Sunday, May 28, 2017

Scars #KidsDeserveIt

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me"

I have never understood the value in that simple statement.  I have heard it my entire life though, as I'm sure many of you have.  But if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that words do hurt.

Writing has always been a cathartic experience for me.  It affords me the opportunity to communicate my thoughts much more clearly than if I were to express them verbally.  So here goes...

I guess the best way to start out is by expressing what I know many will understand, I am not perfect.  I have never claimed to be "the best" or someone who even "has it all together".  I have a personality type that never feels as if I'm worthy of any recognition I've received for what I've accomplished.  I know it's a personal flaw of mine, but it's something that's always been with me.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not downplaying some of the work that I have been a part of. I'm just saying that despite some successes I've had in my life, I never quite feel like I've done it right.  And I'm reflective.  I'm always seeking feedback, wanting input, and identifying ways that I can be better for next time.

As educators, we are in that type of profession that allows for constant feedback and/or criticism.  You all know what I'm talking about.  That student who tells you suck at life, that parent who tells you that you don't know what you're doing, that colleague who only complains about everything, and that administrator who makes you feel worthless.  We've all experienced at least one of those in this career.

But sometimes, in this role, we get great feedback too!  We hear ideas on ways we can make our lesson better, we are shown examples of resources we can use to better ourselves, or we get that feedback that there are some things that we do that are fantastic.  And those moments put gas in our tanks.  They help us keep pushing along when the nights can feel so dark.

And then just due to timing, we can feel bombarded by the negative.  That was me this week.

Now before I get into this next part, I don't want this to sound like I'm complaining or saying "woe is me".  I promise I'm going somewhere with this.

In "Kids Deserve It" I wrote about someone with whom I used to work with.  Someone who left our team under very dark circumstances.  And when they left they bombarded me constantly through social media, email, and texting about how I was the most terrible person they had ever met.  How I clearly wasn't a Christian.  How I do nothing right and am only placed here to ruin lives.

It brought back memories of being in High School, being a student who NEVER got in trouble, but one day was called into the principal's office and told (by the principal and assistant) that I was a punk kid who was a loser and would never be a leader at the school or in life. 

Though I knew the words they said weren't true.  They have stuck with me to this day.  Years down the road.  And every time I am feeling not so up to par, those words come sneaking back into my mind.

Then this week, I got to experience something like that again.  Three anonymous sources, shared some feedback with me.  And it wasn't your typical feedback.  It was extremely personal, deeply negative, and meant to cut to the bone.  And it crushed me.   And it brought back the memories.

"When the principal sneezes, the whole school gets a cold".  A phrase I often remember.  I always take that phrase to mean that, as the principal, I help set the tone for the school.  My demeanor and attitude can leave ripples felt all day long.

So when I received the crushing feedback on Tuesday (right after spending 4 hours in a dunking booth), I closed my door and cried.  I let it out.  Then I sat there and remembered that my only option was to take what I could from their remarks, learn from them, and put it on the back burner for now while I go out there and be there for the kids.

So I left my office and went out into the school with a smile, with jokes, with hugs, and no one was any the wiser.

And what did I do later that afternoon and evening? I reached out to my support system.  To people who would help me digest the information and not take it so deeply personal.  And it wasn't easy.  At first I didn't want to tell anyone what was said about me.  I was embarrassed.  And on a crazy level, it brought up those memories from the past, and I sat there and thought "maybe all this venom is true".

And now, it's been almost a week.  And every word that was written is still fresh in my mind.  It still hits me throughout the day and tells me "you're a loser", "no one likes you", "you do a terrible job", "you're a terrible person".  And I know these things aren't true.  I know it.  But they're there.

And the funny thing is?  No one in my day to day work life (except my assistant principal Aaron) knew what I had read about myself.  But the week was capped off with little reminders here and there from staff, from students, from parents, and from my own family who helped remind me of the worth I bring.  Who helped me refocus myself.

So I share all of this for several reasons.  

I share my story to hopefully give some hope to those who are going through something similar.  You are not alone. 

I share my story to remind you that we have to lean on others in times of despair.  And I am the toughest one to get that through my head, because I never want to add to anyone's already busy lives.  But we CAN'T do this alone. And I know without the support of my friends this week, I wouldn't have made it through.

And finally, I share this story to remind us all that words matter.  That wounds left from hateful speech, aren't wounds that heal.  They often leave scars that never go away.  But we can let those scars be reminders that we were strong enough to survive.

I know life, and experiences, are all about perspective.  And I try to keep my focus on the things that I have to be thankful for.  The experiences (good and bad) that have taught me so much.  To keep leaning on my friends around me.

Feedback is important, criticism is important, reflection is important.  But there is a way to do that so that we all can grow better together.

We all have wounds.  We all have scars.  I myself have been guilty of saying or doing things that I knew have left scars in someone else's life and I have tried to make amends for those moments I was made aware of.

But today, my encouragement and reminder to us all, is to think through what we say and do before it's something we can't take back.  And if it's too late, if it's already out there, take the time to find that person and apologize. And mean it.

Scars don't heal, but we can learn from them and become better.  And today, I choose to be better.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Counting Down #KidsDeserveIt

This post was co-written with Roman Nowak.

On social media, so often we see posts of countdowns to the weekend, Christmas, Spring Break, summer; it is usually accompanied by elation and celebration. As students and educators, we often can’t wait until there is a break from school. Why is that? We know it’s because we work HARD!  Education is a tireless job and the breaks are something we look forward to and desperately need.

This “tradition” has been around for many decades. We don’t know about you, but we can definitely remember our teachers keeping track of countdowns. In many cases it isn’t done with a negative intention; however this seemingly harmless practice can have profound consequences.  

You may have heard the phrase “perception is reality”; think about it, when someone online, who is not an educator, sees us gleefully posting about how much we can’t wait for a break, what message does that send? What about to the parents of the children we serve?  It sends a message of “these kids are driving me insane and I need a break” or “Woe is me, my job is so much harder than others so I deserve this break”.  Now don’t get us wrong, teachers do work hard. We work harder than most realize and with many unpaid hours.  But again, what message do we really want to be putting out there?

Let’s have a quick comparison with anyone who has ever trained a dog. We are taught with dogs to be conscious of our tone of voice. When disciplining a dog for a bad action, we should not use a pleasant voice, because a dog will associate that with good behavior. This of course is possible because of that pleasant tone we use to praise a dog. We are also taught to be repetitive with dogs. In order for behaviour to be learned, it must be constantly addressed.

Now let’s come back to school. Hypothetically, from a young age, teachers put down that innocent countdown on a blackboard or a bulletin board. Also regularly, when referring to that countdown, a pleasant and often exciting voice is used by the teacher. Students in turn mimic that pleasant voice and share their excitement from that break from school. We all need breaks because we feel tired, overworked, and uninspired. But we think that maybe instead we should be building up a pleasant tone with the amount of time we have left!

I don’t know about you, but we’ve had those teachers who talk about how they can’t wait to be out of this school.  How they deserve this break.  And as a student, I (Todd) remember a teacher once telling us just that, and somehow, in someway, I felt like the problem.  I felt like it was my fault the teacher was counting down the day until she could rid herself of me and my classmates.

I (Roman) also had a similar experience. As a child, I loved school. It was a place to learn new things, to meet new people and to escape reality that wasn’t always fun. I knew that no matter what, with the teachers that were there, I was in a safe place where I could shine and be recognized. Every time teachers would put up that countdown, I would always feel a sense of being weird and different. While most were like the teachers, happy to be escaping school, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be in my “fun place” for the summer. These made me feel inadequate. I couldn’t share what I felt because no one would understand. Unbeknownst to be, I kept this tradition alive in my early years of teaching.

This is where our disappointment comes in; disappointment for two reasons. First, we all have been guilty of this practice in our careers. Second, disappointment because the very job we chose out of love for learning and teaching has so many students and teachers celebrating the end moment instead of focusing on the here and now.

And that’s the kind of countdowns we now need to hold in our offices and classrooms.  Not countdowns that celebrate the moment we get to “escape”, but instead countdowns that celebrate the moments we have left. Even more, why not start a count up until the beginning of the next school year, where greater learning adventures and fun will take place? Where all of us, kids and adults alike, will grow together as a family.

Our world is so filled with turmoil and pain.  As educators we are held to a different (and sometimes unfair) standard.  So even though it may seem like a countdown to summer is innocent, we have to take a step back and evaluate.  What is the message we’re sending, even unintentionally?

We know that the message we want to send is that every moment matters.  That even though we look forward to time with our families and time to decompress, we know that at school, that is a child’s safe place.  A child’s place to feel valued, important, worthy, and get the best education possible.

Let’s not countdown the moments until we have a break, and instead starting today, let’s countdown the moments that we have left to make a difference in the lives before us.  Our #KidsDeserveIt.