
I made her call her mom in my presence on speakerphone and had her tell her mom what she was “in” for. Then I stepped in with my comments. I could tell mom was not altogether convinced of her daughter’s innocence, but it would take mom about an hour to get to school and I was stuck with the kid.
I put her on ice in the Main Office and went on about my work of wrapping up for the weekend. The she sat there, angry, stewing, ready to snap at me. After about 45 minutes of her death stares, I decided to give her one last chance.
“Drunken Obnoxious Girl (not her real name and I hope she’s not a Facebook friend),” I said, “we’ve been at this for over an hour. Your mom doesn’t seem to believe you. She’s on her way from work. She had to leave early. Didn’t sound too happy about it. Our principal doesn’t believe you. I don’t believe you. Are you saying that this is all going to end up with you proven innocent and my apologizing to you for wasting your time?”
“Yes,” said Drunken Obnoxious Girl, “that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Some Mistakes Are More Painful Than Others
Not all my teaching memories are good. Not all of them are funny. Unfortunately, not all of them make fill me with positive feelings about myself.
I have learned something from all of the experiences I’ve been reliving the last few days.
I am an administrator and my primary area of responsibility is supervision of faculty. The bad memories – the bad stories – they help me in two ways: first, they keep me honest and, hopefully, humble, and, second, they give me real stories to share.
There is always much to learn.
I teach young women. The chances of one of them finding herself in a difficult position goes up exponentially with the number of students who pass through the halls of the school. Hopefully, when that happens, these young women have the fortitude to make good choices from themselves and for the futures. We’ve been lucky to only have a few girls have to deal with these choices and I can say that I’ve been impressed by each of them.
I was teaching an AP English Literature class a few years ago. One of the students in the class was going to be late to school – about a month and a half late – so that she could make and live with the right choice for her life. I was so very impressed with her. She was, and I am certain, remains a terrific young woman. I knew she was coming back to class. I knew what day she would return. I was ready to deflect any uncomfortable comments around her, protect her from any derision. I guess I was so ready to do so that I lost sight of something very, very basic: my lesson plan in my own class for the day she returned.
The day she returned, I was conducting a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a class discussion for which students prepare for days. The research questions based on a novel or some other text so that they can speak intelligently and analyze deeply the work at hand. The idea is that their preparation allows them to carry on conversation without teacher intervention. It’s a big deal and, if done correctly, can be a very rewarding experience. The class had been prepping for this lesson for weeks. I was going to give the young woman a perfect score and move on, never mention what she’d been through, make this class a safe place.
She came in, I acknowledged her presence – didn’t call attention to her – and got the class in place for the seminar.
As the students began speaking, I almost cried. Truly. The seminar was moving. It was under its own power. I could have stopped it, but how? Wouldn’t that have called more attention to what was a painful and impossible situation? I could have stopped it and made a judgment call not to do so.
When teachers make bad decisions or handle situations poorly, when I would like to be disappointed in one of them, I remember this moment. I remember this young woman and her first day back.
I remember the Socratic Seminar on The Scarlet Letter.
. Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.
Do you hang out in the faculty lounge at your school? Do you spend time in your department office when you know you should be elsewhere? Does your school have a water cooler and do you stand around it even after you’ve filled up your trusty Nalgene or Camelback?
There is something that happens, often something good, when people are standing around the Faculty Lounge, are sitting in groups in their departments and are hanging out at the water cooler. There is a kind of kinship that takes place at the cooler, a synergy in the department, community building in the Lounge.
There are a great many things that we are not told in “teacher school.” There are a great many things never shared in interviews. There are a great many things we have to learn on our on in this work. One of those pearls of wisdom that we are rarely told before we sign a contract, especially our first, is how perpetually On we are when we are educators.
I used to say that teachers were On from the moment they stepped out of their cars in the parking lot in the morning. Then I had a teacher regale me with a story about how he followed the school’s bus through his neighborhood and the kids in the back of the bus were shooting “the universal sign of hello” at drivers, including him. They didn’t realize, of course, who he was. But that teacher felt compelled to deal with the students’ behaviors when he arrived at school. Clearly, the guy was On even before his loafers hit the macadam of the school’s lot.
So I modified this and said that teachers were On whenever they were in public. I mean, which of you hasn’t run into a student or, potentially worse, a parent at the mall or the movies and found yourself slipping readily into Teacher Mode? When we are in Teacher Mode, our voices change, our behaviors change, our psyches change. We are not just who we are; we are educator. Let’s make a good show.
When social media hit hard (I love sounding like a troglodytic dinosaur as I write!) and we dealt with our first teacher confirming a student Facebook friend and when I read the first inappropriate Tweet by a staff member, I revised this being “on” theory again. Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.
We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.
Because of that, the moments we steal together at the water cooler, the metaphorical one or the literal one, are so very important. Educational professionals need downtime with one another. They need a place to be with one another, to download among those who get it. They need a haven. From time immemorial, the water cooler has provided this refuge.
Are all the words shared at the water cooler constructive? Is every moment in the Faculty Lounge positive? Does some kind of egalitarian philosophy of thought and language dominate the discourse in the department office?
Am I an idiot?
Without question, there are moments at the water cooler that can tend towards the destructive rather than the constructive. There are “sessions” (we know what kind) that occur in the Faculty Lounge which are not necessarily concerned with school or personal improvement. There are conversations in the department office which do not showcase us as our best selves.
But even these, even they have their place. Sometimes we go to the water cooler to blow off steam. If we do not take that outlet, away from the students, among our peers, the steam will explode in some other context at some other time.
If we don’t go to the water cooler to praise one another, to laugh at each other, to take ourselves less, not more, seriously, we are surely missing out on the experience of sharing the work with our colleagues.
In my new role, I have a home office. My commute is 20 feet down the hallway from where I sleep. If one discounts the pets (and they are not terrific co-workers), I work alone, almost in isolation. So, when Skype for Business lights up, when an IM message tone rings, when I reach out to contact someone in our Chicago or Washington, DC office, I am immediately energized and in a better place.
I want some water cooler time, to react, to recharge, to revive, to renew. I want that water cooler time. I need it.
Emboldened by the Homilies, Embarrassed in the Hallways
… when we’re challenged to alter our course, we’re not talking about the simple things… we’re talking about significant changes, sea changes.
… starting soft and slow, like a small earthquake and when he lets go, half the valley shakes …
Neil Diamond, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show
There’s little like the feeling of hearing a good homily or listening intently to a sermon or sharing that touches the heart and the mind. There’s a certain energy I feel when I’ve heard a terrific reflection – an energy that enlivens and emboldens. Like many people, I have been touched by homilies when I am at mass and other religious services be these homilies given by priests or deacons or lay women or men. I have heard words that have inspired, challenged and moved me and have left liturgies inspired to talk, to change and to do.
Likewise, I have gone to thousands of hours of workshops on teaching and administration, have heard from educators at professional development opportunities – conferences and the like – and have embraced the messages they’ve given. Leaving these PD opportunities I have walked away ready to change my teaching or my leadership. I have been motivated to be a better educator by what I have seen, what I have heard and the passion with which the message was delivered.
Inevitably, following these experiences, I head back to my life – to my desk or to my classroom – considering implementation of what I have heard, of what I have learned. And, without always being conscious of this fact, I begin a certain calculus: if the changes I have been inspired to envision deal with me and me alone and if they don’t represent much risk, they have a pretty good chance of happening. If they involve my relationships with others or require me bringing others on board for whatever change I am envisioning, they may well happen, but will take some work. If the changes are significant and will necessitate shifts in myself and others from ways we’re comfortable proceeding to ways we are not – ways that are new and different – then they chances they will occur fall. Tremendously.
So, personal easy changes I am willing to make. More challenging changes that involve others, I would like to make. Vast paradigm shifts for me and those around me, I am afraid to make.
Inspiration, where have you gone? Where was the boldness of the moment after the homily, during the applause at the conference, when I was writing my notes about a speech?
Let’s be honest: when were touched by someone’s words, when we’re challenged to alter our course, we’re not talking about the simple things, those things we can easily change in ourselves or ways in which we can quickly improve our environments at work, we’re talking about significant changes, sea changes.
It’s so much easier to smile about the homily and let it go. So many fewer feathers get ruffled when we say “yeah, I heard some really wonderful ideas at that conference last week” but we don’t really try to implement them. Our situations, personal and professional, seem somehow more secure when we’re not leading the call to action, the call to change.
I often feel emboldened by the homilies, but embarrassed in the hallways, as though my excitement over some message I’ve heard and want to share is somehow something of which to be ashamed, as if my interest in improvement and my desire to engage others on it is somehow silly.
For people who seek continual self-reflection and for institutions that are about perpetual self-renewal, embracing and preaching the message, singing the good news of who we are and what we can be is critically important.
Listen for what emboldens you, reach for what can improve you, search for that which will change your culture for the better. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t be embarrassed.
Be happy you heard the call.
It’s love, love Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show. Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes, ‘cause everyone knows about Brother Love’s show…
Neil Diamond, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show
People who have spent a significant amount of time studying leadership look to their supervisors, their bosses, their superiors and note a disconnect between the principles of good leadership and what is going on in some of their schools.
I have spent the last three weeks of my professional life with groups of educational professionals who have been sent by their administrations to take part in workshops that are about, on one level or another, leadership. Some have formal leadership roles in their schools – principals, assistant principals, deans of students, department chairs, program directors, coaches – and some have informal leadership in their schools, wielding influence at their institutions in various manners both subtle and overt.
There weeks have been terrific and the overwhelming majority of the people with whom I’ve spent time reassures me that the future of school leadership is in very, very good hands. Committed, conscientious and compassionate, most of the people with whom I’ve worked these last weeks have affected me, have made me think back with great fondness to my years in schools and have inspired me to think what great institutions could be constructed if these people were the building blocks.
Yet, at some point these weeks it occurred to me that back in the “real world,” back at their schools when they are plying their trade in the trenches – as it were – many of these very people who have spent a significant amount of time studying leadership look to their supervisors, their bosses, their superiors and note a disconnect between the principles of good leadership and what is going on in some of their schools.
I have read Simon Sinek (and, if you’re interested in leadership, you should, too – Start with Why is particularly good) and watched his TED talks and one of the maxims I have heard him say is simply true: there is a difference between leaders and those who lead.
Take a look at a school organizational chart. Schools are lousy with formal leaders. From presidents to principals and on down the diagram, there is no shortage of “leaders” in schools. In fact, some schools are shockingly top heavy with leadership.
What there might be a shortage of is people who actually lead.
Show me a school with people in leadership positions who actually lead and I will show you a schools that is unafraid, that is humble, that is ready to innovate, collaborate and change, that is positioned to charge into an unknown future safe in the knowledge that it knows why it does what it does. Show me a school with people who lead and I will show you a school with more fulfilled and empowered employees than not, more teachers energized by their work, more students sharing responsibility their learning, more successful outcomes. Show me a school with leaders who lead and I will show you a school that I would support, a school to which I would send my children, a school in which I would want to serve.
I’ve been thrice blessed over the course of the last 30 days to reconnect with old friends.
We tend to be overly nostalgic about our college years. I had a great time in college, to be sure, but, again, the best years of my life were not concluded when I turned 22. Likewise, we wax poetic about our early years in our first jobs. No, they weren’t really as great as we remember them. I never believed the high school years were the best years of my students’ lives. I cringe when I hear that sentiment voiced at orientations or graduations. I mean the high school years are, literally, spent between the ages of 14 and 18. Am I supposed to believe that my best years were over almost 30 years ago? That would be a depressing thought, indeed.
However, there is something very special about these periods of our lives and about the people with whom we share them, and it’s a platitude I’ve shared with many a student in many a class at many an occasion over the years that I’ve only recently come to know as true.
I’ve been thrice blessed over the course of the last 30 days to reconnect with old friends. I literally almost typed “old, old friends,” but I feared that might imply that the people I am talking about are elderly. They are not. They are my contemporaries which means, by any definition by which I view myself, that they are not old at all!
Interesting to me is that all three of these companions came to me through my educational life. These relationships all spun out of my connection to schools and schooling and the bonds forged over those experiences seem to be stronger than I had previously imagined.
I was treated to an amazing day in Los Angeles by the first of these old friends. It was such an incredible experience of generosity on his part that the whole thing is frankly hard to explain. Suffice it to say that he allowed me to see and touch my own personal Disneyland. Incredible. We reconnected over Facebook a few years ago and hadn’t seen each other for over 25 years before he hosted me (and The Magister) at his home and place of work for 24 indelible hours.
He and I had known each other in high school. I was Schroeder to his Charlie Brown in a production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown when I was a junior and he was a senior. We were on the yearbook staff together. We spent many a night at rehearsals or working on deadlines or at cast parties talking, dreaming about girls, our futures, our place in the world – you know, like high school kids do.
The second old friend was stranded in Colorado when a snowstorm shuttered airports all over his home state of North Carolina. He’d been in Denver for a fact-finding trip, studying exemplary schools on three precise days that I was actually away from my home city! We weren’t going to get to see one another but, as fate would have it, he was stuck in Colorado and I was able to return home before he left. The breakfast we shared on an early Saturday morning was the best meal I’d had in a long, long time.
He had been the Best Man in my first wedding, but we had met years earlier in college. We were selected to be Resident Assistants the same year. We were both English majors. We were both into music, though he was always (and remains) far more talented than I. I was Diamond to his Jade and when we lobbied for and were assigned to be RAs of the same dorm, we wreaked havoc as the greatest tandem ever… at least that’s what we thought.
Traveling to Xavier University on a work trip, I connected with my third old friend, primarily because the organization for which I work had asked him to be the keynote speaker at a major event we hold every third summer. Walking across the Xavier campus on a crisp January morning I could feel my exciting building to see him. Coming into his office – seeing the manner in which it was decorated and feeling the vibe my friend had created, I felt immediately welcomed and sank into comfortable repartee.
He and I were hired the same year at Regis Jesuit High School and he was part-and-parcel to my experience of my early years in education. We spent our work hours together. We spent our off hours together. We had a tight group of friends that shared life, day-in-and-day-out. I was Downbound to his Train, rhythm guitar to his lead piano, melody to his harmony.
Three friends in 30 days. I got to reconnect with three friends in 30 days. Each of the encounters were, in their own way, unexpected. It was something of a lark to see my first friend in Los Angeles. It was incredible luck to see my second friend at home. It was shocking when my boss told me “I have a great idea for a speaker for us…” and suggested my third friend. I got to see three old friends in 30 days. Three friends who had incredible impacts on my life when I was younger. Three friends who came to me through my schooling as a high schooler, a college student and as a teacher.
Seeing them now, as a man in my later 40s, made me realize something I’ve often said to students that I don’t know that I’d ever really experienced and it’s a truth I don’t think it’s just true for me. The connections we make in schools matter. They count. They influence us in how we think, what we believe and who we are.
It’s not that I didn’t know that. It’s not that I needed to learn that lesson. I just don’t know that I had ever experienced it like I did last month.
My high school friend is living his life in the precise manner he wants to. I so admired him in high school because he always seemed so at home in his own skin and comfortable with himself is clearly what he is. Comfortable, warm, generous. If I have any of those qualities, I learned them from him when we were high schoolers.
My college friend is a deeply thoughtful, talented educator. He is driven to make the world around him a better place for his students and his teachers. A devoted family man with a resonant and contagious laugh, he inspired me in college and inspires me now. I wanted to be more like him when we were in college and I want to be more like him now.
My teacher friend is a true contemplative in action, just like he was when we signed our teaching contracts together. Even tempered and spiritual, I was forever in awe of his manner and his grace. His faith guided his life when we were young and still does. I often wondered how to model myself on his example and I still do.
Being in the presence of each of these men was something of a time warp. The intervening years from the last time we’d seen one another to the day we reconnected vanished. With each of them, I felt I was picking up where I’d left off, stepping into a well read and much loved chapter of my favorite novel and reading it all over again.
The friends we make in our youth have great influence on us. They help us conceptualize the world – help us make sense when nothing makes sense. Their example imprints on us. Their approval moves us. Their friendship makes us. Those words we offer as educational professionals about how our school friends will be at our weddings, the births of our children, our funerals, these are true words. I’ve preached them many times and preach them here, again, today.
The connections we make in school matter. There is wonder in them. There is grace.
And I was lucky enough to revisit three such connections in the last month to drive that point home.
As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession.
During one year of my administrative career, I served as Acting Principal of my alma mater, the school where I had worked for almost two decades. I could devote an entire series of posts to the perils of the words “Acting” or “Interim” before the word “Principal” and perhaps I one day will. Frankly, being an “acting” anything is an almost impossible challenge and success in the role is dependent upon many factors – especially the support one has from one’s superior.
But that’s a story for another day.
In February of the year of my acting principalship, a teacher I knew well and respected, a teacher I had when I was a student (remember, this was my alma mater), a teacher under whom I had worked in any number of capacities in my years at the school approached me. He informed me a student was failing his class and was unlikely to make a passing grade for the semester. This student had failed first semester and grading policy at our school was such that if he passed second semester, his failing grade for first semester – a grade we called the “K” grade – would become a “D” and the student would be awarded whatever grade he earned for second semester. As things stood, I was told, there was “no chance” this student would pass second semester. According to the teacher, the kid was simply not grasping the material. And he had no chance of grasping to a degree by which he could pass the class. The student couldn’t do the work, the teacher informed me. The student as so far behind the curve in terms of the material (in February according to the teacher) that the wouldn’t and couldn’t pass the class.
The class was Algebra I. The student was working very hard.
I should know. The student was my step-son.
And the teacher was convinced, in February, that he should fail the class.
That I was compromised and biased in this situation is obvious. On reflection, I see myself as entirely cowardly as well. I was principal, acting though I might be, and was within my purview to intervene.
I did not.
Allowing that teacher to fail my step-son in February was a mistake and it remains one of the worst professional decisions I have ever made. Frustrated and angry, not at my best and not having taken enough time to reflect on the scenario, to call in the advice of those I trusted and to challenge my step-son’s teacher’s policies, I acknowledged – I didn’t accept – what the teacher was telling me, pulled my step-son out of the class creating a study hall for him though our school didn’t offer study halls (being Acting Principal had to have some privileges) and never looked at my colleague in quite the same manner again.
I have never looked at myself in quite the same way again, either.
My step-son had struggled mightily in this Algebra I class throughout the first semester of his freshman year. During the first semester we tried everything. I spent many a night trying to assist him with the material. When the limits of my algebra knowledge were reached – and they were reached very quickly, my wife and I hired a number of tutors for my step-son, finding that the fit wasn’t right with most of them. We met with my step-son’s teacher searching for solutions. We explained to the teacher that my step-son had a diagnosed processing disorder and discussed how he best responded to instruction in class. Finally, we settled on a tutor who my step-son liked and to whom he responded well. For a few weeks, my step-son showed some significant signs of improvement, but circumstances changed and this tutor became less effective as assignments wore on. That my step-son’s teacher became increasingly less cooperative with the tutor is a sad but true statement.
So, my step-son failed Algebra I and, by the end of that year, transferred from the school. The teacher who failed him remains. The Acting Principal who let this all go on is no longer at the school.
What came next is what is instructive. Somehow deciding in the first semester of his sophomore year and his new school that he loved math, somehow deciding that he was a gifted math student despite his earlier failure and somehow deciding that he wanted to take an Advanced Placement math course by the time he graduated high school, my step-son took control. He met with his counselors and math teachers and plotted an ambitious schedule of math courses for himself over the remainder of his high school career. This plan included him taking Algebra II and Honors Geometry concurrently during his junior year, taking an online and self-directed Calculus class during the summer between his junior and senior years so that he would be ready to take AP Calculus AB his last year of high school. Oh, and he had to get A’s or B’s in these classes to satisfy his teachers and counselors.
He received all A’s.
Do you see where this is going?
After failing Algebra I, this kid worked as hard as I’ve seen any kid work to get to a senior level, AP math class. And he took the AP test. And he got a 4.
The message here is less about my step-son (and I could write post-after-post about this kid, about the incredible kid he is) than it is about the teacher who failed him.
While one could make the argument that my step-son’s failure motivated him to work as hard as he did, I contend that that argument is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine what might have happened if that teacher had worked with my step-son for, clearly, my step-son had the drive and the ability to do great things.
As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession. It’s not for us to limit them. We work with them, in every way we can, to help them grow. That’s the mission.
Yes, some students will not meet the standards by which we must judge their performance and, at the end of the day, some will take all we offer and do nothing with it. But, let’s be honest: