Chapters to my book

Mass Shootings : We are Responsible.

 Photo by @davideragusa

Photo by @davideragusa

It happened again. This time, in Thousand Oaks, California. You and I both know how the days and weeks to come will play go.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to . . .” we will hear whispered from podiums, while “Enough is enough” banners are posted on websites, blogs, and social media. And for a brief, brief moment, the country will be unified in grief, shock, and horror of what our country has become. Then someone will point the finger of blame. Then another. Then another. Until everyone is pointing, shouting, and condemning, calling for reform, calling for justice, and demanding someone does something to stop this madness.

All the while, someone somewhere will have made a plan, written a note, or posted a video. Right under our tear-stained cheeks and upturned noses. Just like they did in Columbine, almost 20 years ago.

“Eric Harris was a psychopath,” David Cullen concludes in his New York Times bestseller, Columbine, “he was a narcissist, he was a sadists. He wasn’t out to bully bullies, he was out to hurt the people he looked down upon . . . humans.” He wanted to destroy everyone, all of us. Yet fortunately, he only made it to thirteen. He had planned for many more.

According to the investigation that followed Columbine, Eric Harris wanted to go down as a legend. He wanted to make a mark bigger than the Oklahoma City bombings and he wanted to be remembered forever. So he planted bombs in the park on the other side of town, set to go off as a diversion for the cops. Luckily, they didn’t. Neither did the propane tanks in the cafeteria (which would have killed hundreds) nor the bombs in his and Dylan’s cars (which were set to detonate after the police and paramedics arrived, killing them too). In fact, Eric and Dylan never intended to enter the school. Their plan was to wait outside and pick off the surviving few as they fled the carnage of Columbine.

But things didn’t go according to Eric’s plan, hardly anything in fact, except for one seemingly minor detail: the media was there, and they granted Eric Harris his deepest dying wish. He became famous.

Dave Cullen, an author and elite journalist, was “one of the first reporters on the scene” at Columbine. He then spent the next ten years writing Columbine, which is “widely recognized as the definitive account” of the school’s massacre, and for many of the 300-plus pages of his heart-wrenching book, Cullen spends a great deal of time talking about who Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were, what happened in the days prior, during, and after the infamous shooting, and how people from across the country responded.

But that’s not why he wrote the book. He wrote it because he was trying to figure out why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did it. Once answered, he concludes his book with the most important takeaway of his journey: how to prevent this from ever happening again, and who is responsible.

His findings are not extenuating.

Dave Cullen’s conclusion of who is responsible for Columbine and every shooting and massacre is not a familiar one, nor is it a popular, but it is the most accurate and reliable one.

The answer of who is responsible, according to Cullen, is us. We are responsible. Malcolm Gladwell says the same, but where Gladwell fails to provide a solution, Cullen does. It is us. We are the solution.

Let me explain. Or rather, let Cullen explain.

Almost 100% of the time, the perpetrator of mass killings is male, and “{f}or his glorious week,” Cullen explains, “the spectacle killer is the hottest star on earth. He dwarfs any sports champ, movie star, president, or pope . . . They spill a little blood, {and} the whole world knows who they are . . . His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

So, “If you’re planning a spectacle murder,” Dave Cullen once told a CNN anchor, “here’s what you do:

{There are} two routs to the elite club with the star treatment: body count, or creativity. Choose body count, and you’ve got to break the top ten. The media loves scorekeeping and will herald your achievements with a banner beneath the victims as they grieve. For creatives, go for originality and horror . . . Maximize the savage nature. Make us fear movies theaters, or churches or {school} - and a Joker costume at a Batman movie takes theatrics literally. Live TV was a great twist - only took two victims in Roanoke to get the big-star treatment. Surprise us.

The anchor was justifiably horrified, but that was the point. “These are the tactics the killers have turned on us so callously,” Cullen writes, “They cracked the media code. Easily.” And if the media care about ending this, “we in the media need to see our role as clearly as the perps have. We did not start this, nor have we pulled any triggers. But the killers have made us reliable partners. We supply the audience, they provide the show” (pg 380).

In these few short paragraphs, Cullen models the role we all need to take after events such as these occur: point the finger at ourselves, find where we are responsible, and take ownership of it. Just like Andy Dufresne.

Like everyone else, my favorite scene in Shawshank Redemption is the one where Andy Dufresne emerges from the septic tanking, raises his hands to the air, and is finally free from the deathly Shawshank prison. But it wasn’t until I read those lines from Cullen that I understood why I love that scene, and how Andy Dufresne was able to get there.

Throughout the first half of the movie, the audience is left in the dark as to Andy’s involvement with his wife’s murder. There’s that scene in the beginning, of him stumbling from his car, drunk, and carrying a gun, but nothing more. He adamantly denies killing his wife, but we are never fully convinced of his innocence. Till we hear the story of Elmo Blatch, an old cellmate of Tommy’s, and then our suspicions are confirmed, Andy Dufresne is completely innocent and absolved from the murder of his wife. Somehow, though, that isn’t enough. The movie isn’t entitled Shawshank Absolvement, it is Shawshank Redemption, and Andy is not yet redeemed. That comes later, after Tommy has been killed and Andy beaten, placed into solitude for calling the warden “obtuse”, and at the brink of ruin. And like Cullen, as he comes to grip with the harsh reality of what has happened and who is to blame, his hammer of judgement falls to no one else but himself.

“I killed her Red,” Andy he says with a dull sincerity to Morgan Freeman as they sit in the yard, leaning against the giant stone wall, locked in Shawshank Redemption. “I didn’t pull the trigger but I drove her away. And that’s why she died, because of me.”

Red leans down and sits on his heals, “That doesn’t make you a murderer,” he counters, and he’s right. But so is Andy. He didn’t pull the trigger, but he did play a part. A small part perhaps, or at the very least a forgivable part (no on goes to prison for being a bad husband), but a part none the less. And once Andy is finally able to see that, he is able to admit it. And once he admits it, Shawshank could no longer contain him. He is free.

A few scenes later, he climbs into a sewage pipe and crawls to redemption.

“We did not start this, nor have we pulled any triggers”, Cullen admits, echoing Red’s “That doesn’t make you a murderer.” But Cullen, like Andy, isn’t content with being absolved. He wants freedom. Freedom from a grey and deathly prison, freedom from guilt and shame, and freedom from fear that this will indeed happen again. So he accepts his portion of the blame, “we supply the audience, they provide the show.” He acknowledges his responsibility and admits his complicit role. Then, like Andy Dufresne, he climbs into the sewage pipe and beckons us to do the same.

We, on the other hand, continue to sit in horror and amazement, waiting for someone to unlock the cell.

“For the past few years,” Jason Kottke writes, “whenever a mass shooting occurs in the US that gets wide press coverage, the satirical news site The Onion runs an article with this headline written by Jason Roeder: ‘“No Way To Prevent This,”’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens’.”

After each mass shooting, our nation raises it’s hands in grief and disbelief, “How does this keep happening?” Then, because there is never a clear answer, we quickly defend ourselves, our beliefs, and our rights, leaving many people absolved, very few freed, and even fewer redeemed.

There are two definitions offered for redeemed:

  1. the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.

  2. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.

Both require an admittance. Both require action. Neither point to someone or something else.

I, like the rest of our country, desperately long for these headlines to be eradicated from our headlines. I’ve also been convicted by Cullen and Andy and believe that casting the blame onto others will only perpetuate the acts. But because I’m not a journalist, I cannot rest with Cullen’s admittance. I must find my own, as an educator.

So far, I’ve come up with three.

Purpose:

“Education is inherently selfish” I found myself saying to a room full of educators, “we spend so much time and effort convincing kids to pursue school and grades so they can better themselves and their future” I said, “we encourage them to follow their dreams and be whatever they want to be, but for what purpose?” I found myself trying not to look at a particular school that has geared their entire program around personalized learning and a system that focuses on each kid as an individual, that teaches each kid to learn at their own pace, in their own way, completely isolated from their peers.

Why school? Why do kids have to go? And why do they have to take the classes that they do? A school I once taught for attempted to answer that question with a giant poster that hung in the hallway for each student and teacher to read. “Do it for you,” and it bothered me every single day.

Is that why kids need to be in school? So that they can go to college, get a nice job, and buy nice things? Or is it so that they can collect experiences and enjoy life? So they can learn how to “Follow their heart”? If so, no wonder they’re miserable.

After they’ve pursued every relationship, dating the hottest boy or girl they can find, after they’ve driven the coolest car, bought the the newest technology, and worn the nicest clothes, what next? After sex, popularity, success, and whatever else their hearts desire. what happens when they’re still miserable, empty, and without direction?

Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says, “When the product motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen” (via). The purpose of education, as is written and expressed today, has become unmoored from the deeper more existential purpose: to discover our gifts and talents, to hone them, and then figure out ways to give them away. To serve others.

And for that, I am responsible.

Humanity:

Teachers and coaches (perhaps even parents), my friend Glen Walenda once theorized on one of my recent blog posts, “often treat {children} as future people instead of people. We are so blinded by their potential we don't see them in the present.” In doing so, we concentrate on the superficial, the tangible, and the quantifiable measurements that will help them succeed (whatever that means) later on in life, when they’re future people.

Because that’s what how we know we are doing a “good job,” when our students are scoring well and paying attention in class. It’s also how we’re failing.

The best comedy, according to George Carlin, is a process of digging through the layers of humanity. Instead of simple jokes, the best comedians spend their time talking about feelings and who we are, our loves and likes, our fears and nightmares, and the stuff that makes us, us. That makes them, them. The human being stuff. The stuff that no standardized test or classroom assessment can ever measure.

Curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessments are important and necessary to gauge learning, but how to live life, how to work through struggles and celebrate victories, how to engage humanity and find our purpose in life, these are what we stay alive for. These are why we learn. But because we cannot measure them, no funding is attached to them, and because it is easier to grade knowledge rather than character, education focuses on GPAs rather than character, compliance rather than curiosity; it focuses on the future people rather than the now people.

For that, I am responsible.

Humility:

 The most “influential and inspiring people,” according to John Dickson, “are often marked by humility” which is “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself” (pg 24). Fred Rogers would agree. “The real issue in life,” Fred Rogers believed, “is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard them. Some have few and give everything away” (via).

Schools, however, don’t often teach students to give their resources and blessings away. Instead, we focus on individualized learning, valedictorians, and high GPA’s. We focus on counting our blessings and building resumes.

We buy letterman jackets, award honor rolls, and crown kings and queens.

People of character, however, focus on how they can best give away their gifts and resources rather than hoarding them. They care more about their classmates, their community, and whoever else might be in need. They rarely focus on their own.

They care more about living in harmony than they do standing in the spotlight.

“Harmony,” the poet, theologian, and philosopher John O’Donohue states, is everything uniquely itself, “and by being uniquely itself, part of a greater community” (via). Sadly, I have not taught that enough in my classes.

I have focused on the uniqueness of each individual, but not on how their uniqueness fits into the great whole. I have focused on their gifts, their talents, and dreams they want fulfilled, but I have not taught them well enough the responsibility of those gifts, and the joys of giving them to others. I have focused to much time on developing their resume virtues, not their eulogy virtues.

I didn’t pull the trigger on any mass shootings, but that doesn’t mean I don’t play a part or that I’m unable to prevent the next one. Because I’m an educator, I’m responsible for building and guiding a culture. And so far, I haven’t done the best of job.

For that, I am responsible.

Andy Dufresne crawled through “five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness, {we} can’t even imagine.” Dave Cullen did the same. For ten years. Then, like Andy, he emerged, clean and redeemed on the other side.

Like Andy and Cullen, we didn’t pull the trigger. But we have pushed each other away for the sake of ourselves. And that’s why we die.

If we, as a country, truly do believe enough is enough, that “No one should ever have to go through this. Period”, and that, names of victims on the back of shirts just isn’t enough, than we too must be willing to endure the worst we can imagine and take whatever responsibility we can upon ourselves and change. We must choose another rather than ourselves, our freedoms, and our rights.

If we can do that. Then, maybe, just maybe we too can emerge from this shit-smelling foulness that isn’t hard to imagine. And when we do, like Andy and Cullen, we too can be free, and clean on the other side.

We can find redemption.

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  Chapters to my book

Humility: The Why of teaching, leadership, life

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I’m in Missoula this weekend, attending a principal’s conference, enjoying the mountains, and writing papers. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

I’ve written various chapters for a possible book on education but have been struggling with how to tie them all together, “What’s the overall purpose?” I keep asking.

At a recent teacher’s conference, I asked those in my workshop, “Why do kids need an education? Why do they have to go to college?” then they discussed. Their answers weren’t shocking.

But then I asked, “Why does a student need your subject? And why do they need you as their teacher?” They had a more difficult time answering this question.

Later the following night, while watching the sun set behind the Missoula mountains, an to my question, “What is the purpose of my book” surfaced, “To discuss why we teach.” So often, at conference or in literature, we as educators discuss What to teach and How best to teach it, but how often do we consider Why we teach?

I asked the group that question too, “Why do we spend so much time on the What and How and not on the Why?” For an almost awkward long while, they were quiet. Then, a middle-aged lady leaned over and whispered to her friend.

“What was that?” I asked, “Can you say that again?”

“Because it’s easier,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

This weekend’s writing is based almost entirely off the book, Humilitas: The Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership. It’s a simple read, but it is also one of the most profound because it hits to the core of why we teach, lead, and live.

Summary: 

The thesis of Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership is that most “influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility” (pg 19). But this wasn’t always so. For many years, men and women would never have considered humility a lost key to life, an honorable character trait, or something worth emulating. It wasn’t until just a few thousand years ago that humility was introduced into the Western world, forever changing the way we think, and the way we lead. 

According to John Dickson, a historian and senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, the ancient Greek and Roman world was built up on an honor/shame culture. In this time, a father would not have been concerned with whether his son was happy (in the modern sense) “or made money or lived morally, but whether the boy would bring honor to the family, especially to his father, and to himself” (pg 86). Honor could come through participating in a military victory, advancing through the ranks of official society, or by inventing/creating something that would greatly benefit the village – where his name and his family’ name could be pointed to and remembered. “In all of these things,” Dickson writes, “the thought was not so much the importance of conquering evildoers, making a difference to civic life or benefiting others; the chief good was the respect and praise that comes through these activities and the way they confirm the merit of the one so honored” (pg 86). Life was about being honored, remembered, and revered. Humility was rarely, if ever, considered virtuous because it was for the lowly, not the honorable. 

Humility towards the gods was appropriate because the gods could kill you. Humility was advisable to emperors too, because they too could kill you. Humility towards an equal or lesser was completely out of the question because “merit demanded honor, thus honor was proof of the merit (pg. 87)”.  

It was in this context that ancient Greeks and Romans thought nothing of praising themselves in public or, better still, getting others to praise them because it was proof of their merit. 

Then, from seemingly nowhere, came the teacher from Nazareth.

“Unfortunately, after two thousand years of Christian history,” Dickson writes, “it is difficult for people in the modern West to think of Jesus of Nazareth in a non-theological way” (pg 101). Historians however, have very little difficulty in laying “out the sources of his life, describ{ing} the methods historians use for testing claims about him, plac{ing} him in the context of Roman and Jewish history and outlin{ing} what most scholars agree are the facts about Jesus’ life, teaching, execution, and immediate impact” (pg 102). And according to historian scholars, Jesus’ immediate impact upon the Western world was introducing humility as a virtue. Because of Jesus, humility is no longer scoffed at or looked down upon, it is a badge of honor and pride and the mark of any great leader.  

Humility is “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself”, it is the “willingness to hold power in service of others” (pg 24). It is therefore impossible to be humble, in the real sense of the word, without a healthy understanding of one’s own worth and abilities (pg 25). Great leaders are not humble because they are sheepish, think lowly of themselves, or because they are “down to earth.” They are humble because when they look in the mirror, what they see is their gifts and talents and resources. They know fully well how good they are, strong they are, or powerful they are. And they must. In order to be humble they must be fully aware of what they have/are, so they can be equally aware on how best to give it away.

“Humility,” Dickson writes, “is more about how I treat others than how I think I think about myself” (pg 25). Although they have a healthy perspective of themselves, it is not their focus.  

Men and women who understand this concept and embrace it as a principle virtue, they become the most influential and inspiring people in our schools, companies, communities, and world. By living and leading through humility, they not only gain the trust and admiration of those they lead, they inspire and encourage everyone around them to live to their fullest and greatest potential, fully embracing their gifts and talents yet deploying them for the good of the community, not just themselves.  

 

Analysis:  

Several years ago, when I first married and was still considering my possible profession, a friend offered me a leadership book, “How to Make Your First Million, By the Age of Thirty,” or something like that. I believe that individual meant well by the gift because I truly do believe that individual wants to help make the world a better place. Sadly, that cannot be said about many leaders in any work force, which is why, sometimes, the greatest leaders refuse to take on leadership responsibilities. Because the stigma of those in leadership is often selfishness and materialism. They become leaders so they can make millions, have more benefits, or gain more power; it’s about them, not others.  

Leaders such as these care deeply about What they do and How they do it because they compliance from their staff; their concern is efficiency, productivity, and numbers. 

“If we're going to say, I'm not a success unless I'm on that best-seller list or this best-seller list, or I get that thing in advance or I have these sorts of ratings,” Seth Godin states, then “you are playing the game of the industrialist,” and therefore missing the point. “The point is,” he concludes, “will someone come up to {you}and say, based on what I learned from you I taught 10 other people to do this, and we made something that mattered” (Godin, 2018). 

The point of leadership is the same, to help others become the best version of themselves so they can, in turn, help 10 other people do the same.  

If, as a leader, the purpose is to be liked, popular, or successful (according to numbers, money, or achievements), then their foundation – their Why – becomes subject to personal gains and losses, not the community’s best interest. And when their personal purpose motive becomes unmoored from the people motive, bad things, scary things, and destructive things begin to happen.  They begin to deploy their resources or use their influence for the good of themselves rather than for the benefit of others. They begin to abuse their authority. 

According to Dickson, a principal, CEO, and president, have structural power that has been handed to them by an organization. They have “the power to hire and fire, set directions, approve budgets and overrule colleagues where there is disagreement” (pg 39). Leaders who wield this power selfishly, who’s aim is to serve and bring honor to themselves and their position, do so because relying on their authority is proof of their status and authority, which in turn creates a culture of fear, mistrust, and survival.  

In contrast, if a leader’s purpose is to help, to honor those they lead, and to employ their resources for the betterment of the community, if a leader sees their position of power not as a right but as a privilege and responsibility to serve rather than be served, they will create a thriving culture of curiosity, trust, and innovation. 

This is why John Dickson’s book is so crucial, because it addresses the Why of leadership and emboldens good leaders to be great leaders. It allows leaders to fully acknowledge who they are and the gifts they’ve been given, to pursue and strengthen those gifts, and to step into positions where those gifts and talents are most needed. Dickson’s redefining of humility gives talented, gifted, yet selfless individuals the push they need to step into spotlight roles because they know, by stepping into a leadership position, their focus will not be themselves, but those they serve. 

Just like Jesus. 

John Dickson, like many non-Christian historians, believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the defining example of humility. And whether or not one believes him to be the savior of the world or not, his example (in relation to humility) is one worth emulating.  

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! 

Christ did not consider his authority as God’s son as something to be used for his own advantage, it was something He needed to give away! His power, his ability to provide eternal life, his authority over death meant He had something nobody else did, and He understood this. He had to in order to properly and fully serve the world. Christ embraced his Godship, his authority, and chose to humble Himself by becoming obedient to death (allowing Himself to die) so that others may live. He didn’t use His kingship to be honored and served (to make millions), but to serve. That is the true definition of leadership.  

It is also the perfect recipe for creating a culture of trust. 

Plato once believed, “that all of us tend to believe in views of people we already trust . . . even a brilliantly argued case from someone we dislike or whose motives we think dubious will fail to carry the same force as the case put forward by someone we regard as transparently good and trustworthy” (pg 42). Leaders who assume leadership positions with a faulty and selfish Why are not trustworthy. They are the exact opposite, which is why they resort to tricks and gimmicks. In contrast, leaders who spend their time and energy thinking about and serving, who care more about the wellbeing of others than themselves are easily trusted. “Leadership is not about popularity,” Dickson writes, “It is about gaining people’s trust and moving them forward” (pg 43). It’s about their advancement, not our own.  

Another outcome of a life lived in humility is that one will “learn, grow, and thrive in a way the proud have no hope of doing” because “people who imagine that they know most of what is important to know are hermetically sealed from learning new things and receiving constructive criticism” (pg 116). This is a radically important concept for a leader. If a leader is not living with true humility, they are unable to learn and grow because in order to do so, they must admit – either privately or publicly – that their skills and gifts and talents are insufficient. And if they’re insufficient, the spotlight will move and shine upon someone else, which could be devastating. However, if a leader is marked by humility, they and their spotlight are already focused elsewhere, leaving them free and open to new thoughts and new ideas, allowing them to grow and learn and better serve those they are leading. “In his battle against early twentieth-century rationalism and self-reliance,” Dickson writes, “G. K. Chesterton argued that human pride is in fact the engine of mediocrity. It fools us into believing that we have ‘arrived’, that we are complete, and that there is little else to learn” (pg 120). Such is the trademark of a selfish leader. 

Being a leader marked by humility does not mean, however, that he or she is soft, easily tossed around, or meek and mild. Nor does it mean being loud and pushy. “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance,” Dickson argues, “the solution to ideological discord is not ‘tolerance’,” he writes, “but an ability to profoundly disagree with others and deeply honor them at the same time” (pg 23). Having strong opinions and deeply held convictions is not a hindrance to humility. In fact, in many cases, it is the mark of it. As long as we are willing and able to use or withhold those convictions for the good of others before ourselves. 

 

Closing

Living a life and leading with humility not only signals security, it fosters a healthy sense of self-worth that is rooted in service rather than achievement, in giving and not taking. The more leaders rely on achievement or popularity for a sense of worth, the more crushing every small failure or simple criticism will seem.  

In contrast, knowing, living, and leading with a purpose beyond myself that is rooted in the principle of humility provides an impenetrable fortress of security and freedom, for leaders as well as for their staff. If a staff understands that their leaders decisions and purpose is to serve and honor them, if they believe that their leader’s hope is for them to succeed, to reach their utmost potential, and to be the very best version of themselves, a community that supports and trusts one another, that grows and learns from another other, and that defends and protects one another will be established. A type of culture where everyone is embracing their gifts and talents and using them for the benefit of the community, not just themselves, because they know and trust their neighbors are doing the same. “When people trust us, they tend to believe what we say, and few are considered more trustworthy than those who choose to use their power for the good of others above themselves” (pg 147). 

A leader marked by humility is also not afraid to admit mistakes because they are not concerned about their perfect shine. They’re fully aware of their faults, and the faults of others, and therefore choose to freely admit their flaws and mistakes because they know it is what’s best for the progress and strength of those they lead. “Mistakes of execution are rarely as damaging to an organization, whether corporate, ecclesiastical or academic, as a refusal to concede mistakes,” Dickson states. If a leader is unwilling to admit his or her mistakes, if they are insecure and unable to fail in front of those they lead, they can never expect their school or community to try new things, make amends for mistakes made, or seek reconciliation from those they’ve offended. The culture will be stale and shallow, with each person operating out of safety and survival rather than curiosity and trust.  “Apologize to those affected,” Dickson argues, “and redress the issue with generosity and haste” (pg 130).  

Leaders want their staff to believe that they are not only competent in their job, they also want their staff to be proud of them as their boss, to brag about them, and to consider them a superstar, like players do who have been coached by some of the greats. “I played under Coach K,” or, “I was one of Coach Ditka's players.” Athletes who talk this way are proud of their journey and the coach that inspired them, because those great coaches understood humility.

Dickson writes, an "inspiring leader must control his ego and throw his energies into maximizing other people’s potential.” But also, they must ensure that “{the players} get the credit” (pg 156). Coaches who brag about their play calling, their clock management, or whatever instantly lose the respect of their players. Great coaches brag about their players, lift them up and celebrate them; they shift the spotlight, fully and completely, on others and their accomplishments, not their own.

The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility. They willingly forgo their status, deploy their resources, or use their influence for the good of others before themselves. They consider others as more important than themselves, and in so doing, they change the world.  

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  If school was like rock climbing 

What to Teach, when We're Wrong

I’ve mentioned before how discipline has the potential to draw in our struggling and most difficult students, but what about when we struggle? What about those moments when we lose our cool and don’t act with perfect love and patience? What happens then?

Our first response might be to defend ourselves, blame our students or just “chalk it up to a bad day,” because it’s easy and natural to want to mask our failures and imperfections with excuses and defensiveness because nobody likes to be perceived as weak or incapable. But when we do, when we choose to lift up and defend ourselves over another, we sacrifice the opportunity of teaching one of the greatest lessons life has to offer. Mainly, what it means to fail, to ask for forgiveness, and then to rest in the beauty of reconciliation. We miss out on teaching our students (and reminding ourselves) of what it means to be human.

 

After showing the provocative music video, “This Is America” by Childish Gambino to the class, we spent some time dissecting its many symbols and themes and discussing the perspectives and ideas of Mr. Gambino. We talked about race and guns and the art of expression. We talked about the Jim Crow era and related it to the recent Starbucks and Yale incidents. We wrestled with the concept of reality and the power of perspective. Then we watched my favorite scene from Men In Black.

Shortly after Will Smith’s character is confronted with the reality that aliens do in fact live on this planet, the movie cuts to him and Special Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on a bench, over looking the Hudson River and the iconic Twin Towers.

“1500 years ago,” Special Agent K says, concluding their conversation, “we knew the earth was the center of the universe, 500 years ago we knew the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago you knew humans were the only species on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” We then talked about what we know and how we know it and how that relates to stereotypes and prejudices and the fallibility of reality.

            It was shaping up to be a fantastic lesson.

 “So,” I said, sitting on the table in front of the class, “With this in mind, is Childish Gambino wrong?” I asked.

            “No,” they responded.

            “Is he right?”

            “No,” they said again.

            “Then what is he?”

            “Both.”

            “Exactly.” And I privately gave myself a pat on the back, “You’re killing it B-Mill!”

Then all hell broke loose.

As a teacher who has gained the respect of most of my students, I’m pretty used to kids tracking with my lesson plans and accepting most of what I have to say – even if they don’t necessarily agree with it completely. However, every now and then, one student takes it upon him or herself to challenge me. And today, it was the confident kid in the far back corner, the one who doesn’t say much but always has an opinion.

“That’s bull,” he said, and the whole class turned.

“What?” I said, more shocked then anything.

“That’s bull,” he said again, “America isn’t like that.” He then went on to explain why he thought Gambino was unfair and his interpretation of America false, because “Racism isn’t that big a deal anymore.”  

“What are you talking about?” I yelled, “How can you say racism isn’t a big deal, it’s a HUGE deal!!!”

When he didn’t believe me, I went after him, because he was wrong and he needed to know it. He needed to take a lesson from Special Agent J and realize what he thinks he knows isn’t reality. When he argued again, I got louder and challenged his sources, his lack of experience, “You’re only a freshman,” I said, “How much of the world have you seen?” and then I picked apart his argument word by every friggen word until, eventually, I won. Or rather, until he sat back in his chair, arms crossed, and stopped talking. Then the bell rang.

On his way out I tried to make amends. “Hey,” I said, waiving him over.”

He came, reluctantly.

“I appreciated you speaking up today,” I said, “Please keep doing it.” I stuck my fist out for our usual fist bump because he wouldn’t look at me and I wanted to make sure everything was okay. It wasn’t.

“Brother,” I said as we walked towards the door, “you gotta be willing to see things from a different perspective. You’re reality isn’t complete.” He still wouldn’t look at me and I could tell he just wanted to go, but I kept at it. I kept talking and not listening. I kept arguing, even though he wasn’t saying anything.

Finally, he turned, “I respectfully disagree,” then picked up his pace and headed to his next class. The door clicked shut behind him and I knew I had failed, that my words no longer had merit, and that I had lost him. All because I knew I was right.

That night, with my kids finally tucked into bed and my wife working on the couch next to me, a sort of sickness swirled in my stomach. I tried to write, to lesson plan, to grade papers, to watch YouTube videos, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about the day’s class and the example I had set.

I thought of how the entire year’s worth of building trust and arguing for the power of stories and the need for kindness had all come crashing down in less than ten minutes. I thought of all the times I prided myself as an open-minded guy who loves and embraces everyone. I thought of my “Dialogue not Monologue” speeches, of how we spent a week discussing Chimamanda Adichie’s perspective on single stories and stereotypes – “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” and how those words had become the anthem to our year, in everything we read or watched or discussed. And my stomach churned because, suddenly, all that was just words and ideas that didn’t really mean a thing. Because I had failed to make any of it come to life, to make it tangible and alive, in the classroom, where they could see it and hear it and experience it.

Because I cared more about what content then I did about the person.

 “Agh,” I moaned, shooting up from the couch and not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing.

My wife jumped, “What?” she asked, a bit startled, “What’s wrong?”

I told her about my student and how I responded. She listened, asked a few questions, then said, “Why don’t you just apologize?”

Because I’m the teacher was my first thought and because I’m not wrong was the second. But then, after a moment, it hit me, because you are the teacher, you are wrong.

I was wrong because I didn’t put into practice what I had so desperately wanted my students to learn: be willing to hear and see things from another’s perspective. And I was wrong because I had treated my student with less respect than he deserved, all because I disagreed with him, because I knew I was right. I was wrong because I chose to be right rather than to do what was right. My good friend, Erik Beard taught me that.

Erik and I have been friends for almost 20 years, and for the first ten or so, we were close. We traveled the country together, played music from Shel Silverstein books, battled in sports, and made thousands of campfires together. We even argued. But, like many of the discussions in my English classroom, we argued about things that were at a distance and outside of ourselves. They weren’t immensely personal, more philosophical. Until suddenly, they weren’t.

I don’t remember exactly what Erik said, I just know it was personal and, for whatever reason, offensive. I remember too that I didn’t say anything at first, I just fumed. For days. Until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then, I called him up “Brother,” I said, “We need to talk.”

“Sure,” he said, “When?”

We decided to meet the next morning at our usual diner. I got there early with my journal that was packed full of thoughts and arguments and as I waited, I read them over and over. When he finally walked in, I was ready.

How we started the awkward conversation isn’t clear, but judging from how I’ve handled similar situations in the past I can only assume we dove right in. I probably didn’t even let him order a coffee. What I do remember though is me laying into him and explaining, with acute detail, why he was wrong in what he said, how he said it, and when he said it.

At first, he argued a bit, defending his intentions and clarifying his position, but I wouldn’t hear it because I had my journal, my thoughts, and a clear defense. Eventually he just sat there, listening and occasionally clarifying.

When I was finished, he calmly said, “I’m sorry.” Then, “I hear you. I don’t fully agree with you, but I hear you.”

That was it. No argument, no defense, and no excuse. Just, “I’m sorry.” And it completely disarmed me.

I remember the short pause of silence, the waitress filling our coffee cups, and me closing my journal. I also remember that that was when we started to have a discussion, when we looked at each other and acknowledged, “We’re on the same side” and began working through the pain and frustration of what happened. That’s also when I learned I could trust Erik with anything, that he was safe, and that he wasn’t really concerned about being right, but rather, doing what was right. He chose me over what he knew. And over the years, that has made all the difference.

So the next day, after the students filed in and took their seats, I walked to the front of the class, sat on the table that sits below the whiteboard, and asked, “What was the point of the video from yesterday?

“To spark an argument,” someone whispered.

“To listen to and see things from another’s perspective,” another student said more confidently.

“Exactly,” I said, pointing at the latter, “That was what I had hoped for, but because of how I responded to my man,” and I pointed to the student, “I ended up sparking an argument and doing exactly what I was asking you guys not to do.” I looked around the class as my heart began to race. Everyone was looking straight at me. “And because I challenged him in front of you all,” I continued, “I need to also say, in front of you all,” and I waved my hand over the entire class, “that Student,” and I looked straight at him “I’m sorry. I took advantage of my position as a teacher and I was unfair to you as a person.”

He stared back at me. The class went silent.

“I disrespected you,” I said, “and I wasn’t kind or respectful to your perspectives. I apologize. Will you forgive me?”

“Yes,” he said, “Me too. I got angry too.”

“Are we good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “We’re good.” Then class continued, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what we covered that day. And to be even more honest, I don’t really care because I don’t think it really mattered. There were greater things going on.

When class was over, I met the student by the door, “Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said, lifting his fist for a pound.

 

I think what’s most frustrating about being a teacher is that not every student will agree with what I have to say, with the lessons I’m trying to teach, or how I perceive the world to be and the changes that need to happen in order to make it better.

            Some kids leave my class still insensitive, still ignorant of the plight and difficulty of the many lives that surround there own, and still completely absorbed in satisfying their own self-interests, and that frustrates the hell out of me. If I can’t get kids to think, if I can’t get them to be better people and contributors to society, what am I doing? Why am I wasting my time?

            It’s easy to get discouraged when, at the end of the day, the week, and sometimes even the year, it seems like not enough change actually happened.

But then I remember Mr. Furman.

During my senior year, while scraping by with a 1.75ish GPA, my English teacher, Mr. Furman, read my short story journal entry to the class and said, “Brian, you are a good writer.” It didn’t matter much then, but almost five years later, while in California and sitting on a blanket in a sea of freshly cut grass with my new fiancé by my side, his words suddenly floated to the surface and challenged everything I’d known about my direction in life. That next semester, I transferred into the English Ed. Program.

My students may never remember the essay questions surrounding the life and death of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. They probably won’t recall the songs we annotated or the videos we unpacked, and I can almost guarantee that none of them will miss filling out the infamous PDP notes

But they might remember the days we wrestled through failure, forgiveness, and all that other human being stuff.

They might remember, even if it’s many years from now, how they had a teacher who wasn’t afraid to be wrong, to admit their fault, and who consistently chose them – the students – over himself.

They might remember a classroom of freedom and safety and authenticity, where they could wrestle with ideas and failure and grow and learn without fear of ridicule, and when they do, hopefully, they will pull their heals out from the ground, care less about speaking than they do about listening, and do what is right.

But even if many of them don’t, even if I never hear from them or see how much they’ve changed and grown, I choose to believe that at least a small percentage of them will and are because, as a teacher, I choose to believe in hope, in the example of Mr. Furman, and the reality that education isn’t simply about what they score on the test today, but rather, what they will know tomorrow.

You know, the good stuff. The life stuff. The human being stuff. The reason we chose to be teachers stuff.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Education  :  If school was like rock climbing  :  Metric Fixation : how standardized data impedes classroom innovation

On Discipline : Beyond Consequences

Growing up, I often heard stories of how biblical shepherds handled sheep that constantly strayed – they would break the sheep’s legs.

Then, because the sheep could no longer walk, the shepherd would carry it on his shoulders until it healed. During this time, a bond of trust would form between the shepherd and the sheep. Once healed, the sheep would no longer leave the shepherd.

So, when my mother told me not to borrow her bike and I did anyway, she tried to break my legs.  

My bike was fine, but hers was better, and the road to my friend’s house was long. So long in fact that it took thirty minutes for her to catch up in the car. It took her less than three minutes to bolt from the car, stuff her bike into the undersized trunk, yell, “WALK HOME!” and whip the car around and through the oncoming traffic.

By the time I made it back to the house, the cool of the evening was beginning to settle in and I had some pretty fantastic excuses worked out.

I walked through the front door, parched, and ready to wash myself of blame and trouble. She too was ready, “Go to your room,” she said, “Wait for your dad to come home.” When she didn’t glance up from her floured tabletop and rolled out dough, I knew I was in trouble.

The hours between then and my dad’s pickup bouncing over the curb were forever. The hour it took for my father to slowly open the door and sit on my bed was even longer. The talk, however, was less than a minute: “No TV, no friends, no phone, for two weeks.”

“TWO WEEKS!” I yelled.

“Yes, two weeks,” my dad said, even though it was summer, beautiful summer, when kids should be out with their friends, riding bikes, fishing in small ponds, building forts, and getting into simple mischief.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not only was I confined to the acre and a half of my parents’ property, I was to memorize Bible verses, read books on the Lord’s second coming, and “think about what I’d done.”

Taking the bike was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” because it was just one of a hundred times I was disrespectful, disobedient, and selfish, and I needed to learn my lesson. I needed to have my legs broken.

As a child, my mother didn’t yell and scream when I misbehaved, but she did place the responsibility for punishing a disobedient and defiant young boy upon his father. She had a hand in creating the consequence, but he was the one who enforced it, who sat with me in my anger and tears. He was the one who talked me through it, who listened to my weak negations, and who patiently, with tears in his own eyes, refused to budge or relent but affirmed that I would indeed be grounded for two weeks.

He was also the one who took me fishing.

About a week into my grounding, I was sitting in the backyard, reading, when my father came home from work and asked if I wanted to go to the river for the next week. I still had to read and memorize, but I could do it from the camper, after running bank lines and trotlines and swimming in the great currents of the northern Mississippi River. “Of course!” I yelled.

“Great,” he said, “then pack up your stuff. We’ll head out early tomorrow morning.”

I slammed my book shut and ran inside the house; my dad grabbed the tackle box and lifted me to his shoulders, just like a good shepherd should.

The next morning, we left early.

The five-hour drive to the campground was spent hearing the same old stories of when my dad was a kid on the river. How he and his friend caught a huge snapping turtle with only a net, how he spent a summer shingling the roof of his parent’s cabin, and about the time he and his friend built a bonfire so massive that it caught the attention of a barge passing by. He told me about the propane tank.

It was he and his friend’s first night away from the cabin and they were a bit scared of the dark, even though neither one would admitted it, so they threw log after log upon the roaring flames. When they found the tank buried beneath a pile of driftwood, they threw that on too. Then quickly forgot all about it.

Minutes later, it exploded, sending sparks and wood and teenage boys flying in all directions. No one was hurt and Dad chuckled as he told it, just like he’d done the dozen or so times before, which made me laugh and smile too because I loved that story.

Then, we were there. As we crested the bluff, my dad stopped, “Oh no.”

“What?” I asked.

“It’s flooded.”

The river must have just recently receded back to its normal levels because the road was covered with a layer of deep, sloppy, river mud. “Well,” my dad said, slowly pulling forward, “if it doesn’t rain the rest of the time we’re here, we should be okay.

With each nightly downpour, our fear that we’d never make it out grew, and with each passing day, my dad prepared to get us out of the mess and safely home by shoveling as much mud off the road as possible then haul and spread gravel from a nearby gravel pit over the road, all without a shovel. 

And never once did I doubt that he could, that he would, and that we wouldn’t make it home safe.

But then, a prison work crew showed up to fix all the picnic tables. When they paused for a quick lunch break, my dad asked one of them if he wanted some of our fish. The man looked at my dad and said, “You better as’ the boss firs’.”

“I did,” my dad replied, holding up the plate of freshly grilled catfish, “he said it’s okay.” The man looked around, at his other inmates, the river, then back to the plate, “Well,” he said, “You got any salt?”

Over the next thirty minutes or so, the dozen or so inmates finished off all the fish we’d caught the previous four days. I watched from the camper, hidden behind my book, but reading nothing. One man, with his mouth full, shook his head, “Shit. Dis is better ‘en my chicken,” and I knew he was telling the truth because my dad grew up on the Mississippi river, fishing, working, and learning from his parents, and he knew how to grill catfish.

Before leaving, the crew grated the road for us, laid down new gravel, and lined the old picnic tabletops under our camper and van. When it rained hard on our last night by the river, my dad slept soundly. In the morning, instead of clearing the road or heading home, we went fishing and my dad told stories of when he was a young and imperfect son.

My dad didn’t have to break my legs for me to learn how to trust him. Nor did he have to yell and scream and rain down punishments for me to respect him. He just needed time with me, to take an interest in me, and to show me that he just because my behavior was inappropriate it didn’t mean I wasn’t wanted, or loved.

Instead of creating consequences, he created memories. And in the following years, whenever I would get into trouble or found myself stuck, it was my father I went to, who I met for coffee or called on the phone while wandering the dark streets, searching for answers. Because he was the one who took me fishing.

So when “G” said, “Fuck this shit!” in front of the entire class, when he jumped up from his chair and started walking out of the room yelling, “this is bullshit!” I didn’t walk him to the office or write him up or chase him down the hall, yelling and screaming and threatening detention, suspension, or failure of the class. Instead, I let him go and thought about fishing with my father. When the bell rang, I went to principal because, like me, “G” didn’t need to have his legs broken. Nor did he need me to carry him. He just needed someone who’d be willing to sit with him, in the muck and the mire, and hear his story.

“I want “G” to spend the next week with me, during lunch,” I said, “Is that possible?” She was a bit skeptical.

“Please. Don’t write him up, just let me spend time with him.” And because I’m fortunate to have supportive bosses, she said okay.

The next day, with a ham and cheese sandwich and a few freshly cut vegetables scattered on my desk, I waited for “G” to show, but he never did. When I saw him in the hallway, I asked him about it, told him he wasn’t in trouble, but that I just wanted to talk and hang out with him for a bit. He said he’d come tomorrow.

When he showed up, I asked him how he’s doing. “Not good,” he said. Then, he told me about his family.

“My dad came in my room and asked where Mom is” he says, lounging in the cold desk, arms crossed, “and I didn’t know if I should tell him or not. Next thing you know, we’re sitting in the car for three hours. I call my mom and she says she’s at the movies but there aren’t any cars in the parking lot because there isn’t any movie showing. My dad starts crying and my little brother starts crying and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Mom didn’t get home till 3am.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, knowing where this was going. He looks up.

“Hearing your parents argue is the worst. Having your ten-year old brother cry in your arms isn’t what anyone wants.”

He fights back tears. Because he’s tough.

“Mom’s crying, Dad leaves, and nobody knows where he went. Three days pass and no sign of my dad nowhere. Until the Fourth of July.”

The bell rings and “G” gets ready to go to class. “Thanks,” I say, “Thanks for sharing.” He nods gently and heads to class.

The next day, and for the four days after, he comes back.

He tells me how his parents almost got back together, but then, on a trip to the beach, they got into another big fight and he, his little brother, and his mom had to walk home in the rain. He talks about how she eventually moved out and how difficult it was because she still lived in town, with another woman.  

He tells me that was when he finally broke down and cried because the next morning, when he woke up, he found his dad passed out on the couch, “No one should have to experience this,” he says.

“G” used to be a “good kid,” a star athlete, and a decent student. Now, he doesn’t understand why he is so angry all the time, why he can’t control his temper.

“I used to be that kid thinking life would be so easy. But that just makes it harder.”

We sit in silence for a minute.

“I just want to beak down and cry,” he says “but it’s too late to be crying over something that I can’t fix. Life isn’t easy, and it never gonna be.”

“I’m sorry,” I say again, thinking of my dad and the river and wondering if and how I could lift “G” to my shoulders, because so much of his life seems bent on breaking his legs.

The bell rings, and I still don’t know what to do.

Later that day, another teacher writes “G” up and doesn’t want him in their class because he’s disrespectful and curses and needs to be taught a lesson.

He asks if he could spend his detention with me.

A week later, when he needs help with credit recovery for science class, he comes in during lunch and we work through the material together – neither of us having a clue what is being asked but finding, and sometimes guessing, the answers together.

Later in the quarter, he writes a poem about how the Fourth of July used to be the best time of year, until Mom and Dad argue, a little brother cries, and a family falls apart, and I find myself trying to fight back tears, to be tough like “G”.

Then he writes a powerful short story about his parent’s, his mother, and the day he found out she was leaving her family – her “G” - for a woman she met at work. He writes an essay on the power of music and another on anger and how it fuels his life but ruins his days, and I smile.

“G” hasn’t stopped cursing in class, but he is trying, he is showing up almost every day, and he is working on what he can – even if it might be “bullshit”, and that makes me smile. Because that means he’s healing.

I know I’m not “G”’s father or his shepherd, but I am his teacher. And when we had lunch together, when he told me about his life and the things that matter most, I listened. When he asked me if I could relate, I told him about my failures as a son, a father, a teacher, and a husband. I told him he wasn’t alone, in his failure or his pain.

I wasn’t able to take “G” fishing or carry him on my shoulders, but I do think I was still able to help him heal, if only a little,  because whenever I walk home from work and a car honks and honks and honks, I know it’s “G”, driving with his girl, just wanting to say hi.

And sometimes, it’s the best part of the day.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  On Education  :  On Parenting