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…

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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!