Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Advice to Principals in Handling Difficult Situations

It’s the dog days of April, in which principals of high schools inevitably must referee squabbles between teachers and students, impose discipline because of a school event in which students were drinking alcohol, or handle fights between students. These are the times that try a principal's soul!

Still, April is also the time when principals can have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of these students and their families. Kids--even good kids-- are going to make bone-headed mistakes. Often in these cases, the principal must root through who did what to whom so that he or she can mete out school punishments justly, or provide parents with clear, accurate information. Here’s the rub: precisely HOW he or she roots out that information will be a determinative factor in how well the punishments are received by both parents and the students alike. It’s not easy.

After 15 years of being principal and making MANY mistakes along the way, I’ve learned there are a few guidelines that are helpful when ferreting out information from students. When I abide by these guidelines, families (more or less) respect my decisions and are willing to work with me.

1) Establish with students, up front, that if they tell the truth, the punishment will be lighter. I think it’s fundamentally important for kids to be truthful, and we ought to create incentives to act honestly. The flip side of this is we must be willing to punish those who lie with real severity, lest they conclude it's a better gamble to lie.

2) Second, be clear with them that you will NEVER ask them to betray confidences or give you names of those involved, unless someone is in IMMINENT danger. Most of the cases I had to become involved in were over things that had already happened, so there was no imminent danger. There was a case, however, of a suicidal kid who ran away from home and I knew that child had revealed her whereabouts to her best friend at school. I insisted with this child she betray that confidence, but also told her to tell her friend “that I made her tell”, so that it was my fault, not hers, to her peers. If we don’t ask for names, kids are generally willing to talk. A savvy principal, asking the right questions, can piece together what happened by comparing each kid's version of events.

3) In a judgment call between believing a student or not believing, err on the side of trust if the child has never lied before. A student's reputation ought to count for something, and this is a concrete way of telling kids that reputations DO matter. The worst thing we can do in these situations is accuse an innocent child. It hurts the kid and undermines us in the eyes of student body as someone not to be trusted. I tell kids that I’d rather trust them and be wrong than mistrust them and be wrong. However, I also say if I take them at their word and then catch them in a sure lie later on, that I would then no longer have a basis to believe what they told me earlier, and I will retro-actively impose discipline on the previous matter.

4) By asking “unexpected” questions, we can often tell quickly if they’re telling the truth. Two kids came late for school because "they went to breakfast together and the car broke down in the parking lot of the restaurant". I was suspicious. I put each child in a different room and asked them privately: “What did each of you have for breakfast?” That surprised them--it wasn't part of the story they rehearsed together, and it became immediately evident they were lying when the breakfasts didn't match. If you ask enough off the wall questions, sooner or later lies won’t hold up. (Then there was the opposite case of eight kids caught drinking before Prom who all came in privately and told me EXACTLY the same thing, down to the most specific detail. I was impressed by the intricacy of the story, but I also knew that they were lying—the truth is never that precise!) However, in the case where we truly don’t know (even if we suspect), it’s better to trust. As a practical matter, it’s going to be virtually impossible to have the parent support you as a principal unless you’ve uncovered more than “it’s unlikely your child is telling the truth”. Without the parent's support, you're not likely to have much impact.

5) In a similar vein, always trust the parents, unless there is evidence not to do so. Most parents, I believe, still want to do the right thing and most still tell the truth. Some do not, but we cannot allow these parents to prompt us to take a generally distrustful stance. “Parents are the primary educators”. This is as fundamental as it gets for Catholic educational philosophy, and our job is to assist these primary educators when raising their children. We cannot begin this partnership with the assumption that the parents are untrustworthy. Better to err on the side of trust!

6) Finally--and many principals will disagree with me on this--BECAUSE parents are the primary educators and because teaming with them is so important if the school's punishment is going to be effective with the kids, I meet with parents ahead of time, without the student present, and lay out what happened, and try to maneuver to common ground before I pronounce the school's punishment. That may mean, based on my read of the parents, that I temper what I had intended to do. I've decided during these meetings to make suspensions into Saturday school time, from three day suspensions to two day suspensions.

Controversial? Yep. But the principal's authority is not eroded if he or she privately decides to do something he or she had not intended. Yes, if a school matter, I can insist on a punishment that the parent may deem too "harsh", but I also know as soon as the parent leaves my office, my decision will be undercut, almost guaranteeing the child will grow less from the incident. And yes, there are times when we must insist on actions the parents simply won't support because the actions are severe and require a severe consequence. I've not had too many parents agree with me when I expel their child! But where we can reach common ground without compromising principle, I believe we should be willing to do so in order to speak as one voice to the child.

One last thing: Look carefully at school policy handbooks and how policies are crafted. I believe that parents expect us to handle their children individually and creatively, rather than bureaucratically. Do the policies of the school give principals this kind of flexibility? There is a huge difference between the phrase “students who do X will receive Y” vs. “students who do X are liable to receive Y”—one dictates to the principal what he or she must do, the other says what the principal may do, but gives the principal flexibility to do something lesser, dependent on the circumstances. We have a policy regarding drinking at school or school functions which says “Students who possess or are under the influence of alcohol at school or school functions are liable for expulsion”. This gives the principal tremendous clout, even while the principal has the flexibility to act creatively for the best interest of the child. May we do so with wisdom and patience!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Eulogy for a Friend

Note: Tim Turner, long time youth coach in Montgomery, died on April 13 at the age of 36, after fighting lung cancer for almost fifteen months. He neither smoked nor drank. Despite being in and out of the hospital in his last few months, “Coach Tim” was able to coach his son’s baseball team on April 12, dying later that night.

It has been an honor to have known Tim Turner. I say that as his friend, but also in my role as president of Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School and on behalf of the entire Catholic community of Montgomery.

I first met Tim ten years ago when he and his good friend Greg Kegley became my 9 year old son Faus’ YMCA football coach. Faus had started playing football a year earlier and he kind of liked it, but playing for Tim and Greg was a whole new experience. They were tough on the boys. They were loud! They challenged the boys to play hard and to hustle. They wouldn’t accept excuses. But it was evident to all of us parents, and to the players themselves, that these guys loved the kids. They brought excitement and joy to football. From the time my kids were very small, our family has begun each school day with a quick morning prayer. As part of that prayer, I ask each of my children to thank Jesus for something in their lives. For the entire football season that year, Faus said “Thank you Jesus I have football practice today”. I played football when I was young, but I never remember thanking God I had practice on a given day—but such was the joy of playing for Tim and Greg. Not coincidentally, they were a very good football team, beating teams by an average of 5 touchdowns that year. I am very grateful as a father that both of my older sons played for these men—Faus, in both the Y and the Seminoles, and Aaron, through the Seminoles. Tim and Greg were a special team together.

Over the years, since Aaron and (Tim’s son) Hunter were the same age, I coached both with Tim and against him as a baseball coach at East Montgomery. I always noted on my calendar when I played Tim Turner’s team. It didn’t matter how good you THOUGHT your team was on paper; somehow, Tim’s team was going to fight you, and more often than not, beat you. All the managers who've coached against Tim know what I mean: Tim did more with less than any other coach I’ve met, and he did so because of an infectious desire to win and a scrappiness which his teams ALWAYS seemed to have--no doubt a reflection of their coach.

As Hunter and Aaron began to approach middle school age, I talked to our athletic director, Tony Taylor, suggesting that he'd be a good coach for our program. I remember predicting if he hired Tim, our middle school football program, which had fallen on hard times, would be turned around within three years. Tony interviewed him, liked him, hired him, and as he got to know Tim better and better, made Tim our MS basketball coach, baseball coach, and whatever else we could give him. In Tim’s first year as our football coach, our team won (I think) one game. In year two, two games. This fall, despite the fact that Tim had been fighting cancer for nearly a year, our MS football team went 4-1-1, the best record in our middle school football program’s history.

Yes, he was that good of a coach. But if I left it there, I wouldn’t be saying enough about him. Tim Turner was an even better man.

He was one of the most genuine, honest persons I’ve ever met. He didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. He didn’t seek to impress people or let what others thought about him change his behavior. He was simply “Tim” or “Coach Tim” if you were one of his players. I suspect more than anything else, that’s what we respected him for and why we found him to be such a compelling figure.

If you looked around the Church at his funeral today, you saw an incredible cross-section of Montgomery: black and white, educated and less educated, rich and poor, Catholic and Church of Christ. Tim’s life transcended petty divisions, petty differences. What a great testimony of a life well lived that all of us were there together, praying for and honoring this man who had such a positive effect on our family’s lives.

I have two final remarks:

First, to Tammy, Hunter, Hallie and the entire Turner family: On behalf of Catholic, thank you for your tremendous generosity in sharing your husband and father with us. Coaching takes a lot of time, yet we’ve been very proud that he has walked our sidelines these last three years. Thank you Tammy, and know that the entire Catholic community stands behind you and your children and intends to see both Hallie and Hunter graduate from Catholic if you give us that chance.

Second, to all the players at his funeral today who had the good fortune to call Tim Turner “Coach” at some point in your life: Your presence at his funeral today is a tribute to your coach and a statement of your gratitude to him. But if you REALLY want to pay him tribute, then LIVE YOUR LIFE AS HE DID: with fundamental honesty, with a competitive drive to be the best, with a fighting spirit (even down to the last day of his life), and with a “no excuses and never-say-quit” attitude. If you live your life that way, you will be your coach's legacy, and despite his death at a young age, his life will continue to be a great gift to Montgomery through you.

May Coach Tim Turner’s soul and the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace. Amen.

Post Script: I can't remember the Montgomery Advertiser having two articles about anyone's death on our sports pages who wasn't wearing a hound's tooth cap, but it ran two excellent pieces on Tim, which you can access: here and here

Friday, April 07, 2006

Notre Dame and the question of academic freedom

Note: The University of Notre Dame, my alma mater, recently decided to allow the "Vagina Monologues" to be performed at the university for the fifth straight year. In a January, 2006 address to the faculty , the new president of Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins, halted the performance until he had engaged the faculty in a two month debate before allowing the play to continue. You may find the text of his two addresses here. Below is a letter I wrote to Fr. Jenkins concerning his decision.

Dear Fr. Jenkins,

Aside from the specific issue of the Monologues, I find the position articulated in your April 5 address disappointing for the following reasons:

1) I don't believe you have articulated how "academic freedom" in a Catholic university setting may differ from other universities, given Catholicism's understanding that freedom must be essentially linked to truth, lest it be reduced to simply autonomy or license.

2) In your original address in January, you indicated by way of example that you would not permit the Oberammergau Passion play to be performed on campus because of its anti-Semitic bias, stating that the "staging of the play at Notre Dame would appear to endorse or at least acquiesce in a tolerance of an anti-Semitism whose consequences are only too clear to us."

I would agree with such a decision! However, what I find lacking in your April 5 statement is any guiding PRINCIPLE that would distinguish from this position and your decision to allow the Monologues to be performed.

You do indicate it may be sometimes appropriate to prohibit "expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of this University, or of any of the diverse groups that form part of our community. "

But this statement begs the question: Precisely what constitutes such forbidden cases of expression? Without a guiding principle, aren't we merely reduced to those expressions which offend the sensibilities typical of the educated elite?

3) Finally, in your original address in January, you indicated your primary concern is one of sponsorship and endorsement, rather than censorship. What happened to that concern?

If a department at Notre Dame invited a guest lecturer whose ideas were incongruous with the Catholic faith to give a single talk, one could argue credibly that this talk did not imply endorsement but was rather a voice within the "marketplace of ideas" typical of any university. Presumably this department would invite others in future years whose ideas were more aligned with the university's founding so as to foster a true "marketplace". If, however, the department invited back this same speaker to give the same lecture every year, at some point endorsement is clearly implied--all protestations to the contrary. The very fact that the Monologues is being performed for the fifth straight year at Notre Dame leads reasonable people both inside and outside of the University to conclude that Notre Dame is both a sponsor and endorser of its values.