Recently I had the privilege of hearing Bryan Stevenson speak about his experiences fighting for justice and equality. Something he said has stuck with me: Get proximate. We can not fix, or understand, or empathize, or show compassion from afar. Get proximate. I have found myself writing it over and over. I am still processing the impact of this call to closeness.
I have been thinking about the ways we use this word, all the forms it takes, the meaning it already has for me.
- Approximately-close, almost, but not exact.
- Proximate: something preceding or following, a close cause or effect.
- Proximal: to get close to.
- Proximity: closeness
This last one…proximity…I found that it has a lot more meaning for me than I expected.
Proximity Control is one of the first and most powerful strategies I learned as a new teacher. It is a classroom management staple: Student misbehaves-go stand in their general direction. Something looks fishy in the back corner-move to the back corner. Two of your precious people are giving each other the stink-eye…position yourself between them. Proximity control is pro-active and it works. It requires no planning. Just add awareness and a pedometer and you are on your way to a better managed class and your 10,000 steps.
After you have been teaching a minute, you see that this magical, no-fuss strategy also does wonders for assessment of student learning. Want to know if they understand…peek over their shoulder. Wonder if those shoulder partners are on track…listen in. Is what they are writing on target…go look. Thinking he looks confused…go ask. You know so much more about where your kids are, what they are thinking, and how you can support them by moving in, and getting in the “mix with them.
At some point you realize that the teacher desk is not for teaching-and you are wondering why there isn’t mandatory endurance training included in every teacher prep program.
I am not sure when it happened-but I became dependent on proximity-I got to know my students better, knew what they needed from me, and was able to be proactive, creating a positive classroom culture and climate.
When proximity becomes about relationships it stops needing to be about control.
I applied the proximity principle to other areas:
- I settled myself in the middle of the bus, and my girls and I sang and laughed our way from game to game.
- I checked in with my principals…every day. #sorrynotsorry
- I got down on the floor with my boys.
- I played cards at Burger King with my mother-in-law.
- I make lots of phone calls, pop-in visits, and send cards.
Stay close. Be near. Share space. Proximity is how we make relationships, how we grow relationships, and how we mend relationships.
I have found that one of the hardest parts of my transition (from classroom to campus, from campus to district, and most recently from small to large district) is the lack of proximity. This is especially challenging in such a large place, as I have always been able to figure out how to get close and stay close to the people that I support and serve. With so many campuses and departments and teachers-how can I possibly get proximate-when there are many times I am not even in the same zip code? This new distance makes every interaction feel that much more important. The stakes are so high when I may not see you again for a month. It is daunting to think I can’t check in and see how you are feeling, hear about your successes, and think through supports with you face to face.
So what I lack in proximity, I am trying to make up for in availability and accessibility. I can’t be near to everyone, but I will come when you call. I will do my best to return email, answer the phone (call my cell), get to meetings early, stay late to answer questions, and find ways to connect. The third thing I am committed to is being authentic-I genuinely want to help and support and serve, my enthusiasm to that end is not an act: I am a speed talking, hugger, who loves people and wants to be a part of your team. My hope is that the distance won’t divide, and even when I can’t see your face, you will be able to hear my heart.
It doesn’t have the same ring as “get proximate”, but I am still working on it, and I am still learning…
*Bryan Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy. You can check out his work, and his challenge for us to “Get Proximate” here: Equal Justice Initiative