Linda Belans, Ed.D.
“We must learn to distinguish between what is merely important and what is wildly important. A wildly important goal carries serious consequences. Failure to achieve these goals renders all other achievements relatively inconsequential.” Steven Covey.
The next day, Celia asked him how his night was. He excitedly reported that he loves his new book and, after reading it, fell into a deep sleep. Quinton let go of his nightmare in this moment. This was something he could not have done without Celia understanding the difference between the merely and the wildly Important for him. She coached his teacher who began learning a new approach: to shift her own behavior.
Celia and I then talked about a third-grade class that was so challenging, a very seasoned teacher walked out of classroom in the middle of a lesson. The teacher described a chorus of “whining that drove her out:” “Why-should-I-have-to-give-the-pencil-back-to-Jondre; he-stole-mine-first” kind of whining. I suggested to Celia that 3rd and 4th graders become very aware of justice, and this is one way they might express it. Perhaps she could introduce stories or films to her teachers about justice to use with students, to teach them other ways to respond to unjust situations, then engage in role plays to practice.
But that's just the beginning.
The next step was for Celia to introduce the 7EQs to her team to wrestle with and understand their complicity in perpetuating racist responses to white supremacist policies that produced Quinton's situation in the first place.
“I had never thought of it that way,” she said. Celia was inspired -- ready to see her students in a new light, engage in anti-racist work, and teach and coach to that.
These two stories offer stark lessons in what happens when we sacrifice the wildly important for the merely important. We’ve taught children that we have the luxury or privilege to ignore their wildly important realities in service to policies, rules, test scores, and outcomes, and our own unexamined racism that perpetuates these practices. Perhaps worst of all, we’ve taught them how to ignore their own wildly important lives.
Focusing on the merely important taught these students compliance, and reinforced fear and trauma. That they are less than, not good enough, unless they complete the math assignment regardless of what’s going on in their lives. It taught them that we actually don’t recognize grit when it's in front of us.
When we have the courage to listen to stories, to embrace them, and make accommodations for them, children and adults thrive. They learn. We learn. When we have the courage to confront our own racism, we begin to address how we perpetuate it through our responses, language, and policies.
There are serious consequences when we get it wrong.
There is an often-told story, or a similar one in professional development sessions, about a middle school student who got her homework done under the light of car headlamps. This story is offered as the shining pre-amble to learning how to set expectations, and to teach grit and perseverance. The student in this story is praised and rewarded by the white teacher for doing whatever it takes. The white PD facilitator uses this story to demonstrate that the teacher is teaching grit and perseverance, no matter what hardships life serves up.
Being curious, we learn that her family couldn’t afford to pay the electric bill, so she sat outside, in the unsafe dark of night, on hard, cold concrete, to get her homework done.
The teachable moment here is for the teacher -- and, the PD facilitator. This child already has grit and perseverance as a consequence of white supremacy and its attendant policies . What she needs is help with her family’s situation. If there is no electricity, there is no food, or a way to wash the uniform she is expected wear. There is anguish in the home and all its accompanying complexities. Perhaps the teacher in this scenario did tend to those things, but the workshop facilitator doesn’t communicate it. He is focused on the outcome: Whatever it Takes.
But let’s say the student was driven to do this sheroic act for more complicated reasons than meet the eye. Perhaps she simply is, by nature, a high achiever. Or craves praise. Or felt safer outside in the dark of night than in her own house under these circumstances. What if the teacher had focused on the wildly Important? What if he asked the student what strengths she called on to solve this problem of getting her homework done under extreme, adverse conditions? What if he asked her if she could identify some of those strengths to call on in other challenging situations so that she could see the fullness of herself – the strengths - the grit - she has been forced to acquire and brings to the world?
And what if the teacher, and the facilitator, had expanded their view of what schools are for, what their role is in shaping and reinforcing white supremacy, and what anti-racist actions they could take to rectify it.
Celia, a seasoned white AP leader I was coaching, had an epiphany during a professional development workshop: “I identified and made myself aware of my biggest dream: To make our school a place where we heal before we teach and truly engage children in critical thinking, and have excitement about learning.”
During our follow-up coaching session, she told me that she heard a teacher yelling at a third-grader. Practicing curiosity, I asked her why people yell at third-graders. She thoughtfully reflected and said: “They are frustrated with themselves for not being prepared enough. And when students don’t change their behavior.”
Celia approached the student and chose to listen to him. “What’s going on Quinton?” He told her that he can’t sleep at night and has gruesome, graphic dreams. He was deeply worried. Since his father left and his mother went to jail, he’s afraid his aunt and grandmother, with whom he lives, will also go away. He’s on high vigilance all night and falls asleep during class. This eight-year-old unburdened himself and shifted into engagement with Celia who is dedicated to straightening the crooked room of education.
She asked him what he’s interested in. “Science,” he offered. Celia called his aunt and received permission to bring Quinton home late because she wanted to take him to buy a science book.