Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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A Bawcock and a Heart of Gold

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk and have since I became a school administrator. It could seem grandiose, I suppose, the tabby cat imagining himself a lion, but there is wisdom in that iambic pentameter and I’m willing to acknowledge my inner English teacher and take the kidding.

Looking to Shakespeare’s account of England’s favorite monarch for inspiration, however, puts me in mind to be better than I am. I may be domesticated, but hear my roar.

Henry V provides a slew of lessons and lines that resonate with me, and while it doesn’t have anything to do with leadership, I can’t help but whisper to myself every time I walk into a theater: “O for a muse of fire…”

But the trappings of a high school principal are khakis and embroidered polo shirts, not balm and scepter or crown imperial, and as much as I find encouragement in the youthful king, perhaps it would be as wise for me to consider his younger self, Prince Hal, that “nimble footed madcap Prince of Wales” whose adventures and indiscretions offer just as many lessons about leadership, learning, and growing up.

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The two part prequel to Henry V introduces Prince Hal as a reckless youth hellbent on fun and keeping company with a cast of characters equally bawdy and base. This is perfect for great literature, but not the sort you’d want near your own son or daughter.

Pistol, Bardolf, and especially Falstaff are the grown up versions of the scruffy and scandalous influences who give principals gray hair and assistant principals stories to tell each other. That Hal, the soon to be golden king, spends time in such company justifiably unnerves and disappoints his father, the king, who compares his “Harry” to a nobleman’s own well behaved son, Percy.

In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.”

What parent, or caring educator, wouldn’t be tempted to think the same?

And…

As a principal it’s important for me to embrace the belief that each of of our young Harrys might transcend youthful indiscretion and become a regal Henry.

Audiences of Henry IV part one and two and Henry V see just that transcendance. After learning what it is to live as a “common man,” and a rascal at that, Hal is able to put aside his childish ways, don the mantle of responsibility, and incorporate an understanding of his subjects into his reign as king.

In Shakespeare is a wisdom that might apply to the principal’s office.

True, administrators don’t wear crowns, teachers don’t shoot crossbows, and working with kids is not conquering France (though it sometimes feels as challenging), but allowing ourselves the patience and optimism that should be inspired by the transformation of Shakespeare’s king has the chance to make us more empathetic educators.

Seeing in our young students, particularly the shaggy ones, whose “unsavoury similes” alarm us  and whose behavior is a mass of “skimble-skamble stuff” the possibility of growth and change can go a long way toward creating a school culture that honors the potential of everyone.

Who our students will be as adults is as hidden from us as the impetuous Hal’s future was from his father. As the young prince caroused and lived irresponsibility, laughing at bawdy songs he listened, learned, and developed a perspective that made him a better king.

I wish for all my students the wisdom that comes from a full life, the strength to know themselves well enough to be true to who they are, not the temptingly Falstaffian pleasures of the crowd, and intrepid spirit that might lead another to describe them as Ancient Pistol did King Henry: “a bawcock and a heart of gold.”