Locals

“Dad, are we locals?”

It was the Monday before the first day of school and my nine year old son and I were eating breakfast. I looked at him and answered his question with a confused “Huh?” We’d moved from a place where such things mattered, but we weren’t in the surfing queue at Swami’s; this was our kitchen table in Portland.

“Locals,” he repeated, pointing out or window at a construction sign across the street:

ROAD CLOSED
TO THRU TRAFFIC
LOCAL ACCESS ONLY

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re locals,” I assured him. And in the road construction sense we are.

IMG_4132But as the first week of classes unfolded and I watched my own kids adjusting to new schools, wincing at their anxieties and the moments when a drop of kindness could have gone so far, that question from over our cereal bowls came back to me and my answer felt less certain.

As educators we talk a lot about climate and culture, and creating a space where everyone feels welcome. At our best we build systems to support our students, create opportunities for each to feel they are part of the greater school community, and encourage everyone on our campuses to demonstrate kindness to one another.

But… in the hurly burly of the start of the year, how easy it is to let that focus slip. There are classes to start, procedures to review, activities to organize.

That sign and my son’s question echoed in my opening week consciousness, prompting me as a principal to ask (with a sense of paternal urgency): What more can we do to welcome kids to our school?

Certainly we do a few things right: an ice cream social just before the only Back to School Night I know of that encourages students to attend with their parents, particularly those new to our school; silly yearbook photos on registration day; and a “first day” of school (before the whole student body shows up) for every student new to ACMA no matter what grade they’re in.

I also know there is more we can do.

So right now some of our students are filling our hallways with messages of love as part of the Kindness Challenge, our Spirit Committee is working on ideas to make the start of the school year welcoming for all, and classroom by classroom our teachers are getting to know students, perhaps the most important welcome of all.

Can we do more? Of course. Every school does well when it makes the decision to embrace new students wholeheartedly and recognize that very real feeling Maya Angelou captured when she wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As a principal it’s my job to look for the good in people and keep a firm vision of the best school my school can be. This is never more important than when students step on campus for the first time and find themselves in the freefall of figuring out their place in a new world. It’s at these times that a smile or “hello” can mean so much, when going out of one’s way to help can make a difference for a student’s whole experience. This is the time to let them know that they are safe and cared for and can be themselves.

It’s my goal, and a hope I have for the amazing students and staff around me, to do all we can to make the answer “yes” when a new student finishes her first week at ACMA and asks: “Am I a local?”

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Kitty Litter

I was in a scriptwriting class on Monday and heard the teacher delight his class with the truth that as a writer and filmmaker there were times a young auteur would be given the challenge to “make kitty litter sexy.” The class laughed, of course, and he went on to lay down the truth that part of what good storytellers of any medium can do is take something simple and make it interesting. It was later that day that I found myself looking at the proverbial box of litter.

I knew where to turn.

My kitty litter was explaining the concept of ACMA’s “Access” period to students new to our school as well as how they can use our online system to sign up to visit teachers and get help. A schedule adjustment had made it so that the time we’d originally set aside to do this task would take place after the first Access. Gulp.

I turned to my student filmmakers.

Tromping out to my film teacher’s classroom I hoped I could coax a couple of students to help put together something informative we could share with new students. I had in mind something modest, and I had a deadline of just over 24 hours.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.49.59 AMAs students do when we believe in them, they more than rose to the occasion.

We talked briefly about the task at hand, they nodded and said they could do it.

By the next morning a student stopped by my desk to film my cameo in the short, her patience and smile reassuring me that things were going to be just fine.

Tuesday afternoon two inspired students swooped into my office with a rough cut that they adjusted as I watched. Witty, short, and clear, what they’d created did more than I expected to make the topic accessible to new students and provide not only what Access is, but also how the students could sign up for it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.50.16 AMWe sent it out to all new families that night, and Wednesday morning, as Access rolled out for the first time this year the result was students, veteran and novice, in classrooms getting help from the teachers they needed to meet.

The student filmmakers received no “points” for making the short, nor did they even add their names to the credits (though I hope to persuade them to do so on the next short I ask them to make). They stepped up, however, to do something for their school and for the students new to our ACMA family. They brought humor and polish to their work, and even enlisted a real life new-to-ACMA student in the starring role of “new student.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of inspiration that led Emerson to say “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

Every week I am inspired by the young people I have the privilege to work with. Wednesday that inspiration came in the form of a minute and five seconds of kindness and creativity.

Who

We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”       -The Doctor

A lifetime ago when I was a young teacher fresh out of college I taught a lesson on Essence and Experience that used Jean-Paul Sartre, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” to challenge students to think about what really made them them. I loved the lesson and the conversations it sparked: Would I be “Bjorn” if my name were “Pete?” Is being a teacher, or a husband, or a male, or an Oregonian essential to who I am or an attribute that is really transitory or unimportant? At twenty-three I was a brash young teacher using my degree in philosophy to push my students to think and it felt great.

FullSizeRender (4)Some of them dug it. I think.

I hadn’t thought about that lesson for years, just one of the many experiences that time slowly buries under the immediacy of life, until the afternoon after I’d had a great discussion with my assistant principal about the importance of knowing who we are as a school and, later that day, the happenstance of seeing my daughter watching an episode of Dr. Who.

“Regeneration,” she explained to me when we fell into talking about why the 11th Doctor looked so different than the 12th. “They always change …but they’re still The Doctor.”

Essence. Experience.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, a long running BBC extravaganza that has evolved in the years since my youth from a campy romp through time and space into a plucky, witty, and well crafted experiment of wonder, the premise is simple: A “time lord,” The Doctor, travels through time in a blue police box, often accompanied by a human companion, always game for adventure and usually finding it. His looks, gender, attire, and catchphrases are different with each incarnation (which occur every few seasons when the actor playing The Doctor switches).

That The Doctor is The Doctor is never in question, though David Tennant, Peter Capaldi, and (my daughter’s favorite) Matt Smith are as different as can be.

FullSizeRenderThe Doctor is different in attributes, that is, in experiences, but not different in essence.

And I thought back to that conversation my AP and I had shared earlier in the afternoon. What is the essence of our school?

I’ve been in education long enough to know it isn’t simply the building or the school colors, the principal or any particular program.

When I was in third grade I moved to a brand new elementary school and the administration had the great idea to let the kids choose the mascot and school colors. We chose silver and black for colors and Eagles as our mascot. Our school t-shirts made us look like a miniature biker gang. Within a couple of years the principal made the sensible decision to change the color to blue and made our mascot the dolphins. We were still the same school.

As a teacher I worked in several schools, rural and urban, large and small, affluent and not so much. Each had its own history, its own traditions, and its own attitude. There was a distinctly different feeling walking on the campus of each, an “it” factor that only that school had.

I thought about these experiences when I was talking with my AP, and I’d been prone to say that the essence of our school was not just what we did, or who were are, but why we did what we did as a school, our DNA, our expectations, our fundamental beliefs.

We talked about mission and vision statements, which sometimes capture a sense of a school’s essence, or at least make an attempt to put that essence into the nomenclature of the current day. Yet those statements, so lovingly posted in hallways or appended to a school’s letterhead, so often seem incomplete.

To really understand those fundamental truths that define who we are is a tougher job, and a more important job, than simply listing what we do and how we do it.

Who are we? This is the greater question, and the challenge of discovering a school’s essence may find a part of its answer in the process of inquiry itself, in adding to that question: “Who have we been?” and “Who will we be?”

IMG_3876As we peel away the attributes and experiences that make up a bit of who we are, not unlike The Doctor’s TARDIS, screwdriver, scarf, occasional fez, or sneakers, we are challenged to determine what are fundamental to who we are and what are mere circumstances of our existence.

Put simply, the more we can do to define our best collective self, the essence of the school that will exist even after we’ve individually gone, the more we can push ourselves to be meaningful contributors to that greater self.

And in the end, if there ever is such a thing, the pursuit of understanding who we are as a school, why we do what we do, and what is essential to our existence has the potential to help us embrace both our individual roles in this grand and collective adventure and the importance of each other as we work together to be part of something greater than ourselves.

Schools, like people, are always changing. Sometimes there’s value in pausing and asking:

Who have we been? Who are we now? And who will we be?

…Who?

Willingly Fallible

I’m going to make some mistakes. That freaks me out a little. Knowing the importance of working in education, I want so very much to get things right. I’m a principal, the guy in the tie, who ought to have the answers, and as tough as it is I know I’ll only be able to do my best if I’m able to be humble enough to ask questions.

Along with those questions, so many as I learn the culture of a school new to me and the policies of a new district, is the need to see myself as a learner, own my status as a steward to a great school, and embrace the opportunity to serve others with optimism and hard work.

And if I bring my best self to my work, then those mistakes, natural parts of being human, won’t be what defines me, though having the confidence to take chances that may lead to some of those mistakes certainly will.

FullSizeRenderWhen I have doubts about such things, or worries about not having the answer, I do my best to slow down and remember what poet William Stafford wrote about his craft in An Oregon Message“I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.”

How true for life as that is for poetry.

Mistakes? I’ll learn from them.

Questions? I’ll ask.

Is the principal fallible? Willingly.

First Things

The kids spoke first. Before we talked about mission or vision, before the new principal, me, did his best to introduce himself, and before we ticked through the “to do” list of the first week back, four intrepid students stood up in front of the staff, looked all of us in the eye, and reminded us what really mattered.

IMG_4070 (1)Truth be told, only three were able to be in the library that Monday morning, the first day back on campus for teachers still wearing shorts and summer tans. Four had met with me over the summer and we’d talked about what makes our school special, the anxiety and stress students face, and the messages they would share with the adults in their lives if given the opportunity.

They were messages of hope, honestly told, and stories about their own first days at ACMA when their anxiety was high and the biggest reassurances came from their teachers.

So on that first day back, as the staff settled in after a pancake breakfast, the first speakers of the morning were the kids. They were awesome.

As one student stood up and told the staff, “Some students face problems beyond being new to ACMA, though- difficult home lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, life changes like divorce or moving, or even something as simple as applying for colleges, and everything else that comes with that. For these students and all students, you’re something we can count on every single day we show up. This may be the most stability they’re getting at this point in their lives. And undoubtedly, many count on you for that whether they show it or not. Students are always listening. Not always when we want them to, but they are. Things that you say, even offhanded or trivial things can change a student’s entire perspective, for the better or the worse. And that’s a powerful thing, knowing that our relationships can change someone’s day, their year, their life.”

Another empathized with his teachers, explaining, “I’m actually also a teacher. I’m a gymnastics coach at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy. Now, I’m not trying to say that i’m on the same level as you guys, I mean, the most education that I have is sophomore year of high school. However, in other ways, our jobs are pretty similar. I grade them on their drills, and I make progress reports for them to take home. And according to them, I’m also in my 40s. But above all that, they see me as a role model. They reflect the energy that I put out there all the time. If I’m positive and I’m being a good cheerleader, they catch on, and they see that since I love what I do, they should love it too. And when you guys show that we should respect and trust the people around us, we begin to to do the same with our peers.”

A third told the teachers, “You change our lives, and not always with what subject you’re teaching but with how you support us. I want to thank you for the influence you’ve had on me, and I hope that you will continue to have a positive influence on each student who comes to school next week.”

The staff listened.

This was the reason we do what we do: students.

…and then they invited us outside to play.

The almost fifty adults followed our student leaders out to the quad where they circled us up and invited us to join in on a theater game called “Freeze!” As one student explained, this was a game that invited us to avoid the word “no” and concentrate on embracing the idea of “yes, and…” as we extended the impromptu scene.

IMG_4064Laughing together, we did our best to do just that, teachers tapping in to perform scenes from ACMA life and relishing the opportunity to have fun with each other.

When we finished, the students brought us back inside and reminded us that that feeling of nervousness that we felt before we jumped into the game, those butterflies in our stomach, were not unlike what so many of our students would be feeling the next week when they arrived for classes. We, the adults who would welcome them, could make a difference.

We got it. Yes, and…

I said that only three of the four student were able to come to our meeting, but that’s not quite the truth. At our last summer planning session the fourth, a young filmmaker, realized that she had to be out of town that morning, so she made a video we could play for teachers. Her earnestness and caring, projected on the screen in the library that morning, captured the essence of what is right about “kids today.”

Looking out from that screen and into our hearts, that fourth student spoke her truth.

Don’t underestimate your influence,” she told the teachers. “You have the power to potentially change a student’s life.”

I think that starting our school year together as a staff by listening to students helped to set the tone for the months ahead. Laughing and interacting with kids and colleagues reminded us that we are all in this together, a professional family working toward the same goal: supporting our students and each other.

Silly

One of the best gifts a new principal can get is a copy of the most recent yearbook. Beyond seeing what matters most to a school (the football team gets two pages; the drama club gets one) it’s the rows of school photos that help the most by providing a cheat sheet by which to learn names.

How happy I was then when last June I visited ACMA, my new home, and not only did I get to spend a full day on campus, but on my way out the yearbook advisor presented me with a copy of The Spectrum. I would know every teacher’s name by the first staff meeting, I thought. So prepared.

Now at ACMA the unexpected is expected, the unconventional is commonplace, and as if to underscore that fact, when I got back to my hotel after an amazing ACMA dance recital, I saw that like so much of what we do here, the faculty mug shots were just a little different.

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These were not going to help me learn names.

What the staff photos were, however, were perfect windows into the playful soul of a place with an imagination large enough to contain professional quality art, profound learning, and an unapologetic sense of whimsy.

IMG_4022Fast forward to this fall, and our registration day before the start of the year. We had all the usual stations: paperwork, bookkeeping, class schedule pick up, and ID card photos, and then, at the end of the line, tucked in a dressing room in the back of the theater, two yearbook students with a pile of props and a camera welcomed every soul coming to ACMA with a smile and the invitation to do something out of the ordinary.

Anxiety melted from many of our incoming sixth graders’ faces as they heard from two smiling teachers and the yearbook kids: “Here at ACMA we take silly yearbook photos!” Some of our returning students grinned as they pulled out their own props. Two girls took their yearbook photo holding their pet pug.

Never in my life have I laughed so much on registration day.

The next week that laughter returned as we ended our staff meeting with a photo shoot and a baby shower. Unrelated, except for joy.

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Like the kids, our staff grabbed hats and glasses, wigs, buckets, and clown noses and created their own bit of silliness as we posed for the yearbook photographers. One of my favorite parts of that day was seeing the kids taking the pictures laughing at the teachers, just big kids themselves.

When we stepped out front of the school to take our staff photo, a brand new baby and a few little kids joined us. Unapologetic whimsy.

In this serious world, and in a profession that matters so very much, I am thankful every day that I work at a place that makes room for the ridiculous.

It’s true that we can take what we do (art, teaching, learning) seriously and ourselves a little less so.

And if our yearbook makes it harder to learn names, then the playfulness inside does something else, something maybe more important. It serves as a reminder that laughter and fun have a place in everything we do. To forget that would be silly.

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Customer Service

When we moved back to Oregon one of my first stops, ahead of an overnight fishing trip with my son, was to Bi-Mart. For any who don’t live in the pacific northwest, Bi-Mart is a local employee owned store that sells everything from tents to hard candies, nails to plastic tumblers, flannel shirts to microwave ovens. With cement floors and employees in blue smocks, Bi-Mart was a working man’s Target before any national chain invaded the beaver state.

Stocking shelves at Bi-Mart had been my first real job back in high school, and I’d returned to unload trucks for a year after I left graduate school …ah the value of a degree in philosophy… before I decided to become a teacher.

BimartA membership store long before Costco, northwesterners have been plunking down $5 for green or yellow card since Eisenhower was in office. After almost twenty years away from my home state, my card was as gone as my misspent youth.

So, when I stepped into Bi-Mart a few weeks ago I approached the front desk with thoughts of buying another card before hunting for the perfect lure for our trip to catch smallmouth bass. That was not what happened.

Standing on the wrong side of the waist-high door just inside the Bi-Mart lobby I explained to the matronly woman in the blue smock that I needed to purchase a new card. I’d been away since 1999, I told her, and didn’t have mine any more.

“No,” she corrected me. “We say lifetime membership and that’s what we mean. What’s your name?” I provided it. She typed into the computer on the desk. “No,” she said after a minute or so. “Not there.”

It wasn’t a problem, I assured her, reaching for my wallet. I’d be happ-

“What store did you first get the card?” She interrupted with a smile.

“What?”

“At which Bi-Mart did you get your first card?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Salem, I guess,” I answered. “I worked there as a kid.” She nodded. “The one on Lancaster Avenue,” I added. “But that was back in the mid-80s, and…”

…and she was back on the phone, a heavy plastic receiver to her ear, one hand held up to let me know I needed to wait. I did, watching her nod into the phone, say a few words, and then repeat: “Yes, Bjorn, B-J-O-R-N. Right.” She shifted in her chair, waiting before finally ending the call with “Oh, thanks” and jotting something on the yellow legal pad in front of her. She put down the phone and smiled at me again. “They had it,” she said, as if the fact weren’t astounding.

“Wow,” I answered. “They keep those records a long time. Do they have a different computer system than here?”

“No,” she said as she wrote her name and a number on a fresh green card. “We keep paper files on the cards we issue.”

I tried to imagine the signature of my sixteen year old self in a drawer in Salem, Oregon. The paper, more than thirty years old, would be yellow with age.

IMG_4014The woman handed me my new card and a pen to sign it. “When we say lifetime, we mean lifetime,” she said again. “Enjoy your shopping, and welcome back.”

As a principal I think a lot about the relationships I build with staff, students, and families. I always try to treat others well and do the right thing to help others. From time to time I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job, and then, just in time to keep me humble, I’m shown an example of integrity that inspires me to work even harder.

What struck me at that Bi-Mart lobby wasn’t just that a paper record of my card existed or that some legwork was able to turn up the number, though both are astounding in their own way; what really resonated with me was the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of the woman at the front desk. She was ready to go the extra mile and seemed never to doubt that the right answer was just a few steps away. She knew the company’s promise about membership and was committed to a promise printed on every card.

She did this with a smile, taking up the challenge unflinchingly and stressing to me that it was the right thing to do. Never in our interaction did she have to call a manager or ask anyone’s permission; the company’s promise was clear in her mind and she took ownership of making good on that promise.

In a world of mission statements and attempts to capture a collective vision in site plans and on brightly printed posters, this Bi-Mart example of independence and clarity of purpose struck me as profound.

When I’m asked about what we do at my school and why we do it, I want to be as certain and as friendly as the woman in the smock. I want my staff and students to be a able to articulate our “what” and “why” with confidence and a smile.

A corporate someone might call what I experienced at Bi-Mart “customer service.” I believe it’s more than that; treating people well and being committed to doing the right thing is a way of life.

As the school year gets underway I hope to refine our promise to students, our commitment to each other, and our understanding of what matters most. I hope to live my professional life with that same sense of purpose and to empower those at my school to take the same sort of ownership as did the that blue smocked hero at Bi-Mart.

Living this way doesn’t just make a short term difference. Living this way matters for a lifetime.