Frus-xcited

It’s the best word I’ve heard invented to describe what a lot of us are feeling. Frus-xcited. So mixed, some of these emotions. There’s the usual anticipation of the beginning of the school year, the joy of seeing teachers I haven’t seen since last spring, reconnecting with students who have grown like nobody’s business over the summer, and settling in to the wild rumpus that is the start of school. This year that “seeing and reconnecting” is being done through a computer screen, or in rare face(mask) to face(mask) events like the drive through materials pick up or outdoor school photo day. Those connections are certainly better than nothing, but still. We’re all yearning to be together, but know that we can’t be, not in the same way anyway, and that leaves some of us feeling a little off balance, disconnected, anxious.

I think both sets of feelings are valid, and the reality is that they both coexist in many of us right now. Frus-xcited. Yep. That’s the new normal.

And… 

What we do with those emotions is our choice. If we reach out to others, allow ourselves to look forward to some of the possibilities that lie ahead, and take the time to think about how we can help those around us feel better, then maybe, just maybe, the emphasis can be on the second syllable of our newly imagined word.

Because the start of the school year, no matter how it starts, is a chance for a new beginning. It brings with it opportunities to meet new people, learn new things, and change in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year before.

The start of a school year is a chance to shout: “Happy New Year!” and be met with smiles from the educators and students who know the truth: this is a new year. This is the start of a winding path that we get to travel together, maybe through some sinister woods, perhaps meeting a dragon or two along the way, but ultimately ending in something that we’ll look back on in the years ahead as a grand adventure.

JRR Tolkien’s words from The Lord of the Rings, an epic from an earlier time, resonate with me today: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

So to anyone feeling frus-xcited, welcome to the 2020-2021 school year. Allow yourself to feel, give yourself permission to speak honestly, and know you are not alone. We can do this, whatever this is, if we do this together.

“I can’t imagine not being there…”

The five am wakeup felt familiar. The day teachers come back to campus after summer vacation is (for me as a principal) my first day of school. I still get butterflies, and probably always will, before the year begins. That’s normal, I suppose; I want so much to get things off to a good start. 

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But this year the teachers didn’t come back to campus proper. My early trip to my office, pausing for a predawn selfie, was followed not by my usual pancake breakfast for the staff and gathering in the library, but by a Zoom meeting where teacher faces looked back at me from kitchen tables, extra bedrooms, and makeshift offices from Portland to Forest Grove.

More than a few cats and kids joined us for the morning, and the playful banter in the chat was a nice reminder that even though we were discussing what is an unusual (and unusually stressful) start of the school year, we’re all friends here and ready to support one another.

That caring and support was a highlight of the morning. People were real when they talked about what made them anxious, what was keeping them up at night, and what they were feeling about the year ahead, and when someone suggested the importance of each of us helping each other (with new technology, planning for distance learning, and how best to connect with kids) the avalanche of volunteers who put their cell phone numbers into the chat to make it easy to connect was profound.

We’ll be okay, better than okay really, because we honestly care for each other and are there to help everyone succeed. And when we don’t succeed I’m convinced we’ll be there to help each other pick up the pieces.

It was this spirit of professional generosity that moved me most on this “first day of school” and reminded me of the very special school community that I’m so fortunate to be a part of. 

I never take that for granted, but after a couple of months away from campus to see my staff together, even in boxes on a screen, felt really, really good.

It was a perfect follow up to the email I received from an incoming student the night before:

I am so excited for this year at ACMA! Obviously this is not how I imagined my first day of 6th grade going but we all are making the best of this situation. I worked so hard to get into this school and am looking forward to my experience. I have heard nothing but positives about ACMA and I can’t imagine not being there. I have wanted to go to this school for as long as I could remember. I am so excited to meet you and the teachers and excited to work with all of you. Can’t wait to start ACMA in two weeks!”

I’m looking forward to the year ahead too, and to all the people —staff, students, and families— I get to spend time with. We may not be in the same building, at least not for a little while, but we’re still here for each other. 

Let the wild rumpus start.

Sorcery

The going from a world we know
To one a wonder still
Is like the child’s adversity
Whose vista is a hill,
Behind the hill is sorcery
And everything unknown,
But will the secret compensate
For climbing it alone?
                     —Emily Dickinson

Any artist knows that true magic is just another name for art. Art compels us to think differently, feel deeply, and see beyond the world we already know.

Artists are the sorcerers of our age, and as our ACMA community leaves the campus we’ve known as home for nearly three decades, it will be our artists who will reassure us that as we climb the hill …to our temporary campus on 118th Avenue. All will be well. Much will be magic.

This, I think, will be true in part because, unlike in Dickinson’s poem, we are not climbing the hill alone.

In our school we have community. Our school is filled with kindred spirits, challenging foils, and fellow travelers. Yes, we are moving away from the comfortable environs of our original campus, but we’ll be back, and when we are (in the fall of 2021) what experiences we will bring with us from our wondrous sojourn up that hill beyond our former vista.

I know, I know, it’s just a big empty building, gargantuan space that will open as a middle school proper in the fall of 2021. One look at the yellow trim and aqua lockers and you’ll accuse me of purple prose. I’ll own that.

Because I think it’s the artistic spirit that clings to the students and staff of our quirky art school that will transform our temporary home into something more.

There is a sorcery to what we do akin to Prospero on Shakespeare’s island. There is a fairy dust that will make the wide hallways sing, turn the auxiliary gym into a dance studio, and make the canary yellow trim glow like a sunrise.

Well, maybe high noon. It is really yellow.

And as much as I will hold a place in my heart for our original CE Mason Elementary building, I know that it isn’t our campus that makes us who we are.

It is us. Together.

On the final day of our last school year a student handed me a drawing.

We are ACMA

We are ACMA.

That’s the truth, and it’s a reassuring one.

Climbing the hill of uncertainty together, that truth in our collective heart, we are invited to think about our journey in a way we might not have before. Yes, we feel the elixir of emotions that come with change, and… this new world is a place ready for art. And us, the sorcerers.

Brilliant Color

No matter how you cut it, the summer weeks at a school happen in grayscale; it’s only technicolor on campus when the students are back.

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This summer at our school was busy, no doubt. We packed up our whole campus, said goodbye to a building that we loved (despite, or at times because of its funkiness and old age), and moved eleven minutes up the road to a beautiful new campus that we’ll call home for the next two school years.

“ACMA at 118th” we call it, a reference to our temporary address, and a reminder that in the fall of 2021 we’ll be back to just being “ACMA” again, that quirky, creative, and amazing little school tucked away up on Center Street.

July saw the gym fill with boxes, nine semi trucks deliver high school sized furniture that had to be put together, and a team of dedicated professionals clean the school from top to bottom. In my quarter century in education I have never started the year with a more spick-and-span campus. It was beautiful and despite the aggressively yellow trim, grayscale.

Until the kids arrived.

The first few came in during early August, our student government execs brimming with ideas and excitement about the year ahead.

A week later a small burst of new students arrived for the morning, phoned by our registrar to be given the good news that a spot had opened and their names had been pulled from the waitlist. They were ACMAniacs, if they chose to accept it. They did. Smilingly.

National Honor Society kids came next. They’d be tour guides on ACMA Day, and I got to take them around the school. “This is amazing,” one commented. “And huge.” Seeing them see the spaces they’ll use to perform plays, create art, and keep our ACMA spirit alive was fantastic.

IMG_0864More students arrived to help hang artwork, posters of the murals that had filled our original building and would provide a familiar sense of home at this new building.

Others volunteered to help unload boxes, sort keys, and be the hands of ACMA as we prepared to start starting to prepare starting for the first day of school.

These slices of color began to brighten our school, still a translucent rainbow against the gray, but the start of the color to come.

Then, just two weeks before the first day of school, ACMA Day brought more than 600 of our students onto campus to pick up class lists, take tours, and get their photos taken (both for their ID cards and silly photos for the yearbook). For a day campus felt as colorful as a Tahitian painting by Gauguin, a preview of the year ahead.

IMG_0873Back to School Night came a week later. Here at ACMA we to it before the first day of school, and it was fabulous. Seeing so many students and their families on campus, meeting teachers, seeing the spaces where they’ll be learning, and filling the building with optimism and energy was inspiring.

Today every student new to ACMA came to campus. We filled the commons for a welcome, broke into groups to get to know each other and our school, and let the kids go through their whole schedule to help take away some of the anxiety that accompanies starting at a new school. ACMA will feel familiar soon, and it’s up to us to help build that sense of welcome and community.

20190903_084228Tomorrow everyone arrives, and with them ACMA blossoms with the full range of colors. If the year is a painting, and at our little art school that feels like as apt a metaphor as any, then tomorrow is when we pick up our full palette and get ready to put brush to canvas. Our year together begins, and with it a brilliant explosion of color.

Truth

I was up at 2:00 am and then again at 3:30. By 5:05 I was out of bed, and by 5:30 I was standing outside my school marveling at how dark it was with no exterior lights on anywhere. This is my 25th year as an educator, my 13th as a site administrator, and I still can’t sleep before the first day of school.

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Now truth be told, there weren’t many kids on campus today; this “first day of school” for me as a principal is the day my staff comes back from summer. They’re a wildly nice bunch, almost all of whom I’ve worked with now for years, and… and I still couldn’t sleep last night.

It’s not that I was nervous, not exactly. I had confidence that the day we’d put together would be a good one (starting with breakfast and ending with a scavenger hunt), and… it would be a lie to say I was relaxed, or calm, or not nervous. And I think that’s okay.

I write a lot in this collection of posts about what it’s like to be a principal, and about lots of the good stuff that comes with being an educator. That’s all true, and… I hope that for anyone reading who is an administrator or teacher, or heck, a student or parent too, that I don’t give the idea that this is easy. It’s not.

Doing a good job in this important work means being a little nervous, not just in your first year or your second, but in your 25th, and I’m sure 26th, and I’d guess until the last first day of school at the end of your career.

It doesn’t mean that fear has to be a part of the job, or anxiety, or panic. Then what did you have, you’ll ask, healthy insomnia? Well, at least an understanding that it’s okay to care so much about getting off to a good start that waking up a couple of times before that first day is okay, human, a part of this grand adventure. At least for me.

Then, several cups of coffee later… today went well.

My staff was rich with kindness, deep with caring, and light with humor. They smiled generously, participated in our work together willingly, and reminded me as they always do why I’m the luckiest principal in the world.

I hope all of the principals out there, and assistant principals, and teachers, and all of the educators who feel their blood pressure rise a little before the curtain goes up on another year can take a deep breath and believe that as challenging as this whole thing is, they’ll be okay. Sure, you might be a little short on sleep that first day back, but all will be well. Honest.

I’ll bring coffee.

Like Rick Always Said…

Every August as I prepare for the start of the school year (planning the opening staff meeting, making piles of new staff t-shirts, and figuring out what I’ll say when I get to welcome or welcome back the amazing staff and students) the words of one of my former superintendents come back to me: “Happy New Year!”

He started every welcome back administrator meeting with the line, smiling in a way that didn’t insinuate he was trying to be clever, but rang with genuine excitement.

IMG_0689Because every fall is an exciting beginning to a new year. Last year’s struggles have had the summer to slip away. Last year’s mistakes have had a couple of months to turn into something like wisdom, experience at least, and the pain of those errors and missteps have (we hope) transmogrified into cautionary tales.

Gone too are last year’s successes. Those events that went right, those challenges we rose to, those too are beginning to take on the sepia of age. If we’re to make the most of this year, we oughtn’t stay back in the past; those same fields of victory could prove disastrous if we imagine that we can simply repeat what we did before without thinking about it. 

The one exception to this slow fading are the relationships we’ve built. The friendships, the respect, the begrudging acceptance that we forged in the fire of year past are our new starting point in August. These are the faces who know us a little better today than they did last August, the good people who may even smile when we turn to them in the next week or two and say: “Happy New Year!”

So to all of my educator friends, to all my students and parents too, to everyone who, like me, is getting ready to shake the sand from our shoes and put the sunscreen away, I wish you a year of adventure, of connection, and of community. I hope your lessons go as planned, or better yet that they surprise you in wonderful ways when they don’t go as you planned them.

I hope you laugh often and much as you move through the hallways and that your laughter is shared with others. I hope that when you look up in December and then again in June you can say to yourself that the good days outnumbered the tears.

Because there will be tears. They’re a part of the process of being human, and maybe, just maybe, being better humans at the end of the year than we were at the start. Empathy and compassion happen under the direction of stress, and while I can’t wish my friends a year free of hard times, I can hope that I (and others too) will be there to help dry those tears, patch the cuts, and look forward with you at a future bright with possibility.

That promise of something better fills schools in August. It motivates us to develop big plans, imagine great enterprises, and say to each other, with real excitement: “Happy New Year!”

Infectious Exuberance

This morning a group of students filled my office with their positive energy and vision for the year ahead. My first summer meeting with the elected officers is always a treat and this year it provided a jolt of excitement ahead of the run up to the start of school.

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For a couple of weeks I’ve been at my desk planning the opening days when teachers return, fine tuning the master calendar, and thinking about the first week with students. All of those plans, which look good on my computer screen, but feel a world away from the action that will arrive with students, paused as I listened to these fantastic student leaders talk me through the series of events, the schemes to support school spirit, and the vision for a fantastic ACMA that they’ve been working on all summer.

Like me, they’ve been planning, and as they gave voice to those plans it was inspiring to hear the passion behind their ideas and the dedication to bringing those ideas into action.

2018-2019 will see events focused on helping students tell their stories, make connections to the school and each other, and show pride in who they are and this special school we call home.

I’ll let the students introduce their plans themselves, but as I wrote notes on my calendar during our meeting I kept thinking: these students have a plan and the power to make our school a better place every month!

I was particularly happy to hear the students talking about opportunities for our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to share artwork, participate in events on campus, and contribute to the positive atmosphere of our school. I loved the focus on community, the celebration of all art forms, and the importance of play.

The students also talked about smart choices to best get information to students and share a window into our world with the broader community. Heck, this meeting made me consider getting on Instagram to be sure not to miss out on some of the fun.

With less than a month before teachers return to campus, spending the morning with students energized me more than anything else I’m likely to do this summer. Those same students will be the first voices my teachers hear when they come back this fall; they’ve agreed to lead our staff through a couple of activities designed to reinforce the importance of human connections between students and staff. I have no doubt that the staff will find them as inspiring as I did today.

As July turns into August it’s time to shift gears from the more relaxed pace of summer to the growing excitement of the start of school. There is no better time on campus than those sunny days of early fall, and I’m over the moon excited to be sharing this journey with such amazing students!

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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