Sunday, December 1, 2019

What Would You Say If a Former Student Came Back as an Adult and Told You That You Let Him or Her Down as a Child?

This title that I chose for my December blog post is a potent one and one that I would think that anyone who works with children in any capacity would feel compelled to stop, pause and reflect upon deeply. I actually think about this daily because I know definitively that I am guilty; particularly with students from my first year of teaching. In full transparency, it is normal for me to share with my audiences that it is always a joy to run into former students or for them to find me on social media and share with me how they are doing in this journey called life. But that one class…my very first class of 5th graders in 1988 in Brooklyn, NY…I didn’t know what I was doing yet….I didn’t know good pedagogy, I didn’t know good lesson planning, I didn’t know classroom management and I definitely didn’t know classroom climate and culture. As I say to my audiences frequently, if I ever run into any of those students who are all in their 40’s now, all I can say is, “I’m sorry.” The truth of that matter is that one did reach out to me about a year ago on social media. I recognized her name as soon as I saw it. She said she had been following me for years on social media and that she is a Columbia University professor now. She gave me a tremendous amount of credit for her trajectory. I was in disbelief but she told me in detail why I mattered to here. My point is that when I reflect back over my years of teaching and leading, that first year was a disaster because I admittedly didn’t know what I was doing and I therefore in my mind, let that class down. When I saw her name, I was emotionally prepared to say, “I’m sorry” which I did despite all of her praise.

How about you? What would you say if a former student came back as an adult and told you that you let him or her down as a child? Would you be able to embrace it? Would you dispute it? Would you resist it? Would you become defensive? Or would you use it as a vehicle to grow? How would you handle it? Most of us as teachers will have our students for one school year and then we become a memory for the rest of their lives (if we left a lasting impression). How will you be remembered by your students? What will they say about you 10, 20, 30, 40 years from the time they are with you as your students? What will be the impression that you leave? Will any of them harbor anger as a result of an incident we simply got wrong….but didn’t realize we got wrong at the time? I had this experience a little over twenty years ago which is what inspired me to write this blog post. In other words, in my first year as an administrator (assistant principal), I suspended a student for an incident that I investigated thoroughly and felt at the time was the best possible decision. The student, a young man, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. I looked into it further because he was so adamant, not to mention that he was my student when he was a fifth grader, so I really knew this young man. He was now an 8th grader. After another full investigation, I concluded that a suspension was in order. Again, I was a first year assistant principal with much to learn. The year was 1998.

About twelve years later, a seasoned principal and now in a different school district, I was working late one night and security came to my office and said I had a late night visitor. He said it was a man and he told me his name. Wow…it was the young man I suspended in 8th grade, but that suspension was erased from my mind. I was excited to see the young man and told security to send him in. As he walked into my office, we embraced and I told him to relax his coat and have a seat. After we got through all of the pleasantries, he said, “Mr. Kafele, do you remember when you suspended me back in 8th grade?” At that juncture, the incident came back to me and I said yes. He said, “I didn’t do it…you didn’t believe in me and I never forgot that. Not only were you my 5th grade teacher, you were my favorite teacher and you suspended me your first year as an administrator for something I never did.” In other words, he essentially told me that I failed…that I let him down. As I indicated with my class of 1988 above, all I could say to this young man is that “I’m sorry and I apologize.” He accepted. We talked for about another hour. We embraced and I haven’t seen him since. I changed that night…not only as a principal but as a human being. I changed forever that night. That hurt. It stung! But I grew!

Hey somebody out there, what would you (or will you) say if a former student comes back as an adult and tells you that you let him or her down as a child? I failed when I made that decision. It was like I failed again when he came back twelve years later and told me he was essentially harboring anger from my decision. It hurts as I am writing and sharing this account with you which is about ten years since I last saw this young man. I therefore wrote this blog post just to say to you to think through thorough EVERYTHING you say and do when with your students at whatever capacity you work. We just never know the implications of our words and our actions. I regret that decision to suspend and can only pray there are no more lurking out there.

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