By Ellen Perconti, Superintendent of Goldendale School District in Washington State.
Over the last several days, I’ve found myself reflecting on the concept of “enough.” When it comes to who we are and how we see ourselves as individuals, it’s common to struggle at times with the concept, as evidenced by the myriad of self-talk resources designed to help people say, “I am enough.” Doing so is a way of counteracting imposter syndrome—a state of doubting one’s abilities, not feeling like you belong, and fearing that, despite your accomplishments, you’re a fraud. As a superintendent (or any other education professional), the concept takes on additional weight when we think about what we’re providing our kids. There’s an abundance of data and research that show that our education systems aren’t “enough” for all learners. The resulting dichotomy frames a challenging question: How can you feel that you’re personally enough when you know that the work you’re engaged in is not?
For me, this question has come to a head due to challenges that COVID has presented our school system. Our district has been operating in a hybrid setting, with in-person attendance two days a week and students learning remotely the other three days, and we’ve been fortunate to be able to continue in this format without experiencing outbreaks in any of our schools. But operating in this way isn’t normal—it’s not what families want, and it isn’t sufficient to support most children’s learning.
As a leader in this context, I’m tasked with balancing student needs against frequent changes in health guidance, negotiated agreements with staff, staff morale and capacity, and the needs of learners’ families and the community as well. This crisis leadership takes communication skills, an ability to process and synthesize, empathy, and a mindset of growth. My skills in each of these areas have been stretched, and I have grown. But I continue to struggle with the weight of the outcome, despite all our effort, not being enough.
Again, the dichotomy—so what can we do? We can give ourselves grace while continuing to push. We can acknowledge our efforts and the successes we have while continuing to look for opportunities to grow. We can continually measure and analyze impact and be willing to make the adjustments we need. And we can end every day with a feeling of peace from the knowledge that we’re giving our all for our kids, and from our constant commitment to doing better each day.
One of the guiding principles of The Learner First is that the only acceptable mindset is 100 percent success. We have to operate with the mindset that anything less than every student succeeding is an unacceptable outcome, while fully accepting what that mindset-shift means. It means that we have to embody the beliefs that all learners will succeed, that we can help them get there, and that, above all, at every step of that process, the person we are—as we are—is enough.
Last weekend, my four-year-old granddaughter was watching me fuss with the neckline of my sweater. In response to her question about what I was doing, I shared that I’d hung up the sweater when it was wet, and that now it had dried with stretched-out points in the neckline. As I started to switch out the sweater for another, she said, “Grandma, it’s ok, it doesn’t matter how you look and people should accept you as you are, anyway.”
So, today, I strive to accept myself as I am, to accept all the people around me as they are, and to push for new ways that our system can grow so that more learners are supported today than yesterday.