Nearing the end of one of the more challenging years most of us have had in quite some time, the last thing we need is a lecture about gratitude. And yet, as we approach the Thanksgiving season here in the U.S., I can’t help but challenge myself to consider what exists in my own life for which I should give thanks.
I often say to my family and colleagues, “Stress is a choice.” And it is. I remind them of this because in education or simply life in Silicon Valley, stress can sometimes feel like a badge of honor. It’s almost as if, “You aren’t stressed? You aren’t working hard enough.” In recognizing that it is a choice, we are set up to choose something different than stress. By the same token, I think most of our ‘states of being’ or emotions are also a choice.
As I navigate a global pandemic and contentious threats to our democracy as a citizen, father, husband, and school superintendent, I ask myself, what states of being am I choosing and how do those emotions impact me and those around me?
It’s natural and justified for me--for anyone--to feel stress, anxiety, resentment, and frustration during this time. I have certainly experienced my fair share of these emotions this year. But when I go to the balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (my life), I can unequivocally admit that those are emotions in which I do not want to stay, live, or communicate with others. I don’t have control of what happens in the world, but I do have control of how I respond to it.
I am justified if I lament how difficult my job is right now.
I can be forgiven if I rant about how unfair it is that my kids and I have to stay home, not travel, see friends only outside (even if it is raining), and the like.
I won’t be alone when I scream at the TV watching news of the chaos in Washington or post a snarky comment on my personal social media.
I can expect that my wife and I will blow up at one another occasionally as the weight of it all feels too much.
When those understandable reactions surface, I can receive them as feedback that it may be time for me to also focus some energy on the good, the right, the kind, the hopeful. I can choose in those moments or some moment thereafter to be grateful for what is also true.
I am grateful for teachers and support staff and their representative unions in our school district for working together with our Board and administration in good faith to get schools open, mitigate risks of virus spread, and stand in the face of fear to teach in person or otherwise create remarkably successful virtual learning.
I am grateful that we have not yet had to layoff one employee due to the pandemic’s impacts. I’m even more grateful that we’ve been able to hire individuals who’ve lost other jobs to assist us in our safety procedures.
I am grateful that my children and their peers are making learning progress despite all the challenges.
I am grateful that I have the choice to send my children to school in person or keep them home if my risk tolerance is lower than others.
I am grateful that I have a job that I love and that I can still work and provide for my family when so many others have lost theirs.
I am grateful that our local leaders are making the right decisions in the best interest of our citizens and that, together, our community works to reduce risk and follow recommendations.
I am grateful that I do not have COVID. That my family has not gotten COVID. And that I can say with all confidence that because of the therapeutics now available, my access to high quality health care, and the availability of good research-based information if I do get COVID, I am likely to survive it with few complications.
I am grateful that I still have the right to vote and that my voice was heard in this last election.
I am grateful that our democracy, as of now, has held up against some of the greatest challenges it has faced.
I am grateful that my family who, in good health and good will, will join together over Zoom at Thanksgiving to celebrate all that we have been given and which we often take for granted. And, I will do so in a warm home, with an abundant feast, surrounded by those who call me Dad and husband.
All these things are not guaranteed. They are gifts, all of which I could easily overlook if I spend all my time lamenting what I’ve lost, what’s been turned upside down, what’s not within my control this year.
As hard as this year has been, I have much more to be grateful for than I do to rage against. What about you? What’s your state of mind these days? As you go up to your own balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (your life as it is right now), what do you see? Are you living in a constant emotion of disequilibrium? Might you also benefit from a reset toward gratitude? If so, I invite you to do so; in fact, I join you.
May you and yours have a blessed, relaxing, and safe Thanksgiving Holiday.
This piece, co-authored by Erik Burmeister, Beth Polito, and Gina Sudaria, originally appeared as a Guest Opinion in The Almanac newspaper under the title "Halloween during a pandemic doesn't have to be scary." The Almanac serves the communities of Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, and Woodside. Dr. Polito is Superintendent of Las Lomitas Elementary School District. Ms. Sudaria is Superintendent of Ravenswood City School District.
With the realities of COVID-19 firmly ingrained, how to celebrate the upcoming holidays is top of mind. We face the real possibility of missing some very dear and important traditions. As Superintendents of your local elementary school districts, many parents ask us about holiday expectations. Will they be the same? Is trick-or-treating safe? Can we have class parties? Is travel okay? These are all legitimate questions that must be answered within the context of an unfortunate reality.
We remain in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed 210,000 Americans and over one million individuals worldwide. There is no vaccine available. Social gatherings remain the single biggest contributor to the spread of COVID-19. If we wish to open schools and keep them open, we must adjust our expectations and use the pandemic as an opportunity to find new ways to celebrate.
According to the CDC, many of the traditions we love most are considered unsafe; these include trick or treating, haunted houses, and indoor parties. Your local Superintendents ask our community to please plan alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating this year. Consider socially distanced outdoor costume parades just on your local block/street. Provide grab-and-go treats for kids along the path that don’t result in grouping at doorways. Postpone Haunted Houses until next year and don’t invite other families to your home for parties. Consider decorating your own home and plan a fun spooky movie watch-party just for those with whom you live.
Whether it is a Thanksgiving celebration or December holiday tradition, COVID-19 forces us to rethink our plans. We first want to address travel. The CDC is clear that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” Your local Superintendents humbly ask parents to avoid travel this holiday season, particularly international travel. We also ask you to reconsider large gatherings that bring family together. COVID-19 doesn’t care that you are related. Familial relations don’t protect you from giving COVID to or getting COVID from your loved ones. The safest option for all of us is to celebrate with those with whom we live.
In our own experience, the holidays often involve hurried travel, a hectic sense of obligation, last minute shopping, and endless cooking for visitors. Why not use COVID-19 as an excuse to slow down this holiday season and focus on time spent with those in your home? After the stress of the last six months, doesn’t a quieter holiday season off of planes, out of stores, and away from Zoom sound life-giving right about now?
If you must celebrate outside of your home, we ask you to consider the following precautions. Limit the number of people with whom you are celebrating. Celebrate outdoors whenever possible. Wear a mask when not eating or drinking. When without a mask, keep your distance. Wash your hands regularly.
The three of us agree that the single most important social gathering that our entire community must prioritize is: kids in school. Every member of our community, whether they have children in school or not, has a part in ensuring our schools can open and stay open. If we can limit the spread of COVID in our community by limiting social gathering to only those activities that are essential--like school--we can get through this. The good news is that we will see a day when COVID is behind us. Until then, we thank everyone for adjusting their plans to ensure our schools can open and stay open. More importantly, our KIDS thank you.
As a young teacher in rural Ohio in the mid 1990’s with a penchant for problem solving and leadership, I wondered if my time as a classroom teacher would one day evolve into a passion for leading systems within the public school world. Twenty-five years later that wondering (mixed with a bit of wandering) turned into a superintendency in California’s Bay Area in the midst of a global pandemic.
Early on in my journey, I was introduced to a then recently published book, authored by two business consultants called Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. William and Susan Bridges’ book has since been published in many different languages and sold hundreds of thousands of copies all over the world.
This summer, as my hard working district colleagues and I were meeting to discuss who we needed to be and what we needed to do to support our site leadership, teachers, and staff through the unprecedented school year ahead of us, we came back to the Bridges’ transitions book and unanimously agreed that their wisdom was just what was needed at this time in history.
While our news feeds are full of stories highlighting communities grasping desperately to hold on to some sense of normalcy, they deny a new reality is likely never to change.
America is just coming to terms with what Asian countries have known and planned for for decades. Pandemics are real. They are largely unavoidable in our modern globalized world. COVID-19 may be the first to impact the world since 1918 in such a dramatic and exhaustive manner, but it will hardly be the last. We have a choice: we can plan for the new normal or remain victimized by our lack of preparation and ignorant to the realities that will face us for generations to come.
For those currently operating under the assumption that COVID will be a thing of the past as soon as a vaccine is on the market...think again. Most vaccines are considered effective if they initially protect just 40-50% of the population. It will take years before herd immunity is reached and our country is able to imagine a world without COVID, and by that time - if we have learned anything - we’ll probably be addressing the next pandemic or public health crisis that is potentially around the corner.
Viruses know no politics, government, race, country, or personal opinion. Viruses don’t care. The only thing that combats a virus is information, preparation, and science. Viruses live best in places where ignorance and lack of resources operate unabated.
So the question for all of us--in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, states, countries, and even world--is how are we going to respond to this moment and are we ready to do the work necessary to change?
The key word in that question is CHANGE. From my vantage point as a Superintendent, change is the operative term when considering the future. Leading and supporting people through that change process can be a challenge during the best of times, but is particularly complicated during times of high stress and uncertainty. I think this is why I have found my return to Bridges’ Managing Transitions books to be so meaningful.
In their book, the Bridges describe the human and organizational experience of operating in three stages of transition. The first is the ending phase which addresses the uncertainty and angst of needing to let go; the second being the neutral phase where individuals feel a range of emotions often perceived as resistance, but really more about fear of change; and the last being the new beginning phase where the recognition that many fears were not realized ushers in new identity, energy, and purpose.
The Bridges rightly spend a great deal of their narrative focusing on what to expect from folks living through the neutral phase and how good leaders should respond. The neutral phase consists of a range of emotions that look a lot like grief; in fact for some, grief is exactly what people are experiencing.
As I look at where educators and parents are in relationship to schools and the coronavirus, it is clear to me that we understand clearly what is ending or already has ended. School is not likely to be the same...ever again. As an experienced school leader with an appetite for innovation, I’m convinced that is not such a bad thing. However, we are also nowhere near the contentment and commitment of new beginnings. We are square in the middle of the muck of the neutral zone with very little clarity of what the future might look like and feeling a serious lack of control over what lies ahead. That is a hard place to be.
I imagine it is not dissimilar from the phase in which we find ourselves in our home lives and work lives (for those of us that aren’t educators), as well. In the neutral phase, the Bridges remind us that it helps to identify what is being lost and by whom, to accept the reality, and to acknowledge how hard the losses are for some people. We must all be empathetic to the experience of others, even if their experience is different from our own.
None of us are immune to the impacts of change, we just experience change differently. As so much change exists in our lives right now, we will all do well--leaders or not--to make space for the needs of others during this neutral phase.
So what might making space for the needs of others look like “IRL,” as the kids would say (IRL=in real life)? Here are a few of my musings…
Speaking for myself, as I look back on pre-COVID life, there is much that I long for; however, as I look forward to the future, I’m convinced that the comforts of the past might have made the big changes in schools and our country less likely. Now that a pandemic has ‘ripped the bandaid off,’ so to speak, I’m hopeful that real...big…change is more likely to happen in areas of equity, income inequality, race, public school funding, teacher support, and more! Now we just have to get through the neutral zone.
A contentious election season, a struggling economy, a stubborn pandemic, rising COVID case rates, closed classrooms, more hours on a computer screen. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve now added devastating fires and suffocating air quality to the mix. Exhausting. Hard. Deflating.
Last spring, I was given some great advice early on in the pandemic. The advice was from a marathon runner who said, “Run the mile you’re in.” This advice has gotten me through some of the most challenging times of the last six months. I offer it to you because I think it might also help you.
To be fair, I am not a marathon runner; I only run if someone is chasing me. However, I must imagine that in the midst of the most difficult miles, runners intuitively know and find comfort in the truth that the race is only 26.2 miles and will have an end. At some point, the grueling nature of the run will be over and they will feel a meaningful sense of accomplishment. And so it is for COVID. So it is for Distance Learning. So it is for masks, and social distancing, and temperature checks. This, too, will pass. There will be grueling miles, but someday we will look at our situation in retrospect. Let that knowledge that there will be an end to this provide you comfort and stamina when you need it most.
As I see it, there are three important ingredients that are essential to our ability to thrive amidst the challenges and run the race ahead of us. The first is flexibility. We must all, even those of us for whom change is hard or for whom “planner” is our middle name, remain nimble amidst the changing guidance, policies, and health conditions. If I have learned anything since March 11 of this year, it’s that I can’t put my confidence that what is true today will be true tomorrow. I’ve learned to better roll with the punches. My flexible mindset has allowed me to lead through these challenging times and I think it will assist you, as well.
The second essential ingredient for this year is creativity. For many of us, it’s not often that something comes our way that shakes our routines, perspectives, plans, and expectations to the core. I think this moment will call for a fundamental shift in how we frame our challenges and opportunities. Lessons will need to look different. House rules may need to adjust. More time may need to be taken to name and process emotions. We may need to take more breaks, say sorry more often, admit we don’t have all the answers. Our expectations for what can be accomplished in a finite amount of time may need to adjust. However, perspective is everything. It’s also in moments like these that our creativity can blossom. Maybe this is the season to take some risks, to try things our gut told us was best for kids, but maybe we were too afraid to test it out. Maybe now is the right time to connect with our children and our students more as people. We can and should use this historical moment in which we find ourselves AS the lesson or the teachable moment. If this crisis passes and our families look exactly the same as they did before or our schools and communities look exactly as they did pre-COVID, then I believe we will have missed the biggest opportunity we’ve ever been given to do better and be better. I encourage you to be creative this year.
And the last essential ingredient for a successful year this year is self care. Never has it been more important for us to care for our own physical, emotional, and mental health. We cannot be what our families, friends, coworkers and communities need if we are not finding ways to be whole ourselves. In my mind, this will require each of us to do three very specific things: schedule time for our own wellness, seek support from others and be a support for others, and offer grace without reservation.
We are living through a time when most of us find ourselves moving in and out of emotionally dysregulated states of being. MPCSD has been diving deeper into the work of the Yale Center on Emotional Intelligence, and particularly the RULER method of social emotional learning. If you haven’t already, consider picking up Dr. Marc Brackett’s new book, Permission to Feel. You’ll thank me for it.
While better understanding emotions and becoming emotional scientists will assist us in developing the social emotional skills of our young people, it’s also a particularly helpful frame for the times in which we live. People are scared. They are feeling insecure. There is so much unknown. It’s a time ripe for misunderstanding. We can better teach, parent, and support into these unsettling feelings when we take the time to help ourselves feel settled. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.
We have a long 26.2 miles ahead of us, but we are focused right now on the first one. We are warmed up, stretched, and ready to go as soon as that buzzer sounds. Together--teachers, support staff, parents, and neighbors--we got this. Have a great first day of school!
It’s only day five of August and it feels like day twenty, no? It’s been a few months since I’ve published a SupsOn Blog and now seems like the right time to pick back up. This particular entry is useful for non-district readers, but is written specifically to our MPCSD community.
The publication of our District’s Reopening Plan on Friday and the pending deadlines for confirming a back-to-school model and requesting child care are making the start of the school year all the more real for families.
While discussion and consideration at the family level is intense right now, your district and site leadership teams have been living the realities of return since before school dismissed in June. We are here to help as you navigate the admittedly difficult and sometimes confusing maze of returning to school.
We remain pleasantly surprised by the level of understanding, patience, and acceptance of our reality, but have certainly also had many questions asked. As a reminder the Reopening Plan does address many of your questions, as does the ongoing FAQ site that is updated daily with the most accurate information. Beyond that, I thought I would briefly address some of the higher level questions that are coming our way.
For your Wednesday reading pleasure, I offer you 10 Whys and a What…
(Why #1) Why is MPCSD not returning to school in-person on August 20?
All of San Mateo County is on the state’s COVID “Monitoring List,” due to high rates of COVID. By state mandate, we are not allowed to open. No schools in San Mateo County, including private schools, may open until the county is off of the Monitoring List for 14 consecutive days OR a waiver is approved.
(Why #2) Why hasn’t MPCSD applied for a waiver?
The terms of a waiver were literally published 36 hours ago. All 58 counties in the state are now trying to create a waiver process around the terms published by the state. It takes time.
(Why #3) Why wouldn’t MPCSD apply for a waiver?
We might apply, but getting to clarity about an application will take time. It is still unclear whether MPCSD would be eligible as a waiver requires many things, one of which is very elusive right now--a comprehensive COVID testing and tracing program. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that testing in the state and country is a mess. The idea that MPCSD would be able to solve a systemic problem like testing when our state and country can’t solve it is a stretch, but in MPCSD style--we’re trying! It will take time.
Additionally, just this morning the state acknowledged that their COVID data is wrong. This is most definitely going to delay any reopening plans at the state level until policy makers and the community feel confident that the data--the same data that reopening plans are based on--are correct.
Lastly, we are living through a deadly pandemic. Reasonable folks can differ on response models, but no one can deny that the impact of our decisions includes life and death. This is not something elected officials and school personnel take lightly, nor should they. If the Board votes to apply for a waiver--an exception to health recommendations made by health experts--it will only be done so with utmost seriousness and thought. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty on the part of our Board and staff.
(Why #4) Why won’t I--or the Board--just admit that kids aren’t at risk of COVID and bring kids back?
I cannot speak for the Board, but speaking for myself, I can unequivocally say that I am not yet convinced the data indicate that return is as safe as some make it sound. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a scientific study review that shows that physical school closures likely reduced the spread of COVID in the spring and that further research is needed. Our world has only known COVID-19 for six months. We are constantly learning and what we learn changes our past assumptions based on new and expanding data--such is the nature of science. Recent studies indicate that children do carry the virus at high levels and that older children spread it just as efficiently as adults, even if they themselves do not get as sick. This is not to say that the research is conclusive one way or another; it is simply to say that this Superintendent believes that rushing to a decision is unnecessary and not yet supported by objective data.
(Why #5) Why is there not more clarity in what MPCSD will do beyond September 8?
This is a fast-moving, always changing process. MPCSD is well ahead of most districts in the state even if it doesn’t feel like it to some of our parents. Additionally, as a public institution, policy at this level is determined by the often messy and time-consuming process of democracy. We have five elected Board members with different perspectives who can only meet in public, and do so with commitment and regularity. As the old adage says, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other options.” It’s messy and inefficient sometimes, but it’s the nature of the beast. When one takes a step back and looks at the greater context influencing MPCSD’s decisions and processes, it’s objectively clear that MPCSD is doing everything it can.
(Why #6) Why is this so confusing?
It’s confusing because this situation is confusing. We’re trying our best to explain everything and provide the necessary level of detail so that folks who want to know the details can find it out...on their own...by attending the Board meetings, reading the Board notes, reading the Reopening Plan, and tracking the FAQs.
(Why #7) Why doesn’t MPCSD just make it more clear, make a decision, and move on?
Believe me, we would love nothing more than to just make a decision and be done. However, not all of our parents want the same result. We are trying to accommodate the many different sensitivities and needs in our community. It’s not easy; but, we’re trying.
(Why #8) If COVID is such a concern, why even consider coming back in person?
None of us educators ever thought we’d be in this position and none of us are trained health experts. We are relying on public health experts to determine what is safe and what is not. As they and government officials make determinations--and then walk them back, contradict them, and offer exceptions as they have done recently--it becomes difficult for educators to do our jobs. However, we are moving forward with the best information we have, knowing that kids learn better when in school and require regular social interaction and social-emotional support. Kids need schools. It’s risky not to come to school and it is risky to return. Right now, we’re trying to find a way to balance all the risks.
(Why #9) Why offer child care and not just bring kids back with their teachers?
The state has created health guidelines that limit school reopening when on the state’s Monitoring List. That same restriction is not provided for essential services like child care. Additionally while schools provide a high quality education, by their nature, schools also end up providing child care. This is an important benefit for society. However, school remains fundamentally an institution designed to deliver education. In a global pandemic, our union partners at the local, state and national level astutely remind society that our educational professionals can provide education in other ways that don’t compromise the health and safety of their members. No one is interested in taking our education professionals for granted, least of all MPCSD.
(Why #10) Why not just have class outdoors to bring kids back?
We do intend to make use of as much outdoor time as possible when students are able to return in person. However, we cannot construct tent cities of classrooms. State architectural guidelines do not allow for permanent or semi-permanent tent structures for instruction at public schools. Students will be outside often!
Now for the WHAT?…
What can I do, with all this considered?
This is a great question; glad you asked. I have a few requests…
We can do this! As I’ve said before, COVID will pass, but MPCSD will remain. It’s up to all of us to determine what our district looks like when all this is over.
Our lives have been turned upside down. A virus has found a way to jeopardize the very fabric of what we hold dear. Our economy may suffer impacts more like the Great Depression of the 1930’s than the Great Recession of 2008. The labor force is bleeding jobs at an untenable pace. Hospitals around the world lack the proper equipment to handle the dramatically increasing numbers of very sick patients, while our medical professionals save lives without the protective equipment necessary to properly shield them from the disease. Long lines outside markets await customers looking to stock up only to find many of the shelves bare of essential needs. Students struggle to stay engaged and make academic progress in a valiant, yet largely make-shift attempt to keep learning progressing as the equity gap unfortunately widens. Our places of worship--usually a space of solace during times of uncertainty and despair--sit empty. All this while many politicians struggle to prioritize what is best for the people they serve over their own personal ambition and ego.
Though we long for accurate information about the ever-changing crisis, it’s hard to turn to the news knowing that the stories and images will further dysregulate our already erratic emotions. However, what you're not likely to find on the news are stories about the most perverse of all the impacts of this virus.
The cruel irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that at the time when we need one another most, being with one another, hugging, consoling, listening intently, caressing someone’s hand are exactly what could kill us.
Others may disagree, but I am of the firm belief that the loss of relationship during this time is more problematic than any economic, medical, or logistical consequence. I’m not proposing that we should be doing anything different; sheltering in place and physical distancing are essential. However, as I look at all the impacts, the one that concerns me the most is the relational consequences of this virus.
Humans are by nature social beings. We are built for relationship. It is precisely when our routines and expectations are disrupted--either for celebratory or traumatic reasons--that we are most in need of the relational structures that we have built.
As Sheltering in Place drags on, I find myself longing for connection--a connection that a video chat just simply can’t fill. I hear from parents that their teens are so desperate for connection with their friends that they are meeting in their individual cars in parking lots with the windows rolled down just to have some time with their buddies. I cross paths with so many folks walking the streets of our neighborhoods who smile longingly as they pass me ten feet away, seeking that sense of knowing and being known.
It’s not just that our economy may be going to s#$%, or that our kids are driving us crazy at home, or that we are afraid to face our own mortality. It’s all of that, and… It’s all of that and the fact that as we struggle through all of this, the thing we long for most is a hug from our best friend. A good cry with our mom. A beer with our mentor. A bitch-session with our trusted colleague from work. A deep convo with our book club.
I write all this knowing that there is no good solution right now. But, I also write this for what we should do when all of this is over. I hope that if we learn anything from this experience, it’s that we need one another. In the busyness of life without a virus to remind us, it’s easy to forget how important our relationships are. I don’t know what a post-virus world looks like; I imagine it will look different, and it should. You can’t go through this experience as a global community and come out of it unchanged. What I do know, though, is that we have to love more, hug more, care more, talk more, listen more, forgive more, and slow down life enough to ensure that we don’t leave relationships behind in the race to tomorrow.
It’s been three days. Three days since our world’s been turned upside down. Three days since our schools were shuttered completely. Three days of Distance Learning. Nearly three days since the Shelter in Place order came down for millions of residents in the Bay Area.
The streets are eerily quiet.
The swings on the playground only move when a gust of wind wills them to.
A few lost sweatshirts hang on hooks outside of quiet classrooms waiting for their owners to return.
Parking lots are empty.
Baseball fields are silent with only distant memories of “aaaaa batta, swiiiing batta.”
And yet, our homes are full of children who look out the window for any signs of life.
Crawling up the walls as they struggle to understand, let alone cope with the dramatic change in their lives.
Mom and Dad look tired. Grandma’s trying to help. The neighbor dropped off some toilet paper the other day; they had more than enough.
Dad struggles to get the kids lunch and hopes he can get them back focused on the tasks the teacher has shared on the internet. He has a 1:30 conference call for work that he can’t miss.
Mom is busy trying to help. She’s on her computer most of the day attempting to “work from home.” The noise the kids make requires her to sneak away into the laundry room to get some peace so she can concentrate.
Looking to mom or dad, the kids hope they’ll hear, “This will all be over soon.”
But we can’t. We can’t tell them it will all be over soon. We don’t know. Our heads tell us, “Surely it will be over in three weeks, right?” But our gut tells us we’re only lying to ourselves. We’ve seen the data. We hear the news. To “flatten the curve” they’re gonna need us sheltered in place much longer...right? We want to be wrong. Desperately, we cling to some hope that the United States will be different.
The reality is, the United States is no different. No country is. Viruses have a powerful way of reminding us that the trappings of status, privilege, education level, employment, country of residence, citizenship are really just social constructs that lull us into believing that the human condition is different for different people. Viruses don’t care about any of that.
So regardless of who we are, what narrative our lives have weaved, we find ourselves in this place together. There are so many unknowns. So many questions. So few answers. And that just has to be okay.
There is one common overwhelming emotion that I sense from people as I attempt to lead a small school district in the heart of Silicon Valley during this unprecedented (at least for modern society) Public Health Crisis. That emotion is anxiety.
Our anxious feelings rise when we feel a lack of control, when the uncertainty of the future overwhelms our ability to naturally calm ourselves, stay focused, accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and support others in the process. We struggle to manage our own response to all the stimuli that we receive.
In my role, I am responsible to avail myself to a variety of people--parents, students, teachers, support staff, the public, policy makers, the press--and receive without judgment their varying states of emotion. I feel honored to be able to do so, really. In many ways it is a sacred trust to be in a position of leadership during this time. I am often reflecting on what it is I can say or do that will help calm the understandable anxiety, especially the last three days.
There is no operating manual for what we are experiencing or how leaders should respond. And so, I show up. I listen. I try to respond the best my heart knows how. Probably the most important thing I am doing, if only for my own benefit, is asking every day and with every conversation, “What am I learning?”
The universe is remarkable at teaching us what we need to know in the moment. We just have to make space for the lesson and silence our ego and fear long enough to listen. I thought that maybe a few folks would be interested in knowing what I have learned in the last three days; turns out leading through a crisis is a master class for which few are interested in signing up and yet many need to attend. So here goes. What have I learned the last three days…
Helpers are our hope.
I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people who have stepped up to do their part and offer their services during a time like this. Daily, we have to turn down offers of help from caring individuals who want to do something for anyone who may be in need. The news is full of stories of people rolling up their sleeves and helping. As Mister Rogers famously said and has been shared many times in the last few days, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
We are resilient and our children are capable.
Of my children, two are school aged, kindergarten and fourth grade. My wife and I are both public school educators. If for anyone, this should be easy for us, right? Well, it’s not. It’s hard. Amidst the craziness, we are learning that our boys are capable of so much more than what we give them credit for most of the time. We’re realizing that we can do this. It won’t be easy, but we’re going to be okay. This will be a process. We’ll get better at it as we go. Our kids will likely lead the way.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
It’s no surprise in our community that so many teachers, parents, and even many of our students are going above and beyond to try to perfect Distance (At Home) Learning. If there has been one criticism that I have heard, it’s that we’re trying to do too much or make it too perfect. I don’t know if it is just the community I serve that needs to hear it, but I think we can all benefit from this reminder: You are where you are, and that’s exactly where you need to be. Where do you want to be tomorrow...without wrecking yourself or others in the process? Take this one step at a time. Pace yourself. We really only have two goals with Distance Learning:
It’s all about relationships.
Of all of our teachers’ efforts, there is one that hands-down seems the most impactful--personal contact. Whether it is virtual study groups, community circles via Hangout, video story-time, or one teacher on a conference call with one student, I have been so comforted and inspired by the stories that involve connection. It’s a reminder to us all that relationship is at least as important as knowledge, and I would argue, even more important. Even if your child doesn’t complete all the tasks assigned, be sure that s/he/they are connecting with their teachers when offered and with their classmates and friends as often as possible. It’s been said before, and is more evident now than ever before, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Grace is a choice.
When anxiety is high and answers are few, it’s understandable that folks feel frustration when their expectations are not met. Everyone is meaningfully impacted and challenged by the virus and the Shelter in Place; no one is immune. And since we are all in this together, I believe we have an obligation to offer one another grace, and to hope for it in return. Grace--freely given, and sometimes undeserved, favor--is a choice. Our expectations are not always going to be met. This will be hard. People will disappoint us. And yet, we are all just doing our best. I have seen how my own offerings of grace have made a difference the last few days; conversely, I have seen how my snap judgment and frustration have sowed discontent and impacted morale. Whether it is with our students or their parents, whether it is with our teachers or administrators, whether it is with our family or our neighbors, or even and especially if it is with ourselves, I hope we can all go to the well of grace for it is one of few things of which there is an endless supply.
Public School Teachers are a national treasure!
While certainly not the intention of a country-wide shut down of our schools, the Shelter in Place we are experiencing has at least reminded me how incredible our public school teachers are. One glance at your preferred social media platform and you will see parents around the country commenting that “Teachers deserve to be the 1%” or “I’ve never been more grateful for my kids’ teachers.” or “How do they do this everyday?” It’s true. One unintended outcome of this situation will hopefully be the realization that my own family is having each day: Our teachers are special. No computer will replace them and no average joe can do what they do. If and when you have a minute, maybe send your child(ren)’s teacher a note to tell them what you LOVE about them and what your kid LOVES about them.
The schools may be quiet and the commute to work for those of us that are essential workers may be traffic-free, but the struggle is real. This new normal will hopefully not be “normal” for too much longer and we can return to “regular” life a bit smarter, healthier, aware, and appreciative of the people in our lives. We will get through this...together.
Growing up, neither my wife’s family nor mine were skiers, so we didn’t go skiing. Spending much of my childhood in Indiana, where I jokingly report the highest elevation to be a speedbump, we didn’t have many ski options anyway. Further, few people wanted to find more snow; they had enough of the cold, snowy and soggy weather.
As an adult, I relocated to the Bay Area and began raising a family. Bay Area transplants quickly realize that learning to ski for many Bay Area children is as normal and expected as learning to ride a bike, even for families that aren’t considered “wealthy.” Not ones to deprive our children of an important skill or opportunity, my wife and I decided we would learn how to ski along with our kids. So on a recent vacation, we purchased some tire chains, rented equipment (now that was an experience, but we’ll save that for a different blog), packed up the car, and headed to the mountains near Yosemite.
As adult learners, my wife and I were very cautious. Always worried we were going to lose control and crash, at the first sign of acceleration or obstacle we would fall on our butts and like a newborn horse immediately trying to walk, spend 10 minutes trying to return to our feet while maintaining the slightest amount of grace.
Our boys on the other hand took to the slopes like fish to water. After the necessary morning to get accustomed to the surroundings and become familiar with the muscles necessary for the task, my five-year old was barreling down the mountain. I watched in awe as he bent his knees, bowed his arms out, and took the mountain by storm. Sure he crashed the first few times, but it didn’t phase him one bit. He got right back up on his skis and headed down the mountain without missing a beat. After several successful runs with one of the many older kids or adults in our group, he quickly felt comfortable jumping on the ski lift by himself and repeatedly heading down the mountain full-steam ahead, no matter that he never learned to turn; turning only slowed him down. The faster the better.
I marvelled at the fearlessness of my boys. As the lift slowly drew me closer to the top of the mountain, I looked down at their courage on the slopes and was reminded of the powerful force fear can be in parenting. If left to my own devices and instincts, I might have protected my kids from every possible risk that skiing presents to such a degree that they would never have really learned how, and further, I would have succeeded in making them fearful of taking a chance because of all of the “possible” yet highly unlikely things that could go wrong.
The underdeveloped brains of children and teens and their relative lack of life experience actually have a lot of value. They are less likely to be “tainted” by all the possible things that could go wrong, thus they are more willing to leave their comfort zones and experience something new. Fortunately, evolution and instinct require that parents play an integral role in ensuring that risk is age-appropropriate, measured, and within a zone of relative reasonableness. But have our modern parenting instincts gone too far? Are we so afraid of what could happen and so convinced of our ability to protect our children and the benefits of doing so that we have taken our parental responsibilities too far?
In her best-selling book, Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy laments America’s parenting evolution that attempts to prevent every possible danger and difficulty from impacting our children’s lives. She, as well as many others, advocates for the necessity of age-appropriate risk as an essential means of teaching our children good decision making, responsibility, and independence.
Journalists, sociologists, and bloggers love to label the parenting overreach de jour. For many years, critics complained of helicopter parenting, where parents pay too close attention to every detail of their child’s life; or tiger parenting, which includes high pressure tactics to ensure a child’s academic success. Today, critics warn of snowplow parenting where parents remove every possible obstacle from the path of their child’s experience. At base, the motivating emotion involved in all of these tendencies is FEAR--a fear that the parents’ expectations will not be met or some harm (be it physical, emotional, psychological, or economic) will befall the child.
For those who think their parental fear is a good thing for children, consider fear’s impact on learning. When the amygdala, the brain’s fear detector, is activated, learning decreases. When we are afraid, our bodies release stress hormones which negatively impact learning and memory. When we parent from a place of fear, we unavoidably transfer that fear onto our children. And in the learning context, what is the opposite of fear? ...Curiosity. How might we develop a greater sense of curiosity in our children without the often unnecessary obstacle of fear?
No doubt, parenting is scary. However, our own anxiety about the very real challenges we face and the very scary “possibilities” that abound are impacting our perspective and judgement. Kim Brooks, author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, details the very real implications of having left her four-year old son in the car while she ran into the store. The resulting fallout caused her to ask some really important questions about how we define “good” versus “bad” parenting and what the rise of fearful parenting says about ourselves.
I’m not sure what it says about us. It doesn’t really even matter what I think. What is important is that each of us takes a step back and evaluates the role that fear plays in the raising of our own children. Do we have a healthy relationship to fear and allow it to influence us in a balanced manner? Or, are our fears clouding our ability to give our children the space and agency necessary to appropriately individuate from us and grow into independent and responsible young adults? After all, isn’t that the ultimate measure of success?
At the end of the day, I hope that my own parenting involves a bit of that abandon that my own children exhibit as they shoot down the ski hill--with a knowledge that, sure, risk is innate, but with a little caution, enough preparation, and a good attitude, chances are pretty good that everything will turn out just fine...and I might even have a little bit of fun (yes, parenting can be fun!).
If you live in the Bay Area and want an opportunity to have your perspective on fear’s role in parenting pushed, please join us in Menlo Park for a presentation and conversation with Kim Brooks, the author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park. If you don’t live in the Bay Area or can’t make her talk, do yourself a favor and read the book or listen to the audio version. You’ll be glad you did!
One million words.
One million words might just be the key to begin eradicating the stubbornly persistent achievement gap that exists between children from low income and middle/high income families, between white and Asian children and their black and brown peers, and between children whose first language is English and those for whom it is not.
In 2019, Ohio State University published a study that found that students who are regularly read to prior to entering kindergarten are exposed to 1.4 million more words than those who are not. That difference, the study supposes, could be the reason the gap in achievement begins at a young age and grows as the years progress. Further, we know that success in school is highly correlated to earnings throughout life.
In this, a presidential election year, candidates and pundits fall all over themselves to sell you their solutions to fix the growing income gaps in America, lift families out of poverty, and reverse the trend of stagnant wages. Maybe - just maybe - folks would be well served to visit a local high-quality preschool to realize the answer.
Early childhood education is imperative. All things being equal, it is the difference-maker. It is the one tool in public education’s and the government’s tool belts that can be used to the greatest effect. When you can solve for poverty and economic mobility over the long term, you have a chance of solving the achievement gap for future generations. Without great, accessible early childhood education, we can only hope to make change around the edges. It is the gift that keeps on giving. For my money, there is simply no better investment that impacts a child’s success in school and future earning potential than high-quality early childhood education. Full stop.
It’s not often that school districts attempt to do something they aren’t required to do and for which there is no money. In California, where recently we have struggled to even get to 38th out of the fifty states in school funding, providing preschool is not required of local school districts. The cost of providing the programs, even with some state and federal funding reimbursement, is monumental. The bureaucratic red tape, while well intentioned, limits school districts’ abilities and willingness to consider providing these services, even when the need is clearly there. Governor Newsom has made expanding preschool services a top priority and has put some funds forward to try to do so.
The reality is that without a significant influx of funds and a long-term commitment by policy-makers and the electorate to prioritize early childhood education, we are unfortunately doomed to a groundhog-day-esque circular conversation. People blame public schools for not closing the gap and schools throw up their arms in frustration without the necessary tools to address the challenges of doing so.
There is much to do. We must ensure access to high quality preschool for all children in our state. We must increase the wages of our preschool educators and end the second-class treatment of our early childhood educators. We must ensure that preschool programs are equipped to serve students with identified and unidentified special needs. We must invest in high quality teacher training programs and professional development. We must prioritize the creation of equitable preschool classrooms that expose our youngest children to the rich diversity of culture, income, and perspective that defines our great state.
We have a pretty good idea of what the answer is.
We have to have the will and conviction to make it happen.
I am proud to serve a community that decided not to wait for state policymakers to solve the problem. I am also fortunate to lead a district that is creative and well-resourced enough to design outside-of-the-box solutions. With a commitment of one-time set-up funds and ongoing facility and infrastructure provision, our district is able to provide a high-quality, fee-based preschool program to families who can afford market rate preschool and reserve 25% of enrollment to low income families on a sliding scale. What has resulted is a diverse community of children together receiving a high-quality preschool education focused on the whole child. Our teachers and staff are paid far better than their private preschool counterparts and our program is aligned to the vertical experience they will have in their K-12 school experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. It’s a model for other communities that want to see action.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like me, want to see our communities and state take action to provide high quality early education, or if you desire more information about this regional, state, and national issue, I invite you to join us for a screening of the acclaimed documentary No Small Matter on January 22, 2020 at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.. We will view the film, which addresses the need for and challenges involved with quality early childhood education, and engage in a panel discussion with regional leaders. Sign up for your free tickets, and free childcare if needed, here.
In addition to the No Small Matter event, electing candidates who value and prioritize early childhood education is another important step we can take. Our friends at the Community Equity Collaborative are sponsoring a candidate forum for the upcoming California District 13 State Senate election. My school district is hosting this event at Hillview Middle School on February 9, 2020 from 3-5 p.m. The ECE State Senate Candidate Forum will convene a diverse gathering of community members, educators, local organizations (including faith-based institutions) along with local leaders and candidates for the District 13 election in order to increase awareness of and encourage broad-based commitments to early learning priorities. During this moderated conversation we hope to learn more from the candidates about their platforms and plans for elevating these issues and leading our state to greater equity in education, especially for young children and preschool teachers. Please join me at one or both of these outstanding events.
It is possible to stop spinning our wheels and take action to close the achievement gap. I hope you will seek information, press your leaders, and take action. Big challenges call for big ideas.
As modern technology is designed to do, my go-to places for news automagically curate a series of articles in which I am most likely to be interested. Inevitably my list includes parenting articles and blogs based on my frequency of clicking on all things parent-advice related. Intellectually, I understand that most articles and blogs are “clickbait” and provide very little real value.
Even knowing this, I never cease to be amazed at the level to which clickbait-copy-editors will stoop to get people to click on a parenting-advice article. Were you to believe the eye catching titles, you would be convinced that no matter the label you would give to your parenting style--it’s wrong. You would also be led to believe that the secrets to good parenting are kept so tightly hidden that only a select few are smart enough to know. You’d be quite sure that not only will your child not get into an elite college, but they’ll be lucky to leave your basement before the age of 40 because of all the terrible decisions you have made as a parent. Suffice it to say, none of the overzealous claims made in these blogs and articles is of much merit; they are simply trying to get you to click.
However, parenting does change from generation to generation. Knowing how and why parenting evolves is an important consideration when preparing our children for the world into which they will be launched rather than the one into which we were set in motion.
So how might this generation of children be pushing our thinking around parenting? I think we can take a page from what is happening in schools around the country for an indication. Much attention has been paid around something known as restorative justice; it is providing a model to look at discipline in schools differently.
As educational leaders, policy makers, and researchers look deeper into the causes of generational poverty, achievement gaps, and high school dropout rates, etc., many are asking if the punitive manner in which schools have traditionally approached discipline exacerbates problems, rather than fixes them, especially among ethnic minority populations, low income communities, and boys. Borrowing from work within the criminal justice system, schools began experimenting with restorative justice as an alternative to more punitive and exclusionary discipline techniques like suspension. Rather than punishing someone for their choices and meting out external consequences that have little impact on future choices and often further escalate division, restorative justice emphasizes accountability and making amends. When successful, restorative justice repairs harm caused by an infraction resulting in transformational change, relationship building, and empathy; it also dramatically decreases recidivism.
In my own community of Menlo Park, our school district began restorative work early on in the effort to rethink school discipline. In the first two years of implementation, our middle school, Hillview, experienced a dramatic decline in the number of suspensions, a near eradication of recidivism, and an elimination of the over-representation of students of color being disciplined at school. Over the two-year period, suspensions decreased from 112 to less than 12 in an entire year. Six years later, suspension rates remain low and restorative justice circles have become the approach of choice for helping pre-teens and teens own their mistakes and make amends for the harm they have caused.
Restorative justice is one example of a larger movement in our society known as restorative practices. Restorative practices refer to the mindsets and operations we engage around communication, conflict, and community building. In my community, we rely heavily on resources and wisdom from the International Institute for Restorative Practices to help guide our work around two aspects of our Whole Child Learning and Development Framework: Healthy & Collaborative Relationships and Integrated Well-Being.
Nearly all of our teachers have been trained in restorative practices and weekly or sometimes daily utilize an effective restorative strategy known as “community circles.” Whether it is starting out the day or identifying a brewing conflict within the class and strategizing how to resolve it, community circles give voice to all members of the class and encourage students to practice important skills like empathy, advocacy, allyship, decision-making, and problem solving.
“But I thought this blog was about parenting?” you might be asking yourself. It is. Strategies like community circles and the mindsets that drive the work are useful not just in the classroom, but also in our homes. When we empower our children to give voice to their feelings and experiences, to express that voice, to listen to the voice of others and then engage in empathy, advocacy, and problem-solving we are giving them an invaluable gift.
When our children misbehave, and they will, we can choose to engage them in a process of accountability, making amends, and strengthening the bonds of community within our own families. In doing so, I contend, we are providing them with much more than what punishment alone can provide. Restorative parenting, which takes a page from non-violent communication, reminds us that we operate in quadrants between high & low control and high & low support. Restorative parenting is firm and fair. It honors rather than manages or ignores. It doesn’t rescue the child. It requires them to take responsibility for their actions, elevating the voices of those who may have been harmed in the process, and invites the child to make amends for their choices--something punishment rarely does.
Before you accuse me of blasphemy and characterize my perspective as anti-punishment, I want to assure you that I recognize the value and necessity of punishment in our homes and schools. However, I invite you to learn more about the restorative mindsets and strategies that have evolved my thinking about effective parenting and teaching. I promise you will not be disappointed.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have a wonderful opportunity to hear from one of our favorite Restorative Practitioners, Karen Junker, as she joins the Menlo Park community for a talk on restorative parenting. If you are a parent in our district, her talk will beautifully complement the messages your students are hearing in their schools and the experiences they have when conflict or misbehavior strike. Join us on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School, 1100 Elder Ave, Menlo Park.
Whether you can make it to Karen’s talk or not, I invite you to read more and learn more about the additional parenting tool--restorative practices--that you can add to your tool belt. It just may save you from the next time you want to yell, “You’re grounded until 8th grade!” “I’m gonna throw away all your toys!” or “Why I oughta…!”
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.