As an inexperienced special education teacher, I vividly recall hearing the shouting nearby. I raced down the hall, fearful of an incident brewing. Standing there was Dr. L.—a teacher—yelling up into the face of a seemingly helpless, but nearly 6-foot tall child. He had a nervous grin on his face, and that appeared to exacerbate her reaction. But what was most unbelievable about this interaction was the reason for her tongue lashing.
Dr. L had just earned her doctorate and this child had intentionally, or maybe unintentionally, referred to her as "Mrs." Her response? She bellowed, "You call me Dr. L., not Mrs. Do you hear me?!?" I suppose she took this as a personal affront. Did it really matter whether this child had intentionally called her "Mrs."? He was one of those kids who had a "class clown" demeanor, and everyone liked him. Hidden beneath that silly exterior was a child who struggled—and his behavior masked his challenges.
Fast forward to the present day and we are living through a once in a lifetime pandemic. It is striking how, under current circumstances, human behavior is on full display, demonstrating the very best, and worst, in each of us. Standing in line at Walmart recently, I heard shouting at that familiar decibel level. There stood a large, middle-aged man, raging at an elderly woman. Apparently, she accidentally grabbed one of his items. He was understandably concerned about an infectious disease transmission ... but really? This was an example of poor human character, and it truly disappointed me.
Compassion From a Distance
Alternatively, I have had the joy of observing compassion from a distance, but on full display, as the principal of my school. Teachers are reaching out to families, replacing statements like, "You better pay attention, the quiz is tomorrow," with terms of endearment. Counselors and nurses are concerned with the well being of their students like I have never witnessed before. This level of compassion is contagious and the bonds that have formed, even in our present digital separation, have been an inspiration.
It's often said that “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” My teachers' actions, responsiveness, empathy, and dare I say, love, have extended beyond their screens. And students and parents are responding to their kindness. With practices like restorative justice a hard sell among my most experienced teachers, I believe this shared experience has positively and constructively opened their eyes to a much larger calling. Recipients of this compassion, our students will reap the benefits.
It may sound surprising for me to refer to a pandemic as an opportunity. Yet from challenge and tragedy comes innovation and opportunity. If we choose to consider this perspective, inspired by the chance to return to the busy halls of schools with a reborn outlook, we can be reminded of these bonds built across computer screens and virtual lessons.
We can seize this challenge to benefit our students and our school communities in the years to come. That is an opportunity I am willing to build upon, and the most opportune learning experience of all.
Dr. Michael Gaskell is Principal at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, NJ. following experience as a special educator and assistant principal in Paramus, NJ. He continues to model the pursuit of lifelong learning as he serves to mentor new principals through the New Jersey Leaders to Leaders program. An
NJPSA Stars recipient, ...