The Important Work

The important work isn’t glamorous. It isn’t always dramatic. It’s just work.

It’s what happens when you come in early and stay late, when you reflect on a complicated problem while on a long walk, or put into action the inspiration that came when you were waking up from a dream.

The important work often happens unexpectedly, unannounced, and is only recognized as important after the police have left, or the parents have stopped crying, or yelling, or both.

The important work matters. It puts the ocean of mundane responsibilities into perspective. The daily duties we perform are simply the sea on which our ship encounters the storms that define our professional character.

When we survive a day of importance the reward is a feeling of relief and exhaustion and hope that might carry us until the next storm.

In our best moments and best situations, if we are fortunate enough to have someone to share those moments with, we might recognize the value of what we do. We might even give thanks for being in a place where we can make such a difference.

Doing the important work, work that it is, is more than a job. It is an opportunity for grace.

In Their Own Hands

51VffITheFL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re about five weeks away from our first San Dieguito Book Club on April 25th. The book we’ll be talking about is How to Raise an Adult by Stanford Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising, Julie Lythcott-Haims. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from folks who are reading it, I’m anticipating an evening of terrific conversation.

I’m hopeful we’ll have a good mix of parents, teachers, and students. All three perspectives contribute to the discussion, an important one as we all do our best to navigate the uncertain waters of contemporary adolescence.

Decades ago, a wise child, Anne Frank wrote:

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

The gist of Lythcott-Haims insightful book is that as a society we’ve lost sight of this simple truth and that by our own choices we are interfering with the important experience of students shaping their lives with their own hands.

Part social commentary, part parenting book, How to Raise an Adult promises much to talk about when we meet. I know that I’m curious to see how people respond differently to passages like:

We treat our kids like rare and precious botanical specimens and provide a deliberate, measured amount of care and feeding while running interference on all that might toughen and weather them. But humans need some degree of weathering in order to survive the larger challenges life will throw our way. Without experiencing the rougher spots of life, our kids become exquisite, like orchids, yet are incapable, sometimes terribly incapable, of thriving in the real world on their own. Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?”

I know my thoughts on this, both as a parent and as a principal, but what will other parents think? How about teachers? Students?

Prompted by smart and passionate writing, our discussion is an opportunity for us to see different points of view, and to understand the complex and sometimes confounding issues we live with every day.

For those who may not have the book, or quite enough time to read it through, I wanted to provide links to some places that could provide a bit of the flavor of How to Raise an Adult.

An interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims

An excerpt from How to Raise an Adult

A TED talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims
I encourage any member of our San Dieguito High School Academy community who is interested in a thoughtful discussion to join us on April 25th from 6:00-7:30 pm in our media center.

When Surrounded by Stormtroopers

I looked up from a cup of tea in the easy chair by my fireplace to realize that I was surrounded by stormtroopers. Scores of the little plastic menaces looked up at me from the hearth, an end table, and where they lay scattered across the rug like a scene from the battle of Agincourt.

photo 5Busy, distracted, or focused on other things, I hadn’t noticed the steady infiltration of white helmeted soldiers. Yet here they were.

It’s like that sometimes with change, the lobster boiled as the water in the pot goes from cold to hot. We don’t always notice how different things are until we blink hard in surprise at what we see around us.

In education I’ve seen this myself with regard to technology, professional growth, and even the culture of pressure that looks to overwhelm our campuses. I haven’t always been the first to notice changes, though I do work to wake up to the changed world around me.

That technology changes comes as no surprise; at one point technological advancement was a lice infested Viking pointing and grunting: “Hey, Thor made a spoon!” What can sneak up on us, however, are the new uses of technology, which sometimes come on ninja feet to scare us with their suddenness. Waking up to the potential of technology, or seeing others use technology in new ways, challenges us to make changes ourselves. We may be late to the party, I was with regard to Twitter, for instance, but we can move beyond our familiarity and expectations and see the advancements as a way to transform what we do.

The SAMR model articulates this well, urging that we not simply do the same things without paper, but do different things. This can be more difficult to put into practice than understand. I’m a principal now, but on the occasions that I have to develop lessons and teach classes, I find that it’s easier to use technology to support my preconceived ideas than it is to act on the potential of technology to unshackle me to try something entirely new. “Mind forged manacles,” Blake would call them. Stormtroopers.

photo 4 (2)As transformative as technology is, it accounts for just some of the difference in the professional lives of educators. Many have written more eloquently than I about the changes in culture that have brought teachers out of their isolated classrooms and into greater collaboration. For some this is PLCs, for others the emergence of Twitter and other online professional communities. I was never a teacher in the interconnected world of social media, but as a principal (who came to Twitter just a few years ago, late to the party, really) I’m continually amazed at the inspiration and information available around the clock.

Not only has blogging and using Twitter allowed me to access other points of view, it has also led to meaningful connections with educators around the country and around the world that make my practice richer.

If I were isolated now, it would be by choice, and not a very good choice. It’s being aware the world of education looks different than it did five or ten years ago, and that if I changed to embrace it I would have opportunities I couldn’t have had before, that has made a huge difference in who I am as an educator. No teacher or administrator has to think she is alone. We can find support, kindred spirits, and ongoing inspiration at the click of a mouse.

But not every change leads to greater connections and reassurance. About three years ago I looked up and realized just how much the pressure my students face has increased with regard to college admissions and academic success. Discussions about “too many AP classes” and the “Honors or no honors” debate aren’t new, but I realized that while I’d been busy with building a career and dealing with the day to day business of running a high school the world my students lived in had transformed into something very unlike the high school I knew as a kid.

Parents and students feel the pressure to succeed, and respond with good intentions and sometimes disastrous results. Defining where the pressure comes from is a tricky job, and one that may not have a certain answer, but what I did realize was that as a site administrator I needed to pay attention, take inventory of the true lay of the land, and get about the work of trying to help.

That I wasn’t on the forefront of technology, social media, or recognizing trends in adolescence wasn’t a damning failure, but could have been had I not recognized that I needed to adjust to new reality.

It’s okay to come out of our caves and look around. No one worth listening to will judge us for blinking in the light of the new day and trying to catch up with a world different than the one we grew up in.

If it is a little scary –the kids all have phones and they expect to use them in class, and on top of that my principal seems okay with it– there is no reason to panic.

photo 1 (9)The stormtroopers never win, at least not until they take off their helmets, hijack a TIE fighter, and try something unexpected, dangerous, and different.

Change.

It’s a reality full of potential, full of opportunity, and no more alarming than we let it be.

When you realize that you’re surrounded by stormtroopers, try something different.

Choosing Captain Kirk

kirk appleWe were watching Star Trek. Bored with the cooking show his mom had going in the other room, my seven year old son, Henry, padded up to me where I was reading with hopes of watching something that didn’t involve garnishes or plating. We clicked through Netflix and settled, sensibly, on some time with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

The first thing I did was start scrolling through episodes. I’ve been a Trek fan for a long time and knew the episodes I’d steer him toward (Devil in the Dark, maybe Mirror, Mirror) and away from (please, not Spock’s Brain). As a second grader, he hasn’t seen enough Star Trek (yet) to be a connoisseur. Truth be told, in this age of Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, I figured that the pacing and special effects of the 1960s show ran the risk of falling a bit short in the eyes of “kids today.”

So as I clicked past Amok Time and The Tholian Web, thinking I might capture his attention with Captain Pike and The Menagerie, he stopped me at The Apple.

When I say he stopped me, I mean that from his nest beneath a blanket he’d wrapped up in, he kept saying:

“The Apple!

                    “The Apple!

                                         “The Apple!

                                                               “The Apple!

                                                                                     “The Apple!”

Fighting it would have been like trying to stop Tribbles from multiplying.

alien appleSo I pushed PLAY and we watched as poisonous plants, exploding rocks, and a wondrously 1960s lightning bolt killed off redshirts. We saw Captain Kirk punch a garish alien with a white shock wig, Chekov woo a yeoman, and Bones pronounce someone dead. As our heroes approached the snake-headed rock that the aliens called Vaal, I thought: Henry is really digging this. Why?

I mean no offense to any Trekkers out there, but The Apple isn’t on many top ten lists. Sure it raises some philosophical issues, as the best episodes do, and Chekov wooing …well. With a pinch of moral dilemma and an idea rich point of view, The Apple isn’t bad, but my son’s interest in the episode outweighed the red painted aliens and fake jungle we were looking at.

And then it hit me why. He’d chosen it.

This investment in The Apple made it more meaningful to my seven year old than any episode I might have selected. We were watching it together because he’d picked it.

It was a good reminder for me as a principal of the importance of giving students choice and a measure of control over their own education.

One of the biggest changes in education as we leave the twentieth century farther and farther behind is the amount of choice afforded students both in classes and beyond. Students, so comfortable with the huge variety of options in their lives outside the schoolhouse, are more inclined than ever to embrace the increased level of choice at school too.

Terms like “personalized learning” and “student centered learning” have emerged to capture some of this independence, and I’d argue that we’ll continue to see even more choice and freedom in education in the years ahead.

That’s a good thing.

It doesn’t, however, mean that the kids are totally on their own.

Just as I sat with Henry and watched The Apple, enjoying his interest and occasionally joining him in discussion of Spock’s ears or Kirk’s angst, teachers work magic when they engage with students, guide them, and show them they really care.

The students I’ve met in my twenty plus years in education are overwhelmingly curious and come to school with hopes of learning something that will matter in their own lives. As a teacher it took me a while to recognize that not every student in the English classes I taught wanted, or even needed, to read Mary Wollstonecraft or know who Leibniz was; if I was clever, I could introduce them to both, but alongside other material that was more easily recognized as relevant to them.

Giving students more choice, often within some parameters that I explained in a way that “made sense” or seemed fair, helped too. By the end of my teaching career I allowed more choice to students both in what they read and in how they demonstrated what they knew. I don’t know that I would have ever been accused of providing “personalized learning,” but I do know that students felt that they had some say in what they were learning and how they learned it.

Not long ago a few teachers and I got into an extended conversation about the evolving role of the teacher. I had one take on it, another person I respect offered a different point of view. These healthy debates, even as we continue to rebuild our ship at sea (as Neurath would say), are important to helping support students as education continues to change.

photo (3)I relish my role as a principal in facilitating this discussion. The work we do with students matters greatly, and developing what that work will look like can be energizing for both teachers and their students.

One thing I do feel sure about is that great teachers will promote meaning by engaging students in their learning, and that choice is an increasing part of that.

Where will the kids go with this?

I’m guessing they’ll go boldly where no one has gone before.

Educational Equity and Robinson Crusoe

Last night my ten year old daughter asked me about Robinson Crusoe. For the past week or so she’s been grilling me on vocabulary as it relates to a book her fifth grade class is reading. We’ve discussed “parole” and “inclination” and I’ve been impressed by her curiosity and ability to understand increasingly complex language and ideas. But Robinson Crusoe?

photo (1)“Sure,” I answered. “Do you know the story?”

“No. I just saw the book when we were in your office.”

Clever girl.

So I explained to her Crusoe’s shipwreck, his fight for survival, self reliance, and ingenuity. “You know, your brother has a classic comic book of the novel,” I told her. She shook her head.

“I’d rather read the real thing, but I don’t have time.”

“Time before what?”

And she explained to me that she wanted to know about Robinson Crusoe because there was a question in her study guide asking her to compare the main character from a book the class was reading with Defoe’s castaway.

She could, surprisingly well, after she found out who he was. As I watched her, pencil in hand, go back to finish her homework, I thought: what about the kids whose parents don’t have Robinson Crusoe in their offices?

I’m not talking about the “help” from parents that means building their mission projects for them or stepping in to do all the work for the science fair. This isn’t help at all, but well intentioned robbery of their kids’ education.

photo 4 (1)More analogous are the ubiquitous projects that ask students to research and complete a visual about a topic at home. These celebrations of construction paper and salt dough are great …for those with construction paper and salt dough at home, or for those with parents willing and able to make a trip to the craft store.

Even when it is the student who does the thinking and the work, parental support goes a long way to defining how well our students will do in school, and it brings up questions about equity that make me consider how we go about this business of education in our often inequitable society.

I’d love for every student the opportunity for parents to check over their homework, though the pressures of adult life preclude some from this modest luxury. Students thrive when parents are engaged, even when, as high schoolers, they pretend they don’t want mom to ask about what happened in English class.

And yet, as an educator, I recognize that students come to our schools from a huge diversity of backgrounds. They bring with them different levels of affluence, poverty, support, and neglect. Parents may be gone every night for a week covering an extra shift at the restaurant or taking a kid free vacation in Costa Rica. As a principal, I’ve seen both.

Some students come to school fragile, some with shocking resilience. Most, when inspired by strong teachers (and how I wish all were) are curious and ready to learn.

yeatsSupporting this desire to know more is as big a challenge as inspiring it. The old poet Yeats talked of education as the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail, but fires need fuel and tending to burn bright. Knowing that not every student has firewood stacked up at home means that more than ever educators have the responsibility to both challenge and support all of our students.

How important is this to true student success? Right now perhaps the best predictor of how well a student will do on the new state assessments is the education level of her mom and dad. As a principal who believes that each student should have the potential and opportunity to rise to her own level (not just her parents’) it falls on us to develop systems and supports that give each kid a chance.

Like a good mystery writer, we need to be sure that all of our readers are given all the information they need to be able to form a solution. Holding back clues isn’t fair. To understand or go beyond a reader (or a student) shouldn’t need an understanding of 19th century horticulture or the philosophy of Quine …or have parents who do.

ASL 1 Art Collaboration - 2015 199What does this look like in a classroom? A thousand different things. Hands on lessons in math and science, primary source readings in history, genius hours, coding, music, poetry… in any discipline students can be pushed to excel and supported by teachers.

Technology can be a great equalizer, or a damning divider. Helping students understand how to critically use technology and then giving them access at school can show every student that the wealth of information that defines our age is at their fingertips. At school we can help them touch it.

Outside the schoolhouse walls technological equity can be a slipperier beast. Smarter people than I are working toward answers, and I’m heartened when I think of the steady progress toward more universal wi-fi and increasingly more affordable devices. We’re not there yet, but every year sees us closer to more and more equity.

This isn’t to say that educational mindfulness or goodhearted technological advancement erases all the advantages some students enjoy. I’ll always answer my daughter when she asks a question about Daniel Defoe. Still, being aware of these issues can help us as we consider what types of questions we ask our students.

photo 1 (3)Reflecting pushes me to have an eye toward equity, a heart toward students, and a mind bent on creating learning opportunities that challenge all students to think critically and know that they have all the relevant information they need (or they can get it through onsite collaboration and technology).

When we provide this support within the school day, or during an extended school day on campus, we help each student. We owe it to our kids. If we don’t, we leave some feeling …shipwrecked.

Either, or…

If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth or power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”                  -Søren Kierkegaard

I choose optimism. I choose to see in others and in the world around me the possibility of greatness, little and big.

In more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen tragedy up close. I’ve seen meanness and cruelty, unrecoverable mistakes, and years ruined in the decision of a minute.

And… My heart bruised, but not breaking, beats with the belief that all will be well. Even in the dark moments, when the world smells like hot metal and snakes, I believe that hope, that thing with feathers, perches on my soul.

As a school principal it is as vital for me to see the best in my school as it was for me as a teacher to believe in the best in each of my students.

The payoff is high expectations that those around me consistently rise to to; the alternative is cynicism, depression, or that attitude of let’s get through this that sinks ships and damns possibility with faint praise.

The praise I offer is real and heartfelt. If sometimes I have to travel a little farther to find it than I would for something to complain about, it’s a trek worth making.

Because in more than twenty years in public education I’ve seen profound joy up close. I’ve seen kindness and compassion, unbelievable achievements, and lives transformed in the decision of a minute.

My heart beating almost to bursting with hope, I know that in its way, and in its own time, all will be well. I know that with so many of us working together for something so important, amazing good is more than possible.

I couldn’t wish for more.

A Passion for Learning

The magic of teaching comes not from getting a student to be able to say back to you a formula, Spanish verb conjugation, or poem by Emily Dickinson. Instead, that place of academic fireworks is the moment when a student’s passion is kindled and the need to know (how to use the formula, why to use the verb, or what it means to say that Hope is a thing with feathers) becomes so important that the inconsequential things (grades, parental pressure, peer approval) take a back seat to learning.

Teachers make this magic in a million ways: asking the right questions, showing relevance, laughing with students, and providing them room to explore, to name a few.

At the core of learning is curiosity, and education is at its best when it pushes students to discover that curiosity within themselves.

Sometimes students arrive at school filled with a desire to learn and ready to have their intellectual fire brought to life by the spark of a good teacher and the bellows of a well orchestrated lesson.

Other times students present tougher academic husks that must be trimmed away by the kindness, patience, and passion of great instructors. These young minds can be brought to flower, but it takes everything teachers can muster to bring out that desire to learn more.

For still others, curiosity is a luxury, lower in importance than safety, or survival, or respect. For some kids, school is a place to come not because they are excited to learn, but because they told they must, or because they fear the immediate consequences if they avoid it.

Learning in school for kids who have learned hard lessons outside the classroom is a trickier enterprise than it is for those who arrive loved, fed, and prepared to learn.

It is for these students, the shaggy ones, whose clothes may not be as clean or hair as well kempt, whose voices might not be clear and whose eyes may be averted, that great teachers matter the very most. It is for these students that school must be more than a place of books and computers, maps and memorization. For all students, and especially for these, school must be a place where students can be inspired to see possibility, articulate their dreams, and find the safety and sense of home that allows them to discover their curiosity and write their own futures.

The paths to that promised land are many and the guides diverse. The history teacher who introduces his students to Sojourner Truth, the math teacher who shows her students the power of numbers, and the science teacher who opens up the world of biology (which is life) with two swift slices on a frog’s belly all have the potential to infect students with a passion for learning. It’s a disease one never wants cured.

The art teacher’s pastels, the computer teacher’s code, and the band teacher’s sousaphone are all tools that can be put in a student’s hands and used to build a bright future.

Teachers and schools can nurture those dreams of incredible futures, and do so every day. Purposefully and passionately, with humor, caring, and devotion, teachers create a place in their students’ hearts where hope, that thing with feathers, can perch upon the soul.

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Gadfly

“I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.”  -Socrates

photo (36)God bless the gadflies.

As a philosophy major, I came of intellectual age reading about Socrates. Plato’s Apology held a spot on my bedside table, and I knew the theoretical importance of questioning the status quo. I took this to my work when I became a teacher. Seldom a pain (I hope), and never afraid to ask questions, in my years in the classroom I like to believe that the questions I asked helped to make the schools where I worked better places.

I’m a principal now, and theory has been replaced by practice. I find myself the state that Plato wrote about, and am at my wisest when I embrace those around me who nip at my proverbial mane.

It’s not always easy.

Not long ago an administrator I respect was kidding me about some questioning I was handling around an issue at my school. It wasn’t anything life altering, but emotions were high, and a resolution was as yet unfinished. “Doesn’t it bug you?” he asked. I didn’t let him see any exasperation I might have felt; irritation is a quality best ironed out of the fabric of leadership. “Every oyster,” I told him, “needs a little sand to make a pearl.”

And I meant it. One of the biggest challenges of leadership is making the theoretical practical, of taking what we know to be true and applying it to the work that we do. Those who question us and the decisions we make, have the capacity to help us see things differently, entertain different points of view, and either set upon a better option, or strengthen our resolve.

henry vHenry the Fifth’s Crispin’s Day speech, the favorite source of inspiration for literature majors everywhere, began with a doubter. Without Westmoreland wishing for better odds in battle, the king would have been denied a platform to speak to his band of brothers, rousing in them a fervor to do great deeds.

This isn’t to say that we want a school full of doubt, or cynicism, or complaint; that wouldn’t make pearls, just clam shells full of dirt.

Individuals who rake muck for selfish reasons or with simple conflict as the end in mind do little to contribute to any institution or society. Their raging against the machine can be hollow and mean spirited, and communities are smart to guard against such rabble. But proper gadflies aren’t simply cynical or working to undercut those around them. At their best, those who question what we do and why we do it have as their motivation the good of the whole.

Those willing to challenge us provide us with the opportunity to explain ourselves and our position clearly, to them, to all, and even to ourselves. The level of frustration that can come from having to take time to lay out reasons for decisions, justify positions, or clarify vision is well worth the product of transparency, clarity, and true leadership.

Gadflies don’t make our lives easier, but if we engage with the ideas they bring forward, and rise to meet the challenges they present, they make us better.

“Go Pioneers!”

I entered Parrish Junior High in 1981 wearing a red helmet, cleats, and a look of determination. I was going to be the center on the football team, and could almost hear the cheers of “Go Pioneers!” as I prepared for the first day of classes. Before the first game I broke my arm in two places and was out for the season. Budget cuts took football out of the middle schools the next year. I was beginning to experience something that is a vital part of life in education: the unexpected.

photo 2 (20)I found a photo of the determined twelve year old I was when I was visiting my parents this weekend, and as I plucked it from the pile of memories I was struck by how different the world is today than it was when I was starting 7th grade. As a principal of a middle school it’s important that I consider these changes and do my best to understand that the experiences my students here at Diegueño Middle School need are dramatically different than my own.

We are not preparing our students for the 1980s, when the Soviet Union and United States squared off, eagles and bears scowling at each other across two oceans. Diegueño was built when Reagan’s jellybeans were still fresh, and the world looked a lot different than it does today.

Nor are we preparing our students for 2015, a year that sounds so modern in our adult ears, but will be, for our current students, a memory as far away as my red Parrish Pioneers helmet by the time they’re comfortably coming into their own, doing jobs that don’t yet exist in a world we can only dimly imagine.

Some of the skills that our students need are adaptability and critical thinking. The academic concerns we bring to their education -a new way of approaching math or a renewed emphasis on reading non-fiction- will seem quaint to them when they reach the age we are now. What won’t feel out of date is the passion for learning we can ignite and curiosity we can foster.

Now, after twenty or so years of being an educator, I’ve come to believe that the important skills, those truly vital for our kids to leave school with, aren’t the litany of facts I had to memorize as a student, nor some of the specific skills I pushed my students to learn when I was a teacher. What I want my current students to learn, and my own kids too, is how to solve problems, communicate clearly, strive to know more, be kind, creative, resilient, and to make a difference.

Trends in education come and go, and very often they move the important work of education in the right direction, but each way of doing school is just a step in a longer journey.

Abraham Lincoln’s school consisted of Latin grammar and memorizing long passages to learn rhetoric. Stephen Hawking’s school had wooden terraced benches where formally dressed students listened as instructors lectured. Toni Morrison’s school danced around political realities while emphasizing reading, writing, and arithmetic. These schools are not ours, though our schools hold the next Lincolns and Hawkings and Morrisons.

Technology changes too; for Lincoln it was a slate, for Hawking a slide rule. And while it’s smart to use the technology we have, to shackle ourselves to any single device is foolish. Edtech in 1981 meant getting the good typewriter.

Versatility is the hallmark of a strong learner, and if we do our job right our students will learn throughout their lives using technology that hasn’t yet been invented.

As we work with students, using the pedagogy, psychology, and technology we honestly believe is best, we do well to recognize that we, and our approach, will be a footnote to our children’s children.

The buildings that are Diegueño were constructed in 1985; our approach to education is as different now as are our times. Thirty years from now the world, and how we prepare students for it will change again, and again, and again. It must.

The work we do with students today will inform those changes, and while future generations won’t look back and want to mimic what we did (as we wouldn’t mimic Latin grammar), if we’ve been successful they will be confident to make decisions about what will be right for them, and they’ll want to emulate our passion, inspiration, and kindness.

We are preparing students to explore ideas and a world beyond what we already know. We are preparing them to write a future they can be proud of, and to map a reality that doesn’t yet exist.

And as we ready them for this great unknown, one things from my own middle school years feels relevant, that whisper of a cheer, now directed at our kids: “Go Pioneers!”

A Fine, Fine School

photo (3)Perspective. As a school administrator it’s one of the most important things that I all too often ignore.

What I mean is that it’s easy to let my job, both the obligations that come with it and the passion to make a difference that I carry with me every day, take over my view of the world. I tend to get to work early, writing with a pot of coffee at my elbow, and stay late, finishing up the work I’ve left in my office all day while I was out on campus and in classrooms. My patient and understanding wife allows me get away with it, to a point, and my kids let me know when I should be more present with them, usually with a smile and the invitation to play a game, go to the park, or bake something.

Reading to the kids last night, a wonderful book by Sharon Creech found its way into the stack on the nightstand: A Fine, Fine School, the story of an overzealous principal who confuses his own love of his school with the notion that more is always better. I think my wife might have slipped it into the mix to teach me a lesson. She’s always right when she sets about doing something like that, even if it takes me a while sometimes to listen.

Reading it aloud to my six year old son, I thought to myself: A Fine, Fine School should be required reading for all site administrators.

The story is simple: Mr. Keene, the principal at this fine, fine school, loves his school and the learning he sees so much, that he decrees more and more time in classes. Weekends disappear. Holidays slip away. The school days get longer. The summers get shorter. The kids… the kids, who are fantastic, as kids are, wave goodbye to their dogs and baby siblings, put sticky notes on their backpacks to remind them of the flood of work and dates for the swarms of tests. They eat school lunches in a cafeteria festooned with the sign: “Why not study while you chew?” Bags appear beneath their eyes, and stacks of books fill their lockers, backpacks, and arms (all with witty titles slipped in by the illustrator to make parents reading the book smile).

It’s a student, of course, who helps Mr. Keene see the light. Her question leads him to consider the difference between school and learning, a lesson that we all, as educators, do well to reflect upon. This ultimately prompts a revelation, and Mr. Keene to tell his school: “You, all of you -children and teachers- you need to learn how to climb a tree and sit in it for an hour.” The important stuff: family, play, and reflection have a place in education too. A Fine, Fine School reminded me of that with humor, kindness, and great illustrations by Harry Bliss.

Reading the book comes on the heels of a conversation I had with a teacher. She’d been at a district meeting and talked with a principal who told her: “The best teachers teach from a full life.” What a beautiful thing to say.  It’s a line I’ll pirate and use with my teachers.

Dedication isn’t something most educators have trouble with; balance sometimes is.

As a principal part of my job is to help my school be a place that recognizes that dinner with family is more important that any homework assignment that a student gets (or a teacher later grades). Living a full life means learning in classes and learning beyond classroom walls. Life teaches us all when we’re at the park, on a team, in a play, or baking a pie. Our best teachers are sometimes our parents, our kids, or our friends. School is important; learning is essential.

I want my students and my teachers to love what they do at school and love what they do outside of school.

Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I have a fine, fine school? Indeed I do. And do I need to encourage balance, perspective, and full lives? Yep. And with the help of my own kids, and a copy of A Fine, Fine School for bedtime reading, I’m optimistic that this year will be …just fine.