They’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.
July 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…
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.