My cell phone rang from the passenger seat of my car as I crossed the last intersection before a two-mile stretch of Hydraulic Road leading to Albemarle High School, my high school. A clear blue May sky stretched out above the Blue Ridge Mountains. The time was 7:40 a.m., and I had just dropped off my seven-year-old at school; my thoughts were on the AP and Virginia Standards of Learning testing schedule ahead of us for the day. I reached for the phone, flipped it open, and lifted it to my ear. On the other line was a parent of one of our juniors and a friend of the family. Her voice was anxious.
“Matt, there’s been an accident where Ashland Drive crosses Route 29 North!” she said.“I think it’s a student. I think it’s all right. The traffic is backed up, though.”
I thanked her for the information and dialed our school resource officer to see if he had any information on the accident. The word forlorn comes to mind.
“Hi, Matt. I was just about to call you. There’s been a bad accident up here. A panel truck ran a red light and just – well – just t-boned her car.”
I pulled over to the side of the road, “Whose car?”
One of our students, on her way to take an AP exam that morning, was killed. It has been three years since that day, and I still haven’t reconciled. As any principal can tell us, losing a student is heartbreak, devastation with no reprieve.
Before calling in the crisis response team, I called my wife for strength. In the wake of our student’s death that morning, I followed all the steps we take in a crisis situation: notified central office, called an emergency staff meeting, and then waited for the AP testing session to finish before informing all the students in the session what had happened. They were her friends; they had to know first. Just prior to that, I found her brother and walked him to our school resource officer to be driven home. Her parents wanted to be the first to tell him what happened, but the fear in his eyes told me he was guessing hard. He must have read my face.
The day culminated with a live broadcast from our in-house TV production studio to the student body. I shared the story with them, simply confirming for some what happened. That evening the athletic director and I visited her parents at home. She was the third of our 1,700 student family to die tragically in the past four years. I know and feel that any child’s passing is a tragedy; some grip a whole school community.
When I arrived early at school the next morning I was greeted at my office door by the school psychologist. Before he really had a chance to say anything, I started to rattle off actions for the day to take care of students, staff, and parents.
Patiently, he waited for me to finish. We found seats across from one another. Sunlight settled on us through the office windows. He gave pause, looked me in the eye to get my attention, and asked me what I needed. The guilt I felt for his asking me this was overwhelming.
“Well, I think I need to rewind about 24 hours and be up there at the intersection to stop that truck. Otherwise, I don’t need anything.”
He waited for what I said to sink into me and then let me know he was there to help me too, but I’ve never been very good at expressing my own needs. I have never met an educator who really can. We almost always express our needs in terms of student needs.
I challenge any teacher to ask and answer this question without naming something that is meant to help a child: “What do I need?” A teacher is a parent in every sense of the word. When passengers on an airliner, we are all trained to don a dropped, clear-plastic oxygen mask before putting it on our child, but we are all revolted by that thought.
Using a pyramid to represent hierarchy, we have long structured human needs from basic to the most profound as defined by Abraham Maslow. I think there is no coincidence that we have also structured school leadership as a hierarchy as well. I offer a Venn diagram and propose that three communities or sets of needs merge in a school: those of students, teachers (including support staff), and administrators. At the point of merger is the set containing our most vital need, the need to actualize. Each of us needs to become everything we are meant to become, and we need each other to do it.
In a school, needs become communal, and I believe, less hierarchical and more situational. People tend to rely on one another in order to realize their needs. I hesitate to say that we need from one another; rather, we need one another.
As these merging sets of needs grow and distend from lack of satisfaction and clarity of moral purpose, they can tend to squeeze and shrink our central merger of actualization. I think that many teachers today feel the pain of this state. I also think that students have felt this pain for a long time: the pain of deferred needs and dreams. Often, as I illustrated above, administrators are the last to even express a need, let alone a need from someone else at school.
So the question is, “What do administrators need from teachers?” The answer is that administrators need teachers and students. I have never felt that we need something from them. We need them. We need their relationships, their friendships, their dreams and achievements, and their acceptance. There is really no hierarchy with leadership; people construct a hierarchy to manage.
In turn and in merger, we all need each other as we work toward the moral purpose of learning. When we realize our overlapping needs, we lean toward problem solving rather than evils; we merge around creativity rather than fear; and we actualize individually and as a community. We can put ourselves first to save children, and we can put them first to save us. We synergize.
When I think in these terms, I can frame the relationship I had with my departed student: the child I watched running – long red hair trailing her like a comet’s tail – across the soccer field two weeks before her passing. I needed to be the one who shouldered her passing for the school, to console her parents, to honor her, and to be someone on whom the teachers and students could depend. I would give anything to change what happened; I was needed.
It has been many years now, but when our school lost a child just before the start of his first grade year, it was that sense of community that got us through it all. It takes a great administrator to create that in a school and I am sad to say it doesn’t always happen. People who think of schools as a business don’t quite understand that for most of us it isn’t a job, it’s a calling and that when one is hurt, we all hurt.