For the first time in months I saw most of my students on campus yesterday. Well, saw them drive through campus, peeking at me from over masks as we passed out textbooks, ACMA t-shirts, and hundreds of pounds of clay. As an art school the drawing and painting materials, sculpture tools, instruments and sheet music occupied as much of the day as calculus, biology, or French textbooks, and sometimes inspired a slightly different reaction from the students as we reached over the (overly cute) dogs and gave them the stack as they sat in the back seat.
It was so good to see so many students and parents, and even though it was really only seeing their eyes and the top of their noses, it was enough to remind all of us just how important a part of our lives the people are who make up our little art school, our ACMA family.
For hours an intrepid group of classified staff and a handful of teachers, counselors, and I dashed from cars to tables to pick up supplies, did our best to solve problems, and reveled in the opportunity to make brief, but meaningful connections.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I ended the day tired. A good tired.
This distance learning model, as safe and sensible as it is —and right now I know it’s the right choice— still feels so strange. I love talking with students and staff. I miss full hallways and impromptu conversations. Being able to visit classrooms is a highlight for me every day, at least it was when I could slip in through an open door and sit down next to a student studying Spanish, or dissecting a pig, or painting a still life.
How much I missed that was brought home yesterday as I saw face after face (well, mask after mask) drive by. I could see the smiles in those eyes, and I hope they could see the smile in mine.
And while my legs are sore and I can feel it in my back, I can honestly say that yesterday was more than just me and our school team distributing supplies; it was all of us getting something precious back in return, connection, hope, and a touch of joy.
Goblins, orcs, and ogres… while I’m not so jaded as a high school principal to suggest that this is the clientele that fills our school hallways, I’m dorky enough to make the pitch that if I can handle a hoard of kobolds or bugbears, I can handle a hoard of teenagers. (A variation on that “classic” maxim, I suppose: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”) Hear me out.
This summer I had the opportunity to step in on a panel for a friend who was teaching a college class for aspiring administrators. It was a lot of fun and I was humbled by the depth of wisdom from the others on the panel. They were so thoughtful about such a range of topics, and I thought to myself: the lessons we learn and can pass on really can make a difference.
And while I have had my own fair share of formative experiences as a principal (and before that as an assistant principal) I’m also inspired by sources decidedly not academic. I’ve written before about how poetry, Star Wars, Star Trek, and even nautical fiction have inspired my work as a principal, and last spring I added another nontraditional source to that list: Dungeons & Dragons.
I posted about DMing for my kids not long after the pandemic started, and while I was far from a polished Dungeon Master (far, far, far from it), the experience was really fun and left me with a taste to do it again.
Now I’m a reader and the kind of person who likes to learn, so ahead of jumping back into the Dungeon Master’s chair I picked up a couple of books and took to YouTube to see what I could do better. It was a delightful exercise in seeing a whole new world I didn’t know anything about (my only other experience with D&D was playing a handful of games when I was in middle school back in the early ‘80s). My favorite surprise find, hands down, was Web DM.
With lots of wit, laughter, and easy Texas charm, Jonathan Pruitt and Jim Davis cover just about everything a fellow like me, who came late to D&D, needs to know. For anyone who hasn’t seen Web DM, it’s just two fellows sitting at a table surrounded by dice, miniatures, and the trappings of epic fantasy roleplaying. They introduce a topic, provide specific examples, and banter back and forth for about half an hour. I love that they’re engaging and knowledgeable, but also never judgemental about different ways of doing things. They have opinions, sure, but they’re not mean and always leave room for other points of view. They invite viewers to think, and one episode in particular had me thinking about the similarities between being a principal and being a DM.
Because as nutty as it might seem, Web DM’s description of different kinds of Dungeon Masters could serve as a great reminder of some of the important things about leading a school and a cautionary tale to anyone reflecting on his or her own practice as a school administrator.
The episode starts with a meaningful reminder: “The Dungeon Master is another player at the table. They have different tools, they have different pieces that they use, but … they’re not like this special figure…” So too, I would offer, the principal is one of a staff of adults working together to help kids, and as Jim Davis says of a DM, “they need to be empowered to make decisions, they need to be empowered to make rulings, the rules need to support the Dungeon Master in running the game, but it’s not like we’re sitting down to be ruled by the iron fist of tyranny.”
“What we’re talking about today,” Davis explains, “is really Dungeon Master styles, and a mismatch between Dungeon Master styles and player styles that create problems.” As they describe it, the different styles aren’t bad in and of themselves, but can seem so if mismatched with the players at the table. It’s not unlike a school, where it works best when the culture of a site and the personality of a principal are really in sync. To help this happen, principals, like DMs, should know their type.
And what are those types of Dungeon Masters? Well…
The Optimiser, always challenging those around him, planning, preparing, and showing no mercy. The result of this style, Jim Davis explains, can be a “well oiled machine” …by necessity. This competitive environment works for those who want a high pressure experience and the sense of accomplishment that comes from “winning” a difficult battle. Optimization, however, comes at a price. You can see this in schools, where it’s easy to understand that sometimes the motivation for “optimizing” comes externally, but the results can be as unsustainable as they would be when the players and DM don’t all agree that this style is the way they want to be playing.
Adversarial DMing is a way of describing a Dungeon Master who is interested in having power and control. While this might work for the DM, it can lead to players feeling animosity, fear, and maybe that they shouldn’t continue. Davis suggests that sometimes players second guess themselves when they’re in situations with adversarial DMs and wonder if they’re not having fun or succeeding because of “something I did.” Does this happen on a school staff? If you don’t know the answer, site administrators, go ask your staff.
The Rules as Written DM scolds players for not knowing the ins and outs of the Player’s Handbook, looks up every rule, or hesitates to make a decision on the fly in fear of doing something wrong. “Unless you have a table full of rule lawyers” Davis tells the audience, this style of play can be difficult. As in D&D, rules, protocols, and expectations help provide an armature on which education can be fashioned into a viable sculpture, and like D&D when those rules are placed above the humanity of the enterprise the results can be frustrating, disheartening, and lead to lamentable results.
Jim Davis makes the point, however, that Adversarial DMs and Rules as Written DMs should be seen as existing as a “matter of degree.” Sometimes, he explains, it’s appropriate to say honestly: “My f***ing dragon is trying to kill you. I hope he doesn’t. I like your characters.” (A note here: Web DM is peppered with occasional F-bombs; truth be told, behind closed doors, so too is school administration.) Rules aren’t bad, and a lack of structure can be. The dance that DMs and principals must master, or continue to attempt to master, is balancing between the two.
My Precious House Rules DM is the person who “hands over a 37 page living document” describing how things are done at this particular gaming table. Not unlike some schools, where specific traditions, agreed upon culture, and unique ways of doing business are a part of what makes things work, “homebrew” D&D, if agreed on by the party, can lead to special and marvelous results. As Davis says of such gaming groups, “more power to them, they are playing the game in a time honored way.” …if everyone agrees. Homebrew for a player who is a traditional rule follower, however, might not be the right fit.
That made me think of a friend of mine who is an AP History teacher at a high octane academic school in Southern California. His students routinely excel on the AP exams and he loves the pressure and rewards of working in a system that demands much and expects results. He delivers them, and he told me once that he couldn’t imagine teaching at my school (where tie-dye could be the official school color). It just wouldn’t be a good fit, he explained. As much as I respect him as a teacher, and that is a lot, I think he’s right. He’s comfortable with the educational version of an Optimizer DM and would feel out of step with my decidedly homebrew world.
But even house rules happen on a continuum.
Hater DMs, subscribe to the “not in my game” aesthetic. Davis gives an example from a game when he DMed in this way …for a specific purpose, but as Pruitt interjects: “maybe it’s okay to have personal preference, but you don’t have to impose it on someone else.” Good advice beyond D&D. For me that’s spelling bees.
“There is a point,” Jim Davis says, “between too permissive and too restrictive that works for your gaming group. And that means that there is a compromise between everyone who is at that table, not just what one person wants and then everyone else has to deal with it.”
The Quiet DM v. The TMI DM. Davis and Pruitt use the example of under and over description to describe these two kinds of Dungeon Masters, admitting times they’ve each fallen into these behaviors. Describing the DM as “the players’ eyes and ears” and explaining the importance of fulfilling this role, they discuss how easy it is to struggle with the discrepancy between what the DM knows and understands (Dungeon Masters have the whole picture of the adventure) and the players know (who are experiencing the adventure a step at a time) and the challenge of the “slow releasing of information that takes place between the interaction of the game.” Quiet, TMI …as a principal, I have been both. Maybe both this week.
“One last thing,” Davis adds toward the end of the video that is as applicable to the gaming table as it is to the schoolhouse as it is to any environment in which we find ourselves, “if you have a DM who does not respect your boundaries that is a huge f***ing red flag. If they do not respect your boundaries when you are playing together, then they are not going to respect your boundaries outside of the play, they are not going to respect your boundaries in any other aspect.” This step back from listing styles of DMing and addressing the fundamental issue of respect and humanity is a reminder that the world we live in is fraught with opportunities both good and bad. His advice on gaming applies to more than the gaming table, and it resonated with me as a part of a staff when he said: “You want to play with people who you trust and you want to play with people who are going to treat you with respect.”
Pruitt brings the conversation to a close with a couple of questions that (if this connection between being a Dungeon Master and a principal is to be believed) would be the cornerstone to a meaningful discussion in that fictitious college class for aspiring administrators: “How do you not do all the things that we’ve talked about?” and “What are some ways to better align DM and player expectations?”
Because it’s that alignment of everyone in the group, gaming group or group of educators, that is at the heart of a successful, fun, and productive experience.
The last few minutes of the episode, addressing the importance of communication, honesty, and “knowing yourself” are heartfelt and wise. So too is the advice about asking for feedback, adjusting to those responses, and how to set clear expectations early in the process. “If you care about [your players] as human beings,” Davis says, “then you can avoid a lot of these problem behaviors.”
Caring about others as people. What would happen if every educator started from here?
“Be kind,” he concludes, “and be respectful, and a lot of these problems will go away. Not all of them, so it’s good to know what you can do.”
The whole show is a fantastic 37 minutes of wisdom for DMs and principals, maybe not honestly something that will make it on a college syllabus, but more insightful than some scholarly articles that will.
…a side note, and if anyone is still reading this (thank you) then maybe you’ll indulge me a paragraph or three that I’d include if sharing this with RPG minded aspiring administrators… (What does the Venn diagram of D&D fans and school administrators look like?) Another episode of Web DM that resonated with me as a principal took on the important topic of sexism, as real in the world of high school administration as it is in Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve known and worked with some amazing women in high school administration, but the reality on the ground is that when I look around at a meeting of principals my status as a white male has put me in the majority in every district where I have worked. So too, it seems, much D&D.
In 17 minutes or so, she holds up and knocks down stereotypes. Looking at her fellow Web DMers, for instance, she speaks truth while poking fun with lines like: “A munchkin stereotype or even a neckbeard stereotype… in some ways their problem is that they care about the game too much.” The fellows nod. “That’s not necessarily seen as an option for women.”
They make the point that from its earliest editions D&D has had inclusive language, but that has not always been the practice at the table (or, perhaps the schoolhouse).
There were more parallels, from assumptions of motivation to how different genders are discussed in the system. “There has always been a very inclusive side to this culture,” Lambert explains, “and there’s always been a very exclusive side, and you’re always going to run into it.”
D&D, she means, not education, but…
The world of school administration can learn from lots of sources inside education and beyond. Web DM has made me a more thoughtful principal. And someday, who knows, maybe I’ll get to DM for a group of educators. Wouldn’t that be amazing. No promises that it would be as inspiring as that panel I got to serve on, and even after watching my share of Pruitt and Jim Davis I’m certainly no polished DM, but it sure could be fun.
I’m a dad as well as a principal, with the perspective of both during this time of pandemic and comprehensive distance learning. When other parents share their concerns about their kids’ social isolation, depression, and loneliness I get it, and I share that parental anxiety about how all this is impacting the young people I love.
Last spring was hard, a complete shift to online learning without much time to process or prepare. We all did our best to learn how to support our students, but without grades, or attendance, or a fully developed system in place, very often it felt more like crisis management than online learning.
Summer was tough too. So many of the usual activities we enjoy were off limits, smiles were hidden behind masks, and so much of the joy of summer, like spending time with friends, was limited by the reality in which we live. The kids felt it at least as much as the adults, maybe more, and while I saw more than a few packs of middle schoolers on bikes in July and August, the truth is that the most socializing I saw this summer happened in the world of Minecraft.
And now fall. This week we’re diving into classes, albeit 100% remotely, and once again parents and kids are gathered around kitchen tables, on couches, and corners of bedrooms where they are least likely to be interrupted by whatever else is happening at home, attempting to “do school” in some way or another. That’s stressful.
But as separate as we all are, parents and educators share the goal of helping our students succeed. There are lots of ways we do that, and one idea I shared from a teacher a couple of weeks ago that seemed to resonate with a few parents, was to take the pressure of teaching off the parents and encourage them to see themselves in a role of facilitation and support.
Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
Make the most of free time
Verify completion of assignments
Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher
These are worth unpacking, and to start that conversation I offer a few modest thoughts.
Many of us have seen our work/home balance blur during these months at home. Too often since last March I’ve looked up from my work computer, often sitting at a TV tray out of the way of my family, and been surprised that it’s already dark outside. Unlike before, there is less delineation between being at home and being at work, and I know (from experience with my own kids) that isn’t different for our students. While comprehensive distance learning will have asynchronous elements, helping our kids step away from the computer will be vital to their mental health and success. Whether it’s making sure they unplug from 11-12 every day, the time our district has set aside for a lunch and stretch break, or monitoring to be sure that they don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole of never being done with schoolwork, it is a challenge worth meeting to help our kids see that some time has to be down time.
Complicating that balance will be the fact that for most of us, teachers and students and families, this is our first foray into full online learning, grades and attendance included. We didn’t sign up for this; if we had, we’d know it was for us and we’d already have an understanding of how to navigate these waters.
Teachers will be learning as we go, answering questions like: how much work is appropriate? How do students best get answers to questions? How can I support the kids, assess the kids learning, and reach them when I only see them through a computer screen? Students, who so often are so earnest in their desire to do well, will be learning too. It’s already tough to know how much time an assignment should take to complete, but now… Open communication, clear expectations, patience, and grace will all need to be on display now more than ever.
For parents “establishing an appropriate balance between work and free time” could involve some argument, anxiety, and tears. Any parent who has tried to get her son to unplug from Fortnite knows what that’s like. But knowing our kids and helping them understand when a walk is more important than another half hour typing an essay about poetry is going to make a big difference this school year.
A schedule might help this. It’s always easier to point to something agreed on and in writing when stress is filling the air. When I was an assistant principal one of the best things my school did was install signs around campus stating obvious things like “No Dogs” or “No Smoking on School Property.” It was always easier to confront a community member who was breaking one of these rules if we could literally point at a sign. This could also help reinforce that “free time” is as valuable in the greater scheme of things as “work.”
Even when we get that balance right, when we’re on, we’re on, and the students who succeed most have the ability to focus on the matter at hand, particularly when they’re Zooming with it. Learning from home brings different challenges than learning in a classroom. Whether it’s trying to type with a dog on your lap or interruptions to online meetings from siblings, cats, or Amazon deliveries, finding a way to overcome the distractions is a job that parents can certainly help their kids with.
There is lots of good advice about how to create a learning space for kids, but the truth of it is that not everyone has a table, desk, or quiet space for kids. It’s not fair, but it is. As a school we’re trying to help; we offered a greenscreen (well a big green sheet of paper) to each of our kids, so they could have a bit more privacy when they did video conferencing, and as parents we can support our kids if we help them in whatever way we’re able to have the privacy they need for school.
That privacy, however, is complemented by an extra pair of eyes checking to see that things get done. My experience has been that this is best accomplished when a parent or guardian sits down with a student and asks her to show them what they did for school. There is a big difference between a parent checking a student’s grades or that they did the assignment that the teacher gave them and a student showing that same adult what she did and learned. The second can empower a student; the first can sow seeds of distrust.
So I would offer that a conversation between a parent (or grandparent or aunt or caring adult person) and student can be one of the best ways we can support learning. In that conversation you can learn what’s happening, how the student is feeling, and talk about what kinds of questions it might be smart to ask in class or in an email to the teacher. These follow up questions not only show that a student is invested, but can help build a strong foundation of skills on which to build future learning.
It’s that learning that is the primary job of all of us, students, teachers, and families. We can do this, to the best of our ability, if we do this together. Will it be perfect? No, but it can be positive. And when we return, which we will, the habits of supporting one another may help us even as we readjust to life after the pandemic.
Stay positive, stay strong, stay connected. We’re partners in this.
It’s the best word I’ve heard invented to describe what a lot of us are feeling. Frus-xcited. So mixed, some of these emotions. There’s the usual anticipation of the beginning of the school year, the joy of seeing teachers I haven’t seen since last spring, reconnecting with students who have grown like nobody’s business over the summer, and settling in to the wild rumpus that is the start of school. This year that “seeing and reconnecting” is being done through a computer screen, or in rare face(mask) to face(mask) events like the drive through materials pick up or outdoor school photo day. Those connections are certainly better than nothing, but still. We’re all yearning to be together, but know that we can’t be, not in the same way anyway, and that leaves some of us feeling a little off balance, disconnected, anxious.
I think both sets of feelings are valid, and the reality is that they both coexist in many of us right now. Frus-xcited. Yep. That’s the new normal.
What we do with those emotions is our choice. If we reach out to others, allow ourselves to look forward to some of the possibilities that lie ahead, and take the time to think about how we can help those around us feel better, then maybe, just maybe, the emphasis can be on the second syllable of our newly imagined word.
Because the start of the school year, no matter how it starts, is a chance for a new beginning. It brings with it opportunities to meet new people, learn new things, and change in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year before.
The start of a school year is a chance to shout: “Happy New Year!” and be met with smiles from the educators and students who know the truth: this is a new year. This is the start of a winding path that we get to travel together, maybe through some sinister woods, perhaps meeting a dragon or two along the way, but ultimately ending in something that we’ll look back on in the years ahead as a grand adventure.
JRR Tolkien’s words from The Lord of the Rings, an epic from an earlier time, resonate with me today: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”
So to anyone feeling frus-xcited, welcome to the 2020-2021 school year. Allow yourself to feel, give yourself permission to speak honestly, and know you are not alone. We can do this, whatever this is, if we do this together.
The five am wakeup felt familiar. The day teachers come back to campus after summer vacation is (for me as a principal) my first day of school. I still get butterflies, and probably always will, before the year begins. That’s normal, I suppose; I want so much to get things off to a good start.
But this year the teachers didn’t come back to campus proper. My early trip to my office, pausing for a predawn selfie, was followed not by my usual pancake breakfast for the staff and gathering in the library, but by a Zoom meeting where teacher faces looked back at me from kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and makeshift offices from Portland to Forest Grove.
More than a few cats and kids joined us for the morning, and the playful banter in the chat was a nice reminder that even though we were discussing what is an unusual (and unusually stressful) start of the school year, we’re all friends here and ready to support one another.
That caring and support was a highlight of the morning. People were real when they talked about what made them anxious, what was keeping them up at night, and what they were feeling about the year ahead, and when someone suggested the importance of each of us helping each other (with new technology, planning for distance learning, and how best to connect with kids) the avalanche of volunteers who put their cell phone numbers into the chat to make it easy to connect was profound.
We’ll be okay, better than okay really, because we honestly care for each other and are there to help everyone succeed. And when we don’t succeed I’m convinced we’ll be there to help each other pick up the pieces.
It was this spirit of professional generosity that moved me most on this “first day of school” and reminded me of the very special school community that I’m so fortunate to be a part of.
I never take that for granted, but after a couple of months away from campus to see my staff together, even in boxes on a screen, felt really, really good.
It was a perfect follow up to the email I received from an incoming student the night before:
I am so excited for this year at ACMA! Obviously this is not how I imagined my first day of 6th grade going but we all are making the best of this situation. I worked so hard to get into this school and am looking forward to my experience. I have heard nothing but positives about ACMA and I can’t imagine not being there. I have wanted to go to this school for as long as I could remember. I am so excited to meet you and the teachers and excited to work with all of you. Can’t wait to start ACMA in two weeks!”
I’m looking forward to the year ahead too, and to all the people —staff, students, and families— I get to spend time with. We may not be in the same building, at least not for a little while, but we’re still here for each other.
Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.
Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.
“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.
“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.
“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”
Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)
He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle. You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.
“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:
Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
Make the most of free time
Verify completion of assignments
Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher
“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”
So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.
All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.