They’ll never put my name on a bench…

photo 1I have lunch from time to time with Marilyn Pugh, a former principal, who has always been generous in her time, giving me her ear when I need it, and advice when I ask. She was the principal of Diegueño for a decade, and is so loved and respected that she has her name on a plaque on a bench in front of campus.

I’ll repeat that: They named a bench in her honor and she’s alive.

In my first year at Diegueño, I loved my meetings with Marilyn, and seeing the faces of my staff light up when she entered the room. “MARILYN!” they’d shout, arms above their heads, zeroing in for a hug. She had the reputation of a tough administrator, and one who cared immensely about her teachers, her staff, and her kids. Her legacy is more than that plaque; she is seen as the high water mark for administration at Diegueño, something principals like me strive to emulate.

And I did keep Marilyn’s work in the back of my mind as I went about becoming part of the Diegueño family. I knew I’d be different; it’s right that I’m me, but I always had it in my head that I’d work hard and be true, and that after a few years there might even be a couple of teachers who would at least remember my name when a future principal brought me to visit campus sometime around 2040.

Last week I realized that they’ll never put my name on a bench.

Last week the opportunity to become the principal at San Dieguito High School Academy galloped into my life, snorting and stamping its hoof, and waiting for me to saddle up. It was an invitation to adventure that I could not pass up, not at least without a heaviness of regret that would haunt my work at Diegueño.

The pain of leaving, real and heart-rending, stood in contrast to the joy of expectation, of knowing that this was the right decision.

Like Rick at the end of Casablanca, I knew knew that I needed to put Diegueño on the plane bound in one direction, while I began a beautiful friendship with unknown promise in another. If not, I’d regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.

Okay, that last paragraph was too melodramatic, but truth be told, I feel a touch melodramatic right now. I’m really excited to be going to SDA, and have also been in the business long enough to know just how much I’ll miss the people of Diegueño every day.

I’ll lean on Jorge Luis Borges, who captured this twin feeling of hope and loss in his poem “We Learn.”

…you learn to build your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.

After a while you learn…
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure…

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth…

And you learn and learn…

With every goodbye you learn.”

I’m learning from this most recent goodbye, as I’ve learned from difficult farewells from years past. Time, I’ve found doesn’t always dull the loss, but good work helps, and new opportunities are the foundation of a meaningful life.

So as I say goodbye to a school family who I care deeply about and who treated me so well, and put my foot in the stirrups and swing into the saddle of something new, I know that Diegueño is a part of who I am, and that the excitement I feel about the road ahead in no way diminishes the beauty of the memories I keep in my heart.

borges campus

Summer Planning

“Do you have the first day inservice planned?” She asked. One of my best teachers, a powerful educator and true teacher leader at Diegueño, her eyes wide, she really thought I might.

“I know I’m starting by feeding you pancakes,” I stumbled, “and…”

And I was thankful for her kindness, and the good humor of the other gifted teachers sitting around the table. “…and you know today is the first Tuesday of summer.”

We were together at a district achievement summit, a great way to cap off the school year, revisiting our progress on district initiatives and looking ahead to the start of the next school year. After a full morning, our Diegueño team broke off, finding a space where we could talk about how we could organize the first two days teachers were back in August.

With passion, candor, and an energy that suggested it was September, not June, the five teachers who joined me at the summit brainstormed ideas, spoke honestly about what would work and what wouldn’t, and helped craft a plan that will bring people together when we all return from a few weeks of vacation.

As I walked away from the meeting at the end of the day I was struck by three things: first, I work with some amazing teachers. Smilingly passionate about educating kids, they brought a spark to this summer planning that astounded me. Willing to help lead the August work, curious about how to improve their own practice and move our school forward, and ready to do the hard work needed to help kids, they are, like so many teachers, the reason education continues to adapt and really matter for kids. In this world of abundant information, it’s teachers who help provide perspective and wisdom.

Second, I was reminded of how important it is that I continue to push myself to be at my own best. That question about the first inservice that I bumbled, albeit honestly, was asked with the expectation that as the leader of the school I was thinking months ahead. I am, but hadn’t thought that I’d need to articulate my August plan on June 16th. I did, and having a group of teachers patient enough to let me find my answer made this a real opportunity for me to continue to grow into the leader I want to be.

Finally, the day underscored the importance of being purposeful in all we do. Whether it’s community building or academic initiatives, to make lasting change and a real difference, we must be both systematic and determined in what we do. This means working together, being honest in our assessment of where we are and ambitious in our determination of where we want to be.

I’m back at my desk in the morning doing the work I know will pay off in a couple of months, planning in June and July, inspired by those I work with, and excited about the difference we can make in August!

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…and when we get back in August, we’ll have the best staff shirts around!

Packed House

Standing at the podium looking out over the crowd of parents, students, teachers, and families, I had second thoughts about the importance of promotion. I’d been dubious.

A friend had asked me what a promotion was. “Like a mini graduation?” he asked. “Sort of,” I answered. “But without reading all the names.” Others I know have been critical of the practice, arguing that commencement ceremonies marking the completion of high school or a college degree carry with them a justified weight, while elementary and middle school promotions lack the necessary gravitas (or fail in attempting it), and seem forced, cheapened by social promotion, and incomplete as they recognize the class, not individual students by name.

photo 2 (6)There, however, looking down at my speech, a brief page, I had the distinct feeling that promotion mattered.

Sure, it’s an invented affair. Thirty years ago the transition from 8th to 9th grade meant your mom saying “I think those jeans will make it another year.” And yes, the most meaningful celebrations are throughout the year and for specific accomplishments, academic and social. But…

When I saw the collective pride packed into our quad, and tightly packed at that, I realized that an event like this is special too.

There was some talk about where to hold our promotion ceremony. In the past few years it’s taken place, sensibly, on the lower athletic field, where wide open spaces are the trade off for scrubby grass, ugly vistas, and a long walk for the elderly and disabled. This year we moved the celebration onto the heart of campus, building the event around the permanent stage where our ASB holds lunchtime activities, and spreading parent seating out into every nook and cranny of the quad. At Diegueño parents have traditionally brought their own lawn chairs, keeping the atmosphere casual and the costs low.

Moving to the quad meant rolling the dice on how everyone would fit, but the payoff of a pretty backdrop, better disabled access, and collective intimacy was worth the risk. What I didn’t realize until I got up on stage and looked out over the crowd, was just how perfectly the scene served as a metaphor for Diegueño.

We were together. We were there to celebrate kids. We were close, closer than some might think they wanted, but only for a short time, and looking back on that time together we’d forget the discomfort and remember what it was like to be part of something greater than ourselves in service to kids and academic success.

After a quartet of 8th graders sang the national anthem, and did so with such talent that the crowd let out a collective gasp, six student speakers took to the podium. These students, so thoughtful, passionate, and honest, reminded us all that our hope in the future is well justified. Their speeches alone were proof a ceremony like this was important. Student voices, publicly acknowledged and heard by our school community, were the star of the show.

At a promotion, as opposed to the diploma distribution that drives a high school graduation, the focus can be on celebrating the hard work, the play, and the community built over our two years together. We can sit next to each other one final time, and as a school family we can acknowledge the tick of time that marks some kind of changing of the hour in the lives of the kids.

…and the lives of the moms and dads.

It’s for the families that this gathering together means the most. Students carry their own memories forward, and few, beyond those students who sang or spoke, will be of the ceremony itself. For the kids it’s the selfie on the bus ride to Disneyland, or the poem written to describe 8th grade with an extended metaphor that will mean the most when, a decade or two from now, they’re uncovered cleaning out the spare bedroom to make a nursery.

For the grandfather who walked into our office after the promotion ceremony searching for a program, however, it was something else.

We were able to give him a program, and as I think about that folded piece of paper hanging by a magnet on the fridge beside a photo of his thirteen year old granddaughter, I know that I’ll do everything in my power to make each of the promotion ceremonies I get a hand in feel special to the parents, grandparents and kids too.

For that grandfather, promotion mattered. He was there to celebrate his student, and to support her as she began the transition to high school. This was a day for him, for her, for her parents, and for the families of all our 8th graders. It was real. It was heartfelt. It wasn’t just a mini graduation.

Gathered together in Diegueño’s quad, the packed house felt more like a full home. Our collective school family was there together to honor the kids we’d spent two years together preparing for the next step in their young lives. We wouldn’t have another opportunity to all sit shoulder to shoulder, and for a little less than an hour, we could.

Graduations are about individuals reaching individual goals; promotions are about the passing from one phase of life to another. They’re about parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and students realizing that the awkward childhood of promotion’s wobbly wedges and ill fitting suits is too soon gone, and the future of mortarboards in the air is only a heartbeat away. It’s a final opportunity to hold our kids tight, embrace hope, and look collectively to the promise ahead.

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Wow!

photo 1 (10)It wasn’t my idea. The best ones so often aren’t. The truth is that after I’d heard it mentioned early in the fall, I’d just about forgotten about the slim journal with the dog’s face on it. In my first year as the principal at Diegueño I found myself pretty occupied, learning so much, perpetually elbow deep in the day to day challenges of keeping a school moving in the right direction. I love what I do, but even with the right formula of optimism and coffee, I fall asleep pretty quickly at night.

One week, mid-year, when the thick of things felt thicker than usual, and the day ahead seemed filled with heaps of work that mattered in the way flossing your teeth or cleaning your toilet matter, I was given a jolt of joy when I found that puppy looking up from the top of my keyboard.

A pang of recognition hit me as I read: “WOW” on the cover.

I opened the journal and read the note attached to the first page describing the idea. The teacher who brought this to our campus wrote:

How many times has a student told you how much they love another teacher’s class? How many times has a fellow staff member gone out of his or her way to make your day better? …I know! Too many times to count.

Anyhow, I am starting a WOW journal (kind of cheesy, I know). When you get the journal, it is because someone wrote you a positive letter. Once you receive it, read your letter and pick someone else to write to. It can be any other adult who works here on campus.”

I won’t put the letter I read that morning in this post; blogger that I am, I hope to be a fellow of discretion. Still, I can say that the author’s kindness, her thoughtful words, and specific thanks took away all thoughts of a tough week. Instead, I was reminded of the genuine good that underpins education, and the amazing people who join together to teach kids.

As magical as reading the letter with my name at the top was paging back through the journal to read what other adults on campus had written to each other. Teachers, secretaries, custodial staff, and instructional aides had all had a turn. Their voices in print, some accompanied by sketches or stickers, rang out peals of appreciation. I felt proud and pleased to add my verse to the growing poem of thanks.

I’m not sure where the WOW journal is now, but I know that when I needed it, it was there for me, and I hope that whoever has it today gets as much joy as I felt when I found it on my desk.

Cheesy? Sure. Great things sometimes are. Amazing? Indeed. Just like the staff who made it.

What’s in the Fridge?

March and April can be challenging times on a school campus. Just as the weather warms up and the kids start feeling squirrely, the adults have to look hard to see Spring Break up ahead, and even then it’s a bit like a small oasis in Lawrence of Arabia’s vast desert.

The season brings more than just exhaustion, Winter Break’s renewal dissipating with the cloudy weather. Mandatory non-renewal letters can wither new teachers’ morale (and don’t do much to make principals feel good either). Veterans can feel that stress of the long haul between breaks, and everyone is doing a bit of double duty as we begin to prepare for the upcoming school year while also keeping up with hurly-burly of the everyday present.

As a principal, I know that a big part of my job is keeping morale up, particularly in the tougher times of the year. It’s a mission I’m still learning how best to complete.

photo (12)This year I had big plans to have my staff take photos of the inside of their refrigerators and make some sort of game out of guessing whose was whose. The photos I got were great. …and absolutely no one ever guessed one right. Ouch. After a bit I stopped sharing the pictures, hoping inspiration might hit me, and I’d be better able to parlay the fridge photos into a morale booster.

I’m still waiting for that lightning bolt of spirit.

March and April saw a few successes in the area of spirit boosting. Two wonderful teachers led our staff in a restorative circle, an experience I’d like to build into what we do throughout the year next year. Our ASB put on a Hawaiian themed Spirit Week, and both staff and students embraced the sense of play. Smiles abounded in the staff vs. student volleyball game at lunch, and at Spirit Day, when we all got an afternoon to play together.

All that was great, and still I feel like next year I want to do more to make spring a time when we’re focused on the great things around us, including us, rather than the stresses that sometimes sneak onto campus.

And the truth is that I don’t have the answer to raising morale, as if there really is one answer. I do know that next March I’ll bring more food to share, try a little improv, and (if I’m adventurous enough) sock golf.

Even as I do, I believe the best way to keep morale as high as it can be is to have a school culture where people care about each other, see the best in each other, and give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Well, that and Spring Break!

The Tired Time

I’m writing this post from the safety of Spring Break, a steaming cup of tea beside me and my six year old son, still in his Star Wars pajamas, curled at my hip. I’m breathing now, relaxed and renewed, and actually looking forward to returning to school in just a couple of days.

A week ago I was running in a hundred different directions, doing my best to keep up, and trying to figure out all I could do to buoy morale on my campus. March and April are what our superintendent aptly calls “the tired time.”

I remember seeing the graphs when I was a young teacher. They tracked morale and looked like a wave at Mavericks. The trough of spring invites a wipeout.

As a principal, I’m particularly cognizant of the tiredness that begins to creep up on all of us adults (parents, staff, and administrators too) and the importance of counteracting it as best we can to avoid unnecessary conflict, stress, and emotionality.

Ironically, this wave of exhaustion rolls in at the same time the kids are scurrying around like sand crabs. Spring for a thirteen year old is a time of blossoms and bounce, considerably different than it is for the over thirty crowd.

So we do our best to ride the wave. At Diegueño our ASB puts on Spirit Week, when even adults dig wearing Hawaiian shirts for a few days; it’s tough to frown while wearing a lei. April 1st saw a fantastic visit by Fablehaven author Brandon Mull, who talked about imagination and creativity to a packed library. On the Monday before break both staff and students enjoyed a rollicking Spirit Day, and we’re preparing for a week long “Kindness Challenge” in late April.

Still, the best balm for the tired time is Spring Break.

School years have their patterns, their ebbs and flows, high tides and low. As school communities we’re wise to learn these and anticipate (and acknowledge) that our work doesn’t have the placidity of a pond, but the power of an ocean.

Spring Break renews, and alters the mood of people returning to campus. We’ll all come back to a busy time, as we finish the last nine weeks of this school year and plan ahead for the year ahead. When we get back from Spring Break we have just over a hundred days before the opening day of school in the fall.

And it’s exciting.

I’m looking forward to the bustle of the last few weeks of the school year. The purposeful encouragement we shared as a school in March and April and a great week spent with family have refilled my tanks for the mad dash that takes us to June.

And with that tired time on the other side of a week off, I’m optimistic that we can all take a deep breath of spring air and rise out of the valley on that morale graph, finishing strong, healthy, and together.

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Blue and Gold

1489More games than I expected required teamwork; the beach ball and parachute volleyball game was all about working together to see how many times they could get the ball over the net and not get the other team to miss. The spelling out of Diegueño related words (Cougars, Blue, Spirit) in student bodies was a mass of collaboration, and the water carrying challenge looked like something out of a Next Generation Science Standards lesson.

Spirit Day at Diegueño means nearly a thousand students and all but a skeleton crew of staff dressed in blue or gold shirts (designed by our art classes) down on our field playing together.

1423This year saw some new activities join the old standards, and along with the collaborative games, it was fun to see kids prompted to ponder (Giant Jenga), hold hands (on the hula hoop passing challenge), and throw their heads back and laugh.

Making it even more delicious was that they were joined by teachers and parent volunteers, who limboed, tossed horseshoes, and ate Otter Pops alongside the kids.

It was, hyperbolically speaking, a perfect day at school.

What I mean is that this week’s Spirit Day, with a focus on community, connections, and healthy challenges, had in it all the elements of education at its best.

1462Students were given a variety of opportunities to try to come up with answers: “How can I hang wet Diegueño t-shirts so the clothesline doesn’t dip to the ground?” “How can we work together to get as much water from one bucket to another in a tube with more holes than a flute?” …and they worked together and cheered each other as they brought a hands on approach to figuring things out.

They did all this while laughing with their teachers who, dressed in the same blue and gold Spirit Day shirts, encouraged, inspired, and occasionally guided them, sometimes even jumping in to join the activity.

And when things didn’t go perfectly (I’ll admit that try as I might, I was on the losing end of a tug of war …twice), the feelings weren’t hard, as the focus stayed on the experience even more than the outcome.

1507This isn’t to say that competition wasn’t real. We love our three legged races at Diegueño, and in our double three legged race determination led students to tumble, creative carrying, and smiles of victory.

That parents were on hand to see the fun only made things better. Armed with scoring clipboards and given specific tasks, parent volunteers felt as much a part of our school family as anyone else. They even got to sneak hellos to their kids, though I heard one 7th grader whisper to his mom from where the human spelling event was going on: “Mom, I can’t talk. I’m an ‘E’.”

1524I’m not saying that every day of middle school should or could look like our celebration this Monday; my ASB Director would punch me in the mouth if I did, but I do believe that the spirit of the day is something that should, like the blue and gold shirts the kids and staff get to keep, always be visible on campus. I know that when I see folks wearing shirts from Spirit Weeks gone by I feel that sense of belonging and fun.

The memories of Spirit Day will last long beyond the sunburns, and if we’re doing things right (and I believe that we are), the spirit will continue to breathe passion into all that we do.

Out of the Box

It hit me, as I read the prompt for this week’s #YourEduStory challenge, that I didn’t have an answer I was proud of. The question of the week: “How can you empower student voice in your school?”

Sure we talk with students, informally at lunch, in student groups run through counseling or intervention programs, and in our ASB class, where student leaders articulate their perspective beautifully. But even with those mechanisms in place to hear what students are thinking, as a school, I know we can do more.

So…

I took this week’s prompt as a call to action more than a chance for reflection, and I brought this question to the people I really wanted to hear the answer from: students.

Early in the year I’d met with a trio of amazing kids who wanted to talk about homework. We actually looked at a few articles together, and began an interesting conversation, but in the sturm und drang of the school year, I’ll confess that I let it fall away.

This week I got them together again and asked: “How can we empower student voice at Diegueño?”

Here’s what they said:

To empower student voice, we can do multiple things, all of which will encourage students to speak up. One of the things Diegueño could do is have a box placed somewhere easily accessible on the campus, where students can place their opinions on school related matters, anonymously or named. The box would need to be gone through once a week or so, and the top five things brought up would need to be considered seriously. The staff could also host a meeting every month or on some periodical schedule that any students would be welcome to attend. At the meeting, some of the ideas put into the box could be brought up, and the students and teachers could discuss how to solve them. The box and meetings would need to be kept in shape by the students, as this would be a chance for them to discuss things openly with other students, and possibly with teachers. Whatever matter the students decided to resolve should be announced during morning announcements or lunch, and the students would be responsible for making sure it is taken seriously and responsibly (with help and approval from the teachers, of course). Also, the surveys Diegueño staff occasionally posts online are great in my opinion.”

What a great set of ideas.

So in keeping with the idea of this question as an opportunity, I’m setting these four goals, and giving myself the challenge to blog about each sometime in the next few weeks:

First, I will meet regularly with a group of students to ask questions and listen to what they have to say about their Diegueño experience, and I’ll use what they tell me to inform the work I do to make our school the best it can be.

Second, I’ll get working on that box!

Third, I will work with ASB to organize a forum for students to discuss their points of view about our school.

Finally, I will find a way to make transparent and public our conversations.

Hearing students is an important part of being an educator, and acknowledging when you haven’t done a good enough job of it is part of improving. I’m thankful to have had my spring interrupted by the challenge of this topic, and to have been given the opportunity to adjust what I’m doing to get better.

What will the kids say? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

And when someone asks me about empowering student voice next fall I’m looking forward to having an answer I can be proud of.

Knock Your Socks Off

Not enough conversations start off with the words: “My dad has a sock maker and…”

But that’s just how a smiling student addressed his math teacher the other day when he dropped by her classroom at break and found a few of us chatting about the upcoming Pi Day.

His teacher, encouraging her students to have fun as they thought about ways to celebrate 3.14.15, had mentioned that she was hoping to see a few inspired ideas that would knock her socks off.

This intrepid 7th grader certainly did.

He’d brought in a few paper plates for the pie he knew his class would be sharing, and handed them to his teacher as a courier might deliver a package. Sensible, I thought, but hardly inspired. Then, grinning, he held out a present that was, and he uttered that wonderful, underused conversation starter.

photo (7)All our eyes widened as we saw the homemade socks with a π emblazoned beneath two cats. “Wow,” she said.

“You said you wanted something that would knock your socks off,” he said. It did.

Laughing as we read the inscription on the socks, we enjoyed this unscripted moment of playfulness.

The ability for students and teachers to laugh together is a profound example of the health of a school community.

This isn’t to say that either adults or kids are comedians; learning is serious business and rigor can’t be sacrificed for an easy laugh. Real moments, however, when students show that they know that their teachers care about them and they feel safe enough to be goofy, are not less precious when they are commonplace.

Just this year I’ve seen students have fun with adults on campus as they made our assistant principal into a zombie at Halloween, dressed like a favorite math teacher on twin day, and poured a bucket of water over my head.

Feeling comfortable together makes teaching and learning better for everyone. The relationship between teacher and student is perhaps the most important factor in education, and when it’s great it can knock your socks off.

Dig This

photo 4 (3)It was a February day so sunny and warm I expected to be able to turn on the Dodger game in the car on my way home. A dozen or so dads from my kids’ grade school gathered for a demolition party. Fueled by camaraderie and the spirit of helping out, we put our backs behind shovels, picks, and rakes, and leveled the remnants of a community garden to prepare the way for a renewed space where the kids could plant and learn.

Two things hit me as I bandaged up a torn finger and had a chance to look around me at the work getting done: we were having fun and feeling good about what we were doing, and while we weren’t directly working with kids, our digging, and lifting, and raking was going to make a real difference for students.

While a little dustier than some of the work parents do for schools, what we were up to was a pretty standard example of what parents do all the time at Diegueño: they give generously of time and from pocketbooks, they have fun together (at luncheons and volunteering at jog-a-thons), and they make huge differences for kids.

photo (2)At Diegueño our students see the generosity of parents in real and profound ways. A large number of the Chromebooks our students use every single day are a direct result of PTSA donations. Our parents have funded tables, chicken wings for science class, puppet theaters, and enough kleenex to fill a dozen boxcars. Students laugh and learn in a media center stocked with books (some) donated by parents, and each hold a student agenda because the parents know that helping kids stay organized helps them both short and long term.

The parents at Diegueño know that support goes beyond writing a check. With generous hearts and artistic eyes, parents host staff appreciation lunches throughout the year, as famous for their gorgeous centerpieces as they are the outpouring of love and thanks offered to our teachers and staff. In a world where it’s easy to be critical, these luncheons remind us all how fortunate we are to be in this together.

Healthy relationships between parents and teachers is one measure of a healthy school, and from events like our Diegueño Book Club to the parents who volunteer in the library at lunch or art room on Fridays, parents and teachers understand that we’re all partners in educating healthy kids.

I'm the one in the garish makeup for the "Zombie Fun Run!"

I’m the one in the garish makeup for the “Zombie Fun Run!”

I look forward to my monthly Coffees with the Principal. It’s not that the crowd is simply there to clap at what’s going on; at our best meetings we share questions and answers, celebrate student learning, and talk about how best we can work together to help kids.

Our PTSA meets twice a month, and in addition to great discussion about how to make Diegueño the best place it can be, I love that I hear lots of laughter, and that the parents seem genuinely happy to be there.

Good ideas? They’ve got them, along with big hearts, ready smiles, and a love for our school. Shovels? Well, we haven’t needed those yet, but if we did, I have no doubt but that they’d dig that too!