Recently, a mother told me of a conversation she had with a principal upon enrolling her daughter in high school. Her daughter had had a difficult time in school so far and, after several frustrating years, was in grave danger of dropping out. She decided to meet with the school principal to share her concerns and seek his help.
The principal was more than gracious, spending time going over her daughter's schedule with the mother and even making voluntary changes in the schedule to meet the students' needs. At the close of the meeting, the mother shared her fear that her daughter might not make it through high school. The principal looked at her reassuringly and said, "We'll get her through." The mother left his office with a new hope that she had a partner and that together, they just might get her daughter through this difficult time.
Only they didn't. In fact, the principal didn't offer much in the way of support beyond that initial conversation and ultimately, the daughter did drop out of school.
Now I know what you're thinking. We are not miracle workers. True. And I don't fault the principal for not getting the daughter through. Neither does the mother. What disturbs her to this day - six years later - isn't that they didn't get her daughter through; it's that they promised they would. It wasn't a promise she asked for, but once offered, she held onto that promise.
Unfortunately, it is a promise the principal should have never made. He had no way of knowing without ever having met the student whether or not the school had the capability to address the student's needs. He had no idea whether the student had other issues that would affect her ability to thrive in a regular school setting.
He made a promise to the mother on the basis of an hour's conversation and though well-intentioned in his effort to reassure her, he just managed to give her false hope that made her eventual disappointment even more devastating. It would have been better if he hadn't made the promise at all.
We all do the same thing. We make promises that we don't keep. We promise to be a school community that "honors diversity" while our students grapple with a persistent and growing achievement and opportunity gap, or we say we believe that "all children can learn" and then make exceptions to this mantra anytime we face a student who resists our efforts to teach him.
We promise to support our students while holding onto testing and grading policies that do more to prevent student success than foster it. We say we respect our staff and then advocate accountability measures that undermine their professionalism.
We start out with the best intentions, but ...
The problem isn't that we make promises, it's that once we make a promise, we don't take the next step and create a plan for how we are going to keep it. If, while developing our school vision statements, we also made eliminating achievement gaps a priority, we could really honor diversity. If that principal had gone beyond tweaking the schedule and put a team together to help that mother understand all of her daughter's needs and options, he might have been able to shake her daughter's hand at graduation -- at his school or another one more suited to her needs.
We don't set out to break our word. In fact, we make promises with the best of intentions. But, good intentions are not enough. Meaning well and then undermining our word by our actions destroys trust when we mean to build it. It's better not to make a promise at all than to break one. Before we give our students and their families, or our staff our word, we better make sure we can deliver.
So I am returning to what my mother taught me years ago: "Be a woman of your word Robyn." And that means doing more than making good promises. It means working like crazy to keep them.