How we treat people matters. How we treat youth really matters. Schools today teach students how to work with others to do something innovative and useful with what they know. Given the complexity of the world we live in and the important problems students will need to solve in their lifetimes we have to cooperate and collaborate to rise to the demands of a competitive global economy. Our future depends on it.
For that reason there are social contracts hanging in every classroom, including where our faculty meets. Social contracts describe how we want to be treated by group leaders and by our peers. Specific questions learned from the Flippen Group's "Capturing Kids' Hearts" frame our conversations and help generate our contracts. Students and staff discuss how they want to be treated by the group leader, how they want to be treated by each other, how they think the leader wants to be treated. Finally, we talk about how the group will treat each other when there is conflict or disagreement. These answers become our social contract. They set the bar for who we wish to become. When a person at our school does not adhere to the agreement of behavior, the class calls "foul," and two put-ups (the opposite of putdowns) are owed.
Last week, we had a national leader at our school not adhere to a standard of behavior that includes basic respect even when there is disagreement. I believe some put-ups are owed.
To the student who introduced our guest speaker, I commend you for already committing to a career of public service. She plans to follow her sister and attend the U.S. Naval Academy. To the student who spoke out against a perceived misunderstanding of causes of suicide, I commend your loyalty as a friend, an honorable trait in any man. To the student who remained polite and calm while asking difficult questions, I commend your willingness to demonstrate respect when it is not reciprocated. Expecting respect for each other is far from coddling students. It's empowering them to create a school where they feel safe enough to show up every day and contribute, which is what Alaska needs.
The bottom line is that no organization can rise above the constraints of the leader. A book I read recently called, "The Flip Side: Break Free of the Behaviors that Hold You Back," contends that playing to our strengths isn't enough, we need to work to minimize the impact of our weaknesses. That means my personal limitations not only hold me back, they hold back our students as well. I need, as the leader of our school, to constantly reflect on my behavior and work to get better. If I don't, our students won't reach their full potential. I have a duty as a leader to the youth I serve. No leader has the luxury to treat youth in a demeaning manner and then say, "That's just the way I am." If we do, we limit their potential.
I also contend that Alaska can't rise above the constraints of our leaders. When it comes to youth, we are all leaders. As a lifelong Alaskan, I am committed to growing a vibrant future for our state. In a school the future isn't an abstract concept; the future walks through the front door, looks me in the eye, and shakes my hand every morning. Their success depends on all leaders, myself included, working to minimize those things about us that keep us from moving forward and from seeing the world from a fresh perspective. Leaders must be constantly working on everything in our lives that limit us and those we lead from living to our full potential. Nobody has to be perfect but we owe it to the youth of this state to keep trying to be better.
Amy Spargo is principal of Wasilla High School. She has been a principal in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District for 13 years.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.