School Cultures …with an “s”

My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.

My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.

IMG_7015I grew up hearing their stories.

My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.

My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”

My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.

A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.

All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.

I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.

As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.

I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”

We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.

…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.

All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.

They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.

If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?

That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?

For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.

I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.

She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”

I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.

“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”

I will.

Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.

This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.

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August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.