Learning to Sail

Fall is a season of hope, optimism, and fresh beginnings. At a school it’s a time of new backpacks, unsharpened pencils, and the promise of experiences to come.

There is no doubt that the celebrations of June, graduation being the greatest, bring days of joy, but I’ve always loved August and September the most …and the possibilities they suggest.

Ahead of us is a year of learning, connecting, and engaging with life and each other. What that year will look like we’d be foolish to predict, but with a spirit that embraces the unexpected and belief that all will be well, the journey ahead is as inviting as it is exciting.

little womenWill there be struggles? Yes. This is life after all. But as Louisa May Alcott reminded us in Little Women, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” So are we all.

This year I know a number of folks, including myself, who are sailing the ships of new schools. For us, understanding our school’s culture and how we can contribute to it is high up on the checklist of autumn.

Whether we’re new students, teachers, or even principals like me, when we know what’s best about our school and how we can help to support the angels of our school’s better nature, we have the opportunity to make a difference.

I wish for everyone “new” the connections with others that allow that understanding to emerge and those opportunities to flourish. I wish for those returning to familiar seas a fair breeze and the urge to welcome everyone with a bellow of love.

I once worked for a superintendent who greeted us each fall with a hearty “Happy New Year!” I heard in that refrain the feeling of freedom that comes from a fresh start, a new opportunity, and a chance to begin again, informed by the past but not shackled to it. It is in August and September that we feel the sense of hope that comes when we look around our school and see kindred spirits, curiosity, and creativity, and we know that storms or not, we are setting sail on this adventure together.

New

Hanging in the ether of expectancy
searching for a metaphor
to describe the
anticipation
eagerness to begin
the disorienting roil of a new environment
a new state
a new school
where every acronym
is off by one letter

My faith is buoyed by
the kindness of
those who will be friends
when months have scrubbed the word
“new”
from my title

and a teacher
or parent
or student
walking into my office
doesn’t look around and notice
the differences
but sees in me
and the pictures on my walls
the bookshelves
the plants
the familiar
expected

fish in water
what metaphor you will

And expectancy is replaced
by the feeling of home.

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The Elephant

Everyone knows the old saw about the blind men and the elephant, each touching a bit of the beast and describing the pachyderm as a rope, a fan, or a tree trunk etc. etc. etc. Each are correct in a way; the tail, the ear, the legs are like those items they compare them to, but without the value of seeing the whole elephant they aren’t able to capture the greater truth of the Herculean animal.

So too, so often, schools.

Ask a student about her school and she is likely to give an accurate and articulate description that reflects her time in classes, with clubs, and on campus. Ask another student and he may very well tell you something completely different, but no less accurate to his own experience.

The student actor sometimes sees the place she attends classes through a different lens than the poet or the dancer. The filmmaker sees her school through a viewfinder, the scientist through a pair of safety goggles. All of these perspectives, and a hundred others, are accurate …as accurate as those fellows with the elephant.

Teachers too, and parents, and all the adults who help make up a school community each have well earned points of view. Recognizing the importance and validity of each is vital if we are going to be able to put together an accurate idea of our school’s proverbial elephant.

As a principal, making room for all these views and helping each see the others’ is one of my most important jobs.

Seeing the big picture and supporting students, parents, and teachers across all the diverse programs and disciplines see the greater whole as well is important if we are to create and foster an environment where every student feels welcomed, valued, and encouraged.

Helping these same individuals, teenager and adult, recognize the tusky, wrinkle skinned behemoth of the school does more than simply broaden their vision; this more complete perspective can helps make real the possibility that we can all work together to nurture the greater good of our school and each other.

Understanding that our elephant is what it is because of the tusk, trunk, and ears, and that its sum is even greater than its fantastic parts, helps all of us know that even as we are able to be ourselves, we are part of something great and greater.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 7.30.03 AMHere at ACMA we have the deliciously freeing reality of not having a school mascot, a tradition now more than a quarter century old that I have absolutely no plans to change (how marvelous it is when asked what our mascot is to live in the realm of possibility). But for just today, as the 2017-2018 school year stretches out ahead of us like a road from Tolkien, I’d like to imagine that our school is an elephant. Trunk. Tusk. Tail. Ears. Legs. …and so very much more.

Unleashing Innovation

courosEarly in The Innovator’s Mindset author George Couros invites educators to ask the question: “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” It’s a straightforward question, but one that if answered honestly might give us pause.

I’m a principal now, so in addition to thinking about the hundreds of students who passed through my English classroom throughout my dozen years of teaching, I bent the question to my current role and thought (ahead of our preservice meetings and year of early release Wednesday staff development days): Would I want to be a teacher in the school where I’m the principal?

Good books prompt us to think, and Couros’ latest does just that.

I was given the book as a part of my district’s commitment to leaders reflecting on our practice and continuing to grow and learn together. We’ll discuss the book at our beginning of the year Admin Meeting and as building administrators throughout the fall. Rich with ideas, some deliciously daring, The Innovator’s Mindset has the potential to spark not only meaningful discussion but also meaningful change.

I use the descriptor “meaningful” purposefully here; as Couros notes: “different for the sake of different can be a waste of time.” I hate wasting time.

Instead, the change talked about in The Innovator’s Mindset is thoughtful, ambitious, and creative. I like Couros’ student centered approach, and find in his focus on creating a real resonance with the work I see on my campus, an arts based magnet academy where students are constantly making art in one form or another.

With this relevance firmly in my head, when I finished my first reading of The Innovator’s Mindset four concepts struck me as important to my own work this fall. This is far from an adequate summary of Couros or any sort of thorough analysis; these are simply some of the topics that hit me the hardest with regard to my own work as a principal this year.  They are, in a nutshell…

Focus on kids
“If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.”

We’re in the student business, there’s no question about that, and just about every educator I’ve met got into teaching because she or he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids. Reminding ourselves of this every fall is vital to setting the trajectory of the year ahead.

To that end, this year, on the first morning of the first day teachers are back on campus, we’ll begin our inaugural staff meeting listening to a group of students.

I met with our student government leaders over the summer and they were gracious enough to agree to come talk with the staff. What will they say? I have no idea; this isn’t something to be scripted, it is an opportunity for us to listen.

And that listening needs to expand beyond the first meeting. As we listen to students, really hear what they care about, and can help to guide them as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their goals, we have an opportunity to make a difference. Couros reminds us that “if we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind.” Students read our hearts faster than we can hand out a syllabus, and as they see our caring and commitment to helping them, we help to create an environment where passion and purpose blossom.

The Innovator’s Mindset talks about this in terms of helping students be creators. As students not only understand concepts, but are able to put their learning into practice. It is the difference, according to Couros, of empowering students, not just engaging them, and supports the idea that “real learning begins when students create.”

Be willing to dive in
“If we want innovation to flourish in our schools, we have to be willing to immerse ourselves in the environment where it is going to happen.”

This isn’t at my desk.

As a principal, immersing myself in the environment where innovation will take place means being in classrooms, in labs, in the theater, the dance studio, the darkroom (yes, my school still has one), where students make films, discuss poetry, sculpt, sing, and play instruments. It means engaging with students every day, asking questions, listening when they answer.

It also means getting involved.

I appreciated Couros’ reminder that “it is my job to learn first if I want to lead well,” and to do that means sitting shoulder to shoulder with students and teachers and engaging in the process of learning.

In addition to doing my best to see school through the eyes of students, I hope this year to continue one of the practices I’ve most appreciated as a principal: teaching. Throughout my years as a site administrator I’ve had the privilege of teachers allowing me to step into a classroom and engage with students. I’ve taught Sherlock Holmes to English classes, Emily Dickinson during National Poetry Month, and swapped places with a cartooning teacher. Reading Couros inspired me to bring a spirit of innovation to the teaching I hope to do this year, being willing to take risks and even fall on my face as I encourage my staff to innovate and take chances.

Share
“Culture is developed by the expectations, interactions, and ultimately, the relationship of the entire learning community.”

How we all work together helps to define our school culture, and from the outset of the year I want to do all I can to support my staff in being connected, having real conversations about how we help support students, and working (and playing) together as a cohesive school community.

If culture is truly the result of the factors Couros describes, we do well to ask ourselves not only what is our school culture, but how can we each contribute to making that culture as positive and productive as it can be.

Couros spends time talking about the importance of educators being connected and of “build[ing] each other up to build something together” and I see this focus on making it safe to share ideas, dreams, and strategies as a part of the work to be done, particularly with the addition of professional development time this school year, when we will have a chance to prove true the line from The Innovator’s Mindset: “If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.”

Create opportunities for others to succeed …and to fail safely too
“Learning is messy, and we have to be comfortable with risk, failure, growth, and revision. Once people see leaders take risks, they are more likely to try their own ideas and stretch themselves – and their students. Giving people license to take risks by tapping into their abilities helps create a space where innovative ideas and learning flourish.”

It seems striking to me that early in The Innovator’s Mindset Couros notes the importance of empathy in the learning process. This quality of understanding and really being able to share the feelings of those around us is important to us as humans in general and educators (and students too) in particular. As we as teachers and administrators “think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not the teacher” (to use Couros’ words) we create the possibility of more meaningful engagement and empowerment. Great teachers do this all the time, and I see in The Innovator’s Mindset a reminder of the importance of this student centered approach a lesson for me as a principal as well.

I’m preparing the opening preservice days for the year now; will I be able to develop opportunities I would appreciate as a teacher? Am I thinking about the “staff meeting” from the point of view of the principal or the teachers and staff?

The answer to that question, and the answer to the greater question of whether we are taking the time to see the world and our collective learning through the eyes of others, can help to define the quality of our school’s culture and the possibilities we afford our students and ourselves.

This empathy also helps us have the patience and embrace the suspension of disbelief that allows others to take risks and try try new things. The best teachers I have ever known (and the best principals too) put great emphasis on creating opportunities for others to stretch themselves and succeed. These stretches mean that there is always the “risk” of failure, but when I have seen gifted teachers working with students, they make it feel not like a risk, but an opportunity.

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This incomplete collection of thoughts is just a first reaction to Couros’ call to action. Other ideas like “School versus Learning,” the importance of being “networked,” and the working “inside the box” are rich enough to anchor posts of their own, and I know will be points of discussion throughout the year.

Can I be an innovative principal? I hope so. Will I help to create an atmosphere for students, staff, and parents that empowers learning, unleashes talent, and fosters a culture of creativity? That’s the kind of school I want to be a part of.

Stagecraft

IMG_3757They’re building a set. In another room the actors are doing a read through, talking about characters, and thinking about what they’ll bring to the production, but here in the scene shop the power saws are buzzing, paint cans are being pried open, and the students are working on designs for a ramp, a pageant stage, and a backdrop versatile enough to be a bedroom in one scene and an office in another. When it’s all put together it has the potential to be fantastic.

There’s an old quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln that I overused years ago and thought of again when I was visiting the theater this July to talk with students in the summer production of Smile. He’s to have said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Quotations are slippery things, particularly those given to Einstein, Lincoln, and Yogi Berra, but this one always struck me as having enough merit to put into a presentation or a post. The preparation we do ahead of a project, whether it’s constructing backdrops, flies, and flats for a theatrical production or getting ready for the start of school, is some of the most vital work we do all year.

IMG_3689July and early August are a time in the principal’s office when a skeleton staff and a freedom from daily emergencies provide the time and space to reflect, dream, and anticipate. These are not unlike the moments of wild creativity when the theater techs review the script, talk with the director, and start coming up with ideas, wild schemes, and grand visions of what might be possible in service to the story.

A good principal should do the same.

This summer, one of transition for me as I moved across state lines to a be the principal of a new school, has proven to be one that puts that Lincoln adage to the test. So as I watched the theater techs discuss possibilities, collaborate to design sets, and improvise in service of their larger vision, I thought about my own work across campus (in an office still filled with boxes) and what I needed to do to build the proverbial set for the school year.

The first best thing I could do was listen. Just as the tech theater students listened to their director and each other, I needed to pay attention to what those around me had to say. From the many conversations with my classified staff, my assistant principal, parents who stopped by, and students I could talk with, I learned more and more about the strengths, needs, and magic of my new school.

The next step was to internalize those ideas, bounce them off trusted sources and reach out for more information. I reached out to teachers and counselors and got a great email back from one teacher with a strikingly honest and heartfelt perspective on the school and more than a few others with offers of help. The passion I saw from these educators about the students they work with and the school where they work was inspiring. Their energy promised a great start to the year.

I took those ideas and began to plan for our first meeting as a staff. With the help of those who were around me, I began building the agenda for our first days together, incorporating the ideas from the staff and the “must dos” of the district plan. I invited students to come speak at our first staff meeting, and tried to think of some ways to make our time together as fun as it was informative.

I jumped at the opportunity to join a team of teachers on a week long AVID Summer Institute, arranged a pizza lunch for any staff members around this summer, and have done my best to keep myself open to hearing everyone. Interviewing for a new counselor gave me a great day of connecting with my counseling team, who joined me and my AP for the process. Person by person, drop in visit by drop in visit I got to meet many of the members of my new school community.

A great message from another teacher reminded me that in my first year on campus listening was important, but articulating who I was mattered as well. As he said in a beautifully eloquent note, “we are all impatient to get to know you better.” Me too. I’ve been sharpening for a long time now, and I’m ready to swing the axe.

Back to those students in the theater…

techs

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful construction literally set the stage for the great things to come.

My work, I hope, paralleled theirs.

And now… the paint on the sets is almost dry, the lights are ready to dim, and the curtain is about to go up. The stage is set; next comes the grand production that is our year ahead.