Every student has a story…

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I learned years ago in my classroom that I will never know what my students are going through until I am willing to listen to them share. I also learned that when I listen every student has a story. 

Teddy Roosevelt once said people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

I know that is true for my students because it was true for me when I was in school.

While preparing for the new year, a Liberty High School counselor shared with me that he had placed a student in my classroom whose father had recently died of a brain aneurysm. Tears welled in my eyes because my own father died a year earlier. I was 24 at the time and knew that I would have been lost if I had been a teenager when he passed. 

Five percent of children experience the loss of a parent before their eighteenth birthday. The trauma and uncertainty that comes from this tragic loss can have a significant impact. 

That day, I stood at my door greeting my students like any day as they walked into my room for World History. I asked them to introduce themselves. Erin told me her name, and I smiled and welcomed her. I treated her like anyone else. When the opportunity presented itself, I planned to listen and share my own experience with her. Right now, Erin needed to be a regular kid. She managed to hide her sadness in those first few weeks. She had a big smile, very sweet and kind. She quickly made friends. She and a friend Austin would chat up with each other before and after class, and maybe even during. The two became close friends. Austin was very caring and a great sense of humor. Erin’s smile was as infectious as her laughter. The two of them were a bright spot in my day.
Before long, Erin shared that her dad had been a superintendent of a school district but had died of a brain aneurysm. I can remember where I was standing in the room. I tried not to cry as she told me. She was remarkably brave as she spoke about his passing. Like anyone in her situation, she appeared hurt, confused and sad. He had been her world. 

I listened attentively and asked her gentle questions, such as “What was he like?” Erin continued to talk and she shared more than I asked. I listened, nodded, maintained eye contact. 

Finally, I said, “Erin, I lost my dad a year ago. I wish I could tell you it gets better; I wish I could tell you the hurt, and the emptiness gets better, but I don’t know. You will always miss him. I am not sure if it ever gets better. Some days are better than others. I hold on to the memories I have, and I like sharing them with others.” 

We hugged, and we cried a little. She said, “I love talking about my dad, too.” I thanked her for sharing as she got up and left with Austin. I was so thankful she had been in my class.
As I watched Erin and Austin leave, I prayed I would have the right words to support her and that our connection would not be lost. I also wanted to talk more about her and not about our shared tragedy. I have found that when someone passes in your life, and someone else has a similar experience, soon that is all they talk about. As much as I love talking about my dad, I wanted Erin to experience as typical of a sophomore year as she could. When she needed to talk I would let her talk about her life — her current moments of happiness, frustrations, hopes & dreams, etc..
That year Erin worked hard; she was full of life and sadness all at the same time. She wanted to prove herself to others and herself. I suspect she wanted to make her dad proud, too, and I am sure she did. I was proud of her. She cared for others around her, and she made friends quickly. She listened to those who were hurting and encouraged them. At every opportunity, I helped her. I also didn’t lower my expectations and she never let me down. She had every right to be angry and mad, but if she was she managed it. She could have pushed others away and some days she did. Time and time again I saw her laughing and listening to friends, helping them and encouraging them. She was honoring her dad. She was stronger then she believed.
When things were dark, I watched Erin lean into Austin and other friends. I watched Austin support her. I was learning from them both that helping others helps us to heal both spiritually and emotionally. Acts of deliberate selflessness will help to improve the constant hurt we’re feeling. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but caring and encouraging others helps us to show the legacy our departed loved ones left. Grief does not stop but it does change. Erin showed others how much she cared and reinforced what I learned when my own father died. 

As adults, we often do not know what to say to someone grieving. I would say just be there. Don’t try to point out to us stars in the darkness.
I share some convictions Robert Fulghum once pointed out:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death”.Robert Fulghum

“Laughter is the only cure for grief” maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories about my dad; those joyful stories about him make me laugh. 

With something to think about

 your friend, Chris.

See this article from National Public Radio, NPR, for more information about children who have lost a parent before age 18. https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2013/10/15/234737083/successful-children-who-lost-a-parent-why-are-there-so-many-of-them

Becoming the new principal — Getting out of my comfort zone.

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside of your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.” — Jack Canfield

Have you ever had to get out of your comfort zone? Have you been at a place in life where it was time to move or move on? For me, it was leaving my hometown to become the principal of Rancho Las Positas in Livermore. I am a bit of a historian in what I call my hometown of Brentwood. I know many people in the town of Brentwood having lived here for over 40 years; I knew maybe 10 people that lived in Livermore just 20 miles away. I had made a promise in the Rancho principal interview to build relationships and get to know the community quickly. I took an idea from two educational leaders that I admire and set out to do block walks. You read that correctly, I was going to knock on the door of every student and introduce myself. I got a map and the address of every student at Rancho from the office team of Carolyn and Sheila. I sorted the list by the street. I set out a plan, made a brochure and started out to my first house. My goal was to learn more about the community and get to know families and help them get to know me. 

My heart pounded. I had always relied on the fact that I probably knew someone or knew a sibling that I went to school with when I talked to parents; something to build a connection from. In Livermore, I was most likely unknown. I knocked on my first door and no one answered, so I quickly attached a door hanger to the front doorknob, and went to the next house. In the door hanger was a letter from me introducing myself, my business card and a list of upcoming events at our school. 

I walked from home to home. After eight homes someone finally answered. The mom was confused, I tried to explain, they said “nice to meet you”, closed the door and I left. It was anticlimactic; we both were taken aback. What stranger knocks on your door? Salespeople, someone new to the community, religious groups, and trick or treaters. Right? I did not fit into those groups and it was July. I knew I had about ten seconds to make my intentions known and not sound like one of these groups. I regrouped and went to the next home. I worked on my opener. It was like a 2-minute elevator speech. I had to get across who I was, why I was knocking on their door, how they can contact me and answer any of their questions, all the while staying focused on my goal of being recognizable when they came to Rancho, build trust and form a relationship. 

Within a few homes I got into a rhythm and the conversations became less awkward. Several homes stand out. A mom answered the door, baby, on her hip and an incoming kinder peeking out from behind her leg. Mom was very kind, but clearly, this was not a good moment as the baby only stopped crying to see who this guy was at the door. I didn’t want to keep her. She was incredibly gracious, and also in shock. I thanked her and handed her the brochure and my card. She thanked me and told her daughter to “say bye to your new principal.” As I proceeded to walk back down the street to my car I heard a loud male voice say “that’s what I am talking about”. I turned not knowing what to expect. This tall young dad says it again: “that’s what I am talking about”. I answered, “how’s that?”  “My kids principal shows up at my house to introduce himself? Man, that’s just awesome.” I don’t think I could smile bigger. We talked for a while in the middle of the street. He was a nice man and it was his first time sending a child to school. They were excited and nervous. I reassured him told him to call me any time. We shook hands, and I headed off to the next house. Fast forward to the first day of school, he was my new best friend. In fact, every time I saw him we shook hands and he referred me back to that day. I distinctly remember him calling me with some concerns one day. We talked through things and he said he would trust me and the process. It all tied back to the first encounter. I never took that trust for granted or his support.

As I proceeded on my journey going from home to home, I had to keep the conversations brief if I was going to get to the 400 plus homes of the 563 students that attended Rancho. As I walked up to another house, what appeared to be a dad was on the phone as he stood in front of his garage. He was in a dress shirt and clearly it was a business call. It was awkward but I did not want to walk on; this was the last house on the street. I chose to stay and wait at the curb. He looked annoyed and clearly thought I was there to sell something. He hung up and I quickly introduced myself and explained my visit. He remained annoyed. I quickly restated who I was and why I was there. “Wait, you are who?” I smiled and restated “I am Chris Calabrese the new principal of Rancho Elementary school. I am going out introducing myself to families”. He smiled and was in a bit of shock. He asked again, “You are doing what?” We chatted a bit and, as I started to leave, he stopped me. “Wait I need to introduce you to my wife, who practically lives at Rancho.” Against my original ground rules, I went into their home and stayed for about 30 minutes. I met his wife, who was a Rancho alumnus. I chatted and heard stories about the school, concerns, and answered questions. I met their daughters and heard how awesome the school was. They were excited to meet me and I was excited to hear all about the school. We later had moments where we would disagree but at the end of the day, there was trust and a common bond. I also learned they would do anything for their school; they loved Rancho. 

There were many other funny and endearing moments throughout the block walks from the dog that would not stop licking my shoes, the dad that wanted to talk to me about the swings that had been removed two years prior to the PTA mom’s birthday party that I walked in on complete with a full bar. A few of the guests were staff members. They awkwardly pushed their drinks in front of their friends. It was really quite funny. The generosity abounded from home to home as I was offered water, soda, a beer, pizza, tamales, and tri-tip sandwiches. I think I was even offered to go for a swim in a pool. 

It became very evident to me that this little community within Livermore loved their elementary school and really would do anything to support it. Three years later that devotion and love for Rancho would be called upon as we built a running track. Along with many other projects around the school, the Rancho school community fully supported the school. Parents gave financially to support reading programs and counseling programs. They gave hundreds of volunteer hours in support of their children’s school. As a result, along with staff, parents provided services to support students’ academic, physical and social well being. 

Although it was uncomfortable to knock on doors and block walk for three weeks, I was not in my comfort zone until the conversation began. It was without a doubt one of the most rewarding events I have ever experienced in my career. The connections and relationships built would prove to be invaluable. Parents saw I truly cared. For me it filled the piece I was missing leaving my hometown; it provided me with a deep sense of community. I learned stories, I heard amazing things about the staff and the school events that were deeply rooted in tradition. Most of all, I saw the love parents had for their children and how that love represented itself in their care for their child’s education. 

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships” Stephan Covey

I tell this story to reinforce the importance of building relationships with parents. Educators make a difference in students’ lives. When we partner with parents and really get to know them the trust and relationship is so much deeper. The relationship between home and school is important and cannot be full of assumptions. As parents, we bring 13 years of a k-12 education with us every time we talk to a teacher or walk on to a school campus; our experiences color the lens we see our child’s education through. As educators, we do the same when we compare or label families and create assumptions based on our own experiences. Assumptions about parents, children or experiences cloud communication and prevent a trusting relationship. When I had a meeting with a parent and I had already been to their house, I did not have to make assumptions. I had a pretty good sense of the relationship and needs. I am not saying all educators need to do home visits. What I am saying is when we take time to get to know our student’s parents it makes for stronger relationships and stronger outcomes.  Raising kids is not only hard work it must be done thoughtfully. When we have good communication between home and school it fosters that thoughtful dialogue and it builds trust. Parents love their kids and they want the best for them. When parents knew I cared about their child they were more willing to partner with me. Home visits are fantastic, but phone calls, conferences, chats on the blacktop are all good, too. Slowing down and listening to one another about the one thing that is important to us, our students….that’s what we need.

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris

Selflessness- Being part of something larger than yourself.

“Believe in something larger than yourself… get involved in the big ideas of your time.” ~ Barbara Bush

Have you ever been a part of something that was larger than yourself,  something that started with an idea and grew into something much more? This is a theme that can be seen played out many times. That feel-good story on the five o’clock news, that becomes the viral story on social media. It becomes something special when it is a teenager,  child, or children. The circumstances involved make it seem impossible to accomplish. When students (or anyone) become involved in something that is bigger than themselves, it gives them purpose and meaning. It causes us to be grateful for what we have; we become a little less selfish. Qualities we want for our children. I hope you like inspiring stories like those. I do. I get caught up reading them, especially when they involve children or teens. To have an experience that moved us so much it moves us into action. Sarah did, and what inspired her was my son. 

Sarah was bright, deep thinking and an athletic student when I met her.  A bit of a perfectionist. I am not sure if academics came easily or if she pushed herself to always do better. She worked hard in class and outside of class. Her peers should never underestimate her tenacity; she could debate with the best in class. With a big smile, caring heart, she was kind and compassionate. She was a passionate learner.

Sarah was my student at Liberty High School, in Brentwood California. I had moved to an elementary school to become a vice principal, and Sarah would often come by to visit. Sarah rides bikes, not a mountain bike, but a road bike built for speed. This young athlete would ride her bike all around the back roads and hills of our town. We would chat about her life and her next steps in her education. Sarah would ride by our home on a regular base on one of her treks. Many times she stopped in to say hello. My son, who was about three years old at the time,  looked forward to her visits. Sarah would hold him and show him her bike or put him in the seat and pretend he was racing. It was fun to watch. They had a unique bond and friendship. Sarah was concerned about Quinn and wanted to know how he was doing. You see, Quinn had cancer. He was battling A.L.L Leukemia. Diagnosed at 2 ½, Sarah was my student at the time of his diagnosis. Many of my students and families checked in and inquired about how he was doing. Sarah came to check in with him often throughout the process of diagnosis to remission and the three years of chemotherapy. 

Curly hair Quinn with Sarah on graduation day.

Sarah came by one day and told me she would be participating in a cycling event for Teams in Training, that supported the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. She wanted to ride in honor of Quinn. I was in awe. I didn’t know what to say or really understand the magnitude of what she was saying. Sarah explained that she would be fundraising and seeking sponsors for the race. She would be riding 100 miles in Georgia in May. One hundred miles! Raising money to find a cure for Leukemia. Then she asked if she could come over and have Quinn put his hand-prints on her jersey. “So when I get tired I know he is pushing me,” Sarah said. We were overwhelmed with emotion.  It was a powerful image: a little boy with Leukemia pushing a brave, strong, confident young woman. My wife and I watched with tear-filled eyes as Quinn put his hand-prints on Sarah ’s jersey. He looked up at us with a big smile on his face as he showed us his purple paint-covered hands. 

I never asked Sarah “why”? I never asked what made her think of it. I think it was within her nature to care for others.  This question from Martin Luther King Jr. fits and Sarah had an answer. 

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” – Martin L King

Sarah came by several times on her rides checking in with us and especially to see Quinn. Quinn was excited to hear about her “race”.  She trained for months, riding in various conditions and pushing herself. She was finding out what her body could take and how strong her mind was. She was even hit one day by a motorist, but it did not stop Sarah from training. The day before leaving for Georgia, Sarah stopped in. She went over the event with us and her schedule. We were excited for her, and Quinn was beyond excited about “Sarah’s race”. Watching her train and the regiment that she set out for herself was more than most would take on. It was inspiring. 

Sarah came home from the race and shared some of the details over the phone. We got together for dinner, and Sarah showed us pictures of her ride in Georgia. Each time I saw Quinn’s handprints on Sarah’s back in the pictures I got emotional. I was so proud of her. Cancer is overwhelming. The thought of Sarah’s sacrifice contributing to the millions needed for research is equally staggering. Like those small hands on Sarah’s back, her efforts made a difference. Quinn could never do that 100-mile race as a 3-year-old with cancer yet Sarah would not have done it without him. She became part of something larger than herself and, as a result, not only contributed to others; she contributed to her own inner strength. Imagine that, when we act upon our care for others we build up our own inner strength and our personal self-worth. 

As Sarah shared her experience with us, she very casually said: “if Quinn can endure all those shots and spinal taps over three years, I can ride my bike for 100 miles”. Wow. I was moved and touched. Quinn had no choice in his struggle against cancer. Sarah had a choice but chose to endure this challenge anyway. That’s love and putting others first. 

After three years of Chemo Quinn was finished with treatment and in remission. He is in college today and celebrating 19 years of being cancer-free (July 2019). Sarah went on to college. Today she is married, a mother of two girls and would it surprise you to learn that she is a nurse? Of course, it does not surprise you, right?

I love this quote, and I think this fits Sarah’s, honor, compassion, and ability to make a difference. 

 “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t think I will ride 100 miles, but I can contribute to something that is bigger than myself. I can find a way to support my community that joins together with others to make a difference. What about you? Where can you be a part of something bigger than yourself?

With something to think about …

your friend, Chris

Fair and Equitable: When the wrong lesson was taught.

One of the significant conflicts in school and in our homes is the balance of being fair and equitable. I have often heard over the years that a student’s punishment is not enough or it was not fair. I am a firm believer that each situation is different, and we cannot always apply rules and discipline universally. Consistency is important in disciplining, but empathy plays a role too. In order for students to learn they need to understand the value in what we are teaching them or in this case why they are being disciplined; The goal is to positively change behavior it is not always about enforcing a rule.

What is fair and equitable?

What is the goal of disciplining a student or a child?

What is the outcome?

What will the impact be?

Will it change behavior?

What caused this behavior?

Is what I am seeing caused by trauma?

These are some of the questions I would ask myself when handling discipline issues. Some could not be answered or the outcome was not always predictable. Often times when the student felt safe enough to tell their story, the answers came.

It was a warm June night; the wind just started to blow. The seniors were excited. The year was 2000, and it was graduation night. I was one of the class advisors for the Class of 2000 and many of these students I had known for four years. Walking across the basketball courts, I smiled at the students, high fived and got and gave hugs. The energy was building as we prepared to walk out to the field. Tears were already starting for some. Graduation! Such a surreal and traditional event. Years of school, classes, projects, all coming together in one night. The year 2000 made it that much more special.

I was talking to a group of boys, laughing, giving exuberant hugs. Doug, a muscular “wakeboarding” senior, had just set me down from a hug, he was emotional and trying not to show it. His friend had just died recently from a tragic accident out of state. It was an endearing moment from a young man who was a mix of emotions.  “Doug, come here,” I heard as I turned to look as I was walking away. The interim principal had walked up and wanted to talk to Doug about his cap. She proceeded to tell him to take off the symbol he had attached to it. The rule was caps and gowns could not be “decorated.” I had no time to react. Doug started yelling, he was swearing, he was mad. I quickly stood between him and the principal, and I asked him to breathe and assured him “it will be okay.” At that point, she proceeds to tell him he had a choice to follow the rules and remove the cap or not walk. Doug tried to explain it was his friend’s symbol, his brand, it represented everything about him. I began to negotiate, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. She pulled me away and told me it was a “teaching moment.” That it was necessary to enforce the rules. Doug pointed to every student whose cap was decorated. I looked at her and repeated what Doug had said. “Are you going to have all of them change their caps?” She repeated it was a “teaching moment” and that I needed to support the rules. I simply said, “all you taught Doug was you don’t care and rules are more important than his loss.” She said something else and my frustrations filled my ears instead. I then said, “I don’t know what your goal is here, but you have other students to talk to,” as I pointed at some student body officers with decorated caps.
   Doug, still upset, got back in line, and we walked to the field. Speeches were given, and diplomas were handed out. Later that night he came over to me hugged me and thanked me for not letting him punch the principal. I apologized to him and told him that I was sorry. What else could I say or do? It was an ethical dilemma for me. This person was my boss, and I thought the rule was pointless. I valued Doug, and I agreed with him. I also think he put his friend’s symbol back on his cap when she couldn’t see him or get to him.

“Stop being a critic and be a light; don’t be a judge, be a model. I think we are far too critical. I think the best way to correct behavior is to accentuate and affirm positive behavior and to ignore negative behavior. Generally speaking, there is a time to correct, of course; but my biggest advice would be,  Affirm your child.”  Sean Covey

Sean Covey is right, there is a time for correction. Graduation tonight was not that night. Doug’s pain needed to be affirmed, and consoled. Honoring someone’s feeling and showing empathy, not apathy, that’s what Doug needed that night. Sometimes you have to ask why do we have this rule? Why is it in place, who is it supporting? If it is not keeping kids safe or supporting their academics, then why do we have it? Is it equitable or is it targeting someone, not something? These are questions I find myself repeating in my current role. What behavior were we trying to change?

There was a teaching moment, but it was missed. Doug wanted to honor his friend. What he was taught was only some are allowed to break a rule. He learned those in power can exercise their power over someone else. Nothing on the cap was indecent, rude, or derogatory. At that moment I was reminded of stopping and listening to hear both sides of the story. I often told students in my office as a principal, “I will always hear you out.” An assumption was made that night that Doug was breaking a rule simply to be breaking it. That night I saw what he was doing as connecting a significant event in his life with a friendship that meant a great deal to him. I saw Doug recently, he is a police officer; he picked me up and gave me a giant hug as we reunited (I had just set off the alarm to my school). I find great irony in the fact that Doug is a police officer today enforcing rules and the interim principal today…. I have no idea. 🙂

With something to think about…..

Your Friend Chris

Mr. Nash — An unexpected mentor.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” — Martin Luther King

Mentorships are typically sought out. An organization, company or association sometimes offers mentors willing to invest time and energy into someone’s life. We might find a mentor at work who is willing to teach us. Many teachers become a teacher because of someone who positively impacted their lives in a classroom. Clearly, I did. Sometimes in life, a mentor comes along, and they are not from where we expected. They offer up valuable advice or provide security and safety. I have become more convinced over the years that mentoring has little to do with what the job is and more to do with character, vision, and relationships with others. The ability to work with others and emotional intelligence: these skills equate to caring, communicating, and emotional support. Mentors can come from all walks of life; I have learned not to underestimate that.

I typically write about my students and their influence on my life and lessons that can be learned. My point in writing about these experiences is to share those lessons; I hope they add value to others.  Lessons come from expected and unexpected situations or people. Adults that work in schools yet are outside of the classroom often get overlooked as educational contributors. Today I want to share the impact one of these educators had on me. I have had many amazing educators that influenced me in my life: teachers, principals, a reading specialist, and my bus driver, all contributed to my life. One unexpected mentor impacted me in a way I didn’t realize until later in life.

In second grade, every day, I saw Mr.Nash. Mr. Nash seemed to know everyone and was always there to help. When he came to the lunch tables, I sat up straighter. When he asked us to pick up lunch trays, we did it. If he saw us in the hall and asked us to take a ream of paper to our teacher, we did it. I remember one time a kid named Ray was blowing bubbles in his milk to the point of it spilling out of the carton. Mr. Nash walked up, and Ray sucked in so fast he blew milk through his nose. Mr. Nash contained his amusement while we all roared with laughter. Ray said “sorry” sheepishly. Mr. Nash simply said “Ray” in a disappointed and amused voice as he handed him a paper towel. There was no doubt Mr. Nash was respected.

Mr. Nash was always kind to students; he made us feel important. He might have raised his voice, but I never saw it or heard it. If he asked us to do something we did it. We spent every lunch with him. He smiled at us; he said —“hello,” he asked us how we were doing. One day he got a ball out of a fenced-off area and tossed it to me. Let me tell you for a short kid in second grade with a basketball, I just became an NBA player for lunch recess.

I was confused and ultimately dismayed one day when a man in a suit walked by and the kids started calling him Mr. Ibarreta. Students said “hi “to him as he walked by.  I asked Veronica sitting next to me who he was. “He is the Principal.” “Then who is Mr. Nash?” I asked. “Mr. Nash is the janitor.” Veronica asked, “why do you think we call him Mr.Nash? Nash is his first name.” “It is?” I said.

I was shocked that Mr. Nash was not the principal. There must be a mistake. No offense to Mr. Ibarreta but I didn’t remember if I had ever seen him before that day.  To me, Mr. Nash was already doing the job. I was just as dismayed that I had been calling an adult by his first name, something never allowed by my parents. It was disrespectful. It sends the wrong message to children; I remember standing there in shock.

I believed Mr. Nash was the principal because he looked after us, he was an authority figure, he was respected. Every day he was there to help us, to keep us in line with a simple “boys.” He was respectful, dignified and he was my custodian. He did more than greet us; he cared. He was my first mentor as a principal, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

As the new principal of Rancho Las Positas, on my first day, I met Don Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier had been the custodian at Rancho for several years. He greeted me warmly. I asked him what he loved about his job and what is one thing he would like to see changed. He immediately said, “the kids, that’s why we are here.” Don then proceeded to give me a list of things he would like to change! Some were reasonable and understandable; others none of us could improve. We laughed together at his list.  In the following months, I saw Mr. Ladnier interact with the kids, and I noticed he was the biggest kid of them all, always teasing and joking with the kids. In fact, a few times it got him in trouble with the yard duty because he went too far with his joking. Students at Rancho could apply to have “jobs,” and many students coveted working for Don. They helped clean up the cafeteria, wiping down tables, sweeping and putting items away. Students learned responsibility, leadership and how to serve, and they loved it. It was a privilege for them to be part of Mr. Don’s team. Don taught them and guided them in their jobs.

Something had not been sitting right with me, and I went to Don about it. I asked him, “why do the kids call you Mr. Don?” In fact, all of the staff referred to him as Don. Don said it was no big deal, that he did not mind. I respectfully suggested that the students and staff should call him “Mr. Ladnier.” After all, he was an elder on staff; he was a military veteran; he was an educator just like everyone else. At the time he was the only African American educator on campus. It was bothering me that we called him Don, and I could not let it go.  Like “Mr. Nash,” kids were calling him by his first name. He explained that he liked being called “Don or Mr. Don.” I told him my Mr. Nash story. He asked, “does that mean I am the principal then?” We laughed, and I although I said “no,” I also explained that he did have authority on this campus and was an important role model in the students’ lives. He deserved total respect. Even though no one was intentionally being rude to Mr. Landier, I told him I would like to come back from break and ask all staff and student to call him Mr. Ladnier. The funny part to me is he felt his name was hard to say. Well, with a name like Calabrese, I figured they could learn Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier gave it some thought but came back and said he preferred to go by Don. I respected his wishes and, as a compromise, I called him Mr. Ladnier or Mr. Don from there on out when talking to students. I still feel guilty about it. I know it seems like a small thing, but is it? Mr. Ladnier was a caring adult on campus that students went to for help, support, encouragement, and empathy. Mr. Ladnier did all of that willingly. Don should have gone by Mr. Ladnier. I should have introduced him that way and made it official. It was the right thing to do.

Rita Pierson says it best — “Every child deserves a champion—an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Anyone can have an impact on a child’s education. Anyone! They are all our kids! Everyone can encourage a student. We can all contribute to creating a positive school culture that positively impacts a child’s education. Research shows connecting students to positive adults can increase their academic achievement and reduce discipline issues and dropouts. Also, students trust more when they see we are willing to spend time with them. Nash Gamino and Don Ladnier did just that. They gave their time to care for kids. They gave as much supervision, counseling, and encouragement as I did as a principal. They were mentors and taught children. My parents taught me my job is never over anyone else. Everyone contributes. Mr. Gamino and Mr. Ladnier added to the lives of children every day, and they contributed to my mine. For that, I am forever grateful.

“If you want to be a great leader, remember to treat all people with respect at all times. For one, because you never know when you’ll need their help. And two, because it’s a sign you respect people, which all great leaders do”.  — Simon Sinek

With something to think about….

your friend Chris

Can you teach Maturity? — It’s Elementary my dear Watson or is it?

Maturity: Being able to stick with a job until it is finished. Be able to bear an injustice without having to get even. Be able to carry money without spending it. Do your duty without being supervised.”

—Ann Landers

I have had the honor of being taught by some fantastic children. You read it right. They taught me. Students can teach valuable lessons. They come from different perspectives and experiences. At times I met children who showed a maturity that is beyond their years.

It is difficult to teach maturity directly. We can support its growth in and out of the classroom; however, maturity has to be modeled by others — at home, in schools, the basketball court, friend groups, at church, and on playgrounds— in order to be successfully duplicated. Some strategies can be used to improve maturity and compliment modeling maturity such as giving children regular jobs to do or taking care of a pet. Letting a child make mistakes and learn from them and then reflecting on those mistakes helps a child to problem solve and learn.

Teaching responsibility is closely tied to developing maturity. Giving children tasks that teach responsibility aids in the development of maturity. In addition, we can directly teach emotional regulation, such as what to do when angry, hurt, or rejected and how to control those feelings and not let them take over. Like maturity, emotional regulation can be modeled. Reflecting with a child or role-playing reinforces this concept. Emotional regulation is a critical factor in living a happier life.

A British study found the following: “So-called non-cognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence, and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier”. —The New York Times Magazine September 11th, 2013.

New York Times Magazine Article https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/magazine/can-emotional-intelligence-be-taught.html

Emotional regulation —the key to a happier more successful life? Not something we hear every day is it? One way to speed up maturity is to have children work and play with more mature children. The truth is that showing maturity is not always consistent in every aspect of a child’s day. A student showing maturity during one task may not be as mature doing something else, at least that is what I say to my wife when I am being immature. All you can do is model maturity. Children need to see it in action so they can then emulate it. I am not saying immature children come from immature parents, well not always anyway. With maturity comes responsibility and vice versa; they go hand in hand. Empathy and compassion also teach maturity and come from being mature. It’s a circle.

When I saw two boys with maturity and compassion beyond their years, I took notice. Girls typically mature earlier than boys emotionally, socially and intellectually. The Watson brothers came to school so full of compassion for others; it was beautiful to see it played out every day. Justin’s and Jesse’s daily routine was to check in with me, their teachers, and friends. On any given day they asked me —“how was your day?” —“how was your morning?” —“how was your drive to work?” They were always genuinely interested. They offered to help with whatever a staff member was doing. They helped others around the school; finding a lost item, helping a hurt friend up to the office. They cared. They showed gratitude to those around them and even thanked others for allowing them to help. Gratitude is a sign of maturity. It was not attention seeking at all; they truly cared. Albeit to some, Justin’s and Jesse’s offers seemed awkward at times; in their heart, they just wanted to help.

The Watson family

After meeting the boy’s parents, it was clear where the foundation had been laid. Mom and Dad had high expectations of their boys, but they had also fostered caring traits, which in turn promoted maturity beyond their years. Justin and Jesse also had a strong character, instilled by their parents and played out daily. That is where their genuine concern and care for others came from. The boys saw maturity, compassion and caring modeled every day for them and in turn, they showed it to others.

The Watson brothers and I at back to school night.

I don’t recall the boys ever getting into trouble at school. I am sure they made mistakes as all kids do! I can remember one time on the playground where Jesse was physically upset. With a ball in his hand, he ran over to get me. Someone accused him of not sharing the ball. Upon further questioning, that was not really the case. Jesse held onto the ball because the accuser was not letting someone else play. The accuser had told Jesse’s friend he was out of the four square game for missing the ball.

Jesse was indignant that his friend was being treated unfairly,  the person was not out, and they had the right to play. So when Jesse could not resolve the conflict with words, he just held onto the ball which turned into a sort of keep away. I tried not to smile as the students revealed what happened. Jesse’s firm moral conviction would not allow his friend to be tossed to the wayside of the playground. Jesse was upset and he felt it was unfair, but his maturity showed when he merely took the ball and went to find help. He did not have the skills yet to solve the problem alone entirely. He knew enough to seek help and show self-restraint. Jesse’s decision was based on his character; he had a strong sense of right and wrong. He was also passionate enough about the issue to not cave. He stood his ground.

We resolved the conflict, no one got hurt. The game started back up. Fairness won. Jesse went home that day, still bothered by the incident. He talked to his parents about it. Justin, his big brother, gave him advice and encouraged him. Justin was always looking out for his brother. Justin often put others first, another sign of maturity. He reassured him he would keep an eye on them. Justin in his own words pointed out to his brother that conflicts will happen, and that people treat each other that way because they were treated that way. Jesse’s second-grade world changed that day.

The blog is about maturity, but sometimes you have to take a goofy picture with students!

These two boys have touched many lives with their acts of caring. What struck me the most was Jesse was thinking of others. Second graders are usually self-centered and in time they mature and grow. Jesse was showing humanity and care for someone else. Justin and Jesse modeled maturity to those around them; they modeled it for me, too.

Maturity comes from more than time and age alone. When parents ask me about retaining their child to keep them in the same grade because of a lack of maturity may sound sensible the reality is that they will not have the role models to encourage maturity. In fact, classmates are often six months to a year younger. I have seen retention slow the maturity process and revert a child’s social and emotional growth. Maturity is modeled by peers and adults, and it cannot be taught in isolation. For the Watson brothers, maturity was modeled for them by educators and their parents. Justin’s and Jesse’s key to maturity growth was due to — high expectations, actively teaching them responsibility, self-restraint, persistence, self-awareness, and caring for others — together this created an environment for growth.

Justin’s high school graduation

With something to think about…

your friend Chris

For more on maturity check out—Tim Elmore’s article on “The Marks of Maturity.” This is an excellent article on teaching children maturity. He also discusses children today are exposed to more sooner without the maturity to handle it.


The journey begins

Do you enjoy a good story? I do. I love telling stories, and I love a good story — especially those that teach me; that have a moral or a universal truth, that inspire. I set out on this journey to share the experiences and stories that I have had the privilege of being a part of. For the past twenty-five years, I have been a high school teacher, vice principal, and an elementary school principal. The students who came through my classroom doors or walked the halls of the schools I served, taught me more than I could ever teach them.

My hope is you will find value in what you read. A life lesson a reminder that as parents and educators we are, and can make a difference.  These stories are about resiliency, leadership, compassion, friendship, kindness, struggle, hope, gratitude, and going the extra mile. Thank you to all my students for taking me on this journey. I have many stories from working with children, these are just a few who stand out.  Thank you, for going on this new adventure with me.

The story below is where it started for me as an educator. Did I know in 5th grade that I would become a teacher, a vice principal, eventually a principal? No, not at all. I was going to be an electrician. Along the way, my direction changed and I found myself in a classroom. Really, every teacher I had taught me how to care for kids. This story is where the journey began for me. It is where I learned relationship is more important than a lesson and caring for each other has a greater impact than a homework assignment.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.