I had a hard time starting this piece; not because I have writer’s block, not because someone wronged me and I was hurt, but because I was the one who made the mistake; I was the one who hurt a student.
This is a mistake that bothers me to this day, one that I wish I could take back. For better or worse, it is a mistake that helped to shape me into the educator I am today.
I have made plenty of mistakes over my career. As difficult as it is to face them and learn from them, that is something that I try to do each and every time. The funny thing is that it never becomes easier to face our inadequacies, our failures, and those times when we didn’t live up to expectations. But, it is an essential part of growth and improvement. Ryan Holiday eloquently demonstrates how we can turn mistake and misfortune into a positive in his enlightening book The Obstacle is the Way.
This particular mistake was different though, one I am embarrassed of, but one that has made me a better leader because I am determined not to repeat it again.
I was in my first year as Principal in a small District in New York. I was barely 30 at the time. I was serving the 250 or so students in my Middle School that lived in the same building as the District’s High School. I was also the Athletic Director and Varsity Basketball Coach. It is true when they say you do everything including driving the bus when you work in a small District. I had, in fact, driven some of our athletes to and from contests in the school owned minibus on more than one occasion.
I was determined to be a great administrator; I worked 60 plus hours a week. I was friendly, visible, and smart enough to ask my mentor, Paul the High School Principal, for advice when difficult decisions had to be made. I look back and can’t believe how much I didn’t actually know, how many mistakes I made, and I am embarrassed by some of the programs I implemented.
One cringe worthy activity that thrived under my leadership was “The ELA Games.” These were a series of competitions that I organized to increase the school’s low NYS ELA exam scores. We had weekly contests that basically consisted of test prep in the various portions of the test with a culminating “Championship” that was a practice NYS ELA exam. The top team and students won prizes. I was so creative and innovative that we even had a Pep Rally to recognize the high achievers. I thought I was so clever! We had a huge jump in our results. Look at me taking my athletic strategies and applying them to academics!
Thankfully, I have evolved and learned from that atrocity, which I now realize helped to promote test prep, rather than develop the love of reading, writing, and creative thinking. I now realize this type of instruction is detrimental to the field of education in the long haul. This is another testament to why we need to always examine, reflect, and be willing to evolve in our thinking.
I also think back to that year and another horrific mistake I made. I was having a conversation with a parent who was upset that one of my basketball players, a senior was dating his daughter. The girl was a sophomore and dad felt too young to date a senior . He insisted that I put Manny on the phone so he could just speak to him to discuss his rules and expectations for dating his daughter. I was convinced that once he spoke to Manny and realized what a great kid he was, he would have no choice but to bless this courtship. As you can imagine the conversation went south quickly and I had to nearly rip the phone out of Manny’s hand as this parent berated him. I still can’t believe I wasn’t fired for that one.
Thankfully under Paul’s guidance I immediately called Manny’s mother to apologize for my mistake. She must have felt sorry for me because she let me off the hook. Manny was a kid who was mature beyond his years and just laughed off my blunder. He later said “I wanted tell you I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings”
I think that is what saved me early in my career; despite my mistakes and inexperience, I was always willing to admit when I screwed up and my kids knew how much I cared about them and was always in their corner.
That’s what makes this next mistake I am going to describe so difficult. The decision I made was not in the best interest of one of my students and I can still see her sad face with tears welling up in her eyes as I gave her my final no.
It was the first dance of the year, we were in a brand new school and, due to some creative advertising by tapping into skills learned as a “sports guy”, the dance had developed somewhat of a buzz, especially among 6th grade students.
It was becoming the talk of the school the week leading up to the “Little Hambletonian”. The dance would be a semi formal event and would be attended by pretty much all 250 students who attended Chester Middle School.
As a first year Principal I was determined to make our school great, but to also gain the respect of the veteran teachers and staff members. One issue we were having was that many students hadn’t turned in their emergency cards. For those who don’t know an emergency card carries plethora of student information, most importantly contact information for who can pick up the student should the parents not be available. The fact that we didn’t have many of these cards may seem like a “First World Problem”, but in schools sometimes the little things are made into big issues, especially when an inexperienced Principal doesn’t know any better.
Two teachers who were decent instructionally, but weak in positivity were leading the charge–demanding that the students turn these cards in. Again, being the clever administrator I was, I decided that I would parlay the upcoming dance as a means to obtaining the coveted cards. The teachers pushing this were two who some referred to as the Simpson sisters, not because they lived together or were sisters, but because of their negative outlook and penchant for “ripping heaters” every chance they got. They were often seen shuffling out of the school to poison their lungs taking turns smoke boxing in each other’s cars during their prep periods.
I laid the law down; no student would be allowed into the dance without the emergency card. The dance was so desirable that the cards started pouring in! I didn’t think much more of it leading up to the dance; I was too busy planning. It’s rare to get Middle School kids to get overly excited about something school related, or at least admit they were excited. This was different. The dance was the talk of the school and in a good way.
The night of the dance finally arrived and I was loving it. I had that nervous buzz in my stomach that we all get when the big moment finally arrives. Part nerves for a fear that something might go wrong, part excitement that the only comes from when hard work finally pays off, and all adrenaline as your eyes dart around scanning the event looking for opportunities to make it perfect or avoid disaster. I was even brainstorming solutions to problems that haven’t and may never occur. No need because this event was going perfect!
The students were all dressed up, happy, and, most impressively for Middle School students, they were kind and empathetic towards each other. Several students came up to me telling me that this dance was lit! No it was 15 years ago–they didn’t say lit, but they gave me the 2001 version of lit. You get the point. The party was a hit, the music pumping, the smiles plentiful, kids were proud to be part of this school. Things were perfect. That was until one of the Simpson sisters tracked my down.
Ms. Bouvier came running towards me in a panic, with her arms flailing, and hair sticking straight up as if she had stuck her hand in the closest electrical outlet. My first fear was that there was a fight or some serious discretion. I asked Ms. Bouvier how things were. She replied with her usual retort “Just Ducky.” It didn’t matter if we were celebrating a student success, if it was a payday, or even if it was the day before the summer break, Ms. Bouvier always responded with the same response in a tone that let the listener know things were not in fact “Just Ducky.” She then proceeded to let me know that one of the 6th graders was trying to get into the dance without her emergency card.
When I arrived at the entrance, several sixth grade girls were waiting to get into the event, dressed to the nine and ready to possibly have their first slow dance with a member of the opposite sex. You could see by looking at them that they were excited and nervous as they subconsciously tugged at their evening wear and awkwardly shuffled from foot to foot as they tried to navigated their balance on their newly purchased high heels.
The girl without the emergency card explained that her father hadn’t filled it out, but she promised it would be turned in promptly on Monday. I was torn; I wanted to get back to the dance. I wanted Kelli to get to the fun, but I was standing in front of several students and teachers who I had made my emergency card rule very clear to. Whether it was teacher prep classes, admin courses, or parenting workshops I had attended, the guidance was always the same. When you make a rule or “threat” you better follow through or you will lose all credibility. This is why you don’t back yourself into a corner with a declaration like this one.
I asked Kelli if her parents were home and if they could fill out the emergency card. Kelli turned her eyes away and whispered “my dad is in the car.” I could barely make out what she had said over the song of the moment “Get Low”. I was still convinced I could solve this problem so I said, “great! I’ll get you a blank one and you can have him fill it out.”
She didn’t look as confident as I was that dad would oblige, but I trotted off to fetch her a card. Then I happily returned to the dance floor to awkwardly bounce my head up and down to the beat, or more accurately up and down not quite to the beat.
After a few more minutes of fun, the Simpson sister returned this time actually looking flustered. She barked out “YOU HAVE TO DEAL WITH HIM” That’s when I found Kelli’s dad red as a beet demanding that Kelli be let into the dance. I explained that wouldn’t be a problem as long as he filled out the emergency card. He laced into me with a few expletives and, in an immature effort to establish my manhood and authority as the leader of the school, I stood my ground. I was not going to be intimidated by an unreasonable parent. I even threatened the police if he continued to act inappropriately.
He shouted a few more curses, softer this time as he left obviously defeated with his tail between his legs.
I had won! I had proven that I was a capable leader willing to stick to his guns and stand up to anyone. That was how a felt for about 20 seconds until I caught Kelli’s eye and I saw a single tear rolling down her check ruining the makeup she had probably applied for the first time in her life. Her shoulders slouched as she followed dad out of the school.
I wish I could tell you that I chased after them and let Kelli into the dance, but I froze. I just stared and suffered through the rest of the night with a pit in my stomach. That night when I tried to sleep I couldn’t because I kept seeing Kelli’s sad face as she walked out of the school.
At that point I promised myself I would never make a decision again that was made to please an adult at the detriment of a student. I would never again let my pride get in the way. I would break the rules, written and unwritten if it was in the best interest of one of my kids. I have had worse nights in my life, but very few in my career that were worse than that one, and nothing I am less proud of than how I handled that situation.
Some good did come out of that night though. That low point as a self proclaimed kid first educational leader helped to shape some guidelines that I have used, improved, and have strengthened over the years. I have become more seasoned, more confident, and, now as a twenty plus year veteran, give less of a crap what people think of me. This philosophy has helped me to get there.
They have become my commandments, my principles, and I know if I follow them I will be the kid first educator I want to be. I know I will be able sleep well when my head finally hits the pillow because I have followed my “Why”
Never Penalize A Student For Their Parents’ Inadequacies
Kids can’t help who their parents are and chances are if their parents are not doing what they need to do for the school they are not doing what they need to at home. If a parent doesn’t pay their child’s overdue cafeteria bill, please don’t let your school provide them with a cheese sandwich or some other dreadful meal that meets the poorly designed federal guidelines for nutritional value.
This practice humiliates kids, reminds them that they are a “have not”, and, in many cases, will cause the student to skip lunch. Imagine spending thousands of dollars to educate a student each year, yet denying them lunch because their parents didn’t pay the $50 bill they have rung up eating Sloppy Joes? If this isn’t the definition of penny wise and dollar foolish I do not know what is. This becomes hard when obnoxious parents argue that they pay enough in school taxes and are not going to pay the cafeteria bill. In these cases try to think what it must be like to live with a person like this as a child.
Consequencing kids for parents who do not sign a test, agenda, or fill out an emergency card are practices that I just can not see the logic in supporting. If we know that students who lack appropriate parental support at home do not do as well in school, how can we further disadvantage them in our buildings? How about the permission slip for the field trip that mom, dad or grandma didn’t fill out ? What do you think Johnny will remember more about 4th grade: your awesome lesson or seeing everyone in his class hop on the bus for an amazing adventure to the zoo while he is stuck back playing board games with the clerical staff in the library? Do everything you can to get it! It can be verbal (initial it on the permission slip after you speak to someone on the phone), send the social worker for a home visit, go to the house yourself, but don’t let that be your students lasting memory of their year in your class. Sometimes we forget as adults how important these things are to kids!
Bend The Rules If It Is In The Best Interest Of A Student
This one may be a little controversial. We want to be consistent in our approach. I remember saying just that in my first administrative interview. “Kids will know what to expect of me. I will treat everyone the same no matter what!” Luckily I have evolved and I know from reading and working with Rick Wormeli that “Fair is not Always Equal”.
Sometimes rules are just stupid, left for interpretation, or are not in the best interest of the student in front of us. This doesn’t mean you do not hold students accountable, this doesn’t mean that you are “soft on crime” and it doesn’t mean that you are not consistent. It simply means that you are consistent in your approach to do what’s best for kids and what makes sense.
When rules don’t make sense it is ok to bend or break them. You want some examples? How about the student/athlete who arrives to school past the 12:00 deadline for participation in athletics because they had visited their dying grandmother? What about the student who turns in his/her application for honor society two days late because their mom just moved back to the Dominican Republic? What about the child who comes to school late everyday because they have to get their little brother on the bus in the morning?
Rules shouldn’t define your leadership, what’s best for kids should!
Don’t Let The Squeaky Wheels Drive Decisions
Every school, every District, every organization, and even every family has them–the people who are never happy. Jon Gordon calls them the energy vampires; I have heard them called Negative Nellies and I once heard a veteran administrator who really didn’t care what people thought of him refer to them as “dogs.”
The problem with these people is they never lack the chutzpah to voice their opinions. They rarely lack confidence in spreading their convictions and, although they are often wrong, they are never uncertain. They can be found in the faculty room complaining about a wide variety of issues like how the Principal says the pledge, how their lunch was cut short by the two hour delay schedule, or how “these damn kids are out of control!”
That saying is a real pet peeve for me. These kids are out of control? What exactly does that mean? And whose fault is it if they have not learned what behavioral expectations are?
These individuals are never happy and are never quiet about it. It is important to remember that most people in education are good people, most people in education are good educators, and most people in education love their jobs. The positive people take the high road, they happily and quietly do their jobs and help kids. I can proudly say there are more positive people in my current District than any other District I have ever experienced, but our squeaky negative wheels can be loud, even in a place as great as North Rockland. The problem is the squeaky wheels are louder than most and therein lies the danger.
They wear you down if you let them. They will hijack faculty meetings if you let them. They will put down those innovative teachers who are brave enough to do things differently. They point to the black and white of rules to stick it to kids and they will create a divide between faculty and administration if we let them. It is important to listen to everyone, but do not let the vocal minority drive decisions in our schools.
When you are unsure, talk to your good teachers and see what they think. Create surveys that allow everyone to voice their opinion. Establish protocols at faculty meetings and shut down the loud mouths who push their negativity when they try.
We, and when I say we I mean teachers, custodians, secretaries, aides, administrators, monitors and all the educators in our buildings, must not let the negative people rule our schools. If you work in a school you are an educator no matter what your role and it is your responsibility to make it the best school possible for the students you serve.
Always Critique Yourself, Your School, Your Events And Your Initiatives.
In the Innovator’s Mindset George Couros discusses how if schools do not change they can end up like many once booming business that are now extinct. Think Blockbuster, and more recently Sears, J.C. Penney, and even Macys. We must always look to improve, get better, and do different.
As a teacher reflect at the end of your day and capture your thoughts on what lessons, what activities, what conversations went well. Did I miss any opportunities to help my students or, call a parent?
Administrators should take the time to critique themselves after big events. It is important to look honestly at yourself, good and bad; and trust me looking at the bad can sometimes be embarrassing and painful. It is important to create a culture that embraces honest, critical feedback. This is not an easy task by human nature; we don’t want to be told what we did wrong.
After a misfire, critical feedback can feel like “kicking someone when they are down” and after a hard earned success it can seem nitpicky. That is why it needs to just become part of how we do business. I have found the most success reflecting myself right after the event when it is fresh in my mind, but debriefing with my team a couple of days after when it is a little less personal. We discuss what went well, what didn’t, and how we can improve the event or handle the situation better next time. We take some notes which are later filed so we can revisit our thoughts the next time we are planning a similar event or dealing with a similar situation.
Listen, Talk, And Be Real With Kids
If you truly want to know how you are doing as a Teacher, Principal, or a person, talk to kids. If you have worked to develop a relationship with students and are upfront and honest with them, most of the time they will return the favor.
Any time I am running a committee I emphasized the importance of the student voice. If we are not careful we can fall into the trap of making decisions to make schools a better place for kids without actually talking to kids and finding out their thoughts. I believe the single most important change we could make today as an education system in our country to improve student academic achievement and social emotional health is to spend more time speaking to students, both one on one and in small groups.
We need open, honest conversations about what is working and not working for them and our schools. These conversations should not just be about school and education, but about who they are as people, what motivates them, what inspires them, what scares them, and what obstacles they are facing in school and at home.
Education will not go the way of the Blockbuster’s if we evolve and place more of an emphasis on relationships, motivation, innovation, and inspiration over content, procedures, and conformity. There is enough content on the internet for 100s of lifetimes, but a computer can never provide the what our best teachers are providing to students. The best teachers find out what their students need and they then move mountains to get it for them.
Apologize When You Are Wrong
We all make mistakes, the Teacher who loses his/her cool and yells at a student. The Principal who forgets to inform his/her staff of a school event in a timely fashion. The central office administrator who pushes a District initiative too quickly. I have been guilty of all of the above. I have also found that trying to hide, cover, or pass blame doesn’t do anyone any good. Owning up to mistakes is not admitting weakness; it is actually the opposite.
When someone is honest about a screw up it says to me they have that growth mindset that we are trying to develop in our students. It says I can be reflective, I can be honest, and I want to do better next time.
A few years ago as a Middle School Principal, it had been recommended to me by the Faculty Council that a student by the name of John be denied admittance into the National Junior Honor Society. I was a bit surprised; John was an extremely respectful kid with excellent grades, positive demeanor and looked up to by students throughout the school. I believe John’s indiscretion was the fact that he hand wrote the essay portion of the application when it clearly stated it needed to be typed.
I do remember agonizing over whether or not to override the committee and let John in. A choice between undermining the authority of my teachers or letting the type of student who exemplified who should be in NJHS. I choose the former and not long after the decision was made, questioned it. Flash forward four years to the High School induction ceremony. John was there, as the President of the Honor Society, just as polite, outgoing and smart as he was as a 8th grader if not more so. Seeing him there brought back the memory. I was a little embarrassed that he was denied under my leadership.
I decided to approach John apologize for my decision and let him know I screwed up. John smiled shook my hand and thanked me. He told me he was disappointed “back in the day”, but it was really cool that I had reached out and brought it up. He thought I had forgotten. I am pretty sure John appreciated my apology, but, if I am being honest, I think it made me feel better than it did him. It reminded me that it is ok to make a mistake and that sometimes we will. It reminded me that sometimes it is alright to bend the rules when it makes sense (How about we gave John a night to type his essay?) It also reminded me that we are all human and it is ok to show others that no matter what our position is.
I do still think about the night of the dance. I am still embarrassed by it, but I am grateful that the mistake I made that night helped me to improve and to establish my philosophy as a kid first educator.
I am also grateful that I ran into Kelli several years later when I took my children to the amusement park near my old school. After working up some courage I was able to approach Kelli and apologize for that low light of my career. When I mentioned it, she seemed to transform back into that shy 12 year old. She smiled, thanked me and said it was ok. I felt a little better and maybe she did too.
At no point though did she say she didn’t remember that night almost ten years earlier.
I know she remembered it just like certain events we all remember, good and bad, about school. That is why it is so important to remember that, as educators, we can make a lasting impact each day we walk through those school doors. We can be remembered as a hero, an inspiration, or someone who made school something less than “Just Ducky”.
How do you want to be remembered by your students?