April 23, 2014 13:27 Age: 4 yrs

Building Resilient Scholars Takes Resilient Leadership … and Hope (Part I)

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Peter Uwalaka is dean of students at AF University Prep High School. This post is the first of two parts.

When you see the same students making the same poor decisions over and over, it can be frustrating for students, families, teachers and school leaders alike. I, of all people, get it. I had emotional reactions frequently during my first year as dean of school culture. Back then, my “go-to” emotional reactions included: “I just don’t get it!” “S/he just isn’t motivated” and “Why doesn’t s/he care?”

What did these feelings lead to? Nothing. Absolutely nothing but high blood pressure—and a mindset focused on complaining rather than strategic problem solving. Inevitably, this will lead to frustrated students because a negative adult culture has an effect on student culture. It’s palpable. I knew I needed to change. 

According to research, it is hard for students to be successful if they do not have the most beneficial habits and skills—one of which is the skill of self-regulation. Savitz-Romer et al. (2013) asserts in the book “Ready, willing and able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success” that “self-regulation—the ability to manage one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and to marshal them in support of a goal—is essential to college access, because applying to and succeeding in college requires the ability to set both short term and long terms goals, to plan and organize in support of those goals, and to persist in the face of challenges.” I knew that we had to do a better job of ensuring that all students have these skills before entering high school and, most importantly, before they matriculate to college.

Through my experience, and countless feedback conversations with my principal, I have been pushed to think in a different way. Yes, some students continue to make the same poor choices. Yes, they sometimes don’t follow directions on their homework, follow school procedures or meet basic school-wide expectations. But we as adults make unproductive choices too. Yes, I said it. We are not perfect. We, too, have terrible habits that need to be broken. We, too, have had to unlearn some things that were detrimental to our success. We are not better than the students we serve.

We want our students to make the best choices possible. We want them to be independent, responsible thinkers and productive citizens who have the strong academic and character skills necessary to go to, and through, college. That’s the big hairy audacious goal. In order to get there without frustration or emotional reactions, you have to create structures and systems to support all students on their journey. We have to teach them how to unlearn every unproductive habit so they can build new, productive ones. We need to demand that they reflect on the choices they’ve made—and we need to do it with love. If we want resilient students, we teachers have to be resilient and hopeful.  We have to believe and do the work that it takes to change the life trajectory of every single child that we serve.

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