Saturday, September 8, 2018

Decorating the Office

            I’ve never had an office before. Cubicles and classrooms defined the first 25 years of my working life, which was just fine, thank you. But as a school administrator, I get an office. It’s tiny, with most of the floor space taken up by a large desk, file cabinets and a bookcase. But there’s also plenty of wall space, and that’s where I had to make choices upon entering the room.

            What would I hang on the walls of my office? And what would that say about my values as an assistant principal? As students began entering the office during this first week of school, I happily gave them a tour.

            One wall was reserved for a series of Apple “Think Different” posters that my wife gave me during my first year of teaching, 19 years ago. I’ve had them up every year since, so there was no doubt that they would make their way into the room. They feature black-and-white photos of famous innovators, from Mahatma Gandhi to Amelia Earhart to Jim Henson to Pablo Picasso. The “Think Different” slogan has always fit into my core values as an educator, so I want students to see those words as often as possible.

            There are no diplomas on the walls, but there is a teacher award plaque and photos of my students, one of them a framed photo of a journalism class given to me last year by the students themselves. Another photo was sent to me from a just-graduated senior, who is studying abroad in her first semester of college and wanted me to see her enjoying a rugby game in New Zealand. Another photo shows students from the community service club I’ve advised, posing with a patient from Children’s Specialized Hospital during a dance marathon fund-raiser. With these snapshots from my teaching life, I hope to show students how much I care about their lives.

            There is a small, three-tiered table in a corner, which features an old-school typewriter on the top level, a reporter’s notebook and recorder on the second level, and a newspaper drawing on the bottom. The table reminds me of the journalism that serves as the foundation of my work experience, work ethic and work philosophy.

            The bookshelf features texts that support my work in education and adolescent development (from Carol Dweck’s Mindset to Susan Cain’s Quiet to Angela Duckworth’s Grit to Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be), as well as books that encourage dialogue on social justice and community engagement (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, James McBride’s The Color of Water). There are also books that remind me of how I grew into my role as an educator and thinker, from authors such as Jonathan Kozol, Anna Quindlen, Fred Rogers and Ralph Ellison.

            Outside my door, there are two dry-erase boards: One for students who need to leave me messages, and one featuring an inspirational quote of the day. On the first day of school, I posted a quote from the writer Rainer Maria Rilke: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.”

            Beyond the innovators, snapshots, mementoes, books and words, there’s another piece to this room that serves as perhaps the most visible part of my office décor. On three of the walls, I have hung photos and drawings of bridges. Many of them depict the Brooklyn Bridge, which has long been my favorite New York City landmark. From poster-sized photos to New Yorker covers to a painting by my daughter, I surround myself with the 135-year-old architectural beauty that spans the East River because I find it incredibly inspiring.

But as a writer and English teacher, I also see a metaphor here. Adolescence is, in many ways, a bridge between childhood and adulthood. And administrators are often bridge-keepers who help connect students, faculty, parents and the overall community with one another. Finally, schools themselves are bridges, designed to help learners connect with one another, with academic disciplines, and with their own individual thoughts. We’re constantly building bridges for students as they share information, and also within students as they connect the dots between prior knowledge and new discoveries, between assumptions and reality, and between fact and fiction. In so many ways, educators are the engineers of personal growth, and it is our job to keep the pathways clear for students to make important crossings and to take the risk of reaching for the other side.

There are a lot of quotes out there supporting this metaphor, but I’ll leave you with one. During a lecture 55 years ago, Ralph Ellison said, “Education is all a matter of building bridges.” This seems as true to me today as it was to Ellison in 1963.

So yes, I have an office now. But the essence of my work remains the same as it ever was. In case I forget that, I’ve got the bridges to remind me.

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