It’s Never “It Is What It Is” When It Comes To Kids

I have never been one who gets excited for New Year’s Resolutions. It is not that I do not think it is valuable to start anew, develop a new habit, or to break an old one; it is more that I try to commit to resolutions each week and, sometimes, each day.  

The key word here is try. I will try to eat healthy, learn Spanish, disconnect from my phone, be less moody, avoid flipping the bird to that person who cuts me off in traffic.

I try and, more times than not, I fail, as was clearly evident the other day on my drive to work. Unfortunately, an older lady had the pleasure of seeing me speed up alongside her and give her a look of disgust that can only be conjured when you feel true anger.

Her indiscretion was cruising along at 35 MPH in the passing lane for goodness sake! Imagine my embarrassment when I realized the driver of the powder blue Buick that was the cause of my strife was old enough to be my grandmother.

I thought I turned my anger into a huge smile quick enough to avoid upsetting her. At first, I thought she didn’t notice the death stare; she was on in years after all. As her hand rose, I thought I was about to get a wave and smile. To my surprise, grandma had a different gesture in mind–an Italian salute–one that, to be honest, I deserved.  

It hasn’t been all failures though.  After 46 years of trying, I am starting to see some progress.  I meditate pretty consistently, write in my gratitude journal, and, overall, am a much happier person in my 40’s than I was in my 20’s despite the loss of my jump shot and my ever diminishing eyesight.  I no longer run as hot as I once did, but controlling my inner anger and keeping things in perspective is a challenge each and every day.

That is why I decided to start 2019 with a challenge. Who doesn’t like a challenge after all?  I forked over the $25 to one of my favorite authors and student of stoicism Ryan Holiday to participate in his 14 day Stoic Challenge. The challenge consists of Mr. Holiday sending me daily emails with a task to complete that will hopefully lead to continued self improvement.  

At first it seemed a bit silly to pay good money to be told things I already know I should be doing, but, surprisingly enough, I have found the first six days to be worth it.

I was doing great with Day One of the challenge, “let go of anger.”  

“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane—since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.”

— Seneca, On Anger, 3.1.5

When I read the above quote it confirmed what I have known for a long time. Anger makes any problem worse; anger is a seductive fuel that tricks us into thinking it is our friend when, in fact, it destroys most of what is dear to us.  I went along with Mr. Holiday’s directions and wrote down all the anger I was holding onto in 2018, all the incidents, people, injustices that had taken up so much of my energy the previous year.

Then I snuck outside hoping no one would see me as I attempted to burn the list, in turn letting go of all of my anger.  

I got over my embarrassment, but my old friend anger started to creep back into my stomach after the paper failed to light after 15 freaking attempts. But, this 2019 version of me is too good to succumb to anger. I stopped, took a breath, and smiled.

I smiled because I remembered the generator I had purchased last winter. It wasn’t so much the generator that made me smile, but the fact that with that generator I had bought and filled several gas cans, and now I finally had reason to use one. After dousing my anger list I knew not only would my 2018 grievances be burned away, but that little bit of fire bug inside of me would be pleased as well.  

As luck would have it, just as my list lit up in a blaze of glory my wife and oldest walked outside catching me in the act, offering nothing but two in-sync head shakes at what a dope I am.  

I was pleasantly surprised that this trick helped to keep me grounded and better manage my anger.  

That was until a friend of mine reached out to vent about one of his son’s teachers.

This friend is a former colleague and current administrator.  We have a strong enough relationship that we can “bust each other’s chops.” In fact, he often likes to poke fun at some of my “Pollyanna” articles. He once teased,  “I have your next piece: ‘Be nice to kids, don’t give homework, and let them play’.” I had to chuckle and also reflect that maybe it was time for an article with a different angle.  

I could tell though that this was not one of those conversations. I could tell he was sharing something important and something that upset him.   I was just about to spew this quote on him that my new buddy Ryan Holiday had shared:

“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.8

That was until he told me the story and shared the email he had received from one of his son’s teachers.  After reading the email it didn’t matter how many lists I burned, times I meditated, or how many books I read, my new found anger was not going to go away.  

His son’s IEP teacher sent an email to the principal and other teachers, disparaging my friend and his son. What she didn’t realize was she had mistakenly included dad on the email.  

“I had a meeting with dad and suggested a self contained science class, which he is completely against, he can’t handle the work, he can’t focus to save his life, he is unmotivated and lazy, the only thing he seems to like or be good at is walking in the halls with his headphones on.”  Dad won’t like it, but it is what it is, dad just doesn’t get it he has unrealistic expectations.”

NO IT IS NOT…IT IS NOT “IT IS WHAT IT IS” when it comes to students.

The email sent me off on a tirade of texts to my friend:

  • Kids learn differently, kids are motivated by different things, kids are not one size fits all cogs in the wheel of school.  
  • Maybe the only reason he likes walking the halls with his headphones in is because her teaching is poor and the kid is bored to tears.
  • It is wrong when schools label kids who aren’t good at sitting, conforming, and getting all the information we deem important as not college material.
  • Maybe he is zoning out because she frightens him, and he knows she thinks he is incapable.  
  • How would she react if her principal felt that way about her or got in her face to fire directions and disappointments at her?
  • This lady does not belong in education; it’s obvious she doesn’t believe in kids.

In my angry state it felt good to send these texts, especially since they included a creative array of expletives I learned from my father over the years.  

Was I angry? Damn straight I was. And, despite The Stoic Challenge, I fell back into my unstoic old habits.  I wanted a pound of flesh: let’s get her back.

Luckily, my friend had cooled off and calmed me down. He explained that he had demanded a meeting with principal, a new teacher, and a different class.  His son has been excelling since that change.

Although it was a relief that his son was doing well and this issue had been resolved, my anger did not go away.

How many students are stifled, made to believe they are less than?

In this case it was corrected because an inadvertent email was sent and the parents understand how the game of school works.  How many times does something like this go unnoticed?

Success in school does not guarantee success in life.

Lack of success in school does not guarantee failure in life.

We are afraid to make statements like these in education because we fear it marginalizes what we do. If we say it, kids will become less motivated.

Guess what?

We would be hard pressed to do a better job of killing motivation than our education system currently does. Students become increasingly more bored as they move through school, as indicated by a 2013 Gallup Poll which found that 8 in 10 Elementary students are engaged in school and, by the time they reach 11th grade, that number shrinks to 4 in 10.  More information can be found here.

Why? And, more importantly, what can we do?

Focus On Who They Are, Not What They Will Be

We need to stop using the word potential, stop guessing what kids can and can’t be. Potential says what you can be in the future; we need to help kids figure out what they can be now!  Get them excited about something they can do today! Let’s give them a cause, a problem to solve, a way to make the school better, their community better. Let them know you can be a leader today. Regardless of your age, you can make a difference.  

One only has to look to Parkland, Florida. You would be hard pressed to find many adults who could deliver the type of speech that Emma Gonzalez delivered in front of hundreds of thousands of people.  Is she a future leader?  No, she is a leader today! Our kids have something to offer today.  We need to embrace and encourage that.

Stop Labeling Kids

“He is a solid B student…She is not college material…Mom and Dad are unrealistic about what their child can do…He is never going to be a…”

I am embarrassed to say I have been guilty of statements like this in the past, but never again.  Who the heck are we to say what someone can or can’t be? It is not our job to help students avoid setting unrealistic expectations; it is our job to help them find the perfect unrealistic expectation for them, one that fits their passions, desires, and skills. We need to be the makers of dreams, not the destroyers of dreams.

Focus On The Positive

We do this with ourselves. I wish my nose was smaller…I wish I was a little bit taller… I wish I was a… It doesn’t matter what it is we wish we could fix about ourselves, we all have that something and that something gets in the way of letting us embrace all that we are good at, all our strengths.  We need to be careful as educators not to do this to our kids. Not to focus on all they do wrong, but what it is they do well and celebrate and cultivate that. David Rendall does an excellent job of describing this philosophy in his book Freak Factor.  He argues that every weakness has a correlating strength. It is just a matter of being put in the right situation.

Can’t sit still or has a great motor?

Arrogant or confident?

Unrealistic or hopeful?

Boring or unflappable?

It is our job to find out what our kids are good at and celebrate that, and put it to use rather than always trying to fix them.

Keep It In Perspective

It is more important that our students are healthy emotionally, that they understand right from wrong, that they can express themselves than ensuring they have a clear and concise understanding of the enduring issues that lead to the World War II.

It is more important that students pursue a field that is a good fit for them than getting into the most prestigious University.  It is more important that they have a meal with their Grandmother than spending that hour studying for their Math test. Kids put so much pressure on themselves, parents put pressure on them as well; we must be sure that as educators we help to keep things in perspective.  Is the valedictorian of your class the one who has had the most success in life? How about the classmate who got into the best college? Was the best athlete?

We have to be a voice of reason for our kids, especially now when we are seeing drug addiction, suicide, and mental health issues rising at an alarming rate.

We do not know what types of jobs our students will be vying for in the future.  Our world is changing at a pace that is becoming harder and harder to keep up with. The class of 2031 (current Kindergarteners) may never have to drive a car.  How long before pizza boys are replaced with drones?

When will the last mall close for good, replaced by a virtual shopping experience that you will not have to leave home for?  

We don’t have these answers; no one does. No one knows what the future will bring, what jobs will be the highest paying, what skills will be most valued.

It has been said that we need not to prepare our students for the future, but prepare them for any future. I used to believe that. Now I am starting to realize that it is our job to help them be successful now, to be leaders now, to embrace their strengths now because no matter what, there will always be a now.  It is our job to teach them to be healthy, happy, good people because being happy, being a good person will never go out of style.

I am committing to get back to my Stoic Challenge.  I am promising myself I will work on my anger, contain it, and I will not use it as a fuel. Unless, of course, a child is wronged. Unless it is used to make school and our world a better place for kids.