Saturday, January 28, 2012

Seeing the Brilliance in Children

I have come to realize that school administrators and teachers are actually diamond cutters. Recently, in an academy workshop for aspiring superintendents, I posed my usual question as we explored marketing, branding, and communication concepts: “Why should I enroll my child in your schools?” One answer I got back was unexpected, and absolutely brilliant.

Most administrators usually give me standard statements about safety, rigor, test scores, accountability, and quality teaching. However, one very dedicated and creative principal from San Francisco USD simply said, “We believe all of our students are brilliant!”

As I mulled this over you could almost see a cartoon light bulb go off over my head. He was creating a culture in his school focused on the amazing concept that his students shine with inner star-like qualities while at the same time being capable of achieving to high levels. He explained that his job as a leader was to bring out both facets of brilliance in every child. I clearly saw that he was an educational diamond cutter. What a terrific brand for his school. Absolutely brilliant!

The word “diamond” comes from the Ancient Greek word for “unbreakable.” They say diamonds are forever; they last because they are forged from carbon placed under tremendous pressure deep in the Earth. From the most extraordinary conditions and circumstances one of the strongest elements on the planet is produced.

There is no doubt that our children are growing up in perilous times in a world filled with pressure, uncertainty, and a host of daunting problems. Since we can now simulate the diamond-making process in the laboratory, shouldn’t we be able to do the same in America’s classrooms?  Each day, our “little lumps of coal” and the educators that serve them are put to the test under tremendous pressure. If we can transform students into diamonds then their skills will last a lifetime. We will make them “unbreakable” so they can pass on their brilliance to make a better society for generations to come.

We judge the quality of a diamond by its four C’s. While high grades of color, clarity, and carat weight contribute to a diamond's appeal, it's the cut that determines the symmetry of the stone's facets, its overall proportions, and its ability to reflect light. An expertly cut diamond will achieve high levels of brilliance, sparkle, and durability. Even if a diamond is graded well in other areas, a poor cut can result in a dull, muted effect. The “cut” is what adds value to an otherwise lifeless piece of crystal. Our “cut” in public education is quality teaching and quality leading.

Do the educators and leaders in your schools practice and perfect their craft to make sure that each facet of a student’s education is flawless? As they create the many faces of a child’s education are they bringing out the inner fire and innate brilliance that every child brings to school each day?

We know that one slip by the cutter can ruin a diamond. It takes skill, patience, and experience to unlock the inner brilliance in a gemstone so it reflects, refracts and disperses illuminating light with a dazzling sparkle. Teaching, like diamond cutting, is a work of art. When done well, it creates timeless beauty. As communicators our privilege is to shine the light so the diamonds (even in the rough sometimes) can show their brilliance for everyone to see, admire and value.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Zach's True Test of Character

Zach got his haircut the other day, and the world is a better place for it.

In public education we have come to appreciate that the culture in our schools contributes to a positive learning experience almost as much as the quality of instruction. In recent years we have devoted considerable attention to building character in children with moral precepts like being trustworthy, dependable, and respectful as we encourage them to make good ethical choices about their behavior. But character is only an abstract concept unless it is tested. Believing you have character is easy when, well, it’s convenient. Proving you actually have character can only happen when you have to take responsibility for your actions and endure the implications and repercussions of your decision.

An excellent case in point is my great nephew Zachary Williamson. Zach is pretty amazing. He has all of the boundless energy and enthusiasm of any ten year old boy. Each day for him is an expedition into his own fascinating world of exploration full of Legos, monster trucks, Cub Scouts, World Wrestling Federation, class projects, inventions, sports, and superheroes. Like all young boys he is at times a confusing and confounding jumble of anachronisms, ambitions, and antics. As the complexity of the world opens up to him he can be as erratic as a butterfly as he flits from one passionate endeavor to another. Zach is a character all right; just being around him makes you smile. But it isn’t that Zach is a character, it’s that he demonstrates character at such an early age that is truly remarkable.

When he was just eight years old, Zach made a decision to grow his hair out long and eventually donate it to Locks of Love, the organization that supplies wigs to children dealing with cancer and the devastating effects of chemotherapy. Each lock had to be at least ten inches long which meant that this was not going to be a simple act of charity like dropping a coin into a basket or spending a day cleaning up the shoulder of a highway. Zach’s decision was a personal commitment that was going to be ongoing. It was an act of compassion for a person he would never know. Zach’s test of character was definitely not going to be easy, and along the way he would have to resist the temptation to abandon his decision when it became inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing. This was his decision alone and in the ensuing two years Zach passed the test of character with flying colors. He drew comfort, encouragement, and support from his parents, sisters and friends who helped him find true north on his moral compass as the days turned into months and years.

As Zach began to grow his hair, he started to get teased at school, but he endured. After the first year, he was frequently mistaken for a girl, but he endured. His principal finally told the student body about Zach’s quest to grow his hair long enough to donate and the teasing stopped. When he changed to a new school, he wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m a Dude! Growing it for Locks of Love” to pre-empt the taunts. The toughest challenges came when he was out in public as insensitive or unthinking adults told him to get out of the Men’s Restroom or called him “Sweetie.” But Zach endured. When the going got tough, Zach stayed true to his decision and stood his ground with the inner strength of a Spartan. A model of courage and commitment that many adults could not have mustered.

One side benefit of his flowing locks was that he was able to pull off a pretty convincing look at Halloween as the superhero Thor. Most little boys fantasize about their favorite super power: being able to fly, invisibility, or super strength. My little superhero Zach found his super power . . . inside of himself. His super power is his character with a heavy dose of compassion, conviction and courage. I can’t wait to see how he uses these super powers on his continuing journey to manhood.

On the day he got his haircut, Zach triumphantly proclaimed, “I feel like a boy again.” Not so my little superhero, you should feel like a man because you have given us a powerful reality check on the true test of character.