How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.
As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.
It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.
In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?
As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.
My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.
“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”
“I want you to be the best you can be!”
“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”
“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?”
“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”
“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”
(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)
And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:
“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.”
Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.
Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?
Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.
The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?
“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”
He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit. I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.”
And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.