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Relationships

April 5, 2020 Comments off

Somewhere in Oklahoma this year, there is a sixth grade student who does well in school, but could do better. He’s not a mean kid, but he gets in trouble – in class, at lunch, on the bus – quite a bit. He’s just bored and restless. He’s friendly, but an easy target for bullies. And two of his core teachers are in their first year.

I know this student exists somewhere in Oklahoma because I’m not a unicorn. I was that kid, at Whittier Middle School in Norman, in 1981. Throughout my K-12 years, I was talkative, sometimes defiant, and yet fortunate enough to have teachers who believed in me. One of them was Debra Baum, who I had for sixth and seventh grade math.

After I finished middle school, I didn’t see Debra for years. She wasn’t there when my own children started school there 25 years later. The other first year teacher from 1981 still was, and she remembered me, which blew my mind. We caught up, and I remember being the first student she ever assigned detention, not that any of that matters now.

No, the next time I saw Mrs. Baum was at Norman High School a few years ago when my daughter was there. We didn’t really catch up, but it was good to see her. She’s reached out before to let me know she has followed my career and that she’s proud of me. As someone who preaches about the value of relationships, it has extra meaning for me that my own former teachers are still proud of me.

Then yesterday, this happened:

Screenshot 2020-04-05 at 5.24.05 PM

I’m not going to describe my reaction in full; suffice it to say that I was deeply moved. This means that eight years after having me in class Debra saw an article about me in the newspaper and cut it out. Now she has saved it for almost 30 years.

I realize that I’m really dating both of us here, but whatever. 

I’m a grown man, a father of three, a husband, a superintendent to over 14,000 students and more than 1,600 employees. With everything going on in my life right now, I can still be caught off guard by a teacher I had in 1981 reaching out to me out of the blue.

Now imagine that I’m that same sixth grader, home for an extended spring break and the world breaks out into a historic pandemic. What that DM meant to me yesterday pales in comparison to what teachers contacting their current students means to them now. They need to hear our voices. They need to know we care – and not just about their STAR scores and AP exams.

None of us think that what we end up doing the last quarter of this school year will replace what we had planned to do. Instead, we get to focus on two things that matter more than grades and standardized tests: relationships and learning for the sake of learning.

Prior to Spring Break, when the magnitude of the pandemic was starting to sink in, districts around Oklahoma shot into action, working on plans to feed children, communicating proactively, and looking at ways to finish the school year under circumstances none of us could have predicted. Months from now, we’ll look back on this time and find countless things we could have done differently. I’m sure of that.

I just hope we don’t look back and wish we had done more to show our students that we care about them.

Collectively over the last few weeks, we’ve grieved over so many things. When this all started, my district had four teams headed to the state basketball tournament. They don’t get to win or lose it on the court now. We have track teams and jazz bands that wanted to defend their state championships. That’s a no go. We’ve canceled rites of passage, such as prom, and we’re all scrambling to plan alternate graduation ceremonies. 

None of this is ok, but this is where we are. When we call our students, it’s perfectly acceptable to tell them that. In fact, it’s probably a really good thing to tell them that the adults are scared and uncomfortable too. Kids can usually tell whether we’re telling the truth or not anyway.

Eventually this will all end. We will go back to doing many of the things we’ve always done. Some things will be different forever, though. I hope the way we value each other is one of them.

Take care, and stay safe.

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