Giddy-up!

photo (2)I like the blue horse with the big nostrils that we call “vintage” because “creepy” is not an adjective you want associated in any way with your school mascot.

We’re the Mustangs at San Dieguito, a symbol of our school that has outlasted three name changes and nearly eighty years.

In the 1930s and 40s the horse bucked and snorted across the cover of our yearbook, The Hoofprint.

Over time it appeared on two legs and four, pacing on the sidelines at games, unicycling across campus, and even hanging out at the beach with a collection of folks who look like they might have been auditioning for a Monty Python skit.

photo (1)Today Manny the Mustang tweets.

It should come as no surprise that the face of San Dieguito is equine and online. Keeping up with the times, and looking toward a bright future is something our students do here. Technology is a tool that helps the teaching and learning that take place every day, and it’s only natural that it also provides a way for students to connect and share their stories with the world.

photo 5It’s also very much in keeping with who we are that Manny the Mustang honors his friends and values our school’s rich tradition, facts you can see by the company he keeps: blue, bold, and …vintage.

Whether in tie-dye or a jersey, promoting athletics, our business program, the arts, or the school as a whole, it’s nice to see our San Dieguito Mustang in all its variations.

I’d just love to see that four legged version with the “M” on its side trot across campus!

Go Mustangs!

The Principal Wears a Suit

5 months ago…

“No tie?”

She was nice enough, but curious, and I sensed disappointment behind her kind eyes. Around us the Winter Formal filled the Air and Space Museum with bright lights, tuxedoed teens, and a string of songs that sounded to me like a series of ring tones. This senior and her date had met me at the front door and posed the question.

“No tie,” I answered, adding “it’s your Winter Formal; I’m just security.”

She looked at me quizzically. “You’re the principal.”

My heart sank. I hate disappointing nice people.

“Tonight I’m just making sure things go well,” I tried. She wasn’t buying it.

“This is formal, Mr. Paige.”

I looked to my assistant principals for support, two elegantly dressed women who’d been kind enough not to comment on my fleece jacket. They knew, as did the seventeen year old I was talking to, that such things as Winter Formal matter.

For students they matter a lot.

Being an adult means caring about car payments, dental work, and cholesterol. None of these things are as important to the students at my school as strobe lights, pounding bass, or a chocolate fountain.

And yet that impractical chocolate fountain, perhaps because of its impracticability, means much to the young people who are the lifeblood of the school. As their principal it’s important that I invest in the things that matter to them.

I feel paternal to almost two thousand kids; I can at least try to be a good school dad.

This isn’t to say that I don’t listen to Sinatra on my drive down to the dance, but when I get there I should at least be able to tap my feet to the more contemporary tunes.

…and I ought to wear a tie.

 

Saturday…

My assistant principals and I carpooled in to the House of Blues, and as we got to the door the bouncer took one look at us and said (not asked) “Prom.”

One of the best parts of working in education is the possibility of second chances. On Saturday I left informality at home, put on a suit, and enjoyed prom along with a few hundred well dressed juniors and seniors.

I have the pleasure of being their principal, and thanks to the wisdom, kindness, and pluck of an amazing senior I was able to learn that I was wrong. This isn’t just their prom, but our prom, our whole school’s, and I’m fortunate enough to get to be a part of it.

That’s worth wearing a tie.

photo 1 (1)

Window Boxes

photoWhen the structural steel went up, so high it peeked over the wing of classrooms built in 1936, everyone on campus paused and exhaled a collective “oh.”

The newest classroom building, an inch less high than the city will allow, will bring state of the art science labs to a school whose chem room was built when Einstein was still alive. Knowing the decades of labs students will perform in the years ahead is enough to make anyone excited about the idea of the new building, but it was seeing that enormous metal skeleton rise up in the center of campus that shook all of us past the idea and held the reality of the thing up for us to marvel at.

New construction brings with it a mix of anticipation, annoyance, and awe. Our new building, so impressive now, spent months in the dirt. Before any resemblance to an actual building came planning, digging, and the construction of retaining walls. To see it rise from that dirt now, as loud as some of the steel work may be, is inspiring. Helping our school community admire that progress is one of the best decisions I’ve seen around a high school construction site: windows.

photo 4Knowing the curiosity of students (and teachers too), we asked our construction team if, when they put up the extensive plywood fencing around the big dig, they’d add a couple of plexiglass windows so we could see what was going on. Better than “a couple,” they cut a row of windows along two sides of the project and the result has been nothing less than amazing.

Windows in a wooden wall invite spectators, and those views of our school’s future provide our students and staff with a clear understanding of progress, an unimpeded glimpse of scale, and a total lack of mystery in what can sometimes feel like a less than transparent process.

photo 5They also provide an opportunity for creativity.

Around the windows, teams of student artists have painted murals that include the windows as focal points and show that whimsy and heavy machinery can coexist as long as both wear a smile.

…and then our ASB students added window boxes.

We have another twelve months before classes begin in the labs and classrooms of our new building, but as we watch the steel grow, the feeling on campus is one of excitement. You can see it through the windows.

box

This is not an awards ceremony…

We didn’t read names. No one waited for their kid to be called up to the stage, or shifted uncomfortably, longing for the program to be over. Instead, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five played quietly in the background as teachers and students and parents ate pizza, leaned in, and talked.

2awardAt San Dieguito we have a long tradition of doing things differently (our forum, an artistic approach to almost everything, and our kids’ status as future alumni are all a part of who we are). We’re also willing to try new ideas, and this week’s award un-ceremony was just that.

In lieu of a typical acknowledgment of great grades or subject specific prowess, we invited teachers to each nominate a student for an end of the year award. We didn’t put restrictions on the selection, opting to call our awards “a celebration recognizing awesomeness.” It was.

owenSo everyone could feel a part of the process and to keep things transparent, we created a shared Google presentation and invited teachers to put together a slide with their student’s name, a photo, and some words to describe why the student was so special. The results were as wildly diverse as our teachers and students.

One Math teacher created an animated extravaganza, with pop up highlights of his student’s “very cool briefcase” and status as a “mathematical genius.”

An English teacher celebrated one of her students for “his great wonder about the world, his kind heart, and the joy he brings to his learning. He is a positive addition to SDA and makes our school a great place for dreamers and thinkers.”

And for our AP Psychology teacher, a reference to Sigmund Freud was too tempting to pass up.zack

The photographs of the students and teachers, often laughing together, were an inspiring mélange of wit and sincerity. Slide by slide, this celebration of kids summed up who we are as a school.

And the slide show wasn’t the best part of the afternoon, that came after I had the privilege of welcoming more than forty kids, teachers, and families and explaining the idea behind our event.

1awardThis was, I told them, a chance not simply to politely applaud, but to connect. It’s part of our school’s DNA that we see each other as people first and students and teachers second. What that meant in this situation was a chance for us not to be separated by a podium or a stage, but to sit together, look each other in the eyes, and talk.

Teachers sat next to their students and not only handed them a certificate with the words they’d written on it, but also had time to talk with, not at, the kids and their families.

We hadn’t tried something exactly like this before, and to a certain extent we were working without a net; if conversation stalled, we didn’t have a filler. The concept of our event was predicated on the belief that everyone would show up and everyone would want to connect.

They did.

And as people talked, and ate, and laughed together, we ran the slideshow on a big screen at the front of the room. Occasionally folks cheered or clapped, and the humorous slides got their due guffaws, but what I noticed as I walked around the room was just how much eye contact was going on. Teachers, students, and parents were really listening to each other.

A parent told me afterward that she loved that she had an opportunity to get to know her son’s teacher. “At high school it’s easy to feel pushed away,” she said. “This was being welcomed in.”

kateWe ran the slideshow twice, so parents could snap a photo of their student’s slide for Facebook, and I noticed that people kept talking until a bell rang to tell us it was time to start afternoon classes.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t always leave award ceremonies as inspired as I was by this. It’s always neat to hear the accolades earned by gifted and hardworking students, but I’m still shaking my head at the astounding feeling of community I saw in media center during our un-ceremony.

I’m convinced that healthy relationships between the adults who help raise and educate students are the bedrock of a strong school. In those quiet conversations that filled our media center I saw those connections first hand, an inspiring reminder of what can happen when we create the opportunity to talk.

May

The seniors are thinking
about graduation
The juniors about prom
Sophomores, struggling
with their first AP test
or broken heart
or both
aren’t sure what to think
when everyone they know tells them
“Your junior year is the hardest.”
Freshmen and teachers
and principals too
are just looking forward
to summer
and next year
and an opportunity to get everything right
a little better, anyhow,
as they move another year
closer to being seniors.

Croquet in the Rain

photoTowering oaks helped diffuse the rain, though the grass was soaked and our mallets stayed slick and wet. A run of record heat had ended the day before and this Saturday a storm blew into Forest Grove with enough moisture to remind those of us flying up from California what a typical spring day in Oregon was all about.

We’d met in Dave’s empty office, eight of us there to wish him well as he finished his final week as a philosophy professor at Pacific University, thirty one years of showing undergraduates as we had been the way around a logical fallacy and appreciation of Quine’s argument for the beauty of a desert landscape.

Dave taught us about Kant and Husserl, epistemology and Eco, Foucault and the finer points of semiotics. We’d smoked cigars, wrestled with Sartre (and each other), and listened to our fair share of the exotic sounds of Martin Denny.

Dave was the heart of the philosophy department we knew twenty five years ago, and as we gathered on a campus some of us hadn’t visited since the 1990s, it was with an emotional ripple that I thought to myself: we will never all be together here again.

Maybe mine were silly thoughts; I haven’t attended a reunion before, either high school or college. I’m untempted to ask what’s become of a classmate I knew when I was a teenager, and uninterested in explaining the sundry victories and defeats of my own life. But this wasn’t that.

This gathering was for Dave. It was our chance to say thank you before he hopped on a plane to Colorado and left our alma mater without an anchor for any of our tiny craft.

We arrived singly and in pairs. Some brought gifts, a record, a box of cigars. We passed around a handful of photos and copies of an underground newspaper we’d foisted on an unsuspecting public back during the first Bush administration. We told stories and remembered others we were too polite to speak aloud. Then, tucking our chins to our chests and assuring each other that it was not too wet to play, we slipped out into the rain and walked to a grassy spot behind Marsh Hall to set up the croquet pitch.

The reality that it had been a quarter of a century since we’d all been together evaporated before our socks soaked through with rainwater. Familiar banter filled the field, familiar personalities animated faces only somewhat altered by time and experience, and the biggest thrill of the afternoon came when one of us had the opportunity to send another’s ball flying with a satisfying THWACK!

Being philosophy majors, we of course discussed the appropriate word to describe that magnificent sound of mallet on ball. THWACK!

photo 3Onomatopoetic.

I work in education now and see the connections students at my school make every day through the offhand remark, shared experience, or common language that rises up in small circles. These seemingly insignificant moments, so important as they build the structure of memory, brick by brick, will collectively last a lifetime.

Being a part of that small group of philosophy majors shivering delightedly in the rain on Saturday reminded me that the strongest ties are developed through laughter and argument. We don’t know what our lives will become, but being put in a place to look backward this weekend, I know that the person I am was built not only by what I did, but by who I did those things with.

I wish for my own students memorable experiences with interesting people, which is not necessarily the same as pleasant experiences with polite people. I wish them laughter, and argument, kindness, strife, and the opportunity for the occasional satisfying THWACK!

And sometime in the mid 2040s, I hope the students I see forming shared memories today are able to enjoy their own equivalent of gathering beneath the oak trees of their alma mater and playing croquet in the rain.

photo 5

The Kid Business

photoSome of us coach. Some of us teach. Some of us are parents. All of us are in the business of helping kids.

I’ve been a teacher since I was twenty-three and a parent since I was twenty-seven. Both are defining roles in my life, and while I’m a principal now, both are how I see who I am and think about what I do. I know I’m not alone.

That I see so many adults who have dedicated so much of their lives to helping kids succeed isn’t surprising; we all find circles of like minded folks to surround ourselves by. Most of my friends are teachers, and even those who aren’t parents themselves care deeply about making a positive difference in the lives of young people.

That reality is the ether in which I live, not thinking about it very often, simply treating it as a camel treats sand.

Then, this weekend, as I was helping my daughter’s softball coach carry some gear up to the field and listening to him talk about how he and the other coaches had dragged the fields the night before and come in early to chalk the diamonds, it hit me just how much of this kid business we all do for free.

That’s not a complaint, not at all, but a celebration. That so many give so much for no compensation beyond the (occasional) appreciation of the kids and the sense of having made a difference is a reminder of the goodness of human nature, something which I’ll confess to be guilty of overlooking more often than I should.

What this looks like is teachers going out of their way to help students at lunch, before school, and after the last bell has rung. It’s secretaries listening as students open up about the struggles in their lives, counselors going the extra mile to help students find that internship, and coaches making that extra phone call to help a student athlete find a place to play in college. It’s moms driving kids to the pool, aunts and uncles volunteering to help judge speech and debate, and grandparents coming to school to speak to business classes.

And yet the “kid business” is a misnomer; the students aren’t a commodity, but the future of our world. What we do for them, and even more importantly what we do with them, helps to define what our world will become. As we show them kindness and how they can show that kindness to others, the world we share becomes a better place.

Whether we coach, or teach, or parent, whether we cheer on our granddaughters at the field hockey game or coo to our newborn grandsons (as we give our own kids a break from parenting), whether we volunteer, contribute, or say “thank you” and mean it when a youngster gives us a drawing, we all have the opportunity to make a difference in the kid business.

The business of life.

Today’s Salsa

Hungry and hurrying, I left my meeting at the district office and made the decision to grab a breakfast burrito on my way back to campus. I ordered egg, potato, and cheese (“No meat,” I told him, and I could almost see the cashier thinking “Vegetarian? Shouldn’t he be thinner?”). Then I filled a container with the hottest, deepest red salsa they had, and headed to my office checking the clock.

Seven minutes was enough to at least start eating at my desk before heading to the construction meeting, so I opened the salsa, unwrapped the burrito, and bit in.

Bacon.

Lots of bacon, tiny bits, a rash of red in the egg and cheese.

Frustrated, I spat the bite out, an impatient mistake.

Theatrically, the burrito splashed into the plastic dish of salsa and sent a crimson rainstorm onto my white shirt and tie.

I didn’t swear so loudly that my secretary heard me. No man is a hero to his valet, as the saying goes, but you should at least try to look professional.

No that I did. Standing, fuming, and dripping onto the carpet, I peeled off my shirt and looked for something to wear. As a high school principal, I have more than a few t-shirts with our school logo. None were in the drawer in my office except a tie-dyed long sleeved extravaganza that I’m not sure I could pull off, even if I told people it was a tribute to Prince.

My secretary, who’d seen my tie fly in an angry arc across my open door called out. “I can try to find you an extra staff shirt,” she offered. “But I think I just have mediums.”

For those who don’t know me, I am not a medium.

“I’m okay,” I lied, digging deeper through the flotsam and jetsam of the drawer, looking for a miracle.

Then, between a bottle of mouthwash and a DVD set of the first season of James Garner’s Maverick, I found my past. It was a shirt from Diegueño Middle School, my first principalship.

photo 1 (2)Folded and unworn, having arrived after I left to come to San Dieguito, the baseball sleeved shirt reminded me that when we’re surprised by something unpleasant (whether salsa or something more) we can sometimes find comfort in the good we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating.

More often than not this is less literal than a clean shirt, but perspective, if earned honestly, fits better than any piece of clothing and can protect us from stress if we’re willing to pay attention to it.

Which is easier said than done.

It’s this frantic fumbling for perspective that fuels most of the stressful conversations that take place in my office.

Something has gone wrong.

Someone made a mistake.

Somewhere in a conversation a connection didn’t happen.

…and the world no longer feels right.

A dad myself, I get it when a parent feels compelled to stand up for a student. In that moment it feels to them that they must protect and defend, and the passion they bring to the situation dominates their perspective.

Sometimes that passion blinds adults -parents, teachers, administrators like me- to the facts, or even more often to a different way of looking at things.

Asked once by a friend what the most difficult part of mediating high stress conversations was, I answered: “The fact that so often everyone is a little bit right.”

Finding perspective in these situations means being able to slow down, draw on past experiences, and try to help everyone in the room find the word “and.”

Something went wrong, and things will be right again.

Someone made a mistake, and we have an opportunity not to make our response another mistake.

Somewhere in our conversation a connection didn’t happen, and we have another chance to connect.

I hope to remember today’s salsa when I face tomorrow’s challenges. If I can, I’m optimistic that the result can be something better than a ruined shirt.

Captain Aubrey

When I was an English teacher I found that as I read for fun I was constantly thinking to myself: could I teach this? Often I couldn’t, of course, but this way of walking through my literary life did lead to the introduction of Haruki Murakami, Mike Royko, and Barry Yourgrau into my curriculum, and students leaving my classes knowing a little bit about Mary Wollstonecraft and Akira Kurosawa.

post captainIt was about two years after I left the classroom before I stopped thinking about how I might incorporate articles and excerpts into my English lessons. Today, as a principal, I’ll confess that I still find unexpected inspiration for how to approach my work between the covers of more than just “leadershippy” books.

Those I do read, like Start With Why and Critical Conversations, are worthy of posts of their own, but sometimes it’s a fictitious character or story that lingers, a line or lesson from a poem or novel that returns unbidden when a situation inspires it.

One such book, that I’ve written about before, is Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain. Truth be told, it’s not his most compelling of the Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, but as it tells the story of a flawed captain struggling for a post, gaining a difficult assignment, and then doing his best to succeed, it earns a place on the bookshelf in my office. If I were ever teaching a class on public school administration, Post Captain would be on the reading list.

Thick with prose that takes some effort to navigate (and is worth it), Post Captain provides a few lessons that have stayed with me for a long time.

Tenacity is the first. Captain Aubrey, financially ruined by circumstance, found himself pursuing an appointment to a ship. Frustrated and mired in the politics of the British Navy, his determination and willingness to explore all options led him to the doorstep of taking a job for a private company, and then allowed him to open his mind and accept command of a strange and experimental ship unwanted by other Navy captains.

Every school administrator at some point in her career longs for the opportunity to lead before that opportunity is available. Some of us get roughed up a bit by the process, but if we stay true to ourselves and make the most of the opportunities we find, we may have success.

Aubrey’s flirtations with the East India Company weren’t unlike a public school administrator thinking about a private or charter school, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

I’m one who has always believed in the importance of public education (flawed and challenged as it sometimes is) and as Aubrey found his HMS Polychrest, I silently cheered that he’d taken on a meaningful challenge in service of something greater than money or himself.

That challenge, as all challenges, led to internal struggling and a manifestation of that famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

About halfway through the book, the captain and his doctor friend, Maturin, discuss mutinies and the importance of running a ship with respect and order. They talk honestly of what it takes to make a “happy ship” and how easily one crewman can turn things in the wrong direction.

In what may be my favorite line from Post Captain, and one worthy of a framed cross-stitch in my office (I don’t really have this, but if you’re a cross-stitcher and you’re reading this…) Aubrey turns to Maturin and confesses:

I know things are not perfect, but I cannot reform the world and run a man-of-war.”

In one sentence, O’Brian captures the tension felt by principals everywhere. How do we balance the big goals of changing lives and making a difference (and if this isn’t why we got into the business we should get the heck out) and at the same time make sure we pay attention to the day to day responsibilities that ensure our school stays in ship shape?

In the pages that follow, Aubrey’s story plays out with examples of how he manages the balance, and while these come with a spray of saltwater, I kept seeing how I might I use these lessons to improve the work I do at my school.

That pursuit of improvement is important to me as a principal. Always learning, I know the leader I am today is different than the leader I was five years ago. I’m also different than I will be five years from now.

In another memorable description from the book, Maturin articulates the changes he has seen in his friend, now Post Captain.

…he suffers frustration with more patience than he used; he cares less passionately about many things. Indeed, I should say that the boy has quite vanished now -certainly the piratical youth of my first acquaintance is no longer to be seen. But when a man puts on maturity and invulnerability, it seems that he necessarily becomes indifferent to many things that gave him joy.”

How many of us who considered ourselves swashbuckling as young teachers have matured into roles as administrators? That we are better leaders for being more mature is easy to understand, and yet a part of me still hopes that somewhere behind the tie lurks a heart that beats to “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest.”

pirateAs I continue to grow as a leader, I ask myself how I can “suffer frustration with more patience” and still keep my passion “about many things” that give me joy. I’m comfortable with the boy vanishing, but never want to lose that pirate spirit that helped me love teaching and launched me on the adventure of a career in education.

There’s a great deal more to Post Captain, romance, espionage, and naval battles fill the five hundred or so pages. It’s those passages on leaders and leadership, however, that I’ll go back to when I need to be reminded that while I want to reform the world, I’ve got a man-of-war to run.

Balance, not Terror

photoWe’ve been, unapologetically, watching a lot of Star Trek lately.

This morning it was Balance of Terror, my seven year old son’s first introduction to the Romulans. He dug the explosions and his eyes widened (as every 1966 television audience member’s did) when it turned out that the evil Romulans looked like Spock.

A second grader, he’s enamored by flying through space and watching Kirk’s penchant for fisticuffs. The aliens intrigue him and the moral conflicts, more complicated than those he saw in Scooby Doo, give him something to think about.

Watching him experience Star Trek for the first time reminds me greatly of teaching high school English. I relished the fact that I got to introduce my students to Oedipus, Kurtz, and the marvelously mad Ophelia. Journeying with them from a time before they’d read Hamlet to a lifetime of having experienced the play felt magical.

As a high school principal, I get a catbird seat for those many milestones of growing up: the first day of high school, breaking up at the prom, the palpable anxiety and expectation that fills a stadium during graduation rehearsal. I also see, up close, those first experiences that help define character: bombing a test, a really important one; not making a team, or not playing much if you do make it; being faced with a decision between two terrible options, or even harder, between two great ones.

Any single experience does not define us. Parents and students who have found themselves in my office over the years have often heard me describe the stress of the moment (a suspension, a dust up with another student, an academic catastrophe) as “a speed bump, not a brick wall.” My twenty plus years as an educator have taught me the truth of choosing to see current stresses through that lens.

When we don’t, and it’s extraordinarily easy not to, we raise our own anxiety and do nothing to help ourselves or our kids.

More than once I’ve seen parents intervene, sometimes with a dramatic show of force, in situations that seem to mean more to them than to their kids. Almost always in these cases the parents’ passion comes from a place of love; as moms and dads we naturally want to protect our kids, but the results can sometimes produce a long term effect that is the opposite of what we hoped.

An example comes to mind of a person who coached for me a number of years ago. Fresh out of college, he was excited to have an opportunity to work with high schoolers, coaching a sport he loved. There was no question about the coach’s passion, but when obscenities began peppering his talks with the team, and when yelling became his standard tone at practices, something had to be done.

Working with our athletic director, we did our best to communicate school expectations and school appropriate behavior to our passionate (albeit a little immature) coach. We wanted to help him understand how he could keep his passion, but approach this job differently. It didn’t work.

At the end of the season, when the final review came due and we sat down for a difficult discussion, the coach chose not to met with us alone; he brought his dad.

As this caring, angry, protective father talked about “fairness” and our “obligation” to give his son another chance, I saw a parent/child dynamic that had been honed over years. How sad, I thought, even as it was happening, that this father was denying his son the status of adult.

There is a time to intervene, and a level of intrusion appropriate for each age. There is also a time when our kids begin to move past the love of phaser guns and space battles and are ready to engage in the more morally complex world.

Balance, not terror, should guide our actions as parents. We are, after all, the adults our children will learn to become.