I am the very proud principal of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center (HACTC). And I have a confession to make.
I suspend students out of school for their negative behavior.
And I hate it.
Suspensions do not change behavior.
I know that.
And that is the goal of discipline, right?
To help change student’s behavior?
To promote learning?
Because change in behavior comes from learning.
And removing the student from the community - even for a short while - despite intention, is simply punishment.
And punishment creates Guilt.
Catalysts for bad behavior.
Suspensions do not create accountability.
Foundations of learning.
And I know there is research that prove suspensions do not change behavior.
But I do not need research to show me that.
I see it in the slumped shoulders.
The bowed head.
The folded, shaking hands.
The colored cheeks.
When I tell them they are suspended.
Out of school.
Out of the community.
No. I do not need research. The students tell me. Somehow.
Even the non-suspended students.
Like when a few closed the door in my office and with shaky voices told me that they didn’t understand me suspending a student out of school for a truancy.
That it didn’t make sense.
Removing a student from the community for not wanting to come to the community.
“ ‘Why is that H? Why did he choose not to come to school? That answer is more important than his action. Sending him home to be alone only strengthened his feeling that he is not a part of the HACTC...which is why he didn’t come in the first place...he doesn’t feel he belongs. That’s what needs changing. His belonging. If he belongs, his behavior will change.’“
Or when my Student Advisory Board heard that I suspended a student out of school because he missed the bus to the HACTC and drove himself up from Windsor High School.
So in our monthly meeting, they called me on it.
And pointed out that I suspended the student for recognizing his mistake (missing the bus) and trying to correct it (driving to the HACTC).
In their mind, I essentially suspended him out of school for wanting to come to school.
And that was stupid. Really stupid.
In hindsight, they were not wrong. It was stupid.
So they asked to me think about it. A lot.
Both of those instances were last year.
And when I got over myself (don’t ask students a question you do not want to know the answer to), I did think.
I thought about why I suspend. Out of school. Knowing what I know.
And this is a confession, right?
So here is the answer I came up with: It was easy.
I suspended out of school because it was easy.
Punishment was easy. Separation was easy.
Easier and quicker than learning.
Which is sometimes difficult.
Like true accountability.
Developing of a plan void of punishment that helps students reflect, learn, and restitute is hard.
And takes time.
None of which I had. Or thought I had.
But when I tried it...to create a plan not based in punishment but in learning, it was not as hard as I thought.
My HACTC teammates and our community had my back.
Or rather the student’s back.
So a student who told his teacher to ‘Fuck Off’ was not suspended out of school.
He was sent to White River Toyota (he had an interest in Automotive Technology) to spend the day with a shop leader.
To learn what would happen there if an employee told his boss to ‘Fuck Off.’
And to build relationship. With their employees. With people in our community. Good people.
And he did.
Coming back to school from that experience owning his behavior.
And being reflective.
And still a part of our community.
The HACTC community and the larger community.
Maybe more so than he was before his emotional directive to his teacher.
So now I use suspension out of school as a last resort.
Making conscious efforts not to suspend and punish but to plan for inclusion and growth.
Using my incredible teammates and community partners to do so.
‘It takes a village.’
And now I suspend out of school for only three reasons: weapons, fighting, and substances.
When the behavior threatens the safety and well being of all in the community.
But now I am even questioning if those instances are justified.
So when I do suspend out of school, I call the student.
To maintain the connection.
To try and negate the separation.
To let him/her know they are not alone. Or forgotten.
And I will do that until me and my teammates and our students and our community can determine if there is a better way.
Regardless of time or difficulty.
And change student's behavior.
My professional life has been shaped and influenced by many great educators.
All are worthy - despite their assurances that they are not - of a piece of writing clarifying their influence on me.
And I hope someday I will be able to sit down with pen in hand and give them due diligence.
Diligence to the belief that teachers are not born; they are created.
Through their childhood.
Through their school years.
Through their learning.
And those that influence that learning.
And influence their life.
Hence, I confess that I was created.
By them. By their influence.
And given my troubles and struggles as a learner and their individual investment in me to overcome those troubles, that they would be so proud of whatever I wrote about them.
Or whatever I wrote. Period.
Who knew that the hyperactive, anxious, disruptive child who hated to read, write, and attend school (I would rather hide in the hayloft all day) would become a teacher?
An English teacher.
And eventually a school leader.
With an awesome team.
Apparently, they did.
But what made them so important to me, in hindsight, was that they knew that school - and the teachers in it...including themselves - were not the only place where learning occurred.
Or where influence occurred.
They knew it took a community.
To create an educator.
To create me.
And they encouraged - and sometimes insisted on - that learning and interaction with my community.
Dody knew that time with Buzzy Picken in his garage would teach me more than any day in fourth grade.
So she looked the other way (as she did with my father when he was in her class) when I struggled to go to school and just ended up bugging Buzzy - after exiting the hayloft - to fix my bicycle in his garage, hanging around to watch him work hard (really hard), interact with customers, and tell jokes.
I am still not convinced that Buzzy and Dody were not in cahoots in regards to my education.
Bless you, Dody.
Bless you, Buzzy.
And Coach Stone knew that Bob White was what I needed. More than football.
Telling me to honor my commitment. And to go to work. To cut wood. And mow lawns. And build stone walls. And not leave Bob in the lurch. In turn, missing practice.
Honoring a commitment was more important than learning plays.
The former would serve me well in life. The latter would to, but just to a lesser a degree.
What a great coach. To know that. To know that fine line.
Bless you, Mike Stone.
Bless you, Bob White.
And Peggy knew that she could teach me grammar and writing in Junior English but she could not teach me life.
Henry Koloski could do that, though.
So she encouraged me to miss school and talk to Henry. Again.
And write about it.
To record it.
So I wrote a poem.
And when I was teaching English, I was able to share that poem with his great-grandson.
Who re-shared it with me recently.
To remind me.
That it takes a community.
To create educators.
To create good humans.
Bless you, Peggy. Wherever you are.
Where on earth did you get that foresight?
So thank you Dody, Roger, Frank, Coach Stone, Coach Lovering, and Peggy.
I hope you are proud of what I’ve become.
Sometimes I am so unsure of myself and wish you were here to still teach me.
But mostly I am confident in what you created.
You created me.
And I try to honor you in my work.
And your investment in me.
Horses, Henry, and Me.
(written in Peggy Miller’s Junior English Class)
In the summer evenings
of my youth,
when the horses
sauntered down the lane
to eat hay
and scratch their necks
and chests against
the barb wire gate,
my neighbor Henry
sat on his porch steps
drinking beer from a can
and smoking a cigarette.
(My hands still stinging
from the wire handles
of the water pails)
when I, too, felt
only like sauntering,
I would make my way
up our dirt road,
past the old maples
and the rusted out Scout,
to hear Henry's gentle,
(The same greeting
he gave my father
when he was young).
Henry would slide
to one side
of the step,
a sign for me
to join him in sitting,
I passed time
that I would never learn
from school, reading,
I am the very proud principal of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center (HACTC). And I have a confession to make.
I love so many things about my job: greeting students off the bus; giving them birthday cards (and a chocolate bar); supporting them in the mistakes they make; seeing them learn; laughing with them; watching them Grow...Emotionally...Spiritually...Academically.
And soooooo very much more.
Yet despite those things I love, there are things about my job that I do not love.
In fact, there are things about my job that I hate.
I hate Christmas.
There. I said it. That is my confession.
I hate Christmas not because I am a Grinch. Although I will certainly admit to Grinch-like tendencies.
But rather because Christmas proves to be the most difficult time of the year for students.
Year in and year out. For the 26 years I have taught.
The second hardest time of year for students? Three months later. When the sap runs. And eviction notices can be served.
I do not hate sugaring time. Not yet. It’s getting there, though.
But back to Christmas.
Students simply struggle at Christmas. A lot. Emotionally...Spiritually...Academically.
All students? No.
Most students? Maybe.
Some students? Yes.
But even if only some students struggle, I struggle. Emotionally….Spiritually.
That is an unfortunate symptom of caring, I guess. My teammates can attest. They do it, too.
Caring and struggling.
And despite knowing that proportional relationship is unhealthy for us, we still do it. We cannot help it.
And why the struggle for students?
Not enough presents? No.
Not being in school for a week or so? Maybe.
Being reminded? Yes.
That their mother is not in their life.
That their father is not in their life.
That their father and mother are in their life but not in a good way. Not a parenting way.
That it is hard to love people and not their decisions or their behavior.
That they do not have enough food.
That they do not have enough love.
That they do not have enough stuff. To keep up with the Joneses.
That they do not have reliable housing. Or transportation.
That they feel guilty for having too much food. Or love. Or a nice house. Or a car.
That they have a good life. Especially when their friends do not. Friends they love.
That guilt is powerful. And not a good motivator. Or a sustainable one.
That compassion is powerful.
That compassion can be confusing.
That alcohol ruined their family. Or ruined a friend.
That heroin ruined their family. Or ruined a friend.
That despite the claim marijuana is not addictive, they know it to be habitual.
That bad habits are hurtful. And distancing. And hurtful. And distancing.
That despite professed love, actions speak louder than words.
That self esteem bruises just as easily from words as the body does from violence.
That violence sucks. In words or in contact.
That neglect is abuse.
That abuse is abuse. It is not a grey area. Despite the offender’s opinion.
That anger is an epidemic.
That sex is supposed to be based in love. But often it is not. It is just not.
That their parents work hard, manage their money well, and cannot make ends meet.
There are many more than those. That I do not know.
But the students do. They know them all.
Is the above cliche? Written to provoke an emotion? A response from the reader?
No. Maybe. Possibly.
That list is real. For some students. But for every principal. And team. That cares.
And I do not know any that do not care.
Downer of a confession, eh?
Probably. Well, maybe not. I hope not.
Because there is hope.
At the HACTC. And all schools.
Students are supported there. At school. By good people. By educators. Who care for them.
And love them.
And encourage them.
And believe in them.
And give them the better reminders: they are Strong. Smart. Unique. Courageous. Gritty. Resilient.
And do not have to follow the behavior and/or choices of others; they can create their own way.
Well, maybe I do not hate Christmas as much as I thought. Or even at all. Hope can do that, I suppose.
Change your thinking in only three pages - in 767 words.
The struggles students face at Christmas will be handled. And neutralized. And used for good. For Growth.
By the students. By my team. By me. By all educators.
Merry Christmas, then. Merry Christmas.
I am the very proud Principal of the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center (HACTC). And I am going to make a confession: I love all of my students. A lot.
But there is more.
I often find myself in the position of loving my students but not their behavior. Or their choices.
I’m okay with that, though. It’s part of the job. A hard part of the job.
And if you are not in education, you still know what I meant two sentences ago: loving people but not their behavior is simply hard. Ask the friend or parent or child of an addict; they’ll agree. For sure.
However, the focus of this confession is not really about that.
Rather, it is about the tension that sometimes exists between the love of a school administrator, the expected school rules that govern student behavior, and student learning and growth.
I feel this tension frequently but particularly at this time of year. The Fall. When students are late for school or miss school entirely...to hunt.
Yup. There it is.
There is the true heart of my confession: I love it when students break the rules but in doing so increase their learning. And their growth.
In missing school to hunt, students are technically ‘late’ or ‘unexcused’ in their absence. And the HACTC has a fairly strict attendance policy. A policy I am ultimately in charge of enacting. Or, I guess, enforcing.
But when a student hits the fateful twelve days of school missed and an attendance plan needs developing, I review the absences and tardies (three tardies equals one absence) and hope that some of those tardies and/or absences are due to being in the woods. Hunting.
Why that ‘hope?’
Because time in the woods teaches students more than being in class. Every time.
And that is a big statement considering the teachers and the curriculums at the HACTC are the best. Simply the best. Hands down.
But time in the woods - walking slowly, thinking deeply, sitting attentively, listening acutely, examining carefully, acting safely, and patiently waiting…and waiting…and waiting...to sometimes be disappointed...for years...teach more than any class. Or two. Or three.
And yes, as an extension of my confession, if there are tardies or absences due to hunting, I do not ‘excuse’ them per se, but certainly understand them. An understanding that plays out with grace in their attendance plan.
Am I a hunter and are my thoughts biased? Yes. And also no.
I have hunted. A lot. And not successfully if harvested number of deer are the determiner for ‘success’.
But success in hunting, as asserted previously, is defined by the experience, the time in the woods, the learning, and the growth. Not necessarily the harvest.
In that case, then, I guess I am a ‘successful’ hunter. And, of course, biased. So take that for what it is worth.
Certainly, though, my desire for kids to learn is also biased in that I know more learning can occur outside of school than in it.
The students at the HACTC that hunt have Respect. Respect for safety and also the animal they harvest.
I have seen that time and time again. In current students and also when they leave and become alumni.
What more could a principal ask for than that Respect? Not much. Not much at all.
So, my awesome students at the HACTC. Hunt if you want to. Respectfully. Safely. And I will work with you in regards to the ‘rules.’
Just as I do with many other student interests that break the rules and create that lovely, welcomed tension in my job that I know causes you to grow and learn.
#thisiswhatlearninglookslike #respect #engage #learn #work #serve #grow #missionstatement