I had been asked to work with an elementary school staff at an off-site retreat. It was unusual for a public school staff to have a day where they could get out of the building, get a chance to recharge their batteries, and reflect on their profession as individuals and as a buiding team; but this was an unusual school. The principal was earnest and eager, and had volunteered to lead the toughest school in the district. More than 90% of his student population was eligible for free and reduced lunch; and many, many kids were non-English speaking. He recruited his teachers carefully and treated them professionally. The results were astounding. The school had been cited as one of the best the state.
It was late in an extraordinary afternoon. I had led the staff through several exercises to build their leadership skills and they had responded enthusiastically to each opportunity, taking the space I offered them and using it to go far beyond the goals I had set for them. Little did I know what lay ahead for me this day. The wonderful hearts of these teachers had something to teach me.
My request was that they take a few moments to reflect on something in their professional lives that had made an impact on them. When they had done so, they were to form small groups of four or five and share their stories. I watched as individuals cast down their eyes or looked out of the large windows peering into the depths of days past. Some began writing notes immediately. Theses were the stories that were the touchstones of their work lives. They began to draw their chairs together into comfortable circles. I listened to the energy of the chatter as they shared their stories. There was passion, there was respect, and, here and there, a few tears. I settled back to let them open themselves to each other. I didn’t want to interrupt the exercise before it had run its natural course.
Soon it was time to debrief the small groups. “Would anybody like to share their story?” I looked out at the teachers who had now become silent and shy, much like their own students. I decided to wait through the uncomfortable silence. I’d watched these professionals work all afternoon, they were committed and wouldn’t allow this opportunity to share and learn pass them by. It was only a matter of time before someone would show the courage to go first.
A hand went up from a group in the front, closest to me. “I don’t want to tell my own story, but she has a story that really touched us,” he pointed to a veteran teacher in their group. “If she’s ok with it, I’d like to tell the story.” The shy veteran nodded her assent.
The storyteller remained standing as he began. “Mrs. Alverez was in her first few years of teaching in a bad part of the Bronx. She was a second grade teacher and she had a quiet boy, Carlos, who was struggling to learn to read in her class. Carlos was living with his mother in a run down apartment building in the neighborhood. His father, who had left his mother a few years before, lived in the same building but would ignore his son, acting as if he didn’t know him. He wouldn’t talk to him or eve nod hello. Needless to say, this devastated Carlos and the impact of it seemed to drive him even deeper into his shell. He had no confidence and his struggles at school only added to his misery. Mrs. Alverez worked as hard as she could to help Carlos to read; but things weren’t going very well.
Towards the end of the year, Mrs. Alverez received her assignment for the coming year. She was given the opportunity to move to a position in another school. It was a good school and she was really excited.
One day after school, Carlos’ mother came to see Mrs. Alverez. She spoke in broken English, “You have helped my son Carlos this year. He talks about you at home. Thank you.”
Mrs. Alverez nodded modestly.
(To be continued – next post)