The Hardest Job in Education

Once at the retirement party of long tenured principal, the guest of honor stood up to tell tales of his career and announced without hesitation that the hardest job in education was being a high school assistant principal.

Unforgiving in pace, relentless in stress, and punctuated by emergencies, the job of “AP” means coming to work each day knowing only that a surprise (or six or ten) is waiting for the right moment to make things interesting.

Assistant principals are on the front lines of lives in crisis. It is to them that teachers turn when student behavior becomes too much in class, to them parents go when the indiscretions of youth cross legal lines, and to them the school community looks when emergencies arise. Principals are useful too, but it is in the APs that the strength of the school is made manifest.

For this effort, this patience, and this good work assistant principals are rewarded with expletives shouted at them through telephones, angry emails cc’d to supervisors, and face to face conversations replete with tears, accusations, and sometimes threats.

Sometimes.

…and on other occasions there are parents and students, counselors and teachers, police officers and paramedics who say “thank you.” And they mean it.

They mean it because assistant principals change lives for the better. It is through their important work that students get the help they need. Sometimes disguised as punishment, the consequences that APs use to hold students to meaningful standards help shape behavior, inform choices, and teach students life lessons better learned in high school than when jobs, marriages, and college careers are on the line.

In addition, APs are there when things are at their worst. They keep their cool when injuries or the threat of harm come to kids. They provide strength when parents simply do not know what to do. They provide professionalism tinged with love when the worst of the world haunts the youth they are charged with protecting. It is not an understatement to say that assistant principals save lives.

The best APs, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great ones, build relationships with students and families, support kids and address behaviors, and show through their actions that they care deeply about the lives of their students.

To be an assistant principal is not to revel in glories every day, but to do the hard and important work day in and day out, and receive in occasional and heartfelt outbursts exclamations of appreciation so real as to bruise one’s soul.

APs are scapegoats, villains, workhorses, counselors, confidants, detectives, and heroes. They do what they do with tenacity and deep caring, professionalism and purpose, and even if confidentiality and discretion mean that they do some of their best work in the shadows, from a person who knows the difficulty of that work, my appreciation is real and by them well deserved.

To my APs I offer a sincere “thank you.” You do the hardest job in education and the difference you make is profound.

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Glowing

While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.”
-Sigurd F. Olson

photo 2 (1)I grew up on an untamed acre of land, a stack of Hardy Boys books on my shelf, and parents who encouraged in me everything from baseball to rock hunting. With trees to climb, snakes to catch, and capes to wear, the world was an interesting place, a place to be experienced with muddy sneakers and grass stained jeans.

Adolescence brought me indoors, school organized sports, and a shift of priorities gradually changed those free days of childhood into something more …civilized.

By college books overwhelmed my time, my curiosity turned toward philosophy not filling mason jars with bugs, toward books not baseball cards. I suppose I grew up.

Today it feels like the world is in a rush to leave childhood behind. As a high school principal I see students already pushing themselves academically in ways that would astound my college self. They study hard, learn much, and often push aside the simple joys of youth that compete with a full slate of AP classes and the building of college resumes.

As a middle school principal I saw cell phones help catapult young teenagers away from childhood. By the time students reach high school many have acquired an adult(like) sensibility that would have felt out of place even twenty years ago. But…

Those “inherent joys” of childhood, that sense of wonder and spirit of play, isn’t gone so much as drowned out by the bustle of the world.

As educators, part of our our role is to help students navigate the path to adulthood, a winding road that leads through dense jungles, over wild waters, and along the edges of chasms that give pause to those of us over thirty. Another part of our job is to fan that “latent glow” that Sigurd Olson describes, the rich luminescence of curiosity, wonder, and adventure, back into flame.

Schools are at their best when nurturing curiosity and promoting wonder. It’s in those moments when students are inspired to move beyond comprehension and into the realm of application and engagement that education becomes transformative.

I see this work every week as I travel from classroom to classroom. It’s in the theater, where students write their own one act plays, direct each other, and create meaningful art. It’s in the science lab, where young leaders in healthcare learn how to do bone repair from doctors at Scripps Hospital. It’s in the auto shop where sparks fly as students build a go cart, facing the challenges of metal and motors with a determination that is inspiring.

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In each of these cases it is a gifted teacher standing just offstage who creates the opportunity for students to be their best. These are adults who know the value of fanning that latent glow of curiosity. As we see more and more of this we see the infinite possibilities contained in our students.

As a principal at a high school I see students who have left much of youth behind them, but within whom that “wonder” that Olson describes is simply waiting to be rediscovered. I applaud teachers everywhere who make it their mission to inspire students, and I applaud students everywhere who are willing to engage in their own learning. The result of these efforts, and hard work they are, is a school filled with passion and purpose, a school that glows.

San Dieguito’s Student Forum

Given the chance to talk and listen students become adults.

One of my very favorite parts of San Dieguito is our monthly student forum. Unfettered from adults or official ASB guidance, students at SDA gather together in the art studio, a space large enough to hold multitudes, to talk about the topics on their minds.

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Sometimes the ideas are big ones: How do we help integrate all grade levels for a more cohesive school? Other times the topics are profoundly practical: We need more toilet paper in the girls’ bathrooms! From time to time my role as principal puts me in the hot seat: We need more student parking. We do. Often the kindness of the students astounds me, as when a student addressing our visiting superintendent compared me to Beyoncé. Huh? …and thanks!

Mostly, the forum is an opportunity for students to have a voice in the life of their school.

IMG_6162Without shouting or having to mount a podium and fiddle with a microphone, every student, not just elected officials, has equal access to all her fellow students. The audience listens, really listens, students write down what is being said, and the audience responds respectfully. It is an exercise in democratic free speech that is inspirational.

Traditionally, two student moderators lead the forum, standing in front of a group well fed with pizzas provided by ASB. A blank document is projected on a screen at one end of the room, a place for notes, a list of topics suggested by the students, and announcements. It’s a document that will be shared with the staff as soon as the forum is over.

Not that staff isn’t there… Every forum all four of our administrators, many teachers, counselors, and classified staff join students at the forum to listen, answer questions, and hear about San Dieguito from a student point of view.

IMG_4364This point of view, or perhaps better said these points of view, are spoken, not shouted. Students are passionate about what they are saying, but the norms of the forum, built over years, are expectations of respect, kindness, and patience. Freshmen speak, seniors too, and students and staff listen to what they have to say.

The results can be immediate (more toilet paper), take a little longer (parking solutions), be subtle or transformative. Regardless of what comes out of a student forum, however, it is the existence of such a tradition that makes the biggest difference.

Any school is a better place when students are heard. Strong student newspapers are one way of sharing student perspectives, vibrant student governments are another, and here at San Dieguito it’s amazing to know that there is a place for every student to share her point of view. Our school is richer because if it!

Jackals and Spies

I was in high school the first time I read Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, a rollicking adventure about a shadowy hit man’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Fast paced, groovy, and allegedly adult, the 1971 novel ticked all the boxes those tomes I was reading in Mr. Shinkle’s English class did not. This was no Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome couldn’t put together a sniper rifle. 1960s Paris looked and felt nothing like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge.

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1I was a solid student; no one would have described me as a reluctant reader; give me Turgenev and I would read Turgenev, but the truth of the matter was that ever since I’d left The Hardy Boys behind somewhere before my twelfth birthday, the books I read tended to be for class. The Day of the Jackal changed that, at least a bit, and I realized that reading could be fun again.

Two decades later, when I found myself teaching a reading intervention class, I remembered that hit man, and the value of giving students choice in what they read really sank in. Mine were not students for whom Melville held any cachet. Heck, Jack London bored most of them and he wrote The Sea Wolf! When they had the opportunity to select books that they wanted to read, however, they were more willing to put in the time to actually read them.

It was a lesson I brought to my other English classes, where we still read books together (no one should be forced to go upriver in Conrad’s Congo alone) and I built opportunities for student choice.

In a twelfth grade world literature class, where we traveled around the globe continent by continent, students could choose any book length text from a bank of authors given to them at the start of a unit. As we were reading poetry and short fiction from Africa together in class, for instance, the list of possible authors for their out of class reading might include Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.

At the end of the unit students wrote about their own author and book, making connections to what we’d read in class, and then, as a culminating activity, they gathered in book groups based on what they’d read. At one table a group of students who had each read a different book by Haruki Murakami might discuss commonalities they saw in his various works. To hear students have expert discussions juxtaposing Sputnik Sweetheart and The Windup Bird Chronicle was energizing, and just as rich (if not more) than our shared conversations on Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain.

As adults, those of us who read most often chart our own literary course. That high schooler I was, quietly enjoying The Day of the Jackal, graduated and moved on to other adventures. In college I read the classics, voraciously to be honest, but still found time for more popular fare.

Perfect SpyJohn le Carre was one on that pop fiction list. I enjoyed the efficiency and sense of Cold War era certainty of Tom Clancy (who a friend of mine once described as writing “novels … very liberal in nature. Consider: Clancy’s characters, whether in the military, politics, or intelligence, are capable, hard-working, well-intentioned, and intelligent. It’s like reading a political fantasy, where everyone has the good of the nation at heart, is competent at their jobs, and sincerely wants what is best for the country as a whole, not just themselves”) and I dug the palpable tension of Stephen King, but it was le Carre’s A Perfect Spy that showed me that popular fiction could include books of consequence. A Perfect Spy was never a book I assigned as a teacher, though I have no doubt that with its complex narrative voice and poetic sensibility it could have supported discussions as rich as any in my high school classroom.

Perhaps it’s because of my own affection for pop fiction that I’m a fan of bringing academia out of the ivory tower. Part of a teacher’s role is helping students see their world critically, and one way of supporting this is to give them freedom and choice.

By that I not only mean freedom to choose the books they’re most interested in, but also freedom from the judgement that one work is regal while another’s gold foil makes it cheap. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale started out on the bestseller list before it became a staple of high school reading lists. Mass market paperbacks can (and sometimes do) hold more than simply mysteries or romance.

handmaid's taleCertainly there are degrees of litr’y merit, but an acceptance that literature can live in a supermarket magazine aisle strikes me as a positive quality not an indictment of taste.

I still want to explore Heart of Darkness in the company of fellow adventurers, but along the way I’d love to hear about their own travels to worlds less dark.

I reread The Day of the Jackal and A Perfect Spy this year, curious how my adult self might see them, and was pleased that I enjoyed both as much as I remembered liking them in my youth. I’d never consciously thought how much less silly le Carre’s book was than Forsythe’s, and noticing it now I chalked one up in the favorable column of growing older.

Rereading was a choice, and a good one, not like supporting those students who pick up a paperback because they think they’ll like it. Reading can and should be fun too. Along with travels to Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County, it’s healthy to encourage readers to spend a little time with jackals and spies.

Keeping the Beat

We’ve known each other for almost a decade and his smile, warmth, and easy laugh have always made me feel comfortable and good, happy to be in his company and proud to work with him as a fellow principal in our district. What a sense of celebration then when I found out that Adam Camacho will be the next principal at San Dieguito!

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Some people know Adam as the principal of Earl Warren Middle School, a post he has held for three years, shepherding the staff through major construction and demonstrating an empathy and patience that will serve him well as he moves to SDA. Adam and I talked often when I was the principal of Diegueño Middle School, about how best to help our young charges navigate the tumultuous years of junior high, and I was always struck by the profound care he felt toward each student.

Others may remember Adam as a counselor; he worked with students in their greatest hours of need before becoming an administrator, and those skills of listening, supporting, and helping students find themselves were not lost when he put on a tie, but simply manifested in other ways.

And some folks may know Adam as a rock and roll star. As the drummer for the faculty rock band The Credentialed, and later another group of teachers, counselors, and administrators who made music to raise money for student scholarships called Poncherello, Adam’s drum solos have brought down the house for years. He rocks! Literally.

I’m fortunate to know him as all three of these, and even more as a friend.

So as San Dieguito welcomes Adam as its next principal, I’m thankful to know that the person taking over this office brings common sense, kindness, and the ability to keep a steady beat even as the electric guitars blare and singers belt out rock and roll tunes.

San Dieguito is in good hands with Adam, and Adam is in good hands with San Dieguito.

A Bawcock and a Heart of Gold

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk and have since I became a school administrator. It could seem grandiose, I suppose, the tabby cat imagining himself a lion, but there is wisdom in that iambic pentameter and I’m willing to acknowledge my inner English teacher and take the kidding.

Looking to Shakespeare’s account of England’s favorite monarch for inspiration, however, puts me in mind to be better than I am. I may be domesticated, but hear my roar.

Henry V provides a slew of lessons and lines that resonate with me, and while it doesn’t have anything to do with leadership, I can’t help but whisper to myself every time I walk into a theater: “O for a muse of fire…”

But the trappings of a high school principal are khakis and embroidered polo shirts, not balm and scepter or crown imperial, and as much as I find encouragement in the youthful king, perhaps it would be as wise for me to consider his younger self, Prince Hal, that “nimble footed madcap Prince of Wales” whose adventures and indiscretions offer just as many lessons about leadership, learning, and growing up.

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The two part prequel to Henry V introduces Prince Hal as a reckless youth hellbent on fun and keeping company with a cast of characters equally bawdy and base. This is perfect for great literature, but not the sort you’d want near your own son or daughter.

Pistol, Bardolf, and especially Falstaff are the grown up versions of the scruffy and scandalous influences who give principals gray hair and assistant principals stories to tell each other. That Hal, the soon to be golden king, spends time in such company justifiably unnerves and disappoints his father, the king, who compares his “Harry” to a nobleman’s own well behaved son, Percy.

In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.”

What parent, or caring educator, wouldn’t be tempted to think the same?

And…

As a principal it’s important for me to embrace the belief that each of of our young Harrys might transcend youthful indiscretion and become a regal Henry.

Audiences of Henry IV part one and two and Henry V see just that transcendance. After learning what it is to live as a “common man,” and a rascal at that, Hal is able to put aside his childish ways, don the mantle of responsibility, and incorporate an understanding of his subjects into his reign as king.

In Shakespeare is a wisdom that might apply to the principal’s office.

True, administrators don’t wear crowns, teachers don’t shoot crossbows, and working with kids is not conquering France (though it sometimes feels as challenging), but allowing ourselves the patience and optimism that should be inspired by the transformation of Shakespeare’s king has the chance to make us more empathetic educators.

Seeing in our young students, particularly the shaggy ones, whose “unsavoury similes” alarm us  and whose behavior is a mass of “skimble-skamble stuff” the possibility of growth and change can go a long way toward creating a school culture that honors the potential of everyone.

Who our students will be as adults is as hidden from us as the impetuous Hal’s future was from his father. As the young prince caroused and lived irresponsibility, laughing at bawdy songs he listened, learned, and developed a perspective that made him a better king.

I wish for all my students the wisdom that comes from a full life, the strength to know themselves well enough to be true to who they are, not the temptingly Falstaffian pleasures of the crowd, and intrepid spirit that might lead another to describe them as Ancient Pistol did King Henry: “a bawcock and a heart of gold.”

The Bones

At a school it’s the students who are the lifeblood of campus. Their energy, unbounded, fills our days with unexpected surprises and a justification for the hope that brought every teacher and staff member to this profession of education. But in this analogy, the framework on which everything hangs, the foundation of our collective body, is the adults who call our school home; the staff are the bones.

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Every May we take an opportunity to celebrate the classified and certificated staff, the board passing resolutions honoring both groups, our parent foundation throwing a fancy lunch, and our students offering gallons of coffee and even more thank yous than normal to the adults in their school lives.

Those adults more than earn the praise and appreciation.

I’ve been reminded of that recently by a slew of events where staff have been willing to say “yes” to students when asked to do things as kooky as give improv comedy a try at the Teacher-Student Comedy Sportz game, the assistant principals emceeing a school assembly, and our Homeroom Olympics including a day with a collective primal scream …followed by Jazzercise.

csz2It’s in events like this that students get to see the kindness and humanity of their teachers, administrators, and classified staff. It’s one thing to go to an AP study session with a teacher you respect; it’s another to see that teacher in a dunk tank, swatting at a softball, or trying to sing.

But it’s this willingness to play, and occasionally play the fool, that endears the adults at a school to the students. The expression of glee on the faces of the Comedy Sportz students when the delightful woman who manages our learning commons agreed to step on stage was profound. “We got the librarian!” one Comedy Sportzer shouted, the group cheered. …and that night, on stage, she got one of the night’s biggest laughs with a “flick and swish” line in a Harry Potter bit. It was hilarious, and sweet, and will be something the kids talk about for a long time.

photo (4)As profound, in my mind, was last week’s Spring Assembly. It still amazes and delights me that when the kids thought about who they wanted to emcee the event they chose two assistant principals. These intrepid souls threw themselves into the job, recruiting a flash mob of teachers to join them in a dance from Napoleon Dynamite, leading the crowd in karaoke, and showing that while from time to time they need to lay down the law, they can do so with the kind of respect that shows students that they’re more than just their office. These administrators are humans, and good ones at that.

photo 4 (2)That sense of goodness is at the heart of this year’s Homeroom Olympics, a tradition at San Dieguito linked to a woman who typifies all that is right about our school, retiring assistant principal Dr. Jeanne Jones. In addition to events like synchronized swimming without water and scavenger hunts around campus, this year Dr. Jones and her team of student organizers encouraged events to promote wellness and balance for all students. This led to Tai Chi in the quad, pet rock painting, and two homerooms working together to provide a day near midterms when the whole school could step outside for a primal scream and then laugh as they moved to a class of students in 80s style leotards leading them through Jazzercise. To work at a school where students and staff work together for such profound play is inspiring.
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All the while, as they say yes to the silly stuff these same adults are there for the dramatic moments. It is to these caring teachers, counselors, and classified staff that students turn for help and understanding, knowing at least in part that these adults are people just like them, but with a few more years on the planet. For their part, the adults listen, care, and help the students find the answers or support they need. They change and save lives.

As they do, those same teachers, counselors, and classified staff do their work with and for students with passion, purpose, and professionalism. They arrive early and stay late, plan, adapt, and refine lessons, and put students and learning first.

These adults make profound differences one interaction at a time. They are the bones that hold up education and one week is not enough time to celebrate them. They are heroes.