You Need a Slap in the Face

A couple of months ago, our Learning Omnivores group, spent time with Stan Slap, the author of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B.  After reading this book and his second book, Under the Hood, we felt there were messages for educators in Stan’s work.  And, we were correct.

Stan graciously took us on a journey that re-grounded many of us as to why we came into education, why we stay in education, and how our commitment connects to our deeply held values. Most of us have spent a career in schools and districts where we are, and were, frequently invited to deviate from our personal and professional values.

As a principal, I have had parents ask me not to suspend their child for drugs, knives, and assaults.  I have been asked to change grades, sometimes from an “A-” to an “A.” I have been asked to grant credit for a student who did not attend a class so they could graduate and the list goes on.

It is not just parents.  I have been asked for those supervisors to change my decisions and actions to alleviate political pressure. I have been asked by teachers, students, and non-certified staff to modify decisions. Enough of this whining.

Stan facilitated a values process, contained in his book, that I have used with groups of leaders and principals. While coaching leaders, we wanted teachers who were going to work together on a committee, students in advisory groups, and classes I am teaching at the college level to start with this activity.  The results are always the same.  Major “ahas” with a change in behavior by sharing in a group of what you value and how you got that value.  I have also noticed that getting clear in this process, energy and commitment increases.

Stan indicated that the values most people identify, when asked, are family and integrity.  The two values, under pressure, people are asked to compromise the most are family and integrity.  I can relate, can you?  In addition to these two values, following is a process that you can use in your school.

Here is the short form of the process which is described in more detail in the book.

  1. Show a list of values, 50 or more.
  2. Ask the group to choose 5 or 10 that they feel most connected to
  3. Narrow your list to three
  4. Share with the table group what your values are and answer the following question.
  5. ***This is the most important part. How did you get those values?

What I have found is there are new and/or deep connections created between participants from sharing values AND the story behind those values.  What a way to start a short or long-term project.  Getting people in the room, building strong connections and understanding each other before tackling difficult tasks.

One of Stan’s quote that struck me was, “Let the walls come down. Don’t lead from your head. Lead from what you believe in. If they can’t trust you, you can’t lead them.”  Amen.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  Charles Bukowski said, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” Staff, students, and parents are always watching leaders. How well to you lead when you and/or you school is under fire?  This is probably why Bryk and Schneider, (2002) in their book Trust in Schools found that trust is so critical to student learning.  I would argue it is critical for building a learning culture for all stakeholders.

There is a Thai Proverb that says, “Chase two rabbits, catch none.”  As I reflect on my 40 years in education, it occurs to me the number of rabbits is multiplying exponentially and has for a long time. The resources are either stagnant, being reduced, or not keeping up with inflation.  The school has moved from a limited content delivery system for an industrial world, to the major social network for kids and family, AND trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The political rabbits continue to divert attention from what most of us practitioners see at ground zero.

Charles Payne, University of Chicago (2008) So Much Reform, So Little Change basically said those who don’t work in the school culture do not understand what the professionals face on a daily basis.  Mark Twain said, “Anyone who has had a bull by the tail knows five or six things more than someone who hasn’t.”  Bringing professionals who work on the frontline together, beginning to talk about important concepts i.e. values and how you got them, provides a much better starting point than putting a due date on a planning session.

Stan Slap reminds us that it is the emotional commitment that is necessary for people to do good work. He states that the good news is – it’s not your fault.  The bad news is – it is your responsibility.  Building a learning culture for students, staff, and community requires taking off our armor, talking about what’s important, including students in this process, and make school communities better able to prepare for a future that we have little knowledge about.

The Endings in this book are worth stating:

  • What is the legacy I want to be known for?
  • What are the three things most important to living a fulfilled life that I would tell a child?
  • If I could do it all over, what do I wish I’d known sooner and why?

Thank you, Stan, for extending my learning and helping me get clear about leading schools for all kids and adults.

I end with a request.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book.  My request is that you read the story of Florence Taylor which is in this book on page 182.  Florence Taylor is a pseudonym.  It is a story that has touched my heart and I believe every person who wants to get clear about what is important in life and work should read.

Goethe said, “the things that matter most should never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”  Today is a good day to connect this thought with action.