“Today you’re a lot stronger…”

Being new is never easy and fitting in at school can be a challenge for anyone.

I know; I’m the new principal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we welcome students to campus and about how it feels to be new at our school. As the first few weeks of classes roll along, I’ve seen students put up posters celebrating kindness, cheered as our assistant principal and my and secretary created a magical puzzle piece bulletin board to welcome students, and watched teachers go out of their way to make classes friendly and inviting.

IMG_4376Then today at lunch a small act struck me with its simplicity and power.

I was standing alone in the quad supervising lunch when a group of girls walked up and handed me a piece of candy. Taped to the wrapper was a sliver of paper. They smiled and told me to “open it.”

Inside I found a message of comfort and hope:

Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

They left me feeling a little happier, and then, when I stepped into the cafeteria one of my food service workers flagged me down to tell me something important. “Those girls,” she said, “with the basket. Do you know what they were doing?” My first thought was nothing bad, I hope, they were so nice to me. “They’re going around finding anyone eating lunch alone and they’re giving them a piece of candy and talking with them.”

The dad in me wanted to cry at the profound kindness of their action.

IMG_4377Today I’d been that fellow alone. How many others, students new to our school and students simply not yet as connected as I hope they soon will be, felt that same uplift of spirit when they were given a message of hope.

For any who have eaten alone, for any who have been “the new kid,” and for any who felt like they didn’t quite fit in, I offer the sentiment of reassurance given to me by those kind, kind students: “Smile and let everyone know that today you’re a lot stronger than you were yesterday.”

Yes, and tomorrow you’ll be stronger still. Our school will welcome you. And down the road, once you’re comfortable and feel our school is home, maybe you and your friends will get a basket of your own and spread a message of kindness.

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Who

We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”       -The Doctor

A lifetime ago when I was a young teacher fresh out of college I taught a lesson on Essence and Experience that used Jean-Paul Sartre, Gottfried Leibniz, and the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” to challenge students to think about what really made them them. I loved the lesson and the conversations it sparked: Would I be “Bjorn” if my name were “Pete?” Is being a teacher, or a husband, or a male, or an Oregonian essential to who I am or an attribute that is really transitory or unimportant? At twenty-three I was a brash young teacher using my degree in philosophy to push my students to think and it felt great.

FullSizeRender (4)Some of them dug it. I think.

I hadn’t thought about that lesson for years, just one of the many experiences that time slowly buries under the immediacy of life, until the afternoon after I’d had a great discussion with my assistant principal about the importance of knowing who we are as a school and, later that day, the happenstance of seeing my daughter watching an episode of Dr. Who.

“Regeneration,” she explained to me when we fell into talking about why the 11th Doctor looked so different than the 12th. “They always change …but they’re still The Doctor.”

Essence. Experience.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, a long running BBC extravaganza that has evolved in the years since my youth from a campy romp through time and space into a plucky, witty, and well crafted experiment of wonder, the premise is simple: A “time lord,” The Doctor, travels through time in a blue police box, often accompanied by a human companion, always game for adventure and usually finding it. His looks, gender, attire, and catchphrases are different with each incarnation (which occur every few seasons when the actor playing The Doctor switches).

That The Doctor is The Doctor is never in question, though David Tennant, Peter Capaldi, and (my daughter’s favorite) Matt Smith are as different as can be.

FullSizeRenderThe Doctor is different in attributes, that is, in experiences, but not different in essence.

And I thought back to that conversation my AP and I had shared earlier in the afternoon. What is the essence of our school?

I’ve been in education long enough to know it isn’t simply the building or the school colors, the principal or any particular program.

When I was in third grade I moved to a brand new elementary school and the administration had the great idea to let the kids choose the mascot and school colors. We chose silver and black for colors and Eagles as our mascot. Our school t-shirts made us look like a miniature biker gang. Within a couple of years the principal made the sensible decision to change the color to blue and made our mascot the dolphins. We were still the same school.

As a teacher I worked in several schools, rural and urban, large and small, affluent and not so much. Each had its own history, its own traditions, and its own attitude. There was a distinctly different feeling walking on the campus of each, an “it” factor that only that school had.

I thought about these experiences when I was talking with my AP, and I’d been prone to say that the essence of our school was not just what we did, or who were are, but why we did what we did as a school, our DNA, our expectations, our fundamental beliefs.

We talked about mission and vision statements, which sometimes capture a sense of a school’s essence, or at least make an attempt to put that essence into the nomenclature of the current day. Yet those statements, so lovingly posted in hallways or appended to a school’s letterhead, so often seem incomplete.

To really understand those fundamental truths that define who we are is a tougher job, and a more important job, than simply listing what we do and how we do it.

Who are we? This is the greater question, and the challenge of discovering a school’s essence may find a part of its answer in the process of inquiry itself, in adding to that question: “Who have we been?” and “Who will we be?”

IMG_3876As we peel away the attributes and experiences that make up a bit of who we are, not unlike The Doctor’s TARDIS, screwdriver, scarf, occasional fez, or sneakers, we are challenged to determine what are fundamental to who we are and what are mere circumstances of our existence.

Put simply, the more we can do to define our best collective self, the essence of the school that will exist even after we’ve individually gone, the more we can push ourselves to be meaningful contributors to that greater self.

And in the end, if there ever is such a thing, the pursuit of understanding who we are as a school, why we do what we do, and what is essential to our existence has the potential to help us embrace both our individual roles in this grand and collective adventure and the importance of each other as we work together to be part of something greater than ourselves.

Schools, like people, are always changing. Sometimes there’s value in pausing and asking:

Who have we been? Who are we now? And who will we be?

…Who?

Unleashing Innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t at my desk.

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

It also means getting involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3904

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

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

“Yo Jay, yo Jay, check this out!”

We ended the drive with the five of us singing “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a swinging tune that sums up at least a part of my swirling emotions as principal at San Dieguito. Four amazing students, creative, funny, and kind, had asked me to shed any administrative dignity I might have and join them for Carpool Karaoke. “Yes” was the right answer, and by the end of the ride the lyrics to that Sinatra song had never been so true.

2Being a principal means being willing to play, participate, and share laughter with students. It also means shouldering responsibility, working hard and sometimes long hours, and bringing as much balance as possible to the job. Keeping students first in my mind helps me do that.

So today, as ASB kids filmed a segment for the spring assembly, I hopped into a car and did my best to destroy a series of marvelous songs.

They’d asked me if I had anything I wanted to sing, and before I answered I thought about it, only to realize that the music I listen to falls into two categories: old, old, old stuff (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, so out of their world as to be unrecognizable) and rock and roll not suitable for a principal to croon (let’s be honest, it simply isn’t appropriate to hear the principal sing almost any song by Prince, The Pogues, or Social Distortion). So I made only one suggestion, an unexpected ditty that I thought would be worth a laugh, and I left the rest of the playlist up to the students.

3We started innocently enough, with a little Bowie. Parking is an ongoing challenge at our school, so we set the narrative of our video as my helping the driver, a senior, find a place to park. There was no more natural soundtrack than us mm-ba-ba-de-de-bum-bum’ing our way through Queen’s “Under Pressure.”

We laughed, anyway.

Next, I revisited my misspent youth with an unexpected riff on Run DMC’s “Son of Byford,” my driver beat boxing as he shook his head that this old man would know the words of any rap song.

The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” did not go so smoothly, but by the time we belted out “The Time of My Life,” a fitting farewell to SDA, we’d both hit our stride.

4Half an hour later, thinking we had enough footage to be cut and spliced into at least 30 seconds of entertainment, we headed back to the front lot. As we did, laughing that there might be no songs that we both knew the words to, we picked up three ASB students who were helping film and edit the video. They piled into the back and I apologized as we pulled away from the curb. “I only know Sinatra songs,” I said, and from the back seat I heard: “Pull over.”

Then, with a quickness that surprised me, my driver found a series of Old Blue Eyes songs on his phone. From the back seat came the suggestion for “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and without hesitation we broke into song.

I don’t know if the cameras were rolling as we drove back to my office, but I do know that those two minutes will remain in my memory as some of the most joyful I’ve had here at San Dieguito.

1I’d thought that my choice of Run DMC would be the biggest surprise of the day, but (as is so true so often at this fabulously funky school) it was the students who surprised me. They were so kind to invite me to join the fun, they put up with my inability to sing, and they even knew a little Sinatra. A delight.

Sprung

photo-4-1San Dieguito hosted a huge Speech and Debate tournament this weekend, with hundreds of teenagers in skirts, ties, and ill fitting suits tromping across campus whispering to themselves. Up in the northwest corner of campus the Mustang Baseball team started their spring season, while down in San Diego our girls Soccer team wowed the world, winning a CIF championship.

Spring is a busy time of year at San Dieguito, and these extracurriculars are just part of the story.

In classes, students are cooking and collaborating, painting and practicing clarinet. We’ve added new courses this year, and that means students out at elementary schools learning what it means to be a teacher, and other students cutting into cats to see what it means to be a scientist.

8-5x11-flyer-snow-angelBut despite the maelstrom of activity, San Dieguito students know that part of what makes us human is giving back. Not long ago our Future Woodworkers Club created “Kindness Benches” for local elementary schools, one of our students is sponsoring a “Kid’s 4 Peace” Book Drive, and next week our theater department opens Snow Angel as its annual “Theater for a Cause” show, the proceeds benefiting the good work of the Community Resource Center.

Whatever it is that students are interested in: robotics, music, academics, there is something to do: The FIRST Tournament in Del Mar next weekend, the spring concert in May, and the Mustang Minds competition next week.

It that’s not enough, how about a Homeroom Olympics scavenger hunt on St. Patrick’s Day?

And if this whirlwind of activity has your heart racing, in April our Student Support Services Committee is bringing back the puppies. Twice a year San Dieguito students enjoy an event called “Canine Unwind.” Dozens of service and therapy dogs gather with their owners at our bell tower and for an hour or so after school the students can just pet a dog.

Spring at San Dieguito has sprung.

“I Need You.”

bluesThe last time I wore the black suit I was a pallbearer. Today I got to wear it to play.

Well, maybe play the fool.

And that’s perfectly okay.

The occasion was our school’s winter assembly, a chance to celebrate students, promote the upcoming winter formal, and have some fun. My task was to co-host the show with an intrepid student who shares my sense of adventure. We brainstormed a couple of costumes that we thought the students might find funny (me dressed as him, us both in mascot costumes) and a final number that would see us joining a band to belt out “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” while dressed as Jake and Elwood Blues.

The song, as fun as it is, wasn’t a random choice. In The Blues Brothers movie the tune is prefaced by a monologue that embraces the audience with the simple truth captured in the title of the song. Dan Ackroyd, as Elwood, tells the audience:

We’re so glad to see so many of you lovely people here tonight, and we would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’ Law Enforcement Community who have chosen to join us here in the Palace Hotel Ballroom at this time. We do sincerely hope you’ll all enjoy the show, and please remember people, that no matter who you are, and what you do to live, thrive and survive, there are still some things that make us all the same. You, me, them, everybody, everybody.”

There are some things that make us all the same, and as an educator who has the privilege to work with students and parents, staff and community members of all points of view that reality really resonates with me. Schools are cauldrons of opinion, spiced with dashes of immaturity and angst, and occasionally stirred by that adolescent love of controversy.

That said, no matter who we are, or what we do to live, thrive and survive (and there are days we strive for each), we do share an underlying need for something more, for connection, for belonging, for (as Jake and Elwood would tell us) love.

bb2What this can look like at a school is manifold. Sometimes it’s a student being part of a team, learning life lessons during the hours of practice and competition. Sometimes a club or an activity can foster this sense of self and community. Sometimes it comes through the kindness of teachers, peers, and parents.

Here at San Dieguito building a campus culture means purposefully designing opportunities to celebrate kindness, generosity of spirit, and an atmosphere of acceptance. We hope to reflect these attitudes in the way we comport ourselves, the decisions we make about how we live and learn together, and even the ways we put on assemblies.

That today saw two videos celebrating all aspects of student life from Comedy Sportz to Girls Water Polo, that students and staff played together on teams competing in goofy events, and that the crowd smiled even when their buffoonish principal growled through a blues song, all underscored the good that we do our best to cultivate every day.

About halfway through “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” Elwood gets a second soliloquy. He pauses, and with the band humming behind him he adds:

You know people when you do find that somebody, hold that woman, hold that man. Love him, please him, squeeze her, please her. Hold, squeeze and please that person, give ’em all your love. Signify your feelings with every gentle caress, because it’s so important to have that special somebody to hold, kiss, miss, squeeze and please.”

bb1This is school, so let’s take the spirit of the lines rather than the specifics, but it’s in these words that we see another simple truth. We do well when we appreciate those who are important to us, who we care about and who care about us. We are at our best when we strive to be someone others can love, and when we acknowledge that we are more together than we are as individuals.

As my fellow blues brother and I danced around the gym pointing to the crowd there was real meaning to the line we repeated. With trumpets blazing behind us and the steady thrum of the bass, we gave voice to a refrain that the angels of our better nature know to be true: “I need you, you, you. I need you, you, you. I need you.”

We need each other.

At some point in the future our black suits will be worn by pallbearers; today let’s sing together and dance.

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.