I was demoralized. I had had difficult final sit-downs with students before. But nothing, I mean nothing, like this. There was no mutual softening of our relative positions. There was no arrival at a shared understanding of the final grade they earned. No. Not at all. This was a test of wills. There was the grade they wanted and that was the grade they were going to get. And, the grade they wanted was an “A”.
Now, let me tell you about the work that earned an “A” in La Ceiba, what I called La-Ceiba-A-work. It was the kind of work that challenged, surprised and elevated our community. Upon witnessing La-Ceiba-A-work, we knew we would be forever different moving forward. Now, La-Ceiba-A-work was not necessarily rare. But it did not happen on a regular basis. So, when I was sitting across from a student (any student) during their final sit-down, I was weighing their work not only against the work that had been produced over the course of the semester by other students in their class. I was also weighing their work against the work that had been produced by former students over the course of our history. To give an “A” to a student whose work was not La-Ceiba-A-work was not only a disservice to that student (I was not telling them the truth). It was also a transgression against our inter-generational community. An “A” in La Ceiba had to be an “A” in every era. No grade inflation. No downward drifting of expectations. A student who earned an “A” in 2017 had to meet the same stringent standards as a student who earned an “A” in 2008.
The students who were asking for an “A” did not deserve an “A”. And, when I would not give them an “A”, their demand for an “A” only got more vociferous. We went back and forth, back and forth and back and forth. And, in the end? They left without an “A” and angry. I was left emotionally exhausted.
This all went down at the end of the fall semester (the second week of December). A month later we (the class) were scheduled to arrive in Honduras. The aforementioned students were not going. They had decided not to go earlier in the semester (for various reasons, primarily financial). And, over the weeks leading up to our arrival in Honduras, I revisited my final sit-down with them again and again. I reconsidered my behavior. I reconsidered their behavior. I relived the sadness and anger that attended that day. Upon reflection, I decided that their behavior had crossed a line. And, upon deeper reflection, I concluded that their continued presence in our community was detrimental to our community. So, I decided to do something I had never done before. I decided to exile them from our community.
There were a number of decisions in La Ceiba that I could make on my own. I was pretty sure that this was not one of them. So, I sought feedback from our current Program Director in Honduras and former La Ceiba student — Santiago. I looped in three of my current La Ceiba students who were seniors, had taken the course before and were leaders of the current La Ceiba class. I also reached out to four former La Ceiba students who were on our Board of Advisors: Laura, Brian, Sarah and Tatiana. And, I also sought guidance from my wife Kyra.
All supported my decision to ask the students to leave. And, when it came to writing what I called the “Exile Letter” (the letter informing them of my decision to ask them to leave our community). I sought feedback again from Laura, Brian, Sarah and Tatiana. Below is an email exchange between myself and them. It documents the evolution of the “Exile Letter” and my struggle with the decision to ask the students to leave. The emails have been lightly edited.
On January 12 at 5:03 PM, I sent the following email to Laura, Brian, Sarah and Tatiana:
Hey Everyone. If you have the time, I could use some advice on how to write a letter asking someone to leave. Thanks. — dr H
In that email, I included the first draft of the Exile Letter:
As you know, we consider ourselves a tribe. We are a family. We are a team. We add to each other. We support each other. We bolster each other. We are here for each other. Self-awareness, generosity, empathy and above all humility are the marks of one of us. None of us possess them all at all times. But, we strive to meet them. And, when we fail to live up to them (which we have occasion to do), we take steps to make things right. So, after significant thought, I have concluded that your vigorous insistence on a grade you did not deserve was unbecoming of one of us.
Work is currency in La Ceiba. You did not produce. In turn, you did not deserve an “A”. It is that simple.
It seems the timing was not right for you and La Ceiba. I believe it is best that we part ways.
While your behavior unsettled me immensely, I know that the end of the semester is an especially stressful time for all involved. So, I am open to holding a conversation on this the contents of this email. I will leave it to you to take the next steps, if any at all.
I wish you the best.”
Brian replied back to me on January 12 at 5:07 PM:
If you let the grade be the measure of the work, you’ve missed the point of LC. Do the work, focus on the clients, and the grade will take care of itself.
Laura replied to back to me on January 12 at 5:20 PM:
Painful as it is, I think this needs to be done in person. I like these as talking points, but I don’t believe this is something that can be done at all adequately via email. If you do decide to send the email, I think first of all you shouldn’t say “it is that simple”, because although in some ways it is, I sincerely doubt that their not doing the work is the reason you’re asking them to leave. Reading a bit between the lines, I would imagine that it was their insistence on the grade that affirmed to you that they weren’t a good fit — so perhaps emphasizing that being a member of La Ceiba absolutely requires an understanding that it’s not about the grade, that the work is important enough on its own (which is why there is an understanding that if you do the work, you’ll get a good grade), and without that understanding on their part, they clearly are not a good fit. However, I might have misread the email, so feel free to ignore that. And perhaps some more explanation of why their behavior unsettled you would be useful — if they were that insistent on the grade, they probably don’t understand that statement (unless you’ve already had that conversation).
Not unrelated, how do the other students feel about this person/their leaving? If they say it should happen, this probably isn’t needed, but if you don’t get the sense that the students who do work are as fed up, then you probably should explain it somehow. It’s clearly not appropriate to tell everyone the specific reasons you asked them to leave, but in the interests of a collaborative, dispersed decision-making process, having you make these decisions without any explanation is not conducive to the other students understanding the radical nature of La Ceiba’s structure (which is so important to their transformation and to your pedagogy). I would imagine that the other students are just as frustrated, knowing how things have gone in the past, but I don’t know this particular cohort very well and things might have changed. I feel like it is important for them to own the membership of LC as well as the work, to make it truly their organization.
Best of luck — it’s not an easy situation.
I replied to Laura on January 12 at 5:37 PM:
This has been so stressful. I have struggled with it for a month now. I decided to bring Santi and three current members of the class with two or more years of La Ceiba experience and who are graduating into the loop. We reviewed multiple ways to handle asking someone to leave. And, in the end, we decided the best way was for me to send a letter leaving the door open for the individual to take steps to meet me. If they did, then their future would be decided by the conversation we would have. I will carefully review your thoughts again and improve the letter. It is so hard to write. Our in-person grade meetings went on for 30 minutes, 45 minutes and and hour. They felt they had the power and privilege to get what they wanted…in the end I think that is why I am asking them to leave. But, not sure how to say it. You see even after a month I still get upset. So glad to have your reply.
Laura replied back to me on January 12 at 6:09 PM:
Definitely a printed letter then — somehow, perhaps because of how much gets done via email, I think It’s very important to express important things, when at all possible, in a non-digital medium. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, and I’m also amazed at the difference in the way you articulate things from when I first met you. Then, you would have recognized their privilege, and recoiled from it, but those wouldn’t have been the words you would have used — and I hope that this vocabulary helps others to understand and even to change.
Sarah replied back to the group on January 12 at 6:56 PM:
Fine by me, as is. I would, though, delete the “it’s just that simple” part of your second paragraph….makes you sound kind of snarky (there’s no value add in that clause).
Tatiana replied back to the group on January 13 at 5:21 PM:
Hi all! Apologies for the brevity. First- last paragraph, remove the extra ‘this’. I second Sarah’s opinion. I also find the paragraph after (the timing wasn’t right.. Part ways) to be too profound; it kind of discredits the rest of the message. I respect your writing and your perspective, dr. H, but I find the tone of this email to be a bit passive-defensive. I don’t know who exactly this email is to or the circumstances, but I would honestly cut both those short paragraphs out.
I replied back to the group on January 13 at 5:57 PM:
Thank you all for your thoughtful replies. I have taken them all into consideration (integrated some thoughts in directly). I have also reworked the letter. I am passing it by Kyra tonight. I have a hunch it is too aggressive. So, more than likely I will tone it down tomorrow and then send it out. Thanks again. — dr H
In that email, I included the second draft of the Exile Letter; however, just over an hour later, I replied back to the group on January 13 at 5:57 PM:
I am so sorry for all these emails. Ignore that letter. Kyra just hammered it. She said…well she said a lot of things. Will rework it again. I am struggling to find a balance. Thanks.- dr H
Brian replied back to me on January 13 at 8:08 PM:
You can measure someone’s success in life by their willingness to have uncomfortable conversations. Keep up the good work.
I replied back to the group on January 14 at 10:03 AM:
Hey Everyone. I just sent out the email. It is below. I decided against a letter because of timing issues. Thank you for all the thought you put into reviewing, editing, and suggesting better ways to phrase things. I wanted to be able to come back to this letter 3 years from now and feel all right with what I said and how I said it. I hope it does. I cannot thank you enough. — dr H
In that reply, I included the final version of the Exile Letter that I sent in an email to the students:
Doing well in La Ceiba is hard. But, it is also rather simple. You do the work. Put the clients first. And, the grade will follow. La Ceiba, however, is not about the grade. La Ceiba is about the work. The work alone is valuable. Indeed, it is more valuable than the grade.
Work is many things. But, above all else, work is producing a project that moves us forward. Your lack of work, however, is not the only reason why I am writing this letter.
Self-awareness, generosity, empathy and above all humility are the marks of a La Ceiba team member. Of course, none of us are all of these things all of the time. But, we genuinely strive to be. And, when we fail to be, we take steps to make things right with each other.
Our conversation about your grade left me immensely unsettled. You recognized the work that other teams produced was superior. However, you still insisted on receiving the highest possible grade in the class. You approached our conversation from a position of power and privilege. All that mattered was that you got what you wanted to get. Your behavior was unbecoming. Therefore, I think it is best that you and La Ceiba part ways.
However, I also know that the end of the semester is an especially stressful time for all involved. And, in turn, we are not always at our best. So, I am open to holding a conversation on the contents of this email. I will leave it to you to take the next steps, if any at all.
I wish you the best. — dr H
I replied back to the group with an update on January 22 at 4:57 PM:
Hey Everyone. I wanted to give you an update. I sent the email out a couple of weeks ago. I got a reply from 1 of the 3 students (within 24 hours). They requested a meeting last week. We just met today. It went very well. The letter put them back on their heels and led them to reassess a number of things about themselves. I invited them back. They accepted. La Ceiba is so raw. I guess that is why we are not for everyone. The tough love. The willingness to call each other out when we step out of line. The emphasis on not missing a possible teaching moment because it is too hard. We do this for each other again and again. But, on the other side of this rawness is love and acceptance. I wanted to avoid sending that letter so many times. Thank you for helping me make that moment possible. I may have been the one sitting across from them. But, I was only a conduit for all that we stand for. — dr H
I’m sure it was not easy being on the receiving end of the “Exile Letter”. However, these students were students. And, well, part of being a student (if you are lucky) is having to learn some hard lessons from a loving educator and a loving community. When I was young, I endured tough teaching moments like these. And, damn, if these moments weren’t searing with educational value. I can still feel them burning as I’m typing out these words. Of course, I did not like sitting in those teaching moments and I did not like having to live with them in the near-term afterwards. However, over time, I came to value having been told to walk some coals.
And, one more thing, the email exchange between myself and Laura, Brian, Sarah and Tatiana was emblematic of the collective co-creative process that was La Ceiba. Once a student was invited to join La Ceiba, they were immersed in a community of educators. I was their teacher as was our Program Director, their peers in class and our alumni. All of us had an interest in one another’s transformation. And, all of us were shaped by this process. That includes Laura, Brian, Sarah, and Tatiana, the students who were asked to leave and, as Laura noted in her email, me.
You can learn more about my pedagogy by visiting Rewild School.
Thanks. — shawn