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.

For further Principal Kafele writings and recordings, visit principalkafele.com.

12 comments:

  1. Great points here. If we're true to our craft, we always want to improve, and feedback is crucial. About the suspension: I believe you took all the steps to investigate the incident, twice. Your investigation came up picking the wrong person, but you had to go with the facts...or did you? You knew this young man. Could you have gone with your gut instinct and believed him despite the investigation? As a first year administrator, probably not, and you didn't.

    I'm very glad you apologized to him. There's nothing you can do to change what happened, but you acknowledged that you got it wrong that time.

    To answer the question, I would ask the former student what I got wrong regarding them, and why they felt that way. I would apologize regardless of their answer, but might present my intention if I felt they would be receptive to it. Sometimes you can still make it right. Sometimes all you can do is apologize.

    Thanks,

    Lorraine Flakes, Title I 8th grade ELAR teacher

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    1. Good stuff Lorraine. I was a first year principal and admittedly made mistakes. I got better though.

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  2. I am sure as educators we may have done it said things that we shouldn't have. I too have learned over the years that words and actions can hurt children for years. I appreciate your candor in this article recognizing that we fail sometimes just as we succeed.

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  3. I have always been reminded by the mantra my mom always said to our absent father. "Puppy does turn dog" *in a Guyanese accent. What she's saying is that little children become adults. With that being said, I've treated my students in a manner, knowing that they'd become adults that would be able to reflect o. How i treated them as children. I never wanted them to ever say I was someone who didn't love them or believe in their success.

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  4. Great thought provoking share! First I would be so grateful they gave me an opportunity to confront it. As a new teacher, I started out strong with a fine balance of discipline and love but my error may have come in years later while workimg with older, less pliable personalities. It sometimes made me sharp and to them I would definitely apologize and tell them how I have worked on that deficit to not hurt anyone else in that way again.

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  5. What a wonderful post. I'm glad your student came to you with his disappointment. I'm glad you apologized to him. That burden seemingly needed to be lifted. Very insightful post.

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  6. My interaction came at restaurant when I greeted two former students . One asked “ do you remember when you put me out of school ?” ( I did.) I was not sure what was about to happen next but then he smiled and said “ Nah you told me what was gonna happened but back then I wouldn’t listen. You did what you said you were gonna do. That was on me!” Then he dapped me up and hugged me. And then he told how he was working trying to do good with his life. Discipline with dignity always!

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    1. I can definitely relate! The principalship is such a complex role and you're doing great at it!

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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 childre...