As a principal I hear concerns, more now than ever, about education. Most are rooted in some kind of truth and all feel very, very, very real to the student or parent or staff member who is talking with me. Not all, however, are based on fact, or better said, not all the concerns I hear are informed by all the relevant facts. A bit of sleuthing, part of my job, can help find those facts and put them together in a way that makes sense. Sense and concern are an uncomfortable pair.

The latest concern that came my way, this from a parent about a teacher, reminded me of something from my own high school experience, an experience now so far in the past it takes on the sepia tones of nostalgia.

I took a speech class in my senior year of high school. I was not a public speaker or interested in being on the debate team, but I liked the teacher and had friends in the class. Back in the late 80s that was enough. (Maybe it still is.)

Anyway, as the class began we all took our fledgling turns standing in front of the room talking. I can’t remember the topic of my mini-address, but I do remember the teacher stopping me and telling me that I kept pausing with a spoken “um” to punctuate the interruption in my speech. This was not, he assured me, ideal. I must have nodded and marshaled on, but he stopped me again and told me the same thing. I’m sure I shrugged, looking back at photos of who I was in 1987 I look like a kid who shrugged, and tried for a third time. It didn’t get better. 

The teacher stopped me again and asked the class to take out a few sheets of paper. With me still standing in the front of the room, he asked them to ball up those papers and get ready. “Go on,” he told me, smiling. “And every time you say ‘um’ the class will throw paper at you.”

I did. They did. And not that day, or the day after, but by the end of the year I wasn’t saying “um.” 

My parents never heard about the paper pelting. It was a different time and my parents knew very little about my day to day school experience beyond seeing me do homework or getting report cards. Would all this have happened in a class today? If it did, would the principal get a call? Um…

I also played football back in those salad days, and I have another memory that might surprise my parents to hear today. I had a coach who often showed very little respect for his players, belittling us as a way of motivation, speaking cruelly when it pleased him to do so. More than thirty years later I still won’t shed a tear when I hear he’s dead. Maybe he already is. Here’s hoping.

If those last two sentences strike you as much harsher than the usual tone of my posts, they are; the emotions that coach inspired were so powerful in my teenage psyche that they colored the end of my high school experience in a way that I wish they hadn’t.

I’ll pull one silly example, an example that I know today as silly, but that felt then like a big deal to the teenage me. I’d had a good game against a crosstown rival and the local newspaper had named me an “athlete of the week.” That’s not something that shows up on your resume or carries much resonance beyond a week or so (heck, they award it to someone else seven days later), but it meant a lot to me when I was seventeen. Part of the celebration was that the athlete and his or her coach got to go to a breakfast at the newspaper, a little to-do that I was looking forward to. My coach caught me in the hallway the day before, however, to tell me that he didn’t like the way the newspaper had been reporting on our team and he wasn’t going to take me to the breakfast. Period. I remember him walking away and me standing there feeling unheard, unimportant to him, and confused.

My parents didn’t hear about that one either, not because I wasn’t close to my parents, but because school and sports were my world, not theirs. The good, the bad, those were mine to own. I did. I shared my frustrations  with my friends, of course, but I saw part of growing up as being able to deal with what happened when I went to school. I don’t know if that was healthy or right, but it was what it was.

In the greater scheme of things I suppose what happened in that speech classroom might strike some as more important, more embarrassing, more damaging than me missing a breakfast, but it didn’t me then, and it doesn’t me now. You see I liked and respected that speech teacher. He wanted me to improve and thought that an unconventional approach might just do it. There was no cruelty in his choice, and as he read my response to what he was doing he saw where he could reach me. He did. 

Today parents are more connected to school than they’ve ever been. Overall this helps students academically and in this crazy time of pandemic induced remote learning it makes a positive difference. And…

It also feels like everything we do in this world of distance learning is more emotionally charged. The little glimpses of humanity we see in each other can feel out of place sometimes and for every time the cute dog or cat shows up on screen there might be a time when a distraction makes one of the participants feel like they’re being slighted. It’s easy to read volumes into a camera that’s turned off or a response that’s seen as short. More than once this fall I’ve seen tempers flare or feelings bruised by actions on camera that were meant with no malice and might be seen with more objectivity as having little wrong with them. Misinterpretation, particularly when everyone is a little right, is far too easy in the pandemic world of 2020.

Back in 1987 it was the relationship I had with each adult that colored my response to their interactions with me. I respected one and felt heard, but had no respect for the other and knew that he cared for me not at all. It’s like that now as well, but complicated by the reality that students and teachers can only interact through a computer. This is particularly true for students (and parents) who have never met a teacher in person and are striving to build a relationship through an imperfect medium.

Age has taught me, as much as I’ll allow it, to show more grace. More often than not people are doing their best with intentions that aren’t sinister or mean spirited. I know that, even if I still harbor ill will toward an old coach.

So, should we not complain? Should we just accept the things that frustrate us? Um…

Maybe a better approach would be to take the extra time to pause judgement, take the time to ask follow up questions, and make our own positions clear with objectivity and honesty. Without the benefit of quiet conversations after or before classes, the opportunities to interact in a classroom, and the possibility of making connections in person we have to work harder to connect, but those connections make all the difference between playfully thrown paper and a heart turned hard by barking on a playing field.

Connections and common sense, time, trust, and grace, these are things to aspire to, particularly as we’re still doing school so far apart that we can’t be hit by wadded up balls of paper.

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