“We must learn to distinguish between what is merely important and what is wildly important. A wildly important goal carries serious consequences. Failure to achieve these goals renders all other achievements relatively inconsequential.” Steven Covey.
What's wildly important for our underserved students, their families and communities, and what is merely important? I would argue that academics are merely important, and that tending to their stories, keeping them safe, creating a sense of belonging, and a desire for lifelong learning are wildly important.
I can hear the pushback now: But academics have to be wildly important if our students are going to succeed and compete in the world. The problem with this approach is that in practice, achievement becomes the driving force, and their stories and belonging become secondary, rather than a central place to teach and lead from.
There is an often-told Story about a middle school student who got her homework done, under the light of car headlamps. This story is offered as the shining pre-amble to learning how to set expectations, and to teach grit and perseverance. She is praised and rewarded by the teacher in this story for doing whatever it takes. The teacher believes that he is teaching grit and perseverance, no matter what hardships life serves up. But what this 10-year-old girl needs is someone to listen to her story. Upon further inquiry, we learn that her family couldn’t afford to pay the electric bill, so she sat outside, in the unsafe dark of night, on hard, cold concrete, to get her homework done. The teachable moment here is for the teacher. This child already has grit and perseverance. What she needs is help with her family’s situation. If there is no electricity, there is no food, or a way to wash the uniform she is expected wear. There is anguish in the home and all its attendant complexities. Perhaps the teacher in this scenario did tend to those things, but the workshop leader doesn’t communicate it. He is focused on the outcome: Whatever it Takes.
But let’s say the student was driven to do this sheroic act for more complicated reasons than meet the eye. Perhaps she simply is, by nature, a high achiever. Or craves praise. Or felt safer outside in the dark of night than in her own house under these circumstances. What if the teacher had focused on the wildly Important and asked the student what strengths she called on to solve this problem of getting her homework done under extreme, adverse conditions? What if he asked her if she could identify some of those strengths to call on in other challenging situations so that she could see the fullness of herself – the strengths she already has and brings to the world?
We need to help students understand what they do well so that they can intentionally practice these habits.
An AP coaching client I worked with we’ll call Celia, had an epiphany during a professional development workshop: “I identified and made myself aware of my biggest dream: To make our school a place where we heal before we teach and truly engage children in critical thinking, and have excitement about learning.”
During our coaching session, she told me that she heard a teacher yelling at a third-grader. Practicing curiosity, I asked her why people yell at third-graders. She thoughtfully reflected and said: “They are frustrated with themselves for not being prepared enough. And when students don’t change their behavior.”
Celia approached the student and chose to listen to him: heal before teaching. “What’s going on Quinton?” He told her that he can’t sleep at night and has gruesome, graphic dreams. He was deeply worried. Since his father left and his mother went to jail, he’s afraid his aunt and grandmother, with whom he lives, will also go away. He’s on high vigilance all night and falls asleep during class. This eight-year-old unburdened himself and shifted into engagement with Celia who is dedicated to straightening the crooked room of education. She asked him what he’s interested in. “Science,” he offered. Celia called his aunt and received permission to bring Quinton home late because she wanted to take him to buy a science book.
The next day, Celia asked him how his night was. He excitedly reported that he loves his new book and, after reading it, fell into a deep sleep. Quinton let go of his nightmare, and Celia, in this moment, was living her dream to heal before we teach. Not only was Quinton able to stay awake in class after realizing that his aunts would be there for him when he woke up, he delved into science, something he could not have done without Celia understanding the difference between The merely and the wildly Important for Quinton. She coached his teacher who began learning a new approach.
Celia and I then talked about a third-grade class that was so difficult, a very seasoned teacher walked out of classroom in the middle of a lesson. The teacher described a chorus of “whining that drove her out:” “Why-should-I-have-to-give-the-pencil-back-to-Jondre; he-stole-mine-first” kind of whining. I suggested to Celia that 3rd and 4th graders become very aware of justice, and this is one way they might express it. Perhaps she could introduce stories or films to her teachers about justice to use with students, to teach them other ways to respond to unjust situations, then engage in role plays to practice. “I had never thought of it that way,” she said. “Justice! Never thought that this might be what they were expressing.” Celia was on inspired. Ready to see her students in a new light and teach and coach to that. She was living her dream.
Sacrificing the wildly for the merely in these two stories offers us the false impression that we are teaching children what grit and high expectations are, or that rules eclipse their realities. In fact, we’ve taught them compliance and reinforced fear and trauma. That these children are less than, not good enough, unless they complete the math assignment regardless of what’s going on in their lives. We’ve taught them that we actually don’t recognize grit when it's in front of us. We’ve taught them that we have the luxury or privilege to ignore their wildly important realities in service to policies, rules, test scores, and outcomes. And perhaps worst of all, we’ve taught them how to ignore their own wildly important lives.
When we have the courage to listen to stories, to embrace them and make accommodations for them, children and adults thrive. They learn. We learn. They learn for the right reasons. They learn what they excel in and how to address and manage their fears. To heal before and while we teach.
Together, school leaders can seize these moments by re-examining the wildly and the merely, redefining how these two concepts interact with each other, and the serious consequences of getting it wrong. Of rendering all other achievements relatively inconsequential. And so this begs the question: What are schools for?
Linda Belans 9-29-18