A couple of weeks ago at work, I was sitting in an executive leadership meeting. All of the vice presidents from our company were sitting around a large square of tables. I have been identified as a potential future leader, so for the past six months I have been invited to attend these meetings to add thoughts and insights that me and my other future leaders within the company have explored to make and keep us relevant, attractive, and viable to modern job seekers. Usually, our participation in these meetings is scripted and thought out.
However, during our January meeting we were asked to get off-script. Without any warning or time to prepare, which is a big deal for me, we had to identify a singular word that we wanted to focus on in our own buildings/departments as our cultural identity word for the rest of the year. And this wasn’t just a word that was going to be shared and then dismissed, but it was going to be attached to a poster below a headshot that was going to be displayed throughout the company.
My cautious and thinker mentality quickly tried to think of a word. This January has been one of the most personally trying months of my entire life, so all I could think of were words like “hard” and “tough.” Is that really what I wanted everyone around the company seeing below my face? However, I knew what I was trying to get at, but the perfect word was eluding me in the moment. Fortunately, others were asked to go before me, and their responses helped shape the culture word I was looking for, ACCOUNTABILITY.
Yeah, my month of January has been especially trying and difficult, but I still had to be counted on the get things done at work, at home, and with the broadcasting and administrative coaching responsibilities I shoulder. There are no excuses when it comes to getting the job done, even when things get hard and tough. In fact, the people who can get tough when needed and push through the hard things in life are the ones that rise to the top. But, now I needed to think about how that was going to apply to my work culture. I had already been wrestling with these thoughts in my head the week prior to this meeting, but now I had an actual word to guide my focus.
I wanted to start by looking up the definition of accountability:
- the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.”their lack of accountability has corroded public respect”
Yeah, that didn’t really help me define much, so I looked up the definition of accountable:
- 1.(of a person, organization, or institution) required or expected to justify actions or decisions; responsible.”parents could be held accountable for their children’s actions”Similar:responsibleliableanswerablechargeableto blamereportingsubjectunder the charge ofbound to obeyobeyingbound byOpposite:unaccountable
- 2.explicable; understandable.”the delayed introduction of characters’ names is accountable, if we consider that names have a low priority”
So, there you have the definitions. The way I basically read both of those is that there really isn’t a definition for the word accountable and accountability as much as there is an understanding of what those words mean and represent. Most people want to be viewed as responsible or justified in their actions, but what does that really mean? Specifically, what does it mean in a school for adults 18 and over who are looking for a second chance to obtain a high school diploma that eluded them for a wide variety of reasons the first time?
Before I can really define what accountability means, I decided to look at the root cause of most frustrations for educators, and any job that centers around working with people: excuses. As a society and as a leader, we are used to hearing about and dealing with endless excuses from others. Now, accountability has a positive connotation, while excuses has a negative one. I am not suggesting that excuses are inherently negative here, but they are a reality. If I ask a teacher why a student is not passing a class, they are going to give me the reasons. If I ask a student why they’re not passing a class, they are going to tell me why. If I ask a life coach why a student hasn’t been attending school, they are going to tell me the reasons for the student’s absense. Those can be labeled as excuses, but for most they are realities. However, my problem is that I/we have become too accepting of their reasons for failure. I have allowed myself to become too passive in trying to change the trajectory of their lives instead of holding them accountable for the goals they set for themselves.
The beauty of the school I lead is that students are there by choice. Everyone in my building is a legal adult in the eyes of the law. I cannot force them to stay in the building against their will or even show up, but the fact that they have shown up indicates that they want that second chance. Some of them are driven and have seen firsthand the struggle of life without a high school diploma. Many have never had that feeling of having to overcome challenges to get what you want. They lack that experience of pushing yourself beyond the boundaries of your own comfort to achieve something that you once thought was too difficult. In short, nobody has held them accountable for reaching a goal they set out to achieve.
Too many times in tradition education, kids are allowed to slip through the cracks. Because schools have become obsessed with test scores over the last twenty years, students with learning disabiliites are quick to be identified and then dismissed as unable to achieve the standards set forth by the state. They end up disenfranchised by education in high school, so most drop out believing that they cannot do anything academically because they weren’t given a fair chance to begin with. Kids that achieve high academically are praised and rewarded with honors and special chords at graduation cermonies, but the reality is that an A for some students doesn’t require nearly as much work as a C for others. However, those students that earn C’s are never given outward praise for maximizing their abilities. They take a back seat to the honors students, and they are overshadowed by the students that cause disruptive behavioral problems in schools.
Therefore, there are countless students that receive C’s and D’s in schools for simply showing up and not causing problems. Schools need to show high graduation rates, and teachers have to get high test scores. The best way to do that is focus on the bright students while eliminating the troublemakers. Therefore, the “low achievers” that sit quietly in classes have a learned behavior of not challenging themselves or expecting anyone to push them. They start to feel insignificant. They get used to nobody checking in on them. When things get tough, they have never had anyone push them, or hold them accountable. Too many times, they got used to showing up and being invisible until it got to the point where they didn’t even see the point in showing up anymore or they got too far behind that graduating became impossible within the time constraints of a traditional school.
Yet, something inside of them didn’t allow them to give up on their goals. For some, it is literally a parent forcing them to keep going and trying, but for many others it is a second chance to prove to themselves they can accomplish something. But what good is a second chance if it winds up like the first one? What good does it do if you end up in a school that doesn’t hold you accountable? What good does it do if you are allowed to show up a little over half of the time without anyone seeming to notice or care if you’re going to pass your classes or simply repeat them again, most likely with the same patterns of behavior that you did the last time.
My goal for 2023 is to truly be the school that shows the second chance is nothing like the first. But, I realized in order to be that way I needed to set a culture of accountability. Sure, everyone is still going to have their reasons and excuses for not passing classes, but I cannot change that as a leader. What I can change is the fact that everyone can be expected to fully explain what can be done to help prevent those excuses from reoccurring. As a building leader, my vow is to no longer allow a student to quietly slip through the cracks. That is how they ended up here in the first place. I already have things in place to catch those students early in the process, but I wasn’t holding myself accountable for addressing them. In 2023, that is going to change.
Too often in life, many of us see a problem that needs to be addressed and corrected but we look at it as someone else’s concern or issue. That is so common in education. It truly is draining trying to “fix” people, and it is highly likely to expect far more failures than successes. However, that is no excuse not to try.
In 2023, our school will be one that has the difficult conversations with students that are late, absent, or not engaged while in school. In 2023, our school will be the one that is proactive with student behaviors that are likely to inhibit their productivity. In 2023, we all are going to be accountable for holding our students to a higher standard than they’ve been used to in the past. In 2023, we are going to focus on taking the jump from a good school to a great school.
So far, the responses to some of these difficult conversations with students has been overwhelmingly positive. In an odd way, they have indicated that they appreciate that someone actually cares about them. They like that people are keeping track of their progress and forcing them to own up to their shortcomings. Students and staff have agreed that we can all get better and get past the excuses. In short, most people have responded well to a higher level of accountability. As a leader, that is indicative of a fantastic culture and group of educators. And even though I still don’t really have a definition for accountability, I know that moving forward our school under my leadership is going to have some amazing success stories from a number of students that didn’t earn a high school diploma the first time simply because the school and the student were not held accountable for their success.