Treasure

photo 1 (9)The first two pirates just made me smile. Their eye patches, red vests, and black sashes bespoke adventure on the high seas …not that different from a middle school campus on Halloween.

The next buccaneer, with striped shirt and mischievous grin, should have been enough for me to notice a pattern, but I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee and wasn’t imagining what was going on.

As a teacher I’d loved pirates, growing a beard and slipping in a hoop earring to celebrate “Pirate Week” every other year with my students (there’s another post in that somewhere). As an administrator I keep a pirate flag in my office and the sketch of a salty sea rat on the notes of thanks I like to write. I may not be able to be quite as swashbuckling as a principal, but I like to think that I’ve kept that pirate spirit.

When the next pirate, a math teacher, walked past my office, her π-rate t-shirt accompanied by a scarlet sash and high leather boots, I realized there was something afoot. “Ahoy,” she said, waving. Another teacher popped up beside her, “Cap’n,” he added from beneath a skull and bones bandana. And it dawned on me that I was witnessing something magical.

photo 4 (3)There are moments we look back on over our professional lives, times when we experienced great kindness or profound emotion, and as I saw an instructional assistant walk past these pirates with a parrot on his shoulder, I realized that today was one of those events for me.

In my first year as principal of Diegueño Middle School I’ve worked hard to earn the respect of the amazing educators who make up our staff. From the first day of school they’ve treated me well, welcoming me into classrooms and helping me feel like a part of our great Diegueño family.

Today, as three-cornered hats and hoop earrings were more common than ID badges, and every face I saw had a smile and the twinkling eyes of someone who has just pulled off a delicious surprise (which they had), I was overwhelmed by the feeling of gratitude.

I am blessed to work with a band of pirates who know how to mix work and play, and who kept a collective secret that, unveiled, shivered my timbers.

I will never forget today, the smiles and eyepatches, the support and love. My first Halloween as principal of Diegueño goes down as one of those special life events, humbling, moving, and wearing an eyepatch.

Arrrr!

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“…might crash and burn but…”

photo 1 (8)She emailed me mid-lesson to offer an invitation. Freshly inspired by a conference with other math teachers, she hadn’t waited more than a day to try something new in her own Integrated Math A Readiness class. The subject line of her email read: “trying something new.” The body of the email dripped with honesty and the spirit of adventure: “…might crash and burn but totally common core if you feel like popping by.”

How could I not?

The gutsiness of the email wasn’t unexpected; this is a teacher I admire for her willingness to take risks and try new things. As a person who embodies a growth mindset, not just for her kids, but for herself as an educator, this was someone who wasn’t kidding when she said she didn’t know the outcome of the lesson. What she did know, however, was that thoughtfully risking change could lead to fantastic results. It did.

The lesson began with an infographic on child safety seats. Prompted by their teacher, the students filled one white board with answers to the question “What do you notice?” discussing the image and the information it presented. Next, they answered the question “What do you wonder?”

Following these prompts, the teacher broke the class into pairs, and students discussed what they believed the information was saying, discussing in terms of fractions and searching for clarity as they discussed measurement. Another math teacher walked through the room (ours is a department who visit each others’ classrooms) and his remark, accompanied by widened eyes: “They’re totally engaged.”

They were.

A few minutes later the class came together to talk about what they’d learned so far. One girl shook her head and said, “We got it totally wrong.” Her teacher touched her desk and said gently, “And that’s totally okay. This is just your first try at it. You can get it.” I could see the student’s shoulders loosen and her eyes pinch in a smile.

Partners worked together again, revising their initial attempts at explanation, or entirely reworking their approaches, as they needed. The teacher moved around the room, asking questions and praising students’ engagement. Students wrote and discussed, every one of them at work.

Not long into this final discussion, a student raised both her arms in victory and whooped (literally whooped) that she and her partner had gotten an answer they were proud of. Invited to explain their diagram to the class, the partners did so with a smile. Encouraged by their teacher’s exuberance, the girls shared with their peers, proud of the work they had done.

As they finished, a second group brought their diagram to the front of the room. They approached the question differently, but their smiles and confidence were the same.

A third group came to the document camera and began their impromptu presentation with the line “We did some pretty hard core math.” Grinning, they explained where they’d gone wrong in their first two attempts and how they felt pleased with their third go at the problem, which proved a different approach than either of the first two.

photo 2 (12)In the end, four of the five groups attacked the challenge in different ways. The students’ earnestness and comfort with not succeeding the first time was profound. These were students who were building their math skills at the same time they built resiliency and reinforced the idea that while they didn’t know yet, they could work hard (together) and figure it out.

I left the math class inspired. Yes, the lesson might have crashed and burned, but it didn’t. Under the smiling gaze of a gifted teacher, the lesson, and the learning as a result, soared and shined. Will this happen every single time? No. And just as this amazing teacher told her students, that’s okay. It’s about the willingness to take chances and embrace uncertainty in pursuit of something great.

I look forward to the next email I get from a teacher that begins “I’m trying something new…”

Sub

Her sub plans were clear and the class a sea of smiling 12 year old faces. Crazy Sock Day, part of spirit week, had them in a particularly good mood, and it was a class I’d visited just the week before. It’s a fact that not everyone knows that if a substitute teacher is late, as today’s was (the result of a fender bender on the way to school), the principal or assistant principal takes the class. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does I take the opportunity to dive in and participate in the most important job in education: teaching.

In my time as an administrator I’ve stepped in to teach everything from PE to Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’ve covered a high school dance class and a 7th grade science lab. Sometimes, like today, the absent teacher has left a beautiful lesson plan. Sometimes …we dance.

The exhilaration is the same, standing in front of a room of students. They’re there to learn and I have a front row seat.

Math today provided a good example of the critical thinking our kids are capable of. After a short warm up activity, students moved into established groups, shifting desks to face each other and resettling in an astounding 25 seconds, ready to go.

We spent a few minutes reviewing their homework assignment, as armed with with the correct answers I traveled from group to group, checking in and asking questions. At almost every cluster of desks I witnessed discussion, either of what the answer might be or why it might be what they agreed it was. When students were stumped I asked clarifying questions and in every case this reframing was all they needed to figure out an accurate answer.

Wrong answers came next; the teacher had cleverly left photocopies of a sample test filled out with incorrect solutions to a dozen or so questions. Challenging students to work together to determine which answers were wrong, and even more challenging: why? this exercise in critical thinking and collaboration reminded me of the real work adults do every day.

Subbing for a class that contained no lecture or ticking off answers to problems the students did the night before reminded me of the importance of challenging students academically, even as we support them with patience, carefully chosen questions, and a lot of heart.

Just as I’d seen in English, science, and history classes, the students in my math class (well, mine for the day, anyway) were living that line from Einstein: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

And with a focus on igniting curiosity and nurturing the conditions in which students can learn, the lesson left for me today illustrated the truth that good teachers know: the best teachers don’t teach math, English, science, and history; the best teachers teach kids math, English, science, and history (and coding, and drama, and music, and art, and PE, and all keep the focus on kids).

For me, the opportunity to move around the room, look in the kids’ eyes, and engage with them in learning was profound. I love high fives and conversations about baseball at lunch, but being able to spend time sharing the experience of learning was a poignant reminder of why I became a teacher a couple of decades ago.

I finished my sub assignment thinking that every administrator ought to spend time teaching every year. By the end of the day I even convinced my English department to let me teach some Sherlock Holmes to our kids next month. The thrill of starting to plan the lesson has me feeling like a first year teacher again.

Tomorrow I’ll be sure to go out of my way to say “thank you” to the teacher who left me those great lesson plans and a class of students ready to learn. It’s the same message I gave those kids when class ended, heartfelt gratitude for a renewing and inspiring day as their substitute teacher.

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Brains

photo 2 (11)They lurched onto campus in droves, rotting flesh, tattered clothing, and hollow, smiling eyes. This twelve and thirteen year old horde of the walking dead filled Diegueño with an infectious sense of glee. I complimented one young fellow on his makeup and without breaking character he groaned: “braaaaaaaaaaains.” Good clean fun.

I told the kids I needed to be an adult until after lunch. It was then that they could make me look like a zombie. And I’d start jogging.

This Monday of Halloween week our ASB hosted the first annual “Zombie Fun Run.” I say first because parents, students, and teachers all commented on how fun it was, and how much they’d like to see it become a Diegueño tradition. Me, I was just happy not to have the kids selling magazines.

Fundraisers have been a part of public school education for a long time; I remember selling candy bars at Parrish Junior High decades ago. This infusion of support allows schools to do a lot of the fun stuff that brings kids together. Our school community enjoys Spirit Day in the spring, lunchtime activities, and guest speakers as a result of the financial support our parents give us, and we’re thankful for it. We’re also mindful that parents and grandparents don’t need more gift wrap or magazines, that we probably have enough candy in our houses already, and that a tin of caramel corn may not be the best way to spend $20.

This isn’t to say that you’ll never have an opportunity to help support the kids by buying something, but for our big fundraiser of the year we wanted to do something that did three things: promoted health, drew our school community together, and was fun.

The natural answer, of course, was zombies.

And the kids responded with exuberance. On what might have been a humdrum Monday in October, I saw our students laughing, helping each other with makeup, and giving high fives to each other not because they were friends, but because they appreciated each others’ costumes.

We kept the costumes appropriate, PG gore, not PG-13, no axes, no machetes, no chainsaws. And we kept the spirit of the day celebratory, as students and teachers laughed together at the fun they were having.

At the end of the day I had exactly zero complaints from teachers about students sitting in class dressed as the undead. I had the same number of complaints from the kids about their teachers dressed as zombies.

We raised a healthy amount of money today to go toward student activities, and while we did, we raised the spirit of our whole school family. A little off kilter? Sure. But a nice example of middle school sensibility.

In the end the bottom line wasn’t judged by how much money came in, but in the truth of these four words: the kids had fun. Our ASB worked hard and created an event that was good for Diegueño . It took lots of effort, heaps of spirit, and of course, brains.

Playing with Expectations

More often than not clarity is the goal of all communication with parents, students, and teachers. As a principal I strive to provide information that gives my audience what they need, and opportunities to ask questions and engage in conversation about what’s happening on campus. To this end I use Twitter and our school’s Facebook page, I’m diligent about keeping up with a monthly principal’s message on our school website, and I keep this blog (for those times I’m feeling a little more poetic than a more official memorandum would allow). In addition, short web videos have become an increasingly welcome way for me to reach parents, who get to see a face with the message, as opposed to a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone message (I use those too) that interrupts dinnertime.

In a playful mood, however, I jostled that expectation of clarity first, and engaged in a touch of subterfuge for my “Costumes on Campus” message.

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The student who was kind enough to stand in for me had gotten my attention when I subbed for a drama class earlier in the year and he offered to get the students started on a drama warm up while I took role. A real leader and talented actor, he had the pluck I wanted to fill the suit and mask. My AP stood behind the camera, and told me when we finished: “This was your best one!” Because I wasn’t in it, I answered. “You said it, not me!” He laughed.

Using humor to support a message and embracing the unexpected are hallmarks of great teachers. To work with pre-teens and teenagers means an ongoing adventure into the world of anything can happen, and to be an administrator at a middle school means multiplying that by 40 or so classrooms.

I’m very fortunate to share this adventure with a team of gifted educators who see the good in the unexpected. As we learn, both students and adults, understanding is preceded by a moment of not knowing what will happen next. It could be the anticipation of hearing a student presentation, engaging in a lab in science, or wrestling for a solution in math. It’s the notion that we don’t have the answer …yet. And it’s iphoto 2 (9)n that “yet” that we cultivate the growth mindset that believes we all have the capacity to grow, to learn, and (to crib a line from Sartre) to be what we are becoming.

I heard once that one measure of progress in a laboratory was laughter, because it meant that something had happened that was positive and surprising. It’s a lot like that in middle school.

Learning should be fun. As we dance with the unknown and finish a little closer to understanding than when we started, students build the habits of curiosity that will lead them in exciting and uncharted directions.

Without masks.

 

 

The Good Stuff

photo 3 (1)The important work happens in the classroom. For all the energy we educators put into building our personal learning networks, communicating with families, going to EdCamps, reading articles and books, collaborating at lunch, and the thousand other things teachers and administrators do to support teaching and learning, the place where the magic appears is in the interaction between teachers and students.

I’m blessed to see it every day. As a middle school principal I can honestly say that every single day I’ve come to work at Diegueño I’ve been in classrooms. There is no part of my job more important, or more enjoyed, than being out of my office and in the presence of students learning.photo 2 (8)

As a dad myself, I know how precious this is. To see what’s happening in classrooms is something I never take for granted. Middle school students don’t always come home, plunk down their backpacks, and tell mom and dad how their day went. They don’t always mention the little things, like what happened when they debated the merits of technology in English class, or dissected plants in science, or designed a video game in coding class. Not always.

As I walk from class to class, I purposefully take my time. I want to see what happens after the discussion of the Puritans, what happens after the students have finished looking at cells through a microscope, what they do when they’re done writing in their journals.

photo 1 (4)I love sneaking a word with kids as they transition from one activity to the next, asking about what they’re learning (while it’s fresh in their heads and they aren’t tired at the end of a full day). The dad in me loves hearing how excited they are; the principal in me can’t help but be proud of the work our students and teachers are doing together.

And as a principal, I love sharing the stories with parents and the world as much as I can. It’s why I use Twitter and one of the reasons I keep a blog. With every photo of a science lab, ASB lunch activity, or student art show I get to tell a part of Diegueño’s story.

photo 4 (2)Moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, and uncles can’t always be on campus to catch the swinging of rocket prototypes outside the CE Smart lab, or the student submerging in the water displacement drum in science class, but I am, and I can share a peek into the world on campus.

It’s as I go from classroom to classroom that I completely understand just how inspirational education really is. Sure we face challenges; schools are microcosms of the community, and communities are not without challenges, but as we work with students and families to help navigate the teenage years, the real story of our school unfolds in classrooms all around us.

photo 5 (1)It’s the story of building bridges in math class, making videos in Spanish, taking photos for the yearbook, and learning. That’s the real story of education, the one that happens in the classroom.

That’s the good stuff.

My School

964On the day I moved into my office at Diegueño, a hot morning in July when I had to put on a hard hat to step on campus and navigate demolition that made the space on the other side of my window look like a scene from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Diegueño did not feel like my school. Not yet.

Two weeks later, as my office staff joined me in a building without reliable power or data, Diegueño was beginning to feel like a school again, but not quite my school. Not yet.

Teachers returning from summer vacation began to crack the ice, moving the experience from theoretical to real. As we began our year together with a pancake breakfast by Cougar Hall, their welcoming faces made me feel like this would be home. The kindness shown me by my amazing staff spoke to good things to come, but it still felt like their school -almost our school- not yet my school.

The staff shirts I’d ordered back in July hadn’t come in yet, and I couldn’t quite feel like I’d put my stamp on Diegueño. Not yet. I was new like the dozen or so teachers who hadn’t been at Diegueño the year before. We were all now members of a great school community, but I felt like I still had miles to go before it was my school.

Kids arriving made the biggest difference. Their ready smiles, high fives, and fist bumps turned the first weeks of school into a celebration. We all found our rhythm of learning together, with highlights like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Sidewalk CPR, and a fun Back to School Night.

The school I welcomed parents to on that evening in September was one that I was proud to be part of, but I still felt new, like a boy in his father’s suit, the collar a little loose, and the brim of the fedora over my eyes.

waterOctober arrived and with it opportunities to welcome our greater community to campus to celebrate student work and great improvements brought to us by Proposition AA.

That “us” of October was real; I felt a part of Diegueño. The staff shirts still hadn’t arrived (the bureaucracy of billing can touch even the best places), but our sense of each other as a school family had. I felt it when I joined teachers for lunch or at gatherings like the Math department’s dessert party. I felt it when I walked into classrooms and was greeted by the students and teachers with smiles and invitations to join in. I felt it when I worked with my PTSA to discuss plans about the great things we could do together for our kids.

And then, as I was going along feeling like a real Diegueñian, I had something happen that hit me as the moment when Diegueño became my school.

I’d discussed adding some vinyl signs to the new security fences to soften the burnished metal look a bit. PTSA had been kind enough to order them, and I stood in front of the school with my ASB director, campus supervisor, plant manager, and a student deciding where to hang the signs. In addition to a sign with the traditional (and honestly kind of spooky) image of our mascot, one smaller sign welcoming folks to Diegueño carried a line drawing of what some of the students had called a “friendly cougar.” I liked that; my hope with this sign was to show a version of our mascot with a twinkle in its eye and a look of welcome. I’d sketched the face while I was sitting in a meeting and rolled the dice of hubris in deciding to put it on a banner. Seeing that friendly face get zip-tied to the fence I felt like I’d arrived.

photo (17)My real legacy will be defined by the great teachers I’ve hired and the culture of community I strive every day to nurture and develop. The difference I make will come as a result of a dogged determination to help students succeed, and help teachers, parents, and kids all feel a part of something great. But still, as my student held the sign and my plant manager tied it to the fence I had the overwhelming feeling of being home wash over me.

And I realized that Diegueño isn’t just my school; I’m Diegueño’s.