Permission

Not long ago my staff and I shifted gears and set aside a chunk of our planned professional development to allow ourselves some time to connect. Once we were there (well, on the Zoom together anyway), people listened and I think heard the overwhelming truth that while we may be stressed, while we may hold on more to worry than we’d like, and while many of us (at least by a show of hands) aren’t sleeping as well as we wish we were, we are not alone.

Along with our stories we shared some laughter, hardly a surprise with our caring staff, and some ideas about how we can continue to adjust things as we start the new semester. Most of all it felt like the alchemy of this adjusted day made something better than gold out of our very raw and real emotions. I think many of us felt something almost akin to hope.

It was nice to have permission to feel that too.

Comprehensive distance learning has been hard. It’s been hard on students, on teachers, on staff, and on families. We try our best and work with purpose and professionalism, and sometimes the results are pretty great. Other times, well, comprehensive distance learning is hard.

So for that professional development, after listing a menu of options for a variety of topics I added one last option for my staff.

“Finally,” I wrote, “I’d like to add one more: permission. If you need to not attend one of these, if you need to go for a walk, snuggle with your pet, or call a friend, then please give yourself permission to do so. You matter so much, and taking care of yourself, showing yourself kindness, and giving yourself grace, all these are important too.”

As educators we are givers. We give to our students, our colleagues, and our school community. We give of our time, our hearts, and sometimes our pocketbooks. We give to everyone who needs us, except (all too often) ourselves.

Few staff members took me up on that final choice, though the responses I got to that PD email were as kind as they were heartfelt, and I like to imagine that the willingness to shift gears and focus on engaging with one another might have helped too.

And then I got an email from one of my amazing teachers who I’d asked for ideas about future PDs. She wrote some very kind words about including that final option and then offered some suggestions that made me smile:

“That’s a  long intro to some ideas,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what boxes you have to check so that site PD is indeed site PD, but….

“Permission to relax. Permission to laugh. Permission to learn from our mistakes and from each other without a heavy title/subject attached.

“Kemba-led-yoga

“Mark-led drawing

“Remote Teaching BINGO (have had a silly autocorrect in Zoom chat, have typed an angry email that you didn’t send, cried during Zoom, cried after Zoom, stopped everything mid-Zoom and pivoted because it clearly wasn’t working, is feeling your eyesight go downhill because of all this screen time)

“An option to read/listen to/watch all these lovely “we’re not alone/here’s someone who loves teachers giving you advice” articles, clips, etc. that staff members share and I, for one, would love to read/listen to/watch, but honestly… when? If you TOLD me to pick one, sit back and watch it? I would.

“Break out rooms to share something that you’ve been doing that’s totally unrelated to remote teaching. Something human that brings some joy and reminds us that we’re all still living lives that are rich and don’t include a screen. 

“Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re ALWAYS ON A SCREEN. It’s simply exhausting. And it’s always there. Before, during, and after class… grading, planning, meetings. All of it. For many of us, the only thing stronger than our desire to be with our co-workers and friends is our desire to watch screen time die a quick death. If you could get us all hazmat suits and/or accelerate the vaccine so we could mingle on the blacktop… that’d be great!”

I can’t afford hazmat suits, and I doubt Risk Management would smile on that anyway, but I can weave some of her ideas into future PD. If working with my amazing staff has taught me anything during this strange, strange, strange time, it’s the importance of laughter, of love, and the importance of allowing ourselves permission.

Found

We tried something different at our last staff meeting. After spending some time analyzing data and engaging in a rousing discussion of student academic success and the results from our student wellness survey we shifted gears and did a little crafting. Specifically, every staff member got a sheet of paper with a couple of pictures copied onto it and together we laughed as we helped each other fold (and fold and fold and cut and fold) those pieces of paper into miniature books.

IMG_8460The blank pages inside the books, I explained, were for the staff members to fill out as we went on a little walking tour of campus. Ours is a school built in 1949, added onto in the 1950s, and one that made a life changing transformation into an arts academy just over twenty years ago. Some of our staff have been here since almost the beginning (of the art school, not the 1949 elementary), and the stories they have to tell are as rich as they are inspiring. Over the course of the year we’re celebrating those stories and the people and events that form the history of our little school.

Part of that celebration is listening, engaging with the past, and making connections to our present and our future. One joy of the process is the parade of surprises that surface with a little digging: there was once a large greenhouse on campus, the reason a roll of film is painted above the classroom near the front door is because it once was the filmmaking room, the fact that an English classroom used to be the library and a history room was once the staff lounge (and that a couch from that lounge is now a prop in our theater).

So as we left the library, which in the 1950s was the assembly room and later became the gym, tiny blank books in hand, I asked the teaches if on those empty pages they would write, draw, or capture in whatever way they wanted some of what they were seeing and hearing on our campus walkabout. Their individual perspectives on our school matter, I told them, and using this little rectangle of paper to record them could provide something fun for others too. What if, I asked, when they were done, they scattered their ACMA history books across campus for students to find?

IMG_8462So we walked.

Our first stop was the Quonset Hut where our students now eat lunch. There, amongst the cafeteria tables, one of our most veteran teachers pointed to the high arched ceiling and brought everyone’s attention to the black paint rising up the walls. “From there back,” he said, “was the stage…” and then he began describing the wild creativity, born of the necessity of not having a world class theater, that had filled the space. He talked about the production that included a swimming pool, the dance numbers, the music, and the staging of Alice in Wonderland that knew it was the last ever in the space and cut holes in the makeshift stage for trap doors and other surprises. “We were creative,” he explained, “because we had to be.”

The true words of an artist.

IMG_8466From there we walked north to the “new edition” of 1950 and a math classroom that housed one of the many Mona Lisas of ACMA. Anyone walking our halls today notices variations on DaVinci’s theme: Mona Lisa in flannel, Mona Lisa as a dog etc. etc. Most are painted directly on the plaster and easy for anyone to see, but the math teacher who calls this room home had mentioned to me that he’d found the newspaper Mona Lisa that fell off the wall a few years ago and given her a home in his room. Pausing to look at her, our staff took time to talk about the magic of student art filling our halls. From the paintings and tiles to the giant salmon above the western doorway and the masks above the Tom Marsh Gallery, student work is a part of who we are as a school. Our next task, as we walked south toward the main office, was to slow down (a tough thing for a teacher in September) and really notice what we were seeing. That, and jot in our books.

We filed down the hallway and toward the corner where we stopped next to talk about another kind of art …the professional type. I’ll save details of this for a future post, but a fact that I went more than a year before knowing was that hanging alongside some of our student artwork is the work of well known artists from the Pacific Northwest. The smiles in the eyes of our staff as one of our art teachers described our “collection” were inspiring.

IMG_8461We ended back in the library (née assembly room, née gym) where adults who knew a little more about their school scribbled and sketched in the books they’d made, books that were a bit of them and bit of ACMA, presents of the past for students of our present.

The next morning, arriving to school early, I spotted a few of those books in hallway. By lunch I’d seen more in the classrooms I visited throughout the morning. Will they get students wondering? Will they prompt someone to ask a question about our school or inspire curiosity about our campus?

Whatever the result, the process of reflecting on our shared history and taking time to be creative together made for a fantastic end to a meeting that was all about understanding our students and helping them succeed. Truth be told, I believe that our walk has the potential to help make our school a better place for kids (and adults too). Data is certainly a way to understand our schools and ourselves, but so too are stories.

I love the creativity I saw in my staff, the willingness to get up out of their chairs and do something unusual, and the gift they were willing to create for the kids to discover.

Price Tag

I once had a teacher I respect come up to me after a staff meeting and give me a number. He’d spent a chunk of his time in his seat not paying attention to what was being presented, but rather doing some math. He’d looked around the room, counted out how many teachers and staff were there, calculated hourly wages, looked at the clock, and figured a total cost for the meeting. It was staggering. “That’s how much this staff meeting cost,” he told me. “Was it worth that?”

Now I’ve never been one for long meetings, or standing up in front of a group reading through information that could be as easily distributed in an email or memo, but it was this amazing educator’s decision to put the “value” of meeting in black and white that has stuck with me for now almost a decade. As I prep meetings, particularly those that start the school year, his question echoes in my mind “Was it worth that?”

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What this means on the ground is more than just shorter meetings. Yes, I limit my welcome back days to mornings only, sticking firm to the commitment to get my teachers into their classrooms before lunch, but in addition I do my best to be mindful of how we spend those mornings together.

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We laugh.
We listen to kids.
We connect.
We discuss.
We play.
We try to come to consensus on the issues that impact our work.

…and when we have those mandated moments (of blood-borne pathogen training and such) we do our best to remember Shakespeare’s line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

IMG_8275Sure there are times when a presentation is necessary, and I’ve found that teachers are most kind when it’s other teachers who are giving those presentations. It’s also important that we allow time enough to breathe around the information we get, so the discussions we have can really matter.

As a principal I’m not perfect in any of this; just ask my teachers, they’d tell you. But I do try hard to respect their time, and our time together. I know how much it costs.

After the meetings I walk. I do my best to lean into classrooms and chat. I’m reminded of that line from Henry V, when before the battle of Agincourt the king walks amongst his soldiers:

For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

I’m no King Henry, but I do try to echo his optimism and modest smile. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager that my teachers work as hard, are more engaged, and get more done than any did when I was a part of marathon meetings.

The price tag for our time together is high, and that doesn’t mean that we ought not meet, it just means that those meetings ought to be worth it.