Our Favorite Holiday is Here

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

The Thanksgiving Tree is up in our home, both of my sons are coming home, and we are ready to celebrate! I hope you are too. First – a bit of gratitude for all of you. I want to thank those of you who read my posts and are actually interested in them, and give a special thanks to those who comment or give a “like” via Facebook or on the WordPress Blogsite (The blogsite makes that a little tricky, so I get way more comments/likes on Facebook). I have truly enjoyed the writing process, posting every two weeks over the last 4 months, and it means so much more when people read it and tell me they enjoy it. So, on this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for you.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and it’s not even close. It’s about family, fall, and food. I am pretty good at ignoring all of the commercial attempts to let the next holiday overshadow this one, and I allow myself to enjoy every minute of what this holiday brings.

We are celebrating Thanksgiving on Friday this year! What? Have I lost my mind? That was gone a long time ago, but hear me out. My son Ryan’s talented and beautiful fiancé works with the Sacramento Food Bank as their lead (and only) attorney. Between her work with immigration and all that the organization does, she is busy! On Thanksgiving morning, they have their annual 5K run fundraiser, and it is critical that she be there to help make that event happen. So instead of us missing out on her presence, we are waiting until Friday, so we can all be together. As a bonus, my sister-in-law and her family will be able to attend as well. And if you haven’t yet found a way to lend a hand to those in need on this Thanksgiving, why not make a donation to the Sacramento Food Bank? Any donation will go a long way.

Although we have a few loved ones who can’t attend this year (Mom, Bessie, Pat, and John – you will be missed terribly!), we will have between 16 and 20 at the table. We serve the meal somewhere between 1:59 and 2:01 in the afternoon, and no, I have no issues when it comes to a meal being served on time and everyone being ready at that time. As long as they are on time, no one gets hurt. It looks like it will be 75 degrees and sunny, so we will be eating outdoors.

I start cooking on Thursday! I’ll be brining the turkeys, making the spicy cranberry sauce, preparing the cheese grits, making the cornbread for the dressing, and baking the pumpkin (Jill does the pumpkin pies) and chocolate pecan pies. For all of my Thanksgiving recipes, go to my principalchef.com’s Thanksgiving Page.

I hope that each of you has a special Thanksgiving holiday (Thursday, Friday, or both!) that gives you the time and space to reflect on all that you are grateful for, and that you are able to make the most of the time with your family and loved ones. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Crazy Costs of College, and a Great Weekend at Colorado School of Mines

He’s a little taller, and his sense of humor has gotten even better. Of course, that’s coming from me, a dad who feels threatened that both of his sons will be taller than he, and a humorist of whom my friend Merlin says, “Mike, you know not everyone gets your sense of humor.” Disirregardless*, it’s true – he is taller and funnier. And we were thrilled to get to see him at Family and Friends Weekend at the Colorado School of Mines.

On the 34-degree morning we left Golden, Colorado to head back to Malibu, the friendly, talkative, cowboy-hat-wearing-self-described-gypsy-souled clerk at the front desk of the Golden Hotel said, “Pretty nice morning, actually. The cold stuff will hit us soon.” It was clearly time for us to leave. We have loved our time in Golden, and like we do when we go on all trips, we discussed what it would be like to live here. The answer – really nice! That being said, we were happy to leave 34 degrees and come home to 70 degrees.

Golden’s one-street downtown is perfect. The old brick buildings make it feel like a mining town, and other than Starbucks, it’s all local owners in the small shops on both sides of the street. The trail that goes up Clear Creek is one of the most beautiful five-mile walks on the planet. And the weather – if you like four real seasons – is fantastic. We have it rough on the coast in southern California. The monotony of seventy or eighty-degree weather can be mind-numbing! Sure, we have the occasional apocalyptic wind, fires, earthquakes, and mud-slide-causing rain. But our weather, except for the apocalypses, is so predictable. Do we want spring, summer, fall, and winter, or do we want to be able to wear shorts 90% of the time? It makes for a great conversation on every trip Jill and I take, and we always decide to stay right where we are.

Jill and I walking up Clear Creek in Golden

We continue to fall more and more in love with the Colorado School of Mines. The school, which is a little more than 6,000 undergraduate engineers and entrepreneurs, is everything a great college should be. Mines students work hard. The school wants every student to have a scientific background that will hold up in the real world, and it shows. Job recruiters are all over this campus, seeking out students who are truly ready to start contributing immediately.  

The party scene, something that defines many colleges, is not a thing here. It’s a far cry from the Delta House of Faber College so perfectly portrayed in Animal House. If you’ve ever spent time in small towns in the Rockies or the Pacific Northwest, you know that beer drinking is less likely to be a prequel to barfing in the bushes; it’s a just way to chill after spending your day doing some really cool activities like rock climbing, bike riding, hiking, coding, or building something awesome. All of these chill towns have their own microbreweries too. Golden has that, plus that former microbrewery turned behemoth – Coors. It’s not work hard play hard at Mines – it’s a work hard, kick back for a few hours, then get back to business place.

It makes me reflect on all that is being written now about the questionable future of college. When I grew up, college was considered the no questions asked key element to any young person’s future. But since 1980, when I started college, inflation has increased prices by over 200%, and post-high school costs have increased by over 500%. College debt is crushing students and their families, and high-paying jobs for a bachelor’s degree are not as prevalent as they used to be. To attend a UC school to earn a teaching credential will costs close to $200K for the five years, and that’s if you can get all of the classes you need to graduate. If you surrendered 1/3 of your after-tax teacher’s salary (which isn’t that high to begin with) to pay off that debt, it would take a teacher over ten years to pay off that debt in full. And that’s with no interest.

The costs for college are out of hand, and we are at a tipping point. Prospective families and their parents are weighing options, and I hope that fewer and fewer students will leave college with a mountain of debt that is almost impossible to repay. Online universities, which offer programs and degrees at a fraction of the cost of in person campuses, are becoming highly popular. The experience with COVID is only making online programs better. And just ask any kid, you can learn anything on your own on YouTube. At the very least, now there are viable alternatives to paying $120,000 to $350,000 for a bachelor’s degree, and whoever is paying for it needs to examine whether or not the cost is worth it.

While online and local options may be less expensive alternatives, there are also other factors to consider. When we were helping Dawson with the college application process, we encouraged him to apply to schools where the level of teaching was regarded as very good. Most college professors are not hired to teach, but there are wonderful professors out there. Dawson was blessed to have mostly outstanding teachers in high school, and he feels the same way about Mines so far.

I also know that, however difficult it is to do, going away to college can be a wonderful, life-altering experience. Separating students from their parents forces them to learn not just academically, but socially as well. And at Mines, there is a good amount of fun for the students, even though the work load is epic.

The Mines sports teams are really good! We went to the football game, where over 4,000 highly encouraging fans watched the #9 nationally-ranked Division II Mines Orediggers win yet another game. I loved that the vibe felt more like a great high school game than a big business Division I college game. We lucked out when we used our general admission tickets to randomly sit down next to the offensive coordinator’s wife, Abby, who is the epicenter of all things Orediggers. I think every person in the stadium came up to hug her at some point during the game. Because she knows everyone, she of course knew my niece’s husband, who used to coach here, and she made us feel beyond welcome.

But the most enjoyable part of the atmosphere had to be seeing the school’s two awesome mascots, Miner the Oredigger and Blaster the Burro, in person. After every touchdown (Mines won 63-0), students would run out with Blaster, who would trot from the end zone to the 50-yard line and back. Two students took turns following Blaster with a shit shovel, picking up after Blaster. I’m telling you, they were busy after all nine touchdowns! Sometime too busy. Blaster is one well-fed Burro with no digestion issues. I saw Miner the Oredigger in the stands, but shouldn’t he have been helping those hard-working students with their shovels? The fans cheered the shit-shoveling student heroes for their efforts, even when the game had to be held up because they had so many different piles to address. You can’t beat that for entertainment! And we enjoyed the flannel-shirt-and-hard-hat-wearing Mines Marching Band. Imagine an irreverent Stanford band that performs John Phillips Sousa pieces in a flag formation and you have a good picture of what the Mines band stands for.

Our son is happy – he’s in a spectacular place, he has made good friends, he is confident that his degree will lead to a job that he will love, and he’s keeping up with the demanding classes in his schedule. Yes, the costs are high, but we believe this is an investment that he is making the most of. We loved every minute we had with him, and we’ll see him soon when he comes home for Thanksgiving.

Have a good day, y’all,

Mike

* As I wrote back in my blog post on 9/20/21, “I know “disirregardless” is not a word, but it’s a word we use in our family as a way of criticizing those who choose the word irregardless, instead of the proper regardless. If you read my blogs, you know that I’m a bit of a grammar snob. Sorry – not sorry. Of course, the English language adapts to misuse, and now if you look in the dictionary under irregardless, you will find that it means the same thing as regardless. As Miriam-Webster states, “Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use.” Whatever, Miriam-Webster. If you won’t criticize the misuse, we will, disirregardless of your unwillingness to take a stand!”

Halloween, Closed Drawers, and Empty Nests

Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood. Our area is one of the few places in Malibu where streets are lined with houses arranged on traditional blocks, on a semi-traditional street grid.  Malibu is dotted with large houses and properties spaced far apart, many of which are second homes that are dark at Halloween, making it very difficult to trick or treat – so we are a destination neighborhood on Halloween. I hate to brag, but as a kid, I was a very accomplished trick or treater, so I know the key to a successful trick or treating night is quantity. Hitting as many houses as possible makes for excellent trading opportunities later, and a good deal of variety as well. I’ve talked before about the people in my neighborhood, so it will be no surprise that with our smaller and mostly festive homes filled with friendly and generous people who are home every night, you can expect to get a lot of treats from a lot of houses. Every year, we greet between 300 and 600 trick or treaters – this year was more in the 400 area, so I’ll be bringing a few bags back to Costco. I’m not a guy-who-buys-a-big-screen-TV-at-Costco-just-before-the-Super-Bowl-and-returns-it-the-next-week guy, but I do love their return policy.

For me, the holiday season officially begins in October, as Halloween approaches. Each year, when October 1 rolls around, I strike up a friendly conversation with Jill, who knows exactly what I’m after. As the conversation meanders, she is well aware that I will eventually ask, “So. When do you think I can put up the Halloween Tree?” Jill will sigh, and say something like, “I need two weeks.” I run as fast as I can to mark October 15 on the calendar, and, once again, I have something to look forward to in my life.

A side note. I know that when my dad sees that this blog is about our Halloween Tree, he will cringe in shame. Nothing brings him less joy than me mentioning or showing pictures of the Halloween Tree. He claims that it’s an embarrassment to our family. I of course disagree. There’s nothing quite like getting out the artificial holiday tree and beginning three months of celebration. First, it’s the Halloween Tree, then the Thanksgiving Tree, and finally the Christmas Tree. It’s a beautiful thing. And once we start trimming the tree with skeletons and pumpkins, Jill gets into it. She is usually the lucky one chosen to put the traditional witch on top of the tree. We put some pumpkins underneath too, and the holidays are off and running. With all of the use I get from our tree – three holidays a year for so many years – I think I’m now actually making money off of that tree! I’m not great with the whole money and profit thing, but it makes sense to me.

Trick or treaters love the tree when they come to the door, and contrary to my dad’s thinking, I never hear any parents pulling their kids away and whispering, “Let’s get away from these crazy Halloween Tree people!” Anyway, it was once again a fantastic Halloween, and next week, the Halloween Tree will magically transform into a Thanksgiving Tree.

The big difference this year, of course, is that for the first time ever in this home, none of our children were part of the festivities. Putting up the tree was a stark reminder of the empty nesters’ reality we are living. Ryan was 11 when we moved into this home, and Dawson was born while living here. These walls have seen 18 Halloweens with our children dressing up, trading candy, and entertaining friends. On Halloween night, we usually open our home to friends and our children’s friends. Jill makes a huge batch of her award-winning veggie chili (Jilly’s Chili recipe can be found on principalchef.com), I make cornbread, and we offer hot dogs, hot links, bottles of water, and a few other libations. Sadly, that did not happen this year, but it will hopefully return in ’22.  What that means is, with the exception of 400 kids coming to our door, Halloween was q-u-i-e-t this year. And neither Jill, nor I, liked the lack of decibels.

I wrote my most popular blog post ever, Taking My Youngest to College, about 10 weeks ago. The minute we came back into our empty nest, Jill immersed herself into teaching, and I started figuring out what is next in my life. Things are certainly different. We see Dawson’s empty bedroom every day and unlike when he lived here, the drawers to his dressers are all closed. Dawson has six large drawers in his dresser, and until 10 weeks ago, at least five of them were open with something hanging over the edge at all times. I would dramatically close at least one of them when I woke him up, glare at him with a stern look, and he would tell me how much more efficient it was with the drawers always open. Exhibit 254 in my ineffective dad case. Now the drawers are always closed. Success does not always feel the way you think it will.

Putting up the Halloween Tree was a closed drawer moment. I love that our home is festive and fun, but it would be 10 million times better if Dawson (and Ryan) were here. I’ve written before that, even after 12 years, our home still seems emptier with Ryan gone, and now, with both of them out, the house feels like there is a lot of space in it. Because Jill is a more sensitive and deeper person than I, she felt it more than I did as we kicked off the holidays. But there are lights at the end of this new tunnel, and they’re not just the orange lights of our Halloween Tree. We go to see Dawson in Colorado for parents’ weekend next weekend! And Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday, is on the horizon, and all of us – Dawson, Ryan, and Ryan’s fiancé Yesenia – will be together for that holiday. In the meantime, we are just living and actually enjoying our new life.

Empty nesting is just fine. And I don’t mean fine like my friend Jen means it. When she says “It’s fine,” you know you’ve screwed up. I mean that in spite of missing Dawson, we are doing well. It’s definitely a simpler existence. Our house is WAY cleaner and the drawers are all closed. Marie Kondo’s shadow looms large in our house, as we (mostly I) seek even more simplicity and organization. It’s a little sickness I have, but more about that in some other blog post. I feel beyond lucky to be nesting with a fun and positive wife and life partner, and we are living well and laughing a lot in our new existence.

That being said, I can’t wait for the band to get back together again.

Critical Race Theory – A Superintendent and History Teacher’s Perspective

Critical Race Theory. It’s something I had never heard of until September of last year. And then, I began getting very angry emails and people started coming to board meetings to demand that we stop teaching it. The questions were very much like ones featured in the first-ever school board meeting parody on Saturday Night Live, where a concerned citizen stands up and says, “Hi. I’m so mad I’m literally shaking right now. Forget COVID. The real threat is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools. My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” 

First of all, those of you who read my blog know that I love their use of the word “literally.” But secondly, it’s a perfect parody, because I’m a former history teacher and school district superintendent, and until I started receiving these emails and listening to these public comments, I too had no idea what Critical Race Theory (CRT) was.

In many board meetings around the nation, mostly in more affluent school districts, this scenario has repeated itself. In speaking with many other superintendents and board members from around the country, not a single one of us, prior to all of this, ever had even a single conversation about CRT, much less about whether or not we should be teaching CRT. So why are we all being yelled at about something we are not doing and until last fall, knew nothing about?

Two trends that have occurred in the last two years help us to understand. First, the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 galvanized anti-racism forces around the country. In addition, Asian and Pacific Islander hate incidents increased around the nation, in response to both overt and tacit commentary from national leaders condoning anti-Asian actions, making those anti-racism forces even more comprehensive. In my former district, students, former students, and adults in our community were looking for ways to make our schools better for all students – looking for ways to make schools as free from racism and discrimination as possible.

I have great faith in our youth. I have observed and interacted with thousands of students, and I have watched my own children and how they get along with their peers. I truly believe we have never seen a more open-minded generation of young adults. More than ever, they are fully accepting of persons of all races, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and more. I think that a big reason for this is that their desire for a discrimination-free America, though renewed, is not new. Brown vs. Board of Education, Title IX, and Special Education laws have been major forces in improving equality in American education. And it’s important to remember that when those changes started having an impact on equality of opportunity in America, then, like now, there was serious backlash. This has never been about everyone being equal – this is about everyone having true equality of opportunity for an excellent education. Our efforts have continued. When I first started teaching in the mid-1980s, we were talking about how to embrace all cultures through multicultural education. And we’ve come a long way since then.

But in spite of that progress, there are still acts of hate that continue to occur in our schools and in our communities. There are racial slurs, anti-Semitic comments, hateful graffiti, and more. I don’t know of any educational leaders who, when confronted by incidents of hate, will accept or ignore those incidents and just say, “Kids will be kids.” That’s why districts like Manhattan Beach and others took an even harder look at what they can proactively do to make schools as hate-free as possible. In Manhattan Beach, this movement kicked into high gear in 2015 when someone firebombed the front door of one of the few black families living in the city. The community rallied around the Clinton family, gathering together for a powerful candlelight vigil to support them. Malissia Clinton’s powerful TED talk on how she was raised, the firebombing, and the aftermath should tell you all you need to know about why this work needs to continue. You can call the firebombing an isolated incident perpetrated by an outlier, but when you start hearing about the common experiences of so many people of color – our students, co-workers, colleagues, and friends – it’s different. I can’t tell you how much it hurt when, at a Board meeting while I was superintendent, I heard from some of our recent graduates about widespread discrimination they experienced while they were in MBUSD. We can and should build better and more inclusive schools.

Enter Christopher Rufo. Wikipedia describes Rufo as an “American Conservative Activist.” He appeared on the Tucker Carlson show in September of 2020 and made the case that Critical Race Theory was an existential threat against our nation. He gave evidence of government trainings on racial sensitivity that were aimed at understanding concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism, and he called on the President of the United States to immediately take action against this threat. Three days later, at the President’s request, Rufo flew to New York to meet on the topic. The President quickly issued memos and even an executive order banning the use of Critical Race Theory in our government. That’s precisely when the emails started, and the board meeting chaos began shortly after.

I’ve received messages stating that by addressing the issues of racism in our community, we are (1) calling our entire community racist, (2) pushing for a Marxist agenda, (3) shaming white students, and (4) being anti-American. All four of those accusations are blatantly false. This is what is happening in districts around the nation, and now states are getting involved. At least seven states have already passed laws making it illegal to teach Critical Race Theory, and 13 more have bills in process. Here’s the problem – I’m a history teacher, and I still have no idea what it means to “not teach critical race theory.”

The least effective history teachers see history as memorizing names, dates, places, and facts. But highly effective history teachers teach students to view the past from different perspectives, to analyze events in terms of who benefited or who suffered from the decisions and actions, and to draw conclusions about why events happened and how they shaped who we are as a nation today. These new laws make teachers question whether or not they can do that. In one Texas school district, teachers were told that if they were going to teach controversial issues, like racism or even the Holocaust, they should present multiple perspectives. A district administrator said, “If you have a book on the Holocaust, [make sure] that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” The district has since then apologized, but come on people! This is what bad laws do.

Like the Holocaust, there are plenty of events in American history which do not, in my opinion, deserve a different perspective. But they do deserve serious inquiry and investigation to see how they occurred, the impact they had, and what we can learn from them. Here’s just a few of them.

  • Slavery
  • The Japanese Internment
  • The My Lai Massacre
  • The rise, resurgences, and continued existence of the KKK
  • The Sand Creek Massacre
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The racist restrictions on immigration in the 1920s
  • The racist Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision and all the Jim Crow laws that were commonplace throughout the South well into the 2nd half of the 20th century.

It’s OK to teach, and not in the least bit anti-American to say, that America has made tragic mistakes in our past. And it is untruthful to teach students that racism no longer exists in our country or in our community. Our students know better. Our students want to learn from multiple perspectives and read from a diverse group of writers, not just white and male perspectives. We should all know that even though our nation is one of the greatest nations ever for providing equality of opportunity, that opportunity is not as universal as we might think.

And by the way, what is Critical Race Theory? I have researched it, because I wanted to understand, and here is what I gather. CRT is an academic premise postulating that, in examining laws in our country, it is helpful to use the lens of racism to better understand how those laws came to be, as well as what impact they had.  To me, it’s similar to techniques of my history teachers in college, who asked us to examine historical events using an economic lens, a political power lens (by far the most common), a social lens, or a technological lens. Adding the lens of racism might also be helpful. And who makes the decision on what the right answer is? The student. The grade is not based on what a student’s conclusion is, rather it is based on how well a student defends their position.

CRT is not an existential threat against the United States. And it certainly is not something infiltrating our schools. But our schools are not and should not be ignoring incidents of racism and discrimination that are continuing to happen. No one will argue that discrimination is far less of a problem in our schools now than it was a century ago. But to say it no longer exists is putting your head in the sand. Teachers and school boards enter their positions to make life for their students, all students, better. Many of them are taking steps to do just that. Without lowering rigorous standards for achievement, educators are learning how to better address these issues in their classrooms.

Finally, to those who think that the anti-racism efforts are going too far, I urge you to follow the advice of Steven Covey, and seek first to understand, then be understood. Schools are trying to help our students to think for themselves, and a curriculum that reflects diversity and diverse ideas is essential to that effort. We educators are not aiming to make any student feel shame about who they are. In fact, wasn’t it just a few years ago that many were criticizing schools’ efforts to build students’ self-esteem? We want all students to emerge from our schools prepared for their future, confident about themselves, and caring about all others. And in spite of all of our progress, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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An Ode to Masters Swimming and the Science of Improvement

I remember my first day of swim practice, way back when I was six years old. It was at the Little Rock Boys’ Club and Coach Brooks led the workouts. It was my first experience in a locker room, where I quickly learned that even though I was small enough to do it, you don’t change clothes inside the locker. You just put your stuff in there. That was a good learning moment right there. And I was mostly able to ignore the laughter.

Coach Brooks was a motivator. He did not believe in much rest between laps. He kept one of those fat pencils behind his ear, and if you hung too long on the edge of the pool, he would use that pencil to remind your hand it was supposed to be pulling through the water. I later switched to Coach Miller at a different facility. Mom or Dad would drive me to practice (thanks Mom and Dad!), sometimes very early in the morning, and I improved enough to start placing in a variety of meets. Eventually, I was swimming four hours a day as a ten-year-old, and doing very well.

I remember getting ready for a big meet down in Dallas when I was 11 years old, and I expected to be among the best in my events. My youngest brother Bill chose the week of that meet to annoy me, as only he can. (Yes, I meant to use the present tense.) When we Matthews tell jokes, our strategy is to keep hammering on a funny line until everyone is sick of it, and only then do we really start to lay it on. I’m pretty good at that, but Bill is a Jedi Master. Anyway, I may have tried to convince him to stop tormenting me by hitting him in the head. For those wondering, Bill and his hard head were fine, but I broke my hand! I had to drop out of the meet, and after six weeks in a cast, I quit swimming. I got back into the pool competitively in high school, but I never worked very hard. I could go pretty fast for 50 yards, but after that, I was pretty much exhausted. Sometimes I wonder if I could do it over again, should I have gotten back in the pool after my cast came off and continued that intense focus on swimming. As I was taught by the owl with the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know, and my swim career peaked at the ripe old age of eleven!

Forty years later, I started swimming with a coach again, when I joined my first masters swim group in 2013. They practiced at Loyola Marymount near the LAX airport. Masters swimmers are some of the most positive people I’ve ever been around. Also, a little crazy. We jump into the water early – workouts start at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. We all love our coaches who are there to entertain us, motivate us, and of course make us suffer. There’s way more camaraderie and conversation in swimming than most people would expect. We swimmers joke and laugh, and then push ourselves to keep up with, or edge out, the swimmers in our lane or the ones adjacent. It’s not a competition, but it’s totally a competition. Unfortunately, the LMU workouts closed down with COVID in March of 2020, and still have not restarted. I miss coaches Bonnie and Clay. I miss my lane mates Wayne, Kat, Brian, Bob, Nader, Shauna, and so many others from our workouts, even Jim and Karl.

I’m swimming at a new place now, with Coach Nancy at the helm. On my first day with Coach Nancy, she said, “Your swim techniques tell me you might have been a decent swimmer back in the ‘70s.” Ouch. Just because she’s right doesn’t mean she had to say it. Or did she?

I turn 60 next year, and as anyone who does age group competitions knows, aging into a multiple of 5 means that you move up in age groups. When I do future meets, I’ll swim against people aged 60-64. You’d think I might do pretty well in that age group, except, there are some really fast sexagenarians out there! (At least we’ll all be called sexagenarians.) So … if I want to be faster and more competitive, and if I now have a little more time to work on that, how do I go about it? And by the way, swimming isn’t the only thing I want to improve on – I want to be a better golfer, guitarist, writer, and chef. But let’s focus on swimming, shall we?

When I was taking Dawson out to Colorado, we listened to several podcasts. One that put Dawson to sleep was the Freakonomics podcast on how to get better at anything. It was all based on the research by Anders Ericsson. He’s devoted a good part of his life to this topic, and I read his 2016 book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.

What has Ericsson found?

  • Be motivated and have a specific goal. My goal is to be as fast in the 100 freestyle as I was back in high school. I was close to that four years ago, but my recent times have sadly been headed in the wrong direction. It’s almost like I’m getting older or something. Weird.
  • Make yourself uncomfortable. I’m very comfortable swimming with I techniques I learned back with Mr. Brooks and Mr. Miller in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, Coach Nancy is on my ass – telling me to swim with the “new” techniques that have been developed over the last 50 years. Swimming records are being broken all the time because experts have learned what works. And while it still does not feel right to me, I believe in the process and I’m sticking with it. I’m paying money to get this kind of treatment – and I love it.
  • Be persistent. This is the 10,000-hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell gleaned from Ericsson. Bottom line, you have to put the time in and that time cannot be used just to go through the motions. You need to push yourself hard, really hard, and stay at it. As my friend Will says, “You have to suffer now so you won’t suffer later.”
  • Seek feedback from experts. I do best when an expert is reminding me for the thousandth time to keep my fingers close together, as well as to employ all of the other effective techniques that I’ve been told to do but have not yet internalized.

I’m determined to use these approaches to set the bar high, and I know I cannot do it alone – I need the support (and the competition) from my fellow swimmers, as well as the guidance, hard feedback, and encouragement that my coaches will provide. I’m grateful for all of the coaches I’ve had through the years – the ones who cared enough to push me, to overtly identify my shortcomings and to be on my ass about them, and to advise me on how to overcome them. I’m building on what they gave me, and I know I am better for it.

An aside – our most effective classroom teachers embody Ericsson’s ideal and take the role of an effective coach by going far beyond the role of a giver of information.  Sadly, Ericsson believes that most teachers and doctors stop improving after just a few years in their profession, mostly because they stop seeking and using outside expertise to constantly improve.

To all of you who have read this far (and I thank you for that!), I urge you to use Ericsson’s research and commit to improving on something you’re passionate about. It is never too late.

Life is better lived when we are living to get better.

PS – During COVID, after the LMU program closed, I swam for about a year with a great group of Masters swimmers in a lousy pool in Manhattan Beach. I did not swim under coach Steve Hyde’s tutelage long, but I loved all of my time doing it. Steve has coached for about 100 years all over the South Bay. His philosophical and humorous style, including his morning rants, has charmed and pushed thousands of swimmers over the years. He would greet me with, “Are we feeling ferocious today?” Then after some kind of rant or philosophical opining, he would nonchalantly state, “Well, we are all here, so we might as well do 20 100s on the 1:30.” And then, with a little smile before the pain, off we went. Coach Steve is fighting to overcome a stroke he had last month, and my thoughts and prayers, as well as my deepest thanks, go to him and his family.

Eggplant, Biscuits, and Ted Lasso

We have lived in our neighborhood for almost 30 years now. There are so many great parts of living here – the weather is spectacular, the beach is a ten-minute walk from our home (we can’t see it, but we can hear the waves in the morning), and we are right up against the beautiful Santa Monica mountains. But the best thing about where we live is the friendships that we have cultivated over the years. We travel with our neighbors, celebrate weddings, birthdays, and holidays with them, exercise with them, and just hang out. It is special. And in all of those gatherings, there are so many spectacular cooks in our group that we always eat very well.

We invited some friends for dinner last weekend, just because. I made eggplant parmesan, and Jill made a salad.

There’s a history in my family with eggplant parmesan. When Ryan was in third grade, he was famished and ready for a great dinner when I served him this delicious dish. He looked at me like I kicked him in the gut when I put it on the table and asked him to try it. One microbite confirmed that he hated it. Fine. I think he ended up eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese that night and loving each bite.

Later that spring, I went to Ryan’s Open House at his elementary school and visited his classroom. I chatted with his amazing teacher and browsed through some of the student work on his desk. Then I heard some laughter from a group of parents standing by one of the wall displays. I looked over, and they were pointing at me. Malibu is a small town, and I knew almost all of those who were pointing and laughing, so I walked over to the group. The teacher had posted essays students had written about their best day ever. But Ryan, being Ryan, hadn’t wanted to write to that prompt, so his was titled, “My Worst Day Ever.” And what was it about? His dad, who was usually a pretty decent cook, had inexplicably chosen to make eggplant parmesan for dinner. Why not regular old spaghetti? Why not Kraft Mac and Cheese? What kind of father would do that to his son? Ryan has always been a pretty persuasive writer, even at that age, and it seemed the other parents were all in full agreement that I had indeed made a horrible parenting decision by serving eggplant parmesan. Many of them were portrayed as conduits of joy in their children’s best day ever essays, so these parents especially enjoyed laughing at my expense. Thanks, Ryan.

The secret to this eggplant parmesan is the homemade garlic and basil infused breadcrumbs.

Disirregardless of that, I continue to make eggplant parmesan (I have the Ina Garten based recipe in my principalchef.com website) and I still love it. (OK – I know “disirregardless” is not a word, but it’s a word we use in our family as a way of criticizing those who choose the word irregardless, instead of the proper regardless. If you read my blogs, you know that I’m a bit of a grammar snob. Sorry – not sorry. Of course, the English language adapts to misuse, and now if you look in the dictionary under irregardless, you will find that it means the same thing as regardless. As Miriam-Webster states, “Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use.” Whatever, Miriam-Webster. If you won’t criticize the misuse, we will, disirregardless of your unwillingness to take a stand!

Anyway, our guests loved the dinner last weekend (take that, Ryan), and then I brought out my TV-inspired dessert.

By modern standards, I’m not very good at watching TV. And I am definitely not very good at the very popular habit of binge watching. I can’t even sit through live sports on TV any more. I record them, then fast forward to get through it faster. I have tried binge watching. My friend Ben insisted that I watch The West Wing, a show I always meant to watch when it was on, but never found the time. I ended up binge watching the seven seasons of The West Wing in . . . seven years. Ben is still disappointed in my lack of TV-watching talent.

But these days I’m actually watching a show that pushed me to binge watch the first season in about 2 months (10 episodes in 8 weeks!), and then we re-binged it at an even faster rate just before Season 2 started. That show is Ted Lasso – and it’s now a part of our Friday night routine. It’s a joyful and positive show that makes us smile and laugh. Jason Sudeikis has created the show, and it’s big. It’s about an American football coach hired to coach a British Premier League football team. I’ll write a future blog on all of the leadership lessons I have learned in watching Ted Lasso, and there’s nothing below that will spoil it for those of you who have not watched it.

One of the fun things Ted does is to start every morning with a “Biscuits with the Boss” appointment, where he barges into the team owner’s office proclaiming, with a mustachioed smile, “It’s Biscuits with the Boss time!” He ignores the scowls of Rebecca, the club owner, along with her protests that she doesn’t have time for these shenanigans, because he knows she loves these biscuits. “Biscuits” in this case is British for shortbread. So, first of all, I love that Ted Lasso insists on making time for small talk and camaraderie in his working day. Truly knowing who you work with, finding time to break bread or biscuits with them, and pausing to talk and laugh about work or non-work topics makes any job a hell of a lot more enjoyable. It’s something I have tried to do in every aspect of my life, and I thank Ted for reminding me about that. Second, I love shortbread, so naturally I sought out the Ted Lasso recipe.

Well, it doesn’t exist. Or does it? Thanks to some super sleuthing by some very observant people with time on their hands (I love the Internet – most of the time), I found a rumored recipe. I tried it, and then, using lessons learned from the first time I made them, I decided to serve Ted Lasso biscuits for dessert that night.  Like the eggplant parmesan, they were a hit, easy to make and super fun. So, I put that recipe on principalchef.com too if you are interested.

And thus, yet another spectacular day with our wonderful neighbors and friends came to an end. To quote Frank the Tank from Old School, “Pretty nice little Saturday really.”

———-

PS – For those of you who don’t want to fork up $5/month for Apple TV, I get it, but purchasing it now, you could get through the 22 episodes of Season 1 and Season 2 in one month (or maybe less!), assuming you’re normal and a far better binge watcher than I.

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Remembrances of 9/11/2001

I love driving by the stunningly beautiful Pepperdine University campus, located on Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the Malibu coast, especially in early fall.  Just 10 miles from my home, I passed it on my commute twice a day, every day, for about 17 years. The university’s close proximity was a key factor in the decision to earn my doctorate from Pepperdine. Regrettably, the day before classes started, I learned that all of my classes would be offered on an annex campus near Los Angeles International Airport, another 30 miles down the road. A little more research on my part would have been helpful. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic experience, and since the year 2000 I’ve been a proud graduate representing the orange and blue of the Pepperdine Waves.

Every September, Pepperdine staff and volunteers start their meticulous project of erecting 2,997 flags, one for each victim of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There are flags from every nation that lost a citizen on that fateful day. It’s overwhelming and beautiful, especially when the Pacific Ocean breeze is blowing (which is most of the time), and the flags are all unfurled and waving proudly in the same direction. I’m grateful to Pepperdine for giving us this powerful annual reminder that we should never forget.

Just a few of the thousands of flags at Pepperdine. I felt fortunate to have the time to actually walk amongst the flags late Friday afternoon.

Like all of us who are old enough to recall our lives 20 years ago, I remember where I was that morning. I was getting ready to start my 30-minute commute to my job as principal of Malibu High School when my mother-in-law called. She told me that planes had crashed into each of the twin towers in New York and that I should turn on the TV. Well, we did not have a TV at that time – I was experimenting to see if not having one would improve my life (it did not) – so we turned on the radio instead. I heard the chaos and I knew I had to get to school. I was almost at Malibu High when the radio announcers gasped as they watched the first tower collapse. It was unfathomable, and it took a moment to process what was happening, as the announcers were truly overwhelmed by the horror of the moment. In retrospect, their reaction and loss for words were the only way to truly convey the tragedy of the moment they were witnessing.

When I arrived at school a little after 7 a.m., I called every employee who was on campus to come to an impromptu meeting. All of us were devastated, a few were scared, and many were in tears. The phone was ringing off the hook with parents asking if we would be open or closed. We made the quick decision to stay open, and we let parents know that we would understand if they kept their students at home. We wanted our campus to be a safe harbor for the children. We agreed that there would be no televisions turned on in the classrooms. That was a lesson we learned back in 1993 when fires ravaged through Malibu. Some teachers had their televisions on during that fire, and a few students witnessed their own homes burning or in danger. We needed to reduce, not increase, the trauma that we were all going through. Our teachers and staff were amazing that day. They overcame their own justified fears and concerns, and provided an incredibly caring place for our students that day.

As the school day was starting, I received a call from the office of one of our elementary schools – their principal was not yet there and they were looking for guidance. I told them what we were doing and sent one of our vice principals to support that site. I called the principal at home, and they told me that they were just too upset from all of the events to go to work. After a short discussion, the principal gathered themself up and came to work to do what needed to be done. These are time when calm, strong, and caring leadership matters the most. We don’t always need to have the answers before we go into difficult situations, but when the challenges are the greatest, leaders need to face them head on.

Not much academic work happened that day at Malibu High School, but we all got through it together. And I know that the same thing happened around the country and the world. But on that day, everything completely changed.

My brother Pat is an incredibly talented artist and had his own reaction to 9-11. Pat was in the process of making one of the greatest and most courageous career moves ever, where he would eventually quit his lucrative and successful job as an architect, and with no promises or guarantees of income, devote his career to creating art. He was in the early stages of that move when 9-11 happened. Like all of us, he was overwhelmed by the stories of heroic first responders and their efforts that day. He set out to buy an American flag that day, and found nothing but sold out shelves. So he decided to paint his own, and thus created his first ever American Flag painting. Pat usually paints landscapes, ranging from cypress trees in the Arkansas wetlands to aspen trees in the Rockies. His typical medium is thick oil paints, resulting in highly textured and layered paintings that change every time the light changes. That painting, which he remembers painting while experiencing a mixture of both anger and pride in our country, was named “American Pride.” On a whim, Pat made 1,000 prints of the painting and began to sell them. After he had sold a few hundred, he reserved 343 prints (one for each of the firefighters who died that day), then flew to New York to donate proceeds from the sales, the 343 prints, and the original “American Pride” painting to the firefighter heroes of New York City’s Engine 4, Ladder Company 54, Battalion 9. He still paints those flags. Pat has sold them to persons in every state, and he has donated many to charitable causes to be auctioned off. Every one of these special paintings honors the heroes who defended us that day, as well as those who continue to devote themselves to protecting us today.

Print #950 of American Pride, by Pat Matthews

I appreciate all that I have in my life that honors those who died and those who defended us that on that overwhelming day in September two decades ago. Seeing the steel beams from the Twin Towers that comprise the 9/11 Memorial outside of the Manhattan Beach (California) Fire and Police Station always catches my breath. I have a picture capturing the moment of silence in Malibu High School’s remembrance assembly just a few days after the attacks. I have been proud to display print #950 of American Pride in my office for years, and I have the 2,997 flags at Pepperdine. These and so many other parts of our lives give us pause and a way to honor not only those lives lost twenty years ago, but all of those who strive today to keep us safe. So today, twenty years later to the day, let us all resolve once again to never forget.

I am usually very fearful of student assemblies, as there are a zillion things that can go wrong, but this Day of Remembrance assembly, held in the Malibu High School quad a few days after 9/11, was one of the most powerful moments I ever experienced. Thanks to my friend Carla Bowman-Smith, an extraordinary photographer and teacher, for taking and sharing this picture with me. It has been on my wall for the last 20 years.

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Leaving a Place Better Than You Found It

Pop-tops. Some call them pull tabs. What a lousy invention. But they were everywhere when I was growing up. Today, when you open a soda or beer can, you use a Sta-tab, which is what you find on nearly every can in the world these days. Daniel F. Cudzik was the engineer working at Reynolds Metals who invented the Sta-Tab. His picture should be on environmental flags wherever they wave. But he did not invent those until 1975.

This means that from 1959, just before I was born, until the late 1970s, when I was finishing high school, pop-tops were everywhere. To give you an idea, I saw a stat that said the estimated annual recycling weight of Sta-tabs alone was 4 million tons. And I believe it. Over my childhood years, I bet my siblings and I literally picked up at least 1 million tons of them after every trip! (I know I mis-used literally there – I just want to join almost everyone who does the same. Whenever I hear someone use literally in a sentence, I cringe, waiting for the misuse, then I am pleasantly surprised if it’s used correctly. When in doubt, follow Weird Al’s advice, and don’t commit that word crime!

What is it about free people that they feel entitled, or inclined, to leave trash everywhere? China, Singapore, and Russia have clean streets, but in those countries there’s a harsh penalty for being a litterbug. Does Ron Burgundy, who threw away a half-eaten burrito on a San Diego freeway causing Jack Black to wreck his motorcycle which then caused the near death of his beloved dog Baxter, represent all of us? And why don’t Canadians litter like we do? These are important questions! Ask anyone who’s been a public high school principal about kids leaving trash around campus- none of us can walk by candy wrapper or any piece of paper that we spot on the ground without picking it up and throwing it away. I’m not recommending caning, but come on free people!

Whenever my parents took us to a public place, an act that took great courage on their part, whether it was a campground, a picnic spot, one of the islands at Lake Ouachita (Pronounced Wah-shə-taw – and yes, I am a big fan of the schwa!) in Arkansas where we would spend the weekends water skiing, or anywhere else, we always ended the trip the same way. Our parents would start packing the car, and they would tell us to start cleaning up.  And not only the area we had been using, but the surrounding areas as well. We would each have a bag, or even a box, and we picked up every bit of trash there was.

It wasn’t stuff you noticed until you looked for it. Then it was everywhere. Pieces of paper, pieces of foil, broken glass, some occasional big items, but mostly it was two things: cigarette butts and pop-tops. Don’t get me started on cigarettes – an invention that has brought overwhelming death and misery to humanity. We picked up hundreds of discarded butts every time. But those pop-tops, they were everywhere! No wonder Jimmy Buffet stepped on one! As usual, with tasks forced upon us by our parents, we grumbled about it. But we usually felt a begrudging sense of pride when we finished.

My dad and I were reminiscing about those days last week, and as I reflected on it, I thought that the “Leave a place better than you found it” adage is a great life rule as well. I recently left my job as Superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. I loved that job. It gave me a great sense of purpose, required all of my leadership skills, helped me to grow as a person, and gave me the opportunity to work with spectacular board members, educators, parents, community members, and students. And in return, I believe I left MBUSD better than I found it. It wasn’t by my efforts alone of course, but it was in coordination with almost everyone there. For those of us rowing together, we should all be proud of what we accomplished over eleven years in terms of curriculum, Advanced Placement success, sustainability (yes – we reduced how much trash we produced!), construction projects, and technology. For a full list click here

As I enter this gap year after 37 years in public education, I am going to keep finding ways to employ the “leave it better than you found it” rule, even though the instrument for that may not be with a job. For the next few months, my focus will be on my health and my home, two aspects of my life that have needed a little more TLC and attention for a while. And then who knows! But I am certain that even without those annoying pull tabs all around me (thanks Mr. Cudzik for doing your part!), there are still all too many cigarette butts, and all of us have many opportunities to leave this world better than we found it.

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Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .

Graduation Speech – June 17, 2021

In my first ten years with with the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, I did not make a commencement speech during our high school graduation. I was honored and grateful when Mira Costa principal asked me to make a speech at the end of my 11th and last year with MBUSD. I took the opportunity to make in an advice speech, and I had a lot to say! I took lessons learned in life and in work, wrote a draft. I then cut half of it out, then cut a little more, and ended up with something that I think is still too long. Given more time, I could have cut it down even more. I had many words of thanks for my words, and I thought I would share it here:

——————–

I have been connected to this class as your superintendent since you entered 2nd grade, back in 2010. We have been through this journey together, and I thank the class of 2021 for all you did to get to this point. It has been an adventure and we all have stories to tell. Here is my advice to all of us, much of which I have learned in the last eleven years with you.

  • Have stories and tell them often. Try not to repeat yourself too much.
  • Strive to be happy. Life is better when we are happy. It’s our choice, and we can’t give that power to anyone else. People will try to take away your happiness, and enjoy doing it. Don’t let them. With the exception of country and western songwriters (Sorry Dr. Dale), most of us love happy stories.
  • Be grateful. A Benedictine monk said something that guides me – “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” There’s an old saying about keeping up with the Jones’s. Let the Jones’s win. Their story isn’t as perfect as you think it is.
  • Focus on the present. I know I’m over simplifying it, but I do believe thinking too much about what’s next makes us more anxious, and dwelling on the tough moments in the past can be depressing. This moment that we are in right now is particularly beautiful. There is a lot of love and pride in this stadium right now. Let’s do our best to feel it and enjoy it. Today is a keeper story for the rest of our lives.
  • Make time for friends. Keeping a few good friends for years and years, and doing the work it takes to maintain those friendships, will matter. Friends will listen to your stories. And if they are really good friends, they won’t let you get away with anything without giving you a hard time for it.
  • And when it comes to work, strive to be a part of amazing teams. Successful teams argue when they disagree, and support each other in difficult times. The Lego Movie was right. Everything IS cool when you’re part of a team.
  • Share stories and laugh with others as often as you can.
  • Have passions. Be interesting, especially to yourself. Don’t be one dimensional. Find a BUNCH of things you love to do:  Dancing, Cooking, Surfing, Music, Nature Loving, Reading, Creating Art – Find and pursue your passions.
  • Treat people with kindness. Everyone goes through something brutal at some time, and your kindness may be the thing that helps them out. Spread your kindness through charity. Be on the side of good in the world.
  • Learn how to deal with mean people. It’s an angrier world today than it was when I left high school. I have been called many names this year and throughout my career. As best as you can, let it slide off you like water off a duck’s back. I have little patience for mean people and I move on from their negative energy as soon as I can.
  • Dream Big. If someone is not occasionally telling you that you’re crazy, you’re not dreaming big enough. And if you don’t occasionally fail, you need to dream bigger.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave what is comfortable. In fact, embrace it. I’m leaving a job I love, and I don’t know what’s next. I cannot wait for the next story.
  • Be a lifelong learner. Sharpen the saw. Read. Watch Movies. Listen and learn from the stories of others.
  • Don’t watch useless TV and be careful with social media. It’s full of stories that don’t matter.
  • Have adventures. Try not to overschedule your vacations or your free time. Do something and just see what happens. Those adventures, even when they are failures, may lead to your best stories.

And there’s not much better than one more good story in our lives.

Thank you for all the stories we have created over the last eleven years, and best of luck to the class of 2021 and the entire MBUSD community!

After graduation, here is a picture of this awesome leadership team that I have been so proud to work with.

  • Mike

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.

JillandDawson.LittleRedRiver
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.

Ladybugs and Dogs( Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, 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.

OldPenny

“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.

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The MBMS Counseling Team

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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

Lawnmowers and Snowplows

When I was a high school principal, a parent of a senior came up to me and asked, “Did you really tell my son he should turn down his college admission offers and go be a professional musician instead?” I smiled and said that yes, that was my advice to him. She shook her head and said she had not believed her son when he told her. Part of my advice may have been because in my next life I’d love to be a professional musician, but most of it was based on my knowledge of him, his abilities, and his dreams. We both laugh about it now, as that choice has worked out pretty well for him. Phew!

My point is, there are many paths to a successful adulthood, and college, particularly the name of the college, is not the only determinant of our children’s future success. Two of my friends who I would call extraordinarily successful did not go to college at all. And there is ample evidence that, for people who go to college, the name of the college they attend has little to nothing to do with their future success (see Frank Bruni’s – Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be; Challenge Success White Paper – Why College Engagement Matters More that Selectivity). As Jason Gay stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “College is college – some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.”

So why in the world do so many of us care so much, stress so much, and do all sorts of things to get our children into the most prestigious college possible? Why would parents risk their integrity, and their children’s integrity, by cheating in the college admissions process? Most of us would never even consider something that extreme, but it does represent the anxiety that plagues many parents and students, especially in a community that values education so highly and that is populated by so many highly successful college educated adults. In the wake of recent events, I have heard several stories of college students and graduates who called their parents and asked them if they pulled strings to get them into college. That’s a heartbreaking question on many levels, and it speaks to the culture that we live in, the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, and our perceptions about the whimsical nature of the college admission process, especially at the most “elite” schools – based not on substance but on luck, or fate, or a thumb on a scale. We have to do something about this. I hope this recent cheating and admissions scandal can be a catalyst and help pull us back from this insanity.

Our message to ourselves and to our kids about college should be simple: It’s going to be OK.

There are a lot of things in parenting that matter way more than where our children go to college. Are we raising children who are hard workers, who can overcome adversity, who are kind, who are passionate about something, who will be good parents and partners and friends, who strive to improve, who are confident in their own self-worth, who are ethical, who are healthy, and who know they are loved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who will be speaking at Mira Costa this Sunday afternoon and Monday night (sign up here), writes in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” I’ve heard this parenting technique called lawnmower parenting – blazing a path in front of our kids so that not a single blade of grass gets in their way. (In the north they call it snowplow parenting. I love southern California!)

And as we have seen, this approach is dangerous not only to children but to their parents as well. Lythcott-Haims adds, “Not only does overparenting hurt our children; it harms us, too. Parents today are scared, not to mention exhausted, anxious, and depressed.” I’ve seen it. It’s real. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it’s not just something we can flip a switch and change.

My youngest son is a sophomore in high school. I find it hard not to ask about his grades, and I don’t like it when his grades are lower than they I think they should be. But I’m working on it. Maybe I write these blog entries to remind myself to practice what I preach. BUT IT’S NOT EASY! I try to focus even more on what he loves to do, his friends, his challenges, and what he’s trying to get better at. Or just to talk about what he loves – movies, food, golf, video games, e-sports, or good things happening in this world.

What’s especially challenging for our parents is that many of us are talking the right talk, but our kids don’t believe it. They have accepted the false elite college premise, and they work each other up about it relentlessly. That’s why cheating is an epidemic in schools today. The cheating in today’s high schools isn’t from the Bluto Blutarsky’s of the world who are trying to improve their 0.00 GPA. They are A and B students wanting all A’s. Challenge Success has written a White Paper on that too – Cheat or Be Cheated – which examines the culture of cheating. Jason Gay adds in his article, “Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world more valuable than your integrity – and you can’t buy your integrity back.”

I write this for parents because it starts with us. Although we shake our head when we hear about the parents who paid big money, lied, or cheated to get their children into college, the factors that led to those behaviors are all around us every day. I encourage you to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims and/or read her book, then talk about it all with your friends and fellow parents. Let’s shut down the lawnmowers and let our children fend more for themselves, practice self-advocacy, overcome problems, and even experience failure.

As for us, you know that we here in MBUSD are working on this too. We are striving to make our schools healthier places for our students. We are making changes to the amount and types of homework we are assigning; we now end the first semester in high school before winter break, allowing for a true break; we have Link Crew and WEB programs, both designed to welcome new students to a school; we cap AP classes for students at four; we have the “office hours” schedule at Mira Costa, making Wednesdays a unique day at the high school; and we are encouraging our students to be mindful in a variety of ways. And we’re still working on it.

We are all in this together.

– Mike Matthews

LiveWell Magazine Interview with Dr. Matthews and area superintendents

BCHD sat down with the heads of the three Beach Cities school districts to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing students today – and how they are tackling it all together.
There’s so much happening in our schools and the lives of today’s students – from stressful academic demands to social-emotional well-being. So, we thought it would be a perfect time to have a discussion with the superintendents who are guiding Beach Cities’ school districts:
  • Patricia Escalante (Hermosa Beach City School District)
  • Dr. Michael Matthews (Manhattan Beach Unified School District)
  • Dr. Steven Keller (Redondo Beach Unified School District).

Here are highlights of the roundtable conversation.

Q: Since each of you were in school, how has life changed for K-12 students?
A: Escalante: “Social media is the obvious (difference), but kids in my day still got feelings hurt. It was maybe more passive-aggressive because people would talk behind your back or send notes about you. With social media, everything is so instant. We only had CBS, NBC and ABC. No cable TV, no 24-hour news cycle.”
Matthews: “When I went to high school there was actually little pressure about which college to go to. None of my friends talked about it, my parents didn’t talk about it. But that is one million degrees different right now. (Life) was much lower key when I was in high school. No social media, so I didn’t know what I was missing out on. I’m sure it was a lot, but I didn’t have social media to remind me about all that.”
Keller: “Technology obviously is ubiquitous now, in every shape, matter and form. Computer labs were just starting when I was in high school; now everyone’s got a device. It’s a different game. Access to information is real-time, and that has its pros and cons. If you are a great parent, though, it can actually serve you well.”
Q: Are Beach Cities kids under more pressure to get into the best colleges?
A: Escalante: “Short answer: yes. But, I think our kids are hungry for a deeper understanding about themselves. They are no longer thinking that they’re just born a certain way – they are learning they have control. But they are under a lot of pressure. The pressure to go to the “sweatshirt colleges” is real in our community and it’s a lot to put on kids, especially the ones who don’t fit into that pigeonhole. Those kids need to know it’s okay to take a different pathway to success; it’s beneficial to think outside of the box and be creative. These are the conversations we need to be having as parents and teachers with our children.”
Matthews: “To Pat’s point, a key piece of research is set to be released from Stanford in the next week that essentially shows the lifetime income differential between the top 200 colleges in the country is marginally different. That means whether you’re going to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale or the University of Arkansas, your income isn’t going to vary much, on average. Assuming that’s what the research shows, I can’t wait to share that with the community.” (To read the report from Challenge Success, click here)
Keller: “Rather than base the whole college process off the question of: How much money will I make when I graduate?, I urge our kids to focus on becoming better, more informed citizens. Make a better use of your time on earth; try to make the world a better place. And if money follows and capitalism thrives, then great. That’s the honest conversation I’m having with our kids and the community – and I think our community understands the importance of it.”
Q: How has the relationship between health and school evolved over the years?
A: Matthews: “We don’t need to do a lot of pushing to have our students striving to be the very best academically. They’re already doing that on their own. Our job has transformed into turning this quest for excellence into a quest for student wellness. It’s a push we’re making with teachers, counselors, parents and students. And Beach Cities Health District is a big partner for us. I’d say we now focus as much on student wellness as we do on academic excellence. It’s a giant change.”
Escalante: “The conversations between the three districts have become more frequent, richer and more focused on the wellness for kids. We are operating with like minds and have support from each of our boards. It’s more powerful when we can work together and have common frames of reference and language around wellness for kids and expectations. And I agree with Mike about BCHD…We truly see the health district as an absolute working partnership to support total well-being. I’m sure all three districts feel that way.”
Keller: “I totally agree with Pat and Mike. The whole focus on social emotional well-being – our kids being physically fit, having great nutrition and academics – are all pieces and values we believe in and transfer to the 20,000 South Bay kids that we serve. It’s just who we are as people. The heavy lift is for the teachers and staff and Beach Cities Health District to systematize and implement. But that’s a good place to come from, where you believe in it before you even start.”
Q: How would you describe your district’s relationship with Beach Cities Health District?
A: Matthews:“BCHD has been a great partner for us, but they’ve also pushed us. The health district is singular in its focus, so they always come to us with programs to support areas of need, like social-emotional wellness. They push us to be better and it makes us healthier.”
Keller: “Our staff, kids and parents benefit from the longevity of the synergy we’ve had with BCHD. Kindergarteners come in and are, for lack of a better word, indoctrinated into our well-established culture of physical and social-emotional health. It’s not all about test scores; it’s also about their health and their family’s health. So, I think that our relationship over the last decade has been very helpful. People move here expecting this relationship, expecting BCHD to be involved. I think parents are well aware of it, and, hence, our enrollment has increased over the last 12 years. I think it’s partially because of our relationship with Beach Cities Health District.”
Escalante: “In 2012, BCHD came to me in my first year as superintendent with MindUP, a program designed to teach children how to regulate negative emotions and their internal decisions by teaching them mindfulness practices and how their brains work. Initially, we were worried about appearing too new age, but we ended up launching it, having success with it and are now a California Distinguished School because of it. MindUP is a great example of how BCHD has given us a lot of different tools to approach our students’ health more holistically.”
Q: You seem to be in sync philosophically; do you have strong working relationships with one another?
A: All: “We do, yeah.”
Keller: “I’ve been here the longest (since 2006) and for me (collaboration) started when Mike became superintendent (in 2010) … I never really connected with Hermosa until Pat came along (in 2012). It’s reached the point where we all even know each other’s kids.”
Matthews: “Steven invited me to lunch right when I came in, and then we both met with Pat when she came in. (We now) call each other, text each other, meet together and do some planning. Also, whenever there’s a question or an issue, we respond to each other immediately, and I’m grateful for that.”
Q: Here’s a fun one: Which is the best high school in the Beach Cities?
A: Escalante: “I’m staying out of this one … (laughing).”
Matthews: “Here’s what I’ll say, we’ve got great school districts. You can’t go wrong. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Keller: “Ten years ago, I would’ve said it depends on what you are looking for in a high school, and I’d have described two different schools – one more focused on academics and ours more focused on the whole child. But that’s no longer the case. Mike changed that when he was hired because he understands the value of the whole child approach. So, I agree completely with what Mike said. You really can’t go wrong.”
Q: The three of you wound-up in the South Bay, but where did each of you go to high school?”
A: Keller: “I went to South Torrance High School.”
Escalante: “I went to Palos Verdes High School.”
Matthews: “I went to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. So, we’re all pretty local.”
Read more in the latest edition of our LiveWell Magazine.

 

Reach for the Stars: My Promotion Address to the Manhattan Beach Middle School Class of 2018

Congratulations to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018.

Your class has chosen the theme, “Reach for the Stars” for this ceremony. And why not?

It’s way better than themes that Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh might have chosen:

  • What’s the use?
  • I shouldn’t even try.
  • Nothing’s going to change.

Reach for the Stars is way better.

Everyone knows that if you want to become a better athlete or a better artist or musician, you need to practice, work, and learn from a good teacher or coach.

But for some reason, most people don’t believe that we can become smarter. People think that we were born with a certain amount of smarts, and that’s just not going to change.

Brain research has proven that is just not true. Just as you can reach for the stars and become a better athlete or a better artist, you can become smarter. Scientists and researchers call this a “Growth Mindset.”

MBMSPromotion2018

Many brain researchers have shown proof of Growth Mindset, but some students and teachers still don’t believe it. We have to convince students, parents, AND teachers that the growth mindset is real and needs to be utilized.

So how do you get smarter? How does this growth mindset thing work?

  1. Challenge yourself. Try hard stuff. Find interesting problems and try to solve them. Push yourself. Don’t take the easy way.
  2. Fail. Learn from your failures. When you challenge yourself, you will fail. Brain researchers are saying that nothing promotes growth as much as learning from failure. We have teachers and students who define F-A-I-L as First Attempt in Learning.  I love it.
  3. Explore new ideas through reading, Care about something! Learn about it! Do you know how you become a better reader? By reading more. Fall in love with reading and you’ll have something to enjoy your whole life and your brain will grow.
  4. Be careful with social media: There are two big evils in social media: The first is FOMO – The Fear of Missing Out – because you focus on the cool things others are posting. Believe me, no one’s life is super-duper awesome every minute. The real-life stuff we deal with is not what you see on social media. The second evil is the unfortunate propensity of some people to be mean and try to bring people down. Be careful.
  5. Take care of your brain. Again, let’s look at brain research and science. If you want your brain to grow, there are two most important habits you can develop: (1) get enough sleep. You need more than you think. Do everything you can to get that sleep. (2) Don’t use drugs and alcohol. Your brain is growing and developing, and nothing can slow down that growth more than drugs and alcohol.

Most of all, believe that your best and smartest days are ahead of you. Brain research is on your side. Don’t let others define your story. Set big fat hairy goals for yourself. Be OK when you fail, and try again. Never stop growing. Never stop reaching for the stars.

Congratulations again to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018, to your parents, and to all of your great teachers who have made a difference in your lives.

My Comments at the Beach Cities Health District Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse

I had the honor of attending an amazing event in our community today. Beach Cities Health District sponsored a Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse. This is a huge issue for our community, for the communities of the Consortium 2030 group, and for the nation as a whole. We heard from 12 students in our local middle and high schools. They spoke about stress, the value of teachers knowing them well, the amount of vaping that is permeating teen culture and our schools, and so much more. They were great. One of my favorite comments was from a student who said, “I am expected to do the best I can, actually, to do more than the best I can.” We heard from former US Representative Mary Bono Mack, who shared stories addiction in her family, and gave ideas for how we can work together to support individuals and families in crisis. It was a powerful summit, and I am grateful for being able to participate.

Along with our other local superintendents, I was asked to make remarks at the summit. Here is what I shared.

—–

MMatBCHDI had a beautiful start to my day today. Fifty-one graduating seniors, their parents, and their Meadows Elementary School teachers reunited on the Meadows Elementary School cafeteria. There were tears, smiles, laughter, and comments about how the teachers used to be taller. It reminded me of the joy of friendships, of powerful teacher-student connections, and of a community celebrating together.

It was a great lead in to this amazing summit, as we work together to make life for our youth healthier, safer, and happier.

This is a powerful room of people actively seeking to improve social emotional wellness, diminish stress, and end substance abuse with our youth. Some people in the room are interested in learning more, a few may be skeptical, most are concerned, some have devoted their professional and personal lives to this cause, and some are here full of pain from the suffering or even the loss of loved ones. That’s the range of people we have in this room and in our schools.

I want to thank Beach Cities Health District for sponsoring this summit and for helping to start this conversation. The original Blue Zones report made it clear that our communities are stressed places. It does not look that way on the surface. I heard someone say that we are like ducks. We look all nice and peaceful, but underneath the water, we are paddling like hell, going somewhere in a hurry or just trying to stay afloat. We are a stressed community, and our kids feel it. I’m a parent of two young men, ages 27 and 15. I’m an educator for the near 7,000 students in the Manhattan Beach School District. I join all of you in trying to find that right line between encouraging, pushing, caring, and unconditionally loving our own children and the children of our community.

Our students are stressed. Read Denise Pope’s book, Overloaded and Underprepared. Read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Students are stressed about college. Parents are even more stressed about college. They burden themselves with loads of classes that are often just too much. Go to Families Connected meetings, sponsored by amazing parents like Laura McIntyre. Our students don’t sleep enough. They worry that their lives may not be as interesting as what they see on their social media feeds. They witness people being mean to each other and to them. Our students are certainly stressed.

On the other hand, our students have joyful experiences as well. I saw it this morning. Last week, I got to see our choir singing joyfully in Disney Hall. I see it with students in marching band performing on the field, or in an amazing musical, or on a sports team achieving a new personal record, or on the robotics team, or in a class they love smiling because of what they learn and how they are learning it. One senior last night admitted to an auditorium of parents and students, “I’ll say it, I love math and I thank Mr. Chou for making me love it in 5th grade!” I see that joy when I shadowed students and witnessed the power of friends reconnecting at lunch, at nutrition breaks, or just saying hello in the hallway.

It’s not all darkness out there. There is a lot of light, as evidenced by their joy and smiling.

How do we help that power of light to prevail over the dark powers of stress, sadness, and anxiety? Because when that power of light and joy does not prevail, that’s when substance abuse sees an opening. And it will jump at that opening.

What can we do to help our students succeed with the right amount of stress? How can we help the light to prevail?

I’m a big believer in the concept of Flow. I even read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book and understood at least half of it. Here’s what I do understand about flow. There is no better time to be alive than when you are so immersed in something that time ceases to exist. For me, that can be moments with family and friends, bicycling, cooking, learning something new, reading, swimming, golfing, in a fascinating conversation, in a high-quality meeting, solving a complex problem, and many other times. In those times, there is no worry about anything. The next thing is nowhere in your mind.

I want us to create more opportunities for flow in our children’s and our students’ lives. I want us to have it in our lives!

One way we are trying to make that happen in MBUSD is by having students experience more Personalized Learning. When I was in school, memorization was the key to success. And I was pretty good. I still know the quadratic formula. I can still integrate calculus problems. I still know that there are 6.02 x 1023 molecules in a mole. I have no idea how to apply any of those things. With that type of memorization-centric teaching, who needs personalized learning?

But with the advent of the smart phone and technology all that knowledge is one button away. Some still argue with that. But many of us in this room used to know 40 phone numbers, now we are lucky to know 3. Does that keep us from talking on the phone? OK, does it keep any of us from texting?

Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge to be imparted unto students. We must be coaches, mentors, and we have to know our students. We need to teach them skills that can help them learn and succeed. We can help our students to grow and find their flow. Teaching has a whole new meaning these days, and it is more challenging than ever.

That’s what our social emotional wellness movement is all about in our schools. We are looking for ANYTHING we can do to chip away at student stress. We are looking for anything we can do to connect and help our students lead healthy productive lives. Here is what we are working on:

  • How do we make homework meaningful and never busywork, and not assign so much that our students have extreme burdens outside of school?
  • How do we create school schedules, block schedules, that make it easier on students to thrive each day?
  • How do we use counselors, classroom teachers, advisories, and more to help students connect with adults who care?
  • How do we create academic experiences that are appropriately challenging for each child and as meaningful as possible?
  • How do we convince parents and students that life will be OK, in fact our students will thrive, even if they choose to go to a college not ranked at the very top?
  • How do we convince our students and parents that taking too many classes can suck the joy and health right out of students’ lives?
  • How do we help our students to care for themselves and their brain health by getting enough sleep each night?
  • How do we encourage inclusiveness in our community, where everyone feels welcome, and no one feels isolated or attacked?
  • How can students include classes into their high school schedules that create a space where they can be joyful, pursue what they love, and experience flow each and every day?

That’s what we are trying to do in our schools. These are the questions our board is trying to figure out. We are working with students, parents, BCHD, our partner districts, our local therapists and health community, and anyone who cares. Some of you who are in the room with me know that not everyone believes the way we do. But I believe it, and I know you do too.

Everything we can do, every positive change we make, big and small, they all diminish the need for coping mechanisms like substance abuse and bullying, and they all increase our students’ potential for joy and flow.

That’s what we are all trying to do. We are not there yet. But our summit should remind us all that we are not alone and we are not giving up.

I thank each of you for every effort you make to help us in this quest.

MBUSDatBCHD

I’m joined by Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth, MBUSD Board Members Jen Cochran and Ellen Rosenberg, Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale, and BCHD Chief Executive Officer Tom Bakaly.