‘It is harder for us to be nice to kids’ — departing veteran principal

George Wood is retiring this year after serving as principal of Federal Hocking Secondary School in Stewart, Ohio, for 21 years. He will stay on as superintendent of the Federal Hocking District. Wood is a nationally known author, educator, activist and school reform leader, and founder of the Forum for Education and Democracy. This is his last weekly letter to his staff.

By George Wood

Some 21 years ago I swiped an idea from my friend Dennis Littky and started sending out what I call “TGIFs.” The idea was to inform, and perhaps provoke some thought about how we keep school.  This will be my last one.

I have grappled with what to say in this for weeks.  It is part of who we humans are that ‘starts’ and ‘ends’ of things seem to call for profundity.  But profundity eludes me.  So I’ll leave you with this one small thought:  Be nice.

There is not a lot (at my advanced age) that I remember about my own time as a student, but what I do remember are the acts of kindness by my teachers.  Mrs.  Kotcher, my kindergarten teacher, finding me long pants to put on the first day of school when older kids made fun of my shorts;  Mrs. West (3rd grade) convincing me it was OK to miss school (first absence in four years) to go to Opening Day with my dad;  Mr. O’Berry, a giant of a man, who allowed what seemed like our whole class to sit on his lap and cry when we heard President Kennedy was assassinated;  Mrs.  Hall agreeing that I was too ill to stay in 10th grade English class and should go home–in time to see the first pitch of the final game of the 1968 World Series (yes, baseball was played during the day back then); Mr. Roush who, in 12th grade, took us out of school every chance he got to see science in action and, who on one of the trips, allowed us to get up and walk out of a restaurant in South Carolina that refused to serve one of our African-American classmates;  Dr. Phillips finding me dejected outside his office door when I picked up a C- exam paper and spending the rest of the afternoon, the day before spring break, teaching me how to write; and Dr. Geer who made it a habit to invite groups of undergraduates out to dinner and then supply them with theater tickets to performances we never would have attended otherwise.

I know I learned a lot of academic stuff too, but what stuck with me were the kindnesses shown when, more often than not, I did nothing to deserve them.  Nothing more than being a student, a child, who happened to be in their classroom.

When I look back over my notebooks and journals from the past 21 years there are plenty of things I regret. What I do not regret were the times we educators chose to be kind to a kid.  The times when we gave a child a second–and then third and fourth chance.  The times we decided to let a kid go on a field trip, ignoring some misdeed that might have excluded him from the trip so that a child who had never been further than the county line could see the world writ large.  You know the drill.

School should be a place for all sorts of kindnesses.  After all, children are forced to attend, with little or no choice over the building, staff, or bus driver they draw.  School is one of their first experiences with government, with strangers in close proximity, with authority outside of the family.  School should be a place of challenge, but also a place where children are supported to try, and try again.  Students should leave us knowing that for this time in their lives they were in the company of people who genuinely liked them and worked in their best interests.

When people ask me about what changes I have seen in the two decades I’ve worked here, I know they expect me to say something about how kids or families or teachers have changed.  Wrong.  Kids are still interesting, if a bit more docile, and interested in the world around them.  Families still want the best they can marshal for their children.  And teachers are here because they think they can make a difference.

What has changed is that it is harder for us to be nice to kids.  With elevated standards and increased testing, we find ourselves with less leeway with which we can help a child navigate.  With ‘zero tolerance’ laws and other Draconian rules, the mistakes some children make can no longer be forgiven.  The rapid-fire social media culture means that if we ever err on the side of mercy or charity, it will quickly be seized upon by those who are just looking for us to make a mistake.  And the emphasis on punishing schools for things like dropouts makes it that much harder to enroll a student whose residence is just a bit suspect.

There is no benefit to this toughness.  Getting tough on kids will not make them tougher or any smarter.  Forcing educators to act like their hands are tied at the most important moments in a child’s life only teaches children that the adults in their lives are powerless.  Turning a deaf ear to the needs of kids, to moments when we could be kind rather than just follow the rules, does not help kids learn anything except that those in charge are operating at the lowest level of ethical reasoning.

Being kind is not always easy.  It’s easier to declare that a child earned the punishment he or she is receiving, and that they need to learn a lesson.  Unfortunately, the only lesson that child will learn is that sometimes adults are more interested in rules and punishments that they are in children.

We can teach our children a better lesson.  We can teach them, as I’ve seen hundreds of children learn at my school, that when the chips are down teachers come through.  We can teach them that when it seems like there is no way out of the hole that they have dug, a member of the school staff will show up with a shovel.  We can teach them that no matter what silly, dumb, or downright ignorant thing he or she has said or done in the past, caring adults have short memories for minor mistakes and longer memories for serious work and accomplishment.

I was trying to figure out how to finish this when a graduate from 2010 walked into my office.  He was a difficult kid, barely made it to graduation.  I know we helped him across the line.  But he wanted me to be the first to know that he had just been offered a good job, with benefits, because, he said, he had graduated from our school.  As he went off to tell his former teachers the good news, I realized that what we did for him, more than anything else, was to just be nice.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 22, 2013