Avoiding Burnout

The first thing, I suppose, is to love what you do.

Education, the business of teaching and learning is filled with as many challenges as rewards. As a teacher, I did my best to master classroom management, fulfill professional responsibilities, and control the piles of essays waiting to be graded. Colleagues helped. I was always fortunate enough to find kindred spirits I could laugh with, bounce ideas off, and occasionally sing pirate shanties alongside.

I’m a principal now, with new challenges, and while it’s a job I love I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t feel the stress of wanting to do a job that makes my school proud.

When I feel that pressure, I find four things help me stay positive, balanced, and happy.

My family. My wife and I have been together since we were teenagers, and to imagine what my life would be like without her is impossible …living in a van filled with books and burrito wrappers comes to mind, I suppose. She, and my kids, provide a loving counterbalance to the heaviness of a hard day. A hike, a hug, a board game, or a bike ride… with them I find renewal, greater purpose, and joy.

Fun, whatever that looks like… Not long ago a magnet appeared on our fridge at home that read: DO MORE OF WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY. For me that means allowing myself some lightness, which I find in diverse and sometimes unlikely places, from Johnny Cash to Moon Knight, in the poems of Billy Collins, and the newspaper columns of Mark Morford. A good movie or a little live music can go a long way to putting the sturm und drang of the world into perspective.

Laughter heals, renews, and matters so much.

Health. Sure, I cage an apple fritter from time to time (and by “apple fritter” I mean an apple fritter and a maple bar), but as I leave 40 farther and farther behind and see 50 peeking over the next rise in the road, I find that avoiding the burnout that hangs over every high octane profession is helped immeasurably by eating right, meditation, and exercise.

I want to be able to play in the staff vs. student flag football game for years to come, and that’s not something that can happen if I don’t think about how I care about myself.

Always looking forward. Cared for, entertained, and not out of breath, I can’t be of much use in my job if I’m not always looking ahead optimistically. I was asked once -in a job interview, I think- what was the most important thing a principal does. I answered unhesitatingly (I hadn’t yet been a principal at the time) that it was to keep the vision of the the best the school could be. I’ve been a principal now long enough to know that this is one of the most important things I do.

DwellEmily Dickinson, a favorite of mine, caught this sentiment poetically when she wrote: “I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose…” I need to be able to see, and articulate, the overwhelming potential of my school, and doing so does more than just promote an atmosphere where that potential can be realized, it also buoys me when skies darken.

It’s not that we can ever avoid stress, and who would want a life where we did? All adventures call for a little resistance. It’s finding friends and creating family, nurturing ourselves, and remaining optimistic that will help us thrive.

So, let’s put on some Johnny Cash, split an apple fritter, and laugh.

Chewbacca in a Rocking Chair

photo 1I find it funny.

My ten year old daughter does not.

Even though her doll house sees less action than it did when she was younger, she still always notices when an uninvited houseguest takes up residence in the lovely pink plastic living room. I understand that nobody likes breaking and entering, but it’s hard to be too angry when the mysterious stranger in the rocking chair is Chewbacca.

These mixings of worlds never end well; find an Ovion in your purple minivan and he’s going to get thrown across the room into the basket of action figures. Yet, there is something to be said for embracing the unexpected.

photo 1 (7)We live in a world with less certainty than we’d like to imagine, good and bad. As educators, we do well to model a way of dealing with surprises by keeping a level head and open mind. Do we want the water main to break on a school day? Did we prepare for a tornado warning as school was about to let out? Probably not. It’s happening. We’re going to be okay.

Not all surprises are bad, nor are all unplanned.

I remember being surprised at a high school wrestling match I was supervising a few years ago when the band and cheerleaders showed up to support the team. Completely out of context, these well meaning masters of pep arrived at the gym in time to see the house lights turned off and a spotlight descend over the mat in the center of the floor.

The band hurried through the school fight song before being quieted by the referee; wrestling meets are no place for trumpets and drums. The cheerleaders found that none of their basketball cheers worked. In context of the action on the mat, a few even sounded naughty. And then something cool happened.

The wrestling team brought out team shirts for all the girls on the cheer squad. They put them on and sat at the edge of the mat, eschewing coordinated cheers, and clapping and shouting encouragement along with the rest of the crowd.

They were in an unexpected situation, but adapted, and I like to believe that the experience was good for both the cheerleaders and the wrestlers.

In the same way, I believe that it’s good when students see their teachers (or, in my case, their principal) out in the real world. It may feel disarming to spot one of us in the aisle at Target, but there’s something humanizing about knowing that the principal buys cat food, goes to the same burrito joint, or takes his kids to the same beach as they go to.

photo 2The unexpected has a place on campus too. Just this winter our homeroom classes have been delighted by a school wide scavenger hunt, our ASB organized an event that saw our entire student body encircle campus holding hands, and our Spanish Club put on a “snow day” (on one of our sunny and 70 degree days). All brought a sense of fun to our students, and in their own ways made our school life richer.

And so I raise my glass to the unexpected. Here’s to finding Chewbacca in our rocking chairs!

Irreplaceable

When you want to strike up a spirited conversation with a room full of English teachers, start talking about books. I taught English for thirteen years, freshmen through seniors, and had my own favorite texts (Heart of Darkness, Their Eyes Were Watching God), books that my students loved (Gatsby, Frankenstein), and some that seemed to fall in the middle of the Venn Diagram of the two (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

photo 2 (7)I tended to change up the books I taught from year to year, whether a text worked or not, mostly, I suppose, to keep myself engaged and fresh. I found, through this ongoing experiment, that there was a short list of texts that provided something no other works did. They were works that I couldn’t substitute something else for; something about each made it, to my way of thinking, irreplaceable.

I should pause here, as any English teachers reading are sharpening their knives, to admit that this post is just one foolish fellow’s point of view. It’s almost certainly wrong. Well, at least not the only right way of looking at things. It’s a starting point, however, for a great discussion of curriculum (one probably best done over coffee, or perhaps something stronger, with friends who can disagree without malice. The ability to hold different opinions and to talk about these without coming to fisticuffs is vital for educators, and I suppose humans). So…

Part of what made the three texts I’ll mention “irreplaceable” was the richness of language, part the cultural significance, part the unique power of the story, and part …well, part that magic that a (former) English teacher like me can’t quite quantify.

I love Othello, for instance, but found that I could use Lear or Richard III to achieve a comparable experience.

One of my most rewarding teaching adventures came with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, an astounding book that provided more perspective on 20th century America than almost any other I taught. If push came to shove, however, I might have used works by Toni Morrison or Richard Wright and helped my students experience some of the same magic.

That said, the short list of books I found completely unique:

Hamlet,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey

Hear me out.

Please. This is all in good fun.

It’s not that Shakespeare, Twain, and Homer are the most important writers, nor that these three are the most important works. Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright (among others) had sacred spots on my syllabi, but through years of trial and error (and error and error), I found that the title I chose from each mattered less; The Bluest Eye or Beloved, A Room of One’s Own or To the Lighthouse, the powerful point of view of the author shone through.

My evolution as a teacher, for instance, saw me move from teaching The Glass Menagerie to having students perform Tennessee Williams one acts. In both the full length play and the shorter pieces from Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton students experienced what Williams said was the purpose of his writing: “I have only one major theme for my work, which is the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual.” When they got to wrestle more intimately with the shorter plays, I felt they understood this theme even more deeply.

I saw this for Shakespeare too. Once, when I was teaching at tiny high school in rural Oregon where my best friend and I were the entire English department, we decided that we’d expose our students to multiple plays by Shakespeare each year. Familiarity, we thought, was the ticket for demystifying the bard.

photo 4 (3)One of the best moves we made was to teach Macbeth to freshmen and then again to seniors. So seldom do high schoolers have the opportunity to reread texts, particularly longer ones, and so much do kids change from thirteen to seventeen. The experiment was a delight, but the truth is that we just as easily might have chosen As You Like It or Romeo and Juliet. Grand themes of love and power recur in many of the plays, and as with Williams (or Morrison or Conrad or Hurston) more than one option could open a door into the author’s oeuvre.

But then there’s Hamlet.

Elements of Hamlet appear in other plays: the taste of intrigue in Othello, the complicated love of Romeo and Juliet, the politics of Titus. But as a font of cultural significance, comprehensive wisdom, and great poetry, no single work comes close to the story of the brooding Dane.

Act by act, scene by scene, year after year, Hamlet separated itself from any other drama I taught, providing a complexity and richness to my students that continued to amaze me.

Complex and rich, but never easy, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all that Hemingway says of it and more. From the well worn arguments against (and for) the book to the unflinching engagement it invites, this novel more than any other captures the complexity of our country. Past and present, ugly, beautiful, mean, and moral, Huck is America.

I know I did a poor job of teaching Huck for most of my time in the classroom. It’s complexity and subtlety beat my best efforts year after year, and felt tired finishing the book, knowing I didn’t give my students all they deserved from their interaction with the text. Always challenged by its content and language, forever sensitive of Twain’s nuances and my inability to consistently explicate them, I lumped on, always believing I could do better.

And then Ralph Ellison showed me how I might.

My last year teaching Huck, and the only time I really think I got it right, I began my semester with slave narratives (mixing up four with my classes and creating book groups on them), moved to Frederick Douglass, touched on Sojourner Truth, and then introduced the class to Ellison’s Invisible Man. Filled with historical context, and fueled by an ongoing series of mini-lessons on the history of the blues, we read the first half of Invisible Man, got to the explosion in the paint factory, and stopped.

Enter Huck.

Students tucked Invisible Man away and we read Twain’s novel.

Better put: we laughed, winced, argued, loved and hated our way down the Mississippi. At one point I almost witnessed a fistfight in class.

And as we got to the end of the book and saw Jim’s story conclude, we pulled out those copies of Invisible Man and extended our education. Huck wasn’t really done. Beyond the references in Ellison’s novel, the shadow of Twain’s book loomed over Invisible Man, and the light of Ellison’s flame illuminated Twain’s characters and text.

I’m not saying that my approach was the right one, but it was the right approach for me. I wish for every one of the English teachers I know a similar struggle. I’m convinced that teaching Huck, and figuring out the way I needed to teach it, as difficult as it was, made me a better person.

As individual as one’s relationship with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, each reader’s response to Homer’s Odyssey has the potential to be as unique.

Unlike The Iliad, a brainpan busting war epic, The Odyssey tells the universal tale of finding home. There’s something primal and innately inspiring in the journey. Tennyson, Cavafy, and even Steely Dan riff on the story. Odysseus’ adventures fill our collective consciousness: the cyclops, the lotus eaters, the sirens, Ithaka.

Sure, there are other epics and other characters as large, but Gilgamesh, Aeneas, and even Dante’s Virgil don’t resonate with the same mythic tone or singularity.

And now is the time when you get to say: “No way!”

What about  The Great Gatsby? Where is Steinbeck? Austin? To Kill a Mockingbird?

photo 3 (5).JPGLiterature is rich and diverse. Books, beautiful books, spark conversations, connections, debates …and occasionally near fistfights.

My three titles, irreplaceable from my limited point of view, might not be yours.

Great.

What are?

Which texts, for you, have that one of a kind …something, that no other works have?

Not your favorites, that’s too easy, but what books would make your list of irreplaceable?

Be True to Your School

A friend of mine tells the story of hurrying to get his wife to the hospital on the night of their first child’s birth. He’d packed the car and double checked the birth plan, and he had just enough time for a quick shower before making the trip to the delivery room. As he pulled a fresh pair of boxer shorts from his dresser, he stopped. They were blue and gold plaid, the colors of Agoura, his high school’s rival. Without deliberation he put the boxers back in the drawer; there was no way he was going to welcome his first born into the world wearing blue and gold.

More than just a Beach Boys song, the notion of being true to your school is as real as a high school diploma. My friend was decades away from his own graduation, but that spirit held true.

For current students, this means wearing sweatshirts and spiritwear, cheering at games, and celebrating the successes of classmates in all kinds of pursuits associated with school. Here at San Dieguito High School Academy those pursuits include concerts, academic league, and robotics tournaments just as much as basketball games, tennis matches, and track meets. Students show Mustang pride when they laugh at Comedy Sportz, cry at drama performances, and dance at halftime of the Homecoming Flag Football game.

mascotFor graduates, it’s that feeling of nostalgia that prompts class reunions and maybe even the purchase of a t-shirt or beanie emblazoned with a picture of the familiar mascot.

Not everyone experiences school spirit in the same way.

I distinctly remember a pep rally from my own high school days, when North Salem High School’s assistant principal kept my class of 1987 behind after the other students had left the gym to tell us that we had the worst school spirit he had ever seen.

Pacing in front of the bleachers where we sat, he shook his head and lamented how lousy we were as a group of students. To be honest, I don’t have a clue what prompted him; I don’t remember us acting any differently than we ever had, but as poster children for late 80s angst, perhaps our Run DMC attitudes didn’t mesh with his Beach Boys point of view.

Run DMCMaybe it was that we weren’t even all Raising Hell; some of us dug Depeche Mode, Madonna, Black Flag, or The Bangles. We were a motley crew, proud of our differences, even as we were (in our own ways) proud to be part of our school. It’s just that we didn’t chant in unison as well as some of the other classes, any of the other classes, according to our scowling AP.

I think maybe what he didn’t realize was that school spirit doesn’t always wear a foam finger.

That day at the assembly, now nearly thirty years ago, has stuck with me. Now, as a principal, I do my best to realize that students have lots of ways to feel connected to their school, and that being true to your school can look different than waving a pom-pom.

Sometimes school spirit conforms to expectations: participating in an assembly, running for student government, joining a club. Sometimes it’s loving to eat lunch in the same spot on campus every day, helping to organize a can food drive, or writing for the school newspaper.

rainbowHere at San Dieguito High School Academy examples of innovative and interesting connections to our school are the rule, rather than the exception. From our Student Forum to our Homeroom Olympics, students connect to their school and each other in ways that continue to surprise and delight me. Exploring who you want to be and being supported along the way by peers and a school community takes as much spirit as my graduating class didn’t apply to chanting “Seniors-Seniors-Seniors!”

This funky spirit of kindness and acceptance feels different than the cheering section at a rally, and as I meet San Dieguito alumni I can see that it sticks. The love our current students have for their school inspires me, as does the passion I see in the past graduates who come to visit. I don’t know what color boxers they have on, but I do know that these Mustangs are true to their school.

“Wonder Junkie or Answer Seeker?”

spockThere are days when the business of teaching and learning feels like heading out on the Starship Enterprise for a mission to discover new life and new civilizations. Other days we do reading quizzes. With absolute truth in advertising, sometimes these happen on the same day. Education is a spicy, salty, and sweet salmagundi of flavors, where the wild abandon of an egg drop in physics can be accompanied by students engaging in serious mathematical computations and logical explanations about what happened that would make Spock proud.

So this week, when the #YourEdustory prompt asked “Are you a Wonder Junkie or Answer Seeker?” my first thought was: Yes.

Cultivating a sense of wonder is, or should be, a cornerstone of education. Schools at their best are workshops of creativity and curiosity. Harnessing the innate exuberance of students is what good teachers do best. Kids want to know, want to believe, and want not only to find relevance to their lives, but also want to expand the idea of what their lives can become.

Students also want, unapologetically, to know answers.

When we provide them with both information and inspiration, students’ learning soars.

The #YourEdustory prompt had a second part: “How can we embrace being lost?”

Great teachers, I thought, do this all the time.

A philosophy major, I think of Plato’s dialogues. His character Socrates makes a method out of asking questions in pursuit of answers. No, not answers, knowledge. Donning the appearance of someone lost, Socrates leads his students through questions that help them wander in, around, and through the topic at hand, finally reaching some sort of greater understanding of the big idea they were talking about.

I see amazing teachers do this in their classrooms every week. One of my favorite examples comes from a wildly engaging Integrated Math teacher who often asks her students two questions that would make Socrates smile: “What do you notice?” and “What do you wonder?”

What beautiful questions, answerable for all students, even those lost at the time, and helpful for all to consider as they wander through the material together.

And yet, I believe that Tolkien was right when he coined that bumper sticker worthy phrase: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

enterpriseEngaging in productive struggle around an idea or concept doesn’t have to mean feeling adrift. Embracing the disequilibrium of not knowing …yet, but believing that an answer is there to find is the perfect combination of a sense of wonder and commitment to answers. A little something like Star Trek.

Wonder junkie of answer seeker?

Yes.

Early Graduation

This morning as I sat down to a cup of tea and the newspaper, two luxuries of a day off, I heard a familiar tune played with the exquisite slowness of a Jane Campion movie …or ten year old learning to play piano.

“Pomp and Circumstance,” a song relegated in my mind to sunny days in June, drifted in from the living room where my daughter, Ella, was experimenting with a new piano songbook. Tentatively poking the keys, the melody took on a feeling of otherworldliness. This was January, it looked like rain, nobody was graduating.

As with so many experiences in parenting, hearing my daughter’s practice on the piano provided an opportunity to look at something familiar from a different point of view.

Teachers plan with the end in mind, looking to the end of the unit or lesson at the outcomes they hope their students will achieve. Students look ahead too, grappling to find relevancy and see how they will apply new learning to their own lives.

As a principal, it’s easy to have my time dominated by the immediate. This week my accreditation report was due, I hosted a parent coffee and a prospective student tour, and had the opportunity to teach a lesson. I went to construction meetings, did final interviews for a track coach, and did my best to answer a couple of hundred emails. I didn’t think about the end; I thought about the now.

To a certain extent that’s okay. I need to be present as I talk with parents and students, visit classrooms, and complete the tasks of a site administrator. Hearing that graduation tune, however, reminded me to see my work in terms of the bigger picture. Everything we do should support students having the skills and knowledge, understanding, inspiration, and (at least a pinch of) wisdom to be confident and ready when they throw their mortarboards into the air in June.

Seniors do this. From the opening days of the school year through college application season, Homecoming, Winter Formal, and the senior activities of spring, they see the year through eyes of someone who knows she will not be back and wants to be able to soar.

A teacher I adore likes to say “I get older, but the kids in my class stay the same age.” I know what he means; some of the students on campus today have the same teachers their parents did a couple of decades ago. My daughter’s piano playing reminded me that we as educators do well to recognize that for each class of graduates this is something special and new.

By March Ella will be able to play the tune unhesitatingly; by May she’ll know the tune by heart.

Like her, seniors have an idea of what graduation will be like, understand even more mid-year, and really get it as the calendar turns to June.

When I hear “Pomp and Circumstance” in our stadium, my emotions will be bigger, but no deeper than they were this morning.

We all start as a fumbling individuals and end, together, as a class of exuberant scholars, marching toward the future to the proud music of a band.

 

“Senior Sunrise”

This morning at 6:45 San Dieguito seniors wrapped in blankets and sporting pyjamas gathered together at our “Senior Sunrise” to share bagels, coffee, orange juice, and community. Laughing and leaning into each other, they watched the sun come up over campus and enjoyed each other’s company. These are the memories that will stick with them for decades.

It’s something I’ve noticed about San Dieguito; graduates I talk with feel a connection to the school and each other in a profound way.

I saw it at our “Founders’ Reception” early in the year, when alumni from as far back as the class of 1940 gathered to remember their time at San Dieguito and celebrate their connection to the school. The stories they told painted a picture of a vibrant campus, once home to livestock, Latin class, and the laid back lifestyle of a Southern California beach town.

We still have that surfer spirit, though robotics has replaced animal husbandry, and students are more likely to learn coding than Latin.

koz2I saw that San Dieguito spirit when former Mustang (and former Miami Dolphin) Mike Kozlowski came to campus to present his alma mater with a golden football, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. He’d been dubious at first about making the presentation; San Dieguito no longer has a football team, but after coming back to campus and talking with folks here he felt that magic of reconnection. San Dieguito is his school. When he met with current students, telling stories of his time on campus (about everything from streakers to cinnamon rolls) the flame of memory burned bright.

Looking back four decades, his memories were as real as if they’d happened this morning at 6:45.

Ours is a school rich with history and abundant in stories. Just yesterday a current science teacher told me a story that was as heartwarming as it was typical of San Dieguito. I’m giving a presentation at the school board meeting tonight, and I asked my teachers what I ought to be sure to mention. He sent me this:

“Last Friday, during my second period chem class, a man about 65 or so walked in with a visitors badge and introduced himself as a former student of SDHS. He had stopped in the office to ask Lois for any information about how to contact Shirley Richardson, a former chemistry teacher in the district.

“Shirley began teaching at SDHS in the early 60’s and worked for several years until transferring over to TPHS. She retired from Torrey in 92. Since that time she has come in for several days a week, volunteering as a lab assistant in chemistry. Some years 3 days a week for 9 hours and some years only one, but always regularly, like clockwork, Shirley shows up to help out.

“Back to the action:

“This gentleman, upon asking Lois if she had contact info, was surprised to learn from Lois that, not only did she have contact info for Shirley, but that Shirley was actually at SDA helping out in the chem lab stock room. She was setting up the titration experiment that I am doing tomorrow with my students.

“After coming in and asking for Mrs. Richardson, I directed him to the back and my class listened in. Before closing the door we all overheard him say, “Mrs. Richardson? You probably don’t remember me, but I was your lab assistant in 1969. I just retired from a chemical company and wanted to get in touch with you to let you know that you were the reason I went on to study science and pursue a career in chemistry….”

“They met for several minutes, exchanging stories and catching up. Afterwards he left with an enormous and satisfied grin on his face.”

…and that is San Dieguito.

photo 2The connections our students are making with their current teachers are not unlike that connection this graduate made with his chemistry teacher 45 years ago. The connections they are making with their peers, over coffee before the sun comes up, in class, at assemblies, in the Homeroom Olympics, and in the thousand ways they spend time together are what make our school the special place that it is.

Watching the kids share breakfast this morning I got a feeling of exuberance and nostalgia. This is San Dieguito, a place where students can be themselves and be part of something exceedingly special.