Price Tag

I once had a teacher I respect come up to me after a staff meeting and give me a number. He’d spent a chunk of his time in his seat not paying attention to what was being presented, but rather doing some math. He’d looked around the room, counted out how many teachers and staff were there, calculated hourly wages, looked at the clock, and figured a total cost for the meeting. It was staggering. “That’s how much this staff meeting cost,” he told me. “Was it worth that?”

Now I’ve never been one for long meetings, or standing up in front of a group reading through information that could be as easily distributed in an email or memo, but it was this amazing educator’s decision to put the “value” of meeting in black and white that has stuck with me for now almost a decade. As I prep meetings, particularly those that start the school year, his question echoes in my mind “Was it worth that?”

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What this means on the ground is more than just shorter meetings. Yes, I limit my welcome back days to mornings only, sticking firm to the commitment to get my teachers into their classrooms before lunch, but in addition I do my best to be mindful of how we spend those mornings together.

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We laugh.
We listen to kids.
We connect.
We discuss.
We play.
We try to come to consensus on the issues that impact our work.

…and when we have those mandated moments (of blood-borne pathogen training and such) we do our best to remember Shakespeare’s line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

IMG_8275Sure there are times when a presentation is necessary, and I’ve found that teachers are most kind when it’s other teachers who are giving those presentations. It’s also important that we allow time enough to breathe around the information we get, so the discussions we have can really matter.

As a principal I’m not perfect in any of this; just ask my teachers, they’d tell you. But I do try hard to respect their time, and our time together. I know how much it costs.

After the meetings I walk. I do my best to lean into classrooms and chat. I’m reminded of that line from Henry V, when before the battle of Agincourt the king walks amongst his soldiers:

For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

I’m no King Henry, but I do try to echo his optimism and modest smile. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that my teachers work as hard, are more engaged, and get more done than any did when I was a part of marathon meetings.

The price tag for our time together is high, and that doesn’t mean that we ought not meet, it just means that those meetings ought to be worth it.

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Spring Flowers

Little provides perspective better than spending time with kids. As a principal, I know that my interactions with students tell me more about the health of my school  than just about anything else; as a dad, a spring break road trip that had our family of four sharing hotel rooms and a crowded car was a great grounding experience; and some very precious time with my niece and her family, including a wide eyed three month old, his bouncing seven year old brother, and his clever three year old sister reminded me how important a calling it is to be an educator.

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For each of the kids in my life, those in my immediate family and those in my school family as well, teachers and the other adults who help to form their education have the power to make such a difference on their changing lives. As adults we know that. As kids they feel it.

As I listened to my own kids talk in the back seat of the car, I heard the truth about the way students in our school system see things.

“I’d never want to be a teacher. Kids treat them terribly.” Pause. “Not me, but kids. Particularly boys.” Thoughtful pause. “Mrs. —- doesn’t like kids, so I guess it’s a little okay they treat her badly back.” Pause. “Not me. Mr. —– respects us. They don’t act up for him.”

I heard about school rules and routines, sometimes unable to keep myself out of the conversation. “Before school we have to stay in the cafeteria, and if we’re too loud a lady blows a whistle at us. Sometimes she gets really frustrated, like when one group of kids starts to yell and chant.”

“Chant?” I asked. “Do they chant: ‘Whistle! More! Please!’?”

“No, Dad.”

More even than rules and misbehavior, from my niece I heard about the power of a teacher and administrator to make things better. At an IEP meeting, when the teacher and principal spoke about strategies and supports, their reassurance and commitment was both real and appreciated. Parents want to know that the school cares for their students, and it’s a trust that is earned over time. When I heard “…and maybe with this new principal it will be better,” my first thought was that I want to be that honest school leader my students, parents, and teachers can believe in.

Belief and hope are the building blocks of learning, a truth a marvelous three year old reminded me of as she presented a drawing of spring flowers and was able to tell me the name of the color of each one.

IMG_6439“Blue,” she said, pointing. “Orange,” she added with pride. “Red,” she said with the confidence of a preschooler whose mom has been working with her around the kitchen table. Her eyes sparkled and I saw in them the potential so many parents (and grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and caregivers) see in their own kids. I want the pride she feels now to always be a part of her education.

I don’t want anyone blowing a whistle at her.

But the truth is that I don’t have control over their education. I can love them and advocate for them. I can try to encourage in them resiliency and courage, and the confidence to make themselves heard, but I need others to take the time to listen.

At my own school I can do my best as a principal to nurture a culture that is caring and accepting, a safe place for everyone. (This is harder work than it sounds like in a sentence as short as that last one, but work worth doing.)

I might even hope that someone in education reading the little scribbles I post every week might take from my words the notion that being kind and caring, and even a little silly, can be a good thing.

Yet beyond anything I say or do, it seems to me that the understanding of how things are and how things should be will come to me, and to all of us who make schools our line of work, if we simply put down our whistles and listen. 

Hygge

This Saturday my kids and I made a pie. I peeled the apples that my son washed and handed to me, in turn handing them to my daughter who cut them into slices and stirred in sugar and cinnamon. They worked together on the crust, one rolling out the bottom layer, the other the top, each careful to wrap the dough loosely around the rolling pin and spin it smilingly first beneath and then atop the mound of apples.

After we wiped the flour from the kitchen table, preheated the oven, and tucked the red checkered cookbook back on the shelf, the three of us brewed tea and lit a fire.

IMG_4651My wife was out of town and we’d agreed to fill the day with simple things: two early soccer games, my daughter’s in a frigid fog bank and my son’s so wet spray flew off the ball with every kick; a trip to the library, where a librarian scowled at me when I asked to pick up a book my wife had on hold, “You do not have her card,” she pointed out, “we should not do this,” and then, we did, like naughty children, so easily bending the rules; a visit to the library book sale, where for three dollars I left with a book of William Stafford’s poetry and two paperbacks by Stephen King that I remember buying during my freshman year of college; and an hour of housework (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) interrupted by conversation.

It is so easy to get so busy.

Obligations, responsibilities, legitimate, persistent, real, all vie for our attention.

But with my wife away, the immediacy of parenting pulled me away from work and the world beyond our family. I’m so thankful it did.

The book relinquished to me by today’s librarian (who should feel no guilt in sending it home with me) was about Hygge. It’s a Danish concept that defies easy translation, but might be captured in part by the feeling of enjoying a book from a window seat on a lazy afternoon, the feel of a warm blanket looking out over a snowy day, or a cup of cocoa as your mittens dry by the wood stove. I’m told that in Denmark it’s a way of life.

If that’s true, then Saturday at our house felt pretty Danish.

And while I know that the hustle and bustle of work and home is waiting on the other side of tonight’s sleep, and while (if I’m honest with myself) I’m looking forward to the unexpected adventures and breakneck pace of being a principal, it helps me with perspective, priorities, and patience to have a day like today with the sweetness of baked apples and cinnamon.

The weather turning cooler is a nice reminder to slow down, and my kids did a great job of unplugging and really connecting today. Not every day can be a weekend. Not every meal can end in pie. But savoring these Danish days can be such an important balance to the hurly burly, necessary ballast in our ship of life.

Wordsworth captured the feeling I ended the day with in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

…here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”

I will carry that tea and fire and apple pie with me for weeks. Finding our renewal is worth a few neglected emails or projects postponed. I’m so thankful for my kids, the rain, and a librarian willing to bend the rules.

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.

Hope

photo-1-4On the day Carrie Fisher died I took my son to see the newest Star Wars movie. We were seven days into a road trip, tired from a week of hotel hopping, and worn out after a day that ended with an hour of LA traffic. He’d been sick, a flu that arrived on the 24th of December and had my wife and I spending part of Christmas deep in a discussion about the best way to remove vomit from a hotel carpet.

As we lugged our bags into the final room of the trip, my son, recently recovered, looked at his coughing mom and sister whose own eyes had the glassy redness of a youthful fever, and asked if we could go see Rogue One. It seemed like a really good idea.

So in an unfamiliar town, we left two sleeping loved ones and headed for the movies, our hopes set on some sort of relief from a rough patch of travel and sickness.

2016 has had a touch of that same feeling to it. Carrie Fisher’s death reminded me of the long line of artists and inspirations we’ve lost over the past calendar year: Leonard Cohen, Prince, Sharon Jones, and David Bowie. My favorite living novelist, Umberto Eco, living no longer, passed away the day after Harper Lee. Election season was rough on many of us, and even for a confessed optimist, I’ll admit that there have been days I’ve felt the spiritual equivalent of a long drive on the 210.

As an educator, however, I know how important it is to nurture that little bird that Emily Dickinson claimed “perches in the soul.” In our work with students, and teacher too, that we maintain a spirit of hope that Dickinson explains “sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.”

My students often remind me that even when things feel bleak in the alleged adult world, from the eyes of someone with so much life ahead of them the promise of the future more than outweighs any transitory struggles of the immediate present.

I wonder, did my generation give the same perspective to my parents the year they lost John Wayne, or Lucille Ball, or Wallace Stegner?

Whatever the case, it was my eight year old who coaxed me out of a comfortable hotel room, the tragic news of Princess Leia still new. His smile as we sat in the theater and saw those familiar words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” brought to mind the importance of seeing a perspective beyond our own.

I enjoyed Rogue One, an action movie in the Star Wars universe, through my son’s eyes, eyes that invited me to see a world of possibility. He in turn saw a diverse group of characters working together to make a difference, and doing so not because of their individual strength, but because they cared deeply, worked together, and never gave up.

How fitting that the final scene of the movie provided a familiar face, a young Princess Leia, smiling at the camera and talking about “hope.”

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Only The Shadow Knows

As a middle school principal I live in the world of “and.” Yes, he said that he wanted to hit you, and earlier you pulled down his shorts in gym. Yes, you have a D in History right now, and last week you didn’t turn in two assignments. So when I read the article suggesting that teachers would benefit from shadowing a student for two days my first thought was: yes, and how would people look at education differently if they shadowed teachers for two days?

I ask that as I sit at my desk at 6:30 in the morning having walked in with several teachers half an hour ago. They’re in their classrooms now, grading and planning lessons, preparing to teach when the kids arrive for first period in another hour or so. More will arrive as I type this post, welcoming each other by the mailboxes outside my office, talking about how best to help kids (I just heard a PE and English teacher asking each other about what’s working for a student who just moved to the school), and getting ready to engage in the challenging and rewarding occupation of teaching.

If someone were to shadow the teachers at my school, from prepping to parent meetings, from grading to collaboration with colleagues, and into the classroom where they face phalanxes of twelve and thirteen year olds, I think they’d be impressed.

Teachers often arrive early and stay long past the final school bell. A teacher’s shadow would need to be here before the students, coffee in one hand, a pen in the other, be ready to put in a full day, and then follow that teacher home, where after she has made dinner for her own kids she brings out the stack of essays to grade or notebooks to comment on.

Someone shadowing one of my teachers would be amazed by the passion for working with students they’d see, even when kids haven’t yet realized how much they like the particular subject being taught. They’d see careful planning that leads to hands on learning in Math and English classes, experiments in Science, and active learning across disciplines. They’d see activities that get students out of their seats and collaborating on projects that engage them in critical thinking and problem solving.

A shadow might see a teacher putting in extra time to go to an EdCamp on a Saturday, participating in our district’s SDUHSDchat on Twitter on Tuesday evenings, or staying late to set up a science lab or art project. The teachers do these things not because they have to, but because they want to. They want to do the best job possible to help students learn.

Being a student is not an easy job. Nor is being a teacher, or being a parent for that matter. The more we can understand each other, the more empathy we can feel and show. As a principal, who was a teacher and is a parent, and who gets to spend significant time in classrooms every day, I hope that we all can make the efforts to see the world from each other’s points of view.

If shadowing provides a starting point for discussion, it has my support, but I’d like to broaden the lens to take in that mom who puts aside her own time to help with homework, the dad who rolls his tired sleeves up to pack lunches, and the teacher who spends his own time and money to buy flowers for plant dissections. Seeing school from a student’s point of view is important to understanding how we make school relevant and effective, and recognizing how we all work together to help kids is vital to supporting the important adventure of teaching and learning.