Sunday, July 7, 2024

Labor of Love

During the summer of 2017, I decided to cut down a tree stump by hand. My lawn is on a hill, and a stump grinder couldn’t get up there without potentially damaging our retaining wall. So for a good part of the summer, I hacked away at the stump myself, using an ax, hatchet, handsaw, shovel, sledgehammer and wedge. When I finally gave in and asked some folks from a tree company to finish the job, they ran into all kinds of problems, as the rocks and dirt deadened their chain-saw blades. 

So I finished it all myself, continuing my stubbornness by cutting it down by hand - until a neighbor finally handed me his chain saw and told me he couldn’t watch it anymore. I combined my tools and his to finish up, and before summer’s end I had a stump-less hill, ready for sodding. 

That was my last summer off, as the following year I made the move from teacher to administrator. There would be no more time for cutting down stumps. I would be getting my hands dirty in a different sense, through an assistant principal job that required grit, perseverance, humility and commitment.

Speaking metaphorically, I chopped a lot of wood and endured a number of challenges during the next six years, both on the job and off. The loss of a principal. A global pandemic. A teen mental health crisis. The loss of my father. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis for my mom. A family to care for. A doctorate to complete. And, of course, the day-to-day challenges that come with helping to run a school. 

My focus every day has been to make myself present for students, colleagues, parents, community members, family and friends, and to keep thinking of new ways to support my school, community and loved ones. The work of school leadership is never easy, nor is the work of being a friend, father, son and husband. But by leading with love, humanity and forward-thinking, I have tried to be of use.

Tomorrow, I will step into a high school as principal for the first time. There will be challenges I can expect, and others I can’t even dream of. Some days it will come at me fast and furious, and other days I will find some space to breathe. I am ready for this step, with gratitude for the opportunity. I’m thankful for those I have worked with so far, and for those I will work with in the months and years ahead. I am inspired by the family and friends whose lives have touched mine, and I’m stronger for the lessons I have learned in life.

One of those lessons is to delegate a little better than I did in the tree stump days, and to pace myself a bit. Another is to never, ever give up, and to commit myself fully to making a difference. It is time - time to start another uphill project. Yet this one surely feels like a labor of love.


Sunday, March 31, 2024

A Principal and a Rivalry

             In recent days, I have become the Johnny Damon of central Jersey education.

            For 20 years, I have worked at Westfield High School, a secondary school in Union County – first as an English and journalism teacher, then as an assistant principal. But starting July 1, I will be the principal of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, a secondary school in the town next door to Westfield. For many years, the two schools have been archrivals in athletics, with huge student turnouts whenever they play each other.

            And now I’m moving from one to the other. I’m by no means the first educator to do such a thing, and we certainly have plenty of similar examples from sports as well – one notable move being the New York Yankees’ signing of centerfielder Johnny Damon after he had led the rival Boston Red Sox over the Yankees en route to ending Boston’s 86-year World Series drought.

            I recall the headlines of the Yankees’ signing and thinking to myself, “How am I going to root for Johnny Damon?” He had symbolized the rivalry, and was going to have to shave his famous beard and long hair to comply with the Yankees’ facial hair and hair-length policies. But once he showed up in the Bronx, Damon was fully committed to the Yankees, and by 2009 he was helping lead them to a championship as well.

            When folks have asked me about my own rivalry switch, I have shared that the high school I attended had the same nickname as Scotch Plains – the Raiders. And when I got to college, I attended a university whose heated rival, Duke University, shared the same nickname as Westfield – the Blue Devils. So based on my formative years as a student, I don’t expect to have much trouble rooting for the Raiders and against the Blue Devils. The difference will simply be that I’ll know and care deeply about the students and coaches on both sides. I can think of far worse things than that.

            And the principal of Westfield High is a dear friend and mentor, so I’m sure we’ll figure out fun ways to handle big rivalry games – who has to treat the other to lunch, or who has to wear the other school’s gear, based on the outcome. She’s also shared that she really looks forward to beating the school with me there. So, all right, bring it on.

            Becoming a school principal carries with it tons of challenges and opportunities, and I am preparing for those with a complete and dedicated effort. I think all of my colleagues and students – in the past, present and near future – care more about what I bring to the table as an educational leader than the reality of my rivalry switch.

            In the end, Johnny Damon was a baseball player, first and foremost. And he played with class and determination. I guess I could do far worse in comparisons.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

The Issue of Their Lifetime

            I am not an expert on climate change education. I am, however, a veteran teacher and a citizen of this world. And it seems clear to me that we owe our students more discussion of climate change in the classroom.

            It is the issue of their lifetime, and we are not talking about it – not in most classes, and not in a lot of places. Even though 2023 was far and away the warmest year on record, even though the 10 warmest years on planet Earth have all occurred in the past 10 years, and even though we experienced the warmest June, July, August, September and October in history this past year, we are still not really discussing it.

            In a representative survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, researchers found that 65 percent of Americans say they rarely or never talk about global warming with family and friends, while 35 percent said they discuss it either occasionally or often. And yet, 65 percent of Americans said they are somewhat worried about climate change, with another 29 percent saying they are very worried about it. On top of that, more than 10 percent of Americans said they are feeling down, depressed or helpless because of climate change.

            We see stories about climate-related crises all around the planet, and we notice things that just don’t seem right in our own region, such as being able to go for a run in shorts multiple times in January – in New Jersey. We hear people refer to climate change as an existential crisis, which doesn’t really make anyone feel better about it all.

            But for many of life’s most difficult questions, we can find hope in the classroom. New Jersey was the first state to provide state climate change instructional standards, and no, the standards are not geared toward indoctrination. They are geared toward analysis, evaluation, collaboration and solution-seeking – in other words, student-centered learning. These standards offer teachers and students the chance to learn together, and to prepare to take leadership roles in addressing this issue.

            The Yale and George Mason climate change communication programs provide a wealth of resources for educators and for all of us. One of Yale’s educator resources is titled “Five Facts, Ten Words,” and the lesson breaks down climate change in five two-word phrases: “Scientists agree. It’s real. It’s us. It’s bad. There’s hope.” Many of the additional Yale sources connect data to storytelling, which is in many ways what scientists are trying to do as they examine our changing climate. Resources such as these pull away from the existential dread and move more toward honest discussion, concern and solution-seeking.

            I look forward to seeing more and more schools follow guidelines such as these, and offer students the guidance and exploratory space to seek out the solutions their generation will need to lead us forward. I hope to see additional professional development offerings so that teachers feel prepared to do this work. This is not about pushing an agenda; it is simply about doing right by our students. As they explore climate change more with their teachers, our students will gain the language and the confidence to look this crisis in the eye and talk about it in ways that genuinely help them, and us.