What Administrators Need: Part II (Pam Moran and Matt Haas)

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.


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"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."

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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.

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"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."

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I pulled over to the side of the road, "Whose car?"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.