Coping with Failure

If you have a growth mindset, you know that failure is part of the learning process. That does not make it any easier to deal with, however. It is critical to not let setbacks impede your progress.

I cannot believe it took until my twelfth post to include a clip from a Rocky movie. Truth be told, this whole blog could have been crafted around the Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) franchise.

In this scene from Rocky Balboa, Rocky is speaking with his son, Milo Ventimiglia (Robert), outside his restaurant. Robert is upset that Rocky is taking a fight when he is clearly past his prime. However, Robert’s concern does not lie in the safety of his father, but rather how he will be perceived. While there is a lot to unpack from this scene, the most important takeaway is about about continuing on in spite of obstacles.

Rocky preaches, “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Rocky knows that people will criticize his decision. They will not understand his choice to return to boxing. The easy path would be to remain retired, but Rocky believes there are some things he still needs to sort out…and Rocky does his best sorting out in the ring.

There is a lot for Rocky to overcome leading up to his fight: criticism, disrespect, taunting, humiliation, and fear. Life is what is going to “hit” Rocky, not his opponent. By “moving forward” through the adversity, Rocky is going to win, no matter what the outcome of the fight is.

Winning and losing in the classroom can take on a variety of forms. On a small scale, a single lesson can crash and burn. If you look much larger, maybe you were never able to reach a child that you knew was in desperate need of a positive relationship with a trusted adult.

Anyone who has taught has experienced the epiphany of an amazing lesson. Anyone who has taught has also experienced the pure misery of that magical lesson falling flat on its face. Sometimes what plays out in our heads is not what plays out in the classroom. But that is 100% normal and 100% okay. No risks means no rewards. To stifle creativity in fear of a lesson bombing is a disservice to students.

Relationships are at the heart of every great educator. Early in the school year teachers can pinpoint which students have never had the connection with an educator necessary to generate a love of learning. Great educators live and breathe this sort of challenge. They provide love, support, patience, time, an ear, effort, and energy to the student who may have never experienced any of it.

The dream is that ten years down the road that student is giving their valedictorian speech and reminisces about you and how their life was headed down one path and that all changed because of you. It is a marvelous thought. Unfortunately, it does not alway work out that way. Sometimes all the time and effort you spend trying to make a connection with a student does not pan out.

So what does that teacher do? Never go above the call of duty to reach a lost child? Play it safe because opening up can lead to pain? Absolutely not! It will not always work out the way you imagine. But it will never work out if you do not put in the effort to change the trajectory of the lives of your students. In order to make a difference, you have to take that risk.

For a principal, a lot rides on standardized test results. Scores are important. They show the areas where a school is growing and where a school is underperforming. So what do you do when a years worth of work results in less than ideal scores?

It is really easy to do the following: discount the scores, blame someone/something for the results, get angry, or even get depressed. Rocky would not consider any of these options. The best two things to do are to not shy away from the data and look for the areas to celebrate.

Staring at spreadsheets that display unanticipated results is a tough pill to swallow. But, when you take the time to look closely at the scores you will start to see patterns and make connections to what might have led to those results. It is when you choose to ignore poor scores that you miss out on understanding where you might have gone wrong. Fast-forwarding a year, without looking at the data, will give you zero confidence. But digging deeper and making alterations based on the results will have you feeling much more optimistic the next go round.

Lastly, nothing is ever all bad. There is a silver lining in even the most dire of test results. Look for the positive. Teachers will want their principal to be honest, but they need hope as well. Find the area(s) where the school made growth. Highlight what the teachers did that yielded those results. When people are recognized for the successes they create, they will desire that feeling again and again. So when you do share scores that were not so great, they will want to do everything in their power to turn the concern into an area of celebration for next year.

“You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life.” The most important choice we make is the one when life knocks us down. Do we choose to give up, make an excuse, or look for a way out? No, we are educators, so we choose to “keep moving forward” and do everything in our power to better the lives of our students.

Asking and Answering Questions

There is an assumption that those in leadership positions have all the right answers. Although they frequently do have more experience, greater access to resources, and the benefit of seeing things from a broader perspective than other teachers, questioning ideas, initiatives, and lines of thinking increases dialogue. Through discourse, more educators are brought to the table. More educators means more perspectives, and a greater chance at finding the right solution.

No one has any questions for John Heard (Paul) following his Transformers knockoff proposal. No one, that is, until Tom Hanks (Josh) raises his hand. In this scene from Big, Josh does not understand why kids would want to have buildings transform into robots because, “What’s fun about playing with a building?”

“I don’t get it.” Four simple words that disrupt the entire meeting. Josh is not trying to be difficult, he is trying to understand. What makes Josh a great toy company employee is that he understands the demographic, because he is the demographic.

Paul tries to use reports and data to make his point. He is too far removed from the job (creating toys that kids want to play with) to understand Josh’s concern. Maybe there was time when Paul was in-tune with what kids wanted to play with, but that time has long past.

The scene starts with a very sterile pitch. No one is inspired. No one has questions. No one is involved. By making one simple statement, Josh transforms (pun intended) a boring meeting into a lively conversation where everyone is contributing.

Principals oversee the direction of schools, from mission and vision statements to bell schedules and grading policies. Decisions that impact school stakeholders are either made by the principal or under their direction.

The problem arises, when a principal becomes so far removed from teaching that they overlook the nuances of the classroom. So how do principals stay connected? They welcome questions and use those questions to drive conversations.

Principals are equipped to be the ultimate change agents in a school. If they combine their experience and access to resources with the wealth of knowledge that comes from teachers in the building, there is no limit to a school’s potential The staff’s knowledge base is tapped through the encouragement of questions. Principals should never shy away from considering alternatives or explaining the reasoning for decisions. Not only does it foster more ideas, it supports an inclusive climate that all teachers love working in.

Teachers need to ask questions for two important reasons: to generate ideas and for clarification.

The best ideas come from teachers because they work in the ultimate proving grounds…the classroom. Teachers know what works and what does not work. You will frequently here a teacher say, “Well that crashed and burned.” Teachers change instruction from class period to class period. They use student response to improve instruction.

When teachers ask questions they open the door for other teachers to share ideas. Teachers use the anecdotal evidence from the classroom to feed off each other and create new ideas. The great thing about these forums is that it provides a rare opportunity for teachers to hear what colleagues are doing in the classroom. Instead of 1+1=2, it becomes 1+1=3.

Lastly, no one likes be given directives with no explanation. When teachers ask clarifying questions, they allow principals to provide the reasons for decisions. Teachers who understand an initiative are far more likely to support it. A two minute explanation in front of the faculty will increase buy-in exponentially.

Principals should not see questions as a threat. They should see them as a means to generate greater staff involvement and creativity. Teachers, do not be afraid to ask questions, because questions help everyone understand the direction of a school and open the doors to the brilliance that comes from the classroom.

There is No End Zone

The very thing that makes education so challenging makes it so rewarding. You never complete a project, close a sale, or finalize a build. Teaching is never ending. That might sound ominous, but it is the constant struggle that forces educators to grow, making each victory a little sweeter…even if there is no time to stop and enjoy it.

In this scene from 1989’s Parenthood, Jason Robards (Frank) is giving his son, Steve Martin (Gil), insight about when you finish being a parent. The message is clear, “It never, never ends.”

Frank is the father of four grown children, each with their own children. Frank’s youngest son, Tom Hulce (Larry), is a constant disappointment. Despite his failures, Frank is perpetually backing Larry’s ill-planned ideas, much to the confusion of oldest son, Gil. Contrary to Larry, Gil is a successful family man, but is struggling with his oldest son, Jasen Fisher (Kevin).

In one of the final scenes of the movie, Frank sheds light on why he continues to support Larry. It is not that he believes Larry’s get rich schemes will work, it is because he knows that no matter how old Larry gets, he needs his father in his corner. There is no symbolic bird leaving the nest. The work of a parent is endless.

Every year schools set goals: reduce suspensions, increase growth scores, decrease staff turnover, etc. At the end of the year, the school uses data to chart which goals were successful and which ones continue to need attention. Even accomplished goals are never complete. Just because suspensions are reduced does not mean there are not ways to continue to increase seat time. Improved growth scores does not necessarily mean all subgroups made growth. Having less staff leave is great, but there are always way to provide a more supportive environment for the educators in the building.

Sometimes the strategies used to accomplish goals one year do not work the next year. Every students is different, every teacher is different, and every year is different. This seems extremely disheartening. But it is not. It is what makes education far more rewarding than typical 9-5 jobs. Educators are forced to constantly problem solve, troubleshoot, and brainstorm. And they cannot do it on their own. It takes the collaboration of many to attend to these problems.

As a teacher, this is true on an even smaller scale. Tuesday might have gone off without a hitch, but Wednesday was a total nightmare. You never really figure it out. Constant tweaking and planning and differentiating is a daily occurrence. Those modifications are not happening in isolation, they are happening on teams, in departments, and in committees.

The irreplaceable teachers are the ones who continuously reinvent themselves. Through reading, professional development, or meaningful conversation with colleagues, they develop new strategies to create relationships with students, increase engagement, and spark a love of learning in their students. Great teachers understand that the formula for success is ever changing. The only way to approach it is through self-improvement.

“There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball, and do your touchdown dance.” And that is okay, because the rewards you get as an educator for bettering yourself and positively impacting students far outweigh the trivial accolades you might get in another profession.

Making Difficult Decisions

Education is one of the most emotionally draining professions a person can undertake, making it consistently among the occupations with the highest turnover rate. One source of the emotional drain is sometimes making choices that are best for students, even though they may be unpopular.

Once again I am extending my references outside film to the world of television. Ken Jenkins (Dr. Kelso) is the Chief of Medicine at Sacred Heart Hospital on the TV series Scrubs. Depicted as the primary antagonist on the show, this episode shines a different light on Dr. Kelso.

Episode four of season five revolves around Zach Braff (JD) struggling to write an introduction for Dr. Kelso at an American Medical Association event where Dr. Kelso is receiving an award. Over the course of the episode, JD learns that Dr. Kelso is shutting down the prenatal unit for underprivileged women. To make matters worse, Dr. Kelso enlists a rich patient, over a poor patient, in an experimental drug trial that ultimately leads to the survival of the rich patient and the death of the poor patient. JD is sickened when he sees Dr. Kelso whistling while leaving the hospital. He does not understand how someone whose decisions cause so much harm can find joy.

What JD fails to realize is that Dr. Kelso struggles with the challenging decisions he makes. Additionally, Dr. Kelso has reasons for his choices. Because Dr. Kelso opted to enlist the rich patient in the experimental drug trial, a large donation was made to the hospital which allowed for the resurrection of the prenatal unit. By being the “bad guy,” Dr. Kelso is able to bear the emotional brunt and provide an outlet for the hate that comes with the hardships of his decisions.

Principals make decisions that support equity which can alienate or upset different populations (students, teachers, parents, or the community).
In education, equity is ensuring every child has an equal chance of success. It does not mean doing the same thing for every child………….that’s equality. There is always an explanation for those decisions, but sometimes that explanation is one that cannot be shared.

A child lives in a dangerous neighborhood. In the past she has been a victim of physical abuse, because of where she lives. As a means of protection, her mother does not let her leave the house without pepper spray. Every morning before she gets on the bus, she takes the pepper spray out of her purse. But one day, she forgets. A student notices the pepper spray sticking out of her purse and reports it to administration. There are clear rules when it comes to bringing any type of substance on-campus that can cause harm. What should administration do?

A principal would be justified in levying consequences concurrent with bringing a weapon on campus. However, this principal is aware of the girl’s home life. He knows that sending her home for several days is the last place where she needs to be. By making the decision not to suspend the student, he knows that he will upset a lot of teachers. The teachers are unaware of the girl’s history of abuse and the specific dangers of her neighborhood. The principal makes an unpopular decision in the staff’s eyes, but one that he knows is best for the student.

An assignment is due on Thursday. The students have known about the deadline for several weeks. There have been reminders on the whiteboard, on the teacher’s website, and provided verbally by the teacher at the beginning of each class. The due date arrives and neither John nor Joan have completed it. Based on school grading policy, both students should receive a 0 for failure to complete the assignment

The teacher knows that John is homeless. Over the past few weeks he has moved from a hotel to an uncle’s house and finally to a shelter. The teacher has a strong relationship with John, who has been keeping her informed of his living situation. The teacher also has a strong relationship with Joan. Joan frequently tells the teacher about her swim meets and dance recitals that she participates in outside of school. The teacher decides to allow John a few extra days to turn in the assignment. The teacher informs Joan that she earned a 0 on the assignment.

Joan, and Joan’s parents, discover that Joan received a 0 on the assignment, and worse, another student who failed to turn it in received additional time to complete it. Joan’s parents are outraged and want to know why their daughter is being unfairly singled out. They threaten to go to the principal if Joan is not provided the same opportunity as the other student. The teacher holds firm in her decision, even though it means that she will most likely ruin her relationship with Joan and have to address the complaint with her principal

In both scenarios the teacher and principal made difficult decisions, which pitted a certain population against them. They were unable to share the justification for their decisions because they needed to maintain the privacy of the students they were advocating for. The principal and the teacher would make the same decision 100 times out of 100. But, that does not mean making it was easy.

“I’m Tired, Boss”

A common question I get is what’s the difference between being a teacher and being a principal. My response is always, “Have you seen The Green Mile?”

The Green Mile centers on death row inmate John Coffey. John is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two children. Over the course of the movie we learn that John is not a monster, he is a miracle worker. He uses his gift to remove pain from those who are suffering.

In this scene, prison guard Paul Edgecomb is in unbearable pain because of a bladder infection. John calls Paul over to his cell. John grabs Paul, pulling him closely and initially causing him to fear for his life. However, Paul soon realizes that John is not trying to hurt him, he is trying to help him. The scene ends with Paul asking, “What did you just do to me?” John answers, “I helped it. Didn’t I help it?”

By the end of the film John has impacted everyone around him. However, the many years of John using his power to take away pain has taken a tremendous toll on him.

John is unable to continue absorbing the pain and ugliness of the world. “I’m tired, boss,” he confesses. John shares with Paul that by carrying out the death sentence, Paul is putting an end to John’s constant suffering.

Let me start off by saying that in no way do I feel the job of a principal is equivalent to that of a miracle worker. But used as hyperbole, I do believe John Coffey’s character does a nice job of encompassing some of the emotions that come with the job.

As a former professor once told me, the job of a principal is “mess management.” These messes take many shapes; a student mess looks entirely different from a teacher mess.

It is difficult enough to try to control everything that happens within the school walls, but unfortunately there are also situations outside of the school walls that impact students. Educators can all attest to the heart breaking stories we discover about the students we serve. As a principal, it is my responsibility to know my students, which includes the unpleasantness of hearing the terrible struggles that many students face on a daily basis. Like John Coffey, principals are asked to absorb these horrific situations we know our students face and do whatever we can to mitigate them. But, at the end of the day we can never do enough to stop the pain outside the school walls.

Being a principal means ensuring the staff feel heard, loved, and cared for. A consequence of that is everyone comes to you to help manage their mess. Sometimes that means dealing with a colleague dispute. Other times it is a problem outside the building. Having an open door policy means be willing to support the educators in your building with whatever they might bring to you. Part of the job is that everyone’s problems become your problems. Just as John Coffey tried to help Paul, principals do their best to help alleviate as much stress and pain from teachers as possible.

This post is an explanation of the emotional weight that principals carry from day to day. It is not an outlet to vent. I believe that I am a great listener, genuinely care about others, and will do whatever is necessary to help those around me take as much joy in their lives as I do. But sometimes when I get a call from my boss, the superintendent, and he asks me how I am doing, I feel like saying, “I’m tired, boss.”

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