Taking Heart in the Small Wins

One of the most challenging aspects of working in a school with extremely diverse academic, social, and emotional needs is that our celebrations don’t always “look like” those of other schools.

We are not typically featured in newspaper articles, news stories, or on Twitter feeds. We are not recognized as an A+ School of Excellence (we aren’t even able to apply) or a National Blue Ribbon School. In today’s competitive “market economy” of education, schools that accept all students and work with limited resources to address very diverse needs are rarely in the limelight. In fact, they are often assigned labels and letter grades that create stigmas, encourage stereotyping, and generate additional barriers to success. In the world of school choice, it could certainly be argued that a willingness to serve all students is not seen as an admirable quality, but a liability. That isn’t how it should be. As Father Greg Boyle wrote in his book, Tattoos on the Heart,

I’m not opposed to success; I just think we should accept it only if it is a by-product of our fidelity. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.

Please re-read that last sentence. If our primary concern is results, we will choose to work only with those who give us good ones.

To me, fidelity means that we work tirelessly to advocate for all students, taking extra care to ensure that we are meeting the needs of the kids on the margins – those who need us the most. Regretfully, this often means that accolades fall elsewhere and as a school leader I will tell you that this can be discouraging – not just for me, but for my staff members. While we would all like to think that we don’t need it, recognition matters. It “refills cups.” It allows people to continue to pour into our students, our school, and our community.

I don’t always do a great job at it, but I try really hard to let our staff know they are difference makers and our students know that they are valued – maintaining a drumbeat in recognition that our daily work matters. Sometimes this includes the celebration of traditional academic successes, but more often it means making a dilgent search for small wins.

  • The student who breaks down in tears when he is shown the growth he has made in his math intervention – overwhelmed by the notion that he could succeed.
  • The guardian who tells your counselor that they are thankful their student opened up about the pain they have experienced because of a mother who has chosen not to be a part of their life (because they remain silent at home).
  • The joy on a non-verbal student's face (and in his actions) as he signs along with peers at a choir concert.
  • Opportunities to celebrate large numbers of struggling readers and mathematicians who may be below grade level, but who have shown significant gains during the school year.
  • Having the chance to spend several days in California, with students who qualified for honors choir, and being amazed at their diligence (and entertained by their junior high quirkiness).
  • Seeing great people leave for new opportunities, watching staff members struggle with the change, and knowing that the pain of the loss means we have established a close-knit community.
  • Seeing a student who struggles with attendance make it to school for two straight weeks – earning lunch from a caring staff member.
  • Watching students file past you in the crosswalk after the 8th grade semi-formal and take the time to shake your hand and thank you for “the best night ever.”
  • Interacting with a parent that shares their appreciation for the growth – academic and social – their student has demonstrated since arriving at your school.
  • Seeing your staff members demonstrate true care and concern for their peers and watching them work to take care of one another.
  • Seeing students do the same for their peers.

Those are just a few examples of the “small wins” that sustain us in the work. I would love for my staff members, my students, and our school community to be publicly recognized for the work they do. We still have a long way to go to meet the needs of all of our students and become the school we want to be, but I take heart in knowing that we have built a caring community where I believe our students and staff feel safe and valued.

For now, we will keep seeking out the small wins – celebrating what matters most. We will continue to get better at what we do. We will continue to build relationships that generate hope and promise for the kids with whom we work.

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. – Goethe