“That was fun!”

IMG_7267Last spring heard the satisfying crash of the pins as they flew in ten directions and bowling balls thumped hard into the table at the end of the hall, followed by wild applause.

An afternoon meeting over, my staff was bowling in the hallway between the art studios and the math classrooms, a beautiful benefit of working in a building that will be torn down in just a few months. We weren’t really causing any damage, but from the laughter and applause that filled the hallway, you’d think we were having a party. Putting away the tables at the end of the afternoon, one of my veteran teachers looked at me and said: “That was fun!”

I work at a school where the staff makes a point to have fun. We work hard, certainly, care deeply, and are passionate about the teaching and learning that happens every day, and… while we take our work seriously, I’m proud to say that we don’t always take ourselves seriously.

In a world of no nonsense, we are very much some nonsense.

What this willingness to play means is that as stressful as our jobs can be, and as educators that stress is very, very real and rooted in the importance of what we do, we support each other and ourselves with laughter.

There’s a rumor that it’s the best medicine.

And what do we need medicine for? The act of teaching is by its nature exhausting. The best teachers don’t only teach English or math or science, they teach kids English and math and science. That means buckets of energy being poured into class period after class period, hours spent with young people who bring their own complicated lives to school, hungry to connect and ready to take on the world.

Add to that constant pulls on our time, demands from the site, the state, and the district, and budget concerns so regular that they aren’t a storm to be weathered, but the wet pavement on which we always drive.

Yet these challenges, as real as they are, are all stresses that we share. As much as any teacher might feel alone in her classroom, at a certain point a bell will ring and the kids will leave, and -if all goes right- that teacher might stumble out after the students and find kindred spirits, people who can support, listen, and maybe even laugh.

In his book Play, Stuart Brown offers this assessment: “Play, but its very nature, is a little anarchic. It is about stepping outside normal life and breaking normal patterns. It is about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.”

Bowling.

In the hallway.

This ability to finish a hard, emotional, and important day of work and still have the desire to connect and have fun is a healthy example of a staff who care for one another and are willing to support each other through the tough times as well as the fun ones.

I believe that as a staff can see this perspective of togetherness and shared community the benefits are passed on to students. Even better are the times that students and staff have a chance to play together.

Last school year this sense of fun began at our first pre-service day when a group of students led the staff through some theater games designed to get us to see school through teenage eyes, play, and think about how we might embrace the improv inspired notion of always saying “Yes, and…

pastedImageThroughout the year staff made a point to continue to sprinkle play into our work together: a Rock-Paper-Scissors competition, firing marshmallows down the hallway, and synchronized swimming without water.

This year I hope that continues, spreading smiles through our faculty as well as our students.

A friend from long ago once gave me a present when I left the school where he and I both worked: a wooden lamp, with a sign that reads “Work like a captain. Play like a pirate.”

Wise, whimsical words.

Because learning, working, and living each involve hard work to be done right, and all of those noble pursuits benefit if from time to time they’re punctuated with the phrase: “That was fun.”

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.

Fine Young Cannibals

Art is about taking chances, learning from failure, and being willing to try something unexpected. In those ways it’s a lot like being a principal. The two pursuits converged this week when some intrepid student filmmakers asked me to be in their movie.

They guarded the script like it was a Star Wars film. I got my three pages without more context than I could put together from stage directions like:

The cannibal storms out of the room leaving behind her binder and the therapist grabs them and pulls out the sketches/drawings inside and looks through them, he fans them out and looks at each one until he comes to the last one, he holds it up so the camera can’t see it and it cuts to the next scene.

Intriguing.

My two short scenes, two voice overs, and single costume change set me up as the straight man, a mercifully unimportant and plausibly vegetarian character in a film titled Meat (An American Cannibal Film).

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As they set up the camera and lights in my office. The director, a senior whose easy smile helped put his two actors -me and a student whose artistic focus is drawing and painting- at ease, chatted with his sound man about verisimilitude and budget.

“It’s set in 1996,” he explained. “So I got an almost working answering machine at Goodwill for $9.” “Your budget for this is $9?” “Well, I spent $22 on fake blood.”

This was sounding increasingly like something I might regret more than my turn at Carpool Karaoke or the time I dressed up as one of the Blues Brothers and sang in front of the student body. Still…

These were great students. This mattered to them. My scene was relatively tame, a therapist and his patient. All that, along with some gentle reassurance from my film teacher who had seen the rough cuts, let me stay true to one of the tenets of my philosophy of being a principal: When students ask me to participate in something that is meaningful to them, even (or especially) if it is nutty, I do my best to say “yes.”

We shot after school on a Friday, a three person crew, the actor playing the cannibal, and me, filling my office for an hour or so, laughing, talking about art, and books, and movies between takes. That conversation, that opportunity to connect with some fantastic young people, was worth any embarrassment about my clunky acting abilities.

Because it isn’t really about my acting; it’s about being present for my students, participating in what is important to them, and allowing myself to play (and sometimes play the fool) in service of a spirit of fun that is important at a school, and indeed in life.

Our schools are stronger, safer, and better for all when students and adults are able to learn, laugh, and play together.

A willingness to start with “yes” has led to some of my favorite experiences and most meaningful connections with students, and I firmly believe that nurturing this more playful side helps to make me a better principal when the stressful realities of the work require gravitas, a clear head, and a commitment to doing right. Silly, serious, sanguine, it’s about making students the priority.

So my first entry in IMDB will read “Dr. Monroe” in Meat (An American Cannibal Film). It may turn out to be this generation’s Night of the Living Dead or a silly footnote to the illustrious director’s future fame, but whatever shows up on screen I’ll carry with me fond memories of a great afternoon shared with artists and creative souls, fine young cannibals.

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“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.

“You know, for kids…”

photoThere a point in The Hudsucker Proxy, a Cohen Brothers movie about, among other things, hula hoops, where Tim Robbin’s character holds a drawing of a circle up to a coworker whose puzzled expression prompts the explanation: “You know, for kids!”

It’s a circle, so simple as to be ridiculous, and combined with Robbins’ wonderfully earnest expression reminds me of the biggest why of our profession. In the busy or stressful times, when it’s easy to make things more complicated than they need to be, we could all do ourselves a favor by repeating Robbins’ line, maybe even with that goofy grin.

This year we took about a quarter of our opening day staff meeting to underscore this perspective by having students take our faculty through a series of activities to build community and prepare for the year ahead. More than symbolic, though that too, the experience of students leading adults, of those kids being listened to and seen with such respect, brought into focus both the reason we educators do what we do and the great good that can come from providing students the opportunity, encouragement, and responsibility to engage with the adults at the school we share.

photo 1That morning, three intrepid students led us through a series of challenges and games, and had our teachers, counselors, administrators, and classified staff smiling, talking earnestly, really listening to each other …and even playing tag.

Throughout the activities, the students emphasized how important it is for us to know each other, know ourselves, and work together for a greater good. They encouraged us to open up, to take chances, and to be proud of the work we do.

When they ended our half hour outside by telling us: “We can hardly wait to see you on the first day of classes!” no one doubted their sincerity and everyone seemed to share their sentiment.

What these three students did was astounding. With poise and purpose (and infectious smiles) they had a group of nearly a hundred adults following their every direction, suspending adult inhibitions, and playing together.

faculty plays

That our faculty was so willing to embrace this experience was further proof of the priority they place on students. I’ve worked where some people say they value and respect students; the educators I had the pleasure to spend time with at that first meeting showed how much they live that truth.

We educators get into this profession to make a difference, and often the most powerful impact comes when we inspire and empower, expect great things, believe in our students, and remember that truth, as simple as a circle, that what we do is, you know, for kids.

Rogue Pies

photo 1 (6)I began my teaching career at Hood River Valley High School, an embarrassingly fresh faced twenty five year old out to change the world. Hood River was home for two years, before a job offer at the school where I’d student taught lured us out of the Columbia Gorge and on to the next step in a career in education that has ranged from Oregon to the Bay Area to San Diego County. When my wife and I left Hood River we were still in our twenties with no kids, big dreams, and a spirit of adventure.

I like to think that our dreams haven’t diminished and that our spirit is the same, even now after twenty years and a family of our own. Even so, it was plainly clear how much we’d changed since the mid 90s when this summer’s family trip brought us back up the Gorge and we settled in for four days along the Columbia River.

It seems we’ve grown up.

I say that without a scrap of remorse or the faintest hint of regret for lost youth. The truth is that I’m a better person than I was when I left Hood River, more patient, happier, and quicker to be kind. I can still be grouchy when I get hungry and tend to focus on school so much I forget to change the oil in my car, but the accumulation of adventures that have filled the last two decades of my life have taught me the value of listening, the importance of seeing other points of view, and the satisfaction that comes not from being clever, but from treating others well.

I didn’t know who I was when I started teaching, though teaching helped to show me who I was. I look back at photos of my first year in the classroom and wonder at how young I was, how inexperienced, and how passionate about teaching.

Twenty years later I love teaching and have become even more passionate about learning and helping others learn.

photo 2 (5)I wouldn’t be who I have become without Hood River Valley High and my time teaching and coaching in the shadow of Mt. Hood. It was a truth I thought about today as I drove up to the campus with my kids.

How the trees had grown.

Two decades ago HRV was a hive of new construction. Today it has the comfortable look of an established campus, complete with the same amazing views of Mt. Adams to the north and Mt. Hood to the south.

I found the window to my first classroom, but held off peeking inside. My memories of the time spent there are rich and I didn’t want to see someone else’s posters up on the walls.

Instead, I thought about the successes and failures that defined my time at HRV. The wind tunnel I made in my classroom with teaching Pierre Boule’s Planet of the Apes, the nature walks near campus when studying Wordsworth, and the first truly goofy thing I did as a teacher, a confessedly silly thing that set the tone for a career filled with a spirit of play: Goggle Day.

It started as a lark, a way to shake things up in the midst of a long, cold winter. Our English Department, a curious and creative collection of good humored free spirits were kicking around ideas so zany they might be fun. I can’t take credit for any part of the idea that turned out well, though I suppose my name would be the likeliest to deserve blame, particularly when things went decidedly out of control.

We called it Goggle Day. Did we expect things wouldn’t go sideways?

The scheme was simple enough. On a particular day everyone in the department would come to work wearing goggles, ski, swim, what you will. We designated one of my students as “Goggle Boy” and armed him with a coconut cream pie. At some point in the day, completely of his own choosing, he would deliver the pie into an English teacher’s face.

This was a time before everyone had a cell phone; no one expected the event to live on in shaky video or on social media. Goggle Day’s pie would simply be the delicious delivery we’d talk about in the English workroom, something to laugh about together.

But we were not, truth be told, a group of people likely to follow all the rules.

Early in the day, in fact, the swell of cheers from two separate classrooms proved that it was not just Goggle Boy who was delivering creamy splats.

We had rogue pies.

Now I should pause this story long enough to explain that Hood River Valley High was a well run and professional place in 1994, as I’m sure it is today. Our principal was a strong and kind woman, the epitome of professionalism. Her assistant principal was a former head football coach whose scowl could melt concrete. It was a newly remodeled school, clean and orderly, a perfect place to learn.

We had not mentioned Goggle Day to anyone in a position of authority, and had fully expected that one pie could be filed under the heading: HARMLESS FUN.

Another loud cheer next to my classroom told me that we were barreling well past that heading and into the territory of: NOT ON MY WATCH.

It was at this point that I realized that the day was so far beyond my control that the best I could do was simply keep my goggles on and hope for the best. If Goggle Boy opened my classroom door, I’d smile and take it in the face.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Instead, midway through my prep period, as I was sitting at my desk, goggles atop my forehead, the back door of my classroom opened. In leaned a tall young English teacher with a smile on his face and a whip cream pie in his hand.

I did the only sensible thing.

I ran.

Out the front door of my classroom I bolted into the hallway. Behind me I heard the roar of thirty five students, my wild colleague’s class, as they followed him through my classroom and after me. They poured into the hallway, picking up speed. At the head of the smiling mob their begoggled teacher loped forward, holding a pie above his head.

I tore out of the English wing and into the next hallway of the school. They were gaining ground and would catch me soon.

Turning a corner near the art room I could feel the pounding of their feet.

I raced down the main hall and in front of the office felt a hand on my shoulder.

There was no escape.

I turned, saw the wide eyed smiles of the students and the crazy glee of my colleague, and watched through my goggles as the pie hit my face.

SPLAT

…and then I heard the assistant principal’s yell.

He had been a head football coach and this was the tone his players must have feared.

With a flick of my hands I cleared my goggles, my face still white with whip cream. I couldn’t see the AP; the class was between us. My colleague’s back was to me.

And once again, I did the only sensible thing.

Without waiting to see what happened next, I stepped into the faculty restroom next to the office and locked the door.

It took a long, long time to wash my face.

When I opened the door again the hallway was empty.

It had been a glorious Goggle Day.

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I didn’t see any of the teachers I worked with so many years ago when I visited campus today. It’s July and any still at HRV who might remember me are off enjoying summer.

The fact is that they’re as alive in my memory today as they were when we said our goodbyes so long ago. Dave, Chauna, Jeff, and so many others helped me to become who I am now. My affection for them has only grown.

Instead, with a head full of memories and heart filled with gratitude, I passed through campus today like a ghost, smiling.