“Dad, I want to quit.”

I am embarrassed to admit it, but three weeks ago, this was the basis for this blog post. This statement, uttered by my nine-year-old son, was upsetting to me. After five years of playing baseball, he decided he was done.

He had his reasons:

“Baseball is boring.”

“I am afraid to get hit by a pitch.”

“I’d rather play basketball…and soccer…and ride my bike…and swim…and play outside with my friends.” (All good reasons, that reminded me of what a pre-adolescent considers motivating.)

Selfishly, for me, after 12 years of coaching youth sports throughout each season, in my mind, last spring was not to be my final season, because I was not done coaching, and enjoying all that comes with it. Stepping back, I realize now, had I written about this, I would have made this about me.

But this is not about me. So I didn’t write this post.

Two weeks ago, after engaging in a challenging parent meeting, I thought I knew the direction of this post. During a heated and emotional conversation, the parent explained to me, through tears and personal anguish, that his son was suffering. Yes, he has great grades. Yes, his attendance is better than it’s ever been. And no, he does not have any blemishes on his school discipline record after all these years. He joins clubs and plays sports. He’s viewed as an energetic leader-type who does not take “no” for an answer when it comes to defending something he believes in as being “right”. And he is suffering miserably with depression, unbeknownst to anyone at school who thinks he or she knows him. He’s seen personal tragedy, and he’s seen death, up close, too close for any child or any adult. And all these years later, he struggles, with nightmares, with fear of loneliness and isolation, and with an emotional paralysis, that prevents him from feeling heard, from feeling a sense of self-worth.

This meeting got me thinking about the issues that challenge our students every day, and how, the students who struggle the most may also be adept at hiding their struggles, burying them deep. How many students, outside of school, are facing challenges they didn’t create or invite, struggles beyond their control? How many of our students have family members who are battling addiction, domestic violence, and are navigating the complexities of making ends meet for their family? Amazing to consider, kids’ resiliency and courage.

And how many of our students depend on school to be a safe and secure place, one which has predictable routines and people who care for their personal well-being. How many of our students rely on school to be the place where they can “check their problems at the door” so they might spend if even just a few hours, focusing on dreaming and working towards a dream of a better life and a better future? So many students, so many stories. We have to ask, how many of these stories do we really know? And how many of these students do we really support? And how many of these students do we truly know and how many know that we know them?

How many do we miss?

How many of our students quit?

And how many adults stand by and let them, without doing what is needed to prevent it from happening? How many adults stand by, and let them quit?

Nearly a week ago, I realized my reason for writing this post.

By now, we learned details about the latest school shooting, this one at Stone Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that has left 17 people dead and 23 injured. We are hearing students and families from this and previous school shootings, speaking out and demanding action. And we hear a refrain of typical responses: mental illness, the protection of Second Amendment rights, and the proposal of increased legislation that will theoretically reduce access to assault weapons, being referred to by some victims’ family members as “weapons of war” in the hands of everyday people.

Questions of, “What could’ve been done to prevent this?” and, “What can be done, so that it never happens again?” have made their return, as people grieve and struggle to make sense of another countless school tragedy at the hands of a student.

This reminds me of what has plagued education, and perhaps, society, for far too long. We see a problem that we have seen before and we “admire” the problem. We make excuses and we get distracted by less important priorities. We wait for a student to fail – we watch for these “symptoms” in the form of academic, behavioral, social, or emotional changes. Then, we watch them fail. And then we react, often times, with a high degree of emotion. We perpetuate the problems. And we normalize the response and the outcome.
We do this in education all the time. And when we see it happening outside of education, we accept it, often without acknowledging that it is occurring, and move onto the next headline. When are we going to challenge our thinking on this? When are we going to push back on what may be “human nature”?
This is where we need to shift our focus: from a reactive one to a more proactive one.

Recently, as part of a strategic master schedule planning initiative that is underway in the school where I lead, I read Making Big Schools Feel Small by Paul S. George and John H. Lounsbury. There are several salient points of emphasis. Important to note, this book was published in the year 2000 – nearly two decades ago. And yet, the words may be more relevant than ever.

In a nutshell, the book is about fostering a sense of “smallness” at school. It’s about building and sustaining high-quality and trusted relationships between adolescents and the adults who serve them. It’s about students being known, and knowing they are known. And it’s steeped in research, and includes the opinions of 105 educators, 586 parents, and 1,100 students from 33 schools.

A few key points from the authors:

  • “Small units that nurture long-term teacher-student relationships and counter feelings of anonymity or alienation may be a key factor in preventing school-related acts of violence” (5).
  • “Schools that provide small, close-knit communities have, many believe, the best chance to prevent suicides and the kind of tragic violence witnessed in schools in recent years. Juvenile delinquents almost universally lack a bond with the school or with a teacher” (9).
  • “The social-emotional tone of a school affects whether or not students attend school, how they choose to behave while present” (13).
  • “Young adolescents quite typically feel a sense of alienation, but long-term relationships can counter that by helping students feel that they are an important part of an important group” (14).
  • The more informal contacts of students and advisors over time, the greater the sense of community and less the sense of alienation” (14)
It’s hard to imagine that this book was written 18 years ago. It is research based, and endorsed with words and wisdom of experts in the field of middle level education, as well as testimonials from middle schools that are invested in this work of being developmentally responsive to adolescents. 

So one has to ask, why aren’t more schools investing more in this philosophy?

And where are our opportunities to create “cultures of connectedness” in our schools?

Maybe it’s because we become filled with a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, by the magnitude of the responsibility.

Well, it’s smaller than you think.

Recently, I penned a blog post entitled, Names and Norms, which included a few simple, yet intentional ideas for connecting with kids. While these are just a few small steps, they are indeed important steps that we can and must take, if we are going to reduce feelings of isolation and desperation among our students as well as build community.

When we invest in community-building, we can help to transform the experience of each of our students, as they go from feeling anonymous to a sense of belonging and being important members of a community. There may appear to be a lack of empirical evidence on the benefits of school connectedness. However, if we knew we could be part of building significant relationships, that, as Dr. James Comer wrote, would result in significant learning, why wouldn’t we do it? And what they have to gain, while difficult to quantify, is well worth the risk. Our students have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

This is our opportunity to live by this quote, prominently displayed in my office, that represents my personal philosophy on why we lead – to build capacity in others.

As a community of educators:
  • Don’t we owe it to our students, our schools, and our profession, to act?
  • Isn’t it our profession obligation (if not a moral imperative), to act?
  • And if we don’t act, what right do we have to tell our students not to quit, if we ourselves aren’t willing to hold ourselves responsible for living by the same expectations?
26 Days of Learning Leadership