“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

Being new is never easy and fitting in at school can be a challenge for anyone.

I know; I’m the new principal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we welcome students to campus and about how it feels to be new at our school. As the first few weeks of classes roll along, I’ve seen students put up posters celebrating kindness, cheered as our assistant principal and my and secretary created a magical puzzle piece bulletin board to welcome students, and watched teachers go out of their way to make classes friendly and inviting.

IMG_4376Then today at lunch a small act struck me with its simplicity and power.

I was standing alone in the quad supervising lunch when a group of girls walked up and handed me a piece of candy. Taped to the wrapper was a sliver of paper. They smiled and told me to “open it.”

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

They left me feeling a little happier, and then, when I stepped into the cafeteria one of my food service workers flagged me down to tell me something important. “Those girls,” she said, “with the basket. Do you know what they were doing?” My first thought was nothing bad, I hope, they were so nice to me. “They’re going around finding anyone eating lunch alone and they’re giving them a piece of candy and talking with them.”

The dad in me wanted to cry at the profound kindness of their action.

IMG_4377Today I’d been that fellow alone. How many others, students new to our school and students simply not yet as connected as I hope they soon will be, felt that same uplift of spirit when they were given a message of hope.

For any who have eaten alone, for any who have been “the new kid,” and for any who felt like they didn’t quite fit in, I offer the sentiment of reassurance given to me by those kind, kind students: “Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

Yes, and tomorrow you’ll be stronger still. Our school will welcome you. And down the road, once you’re comfortable and feel our school is home, maybe you and your friends will get a basket of your own and spread a message of kindness.

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Locals

“Dad, are we locals?”

It was the Monday before the first day of school and my nine year old son and I were eating breakfast. I looked at him and answered his question with a confused “Huh?” We’d moved from a place where such things mattered, but we weren’t in the surfing queue at Swami’s; this was our kitchen table in Portland.

“Locals,” he repeated, pointing out or window at a construction sign across the street:

ROAD CLOSED
TO THRU TRAFFIC
LOCAL ACCESS ONLY

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re locals,” I assured him. And in the road construction sense we are.

IMG_4132But as the first week of classes unfolded and I watched my own kids adjusting to new schools, wincing at their anxieties and the moments when a drop of kindness could have gone so far, that question from over our cereal bowls came back to me and my answer felt less certain.

As educators we talk a lot about climate and culture, and creating a space where everyone feels welcome. At our best we build systems to support our students, create opportunities for each to feel they are part of the greater school community, and encourage everyone on our campuses to demonstrate kindness to one another.

But… in the hurly burly of the start of the year, how easy it is to let that focus slip. There are classes to start, procedures to review, activities to organize.

That sign and my son’s question echoed in my opening week consciousness, prompting me as a principal to ask (with a sense of paternal urgency): What more can we do to welcome kids to our school?

Certainly we do a few things right: an ice cream social just before the only Back to School Night I know of that encourages students to attend with their parents, particularly those new to our school; silly yearbook photos on registration day; and a “first day” of school (before the whole student body shows up) for every student new to ACMA no matter what grade they’re in.

I also know there is more we can do.

So right now some of our students are filling our hallways with messages of love as part of the Kindness Challenge, our Spirit Committee is working on ideas to make the start of the school year welcoming for all, and classroom by classroom our teachers are getting to know students, perhaps the most important welcome of all.

Can we do more? Of course. Every school does well when it makes the decision to embrace new students wholeheartedly and recognize that very real feeling Maya Angelou captured when she wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As a principal it’s my job to look for the good in people and keep a firm vision of the best school my school can be. This is never more important than when students step on campus for the first time and find themselves in the freefall of figuring out their place in a new world. It’s at these times that a smile or “hello” can mean so much, when going out of one’s way to help can make a difference for a student’s whole experience. This is the time to let them know that they are safe and cared for and can be themselves.

It’s my goal, and a hope I have for the amazing students and staff around me, to do all we can to make the answer “yes” when a new student finishes her first week at ACMA and asks: “Am I a local?”

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Beautiful Compensations

This week, while I was preparing to jot out these thoughts on Michele Borba’s book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and particularly the second section “Practicing Empathy” that begins with the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

It is one of the beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

I was surprised by a situation where my school asked another school if we could change the start time of one of our games to accommodate “Senior Night” and they said, unequivocally, “no.”

A week earlier we had been asked by the same school to roll back the start time of a game at their school and we’d agreed, so the refusal hit extra hard. I did my best to articulate our request, but the other school held to its decision, quoting CIF rules that showed they were legally in the right. It was a lesson for me in the importance of empathy.

photo 5At San Dieguito we pride ourselves on a campus community that puts a premium on seeing the world through the eyes of others. We recognize that we’re human and we make mistakes, but we strive to, as Borba suggests “move from ‘them’ to ‘us.’”

As a part of that journey, next week parents, students, teachers, and admin like me will meet to discuss Unselfie, and the importance of empathy at our San Dieguito Book Club. Our school community meets several times a year to talk about relevant books, and the opportunity for us to discuss the issues and challenges we face as we travel this path together make us stronger and more prepared to make a difference.

The first section of Unselfie discusses “Developing Empathy” and in the second section she writes about putting that empathy into practice. Much of Borba’s argument addresses parenting and the strategies parents can use to help their own kids practice empathy. She writes about kindness, explaining that:

Kindness is strengthened by seeing, hearing, and practicing kindness. … [and] kids must have ample opportunities and encouragement to practice kindness.”

Describing a school in Delaware that implemented a program to encourage this behavior, Borba explains that momentum “continued building throughout the year because the students continued doing simple, regular kind acts, and other kids saw or experienced them and wanted to do the same.”

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At school we can do much to help support a commitment to empathy by putting students in positions where kindness is celebrated, encouraged, and where it can become a “simple, regular” part of the educational experience. This needn’t be didactic; it may be as easy as adults and students being more mindful about recognizing the kindness around them, and the school putting into place ongoing opportunities to recognize instances of empathy.

Here at San Dieguito I see examples of this in our ASB’s commitment to celebrating all students at assemblies, on our school’s Facebook page where students are recognized for being good to one another as well as for their accomplishments, and through programs like our Link Crew (where older students mentor and support younger ones), our PALs, and various clubs built around the ideas of being good people. I see it in the way our teachers treat our students, seeing them first as people and then as scholars. And I see it in the notes I get from kids, one this week so heartfelt it moved me almost to tears.

Borba spends some time talking about other advantages to practicing kindness, specifically citing scientific studies that suggest kindness leads to happier, less selfish, and more popular (as defined by having more friends, a slippery definition of popularity) kids.

In addition, she turns the discussion on adults, suggesting this scenario:

Pretend it’s twenty-five years from now and you’re at a family reunion eavesdropping on your now-grown kids discussing their childhoods. How are they describing your typical behavior? And what do they remember as “the most important messages” you told them as kids?”

Talk about giving adults pause.

The question, in a slightly altered form, is one great educators ask themselves often. Working with students as we do, it’s true that what we say is only a part of how we are perceived; what we do, how we carry ourselves, and the lessons we teach when we’re not purposefully teaching lessons does as much to define us in our students’ eyes.

As a dad (and as a principal) I read more closely as Borba described “how to cultivate kindness in children” including modeling kindness, expecting kindness in others, valuing kindness, reflecting on kindness, and explaining kindness. Her examples and suggestions have a real practicality that I look forward to discussing with the students, teachers, and parents who come to our book club next week. How might we incorporate a more thoughtful approach to encouraging empathy in our school? I believe our students know answers to that question that I would never think about.

cover-unselfie-by-michele-borba-500x750In the final chapter of this middle section of her book, Borba describes the vitally important shift from seeing “them” to seeing “us.” Describing a study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, she quotes the psychologist who explained “Hostility gives way when groups pull together to achieve overriding goals that are real and compelling to all concerned.” As she notes: “Raising kids in a competitive environment not only can increase animosity but also suppress generosity and prosocial behaviors.” How important then that we work together for the benefit of all.

Back to our Senior Night. After some additional conversations with the other school, where we talked about helping each other, supporting students, and the importance of looking out for sister schools, the angels of our better nature prevailed and the start time was rolled back an hour. It was a decision good for kids, and an experience good for all of us.

The results of students, and adults too, practicing empathy is more than just a kinder school. As we see the world through the eyes of others and slowing ourselves down to ensure that we allow for multiple points of view, we not only make our school community better, we also enjoy those “beautiful compensations” that Emerson writes about: lives richer because of the kindness we show to others.

The San Dieguito Book Club meets on Monday, February 6, 2017 from 6:00-8:00 pm in our Media Center. Feel free to join us to talk about Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

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.