As A Principal, Birthdays Were the Worst Days…
By: Monifa McKnight
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Birthdays Were the Worst Days….

As principal, a student taught me the valuable lesson that I must be tuned in to their experiences to help me grow first as a person, and second as a racially conscious school leader.  While it was an unexpected learning opportunity, it taught me how to actively work against my tendency to look at situations from my own limited experience and safe perspective in life.

It was the week in which I saw the city of Baltimore on fire on every news station.  Field trips had been cancelled to the city for our district and my heart wanted so badly to support the teachers and administrators who were so intently standing at their posts and support the schools to serving as a safe haven for students during a time of unrest.  I personally felt frustrated and annoyed when I saw, what I thought, as students being irresponsible, care-free, and reckless—setting cars and stores on fire and destroying the very city that they lived in.

That same week, I had a student who helped me see another side that I could not relate to and was also quite oblivious to: How people respond in a state of “Hopelessness.”  While my school stood in the suburbs of Maryland, enough miles away from Baltimore that I believed my students were not impacted, I could not have been farther away from the truth.  That week I had a fight erupt between two boys prior to the first bell ringing. I thought this day was supposed to be special because it was the birthday of the boy involved, who was the aggressor.  It wasn’t until he and I sat down to discuss the incident that he shared that he woke up frustrated. Although that day was his birthday, it wasn’t a good day because 1) he could not speak to his dad; 2) his dad was incarcerated for something he believed his dad was innocent of; and 3) his connection with the feelings of frustration that his peers in Baltimore felt because “sometimes it doesn’t matter if you are a good person or not; so why try?”  I never understood till now what the hip hop artist Biggie said, “Birthdays can be the worst days.”

I literally felt the importance of why the Gallup survey that we administered every year measured if students felt hopeful.  At that moment, I realized several things:

1) We as educators must help students find hope in who they are and what they have to offer others in this world because in its absence lies emptiness, which leads to darkness.  As a principal, my actions translated into leading a school where children felt loved, valued, and hopeful.

2) I judged those in Baltimore quickly because I couldn’t identify with a feeling of hopelessness.  While I did not condone the actions of those who terrorized Baltimore, the student helped me understand what feelings and circumstances could lead to such horrific actions. As school leaders, we often work with students who sometimes live very different lives from us.  Our students depend on us to listen and be open to understanding them better in order to serve them best.

That student taught me a valuable lesson.  A lesson that stayed with me and morphed into the journey that my staff and I embarked upon to become more culturally competent educators.  I felt proud to share with my staff my own personal growth from hard lessons learned that modeling race and equity in education is not a strategy, but a journey of personal self-growth. Even as an African American educator, I need to embrace an open mind about others who are of a different race, class, culture, religion, etc. than myself.  The journey of developing my own authenticity as a leader is where the journey had to start for me as a principal in order to lead others.

The journey of self-growth never ended for my school; or at least we never felt it did. I am sure this is what kept us conscious as educators and leaders. As I embraced this personal journey to be an authentic leader, I developed the skills I needed to lead a staff through the process of being the authentic educators their students needed.


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