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.

photo (2).JPG

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

photo 1.JPG

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.

photo-3-5

“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.