The art of starting over, every day | Sarah Mansfield

When I was 14 years old,
I was hit by a car and had to relearn how to stand up, walk,
talk, and write. While I don’t remember actually slamming
into the windshield, or breaking the side mirror off
with my head, I do remember waking up on the ground,
seeing my shoes down the road, and hearing someone tell me not to move
because I had hurt my head. I remember seeing brown stains on the
shoulder of my pink sweater, and I remember reaching up to touch my wet
hair, realizing it was soaked in blood. I do not remember what happened next
because I had slipped into a coma. A sharp piece of bone had lacerated
a major blood vessel and a blood clot the size of an orange was
pushing my brain out of my skull. I was flown in a helicopter to
Children’s Hospital in Washington DC, and when doctors used a bone saw to open
up my head, the clot erupted, shooting the bone onto
the ground, where it could no longer be used for
putting me back together. I then remember waking up and seeing
my mom smiling, and telling me I was going to be okay. After a few days in the hospital, I was
ready to go home. But when I tried to stand up, I
fell to the ground. When I tried to talk, I could not always
find and form the words. And my handwriting, well, it looked like
something my kindergarten self had done. Then I heard the words that would change
my life. Doctors told my parents not to expect me
to be able to do the things that had once come so easily. Those words motivated me to start over. And since then, I have honed the three
major steps I took to begin again throughout all of my experiences. Step 1 involves unlocking the impetus. Step 2 requires navigating naysayers with
truth and love. And step 3 necessitates collaborating and
communicating with empathy. By cultivating a practice of
starting over, I have worked to build more empathetic
school communities so that all children and the adults who
care for them feel supported and loved, regardless of whether or not they have
suffered a traumatic brain injury. So how did I start over? Step 1, or unlocking the impetus, began
when I heard those fateful words, “She may never be the same again.” This was the motivation I needed to prove
them wrong. Once I was released from the hospital, I remember crawling up to my bedroom, but I would eventually progress
from standing to walking. I pushed myself, ignored the headaches,
and believed I could improve. I worked with a homebound teacher on my
academics, and let me just tell you, it was hard,
slow, and frustrating. I remember wanting to throw my Algebra
and Spanish books out the window. But every morning, I would get up, and
start again. I have believed in possibility and pushed
myself to defy the odds in so many of my experiences. Relearning how to walk propelled
me to take on challenges, particularly in the area of doing things
that have never been done before. In the year 2000, I was hired to create The Center for
Leadership and International Relations at James River High School. The premise of this program was to provide
opportunities for students who wanted to make a positive
difference in the world, and I found other teachers,
students, and parents who believed in what that could look like. But I also heard naysayers who said things
like, “You think you can teach leadership to
high schoolers? What a waste of taxpayer dollars!” These doubts, coupled with the excitement
of starting a program from scratch unlocked the impetus and motivated me
to push through a challenge and believe in what could be. Thinking about unlocking impetus as
both a 14 year old, and as an adult, leads me to step 2 in cultivating a
practice of starting over, which I like to call, navigating the
naysayers with truth and love. When I eventually returned to school
after my accident, I encountered a wide range of responses
from my teachers. Most were like my Algebra teacher, who enveloped me in a hug
immediately upon seeing me. She believed in me, and when I struggled
she helped me learn the material. Unfortunately though, not all people are
like my Algebra teacher. The week I returned to school, I was only
supposed to stay for half days, so that I could ease back in. On my very first day back, I asked my Spanish teacher for a pass
to check out through the clinic, because her class was in the
middle of the day. She replied to my request by loudly
stating, “Well isn’t that convenient?
We have a test. Don’t you think you’ve missed
enough time already?” Completely embarrassed, I stayed
and took the test, a test I would fail. I chose to navigate this naysayer by avoiding her for the rest
of the semester. Years later, I have realized that not
saying anything and avoiding naysayers is worse than responding to them
in a harsh manner. One of my mentors shared a method he
uses for delivering a difficult message. He recommended saying what needs to be
said with truth and love. This approach has pushed me to be direct, while also seeing the humanity in every
person I encounter, especially the naysayers
who are difficult. I see people as human beings, who deserve
to be treated with respect and kindness. After a few years in the
Leadership Center, I had to have a very difficult
conversation with a parent about how her daughter was making
poor social choices that were negatively impacting her
academics. Following this meeting, the parent wrote a
letter to the superintendent in which she referred to me as
“the emperor with no clothes,” implying that the Leadership Center was
not substantive and that I was too stupid to
even realize it. Once my worst fears about not being good
enough were shared with all of the
people I respected, I realized I had two choices: I could retreat like I had when I was 14,
and was scared of my teacher, or I could summon the courage to see
the humanity in this person, to take the high road, and continue to be
kind, because obviously this mother thought she
was protecting her child. Don’t get me wrong though, I didn’t suddenly invite this family
over to my home for dinner, but I definitely developed a thicker skin. I am a proponent for taking the high road
whenever possible, and I have also come to
realize that step 3, collaborating and communicating
with empathy, is essential in cultivating a practice of
starting over. Remember how earlier I mentioned
that I ignored my headaches? I definitely struggled with communicating
my needs and asking for help. I thought I could do everything
on my own. That is, until I saw the F in PE
on my report card. Now let’s back up for a second. Remember, I had an actual hole in my
skull, I had a doctor’s note expressly
forbidding me from physical activity of any kind, because of this hole. So when I asked my PE teacher if there was
anything I could do to improve the grade, she told me how insulting it was that I
never reached out when I was at home to find out what I should do. As much as I tried, I had a hard time
seeing the humanity in this one. So I eventually enlisted my parents and
the assistant principal to help me figure out what to do. I learned that collaborating on a
game plan and communicating along the way
are critical. People want to help us and they provide perspectives that we
can’t always think of on our own. Oh, and they can also remind
us that we’re not crazy, especially if you happen to have
a hole in your head. After over a decade of successfully
building a program, I started over yet again, and accepted
a position that had not been done before at Saint Christopher’s School, a JK-12
all boys school in Richmond, Virginia. While this experience provided even more
opportunities for me to hone all three of my
steps for starting over, I have learned the most about the value of
collaborating and communicating with empathy. Recently I worked with an incredible
team of colleagues to design and facilitate our school’s
accreditation process. We engaged our faculty and staff to work together to confront data
from our constituents, challenging them to identify areas
that needed to be improved. As my team members presented our findings, I saw people who embodied genuine
collaboration and communication with empathy. People who are living our values
of honor, courage, respect, honesty, kindness, and humility. I saw the heart and soul of our
community coming together. The reasons why our boys and
our families loved this school. I sometimes wonder how I would be
different if I had this kind of an environment when I returned to school
after my car accident. You have heard me share a few examples of
what I experienced as a student, and I ask you, is that the kind
of environment we want for our children today? How can we as educators
strengthen our school communities so that all of our students and teachers
feel supported, trusted, and loved? I believe that cultivating a practice of
starting over so that we can empathize
with others is key. You don’t need to have your own near-death
experience to develop your process for starting over. Instead, consider asking yourself these
questions: What unlocks the impetus inside you,
and how do you channel your responses? Can you see the humanity in all you meet, particularly the people with
whom you don’t agree? And how do you collaborate and
communicate with empathy? Together we must choose to start over, not just at the beginning of each year, but every single day. This may seem harder than going at it
alone, and it will definitely take more time, but I promise you, it is well worth it. Join me in choosing to start over, so that we can build stronger
communities together. Thank you.

4 Replies to “The art of starting over, every day | Sarah Mansfield”

  1. Shawn T. Loescher, Ed.D. says:

    An incredible personal story with actionable steps on how to start over to cultivate the types of learning environments we all want for our students, teachers, and community.

  2. Becky Navarre says:

    Sarah is an amazing person and has an inspiring story for all teachers about the way they respond to students.

  3. Kimberly Hudson says:

    Important messages for us all to remember! Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story so eloquently!

  4. Chris Muller says:

    Inspiring personal story! Every person has a story, and teachers need to take that into account when judging their students.Thank you!

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