Leadership (February 2014 #3)

In a society that values leadership, how much humility do you need to be a follower?

Who are you willing (or not) to follow?  When do our least-reached students need you to lead vs. follow? 

Who do our least-reached students need you to follow? 

Presidents’ Day does not make me think about specific presidents, but rather about leadership… and responsibility.   Years after Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”, Julian Weissglass specifically defined leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…”.

As a principal for a school named Leadership High School, we adopted Weissglass’ definition and had a mission to empower each of our graduates to be able to lead.  Fulfilling this promise was built on a number of subtle assumptions:

  1. Underlying any effort to develop leadership, a belief that everyone could and should be a leader;

  2. The obvious indicator that one could only be a leader if s/he could have others follow her or him, and

  3. The recognition that if we all could and should lead, then each of us also needs and must be able to follow at times.

It is this third assumption that sits in my mind and heart today – and that will be the focus of this Monday Musing.

When I first reflect on “followship”, I think about who it is that I have followed in my own life. Three types of leaders surface as those types of leaders I have followed at different times and for different purposes: the “sexy” leader, the mentor and the expert across difference.

The “sexy” leaders, those who wow me with their passion and knowledge, usually had what some call the “it factor” (charm, bells, whistles, and a fan base).  In general, “sexy” leaders frequently received my espoused followhip before I could examine or engage in the depth or integrity of their actual knowledge or practice.  While many evolved to become mentors and experts across difference in my life, I learned others were inconsistent or had messages that grew stale.  Those in this latter group also were important and influential to my development, but their leadership was less for me to follow, and more for me to be critical of.  (The word critical does not only have a negative intent).

As my own work and responsibilities deepened, I found the importance of following those who had done similar work and to learn from their experiences – not only their successes, but also their failures.  The more I sought out mentors, the more I realized that context mattered.  It was not enough to seek mentorship from other teachers, principals or coaches who were considered successful.  Rather, it mattered where they were successful as well as with and for whom they were successful.  Did they work with similar schools and adults?  Were they committed to similar students and families?  Did our values and beliefs align?  And because context matters, were their own experiences of life similar enough to my own – did we share enough experiences in the skin we are in to suggest that there was enough affinity for mentorship?  Frequently my mentors not only have had success in their work with and for students, but also in their work with themselves as members of dominant culture.

With the context of my work ever-becoming increasingly diverse, having mentors or leaders with whom I share affinity serves as a limitation for what is possible regardless of who is leading.  Counter to my training to excel in dominant culture, I must have the humility to learn and accept what I don’t know – and NOT to think that everything is for me to know as much or more than anyone else.  This is especially true when knowledge and skills are uniquely experiential based on the skin we are in.  Given who we are charged to serve in public education, sometimes the best I can do is to follow the lead of those who know better – or more – than I do.  I constantly must remind myself to remain open to following others lead much more than my dominant culture upbringing has prepared me to do.

When I am blessed, this work with experts across difference is cultivated within my work environment, but an absence of such a culture does not serve as an excuse not to do the work.  Even though following experts across difference through collaboration is an amazing and powerful tool of change and development, there is endless research and literature available that offers counters to my own experiences, beliefs and perspectives.  I can develop as an ally and follower in many different ways towards the service of my least-reached students and students least like me.

On this Presidents’ Day, reflecting on Weissglass’ definition of leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…” has now brought me to consider that not only is humility an essential trait of any leader, but so is the very humble act of conscious and purposeful followship.


Doing Our Own Work (February 2014 #2)

What work do we need to do by ourselves and with our own people in the name of racial justice?

Happy Black Heritage Month… well “happy” may be a relative term in this case.  While I hope that many, many of our brothers and sisters who identify as black and African American are experiencing happiness, I am reminded regularly that we have days and months of remembrance not only to remind ourselves of and to allow healing for our history but also to educate and advance ourselves continuously so as not to repeat it.

Last week, a school in Concord CA (the largest city in the same county as Oakland, CA), chose to commemorate effort to Black History Month with a menu of Fried Chicken, Corn Bread and Watermelon.

Yes. They did.

For any of you asking yourselves, “What is wrong with that?” (some have asked), it is with minimal judgment (see last week’s Monday Musing) that I offer this direct feedback: do some work.  Do some homework and research and read on your own – or with your own – as to why this is a problem.  Furthermore, do some self-work; reflect on why it is that you may not know what is wrong with this situation – today.

This story was tweeted last Thursday; I actually questioned whether or not to give it attention in this blog.  On Friday, I got a call from a distraught community member and remembered – once again – why it is so important to point out the countless subtle and not-so-subtle racist occurrences, as they serve as steppingstones to the very overt and harmful.  This community member, an African American woman called seeking critical friendship for how to handle a matter that involved one of her children, a middle school student.  The child was in class being taught by a white male teacher.  As is frequently the case, the conversation moved to a tangential topic – this time it was about differently-abled people.  In one of her statements, the child referred to the specific disability being discussed using politically incorrect terminology that was used 20 years ago, but no longer.  The student was not trying to be funny or insulting; the student also did not know that one of the teacher’s parents was within the demographic of the discussed disability.

As it was reported to me, the teacher brought the student to the hall where he asked her, “How would you like it if I called your mother a **gg**?”  I want to be clear, the man did not say, quote – the n-word – unquote.  He said the word.

After the girl returned home and shared this information with her mother, it is not a surprise that a call was made to the school.

Sadly, as it turns out, the administrator who followed up with the man also was a Black female.  In their conversation, the man felt the need to use the same word – four times – in order to share his side of the story.

Pause – anyone who is trying to rationalize how this chain of events might have occurred reasonably, please see paragraph four above.

As I listened to the story, so much came up for me.  I felt tremendous anger at the misuse of power (multiple times) and the potential long-term harm that a moment may make.  I felt sadness for the loss of a teachable moment to help a young person learn about a disability and why certain language matters.  I felt my own challenge to approach every situation with love – while, in no way excusing the situation itself.  But most of all, I felt the recurring urgent need for my people – people who look like me – white people – to do a lot of work together and on our own, and how this work we must do should start with few, if any, assumptions of what is or is not shared understanding.

Given that, I want to share something that I wish was shared understanding – and for my colleagues of color, I apologize in advance. This message is not for you as I have heard from many colleagues across difference that they are tired of being in the presence of white people doing work at their expense.  Thus, if you choose not to continue reading, I fully understand.

To my people, the message actually is quite simple:

Never – ever use the N-word.  Never.  That simple.  Right now, if you are asking, “But what if…” or, “But what about when…” or, “”But why can…” – then stop.  The answer is simple: Never.  Ever.  If you don’t know why, that is ok (actually not completely) – but it is ok because you don’t need to remain in ignorance.  You can and should read writings from or talk to other white people who have begun this work for themselves (it never is finished).  You also should read about the experiences of those not from dominant culture (it is a great way to get other perspectives without having to involve people who may not wish to engage in this conversation – yet again); there is a litany of work out there.  If you don’t know where to start – consider a google search on “The N-Word”.

Most of all, it also is ok if you don’t understand why it is NEVER appropriate to use the N-word because you now know the rule: Just Don’t Do It. Ever.

Norms (February 2014 #1)

Who are we protecting – and silencing – when we suggest that a community can thrive without judgment?

Last week I attended a mini conference for districts that were partnering “less successful” and “more successful” schools with the intent of forming mentoring relationships.  As a former principal, and later center director in such a relationship as part of the National Coalition of Essential Schools’ Mentor School project, I was excited to attend and see what progress this mentoring model has made since CES’ original program nearly 10 years ago.

Good people attended with the intentions of doing good work, so it was a good two days.  The formal learning however, left me wanting more.  Not only was minimally shared about forming formal mentor relationships, but also the facilitation modeled practices that I had long ago learned did not foster the necessary conditions for these desired relationships.  I am a facilitation snob.  I know that.  But in our work, I have long learned some basics that have the potential to either make or break a transformative relationship.  One of the more subtle, nuanced facilitative moments comes when developing group norms.  For this group, no such work occurred.  We just moved into the agenda with the assumptions that we knew and agreed on how to work together and what to do when conflict occurred.  Even though people were playing nice, neither was true as evidenced by side conversations used to debrief and release minute tensions.  Perhaps the most serious was when an African American colleague shared that she – as one of only 6 black educators in a room of nearly 200 – did not think that she belonged in the room.  She explained her feelings were based on the reactions she received when she shared her experience of school.  Others, as she noted, “were put off” and the tension was never addressed.

I know that rolling out an arbitrary list of expected behaviors does not assure those behaviors.  But in my experience, not naming and agreeing to expected behaviors almost always assures greater difficulty achieving these behaviors in an intentional way.  Furthermore, a lot more work must be done besides “naming” a set of norms – communities must agree to and must make meaning of behaviors together – up front and ongoing.  Additionally, communities must determine how are (and develop skills for) individuals to respond to a breach of norms – before such a breach occurs so that the community is not experienced as reactive and retaliating.

When the norms of a community (or relationship) are not explicit, transparent, shared, who benefits – at whose cost?

So? Norms were not named up front, and we could have used some language to navigate tensions that arose.  We were all adults.  We should be able to deal.   But dealing is not our goal – transformation is.  Te very purpose of the mini-conference rose out of our limited success with students from outside of dominant culture.  So much of their limited success is based on being in schools that don’t level the playing field by making expectations and access to them transparent and equitable. Just because we don’t name our norms – does not mean we don’t have norms. Every community has norms.  All too frequently, when not named explicitly, the norms of a community are reproductive of dominant culture – thus serving many, but not all.

Even when we do take the time, I am surprised how many times the norms being introduced include standards such as, “be respectful”, “be on time”, “do your homework”.  I consider these job expectations, not norms.   In some professions, being disrespectful, arriving late or not doing your work leads to disciplinary action.  While I am not advocating for increasing disciplinary action, I also believe our students deserve their professionals to leave such basic understandings as unstated.  To me, norms should be the behaviors for which a community and its members need to stretch in order to reach.  Especially in public education, working and discourse norms should put us into dissonance – not comfort.

When we don’t take the time to name and make meaning of normalizing behaviors that challenge us to grow, we leave room for us to normalize behaviors that seem correct… politically correct, that may unintentionally or intentionally, and unconsciously or consciously, subtly or blatantly retain the status quo.  These positive-sounding but innuendo-laden terms include, “trust/assume best intentions” or “cause/ do no harm”.  Another one that was introduced and slipped into the directions before schools were supposed to discuss their work was, “No Judgment.”

A quick online search reveals “judgment” to be defined by Merriam-Webster as “an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought.”  Why is it that we want to norm NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  While I understand the unfriendly environment for teachers has put the profession on the defensive, I also believe we need to distinguish between being safe from unwarranted attack and being in the discourse necessary to develop as professionals.

As noted above, we need to be clear about our purpose in our work. We have to examine and be honest about our stance.  Are we seeking comfort or dissonance?  If we say we are committed to equity, we have to reflect on the extent to which interruption and transformation are possible without judgment – and commit to work on the conditions – and norms necessary for this work.

Once we have some understanding about the stance we have about the conditions we need, I challenge each of us to compare that stance to the one we take for the students in our care. Does our theory of change play out consistently with them?  In other words, for those of us who require a norm of “no judgment”, to what extent do we exempt our students and their families from any form of judgment?

Is that what our students need – to NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  Is that what we really need?  I truly believe most educators don’t believe this when espousing such politically correct language as “no judgment”.  I also think we are past this negotiation for a standard of behavior and may need to think about how such language may actually encourage and reinforce the limited participation patterns we espouse to interrupt.

SF-CESS has adopted and built on the norms suggested in “Courageous Conversations About Race”, (Singleton, G. and Linton, C, 2005).   In the book, the authors encourage individuals to consider how they best can (1) Stay Engaged, (2) Speak Their Truth, (3) Experience Discomfort, and (4) Expect and Accept Non-Closure when challenged by difficult work and interactions.  In addition, SF-CESS encourages that groups identify “process observers” who can help a community (A) Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation, (B) Maintain Contextual Confidentiality, and (C) Go to the Source when conflict arises.

Google Child (January 2014 #4)

What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children?

This past weekend, my colleague Micia and I facilitated a professional development session with one of our middle schools.  The purpose of this mid-year retreat was for the staff to engage in reflective and collaborative practices that would allow them to more honestly and urgently take up the inequities facing their students.  For this school, for this year, they identified their least-reached students as their English Language Learners.  The guiding Essential Question for the day was, “What do our ELL students need us to know, do and be in order to most equitably educate them?”

Less than a decade ago, this middle school was the worst performing school in the entire school district.  After three years of consistent leadership and very focused transformation efforts, the school is now considered a good school… a good option for all diverse families of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the school has not eased up and strives to be an excellent and equitable school.

Historically in San Francisco, school improvement opens up new possibilities and new situations that bring both benefits and challenges.  In particular, one situational shift for improving schools is that they become more attractive to families who have been privileged enough to choose alternatives school wasn’t so good.  There is the potential for greatness from a richly diverse student population – especially when a school can build from the strengths of its various cultures and educate students to collaborate and excel within and because of their diversity.  Unexamined however, radical shifts in a community’s demographics also can lead to unintended, unanticipated and undesired results.

The school we worked with on Saturday currently faces these challenges.  As a school that has made tremendous progress in serving its predominantly brown, black and poor students, closing the racial achievement gap has become a major part of its identity… and program.  And because their success is now inviting white families and upper middle class families back to their community, they are feeling the pressure of dominant culture seeking to minimize the efforts that serve other students over their own, and to prioritize decisions and design that will better serve their own children.  Experience suggests that focusing on what our most privileged children need in isolation – or even committing equal resources to these new and welcomed students – will come at the expense of the students now being better-served than in the past.

For many, the challenge of equity is that it requires us to prioritize. The problem of equity and limited resources is that priorities define not only who should get more, but also who should get less. 

Back to the retreat: we challenged teachers to consider their own experiences, beliefs, values and priorities based on their own experiences (or as we say, based on the skin they are in).  We suggest that we need to understand from where we are coming to better influence where and how we hope to change.  We facilitated a piece of work in which we asked teachers to read a series of student profiles (short descriptors for how a student might see herself or how shy might believe she is seen).  Each teacher was to identify the one profile that best represented themselves when they were students.  After grouping by their self-identified profile, they discussed the strengths and challenges for their archetype and recommended to the larger group ways to best educate the student of this profile.  One of the fourteen profiles was written specifically for this school:

“I am a Google child.  Really. My Dad works for Google and he drops me off at school on his way to catching the Google Bus.  My parents questioned whether or not to send me to public school and decided this one was good enough and could save us a lot of money for other things.  We have to make sure the school is constantly giving me the education I deserve – but overall it is worth it and that is why we stay.”

During the session, no adults were able to identify with five of the student profiles and a handful created their own. This simply served as a reminder that these underrepresented students are part of the school and led to the challenge to consider how their voices and needs would be considered. The Google child profile was one of the unselected profiles.

At the end, we debriefed the process. Two members of the community – a white woman and a white man (both who previously had identified courageously their own connections to privilege in relation to their own students) had very strong reactions to reading the Google child profile.  They found it to be judgmental and negative.  The language of the feedback soon came to equate this Google child with white children (sometimes replacing the word “Google” with the word “white” – even though race was never mentioned in the profile.

What does it mean when we automatically associate success (i.e Google child) with whiteness?  How is it actually about white, dominant culture?  But also, how might this be another reproductive way of conveying low expectations for those who do not represent or are not represented by dominant culture?

Even though some of the other thirteen profiles clearly had similarly risky language attached to them (other profiles included an English learner, a queer student, a teacher’s pet, and a student contemplating dropping out), there was not a consistent sense of resistance to how the students were represented – and throughout the day, there was quite a bit of ease talking about these “other” students.  But when dominant culture people felt as though their privilege was being made visible, the rules seemed to change.  This reaction feels like an important issue on which this school – and all of us – should keep some focus.  Some questions that continue to sit with me:


  • While on the one hand, it seems natural that a parent would want only the best for her child, on the other hand one also has to question the role of those families who only participate in a community when it is good.  How should we negotiate this tension in PUBLIC education? 

  • What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children? 


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 2014 #3)

Do we even know what Dr. King Accomplished?  …And how do we teach that?

I was the first of the children of my family to get an apartment.  Feeling like an adult, I wanted to host a family gathering – not just once, but as a ritual.  At the time, holidays were associated with family gatherings – and each holiday was “taken” as it was, by a different family.  Christmas Eve was rotated amongst my father’s siblings, Christmas was hosted by my mother. My mother’s siblings rotated hosting on Easter (and even Palm Sunday). On Thanksgiving, each family usually stayed with their own.  In hindsight, it was no surprise that no one in my family had claimed the holiday remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Truth be told, many in my family were excited to come to my tiny, Providence apartment on Manton Avenue – mostly because with each family event came a ton of food.  When they showed up on this day, however, there was a surprise – a theme of its own.  On these day’s, besides my vegetable chili, my family also found themselves in front of a television playing civil rights documentaries, listening to music with revolutionary lyrics and always pushed to add the make-shift chalk-talk on the kitchen wall asking a personal question about their beliefs and values about the holiday, it’s purpose and the man for whom it was meant to remember and celebrate.

It would be overly romantic of me to say these events demonstrated the most loving and just side of my white Lebanese and Italian family.  What it did accomplish was to get us talking… talking about and keeping alive the man, his ideas and to some extent, our own awareness.

As this day comes around each year, I miss being around my family – but I also miss the intentionality of remembering Dr. King.  In our work, I frequently see – and use – Dr. King’s quotes as a motivating force for courage and leadership, but such acts usually occur over a few moments, in the context of a larger goal, and usually alongside any other number of inspirational quotes.  Today when I awoke to the rash of texts and emails from my family and friends stating, “Happy Martin Luther King Day”, I wondered, “What are we celebrating… or even what are we remembering?”  The challenge to myself soon became a challenge for how we might choose to educate our youth about this great leader and change agent.

Then as if in direct response to my questioning, a colleague shared blogger Hamden Rice’s very powerful and personal journal answering this question of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did (“Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”  [http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did]

Rice’s reflection – and that of Rice’s father, brings meaning to Dr. King’s life in a way no single quote could. I could not help but to think about how we traditionally teach – or “cover” Dr. King’s life in our schools.  I am reminded of the African American high school student who complained that she learned about Dr. King every year… at the same time of year and with the same curriculum each time.  If, as Rice put it, Dr. King’s work for which he died was to end the terror for African American’s living in the south – and when we consider that so many of our African American brothers and sisters and their children continue to live in an America that can be terrifying based on their race, how is it that we don’t have more to teach our students?  How is it that we “honor” the man for whom this holiday is named, but don’t take up his work every day in our schools that continue to reach least the very students for whom he “marched”?

How much more will it take for us to rethink how and why we teach about Dr. King?  Consider…


  • Continue to teach about Dr. King – and other social justice leaders – throughout the year, not only when the curriculum requires for it, but also when the current events of our times call for it.

  • Include the message and teaching service in any curriculum.  When engaged in service, connect the acts of our students to those of our historical leaders such as Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, etc.

  • Don’t limit lessons about our leaders to the rare acts of a few – get to know what is happening in your students’ communities to expand your list of leaders who represent students and their allies to include current and local leaders – including the students and families themselves.


To this last point, don’t just assume leadership is understood by example only.  Teach leadership explicitly.  Teach and reinforce the need for various leadership styles (i.e. Autocratic, Bureaucratic, Charismatic, Democratic or Participative, Laissez-Faire, People or Relations-Oriented, Servant, Situational, Task-Oriented, Transactional, Transformational), and when remembering Dr. King and others ask students to discuss his leadership style – and how it changed at any given time of his life.

What are you already doing?  Please share.

Personalization (January 2014 #2)

While visiting with some friends, the questions to catch up inevitably came to Zari, the youngest, a sophomore in high school: “How is school going this year?”

OK.  Good.?”  The last word was spoken as a statement with a subtle hint of question as she spoke the second half of the one-syllable word.  The look on her face was even more telling.

What is it?” we pushed further.

I like all my classes; it’s just that I don’t feel any personal connection to my teachers.  Last year, I felt like my teachers knew me – and I knew them, but this year, I don’t know it’s just not there.”

I was curious.  “What did it look like last year – and how does it look different this year?”

The biggest thing is that they changed our support class from right after lunch to the end of the day.”

Zari went on to describe what the support class was – and what it was becoming.  Last year, it seems, the school scheduled a support class right after lunch.  All students were encouraged to seek out additional support in the class of their choice, and students who had “D”s were required to seek support for those classes.

This year, the support period was moved to the last period of the day.  When I asked if students ditched school instead of going to the support class, Zari affirmed – but also suggested that the students felt like this was by design.

When I tried to see one of my teachers at the beginning of the year, I was told, ‘You’re a good student; you don’t belong here.’   So, I left.  Now I don’t even try; I just leave and go home every dayMy friends heard the same thing so they don’t go anymore either.”

She also noted that the new plan was not working for the students who were required to attend.  One of her friends who had a “D” in one class was assigned to attend the classroom of a teacher whose class the student was passing.  In essence, a time for students and teachers to connect around work was reduced to additional seat time for some of the students and early release for the remainder of students.

Last year,” she added, “I would just go sit in the room of one of my teachers to do my work – even if I did not need help.  When it wasn’t busy, that was when we would interact and get to know each other.  Last year, I felt like my teachers cared about me.”

When I suggested that this solution may have been created to address more adult issues than students’, Zari agreed.  I asked her what she thought the principal might say if this dilemma were brought to her attention.  Almost in unison with her parents, Zari drolly chimed, “She knows.”  Zari later added, “Some students brought the concern to the principal and she says the new design is working fine.”

Zari ended the conversation stating a goal she had set for herself, “My goal is to have never met my principal by the time I graduate/”

Working Fine – For Whom?

Zari is a brilliant and confident young woman.  She is a great student and is active in school – she is a percussionist for the band.  Her plans are to earn her undergraduate degree closer to home and to attend medical school on the east coast.  She lives in a suburban Californian city and her school is considered successful – enough.  Zari is going to be fine – she is going to be better than fine.  Her family is extremely involved and provides any of the messaging and support she may miss from lost relationships or connections with her teachers.

Still, I wonder; if such a straightforward decision – such a simple change in school design could play out so quickly and so viscerally for one with the support of Zari, then for whom did that same decision impact more seriously?  And if the design is “working fine”, when it actually is not, then how would anyone know?

SF-CESS is a strong advocate for Advisory class – a class in which one teacher is assigned to the same students over multiple years in order to get to know the student – and her family well.  An underlying assumption is that if school can be a place where students are known well, then those within the school will be able to make the necessary adaptations to make learning meaningful for each student.  Additionally, if a student knows that she is visible – humanized at school, then not only does she know she can seek advocacy from at least one adult, but also school can become a place where she can address or at least put aside some of the stresses experienced by youth and clear a path to more effective teaching and learning.

How are you connected to your students?

What do you do intentionally to create opportunities to make or deepen connections? 

What does your school do to assure that student connections are not random or happenstance, but rather assured for each student?

When I was Principal, I was proud of the year we established as part of our annual professional develop plan, time for graduating students to complete their brag sheets and then to be evenly divided into groups for each staff member.  Each staff member then met with and interviewed each of their assigned students in order to write a letter of recommendation – to be used for their college application as well as for a job they may seek.  It was an exciting time for students to know that the they did not have to be the most popular to walk away with at least their fair share of this simple resource that – for some was not always assured.

A colleague of mine fondly recalls her master teacher telling her that she goes into each year consciously and intentionally set to share specific information about herself.  That year it was going to be her love of chocolate and her divorce (I hope just as an update). While it came naturally for me, I like the idea of being intentional.  This year, I choose to make connections by sharing about my love for the homemade Lebanese food I had growing up, the lessons I learned about customer service from working at McDonalds during high school (it was a different time for sure), and as always I make my family with my husband public – but not get to share about our new addition – Mimi (our rescue Pekinese).

What would be the two – or three facts about yourself are you willing to share with your students in order to invite a more personalized connection?  What are you willing to do to learn more about them?

Restorative Justice (January 2014 #1)

If we were consistently guided by the goals of restorative justice, how different would our results, our graduates, and our society look?

I know this comes late, but I have been unable to stop thinking about the case of the kid with affluenza since I first heard the story.

On June 15, 2013, after stealing beer from the local Walmart, Ethan Couch, 16, drove his seven passengers in his Ford F-350 pickup truck at 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.  Couch was under the influence of both valium and alcohol – he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 – three times that of the legal limit for an adult.  He slammed into several vehicles – including one broken down SUV, rolled his truck and struck a tree.  He killed all four pedestrians at the site of the broken down SUV, and severely injured two of his own passengers, leaving one paralyzed and unable to speak due to brain damage.

Besides being affluent, Ethan Couch is white and while some would argue he does not represent the majority of people in America, he is a member of the dominant power and culture from which much of our societal norms and assumptions are based.

6 months later, even though prosecutors asked for 20 years in juvenile hall with parole available after two years, the teen, who admitted to the offenses, was sentenced to 10 years probation but no jail time, and mandatory treatment for which Couch’s lawyers are recommending a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation facility in Newport Beach, CA.  Defense lawyers, supported by one psychologist, claimed that Couch was a product of “affluenza” – a victim who was the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy and gave him everything he wanted.

The judge, Jean Boyd, who accepted this diagnosis, believed prison would not provide the treatment needed.


Besides feeling the outrage – that I hope and believe most of America felt with this illogical verdict, I also felt the injustice of inequity and inconsistency in this way of thinking.  I fantasize about this rationale being a consistent one in our society.  In particular, a few thoughts stand out…


  • If we truly were to attribute the cause of one’s actions so fully to one’s environment, how different might our justice system – and prison population look given the historical and institutionalized context of racism and poverty for so many of our prisoners?

  • If we truly believed that prison would not help “treat” offenders who are the victims of their environmental context, then what would social services look like – not only as a prevention but also as treatment of those who cause harm to others – be it vehicular manslaughter, or other offenses?

  • I also cannot help to wonder, if Judge Boyd believed the rationale behind her verdict was one that should be extended to other contexts besides the affluent, how might that have influenced her final decision?


Closer to home for me, I cannot help but to think about how even today, many argue that the current design of public education has proven effective for so many before (dominant culture) and therefore the problem in poor results may lie in those for whom it is not working (i.e. blaming students and parents or holding lower expectations for those with societal barriers).  If we agree that public education is, in part, meant to prepare our students for citizenship, then maybe Judge Boyd’s precedent-setting decision will open the doorway to establish our less affluent students’ cultural schema as the new standard bearer more than their affluent counterparts and should therefore inform, with less resistance, the design of what teaching and assessing should look like.

While it is unlikely that these fantasies of mine reflect what our larger system will come to be, this may be for the good as they, along with the actual reality of the case of the boy with affluenza seem to leave out one major variable – those who were harmed by the “victims” of affluenza (in this case the four who were killed and their survivors).

Over the past few years, many of our schools have adopted Restorative Practices (RP) or Restorative Justice as ways to address harm in our communities.  The goals of RP are to


  • Use open communication to build understanding of how individuals’ harmful actions have impacted others (including the community).

  • Have individuals take responsibility and be accountable with support to repair the harm that was done.

  • Develop a plan to ensure that the harm doesn’t happen again and to begin to reconnect and build relationships and to restore community.


Perhaps Judge Boyd should have extended her commitment to treating the harmed to the victims of the case before her.  Perhaps these RP goals could have helped her remember this focus.  While this tragic incident reminded me of these RP goals, it also reminded me that even our best strategies for justice are only as effective as their just application.  As usual, my wonderings lead me to more wonderings – WHAT IF… our justice system were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would prison and treatment for offenders look?  WHAT IF… our education system (not just some classes, schools or even districts) were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would results and graduates… and society look?

Love (December 2013 #4)

“Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” – M. Scott Peck

Happy New Year.  I am not one for traditional resolutions; rather, I try to reflect on the year before, consider the current context and envision the year ahead to inform specific and intentional actions that otherwise not become a daily priority.  My resolution this year is the same as last… it may very well be my resolution every year to come: to love more.

bell hooks describes love as “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” She says, “To know love we have to invest time and commitment…’dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’.”

Her definition helps me to accept that real love is not limited to the less difficult (yet still difficult) task of loving what and whom I like.  No, my challenge is to approach with love even that and those I do not like – with as “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust”.  This love will require ongoing and continuous work.

It is easy to say that I need to work on loving person who annoys me.  It even is easy to say I need to approach with love the person who is against what I am for. I recall when a student had a homophobic outburst in my last year of teaching.  I was surprised when the principal gave me, as a gay teacher, the option to remove him from my class permanently.  I believe I had enough care, commitment, and knowledge to recognize that I had a responsibility to educate even our homophobes – just not at the expense of those they feared.  While I lacked respect and trust, working to attain these was a difficult but reasonable challenge to accept.  When I think back, I wonder – if I was willing to teach this student who overtly expressed is disapproval of my very self, who were the students I was less or unwilling to teach (even unconsciously) and what could cause this vast difference?

Another black, young man died at one of my schools this month.  A ninth grader, he was the victim of gang related violence – and therefore the victim of the long reaching and iterative arm of racism in America.  He lay in a coma for nearly a week before passing. His teachers and administrators were very responsive to the needs of the community during this challenging time.  The communication and response when the student passed were caring and thoughtful.  The day before he died, I sat with one of the vice principals, a white woman who seeks to do whatever it takes to best serve each of her students.  She was sharing how much responsibility the teachers felt for the outcomes of their students.  I asked a hard question for this day, “Acknowledging that his life conditions are complicated, do they feel responsibility for the outcome of this student who lay in the hospital?  Do they believe their interactions with him – even if they did not cause this situation, may not have helped interrupt it?”
Absolutely!” she shared emphatically.

I opened her door to the adjoining room, which was the school’s “time out” room for students who are sent out of class.  It was less than 5 minutes into the class period.  There were 11 students in the room.  100% of them were African American.  About 25% of the school is African American.

This same month, a panel of “at-risk” students presented to the administrators of SFUSD.  When asked what they wanted of their teachers, besides good teaching they said they wanted to feel “loved”.  I believe the vice principal believes her teachers feel some responsibility for their students.  Yet according to hooks, responsibility alone may not let students know they are loved.  Some teachers might argue that removing a student who is acting different than what is expected may be “responsible”.  Do those African American students sitting in the time out room feel cared for?  Do they feel a commitment to their success?  Do they feel well known, respected, trusted?  What do they feel, think or believe when they look around and see only other African American students in the same room?

Now flip the script – think of YOUR least-reached, most challenging student:


  • How much do you care for her/him?  Whatever the answer is, does s/he know?  How do they know?  How would s/he answer this question?

  • How committed are you to her/ his success?  What are the limits to your commitment?  What are the caveats for your commitment?  Are these answers the same for each of your students?

  • What do you know about this student and her/his family and community?  How do you know what you know about her/him?  What don’t you know?  How does this matter to her/his success in your classroom/ school?

  • Regarding this student, to whom or what do you feel the most responsibility?  The student?  Her/his family?  The other students?  Your own job requirements?  When and how do these contradict each other?  How do you respond?

  • Do you respect this student?  Why/ why not?  Do you respect her/his culture?  What does that look like?  Does s/he respect you?  Why/ why not?

  • What do you trust about this student?  What does s/he trust about you?  What should s/he trust about you?  What have you done to develop a trusting relationship given all these conditions?


My colleague, Kim Feicke once shared that every action comes from one of two emotional drivers – love or fear.  Perhaps the first step to loving each of our students is to understand who and what we fear within our least-reached students – for without facing our fears, we may remain in the unconscious realm of fear – regardless of our best intentions and resolutions.

Take The Time (December 2013 #3)

As educators, one of our most valuable resources is time. What can we do with the time we have during extended breaks to respect and honor ourselves

In the midst of this week’s Monday Musing, my partner requested that I consider something on the lighter side as many are preparing to spend extended time with “family”, away from school – feeling both the joy and stress of various holidays.  (Perhaps I should put a bow on that idea, as I will count its fulfillment as one of his gifts this year.)

So, how do we spend our extended time away from our normal, daily rituals?  I realize that some within our communities don’t have the luxury of thinking about this as the answer is defined by prerequisites of childcare, travel to and from family, and multiple jobs.  For those of us who have some choice, this can be a great time to dedicate some advance thought and intentionality towards reaching goals that sometimes fall between the cracks of busy lives.

How do you prioritize your lists?  Do you think of the tasks to do for ourselves first?  Others close to us?  Our jobs?  Do you consider what must be done vs. should be done… vs. would be nice to do?  Why?

As I think about the importance of being intentional about my own time, it makes me wonder what my expectations and beliefs are about my students’ time.   Where do these come from?  How do I check these assumptions, and how do I communicate them through my stated expectations?  I frequently consider how, when I was in the classroom, I frequently communicated to students how break was the perfect time for students to ramp up and do a lot of extra work – while I was expecting that for me it was the perfect time to shut down and take a restorative break from work (neither ever played out.)

What is possible beyond the normal rituals of this season? Before we let the rush of the season take us over, how much would it take for each of us to answer for ourselves, “What do I need to do… what do I want to do with the time I have?”  After asking around, some of my favorites are listed here:


  • What is the book that you need for your own professional growth?  Read it… after the  one you have been wanting to read to escape the pressures of responsibility.

  • Take out a map and consider the communities within driving distance that you have not experienced – go for lunch with the goal of talking to a set number of strangers.

  • Write a letter – a real letter with a pen or pencil!  Mail it with a stamp.

  • Play a board game while sipping warm beverages.

  • Talk to an old friend at the kitchen table.

  • Think back to your childhood and a favorite memory for this season – how can you re-create it with someone you love?

  • If you are one who finds yourself cramming on tax day, maybe this is a good time to get some home business in order – while sitting at an outdoor café.  (It doesn’t have to be taxes, you can organize photos or mend socks or do whatever helps you to relax and feel a level of accomplishment).

  • What is the dish you love to make (or eat) that your normal schedule rarely allows you to make?  Bon appétit!  (Mine is 12-Hour Vegetarian Chili.)

  • Remember all those people you love who you always say, “I can’t believe how long it has been.  We have to make the time to get together!”  Reduce that list by one.

  • Repot a new houseplant to freshen the air in your home.

  • Take at least three unscheduled naps.

  • Listen to the song that always makes you dance – but they don’t play on the radio anymore.

  • Go to the local museum/ galleries you know least about.  Bring a sketchbook.

  • In one day – write one poem and take one great picture.  (I actually do that one on my birthday.)

  • Make a list of all you have to be thankful for – and every morning, commit to holding one in your mind, your heart and your hands.

  • Pay it forward.  Find some way to give back (service, resource, etc.) during this time.

  • Think about the student you do – or should – have a personal relationship with.  Reach out and connect with her/him… just because.


Happy Holidays.  Happy Winter.

Healing Harm (December 2013 #2)

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.” – Nelson Mandela

I join the world in grieving the loss of a man who reached hero status for those who value justice and freedom.  I first got news from a New York Times tweet.  I remember feeling both sadness of the loss and celebration of his life and the unifying impact he had on our world.  Living in Oakland, I have heard from many who remember fondly the opportunity to hear him speak in our city some 23 years ago.  I was not there.  Yet, I too have been fortunate enough to feel the influence of his life work.

In 2005, SF-CESS had just formed and I was growing the organization slowly while I remained at Leadership HS as its co-principal. I received a call from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which was in the midst of planning its new school for girls in South Africa and upon researching schools, wished to learn more about Leadership. After a few planning meetings, it was decided that I and a group of my teachers would fly to Boston and join the school’s design team to conduct two days of training about some of our core programs (leadership, Advisory, professional development, etc.)

As is the case with our work, it took only a little time of collaboration between the richly diverse South Africans before invisible influences and squelched squalls surfaced. On day two, I decided to pause the work and to facilitate a conversation instead. While any attempt to codify what happened would oversimplify it, what I can say is that the discussion that followed was amazing. In hindsight, I believe I may have been experiencing one of the most mature race-based conversations I had ever witnessed – not because the group dynamics had evolved beyond the pain of apartheid, but rather because the group had embraced and accepted its reality.

It is no surprise that discussion of important school design decisions that would either interrupt or perpetuate historic oppression evoked emotions. Yet, these emotions were neither feared nor dismissed. Furthermore, the managing of these emotions did not seem to break down strictly along race. Rather, there was a collaboration amongst the members of the team (obviously not to the person) in which black South Africans spoke – AND WERE HEARD – with authority and respect, and also some white South Africans served as allies across differences to bridge the work between divergent perspectives.

When debriefed and questioned later, the South Africans spoke passionately of all the arduous work that followed the end of Apartheid. Specifically the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided opportunities for mass and symbolic truth telling and healing. Many said that the resulting catharsis allowed for the collaboration that we were witnessing.

I sat in awe. We were asked to join this team to provide “training” around some technical components of schooling that could and should be liberating, and in turn they modeled what true liberation could look, sound, and feel like! (I could not help but wonder what America might be had we committed to similar nation-wide work immediately after our civil rights movement.)

To this day, my work values – even more than it did before this experience – the importance of healing, collective meaning making and alliance building for liberation. As educators, if we truly believe education equals freedom, then our schools must include this work! I frequently hear critique from those less comfortable with the affective work of healing and relationship building: “We don’t need touchy-feely work,” or “Show me how this work will improve test scores.” No one in that Boston hotel room would have suggested that the work of the commission alone led to all the results they were experiencing as a nation (nor would they say they were close to finished); but what I heard from them that day was that their progress was at least in part due to the Commission’s necessary work.

As educators, administrators and decision makers – in what ways do we explicitly and intentionally create opportunities for students to heal and learn from the pain and damage systemically caused by schools and society?Schools and districts must be places where our most disenfranchised and least reached can be heard – not in general, but by those who cause harm. Consider how any of the following do or should occur:


  • In classrooms and schools, where discipline practices are designed to be disproportionately punitive to and to retain and regain control over our black and brown students – are we willing to introduce and use restorative practices to allow for healing to these same individuals and their communities?

  • Are adults, who frequently represent dominant culture, off limits to accountability or are there systems to allow for mediation and healing when an adult hurts another (adult or child)?

  • When districts make decisions that will have long-standing impact on our underrepresented communities and their children, how are these communities informed and involved? Do they provide input?  Are they included in the decision?  Are they responsible for the decision?

  • Finally, if we are accepting of the fact that damage already has been done – and continues to be compounded for many in our community based on their demographics, what are we willing to do – or not do; what power are we willing to relinquish, and what diverse leadership are we willing to follow in order to make amends and ultimately prosper as a whole?


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Thank you President Mandela.  May your spirit and influence live on.