We Don’t Love These Holes: Embracing and Overcoming Resistance

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:

  1. Analyze the situational factors
  2. Determine the optimal speed for change
  3. 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.

Seeds of Change: How Urban Agriculture is Growing Our School

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.  

Principals on the Prayer Line

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.”

Creating Spaces that Nourish Youth Activism

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?”

Emotional Intelligence Matters

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.

Cowardly Aggression

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.

I.Q. matters.

Black Lives Matter.

But Emotional Intelligence matters too!

(*This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Principals Don’t Walk on Water)

Soundtrack: Show Me That You Love by Common

Trouble the Waters: Beaches, Barriers and Legacies of Overcoming at Jekyll Island

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.

Camp Jekyll

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.

Overcoming Barriers

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.

The Lost Art of Diplomacy

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.

Bronx 1971

Diplomacy can even be linked to the start of Hip-Hop culture. Rolling Stone published an interview in 2015 where they referenced Benjy Melendez’s book “Ghetto Brother”. The book describes how a meeting at the Bronx Boys Club in 1971 triggered the diplomacy between gangs. The outcomes included b-boy battles and rap battles in the Bronx between rivals as an alternative to street violence. The first chapter of my book, The Mountain Principles, is titled “Master the Lost Art of Diplomacy”. There’s a reason why I placed this at the beginning of my book. Diplomacy is so critical to our success as school leaders. Diplomacy has truly become a lost art in our culture. In a political climate where diplomacy seems to be waning, we have to instill in our young people the value of peacefully resolving conflict.

Team Accountability

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

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.

The Other Side

Sometimes I 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.

Soundscape: Gil Scott Heron, The Other Side

The Courage to Fight


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.

Snip20181026_11People 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. 

Edgar Albert Guest