It started with an accident, as good things often do, compounded by necessity, and spirited on by honesty and true connection.

I have a coffee pot in my office, which I fill when I get to work and which in turn fills the room with the welcoming smell that has accompanied conversation since the time of the Restoration. One morning a few years ago, a math teacher leaned in my open door, an empty cup in her hand. I offered her coffee, and while I was pouring an English teacher stopped and looked in. I pulled an empty mug from a cupboard and filled it too. The two teachers set to talking.

mugHalf an hour later, when it was time for the next class to begin, they left, and I thought to myself: we adults on a school campus have too few opportunities to talk about this grand adventure we call education.

One of the biggest challenges for busy educators is making the time to meaningfully connect with other adults. Isolated in classrooms, students, parents, and myriad obligations jockeying for our attention, it’s easy to spend a day without building opportunities to talk with others who aren’t teenagers about teaching and learning.

That day in my office the three of us did just that.

The result was more than just sharing ideas about how to teach writing or what strategies might help a student struggling with math. As we talked about those things, and many others, all three of us realized the importance of the adults at a school really knowing each other. That half hour or so opened my eyes to the priority I needed to make strengthening the connections within our faculty family.

Alone in my office afterward, I considered the ways I might recapture that magic. I have a coffee maker, I thought. And teachers have prep periods.

$10 bought enough mugs for sharing, and I sent out emails asking teachers to an hour of coffee and conversation, no agenda, no script, just a chance to talk.

Feeling a little like a wedding planner organizing a reception brunch, I invited teachers from a mix of departments, blending veterans and rookies, and doing my best to imagine interesting combinations.

Interesting they were.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I heard the thoughts of those who work most closely with students, the heart and soul of the school, the teachers. They told stories that made me think, asked questions that forced me to reflect, and described what they did in ways that inspired me. Discretion keeps the content of those conversations out of this little post, but candor and honesty resonated in such a way that I knew in the first few days that this would be a part of what I did every year as a site administrator.

Nothing compares to visiting classrooms and sharing long individual conversations with teachers in the stolen moments of a day, but these “coffees,” as the teachers took to calling them, created a level of connection qualitatively different from regular school meetings or even impromptu conversations in the copy room.

Maybe it was that I was pleasantly outnumbered, or maybe the coffee was pretty good, but folks (including me) relaxed and spoke the truth.

I got a hug or two from teachers, shared much laughter, and got to know the people I worked with better than I might have any other way.

On one occasion, as I introduced three teachers, a veteran science teacher confessed to me that while he’d worked at the school for fifteen years and the woman sitting next to him, a world language teacher, had been teaching there for three years, this was the first time he’d actually met her. In that sobering moment, I realized how important it is to find ways for the adults who work so hard with and for students to not be strangers.

Our conversations ranged freely from work to play to family. Some told stories of why they became teachers, others talked about issues that they saw as important to our school. Twice teachers came with lists of issues they wanted not to forget to talk about. Occasionally a teacher would bring pastries.

And once, in a moment less pleasant than hugs or coffee cake, I was given a wake up call.

It was a veteran teacher who said it, one who had been at the school for years. Conversation had been flowing with stories of the school, in part the result of entertaining a group of teachers who had all been working together for more than a decade. About 45 minutes into our discussion, this teacher crossed his arms over his chest and leaned forward on his elbows. “So now I’ve got to tell you,” he said seriously, “about a time when you let me down.” He had my attention.

The other teachers leaned back, sucking their cheeks and fiddling with their cups of coffee. I held my mug between my hands and kept my eyes on his.

Slowly and deliberately, he described a concern he’ d brought to my attention a year and a half before. It was one of those passing remarks, delivered between classes, that as an administrator I hear, catalog, and do my best to follow up on when I get back to my office. My response had not been robust enough, nor my reporting back to him prompt and thorough enough, to earn his respect. I hadn’t thought of the incident for eighteen months; he’d held onto it and what had been a minor annoyance had grown inside him.

I apologized, acknowledged what I could have done better, and thought: what a shame it is that he lived with this frustration for so long.

Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem that asks what happens to a “dream deferred.” In “Harlem,” he asks, does it…

dry up

like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

So too the unexpressed feelings that naturally fill us.

Coffee may not be the only answer to the big questions, but in my own professional life it has afforded me the opportunity to connect with amazing colleagues and not defer the things we ought to be saying.

I just hit “send” on my most recent round of invitations to “Coffee and Conversation” and I can hardly wait to talk with my teachers about what’s on their minds and what fills their cups.

Pride in Ownership

photo 5 (3)I was chatting with a fellow from our district office whose business it is to make sure we get technology right in big construction jobs when out of the blue he said: “You know, your band room is one of the best organized spaces I’ve seen.”

Taken off guard, my mind raced through the reasons this would be true: a fantastic teacher, amazing students, unflagging professionalism throughout the program, from tuba to timpani. I’d visited a rehearsal the day before and been wowed by their mastery of a Shostakovitch tune. Talented, I’d thought then, serious, focused, and impressive. The word organized hadn’t been on my list, though I supposed it was true.

“They’re great,” I said in response. “And you know we got that new guitar rack when Jon Foreman donated some guitars.”

“You know what it is,” he said, nodding. “Pride in ownership. Those kids really care about their program and it shows in the way they respect the space. It’s not like that everywhere.”

It’s not like this everywhere is a common observation about San Dieguito, where freedom, fun and funkiness are all part of the spirit that defines our school. We see it in the band room and the auto shop, the theater, the science lab, and out on the softball field. That pride in ownership is something on display in our audiences at Comedy Sportz, on the tie dyed SDA t-shirts our kids sell at our student retail store, Studio 800, and whenever a student led tour introduces a new group of prospective Mustangs to San Dieguito.

I thought about that comment throughout the day, as I visited classes, met with teachers, and talked with a parent (who had come to my office hoping for an answer I couldn’t give), a parent who surprised me as he shook my hand as he left and said: “This is a really special place.”

It is, and I was reminded later in the afternoon that that special something our students feel and parents recognize isn’t limited to kids and families.

photo 2 (4)My day ended with a gathering of former San Dieguito staff, a couple of dozen of them, who had taught, coached, or somehow been a part of our school family. Some were recently retired, still familiar with the current teachers who joined the party. Some had been at San Dieguito before Interstate 5 bisected town.

I heard the story of kids sitting on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway in the middle part of the last century, passing time by counting the movie stars whose convertibles were caught in the traffic jam that stretched from the Del Mar Racetrack back to San Clemente.

I heard lots of stories, of women called to teach at San Dieguito during the war years, of legendary cinnamon rolls once baked on campus, and of generations of families who all attended our school.

During a conversation with a friend who had graduated from San Dieguito and then come back to teach here, she leaned close to me and pointed across the room. “See that woman over there? She was my chemistry teacher,” she whispered “…in 1966.”

People who have been part of our San Dieguito family stay close. Some move to other parts of the world, though a larger number than you’d expect call Encinitas home. So many love this place where they worked or attended, sometimes worked and attended.

At that special event, put on by our parent Foundation, I saw a former principal, lots of teachers, and a couple of current district employees who are San Dieguito grads. …and I felt fortunate to be among the numbers who have a connection to this place.

photo 2 (2)As they talked, laughed, and shared stories of their adventures at San Dieguito, I saw that same pride in ownership my friend had noticed in our student musicians.

All of us who have been a part of San Dieguito feel it.

This is our school.

Lighting a Fire

It was as if we were middle schoolers, the dozen or so principals laughing, learning, and playing with fire.

photoWe’d gathered for one of our monthly achievement meetings, when all conversation focuses on teaching and learning, and the topic of the morning was NGSS, the Next Generation Science Standards.

We talked a bit about integrated and coordinated models under the wise and well informed patience of our district Science ToSA (Teacher on Special Assignment), a gifted educator who knew that a pack of principals may be comparable to a classroom of 7th graders sometime after lunch on a day the student council hands out popsicles.

Rather than lecture us about the importance of experiencing science, she reminded us of NGSS’s “5 E’s” and brought out the matches.

5EsAt the sight of colored water, candles, and mason jars the room lit up.

We started in small groups, writing predictions and drawing models, borrowing ideas of what and why from our partners. Next, we placed the candle in the tray of water and covered it with the inverted mason jar.

…and watched.

Some of our predictions came true. Some of us were surprised. All of us learned in a way administrators don’t always when sitting at a meeting.

For the next twenty minutes we adjusted our variables and continued our experiments. How would things work if we used two candles? What would happen with a bigger jar?

Our smiling teacher circulated the room, asking questions and providing a collection of objects we could use to alter our experiments. My team used clay to eliminate the seal between the bottom of the tray and the jar.

video scienceThroughout the room everyone engaged with the experience and each other. The only time I saw a phone appear was when a principal took a video of her experiment to post on Twitter. This is a big deal in a room full of principals, whose schools are the centers of the universe, and whose cell phones are a tether.

Our attention was absorbed and our curiosity piqued. Grown people, we searched for words and pictures to tell our teacher and our peers what was happening in our labs.

It was, I realized as I watched the eager faces of these dedicated educators, a perfect example of the best teaching we see in classrooms across our district. To have this happen at a district administrator meeting was something really special, an experience that inspired us and would send us back to our sites with a renewed perspective on learning.

Education eternally evolves, new content and new expectations changing to meet the changing needs of the world. As it does, however, the heart of education remains as simple as it is profound: people gathering together to answer that enormous three letter long question: why?

scienceWe didn’t just learn that lesson today, we lived it. It was, in that moment, the proverbial lighting of a fire, not filling of a bucket.

Reminding ourselves to engage, to play, to be curious, and to work together is essential to creating and maintaining a healthy school. Allowing opportunities to wonder, to predict, to experiment (and as with any experiment, to fail as well as succeed), isn’t unique to science, but can be a part of learning in every discipline. Heck, it even has a place for administrators.

I don’t know what my next staff meeting will look like, but I do know that I’m inspired to make learning by doing a part of it. Will there be matches? I’m not sure about that, but I do hope that there will be some kind of lighting of a fire.

Smart Phone

20-Blade_Runner_AtariThe world imagined by 1982’s Blade Runner does not exist. Beautiful little details, like the neon advertisements for Atari and Pan Am, which added such verisimilitude to the movie proved to be anything but prophetic; Atari went under before the movie was ten years old and Pan Am followed suit in 1991.

Predicting the future is an inexact science, fun in the hands of creative writers, but often good for little more than a retrospective chuckle. HAL in 2001? I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid we can’t (yet) do that.

So without an accurate crystal ball, how should we as educators think about the digital world our students will grow into?

Theirs is already a life enmeshed in technology in ways that make our own childhood (folks like me, anyway, old enough to have taken a typewriter to college*) seem quaint. Mine is the generation who got tangled up in the cord when talking to potential dates on the phone mounted to the kitchen wall.

As technology changed around me, I entertained the truth of that Philip K. Dick quotation:

There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’”

Maybe, though any fears of sentient machines have (so far) proven unfounded.

So too, I think, are some of the fears we educators have of students and technology, particularly social media. Certainly dangers lurk online, as they have lurked at malls and in the places young people have always congregated.

Educating students to become digital citizens (or whatever the most current term might be for navigating a life online) is in many ways an extension to helping them understand how to live in the brick and mortar world we all share no matter what kind of cell phone is in our pocket.

There are lots of resources out there to help educators do this, some better than others, but it seems to me to boil down to a few simple ideas:

Present the best you. The one that doesn’t swear or show off tattoos. The one that doesn’t make that face that says: “Never hire me, trust me with your children, or let me go to your university.”

Don’t share too much. Share the right amount of information to show the world that “best you” that you want to be your introduction, the first impression before you make your first impression.

Think before you talk. If you wouldn’t blurt it out in class or at the dinner table, or if you shouldn’t, then don’t online.

Be nice. Be nice.

Know the rules and follow them. …and know the etiquette too. Learning how to be a positive contributor to an online community isn’t dramatically different than being a positive contributor to your school or in your neighborhood.

Don’t live in fear. Cautious, sure; fearful, no. You look both ways before you cross the street, but you do eventually cross it. Being safe online means being online, and bringing common sense with you just makes sense. Should I say “yes” to this friend request? Would you invite that person to meet your parents in person?

Be smart. Be as smart as you can be. We all make mistakes, and digital goofs can last forever, but thinking twice before posting and keeping the long view of things can help a lot.

Do we need to include digital literacy as part of our school curriculum? I think so. At the same time we need to show students that we believe they can make the right choices. This means showing them how to curate their own digital footprint and not blocking access to the tools they use to create that footprint.

mannySchools use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to tell their stories, and the best schools do so to great effect. Students should have the opportunity to do the same.

Educating students about technology means showing them how to use it effectively, not shielding them from it at all costs.

Sure, students are on their phones …a lot, but then again, many of you are reading this post from a similar rectangle of plastic and glass. I know this. Your phone told me.

*For any younger readers, a typewriter is a machine that allowed users to print words, letter by letter, by pounding on keys and hoping not to make a mistake. Don’t even get me started on whiteout.

In Their Own Hands

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re about five weeks away from our first San Dieguito Book Club on April 25th. The book we’ll be talking about is How to Raise an Adult by Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising, Julie Lythcott-Haims. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from folks who are reading it, I’m anticipating an evening of terrific conversation.

I’m hopeful we’ll have a good mix of parents, teachers, and students. All three perspectives contribute to the discussion, an important one as we all do our best to navigate the uncertain waters of contemporary adolescence.

Decades ago, a wise child, Anne Frank wrote:

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

The gist of Lythcott-Haims insightful book is that as a society we’ve lost sight of this simple truth and that by our own choices we are interfering with the important experience of students shaping their lives with their own hands.

Part social commentary, part parenting book, How to Raise an Adult promises much to talk about when we meet. I know that I’m curious to see how people respond differently to passages like:

We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”

I know my thoughts on this, both as a parent and as a principal, but what will other parents think? How about teachers? Students?

Prompted by smart and passionate writing, our discussion is an opportunity for us to see different points of view, and to understand the complex and sometimes confounding issues we live with every day.

For those who may not have the book, or quite enough time to read it through, I wanted to provide links to some places that could provide a bit of the flavor of How to Raise an Adult.

An interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims

An excerpt from How to Raise an Adult

A TED talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims
I encourage any member of our San Dieguito High School Academy community who is interested in a thoughtful discussion to join us on April 25th from 6:00-7:30 pm in our media center.

Finding the Strike Zone

It’s hard to throw strikes.

Being a dad means knowing a little bit about a lot of things and learning more about subjects you never thought about that matter to your kids. It means helping with long division, playing Settlers of Catan, and helping small fingers learn how to tie a shoelace. This week, it also meant throwing batting practice.

I was a catcher back in the mid-1880s, when I played baseball wearing wool knickers and a handlebar mustache. Throwing the ball back to the pitcher was never a problem; it was “just playing catch” as I reminded my higher strung battery-mates.

photo 1 (6)How hard could it be then to toss softballs to my daughter at the sandlot? I’m close. They’re softballs. It’s hard.

But I’m her dad. I was going to take the mound.

I threw high. I threw low. She waited patiently, bat bobbing at her shoulder, as I tried to get a pitch over the plate. This was not comfortable.

Ah, comfort, sweet, overrated comfort. As an educator, I know that the meaningful stuff: change, growth, innovation, comes outside our comfort zones. Great teachers not only push students to try new things, great teachers try new things themselves.

Whether it’s blogging or drawing or working out equations, teachers who roll up their sleeves and push themselves as they push their students have a chance to make a huge and lasting difference.

It’s like that for schools too. Uncomfortable with kids on their cell phones in class? Not sure how the new bell schedule will work out? Leaving your meeting with the journalism class unscripted? Good.

Ossification isn’t something that happens just to bones. To remain relevant, flexible, and useful, school must embrace the uncertainty of change.

The way forward is along a path of new ideas, some that work and some that don’t. Systematic evolution comes one step forward and one step back, another sideways, and then a lurch in the right direction.

photo 2 (8)It took me dozens of throws before my daughter got a pitch she could hit. When she connected, we both applauded.

…and kept going.

Ball after ball I noticed three things…

She was patient with me, even as at first I didn’t succeed. As we, as humans, allow each other the opportunity of failure, as patient as we can be with ourselves and those around us, we give ourselves the chance to improve.

We got better, both of us. After a time, I began throwing strikes. She began knocking them onto the outfield grass. Working together we helped each other improve. It reminded me of the interactions I see in classrooms every day.

We had fun. With each ping of the bat (or puff of dust when I bounced a ball in front of the plate) we developed a closer relationship that couldn’t help but lead to a smile.

photo 5 (3)One of my most important jobs as a principal is to encourage an environment where teachers and students are willing to try things they haven’t tried before.

I know they may not throw strikes the first time they pick up the proverbial softball, and that’s okay. If we’re patient, keep trying, and can laugh together, sometime soon we’ll hit it out of the park.

March Madness

The poet TS Eliot told us that “April is the cruelest month,” but truth be told he never got a spring break. Teachers everywhere know that it’s March that is the real culprit.

Our superintendent rightly calls this “the tired time,” as spring break is still too many days away to start a countdown and the busy nature of school is coming into its springtime own.

photo (3)March marks the start of a new slate of sports seasons, which on many campuses involve the greatest number of student athletes. The second term is well underway by March, its freshness gone, the end still the distant, somewhat hazy concept of June.

Weather hasn’t quite worked itself out; March rains still carry the chill of winter, not the warm promise of spring.

On campuses everywhere, particularly at middle schools, students start feeling the pull of spring, leading those adults around them to talk about “March Madness” without thinking of basketball.

Exhaustion finds these adults, and with it the propensity to short tempers and frayed patience. None of us want to be in a bad mood, but…

So we try to counteract it.

Notoriously creative, student leaders put on events meant to lift spirits and boost morale.

photo 2Here at San Dieguito that means student vs. staff kickball, window boxes going up on the plywood construction fence, and free pie on Pi Day. This is also the time of year ASB promotes the “Makeup Free and Manly Month of March,” an unexpected celebration of “natural beauty” with the tagline: “You’re Beautiful Just The Way You Are!”

Bearded, my true self looks like Old Luke from the latest Star Wars movie.

The kids added a dodgeball tournament and Spirit Week to March, and Homeroom Olympics (a proud tradition at our school) is ramping up. These are all nice reminders that there is fun to be had, even in the tired time.

Believing in our school and our collective spirit buoys us all. No activity or celebration can make March shorter, but collectively they can provide that shot of hope that helps us arrive a little happier and a little healthier to April, a not so cruel month, and with it spring break.

That Baldwin Quote

When I was young and foolish and starting my life as a teacher, the second decoration I put up in my classroom (after a framed 8 x 10 of Jorge Luis Borges) was a poster of Miles Davis. A closeup of his face, Davis held his fingers to his temples, his eyes closed. There were no words on the poster, and no indication of a horn, but when I looked at that image I could almost hear the moan of the trumpet from Kind of Blue.

Miles DavisMore even than the music, the first year teacher that I was found inspiration and comfort in the Davis quotation: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

I lived by that quotation for my first few years of teaching, taking chances, some that worked and some that didn’t, and doing my best to inspire my students to do the same.

More than twenty years after hanging that poster on the wall, I still love the quotation, and Kind of Blue, though the principal I have become sees in it a freedom more suited to youth and jazz musicians than fellows like me with gray invading our beards.

As I think about the quotations that touch me now -and as a former English teacher, there are a raft of them- I find that one from James Baldwin hasn’t faded from my mind since the first time I read it during the year I started teaching.

USPS04STA017Over the years former students of mine, reconnecting after having gone away to college and to start adult lives, have often asked me about “that Baldwin quote.” It was something I shared with many of my classes on the last day of the year, an idea I hoped might resonate with some as it did with me.

Capturing a truth that applies to all of us, Baldwin wrote: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”

When I was 25 that seemed prophetic; at 46 it simply feels true. We are an amalgamation of our ongoing choices, and the lives we lead are ours to create.

It’s time to listen to some Miles Davis.

Mr. Roboto

Attending a robotics competition is like stepping into another world. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch San Dieguito HS Academy’s Robotics team, “Team Paradox,” participate in the FIRST Robotics Tournament at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. It was astounding.

Scores of students in quirky costumes hurried between the village of tool stocked booths, the testing area, and the competition ring. As I walked from the entrance to the Team Paradox “pit,” as our roboticists called it, I spotted students wearing matching gladiator outfits, “Pi-rate” costumes, and one team outfitted as Egyptian Pharaohs. I was happy our San Dieguito team had opted for whimsical t-shirts.

Bjorn and BotMascots strolled through the event. Safety goggles covered every eye. There were more capes than a San Dieguito lunchtime.

Not sure what to do first, I visited our home base, a 10 by 10 foot area outfitted like Doc Brown’s laboratory in Back to the Future. Team Paradox buttons lined one shelf, yellow, blue, and red vinyl flooring defined the area, and an amazing student video played on a loop. They handed me a pair of goggles, saying: “You’ll need these.”

From there, I walked over to where other members of the team were adjusting the 2102* robot to better respond to the varied conditions of the venue. Unlike previous indoor events, this arena challenged participants with wind and ever changing lighting. This meant adapting the sensors and camera on their ‘bot, which they controlled remotely through a computer and an interface that reminded me of a flight simulator.

These are, I thought to myself, talented and innovative people who will make our world better.

Beyond outrageous technical skills, Team Paradox displayed something else: an ability and inclination to work collaboratively. They needed to work together as a team to create and compete, and beyond that they understood that part of the world of robotics is working with other teams as well.

Coöpertition,” you’ll hear them call it, acknowledging that working in isolation is less effective than working together, and that winning at the expense of others isn’t winning at all.

In robotics, alliances are part of every competition, and these alliances are fluid. Teams know that the robot they’re competing against in the morning could be their ally later that afternoon.

How unlike so many of the teams we see in high school. How very much like life.

robotics tweetTeam Paradox embraced this. Leading up to the competition, San Dieguito students worked with a cross town high school to help them establish their own robotics team. As mentors, they welcomed this new team to a world they loved, seeing them not as rivals, but as kindred spirits. When Team Paradox won the event this weekend, one of the first tweets of congratulations came from this team.

Even so, robotics is much more than an intellectual carnival. Teams work hard to design and drive the best robots they can, competing cleanly with strategy and spirit.

photo 1 (7)Along those lines, on Team Paradox member explained to me that a teammate had designed an app that they used when they scouted other teams. “We enter data into our phones,” he said, “and it’s put into this program so we can pull up graphs and disaggregate data on specific teams.”

Um. Yeah.

Do we ask these same students to do less in classes? Do we recognize their abilities and help them achieve even more?

Seeing the robot, the app, the pit… seeing the students so focused and gifted, and at the same time so able to have fun, jolted my notions of rigor and engagement.

As I walked up to the stands to sit with the coach, parents, and other team members, I kept thinking about how vibrant this event was. Kids, laughing as they demonstrated an uncanny ability to put learning into practice, filled the arena. This was education at its best, and an example of so much of what’s right about youth today. It was, too, a challenge to push all of our students to achieve at their highest potential, to believe in what they can do, and give them opportunities, whether in art, English, or math, to be their own best selves.

photo 3 (8)A sea of yellow Team Paradox t-shirts greeted me when I sat down next to the coach. Among the crowd of mentors, parents, alumni, and teammates were two teachers who had driven down to the event. One Team Paradoxer offered to paint wings on my face, a show of team solidarity. A meeting later in the day precluded it; next year I’ll keep my afternoon open and leave with wings.

Then match time came and Team Paradox gave us something to see.

The students in the stands migrated to the floor, many with pom-poms, one with a megaphone, one dressed as the team mascot. They whooped. They cheered. They celebrated.

The robot began the match by taking to the air, hurdling over the obstacle on the way to its target.

The robot got stuck.

The team worked at their controls to right the problem, and the robot began again.

In all that, a metaphor for life.

I’m proud that at the end of the weekend Team Paradox won the competition and will head to St. Louis for the national competition, but even if they hadn’t I would have been just as pleased. At last week’s robotics competition it wasn’t victory that impressed me, it was students.

Team Paradox

*They explained to me that the number assigned each team, and so prominently displayed on each robot, is determined by the order in which the team joined the world of robotics. 2102 then means our team started later than 2099, but long before 3200.

Things Like This Happen

photo 1 (5)My eleven year old daughter is playing softball for the first time this year, and this weekend her team matched up against a team that looked like it was ready to compete in the College World Series.

The pitcher on my daughter’s team, a petite ten year old with a long blond pony tail, kept throwing the ball and the big girls kept hitting it out of the infield.

Midway through the third came the inevitable passed ball. The opposing runner flew in from third as our little pitcher hurried toward home plate.

A miraculous bounce off the backstop put the ball into the catcher’s hand, and she tossed it to the pitcher, who caught the ball and tagged the runner in the sternum before she could step on the plate.

The umpire leaned forward, spread his arms, palms down, and shouted: “Saaaaaaafe!”

Our pitcher burst into tears.

The suddenness of the crying startled even the umpire, who took a step back, eyes wide.

She had done everything right. She had tried so hard. The call was wrong. She looked down, tears flowing, chin on her chest.

And then something miraculous happened.

Our coach, a dad, not hers, called timeout and walked out to the pitcher. Stopping in front of her, he took a knee to meet her eyes. She was so small.

She looked up at him and he said: “Things like this happen.” He paused. “I need to know you’re okay. We’re playing a game and you’re pitching. I know you can do this, kid.”

She blinked, thinking about what he’d just said. Then she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and nodded. The coach smiled at her, stood up, and walked back to the bench.

I’ve been in education for more than twenty years and I’m not sure that I’ve witnessed an action by a coach or a teacher or a parent that struck me with such force.

He did not blame the umpire, though the umpire had been wrong.

He did not lament what had happened or speak of unfairness.

He did not pity the girl or establish her as a victim.

He spoke the truth: Things like this happen.

They do. We all wish they didn’t. Every parent, every teacher, every person who works with kids wishes the world (and we) always got things right, but we know that isn’t the way things work.

So, instead of any of the easy responses, the coach slowed down and looked the girl in the eyes. He expressed empathy, bringing her back to the situation -a situation that didn’t need to be terminal- and let her know that he believed in what she could do.

And I found myself, a principal whose business is working with kids, sitting in the stands, listening closely, completely moved by the simple beauty of what he’d done.

In education today we talk a lot about how to help students overcome adversity, develop resilience, and learn the skills they need to become healthy adults. Books, articles, and workshops dissect the issue, and parents and teachers strive to educate themselves so they can get it right. I’m part of both those groups, a dad and an educator, and I often have people talk with me about their anxiety or point out examples of parenting that looks and feels unhealthy for kids. I think that’s why what my daughter’s coach did on Saturday struck me so hard.

Amid the examples of helicoptering, coddling, and overprotection, there are incidents of brilliance too. Sure none of us get it right every time, but when I see something wonderful, it helps me to know that things like that happen.

…and they inspire me.