Locals

“Dad, are we locals?”

It was the Monday before the first day of school and my nine year old son and I were eating breakfast. I looked at him and answered his question with a confused “Huh?” We’d moved from a place where such things mattered, but we weren’t in the surfing queue at Swami’s; this was our kitchen table in Portland.

“Locals,” he repeated, pointing out or window at a construction sign across the street:

ROAD CLOSED
TO THRU TRAFFIC
LOCAL ACCESS ONLY

I smiled at him. “Yeah, we’re locals,” I assured him. And in the road construction sense we are.

IMG_4132But as the first week of classes unfolded and I watched my own kids adjusting to new schools, wincing at their anxieties and the moments when a drop of kindness could have gone so far, that question from over our cereal bowls came back to me and my answer felt less certain.

As educators we talk a lot about climate and culture, and creating a space where everyone feels welcome. At our best we build systems to support our students, create opportunities for each to feel they are part of the greater school community, and encourage everyone on our campuses to demonstrate kindness to one another.

But… in the hurly burly of the start of the year, how easy it is to let that focus slip. There are classes to start, procedures to review, activities to organize.

That sign and my son’s question echoed in my opening week consciousness, prompting me as a principal to ask (with a sense of paternal urgency): What more can we do to welcome kids to our school?

Certainly we do a few things right: an ice cream social just before the only Back to School Night I know of that encourages students to attend with their parents, particularly those new to our school; silly yearbook photos on registration day; and a “first day” of school (before the whole student body shows up) for every student new to ACMA no matter what grade they’re in.

I also know there is more we can do.

So right now some of our students are filling our hallways with messages of love as part of the Kindness Challenge, our Spirit Committee is working on ideas to make the start of the school year welcoming for all, and classroom by classroom our teachers are getting to know students, perhaps the most important welcome of all.

Can we do more? Of course. Every school does well when it makes the decision to embrace new students wholeheartedly and recognize that very real feeling Maya Angelou captured when she wrote: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As a principal it’s my job to look for the good in people and keep a firm vision of the best school my school can be. This is never more important than when students step on campus for the first time and find themselves in the freefall of figuring out their place in a new world. It’s at these times that a smile or “hello” can mean so much, when going out of one’s way to help can make a difference for a student’s whole experience. This is the time to let them know that they are safe and cared for and can be themselves.

It’s my goal, and a hope I have for the amazing students and staff around me, to do all we can to make the answer “yes” when a new student finishes her first week at ACMA and asks: “Am I a local?”

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First Things

The kids spoke first. Before we talked about mission or vision, before the new principal, me, did his best to introduce himself, and before we ticked through the “to do” list of the first week back, four intrepid students stood up in front of the staff, looked all of us in the eye, and reminded us what really mattered.

IMG_4070 (1)Truth be told, only three were able to be in the library that Monday morning, the first day back on campus for teachers still wearing shorts and summer tans. Four had met with me over the summer and we’d talked about what makes our school special, the anxiety and stress students face, and the messages they would share with the adults in their lives if given the opportunity.

They were messages of hope, honestly told, and stories about their own first days at ACMA when their anxiety was high and the biggest reassurances came from their teachers.

So on that first day back, as the staff settled in after a pancake breakfast, the first speakers of the morning were the kids. They were awesome.

As one student stood up and told the staff, “Some students face problems beyond being new to ACMA, though- difficult home lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, life changes like divorce or moving, or even something as simple as applying for colleges, and everything else that comes with that. For these students and all students, you’re something we can count on every single day we show up. This may be the most stability they’re getting at this point in their lives. And undoubtedly, many count on you for that whether they show it or not. Students are always listening. Not always when we want them to, but they are. Things that you say, even offhanded or trivial things can change a student’s entire perspective, for the better or the worse. And that’s a powerful thing, knowing that our relationships can change someone’s day, their year, their life.”

Another empathized with his teachers, explaining, “I’m actually also a teacher. I’m a gymnastics coach at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy. Now, I’m not trying to say that i’m on the same level as you guys, I mean, the most education that I have is sophomore year of high school. However, in other ways, our jobs are pretty similar. I grade them on their drills, and I make progress reports for them to take home. And according to them, I’m also in my 40s. But above all that, they see me as a role model. They reflect the energy that I put out there all the time. If I’m positive and I’m being a good cheerleader, they catch on, and they see that since I love what I do, they should love it too. And when you guys show that we should respect and trust the people around us, we begin to to do the same with our peers.”

A third told the teachers, “You change our lives, and not always with what subject you’re teaching but with how you support us. I want to thank you for the influence you’ve had on me, and I hope that you will continue to have a positive influence on each student who comes to school next week.”

The staff listened.

This was the reason we do what we do: students.

…and then they invited us outside to play.

The almost fifty adults followed our student leaders out to the quad where they circled us up and invited us to join in on a theater game called “Freeze!” As one student explained, this was a game that invited us to avoid the word “no” and concentrate on embracing the idea of “yes, and…” as we extended the impromptu scene.

IMG_4064Laughing together, we did our best to do just that, teachers tapping in to perform scenes from ACMA life and relishing the opportunity to have fun with each other.

When we finished, the students brought us back inside and reminded us that that feeling of nervousness that we felt before we jumped into the game, those butterflies in our stomach, were not unlike what so many of our students would be feeling the next week when they arrived for classes. We, the adults who would welcome them, could make a difference.

We got it. Yes, and…

I said that only three of the four student were able to come to our meeting, but that’s not quite the truth. At our last summer planning session the fourth, a young filmmaker, realized that she had to be out of town that morning, so she made a video we could play for teachers. Her earnestness and caring, projected on the screen in the library that morning, captured the essence of what is right about “kids today.”

Looking out from that screen and into our hearts, that fourth student spoke her truth.

Don’t underestimate your influence,” she told the teachers. “You have the power to potentially change a student’s life.”

I think that starting our school year together as a staff by listening to students helped to set the tone for the months ahead. Laughing and interacting with kids and colleagues reminded us that we are all in this together, a professional family working toward the same goal: supporting our students and each other.

Silly

One of the best gifts a new principal can get is a copy of the most recent yearbook. Beyond seeing what matters most to a school (the football team gets two pages; the drama club gets one) it’s the rows of school photos that help the most by providing a cheat sheet by which to learn names.

How happy I was then when last June I visited ACMA, my new home, and not only did I get to spend a full day on campus, but on my way out the yearbook advisor presented me with a copy of The Spectrum. I would know every teacher’s name by the first staff meeting, I thought. So prepared.

Now at ACMA the unexpected is expected, the unconventional is commonplace, and as if to underscore that fact, when I got back to my hotel after an amazing ACMA dance recital, I saw that like so much of what we do here, the faculty mug shots were just a little different.

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These were not going to help me learn names.

What the staff photos were, however, were perfect windows into the playful soul of a place with an imagination large enough to contain professional quality art, profound learning, and an unapologetic sense of whimsy.

IMG_4022Fast forward to this fall, and our registration day before the start of the year. We had all the usual stations: paperwork, bookkeeping, class schedule pick up, and ID card photos, and then, at the end of the line, tucked in a dressing room in the back of the theater, two yearbook students with a pile of props and a camera welcomed every soul coming to ACMA with a smile and the invitation to do something out of the ordinary.

Anxiety melted from many of our incoming sixth graders’ faces as they heard from two smiling teachers and the yearbook kids: “Here at ACMA we take silly yearbook photos!” Some of our returning students grinned as they pulled out their own props. Two girls took their yearbook photo holding their pet pug.

Never in my life have I laughed so much on registration day.

The next week that laughter returned as we ended our staff meeting with a photo shoot and a baby shower. Unrelated, except for joy.

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Like the kids, our staff grabbed hats and glasses, wigs, buckets, and clown noses and created their own bit of silliness as we posed for the yearbook photographers. One of my favorite parts of that day was seeing the kids taking the pictures laughing at the teachers, just big kids themselves.

When we stepped out front of the school to take our staff photo, a brand new baby and a few little kids joined us. Unapologetic whimsy.

In this serious world, and in a profession that matters so very much, I am thankful every day that I work at a place that makes room for the ridiculous.

It’s true that we can take what we do (art, teaching, learning) seriously and ourselves a little less so.

And if our yearbook makes it harder to learn names, then the playfulness inside does something else, something maybe more important. It serves as a reminder that laughter and fun have a place in everything we do. To forget that would be silly.

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Learning to Sail

Fall is a season of hope, optimism, and fresh beginnings. At a school it’s a time of new backpacks, unsharpened pencils, and the promise of experiences to come.

There is no doubt that the celebrations of June, graduation being the greatest, bring days of joy, but I’ve always loved August and September the most …and the possibilities they suggest.

Ahead of us is a year of learning, connecting, and engaging with life and each other. What that year will look like we’d be foolish to predict, but with a spirit that embraces the unexpected and belief that all will be well, the journey ahead is as inviting as it is exciting.

little womenWill there be struggles? Yes. This is life after all. But as Louisa May Alcott reminded us in Little Women, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” So are we all.

This year I know a number of folks, including myself, who are sailing the ships of new schools. For us, understanding our school’s culture and how we can contribute to it is high up on the checklist of autumn.

Whether we’re new students, teachers, or even principals like me, when we know what’s best about our school and how we can help to support the angels of our school’s better nature, we have the opportunity to make a difference.

I wish for everyone “new” the connections with others that allow that understanding to emerge and those opportunities to flourish. I wish for those returning to familiar seas a fair breeze and the urge to welcome everyone with a bellow of love.

I once worked for a superintendent who greeted us each fall with a hearty “Happy New Year!” I heard in that refrain the feeling of freedom that comes from a fresh start, a new opportunity, and a chance to begin again, informed by the past but not shackled to it. It is in August and September that we feel the sense of hope that comes when we look around our school and see kindred spirits, curiosity, and creativity, and we know that storms or not, we are setting sail on this adventure together.

Stagecraft

IMG_3757They’re building a set. In another room the actors are doing a read through, talking about characters, and thinking about what they’ll bring to the production, but here in the scene shop the power saws are buzzing, paint cans are being pried open, and the students are working on designs for a ramp, a pageant stage, and a backdrop versatile enough to be a bedroom in one scene and an office in another. When it’s all put together it has the potential to be fantastic.

There’s an old quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln that I overused years ago and thought of again when I was visiting the theater this July to talk with students in the summer production of Smile. He’s to have said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Quotations are slippery things, particularly those given to Einstein, Lincoln, and Yogi Berra, but this one always struck me as having enough merit to put into a presentation or a post. The preparation we do ahead of a project, whether it’s constructing backdrops, flies, and flats for a theatrical production or getting ready for the start of school, is some of the most vital work we do all year.

IMG_3689July and early August are a time in the principal’s office when a skeleton staff and a freedom from daily emergencies provide the time and space to reflect, dream, and anticipate. These are not unlike the moments of wild creativity when the theater techs review the script, talk with the director, and start coming up with ideas, wild schemes, and grand visions of what might be possible in service to the story.

A good principal should do the same.

This summer, one of transition for me as I moved across state lines to a be the principal of a new school, has proven to be one that puts that Lincoln adage to the test. So as I watched the theater techs discuss possibilities, collaborate to design sets, and improvise in service of their larger vision, I thought about my own work across campus (in an office still filled with boxes) and what I needed to do to build the proverbial set for the school year.

The first best thing I could do was listen. Just as the tech theater students listened to their director and each other, I needed to pay attention to what those around me had to say. From the many conversations with my classified staff, my assistant principal, parents who stopped by, and students I could talk with, I learned more and more about the strengths, needs, and magic of my new school.

The next step was to internalize those ideas, bounce them off trusted sources and reach out for more information. I reached out to teachers and counselors and got a great email back from one teacher with a strikingly honest and heartfelt perspective on the school and more than a few others with offers of help. The passion I saw from these educators about the students they work with and the school where they work was inspiring. Their energy promised a great start to the year.

I took those ideas and began to plan for our first meeting as a staff. With the help of those who were around me, I began building the agenda for our first days together, incorporating the ideas from the staff and the “must dos” of the district plan. I invited students to come speak at our first staff meeting, and tried to think of some ways to make our time together as fun as it was informative.

I jumped at the opportunity to join a team of teachers on a week long AVID Summer Institute, arranged a pizza lunch for any staff members around this summer, and have done my best to keep myself open to hearing everyone. Interviewing for a new counselor gave me a great day of connecting with my counseling team, who joined me and my AP for the process. Person by person, drop in visit by drop in visit I got to meet many of the members of my new school community.

A great message from another teacher reminded me that in my first year on campus listening was important, but articulating who I was mattered as well. As he said in a beautifully eloquent note, “we are all impatient to get to know you better.” Me too. I’ve been sharpening for a long time now, and I’m ready to swing the axe.

Back to those students in the theater…

techs

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful construction literally set the stage for the great things to come.

My work, I hope, paralleled theirs.

And now… the paint on the sets is almost dry, the lights are ready to dim, and the curtain is about to go up. The stage is set; next comes the grand production that is our year ahead.

Teacher Prep Day

The heroes arrived today
and I had the privilege of
making them pancakes.

Scores of teachers
many new
meeting those who know
and love
this school
as if it were their home
because it is

as it will be for hundreds of students
on Tuesday
who
without the benefit of pancakes
flipped by their principal

(because that would be so many pancakes)

will arrive at school
eager to see each other
ready for the fireworks of life
and excited to learn

from those heroes.

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Cowboy Boots

“Now you can start wearing cowboy boots!”

It’s a running joke, foisted upon me by a friend and fellow principal who described the benefit of starting a new job. “They don’t really know you,” he explained a lifetime ago when I moved to a new school. “If you show up on your first day wearing cowboy boots, they won’t ask why, they’ll just know you as the guy who wears cowboy boots.”

“But I don’t wear cowboy boots,” I answered.

“No, but you could!”

I received an email from him again when I got my new position this summer, one line: “Cowboy boots?”

Now, I will not be showing up on my first day wearing cowboy boots, or sporting a beard, or any of the other options for a new look. I’m pretty comfortable with the imperfect, sneaker wearing person I currently am. That email, though, got me thinking about the great opportunity we have each year as educators to start fresh, redefining (at least in part) who we are and how we work with kids, parents, and each other.

Our superintendent likes to greet us all each August with a hearty “Happy New Year!” And it is. Summers have a way of washing away the accumulated grime of a rough and tumble school year, and as teachers and students return to school in the fall they bring with them the feeling that great things are possible.

Not every profession has this fresh start built into it, but it truly is one of the nice realities of education. We bring with us all the wisdom we gathered and built over the past year (and years) and add to that the energy that comes from having a few weeks away from our usual workaday world.

Like our students, we have an opportunity to set goals for the year ahead and begin again. This isn’t to say that we’re completely different people than we were in June, but we do have the possibility to define ourselves for a new group of students, and even for ourselves, in a way that brings us a little closer to being the people we aspire to be.

So I prepare to enter my twenty-second year in education with a fresh outlook, new ideas, and an old pair of shoes.