Teach & Serve No. 27 – Preaching What I Preach, My Friends

Teach & Serve 

No. 27 * February 17, 2016


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Preaching What I Preach, My Friends

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.

Jan 2016 Sean Gaillard Jeff Howard
The Esteemed Principal and me 20 years didn’t make one minute of difference!

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.

Teach & Serve No. 24 – Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

Teach & Serve 

No. 25 * February 3, 2016


Related Content from And There Came A Day:


Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

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.

failing-grade-editIn 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.

In February.

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:

Students don’t fail in February, teachers do.