Education is Hard!

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Education is hard! Teaching is hard! That’s got to be the center of my reflection for this week. It’s hard, it’s tiring and it’s not for the weak.

I started back to school with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and passion for what I do. I mentioned that in my last post. I felt like I could do anything for our kids. Every Kid. Every Day. No Matter What It Takes. That may sound like a lot but I think that’s what kids deserve. Quickly the people around me tried to sap that enthusiasm. People who have a vision that is different than yours can sap that energy. People who have that ‘we’ll-see-how-long-this-lasts’ attitude can eat away at your positivity. People who don’t understand the changes that need to happen in education can be a drain on your enthusiasm.

What I found this week is that keeping your head up and your vision in tact takes work. Hard, tiring work. Every day this week I went home exhausted and every day I thought of things that I wish I would have done or things that I did that could have waited. I tried to smile when people were negative and I tried to walk away when I could feel the energy meter running low. By nature I avoid confrontation. Reflecting at the end of the day there were many instances where I should have confronted the situation.

I feel like I have great relationships with our teachers. Relationships are everything in this business. Sometimes, though, I think I avoid the hard conversations because I don’t want to damage the relationships. I don’t mean addressing things that are obviously bad for kids. What I’m talking about are the small things that don’t ruin kids but also don’t bring out the best in them. One example from this week: We have a class of students who are notoriously low achievers and behavior issues. These students were stereotyped from the outset of the year. Not one teacher gave them a clean slate. They expected that they would be behavior problems and they were. Well, yes, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had a chance this week to chat with a former colleague. Great guy and excellent teacher but also a person who has always challenged me to think. He said that there is always one person wherever he has gone who reminds him of the superintendent that we had when we worked together. The kind of person who is an authoritarian leader and runs people out of an organization due to the destruction of the culture. I tried to identify the people in our building who played that role. What I discovered is that they are not at the top but they are in the trenches. There are people who damage the culture on a daily basis by the way they run their classrooms, by the way they do there jobs and by the way they interact with people. And, I guess it goes further than actual actions. The way some people talk about kids, parents, colleagues and probably me damages the culture at the basic level.

Luckily for us there are only a small number of those people in our school so the strong keep the culture afloat. Also, even though there are some negatives, all in all we have an excellent group of ‘teachers.’ We teach well, some of us just need some work on our relationship building.

So, my reflection for this week is that it’s got to get harder for me. I have to start being more assertive and addressing each of these little items. Our culture depends on it and I don’t think there is much more important to our students than a culture that is uplifting. I’m going to continue to be tired and my wife is going to wonder why I am spending so much time in my office. I get it and I know she will understand but I refuse to be weak and I refuse to be weakened.

 

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Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.

These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.

The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.

So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.

To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.