Becoming a Tree

There are some days when it is difficult to believe in the goodness of human nature. Fortunately, the choice to believe is always ours.

More often than not the truly cruel corners of the world aren’t found on school campuses. Like packs of cigarettes left in gloveboxes in the parking lot, most often the unhealthy reality of the world stays sensibly away from classrooms, lunch lines, and pedestrian teenage drama.

When flickers of darkness do show themselves, the demons (mature enough to haunt adults) so raw behind the pained eyes of the people they inhabit have the ability to shake even the most seasoned educator. Not long ago I encountered a person in crisis whose pain reverberated like the peals of a bell.

It’s at these times that the goodwill built over months and years, the friendships forged by time and proximity, and the attitude built by a thousand examples of kindness sustain us. We can look around at the others we work with and know that we are not alone. With a deep inhale of breath, we can recognize that the frightening, wide eyed instability looking at us in the moment will not destroy our optimism, even if it bruises our hope just a little bit.

The reality of darkness, jarring as it is when it walks into a school, is beyond our immediate control. Our choice to acknowledge it and remain steadfast in our optimism is a decision we get to make.

Like parents, or in loco parentis, strength and hope are our obligation and the gift we provide our students.

After a recent day of unsettlement, I found a poem -or better said, a poem by Frances Cornford found me. She wrote of the independence of children, who need freedom to explore…

But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows…”

And so we are, as educators, strong trees with deep roots, with sweet fruit, and with thick bark.

Like trees, we are susceptible to the stray arrow or wildly swung hatchet, and likely we’ll have someone’s initials carved into our side, metaphorically at least. I know that I can look down and see names scraped into the bark of my own memory.

And like trees, we are strong enough to handle it, to show that strength to those around us, and to lose our own instability long enough to see the goodness in the world and be, for someone else, a tree.


Jaw Dropping

Not to sound alarmist…

It’s a balance every site administrator has to strike, answering the question: How can we inform parents about trends in the area of student behavior, drugs, vapes, online perils, without (to put it simply) freaking them out?

Here at Diegueño we know that informed parents are allies in the quest to help students make good decisions and stay safe through the marvelous, perilous, brand new world of adolescence. With that in mind, this year we’ve brought in experts to speak to both students and parents about online safety and substance abuse. We’ve encouraged parents to take their kids to an annual town hall meeting about drinking and driving, and we’re already planning for a series of parent nights for next school year.

Parent Seminar 4-29-15As the principal, I like to be at every event, showing my support for parents, and my availability to be part of the proverbial village here to raise the kids. Sometimes conflicts arise, and I have to miss an event. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when two amazing counselors who run our district’s award winning drug and alcohol prevention program came to speak to our parents in an event we billed as: “Teens and Healthy Choices: The Truth About Vape Pens.”

Well attended, informative, and real, the night was by all accounts a success. I kept a weather eye on what was happening through my AP’s Twitter feed. Midway through the evening I saw a tweet that included a photo of the presenter with a caption that read in part: “parents learning with jaws dropping…”

jawdroppingHonest first thought: “Yikes.”

Truthful second thought: “How many calls will come to me in the morning? How many will go to the district office?”

Then I let myself breathe and ask the more important question: “Is this a good thing?”

And I knew it was.

There’s importance in telling the truth. As our middle schoolers read in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” That’s true for parents talking with their kids, and educators talking with our parents. School is a place that should always keep students safe, and it’s also a place where we need to feel safe talking about even the ugly things in the world.

Sure the result of speaking the truth can sometimes be jaw dropping. Life is. It can also make a real difference.

Empowering parents to have the difficult (and important) conversations with their kids, to keep an eye on social media, and even scroll through the photos on their phones is a valuable part of what we do. Scout and Jem didn’t have SnapChat accounts, but if they did, I like to imagine that Atticus would have handled that beautifully too. I like to think that if he were a parent at Diegueño, we’d help him.

The principal I am believes that we’re in the business of building positive lives for our students. Partnering with parents, we make up a support system for kids that can help them navigate the tough times and be prepare for the future they’re growing into.

The former English teacher I am puts it more simply: when in doubt, listen to Atticus.

Active Lightning Drill

My friends in law enforcement are some of the best people I know. Their dedication to keeping the peace and protecting us all is profound, and I’ve found them to be folks with a good sense of humor, integrity, and an unexpected optimism about the human condition. Like educators, their work brings them in contact with all segments of society, including those places most of us would rather avoid. I see the local police officers I get to work with as allies, and they’ve earned my trust as I’ve worked with them evaluate our lock down drills and review our safety plan, and in the cases they’re on campus to help a student or family grapple with the choices that a young person has made.

This was my starting position when a conversation with a veteran teacher the other day got me thinking about the way administrators like me approach school safety with our staffs. I’ve been called a little wonky about school safety (a badge I proudly wear, as I did a silver sheriff’s star when I was a kid) and my friend came to me to talk about the way we get information to our teachers about what to do in particular emergency situations.

Now I’m the guy who brought in the local police to provide an “Active Shooter Training” on the first day teachers came back from summer, so when he started asking me questions about how effective I thought that presentation was for our teachers I puffed out my chest a little bit and started talking about how important I thought those preparations are. Yeah, he agreed, but how effective are they?

As educators we strive to help students learn, not just tick a box that we’ve taught a particular bit of information. In classrooms we provide students with opportunities to ask meaningful questions, work hard to help them think critically, and do our best to provide perspective on how the subject matter at hand relates to their lives, and the lives they’ll lead as they become adults. We strive to help students weigh sources for validity and arguments for worth. Had the training that started our year done that?

Four uniformed officers, who had listened to us when we told them that this was the teachers first day back, and that they would still be coming off summer mode, presented information to us on safety measures during an active shooter situation. They’d framed the discussion using a memorable analogy; in an emergency situation, they said, people fall into three categories: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves were the “bad guys,” out to hurt the herd; the sheep were our students, who would be panicked in such a situation; and the sheepdogs were police and some of us, there to protect and guide.

The officers stressed the dangers of such a possible situation, referenced the close to home school shooting in Carlsbad still in our collective memory, and played 911 tapes to illustrate the very real panic that occurs when something so horrible happens. They urged teachers to think about how they would respond to that kind of emergency situation, playing the “what if” game in their minds, and discussed options when confronted with an active shooter.

Knowing that the importance of school safety is paramount to all we do, I asked myself: did the presentation give my teachers opportunities to ask meaningful questions? Did it help them think critically? Did it provide perspective?

Honestly confronting the question of how well I’d done at giving my teachers information on this element of school safety gave me pause.

I’d been thorough in my preparation of the school safety plan, but I realized that I’d done less to thoughtfully prepare my presentation of that overall plan than back when I was an English teacher and I prepared a lesson on Nathaniel Hawthorne. My focus had been on getting the important material taught, but I might have done more to help my staff really learn.

Independent of what my teachers thought of the first day presentation (many had liked it, though one had questioned the notion of wolves and sheepdogs as an iffy analogy) as this teacher asked me about its effectiveness, I wondered if I’d done enough to put into practice the paternal feeling I have as a school principal, looking out for the people at my school. I had farmed out some of the work; it was men in uniforms, not me, who told my staff about what to do in a “lock down” situation, should an “active shooter” come on campus. And I’d invited that presentation to be given in relative isolation, not as part of an articulated comprehensive safety plan that would include what to do in the (more likely) case of an earthquake or fire in the chemistry lab, or even a lock down that wasn’t part of an active shooter threat.

In retrospect, I think I’d do better job of encouraging learning if my presentation of this information was an “and” rather than an “or.” It is important to prepare for this most serious (even if remote) possibility, but I shouldn’t isolate the active shooter presentation from the rest of the safety plan.

How powerful it would be to prepare them to lock down, and prepare them to duck and cover, and prepare them to evacuate in case of a fire. To frame the learning in broader terms would not only have given my staff the information they needed, but also the perspective that could help them best with what they would need to do in the case of any emergency.

It’s the comprehensive nature of school safety, and the “Safe and Drug Free School Plan” we develop each year, that makes our preparation so powerful. We have a planned and practiced response for many emergencies, knowing full well that some are less likely than others. As we develop our plans, we’re smart to make sure we help our teachers and students know the difference between them. After all, my friend noticed, students are more likely to get hit by lightning than be involved in an active shooter situation. How much time are we putting into active lightning drills?

That said, the drills we do at a school are profoundly important. As my equally safety minded assistant principal likes to say, we play like we practice, and knowing that we can get the entire student body out of all classrooms and ready to move off campus in three minutes reassures us all. It’s during these and all our drills that teachers model the sense of calm control that is paramount to keeping kids safe. This applies to lock down situations too.

As a fellow who has been in two legitimate lock downs in my career, both called proactively, and neither ending up with any intruder on campus, I know how much they can rattle teachers and students. In those times I felt more comfortable, and was able to show a quiet calm to the students around me, because of the drills my school had conducted. Practicing is important; knowing what to do is vital.

Talking to my safety minded friend, I realized that the things that made me feel most prepared were those things I’d learned from my own site administrators. As educators they were the best teachers, able to filter often anxiety inducing information in such a way as to help teachers know what they had control over (keeping students calm in a safe and orderly classroom) and what they didn’t have control over (needing to know exactly what is happening from a tactical overview vantage point).

As a principal it’s important that I own safety at my school site. That means more than making sure the gates are locked and the safety plan is up to date. It also means that my new teachers have all had opportunities to engage meaningfully with that safety plan. It means that my assistant principal and I are the ones up front providing information to our staff, with both of us working behind the scenes with law enforcement and firefighters to ensure that we have the most up to date information we can have.

I’ve come to believe that the best person to educate educators are fellow educators, and that at my school and with my staff, that includes me.

What, in the end, is the purpose of teaching school safety? The answer is simple: a safe school. To know what to do in any emergency situation, from the more likely to the least likely, is information far more important than anything I could have ever said about The Scarlet Letter. Focusing on what I need my staff to learn is far more important than ticking a box that says they were taught any particular thing.

I want my teachers and students to be ready for everything, and unafraid of anything. I want my school community to be informed, but not alarmed. To get there takes a thoughtful approach, diligent practice, and a dedication to teaching and learning. If we really learn what to do, and how to approach emergency situations, we’ll be able to respond in the way best for all kids …quick as lightning.


photo 1 (9)The first two pirates just made me smile. Their eye patches, red vests, and black sashes bespoke adventure on the high seas …not that different from a middle school campus on Halloween.

The next buccaneer, with striped shirt and mischievous grin, should have been enough for me to notice a pattern, but I still hadn’t finished my first cup of coffee and wasn’t imagining what was going on.

As a teacher I’d loved pirates, growing a beard and slipping in a hoop earring to celebrate “Pirate Week” every other year with my students (there’s another post in that somewhere). As an administrator I keep a pirate flag in my office and the sketch of a salty sea rat on the notes of thanks I like to write. I may not be able to be quite as swashbuckling as a principal, but I like to think that I’ve kept that pirate spirit.

When the next pirate, a math teacher, walked past my office, her π-rate t-shirt accompanied by a scarlet sash and high leather boots, I realized there was something afoot. “Ahoy,” she said, waving. Another teacher popped up beside her, “Cap’n,” he added from beneath a skull and bones bandana. And it dawned on me that I was witnessing something magical.

photo 4 (3)There are moments we look back on over our professional lives, times when we experienced great kindness or profound emotion, and as I saw an instructional assistant walk past these pirates with a parrot on his shoulder, I realized that today was one of those events for me.

In my first year as principal of Diegueño Middle School I’ve worked hard to earn the respect of the amazing educators who make up our staff. From the first day of school they’ve treated me well, welcoming me into classrooms and helping me feel like a part of our great Diegueño family.

Today, as three-cornered hats and hoop earrings were more common than ID badges, and every face I saw had a smile and the twinkling eyes of someone who has just pulled off a delicious surprise (which they had), I was overwhelmed by the feeling of gratitude.

I am blessed to work with a band of pirates who know how to mix work and play, and who kept a collective secret that, unveiled, shivered my timbers.

I will never forget today, the smiles and eyepatches, the support and love. My first Halloween as principal of Diegueño goes down as one of those special life events, humbling, moving, and wearing an eyepatch.


photo (21)

Playing with Expectations

More often than not clarity is the goal of all communication with parents, students, and teachers. As a principal I strive to provide information that gives my audience what they need, and opportunities to ask questions and engage in conversation about what’s happening on campus. To this end I use Twitter and our school’s Facebook page, I’m diligent about keeping up with a monthly principal’s message on our school website, and I keep this blog (for those times I’m feeling a little more poetic than a more official memorandum would allow). In addition, short web videos have become an increasingly welcome way for me to reach parents, who get to see a face with the message, as opposed to a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone message (I use those too) that interrupts dinnertime.

In a playful mood, however, I jostled that expectation of clarity first, and engaged in a touch of subterfuge for my “Costumes on Campus” message.


The student who was kind enough to stand in for me had gotten my attention when I subbed for a drama class earlier in the year and he offered to get the students started on a drama warm up while I took role. A real leader and talented actor, he had the pluck I wanted to fill the suit and mask. My AP stood behind the camera, and told me when we finished: “This was your best one!” Because I wasn’t in it, I answered. “You said it, not me!” He laughed.

Using humor to support a message and embracing the unexpected are hallmarks of great teachers. To work with pre-teens and teenagers means an ongoing adventure into the world of anything can happen, and to be an administrator at a middle school means multiplying that by 40 or so classrooms.

I’m very fortunate to share this adventure with a team of gifted educators who see the good in the unexpected. As we learn, both students and adults, understanding is preceded by a moment of not knowing what will happen next. It could be the anticipation of hearing a student presentation, engaging in a lab in science, or wrestling for a solution in math. It’s the notion that we don’t have the answer …yet. And it’s iphoto 2 (9)n that “yet” that we cultivate the growth mindset that believes we all have the capacity to grow, to learn, and (to crib a line from Sartre) to be what we are becoming.

I heard once that one measure of progress in a laboratory was laughter, because it meant that something had happened that was positive and surprising. It’s a lot like that in middle school.

Learning should be fun. As we dance with the unknown and finish a little closer to understanding than when we started, students build the habits of curiosity that will lead them in exciting and uncharted directions.

Without masks.




photo (9)Folks coming on campus at Diegueño thread through a grove of eight shade trees as they pass low slung buildings that one new teacher compared to the architecture she’d seen in Big Bear. Past the trees, campus opens up onto thoroughfares widened by Proposition AA construction and green lawns where students eat lunch and socialize between classes. We have a brand new media center, with furniture that reflects the playful attitude of middle school and amazing technology ready to help kids learn. New walls have been painted, new lunch tables with umbrellas dot campus. Heck, even the teachers are handsome and pretty. And to get to this land of plenty you have to pass a wall of bars as welcoming as those at a federal penitentiary.

I like it.

Years in education have made me a bit of a school safety wonk. I’m the fellow who actually enjoys Safety Committee meetings. I get jazzed about scheduling duck and cover drills, and hold a stopwatch when we practice an evacuation, always hoping for a better time. When I see the new gates we’ve put in at the front of the school I see safety. I see security. I see a clear demarcation of the line between the world of school and the world beyond. Inside those gates we make the magic of education; outside carries the uncertainty that our education prepares us for.

Sometimes safe isn’t convenient; it takes longer to walk through the main administration building, check in, and then go on campus than it would for someone simply to stroll on. Sometimes safe isn’t aesthetic; I’m looking forward to getting some vinyl signs on the new fences to soften the look a bit. But safety is, well …safe. And that trumps convenience or looks.

Attitudes toward campus design have evolved over the past few decades, as schoolhouses ceased looking like the classical structures kids see in Richard Scarry books. Now campuses are more open, with spaces for students to congregate and an understanding that we’re better off when we have more room for students to interact than might be seen in the narrow hallways of Disney tween sitcoms.

Even in the three decades since Diegueño was built the world around us has prompted school designers to create distinct boundaries to campuses and improved gates and fences to deter non-student access.

These adjustments to our infrastructure, brought up to date on our campus with Proposition AA construction, are needed and reassuring, and even as we enjoy the new entrance and exits, educators know that a major element of school safety is the community and connections within those boundaries. Students who look out for one another help school officials prevent unsafe situations. Creating a climate that is connected (students, teachers, and all members of the school community) is as important as solid gates or deterring walls.

And it looks better.

So our ASB organizes activities to help students smile, laugh, and know each other. Our teachers get to know their students as they discuss everything from coding to creativity, from probability to presidents. Our counselor and campus supervisor join my assistant principal and me out at lunch, where fist bumps and high fives outnumber telling kids to pick up trash, and it’s more likely to see a student giving our assistant principal advice about fantasy football than it is hearing him tell a student to behave. Skinned knees in our health office are treated with conversation as well as bandages, and I’ve seen students arrive early to school to talk books with the fantastic Mrs. Coy in our library, “the family room of campus.” It’s these connections that create the environment where when someone sees something she says something, where teachers and students look out for one another, and where we get a sense of belonging to a community greater than ourselves.

All the while our staff wear photo IDs, volunteers have name tags, and parents coming on campus sign in and are issued identification badges. Vigilance and welcoming stand side by side at Diegueño.

I’m a fan of the new gates on campus, and the other measures that are part of the important work we do. But as I talk safety, it’s important for me to remember that the best safety is a connected community, and the best way to begin a day at school is to greet people outside the gates, where the first thing they see at Diegueño is a smile.

Walking Shoes

photoWith just a week to go before students arrive at school it’s time for me to acknowledge that the summer days of short pants are just about over and that like scores of students preparing for classes, it’s time for me to go school clothes shopping. My list isn’t long. I have a closet full of ties and dress shirts. Really the only thing I need is a new pair of shoes.

Style isn’t my primary concern; no one looks to me for a fashion statement. What I’m after is a good sole, something that can survive the school year.

I walk a lot: into classrooms, around campus, from the entrance of the school in the morning to the back gate as the school day ends. I’ve been a site administrator at three schools and the one constant is that I wear out a pair of shoes every year.

Walking is a big deal to me. Every minute I’m out of my office and moving around campus I have the opportunity to experience what’s happening at my school. It’s on walks that I get to step into classrooms, the epicenter of education. Seeing great teachers engage with students renews me. Watching kids learn, asking them questions as they do a lab in science class or draw in the art studio, or even joining in a kickball game in PE (while tough on shoes) helps me connect with my students and my school community.

I notice things when I walk: the leaky faucet, the abandoned textbook, the parent walking her dog. And when I address these opportunities I help make my school a safer, friendlier, and better place.

Sometimes people walk with me -students on their way to class, instructional assistants between periods, teachers on their preps- and the conversations that spring up as we walk are some of the richest I experience. I’ve heard people stress the “visibility” of administrators, but the word has always struck me as meaning standing around. Give me walking; movement speaks of engagement.

Whether striding with purpose, on my way to cover a class, or strolling with my assistant principal as we talk over a situation or upcoming event, it’s that engagement that matters most to me. I want to be out on my campus, moving in this grand dance of learning, and connecting with others on this journey of education.

I’ll buy a new pair of shoes this weekend before the first day of classes, and if I find them worn out when I step on the stage at our promotion ceremony in June I’ll have a chance of being what I set out to find: something that can survive the school year, a good soul.