Leading Where We Dwell

So I got locked into all of the analysis
And found myself locked into a kind of paralysis
And something was calling and I almost didn’t hear it
But I spent a lot of time being blessed by the spirits

-Gil Scott Heron

from “Don’t Give Up”

I live in East Atlanta. At 7:45am, the streets of Lithonia are sparse. It was once noted as one of the nations’s wealthiest African-American enclaves. As the sun rises gently over the Georgia pines, there are a few retirees out walking with their dogs and the occasional jogger putting in their morning miles. On this June morning I was on my way to Marbut Traditional Theme School to meet with my operations team to discuss the progress they are making on preparing our building for students in the Fall. As I turned onto Marbut Road, I noticed someone walking who looked familiar. She was wearing a hijab, so I only caught a glimpse of her face. Looking back in my rearview I could see that it was one of my scholar’s parents, carrying what appeared to be a heavy bag and walking in the direction of the school. I drove past, then quickly circled back and asked if everything was okay. She replied in a thick accent, “Hi Mr. Principal. I’m going to the bus stop. I’m on my way to work”. Knowing that the bus stop was two miles away, I insisted that she get in so that I could take her there. When she got in, I noticed her face was covered with sweat. I was glad to be of assistance to her, thinking of how God places us in certain positions to do good for others. I’ve been on the receiving end of these good deeds on many days, so returning the favor was an absolute obligation. On the way to her bus stop she shared with me how the kids were doing. She asked me about my family. She told me that she has an additional scholar coming to our school this Fall. In those few moments we talked about school uniforms, jobs, and the new realities of school openings in 2020. As she exited, I wished her a great day at work and she said “God bless you Principal Mountain.” As I drove back to the school, I thought about the beauty of leading where we dwell. To see our parents in the everyday struggle humbles one to understand that we are here to serve. We serve their scholars and in a broader sense, their families in helping to forge greater access to opportunities and support.

To see our parents in the everyday struggle humbles one to understand that we are here to serve. We serve their scholars and in a broader sense, their families in helping to forge greater access to opportunities and support.

I thought about the educators who lived in my neighborhood as I was growing up in Swainsboro, GA. Mr. Tims, the band director, lived around the corner. Mr. Bright, the bus driver, lived a few blocks away. Mrs. Trice, my Kindergarten teacher, lived just 2 miles away. Their homes were landmarks we’d drive by on our way to other destinations, and I’d hope to get a glimpse of them as we drove past. There is beauty in dwelling where you teach or lead. It embeds you in the energy of the community your students emerge from. You see them in the corner store, grocery stores, and on the sidewalks.

Mr. Solomon is one of my favorite Marbut parents. He works as a cashier at my neighborhood convenience store. His face lights up whenever my daughter and I walk into the store. He greets us in a thick Ethiopian accent, “Doctor! Selam! How are you?” His daughter and my daughter became fast friends during their time at our school. When we visit his store, he insists on having her pick out a treat free of charge. She is always happy to oblige his generosity. He occasionally asks me what he needs to do to help his middle school or high school scholar and I always try to point him in the right direction with a name or a phone number to call. There are days when he refuses to accept payment for my purchase. It’s a welcome battle that I gladly lose occasionally. It’s all love. It’s the beauty of leading where one dwells.

During my time teaching at Monte Sano Elementary in Augusta, GA in the early 2000’s, I actually lived across the street from the school. The Summerville neighborhood of Augusta had a quaint southern feel, with historic homes and cottages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. When our daughter was born, I was able to go home at lunch to check on my wife and our newborn infant, then walk back across the street to pick up my students from lunch. In the evenings while walking the family dog or sitting on our front porch, I’d have conversations with my neighbors about our school and inform them of the great things happening at the school. To this day, I still keep in touch with neighbors Fred and Sallie who were consistent and staunch supporters of Monte Sano Elementary through the years. As principals and teachers had come and gone, they watched from a distance. They loved the neighborhood and the school that served the neighborhood. They watched our daughter grow up and gifted her with a hand-quilted blanket when she was born. They reminded me of the unique personalities that neighborhoods possess and how school leaders must tap into the richness of a community to extend the reach of the school.

How did I end up living in the community of the school I’m leading in 2020? Prior to moving to Atlanta from Washington State, I’d heard about the notorious Atlanta traffic. I dreaded being late to work as a building leader, early in my career. What type of example would I set if I had the misfortune of being consistently late to work due to traffic on I-20 or I-285? I decided to find a place to dwell in the community where I’d be leading that would not require me to have to access any major thoroughfares. Thankfully, we found a place only 4-minutes drive from the school. I can walk to the school in under 15 minutes. But it’s deeper than proximity. It’s more about community. I’m better connected to the community I serve by living in the midst of it. I’m better equipped to understand the challenges they face, the resources at our disposal, and the potential partners and allies we have.

Too often the allure and comfort of leadership insulates us from the real-life struggles our families face.

So, this afternoon I noticed that dark clouds were heading in our direction. I began wrapping up my tasks in the office around 6pm, preparing to head home. Set the school alarm, loaded up my car, and pulled out of the school’s driveway. As the rain began falling, I noticed a familiar figure walking down the street. It was the same parent I’d dropped off earlier this morning at the bus stop. She was making the 2.5 mile trek back home from the bus stop after a long day of work. I blew my horn, and without a word she came over smiling. Perfect timing and a perfect end to a long day for both of us. She shared that she was from Belize, Central America and the many struggles of finding good schools for her children. In times like these, we need to take better care of one other. Too often the allure and comfort of leadership insulates us from the real-life struggles our families face. Leading is service and service starts in the places where we dwell.

Soundtrack: Don’t Give Up by Gil Scott Heron

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and The Brilliance Beneath (2016). His forthcoming book is "Principals Don't Walk on Water: They Walk Through It" (2020).

6 thoughts on “Leading Where We Dwell

  1. Hey bro, that’s special…I promise that simple kind gesture made a deeper impact on her family then you realize! Keep planting those seeds, and even though it’s not your intention, you are bound to reap an awarding harvest.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read! When I moved to Atlanta and attended preplanning, The administrators in Griffin took teachers in buses around the community so that we can see who would come to our school in a few days. It was a way of connecting us with students; grounding us with the unique needs of them and it allowed us to direct how we taught. Making those connections are critical for a true school community

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome!!!! I believe the most effective leaders in this profession are the ones who are in tuned with the everyday life of the community. Often, leaders just are operational leaders of their building. To actually get the most of the children, one must understand their history. Assisting with challenges outside the walls of the school. This summer since we’ve been out, I have been spending time with my students in their communities. I’ve visited about 260 of the 550 I serve. Im loving every moment of it. Enjoyed this read!!!!

    Like

  4. I’m reminded by this piece that the sculpture project that we worked on together with the students at Monte Sano was not for the school’s campus but for the public park that was 1/2 mile from the school. So the students’ work was for the neighborhood and not just for their school.

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  5. Great read as always. Living in the environment of your scholars definitely gives a deeper insight on their lives. You are admired by so many….nice way to serve and give back to your community.

    Like

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