School is back this week and for many kids (and us) this comes with lots of feelings. There may be nerves, hope, dread, happiness, alarm, relief, excitement and more.
I watched my youngest son get ready for his first day of high school this week. He chose his favourite ‘french-fry and hamburger’ socks to wear under his sandals (yes, he loves to rock a good sock) for the first day. Was he a bit nervous? Sure – that’s completely normal. But he was also really looking forward to it. He loves his school. He feels welcomed by the teachers. He has good friends. My son’s high school is in the same building (different section) as his middle school was, so he was already familiar with much of the environment and it felt good to him to be returning to this community.
As we pulled into his school, he saw one of the students who had experienced a lot of behaviour challenges and aggression eruptions the previous year and my son said, “Oh, there’s ‘so and so’ … I wonder if he changed over the summer.” My insides warmed when I heard this as I was happy that my son also held the belief that we are not this or that, but that we are in a constant state of becoming. Who we are is not fixed.
This got me thinking about how some kids have their identities cemented over and over again, for good or bad. Some students will be returning to school with very warm welcomes and messages of, “It’s great to see you back!” and “It’s going to be another awesome year buddy!” Whilst others would be coming back to the eagle-eye look with messages of, “I am watching you” or “You better behave this year.”
What we see is often what we get.
This little interaction with my son brought me back to my first year of high school when I too was 14, the exact age of my son now. I reflected on what my teachers saw in me that year and how what they saw supported the unfolding of my growth.
Grade nine was not my best year. It was my first year in a new school. My friend group had begun to get involved in things that didn’t exactly sit right with me or my values … so I had quite a few lunches where I awkwardly ate alone while reading a book, as I had not yet found ‘my people.’ It was really a year of feeling very in-between and unsure, as many teen years are. I had so many big and mixed-up feelings. Angst. Awkwardness. Self-consciousness. And yet I also felt the excitement of getting to know myself and figuring out who I wanted to be. But these discoveries were new to me, still fuzzy, and not yet shared with the outside world.
Looking back, I am not sure what I seemed like to my teachers at that time. Quiet? Shy, maybe? That would be my best guess.
That year, my school decided to select one student to be the Principal of the school for a day. I am not sure why, but the teachers chose me. I often wonder if they really did see my leadership potential and therefore gave me a leadership role or if they were intentionally providing me with an experience so that I could discover this capacity within me. I will never know the intention behind why I was selected for this experience, but what I do know is that I got to experience leadership – which, in turn, helped me to become a leader. For this I will forever be grateful. The newspaper captured a picture of me that day and I have to laugh at the 80’s look of my ruffled blouse and curled bangs. (I tried to look very grown up and had borrowed my older sister’s clothes. ?)
At the end of that year, I moved to a different city and attended another new school for grades 10 and 11. I brought with me my growing, yet fledgling, identity as a leader. Again, I was lucky enough to have teachers that saw the student’s gifts and capacity, often before we saw them ourselves. I loved this new school with all my heart. I genuinely felt like our teachers loved teaching us. We felt respected and in return, we were full of respect right back. In this warm environment, I fully stepped into myself. I joined clubs, I volunteered, I took on leadership roles in the Student Council, and I did all I could to be a part of this community.
Same kid: Different school culture
At the end of grade 11, another move! That summer my parents moved cities and I started a new school for grade twelve. Grade 12 is a challenging time to start a new school, but given my past positive experiences with school, I wasn’t too worried. I entered the school expecting to like it and ready to embrace it.
However, in my very first week, I had the first of many experiences that led me to feel otherwise.
I had gone to the library to get some books. I had my backpack on as it was the end of the day and I was going to walk home afterwards. As I walked in, the librarian curtly stated, “No backpacks.” She didn’t make eye contact with me and she wasn’t warm. In fact, I would say she sounded angry. I was quite surprised that I wasn’t allowed to come in with my backpack and asked her why. She responded tartly that it was because they didn’t want any of their books stolen. I was shocked and if I am being honest, maybe a bit hurt too. Did she think I was a robber? Did she really think I was going to steal their books? Well, I had never stolen anything in my life, but I can tell you that at that moment I sure felt like stealing their books. (Well if that’s what you think of me …) But of course, I didn’t. My identity had already formed enough to know who I was and who I wasn’t. And I wasn’t a person who stole things.
I continued to have experiences like this throughout my year at this school. It was like the teachers were against us. It was them versus us. It was as if they saw us as trouble-makers from the get-go and were trying to catch us being bad so they could teach us a lesson. And in this space, I became a different student than I was at the other schools. I came to school, did what I had to and then went home. I didn’t share in class. I didn’t volunteer nor did I join clubs. I simply got through it. I was the very same student, just in a different school culture. This school never got to know my gifts nor did I grow under their leadership. Different school cultures will get different results.
Making room for something new to emerge
I was lucky, as across my life I had been fortunate enough to have had so many positive experiences of caring leadership reflecting back my potential to me that one bad year didn’t shift me. However, I know that this is not the case for many students.
Our toughest students, the ones with the most troubling behavior, are the ones that need us to see their goodness the most. Because what we see is so often what we get.
Is this hard? Yes, it really is. Our most challenging and prickly students may make us want to withdraw. Their goodness or capacity can be so hard to see. But this is what we can lean into. This is what we can strive for so that we can potentially make room for shifts and new possibilities to unfold.
So, how can we do this?
We can welcome all students back with warmth and eagerness.
We should not reserve our warmth for the kids that behave well. Our toughest and most prickly students need our warmth too, often the most. Our warmth indicates to them that we see them as good. We see them as worthwhile. We see their capacity.
When we see the goodness and capacity in a student before it is exhibited, they receive the gift of seeing themselves through our eyes. Our seeing makes it more possible that they will see it as well. They may discover themselves in the positive reflection of them that we provide.
And don’t worry if you get no response; your warmth may not be immediately reciprocated. Do not take this as an indicator that your warmth does not matter or that it is not working. Your warmth may be quietly and gently landing within them. Change takes time.
Your warmth is making room for something new to emerge.
We can provide students with experiences in which they get to feel and discover their capacity.
We can offer these experiences to our most challenged students in lots of little ways that can create tiny openings for change—miniature cracks in their previously negative or limited ideas of who they are.
Even small things like asking a child who rarely shows any leadership initiative to lead something for one minute can help. They may be surprised by our ask, as they may not have seen themselves this way. They then get to feel their ability to lead—even if it is only for one minute—and start to believe they are capable of this new role.
Instead of waiting for our students to show us their leadership abilities before we see them and treat them as leaders, we can develop the opposite mantra: Help every student experience leading as a means to discovering this capacity in themselves.
This is the same for all the discoveries we hope for our students to find in themselves. These experiences allow students to loosen their ideas of who they are and experience the feeling of being caring or capable or a leader. It opens up all sorts of new possibilities within our students.
Our belief and our ability to see the inherent goodness and capacity within each of our students matters, and the experiences we offer them to eventually know and feel this for themselves matter too.
We can try to see what’s possible, rather than simply seeing what is before us.
This year, let’s see beyond behavior – beyond the literal of what is right in front of us. Let our seeing of what is not there yet, anchor us and guide our caring leadership.
Let’s see possibility, capacity and resilience. Because what we see is often what we get.
School is back
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