Leadership Opportunities

Usually, I blog about my Learning Leadership journey – school, family, or professional learning – “safe” topics. Sticking to topics I have some degree of confidence in “knowing what I know” has worked for me. The topic of this post is different. So I ask any readers, old or new, to please extend me the grace and understanding as I learn. Thoughts and prayers to the family of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and also to Christian Cooper, for the calm poise demonstrated in Central Park. Thoughts and prayers to our police officers who protect and defend in service of others, all our essential workers, and the families of those who are among the over 100,000 lives lost due to Covid-19.

Thank you for reading.

“All progress happens in uncertain times.” 
– Ozan Varol, Law Professor, Author, Rocket Scientist

Over the course of the last 11 weeks, we’ve heard time and time again, through sickness, tragedy, hardship, struggle, and inconvenience, that there are many leadership opportunities that exist. Covid-19, the economy, the school closures, the federal, state, and local government, politics, public education, among many other topics, are all part of this dialogue. Even within our schools, countless opportunities to take a step back and look more closely at practices, some of which we do because as they saying goes, “We’ve always done it that way”. These are among the categories that have presented these “opportunities” for leaders to rise up and model strength, to reassure, to create conditions, to navigate and often, remove obstacles so others may be successful. In recent weeks, each of us has seen and experienced some of the best and worst leadership responses in all sorts of situations.

I am fortunate. So, so fortunate. As someone who was raised in a hardworking middle class family, I am now a husband and father in a middle class family, living in a middle class neighborhood. I have my health, career security, and quite honestly, want for nothing. I proudly serve as Principal in a school where I am part of a cohesive team, with strong leaders, role models, and partners around me who all work towards a common goal. The students where I lead make me proud, their families make me proud. Proud, because they remind me of friends and family members I’ve known, growing up, who work for everything they have. That’s a special quality that takes a kid far in life; I’ve seen it time and again, especially as an educator. I am lucky, I am fortunate, I am blessed.

The news, of late, has been difficult to follow, nearly impossible to digest in bite-sized pieces. As a New Yorker, I’ve closely followed the 11:30 am reports issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo, during his daily press conferences, in which he provides updates on daily Covid-19 death rates in New York, while messaging the importance of “flattening the curve”, providing PPE to our essential workers, and that we wear facial protection in public. Never one to hold back, the governor speaks about the important role that science, data, numbers, and facts play in decision-making. I’ve chosen to follow the news of the global pandemic sparingly, doing my best to make sense of it all, and make decisions in the best interest of my family. For the last 11 weeks, I’ve worried, lost sleep, while intentionally maintaining some semblance of personal discipline towards my own physical and social emotional wellness. Despite what the governor says, being “New York Tough” isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, when part of a soundbite.

Then on Monday, May 25, we learned the name George Floyd, a 46 year old man who was killed in police custody, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 
This news felt…different. Maybe it is because, in a global pandemic, we’ve had significant every day distractions removed, clearing the way for other thoughts to occupy our attention. Maybe it’s because of the extensive video footage or media coverage. Or maybe it is because of society’s reaction to this event, the death of another unarmed African American male. The news of George Floyd was tragic and unfathomable, particularly in light of the global pandemic. I struggled to make sense of it for several days, finding myself drawn into the depths of the 24 hour news cycle. But I remembered this feeling; it was not unlike the feeling of when hearing the news of the September 11 terrorist attacks, or school shootings, at Columbine, at Sandy Hook, and at Parkland. Only now, we don’t have our school community to tend to, to grieve with, and to process action steps towards learning together and making a difference.
Feeling fortunate for the positive distractions that comes with seeing students and families (who were visiting school to retrieve their belongings because of forced school closure due to Covid-19), on Friday evening, I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of guilt. I had come to realize, in reflecting on that term, “leadership opportunities”, that I had, in fact seized one, by going to school for the first time in ten weeks, to see students. While my initial intent was to help, I started to think that was an act of selfishness. I had chosen this “leadership opportunity”, it had not chosen me. Going to school, it turns out, was the easy. I have and am a member of a great team, I was embracing the privilege I have, as Principal.
But I could not stop thinking of a student who I met long ago. An African American student who I watched grow up, through elementary school (when I was there as a teacher and new administrator) and on through middle school, when I became Principal. He was misunderstood, an African American child and later, adolescent, in a school world that did not look like him. I made a point to find ways to connect with him, through sports, through “guy stuff”, and through books. After reading Jason Reynolds’ Ghost, I made sure to tell him about it When he looked surprised that I had read it, we talked about the characters, and which reminded me of him and why. And when I had the chance to hand him a copy I had purchased, his eyes lit up. We wound up reading and discussing the Track Series, forging a special connection, through literature. Maybe it was because he had a certain view of the way people saw him that differed from me. I saw him as an adolescent and a reader, and as someone who was trying to fit in and not stand out, all for reasons beyond his control.

This is who I could not stop thinking about when I heard the news surrounding the name, George Floyd. An enormous sense of sadness and guilt filled my entire being. I didn’t know what to do with this energy, what to do to process my own feelings, so I could help others. What I did know was that I had to start somewhere. This was one of those leadership opportunities we’ve been hearing about. 

On Friday night, I recalled all that I’d learned as a participant in the Leading Equity Virtual Summit organized by Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., attending numerous sessions involving ways educators can begin to embrace a mindset towards diversity, equity, and inclusivity. After thinking about this all week, I discovered the latest video clip from Dr. Eakins, and his honest reflections, as a black man, raising a black son, and how the series of recent events impact and challenge our morals, as human beings, and for me, as a white American male.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. 

Instead, I couldn’t help but be glued to the footage, recapping the events and now, the beginnings of the aftermath. All I could do was think about that student. Think about how he was feeling during a global pandemic. Think about how we felt on a day-to-day basis, walking around a school that doesn’t serve his basic human needs as a young black male. Think about how we all convince ourselves that we do understand him, his personal journey, how he sees the world through his own eyes. How we (how I) unknowingly failed him, countless times, when all he needed was for someone, anyone, to understand him, to just listen. 

On Saturday morning, social media seemed exceptionally quiet, more so than a typical energetic, ambitious Saturday. If there were people using these spaces to reflect on the state of affairs, it didn’t seem to be happening in the same space where I was. Maybe people, like me, were sorting things out? Or maybe it was something else. What I did find was a video that, in a strange way, I needed to see and at that moment. 

It’s called, “A Conversation with My Black Son”

Watch it.

This was my first step on the road to understanding this differently. Reflecting back to being a young boy myself, and later, the father of young boys. To think, the only dialogue we’ve had that are remotely resembles this involved the awkward “birds and bees” talk. (Admittedly, neither of which I handled well, first as an adolescent boy nor later as a father of adolescent boys.) To think black parents speak to their black sons about the appropriate manner in which they are to handle themselves when interacting with law enforcement, left me feeling…shaken. 


Then I came across the short clip of Jane Elliott, the American anti-racist activist and one-time third grade teacher. Watching this brought me back to being a nineteen year-old aspiring teacher. I remembered sitting in an college classroom as part of my teacher education program, learning about her “blue eyes, brown eyes” exercise that she conducted in her class on April 5, 1968, the day following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“If you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.”

Watch it.

This got me thinking, how, several decades after reading about Jane Elliott, I too, became a third grade teacher. How hard I worked to earn that chance, but now I think about being a white male and the impact it had on my chance to do this. I realize this is where my white privilege started as an adult, or rather, this was where I first realized it. In the last quarter century, I have yet to show the courage, to raise questions like those from Jane Elliott, to myself, let alone anyone else.

Then I had he good fortune to discover this tweet from Bill Ferriter (@plugsin). Some besides me was thinking about this, reflecting, processing, and looking for answers. For as much criticism as social media spaces face at times, this exchange reminded me that there was good out there, and sometimes all you had to do is look a little deeper, below the surface, past the superficial platitudes. While my questions remained and increased in number, I was not alone.

This also got me thinking again about the amazing author, Jason Reynolds, about my former student again, and the power of literature to help us when we need it most. So I downloaded All American Boys, jumped on my bike, and started pedaling. 

I listened and I pedaled, and I reflected, until the narrator stopped reading. 

Maybe it was the stillness of a beautiful May morning, the vitamin D, or the adrenaline from getting my heart pumping, or (most definitely), the words of Jason Reynolds, as they flowed through my earbuds on into my heart. But I came back home feeling…different. Yes, I had found meaning in the story and empathized with the characters. And no, I had not yet done nearly what was accomplished in this book. Despite my unsettled feelings about all that is happening in the world right now, I knew I had to do something, especially as a white male, who is the same age as George Floyd. Our stories were different, but in the end, we wanted many of the same things in life.

So, I will focus on being a part of and creating space where people can:
  • Seek to understand.
  • Empathize.
  • Learn from the experiences of others.
I’ll repeat that cycle, adding actions to my intentions, as I learn and grow.