No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

2 thoughts on “No Failure of Nerve”

  1. I’m not an educator, but as a librarian, I interacted with students from several schools during my 7 years as a branch manager. I think children actually WANT reasonable discipline, rules, and standards, though they often don’t express it as a positive! No one can learn in a chaotic situation, or a situation where things like status or possessions are of more interest that the classroom subjects. The kids who came in uniform were always better-behaved than those from schools that didn’t require uniforms, and, there was LESS yelling or scolding and more reading because discipline was understood.

    Now, I’m tutoring an 8-year old, and several friends said more or less, “good luck with that.” Ends up he goes to an inner city school where all students are subsidized, and, they wear a uniform. Sitting with me in his “street clothes”, he is respectful and well-behaved, and reads at least up to his level — his mother wanted to be sure he didn’t lose his skills over the summer.

    I haven’t had to take a hard stand in a work setting, but I have seen first-hand that rules and standards are necessary, especially for children. They will find schedules, routines, and dress standards in their future jobs, and they need to learn that these sorts of standards are needed for an organization to function effectively.

    1. Children and adults need to know where the boundaries are in order to feel safe. Since adolescents must push against boundaries, they need them even more (otherwise when they push and find no resistance, some of them will keep pushing until they enter the real of physically dangerous risk-taking.)

      The hard part for me, and the part that both Dr. Perry and Dr. Friedman insist is important for a strong school culture, is drawing a similar line for parents and teachers. These are lines we cannot cross. An easy example: “Here is why you must check in at the office daily as a volunteer, even though we all know you here. This is a rule for everyone’s safety.” A harder example is when a parent makes a plea for an improved student grade or a change in the rules or expectations.

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