Saturday, August 17, 2019

Defining Your Why


My Why is Defined by a Pair of Socks
Sandy Cameli, Educator

     As educators we are often asked to share our “why” for teaching. Most teachers have heartfelt reasons like, “It’s my pay-it-forward” or “I believe every student’s gift is their future potential”. Likewise, schools display mission and vision statements targeting ambitious goals like “growing global citizens” while inviting stakeholders to share in a learning environment’s highlights and successes. And, for educational leaders our Why provides the philosophical foundation that empowers peers and colleagues to define their own belief systems in order to support the learners whom they have been entrusted to educate and support.
     Collectively, educators are good at articulating big picture “whys” for the sake of their community of learners. But what about the smaller “whys”?  Those moments in one’s teaching career that bring the pie-in-the-sky school mottos to a screeching halt, and challenge a teacher’s “why” by just one child.  How do we tether our beliefs and values to concrete examples … to real life … to the needs of a single individual?
Here is “that one child” story which helped to define, and attach a face, to my why:
     It was the mid-90s, hoodies, graphic tees, scrunchies and grunge were in fashion, and the first “Toy Story” movie captivated adults as much as it did children. Social media had not taken over yet, and students were still enjoying school (for the most part) when it came to team building and interdisciplinary projects. I was teaching 7th grade in a rural middle school where many of the students qualified for free or reduced meals, and most head-of-households were single parents working multiple jobs. One of our school’s signature structures was Advisory class which grounded students with a smaller, consistent group of peers and focused on social emotional learning (even before SEL was considered a common term) as they navigated the “ins and outs” of early adolescent learning. As an advocate of Advisory, this was my favorite part of each day!
     Early in the school year, the Principal called a meeting with our 7th grade team and the school’s counselor to share updates about a new student enrolling in a few days. A Social Worker also joined the meeting to brief us on the boy’s background.  Joshua* had had few successes in previous classes and schools, and was known to “camp” in the Counselor or Vice Principal’s office for the whole day since he could not acclimate to typical classroom surroundings. He had earned the nickname “Joshua of the Jungle” in reference to his wild side and inability to conform to school structures. Additionally, we learned that his upbringing had been one of heartbreak and trauma, as he was taken away from his mother at 18-months of age when he was found crawling around drug paraphernalia in an empty apartment scrounging for food in a week’s old soiled diaper. As for any academic skills, Joshua was chronologically 12 years old but considered illiterate, developmentally delayed and barely performing at a preschool level. 
     As veteran middle level teachers, we readily embraced all students and collectively provided support for every range of learner on our team. However, we were at a complete loss not knowing where or how to begin with this young man. The counselor crafted a schedule which doubled up on classes like Physical Education and Art, while assigning Joshua to the Resource Room for the better part of the day. It was also agreed that he would join my Advisory class since I had a background in Special Education and was assigned an Educational Assistant to work with several other mainstreamed students on our team.
     Joshua’s transition to middle school was far from smooth. On Day 1, he refused to get on the bus and ran away from his foster parents. By the end of Week 1, we only saw him from a distance as the counselor and special education teacher kept him in the Resource Room trying to assess basic skills and help him learn systems and structures of our campus. By Week 2, he would only sit in the cafeteria or ride on the golf cart with the Head Custodian. He also ran away that week and hid in a tree for several hours until our DARE officer found him and brought him back to the Resource Room. However, during the last week of September, Joshua finally joined our Advisory class. Most of my students knew who he was as they had seen him at their elementary school or rode the same bus, and while the kids certainly weren’t rude, they appeared indifferent. These kids had seen him come and go so often that they didn’t really expect him to stay, thus they generally didn’t put any extra effort into getting to know him.
     We started slow. I asked Joshua to take the attendance to the office - with the Counselor as my extra pair of eyes - and return to class with handouts from the clerks. A small victory, but it was a beginning. After a few more days, I invited Joshua to clean out my dried-out markers drawer in exchange for tokens to be used at our school store. We had a fish tank, so Joshua would feed the guppies; When the high louvers needed closing, Joshua was tall enough to shut them at the end of the day; and, in the mornings before Advisory started he LOVED taking down all the chairs from the desks - so I let him! Soon after joining our class, Joshua had established rituals and routines on our team, and came to school for 2 straight weeks without an absence - the social worker said this had never happened at his previous school. There were still tremendous obstacles and growth would come in baby-steps, but we were slowly on our way!
     During the month of October, students were eager to participate in Halloween activities sponsored by the school. A favorite team-building event was the very popular Pumpkin Decorating Contest. Each Advisory class would decorate a gourd based on a theme. The Librarian suggested each class choose a favorite character from a book for their pumpkin project, and the winning classes would receive root beer floats compliments of the Principal. Also, no money could be spent on the display. Classes could make props or bring gently used items from home, but no store-bought decorations could be included (The staff unanimously agreed to this as so many of our students’ families struggled financially).
     It was hard to contain the excitement of sixteen 7th graders planning a pumpkin that year, but it was equally thrilling to watch them brainstorm, collaborate and sign-up for items to be brought from home. Joshua enthusiastically volunteered to bring a pair of socks for the boy character from the book, Stone Fox that we had read as a class the previous month. So it seemed all was set for the weekend as the students bounded toward the buses with their reminder lists in hand. The following week we would begin putting our pumpkin-character together. It made my heart sing to see Joshua becoming part of our Advisory class and fitting in with his peers.
     Bright and early Monday morning while signing in at the school counter, I was beckoned to the Principal’s office by her Secretary, a seriousness enveloped the room as I sat down. I was informed that an emergency IEP meeting had been called for Joshua and I would need to attend at 11:00am. The office had already arranged for a substitute to cover my classes, but no other information was provided. I walked to my classroom in a daze, “What was going on?”, “Did something happen over the weekend?”, “Is Joshua alright?”. I flipped on the lights to see all the chairs on the desks, no Joshua would be here to take them down today.
     The conference room was packed, this was a larger than normal meeting. Seated around the table were the Principal, Vice Principal, counselor, social worker, police officer, foster parents, the Special Education Dept. Head, the PE teacher and me.  The Social Worker began by sharing how pleased the team was with Joshua’s progress over the last 2 months, and although the incident was somewhat of a set-back, she believed our school was still the best placement to meet his needs. Still unsure of what was going on I simply sat with my eyes glued to the CONFIDENTIAL file placed in front of the Principal. The Officer then began to fill in the pieces. Apparently on Saturday evening, Joshua was arrested for breaking into a local thrift store. He was with two older high school boys who initially ran away, but were later caught and arrested with over $250.00 on them. When Joshua was found, still on the premises, he didn’t take money or any items of substantial value he was simply caught with a pair of stolen socks.
     I sucked in an audible gasp. All members of the team looked directly at me as my eyes began to well up. No one could understand why Joshua would steal socks, and initially I wasn’t composed enough to respond. As tears flowed, I tried to explain that Joshua’s act of robbery wasn’t malicious, but rather aligned to his sense of belonging with his peers and for the class pumpkin. And though I would never condone illegal acts my heart was breaking for a child who was simply trying to fit in. The IEP team was empathetic, but also needed to abide by the law and criteria set up for special cases like Joshua’s. In this circumstance, the consequences would be severe.
     He was sent to a residential facility for a few weeks as the social worker and his foster family navigated the judicial system. When he came back to school his attendance began to falter and he started reverting back to old “survival type” behaviors that had thwarted previous learning experiences. Eventually, he was pulled out of our school and moved to an intensive learning class on another campus. He and I crossed paths a few times when he was in high school, but I later heard he dropped out of school completely and moved out of State. It has been years, and I’ve since lost track of Joshua, but he revisits my thoughts and guides my Why on a regular basis.

I think about the hundreds of students who have shared my classroom, and the dozens of times I’ve been asked to identify my mission and vision as a teacher. I am able to succinctly summarize the goals as an instructor for any inquiry. And when asked how I live my Why as an educational leader, I  reflect upon a child whose need for belonging circumvented his own safety and well-being - when all odds were against him - in order to be part of something greater than himself.  I may no longer have my own classroom, or decorate bulletin boards, or participate in spirited class competitions anymore, but not a day goes by that I don’t ground my beliefs and actions in a sense of belonging for all, in order to contribute to the greater good. And, isn’t that the same sense of belonging we all strive to provide for our students, our colleagues, our friends and families … ourselves?

So here's the question for all educational leaders: How do you define your Why, and how do you live it?

* student’s name has been changed to protect his privacy