Before I became a Vice Principal, I was terrified of the aspect of being an administrator where you had to "put down the hammer." Meaning, my thing has ALWAYS been building relationships with my students, and I wondered how possible that was going to be when I had to discipline them on a more severe level - suspension, expulsion, etc. One thing I learned was that there WAS a way to have those difficult conversations with students while also having and building a good, solid, working relationship with my students. In fact, sometimes the difficult conversations ended up being the thing that saved those students in the long run. I'm back in the classroom part time this year and am thrilled to be a part of a school/district where it's okay (and even encouraged) to have difficult conversations for the betterment of the kids, staff, and school as a whole.
Case in point: I'm doing this thing with my two classes called "Wellness Wednesdays." On Wellness Wednesdays (WW for short), we take a day break from our regular academic concepts to focus on life concepts (confidence, positivity, resilience, perseverance, acceptance, empathy, grit, tenacity, compassion, human connection, etc.) that are CRUCIAL to student and adult success any and everywhere. We've had three of these WWs at this point, and all three have LITERALLY captivated my students. Below is a description of each day and how the difficult conversations in each led to breakthroughs and increased human connection and compassion among my students:
Day #1 - Empathy. We talked about what empathy was, what it looked like, took an empathy survey, and students worked on an activity designed to make students more aware of ways they could be more empathetic in their own lives. Being that this was the first Wellness Wednesday, students were not as open as they became on Day #2.
Day #2 - Labels & Stereotypes. This day blew my mind. We talked about what labels and stereotypes are, and I walked students through the labels that I was given from the time I was a child all the way up through college and shortly thereafter. During this discussion, we started talking about what "groups" existed at our school (jocks, popular kids, goth kids, skater kids, nerds, LGBT kids, kids hanging out according to their race/culture, etc.), and it was during this conversation I had a moment of panic. Kids were SO engaged in this discussion and having REAL reactions and difficult conversations that I wasn't entirely prepared for. But then it became really beautiful really quickly. One kid raised his hand and began describing how he was bullied for four straight years, and became hopeless enough to want to self-harm ("cut off my leg," in his words). Then one by one, almost HALF of that group of kids opened up and talked about wanting to commit suicide and/or self-harm because of the bullying they endured in the distant and very recent (as in earlier that day) past. There was a group of kids going around to give hugs to others who felt so hopeless, and it was a moment of true compassion, empathy, and positive culture building.
Day #3 - If You Really Knew Me. During this day we continued with discussions about labels and stereotypes, and opened up even more in individual writing activities to talk about very personal and difficult things. Again, kids leaned on each other and supported each other. It was amazing.
I watched this kind of human connectedness and relationship building unfold in my work as a VP with individuals and small groups of kids, but was amazed to see it happen in a class of 25-30 kids as well. The pattern I'm starting to see is that no matter what size group I'm working with, initiating difficult conversations, enduring the storm head on, getting to the root issue and rebuilding from a more open, empathetic and compassionate place has the ability to change people, and I mean REALLY change people. Many people aren't equipped to handle these types of conversations, and some days I don't know if I have even the strength to facilitate them, but knowing the calm waiting on the other side of those difficult conversations is what keeps me going.
What about you?
Are you capable of having difficult conversations and facing the storm?
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