Without inspired teachers, a school can hardly take care of its students. That’s why leading with love is essential. Steve Farber sits with Antoinette Gutierrez, Ed. D, the Principal at San Bernardino High School. Dr. Antoinette explains that teachers tend to teach in areas where they had a past negative experience. That’s why it’s important to love them into acting. It’s crucial to help them prevent their trauma from rubbing against the students. Otherwise, using fear or intimidation only leads to worse situations. Join in the conversation to learn more about the importance of loving leadership.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Leading With Love At San Bernardino High School With Antoinette Gutierrez, Ed. D
My guest is Antoinette Gutierrez, who is the Principal of San Bernardino High School. She’s been an educator for a long time. She was a middle school and a high school teacher for a while. She had a whole other career before she got into education. She got her Doctorate of Education and ended up as the principal of this very unusual school for many years.
I asked her to join us on the show because it’s a very challenging environment to be an educator. In particular, Antoinette comes from a place of love in the way that she leads with her staff and her kids. I know this firsthand, at least as far as her staff goes because I’ve spent some time with them. She’s quite an inspiration. Antoinette, thank you for being here. Set the scene for us at San Bernardino High School. What’s the story of the school and the lay of the land?
San Bernardino High School was established in 1883. It is the oldest high school in the San Bernardino City area. It was originally established on a different site, which is approximately less than a mile away from where we are. However, it moved to our site in 1915. The campus that we’re on now has been the same campus for over 100 years. It was an interesting story in the ’40s. There was a deal between the students and the mayor who was running for governor of the state of California. When that occurred, they said, “If we help you get elected, will you make us a chartered city?” He did get elected. He, true to his word, made our campus an actual city.
We have a charter where the only city that we know of that’s a campus as a school and the state of California and probably the nation, which means nobody knows what that means but we do have a mayor instead of the ASB president. We do have a Cardinal City mayor. We are considered a Cardinal City since we are an actual city. We lie in San Bernardino City, right at heart.
I say street names for people familiar with the area between Base Line and Highland off of East Street. The reason I do that is that it’s a very easily identified area in San Bernardino that people know has its own unique challenges that our kids get to pass every day. The city used to be flourishing and it went into bankruptcy years ago. It has been still recovering since I started in San Bernardino a few years ago.
The high school campus itself is technically a city within the city of San Bernardino.
It’s Cardinal City.
Tell us a little bit more about the dynamics of that. There are a couple of questions. Running a school that is also a city in the socioeconomic environment of San Bernardino seems to be a challenge upon challenge. Is there any additional political challenge? Being a high school principal is often very political anyway but in this particular context is it even more so or is it just a technicality?
With the city charter, nobody knows what to do with that since we are the only ones that exist as far as I know. If you have any of your readers that have another place, we’d love to connect with them but we haven’t found anybody yet. That piece is not an additional layer of political complexity. Working in a community that has gone bankrupt is a struggle.
Politically, we, being the administration and the school district remain neutral because regardless of who gets elected, we are going to have to work with them. We don’t get involved in who’s going to be sitting on the city council and things like that because regardless of who wins, who loses and what happens, we’re going to need to still forge strong relationships to make sure that we can be successful in the community at large.Every school needs to be taken care of in a way that makes the kids feel loved and cared for. Click To Tweet
Since high schools don’t stay with their own school necessarily, we interact with a lot of agencies and groups. We have a lot of partnerships, specifically because of our location and history. Everybody is pretty much 1 to 2 people removed from our school. Do you remember Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Separation? In San Bernardino, there are about two.
If the person we speak to did not go there, they know somebody who went there. In a rare case, somebody knows somebody but pretty much 1 to 2 spaces of separation. It is a very low socioeconomic status now because of the fact that Norton Air Force Base, when that went bankrupt, the military and a lot of people moved out of the area. When that happens, it tends to spiral.
You don’t have as many people spending money. You don’t have as much taxes. Therefore, it’s a downward spiral financially and economically. We deal with that because the ramifications of that mean that the people who can’t move from the area or choose not to move are the ones that stay in that community. We are a homeschool like most schools, meaning that we serve the community within the area that the school is.
There are no cross-community things unless there’s a specific program that a student wants to participate in to attend our school. Other than that, we serve the students that are around our area. We have an interesting mix of students. We have some older homes near us. You have homeowners and some housing that is Section 8 housing and a lot of apartments. You have an interesting mix in our school.
It’s a very diverse school.
I don’t have a lot of White kids there. There’s only 5% of my White kids. I say that because I lovingly tease my students especially I have a student this 2022 who is a White young man and there is not a lot of them. I call him my son because he looks like me. If he doesn’t go to class, I go, “You’re messing up my numbers. You are 1% of all of my data for my White population.”
I say it with all the love in my heart and they know that. Otherwise, I would get a lot more backlash. With our students, we have about 80% Latino population. We’re up to about 14% African-American or Black kids, 5% White and then there are mixes and others within there. That’s primarily what our demographics contained with. With schools, when we consider low socioeconomic, we usually consider it free and reduced lunch numbers. That’s how we say it. That’s the qualifier of a grant that feeds the students. We have about 97% of our student population qualify.
The culture of the school itself is like any organization or community. There are certain characteristics that come along with that collection. How would you describe it?
Is it now or where we got it to or when I got there?
How about all of the above? A few years ago, when you arrived, and I’m using the word culture for lack of a better word, how would you describe the school then?
I love my kids. They have tons of potential. The kids were amazing. Schools have always been a microcosm of the larger society. They’re either the larger local community or the larger whole. With that, we had a lot of students who never went to class. I will tell the story of the first day I went to school because I came from a different district. The teachers would tell me that the kids went to class when they felt like it. They think it’s a college community out here. They don’t feel like they want to go.
I’m like, “Okay.” I believe the teachers at first because there’s always something that we complain about that tends to be one of those things. On the first day, when the bell rang, nobody moved. I looked around. I would walk up to the groups of the kids and they didn’t even move. They would look at me like, “What do you want?” It doesn’t matter how far away it was. They made me walk all the way over there. They didn’t know what I possibly needed to talk to them about.
When I finally got there, I’m like, “Where are you supposed to be? I know you don’t have class in the quad now.” It was a struggle when we started to change the culture from, “This is a social hangout,” to, “We are an academic institution.” I like the word institution but we’re a learning community. “We’re here for you to learn to get you prepared beyond high school, which is college and career readiness so that they can do something that they love. How we find their passion.” Slowly and surely, we’ve loved them into submission. We got into a better culture. With that, we also had very low test scores.
We were the lowest-performing school in the district. Out of six comprehensive high schools, we were the lowest-performing. We were number 6 out of 6. Six is great if it’s out of 200, but 6 is not good if it’s out of 6. We being an administration, wanted to prove to the kids that they were just as good, smart and qualified as all the other schools. That had not been the message that they had received. They resigned themselves to, “We’re the ghetto school.” They gave up. They felt that’s how they were perceived so they leaned into it and became that, which was not the truth at all.
Within the first year we tested, we immediately jumped up to fourth. We passed two schools just by, “We’re going to make sure we test everybody. We’re not going to miss them. We’re going to make sure every single person is tested. We are going to tell them about it and the purpose of it,” because this was part of their graduation towards their English proficiency. It determines what class they are going to take.
There were a lot of things that we could make relevant to the kids. That started giving them a little bit of pride. I’m not one being okay with being at the bottom. I’m not super competitive but I’m competitive in the space of making everybody better. If we can compete with another school, it makes them better as well when they start running and we chase them. We started doing that.Humans need a level of affection to survive. Click To Tweet
That’s one piece of the culture. The other thing is that the school was not taken care of in a way that made the kids feel loved and cared about. A very simple, basic example was when I got there, our school colors have always been black, red and white. For some reason, our school was painted green and blue. It was like prison colors. You have the pride lacking in even seeing your school pride in the school colors. This is basic but as important as that.
When I was able to get a principal’s advisory, I got some kids together as I was walking classrooms and found some students who were vocal and passionate about making their voices heard. I would tap them on the shoulder like, “Would you mind being on my principal’s advisory and counsel me on how to make the school better?” They did. There were a couple of things that were easy to do. The paint and seats look nicer. They didn’t like the bells on campus so we now have Windsor chimes instead of the regular bells. Those are some things that the kids now started feeling vested in. That was a little bit of progress.
Before COVID, we had got to a place where it was such a different environment. We were second in our test scores. We were rivaling the highest performing school, the one that everyone used to transfer from our school to go to because word of mouth on the streets was that our school was bad, this was the best school and anybody who knows anybody should take their kids to that school. It started changing. For the first time, we were called a destination school instead of a flight school. A flight school is when you fly from that school. We became a destination school.
On the fifth year, we were still second in our test scores, rivaling the highest performing school. They knew we were coming for them so it was good. It benefited all of our kids. There was a lot more pride in the campus and being proud of being there. I had some alum who then took over our museum and our archives. They’re preserving and sharing the history of the school. They are creating an alumni association. They are starting to unify some of the histories. We then sent the kids home for a year and a half.
Before we go to that chapter, which is interesting in and of itself, there are a couple of things you said that I wanted to dive into a little bit more. You gave us a couple of examples of this already but you said, “We loved them into submission.” That’s a very powerful statement. I hear what you said about changing the physical environment. There are a couple of things that I heard you say that are examples of what that looked like.
When you say, “I wanted our students to be on the principal advisory committee. I wanted them to tell me how to be a better principal,” that’s pretty extraordinary. You chose the kids who were the most vocal, which is a little counter to what happens in a lot of places, which is, “Those are the loudmouths.” Instead, you went to them and said, “Help me.” To me, those seem to be examples of what “loving them into submission” looked like. What else would you put in that category?
A lot of our kids some of them do but there are a lot of patterns of behavior of trauma in the community. Not all of our kids have an example of what positive love relationships look like. For example, there are a lot of dysfunctional or maybe family and generational cycles of some traumatic relationships.
That means we have to be able to be the ones that demonstrate to them what true love looks like. That is the non-judging and loving the kids regardless. That comes in when they’re, for lack of better terms, acting a fool or acting their age that we can still suspend them, give them a discipline or a consequence and then still welcome them back when they come in and say, “I still love you, even though you made mistakes.”
Did you literally say that?
I tell kids I love them all the time. I do. I have kids that come to my office that come for a daily hug, “I love you. Have a good day. I need you to get your grades up on this one because I looked them up.” “Okay, love you.” They’ll tell me that too. This took a while to get there.
You have kids that come in for their daily hug. Is that what you said?
Yes. I have kids that come and they become my adopted children. A lot of times, that’s not how they start out. We have brilliant kids that don’t see their own brilliance and sometimes you have to love them. This is part of that loving into submission. Love them through the anger and whatever it is that they’re going through so they can see their own worth. Sometimes that’s harder than others because they’ve built up so many layers of disappointment, distrust or whatever you have to love them consistently. It’s like a parent. I tell the parents this, “I lead like a parent. I’m going to love your kids but I’m also not going to let them do whatever they want.”
It’s like my own children. I love my children and it hurts when my own kids do things that require a consequence that you don’t necessarily want to give them but you do it because you love them enough to help them become better people. I want to do that for other people’s kids too. That’s why I’m in the work that I do. We tend to forget that sometimes in education. We tend to treat other people’s kids differently than we do our own and that’s not where that love comes from. Loving them and accepting kids doesn’t mean allowing them to do whatever they want. In fact, that’s not love.
In other words, people are familiar with educators because their kids went through school and we were kids, all of us, for one time. A lot of us don’t stop and think about what it means to be a teacher. When you ask people off the top of their head, “Does it make sense for a teacher to love their students?” Most people would say, “Yes, it does.” What I found is when I ask most educators, one-to-one, that same question, I get a similar answer, “I love kids.” When you look at it from a broader perspective and look at the conversation that educators have with each other, it disappears. Why is that?
There are a lot of reasons. This is one. There’s a fear of being labeled as inappropriate love. There are a lot of people that have done stupid things. They don’t want to say, “I love my kids,” and have anybody misinterpret it to mean they’re doing something inappropriate. That’s one of the biggest things. I find that also with physical affection.
There are a lot of teachers that are afraid to hug their students because of things that have happened or accusations that are made, which is a valid concern. Also, there are administrators like, “Don’t hug your kids.” In our community, however, you had talked about the uniqueness of our community as our kids some of them, that’s the only form of positive physical touch they might get and I’m never going to deny a kid that.Learning happens in a safe environment. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, if it’s a side hug you’re more comfortable with, it’s still that level of affection that humans need to survive. Some of our kids don’t get it. If they do get it, there are strings attached. Different things are encompassed in that. As a teacher, that’s one. It’s a strong statement that people are wary of using in general. I don’t even think it’s specifically in education but we don’t talk about it.
You grow up saying, “I love my teacher,” in elementary but at some point, that leaves. It’s the same thing with your bosses and coworkers. I tell my staff I love them. They’re used to it at this point but it’s something that society says is not okay because love is only in a romantic way or some of your best friends versus, “I can truly care about you as another human being.” I don’t think it’s mainstream. Most people are very compliant and conformity-driven, I’ve found.
This is the way I would characterize it. You and your team did whatever you could to build a sense of community and pride in that community. Everything from painting the school so that it’s congruent with your actual colors and instilling pride for who San Bernardino High School is. You changed the culture and the test scores went up. That’s not a coincidence. I’m assuming that some of that comes from instilling pride in being smart, whereas before, many of them didn’t think of themselves that way.
There are some cultural components. We don’t even have time to get into the historical reason as to why schools aren’t set up for the kids that we serve. When we have kids that don’t see themselves in the school and not only do they not see themselves as being as successful for whatever reason. Usually, it’s the past practice from elementary on up. By high school time, they are so disenfranchised with the school that they don’t bother.
The other thing is that there’s that cultural pressure and media of, “It’s not cool to be smart.” It’s almost like the kids have to pick 1 of the 2 instead of, “It is cool,” or their future. There’s always the component that every kid everywhere has is they only think now matters. There’s not a lot of long-term planning. They’re not thinking about the next steps and how this is going to implicate the rest of their lives. Maturity-wise, they’re not there yet. That’s our job to help get them there.
You made all this great progress. As Joseph Heller once wrote, Something Happened, what happened? It’s a huge question but what were the implications of COVID not only for the kids but for the way that you and your team had to teach and lead through all that?
That’s a big question. We’ve had a sense of communal stress that we have not seen in any of our lifetimes unless somebody lived through the previous pandemic 100 years ago. It was good and bad. I’m going to look at the positives for me but the teachers, they were at an all-time stress level because they had to adapt everything they’ve always done to make it so that they could now educate students in a different format.
Now ironically, although the kids are constantly online, they have not had to learn online in that context. It’s never been a learning context. It’s been more of an entertainment context. Our district shut down from March of 2020 until the end of 2021. For about eighteen months, our students were not on campus in no way, shape or form.
During that time, the teachers on one side, not only are they doing all that and learning so that’s a high level of stress. You’re learning and implementing at the same time. It’s not the process of learning where we’re uncomfortable and get to practice in a safe environment. They’re just learning but building the plane while we’re flying it. That’s what was going on.
Simultaneously, they’re still dealing with their own personal lives at home as parents, guardians and whatever. They’re taking care of their kids who now have to do their homeschool in their houses. There were a lot of pressures there and then on our community, the way it played out because different communities played out differently depending on the stability of their whole life and financial means.
Technology was not an issue for our district or the internet because our district provided those things but what we can guarantee is the stability of the household. When we have a family of four in a motel because they’re homeless and moving around, how are all four of them going to be able to have a quiet learning environment online at the same time? What tended to happen was the older ones would give that quiet time up to the younger ones and become more of a parent. We’ve had people whose kids ran their lives because the families had to work and couldn’t oversee their kids.
Teenagers are not going to take the opportunity to be able to sleep all day because they’re not looking at long-term implications. It’s a student thing to do. You can’t judge that if you’re going to have a choice. Humans will go with the path of least resistance. Now you have a pubescent brain making these choices. There were a lot of other kids that needed to support their families and they went to work. If they were old enough, they would choose like, “What are you going to choose when the household is not making enough money to survive? Am I going to work and contribute to the household or am I going to do school?”
These are very legitimate life questions that our kids have to learn, go through and make decisions about. Everybody’s in this level of survival. On top of that, you have the trauma of death. There was so much death. People are losing a lot of family members. We lost a few staff members during that time. We had a student pass because of COVID. You’re dealing with all this without the normal comforts that you can usually provide at a school.
You can’t hug the kid. You just be like, “Let’s Zoom and see if I can counsel you through it.” It’s not the same as a human-to-human connection. We tried to facilitate some things with our students, who were classmates of the student we lost. It was rough. The teachers had a hard time with it so how do we ensure that everyone’s social and emotional needs were being met long-term? It was a struggle.
It sounds like the casualties of COVID hit your community very hard.
In San Bernardino County, the numbers were some of the highest deaths levels. Anytime you go into an area with a low socioeconomic community, you have that equates to not as effective healthcare, people who don’t even have health plans and people that avoid going to the doctor because of the costs. You get there too late so the death rate and the long-term effects hit harder in those communities than in more affluent communities.You can have a future that doesn't look like what you're in right now. Click To Tweet
The first place my mind went was in thinking about the kids you talked about, who the only positive physical touch they get in their lives is when they come into your office for a hug and that went away. When you layer on top of that the fear, the challenge of COVID and the physical environment of being in school, how did you help them through that? Let alone the challenge of being an educator trying to do that. What did you guys have to do and did it work?
We tried everything we could without having contact with the kids because we weren’t allowed to. It was a point where we couldn’t even do home visits. It wasn’t the liability but it was spreading and getting COVID. The fear of that has pretty much shut us off. You can connect as much as you can. We tried to use relationships and leverage those as much as possible. I remember a student that we had as a senior. We had a great relationship with her. She was one of those smart kids that knew how to cheat the system. She would handle her business and be outside all the time.
I was like, “How are you possibly passing all your classes when you’re never in class?” She was so smart. She would handle things and she’d be like, “Can I have a pass?” She then messes around the rest of the time. She had As. She was one of those kids that we could not find. We lost her. We don’t know where she ended up going. She had moved a few times. She was behind credits. We had multiple people try to reach out. Eventually, their numbers changed so many times and we can’t find them. The biggest part that hurt us the most was those kids we already had relationships with and we were not able to get them through the finish line.
We tried to provide the same services online and things like that but there was no way to do that to the level we would if we were there in person. It’s not just the physical affection of being with other people but it was also the counter-narrative that, “You can be successful. You’re smart. You’re part of something greater. You can have a future that doesn’t look like what you’re in now.” That went away for eighteen months. They were again in survival mode, and survival means, “This is my world and this is all I have. How do I learn the rules to get through it and not thrive in it?”
When did school open up again?
At the beginning of August 3rd, 2021.
Pre-COVID, you had built the experience, culture and the community up to this great place. That all went away during COVID. Now, they’re coming back together physically again. Talk a little bit about what that looks like and what it’s like now.
In many ways, it’s starting over again. It was like the first year I went there because we have two grades of kids, 9th and 10th grade, that have never been on our campus. One grade has only been online. They may or may not have ever seen any other classmates because they had their little icon thing that have their letter initials. Half of our campus does not know the adults. They don’t know that we love them. They don’t know anything about high school in general, the structure. There were no seniors to model to them like, “This is how you act.”
The seniors have graduated during that time.
They weren’t around them so it didn’t even matter. They had their class and whoever else they hang out with outside of school. They didn’t know how to act. With that, we also lost a lot of our kids to the unofficial institutions on the streets. You have the gangs and things like that. We had a rise in conflict but we also had a rise in weapons. We had a rise in drug use because everything that has happened over the last months got brought onto the campus. The worst part is they don’t have relationships with any adults. Now you have this weird melting pot.
On top of that, they froze in their maturity. I don’t know how else to describe it. Our kids froze in whatever grade level they left at because they weren’t able to socialize to get older. Our tenth graders, the last time they were on campus was eighth grade. Think about it. We have a bunch of 8th graders who are now supposed to be 10th graders and they didn’t know how to act.
Even our freshmen were frozen in seventh grade but with high school freedoms. They didn’t get to grow with their peers in the way that you’d normally progress by interacting with people in a social setting. You have middle school behaviors on a high school campus. It was a very interesting and dangerous dynamic. The worst part of it is that we don’t have the relationships to do what we normally do like, “I saw you out there.” There was a lot of like, “Who do you think you are?” The defense mechanisms that keep them in survival mode on the streets became the behaviors we were interacting with on campus. It took a long time to get through some of those kids.
How has that gone? It’s been a few months now.
We’re getting to a good place now. Amongst us, there is four admin. We’ve been together the last couple of years. We’ve been on the same team. We know how each other works and we all tend to gravitate toward different groups of kids, which is unique but it works. We know the kids that frequently aren’t connected. There are some that have and this is going to sound bad as I hate to say that we’ve lost them but we’ve lost them. We’ve lost them in the sense of not being sure we have the resources, time, energy and personnel to get them to believe that they can be successful in the short amount of time that we have.
You talked about kids that you literally lost and that you don’t know where they are. These are the kids that you lost the connection.
We, as a system, have lost them. Meaning they’re not going to make it to graduation and we worry about them but they’re so built up with the trauma and pushing us away that they wouldn’t even let us help them. Over the time, we’ve been able to say, “This kid right here, this wasn’t even appropriate placement for them. They should be at this particular place with more support, smaller classrooms, etc.” We’re trying to get the kids back to where they should be, number one and the other part is, in the meantime, building those relationships.When someone loves you, they give you a safe space to make mistakes. Click To Tweet
That’s where we get into the girls. If, for some reason, the students are Black female students, they are the ones that I tend to connect with. We have a couple of students that I see all the time. I have a beautiful window of 90 degrees on my campus. I’m always yelling at everybody. Once they realize that we’re doing it out of love like, “I love you. The reason I’m on you is that I love you. I love you enough because I know you’re not realizing your potential.”
Once they get that, they’re like, “Mom.” Don’t be calling me mom if you’re not even across where you’re supposed to be. Don’t call me mom if you’re acting right. Being able to have those interactions consistently, even after they get suspended or if they do something like they get in a fight is how we’ve been able to gain some progress over the last months, which you asked about before.
On the one hand, you said it’s almost going back to what it was like when you first started there. On the other hand, it’s even more challenging.
It is but I’m going to focus on one of the great things. One of the good things and I mentioned it so I could come back to it is I was trying to provide a great opportunity to model what love and support look like. I had to love and support my staff through this because their social and emotional wellness was where I needed to pour into so that they could then support and love the kids.
If I had not done that and if I had been one of those people that like, “I’m going to evaluate you. It better be this good,” knowing where people are, not, “You can’t do your responsibility,” but let me love you and say, “I’m going to give you a safe space to make mistakes. What I’m asking you to do is to try to push yourself or do something new. I can give you feedback on how to improve it even more. We’re in this together.” I did that so that we could revisit that at the beginning and say, “Do you remember what you needed from me at that time?”
This is the question to your staff.
A lot of the responses were, “I need you to understand that it was hard and new. I was going to mess up. I needed an understanding and grace.” It was a perfect segue with, “That’s all I’m asking for you to give your kids. I’m asking you to give the kids everything you wanted for me and your grown people.” It was a good place to start there. The other thing is, how do you get kids to try new things? You have to create a safe environment.
There are a lot of instructional ways of bringing it back. I also taught a class on the virtual time because I had a teacher that didn’t come back. I got to teach leadership. I got to be an online teacher for the first semester. It was good because I got to be able to play with some of those things and speak to and support the staff because I knew what it was like. It’s like, “I know it’s hard to get these kids to talk because it’s not in groups. They have to talk to the whole class. It’s all public. People can take pictures of you. It’s a different context.” We did that.
The other thing that I’m going to say that is even more powerful is we don’t have zero relationships. It’s almost like our senior class is more dedicated to us. I say that because when we were having a lot of issues, there was a time at about the end of August and middle of September 2021 when there’s no other way for it. The kids were off the hook. They were so uncontrolled. They had lived in a social media world for months. Now they come back and they’re still in the social media world like, “What’s the school thing? Who cares?”
There was this person that was great and had a future in marketing. He was setting up little things to happen to create chaos. One time there was a rumble. They called it a rumble. I’ve never even heard of kids calling things rumbles since the ’50s. There were about 100 to 150 kids that were there to watch. You’ve got 100 kids in a mob mentality, filming things and waiting for people to get started fighting. You then have parents whose rumor mill takes over and all of a sudden, it’s not a rumble. It’s a riot with weapons, which never happened. That’s a lot of social media stuff.
Kids are filming in and then there’s a food fight. That gets out of control. Kids are fighting. They’re dealing with all this seventh-grade drama. Girls are fighting over stuff that happened years ago because they paused their life and then had to finish it now. It was this overarching thing. Here’s where we leveraged their relationships. We were like, “How do we get control of this place? Because we have no relationships, how do we get control without violating the relationships? We still need to make sure that later, we can still have them present with us and be successful.”
Our seniors were very hurt like, “These kids are ruining our senior year.” I’m like, “If they don’t act right during the day, nobody’s going to the extracurricular stuff.” I told everybody, “You’re not going to football games. No kids are going to be allowed to go, just parents. If you can’t act right during the day, you’re not going to do anything at night.” The seniors got all irritated. I’m like, “That’s messed up.” I go, “Get your people under control.”
When you say, “Get your people under control,” do you mean the underclass?
Yes. I said, “Do something about it because they’re not listening to us.” They shut them down in less than four days.
How did they do that?
It’s social media, “Don’t do anything wrong. You guys need to act right. You guys are immature.” It’s peer pressure. We even had a kid that has an underground boxing group. They try to box and we already know about it. Even then, they were setting rules like, “Don’t make this into a fight. We’re not trying to ruin the experience for people. If you lose, you lose. Get out of line.” I’m like, “These kids.” They had enough relationships with us and enough care and vested interest in their school and their experience to become part of a team of people saying, “We all have to act right if we’re going to work together.” That was the most powerful thing and we had not had that until 2022.We all have to act right if we work together. Click To Tweet
What you tapped into there was the preexisting relationship. It’s the relationships that you built with them a couple of years ago. You also leveraged whatever cultural or community memory there was, which lived only in those kids. You tapped into that and then empowered them to be the leaders.
One hundred percent and they owned it. We haven’t had that pride since I’ve been there because it kept being driven by us. The culture got better but it was never where the seniors could just take over and then do it. This 2022, it became a reality. That’s what I’m saying. There are some things that good came out of it that we were able to leverage. They became stronger. Our ASB now is 40 something students, the Associated Student Body. We’ve only had 10 to 15 people in the past.
This 2022, we have over 40-something kids participating in holding offices. They’re on fire. I have to slow them down a little bit because their teacher is very political. I’m trying to teach them how to do it the right way and not alienate the whole district. They found out, like this area, they’re going to build a child daycare center. We were trying to do it for a wellness garden. They got hot about it and became activists on behalf of the campus.
It was such a heartwarming thing to see because the admin had been doing all of this like, “Let’s care about the campus.” Now, we have a lot of kids driving it. Not being there made them appreciate it. At least those that were part of our culture before made them appreciate it and want to come back and make it better. We had a lot of struggles with this group and we’re still working on that group but we also came out stronger in the end with the ones that we already had been building their capacity.
I’m going to make sure I understand you right. You’re saying that the pride in the community of the school is greater now than it’s ever been.
Yes and they’re willing to go to the board to be like, “We need a wellness garden. This is what’s right.” I have a lot of advocacy groups on campus but I’ve never seen as much involvement in things before. Telling them they couldn’t go to a football game would have never worked before. They wouldn’t have cared but because they haven’t had anything to do for so long, it became like, “We have to.” It became an appreciation for them that they’ve missed. They didn’t realize how special it was until they didn’t have it.
They then became custodians of their own culture. Looking ahead to the future, are you optimistic?
I’m optimistic. I have to say this because I’m honest and open about what’s happening in real life. There are a lot of mental health issues. I have struggled with mental and physical health issues this 2022 because this was a difficult time. I can’t sugarcoat that. I’ve never had a year like this in my entire career or in any career I’ve had. I was in property management before in San Diego. I have never had health and mental health issues that I’ve had this 2022. It has been exhausting because people’s needs and trauma have been unparalleled.
I have never seen so many people need so much with the inability to get filled back up in a spiritual or emotional way. I was depleted. That’s the best way I describe it to people. I had nothing left to give. When COVID hit and we were on virtual, all of us were like, “We can hang in there until we come back.” When we came back, I was like, “We’re at the end of the marathon finish line.” Once we crossed that finish line, it was like, “You just started the marathon.” You’ve got twice that more miles to go.
Everybody was like, “I can’t hang in that much longer. I’ve been hanging into this point and I’m not sure I can keep going on.” It took a lot to maintain my support for people when I wasn’t full myself. That’s been an interesting thing to watch. I’m not the only one. There are people who are quitting education now. I had two teachers quit this 2022. I know that in administration, there have been retirements. People are quitting left and right because they can’t keep going. It’s been hard to take care of everybody.
Because everybody is up here, now they have somebody complaining to love them. Love isn’t always reciprocated in a positive way so we’ve taken a lot from not just the kids and their trauma and whatever energy they’re coming with but also the parents and then the staff. It was a lot. Remember, we’re not just back to normal. We also now have all these extra things, like the fear of COVID. We have all these extra protocols that we have to follow. We have a lot of people’s fear. You have a very interesting dynamic that I’m not sure where came from but with people that are not wanting to wear a mask, wear a mask, not wanting to get vaccinated and wanting to be vaccinated.
All of that plays out in the school system even though we have nothing to say about it. It’s not our mandate. We’re another agency and institution that implements whatever we need to do to get our job done, which is teaching and learning. Somehow, all of that then still plays out. That’s the layer of frustration when people are feeling like they’re not appreciated. It was obvious how much we were needed when we were not in school. That adds to it.
What do you do to fill up your own bucket?
I wasn’t very good about it, to be honest with you. This year forced me to. I ended up with an ulcer or heartburn so bad they thought I was having a heart attack. That’s when it forced me to change. I’ve tried to make sure I do regular massages because it’s time that I’m not doing anything. I’ve tried to go to different retreats so I can be around people that is pure peace and love so that I don’t have to expel any of my energy. I can put that back, taking time for myself, spending time with people and friends that we’re not talking and stressing about work. We’re being able to be present. I’ve been able to go to a couple of concerts and things that are not work-related to break off that feeling of work. The Europe trip is coming up.
I am an optimist by nature. The way I would describe it nowadays for me is that it’s still true. I just have to work harder at it. Your example and your team give me such great hope and inspiration because the work that you’re doing is so important. You’re proving to all of us what’s possible in some of the most difficult of circumstances. Maybe not the most difficult on the planet but certainly more difficult than most of us would even think about day-to-day.
One of the other pieces is that people forget that as leaders, we have to love. You do this more in business than in education. A lot of people say I’m about kids, I love the kids and things like that but we tend to forget that we have to love our teachers as well. Not love them into submission as much as love them out of their trauma because teachers get into teaching for a variety of reasons.
Teachers that tend to teach in the areas that we’re serving now are doing it because of either their own past negative experiences or they want to be a savior. There’s a savior complex. There’s something that led them to want to do that. A lot of times, there’s their own trauma or how they’ve been treated by previous leadership. Sometimes, you have to love them too into acting right. Love them into themselves and being okay and not letting their trauma rub up against other kids’ trauma.
Thank you for adding that. Teachers are among my greatest heroes. I’m an educator too but not in that way. I work with adults and, for the most part, mature adults. There are always exceptions to that. The challenge that all educators face day in and day out with the responsibility of cultivating our future generation of leaders is a monumental thing. It baffles and pisses me off when I see the attitude that some people have towards the teacher of their kids. Granted, there are always going to be bad teachers in any profession, but for the most part, teachers do such an important job for our society, let alone for our kids.
Getting your experience in this circumstance that you’re leading in for this group of kids, for me, I’ll speak for myself and I’m sure that that a lot of our readers will feel the same way is such a beautiful confirmation of how many great people there are who care about this world and our kids. That’s virtually everybody in the field of education. I can’t say enough about how important you guys are. You, personally, Antoinette, are such an incredible leader. I’m so grateful for the example you’re setting for the rest of us.
Thank you. I’m not always a good example but I always try. That’s what matters.
Show me one functioning human being who was always a good example.
I know. It’s just a caveat.
Thanks for being here. To all of you reading, thanks so much for joining us in this conversation. Until next time. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do, like Antoinette and her team.
About Antoinette Gutierrez, Ed. D
Entering education as a second career, Antoinette Gutierrez has worked in all levels of education, teaching English in middle school, starting her administrative career in elementary school followed by high school experience, she found a home as the principal of San Bernardino High School.
Just completing her 7th year, she has found a common passion and become an advocate for equity and for coaching and mentoring others into the leadership spaces. She is married with three children and loves the opportunity to take on the current systems to make the world a better place for everyone.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share! https://www.stevefarber.com/podcast/