Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baptismal Show and Tell

The Girl Child has a school project that requires her to bring in something from her baptism and to talk about it. She can bring in her baptismal gown, photos, the candle or anything that will help her tell about her baptism. Of course, her response was, "How can I talk about my baptism? I was a baby. I don't remember that! Duh!"

In order to "refresh" her memory, The Spouse had her get the photo album with her baptismal pictures in it. As we were flipping through it and talking about the who, what, when and where, we came upon several pictures that she felt the need to comment on.

The first picture is one of her as an infant in a carseat. The car seat is sitting on the front lawn of our first home. She and The Boy Child were looking at it and I heard her whisper, "See, I told you I was adopted! Someone left me in their front yard!" Then, they both began giggling hysterically.

I told her she was NOT adopted because I was in the surgery room when the doctor gutted her mother and yanked her out of her belly. That shut her up! (I'm cruel like that at times.)

Another picture they looked at showed The Boy Child at about age two. He's in the background and is holding a big pair of yellow and blue Fisher-Price binoculars to his face. The binoculars are HUGE compared to his little face and he looks like a freaky robot walking toward the sweet baby. They both laughed hysterically at the picture.

The Girl Child announced she was going to take that photo to school to show as she talked about her baptism. I told her it had nothing to do with her baptism. She said, "I know, but it's funny!" It's all about the priorities with her. Humor over substance.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The "Missing Homework" Conundrum!

I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. As a former educator and administrator, I spent quite a bit of time talking with parents whose children either didn't do or didn't turn in their homework.

Believe it or not, there are a TON of students who go home, spend hours doing their homework and then fail to turn it in. They receive missing assignment reports, detentions are given, parents are notified and the hunt for the missing assignment begins.

With most of these students, the work is somewhere in the backback. It's almost ALWAYS in there. It just never made it out. I worked on this great mystery for 15 years and never was able to make sense of it. There was no discernible pattern. There were no commonalities between the students. There was simply no rhyme or reason that I could find for this.

With the first type of student, parents ranted and raved, we had locker and backpack checks, we had students check in with the Guidance Counselors daily. We had teachers specifically asking for work daily. We pulled out all the tricks and used them as best we could. Yet, in some cases, they continued to not turn in their homework. I'm almost convinced that there is a neurological disconnect for these students. Maybe it's a fear of turning over something they've worked so hard on. I have no idea!

The second type of student in this situation simply did not do the assignment. Either they "didn't hear the teacher" or they "forgot" or they simply didn't understand the assignment so they didn't do it.

Schools have different responses to these situations. Some simply issue a zero and move on. Some allow the student an extra day but offer a reduced grade for the assignment. Others have a system in place that forces the student to stay after school and complete the assignment. I'm sure there are other options but these are the most familiar to me.

The second type of student with missing assignments was the one who simply failed to do them. That, my friends, would be the case with my 12 year old Boy Child.

I'm at a loss. I am a former teacher and principal. This should NOT be happening to me! It's like the curse of the preacher's kid!

We have done everything we can think of to change this child's behavior. Every day I ask him, "Do you have homework?" and he answers, "Yes." Every day, he sits down and does his homework and announces when he's done. Every day I ask, "Are you sure you did it all?" And every day, he answers, "Yes."

Yet, every other day (or so it seems), I get a call telling me he's got "an academic referral" for not turning in something. It's maddening! Maddening, I tell you! You see, every time he gets one of these academic referrals, he has to stay after school that day or the next for an hour and a half to work on the missing assignment and his current homework.

The Spouse and I are very supportive of this action. HOWEVER, the frequency with which this is occurring is now interfering with my and The Spouse's ability to actually come home for the evening. This is NOT a good thing!

The Spouse feeds me. She keeps me nourished. She enjoys cooking. She does not, however, enjoy being delayed because The Boy Child forgot to do a simple Social Studies assignment. That works out to be a really, really bad thing for everyone.

The question, then, is this: How do we lessen and eventually eliminate the "I forgot" conundrum?

The solution, I believe, begins with a series of rewards and punishments. For instance, if he goes an entire week without an academic referral, we can stop at a favorite fast food restaurant for his favorite food on the Friday of that week. If, however, he receives an Academic Referral during a week then he will lose an entire day of technology. (In our home "technology" is defined as anything that draws power, uses power, or connects one electronically with the outside world.)

So, effective this week, we are going to begin this process. I'm sure, much like the chore chart episode, there will be much to post about in the coming weeks. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

If you have any solutions or thoughts, please share them! I'm willing to try just about anything!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Principals: Keepers of Secrets

During my five and 1/2 years as an administrator in a junior high school, I was consistently amazed when a teacher or staff member would come to me about a student and imply that I knew more than I was telling them. Many, many, many times I didn't know any more or less than the teacher or staff member who came to me.

There seemed to be this belief that I always had more knowledge about the students than the teachers and staff members did and that, for whatever reason, I was holding it back. It was as if I was keeping secrets from them and they wanted to know the secrets that I knew.

The truth is, there were times I knew more than the teacher and, for a variety of reasons, I couldn't tell them "...the rest of the story". It wasn't that I was deliberately withholding information. Rather, I had to decide if the teacher truly had a NEED to know. If, in my judgment, he or she didn't need to know what I knew, I wouldn't tell them. Maybe an example will better illustrate.

Staff Member X comes to me and lets me know that Suzy Q is acting up in class and that her grades are dropping. She's tried to work with her and spoke with her privately but there's been no improvement. She feels like there's something serious going on in the student's life and is concerned about her. So, she asks me: What do you know about her? Is something going on?

I happen to know that there are some very serious issues going on in the family. Suzy's mother came to see me and told me a lot of very personal and private issues they were dealing with at home. I asked her if I could share this information with her teachers and she stated that she would rather I not at this time. I was given permission to share the information with the Assistant Principal, the Social Worker and the Guidance Counselor. I told Suzy's mother that I would be in touch if I felt that others needed to be informed.

Since I have given my word to this parent, I can't tell the teacher anything at this point. I can only make a vague statement like, "She's going through a lot at home. Why don't you contact her mother and let her know what's going on in the classroom? Maybe her mother will give you some insight."

The teacher leaves and is not really happy. In her mind, she wants to reach out and help this child and I'm impeding her ability to do that. In my mind, I'm honoring the wishes of this mother and I'm going to call that mother and let her know that Teacher X has come to me with concerns.

That's the best case scenario of an instance like this.

Here's a sampling of some of the "secrets" I had to keep:

1. Student A's father was selling drugs out of the house and had weapons in the house. He was fearful for his life and his siblings because his father didn't just sell drugs, he used them frequently. When he used them he tended to get a bit out of hand and had threatened to kill everyone. A DFS Hotline call was made by yours truly, the school Social Worker was informed, the School Resource Officer was informed, the Guidance Counselor was informed. A meeting was held by all involved and it was decided that, since the DFS investigation had come up empty but a police investigation was ongoing, it was best to keep this as quiet as possible. The father did not know who had "snitched" on him and we needed to protect Student A.

2. Student B's mother's boyfriend was a biker. He beat her mother regularly, used meth frequently, was prone to fits of violence when he was high, had held knives on the children and threatened to kill them and had made threats to kill anyone who interfered in their lives.

3. A 13 year old girl confessed to her mother that her uncle had been sexually molesting her.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. In each instance, I had to weigh the teacher or staff member's "right to know" with their "need to know" and the desires of parents, DFS, police, etc. for me to keep information confidential. It was like trying to juggle balloons with a needle in one hand. Eventually, something was going to pop!

In most scenarios, it was me that was going to pop.

If you are a teacher or staff member who aspires to be a principal some day, try to understand that you will be the holder of such horrible secrets and you will be the one deciding who to tell and how much to tell.

You will have to determine the difference between "need to know" and "a right to know". You will have to differentiate between the staff member/teacher who wants to know what's going on for the sake of the child vs the staff member/teacher who wants to know what's going on in order to use it against the child. (It's true and you know it is. There are teachers out there who will use anything to weed out the students they don't like.)

Your ability to keep these secrets, weigh all the factors and make a good decision will directly impact the life of that child. For better or worse, your decision WILL have an impact. You'll lose sleep over it. You'll be sick to your stomach over it. You'll want to quit your job over it.

So, it's true that principals often do know much more than we tell staff members and teachers. We are the keepers of secrets and it's a terrible, terrible burden.

A Sad Truth About Most Principals: We Care So Much It Hurts

So, today, I made the rounds to some inner-city schools about two hours north of my home. One school I visited touch my heart and I'm having a difficult time getting it out of my head.

The school is a K-6 elementary school in a predominantly Aftrican-American district. The district is the only predominantly African-American district in the city that remains accredited by the state. That's pretty amazing. They must be doing something right there.

I arrived at 1:00p.m. and discovered that the principal and I had crossed our appointment times and she was expecting me at 1:30. I told her it was absolutely no problem and that I would be happy to wait for her.

The office was pretty small to begin with and it was PACKED with kids. Most of them appeared to be between second and fourth grade students. It was pretty chaotic in there and the Principal was heavily engaged in conflict resolution and just maintaining order. Some students were seated at two small tables. They were obviously working on some missing homework or classwork. I smiled and walked out of the office to take a seat on a bench outside in the main hallway.

Sitting out there allowed me to watch students and teachers come and go and interact with one another. In my 30 minute wait, I observed the following:

1. Nice straight lines of kindergarten students taking a restroom break. They were in pretty nice little rows and just about every one of them gave me a little wave and a smile. I waved back and I smiled broadly. They were so sweet and innocent looking. Some had little pigtails, others had braids, one little boy had a mohawk, another child had lots and lots of colorful beads in her hair and others just had "normal" hair.

2. I also noticed the clothing the children were wearing. I thought it might be a uniform because there were a lot of pastel pullover polos but I also saw plenty of kids in t-shirts. Many of the children had clothes with holes in them. Some of the clothes were dingy and threadbear. There were others who had nice clothing that looked relatively new. Typically, their shoes were in a similar condition to their clothes. My heart broke a bit for the children with the threadbear, dingy and holey clothes.

3. The table to my immediate right had a sign above it that said "Peace Table" on it. I wondered what that was about until two 5th or 6th grade girls who had come in to the office came back out, sat down at the table and began to have a "conversation":
Girl 1: Why are you mad at me?
Girl 2: Because you called me a H-O-E! (I smiled and looked away when she spelled it. I wondered if she realized she'd spelled out the gardening tool and not the slang word for whore.)
G1: I did not call you that. I don't know who told you that, but that's not what I said.
G2: You DID call me a H-O-E and you been turning people fake on me!
G1: Whatchoo mean I'm turning people fake on you?
G2: You making Tawanna fake, you making Ashley fake, you making Sharay fake!
G1: How am I making them fake?
G2: I don't even know how to explain it to you!
And the conversation went on and on and on. It was obvious that Girl 1 had a much better vocabulary and was better at controlling her language and temper.

Girl 2 was becoming more demonstrative with her nonverbal actions: her foot was tapping, she was flailing her arms around, she would slap a foot down, she would slink down in the chair, her eyes would roll, her head would loll around. She was absolutely at a loss as to how to explain herself other than to repeat the same phrase over and over: You making them fake! Because of her lack of words, her lack of a command of the English language, she was unable to express herself clearly and it was frustrating her tremendously.

Girl 1, I think, was aware that she was winning this battle of words but was kind enough to offer Girl 2 multiple opportunities and ways to explain what she meant. For Girl 2, this must have appeared like an attempt to frustrate or embarrass Girl 1. She was being as clear as she could and it wasn't HER fault that Girl 1 couldn't understand it.

4. Two boys in probably 5th or 6th grade stopped by to introduce themselves to me. Both held out hands, asked me my name and told me theirs. It was obvious that they were in the Special Education class but I was notably impressed with their excellent manners. I smiled as I thought of how I would tell my wife about them. She works with kids with disabilities and it makes her smile to hear about my encounters with them.

5. One second or third grade boy came strolling down the hall like he was in a mall just looking in the storefronts. He strolled up to me, stuck out his hand, introduced himself and asked me my name. This kid had a sparkle in his eye along with a hint of mishcief. I asked him how he was and whether he liked the school. He told me he did. He then offered to sit beside me and talk for a while but I suggested that he make his way to his original destination. He gave me a knowing grin and walked off after telling me to have a nice day. (I wasn't a principal for five years without learning the look of a con man, even if he was only in second or third grade.) Again, I smiled to myself as he sauntered away.

6. There were some loud teachers in different parts of the building. I could hear raised voices. One male voice I heard repeatedly. He sounded angry or frustrated and he was having a hard time getting the students to do what he wanted.

I was finally called in by the secretary. She looked frazzled and she apologized for my wait. I walked past the Peace Table and the girls were still going at it. It appeared to me that the Peace Table had become a Frustration Table as I walked on by. In the office, I walked through a small gauntlet of little people. Several asked me why I was there. The secretary told them to be quiet and get back to work. She wasn't mean, just matter of fact.

I walked into the principal's office and was greeted by a lovely and elegant African American lady sitting behind a desk piled with papers and assorted books, brochures, pens, and the random junk that we tend to accumulate. She smiled faintly at me and apologized for my wait. Her phone rang, she answered it and pointed to a chair for me to sit in.

I sat and waited for her to get off the phone. As I waited, I noticed the peace sign pillows, tons and tons and tons of books, some dolls placed on delicately balanced books, and her diplomas on the walls along with a few posters.

She got off the phone, I introduced myself and began by telling her that I was a former junior high principal and that she had my deepest admiration and respect. She smiled at me and told me that it had been a particularly hard day.

We talked a bit about the planners I sell and what differentiates them from the competition. I showed her several different series and explained the content partnerships of each planner. She was interested and we talked a bit. While we talked, we were probably interupted no less than 10 times by students, the secretary and a teacher. Each time, our conversation paused, she addressed the issue and we resumed our talk.

At one point, as we were talking about a particular planner, she looked up, looked me in the eye and said, "Why did you get out?" The question was so out of place that it took me by surprise. I paused for a moment as I thought about how to answer her. This is always a tricky question. How deeply do I answer this question?

I looked at her and said, "There were a lot of factors that played into my decision. Family time was very important to me and very limited in my position. The requirements of NCLB were just stifling, too. It was just time for a change for me."

She looked at me for a few seconds and then, in a very soft voice that trembled just a bit, she said, "Sometimes I wonder why I do this. I feel like such a failure at times. I stay awake at night wondering what I've done wrong or how I can do better." As she finished speaking, she lowered her eyes and head for a second.

I'm rarely speechless, but this was a time for a little silence. I sat still until she looked up at me and, before she could speak, I said, "You are not a failure. I've been in that seat, with that stack of papers on my desk and with the insanity that is swirling around you today. I've wondered the same thing. I've lost sleep. I've been physically ill from worrying about my students or from wondering why we weren't making a difference and showing improvement."

She told me that she's been losing sleep over the issues she's facing this year.

We sat in silence for a few minutes before she said, "I don't know why I'm telling you all of this." I didn't respond, but I thought to myself: Because you NEED to tell someone you think might understand you and you NEED to be validated. I've been where you are. I remember feeling what you're feeling.

As we continued looking at planners and talking about resources, she mentioned to me that her children are so language-deprived. I was immediately taken to the conversation taking place at the Peace Table. She explained that many of her students come in so far behind where they should be in language. They are literally missing hundreds of words that should be in their vocabulary by kindergarten and first grade.

We talked about her own children. All are grown. Two of her daughters have master's degrees and one will graduate with a doctorate in pharmacology in May. Her son quit college his sophomore year but is working in technology. She was proud of them.

For whatever reason, she and I connected and we were able to feel a kindred spirit. We both cared passionately about the children we worked with. We both worried ourselves sick over what would happen to certain children when they got home. We both struggled with the fact that we love our own children enough to make education a priority and we were dealing with children from a social structure that doesn't value education. In many instances, that structure doesn't even value the child.

That's foreign to us. We can't understand it. We can't process it. It keeps us up at night. It makes us wonder where we are going wrong. It makes us ill.

It's a sad truth: Most principals care so much it hurts.