Stories emotionalize information. A well crafted story can take data, figures, and theory and turn it into something memorable. Transformational leaders understand this and effectively use stories to illuminate, inform, and inspire. What is not as often recognized, however, is the power that comes from the actual crafting of the story.
By taking time to reflect upon and share our personal experiences through story we are reminded of what we value most and how well we live up to those ideals. I was reminded of this rather recently when a friend and former professor reached out to inquire if I would be willing to contribute to Stories of Caring School Leadership. Published as a companion to Caring School Leadership, this resource provides concrete, relatable illustrations of the many practices of caring school leadership through stories. I am hopeful that my contribution, which is shared below, along with the numerous others provided in this edition, will help aspiring and practicing school leaders reflect upon and further develop caring as a fundamental and essential quality of leadership.
My work involves training school leaders to coach teachers through the process of building a positive and productive classroom, as well as a school culture built on high expectations, support, and care. A moment early in my career as a coach stands out as an example of the urgency of implementing these practices early in young scholars’ academic careers.
As part of her training, an instructional coach and I were observing a first-grade teacher during her morning routine. The teacher had given the students an assignment, and we were paying close attention to her habits and processes as she made her way through the classroom, checking in on students as they worked. Although caring and attentive, she dedicated a disproportionately low amount of attention to one of the students, a non-neurotypical child of color.
As I observed her, she seemed to avoid him, taking little time to connect or acknowledge his work, or even presence as a member of this class. It became quickly clear that the teacher, who surely would have been disturbed and genuinely shocked to have it brought to her attention, did not see this student’s potential and was allowing her low expectations to excuse herself from any kind of meaningful engagement.
Much of the coaching we do involves putting an earpiece on the teacher and coaching them through a walkie-talkie. This helps address challenges as they occur by building relationships in the moment. Later in the morning, after taking note of this particular teacher-student relationship, we observed the math lesson for the day. The teacher had gathered her students onto the carpet, and was posing problems. “What is three more than nine? Two less than seven?” And so on. She would call on different students to answer.
The student we’d observed earlier as receiving lower than average one-on-one teacher engagement sat on the carpet among his peers. His lack of eye contact, poor posture, and constant hand movement singled his behavior out as different from the other students. Looking closely, however, his hand movements suggested counting and attention to the math problems being posed. The teacher, in selecting students to answer her questions, repeatedly avoided calling on him, despite his presence in her line of sight and his atypical engagement with the material.
“What is three more than five?” the teacher asked. I quickly told the coach, who was on the walkie-talkie connected to the teacher’s earpiece, to instruct the teacher to call on the child. The coach looked at me with doubt, so I repeated myself. She instructed the teacher, who, stunned, shook her head. We cued the teacher again. The teacher took a breath, paused asked the question again and called on the student to answer.
Every single child in the class turned their bodies towards the student, their surprise and interest evident. The student began mumbling and moving his fingers. After a few seconds, he answered, “Eight.” The entire class erupted in cheers. The student beamed. The coach burst into tears.
The drama of this story indicates the importance of actively caring for students, even in the smallest ways. I have absolutely no doubt that this teacher cared about this student. And I have no doubt that this coach cared deeply about this student and teacher. But caring about a student or a teacher merely requires feeling for them. It’s a passive emotion. Being caring for a student requires an action and follow-through. It can also take challenging and pushing. In caring for others, you’re demonstrating care by taking concrete steps to convince them of their brilliance and potential, the power of their voice, and their worth. Students will spend their entire school day around adults who care about them. Adults actively caring for them will turn compassionate feelings into action. They lead students to realize their full potential.
By Richard Frank, Managing Associate, Partnership Manager, CT3