The Hardest Job in Education

Once at the retirement party of long tenured principal, the guest of honor stood up to tell tales of his career and announced without hesitation that the hardest job in education was being a high school assistant principal.

Unforgiving in pace, relentless in stress, and punctuated by emergencies, the job of “AP” means coming to work each day knowing only that a surprise (or six or ten) is waiting for the right moment to make things interesting.

Assistant principals are on the front lines of lives in crisis. It is to them that teachers turn when student behavior becomes too much in class, to them parents go when the indiscretions of youth cross legal lines, and to them the school community looks when emergencies arise. Principals are useful too, but it is in the APs that the strength of the school is made manifest.

For this effort, this patience, and this good work assistant principals are rewarded with expletives shouted at them through telephones, angry emails cc’d to supervisors, and face to face conversations replete with tears, accusations, and sometimes threats.

Sometimes.

…and on other occasions there are parents and students, counselors and teachers, police officers and paramedics who say “thank you.” And they mean it.

They mean it because assistant principals change lives for the better. It is through their important work that students get the help they need. Sometimes disguised as punishment, the consequences that APs use to hold students to meaningful standards help shape behavior, inform choices, and teach students life lessons better learned in high school than when jobs, marriages, and college careers are on the line.

In addition, APs are there when things are at their worst. They keep their cool when injuries or the threat of harm come to kids. They provide strength when parents simply do not know what to do. They provide professionalism tinged with love when the worst of the world haunts the youth they are charged with protecting. It is not an understatement to say that assistant principals save lives.

The best APs, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great ones, build relationships with students and families, support kids and address behaviors, and show through their actions that they care deeply about the lives of their students.

To be an assistant principal is not to revel in glories every day, but to do the hard and important work day in and day out, and receive in occasional and heartfelt outbursts exclamations of appreciation so real as to bruise one’s soul.

APs are scapegoats, villains, workhorses, counselors, confidants, detectives, and heroes. They do what they do with tenacity and deep caring, professionalism and purpose, and even if confidentiality and discretion mean that they do some of their best work in the shadows, from a person who knows the difficulty of that work, my appreciation is real and by them well deserved.

To my APs I offer a sincere “thank you.” You do the hardest job in education and the difference you make is profound.

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Keeping the Beat

We’ve known each other for almost a decade and his smile, warmth, and easy laugh have always made me feel comfortable and good, happy to be in his company and proud to work with him as a fellow principal in our district. What a sense of celebration then when I found out that Adam Camacho will be the next principal at San Dieguito!

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Some people know Adam as the principal of Earl Warren Middle School, a post he has held for three years, shepherding the staff through major construction and demonstrating an empathy and patience that will serve him well as he moves to SDA. Adam and I talked often when I was the principal of Diegueño Middle School, about how best to help our young charges navigate the tumultuous years of junior high, and I was always struck by the profound care he felt toward each student.

Others may remember Adam as a counselor; he worked with students in their greatest hours of need before becoming an administrator, and those skills of listening, supporting, and helping students find themselves were not lost when he put on a tie, but simply manifested in other ways.

And some folks may know Adam as a rock and roll star. As the drummer for the faculty rock band The Credentialed, and later another group of teachers, counselors, and administrators who made music to raise money for student scholarships called Poncherello, Adam’s drum solos have brought down the house for years. He rocks! Literally.

I’m fortunate to know him as all three of these, and even more as a friend.

So as San Dieguito welcomes Adam as its next principal, I’m thankful to know that the person taking over this office brings common sense, kindness, and the ability to keep a steady beat even as the electric guitars blare and singers belt out rock and roll tunes.

San Dieguito is in good hands with Adam, and Adam is in good hands with San Dieguito.

A Bawcock and a Heart of Gold

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk and have since I became a school administrator. It could seem grandiose, I suppose, the tabby cat imagining himself a lion, but there is wisdom in that iambic pentameter and I’m willing to acknowledge my inner English teacher and take the kidding.

Looking to Shakespeare’s account of England’s favorite monarch for inspiration, however, puts me in mind to be better than I am. I may be domesticated, but hear my roar.

Henry V provides a slew of lessons and lines that resonate with me, and while it doesn’t have anything to do with leadership, I can’t help but whisper to myself every time I walk into a theater: “O for a muse of fire…”

But the trappings of a high school principal are khakis and embroidered polo shirts, not balm and scepter or crown imperial, and as much as I find encouragement in the youthful king, perhaps it would be as wise for me to consider his younger self, Prince Hal, that “nimble footed madcap Prince of Wales” whose adventures and indiscretions offer just as many lessons about leadership, learning, and growing up.

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The two part prequel to Henry V introduces Prince Hal as a reckless youth hellbent on fun and keeping company with a cast of characters equally bawdy and base. This is perfect for great literature, but not the sort you’d want near your own son or daughter.

Pistol, Bardolf, and especially Falstaff are the grown up versions of the scruffy and scandalous influences who give principals gray hair and assistant principals stories to tell each other. That Hal, the soon to be golden king, spends time in such company justifiably unnerves and disappoints his father, the king, who compares his “Harry” to a nobleman’s own well behaved son, Percy.

In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.”

What parent, or caring educator, wouldn’t be tempted to think the same?

And…

As a principal it’s important for me to embrace the belief that each of of our young Harrys might transcend youthful indiscretion and become a regal Henry.

Audiences of Henry IV part one and two and Henry V see just that transcendance. After learning what it is to live as a “common man,” and a rascal at that, Hal is able to put aside his childish ways, don the mantle of responsibility, and incorporate an understanding of his subjects into his reign as king.

In Shakespeare is a wisdom that might apply to the principal’s office.

True, administrators don’t wear crowns, teachers don’t shoot crossbows, and working with kids is not conquering France (though it sometimes feels as challenging), but allowing ourselves the patience and optimism that should be inspired by the transformation of Shakespeare’s king has the chance to make us more empathetic educators.

Seeing in our young students, particularly the shaggy ones, whose “unsavoury similes” alarm us  and whose behavior is a mass of “skimble-skamble stuff” the possibility of growth and change can go a long way toward creating a school culture that honors the potential of everyone.

Who our students will be as adults is as hidden from us as the impetuous Hal’s future was from his father. As the young prince caroused and lived irresponsibility, laughing at bawdy songs he listened, learned, and developed a perspective that made him a better king.

I wish for all my students the wisdom that comes from a full life, the strength to know themselves well enough to be true to who they are, not the temptingly Falstaffian pleasures of the crowd, and intrepid spirit that might lead another to describe them as Ancient Pistol did King Henry: “a bawcock and a heart of gold.”

The Tree in the Tempest

FrostI wish the world got spring break.

Last week, sitting at the neighborhood pool on the opening day of baseball season, I found myself reading Robert Frost while my kids swam, splashed, and sprayed water on each other with laughing exuberance. There was, I thought to myself, something overwhelmingly Americana about the whole scene. All I needed was a cowboy hat.

Education in the United States doesn’t get everything right, but one exquisitely correct decision is spring break.

Before the break it felt like the world was in a sour mood. I’d done my best to keep some equilibrium, even as in my role as principal I worked with students, parents, and teachers all trying to stay civil when confronted with situations decidedly frustrating.

I like to consider myself a gentleman, so I won’t chronicle the specifics of these …conversations, but the upshot was that more than a couple of people, and people I like and respect, left my office having been confronted with that difficult word “no.”

Spirits across campus seemed low, for many folks, not just those frustrated friends, and my Friday ended with a flurry of emails setting up meetings to discuss “next steps” (two horrible words in the world of administration) as soon as we got back from the week away.

Fast forward to the pool.

Art, as art so often does, offered perspective. In “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” Robert Frost wrote:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are”

Yes, I needed some separation, some time to breathe, some space to read a little poetry, and once I had I could more clearly see that those oppositional interactions of the week before weren’t malicious or without reason. Nor, I realized, did they need to be journey ending.

Being forced to articulate my decisions and point of view, whether that articulation was well received or not, makes me a better principal. The more I can see the challenges of my professional life like Frost’s fallen tree, there not to bar passage, but to invite clarity, the more I can focus on finding answers and leaving frustrations behind.

Poetry invites us to avoid pettiness. It encourages reflection and prompts us to be our best selves.

Of course I’m scribbling these lines on a yellow legal pad at a table by that same pool where I read Frost, still days away from those meetings set the Friday before spring break. Those conversations loom, ready to test the optimism and perspective as vibrant today as the kids’ laughter.

It’s easy to have hope on vacation; the true test is to put that spirit into practice when faced with fallen trees.

San Dieguito Principals

There are seventeen of us, eighteen if you count Rizzi, who was principal twice. It’s not a crazy number for eighty years, not when you consider that in that time there have been fourteen US presidents, nine United Nations Secretary Generals, and a dozen Dr. Whos.

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As you’d expect, lining us up in black and white photos you see a mix of serious expressions and dark ties. You notice high foreheads and mostly conservative jackets. Some of us are smiling in our official portraits, though just about everyone looks as if he or she could lay down a detention if bad came to worse.

Being a principal brings doses of joy and stress. My own time in this office, the same office principals have occupied since Arthur Main in 1937, has shown me that I have a unique and wonderful seat from which to watch the parade of youth that marches through the breezeways at San Dieguito. And what a cavalcade it has been for the past eighty years.

photo 2 (5)Watching those students learn and teachers teach, shouldering the responsibility that comes with the job, and managing everything from construction to academics, the company I have the privilege to keep is an interesting bunch.

Arthur Main was the first principal at San Dieguito, opening the school in 1936 in rented tents and a borrowed elementary school. He was followed by Donovan Cartwright, the San Dieguito principal who looked most like Errol Flynn, and Tom Preece, who faced a polio epidemic at San Dieguito that delayed the start of school in 1948. These three faced the challenges of opening a school, and a district, and building the foundation on which the post war growth would build.

William Mace and Matthew Korwin were at the helm in the 1950s, joined by San Dieguito fixture David Davidson, the first San Dieguito superintendent who was not also the high school’s principal. As the scare of communism rose, they saw San Dieguito through challenging political times, a preview of what would happen when sometime a decade later all hell broke loose.

photo 1 (4)Don Crickmore, for whom the current baseball diamond is named, was principal to begin 1960, followed by John Clark, who saw San Dieguito leave the 1950s behind and embrace a spirit of freedom that challenged many and enlivened others. The serious expression Mr. Clark wears in his yearbook portrait was earned through stress both local and national. His ability to navigate the challenges of the job was great.

Leonard Morris and William Hershey guided San Dieguito through the 1970s, a time of freedom and creativity. Their smiling faces and substantial sideburns speak of a campus that had left the buttoned down 1950s far behind and was looking forward toward an independence of spirit that has never left the school.

photo 3 (4)The 1980s belonged to Sal Ramirez, whose eleven year tenure is the longest of any San Dieguito principal. Described by some as student centered and fair, Mr. Ramirez was an enigma to some, a hero to others, and a frustration to a few. In a word, he was a principal. So often those of us who put on a tie and do our best to lead a school find ourselves in situations that challenge our best decisions. To serve in one position for more than a decade speaks to a talent increasingly rare.

Penny Cooper Francisco followed Mr. Ramirez in 1993, inheriting a staff in need of some uniting. Indefatigable, a colleague told me “she didn’t expect anyone to work any harder than she did, but boy did she work!”  She listened, guided, and cared, and was remembered by staff as a natural-born leader who led with inspiration and a wonderful sense of humor.

Don Rizzi, who had served as an assistant principal at San Diegutio began his first tour of duty as principal in 1995, presiding over the division of the school into San Diegutio High School Academy and the new high school, La Costa Canyon. It wasn’t to be Mr. Rizzi’s last time in the office, nor his longest run as principal.

photo (1)When San Dieguito opened in the fall of 1996, Fran Fenical began her tenure as principal of the newly christened “academy.” With vision and purpose, Ms. Fenical helped to create and inspire the “funky” and inclusive culture that defines San Dieguito to this day. This school year, the 80th anniversary of San Dieguito and 20th anniversary of SDA, I’ve been able to witness first hand the love and respect the founding staff of San Diegtuito Academy have toward Fran. When she spoke to our current current body, wearing a tie dyed “Keep SDA Funky” shirt, she was a star.

Both the 12th and 14th principal at San Dieguito, Don Rizzi returned to the principal’s chair in 2002, bringing with him a smile and sense of good will. He served as principal until 2005 and in that time saw the school blossom, evolve, and continue to grow.

MG2Four of us fill the final dozen years of San Dieguito’s most recent history. Barbara Gauthier, Mike Grove, Tim Hornig, and I each took a turn in the wood paneled office overlooking the front of the school. Ours are memories still too fresh for history to digest, but each of us brought our best selves to the job and left with a bit of San Dieguito pixie dust still clinging to our suits.

Throughout our school’s eighty years San Dieguito has shown that it is greater than any individual, a strong school spirit constant even as the person in the principal’s chair changes. This sense of school is important, sustaining, and promises that whatever the next eighty years bring and whomever the next eighteen principals will be (Rizzi again?), San Dieguito will continue to be the special place so many call home.

“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.

Stairway to…

photo 2The steps got me thinking about construction being done. On Tuesday I walked past, delighted to see wood framing on the dirt hill leading up to San Dieguito’s newest classroom building, a two story structure that will house nine new science labs and another ten classrooms. It will be the tallest building on campus, ready to open in the fall of 2017.

The path from the past to the future, in this case a path from two mid-century bunker like concrete monsters to this modern academic edifice has been long. Permits and permissions delayed the start of the project, and even when the first shovel dug into the ground the scope of the work showed itself as enormous.

boxWhose idea it had been to erect two windowless buildings on a Southern California plot of land with both sea breezes and an ocean view I’ll leave to others to imagine, but the reality was a demolition that was unquestionably the right choice. It was a big job; the buildings were reinforced concrete, tons of it, and the resulting work made the center of campus look like a hurricane had blown through.

As the principal, it was my job to stay centered and help the school community understand that all would be well. Any change has the potential to raise anxiety, and this kind of dramatic undoing of years of the familiar did just that. At first.

This anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that decades of student art was affixed to the walls of the condemned buildings; senior tiles, mosaics, and murals would be destroyed as the buildings came down. We weathered the storm with the help of our art teachers’ reassurance, our students’ kindness, and our alumni’s understanding.

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Every week I met with the construction company and bond team. I articulated school concerns, advocated for SDA, and ensured that everything being done was both sensitive to the fact that construction was taking place on a working school campus and that the decisions we were making would, in the long term, good for kids.

As well as I could, I did my best to distill the construction information and share it with our school community. Emails and regular updates at staff meetings and parent coffees all helped. I even put together a video to show off the initial phases of the work. Communicating what was going on behind the construction fences was my responsibility as certainly as the foreman’s was to make sure progress was on schedule.

photo 1We invited that foreman and the project manager to come to one of our staff meetings. Putting a human face on the work went a long way in helping those of us on the school side of the house understand that it wasn’t just that a building was going up on campus, but that Jesse and Michelle were constructing a building on campus.

Along the way we watched buildings disappear, witnessed an amazing amount of hard work, and saw the new building emerge from the rubble.

As walls went up and a roof peeked over the 1930s era building in our main quad, folks started imagining what this new structure would bring to campus. Science teachers began talking about table tops and chemical storage, math teachers started discussing the merits of desks versus tables, and the whole school looked up and said things like “wow!”

photo 4For me, the guy whose Thursdays were increasingly dominated by construction meetings, the visible milestones (windows installed, stucco applied, scaffolding down) were reassuring. I knew how many people need to work together to create such a building, and what pressure they are under with regard to time, budget, and collaboration.

Then, late in the fall, as work moved inside the new building even more than outside, everyone watching was left to wonder: “What’s going on in there?”

Using photos snapped by the foreman, I shared glimpses into the labs and classrooms, and waited with the others for a chance to walk inside.

One February day we saw the lights go on, not the portable lighting drywallers use, but the classroom overheads. Progress!

The hardscape around the building began to take shape. Some of the wooden fences were replaced by chain link, and the final pieces of the roof went up, perfectly matching construction from 1937. As our superintendent said on one visit: “It looks like it just belongs here.”

photo 5It does.

And Tuesday, when I walked past that framing, I thought: “We’re getting closer.”

Wednesday the stairs were poured.

I thought: “We’re almost there.”

To see the end of a project coming close is a feeling as sweet as the road there is rough.

Looking up those stairs I see a future bright for students, a haven for learning, experimenting, and solving problems. I can imagine generations of students walking up those steps (and the countless skateboarders coming down them) and there on that hill I see possibility.

Construction is never easy and seldom without challenges, but seeing the results and knowing how positive those results can be for students and teachers helps to put into perspective the effort needed to achieve it.

It’s just about time to walk up those stairs.

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