The Principal Wears a Suit

5 months ago…

“No tie?”

She was nice enough, but curious, and I sensed disappointment behind her kind eyes. Around us the Winter Formal filled the Air and Space Museum with bright lights, tuxedoed teens, and a string of songs that sounded to me like a series of ring tones. This senior and her date had met me at the front door and posed the question.

“No tie,” I answered, adding “it’s your Winter Formal; I’m just security.”

She looked at me quizzically. “You’re the principal.”

My heart sank. I hate disappointing nice people.

“Tonight I’m just making sure things go well,” I tried. She wasn’t buying it.

“This is formal, Mr. Paige.”

I looked to my assistant principals for support, two elegantly dressed women who’d been kind enough not to comment on my fleece jacket. They knew, as did the seventeen year old I was talking to, that such things as Winter Formal matter.

For students they matter a lot.

Being an adult means caring about car payments, dental work, and cholesterol. None of these things are as important to the students at my school as strobe lights, pounding bass, or a chocolate fountain.

And yet that impractical chocolate fountain, perhaps because of its impracticability, means much to the young people who are the lifeblood of the school. As their principal it’s important that I invest in the things that matter to them.

I feel paternal to almost two thousand kids; I can at least try to be a good school dad.

This isn’t to say that I don’t listen to Sinatra on my drive down to the dance, but when I get there I should at least be able to tap my feet to the more contemporary tunes.

…and I ought to wear a tie.

 

Saturday…

My assistant principals and I carpooled in to the House of Blues, and as we got to the door the bouncer took one look at us and said (not asked) “Prom.”

One of the best parts of working in education is the possibility of second chances. On Saturday I left informality at home, put on a suit, and enjoyed prom along with a few hundred well dressed juniors and seniors.

I have the pleasure of being their principal, and thanks to the wisdom, kindness, and pluck of an amazing senior I was able to learn that I was wrong. This isn’t just their prom, but our prom, our whole school’s, and I’m fortunate enough to get to be a part of it.

That’s worth wearing a tie.

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This is not an awards ceremony…

We didn’t read names. No one waited for their kid to be called up to the stage, or shifted uncomfortably, longing for the program to be over. Instead, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five played quietly in the background as teachers and students and parents ate pizza, leaned in, and talked.

2awardAt San Dieguito we have a long tradition of doing things differently (our forum, an artistic approach to almost everything, and our kids’ status as future alumni are all a part of who we are). We’re also willing to try new ideas, and this week’s award un-ceremony was just that.

In lieu of a typical acknowledgment of great grades or subject specific prowess, we invited teachers to each nominate a student for an end of the year award. We didn’t put restrictions on the selection, opting to call our awards “a celebration recognizing awesomeness.” It was.

owenSo everyone could feel a part of the process and to keep things transparent, we created a shared Google presentation and invited teachers to put together a slide with their student’s name, a photo, and some words to describe why the student was so special. The results were as wildly diverse as our teachers and students.

One Math teacher created an animated extravaganza, with pop up highlights of his student’s “very cool briefcase” and status as a “mathematical genius.”

An English teacher celebrated one of her students for “his great wonder about the world, his kind heart, and the joy he brings to his learning. He is a positive addition to SDA and makes our school a great place for dreamers and thinkers.”

And for our AP Psychology teacher, a reference to Sigmund Freud was too tempting to pass up.zack

The photographs of the students and teachers, often laughing together, were an inspiring mélange of wit and sincerity. Slide by slide, this celebration of kids summed up who we are as a school.

And the slide show wasn’t the best part of the afternoon, that came after I had the privilege of welcoming more than forty kids, teachers, and families and explaining the idea behind our event.

1awardThis was, I told them, a chance not simply to politely applaud, but to connect. It’s part of our school’s DNA that we see each other as people first and students and teachers second. What that meant in this situation was a chance for us not to be separated by a podium or a stage, but to sit together, look each other in the eyes, and talk.

Teachers sat next to their students and not only handed them a certificate with the words they’d written on it, but also had time to talk with, not at, the kids and their families.

We hadn’t tried something exactly like this before, and to a certain extent we were working without a net; if conversation stalled, we didn’t have a filler. The concept of our event was predicated on the belief that everyone would show up and everyone would want to connect.

They did.

And as people talked, and ate, and laughed together, we ran the slideshow on a big screen at the front of the room. Occasionally folks cheered or clapped, and the humorous slides got their due guffaws, but what I noticed as I walked around the room was just how much eye contact was going on. Teachers, students, and parents were really listening to each other.

A parent told me afterward that she loved that she had an opportunity to get to know her son’s teacher. “At high school it’s easy to feel pushed away,” she said. “This was being welcomed in.”

kateWe ran the slideshow twice, so parents could snap a photo of their student’s slide for Facebook, and I noticed that people kept talking until a bell rang to tell us it was time to start afternoon classes.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t always leave award ceremonies as inspired as I was by this. It’s always neat to hear the accolades earned by gifted and hardworking students, but I’m still shaking my head at the astounding feeling of community I saw in media center during our un-ceremony.

I’m convinced that healthy relationships between the adults who help raise and educate students are the bedrock of a strong school. In those quiet conversations that filled our media center I saw those connections first hand, an inspiring reminder of what can happen when we create the opportunity to talk.

Captain Aubrey

When I was an English teacher I found that as I read for fun I was constantly thinking to myself: could I teach this? Often I couldn’t, of course, but this way of walking through my literary life did lead to the introduction of Haruki Murakami, Mike Royko, and Barry Yourgrau into my curriculum, and students leaving my classes knowing a little bit about Mary Wollstonecraft and Akira Kurosawa.

post captainIt was about two years after I left the classroom before I stopped thinking about how I might incorporate articles and excerpts into my English lessons. Today, as a principal, I’ll confess that I still find unexpected inspiration for how to approach my work between the covers of more than just “leadershippy” books.

Those I do read, like Start With Why and Critical Conversations, are worthy of posts of their own, but sometimes it’s a fictitious character or story that lingers, a line or lesson from a poem or novel that returns unbidden when a situation inspires it.

One such book, that I’ve written about before, is Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain. Truth be told, it’s not his most compelling of the Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels, but as it tells the story of a flawed captain struggling for a post, gaining a difficult assignment, and then doing his best to succeed, it earns a place on the bookshelf in my office. If I were ever teaching a class on public school administration, Post Captain would be on the reading list.

Thick with prose that takes some effort to navigate (and is worth it), Post Captain provides a few lessons that have stayed with me for a long time.

Tenacity is the first. Captain Aubrey, financially ruined by circumstance, found himself pursuing an appointment to a ship. Frustrated and mired in the politics of the British Navy, his determination and willingness to explore all options led him to the doorstep of taking a job for a private company, and then allowed him to open his mind and accept command of a strange and experimental ship unwanted by other Navy captains.

Every school administrator at some point in her career longs for the opportunity to lead before that opportunity is available. Some of us get roughed up a bit by the process, but if we stay true to ourselves and make the most of the opportunities we find, we may have success.

Aubrey’s flirtations with the East India Company weren’t unlike a public school administrator thinking about a private or charter school, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

I’m one who has always believed in the importance of public education (flawed and challenged as it sometimes is) and as Aubrey found his HMS Polychrest, I silently cheered that he’d taken on a meaningful challenge in service of something greater than money or himself.

That challenge, as all challenges, led to internal struggling and a manifestation of that famous line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

About halfway through the book, the captain and his doctor friend, Maturin, discuss mutinies and the importance of running a ship with respect and order. They talk honestly of what it takes to make a “happy ship” and how easily one crewman can turn things in the wrong direction.

In what may be my favorite line from Post Captain, and one worthy of a framed cross-stitch in my office (I don’t really have this, but if you’re a cross-stitcher and you’re reading this…) Aubrey turns to Maturin and confesses:

I know things are not perfect, but I cannot reform the world and run a man-of-war.”

In one sentence, O’Brian captures the tension felt by principals everywhere. How do we balance the big goals of changing lives and making a difference (and if this isn’t why we got into the business we should get the heck out) and at the same time make sure we pay attention to the day to day responsibilities that ensure our school stays in ship shape?

In the pages that follow, Aubrey’s story plays out with examples of how he manages the balance, and while these come with a spray of saltwater, I kept seeing how I might I use these lessons to improve the work I do at my school.

That pursuit of improvement is important to me as a principal. Always learning, I know the leader I am today is different than the leader I was five years ago. I’m also different than I will be five years from now.

In another memorable description from the book, Maturin articulates the changes he has seen in his friend, now Post Captain.

…he suffers frustration with more patience than he used; he cares less passionately about many things. Indeed, I should say that the boy has quite vanished now -certainly the piratical youth of my first acquaintance is no longer to be seen. But when a man puts on maturity and invulnerability, it seems that he necessarily becomes indifferent to many things that gave him joy.”

How many of us who considered ourselves swashbuckling as young teachers have matured into roles as administrators? That we are better leaders for being more mature is easy to understand, and yet a part of me still hopes that somewhere behind the tie lurks a heart that beats to “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest.”

pirateAs I continue to grow as a leader, I ask myself how I can “suffer frustration with more patience” and still keep my passion “about many things” that give me joy. I’m comfortable with the boy vanishing, but never want to lose that pirate spirit that helped me love teaching and launched me on the adventure of a career in education.

There’s a great deal more to Post Captain, romance, espionage, and naval battles fill the five hundred or so pages. It’s those passages on leaders and leadership, however, that I’ll go back to when I need to be reminded that while I want to reform the world, I’ve got a man-of-war to run.

No Easy Task

YourEdustory“What is your deepest challenge as an educator? As a person?”

Wow. I’ll take “as an educator” please. This week’s #YourEdustory prompt isn’t for the fainthearted. Even focusing on the first part of the challenge, I find myself struggling to write about wrestling with the darker demons of a job I love.

Being a high school administrator means that I get a firsthand look at people in crisis. The interactions I have with parents, students, and even teachers aren’t always easy. For every experience that inspires or moment of laughter is a darker counterbalance of struggle or anxiety.

I maintain optimism, mostly because of the good I see every day and from the examples around me of caring students and adults, though if I’m honest, there are some sobering days and moments that bruise my heart.

So what is my deepest challenge as an educator? Being strong enough to help others around me.

Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, wrote:

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”

Difficulties are real, and our responses, not the difficulties themselves, are what define us.

Opportunities to smile in the face of trouble, gather strength, and grow brave come in many forms at a high school.

Discretion, that better part of valor, keeps me from cataloguing specifics, but I can say that my time as an administrator has taught me that very often students live complicated lives, more adult than any would suspect. Parents care much and deserve the empathy that comes from the fact that most have never been through the teenage years in the role of adult. The raised voices and emotional assertions that happen in my office are most often born of fear rather than anger, no matter what they sound like.

That challenges find their way to school is no surprise; school is one of the biggest parts of our students’ (and often our families’) lives. Schools are extensions of our communities, and it would be naive to imagine that somehow the problems from the neighborhood disappear at the front door of campus.

School is a safe place to feel emotion, a natural place to express anxiety, and a the theater of both big successes and equally large catastrophes.

…and sometimes the challenges we face are bigger than school, and life altering.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received came from a friend who hired me for my first job as an assistant principal. He gave me a copy of The Art of Condolence by Leonard Zinn and Hilary Stanton Zinn. When I became a principal, I was not prepared for how much death I would see, not on my campus per se, but in the lives of the staff, students, and families of those who make up my school community. It’s a volume I have referred to often, as I searched for words expected from someone in my role, words a lifetime of teaching did not prepare me to have.

Being the leader my school deserves involves caring, preparation, and the ability to remain centered, even as the chaos of the moment patters against the windowpanes.

It has always been my goal to be a person who inspires hope and helps others have confidence in their futures. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a touchstone for me, the king tells his men “We would not seek a battle as we are, nor as we are, we say we will not shun it.” I strive for that same spirit of strength. The answer to my deepest challenge is to show, every day, a tenacious optimism that helps others believe the truth, that all will be well.

Coffee

It started with an accident, as good things often do, compounded by necessity, and spirited on by honesty and true connection.

I have a coffee pot in my office, which I fill when I get to work and which in turn fills the room with the welcoming smell that has accompanied conversation since the time of the Restoration. One morning a few years ago, a math teacher leaned in my open door, an empty cup in her hand. I offered her coffee, and while I was pouring an English teacher stopped and looked in. I pulled an empty mug from a cupboard and filled it too. The two teachers set to talking.

mugHalf an hour later, when it was time for the next class to begin, they left, and I thought to myself: we adults on a school campus have too few opportunities to talk about this grand adventure we call education.

One of the biggest challenges for busy educators is making the time to meaningfully connect with other adults. Isolated in classrooms, students, parents, and myriad obligations jockeying for our attention, it’s easy to spend a day without building opportunities to talk with others who aren’t teenagers about teaching and learning.

That day in my office the three of us did just that.

The result was more than just sharing ideas about how to teach writing or what strategies might help a student struggling with math. As we talked about those things, and many others, all three of us realized the importance of the adults at a school really knowing each other. That half hour or so opened my eyes to the priority I needed to make strengthening the connections within our faculty family.

Alone in my office afterward, I considered the ways I might recapture that magic. I have a coffee maker, I thought. And teachers have prep periods.

$10 bought enough mugs for sharing, and I sent out emails asking teachers to an hour of coffee and conversation, no agenda, no script, just a chance to talk.

Feeling a little like a wedding planner organizing a reception brunch, I invited teachers from a mix of departments, blending veterans and rookies, and doing my best to imagine interesting combinations.

Interesting they were.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I heard the thoughts of those who work most closely with students, the heart and soul of the school, the teachers. They told stories that made me think, asked questions that forced me to reflect, and described what they did in ways that inspired me. Discretion keeps the content of those conversations out of this little post, but candor and honesty resonated in such a way that I knew in the first few days that this would be a part of what I did every year as a site administrator.

Nothing compares to visiting classrooms and sharing long individual conversations with teachers in the stolen moments of a day, but these “coffees,” as the teachers took to calling them, created a level of connection qualitatively different from regular school meetings or even impromptu conversations in the copy room.

Maybe it was that I was pleasantly outnumbered, or maybe the coffee was pretty good, but folks (including me) relaxed and spoke the truth.

I got a hug or two from teachers, shared much laughter, and got to know the people I worked with better than I might have any other way.

On one occasion, as I introduced three teachers, a veteran science teacher confessed to me that while he’d worked at the school for fifteen years and the woman sitting next to him, a world language teacher, had been teaching there for three years, this was the first time he’d actually met her. In that sobering moment, I realized how important it is to find ways for the adults who work so hard with and for students to not be strangers.

Our conversations ranged freely from work to play to family. Some told stories of why they became teachers, others talked about issues that they saw as important to our school. Twice teachers came with lists of issues they wanted not to forget to talk about. Occasionally a teacher would bring pastries.

And once, in a moment less pleasant than hugs or coffee cake, I was given a wake up call.

It was a veteran teacher who said it, one who had been at the school for years. Conversation had been flowing with stories of the school, in part the result of entertaining a group of teachers who had all been working together for more than a decade. About 45 minutes into our discussion, this teacher crossed his arms over his chest and leaned forward on his elbows. “So now I’ve got to tell you,” he said seriously, “about a time when you let me down.” He had my attention.

The other teachers leaned back, sucking their cheeks and fiddling with their cups of coffee. I held my mug between my hands and kept my eyes on his.

Slowly and deliberately, he described a concern he’ d brought to my attention a year and a half before. It was one of those passing remarks, delivered between classes, that as an administrator I hear, catalog, and do my best to follow up on when I get back to my office. My response had not been robust enough, nor my reporting back to him prompt and thorough enough, to earn his respect. I hadn’t thought of the incident for eighteen months; he’d held onto it and what had been a minor annoyance had grown inside him.

I apologized, acknowledged what I could have done better, and thought: what a shame it is that he lived with this frustration for so long.

Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem that asks what happens to a “dream deferred.” In “Harlem,” he asks, does it…

dry up

like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

So too the unexpressed feelings that naturally fill us.

Coffee may not be the only answer to the big questions, but in my own professional life it has afforded me the opportunity to connect with amazing colleagues and not defer the things we ought to be saying.

I just hit “send” on my most recent round of invitations to “Coffee and Conversation” and I can hardly wait to talk with my teachers about what’s on their minds and what fills their cups.

Smart Phone

20-Blade_Runner_AtariThe world imagined by 1982’s Blade Runner does not exist. Beautiful little details, like the neon advertisements for Atari and Pan Am, which added such verisimilitude to the movie proved to be anything but prophetic; Atari went under before the movie was ten years old and Pan Am followed suit in 1991.

Predicting the future is an inexact science, fun in the hands of creative writers, but often good for little more than a retrospective chuckle. HAL in 2001? I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid we can’t (yet) do that.

So without an accurate crystal ball, how should we as educators think about the digital world our students will grow into?

Theirs is already a life enmeshed in technology in ways that make our own childhood (folks like me, anyway, old enough to have taken a typewriter to college*) seem quaint. Mine is the generation who got tangled up in the cord when talking to potential dates on the phone mounted to the kitchen wall.

As technology changed around me, I entertained the truth of that Philip K. Dick quotation:

There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’”

Maybe, though any fears of sentient machines have (so far) proven unfounded.

So too, I think, are some of the fears we educators have of students and technology, particularly social media. Certainly dangers lurk online, as they have lurked at malls and in the places young people have always congregated.

Educating students to become digital citizens (or whatever the most current term might be for navigating a life online) is in many ways an extension to helping them understand how to live in the brick and mortar world we all share no matter what kind of cell phone is in our pocket.

There are lots of resources out there to help educators do this, some better than others, but it seems to me to boil down to a few simple ideas:

Present the best you. The one that doesn’t swear or show off tattoos. The one that doesn’t make that face that says: “Never hire me, trust me with your children, or let me go to your university.”

Don’t share too much. Share the right amount of information to show the world that “best you” that you want to be your introduction, the first impression before you make your first impression.

Think before you talk. If you wouldn’t blurt it out in class or at the dinner table, or if you shouldn’t, then don’t online.

Be nice. Be nice.

Know the rules and follow them. …and know the etiquette too. Learning how to be a positive contributor to an online community isn’t dramatically different than being a positive contributor to your school or in your neighborhood.

Don’t live in fear. Cautious, sure; fearful, no. You look both ways before you cross the street, but you do eventually cross it. Being safe online means being online, and bringing common sense with you just makes sense. Should I say “yes” to this friend request? Would you invite that person to meet your parents in person?

Be smart. Be as smart as you can be. We all make mistakes, and digital goofs can last forever, but thinking twice before posting and keeping the long view of things can help a lot.

Do we need to include digital literacy as part of our school curriculum? I think so. At the same time we need to show students that we believe they can make the right choices. This means showing them how to curate their own digital footprint and not blocking access to the tools they use to create that footprint.

mannySchools use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to tell their stories, and the best schools do so to great effect. Students should have the opportunity to do the same.

Educating students about technology means showing them how to use it effectively, not shielding them from it at all costs.

Sure, students are on their phones …a lot, but then again, many of you are reading this post from a similar rectangle of plastic and glass. I know this. Your phone told me.
_________________________________________________________

*For any younger readers, a typewriter is a machine that allowed users to print words, letter by letter, by pounding on keys and hoping not to make a mistake. Don’t even get me started on whiteout.

That Baldwin Quote

When I was young and foolish and starting my life as a teacher, the second decoration I put up in my classroom (after a framed 8 x 10 of Jorge Luis Borges) was a poster of Miles Davis. A closeup of his face, Davis held his fingers to his temples, his eyes closed. There were no words on the poster, and no indication of a horn, but when I looked at that image I could almost hear the moan of the trumpet from Kind of Blue.

Miles DavisMore even than the music, the first year teacher that I was found inspiration and comfort in the Davis quotation: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

I lived by that quotation for my first few years of teaching, taking chances, some that worked and some that didn’t, and doing my best to inspire my students to do the same.

More than twenty years after hanging that poster on the wall, I still love the quotation, and Kind of Blue, though the principal I have become sees in it a freedom more suited to youth and jazz musicians than fellows like me with gray invading our beards.

As I think about the quotations that touch me now -and as a former English teacher, there are a raft of them- I find that one from James Baldwin hasn’t faded from my mind since the first time I read it during the year I started teaching.

USPS04STA017Over the years former students of mine, reconnecting after having gone away to college and to start adult lives, have often asked me about “that Baldwin quote.” It was something I shared with many of my classes on the last day of the year, an idea I hoped might resonate with some as it did with me.

Capturing a truth that applies to all of us, Baldwin wrote: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”

When I was 25 that seemed prophetic; at 46 it simply feels true. We are an amalgamation of our ongoing choices, and the lives we lead are ours to create.

It’s time to listen to some Miles Davis.