Leadership Wears A Cape

While I’d love to imagine myself Han Solo, daring, roguish, independent, I’ve come to realize that as a principal on my best days, and I mean my best, I’m cloud city Lando Calrissian.

landoBeing an administrator means being put in a position where every day involves balancing competing demands and trying to stay focused on a greater goal. Sometimes it’s little annoyances that get in the way of progress; we’re the proverbial “small outpost, not very self-sufficient, with supply problems of every kind, labor difficulties…”

Other times it feels like Darth Vader is breathing through our hallways.

There are more elegant ways to describe the sturm und drang of the business side of site administration, but for those of us with an affinity for George Lucas’ space opera, the fact remains that the patron saint of principals is Billy Dee Williams’ 1981 Lando Calrissian. We’re doing our best, trying to be charming, think we look great in that cape, and sometimes, in the face of stress and forces beyond our control, we make mistakes.

I was thinking about Lando this week when navigating some projects beyond my school’s control. As a principal, I do my best to advocate for my campus, my teachers, and my students, but find that sometimes my voice isn’t as powerful as others in the room. Like Lando, I work to establish relationships and build agreements that will help my school, sometimes feeling as optimistic as he did when he told Han and Leia: “I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Lando entersYeah. That.

And just like cloud city Lando, sometimes I see those deals fall through, or get changed. It’s not unusual for someone of authority to play the part of Darth Vader, saying (perhaps in a more subtle way): “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

So we adjust.

Being a principal often means searching for the best contingency, finding footing the face of shifting sands. If all goes well, we might end up on the Millennium Falcon with Chewbacca; at worst Han ends up in carbon freeze. Sometimes both.

The secret, if there is such a thing, that I’ve found is looking for little places to make a difference (“Having trouble with your droid?”), staying optimistic (I look great in this cape), and trying to keep things in perspective (I do get to live in a cloud city).

worseThere will always be times when things don’t go according to plan, when a budget is cut or a need goes unfilled. Tempers will flare, sometimes justifiably, folks won’t communicate clearly, or decisions will get made that benefit someone other than your school. There will be a point when any principal would be tempted to swish his cape and mutter: “This deal is getting worse all the time.” And that isn’t the wrong reaction, at least in the moment, but if we remember our Empire Strikes Back properly we know that at some point Lando activated Lobot, hustled Leia and the gang to the Falcon, and set about the hard work of rescuing his friend.

Not defined by his mistakes or his misplaced alliance, cloud city Lando made the best of things. Principals everywhere could do worse.

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Star Wars Nerds

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 6.35.26 PMI met Darth Vader in the lobby of a car dealership in 1978. He strode in, large as life, black cape trailing behind him, uttered a few words to the collected youngsters, and left us each with an autographed picture. It was awesome.

The world has changed around us since the late 1970s and my encounter with the not quite so ominous Sith Lord, something that’s as true in public education as it is in life.

For my own son, just a little older now than I was when I met Darth Vader, Star Wars means Legos, video games, and plastic lightsaber battles with friends on the lawn. Looking back on my simple but sturdy action figures I know that the notion of Star Wars Battlefront or a realistic laser sword that extends when you flick it open would have blown my eight year old mind. For my son those are part of his childhood landscape.

I got a glimpse into his more modern world last month during my son’s 10th birthday party. My wife is the master of kid parties, ice cream cakes, crafts, and favor bags that drop jaws. My minor role ever since we started putting on kidstravaganzas has been scavenger hunts. Drawing on years of Pirate Weeks and Space Weeks, I put together clues and ciphers that led the kids from one place to the next in pursuit of a final prize. At this birthday party, one stop on the hunt involved the boys putting together a puzzle of Poe Dameron, then realizing they needed to flip the completed puzzle over to read the next clue which had been scrawled on the back in Sharpie.

As my son and his friends hunted for pieces and fit them together I overheard them talking. “I’m a Star Wars nerd,” my son said before joining a chum in a detailed juxtaposition of the new trilogy and the original.

What would they think about meeting someone dressed in a Darth Vader costume at a car lot?

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Like my son and his friend, I’ll confess to being a self identified “Star Wars nerd.” I’m mature enough to not get worked up by the new movies, or even the prequels. I watched Solo in the theater and enjoyed it. I’m forgiving when it comes to Star Wars stories (from the old comic books to the next generation of films) because it seems to me that every step along the way they celebrate imagination.

The power of imagination is something that can transform a Toyota dealership into a viable place to meet a space villain. It can make a scavenger hunt at a birthday party feel like an adventure worthy of Sherlock Holmes. It makes childhood magical, and has the potential to make education relevant, fun, and engaging.

Sometimes I think: maybe school is not enough like Star Wars.

Rediscovering that autographed 8 x 10 back in a dusty box in my parents’ garage prompted the memory of what it felt like to be a kid and to be moved by the unexpected. I realize as an adult that surprises like that don’t happen by accident. My folks had gone out of their way to take me down to the car dealership. Someone had worked hard to make sure that Darth Vader was tall, looked and sounded “real,” and would leave every kid with something they could keep. At our best, we educators do something similar.

We work hard, we plan, and we ask ourselves how we can inspire and engage our students. When we’re successful we see our kids connect to the material and with each other. We see growth and wonder. We leave them with something that matters.

Emphasizing the imagination in our classrooms and at our schools (our students’ and our own) has the potential of improving our kids’ engagement with classes and community. Celebrating the imagination, whether it’s through a class project, a school activity, or an artistic enterprise is a way of helping our students see what is possible, know what they create matters, and understand that they can make a difference. This matters now more than ever.

Increasingly the stress of the world encroaches on our campuses. The news brings word of threats from a thousand directions, and whether it’s student protests or increased incidents of kids contemplating self harm, the reactions from our kids are real.

Recently my son and I watched The Last Jedi, an epic that merged my Star Wars and his. There were Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca. There were Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. And sure nostalgia made me happy when I saw Yoda, that marvelous puppet, on screen, but it was when I heard the wisdom of a new hero that I was most moved.

Intrepid Rose, that splendidly brave soul, after saving fellow hero Finn’s life, reminded him that the way forward was “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.”

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Words far more relevant than a long time ago or a galaxy far, far away, and how wonderful that they weren’t said by another white male character.

Like my son, I’m a Star Wars nerd, and with him I value the wonder of a child meeting Darth Vader, the imagination of putting together Legos, and the perspective that we live in a complicated world made better when we put our focus on what, and those, we love.

Jedi Academy

IMG_6774What if we hit each other with pool noodles?

It seemed like a sensible question.

A few weeks back a couple of my teachers got to talking about morale. It ebbs and flows at every school, even the best of them, as the demands of the day pile up and the pressures of making a difference in a job that matters so much grow and grow until very good people find themselves sleeping too little, eating too much, and not taking time for themselves.

The educators I know sometimes need to be reminded to give to themselves as much as they give to their students. They need to be encouraged to breathe and relax, go for a walk, laugh at something silly. Play.

So these intrepid teachers fell into conversation about what we could do at work to make our professional lives …happier.

They weren’t talking about a swelling soundtrack and larger than life event, just adding more of a sense of fun to what we do.

And then, like angels, or middle school teachers (and I believe the terms are very often interchangeable), they did something about it.

It started with crumpled paper, a couple of books, and a trash can. Making a game of it, they got together to bat a ball of paper back and forth, racing another team of hastily gathered teachers, to see who could get the paper in the can first. No double hitting! No catching the ball! Rules piled up to add a little challenge to the game.

And they laughed.

Hard.

IMG_6069Later that afternoon they came into  my office with a suggestion I couldn’t refuse.

After school a week later the empty halls echoed with the laughter of teachers playing. Our staff meeting paused long enough for us to break into teams, choose our own books, and get to slapping a ball of paper back and forth as we rushed toward garbage cans and victory.

Being the amazing organizers they are, those angels/middle school teachers ended the meeting with a chart inviting departments to sign up on to do “something fun.”

IMG_6733Since then we’ve had a salsa contest during a staff meeting and a chocolate tasting extravaganza that ran all day. One morning our counselors turned their office into a coffeehouse.

…and then…

The day arrived when our staff gathered in the theater, the lights dimmed, and the words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away…” Cue music (we did). Roll yellow words (we did). Welcome the staff to a day of lightsaber duels (heck, yeah).

We called teachers to the stage by random numbers, three at a time, each handed a pool noodle decorated to look like a lightsaber. They positioned themselves within small squares of blue tape situated onstage in front of the screen displaying scenes from Star Wars movies, sized up the opposition, and on the count of three-two-one started whapping each other.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.52.45 PMThe goal was to stay in the blue squares. Some did.

And on the way they laughed. The audience cheered, chomping on red vines as if they were watching a summer blockbuster, seeing their colleagues, now intrepid Jedi, wailing away.

After the first round we brought in double sided lightsabers and let them have at it again.

At the end of the afternoon, just fifteen minutes out of a busy day, applause.

The staff took time to appreciate our receptionist and my secretary, who had put so much effort into the event, and whose Princess Leia hair buns were one of the stars of the show.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 4.32.49 PMThey left smiling.

Those last three words matter so much. In a profession that can be taxing (important, life changing, rewarding, but difficult) to create opportunities for the adults who work with students to play, to laugh, to connect is vital to the health of a school.

To care for our schools we must care for our teachers.

This means many things: Teacher Appreciation Week, thank you notes, lunches provided by the parent organization, and more. It also means opportunities to be silly.

Morale will ebb and flow, that’s the world we live in, and it’s also the challenge we’re given to face those emotional highs and lows by supporting one another, taking the time to be kind, and doing our best to see the best in ourselves and each other.

…and sometimes it’s fun just to whap fellow Jedi with pool noodles.

Hope

photo-1-4On the day Carrie Fisher died I took my son to see the newest Star Wars movie. We were seven days into a road trip, tired from a week of hotel hopping, and worn out after a day that ended with an hour of LA traffic. He’d been sick, a flu that arrived on the 24th of December and had my wife and I spending part of Christmas deep in a discussion about the best way to remove vomit from a hotel carpet.

As we lugged our bags into the final room of the trip, my son, recently recovered, looked at his coughing mom and sister whose own eyes had the glassy redness of a youthful fever, and asked if we could go see Rogue One. It seemed like a really good idea.

So in an unfamiliar town, we left two sleeping loved ones and headed for the movies, our hopes set on some sort of relief from a rough patch of travel and sickness.

2016 has had a touch of that same feeling to it. Carrie Fisher’s death reminded me of the long line of artists and inspirations we’ve lost over the past calendar year: Leonard Cohen, Prince, Sharon Jones, and David Bowie. My favorite living novelist, Umberto Eco, living no longer, passed away the day after Harper Lee. Election season was rough on many of us, and even for a confessed optimist, I’ll admit that there have been days I’ve felt the spiritual equivalent of a long drive on the 210.

As an educator, however, I know how important it is to nurture that little bird that Emily Dickinson claimed “perches in the soul.” In our work with students, and teacher too, that we maintain a spirit of hope that Dickinson explains “sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.”

My students often remind me that even when things feel bleak in the alleged adult world, from the eyes of someone with so much life ahead of them the promise of the future more than outweighs any transitory struggles of the immediate present.

I wonder, did my generation give the same perspective to my parents the year they lost John Wayne, or Lucille Ball, or Wallace Stegner?

Whatever the case, it was my eight year old who coaxed me out of a comfortable hotel room, the tragic news of Princess Leia still new. His smile as we sat in the theater and saw those familiar words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” brought to mind the importance of seeing a perspective beyond our own.

I enjoyed Rogue One, an action movie in the Star Wars universe, through my son’s eyes, eyes that invited me to see a world of possibility. He in turn saw a diverse group of characters working together to make a difference, and doing so not because of their individual strength, but because they cared deeply, worked together, and never gave up.

How fitting that the final scene of the movie provided a familiar face, a young Princess Leia, smiling at the camera and talking about “hope.”

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Yoda Silences His Phone

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A gentle rain pushed through San Diego today, graying the skies enough to justify a pot of tea, a sweatshirt, and curling up on the couch to watch Star Wars with my eight year old son.

As educators, and maybe as humans, it’s easy to push and push and push and lose track of the importance of slowing to almost stopping and renewing ourselves. A good wet day helps.

So as Chewbacca howled and Han Solo shot stormtroopers, my son and I took time to be together and relax as more people took to computers and tablets, picked up their phones, and made Sunday a work day.

photo-2Back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie came out, technology wouldn’t support seven day work weeks. My dad, who worked hard, left his work phone on his desk; any connection with his office was severed by the time he pulled into our driveway.

Email had arrived by the time of the prequels, though fewer phones than today allowed folks to search “Darth Maul.”

By the time the force awakened, technology was so enmeshed in our lives that the line between home and work, free time and time on the clock, had a blurrier edge than Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. Left unchecked, it could cut as deep.

photo-3This isn’t to decry technology; good things aren’t limited to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. What these changes mean for me is that I need to set up boundaries on how much I stay connected to work in the evenings and on weekends. Being a high school principal means the opportunity to work is always there. Emails slow, but don’t stop, on Saturdays and Sundays, social media always beckons, and a text messages about school is perpetually ready to ping.

What would Yoda do?

He told Luke, that confused youngster of the first trilogy, “You will know when you are calm, at peace.”

That’s not plugged in. That’s not forgetting where we are or what we are doing.

I’m no Jedi, but slowing down and allowing myself to leave work at work, at least for a little while, is a lesson I’m ready to learn on a rainy day like today.

When Surrounded by Stormtroopers

I looked up from a cup of tea in the easy chair by my fireplace to realize that I was surrounded by stormtroopers. Scores of the little plastic menaces looked up at me from the hearth, an end table, and where they lay scattered across the rug like a scene from the battle of Agincourt.

photo 5Busy, distracted, or focused on other things, I hadn’t noticed the steady infiltration of white helmeted soldiers. Yet here they were.

It’s like that sometimes with change, the lobster boiled as the water in the pot goes from cold to hot. We don’t always notice how different things are until we blink hard in surprise at what we see around us.

In education I’ve seen this myself with regard to technology, professional growth, and even the culture of pressure that looks to overwhelm our campuses. I haven’t always been the first to notice changes, though I do work to wake up to the changed world around me.

That technology changes comes as no surprise; at one point technological advancement was a lice infested Viking pointing and grunting: “Hey, Thor made a spoon!” What can sneak up on us, however, are the new uses of technology, which sometimes come on ninja feet to scare us with their suddenness. Waking up to the potential of technology, or seeing others use technology in new ways, challenges us to make changes ourselves. We may be late to the party, I was with regard to Twitter, for instance, but we can move beyond our familiarity and expectations and see the advancements as a way to transform what we do.

The SAMR model articulates this well, urging that we not simply do the same things without paper, but do different things. This can be more difficult to put into practice than understand. I’m a principal now, but on the occasions that I have to develop lessons and teach classes, I find that it’s easier to use technology to support my preconceived ideas than it is to act on the potential of technology to unshackle me to try something entirely new. “Mind forged manacles,” Blake would call them. Stormtroopers.

photo 4 (2)As transformative as technology is, it accounts for just some of the difference in the professional lives of educators. Many have written more eloquently than I about the changes in culture that have brought teachers out of their isolated classrooms and into greater collaboration. For some this is PLCs, for others the emergence of Twitter and other online professional communities. I was never a teacher in the interconnected world of social media, but as a principal (who came to Twitter just a few years ago, late to the party, really) I’m continually amazed at the inspiration and information available around the clock.

Not only has blogging and using Twitter allowed me to access other points of view, it has also led to meaningful connections with educators around the country and around the world that make my practice richer.

If I were isolated now, it would be by choice, and not a very good choice. It’s being aware the world of education looks different than it did five or ten years ago, and that if I changed to embrace it I would have opportunities I couldn’t have had before, that has made a huge difference in who I am as an educator. No teacher or administrator has to think she is alone. We can find support, kindred spirits, and ongoing inspiration at the click of a mouse.

But not every change leads to greater connections and reassurance. About three years ago I looked up and realized just how much the pressure my students face has increased with regard to college admissions and academic success. Discussions about “too many AP classes” and the “Honors or no honors” debate aren’t new, but I realized that while I’d been busy with building a career and dealing with the day to day business of running a high school the world my students lived in had transformed into something very unlike the high school I knew as a kid.

Parents and students feel the pressure to succeed, and respond with good intentions and sometimes disastrous results. Defining where the pressure comes from is a tricky job, and one that may not have a certain answer, but what I did realize was that as a site administrator I needed to pay attention, take inventory of the true lay of the land, and get about the work of trying to help.

That I wasn’t on the forefront of technology, social media, or recognizing trends in adolescence wasn’t a damning failure, but could have been had I not recognized that I needed to adjust to new reality.

It’s okay to come out of our caves and look around. No one worth listening to will judge us for blinking in the light of the new day and trying to catch up with a world different than the one we grew up in.

If it is a little scary –the kids all have phones and they expect to use them in class, and on top of that my principal seems okay with it– there is no reason to panic.

photo 1 (9)The stormtroopers never win, at least not until they take off their helmets, hijack a TIE fighter, and try something unexpected, dangerous, and different.

Change.

It’s a reality full of potential, full of opportunity, and no more alarming than we let it be.

When you realize that you’re surrounded by stormtroopers, try something different.

Chewbacca in a Rocking Chair

photo 1I find it funny.

My ten year old daughter does not.

Even though her doll house sees less action than it did when she was younger, she still always notices when an uninvited houseguest takes up residence in the lovely pink plastic living room. I understand that nobody likes breaking and entering, but it’s hard to be too angry when the mysterious stranger in the rocking chair is Chewbacca.

These mixings of worlds never end well; find an Ovion in your purple minivan and he’s going to get thrown across the room into the basket of action figures. Yet, there is something to be said for embracing the unexpected.

photo 1 (7)We live in a world with less certainty than we’d like to imagine, good and bad. As educators, we do well to model a way of dealing with surprises by keeping a level head and open mind. Do we want the water main to break on a school day? Did we prepare for a tornado warning as school was about to let out? Probably not. It’s happening. We’re going to be okay.

Not all surprises are bad, nor are all unplanned.

I remember being surprised at a high school wrestling match I was supervising a few years ago when the band and cheerleaders showed up to support the team. Completely out of context, these well meaning masters of pep arrived at the gym in time to see the house lights turned off and a spotlight descend over the mat in the center of the floor.

The band hurried through the school fight song before being quieted by the referee; wrestling meets are no place for trumpets and drums. The cheerleaders found that none of their basketball cheers worked. In context of the action on the mat, a few even sounded naughty. And then something cool happened.

The wrestling team brought out team shirts for all the girls on the cheer squad. They put them on and sat at the edge of the mat, eschewing coordinated cheers, and clapping and shouting encouragement along with the rest of the crowd.

They were in an unexpected situation, but adapted, and I like to believe that the experience was good for both the cheerleaders and the wrestlers.

In the same way, I believe that it’s good when students see their teachers (or, in my case, their principal) out in the real world. It may feel disarming to spot one of us in the aisle at Target, but there’s something humanizing about knowing that the principal buys cat food, goes to the same burrito joint, or takes his kids to the same beach as they go to.

photo 2The unexpected has a place on campus too. Just this winter our homeroom classes have been delighted by a school wide scavenger hunt, our ASB organized an event that saw our entire student body encircle campus holding hands, and our Spanish Club put on a “snow day” (on one of our sunny and 70 degree days). All brought a sense of fun to our students, and in their own ways made our school life richer.

And so I raise my glass to the unexpected. Here’s to finding Chewbacca in our rocking chairs!