By Mike Pinto, IPLI Mentor, James Cole Elementary

Underdog: A competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. A person who has little status in society.

There are multiple examples of underdogs in sports and history. Examples include where one person or a collective few overcame obstacles and circumstances to come out on top – when few believed in them and most had written them off.

As school leaders, you are charged with honing your awareness of the underdogs that walk your hallways. Some of these individuals are staff members – maybe a last-minute hire – someone you know has potential but is raw and needs support and encouragement to become their best self. Most of these underdogs are students who walk through the doors of our buildings each day.

Right now, I want you to stop reading and give yourself thirty seconds. I want you to inventory your student body. Who are the Underdogs that you have on your radar? 

Do you have a few students who pop into your head? Some of these students may have much potential but have two strikes already against them. Some may have circumstances that have entered their life – family, finances, health – that now add an extra burden to their shoulders. And some – we don’t know about.

It is our job as school leaders to have our eyes and ears in a constant state of alert for these underdogs. When we see or interact with them, we need to do everything in our power to help them succeed. We are also responsible for encouraging every adult in the building to have their ears on the ground for these individuals. It is part of our instructional mission and the right thing to do.

I am often reflective of the individuals in my life who have taken the time or a keen interest in me and have seen something in myself I didn’t see. These individuals offered support in a variety of manners that made a difference as I grew into who I am today. Some individuals still are doing that. There is a great bounty in the work of a mentor.

But stay with me a moment, — think about the hard conversations you have in the course of a school year. Sometimes these are across the table at case conferences. Sometimes these conversations occur during evaluations. Sometimes they occur sitting across from a student at the cafeteria table. We have these hard conversations – or at least we should – to ensure all students have the best opportunity afforded to them to learn. That should be your daily focus and mission as a school leader and every single individual, from the classroom teachers to the instructional assistants to the custodians and bus drivers. We have to make sure that every student has an opportunity to learn and reach a level of success sometimes they didn’t think they could achieve.

It starts with awareness. We have to do our best work each day and put our best foot forward. But we also have to take some extra pride in identifying the underdogs – whether they are individuals with disabilities to overcome, anxieties they are facing, or situational challenges in front of them. We have to work hard then and do everything in our power to ensure they can achieve.

It starts with you as the building leader. Identify a few underdogs. Then encourage your staff to do the same. And fight like crazy for them this school year. It is our mission and calling to do nothing less than that.