When Am I Most Engaged?

Leif Kurth
Aug 27, 2018 · 6 min read

In 2010, I was running the front office of a public chartered school in Baltimore. It was, and is, the best school I’ve ever worked in. The team of leaders, the staff, the community, the students, they all get why they’re there. This doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, ever, but it means that they continue to work towards the best possible outcomes for each student, and for the larger community, daily. I wrote the following reflection after attending a staff retreat, halfway through that school year. While I have experienced a lot of changes personally, and professionally, I feel no less passionate about public education and equity today than I did eight years ago.

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________ January 2011 ________

As I exit my vehicle in the morning, and walk to the front entrance of the school, I speak to students and staff and pick-up trash. Upon entering the office, I begin my day of phone calls, doorbells, copies, parent questions, student questions, staff questions, complaints, concerns, queries, statements of fact and all other form of wordplay. I call for help, I go get help, I RUN to help, I give advice, I seek advice, I ask why and why not and think about the answers I am given, the answers that are not given, and the answers that are not answers. I fill out late slips for late students, some with late parents, some with late siblings, some with late friends, some without a sense of time, some who can’t tell time, and some who don’t care what time it is.

I see many of the late students, and parents, and others, day, after day, after day. Occasionally, I question their lateness and I hear a lot of similar excuses concerning their continued tardy behaviors. Mostly though, I ask them how they are, because I want to know; and then, I encourage them “Have a Great Day!”. Most say “thanks”, “you too”, and some don’t say anything, their mind has already wandered to another place — “Why am I here?”, “What’s the point?”, “I’m hungry”, “Where is my brother, mother, cousin, father…”, “Am I gonna get fucked with today”, “Am I gonna get banked today”, “Am I gonna get suspended, kicked out of class, is someone gonna call home”… And off they go, and there I stay.

I answer the phone and take the messages, attempting to clarify the items that are not quite clear. I call E, T, J, D, the other T, N, Miss T, D, F, M, L, Nurse M, Nurse R, the other L, A, Dr. S, Miss M, G, the other J, A, the other M, Miss P, Ms. S, Mr. N, Ms. B.L., et al. I email messages to staff who are otherwise engaged in TEACHING, managing, mentoring, disciplining, leading their flock, and LISTENING. I help schedule meetings between parents & teachers & students & student support & J & T & IEP folk & counselors & therapists & D.

I ask for announcements, I ask for dates, I ask for times, I ask for schedules, I ask “What’s going on?”, and sometimes I am told, and sometimes I am not. And others ask me, “What’s happening?”, and sometimes I can tell them, and sometimes I cannot. And when I cannot, some ask why not, and some don’t ask, because they know that sometimes things are not communicated. They don’t know why, but they know it to be true. But when I do know, I write!

I email those who need to know specific details, immediately. I post when the info can wait a few hours to be read. I write on my whiteboard, my schedule board, my “This is Where the Bosses are (or might be) board”. I call classrooms. I call everyone. I don’t scream. I don’t yell. I don’t flail my arms or go into all manner of theatrics. I do everything else I can think of to get the message communicated.

I walk to classrooms, or outside, or to the cafeteria, or to the park. I write in the monthly/bimonthly update hoping all will read it, knowing all will not. I stop what I am doing and say “yes, he can sit in here for 5 minutes”, “no really she’ll be fine, right?”

Sometimes they sit quietly, sometimes they talk… incessantly. Sometimes they leave without telling me. If I have a moment, I ask “what happened?”. They tell their side, though often they leave out a piece or two. They like to tell, they feel better if they let it out. Sometimes I ask more questions, trying to help them understand their actions, reactions, teacher actions. I ask them to THINK about the entire situation in hopes that they can determine where and how they erred and why next time it might be better to reconsider one’s initial reaction .

Some students walk in and sit down and don’t say a word. They haven’t been sent, they just didn’t want to be in Dance, Drums, Humanities, Math, Fitness & Adventure, etc. They have been teased, bullied, cursed at by their peers, and generally DISENGAGED due to the actions of other students. If they do talk, they are short and to the point, not interested in conversing. I give them the choice to go back to class or talk to N, T, or D. They mostly leave but probably don’t return to class. I see them in the halls sometimes, hanging out, not causing trouble, not LEARNING, not doing anything. As I walk by, I ask what they are doing. Some say “nothing”, some don’t say, some walk off. I call T, I call N, I call D, I call J, I call E, I call, the other T, I try to help, I do what I can. I try to do too much, I know I fail as I know I can’t do it all, but I continue trying every day, all day.

I don’t take breaks. I cut my lunches short. I stay after school as long as I can. I am, in Ms. B’s words, “All In!”, All The Time. I am fully engaged with the students, with the staff, with the parents (to include the parents who don’t know what grade their child is in and they don’t know the name of their child’s teacher), with transportation, with school police, with field trips, with assisting the PTO, with the P.A.L. kids, with advocating for X,Y, & Z, with every single person, and stray animal, that comes into our building.

I am passionate about educating the youth who have the fewest opportunities in life. They come from families where parents are not paid a living wage, they aren’t born with the “right color” skin, they are “different” because society deems it so, not because it has any bearing in reality. They are the students whose rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, are trampled daily. That is why I love what this school community tries to do everyday. That is why I LOVE doing the job that I do. That is why I am totally and completely emotionally drained at the end of each day. I care about each and every student that comes to our school. I want them to leave our school knowing how to read well, write well, think critically, and most importantly, BELIEVE IN THEIR ABILITY TO BE SUCCESSFUL & BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES.

This is not my dream job, but it is in the same line of work. The model that has been created by this team is TERRIFIC! And my hope is that other schools will learn from it, replicate parts of it, tweak, streamline, and improve upon it. It’s not perfect but it’s far better, in ways too numerous to name here, than 99% of the public schools that sit in our urban centers.

So when the question is asked “When am I most engaged?” I say to you, with all sincerity, EVERY HOUR of EVERY MINUTE of EVERY DAY that I am here, I am as fully engaged as a person can possibly be.

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