Seeing poverty in a new light

I left my reading of Dr. Donna Beegle’s “See Poverty, Be the Difference” to the end of my summer reading. I should have read it sooner so that I had more time to digest, reflect, and think about how I can apply what I’m learning to the start of a new school year. I’m starting to be able to synthesize much of what I’ve been learning about leadership and learning this summer.

Right now I’m thinking about my purpose as a school administrator – to treat each person as an important human and give them the opportunity to be important in the world. Some of the biggest challenges in my day to day work surround supporting students and their families who are living in poverty. Often these kids and their families are marginalized, stereotyped and judged as being lazy, stupid, or addicted. But there are significant structural causes for poverty. In British Columbia, according to the BC Teachers’ Federation,

“Poverty in British Columbia is structural, brought about by a low-wage market, woefully inadequate welfare provisions, the loss of low-rent housing, and discrimination. Balancing basic expenses of rent and food on limited income is increasingly difficult.?

20120815-210353.jpgI also watched, and very strongly recommend, the documentary “Four Feet Up” by Nance Ackerman. It’s a very compelling and realistic view of a child living in poverty in Canada. You can watch it here.

Here are a few of the important “aha” moments I’ve had while viewing and reading:

1. It is ultimately important for people who serve those living in poverty not to judge based on clothing, speech, or situation (ie being evicted, not having food, etc.) Poverty can be generational, or caused by a traumatic life event, and often families are working as hard as they damn well can to get by. Kids may feel a great shame in not having the clothing, food, or stuff that other kids have. Parents may as well, but they often have a sense of pride in their resourcefulness and ability to survive. Yes, they may need help to access supports and resources for themselves and their families. We may think we know best how to get that help. But we need to honour their strengths and develop the trust that will allow us to help.

2. Poverty has many characteristics of an oral-based culture, so written communication is pretty useless. Sending home a newsletter or having a beautiful website full of information is just not going to get there. “If you don’t get a response, the communication didn’t work.” This got me thinking about the amount of paper we send home to families, and how much time we spend chasing down responses. Is there a better way?

3. Children and families living in poverty often attribute their situation to personal failing. That somehow people in middle class are smarter, or better, than they are. They just don’t see opportunities as being available to them, and often in school they don’t equate effort with success – they think the successful kids are innately better or smarter than they are. When they are taught about the structural reasons for poverty, and are able to see that they are just as creative, smart, and worthy as anyone else, suddenly opportunities seem more possible. We can send these strong messages daily in our work with kids!

4. Education, to many in poverty, is not really seen as a benefit. As much as we may tell students and parents that education is important to getting a good job and making good money, at a daily level school is an additional stressor that many families just can’t cope with. And getting a job just means working really hard and still not having enough to get by. Schools need to do a better job of putting the benefits of education in a context that makes sense to and is motivating to kids living in poverty.

5. Access to quality education, proper language (middle-class print-based language) and caring mentorship are the most important keys to breaking the cycle of poverty. We have to believe in the ability of all children to learn, to move forward, and to help them be able to demonstrate their intelligence and talent. We need to believe in them until they can believe in themselves.

6. Trauma and chronic stress can be misdiagnosed as ADHD. Instead of working so hard in School-Based Team and parent conferences to get a diagnosis (which doesn’t change anything), our energy should just be put into finding and doing what works for that child. This reinforces my belief in the Collaborative Problem Solving approach developed by Dr. Ross Greene.

I know that as school starts up I am going to be taking careful stock of my attitudes, assumptions and approach in working with our students and families who are living in poverty, and continually working to live my purpose every day.

Celery, Oreos, and WHY?

In my last post, I wrote about two books on leadership that I had been reading. Afterwards, a colleague Tia Henriksen (@TiaHenriksen) suggested I move on to

    Start with Why

by Simon Sinek. Since I’d borrowed it from the public library, I felt obliged to take it on in a big bite rather than in smaller chunks with time for reflection in between. But I’ve gotten to a point where I feel the need for some reflection, analysis and synthesis of things rolling around in my brain.

Sinek’s main message is that the WHY of any organization – it’s purpose, beliefs, and reason for existing – needs to come first before any decisions about HOW or WHAT is done by the organization. Like many leadership books, Sinek’s focus is on business, which always forces us in education to try to make analogies to our own situations. I can’t say that I was successful in doing that with every part of the book so far, but I did have some moments of realization about things happening in my school district and at my own school.

One thing that I’ve realized is that our district’s superintendent, Mike McKay, has done a very good job of communicating the WHY of our organization. His mantra, “Every child, every chance, every day” tells us all why we are here, and what our purpose is. It doesn’t tell us what to do or how to do it, but it is very explicit in the belief that every one of our students deserves the very best of us. Throughout my reading I’ve been working on clarifying my own explicit WHY, which Sinek rightly says is not easy, since it is often more visceral than logical. We feel when things are “right”, but it’s hard to say why. So what I’ve come up with is this:

Every child is important.

Sounds kind of lame when compared with Mike’s eloquent phrasing, but it’s what my work boils down to. I tell this to myself, to staff, to families, and to my students themselves. I sometimes feel like a broken record, but in my school we often have children who for one reason or another have no sense of importance, of purpose, of worth. I’ve had families thank me so much for taking the time to understand their child, and my response is just, “But your child is important. Why wouldn’t I?”


Another critical part of knowing and communicating your WHY is that it helps so much in making decisions – what Sinek calls “The Celery Test”. Boiled down, if you know your core WHY is to do things that are healthy, and someone you trust has given you the advice that Oreos are the way to go, when you go to the supermarket you’ll go for the celery, because you know it’s aligned with what you believe. In our schools this is of great importance. We are bombarded by educational initiatives, programs, fads and “the next great thing”. But if we know our why, it helps us to make decisions about or what and our how. I am trying right now to take a hard look at some of the policies and procedures that we have in our school, and applying the celery test. It can apply to our decisions on teaching methods, resources, disciplinary policies, and basic school procedures. I am planning on making my computer desktop a photo of celery to help me remember this daily during the school year as the pace and urgency of decision making increases.

So now I need to think about how I communicate the WHY to our school community, and how I can make sure that the actions of our school staff are aligned with the why. I know that there may be some staff who may not share this why with me. For some, passion for a particular subject may be their why. Their own love of learning may be their why. But I truly believe that honoring the importance of every child is my reason for doing the work that I do, for championing the WHATs and HOWs that I think help us to make that WHY real in our daily actions.

What is your WHY?

Reading about leading

I gave my brain the month of July off. Well, most of it anyway. When I was ready, I started my summer professional reading. This summer I am focusing on leadership. I’ve been a school administrator for five years, and this fall I am going to be mentoring some new principals in our school district. It prompted me to go deeper into what I believe about leadership, and to want to learn more about being an effective leader.

Leadership is a complex subject; the public library had no shortage of choices for me. But as each leader’s style is based on personal beliefs and philosophies, I was drawn to two books to start with:

    Primal Leadership

by Daniel Goleman with Boyatzis and McKee and

    The Servant Leader

by James Autry. I know Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence has influenced my district’s work in social/emotional learning. One of my own mentors, Vince Record in the San Jacinto Unified School District in southern California, based his own work as a principal on servant leadership, and I wanted to learn more.

I started with Goleman’s book, and as much as I agree with the importance of emotional management skills in the workplace, I didn’t find the book resonating with me as much – perhaps as it was business-focused. Goleman et al list the key emotional intelligence skills, and specify specific behaviours that demonstrate each skill. I found myself trying to use this as a checklist – yep, do that, yep, do that, nope, not that one. Guess I’m not effective! While the authors stress that no one person would be strong in every aspect, effective leaders have key strengths in at least four or five. One aspect I did take away with me is the importance of emotional self-management for leaders. As important as it is to be authentic and recognize one’s own emotions, which can build social capital with staff and “clients” (in our case students, parents and community members), there is great value in remaining calm during difficult situations. This may seem obvious, and in fact it is, but I did recognize that this is an area needing some focus for me in my work.

As I began The Servant Leader, I was ready to be underwhelmed with another dry leadership book. But this, for me, was different. The six tenets of servant leadership flow from one to the other, and I realized that thisis what I do and who I am, and now through Autry’s work I can understand why it works and how to fulfill my role as a leader in my way with more purpose and focus.

I still have two books to go – Simon Sinek’s

    Start with Why

and Seth Godin’s

    Tribes.If you’ve read either of these, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read first and why.