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.”

Community, part one

We’re talking about community.

It’s one of the things about San Dieguito that means the most, and as we strive to nurture a campus culture that continues to live up to the reputation our school has of being an accepting and open place for all students to learn and be themselves, we recognize that a community like ours doesn’t happen without some work.

Some of those efforts come in the weekly and monthly activities that are part of the way we do business at San Dieguito. Every month our student forum offers an opportunity for all voices to be heard, and more often than not the word “kindness” shows up somewhere in the conversation.

Our ASB builds activities that build a caring and connected community. Even the competitions at school assemblies are organized to bring us together, not divide us with false labels. The teams that participate in games at assemblies each include freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and staff members. We are all part of SDA.

Clubs help too, and at this year’s Club Fair new student groups joined well established clubs like our GSA and PALs as beacons of positivity.

The students who form these clubs, like those teachers, counselors, and administrators who advise and support them, recognized and acknowledge that times can get tough. Stress rolls through our world in waves, and the answer isn’t trying to ignore or minimize the reality of those challenges, but to work together to address them, to support one another, and to emerge, together, stronger.

This truth drives us to stay thoughtful about what we do as a school to promote a community that can bring empathy to our interactions. This means community events like our upcoming San Dieguito Book Club, when we’ll discuss Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. It means really listening to each other when we have different political points of view, as the students did recently during an event just after the November election. And it can be celebratory too, as it was last year when the student body all held hands and encircled our campus in a show of San Dieguito unity.

holding-hands

This fall that same thoughtfulness manifested itself in a group of students interested in developing a week of activities to promote a unified campus community. Organized and passionate, these students spoke with our administrative team, presenting the skeleton of a plan that sought to help students listen to each other and see in one another both the differences that make us unique and the commonalities that make us human.

We realized after about an hour that to support this plan to build and celebrate community our best next step was to involve a bigger community in the planning. We prepared the invitations.

Our first meeting brought a wide range of people to the table: students from ASB and PALS, our faculty adviser and representatives from our fledgling NAMI Club, and a sprinkling of teachers who care deeply about our school and the people who form it.

We talked big picture and we talked specific ideas. We discussed vision, purpose, and need. We agreed on the importance of the enterprise and some of the steps we’d need to take to reach the results we hope to achieve. The clock finally told us that we needed to wrap things up, but a follow up meeting is in the works now, and the way ahead looks more like a clear path than a dark forest.

This post carries the words “part one” because it really is just the first step of a longer, meaningful journey. I’m so fortunate to work a school ready to travel forward …together.

Yoda Silences His Phone

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A gentle rain pushed through San Diego today, graying the skies enough to justify a pot of tea, a sweatshirt, and curling up on the couch to watch Star Wars with my eight year old son.

As educators, and maybe as humans, it’s easy to push and push and push and lose track of the importance of slowing to almost stopping and renewing ourselves. A good wet day helps.

So as Chewbacca howled and Han Solo shot stormtroopers, my son and I took time to be together and relax as more people took to computers and tablets, picked up their phones, and made Sunday a work day.

photo-2Back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie came out, technology wouldn’t support seven day work weeks. My dad, who worked hard, left his work phone on his desk; any connection with his office was severed by the time he pulled into our driveway.

Email had arrived by the time of the prequels, though fewer phones than today allowed folks to search “Darth Maul.”

By the time the force awakened, technology was so enmeshed in our lives that the line between home and work, free time and time on the clock, had a blurrier edge than Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. Left unchecked, it could cut as deep.

photo-3This isn’t to decry technology; good things aren’t limited to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What these changes mean for me is that I need to set up boundaries on how much I stay connected to work in the evenings and on weekends. Being a high school principal means the opportunity to work is always there. Emails slow, but don’t stop, on Saturdays and Sundays, social media always beckons, and a text messages about school is perpetually ready to ping.

What would Yoda do?

He told Luke, that confused youngster of the first trilogy, “You will know when you are calm, at peace.”

That’s not plugged in. That’s not forgetting where we are or what we are doing.

I’m no Jedi, but slowing down and allowing myself to leave work at work, at least for a little while, is a lesson I’m ready to learn on a rainy day like today.

Mercy Me

I was an idiot as a teenager. I was not malicious, mostly, though prone to selfishness and the inherent narcissism of an only child in his teenage years. An athlete and solid student, I got the cultural approval of the suburban 1980s and took for granted that I was a white, middle class, and male.

That’s not to say that I flaunted my privilege, or was really cognizant of it, but I realize in retrospect that what I imagined to be confidence could have been seen by some as arrogance or even callousness.

One of the realities of reaching one’s forties is an acceptance, and occasionally healthy embarrassment, of our teenage years. It’s a luxury we deny ourselves in the moment, and a perspective gained only with the passing of time.

As a high school principal, I have the opportunity to watch amazing students transform from kids into young adults. They come to us wide eyed freshmen, described by a friend of mine, another site administrator, as “eighth grade a dayers.” They leave to professional lives in college, trades, and the military. It’s a transformation that can feel like a whiplash.

…and it isn’t always pretty.

Nor should it be.

Adolescence is a time of discovering identity, pushing boundaries, and students finding their own voices. That there will be missteps along the way is a truth as old as time.

It helps me to remember this when I work with students. Those teenagers so passionate about issues that mean so much to them now, and may be forgotten by the time they are thirty, are doing what they need to do to learn how to fight for a cause, stand up against perceived injustice, and speak their minds.

Listening to them does more than simply help the students grow; it can help adults like me become more thoughtful, patient, and purposeful educators.

And when they treat us or each other more harshly than we’d like, or speak before they think of others, or even act in ways that feel rude, perhaps because they are, those moments may just be the opportunities they need to learn. They also may be the opportunities we need to remember, remember our own adolescent years.

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“14 doesn’t look good on anyone.” Particularly me.

…and show empathy.

A wise parent, who had found herself in my office years ago because of a poor choice her child had made, once provided me with a line of perspective that has stuck with me for the better part of a decade. It was weeks after we’d met that first stressful time and we found ourselves standing next to each other at a ballgame, cheering on the freshman team.

We chatted briefly, and I made some kind of comment about her student’s improved behavior. Without embarrassment or anger she smiled and said: “Fourteen doesn’t look good on anyone.”

It’s hyperbolic, of course, but was certainly true of me, and it helps me keep in perspective that all of us do well when we remember that line from Shakespeare: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”

I was an English and Philosophy double major, but it took me until I was close to forty before I really, really understood what Shakespeare was saying. I needed life, not just school, to teach me that.

Truth be told, in the thick of things, when emotions are high and it would be a good idea for everyone in the room to take a breath and a big step back, it’s not always Shakespeare I think of.

I’d like to say I picture Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or someone with far more patience and wisdom than I’ve ever had, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, and these are sometimes the best I can do, I simply whisper to myself: “Just remember your own idiocy.” Not perhaps the slogan I want to put on a t-shirt or get tattooed on my arm, but a prompting nonetheless to slow down and do better.

However we get to it, our lives and the lives of those around us, are better when we can apply to everyone we meet, empathy, understanding, and that unstrained quality, mercy.

The Important Work

The important work isn’t glamorous. It isn’t always dramatic. It’s just work.

It’s what happens when you come in early and stay late, when you reflect on a complicated problem while on a long walk, or put into action the inspiration that came when you were waking up from a dream.

The important work often happens unexpectedly, unannounced, and is only recognized as important after the police have left, or the parents have stopped crying, or yelling, or both.

The important work matters. It puts the ocean of mundane responsibilities into perspective. The daily duties we perform are simply the sea on which our ship encounters the storms that define our professional character.

When we survive a day of importance the reward is a feeling of relief and exhaustion and hope that might carry us until the next storm.

In our best moments and best situations, if we are fortunate enough to have someone to share those moments with, we might recognize the value of what we do. We might even give thanks for being in a place where we can make such a difference.

Doing the important work, work that it is, is more than a job. It is an opportunity for grace.

“Have a go…”

ComplicatedPart of a healthy school community is the ability (and opportunity) for parents, students, and educators to talk together about the big issues, ideas, challenges, and opportunities that swirl around our shared experience. Whether we’re moms and dads trying to help our kids navigate a world so different from our own growing up, students faced with a thousand choices every day, or teachers, counselors, and administrators dedicated to helping kids learn, we all benefit from time to connect with each other not in reactionary ways, but proactively identifying topics about which real conversation can yield positive results.

With this in mind, over the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of hosting book clubs at school that give all of us a chance to talk. Those opportunities for parents, teachers, and students have been informative, renewing, and fun. As this new school year begins I’m excited to announce that our first San Dieguito Book Club of 2016-2017 will be on October 18th at 6:00 pm when we’ll talk about It’s Complicated by danah boyd (the lowercase, ee cummingsesque choice of spelling her name is hers, and while the former English teacher in me cringes, I’ll honor it).

The risk of choosing to talk about a book, a real live book, about social media is that it will be outdated before it comes to print. It’s Complicated, however, smartly looks not at particular apps or social media platforms, and instead takes as its starting point the teens that use those apps and platforms. Writing with a great empathy and understanding of those adolescents, boyd presents and addresses typical presuppositions about “kids today” and does a nice job of speaking to issues of privacy, safety, and community.

It’s Complicated gives us much to talk about, but less to fear, and I’m looking forward to hearing what parents have to say about their own perceptions of their son’s and daughter’s online activity, what teachers notice about how social media and the rise of handheld technology has changed education, and what students believe about their own behavior online. These conversations are at the heart of our San Diegutio Book Club.

The New York Times book review captures the reason It’s Complicated is a solid choice for our first (of three) book clubs this year when it notices that “Boyd’s book helps us understand our new environment.” The interconnected online world is certainly different than what most of us parents and educators grew up with, and whether we agree with what boyd has to say a little, a lot, or not at all, It’s Complicated provides us with a great starting point for a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of social media in our teens, and our own, lives.

Last spring, when we ready Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, discussion ranged from parsing direct quotations from the book to heartfelt anecdotes from parents, who realized just how much we really aren’t alone.

I knew just how much we parents were connected by shared experience when we got to the point in our discussion about “grabbing the glue gun” during our kids’ elementary school projects. As parents talked about the successes and missteps they’d experienced helping their students gain independence, lots and lots of heads nodded. We’d all come to the book club caring, curious, and a little nervous, and had all of a sudden found ourselves surrounded by kindred spirits.

As we talked about the challenges of parenting, one mom who’d moved to our town from Australia mentioned the trepidation she saw in her kids’ friends and contrasted that to the more bold Australian attitude that looks at uncertainty and thinks: “Let’s have a go!” We have a long way to go before that spirit of adventure is commonplace, but knowing that we are part of a caring community can help.

book clubIn addition to the parents, many teachers joined the discussion. To hear them talk about the importance of students finding their own voices, gaining confidence, and being willing to take risks inspired us all to think a little more about our role in helping kids become adults.

And those kids… some came to the book club as well. Our parent foundation purchased a few copies of the book for our school library and those copies were checked out on the first day. The students who lent their voices to the conversation brought a richness that those of us who have taught English know can be profound.

I’m optimistic that discussion on the issue of social media will be just as rich, and I look forward to hearing perspectives as varied and passionate as we heard last spring.

Over the next few weeks I’ll share some articles about the topic and excerpts from It’s Complicated, and do my best to encourage us all to learn together, talk with each other, and feel comfortable enough in our shared adventure to smile. We’re not alone and one of the best things we can do is take a deep breath, find our community, and have a go.