The Foremost of All Acts
Abolition is about acting. It is about making decisions. But not just any decisions, decisions at philosophical, strategic, and operational levels. Abolitionist decisions at a philosophical level are grounded in what we, as leaders, believe about the world, our society, and the community in which we are situated. Abolitionist decisions at a strategic level are directly aligned with the priorities and objectives within the teaching and learning community. Abolitionist decisions at the operational level are those which allocate and implement resources, fiscal and human, that correspond to the strategic and philosophical decisions. In teaching and learning communities committed to cultivating a communal consciousness, our acting must transcend individualism, which is often at the forefront of making decisions in crisis. During crisis, when unpredictability is the canvas against which we are making sense of what is happening and how it will impact our communities, our acting is often a complex intersection of dangerous decisions, human dysfunctions, trauma coping, procedural ambiguities, communication stress, inadequate information, inconsistent details, role nuance, and unclear on where to begin.
As Flight 1549 was gliding downward, toward the Hudson River, Captain Sully offers the unconcealed secret of the first decision—naming that a crisis exist. "Mayday mayday mayday. Uh this is uh Cactus fifteen thirty nine hit birds, we've lost thrust in both engines we're turning back towards LaGuardia."1 We'll talk about how you name it in the next chapter. For now, it is only important to note that often the hardest decision for leaders in crisis—and not in crisis—is to name when there is a problem. Whether or not we are protecting our individual ego, shielding our students and staff from panic, assuming we can fix it, or simply longing for it to dematerialize before anyone notices, school leaders often have to be convinced to name that a problem is brewing. It is a hard decision, our hardest decision, because it's a choice that demands that we look beyond ourselves as an individual, and look at the impact and implications of not naming. With thirty years of experience, Captain Sully could have delayed making the choice to signal, "Mayday," a distress call through radio communications made in life-threatening emergencies. He could have delayed to gain more clarity on the effects of the impact on the turbines. The question, then, is why didn't he wait? The explanation for this is quite simple. Humility.
In our conversations around the word, humility, we rarely invoke images of power and strength, intentionality and choice. We have developed a faulty understanding of humility as a reflexive, docile surrender to a thing that is bigger and more controlling than we are. I want to contend that humility, at its core, is not only a decision but also an abolitionist act of resistance. The same effect that we ascribe confidence and sureness has, as mechanisms for making choices, should be the same effect we credit to humility. What if we thought of crisis as an egotistical adversary? We could contend that crisis, because of inflated ego, would expect us to confront it with an overstated ego—giving it the same energy it gives us. But our strength is not always what it seems to be. Confronting crisis—unplanned and unexpected, oppressive and unjust—with humility is the way of abolition—a way that recognizes strength, not in self-centeredness and individual might, but strength in selflessness and communal responsibility. Captain Sully's ability to call "Mayday" was his strength, a strength based on his unyielding communal consciousness that he "was willing to sacrifice the airplane to save lives." On the one hand, naming that a crisis exists is the first decision; on the other hand, choosing humility, which is the source of our strength to name that a crisis exists, is the foremost of all choices.
Ronald Thiemann, a now deceased political theologian and one of my former professors at Harvard, would argue that humility, like courage and integrity, could not be taught in classrooms, but must be learned through experiences. For Thiemann, humility as a practice contained consequential truths for leading in society. I recall a conversation over coffee with a former instructional coach who was struggling to find their sense of place in his first year coaching lower school faculty, because he had primarily taught and coached upper school over the last ten years. When he'd see a Kindergarten or first-grade team moving toward a pedagogical crisis due to poor-planning or misplaced activities with the day's learning standards, he'd name it. But he was oft-met with resistance and even resentment. He couldn't make sense of why given his years of experience successfully coaching upper grades. Then, he said something that underscored why he consistently faced resistance.
"I mean, you'd think they'd appreciate me giving them a heads up. Most of them were still in school when I started teaching. Doesn't that count for something?" He said as he rolled his eyes and sipped his oat milk latte.
Wanting to uplift his confidence, while also inviting him to recognize his humility-gap, I replied. "Of course it counts for something, but is it the only thing that counts?" It was intended to be rhetorical. He replied.
"Well, I guess not! But we can't discount experience." He was growing frustrated.
We can't, and we shouldn't—you're right. And [I stressed], we cannot assume that experience is enough to demand trust, respect, and understanding. You having years of experience as a teacher and a coach give you particular and pointed insight to see what novice teachers often neglect to see. And, you must acknowledge that your years of experiencing in teaching and coaching were limited to upper school, which means that the teachers you are now coaching know more than you know about their content areas, the brain development of younger students, and potentially how to teach them. In effect, there is as much to learn from them, as there is as much to coach. And when you don't approach the acts of your coaching—naming potential problems and recommending solutions—with humility, you are deserving of resentment.
When I find myself in a post-observation debrief with principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, or directly with teachers (which is a rare occurrence these days) that conversation about humility resonates. As such, part of our observational debriefs protocol, particularly when against the backdrop of a crisis, is to intentionally ask and answer: what did you learn anew, what did you know that was expanded, what did you think you knew that was deconstructed, or what did you learn about yourself? By asking any or all of the previously mentioned questions, you allow yourself to continually learn and practice humility as the foremost of all abolitionist actions.