Commencement Address

In about three weeks our seniors will be graduating. They’ll gather in their black robes and square topped hats, march into the performing arts center (to the tune of a bagpipe, not pomp and circumstance; ACMA is a little less conventional than a more traditional high school), and sit down on stage for a ceremony that is part concert, part celebration, and part performance art.

One of the beautiful anomalies of the afternoon is seeing the whole graduating class, so wildly individual and creative, all together in their unifying commencement garb. Those funny tasseled caps and matching robes present our students in a serious and almost solemn way, beautifully juxtaposed with the spirit of creativity that defines our ceremony and lives within each of them.

There will be a jazz number, maybe two, a piece by our orchestra, and one from vocal music. Next week the seniors will vote on another entertainment for the ceremony that could be music, poetry, dance, or any other expression of art they’d  like to see that day. Those performances are some of the highlights of the ceremony, true reflections of our school and reminders of the power of art.

Our valedictorian will speak and a faculty member chosen by the graduating class. From these august voices the class of 2019 will receive inspiration and advice, and if I know our students and staff, we’ll laugh a bit and see our eyes moisten with emotion.

Two student speakers will take to the podium, stoking memories and offering perspective, giving the audience and their peers a window into the world of a student saying goodbye to a school she has known so intimately. I’m often moved and surprised by the depth of insight the senior speakers offer, heartfelt, honest, real. These speeches, interwoven with the musical performances, make our commencement a work of art.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 7.54.50 AM.pngAnd then…

Tradition dictates that as the principal I say a few words. It’s a job I’ve seen done a whole host of ways, from fatherly or motherly advice to attempts at wit, groaning acrostics, meandering and melodramatic monologues, and rafts of quotations tied together with dramatic pauses. I don’t want to do that.

Any advice I’d offer my graduates have already heard from me. I’ve given them the talk about the unifying and transformational power of art. Heck, they will have just seen it in their classmates’ performances.

If I’ve done my job, they’ve heard me talk about the importance of looking out for one another, taking care of friends and strangers, and making connections with those around them. They’ve listened when I’ve thanked or praised them for good work, both artistic and human. They’ve been told how important they are, how much they’ve meant to our school, and how much we’ll miss them when they leave. We really will.

The ones who need it have already gotten those extra promptings and pushes to realize their potential. Some got paternal talks in my office. Some heard me talk about my own failures along the way; we all stumble, they’ve heard me say, and they have the strength to get back up. I believe in them. I do.

So, my commencement address doesn’t need to be The Principal’s Greatest Hits Album.

And don’t let me quote Dr. Seuss.

But that’s not fair; Theodor Geisel has provided graduates with advice about the places they’ll go for years, and who am I to imagine that I’ve got the right answers to their unspoken questions.

I graduated up in the 1980s, when quotable advice showed up in movies like Teen Wolf:

There are three rules that I live by: never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”

I’m not sure how that dagger line would go over at graduation. No, I guess I’m pretty sure.

So, no Teen Wolf this year, but there will be a moment in the ceremony where I’ll step to the mic, knowing it’s my turn to say something. People expect it. Tradition.

Last year I read a poem.

I’d taught a few English classes over the course of the year, including some poems by C.P. Cavafy. The experience had moved me deeply and it felt right to offer my graduates “Ithaca” before they set sail on their own journeys.

And… I’m not one to repeat myself, so this year, without Greeks or daggers, Seuss or sagacity, I’ve got it in my head to suggest just one idea, a final nod of advice from an adult who counts himself fortunate to have know this beautiful, creative, and kind senior class.

I’ll say no more right now; I have to have some element of surprise when I get up there to speak. Once the shindig is over, the mortarboards have hit the ground, and the seniors have walked out of the theater to a tune by our jazz band, I’ll reprint the speech here, nothing fancy, and far, far, far shorter than most will expect. My modest contribution to a celebration of our graduates.

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Enter HAMLET, reading

POLONIUS: Do you know me, my lord?
HAMLET: Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.

Two students spotted it, a fish tucked inside the plexiglass of our reader board out front. Incongruous, unexpected, and quite, quite dead, the fish looked out at them from beneath an advertisement for the upcoming production of Hamlet. I don’t know if that fish was in any way a reference to the play, but I like to imagine that whoever put it there had the fishmonger line in mind when she did. As a principal, believing the best in everyone, even misbehaving fishmongers, should be part of the job description.

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Being an educator means being ready for anything. Good surprises (our thespians qualified for state, one of our jazz musicians just released an album, our filmmakers just won a slew of prizes at the district film festival), bad surprises (a burst pipe, road construction out front during registration day, a car accident in the parking lot), and sometimes a dead fish.

Those of us who have made a career of education bring to our work the flexibility to handle any of those, preferably with a smile.

I shared a photo of the dead fish in the reader board with some friends who are administrators in other schools. Kindred spirits, I knew they’d smile at this bit of the unexpected on my campus as I’ve smiled at odds and ends they’ve sent my way. Connections with fellow administrators, both far and near, is an important ingredient in the life of a principal or assistant principal.

Because as a school administrator the news isn’t always good. Budgets constrict. Students, and sometimes adults, make poor choices. The stresses of the world seep into the work we do on campus. We do our best to help our ships sail straight, but rough weather is a constant in the principal’s office. Waves of budget, winds of school safety, and navigating the storms sometimes means you find yourself with a stray fish on the boat. Or in the reader board.

All that said, my favorite part of our recent fish, was that when the miscreants left us the fish, they also left a box with latex gloves to make clean up easier. Thoughtful, even if a little fishy.

Thoughtful, and inspiring in its own way. Later in the week the two students who’d spotted the fish came into my office to ask if I’d play a role in their movie “Two Girls and a Fish.” Inspired by the zaniness of our wayward shad, they’d put together a playful short that tried to capture a mischievous sense of fun. What better result of a prank than inspiring art. So very ACMA.

Now I’m not encouraging more out of place seafood on campus; even with gloves that fish smelled worse than anyone should have to smell on a Monday, but I do appreciate the opportunity to laugh at the unexpected, be reminded that life is anything but predictable, and revel in creation of art.

No Problem

Board games, homemade pretzels, and a couple of good books, Winter Break, that oasis in the middle of the year of public education, is winding down, and as it does I look back over the mounds of crinkled wrapping paper, the soot in the fireplace, and more holiday dishes than anyone should ever have to wash up, and I’m overcome with gratitude.

…and…

Cleaning the garage, taking the elderly cat to the vet, and the car to the shop, Winter Break is more than just hot chocolate and gingerbread. These two weeks away from work offer the obligations of life a chance to get resolved. They’re an opportunity to go to the gym, catch up on laundry, and whittle away at the to do list that has spent the fall growing from a seedling into a stout tree.

Both relaxing and getting work done is a balance as tough to find (for me anyway) as the missing bulb in a string of lights, and it’s something to strive for during these short days and cold nights. For the kids, the freedom from homework, the luxury of late wake ups, and ample time to go to the movies or read a novel for fun have made the two weeks heaven. For us over forty crowd, just having time to connect, whether going for a walk around the lake or covertly wrapping presents in the bedroom, is time to be savored.

This year my folks visited us here in Oregon. In their eighties, they brought a very grounded energy to the house. While the rain fell and a fire popped and flickered in the fireplace, we played King in the Corner (a card game my own grandma had taught me), watched the cats explore new laps, and listened to music.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.01.13 PMOn this winter’s playlist was No Problem, a 1980 album by the Chet Baker Quartet. Listening to Baker’s horn, Norman Fearrington’s deft drumming, Duke Jordan’s piano, and the heartbeat of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen’s bass is a lesson in cool. No Problem is no Kind of Blue or Take Five, but the album’s easy sound felt perfect this December.

As comfortable as the quartet sounded together, I know that to make music that swings with such a relaxed gate doesn’t happen easily. Their work in the practice room, the years of experience each musician brought to the sessions, and the confidence that comes from knowing that preparations are complete are the ingredients needed for such a success.

To sound as relaxed as No Problem only happens after hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) of anything but relaxed preparation. Gold from sweat, that sort of thing. Kind of like being an educator.

I hope my fellow teachers, counselors, administrators, and staff are preparing to return to school renewed and rested, ready to embrace the opportunities that 2019 will offer. What those will be is anybody’s guess.

Some, I’m sure, will conform to that old Edison quotation: “opportunity is missed by most people because it comes dressed in overalls looking like hard work.” The peace that comes from Winter Break may just provide the space I need to welcome that overall clad possibility when it walks into my office.

Other opportunities will, I hope, come from some of the seeds planted this fall, as the fruits of early labors begin to appear in the spring thaw. Good friends and creative colleagues, students, and families will present other opportunities, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that these personal invitations to make a difference often matter the most. A few may come about out of tension and stress; these opportunities to solve a problem or turn something around are often the hardest and most rewarding.

Like a good jazz album, for any results to be positive I understand that I need to bring the right mindset to my work, an openness to improvisation, and a willingness to work hard. This isn’t easy, not always, but …Winter Break.

I return to school in a different mental space than I when left campus a couple of weeks ago. Will the second half of the year be without challenges or heartbreak? I’d be foolish to promise as much. Will the new year bring stress, and tears, and lots of hard work? Almost certainly so. But looking ahead, to the start of a new semester, a spring of unexpected adventures, and on to graduation in June, I feel buoyed by Winter Break and ready for what is to come.

And my answer to those inevitable difficulties, that hard work, and the surprises that don’t bring good news, I hope will be delivered with the ease and optimism that comes only after lots of preparation and the right state of mind, the kind of practice that Chet Baker et al. brought to the album of my season. I enter the year with confidence (but as little hubris as I can muster) and my answer to those challenges of 2019, said with hope, a belief in good, and quiet determination will be: no problem.

Listening Session

The conversations were never light, though we allowed ourselves to laugh together, leaning in to listen as we did the hard work. It was a “Budget Listening Session” and I put the title in quotation marks because it is not my own; every school will host a similar event sometime in December or January, using the district’s presentation to share budget facts with our school communities before diving in to an activity that asks us to prioritize spending in the event we see a gap between our projected expenditures and 2019-2020 revenue. I was the evening’s host, but not its master.

budget 1Knowing how challenging it can be to talk about big issues like budget, particularly when our control over the topic is limited and the impact on our work is profound, I decided early on to enlist some of the best voices I know: students.

I went to our National Honor Society, which at my school does so much service for our students, parents, and school community, and asked if a half dozen or so would join me on the night to be table leaders for our budget activity. I met with them the day before, outlining the information I’d be sharing and giving them a heads up about what we’d be doing. They listened thoughtfully, asked good questions, and said they were happy to have their voices heard.

On the night parents and staff members arrived, curious and (unless I’m projecting) a little nervous. I did my best to share the rows of statistics, the history, and the process of budgeting in Oregon, and then introduced the activity.

We divided into tables, I handed out the materials, and they got to work.

Three things struck me as I walked from table to table listening and answering questions.

First, the students, staff, and parents all seemed comfortable talking to one another. They listened, considered what others had said, and worked together to look at the budget at hand. My student table leaders allowed all voices to be heard, including my staff members whose understanding surpassed most in the room, and my parents, both those who had been through lean budget times and those for whom this was the first discussion of this kind they’d had outside their kitchen table.

budget 2Next, everyone cared so much, and for how the suggestions they were making impacted everyone. Students, some of whom will have graduated before next year’s budget is approved by the state, talked about choices from a point of view that was anything but checked out. They cared deeply, both for their school and for their peers, and as I heard them speak, I could tell that their perspective extended to include those children not yet in school. One teacher of seniors went out of his way to emphasize the importance of early childhood education. One parent talked with her table about the budget’s impact on everyone in the state.

Finally, they recognized the budget box we were working within, but didn’t accept staying there entirely. Yes, they understood the limits an individual, school, or even district could have on the process, and they articulated the importance of each person there had in making their voice heard. They imagined school and community partnerships to help bridge some gaps. They talked about political action they might take to help lawmakers see how much this matters. They connected with one another over a difficult conversation, and left, I believe more bonded than they’d been coming in.

I left with a hope in our future, inspired by those students who care, imagine, and will solve problems in ways few of us can even imagine. I left with resolve, knowing that no one needs to be a passive member of our society, but we all can make a difference if we work together to be heard. And I left with appreciation for the school community I have the privilege to be a part of. These parents, students, and staff members inspired me more than I can say. It was an evening that none of us named, but all of us owned, together.

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.

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.