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.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Eric. It's powerful, and having read it and knowing you as I do, I'm proud to call you my friend. While you may not have made it into classrooms to be the "instructional leader," you definitely modeled care and relationship. Powerful "instruction" doesn't really happen until relationships develop. While you may not have made it into a classroom, you definitely led instruction.

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