Bedside Manners and Battle Cries: Ways to End the Year Strong and Create Stories Worth Remembering

Brian Miller
Secondary Principal

"Every organization in the world is either going to emerge from this stronger as an organization, or weaker because of what they didn't do." - Patrick Lencioni


I'm not sure how you feel, but since local control has been handed over to communities and schools, a sort of clarity has emerged and we are once again in full crazy-end-of-the-year mode. Graduation suddenly seems all too soon.

Most every year has a survival mode mentality to it, especially in the final few weeks. There's a sort of gearing up, a gathering up of whatever is left in order to end the year strong. This year, however, is a bit different. Not only is there the final push, there is also a very heavy sense that we must make sense of this year, that there needs to be something special, something unique in an already extremely unique situation. There seems to be an extra amount of responsibility to end this year right because it will forever be remembered. The spotlight, more than ever, is on.

Which is why I'd like to hit the pause button - just for a moment - and consider how important these final days are. We will (hopefully) never again have a year like this one which means we will forever be telling stories about these times to our friends, families, colleagues, and students, over and over again.

How we choose to spend the next few weeks will deeply impact the tone with which those stories are told.

Like many of you, I entered this time with optimism and energy. I made videos for the students, encouraged the staff, and called all the students. Like you, I put in extra hours.

Since then, I think I've done a pretty good job at being gracious and understanding with the situation. Like many of you, I believe I've toed the line between maintaining my school's academic integrity and allowing grace and forgiveness to sit at the table and have a voice in almost every decision made. Which is great! But it isn't enough. Whatever I've done can quickly and easily be squandered because if I don't finish strong, if I lose my cool or get short tempered - if I suddenly stop communicating effectively, that will be what sticks in everybody's mind. That will be what is remembered. Which, to me at least, is more than a bit terrifying.

It's also encouraging.

"People are willing to override a relatively long period of one kind of behavior with a relatively short period of another kind just because it occurred at the end of one's life," Daniel Pink writes in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, "This ‘end of life bias,' . . . suggests that we believe people's true selves are revealed at the end - even if their death is unexpected and the bulk of their lives evinced a far different self."

Whether we've rocked the first several weeks of COVID-19, failed it, or fallen somewhere in the middle, how we end it, how we choose to spend the final weeks of May and wrap up the 2020 school year will be what people remember, what people talk about, and what stories will be told for years to come.

I don't know about you, but I know I can do better, that I can finish stronger, and that there are plenty more stories I want my staff, students, and community to share. I just need to create them.

Here are a few key elements I hope to focus on.

How A Little Heart and Humanity Can Save the Year

"When we're feeling good," writes Daniel Goldman, author of Focus: The Hidden Drive of Excellence, our awareness expands from our usual self-centered focus on ‘me' to a more inclusive and warm focus on ‘we.'" The same, then, could be said of its opposite. When we're feeling bad or stressed or frustrated our ability to focus on "we" shrinks to "me" - for educators, parents, and students alike.

As educators, we are first and foremost expected to lead by example and not allow such a self-centered mindset to infiltrate our interactions. We must be patient, kind, and sympathetic, even when we don't feel like it, because that's what great educators do: consider the experiences of others to be more important than our own. It's also what physicians do.

"Physicians who are sued for malpractice in the United States generally make no more medical errors than those who are not sued," Goldman writes,

"The main difference, research shows, often comes down to the tenor

of the doctor-patient relationship. Those who are sued, it turns out,

have fewer signs of emotional rapport: they have shorter visits with

patients, fail to ask about patients' concerns or make sure their

questions are answered, and have more emotional distance - there's

little laughter."

They fail to connect with their patients because they fail to empathize with their patients. Which, over time, means they lose the opportunity to help, to do their job.

In these final weeks, the teachers and educators who fail to connect with their students, their parents, and their fellow educators will suffer worse consequences than being sued, they will lose the right to teach, to connect with kids, and do what they love most in the world: impact lives.

That does not mean, however, that educators need to be the local emotional punching bag. Much like a great physician who provides hard and sometimes harsh information to their patients while listening, sympathizing, and sharing in their patient's plight - who maintains his or her professional integrity - educators must do the same. We must maintain our high standards and expectations, provide clear and sometimes difficult information to those who do not meet those standards, then bring sympathy and understanding to bear on the situation. We must maintain our professional integrity while holding fast to our humanity. We must practice our bedside manners.

Which, for some, is as simple as asking, "How's your daughter doing?"

Failing to Connect on a Human Level Can Undermine Even the Best Teaching Methods and Strategies

Several years ago, a parent and student entered my office to complain about a particular teacher. This wasn't new to the teacher; he often had complaints lodged against him. However, this particular parent and child brought a list of complaints (some valid, some not) and wanted assurances that things would change. Immediately. After almost an hour or so of discussion I tried to change the mood a bit and asked about the science teacher whom I knew had a good relationship with the student.

"Oh she's great" the student responded, "I love her."

The mother agreed. "Every time I see her," she chimed, "she asks me how my daughter is doing. Every time." She started tearing up. "That teacher is great."

Both teachers were excellent. They were seasoned and rigorous teachers who were highly involved in the school and both of them equally loved their job and their students. One of them, however, had better interpersonal skills, in and out of the classroom. And over the course of her entire tenure, that made all the difference.

Great physicians, like great teachers, build trust through a real person-to-person connection more so than on the basis of their competence. More often than not, they're trusted because they're human. Because they can empathize, sympathize, and connect with those they are caring for.

In these final days of this school year, we don't have to be perfect in order to have a perfect ending. We need to be human. With our fellow staff members, our students and parents, and ourselves.

We also need a battle cry.

Battle Cries Keep Us Focused and United

My staff and I recently listened to a podcast called, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Virtual Team", by Patrick Lencioni. Afterward, in our online group discussion, one of the teachers mentioned how much she appreciated the concept of creating a unique and specific battle cry. All heads nodded in agreement.

"We've done a great job starting off on the offensive," she said, "but as time goes and kids get frustrated or begin to lose motivation, it would be cool to have some sort of theme that could help them finish strong." Again, heads nodded. Later that week, we agreed upon our end-of-the-year battle cry: "Send it!"

Whenever life starts to spin out of control, we look for ways to navigate around the storm in search of calmer waters. This is exactly why so many of us are creating themes for the coming school year - to help guide us through the difficult times.

And it's in this exact type of situation that we find ourselves in now, Lencioni argues, that leaders of all kinds need to create "a rallying cry … a temporary goal" that puts the school and team on offense and helps create a clarity of purpose and vision that inspires people to action.

When there are clear objectives, Lencioni argues, people move away from surviving and "feeling like a victim," and start thriving and "being on offense." Rather than being tossed and turned by the storm of fear and uncertainty, a temporary rallying cry anchors us to a solution. It provides clarity, and it gives direction in how to write a hopeful ending.

For an unprecedented time there needs to be an unprecedented message, one that is unique to you, your people, and where you want to go. Like William Wallace (or at least, Mel Gibson's) cry of "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our FREEDOM!!!" We need to capture the moment and inspire the troops.

We are Defined by Our Success and Guided by Our Failures. Not the Other Way Around

There's a quote on my whiteboard, right above the coffee maker. It reads, "Isolate the negatives, generalize the positives." I don't remember where it came from, but I read it daily and try to apply it often. In these last few days and weeks, it seems all the more appropriate.

"Isolate the negatives, generalize the positives" means when something bad happens or when a parent or student lodges a complaint, we treat it as an isolated event: I failed on that day, I screwed up that moment, I misspoke in that conversation. Isolating the moments we fail allows us to assess the specific event, learn, and then move on. It does not encapsulate all that we do and therefore does not define who we are.

However, positive moments do.

When we leave a conversation with a colleague or parent that leaves us jacked and excited, it's because we're good at resolving conflict and being sympathetic to other people's experiences. When our schools or classrooms are praised by the public it's because we're excellent communicators, caring for others, and excellent teachers who do excellent things.

Being great is who we are - in an overarching sense, all the time. Making mistakes is what we do from time to time - in isolated events, periodically.

During a time such as this, where we are trying new things and navigating new lands, making mistakes is normal. That does not mean we are all the time and in all ways failures. What it does mean is that we are explorers, educators, and innovators. Mistakes, then, come with the territory; they are mere steps in the process of discovery. They are not who we are.

This, for me at least, has been encouraging over the past few months… and I imagine it will continue to be in the next few weeks.

Embrace These Final Days of the School Year; They Will Define the Narrative

"The best endings don't leave us happy," writes Daniel H. Pink in his New York Times bestseller, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. "Instead" he argues, "they produce something richer - a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we've gotten what we need."

The greatest of stories, I believe, do a little bit of both. As leaders, as educators, we have the opportunity to provide such a story. For our students, our schools, and our communities.

These last few days are going to be what everyone talks about for years to come..

How do you want it remembered? How do you want your school to be remembered?

We're quickly running out of time and there are a lot of stories that need telling.

Let's go make them.

Brian Miller