Customer Service

When we moved back to Oregon one of my first stops, ahead of an overnight fishing trip with my son, was to Bi-Mart. For any who don’t live in the pacific northwest, Bi-Mart is a local employee owned store that sells everything from tents to hard candies, nails to plastic tumblers, flannel shirts to microwave ovens. With cement floors and employees in blue smocks, Bi-Mart was a working man’s Target before any national chain invaded the beaver state.

Stocking shelves at Bi-Mart had been my first real job back in high school, and I’d returned to unload trucks for a year after I left graduate school …ah the value of a degree in philosophy… before I decided to become a teacher.

BimartA membership store long before Costco, northwesterners have been plunking down $5 for green or yellow card since Eisenhower was in office. After almost twenty years away from my home state, my card was as gone as my misspent youth.

So, when I stepped into Bi-Mart a few weeks ago I approached the front desk with thoughts of buying another card before hunting for the perfect lure for our trip to catch smallmouth bass. That was not what happened.

Standing on the wrong side of the waist-high door just inside the Bi-Mart lobby I explained to the matronly woman in the blue smock that I needed to purchase a new card. I’d been away since 1999, I told her, and didn’t have mine any more.

“No,” she corrected me. “We say lifetime membership and that’s what we mean. What’s your name?” I provided it. She typed into the computer on the desk. “No,” she said after a minute or so. “Not there.”

It wasn’t a problem, I assured her, reaching for my wallet. I’d be happ-

“What store did you first get the card?” She interrupted with a smile.

“What?”

“At which Bi-Mart did you get your first card?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Salem, I guess,” I answered. “I worked there as a kid.” She nodded. “The one on Lancaster Avenue,” I added. “But that was back in the mid-80s, and…”

…and she was back on the phone, a heavy plastic receiver to her ear, one hand held up to let me know I needed to wait. I did, watching her nod into the phone, say a few words, and then repeat: “Yes, Bjorn, B-J-O-R-N. Right.” She shifted in her chair, waiting before finally ending the call with “Oh, thanks” and jotting something on the yellow legal pad in front of her. She put down the phone and smiled at me again. “They had it,” she said, as if the fact weren’t astounding.

“Wow,” I answered. “They keep those records a long time. Do they have a different computer system than here?”

“No,” she said as she wrote her name and a number on a fresh green card. “We keep paper files on the cards we issue.”

I tried to imagine the signature of my sixteen year old self in a drawer in Salem, Oregon. The paper, more than thirty years old, would be yellow with age.

IMG_4014The woman handed me my new card and a pen to sign it. “When we say lifetime, we mean lifetime,” she said again. “Enjoy your shopping, and welcome back.”

As a principal I think a lot about the relationships I build with staff, students, and families. I always try to treat others well and do the right thing to help others. From time to time I like to think that I’m doing a pretty good job, and then, just in time to keep me humble, I’m shown an example of integrity that inspires me to work even harder.

What struck me at that Bi-Mart lobby wasn’t just that a paper record of my card existed or that some legwork was able to turn up the number, though both are astounding in their own way; what really resonated with me was the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of the woman at the front desk. She was ready to go the extra mile and seemed never to doubt that the right answer was just a few steps away. She knew the company’s promise about membership and was committed to a promise printed on every card.

She did this with a smile, taking up the challenge unflinchingly and stressing to me that it was the right thing to do. Never in our interaction did she have to call a manager or ask anyone’s permission; the company’s promise was clear in her mind and she took ownership of making good on that promise.

In a world of mission statements and attempts to capture a collective vision in site plans and on brightly printed posters, this Bi-Mart example of independence and clarity of purpose struck me as profound.

When I’m asked about what we do at my school and why we do it, I want to be as certain and as friendly as the woman in the smock. I want my staff and students to be a able to articulate our “what” and “why” with confidence and a smile.

A corporate someone might call what I experienced at Bi-Mart “customer service.” I believe it’s more than that; treating people well and being committed to doing the right thing is a way of life.

As the school year gets underway I hope to refine our promise to students, our commitment to each other, and our understanding of what matters most. I hope to live my professional life with that same sense of purpose and to empower those at my school to take the same sort of ownership as did the that blue smocked hero at Bi-Mart.

Living this way doesn’t just make a short term difference. Living this way matters for a lifetime.

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The Elephant

Everyone knows the old saw about the blind men and the elephant, each touching a bit of the beast and describing the pachyderm as a rope, a fan, or a tree trunk etc. etc. etc. Each are correct in a way; the tail, the ear, the legs are like those items they compare them to, but without the value of seeing the whole elephant they aren’t able to capture the greater truth of the Herculean animal.

So too, so often, schools.

Ask a student about her school and she is likely to give an accurate and articulate description that reflects her time in classes, with clubs, and on campus. Ask another student and he may very well tell you something completely different, but no less accurate to his own experience.

The student actor sometimes sees the place she attends classes through a different lens than the poet or the dancer. The filmmaker sees her school through a viewfinder, the scientist through a pair of safety goggles. All of these perspectives, and a hundred others, are accurate …as accurate as those fellows with the elephant.

Teachers too, and parents, and all the adults who help make up a school community each have well earned points of view. Recognizing the importance and validity of each is vital if we are going to be able to put together an accurate idea of our school’s proverbial elephant.

As a principal, making room for all these views and helping each see the others’ is one of my most important jobs.

Seeing the big picture and supporting students, parents, and teachers across all the diverse programs and disciplines see the greater whole as well is important if we are to create and foster an environment where every student feels welcomed, valued, and encouraged.

Helping these same individuals, teenager and adult, recognize the tusky, wrinkle skinned behemoth of the school does more than simply broaden their vision; this more complete perspective can helps make real the possibility that we can all work together to nurture the greater good of our school and each other.

Understanding that our elephant is what it is because of the tusk, trunk, and ears, and that its sum is even greater than its fantastic parts, helps all of us know that even as we are able to be ourselves, we are part of something great and greater.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 7.30.03 AMHere at ACMA we have the deliciously freeing reality of not having a school mascot, a tradition now more than a quarter century old that I have absolutely no plans to change (how marvelous it is when asked what our mascot is to live in the realm of possibility). But for just today, as the 2017-2018 school year stretches out ahead of us like a road from Tolkien, I’d like to imagine that our school is an elephant. Trunk. Tusk. Tail. Ears. Legs. …and so very much more.

Unleashing Innovation

courosEarly in The Innovator’s Mindset author George Couros invites educators to ask the question: “Would I want to be a learner in my own classroom?” It’s a straightforward question, but one that if answered honestly might give us pause.

I’m a principal now, so in addition to thinking about the hundreds of students who passed through my English classroom throughout my dozen years of teaching, I bent the question to my current role and thought (ahead of our preservice meetings and year of early release Wednesday staff development days): Would I want to be a teacher in the school where I’m the principal?

Good books prompt us to think, and Couros’ latest does just that.

I was given the book as a part of my district’s commitment to leaders reflecting on our practice and continuing to grow and learn together. We’ll discuss the book at our beginning of the year Admin Meeting and as building administrators throughout the fall. Rich with ideas, some deliciously daring, The Innovator’s Mindset has the potential to spark not only meaningful discussion but also meaningful change.

I use the descriptor “meaningful” purposefully here; as Couros notes: “different for the sake of different can be a waste of time.” I hate wasting time.

Instead, the change talked about in The Innovator’s Mindset is thoughtful, ambitious, and creative. I like Couros’ student centered approach, and find in his focus on creating a real resonance with the work I see on my campus, an arts based magnet academy where students are constantly making art in one form or another.

With this relevance firmly in my head, when I finished my first reading of The Innovator’s Mindset four concepts struck me as important to my own work this fall. This is far from an adequate summary of Couros or any sort of thorough analysis; these are simply some of the topics that hit me the hardest with regard to my own work as a principal this year.  They are, in a nutshell…

Focus on kids
“If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.”

We’re in the student business, there’s no question about that, and just about every educator I’ve met got into teaching because she or he wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids. Reminding ourselves of this every fall is vital to setting the trajectory of the year ahead.

To that end, this year, on the first morning of the first day teachers are back on campus, we’ll begin our inaugural staff meeting listening to a group of students.

I met with our student government leaders over the summer and they were gracious enough to agree to come talk with the staff. What will they say? I have no idea; this isn’t something to be scripted, it is an opportunity for us to listen.

And that listening needs to expand beyond the first meeting. As we listen to students, really hear what they care about, and can help to guide them as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their goals, we have an opportunity to make a difference. Couros reminds us that “if we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind.” Students read our hearts faster than we can hand out a syllabus, and as they see our caring and commitment to helping them, we help to create an environment where passion and purpose blossom.

The Innovator’s Mindset talks about this in terms of helping students be creators. As students not only understand concepts, but are able to put their learning into practice. It is the difference, according to Couros, of empowering students, not just engaging them, and supports the idea that “real learning begins when students create.”

Be willing to dive in
“If we want innovation to flourish in our schools, we have to be willing to immerse ourselves in the environment where it is going to happen.”

This isn’t at my desk.

As a principal, immersing myself in the environment where innovation will take place means being in classrooms, in labs, in the theater, the dance studio, the darkroom (yes, my school still has one), where students make films, discuss poetry, sculpt, sing, and play instruments. It means engaging with students every day, asking questions, listening when they answer.

It also means getting involved.

I appreciated Couros’ reminder that “it is my job to learn first if I want to lead well,” and to do that means sitting shoulder to shoulder with students and teachers and engaging in the process of learning.

In addition to doing my best to see school through the eyes of students, I hope this year to continue one of the practices I’ve most appreciated as a principal: teaching. Throughout my years as a site administrator I’ve had the privilege of teachers allowing me to step into a classroom and engage with students. I’ve taught Sherlock Holmes to English classes, Emily Dickinson during National Poetry Month, and swapped places with a cartooning teacher. Reading Couros inspired me to bring a spirit of innovation to the teaching I hope to do this year, being willing to take risks and even fall on my face as I encourage my staff to innovate and take chances.

Share
“Culture is developed by the expectations, interactions, and ultimately, the relationship of the entire learning community.”

How we all work together helps to define our school culture, and from the outset of the year I want to do all I can to support my staff in being connected, having real conversations about how we help support students, and working (and playing) together as a cohesive school community.

If culture is truly the result of the factors Couros describes, we do well to ask ourselves not only what is our school culture, but how can we each contribute to making that culture as positive and productive as it can be.

Couros spends time talking about the importance of educators being connected and of “build[ing] each other up to build something together” and I see this focus on making it safe to share ideas, dreams, and strategies as a part of the work to be done, particularly with the addition of professional development time this school year, when we will have a chance to prove true the line from The Innovator’s Mindset: “If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.”

Create opportunities for others to succeed …and to fail safely too
“Learning is messy, and we have to be comfortable with risk, failure, growth, and revision. Once people see leaders take risks, they are more likely to try their own ideas and stretch themselves – and their students. Giving people license to take risks by tapping into their abilities helps create a space where innovative ideas and learning flourish.”

It seems striking to me that early in The Innovator’s Mindset Couros notes the importance of empathy in the learning process. This quality of understanding and really being able to share the feelings of those around us is important to us as humans in general and educators (and students too) in particular. As we as teachers and administrators “think about the classroom environment and learning opportunities from the point of view of the student, not the teacher” (to use Couros’ words) we create the possibility of more meaningful engagement and empowerment. Great teachers do this all the time, and I see in The Innovator’s Mindset a reminder of the importance of this student centered approach a lesson for me as a principal as well.

I’m preparing the opening preservice days for the year now; will I be able to develop opportunities I would appreciate as a teacher? Am I thinking about the “staff meeting” from the point of view of the principal or the teachers and staff?

The answer to that question, and the answer to the greater question of whether we are taking the time to see the world and our collective learning through the eyes of others, can help to define the quality of our school’s culture and the possibilities we afford our students and ourselves.

This empathy also helps us have the patience and embrace the suspension of disbelief that allows others to take risks and try try new things. The best teachers I have ever known (and the best principals too) put great emphasis on creating opportunities for others to stretch themselves and succeed. These stretches mean that there is always the “risk” of failure, but when I have seen gifted teachers working with students, they make it feel not like a risk, but an opportunity.

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This incomplete collection of thoughts is just a first reaction to Couros’ call to action. Other ideas like “School versus Learning,” the importance of being “networked,” and the working “inside the box” are rich enough to anchor posts of their own, and I know will be points of discussion throughout the year.

Can I be an innovative principal? I hope so. Will I help to create an atmosphere for students, staff, and parents that empowers learning, unleashes talent, and fosters a culture of creativity? That’s the kind of school I want to be a part of.

Stagecraft

IMG_3757They’re building a set. In another room the actors are doing a read through, talking about characters, and thinking about what they’ll bring to the production, but here in the scene shop the power saws are buzzing, paint cans are being pried open, and the students are working on designs for a ramp, a pageant stage, and a backdrop versatile enough to be a bedroom in one scene and an office in another. When it’s all put together it has the potential to be fantastic.

There’s an old quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln that I overused years ago and thought of again when I was visiting the theater this July to talk with students in the summer production of Smile. He’s to have said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Quotations are slippery things, particularly those given to Einstein, Lincoln, and Yogi Berra, but this one always struck me as having enough merit to put into a presentation or a post. The preparation we do ahead of a project, whether it’s constructing backdrops, flies, and flats for a theatrical production or getting ready for the start of school, is some of the most vital work we do all year.

IMG_3689July and early August are a time in the principal’s office when a skeleton staff and a freedom from daily emergencies provide the time and space to reflect, dream, and anticipate. These are not unlike the moments of wild creativity when the theater techs review the script, talk with the director, and start coming up with ideas, wild schemes, and grand visions of what might be possible in service to the story.

A good principal should do the same.

This summer, one of transition for me as I moved across state lines to a be the principal of a new school, has proven to be one that puts that Lincoln adage to the test. So as I watched the theater techs discuss possibilities, collaborate to design sets, and improvise in service of their larger vision, I thought about my own work across campus (in an office still filled with boxes) and what I needed to do to build the proverbial set for the school year.

The first best thing I could do was listen. Just as the tech theater students listened to their director and each other, I needed to pay attention to what those around me had to say. From the many conversations with my classified staff, my assistant principal, parents who stopped by, and students I could talk with, I learned more and more about the strengths, needs, and magic of my new school.

The next step was to internalize those ideas, bounce them off trusted sources and reach out for more information. I reached out to teachers and counselors and got a great email back from one teacher with a strikingly honest and heartfelt perspective on the school and more than a few others with offers of help. The passion I saw from these educators about the students they work with and the school where they work was inspiring. Their energy promised a great start to the year.

I took those ideas and began to plan for our first meeting as a staff. With the help of those who were around me, I began building the agenda for our first days together, incorporating the ideas from the staff and the “must dos” of the district plan. I invited students to come speak at our first staff meeting, and tried to think of some ways to make our time together as fun as it was informative.

I jumped at the opportunity to join a team of teachers on a week long AVID Summer Institute, arranged a pizza lunch for any staff members around this summer, and have done my best to keep myself open to hearing everyone. Interviewing for a new counselor gave me a great day of connecting with my counseling team, who joined me and my AP for the process. Person by person, drop in visit by drop in visit I got to meet many of the members of my new school community.

A great message from another teacher reminded me that in my first year on campus listening was important, but articulating who I was mattered as well. As he said in a beautifully eloquent note, “we are all impatient to get to know you better.” Me too. I’ve been sharpening for a long time now, and I’m ready to swing the axe.

Back to those students in the theater…

techs

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful construction literally set the stage for the great things to come.

My work, I hope, paralleled theirs.

And now… the paint on the sets is almost dry, the lights are ready to dim, and the curtain is about to go up. The stage is set; next comes the grand production that is our year ahead.

The Hardest Job in Education

Once at the retirement party of long tenured principal, the guest of honor stood up to tell tales of his career and announced without hesitation that the hardest job in education was being a high school assistant principal.

Unforgiving in pace, relentless in stress, and punctuated by emergencies, the job of “AP” means coming to work each day knowing only that a surprise (or six or ten) is waiting for the right moment to make things interesting.

Assistant principals are on the front lines of lives in crisis. It is to them that teachers turn when student behavior becomes too much in class, to them parents go when the indiscretions of youth cross legal lines, and to them the school community looks when emergencies arise. Principals are useful too, but it is in the APs that the strength of the school is made manifest.

For this effort, this patience, and this good work assistant principals are rewarded with expletives shouted at them through telephones, angry emails cc’d to supervisors, and face to face conversations replete with tears, accusations, and sometimes threats.

Sometimes.

…and on other occasions there are parents and students, counselors and teachers, police officers and paramedics who say “thank you.” And they mean it.

They mean it because assistant principals change lives for the better. It is through their important work that students get the help they need. Sometimes disguised as punishment, the consequences that APs use to hold students to meaningful standards help shape behavior, inform choices, and teach students life lessons better learned in high school than when jobs, marriages, and college careers are on the line.

In addition, APs are there when things are at their worst. They keep their cool when injuries or the threat of harm come to kids. They provide strength when parents simply do not know what to do. They provide professionalism tinged with love when the worst of the world haunts the youth they are charged with protecting. It is not an understatement to say that assistant principals save lives.

The best APs, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great ones, build relationships with students and families, support kids and address behaviors, and show through their actions that they care deeply about the lives of their students.

To be an assistant principal is not to revel in glories every day, but to do the hard and important work day in and day out, and receive in occasional and heartfelt outbursts exclamations of appreciation so real as to bruise one’s soul.

APs are scapegoats, villains, workhorses, counselors, confidants, detectives, and heroes. They do what they do with tenacity and deep caring, professionalism and purpose, and even if confidentiality and discretion mean that they do some of their best work in the shadows, from a person who knows the difficulty of that work, my appreciation is real and by them well deserved.

To my APs I offer a sincere “thank you.” You do the hardest job in education and the difference you make is profound.

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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.

A Pie in the Face

I went into my 12:30 parent meeting with the smell of Readi Whip in my hair. I’d been sensible enough to bring a change of clothes; when students throw pies at their principals, part of the joy gets taken away if the target in question is covered in a garbage bag and shower cap, but when I lurched back to my office after the pies had flown, whip cream dripping into my eyes, my hair a blur of white and gray, I knew the smell would stick around.

PiePart of being a principal is being willing to play the fool, to dance at an assembly, to join in at a Comedy Sportz performance, and to say “yes” when the students ask you to play.

But those are the fun parts.

Another element of being the guy in the tie is being able to pivot on a dime, transitioning from a classroom observation to a construction meeting, from lunchtime supervision to a school board presentation, from taking a pie in the face to a high stress parent meeting.

Both sides are vital to helping a school thrive, and while the juxtaposition of whimsy and seriousness may seem dramatic, they’re two faces of one job.

The principal needs to be ready for anything.

Today’s Pi Day activities came sandwiched between discussions with parents on how best to help students make healthy decisions to avoid drugs, how we might support a student whose family was moving to the Persian Gulf, and a stressful conversation about a discipline issue. To dodge one to do the other was never an option, and while the frivolity of lunch seemed at odds with the gravitas of the rest of the day, I would argue that both were important to my school.

Being able to talk seriously about the issues that challenge us means that we can make progress toward solving the problems that vex our school community. Keeping a lightness in our collective hearts gives us the strength to make those solutions happen.

I once had a student ask me, with curiosity, not snark, “What do you do as the principal?”

My answer, given honestly, would look different every day.

Last Friday I had to give letters to all my temporary teachers letting them know that they would have to re-interview for their current jobs, I visited a “Senior Java” where the 12th grade class got together for bagels and conversation in the quad, I hosted a graduation planning meeting, met with some history teachers about master scheduling, and was slated to go to a robotics tournament in the evening.

Monday I met with parents about how to support kids in classes, parking tickets, and a contested suspension. A little later in the day two teachers from Japan visited to discuss an exchange program, I spent some time preparing for a parent Foundation meeting, and I visited classrooms.

Pie 2Tuesday, today, my assistant poked her head in my office and said with a smile “looking at the stressful day you have ahead of you, it’s fun to see ‘pie in the face’ on your calendar!” It is. It certainly is.

Perhaps the best answer to that student’s question would have been: “Every day I do my best to help our school.” That’s not a poetic answer, but it is a true one.

Today that work involved tears and whipped cream. Tomorrow, who knows. Whatever it is I welcome the work with a heart open to hope and a mind prepared to listen. And if the kids ask me to sing Carpool Karaoke, I’ll say “yes.”