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In 1846, 5-year-old Sarah Roberts had to walk past five schools to reach her all-black school. Feeling that this was not right, her father, Benjamin, took her to the first school and tried to enroll her. She was denied. He then took her to each of the other four schools. But at each school, Sarah was denied admission. So Sarah's father sued the city of Boston. In 1849, the abolitionist Charles Sumner argued before the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, "...that there is but one kind of public school, free to all...excluding none, comprehending all." Still, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled against Sarah Roberts.
Even though the result was not what the elder Roberts had hoped for, his singular act of courage in 1846 fueled the courage of another father more than 100 years later when Reverend Oliver Brown walked his 8-year-old daughter Linda into the office of a Topeka, Kansas, school principal. Again the child was turned away, but this time, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court remembered Sarah Roberts and cited her attorney, Charles Sumner, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Court announced that "...[the opportunity of an education] is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms"
Throughout the school day BRAVO principals -- principals who Build Relationships with Actions that Value Others --face issues where opportunities to act courageously abound. Our daily acts of courage may not carry the gravity of some other courageous acts, but -- much like Benjamin Roberts' first fearful steps would ultimately change public schools forever -- our courageous steps might provide fuel for future acts of courage.
There are hundreds of simple ways in which we can build relationships that value others on our campuses; all require a courageous commitment on the part of a principal. In fact, as Jeffrey Glanz wrote in Finding Your Leadership Style: A Guide for Educators, "without courage, educational leaders become mere technicians, administrative guardians, and nothing more than custodians of the institution."
Know What We Believe.
Educators constantly talk about the importance of our schools' beliefs, visions, or mission statements. As a result, today most schools have such "guiding truths" posted in classrooms, hallways, and policy manuals. But a school's belief statement is absolutely meaningless unless it is a living document that is modeled, first and foremost, in the actions of its principal. When we say that we believe all kids can learn, we must have the courage to support that happening on our campus -- for all students. Even when we base our actions on those idealistic belief statements, we are often called to draw on our courage. The ancient Greek maxim "Know Thyself" is true: knowing who we are is the first step in knowing what we believe. Like a medieval knight heading off to war clad in armor, being clothed in our convictions enables us to act with courage.
BRAVO principals must be willing to be reflective. To be truly reflective means that we self-reflect, self-inspect, and self-correct. In other words, we make time to think about our actions and then we inspect them. Did I do what was right? Could I have done this a different way, or perhaps a better way? We also ask others to honestly and constructively evaluate our actions. Based on the answers to those questions, we self-correct, always working to improve.
Confront Our Own Weaknesses.
Principals who build valuing relationships with faculty and students understand the value of being honest with themselves. That means that when we reflect on our actions we face up to our own weaknesses. When we fail or make bad decisions, instead of offering excuses for our behavior we own up to our shortcomings. In the movie Batman Begins, the father of the young Batman gave this advice: "Why do we fail? So we can learn to pick ourselves up!" When we principals confront our own weaknesses, it takes courage to pick ourselves up.
When we realize that we have made a mistake we must take full responsibility for our actions and publicly acknowledge what we did wrong. That is not easy. After all, everyone seems to want to "beat up" on educators today, so why should we make it easier for them by admitting our errors? When we admit our errors and apologize, we become the voice that leads the improvement effort rather than the victim who takes the blame. That takes courage. John Wayne was right when he said "Courage is being scared to death -- but saddling up anyway." Having the courage to admit error, apologize, and then "saddle up" can be the catalyst needed by others to acknowledge their vulnerability and activate their own courage. Courage is contagious.
Advocate for Others.
As educators build relationships that value others, we must remember that all circumstances must consistently be viewed first under the umbrella of "what is best for students." Advocating for students takes courage and tremendous energy. Who will advocate for the students who come through the doors of our schools who are abused, poor, and under-served? Who will advocate for the children who struggle academically? Who will advocate for the children in our schools who are bullied and mistreated by others? It takes courage, but, when the principal acts as an advocate for those students, faculty and staff draw from that courage and the campus is energized and strengthened.
Recognize That Risk Exists.
Principals recognize that risk exists when they make difficult decisions; we win some and we lose some. Over the years, I have known principals who had to re-assign close friends, replace well-loved coaches, fire a best friend's son or daughter, suspend or expel children of board members all under the umbrella of our belief in "what is best for students." In all of those situations, relationships were altered, for sure. But, often, when the principal courageously stood up for others in a way that was consistent with the values and beliefs of the school, after the personal hurt was over, relationships of respect, and sometimes even admiration, returned.
Get Comfortable With the Fact That Decisions Rarely Please Everyone.
No matter how hard we try to effect win-win decisions, we will not make everyone happy. Knowing that our absolute best effort has been given to effect a situation that could be agreeable to both parties makes it easier to live with decisions that do not please everyone. Having a framework of guiding questions to follow can help with those hard-to-make decisions. I have found these five questions to be helpful in clarifying problems and identifying possible solutions:
Commit to Staying the Course.
Courage over the long term is not easy to sustain. But in order to maintain trusting staff, student, and parent relationships, principals must make a continuous commitment to act with courage toward everyone on campus. While we don't like to admit it, it's true that certain faculty and certain students are easier to support than others. But courage isn't courage if it's arbitrary. Unfortunately making one courageous decision doesn't make us paragons of courage. Each circumstance that arises and presents a challenge causes us to agonize all over again. However, it is not always being afraid of the outcome that causes anxiety; sometimes we just are not sure which is the best decision to make. When that happens, to act at all is often an act of courage. Eleanor Roosevelt exhorted us that we "gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... You must do the thing you think you cannot do." When leaders act courageously and survive to tell about it, we gain confidence to act more courageously when the next dilemma occurs.
Learn from Previous Experiences.
When principals draw from their own experiences as teachers and parents, we fuel our own courage to act. One of my aspiring principal students is Hispanic and her husband is East Indian. When her son was in the fifth grade, the other children began making fun of his father's ethnicity. When that happened, the boy decided that he no longer wanted his dad to pick him up at school. The family eventually overcame this painful situation. But when my student shared this incident, she pointed out that as a principal she would be more sensitive and courageous in dealing with this type of issue because of her personal experience. For BRAVO principals, professional courage can come from personal experience.
Maintain a Sense of Humor.
Another way for us to act courageously is to activate our senses of humor. Even though laughing at ourselves can sometimes make us seem more vulnerable, laughter is a wonderful way to build a sense of community within the school. There is something about laughter that brings people together even in difficult times. Recently, the schools in the area where I teach were devastated by a hurricane. Later, as the recovery effort was underway, one of the principals posted a note on the faculty bulletin board titled "How Hurricanes Are Like Christmas." One punch line read, "Hurricanes are like Christmas because you have a tree in your living room." Even though many faculty members were actually struggling with trees in their living rooms when they read that, they all laughed.
Actions that are courageous cause our heart rates to race, our palms to become sweaty, and our nights to become sleepless. In the world we live in today, there is likely not a principal among us who has not gone to bed with visions of hiding under a desk in fear. And rightly so. We live in turbulent times.
Someone once said that "if God had wanted us to be courageous, he would not have given us legs." There have been times when I certainly thought that the best solution would be to do just that -- run -- and let someone else make the hard decisions. But BRAVO principals understand what Mark Twain meant when he wrote that "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear."
Article by Sandra Harris
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