Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Unforgettable Interview

About 6 or 7 years ago, I interviewed a teacher named Jake Huggins.  He seemed like a nice guy; he had a few years under his belt; and I thought he might be a nice addition to our faculty.  But he took away any doubt when he answered one question.  This was always my favorite question:

"Jake... in every school in America, you can place teachers on a continuum.  On one end of the continuum are teachers who don't seem to want to be there.  They're always complaining about something.  Their colleagues wonder why they haven't retired yet. They're a drag on the collective energy of the school.  But on the other end of that continuum are the teachers who are always excited to be at work.  They love the students; they value their colleagues; and they lift the spirits of all those around them.  When graduates come back to visit, these are the teachers they want to see.  So Jake... what is the difference between these two teachers?  What is the 'X factor?'  Because that's what we're looking for here." 

Most teachers would talk about passion, or talk about the fact that the second teacher isn't just coming to work for a paycheck; they're coming to work to make a difference.  I think those are good answers, but Jake said something different -- something I'll never forget.  He answered something like this:

"You know, I think every teacher is idealistic when they start their career.  Almost every new teacher has passion; they love kids; and they want to make a difference.  But after several years, you hit a little bit of a wall.  There's this reality check.  You realize this job is hard.  There are a lot of papers to grade.  Some students make it really hard to teach.  And parents are not always supportive.  I think some teachers just don't seem to move beyond these frustrations.  They burn out.  But others are able to maintain their sense of purpose in spite of the challenges.  Their work is hard, but they remain convinced that it matters. Some students are challenging, but they are aware of how much they need a teacher not to give up on them.   They deal with adversity, but it doesn't steal their passion.  These are the teachers who get to make a difference year after year."

We hired Jake.   And this past week, he was named the school's "Teacher of the Year."  So I salute Jake Huggins... and all those other teachers who got past that "reality check" and retained their passion for students.  They are making a difference... year after year.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Girl with Red Hair

She was just being defiant.  I was certain I needed to suspend her.

She had streaks of bright red hair - like fire engine red!  We had a large high school of 1800 students, but I was in the hallway a lot, and I couldn't help but notice the hair.  I casually warned her a few times that she would need to change the color of her hair because our code of conduct didn't allow "unnatural hair color."  Several days passed, and I still noticed the hair.  As an experienced administrator, I knew I had bigger battles to fight, so I always tried to steer clear of "going to the mat" over dress code violations, but at this point, it seemed like she was just being defiant.  So I confronted her during a class change.  I told her I didn't want to suspend her, but she seemed to be leaving me no choice.  I basically said, "What's your deal!?"   Her eyes got wet, and I could tell she felt shame just having to talk to me. (She was never in trouble, had never been sent to the office, and aside from the hair color, went totally under the radar.)  She went on to share the personal drama she was having to live through at home.  She finally said something that knocked the wind out of me:  "Dr. Steele, I feel like the color of my hair is the only thing in my life that I can control."

This is a moment that I will not forget. As I write these words, my eyes are welling up... thinking about this young lady's feelings of desperation... thinking about the lives that many of our students are living... thinking about the challenges confronting many of the kids in our schools - challenges completely unknown to the adults in the building.  When I heard her story, my preoccupation with hair color suddenly seemed absurd.  I know we need rules.  And students have to be held accountable for following the rules.  I get it.  But it is vital that we take the time to hear and actually feel the story of our students.  We will never understand our students if we don't stop to genuinely listen.  But we can't just listen to their story; we have to actually care about their story.  When we do that, our perspective will forever be altered.  That is when we can connect with students; that is when we can impact students; that is when we have the chance to really make a difference.