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In Times of Crisis
Happy Friday, everyone.
Over the last week or so, we have had two distinct and unusually intense circumstances at a couple of our schools:
At our Guidepost Somerset campus, a young boy in one of our Children’s House classrooms had a sudden and unexpected seizure, and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Our team initially could not reach family or emergency contacts, and had to make a number of decisive judgment calls, all while managing ratios and other ongoing requirements.
Across the country, at our Guidepost Kent campus, staff arrived in the morning to find the school barred by police as a crime scene. In the middle of the night, a group of individuals had opened fire on a vehicle parked in our parking lot, spraying the school building with bullets. Some of these bullets even entered one of the Children’s House classrooms, marring our idyllic environment with the signs of violence too painful to fathom.
If you are interested in how our school leaders responded, you can see the emails they sent out attached below.
As I reflect on these incidents, both the events and the follow-up work I have seen afterward, the thing that really jumps out at me is how, in each of these cases, our school leaders acted with poise and decisiveness. They communicated calmly with staff and families. They took all sorts of practical actions that the crises demanded. And, all along, they managed their own emotions and minds. Faced with disorienting trials, they kept themselves oriented and maintained their capacities for independent judgment and for wisdom.
I think a lot about what it means for a human being to be his or her best self in a moment of crisis. I think about the ways in which we shape our characters over the course of a life to prepare ourselves. I’ve always looked for these qualities in biographies, literature, film, and history, and I can’t help but compare our school leaders’ poise with the type of conviction that Thomas Paine tried to engender in the retreating American troops during the second winter of the Revolutionary War:
“THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. …. we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” (Thomas Paine, The American Crisis)
What made me think of Paine’s words is my sense that it is important and necessary to connect isolated incidents to our broader mission in such moments of crisis. One of the ways we cope as leaders is to see the throughline between the times that try us, and the things we want to build and see in the world around us.
In that respect, what stood out to me above all else was the way in which these school leaders both remained fully present with the fear and the difficulty of their situation, and firmly oriented to the practical need to address the crisis. They exhibited the very virtues that we want to build, very indirectly but also very intentionally, in children.
The fear, the uncertainty, the frustration, the anger—all of it was real for these leaders in different ways, and had a real cause in the situations they faced. And yet:
They did not succumb to panic or overwhelm, but managed to keep cool heads.
They did not resign themselves or externalize the problem by reacting defensively, by blaming other people or the state of the world, but managed to stay focused on the work to be done.
They did not, importantly, shut down their emotions, repress the anxiety, play the stoic, or pretend apathy. They used their raw emotions as signals to gain more understanding and as fuel for action, as well as authentic challenges to ask for help addressing, not as threats to be suppressed or as an excuse to lose control.
I have been thinking about the approach of these school leaders as it relates to our pedagogy. I have been thinking about how it is such a great example of the right approach to challenges in life, and how it reflects our view of agency, the kind of approach we strive to empower in the children we serve each day. At our organization, we have a singular focus on developing agency. Agency is one of our “lanterns,” one of the guiding lights we follow as we create programming to support the development of children. We believe it’s core to the good life, to the fully-lived life we hope to enable our students to live.
One of the distinct aspects of our view of agency is that it is not primarily about the power to make choices. It’s not just the freedom to do whatever we feel like doing, or merely to follow our interests. Agency is about having the capacity to control the direction of your life; it’s about being capable of acting in the world. To have agency is to build the capacity in oneself to live intentionally—to be able and motivated to choose, and then to follow-through on that choice in order to achieve a worthy goal.
Our pedagogy is explicit about the developmental roots of the self-possession required to handle crises. In the Advanced Montessori Method, Montessori describes the way that we prepare (or fail to prepare), starting very early, for life’s most acute challenges:
Strength is not to be acquired instantaneously. He who knows that he will have to fight prepares himself for boxing and dueling by strength and skill; he does not sit with folded hands, because he knows that he will then either be lost or he will have to depend, like the shadow of a body, on someone to protect him step by step throughout his life, which in practice is impossible.
“Ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vines [One single moment served to conquer us]” says Francesca, in Dante’s Inferno…
Persistent work, clarity of ideas, the habit of sifting conflicting motives in the consciousness, even in the minutest actions of life, decisions taken every moment on the smallest things, the gradual mastery over one’s actions, the power of self-direction increasing by degrees in the sum of successively repeated acts, these are the stout little stones on which the strong structure of personality is built up.
In our classrooms, we do not think that a child is exercising agency just in choosing what work to do. We see it equally in the persistence a child exhibits in doing the work. It is not just choosing the knobbed cylinder or dressing frames, but grappling with the way the cylinder does not fit, or how the zipper comes undone. We see it in the child who notices he’s made an error in completing an activity and works to understand why and then to fix it. And in the child who self-consciously, purposefully, holds his hands behind his back while he observes another child working to avoid disturbing them. This is practice with “[p]ersistent work, clarity of ideas, the habit of sifting conflicting motives in consciousness.” These are the developmental roots of courage.
An agential child, or adult, is one who can and does actively work to process incoming signals—from his environment, from other people, and from his own emotions—as against letting those signals inundate or control him. It is the capacity to intentionally act in the teeth of circumstance, harnessing knowledge and emotion, in pursuit of a goal. It is the ability to precisely find the emotional thread of courage in a hash of feelings that include fear and panic, to draw it out, to nurture it, and, in so doing, to change that hash and make it serve one’s highest values. It is not just to choose, but to choose in a way that involves seeing, understanding, inhibiting and redirecting, and, ultimately, following through in action.
The way that our amazing school leaders managed their own psychology as a part of and in tandem with their management of the crisis at hand, is exactly the kind of capacity for agency we hope to help our students create in their characters.
What I want for our students is what these leaders exhibit: an ability to self-regulate, to authentically think and feel, to manage their own psychology while acting in the world and to use the signals they receive to gain understanding, build skills, and achieve their goals.
This is dramatically evident in rare and tragic circumstances. I want for our students what our leaders exhibit when they show up and see there are bullet holes in their preschool, to feel the rising anxiety and panic, and to understand that emotion as a call for one’s presence, thought and action, to understand that the things that try us can also be harnessed in our journey towards our vision of a better world.
It is also evident day in and day out. I want for our students what our leaders exhibit when they show up every day with a spirit ready to persist and meet challenges, to work to understand the needs of children and the wishes of families, to support guides and nurture their development, to do it while managing a complex, multi-faceted business, and to say yes, not only to the joy, but also to the stress and the fear, and to use it all as fuel for understanding and progress.
Of the many things that make me proud, one of them is that our organization is filled with adults who are shining examples of exactly the type of elevated, larger-than-life, emotionally alive human beings we want our children to grow up to become. That we offer children the beautiful sight of people who have the character and capacity for both vulnerability and strength, and who have the ability to act in the world, to take life by the reins and persist in the face of challenges, not out of duty or fear, but out of an abiding love of the good.
I wish we did not have to face these types of challenges, and I want to do everything we can to minimize them and make them easier. But if we do have to occasionally face them, I am thankful that, in them, I rediscover how much awe I feel for the adults I have the privilege to call my colleagues.