Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Connect. Collaborate. Risk. Innovate.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Taking It Personally...

Among the many pieces of advice that I was given as a new administrator, one is reminiscent of a line from a favourite movie of mine, A League of Their Own. Similar to Tom Hank's infamous line, a colleague told me, "There's no crying in Admin..." As harsh as that might sound, to some extent, he was right. As administrators, we are quite often faced with students and families in crisis, families who are attempting to navigate heart-breaking, sometimes enormously traumatic events in their lives. In these moments, it's neither helpful, nor professionally responsible, to allow our own emotions to surface. As time passes, many of us become accomplished at compartmentalizing, maintaining a calm, supportive and empathetic demeanour in the face of sometimes challenging and emotionally charged circumstances.

That mindset is possible in part due to another piece of advice I've often heard- Don't take it personally. Again, on the surface, good advice. Often students, parents and staff come to us upset, angry and frustrated. But just as often, there is a context that is rarely directly related to something that we personally have done. Again, in these moments, taking it personally isn't helpful. Instead, I have learned to stop, and listen- gradually determining the root of the concern...

But sometimes, I think we do need to take it personally.

This next part is particularly difficult for me to write. In October, I wrote about an experience that I had with a student who was struggling. He was rarely attending classes, and was feeling disconnected to our school community. In conversation with this student, I shared some of my own challenges, my own struggles in school. Gradually, over a period of weeks, this student began to attend more regularly, often stopping by my office first to say "good morning" to me. He had amazingly supportive teachers who were also working with him, welcoming him into their classes, working to get him caught up on assignments. We seemed to be making a real difference with this student...

...Until suddenly, he stopped coming all together. This student has since dropped out of school. My heart breaks a little as I write that. Because how is it possible not to take that personally? I'm not suggesting that I alone am solely responsible. In the same way that I would never dream of taking "credit" for the "successes" of staff and students, I know that I can't accept sole responsibility or blame for "failures". But I also believe that part of what makes us effective educators and leaders, is to some extent, taking things personally- putting our heart and soul into our schools, our communities.

In fact, some of the people who inspire and move me the most are those who, without a doubt, take it personallyIan Landy (@technolandy) and Karen Copeland (@KarenCopeland3) champion for mental health awareness by sharing deeply personal stories of their own children. Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) honestly and openly shares a story of when she felt compelled to apologize to a former student for "failing" him. And George Couros (@gcouros) unapologetically wears his heart on his sleeve, sharing and inspiring through personal narratives that illicit both tears and laughter. These are all individuals who bravely share their vulnerabilities with others so that we can learn, and grow from their experiences.
Image Credit

So as much as I know that as an administrator I need to keep my own emotions in check in order to best serve my school community, I can't pretend that it didn't break my heart a bit to learn that this student, this boy who I had tried so desperately to welcome into our school community, had dropped out. It's hard not to take that personally. But at the same time, I can't let it immobilize or defeat me. I can learn from it, and I can move forward. Some days that isn't easy. But it is my responsibility to keep trying.

Update- January 2016...
Happy to provide an update. This student has decided to return to school for second semester. He has missed our school community. Thrilled to welcome him back! :)


  1. You're another one who shares very openly, Sarah, and I always appreciate your perspective. It's funny to read this because I feel like I was giving this same advice to a friend around the same time this post was written :) Empathy is what allows us to connect with others, and it's "taking it personally" that has inspired some of the most important transformations in me as an educator.

    Thanks for sharing,

  2. I agree. Empathy means an understanding of others vulnerabilities- but also a willingness to share our own. Essential in building trusting, open relationships. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond Beverley!