By, Michael Earnshaw
December 3, 2019
I stared at the illuminated document displayed on my screen, seven items listed, yet my eyes fixated only on #3, Struggle Island. A sinister smile overtook my face and that inner voice let out his best Mr. Burn’s laugh, the kind where a plan comes together in his mind. I awoke my email app, attached the document as a live link with a faux paperclip, and punched "Send.” Now the waiting. This would be the longest three days, but the anticipation would be well worth it.
I couldn’t even keep track of how many staff members came up to me over the course of the next 72 hours, all asking the same questions.
“What is Struggle Island?”
“What are we doing with Struggle Island?”
“Do I need to know anything?”
“What should I bring?”
“I can’t wait for this faculty meeting!”
That’s right. I had our staff salivating at the thought of our next faculty meeting. In other schools across our great nation, many principals spend their one hour a month after school with their staff reciting bullet points on a PowerPoint behind them. Many, if not all of these bullets, could easily be sent in an email or newsletter without any verbal explanation and I guarantee that the professional staff they oversee would understand what the directives were. I do things differently. I know I don’t want to sit and just read facts to our staff after a long day inspiring our kids, so why in the world would our staff want that either?
“You shouldn’t have to worry too much. I would just make sure you’re comfortable, make sure to get a good night’s rest, and eat healthy. I’d suggest working out or getting a run in that morning, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to be exhausted,” was my reply. Then I’d creepily stare at them, with that sinister smile taking contorting my face.
We are constantly telling our teachers that long gone are the days when students sat in straight rows, writing rote notes from what the teacher produced on the board at the front of the room, reciting the same information students could read for themselves. Today’s classrooms need to be engaging. Teachers need to build anticipation and excitement into their lessons to have our students bursting back through our doors each day. Today’s lessons need to include collaboration, problem solving, higher level thinking, engagement, and fun. All of those are ingredients to a mouthwatering lesson. If you don’t believe me go read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. Or better yet, go see him keynote or present and tell me you don’t think fun, engagement, and anticipation have a place in a successful lesson.
I don’t expect our teachers to bring bland, antiquated lessons to their students, so why should I? No educator is excited to stay an hour or two after school when they’re exhausted. As principals, our staff meetings are our classrooms, it is our time to engage, motivate our staff. It is a time to get our staff collaborating and problem solving to bring the best, life changing education to our students. That will not happen by them listening to me drone on through a PowerPoint. As leaders, we need to bring our passions and model the style of lessons we expect our staff to bring to our students.
After going through the first standard items on our agenda, such as the passing of the Gracious Grizzly and 1st grade presenting on how to implement Bead Counters, we arrived at item #3!
The room grew silent as if someone hit the “Mute” button in the room. All eyes made their way to me. I heard Mr. Burns’ maniacal laughter echoing in my head. That sinister smile overtook, I gasped a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. Seconds felt like eons. I closed my eyes, placed my shaky hands on the desk in front of me for support. I tilted my head towards the ground and closed my eyes.
“Ok. It’s time we go to Struggle Island. You’re not going to need to bring anything with you. Your belongings will be safe here, if you’re lucky enough to return. If you don’t make it we’ll be splitting up amongst ourselves what was left behind, unless you labeled everything or have a will. Unfortunately, there’s no time to get it together now. Is everyone ready?”
There were many smiles filling the room surprisingly, some began cracking their knuckles, and others stared at their closest comrade, searching for safety and sending S.O.S. messages via Morse code.
“Alright, follow me,” were my last words before we landed on Struggle Island.
I slowly walked out of the LRC (Learning Resource Center) and headed to our back playground. The sun was shining on this October afternoon. There was a strong eastern wind, swirling leaves and debris across the field that added to the feeling of despair as we prepared our trip to Struggle Island.
Before our staff could begin conversing and getting comfortable, I began shouting.
“Alright, everyone needs to form a circle, a nice tight circle. You want to be close enough to hold the person next to hand. You don’t have to, but you may want to. You have ten seconds to form this circle.”
Without speaking, our staff formed their circle. As I scanned the perimeter of their circle, a few were holding hands.
“Welcome to Struggle Island!” I shouted with both of my arms outstretched to the . From the bullseye of the circle I declared, “Right now we are all safe!”
“If you remember, two weeks ago I had asked everyone to come to the front office and anonymously fill out an index card with an issue you are facing in the classroom. You then placed them in this manila envelope.” I held up the envelope as high as my right arm would allow.
“Inside here is all of our struggles. What I am going to do is remove a card, one at a time, and read it aloud. If you are facing that same struggle, you are to take two steps backwards. When you do that you are now in the murky, shark infested waters, with no idea of how to get out. If you did not take two steps backwards you are safe on the island. If you are safe on the island, that either means you have never encountered this struggle, or you have a solution to it. If you are still safe on the island, I ask that you throw a life saver to your colleagues and share what has worked for you or ideas on how they can find a way out of their struggle.”
Two weeks before, so our staff could not put two and two together, I asked in an email for them to come to the office and write a problem they were facing and needed help with. I wanted it anonymous to get true problems that maybe they would normally be afraid to admit they were struggling with. This helped to build anticipation as to why they were doing this. They had no inkling as to why I was asking for this. Then, about two weeks later, I sent the agenda with item #3 only stating, Struggle Island. As far as I know, nobody made the connection.
I had received many positive praises from staff after this activity. It helped to drop the facade that everyone is perfect. Many staff also saw many of their colleagues in a new light, building a strong bond and camaraderie with the vulnerability many shared and helped with that afternoon. This activity helped to share that all of us are facing issues we need help with. It helped to tighten the bond that we are all here for each other, and in turn our students.
All of us, no matter our years of experience or title, face struggles. We all encounter obstacles that are way too daunting to get around on our own. We need to drop our egos and ask for help. Many of our answers are down the hall from our own offices and classrooms. If they’re not, reach out on social media. There are so many connected educators that your solution is out there. You are not alone. To be the best, not perfect, but the best for our kids, ask for help. We’re here for you.