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Lessons From What We Say and What We Don't Say

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A tragedy was averted last week when Antoinette Tuff cared enough about Michael Brandon Hill to successfully convince him to change his mind about killing others and himself and to surrender to police. Many of us were moved to write about the event from different perspectives and we are sure there are many more lessons yet to be learned in the aftermath. Initially, our focus was most obviously on the extraordinary and courageous actions of Antoinette Tuff. Her capacity to open her heart in the face of danger and remain engaged with an angry, confused and heavily armed young man was deserving of the attention it received from all of us.

But our attention was shifted when reading a report in which Michael's brother Tim Hill was quoted. NPR picked up an Associated Press report in which Tim Hill shared his disappointment in President Obama's response to the incident. "The President should focus more on the problems of troubled kids than just calling and congratulating Tuff, whose efforts he said he appreciates." President Obama had chosen to draw focus to the heroics of Antoinette Tuff. This gave us pause, not because no one had thought about the mental health issues involved, but because of the "Catch-22" for the leader making the speech. This is a challenge we all face as leaders. Let's play this out.

Had the President used that moment to speak about the failure of our mental health system, he may have shifted the focus from that of individual action to one of a collective, societal set of problems that have faced our nation for decades. We do not know what the POTUS thinks about the issue of mental health, but the omission troubled Tim Hill. As leaders, we face this troubling conundrum all the time, not only in our speeches, but in our actions as well. People listen to what we say and to what we don't say.

Consider the student who brings a knife into the high school. We have laws, policies, and practices to follow. We listen to the student, providing a fair hearing, interview others, and act based upon the facts and the rules we must follow. Most likely the student will at least be suspended from school. This is a critical moment. What are the next steps? Many in leadership roles do go on to engage the support services of their counseling departments, social workers, psychologists, and community health organizations. In many cases the student may receive the support and help needed. But the actions, as seen publically, are of punishment and response. We demonstrate to other students, teachers, and staff that breaking the rules results in punishment. This is the lesson. The bigger issue is societal and more complex.

Since schools are the microcosm of the world our students will be living in as adults, it appears we are doing little to sensitize our learners to respond to complex situations. In this case it is a sticky wicket, because as a nation we remain somewhat confused about the role of mental health in crime. So, in this case, we think the President made a safe choice to remain focused upon what was clear, and not enter the muddy waters. In just the last few weeks, he has remained silent on several other acts of juvenile violence resulting in deaths like Oklahoma and Washington. The key will be if, and when we (and he) return to the underlying question, "What role does mental health play in criminal acts?" And also, "How do drugs, like Molly, impact behaviors of our youth?"

Another example of the challenge of bringing too much or too little to our communication is seen in New York's recent release of the grades 3-8 assessment results. As expected, the scores were abysmal, dropping considerably. The Commissioner, and the Chancellor chose to focus on the fact that rather than an embarrassment, it was a "baseline" to be used to measure growth moving forward. In this case, they chose not to speak about the negative impact of the results on the students, teachers, principals and schools.

Is the leadership moment lost when a partial story is told or is it the only way to catch the story of the moment? Can the public handle complexity? As with President Obama's decision to not include the problems caused by a mental health issue, perhaps the Commissioner and the Chancellor chose not to include the problems caused by the new curriculum and assessment issues. But, leaders always have another chance and the capacity to create moments and an action agenda. Only their next steps will tell the rest of the tale and teach another level of lesson.

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