Good Natured Dread

This has been a crazy year in education, as it has been a crazy year beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. It has been a year when the those schoolhouse walls have expanded to include every kitchen table in town, every student chromebook perched on a stack of pillows, and more than a few garages where a corner between the lawn mower and boxes of holiday decorations has been converted into a place to dance, paint, or play the clarinet.

Now, as the world seems to be turning in a different direction, with some students returning to campus (and a good many other students choosing to remain at home to learn) some of that external craziness is turning into heightened internal emotion. Those feelings, just as confused as the world around us, were described beautifully by one of the seniors at my school who when asked what she and her peers were feeling replied: “Dread. Good natured dread.”

Another adult who was in on the conversation followed up: “Do you mean at school?” She asked, “or in general?” The student paused and then said: “Yeah.”

I loved (and was not surprised by) the way the student phrased things. I work at a ridiculously creative school where iconoclasm is equaled by wit. “Good natured dread” captures both the weariness inspired by the past year or so and the pluck that I know can lift this current generation of students (and the fortunate adults who get to work with them) out of the mire. 

If our school was asked “Which Disney princess are you?” We’d answer “Mononoke.”

And her phrase stuck with me as I thought about how best to approach the final weeks of this unusual school year.

Acknowledge the dread, was my first takeaway. That our students and staff and families are feeling pressure, unprecedented stress, and worry is a real thing, and smiling and pretending that isn’t the case doesn’t do anyone any good. The causes of understandable anxiety are many and varied. Not all of us can understand exactly what it’s like to face them all, but as we begin the climb back up to more solid ground it is important that we recognize that the trauma that has helped to define our past year is real and the way through is long, may be complicated, and is best managed by all of us supporting one another.

That community, that sense of good will, that is what I hear in my student’s other two words. Sure there is a level of despair, but our engagement with those emotions can be on our terms, good natured. I quoted the stoic philosopher Epictetus a few posts back and will echo that again here: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”

We can and should face the feelings that have grown over the past months, and it seems to me that we’d be wise to do so with the same strength and cheek of the student describing how she was feeling about school and life.

Back to that princess, hardly Disney, I mentioned earlier. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke a character named Osa, bandaged head to toe and wracked by leprosy, tells our hero: “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Epictetus, Miyazaki, that ACMA senior, they each have something to teach us. We are not without stress, or justifiable anxiety, or disappointment, and… 

We don’t have to face these alone or without hope. Together it’s natural to bemoan a bit, empathize with one another, and maybe, just maybe, feel good natured dread. I’m convinced that months from now that good natured dread will fuel stories of resilience, shared strength, and the power of our human spirit.

New Things To Love

“A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends … what teachers really teach is themselves—their contagious passion for their subjects and students … children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.”  -David Brooks, New York Times columnist and college professor.

There’s a lot in this quotation from David Brooks, and while I remember hearing conversation about the oft repeated line “children learn from people they love” it was the first sentence that stuck with me when I reread the lines quoted in a book I was enjoying this winter. “A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends.”

I kept thinking, is that true?

I think so. It sounds right. I know that when I was an English teacher I did my best to teach from the heart, connect with students, and inspire something like that “lighting of a fire, not filling of a pail” line that gets quoted more than a little in education. But is it true? 

Confessedly sentimental and likely to embrace an idea like this one, I decided to ask some people I trust. I shared the line with a few current or former teachers, students, and parents whose points of view I really respect. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

“Students learn and get to experience so much beyond just their courses. I think when people reflect back on school, they’re not reciting the standards that we need to cover but the little sparks that make school a place to love. Whether it’s finding a new passion from a friend or teacher in a class, little tangents from teachers that give you a peek into a little more, or learning about a career or interest that you didn’t even know existed. I think it’s a part that’s missing a lot from CDL right now. Some students really make an effort to be present and make their voices heard, but I think we’re all a little worse off when most students are not able to engage in that way. Hopefully once we’re all back in person we’ll see those little sparks come about more.”

“I believe that it is important to give kids new opportunities to find passions. Whether that be through clubs or classes, new outlets for a creative process (in whatever form that may be) can be really great for students.”

“I do believe that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love. I think that’s something that ACMA does really well, a lot of students might audition for one pathway but through other elective classes find a new passion and that’s amazing. For me personally, I never would have found my love for subjects like Art History or found out about poets and writers whose work we read in class that left me mesmerized.  I’ve also found myself enjoying and putting more work into the classes that I truly love and classes where teachers share what they love and introduce us to new things.”

These first three perspectives, from people who I’ve seen (over Zoom) in the past week, really resonated with me. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. The next reply I got, from a friend who I’d worked with before returning to Oregon, balanced his passion for teaching with the weight of learning he’d done on his way to a doctorate.

“While the Pollyana in me smiles gleefully at Brooks’ statement (and desperately wants to believe it, by the way) I doubt he has spent much time in our public schools as of late, especially those in our urban cities. In Postmodern Social Analysis and Criticism, John W. Murphy argues that “the purpose of institutions in the modern world, like schools, is to remove passion from humans. The rationale of this goal is actually straightforward— nothing is more unpredictable and inefficient than passion.” As the model currently exists, students are being taught in subjects that are often devoid of their personal lives—in fact, their teachers rarely ask for their input with respect to pedagogical decisions. Therefore, many students seldom demonstrate a passion for the subject matter, and this is done by design. Rather than acting as centers for passionate learning, to quote Murphy again, “schools have become the key means for creating a docile workforce.” So I guess, to Brooks’ statement– it depends who you ask. 

“But then there are teachers like Rod Keillor, Barb Swovelin, Skip Nicholson (this list could go on for infinity) who truly stoke the fire of passion, who truly provide students with new things to love– and daily!. But how many teachers do we know who still have that passion and that fire, honestly? How many had it to begin with? Can a teacher be taught, you know, to “carry the fire” (little McCarthy allusion there) and share it with others, to ensure it burns forever?”

And he’s not wrong. My question, so innocent it seemed in retrospect, looked to have more complicated answers than a standardized multiple choice test.

And my friend’s thoughtful answer, coupled with those from the first three I’d received, got me thinking about the schools where I’ve worked and how different some of them are than other schools across the country. I thought too of the pressures that teachers face, not only during times of pandemic and distance learning, but all the time. “Stoking the fire of passion” is a tall order in the best of times and best of circumstances, and…

The final answer I got to my question, at least the last one before I sat down to write this post, came from a teacher and ASB advisor whose passion and purpose inspire me still. He started with a reference to a very, very, very silly thing I did with my admin team several years ago.

We wanted to make an ad for an upcoming fundraising event and decided we’d recreate scenes from The Breakfast Club. One of our merry band filmed it (and even gave us each a photo of us as the cast) and I can say without hesitation that making the short was one of the highlights of my life as a principal. You see in addition to the fun of playing with friends (those other educators who were as inspiring to me as they were to the students they worked with), we had a very surprised teenage audience: there were classes in the library when we danced on the tables and acted the parts of these 80s icons. Students watched us run through the breezeways of the school laughing. It was, for me anyway, a case of my job giving me something new to love.

My friend replied: “Today I  was showing the “Breakfast Club” photo that is hanging in my office to some ASB students that met with me after school. I was naming all the actors in it – and my ASB president said “Mr Paige is the reason why my parents wanted me to go SDA!”  Her brother was at SDA while you were here and her parents loved you!  By the way- this student just wrote a book about her experience in ASB called “Leadership is a Lifestyle” (Amazon).  She gave me a copy of it today. Maybe your question was well-timed with her book.  

“As a teacher, the only thing that I have going for me is enthusiasm, a mission, and a love and passion for students.  I try to inspire them to think about what life is really about – caring, valuing, building up, and appreciating those that we come in contact with.   We need to spend time with our students -intentionally building trust and a connection that will inspire them to follow you.  Once that is done – it is so much easier to take them where you want to lead them.   Then maybe one day one of your students will write a book about her passion for Leadership and how it is a Lifestyle!”

I loved that these perspectives are so different and still share so much. What are the key jobs of education? There are more than I can say, some recognized now as we muddle through this pandemic and the subsequent distance learning more than they were when it was easier to take for granted that kids went to school and sometimes magic happened.

What happens on different campuses differs greatly, and this little post feels its limits as it includes only a few thoughts from a few places, those places not always the most conventional of schools.

My own takeaway, after mulling over Brooks’ quotation and the insight offered by friends, is that it’s okay to be aspirational in our work in education. Maybe it’s the only way to stay sane (or sane-ish) and continue to strive to make a difference.

And I’d add one more bit to that first sentence. So much of learning is self-reflection and the ability to understand who we are. School, on its best days, can help with that too. So I’d echo Brooks and add: A key job of a school is to give students new things to love—an exciting field of study, new friends” …and something else to love, themselves.

A huge thanks to everyone who helped me with this post: Diya, Burton, Bobby, Alexis, and Rod.

announcementreminderplea

One of my amazing teachers, a relationship builder who has been working remotely since last March, emailed me ahead of a staff meeting to ask if she could make an announcement at the meeting. She needed to ask the staff to share some information with students in their Ohanas, our name for homeroom, and she wondered if she could have a minute or two for an “announcement/reminder/plea” to the teachers. She knew the answer, of course; I try to always say “yes” when a teacher asks for something (with the huge caveat that sometimes that isn’t the answer I can give). This time a yes was easy.

And as I replied to her email I removed the forward slashes from her request and sat back pleased with a new word that feels like it should be part of the pandemic lexicon: announcementreminderplea.

It’s a word that’s hard to read, or understand, at least at first. It isn’t sure what it needs, though the truth may be in there somewhere. It feels hurried, almost frantic, and like it could apply to much of what I do as an educator: kids turning on cameras, teachers posting assignments in a uniform way, parents taking a deep breath before pouncing on a perceived mistake …announcementreminderplea. Please do.

The past few months have reminded us how much a people business education really is. Not that we didn’t know, but it has underscored the importance of the little interactions (at lunch, in the hallways, before and after class) and how profound it is to read body language, hear a sigh, or get that feeling that something is off.

Teachers and students alike have reached out to me as the principal with announcementreminderpleas around engagement, not feeling heard, and uncertainty about how to navigate these rough waters of remote learning. In every case they want to do well, and so often there seems no clear answer on exactly how to do that.

I’ve made more than a few announcementreminderpleas myself, to staff, to parents, to students, and our school community as a whole. Sometimes these feel like I’m shouting into the wind; sometimes I’m surprised at the overwhelming response I’m blessed to receive. Almost always I have a moment of uncertainty about how my message will land, something rare when we could see each other’s faces in the same room.

And yet we marshal on, teachers teaching, students learning, parents comforting, cajoling, and all of us doing our best. Sometimes it works. Sometimes.

So to end this short post I’ll pull out an announcementreminderplea that has been a part of my own vocabulary as an educator since long before any pandemic. It’s a line I’ve said a thousand times and believed almost all of them. “All will be well.”

Is that an announcement? A reminder? A plea? Yep. And it’s something I still believe.

Big Hands I Know You’re the One

When I’m a walking I strut my stuff
And I’m so strung out
I’m high as a kite
I just might
Stop and check you out
-Violent Femmes

Our parents were worried about us when we were teenagers. And if you got the reference alluded to in the title of this post your parents had every right to be.

Our parents’ parents were worried about them when they were teenagers, and the naughty influence of Elvis Prestley, John Lennon, or the Rolling Stones, depending on the era and what was seen as dangerous (hips, trips, or lips). They had every right to be.

This consistent concern makes sense; we remember what it was like to be a teenager and heaven knows we should be worried about these not-yet-adult-humans who are living in our house. We don’t understand everything, we’ll admit it (who is Megan Thee Stallion?), but we know enough to know that we really ought to be worried. 

Have you heard their music? 

To be honest, probably no more than our parents really heard ours.

But beyond rock and roll, or whatever it is “kids today” have on their playlists, there are some real reasons for parents today —those same parents, like me, who listened to the Violent Femmes in our own misbegotten youth— to stay awake worrying more than we’d like.

When those nights pile up, and they do even for educators like me who are in the business of teenagers, it’s important to look for allies who can help us make sense of this thing called parenting.

Sometimes those allies are fellow parents, whose own experiences can help us understand that we are not alone. There is a power in those four words, a power we all would do well to tap into more often. Sometimes it’s educators, counselors, therapists, or other professionals who can help provide support and perspective; seeking out professional help feels more important now than ever. Sometimes, particularly in those times when we don’t have someone to call or talk with, books can help.

This winter I picked up Dr. John Duffy’s Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. It’s a quick read, but worth it, and while I’ll confess to not agreeing with 100% of what he has to say, I really appreciated his approach to helping parents understand (as he puts it): “your child’s stressed, depressed, expanded, amazing adolescence.” His frank and thoughtful perspective was what I needed this January, both as a principal and as a dad.

Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety begins with the idea that while all of us were teenagers, “And yes, to an extent, we can relate. … the truth is, you were never this teenager.” Duffy goes on to explain that our adolescent worlds (before smartphones or the internet, back in the days of basic cable and a reliance on older siblings to curate pornography) were not the world our teenagers live in today.

Duffy even questions the accuracy of the term “teenager” to describe 21st century adolescents. “Now, we are going to find that the ‘teen’ designation is no longer entirely valid, certainly not the way it has been used historically. Because of a combination of unlimited access to information, the advent of social media and other technology, rising academic pressures, and other familial and social stressors, the teen years as we think of them have stretched to well before thirteen on the early end, and beyond nineteen on the back end.” 

As the principal of a 6th through 12th grade art school I can attest to this point of view, though I’d offer that the differences between an eleven year old and seventeen year old is still profound, and it’s with this professional perspective that I read all of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, often agreeing and always prompted to reflecting on what Duffy had to say.

Duffy subtitles Part One of the book “Painting the Picture” and as he shares his own clinical experience working with adolescents he brings up some uncomfortable truths about the challenges of being a parent (and of being an adolescent). The picture he paints feels both accurate and sobering.

Duffy reminds us more than once that “none of this is your child’s idea. As far as she is concerned, it has always been this way.” Our kids don’t remember a time before smartphones or the internet. The water they swim in is different from the ocean of our youth.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where students seem comfortable sharing their concerns with adults. Our counselors, teachers, and classified staff build strong relationships with kids and are often the people students turn to when they’re struggling or have a friend in crisis. Often, but not always, and not always first. As Duffy explains, adolescents tend to lean on each other, serving as “default counselors” in times of stress. This puts great pressure on the kids, and can lead the student who is supporting her friend to feeling in over her head. And it happens all the time.

“You may wonder,” Duffy writes, “why our children talk to each other, especially when they feel emotions that may be life-threatening. I’ve asked a number of kids that very question, and the answers are unequivocal, and strikingly consistent. We parents are too often afraid of their fears, depression, and anxiety. Further, our kids are fully aware of our fear. So they often go elsewhere.” 

This made me think of three things: 1) the acknowledgement that it’s understandable that we parents are afraid for our kids, uncomfortable, worried, and scared. We’re human after all and love our kids. 2) There’s a line in an old Johnny Cash song: “and a frightened child won’t hold a trembling hand.” 3) We can all find the strength we need to be there for our kids, to stop trembling long enough to be a support (as long as we find support for ourselves). 

Duffy explains it this way: “When we feel that inclination to shrink away from our child, or that draw toward anger because they are presenting us with some powerful negative emotion we feel we cannot control, we need to turn directly toward them. We need them to know they can come to us when they feel their worst.”

Easier, I thought to myself reading that paragraph, said than done.

And that was the line I danced on as I read Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety; I agreed with the presentation of the challenges, which included a litany of very real issues our kids face, and I knew that for me as a parent (and for many of the parents I work with as a principal) I needed more help with how best to “turn directly toward” the powerful emotions those challenges bring up.

I also felt like the approach in the book was best suited to those not in the acute crises that can come to families around very real issues that impact our kids. Suggesting more athletic activity really can work, and I’ve seen first hand the value of sports in kids’ lives, but as profound as this can be, there are kids and situations that overwhelm advice like this, and those situations are less rare than some of us would like to believe.

That said, Duffy provides some solid ideas about helping our kids find balance. Volunteering, getting engaged in activities, and increasing their time off screens all help adolescents can all help, as can parents increasing the number of positive to negative interactions with kids (he suggests five positive to one negative) and he stresses that parents’ “need to find empathy, with some degree of urgency.”

I think anyone reading this book is probably feeling that urgency, and that helping our kids empathetically is something we’re ready to do.

Helping us have the understanding of how to do so, Duffy outlines a series of challenges including family, school, and societal pressures. In a section that I found particularly helpful he defines “Identity Traffic” and the stress this puts on kids. Exacerbated by, but not confined to, social media, adolescents often feel like they’re performing in a world in which they’re changing costumes and makeup multiple times a day.

Duffy suggests that a parent “ask calmly and curiously what it is like for her to carry, manage, and navigate through these different identities. Ask which feels most authentic to her, and which feels most artificial. She may tell you that, when you peel away all the ‘false selves,’ she does not like herself very much. You will likely hear that she feels lonely a lot of the tie, even when she is with people, and particularly when she is on social media.” He adds, “You want to be a safe, reliable holding place for these emotions. The space is so curative for the incessant identity traffic kids suffer.”

The importance of this space extends beyond “Identity Traffic” and in Part Two, “Addressing the Issues,” Duffy gives enough examples to give pause to the faint hearted. 

Short sections on everything from addictions to abuse provide some perspective for parents, and emphasize the issue of anxiety from the book’s title. While my own experience with some of these topics is limited, my experience as an educator provided me with a bit more familiarity with the topics as a whole, and I could see this section being valuable in providing a baseline of understanding.

Part Two also provides grist for the mill of conversation, one example Duffy’s acknowledgement that parents have more access to how their students are performing at school than ever before, and his advice that “unless your child provides you with specific cause for concern, skip the apps and the portals and the tracking almost altogether. They are a collective trap, drawing you into a situation in which you are, in effect, spying on your child every day as a matter of habit. It’s unhealthy and fundamentally disempowering.”

Wow. Discuss.

And it’s in its potential to prompt discussions like this that Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety may have its greatest power. I look forward to finding ways to talk about these issues with other parents.

…but this post started with the notion that sometimes books provide perspective in times when conversations are hard to come by, and I’ll end it with the thought that Duffy’s book can provide a useful understanding for the parent reading at home, rain falling, the pandemic keeping us from gathering. It’s in Part Three that Duffy really asks us to reflect, and in this section where he offers good advice on how to be thoughtful parents to our anxious adolescents. 

He writes, for example, about the “vibe” we create in our homes. The importance of that “vibe” is fundamental to how we as parents nurture a space that can renew our adolescents and provide them (to borrow words from a musician some parents once worried about influencing the kids) shelter from the storm.

I really appreciated one of his final sections: “What you can do now.” I know it’s the place I’d try to steer any discussion of this book I had with parents; it provides some hope and ideas about what we can try when we close the covers and walk out to the kitchen where our kid is working on homework. Well, scrolling through instagram.

All will be well. That’s part of the vibe too.

I wonder what a book like this would have looked like if it was written when I was in school. Dungeons & Dragons is making your kids worship Satan. Prince is leading the kids down a path to sexual promiscuity. Camel is marketing cigarettes to kids. Wait, that last one… Anyway, I’d encourage any parent to pick up a copy of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety and take from it the lessons and information that are relevant to their own situation.  

Adolescence can be harrowing …for adults as well as the kids, and we can use all the resources we can find (written, professional, and parental) to give us a hand.

Marionette

I have a friend who loves his wife very much and one year, nearly two decades ago, he wanted to surprise her with the perfect gift for her birthday. They hadn’t been married all that long and he wanted something unique and wonderful, like her, and being the researcher he is, he hunted high and low for an idea for something that would be a surprise she’d be delighted by. The result did surprise her. Delight? Well…

“She didn’t know what to say,” he told me and another friend the next week, shaking his head. “I thought I’d nailed it.” We laughed aloud, my other friend and I, and asked him to tell us again about …the marionette.

He explained that he’d found a puppeteer and craftsman who made custom marionettes. He’d commissioned one of his wife, fashioned from her photo, its hair realistic, its clothing similar to hers. “It wasn’t her hair, right?” my friend asked. “No,” my other friend answered. “It wasn’t even human hair.” That was a relief, anyway.

I saw the doll only once, crumpled in the corner of a guest bedroom. It seems to have vanished in the years since. It did look startling like his wife, who despite this perfect gift is still his wife, and it has always held a place in my heart, linked forever with the discrepancy between perception and intent.

Things feel a little like that marionette right now in education. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect to students. They are innovating, putting in long hours, and striving to find ways to help students engage with the material, the class, and each other.

Students are working hard too, and without the comradery that comes from sitting in class with one another, able to lean over and whisper or talk across the table and connect. Separation from those thousand little interactions is profound, and we see the impact it has on kids in big and little ways.

Families are working hard, not just to support the kids, but also to balance the many pressures and obligations, all made more complicated by the pandemic and its impact on our world.

And principals like me are trying to find ways to keep our schools connected. We strive to develop opportunities for students and staff and parents to be active and together, and even as we all put in herculean efforts, lots of time, and all the creativity we can, well…

The results are far from perfect. As much care and craft as we have put in, as much time and thoughtfulness we dedicate to this experience, there are still times when each of us feels like a marionette crumpled in a corner. 


That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get through this and have a long and happy relationship. Heck, my friend and his wife made it through the perfect gift together. And we will be back on campus together …sometime. Until then, we have our best chance at success, however we define that, if we allow ourselves to pause, take a deep breath (or maybe two or three), and show each other grace. Not every attempt is a success, not every effort yields the results we’d like, but we can do much to support one another, showing kindness even when we’re given a marionette.

One of my attempts at helping my school community stay centered is a series of “Fireside Chats” that I’ve been filming over the past few months. Sure they’re silly, just me and a green screen, but they’re as heartfelt as my friend’s marionette. The story for this post was the topic of my most recent chat, and you can chuckle at my buffoonery here:

Opening

Hours of meetings and gallons of ink have disappeared in the planning of bringing students back on campus in September. Meanwhile, COVID-19, a more efficient operator, marched on, the curve sloping up until some school districts, like LA Unified and San Diego Unified, saw no choice but to hit “pause” on those in-person reopening plans.

This seems like the time to take a quiet moment to center ourselves, acknowledge that we all need each other if any of us are to succeed, and get to work on a remote learning experience that actually works.

We know that not all students have equal access to technology, and that many of the students who have the fewest digital resources are the same kids who have the fewest resources (time, money, and safe environments) when we’re educating them in school buildings made of brick and mortar. It’s not fair. It never has been. 

To provide an equitable experience for all students is a charge education needs to meet, education, the system, not just individual teachers. Tech departments, central offices, folks whose job in the system has them a step or two removed from working in classrooms with kids can make a monumental difference now by finding solutions to make access available to all. As a principal I know I’m part of that system, and I want to do my part. We need to ensure access for each of our students. Remote learning is a voyage through wide waters and every student should have a worthy craft to sail. 

IMG_1650

At the school level we know what needs to happen after that; we need to teach kids.

The challenge teachers and counselors and site administrators need to face is how to provide teaching and learning, connections and support, care and community to our kids, and we need to get working on that now.

We need a schedule. For teachers, for students, for families, we need to have structure that allows us to manage the time (so very, very, very much time) we have at home. Not everyone can meet during the same hours, life and sometimes bandwidth get in the way of that, but having some opportunity for synchronous learning is healthy, both academically and socially. I have two kids, and over the three months this spring when they were learning from home my ninth grader met with each of his teachers at least once a week, sometimes more often; my sixth grader saw a teacher from his 6th grade “team” in real time twice. Two times. It wasn’t a mystery which of the two felt more connected.

Almost all of the parents, teachers, and students who reached out to me from March through June commented on the importance of having some schedule to support some sense of familiarity, provide kids a reason to get up before noon, and give families something they could plan for in the week ahead. Some parents talked about filling out mini-dry erase boards with schedules, one student told me about a spreadsheet she used to keep track of logins for meetings, and while many of my teachers came to the realization that flipping lessons using video could be a smart move, most also spoke about the benefits of having a time every other day or so when they could meet with their kids.

We need a sense of proportion, an understanding of how much is too much, how much is not enough, and how much work is just right. If we were (collectively) Goldilocks this spring, not all of us had found our way out of Mama Bear’s bed when we ended school in the second week of June. We need to find the right fit sooner than that this fall. To do so we’ll need to work collaboratively, look to others with expertise, and agree that not only is remote learning different than learning in classrooms, but the workload is different too. I certainly do not have the answer as to how much work a remote learning situation should have in comparison to a classroom in the schoolhouse, but I do know that for our kids’ sake we need to find out the answer (which might be different in English and history and theater and math) and help our kids find success academically, even as they’re doing school from their kitchen tables.

And no, not every student has a kitchen table to call their own, certainly not at specific times of day when we say school is in session, so we need to acknowledge that too and find ways to support both the students, all of them, and the families as learning migrates from one big building to thousands of homes across our town. 

We need clear communication. As a principal I need to prepare for a remote Back to School Night. I need to provide ways for my school community to ask questions (my twice monthly coffees with the principal over Zoom worked well for this last spring) and give feedback (through surveys and such, where we can get even more information from our students and families). I need to help provide the context for the important work that is happening in classes.

And in those classes, well, we need to figure out how to present information, provide inspiration, ensure accountability, and be relevant.

Lots of folks have written more eloquently and with more information than me about remote learning. We need to learn from them, talk to our teachers, and come up with the plan that will work for our school.

This fall is not, and should not be, a repeat of the spring. In March and April we had to react to a crisis and rebuild our ship at sea. In September we’ve had weeks in dry-dock to make the needed repairs. 

Some of that shipbuilding should include clarity on how students and families can find assignments, an easy way for kids to manage meetings, ways to adequately assess learning, and opportunities to connect meaningfully with teachers and peers in class.

Classes look different, and that’s okay; a dance class, a science lab, orchestra, ceramics, calculus, each subject has nuances that mean there’s no way one size can fit all, and… we can still figure out ways that kids can find the class meetings, assignments, and content in a more uniform way. We can still help families organize time (and perhaps internet related resources like bandwidth and devices) in a way that there is room for all those classes, and maybe also room for a walk around the block.

I’m optimistic that we’ll all be back in our school building this year, I really am, but I’m even more certain that we’ll be learning remotely (whether full time or in some kind of hybrid model) sooner than that.

A couple of weeks ago I hosted a virtual picnic for students. We chatted about summer, looked at photos of the construction at our new campus (opening with fanfare in the fall of 2021), and talked about this upcoming start of school. 

They want to be on campus, but they want it to be safe. They know that some of our artistic pursuits, some of the very reasons we exist as a school at all, like music, and theater, and dance, bring with them added challenges. “Remote poet” has a different ring to it than “remote trumpeter.” And…

The students, like the adults, are so ready to be back. Safely.

So we plan. We plan for 100% remote learning. We plan for the day we can all be back on campus together. And we plan for some kind of in between, where we might gather safely, even if not all at once.

I wish I knew for certain what the 2020-2021 school year would look like. I don’t, at least not right now, but I do believe that we can make something positive out of this fall. Imperfect, yes, but positive.

Because we have the ingredients: students, teachers, and caring. No obstacles, not stress, not physical separation, not uncertainty can overcome the power of teaching and learning. With planning, preparation, and the ability to meet mistakes with grace we can sail forward in the best boat we can fashion for these stormy seas. 

Jessica

I met up with a former student today. The last time I’d seen her she was seventeen and I was twenty-five. Out of the blue a few weeks ago she sent me an email reminding me of our time together in an English Literature class I taught at Hood River Valley High …in 1995. She is teaching now in the same district where I work and she’d spotted my name in some district something or other and reached out to say hello. It was amazing.

We figured out that I’d be over at her school for a district meeting a couple of weeks later, and I planned to swing up to her classroom afterward. The meeting ended early, so I walked upstairs and was guided to her room, empty, but with its door open, sunlight streaming in, a welcoming place. I went inside and looked around. Her Billie Holiday poster on the wall reminded me of the classroom we’d shared twenty five years ago (and a poster of Miles Davis I had over my desk). The student work on the wall, personal photos, and a glowing lamp in the corner made the room feel comfortable and kind.

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I was alone long enough to remember just how young I’d been when I taught in Hood River, and how old I am now. The pictures around her desk told me my student looked amazingly the same, but somewhere in the past quarter century I’ve gone from looking like Captain Kirk to Captain Picard.

And then, as I was thinking about that English Literature class, my first teaching job and one whose lessons I still carry with me, the successes as well as failures, she stepped into the room.

Too seldom do we as educators get to hear from our students. More seldom still are the opportunities to really connect with them as adults and see the people they have become. Today moved me as I got to do just that.

We talked, reminiscing for a few deep and rich minutes before falling into the easy conversation shared by educators and parents everywhere. We both have eleven year olds and teenagers at home, and both share a positive world view rooted in kindness and a profound desire to make a difference.

I’m a gentleman, so I’ll keep the details of our conversation out of this post, but I can say that I left feeling anything by old; our conversation left me renewed. Here was a strong young woman who not only overcame adversity, but who is positively impacting kids every day. With humor and grace she navigated life over the quarter century since I’d last seen her and emerged with a positive perspective and profound power to make a difference. She does.

She certainly made a difference to me as she remembered a couple of instances from that English Lit class, and then told me (smiling and pointing to some notes one the whiteboard at the front of her room) that she’d even used Mary Wollstonecraft in her lessons on the Enlightenment. 

Wollstonecraft was a favorite of mine (particularly when used to set up future discussions on Virginia Woolf) in that class in 1995, and it was a mixture of pride and joy that made me laugh aloud when my former student told me that she’d introduced Wollstonecraft to her own students by comparing her in the Enlightenment to a woman at Star Trek convention: “Yes, there is a girl here! You should listen to her.” 

The same, I thought, could be said of my former student, now the teacher, doing important work with high schoolers every day. 

“I was just young and foolish back then,” I admitted to her as we talked. “I had no idea what I was doing.”

“I thought that,” she told me. “Afterward,” she added, smiling. “Not when you were teaching us, but later.” Another shared connection between two educators.

Mary Wollstonecraft, that woman at a Star Trek convention, wrote: “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time.” It had been too long since I got to talk with my former student, but seeing her again erased that time, and made our conversation feel to me like one between two old friends.

August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.

Oregon October

The pewter skies
and perpetually wet blacktop
harbingers of fall
announce sweatshirt weather
cold ears
and clouds
of exhaled breath

Until an October sun
bright
unexpected
perhaps the most
wonderful possibility of the season
allows us to turn our faces to the sky
and feel
the taste of apples
rustle of leaves
and smell of the earliest fireplaces.

At school, students
grown accustomed to the rhythm of the year
daydream spring
textbooks whispering winter
summer so far away

And teachers too
hunkering toward December
right themselves from leaning into autumn

Dig hands into pockets
and smile up at the sun.

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16

My daughter laughed aloud. My son’s eyes got wide …then he laughed too. Thin, mustachioed, and grinning through newsprint from across the years, the grainy photo of my sixteen year old self (handed to me with a smile by a friend I’ve known since 7th grade) invited me on an unexpected stroll down memory lane.

This surprise gift of an antique newspaper clipping followed close upon a terrific conversation I’d had with my yearbook teacher during which she’d asked me, in three words, to describe what I was like in high school. My three: So. Very. Boring.

FullSizeRender (2)Looking at that thirty year old scrap of newspaper I reconsidered.

It’s not, I realized, that I wasn’t boring; it’s just that in 1986 I didn’t understand that I was. Like so many of the students I work with, my perspective as a high school junior was limited. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I saw the world through the only eyes I had, with the inexperienced vision of an adolescent.

That clipping, when the ink had still been wet, meant the world to me. It was validation of hard work and a signpost that I was on the right path. It was a nod from The Statesman Journal that I was successful.

Three decades later the same piece of paper was a curiosity, good for a moment of fun, but inconsequential in who I am, or better put, who I have become.

That truth, as black and white as a newspaper article, is something educators like me struggle to help our students understand.

“Why would I want to take the PSAT?” a junior asks. “I know what I’m going to do and it doesn’t involve a four year university.”

“I don’t have time for a career inventory,” the senior tells his counselor. “I’ve already got it all planned out.”

I believe the students when they say these things. They are, for them, the truth.

And…

That sixteen year old buffoon I was (with so very much hair) reminds me that as real as that truth is, time has a way of changing us and our perspective in ways that are as unexpected as they are profound.

Who we are in high school is who we are in high school. This is not who we will become.

Our inner core may be the same, go watch Michael Apted’s 7 Up film series if you have any doubts of that, but the way we see the world and our place in it does evolve.

At sixteen I regarded myself as twice as clever and ten times as able as I really was. I acted boldly when I was really scared and tried to look confident when I didn’t have a clue. I took my privilege for granted and my success as a direct result of my talent, not the amalgam of luck, hard work, and the support of others that it really was.

The adult I now am looked at that newspaper clipping and understood more of the truth. Even so, if I were a time traveler who could sit down with my high school self I don’t know that I could persuade him to believe that point of view. Maybe that’s best.

The importance of youthful exuberance should never be undervalued. Sinatra was wrong when he sang that youth was wasted on the young. Youth is the transformative experience that makes us who we are as adults. It empowers us to take on the impossible, believing that for us reality just might make an exception.

As an educator then, how to help my students balance passion and perspective? How do teachers, counselors, and administrators like me help kids see that we are not dismissing their teenage truth even as we encourage them to make choices that keep doors open (that PSAT and career inventory) and give them the options to do great and unexpected things with their emerging lives.

Maybe a part of the answer is introducing them to our sixteen year old selves.

As we are honest with our students about who we were and who we are now, we may have the possibility of helping them see that directions can change and all still may turn out okay.

Engaging with our kids about what it was like for us to navigate adolescence might help them see that the path is seldom straight and that the bends and curves might not only be the reality of growing older, but might also be the best parts of becoming an adult.

On top of that I’d wager that our students might smile at the things that stay the same; driving to work this morning I found myself singing along to Depeche Mode.

At the very least I’ll suggest that as educators we are wise to pause from time to time to put ourselves in our own students’ Chuck Taylor high tops. Memory Lane leads past the corner of Insight and the cul-de-sac of Empathy, if we look up and see them.

If nothing else, that junior with the Tom Selleck mustache is good for a laugh.