Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Answering Questions

So I wrote a book, You're the Principal:  Now What?!?  It came out last week, and lots of people have asked lots of questions.  I thought I'd provide some universal answers.

How long did it take to write?
I have no idea.  I forget.

How did I get the ideas? 
I have no idea. They just kind of arrived.  I think.

How did it happen with ASCD? 
I wrote a proposal and—kiss my grits—they took it.

How long did it take from the proposal to the finished copy?  
It's a process.  Two years?  More?  A long time.

What was the hardest part? 
Editing.  I had to read the stupid thing a couple times.  The whole thing.  I love writing, but editing makes me crazy.

Is it selling?
I have no idea.

What's next?  Will you write another one?
I dunno.

Why are you acting funny right now? 
I don't know.  Because it's awkward.

Why didn't you tell me you were writing a book? [From my friends]  
I'm sorry.  It's just not the sort of thing that comes up naturally.  Or unnaturally, for that matter.

So, there.  A bunch of non-answers.

But there is one frequent question for which I have a solid answer.

How are you feeling?  
I haven't yet found the word to describe how it feels to actually hold the book.   Sometimes it feels right and normal and good.  Other times, it feels like I'm removed from the whole thing.

But here is what I can name, for sure, as a feeling:  Overcome.  There's been so much support from people I know— and people I don't know.  Almost everyone has been so... nice.  So kind.  It reminds me that we really are a big ol' community, watching over and taking care of one another.  And it reminds me that when good things happen to others, there is only one response that is the right one:  "That's wonderful.  I am happy for you."  

I will work to say those words more often—as often as I can.

Thank you, everyone.  I heart you.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Our Impact

I was a conscientious and anxious five-year-old, desperate to please adults and follow. all. rules. I couldn’t wait for kindergarten because I just knew I would love my teacher and she would love how good I was.  I imagined myself settling into my seat on the bus, hanging my coat in my own personal cubby, and organizing my desk in perfect, sensible order.   I saw neat rows of sharpened pencils, stacks of art materials, and the freedom to read for hours on end. 

But the reality of school was nothing like that.  The moment I lay my eyes on my teacher, my stomach flipped over in dread.  My teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Mills— was a very large woman with a huge poufy haircut, a sharp chin, and dark, glinting, narrowed eyes.   She wore black pumps that clumped angrily as she walked.  She spent the first several days listing all the rules of the classroom and describing the dire things that would happen if we broke them.  She kept all books and art supplies locked in the closet behind her desk. 

I was genuinely frightened of her.  I tried to stay little, be small, and stay out of her way.  It worked for a while; she seemed unbothered by me—in contrast to two or three rambunctious boys, for whom Mrs. Mills seemed to thoroughly hate. 

Once, she even dolled out a smile just for me.

But in just the third week of school, she broke my heart. 

I remember the scene as if it occurred this morning.  It started when Mrs. Mills taught our class how to make an “8.”  She was firm:  “We never make an “8” by making two circles on top of one another, like a snowman.  No snowmen!  You must make them with one fluid line—start at the left top, circle around…” She showed us several times on the chalkboard, and then handed out a practice sheet.  There were probably 20 spots to practice—first with dotted “8”s we could trace, and then several more practice spaces for us to make the number on our own.

The problem was, as I began to practice, my 8s looked horrid.  They were awkward and shaky, like a baby was trying to make them.  I decided I couldn’t possibly turn these 8’s into Mrs. Mills.  So, desperate to make her proud, I began making all my 8s with stacked circles.  Snowman after perfect snowman. 

Mrs. Mills clomped around the room to check our work.  I felt her looming.  As she got closer, my shoulders slumped and shrunk.  I waited. 

Pulling up alongside my desk, she made a triumphant harrumph.  She snatched my paper and held it up to the rest of the class.  “Boys and girls, put your pencils down and take a look.”  She shook the paper a little. “This is exactly—exactly! —what not to do.  Jenny has made her 8s like snowmen.  This is not acceptable.  You must learn to make them in One. Single. Motion.  Do you understand?  All of you?”  Everyone nodded.  Mrs. Mills reached into her pocket and pulled out the inkpad and stamps that she always kept there. She stamped a large blue frown-y face on the top of the paper.

I bit down hard on my lip to keep the tears from springing up.  I stared down at my paper, mortified and devastated. The frown-y face was huge, and angry, and—oh, just horrid.   

Mrs. Mills moved on to another student.  Oblivious.

I announced to my parents that I wasn’t going back to school. 

Oh, yes, you are, they told me.

No. I’m not.

Yes, you are.

It was a brutal few days. When the bus was due to arrive, I crawled deep under my bed or into my closet; my mother had to call my father home from work to drag me out.  I cried.  I begged.  I hyperventilated.  But my father’s arms were too strong.  Their admonishments were too heavy.  My sisters’ bewilderment at my unprecedented behavior began to feel like scorn. 

So I accepted it.  I shrunk into myself and clenched my jaw and made it through each long, awful day. 

That was the only frown-y feedback I got that year, but it remained a bruise that wouldn’t fade.  The experience is never far from my mind when I am working with young learners.  It guided my philosophy when I was a teacher, and it guides me now that I am a principal.

The important message here is that the impact we have on students cannot be overstated.   Young learners can be deeply affected by something we say or do—something we did without even thinking about it.  It’s a powerful, enormous responsibility we bear as educators.  Whether a kindergarten teacher, a middle school Algebra teacher, or a high school American History class, we must never forget our first role is to lift and give—not take away. 

Although I had flashes of hot hatred when I was her student, if I saw Mrs. Mills today, I would be careful, cautious, and kind in my words.  I certainly would thank her, genuinely, for all those years she spent teaching kidnergarteners.  Because teaching is really hard.  It had jaded Mrs. Mills by the time I was in her class, and I can understand why.  Now that decades have passed, I don’t hate her at all.  I’m just sad for the whole bit:  me, her, the boys who got paddled in front of the rest of the class, the slivery 8s I made on the paper she frowned upon.  Just sad and sorry. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Last week, during our Open House/Meet The Teacher event, I was approached by a woman who asked how she could get on my calendar for a meeting.   The way she said it sounded ominous and defensive, as if this meeting wouldn’t be a meeting at all, but rather a big ol’ argument.  Years ago, this would have twisted me into some sort of awkward, anxious response.  This time, I came back with a confident, “Of course!  What is it you’d like to discuss?”

“Just an issue with my daughter.”

I had a hunch this was one I should take care of immediately. I pressed further.  “Oh, no!  What type of issue?”

“Something I heard.”

“Why don’t you talk with me now?  Let’s head toward my office.”
When we sat down beside one another, she got right to the point.  “I don’t want you vaccinating my daughter.”

I was speechless.  Rare, for me.

“Nothing, you hear me?  Not even the flu shot.”

I sputtered, I think.  Then: “Ma’am, I don’t give vaccinations.  We.  We don’t give vaccinations.  Only a medical professional does—can—vaccinate children.”

“Well, I heard you do.”

People talk, and they spread all sorts of false rumors about schools—what we do, what we’re about, what we teach, laws we must follow.  I thought I’d heard everything.  This, though:  this was new.  And a doozy, it was. 

I chose my words carefully.  “I don’t who might have given you this information, but assure you—promise you—we don’t vaccinate.”  I took a breath.  It’s a tricky thing, to tell someone that what she believes to be true is emphatically, thoroughly wrong. 

Her eyes were suspicious.  I kept talking.

“There are very strict laws that we follow—they prohibit us from doing anything medical with our students.  In fact, we won’t even give your child a Motrin.  Neosporin.  Calamine lotion.  Nothing.”  I said.

Over and over, I said it.  Different ways, again and again.  It took a good ten minutes before she relaxed and relented.   “Okay,” she said.  “Good.”

She left—no apology, of course—and it was all okay, and the day went on.  But I kept thinking about it.  It's an uphill battle that we're fighting, here in education.  And the odds are stacked against us because we have to keep doing the right thing—taking care of kids—in spite of the unfair judgements of their parents.  And the parents can say and do whatever they want to.  Much of the time, we don't even have a chance to defend ourselves and get the truth out there.  And it's worse, now that social media can run rampant; it's impossible to even know what might be circulating out there. 

It's maddening. 

But there's only one thing to do: keep on keeping on.  One problem, one rumor, one untruth at a time, with a focus on the real work, we've got this.  Right?  

Of course we do.  

So, we will.  

Happy new school year, everyone.  May it be your best yet!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Late Anxiety

I have Late Anxiety.  I get super-anxious when I'm going to be late.  If something has happened to make me late for an appointment or some sort of commitment, I'll feel sweaty and nervous.  I'll drive along, getting closer to my destination, and my eyes will be darting back and forth to the dashboard clock—as if obsessively looking at the numbers will make them stop moving upward.

I've always been like this, because I had a mother that was always, always late.  She still is.  She's an awesome Mom, but it's as if time doesn't permeate into her planning or thinking about her day.  At all. (If you're reading this, Mom, I'm sorry... but it's true).

And here's the thing:  my mother wasn't just five minutes late.  Sometimes it was a half hour late.  Sometimes it was more.  After sports practices, I'd stand at the front doors of the school watching all my teammates get picked up, right on time.  I'd say a silent, pleading prayer that she'd show up when she was supposed to—just this once, I thought, every time.  I hoped desperately that she would come before the coach came out so he didn't see me sitting there, all alone, waiting, and have to sit with me until my mom showed up.  My siblings all experienced it, too; in fact, my sister says used to hide in the bushes behind the gym so her coach would think all the players had been picked up, so he would leave; when she was sure he was gone, she'd crawl out of the bushes and wait, alone, until my mother finally came.

The time that lapsed between the time my mother was supposed to come and her actual arrival was spent getting good and pissed.  Really, really mad.  So when she finally pulled up, I'd get in the car and hiss, "You're late!"  But on her face would be passivity mixed with a tinge of defiance.  She would offer up a feeble excuse, one I was in no mood to accept.

I saw to it that I got my license about five seconds after I turned sixteen, so I could be in charge of my own time; I was determined to no longer be victim of my mother's lapsed attention to time.  It was wildly liberating. And I have made it my business to be on time ever since.

But life isn't that simple, of course.  We're all late, every now and then.  It happens to everyone.  I was reminded of this last week when I sat with a kid whose parent showed up 25 minutes late to pick up her kid from a school event.  I was frustrated at first, thinking of my own children waiting at home for me, knowing they were hungry and waiting for dinner.  But on the boy's face and saw the same anxiety, worry, and apologetic expression I'd worn a thousand times as a child.  And my grumpiness dissipated.  I sat down next to him and we began to talk; I made sure he thought I had all the time in the world and I wanted to spend it with him.

After his mother finally came, I walked to my car, meeting up on the way with a gentleman who had seen me sitting with the boy. "Late parent, eh?" he asked.


"I'm a baseball coach.  Happens to me, sometimes.  Wanna know what I do?"  He laughed conspiratorially.   "I make my kids run a lap for every minute their parent is late to get them."

My heart sank.

No, I thought.  No, no, no.  

Taking on a job where we're in charge of kids means we also take on the faults and frailties of their parents.  It's just a fact.  Parents will be rude; they will be dismissive; they will be absent; they will be late.  But to punish the child only serves to drive a wedge between the child and the parent; it reveals us as unempathetic and rigid; and it makes a young, helpless person be punished for a problem they did not create and cannot control.  If we have a problem with an adult, it's wrong and unfair to take our frustration out on a child.

And besides, there's this:  If a parent is being negligent or uncooperative in any way, the kid is already mortified enough.

Trust me.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Calf

Here’s a flashback story about a small thing that happened—a small thing, anyway, in the larger scheme of things.  It’s not about leadership, but it is about learning. I’ve thought of this story, sporadically and intermittently, in the decades since it happened, especially when the sun shines just right or the air smells that way.  The story sums up all the thousands of times I learned, as a kid growing up on a farm, that we really have no control.  Over anything.

It’s the story of a sweet little calf that didn’t follow the script. 

I’m ten. I’m all whoop-y with excitement:  My father has come home with a new calf, and this one is all mine to care for.  Since I can remember, every 18 months or so, he has gone off to a local livestock auction to buy a baby Holstein.  We take loose turns taking care of these calves, my siblings and I, but this one is decidedly—only— mine.  It will be my job to feed her bottles of milk replacement several times a day.  I will make sure her she’s warm and safe and dry.  I will watch over her she’s old enough to live, independently, on grain and pasture.

Hers will be a simple and easy life.   After all, the ending is already written.  It’s predictable, and logical.  Eighteen months from now, when she’s grown tall and fat and strong, the guys from the local Meat Processing Plant will come to take her away.  A few days later, after a trip to town, our family’s chest freezer will be full.  Just like that.

I’ll be a little sad, when they come to get her, but I won’t grieve.  I will understand.  It will all be the way it is supposed to be. 

And besides, that full freezer!  There will be months and months of steak, ribs, ground beef and then, shuffled to the bottom, there will be “cubed steak,” which is our least favorite but will be dressed up pretty nicely with a can of cream of mushroom soup whisked with milk.  Eaten with buttery mashed potatoes, even cubed steak will feel decadent and rich.   And then, just in time, the next calf will have been raised to a full-grown cow; the cycle will start all over again. 

The cycle is continuing, now, with this calf—my calf.  She climbs clumsily down the makeshift ramp extending from my father’s pickup.  He hands me the rope that loosely holds her head.  I walk her to the pasture and through the gate.  I rub behind her ears and she looks in my eyes, straight and steady.  There's a twinge in my chest.  Love.

Within just a few days, though, I start to feel a little unsure.  It’s just a feeling, somewhere in my gut.  She’s—oh, I don’t know.  Something is wrong, maybe.  There’s nothing obvious:  She looks perfect.  She is long and gangly and impeccably beautiful—her coat is a thick, deep black, spotted with white-sheet white, and her eyes are as soft and deep as a doe. 


She is slow.  Weak, maybe.  She seems lazy—but, no, that’s not right.  Lethargic?  Disengaged?  Those dark, gentle eyes move too slowly, and they lack focus.

I try not to think about what might be wrong.  I love the soft pink in her ears and the slick wet of her freckled nose.  I love her smell:  I stick my face in the soft white place that’s just below her mid-vertebrae and I breathe in—hints of green grass and corn and milk and sun—and I cling tightly.

My father has been helping me watch over my calf.  I notice that his eyebrow crinkles sometimes when he watches her.  Then, a few weeks after she arrives, he tells me he has to go to Michigan to work for a couple weeks.   “I’ll call you every few nights,” he says.  “You’ll tell me how she’s doing?”

I promise I will.

But soon after he is gone, the calf stops eating.  She’s supposed to be drinking a couple gallons of milk a day—I have the animal-sized bottle, and I have the formula, and I mix it just right—but she just nudges at it, like she thinks it smells okay but doesn’t care to actually do something with it.  She’s tired and listless.  One day, she doesn’t even stand when I come to her.

On the phone that night, I tell my father, "Something's wrong."  

“Call Doc,” he says.

I’m surprised.  We never call our local veterinarian.  We mostly follow the cycle-of-life theory:  if something is dying, we let it die.  We don’t intervene.  And besides, veterinarian visits are expensive, and I’ve been taught that it is generally a smarter financial decision to let a sick animal die, then simply replace it with a healthy one.  Paying a bunch of money to revive a sick animal is financial stupidity.  This, I know.

Doc knows it, too.  He generally doesn’t hear much from us.  So when he answers the phone, and he hears the shaking in my voice, he comes right out.  He pulls into the driveway, and looks over into the pasture to see me sitting cross-legged, holding my calf.  Her head is resting on my thigh.  He pokes at her head, checks her eyes, peers into her mouth and under her tail. He murmurs and re-adjusts his hat.  He sighs. 

Then he goes to his truck—it’s a simple, humble golden-hued pickup, except for the elaborate white plastic compartments built into the truck bed. When he opens them, I see syringes and medical-looking tools, bottles of medicine, and a box stacked with little glass vials.  He putters and mixes awhile, and then suddenly he’s teaching me how to jab the calf with the needle, in her hip, push gently on the tip of a syringe—gently, gently, gently—gently, he urges, gently! —until it’s all gone.  He shows me how to massage the medicine into her muscle.

“She’ll feel better in a day or two,” Doc says.  He smiles at me and touches my head.  “Don’t worry.”  He leaves me with five days of vials.  Two times a day, he tells me.  Just like I showed you.  By week’s end, she’ll be good as new.

I sit with her as she sleeps. I hug her head and breathe in her sweet smell.  I feel good:  I’m glad my father approved a visit from Doc, and I’m glad I’ve handled it on my own.  I’ve fixed this problem.  I’ve got medicine.  I’ve got a plan.  Two times a day, for five days.  She’ll be good as new. 

I do it.  I fill, I poke, I massage, I cuddle.  For four days I do it.

But it doesn’t work.  Each day, my little calf grows more somber and detached.  Each day, she notices me less.  And on the fifth morning, when I go to her with my second-to-last syringe, she’s asleep.  This time it’s for good:  She’s cold, and her eyes are a lifeless gray.

I don’t waste time wondering what I could have done differently.  She’s dead—that’s just it.  She died. 

I tell my father.  Holding the phone, I try not to let my voice quiver.  I’m very, very sorry. 

“You did all you could,” he tells me. 

I don’t know what to say.

“You’ll bury her?”


I do it right away.  It’s just me, and a spade, and the dry ugly August Midwestern soil.  I dig directly beside the dead calf.  I dig and dig and dig.  Eventually I have a hole that will work, and I roll my dead calf in.  There’s a thud as she lands.  She’s so… dead.

I do it all again, in reverse:  I dig into the loose soil and put it back where it came from, this time on top of a dead animal.  Dig, dump, dig, dump. 

Hours later, the calf is buried and the earth has been re-arranged and things are all in order.

I put the spade away and go to my bedroom, where I crawl in under my sheets.  I lie still for a long time.  I think about how calm she was about it all, as if she knew she was born to have a short, sweet life.  As if it were her whole point of being.  I cry.     

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...