Problems of Practice

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.

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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.

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Fellow Campers

Screen Shot 2018-08-08 at 7.14.00 AMA 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.

A Difficult Quartet

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.

Rampage CoverI 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 tricks100 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.”

towellOregon 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 inform 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.

lossThe 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.

Striking the Set

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.”

techsI 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.

IMG_7097Every 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.

…and…

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.

Snow Day

IMG_5984The snowball fight is over, my teenage daughter the clear winner, the banana muffins are on the cooling rack, and the kids are quietly playing Minecraft in the family room. It’s cold outside, though sunny, and I’m sitting at my desk reading about Columbine.

Outside, in the real world, the world not paused by snow, more than a hundred teenagers from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are addressing the Florida legislature. As one headline read: “Florida Students Began With Optimism. Then They Spoke to Lawmakers.” There are those in politics questioning if the students are really actors, or whether because they’re teens they’ll lose interest and be sent away once they hit resistance. The people with those questions must never have spent much time with students.

As a principal and former teacher, I have seen first hand the power passionate and purposeful students can bring to the issues that inspire them. That this group of teenagers will change the world is something I would certainly not bet against.

How different this is than the tragedy in 1999 that saw fifteen students lose their lives to two shooters at Columbine High School. Today, reading journalist Dave Cullen’s thorough and heartbreaking descriptions of the tragedy in Colorado is as difficult emotionally, both as an educator and a parent, as it is important to my understanding. It is, for me, one step in the direction of trying to be the best principal I can be for my students, teachers, and families, a person with perspective, if not answers, and some kind of conception of how horrors like the one we saw happen last week come about.

I see in Cullen’s historical view of Columbine a society, particularly educators and law enforcement, still learning how to deal logistically with a new reality of students with access to high powered guns, an abundance of rage, and a mindset bent on hurting others. Reading about what happened I can’t help but see in the stories of the students and staff at Columbine parallels to the people I have worked with for the past quarter century.

In the years between Columbine and Sandy Hook the responses to school shootings, both in the way they are treated by law enforcement and educators have evolved, even as the horror and heartbreak of each subsequent event have remained just as profound. Every year we practice how to “lock down” and “lock out,” we invite police to speak to our staff and students, and we learn more how to protect our schools from events like this.

And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

As a principal I struggle at what to tell my kids, my staff, myself about what more we can do to prevent tragedies like we have seen.

So I read. Today Columbine by Dave Cullen. Tomorrow, on the recommendation of another principal, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings by Katherine S. Newman.

They will not have all the answers.

IMG_5962So I will talk with our school resource officer, serious, earnest, and determined; my fellow administrators, so many so talented and caring; and look for understanding and inspiration wherever I can find it.

Today I find that inspiration in those students from Florida who have transformed their wail of grief into a cry for change. I see in them hope, spring shoots rising through the cold snow, and I am inspired.

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.

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.