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.

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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!

Off the Grid

It was 100 degrees out and the water in the North Santiam felt like heaven. Rushing by, sun sparkling off the rapids, the river was much as I remembered it from fishing trips in high school. It was mid-July and my son and I had packed up the tent, his fishing pole, and some snacks his mother would frown on, and headed into the woods for a summer camping trip.

For educators like me, July is an opportunity to renew, disconnect (at least for a bit), and take a deep breath between the crazy rush of graduation and the exciting potential of the first day of school.

July is for educators what Tintern Abbey was for Wordsworth.

Describing that place of nature and retreat, and what it meant to him in the long time he spent away from Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth told readers of his poem:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…”

Like that old English poet, I know I’ll look back on this trip to the river and feel “sensations sweet” during those “hours of weariness” that find us all “‘mid the din” of our workaday world.

One of the biggest differences between July and the rest of the year is pace. There is certainly work to be done, both tying up loose ends from the year before and planning for the year ahead, but for many of us this middle month of summer allows time for reflection, learning, and a refocusing on what really matters. That’s a lot easier to do in the middle of a forest than it is at a desk or amidst the rush of daily life.

Being someplace where my phone displayed those marvelous vacationary words “No Service” meant not only an opportunity to spend time with my son, but also a chance to put the outside world on hold for a few days, put energy into building a fire, finding the best way down to the river, and exploring the world without computerized navigation.

Unplugging for a while helped me shake off the stresses of incoming email and piles of work to be done. I knew I’d get back to those emails and that work soon enough, but separating from them allowed me the energy and perspective to do so with a clearer head and focused mind.

For all of us who work with students, a time away from campus can help refresh and renew us in a way that nothing else can. Knee deep in the river, looking up at towering evergreens and a sky so blue it feels like it’s from a song, I was reminded of myself as a person, not just a principal. Paradoxically, by August I think that will make me a better principal.

As I sat by the North Santiam watching my son tangle his line in the rocks, sentimental fool that I am I thought of Tintern Abbey and knew that:

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I hope educators, and students too, everywhere are able to have a few Tintern Abbey moments this summer and return to school in the fall rested and filled with renewing memories.

A Difficult Quartet

We are humans. Even working at a school filled with creativity and joy, kindness, laughter, and a healthy sense of fun, it would be foolish or disingenuous to imagine that the professional life of any educator is free from the tragedy, heartbreak, and the fear that is a part of what it means to be alive.

I do my best to use my voice to celebrate the good things, sometimes talking about the hard work it takes to achieve those positive results, sometimes simply marveling at the good in the world. And…

That’s true, but only part of the story.

In addition to the joy that comes from working with students, the path of being an educator leads through some swamps and dark forests as well. This summer, as I’m comforted by the warm weather and long sunshiny days, I’ve made it a goal to finish four books that challenge me to engage with some of the more difficult aspects of my journey as a principal.

To be my best for the students, staff, and families I work with, I need to face the harder truths of being a human and being an educator. For me, bookish by nature, this means opening some volumes that don’t feature a detective in a deerstalker.

Four books in my backpack this summer include a case study on gun violence, a memoir about a brother’s suicide, a novel by one of my former students addressing the impact of domestic violence, and a book by a psychologist on grieving the loss of a child. This is not going to be easy reading; it is instead important reading.

As a principal I see students and families at their best, and I see students and families in their times of their greatest stress. The books on my list speak to that stress, and I hope will give me insight as I work with my school community to be the best support for them I can be. As summer ends I’ll fashion a post or two out of this summer reading and the ideas and implications that inform my own work. For anyone who might want to talk about these topics, and the books on my list, I’ll share titles and authors now.

Rampage CoverI started Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman this winter, prompted by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. Thorough and well researched, the book contains a pair of case studies and takes as its ambitious goal answering the question: “Why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it.” It’s sobering that this book was published in 2004. That said, there is no call greater than keeping our students safe, and while gun violence is rare in comparison to other dangers our kids face, the reality of life as a building principal has expanded since I got into education to include an understanding of this dark reality of our world.

100 tricks100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir by Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, carries the subtitle “How My Brother Disappeared.” Through stories and reflections, Stafford details his brother’s death from suicide and the life they shared before that tragic event. Suicide is a reality that frightens parents and educators, a spectre that students hear about, talk about, and sometimes consider. In one of my first years as an administrator I witnessed first hand what happened after a student took his own life, and the impact that had on family, friends, and our school community. Referrals for students with suicidal ideation are not uncommon, and with each I feel a pang of anxiety and a desire to make a difference. Stafford’s memoir has the courage to discuss this difficult topic, not because that discussion doesn’t hurt, but because, as he puts it, “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”

towellOregon author Gayle Towell wrestles with those “darkest things” as well in her 2015 novel Broken Parts. I’ve read her harrowing novella Blood Gravity, and through that moving and brutal work was introduced to brothers Jake and Ben, whose abuse at the hands of their father inform a struggle to cope with the past as they move forward, perhaps together. I don’t know exactly what to expect of Broken Parts, but I do know that Towell’s unflinching courage to deal directly with topics that many would hope to avoid promises a novel with lessons I need to learn as a person who works with young people.

lossThe Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD was given to me by two parents who had found some comfort within its pages. As they explained it to me, The Unspeakable Loss “is a book that has practical tips to support grieving families and children.” The power and purpose I have witnessed in these parents is profound, and my wish is that as I read this book I will gain some understanding about what I can do to help as a principal and as a person.

I’d love never to need the perspective I may glean from these volumes, but I know that being informed and prepared for the most difficult situations is a part of my job, a responsibility of my calling, and a commitment I have to the students, staff, and families around me. This difficult quartet of books offers an opportunity to learn more. I hope to be ready to hear their truth.