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.

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Empathy and Action

They gathered in the inner courtyard, more than five hundred strong, held hands, and stood silently for seventeen minutes. Some wore shirts expressing their point of view, #NEVERAGAIN or March for Our Lives, others simply looked the part of who they are: students, grades six through twelve, thoughtful, artistic, a little nervous, and more informed than some would expect. In a word, they were inspiring.

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The event was one of three student responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida a month ago. The first, one of empathy, was suggested by two seniors who put up a stretch of poster paper where students could record their words of support for the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days after the tragedy it provided a place for students to process their own feelings while focusing on others. We’ll roll this up in a few days and send it to the school, our small voice of support in the chorus of the national conversation.

The next response suggested by students came from our student representative to the school board’s Student Advisory Committee. That group discussed what they could do to express what they were thinking and feeling in the wake of what happened in Florida, and how they could have their voices heard on the issue of school safety. The result was the idea of a letter writing campaign by students to elected officials. Our rep got right to work.

At the assembly we held to discuss school safety, our student representative stood in front of the student body and explained the importance of action alongside empathy. She deftly answered questions about the project, and ended with an invitation to join her in writing to members of congress to share their perspectives as young people who come to school every day to learn, feel safe, and become the kind of adults some of us still aspire to be.

IMG_6199There were a great many students near the table that held that letter box on March 14th, and knowing our student body, I’ll wager the perspectives and ideas shared will be as diverse, thoughtful, and articulate as our students.

But for seventeen minutes there was unity in our diversity, those seventeen silent minutes when students stood together, holding hands, thinking their own thoughts about the day, the world, and the future. When the time ended there were hugs, a few tears, and a great gathering up of teens who headed back into the schoolhouse to learn. The orderliness of it all might have astounded some, though those of us who work with students were less surprised.

The students’ poise and purpose was inspiring too, though as a dad and a principal I want to temper my genuine appreciation with a nod to the reality that these are young people who have more on their minds and a wider future than any single issue. That they will make a difference I have no doubt. That they have a vision of the future that is kinder and more inclusive than my own generation’s I believe. That this takes away the collective responsibility of anyone older than twenty I do not accept.

Just as it is unfair to paint teachers as heroes in waiting, pursuing their noble cause with inadequate pay and unreasonable expectations, because they are so selfless …which somehow makes it okay, so too it is unfair to see in our youth saviors who might take away our own responsibility to contribute to making the world what we want it to be.

Teenagers today have done much to bring a message to our national consciousness, and a part of that message seems to me to be an call to engage with our communities. Wherever folks find themselves emotionally and philosophically in the wake of the tragedy in Florida, or in fact the decades in which school names like Sandy Hook and Columbine have become synonymous with violence, I think we can take inspiration from our students today, and hear them when they invite us to put our empathy into action.

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.

Roses

I began teaching five years before Columbine. It’s not that schools were perfectly safe then; one of my students lit the mascot on fire at an assembly during my first year of teaching, and in my third year another student tried to burn down the school. He brought gasoline and splashed it around the front doors before lighting a match. The front doors were metal, set into concrete. They power washed it the next day and arrested the student. But the reactions of students to acts of violence perpetrated on school campuses was different then.

When my students heard about the shooting at Columbine High School, thousands of miles from the small, rural, Oregon high school where we were, they wanted to honor the students who had been killed by planting a rose. If they’d kept up this tradition over the past nineteen years, that campus would be a massive tangle of thorns and flowers.

But that didn’t keep up. Reactions changed.

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Columbine wasn’t the first mass school shooting to happen in my teaching career. Just a year earlier, and much closer to home, Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon saw 24 students shot and two killed by a recently expelled former student, and it certainly has not been the last. Since Columbine the number of tragedies on campuses has grown, and while debating the exact number is as foolish as it is distracting, the truth remains that schools today have a different relationship to gun violence than they did at the end of the last century.

We are better protected, with more thoughtful school designs, key card doors, and more secure campus perimeters; and better prepared, by safety drills of all sorts and dedicated inservices to inform teachers and school staff about what to look for and how to help keep our kids safe, and…

When students today hear about a school shooting, the disbelief their parents might have felt when they were in school has been replaced by something else: the view that this is a just part of their world.

That feels strange.

When word came from Parkland, Florida about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the adults in my school and district responded with grief, empathy, and concern. We drafted messages for our school community, prepared our counselors to be ready for students, and were visible and welcoming the following morning. My assistant principal and I visited classrooms, I shared a message of support with my staff, and we as a family of caring educators got ourselves ready to be there when students wanted to talk.

Most didn’t.

Two teachers visited my office, as emotional as I was, and we processed what we’d read about the Florida shooting. We talked about where we were when we heard about Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and some of the other tragedies that rocked our profession and our world. We remembered our own high school experiences, and wondered aloud the reason our current students seemed less interested in talking about it than students had back when my high schoolers had wanted to plant that rose.

Why is it, we asked ourselves, we adults are so shaken and our students seem to be responding so much more quietly, if at all?

I had a long conversation with our school resource officer, a caring soul who stopped by our campus to see how we were doing. He was quick to point out the importance of being proactive and focusing on how we can prevent these tragedies. I’m hopeful he’ll join me when I address the student body at a pair of assemblies next week.

The responsibilities of an educator in 2018 feel different than they were when I started teaching a quarter century ago. The conversations we need to have with our kids extend beyond the familiar topics that lured us to this profession; they include today matters of life and death, safety and security, and so much more.

I’m still reeling from the horrors reported from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and steeling myself to talk with students more deeply next week. As a principal I want to do all that I can to keep my students and staff safe, my campus secure, and my school a positive place to learn. It’s work that won’t end in my lifetime, and work so important that I tend to it as I would a rose.

 

Becoming a Tree

There are some days when it is difficult to believe in the goodness of human nature. Fortunately, the choice to believe is always ours.

More often than not the truly cruel corners of the world aren’t found on school campuses. Like packs of cigarettes left in gloveboxes in the parking lot, most often the unhealthy reality of the world stays sensibly away from classrooms, lunch lines, and pedestrian teenage drama.

When flickers of darkness do show themselves, the demons (mature enough to haunt adults) so raw behind the pained eyes of the people they inhabit have the ability to shake even the most seasoned educator. Not long ago I encountered a person in crisis whose pain reverberated like the peals of a bell.

It’s at these times that the goodwill built over months and years, the friendships forged by time and proximity, and the attitude built by a thousand examples of kindness sustain us. We can look around at the others we work with and know that we are not alone. With a deep inhale of breath, we can recognize that the frightening, wide eyed instability looking at us in the moment will not destroy our optimism, even if it bruises our hope just a little bit.

The reality of darkness, jarring as it is when it walks into a school, is beyond our immediate control. Our choice to acknowledge it and remain steadfast in our optimism is a decision we get to make.

Like parents, or in loco parentis, strength and hope are our obligation and the gift we provide our students.

After a recent day of unsettlement, I found a poem -or better said, a poem by Frances Cornford found me. She wrote of the independence of children, who need freedom to explore…

But when there falls the stalking shade of fear,
You must be suddenly near,
You, the unstable, must become a tree
In whose unending heights of flowering green
Hangs every fruit that grows…”

And so we are, as educators, strong trees with deep roots, with sweet fruit, and with thick bark.

Like trees, we are susceptible to the stray arrow or wildly swung hatchet, and likely we’ll have someone’s initials carved into our side, metaphorically at least. I know that I can look down and see names scraped into the bark of my own memory.

And like trees, we are strong enough to handle it, to show that strength to those around us, and to lose our own instability long enough to see the goodness in the world and be, for someone else, a tree.

Jaw Dropping

Not to sound alarmist…

It’s a balance every site administrator has to strike, answering the question: How can we inform parents about trends in the area of student behavior, drugs, vapes, online perils, without (to put it simply) freaking them out?

Here at Diegueño we know that informed parents are allies in the quest to help students make good decisions and stay safe through the marvelous, perilous, brand new world of adolescence. With that in mind, this year we’ve brought in experts to speak to both students and parents about online safety and substance abuse. We’ve encouraged parents to take their kids to an annual town hall meeting about drinking and driving, and we’re already planning for a series of parent nights for next school year.

Parent Seminar 4-29-15As the principal, I like to be at every event, showing my support for parents, and my availability to be part of the proverbial village here to raise the kids. Sometimes conflicts arise, and I have to miss an event. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when two amazing counselors who run our district’s award winning drug and alcohol prevention program came to speak to our parents in an event we billed as: “Teens and Healthy Choices: The Truth About Vape Pens.”

Well attended, informative, and real, the night was by all accounts a success. I kept a weather eye on what was happening through my AP’s Twitter feed. Midway through the evening I saw a tweet that included a photo of the presenter with a caption that read in part: “parents learning with jaws dropping…”

jawdroppingHonest first thought: “Yikes.”

Truthful second thought: “How many calls will come to me in the morning? How many will go to the district office?”

Then I let myself breathe and ask the more important question: “Is this a good thing?”

And I knew it was.

There’s importance in telling the truth. As our middle schoolers read in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” That’s true for parents talking with their kids, and educators talking with our parents. School is a place that should always keep students safe, and it’s also a place where we need to feel safe talking about even the ugly things in the world.

Sure the result of speaking the truth can sometimes be jaw dropping. Life is. It can also make a real difference.

Empowering parents to have the difficult (and important) conversations with their kids, to keep an eye on social media, and even scroll through the photos on their phones is a valuable part of what we do. Scout and Jem didn’t have SnapChat accounts, but if they did, I like to imagine that Atticus would have handled that beautifully too. I like to think that if he were a parent at Diegueño, we’d help him.

The principal I am believes that we’re in the business of building positive lives for our students. Partnering with parents, we make up a support system for kids that can help them navigate the tough times and be prepare for the future they’re growing into.

The former English teacher I am puts it more simply: when in doubt, listen to Atticus.

A bad day for high fives…

There’s a moment of hesitation, a pause, hand outstretched, nose prematurely wrinkled, as each student reaches for the handle. The fear, I suppose, is inaccuracy on the part of the green and red radial dial that tells the world that the port-a-potty is occupied. So far those dials have done the trick, and we’ve had no problems with either the portable toilets or the hand washing stations, though the latter needed the explanation: “It’s just like at a petting zoo at the fair.”

photo 1 (5)Truth be told, today’s broken water pipe, in the cement below our Cougar Cafe, gave us all an opportunity to show off or collective resiliency and positive attitude.

It struck me, as I was standing guard over a bank of student port-a-potties (something all school site administrators recognize as falling squarely under the heading: “other duties as assigned”) that while we’d had the water off for a while, I hadn’t heard one complaint. Sure I’d seen some folks who wished Teacher Appreciation Week had begun with doughnuts instead of this, but overwhelmingly the attitude modeled by our staff was one of smiles and shrugged shoulders. “We’ll be cool,” one teacher said. She was right.

photo (2)The kids got it too. Sure they were curious about why the water was off, but they took the challenge in stride, and laughed as much as they looked at each other with trepidation before approaching those red and green dials.

In keeping the parents in the loop, we posted information on Twitter and our school Facebook page. As we knew more, we sent an email home to let moms and dads know what questions to ask when their kids got home.

Schools, like life, contain surprises, both good and bad, and it’s not the problems that define us, but our response to them. Today I’m both pleased and proud that the teachers, staff, and students at Diegueño handled what could have been a stressful situation with grace, patience, and a customary smile.

photo 2 (3)They’re cutting into the cement now, and I’m hopeful the water will be back tomorrow, but whether we start the day with port-a-potties or not, I know that our school community will meet the day with optimism and an attitude that all will be well. Diegueño is like that, unhesitatingly ready for the unexpected world ahead.

As soon as we have running water back, I’m giving high fives!