The Tree in the Tempest

FrostI wish the world got spring break.

Last week, sitting at the neighborhood pool on the opening day of baseball season, I found myself reading Robert Frost while my kids swam, splashed, and sprayed water on each other with laughing exuberance. There was, I thought to myself, something overwhelmingly Americana about the whole scene. All I needed was a cowboy hat.

Education in the United States doesn’t get everything right, but one exquisitely correct decision is spring break.

Before the break it felt like the world was in a sour mood. I’d done my best to keep some equilibrium, even as in my role as principal I worked with students, parents, and teachers all trying to stay civil when confronted with situations decidedly frustrating.

I like to consider myself a gentleman, so I won’t chronicle the specifics of these …conversations, but the upshot was that more than a couple of people, and people I like and respect, left my office having been confronted with that difficult word “no.”

Spirits across campus seemed low, for many folks, not just those frustrated friends, and my Friday ended with a flurry of emails setting up meetings to discuss “next steps” (two horrible words in the world of administration) as soon as we got back from the week away.

Fast forward to the pool.

Art, as art so often does, offered perspective. In “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” Robert Frost wrote:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are”

Yes, I needed some separation, some time to breathe, some space to read a little poetry, and once I had I could more clearly see that those oppositional interactions of the week before weren’t malicious or without reason. Nor, I realized, did they need to be journey ending.

Being forced to articulate my decisions and point of view, whether that articulation was well received or not, makes me a better principal. The more I can see the challenges of my professional life like Frost’s fallen tree, there not to bar passage, but to invite clarity, the more I can focus on finding answers and leaving frustrations behind.

Poetry invites us to avoid pettiness. It encourages reflection and prompts us to be our best selves.

Of course I’m scribbling these lines on a yellow legal pad at a table by that same pool where I read Frost, still days away from those meetings set the Friday before spring break. Those conversations loom, ready to test the optimism and perspective as vibrant today as the kids’ laughter.

It’s easy to have hope on vacation; the true test is to put that spirit into practice when faced with fallen trees.

Young at Heart

TEDxI like to believe that it’s because I’m seen as young at heart that I got the invitation to emcee TEDx Encinitas this April, though if I’m honest it’s just as likely that it’s because I have the ability to simply be immature.

The call came after a wonderfully talented student and I hosted San Dieguito’s Winter Assembly. We’d pulled out all the stops, dressing as each other, sporting Pikachu and Team Paradox costumes, and ending with a number from The Blues Brothers that literally had us singing and dancing. There’s no business like show business, I’m told, no business I know.

But the TEDx event was different; we were not the show; we were brought in to support the show. Daunting. Inspiring. It was a challenge we looked forward to.

photo 5TEDx Encinitas was designed to flip the traditional TED experience on its head. Rather than have a series of people with vast life experience talk to a students, a group of students, from ages 11 to 21, was gathered to present their stories to an all adult audience. Titled “Changing Voices,” the evening would give youth a chance to speak to adults, all kids on stage, all grown ups in the audience.

Except me. Young at heart. Maybe not quite mature enough to warrant a seat at the grown up’s table. Flattered to be given a chance to join an articulate, insightful, and passionate group of students on stage.

Rehearsal took place the night before, a great opportunity to see the young presenters, serious, focused, and filled with anticipation, preparing for the show. In addition, I got to watch scores of student volunteers helping behind the scenes, running lights, sound, cameras, managing the house, wrangling performers, and showing that maturity of ability that nestles side by side with youthful exuberance.

photo 4 (1)My eight year old son came by the theater and Austin, the senior who was my fellow emcee, took him on a tour of the tech booth and catwalks. My son has a new hero.

That ability to be inspired, however, isn’t limited by age. I have the great good fortune to see teenagers every day, and bear witness to the profound curiosity, passion, and kindness that so many show. Certainly the trials of youth are real; the existence of angst, arrogance, and anguish are just as true in 2017 as they were when I was in school, or my grandparents, or my grandparents’ grandparents, but those who focus on the negative behaviors of “kids today” are missing a message that informs everything educators like me do: the students filling our schools now have the capability of greatness.

The day of the event saw more than a dozen students step onto the red circle of carpet and speak from their hearts. They sang, and spoke, and sent the audience of adults into genuine laughter, lip thinning thoughtfulness, and swallowed tears. Their stories of making a difference, of caring, and of being true, resonated with the audience. Six hours in, none of us really wanted it to end.

photo 1 (2)How important it is for us as adults to value the perspective of our students. The adolescent speakers, so thoughtful and remarkable, had much to teach those of us who call ourselves adults. So too did the many hands that worked behind the scenes, teenagers who cared deeply about the messages that their peers presented and the idea that adults would take the time to listen to youth.

I’m blessed with an opportunity to work with amazing students every day, and I was proud to be a part of an event that allowed so many to share their voices with adults who don’t always see such profundity in person.

That today’s youth are promising stewards of our planet; that teenagers are capable, conscientious, and curious explorers of life; and that the future is more than promising was captured in the essence of these student presenters and performers, as well as in my partner in emceeing, whose quiet kindness to my son served as a reminder of the depth of empathy that exists in so many kids today.

photo 2 (1)All of us who were in the theater that Saturday have the potential to take some of these students’ spirit with us. All of us who heard what these kids had to say couldn’t help but be inspired.

For anyone who wasn’t able to attend the event, in the weeks ahead you will be able to see clips at the TEDx Encinitas site.

Until then, for anyone who wants a dose of inspiration, I’d encourage you to seek out some students you know and ask them to tell you their stories. Kids don’t need to stand on stage to have something to say. Adults don’t need to be in an audience to listen. So ask. Talk. Really pay attention.

At best you may be seen as young at heart; at worst being a little sophomoric isn’t bad at all.

Stairway to…

photo 2The steps got me thinking about construction being done. On Tuesday I walked past, delighted to see wood framing on the dirt hill leading up to San Dieguito’s newest classroom building, a two story structure that will house nine new science labs and another ten classrooms. It will be the tallest building on campus, ready to open in the fall of 2017.

The path from the past to the future, in this case a path from two mid-century bunker like concrete monsters to this modern academic edifice has been long. Permits and permissions delayed the start of the project, and even when the first shovel dug into the ground the scope of the work showed itself as enormous.

boxWhose idea it had been to erect two windowless buildings on a Southern California plot of land with both sea breezes and an ocean view I’ll leave to others to imagine, but the reality was a demolition that was unquestionably the right choice. It was a big job; the buildings were reinforced concrete, tons of it, and the resulting work made the center of campus look like a hurricane had blown through.

As the principal, it was my job to stay centered and help the school community understand that all would be well. Any change has the potential to raise anxiety, and this kind of dramatic undoing of years of the familiar did just that. At first.

This anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that decades of student art was affixed to the walls of the condemned buildings; senior tiles, mosaics, and murals would be destroyed as the buildings came down. We weathered the storm with the help of our art teachers’ reassurance, our students’ kindness, and our alumni’s understanding.

photo

Every week I met with the construction company and bond team. I articulated school concerns, advocated for SDA, and ensured that everything being done was both sensitive to the fact that construction was taking place on a working school campus and that the decisions we were making would, in the long term, good for kids.

As well as I could, I did my best to distill the construction information and share it with our school community. Emails and regular updates at staff meetings and parent coffees all helped. I even put together a video to show off the initial phases of the work. Communicating what was going on behind the construction fences was my responsibility as certainly as the foreman’s was to make sure progress was on schedule.

photo 1We invited that foreman and the project manager to come to one of our staff meetings. Putting a human face on the work went a long way in helping those of us on the school side of the house understand that it wasn’t just that a building was going up on campus, but that Jesse and Michelle were constructing a building on campus.

Along the way we watched buildings disappear, witnessed an amazing amount of hard work, and saw the new building emerge from the rubble.

As walls went up and a roof peeked over the 1930s era building in our main quad, folks started imagining what this new structure would bring to campus. Science teachers began talking about table tops and chemical storage, math teachers started discussing the merits of desks versus tables, and the whole school looked up and said things like “wow!”

photo 4For me, the guy whose Thursdays were increasingly dominated by construction meetings, the visible milestones (windows installed, stucco applied, scaffolding down) were reassuring. I knew how many people need to work together to create such a building, and what pressure they are under with regard to time, budget, and collaboration.

Then, late in the fall, as work moved inside the new building even more than outside, everyone watching was left to wonder: “What’s going on in there?”

Using photos snapped by the foreman, I shared glimpses into the labs and classrooms, and waited with the others for a chance to walk inside.

One February day we saw the lights go on, not the portable lighting drywallers use, but the classroom overheads. Progress!

The hardscape around the building began to take shape. Some of the wooden fences were replaced by chain link, and the final pieces of the roof went up, perfectly matching construction from 1937. As our superintendent said on one visit: “It looks like it just belongs here.”

photo 5It does.

And Tuesday, when I walked past that framing, I thought: “We’re getting closer.”

Wednesday the stairs were poured.

I thought: “We’re almost there.”

To see the end of a project coming close is a feeling as sweet as the road there is rough.

Looking up those stairs I see a future bright for students, a haven for learning, experimenting, and solving problems. I can imagine generations of students walking up those steps (and the countless skateboarders coming down them) and there on that hill I see possibility.

Construction is never easy and seldom without challenges, but seeing the results and knowing how positive those results can be for students and teachers helps to put into perspective the effort needed to achieve it.

It’s just about time to walk up those stairs.

construction cartoon

Spring in the Air

photo-3-1There’s a shift in the school year when the time comes around for kids to start playing ball. Those gray days of winter still lurk nearby, and we all worry that water is pooling too much on the infield, but as the March sun punches through February’s clouds, drying the dirt and bringing life to the birds, there’s a palpable feeling that spring is in the air and summer is around the corner just waiting to be summoned with those two magical words: “Play ball!”

Spring sports at a high school are a high water mark for student participation. In addition to softball and baseball, lacrosse begins, the boys are playing tennis, golf and volleyball start up, and the largest team most schools ever see begins to jump, run, and shot put around the track and field.

513Those student athletes know that the difficult hours of practice they put in during the cool weather of March will pay off under the May sun, and their seasons starting up remind us all that graduation is closer than we think.

As a principal, this time of year is busy with preparation: for next year’s master schedule, giving tours to prospective students and families, and making sure that our ducks are in the proverbial row for state testing, senior activities, and ultimately that final day when mortarboards take to the air. Along the way there are retirements to commemorate, student awards to celebrate, and teachers to hire.

But this can also be a “tired time” as my former superintendent used to call it, a long stretch between winter and spring break. It’s a part of the year where we do well to try to be more patient with each other, smile a little more, and allow those around us, and ourselves, a little more room to breathe.

photo 1 (2)This is a time to embrace the efforts of others to keep our spirits up: ASB’s Spring Spirit Week, the math department’s “Pi Day,” and (here at SDA) the Dorkathalon.

Cheering on those spring athletes, the embodiment of youth, and spring, and hope, can be inspiring too. Today, if the rain holds off,  I’m going to head out and watch a softball game, and I know that the time spent in the stands promises renewal. Kids playing under the sun has a way of helping put life into perspective.

A Pie in the Face

I went into my 12:30 parent meeting with the smell of Readi Whip in my hair. I’d been sensible enough to bring a change of clothes; when students throw pies at their principals, part of the joy gets taken away if the target in question is covered in a garbage bag and shower cap, but when I lurched back to my office after the pies had flown, whip cream dripping into my eyes, my hair a blur of white and gray, I knew the smell would stick around.

PiePart of being a principal is being willing to play the fool, to dance at an assembly, to join in at a Comedy Sportz performance, and to say “yes” when the students ask you to play.

But those are the fun parts.

Another element of being the guy in the tie is being able to pivot on a dime, transitioning from a classroom observation to a construction meeting, from lunchtime supervision to a school board presentation, from taking a pie in the face to a high stress parent meeting.

Both sides are vital to helping a school thrive, and while the juxtaposition of whimsy and seriousness may seem dramatic, they’re two faces of one job.

The principal needs to be ready for anything.

Today’s Pi Day activities came sandwiched between discussions with parents on how best to help students make healthy decisions to avoid drugs, how we might support a student whose family was moving to the Persian Gulf, and a stressful conversation about a discipline issue. To dodge one to do the other was never an option, and while the frivolity of lunch seemed at odds with the gravitas of the rest of the day, I would argue that both were important to my school.

Being able to talk seriously about the issues that challenge us means that we can make progress toward solving the problems that vex our school community. Keeping a lightness in our collective hearts gives us the strength to make those solutions happen.

I once had a student ask me, with curiosity, not snark, “What do you do as the principal?”

My answer, given honestly, would look different every day.

Last Friday I had to give letters to all my temporary teachers letting them know that they would have to re-interview for their current jobs, I visited a “Senior Java” where the 12th grade class got together for bagels and conversation in the quad, I hosted a graduation planning meeting, met with some history teachers about master scheduling, and was slated to go to a robotics tournament in the evening.

Monday I met with parents about how to support kids in classes, parking tickets, and a contested suspension. A little later in the day two teachers from Japan visited to discuss an exchange program, I spent some time preparing for a parent Foundation meeting, and I visited classrooms.

Pie 2Tuesday, today, my assistant poked her head in my office and said with a smile “looking at the stressful day you have ahead of you, it’s fun to see ‘pie in the face’ on your calendar!” It is. It certainly is.

Perhaps the best answer to that student’s question would have been: “Every day I do my best to help our school.” That’s not a poetic answer, but it is a true one.

Today that work involved tears and whipped cream. Tomorrow, who knows. Whatever it is I welcome the work with a heart open to hope and a mind prepared to listen. And if the kids ask me to sing Carpool Karaoke, I’ll say “yes.”

Thank You

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart…”
-Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

To everyone who has inspired me, offered support, kindness, and humor over my eight years in the San Diegutio Union High School District, thank you.

As many of you have heard, this July I’ll be heading north to become the principal of the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy in Beaverton Oregon. It’s a school of just over 700 students, grades 6-12, with a focus on fine and performing arts. On the verge of major construction, filled with creative souls, and located in a state I have always known as home, ACMA is a school that, like San Dieguito, a school I love, speaks to me. As I mentioned to a friend yesterday, this is not a move inspired by leaving, but a move about going to.

In my heart I am an Oregonian, a fellow of moss and foggy afternoons, of flannel shirts, rainstorms, and used bookstores. I grew up beneath fir trees, and while I have loved my time in California, I have never stopped missing green. My path leads through a forest.

I’m excited, a little nervous, and ready to begin a new adventure.

BPwithKidsThat said, the person I am today is in large part a collection of the experiences I have shared with inspiring educators from three SDUHSD schools over the past decade.

I’m so thankful for my time at La Costa Canyon, working with gifted professionals whose Maverick spirit infused every day with a sense of urgency and vital energy. Never had I worked with a group of educators who made such a difference in the lives of so many students. Amid the crash of cymbals and whirl of green and blue I witnessed a thousand acts of quiet kindness. Thank you for both the school spirit and the examples of caring I saw every week.

I’m grateful too for Diegueno Middle School, a place where the whole staff once dressed as pirates, I saw first hand the magic great teachers bring to their work with students, and I learned that part of being a principal is being willing to have water dumped on your head.

photo 2 (1)And to San Dieguito, my kindred spirit of a place, my gratitude is matched only by the love I feel toward the people who make up this great school. I leave San Dieguito more changed by it than it will ever be by me. For that I am thankful.

Our school district is more than just a collection of great schools; SDUHSD is a life changing force for good, filled with nurturing adults, curious students, caring parents, and a sense of hope.

To all of my colleagues, students, and families, thank you.

Late February

photo-2Rain falling outside
students tucked into classes
the clock assuring me
that we still have another hour
before lunch and
the attendant chaos,
a rehearsal for spring,
that comes with the ringing of the bell

My jacket drips from a hook
on my office door
victim of the rain
and a long walk
out to the hinterlands of campus
rooms so far away
from my office
and yet the center of the world
for all the students learning there
of Euclid
Shakespeare
Virginia Woolf
all these names on today’s agenda
in the classes I visited
on my wet walk.

There is a certain calm
to February
on a high school campus
as students, now so much at home,
scribble and jot, type, draw, and discuss
subjects not altogether unfamiliar.

Nothing really seems unfamiliar in February
we’ve spent so long together
and yet
have miles yet to go
before the sunshine of June.

Today we listen to the rain
warm up
and peek out windows
looking for spring.