How Do You Want the World to See You?

I started this year saying I wanted ZERO suspensions! Last Wednesday our students wrapped up the school year and started their summer vacation. In our quiet school building, late that evening, I sent an email to my team. Here’s the first paragraph:

“WOW! It was touch and go for a while during these last few days of school, but because of your willingness to support a zany idea, we’ve finished the year with no suspensions! It’s a very real and meaningful accomplishment!”

And, very satisfying! It didn’t come easily and there were times when it was tempting to suspend a kid or two! It was a trying year in many ways, and a year of learning and growing too! Dr. Ray Terrell, a school leader I want to be like, used to say, “It’s not a better way, it’s a different way.” He taught me to reflect, wrestle with ideas and let my beliefs guide my work. This ‘zero-suspension’ year is a ‘different way’ and one that is a result of his influence on my work! His voice is the white noise that leads my work, and I will always be grateful. I want to dedicate my team’s accomplishment this year to him.

The story began two years ago. I’m not sure what drove me to this point, whether it was learning about the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, analyzing our discipline data or dealing with the challenge of supporting children who have high social emotional needs without adequate resources (like most public schools in the country). Regardless of the reason, I was starting to realize that suspending kids was not fixing anything! Duh! Stating the obvious, I know, but sometimes you have to get to the point where you feel stuck before you are forced to become creative about getting out of a rut! Pair that with my belief that kids are too young to be labeled ‘troublemakers’, and that we cannot give up on them, and you have a formula for trying something new.

We used to have about 25-40 out-of-school suspensions a year, and a large number of in-school suspensions. I used to tell myself that the consequence for kids making poor choices in behavior was that they would ‘lose the privilege of being in the classroom with their peers’. However, that didn’t fix anything! It was like putting a band-aid on a scab, picking at the scab and opening the wound again. Not a pretty picture, but that’s just what it was. We would suspend a kid, the class/teacher would have a ‘break’ from the child, the child would return, the problem behavior would resurface, and we would suspend the child again! The suspension was at best a band-aid, but the wound rarely healed.

Compare that to how my family handles my grumpiness (am I allowed an understatement here?). I am not labeled a ‘bad person’. My family doesn’t hold it against me. I make amends and we moved on. Sometimes my husband will ask, “So, did you have a rough day at work? What happened?” Families often hit bumps, work through problems and move ahead. For some reason, we’re often unwilling to give kids the same break! We want them to “use their words” to resolve conflicts with peers. How often do adults “use their words” thoughtfully to resolve conflict? We believe kids should know right from wrong and not do wrong things. Well, if that’s the case, we adults should know better by now and never have a conflict with a family member, friend, co-worker or stranger, right? We want kids to do well and somehow that equates to expecting them to make the best choices always! We’re not ready to give them the break we give adults for feeling stressed or overwhelmed!

Anyway, feeling frustrated with the band-aid approach, and without a school counselor on the staff, I thought it might be worth moving one of our instructional assistants from providing reading interventions to teaching social skills. A rarely-used girls’ locker room was converted into an intervention space. Our wonderful teacher leaders suggested having the staff member who would provide this support attend a Responsive Classroom training – a model we started using this year. Our staff named it the ‘Reflection Room’. Last year, we had one out-of-school suspension in the fall and 13 in the spring semester. This year we wrapped up the year with no suspensions. We need to do more with regard to defining how we handle behavior challenges, but our team sees the Reflection Room as a non-punitive space where kids who get in trouble can come, take a breather, reflect on the situation, learn and practice coping skills, and return to the classroom.

Fast-forward to this school year. Several students new to our school had challenging behavior needs. It was as hectic a year as any other, with the push and pull of priorities whipping our heads around constantly. This was a year when all the beliefs I’ve written about in this blog, came into play and sustained me as we muddled through what it meant to not suspend kids. My patient team was supportive while also finding ways to bring up their questions to help us wrestle with all this – euphemistically speaking, we still have a lot of ground to cover in defining what we believe and do, and hashing through it all!

In future posts, I would love to share what we’ve tried. It has included long conversations with kids and building relationships with their parents. It has included learning that the easiest thing we can do when there’s a problem with behavior is to suspend a kid. It’s much harder to think about what we should do when we keep them in school. It has included long conversations with kids – connecting with them, believing in them, believing that they can turn things around, communicating all this and building relationships with them. A beautiful outcome has been a growing sense of trust with their families. It has taught me the importance of suspending judgment and believing in the humanity of kids – trusting them to see what is possible and giving them a taste of what success feels like when they slowly turn things around.

Every week, I’ve asked a few kids, “How do you want the world to see you?” I put one hand out and then another as I say, “Do you want the world to see you as a kind, caring, helpful, cheerful, friendly, happy person? Or do you want the world to see you as grumpy, hurtful, mean, unkind, unfriendly, or angry? Which one is the real you?” Typically, they will point to the first hand I held out or they will say, “The first one.” My response is, “I believe that is the real you, but if you show them the other side, will they believe me when I tell them that you’re actually a kind, caring, helpful, friendly, cheerful person?” I did this once at the beginning of the year, and was heartened by the response from our kids.  I use this line regularly because it works. You can see it in their eyes. They want to be seen as kind, caring and helpful people. I tell them, “That’s who you really are. You know, even kind, caring, helpful people can make poor behavior choices sometimes!” Their eyes say they’re catching on! Sadly, our radars tend to find their negative behavior more often than their positive behavior.

Ending a school year, in an urban public school, without suspending a single student is something that could not have happened without our team’s willingness to give every kid a fresh start, champion the neediest of our kids, look beyond challenging moments and come together to support each other. I’ve seen teachers who came up to me to share that a colleague was stretched thin and needed help with a student. I’ve seen staff members step in to support colleagues with ideas, being there and taking in kids, when they could tell that someone was feeling overwhelmed. I’ve seen people share a kind word, focus on lifting up the spirits of others, and just simply doing what it takes! They’ve lifted our assistant principal and me with their kind words, smiles and most importantly, their willingness to take kids back when they were calm. They allowed our kids to maximize their instructional time and that in itself, is a tremendous accomplishment. The Reflection Room has been a great resource for us, yet we know that it would not mean much without what our staff does to build trust with kids when they return to their classes.

While I would love to have us ‘fix’ behavior challenges in the duration of one year, this is not a benchmark that is a given. Several kids, new to our school, have been able to let their guard down and turn their behavior around in a few days, weeks or months. Some of them will need more than a year, perhaps their entire elementary stint with us to learn coping skills. I have seen more positive changes in behavior this year than I ever did with suspensions.

As I think about individual kids, almost all of them have made shifts in their behavior – sometimes in a huge way. Some kids who used to melt down in the classroom, need to be escorted to the Reflection Room and not be able to pull things together for an entire day, now walk down on their own, calm down in a few minutes and return to their classrooms. Some who could not get along before, are now able to talk through their issues with less drama (I did say it was not perfect)! Some kids who got into ‘fights’ learned that they had to find ways to get along and have not been physically aggressive again, even though they may still argue with each other. A kid (with a long discipline record from a previous school) who enrolled with us mid-way through the year, learned to trust people and called himself “a different person than who I was before”. These are gains that are as big as what we want to see in reading and math skills. And I do believe these gains will allow our kids to do better academically.

I started the year saying Zero-suspensions, but now I’ve changed that to say I will avoid suspensions unless I believe keeping a child at school will make things unsafe for them or others (kids and grown-ups). It’s been a huge learning experience for me, and  my heart is full! There’s something beautiful about dealing with tough stuff. It just prepares you to deal with more tough stuff. It teaches us to recognize the humanity of others and rise to chip away at obstacles, one kid at a time. This story is just beginning…

Treat Teachers The Way You Want Them To Treat Kids

That’s it! That sums it up for me! A huge part of a principal’s job distilled into a title. It might sound like a strange thing to say at a time when the noise outside schools includes a lot of teacher bashing and blaming. But walk into a school and it can feel like a safe cocoon for the kids and grown-ups who spend several hours a day experiencing a slice of the world within it’s walls. It can also just as easily feel like a pressure cooker! We’ve complicated the world of education with a constant push and pull between educators, politicians, business people and others with strong opinions on how schools should run and what they should accomplish. Each group is advocating for kids but the walls between them make finding common ground challenging. One group makes demands of another, perhaps with the sense that if the ‘other’ (district leaders, principals, teachers, kids, parents) would just work harder and do more, schools will ‘get better’. Sadly, many schools are turning into unhappy spaces for many as the pressure one group feels is passed on to the next – from school leaders to teachers, and teachers to kids. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Spaces that house kids should be happy, inspiring places. When I was training to become a school leader, I was inspired by several professors who spoke of transformational leadership – a notion that leaders and followers can be connected by a shared vision to help each other and the organization grow. Yes, that is an oversimplification of an idea that many have written about, but it is also a belief I hold deeply. As I tried to make sense of it, someone simplified it even more.

Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” said Dr. Ray Terrell, a mentor who has influenced me with his words and ideas… guiding me with what I call ‘Terrellisms’ that dot my leadership landscape and learning experiences! Dr. Terrell, said that a decade and a half ago, and I wrote it down. It made sense – it seemed right. Today, I know that something changed for me that day. Those simple words said I needed to figure out what kind of a school leader I would be. They transformed how I started viewing interactions between big and little people in schools. They didn’t tell me that I would be wrestling with them for a dozen years, carefully sculpting something that would never be fully formed because the image was revealing itself gradually.

Take care of teachers – how do you do that? By believing in them? Caring about them? Supporting them? But how will they know you believe in them and care about them? How will they recognize that you are supporting them at a time when they feel like they are in a boxing ring with an opponent who keeps pounding away at them? When just staying on their feet seems to take every ounce of strength they have? Dr. Terrell said we had to figure things out – wrestle with our ideas and beliefs and turn them into reality. He said it with a smile in his voice and a twinkle in his eye and we were inspired to go out and make it happen!

Ah! The road has been long and hard (and I’ve been in this job only for a dozen years). It’s about people, so it’s complicated! When I take care of teachers will they recognize that I care about them? Am I doing what they need of me? It’s a simple idea and seems clear as crystal until you try to put it into action. That’s when it becomes a fuzzy – a profound Terrellism that you can’t pin down! You can name it but what does it really mean? How do you explain it? How will you make sure you do it consistently? Lots of good intentions… some that ended up as mistakes… lots of stumbling, learning and bouncing back over the years!

This summer, something clicked for me! Many people inside and outside the education arena believe there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. If we could just remove the latter we wouldn’t have failing schools, they think. Being ‘tough’ with teachers is the answer, they think. Let’s measure and quantify what teachers do, they think. At some point, I started seeing parallels between the way many see teachers and kids. So many kids are seen through the lens of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. If they could only work harder they would be successful at learning, we think!

I don’t believe in the ‘good kid – bad kid’ idea. I believe they’re all good kids – sometimes they make bad choices/decisions. It seems so wrong to label kids with strong negative words like ‘bad kid’ and ‘troublemaker’ so early in their life, to label their behavior as an ‘offense’ or ‘infraction’! And, this happens at a critical stage in their lives when we still have a tremendous opportunity to influence and inspire them.

Our goal is for kids to be successful in their learning regardless of circumstances or challenges. We talk about leaders being role-models and setting the tone in organizations. We want teachers to be role-models for kids. What if school leaders would do for teachers what we want them to do for kids? What would happen within our schools? It seemed like an idea worth pursuing.

Kids walk into our doors either because they live in the neighborhood their school serves, or because their families choose to send their kids to us. They start out eager and curious but sometimes that curiosity gets snuffed out over time. Teachers were hired because at some point, someone in a leadership role saw potential in them, and welcomed them as a team member. The eager, excited teacher who is passionate about making a difference gets burnt out over the years, or fights to stave off burn out! Regardless of personal circumstance or learning challenges, we expect teachers to get every kid to the finish line each year. We want every child to have a quality education. As leaders, do we owe our team members the same commitment? Are we working to give every teacher a quality professional experience? Are we coaching them the way we want them to coach kids?

Teachers struggle to find ways to engage kids who walk through their doors unprepared for school. Are we finding ways to engage teachers who struggle to make their dreams fit the reality of meeting the complex needs of kids?

When kids struggle with learning we want teachers to be creative and use purposeful strategies to help kids learn. When teachers struggle, are principals (read any school leader here) using creative, purposeful strategies to help them become skilled and proficient teachers?

When kids work at advanced levels, we want teachers to stretch and accelerate their learning. When highly skilled teachers have honed and polished their craft, are principals stretching and accelerating their professional growth?

When students experience the stress of poverty, family circumstances and health issues, we want teachers to tune in and nurture their social-emotional growth. When ‘life happens’ or the pressures of work pull teachers down and increase their stress, are principals tuning in and supporting their social-emotional health?

When kids make poor behavior choices, we want teachers to understand, be patient, figure out what is going on and guide them towards positive behavior. We want teachers to look for something good in kids and grow it. When teachers bring a ‘negative attitude’ do principals show patience and try to see what brought this on? Do principals take the time to look for something good in every member of their team and grow it?

We need to hire people carefully and then help them be the best they can be. We talk about giving kids and teachers chances. I’d like to think that it’s less about giving them ‘another chance’ and more about not giving up on them! After all of this, some might still be unsuccessful and we can still respond compassionately.

Why? It’s the right way. That’s how I want to be treated. That’s how I’ve been treated by most of the people I’ve worked with. We all grow when we know someone cares… parents, bosses, the people we answer to. When we know someone cares, we’re willing to be risk-takers and step out of our comfort zones. And, we’re more ready to tackle challenges when we know that there’s a safety net to catch us if we fall. Kids need that safety net, and teachers do too. Principals set the tone in the school; teachers in the classroom.

“Take care of teachers and they’ll take care of kids” (Dr. Ray Terrell)
“Treat teachers the way you want them to treat kids” (Subha Balagopal)

I’m not sure if my version above is an explanation of what Dr. Terrell said, or an interpretation.  Sounds idealistic to you? Sounds like something worth believing and definitely worth trying, to me! The learning and leading continues!

P.S. I wrote this three years ago and saved it as a draft. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it, but perhaps I was waiting to do it on the perfect day for this post… today! It feels just as true today as when I wrote it, and as you’ll soon see, it’s allowed me to get to my next post! 🙂 Thanks, Dr. Terrell! 

It’s Not That Bad Here!

On Friday morning’s school announcement, I told my students about something I heard recently, on my drive to school. The NPR Morning Edition story playing on my car radio was about the Syrian civil war. The person being interviewed was talking about his experience in the Syrian town of Douma, which is under siege, and how people there were managing. I told my students I had learned that the children in Douma go to school from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. because at 8, the air strikes begin. I told my kids how lucky they were to have the opportunity to be in a school in the US and have so much available to them. I said that if kids in Douma, in the middle of a civil war, felt school was important enough to attend for even two hours each day, my students here, should also make school a priority.

Having grown up in India where getting an education is seen as a key to having a better life, I am often puzzled when I see students take for granted the opportunities they have for education. I remember my parents saying that it was their job to take care of our family, and it was my brother’s and my job to work hard in school.

Almost every week, I tell students, one-on-one or in groups, that there are children around the world who don’t have access to schools, books and other resources available in American schools. This NPR story about kids going to school in civil-war torn Douma was an important one to share with them. My elementary school is home to Burmese refugee kids, refugees from Iraq and other countries. Their adjustment to being in the US as refugees, is so different from my experience as an immigrant here. I arrived here and walked into grad. school, speaking, reading and writing English quite proficiently. Our refugee students and their parents don’t speak English and we may not have someone at school who speaks their language. Schools here are very different from what they have experienced even if they had the chance of attending school before coming here. Being away from their parents for seven hours of the day is a separation that sometimes creates anxiety. It is heartening to see them gradually adjust to a new life and new experiences. I love seeing the other students welcome and support them when they first enroll with us.

On Friday, at the end of the day, an ENL (English as a New Language) teacher sent me an email about the reflections of a young student from Iraq.

“Mrs. Balagopal made me feel bad today when she was talking about Syria.  She said some kids wanted to go to school and couldn’t.  I didn’t want to go to school until I heard what she said today.  

I have been to Syria when I was two and it made me feel bad that they wanted to go to school like I can and I didn’t want to go to school at all.  I have decided that I should be glad I can go to school.  It’s not that bad here.”

I guess the stories we share can have an impact beyond our initial intentions. Connecting our kids to what is happening in the world makes them more knowledgeable and aware, it helps to grow empathy, and perhaps, it can also motivate them to make something more of their lives. My kids have heard about Ruby Bridges and the students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter during the Nashville sit-in, along with other stories of changemakers. In my urban school, many children come from families where their parents may not have finished high school, much less attended college. But that should not stop them from dreaming big, and seeing education as a ticket to a different life.

The big story that the media and politicians miss is that in urban schools, educators work hard to motivate kids and reach them, sometimes one at a time, for much more than reading, math and science. As I tell my teachers, the results of our work may not be seen today or tomorrow, but several years from now. If we are fortunate, our students will come back and tell us what they have become. Inspiring them today is a big task, with no set formula. But it’s a challenge that brings us back into our schools day after day, regardless of how tough the circumstances might be, because every kid is worth it!

Sharing a snippet from one news story told me how much of an influence we can have, when we least expect it.

A Randomly Dropped Compliment Ripples Out

It’s been a year or two since I met Thomas at a Costco Wholesale warehouse in Indianapolis. He always had a cheery smile and would politely nod or greet customers walking by as he went about his duties – returning carts from the parking lot to the store, helping customers at the gas station… Each brief encounter left an impression. So, one day I spoke to him and complimented him on his positive spirit.

You see, wherever I go, I tend to notice people who stand out. Sometimes it’s people who seem irritable or look like they’ve had a rough day. At other times I notice individuals who look indifferent while going about their duties – no eye-contact, no smiles – just looking like they’re there just because they have to be there. My happiest ‘people-watching’ happens when individuals look like they’re enjoying what they do. They connect with colleagues and customers – smiling, making cheery comments, helping – caring in their own simple way about their work and the people they meet. Nothing flashy, but it shows! They just bring sunshine into that moment in which you meet them. Sometimes it’s the first impression you have of them. At other times, you see them more often because they work in an establishment you frequent and you start noticing the consistency in their attitude.

The last group is one that I love to acknowledge. Wouldn’t our days be brightened if we were just going about our routine and someone complimented us? A randomly dropped compliment just might ripple out from one stranger to another, and from there to more people, because happiness has a habit of spreading.

So, as I do sometimes, I complimented Thomas on being consistently cheerful and positive. I may have added that his positive spirit was just the kind of quality I looked for while hiring my team. I say ‘probably’ because that was several months ago, and it’s a compliment I’ve shared with many employees of stores and restaurants so it’s quite likely an honest version of what I might have said to him. I probably also mentioned that an employee like him would be an asset to Costco. Thomas graciously accepted my comments. Every now and then when I shopped at Costco, I’d run into him. We always exchanged friendly greetings.

Thomas was working at Costco’s gas station one day, and as I waited for the tank to fill up, I had a longer conversation with him. I learned that this young man had worked at Costco for a few years. He hoped to go to college some day. He wasn’t sure when it would happen, but it was something he was definitely aiming for. In the meantime, here he was at Costco, working diligently each day. I told Thomas that if he needed any guidance about college, my husband, a college professor, could help him. (It’s great to just volunteer my husband’s support without asking him – he truly loves mentoring students!) I learned this young man’s name that day – and I left after telling him how he could contact us.

I ran into him once in a while after that day. I’d ask him how he was doing. I’d mention college and inquire about how he was doing with that goal. Thomas always smiled enthusiastically and responded that he hoped it would be soon. It was still part of his life plan. The time would be right some day! I’d tell him not to forget that my husband could guide him if he wished. He would tell me a little about his work in the minute or two that we greeted each other and chatted. He was proud about how well he was doing promoting the Costco credit card. Once, he mentioned that his credit card table had been moved to a new location but he was still pretty confident that he would do a great job from that spot. Thomas’ smile was infectious, and his enthusiasm made me think Costco was lucky to have such an employee on their crew. Friendly, cheerful, positive and professional – I would gladly hire a Thomas-clone anytime!

This evening I saw Thomas again. I was at the cash register and he was talking to another Costco employee nearby. I waved hello and he asked if I would wait a moment. He wanted to talk to me. Thomas came over a couple of minutes later and I jokingly asked where his credit card table was stationed this time! He pointed to his red jacket and asked me to read what was on it. I thought he had a new name tag, but when I checked it was actually an embroidered word – ‘Supervisor’. Wow! That was fabulous! I said that just made my day! Very sweetly, he said he felt the same way!

With quiet excitement, Thomas explained that he was one of four employees selected to be a supervisor during the seasonal sales. I joked that I’ve lived in America only for about 25 years, but it’s been long enough to know that seasonal sales are a big deal here! Thomas laughed out, and then he looked more serious. When the seasonal sales were over, Costco would likely select two of the four new supervisors, to continue in that role.  He added that just as he had done before at the credit card table, he was determined to do his very best to earn the supervisor’s role for the long run.

I asked about his college plans! Thomas smiled again (I don’t think he ever stops smiling) and said he might have to delay that dream because of the new responsibilities. The supervisory role would take up a lot of his time, but he was thrilled with the pay raise that came with the new role. I asked if I could give him a little advice… put away a small part of his new salary as savings. “Pretend it doesn’t belong to you. It’s good to have something to fall back on if ‘life happens’ sometime in the future.”  I was so proud of him. This kid (I dye my hair grey these days) had just made my day! He was so proud of his accomplishment, and I was touched that he had shared it with me.

Yes, his name is really Thomas. I don’t want to mention his last name without checking with him. But, if you are at the Michigan Road Costco in Indianapolis and you see a cheerful young man in a red jacket with ‘Thomas’ on his name tag and an embroidered ‘Supervisor’ label, tell him you’ve heard about him! Costco is lucky to have an employee like Thomas – a team member who cares tremendously about doing his job, doing it well, and more importantly demonstrating positive qualities that help set the tone of an organization.

Do take the time to compliment someone who is going the extra mile – someone you know or a complete stranger. Show them you care by telling them what you noticed. You never know how a randomly dropped compliment will ripple out. Some day, if you’re lucky (as I was today), you’ll be standing far away from where the compliment was dropped and the ripples will reach you.

P.S. Thomas, I’m still smiling! So very proud of you!

Confronting Social Disadvantage

Poverty and Education (Part II)

Learning

This is a time of year when many students are preparing to graduate from college and join the work force. It’s a time when the gap between the have’s and the have not’s reveals social disadvantages. Students with social capital research opportunities in their field, apply for jobs, learn to network, prepare for interviews and receive support from their immediate social circle (parents, colleagues of parents, family friends, relatives, etc.). They get feedback to strengthen their resumes and guidance on what the job market wants. Students from backgrounds of poverty and others who are the first in their families to finish college need these opportunities too but may not be able to access them easily.

Are we preparing all students well enough to be successful when the time is right? If we give them a strong academic training, will they have the support structures that will open doors? If and when the doors open, will they have what it takes to step in? Students who live in poverty have many challenges to overcome. Are we doing enough to help them gain the tangible and intangible skills and qualities needed to be successful in college and beyond?

Recently, I shared these thoughts with a wise colleague who agreed that students need more than just a good education – they need to be prepared to seize opportunities when doors open for them. She restated my thoughts very simply.

“When opportunity knocks, will they be ready?” — Zula Barnett, Teacher

At a time when unemployment is an issue, potential employers are complaining about an unprepared workforce. Schools have a dual role – to give students the knowledge base that will allow them to choose a college education and gain the ‘hard skills’ the job market needs, and to help them gain the ‘soft skills’ or intangible qualities that will help them succeed in these settings. Schools need to do three things to level the playing field:

(1) Set a high bar for quality work. This will be an expectation in college and later in the work place, so we need to start early, have high expectations and support students in meeting them. This means no shortcuts. We must ask for quality work and not give kids a pass simply for showing up or putting in the effort. We must show them what high standards look like so they understand our expectations and then support them in reaching that level of quality in their work.

(2) Guide students in being courteous, caring, cheerful, empathetic, pleasant, positive, and hard working. We need to teach them how to present themselves with regard to their appearance, verbal skills and writing skills in contexts of opportunity. We need to give them opportunities to engage in teams.

(3) Build connections within the community so that employers become more intentional about reaching out and bringing opportunities to students from backgrounds of disadvantage. When businesses partner with schools to bring in mentors, tutors and volunteers, relationships are built which can lead to networking opportunities as students grow older.

When I hire new staff I search for soft skills – a positive tone, a cheerful attitude, an interest in connecting with others, an enthusiastic spirit and a sense of humor. These are the intangibles that sway my decision. These qualities lift my team and strengthen its resilience. I can train reasonably competent people in the hard skills they will need to do their jobs well.  I can’t say the same about soft skills which are learned and integrated early in life. In every grade, if we make a concerted effort to model these intangible skills in our own behavior, and expect them from students, I have no doubt that these qualities will become ingrained in the culture of our schools, and spill over into society.

We are coaching kids for the game of life! School is about more than just academics. We must be purposeful about growing the soft skills students will need for the rest of their lives. When opportunity knocks, will our kids be able to step out and compete directly with their privileged peers? I hope we make sure that the answer is a resounding yes.

The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

On Letter Grades for Schools…

This week, I was in the Indiana Statehouse to exercise my civic duty. I provided testimony before the Indiana Senate Education Committee on a bill that voids the A-F ratings of school performance and creates room for new and more meaningful designations – a topic that affects every school and district in the state. I was honored to represent the voice of our district and other educators around the state.

Accountability is important. So is helping parents make informed decisions about the best educational options for their children. Doing it clearly, fairly and transparently is critical. What we have currently is a complex formula. The report card is more a label than something that can lead to action. It rolls achievement and growth measures into one letter which makes schools that are making a positive difference look like they are failing schools. Another principal providing testimony at the hearing shared that a visitor to her school, impressed with the learning environment and shocked to learn that the school had an F rating had quipped – “Then ‘F’ must stand for ‘Fabulous’.”

Recently, my school was accredited as an International Baccalaureate World School after three years of rigorous work. Parent involvement is high. We have tremendous socio-economic, ethnic and geographic diversity. As our demographic diversity grew, so did our scores! We hold ourselves accountable, not because of any legislation, but simply because children deserve nothing less.

When parents arrive unannounced for a tour, they often say they can’t believe we have 720 students because the hallways are quiet. They are impressed with how students are engaged with learning in every classroom they visit. They often speak of the warm and welcoming tone they sense in our school. They say they can tell the grown-ups care about the kids, and compliment us on the student work they see showcased throughout our school… and our test scores.

Our students take the state tests in the spring semester. In the end of October, when we were expecting one letter grade from the state, we were quite surprised to receive 3 instead, calculated using different criteria. The state rated us C-C-C for the last three years. In our book, that says nothing has changed. You have not grown. Things are static at your school. A single letter repeated three times put our efforts over the past three years into one tidy little box which implied all those things and hid what we do for children. I couldn’t explain in simple English how the ratings were calculated. The morale of my team was shot. I told them, “Look, no one came and gave us a pat on the back when our scores increased by 10% in just one year, so let’s just get on with our jobs.” Easier said than done. Why is this a problem? Let’s look at it through a different lens.

Let’s say a parent gets their child’s report card from our school and all it has is one letter grade – a C. They are puzzled, and say, “What does this C mean?”  We tell them it’s how their child’s progress is rated at our school. “How did you get to this letter grade?” they ask. We say, “Well, it’s a really complex formula.” If this were true, I would hope those parents would yank their kids out of our school right away and go somewhere else where the teachers could tell them how their children were doing in different academic subjects, the creative arts and social development. If a potential employer saw a college graduate’s transcript with only one letter to indicate his/her qualifications, they would probably look somewhere else to hire a someone whose competence is clearly apparent. It doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Why do we do this to public schools?

If a car dealer took April’s sales figures and gave the sales report to his employees in November, his business wouldn’t run for long. Yet spring data for schools reappears in the end of October as a report card after we are well into the new school year. If I went to a doctor who spoke in complex medical jargon and couldn’t explain what it meant, I would quickly look for a different doctor. Parents experience our school and are unable to connect the dots to see the C grade that we received. There are National Blue Ribbon Schools that have received poor letter grades despite maintaining their high standards. The A-F grades are not timely and not easy to understand either.

Public schools are an incredible resource in America, and yes, they face many challenges. The solution is not to undermine them or do away with them. One hears a lot of verbal bashing of educators – the people who hold the future of the country in their hands. Having made my second home in schools, I have seen incredibly talented educators work very hard to inspire students, partner with parents and provide tremendous instructional programs and supports. Just as we work hard to inspire every child who walks through our doors regardless of the visible and invisible baggage they bring in, we need our elected leaders to support and inspire us to do our best whether we teach children of wealthy parents or the poorest of the poor. That begins with taking data about each school’s performance, analyzing it, and giving it back to us in a way that allows us to do something meaningful with it. There’s nothing in the current letter grade that allows my staff to set goals or determine instructional changes. 

One letter on a school’s report card cannot give parents information that will allow them to compare the performance of multiple schools any more than one letter on a child’s report card can give them information about how their child is doing in multiple subjects. Information about a school’s performance must be provided in a way that is fair and can be explained. Many beautiful gems are trapped behind single letters assigned to schools that don’t say much, but imply a lot. It’s time to do away with the A-F letter grades and share school improvement stories in a way that makes sense. Our kids deserve nothing less.

The bill was passed unanimously and I look forward to seeing how this story unfolds in the months ahead.

(This post is based on testimony I provided at the hearing.)