Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#10, Mothers Day, May 10, 2020)

Unconditional love. If I could give every person on this planet one gift, it would be the promise that throughout your life, you will be loved, unconditionally. Such a love gives one strength and perseverance. It does not guarantee success, as that depends on our own efforts, our decisions, some luck, and a million other things. But it is a foundation that makes everything in life a little easier. I wish we all felt it. Today is Mother’s Day, a days that reminds me that in my life, I have been twice blessed with unconditional love.

We all need it. I know I do. These COVID-19 times are stressful for all of us. For me, it seems like all of the decisions we are making are pleasing just about half of the people that I serve. And believe me, I hear it when people are not happy. People ask me how I am able to handle criticism, and I give them two reasons: First, I know in my heart that I make the best decisions I can after listening to people from all sides and researching as time allows. Second, I know that no matter what slings and arrows I endure in those times, I will be going home to my wife Jill, who loves me unconditionally. Such love gives me incredible strength. I will be OK because I have the power of unconditional love behind me. Jill and I have been married for almost 19 years. She is Dawson’s mom and Ryan’s’ step mom, and she loves us all fiercely, beautifully, and unconditionally. The three of us all know we are extraordinarily fortunate to have such a life-long gift in our lives.

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Jill and Dawson on the Little Red River in Arkansas (2007)

I’ve been the beneficiary of this gift of unconditional love all of my life from my mother. My mom is beautiful and healthy at the ripe old age of 49. I know. It’s a bit odd and practically a miracle that my 49-year-old mom could be the mother of a 58-year-old son. But mothers achieve miracles all the time. The two of us laugh about this Einsteinian miracle of time, as I regularly remind her of how our unique age disparity. How old you are in your own head is one of the Jedi mind tricks that define how you lead your life. My 29-year-old son Ryan always gives me a hard time for me thinking I’m still in my late 30s. Actually, he loves it and we both agree it’s the only way to live. My mom will always be young and beautiful.

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Mom with Pat and me (1964)

But when people ask me about my mom, her eternal youth and beauty are not the first things I comment on. The first thing I always say is, “My mom is the definition of unconditional love.” My friends hear that and say to me, “It’s a good thing, because only a mom like that could love you.” Hilarious. But it’s true. All four of her children would say the same thing. And even though I’m clearly her favorite, the other three falsely believe that they are. And we all worship our mother.

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Martha, Mike, Mom, Bill, and Pat (1974)

My mom has inspired me my whole life. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, but was not encouraged to go to college. She went to a two-year college, became a secretary, met my dad, got married, and gave birth to me when she was 21. Pat, Martha, and Bill were all born in the next four years. Four unruly children a little more 5 years apart. She was a stay-at-home mom, and took care of everything – the house, our sports, keeping track of our school, hearing from teachers about our misbehaviors, fixing our injuries (including taking me to the doctor after my friend Kenny threw a bamboo spear through my ear), and doing her best to discipline us. Her best weapon was, “Don’t make me tell your father.” But she did once wash my mouth out with soap, using a bar of soap and a toothbrush, for a verbal indiscretion I allegedly used. (She feels guilty about it now, so I bring it up whenever I can.) On top of all of that, she is a spectacular cook. We ate wonderful food in our home, and she is the source of and inspiration for my love of cooking today.

When I was in high school, my mom decided she wanted to get a college degree. She enrolled in UALR (University of Arkansas Little Rock) and studied to be a music major. Through my high school years, she was my study buddy at night. We did our homework together. As I watched all that my mom did, taking care of everyone, practicing piano, reading and completing her homework assignments, studying German, and going to class, I felt a little less sorry for myself. She was actually choosing to do this! How did I show my appreciation? This will show you what a classy son I was. Quite a few times, when we were both studying as the midnight hour approached, I would let her overhear me complaining about having to type out my essay, bemoaning my own slow typing speed. She would look up, and say, “Let me type that for you Michael!” And she, with her still super speedy typing skills, would whip out that paper in no time, without the ugliness from the rolls of correction tape I would have used, and smile as she gave the pristine pages to me. She was dog tired, and she did that with a smile and then a goodnight kiss.

I watched her finish all of her classes, practice her piano music for thousands of hours, then overcome her nervousness to perform a stunning senior recital. All of us beamed with pride as we watched her graduate from UALR, summa cum laude. Just like she did in high school, she finished at the top of her class. It was inspirational then, and it still is today.

She’s not perfect. She may be a bit gullible. OK, she’s really, really gullible, and my siblings and I got away with a few things in high school because she would believe almost any story we gave her. Now, when we all get together, we will tell her stories about things we did that she did not know about, and she will say, “What? But you said . . .” We laugh and say, “Yeah mom . . . Sorry about that.” She shakes her head and laughs. We all survived and it worked out.

My mom lives back in Arkansas still, and we talk every week. I was planning to visit back in April, but like all of us, those travel plans have been delayed. So, we just keep talking. We talk about her piano playing, which she still does, volunteering to play at senior centers. She sends me photos of her beautiful garden that she still tends. I bug her about the daily walks that I ask her to do, and she tells me how she just can’t find the time in her day to fit those in. We laugh and discuss the challenges that we face each week. She’s very proud of her teacher-principal-superintendent-husband-father son, but she’d be proud of me no matter what. What I do is far less important than the simple fact that she loves her son.

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Mom and Ryan playing and singing together

When I give her a hard time for something, she will still say, “You know. I can still take you over my knee for saying such things.” I know, Mom. I can still taste that soap. (She will feel guilty when she reads that – mission accomplished!) But way more than that, I feel the gift and the strength of her unconditional love every day. It’s in my soul and helps me face every day with positive energy and a desire to make a difference each and every day. I am eternally grateful for that gift.

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Thanksgiving (2017)

Happy Mother’s Day and thank you to my mom, to Jill, and to all of the amazing moms who give give all of us the powerful and life-changing gift of unconditional love.

Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, Ladybugs and Dogs, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

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We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

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“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#8, On Writing, April 18, 2020)

“I have raised an illiterate son.”

Those were the words my dad spoke to me as a 17-year-old, as I was filling out my Harvard application. Harvard required that we list all the books we had read during high school, and left plenty of room on the paper application to fill in lots and lots of books. I only really had the books I had been required to read in school, and there were acres of space left on that part of the application. I didn’t think Harvard wanted to hear about Great Linebackers of the NFL, and Great Quarterbacks of the AFL, or even Strange But True Football Stories. So, I left a lot of blank space and disappointed my Dad. Apparently, Harvard wasn’t impressed either. Oh well. I left high school as a decent reader and writer, and since then, I have tried continuously to get better. I still don’t read as much as my dad does, but I know my dad considers me to be at least semi-literate now, and every week we discuss books and recommend new finds to each other. Jill wonders if my dad’s comment is the reason I keep an annotated bibliography now. Maybe.

I think I have written more in the past five weeks than at any time since I finished my dissertation. But I’ve actually enjoyed this writing. It’s allowed me to reflect on how I evolved from my high school writing self to the writer I am today. I did not get here alone. I had mentors who inspired and guided me along the way.

I’ll begin with my father. If I had a nickel for every time he said, “I wish people in this world could just write a simple, clear, declarative sentence,” I’d have a hundred bucks at least. And I could at least do that when I left high school. But he was also a writing model for me. When I went to college, and phone calls were too expensive to make, I could count on getting a letter every day from my dad. Every day. Sometimes typed, often written in his left-handed scrawl. It was great either way. I did not write back as often as he would have liked. One time, he sent me a typed letter with fill-in-the-blank spaces, and asked me to fill it out, put it in the stamped addressed envelope, and mail it back to him. The letter went:

Dear Dad,

I am doing ____________.

The weather here is ____________.

One thing I did today was __________________.

Love,

Mike

Hilarious.

In December of every year, my dad sends all of his children a summary of quotes from his favorite books and articles that he read during the year. He’s still a role model and a writing mentor.

The first teacher in my life who truly took an interest in my writing and served as a writing mentor was my advisor in college, Dr. Alexander George. I’ve mentioned him before. As an International Relations major, I felt fortunate to take two classes on the Soviet Union from Professor George. He was the first person to pull me into his office solely to discuss my writing. He called me “a diamond in the rough” in terms of my writing. For those of you familiar with the Disney version of Aladdin, the person who was called a “diamond in the rough” in that movie was also called a “street rat.” Coincidence? He worked with me on going beyond the simple, declarative sentence and actually varying my sentence structure, and he asked me to work to interest my reader. He was one of the foremost researchers in the world, and he took time to help out a street rat. I was fortunate to have his honest and kind mentorship.

My next mentor did not come around for a few decades after that. I call her a Person Who Has Never Applied for a Job. I also call her one of my closest friends. I met Pat Cairns in 1993 when I became principal at Malibu High School. She was an English teacher, and she was really good at her job. So I made her quit it. I hired her as a Vice Principal (without interviewing her) and we worked together for years. She and I also team taught an AP US History/AP English 11 course, and we were quite the team. She later became an elementary principal (again without applying for the job), and that’s when she started to mentor me in writing. She wrote weekly letters to her elementary parents, and I read them faithfully. They were funny, touching, personal, insightful, and perfectly written stories for her community. They were self-deprecating, and they often bared her soul. They were courageous, as good writing often is. You put things out there that most people would keep private. It takes more time than you possibly have, and you always wish you had more. I know how busy she was as a principal, yet she found the time. She remains one of my greatest mentors, and I value all the conversations we had about her weekly letters and about life. By the way, she is also Dawson’s godmother, and she has lived next door to us since 2001. Her house burned down in last year’s fires, and she has not yet moved back. The lemon tree that stood between our houses stopped her burning, collapsing wall from hitting our house, saving our home from total destruction. I still steal lemons from that tree regularly, and when I enjoy those lemons, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my friend and mentor, and it pains me still that I can’t walk over and visit her or even just wave at her as she tends to her beautiful roses. One day soon I hope.

I’ve never met my next mentor. I write him emails every once in a while, as I think we have a lot in common. He probably thinks of me as a creepy and annoying fan. Maybe he’s right. Chris Erskine is a columnist for the LA Times. The LA Times is a real newspaper, doing its best to stay alive. I’m a subscriber, and if you live in LA and you’ve read this far, you should be too. Click here to do just that. Chris Erskine represents the common family man in LA, and he writes about the beauty, humor, sadness, and craziness of his family, the Dodgers, good friends, and the Los Angeles community. Like Pat Cairns, he bares his soul. He recently shared the crushing losses of his older son and his beloved wife. I can’t tell you how many times I have laughed out loud or actually cried reading his columns. And he is the king of having at least one perfect sentence in every column, one that reminds you of what writers aspire to be. His courage, wit, humor, and appreciation of every aspect of daily life inspire me, and he’s a mentor without even knowing it. I feel like I know him and that he’s a friend. (That’s me being creepy again, isn’t it?) I’m not as courageous as he is. I have started a list of topics to write about, but I’m nowhere near courageous enough to write about them yet. It’s like Derek Zoolander’s Magnum look – I shouldn’t even be talking about it. I’m nowhere near ready.

Finally, I have mentors who care enough about me to take the time to review what I write. My best friends and closest colleagues aren’t much into sugar coating. They tell it like it is, and I thrive on that. As a school superintendent, I send out a lot of writing. Pressing the “send” button on an email going to 10,000 people is always a nerve-wracking experience. I’ve seen a meme of a sweating finger lingering over a “Send” button, and that’s how I feel every time I send out a bulk email or publish a blog post. I feel fortunate to have people in my life very willing to closely read what I have written and correct and critique it before I push that Send button. They will never get me to overcome my fear of the semi-colon, but they are an incredible resource for me. I value their friendship, and I have become a better writer through their critiques.

So what does all this have to do with COVID-19? This stay-at-home era leaves us more time than ever for reflection, and there is no better way to force yourself to reflect than to have to clarify your thoughts through writing. Writing these blog posts has helped me to better understand what I’m feeling in these days. On top of that, there is so much that I can’t do in this era, so to have something new that I’m motivated to work on is energizing. I wake up early in the morning on a day where I know I’m going to write, and I jump out of bed eager to start. (Yes – I am a jump-out-of-bed person, no apologies.) Writing also creates an opportunity to appreciate and express gratitude for all that we have and for all of the people who have helped us along the way. I hope you have had mentors in your life who helped you with one skill or another. Writing even a quick email or note to them (my Dad would be happy to make a template for you!) could be a wonderful thing for both of you. And finally, what better legacy can you leave in life than actually being a mentor yourself? It’s not easy. My main job as a teacher was using history as a means of coaching and mentoring students to be better writers. However you mentor, it requires finding time that you don’t have. It means sometimes stopping, slowing down, and giving your undivided attention to helping someone else. It’s a good time to be a mentor. Now more than ever, it’s the personal connections that matter the most.

Note on October 26, 2020 – Thanks to reader Bob L. for pointing out that some of the links need updating. And sadly, Chris Erskine no longer works for the LA Times, but happily, he’s still writing and you can find his musings at https://chriserskinela.com.

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#7, Flow, April 10, 2020)

I’m a big fan of reading. But I have found that reading various news feeds on my iPad, computer or iPhone, while informative, does absolutely nothing to calm my soul. In fact, as I get pulled into the various rabbit holes courtesy of social media, I find myself actually feeling more stress – it’s not relaxing! But books – that’s a whole other matter. Books I can get lost in. And sometimes, especially in times like these, it’s nice to get lost.

I remember when I got my first iPad back in 2010. I downloaded the Kindle app, and I was re-reading one of my favorite books, The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I remember coming across a passage describing the concept of “flow.” I looked up the concept using the web browser on the iPad, and saw that the book most people referred to about flow was Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. So, I bought it right then and there, read it, then came back to The Power of Now. I felt like I was living inside of a library, but I never had to leave my house. Besides the fact that the books weren’t free like they are in our marvelous public libraries, it was amazing!

I remember back in college I had a job doing research for Dr. Alexander George, one of the preeminent Soviet Union scholars in the world. He would ask me to get books from the Hoover Library, which was a giant tower located at the heart of the campus, filled with papers and books. For a lowlife student like me, there was no wandering of the halls in the Hoover Library. You went in, politely requested the book from the people on the bottom floor, and came back later to pick it up. Just 26 years later, the Kindle was changing all of that, where the even most obscure books are usually at our fingertips. Amazing.

Anyway, back to flow. Czikszentmihalyi (click here to see how to pronounce) wrote, “I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” What a concept. He believes that humans are highly distractible as a modern species. “Contrary to what we tend to assume, the normal state of the mind is chaos.” As someone who can be distracted (squirrel!), it feels good that I’m maybe not that different from most people. Czikszentmihalyi believes that flow is not easily achieved. “Anyone who has experienced flow knows that the deep enjoyment it provides requires an equal degree of disciplined concentration.” If you’d rather hear him than read the book, he gave a great Ted Talk where he goes into detail about the kinds of experiences that can create flow for different individuals. These intrinsically rewarding flow experiences present a high level of challenge, for which we must have the requisite level of skill.  It’s yet another Ted Talk worth listening to.

My friend Ali from Beach Cities Health District (BCHD) was one of the first subscribers to this blog feed. She recently suggested that one of my next blogs should be on this concept of flow. I spoke about flow at a BCHD event, and she and I have had many conversations about it since then. We do a lot of work together on how we can promote happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled students and adults in our community. That work, and the concept of flow seem particularly relevant now, in a time when chaos seems to be all around us.

There is a big difference between downtime and flow. Downtime is time spent tuning out, pulling back, or turning off. There’s nothing wrong with downtime! Highly enjoyable downtime for me is time spent watching sports on TV, watching West Wing or Ugly Delicious on Netflix, playing Catan, Cribbage or Mah Johngg with Jill, or other casual events that are highly enjoyable, but require neither advanced skills nor full concentration. My mind can wander during these downtime activities, and sometimes I even multi-task (don’t tell Jill!).

But to achieve flow, you have to concentrate. You have to focus. It is temporary and can be fleeting. I think a lot about my pursuit of experiences where I can achieve flow. All of us have different ways of getting there. Other than reading, which I described above, here are some of my favorite flow-inspiring activities:

  • Problem solving. Anything at work where I am truly problem-solving can get me into a state of flow. This can be researching on my own, but more often it is putting heads together (or these days, Zooming together) with my colleagues, spending time fully devoted to moving towards a solution.
  • I still love teaching. I occasionally teach graduate level courses as an adjunct professor with Cal State Long Beach. I will walk into a 6 PM course that will last over three hours, saying to myself, “Why did I ever agree to do this? I’m exhausted, I want to get home, and I have a zillion things that need to get done.” When I walk out at 9:30, I am saying to myself, “That was spectacular! I loved every minute, I’m energized, and I can’t believe the time flew that quickly!” That is flow.
  • I lose myself in cooking whenever I can. I cook for my family, and I have catered for over 100. I cook in my indoor kitchen and my outdoor kitchen. I love learning and talking about cooking with friends who are amazing cooks, and time flies when I’m in the kitchen. I keep my recipes on a website to share with friends and family. Cooking is not downtime. It requires concentration, planning, organization, and (bonus) it can be done well with a glass of wine in your hand.
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Getting ready to smoke a turkey on the Big Green Egg!
  • Three days a week at 5:30 AM (maybe 5:33), I jump into the beautiful LMU pool and swim hard for one hour alongside swimmers who swim at a similar pace to me. Coach Bonnie or Clay gives us organized workouts and push us. When I swim on my own, I’ll swim 1500 yards at a decent pace and get out. My mind is wandering and I enjoy it, but it’s not flow. When I’m coached, I swim at least two miles, I am pushed to move faster, and I’m competing with Wayne, Cat, Karl, Nader, Kelly, Shauna, or whomever is in the lane next to me. While we swim, there is no time to let my mind wander. This is a battle. There is strategy. There are winners and losers. And when it’s over or between swims, there’s good natured banter to be had. I love it, and in normal times, I lose myself in it for one hour three days a week.
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OK – So this was from a pool in Hawaii – Not LMU. A-flow-ha!

Flow sometimes comes in many other forms for me – bicycling, golf, hiking, playing music, and – I hate to admit it – in channeling Marie Kondo and decluttering my life. I do love those activities, but I’m not as skilled in them as I am cooking and swimming, so the state of flow can be a little more difficult to attain.

One of the most difficult things for me in this COVID-19 time is that many of my favorite flow-inducing activities are now unavailable. Channeling Adam Ant, “Can’t swim, can’t golf, what do you do?” Well, I’m biking more, cooking A LOT (though only for my family), and, in this very new and still mostly unknown world of distance learning, doing a whole lot of problem-solving at work.

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Jill and I biking the Malibu Coast last weekend.

The state of flow is worth seeking every day, or at least several times a week. Sometimes, we think we are too tired to do the work, but the reward is worth it. We can’t spend our lives in it, but we can make the effort to make sure it is a part of our lives. The key is finding a few experiences that you love, and committing to improving and becoming skilled enough to perform at flow-attaining levels. Regularly experiencing life where you are so immersed in what you are doing that time ceases to exist is a spectacular way to relieve stress and feel like we are making the most of our brief time on this planet.

Go for it.

 

 

 

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#6, Counselors, April 7, 2020)

I did not have any counselors in my high school. We had an English teacher, Mr. Bersey, who offered to help students in the college application process, but that was about it. Overnight, he went from being my sophomore year English teacher who taught me words like zephyr and zenith and who also gave me many days of Saturday school for my smart aleck comments, to the person I went to for advice when I had questions about college application process. It wasn’t much, but having someone who knew something, as opposed to relying only on the heavily dogeared college application books I was reading, was helpful.

With the exception of what seemed like 37 years in middle school, I led a pretty charmed life through high school and never had anything close to a need for counseling. My parents divorced immediately after I left for college, and the 2000 miles of distance spared me from having that pain in my face every day. My younger brothers and sister were not so fortunate. But life has a way of eventually bringing its share of pain to all of us. The longer you live and the more you listen, the more you know that. I’ve had my share of pain since my twenties, and counseling helped me get through the hardest times. Having someone to talk with, to listen objectively, to question and push, and to call me on the carpet on some of my thinking has helped me tremendously at key points in my life.

As a high school principal, I got to work closely with school counselors. I considered our counselors to be a vital part of my leadership team. In many cases, counselors know students better than anyone, and their insight is often essential to making high quality instruction possible. I spoke last week with the counseling teams that support the students at Mira Costa High School and Manhattan Beach Middle School. I am grateful for the time they shared with me and loved being able to spend an hour with each team, hearing about how they are transitioning to “distance counseling.” I continue to love how Zoom connects us during this crazy time. I have spoken with our counselors many times, but seeing them working from their homes, talking with the group while also attending to the needs of their sometimes very young children, and balancing work and life in this new environment made me feel even more connected with this team of very caring people. All of us smiled when we heard that one of our counselors just witnessed her oldest son take his first steps.

MBMSCounselors
The MBMS Counseling Team
MCHSCounselors
The Mira Costa HS Counseling Team

What a critical thing it is to have people in an organization who are solely devoted to helping students make good decisions and helping them get through difficult times. I wanted to speak with our counselors to learn how they are able to do this without the in-person connections and day to day interactions of regular school.

One of their top priorities has been supporting students who were already in crisis while they were in school prior to March 13, our last day of normal school. Stress and anxiety are real in our high-pressure community. Expectations are high. Some students seemingly thrive on that, but it can be too much for others. It’s often hidden, but many of our students, and students across the country, are in a lot of pain. It made the cover of Time Magazine a few years ago. All of our counselors see students who are in crisis, and this move to distance learning creates an even less connected world that could be even tougher on students. Our counselors recognize this, and when we moved to our distance learning model they immediately began reaching out to these students to try to maintain the connections they have already built and to provide a familiar touchpoint for students who need one. Their conversations are often about school, but they are more about emotions, mindsets, and the tools that students can use to process and cope with self-doubts and sometimes giant challenges in their lives. It is reassuring and comforting to know that our counselors are taking the initiative and maintaining relationships with students during this COVID-19 time.

Our College and Career Counselors have been busy as well. Mira Costa seniors have heard from colleges and are making decisions on where to attend, without the ability to visit their prospective colleges, on where to attend. Counselors have been having telephone or Zoom meetings with the families of our junior students, who are starting the college application process now. It is a crazy time for them, too. Our college and career counselors recently sent out the April edition of the CCC Newsletter as another way of keeping our students and families informed. My son Dawson is a junior. He took the SAT back in January, and now we are not even sure if schools will be accepting SATs. I’m not certain my older son Ryan would have gotten into any competitive university without his SATs. He was not a big believer in turning in homework, and his GPA reflected a stubborn adherence to that lack of belief. But he was born to take tests, and that helped him. As he still tells me regularly when we reflect on those high school days, “It all worked out, didn’t it Dad?”

LawSchoolGrad
Our family celebrating Ryan’s law school graduation. Yes, Ryan, it all worked out!

It worked out for Ryan, but for Dawson, and for all of our juniors, the college application process has never been more uncertain. Our counselors are trying to guide students and families, meeting with them and their families through Zoom to help them navigate a process that none of us yet understands and that is changing as we go. To me, the main point we need to remember is the point that Frank Bruni repeatedly makes in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Successful people are not successful because of the college they attended. It’s about their desire to learn, to improve, to take chances, and to work hard through all of it. Bruni writes, “What drives earnings isn’t the luster of the diploma but the type of person in possession of it…A good student can get a good education just about anywhere, and a student who’s not that serious about learning isn’t going to get much benefit.” Channeling Frank Bruni to all of our high school students, our middle school students, and parents – it’s going to be OK.

Our counselors reminded me that life goes on even in this time of social distancing, and that sometimes brings hardship and pain. As they learn about new and sometimes very heavy circumstances that our students are facing, our counselors are reaching out to support them as well. One of our students just learned that his mother has cancer. Other students have witnessed a parent or grandparent go through COVID-19. We have students whose parents are on the front lines in the medical profession, risking their health every day. Financial stresses are straining our families. The health, the emotions, and the lives of the ones we love matter more than anything. Having a trusted adult to talk with outside of the small circle of people with whom we are sheltering in place is sometimes critical to being able to get through difficult situations. Our counselors are working to provide this for students as they go through these real challenges, and I know that it helps.

I’m also grateful that our counselors are not alone in this work. We have so many teachers, instructional assistants, school staff, and administrators who have connections with our students, who love and care for them, and who are still connecting and listening. I know that these trusted adults are providing important and much-needed support, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by letting students know they are still here. I have often said that teaching is not solely based on traditional content and that the best teaching happens when teachers focus on growth – and not just on academic growth but also on students’ growth as people. My wife used to be an AP Calculus teacher, and now she’s a 5th grade teacher. She talks about how people ask her, “What do you teach?” and for many years her answer was, “Math!” Now when people ask, “What do you teach?” she says, “It’s not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’….I teach 30 individual students.” Meeting each student where they are, knowing what makes them tick, and helping them to grow into the people they will become is way more important than making sure that they remember every single fact and figure that we teach. As Paul Simon sang, “When I think back on all that crap I learned in high school. It’s a wonder I can think at all.” I’m a big fan of the idea that as many adults in the school as possible should teach students to think, to be creative, and to solve problems (that is not the crap that Paul Simon was talking about), help students to grow into good and caring human beings, and support students so that they know without a doubt that adults in their school care about their success a person.

Thank you to our counselors for caring for our students, particularly in this time of social distancing. Thank you to everyone in our schools who is reaching out to do the same. And let’s all remind ourselves that we are in the midst of a brutal time, and that kindness and love are more important than ever.

 

 

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#5, Student Life, March 30, 2020)

“I haven’t been bored once. Not one bit.” That’s what my 17-year-old high school junior son Dawson told Jill and me after two weeks of isolation. I believe him. He has been training for this scenario for years. He certainly likes the outdoors. He’s OK with hiking, enjoys playing golf (he breaks 100 and has the famous line, “Golf is more fun when you don’t suck.”), is happy to seek out the perfect hamburger joint (that’s a quest we are on together – #1 so far? The Apple Pan in West LA), and likes going to movies. But without question, he is happiest when he is home. He loves meals in our home and would rather eat what he calls the “RQ” food (restaurant quality) that I make than go out to any restaurant. But his true passion, and a giant reason for him loving being at home, is that our home is his base for online gaming with his friends.

Online gaming creates a world where friends can hang out together, laugh together, and compete together, without ever leaving the home. It’s like a Zoom with a view. He uses a computer that he saved for and built himself. He and his friends strategize, practice, then compete against teams that could be from South Pasadena or South Korea. He and his friends can all watch a movie together, talking and laughing together as they are watching. He has outstanding, smart, and funny friends who care about each other, but outside of school, they rarely see each other in the real world. So really, in his world, not much is different as we shelter at home.

Of course, school is different, but so far for Dawson, that’s not a bad thing. In his pre-COVID-19 school days, he would leave the house around 7:20 and get home around 5:00. By the time he got home, he had done most of his homework, so let’s call it a 10-hour day. Now, between some online classes and getting the work done, he still sees his teachers, but his day is only about five or six hours long. He thinks that’s WAY more efficient! So for him, so far so good. In fact, for Dawson, in a weird way that I’m not quite comfortable with, it may be better.

But it’s not the same for everybody. I had the opportunity to Zoom for an hour with five seniors from Mira Costa High School. I feel for our senior students right now. Everything they have been looking forward to – senioritis, prom, and graduation, is now at risk. I wanted to hear directly from them, so I set up the Zoom call and spent an hour with these five students. It was well worth my time.

We went all kinds of places in the conversation, but perhaps the most poignant point I heard was them lamenting the loss of the seemingly mundane parts of high school. One of the seniors said, “I think it’s interesting that one of the things you don’t realize you miss about school is the random people you see in the hallways. Walking between 1st and 2nd period … I would never Zoom call them up, even though I value seeing them every day. I’m FaceTiming my friends, but it’s not the same. I think we’re all now realizing that the minutes and hours we spend at school, both in and out of class, are such a big part of our social life, even though we might not have thought about it that way before.” Our society should listen to high school students more than we do. Brené Brown, who gave us an outstanding TED talk and a spectacular Netflix show, has thought about this. “I get so busy sometimes chasing the extraordinary that I don’t pay attention to the ordinary moments. The moments that, if taken away, I would miss more than anything.” These students, and I think all of us, are beginning to appreciate the ordinary moments more than ever. “Yeah, everyone was happy to leave because it sounded awesome,” said one of the students, “and now everyone’s like . . . we just wish we were back.”

Senioritis is real. None of these students are slackers, but they at least liked the idea of senioritis. I bored these students (nothing like being trapped in a Zoom meeting with the Superintendent!) with one of my senioritis stories, where my physics teacher read aloud, with gusto, to my entire class a letter he had drafted about my lackluster performance in his class, written to the college admissions department at the college where I had been accepted and planned to attend, advising them that they had made a terrible mistake. I improved my performance and the letter did not go out. Though I did not find the draft letter to be not even mildly funny at the time, my classmates thought it was hilarious. (My classmates were right.) I had been enjoying my senioritis, but it was short-lived. These seniors are missing out on even the opportunity, and for many it would have been the first time in their lives where they could give themselves permission to do maybe just a little bit less than they are supposed to do.

As for these students’ distance learning experiences, it was clear that it all depends on the teacher. They were so appreciative of the teachers who are successfully teaching and connecting. Several commented that their government teacher is their main connecting force. He is holding classes on Zoom, expecting students to turn in work, and providing students with feedback. For these students, it creates a part of the day with purpose and connection. Even so, they lamented that they felt cheated by our new isolation. One of the students said, “I feel like my time in my government class was cut short. He’s one of the great teachers.” The students pointed to other their teachers who are working to provide similar opportunities. For some of them, most of their teachers are providing content and structure that successfully engages them. For one student, it was just one teacher. I have every reason to believe that this is a function of our quick transition. We will get better.

Two weeks into distance learning, our principals are working to develop ways to ensure that they know enough about what each teacher is doing so that several things can happen.

  • We want to show appreciation for the teachers who are killing it. These teachers are already successfully connecting and teaching, trying new methods, failing, and then trying again.
  • We want to see what is working best, and make sure we share those techniques, strategies, and technology uses with all of our teachers.
  • We want to see which teachers needs assistance and find ways to support them. This is a new world, and not everyone was ready for it. There’s a hilarious song that teacher Michael Bruening sings about wishing he’d paid more attention to the technology professional development and all of the frustrations that come with figuring out how to teach in a brand new way. Necessity can also be the mother of motivation.
  • And we need to provide time for our teachers to learn on their own and to learn through collaboration. As Michael Bruening sings,

“You gave me two days to adjust
to move everything online
Did you think I’d crumble?
Did you think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no not I,
I will survive . . .”

The paltry two days he mentions for professional development are two more days than we gave our teachers in MBUSD. I sent out an email last week saying that from now on, we will be building one half day each week into the school day for our teachers to learn and collaborate. I should have done that earlier, but I’m learning through all of this too.

I’ll end this entry by sharing a few final nice thoughts from our seniors. We spend a lot of time worrying about, talking about, and trying to address the massive amount of social and emotional stress our seniors face. I wrote a blog entry about some of our efforts back in 2017. Well it seems our students are certainly feeling a little less stress in this new world.

  • One of the students said, “I feel way less stressed out. And I’m in a better mood. I’ve slept so much – more than I ever have.”
  • Another said, “Every day I would have an hour, maybe, of time when I wasn’t doing anything and could just relax. But now that number’s jumped to 8 hours a day of doing whatever I want. That’s nice.”
  • And another, “Before this happened I was REALLY busy. I was about to quit my job. I couldn’t work out, I couldn’t really do anything. Now I’m picking up shifts again , I have the time to go work out, I actually have free time.”

At the end of the conversation, I said I hoped I could check back in with them (I loved our hour together!), and I promised them that if we miss out on holding graduation on June 11, the planned date, we will have a graduation ceremony. I don’t know when it will be. It could be in August or December. But we will hold it, and when we do, it will be the most wonderful socially non-distant gathering and celebration I can possibly imagine.

I can’t wait.

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#4, Distance Learning, March 28, 2020)

I am writing this entry on Saturday, March 28, 2020 – after two weeks of distance learning. When I first started visualizing what teaching using distance learning would look like, I mistakenly imagined it would be very similar to classroom teaching. I pictured students spending the day from 8:00 to 3:00 either listening to their teacher providing direct instruction, interacting with their teacher and their classmates, reading, or working on skills or materials. I pictured teachers prepping as usual, giving directions, and being available during their normal work hours. I did not take in all of the complexities that being home due to an epidemic brings. It is remarkably complicated.

And it’s not one size fits all. Not one bit. We have students whose families have stresses that prevent them from being available. We have teachers in the same situation. We have teachers who now have to learn a whole new way of teaching, with entirely different uses of technology. In general, the teachers who are doing their best are spending far more hours than they were spending in the normal jobs. There are long hours of learning, preparation, trial and error, collaboration, research, and more. It’s tough on everyone.

Two weeks in, people are seeking to know the expectations and objectives this new distance learning paradigm. I drafted a set of objectives for our district, then received feedback from a number of teachers and instructional leaders, and together we have developed version one of the MBUSD Objectives for Distance Learning. We will be using this as an overall framework for the teaching and learning we want to see with distance learning. It is clear in its objectives, but leaves the “how” up to the teacher. I already have seen plenty of highly effective strategies and uses of technology that teachers are using to achieve these objectives, and I look forward to seeing more. We will learn together.

MBUSD DISTANCE LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Students will continue to learn. This is the message from the Governor of California, and it remains our primary objective in MBUSD. Our teachers have made spectacular efforts to be a source of strength, normalcy, care, and connection in our students’ lives. Teaching and learning will continue in MBUSD through distance learning. 

Teachers will be streamlining the curriculum and focusing on what is most critical for students to learn. Our commitment is to utilize distance learning to prepare students for next year while understanding the evolving challenges that all of us face in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We will seek ways to focus our content on our essential standards, so we can better keep all of our learners engaged, and in order to have more opportunities to support students who are not meeting the standards. When we begin the 2020-21 school year, teachers will need to keep this unique year in mind and will teach or review critical concepts as needed before moving to new concepts.

Teachers will strive to help students regularly connect with their classmates and their teacher. The amount of isolation we are all experiencing during this epidemic presents a major challenge to our social and emotional well-being. Our students need opportunities to remain connected with their classmates and their teachers. Teachers will be using a variety of methods to achieve this.


Students will receive feedback on their assignments. We are continuing to communicate with other local districts, the county, and the state regarding report cards, final grades, and, for high school, grades on transcripts. This is an evolving discussion, and one that will place at its center the best way to reflect student learning in circumstances that are far from normal. Unless students are failing multiple courses or are notified that they are not meeting standards or are at risk of failure/retention, they will be progressing to the next level in 2020-21.


Teachers will receive additional time each week to collaborate with colleagues, discuss curriculum, and to share and learn best distance learning practices. Our teachers have done an amazing job in moving to online instruction. But there is still so much to learn, so we will build in one half day of time during one school day each week for additional learning, as this remains an extraordinarily new and evolving world of teaching. MBUSD supports each school in developing its own schedule to provide this time. Each school site will be in touch with its families once that is done.


Everyone needs to be patient and flexible with themselves and each other. Our teachers are working to adjust to a whole new method of instructional delivery and are learning as they plan, often while dealing with the same challenges that all of us face as we adjust to working from home and caring for ourselves and our families in this new reality. We will all work together to help provide students with the ability to plan, manage, and structure their day to the best of our ability. We understand that lessons and assignments may take a little longer or turn out differently than we expect. We know that flexibility is important – for students as well as teachers – and we will seek to provide that flexibility when it is needed.


We will strive to provide assignments and directions to students and families in a timely and consistent manner. Our community has many working parents, including teachers, who appreciate having the lesson plans ahead of time so they can prepare their students for the day/week, which is particularly helpful to students who may need more support from their parents to plan their day. As everyone begins to settle into this new structure, teachers will be more and more able to establish a routine for posting assignments and schedules for upcoming activities so that students (and their parents, when needed) can plan ahead. 


These Distance Learning Objectives will evolve. As we receive feedback from teachers, employees, students, and families, we will learn more about effective and meaningful practices for teaching and learning through distance learning, as well as ways to maintain strong connections within our classroom and school communities. This will be a living document that evolves as we learn.


We will get through this together. With kindness, compassion, creativity, support from the MBUSD community, and a commitment to teach and learn in a sea of change, our teachers and our students will prevail through this epidemic, and our community will emerge stronger and more together than ever.

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#3, Teams, March 23, 2020)

As I have made these COVID-19 posts on Facebook, and I as tentatively enter the world of “social distance media,” I have heard from so many people from different chapters of my life. I have been fortunate in my 58 years of existence to have been a member of many amazing and magical teams. Sometimes the situation and the people just gel to create magical moments during a lifetime. I’ve had so many. My family, which has grown and changed over the years, has always been an amazing team. As my very funny and lovely mother-in-law says, my family “puts the fun in dysfunctional.” My 6th grade basketball team. My graduating class of 1980 at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which still has amazing bonds. My freshman dorm-mates at Stanford. My small eclectic group of friends from my year in West Berlin in 1982-83. My first teaching job in San Lorenzo. My vice principal experience at Lodi High School. My principal experience at Malibu High School. My close-knit neighbors who are an incredible part of my life. My wacky 5:30 AM masters swimming group at LMU. And my colleagues in my current job as Superintendent in Manhattan Beach. That’s a lot! All of those were amazing teams who added magical, supportive, fun-filled, and meaningful elements to my life.

I’m not sure how great teams get created. I’ve read a lot about it. If you read the annotated bibliography I’ve been keeping for the last 10 years, you’ll see a lot of books about creating and sustaining great teams. For me, part of it comes with not being afraid to start over. I’ve left many jobs that I absolutely loved to start a new job with different challenges. Part of creating a team comes from having a meaningful job to do, and surrounding myself with colleagues who are just as committed as I am to getting that job done right. Part of it comes from my love of laughter, and enjoying being around those who foster it. Finally, I think teams are created when people create spaces in the day, week, or year for downtime and an opportunity to breathe. Keith Urban, one of the hardest working entertainers in the world, sings a song called “Wasted Time,” where he has the line, “Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life was all that wasted time.” When I would spend a morning biking with my friend Will Carey, he would usually say he had, “Nothing to do, and all day to do it.” All you need is purpose, laughter, and time, and  . . . the right people.

I could write a blog post about each of the teams I mentioned above. None of them would do justice to the special nature of each, but it is nice to reflect. I’ll write today on my first teaching job, my five years of teaching History at San Lorenzo High School, where I was a part of two beautiful teams: my amazing, creative, and laughter-filled group of colleagues, and my spectacular and inspirational students.

San Lorenzo is a small suburb in Northern California, located at the intersection of the 880 and 238 freeways, just south of Oakland. (If you’re wondering why we Californians use freeway numbers and roads to describe where something is, watch the not-so-flattering series, The Californians, from Saturday Night Live). I was hired to work there two days before the school year started, as getting a job as a history teacher was not easy back in 1985. I taught four different courses in four different classrooms all over the campus. I asked for a lot of help with those four courses, and I met a lot of people as I pushed my cart around the campus between classes. And I started learning how to teach.

I look just the same today!

Let’s be clear. Teaching is hard. It’s awesome, but it is really, really difficult to be a good teacher. My first three years of teaching were some of the most challenging and most rewarding of my life. I had lesson plans that totally bombed, late nights trying to figure out what and how to teach the next day, stacks of grading that never seemed to get done, new classroom management challenges every day in class, and a wide variety of failures and successes. But it got better. And the main reason it improved was because of the afternoons I would spend with my fellow teachers and colleagues, lamenting our failures and telling stories that made us laugh. A few of us even started a band, The Underpaid, that performed at some union events and served as the pit band for that year’s San Lorenzo High School musical, Grease. We worked together, struggled to find ways to help our students, worked out together, played together, laughed together, and together accomplished great things for the students of San Lorenzo. This was an amazing team. The beauty, love, and laughter of this team has stayed with me to do this day, and I am still grateful for each person who contributed to that magical era in my life.

What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm!

But it wasn’t just the teachers. I loved my students as well. They were patient with me (most of the time) as I learned how to teach. They put up with my crazy ideas for teaching, like when I taught the American Revolution from the perspective of the Vietnam War and the Apartheid Movement. They were talented and smart, and I enjoyed seeing all that they brought to the table. SLZHS did not send many students directly to four-year colleges. The main recruiters on campus were the local community college and the US military. Those can be great options for students, but one of my primary goals for my students was and continues to be maximizing their options for their futures. In an effort to get more students to feel ready for four-year college, I started the first-ever Advanced Placement course in our district, and I began teaching AP US History in 1988. Those next two years of teaching created one of my favorite teams in my life, as I moved up with the students the next year, teaching AP Government and Economics.

For me, AP US History has always been a course that uses US History to teach students how to think and write. And, boy, did those students write. Every Monday, they had to turn in five to six essays, each one of which took at least 30 minutes of writing, and much more time reading, researching, and thinking. By the time I finished teaching my last AP US History course in 2004, I had reduced that load by 50%, and it was still a lot. The students loved and hated the challenge. I gave out my home phone number for students to call me. Half the calls were just about dealing with stress. But as we learned together, we all fell in love with our hard-working group. The students supported each other. Our class days had a lot of lecturing (too much, now that I look back on it), but tons of time for laughter, support, and conversation. We had evening review sessions, and Saturday morning review sessions. We became a team.

This experience shaped what I believe teaching should be about. Teaching at its best is like coaching. When a player fails to do what a coach expects of him or her, a good coach does not simply cut the player from the team or put him or her on the bench for the rest of the season. The quality coach insists that it be done again, and offers different pieces of advice, refusing to rest until the job is done right. Because the team will not succeed unless each player can do their job successfully. Good teaching should be done the same way. My goal as a teacher was to coach students and help them continue improving until they reached their potential. And my goal was always to believe in my students and to have extraordinarily high expectations for them.

This team of students exceeded all of my expectations. Most passed the AP exam, and all of them were ready for college. They went to all kinds of colleges, from Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) to UC Berkeley to Stanford, and so many of them are successful. They are teachers, IT professionals, high school principals, immigration attorneys, researchers, business owners, and successful parents, and so many of them are still very good friends with each other. One of the students even said nice things about me when I took the job here in MBUSD! They remain one of the most successful teams I have ever been a part of, and I love them all for what they added to my life.

So thank you to all of my friends, colleagues, and students from San Lorenzo High School. And thank you to all of my teammates from throughout my life. I hope that we all can keep building new teams as we go through life. During this incredible COVID-19 time, I already see, similar to what happened after 9/11, communities and neighborhoods bonding and teaming a little more closely. Maybe this can be one of the first ever crises that actually teams the entire planet a little more closely. Through pain and suffering, a greater good often emerges. Let’s all do what we can to build our own teams, be open to joining future and unknown teams, and see what joy and purpose it can bring us.

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#2, Connections, March 19, 2020)

March 19, 2020

Today was Day Four of online schooling in MBUSD. Yesterday, I sent out an email to our entire MBUSD community with an update. I praised our teachers and staff who are learning on the fly, acknowledged that parents have it pretty rough these days with their new world (though there is some nice humor as parents are playing the role of their children’s teacher at home), and asked everyone to be patient as we learn together. You can see my newsletter here.

One of the big game changers in this world of non-human contact has been Zoom, the online video conferencing tool. CEO Eric Yuan brilliantly gave Zoom accounts with no time restrictions to every educator who asked. We asked and now have accounts for all of our employees. In just four days, and it’s one of the platforms that’s already making a massive difference.

On Tuesday morning, I met via Zoom with the 25 members of our leadership team – principals, vice principals, directors, and my senior leadership team. The first thing we did was each get a chance to check in with thoughts of this new normal. (I’m normally not a big icebreaker/check-in fan – in fact, in most cases I’ll use any excuse to get out of it, but this was pretty special.) All of us on the MBUSD leadership team thrive on human interaction. Most of us were teachers, and all of us have a passion for knowing, caring for, and leading our teams. After just two days of school being out, it was clear that the human connection was already missing in our lives. We laughed, discussed serious topics, saw and heard each other, and connected. And though it was completely virtual – it absolutely filled a void. It was powerful.

I’m hearing the same thing from teachers and parents. At home, my wife Jill has been utilizing Zoom and Google Classroom with her 5th grade class. Her students love it. My 11th grade son Dawson has been participating in Zoom and Google Classroom lessons in his classes as well. Dawson actually likes the fact that this new version of  high school is so much more “efficient.” He said that he can now get through his whole school day and all of his homework in four to six hours. In a normal day, he spends at least 10 hours attending school or doing homework. The kid never complains, but in a weird way, he thinks this new normal may actually be better for him than traditional school. So far. (Dad note: I get what he’s feeling, but . . . he’s wrong.) I am hearing from so many parents that the Zoom lessons are a great part of the day in the homes, as their children are craving seeing and interacting with their teacher and their classmates. And I think that all of us running a Zoom meeting secretly like the fact that when necessary, the organizer can just click the “mute all” button. Where is that button in real life! We are improving in our use of Zoom, Google Classroom and other methods we can use to make these connections with students.  Patience, Grasshopper. We will get there.

In four days, my overwhelming lesson from our experience so far reinforces what I already know: The primary role of teachers is helping students make connections. My friend Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been writing about that for years. It’s not about the content. As a high school history teacher, I don’t care whether or not you know what year the War of 1812 was in. (Though I bet you know at least one of the years!) I do care that you are able to read, think, write, and see the meaning of key events. Those skills are critical to learn. But the key ingredients that allow students to successfully learn, and Dr. Immordino-Yang has brain research to prove it, is students’ confidence that their teachers know them, care for them, and believe in them. It’s all about the connections.

So thank you, Eric Yuan. You are going to make a gazillion more dollars from this and you are connecting us in a time when we have never needed it more. And thanks to our teachers, students, parents, and employees who are making those connections in a whole new way.

Stay connected and stay healthy,

Mike

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#1, Beginnings, March 17, 2020)

March 17, 2020

Last week was one of the craziest weeks I’ve had as an educator and perhaps as a human being. Whether or not to close schools was a huge debate for our area and for the country. Many parents and medical professionals were saying that the sooner all schools closed, the more quickly the nation could slow down the spread of COVID-19. But it was also a debate on child care, as closing the schools meant that working professionals, including first responders and medical professionals, might not be able to go to work if schools were closed. I heard from parents and medical professionals about that as well. It was a week where the news was changing every hour, rumors were flying, and emotion was high. For the first time in my life, even more than 9/11, a sense of panic has been evident throughout the nation in terms of making sure people felt that they had the supplies they needed to survive. I heard from employees and I heard from parents, and it truly was a 50/50 split on what was the best tactic to take. And, by the way, it was a highly emotional 50/50 split. I was in regular communication with individual board members, with the Department of Public Health, with other superintendents, with the County Superintendent, with employees, and with district leaders. In the end, we made the decision to close our schools about a day before the County and the rest of the world did. And now, there are only a few schools in the nation, if not the world, that remain open. We have entered a new and hopefully unique phase in our lives.

As we begin this week without students in our schools, there are many important items to work out. We have to address how we are going to effectively and lovingly teach our students, how we are going to best utilize all of our employees, how we are going to keep our employees and our students safe, and how we are going to continue to get the necessary work of the District done. Our teachers began planning for this possibility well before our decision to close, but they are learning a whole new world of online instruction. We are already hearing amazing stories about how our teachers are interacting with our students. One of our kindergarten teachers is already legendary in my mind because I had the chance to see her first video for her kindergarten students, where she was wonderful, but her outstanding performance was truly hijacked by Coco the cat. Her cat made several appearances in the video, and if my kindergarten student had seen that, he would have been head-over-heels for Coco the cat. Even I can’t get enough. I can’t wait to see Coco the cat again! I look forward to seeing many more examples of our teachers working with our students. I am hoping that our parents, when something great happens, will let me know about it. Our teachers are often too humble to share the great things they are doing. That being said, I hope everyone is patient with our teachers, because again, this is a whole new world. Our schools are closed for four weeks at this point, but I know many professionals are saying it will be at least eight before schools across the country re-open, and tonight, the Governor said we may not re-open before the end of the school year. Nothing is certain at this point, and we will continue to learn.

I have many different perspectives on this remarkable time period, which has only just begun. Of course, I am superintendent of our schools here in Manhattan Beach, so I have that perspective. I am married to a 5th grade teacher at a Malibu elementary school, and I have Jill’s perspective as she learns her way through this. And I have the perspective of my two sons. My younger son Dawson is a junior at Malibu High School. He was out of school last year for six weeks because of the Woolsey fire, and now it’s happening again. What a crazy experience for him. And my older son, Ryan, is an attorney living up in Sacramento, so I have his perspective as well. I am thinking that maybe I can share glimpses of all these perspectives in the upcoming blogs. I think it will be a good record of a unique time in our lives, and I hope that it can provide something – I don’t even know what that might be – for others as we work our way through this time. I will be doing my best to make several blog entries a week as we live through this unprecedented time. Even if it is read by only a few, I hope it can be supportive to those, and I know I will benefit by taking the time to reflect, write, and share.

Wishing you all good health,

Mike