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 45th occupant 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.
Soundtrack: Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai
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.
Soundtrack: “Revolution” by Nina Simone
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smilePaul Laurence Dunbar
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 milePaul 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.
Soundtrack: I Owe You Nothing by Seinabo Sey
“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.
Soundtrack: History by Black Star
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 Heronfrom “Don’t Give Up”
I live in East Atlanta. At 7:45am, the streets of Lithonia are sparse. It was once noted as one of the nations’s wealthiest African-American enclaves. As the sun rises gently over the Georgia pines, there are a few retirees out walking with their dogs and the occasional jogger putting in their morning miles. On this June morning I was on my way to Marbut Traditional Theme School to meet with my operations team to discuss the progress they are making on preparing our building for students in the Fall. As I turned onto Marbut Road, I noticed someone walking who looked familiar. She was wearing a hijab, so I only caught a glimpse of her face. Looking back in my rearview I could see that it was one of my scholar’s parents, carrying what appeared to be a heavy bag and walking in the direction of the school. I drove past, then quickly circled back and asked if everything was okay. She replied in a thick accent, “Hi Mr. Principal. I’m going to the bus stop. I’m on my way to work”. Knowing that the bus stop was two miles away, I insisted that she get in so that I could take her there. When she got in, I noticed her face was covered with sweat. I was glad to be of assistance to her, thinking of how God places us in certain positions to do good for others. I’ve been on the receiving end of these good deeds on many days, so returning the favor was an absolute obligation. On the way to her bus stop she shared with me how the kids were doing. She asked me about my family. She told me that she has an additional scholar coming to our school this Fall. In those few moments we talked about school uniforms, jobs, and the new realities of school openings in 2020. As she exited, I wished her a great day at work and she said “God bless you Principal Mountain.” As I drove back to the school, I thought about the beauty of leading where we dwell. To see our parents in the everyday struggle humbles one to understand that we are here to serve. We serve their scholars and in a broader sense, their families in helping to forge greater access to opportunities and support.
To see our parents in the everyday struggle humbles one to understand that we are here to serve. We serve their scholars and in a broader sense, their families in helping to forge greater access to opportunities and support.
I thought about the educators who lived in my neighborhood as I was growing up in Swainsboro, GA. Mr. Tims, the band director, lived around the corner. Mr. Bright, the bus driver, lived a few blocks away. Mrs. Trice, my Kindergarten teacher, lived just 2 miles away. Their homes were landmarks we’d drive by on our way to other destinations, and I’d hope to get a glimpse of them as we drove past. There is beauty in dwelling where you teach or lead. It embeds you in the energy of the community your students emerge from. You see them in the corner store, grocery stores, and on the sidewalks.
Mr. Solomon is one of my favorite Marbut parents. He works as a cashier at my neighborhood convenience store. His face lights up whenever my daughter and I walk into the store. He greets us in a thick Ethiopian accent, “Doctor! Selam! How are you?” His daughter and my daughter became fast friends during their time at our school. When we visit his store, he insists on having her pick out a treat free of charge. She is always happy to oblige his generosity. He occasionally asks me what he needs to do to help his middle school or high school scholar and I always try to point him in the right direction with a name or a phone number to call. There are days when he refuses to accept payment for my purchase. It’s a welcome battle that I gladly lose occasionally. It’s all love. It’s the beauty of leading where one dwells.
During my time teaching at Monte Sano Elementary in Augusta, GA in the early 2000’s, I actually lived across the street from the school. The Summerville neighborhood of Augusta had a quaint southern feel, with historic homes and cottages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. When our daughter was born, I was able to go home at lunch to check on my wife and our newborn infant, then walk back across the street to pick up my students from lunch. In the evenings while walking the family dog or sitting on our front porch, I’d have conversations with my neighbors about our school and inform them of the great things happening at the school. To this day, I still keep in touch with neighbors Fred and Sallie who were consistent and staunch supporters of Monte Sano Elementary through the years. As principals and teachers had come and gone, they watched from a distance. They loved the neighborhood and the school that served the neighborhood. They watched our daughter grow up and gifted her with a hand-quilted blanket when she was born. They reminded me of the unique personalities that neighborhoods possess and how school leaders must tap into the richness of a community to extend the reach of the school.
How did I end up living in the community of the school I’m leading in 2020? Prior to moving to Atlanta from Washington State, I’d heard about the notorious Atlanta traffic. I dreaded being late to work as a building leader, early in my career. What type of example would I set if I had the misfortune of being consistently late to work due to traffic on I-20 or I-285? I decided to find a place to dwell in the community where I’d be leading that would not require me to have to access any major thoroughfares. Thankfully, we found a place only 4-minutes drive from the school. I can walk to the school in under 15 minutes. But it’s deeper than proximity. It’s more about community. I’m better connected to the community I serve by living in the midst of it. I’m better equipped to understand the challenges they face, the resources at our disposal, and the potential partners and allies we have.
Too often the allure and comfort of leadership insulates us from the real-life struggles our families face.
So, this afternoon I noticed that dark clouds were heading in our direction. I began wrapping up my tasks in the office around 6pm, preparing to head home. Set the school alarm, loaded up my car, and pulled out of the school’s driveway. As the rain began falling, I noticed a familiar figure walking down the street. It was the same parent I’d dropped off earlier this morning at the bus stop. She was making the 2.5 mile trek back home from the bus stop after a long day of work. I blew my horn, and without a word she came over smiling. Perfect timing and a perfect end to a long day for both of us. She shared that she was from Belize, Central America and the many struggles of finding good schools for her children. In times like these, we need to take better care of one other. Too often the allure and comfort of leadership insulates us from the real-life struggles our families face. Leading is service and service starts in the places where we dwell.
Soundtrack: Don’t Give Up by Gil Scott Heron
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.
When schools refine their focus and synergize all their efforts around innovative initiatives they begin to, sometimes literally, see the fruits of their labor. This summer, a team of teachers from Marbut Traditional Theme School met to discuss our ongoing school improvement plans. We’d been pursuing STEAM certification for years with no real traction. We needed to be more specific about our focus and determine which aspect of STEAM we’d center our collective work around. Our school is unique in that it operates on a lottery system and students are selected from the attendance zones of four other schools. Many of our students live in “food deserts”. The USDA suggests that over 23 million people in the United States reside in food deserts where access to affordable, healthy food options are limited or non-existent. With a sprawling campus spread across 2 acres and a building of over 91,000 square feet, it was decided that our green spaces lent themselves well to a focus on urban agriculture. We already had a butterfly garden, a vegetable garden, and had recently built 3 additional planting boxes in the front of school with support from parents and community sponsors.
My excitement around the ideas of urban agriculture can be traced back to my South Georgia roots. My father majored in Agriculture at Fort Valley State University and he and my mother spent a considerable amount of time gardening and landscaping around our home. Directly behind our house was a vast cornfield. When asked what I wanted to become in 4th grade, I quickly replied “A farmer”. My choice was based on a field trip I took with my class where we visited a farm and met with Mr. Alford McKenzie, an African-American farmer. He served as the county extension agent from 1963 to 1986. As he showed us his crops and his cattle, he was planting seeds in my mind that would emerge nearly four decades later.
A Community Effort
During the summer of 2019, our vegetable garden produced a large crop of collard greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. We continued to brainstorm ways to expand the reach of the garden as an outdoor classroom. Our STEAM teacher, Mr. Anthony Mays, began visiting other STEAM certified schools to gather ideas. Upon returning, he would meet with me, share the innovations he observed and redeliver to the faculty to get their insights and reach a consensus about what projects truly aligned to our goals and school culture.
With a refined focus on urban agriculture, we had a much better net for attracting the right types of community partners. One of our first partners in this work was Mr. Ryan Dunn who had worked with other metro-Atlanta schools on setting up aquaponics systems where students could grow vegetables that were nourished by the waste from adjacent fish tanks. It was a way to extend our urban agriculture work beyond the gardens and planting boxes. Most importantly, it broadened our student’s exposure to ways that foods are produced. Momentum began to build around this idea of urban farming. Mr. Dunn met with the faculty to discuss how aquaponics provides an opportunity to expose students to the science of food production as well as the economic potential of urban agriculture. He returned to the school later in the week to speak with parents at a PTA meeting. We began to share more information about our focus on urban agriculture in our school newsletter and on our Facebook page. Parents could see what was growing in the garden and what they could do to support our efforts. We received donations of potting soil and plants. A local hardware store donated lumber to build more planting boxes.
Most recently, a staff member reached out to a park ranger who visited the school to assess the campus for planting 10 fruit trees. He determined an ideal location based upon the number of hours of sunlight the trees would need. Installing an orchard of fruit trees would be a lasting investment on the campus that would provide experiences for future students and families for years to come. Our PTA has been especially supportive of this work, adding a line item in the budget in support of STEAM and campus beautification.
We realized that we needed to be intentional about our focus so that it was very clear to a visitor that we are exploring ideas around container gardens, aquaponics, and hydroponics. Fortuitously, our lobby is designed with skylights, creating a space where natural light pours in throughout the entire day. We brought in containers and planted kale, cabbage, basil, and tomatoes. Beyond the lobby, we began to research school-wide growing projects that could be implemented in every classroom with minimal time investment from the teachers. We decided to begin growing sweet potatoes by cutting them in half, partially submerging them in water, and allowing them to take root. Students and teachers can keep data on the growing process and plant them in the garden in the Spring.
The parallels between teaching and farming teach us lessons about ourselves. Urban farming, like teaching, requires a level of resourcefulness. As we have rolled out our school-wide planting projects, you see vast differences in how teachers problem-solve and improvise. One’s ability to find alternative solutions, elicit support, or brainstorm with a team on these projects comes across in their teaching and grade level collaborations as well. Those teachers who are dependent on others to solve their problems or use obstacles as excuses to stall implementation carry that approach into every aspect of their lives. One of my mantras is “Champions don’t make excuses, they make adjustments.” I say this to students over the intercom and to staff members in faculty meetings. Masterful teachers understand that learning is a process of creating the right environment for growth to occur. They understand that certain students grasp concepts quickly and others need a different set of conditions to reach mastery just as certain seeds take longer to germinate than others. With a committed staff and supportive community, we are planting seeds of change.
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.”
I texted, “Amen.”
Another principal texted, “Thank you Father God.”
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.
Black Lives Matter.
But Emotional Intelligence matters too!
Soundtrack: Show Me That You Love by Common
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.