Paul White (Part 2)
Nationally Recognized Teacher
We continue Part II of the interview with Paul White, an alternative high school teacher of at-risk students in Los Angeles, CA, who has been interviewed by "People" magazine and CBS. During our interview, Paul explained how the Bible is central to his daily preparation, how he addresses issues with students, how he's handled being assaulted, how he helps students rise to high achievement levels and surpass expectations, how's he's met resistance during his teaching career, and a bit about his upcoming book.
How do you prepare for your work as a teacher of at-risk students, which must hold many challenges?
The first thing I do each day is to pray and study my Bible. Because my commute is approximately 50 miles one way on L.A. freeways, that means my study and prayer has to start at 4:00 a.m. I am so absolutely convinced of the primacy of prayer to the success of what I’m doing, that I made a commitment with myself years ago that I would not leave the house for work until I had completed my own communication with God. This resolve was tested on a few occasions in the past when I’d been up late and was running behind in the morning and was tempted to forgo my time for spiritual inspiration. But I didn’t; I went to work late. The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). It’s critical that I realize that there’s not a single throw-away moment in working with a child. They’re showing up, so I have to bring my “A” game to school every day. There’s no excuse for not being prepared. Often I hear teachers wonder, “What are the kids going to be like today?” But this really is asking the wrong question. The real question is, “What are you, as the teacher, willing to accept and believe about them today?” Did something happen to them, and there are some children other than God’s children present today? I really see them as God’s children, even though the kids I’ve worked with over the years have done some pretty terrible things. I’ve been assaulted countless times. And I had a boy catch a bullet in his chest 10 feet outside my door; he died in my arms. So, you might ask, “How much do you forgive?” Well, the biblical teaching tells us forgiveness should be unlimited (Matt. 18:21-22). And, the Bible doesn’t just say to forgive the children. Because I rely on God, I’ve been able to achieve some wonderful transformations in schools over the years, but I’ve had to take some very radical stands to accomplish this; as a result, the number of awards I’ve received is just about equal to the number of contracts I’ve had non-renewed. Jesus told us to get the logs out of own our eyes before we get the specks out of others’ (Matt.7:5). The biggest job I have regarding whom I have to get right at school is me; it’s not others. When you shoot at the basket and you miss, it’s one of two explanations -- the basket moved, or your aim is improper. It always seems to be that the basket moved: the kids ate too much sugar today; there’s a holiday coming, so they’re not as focused; the weather’s affecting their ability to study, etc. But you have to address such issues with the kids.
The first thing I do each day is to pray and study my Bible. Because my commute is approximately 50 miles one way on L.A. freeways, that means my study and prayer has to start at 4:00 a.m. I am so absolutely convinced of the primacy of prayer to the success of what I'm doing, that I made a commitment with myself years ago that I would not leave the house for work until I had completed my own communication with God. This resolve was tested on a few occasions in the past when I'd been up late and was running behind in the morning and was tempted to forgo my time for spiritual inspiration. But I didn't; I went to work late. The Bible says, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). It's critical that I realize that there's not a single throw-away moment in working with a child. They're showing up, so I have to bring my "A" game to school every day. There's no excuse for not being prepared. Often I hear teachers wonder, "What are the kids going to be like today?" But this really is asking the wrong question. The real question is, "What are you, as the teacher, willing to accept and believe about them today?" Did something happen to them, and there are some children other than God's children present today? I really see them as God's children, even though the kids I've worked with over the years have done some pretty terrible things. I've been assaulted countless times. And I had a boy catch a bullet in his chest 10 feet outside my door; he died in my arms. So, you might ask, "How much do you forgive?" Well, the biblical teaching tells us forgiveness should be unlimited (Matt. 18:21-22). And, the Bible doesn't just say to forgive the children. Because I rely on God, I've been able to achieve some wonderful transformations in schools over the years, but I've had to take some very radical stands to accomplish this; as a result, the number of awards I've received is just about equal to the number of contracts I've had non-renewed. Jesus told us to get the logs out of own our eyes before we get the specks out of others' (Matt.7:5). The biggest job I have regarding whom I have to get right at school is me; it's not others. When you shoot at the basket and you miss, it's one of two explanations -- the basket moved, or your aim is improper. It always seems to be that the basket moved: the kids ate too much sugar today; there's a holiday coming, so they're not as focused; the weather's affecting their ability to study, etc. But you have to address such issues with the kids.
How do you address the issues regarding outside influences with the students, especially when many people believe that people have absolutely no control over such influences?
One of the most important things I do is to come to my class with a full heart. What does anybody learn? Exactly what they're taught and nothing more! So, I think about what I'm teaching them and what they've picked up from collective thoughts from their friends, the media, etc. I ask, "What do I have to challenge and replace?" Some say that school's a horrible place. No, it's a wonderful opportunity! And my job is to make the students and their parents feel that way. Some argue that if learning is difficult, teachers should give students something easy. Why? We don't say that in athletics. Nobody begs to lift less weights with the attitude of, "Let me get weaker." So, I address issues and influences directly. A small example of this is with the split up over this past 4th of July holiday. My students came in Monday, had Tuesday off, and came back on Wednesday. Rather than fixate on how the irregular schedule would upset the students, how they'd be in a bad mood because of missing a long weekend or having to attend school during the summer, etc., I focused on the positive. Because I could almost feel my students thinking these things, I specifically addressed them: "Yes," I told them, "this is a scheduling irregularity, but I'm so glad to be here with you this morning. We have a great day ahead of us, and we're going to be able to enjoy our day today and enjoy our holiday tomorrow." And we did. And their behavior was as perfect as always. This works virtually every time.
You mentioned being assaulted. Would you share how you've handled such situations?
One time, when I was the principal of a middle school in a large urban district considered the worst school in the city, I was counseling a large, angry student who had a history of violent behavior. He engaged me physically, lunging at my face, threatening me, and spewing profanity. To protect myself, I had to push him up against the partition wall in my office. As I held this angry, sullen boy there, his eyes suddenly got watery, his face quivered, and he started to cry. We sat down, and he was ready to talk and listen. I told him that I cared about him and that I was certain that he could overcome his horrible home environment and learning problems and be successful. But he had to learn to deal with his issues and stop taking out his anger on others. To make a long story short, he and I finished up the day at McDonald's eating cheeseburgers. We became friends; he became a successful student; and there were never any more behavior problems with him during my tenure at that school. The teachings of the Bible are essential to handling issues of this sort because their underlying message is one of fearlessly confronting evil in the attempt, not to punish, but to heal and transform.
How do you help students rise to your high academic, behavioral, and moral standards?
I believe the Bible teaching that man (each one of us) is -- not is going to be -- the "image" and "likeness" of God (Gen. 1:26). That means that the intelligence, self-discipline, moral courage, integrity, and unselfishness that children need to be successful are, right at this moment, the truth of their very being. I help my students prove this by trying to provide a school climate and a personal example that witness to this divine fact. So, as my students enter the school and see a physical environment that highlights these qualities and a teacher who tries to express these qualities, their innate, God-given goodness starts to resonate in the students' hearts, and they find themselves naturally, irresistibly drawn to expressing these same qualities. And they do. The result is academic achievement, voluntary sobriety, productive employment, harmonious race relations, a strong work ethic, unselfishness, respect for their parents, and hope for their future. What I'm really trying to do as a teacher is get myself out of the way as much as possible.
Why is it important to get yourself out of the way?
There's a beautiful poem that answers the question and applies to teaching or parenting children. It talks about 2 types of people -- those who choose to be "art glass of rainbow hue" (which has people focus on the glass) and those who choose to be "pane[s] of glass for the sun to shine through" (so people see the beautiful "day" beyond the glass). I work to be the "clear" and "clean" pane of glass, to get myself out of the way so that the children can see themselves. As teachers, we have students who are pretty much captive audiences and need our approval and acceptance to maintain their progress. So it can be very tempting to be the stained glass and to fixate on our own personalities. If we don't stay humble, we can get caught up in the attention we receive and get intoxicated by the power we're entrusted with over the lives of others. And if we, as teachers, never get beyond this personal sense of things -- if we don't help our students see, not us, but through us to their own potential and future -- then our ultimate impact on students will be greatly diminished. I tell my students: "I'll always remember you, but my job responsibility is for you to have something long after you've forgotten the school or my name, that you have what I've awakened you to see in yourself." And first things first: "I owe it to you to do what's right rather than what's going to make you happy with me. While I firmly hope and believe that we can have both, if it comes to a choice, doing the right thing has to be our priority." Typically, a warm relationship comes with this attitude and awareness. Every kid has my cell and home phone and all are encouraged to call 24 hours a day with good or bad news, which they frequently do. Growing up, I had, in the next bedroom, a wonderful mom and dad to whom I could go at any time, but many of my kids don't. So by making myself available, I guess I'm kind of like a virtual parenting source to many of them.
You mentioned non-renewed contracts. Why the problems with the contracts?
I go to bosses and school leaders with, "I've got great news! We can change students, help solve their problems, and totally reinvent our concept of education. But the problem's not the kids; it's us." And they say, "Oh…." And that's how it has happened … and continues to happen … and I wouldn't change a thing. The nature of truth, since the world began, is that it causes great discomfort to those who have made their top priority opposing it -- to personal power, pride, and convenience. As a result, those who insist on truth, in any area, since the time of Jesus and before, have always been misunderstood, unjustly attacked, and persecuted. A boss told me on one job I lost in San Francisco, "Paul, you're pushing too hard, too fast. If you don't slow down, the teachers will get grumpy and complain to the superintendent. Just go slow. You could be running this place (the district) in another 3-5 years." So I thought to myself, "What would be the result?" The boss would be happy; the teachers would be happy; I would keep my job. But who would lose? 5 years of children who would be lost if they didn't get what they needed from us. So, just as easy as that, my decision was made. I continued to push the staff to turn around and do what was right by the children, and my contract didn't get renewed. My continued unwillingness to compromise truth has caused this situation to be repeated many times. Ultimately, that's why I left administration and went back to teaching, even though I could've been a big-city superintendent years ago if I'd been willing to compromise my integrity and exchange principle for promotions. Teaching has allowed me to continue with my first love, to pursue the real reason I went into education, and to work at changing the system from within the classroom rather than from without, which has proven to be a much stronger vantage point.
What type of things did you say to the teachers in San Francisco that got them so stirred up?
I remember telling them that we were going to sacrifice whatever was necessary to help these children who were often in poor, decadent situations. We would work harder and take care of them. One teacher who had a horribly unhappy personal situation and was not effective in her career, raised her hand and said, "I hear you talking about the kids. Forget the kids. Who's going to care about me?" There's a story about the hound dog whose owner sends him out to get a rabbit and comes home without the rabbit. The owner asks him why the rabbit got away. The hound dog answers, "I was just running for my supper; the rabbit was running for its life." As teachers, we're just running for our supper. These children are running for their lives. So if it comes down to sacrificing the children's future or an adult's comfort, the adult's comfort has got to go. And the fact that we sell teaching as a job rather than as a calling is a big mistake. Whenever I talk to groups of students who want to become teachers, I tell them, "What a job! Your day's over at 2:30 or 3:30. You have breaks, holidays, summer vacation. And if any of these are reasons why you want to be a teacher, please leave now and choose another career. Teaching is too critically important to our future to place it in the hands of the uncommitted."
I hear you're writing a book.
Yes, it's coming out in April. It's called White's Rules for Fixing America's Troubled Kids and Broken Schools (Morgan Road/Random House). I'm grateful to have found a publisher who believes in the same values our school does. The book plays up not thrilling tales of yesteryear, but simple rules, based on God's laws, that make sense. Anybody who buys into the rules can get the same results. It's the power of God, and nothing less, that explains our school's success. But I don't proselytize or try to recruit anyone to my personal beliefs. If asked, however, I'm not bashful about doing what the Bible says: "[B]e ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you" (I Pet. 3:15).
You certainly give your students a reason to hope. And it sounds as if you're a model for them.
As teachers, we don't have a choice as to whether or not we're going to be role models. The nature of the job automatically makes us that. All we have control over is whether or not we're going to be good models.
- I pray.
- I try my best to listen to and do what God tells me.
- I prepare conscientiously.
- I teach my hardest.
- I make the rules clear and enforce them as fairly as is humanly possible.
- I work regularly with parents.
- I love, give sacrifice, and do everything for and to the children as I would if they were my own.
It's nothing more and nothing less than that. But whatever I've given to the kids, they've given to me times ten. Only in physical form am I the same man I was when I became a teacher 25 years ago.
Because giving changes us.
It transforms us. I don't ever want to go back.
Paul's current website: www.strongholdfoundation.com.