How do we measure a man?

I’ve tried to start this post at least ten times and stopped.  As a high school principal, I am immersed in data and Regents results, drop out prevention, our literacy issues, staff development plans, hiring, and problem solving one hundred other day to day questions. I spend much time thinking about our teachers, our students, our school climate, and our achievement. I try to learn new things and to plan for our future. And then I have a conversation, or two, that stop me in my tracks.

I have a student who came to see me right before Regents week because he expects to go to jail for a few months, and he was struggling with a decision. Seems he thought he had the choice between two months of jail time with 3 years of probation or four months of jail time with no probation. He had already convinced the judge to prolong his sentencing date until after his exams were over. He figured the four months were better because he’d never manage to stay out of trouble for three years, but he didn’t want to miss so much school. His decision was a tough one because he really wants to graduate. Well, that’s easy, because I really want him to graduate too. So I’m trying to work out the details with the county jail and keep him moving through his curriculum. Here’s a kid who really wants to graduate, who understands the importance of it, who can’t get out of his own way to make it happen.  Sometimes it feels as if the issues, the obstacles, the stuff keeping them from graduating are so much bigger than I am. 

This makes me strip away all that we do, each and every day, all that the State expects, all of the testing and the data and the reporting and the planning. It makes me remember that it’s all about a boy. And a girl. Times 474. If we don’t get to know each and every one of those students, to care about them, to let them know that they matter in G-Town, to form those relationships, then the rest doesn’t really matter. Not to me anyway. I now have a boy, who’s in county jail, who called me at least four times since that initial meeting to let me know how his case was progressing. A boy who came to see me on Tuesday, in lousy shape, to tell me he was going to jail on Friday. A boy who has my word that I’ll do whatever it takes to get him to a diploma when he gets home. A boy with whom I’ve now formed a relationship. A boy who desperately needs that diploma as he’s minutes away from becoming a man.

How will our teachers measure him when he returns? Will they see only the jokes to be told, the gossip, and the angst of getting him on track with the rest of his class? Will our teachers see an inconvenience, a derelict, a convict, a problem?

Or will they see the whole person, the boy inside? Will they help him to succeed? Will they care even more because they know he’s not cared about enough outside of our school? Will they do even more because that’s what he needs? Will they even think he deserves it?

I’ll see a boy, who needs our help to become a man. I’ll see all of him. His four months away will not define him. He’s the reason we do this job, not the test results.

  1. As I read this, I can’t help but think of a certain student that I had for the first time this past year. She was a senior, who I’m happy to say has graduated GCS. I am embarrassed to say that when I heard she would be transferred into my classroom, I wasn’t excited about it. I had a preconceived image of who this girl is as a person. Mid-way through the year, after countless times tutoring her during study hall periods, helping her in class, and generally just having a lot of fun getting to know her, she turned to me and said, “You know what? I never wanted you as a teacher. I always thought that you were so mean and felt sorry for students who had you as their teacher. But you are one of the nicest teachers that I’ve had.” The only response that I could think of was the truth, that I had very much the same impression of her. It was nice that we were close enough to share this realization, but it would never have occurred had we not both been forced into this situation. I would not have gone out of my way to get to know her. She wasn’t my student, so she wasn’t my problem. Sometimes, we need to be reminded that they are all our students whether they sit in our classrooms or not.

    She has served as a reminder to me that gossip and first impressions are wrong. It also serves to remind me of an important piece of advice I picked up from my methods teacher in college, to approach each day as a clean slate for students. While they may harbor the grudges from the day before, we as educators need to rise above that, start each day with a troubled student as fresh. Today may be the day they decide to really surprise us.

  2. Just a follow up about this boy. His mother went to see him yesterday, I guess Tuesdays are visiting days. Much to her surprise, he insisted she call me to give me his address and to ask if I could send the books from the summer reading list to him. He only has to read one of the four, but he figures he can read them all as he’s got some time on his hands. This was my first conversation with mom, hopefully we’re forming connections that will make a difference.I am encouraged.

  3. I found your blog through weblogg-ed, and your posts are amazing. As a teacher that is often given the students who arrive *with gossip,* your post really touched me. It sometimes feels like a solitary fight to get people to see the student for what he or she is, and not for whatever he or she is said to be. thank you for such a heart-felt and thought-provoking post. May I link to your blog on mine?

    Unabridged Opinions

  4. Kim…I just wanted to say that if you keep this up, I’m nominating you for an edublog award next year. Your posts are gold, and I’m really glad to see you hanging in there with it. (I was gettin’ worried…) This is your place to write and to engage in the things that matter to you, things that maybe those outside of education really can’t get to. That’s what I’ve found more than anything in my own blogging, that I’m connected to people who understand, or if they don’t, at least they want to. And that’s ok. I wish everyone understood the power that comes with being connected in this way. Really, heartfelt congratulations on this work, and please do know that there will be many more connecting to you as you travel down this road.

  5. Great blog!
    The teachers who see beyond themselves and their ‘jobs’ will embrace the child – listen to him, see his potential and protect him as best they can from the environment that envelops him. Those that see their formal educational responsibilities as first and foremost will confirm his self image. I’ve had some experience with kids in jail and can tell you that they come out of incarceration different, shaken, in need of kind words and gentle compassion. Protect him as best you can – choose teachers who will be kind. His future may depend on it.

  6. I can tell that this was written from the heart. It gave me the same teary eyes as when I connected to students in similar circumstances. I am enjoying your blog and will continue to follow it. All the best.

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