Leadership 2c: My teachers: A High School Principal, a Student full of surprises, Volunteer Lawyers, and 126 Interns

Del Rey High School 1985-87

(Leadership lessons: A leader must restore order to a situation in chaos.  The most important role of the leader is to help team members (students in this case) recognize their unique talents and build their confidence to put them on a trajectory for greatness.  Sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission when you come up against a bureaucratic rule. Try and catch those you supervise doing something good and reward them for it.)

Del Rey High School was located next to Westchester High near Los Angeles International Airport.  It closed in 2010.

After our two years on the sailboat “Iowa Waltz” Rebecka and I moved to Los Angeles so she could attend UCLA and earn a Master’s Degree in Public Health.  I started working as a substitute teacher and ended up with my own classroom for a year and a half at Del Rey High School, a continuation school for students who had been kicked out of their local schools. I still lovingly refer to it as the school for bad boys and bad girls.  John Depaolo was Principal and an inspirational leader who cared more about his students and teachers than he did about the rules of Los Angeles Unified School District.

Some background on being a sub before I arrived at Del Rey.  I had been working as a substitute teacher for a few months in some tough high schools in East LA.  Then I started getting called back to one particular high school.  The Vice Principal there said he chose me as his preferred substitute once he overheard some students refer to me as “That White Prick.”  I had earned that reputation by insisting on taking control of each classroom from the first minute (Leadership Level 1, leading from a position of power).  I started the hour by circulating a seating chart, I silently walked it around the room, presenting it to each student and making sure I could read their name, and when I had it filled out, I spoke for the first time. “Here are the rules for this class: do your work, be quiet, keep your hands to yourself, leave other people alone.  Is there anyone who cannot live with these rules?” 

There was almost always one smart ass troublemaker who would lazily raise a hand.  I would consult my seating chart. 

“You are Alex?” 

“Yeah, so?”

I would fill out a Vice Principal’s slip. “You are out of here, Alex.  Please take this to the Vice Principal, he is expecting you.  Anyone else have a problem following our rules?”  No one would make eye contact and my classes proceeded smoothly. 

So, when I got the call to work at a continuation school, I figured I was going to be wading into just another pool of troublemakers.  Little did I realize how wrong I was. I found myself stepping into a three-classroom school filled with my kind of people, young folks in crisis who just needed someone to believe in them, to build them up, and I was just their man. 

But I must admit, my introduction to Del Rey that first hour was unexpectedly dramatic.

The first morning I arrived at Del Rey the secretary gave me the room key, told me it could be a long assignment, and I should arrange my room as I chose.  This was in January, so the students had been together since September and I was stepping in as a disruptive force.  As soon as I saw the room, I realized there was a problem. It was arranged as an open square, so all the students were staring across an empty space at other students, a recipe for distraction.  I decided to put the desks back into normal rows and as I moved the first desk (Y in chart) into my new arrangement, a boy and girl came in and sat together on the right side of the square. In the back corner a young lady sat down, I later learned she was fairly new to the school  A few other students were chatting in the back of the room. 

As I started to move the second desk (Z) the young man and woman started bickering, so I set the desk down and just as I entered the square and walked toward them the young woman started to rise and the young man swung his left fist and caught her flush on her face. She froze in shock and blood gushed out of her nose and on to the desk.  I quickly stepped over and cupped my hands under her nose to catch the blood and keep it off her clothes.

Apparently, this commotion upset the new student and from the corner of my eye I saw her pull a pistol from her purse. 

I must admit, at this point in the action, my memory gets a little foggy as I was engaged in what may be called “extreme busyness,” but I do recall the back door bursting open and two security guards from the Westchester High School rushing in and  grabbing the student with the gun.  I found out later that one of the other female students had seen the gun in her purse in the bathroom, had ratted her out to the school secretary (not my phrasing, how other students described it) and the secretary alerted campus security.

The next morning when I arrived at the school Principal Dapaolo shook my hand and said, “Happy to see you came back! You are just what we need around here, a teacher who can take a joke!”

I went to my newly rearranged classroom and as the students wandered in one young man came over and offered a high five. “Mr. Bob, that was so cool yesterday!  When Tony punched Rhonda you just walk over and start catching blood in your hands like it happens every day, then that new girl pulls a gun and you get all stern and shit and say, ‘Young lady, put that gun back in your purse where it belongs!’” He throws his head back and laughs. ‘Put that gun back in your purse where it belongs!’ Gotta give ya mad props on that one, Mr. Bob! Best advice I ever heard from a teacher!”

After my second week at Del Rey Principal Dapaolo gave me this advice:

“Bob, it goes without saying that these kids need an education, they are so far behind, some can barely read and half of them couldn’t multiply 11 times 11 if you put a gun to their head.  But more than a teacher, they need a caring adult who can help them believe in themselves.  They have no self-confidence; their self-esteem is in the toilet.  What they crave is someone who gives a damn about them as a person.  I’ve watched you, you care about these kids and I can see that they feel it.  I want you to stay here for the rest of the year.  And one last thing, LA Unified has a strict “hands off” rule, no touching students.  But these kids sometimes need comforting, so if I see you walking around the yard with your hand on a student’s shoulder, or giving one of them a pat on the back, you will make me a very happy principal.  God knows we all use a few more pats on the back around here.”

Some of my Del Rey little rascals at a Leadership Council activity I directed. Perhaps I should put that on my card, “Building young leaders since 1986.”

How to reward initiative

Quick leadership note on how Principal Dapaolo rewarded initiative.  To complete a class, students had to compete 75 hours of work in each subject. All the work was individual study, completing worksheets.  I was “teaching” math, science, and health.  When I started working there, I noticed the kids didn’t have the slightest idea how many hours they had accumulated so they lacked motivation to earn more, even when they were just a few points shy of finishing a class.  One weekend my Dad and I made a big board with a chart that showed students’ names and their accumulated points, and every weekend I would take the board home and add a colored dot for each day they successfully completed an hour’s work.  And it really lit a fire until the students, every Monday they would rush to the board and see how many points they had earned the week before, and then mock others who had received less points than they did.

“Ha ha! I got three points, and you only got two!” I heard one kid say one day.  He was a gangbanger, but a nice gangbanger.

I piped up, “You know with sustained effort over the entire week you could earn five points!”

“Piece of advice, Mr. Bob.  Don’t expect miracles.”

Mr. Dapaolo showed me how a leader builds loyalty from his team by taking every opportunity to praise his team for a job well done.  He wrote a nice letter of praise about my student progress board and sent it to the-powers-that-be at downtown Headquarters of LA Unified. The day he gave me a copy of the letter I glanced at it and put it in my desk drawer.  I never sat at my desk, I kept circulating to help kids with their worksheets because once they hit a snag, like a math problem they couldn’t immediately solve, they would just stop, becalmed, and when I saw them staring into space, I would walk over and give them a few hints to help them solve the problem and get them back under sail.  That night I showed Rebecka the letter and she pointed out that one of the kids must have sneaked into my desk to add their own congratulatory message to the back page.

ProBAR 1989-1991

(Leadership lessons: When the team is operating in a stressful situation, the only thing the leader can control is the environment in the office, which must be as calm and supportive as possible. As a leader, when you support your team members and build their self-confidence, you will change lives.)

In 1989 I was asked to start a social justice program in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley down at the southern tip of Texas on the border with Mexico.  The program provided pro bono (free) legal representation to people who were in deportation proceedings and who were locked up behind bars in the Port Isabel Service Processing Center (“PISPC.)  And yes, everyoe pronounced it “Piss Pick.”  It was a program funded by the American Bar Association (“ABA”), the State Bar of Texas, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”).  During my time as leader in the ProBAR office down we had scores of volunteer lawyers from big law firms coming down to the Rio Grande Valley for weeks or a month at a time to represent Central Americans in their political asylum hearings.  Most of these lawyers had been associates in their law firms for many years, and most had spent all their time handling paper.  Many had never met an actual client, never been inside a courtroom. The clients were Central Americans who were fleeing the violence of civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and spill over into Honduras.

Jennifer and I with volunteer lawyers and their little one.

Fortunately, I had Jennifer Bailey as my assistant and together we did a miraculous job mentoring these lawyers and keeping them calm as they tackled the daunting challenge of representing someone in immigration court in what could be a life or death hearing. Woven into future leadership posts will be  references to my time at ProBAR because every month it was like I was reopening a social justice office with a new slate of inexperienced volunteer lawyers, and provided an opportunity for me to sharpen my leadership skills. I had to quickly make the lawyers feel calm, supported, confidant and gain their trust, while occasionally cleaning up their well-intended, but harmful mistakes.  When these lawyers made mistakes I had to maintain the appearance of calm contemplation because if I had shown the even slightest sign of alarm they would gone completely to pieces.  One incident in particular stands out. 

A volunteer lawyer came back from immigration court at the detention center and said, “I ran into the government attorney for the hearing I have tomorrow and she asked me if it would be alright if we could just stipulate to something or other and I didn’t know what he was talking about so I assumed it was normal so I agreed.  Was I wrong?”

I leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on the desk.

A picture by Jennifer of me having a small nervous breakdown.

“Well that’s interesting,” I said.  I took a few deep breaths to quiet the panic which was surging though my system. When my vision cleared, Jennifer, the volunteer lawyer and I brainstormed a new approach to tomorrow’s hearing in light of these new, devastating developments.   I made this a gentle learning experience for the volunteer lawyer by lying and saying that this was not a major error, no harm, no foul, but in the future it will be fine for him to tell the government attorney that he can’t agree to anything without talking to me or Jennifer first.

After the lawyer left, Jennifer closed the door and said with a devilish smile, “I think I have broken your code.  When you sit back, put your feet on the desk, and say, ‘Well that’s interesting.’ What you really mean is, ‘Now we are totally fucked.’” 

And I had to agree with her.

ABA Commission on Immigration Detainee Hotline Team 2010-2019

(Leadership lessons: the first day orientation will set the tone for a new team member’s entire time in a job.  The most important skill a leader uses is listening.  You must learn what your team members are good at and try and match tasks to their skills, and when you have to assign a task they are not good at, recognize that, thank them for the sacrifice, and provide support.  Encourage your team members to suggest changes in how you do things.)

A sign on my door at the ABA.

When I was in my late 60’s and was supervising the Detainee Hotline I was once asked when I was going to retire.  “I’m old as dirt, but I spend all day with my team members who are all in their 20’s and they treat me like their peer.  Why should I want to retire?  So I can stay home and tell my stories to the cats?”

At the ABA I led a team of law student and university undergrad interns who took telephone calls from people who were locked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”).  There were about 40,000 detainees locked up in more than 250 facilities, most of which were rural county jails with no access to immigration lawyers.  These detainees would have to represent themselves before the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) and prove to the IJ that they were eligible for political asylum because had been singled out for persecution in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or their membership in a particular social group.  They were going to act as their own lawyer, (never a good idea) in an English-speaking court, in a very complicated legal process, with opposing counsel who was an experienced government attorney who did these cases all day, every day. For most detainees, calling our office and talking to one of my interns was their only source of information on how the immigration court system worked, and what they would have to prove to the IJ to avoid being deported, perhaps to their death. 

Detainees could make a free call to my office by punching in 2150#, and the number for the American Bar Association was always at the top of the “Free Calling List” which was posted in all 250 facilities holding ICE detainees.

My interns were with me for only 10 to 12 weeks, and they were on the phone talking to detainees from the very first day.  One entire post in this series will be about the importance of a thorough orientation on that first day because it sets the tone for their time with me.  Another post will discuss how to build trust with your team so they trust me to keep them safe and calm.  When the work is stressful, complicated, and extraordinarily important, you have to be able to get your team members to trust you as quickly as possible.  The Detainee Hotline was a leadership laboratory and pressure cooker for me, where I had to train 27 groups of interns over nine years, three groups per year, 126 total interns total, and leading team after team helped me refine my leadership skills.

Leadership is a process

A good leader is always watching, listening and learning. They are learning about their team members and they their interactions with team members are teaching them new skills to apply to their way of leading.  I have found that the most important things I have learned about leadership came from my co-workers and interns. 

It always brought me joy to watch my interns work.  When they were on the telephone with someone in immigration proceedings who was locked up 24 hours a day in a rural county jail, wearing an orange jumpsuit, disrespected, told when to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, when they can shower and when they can go outside for their one hour of recreation For them to be able to call our office and speak with someone who was compassionate and professional, often the only friendly voice detainees they heard, was, at times, so moving the detainees would just cry with relief. 

When the interns were working together, making informational packets to be mailed out, their quiet banter and flashes of smiles always made me happy because I knew I had built a team which was calm, confident, supportive and happy to be working with their teammates.  One day I was watching them, and it took me back to one day on our sailboat in Mexico, we were under sail and dolphins were playing in front of the bow.  Ok, I admit, that is weird image to pop into my mind in an office setting, but it did.  If you have ever worked in a really wonderful environment perhaps you have experienced the sensation of moving together towards a goal, but having fun while you do it like the dolphins in this video:

When my interns were hard at work they were like those dolphins, moving forward, changing direction, taking different paths, they looked perfect and happy.  But if I had been able to look closely at any individual dolphin, I probably would have found scars, fishhooks stuck deep into their flesh, perhaps a piece of fishing line cutting into them.  My interns and coworkers were the same way, they often appeared perfectly content and confident from afar, but as I gained their trust they began to share with me the problems they were having, their fears, and hopes, the obstacles they had overcome.

Credit: Themindsjournal.com

The most important skill for a leader is to be build rapport by listening.

On my first day orientation I hinted to each incoming intern that they would be teaching me a lot, but it was too early for them to understand what I meant.  I told them, “In Zen there is a saying, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ And today, on your first day, the meaning is clear, I am the teacher and you are the student.  But at some point, you will trust me enough to share with me issues you are facing, obstacles you have overcome, things that are upsetting you.  And at that point our roles will have reversed, you will be the teacher, and I will be the student, and at the end of your internship, I will be a better leader and mentor because of the lessons you have taught me.”

I ended up having hundreds of such a discussions, and using the listening techniques which we will be discussing later, you can feel comfortable listening to your team members and helping them recognize their gifts, confront those things that are holding them back, and you can help them grow, to heal.  And when you do that, you will have changed their lives, they will have changed your life, and together you will have established a mutually beneficial relationship which will last for life.

I need your help. I would like this series of leadership posts to be a living document. If you are a leader and have some strategies which have worked for you, please let me add them to this. If you have questions, write me. If you know someone who has recently been promoted, or someone who is struggling, please pass this on so we can include them in the conversation. We are all in this together!

Next up: Leadership 3: How do nice people, who happen to be outstanding workers, become bad bosses?

Some pictures of my interns, and I apologize for those who are not included, it is not intentional, let me know and I will include you!

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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