As a principal I hear concerns, more now than ever, about education. Most are rooted in some kind of truth and all feel very, very, very real to the student or parent or staff member who is talking with me. Not all, however, are based on fact, or better said, not all the concerns I hear are informed by all the relevant facts. A bit of sleuthing, part of my job, can help find those facts and put them together in a way that makes sense. Sense and concern are an uncomfortable pair.

The latest concern that came my way, this from a parent about a teacher, reminded me of something from my own high school experience, an experience now so far in the past it takes on the sepia tones of nostalgia.

I took a speech class in my senior year of high school. I was not a public speaker or interested in being on the debate team, but I liked the teacher and had friends in the class. Back in the late 80s that was enough. (Maybe it still is.)

Anyway, as the class began we all took our fledgling turns standing in front of the room talking. I can’t remember the topic of my mini-address, but I do remember the teacher stopping me and telling me that I kept pausing with a spoken “um” to punctuate the interruption in my speech. This was not, he assured me, ideal. I must have nodded and marshaled on, but he stopped me again and told me the same thing. I’m sure I shrugged, looking back at photos of who I was in 1987 I look like a kid who shrugged, and tried for a third time. It didn’t get better. 

The teacher stopped me again and asked the class to take out a few sheets of paper. With me still standing in the front of the room, he asked them to ball up those papers and get ready. “Go on,” he told me, smiling. “And every time you say ‘um’ the class will throw paper at you.”

I did. They did. And not that day, or the day after, but by the end of the year I wasn’t saying “um.” 

My parents never heard about the paper pelting. It was a different time and my parents knew very little about my day to day school experience beyond seeing me do homework or getting report cards. Would all this have happened in a class today? If it did, would the principal get a call? Um…

I also played football back in those salad days, and I have another memory that might surprise my parents to hear today. I had a coach who often showed very little respect for his players, belittling us as a way of motivation, speaking cruelly when it pleased him to do so. More than thirty years later I still won’t shed a tear when I hear he’s dead. Maybe he already is. Here’s hoping.

If those last two sentences strike you as much harsher than the usual tone of my posts, they are; the emotions that coach inspired were so powerful in my teenage psyche that they colored the end of my high school experience in a way that I wish they hadn’t.

I’ll pull one silly example, an example that I know today as silly, but that felt then like a big deal to the teenage me. I’d had a good game against a crosstown rival and the local newspaper had named me an “athlete of the week.” That’s not something that shows up on your resume or carries much resonance beyond a week or so (heck, they award it to someone else seven days later), but it meant a lot to me when I was seventeen. Part of the celebration was that the athlete and his or her coach got to go to a breakfast at the newspaper, a little to-do that I was looking forward to. My coach caught me in the hallway the day before, however, to tell me that he didn’t like the way the newspaper had been reporting on our team and he wasn’t going to take me to the breakfast. Period. I remember him walking away and me standing there feeling unheard, unimportant to him, and confused.

My parents didn’t hear about that one either, not because I wasn’t close to my parents, but because school and sports were my world, not theirs. The good, the bad, those were mine to own. I did. I shared my frustrations  with my friends, of course, but I saw part of growing up as being able to deal with what happened when I went to school. I don’t know if that was healthy or right, but it was what it was.

In the greater scheme of things I suppose what happened in that speech classroom might strike some as more important, more embarrassing, more damaging than me missing a breakfast, but it didn’t me then, and it doesn’t me now. You see I liked and respected that speech teacher. He wanted me to improve and thought that an unconventional approach might just do it. There was no cruelty in his choice, and as he read my response to what he was doing he saw where he could reach me. He did. 

Today parents are more connected to school than they’ve ever been. Overall this helps students academically and in this crazy time of pandemic induced remote learning it makes a positive difference. And…

It also feels like everything we do in this world of distance learning is more emotionally charged. The little glimpses of humanity we see in each other can feel out of place sometimes and for every time the cute dog or cat shows up on screen there might be a time when a distraction makes one of the participants feel like they’re being slighted. It’s easy to read volumes into a camera that’s turned off or a response that’s seen as short. More than once this fall I’ve seen tempers flare or feelings bruised by actions on camera that were meant with no malice and might be seen with more objectivity as having little wrong with them. Misinterpretation, particularly when everyone is a little right, is far too easy in the pandemic world of 2020.

Back in 1987 it was the relationship I had with each adult that colored my response to their interactions with me. I respected one and felt heard, but had no respect for the other and knew that he cared for me not at all. It’s like that now as well, but complicated by the reality that students and teachers can only interact through a computer. This is particularly true for students (and parents) who have never met a teacher in person and are striving to build a relationship through an imperfect medium.

Age has taught me, as much as I’ll allow it, to show more grace. More often than not people are doing their best with intentions that aren’t sinister or mean spirited. I know that, even if I still harbor ill will toward an old coach.

So, should we not complain? Should we just accept the things that frustrate us? Um…

Maybe a better approach would be to take the extra time to pause judgement, take the time to ask follow up questions, and make our own positions clear with objectivity and honesty. Without the benefit of quiet conversations after or before classes, the opportunities to interact in a classroom, and the possibility of making connections in person we have to work harder to connect, but those connections make all the difference between playfully thrown paper and a heart turned hard by barking on a playing field.

Connections and common sense, time, trust, and grace, these are things to aspire to, particularly as we’re still doing school so far apart that we can’t be hit by wadded up balls of paper.

Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

Kitty Litter

I was in a scriptwriting class on Monday and heard the teacher delight his class with the truth that as a writer and filmmaker there were times a young auteur would be given the challenge to “make kitty litter sexy.” The class laughed, of course, and he went on to lay down the truth that part of what good storytellers of any medium can do is take something simple and make it interesting. It was later that day that I found myself looking at the proverbial box of litter.

I knew where to turn.

My kitty litter was explaining the concept of ACMA’s “Access” period to students new to our school as well as how they can use our online system to sign up to visit teachers and get help. A schedule adjustment had made it so that the time we’d originally set aside to do this task would take place after the first Access. Gulp.

I turned to my student filmmakers.

Tromping out to my film teacher’s classroom I hoped I could coax a couple of students to help put together something informative we could share with new students. I had in mind something modest, and I had a deadline of just over 24 hours.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.49.59 AMAs students do when we believe in them, they more than rose to the occasion.

We talked briefly about the task at hand, they nodded and said they could do it.

By the next morning a student stopped by my desk to film my cameo in the short, her patience and smile reassuring me that things were going to be just fine.

Tuesday afternoon two inspired students swooped into my office with a rough cut that they adjusted as I watched. Witty, short, and clear, what they’d created did more than I expected to make the topic accessible to new students and provide not only what Access is, but also how the students could sign up for it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 8.50.16 AMWe sent it out to all new families that night, and Wednesday morning, as Access rolled out for the first time this year the result was students, veteran and novice, in classrooms getting help from the teachers they needed to meet.

The student filmmakers received no “points” for making the short, nor did they even add their names to the credits (though I hope to persuade them to do so on the next short I ask them to make). They stepped up, however, to do something for their school and for the students new to our ACMA family. They brought humor and polish to their work, and even enlisted a real life new-to-ACMA student in the starring role of “new student.” They were, not to put too fine a point on it, the kind of inspiration that led Emerson to say “Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great.”

Every week I am inspired by the young people I have the privilege to work with. Wednesday that inspiration came in the form of a minute and five seconds of kindness and creativity.

“Thank you for your patience…”

photo 5I was not being patient. I seethed. We’d boarded the plane with the thought we’d take off. Waiting to deplane after sitting in the cabin for almost an hour, knowing we’d miss our connecting flight, I’d already made the silent vow never to fly that particular airline again. This was the first day of our summer vacation, and all I wanted to do was get to Vancouver Island and find our hotel.

As a principal, I know I’ve been on the other side of the phrase “thank you for your patience.” It’s not unusual to be called upon to deliver tough news to parents, teachers, and students. There isn’t a great way to say “we’ve got to close the theater until we can get out the rats” or “these are the nicest port-a-potties that we could rent.”

I’ve always done my best to be honest and direct, but even so I know I’ve left people feeling like I did as I pulled my carry on down from the overhead bin.

I checked Twitter once we got back into the San Diego Airport and were given a time, an hour or so away, that we’d be getting back on a plane. I keep a professional account, so there wasn’t any real temptation to post something snarky about the airline, but I was frustrated, the kids were jostling, and I hoped for 140 characters of humor or inspiration.

photo 1I found it in a tweet from our superintendent, a photo of a sign I’d love to have on my desk: “WARNING! This principal is going to ask “What is best for kids?”

And I realized one of the reasons I’d been so frustrated at being thanked for the patience I didn’t have. Perspective.

No one really told us why.

“We have a computer part that isn’t working,” they’d said in an almost inaudible tone over the intercom, the pilot’s voice so soft it felt like he didn’t really want us to hear.

photo (1)Writing this from the balcony of our hotel in Victoria, I have the distance to realize that the pilot had no control over the broken part. He certainly wasn’t pleased about it any more than I was. He may have been a little embarrassed or a little shaken himself.

I’ve been that pilot at my own school, and I know that whether the difficult news I have to deliver is a result of a decision I’ve made or something I beyond my immediate control, I can’t lower my voice so as not to be heard. I need to speak clearly and provide a rationale to why what’s happening is happening.

“If we take off without replacing this part we’re all going to die.”

Maybe not that bald faced. I’m not sure that would have made me feel all that much better.

This year I know that I will do my best to explain the why in the messages I deliver. Like the pilot whose mission is to get passengers from point A to point B safely, mine should be as simple: “Do what’s right for kids.”

I’m certain there will be times I need to ask for people’s patience in the months ahead, and as I do I won’t forget what it feels like, luggage in hand, kids tugging on my jacket, to have to hear it.

Bird is the Word

birdWith a tenacity that astounded me, the bird flew at my office window, pecking the glass and flying back to the tree near the entrance to campus. A Yellow Breasted Chat (I looked it up) the bird announced it’s knocking on the glass with a throaty cry, acting as if it had something really important to tell me.

It didn’t. It was a bird.

But as I watched this collection of feathers and frustration come at my window (over and over and over again) I thought about the times I’ve seen equal determination in those around me, hellbent on giving the principal (or the school or the district) a message, but unable to make themselves clear.

Sometimes it’s language. Institutions speak the language of bureaucracy, and speak that with an English accent. As a principal I know how important it is that I take the time to avoid the acronyms of education and the obtuse vernacular of legal language. I recognize both the legal and moral obligations of communicating in the languages the families at my school speak, and saw in this bird a reminder of how frustrating it can be when I talk more like a principal than like a dad, or when I’m careless or hurried in my communication.

Sometimes it’s fear. Over a couple of decades working in schools,  I’ve learned that an overwhelming majority of parents really respect education and educators. Some feel nervous or hesitant reporting information they know might be seen as bad news. In these cases it isn’t as much about miscommunication as it is silence. Inside these moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, the desire to cry out is held back by the fear of disappointment, or (at it’s worst) the potential of not being heard. As I watched that bird banging against my window, I jotted notes to myself to do more to reach out to the school community and invite every voice into the conversation.

Sometimes it’s that our message is misdirected. This has happened to me more than a few times when I was on the other end of the communication, with something I needed to say, looking for someone who could hear me. In those times I wanted so much for the person I identified as having a solution to be the right one; too often I realized later that I was wrong. Like that Yellow Breasted Chat, sometimes our hopes outweigh reality, and the message we want so much to deliver isn’t really meant for the one we had in mind.

I see great people come to my office with challenges that my role as principal does not provide me the ability to solve. I listen, genuinely, sharing when I can, and giving them whatever I’m able, even if it’s only compassion. Some leave lighter. Some leave as frustrated as the bird at my window, wanting beyond hope that I could do something more to fix/cure/solve the problem that brought them to my office.

Whatever the cause of our banging up against a window, our beaks and claws scratching for a hold on the thing we can see, but not reach, we do well when we regroup, perch on a nearby branch, and try to figure out how we might get our message across differently.

My assistant, who was watching this strange occurrence, looked at me and said: “You know, they say sometimes animals can sense things we can’t.”

Not reassuring.

photo 3I had empathy for that bird, and though I’m no Dr. Doolittle, after a while I went outside. I’m not sure what I was hoping for.

The bird tipped its head when I got near, looking at me out of one shining black eye. “You’re going to get hurt,” I told it.

It chirped once, as if it couldn’t understand what I was saying, and flew away.