Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Today I Intended to be an Instructional Leader

Today I intended to be an instructional leader. I knew which classrooms I planned to visit, and what kind of feedback I wanted to give my teachers. I was ready to be immersed in my students’ classroom experiences.

But first, I had a meeting with a student and his father, upon the students’ return from school after suspension. This particular student is new to my school. He’s only been with us for two months. He has one foot in bounds, and another squarely placed out of bounds. He runs the risk of being arrested for some of his actions. He’s also on the verge of repeating the 9th grade for the third time. Usually, I have to be pretty tough in meetings like this. But his very gruff and stern father, said in the softest voice you can imagine… “Son, I’ve been in jail. It will be with me for the rest of my life, at every job interview, and every talk with a boss. Don’t do what I did. You can be better than that. Don’t go down the same road I did.” There wasn’t much for me to add after that.

Then I got yelled at by an extremely angry student. Usually, I can defuse anger, especially when it’s not really about me, pretty quickly and easily. But it went wrong with this student almost immediately. And I felt myself getting annoyed, which is absolutely the kiss of death. If I lose it, no matter the circumstances, then I’m not the leader my teachers and students need me to be. So I excused myself to call her mother to ask for help, because somehow, I hadn’t handled the situation correctly. Her mom saved the day for both of us.

Then I intended to be an instructional leader, but first I had to make sure the conditions for learning were set. Friday was professional learning for teachers. Monday there wasn’t school for the holiday, and Tuesday was a snow day. After this many days off without our routine, both students and teachers need to be on track. The hidden contract between teachers and students in inner city schools says “You don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you.” So, I had to visit every classroom and help teachers check uniforms, have students take out headphones, turn off their music, and get purposefully prepared for learning to occur. As a staff, we’re learning that the role of the principal is to support teacher efforts to set conditions for learning, and not to handle any and every issue, concern, or problem, unconditionally.

At that point I was totally ready to be an instructional leader, but a former student came to visit with her three month old son. This seventeen year old mom to be left our school in October because she desperately needed a change of scenery. She visited last week to introduce us to her son, so her return today was out of the ordinary and I knew something was up. It became clear fairly quickly, that she just needed help, and some support, and a whole lot of care. I put aside the opportunity to go be an instructional leader, and put on my Dad hat. I helped her to hold her son more safely, giving her pointers on where to put her hands and how to how to hold his head. I taught her how to strap him into his car seat because she didn’t know the straps could be loosened and tightened. I saw that her car seat and her stroller weren’t made by the same company, so his infant car seat was precariously resting on the top of the stroller. I explained to her the way the car seat and stroller are intended to work together. I called my wife, some friends, and local organizations to try to find a free matching set, so her son can be safe. We talked through how the car seat is latched into the car and it was clear immediately that it hasn’t been done correctly. I told her how to do it, but I fully expect she’ll be back so I can install it correctly.

I stopped counting how many times this former student has cursed at me. I lost count of the number of times I’ve physically held her back from fighting someone, and the number of times she told me no one could ever help her life to be better. And, I tell myself I’ve moved on from my own sadness the day she told me she wanted to have a baby because she’d never known what it felt like to be loved by anyone. She’s not my student anymore, but that doesn’t mean I should have gone off to be an instructional leader.

I thought for sure I’d get to be an instructional leader after she left. But, I had to meet with one of my best students’ who is throwing away an amazing internship opportunity. He’s showing up late, or not showing up at all. This internship is a ticket to college. The reference letter he’d get would help him to get the scholarship dollars he needs. I asked, “Have you considered how getting fired from this internship will hurt your chances to get into a better college?” He answered, “To be honest Mr. Juli, I hadn’t given it any thought at all.” And I remembered that students who don’t know anything about college, who can’t see how today has anything to do with tomorrow, wouldn’t necessarily make the connection between internship and the future. I made the faulty assumption that once he had this great opportunity, he’d know what to do with it. No way. Internships and a connection to a more positive future...something else we have to figure out how to purposefully teach.

Instructional leadership time. But one of my teachers waved me down on my way to the classrooms. She’d gone to a students’ house to check on him. We hadn’t heard from him or seen him in weeks. His mother was no longer returning our calls. My teacher had brought him to school to see me. Head down, sweatshirt over his head and face. No eye contact, and speaking barely above a whisper.
“Why aren’t you coming to school?”
“Don’t know.”
“What are you doing when you’re not in school?”
“Sitting on the couch.”
“What’s your mom doing?”
“Sitting on the couch.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Washed your clothing?”
“Don’t know.”
“Today.” But I could see that wasn’t true.

We talked for awhile. I told him that coming to school is vital. I don’t care about grades or assignments. I just want him here to know he’s safe and okay. I made him promise me he’ll be back tomorrow. Then school ended. And I spent part of my afternoon on the phone with Child and Family Services making a report.

After a glass of wine, hugs from my own children, a talk with my wife about her efforts to find a better stroller/car seat combo and then this blog post, I have to let today go. Tomorrow is a new day. A school like mine only moves forward when instructional practices change and improve. It's easy to feel like today was a successful day because I helped children. But that's one of the traps of inner city schools. Helping individual students isn't the same as improving the school and growing a good school. One day like today can turn into two, three, a week, and a month of days like today. In a school like mine, that's unacceptable because our students can't afford for us to continue on our current path.Tomorrow is a new day. And I intend to be an instructional leader.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Grit: Context Matters

Have you ever seen the children’s book Zoom by Istvan Banyai? The book is only images, beginning with what is essentially an ant’s eye view, and slowly, page by page, panning out to become a five mile high view, all of the same place. Each page, our perspective changes, given the details of the image we can now see. The book reminds me that perspective and context matter. They especially matter in the eclectic and wonderful educational-blogosphere where so many thinkers contribute a myriad of perspectives and contexts to the conversation.

When I posted my thinking around the Tough/Socol et. al Grit/Slack Debate, (we should have t-shirts made by the way; it’s very catchy), I was attempting to offer my perspective as an inner city principal, working with the very population that the discussion focused upon. After I posted, there were several really interesting outcomes.

First, there was the last line of my post. “Are you in?” Now, what I intended and what happened were two totally different outcomes. I was really trying to say, are you in on action in general over just using words? Not, are you in on my school right now? I was so surprised to see that readers thought I meant are you in on my school. Thanks so much to Jill, Bo, Laura, and Grant, who in one way or another said they were in on me, and my school. It’s awfully kind, and I so appreciate the heartfelt “inness” you offered.

Chris Thines, upon reading my post, felt that I was devaluing anyone who wanted to discuss what can, should, or ought to be done about poverty. For others of you who perceived my post in that way, that certainly wasn’t the spirit in which it was intended. But here’s where my context and my perspective begin to come into the picture. An overarching theme in this ongoing discussion has been about poverty; poverty through the lens of socio-economic status, race, and educational potential, expectations, and outcomes, have all been part of the discussion. And I was struck when Chris compared my shutting down the conversation to teachers who shut their doors to their classrooms because the discussion doesn’t relate to what they will teach on Tuesday. This was a particular gut shot, because teachers actually shut their doors in the hopes that I’ll go away. So it got me to reflect on my own progression of my thinking. You see, I fell in love with the Philosophy of Education, long before I decided to teach. Nell Noddings', The Challenge to Care In School, Paulo Freire’s, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and of course Dewey’s Experience and Education remain guiding references on my bookshelf in my current office. I was an undergraduate Philosophy major at Syracuse, and I loved grappling with ideas in general. 

But, at some point in these last seventeen years in schools, poverty stopped being an entity, an idea, a status or a condition. Instead, at some point without my even realizing it, Poverty started being students’ faces and names. Poverty is now grandmothers that sit in my office and crying and asking for help. It’s the coffin I saw at my murdered student’s funeral, and the baby’s cries at namings and events I’ve attended after my students’ have babies of their own. It’s this context, this perspective these names, faces, and events that have me falling squarely in the context of action oriented and not words oriented. It isn’t that I want to dismiss the dialogue, discussion, or thinking aloud. It’s simply that from my perspective, in my context, I want to take action now (Right Now!) on behalf of my students. I love words and ideas. Always have, always will. But I also have shame, frustration, and anger about graduating students who aren’t ready for the world. And my desire to make change as quickly as possible guides my current thinking about actions over words.

It’s so interesting to me how a word or an idea can be so different depending on the context. When I used the phrase “pushing my staff” on twitter, in the context of my desire to move towards Design Thinking, Dr. Lee-Anne Gray equated “pushing teachers” with teacher abuse.

Here’s an example of how vital “pushing teachers” on behalf of students is at my school. It has taken me two full years to ensure that teachers having unlocked doors to classrooms, is part of what we do. Let me try to be clearer still. When I arrived at Design Lab three years ago, and through the start of this year, every time a student tried to enter his or her classroom, they found every single door locked. So last years’ graduates spent all four years of high school, never having the opportunity to walk into a classroom without a teacher explicitly opening the door and inviting the student in.

Please take just two minutes after reading this to imagine the implications for learning, culture, relationships and every other key part of a school when every classroom door is locked to students all the time. So I pushed. And I pushed, and I pushed. And here we are in year three, and doors are unlocked for all but two teachers all the time. But we fall into bad habits still. When teachers are annoyed with students and annoyed with me, doors are still sometimes locked. That’s one example. I could offer a thousand. Should I have pushed? Or should I have waited for teacher readiness around unlocking doors? When I arrived in Cleveland, my teachers were very clear. “This [locking doors] is what we do here.” Context and perception both matter.

Control is another word that is interpreted in a variety of ways. I said in my post, “I want to focus only on what we have control over.” Chris Thinnes and others interpreted control, I think, as a synonym for power. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Instead my version of control is about focusing on the teaching and learning that occurs in our four walls during the school day. Too many of my students come to school hungry and angry, and dirty and cold. There are so many opportunities to use those circumstances as reasons why those students cannot learn. We are in charge of the hours the students are in our care. What can we do right and better for and with them? To them happens also, unfortunately, but it isn’t the intent.

Here’s another place where context and perspective matter. In this great ongoing discussion about what we do about poverty, here’s my contribution: I’m purposefully trying to turn around an inner city public high school. I think if I wanted to that I have the skill set to go start a Charter School. But I want to be part of a system of schools. I want to prove that we can grow a successful inner city high school as part of a district of schools and make it replicable. I want our school to be a school that any of us would send our children to, while being part of a system of schools. If we can do that, we’re showing that “these” students, my students, our students, can be successful despite their circumstances. That’s how I address poverty; the institution. Or at least that’s how I’m trying to address it. I’m not even close to being successful yet.

But there’s a gigantic catch to what I’m trying to do. And it’s vital to understanding it as you try and understand the context in which I write and make decisions. None of my teachers; not one, has ever taught in a school that works. None of my students’ parents have ever attended a school that works, and none of my students have ever attended a school that works. So as I push us towards innovation, towards learning outside our four walls, towards relevancy in learning, towards design thinking and making, towards authenticity; I’m doing it without any common ground, save one frustrating commonality. My teachers, students, and parents all connect around our state exam. Everyone gets that they need it the state test to graduate. That’s it-no other common ground exists. How I lead us towards what school can be and should be without anyone having ever seen a working school before is the hardest, scariest, most terrifying part of my daily work. Context and perspective absolutely matter.

Anyone reading this post is always welcome to come visit our school. Ask my students what they think about grit and their future, and you’ll hear what I hear every day. My students who are interested in the law say they want to be paralegals. My students who are interested in medicine, offer you “radiology technician.” My students inevitably pick jobs that don’t require a college education, because they can’t imagine themselves getting a college education. Too often, my students can only imagine themselves working within service industry at McDonalds. How would you talk about grit in that context? How would you address slack given that perspective? Some days I think I know how. Others, significantly less so.

The conditions that exist among my teachers, parents and students reminds me of Plato’s Myth of the Caves. Do you know it? In it, these men are only able to look forward and all they can see are the shadows of men, women, children, and animals, cast from a fire. One person escapes, and sees the world as it actually is, and when he returns to the cave to tell his colleagues what the world is really like, they think he’s insane.

My teachers, parents, and students only see the shadows. And everything they know and have experienced tells them the way we “do” school is not only the right way, but the only way. Oh, by the way, I’m the insane guy, saying things can be different in this particular allegory.

So what does the myth of the caves have to do with Grit? In my mind, it means there’s so much work we have to do before we can even get to the school-tough I discussed in my last post. Asking my students what they want. Asking my students’ parents what they want, and asking my teachers what they want means we have to learn to see more than shadows first.

I didn’t write about it in my first post, but I should have. In 1998, Ron Suskind, a writer for the Wall Street Journal gave a name to the foundational work we have to do to even get into the conversation about Grit. He discussed a belief and a faith in having something better despite the words of those around us that “we can’t” or “we won’t” or “why bother” as a “hope in the unseen. (Suskind, 1998)” In his book, A Hope in the Unseen, Suskind retells the true story of a young man’s journey from the inner city to Brown University. Cedric, the main character defined the unseen as “a place, a place I couldn’t see yet, up ahead… an imagined place that I’ll get to someday (Suskind, 1998, pg. 330).”

I think about that hope in the unseen regularly. At my school, in our context, from my perspective, our work begins with making the unseen visible. I ask students regularly, “What do you want?” “What’s your plan?” “What happens next?” We need to name the unseen, and then develop the necessary grit to make it happen.

I love the ongoing discussion about grit and slack. While I can’t agree with any of Ira Socol's beliefs about Paul Tough, I loved his Grit Part 4 post and I highly recommend you read it. Just know that while I agree with virtually everything he said, we’re a long way from implementing any of it at my school. And when I ask for ideas on twitter or in this blog related to how you would start, I really mean it. There isn’t a clear roadmap for the work we’re doing at our school. And sometimes I feel just as confused as my teachers must feel when I ask them to “do school” differently.

Context and perspective really matter. There’s so much that happens at our school that matters towards making teaching and learning better. There are so many posts I either don’t write or am nervous to write. As we try and do school better, does context matter? Twice this year, I’ve had to sneak into my house, so my children didn’t see that I had other people’s blood all over me. I think that matters. I think that speaks to the learning environment we have, and the one we need to create.

Does it matter that in my twenty minute drive home from work, I go from inner city Cleveland to beautiful Shaker Heights? And that plenty of days it takes me much longer than twenty minutes to decompress and let go of what I’ve seen and done at school. I think it matters.

I’m definitely focused on action over words. I hope this post helps you to see the why of that purposeful decision. I also hope that you will understand that when I ask for suggestions, advice or starting steps, the question isn’t rhetorical. I’m in the weeds far more often than I’m not. I’m taking my grit, both school and life, along with the slack I’ve gotten over the years, and heading back to my own personal battleground tomorrow. School as battleground… what a terrible analogy. But context matters...