Traditionally Different

This year will look different, of course. Commencement, like everything else since March of 2020, isn’t the same as it always has been.

It will look different than last year too, when we had to do everything online, much to the disappointment of more than a few seniors.

Graduation for the class of 2021 will be a series of firsts for ACMA. The first outdoor ceremony. The first time we aren’t celebrating at our home on Center Street and the first time graduates will sit with their families (in socially distanced pods of chairs).

There will be a few things that feel the same. We’ll begin the ceremony with bagpipes and end with Joe Avery’s Second Line. The heart of the day will be student speakers and a thoughtful staff address, and we’ll livestream it all for relatives who can’t make it to campus.

We’re putting the finishing touches on the ceremony this week and as the principal, with the honor and the obligation of addressing the class, I’m working on what I’ll deliver as a speech.

In years past I’ve been unconventional (a poem by Cavafy, a video, a three word speech) but this year it feels like I ought to make a nod to something that looks more familiar. Now this doesn’t mean I’ll be quoting Dr. Seuss or riffing about the definition of the world commencement, but I do feel like the structure of a speech might need to feel more traditional.

I’ve toyed with a few ideas, and as the hours tick away before I need to send something to the ASL translators who will be working the event I think I’ve just about settled on something that (I hope) brings to the fore what is most important about our work: the people.

One of the lessons most brought home by this pandemic and the reshuffling we’ve had to do for the past many months is that it’s not the building or the classes that define our school, it’s not the performances or pieces of art we produce (though both of those things are important too), but it is the relationships shared by the people (adult and student) who make up our school. It’s those people and relationships that I’ll do my best to speak to on Saturday. It will take me more than three words, I don’t have a poem or a green screen, and…

It’s okay to be different, particularly this year.

Growth

One person I know learned how to play the accordion, another began roasting his own coffee beans, another wrote some poetry that looks to be published soon. I’ve heard stories of people building greenhouses, recording songs, and cataloguing vintage oscilloscopes during this time of staying at home during the pandemic.

I have done none of that.

Day to day I’ve simply done my imperfect best to help my school stay connected, my family stay healthy, and myself survive with some level of sanity during these strange, strange days. I’ve read a lot, exercised too little, and avoided growing a pandemic beard.

As we take our first halting steps toward “normal” I hope that those of us who didn’t learn a language or pick up a masters degree in the months of quarantine can allow ourselves to feel no guilt.

We’re okay too.

Next week my school will see the first students back on campus for classes since March 2020. Some folks are nervous, some are excited, some our trying to imagine what it will look like. As the principal, I’m a little bit of all three of those categories, though I have a visual in my office that helps me picture at least a part of what it will might be like: a money tree plant.

I got the plant several years ago, a small thing to decorate my office, and have repotted it twice since. I found a photo from when we were at our old campus and saw that at that time, just before we moved to the temporary campus where we’ve been for a little more than a year and a half, the money tree was about as tall as the student sitting next to it as a group of ACMA filmmakers used my office for a short they were working on. (For anyone puzzling at what I was doing in a tie, not my day to day attire, I’m told I was playing a 1950s private eye.) 

Production of that film was interrupted by the pandemic, all our performances relegated to what might have been. But the plant…

Today that plant towers over me, enjoying the sun from a nearby window and growing like a middle schooler over a long summer.

How many of our students may have done the same? I’ve mostly seen the kids from the neck up, Zooming into Open Mic Nights or class meetings. The times I’ve been able to see them in person, picking something up from in front of the school or walking through for one of our socially distanced events, I’ve marveled at how tall some have gotten. Young giraffes into young adults.

But growth isn’t only on the outside. All of our students, and the adults that work with them too, have grown and changed in the months we’ve been apart. Some of this growth has been hard earned, some influenced by stress beyond our control, some experienced with the pain that comes with any transformation.

While we take steps toward returning to campus we are different than we were last March. Some of us have learned a little more about ourselves and our world, some of us have learned to long for or appreciate what we took for granted a year ago, all of us have seen the world we knew changed around us.

And as that old Washington Irving line goes: “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Bruised? Sure. Changed? Yes. Has the last year really been a bumpy stagecoach ride? Seems like it more often than not. And…

Even if you can’t see it on the outside, like that plant in my office we’ve grown. New shoots have stretched from the stalk, reaching toward the sun. If we nurture our growth, care for ourselves, and keep leaning into the light we may just be okay. 

Together, all of us, those who have done great things and those who have done our best to do our best, together we can start again. Changed. Bruised. Better again.

Break, not Broken

I tell myself that I don’t always limp into spring break, but I think that may be a lie.

The exhaustion of winter clings to March like the winter clouds that haven’t yet given up the fight with spring. I feel it, I hear it in the voices of so many I interact with, young and not so young, and as an educator (now circling the calendar in remote learning) feeling tired, as familiar as it has become, feels different this year. Maybe it’s that I don’t quite believe that I’ll return to start April renewed. Maybe.

But pessimism doesn’t help a thing, and a wise co-worker once reminded me that the attitude I project as a leader has more impact that I know, so instead of focusing on those clouds that are dropping rain on this March day I think it’s wise to suppose that while I may be limping now (emotionally, physically, as a principal, and as a human) by the end of this week away from work I may have found my stride again.

It’s a good story and I’m sticking to it.

And while I don’t have any pithy insight right now (I am limping after all), a story comes to mind from just a few days ago.

I was wearing my ACMA Carnival shirt, the red one with a circus tent above our school’s name, as I checked out at the grocery store early in the morning. I’d stopped there, sleepy eyed, to pick up something unhealthy and sweet before my first Zoom of the day. The cashier spotted my shirt and asked “What’s that?” I looked down. “Oh, a school,” I told her. “Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. It’s a magical place and this is from an event we did a while back, a spring party that…” I saw disappointment in her eyes, even as she seemed to smile behind her mask. “I thought it was from a carnival,” she said conspiratorially. “I haven’t been to something like that since I worked in the circus.”

I was in a hurry. I was tired. There was someone behind me in line. I foolishly did not ask a follow up question. She worked in the circus! I walked out of the store a thousand questions in my head, all left unasked.

And I have been thinking about that interaction for days.

Over the next week I hope to allow my thoughts to step off the mental trapeze they’ve been swinging on for the past few months. I’d like to go for a walk, not cram into a clown car or be shot from a cannon, both of which I feel I’ve experienced some days. And when I step back under the bigtop, playing ringmaster for a few more sunny weeks, I hope to bring with it a sense of joy, engagement, and wonder …something I know some people haven’t felt since they worked in the circus.

Permission

Not long ago my staff and I shifted gears and set aside a chunk of our planned professional development to allow ourselves some time to connect. Once we were there (well, on the Zoom together anyway), people listened and I think heard the overwhelming truth that while we may be stressed, while we may hold on more to worry than we’d like, and while many of us (at least by a show of hands) aren’t sleeping as well as we wish we were, we are not alone.

Along with our stories we shared some laughter, hardly a surprise with our caring staff, and some ideas about how we can continue to adjust things as we start the new semester. Most of all it felt like the alchemy of this adjusted day made something better than gold out of our very raw and real emotions. I think many of us felt something almost akin to hope.

It was nice to have permission to feel that too.

Comprehensive distance learning has been hard. It’s been hard on students, on teachers, on staff, and on families. We try our best and work with purpose and professionalism, and sometimes the results are pretty great. Other times, well, comprehensive distance learning is hard.

So for that professional development, after listing a menu of options for a variety of topics I added one last option for my staff.

“Finally,” I wrote, “I’d like to add one more: permission. If you need to not attend one of these, if you need to go for a walk, snuggle with your pet, or call a friend, then please give yourself permission to do so. You matter so much, and taking care of yourself, showing yourself kindness, and giving yourself grace, all these are important too.”

As educators we are givers. We give to our students, our colleagues, and our school community. We give of our time, our hearts, and sometimes our pocketbooks. We give to everyone who needs us, except (all too often) ourselves.

Few staff members took me up on that final choice, though the responses I got to that PD email were as kind as they were heartfelt, and I like to imagine that the willingness to shift gears and focus on engaging with one another might have helped too.

And then I got an email from one of my amazing teachers who I’d asked for ideas about future PDs. She wrote some very kind words about including that final option and then offered some suggestions that made me smile:

“That’s a  long intro to some ideas,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what boxes you have to check so that site PD is indeed site PD, but….

“Permission to relax. Permission to laugh. Permission to learn from our mistakes and from each other without a heavy title/subject attached.

“Kemba-led-yoga

“Mark-led drawing

“Remote Teaching BINGO (have had a silly autocorrect in Zoom chat, have typed an angry email that you didn’t send, cried during Zoom, cried after Zoom, stopped everything mid-Zoom and pivoted because it clearly wasn’t working, is feeling your eyesight go downhill because of all this screen time)

“An option to read/listen to/watch all these lovely “we’re not alone/here’s someone who loves teachers giving you advice” articles, clips, etc. that staff members share and I, for one, would love to read/listen to/watch, but honestly… when? If you TOLD me to pick one, sit back and watch it? I would.

“Break out rooms to share something that you’ve been doing that’s totally unrelated to remote teaching. Something human that brings some joy and reminds us that we’re all still living lives that are rich and don’t include a screen. 

“Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re ALWAYS ON A SCREEN. It’s simply exhausting. And it’s always there. Before, during, and after class… grading, planning, meetings. All of it. For many of us, the only thing stronger than our desire to be with our co-workers and friends is our desire to watch screen time die a quick death. If you could get us all hazmat suits and/or accelerate the vaccine so we could mingle on the blacktop… that’d be great!”

I can’t afford hazmat suits, and I doubt Risk Management would smile on that anyway, but I can weave some of her ideas into future PD. If working with my amazing staff has taught me anything during this strange, strange, strange time, it’s the importance of laughter, of love, and the importance of allowing ourselves permission.

Roll for Initiative

Goblins, orcs, and ogres… while I’m not so jaded as a high school principal to suggest that this is the clientele that fills our school hallways, I’m dorky enough to make the pitch that if I can handle a hoard of kobolds or bugbears, I can handle a hoard of teenagers. (A variation on that “classic” maxim, I suppose: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”) Hear me out.

This summer I had the opportunity to step in on a panel for a friend who was teaching a college class for aspiring administrators. It was a lot of fun and I was humbled by the depth of wisdom from the others on the panel. They were so thoughtful about such a range of topics, and I thought to myself: the lessons we learn and can pass on really can make a difference.

And while I have had my own fair share of formative experiences as a principal (and before that as an assistant principal) I’m also inspired by sources decidedly not academic. I’ve written before about how poetry, Star Wars, Star Trek, and even nautical fiction have inspired my work as a principal, and last spring I added another nontraditional source to that list: Dungeons & Dragons.

I posted about DMing for my kids not long after the pandemic started, and while I was far from a polished Dungeon Master (far, far, far from it), the experience was really fun and left me with a taste to do it again.

Now I’m a reader and the kind of person who likes to learn, so ahead of jumping back into the Dungeon Master’s chair I picked up a couple of books and took to YouTube to see what I could do better. It was a delightful exercise in seeing a whole new world I didn’t know anything about (my only other experience with D&D was playing a handful of games when I was in middle school back in the early ‘80s). My favorite surprise find, hands down, was Web DM.

With lots of wit, laughter, and easy Texas charm, Jonathan Pruitt and Jim Davis cover just about everything a fellow like me, who came late to D&D, needs to know. For anyone who hasn’t seen Web DM, it’s just two fellows sitting at a table surrounded by dice, miniatures, and the trappings of epic fantasy roleplaying. They introduce a topic, provide specific examples, and banter back and forth for about half an hour. I love that they’re engaging and knowledgeable, but also never judgemental about different ways of doing things. They have opinions, sure, but they’re not mean and always leave room for other points of view. They invite viewers to think, and one episode in particular had me thinking about the similarities between being a principal and being a DM.

The episode Problem DMs: Overcoming Game Master Issues in 5e Dungeons & Dragons pretty much sums up a good swath of the kinds of principals I’ve met in my quarter century in education. If I were putting together a college class for aspiring administrators this would be a required text.

Because as nutty as it might seem, Web DM’s description of different kinds of Dungeon Masters could serve as a great reminder of some of the important things about leading a school and a cautionary tale to anyone reflecting on his or her own practice as a school administrator.

The episode starts with a meaningful reminder: “The Dungeon Master is another player at the table. They have different tools, they have different pieces that they use, but … they’re not like this special figure…” So too, I would offer, the principal is one of a staff of adults working together to help kids, and as Jim Davis says of a DM, “they need to be empowered to make decisions, they need to be empowered to make rulings, the rules need to support the Dungeon Master in running the game, but it’s not like we’re sitting down to be ruled by the iron fist of tyranny.”

“What we’re talking about today,” Davis explains, “is really Dungeon Master styles, and a mismatch between Dungeon Master styles and player styles that create problems.” As they describe it, the different styles aren’t bad in and of themselves, but can seem so if mismatched with the players at the table. It’s not unlike a school, where it works best when the culture of a site and the personality of a principal are really in sync. To help this happen, principals, like DMs, should know their type.

And what are those types of Dungeon Masters? Well…

The Optimiser, always challenging those around him, planning, preparing, and showing no mercy. The result of this style, Jim Davis explains, can be a “well oiled machine” …by necessity. This competitive environment works for those who want a high pressure experience and the sense of accomplishment that comes from “winning” a difficult battle. Optimization, however, comes at a price. You can see this in schools, where it’s easy to understand that sometimes the motivation for “optimizing” comes externally, but the results can be as unsustainable as they would be when the players and DM don’t all agree that this style is the way they want to be playing.

Adversarial DMing is a way of describing a Dungeon Master who is interested in having power and control. While this might work for the DM, it can lead to players feeling animosity, fear, and maybe that they shouldn’t continue. Davis suggests that sometimes players second guess themselves when they’re in situations with adversarial DMs and wonder if they’re not having fun or succeeding because of “something I did.” Does this happen on a school staff? If you don’t know the answer, site administrators, go ask your staff.

The Rules as Written DM scolds players for not knowing the ins and outs of the Player’s Handbook, looks up every rule, or hesitates to make a decision on the fly in fear of doing something wrong. “Unless you have a table full of rule lawyers” Davis tells the audience, this style of play can be difficult. As in D&D, rules, protocols, and expectations help provide an armature on which education can be fashioned into a viable sculpture, and like D&D when those rules are placed above the humanity of the enterprise the results can be frustrating, disheartening, and lead to lamentable results.

Jim Davis makes the point, however, that Adversarial DMs and Rules as Written DMs should be seen as existing as a “matter of degree.” Sometimes, he explains, it’s appropriate to say honestly: “My f***ing dragon is trying to kill you. I hope he doesn’t. I like your characters.” (A note here: Web DM is peppered with occasional F-bombs; truth be told, behind closed doors, so too is school administration.) Rules aren’t bad, and a lack of structure can be. The dance that DMs and principals must master, or continue to attempt to master, is balancing between the two.

My Precious House Rules DM is the person who “hands over a 37 page living document” describing how things are done at this particular gaming table. Not unlike some schools, where specific traditions, agreed upon culture, and unique ways of doing business are a part of what makes things work, “homebrew” D&D, if agreed on by the party, can lead to special and marvelous results. As Davis says of such gaming groups, “more power to them, they are playing the game in a time honored way.” …if everyone agrees. Homebrew for a player who is a traditional rule follower, however, might not be the right fit.

That made me think of a friend of mine who is an AP History teacher at a high octane academic school in Southern California. His students routinely excel on the AP exams and he loves the pressure and rewards of working in a system that demands much and expects results. He delivers them, and he told me once that he couldn’t imagine teaching at my school (where tie-dye could be the official school color). It just wouldn’t be a good fit, he explained. As much as I respect him as a teacher, and that is a lot, I think he’s right. He’s comfortable with the educational version of an Optimizer DM and would feel out of step with my decidedly homebrew world. 

But even house rules happen on a continuum. 

Hater DMs, subscribe to the “not in my game” aesthetic. Davis gives an example from a game when he DMed in this way …for a specific purpose, but as Pruitt interjects: “maybe it’s okay to have personal preference, but you don’t have to impose it on someone else.” Good advice beyond D&D. For me that’s spelling bees

“There is a point,” Jim Davis says, “between too permissive and too restrictive that works for your gaming group. And that means that there is a compromise between everyone who is at that table, not just what one person wants and then everyone else has to deal with it.”

The Quiet DM v. The TMI DM. Davis and Pruitt use the example of under and over description to describe these two kinds of Dungeon Masters, admitting times they’ve each fallen into these behaviors. Describing the DM as “the players’ eyes and ears” and explaining the importance of fulfilling this role, they discuss how easy it is to struggle with the discrepancy between what the DM knows and understands (Dungeon Masters have the whole picture of the adventure) and the players know (who are experiencing the adventure a step at a time) and the challenge of the “slow releasing of information that takes place between the interaction of the game.” Quiet, TMI …as a principal, I have been both. Maybe both this week.

“One last thing,” Davis adds toward the end of the video that is as applicable to the gaming table as it is to the schoolhouse as it is to any environment in which we find ourselves, “if you have a DM who does not respect your boundaries that is a huge f***ing red flag. If they do not respect your boundaries when you are playing together, then they are not going to respect your boundaries outside of the play, they are not going to respect your boundaries in any other aspect.” This step back from listing styles of DMing and addressing the fundamental issue of respect and humanity is a reminder that the world we live in is fraught with opportunities both good and bad. His advice on gaming applies to more than the gaming table, and it resonated with me as a part of a staff when he said: “You want to play with people who you trust and you want to play with people who are going to treat you with respect.”

Pruitt brings the conversation to a close with a couple of questions that (if this connection between being a Dungeon Master and a principal is to be believed) would be the cornerstone to a meaningful discussion in that fictitious college class for aspiring administrators: “How do you not do all the things that we’ve talked about?” and “What are some ways to better align DM and player expectations?”

Because it’s that alignment of everyone in the group, gaming group or group of educators, that is at the heart of a successful, fun, and productive experience.

The last few minutes of the episode, addressing the importance of communication, honesty, and “knowing yourself” are heartfelt and wise. So too is the advice about asking for feedback, adjusting to those responses, and how to set clear expectations early in the process. “If you care about [your players] as human beings,” Davis says, “then you can avoid a lot of these problem behaviors.” 

Caring about others as people. What would happen if every educator started from here?

“Be kind,” he concludes, “and be respectful, and a lot of these problems will go away. Not all of them, so it’s good to know what you can do.”

The whole show is a fantastic 37 minutes of wisdom for DMs and principals, maybe not honestly something that will make it on a college syllabus, but more insightful than some scholarly articles that will.

…a side note, and if anyone is still reading this (thank you) then maybe you’ll indulge me a paragraph or three that I’d include if sharing this with RPG minded aspiring administrators… (What does the Venn diagram of D&D fans and school administrators look like?) Another episode of Web DM that resonated with me as a principal took on the important topic of sexism, as real in the world of high school administration as it is in Dungeons & Dragons. 

With Web DM co-founder Emma Lambert sitting between them, the regular hosts asked questions and listened as she broke down a reality that answered the episode’s premise “Let’s Talk About Stereotypes of Women in 5e D&D.”

I’ve known and worked with some amazing women in high school administration, but the reality on the ground is that when I look around at a meeting of principals my status as a white male has put me in the majority in every district where I have worked. So too, it seems, much D&D.

In 17 minutes or so, she holds up and knocks down stereotypes. Looking at her fellow Web DMers, for instance, she speaks truth while poking fun with lines like: “A munchkin stereotype or even a neckbeard stereotype… in some ways their problem is that they care about the game too much.” The fellows nod. “That’s not necessarily seen as an option for women.”

They make the point that from its earliest editions D&D has had inclusive language, but that has not always been the practice at the table (or, perhaps the schoolhouse). 

There were more parallels, from assumptions of motivation to how different genders are discussed in the system. “There has always been a very inclusive side to this culture,” Lambert explains, “and there’s always been a very exclusive side, and you’re always going to run into it.”

D&D, she means, not education, but…

The world of school administration can learn from lots of sources inside education and beyond. Web DM has made me a more thoughtful principal. And someday, who knows, maybe I’ll get to DM for a group of educators. Wouldn’t that be amazing. No promises that it would be as inspiring as that panel I got to serve on, and even after watching my share of Pruitt and Jim Davis I’m certainly no polished DM, but it sure could be fun.

“I can’t imagine not being there…”

The five am wakeup felt familiar. The day teachers come back to campus after summer vacation is (for me as a principal) my first day of school. I still get butterflies, and probably always will, before the year begins. That’s normal, I suppose; I want so much to get things off to a good start. 

IMG_7002

But this year the teachers didn’t come back to campus proper. My early trip to my office, pausing for a predawn selfie, was followed not by my usual pancake breakfast for the staff and gathering in the library, but by a Zoom meeting where teacher faces looked back at me from kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and makeshift offices from Portland to Forest Grove.

More than a few cats and kids joined us for the morning, and the playful banter in the chat was a nice reminder that even though we were discussing what is an unusual (and unusually stressful) start of the school year, we’re all friends here and ready to support one another.

That caring and support was a highlight of the morning. People were real when they talked about what made them anxious, what was keeping them up at night, and what they were feeling about the year ahead, and when someone suggested the importance of each of us helping each other (with new technology, planning for distance learning, and how best to connect with kids) the avalanche of volunteers who put their cell phone numbers into the chat to make it easy to connect was profound.

We’ll be okay, better than okay really, because we honestly care for each other and are there to help everyone succeed. And when we don’t succeed I’m convinced we’ll be there to help each other pick up the pieces.

It was this spirit of professional generosity that moved me most on this “first day of school” and reminded me of the very special school community that I’m so fortunate to be a part of. 

I never take that for granted, but after a couple of months away from campus to see my staff together, even in boxes on a screen, felt really, really good.

It was a perfect follow up to the email I received from an incoming student the night before:

I am so excited for this year at ACMA! Obviously this is not how I imagined my first day of 6th grade going but we all are making the best of this situation. I worked so hard to get into this school and am looking forward to my experience. I have heard nothing but positives about ACMA and I can’t imagine not being there. I have wanted to go to this school for as long as I could remember. I am so excited to meet you and the teachers and excited to work with all of you. Can’t wait to start ACMA in two weeks!”

I’m looking forward to the year ahead too, and to all the people —staff, students, and families— I get to spend time with. We may not be in the same building, at least not for a little while, but we’re still here for each other. 

Let the wild rumpus start.

“When you mess with the bull…”

Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.

Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.

“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.  

“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.  

“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”

Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)

Bull and horns

He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle.  You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.

“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:

  • Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
  • Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
  • Make the most of free time 
  • Verify completion of assignments
  • Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher

“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”

So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.

All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.

Buggles

I hear that video killed the radio star, and (if the kids today are to be believed) that if any principals like me want to capture the attention of our school communities we need to do more than churn out long winded blog posts like mine and get about the business of making movies. Well, short videos anyway, that just might be more appealing than a short reading assignment.

I’m taking that call for video to heart, particularly in this time of physical separation prompted by the ongoing pandemic. Even if I can’t see my students and families face to face every morning at least I can put my face out there to help keep the connection between home and school.

To do this I’m aiming for short hellos every Monday as a part of our ACMA Monday Message, a one page update with what to look forward to that week. In addition I’m filming some silly little shorts with specific topics (Zoom, support, stress reduction), and plan on a couple of “Fireside Chats” every month while we’re away from campus.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 9.22.29 PMI know that seeing someone’s face, hearing their voice, and watching them as they communicate can help make the message clear. Sure there’s a bit of theatricality to it all, but at the end of the day I work at an art school and a little theatre is just fine.

It also means that I may be building a catalogue of buffoonery that I’ll look back on in a few years and shake my head about. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to play the fool, particularly when it’s done with an open heart and desire to do the right thing.

Will anyone watch? We’ll see. If they do I can promise information, a window into ACMA, and a face that was made for radio.

The Summer of our Discontent

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk, an inspiration for those days when I need to turn to an idealized vision of a leader boldly striking forth while keeping a human heart. I’ve written about it before, but maybe failed to mention that alongside that little tome sits a matching volume of Richard III, a reference work for days when leadership isn’t quite so noble (Shakespeare’s Richard was a scoundrel, for all you non-English majors).

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I taught English for more than a dozen years, and my most memorable time with Richard III came when a friend of mine and I were the two person English department at a small high school in rural Oregon. We taught a lot of Shakespeare, and the year after I left the school (to move south to California) I flew up one day in the spring and surprised my former students.

My friend was in the midst of a unit on Shakespeare with kids who were seniors and had studied Richard III with me the year before. He had a stage set up in his room, and before class started I hid behind the curtain wearing a gas mask (quiet homage to the Ian McKellen Richard III film). Once the students had filed in I pushed out from behind the curtain and launched into Richard’s opening speech, ripping the mask off as I got to the final line:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings”

Ah, “merry meetings.”

I thought about that long ago morning this week as we got word that we’d be starting the school year 100% remotely. It has been months since I’ve seen my current students face to face and in person, not just through a computer screen. Right now we are living through the “clouds lour’d upon our house” and the notion of hanging up our bruised arms feels miles away. And…

This will end. The time will come when our “stern alarums” will be replaced by something else. We will return to school when safety allows, and that will be a time of merry meetings indeed. Until then, well…

The uncertainty of the fall is heavy on all our hearts. We know that we want to be at school, but that the “at school” we have in mind doesn’t exist right now. The stress we feel is real. The isolation from friends, and as much from the bustle and hum of those around us at school who are all potential friends, is palpable. The worry about what we are missing makes sense. We are, all of us, doing our best to do our best. We are trying to understand a situation that none of us has faced before, and move through it with as much grace as we’re able. It isn’t easy.

It is the summer of our discontent, but seasons change.

And as we move into a fall of adaptation, where we are asked to face our uncertainty and move toward some kind of temporary normal that looks different than anything we’ve know, it helps to know that sometime in the future the seasons will change yet again and we will be able to look back at 2020 as a time that tested us, challenged our system, and a time that we emerged from changed, but whole.

Yehuda Amichai, a more modern poet than Shakespeare, said it well:

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.”

We are living in a world “dug up” right now, but it’s from plowed ground that flowers grow. We’ll make it, together (at a physical distance, for a while), and sometime soon we’ll rip off the gas mask, smile with the joy of recognition that only comes from long absence, and enjoy together a merry meeting.

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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