Problems of Practice

It’s not an easy job. No one said it would be. For those of us in public school administration, however, the job is one worth doing and worth doing well.

This is my twenty-fifth year in education, about half of those as an assistant principal and then principal, and while the overwhelming majority of the work is positive, connecting with kids, getting to know families, and supporting caring teachers, there is a stressful side too (I suppose there is in any meaningful work) and I couldn’t have stayed at it -through the tears, raised voices, tension, and stress- if I hadn’t worked with supportive people and honestly believed that I had the possibility of making a difference.

Being a site administrator means being a good steward of the school, a supporter of the staff and students, and a person willing to have the difficult conversations to help the school function best.

Those are often conversations held solo, one at a time, door closed, emotions high. When they end, however they end, principals and assistant principals are left to take a deep breath and get about the business of whatever comes next.

Sometimes, in those most fortunate and often rare times, there’s a colleague able to escape the rush of obligations that define our worlds and listen for a bit. Principals and assistant principals who have been in the business know the value of these kindred spirits and recognize the challenges of making time to support one another.

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It’s this reality that makes me most appreciate a commitment the administrators in my district are making this year to build time for us to pause from our daily work long enough to share some “problems of practice.”

At our monthly principals meetings we take time midway through the morning to break into groups and talk. One of us poses a question, a real one, that is weighing on our mind. The issues might be school culture related, about safety, or about academics. The common denominator is that as a principal we don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a structure to our discussion, based on the consultancy protocol developed by the School Reform Initiative. It’s a thorough process that involves a group of half a dozen administrators.

One of us takes about ten minutes to introduce a dilemma we’re struggling with, asking a question to the rest of the group to help focus the conversation to come. For another five minutes the group asks clarifying questions, doing their best to understand nuances of the problem at hand. As administrators we want information before we make decisions, and this back and forth provides it.

We then shift to probing questions, hoping to prompt the original questioner to think about the issue in a new way. Next, the process shifts into a curious conversation between the group during which the original questioner is an observer, taking notes, but not participating in the discussion. Having been both a participant and an presenter this year, I can say that it’s a part of the process that is transformative. To hear peers puzzling through the issue, the same issue vexing one of us in real time, is powerful and can lead to real insights. The process ends with a reporting out, the presenter reflecting aloud insights and appreciation. In the course of an hour or so real movement can take place.

But even more than technique, this time we spend leaning in and listening, being vulnerable (and truly so) with each other, and focusing our attention (attention so often fragmented by diverse demands and unexpected stresses), focusing our attention on helping each other, this time is important because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are more than bureaucracy and we are facing problems that may just have a solution, even if we haven’t been able to see it on our own.

Getting to those solutions alone can seem impossible. I suppose sometimes it might be. But in the company of colleagues, the stress of our meaningful work feels more likely to form a diamond than remain a lump of coal.

It’s not an easy job, but with the perspective, encouragement, and support of others, it’s a job we may yet do well.

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Leadership Wears A Cape

While I’d love to imagine myself Han Solo, daring, roguish, independent, I’ve come to realize that as a principal on my best days, and I mean my best, I’m cloud city Lando Calrissian.

landoBeing an administrator means being put in a position where every day involves balancing competing demands and trying to stay focused on a greater goal. Sometimes it’s little annoyances that get in the way of progress; we’re the proverbial “small outpost, not very self-sufficient, with supply problems of every kind, labor difficulties…”

Other times it feels like Darth Vader is breathing through our hallways.

There are more elegant ways to describe the sturm und drang of the business side of site administration, but for those of us with an affinity for George Lucas’ space opera, the fact remains that the patron saint of principals is Billy Dee Williams’ 1981 Lando Calrissian. We’re doing our best, trying to be charming, think we look great in that cape, and sometimes, in the face of stress and forces beyond our control, we make mistakes.

I was thinking about Lando this week when navigating some projects beyond my school’s control. As a principal, I do my best to advocate for my campus, my teachers, and my students, but find that sometimes my voice isn’t as powerful as others in the room. Like Lando, I work to establish relationships and build agreements that will help my school, sometimes feeling as optimistic as he did when he told Han and Leia: “I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Lando entersYeah. That.

And just like cloud city Lando, sometimes I see those deals fall through, or get changed. It’s not unusual for someone of authority to play the part of Darth Vader, saying (perhaps in a more subtle way): “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

So we adjust.

Being a principal often means searching for the best contingency, finding footing the face of shifting sands. If all goes well, we might end up on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca; at worst Han ends up in carbon freeze. Sometimes both.

The secret, if there is such a thing, that I’ve found is looking for little places to make a difference (“Having trouble with your droid?”), staying optimistic (I look great in this cape), and trying to keep things in perspective (I do get to live in a cloud city).

worseThere will always be times when things don’t go according to plan, when a budget is cut or a need goes unfilled. Tempers will flare, sometimes justifiably, folks won’t communicate clearly, or decisions will get made that benefit someone other than your school. There will be a point when any principal would be tempted to swish his cape and mutter: “This deal is getting worse all the time.” And that isn’t the wrong reaction, at least in the moment, but if we remember our Empire Strikes Back properly we know that at some point Lando activated Lobot, hustled Leia and the gang to the Falcon, and set about the hard work of rescuing his friend.

Not defined by his mistakes or his misplaced alliance, cloud city Lando made the best of things. Principals everywhere could do worse.

Price Tag

I once had a teacher I respect come up to me after a staff meeting and give me a number. He’d spent a chunk of his time in his seat not paying attention to what was being presented, but rather doing some math. He’d looked around the room, counted out how many teachers and staff were there, calculated hourly wages, looked at the clock, and figured a total cost for the meeting. It was staggering. “That’s how much this staff meeting cost,” he told me. “Was it worth that?”

Now I’ve never been one for long meetings, or standing up in front of a group reading through information that could be as easily distributed in an email or memo, but it was this amazing educator’s decision to put the “value” of meeting in black and white that has stuck with me for now almost a decade. As I prep meetings, particularly those that start the school year, his question echoes in my mind “Was it worth that?”

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What this means on the ground is more than just shorter meetings. Yes, I limit my welcome back days to mornings only, sticking firm to the commitment to get my teachers into their classrooms before lunch, but in addition I do my best to be mindful of how we spend those mornings together.

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We laugh.
We listen to kids.
We connect.
We discuss.
We play.
We try to come to consensus on the issues that impact our work.

…and when we have those mandated moments (of blood-borne pathogen training and such) we do our best to remember Shakespeare’s line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

IMG_8275Sure there are times when a presentation is necessary, and I’ve found that teachers are most kind when it’s other teachers who are giving those presentations. It’s also important that we allow time enough to breathe around the information we get, so the discussions we have can really matter.

As a principal I’m not perfect in any of this; just ask my teachers, they’d tell you. But I do try hard to respect their time, and our time together. I know how much it costs.

After the meetings I walk. I do my best to lean into classrooms and chat. I’m reminded of that line from Henry V, when before the battle of Agincourt the king walks amongst his soldiers:

For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

I’m no King Henry, but I do try to echo his optimism and modest smile. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that my teachers work as hard, are more engaged, and get more done than any did when I was a part of marathon meetings.

The price tag for our time together is high, and that doesn’t mean that we ought not meet, it just means that those meetings ought to be worth it.

The Opposite of Athena

“It is not enough to have a classroom free of psychological and social threats. The brain needs to be part of a caring social community to maximize its sense of well being. Marginalized students need to feel affirmed and included as valued members of a learning community.”     -Zaretta Hammond

At the end of last school year a series of conversations with some great teachers and students got me thinking more about the cultural backgrounds our students bring with them to school and how welcoming and affirming, or not, we are to those stories. I’m proud of the kind and supportive atmosphere that helps to define our school. Coupled with wild creativity, a comfort expressing ourselves, and an atmosphere that celebrates the individuals who make up our school community, ours is a school where to be a little different is just fine.

athena vaseHere at ACMA we work hard to create culture, a lofty and important pursuit, and as we do we would be wise to also consider the diverse and meaningful cultures our students, and staff as well, bring with them to our campus. None of us are, like Athena from Greek mythology, sprung fully formed from the brow of a god; we come to school carrying within us the long and rich histories of our families.

Some of that history makes us strong, some of that history gives us doubt, and all of that history helps to define who we are at the start of our individual journey. Can we transcend our families and heritages? Sure. Are we even richer if we can integrate those into who we are? I think so.

In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, Zaretta Hammond encourages educators to reflect mindfully on their own cultural baggage, challenging us to know ourselves. “You can never take yourself out of the equation,” she writes. Instead, you must commit to the journey. This means we each must do the ‘inside out’ work required: developing the right mindset, engaging in self-reflection, checking our implicit biases, practicing social-emotional awareness, and holding an inquiry stance regarding the impact of our interactions on students.”

Hammond-coverHammond often returns to the focus on paying attention to ourselves and our students. Recognizing that culture is how we (and our kids) make sense of the world underscores the importance of making room for all voices.

It was this spirit of listening to each others’ stories and reflecting on our own that prompted a “Culture Bag” activity at our leadership summit last week. Before the meeting we were given the instructions: “Please bring three items which represent who you are (i.e. your culture) that you wouldn’t mind sharing with others. Your culture is a matter of perspective and can be specifically tied to your interests, your experiences, your family, etc. We will use this time to learn a little more about each other.”

I’m usually dubious about activities designed to push me into connecting. I hate any artificial notion of getting to know you, but…

Before we began sharing, our superintendent stood up and modeled what we would be doing. He shared his story, and his artifacts (a photograph of his siblings, a hammer from his days working in a plywood mill, and his diploma from college), pulling back the curtain on his life and becoming very, very human. That he was so willing to be so vulnerable set the tone for something special.

So when I found myself at a table with three other administrators we all embraced the invitation to share a bit of ourselves. We laughed, winced at some of the tough stuff that has made us who we are, and ended after about fifteen minutes with a better understanding of what guides our work with students. I knew then that it was something I wanted to do with my staff.

For the adults who fill my school, gifted and caring professionals who bring so much to their jobs, I hope this kind of sharing can help us all to know each other, understand each other, and think about the rich stories we all bring to our school. I’m hopeful too that it’s a spirit that we’ll all bring to our opening days with the students.

I’ll save my own stories for our first staff meeting next week, though for any staff member peeking at this little post, I’ll share this photo without explanation.

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Throughout the year I want to provide my students, my staff, and my school chances to celebrate our culture and our cultures, ourselves and our stories, and to see one another as honest, real, and very, very human.

Fellow Campers

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 7.14.00 AMA year ago my ten year old son saw a man die. It was a hot, hot day in central Oregon and he and another boy near his age were casting worms into the Prineville Reservoir from the back of a friend’s motorboat. At the helm was an assistant principal from my district. Beside him, helping the boys with their fishing poles, was a principal from a sister school. A small pack of us were camping on one of these last weekends before the start of the year and while I sat on the shore beside a couple of other administrators, across the water a drunken man climbed to the top of a hundred foot cliff and decided that he should jump in the water.

For those of us on the beach, the first sign that something horrible had happened came when the boat chugged back into view, the adult faces onboard grim, the kids fussing over their poles.

We helped tie up the boat, and as the boys trundled their tackle boxes onshore, the men, one dripping wet, leaned in to explain what had happened.

They described foolish youth, a young man climbing up and up, their discussion that there was no way he’d jump from so high, their losing sight of him for a moment of relief as they imagined him climbing down, and the realization that something terrible might happen when they saw him reemerge even higher up on the rocks.

The boys were fishing off the other side of the boat. I like to imagine that their attention was focused on the promise of bass.

When the man hit the water, feet first, head hitting hard, he sank like a stone.

The assistant principal at the tiller had the boys pull up their lines and piloted the boat toward the base of the cliff. The principal shed his hat and sunglasses and dove in as soon as they arrived. In the dark water he found nothing.

The men in the boat left us to return to the cliff and give statements to the police. We dads took quiet walks with our kids to make sure they were okay. The experience was surreal.

It also, in the space of a day, provided a window into the character of my colleagues. Their calm, care, and unflinching ability to act was inspiring.

I’d witnessed the kindness of my colleagues earlier in the day, someone taking a photo of my son’s first fish, a picture I keep near my desk and he keeps on his bedside bookshelf, and echoing that kindness was the care those fellows in the boat felt about the wellbeing of the boys in the wake of the tragedy. These were traits I could imagine defined them not only as people, but as professionals as well. Bravery. Presence of mind. Care. This, I imagined, was some of what they brought to their work at schools.

I saw those colleagues throughout the school year, never often enough in the hurly burly profession we share, and never for as long as we’d like. Today we reconnected at our all district admin meeting where the district’s collected administrators spent a good chunk of the day talking about building trust.

What I didn’t say at that meeting (it might have sounded funny or out of place) was that I trust those administrators from the camping trip profoundly and completely. They are people of integrity and goodness. They are the kind of people parents are fortunate to have working with their kids.

Not everyone gets to peek into the hearts of their administrators, see them in times of great stress, but last summer I did. They rose to the occasion.

And I know that every year principals and assistant principals are confronted by intensely stressful situations and high stakes emergencies. When kids make decisions that are dangerous or tragedy strikes unexpectedly, the women and men who take on the responsibility of leading schools have to put aside the metaphoric joys of fishing, hurry to the trouble, and dive into the water.

As we get ready to start a new school year I find inspiration in those caring and courageous souls around me. I wish for us all years without tragedy, and wish for the many of us who will find it the strength and spirit of those fellow campers.

Rat Slabs and Bollards

IMG_8010Occasionally there were moments of levity, like the time late in the afternoon when there was some confusion about the garbage can washing station and someone cut to the chase and described it as an “industrial bidet.” Just yikes.

Sitting at a long conference table with a dozen experts in plumbing, electrical, and engineering, I was a stranger in a strange land, a principal at a day long construction meeting. It’s a part of the job that I was not trained for; I got into education to teach kids English. As a principal, however, and a principal at a school preparing to undergo major construction, it’s important for me to able to take my seat at the gathering of those folks who make a living by designing, constructing, and making buildings work and be more than a spectator. I need to pay attention, listen, learn, and participate.

So yesterday from ten in the morning until after five o’clock at night we talked through more than 300 items, reviewing, accepting, and writing comments on everything from rat slabs to bollards …so many bollards.

IMG_8012I wasn’t the biggest expert in the room; I’m an educator, not a builder, but the many voices who joined the meeting were, and their perspectives (under the guiding hand of our gifted project manager) informed the design of a school that will truly benefit kids.

I get asked sometimes if I hate going to construction meetings, especially so close to the start of the school year when there are things to be done on site and my attention needs to go toward preparing for teachers and students to return to campus. My answer is a resounding no.

How important is it that the principal know the voltage of the hand dryers? Maybe not that much. But for the dozen times I needed to speak up and offer the school’s point of view on things like the importance of LED track lighting for displaying artwork in the hallways or the need to make the commons a true performance space, my presence and focus were very important.

IMG_8014For nine of my ten years as a site administrator I’ve worked at schools undergoing construction. I’ve redone two libraries, overseen three campus spanning trenching and data rewiring projects, and been a part of designing and constructing a two story science and math building. I’ve had the opportunity to plan, work with architects, and put on a hard hat year after year, and 2018-2019 sees the start of the biggest project of my professional life: we’re razing the beloved and antiquated current building and replacing it with all new construction.

This is a big build, independent of the challenges we face to save and honor existing student artwork and decades of rich history, and one that will be a success because of the many, many professionals each contributing their expertise (on everything from HVAC to soffits to I beams).

At our review meeting the team systematically worked through question after question, discussing what needed to be done, cross referencing city and state ordinances, and talking through district standards and school requirements. Today’s meeting involved many experts on specific aspects of construction.

In the morning the civil engineers were there, talking exterior details with the landscape architects. My contributions were modest, but the information I heard will be important as I talk with my staff, students, and parents.

By late morning we’d moved inside, discussing the layout of the new kitchen, ovens, refrigeration, and a wire wall. We talked structural challenges, risk management offering ideas to avoid encouraging indoor parkour in our commons, maintenance discussing polished concrete and long term durability, and our architects lobbying to maintain the aesthetics of a marvelous wood and metal feature near the main staircase.

IMG_8013HVAC and plumbing followed a working lunch, with discussions of redundancy, talk of fans, vents, and water heaters filling the construction trailer where we were meeting. A rousing debate about ductwork put us behind schedule, all of us rummy and a little tired. It was then that the renewing laughter from that daring description of the garbage can washing station gave us enough energy to smile and keep going. We dove into electrical, IT, and AV.

Throughout the day my appreciation for the expertise of those many individuals grew and grew. This was collaboration incarnate. My school of the future will be better because Leslie knows building, Jane knows architecture, and Chris knows everything.

It’s meetings like today’s that give me a thorough and profound understanding of my site. They are an opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone, be an advocate for my school, and help contribute in a small but useful way to the important work of building something amazing.

Infectious Exuberance

This morning a group of students filled my office with their positive energy and vision for the year ahead. My first summer meeting with the elected officers is always a treat and this year it provided a jolt of excitement ahead of the run up to the start of school.

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For a couple of weeks I’ve been at my desk planning the opening days when teachers return, fine tuning the master calendar, and thinking about the first week with students. All of those plans, which look good on my computer screen, but feel a world away from the action that will arrive with students, paused as I listened to these fantastic student leaders talk me through the series of events, the schemes to support school spirit, and the vision for a fantastic ACMA that they’ve been working on all summer.

Like me, they’ve been planning, and as they gave voice to those plans it was inspiring to hear the passion behind their ideas and the dedication to bringing those ideas into action.

2018-2019 will see events focused on helping students tell their stories, make connections to the school and each other, and show pride in who they are and this special school we call home.

I’ll let the students introduce their plans themselves, but as I wrote notes on my calendar during our meeting I kept thinking: these students have a plan and the power to make our school a better place every month!

I was particularly happy to hear the students talking about opportunities for our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to share artwork, participate in events on campus, and contribute to the positive atmosphere of our school. I loved the focus on community, the celebration of all art forms, and the importance of play.

The students also talked about smart choices to best get information to students and share a window into our world with the broader community. Heck, this meeting made me consider getting on Instagram to be sure not to miss out on some of the fun.

With less than a month before teachers return to campus, spending the morning with students energized me more than anything else I’m likely to do this summer. Those same students will be the first voices my teachers hear when they come back this fall; they’ve agreed to lead our staff through a couple of activities designed to reinforce the importance of human connections between students and staff. I have no doubt that the staff will find them as inspiring as I did today.

As July turns into August it’s time to shift gears from the more relaxed pace of summer to the growing excitement of the start of school. There is no better time on campus than those sunny days of early fall, and I’m over the moon excited to be sharing this journey with such amazing students!