April

 

 

photo 3 (2)“Midwinter spring is its own season”
-TS Eliot

April is a season of testing, of job interviews, and of looking toward summer. On a high school campus it is a month of students preparing for AP exams, being cajoled into taking state tests (seriously), and sweating over how SATs line up with the Saturday date of the prom.

Those logistical concerns are echoed in the adult world as administrators begin building master schedules, counselors register new students, and everyone on campus starts to think about where they’ll be come August.

For young teachers and aspiring administrators this means burnishing resumes and dusting off interview outfits. For veterans it means sitting on interview panels, doing their best to figure out who might be the best fit; on the other side of the table, it’s searching for the right words to make the case that they’re the one who deserves an opportunity.

All the while, the school year is rushing to an end and everyone and her mother is doing her best to grade those essays while still finding the best deal on Travelocity.

Between the thrill of graduation and the anticipation of a new school year the green expanse of summer stretches out just waiting for someone to pitch a tent.

But before that, April.

No Easy Task

YourEdustory“What is your deepest challenge as an educator? As a person?”

Wow. I’ll take “as an educator” please. This week’s #YourEdustory prompt isn’t for the fainthearted. Even focusing on the first part of the challenge, I find myself struggling to write about wrestling with the darker demons of a job I love.

Being a high school administrator means that I get a firsthand look at people in crisis. The interactions I have with parents, students, and even teachers aren’t always easy. For every experience that inspires or moment of laughter is a darker counterbalance of struggle or anxiety.

I maintain optimism, mostly because of the good I see every day and from the examples around me of caring students and adults, though if I’m honest, there are some sobering days and moments that bruise my heart.

So what is my deepest challenge as an educator? Being strong enough to help others around me.

Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, wrote:

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”

Difficulties are real, and our responses, not the difficulties themselves, are what define us.

Opportunities to smile in the face of trouble, gather strength, and grow brave come in many forms at a high school.

Discretion, that better part of valor, keeps me from cataloguing specifics, but I can say that my time as an administrator has taught me that very often students live complicated lives, more adult than any would suspect. Parents care much and deserve the empathy that comes from the fact that most have never been through the teenage years in the role of adult. The raised voices and emotional assertions that happen in my office are most often born of fear rather than anger, no matter what they sound like.

That challenges find their way to school is no surprise; school is one of the biggest parts of our students’ (and often our families’) lives. Schools are extensions of our communities, and it would be naive to imagine that somehow the problems from the neighborhood disappear at the front door of campus.

School is a safe place to feel emotion, a natural place to express anxiety, and a the theater of both big successes and equally large catastrophes.

…and sometimes the challenges we face are bigger than school, and life altering.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received came from a friend who hired me for my first job as an assistant principal. He gave me a copy of The Art of Condolence by Leonard Zinn and Hilary Stanton Zinn. When I became a principal, I was not prepared for how much death I would see, not on my campus per se, but in the lives of the staff, students, and families of those who make up my school community. It’s a volume I have referred to often, as I searched for words expected from someone in my role, words a lifetime of teaching did not prepare me to have.

Being the leader my school deserves involves caring, preparation, and the ability to remain centered, even as the chaos of the moment patters against the windowpanes.

It has always been my goal to be a person who inspires hope and helps others have confidence in their futures. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a touchstone for me, the king tells his men “We would not seek a battle as we are, nor as we are, we say we will not shun it.” I strive for that same spirit of strength. The answer to my deepest challenge is to show, every day, a tenacious optimism that helps others believe the truth, that all will be well.

Help!

raise an adultWe’re just days away from our San Dieguito Book Club meeting on April 25th, when we’ll be discussing Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult. Over the past few couple of weeks I’ve had more than a few teachers tell me that they’ve been reading the book and I’ve spotted copies being passed around at my last two or three parent coffees. Our parent foundation even purchased a few books that our students could check out from the school library, and all have been off the shelves since the day they arrived.

I’m really looking forward to standing at the confluence of all three of these points of view, as teachers, parents, and students each bring different perspectives to the ideas in How to Raise an Adult.

I know I’ve got my own opinions, formed over twenty two years of being an educator and almost twenty years of being a parent. I’ve tipped my hand on some of these thoughts in recent posts, and since I hope to do more listening than speaking on Monday night, I offer this mini-retrospective as my initial contribution to a big discussion.

A young Danny Zuko looks forward to Macbeth

Thoughts on a magical coaching moment in softball

Developing a capacity to wince but not to pounce

I also know that these thoughts are only my own, and that they aren’t more right than many other of the perspectives we’ll hear at our book club.

I love that Lythcott-Haims tells her readers: “We’ve been given the awesome, humbling task of helping a young human unfold.” As a person who has dedicated his professional life to the service of helping students do just this, her words ring true. As a dad, I see the challenge from a slightly different (and perhaps more emotional) perspective. Reflecting on my own growing up, I know that I viewed that unfolding differently when I was a teenager.

It may be in the definition of “helping” that our discussion on Monday night will be at its richest, and as a preview, I offered Lythcott-Haims’ line to some parents and teachers. Thoughtful and real, they told me:

 

I’d define “helping” as guiding and supporting, while also modeling the process.

-Teacher

 

I interpret both a parent and a teacher’s role of ‘helping’ as thinking through to ‘set the context’ where teens can experiment and learn to ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’ based on their choices, ideally without having too far to fall, if they do fail in their initial attempts. For example, Aeries can be a great way for parents to see how student’s efforts at SDA progress over time, before grades are finalized. If used appropriately/judiciously, this tool can help parents and teachers, identify opportunities to help set/change the context for a student/students to be as successful as he/she/they want to be. For some students, this may be as simple as asking the right questions at the right time to help them explore options and consider new opportunities.

-Parent of a high school student

 

I think “helping” really means to be able to stand back and watch her do things for herself. When she says “I can do it” it means letting her do it-and waiting until she asks for help before stepping in. I want her to learn to ask for help (I think many people struggle with that) but I also want her to know that I trust her. If my child says they can do something then I should have complete faith that they can. I think “helping” should also mean truly letting kids tackle things on their own. If they say they will talk to a teacher about something, let them do it, no need to follow up with an email to see if they did. And more importantly don’t jump in to get them the response that they (or you) want. If the answer is no then let the child sit with that answer. It’s ok to teach our kids that their are limits to what they can accomplish. Helping children does not mean allowing them to have completely unrealistic expectations. If they exceed what we think they are capable of that’s great, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow kids to think the world is always entirely their oyster…when it’s not.

-Teacher/Parent (age 3)

 

My husband thinks the story, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, is a book about an enabling parent.  I suppose most of us, including Shel Silverstein himself, have read it this way. However, upon reflecting on the word “help” as presented in the book, How to Raise an Adult and upon Bjorn Paige’s suggestion, the image of the tree has come to mind but in a different light. The tree is rooted, strong, and capable of providing the human with the nourishment, materials, and support he needs.  Never does the tree “help” him by holding his hand, carrying him, protecting him, traveling with him, telling him what to do, or doing his work for him.  The tree is always there when the human needs him and helps him when he can. True, the tree is seemingly stripped to nothing by the end, but perhaps this bare symbol can also represent the limits one human faces when attempting to “help” another. For me, a helpful yet humble parent is well-rooted, loves their child unconditionally, and will provide the child with the nourishment (apples), supplies (wood/materials), and support (stump) that child needs to “unfold”.  Although this task is not an easy one, as a parent and a teacher, I believe we should strive to “unfold” the human and “help” by providing access to some basic needs and information.  I want to be a strong, fearless tree for my humans. They will always know where to find me, I will provide them with some of the basics, and the rest of the “unfolding” will be up to them.

-Teacher/Parent

 

Then I asked the kids.

They kicked around the idea of what they think it means for adults to “help” them and came up with this list:

Teach life skills and morals
Aid in making the right choices
Give enough freedom, yet still have an impact on our lives.
Encourage us to try new things.
Not telling us who we have to be.
Share wisdom and past experience
Let me be my own person and discover passions by myself.
Share mistakes and experiences so we don’t repeat them, but also give us a chance to make mistakes on our own and learn from them.
Expose us to diverse ideas and opinions
Teach how to think and make decisions for ourselves.
Push us out of our comfort zone.

I can hardly wait to start talking about the ideas in the book, and hearing what our school community has to say.

If you’re interested in joining us, we’ll meet from 6:00-7:30 pm in our Media Center on Monday, April 25th.

Catch

photo (5)It’ll sound simple, and it is, but in a moment of pure joy today I found myself spending a part of lunch playing catch with some students and a couple of teachers.

It started when our student body president called “Mr. Paige” across the grass and brought my attention out of the singular focus that was taking me toward a serious conversation across campus. He held up a football, smiled, and in those small gestures reassured me that what I was doing could wait. It was time to play.

He threw. I caught. Another student walked up and held up her hands. Even wearing substantial heels she could throw and catch better than I could.

A science teacher ambled up.

Banter ensued.

Another student joined in, striking up a conversation about his dad’s super bowl ring and laughing as he tossed the football.

A failed attempt (by my science teacher) to knock over the walkie-talkie I’d put down on the sidewalk brought another student out from a nearby room. Barefoot, his exuberance added to the fun.

A few students watched. This was just another example of what makes San Dieguito so special. They were seeing something not unexpected, not overly unusual, but a little different in the way so many things are on our campus.

Before we were done a few other students and teachers had drifted in and out of our game. Had someone unfamiliar with our school happened by they might have wondered at this diverse group playing catch beneath the springtime sun. I would have told them that the ease with which adults and students connect, through discussion, activities, and play is one of the defining elements of San Dieguito.

No matter what else happens this week, those minutes of smiling and tossing a ball in the grassy courtyard outside my office will be a highlight, reminding me of the impromptu moments that make my job, and our school, so special.

Wincing

DSC03887.JPGTwo strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, a runner on third and nothing I can do but watch. Being a dad of a softball and a baseball player is teaching me, pitch by pitch, the truth of the advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult: “Develop a capacity to wince but not to pounce.”

I was the kid who once struck out in T-ball, back in an age when they let kids do such things; today’s T-ball is a gentler game, probably for the better, sensibly focusing on skills rather than competition. The memory of that strikeout has stayed with me for forty years, and I can still taste the tears when I see my own kids try and miss.

Still, I know how valuable those small formative failures can be. They are lessons that transcend games and, coupled with the successes that are also part of every game, these experiences provide kids a perspective that can help them when they face the more substantial challenges of school, relationships, and life.

I also know how tough it can be to see my own kids cry.

DSC03881Beyond the ballpark things only get more complicated, and I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I suggested that the dad in me didn’t feel more strongly than the principal I am thinks about situations involving my own kids. It’s in these moments that I know I should reflect on the practice of wincing I’m cultivating from my seat behind the backstop.

Would that it were easy.

And yet as an educator I understand Lythcott-Haims’ argument that an “inability to cope -to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision- can become a problem” for kids who haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.

The best schools are in the business of helping students learn the valuable skills  they’ll need to be successful beyond school. The experience of dissecting a frog or developing a Rube Goldberg machine isn’t valuable because we’re creating a generation of amphibian veterinarians or quirky tinkerers. Like learning how to take a photograph, compose a haiku, or balance an equation, the skills our students learn -often from the mistakes they make along the way- are meant to be transferable to the lives they’ll lead in a diverse and sometimes complicated world that changes dynamically every day.

Will they remember those strikeouts when they’re adults? I’m sure they will, though those early failures will not define who they will become as adults.

What will help them to define who they will become will be their responses to those challenges, their responses, not their parents’ responses. Our pouncing could help to define them too, but not in the way any of us would want them to be defined.

So I strive to wince and let my own kids learn. Two strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, and a runner on third? There’s a lesson there, for me and for my kids.

Laundromat

photo 2 (3)It’s spring break, I’m on vacation, and I’m sitting in a laundromat. A large insect is buzzing  at my ear, a book of poetry occupies the sunken basin of a molded plastic seat next to me, and a cavalcade of tattooed locals have spent the last half hour reminding me, with their laughing vulgarities, that even in paradise people have dirty shorts.

Spring break is one of the most delicious parts of being an educator. It means time to slow down after one of the most grueling stretches of the school year. It’s a time to spend a few days with my wife and kids, change up the usual routine, and breathe deep the renewal needed to make it through Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from April to June.

Education, like the ocean, is made up of high tides and lows. In my twenty plus years in the game, I’ve gotten better at letting go of the stresses of work and embracing the freedom that comes from a week without an alarm clock or daily planner. Most years we stay close to home, but this year we were able to get out of town. It’s a luxury not part of every spring break, though today, sitting in this sunny laundromat, hugged by a bucket seat straight out of 1978, I’m nothing but thankful to have been gone from home long enough to need to do laundry.

laundromatSpring break for students looks different than mine, with less poetry, less laundry, and less resting. Theirs is often a week of enthusiasm and adventure, climbing things, listening to music, skiing, swimsuits, and fires on the beach. All those things are great too, particularly for the young, though for me these ninety minutes of peace, an interlude between kayaking and an evening walk beneath Morro Rock, are sublime. The hum of dryers, the laughter of locals, the scratching of my pen on this yellow legal pad, even the buzzing of that sinister looking bug, these sounds speak spring renewal to me.

A few short days from now I’ll be back at my desk, elbow deep in the final quarter of the school year. I have no doubt that one day in May I’ll think back to this afternoon at the laundromat and be grateful. There is little sweeter than spring break, in whatever incarnation it takes, and much good to gain if those of us fortunate enough to get this time can allow ourselves to relax, renew, and return to school as fresh as a newly laundered pair of shorts.

photo 3 (4).JPG

Second Time Through

They arrived in capes and spandex, wearing matching shirts, bandannas, and smiles. While classic rock filled the grassy area behind the softball diamond, they applied face paint, surveyed the inflatables, and wrestled with the decision: shoes or no shoes.

This was San Dieguito’s “Senior Olympics,” and in a synecdoche of what makes our school special, hundreds of 12th graders stayed after school on the Friday before spring break to have fun and play.

photo 2 (6).JPGThese amazing students might have started the day in AP Art History, Concert Band, Auto Shop, or Culinary Arts. Here, however, as they worked in spirited teams to run relays, play tug-of-war, and shoot baskets into inflatable hoops, they exuded the energy of delighted seven year olds.

It was awesome.

At our Student Forum earlier in the week a senior had brought up the idea of recess. While her comment had been half in jest, it resonated with me as an honest and inadvertently profound idea. Here, as these seniors burst into celebration when teammates crossed the finish line of the blindfolded three legged race, the truth of the value of play showed its teeth with a smile.

photo 1 (5)The importance of play has been talked about by people more knowledgeable than I. Heck, a lifetime ago I had the pleasure of doing a book club with parents and teachers on Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play. In the competitive world our students inhabit, it takes reminders like Brown’s book and our Senior Olympics to hold up examples of why we, and our kids, need to laugh more.

Some might suggest that competition had something to do with today’s event, and it’s true that the burly team of boys who lost the first tug-of-war were crestfallen in the seconds after they were pulled beyond the line, but as I walked around to the different events I realized that that wasn’t it.

photo 3 (6)Watching the kids, even in events as competitive as bouncy jousting, I saw that they cheered no matter who won.

I saw the smiles on the faces of the parent volunteers too, as they saw their kids acting like …kids. Everyone over forty knows how much time these seniors have to be adults, and seeing them clap and laugh spontaneously as they did so regularly in kindergarten reminded us of the joy that teenage angst withers before when that joy is given a chance to shine.

I said something to a dad who was there helping to manage a bouncy slide relay, pointing to a group of seniors jumping up and down and screaming as if they’d won the World Series.

“Yeah,” he smiled, “and this is their second time through. The first race was the one that counted. They’re doing this one just for fun.”

photo (2)How important it is to have things in our lives that we do just for fun.

Today’s Senior Olympics, this amazing opportunity to release joy, celebrate play, and be a community filled with laughter, gave all of us who were there a glimpse of a kind of happiness we can never have too much of.

Let’s play!