I doubt any teacher ever forgets her first year teaching. Inevitably there is always “that student.” The one who torments you, who makes you question both your position and authority in the classroom, and who is the source of many sleepless nights. This child is the one you convince yourself would do better in another classroom or, better yet, a different school. She causes you to lose your cool, makes you think she doesn’t want to or just can’t learn, and forces you to “go back to the drawing board” time and time again. Ultimately though, it is this challenging child that forces you to question what is important to you, to question your passion to teach, and to make choices about the kind of teacher you want to be.
For me “that student” was a feisty fifth grader named Zakya Davis.
I learned a lot my first year of teaching. Like most new teachers, I learned about systems, routines, discipline and consequences. I learned about the importance of consistency and follow-through and also learned about a variety of techniques to teach reading, writing, and math to a group of students who ranged in ability from a first grade to eighth grade reading level. For these lessons I am thankful. However, from Zakya I learned more. She taught me about the importance of loving children (even when they make it really difficult), about fighting for what is important, about how to choose one’s battles, and about patience and perspective.
Zakya, not your typical 6th grade student, struggled with severe emotional and behavioral issues and had been placed in my class as her last stop before being moved to an alternative school, where she would be the only girl amongst a group of older and more aggressive teenage boys. She had a heart of gold and a smile that made you forget, even if temporarily, that she just threw all your grading across the room, jabbed you with her sharp pencil, or attempted to start a fight in class—again. She would regularly run out of class without warning, but then show up at the end of the day to apologize and ask for help with her math homework so she wouldn’t fall behind. She was the kind of student that most teachers had already given up on, which is the reason why I felt that I could not.
As a teacher, I have often thought back to that year and that student, and the many others like her, as a reminder of the teacher I set out to be. It is not surprising then, that in my first year as a middle school director, I also look to the Zakyas of years past to help shape the leader that I aspire to be.
Nowadays, I learn lessons not just from my students, but from their parents, my colleagues, and my mentors. Here are a few.
“Look at their shoelaces”
I am a leader driven in her practice by a love of children and a passion for education. Every child within a school brings something different and it is those differences that make a teacher’s job both challenging and meaningful. Children (and adults) sometimes make it difficult to love them. Inevitably there are students who, despite your greatest efforts, will be disrespectful. There are those who will frequently break the rules and who, no matter how much love you give them, seem angry and unappreciative. These behaviors, over time, leave one feeling the need to respond in kind, despite the clear understanding that it is these students who need to be loved the most. My first year teaching, I sought out the advice of my mentor teacher, feeling frustrated that I could not get a certain group of students to listen to me no matter what I tried. Her response:
“Just keep loving them.”
I explained that this was difficult given how terribly they were treating me.
“Then look at their shoelaces and love them,” she suggested, “but don’t ever let yourself believe that you cannot love a child.”
This advice has stuck with me ever since and has been useful also in my interactions with adults. I have found that as both a teacher and a leader, dealing with both students and their parents, the most important thing is to come from a place of love… even if, momentarily, it is just of their shoes.
Love and appreciation works with colleagues too. Evaluating others on their performance, particularly in the field of education where people are so emotionally invested in their work, can be uncomfortable. For some reason it tends to be in our nature to notice first what is going wrong in any situation. Whenever I spend time in teachers’ classrooms I think of another of my mentors, one of the founders of High Tech High who has earned the nickname “Yoda” for the calmness and wisdom he brings to any conversation. He never stops pushing teachers to improve their practice, yet he rarely starts by talking about what is not going well. He honors people for their strengths and accomplishments, even when it is clear that they also have a lot of room for improvement. Adults, like students, appreciate praise, and sometimes it is those who seem to be having the most difficulty that are in the greatest need of such praise.
Working in a school is not easy and there is never a shortage of problems that need solving, e-mails that need answering, and parents who want to be heard. It is easy to get caught up in a state of reactivity. Rather, our founding Principal Larry Rosenstock suggests, take time to think. Stop. Think. Be proactive.
“Are you busy?”
Everyone is busy. I don’t know a teacher or administrator who ever effectively checks off everything on their “to-do” list. So I am never sure how to answer this question when people ask it of me. The best leaders I have encountered never send the message that they are too busy for someone who needs their help, even when it is possible that they are. Larry has said on more than one occasion that the job of a director (or principal) is just a series of interruptions, interrupted by other interruptions. It is important to be prepared for these interruptions, to be flexible with your time, and to make time for others.
This can be tricky in a job where it seems like your inbox is always full, the time spent in meetings is endless, and you are constantly juggling how to support various teachers, students, and parents (and your own sanity) all at once. Sometimes it can be hard to close your computer, ignore your phone, and remain present for each person who walks through your door. I have found myself the past year in the middle of several conversations where it seemed impossible to be truly present. It is easy to think an hour, day, or week down the road and become overwhelmed with future commitments.
I have learned that it is best in these moments just to be honest. Let people know that you value what they have to say and that to give their concern the attention it deserves, it would be best to schedule a different time to sit down and talk with them. Consequently, I have also learned to ask people if they have a minute before I barge into their office and start talking. I always appreciate it when they honestly tell me no.
¨Be calm under fire¨ (literally)
I have heard it mentioned countless times that good leaders don’t panic when emergencies arise. To me this has always seemed like a pretty obvious concept. Don’t scare the people with whom you work; rather leave them feeling that everything is under control. The simplicity of this advice was put to the test for me when there actually was a fire, or at least the promise of one, at our school.
A few weeks into the year, at a time when I was still questioning every single decision I made as a school leader and my answer to almost any question asked of me was “I don’t know,” the fire alarm went off. Our scheduled drill was a week away and I had not yet prepared any of our new teachers for such a drill. My response: jump up out of my seat while in the middle of a meeting, shout “Oh no! A fire,” and run down the hall looking for our two new teachers.
My course of action did nothing useful and actually just scared students into thinking that there really was a fire. By slowing down and taking a deep breath, you are more likely to come up with an actual solution to a problem if it exists and to instill confidence in those around you. The school is not on fire. And, even if it were, running around yelling is not going to put it out or keep anyone safe.
You will have difficult conversations. It will be ok.
“This is not about you”
Delivering bad news, whether to children or adults, is not easy. When I was first offered the position of director at my school, my mom offered me quick congratulations, but then moved quickly to the question on both of our minds:
“How will you be able to do that job without crying?”
Knowing that I am someone who worries about hurting people’s feelings and who is not particularly fond of confrontation, she questioned my ability to give bad news and have difficult conversations. My answer:
“I have no idea.”
After sharing this concern with several people, I received a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since: “This is not about you.” I quickly learned that by keeping the students at the center of all I do, there is no conversation or decision that feels too unmanageable. My mantra: remember the kids, take a deep breath, and don’t beat around the bush when trying to say something important.
That being said, there will still be some conversations, no matter how important the well-being of your students is to you, that will keep you up at night. I have not yet learned how to make them feel easier. What I have learned, in my attempts to avoid hurting people’s feelings or creating uncomfortable dialogue, is that if you are not direct and attempt to soften the news too much, you will end up having the conversation again (and they only get progressively harder). I’ve also learned that if you avoid these kinds of conversations altogether, you will have created an environment where others do not trust your ability to make difficult decisions.
“Be a Buddha”
People are going to be angry with you. It is inevitable. They might yell, they may say things that are untrue, and they might make attacks against your character. This should not be an invitation to do the same. Larry has often inspired me with the way he remains calm under fire. On more than one occasion I have gone to him asking for advice about what to say when confronted by an angry parent. The best advice he has given me is sometimes to just say nothing.
“Be a buddha” he advises.
Mirror the emotions in yourself that you want others to take. I have found this advice incredibly useful when talking with angry parents. Sometimes they just need to be heard and responding defensively almost never resolves the situation.
¨Position versus interest¨
Sometimes a difficult conversation requires more than just listening. Eventually you are going to have to say something in response. Decide what it is the person with whom you are speaking really wants and realize that it will often be different than what they are asking for in that moment. Is a parent criticizing one of your teachers, thus making you feel particularly defensive, because she has a legitimate concern about their teaching, or is it because her daughter is sad and at home begging to be switched to a class where she can be with her best friend? Do the neighborhood store owners really want your students to avoid shopping at their store altogether, or are they just upset because they have noticed an increased amount of litter recently? This is a skill not quickly mastered.
I have found that my instinct when dealing with angry people is to refute them when they make false claims or are overly aggressive, often missing entirely the problem that is really at hand. Just because someone is upset and is frustrating, does not mean you can dismiss their concerns. Find out what they want, figure out what you want, and work together towards creating mutual purpose. Often you are both entering the conversation starting with the same goals anyway. Also, it is disarming when you are angry and have just confronted someone for them to agree with you. This is another important time to remember “It’s not about you.” When people are angry it is not the time to let your ego get involved.
The beauty of working in education is the opportunity to reinvent oneself at the end of each year, to keep what worked, and to reflect and revise for the year to come. The leader I am is a work in progress, and thankfully so. I am a teacher, but more often a student, someone who learns from 6th graders and veteran teachers alike, and who has come to realize that mistakes are inevitable. I know that there are more mistakes and more challenges headed my way, but welcome them and all that they will teach me. And in the heat of these challenging moments, I will not forget Zakya Davis, who continues to remind me that it is not just the difficult situations, the challenging people, and the days where you think you might give up that define who you are, but the moment you overcome these obstacles and the lessons you learn along the way.