As educators, we talk a lot about taking chances, attempting the unexpected, and stepping out of our comfort zones. Polite, students listen, the boldest of them following our advice, others holding back and waiting to see how things turn out for those who take a chance. There’s no fault in that. Sensible, I suppose some would say.
Here at San Dieguito, we have seldom been accused of being sensible.
What we have been called, and proudly own up to being, is student centered, a little iconoclastic, and game to try something new.
When I became a principal I made the promise to myself that I would teach every year. It’s important, I think, for students (and teachers too) to see me as more than a bureaucrat; I got into this business to teach, and I think it’s healthy that kids at my school see me (at least a little bit) as a teacher. This week, I had the opportunity to step into an art class and in a marvelous San Dieguito twist, Jeremy Wright, our cartooning teacher, put on a tie and jacket and set up shop behind my desk.
This was a stretch for both of us, and one that taught us as many lessons as we taught the students.
I asked Jeremy about his day in the big chair and he penned a few paragraphs more eloquent than anything I could retell. He wrote:
Today I got out of my comfort zone. I put on a suit and tie.
Earlier this school year, our principal Bjorn Paige, who was new to our school this year, and I had a discussion about doing a switch-a-roo with our usual roles. He had taught cartooning lessons back when he was a teacher before becoming a principal, and I, well…, have never principal’ed before. So today was the day Mr. Paige put on an apron and a fedora and took over my cartooning class for a period, and I put on a suit and tie.
I was not about to make parent phone calls, meet with lawyers, discuss new campus construction, or have lunch with district office board members – or whatever principals do. I was going to take this short time as interim principal and reflect back on a story that I heard about of a principal doing something unusual. I do not know his name or what school, but the story of his simple gesture impressed me. One at a time, he called in the students who were labeled the “trouble-makers”, “rough kids”, and “squirrels”. He sat them down, let them pick out a donut from the box of donuts, poured them a glass of milk, and simply asked them, “how are you doing?”
So that’s what I did today.
Five young men came through the principal’s door today on my watch – one at a time. I only knew one of them as a previous student, but the others I did not. In the short ten minutes that I had with each of them, we talked about everything from road trips and traveling abroad, girlfriends and marriage, skateboarding and friends, and passions or lack thereof. Yes, maybe I said something that was wise and profound – passing on wisdom like an old sage, but today, this simple gesture from an unknown principal taught me a lesson. Slow down, sit down, and listen.
I was humbled and little embarrassed that I do not do this more often with my students. I do ask my students everyday how they are doing and genuinely care for them, but usually it is in passing while I am carrying a box of clay or next to them while we clean brushes. It is easy for all of us to get swept away in our usual roles. I play the teacher, they play the student. But how powerful it was today to change up our usual roles and be just two people sharing a glass of milk and a donut.”
“Slow down, sit down, and listen.”
…and enjoy a doughnut.
Powerful advice that I’d be wise to follow. How different would education be if we all took that thoughtful approach even a few times more each week than we are prone to do?
On the other side of campus, in the studio I shared with my budding cartoonists, the renewing energy of interacting with students buzzed through the room. Just as Jeremy had taken on the administrative uniform of coat and tie, I borrowed a paint smeared apron and dug a chapeau out of my closet.
It’s too easy as a principal to get consumed by the rattle and hum of the duties and obligations that fill our days. Just as Jeremy recognized the value of consciously putting ourselves in the moment, teaching reminded me of what really matters in education. Initiatives are great. Programs can make a difference. Missions matter. But it’s kids who are at the heart of all we do.
Laughing, learning, and connecting with students as their teacher was a reminder I wish every principal could have. As I told Jeremy later that afternoon, teaching that cartooning class this week will make me a better principal, and probably a better human.
Whistling my way back to my office when the lesson was done, I thought about that scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character stands on his desk and invites his prep school students to see the world from a different perspective, telling them “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
Today we did. Me. Jeremy. The art students. The students who got a doughnut with the (very) interim principal.
I know that I’ll continue to look for opportunities to switch up my perspective and show students the value of taking chances and looking at the world from a new or different point of view. Showing, not just telling, might be the difference that moves us beyond sensible and into the realm of transformational.