Bird is the Word

birdWith a tenacity that astounded me, the bird flew at my office window, pecking the glass and flying back to the tree near the entrance to campus. A Yellow Breasted Chat (I looked it up) the bird announced it’s knocking on the glass with a throaty cry, acting as if it had something really important to tell me.

It didn’t. It was a bird.

But as I watched this collection of feathers and frustration come at my window (over and over and over again) I thought about the times I’ve seen equal determination in those around me, hellbent on giving the principal (or the school or the district) a message, but unable to make themselves clear.

Sometimes it’s language. Institutions speak the language of bureaucracy, and speak that with an English accent. As a principal I know how important it is that I take the time to avoid the acronyms of education and the obtuse vernacular of legal language. I recognize both the legal and moral obligations of communicating in the languages the families at my school speak, and saw in this bird a reminder of how frustrating it can be when I talk more like a principal than like a dad, or when I’m careless or hurried in my communication.

Sometimes it’s fear. Over a couple of decades working in schools,  I’ve learned that an overwhelming majority of parents really respect education and educators. Some feel nervous or hesitant reporting information they know might be seen as bad news. In these cases it isn’t as much about miscommunication as it is silence. Inside these moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, the desire to cry out is held back by the fear of disappointment, or (at it’s worst) the potential of not being heard. As I watched that bird banging against my window, I jotted notes to myself to do more to reach out to the school community and invite every voice into the conversation.

Sometimes it’s that our message is misdirected. This has happened to me more than a few times when I was on the other end of the communication, with something I needed to say, looking for someone who could hear me. In those times I wanted so much for the person I identified as having a solution to be the right one; too often I realized later that I was wrong. Like that Yellow Breasted Chat, sometimes our hopes outweigh reality, and the message we want so much to deliver isn’t really meant for the one we had in mind.

I see great people come to my office with challenges that my role as principal does not provide me the ability to solve. I listen, genuinely, sharing when I can, and giving them whatever I’m able, even if it’s only compassion. Some leave lighter. Some leave as frustrated as the bird at my window, wanting beyond hope that I could do something more to fix/cure/solve the problem that brought them to my office.

Whatever the cause of our banging up against a window, our beaks and claws scratching for a hold on the thing we can see, but not reach, we do well when we regroup, perch on a nearby branch, and try to figure out how we might get our message across differently.

My assistant, who was watching this strange occurrence, looked at me and said: “You know, they say sometimes animals can sense things we can’t.”

Not reassuring.

photo 3I had empathy for that bird, and though I’m no Dr. Doolittle, after a while I went outside. I’m not sure what I was hoping for.

The bird tipped its head when I got near, looking at me out of one shining black eye. “You’re going to get hurt,” I told it.

It chirped once, as if it couldn’t understand what I was saying, and flew away.

Wisdom Wears A Smock

The summer I was seventeen I worked at Bi-Mart, a thoroughly Oregonian department store that sold everything from diapers to ammunition. It had a rural 1970s chic, with polished cement floors, employees in blue smocks, and pallets of merchandise (wine and hosiery and potting soil) dropped into place at the ends of wide aisles of assorted miscellany.

Sometimes it could be tough to navigate if you weren’t a regular, though just about everyone was, as customers had to be Bi-Mart Members, and were issued a small paper card when they paid their $5 to be buzzed in through the swinging half door at the front of the store. Rustic, I suppose it would be called today.

I’d like to say that I learned hard work that summer at Bi-Mart, but I didn’t; putting effort toward a goal was a lesson taught to me by coaches on countless practice fields long before my senior year of high school. One lesson from Bi-Mart, however, has stuck with me through today, and in its way, provided an example of the strange sources inspiration can come from.

“Always walk the customer to the merchandise.”

He was a tall man with a long nose wearing the red smock of a department manager. I was newly promoted to work the floor, after proving myself unloading lawn furniture and barbecues from trucks out in the parking lot for what Bi-Mart called the Summer Tent Sale.

“You could tell them what aisle what they’re looking for is on,” he explained to me, “but what really makes a difference is stopping what you’re doing and taking them to it.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time, just more advice to an awkward teenager wearing the required tie beneath my blue smock. I filed it alongside “always face the toy aisles last” and “keep the beer shelves full.” But as June turned into July and I kept regular in practicing taking customers to what they wanted, I began to see just how much it really did matter.

The relieved smile as I walked a grandmother to the ace bandages, the appreciation on the face of the little boy looking for legos, the genuine “thanks” from the man who hadn’t been able to find toilet wax, all these people taught me the value of taking a few extra minutes that they weren’t expecting you would, and leading them to exactly what they needed.

It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me to my work as a site administrator.

The parents I listen to in my office don’t know about Bi-Mart, though I’m told sometimes (often months later) that they appreciate the extra time I take to hear what they have to say. This doesn’t mean that the answer I walk them to is always the one they came in after at the start, but it’s always an honest answer, delivered, I hope, with the same level of respect the seventeen year old me showed the customers when I walked them to fishing lures or portable electronics.

Yesterday afternoon an even more literal reminder of my days in a blue smock presented itself when a mom and her daughter arrived at Diegueño to register for school. New to the area, they came prepared, brought all the right paperwork, and got signed up for classes. Then, like an octogenarian searching for hard candy, they peeked into my office and asked if they could look around campus.

That advice from almost thirty years ago whispered in my ear, and with my best Bi-Mart smile, I put down the work I was doing and said: “I can show you around.”

The look on the mom’s face was the best part of my week.

Thirty minutes later we finished our campus tour, and they left with a little more information and a little less anxiety than they’d had when they arrived.

Would I have done the same thing if I hadn’t gotten that direction from the beak nosed department manager back when I was seventeen? Maybe. I’m honestly not sure.

I do know that in each of the eight years I’ve been a site administrator, not a month has gone by that I haven’t thought about standing there on that polished cement floor getting words of wisdom from a man in a smock.


Planning in Short Pants

There’s a line in Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” that flutters through my brain from time to time. It’s a powerful poem about passion and purpose, love and fear, poverty and expectation, and near the end the poet writes:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.”

I’m reminded of that verse as I prowl Diegueño’s campus this summer.

Three summer programs fill classrooms on campus in July and August: a math bridge, English and math support classes, and an English Learner program. Add to that the fact that Diegueño is a hub of math curriculum writing and revision, and I see a summer vacation filled with teaching and learning.

The nice part about summer school is the more relaxed atmosphere and shorter school days. There’s something about knowing that I can come to work in shorts and be out in time to take my kids to the pool that changes the tenor of school.

Working in that relaxed space has benefits to the kind of school Diegueño will be in from September to June. Being on campus, but not consumed by the enormity of school year work, provides perspective. Diegueño is a blank canvas, ready for bold strokes and nuanced scumbling. That painting starts in earnest in the fall, when teachers and students return, but in the time of preparation, sketches for the next year’s work can be completed with creativity and optimism guiding the pencil.

This was true for me as a teacher too. Not unlike a Broadway show running a few preview performances, I used summer school to pilot new curriculum, new approaches, and new ideas. I knew that if I could get something to work in July, I could get it to work anywhere.

It’s something true of our teachers this summer as well, where students are engaged, challenged, and celebrated, and learning is something done both by teachers and kids.

I see that learning particularly in the collaboration our math teachers are engaged in around the curriculum begun last year and being refined for next. They are focused and find ways to make adjustments they know will be good for kids. This work will pay off in the fall, in the winter, and next spring. The foresight to imagine how students will best learn is a profound strength of our teachers.

As a principal, being on campus in summer allows for the mental and physical space to envision changes that can benefit the school. It’s a time when the daily stressors of working with a thousand tweens and teens ease enough that what’s ideal can get an upper hand on what will work. In that space, I see my best opportunity to live Frost’s aspiration.

I find that I’m at work in the mornings at the same time I was during the school year, ready to go, happy to be spending time with teachers who really care about students, and who show it in the work they do. I’m inspired by them to merge vocation and avocation, encouraged beneath this summer sun to use both eyes to see one clear vision for Diegueño.

Nice Catch

photoI went fishing today. I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time I picked up a pole, but I’d wager I was still wearing Levis 501 jeans and sporting a ridiculous 1980s haircut.

It was an unexpected trip; a handful of us, three site administrators, got together after work and decided to get outside to enjoy the sunny summer afternoon. One, the most seasoned veteran in our group and an avid angler, coaxed the other two of us out to the lake with promises of bass and adventure. I’m glad he did.

As we baited our hooks with mealworms, cast out into the water, and watched our red and white bobbers float on the surface of the lake, we talked.

Certainly talk ranged to fishing, youth, and sepia tinted summer afternoons of years past. It also took a decidedly professional turn, and before we’d pulled our first leviathan from the water, we’d bounced ideas off each other about how we could improve the work we did with kids, teachers, and colleagues at each of our schools.

We talked about building professional relationships, treating others with respect, and creating legacies that we could be proud of. We shared what went well over the past school year, what we struggled with, and what we already knew we’d do differently in the fall. Honesty and ease filled the afternoon, and as we caught and released we did something else, we really connected.

Finding people we can talk with is vital to succeeding in public education, where so much of our work runs the risk of being pushed into a vacuum by the bustle of days. Taking time to talk can feel like a luxury, and even though those connections are renewing, it takes effort to make them happen. It’s like that fishing pole leaning up against the wall of the front closet that we walk past every day, potential ignored by the hectic pace of life.

Teachers can feel this when they’re adrift on the solitary boats that are their classrooms; site administrators feel it too, the events to be covered and opportunities to help so many that time can get away, and we look up to find ourselves alone on the shore at the end of the day.

photo 2 (2)Our veteran host, who caught far, far more fish than either of the other of us, helped put things in perspective. “I try to do this every week,” he said, flicking his line into the water. “After a busy day it helps put things right.”

Today’s excursion helped put things right for me too. Honest talk about the important work that we do, shared in the company of friends, not only helped me feel good about the year I’m just finishing, but also got me reflecting on what more I can do to improve.

My time at the lake reminded me of the joy of youth that is fishing on a sunny afternoon. It also reinforced the age old lesson of patience; much of fishing is waiting, and the thrill of feeling a fish strike the line, knowing a productive struggle will follow, and that at the end, if all goes well, the result will be looking you in the eye, is worth the time spent standing on the shore.

Truth be told, that standing, that waiting, that feeling the wind on your face and watching the sun on the water, is just as important a part of the experience as catching a fish.

Like working at a school, the periods of excitement are complemented by the quieter times, and best when we put a priority on connecting throughout both, celebrating successes, and helping each other when it feels like we’ll never catch a thing. We will, if we’re patient, and we’ll come out of the experience closer, if we allow ourselves to relax, reflect, and be there for each other as we go about what we do.

photo 1 (3)Professional development often takes place in offices and meeting rooms, official, even if it’s interesting. Sometimes it happens online, PLNs built and nourished through Twitter or other digital platforms. Today, for me, it took place outside, looking out over blue water, laughing, and hoping for a bite.

Welcome to the Fray

It’s the season of new assistant principals. Many of these APs are straight from the classroom and eager to try on the new role of site administrator. This week I was prompted to come up with someone I’d invite to join the #YourEdustory blogging challenge, and without hesitation a freshly minted AP popped to mind. I won’t call that person out here by name; I’m a gentleman and would never put someone on the spot publicly, but imagine the name of a new assistant principal you might know at the top of this letter…

Dear AP,

This is going to be fun.

You’ve been in the classroom for more than a few years, and you know how important it is to connect with kids, communicate with parents, and collaborate with colleagues. This year, in your new role as assistant principal, all that is about to change. …and be just as important.

What I mean is that in your new position all those relationships that have been so vital to your success as a teacher will be just as important, but they’ll feel different. As an assistant principal the subject of your interactions will broaden and you’ll find yourself facing questions (and finding answers) on topics as diverse as misbehavior in class, Common Core State Standards, and how to free a songbird trapped in a classroom.

It will be a blur, a beautiful blur, by October, and while I have no doubt about you succeeding, I have a challenge for you that I think might make your first year as an AP even richer. Feel free to say “no,” but please consider saying “yes…”

#YourEdustory is an idea hatched from the Kierkegaard quotation: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” It takes as a premise the belief that we serve our schools and school communities well when we tell our own story.

I’m all in. I love celebrating the great things happening at Diegueño, and I’ve found in the weeks since I started blogging with the #YourEdustory bunch that something else has happened: I slowed down. I started reflecting more. I read other educators’ posts, and felt increasingly connected. I found people I wanted to follow on Twitter and whose thoughtful responses to the weekly prompts inspired me to think about how I can improve my own practice and school. And it’s been fun.

There’s no pressure to this; not everyone posts every week, and that’s totally okay. But, with enough of us thinking about these topics (and offering our own prompts in a deliciously EdCampish shared Google Doc), there is always something to learn. And the truth is, I’d like to learn from you. I value your perspective and the fresh eyes you bring to administration. I’d love to read what you have to say about the weekly #YourEdustory topics, and hear the school story you have to tell.

You know me well enough to know that I’m more likely to suggest than demand, and in this case it isn’t even a suggestion; it’s an invitation. I invite you to roll up your sleeves, have a second cup of coffee, take a stroll around campus, and then…

Add your voice to the conversation. Laugh, reflect, engage. Tell your story.

Summer Planning

“Do you have the first day inservice planned?” She asked. One of my best teachers, a powerful educator and true teacher leader at Diegueño, her eyes wide, she really thought I might.

“I know I’m starting by feeding you pancakes,” I stumbled, “and…”

And I was thankful for her kindness, and the good humor of the other gifted teachers sitting around the table. “…and you know today is the first Tuesday of summer.”

We were together at a district achievement summit, a great way to cap off the school year, revisiting our progress on district initiatives and looking ahead to the start of the next school year. After a full morning, our Diegueño team broke off, finding a space where we could talk about how we could organize the first two days teachers were back in August.

With passion, candor, and an energy that suggested it was September, not June, the five teachers who joined me at the summit brainstormed ideas, spoke honestly about what would work and what wouldn’t, and helped craft a plan that will bring people together when we all return from a few weeks of vacation.

As I walked away from the meeting at the end of the day I was struck by three things: first, I work with some amazing teachers. Smilingly passionate about educating kids, they brought a spark to this summer planning that astounded me. Willing to help lead the August work, curious about how to improve their own practice and move our school forward, and ready to do the hard work needed to help kids, they are, like so many teachers, the reason education continues to adapt and really matter for kids. In this world of abundant information, it’s teachers who help provide perspective and wisdom.

Second, I was reminded of how important it is that I continue to push myself to be at my own best. That question about the first inservice that I bumbled, albeit honestly, was asked with the expectation that as the leader of the school I was thinking months ahead. I am, but hadn’t thought that I’d need to articulate my August plan on June 16th. I did, and having a group of teachers patient enough to let me find my answer made this a real opportunity for me to continue to grow into the leader I want to be.

Finally, the day underscored the importance of being purposeful in all we do. Whether it’s community building or academic initiatives, to make lasting change and a real difference, we must be both systematic and determined in what we do. This means working together, being honest in our assessment of where we are and ambitious in our determination of where we want to be.

I’m back at my desk in the morning doing the work I know will pay off in a couple of months, planning in June and July, inspired by those I work with, and excited about the difference we can make in August!

photo 1 (2)

…and when we get back in August, we’ll have the best staff shirts around!

Packed House

Standing at the podium looking out over the crowd of parents, students, teachers, and families, I had second thoughts about the importance of promotion. I’d been dubious.

A friend had asked me what a promotion was. “Like a mini graduation?” he asked. “Sort of,” I answered. “But without reading all the names.” Others I know have been critical of the practice, arguing that commencement ceremonies marking the completion of high school or a college degree carry with them a justified weight, while elementary and middle school promotions lack the necessary gravitas (or fail in attempting it), and seem forced, cheapened by social promotion, and incomplete as they recognize the class, not individual students by name.

photo 2 (6)There, however, looking down at my speech, a brief page, I had the distinct feeling that promotion mattered.

Sure, it’s an invented affair. Thirty years ago the transition from 8th to 9th grade meant your mom saying “I think those jeans will make it another year.” And yes, the most meaningful celebrations are throughout the year and for specific accomplishments, academic and social. But…

When I saw the collective pride packed into our quad, and tightly packed at that, I realized that an event like this is special too.

There was some talk about where to hold our promotion ceremony. In the past few years it’s taken place, sensibly, on the lower athletic field, where wide open spaces are the trade off for scrubby grass, ugly vistas, and a long walk for the elderly and disabled. This year we moved the celebration onto the heart of campus, building the event around the permanent stage where our ASB holds lunchtime activities, and spreading parent seating out into every nook and cranny of the quad. At Diegueño parents have traditionally brought their own lawn chairs, keeping the atmosphere casual and the costs low.

Moving to the quad meant rolling the dice on how everyone would fit, but the payoff of a pretty backdrop, better disabled access, and collective intimacy was worth the risk. What I didn’t realize until I got up on stage and looked out over the crowd, was just how perfectly the scene served as a metaphor for Diegueño.

We were together. We were there to celebrate kids. We were close, closer than some might think they wanted, but only for a short time, and looking back on that time together we’d forget the discomfort and remember what it was like to be part of something greater than ourselves in service to kids and academic success.

After a quartet of 8th graders sang the national anthem, and did so with such talent that the crowd let out a collective gasp, six student speakers took to the podium. These students, so thoughtful, passionate, and honest, reminded us all that our hope in the future is well justified. Their speeches alone were proof a ceremony like this was important. Student voices, publicly acknowledged and heard by our school community, were the star of the show.

At a promotion, as opposed to the diploma distribution that drives a high school graduation, the focus can be on celebrating the hard work, the play, and the community built over our two years together. We can sit next to each other one final time, and as a school family we can acknowledge the tick of time that marks some kind of changing of the hour in the lives of the kids.

…and the lives of the moms and dads.

It’s for the families that this gathering together means the most. Students carry their own memories forward, and few, beyond those students who sang or spoke, will be of the ceremony itself. For the kids it’s the selfie on the bus ride to Disneyland, or the poem written to describe 8th grade with an extended metaphor that will mean the most when, a decade or two from now, they’re uncovered cleaning out the spare bedroom to make a nursery.

For the grandfather who walked into our office after the promotion ceremony searching for a program, however, it was something else.

We were able to give him a program, and as I think about that folded piece of paper hanging by a magnet on the fridge beside a photo of his thirteen year old granddaughter, I know that I’ll do everything in my power to make each of the promotion ceremonies I get a hand in feel special to the parents, grandparents and kids too.

For that grandfather, promotion mattered. He was there to celebrate his student, and to support her as she began the transition to high school. This was a day for him, for her, for her parents, and for the families of all our 8th graders. It was real. It was heartfelt. It wasn’t just a mini graduation.

Gathered together in Diegueño’s quad, the packed house felt more like a full home. Our collective school family was there together to honor the kids we’d spent two years together preparing for the next step in their young lives. We wouldn’t have another opportunity to all sit shoulder to shoulder, and for a little less than an hour, we could.

Graduations are about individuals reaching individual goals; promotions are about the passing from one phase of life to another. They’re about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and students realizing that the awkward childhood of promotion’s wobbly wedges and ill fitting suits is too soon gone, and the future of mortarboards in the air is only a heartbeat away. It’s a final opportunity to hold our kids tight, embrace hope, and look collectively to the promise ahead.


“What is Pedagogical Innovation?”

Building rockets
that are beautiful
and fly
as rockets should
into the clouds
while decorated with rainbows

Stop motion videos
in art class
posted online
that make parents
when they watch them at a principal’s coffee

Revolutionary War podcasts
Cardboard roller coasters
Flipping, blending, bending, breaking the mold
Asking “What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”
And listening when the students answer

Leaning Toward The Finish

photo 1 (3)As a teacher I was always proud that my students worked all the way through the end of the year. We read, wrote, and thought whether it was September or June. I gave finals. We had fun, September or June, and we also knew that school meant school, which was more than a search for that elusive clownfish, Nemo.

Walking around Diegueño this final week of the school year, I’ve been blown away by the academic activities I’ve seen. Hands on, active, and rigorous, these are lessons that would have been rich enough for any time in the school year, and yet here they were, piled up against the promise of summer, filling the students’ days with learning, even on the proverbial eve of vacation.

I saw this from where I stood, atop the dumpster in the back of campus, where I’d climbed up to get a tweetable photo of the larger than life sized grid an intrepid math teacher had his students plotting lines on in a friendly (but hard fought) mathematics competition. Were the kids invested? Some teams had coordinated uniforms. Laughing, learning, and building community, this was the kind of lesson that they’ll remember forever.

photo 2 (3)And, I would find as I walked campus, this was not out of the ordinary.

The next day I went to a science classroom at the invitation of a student who wanted me to see how his bridge held up against the stress that would test his application of engineering principles. Truth be told, it snapped beneath the weight, joining a pile of others in a graveyard of bridges on a nearby lab table, but the effort he put into the structure impressed me. The pride these 8th grade scientists and builders brought to their work couldn’t help but inspire.

photo 3 (2)And then I smelled something burning.

It turned out to be a boat.

Actually, it was a boat lab in the adjoining science room. When I stepped outside I found a cluster of students igniting the candles that powered their paper and metal boats. These creations shot down the watery course, a testament to combustion and motion. Only a few caught fire.

photo 4 (1)From Renaissance presentations to student blogs about the extended metaphors for 7th grade, teachers and students are learning. Sure a few more of the kids are a little distracted, but more than most are engaged: in book clubs, in performance tasks, in building and doing.

I’m proud to work where teachers lean in to the finish. Summer looms, and the smell just around the corner will be a barbecue …in a week.

Until then the smoke is coming from a paper boat.

The Principal’s Office

He came back into the admin building and leaned in through my open doorway. Pointing to the glass wall that separates my desk from the lobby, he said: “This is the brightest and most open principal’s office I’ve ever seen.”

I smiled at him, a parent who had been in to pick up his daughter early. Literally everyone who enters Diegueño Middle School walks past my desk, so the times I’m in my office are filled with impromptu conversations and (mostly) friendly faces.

photo (3)Each is an opportunity.

Sometimes the interaction is a short as a wave, other times a pinched nod is followed by the no longer unexpected “Do you have a minute?” I’ve made a commitment to myself that the answer will always be yes.

Parents. Teachers. Students.

…and the gift of a chance to make a difference.

“When I was in school,” the man in my doorway continued, “the principal’s office was…” He puffed his cheeks out and widened his eyes.

“Behind the iron curtain?” I asked.

“Yeah. End of a long scary hallway.”

“Things have changed.”

And how they have.

I met my middle school principal once, on the last day of 8th grade when I was called into his office for drawing a mustache on his picture in a couple of yearbooks.

I don’t remember him as a mean man, just thin, and tired, and sad. He said something about being disappointed, and rule follower that I was, I hung my head. But if I’m honest, even now, his words didn’t have much impact; he was a stranger to me, a man I’d seen at assemblies and drifting through the hallways like a ghost in a mid 19th century novel.

Had one of my teachers said the same words, I would have cried.

Then again, I wouldn’t have drawn a mustache on any of my teachers’ photos. I knew them. I respected them.

It was faceless authority the thirteen year old in me was rebelling against. No, not faceless; you can’t have a mustache without a face. I guess it was simply a face I didn’t know. And when I walked down the long, unfamiliar hallway that led to his office and met the man from the yearbook photo, so clean-shaven, and gray, and ready for summer vacation, I felt …disconnected. Here was a stranger. Like him, I wished I could be anywhere but there.

As a principal now myself, I’m thankful that my office isn’t tucked away like a soviet era bunker. I’m also happy that from the first morning bell until the end of the day, it’s a place I don’t spend too much time; classrooms and campus are better places to connect with kids and teachers.

It’s these connections that define who I am as an administrator. They’re built, purposefully, over time, by being available, keeping my door (and mind) open, and embracing the opportunities that come from an office with glass walls.