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.”

Help Me Get One More

The number of students requiring additional support can be daunting. Having the mindset to save one at a time might just get us there.

*This video contains graphic images*

Based off a true story, Hacksaw Ridge depicts Desmond Doss’ story during World War II. Desmond was a conscientious objector, who refused to carry a weapon or take another man’s life. Serving as an army medic, Desmond carried 75 men to safety at the Battle of Okinawa earning him the Medal of Honor.

In this scene, Desmond is shown saving numerous wounded soldiers by pulling them from the battlefield and belaying them off the cliff. After each man he saves Desmond prays, “Please Lord, help me get one more.” Being one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific (approximately 160,000 combined casualties), if Desmond were to think about the sheer number of men needing medical attention, he surely would have been overwhelmed. However, by focusing on one man at a time, he was able to save 75 lives.

As a principal I have access to a variety of data. Data is extremely helpful when making decisions, but can be overwhelming. I work at a school with over 1,200 students. When you start talking about 20% of students not performing on grade level or 10% exhibiting negative behaviors, you are dealing with hundreds of students. It can be hard to know where to start. It can be disheartening thinking about the possibility of not reaching every child.

One thing I do to combat these challenges is ensuring data has a face and that we treat students independently. Whether it is intervention meetings, administrative meetings, parent meetings, grade level meetings, or any other type of meeting it is imperative that when discussing how to best support a student, you do so with that particular child in mind. No two students are the same and therefore no two solutions will be exactly the same. When you talk about a group of students it is easy to make generalizations. When you talk about one student it is easy to make a plan.

Through diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments, teachers have a strong understanding of their students’ needs. As mentioned earlier, no two students are alike, and therefore the same amount of time and effort needed to meet a student at their level will differ greatly across a classroom. Some students will require a large amount of teacher time and others will require a minimal amount of guidance.

The key is providing each student with the appropriate support needed to grow. Academically, this may mean differentiating instruction so that each student has access to the content. Behaviorally, a teacher may need to check-in with a student once a week to gauge how he is feeling. Socially, extra thought about partner assignments may need to be given to support students more anxious about peer interactions. The needs of the student should dictate the support provided by the school.

When educators stop focusing on performance metrics and start focusing on students, great things happen. If you start to get overwhelmed, just ask, “Please Lord, help me get one more.”

Teacher Confidence

Teaching is a profession, a craft, and an art. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities.

Technically it is a show, not a movie. But “Homer at the Bat” is a classic Simpsons episode. Even though Homer is having an MVP caliber season playing for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team, manger/boss Mr. Burns decides to bring in ringers to ensure the team wins him a championship.

Major League Baseball star Darryl Strawberry is brought in to take over Homer’s position in right field. In this short scene, Homer meets Darryl for the first time. Even though Darryl has never met Homer before, he is certain he is a better baseball player.

For being an obscure scene, it is one I remember frequently. Conversations around new initiatives, professional development, innovative teaching practices, and increased school performance are commonplace when I meet with other principals, superintendents, and district level leaders. It is easy to get overwhelmed listening to the successes of colleagues or expectations placed upon you by your employers. It is at these times I remember the line, “Well, I never met you, but……yes.”

Although that line may come off as cocky or arrogant, I believe it speaks to the confidence necessary to be a strong educator. I trust in my abilities as a school principal. I do not get intimidated listening to the achievements of others. I am confident in the work our school is doing to support all students. Additionally, when schools are asked to implement a new program, I know that we can do it, because we have the culture that embraces challenges and the logistics to make it happen.

I do not believe that I am better than you, but I know that I am capable.

In the classroom, a lack of confidence can impact a teacher in a variety of ways. Students recognize and take advantage of a teacher who lacks trust in himself. Parents can become uncertain with a teacher who is not firm in his response to questions. Finally, school improvement will suffer if a team member does not participate in due to insecurity in his ideas and overall teaching ability.

One of the reasons new teachers struggle is because they lack the confidence of experienced teachers. Students are savvy. They easily sense a teacher who questions their ability to manage a class, create a lesson, and teach a lesson. When students feed off teacher insecurities, those insecurities grow larger. However, a teacher who is confident in their choices is able to get the most out of their students, because the students trust the leadership of the teacher.

I would like to say parents are different than their children, but in some cases they exhibit the same behavior. As a principal, I see parents question discipline, grading, and instruction with younger teachers far more frequently than with veteran teachers. Parents believe that because newer teachers lack confidence, they can shape the classroom, instruction, or gradebook to best accommodate their child. Confident teachers are able to mitigate parents seeking to “work” the system. They know their subject matter, they have proved their classroom management model, and their grading practices are equitable and reflect student mastery.

Schools are an assortment of smaller teams. Departments, grade levels, interdisciplinary teams, and professional learning teams are just a few of the subgroups that make-up a school. The collaboration in these teams drive the culture and instructional practices for the school. When a teacher lacks confidence they are unable to share their thoughts and ideas with these leadership teams. The result is that they can become passive players at school. They end up teaching lessons they did not design and enforcing rules they do not agree with. The confident teachers are the change agents for schools. The support they garner from peers allows them to enact change. They are active players and their confidence builds, because they see the impact of their decisions and ideas across the school.

Confidence has a snowball effect. The more you have/exude, the more it grows. Teachers choose the best profession in the world so that they can make a positive difference in the lives of students. Have confidence in your abilities. When a new challenge comes your way you can say, “Well I [may have] never [done it] before, but………yes.”

Make Your Life Better

When reacting to student behavior are you asking yourself the right question: “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?”

*This video contains graphic language*

In American History X Edward Norton (Derek) is a recently incarcerated neo-nazi skinhead. Avery Brooks (Dr. Bob Sweeny), one of Derek’s former teachers, visits him in the prison hospital. Despite Derek’s confidence in his racist beliefs and previous actions, when asked the question, “Has anything you’ve done made your life better,” he shakes his head no. This is the pivotal moment in the film as Derek finally realizes that everything he has done has not improved his life nor made things easier for his family.

There is a lot of preparatory work in education: teachers develop lesson plan, administrators create professional development, counselors review incoming student records, etc. However, as proactive as we try to be, sometimes decisions are reactive in nature, especially relating to behavior because it can be difficult to predict how students will behave, especially in middle school.

Derek was asked if his decisions made his life easier. I ask you if your decisions as an educator make your job easier? Or perhaps are you reacting to prove a point? Or responding to win? Or yelling to maintain authority?

Everyone knows that yelling at, belittling, and embarrassing students will not yield the long term results you are in search of. Yet, sometimes we do it anyway. If the outcomes we are in search of our improved relationships, increased instructional time, and higher student engagement, we must change the way we react.

We can use backwards design to identify what outcome we want to accomplish which will help provide clarity about how we need to react.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet when reacting to student misbehavior. Potential solutions include: ignoring the behavior and speaking with the student after class, consistent communication with parents, and collaborating with the student themselves on how to address “off days”.

Ignoring a behavior is not always possible if the behavior is disrupting classroom instruction. However, some students behave to get a reaction, so if you are able to ignore it, you are disarming a student.

No one knows a child better than the parent. Consistency is key with parent communication, because parents need to hear from you when their child is meeting expectations and when you need support. When a child knows a partnership exists between school and home, it can have overwhelmingly positive results.

Students are refreshingly honest. If you speak with them when they are not in an elevated state they can share insight on ways to de-escalate them.

When reacting to student behaviors keep the desired outcome in mind. This will help you make decisions that “make your life easier.”

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