Victims of Circumstance

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I’m sitting in a leadership team meeting listening as team members engage in conversation regarding student data. District wide, we are monitoring student progress in two significant areas, reading and writing. The data shows growth within the district, however, our students continue to perform low comparative to the norm. The question is posed, “Why would some teachers implement a strategy and others not?” I took a moment to reflect. My summation, stereotype threats are real and it is with these threats that our students unknowingly fall victim to their current circumstances.

Stereotype threat refers to an individual being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Steele & Aronson,1995). We’ve encountered many stereotype threats in our day. Threats like, boys are stronger in math than girls, Asians are stronger in math than whites, blacks are better athletes than whites; all are examples of stereotypes that threaten the success of the individuals that identify with these particular groups. I couldn’t help but stop and think about this in the context of our current conversation.

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According to our district’s state report card, approximately 66% of the district is identified as minority, 49% are Hispanic students, 17% Black.  Of equal importance, 98% of the district is economically disadvantaged (2015-2016 Ohio Department of Education Report Card, retrieved November 24, 2016). Stereotype threats are looming throughout the local community. We hear some of them from parents during conferences and sadly even within the halls of the schools. In a district where language is a constant barrier and education lacking, at best, our students unconsciously inherit the limitations that have stunted the success of their parents. This is important to know because it speaks not only to the level of confidence our students come to us with, but also the level of efficacy we as teachers have to address these threats.

It’s a fact that our students are faced with challenges. Our perception of what it must be like to live in poverty is our students’ sad reality. But, are their circumstances truly indicative of their ability to be successful students? What is our role in ensuring that our students do not fall victim to their unwelcome circumstances?

As educators, it is my opinion that we first look at poverty differently. It is not a disability, it’s an obstacle. It’s a mindset that exists because the people in and around our students lives have yet to figure out how to change their circumstances or are unaware of the resources available to assist in changing them. Once we ourselves believe that our students circumstances are systemic rather than defining in nature, we need to be purposeful and intentional about working to change their mindset. Their mindset has been fixed on stereotype threats for much of their schooling already. I imagine it is difficult for them to think of anything different. Many of our students that are struggling readers come to us already years behind their peers. Place on top of that, being a non-English speaker. Some of our parents didn’t finish high school or get past the 8th grade for that matter. Think about the conversation happening in these homes. The fears and failures of the parents are now threats that hinder our students growth and progress. But it doesn’t have to.

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It is imperative that we raise our expectations. I understand that as educators, we don’t want to see our students fail. Their failures do become our own. However, we have to refrain from lowering expectations to meet our own needs. This is not about us. Our job is to provide all students with a quality education. That means we need to empower them. We need to continue raising our expectations and providing instruction that will challenge students thinking. We have to realize that when we show our students how much we believe in them, they will begin to not only believe in themselves, but, they will perform. So, raise the bar! As we begin to break down the threat barriers that are hindering our students, they will begin to reach for the bar where it has been set for them.

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Continuing to limit the growth of our students by succumbing to the belief that they cannot perform at the same rate or level as their peers is so damaging. And think about it, if we cannot ourselves break away from the stereotype threats, then who are the real victims of circumstance? We should know and do better.

References

American Psychological Association (2006). Stereotype threat widens achievement gap. Washington, D.C.: author

Ohio Department of Education (2016). Annual District Report Card, 2015-2016.

Reducing Stereotype Threats. Stereotype Threats. Retrieved from ReducingStereotypeThreats.org on November 24, 2016.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Tyler, K. & Tyler, C. (2009). Stereotype Threat. Classroom Learning. Retrieved from Education.com, November 24, 2016.

Distractions

Time has flown by so quickly! I’ve been distracted in several aspects of my life in both positive and negative ways. I needed to take some time to reevaluate some things and gain clarity in others.

During my hiatus, I’d love to share that my business has grown and is now flourishing. Consequently, that is not the case. On the contrary, the business has taken a bit of a shift.  However, while I continue working to grow my business, I am still working to grow scholars to become critical mathematical thinkers and problem solvers.

I love working with my scholars! My babies! My passion and my purpose! And, quite obviously… one of the distractions hindering the growth of my business. See, it’s quite difficult to provide my scholars with the quality education they deserve if I am not fully attending to their needs. As long as I am required to be in the classroom, my scholars will receive all that I can give. I am reminded daily that these babies need me, whether by a colleague or past scholar, and as much as I would love to be doing what I feel is my next step in my professional growth, God speaks to me through them, reminding me that right now, they need me more. A distraction indeed, but a much welcomed one if I do day so myself.

Let me share another welcomed distraction I experienced during my time away. I had the incredible privilege of working with some of the most amazing, knowledgeable African-American Women educators and administrators, Ph.Ds, Ed.Ds, and Nationally Board Certified Teachers I’ve ever come into contact with. Together, along with the most amazing Project Director, we led the Delta Teacher Efficacy Campaign (DTEC). The opportunity to lead with these women, facilitating professional development for teachers around the country was such a humbling experience. I was able to share my knowledge on a different level with educators from different avenues of life and know that what I had to share was valuable and made a significant contribution to their practice. I also had the opportunity to learn more about myself as an educator leader and presenter, about teacher efficacy, and about what it looks like to step out on faith. I hope my DTEC family realizes how much they mean to me personally and professionally. Thank you for the distraction. Ubuntu.

Well, you know what they say….for every positive, there is a negative. Why is it that with all the positive experiences, the negative ones seem to linger the longest? I mean, I have received messages diminishing my professional worth. I’ve had my actions and words taken out of context in attempts to make me appear as if I’m instigating trouble. I have literally been looked at with scowls and grimaces for reasons I can’t begin to explain. Where is all of this coming from? Then I am reminded by so many people around me not to be distracted by those that may bring forth negativity and are working diligently to diminish the dreamer within. What’s more ironic is the fact that I know better! Having had the opportunity to share many of my life experiences with young people and adults on what it means to live within your GREATNESS, I’ve shared the debilitating effects that negativity can bring to one’s life. Negativity is all a part of the enemies plan (earthly and spiritually) to incite one’s demise. I am reminded to proceed with caution. The distraction that is negativity is always looming.

Here’s the takeaway from my realization of  negative and positive distractions. It is true…the good comes with the bad. The negative must coexist with the positive. This is a fact and there’s really no way around it or controlling it. What can be controlled is how one reacts to such instances. My experience has found that negativity feeds and nourishes a fixed mindset. You will seemingly begin to believe the innuendo that are presented with every negative word and action. You’ll find yourself wanting to give up on dreaming. When focused on positive people and things, you feed and grow your mind. You feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment and you will be pushed to challenge your own beliefs.

So,  here are your choices. You can choose to let negative distractions cloud your dreams or you can choose to allow the positive distractions make you stronger and lead you to bigger and better opportunities. But while you’re making your decision, be attentive to your current distractions.

No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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Know That You’re AMAZING!!

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Some months ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Matrix”. In it, I share the struggles my oldest has experienced with reading fluency and comprehension. I know I’ve spoken of him a great deal, but I am in absolute awe at the progress he’s made! I just can’t help it! All of my children are making great gains academically, but he truly exemplifies perseverance and hard work! He’s the one that has to work harder and longer, but he does it and he has proven to himself that it pays off!

He is now in the 6th grade and even though it takes him a little longer to do some things, he has demonstrated to himself that he does have the ability to achieve. He has made the Honor Roll all this year! Even with that, he has remained in disbelief about his Honor Roll status.  He didn’t believe it because he has doubted his capability for so many years! So much that he has stated, out loud, “I can’t get good grades. I’m not smart.” My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment and then came my response, “WHAT?!! Not only are you smart…you’re amazing!!”

A couple of days ago, he made a profound statement after taking his Reading OAA. He had been quite anxious about it to say the least and understandably so considering the difficulty he’s experienced with standardized testing thus far. In a concerted effort to boost students confidence, the school asks that parents write their students a note of encouragement for test days. I wrote him the attached note, not realizing the true impact it would have!

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When he called me after school, the first thing he said to me was he thought he did really well this time! He has NEVER sounded more confident and sure of himself!! It was a profound revelation from he who thought it to be impossible. I was filled with so much joy! I told him that was AWESOME! He continued by saying, “Yeah, I did slack a couple of times, but then I read your note and it helped me get focused!” I said, “Well, you DO know you’re amazing, right?”

I’ve said it before, there is power in words.  We all want our children to reach higher and go farther.  You know the saying, “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It is vital that we continue to instill in our students the importance of hard work and the diligent commitment it takes to succeed.  Come on, really. You do know they are amazing, right? So, no matter what it takes, we need to keep telling our children that they have a gift to share with the world, that they are capable of anything,  and just how absolutely amazing they truly are.

Check Your Approach

Approach

It’s 3:20pm on the Friday before winter break.  I’m driving home in complete silence, thinking. Every part of my soul wants to be thinking about the holiday parties I will attend, the fellowship with family I will enjoy, and of course, the rest I so eagerly have been longing for. However, this is not what consumes my thoughts.  A student has touched my inner core this week.  I will come back to this shortly.

As I drove along, encased within my own silence, I began thinking of the “Scholar Statement” I wrote over the past summer.  My students recite it every morning and it reads as follows:

2002 Doc Hurley Scholars

I am a Scholar.

I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.

I cannot fail and WILL NOT fail,

because failure is not an option.

I am in control of my future and my destiny.

I am a Scholar.

I am the FUTURE.

I wrote this after spending some time thinking of ways to help my students change the way they think about learning.  I had recently visited a local charter school and done some research on the Uncommon Schools. I was drawn to the approach the schools use to help students focus on a future filled with success. I found that inside the walls of these schools, student classrooms are typically named for colleges and students referred to as scholars, thus committing to reinvent students’ thinking from that of a fixed mindset to that of a growth mindset. In a 2012 interview, Carol Dweck clarifies the difference between the two mindsets as follows:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it (retrieved December 24, 2013 from onedublin.org).

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So, the approach of the Uncommon Schools now became MY approach. The Scholar Statement became our daily affirmation. I needed to empower them. I needed for them to embrace the greatness that many of them had yet to realize was within them.  They are all Scholars and are referred to as such no matter where we are or what we are doing in the school.  The Scholar Statement is a reminder of my expectations for them and the expectations for themselves and each other. There is greatness filling the walls of my classroom.

With that, let me share this interaction I had with one particular scholar during our last week of 2013 together.  I will call this young man Victor. On the Thursday before break, the school attends the annual winter program. This year, K-2 students, with the exception of about 17 of my scholars, performed the program.  The music teacher asked if this select group of scholars would assist the kindergarteners with one song during the program, as well as greet parents and act as runners for other classes in between songs. Of course, like a proud mother, I agreed to allow the scholars to participate. Victor was among the chosen.

Now, Victor is one of six siblings. He’s the third oldest. He is known to cause mischief and to instigate drama. He is also very bright, athletic, and funny.  You see, I found in his academic records that Victor has the documented potential of performing in the advanced level on the state’s standardized assessment.  His scores have been on the decline since 3rd grade.  His strength is in the area of mathematics, particularly with problem solving.  He especially enjoys the challenge of solving 6th grade problems. Reading is not his best friend, but he trudges through it, only to pacify me. However, this can all change if Victor is having a difficult morning. There are times when Victor refuses to work and instead pouts in protest to the daily assignments. That’s quite a difference from the description above, isn’t it?  His inability to process frustration often times blocks his capability to complete his work.  There are times when he is confronted with something that pushes him straight to the point of giving up.  He doesn’t believe that there is more to his mindset. It’s fixed! So, rather than exerting more effort, he reverts to behavioral disruptions instead.

Today, the Thursday before break, Victor is in his all too familiar mischievous mood. He is all over the place, excited, off task, and in somebody’s ear about anything insignificant (albeit significant enough to get under anyone’s skin)!  He has become quite skilled at doing things under the radar. Normally, I can detect even his slightest thought of becoming disruptive, but today with so much going on, he is two steps ahead of me.

As we waited for the other grade levels to arrive for the performance, I noticed one of my girls crying uncontrollably. I had been sitting in view of them and hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, so I was aghast at the sight. I knelt down and asked what was wrong. She proceeded to tell me through each crying breath that Victor had been calling her names and how extremely tired she was of him messing with her. Victor is avoiding eye contact with me at all cost as I speak with her, so I know…something is up.  He’s even talking to himself under his breath and I know he’s trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care that she is telling me what he has done. My stare has now become a glare and Victor’s eyes finally meet mine.  I motion for him to take a seat on the bleachers and allow the young lady to go to the restroom to get herself together.

I am SO upset with Victor and I begin to scold him. “Scholars are respectful to each other and to other people!” I scolded. Then, I stopped. I had to approach this differently. He’s been yelled at and scolded enough.  Probably more than imaginable but that is an uncertainty and is irrelevant at this particular moment. What is important right at this moment is the manner in which I choose to address Victor about what has happened between him and his peer. I waited a few moments before speaking with him. We both needed a moment.

need new approach to IT,

Moments have passed and I think I’m ready, so I call Victor over to me and away from his peers. I ask him what that incident was about and he admits he called her names, but only AFTER she called him names first. Now, this next statement will seem a bit cliché, but I have to say it…she’s the student that never says a word and is never in trouble, so needless to say, it was difficult for me to believe this accusation. I shared my reservation with Victor and he understood my dilemma.  I thanked him for his honesty and understanding at that moment. It was at this point that I shifted the conversation from his admitted negative behavior to his positive and greater potential.

I told Victor that he was filled with greatness. I told him how smart he was, in addition to being athletic and humorous. I told him that he could do anything he wanted to do, but that he blocks his greatness with some of the choices he makes inside and outside of school.  I explained that hurting people is just a way of blocking the good that is inside of him.  I tell him that it’s ok to be smart and to show others that he is smart.  “You are and are allowed to be a great example for your peers! Don’t be ashamed of your ability.  Use your greatness to change the world around you.” I continued. Victor said nothing. Tears began to stream down his face instead.  I asked him why he was crying. He again said nothing.  I asked if he had ever been told that he was smart and filled with greatness. As he wiped his tears, he still said nothing. Only shook his head indicating he had not. My heart sank at that very moment. I have been thinking about Victor and that conversation ever since.

The following day, the last day before break, Victor was…different. This is the day we all expect shenanigans and over zealousness from our students, so I expected Victor to respond in-kind. This time, I was wrong. Victor came in reserved and stoic. Rather than sitting with the other young men that had congregated to work on a holiday packet, Victor sat alone. Don’t get me wrong, he did not withdraw himself entirely. I could, however, tell that he was making good choices, purposefully and consciously, throughout the day. It took my reflecting on the events of the day to realize what had happened. Victor had heard what I said and had begun thinking about his potential.  He even gave me a hug and wished me a Merry Christmas before he left. The best gift I could ever receive. I have to admit; I cannot help but wonder if this change in mindset will continue once we return from break. I expect that there will be more to be done with my Victor and more to this story after break, but for now, at least he and I both know that change is possible, there is hope, and there is a future for him.

My reflection reveals that our approach, as educators, matters.  What we say and how we say it, what we do and how we do it…matters.  Our choice of actions and words can have a transformational affect on our students’ lives. They can be interpreted as s/he cares or s/he doesn’t. One word, one phrase is all it takes to make or break them. One word, one phrase can change the mindset of our students in the blink of an eye. That’s quite a bit of power and responsibility, wouldn’t you say? I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also realize that this duty comes with the territory.   We have committed to taking the good with the bad. It is my opinion that we have changed the meaning of that statement. You see, what we frequently find ourselves doing is taking the “good” and the “bad” and using them to label our students as such.  Yes, you’ve done it! We’ve all done it.  “He’s good.” and “She’s bad.” But, let’s be clear, we should not consider “good” and “bad” to be definitions of a student’s behavior but rather an indication of a students inability to communicate their needs and/or the lack of guidance they may or may not receive outside of school.

As I conclude, stop and think about YOUR Victor…or Victoria.  Think about what s/he does and says, the choices s/he makes, the challenges s/he takes you through on a daily basis.  Now, think about how you have responded.  How did you intervene? What was your approach? Know that while you think you may be emotionally connected and have developed a trusting rapport with your students, there may be something buried so deep down that they don’t even realize there is pain inside. We have been charged with the task of helping our students work through their confusion in order to help them realize their potential and free their minds. It is imperative for us to keep this in the forefront of our minds when disruptive behavior outweighs productive behavior. So, the next time YOUR Victor is under everyone’s skin…take a moment…and check your approach.