Problems of Practice

It’s not an easy job. No one said it would be. For those of us in public school administration, however, the job is one worth doing and worth doing well.

This is my twenty-fifth year in education, about half of those as an assistant principal and then principal, and while the overwhelming majority of the work is positive, connecting with kids, getting to know families, and supporting caring teachers, there is a stressful side too (I suppose there is in any meaningful work) and I couldn’t have stayed at it -through the tears, raised voices, tension, and stress- if I hadn’t worked with supportive people and honestly believed that I had the possibility of making a difference.

Being a site administrator means being a good steward of the school, a supporter of the staff and students, and a person willing to have the difficult conversations to help the school function best.

Those are often conversations held solo, one at a time, door closed, emotions high. When they end, however they end, principals and assistant principals are left to take a deep breath and get about the business of whatever comes next.

Sometimes, in those most fortunate and often rare times, there’s a colleague able to escape the rush of obligations that define our worlds and listen for a bit. Principals and assistant principals who have been in the business know the value of these kindred spirits and recognize the challenges of making time to support one another.

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It’s this reality that makes me most appreciate a commitment the administrators in my district are making this year to build time for us to pause from our daily work long enough to share some “problems of practice.”

At our monthly principals meetings we take time midway through the morning to break into groups and talk. One of us poses a question, a real one, that is weighing on our mind. The issues might be school culture related, about safety, or about academics. The common denominator is that as a principal we don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a structure to our discussion, based on the consultancy protocol developed by the School Reform Initiative. It’s a thorough process that involves a group of half a dozen administrators.

One of us takes about ten minutes to introduce a dilemma we’re struggling with, asking a question to the rest of the group to help focus the conversation to come. For another five minutes the group asks clarifying questions, doing their best to understand nuances of the problem at hand. As administrators we want information before we make decisions, and this back and forth provides it.

We then shift to probing questions, hoping to prompt the original questioner to think about the issue in a new way. Next, the process shifts into a curious conversation between the group during which the original questioner is an observer, taking notes, but not participating in the discussion. Having been both a participant and an presenter this year, I can say that it’s a part of the process that is transformative. To hear peers puzzling through the issue, the same issue vexing one of us in real time, is powerful and can lead to real insights. The process ends with a reporting out, the presenter reflecting aloud insights and appreciation. In the course of an hour or so real movement can take place.

But even more than technique, this time we spend leaning in and listening, being vulnerable (and truly so) with each other, and focusing our attention (attention so often fragmented by diverse demands and unexpected stresses), focusing our attention on helping each other, this time is important because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are more than bureaucracy and we are facing problems that may just have a solution, even if we haven’t been able to see it on our own.

Getting to those solutions alone can seem impossible. I suppose sometimes it might be. But in the company of colleagues, the stress of our meaningful work feels more likely to form a diamond than remain a lump of coal.

It’s not an easy job, but with the perspective, encouragement, and support of others, it’s a job we may yet do well.

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Leadership Wears A Cape

While I’d love to imagine myself Han Solo, daring, roguish, independent, I’ve come to realize that as a principal on my best days, and I mean my best, I’m cloud city Lando Calrissian.

landoBeing an administrator means being put in a position where every day involves balancing competing demands and trying to stay focused on a greater goal. Sometimes it’s little annoyances that get in the way of progress; we’re the proverbial “small outpost, not very self-sufficient, with supply problems of every kind, labor difficulties…”

Other times it feels like Darth Vader is breathing through our hallways.

There are more elegant ways to describe the sturm und drang of the business side of site administration, but for those of us with an affinity for George Lucas’ space opera, the fact remains that the patron saint of principals is Billy Dee Williams’ 1981 Lando Calrissian. We’re doing our best, trying to be charming, think we look great in that cape, and sometimes, in the face of stress and forces beyond our control, we make mistakes.

I was thinking about Lando this week when navigating some projects beyond my school’s control. As a principal, I do my best to advocate for my campus, my teachers, and my students, but find that sometimes my voice isn’t as powerful as others in the room. Like Lando, I work to establish relationships and build agreements that will help my school, sometimes feeling as optimistic as he did when he told Han and Leia: “I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Lando entersYeah. That.

And just like cloud city Lando, sometimes I see those deals fall through, or get changed. It’s not unusual for someone of authority to play the part of Darth Vader, saying (perhaps in a more subtle way): “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

So we adjust.

Being a principal often means searching for the best contingency, finding footing the face of shifting sands. If all goes well, we might end up on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca; at worst Han ends up in carbon freeze. Sometimes both.

The secret, if there is such a thing, that I’ve found is looking for little places to make a difference (“Having trouble with your droid?”), staying optimistic (I look great in this cape), and trying to keep things in perspective (I do get to live in a cloud city).

worseThere will always be times when things don’t go according to plan, when a budget is cut or a need goes unfilled. Tempers will flare, sometimes justifiably, folks won’t communicate clearly, or decisions will get made that benefit someone other than your school. There will be a point when any principal would be tempted to swish his cape and mutter: “This deal is getting worse all the time.” And that isn’t the wrong reaction, at least in the moment, but if we remember our Empire Strikes Back properly we know that at some point Lando activated Lobot, hustled Leia and the gang to the Falcon, and set about the hard work of rescuing his friend.

Not defined by his mistakes or his misplaced alliance, cloud city Lando made the best of things. Principals everywhere could do worse.

Rat Slabs and Bollards

IMG_8010Occasionally there were moments of levity, like the time late in the afternoon when there was some confusion about the garbage can washing station and someone cut to the chase and described it as an “industrial bidet.” Just yikes.

Sitting at a long conference table with a dozen experts in plumbing, electrical, and engineering, I was a stranger in a strange land, a principal at a day long construction meeting. It’s a part of the job that I was not trained for; I got into education to teach kids English. As a principal, however, and a principal at a school preparing to undergo major construction, it’s important for me to able to take my seat at the gathering of those folks who make a living by designing, constructing, and making buildings work and be more than a spectator. I need to pay attention, listen, learn, and participate.

So yesterday from ten in the morning until after five o’clock at night we talked through more than 300 items, reviewing, accepting, and writing comments on everything from rat slabs to bollards …so many bollards.

IMG_8012I wasn’t the biggest expert in the room; I’m an educator, not a builder, but the many voices who joined the meeting were, and their perspectives (under the guiding hand of our gifted project manager) informed the design of a school that will truly benefit kids.

I get asked sometimes if I hate going to construction meetings, especially so close to the start of the school year when there are things to be done on site and my attention needs to go toward preparing for teachers and students to return to campus. My answer is a resounding no.

How important is it that the principal know the voltage of the hand dryers? Maybe not that much. But for the dozen times I needed to speak up and offer the school’s point of view on things like the importance of LED track lighting for displaying artwork in the hallways or the need to make the commons a true performance space, my presence and focus were very important.

IMG_8014For nine of my ten years as a site administrator I’ve worked at schools undergoing construction. I’ve redone two libraries, overseen three campus spanning trenching and data rewiring projects, and been a part of designing and constructing a two story science and math building. I’ve had the opportunity to plan, work with architects, and put on a hard hat year after year, and 2018-2019 sees the start of the biggest project of my professional life: we’re razing the beloved and antiquated current building and replacing it with all new construction.

This is a big build, independent of the challenges we face to save and honor existing student artwork and decades of rich history, and one that will be a success because of the many, many professionals each contributing their expertise (on everything from HVAC to soffits to I beams).

At our review meeting the team systematically worked through question after question, discussing what needed to be done, cross referencing city and state ordinances, and talking through district standards and school requirements. Today’s meeting involved many experts on specific aspects of construction.

In the morning the civil engineers were there, talking exterior details with the landscape architects. My contributions were modest, but the information I heard will be important as I talk with my staff, students, and parents.

By late morning we’d moved inside, discussing the layout of the new kitchen, ovens, refrigeration, and a wire wall. We talked structural challenges, risk management offering ideas to avoid encouraging indoor parkour in our commons, maintenance discussing polished concrete and long term durability, and our architects lobbying to maintain the aesthetics of a marvelous wood and metal feature near the main staircase.

IMG_8013HVAC and plumbing followed a working lunch, with discussions of redundancy, talk of fans, vents, and water heaters filling the construction trailer where we were meeting. A rousing debate about ductwork put us behind schedule, all of us rummy and a little tired. It was then that the renewing laughter from that daring description of the garbage can washing station gave us enough energy to smile and keep going. We dove into electrical, IT, and AV.

Throughout the day my appreciation for the expertise of those many individuals grew and grew. This was collaboration incarnate. My school of the future will be better because Leslie knows building, Jane knows architecture, and Chris knows everything.

It’s meetings like today’s that give me a thorough and profound understanding of my site. They are an opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone, be an advocate for my school, and help contribute in a small but useful way to the important work of building something amazing.

Outdoor Dance

I never wrote about the time
the parent called me
a punk ass bitch.

For the most part
my scribblings aim at a higher purpose
celebrating this or that
pondering thus and such
trying to make sense
cheer on hope
or notice something small and splendid
in the greater world.

But it’s been time enough now
since that night
when the woman in the bathrobe
holding a flashlight
in one hand
pointing with the other
feet wide apart, for balance,
breath rich with spirits
stood at the top of the steps
just outside the main office
staring at me with eyes
gone wild.

I was
ridiculously
wearing a cowboy hat
relieved that the western themed outdoor dance was over
the kids streaming down the stairs
heading home
laughing, still so young, and filled
with the music they’d been moving to
for hours now, dusk until dark.

At first I thought she was joking
appearing at a school
dressed for breakfast
smelling of happy hour
toting that flashlight like she was on a campout.

But she made it clear
that she was deadly serious
about how loud the music sounded
waving an arm toward the courtyard behind her
silent now
kids cleaning up
a few bales of straw, some streamers,
parent volunteers heading home
and while she did not live in the house
across the street
tonight she was staying there
sensibly, I thought

and because of us she could not sleep.

Students in cowboy hats
slid behind her and down the stairs
like rolling desert hills
outside a moving stagecoach.
My assistant principal
took up a position behind me
a security guard
nervous of the woman’s drunkenness
joined him
a posse of sorts.

I watched her tortured eyes
narrow
as she screamed
teeth showing
as she heard me
say nothing
giving time for the students to leave.

We stayed like that until
my silence was not enough
and the woman lurched forward
brought her palm hard against
the brim of my hat
causing the security guard to flinch
and my eyes to widen
and my assistant principal to swallow a laugh
as she found the words
she was looking for
spitting as best she could:
“Punk ass bitch.”

The kids were mostly gone by then
and our conversation seemed at a natural end
so, adjusting my hat
and understanding that she would probably not
accept the offer
I invited my date
to meet for coffee
in my office on Monday morning.

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Twain’s Undertaker

Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up, right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait- you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry- just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then, in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided, and glided, around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “He had a rat!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.”

-from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

There’s a spot in Huck Finn when the undertaker drifts out a funeral and takes care of a loud noise. When he returns he makes the marvelous choice to share what happened, information appreciated by our young protagonist and the rest of the assembled mourners.

As a principal, I do my best to emulate that thoughtful undertaker.

The information I have and the perspective my position affords me are precious, and I never take that for granted. If I’m able to communicate something, I do, and from time to time I’m told by students, parents, and staff that they appreciate it. Who doesn’t like to know? But there are times when the nature of what’s going on requires greater discretion and the tight lips of a sailor committed to keeping his navy afloat. There are times I can’t say anything.

undertakerIt’s in these times that the imperfect best I can muster is to listen to concerns, both the heartfelt and the accusatory, acknowledge the person across the table from me, say what I can, and hope that they can get from me some modest understanding that despite the silence, we share a vision for the best school ours can be, and a desire to support every student.

Sometimes that doesn’t come through.

There are those willing to say their point of view and then suspend disbelief long enough for me to do my quiet job behind the scenes. There are other times I take some punches.

It means that as a principal I need to have a clear vision of what’s right and a dedication to all students that guides all my work.

Like a compass in a tempest, clarity of purpose and commitment to kids can help weather the waves of emotion and lightning strikes of anger and frustration. The journey of a school, and every principal’s voyage too, isn’t measured by the outcome of an hour, but is judged by progress over time.

I trust that if I do what’s right by kids and strive to work toward a school that knows compassion, caring, and the value of hard work, then all will be well …even if there are times I can’t say everything about it.

…but…

I was returning from my successful search to find a student who had gone “wandering” on his way to the bathroom, hurrying back to my office to make a quick parent call and grab my coat before afternoon bus duty, when one of my middle schoolers passed me in the hallway and in return to my “hello” asked me: “Is it hard to be the principal?”

“No,” I answered. Huh? I thought. “It’s fun,” I told her, and she nodded and continued down the hall.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 3.40.13 PMThat exchange has stuck with me for a few days. I wish I’d have stopped to ask why she’d asked. Had I looked stressed out? It had been the afternoon of the Friday before spring break, so… Had she been holding on to the question for a while, or was it a spur of the moment kind of thing? I know that what I do is a bit of a mystery for some kids. Heck, I couldn’t have told you what my principal did when I was a student.

As I got back to the main office, I thought about my answer, unrehearsed and unfiltered, and felt good. Even if it isn’t quite true.

It is fun to be a principal. I love my work with and for the kids. I love supporting and celebrating teachers, and the opportunities I have to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I love the energy of a school, the feel of a classroom when learning is in full swing, and even the jostling of a busy hallway. At ACMA, I love that we start each day with music, have a lunchtime where students eat in the halls, play basketball at our single hoop outside, and are quick to burst into applause as they sit in groups laughing and talking with each other.

…but…

It is hard.

Principaling, to make it a verb, isn’t easy and shouldn’t be.

Poet Billy Collins captured the truth of it when, speaking of poetry, which is more like principaling than some might suspect, said: “There are interesting forms of difficulty, and there are unprofitable forms of difficulty.” Being a principal is certainly interesting.

The hard conversations, the problems to be solved, the opportunities to be meaningful, these aren’t easy or simple or fun. The nights out add up, and while I enjoy everything I get to attend (seriously, when I’m there I dig talking with kids and parents and seeing my students act, sing, dance, and show their true passions), more often than not those nights are nights I’m away from my wife and kids.

Being a principal means more time away, more stress, and more independence. It means the ability to help to chart the course you and your school will travel, and the time, stress, and responsibility are simply the cost of that journey.

To steal part of that line from Collins, being a principal is difficult in a way that is not unprofitable. It is a difficult that is worth it.

And like poetry, being a principal takes balance. Wearing a tie (or not, as the school demands) doesn’t require strict adherence to some artificial structure, but invites creativity; there are times to write a sonnet and times to live in free verse. Knowing when to do each, as a poet or a principal, matters much.

IMG_6359Years ago that necktie was a requirement for a principal, usually accompanied by a jacket and frown. The trappings of the office helped reinforce roles and responsibilities. Who could you lean on? The guy in the tie. Today that artificiality isn’t the case.

Knowing students, staff, and parents matters today in an indispensable way. We’re past road maps in this wildwood of education and need to lean on compasses. It’s in the care we show our schools, the respect we give those around us, and the relationships we grow that we can make a difference, particularly when the road ahead has so many corkscrew turns.

To return to Collins, whose thoughts on poetry might be stretched to cover the principal’s office:

The basis of trust for a reader used to be meter and end-rhyme. Now it’s tone that establishes the poet’s authority. The first few lines keep giving birth to more and more lines. Like most poets, I don’t know where I’m going. The pen is an instrument of discovery rather than just a recording implement. If you write a letter of resignation or something with an agenda, you’re simply using a pen to record what you have thought out. In a poem, the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”

I love that notion of discovery as it applies to my job as much as a poet’s and I work hard believing that I might, through my actions, my attempts, and tone help to create line by line “something of value.”

So I lie when I’m asked if it’s hard to be a principal, and I work hard to make a difference, and that’s the truth.

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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