Monthly Archives: February 2020

Role models: What do your actions teach when you think no one is watching?

When students stray from the path toward their goal of completing college, it is not usually because they lack the skills to do college work. Motivation may be lacking, and they may not have examples in their lives that demonstrate the characteristics needed to accomplish the extraordinary. Many ordinary folks who have reached their goals forget who and what motivated and inspired them to do more and be more.

While everyone won’t have a desire or an opportunity to serve or be recognized as a mentor, we all can think of ourselves as role models because we never know who is watching and learning from us. By our behavior, we can promote the idea that each student has the potential to experience their own potency and ability.

What makes a role model a role model? It depends on the context. Although I didn’t know it when I was a preteen, my role models were two multifaceted women for whom I had conflicting feelings. Sometimes, I judged them harshly. Even so, I admired how strong they were and how hard they worked.

Miss L was my father’s wife and not my mother. She owned a small store called a sundry, for it sold various items, from snacks and soft drinks to headache medicines, antacids, and the like. The sundry was at the end of a street – just before it curved around the bend – in the Orange Mound community of Memphis, Tennessee. It was across from the park and a few doors down from the Orange Mound Cab Company. During the day, Miss L managed the sundry, doing her bookkeeping in the evenings, often until the wee hours of the morning. Despite her hard work during the day and bookkeeping at night, there apparently was not enough business and income to keep the sundry going.

After a series of low-paying waitressing and domestic jobs, Miss L landed a job as the head domestic worker for a wealthy family on the other side of town. She became indispensable to this family, who bought her a new station wagon every two years for the safe chauffeuring of their children to school and their various after-school activities. Miss L took care of the family even when she had a day off. She would stay late on Thursday nights to cook all the meals for the weekend. She never missed a day of work and always looked impeccable in her white uniform. She looked like a nurse going to work in the mornings.

When she was at home, I don’t recall her sleeping much or sitting down to eat a meal. She would take little naps and nibble on food while she worked. Her respite was when she would take time to read the newspaper. When she went out during her times off, she dressed stylishly and never skimped on her make-up. Because she went to the beauty parlor on a regular schedule, her hair always looked the same. No bad hair days.

I also watched my paternal grandmother, Mama Rosie. She was less than 5-foot tall and weighed about 100 pounds. Despite her size, she was strong. She had had to be to raise four sons alone.

There were only two options available for Mama Rosie to make money, and she took both. She would get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a. m. to join other women and men in the back of a truck to be driven from the city of Memphis to the fields where cotton was in need of picking. I remember riding with her in the back of the truck at least one time.

When Mama Rosie would come to see me on Saturdays or Sundays when I was 5 or 6 years old, my other grandparents and the neighbors liked to tell stories about her. They would laugh as they talked about how it was not humanly possible for a woman of Mama Rosie’s size to pick as much cotton as she did and carry bags of cotton weighing hundreds of pounds. They teased her, saying that she was making all the money because her sacks of cotton were so full.

When she was not in the cotton fields, Mama Rosie was cleaning houses and taking care of the children of people who had financial means. She sometimes had domestic jobs that required her to “stay on the place.” Whether working in the cotton fields or cleaning houses, I never heard her say she was tired or didn’t want to do whatever her job was.

While Mama Rosie didn’t go far in school, she made the most of her time there, learning all there was to learn, including reading and writing – skills some other women in her age group didn’t have. Mama Rosie always talked to me about how important it was for me to learn all I could while in school.

Neither of these women knew that I was watching them. They didn’t know that they were teaching me just by doing their job. They didn’t know that they were instilling in me a reservoir of strength that I could call on when I thought the work was too hard and the time to my goal was too long. What they did for me was to normalize working hard to achieve my goals.

What I didn’t learn from them was that there is more to life than hard work. I didn’t learn that work was not the be all and end all. Nevertheless, I owe my work ethic to these role models who never knew that I was watching them.

Learning about oneself

Who doesn’t want to feel capable, respected, admired, and loved? At an important juncture early in my career, these feelings promoted a positive sense of personal power and a belief that I had infinite potential. My feelings of confidence and high self-esteem were sustained by co-workers who encouraged me to blossom as I basked in the light of their good will.

What changed? I met Mary in graduate school. She had a positive attitude and her spirit was infectious. She exuded confidence and high energy. No one could be depressed, down, or self-critical in her presence because she believed not only in herself but also in you. Greeting everyone with a smile and a kind word, Mary was always sought out as a listener or study partner. When the feedback we were getting from our professors reduced our self-esteem in every conceivable way, all of us in our graduate cohort needed Mary and loved being with her because she validated us.

Mary was at least ten years older than the rest of us. She had an old-school marriage where she was responsible for everything related to domestic life, and a full-time job at a junior high school where she needed combat pay for the war she fought every day.

I loved being in Mary’s company and thought it would be nice to see her even more often than in our classes at the university. When a position opened up at the college where I worked, I thought Mary would be perfect to join our team. I told my boss about her and encouraged her to apply for the position as a counselor. I championed her candidacy, but she didn’t need it. She blew away the review team and became my colleague.

We needed another counselor because students’ needs were beyond our capacity. There seemed to be an epidemic of students coming to the counseling center with symptoms of depression. We were overwhelmed. Mary was so effective with students who presented as being depressed that she quickly developed a reputation among the faculty and staff who made student referrals to the counseling center. The counselors also began to consult with her on particularly troublesome cases. Mary became known for her skills and, once people met her, they became fans and friends.

I didn’t know what was going on with me, but I began to spend less and less time with Mary and apparently, according to Mary, rejected her attempts to continue the warm relationship we had before she joined the staff.

One day, Mary came into my office, shut the door, and sat down. I didn’t know exactly what form this confrontation would take, but I knew something like this was bound to happen. I was quite uncomfortable. We both sat quietly without talking for a long couple of minutes. Finally, Mary caught my eyes, held my gaze and, speaking softly as if talking with a small child, asked me, “Gwen, what are you afraid of?”

Of course, I didn’t think that I was afraid of anything. But when I reflected on what had been happening and how I felt, I came to grips with the fact that I was afraid that if Mary were loved and respected to the extent that she was, there wouldn’t be enough for me. Before Mary joined the staff, my light shone brightly, and now all the light seemed to be on her. I felt diminished.

What did I learn? I learned that without the external validation that I was capable and had potential, I doubted myself. Past successes as evidence of my competence and effectiveness were not enough to overcome the unacknowledged fear of losing what I saw as positive personal power. It was this direct question from Mary about my fear that brought me face-to-face with my real weaknesses.

I needed external validation of my capabilities and effectiveness. I felt that there was a limited amount of love, respect, and admiration, and if Mary were getting so much of it, there wouldn’t be enough for me.

After that hard realization, I began to habitually investigate my feelings through reflection to see what other lessons I could learn about myself.

Don’t let negativity hijack your focus: It’s all about students

When I was growing up, I was taught never to use the word “HATE.” It was the four-letter word that was taboo in our family. Whenever I would use the word, it was usually about some chore that I didn’t want to do. If my grandmother was within earshot of my profanity, she would say, “Honey, we don’t use that word in this family. Find another word.” Growing up this way makes the word “HATE” especially heinous and destructive to me.

Imagine how I must have felt when, as Dean of Student Development, I was told by four different administrators in the course of one week that a top-level administrator who was my boss’ boss “HATED” me. Naturally, I ruminated about what I had been told. Realizing that running these negative messages over and over in my mind was crippling me emotionally, I had to find a way to get back to what I had been focusing on before I received these messages.

The first thing I did to get out of the rumination rut was to reflect on what may have caused this person to express hatred toward me to other people. Thinking as objectively as possible about my last interactions with the person, I could understand why this person might not be happy with me. I had dared, in a meeting of several administrators, to strenuously disagree about an impending decision regarding student activities funds. Despite the fact that I thought I was in the right position on the matter, upon reflection, I could imagine that this person, by dent of the position held, would be extremely angry with me. For my part, I concluded that there were more effective ways with fewer negative consequences that I should consider when reacting to positions in opposition to my own. Nonetheless, for the administrator to express hatred toward me seemed over the top.

I then considered how I might put this situation in perspective because the backlash of my own behavior had distracted me from my goal of being the most effective administrator I could be. I didn’t think an apology would be accepted, and I couldn’t reveal how I knew that the administrator was angry beyond the pale. I thought my best way forward was to refocus on the expectations and responsibilities of my job.

When I look back at what I accomplished during this period of serious distraction, I might have intuitively known that I needed to shine brightly in bringing value to the college through my efforts to support students. I was realistic enough to know that I might be fired if I did not bring the kind of value that was over and above expectations. Receiving evaluations of “exceeds expectations” in the stated responsibilities of the positions would have been fine for most people, but I knew that I needed to bring more to the table.

I was already working as hard as I could, having accepted the added responsibility of being one of the academic deans in addition to being the Dean of Student Development. Having two entirely different staffs and two separate offices, working hard not to drop the ball in either area of responsibility, was hard and exhilarating. Having responsibility for some of the faculty, as well as the counselors and advisers in Student Development, put me in the best position possible to do what we all wanted in regards to supporting students.

I threw myself into trying the impossible, such as bringing faculty and counseling advisers together for student academic advising. The gods looked upon us with favor when a popular faculty member and an influential counselor coordinated the joint advising effort in a space dedicated for this collaboration. Despite the fact that this effort was fraught for a number of reasons, we were all passionately committed to how the collaboration would benefit all students.

During this same period, I initiated something else that kept me from being distracted by the negative messages I was receiving. I approached the director of the county schools’ program for gifted and talented students to pitch the idea of a Middlestart Program. The county schools’ director and I brought the idea to our respective institutions and the program was embraced by faculty, staff, and administrators from the college and from the county schools. It was not long before 50 junior high school students were taking summer courses taught by our college faculty. In addition to the courses, students were receiving an excellent orientation to college and would hopefully consider our college in the future.

I have reason to believe that anyone who is a member of an academic community, whether on college and university campuses or in association work, may find themselves distracted by negative interpersonal issues that block creativity and enthusiasm for one’s work. Knowing that I was contributing to larger goals in significant ways worked for me. Focusing on initiatives and being exhilarated by the challenge of doing two full-time jobs boosted my confidence and sense of safety despite functioning in an environment that was anything but nurturing. Though my focus might have been hijacked momentarily, remembering that my raison d’etrewas all about students removed all traces of the distractions resulting from messages about my being hated.