Intercultural Responsiveness

A Blog By Tom Altepeter

Ache

August 27th, 2014

AcheAs I looked toward the beginning of this school year, I determined a solid personal goal for me to have would be to focus on getting out of my office. While seemingly a simple goal, it’s so easy for me to get trapped in my office, tending to the endless e-mails, voice mails, and meetings. Important work, no doubt, but not as important as being out, connecting, building relationships, listening, paying attention, engaging, learning, loving. “Get out of my office,” I thought and shared, because it’s out there where everything truly important is actually happening.

It’s nice to have your thinking validated, especially so quickly, but not so abruptly, not so painfully.

We spent an entire day with our staff before day one with our students discussing the launch of a new weekly class period focused on affective needs, having fun promoting the importance of team, getting rid of our barriers, promoting our goals, and laughing – Just laughing. We were promoting the truth that education without relationships at the front, at the center, and at the top of the priority list, is basically meaningless. Smiles were wide, and emotions were high.

Without giving precise details, this school year is off to an extremely difficult start. A high school aged former student (with a sibling still with us) lost his life due to tragic circumstances immediately before the school year began, a present student took his own life in a shocking manner immediately after the school year began, and a fractured relationship with a parent have all contributed to so many students and staff feeling shaken to the core, emotionally drained, and uncertain of their well-being.

Loss can break you. The ache that starts inside is one that sometimes never seems to fully go away. I can’t imagine losing one of my children. I know people can, because I know people have experienced it. But, I can imagine losing someone I love – too soon, too tragically, too awful to thoroughly comprehend. I do know that experience. I do know that ache. I do know it sometimes never seems to fully go away. And, yet, I do know it gets better.

We learn from loss. We learn from ache. It reminds us of our humanity, and guides us – sometimes harshly, sometimes gently – back toward one another. There are things in life that matter, and those things often involve work that needs to be done, learning that needs to happen, growth that has to be accomplished. But then there are things in life that actually make life what it is, its essence, its fullness, its wholeness. I learn more and more each day that while I will continue to strive to work hard, to learn, and to grow, those things aren’t what define me, and they aren’t what I hope for others. I am deeply loved, and if I can contribute even a momentary glimpse of that love toward and with others, I have truly left my office, and I am truly healing that ache.

Addictions

June 14th, 2014

AddictionsI am a compulsive overeater. I’m addicted to food. My body size pretty much gives that away (not that body size always indicates compulsive overeating, or that compulsive overeating is always reflected in body size), but I’ve had trouble with other addictions that weren’t as noticeable. They also, thankfully, didn’t dominate my life. Food just happens to be, and always has been, my drug of choice. Food is my addiction.

Recently, I read this brief writing below. It spoke volumes to me. I’ve read a lot about food struggles, but this sums up my struggles more than anything else I’ve seen so far. Thanks for taking a moment to read it. Thanks for taking a moment to reflect on how each and every single one of us struggles with stuff. Together let us learn, let us grow, let us heal.

“Food is not my best friend, my confidante or my lover. Food does not fix broken promises, broken hearts or broken dishwashers. It doesn’t clean my house, organize my life or organize my mind. Food won’t hold my hand and walk me through the dark when I’m afraid or whisper good advice in my ear when I’m about to screw up. Food does not carry a tissue in its back pocket to wipe away tears, nor does food have a shoulder to lean on when I just can’t go another step. It does not fix any of my problems.

Food is not my advocate when I am treated unfairly or my spokesperson when I can’t speak for myself. Food does not make right old wrongs, does not erase childhood trauma or make past abuse finally okay. It does not eliminate long-standing grudges, old mistakes or pain. Food does not make the disappointment go away or play games with me when the boredom sets in. Food does not help me deal with a job I hate, a person I hate or my own self-hate. Food does not give me things, will not make me prettier or smarter or thinner (especially not thinner).

Food will cover up the truth, food will distort reality, and food will pretend to do all the things that food really can’t do.

Food, I am learning my friends, is just that. It’s just food.”

Bianca W.
Woodstock, Georgia, U.S.A.
Lifeline Magazine
November, 2012

End of Year Survival Guide

May 4th, 2014

Sky FallingIt’s that beautiful time of year. It’s that nightmare time of year. The school calendar is winding down, and the students are winding up. We’re all at our breaking points, with many of us passing those points long ago. Summer is so close, and yet so very far away. We know we’re going to make it. Well, we’re fairly certain we’re going to make it. Fine, we’re pretty sure we may not make it. Worry not, as your game plan is here …

Humble yourself

If you’ve “had it” – so to speak – with the students, then rest assured they feel the same about us. We’re in no better place because of how we behave or others behave; rather, we’re in the exact same place. We’ve all got our things going on, and it works for some people, and it doesn’t work for others. Knock yourself down a few notches. It’s healthy, and allows for a somewhat more appropriate perspective.

Let go

That white-knuckle grip we’ve got on all the details and every single situation isn’t good for anyone, including ourselves. Determined to have things happen a certain way is as close to a guarantee for failure as one can get. We can get sucked in quickly to stand our ground on the smallest thing, while losing ground with the most important thing. Instead of ramping it up, try walking away for just a few and breathe.

Listen

There’s a reason behind everything, and “I don’t want to hear it” isn’t going to get to the root of it. The last thing we want to do when we’ve repeated ourselves, when we feel ignored, and when we’re tired is to really take the time to process, discuss, and listen. It never ceases to amaze me what comes to light when we allow it, and allowing it is the first step to truly understanding and learning.

Smile

I’m not entirely sure why, but my default facial expression does not include a smile. I think I’m tired or distracted or thinking about things, and the look on my face is typically a cross between confusion and anger. When we take the time to make eye contact with others, to free our minds of what is constantly stirring, to ponder what brings us happiness and joy, a smile forms. And, that smile changes everything.

Remind yourself

While certainly not a universal truth, most educators are looking forward to a summer free of stress. Maybe it’s vacation time, or a different job, or gardening and yard work, or just the sweetness of doing nothing. Regardless, many students are looking forward to the same. However, not all students are in that place, and almost especially not many of the students who typically have the hardest time in school. The safe haven disappears, and it’s endless weeks until it returns.

Bottom line: We really will make it, but along the way, let’s remember to consider that “we” is more than ourselves, and “making it” depends on who you are. Live, love, and learn.

Nuts & Bolts: Part 7

April 14th, 2014

This is the seventh installment of a series making an appearance occasionally in this blog designed to give some specific guidance regarding how to work with an organization on intercultural responsiveness. The first six installments can be found here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 6, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 5, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 4, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 3, here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 2, and here: Nuts & Bolts: Part 1

One of the more productive ways of learning about ourselves and others along this life long journey of intercultural responsiveness is by reading, watching, questioning, and reflecting. I stumble across things I never knew, things that challenge my way of thinking, things that shape and reshape my perception of self and others all the time.

A common question that circulates among educators goes something like this: “If I’m supposed to celebrate and be responsive to differences, then how am I supposed to do that?” While this type of question is extremely loaded, and certainly can’t be answered by handing out pamphlets that propose to somehow fully explain various groups of people, an initial way to address this is through information that approaches the question with the assumption that the one asking it is from the dominant culture – the culture that enjoys the power and privilege.

The primary reason this kind of information isn’t readily and handily available (beyond it being uncomfortable for so many to talk about), I believe is because there is a fear that we will make assumptions that we can categorize and address all people in a particular way. Truly understanding ourselves and others, including how to more appropriately be responsive to ourselves and others, arguably won’t actually fully happen within a human’s lifetime, let alone by reading a handful of articles. So, with that cautionary note, here are some articles I’ve stumbled across this calendar year. Note that there are far more groups not represented than represented here, note the themes that develop, and note the necessity to always expand rather than narrow our understanding.

12 Tips All Educators Must Know About Educating African American & Latino Students

What If Everything You Knew About Poverty Was Wrong?

Facing Race Issues In the Classroom: How To Connect With Students

My Brother’s Keeper Initiative: Raising Student Achievement for Boys of Color

4 Key Ways to Make a Safe Environment for LGBTQ Youth

We’re used to professional development that comes in the form of telling you precisely what you need to know. Here’s the information, and here’s the materials – now, go forth and conquer. This work requires a tremendous amount of critical thinking, so I spent a little bit of time with staff this year viewing some videos and having them reflect on some questions. I find these types of experiences to be powerful beyond measure, as long as we truly open ourselves. What follows are links to the few videos that were shared, along with some quotes and questions designed to get us to dig a little deeper. Enjoy.

The Danger of a Single Story: Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

How does power impact stories?

How can you ensure more complete stories?

Who can you think of that seem to have single stories, and what are they?

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

America’s Native Prisoners of War: Aaron Huey

Reflect on what you understand “Wasichu” to mean (interpreted by some to mean “takes the fat” or “greedy person”), and respond to this quote from Johansen and Maestas: “Wasichu does not describe a race; it describes a state of mind … (it is) a human condition based on inhumanity, racism, and exploitation) … it is a sickness, a seemingly incurable and contagious disease.”

Aaron Huey states, “The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves.’” What do you think he means by this?

Soul Biographies: The Second Glance

“Perhaps true beauty is something that draws our attention at second glance, once the judgment of a first glance has realized it’s mistake.”

What is normal?

How do we project an image of normality?

Why is that easier for some, and more difficult for others?

Losing

February 18th, 2014

Abby & HopeWe’ve all dealt with loss, no doubt. Sometimes it seems relatively trivial in the whole scheme of things, but sometimes it feels devastating beyond words, beyond belief, beyond anything imaginable. I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve lost positions, and I’ve lost games. Come to think of it, I’ve experienced the feeling of losing just about everything but weight. However, when I truly spend time thinking of losing, I think of sports.

For those of you who aren’t sports fanatics, and/or don’t really follow women’s soccer, this is a photo of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, a forward and goalkeeper for the United States. They’re holding some special hardware from the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup (the Super Bowl of soccer where a true world champion is crowned every four years), and yet, it’s quite clear they’re not very happy. They’re holding the Silver and Bronze Ball awards as the second and third most outstanding players of the tournament. In addition to that, Abby got the Bronze Boot (third highest goals of the tournament), Hope got the Golden Glove (best goalkeeper of the tournament), and both of them made the tournament All-Star Team. It sure seems like they should be very happy. I mean, come on, what more did they want?! Oh, right, the tournament team championship is what they really wanted. They lost in the final, after extra time, in the penalty shootout. Yes, it was painful. But, next year is another opportunity …

In just the last year(ish), I’ve watched my Notre Dame football team make the national championship game, and my Denver Broncos football team make the Super Bowl, and then lose. Well, actually, they both got absolutely dominated. I used to be a top notch runner in high school, even got recruited and ran some at the college/university level. I won a lot; however, I also lost – a lot. I’ve been watching the Olympics recently, and there have been some favorites that haven’t just lost the gold medal, they didn’t even receive any medal. You can say it’s just a game, it’s just sports, it’s an accomplishment to even be there (wherever “there” happens to be), and you’re right. Still, losing is truly difficult. And, losing with grace is even more difficult. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

Yet, there’s something else that stands out to me when I think of losing. The pain of it falls somewhere in that place between sports and death, and I realize that’s a really big space. I feel so inspired when I make a breakthrough with a student who is having such a hard time with school, with academics, with behavior, with life. And, I feel so deflated when I feel like I have failed a student, when we – as an institution or system or society – fail them, when they seem to have failed themselves. So much is put in to make a positive difference – blood, sweat, and tears is often not even remotely an exaggeration. But, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes you lose. And then what?

I watch with sadness, even anger, as some people’s reaction is to attempt to dismantle public education. I feel the weight of a student’s glare and cutting words aimed directly at me. I listen to the disparaging remarks from a parent, bent on blaming someone, and that someone is often me. This is the daily price of losing in the educational workplace. It’s draining, debilitating, soul-sucking, thankless, unfair, and pointless. It need not be this way though. Losing with grace isn’t about shutting up, putting your head down, and walking away. Speaking up, speaking out, taking back the conversation, owning your part, seeking to listen, demanding mutual respect, and learning something – That is the new beginning after the pain of loss.

Because losing is never the end of the story.

Gone in 60 Seconds

February 3rd, 2014

Gone in 60 secondsSometimes you gotta get ‘em in, and get ‘em out. There’s a whole lotta things going on, a whole lotta things to take care of, and spending a bunch of time on every single issue just isn’t a luxury we can afford. Simply put, there are problems created, those problems need to be solved, and they need to be solved quickly. And, so it goes.

But then, every once in a while, you take a breath, and you realize you happen to have some time, and you think, “Maybe, just maybe, I’ll work on this situation the way I’d really like to work all the situations.” Today was one of those days. I connected. I listened. I learned. Something I typically deal with in a minute became something I experienced in an hour.

He left a mess, was made to clean it up, became rude about it, grabbed a student’s shirt, and then dropped the f-bomb on a staff member. Pretty straightforward – disrespect, physical aggression, inappropriate language – discipline referral – in school suspension. Own it, fix it, change it, accept your consequence, serve your time, and move on. Badabing, badaboom!

Then, the alternative. He’s a quiet kid, but can be extremely quick to anger – especially around adults. “Tell me what happened.” Silence at first, and then mumbling. Slowly, but surely, the full story comes out. It takes a lot of prodding. A lot of reassuring. A lot of clarification. We finally get there: “So, you weren’t upset about cleaning up – you were upset about being blamed for making the mess. You were upset that the student was making fun of you for having to clean it up. By the time the staff member stepped in to end the escalation, you were pretty jacked up. Yes?” And the look on his face told me that he truly felt heard.

By the time I was having him determine what he needed to do to make this right, we were on a roll. He owned every single portion of his behavior – walking away from the mess, grabbing the student’s shirt, and cussing at the staff member. He explained what he could have done differently every step of the way to avoid things ending the way they did. And, he wanted to meet with each person involved – not to blame, but rather to make things right. The student who created the mess apologized and agreed to spend time cleaning the next day. The student who had his shirt grabbed could barely digest the lengthy apology before offering one up himself for his smirking and laughter. The staff member received one of the most genuine and well articulated apologies I’ve ever heard, and relationships were salvaged in the process.

Don’t tell me educators don’t need more resources. The math is basic. Affording the time and attention that every single student deserves when it comes to their needs – academically, behaviorally, emotionally – requires more resources than we have. But it doesn’t stop any of us from trying. Never has, never will.

Gone in 3,600 seconds … and not one of them wasted.

Fitting The Mold

January 25th, 2014

Square-Peg-Round-HoleSometimes I wish I was one of those people who fit the mold. I don’t know if it matters too much to me what that mold is, just that I fit it. It’s tough getting accepted in this world when you don’t completely fit with any particular group, and it’s tougher still when you increasingly notice that you aren’t particularly willing to try very hard to do just that. I mean, I am who I am, and that should be good enough … right?

But, here’s the thing: It’s nice and all to say that should be good enough, yet deep down inside, we know it’s not. Sure, some people are extremely accepting, and those people can usually be found, well, looking for a place to fit in. As a general rule, there’s a certain amount of conformity that happens for everyone when it comes to being accepted. Truly, let’s be honest.

Now, I’m not trying to convince people to conform. I’m not attempting to get anyone to change who they are. I’m not encouraging folks to give up a part of self in order to fit in with anyone else. No, I’m merely being honest about a wish I sometimes have – a wish that in my estimation is only more fully granted when we are willing to make at least a partial transformation.

Here’s (part of) me:

I’m a father with two amazing daughters – who have two different mothers due to me having been married and divorced twice now. I’m an educator – a teacher turned elementary school principal turned middle school assistant principal – and one who can’t stand all the nauseatingly boring talk around instruction, curriculum, standards, and the like. I’m a sports fanatic – especially collegiate sports, and specifically football, basketball, and soccer – and one who can’t comprehend anyone’s interest in baseball or hockey. I’m an Evangelical Christian who quite literally takes the life of Jesus to heart – cringing at any words or actions taken in God’s name that diminish or destroy certain individuals or groups of people. And, I’m a political liberal – determined that we are here not to be self-serving, but rather to love and serve one another without complaint or excuse related to giving to and providing for others in need, and promoting basic human rights for all people – with no exception.

I’m actually (slowly) growing more comfortable with my inability to fit the mold.

Yes, it’s true, I sometimes wish I fit the mold. But, as I grow older, I’ve become less concerned about that relatively futile and pointless endeavor. The delight of dichotomy is far too gripping. The desire to be precisely who I am is much too enticing. It has become increasingly apparent that what matters most is not what we do to be accepted, but rather what we do to be accepting.

Yes. That.

The Lessons We Learn

November 17th, 2013

LessonsIt was growing close to the end of another one of those days. The ones that seem to suck the life out of you, and give you some pause as to why you do what you do. The ones in which you’re dealing with things instead of working on things. I was tired, and my level of understanding – even tolerance – was diminishing rapidly.

So, when the young man brought from our intensive learning center was refusing to come back to my office from the front area, I have to admit I had to remain seated and take a few breaths. Mustering all I could to be at my best, I walked up front and sat near him, attempting through calm words to get him to come to my office and converse for a while. He did, and after I let him alone to cry for a bit, he told me he felt he was ready to talk.

As I suspected, he had cussed out a teacher. In this case, it was a substitute who had received his wrath. He knows how to come up with some fairly rich language when he’s frustrated, and this teacher certainly got a healthy taste of it. I made one statement (“Talk to me about what happened.”) and asked one question (“What do you want to do about it?”) in the course of our conversation, and I did not say or prompt anything else.

But, it was what he did – not the teacher, not me – that made a real difference in the course of events. He owned his behavior, he explained it to me, and then he decided what he wanted and felt he had to do more than anything else was to have a chance to talk with that teacher and apologize for his actions. After retrieving the teacher, I sat silently as he gathered himself and spoke to her about what he had done, and that he felt absolutely awful about it. His heartfelt apology, I could tell, moved her, and my eyes welling up with tears, perhaps noticeable, made it obvious that he certainly moved me.

My work affords me the opportunity to interact with a tremendous number of youth and adults, unfortunately most often when they are frustrated. I’ve noticed that students tend to be fairly easy to work with, and that adults tend to be more difficult to work with. I’m sure there is much to say here about the role that power has in this dynamic, but let me keep it simple. We’d love to take credit as adults, but here’s the truth: They do it not because of us – They do it in spite of us.

Just this school year alone, I’ve had to directly address a couple of upset adults who used inappropriate language – including not only foul words, but also racially charged and insensitive words. There has also been a situation where an adult representing our school district publicly insulted another adult representing our school district, using a derogatory word. Here’s how those panned out: Dead silence when one was addressed by me, a response of disdain from the other addressed by me, and absolutely nothing happened publicly with the other situation.

I walk a fine line in my role, but I never have and I never will be afraid to call myself or others out. If we’re fearful of this, it’s because we lack the courage to own our stuff, apologize for it, and change it. My very best example this year of what should be standard and expected behavior has come from a young boy in our intensive learning center, and that should send a powerful message to all of us about spending less time pretending to know it all, and more time learning all that we can from all of those around us.

First Words

October 20th, 2013

First Things FirstOccasionally, people cry in my office.

Now, I’m used to this, primarily because of the role I have in my workplace. I also think it’s important to point out that people don’t cry because of me … well … they usually don’t cry because of me. Young people, experienced people, me people, and all people in between happen to cry – every once in a while – in my office.

I’ve never encountered a person who isn’t experiencing some difficulty in their life, I’ve never engaged with someone who is proud of something they’ve done wrong, and I’ve never interacted with one who doesn’t need to share what’s on their mind and in their heart. Sure, maybe they hide it, and perhaps they deny it, but it’s always there.

This is where, I suppose, we meet people on a day to day basis. We meet them somewhere along their journey, and if we happen to be in a position like I have, we have a tremendous opportunity to truly make a positive difference. I don’t take being a school administrator lightly, just as I’m certain other educators don’t take their job lightly, just as I’m certain other people in other service oriented professions don’t take their job lightly.

I do mess up though. And, I’m sure I’m not alone.

Sometimes, the first thing we think we should be addressing with someone who’s sitting in front of us is whatever the issue is at hand. With young people, it’s often, “What were you thinking … Why did you do this … How do you think this made the other person feel?” And, with adults, it’s frequently, “Tell me why you’re upset … Explain what it is that you need to make this right … What can we do to fix this?”

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve made a mistake, or when I’m hurting, or when I’m upset about something, I don’t need to be scolded. I also don’t need to be reminded or interrogated. Furthermore, I’m not interested in defending or explaining or being told what I need to do differently – or even necessarily what is or isn’t going to happen to help me. I know what I need, and it’s simply to be asked …

“How are you?”

I need to know it’s truly genuine. I need to know you’ll actually listen.

We’ll get to the other stuff. We always do. But, just for now, please just ask about me.

It matters.

Faux Pas

September 2nd, 2013

SNFThis year, I’m doing it. I don’t care how many rules it breaks, I don’t care how many people it upsets, and I don’t care how much trouble I get myself into. This year, I’m wearing white after Labor Day, no matter what anyone else says.

Not that sporting all white looks very good – well, on most men – but regardless of the fashion statement it makes (or fails to make), I’m curious if most people know why it’s not O.K. to wear white after Labor Day. Actually, I’m curious if any people know (and Googling it doesn’t count). I also struggle with knowing when it’s no longer “after” Labor Day. I mean, is it a week, or a month, or a few months, or – seriously, when is it no longer “after” Labor Day?

I’m convinced that most of the things we do to students in our education system happen because, well, we’ve always done them that way. We’ve long since forgotten why we do the things we do, or if and when it’s acceptable to actually do them differently. Sure, every once in a while we’ll package it another way, title it something else, and market it as some sort of valid reform; however, are we really doing anything other than stylistic changes? Honestly?

When’s the last time we’ve truly done something more than just a little fashion faux pas?

I want to do something dramatically different. I want to actually turn the system inside out, and upside down. I want to radically change the way we serve students, respond to students, get out of the way of students. I want to lead a revolution – Heck, I just want to be a part of a revolution. What dramatically unique ideas do you have to truly change education? What gets in the way of making them happen? How can we work together to make them happen?

It starts with a willingness to buck the system. Wear white after Labor Day. Who knows what’ll happen next.