“What is your deepest challenge as an educator? As a person?”
Wow. I’ll take “as an educator” please. This week’s #YourEdustory prompt isn’t for the fainthearted. Even focusing on the first part of the challenge, I find myself struggling to write about wrestling with the darker demons of a job I love.
Being a high school administrator means that I get a firsthand look at people in crisis. The interactions I have with parents, students, and even teachers aren’t always easy. For every experience that inspires or moment of laughter is a darker counterbalance of struggle or anxiety.
I maintain optimism, mostly because of the good I see every day and from the examples around me of caring students and adults, though if I’m honest, there are some sobering days and moments that bruise my heart.
So what is my deepest challenge as an educator? Being strong enough to help others around me.
Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, wrote:
I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”
Difficulties are real, and our responses, not the difficulties themselves, are what define us.
Opportunities to smile in the face of trouble, gather strength, and grow brave come in many forms at a high school.
Discretion, that better part of valor, keeps me from cataloguing specifics, but I can say that my time as an administrator has taught me that very often students live complicated lives, more adult than any would suspect. Parents care much and deserve the empathy that comes from the fact that most have never been through the teenage years in the role of adult. The raised voices and emotional assertions that happen in my office are most often born of fear rather than anger, no matter what they sound like.
That challenges find their way to school is no surprise; school is one of the biggest parts of our students’ (and often our families’) lives. Schools are extensions of our communities, and it would be naive to imagine that somehow the problems from the neighborhood disappear at the front door of campus.
School is a safe place to feel emotion, a natural place to express anxiety, and a the theater of both big successes and equally large catastrophes.
…and sometimes the challenges we face are bigger than school, and life altering.
One of the best gifts I’ve ever received came from a friend who hired me for my first job as an assistant principal. He gave me a copy of The Art of Condolence by Leonard Zinn and Hilary Stanton Zinn. When I became a principal, I was not prepared for how much death I would see, not on my campus per se, but in the lives of the staff, students, and families of those who make up my school community. It’s a volume I have referred to often, as I searched for words expected from someone in my role, words a lifetime of teaching did not prepare me to have.
Being the leader my school deserves involves caring, preparation, and the ability to remain centered, even as the chaos of the moment patters against the windowpanes.
It has always been my goal to be a person who inspires hope and helps others have confidence in their futures. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a touchstone for me, the king tells his men “We would not seek a battle as we are, nor as we are, we say we will not shun it.” I strive for that same spirit of strength. The answer to my deepest challenge is to show, every day, a tenacious optimism that helps others believe the truth, that all will be well.