Saturday, June 9, 2018


I am visited by two former Seniors on a recent Friday in early June.  They have been out of school for only a short time, having graduated three weeks prior.  We stay in touch because, well, that's one of the main reasons I am in this profession - to make a lasting difference in the lives of students.  But it's not only the students; it's their families as well.  I attend their graduation parties, keep up to date on their life happenings, I even recently attended the wedding and reception of one of my former students whom I had taught when he was in the 6th grade.  He's now 28.  

But this is what is required of this job.  We are in the business of making lasting impressions.  For anyone who doesn't believe this to be true, and that your only job as an educator is to impart knowledge and provide kids with information that they could just as easily find online, you are sorely mistaken.  I could easily insert here all of the research that proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that relationships matter and that students will learn more from you and remember more of the content you present them with if they actually like you and feel that you actually care about them, but this is not that post.

And if we are in the business of making lasting impressions, because we know what is true and right and good for all students, then we know that this is a human endeavor which requires things to be messy and take time and cause vulnerability in the process of developing close bonds. Why would kids want to listen to you if they don't trust you?  Why would parents back you up and support you if they don't believe you have their child's best interests in mind and at heart?  Sure, they don't have a choice but to send their children to school.  There are compulsory attendance laws people have to abide by.  But that doesn't mean that kids have to learn.

And I'm off track here, but make no apologies.  Two seniors.  Visiting me.  In my office on a recent Friday in June.  That's where we were.  I am not surprised that they are here.  I never am.  It's almost expected that they will come and visit.  And stay awhile.  Which they do.  And they start talking.

In the course of conversation (they stay for over two hours), I work on my laptop and finish cleaning my office.  I have two weeks of vacation coming up and we talk as I work.  They tell me what they have been up to, the adventures they have been on, how their families are doing (one has a brother who was seriously ill but is finally, after months of being bed-ridden and receiving homebound tutoring, on the mend; the other has a mother she hasn't seen in months and is hoping to be reunited with before she goes off to college in the Fall), and about their preparations for post-high school.  They are both going a large state university.  Different ones, and they talk about their plans for how they will continue to visit one another.  They've got it all figured out, down to how many miles and minutes it will take to get to one another on holidays and long weekends.

And one of them says something to me that strikes a chord, and here is where this story ends.  He says, after finishing a long, elaborate story of a recent weekend escapade in which he shares more than I really need to hear, "We're finally free, Dr. P.  We're finally able to enjoy life, Dr. P."

He doesn't realize that what he says will leave a lasting, burning impression on me, and I know that many kids feel the same way.  I recognize that many kids, upon graduating their Senior year, feel as if they own the world and are ready for "real life to begin."  I am pretty sure, looking back, that I probably felt the same way and lived it up for a while upon graduation.  I barely made it after all; I was definitely ready to be free of 6:00am wake-ups and cramming for tests and being surprised about pop quizzes and having to work on group projects with kids who didn't like me and the Dean's Office and taking the bus with its smell of hot plastic seat coverings forever etched into my nasal cavity... the list goes on.

I don't know what the point is, except to say that I know this high school experience.  I can feel this experience in my soul and remember it clearly to this day and how I felt most days.  And that one phrase, uttered by that one 18 year old upon having recently graduated: "We're finally able to enjoy life, Dr. P," will stick with me for a very long time.

And if it is as I think it is, then we are able to create a different experience for kids, write a very different narrative with kids, get to know them, love them, be vulnerable for them, and ask ourselves:

"What do we need to do TODAY to make sure that kids can't wait to come back TOMORROW."  What do we need to do TODAY to ensure that kids - during the school year, not once they've graduated - can feel that they are enjoying life.  That they don't need to wait until they graduate before real life can finally begin.

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Learning... My Seriously-Rambling-Reflection-Because-It's-Too-Quiet-Around-Here-Post

I get lost in wondering.  I mean, really lost.  I wonder what happened to the year, I wonder what is going on with the world, I wonder what will become of the Seniors we just graduated, and I wonder about the future of public education and what it means, considering the ever-changing landscape that is the world of work.  Just to name a few things.

The school year is over; at least, for the students it is.  Having just completed my first year as principal of the local high school right down the street from my house (and the high school where my son attends, but that's another story), I have a lot of time to reflect.  I mean, now that the year is over and I can catch my breath for a while and wonder - not for the first time - "what ever are we doing?"

I have had the luxury and honor of serving as building principal at all three levels of public education: elementary, middle, and now high school.  This was the completion of my 16th year as a school administrator, and 21st year in the field of public education.  I am still as active as ever, still get excited over great new ideas, still the #1 cheerleader around the schoolhouse, still get told I have way too much energy at 6:30 in the morning, and am still wondering what in the hell we are doing most days.

Take summer vacation, for example.  This is a minor example, and doesn't encapsulate my current thoughts about the present year recently finished, but it really highlights some of my frustration and state of delirium over where we are at and where we really should be.  I will be the first one to tell you that I understand the value and benefits of recess, of unstructured play, of time off and weekends and holiday trips and extended time with family and friends.  I also knew the rewards of summer "down-time" to go exploring, camping, traveling, and learning.

Yes, even learning.
But right there is part of the problem.
And it's a big one.
It's where I get stuck.

Let me elaborate by breaking down my own summer vacations when I was a teenager.  My mom and dad were divorced.  My dad lived in California, as did my grandparents and my aunt - his parents and sister.  Summer was the only time my brother and I were able to see this part of our family, and couldn't wait until summer so that we could spend three solid weeks out in sunny CA.  It was the best time of our lives, what we looked forward to the most, and where we created the memories that will last a lifetime.

And I'm conflicted, because it was also the time when the most learning took place.  I'm conflicted because, for starters, I think having three months of summer vacation sends the message to kids that learning can take a short, sweet break over the months of June, July and August, and that soon enough "real schooling" will resume again.

And yet, the stuff I remember most came from my summer vacations with my brother and dad and grandparents out on the West Coast.

The stuff I remember the most.
I need to repeat that and let it sink in.
Why is that the stuff I remember the most?

What is it about school and "learning" and memory that causes a thing like summer vacation - three months of the year - to have a longer lasting impact on a life (in many cases, not all) than an academic year - nine months of the year.

I'm just reflecting here.  I realize perfectly well that what I've just done is conflict my own narrative.  And there's a perfectly good reason for this.  It's part of my summer wonderings and reflections and thoughts about the year and about education and where it takes place most powerfully and why we can't create that thing all year round.

Monday, July 3, 2017

I was not Looking for Change

It's change, really.  That's what new is all about.  Change.  For some it happens regularly, for others not regularly enough.  I happen to fall into the former category, where change comes about not as a result of some thing that just happens to you and you don't see it coming, but rather an intentional, sweeping movement that is planned and thought out (not always with identified results, but thought out nonetheless) and, therefore, meant to be.

Change - whether intentional or consequential, planned or just part of life's course - is always meant to be; it's a part of life, a part of how things naturally happen.  Without it we would not grow, would not attain goals, would not, well... change.

And yet, even though we know it is coming, and we know it helps us to grow and to stretch, and we understand the consequences of not changing when times call for something different, it is hard.

This time for me, however, I was not looking for change.  It came for me.

I did not choose to move on,
I was happy
and successful
and content
and challenged
right where I was at.

But as my good friend Koriann writes to me, in her reflection at the end of the school year,
It was time for change "... because the time is right and he is called."

Those words stuck with me, sunk into me, sat with me and next to me for a long while.

As I begin something new - this exciting new opportunity where I will have the privilege of being the principal of a high school I know of only from the perspective of a parent, as it is the school my kids attend - I know and understand that this is the path.  The time was right, and as difficult as it was to say goodbye, and to say thank you to those who have meant so much to me and who have taught me so much about myself as an educator and as a person, this is still the right choice for me and I will only grow because of it.  It is intentional, sweeping, new, meant to be.  It is Change.  And I am so very grateful.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


Related image
Instead of a New Year resolution this year, I am embracing #OneWord2017 to encompass my goals, both personally and professionally.

As I think of my One Word, so many others come to mind; I can’t pick just one.  But I will. Because that is the challenge. So it is kind of like a resolution - those things we resolve to do as the New Year rolls around and we struggle to think of something we will promise ourselves and others to do, to stick to, because it is the New Year.  And then we will feel bad about ourselves sometime around March or April because we didn’t stick to it.  We forgot.  We got busy.  There was too much going on. Life got in the way.

One Word we can do. One Word is just, well… One Word.  Easy to remember. Easy to commit to. Easy to remind ourselves of on a daily basis.  It’s just after all, One Word.  

So I begin the quest to find the word - the One Word that will define me in 2017. It must be something simple. It must be applicable to my professional and my personal life - something people can feel, something others can really acknowledge that, upon being in my presence, they understood.  So here is my list.  This is where I need to begin:


This is my list.  And after much thought and consideration, I begin to think that maybe my word is not in this list. It should be jumping out at me, SCREAMING at me, making me understand that THIS IS MY WORD!  Take it and RUN with it! Make others believe!
But it’s not, and I have to begin anew.  Or do I?

Because there it was, in the midst of the words I had written:

Believe. The One Word that will define my 2017.  

I Believe in the power of teachers to motivate and encourage their students to be the best they can be.
I Believe in the ability of students to rise above our expectations of them and shine like the brightest stars.
I Believe in myself, and my capacity to see and understand the needs of my teachers, students, community, and family.
I will DO what I BELIEVE in with confidence!
I Hold This to be True: That we can accomplish whatever we put our minds to because of our BELIEF in one another and in ourselves.  

So think about it.  Here is your challenge: Instead of making a list of resolutions this year, pick One Word that defines your goals, dreams, ambitions and who you want to be in 2017.  I’m thinking this might be a challenge for students as well… Who’s up for this?  Could be a great whole-school project, and an opportunity to get creative!

Looking forward to hearing your #OneWord2017!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Real Writers. Real Writing. Real Voices

Same 7th grade classroom.
Different group of students.  
It is a warm afternoon and the fans are on.  
I think back to my days as a 7th grader.  
My teacher's name was Mrs. Zurn.  
She passed away in the mid-90's and I remember her clearly for her loud voice; 
Her booming voice and I remember her because she used to make us write.
A lot.

And it was always about the things that she wanted us to write about, never about the things that I CARED about like music and motorcycles and the ATV's that I spent my weekends on, flying through the cornfields and woods that I lived next door to.  Or my parent's divorce and my dad moving to California and how much I missed him.  We couldn't write about that stuff. 

Instead we wrote about St. Thomas and our favorite lunch, and if we could be anything when we grew up what would it be, and Mother Theresa and what our favorite color was and why, and writing a letter to Pope John Paul II. 
I went to a Catholic school. 
You can probably tell.

Today, though.  I want to talk about today, and the opportunities these kids have to write.  And I know how hard writing is, and as much as I didn't like it when Mrs. Zurn made us write about the topics she chose for us to write about, the one thing it did do for us, was help us get into a habit of writing.  A lot.  

Which is what I hope kids find, that writing can be such a wonderful, beautiful way to express yourself if you just practice it. 
A lot.  
And it doesn't matter what it is.  
Just as long as it is something.   
And it doesn't matter who it is for.  
As long as it's for yourself first.  
YOUR voice is the only one that matters.  
You need to know that.  
You need to know how important it is for us to hear your voice.  
So speak up.  
Get blogging.  
It matters.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

7th Grade Blogging Awesomeness

So, I am doing one of my favorite things today, and that is getting into classrooms and being with kids and teachers.  But even better, today I am working with teachers and getting kids writing on their own Blog site! How cool is that!  Will is writing about his cat (just kidding, Will), Quinn is writing about how he hopes his Fantasy Football is better than mine (I have Matthew Stafford as my starting QB, Quinn...), and it goes on and on.  What I am REALLY super excited about, though, is the fact that I get to do this every day.  For a living.  Like, this is my life and I get to spend my days with awesome middle schoolers and middle school teachers.  We work hard, but we also play hard.  This is definitely where it's at.

My hope is that, through this blogging experience, they find voices as writers and realize they ALL have something important to say.  They don't have to be adults to have a voice.  Just one VOICE can make a difference, and I guess that is what we blog for also - to make a difference in someone's life.  To move someone with our words.  From the clicking of the keyboards around the room, my guess is that they are off to a good start.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Surprise Phone Calls and Personal Connections

I'm not certain that I've had it right all these years.  Focused so intensely on test scores and whether or not people were satisfied with how we were doing academically and a host of other things that really didn't matter. If all I focus on are relationships between kids, among adults, and really getting to know one another on a deeply personal level, will all of that other stuff take care of itself? Including test scores?  Perhaps part of the answer can be found in the story of a school day in August, on a day before teachers and kids were back in classes. 

I simply posted a picture of the two boxes of books
that I had ordered for my staff to start the year. I was excited, my administrative staff and I were pumped up, and so I tweeted about it and went down to the cafeteria to set up. It was a Friday, and our first day back with teachers was Monday.

A couple hours later, I go back to the office to check some email and grab a quick bite to eat. Unbelievably, there was a voicemail sitting in my email box waiting for me. Not that it's unbelievable I had received a voicemail; I mean, I'm a middle school principal. We get voicemails all day long.  But this was technically summer still.  And this one was from Adam Welcome, co-author of Kids Deserve It.  He had looked me up on Twitter, and decided to call the school to see if he could catch me. He wanted to thank me for purchasing the books, and just chat about being an educator. It was totally unnecessary, and at the same time I was so thrilled and excited that he took the time out of his day. I called him back, and we ended up chatting for half an hour.

And it didn't stop there.  I also received, out of the blue, a call one evening from a connection I had made this summer through Voxer, and then on Twitter (of course).  While watching the Olympics one night, my phone rings and Dene Gainey is on the other end, from Florida, just calling to check in and see how I'm doing.  Who does that?

The power of these phone calls really changed my thinking about this school year, and about school years past. There isn't anything I can do about those days, about those years, about those moments that I did or did not spend and connect with people. What it did for me was make me realize that I could do better by people. What it did for me was to motivate me, make me want to be the best school leader that I can be.

But how could a simple 30 minute phone conversation have such an impact on someone?

The answer is simple. The power of human relationships does wonders. Think about the relationships we have with our kids, the relationships that we have with other adults with whom we work. As educators we know it is essential for kids to feel wanted, to feel loved, to feel that they matter. They do better when they experience these feelings, when they know that we just can't wait to see them again tomorrow.  It is at this point that real magic happens - the power of school as it should be.  When we focus on relationships, on intentionally being with people, on making them feel like a million bucks when we are in their presence, the environment starts to change.  I mean, everything about the environment starts to change - including test scores - and it is really so simple.  It really starts with making people feel important, helping people to understand how much power they have to do good, to make change, to have an impact on someone else's life.

So my goal this year is simple.  My goal is to be present, to be intentional, and really show up to every single interaction with every single child and every single adult I encounter this year.  And not just that, not just chance encounters; my goal is to seek out opportunities to show up and make a difference in people's lives. What a difference we can make.  Who doesn't deserve that?

If you don't follow Adam or Dene, you really need to.  These amazing educators are doing real work to make a difference in the lives of kids and adults.  Go follow them on Twitter now.
                                   Adam Welcome               Dene Gainey