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.

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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!

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

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.

Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!

STEP What?

One for my memoirs…

We were minutes away from the school bell ringing when a substitute teacher called and said she was running a few minutes late. Rather than pull someone else in for that brief period, I decided to welcome the students and stay in the kindergarten classroom until the substitute arrived.

As the kids walked in, some of them seemed surprised to see the principal in their classroom but responded to my greeting with big smiles. I asked them to show me what they would do if their teacher were in the classroom. They proudly hung up their jackets and backpacks and got started with their morning routine. Just then one little kindergartener, who had apparently been trying to figure out the reason for my presence, ran up to me and said, “I know! You’re our ‘Step-teacher’ today.”

Ah! The many hats we wear…