Principals and Other Humans

It was simpler as a teacher. In my thirteen years in the classroom making meaningful connections with students was my first priority. Sure, we had books to read and papers to write, but I knew that kids don’t learn from teachers they don’t like (at least not what the curriculum says they should), and I knew that if I was engaged and honest, passionate and kind, then I’d have a chance to make difference.

I’m a principal now, in classrooms more as an observer than a teacher, and those meaningful connections grow in a different petri dish.

Lunch is a great time to get to know students, supervision an excuse for conversations with teenagers in their natural habitat. As students see me out on campus every day it becomes easier for them to see me as someone they can talk with. Certainly kids’ focus is, and should be, on each other, but as they know that we’re all part of something greater it’s possible to connect over the shared topic of our school.

BPwithKidsBig parts of school happen outside the hours of eight to three, so being at after school activities matters a lot when it comes to connecting with students. Staying to hear a concert or watch a robotics competition, and maybe even participating in student vs staff Comedy Sportz matches, goes a long way in helping students know that principals are almost human. Staying and caring. Students notice cell phones at ballgames and respect that lack of engagement as much as a teacher would in Biology class.

(When I have my phone out at a student event, I’m Tweeting! Honest!)

Being truly present, whether at a track meet or a dance recital is vital in establishing meaningful connections. It’s just as important to show that respect when listening to students. Teengers can sense disingenuousness in a heartbeat.

As I attend events and stay visible on campus, three other goals are part of my plan for connecting with kids as I begin a new school year.

First, I want students to see me teach. It’s why I got into education in the first place, and I think that it’s in the give and take of a classroom discussion that the truest connections at a school really happen.

Second, I want kids to see me play, and sometimes play the fool. In my time as an administrator I’ve taken pies to the face, had ice water dumped over my head, and let students make me up as a zombie. I don’t know what this year ahead has in store, but whatever it is, I’m game. Kids should see their principal laugh.

Finally, I want students at my school to see me as a person. I know I’ll never be as important to the kids as their favorite teachers, but I want them to know me more than I did (or didn’t) know the folks at the helm of the schools I attended.

Every time the students at my school see me watch a play or come to a game with my own kids, I feel like my persona as the guy in the tie expands a bit. I’m the principal, sure, but I’m also a human, like them. …or at least like their parents.

So this year I hope to connect with students by listening, laughing, teaching, and leading with my heart.

Cowboy Boots

“Now you can start wearing cowboy boots!”

It’s a running joke, foisted upon me by a friend and fellow principal who described the benefit of starting a new job. “They don’t really know you,” he explained a lifetime ago when I moved to a new school. “If you show up on your first day wearing cowboy boots, they won’t ask why, they’ll just know you as the guy who wears cowboy boots.”

“But I don’t wear cowboy boots,” I answered.

“No, but you could!”

I received an email from him again when I got my new position this summer, one line: “Cowboy boots?”

Now, I will not be showing up on my first day wearing cowboy boots, or sporting a beard, or any of the other options for a new look. I’m pretty comfortable with the imperfect, sneaker wearing person I currently am. That email, though, got me thinking about the great opportunity we have each year as educators to start fresh, redefining (at least in part) who we are and how we work with kids, parents, and each other.

Our superintendent likes to greet us all each August with a hearty “Happy New Year!” And it is. Summers have a way of washing away the accumulated grime of a rough and tumble school year, and as teachers and students return to school in the fall they bring with them the feeling that great things are possible.

Not every profession has this fresh start built into it, but it truly is one of the nice realities of education. We bring with us all the wisdom we gathered and built over the past year (and years) and add to that the energy that comes from having a few weeks away from our usual workaday world.

Like our students, we have an opportunity to set goals for the year ahead and begin again. This isn’t to say that we’re completely different people than we were in June, but we do have the possibility to define ourselves for a new group of students, and even for ourselves, in a way that brings us a little closer to being the people we aspire to be.

So I prepare to enter my twenty-second year in education with a fresh outlook, new ideas, and an old pair of shoes.

Hello, my name is BJORN

The first two days. This year mine will be spent with a new staff, at a school new to me, doing my best to make a good first impression. I’ll be striving to let people know who I am, and beginning to start beginning to start beginning to get to know the professional community I have the privilege of working with as their new principal.

I’m excited.

…and a little nervous.

My first two days with teachers come at the end of August, when we’ll gather to talk about WHY, WHAT, and HOW we work together to best help our students prepare for a changing world. They are important questions with uncertain answers, and while I love the fact that I get to spend my first two days working on them with teachers, I’m mindful that for some of the folks, I’m simply a new face, as unfamiliar as a man walking into an elevator.

So while we’re talking about teaching and learning, I’ll do my best to help my teachers know who I am, a fellow traveler on this adventure of education. I’ll listen and learn who they are, some known to me from great reputation, some already friends, and some as new to SDA as I will be.

Most importantly, I look forward to using the first two days to find out who we are. Establishing a cohesive and caring professional community is one of the most important first steps in helping students learn and a school meet its potential for making a difference.

Students arrive the next week, and I’m already thinking about the ways I’ll connect with them in the first two days of classes. I know those connections will take tim and will be built over months of lunches, plays, concerts, games, and being in classrooms. I know I’ll do my best to teach a bit, even in the busy world of high school administration, and that I want my students to see me as an ally. Put simply, I want to be the principal I’d want my own kids to have.

The first two days are just that: two days. I’d be silly to say that they’ll define my year, but I am committed to using them as best I can to articulate a tone of openness, caring, and possibility.

Leaping

I’m down to the plants, a coffee maker, and two boxes of books. The office feels empty and, in the quiet of July, a little surreal. I’ve taken the pictures off the walls and with a pocketful of nails I’m getting ready to take the last odds and ends out to the car and drive across town where I’ll unpack in the principal’s office at San Dieguito High School Academy. It’s a big leap, and as I jot these lines I feel like I’m still in midair.

One of the books in the boxes is a scuffed copy of The Collected Poetry of WH Auden. I get kidded a bit about keeping poetry in my office alongside the more professional volumes that fill my shelves, and that’s okay. I find that I open the books on education most in the Julys and Decembers when I have a few days off in a row. For more instant inspiration, I turn to verse.

On the day the possibility of coming to SDHSA peeked into my comfortable office, I leaned on Auden. In a few lines he provided the challenging reassurance that this was my path. He wrote:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.”

Learning, growing, and trying new things aren’t traits exclusively beneficial for students. To be the educator I strive to become, I knew I needed to embrace Auden’s challenge.

So I’m leaping.

With eyes open and mouth bent in a smile of anticipation, I’m lifting off from the safety of the known and rushing up to the dynamic world of the unexpected. That I’m waking up on these summer mornings looking forward to the end of August reassures me that it’s the right thing to do. It’s the feeling I had when I chose my college and when my family and I moved to California.

The SDHSA I know already is a free spirited and socially conscious place where teachers and students know the value of caring and community. It’s a place with proud traditions and new ideas, a place that embraces the offbeat and honors individuals’ differences. It’s a school that might just indulge a principal keeping Auden on the bookshelf in his office, might even embrace it.

For a former philosophy major who routinely dressed like a pirate (beard and hoop earring included) when teaching, I feel like my professional path, winding as life does, has led me here. Poet, pirate, principal, I’m home.

Either, or…

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth or power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”                  -Søren Kierkegaard

I choose optimism. I choose to see in others and in the world around me the possibility of greatness, little and big.

In more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen tragedy up close. I’ve seen meanness and cruelty, unrecoverable mistakes, and years ruined in the decision of a minute.

And… My heart bruised, but not breaking, beats with the belief that all will be well. Even in the dark moments, when the world smells like hot metal and snakes, I believe that hope, that thing with feathers, perches on my soul.

As a school principal it is as vital for me to see the best in my school as it was for me as a teacher to believe in the best in each of my students.

The payoff is high expectations that those around me consistently rise to to; the alternative is cynicism, depression, or that attitude of let’s get through this that sinks ships and damns possibility with faint praise.

The praise I offer is real and heartfelt. If sometimes I have to travel a little farther to find it than I would for something to complain about, it’s a trek worth making.

Because in more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen profound joy up close. I’ve seen kindness and compassion, unbelievable achievements, and lives transformed in the decision of a minute.

My heart beating almost to bursting with hope, I know that in its way, and in its own time, all will be well. I know that with so many of us working together for something so important, amazing good is more than possible.

I couldn’t wish for more.

They’ll never put my name on a bench…

photo 1I have lunch from time to time with Marilyn Pugh, a former principal, who has always been generous in her time, giving me her ear when I need it, and advice when I ask. She was the principal of Diegueño for a decade, and is so loved and respected that she has her name on a plaque on a bench in front of campus.

I’ll repeat that: They named a bench in her honor and she’s alive.

In my first year at Diegueño, I loved my meetings with Marilyn, and seeing the faces of my staff light up when she entered the room. “MARILYN!” they’d shout, arms above their heads, zeroing in for a hug. She had the reputation of a tough administrator, and one who cared immensely about her teachers, her staff, and her kids. Her legacy is more than that plaque; she is seen as the high water mark for administration at Diegueño, something principals like me strive to emulate.

And I did keep Marilyn’s work in the back of my mind as I went about becoming part of the Diegueño family. I knew I’d be different; it’s right that I’m me, but I always had it in my head that I’d work hard and be true, and that after a few years there might even be a couple of teachers who would at least remember my name when a future principal brought me to visit campus sometime around 2040.

Last week I realized that they’ll never put my name on a bench.

Last week the opportunity to become the principal at San Dieguito High School Academy galloped into my life, snorting and stamping its hoof, and waiting for me to saddle up. It was an invitation to adventure that I could not pass up, not at least without a heaviness of regret that would haunt my work at Diegueño.

The pain of leaving, real and heart-rending, stood in contrast to the joy of expectation, of knowing that this was the right decision.

Like Rick at the end of Casablanca, I knew knew that I needed to put Diegueño on the plane bound in one direction, while I began a beautiful friendship with unknown promise in another. If not, I’d regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

Okay, that last paragraph was too melodramatic, but truth be told, I feel a touch melodramatic right now. I’m really excited to be going to SDA, and have also been in the business long enough to know just how much I’ll miss the people of Diegueño every day.

I’ll lean on Jorge Luis Borges, who captured this twin feeling of hope and loss in his poem “We Learn.”

…you learn to build your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth…

And you learn and learn…

With every goodbye you learn.”

I’m learning from this most recent goodbye, as I’ve learned from difficult farewells from years past. Time, I’ve found doesn’t always dull the loss, but good work helps, and new opportunities are the foundation of a meaningful life.

So as I say goodbye to a school family who I care deeply about and who treated me so well, and put my foot in the stirrups and swing into the saddle of something new, I know that Diegueño is a part of who I am, and that the excitement I feel about the road ahead in no way diminishes the beauty of the memories I keep in my heart.

borges campus

…and Gingerbread

Summer reading. If there are two more beautiful words, I don’t know them. As an educator, the phrase takes on a special meaning; summer is a time with fewer work responsibilities and more time and mental space to enjoy reading than any other time in the year. It’s when the inspiration between two covers has a chance to inform the preparation for the year ahead, and we have an opportunity to plant the seeds of ideas that will grow and blossom from August to June.

Asked to come up with a short list of the best education books to read in the summer, I looked not to the stack on my desk that makes up this summer’s reading, and I hope includes a volume or two I’d add to a list like this if asked again in a year, but back over the books I’ve found valuable to the work I do with kids.

mindsetMindset by Carol Dweck would sit atop the stack I’d wish next to any educator’s hammock. I’ve written about it before, and even included it as a selection for our Diegueño Book Club. It strikes me as important reading for teachers, administrators, parents and students too. Shifting schools to embrace a growth mindset, and leave the fixed mindset of rigidity and academic condemnation behind us, would be more transformative than the introduction of computers in our classrooms. It’s an idea important enough to me that this year I put Mary Cay Ricci’s book Mindsets in the Classroom on my list of books for July.

10770677Kenneth R. Ginsburg’s book Building Resilience in Children and Teens is another volume worth reading for anyone working with kids. With a clear and systematic approach, Ginsburg does a nice job of articulating the importance of building resilience in this world of increasing stress on youth. His examples ring true and his advice isn’t preachy or high handed, but feels like a friend offering pointers. With an emphasis on high expectations and unconditional love, Ginsburg gives both parents and educators ideas about how we can help our students grow into the best adults they can.

9781932127287_p0_v1_s260x420Two books that offer some on the ground advice for teachers and schools are Professional Learning Communities at Work and Whatever it Takes by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, et. al. I read them both a lifetime ago, and have them on my list to re-read before school begins again this fall. As we understand that we need to work together to help students learn, and even more so to help students when (at first) they don’t learn, these books do a nice job of providing some hands on ideas for nurturing professional learning communities at our school.

9780812966060The last book on my list: Hound of the Baskervilles. Well, not exactly. I’m not saying that everyone needs to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story about a demon hound, but I do believe that everyone should have a little time reading something that isn’t for work. In Walden, Thoreau called such works “gingerbread” and discounted them as less filling than the classics. I’d argue that our favorite transcendentalist was wrong about that one; reading for escape isn’t shameful. It’s renewing. Whether Margaret Atwood or Henning Mankell, Arthur Upfield or P.D. James, alongside those tomes for school, I like having a paperback or two with as much educational merit as a quality comic book.

Summer has the potential to be a time of renewal, when we can open our minds to the big ideas we’d like to put into practice in the fall, winter, and spring.

Read.

Learn.

…and bring that home and excitement to the kids in August!