“The day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit.”
Georgia Tech recently held their STEAM Leadership Conference. It was a virtual event, including presentations from educators around the country sharing their ideas and work around STEAM. Atlanta-based site artist Jeff Mather joined me to discuss the work he has been doing with schools like ours to support STEAM education. Working with Jeff takes me back to my days of being a classroom teacher at Monte Sano Elementary where I first met him in the 2006-2007 school year. Our school was working in collaboration with a local non-profit, The Art Factory, to create sculptures for a nearby park. Jeff would visit our school and lead the students through the process of designing large site art that reflected the themes of the space: wildlife, flight, and birds. It was my first foray into the realm of real project-based learning. At the time, I was a die-hard content-based teacher who saw any deviation from my plan as a distraction. I was in my 5th year as a classroom teacher. Jeff’s work with my students helped me to see that teaching my students deeply meant that I’d have to give up some control of how much noise they made, how much mess they made, and how they resolved some conflicts. Teaching and learning could involve painting, sawing, and sketching. The tools of my trade could include power tools, wooden horses, and lumber. Jeff planted seeds in my mind that would reemerge as I became a school leader.
Like many urban schools, ours is one situated in a food desert. Families in our community have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables due to poverty or the distance from a high-quality grocery store or market. Our community is littered with Dollar Stores, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants. Our campus is expansive, with two gardens behind gates and another in the front of the school. These beautiful spaces serve our school well as areas with “green potential”. Consequently, our school’s focus is urban agriculture. Teaching young people about urban agriculture plants seeds of self-determination in their minds. We help them understand how they can cultivate vegetables in urban spaces. In doing this, there are real implications for teaching them about healthy food choices, economic opportunities, and the Science that applies to cultivating plants. We are planting seeds both literally and figuratively with our scholars by engaging them in urban agriculture projects.
I recently found a third grade class out in our garden with their teacher. I asked them if they’d like a tour of the space. Their faces lit up with excitement. I took them around and explained what was planted in each of the 19 planting boxes.
“This is lettuce, but it’s being overtaken by weeds. So, this is why we have to come out to remove the weeds so they don’t take over the plants we are trying to cultivate.”
“These are collard greens. Notice the flowers on the top. See these bees. They are helping to spread pollen from plant to plant.”
“Do you see the ladybug on this cabbage leaf? It’s important to have certain insects in the garden. The ladybug is the natural predator of aphids which can damage plants.”
It was an impromptu Science lesson for a group of curious third graders. I explained that each plant develops seed pods that could be saved for a new season and produce more of this same plant. We could share the seeds with others so they could produce vegetables like ours in their own gardens.
This idea of “seeds” came up again in our recent faculty meeting. I shared with the staff the concept of managing what seeds are planted in your garden. Our professional lives are like gardens in the sense that we are all planning, planting, and cultivating things we want to grow in our lives. We welcome seeds of innovation, seeds of encouragement, and seeds of celebration. We all want to cultivate more engaging lessons, nurture better organizational skills, or develop new approaches to old challenges. Our interactions with colleagues are moments when they can plant seeds in our professional lives that can grow and produce fruit. Being mindful of your professional garden forces you to take an inventory of what you have grown, what you want to grow, and what seeds are being brought to you. What happens when we don’t remove the weeds that begin to grow in our gardens? They gradually begin to overtake the plants we are nurturing, robbing them of the nutrients they need to grow. Likewise, we have to be mindful of who and what we take into our own professional lives.
“Some time must be invested for this to be manifested.”
-Cee-Lo Green from OutKast’s “Git Up Git Out”
Each day, I ask myself “Who did I help grow today?”. Many members of my team aspire to move into leadership roles in the future. I make it a point to debrief with them about the leadership moves that we are making as a school, shedding light on the psychology of why certain moves are made is my way of planting seeds in their professional gardens. I want them to understand the moves and pivots leaders must make to adjust to the challenges organizations face. I share the books and articles that guide my thinking so they have a sharper perspective on the trends in the profession and the research-base that informs our work. Someone asked me, “Do you think they read all of that stuff you share?” I think about the two pine trees that are on the front lawn of our campus. They are filled with pine cones embedded with seeds. Thousands of seeds are dispersed, but only a fraction of them will grow into mature Georgia pines. But the tree continues to produce the cones and seeds, knowing that its job is to produce the seeds. The development of those seeds into maturity is not the tree’s mission. That depends on the winds, the climate, and the soil those seeds land upon. The rest is up to a higher power.
The discussion of the role of the arts in public education has become virtually lost in light of the school closings due to the global pandemic. Many of our scholars find their greatest joy in those moments when they are able to freely create in art and music classrooms. Art and education can be seen as twins, born from the same womb. In the Yoruba tradition, the name “Kehinde” means “the second born of the twins”. The second born twin is considered the elder twin. The first twin, Taiwo, emerges into the world, determining whether the conditions are right to be born. Only then is Kehinde birthed.
Education is Taiwo.
The arts are Kehinde.
In May of 2016, my family took the escalator to the featured exhibit floor of the Seattle Art Museum to view the exhibit of Kehinde Wiley. An artist who describes himself as a descendant in art history’s portrait painting tradition, his works place Black men and women in heroic and aristocratic scenes, drawing inspiration from the Western tradition of portraiture with a notable celebration of African features. His palette and technique are drawn from the wellspring of classical paintings of noblemen and royalty, noting that his goal is “to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas.” His works accomplish what great art and music have always done: force us to confront socio-political contradictions and issues of race, gender and power.
Four years after visiting Wiley’s exhibit in Seattle, the art teacher at our metro-Atlanta school introduced our elementary scholars to the works of Kehinde Wiley, tasking them with creating their own self-portraits inspired by his works. It was our effort to create a culturally responsive space for our scholars to experience the works of a contemporary artist and to grapple with the task of reconceptualizing the past in a way that asserts new ideas upon it. Walter Benjamin once wrote, “In every era the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from a conformist that is about to overpower it.” The catalysts of changing the institutional forces working to devalue the arts in our schools are the educators and leaders who understand the intellectual complexity of creating art and the implications for fostering greater creativity in our schools.
We find a similar duality in Hip-Hop culture as artists grapple with its legacy of social change, authenticity and lyricism, along with the missteps, materialism and misogyny. Lyric Jones represents a countercurrent of contemporary artists who strive to create Hip-Hop compositions in a way that honors the tradition. Her most recent album, Closer Than They Appear, gazes into Hip-Hop’s rearview mirror while steadily moving the culture forward with tracks like “Rock On” and “Cruisin”. Like Kehinde Wiley, she too, stands in a lyrical line of descendants that includes Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Big Daddy Kane, Souls of Mischief, Lauryn Hill and Little Brother. Jones captures the essence of this in her song “Rock On” where she confesses:
“I kept tally Of every small to big victory Even when Hip Hop grew more contradictory Still was at the pep rally Cause I marvel at the history”
Lyric Jones’ work epitomizes where the arts, education, culture and context converge. She references her joint enrollment and experiences in summer programs at the Berklee College of Music in her hometown of Boston as instrumental in her development as an artist. She possesses a transcendent level of skill, engaging in production, singing, songwriting, and drumming. She IS the culture embodied. What is most significant for the future of the culture is the fact that she is also an educator at the Musicians Institute’s College of Contemporary Music.
In our mission to create schools that leverage the arts to unleash the genius we see in both Wiley and Jones, we must first reassess what it means to teach, what is taught, and what is valued in schools in the frantic “race to the top”. I acknowledge that what happens in the classrooms, whether in person or virtual, is most critical. But I would suggest that we start our assessment of the relationship between the arts and education at the front doors of our schools. The lobby of a school tells the story of a school. Too often the visual cues of the vestibules of our schools are overlooked. They are indicative of what is valued in a space. Here we discover, long before our interaction with its citizenry, whether athletics, academics, alumni or the arts are held in high regard. The critical thinking skills and differentiation we espouse as we discuss raising student achievement in the core content areas is not the same brush used to paint the arts in our schools. The arts are currently underfunded in our schools and relegated to second-class status in relation to other content areas. The band and string orchestra teachers at my school must serve multiple schools rather than building deep relationships with a group of students and families at one school. This is a problem that must be addressed at the federal level of education. We’ve arrived at this point in public education after a series of education reform efforts that included measurements of progress in specific subjects, causing administrators and policymakers to trim budgets and streamline their offerings to align with what was measurable on standardized tests.
Education must confront its own contradictions. Blooms Taxonomy was revised in 2001 by a consortium of psychologists, curriculum theorists, and educational researchers. It illustrates the cognitive processes and the continuum of complexity of tasks from ‘remember’ to ‘create’. According to Blooms, ‘create’ represents the highest form of cognitive activity. This is where we find students generating a log of activities, assembling a team of experts, designing a project workflow, or developing a learning portfolio. Elliot Eisner, in a 1969 article entitled “What the Arts Taught Me About Education”, suggests that the complexity of painting “requires the exercise of the mind…and the process of perceiving the subtleties of a work of art is as much of an inquiry as the design of an experiment in chemistry.”
We are called upon to widen our conceptualization of what it means to be smart. Reconstruction of this concept necessitates the dismantling of the notion that education, at its core, is limited to the importation of that which can be measured by standardized tests. Dismantling this requires an examination of the core of university programs that prepare our teachers and our teacher leaders.
Audre Lorde, in her critique of feminists during her time once wrote “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Her quote reminds us that reforming institutions from within can be a challenging undertaking. To be employed within, and at times bound by the the bureaucracy of public education, yet possessing a keen knowledge of its ongoing toxicity and disservice to our young people who are predominantly Black, and Brown is both an invocation to self-determination and an invitation to the dance between compliance and creativity. Elliot Eisner, in looking back on his experiences as a student and the sacredness of the visual arts during his elementary years, describes the visual arts as a source of ‘salvation’ from the drudgery of diagramming sentences in English grammar classes.
As educators, we most often focus our professional expertise on how the context of schooling transforms scholars. The context of schooling also transforms those of us working in schools, peeling away layers of lingo, acronyms, and new initiatives. Leaving us alone in our classrooms engaged in our own personal quests to impact the lives of our scholars. We become more connected with our sacred selves. As Eisner describes his first experiences teaching art in Chicago Public Schools, he formulates an intricate mosaic bound together by a deep commitment to both art and education. He suggests that the context and the content have transformative potentiality, writing:
“Chicago also provided the theoretical tools and the intellectual climate that I needed; much of it was like my life as a child at home; ideas were prized almost for their own sake. Analysis, debate, and intellect had a happy marriage.”
Eisner’s pericope on the context of his own transformative experience with art and education is much like my own experience as a school leader intent on exploring the voids that exist between the arts and core content courses.
As I first walked into the metro-Atlanta school I had been chosen to lead as principal, I looked intently at the hallways and what adorned its walls. I wanted to get an understanding of the culture of the school and the community through what was posted. It was April, yet some of the work posted was dated from November of the previous year. Framed artwork was hanging in many locations throughout the building, honoring the legacy of African-American history and culture. I wondered why the energy, creativity, and excitement of the hundreds of students of the school wasn’t more prominently displayed around the campus. Three years later, our halls are adorned with art created by scholars in class. Hallway displays include project-based learning and student writings. We have become much more intentional about presenting scholars with complex tasks to broaden their own sense of self-efficacy. Eisner challenges the prevailing culture of public education, writing, “educational practice does not display its highest virtues in uniformity, but in nurturing productive diversity.” There is complexity in a musical score or in sixteen bars of rap lyrics. There is intellect and critical thinking at the forefront of a painting. There is genius in the choreography that accompanies a Jazz composition. As a school leader, I’m interested in finding ways to initiate that sense of “salvation” Eisner describes for those students who have developed a dread for other content areas. The city of Atlanta has become the nexus of an African-American Renaissance where artistic virtuosity emerges from every corner of the city. It is a place where one can walk in the footsteps of W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community artists and activists are found leaving indelible marks on the city through their work in schools and on murals. We now have the opportunity to re-envision schools as spaces where the arts are repositioned in the instructional hierarchy. Instead of the arts standing in the periphery, let’s explore how the arts can sit at the center of all we do in our schools.
This is a lesson. If you’re guessin’ and if you’re borrowin’
Hurry hurry step right up and keep followin’
Rakim, “Follow the Leader”
Leadership has always been about being reflective, innovative, and pushing people out of their comfort zones. There are multiple needles to move to create a school that is vibrant, connected, and equitable for a diverse community in metro-Atlanta. What do our scholars and communities deserve? They deserve schools that are vibrant in the sense that everyone adds something to the school beyond their typical role. The vision has to be salient and pervasive. Making that idea of vibrancy and collective effort clear to everyone requires some creativity and persistence. While some members of a team naturally devote themselves to the overall mission, others require more compelling illustrations of how they fit into the legacy we are crafting. My leadership style samples the ancient pedagogical use of analogies, used by Plato, Socrates and Jesus in teaching concepts and developing understanding in groups. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a perfect example of using symbols and scenarios to illustrate a deeper meaning. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used a powerful analogy to describe America when he said “I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” When asked what we should do, he went on to say, “Become the firemen. Let us not standby and watch the house burn.” It was an analogy that conveyed a reflective and honest assessment of what he saw and what needed to be done.
Months after school closings and stay at home orders were issued by some cities, something interesting happened. D-Nice stood at two turntables and helped us, if only for a moment, forget that the world as we knew it was crumbling. D-Nice not only played music for us to lift our spirits, he reminded us to live, to dance, to vote, and to give to worthy causes. We watched him groove to the music himself, clapping and singing along as he led the gathering he dubbed Club Quarantine. With traveling limited and many live venues closed, he found a way to continue his work in a different format, much like what our schools have been called to do in this moment. He listened to requests posted in the chat, gave shout outs to listeners, and created a sense of community among people who had never met before his hands touched the turntables. He brought millions of people into his home to share an experience that exemplifies what great school leaders must do to move needles now.
Work-life balance has been an ongoing conversation with my staff this year. With students and staff isolated from one another for almost a year, we all have had to adjust from an analog experience to digital platforms for schooling. Learning to unplug from our work and tap into our passions has become a call to action that even principals must embrace as we lead teams virtually. I began to think of how D-Nice’s arrival in this space emerged out of a crisis. His normal venues were closed, and he sensed a need to bring music to the people during a time of heightened anxiety about the pandemic. It was innovation at the most organic level. Identify a need and develop a solution that steps beyond the limits of what we’ve done in the past. It’s the challenge that I present to my staff and leadership team each day.
D-Nice ignited a movement by leaning into his passions. What are the leadership lessons school principals can ‘sample’ or ‘remix’ into their own crate of strategies? What are some essentials for moving needles now on student achievement and school culture? Principals, aspiring principals, and those who currently support principals should know these 7 techniques principals need to move needles at this moment in public education.
The unpredictability of D-Nice’s changes in hats reminded me of the rhythm of our work as educational leaders. School leaders have always worn many hats and adjusted their movements to the beat of many different drums. There is a growing collection of hats principals must wear to manage virtual and hybrid schools such as the distribution of devices, monitoring of virtual classrooms, and orchestrating ongoing professional development. In Hip-Hop culture, the dj was once the central figure, often promoted as the headliner. The names of groups would start with the dj followed by the emcees. There was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Eric B and Rakim. Eventually, dj’s began to play a different role in the culture as emcees and lyricism took center stage. Even in our schools, leaders have to know when to pause and endure painful silence, troubleshoot a technical issue and when to push others to the front of the stage.
As D-Nice pushed the crossfader back and forth, transitioning to a new track, we posted comments in the chat. We watched the numbers of viewers as they reached the millions. We subconsciously collected data and talked about it with friends. News broadcasts did features on “Club Quarantine”. Each week, we hoped to see him top the previous week’s numbers, so we called and texted one another when he went live. His success was a collective win. Every school leader working during this time of virtual learning and beyond needs a comprehensive measure of success for teachers, students, and school culture. At least three times each year, teachers and parents should complete a survey that assesses whether the needle is moving as it should. Everything needs to be measured. Operations, professional development, collaborative planning, and leadership all need data points.
Monitoring the chat means listening with a discerning ear. Is it an idea, suggestion, or gripe? Is the idea student-centered or intended to make life easier for adults at the cost of students? During his Club Quarantine sessions, D-Nice monitored the chat, laughed at some of the suggestions, honored others, and thanked viewers for their input. Creating a culture where people feel free to share is a never-ending challenge as you are leading a team. State requirements and national mandates sometimes leave little room tor teacher input. District directives with short timelines for implementation add another layer of urgency that can minimize the voice of teachers on some school decisions. Aside from these moments, the leader can open up the line to ‘take requests and suggestions’ from the team. It adds texture to the culture of the school. Change is as instrumental to the ever-evolving culture of schools as turntables are to Hip-Hop.
Have we drifted from our initial priorities we laid out during pre-planning? Are we still focused on our school improvement goals? Are educators and parents getting the supports they need? Leaders need teachers on their staff who are courageous enough to be completely honest about the school’s trajectory. Every school will have areas of strength and opportunities for growth. The hope is that those taking the survey approach it with a sense of our collective self-efficacy. It’s incumbent upon leaders to follow-up and share the data with the staff, leading them through a conversation that may become somewhat tense. Like D-Nice, leaders are adjusting the levels, mixing tracks, monitoring the chat and responding to requests. If parents want more communication we must oblige them. If teachers want more feedback, we must oblige them.
It’s what I call “Instructional Inertia” where an individual or organization resists any and all forces that attempt to move them beyond their current state.
A teacher once said, “But we’ve always done it this way!” It’s a notoriously confining statement that can derail positive change in any organization. It’s a normal tendency to try to replicate past successes. It’s what I call “Instructional Inertia” where an individual or organization resists any and all forces that attempt to move them beyond their current state. The topography of the school community is not smooth, but scratched with grooves from years of stops and starts, new policies and priority shifts. Moving the needle can be a battle. Monitoring the levels of growth and program implementation means overcoming the fear of change. We find a routine and become married to it like sheet music, insisting that notes be played a certain way every time. We find ourselves stuck like a needle caught in a groove on an old 45-inch, wailing the same blues of pain and regret. Principals need the courage to pickup the needle, clean it off, and place it in a different spot when things aren’t moving forward. Staffing changes and schedule changes can be extremely uncomfortable for some. When the music changes, it takes everyone a moment to figure out what just happened. Sometimes instead of an abrupt change, a gradual fade is a much better approach.
The turntabalist sets the mood of the room as much with his selection of vinyl as with his enthusiastic commentary. He looks through the chat or into the audience and shouts out people by name. He recognized members of the team who helped make everything possible. “I see you!” Everyone loves to be acknowledged for their efforts. Some prefer it publicly and others appreciate a simple note of thanks. Honoring effort and innovation creates a foundation for everything else.
Moreover, principals must be reminded that each member of the team has something to contribute to moving the needle. Tapping into that broader circle of talent is the secret ingredient of the most successful organizations. Tedious tasks given to school leaders with short timelines require delegating portions of the work to those who can offer expertise and who aspire to one day move needles in their own roles as leaders. An academic coach, a grade chairperson, or a gifted teacher all have ideas and experiences to contribute to co-produce our next professional development. No one is allowed to only show up for the party once all of the equipment has been unloaded and set up. Everyone has something to contribute behind the scenes to help us move the needle once the mics are on.
When albums were pressed, record labels would generally put the song that was intended to get more radio play on the A-side. The B-side was reserved for songs that were less popular in the mainstream. Songs on the B-side of the album sometimes included instrumentals. Feedback is the A-side of our work of moving the needle because it is easy to gather from parents and teacher. A leader’s responsiveness is the B-side to feedback where their actions are more instrumental. It is the less popular, less comfortable part of moving the needle.
In other words, the B-side of leadership is becoming more self-reflective. Understanding that the role of the school leader is not exclusively centered around effecting change in students and managing others. Leaders who become fixated on this portion of the role can quickly destroy the soul of a school. Death by micromanagement isn’t a research-based practice. At their core, great leaders emerge out of an understanding that they must examine and reexamine their own practices. This B-side of the leadership experience is less popular and often overlooked by aspiring leaders. Baruti Kafele’s Virtual AP Leadership Academy was and continues to be a source of deep professional insight for my role as a school leader. He emphasizes the questions a leader must ask oneself as they enter this role.
In my collection, I have a sealed Sugar Hill Gang record. It’s a rerelease of Rapper’s Delight, the first Hip-Hop single to reach Billboard’s Top 40 in 1980. Sealed records are great for collectors, but for a vinyl enthusiast, the skies open when the needle touches the vinyl. Schools and districts can unknowingly become collectors of programs and resources that remain sealed, unused or underutilized by those who need them. Leaders need clear and consistent processes to monitor usage of programs and software. Each expenditure is an investment intended to move the needle. Before we can honestly say “It wasn’t effective”, we must first ask ourselves whether we used it with fidelity and whether the usage was monitored consistently.
Virtuosity in any creative or academic pursuit is rare. Unsealing the vinyl means not only using program, products and resources in our classrooms. It means opening up the books and literature that sheds light on what we want to accomplish in our school. Books like “I Choose to Stay” by Salome Thomas-El helped shape the vision of what I wanted to accomplish as a school leader. Years later, I was leading a school of my own and teaching urban youth the game of chess to help them develop better decision-making skills.
The real test of leadership is whether you have the knowledge and skill of developing leadership in those around you? If the people on your leadership team or staff aren’t consistently tasked with trying out new skills, sharing with others, and adding to the strength of the team, the school never reaches its full potential. School leaders need professional development that prepares them to be both analog and digital at once. They need to be analog in the sense of being able to ‘read the room’, pick up on the feedback, and make adjustments at the right moment. Some songs aren’t meant to be played in their entirety. A dj knows when to fade, when to repeat a chorus, and when to make a hard shift into a completely new track.
Ask any leader “What have you been reading lately?” and you will learn much about who they are and what they will become. Yes, our work is time-consuming and maintaining a work-life balance is a skill. Carving out time to search for new ideas and innovative approaches to solve problems is akin to a dj digging in the crates looking for those rare, dusty samples that can be adapted into something au courant. Every leader should take an honest self-assessment of how they spend their time, including time spent watching sports and movies. Then, compare that amount of time with the amount of time we spend reading and studying to improve our practice as leaders. What gets scheduled gets done. Research on moving the needle on student achievement and improving school culture is abundant. Time is finite.
Once the leader has spent time ‘digging in the crates’ researching innovations for moving the needle in a specific area, a decision must be made. Which practices fit for my school community? Which pieces of new information can help move us forward without overwhelming the existing improvement strategies? After Hip-Hop began to move away from using disco tracks, DJ’s and producers began using technology to sample a portion of a record, creating a loop that could become the foundation for something unique. What was once the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” transforms into Notorious B.I.G’s “Big Poppa”. MF DOOM reincarnates Anita Baker’s “Been So Long” into “Zatar”. The Genius of MF DOOM is two-fold, simultaneously giving new life to his writings under a new moniker and bringing his selected samples to a new generation of listeners.
Looking through my school re-entry plan or continuous school improvement plan, you’ll find elements borrowed from the plans of schools from around the country. The format for many of the extra-curricular activities we offer to our scholars is sampled from successful programs that have already been implemented with the positive outcomes we aspire to see. We extract the portion we need, slow it down, speed it up, add a few other elements to it, and let it play for a few months.
Finding your footing as a school leader means continuing to lean into your gift with gravitas, using these 7 techniques in proportions that fit the goals you’ve laid out. Next, you have to determine if it works for the team you’ve assembled. There is no standard formula, but rather similar ingredients in various proportions. I will allow the greatest lyricist of our time, Rakim, who once wisely reminded us to “Follow the Leader”, to have the last word regarding techniques:
They never grow old techniques become antiques. Better than something brand new ’cause it’s original. In a while, style’ll have much more value.
Classical too intelligent to be radical, Masterful, never irrelevant mathematical. Here’s some soothing souvenirs for all the years They fought and sought, the thoughts and ideas. It’s cool when you freak to the beat, But don’t sweat the technique.
The bonds that exist between educators and families in small towns are unmatched in larger metropolitan cities. The tenures are more stable and a faculty’s community connections are as deep as family ties . It was 1983. Mrs. Doyle watched us file into her classroom as she clutched a handful of worksheets behind her back. She stood squarely at top of the stairs looking down on us over her horn-rimmed glasses which typically hung from a beaded lanyard around her neck. In her right hand was her yardstick. It was not the regular yardstick that my mother used to measure fabric when she was making a dress from a pattern. Mrs. Doyle’s yardstick had more girth and its function was not for measuring. While she never used it as a teaching manipulative for mathematics, it was used to increase student engagement and participation. It was her scepter. It was thy rod and thy staff that did not comfort us in any shape or fashion, but only offered chastisement, binding and casting out the spirit of disobedience when it settled amongst us. She was an older African-American woman with small moles underneath her eyes like my grandparents. Mrs. Doyle was more like a grandmother to us than a teacher.
She’d taught many of our parents, so there was no room for any of us to “run home to tell on the teacher” in those days. Our parents knew how Mrs. Doyle ran her class and we all understood that there was no one coming to rescue us from her if we didn’t meet her expectations for behavior or academic excellence. She never sent anyone to the office and never paused our instructional time to write a discipline referral. Our days were busy with working on our handwriting, revising verb tenses, and perfecting pronoun usage. We remained with Mrs. Doyle all day and she taught us how I imagined children were taught in the days of the one-room schoolhouse. We were her children while we were there. That meant something. She was an extension of our parents’ and grandparents’ belief in order, structure, and intolerance for foolishness. She was both judge and jury in that portable classroom that sat on a portion of the large playground at Swainsboro Primary School. In that portable though, no games were being played.
I asked my mother, a retired high school teacher, when she saw a shift in students during her teaching career. She said that there came a point during the 1990s when she began to hear of parents who wanted to come to the school in a rage to “fight and curse out” the teachers because of what a student said. It was a change from the respect she’d seen given to teachers during the first part of her career. She began to see a generation of parents whose primary aim was to defend the behavior of the child at all costs rather than allow the child to be held accountable. The teacher’s voice began to fade behind that of the child, the parent, and the district. Teachers were losing their voices.
My brother and I never had the luxury of having our parents come to the school to defend our misbehavior. Jimmie and Marie Mountain made it abundantly clear that they were not our friends. When my mother would say, “That teacher better not call me”, it was not a warning being issued to the teacher or the school. It was a warning for us to “govern ourselves and act accordingly.” We’d been birthed into a school setting that was only a few generations removed from the independent church schools and one-room schoolhouses that littered the south during Reconstruction. My class was all-Black, but my school was racially integrated. If you’d ask me where the children of other races were, I’d have to assume that they were assigned to classrooms inside the building. During those years, I only recall seeing White students during recess, lunch, or during dismissal. The structure of our school was an echo of an unspoken culture in our town that affected every aspect of life including real estate, school bus routes, Sunday worship, and the type of education we received.
“Sit down and be quiet! Mountain, pass out these papers.”
She handed me the papers and they had that damp feel that the worksheets always had when she’d just left the teacher’s lounge. I sniffed the stack and smelled that familiar smell. We never knew what it was, but we liked it. There was nothing quite like a ‘wet stack’ of copies. Nearly everyone sniffed their papers as I went up and down the rows of wooden desks. The smell on those damp papers was from the fluid in the risograph machine which consisted of methanol, a highly toxic chemical used to make antifreeze, and isopropanol, a key ingredient in rubbing alcohol. After everyone got their fix, I handed the remainder of the papers back to Mrs. Doyle and took my seat near the rear of the room. In those days, teachers would create a ‘master copy’ by hand, crafting sentences, drawing blanks, and writing questions that we would have to respond to in complete sentences. She used the risograph to make 30 copies of her hand-crafted activities. We’d be tasked with writing our words as neatly as she’d done on the master copy. If it didn’t meet her standard, you were quickly dispatched back to your seat to make another go at it.
Technology always has a way of being bittersweet in the end. The introduction of the risograph and other types of copy machines in the 80s was no different. The risograph itself was not a problem. The way the risograph would eventually be used became problematic for the profession. The purple pigment on those papers was the new blood being pumped into the teaching profession, gradually transfusing out the creativity and autonomy of teachers. My generation unknowingly witnessed educational euthanasia at the hands of publishers with glossy and colorful teacher editions and workbooks that would in the coming years supplant Mrs. Doyle’s handcrafted lessons with scripts for teachers and worksheets that corresponded with the units she was assigned to teach.
Education at its best is a gumbo where relationships, collaboration, motivational theory, and relevance are among the ingredients, but the artistry of the teacher is the irreplaceable roux.
Those worksheets she created were extensions of Mrs. Doyle’s creativity, duplicated for us all to complete. Later, publishers would supplant even this practice by providing schools with workbooks and worksheets that, by the mid to late 80s, would constitute much of what we did during the school day. Teaching moves in the classes I would join would become increasingly scripted. Planning a lesson was now as easy as preparing a bowl of Jello or a pan of StoveTop stuffing. Little or no planning is required, just add risograph fluid. Publishing companies were performing educational ventriloquism as the unseen hands turning the pages of the teachers’ editions and determining what we’d learn next. America’s teachers are too talented to be limited by the strings of publishing puppeteers. Principals and teachers have to find common ground and fight to ensure the artistry of education is preserved. While some of our teachers resisted this wave of educational ventriloquism, others saw it as a way to save them the time and stress of preparing lessons and further the agenda of absolute standardization.
Creativity in public education has been under assault for decades. The newest incarnations of weapons of mass instruction include the many prescriptive programs that promise to increase scores by assigning specific lessons, Teachers Pay Teachers, and workbooks that promise to prepare scholars to ace the upcoming assessments. None of these new developments are more impactful than the vision and innovation of a committed teacher. They only enhance the pedagogical gifts a teacher brings into the classroom just as a pair of athletic shoes enhance the performance of a gifted athlete on a soccer field. Are teachers losing their voices behind instructional materials? Are they able to hear and see themselves or are they being drowned out by the prepackaged resources they use? Is the profession D.O.A. – Devoid of artistry? Teachers entering the profession must understand that our work is much more than mastering the tips, tricks, and techniques of instruction. It is the wisdom of knowing when to play a note, repeat a note, bask in silence, and stand on a table. The preparation of the ingredients before a lesson is served is as much a part of the artistry of education as is the delivery of the lesson. Pupils are our patrons whose tastes are more inclined toward the eclectic than the efficient. At a moment when we are forced to decide whether schools should be reopened, are we listening to the voice of our teachers? Have we placed our teachers on mute or made them fear for their jobs to the point where they’ve muted themselves from the discussions about reopening schools at the height of a global pandemic? Education at its best is a gumbo where relationships, collaboration, motivational theory, and relevance are among the ingredients, but the artistry of the teacher is the irreplaceable roux.
“I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.”
It was 1987. I was awakened during the middle of the night by the sounds of tambourines, drums, and syncopated wailings from the park at the intersection of King Circle Drive and Norwood Avenue in Swainsboro, Georgia. Those sounds were a mixture of African rhythms and Southern blues with an overlay of guttural shouts from a preacher pleading that the congregates praise God in their shouting. At times I’d hear over twenty-five consecutive bars of “Hallelujah! Praise him!” If you’ve never experienced the sound and feel of a Holiness Revival in a tent in the American South, you have yet to witness something that, for an eight-year-old, was both terrifying and fascinating. These revival camps intended to bring about instantaneous conversions and resurrection of the spirit. During those late-night revivals, I experienced an instantaneous conversion from sleep to alertness and rose from my bed on the third song. I’d begin peeling back the blanket and shuffling across the hardwood floors to the window to get a glimpse of what I was hearing. Outside my window, I could see a large white tent with a soft yellow glow of lamps inside casting shadows of people jumping up and down against the sides of the tent.
America is undergoing its own awakening and revival that is both terrifying and fascinating. The country is begrudgingly awakening to an awareness of the deep crevices in our democracy that have been salient in the lives of Black people for decades if not centuries in this country. Political disenfranchisement and police brutality are not new issues for us. We’ve shouted, wailed, sang, and marched in hopes that there would be an instantaneous conversion of our communities, schools, and society. Could it have taken the shuttering of our schools and an incompetent presidency to bring us to the point of looking out the window to see what’s happening? When this started in the Spring of 2020, it felt as though the education profession was virtually lost, left to find its way with no guidance from the top levels of the educational bureaucracy. We did not look to Betsy Devos for direction because her lack of concern for public education had already been proven. We are a profession that is present, but unseen and unacknowledged, like the invisible man in Ralph Ellison’s 1947 novel of the same name. Written one year before the birth of my parents, the novel depicts the world into which they were being born where Black bodies were present, but not readily seen. Little has changed. He writes, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Incrementally, that refusal to see the education profession ended when schools no longer served their perhaps tertiary purpose of housing children away from the home.
Generational forces are pulling on schools like constellations creating certain energy with which they are forced to contend. Underfunding of schools in the areas of technology and class sizes is a nationwide issue. Adequately staffing schools with enough administrators and support staff to deliver effective professional development and to manage the endless flow of paperwork needed to run a school is a concern that needs attention from the federal level. It is in these finite moments that leaders both find and define themselves like jazz musicians singing their versions of a standard like Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”. The familiar becomes unfamiliar with an approach that is uniquely Sinatra, Ella, or Armstrong. Though the words on the page are identical, the way it is delivered is where the magic lies.
East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Mrs. Moon has always been an involved and supportive member of our school community. She was a few years into her retirement, but still very active in our school community. She could be found volunteering, helping with our school garden, and leading fundraising initiatives in the lobby of our school. The entire Moon family was beloved by our school’s faculty and staff. Last Fall, we encountered a bit of a rift as Mrs. Moon had a granddaughter entering 5th grade. She was insistent that her granddaughter be placed in Mr. Day’s homeroom class. He was a widely popular and gregarious teacher whose passion for teaching was evident to families. Classes had already been constructed and I was strictly against the ‘teacher shopping’ practice many families engaged in each year at many schools, campaigning for their child to be placed in a certain classroom. Complicating matters was the frequent back and forth of guardianship in some households, making it difficult to determine exactly who was in the position to make educational decisions from month to month. I tried to explain to Mrs. Moon that even though Mr. Day was not her granddaughter’s homeroom teacher that she’d still have Mr. Day for instruction during the school day.
“Mrs. Moon, we’ve already placed her in a class, and while it’s not Mr. Day’s class, I can assure you that she’ll have a wonderful experience this year.”
Displeased with my response, she replied, “I’m gonna just have to do what I have to do.”
I wondered what the phrase meant in this context. Clarity came the next day when I was informed that she was contemplating withdrawing all three children from the school because I wouldn’t grant her request to place this one child in a certain classroom. She kept them out of school for a week, but suddenly they reappeared, and the withdrawal was never fully completed. Honestly, I was glad she had a change of heart. These were great scholars, and this was a family that had been with us for years. I wanted to see them stay, but not at the cost of compromising the integrity of how we place scholars in classes. The educator is an artist, and his practice is his portrait. The job of the artist as an educator is not to create what the public wants to hear, see, or read. The job of the artist as an educator is to create what he is compelled to create that aligns with who he is and what the moment calls for one to create. Once one begins to compromise the integrity of the work, they compromise larger aspects of the profession.
This year, like many of our scholars, the Moons are in a living room on their devices, engaging in virtual learning. Mrs. Moon is holding court as the teacher on special assignment in a satellite campus, trouble-shooting IT issues and connecting with teachers at different grade levels and different schools. She is a grandmother and honorary teacher, trying to ensure that each of her grandchildren gets the best educational experience they can in a virtual setting. It’s not what she wanted. It’s not what we wanted. It is what we’ve been presented within an unprecedented global pandemic. It is disjointed and unnatural. It is mechanical and aseptic. It is a school experience being offered in a virtual way.
Playing As We’ve Never Played Before
The story of the Moon family is a case study of what is happening on a large scale in our schools today. One wonders where the parents are as the grandparents essentially raise a second generation in an age where school looks fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever experienced before. The Baby Boomers, born between the 1940s and the 1960s, have been dealt an unfair hand in their retirement years by Generation X. Left with their grandchildren to raise, many of them are the regular attendees at our school events, parent conferences, or PTA meetings. During the pandemic, it has been the combined impact of the lack of technology and technical aptitude that has exacerbated the digital divide and the subsequent achievement gap for inner-city youth. In more tragic instances, children are left to raise themselves or one another as the parents leave them home alone so they can work during this pandemic.
On February 18, 1969, in CBS’s 30th Street Studio, Miles Davis sat in a studio with a set of musicians and began recording his album “In a Silent Way”. This album and the title song were a shift from his previous work in that it marked his move to electric instrumentation. It was a point where he was integrating more technology into his recordings. As the details of the title track were being worked out, Miles was trying to describe how he wanted John McLaughlin to lead into the piece on the guitar. He told him to “play like he didn’t know how to play”. What we hear is a slow, deliberate, hesitant style of play that pulls the listener into the tune with anticipation for what the other musicians will add to the tune. It is unorthodox. It is counter-intuitive given the sound we have come to know as Miles on previous albums. Miles has taught us, with his horn and with his style of leadership, that we must always leave room for changing lanes. In doing so, we leave those that work with us room to grow and improvise. Boxing people in with sheet music can be restrictive and stifling. Change always makes us uncomfortable. It is inevitable and necessary. The album “In a Silent Way” broke barriers. Rolling Stone described it as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music.”
Perhaps this moment is just what needed to happen to bring our attention to the many needed changes in the field of public education. Veterans and early career teachers are all being forced to teach as they’ve never taught before, giving us a more hopeful future if we continue to listen to the notes being played.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained Angels unawares.
Just along Euclid Avenue, tucked away between a smoke shop and an African market, in one of Atlanta’s most eclectic neighborhoods is a Mexican restaurant that doubles as one of my favorite locations for writing on weekends. I order the ceviche, a traditional Peruvian dish of seafood, lime, and avocados. I think briefly about Ms. Lecaro, an elderly Ecuadorian woman in Union City, New Jersey who first introduced me to the dish in a third-floor apartment along Kennedy Boulevard. Ceviche is made by blending shrimp and crab together with onions, avacado and drenching the mixture in fresh lime juice. The acidity of the citric juices reconfigures the proteins in the seafood, ‘cooking’ them while they marinate. In a thick Ecuadorian accent, she struggled to explain to me how to make the dish myself, which I only attempted once. As I settled in for an authentically South American experience, I’d instead experience the American South in all its fullness.
A sign has been taped to the front door of El Bandido Mexican Restaurant that reads “Mask Required”. As I pull the handle, the door squeaks like an old saloon door causing a few people to turn their heads. I smile underneath my pale blue surgical mask because ever since the mask requirement has been implemented in metro-Atlanta, I feel that I enjoy a level of anonymity as I move through the city. I’m not recognized by anyone now. No longer am I forced to make an abrupt exit from a store or restaurant when I see a problematic parent or scholar who I’m not in the mood to encounter. I’m a masked literary crusader moving discreetly through the city unbothered as I “write the wrongs” of the Black American experience. Anonymity has its limits though. Certain features aren’t hidden by the masks we wear and certain infections are more insidious and deeply rooted than Covid-19.
As I approach the stand, I’m greeted by a familiar face.
“Amigo! Just one?”, he asks. Angel is a middle-aged Latino man. I’m not certain where he is from, but I’ve noticed in previous visits that he effortlessly vacillates between English and Spanish, sometimes in mid-sentence. He is affable and tries to remember my orders, making me feel like a familiar patron when I’m there.
I nod. “Just one.”
“Inside or outside?”
I think for a moment about it and opt to sit outside given all of the commotion inside the restaurant. Between the music and the chatter from the customers, I wouldn’t be able to settle into my thoughts and get much writing done.
“I’ll sit outside today”.
He pauses and says, “Ok, well we will need to hold your ID if you sit outside. We’ve had a few people leave without paying.”
I declined that proposition, knowing how forgetful I am about leaving my ID at a place. I’d take my chances sitting inside today at one of the high-top tables. El Bandido represents many things to me. It represents my support of a minority-owned small business. Using my dollar to support our solidarity and self-determination as minorities in America is a point of pride for me.
He nods and leads me to a table about six feet from the entrance. I unpacked my bag and began to delve into my writing. When the ceviche arrived, I took a break from my writing. Less focused on the words on the page, I could now see that the restaurant had become even more packed inside.
The door opened with that familiar screech and in walked three white females. As they were greeted I could see them looking around the restaurant. Seating was limited. Their only option would likely be outdoor seating. I began to wonder if Angel would ask for all three IDs or just one from the party. I wanted to see how Angel would slide it in so that it landed well. How would they respond once he shared the news that an ID had to be surrendered to sit outside?
He asks, “Just three today?”. They all nod as they look around the restaurant.
“Inside or outside?”
They look at one another and one of them whispers through her mask, “Outside.” He reaches underneath the podium, grabs three menus, three bundles of silverware, and whispers, “Follow me.”
There was no mention of “leaving IDs” or of “people leaving without paying”. Angel was gleeful, seating them in a corner of the patio where the sun cast bright rays of warmth upon the three of them. They removed their masks and got comfortable as Angel chatted with them about the specials of the day.
The food was South American, but the experience was one characteristic of the legacy of the American South.
Here in Little Five Points, on a tree-lined street in the mecca for Black Americans, I was experiencing the microaggressions that compelled James Baldwin to characterize our country as the “yet to be United States of America”. The food was South American, but the experience was one characteristic of the legacy of the American South. This brief encounter was layered with prejudice, White privilege, and inter-minority microaggressions that speak to assumptions about the character of people of color.
My grandparents grew up in communities where the need for them to work caused many of them to leave school by the third or fourth grade. At polls, African Americans were given literacy tests in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The generation of African-Americans born around the 1920s would have experienced this widespread effort to disenfranchise them using literacy as a technicality. Because of that, I take my role as a school principal very seriously because I am only the second generation in my family to finish high school and attain a college education. But this wasn’t 1924 and this wasn’t a dusty coffee shop at a rural train depot. This was in the heart of the Black Metropolis.
My mind is racing now. I’m thinking about the relationship between Latinos and African-Americans. I’m thinking of the Jim Crow laws of the South that designated certain areas in establishments for people of color. I’m dismayed that my effort to support a minority-owned business was tainted by what appeared to be a blatant injustice.
“Nah, Angel wouldn’t do me like that would he?”, I thought to myself. I kept looking back at the patio door, waiting for him to return from taking their drink orders after he seated them on the patio. As the door of the restaurant opened again, rays of light hit the wall and my attention shifted to the large picture of a Mexican bandit and the name of the restaurant, El Bandido. Roughly translated as “the outlaw” or “the bandit”, I felt like I’d just been robbed. Those three minutes seemed like an eternity, then the door opened. With his three menus in hand, Angel was headed in my direction. Since my mind had been racing, I hadn’t yet had a chance to get my words together, but I knew that I was going to stop him and say something. There’s a saying among writers that you don’t find books, but rather books find you. I am a writer, but at this moment, I hadn’t yet found the words, but I was certain that when he approached, the words would find me.
I navigate through Little Five Points because it is one of the destinations in Metro Atlanta where I feel creatively free amongst the artists selling their portraits on the street and the musicians performing on crowded sidewalks. This incident was an affront to all that the area represented to me.
“Maybe I’m reading too much into this” I thought for a moment. Then I reminded myself that the fight for freedom is not only won in those moments that are highly visible and monumental. Real freedom and change have to reach down into the city, stroll down Euclid Avenue, and touch the soul of people like Angel who perpetuate discriminatory practices in their day-to-day existence. These small assaults on our dignity as men and women of color grow into Briana Taylor incidents, Armaud Aubury incidents, and George Floyd incidents. A police raid at the wrong address, a jog through a neighborhood, or a traffic stop should not be the precursors to Black death. Left unchecked, we die a bit every day when we continue to internalize the American reality.
I beckon for Angel to come by my table. He rushes over and I pull my mask down and say, “Hay reglas para los negros?” He pauses, touches his head as he recalls my initial request to sit on the patio and his response. Stunned by my statement and the lexicon in which it was delivered, he walks away.
This was to be our first year with a set of triplets in our school. Having had a few conversations with the parents over the summer, I knew that the parents shared my excitement of having them join a unique school that they’d heard great things about. We had it mapped precisely well in advance. The siblings would be placed in three different Kindergarten classes. What an amazing adventure they would have entering our school together and growing into their own unique sense of identity over the years of being enrolled in our school. The triplets did enroll and join our school community this Fall, but their experience has not been anything like we’d imagined due to a virus that has not only changed the experience of one family, but reshaped an entire profession, forcing us to evolve and adapt. The words of Maya Angelou saying, “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” could not be more fitting than in this moment for our community of scholars and educators who have had to stand up. It is in those moments of difficulty that leaders are forged and the impurities are burned off in the process.
Shadows of Black Trauma
The Covid-19 pandemic has emerged in the shadows of unprecedented Black trauma. The crime rate in metro-Atlanta has reached a peak in recent months. Nationally, we’ve seen more deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Many educational professionals are starting to feel the psychological effects of isolation, quarantine fatigue, and the added stress of having to redesign their instructional delivery in a mostly trial and error fashion this year. What is the cost of silence for educational leaders? So many of us who lead schools remain silent in the midst of it all. One of my teachers recently asked me, “Don’t you worry that ‘they’ will monitor what you write and say something about it?”. Educators in urban communities have a responsibility to shatter the silence in the service of social justice. Thankfully, I’ve positioned myself in a district that doesn’t shy away from issues of social justice. From launching a district-wide Black Lives Matter initiative to supporting the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, they understand who we serve and the time in which we live. The families served by schools in my community were already wrestling with the ravages of unemployment, broken homes, and poverty. Grandparents were raising the second generation of children as their own. School districts were aware, but not yet responsive to the urgency of creating 1:1 schools where every child had a device. The delay in scholars getting devices issued by school districts has helped some families reflect on those Black Friday big screen television purchases when children need access to instructional technology beyond the school day. How are our priorities, districts, and households, impacting our children? All of us, especially communities of color, were trying to live in an America under assault of the Trump presidency. As he intentionally scraped the wounds of race and civility, our communities were the first to bleed at the hands of armed police officers. Each thoughtless tweet was another blow at an already teetering level of civility. The pandemic has presented us with questions that we all will have to grapple with over the next several months:
Which communities will be most impacted by the school closures?
How will the digital divide be addressed by an incoming administration in Washington?
What autonomy will teachers have to make decisions about school reopening?
How will we confront the role of high-stakes testing and how we evaluate schools and teachers in the post-Covid reality?
But more than anything else, the pandemic let us see ourselves for what we’d truly become: A society so suspicious of our institutions that we at first saw it all as a hoax, then with the data in hand, refused to believe the professionals. Now, with the highest death tolls in the world, we continue to flirt with the idea of sending our educators and children back into schools where they are at risk of contracting a life-threatening virus. At this moment, we all pray that our district-level leaders are as intent on data driven decision making as they are when we analyze student achievement for sub-groups in our schools.
“I think she can go the rest of the way on her own”, I whisper in passing as a subtle suggestion to well-intentioned parents who want to walk their child to class day after day each Fall. One of the joys of the principalship is seeing Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten parents walk into our school holding the hands of their timid four or five-year-olds. The mission they are embarking on is one of momentous significance. Photos are taken. Tears are shed. On occasion, parents watch and wave as a scholar insists on walking to class on their own on this first day in a remarkable show of independence. Sadly, we haven’t experienced this rite of passage since the Fall of 2019. Instead, we’ve welcomed them into virtual classrooms where children exist in a virtual community where they can only see their classmates on the screen. It’s an awkward arrangement where teachers can glimpse into the homes and lives of their students and get a feel of how they live and the environments from which they come.
Another tradition in our school that brings back vivid memories of joy and community is our Honors Day, held at the end of each semester. It’s a time when we celebrate the efforts of our scholars. Along with my assistant principal, I stood on a stage and shook the hands of hundreds of scholars for several hours. Covid-19 had made an indelible mark on us as a school. If we return to the format of the large assembly programs in the future, we will likely replace the handshake with another gesture to celebrate them.
There’s still a bit of a philosophical rift about honors and awards lingering in the air. As much as we want every scholar to be honored, we insist that scholars earn what they receive based on rigorous grade level standards. Gone are the days when everyone in the class receives something just for showing up and sitting in a desk. Let’s send a message to our scholars early in their educational careers that the world owes you nothing. What happens when you consistently give children awards and accolades they have not earned? They come to expect it. We want our scholars to understand that their scholarship and academic progress rests upon the blood, sweat and tears of centuries of people who were denied education and fair treatment. Many of them overcame tremendous obstacles to learn to read or earn a portion of the education that is afforded to our scholars. They must understand this.
Sense of Belonging
This year, one of my goals was to go deeper in creating a sense of belonging in our school community. While we might not be together in the building, I wanted to make sure there was no doubt about who we were and what our legacy was. Founded in 1996, our school is a true partnership between parents and teachers to set higher expectations for scholars. Our school song, which speaks to that idea of doing what others say can’t be done, became a central part of the weekly announcements. One of my parents was a recording artist, so he offered to rerecord the song for us with an updated vocal arrangement. It reminded us all of the scene from “Lean on Me” when Principal Joe Clark marched those young men to the music teacher’s class and said “I certainly never authorized you to change it…Mrs. Powers, you’ve rewritten our alma mater”. The song became the anthem for a rebirth of Eastside High. I don’t remember my elementary school having a school song, but I want to engrain the lyrics of ours in the minds of our scholars this year more than ever.
After a few weeks of virtual learning, I realized that having all of my scholars arrive in their virtual classrooms wearing their school uniform shirts was another step in the right direction. We continued to emphasize the importance of morning meetings as a way to forge a sense of classroom community. Our school design includes the requirement that students complete projects each semester. Despite calls from some parents and one staff member to eliminate the projects this year, we decided that this part of our school design would not be compromised since we were not in the building. Leaders have to determine how they will respond to the forces that are acting upon their respective schools. What will be the cost of the school closures? What experiences will we adapt to the new reality and which ones will be set aside until later? How can we as school leaders continue to help our schools evolve despite school closures? Here’s what we knew for certain. Students were still capable of conducting research and presenting their projects virtually. Parents were still available to support scholars in choosing a topic. Projects could be presented virtually by scholars sharing a screen or uploading a completed presentation in a number of alternate formats. Volumes of books exist on how to deliver engaging lessons, build on prior knowledge or enhance rigor. Those are the easy parts of our profession. No one has written the handbook on how to open a school while it remains closed. There’s much work to be done to script the way to bring an entire school community with rich and deep roots of celebration collaboration together via virtual platforms.
Reevaluating Our Relationship
The global pandemic has forced us to confront how we view schools. Every relationship reaches a point when we have to determine why we are in it and what our expectations are. We’ve discovered that some families view the school/home relationship as primarily a childcare and supervision arrangement while they are either at work or home. Other families have continued to view the school as a vehicle for their children gaining access to college and careers. Among the ranks of our educators, we’ve been able to see who our most committed educators are in the midst of this remote learning environment. We’ve also been able to determine which educators struggle with self-management, technology, and deep commitment to the mission of the profession. The depth, quality, or lack of plans only brings heightened visibility to a teacher’s performance, broadcasting the level of preparation and expertise into households. For my scholars and families, this is the only teacher they will know this year. Let’s not compromise on the quality of our profession at its most critical hour. This is our grand opening during our grand closing. The decisions we make at this moment will determine the texture of our impact for years to come. Whether we work together or use this moment as a time to turn against one another, we will have children standing in the wake of our decision-making.
Our profession is improvising much like Miles Davis in the “Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” video where he is looking up at the screen and creating the notes to match the moments in the film. We are reaching into the depths of who we are to capture the moment in all its beauty, opportunity, and tragedy. It is inherently flawed, raw, unrehearsed, and unscripted.
Soundtrack: ”Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” by Miles Davis
An influenza pandemic spreads across the nation in 1918 and 1919. As the cases grow, officials across the country decide to close schools. New York and Chicago decide to keep their schools open and send health care workers into the schools to closely monitor the conditions of the students and hygiene practices. In nine cities across the nation, inter-agency conflict erupts. The Board of Health in Baltimore orders schools to be reopened. The Board of Education defies the order and closes the schools indefinitely in the midst of the pandemic. In some communities, Italian immigrants are blamed for spreading the virus. The nation was in turmoil and the agencies tasked with unraveling the conundrum were at odds with one another as the plight of the nation and its children hung the balance.
A crowd gathers outside a school board meeting in downtown Augusta on an unusually warm July afternoon in 2020 to make their voices heard. The temperatures and the months of restrictions are beginning to heighten the tension. The crowd consists of people of all ethnicities and ages. The district’s board of education is inside conducting a meeting while just outside the doors a group assembles, some masked, some unmasked, to express their frustration with the decision to cancel graduations. It’s a scene that is playing out simultaneously in cities across the country. The mayor has issued a mask mandate, but the governor has countered that it can’t be enforced. Meanwhile, the governor has allowed for restaurants and salons to reopen statewide. Two hundred miles west in Atlanta, a similar conflict is playing out between Georgia’s governor and Atlanta’s mayor. While the governor has not mandated masks be worn by the general public, the Mayor Bottoms has issued a mandate that masks be worn given the spike in Covid-19 cases and CDC projections.
It is virtual insanity as agencies and policies collide. Parents find themselves caught in the crosshairs of what’s best for their children’s health, educational progress and what’s feasible for their work schedules. Some explore homeschool options, others are in desperate need of schools to reopen so that they can resume work in coming weeks. When polled, the responses from parents are equally split between a return to traditional classes, a hybrid model of instruction, and virtual instruction for the start of the school year. There is not easy solution at hand.
Five months into the global pandemic, the 45thoccupant of the White House threatens to withhold funding to schools unless they reopen. The Secretary of Education contradicts the recommendations of the CDC and makes a press run downplaying the risk of reopening schools. Meanwhile the CDC reports that there have been over three million cases of Covid-19 and over 135,000 confirmed deaths as a result of Covid-19. These astonishing numbers are continuing to rise even as schools remain closed since mid-March.
The push to reopen schools without ongoing discussions inclusive of the professionals directly impacted by these decisions negates the protections needed for our teachers, administrators and most importantly our children. The reduction in school nurses in public schools has put our schools at a strategic disadvantage in monitoring and responding to the healthcare needs of children at school. This is not another task we can add to the plates of teachers. Some have talked about having teachers take the temperatures of students as they enter classrooms. Details are still inconsistent on what a traditional classroom would look like under the recommendations provided by the CDC.
Canaries in the Mine
We can’t rush back to a normal existence because normal no longer exists. The National Center for Education Statistics notes that 20% of U.S. teachers are 55 years or older. Many of the educators that fall into this group suffer from underlying health conditions, putting them at greater risk of infection. The principal’s first task is to ensure the safety of the students and staff under our leadership. Keeping them safe means keeping them apart for now and launching into virtual learning to start the school year. It’s the best course of action until we see significant decreases in cases and mortality nationwide.
We must not allow our students to be used as the litmus test for herd immunity from Covid-19. What the Trump administration is suggesting is reminiscent of the use of canaries in British coal mines, a practice that started as early as 1911. Miners would take canaries into the mines because if there was carbon monoxide present or other poisonous gases, the canaries would be affected first, signaling to the miners that they needed to exit the mine. This moment requires educational leaders willing to take a stand on behalf of our most vulnerable. Our children and schools can’t be intimidated and coerced into placing educators and families in harm’s way as the federal government tries to figure it out. The interagency conflict of the early 1900’s has revisited us. Health officials are under fire for making points of clarification on news outlets in an effort to better inform the public.
With every challenge, we have an opportunity to create better outcomes. In the face of this challenge we will create virtual spaces to reach our students, and when the appropriate time comes, we will continue moving public education into a space where other advanced nations and American higher education has been for decades – a fully-equipped hybrid educational model for P-12. Research has proven that all students learn differently. Every child does not need to walk into a school building each day to receive a high quality education. There are some students who need that structure and socialization each day, but there are groups of students who would thrive much better in a different type of structure that we will now be able to provide as an option moving forward. The teaching ranks are filled with educators who have earned advanced degrees through online courses. It is time to extend that option to our students on a broader scale. For far too long we’ve lagged behind the private sector in the way we use technology in public education. Let’s revamp the profession from the inside out starting with teacher preparation in colleges, professional development in districts, and ongoing professional learning for leaders.
I miss all of my students, but I’m especially disappointed in not being able to welcome our newest Pre-K and Kindergarten students. I imagine a five-year old who is looking forward to the first day of Pre-K or Kindergarten, but sadly won’t have the experience of holding mom and dad’s hand as they walk to the classroom for the first time. They won’t get to sit on the carpet this fall and talk about their summer. The playgrounds will remain empty for a time. Buses will remain parked. But in this expansive chess match of politics and policy, they will be safer at home as young kings and queens in quarantine and not pawns in peril. We will not allow them to be canaries in a mine.
In 1962, a brisk autumn had fallen upon Tennille, Georgia’s D.D. Crawford School. It was an all-Black elementary school during the years before school integration that stood on a street that would later be renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a champion of non-violence. The math teacher, Mr. Dennis, was a beacon in the community. He and all of the teachers at the school were looked up to as respectable professionals who’d come back to help educate the youth of one of the state’s poorest rural communities. On this morning, he had asked the class to produce their homework from the night before. The room grew still with silence. As he waited for the students to pull the papers from their desks and bags, his anger smoldered because it appeared that the entire class had not done the assignment. He slammed his hand against the oak desk, “Everybody outside now!” The class of thirty-five black children, mostly from sharecropping families one generation removed from slavery, quickly filed out of the classroom. Mr. Dennis grabbed his wooden paddle and looked at the students over his glasses with a look of disbelief. “I gave this assignment and I expected it to be completed. Unacceptable! This is what happens when you don’t follow directions. Everybody has to pay the consequences now.” One by one, Mr. Dennis struck each student twice on the buttocks with the wooden paddle that had been used as his primary means of behavior management since the start of his teaching career. Just the sound of the blows was intimidating. Mr. Dennis poured his frustration into each swing of the two-inch thick wooden board. Next in line was Jim, a skinny fourteen year old kid whose family grew vegetables in on a plot of land not too far from the school. Jim loved school and read voraciously. Jim actually had his homework in his desk. He thought, “Should I tell him?” Jim was hesitant because he didn’t want to be the only student in the class who produced the homework and risk being the brunt of jokes from his classmates. He placed his hands against the wall, took the two blows, and returned to his seat. Once he walked back into the classroom, Jim quietly lifted the top of his wooden desk, reached for the homework, folded it neatly and placed it in the pocket of his overalls.
What Jim experienced is not unlike the violence inflicted upon Black bodies across the American South during the 60’s. The fear of violence against Black bodies at the hands of racists and law enforcement, dominated all aspects of life. The inflicting of pain upon the bodies of children at the hands of school officials was state sanctioned with laws that are still in place today. Both Mr. Dennis and Jim were positioned in an oppressive system that perpetuated this devaluing of the complex inner-workings of Black life, strivings, and the psychology of fear. Jim would later attend Fort Valley State College and become an educator. Jim’s experience would have implications for my own journey as an educator. Jim is my father.
The year was 1963. Black college students and civil rights activists filled the streets of Birmingham in organized non-violent protests. Black college students conducted sit-ins at lunch counters waiting for service that never came because of the color of their skin. During that same month, about four hours east of Birmingham, Marie was a ninth grader at T.J. Elder High School staging a silent protest of her own. It was a warm Spring day in 1963, a perfect backdrop for a day away from classes. She and her sister Helen had decided that they would arrive at school but cut classes for most of the day. The plan was to meet in the restroom, wait for the bell to ring, and then to casually walk off campus and spend the day at the park. The bell rang and they could hear the hallways clearing out as everyone reported to their homeroom classes.
Marie waited inside the restroom stall until she heard the familiar footsteps of the school principal, Mr. Taylor. His wingtips made an unmistakable sound as they tapped against the hard tile floors. His gait was slow, deliberate and recognizable. She quickly stood on the top of the toilet so that he would not be able to see her black and white saddle oxfords. The stall door suddenly flew open and there stood the school principal staring at her through thick horn-rimmed glasses.
“And what are you doing young lady?”, he asked.
“I…I was gonna go to class but I needed some more time”, she said.
“You realize, don’t you, that this won’t end well for you. Report to the office Marie. Now.” he said.
His voice hinted at his growing agitation that she would try to not only skip classes but convince him that she was not up to something. She stepped down from the toilet, grabbed her stack of books and marched through the empty halls toward the office. Mr. Taylor presented her with two options. The first option was for him to place a call to her parents to notify them that she was sneaking around the school and not in classes. She knew that her parents would be furious, and the consequences would be severe when she returned home that evening. The second option he presented was that she receive a paddling and return to class. It’s not that she didn’t care, but she knew that both options would lead to physical pain. But she absolutely knew that the severity of the blows inflicted by her principal would not compare to the blows at the hands of her mother.
“I’ll take the paddling! Just don’t tell my mama.” she pleaded.
Mr. Taylor already knew which option she would choose. He’d seen this scenario play out hundreds of times before with other students. He reached down, opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a wooden paddle inscribed with the words “Board of Education”. It was a sinister nod to the power of the wooden board to correct the wrongs of pupils with just a brief but ‘impactful’ appearance. After her meeting with the “Board of Education” Marie made her way to class and never uttered a word about what had happened in the restroom or the office. Marie would later become a teacher. Marie is my mother.
Some twenty years after my parents had their respective experiences with corporal punishment in Georgia schools, I would sit in a classroom at Swainsboro, Georgia and again bear witness to the pervasive belief that beatings in schools were an effective method for controlling behavior. Interestingly though, by 1983 my school was integrated. The principal, Mr. Crenshaw, was White and the assistant principal, Mr. Eason, was Black. Mr. Eason was the “muscle” around the school and much of his day was spent around the office where the strong scent of his cigars would waft out into the front office and hallway. He was our very own “Joe Clark” before we even knew who Joe Clark was and what that leadership style meant. I’d witnessed him march many students out of class, into the hallway and inflict several loud blows with a thick wooden paddle. The familiar sound of the board making contact with an unlocking soul would echo down the hallways. Interestingly though, I never saw him paddle a White child. There was either a stark difference in how discipline was prescribed for them or he wisely adhered to an unwritten rule about who could and couldn’t be the recipients of his “board of education”.
In 2004 I was a 5th grade teacher at Jessie Rice Elementary in Macon, Georgia. Nigel had interrupted my class for the last time. He had so many discipline referrals that I once considered pre-printing his name and usual infractions as a checklist on them to save instructional time. Classroom disruption, refusal to follow directions, rude and disrespectful behavior…Nigel was consistent to say the least. On this particularly eventful day I wrote him up and sent the referral to the office. The principal called back to the classroom and told me to bring Nigel to her office during his P.E. time. I imagined she was going to call his parents and have him spend a few days at home. When we walked into her office she was standing in front of her desk. She looked at him and told him that he was not here to disrupt the learning of others. She told him that she was not going to tolerate his behavior any longer. She turned around, picked up a wooden board from her desk and told him to bend over the desk. Then she delivered three swift blows to Nigel as I looked on. I recall the times I’d heard that sound coming from the hallways of my elementary school, but this time I was actually seeing it firsthand as a result of a referral I wrote. I was an accessory to this crime. In an almost methodical manner, she passed me a clipboard to sign that I had witnessed the paddling. I signed and walked back to class with Nigel. I didn’t know what to say. There were no words. I didn’t intend for him to get beaten with a wooden board as a result of my referral. But I didn’t say anything. Neither did he. What was there to to say? I never wrote another student up during my time at Jessie Rice Elementary. I learned to manage my classroom discipline without involving the school administration. My principal at Jessie Rice was very likely a product of the same outdated structures for managing behavior that my parents were nurtured in at D.D. Crawford School and T.J. Elder School. While discipline was important, this brutal method didn’t sit well with me. I believed that any physical discipline should be administered at the hands of parents in the home and not by school officials. I resigned at the end of the school year.
There are 19 states in which corporal punishment is still legal. Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. While only about 15% of Georgia’s schools report that they continue to use this practice, it is interesting that the states where corporal punishment is still legal predominately consists of former slave-holding states who were part of the Confederacy. This assault on the bodies of children, particularly Black children, is part of a long legacy that lingers on the pages of school laws.
Today, the way that law is enforced in African-American communities reminds me of how brutality has been a familiar foe in our lives in this country. Brutality that existed in the larger society found a place in our schools. Now, we see the outgrowth of that same brutality, that belief that violence inflicted upon a person will instill enough fear in others that behavior will be managed through psychological intimidation. This is the mindset that made lynching in the American South a social occasion documented in photographs depicting celebratory crowds. The public nature of the brutality was intended to send a message to others of what their fate might be if they did not adhere to the social order in place.
I am thankful to work as a principal during a time when members of the education profession have developed a deeper understanding of the intricacies of trauma, research on the social-emotional aspects of education, and the importance of relationships in creating successful student outcomes. Educators are more aware of how disparities can emerge to undermine opportunities for students of color as they find themselves on the disproportionate end of corporal punishments, school suspensions, and expulsions. I’m equally hopeful that the way Black bodies are perceived by law enforcement in our communities continues to evolve beyond the brutality that we see on our streets today. The haunting lyrics of Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit” paints a morbid picture of the lynchings of Blacks in the South. It reminds us of the more recent dozens of examples of unarmed African-American men and women whose interactions with law enforcement have left their “Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze” for us to see as monuments of our ongoing oppression.
Principals have an opportunity to push against this narrative in the ways they educate students, train teachers, and inflict discipline in their schools . The opportunity to enact social justice in school has never been more important than right now in 2020. Teachers need comprehensive training on mentoring, restorative discipline practices and the disproportionality that exists when it comes to suspensions among African-American boys and students with disabilities. Pressures to implement zero tolerance policies come from parents and teachers. Narratives are spun to characterize more informed, research-based approaches to discipline as “being soft” on students. The waters are troubled and deep, but courageous principals are walking through it each day.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was only 24 years old when he published the poem “We Wear the Mask” in 1896. It was an honest portrayal of what he saw as the son of freed slaves from Kentucky. Dunbar pulled from the experiences his parents shared about plantation life, coupled with what he witnessed for himself to create poems that hold a mirror up to America. Dunbar self-published his first books while working as an elevator operator and sold them to people for a dollar. He embodied two traits I have tried to integrate into my life as a writer, an entrepreneurial fortitude and the courage to peel back the uncomfortable layers of life in America for the descendants of enslaved Africans.
In many ways, we are beautifully unmasked in 2020 as we reconnect with our heritage in all aspects of our lives. Just yesterday, I spent part of the afternoon making “Hoppin’ John”, a traditional dish from the South Carolina low country. In a time when the nation is taking issue with “Karens”, I stumbled upon a book by Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection”, making a direct link between my dish and the African Diaspora. She writes, “That technique of cooking rice and beans together was African in origin, and it spread to every part of the Americas that had a significant African presence. Each location developed its own distinctive rice and bean dishes—the Moros y Cristianos of Cuba (made with black beans), the Pois et Riz Collé of Louisiana (made with red beans), and the Hoppin’ John of the South Carolina Lowcountry.” Food and agriculture were inherently linked to our collective survival. This is one of the reasons urban agriculture is experiencing a resurgence in urban communities and at schools like the one I lead in metro-Atlanta. Our food was central to our sense of community and tradition. So were masks.
Africans have always used masks for survival. In West African cultures, the mask was not exclusively decorative or ornamental. Masks were used in ceremonies, celebrations of life and death, declarations of war, and to conjure up the spirits of ancestors in times of peril. The masks Dunbar alludes to, the masks forced upon African-Americans in the 1890’s are less ceremonial, and more institutional. The metaphor of the mask is perfect yet troubling in its duplicity. While it protects us it can stifle us from breathing freely. It muffles our cries, hides our tears, and disguises our despair. To be considered free and not yet fully free is to wear the mask. To grapple with the fear of speaking out about blatant injustices for fear of the impact on our professional lives is to wear the mask. To see others targeted, murdered, imprisoned, and disenfranchised, and to be forced under threats of violence to remain silent is to wear the mask. Today is a new era in our history where we feel compelled to wear literal masks, but we’ve grown tired of wearing the masks that have permitted our subjugation and oppression.
Today is a new era in our history where we feel compelled to wear literal masks, but we’ve grown tired of wearing the masks that have permitted our subjugation and oppression.
Andre Benito Mountain
While most of us are living through experiences in America that we have never experienced before, the events are in fact not unprecedented. The context of Dunbar’s poem was a time when America was experiencing an economic depression. Wealthy Americans were fearful the uprising and protests they were witnessing would come to their doorsteps. In 1894, Jacob Coxey from Dayton, Ohio formed an “Industry Army” to protest the government’s inaction. He and his “army” marched to Washington. Coxey was jailed after he attempted to deliver a speech on the steps of the Capitol.
Dunbar published “Lyrics of Lowly Life” in 1896. It was his first volume of published work. The context of the time paints a clear picture of why this poem, “We Wear the Mask” was included in the volume. There were one hundred and thirteen African-Americans lynched in 1895. Today we are beginning to see a resurgence in reports of lynchings of African-Americans around the country. There was conflict within the African-American community regarding the way forward. Booker T. Washington visited Atlanta in 1895 and delivered the Atlanta Compromise where he espoused accommodation to White rule and an assurance of basic education and judicial due process. Frederick Douglass had died on February 20th of the same year. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed with Booker T. Washington and felt African-Americans should engage in civil rights activism. This stance would eventually lead to the Civil Rights movement which emerged in the 1950’s. Today we see opposing sides regarding the issue of protests, Black Lives Matter, and ways to exert economic pressure on an oppressive criminal justice system.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Most people don’t realize that Harriet Tubman was not her real name. Born Araminta Ross, she would become one of the most powerful examples of courage in leadership in American history. Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, conducted at least thirteen missions to rescue families and friends from slavery. She accomplished this with the use of disguises, strategy, and a keen understanding of the deplorable system of oppression she was working to unravel. I would challenge any educator to view your work like the work of Harriet Tubman: working within a system, wearing masks and employing strategies to lead people towards freedom.
Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an assault during the Civil War on plantations in South Carolina. In the Combahee River Raid of 1863, she helped 750 slaves to escape plantations and make their way toward Beaufort, South Carolina on Union steamboats. Her mask of invisibility as an African-American woman during the Civil War allowed her to survive as she provided critical information and support to the Union.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile
Paul Laurence Dunbar
He Too Wears a Mask
At its most critical hour, America is without mature leadership at the highest levels. Our president adds fuel to an increasingly tense political environment by using racist terms and failing to blatantly denounce police misconduct.
Instead, we find examples of great leadership in the mayors of our cities like Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Ras Baraka of Newark and Mario Cuomo of New York. Mayor Baraka, shown above, distributes masks to Newark’s citizens, all the while wearing the mask and gloves recommended by healthcare professionals. The painful juxtaposition of the masked and the unmasked is glaring. As Trump stands at the podium alongside medical experts, some attack him for the fact that he is seemingly unmasked. But I’d suggest that he too IS in fact wearing a mask. He is the host of the most grand masquerade ball and his gilded mask only covers his eyes, preventing him from seeing what is taking place around him.
The masks of 1895 have been replaced with N95 masks. The masks we are asked to wear are tangible reminders of the masks my heroes were once forced to wear. Stifling, restrictive, invisible masks.
“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. … but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house. I’m afraid that America has lost the moral vision she may have had, and I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. … I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
— For S.R.–
I was asked to share some of my experiences with the issue of race in America earlier today. As I’ve watched what is happening in America, I’ve clenched my pen and waited for the words to flow. I’ve waited for the right words and experiences to bubble up from inside my soul. I’ve waited for the pangs of ideas to be born and find their way onto the paper. But they have not yet come. The words have not come because over the course of my 45 years of life, I’ve become numb to that which the world is just opening their eyes to. This numbness is akin to a persistent pain that one never fully gets comfortable with, but begins to grapple with as part of the reality of now. All I can muster is a few experiences that paint a picture of what it feels like to be under the billowing smoke of racism in America.
So the world is finally starting to awaken to the smell of smoke in our inner cities in 2020. African-American men’s eyes have been burning from the smoke for years. Music groups like Lady Antebellum and Dixie Chicks are changing their names. Was there ever a thought about the feelings behind those names before now? Companies are redesigning products to remove stereotypical images. Corporations are manufacturing bandaids of different shades. But the bandaids only cover the wounds. The smoke is still present and the house is still burning. These surface level adjustments don’t change the heart of American society. We have to have an honest discussion about how African-Americans are treated in this country and I’m tired talking about it. It’s everyone else’s turn now.
A Leisurely Drive
My father shared a story with me of being asked to travel to a conference with a White colleague in the early 80’s in South Georgia. They were both instructors at the local technical college and typically instructors would carpool when heading to the same event. He decided to drive his own vehicle instead. When she inquired why he didn’t ride with her to the conference to save expenses, he explained that they would be driving through small Southern towns and if he needed to stop to rest or use the restroom, he didn’t want to have any problems. He’d grown up hearing stories of men turning up missing from driving through the wrong town or being on the wrong side of their own town. He explained that he was less interested in saving money, and more interested in saving his life. There is a level of awareness that he developed growing up in the segregated South that is indelibly engrained in our DNA now. It’s a 6th sense that may or may not save us from impending danger. She laughed it off and told him that things had changed. I wish she wasn’t wrong.
A Barbershop Experience
Around this same time, I was just at the age when children begin to attempt to make sense of what’s fair and unfair. We naturally associate good people with good deeds. We attended a local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I always wondered why there were no Black faces in the literature that depicted Biblical times. A White member of our congregation had a barbershop that we’d pass each day on our way from town. My mom asked him if he could cut our hair. He told her that we couldn’t come to the shop because he would lose customers. I didn’t understand it at the time. I saw him worship with us several times during the week and couldn’t understand why he would not welcome us into his barbershop. Looking back, I see that there was a social order that he was not prepared to disrupt for fear of losing profits. Our presence and the presence of our black hair on his clippers would force people to go elsewhere.
The White Knights
Last week my daughter shared with me that at her tennis camp all the groups had to select names for their team activities. One group of White teenagers selected the name “The White Knights”. There were only 2 or 3 African-Americans in the camp. Thankfully, the camp counselors made them change the name. On the way home, I spent time explaining to my daughter who the “White Knights” were. I explained that the White Knights is a name associated with the KKK’s practice of terrorizing African-Americans throughout America’s history. Deep inside I want to believe it was just a harmless coincidence, but the timing of it burns. To have to have these conversations with an 11 year old at a tennis camp burns. The awareness that I want her to possess is the same awareness that all children should have so they understand how terms and history cast a shadow on the present.
Man’s Best Friend
While working as a teacher in Augusta, I crossed paths with Mr. Errin. He was a fellow teacher who shared memories of growing up in South Carolina in the 40’s and 50’s. He talked about the experience of going to a white family’s home to do some yard work. When it was time for dinner, they asked him if he wanted any. He said yes. They brought his dinner out on the porch, but allowed the family dog to come in the house and sit with the family as they had dinner. He shared how hurt he felt that he couldn’t eat inside with them. I couldn’t get the image out of my head of him sitting on that porch eating, and looking into the living room and seeing that dog inside the house. Their kindness was tempered with the sting of social order, racism, and White supremacy.
I think about how it felt to be a graduate student in the Augusta University library at 10pm frantically trying to complete a paper before the deadline and being approached by campus security and told that if I could not produce an ID I would have to leave. Common sense policing and mutual respect is all we ask. Why not ask me to produce some other form of proof that I’m a student such as a registration email, class schedule, etc? It’s in those moments that we feel as if we are in the burning house, and no one else notices. These unnecessary moments also fuel the ongoing resentment that exists between law enforcement and the African-American community.
Are You The Janitor?
During my second year as a principal I was at the building on a Saturday afternoon. My car was the only one in the parking lot. As I walked up the empty hallway I saw the Orkin exterminator turn the corner and head in my direction. He was a middle aged Asian man. We greeted one another and the first question he asked me was “Are you the janitor?”. In a school with over 80 staff members, why would his first assumption be that I was the janitor? Couldn’t I have been one of the teachers or maybe the principal or assistant principal? It’s in moments like this that we experience the micro-agressions that remind us that we are in a burning house in American society.
The Right Conversation
In discussing this issue with a close friend who is also a school principal, she shared how she tells her son that he needs to “work harder than everyone else” as an African-American boy. I understand her intent, but the reality is that Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t murdered for not working hard. George Floyd wasn’t murdered for lack of effort. Sandra Bland wasn’t killed for failing to put her best foot forward. I don’t want our youth to be disillusioned into thinking that education and a strong work ethic will provide immunity from the smoke that is engulfing African-Americans in this country. Yes, we should instill a solid work ethic in our kids, but that is an entirely separate conversation from the one of having access to basic human rights and dignity in the workplace and society. Our kids need survival skills. They need to understand their rights, and the history of struggle that does not appear in our history texts. We must demand that the conversation about cultural responsiveness drill down to what resources are purchased and what events are included in the standards placed before our children.
Nearly every African-American man you know can share his own list of moments when he was reminded that the house is still burning. Just ask him. My point is that this is not a recent set of events, this has been our collective lived experience. There’s smoke. Thick smoke. Others see it now. I’m tired of trying to convince them that the house has been burning for years. Toxic smoke. I’m tired of talking and pointing towards the flames. My focus now is on working with a team of educators willing to do the heavy lifting of preparing a generation of youth to reconstruct our society. It’s your turn to talk. I can’t breathe.
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.
We’d just ended our Title I Annual Meeting and as the parents began filing out of the cafeteria I saw one parent approaching me and smiling. I knew her well from afternoon dismissal. Her daughter was one of our best 5th grade students and I’d recently remarked to her mother that her daughter’s report card grades and MAP scores were impressive. Both of them beamed with pride and a bit of surprise at knowing that the principal was checking up on her progress and performance. On this evening though, she had something she wanted to share with me. She started by saying, “Thank you for tonight. Now I understand the numbers and how things are calculated. I have to tell you that when you first came here, I had to get used to all of the changes. But now, after three years, I can see what you are doing. I can see you are in it for the right reasons. You are all about the kids.” I smiled and thanked her for the support and honesty. Then, with a bit of hesitation, she continued as a look of concern replaced her smile, “You know, I have to tell you, some of your own teachers were really working against you last year too. But most of them have moved on. Keep doing what you are doing. We see the difference you are making.”
The Sailboat Theory
Imagine that the school is a large sailboat traveling through choppy waters. Nearly all of the crew is on the deck shifting sails and holding on, trying to help the captain steer the ship through treacherous waters. We realize that we are in the throes of the storm and we will either survive together or sink to the depths of the foamy waters around us. Missing from this picture are a few members of the team who should be on deck helping. Instead, they are on the lower deck actively drilling holes in the ship to hasten our descent. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are working to sink the very vessel they are aboard.
Leaders in any industry have to accept the fact that there will be members of the team who have not bought into the vision or the mission of the organization. Sometimes it’s an ideological clash or personality conflict. Leadership styles vary, and as organizations change the priorities shift and the expectations for performance increase. This can create tension and factions begin to form throughout and organizations, school, or church. Efforts to undermine the work can become as extreme as folks researching your driving history in an effort to create distractions from the tasks at hand. Embracing and overcoming the resistance requires a thick skin, inner fortitude, and a healthy sense of humor.
The PowerPoint Principle
Scraping the surface to determine why folks actively work to drill holes in their own ship can lead to a number of conclusions. Many educators are married to old methods and practices that have become second-nature to them. Pushing folks beyond their comfort zone can evoke resistance. One recent example of this is what I call “The PowerPoint Principle”. PowerPoint was developed nearly 40 years ago. I enter classrooms where students are engaged in research and still learning on this program that was once a cutting edge technology. I would encourage any educator to introduce their students to the ten PowerPoint alternatives for 2019. The PowerPoint Principle is this: Never allow your skills to become outdated. You can’t build for the future with antique tools. Information is power and teachers have to remain current in order to keep up.
The Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “Choosing Strategies for Change”. in 2013 The article outlines the 3 steps for managing change successfully:
Analyze the situational factors
Determine the optimal speed for change
Consider methods for managing resistance
The authors, Kotter & Schlesinger (2013), provide leaders with five methods to address “these holes” being drilled into our ships as leaders implementing change. The methods are education, participation, facilitation, negotiation, and coercion. In the middle of my 10th year in educational leadership, I can recall using each of these methods in some way to address resistance.
Education: The solution to stop “these holes” from being drilled may be an honest conversation about why certain initiatives are being implemented. Whether it’s from student performance or a parent survey, data tells a story and can be the impetus for a call to action. We decided last year that our uniform policy needed stricter enforcement. We started the year off on the same page. Students and parents had a clear understanding of the expectation. Recently students suggested ‘free dress days’. I knew this would’t go over well with my staff unless it was aligned to a school-wide initiative. I explained that we would only consider a ‘free dress day’ if it was in support of one of our academic initiatives. We decided that the monies raised would benefit our Urban Agriculture program. Educating the students on the convergence of our interests was a amenable resolution. Likewise, teachers understood and didn’t perceive it as a compromise on our policy but rather as a strategic student-led fundraiser in support of our collective work.
Participation: I was once told that the best leaders “run to their resisters” to participate in school-wide initiatives. Call them up onto the deck, drop the drill for a moment, and come help to lead this project. Let them share their perspective in a way that is tied to the overall mission of the school. In 2013 I worked with a team of 10 high school department chairs in Augusta. I noticed that during our department meetings a few guys were frequently disengaged from the discussion. I devised a plan to have them as part of the agenda of every meeting. One would share a success from his team, another would share a best practice, while another would facilitate a group activity.
Facilitation: We’ve been implementing Guided Reading school-wide. At times, what is perceived as resistance is linked to a knowledge gap. They may just not know how to do it effectively yet. Creating a culture where a growth mindset is conveyed by the leadership is key. “We’re not there yet, but just wait!” Facilitating peer observations and ongoing professional development can absolve the anxiety and resistance to a non-negotiable expectation.
Negotiation: In 2000, I worked for Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. As the trading volume increased, we were called upon to work overtime to process the high volume of trades that were being bought and sold on the New York Stock Exchange. In addition to receiving overtime pay, they provided dinner and a chauffeur driven ride home if you worked past 9 pm. Negotiating with staff can include providing incentives for peak performance such as comp time, early leave, meals, or special recognition for helping the organization meet its objectives.
Coercion: This is the most basic tool for addressing resistance. Helping team members understand that we rise and fall together. The climate of accountability in public education leans in this direction, linking performance and achievement to school ratings, career trajectories and teacher evaluations. Consistent and successful execution of expectations tied explicitly to performance reviews can effectively fill “these holes” being drilled in the ship.
Helping the crew members preoccupied with drilling either find their way up to the main deck or off of the ship is the job of the leader. The ever present sound of drilling will always be heard in the depths of a ship moving in the right direction. Responding to the sound, implementing appropriate countermeasures, and filling the holes is part of the journey of leadership. Ask any leader about resistance and they will share stories of push back, passivity, and apathy on many fronts. Those of us who lead accept it as part of the journey we love. Schools are organic spaces where things are either growing or becoming stagnant. We love seeing teachers thrive, students learning, and parents actively woven into the fabric of the school community. The work of the leader is a labor of love. Nevertheless, we don’t love these holes.
Analytical psychologist Carl Jung introduced the concept of ‘synchronicity’ in the 1920’s as the principle of “meaningful coincidences”. Nothing that occurs in our complex lives is an accident. Events that have no causal relationship are meaningfully related. My most recent experience with synchronicity occurred as I joined a conference call with fellow principals in our metro-Atlanta school district.
Our district has been going through a major transition in recent weeks. The superintendent and the district recently severed their ties six months earlier than expected. We met the interim superintendent on the previous week during an administrators meeting. As the Thanksgiving Break looms in near future, principals are scrambling to complete the required observations of teachers by the November 29th deadline. Fortunately, our regional superintendent understands the urgency of the time and honors that by arranging a conference call to share some important information in lieu of a meeting.
The conference call had been scheduled for 9:30, giving me enough time to do a few observations before returning to my office to join the call. I checked my phone and dialed the number that had been sent to us via text by the regional superintendent. After a prompt, I entered the access code to join the conference. A recorded voice says, “Please announce yourself”. I say, “Andre Mountain, Marbut Elementary”. Within seconds, I’m hearing a list of other principals joining the call. I can hear the regional superintendent on the call listing the names of those of us who had already joined and making sure we were all accounted for. In the midst of his roll call and the intermittent tone of others joining the call there was a woman’s voice that began to become more salient. “Father God, we come to you in need of your blessing and your favor, Father God.” Everyone is silent, and the regional superintendent reminds us, “Principals, please mute your phones”. Everyone mutes their phones, causing the voice of woman to become noticeably louder. In seconds it becomes clear what we are hearing.
“Father God, we thank you for your grace and mercy. Father God, watch over our families, our children, our sick loved ones. Father God, we know you are here with us. Father God, bless our children as they move through this community, Father God. These people are out here harming our babies, Father God. We need your guidance Father God. Help us, Father God, guide our steps. We thank you Father God…”
As we are listening, we are all trying to recognize the voice of this mysterious prayer leader. It sounded like an older woman who was an experienced prayer leader. Was one of the principals praying and possibly forgot to mute her phone? I started trying to figure out who it could be…Principal Davis? Principal Goolsby? I texted Mrs. Davis, “I hear a prayer.” She texts back, “Me too.” By this time, the regional superintendent has stopped talking because the voice of the prayer had become the dominant voice on the call. The automated voice began to announce principals as they left the conference call. I hesitated to leave because I was beginning to connect to the prayer.
Somehow, instead of dialing in to our region’s conference call, we’d all dialed in to a prayer line and heard exactly what we needed to hear to launch our work for the day. Fifteen school leaders were on the receiving end of a prayer for our schools, families and our communities. It was not what we’d planned to hear, but it was what we all needed at a moment when we are entering a season where giving thanks is celebrated. It was a wrong number at the perfect moment when the backdrop of our work in schools is impacted by the tensions of leadership transitions, test scores, and violence in our community. Synchronicity, as Carl Jung describes it, is about finding purpose in “meaningful coincidences”. Professor Roderick Main suggests that “meaningful coincidences re-connect us to our spiritually alive surroundings.”
After reluctantly leaving the prayer, I noticed that the regional superintendent sent us a group text message.
He wrote, “Will try to get another group call number. You can end the initial call.”
The week preceding the Thanksgiving Break is a busy one for any school principal. There are evaluations to be completed and parent events that require attention. In my movements through Marbut’s hallways over the last few weeks I’ve encountered two fourth grade students who continue to politely remind me that they would like to meet to revisit a proposal they shared with me in October. Our school recently partnered with TNTP (The New Teacher Project) to enhance the ways we access parental engagement and student voice. A student focus group was convened and students were asked to share ideas about what could be done to improve the school from their perspective. Melissa Jones-Clarke, a TNTP Performance Coach, facilitated the focus group and remarked that the students were “sharp and articulate about what they wanted to accomplish and where they wanted to go in the future”.
In early October they arrived at my office door smiling and asking for “just a moment to discuss an important matter”. The language was so precise and polished that I welcomed the conversation and settled back in my chair to hear what these two fourth graders had to say. While our school has a strict uniform policy, these two 4th grade students proposed a “free dress day” for students to express their individuality. I shared with them that our school model and tradition includes required uniforms. I explained that we had tried to do “Free Dress Fridays” in the past but it became an issue with behavior.
So here we were, weeks later and I was cornered with another request to meet and follow up on the initial meetings. “Ah, yes…I remember. You wanted to discuss the dress code and possibly having a free dress day, correct?” They beamed with pride and replied, “Yes!” I said, well Mondays are really busy, let’s plan to meet tomorrow. Come see me during your Specials time and we can discuss it.” Honestly, I assumed they’d soon forget about their plan to upend our strict dress code for a proposed “free dress” day for students. Tuesday arrived and as I was on my way to do an observation I encountered Alina who smiled and politely reminded me, “Excuse me Mr. Mountain, yesterday you said Mondays were very busy, so we were following up to see if we could possibly meet with you today to discuss our proposal about the dress code?” Inside I was conflicted because of my pride in the persistence of these two students to tactfully present a proposal with such professionalism and grace. On the other hand, I was annoyed that they actually remembered and followed up with me in the midst of my busy schedule. More than anything else, I was reminded that we are educating our students to intentionally disrupt the status quo and become citizens who advocate for change in productive and meaningful ways. How could I make this experience more meaningful for them as a community service project with a convergence of interests for the school and the students?
As we strolled into my office, these two 4th graders already had an aura of victory and we hadn’t even discussed the proposal. They reminded me that we planned to do one day each month of free dress where the uniform policy would be waived. Recently, I’ve been reading “Empire State of Mind” by Zack O’Malley Greenburg. The book chronicles the rise of Jay-Z to an industry mogul. One of the points Greenburg makes is Jay-Z’s penchant for asking during a business deal, “What’s in it for me?” Essentially, he wants to know in any business dealings, how can our interests converge to create positive outcomes for both parties. This is where we found ourselves on this fateful afternoon in my office. We decided that we needed to make the free dress day in support of a school-wide initiative. Our STEAM focus is Urban Agriculture, so we decided to align the “free dress day” with a fundraiser for our Urban Agriculture program. Students would donate $1.00 in support of our STEAM program to support aquaponics, hydroponics and container gardening. We’d be able to purchase plants and seeds for the Spring season.
This experience reminded me as a school leader to always be open to providing a space for students to advocate for change even when it appears to send ripples through our own school community. Education means much more than test results and grades. Seeing students develop a proposal, advocate for others, and show persistence and professionalism is the authentic application of what we teach to students about activism and effecting change. The question is “Are we prepared to hear them when they speak?”
Walking through Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood is a Saturday ritual for me. From Moreland Avenue, I find my usual table in the corner of Sevananda Natural Foods Market and observe the steady flow of eclectic patrons pouring into the iconic store. I’ve been visiting Sevananda since the early 90’s and the experience has always been the same. Every staff member greets me as if they have known me for years. Like Apple and Starbucks, Sevananda has mastered the art of emotional intelligence in a truly organic way to make customers feel welcomed and appreciated. Success isn’t solely about pricing, products and promotions. It also depends on people skills and positive interactions. Hiring and retaining staff with high levels of emotional intelligence and maturity is critical to the success of any business or brand.
Barack Obama was a master of demonstrating emotional intelligence. As president, he understood the impact of small gestures in conveying humility and empathy. Several years ago I read about the handwritten notes then President Obama would write to people thanking them for their letters and encouragement. What a great way to connect with people and show them that their voices matters. In seeing the dedication of my faculty and staff, I’ve taken it upon myself to borrow this approach, making more time this year to write personal, handwritten acknowledgements of their outstanding efforts to create an amazing learning environment for our kids. Taking the time to handwrite these notes is a pause in my day to focus on the positive efforts of my team. Helping others to see that their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed is one way of conveying empathy and strengthening collective commitment to a common cause. As an elementary administrator, I can recall a school secretary at Larchmont Elementary in Tacoma, WA who radiated positivity and demonstrated a high degree of emotional intelligence in her role. Mrs. Artero greeted every customer as if they’d been childhood friends. In every problem she saw a solution and worked to show compassion about a sick or injured child or a death in a family. She set the tone for all of the interactions in the school because hers was the first interaction. Never did we receive a complaint about her customer service because she understood that her role was not to win arguments, but to win over customers. She understood the cardinal rule of interactions: first impressions matter more than any others.
A Kase Study
He was 9 years old and it was his first year at our school. I’d heard his name mentioned several times as “one to watch” in 4th grade. “Kase”. I kept hearing this name and seeing this name on discipline referrals. It was a Friday afternoon and I saw a commotion in the cafeteria. I approached 5 students and asked, “What’s going on?”. Everyone got silent. One laughed. I asked, “What’s your name?” He said, “Kase”. Ah…it was my first encounter with the new scholar. He continued laughing. I asked him to come with me. He refused. I asked him to come with me two more times. He refused. Finally, I told him that refusing to do what an adult asks is not acceptable. He could either come with me or end up with a more severe consequence for non-compliance. Once in my office I began explaining to Kase that I’ve been hearing his name and reading the discipline referrals about his behavior in class. I explained that I was going to call his mother and we would have to discuss next steps. I immediately called his mom and she said that she would be at the school in ten minutes. It seemed more like five minutes and she was in my office with her hands in his chest saying “What is this about? Huh?” She asked him to wait outside as we talked. Tearfully, she went on to explain how she’d endured years of domestic violence and that Kase had been a witness to much of it at the hands of his father. She shared experiences of living out of her car, losing everything, and rebuilding over time. She talked about how she prayed that he could attend a school like ours and what this meant to her and to him. She shared that he had expressed feeling rage and having nightmares. I suggested that she look into family counseling as a way to confront the many emotions swirling within her and within Kase. Our task as a school is to identify families and students like Kase who need support and connect them with resources to address the mental health issues that impede learning and healing. The obsession with test scores and school ratings misses this key factor that determines student and school success.
Looming Storm Clouds
The “Kase’s” of the world eventually become adults. Is there someone on your job who is constantly in conflict with people? Is there a customer who visits your business and always has a complaint about the service? You ask yourself, “Why do they continue to return to an establishment where they can’t seem to find anything that meets their standards of excellence?” Why do they continue to do a job that they obviously loathe? Working in public education brings me in contact with many interesting personalities. I find that many of the people I encounter who seem to have chaotic lives lack emotional intelligence. The spiral of conflict is not isolated to their workplace. It is pervasive like a cancer in every aspect of their lives. The last year is a graveyard of their burned relationships and interactions. Wherever they go, storm clouds seem to loom overhead, pulling innocent bystanders into the perpetual storms that follow these unfortunate souls. Some roles, where interactions with the public are paramount for the successful branding of the company, require even higher levels of emotional intelligence. So what is it?
Emotional Intelligence Defined
Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, managing emotions, showing empathy, and learning the arts of cooperation. I’ve witnessed firsthand members of my team who have mastered the art of cooperation and customer service. It seems innate to them because they truly understand and love interacting with people. Mrs. Crowe-Harris is an example of an educator who just gets it when it comes to interacting with the public. By day she is a highly regarded classroom teacher whose reputation is such that parents request and demand that their children be placed in her classroom based on the accounts of other parents. In the afternoon, she transitions to the role of the director of our after school program. With finesse, she changes from the role of the classroom teacher to a teacher leader managing customer service, payroll, payments, and parent concerns. She is able to navigate the emotional gauntlet of showing empathy, holding people accountable, and not taking things personally. From my office I can hear her skillfully deescalating a potential problem by saying, “Ok Mom, here is what happened…Now, this is what we are going to do because we have made it very clear to him what the expectation is…” Parents can’t help but respect that level of emotional fortitude and empathy.
In my most recent book, The Mountain Principles, I wrote about my experience at the barbershop Groomzmen on Euclid Avenue in Atlanta. The way the barbers connect with their customers is essential to their business model. The conversation, the attention to detail, and the willingness to invest time into building trust matter in successful businesses.
What is it about people like Mrs. Artero, Mrs. Crowe-Harris and the barbers at Groomzmen that sets them apart from others who lack emotional intelligence? They understand that people are coming from a wide range of emotional perspectives. Customers want to be made to feel welcomed and understood. Customers want to interact with people who possess the emotional maturity to know that every comment or action is not a personal attack. Employees with emotional intelligence understand how to balance holding others and themselves accountable. They are able to convey empathy because being emotionally intelligent human being means putting your own ego aside most of the time. On the other hand, people who lack emotional intelligence seem to find fault with everyone else. When communication goes haywire, it’s always someone else’s fault. Even when they receive the same feedback from family, friends, and supervisor, they are unable to take any ownership of the issue.
This summer, all of the principals in our district attended a Summer Leadership Retreat where the focus was on Mental Health Awareness. The sessions all centered around the mental health issues that permeate urban communities. There is so much trauma that funnels into the doors of urban schools on Monday mornings.
A mother shares that her son never gets to spend time with his father. The father makes promises and never keeps them. At school the boy acts out his aggression on his classmates and his teacher.
A staff member gets little attention from her spouse and arrives at work displaying attention-seeking behaviors to any males who pass her by: teachers, parents, and visitors.
A teacher feels unfulfilled in her role as a classroom teacher. Her passions lie elsewhere. When confronted with feedback on her mediocre efforts in the classroom she lashes out and becomes defensive and unprofessional.
As a principal, the challenge that presents itself in the course of a school day is to maintain a focus on instruction. In recent years, managing the emotional struggles of adults has become a more pressing matter to preserve a positive school culture in a world where drama and controversy seem to be the focal point of entertainment outlets. This trauma stems from issues of abandonment, witnessing physical and emotional abuse, and lack of self-esteem and self-determination. If one feels powerless in society they may adopt a defensive perspective about all interactions, even when there is no attack to defend against. Perpetual conflict with others may stem from a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. In an effort to refine our school’s approach to customer service, I sent out a survey to parents about ways we might improve customer service. For the first few days, great responses were rolling in with very constructive feedback about where we might improve. Then, after a few days, the commentary devolved into profanity laced ramblings about isolated events and personal misgivings about specific people. I closed the survey because the platform was becoming a sounding board for the emotionally immature. It’s unfortunate that even when given an opportunity to add value to our institutions, actions suggesting a lack of emotional intelligence undermine authentic dialogue. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our respect for civil and productive dialogue. I believe that the anonymity of email and message boards has fueled a cowardly aggression where people say things that they know are out of bounds in these electronic spaces because they lack the emotional intelligence to provide constructive solutions to the problems they encounter in life. Removing the stigma around mental health in the African-American community is a step forward. These actions are cries for help from our community.
The book “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ”by Daniel Goleman explains the roots of the development of our emotional intelligence. He writes, “By fourth and fifth grade, as peer relationships take on an immense importance in their lives, they get lessons that help their friendships work better: empathy, impulse control, and anger management.” As a father of a 6th grader, I’m constantly watching and observing how she handles relationships with her peers, responds to disagreements, and manages friendships. How can I be a better father in the area of supporting her emotional intelligence. Ongoing conversations about how to handle conflict are taking place in our household. Most importantly, she is observing how my wife and I work through problems, reach compromises, and move forward after disagreements.
Barrier: an obstacle that prevents movement or access. The string of islands we refer to as the barrier islands protect the mainland from storm surges. These islands have a history of their own of barriers, overcome by the will of courageous individuals who survived enslavement, challenged discrimination, and reshaped the social order.
On the evening of November 28, 1858, the last shipment of slaves to arrive in Georgia from the Congo in West Africa landed along the southern shore of Jekyll Island, Georgia on a ship called “The Wanderer”. It was indeed a grotesque conspiracy that included the then owners of Jekyll, John and Henry DuBignon. The Wanderer docked in the West African nation of Angola on October 4, 1858. Angola was dominated by the Portugese. Congress had banned the importation of slaves since 1808. There were 487 slaves taken aboard, but only 409 survived the journey and emerged from the ship on Jekyll’s southern shore. The owner of the slave ship, William Corrie partnered with businessman Charles Augustus Lamar to have the slaves shipped from Jekyll to Savannah, Augusta, and parts of South Carolina. This group of slaves were brought to Jekyll to avoid the attention they might have received had they been brought in through the much busier seaport of Savannah. This afternoon I walked along those same shores with the students of Marbut Traditional Theme School.
With ample historical accounts, images, and artifacts that detail this fascinating history, it seems implausible that it would not appear prominently in the current curriculum for Social Studies in Georgia. The historical significance of Jekyll Island for students in Georgia runs deep. Its inclusion into the existing narrative would add a greater degree of regional history, diversity and cultural relevance to a curriculum that provides a cursory examination of the arrival and persistent struggle of people of color in Georgia. Three survivors of the ordeal, Cilucangy, Pucka Geata, and Tahro (pictured here) recall the capture, the stench, and the horror of their enslavement. Their faces tell a story that refuses to be buried by the sands of time.
St. Andrews Beach
We took 47 students to what was once known as the historic St. Andrews Beach. Once, the only beach accessible to African-Americans, St. Andrews beach is a little known slice of African-American history nestled along the pristine beaches of Georgia’s Jekyll Island. Prior to 1955, there were no beaches in the state of Georgia that permitted African-Americans to enjoy the sun and sand with their families. In fact, in the 1940’s, three African-American women were jailed for donning swimsuits and attempting to visit the beach on Jekyll. Once opened, St. Andrews beach became an incubator of thriving black businesses including a hotel, restaurants, and a performance hall. We often hear of those heroes who battled segregation in institutions such as schools and sports leagues. We hear little about those individuals who worked to ensure that everyone could have access to the often overlooked freedoms we enjoy today.
Today, the land that was once called St. Andrews beach is now home to 4-H’s Camp Jekyll. In partnership with the University of Georgia, they provide environmental education to students. I first visited the site in 1985 as a 5th grade student, just two years after 4-H first leased the site. Now, some 34 years later, I returned with a group of 5th graders to explore the same beaches with them as we extend their classroom experiences to the shores of Jekyll. Students’ dissected sharks, learned about endangered sea turtles, explore the marsh, and took a class on ornithology.
As we boarded the charter bus to head to our canoeing activity, I noticed all of the students rushed to the back of the bus. I asked them all to fill in the seats from the front of the bus. Our driver, Mr. Johnny Houseworth, an African-American man in his 60’s, smiled at this and began to tell me that he was in the 4th grade when Dr. King was killed. He stated that it was then that he decided that he’d never again sit in the back of a bus. Before we left to begin canoeing, Mr. Houseworth offered us a grim warning: “Don’t y’all fall in dat wawtah!” Small, intimate, teachable moments continued to occur throughout the trip that will likely leave a lasting impression on these metro-Atlanta students.
One of the highlights of our trip included a very candid conversation with our students about the legacy of struggle of people of color and how they are an extension of that struggle. After dinner, under a pavilion near what was once called the Negro Beach House, we spoke to them about the significance of this place and their choices. The impact of this trip was two-fold as we shared with students the cultural relevance of St. Andrews beach and they gained an environmental education throughout the experience. At once we are asking our students to look back at their legacy, look ahead toward their future, and look within at their own potential. The call to action for educators is to gain a deeper knowledge of our history, integrate that knowledge into our conversations with young people, and never allow that history to be forgotten, even if that means we must ‘trouble the waters’.
About the author:
Andre Benito Mountain is a writer and educator. He is the author of The Mountain Principles: Lessons on Leading and Learning and The Brilliance Beneath. His forthcoming book is entitled Principals Don’t Walk on Water: They Walk Through It. He is the principal of Marbut Traditional Theme School in metro-Atlanta.
One of the best lessons I learned during the first months of my principalship was that diplomacy matters. In a life of service, verbal assaults become par for the course. Think Jackie Robinson. Think MLK. Think Barack Obama. Are you able to rise above the rumors, the attacks and accusations and focus on the work? Is the mission still at the forefront of your work? I often equate the work of an educator to that of a professional athlete. I imagine that when Colin Kaepernick stepped onto a field, he was met with the roar of cheers and jeers, but his actions weren’t swayed by public opinion. Atlanta’s arts community recently rallied around his public stance against police brutality in full force by painting murals around the city in honor of his revolutionary stance.
Being able to block out the noise from the bleachers and focus on running the plays is essential to the success of your team. There’s always background noise, but we have a choice when it comes to where we place our attention. You quickly learn that people’s lives are so complex that much of the aggression you encounter has little to do with the situation in hand. It is often the symptom of deeper, more complex pains, biases and frustrations that have simply been triggered by a phone call from the school. In those moments, educators must have the presence of mind to remain calm, be level headed, and take the high road. This is not at all an easy task.
Inevitably, decisions must be made that don’t sit well with members of your team. Growing a team means to move people out of their comfort zones and challenge them to reach for new levels of performance. This week I faced a challenge at school where I discovered an issue and after peeling a few layers away and posing some questions, more things were revealed. There were many ways it could have been handled, but I decided to take the diplomatic route and provide a general directive that raised awareness of the issue. When we are reminded of our collective commitments to our work, we tend to see how important our individual roles are.
Don’t Call Me Sir
Diplomacy requires that we lead from a place of compassion and intellect rather than a place of emotion. Diplomacy doesn’t hinge on one’s mood, but rather one’s disposition. Teaching diplomacy to others means that we model it even when we are the only one speaking in a diplomatic manner. As parents, we have to change the narrative of telling children to meet violence with violence. Too many well-meaning parents are conveying a message to children that violence begets violence. I always use the example of the civil rights movement as an example of how a different response can bring about change. Several weeks ago I met with an angry parent who, in the midst of our conversation, shouted to me “Don’t call me sir!”. In retrospect, his outburst was humorous, but it typifies how emotions can overpower our ability to reason. My efforts to be respectful and calm were met with a plea to engage in a violent shouting match. Diplomacy allows us to maximize the productivity of meetings by keeping the focus on an equitable resolution rather than attributions of blame.
Marcus Garvey is a powerful example of diplomacy in an international, Pan-African sense. In his book, Negro With a Hat, Colin Grant describes Marcus Garvey as “the embodiment of an idea that the African was just as capable of erudition, scholarship, refinement and leadership as anybody else.” Those four words resonate with me as the cornerstones of leadership: erudition, scholarship, refinement and leadership.
SometimesI feel like I’m just standing in place, ain’t no real race. Ain’t no other side. Life is like a circle and you end up where you started. If you end up where you started ain’t no other side.
-Gil Scott Heron, The Other Side
Our timing and God’s timing for our lives don’t always align. It’s a humbling experience when you realize that what you have planned for your own life is pale in comparison to the plan which has been written for your life. This Saturday I thought about the many years I’d travelled to Atlanta to secure a teaching position. For years, I envisioned securing a teaching position in the metro-Atlanta area. To this day, I consider myself an honorary resident of Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood, choosing this eclectic neighborhood for my most recent book signing.
Though I was unsuccessful in securing a position at those job fairs, I was able to secure teaching positions in districts that grew me, promoted me, and ultimately helped develop me into the educator I am today. My journey eventually led me from Macon to Augusta to Tacoma. In 2017 we made Atlanta home as I became principal of an amazing elementary school. It is truly a story of coming full circle. This past weekend I had the privilege of sitting on the other side of the table at my metro-Atlanta district’s Job Fair. In the shadows of the city where I once longed to become a classroom teacher, I’ve transitioned into a role where I have the unique privilege of opening doors into the profession or bringing talented and experienced teachers onto my team of dedicated professionals. Being on the other side of the table is humbling because I remember what it was like to have just a few moments to share my passion, my experience, and my commitment to changing lives with those folks on the other side of the table. I’d wonder, “What are they looking for?”, “How can I set myself apart from the other applicants?” In many cases, I just lacked the experience that was needed to be truly effective in the roles I was seeking back then. I never understood that until I was on the other side of the table.
During my time on the other side of the table, I’m hopeful that I can help to bring people into the profession who are committed to changing lives, changing communities, and changing themselves in the process. The other side of the table is a place where, though still evolving, I’m finally prepared to stand.
noun . cour·age|\ˈkər-ij, ˈkə-rij\ . : mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty
This month I’ve been talking to students about how to display courage. In order for our young people to understand how to embody courage, we must show them examples of those who have confronted obstacles and risked comfort for the sake of progress. Individuals who put the needs of the group before their own are the example of courage our young people need to see. Muhammad Ali is a perfect example of this. Between 1967 and 1970 he was banned from boxing for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. He lost his title, was sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000 as a result of his decision. A contemporary example of this is Colin Kaepernick, whom I mention in my new book, The Mountain Principles: Lessons on Leading & Learning. Both Ali and Kaepernick engaged in noble fights on behalf of others.
People driven by a cause and purpose are relentless. They are undeterred when it comes to moving around or through obstacles. Along with the other 115,000 other school principals around the nation, I’m fighting for the quality of the education of our children. The fight is ideological, philosophical, and theoretical. The opponents in the fight vary depending on the circumstances. At any given moment, the opposing parties could be publishers, vendors, politicians, parents, or media outlets. Regardless of the opponent, the fight ensues daily.
Principals must never allow themselves to become prisoners of their position, afraid to confront harsh realities with the bitter words of truth.
Rather than going through the motions, I want to unravel the tangled pieces of public schooling, with the help of a talented team of educators, and create spaces where students thrive and grow in ways that aren’t necessarily measured by normed referenced tests. How do we get beyond where we are now as a school and community and push forward? It is a noble fight.
Another fight worth fighting is for the autonomy of teachers to be creative and innovative in their practices. We’ve traveled light years beyond the days when my teachers stood in front of the class holding a teacher’s edition reading off pre-printed directions to the class. Teachers have the world at their fingertips and can extend the classroom to other states, countries, and galaxies using instructional technology. The unfettered genius of teachers should never be stifled. Teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. As long as the curriculum is being taught, I love to see teachers integrating students’ interests, the arts, and discussion into the curriculum. Standardization is a mixed bag of guidance, clarity, and constraints on creativity that can dull the luster of a brilliant educator if thrust upon them irresponsibly. The fight is to find the delicate balance between teaching standards and teaching the child in a way that meets their needs. It is a worthy fight.
The fight for the respect of the profession is one that principals should be prepared to join. Respect their time. Respect their intellect. Respect their voice. For the most part, parents understand that teachers are professionals and treat them as such. However, there is a small subset of parents who engage teachers and schools in a verbally aggressive manner unbefitting of the role that teachers play in our children’s lives. Profanity laced text messages, veiled threats, and unreasonable demands are poor models of interaction for our students. When parents engage in these behaviors, leaders should gracefully step in to support teachers in a way that teaches the appropriate behavior and establishes clear norms for how teachers will be treated. Teachers prepare for this work by completing years of education, certification tests, graduate school, and a wealth of ongoing professional development. They deserve the respect that is afforded to any professional. Sometimes that respect is shown by simply bringing a valid concern to the teacher before escalating it to the administration. The fight for the respect of the profession is real. It is a righteous fight.
Edgar Albert Guest describes the drive to fight a righteous fight in the most eloquent way in his poem titled “Courage”:
Courage isn’t a brilliant dash, A daring deed in a moment’s flash; It isn’t an instantaneous thing Born of despair with a sudden spring It isn’t a creature of flickered hope Or the final tug at a slipping rope; But it’s something deep in the soul of man That is working always to serve some plan.
Courage isn’t the last resort In the work of life or the game of sport; It isn’t a thing that a man can call At some future time when he’s apt to fall; If he hasn’t it now, he will have it not When the strain is great and the pace is hot. For who would strive for a distant goal Must always have courage within his soul.
Courage isn’t a dazzling light That flashes and passes away from sight; It’s a slow, unwavering, ingrained trait With the patience to work and the strength to wait. It’s part of a man when his skies are blue, It’s part of him when he has work to do. The brave man never is freed of it. He has it when there is no need of it.
Courage was never designed for show; It isn’t a thing that can come and go; It’s written in victory and defeat And every trial a man may meet. It’s part of his hours, his days and his years, Back of his smiles and behind his tears. Courage is more than a daring deed: It’s the breath of life and a strong man’s creed.