This is a post co-authored by one of my most favorite twitter friends, Lisa Meade. In a casual vox conversation one day last week we both realized that we were living parallel school lives balancing the needs of different learners. Furthermore, we acknowledge that neither of us is the type of leader that will stop searching for ways to meet the needs of each and every person that steps foot in our buildings.
I spend the vast majority of my day doing all that I can to help our youngest children, five to seven year-olds, simply “be” in school. What I mean, is that for some of our students, simply functioning “appropriately” in a school setting is very very difficult. Nevermind the Common Core Curriculum. Luckily, I work with an amazing group of individuals that, like myself, will stop at nothing to help our students cope-adjust-deal with the demands of the school day. And I do not mind. I signed onto this. This is my chosen profession and it is my honor to serve.
Though here is the tough part. By the time I get home each day I am emotionally and physically drained. I have given every last bit of myself to the students, “my children”, at school. At the end of the day when I come home and walk through the front door, put my things down, kiss my wife and two kids and lie down on the couch. I am done. I have nothing left!
But then my three-year old wanted to play Star Wars and I tell him, “not now”. Or my eight year old, who is simply watching Disney Channel after a busy day at school is hit with, “I think you are watching too much tv”. This is from the couch or from a distance. I didn’t make the effort to join in the Star Wars Charade and I didn’t sidle up next to my daughter to simply ask, “watcha watching?” I was the grumpy old troll who has just walked through the door. This happened one afternoon last week and I don’t want it to happen again.
Then it hit me!
Many of our students come to school the same way we often leave school. Irritable. Frustrated. Exhausted. In a condition where demands aren’t received with enthusiasm. And simply wanting some time and space to themselves. But here is the major difference. They, unlike us, do not hold the strings. They can not go to the gym to release stress. Many of them do not have quiet places to relax. Happy Hour is not an option for them! We force them to adapt to us.
This past week was a wake-up call of sorts for me. I must figure out how to shift gears. It will not be easy. Because oftentimes I have used up all of my energy and spent all of my patience before I walk through my own front door. But what choice do I have? How can I give away all that I have, and all that I am at school, only to arrive home with nothing left for those people that matter most to me. That is not acceptable!
Furthermore, how can I ask more of the students that I work with everyday than I do of myself? Students that are living in constant states of fear, anxiety and stress. If I can’t teach myself how to cope and manage, how can I possibly ask children, with far fewer options, and living in much more stressful conditions to do the same? I can’t!
Hopefully as I teach myself to better cope with stress and fear and anxiety I will be in a better position to help my students do the same. Together we will learn how to navigate and celebrate this amazing, and often difficult game, called Life. Like a parent reading over the instructional manual, I will learn out how to play this game first so that I am then able to have my students join in. The problem is I don’t have much time because all of our pieces are already on the board and they are ready to pass Go. Learn quickly Jon. Learn quickly!
In my district, I wear two hats. One is the Middle School Principal hat. The other is a Director of Special Education K-12 hat. The second hat is getting harder and harder to wear. It’s not because of the kids or the families. (I work with some incredible students and families.) It’s getting harder because I am unable to do everything I wish I could do. It’s getting harder to advocate for students when there are so many outside forces saying other things. It’s getting harder because of some of the stories our kids carry with them. I think specifically of three students, of all different ages, right now whom I know are dealing with more than most adults can handle. Social emotional needs are combined with higher academic standards and a laser like focus on all things accountability and compliance.
We hear a lot about academic mandates. We rarely hear about social emotional mandates or state governments committing to additional funding for therapeutic supports in our schools. I receive a lot of information from our Education Department about Common Core curriculum, teacher performance, and administrative performance. I receive very little information about the social emotional health of our kids. Are we really that unaware of the spiraling stressors facing some of our students?
One of my high school friends, Amy Quinn has become part of This is My Brave. This group’s mission is to promote a positive and supportive dialogue about mental illness. The group originated in the DC area with Jen Marshall and Anne Marie Ames. It has now expanded to other cities.This group is about putting mental illness out in the open and dispelling some myths that exist around it. I think the work she and her colleagues are doing should be commended and more importantly listened to! I think a national dialogue is needed. I also think, on a state level, a dialogue should include what supports we can put in place in our schools and communities to work together to support students struggling with mental health needs.
A friend of mine who is currently battling depression is teaching me a lot about mental health, the stigma, and the real struggle behind it. She’s been so honest about what she is feeling. The lessons she shares with me help me to be much more empathetic than I likely was before. I thought I was empathetic. Yet, I discovered, it wasn’t nearly enough. Her struggle is real. Her struggle is likely very different from the three students I find myself thinking about at all hours of the day. Yet, that lack of similarity does not make any of them less important or less painful than the other.
What our students, families, and schools are dealing with is real and not separated by geographic location.
This post is dedicated to the amazing people we work with day in and day out that help all of our students. We think of the amazing social worker, our optimistic school psychologist, and our school counseling team full of grit and perseverance. We think of the amazing assistant principal and principals that reminds us our children need us and not to personalize the behaviors.
We think of the talented special education teachers and irreplaceable classroom support staff that we work with whom know that we can’t put all of our focus on academics if we haven’t met the child’s social emotional needs. We think of the parents that put their trust in us and even call us with ideas about how to better support their children. We think of the baby steps we celebrate as improvement.
Most importantly, we think of the children in our care during the day. We think of the children we carry in our hearts during the day and nights. Our kids, from Maryland to New York and everywhere in between, need us now more than ever before.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “The Little Prince”