It Takes a Good School Leader to Know When a Teacher Is Struggling

May 4, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Sean Healy

Last year I went from managing students in the classroom to managing adults. That shift was just as hard as the one from managing myself in college to managing 150 students after I graduated and became a teacher. I thought when I became an administrator at my school it would be easier than teaching. I respected the people I worked with and most of them were great educators. Gone would be the days of trying to convince teenagers not to run their heads into a wall. These were adults who would need very little explaining why decisions are made—they get it; that’s the reason they’re here. I was naïve. Great leaders of adults must provide the same spark of motivation great teachers offer their students. Just like students, adults need to constantly be reminded of our mission and the values that guide our daily actions towards achieving our end goals. Often we need much more. Through the many times in my new role when I hit the floor, floundering, gasping for air, I learned that [pullquote position="right"]adults carry so many scars.[/pullquote] I often missed the days working with just kids. When they were rude it was so easy to spot the personal pain behind their eyes. The harsh morning walking a younger sibling to school, missing the bus; the late night witnessing screams and slaps between a mom and a boyfriend. In my latter years of teaching, my better years, I never took a student’s slights personally. Most times I’d just look them in the eyes, pat their shoulder, and ask, “Is everything OK?” Adults’ scars are harder to see, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Moving from Anger to Empathy

There were many times this lesson was presented to me, but one subtle instance in particular took hold. Our staff has morning check-in daily; it’s a meeting for five minutes before school where we run through important announcements and set the tone for the day. When I led the check-in, I used the time to connect teachers back to the why behind becoming an educator. I asked questions like, “Who’s a kid that always brightens your day?” or, “What was your favorite moment in the classroom last week?” These questions were very hit or miss. Some staff loved it, while others just wanted to get out of there and “forget all the feelings.” One day I started with, “What kid consistently makes you laugh?” I gave everyone 30 seconds to think and then asked staff to share their response with a partner. Grace was sitting in the middle of our staff, isolated, like a tree in a grass field. Her normally radiant smile was replaced by an overcast face. She slumped in her chair and appeared to frown as the group discussed. She spoke to no one. I was embarrassed. I wanted to be successful at this job, my first year as an administrator, but I feared failure even more than I wanted success. I knew that many people didn’t like these activities and I viewed Grace as a lighthouse broadcasting their resentment. I was irate. “Can you believe her?” I asked a colleague. “So unprofessional, like the world revolves around her,” I continued. “Can you imagine what would happen if I treated her like that?” My coworker nodded disinterested agreement as I rolled to a stop. As I sat in my hyperbolic humiliation I wondered how I would approach this as a teacher and not an administrator. If a student acted this way, as many have done, and often to a much worse degree, what would I do? I decided to go have a conversation with Grace. So, I emailed her and asked if we could chat. I entered her room; it was disheveled and unorganized. There was writing on desks and paper strewn about. It appeared as it was: a room in which there was a battle between chaos and order—the winner was clear. Grace didn’t attempt to lift her head from her computer. I took every gesture personally. I wanted to yell, “Why are you being so mean to me? What did I do to you?” But, instead I started with, “I noticed you didn’t participate in this morning’s activity. Is everything all right?” Grace looked up from her computer with heavy eyes. “No, I’ve really been struggling personally lately. I’m going through a move, I have family issues going on right now, and on top of that my car got booted and I have no way to get home today. I also just feel like shit about how I’m treating kids because of that. I was always bullied and picked on when I was their age and yesterday in class there was a kid being laughed at and I felt so defeated I didn’t speak to it. I can’t get it off my mind.” Her eyes welled up. I was instantly disarmed. [pullquote position="left"]My whole mentality back flipped from hurt to care.[/pullquote] I realized that this was a person I’ve known for a while, and her pain felt so visceral to me. I was emotional with her, and through her. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” I said. “Can I give you a ride home tonight?” We exchanged a hug and I left with something I didn’t come in with. Grace’s actions wounded me, but because of the connection we had that wound never turned into a scar. I’ve found the older we get the less we are comfortable acknowledging we’re hurt, and by covering up our pain it develops into something else altogether.

Knowing My Scars Allows Me More Freedom

Most of us have adapted to hide our scars so that the manifestation of their pain is completely disconnected from the wound’s origin. This is true of me, and I found it is one of the reasons it was so difficult working with adults: When kids showed their scars I leaned in, but when adults showed their scars I recoiled. I was less inclined to be empathetic towards adults because what we often find most repulsive in others is just a reflection of what we find ugly in ourselves. In order to grow I needed to recognize this, and be kind to myself, so I could then be more loving towards those I work with. Knowing my scars would allow me to be the best version of myself, and keep my scars from dictating my interactions. But, often this is tough. I learned that not all wounds have to become scars. I also realized the scars we do have never go away, but that doesn’t mean they have to define us.

Sean Healy

Sean Healy is dean of students at Baker College Prep and a Teach For America alum. Previously he taught high school English for five years, three of them at Baker.

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