We didn’t travel far over spring break, just a quick trip to the coast where we could walk the dog under marvelously sunny skies. I got a few projects done, small ones anyway, and when the rain reminded me that I live in Oregon that same dog and I sat on the couch and visited Westeros and Madripoor, stopped in at the Diogenes Club, and spent some time in Montaigne’s study, where the old philosopher inscribed that line from Epictetus into a wooden beam: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”
After a winter filled with “things that happen” it struck me, as I looked out over the Pacific on one of those walks on the sand, sun on the water, a few fishing boats just offshore, that spring really is coming and with it brighter days.
Confining my reflections to my work as a principal, those brighter days include seeing students back on campus later this month. Even in a hybrid model with just some students on site for a few days each week, seeing kids in person is a huge part of why I (and so many of us in education) do the work. I look forward to welcoming them as they arrive to school, seeing them in the hallways, and talking with them at lunch, all those little interactions that have been so absent for so long.
I’m excited too about having my staff back on campus. It’s not a simple or easy joy; some of my staff have situations that complicate their return and may need to take leaves of absence if they can’t return safely or have reliable childcare for their own kids. They will be missed with a deep stab to our collective hearts. And… for those of us in the building, working together to help students I hope for some sense of that collective efficacy that defines our staff. Plus, they’re a really fun bunch to be around, even socially distanced and masked.
I’m looking forward to seeing our artists make art again. They’ve been doing it, of course, for months, painting in garages, doing ceramics on kitchen tables, and printmaking on porches, but to see sculptors back at wheels, dancers in studio, and filmmakers traipsing around campus cameras in hand are things that I’ve been missing for more than a year. Zoom is not enough.
We have a few events planned too, the biggest an outdoor walkthrough Star Wars themed party on May the 4th. There are far, far, far more Star Wars fans at our little school than you might imagine and I’ve already heard talk of costumes, games, and a green screen video set up that some of our filmmakers are going to use to edit together a short that makes it look like scores of us are dancing together.
The pandemic has been a time of sorrow, of loss for many of us, and a punishing grind for students and teachers still trying to do school. As we begin to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, a light that at my school may just be a blue lightsaber, I’m using the renewal I feel after a week away to embrace Montaigne’s perspective that my opinion of the things that happen, something in my control (at least when I’m rested and renewed) can help to erase some of the feelings I’ve allowed to pile up over the past few months.
Stepping out of winter I choose to look at the possibilities that fill my “to do” list and the people I will get to check off items from that list alongside. In my heart I can still feel that breeze from the ocean, cool in March, warming as we move toward June, and I know that spring is coming.
I tell myself that I don’t always limp into spring break, but I think that may be a lie.
The exhaustion of winter clings to March like the winter clouds that haven’t yet given up the fight with spring. I feel it, I hear it in the voices of so many I interact with, young and not so young, and as an educator (now circling the calendar in remote learning) feeling tired, as familiar as it has become, feels different this year. Maybe it’s that I don’t quite believe that I’ll return to start April renewed. Maybe.
But pessimism doesn’t help a thing, and a wise co-worker once reminded me that the attitude I project as a leader has more impact that I know, so instead of focusing on those clouds that are dropping rain on this March day I think it’s wise to suppose that while I may be limping now (emotionally, physically, as a principal, and as a human) by the end of this week away from work I may have found my stride again.
It’s a good story and I’m sticking to it.
And while I don’t have any pithy insight right now (I am limping after all), a story comes to mind from just a few days ago.
I was wearing my ACMA Carnival shirt, the red one with a circus tent above our school’s name, as I checked out at the grocery store early in the morning. I’d stopped there, sleepy eyed, to pick up something unhealthy and sweet before my first Zoom of the day. The cashier spotted my shirt and asked “What’s that?” I looked down. “Oh, a school,” I told her. “Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. It’s a magical place and this is from an event we did a while back, a spring party that…” I saw disappointment in her eyes, even as she seemed to smile behind her mask. “I thought it was from a carnival,” she said conspiratorially. “I haven’t been to something like that since I worked in the circus.”
I was in a hurry. I was tired. There was someone behind me in line. I foolishly did not ask a follow up question. She worked in the circus! I walked out of the store a thousand questions in my head, all left unasked.
And I have been thinking about that interaction for days.
Over the next week I hope to allow my thoughts to step off the mental trapeze they’ve been swinging on for the past few months. I’d like to go for a walk, not cram into a clown car or be shot from a cannon, both of which I feel I’ve experienced some days. And when I step back under the bigtop, playing ringmaster for a few more sunny weeks, I hope to bring with it a sense of joy, engagement, and wonder …something I know some people haven’t felt since they worked in the circus.
Before today the only thing I can ever remember doffing was my cap.
As a reminder that we live in a world of uncertainty and occasional chaos, I looked up from my work preparing for our return to campus in a hybrid model to see my school nurse standing in the doorway of my office and asking me if I was ready to be tested on “donning and doffing PPE.” The answer, of course, needed to be yes.
So I put aside the work that I’d need to hurry back to, ahead of another Zoom in half an hour, a tour of our new campus later in the afternoon, and a pair of Zooms after that, and followed her over to what will be our “Isolation Room” when students return to campus.
Fortunately, I passed my test.
There is much that we don’t know and more decisions to be made than we have answers to right now. Anxiety is high and stress higher. The questions coming in about hybrid learning from all quarters, on top of planning and preparing for next year, and for our school organizing a move from one campus to another this summer, can feel overwhelming at times, and they are all as relevant, important, and necessary as they are overwhelming.
So we marshal on.
The challenge, it seems, is keeping our collective heads as we face a daunting pile of work, a long list of difficult questions, and an ocean of uncertainty. We can’t solve every problem today, but if we breathe, work together, and believe we can find the best way forward we can at least address the problem nearest at hand. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next.
And like the clickety-clack of a train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next we may just move forward. I think we will.
Yes, we will be interrupted to don and doff this and that. We will be thrown unexpected surprises. The track will not be straight and may feel like more than one person is tied down on it by a person in a black cape twisting his mustache. …and we can handle this. Not without frustration, but we can handle this.
A long time back I was asked during a job interview what the hardest part of being a principal was. “Disappointing people I respect,” was the answer I gave. Sometimes the options we have are limited, sometimes the decisions that need to be made aren’t popular (or even “right” from a particular point of view), and sometimes what I have to communicate is going to let people down. The truth does on occasion. But just because we are disappointed doesn’t mean we don’t stay on that train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next and move in the direction of what’s best.
Are we ready to be tested on donning and doffing PPE (or whatever is next on that list of challenges)? The answer, of course, is yes.
I have a painting of a dead rat. It’s vivid and vigorous, well, as vigorous as a dead rat can be, painted in oil (blue, black, and of course red). The artist, a charming and wildly creative student who graduated a couple of years back, gave it to me after I noticed the painting at a big student art show. She went off to study forensic pathology and left me with a two panel painting that I like far more than one ought to like a painting of a deceased vermin …and I have no idea what to do with it.
You probably saw that dilemma coming. What does one do with six feet of oil painted dead rat?
Technically and emotionally the painting is strong and hits me the way some art just does, visceral, raw. And…
My wife is not going to say to me: “That dead rat diptych would look great above the fireplace.”
If I hung it in my office at work I could see the subject matter raising eyebrows, and while I’m not opposed to raising eyebrows, it seems to me that the principal’s office ought to at least strive for some sense of calm; the meetings that fill the room are sometimes dramatic enough without having stressed out people look up to see the reclining corpse of an artistic rodent.
I thought about hanging it in the science wing of our new campus. They dissect rats and such, but then I remembered the living rats we keep in our middle school science labs and it feels ghoulish to put this reminder of their mortality so close to those furry young lives.
Whither the dead rat painting?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I welcome suggestions. I really do want to figure out a place to display this awesome oddity and I have until June before we move into the new building, which means less than half a year to find the right home.
Main office? Maybe not. Teacher lunch room? Just kidding. There’s an answer, I believe that, but what it is… maybe that’s an answer for a future post.
“A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends … what teachers really teach is themselves—their contagious passion for their subjects and students … children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.” -David Brooks, New York Times columnist and college professor.
There’s a lot in this quotation from David Brooks, and while I remember hearing conversation about the oft repeated line “children learn from people they love” it was the first sentence that stuck with me when I reread the lines quoted in a book I was enjoying this winter. “A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends.”
I kept thinking, is that true?
I think so. It sounds right. I know that when I was an English teacher I did my best to teach from the heart, connect with students, and inspire something like that “lighting of a fire, not filling of a pail” line that gets quoted more than a little in education. But is it true?
Confessedly sentimental and likely to embrace an idea like this one, I decided to ask some people I trust. I shared the line with a few current or former teachers, students, and parents whose points of view I really respect. Here’s what a few of them had to say.
“Students learn and get to experience so much beyond just their courses. I think when people reflect back on school, they’re not reciting the standards that we need to cover but the little sparks that make school a place to love. Whether it’s finding a new passion from a friend or teacher in a class, little tangents from teachers that give you a peek into a little more, or learning about a career or interest that you didn’t even know existed. I think it’s a part that’s missing a lot from CDL right now. Some students really make an effort to be present and make their voices heard, but I think we’re all a little worse off when most students are not able to engage in that way. Hopefully once we’re all back in person we’ll see those little sparks come about more.”
“I believe that it is important to give kids new opportunities to find passions. Whether that be through clubs or classes, new outlets for a creative process (in whatever form that may be) can be really great for students.”
“I do believe that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love. I think that’s something that ACMA does really well, a lot of students might audition for one pathway but through other elective classes find a new passion and that’s amazing. For me personally, I never would have found my love for subjects like Art History or found out about poets and writers whose work we read in class that left me mesmerized. I’ve also found myself enjoying and putting more work into the classes that I truly love and classes where teachers share what they love and introduce us to new things.”
These first three perspectives, from people who I’ve seen (over Zoom) in the past week, really resonated with me. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. The next reply I got, from a friend who I’d worked with before returning to Oregon, balanced his passion for teaching with the weight of learning he’d done on his way to a doctorate.
“While the Pollyana in me smiles gleefully at Brooks’ statement (and desperately wants to believe it, by the way) I doubt he has spent much time in our public schools as of late, especially those in our urban cities. In Postmodern Social Analysis and Criticism, John W. Murphy argues that “the purpose of institutions in the modern world, like schools, is to remove passion from humans. The rationale of this goal is actually straightforward— nothing is more unpredictable and inefficient than passion.” As the model currently exists, students are being taught in subjects that are often devoid of their personal lives—in fact, their teachers rarely ask for their input with respect to pedagogical decisions. Therefore, many students seldom demonstrate a passion for the subject matter, and this is done by design. Rather than acting as centers for passionate learning, to quote Murphy again, “schools have become the key means for creating a docile workforce.” So I guess, to Brooks’ statement– it depends who you ask.
“But then there are teachers like Rod Keillor, Barb Swovelin, Skip Nicholson (this list could go on for infinity) who truly stoke the fire of passion, who truly provide students with new things to love– and daily!. But how many teachers do we know who still have that passion and that fire, honestly? How many had it to begin with? Can a teacher be taught, you know, to “carry the fire” (little McCarthy allusion there) and share it with others, to ensure it burns forever?”
And he’s not wrong. My question, so innocent it seemed in retrospect, looked to have more complicated answers than a standardized multiple choice test.
And my friend’s thoughtful answer, coupled with those from the first three I’d received, got me thinking about the schools where I’ve worked and how different some of them are than other schools across the country. I thought too of the pressures that teachers face, not only during times of pandemic and distance learning, but all the time. “Stoking the fire of passion” is a tall order in the best of times and best of circumstances, and…
The final answer I got to my question, at least the last one before I sat down to write this post, came from a teacher and ASB advisor whose passion and purpose inspire me still. He started with a reference to a very, very, very silly thing I did with my admin team several years ago.
We wanted to make an ad for an upcoming fundraising event and decided we’d recreate scenes from The Breakfast Club. One of our merry band filmed it (and even gave us each a photo of us as the cast) and I can say without hesitation that making the short was one of the highlights of my life as a principal. You see in addition to the fun of playing with friends (those other educators who were as inspiring to me as they were to the students they worked with), we had a very surprised teenage audience: there were classes in the library when we danced on the tables and acted the parts of these 80s icons. Students watched us run through the breezeways of the school laughing. It was, for me anyway, a case of my job giving me something new to love.
My friend replied: “Today I was showing the “Breakfast Club” photo that is hanging in my office to some ASB students that met with me after school. I was naming all the actors in it – and my ASB president said “Mr Paige is the reason why my parents wanted me to go SDA!” Her brother was at SDA while you were here and her parents loved you! By the way- this student just wrote a book about her experience in ASB called “Leadership is a Lifestyle” (Amazon). She gave me a copy of it today. Maybe your question was well-timed with her book.
“As a teacher, the only thing that I have going for me is enthusiasm, a mission, and a love and passion for students. I try to inspire them to think about what life is really about – caring, valuing, building up, and appreciating those that we come in contact with. We need to spend time with our students -intentionally building trust and a connection that will inspire them to follow you. Once that is done – it is so much easier to take them where you want to lead them. Then maybe one day one of your students will write a book about her passion for Leadership and how it is a Lifestyle!”
I loved that these perspectives are so different and still share so much. What are the key jobs of education? There are more than I can say, some recognized now as we muddle through this pandemic and the subsequent distance learning more than they were when it was easier to take for granted that kids went to school and sometimes magic happened.
What happens on different campuses differs greatly, and this little post feels its limits as it includes only a few thoughts from a few places, those places not always the most conventional of schools.
My own takeaway, after mulling over Brooks’ quotation and the insight offered by friends, is that it’s okay to be aspirational in our work in education. Maybe it’s the only way to stay sane (or sane-ish) and continue to strive to make a difference.
And I’d add one more bit to that first sentence. So much of learning is self-reflection and the ability to understand who we are. School, on its best days, can help with that too. So I’d echo Brooks and add: A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends” …and something else to love, themselves.
A huge thanks to everyone who helped me with this post: Diya, Burton, Bobby, Alexis, and Rod.