Lessons on Leadership from Marcus: An Open Letter to the HCPS School Board

Lessons-Marcus

Originally intended to be comments read to the board, it became clear that they would go beyond the three minute limit. If you prefer to listen, click play; if you prefer to read, see below.

For the better part of 25 years I have spent much of my time reading philosophical and sacred texts from around the globe. If you read the parting letter I gave to my seniors that I sent you last week, you now know how much those twin pursuits have shaped my principles and perspective. I had the good fortune to revisit one of my favorite books this past spring, Marcus AureliusMeditations. Over the course of a month, I met with a small group of interested seniors for us to deliberate that week’s readings; we all grew so much from the dialogue that emerged from his wise words, which is why I hope you consider the ones I share in the following open letter:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

We currently have two major impediments that can no longer be ignored: bad behavior and lack of literacy. We must address these challenges head on, out in the open, and that begins with real leadership.

I spoke about the need to bring other leaders into these important, challenging conversations, starting with the teachers and ESPs who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty for our kids. But we need all leaders who are willing to help in these critical endeavors. Every elected official in Hillsborough, whether municipal, county or state. Every business owner who can help provide goods and services for our most disadvantaged citizens, especially those with children in our schools. Every caring community member who simply wants to volunteer, mentor, or help our students in whatever way he or she can.

But when I say we need leaders, we need real leaders. Real leaders aren’t afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers. Real leaders aren’t scared to admit when they’re wrong. Real leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, often surrounding themselves with counselors who will enhance the former and mitigate the latter. Real leaders listen and respond with, as my good friend Ernest Hooper recently wrote, honesty, transparency, and empathy.

Yet all of this begs the following questions—and I leave them for each of you to reflect upon individually—Am I a real leader? How do I exemplify these attributes? In what ways have I not lived up to these traits and how can I improve upon them?

And though you can continue to reflect upon those, let’s drill down to more specific questions of leadership:

Where was the leadership in addressing the growing chorus of concern about student behavior, much of which had been documented, discussed, yet met with no action?

Where was the honesty in the empty promises made to teachers like Bianca or others who were told it would get better?

Where was the transparency in the way these discipline issues were so often swept under the rug and out of public consciousness, thereby simultaneously hiding and exacerbating the problem in the process?

Oh, you can shut the cameras off to answer that one if you’d like.

Most importantly, where was the empathy when a two time, highly effective teacher who became a team leader at the end of her first year quit out of frustration with a toxic school environment?

Real leaders—the wise ones who seek to serve others through their actions—would have tried to understand her perspective, spend a day with her shadowing the classes, walk her walk, so to speak. Instead, some “so-called” leaders actively called around to every single media outlet on both sides of the bay, trying to spin the bad press into another “disgruntled teacher walks away” story, even going so far as to reveal the fact that she still had not passed her General Knowledge exam. Even saying it aloud now makes me shudder at how reprehensible those unethical actions were, especially in light of what Bianca had been through and how much she impacted her students in those two short years. It is difficult for me to convey how deeply disappointed in our district I was when I learned of these facts.

As my friend Marcus reminds us all, “if it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”

The simple truth is that there are many, many aspects of HCPS that are good and positive. We have a lot of successes in a lot of different areas, and no one will deny that. We should continue to share and celebrate these stories with everyone. But we also need to share our challenges. They are part of our story as well, and to deny them tells an incomplete tale that unfairly marginalizes the daily, negative experiences of a sizeable portion of our students and employees.

We have to do better for them. We have to do better for us all.

With regard to behavior, what we need is simple. Fidelity to the student discipline plan currently in place on the district’s website. Though Faye Cook has retired, she wants me to remind all of you that student learning conditions are teacher working conditions. By applying the current student discipline plan with fidelity and uniformity across the district, we can take the first meaningful step in the right direction. But that means district admin has to stop telling site based administrators to hide or play down discipline issues.

Yes, we understand the pressure from the state that you clearly won’t take a stand against despite how many times we ask, but a good number of us all suffer for it. So while you’re offering Richard Corcoran and his entourage sycophantic smiles and thunderous applause as he and his fellow charlatans dismantle public education one brick at a time, many human beings at our most challenging schools are living with the ramifications of you going along to get along…you know, trying to cook the books by keeping attendance numbers up by not suspending kids, having exam scores so low kids know they can Christmas tree them and pass, all so that the almighty school grades and the ever-increasing graduation rates continue to climb.

If we have any hope at really addressing the behavior issues, it will mean actively taking a stand against them and having consequences for students. No one is advocating a return to the draconian measures of the past in which disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic students were suspended for minor infractions, but the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme that there has to be a middle ground we can occupy that allows teachers to do their jobs while educating the vast majority of students who are in those same classrooms and genuinely want to learn yet cannot due to constant disruption.

We claim that we are preparing students for life, but does life not have consequences for our choices and actions? It stands to reason that it does, and while people will point to the studies claiming the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with students who were often suspended, I would argue our current implementation of the student code of conduct very well may lead a number of our students to the same end. Once they graduate and have turned 18, do you think the police officer or sheriff’s deputy is going to simply give him or her a verbal warning when the kid makes a major mistake? Nope. That world is very black and white, and what we are instilling in many students is that teachers have no authority at all and that they can treat adults with impunity due to the lack of actual consequence.

And while we’re talking about prisons, I once read that some of the for-profit prison chains—yes, America in its unfettered love of capitalism and desire to turn every facet of our existence into a commodity has for-profit prisons too—use 3rd grade reading rates in their data analysis to decide where to build their future houses of incarceration. So how to do we fix the reading issue? Surely a half million dollar consultant won’t be able to solve this, but our entire community can if we all work collaboratively, starting with something as simple as a reading awareness campaign. Our culture is awash in signals that constantly extol the virtue of screens. Kids need to have adults from every avenue in their lives reading books, newspapers, magazines or any other print media and then have conversations about what they are reading and why.

As teachers we all know that we are role models for lifelong learning. But our kids need to see this reinforced in other ways and by other caring adults. We could get signs up on billboards; local celebrities to read bedtime stories to kids and then post them online; we could have a social media hashtag campaign such as #WhatAreYouReading? as suggested by Marlene Sokol; we could have more high schoolers reading with/to elementary kids like Crest does with its Trendsetters club. Surely these simple suggestions can be the initial steps in building a Hillsborough wide culture that will positively impact all of our students. There are so many ways we can approach this via a grassroots effort by the entire community.

Let’s figure out how we can get these conversations going. Let’s put out a call to action for all the real leaders in our community to help us address these issues. But first it will take admitting we have our own challenges. Just like any family that has disagreements from time to time, we all need to recognize that we’re in this together and have to do what’s best for the entire group—especially the children.

In closing, I would like share some final words from my good friend Marcus. I carry a token in my pocket as a reminder of these words, and I reflect on them frequently. The obverse of the coin is a depiction of Arete, the goddess of virtue with a phrase from Cicero that reads Summum Bonum, symbolically representing the Stoic ideal of living a virtuous life as the “highest good”; on the reverse, however, is another quote from Aurelius’ Meditations: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter. Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored. Dying or busy.” Let us all keep these words close to our hearts and minds as we move forward in unity to solve these twin challenges so we can provide the very best education for our students and their future.

Thank you.

Marcus Coin

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