never waste a good crisis

Ledge Street Elementary is a school of opportunity. It has 450 intelligent and emotionally-resilient children. It has 70 staff members who excel at relationship-building and have unwavering faith in the children they instruct within Ledge classrooms. It has parents who view the school as a their extended home where a community of love and respect is fostered. I am the proud Principal of Ledge Street Elementary and it is a privilege to serve each student, parent, and staff member. I believe in Ledge Street Elementary and the positive impact our school has on the world.

These are words that I say to myself in some way, shape, or form each day I walk through the doors of our school to keep me positive and emotionally focused. Sometimes I use it as a mantra, repeating those words verbatim. And in other times it appears through a simple action, or interaction that starts my day with a student, parent, or staff member. Making sure I reaffirm my purpose in this manner every day has helped me keep a positive perspective as a leader during this time of great change, but reaffirming my purpose is not an end in-and-of-itself. It’s actually a means-to-an-end. Navigating times of significant change takes ’emotional bandwidth’. For those who are new to the idea of emotional bandwidth, it is the ability to productively handle your own emotions as well as those of others. The stress and effects of the pandemic have challenged and even narrowed our individual and collective emotional bandwidth. At Ledge we are not allowing this to happen, but instead, we are using these challenging times to come together to expand our emotional bandwidth.

During the pandemic, we have all felt the stress and pressure of isolation, change, illness, etc., from within ourselves and outwardly from those around us. We’ve been with people in our families or at our workplaces dealing with these same stressors. It is unfortunate, but one of the easiest and least productive ways to deal with our current stress is to suppress our emotions. That only serves to paralyze our creative thinking and stifle our positive thoughts, which can be toxic to a school culture. At Ledge, we actively work to push back against this not-so-productive survival instinct. Instead of ignoring our emotions which can lead to the impulse of seeing the world negatively, we are fostering a community where we are leaning into this discomfort by feeling more emotion, communicating more purposefully, and showing more vulnerability. Below are a few examples of what this looks like at Ledge Street Elementary:

  • Go into every conversation, every interaction, assuming positive intent.
  • Personalize.  Take time to build a caring, trusting, relationship, with every person you encounter, adult or child. Get to know each other. Ask questions. Listen.
  • Give kudos in the moment.  Never let a positive thought go un-shared.  It’s important to tell adults and children these thoughts in the moment, otherwise they can be easily forgotten in the chaos of a school day. And you never know, that could be the one moment that turns someone’s day around.
  • Show vulnerability.  For many, sharing our emotions is uncomfortable and anxiety inducing. At Ledge, students, staff, and parents are encouraged daily to share what they’re thinking and feeling in a non-threatening environment. This is the basis for building strong relationships through empathy and trust. It’s like a muscle, the more we do this, the easier it gets and the more comfortable we feel with the process. The morning meeting that we have in every classroom to start our day at Ledge Street Elementary where we get in a circle and talk about how we feel about our day, is a great example of formalizing a routine to talk about our feelings and practice showing vulnerability.
  • Use ‘I’ statements.  The simple action of beginning a sentence with “I” rather than “you” can make all the difference in the perception of what is being said.

Toward the end of WWII, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” That idea is as applicable now as it was then. As we come toward the end of the COVID crisis (and yes, I do believe the end of this crisis will come sooner than we think), Ledge Street Elementary will come out the other side in a way that we not only survived, but thrived, during this difficult time. We will be more emotionally resilient, able to show greater empathy towards ourselves and others, and feel even closer as a school community. And for that, we can credit our consistent and dedicated focus on mindfulness, that like a compass, guided us through.

The Intersection of Social Emotional Skill Building and Productive Struggle

The quote that’s the featured image for this blog really resonates with me.  In particular, replacing the word ‘parents’ in the quote with the word ‘educators’ reminds me how important it is that we continually find ways to influence a child’s life so that they gain “…a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”  In my view, this can only be achieved through opportunities of product struggle – which to me is defined as those challenges that help students build perseverance, confidence, and flexibility.

Social-emotional skill building is one area in particular where I believe we’re still finding how best to utilize productive struggle.  I have welcomed the intentional push in education over the past decade to raise social-emotional learning to a priority that is equal to the core academic areas, but I believe as educators we are still feeling-our-way through the intersection between social-emotional skill building and providing those all important situations for students to experience productive struggle which builds emotional resilience.

Our Soaring for Success Team at Ledge Street Elementary (the team of teachers/administration leading our Social-Emotional Learning work) is currently clarifying for our school the intersection between social-emotional skill building with students and allowing students ample opportunities to productively struggle through emotions.  It’s proving to be a complicated task.  In order to be successful achieving that balance, we need to purposefully structure emotional supports for children in a way that does some of the work for them, while at the same time allowing them to struggle through parts of the problem independently.  But at what point do we do the work for them?  And at what point do we let them fail-forward based on their own choices?  That’s the complicated part.

A lot is riding on educators finding this balance quickly and every interaction we have with a child matters.  For instance, if we address a situation too heavy on the social-emotional skill building side and over-support the child, we risk ‘doing the work’ for them and robbing them of an opportunity to build perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.  Inversely, if we come into a situation too heavy on the productive struggle side and don’t support them enough emotionally, that can lead to a child feeling helpless or not feeling a sense of belonging in their learning environment.  If the thousands of interactions we have each day with children are out-of-balance in either of those directions, it will adversely affect the learning culture within a school.  That’s the urgency that is currently driving some of the change at our school.

I am intrigued by this journey we’re on to find the balance between social-emotional skill building and productive struggle.  A lot is riding on us as educators to ensure that children are supported emotionally as they learn to independently build and repair their own confidence, but we also must allow children opportunities to struggle through the social-emotional challenges they face.  If we can find this balance, I know we’ll achieve much greater success overall as a school moving forward.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!