Closing One Chapter…

Reflection on this Final Year

The middle school hallway is empty, save for the remaining book bags and leftover textbooks that may (or may not) find their owners over the next week or so. The teacher check-out sheets are in my box…most of them, anyway. I am sitting in my office listening to the rain hit the gravel on the roof and remembering so many other sounds I have heard this year: The frequent sound of laughter carried down this hallway as young men and women race to class or to the courtyard for lunch; the tears of disappointment or sadness as a result of unmet expectations on a test or after reading a casting list from the play in which a part was not earned; the wonderful conversations of evolving strategy between student and teacher as a mentor empowers a student to accomplish a goal. But the maximum effort which manifests in displays of stellar writing, chalkboards full of difficult calculations, notes in the margins of intricate translations, and practical testing to gather concrete data is one that does not necessary accompany an auditory memory but penetrates us all to the core, nonetheless. It is with these memories, via pictures on Instagram or through stories told of classroom experiences that we gain some perspective on what this year looked like in the eyes of our young people.

How to reflect?

How do I measure success when reflecting in this way? Do I look at a student’s academic progress to calculate growth? Do I count the students involved in school activities to determine if our young people “do enough” outside of the classroom? Do I assess teacher success by looking at standardized testing?
Most certainly, I do not do these things.

On the contrary, I measure success by the copious amounts of appreciation shown to teachers this past week via hugs and statements of “thank you” and “sign my yearbook, please?” Students do not have this level of comfort everywhere they go. It takes time and trust to build these relationships. Another measure of success stems from the active, impromptu conversations I witnessed between parent, child, and teacher on the last days of school. Parents serve as role models to their children at all times, though sometimes unbeknownst to them, by making a point of being present and addressing teachers directly. In a time of email communications and text messaging, these face-to-face interactions make our community beautiful as we are working together in concrete ways the sake of child development. Finally, I measure institutional success by student interaction: a sixth grader signs an eighth grade yearbook; a seventh grader is visiting the eighth grade homeroom and is a welcomed addition; a “pickup” game of touch football in the courtyard includes boys of all ages and grade levels.

This is a community of honorable men and women. This is what I am going to miss the very most.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above…”

My chapter in this school is coming to a swift end. It seems like I announced my departure only yesterday, but it was almost five months ago that I met with faculty to discuss how the transition to new leadership would occur. Since that day, teachers, students, and parents have come to me to express gratitude and appreciation for my work in the middle school. But it is without thought that I shift this appreciation and praise to the teachers who are principal in the development of each child. After all, my interaction with children has been a mere fraction of what each teacher has offered to the young men and women of the middle school.

I am humbled by what all has transpired over the past three years. From the growth of our student body while still shrinking the class sizes, to the concentrated effort to improve our student-led discussions in the classroom, to the development of celebrations that highlight the impact our students have made on their academic community. It is my prayer that students leave this summer realizing how personal validation and spiritual development will always follow great effort. I praise God for allowing me the opportunity to guide this division with great support from my superiors and an energized willingness by the faculty to follow my vision. Some specific examples of faculty excellence come to mind:

  • I am grateful to have been witness to a Latin teacher who never backed down from a challenge by seeking strategic ideas to maintain student focus before realizing how capable she is in leading learning and exploration.
  • I am in awe of the science teacher who stuck her neck out to design and facilitate a new program which has now gained national attention because she believed in what the children could do with just a little bit of encouragement and planning.
  • I am inspired by the English teacher who taught literature from the heart and raised the bar on what was expected, enlightening students to realize the joy of literature and the emotional depth of understanding that can result from simply having a group conversation about the text.
  • I am thankful for the theater teacher who took a chance on young, unfinished actors to create something enveloping and dynamic for us all to watch with emotion and amazement.

These are only a snippets of what has transpired while I have been leader of the middle school. I did not do any of this; the credit can only fall on the students who trusted the guidance of the knowledgeable faculty to help us become “better in the middle.” The work is uncanny and puzzling at times, and the path towards a solution is often hidden. But this community is a team of trailblazers — I am happy to follow their direction to the summit.
Thank you for a wonderful chapter to what has been an amazing, challenging, and emotional experience. I cannot wait to see what is in store for the young people of this community in the years to come.

Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:

F.A.I.L.

  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.