I had a great conversation with the woman who works the desk at my community gym this morning. It took longer than I would’ve liked, so I tried to rush it at first (and I definitely presented in that way – a lesson in manners that I plan to learn from), but as the conversation went on it proved to be incredibly worthwhile…maybe even a gift. She pushed me to think about and process my leadership practice as it relates to student achievement and wellbeing. Eventually, I did have to excuse myself in favor of a short swim so that I could get to work, but I was able to integrate that conversation into my reflective learning routine. It helped me grow. I need to remember that any and every experience is just that…an experience. None should be overlooked or trivialized. I can be learning in every moment. Conversations are especially viable learning opportunities because they hold me accountable in a unique way. They hold me accountable to the person or people I’m conversing with.
This particular woman knows that I’m in education. She’s struggling to prepare her fourth grade son for the coming school year. Neither of them is thrilled with his placement. They feel strongly that the teacher he’s with is going to affect him in negative ways. She told me that the teacher is extremely negative and that she’s outwardly suggested that the child is a “troublemaker.” This mother feels as though her child is typecast in this classroom. She doesn’t think he’ll have opportunities to feel successful. She insists that this teacher is not capable of respecting or believing in him. She was very emotional about it, and reasonably so. Imagine feeling completely helpless about an entire school year for your child. Whether or not she has an accurate picture, perception often feels very much like reality. So much so that some folks say it is reality.
Intensifying the other horrible feelings was that feeling of helplessness. She told me that she wanted to transfer her son to another school, and that it’s been extremely difficult because the “school of choice deadline” for the neighboring district had past. She asked me to advisor her on how to get around that challenge. I couldn’t. She thought that I would know of a loophole. I don’t. She asked me what I would do if it were my child.
I told her that it might be a good idea to look at these challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, then, if she feels the same way next year, to meet the deadline. I waited for a moment to make sure I was headed in the right direction. That kind of advice can be received in a variety of ways. She smiled thoughtfully and asked me to go on. She needed some tools. She needed some encouragement. She needed some hope. I told her that in my district we work hard to provide a joyful learning experience for every student, and that we do so in an effort to maximize their potential. I insisted that we try to help them explore & discover pathways to achievement, and that I’m certain many educators in her district think along those lines as well, possibly even the teacher in question. Appropriately, she told me that if she were a parent in my district she’d ask how we do that. I thought it seemed like a reasonable question. Possibly even a really good one!
There I stood, the principal of an elementary school, engaged in a conversation with a parent, albeit from another district, but still being asked to explain how my team and I maintain a joyful culture of learning for the students we serve. It was kind of exciting, not only because I enjoy this dialogue, but also because as I mentioned above, it was opportunity for me to reflect on something I’m extremely passionate about. And, it an opportunity for me to get analytical feedback from the real-life parent of a fourth grader…someone well equipped to provide really good feedback on the subject.
We talked about communication and the lack thereof. We talked about assuming positive intentions and being patient with progress. We talked about celebrating that progress and highlighting triumphs. We talked about looking for opportunities to communicate concerns in compassionate ways and being willing to meet in the middle at times. We talked about a positive presence and working to foster independence through the release of responsibility. We talked about advocating for connected services and building trusting relationships with an open mind. We talked about boiling every decision, every action, and ever interaction down to questions like, “How is this going to help my child grow?” and, “How will this perpetuate a joyful learning experience for my child?” We talked about that fact that life ain’t easy, and that when children have opportunities for guided practice in facing life’s challenges, they’re often better equipped to face similar ones with fortitude later on (This will not be the last person who challenges her in these ways). We talked about the situation as an opportunity that might turn out some authentic and meaningful growth for everyone involved. We did not solve the world’s problems, but what a start!
She thanked me, I thanked her, I thought about it as I swam, and now I’m processing it through reflective writing. Conversations are wonderful processing mechanisms, and if you let them, they can lead to positive progress in unique and import ways.
Dream Big. Work Hard. Be Well.