It sits on my desk every day. A constant reminder of what happened. It's something that I never want to lose sight of, though ironically, because I do see it every day, sometimes I see right through it... but in my head, I never, ever forget.
Traditionally at my high school, the freshman class has been targeted during the October Homecoming Pep Rally by the upperclassmen, they are greeted with chants of "Go back to Cole" – a reference to Cole Middle School. It has been done for as long as anyone can remember; traditionally accepted as a rite of passage- and over the years the freshman have returned volleys of their own, with chants such as "Go to College", "Seniors Stink" and "C-C-R-I" (a reference to the state's community college).
This type of "tradition" is not limited to EGHS, of course. I was freshman at Bishop Hendricken High School in 1981- one of those in a long, long line of freshman classes that were called down to the gym last (for maximum effect) and greeted with "Freshman on the Floor" screamed at us by the entire student body because there was (by design) no room for us in the bleachers. Additionally, we found ourselves dodging various objects thrown from the stands... because it was "all in good fun." But it's not fun. It's wrong. It's unacceptable. And I will do everything that I can to ensure that it will never happen again at my school.
It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership. - Nelson Mandela
It is perhaps my biggest disappointment as an administrator, and definitely my biggest failure as a leader. When you learn about school leadership, one of the basic tenets that you are taught is that you have to respect a school's culture, traditions and values as you enter and become part of that community before you can try to impose your own beliefs and ideas. It's just not smart to come in to a school like a bulldozer and disenfranchise yourself from the school community because you don't "like" or appreciate something that has been longstanding there.
That being said, I should have. I should have done something to stop the "Go Back to Cole" chant. I should have done more than simply call the freshmen down first to give them a small advantage. I should have done a better job to protect them from this ridiculous, juvenile and abusive tradition. But I didn't.
I failed them.
And then, two 11th grade students chose to take that atmosphere to another level. They began throwing batteries into the crowd of freshmen as they were being dismissed. AA and C batteries. Two 14-year old girls were struck in the head, both hurt. I was furious. Furious at the students for using such horrible judgement and placing no value on the safety of others. Furious at the many students who knew that they were planning to do this and didn't tell anyone who could have stopped it. I later discovered that the students had talked to many people about it at lunch that afternoon, even showing off the batteries with pride. I was also furious at the students standing around them in the crowd who did nothing, or even worse, found it entertaining.
But most of all, I was furious at myself for allowing something like this to happen at MY school. Where I was supposed to be a leader. Where I was supposed to ensure the safety of those girls. I failed on all counts. I would never allow anything like this to happen again.
Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes. - Peter Drucker
The first thing I considered was that this was not an issue related to one event in the school year. It was not a Pep Rally problem, it was a school culture problem. A culture that allows 1/4 of the school to be targeted for abuse and derision, a culture that looks the other way when kids are bullied. A culture that is entertained by making 14-year old kids uncomfortable or isolating them from the rest of the community is not one that I could support. But how do you change something like that?
As a school, we had to begin a paradigm shift to a culture of appreciation. A culture of kindness. A culture that let's everyone; teachers, students, staff and parents know that "You Matter." We notice what you do. We care about you. We accept you. Those had to be the new values that we exhibit every day. But we needed a mechanism.
The genesis of this change and the method we used is chronicled here by Angela Maiers, a nationally acclaimed author and speaker; the person whose work, (in this video) in part, inspired this initiative.
We expanded the You Matter program from teachers to the entire school community in September of 2013. In just over six weeks now, the @EGHSmatters program has grown from zero to 261 followers on Twitter. In addition, more than 580 messages of kindness and appreciation have been exchanged already within our school community. And we are just scratching the surface of change.
As you walk the halls at EGHS and look at the faces of our school, it is easy to discover through other people's eyes that there is something different going on this year. There’s a growing culture of appreciation and kindness among the faculty and students. We, as a building, are finding that recognizing the qualities and actions of others that make each individual special. As a school community, we are building people up rather than making them feel isolated and that makes us all stronger. And the night of 10/1/13 was the best example yet: when an anonymous student began a twitter account that could have turned into cyber bullying was created, our school refused to participate in it. And our kids shut it down completely. In 23 minutes flat.
Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. - Peter Drucker
Every school has traditions or practices that may not sit well with you because they are not good for kids, or worse, detrimental to kids. It's our job as educators to work together to eliminate them. Teaching and learning is hard work. We need to support everyone in our school community, especially our teachers and kids. We need to do a better job to recognize the things that make them special. To be kind. To care about one another.
You can do that. You just have to break tradition sometime.