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.


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…


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
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.

photo 3 (9)


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.

Hello, my name is BJORN

The first two days. This year mine will be spent with a new staff, at a school new to me, doing my best to make a good first impression. I’ll be striving to let people know who I am, and beginning to start beginning to start beginning to get to know the professional community I have the privilege of working with as their new principal.

I’m excited.

…and a little nervous.

My first two days with teachers come at the end of August, when we’ll gather to talk about WHY, WHAT, and HOW we work together to best help our students prepare for a changing world. They are important questions with uncertain answers, and while I love the fact that I get to spend my first two days working on them with teachers, I’m mindful that for some of the folks, I’m simply a new face, as unfamiliar as a man walking into an elevator.

So while we’re talking about teaching and learning, I’ll do my best to help my teachers know who I am, a fellow traveler on this adventure of education. I’ll listen and learn who they are, some known to me from great reputation, some already friends, and some as new to SDA as I will be.

Most importantly, I look forward to using the first two days to find out who we are. Establishing a cohesive and caring professional community is one of the most important first steps in helping students learn and a school meet its potential for making a difference.

Students arrive the next week, and I’m already thinking about the ways I’ll connect with them in the first two days of classes. I know those connections will take tim and will be built over months of lunches, plays, concerts, games, and being in classrooms. I know I’ll do my best to teach a bit, even in the busy world of high school administration, and that I want my students to see me as an ally. Put simply, I want to be the principal I’d want my own kids to have.

The first two days are just that: two days. I’d be silly to say that they’ll define my year, but I am committed to using them as best I can to articulate a tone of openness, caring, and possibility.

My School

964On the day I moved into my office at Diegueño, a hot morning in July when I had to put on a hard hat to step on campus and navigate demolition that made the space on the other side of my window look like a scene from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Diegueño did not feel like my school. Not yet.

Two weeks later, as my office staff joined me in a building without reliable power or data, Diegueño was beginning to feel like a school again, but not quite my school. Not yet.

Teachers returning from summer vacation began to crack the ice, moving the experience from theoretical to real. As we began our year together with a pancake breakfast by Cougar Hall, their welcoming faces made me feel like this would be home. The kindness shown me by my amazing staff spoke to good things to come, but it still felt like their school -almost our school- not yet my school.

The staff shirts I’d ordered back in July hadn’t come in yet, and I couldn’t quite feel like I’d put my stamp on Diegueño. Not yet. I was new like the dozen or so teachers who hadn’t been at Diegueño the year before. We were all now members of a great school community, but I felt like I still had miles to go before it was my school.

Kids arriving made the biggest difference. Their ready smiles, high fives, and fist bumps turned the first weeks of school into a celebration. We all found our rhythm of learning together, with highlights like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Sidewalk CPR, and a fun Back to School Night.

The school I welcomed parents to on that evening in September was one that I was proud to be part of, but I still felt new, like a boy in his father’s suit, the collar a little loose, and the brim of the fedora over my eyes.

waterOctober arrived and with it opportunities to welcome our greater community to campus to celebrate student work and great improvements brought to us by Proposition AA.

That “us” of October was real; I felt a part of Diegueño. The staff shirts still hadn’t arrived (the bureaucracy of billing can touch even the best places), but our sense of each other as a school family had. I felt it when I joined teachers for lunch or at gatherings like the Math department’s dessert party. I felt it when I walked into classrooms and was greeted by the students and teachers with smiles and invitations to join in. I felt it when I worked with my PTSA to discuss plans about the great things we could do together for our kids.

And then, as I was going along feeling like a real Diegueñian, I had something happen that hit me as the moment when Diegueño became my school.

I’d discussed adding some vinyl signs to the new security fences to soften the burnished metal look a bit. PTSA had been kind enough to order them, and I stood in front of the school with my ASB director, campus supervisor, plant manager, and a student deciding where to hang the signs. In addition to a sign with the traditional (and honestly kind of spooky) image of our mascot, one smaller sign welcoming folks to Diegueño carried a line drawing of what some of the students had called a “friendly cougar.” I liked that; my hope with this sign was to show a version of our mascot with a twinkle in its eye and a look of welcome. I’d sketched the face while I was sitting in a meeting and rolled the dice of hubris in deciding to put it on a banner. Seeing that friendly face get zip-tied to the fence I felt like I’d arrived.

photo (17)My real legacy will be defined by the great teachers I’ve hired and the culture of community I strive every day to nurture and develop. The difference I make will come as a result of a dogged determination to help students succeed, and help teachers, parents, and kids all feel a part of something great. But still, as my student held the sign and my plant manager tied it to the fence I had the overwhelming feeling of being home wash over me.

And I realized that Diegueño isn’t just my school; I’m Diegueño’s.

My Glorious Night as a Human Directional

As a teacher I loved Back to School Night. The rush of meeting scores of curious parents, seeing the care and interest these parents had for their kids, and the thrill of showing off the great things that were happening (and going to happen) in the classroom I shared with their students was a powerful (if maybe a little exhausting) experience. When I left the classroom and put on the tie of an assistant principal, I found myself uncertain exactly what to do at these events. I knew I wasn’t the draw; parents wanted to meet teachers and be in classrooms. I was, at best, a human directional, pointing folks to the right buildings. Tomorrow night I get to experience my first Back to School Night as principal of Diegueño Middle School, and I have that feeling of excitement welling up that I used to get as a teacher.

I know that the parents still aren’t here to see me; this is a night to celebrate the teaching and learning that is going on in classrooms, but as the fellow who gets to stand up (albeit briefly) in front of parents and welcome them to campus I’m like a proud parent before his daughter’s inauguration as president.

It may not be the best analogy; many of the teachers at Diegueño have been here longer than I have. They’ve been the fabric of the strong and beautiful tapestry that is our school for years. These teachers will impress parents with their wisdom, passion, and sense of fun. Diegueño’s veterans are a band of gifted educators who have welcomed me, as they welcome their new students, with open arms, high expectations, and friendly smiles.cougar head

Those smiles are also on the faces of the teachers new to Diegueño, nearly a dozen this year (as we grow to about 950 students). As the principal who had a hand in bringing these amazing educators to our campus, I’m very excited for parents to get to meet these latest additions to our Diegueño Family. The passion and purpose they bring to their work is profound, as is their kids-first philosophy and creative approach to working with students.

A dad myself, these teachers are the people I want working with my own kids when they get to middle school. I trust them, admire them, and am looking forward to showing them off tomorrow night.

Put simply, the strength of a school is its teachers, and the relationships those teachers have with students and families. Back to School Night is a chance for us all to be on campus together, and for moms and dads, grandparents and guardians, and all of us who care so much about these students to connect in a way we can’t over email or even in a phone call. I love the bustle of the night, as hundreds of parents crowd campus and get to see a sliver of the great work we do here with kids. And while I understand my role as tour director is auxiliary, I’m looking forward to opening my arms wide tomorrow night and saying “Welcome to Diegueño!”