Strained

If you’re looking for someone to be mad at the choice of suspects is long, and I have no doubt that I’m on it. If remote learning has you frustrated, angry, sad, you’re not alone. It has lots of us feeling emotions we aren’t used to associating with school, all of us: students, teachers, parents, and even principals.

If you just want to scream, lash out at someone who made a choice that you think was wrong (no, you’re sure was wrong), or someone who sent a message that didn’t carry the right tone, or hold accountable someone on the other side of a computer screen, you will not find it difficult to find a name to put in the “To:” line of your email. These are frustrating times, and sometimes it feels like it should help if there is a person whose feet might get held to the proverbial fire. We see it all around us these days. So many of us are strained.

And before we type that email, assign that blame, or choose rigidity over kindness (and all are things that all of us are sometimes tempted to do) I’d encourage us to take a moment and think that…

Teachers are people. People doing their best to balance home and work, work being something that all of them know has the possibility of changing lives, work that involves kids we care so much about, and work that all of us feel obligated to do well. Really well. And for all of our professional lives those of us in education have been given a specific set of guidelines about what doing that job well entails.

Doing our job well means that when kids leave our classrooms they are prepared for what comes next, the next grade, the next level of math, the next English class that builds on the fact that students have already learned “x, y, and z.” This year we’re struggling to get halfway through “y.” 

And this kills us. One teacher I admire told me that he was struggling with the grading approach he was being told by the state to practice. “My classroom integrity and the faith I have in the system is really shaken when I’m asked to lie about what a student can and can’t do,” he told me. “It makes my work even more difficult to stand behind and do on a daily basis.” How will that student who leaves his class cope with the next class that she won’t be prepared for, and how can he hold on to the integrity that helps to define him if the “P” (for passing) at the end of the year doesn’t accurately reflect what happened in his (virtual) classroom? This isn’t a silly or frivolous question; we want teachers with integrity, and the strain he’s feeling from the situation is real. 

Another gifted teacher called a passing mark at the end of June “a governor’s P” (as opposed to “a gentleman’s C”). It was his way of processing what was being asked of him, imperfect, but true.

For many teachers, who work so hard and in this time away from campus are working as hard as ever, the tension caused by lack of student engagement, frustration with technology, and the chorus of concerns raised daily from all sides can feel overwhelming. Some see them as heroes; some call out every decision they make as the wrong one. They continue to work to help kids learn, but with every week that job feels harder. Students aren’t always engaging as we wish they could, some are struggling, and…

…and it’s important to remember that students are people. Midway through our discussions about how to best support our kids in this remote learning situation my staff had a discussion about the challenges our students were reporting to us and the fact that we all might benefit from taking a deep breath and thinking about the kids as “people, not pupils.” 

We batted around ideas for a coordinated response to some of the things our students had been telling us, things like: 

“This is a very stressful time for students and even though it may seem like we have more time to do work, it doesn’t mean we can necessarily. Anxiety and depression have gotten worse since the start of online school. Some students just feel like they are always behind and can never catch up. … The biggest concerns seem to be being behind next school year and failing classes as well as teachers assigning too much work, procrastination and pressure from parents.”

“Students have been dealing with stress by crying, breaking things, cutting or just not dealing with their stress and those are not healthy ways to deal with stress.”

“Some of us students are now facing food insecurity, abuse at home, a loss of support staff, and financial instability at a higher rate than ever before. I personally have A.D.D, and would not have been able to even begin to cope with the amount of work we are being given if I hadn’t had parents who were able to set up a complex system to help me. Many students do not have parents who either a) understand the issues their kids are facing or b) know how to help their children cope with online learning.”

These were very real student voices, strained by circumstances beyond what they were prepared for. Exactly zero of them had signed up for online school at the start of the year, the same number of teachers who had signed up to teach completely online. The stresses they were feeling were profound, immediate, and heart wrenching. They didn’t know what to do, and they were looking to the adults in their lives to help. And… 

…and we adults are stressed out too, particularly some of the moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and older siblings who are raising our kids. It’s easy for students to feel grumpy that their parents are forcing them to sit down and do schoolwork, and it’s easy for teachers to feel frustrated at some of the emails they get that question their teaching ability, dedication to the students, and (at least in one case I know of) even their parenting. That’s not fair, but…

Parents are people. And parents are people who are feeling as much strain as the teachers and kids. As one mom told me: “Sometimes I look at this situation and think to myself, ‘this is insane!’ It feels a tad impractical for my eleven year old to navigate seven classes remotely, all the while missing strong connections with her peers (which, arguably, peer-to-peer aids in the navigation of middle school). To state what you already know, it’s completely upside down. I’ve written to all of my daughter’s teachers to let them know she is struggling, and to get a grasp on what’s past due and what’s coming up. Since she’s behind in most of her classes, I’ve devised a plan to help her get caught up, but again, school work is met with negative emotions, the tears, the stress, the overwhelming feeling she can’t shake. For my family, the next 5 weeks looks like a mountain.”

Lots of parents feel the same. We want our kids to learn, we want our kids to engage with school (and with peers and with teachers). We see the stress in their eyes and just want to help …and want others to help.

There’s a line in Shakespeare that comes to mind when all of these stresses tempt us to lash out. It’s from The Merchant of Venice, a complicated play that knows its way around anger, bitterness, and societal stress. Midway through Act IV one character tells another (who is steeped in anger and embroiled in a lawsuit): “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

For context, the line is delivered to encourage the character to show mercy not because he is compelled to by law, but because it is the right, the kind, thing to do. Showing mercy, she tells him, not only blesses the person receiving mercy, but blesses him as well. The lines go like this:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.”

In this modern age it isn’t only monarchs who get to have an opinion; we all have the power to speak our minds. But if I read Shakespeare correctly, it’s not in the vehemence of our opinions that we show our best true selves. Our criticisms, our angry words, our stated frustrations, and our calls for justice may all have merit, but it is when we allow “mercy to season justice” that we bring ease to our strain (and maybe the strain of those around us).

For anyone thinking that we don’t need Shakespeare for this, I’ll shift gears and offer a little mid-80’s pop to bring the point home.

Thanks, Depeche Mode. 

People are people.” All of us. We’re stressed out. We’re frustrated that we aren’t able to help in the way we’d like, that we aren’t able to do everything we wish we could do. But maybe what we’re able to do is simply what we’re able to do. Our best. Maybe we can show kindness to one another, recognizing that our current circumstances feel overwhelming …for all of us.

So I encourage all of us to pause, breathe, and allow ourselves to accept that while people make mistakes and can be easy to be mad at, one of the most human things we can do is show each other mercy.

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Dungeons and Distance

COVID-19, week seven: the one where I learn how to be a Dungeon Master for my kids’ first game of D&D.

I’ll start with the acknowledgement that I am very, very fortunate to be sheltering at home during this time of global pandemic with people I like (and love). I get to continue to do my job (albeit in a way I haven’t before), and I even have a dog to walk. Which is awesome. While I don’t like not being able to visit my parents or browse Powell’s, technology allows me to Facetime with my folks and I have more than enough books here on my shelf.

I’m happy that one of those books is The Lord of the Rings (well, three books, but you know what I mean). It has been serving as inspiration not only in this time of pandemic, but more specifically for my attempt at the collaborative storytelling of Dungeons & Dragons.

IMG_4644We picked up the “Starter Set” of D&D for $20 at Target earlier in the week, our jigsaw puzzles and some of our well worn board games having exhausted their best efforts. It seemed like a natural place to begin. Then, with a spring rain filling the gutters and encouraging us to stay inside, we gathered around the kitchen table on a wet Saturday, mugs of tea at our elbows, and started down the road together toward the Lost Mine of Phandelver. We were a merry fellowship, making up in creativity and curiosity what we lacked in experience.

I’d read about D&D and the positive impact it can have for kids at school, first in an article in which one ninth grade teacher in Texas summed it up this way: “Participation in narrative role play can open up interests in topics such as mathematics, science, history, culture, ethics, critical reading, and media production. When D&D and its cousins are played in an inviting, encouraging, compassionate, and intellectually engaged environment, play opens the door to truly amazing possibilities for learning.”

We weren’t doing anything quite so grand at our kitchen table on Saturday; the three of us were simply trying to encourage some sanity on a rainy day of COVID-19 sheltering at home. But I could see what that teacher was talking about. The best parts of our game came when impromptu inspiration (that long haired orc with a broken nose who lost an arm to my son’s fighter’s broadsword) and collective decision making brought my kids together and inspired a laugh or two.

I was the Dungeon Master in that D&D epic, and because I’m a bit dorky and don’t like to do things poorly, I prepared for the role by reading more than a few words of wisdom online. There are lots of D&D sites that have advice for novice “DMs” and I was struck by where the list of DM tips overlapped with what I do for a living: Be prepared, make things fun, err on the side of the players, improvise, tell a collective story. And I thought…

Being a DM is a lot like being a principal. 

In the best of times the preparation we put in (over the summer, on evenings and weekends, and behind the scenes every day) helps to nurture an environment that is positive for students, teachers, and families. We can tell when things are going well by the laughter in the hallways and in the classrooms. At our best, we show mercy and understanding to everyone in our school community, and we always do our best to put kids first. Improvisation is a part of every school, and when we do it in concert with the people around us the collective story we tell can be amazing.

In “5 DM Tips for Running Your First Game” an experienced Dungeon Master advises: 

Carefully listen to your players. Yes, you should hear them when they tell you what their characters would like to do. Yes, you should pay attention to the intent of what they are describing their character doing. But your players communicate with you in a number of other ways.

It’s easy to tell when your players are having fun and engaging with your story. People having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion. That means that what you are doing in your game is working and you should note that and do more of that thing.

Communicating your expectations and thoughts and perceptions of your game to your players is also very beneficial. Let them know what you think is working and what you see could be improved. They may agree with you, but even more likely they will offer you a point of view on your game that you had not considered. That is invaluable data for planning your game moving forward.”

He could easily be writing about school administration. Students at school should be having fun and engaging with the stories of their lives. They are helped most when we listen to them, engage with them, and can see that “people having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion.” We want that in our young adults, and don’t have to be facing a pack of orcs to see it happen.

Back to that article on D&D in schools, the author, educator Paul Darvasi, invites us to wonder: “These intriguing case studies point to what a comprehensive learning program might look like if subjects and skills were not taught in isolation from each other, but integrated into a single cohesive system where students are intrinsically motivated to participate.”

It is so easy to be so siloed in a middle or high school, and this grand experiment in remote learning that every school in our state is struggling with has exacerbated that separation even more. I’m fortunate that a few creative pockets at my school have actively worked to collaborate, but it’s harder to do online than fending off a stone giant.

ACMA has an active D&D club, and when we went into sheltering at home a few reached out to me to see if they could come to campus to pick up items so they could keep playing online. Like so many of our students these intrepid adventurers find themselves in a situation no roll of the dice can overcome. They’re working out ways to play from home, connecting with their community, or at least a part of it, and working together to accomplish a goal. There’s a lesson there for all of us.

And… at some point in the not too distant future we’ll go back to school. Those D&D Club members will roll dice together on campus. The teachers will be able to step out of their classrooms and see familiar faces and possibilities for connection. All of us, students and teachers alike, will return from this experience and have the opportunity to write our own story. 

Will we be different, more inclined to connect, more appreciative of the community we get to be a part of? Trying adventures do change people (and elves and wizards). I’m hopeful that with every experience we learn and grow, and that when we are done sheltering at home we can all go back to the people and places we had to separate from and engage again, like travelers coming home from the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Dog Days

IMG_4008At least the dogs are happy. That seems the most universal silver lining when I talk with friends. People home from work and school, walks a joy (for homebound humans as well as four legged bundles of fur clad love), the COVID-19 induced time at home means that while many of us wrestle with uncertainty, anxiety, and a dollop of boredom, the pups are active, appreciated, and bounding into what mother nature tells them is spring. They are angels, and perfect reminders that there is still much that is right in the world.

But that world.

Today, in addition to a video conference on how our district might facilitate online learning and how we can support our soon to be graduating seniors, I spent two hours back on campus to allow teachers and counselors time to come in and collect plants, files, and anything they need before we’re away from campus for a spell. (I’d say until April 28, the governor’s latest return date for schools, but the world seems to change every morning when I get up and a date like that could seem antiquated before anyone reads this post).

It was wonderful (and a little surreal) to see the adults I work with coming back to campus during the allotted window, even if we all kept a sensible distance between us and weren’t quite sure what to say (“See you soon?”) as each person left the building.

We’re all trying to figure out what happens next, both as an education system and each of the individuals who make up our school. I know students are feeling the strangeness of it all; I’ve gotten concerned emails from some and marvelous emails from a few others, sharing the art and music they’re making and ideas for when we get back.

I got another email from a teacher who had driven by our old campus, soon to be our new campus as they build a new building that we’ll move into in the fall of 2021. “Sun is out,” he wrote. “Weather nice. Construction going well. Even though we are all stuck things are moving forward. Thanks for all you do. See ya soon.” He threw in a few photos of our building rising up against a beautiful blue sky, and I could believe that all will be well.

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The first full week without students, teachers, and staff is finishing with a sense of the unknown looming over all of us. We’re about to go into what would have been our spring break, a week usually filled with renewal and maybe an adventure or two. 

We’re all on a huge collective adventure instead, maybe one navigated primarily from our living rooms and shared over Zoom. Heading into week two my thoughts go out to all those whose situations are filled with much more stress than my own. They are many, and need all of us to show kindness, patience, and support.

I wish I had answers to the questions people are asking me as a principal. (When will we be back? What will it look like when we are? Why can we just switch to online learning now?) But the truth is that while I’m fortunate to have lots of autonomy in my building, the answers to all those questions are beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. I know that our district is at work on what it can address equitably and thoroughly, and the state is assessing things every day. So, I believe the answers will come, some we like, some that may frustrate us, but those will take time.

Time that my dog tells me would be well spent on a walk.

Cut Flowers and Spring

It snowed on the first day of the extra week of spring break brought to the kids by the COVID-19 Coronavirus, a strange day after the strange day on which we found out that schools were closing for two weeks and middle school boys everywhere rejoiced in the idea of a fortnight of Fortnite. For the rest of us, particularly the adults who now are puzzling over how to navigate kids and social distancing, Friday was the start of an uncertain time. 

By the time I sat down to write this post on Sunday night more and more restrictions had come into play and others still were being mulled over by folks in government who mull over such things. I keep waiting for the centipede of uncertainty’s next shoe to drop.

That uncertainty, coupled with the challenge of being a principal on the edge of school closures beyond my control but within my responsibility to communicate has put this blog on hold for a week or so, and even now I wasn’t sure what I could say; anything newsworthy would seem to be outdated by the time I hit “post.” So…

I use this blog to tell stories, stories of pirates, and port-a-potties, and pies in the face, and while I might not have the answers right now, I thought I could at least tell two and a half stories of life on the ground here at school, and then end with a line from Neruda and I hope a pinch of hope.

Story 1: I was walking down the hallway Friday morning with one of my math teachers. A senior hurried alongside us and asked: “What are we doing today in statistics?” The teacher didn’t break stride. “Statistics,” he said with a smile.

Story 2: A mom, whose middle school son had been out with a cold, asked if she could come in and pick up some of his books from his locker before the school closed down for two weeks of spring break. I walked her down to his locker and as she tumbled the books, notebooks, and stray papers into a grocery bag the sliver of a note fluttered to the bottom of the locker. She picked it up and glanced at it to see if she ought to stuff it in with the rest. Then she paused, her mother’s eyes deciphering the writing. “This says ‘smooching,’” she said, looking up at me. I thought it was something like a surprised smile that crossed her face. “You could always leave it in the locker,” I suggested. This time the smile was apparent. “Oh no, this one’s going home.”

Story 2½: I waved goodbye to the mom and her note, thinking that the day couldn’t get much stranger, and looked down to realize that I was wearing a lab coat. About a thousand years ago, when I was an English teacher at a small school in Oregon, a good friend and I started “Lab Coat Mondays.” It must have begun when I was teaching Frankenstein or some such thing; costumes were always a part of my repertoire as a teacher, and once I realized the fun (and ample pockets) of a lab coat it was something too great not to do once a week. I’d mentioned Lab Coat Mondays to some colleagues here at ACMA and, with a wit and sense of whimsy that I’ve found to be a part of who we are as a school, it wasn’t long before a host of teachers were wearing lab coats once a week (we opted for Friday). While many of them chose a sleek black look, my old standby is a well worn white lab coat, and I wondered: did that mom think I was wearing this because of COVID-19?

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These are light and cough free stories of the Coronavirus and the weird whirlwind of closing school unexpectedly. I know that there are serious stories of hardship and illness out there as well, and that over the next few days and weeks we could see things turn again and again.

Our present reality caught us mid stride, and while we would like to keep doing what we’re doing (statistics or otherwise) and while we know that life goes on (smooching included, even if we know it could be a bad idea) those ways of being in the world that started with the best of intentions (lab coats on Friday, for instance) could need a bit of modification to make sense today.

There’s a line by Pablo Neruda that came to my mind as information continued to unfold: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Canceled classes, postponed events, and even stores without toilet paper and canned beans may make us feel like all of the flowers have been cut down, but spring will come, and as we support one another through these uncertain times, I believe that there are brighter days ahead. Even if we’re surprised by a snowy March morning or two.

Outside

We stood together in the February chill, rain threatening, clouds thick, the grass wet beneath our feet. From the expanse of field we regarded the east side of the school, a new building of sensible earth tone brick, and thought about the possibilities.

We’re living a new reality this year, our little art school hanging our collective hat (beret, fez, fedora, cat ears, horns, or beanie depending on the day) at a school without the big performance hall we’ll have when construction is done on our permanent campus and we return to Center Street in the fall of 2021. 

For the most part we’ve been able to adjust: our dance department turned an auxiliary gym into a fantastic performance venue, theater has chosen shows perfectly suited to our temporary home’s black box theater, and we’ve added monthly Open Mic Nights to fill the commons we’re in for these two years.

This flexibility and challenge to think beyond our usual venues or routines will translate to both a renewed appreciation of our Performing Arts Center (when we see it again) and a spirit of innovation that we’ll bring to our new campus.

And…

Graduation is too big for the black box, or aux gym, or the commons. It needs a grander venue than anything inside our temporary home, and is something intimate enough that we don’t want to just anywhere because it has enough seats.

So…

We got to thinking and began to entertain the notion of taking commencement outside.

Yes, I know, we live in Oregon, where a sunny day in June is as guaranteed as a first novel becoming a bestseller.

Still, the idea of gathering under the sun and celebrating our seniors in a way that has never been done before at our little school sounded about right.

Different? Sure. Unconventional? Maybe. An opportunity for creativity? As they say around our community: “So very ACMA.”

Back to that February rain.

It was me, my astounding secretary, and an intrepid senior who took a wet walk outdoors to allow ourselves to imagine.IMG_3224

We talked about seating, and photos, and where to put the band. We allowed ourselves to imagine a day sunny enough to warrant some pop ups for our visiting grandparents who would need the shade. And as we paced and photographed, suggested and saw in our mind’s eye what the ceremony might be, the idea of commencement on the east long began to look fantastic.

We hurried inside and got out an invitation to the seniors to meet in early March to walk out and offer suggestions. We know that creativity can be inspired through collaboration, and we want the graduates to have a hand in designing their day.

Education has a place for dreaming and for doing, for many voices and shared interests imagining in February what the world can look like in spring.

“You can just talk” 

The senior, a gifted musician, talented artist, and leader of our National Honor Society, slowly raised his hand. He looked to the moderator and waited. She was listening to another girl and after a moment or two made eye contact with the patient senior. The moderator smiled. “You can just talk,” she said, welcoming, kind, the perfect leader of a student gathering. He put his hand down, smiled back, and launched into a big idea about how high school students could help support middle schoolers on our 6th-12th grade campus.

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It was lunchtime on a Friday and the first meeting of our ACMA Student Forum.

The idea was simple: two amazing students moderated a discussion, projecting a shared document on the wall and asking students what topics they wanted to talk about. While one typed, everyone gathered was invited to pitch in ideas about what was working at our school, what wasn’t working, and what they thought might help make ACMA better.

Students, any students, not just students elected to student government or as Ohana reps, could say whatever they thought. All voices were equal, whether it was a plucky 6th grader or a veteran like that twelfth grade fellow who raised his hand.

IMG_1731The couple of dozen students listened to each other, added their ideas to the mix, and asked questions. I was there to listen and answer any questions that the principal might, but the forum wasn’t mine, it belonged to the students.

Topics ranged beautifully from a question about how much time the seniors would have to present their Capstone projects in March (they’d like as much time as they could have to share their art) to how often we might make announcements (the hope was once a week over the PA, and maybe finding some other ways to spread the word about important events).

Students talked about how to support clubs (a club fair at lunch was one idea) and what we might do to invite more art into our lunches (music, visual art displays, and excerpts from productions all rose from the diverse voices in the room). Lots of students nodded as they enjoyed pizza together. 

While one moderator typed furiously to capture the ideas (her notes will be shared with the staff next week), the other moderator invited comments from the group, prompting, praising, and promoting a lively discussion.

Then, in what struck me as a delightful surprise, the discussion turned to academics. 

“We’re seen as an art school,” a senior said, “and we should be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do math and science and the academic subjects too.”

“We’re proud of being artists,” another student added, “and being different, but sometimes I think the younger kids don’t understand how seriously we take our studies.”

IMG_1737“Especially the sixth graders.”

“They see us being goofy in the hallways,” said another, “but not when we’re crying over an essay at two in the morning.”

“How can we help that?” a junior asked.

“We could talk to them in their Ohanas,” someone suggested. “Like right after midterms, when they’re getting their grades.”

“And we could help them,” another said. She looked around at the group. “Could we offer to tutor younger kids during Access?”

For any non-ACMA readers, “Access” is a 40 minute long period once a week when students can sign up to go to visit any teacher they’d like for extra help, to make up a test, or work on a project. Sometimes teachers get swamped, and the students at our forum noted that many of them had already taken and passed classes the underclassmen and middle schoolers were in now; they’d be willing to form study groups that med during that time.

Some of the students started talking logistics, some brainstormed the classes kids would need the most help in. One let her thinking include the topics of balance and wellness, and how students might help one another. Another how soon they could go to Ohanas to speak to students about taking academics seriously. Everyone was amazing.

IMG_1734…and I’d be fibbing if I said that I expected today’s forum to jump from art and communication to academics, but then it did.

These awesome students, given the opportunity to talk about anything they wanted, chose to talk about how they could help.

At ACMA that shouldn’t be surprising. 

Because as proud as we are to be a school of artists, free thinkers, and open minded humans, we’re also a school filled with students who care, students who want to help, and students who take their studies seriously  (even if they don’t always take themselves seriously, a healthy trait).

That one student said: “you need to know algebra even if you’re going to a conservatory” showed a glimpse of that ACMA magic. This is a place where the unexpected should be expected, where kindness finds its way into our best conversations, and where a gathering of artistic souls can go anywhere. 

“You can just talk,” our moderator told her peers. Today they did.

 

We’ll have our next ACMA Student Forum in the student study area in the B100 hall at both lunches on November 20th. 

Truth

I was up at 2:00 am and then again at 3:30. By 5:05 I was out of bed, and by 5:30 I was standing outside my school marveling at how dark it was with no exterior lights on anywhere. This is my 25th year as an educator, my 13th as a site administrator, and I still can’t sleep before the first day of school.

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Now truth be told, there weren’t many kids on campus today; this “first day of school” for me as a principal is the day my staff comes back from summer. They’re a wildly nice bunch, almost all of whom I’ve worked with now for years, and… and I still couldn’t sleep last night.

It’s not that I was nervous, not exactly. I had confidence that the day we’d put together would be a good one (starting with breakfast and ending with a scavenger hunt), and… it would be a lie to say I was relaxed, or calm, or not nervous. And I think that’s okay.

I write a lot in this collection of posts about what it’s like to be a principal, and about lots of the good stuff that comes with being an educator. That’s all true, and… I hope that for anyone reading who is an administrator or teacher, or heck, a student or parent too, that I don’t give the idea that this is easy. It’s not.

Doing a good job in this important work means being a little nervous, not just in your first year or your second, but in your 25th, and I’m sure 26th, and I’d guess until the last first day of school at the end of your career.

It doesn’t mean that fear has to be a part of the job, or anxiety, or panic. Then what did you have, you’ll ask, healthy insomnia? Well, at least an understanding that it’s okay to care so much about getting off to a good start that waking up a couple of times before that first day is okay, human, a part of this grand adventure. At least for me.

Then, several cups of coffee later… today went well.

My staff was rich with kindness, deep with caring, and light with humor. They smiled generously, participated in our work together willingly, and reminded me as they always do why I’m the luckiest principal in the world.

I hope all of the principals out there, and assistant principals, and teachers, and all of the educators who feel their blood pressure rise a little before the curtain goes up on another year can take a deep breath and believe that as challenging as this whole thing is, they’ll be okay. Sure, you might be a little short on sleep that first day back, but all will be well. Honest.

I’ll bring coffee.

Like Rick Always Said…

Every August as I prepare for the start of the school year (planning the opening staff meeting, making piles of new staff t-shirts, and figuring out what I’ll say when I get to welcome or welcome back the amazing staff and students) the words of one of my former superintendents come back to me: “Happy New Year!”

He started every welcome back administrator meeting with the line, smiling in a way that didn’t insinuate he was trying to be clever, but rang with genuine excitement.

IMG_0689Because every fall is an exciting beginning to a new year. Last year’s struggles have had the summer to slip away. Last year’s mistakes have had a couple of months to turn into something like wisdom, experience at least, and the pain of those errors and missteps have (we hope) transmogrified into cautionary tales.

Gone too are last year’s successes. Those events that went right, those challenges we rose to, those too are beginning to take on the sepia of age. If we’re to make the most of this year, we oughtn’t stay back in the past; those same fields of victory could prove disastrous if we imagine that we can simply repeat what we did before without thinking about it. 

The one exception to this slow fading are the relationships we’ve built. The friendships, the respect, the begrudging acceptance that we forged in the fire of year past are our new starting point in August. These are the faces who know us a little better today than they did last August, the good people who may even smile when we turn to them in the next week or two and say: “Happy New Year!”

So to all of my educator friends, to all my students and parents too, to everyone who, like me, is getting ready to shake the sand from our shoes and put the sunscreen away, I wish you a year of adventure, of connection, and of community. I hope your lessons go as planned, or better yet that they surprise you in wonderful ways when they don’t go as you planned them.

I hope you laugh often and much as you move through the hallways and that your laughter is shared with others. I hope that when you look up in December and then again in June you can say to yourself that the good days outnumbered the tears.

Because there will be tears. They’re a part of the process of being human, and maybe, just maybe, being better humans at the end of the year than we were at the start. Empathy and compassion happen under the direction of stress, and while I can’t wish my friends a year free of hard times, I can hope that I (and others too) will be there to help dry those tears, patch the cuts, and look forward with you at a future bright with possibility.

That promise of something better fills schools in August. It motivates us to develop big plans, imagine great enterprises, and say to each other, with real excitement: “Happy New Year!”

Emperors and New Clothes

When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.

photo 4Chutzpah. 

Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.

I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.

As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.

“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.

Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.

The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.

In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.

As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.