Safety, Trust and Excellence

Managing people is one of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of being a leader. In my professional career, I’ve found that the stress of managing personalities decreases when management is approached as a process that is focused on creating avenues of success. As an educational leader, I find myself in a challenging position–I’m charged with ensuring the  academic growth of my students and the professional growth of my faculty. One can’t happen without the other. To accomplish those goals, I believe I must make sure that each member of my teaching faculty feels safe.

Ideally, I want everyone who walks into my school building to feel an overwhelming sense of positivity and warmth. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the morale of my teachers. It’s something that is seemingly intangible but can have an enormous impact on the learning and growing environment of any school. After having many conversations over the years with various administrators at different schools, it’s clear to me that some administrators believe that they are not responsible for the social-emotional health of their teachers. They believe that teachers should learn to manage their own feelings, just as lawyers, plumbers, nurses, and other professionals must do in order to complete their daily job functions. I can understand this line of thinking; however, my counterargument is that teachers’ feelings and opinions about a school can leak into their teaching practice no matter how professional they are attempting to be. I strongly believe that if my teachers feel safe and happy then my students will be safe and happy. And the only path to that happiness is a path built on trust.

Building trust is a challenging yet worthwhile process in every institution. Specifically, in a school, trust needs to be given initially by all involved and monitored frequently by the community. Families trust a school immediately when they drop off their children at the school doors, and administrators trust immediately when they hire a new teacher. The factor that is a bit more difficult in this equation is a teacher’s trust of the administration. I sometimes wonder why those relationships are often so tenuous.

When I was starting out as a new teacher, I feared that the administration at my school expected perfection from me, and if I could not attain perfection I would lose my job. I felt stuck in a power vacuum and that feeling consumed me. Looking back, I know I wasn’t working at my best because I was super stressed. From that experience, I’ve learned that negative feelings breed a sense of insecurity. When I became an administrator I vowed to make sure that none of my teachers ever felt the way I felt back then. I purposefully approach each day, each person and each interaction in my school as a moment to build trust between myself and my teachers. I truly believe that when teachers feel safe and there is trust between them and administrators the school can grow into being excellent.

I believe that everyone can and should strive toward excellence. To be clear, I don’t expect each individual to be excellent at my school because I don’t even know if attaining true excellence is possible in a school. I simply believe that if everyone strives to be better each day then that dedication will inevitably make the school excellent. Each day, I am charged with guiding, pushing, even at times carrying my teachers toward excellence.  I take these hard tasks on because I believe in the mission and vision of my school and I trust that my teachers believe in them too.

Administrators are just humans managing humans, and as so we must be clear in our communication, honest in our feedback and discussions, and open to reflection and change. When administrators remember to do these key things, the entire school will be afforded the reality of safety, trust and excellence.

“A Party for the Colonel,” and Me Too! (spoilers)

The room has turned into a pressure cooker. You can feel yourself sweating. You want to scream, run, escape. Fear builds up in your throat. You want to scratch it away but if you start scratching you won’t be able to stop, but the fear has infested you. You’re panicking but when you look to your spouse for support, you realize that, like always, he is oblivious to your discomfort. You are drawn into pointless conversations that teem with stereotypes and disrespect and you just want to scream. You look around for someone, anyway who may be able to break you out of your prison of despair. Your eyes are wild from searching and out of nowhere you hear a freedom cry that you wished departed from your lips.


The lid is off the pressure cooker and you are finally free.

T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is a story that’s not too preachy on discrimination or inequity but drives home the point that all people should be treated fairly and equally for the betterment of society. There are several minor conflicts throughout the story, but the present struggle of the nameless wife reflects the reality of 1977 South Africa, the setting for this tale. Each main character, the Colonel and his wife, are richly described and never appear one dimensional. This story has a well-developed theme, appealing plot, interesting and real characters, a clever setting choice, and an engaging style; it’s an all around solid story.

Kola introduces us to the Colonel and his nameless wife in a ballroom in the wealthy area of town where the Colonel is being honored because he’d, “become the first agent of the Gold Lion Insurance Company in South Africa to earn more than 25 million ran in insurance sales.” (pg. 2) Similar to the privileged life that she dreamed of as a child, the ballroom was in contrast to her expectations/reality. Instead of being plush and comfortable the ballroom was grubby and depressing. However, blind to the physical state of the venue, the Colonel enjoyed being admired and this party allowed him the chance to be placed on a pedestal for all to do just that; relish him, gawk at him, envy him for all of his accomplishments. The sad yet true part about the entire affair is that the only reason the Colonel was able to attain the vast amount of wealth for the company and rise to the number one salesperson was because Indians, Blacks, Muslims, Malays, and Coloureds weren’t being approached by the white salesmen in the company. The only person willing to ask the masses about life insurance was the Colonel, who is Indian; therefore he’d reached the mountain top because of discrimination not because of raw talent on an equal playing field.

Throughout this story the Colonel believed that, “Money was the great equalizer,” and that if he worked hard enough the people around him wouldn’t see his color/race but they would only see his social status and he and his family would be accepted into the elite. The party celebrating his accomplishments was the fruition of his dream. Although his wife felt like an alien or a caged zoo animal on display during the party, the Colonel felt like he was in the company of equals. The Colonel was unable to realize that despite all of his efforts to assimilate his brown skin made assimilation impossible. Even when a party-goer blatantly shares his opinion about people that look like the Colonel, the Colonel agrees with his discriminatory point of view instead of reflecting:

“I tell you what,” and here the man leaned forward, “if more people were like you, keeping their heads down and making their living, we would be a different country. There’s a lot of complaining here, but no one works hard and gets himself a forward momentum. No matter who or what you are, I believe you have to prove yourself, you understand?”

“That’s what I tell my son,” the Colonel said. (pg. 17)

The lack of self-awareness is undeniable in this scene.

The Colonel came from poverty. He’s the illegitimate son of his father’s mistress and was born in a  town in a remote area of South Africa. He dreamed of becoming an important person. When he first married his wife he was a well-respected mathematics teacher and over the years he worked his way into the insurance business. He and his wife wanted more children, but they were only able to have one, Mohammed. Unlike his father, Mohammed never wished to assimilate into what he viewed as the oppressive white culture around him. Instead, Mohammed rebelled and protested against the atrocities of Apartheid which led to him being jailed and his parents caring for his son, Riyaz, on the night of the big celebration for the Colonel. Reality comes to the forefront when little Riyaz finally speaks at the end of the story:

In the space between the Colonel and the guests, Riyaz appeared a solitary figure on two strong little legs, and lifted a fist up in salute. “Amandla!” he shouted, and then paused, giddily proud, looking around at the multitude of faces that stared at him, as though he quite enjoyed the stunned and confused silence that he had, all on his own, been the cause of. (pg. 30)

FT-Kola_large_2-759x500There is no room for doubt, no space for assimilation and nowhere to run. In that moment, the brownness and whiteness of the people in the room are exposed. This final scene is shockingly refreshing not only because the tension that was building throughout the story was released but because right now all over the world people of color are looking for their “Amandla” moment. Kola is able to capture the feelings and emotions of people of color beautifully and seamlessly in this short story. She writes with such clarity and with perfect pace one would think she’d been writing for decades when, in fact, this is her first published piece.

Now and then the Colonel’s wife could hear the sounds of the distant crowd: the static-filled cries of Amandla! shouted by some young man through a microphone, followed by the responding roar of the crowd’s Awethu! Power—to us! (pg. 8)

Awethu! Power—to us!

2015 Reflections on the Caine Prize for African Writing Entries

I enjoy reading the Caine Prize nominated short stories each year because they are well written, innovative and thrilling. This year I was once again enraptured by the amazing writing and attention to detail. It was difficult for me to pick a winner, but I came to my selection after much consideration.

logoAcclaimed writer, professor, and Chair of Judges for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing, Zoe Wicomb, announced the five writers shortlisted for the 2015 prize on May 5. Wicomb described the shortlisted prose as, “an exciting crop of well-crafted stories,” adding that, “the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics.”

The nominees are:
Namwali Serpell (Zambia) with “The Sack
Elnathan John (Nigeria) “Flying
Masande Ntshanga (South African) “Space
F. T. Kola (South African) “A Party for the Colonel
Segun Afolabi (Nigeria) “The Folded Leaf

Afolabi was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 and Serpell and John were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010 and 2013, respectively.


Although F. T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is the most traditionally written story it is my pick for this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing. Kola takes the reader on a  long emotional journey and during the trip, the reader is forced to reconcile issues of physical and emotional isolation, rebellion, bondage, and racism. The dramatic ending, in particular, makes the story a refreshing and inspiring narrative worthy of the Caine Prize.

I must admit Kola clenched the victory for me because of the swift and impactful conclusion of her story. Right up until those final few scenes I had Elnathan John’s short story, “Flying” as the winner.  The misery and mystery of “Flying” reads like poetry more than prose. Clever yet approachable, John is able to spin a masterful tale through the eyes of a child.

“The Sack,” “Space” and “The Folded Leaf” are all fantastic stories. Within them I witnessed the beauty and tragedy of friendship and love; I lived, once again as a wayward child; and I found my sight through blindness.

Good luck to all the nominees.

An in-depth review of “A Party for the Colonel,” by F. T. Kola will be posted soon.

The Art of Honing Your Voice

I will soon transition from my current job as Director of Academic and Student Support in Alexandria, Virginia to a new job, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, in Washington, DC. This is a clear and definitive step toward my ultimate professional goal of becoming a Head of School. In thinking about my new and exciting career journey, I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering what it means to be a professional. I know that may sound odd to some people, but this is a real topic of concern for me. Trying to figure out what “being professional” actually is is harder than some people may think. While thinking about this new step in my professional career, I’ve realized that I’ve become far too comfortable in my current educational milieu. All of this thinking about being professional has lead me to reminisce about the first time I realized that I wasn’t being truly professional at work. That realization occurred at the end of my first year of teaching in Baltimore City.

first job me

My first year as a teacher; Baltimore City Public School system.

When I graduated from college in 2004 I truly believed that I could not only teach my high school classes extremely well but that I could teach my classes and the classes up and down my hallway perfectly well. Looking back now, I clearly thought at the ripe old age of 22, I knew more than anyone else.  In my mind, at the time, I thought I presented myself to my students and colleagues in a respectful and intelligent way, but looking back on those first years, with the lens that I have developed, I cringe. Honestly, at the time I didn’t realize how much of an arrogant and possibly offensive person I was. Ouch! Sorry!


My fifth year as a teacher; independent school in Washington, DC.

The saddest part of my story is that during that time none of my colleagues or bosses sat me down to tell me otherwise. I suppose they just thought that I would grow out of it and thankfully, for the most part, I have. Now instead of being arrogant I attempt to be thoughtful and understanding. I exude confidence, but I temper my understanding of a situation with the thoughts and feelings of others. The best lesson that I’ve learned in the last decade is to listen more than I speak and this lesson has allowed me to grow into being professional.

As I’ve come to my own realizations about professionalism, I’ve met many young teachers who remind me of myself when I was starting out.  They believe that they know everything.  They believe they are the smartest people in the room. Sometimes they even believe that they can do their job and the job of the person sitting next to them better than anyone else. It is clearer to me than ever before that some people need time to grow into being a professional. What may look like entitlement to the outside observer may simply be an eagerness to affect change—at least in my case it was.


I’ve transitioned from teacher to administrator.

At this point, my personal charge is to mentor the people who remind me of my younger self. I often tell them that their passion and insights are needed in the profession but that they need to listen more and speak less even when the urge to correct and/or inform their colleagues bubbles up inside of them.  Sometimes my mentees listen and grow quickly into being more professional and other times the fire to lead overwhelms them and they speak out of turn.

I implore veteran educators to regularly mentor young fiery educators in the art of honing their voice. This mentorship can and will improve the atmosphere of our schools and I believe that faculty morale will grow by leaps and bounds as a result of this tender yet firm touch. I’m planning on bringing this newly found knowledge and experience to my next school.

Book Thoughts: Sag Habor by Colson Whitehead

Sag-HarborBenji Cooper’s tale of adolescent summer fun in Long Island’s Sag Harbor is a classic one. With little parental guidance at the Cooper family’s summer home, Benji, his brother Reggie and their Sag Harbor friends—all of them black boys whose families own beach houses—reconnect and re-engage in childhood antics. From Memorial Day to Labor Day layers of strife are revealed—parents argue behind closed windows, kids steal ice cream and knick-knacks from stores, and white people train their dogs to devour black kids.

By the end of the summer, and consequently the novel, Benji’s goal of becoming an individual is achieved—no longer tethered to his younger brother Benji is well liked in the community and included in events around town (all the while bearing a small BB pellet near his eye—a war wound from a stupid adolescent game in the woods). Even though Benji doesn’t fully understand all the ways he is growing the reader witnesses the evolution of his personality by watching his interactions with the world around him throughout the novel.

Mind-WhiteheadSOFTReminiscent of a memoir, Sag Harbor is a collection of stories, memories. Pop culture, budding love, seething hate, growing friendships and economic power play well together in this novel set in a majority black environment with mostly black characters. It’s clear that Whitehead’s strong personal connection to Sag Harbor greatly influenced this story—it allowed him to craft beautiful and touching scenes while simultaneously reminding the reader that the idyllic moments captured at Sag Harbor weren’t necessarily repeated when these young boys grew up, (outside of Sag Harbor some of the young friends died of gunshots from drug related gang wars).

Overall this was a really fun read.

A tour of Sag Habor by Whitehead:

Related Information

On Saturday, January 3, 2015 Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network debuted a one hour special entitled “Sag Harbor”. Below are notes from the press release issued by the network:

Located in the heart of New York’s The Hamptons, this tight knit enclave was established as a refuge from racism in the early 20th century. With the recent housing boom, this once all African-American neighborhood is now fighting to hold on to its identity. Real estate prices throughout the three bay front areas of Azurest, Ninevah and Sag Harbor Hills have recently skyrocketed. This seemingly positive economic reality is forcing the younger generations, now inheriting these cottages from their parents and grandparents, to face a vexing dilemma: To sell or not to sell?