The Tree in the Tempest

FrostI wish the world got spring break.

Last week, sitting at the neighborhood pool on the opening day of baseball season, I found myself reading Robert Frost while my kids swam, splashed, and sprayed water on each other with laughing exuberance. There was, I thought to myself, something overwhelmingly Americana about the whole scene. All I needed was a cowboy hat.

Education in the United States doesn’t get everything right, but one exquisitely correct decision is spring break.

Before the break it felt like the world was in a sour mood. I’d done my best to keep some equilibrium, even as in my role as principal I worked with students, parents, and teachers all trying to stay civil when confronted with situations decidedly frustrating.

I like to consider myself a gentleman, so I won’t chronicle the specifics of these …conversations, but the upshot was that more than a couple of people, and people I like and respect, left my office having been confronted with that difficult word “no.”

Spirits across campus seemed low, for many folks, not just those frustrated friends, and my Friday ended with a flurry of emails setting up meetings to discuss “next steps” (two horrible words in the world of administration) as soon as we got back from the week away.

Fast forward to the pool.

Art, as art so often does, offered perspective. In “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” Robert Frost wrote:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are”

Yes, I needed some separation, some time to breathe, some space to read a little poetry, and once I had I could more clearly see that those oppositional interactions of the week before weren’t malicious or without reason. Nor, I realized, did they need to be journey ending.

Being forced to articulate my decisions and point of view, whether that articulation was well received or not, makes me a better principal. The more I can see the challenges of my professional life like Frost’s fallen tree, there not to bar passage, but to invite clarity, the more I can focus on finding answers and leaving frustrations behind.

Poetry invites us to avoid pettiness. It encourages reflection and prompts us to be our best selves.

Of course I’m scribbling these lines on a yellow legal pad at a table by that same pool where I read Frost, still days away from those meetings set the Friday before spring break. Those conversations loom, ready to test the optimism and perspective as vibrant today as the kids’ laughter.

It’s easy to have hope on vacation; the true test is to put that spirit into practice when faced with fallen trees.

Planning in Short Pants

There’s a line in Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” that flutters through my brain from time to time. It’s a powerful poem about passion and purpose, love and fear, poverty and expectation, and near the end the poet writes:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.”

I’m reminded of that verse as I prowl Diegueño’s campus this summer.

Three summer programs fill classrooms on campus in July and August: a math bridge, English and math support classes, and an English Learner program. Add to that the fact that Diegueño is a hub of math curriculum writing and revision, and I see a summer vacation filled with teaching and learning.

The nice part about summer school is the more relaxed atmosphere and shorter school days. There’s something about knowing that I can come to work in shorts and be out in time to take my kids to the pool that changes the tenor of school.

Working in that relaxed space has benefits to the kind of school Diegueño will be in from September to June. Being on campus, but not consumed by the enormity of school year work, provides perspective. Diegueño is a blank canvas, ready for bold strokes and nuanced scumbling. That painting starts in earnest in the fall, when teachers and students return, but in the time of preparation, sketches for the next year’s work can be completed with creativity and optimism guiding the pencil.

This was true for me as a teacher too. Not unlike a Broadway show running a few preview performances, I used summer school to pilot new curriculum, new approaches, and new ideas. I knew that if I could get something to work in July, I could get it to work anywhere.

It’s something true of our teachers this summer as well, where students are engaged, challenged, and celebrated, and learning is something done both by teachers and kids.

I see that learning particularly in the collaboration our math teachers are engaged in around the curriculum begun last year and being refined for next. They are focused and find ways to make adjustments they know will be good for kids. This work will pay off in the fall, in the winter, and next spring. The foresight to imagine how students will best learn is a profound strength of our teachers.

As a principal, being on campus in summer allows for the mental and physical space to envision changes that can benefit the school. It’s a time when the daily stressors of working with a thousand tweens and teens ease enough that what’s ideal can get an upper hand on what will work. In that space, I see my best opportunity to live Frost’s aspiration.

I find that I’m at work in the mornings at the same time I was during the school year, ready to go, happy to be spending time with teachers who really care about students, and who show it in the work they do. I’m inspired by them to merge vocation and avocation, encouraged beneath this summer sun to use both eyes to see one clear vision for Diegueño.