My to-do list this week looks a lot like the one from last week. Mostly because it is the same list. Or nearly. Very little got crossed off last week and yet a myriad things have been added. This is due, in part, to my lovely touch of madness: ADHD. It is also due to being the Executive Director of a nonprofit which is notoriously a never-ending, shape-shifting, simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, perfect job for an extravert with ADHD.
I think I was supposed to write this blog post last week, but I never got these thoughts down on paper. I don’t think I actually settled on what I was going to say until half an hour ago. This week it’s not what’s on my mind, but who. My students are on my mind. If there are any teachers reading this, they know exactly what, or more precisely who, I mean. When you make the decision, the deep shift in your intention as an educator, that the answer to the question, “What do you teach?” is not a subject like math or English or music, but “I teach students”, you are a part of the relationship based education community.
I am the Head of School at September School, where we teach students, in whatever state they walk through the door. Some are wide awake, creative juices flowing ready-to-learn. And some are not. Some are anxious. Depressed. Numb. Exhausted. Dysregulated. Unsure. Angry. Heroically holding it together.
When you work with teenagers you experience a lot of energy. Adolescence is naturally a raucous period of growth, change and self-discovery. Many teens are also struggling with additional burdens due to mental health issues, emotional dysregulation, learning disabilities, family issues, trauma, and addiction. September School is a community of learners where we see each other and where we invite students and teachers alike to show up as their genuine selves. It’s quirky and exciting and messy and creative and maddening. On the daily.
So I’m feeling a bit awash in the lives of my students this week. I’m grateful that they interrupted my to-do list. A lot. Even some of the new kids finally stopped prefacing their need to talk to me with, “I’m sorry but…” And now I’m behind. Working at home actually to try and get some boring paperwork done. Budgets. Schedules. Grant requests. Bank fees corrected. Fundraising plans fleshed out. Accommodations plans written.
In my second year in this position, I am working on finding the balance between relationship with staff and students and my responsibility to get through the massive, schizophrenic to-do list. When I try to process my job with the people in my life, I get a few predictable responses.
From my staff: encouragement to find work/life balance. I think they weeded out all the Head of School candidates with work/life balance. Also, I’m from NY, I’m used to a different pace.
From my boss: a worried expression like I might quit. Even on the worst days, when I’m exhausted and thinking (or yelling) bad words on my commute home, I love my job. I was made to do this. I can’t believe I get to be a part of this community. Quitting is not an option.
From my friends: “You’re crazy”. Clearly. As my friends, you knew this before I took this job. In a weird way, it makes perfect sense.
From my boyfriend: Just stop talking about your job. Please. Sorry, babe.
I received a bit of inspiration recently, however, from an unexpected source. We had a guest speaker at First Unitarian in Denver a few Sundays ago. A young, black woman who preached about justice. And transforming words about justice into action. Over and over I felt the “Amen” on the tip of my tongue, agreeing with her about words being better than silence, and words without action being meaningless. After the service, I was having coffee with some people from church, and a friend of mine asked me what I thought about the sermon. As I tried to gather my thoughts, she shared that this message was “frustrating”.
I understood immediately what she meant. It’s frustrating to be wide awake to the concerns of our community. To racism and sexism and injustice. To the plight of the homeless and the uninsured and the undocumented. And to find that you don’t really know what to do. About any of it. Can I get an Amen??
I thought about my job. About my to-do list. All the post-its on my desk reminding me to do something. All the things. And I felt grateful. Grateful for all the ways my job turns words and ideas into action. Into justice. Grateful that the emails and phone calls I need to make will support a struggling parent or advocate for a student. Grateful that the massive grant applications I need to get to work on will pay for our new campus and provide a beautiful and inspirational environment for our students and staff. Grateful that, in my position, the insight and ideas of others have a sounding board that I can parlay into real interventions and programs.
Then I remembered a difficult day when I called a community meeting: all the students, all the staff. It was the day after Trump issued the travel ban. The school community was stressed and angry and it felt like schoolwork wasn’t going to be business as usual. I spoke to the students about that feeling of wanting to do something. Anything. To make change. To intervene. To express outrage at the injustice and bigotry of that policy.
I told them how I felt watching the airport protests and all the people in the streets. Then I shared with them something that had struck me while watching news coverage: all the lawyers sitting on the floor in the airports. Makeshift desks. Laptops. Writing boring legal briefs. Over and over again. Paperwork that meant freedom for the people and families detained there. I talked to the community about how long and hard law school is. About how much money and time and daily work law students invest to become lawyers. And now they sat on the floor and did their job. The words they typed on those documents created freedom. And justice.
I challenged our students to lean into the work of learning. To the work of self discovery. To the work of building compassionate community in our school and in the world, so that they will have trained their voice and their heart and their brain to turn words into justice someday.
I know that not every assignment, or item on our to-do lists is of deep or global importance. Many of us, however, do work every day that contributes to the common good. That helps our fellow community member. I am continually surprised when I find that something I never expected from my past work history or life experience or education is useful in my work. And while the to-do list will always loom over my ADHD brain, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work for justice through education at September School.
Kelly Molinet is the Head of School and Executive Director at September School. Kelly earned a BFA in Art History and Music from Syracuse University. She began a lifelong career in education working with urban youth at the Rescue Mission.