Jusna Perrin, Program Associate for Evaluation & Improvement
Last night, at my first official meeting as a board member for the Urban Education Leadership Internship Program, I kicked-off the meeting telling my leadership story:
Dear 13-year old Jusna,
As Rudy Francisco said, “There will be days when you feel like a tablespoon of oil inside of an ocean. You will find it difficult to blend in because you just feel so different.” But realize: Experience speaks higher volumes than advice. You would not be where you are today without your ability to find comfort in the discomfort. And never forget: empathy and honesty are not signs of weakness, but instead are enablers of transparency and growth.
I went on to discuss my role here at Reach – I’m building the system to evaluate our program from the ground up. I wrote about how it’ll never feel comfortable to communicate to a 9th grade tutor that they read on a 3rd grade level. I emphasized that, with such transparency, one must frame this discussion in the language of potential to generate effort and motivation.
So now I see kids like Eric* – reading at a 4th grade level when we met him – who can now proudly say he’s on the honor roll, earning all As and Bs. Or Shane, who swore up and down that there was no way an Honor’s English kid could be reading at a 5th grade level. But, after many one-on-one moments, he now knows that the ball’s in his court. That yes, the system is broken, but, at the same time, he has the power to change it. Our transparent, positive relationships create engagement. Using this engagement to cultivate the potential in people changes lives.
I ended my own story discussing the need for honesty (from others and myself) for my own development. I needed to see my shortcomings as learning opportunities instead of permanent character flaws.
The following day, Reach received first quarter report cards for this year’s cohort. The first name that popped up was one of our new 9th grade students, a kid who we have struggled to help feel a part of the Reach family. In our internal assessment, he reads at a 3rd grade level. His report card says he’s Below Basic on DC CAS. His English grade? A solid B.
My initial reaction was frustration with the system. How could this kid possibly be getting a B in English when his reading skills are so limited? I also felt like a hypocrite – less than 24 hours prior, I was publicly praising honor roll students who, I know, aren’t as prepared as their report cards may indicate.
“Why aren’t we being HONEST?” I asked Mark.
Knee-jerk reactions weren’t part of my leadership story.
After a quick conversation, I came to a very poignant realization: No one ever said honor roll is the goal. Reach and its staff would not be living up to our values if this was what we believed. If we accept honor roll as success, then we simply aren’t being honest about the fundamental issues we aim to attack.
We praise effort and celebrate incremental growth. Never have we accepted report card grades as some sort of permanent stamp of success. As many of you know, we strive to develop confident grade-level readers and capable leaders. In this effort, we see our role as a community of educators who recognize and cultivate the potential in each of the kids we serve – no matter how arduous that endeavor may be.
Be proud, but know the work is not done.
It’s important to simultaneously cheer success and demand better. As my previous leadership examples would illustrate, empathy and honesty are not signs of weakness, but instead are enablers of transparency and growth. Yet we forfeit honesty’s transformative potential when we discard empathy and authenticity in our conversations with kids.
So without a doubt, it’s legitimate to celebrate the work it took for some of our kids to earn honor roll (even if that reflects classroom cooperation more than competence).
But, in no way is the work we (or they) do done.
* All names have been changed.