When love, urgency, and anger can be seen as weakness

I was a turnaround principal in a district that wants to be the most improved urban district in the country.  I brought with me love for students that made me angry at the injustices they experienced--excessive suspension, dismal academic expectations and performance, and a return to segregation via special ed classification.  Turning around that oppression was urgent to me.  

To be fair, it was urgent to the leadership of the district too.  They were providing dramatic tools to leverage change.  Planning began for reforms to take place in 2014-15.  The school year and day were to be redesigned: 300 more hours to the year, the equivalent of 10 weeks of school.  An hour of enrichment per day for the kids was to be added.  At the same time, an hour per day of PD, data analysis, and collaborative planning would be in place for the teachers.  However, one of the biggest "tools" would be transferring half the faculty after the turnaround was planned in 2013-14, but before it was implemented in 2014-15.  The draconian transfer was required by the state and the Feds who were providing the money. 

The net effect of the impending transfer was to inspire in the faculty a love for their circle of teachers, anger at the perceived injustice that they should bear the brunt of sacrifice in the turnaround, and an urgency to wax nostalgic for the school's better days. To be fair, better to label their response as fear than as love.  Of the three reptilian-brain responses to fear--fight, flight, and freeze--I saw most evidence of freezing.  It was nearly impossible to generate any meaningful engagement by the bulk of teachers.  They went into a state of playing possum instead, waiting it out to see if this transfer threat was real.

Meanwhile, many kids were exhibiting their own fear responses: fighting and fleeing their classrooms at alarming rates.  Some version of "Elvis has left the classroom" or "Elvis is trashing the classroom" was called into the office easily twice to three times an hour.

Operating from a place of love, I put together a rudimentary restorative justice program.   I was unapologetic about a compassionate approach to the children especially when they were at their most unlovable.  With the restorative justice protocols, students planned other responses to the incidents that catalyzed their fear.  They figured out better ways to get their needs met, and how they would repair the injury they had done to other people or to property.  Operating from an urgency that our school had to figure out ways to include and teach all of our kids, not just the ritually compliant ones, I had real hope for this new technique.

The restorative justice work was a novice effort.  Neither the adults guiding the students through their plans nor the students had much experience with this approach.  Plans were often naive and flawed--parroting school rules or conventional expectations like "I will listen to the teacher."  When the plans did authentically address a student's needs and had genuine attempts to repair what was broken, they were unfortunately often undermined by teachers who wanted to get their pound of flesh when the student was brought back with the plan.  At the classroom door, a child who had worked hard for an hour or more on a plan to restore justice could be humiliated by a teacher who needed one more time to lecture the student on why the adult was right and the kid was wrong.

At faculty meetings, we had talked about changing the view of kids' fighting and fleeing as based in fear, not just being bad.  I floated the idea that if kids were resisting and running out of class, it could indicate that they didn't feel safe there.  Many of our students were refugees from global war zones--Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar.  Many lived amidst persistent violent crime in their neighborhoods.  Many went home to domestic violence.  

There were so many students who had experienced trauma, that the behaviors of fight and flight had become pervasive.  "If you're not that kid, then you're sitting next to that kid," I offered, suggesting that as the adults we should provide the haven, the place where problems could be met reasonably and lovingly.   

Instead, this loving strategy was regarded as weakness by faculty who wanted students suspended so that parents would correct the young ones' disruptive behavior.  Furthermore, many  had interpreted what I said about students feeling unsafe as an indictment of them--they heard me say, "You are threatening your students."  Thus, these resisters came to perceive me as part of the threat, linked to the impending transfer of half the faculty.

In the broader picture, the district was being sued by the state Attorney General for disproportionately suspending students of color.  A nationally recognized education civil rights advocate was brought in to consult on the situation, and has since described it as one that "shocks the conscience."  

From my superiors' side, their faces kind of froze in tight smiles when I told them that working through this change in climate and culture was taking most of my energy and the energy of my admin team.   They, of course, were well aware of the overall climate of punishment that was resulted in a history of exorbitant suspensions in all district schools, including ours.  And I agreed that better teaching would go a long way toward creating a safe and engaging learning environment in which kids would rather stay than fight and flee.

Even so, it became clear that if this school was genuinely to turn around, then trauma-informed practice would have to become universal within the school--part of Tier I of an effective PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) program.  We needed ubiquitous rules and reward for sure, as conventional PBIS implements. But we needed to go beyond.  

More in future posts about building in those ideas to a turnaround plan.