Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Fourth R

In this month’s issue of Educational Leadership, the theme of relationships threads through all of the articles. Relationships, particularly between faculty and students, are the hinge, the lever, the glue to the whole enterprise of school. On a single page at the end of the magazine titled, “The Fourth R: Relationships,” especially meaningful quotes were pulled from various articles.

“The most urgent questions students ask as they begin a new school year are, Am I safe? and, Do I belong?” (Rick Wormeli)

“I realized very early in my career that to successfully and thoughtfully teach my students, I needed to imagine life through their eyes.” (Cherish R. Skinker)

 “Care is in the eyes of the receiver; care doesn’t exist unless those being cared for truly experience it.” (Elizabeth Bandy and Elyse Hambacher)

This past week at my school – and at many other schools – students and faculty were visibly upset about the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC. While there have been too many other disturbing incidents across the country prior to this one, because it was local, this particular instance sparked an uproar and response unlike any I have seen since moving to Charlotte over 13 years ago.

Scott was killed on Tuesday afternoon. The following Wednesday morning, I headed to school with a heavy heart and a lot of confusion over what had happened, why, and what would happen next. Front and center in my mind, however, was wondering how our students were feeling, and what I could do to help. While I didn’t know what I would find, I knew what I wanted to make clear: that all of our kids need to know that they are safe, that they belong, and that the adults in their lives want to see things through their eyes.

That afternoon, I saw a somewhat diverse group of students who were gathered together and clearly distraught in the student center. I asked if I could sit with them for a bit, and they said yes. I told them, “I want to tell you that I see you. I want you to know that I care about you, and I’m here to listen.” From there, I listened and listened more. When I spoke, which wasn’t often, I told them that I cared about their feelings and I affirmed their confusion. I told them that I have been confused and upset in my life, too, and was upset by Tuesday’s events as well.

The next day, Thursday, was our all-school convocation and the celebration of the school’s 75th birthday. The day could have been strange at best and upsetting at worst for students and faculty still reeling from the news of Scott’s death. Surprisingly, it wasn’t either thing. Over 2,500 of us sat in the bleachers at the football stadium, the American flag waving above us. At first it was raining and the mood was somber, but then the rain slowed and finally stopped. The speeches began and we heard many wise and thoughtful words from school leaders, past and present, as well as from three phenomenal student leaders.

As I listened to our student body president boldly challenge us to be courageous and honorable, I began to relax. And as I listened to a fourth grade girl talk about what she appreciates about her school and the hopes and dreams she has for her future, I found myself smiling.

I felt myself being stitched back together by the strength and resiliency of young people, and the importance and power of relationships. When people take the time to listen to and understand one another, when the fourth R is privileged, not just learning but healing happens.

Millennial Mentors

I loved the recent article in the New York Times about a journalist in her 50’s learning new things from a journalist in her 20’s. Titled “Schooled by a Mentor Half My Age,” the article by Phyllis Korkki chronicles the unique experience of being middle-aged and needing help from someone younger, specifically, a “millennial.”

While precise definitions may vary, millennials are, generally speaking, people born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. They are known for their technological know-how, open-mindedness, and more relaxed attitude toward traditional rules. They are also regularly criticized for being entitled, selfish, and shallow.

Whatever views one might have of millennials, they are also here to stay: this past April, it was reported that millennials surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation.

Korkki shares a great story about the initial awkwardness of reaching out to her younger millennial colleague, Talya Minsberg, for help learning to use Snapchat. Korkki says, “I felt as if face-to-face communication was too old-fashioned a way to set up meetings with her; Email seemed old-fashioned, too.” Korkki resolves to use Minsberg’s preferred mode, Google Calendar. To Korkki, it seemed rude to peer into Minsberg’s schedule. To Minsberg, it was not only not rude, but collegial and more efficient. This was key learning for Korkki.

I was enthralled with this story for a couple of reasons. First, it makes me feel better to know that I am not the last woman standing without Snapchat (although, now that Korkki has learned to use it, maybe I am). Second, I loved reading the story of a middle-aged woman’s growth in the face of challenge. Korkki could easily have just refused to use Snapchat, or refused to ask for help, and she did neither. She embraced her limitations and reached out to exactly the person she needed to connect with.

But last, and most important, I loved thinking about the impact of mentorship on the person who is usually the mentee. Talya Minsberg published a companion piece to Korkki’s about what it was like to be asked by a senior journalist for help. “I realized our mentorship provided me with something unexpected,” says Minsberg: “a chance to take what amounts to a leadership position I had not seen coming. As a relatively young professional, I was usually the one taking advice, not doling it out.”

As a teacher, I have been learning key skills and lessons from younger people for years. It’s great to see this same reciprocity taking place in other professions and industries. When people of different ages, skills and experiences trade best practices, everyone wins.

What a Student Wants; What a Student Needs

Something I consider essential is knowing what my students are experiencing and learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more proactive about gathering that information rather than waiting for it to possibly come to me. So last week I asked my new students ten questions about who they are, what they bring to my classroom, and what they hope to get out of it.

I gave each senior in my class a blank note card. I like to use note cards for quick quizzes about a range of topics, whether it be the previous night’s reading or their thoughts on a recent assembly speaker. I asked them where they hoped to go to college and also where thought they would go to college. I asked them what they want to work on in my class and who they would be on campus if not themselves. I asked them their favorite type of food and their favorite game.

One of my favorite questions was this: if they could introduce something new to school, what would that be? Their answers flowed from them without pause: student-led classes, scavenger hunts, nap time and quiet spaces, intramural sports, arts picnics, karaoke, speech contests, food trucks, playgrounds, and therapy dogs, to name a few.

It would be hard to miss the fact that most of these things are not academic in nature. Which might seem like a problem for schools, whose purpose has been to put students through specific curricula geared toward mastery of content as well as skills.

But learning that my students wish they could do more of the fun things in life while in school should not have come as a surprise to me. In second grade, I desperately wanted to be in Mr. Merlin’s class because of his name. That and the fact that his classroom had a loft where kids could read quietly if they finished their work early.  In eighth grade, I looked forward to Mr. O’Hara’s morning assembly quizzes because answering one of his trivia questions correctly meant being thrown a cellophane wrapped cinnamon flavored gummy bear.

Looking back at these and many other memories, I can see clearly that it was the combination of hard work and reward that made me a devotee of school life. What might be different today is that more schools are interested in giving every student, not just those who achieve, a chance to feel part of the fun of learning.