Before today the only thing I can ever remember doffing was my cap.
As a reminder that we live in a world of uncertainty and occasional chaos, I looked up from my work preparing for our return to campus in a hybrid model to see my school nurse standing in the doorway of my office and asking me if I was ready to be tested on “donning and doffing PPE.” The answer, of course, needed to be yes.
So I put aside the work that I’d need to hurry back to, ahead of another Zoom in half an hour, a tour of our new campus later in the afternoon, and a pair of Zooms after that, and followed her over to what will be our “Isolation Room” when students return to campus.
Fortunately, I passed my test.
There is much that we don’t know and more decisions to be made than we have answers to right now. Anxiety is high and stress higher. The questions coming in about hybrid learning from all quarters, on top of planning and preparing for next year, and for our school organizing a move from one campus to another this summer, can feel overwhelming at times, and they are all as relevant, important, and necessary as they are overwhelming.
So we marshal on.
The challenge, it seems, is keeping our collective heads as we face a daunting pile of work, a long list of difficult questions, and an ocean of uncertainty. We can’t solve every problem today, but if we breathe, work together, and believe we can find the best way forward we can at least address the problem nearest at hand. Then the next. Then the next. Then the next.
And like the clickety-clack of a train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next we may just move forward. I think we will.
Yes, we will be interrupted to don and doff this and that. We will be thrown unexpected surprises. The track will not be straight and may feel like more than one person is tied down on it by a person in a black cape twisting his mustache. …and we can handle this. Not without frustration, but we can handle this.
A long time back I was asked during a job interview what the hardest part of being a principal was. “Disappointing people I respect,” was the answer I gave. Sometimes the options we have are limited, sometimes the decisions that need to be made aren’t popular (or even “right” from a particular point of view), and sometimes what I have to communicate is going to let people down. The truth does on occasion. But just because we are disappointed doesn’t mean we don’t stay on that train then-the-next, then-the-next, then-the-next and move in the direction of what’s best.
Are we ready to be tested on donning and doffing PPE (or whatever is next on that list of challenges)? The answer, of course, is yes.
Goblins, orcs, and ogres… while I’m not so jaded as a high school principal to suggest that this is the clientele that fills our school hallways, I’m dorky enough to make the pitch that if I can handle a hoard of kobolds or bugbears, I can handle a hoard of teenagers. (A variation on that “classic” maxim, I suppose: “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”) Hear me out.
This summer I had the opportunity to step in on a panel for a friend who was teaching a college class for aspiring administrators. It was a lot of fun and I was humbled by the depth of wisdom from the others on the panel. They were so thoughtful about such a range of topics, and I thought to myself: the lessons we learn and can pass on really can make a difference.
And while I have had my own fair share of formative experiences as a principal (and before that as an assistant principal) I’m also inspired by sources decidedly not academic. I’ve written before about how poetry, Star Wars, Star Trek, and even nautical fiction have inspired my work as a principal, and last spring I added another nontraditional source to that list: Dungeons & Dragons.
I posted about DMing for my kids not long after the pandemic started, and while I was far from a polished Dungeon Master (far, far, far from it), the experience was really fun and left me with a taste to do it again.
Now I’m a reader and the kind of person who likes to learn, so ahead of jumping back into the Dungeon Master’s chair I picked up a couple of books and took to YouTube to see what I could do better. It was a delightful exercise in seeing a whole new world I didn’t know anything about (my only other experience with D&D was playing a handful of games when I was in middle school back in the early ‘80s). My favorite surprise find, hands down, was Web DM.
With lots of wit, laughter, and easy Texas charm, Jonathan Pruitt and Jim Davis cover just about everything a fellow like me, who came late to D&D, needs to know. For anyone who hasn’t seen Web DM, it’s just two fellows sitting at a table surrounded by dice, miniatures, and the trappings of epic fantasy roleplaying. They introduce a topic, provide specific examples, and banter back and forth for about half an hour. I love that they’re engaging and knowledgeable, but also never judgemental about different ways of doing things. They have opinions, sure, but they’re not mean and always leave room for other points of view. They invite viewers to think, and one episode in particular had me thinking about the similarities between being a principal and being a DM.
Because as nutty as it might seem, Web DM’s description of different kinds of Dungeon Masters could serve as a great reminder of some of the important things about leading a school and a cautionary tale to anyone reflecting on his or her own practice as a school administrator.
The episode starts with a meaningful reminder: “The Dungeon Master is another player at the table. They have different tools, they have different pieces that they use, but … they’re not like this special figure…” So too, I would offer, the principal is one of a staff of adults working together to help kids, and as Jim Davis says of a DM, “they need to be empowered to make decisions, they need to be empowered to make rulings, the rules need to support the Dungeon Master in running the game, but it’s not like we’re sitting down to be ruled by the iron fist of tyranny.”
“What we’re talking about today,” Davis explains, “is really Dungeon Master styles, and a mismatch between Dungeon Master styles and player styles that create problems.” As they describe it, the different styles aren’t bad in and of themselves, but can seem so if mismatched with the players at the table. It’s not unlike a school, where it works best when the culture of a site and the personality of a principal are really in sync. To help this happen, principals, like DMs, should know their type.
And what are those types of Dungeon Masters? Well…
The Optimiser, always challenging those around him, planning, preparing, and showing no mercy. The result of this style, Jim Davis explains, can be a “well oiled machine” …by necessity. This competitive environment works for those who want a high pressure experience and the sense of accomplishment that comes from “winning” a difficult battle. Optimization, however, comes at a price. You can see this in schools, where it’s easy to understand that sometimes the motivation for “optimizing” comes externally, but the results can be as unsustainable as they would be when the players and DM don’t all agree that this style is the way they want to be playing.
Adversarial DMing is a way of describing a Dungeon Master who is interested in having power and control. While this might work for the DM, it can lead to players feeling animosity, fear, and maybe that they shouldn’t continue. Davis suggests that sometimes players second guess themselves when they’re in situations with adversarial DMs and wonder if they’re not having fun or succeeding because of “something I did.” Does this happen on a school staff? If you don’t know the answer, site administrators, go ask your staff.
The Rules as Written DM scolds players for not knowing the ins and outs of the Player’s Handbook, looks up every rule, or hesitates to make a decision on the fly in fear of doing something wrong. “Unless you have a table full of rule lawyers” Davis tells the audience, this style of play can be difficult. As in D&D, rules, protocols, and expectations help provide an armature on which education can be fashioned into a viable sculpture, and like D&D when those rules are placed above the humanity of the enterprise the results can be frustrating, disheartening, and lead to lamentable results.
Jim Davis makes the point, however, that Adversarial DMs and Rules as Written DMs should be seen as existing as a “matter of degree.” Sometimes, he explains, it’s appropriate to say honestly: “My f***ing dragon is trying to kill you. I hope he doesn’t. I like your characters.” (A note here: Web DM is peppered with occasional F-bombs; truth be told, behind closed doors, so too is school administration.) Rules aren’t bad, and a lack of structure can be. The dance that DMs and principals must master, or continue to attempt to master, is balancing between the two.
My Precious House Rules DM is the person who “hands over a 37 page living document” describing how things are done at this particular gaming table. Not unlike some schools, where specific traditions, agreed upon culture, and unique ways of doing business are a part of what makes things work, “homebrew” D&D, if agreed on by the party, can lead to special and marvelous results. As Davis says of such gaming groups, “more power to them, they are playing the game in a time honored way.” …if everyone agrees. Homebrew for a player who is a traditional rule follower, however, might not be the right fit.
That made me think of a friend of mine who is an AP History teacher at a high octane academic school in Southern California. His students routinely excel on the AP exams and he loves the pressure and rewards of working in a system that demands much and expects results. He delivers them, and he told me once that he couldn’t imagine teaching at my school (where tie-dye could be the official school color). It just wouldn’t be a good fit, he explained. As much as I respect him as a teacher, and that is a lot, I think he’s right. He’s comfortable with the educational version of an Optimizer DM and would feel out of step with my decidedly homebrew world.
But even house rules happen on a continuum.
Hater DMs, subscribe to the “not in my game” aesthetic. Davis gives an example from a game when he DMed in this way …for a specific purpose, but as Pruitt interjects: “maybe it’s okay to have personal preference, but you don’t have to impose it on someone else.” Good advice beyond D&D. For me that’s spelling bees.
“There is a point,” Jim Davis says, “between too permissive and too restrictive that works for your gaming group. And that means that there is a compromise between everyone who is at that table, not just what one person wants and then everyone else has to deal with it.”
The Quiet DM v. The TMI DM. Davis and Pruitt use the example of under and over description to describe these two kinds of Dungeon Masters, admitting times they’ve each fallen into these behaviors. Describing the DM as “the players’ eyes and ears” and explaining the importance of fulfilling this role, they discuss how easy it is to struggle with the discrepancy between what the DM knows and understands (Dungeon Masters have the whole picture of the adventure) and the players know (who are experiencing the adventure a step at a time) and the challenge of the “slow releasing of information that takes place between the interaction of the game.” Quiet, TMI …as a principal, I have been both. Maybe both this week.
“One last thing,” Davis adds toward the end of the video that is as applicable to the gaming table as it is to the schoolhouse as it is to any environment in which we find ourselves, “if you have a DM who does not respect your boundaries that is a huge f***ing red flag. If they do not respect your boundaries when you are playing together, then they are not going to respect your boundaries outside of the play, they are not going to respect your boundaries in any other aspect.” This step back from listing styles of DMing and addressing the fundamental issue of respect and humanity is a reminder that the world we live in is fraught with opportunities both good and bad. His advice on gaming applies to more than the gaming table, and it resonated with me as a part of a staff when he said: “You want to play with people who you trust and you want to play with people who are going to treat you with respect.”
Pruitt brings the conversation to a close with a couple of questions that (if this connection between being a Dungeon Master and a principal is to be believed) would be the cornerstone to a meaningful discussion in that fictitious college class for aspiring administrators: “How do you not do all the things that we’ve talked about?” and “What are some ways to better align DM and player expectations?”
Because it’s that alignment of everyone in the group, gaming group or group of educators, that is at the heart of a successful, fun, and productive experience.
The last few minutes of the episode, addressing the importance of communication, honesty, and “knowing yourself” are heartfelt and wise. So too is the advice about asking for feedback, adjusting to those responses, and how to set clear expectations early in the process. “If you care about [your players] as human beings,” Davis says, “then you can avoid a lot of these problem behaviors.”
Caring about others as people. What would happen if every educator started from here?
“Be kind,” he concludes, “and be respectful, and a lot of these problems will go away. Not all of them, so it’s good to know what you can do.”
The whole show is a fantastic 37 minutes of wisdom for DMs and principals, maybe not honestly something that will make it on a college syllabus, but more insightful than some scholarly articles that will.
…a side note, and if anyone is still reading this (thank you) then maybe you’ll indulge me a paragraph or three that I’d include if sharing this with RPG minded aspiring administrators… (What does the Venn diagram of D&D fans and school administrators look like?) Another episode of Web DM that resonated with me as a principal took on the important topic of sexism, as real in the world of high school administration as it is in Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve known and worked with some amazing women in high school administration, but the reality on the ground is that when I look around at a meeting of principals my status as a white male has put me in the majority in every district where I have worked. So too, it seems, much D&D.
In 17 minutes or so, she holds up and knocks down stereotypes. Looking at her fellow Web DMers, for instance, she speaks truth while poking fun with lines like: “A munchkin stereotype or even a neckbeard stereotype… in some ways their problem is that they care about the game too much.” The fellows nod. “That’s not necessarily seen as an option for women.”
They make the point that from its earliest editions D&D has had inclusive language, but that has not always been the practice at the table (or, perhaps the schoolhouse).
There were more parallels, from assumptions of motivation to how different genders are discussed in the system. “There has always been a very inclusive side to this culture,” Lambert explains, “and there’s always been a very exclusive side, and you’re always going to run into it.”
D&D, she means, not education, but…
The world of school administration can learn from lots of sources inside education and beyond. Web DM has made me a more thoughtful principal. And someday, who knows, maybe I’ll get to DM for a group of educators. Wouldn’t that be amazing. No promises that it would be as inspiring as that panel I got to serve on, and even after watching my share of Pruitt and Jim Davis I’m certainly no polished DM, but it sure could be fun.
Parents and educators, we’re partners in this. As we navigate this odd, unusual, and unfamiliar world of Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL) one of the best ways we can support our kids is to work together. What does that look like? Well, at its heart it means caring for students, communicating frequently and honestly, and staying as connected as we can around academics and social and emotional health. On the ground (or around the kitchen table) this can look different from day to day.
Last week one of my amazing teachers came to me with an idea that felt different than others I’d seen about parents supporting students, and I thought it would be worth sharing with families as another way to think about how we partner this fall. It sounds a little unconventional at first, but when the dust settles on his proposal what’s left makes some sense.
“As we know,” he wrote me, “most teenagers often require extra motivation, cajoling, and encouragement in order to do things they don’t want to do. Teenagers definitely need to be pushed through academically rigorous material. If it was just stuff they were interested in, they wouldn’t grow. If they could do it all on their own, it wouldn’t be hard enough. They are supposed to struggle and the work of education is continually adjusting the amount of struggle. In the classroom, I have an ability to see kids working and I can make adjustments. I can see when kids need to be redirected or helped or complimented. I can dole out rewards and inflict consequences. All for the sake of pushing a kid to try and work and grow.
“All teachers can do now is present information and grade work. As we saw in the spring, this led to generally poor results for all stakeholders. Generally, the only one in a position to properly push these kids now are parents. This is not ideal or even fair, but it is the situation. If a parent is not in a position to administer their child’s education, due to work or other circumstances, that kid needs to be identified and we need to figure out how to provide them with educational guidance and support.
“I heard a lot of frustration from parents that distance learning was overwhelming for them as well. We need to be sensitive to this and figure out how to keep their morale up and keep them engaged in this partnership. I believe that clarifying their role and helping them learn how to do it can make this manageable. I wonder if shifting terminology and asking parents to think of themselves as vice-principals rather than teachers would help.”
Wait, what? some of you might be thinking. That’s not the job I signed up for! His suggestion caught my attention too. But listen, this isn’t a scheme that asks you to put on a suit or dish out lines like “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.” It’s more thoughtful than that. (Though of course you are still welcome to tell your own son or daughter that if they mess with the bull…)
He continued: “Most parents don’t know how to teach math and literature and chemistry, but they do know how to enforce rules, redirect behavior, and support someone through a struggle. You administrators do an awesome job of this stuff when we’re in the building, but I’d imagine your capabilities during CDL have greatly diminished.
“I would like to clarify and support the parental role in CDL by asking them to focus on five main jobs:
Establish an appropriate balance between work and free time
Minimize distractions during work time and persist through challenges
Make the most of free time
Verify completion of assignments
Formulate questions for kids to ask their teacher
“We could have trainings and support sessions on each of these jobs ranging from “beginner” to “advanced.” These are things that parents should be able to do and ways they can be an integral partner. And again, if they aren’t in a position to do the above, we should identify those students and figure out how we can support those households. This role is critically important.”
So, parent as administrator, not instructor. Does that mean you don’t answer your kid’s question about the periodic table? No, but it shifts the focus of parent support to areas not limited to academics.
All five of the “jobs” this teacher suggested are vital to student success, and I’d like to unpack them over the next few weeks. Until then I invite you to think about ways parents and educators can work together to help make this school year as positive and productive as it can be. None of us can do this alone, but we’re not alone; we have each other, and the kids need that.
Today I got the best compliment from a teacher that I’ve had in a long while. A family emergency is forcing this English teacher to miss a few days and as he was clearing the absences through our main office and preparing for a sub he said to my secretary: “I am, as you well know, very wary about handing the better part of an entire week of my classes over to anybody–particularly my new class–The Bible in Literature. My best option would be for Bjorn to teach it, though I doubt his schedule would permit it.”
There is no way in (Biblical) hell I will miss covering for that teacher.
I taught English for more than a dozen years, and I loved the daily give and take of discussion, the igniting of ideas, and the joy of experiencing great literature (and some not so great) with students. There is magic in a student reading Hamlet for the first time, or A Room of One’s Own, or Oedipus (like the amazing student who stopped me after the class period where Tiresias made his prophecy and said earnestly “well, at least next class we’ll find out that isn’t true”).
I never taught Bible in Lit, and I know the minefield it could prove to be, but I also know the capable hands of the gifted teacher who is at the helm, so my only hesitation is the universal (and nagging) teacher question: Can I do it well?
We’ll find out soon.
I’ve stepped in to this teacher’s English classes before, teaching Cavafy not long ago and joining in with a bunch of poets just before Halloween, so I think I appreciate his confidence in me even more.
His call to action fills me with a sense of expectation, some healthy butterflies in my stomach, and the commitment to live up to his kind, kind belief in me.
There’s a lesson there for all of us in education, I suppose. I’m so fortunate to have the opportunities I do.
When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.
Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.
I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.
As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.
I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.
“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.
Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.
The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.
In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.
As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.
POLONIUS: Do you know me, my lord? HAMLET: Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.
Two students spotted it, a fish tucked inside the plexiglass of our reader board out front. Incongruous, unexpected, and quite, quite dead, the fish looked out at them from beneath an advertisement for the upcoming production of Hamlet. I don’t know if that fish was in any way a reference to the play, but I like to imagine that whoever put it there had the fishmonger line in mind when she did. As a principal, believing the best in everyone, even misbehaving fishmongers, should be part of the job description.
Being an educator means being ready for anything. Good surprises (our thespians qualified for state, one of our jazz musicians just released an album, our filmmakers just won a slew of prizes at the district film festival), bad surprises (a burst pipe, road construction out front during registration day, a car accident in the parking lot), and sometimes a dead fish.
Those of us who have made a career of education bring to our work the flexibility to handle any of those, preferably with a smile.
I shared a photo of the dead fish in the reader board with some friends who are administrators in other schools. Kindred spirits, I knew they’d smile at this bit of the unexpected on my campus as I’ve smiled at odds and ends they’ve sent my way. Connections with fellow administrators, both far and near, is an important ingredient in the life of a principal or assistant principal.
Because as a school administrator the news isn’t always good. Budgets constrict. Students, and sometimes adults, make poor choices. The stresses of the world seep into the work we do on campus. We do our best to help our ships sail straight, but rough weather is a constant in the principal’s office. Waves of budget, winds of school safety, and navigating the storms sometimes means you find yourself with a stray fish on the boat. Or in the reader board.
All that said, my favorite part of our recent fish, was that when the miscreants left us the fish, they also left a box with latex gloves to make clean up easier. Thoughtful, even if a little fishy.
Thoughtful, and inspiring in its own way. Later in the week the two students who’d spotted the fish came into my office to ask if I’d play a role in their movie “Two Girls and a Fish.” Inspired by the zaniness of our wayward shad, they’d put together a playful short that tried to capture a mischievous sense of fun. What better result of a prank than inspiring art. So very ACMA.
Now I’m not encouraging more out of place seafood on campus; even with gloves that fish smelled worse than anyone should have to smell on a Monday, but I do appreciate the opportunity to laugh at the unexpected, be reminded that life is anything but predictable, and revel in creation of art.
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.
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.
A year ago my ten year old son saw a man die. It was a hot, hot day in central Oregon and he and another boy near his age were casting worms into the Prineville Reservoir from the back of a friend’s motorboat. At the helm was an assistant principal from my district. Beside him, helping the boys with their fishing poles, was a principal from a sister school. A small pack of us were camping on one of these last weekends before the start of the year and while I sat on the shore beside a couple of other administrators, across the water a drunken man climbed to the top of a hundred foot cliff and decided that he should jump in the water.
For those of us on the beach, the first sign that something horrible had happened came when the boat chugged back into view, the adult faces onboard grim, the kids fussing over their poles.
We helped tie up the boat, and as the boys trundled their tackle boxes onshore, the men, one dripping wet, leaned in to explain what had happened.
They described foolish youth, a young man climbing up and up, their discussion that there was no way he’d jump from so high, their losing sight of him for a moment of relief as they imagined him climbing down, and the realization that something terrible might happen when they saw him reemerge even higher up on the rocks.
The boys were fishing off the other side of the boat. I like to imagine that their attention was focused on the promise of bass.
When the man hit the water, feet first, head hitting hard, he sank like a stone.
The assistant principal at the tiller had the boys pull up their lines and piloted the boat toward the base of the cliff. The principal shed his hat and sunglasses and dove in as soon as they arrived. In the dark water he found nothing.
The men in the boat left us to return to the cliff and give statements to the police. We dads took quiet walks with our kids to make sure they were okay. The experience was surreal.
It also, in the space of a day, provided a window into the character of my colleagues. Their calm, care, and unflinching ability to act was inspiring.
I’d witnessed the kindness of my colleagues earlier in the day, someone taking a photo of my son’s first fish, a picture I keep near my desk and he keeps on his bedside bookshelf, and echoing that kindness was the care those fellows in the boat felt about the wellbeing of the boys in the wake of the tragedy. These were traits I could imagine defined them not only as people, but as professionals as well. Bravery. Presence of mind. Care. This, I imagined, was some of what they brought to their work at schools.
I saw those colleagues throughout the school year, never often enough in the hurly burly profession we share, and never for as long as we’d like. Today we reconnected at our all district admin meeting where the district’s collected administrators spent a good chunk of the day talking about building trust.
What I didn’t say at that meeting (it might have sounded funny or out of place) was that I trust those administrators from the camping trip profoundly and completely. They are people of integrity and goodness. They are the kind of people parents are fortunate to have working with their kids.
Not everyone gets to peek into the hearts of their administrators, see them in times of great stress, but last summer I did. They rose to the occasion.
And I know that every year principals and assistant principals are confronted by intensely stressful situations and high stakes emergencies. When kids make decisions that are dangerous or tragedy strikes unexpectedly, the women and men who take on the responsibility of leading schools have to put aside the metaphoric joys of fishing, hurry to the trouble, and dive into the water.
As we get ready to start a new school year I find inspiration in those caring and courageous souls around me. I wish for us all years without tragedy, and wish for the many of us who will find it the strength and spirit of those fellow campers.
We are humans. Even working at a school filled with creativity and joy, kindness, laughter, and a healthy sense of fun, it would be foolish or disingenuous to imagine that the professional life of any educator is free from the tragedy, heartbreak, and the fear that is a part of what it means to be alive.
I do my best to use my voice to celebrate the good things, sometimes talking about the hard work it takes to achieve those positive results, sometimes simply marveling at the good in the world. And…
That’s true, but only part of the story.
In addition to the joy that comes from working with students, the path of being an educator leads through some swamps and dark forests as well. This summer, as I’m comforted by the warm weather and long sunshiny days, I’ve made it a goal to finish four books that challenge me to engage with some of the more difficult aspects of my journey as a principal.
To be my best for the students, staff, and families I work with, I need to face the harder truths of being a human and being an educator. For me, bookish by nature, this means opening some volumes that don’t feature a detective in a deerstalker.
Four books in my backpack this summer include a case study on gun violence, a memoir about a brother’s suicide, a novel by one of my former students addressing the impact of domestic violence, and a book by a psychologist on grieving the loss of a child. This is not going to be easy reading; it is instead important reading.
As a principal I see students and families at their best, and I see students and families in their times of their greatest stress. The books on my list speak to that stress, and I hope will give me insight as I work with my school community to be the best support for them I can be. As summer ends I’ll fashion a post or two out of this summer reading and the ideas and implications that inform my own work. For anyone who might want to talk about these topics, and the books on my list, I’ll share titles and authors now.
I started Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman this winter, prompted by the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School. Thorough and well researched, the book contains a pair of case studies and takes as its ambitious goal answering the question: “Why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it.” It’s sobering that this book was published in 2004. That said, there is no call greater than keeping our students safe, and while gun violence is rare in comparison to other dangers our kids face, the reality of life as a building principal has expanded since I got into education to include an understanding of this dark reality of our world.
100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do, a memoir by Oregon’s Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, carries the subtitle “How My Brother Disappeared.” Through stories and reflections, Stafford details his brother’s death from suicide and the life they shared before that tragic event. Suicide is a reality that frightens parents and educators, a spectre that students hear about, talk about, and sometimes consider. In one of my first years as an administrator I witnessed first hand what happened after a student took his own life, and the impact that had on family, friends, and our school community. Referrals for students with suicidal ideation are not uncommon, and with each I feel a pang of anxiety and a desire to make a difference. Stafford’s memoir has the courage to discuss this difficult topic, not because that discussion doesn’t hurt, but because, as he puts it, “the darkest things hurt more when they are not told.”
Oregon author Gayle Towell wrestles with those “darkest things” as well in her 2015 novel Broken Parts. I’ve read her harrowing novella Blood Gravity, and through that moving and brutal work was introduced to brothers Jake and Ben, whose abuse at the hands of their father informs a struggle to cope with the past as they move forward, perhaps together. I don’t know exactly what to expect of Broken Parts, but I do know that Towell’s unflinching courage to deal directly with topics that many would hope to avoid promises a novel with lessons I need to learn as a person who works with young people.
The Unspeakable Loss: How do you live after a child dies? by Nisha Zenoff, PhD was given to me by two parents who had found some comfort within its pages. As they explained it to me, The Unspeakable Loss “is a book that has practical tips to support grieving families and children.” The power and purpose I have witnessed in these parents is profound, and my wish is that as I read this book I will gain some understanding about what I can do to help as a principal and as a person.
I’d love never to need the perspective I may glean from these volumes, but I know that being informed and prepared for the most difficult situations is a part of my job, a responsibility of my calling, and a commitment I have to the students, staff, and families around me. This difficult quartet of books offers an opportunity to learn more. I hope to be ready to hear their truth.
This summer, before classes began at ACMA, I watched students who were part of a summer theater program building sets for the full musical being staged in the performing arts center. Back in August I described it as:
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 work literally set the stage for the great things to come.”
I hoped then that my work as a principal might parallel theirs, these smiling students filled with ideas, hope, and energy.
Now, it’s June. The show has opened, had a terrific run, and over the next few weeks we will take our final bows of 2017-2018, pull the curtains, and strike the set.
To stretch this metaphor, it’s been a production of action and adventure, comedy, drama, improv and well rehearsed dialogue. Along the way many of us have flubbed a few lines, dropped a prop or two, and adapted as the reality of performing live provided us with surprises. We nailed some scenes too. We’ve grown into our characters, learned the give and take of actors sharing a stage, and done our best to practice that old theatrical idea of answering “yes …and” whenever possible.
Then, walking in to school this morning I spotted evidence of this passage of time behind the theater, remnants from that first set constructed for the summer musical. So alone there by the scene shop, that L of wood, colors faded some, but less than you’d expect, stood as a reminder of how far we’ve come.
Every June it’s tough to see the school year end, the seniors leave, and campus go dark between shows. For me at least, a bit of melancholy tints the sense of completion that comes with the end of the year. I know that whatever magic we experienced from August to June is going, never to be exactly the same. I know I’ll miss our graduates and the folks retiring from education. I’ll miss the parents of seniors, who I’ve come to adore and who I’ll see less starting in the fall. Each school year has its own personality, and as I see the teachers and students packing up props and costumes, I know that this run is coming to a close.
In the play that is education, opening night is never far away.
We’ll have a little cast party soon, we’ll take a few weeks off under the summer sun, and tuck the memories of this year into the pockets of our mind where we can find them in the times we need them. Then, we’ll take a deep breath, and return before the leaves turn red this fall to plan, prepare, and begin putting together the sets for a new run that promises to be filled with a music of its own.