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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

I Just Can't Do It


I hear the phrase "I can't do it!" a lot. I hear it from students. I hear it from teachers. I hear it from parents. But if my experience as a school principal has taught me one thing, it's that there is almost always a way to turn around I-can't-do its.

Remember when a $20 bill would purchase gas to fill your car's gas tank?

When gas prices recently skyrocketed, my first thought was I just can't do it! But then my "principal voice" took over. As a principal who hears a lot of I-can't-do-its, that phrase is not a roadblock. Instead, it is a starting point for critical thinking and creative problem solving.

As I drove away from the gas station after paying $40 to top off my tank, I thought again of the countless kids who had said in my principal's office "I just can't do it!" They'd utter that comment when they couldn't get their homework done or get along with so and so or learn their math facts. At other times, it was an adult in my office who was down in the dumps and had come to the conclusion that "I just can't do it."

[content block] In every case, I countered their frustration with a challenge: "But, oh yes, you can do it! You just have to want to try!"


Did you ever notice how "trying" always becomes easier when we do it with other people?

When I wanted to lose weight for my daughter's wedding, my wife and friends at Weight Watchers provided weekly encouragement.

I would never have had the courage to complete my doctorate without support from family, friends, teachers, mentors, and classmates.

At the gas pump that day, I dug down for that same kind encouragement. The fact I'd just drained my wallet of $40 to barely fill my tank was upsetting. Like most of us, filling up the tank forced me to look at other demands on my paycheck and make choices about what is essential and what I can do without. Do I have what it takes to make the needed adjustments to my lifestyle? Is there any way out of this dilemma? The thoughts bouncing around in my head were depressing if I wanted to let them get me down.

But then I realized I had to want to try to deal with the situation. And perhaps I might even be able to contribute to others' sense of we can do it by doing more of what I, as a principal, do every day.


Principals are supposed to be wise, ethical, and creative problem solvers. Every day we are called to make our schools better places. We lead change. We help others embrace and make change. Having that power to initiate change -- and then doing it -- ranks right up there among our most memorable and proud accomplishments. And I've learned that when you embrace change, you gain control of your thoughts and actions, and you find greater purpose in what you do.

Rather than become depressed about the high price of gasoline, I decided to acknowledge the reality and commit to doing as much as I can to help others -- especially my students -- deal with this issue that effects us all.

As I thought more deeply, I concluded that we all know what we have to do: we must do more to go green. We must reduce our dependency on foreign oil and other fossil fuels because there is no endless supply of natural resources. We must do this for our children and our grandchildren because we don't want them to struggle or experience a lifestyle less than what we've known.

So, for my part, I need to want to try to help our children and theirs learn how to accept responsibility and make their world a better place.

The result is that I've recommitted to teaching problem solving and demonstrating responsibility in ways our kids will understand. We will refocus our school's plan to use less energy. We will learn to reduce and reuse. We will ratchet up our recycling efforts, walk when possible on field trips, use less water and electricity, and even reuse paper clips.

Most important, I've re-committed to helping every child expand their dreams and think creatively. We need competent learners who will grow to become the creative scientists, engineers, and political leaders who work continuously to develop a greener world.

Moreover, I must redouble my efforts to help our kids learn to persevere and cope with the unfortunate situations into which they've been cast -- poverty, broken families, and environments filled with drugs and violence that place no value on right and wrong or learning. I have to help all children learn to make good choices and motivate them to gain personal control of their weight, fitness, and self- and social-responsibility. We can't allow our children to blame others, shirk responsibility, shy away from challenges, or throw their hands into the air and give up saying "I just can't do it!"

As a principal, I have the capacity to lead dramatic change in my school. I have influence, energy, and power. I inspire, motivate, and sustain people as they work together. I know the consequences of inattention to details. If I allow the existence of a culture of giving up, my school is destined to fail.

Our future -- and our kids' futures -- depends on the success of public schools. We can choose to roll up our sleeves, identify problems, clarify the vision of a better future, support each other, and create change. Or we can succumb to others and let them to do it for us and to us (like we have let happen at the gas pumps).

I wish I were intelligent enough to solve our society's energy problems. But I can want to try to do all in my power to develop and encourage bright, free thinkers who will learn how to work together for new solutions that will safeguard their futures.

Paul Young, Ph. D., is the executive director of the West After School Center in Lancaster, Ohio. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National AfterSchool Association (NAA). He served as president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in 2002-2003 and retired from Lancaster City Schools in 2004. He is an author with Corwin Press,, and School-Age Notes. He and his wife, Gertrude, a music teacher, live in Lancaster.


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Article by Paul Young
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