Creating Fences (Feb. 12, 2022)
When it comes to raising children, we are always building fences-sometimes to protect them and sometimes to guide them. Most often, your first fence goes up when your toddlers become mobile. Their goal is to see how many electrical sockets they can stick their fingers in and how many sharp edges of furniture they can collide with. And so,we baby proof our homes. It protects them from themselves and cuts down on awkward questions from doctors in the ER room.
As children get older, we seem to forget the effectiveness of building fences and replace them with endless streams of verbal directions. While conversations, instructions, and threats of consequences all have their place in the parenting hall of fame, it can get exhaustive.
In Paul Schenk’s little known classic “Great Ways To Sabotage a Good Conversation,” he talks about how the misuse of words can lead to unintended reactions and the opposite of what you were hoping to address. When you say to a child: Don’t touch the cookes, s/he will most likely ignore “don’t” and focus on the cookies. You have literally directed attention to the desirable sugar rush. It would be better to put the cookies out of reach or hide them in the pantry (which is what my wife does to prevent me from eating the cashews meant for cooking).
Fences allow you to prevent the undesired behavior by creating an environment in which it could not even happen. When we are addressing challenges at school, we will often ask ourselves if there is a fence we can create to eliminate the behavior without constant monitoring. It is how we resolved the issue of late arrivals. By posting a staff person at the door to let students in and provide them with the tardy slips until 8:00, we eliminated inconveniencing parents, no longer dealt with parents pulling a drop and run, and were able to get students to class more quickly.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of creating fences is that it forces you to think more strategically about whatever challenge you are having with your child. You need to identify the root of the problem in order to come up with a plan. You then get to act instead of react. The art of fence building is to be focused on the end goal while guiding your children along the way.
Celebrating Black History Month (Feb. 5, 2022)
At the end of the musical Hamilton, his widow worries about whether her husband’s legacy is going to be remembered as Alexander Hamilton’s enemies attempt to write him out of history. She acknowledges the harsh reality that it comes down to “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Sometimes, it is less about one’s accomplishments than it is about whether historians deem it worthy to record.
Across the country, debates are stirring up emotions as Americans struggle with what books can be used in schools and how to address the issue of race. People are afraid that ideas they do not agree with will infringe on their rights to choose what is appropriate for their children. The outcome of these debates will determine how facts and viewpoints are framed for years to come. It comes down to who will get to write the definitive story of what is happening during this tumultuous time.
Schools are finding themselves in the midst of a minefield of conflicting views that represent diverse communities of thoughts. Amidst the often angry exchange of ideas between parents, school board members, politicians, and religious leaders, educators must navigate a course that allows students to access the resources they need to come to their own conclusions. The challenge is to provide an education that is equitable, objective, and free from bias which is not a simple task for mere mortals.
Having said that, there are times when schools must take the lead in ensuring that the values of freedom, equality, and justice are ever present if our nation is to become all that it aspires to be- a light unto the world and a lamp beside the golden door. In John McCain’s famous concession speech, his supporters voiced their displeasure at the acknowledgement of his loss. McCain, silenced them pronouncing:
Tonight … more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president…. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history…
McCain’s bold statement that “we make history” resounds now more than ever. This is the reason why the celebration of Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian/Pacific History Month are important events in the calendar of our school. We pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants but our history books have not always been inclusive of the contributions of people of color and of women. These months are opportunities to write back into history the narratives which have been left out. It does not diminish what has traditionally been taught; it fills in the gaps of what has been missing thereby enriching the story of our country.
And so we begin Black History Month. We celebrate the contributions of African Americans in the building of our country by bringing their stories and struggles into the classrooms.
Through this process and that of other history months, we are writing the remarkable contributions of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women back into history so that moving forward, our nation’s legacy will consist of the stories of many peoples that have contributed to its greatness. Who lives, who dies, who tells our stories…we do.
The Iceberg Theory (Jan. 29, 2022)
Growing up, many of my first memories were of my sister who was a year younger than me. She grew normally until about the age of one when her mental development suddenly came to a halt. Eventually, it was determined that my sister was mentally retarded which is not a label used anymore. As her big brother, I did not pay attention to her wild temper tantrums or her erratic behaviors. She was my first playmate who I spun endlessly on the tire swing. But, there were other memories as well such as watching the anguish of my father chasing off neighborhood children who were feeding her grass through the backyard fence. When my parents realized that they could only do so much (there were no public education options at that time), they made the one of the hardest decisions of their lives. Using the meager funds they had, they placed her in the hands of the staff of a wonderful home for developmentally disabled children where she began to progress, finally uttering her first words at the age of five. My parents had prepared me for the day that she would move to Angel’s Haven. As a five year old, I did not know what that meant until I walked into my home that afternoon and heard silence for the first time in my life. My sister with all of her frenzied energy was no longer there and the impact formed what is still one of my strongest memories. Every Sunday, we would pack up the car to spend the day with her. I would remember people laughing at her eccentricities and I would be both angry and embarrassed at the same time. I grew used to hearing the kids at school calling each other “retarded” as if there was something wrong with that person. I stopped trying to correct them and just kept the pain locked up inside of me. To this day, I struggle with controlling my reaction when witnessing students being intentionally hurtful to each other. It stirs up memories of my sister that are hidden inside me.
There is a concept called the iceberg theory. Icebergs are floating ice masses. Only about ten percent of the iceberg is visible, while the other 90 percent remains hidden below the surface. The iceberg becomes a metaphor for many of the people who pass through our lives. We only see the surface image of that person, under which are hidden deeper feelings that are only revealed or apparent to those who are closest to him/her. Each of us tries to mask feelings, emotions, and beliefs…worried about how others might judge us. It is easier to hide your thoughts beneath the waters than risk rejection. As parents and teachers, it is a powerful visual that can be used to not always immediately react to our children’s behaviors before evaluating what might be really going on below the surface. When babies cry, we try not to react to the screams until we analyze what they don’t have the words to share: I hurt, I’m hungry, I’m tired, I want to be held. We’re so good at this type of assessment when they are young and then forget to apply those same analytical skills as they get older.
This coming week, our student leaders have developed a series of activities focused on the dangers of name calling. Each child carries inside them the fear of being targeted as being different because of the way they look, their dietary practices, their tics, their preferences, or their religious identity; which is why the focus on the dangers of name calling have to be addressed. We don’t know what hurt is being inflicted unless we look deeper. I know at least one kid, pained by hearing the word retarded used in offensive manners, that could have benefited from such a school program.
Managing Expectations (Jan. 22, 2022)
I was working with a parent volunteer a few years back who had four children, two of which had significant learning challenges. They struggled in school and I knew it weighed heavy on her. It so happened one day that we fell into a conversation in which I asked her how she seemed to cope with things so calmly. Her response was brilliant and it shaped my own life philosophy and how we raised our children: The secret to happiness is managing your expectations.
It does not mean that you set the bar low to the ground but by setting attainable goals, you take pressure off yourself and you take pressure off of your children.
When we were raising our daughters, we would tell them that we had been fortunate enough to have three normal average kids. They were told that our only expectation was that they needed to try their best. If they struggled, we would help them and if they exceeded our expectations then we’d be pleasantly surprised. And we were often pleasantly surprised.
As young adults, their friends would often be appalled when our daughters gleefully shared that they grew up being told they were normal kids that were not any more special than anyone else. It did not seem like good parenting. But our kids supported the approach we took because they never felt pressured to excel by their parents. The pressure to achieve came from themselves.
Psychologist Wendy Mogul writes, “Some parents use their children’s achievements for their own sense of security, personal glory, or the fulfillment of unfulfilled dreams. Even parents who don’t use their children as a hedge against existential fears or a badge of their own worth can find it hard not to succumb to the fever of competition.”
When you manage the expectations you have in regard to your children, it allows them the time to develop into who THEY want to be. It takes away the pressure to succeed they can feel as to not disappoint their parents. There is a saying “If your child has the talent to be a baker, don’t force him/her to be a doctor.” In other words, permit your sons and daughters to find their own way by supporting them on the journey to adulthood.
The secret to happiness is managing your expectations so your children can learn to set their own.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jan. 15, 2022)
People can lose perspective during these times of upheaval. The focus is on the here and now which is totally understandable. So, it is fortuitous that in the midst of the latest wave of the pandemic, the nation will be stopping to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and all that he stood for.
One of the things that made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so unique was his ability to articulate a vision by which to guide the actions of the civil rights movement. He inspired others to come forth and he pushed our nation’s leaders to pass legislation that would guarantee equal rights for all.
Vision is the ability to see what the world might look like and imagine a better future. Lots of organizations have missions and visions but that is different from those of individuals. We all need to have visions for ourselves, our families, and our careers.
To do that we have to slow down and reflect on where we are and where we want to be. There also needs to be a plan on how to effect the changes you envision. According to Sanjiva Weerawarana, a long time CEO of software companies, a vision is more than just about moving forward. It involves passion, personal investments, and the ability to evolve your thinking. And you have to be able to clearly articulate your vision.
Dr. King lived through a period of darkness and despair. He was able to rise above those times to see a better tomorrow.
We can learn much from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of which is the importance of having our visions. You can’t lose sight of the big picture. Think about what kind of people you want your children to be; about the kind of career that will make you happy, and how you can effect change to world problems.
MLK Day comes along at the right moment in time to encourage us to think beyond what is going on right now and look ahead to what things can be.
Be inspired to have visions. Be inspired to create a timeline. And avoid getting lost in the quagmire in which we currently live.
So close your eyes and look to the future. A new reality begins with a vision.
Our nation is forever indebted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his wisdom, his actions, and his vision.
Focusing on What You Can Control (Jan. 8, 2022)
We do our best to raise our children to be successful, happy, and prepared for whatever comes their way. We promise to do things different from our parents and are then surprised when we catch ourselves saying or doing the same things they did. To do the best for our children, we read parenting books, go to workshops, and commiserate at birthday parties and soccer games. And many of you count on your schools to help out with the raising of your kids.
Sometimes, the advice really works. But when nothing seems to be helping you address a concern with your children, you begin to wonder if it is you. And the reality is that it probably is you, but not in the way you think. The fact is that you can’t always control what your child is doing but what you can control is how you react and respond. And that takes practice and a lot of counting to ten. It is easier said than done.
Tim Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner who was wildly successful as a college football quarterback. However, when he continued on to the NFL, he was faced with a number of challenges including skepticism about his talent. Tebow played for a number of teams, tried major baseball, and also became a sports commentator. His career never took off how he had hope. In dealing with his disappointments and his perseverance, he said:
“Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Our focus and energy needs to be on the things we CAN control. Attitude, effort, focus- these are the things we can control…”
So here we are, again, opening up our doors in the midst of a pandemic. As December began, we were talking about field trips for the spring. We allowed parent volunteers to come in for school parties. And we talked about making masking voluntary. It was starting to feel normal again. Yet, one month later, we opened remotely and will be back to the strict adherence to the safety protocols necessary to protect the entire community as we begin face to face learning.
The toll on our parents, students, and staff is immeasurable. But we can’t control the root cause of why this is happening right now. We can only focus on what we can control.
- Attitude- We will remain positive in the belief that this will come to an end and that for now we need to accept what can’t be changed and concentrate on what we can control.
- Effort- We will direct our energies towards moving forward with learning and creating the most normative environment as possible.
- Focus- We need to remind ourselves always that we must place the emotional health and physical safety of our children at the top of our priority list. AND we must focus on our own well being as well.
So, our doors are opening on a new year and with a positive attitude, determined effort, and clear focus. We will take it one day at a time.
The Season of Giving (December 11, 2021)
When my children were young, I was determined to overwhelm them with gifts during the holiday season. And by gifts, I meant the real deal. My family was not well off growing up. You can imagine the joy my sisters and I felt when it was time for sock night or underwear night or Aunt Dorothy Night (my sisters got her daughters’ hand me downs). No, no, no…I would not repeat the horrors of my upbringing. So, my wife and I went all out when the kids were young until one fateful Chanukah night. My middle child received a coveted Winnie the Pooh treehouse and began screaming bloody murder because apparently she liked what her sister got better. And that was when reality set in.
We realized that it was no longer about the spirit of giving. Instead, we had created a spirit of getting. So, my wife and I took a step back to reevaluate our priorities. If this was meant to be a season of joy, celebration, and sharing; we needed a reset on our values.
Instead of focusing on gifting, we began to focus on family. We baked cookies for nursing homes and sang songs while we were there. We had a lights night where we drove around town admiring all the displays. We had a movie night and invited friends over for a party. And we gave them ONE big gift…just one. (We did revive sock night in acknowledgement of the fact that maybe my parents had it right after all.) The real miracle of the season was that with the adjustment of focus, the holidays became much more meaningful. To this day, we still give just one gift and spend the rest of the time just being together, be it in person or by facetime (sigh…they grew up!)
Whether it is Christmas, Chanukah, Diwali, Kwanza, or Ramadon Eid; the real gifts are not the material ones. It will not be the Baby Yoda they remember twenty years from now; it will be what you do as a family and how you spent your time meaningfully.
May we all enjoy the true spirit of the season: love, faith, and family.
Building Covered Walkways (December 8, 2021)
We started the year with hope and an excitement about being back in the classrooms. We were prepared for the challenges of addressing learning gaps and helping children reacclimate to the school routine. We were not as prepared for the behavior changes that resulted from children being away from school for over a year and a half. It has taken us some time to begin to reestablish norms. Slowly but surely, however, things are beginning to move forward with the help of patient administrators, understanding teachers, and supportive parents. It has been quite a year to date.
But what we are now discovering is the impact that the pandemic has had on the mental well being of our students. I have seen more children being referred for issues related to suicidal thoughts this year than in the sum total of all of my 30 plus years in K-8 environments. Fortunately, most of the children who have been evaluated are not at risk but the fact that they are using concerning language has been a major wake up call to the mental well being of our children.
We have hired a social worker to assist us in meeting with a number of children who we see are struggling or just trying to find their way. Some of our children are unsure of themselves; they are also more questioning of the world around them. This is a long term challenge and we have to be addressing this issue with long term solutions.
It is more important than ever for schools to foster safety networks to support children who are more vulnerable than ever before. The pandemic has damaged our nation both physically and emotionally. As adults, many of us have had difficulty processing the impact of COVID-19 has had on us. Imagine how much more difficult it is has been to be a child: sitting home for over a year staring at school through a screen, cut off from family gatherings, constantly being masked, having to be told to stay home due to exposures, disappointed about not going to summer camp, having trips and vacations cancelled or altered, and being separated from at risk relatives. Children can be quite resilient but they cannot help but be impacted each in their own way.
To move forward as a school, the social emotional well being of our children has to be a priority. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs are essential to providing children with coping skills, fostering empathy, and processing things in a positive manner. SEL has to be placed on equal footing with content mastery, innovation, and design thinking. To be able to learn, children have to feel safe in their environment. They need to know when to ask for guidance and where to turn for help. We are fortunate to have a program in which SEL is built into our daily schedule but it has to be done with fidelity. Our school is also working on a new concept in which children will identify someone in the school that they consider a trusted adult that they can turn to. And, we will be training our staff in how to respond when a child comes to them seeking support.
At home, parents must make time for their children. You may have to be more purposeful in fostering those loving relationships that children are so dependent upon. Your children have to feel safe in sharing their feelings and to sense the unconditional love they need to develop into healthy adults. Just like schools need to spend time on SEL, parents need to do so as well.
For the first five years, FAST students and staff had to endure the pouring rain during carpool and while moving between building It was not fun but we all survived. Now, we have covered walkways and it has made a huge difference to our physical comfort. The sky is not falling and our children will ultimately be okay but for now, we need to be building emotional covered walkways as well.
The school is currently preparing for a morning FAST Chat that will focus on the emotional well being of our children. It will alert parents to the warning sides of when a child begins having dark thoughts and what to do. We hope that some of you can join us for this conversation and others to follow. It is just one of several initiatives we are undertaking in support of our children in these uncertain times.
“It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that means that raising children in a safe and healthy environment is a communal effort. Now more than ever we must be really present and available for our kids.
Happy Thanksgiving Y’all (Nov. 13, 2021)
Four hundred years ago, Pilgrims arrived in America seeking the freedom to worship free of persecution. They were the first of many immigrants to come to this land. As Neil Diamond belted out so beautifully: Everywhere around the world/They’re coming to America/Every time that flag’s unfurled/They’re coming to America/Got a dream to take them there/They’re coming to America/Got a dream they’ve come to share/They’re coming to America.
Beginning in the mid- 1800’s, immigrants began to arrive in massive waves- the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine; the Germans leaving after the promise of political reforms failed; the Jews escaping pogroms and oppression; each group coming with its own story of despair to a new land filled with promise.
Others were brought here in shackles, not out of choice but because they were seen as commodities. Forced to endure slavery, they had to build a new way of life founded in family, fellowship, and faith.
Whatever the politics, immigration continues to this very day. People wanting to come to America seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The reasons have not changed. They are escaping persecution and oppressive regimes, yearning to reunite with families, hoping to feed their loved ones, exploring economic opportunities, and seeking to worship as they choose.
Thanksgiving is a reminder that for all the differences we have, there is so much more that we have in common. We have all been strangers in a strange land. Our paths to this country are therefore interconnected. This unique holiday is a time to reflect on what we are grateful for and what our country has the potential to become…not a melting pot but a salad bowl filled with many flavors.
Our school is also a reminder of what we have in common. Diversity is not just part of our mission. It is something we live every day. As one staff member once observed: If you see two children of the same background walking together, it is purely a coincidence. As our students get older, they become more aware of their differences amidst the backdrop of a world in turmoil. Issues arise which are typical in the older grades but there is a difference. In our unique environment where diversity is a value, there is no choice but to work together to explore issues and seek understanding.
The activities in which our No Place for Hate Committee engage our community are addressing topics that students have identified as areas they want to work on. This year, they are focused on addressing symbols of hate, telling stories of personal experiences, focusing on the hurtfulness of name calling, and discussing these topics openly. Student Council has become a place where students work together on projects to better the community around us.
Walking the halls of our school and watching our students at play, I see what the world has the potential to be. We live by the tenet of being many communities-one people for which there is reason for hope.
During the coming days, we will celebrate Heritage Week when we celebrate many of the over 50 cultures and nations from which we come, culminating with a Thanksgiving assembly where we will celebrate our oneness as Americans. International Night will tie it all up that evening before a well anticipated vacation.
I came to FAST because I was offered a job but being here has changed me. It has made me more aware and culturally sensitive. It has made me a better person. I always knew America was a nation of immigrants but at FAST I have come to truly understand what that means. I would not trade the experience of being at this school for anything. And for that I give thanks.
Protecting the Children While Respecting the Boundaries (Nov. 6, 2021)
When I was growing up, one of the worst labels that could be thrown at a kid was that of being called gay, fag, queer, or homo. The very thought of being tagged with that persona was something that every pre-teen and teenager feared. More so, the terror of being outed weighed heavy on those who actually knew or thought that they were in fact gay or bi-sexual.
Much has changed with the mainstreaming of sympathetic portrayals of characters in popular books, movies, and television shows. There are now prominent lawmakers and entertainers who do not shy away from sharing who they are. And many people have experienced a relative or friend coming out as being gay. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriage is legal. 70% of the nation now supports same sex marriage including 55% of those who identify as Republicans.
But, that does not necessarily translate into middle schools and high schools today. Much of those same labels used to embarrass or hurt fellow classmates continues unabated. Students still fear being called names or being outed for good reason. In our recent staff training on suicide prevention, we learned that four times as many gay teenagers are likely to attempt to end their lives due to depression and fear.
The challenge that schools face has not changed either. Our families come from many different backgrounds and for reasons ranging from religious to cultural and political do not consider homosexuality to be an acceptable option. What may be acceptable in some states is not going to be acceptable in other regions of our nation. When these lines are crossed, board of education meetings become a battleground of contention in which different community values collide.
As educators, we risk crossing a line by contradicting the differing values and beliefs of parents who are entrusting their children’s education to us. It is a line that continues to move but it still exists and will continue to do so.
A few years ago, we had an incident at FAST in which a student had begun the process of transitioning from a female to a male. The child entered the girl’s restroom where a confrontation took place. Middle school girls surrounded the student and began to taunt her/him because of the child’s appearance and chased this person from the bathroom. Upon being made aware of this, alternative arrangements were made for this student to use the faculty restroom. The staff also met with the entire grade to share that while we are composed of students from many backgrounds with differing values, it was unacceptable to attack someone for who they were and that every child deserves to feel safe coming to school. The message was received but for that child who was already struggling, only the onset of COVID and remote learning allowed for the completion of his studies at FAST.
What is happening now at FAST is what prompts me to write this blog. The labels continue to be used when staff is not in earshot to embarrass other children. Whether it is in jest or out of a middle schooler’s attempt to just be hurtful, it continues to take place and the targets of this name calling shudder when it happens. But a subtle change is also taking place. Other students are coming forth to say it bothers them. And we know there are children at school right now that are coming to grips with their sexual identity. They are deathly afraid to talk about it out of fear of peer repercussions or out of concern for the conflicts it possesses with the values they are being raised with and wish to continue respecting. I do not wish these children to become the next suicide statistics.
So what do we do to protect all of our children while not overstepping the boundaries we must respect in terms of religious and cultural values? We begin with keeping this fine line in mind as we work on a fundamental principle of any school: No child should ever be afraid to come to school out of the fear of being labeled or taunted for who they are. Using terms of “gay” or “bi” as a slur has to be treated the same way as using racial vulgarities. It is unacceptable. We have to teach our children that while they may not agree with a lifestyle, they cannot be disrespectful of it, for the sake of human decency. We must train our staff to be more aware of the dangers of such labeling and to be cognizant of our responsibility to create a safe place in which to learn. And we must help students identify trusted adults at school in which they can confide. In other words, we must provide lifelines for each of our students regardless of what they might be struggling with including family problems, illness of loved ones, conflicts with friends, self-identification, and financial challenges.
Discussions about such matters as LGBTQ Awareness month and support clubs are not on the table at this time. To do so in a community where there is such a diversity of values would be overstepping our role. But when it comes to the physical and psychological well being of our children, there is no line we will not cross to keep them safe and free of fear. I recognize that this blog will not make anyone happy because I either have not gone far enough or I have gone too far. My own personal/religious values have to be kept in check if I am to run a school with respect for all of our families.
Two decades ago, Matthew Shephard was tied to a prairie fence in Wyoming, tortured and then left to die because of the baseless hate for a young man whose only crime was to be gay. We cannot and will not raise a generation of children capable of such hatred. This is where we draw the line and this is why we must be engaged in work of the acceptance of those who may be different. I hope you will partner with us in the messaging we must stress. It begins with the words we use and with standing up for those who are being targeted.
Mixed Messages and Consistent Actions (Oct. 30, 2021)
When I was a young boy, my grandfather asked his grandchildren what kind of pet we’d like. Two of the families went for rabbits and one asked for a guinea pig, unbeknownst to our parents. At the next weekly gathering, 2 rabbits and a rodent appeared, to the horror of the adults. It was not a pretty scene as our parents grimaced while the grandchildren squealed with joy. It was a classic case of parental authority being undermined by well meaning grandparents. We all have stories of the kind aunt who buys her favorite niece a drum set or the cool uncle who drives up on a motorcycle and shouts “Who wants a ride?”
Being a parent, you set your rules and then spend the rest of those childrearing years fending off the family disruptors and the mixed messages from social media and popular shows where parents are so much cooler. And then, you must deal with different approaches from your partner in how to parent and try to avoid being labeled the mean parent. When my wife and I were struggling with the obstinance of our lovable but very independent first born, we decided on therapy over giving her up for adoption. We learned to our dismay that we were part of the problem because we were giving her mixed messages and had to work on consistency. It worked and she is now a successful lawyer so it was worth the copay.
Being parents, you have to be consistent in your messaging and actions. You also have to continue to touch base on the boundaries set as children grow, situations change, and societal norms continue to evolve. If you give mixed messages to your children, they get confused and upset. They also may learn how to manipulate their parents. As I have shared before, children watch what you do as much as what you say. Family communication will never be perfect but it can be pretty good if parents are on the same page and can process together when things go awry.
By now, you’re probably nodding your heads or telling your spouse “I told you so.” But not so fast because just like you, schools play a big role in the parenting of your children.
Schools have the same challenges as parents do when it comes to establishing our rules. At school, we set boundaries for such things as how to dress, cell phones, behavior, computer time, and even food selection (example: candy is not a food group). And consistency is always a struggle because teachers have different approaches as well and as administrators it is something we work on with our faculty. What we can’t control is the “grandparent effect” coming from the outside. If our parents do not support our rules, it provides students with mixed messages which can filter back to home life.
We struggle with what happens when well meaning parents undermine the boundaries we are trying to set at school such as asking children to call them at a certain time when cell phones are not allowed. To further illustrate and to subtly ask for your help as our parenting partners, I want to share an example of something we are now dealing with. Because we want consistency, we have established the rule that children may not wear sweatshirts or fleeces to school that are not part of our uniform code. That is for indoors and outdoors. It has been shared with parents and students and reminders go out periodically (we even texted everyone this past week.) The reason for this policy is that our students come from many socio-economic levels and not every kid can afford a Patagonia or North face or Nike product.
But as the year has gone on and the weather is changing, we are seeing more children, especially older students, violate that rule. Most of them know that they are going to break dress code but they still put on the item, grab their breakfast, and get transported to school. If they are lucky they might get away with it. Sometimes, I have spoken to parents about their frequent offender and have been told: I told her that if she wore that to school she’d get in trouble. But here’s the challenge. If you do not check what your child is wearing to school, you are giving them permission to break the rules. It makes our job harder to do as well as yours because they learn that they can manipulate the situation and get away with breaking a rule. When I have spoken to students about it, most of them readily admit that they know what they are doing when they choose what to wear in the morning.
The school is trying to be consistent. As educators, we co-parent your children and therefore need your help by supporting the rules we have in place. In the end, if we want our children to grow into responsible adults, we must teach them to respect the rules of the home, the rules of other people’s homes, the rules of being in a house of worship, the rules of obeying laws, and the rules established by schools.
Will helping us enforce our dress code, cell phone policy, and food protocols going to change the world? Well, yes it will. Just a little bit. Consistency, good communications, and respect for one another is the foundation for good parenting at home and at school.
The Lies They Tell (Oct. 23, 2021)
As a principal, I confront lying on a regular basis. When a child gets caught doing something wrong, s/he often starts out by denying that it was his/her fault. Children can be very convincing with their emphatic insistence on a version of the facts that don’t exist. They tear up; they evoke righteous indignation at the very accusation itself; they provide an alternate version of the story.
When trying to get to the bottom of a transgression, I always begin by sharing that if they lie about what happened, they will get into far more trouble than just confessing. I explain that it is far easier to tell the truth. You will still get in trouble but it will only be for what you did wrong. If you lie, you face the consequences of two offenses instead of one. Often, it is after a few moments of weighing the options, they choose to come clean.
Lying is a defense mechanism and it is a common enough occurence that we have to require a hand upon the bible in a court of law to remind people that the truth must be told.
We want our kids to be honest but we then send mixed messages. We are told that a “white lie” is okay because it protects a person from hurt. So, it becomes alright to say that Aunt Dina’s new dress looks great on her when it doesn’t. As adults, our children sometimes catch us not telling the truth or stretching a story.
Teaching children to be honest is one of the most important life skills you can impart to them and could very well protect them from harm. They have to know that being honest when they’ve done wrong will not be the end of the world. You don’t want them to fear the consequences of their behaviors to the point that they’d rather lie than deal with the reaction. When your children reach their teenage years, you need them to feel that it is okay to tell you that they need a ride home because they drank at a party. You want them to feel safe sharing that they are having dark thoughts or that someone touched them inappropriately. If you create a relationship in which your children feel safe enough to be honest, it might very well save their lives.
To do this, you must make honesty an important value. As a parent, you have to balance consequences for bad choices by reinforcing the fact that by telling the truth, children become trustworthy. When lying starts to be a pattern, it becomes an obstacle to building sustainable relationships as adults because it erodes the fundamental foundation of trust.
As parents and educators, it is incumbent upon us to embed the value of honesty in our children if they are to have the best chance of living successful, happy lives filled with healthy relationships.
What No-One Saw Coming (Oct. 16, 2021)
We began the year excited for our school to be returning to a face to face platform. Masked-yes, but in person. The children were thrilled to be back; many of them had not been in a classroom for almost a year and a half. As a staff we were prepared for addressing learning losses and filling in gaps while moving forward as we had done in the past. The conversations during staff training week were mostly about learning loss and acceleration; we also discussed how important the social emotional component would be. But there was one huge thing that was missed while we were planning and projecting our priorities. We didn’t see it coming, nobody did, but the writing was on the wall. And it is happening across the country in almost every school.
Not long after school began, we noticed an uptick in behaviors not typical of our bus riders. Upper school students were uncharacteristically abusing their devices and not taking care of them. Students were taking every chance they had to open their laptops to sneak in some gaming. And while not significant overall, we noted an increase in physical confrontations and inappropriate comments being made. It was clear that a lot of wonderful kids who we know well were regressing in their behaviors and self control. Our attention was drawn to trying to figure out why this was occurring and how we could address this to stymy disruptive behaviors and get our children back on track. Our attention began to focus on why it was happening and create strategies to meet the challenges.
What we were seeing was the impact of children attending school from their homes for a significant period of time. Snacks were available whenever they wanted a break. Children could wander from room to room and they could multitask their learning with gaming at the same time (which, by the way, is not a good combo.) And adult figures were often in the background if present at all for our older students. And so they unlearned social graces, grew dependent on gaming and social media, and got used to not having to follow directions or attending to tasks to benefit the whole class.
And then our bathrooms became a source of frustration with toilets being clogged with paper and rolls of TP undone and left on the floors or stalls. Thus we discovered the final ingredient working against a return to normal routine: social media. TikTok challenges were promoting disruption in schools and disrespectful behaviors towards peers and teachers. Scenes from Squid Games began filtering onto Youtube where children can watch killing be treated as normative. Students were (and still are) actually being encouraged to do hurtful thoughtless things and posting the results.
At first, we wondered if it was just us but we have learned that we have been witnessing is happening across the nation as students who had become used to the casualness of learning from home were now being expected to just return to routines without throwing up resistance.
Here is the good news: THE SKY IS NOT FALLING and we are not all DOOMED! Our administrators and teachers have been breaking down the behaviors into higher and lower priorities in order to reintroduce routine. When bathrooms were vandalized, we talked to our students about how it was making our cleaning staff feel as people who came to America for a better life and who take their jobs seriously. AND it stopped happening. We have 50 students meeting weekly in the student council to work on bettering the school and 25 students meeting weekly for No Place to Hate to discuss how to address bullying, name calling, intolerance, and aggression by planning activities and promoting a caring community. Our staff is meeting one on one with students to change behaviors through building relationships. We have hired a social worker to help children struggling with adjustment and depression and an executive function coach to make up for lost time in building organizational skills. It is not easy work but we now know what we are dealing with. We understand the roots of the issues. And we know what we are up against with social media. The board has also been supportive by recently approving the hiring of more paraprofessionals to allow for more coverage and staff presence.
FAST is seeing progress being made because of our approach of breaking down a big challenge into more manageable pieces and prioritizing. We have been incredibly blessed with the parent response as well. You are equally concerned about how to get our children back on track. We are fortunate to have a student body that wants to be part of the solutions. It does take a village to raise a child and that is what we are doing, patiently, with purpose, and in partnership with our families.
Tomorrow is just a day away.
The Astros’ Philosophy (Oct. 9, 2021)
Amidst all the ups and downs of operating a school during the pandemic, FAST kicked off its inaugural season of middle sports starting with soccer. The FAST Astros team was composed of boys and girls of different skill levels. Some had never played before while others were seasoned athletes who had played for years. They practiced in the rain. They practiced on our mini field and across the street at the church. And then the season began. We were filled with hope but the scores did not go our way. Surprisingly, nobody seemed to care. Coach Franklin had made it clear that everyone would get to play and the idea was to go out there and enjoy themselves. Then came the penultimate game at Elkins Point. It was a very close contest and the Astros entered the second half all tied up at 2-2. Everyone was a bit surprised at how well it was going. Maybe this would be the game that would put a win on the boards after five tries. Alas, it was not meant to be. The second half did not go our way.
I asked Coach Franklin about what changed and he just smiled and said that it was his policy to make sure everyone got to play. The next day, when discussion turned to the wrap up of the game, players acknowledged the Astros philosophy- everyone had a chance to be on the field and they were okay with it. With one game left to play at Webb Bridge, the team was just looking forward to the final time they’d be together in their first season. But it was not meant to be. Webb Bridge called to say they could not play on the designated day and asked FAST to suggest some other times. Unfortunately, our opponents could not make either date and had to forfeit.
The news quickly spread throughout the school (I admit being the instigator of that). The Astros would be ending the season 1-7. Pandemonium erupted (mostly laughter) that we had WON at last. Nobody cared that it was a forfeit because a win is a win. The next day, the whole team showed up for their last practice knowing there would be no game to follow. They slid in the mud and just enjoyed the moment.
As the principal of FAST, I could not be more proud. It was less about winning and more about playing as a team. Laughter and humor were evident as the focus became community and having fun. Sure it would have been nice to win a few more games but as far as I’m concerned the Astros were victorious in sportsmanship and understanding the spirit of the game. And that is the way it should be.
Becoming a Lame Duck (Oct. 2, 2021)
This week, I shared my plans for retiring at the end of the school year. As a result, I have received many kind notes (thank you!) and supportive inquiries as to how I am doing (and thank you!). The strangest of terms now becomes associated with my final year of work: lame duck. It is odd to be referred to as a duck because I don’t really have any plans to slow down and it is not the most noble of birds. I looked up the term “lame duck” in multiple dictionaries and none of them describe a pretty picture. According to Webster’s, I shall now be considered “one that is weak or that falls behind in ability or achievement” (ouch!) and “one whose position or term of office will soon end” (truthful). I am really not comfortable with the label so instead of being a lame duck, I’m going to aspire to be a flying duck.
Transitions can be tricky because even if you don’t see yourself differently, it is natural for others to do so. But here’s the deal- I love my work and what FAST stands for. So, while others are wondering about how things will change, I am looking ahead to all that needs to get done. My goal is to continue to work as hard as possible to ensure the future of FAST and to enable a smooth transition of leadership. In the immediate months, it is going to be about helping students to readjust to routine and structure, supporting children who are struggling emotionally as a result of the pandemic, ensuring the academic success of our students, addressing the emotional and physical needs of our staff, building our executive function skills program, and making sure that the mission of our school remains in focus.
Having said that, I promise to be cognizant of the fact that the time will come as a new person is selected, that I need to begin to step back from the center stage and begin playing a supportive role behind the scenes. Knowing when it is time to change gears will be critical to the transition to a new administration. For now, I will continue as normal but when the appointed hour arrives, this flying duck is committed to coming in for a smooth landing and waddling away into the sunset.
Lights, camera, action as we return to our normally scheduled program; let’s get on with the show.
WhatsApp and What Not To Do (Sept. 24, 2021)
Like many, I have been grateful for the invention of WhatsApp. It allows me to connect with family and globetrotting friends across the world. I never thought it had any other use. But, apparently WhatsApp groups are quite the rage and as it will happen with any good thing, someone is going to figure out a way how NOT to use it.
This past week, our teachers divided up into professional learning groups for the first time this year. In these settings, we talk about big picture ideas and how to bring them to the classrooms. One of the enjoyable components for me is the staff roundup where the PLC leaders share how well things went. This time was no different save the conversation in one of the groups.
It is a hard time to be a teacher and talk turned to how FAST staff is holding up. In this particular PLC, the educators shared that they could count on their colleagues and that they enjoyed teaching at FAST. What they listed as their biggest concerns were some of the parent conversations on WhatsApp that sometimes take place. While these groups are by invitation only, comments are shared freely about staff and sometimes they are downright demoralizing. It does not occur in every WhatsApp group which was noted by the PLC but even one or two is too many.
One of the things I most appreciate about FAST is the amazing parent body we have so I was surprised to hear this. But,then I realized that while 98% of the community are being supportive, the other 2% can still kick up a storm. So I went online to start learning more about WhatsApp Parent groups and there is a lot out there including the benefits and obstacles.
I came across a message from the Belgrove PTO in Texas sharing how useful WhatsApp groups can be for communicating. And then the Belgrove PTO adds these cautionary notes.
- The group should never be used as a platform to air views/grievances regarding a teacher, child or parent in the class or school.
- The group is not a political platform for airing opinions on current affairs.
- The group should not be used for private conversations with anyone else using the group.
A few teachers talked about how supportive parents will share some of the nastier comments being made about them in these groups. One of them even mentioned a graphic intended to represent her. They also shared how students have come up to them to share that their parents don’t think they are good at their jobs.
Again, this is not representative of the FAST parent body but if this is going on in any of the groups it is a problem for more reasons than can be shared here.
Our teachers and administrators have never been under as much pressure as now and for such a sustained period. They must implement COVID safety procedures, deal with quarantines, focus on student growth and student emotional struggles (which are quite real), and find time for their own families. Dealing with this is huge and why we are facing shortages in the field. We need to be doing everything possible to support educators in their growth. Some are just starting out. Being judged through social media is demoralizing and harsh. I have experienced it myself and it is hard not to be affected. There may be real issues with a teacher but public humiliation has never been an effective tool for improving skills or building morale.
We always talk about the fact that students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. Teachers need to also feel safe and supported. Thankfully, we have an amazing PTO which they all mentioned as an excellent source of support. AND, we have a very cooperative parent body that says thank you and understands the needs to support our COVID measures. But all that good can be easily undone. You can blow up a beautiful balloon but just one pin prick can deflate it. Nothing said on social media remains private and what you say can never be taken back. When we address bullying at the school, there is a focus on the bystanders because it is how they respond that often steers the situation. This is no different.
If there is a problem, you start with the teacher and if that does not resolve the matter, there is an escalation policy to follow. As a rule of thumb, talking with people is usually more helpful than talking about them. We discuss this with our students a lot.
I think WhatsApp groups can build community and don’t advocate their demise. It is a great way to connect. I just ask that it not be a forum for being unkind to teachers- one of our most precious resources; and that if it starts to happen that it gets shut down by other members. Be mindful that the audience will never just be that closed group. That audience reaches beyond and that includes your children who absorb your views, your attitude, and your words and will happily share them with the world. How you act is how they will act. How you speak is how they will speak.
These may be a few isolated incidents but it is a reminder to all of us to think before reacting so that “What’s App!” stays what it is intended to be- a community building vehicle.
Admitting to Be Imperfect (September 18, 2021)
I want you to know that we are aware of our imperfections and embrace this reality. It pushes us to keep trying and to figure out ways to resolve the things we might not have gotten right the first time. It is the same philosophy we have about our students. They are not perfect. Again, we may disagree on this but your children are still evolving into the exemplary citizens we want them to become. Recognizing their imperfections allows us to help them learn as much from their failures and their imperfections as they do from their successes. We have to raise them up when needed and allow them to fall on their faces when necessary. This past year, several of our 8th graders were not able to complete their Capstone requirements and could not present for the signature event of our program. Rather, they had to share what they learned from not completing their task. They talked about why they thought they were not successful; what they learned about themselves; and what they would do differently in the future. We allowed them to not be perfect. Their conversations were wonderful to listen to as they embraced what they learned from the experience.
The art of parenting depends on you not being perfect. Why it would be an insult to be called the perfect parent, one who does no wrong. Children watch their imperfect parents argue and then saying they’re sorry. Kids experience their parents making mistakes with them and having to apologize. They know you are not perfect and love you just the same.
Nobody is perfect and being right is sometimes a matter of opinion. As a school, we want to be the best possible. And yet, we will never be able to meet everyone’s expectations no matter how hard we try (and we really do try.) Accepting our own flaws, allows us to continue to grow and not rest on laurels that are only excellent until they are not. At school, we take time to celebrate our successes while admitting what we could do better. I am asking you to embrace our imperfections and accept them as part of human nature. Believe in the fact that we as a school will continue to learn and grow because of the awareness of our imperfections. Perfection is a state that promotes no need to continue to grow and learn.
I will let you in on one of my closely held beliefs: I would rather strive for perfection than actually achieve perfection.
“Perfection itself is imperfection.”
-Vladimir Horowitz (some Russian pianist guy)
Creating Historical Memory (Sept. 10, 2021)
Believe the Best in People (August 27, 2021)
As a matter of practice, I try to believe the best in people. I did not start out that way and I had my share of years where cynicism played a role in my life (I believe we call that our twenties), but things really changed when I became an educator. Working with teens and later with younger children, I realized that if I was to be a trusted adult, I had to be able to not just believe in them but I had to encourage them to believe the same. Part of believing the best in people is being able to understand their story and where they are coming from. It is how children develop empathy and compassion and it has to be modeled. Over time, it has become embedded in my outlook on life and while I am sometimes disappointed, it has grounded me. More times than not, people rise to the occasion.
This is particularly important in the times we are now living. There is so much division and hostility that even stating this fact feels like a redundancy. People are frustrated, scared, angry, and hurting. Tolerance levels are shot. But as parents and educators, we have to remember that how we act and respond will be duly noted by our children who watch and hear everything we say and do. If we model patience, they will learn patience. If we practice empathy and kindness, they will be inclined toward empathy and kindness. The tone of our voice is more critical than ever, whether be in the words we speak or the words we write.
With the stream of COVID notices at school and the rise of cases in the area, it is easy to succumb to malaise. But we can’t. When we stop believing the best in people, it means we are giving up on people and that is a line we must try not to cross. Parents are doing the best they can. Teachers are doing the best they can. Children are doing the best they can. When harsh or abrupt words are used, it is easier to be offended than to listen past the tone and to try to understand what is happening.
Every day, I see teachers and administrators working hard to give children what they need. Every day, I receive notes and words of support and encouragement from parents. And every day, I see children thriving amidst the challenges we face.
I have no grand solutions to what we are facing because there aren’t any. Only time can heal what we are going through now. In the meantime, appreciate the special moments and celebrate the normalcy that still exists. And, please try to believe the best in people and act accordingly.
When There Ain’t No Routine (August 20, 2021)
With two weeks behind us, we find ourselves continuing to pivot and adjust to whatever comes our way. We have had quarantines, carpool backups, and a tropical storm to contend with. It is a challenge in large part because human beings are creatures of habit. We don’t want to be continually surprised. All of us rely upon routine- adults and children alike. Routine allows for a predictability that we depend on. We have a baseline and when surprises arise we can deal with them and then return to the everyday norms. So when routine is continually disrupted as it is right now, we feel on edge and get frustrated with so many things that are beyond our control.
I wish we could snap our fingers and make it alright. The lack of routine is taking a toll on our children, our parents, our staff, and our administrators.
At school, we are adjusting to this reality. We are beginning the executive function training to help children plan and better predict their days. Homebound is becoming a normative part of the support network for individual students who are quarantined. We are building schedules for when classes must go remote. Our counselor continues to survey the staff to be sure that children who seem to be struggling are being looked after. And we are working hard to get carpool to a point where people know what to expect. We can’t control all the disruptions we face but we can provide our children and ourselves with tools to manage. Snacks help too.
At home, parents should pay attention to routine as well- family dinner time, homework time, play time, etc. By setting up a routine in the home, children will get the grounding they will need to make it through these next few months and beyond. If children know there is a time where they can share their day, it creates a sense of stability. As a parent who has often had things to work on after quitting time, my wife and I made family dinner sacred time. It made all the difference and was more important as our kids got older.
My personal advice may seem to be somewhat corny but bear with me. Everyone is trying their best. Be patient. Believe the best in people because you don’t know how impacted the person next to you has been on a given day and what they are going through at work or in their personal lives. If we can do nothing else, make that a routine.
As the great crooner Frank Sinatra once bellowed, “That’s life, that’s what people say. I just have to pick myself up and get back in the race.” In shorthand, please hang in there.