A Quick Reminder at 33rpm

About six months ago I joined the “vinyl revolution”.  My old record player came out of hiding and I started to hit the used book stores and flea markets for LPs from my past.  Fortunate to find Cat Stevens, U2, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, & Elton John, and others, I started to play records each day.  The crackle and richness of the recording led me to agree that “records really do sound different.”  I was also quickly reminded of having to get up and flip the record, having to keep the needle clean, and having to deal with a song that got stuck and just repeated the same note over and over.  Maybe it was a scracth or an imperfection.  I would diligently look and hope it was neither.  I suppose the needle merely found itself in a groove for which it could not break thru and continue the song.  And it needed a nudge from me.  I obliged and the song continued and never looked back.

Record player with needle

The role of Principal can sometimes include “walking a tightrope”.  We filter directives and initiatives from central office so as to make sure they are supportive and not disruptive to the campus program.  We support teachers while also advocating for students.  And we consider the best means to share with the larger community the good and bad that happens on campus.  And when we are at our best we do all of it with patience, respect, and wisdom.  It’s tough.  And it’s the best job I have ever had in my life.

I recently has a senior email me as she was struggling with a decision that had been made by the school newspaper sponsor and student editorial staff.  This young lady had already reached out to her counselor and was still in need.  As I always do, I replied and made myself available to chat with her at lunch to see how I might be able to assist.  And as the conversation continued, I could quickly see that she was stuck.  Simply stuck.


I spoke with her about 3 or 4 outcomes that could exist.  The 1st option was best case, the 2nd was worst case, and the other two were possible new ideas.  We chatted about which ones she thought she could do – words she thought she could organize when she met with the teacher and the leadership board for the newspaper.  We also brainstormed how she might handle it should the outcome not be as she hoped.  Finally, she got excited about the new possibilities that could emerge and our mutual zeal about those novel ideas led her to leave my office with a fresh sense of hope.

Now at the same time I had a teacher that I knew I needed to support.  I had to try and articulate that my role with the student was to coach her toward finding her own resolution to the conflict.  I was not offering consultation in the form of specific next steps – or a formula for “getting what she wanted.”  And I was not meeting with the student so as to “make” the newspaper leadership change their mind and approve the story.  Instead I was making myself available to a student who simply couldn’t move forward.

Part of our responsibility as campus leaders is to build skills and talent within our students.  Walking the fine line between directing and coaching can be tricky.  The student may take the advice from the adult as direction.  The faculty or staff member may see it as undermining a decision or their authority.  Yet I argue that there is a middle ground here.  Similar to the record player that sometimes can’t move forward with the song, I enjoy the chance to “nudge” a young person so that they may continue.  The path they will follow is their’s to choose, and the outcomes they will own.

unstuck with tape

By the way – this past Friday the student emailed me to update me on the situation.  She had made her best argument and a new outcome had emerged – one neither of us even considered.  And it is brilliant.  Finally, the student included in her email the following:

“I would also like to say thank you for giving me advice in a situation where I didn’t know who to turn to. I appreciate the options you gave me and the listening ear as well.”

C’mon!  Does it get any better than that for an educator!  Let the music play on!


Thanks David Bowie. Ch-Ch-Changes.

So as friends of mine have posted about David Bowie and the impact he had on their lives, the power his music and performances brought to their creative sides, I was immediately reminded of a lyric that always resonated with me.  Perhaps it’s because it’s from a John  Hughes movie that came out in my High School years – The Breakfast Club.  This lyric from Changes that was used then has often served as a reminder of what my middle school and high school students face and how easy it is for “we the adults” to forget our own past.

Changes Image

I have worked in secondary schools for 24 years within a large urban school district.  I taught in schools within communities that were incredibly poor as well as within schools that had healthy diversity both economically & ethnically.  I have interacted with kids from every type of background and in nearly 1/4 century I have determined that it is absolutely true:  kids are kids.  And the challenges they face every day may come in new shapes and sizes, and definitely come at faster speeds with less time to react, yet these young people are just like we all were.  They’re all just trying to figure it out.

Generation X.  Generation Y.  Millennials.  It doesn’t matter the name we give them as each young person faces the struggles of a first crush, a friends betrayal, a family health issue, and the seemingly never-ending quest to find their place in this world.  Yet too often adults – mostly those that do not work in education yet feel that since they went to school they must be experts on teenagers and their needs – are quick to reference days of past while chastising “today’s youth.”  And those taunts hurt me.  They strike at the work I love as an educator and they also offer a gut punch to role I play as a dad.

Students today have to process information at greater speeds then we did because we have created such a world.  It was not their decision to have information about them flying around at warp speed via achievement data, discipline data, nutrition, quiz grades, project completions, music choices, games they play, parties they attend, pictures they take, articles or videos they like.  People tell them that they must have grit and resiliency and the ability to overcome.  And at the same time another group of “wise adults” is telling them that they are not as good, that their schools are letting them down, and that their teachers are the problem.  And if they just went back to basics and sat at the dinner table, then somehow that would cure all the ailments they face.  Finally, for those young people that do push the envelope with new ideas or reach out to the world in new forms, the same adults often respond with a declaration that these youngsters don’t understand the “real world” and that they won’t be prepared for success.

My suggestion is to offer respect instead of advice.  That instead of talking to them we should instead be quiet and listen.  Some will struggle to find the words they need and we can fill in those gaps.  Others may need guidance with how to channel emotion and we can support that.  Speaking about the 3500 students in my school everyday, I can say that the majority are more self-aware than any other generation.  So let us each approach them with an open mind and a commitment to respect the very real – often very raw – emotions they are feeling & world they are experiencing.  Then offer them the space and time to make their own decisions.  I know I have faith in them.


David Bowie may have been inspired to share such advice for other reasons however I think it is his background as an artist that brought him the clarity.  He was judged and evaluated in his prime as he morphed identities and challenged the norm.  And as tributes and applause have come forth after his death, I would argue that we add wise to the list of adjectives used to describe him.

Saying Hello Isn’t So Hard

As you leave your office and head down the main hallway, a laundry list of thoughts crosses your mind.  The parent conference you just left, the teacher you need to see now, the district deadline that is quickly approaching, and the big basketball game tonight versus your rival.  All of this consumes your mind and then you see a young man walking down the same hallway toward you.  He looks to be on his way somewhere, he has a pass in his hand, and he is looking down.  You have a decision to make – one that I think is so crucial for any adult on campus.  And as the principal, I feel it is critical when trying to shape the culture and climate of my school.  So what decision will you make right now that reinforces what you believe is important?    

Fifteen years ago, I was finishing my first semester in grad school on my way to Principal certification.  Sitting in a training with my cohort, I was introduced to the idea of 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents.  The Search Institute had sent team members to speak with us about these different assets and how they can influence the possible outcomes for young people in middle school or high school.  And since those were the only levels I had taught, and thus likely to be the levels at which I served as a campus leader, I was definitely interested.  As the speaker took us through research and findings, I remember hoping that he would offer some examples.  He finally did and I can say that one example in particular has remained a hallmark of what I do every single day.

As I make my way around campus each morning, afternoon, and evening, I see students in the hallway.  Maybe they are returning from their locker, visiting their counselor, completing an errand, or merely running late.  And what I realized was that often adults walk toward them, heads down, and pass them without saying a word.  I mean, I understand, I guess, as we are busy.  We have things to do.  However, I am of the belief that when we choose (and it is a decision we make) to NOT speak to that young person, then we are missing a chance to acknowledge that they exist and that they matter.  Sadly, for some, these same young people get that feedback (or lack thereof) every day at home, on the bus, in the car, and throughout school.  And when I choose not to greet them then I am just as guilty of not helping build assets within them.

So I changed my practices.  I make eye contact with each of them and say “Good morning”, “How’s it going?”, or “Good afternoon.”  It’s not an extensive conversation yet it is acknowledgement.  To be honest, most merely smile and echo back the sentiment.  Some don’t reply at all and I roll with that.  However I am of the firm belief that it matters, and the shy smiles that are offered in return are what make me certain.  Thus it has been a staple for me for more than a dozen years as a campus leader.

So when you are cruising down the hallway tomorrow, with lots on your mind, don’t miss the opportunity to remind a young person that they are significant, that they are worth your time, and that you share this world with them.  And then let me know what you start to notice as this becomes routine.