Lessons Learned

Over Father’s Day weekend, we spent three nights in a small campground about an hour west of our home. It was a great opportunity for our family to enjoy some time together. A day into our trip, a new camper arrived in the campground. If we couldn’t tell by the number of tries it took to get the camper backed into his spot, setting up his camper would most definitely set him apart from others that had camped before. Most experienced campers know that the first thing you must do with a camper is to get it level, balanced, and disconnected from your vehicle. After that, you can begin to put down your stabilization system and attach all of the extra hoses. Only after all of this is done can you get ready for your time of rest and relaxation. This guy was definitely new; he started at the end of the checklist and worked backwards. By the time he got around to try and get his camper level, he had already put out his slides, hooked up his power and sewer, and even put out all of his stabilizers. It was a real show to watch as he then worked desperately to get his camper off his truck and get it level. I really wanted to help, but my wife was fearful that he was already agitated and that I would only add to his frustrations. As I sat and watched, she reminded me that we were all new to this at one point or another, and we all had to learn those lessons at some point.

The lessons we learn in one season should be preparation for the next. This will be especially true when we start back to school in the fall. While school will look fundamentally different than ever before, those that take what they learned last spring and use it well will be the ones that thrive in this new normal. Lessons learned the hard way are usually some of the best lessons. As we learned to quickly transition from face to face learning opportunities to online instruction, we were novices. We made mistakes and hopefully noted what worked and didn’t work. It is very likely we will be called on to use those skills we developed to help students in the coming year.

We will all face challenges that are new to education when we start back to school in the fall. Some parents will be ready to give us their children every day and return to a normal existence. Other parents will be hesitant to send their students to school and want to shield them, as much as possible, from the risk of infection. We owe it to each of these students to find a way to help them grow. We will have second graders that are on grade level, having read every day for the last six months. Some will have worked regularly with tutors throughout the summer. Some of these students may have grown academically since they walked out of our doors in March. They may be sitting beside students that have opened a book for the last six months. Some students will need additional help to get back to where they were when we left. It is fair for us to expect gaps. The gaps will come in how our communities view the risk of schooling, in philosophies of how we provide education and in academic levels. Those schools that become successful in this new normal will be the schools that embrace the challenges and changes of how we deliver meaningful instruction. We must embrace this new environment before we can hope to begin to close the gaps that have developed in the last few months.

I find it incredibly rewarding to sit by my camper, smelling burgers on the grill and watching the flames from our campfire. There is a satisfying peace in being able to sit around with our family telling stories and enjoying their company. It takes preparation on the front end to enjoy the reward of rest and relaxation. The reward is worth all of the work on the front end. For educators passionate about student growth, the reward is similar. We must teach our students to put in the effort and dedication early in life. We must help them learn from their mistakes. If we do this well, we see those students grow into successful adults.

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” -Oscar Wilde

THS Commencement 2020

Commencement Speech 2020

Over Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I were able to get out and hike for the first time in a few months.  Even though we were exhausted by the end of the day, it was nice to finally get out on a trail.   We had spent the days before debating where we wanted to go and finally settled on a trail system about a hundred miles north of us where we could possibly find a decent hike that would be isolated enough for us to keep our distance from others.  Getting there was an adventure, we had two options.  Take the interstate system most of the way and then a two-lane road for the last 30 miles, or we could wind our way through small towns and backroads.  The later would take us a little longer but would be a far more scenic drive.  We chose the latter. Several hours into our trip, the GPS system unexpectedly told us to take a right. The road was paved but unmarked, and after about four miles, we took another right onto a smaller and less maintained road.  Over the course of the next seven miles, the road got more and more narrow until finally, it turned into gravel.  It took us past some amazing views and old farms as we meandered through a couple of valleys.   The road finally turned back to pavement and eventually made its way back to a well-maintained state road a few miles from our destination.  The trip and hike were well worth the additional time that it took to get there, and it certainly wasn’t what we had expected when we left home.

Five hours after we had left home, we stood at the top of a rocky pinnacle overlooking the Northwest corner of the state and parts of both Virginia and Tennessee.   It was an amazing moment of solitude, sitting at the top and appreciating the silence and the work it took to get there.  As I think back over the great hikes I have had the opportunity to experience, from the far reaches of California and Utah to hikes in our own back yard, I remember far more than just the view from the top.  It is all the moments along the way, its the quiet conversations with my wife and hiking partner.  It is always way more than just the moments at the top.  

Today, as you celebrate the commencement of your high school experience, I hope that what you take from this time with us is more than just this experience today, more than just the last three months, more than just the memory of what you have missed.  I hope you take all of the other moments that got you here.   From the 3rd-grade talent show to the middle school band concert, to your favorite high school memory. Make sure you appreciate those special moments that got you here.  The heart of a mountaineer quietly whispers, keep climbing.  While we all enjoy the moments at the top, learn to appreciate the adventure that got you here and be ready to step into your next adventure when you leave.

As we wrap up this school year, we realize that seniors have missed out on many of the activities that naturally come along with completing high school. While the summit might not look like any of us had envisioned, you will leave here high school graduates. We are proud of what you have accomplished, and we look forward to watching what you do once they leave us. Seniors, cherish these moments as you wrap up high school and get ready for whatever might be next. Years from now, when you look back on this season, it will be these moments of adventure and not just the summit that you remember. Pick these moments well; they will be with you for a lifetime.

When the adventure ends…

As a child, I loved vacations.  On the night before we would leave, with bags packed, I would be so excited that I would struggle to sleep.  I would continue to plan amazing vacation adventures in my head through the night and struggle to turn it off and rest. I would imagine sleeping under the stars, visiting dream locations, and eating amazing meals.  I loved the adventure. It seemed that answers to questions on vacation were very different.  “Dad, can I have mint chocolate chip ice cream before supper?” Questions that would normally be “no” somehow became “yes.”  I could easily be spoiled by all the yeses that came along with vacations.   To this day, I still pack as much as possible into our adventures.  I love vacations and want to squeeze every possible memorable moment out of them.  It is not unusual for me to get back home after one of these adventures, totally exhausted, and in need of a rest.  

With every exciting adventure comes the dreaded time to leave for home.  Our time away is over and it is time to get back to our rituals and routines.  Even the most enjoyable adventure comes to an end.  A few years ago, on a trip out west, we came to the end of the week and I wasn’t ready to go home. I even mentioned to my wife that I couldn’t wait to come back again. On the plane trip home, I was journaling about what I wanted to do the next time we visited.  You know that you have had a great adventure when you get to the end of it and you are not quite ready for it to end.  

That is how I am feeling today. One adventure ends, and a new adventure begins.  In the last few months, it has become increasingly clear that I would soon have to make some difficult decisions about my priorities.  In the last year, my home responsibilities have certainly changed and, at many times, now come in direct conflict with my afterschool obligations here at Tuscola.  While I had fooled myself into believing that I could do both, the last few months of quarantine have shown me that I would need to choose.   The choice has not been easy, while Tuscola is undoubtedly a tough place to work because of its size and complexity, I love it here.  I love the students, I love the staff, and I love that I have been able to be a part of the history of this place.  Unfortunately, to do this job well takes more of me than I now have to give.  I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet and lead some amazing people, and I look forward to seeing what the amazing students and staff do in the coming years.  

I will not be far away. I have been blessed with the opportunity to transition to another fantastic school.  I began my career as an afterschool worker and later did my student teaching at the school.  If fact, Hazelwood Elementary has been a big part of my story for most of my life.   When I was a child, my mother worked as the bookkeeper at Hazelwood, so I spent a good portion of my summers in the school and surrounding community.  I feel so blessed to be able to lead another great group of students and staff in such an amazing community.

Through his character Winnie the Pooh, A. A. Milne once wrote, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”  When I was younger, the best adventures were those that were hard to end.  We tend to want a great trip to continue for just one more day.  I feel blessed to have been a part of something special enough to be tough to leave.  I can’t say thank you enough to those of you that have supported me in my time here. I look forward to continuing the adventure.

The Finish Line

When I was in elementary school, there was a single day that everyone looked forward to. In the late spring of every year, the entire school would gather in a large field behind the school building for field day. Lunch would be served early, and then over the course of an afternoon, students would race, grade level by grade level, in a number of different events. There were sack races, three-legged races, sprints, and even a short endurance race around the entire school campus. We celebrated both the winners and the opportunity to be out of class, even if it was only for an afternoon. When I was in fourth grade, I had talked one of my best friends into entering the three-legged race with me. We breezed through the preliminary races and established ourselves as the team to beat entering the finals for our grade level. We lined up and waited for the whistle to blow. Our plan was established: we would start with our inside leg and begin the same cadence that got us to the finals. We were unbeatable; the race was already ours. We launched out to an early lead as the race started and began the same process of extending our lead with each step we took. As we reached the last ten yards, we had continued to extend our lead, and I looked back to check and see who was going to bring up second place. This was the moment I took my mind off what we were doing, I missed a step, and we both faceplanted into the green grass that made up the racecourse. As we struggled to get back to our feet, we watched a team of two girls from our class pass us and cross the finish line for the win. By looking too far ahead, I had cost us the victory. We crossed the finish line second. I hid the red ribbon we were given for finishing second. It was a tough reminder of what happens when we get ahead of ourselves. 

As early as elementary school field day, we learned that after you crossed the finish line, there was almost always another race. Even if you fall flat on your face, there is always another opportunity to line up and begin moving towards a goal. The same is true of graduation; there will be more finish lines, more opportunities, more big decisions. For some, this is represented by the pursuit of a college degree; for others, it becomes work experiences or a career. In school, as well as in life, we learn to embrace the next race.  

Sometimes living life at full speed ahead can be dangerous. When we take our eyes off of what’s right in front of us, we run the risk of losing our footing and stumbling. The last few months have taught us to appreciate the moment. There is power in slowing down to appreciate the right now. I encourage you to keep moving towards your goals, but in the process, don’t miss the moments of adventure right in front of you. Don’t get so hyperfocused that you miss your moment.  

As we wrap up this school year, we realize that seniors have missed out on many of the activities that naturally come along with completing high school. While the finish line might not look like we had envisioned, these students will cross it and graduate next week. We are proud of what they have accomplished, and we look forward to watching what they do once they leave us. Seniors, cherish these moments as you wrap up high school and get ready for whatever might be next. Years from now, when you look back on this season, it will be these moments of adventure and not just the finish line that you remember. Pick your moments well; they will be with you for a lifetime.

Coffee Cup Moments

Most men have a love-hate relationship with shaving.  Depending on the morning, I can be on either side of that discussion.  Either way, almost every morning, part of my daily ritual is to pour a coffee cup of hot water and shave in the bathroom sink before getting ready and attacking the day.  I haven’t always used a coffee cup to shave, it only started two years ago.  In the spring of 2018, my wife and I took a much needed weeklong vacation to the southwest.  Over the course of a week in May, we hiked in Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, and into the Grand Canyon.   We logged almost fifty trail miles in four different states.  During the trip, I was struck with how much I took water for granted.  Hiking in the water-rich mountains of Western North Carolina is fundamentally different from hiking in the southwest.   Each hike we planned had to be thought through.  Your life depended on knowing where essential water points were located.  At one of those water points in the Grand Canyon, a small cliff chipmunk waited at the faucet for a passing hiker to leave the water running for an extra second.  As the faucet dripped, he carefully caught each and every drop that he could.  Water was scarce, and that scarcity magnified our appreciation of every ounce we poured in our bottles.  So, shaving from my coffee cup reminds me not to forget that this water is a blessing.

Scarcity is an interesting concept.  Scarcity can be seen in a visit to a grocery store just before a snowstorm, trying to find bread or milk.   You can catch a glimpse after a gulf hurricane when fuel pipelines in the south get disrupted, and everyone heads to the pump for fuel at the same time.   We have all witnessed it in the last few months looking for toilet paper, paper towels, or hand sanitizer.   Many times, moments of crisis make us appreciate the things we have taken for granted.  

In the last few months, I have found myself far more thankful for things I have taken for granted than possibly at any time in my life.  From the roll of Quilted Northern in the bathroom to our take-out latte from Orchard Coffee, I am more cognizant of those blessings.   For the last two years, I have referred to these moments of appreciation as coffee cup moments.  When we returned from our southwest vacation, I promptly found an appropriate sized coffee cup and placed it next to my bathroom sink.  I have been using it to conserve water when I shave every morning since our return.  Every morning, the coffee cup reminds me that I have been blessed, but with that blessing comes an obligation to conserve those valuable resources and only use what I need.  Wastefulness comes when we are blinded by our abundance.  As life begins to return to normal, I challenge you to find your own coffee cup moments and recognize the blessings that might have been missed.

Working Title- Scarcity: Ponderings from a Cup of Chin Stubble…  Angela Dove helps edit these with me and she told me that I could not, under any circumstances, use that title!  She usually gives me great advice so I am going to trust her.

Broken Promises

It is difficult to find a rhyme or reason behind why some events leave a lasting impression on our long term memory.  When I was in middle school, a group of boys planned an overnight summer trip to Lake Chatuge.   We would stay at a campsite, and while we would know several of the other families from the campground, no parents would be staying with us.   Initially, my mom told me I could go, and then on the day of the trip, with all my stuff packed, she had second thoughts.  Now to be fair to my mom, it was a horrible idea to let me go, I was sure to end up somewhere I should not be, doing things I should not be doing, well after the time to be back in my campsite.  I know this because those activities were already well planned out!  While I don’t remember all of the specifics of the trip, or even who all was going, what I do remember is that it hurt deeply when one parent after another backed out of letting their teenage son spend the night several counties away from home.   I remember that broken promise.

In the last few months, our seniors have lost experiences we will never be able to replace.  While we are sympathetic to these losses, we have not rescheduled them.  I understand why some parents would like us to try to put the activities back on the calendar.  Doing so adds a temporary degree of normalcy back to their lives and says to everyone we are out of this, and that life is about to return to normal.  While we hope this is the case, there are no guarantees as to how long it will be before social distancing guidelines allow us to have large groups of students in close enough proximity to discuss having events like a prom.   The reality is not missed that any kind of social distancing guideline runs in complete contradiction to an event like a prom.  The risks associated with planning such an event–even in the distant future–and then having to cancel later, compounds the hurt these students are already feeling. 

We know that the gathering limitations currently in place prevent us from having graduation in our gym or at our stadium.  These rules are designed to keep Covid-19 from spreading and are still necessary. We have a responsibility to follow them.  The last thing we would want is for a family member to get sick attending a school function before it is safe to do so.   There are still significant portions of our population that are at serious risk if exposed to the virus.  Because of the unknowns surrounding the transition back to normal, we want to be slow and deliberate in making plans for upcoming events.  When social distancing guidelines are relaxed, and we know that we can begin to plan celebrations for these students, we will do everything we can to celebrate their successes.  The last thing we want to do is make another promise to our students, especially our seniors, that we cannot keep.  

Seeing the Blessing

A few weeks ago, I left my truck door unlocked, and someone got into my truck and took my favorite pair of sunglasses. I went through all the emotions: I felt violated, I was angry, I wanted to get even. Finally, I accepted that my glasses were gone. I would have to replace them. This wasn’t the end of the world. We have all lost things in this world, from something small like a pair of sunglasses to things far more significant, like a family member or friend. While the range of significance in the kinds of losses we face might be substantial, at the end of the day losing something we care about stinks!

Students across the country have lost a significant amount of opportunities this spring. This is substantial for many of our students, but our Seniors have been most affected. They have lost their final season of sports, awards programs and ceremonies, prom, and for most the opportunity to have a traditional graduation. Schools are also caught in a dilemma, trying to balance the social-distancing guidelines that are in place with the frustrations of seniors and parents that rightfully want to preserve as many opportunities as possible. Know that schools want to make this season meaningful for our seniors, even if some of the events may not look like they have in the past. We know that losing something you care about isn’t enjoyable.

Years ago, I was given a bit of great advice. I was struggling with a loss, and I was frustrated about it. A friend told me that I needed to loosen my grip on my stuff. It is easy to lose sight of what’s really important when you have too tight a hold on your possessions. He told me that radical ownership was always openhanded. The idea that to appreciate what we have, we must be willing to let go, was something that I had never really considered. I realized that I would be much happier in life if I didn’t grab hold of things too tightly. Openhanded ownership has helped me recognize those places where I have been blessed far more clearly. It has helped me to be more generous with what I have. I am always in a better place as a husband, a father, and a leader when I am living through the lens of openhanded ownership.

As we face the emotions that are caused by the losses of this season, we should do everything possible to maintain an optimistic mindset. We must push through the grief and continue to believe that good things are about to happen. We will come through this. I continue to believe that life will look a lot more like normal in the next few months. Dining out, camping out, and baseball will all return and this will pass. I can’t pretend that losing things we will never get back doesn’t hurt, because it does. I know that  it is hard to focus on our blessings.  Staying positive and focusing on my blessings allows me to continue to grow into the best version of myself!

Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. -Aesop

Lighten Your Load

When I was younger, I enjoyed spending the night at my grandmother’s. Many weekends would include a Saturday trip to my grandmother’s house, usually for lunch. Before we left home, I would quietly pack anything and everything that I might need and slip it into the trunk of the family car. I had learned that when we arrived and my grandmothers and I asked about spending the night, my mother’s typical answer was, “I would let you, but you didn’t bring any clothes” or “You don’t have your toothbrush.” I had learned that I needed to pack for every possible response. I learned to be ready.

Unfortunately, this habit of overpacking extended way into my adult years. Over time, I have learned the art and the importance of traveling light; however, I still struggle at times with the urge to pack more than I might need. In the last few years, I have come to enjoy spending time in the woods. My time backpacking and traveling in the backcountry has taught me many important lessons. One of the most important is that overpacking has heavy consequences, especially deep in the woods. Experienced hikers understand the importance of lightening their load and only taking those items that are essential. The heavier the pack, the less enjoyable your trip will be on days two, three, and beyond.

Carrying around excess baggage is just as unhealthy for us mentally as it is for us physically. Mental health issues can be amplified by social isolation. Social media and the news influence the current environment for many of us. It is a struggle to stay optimistic and continue to believe that good things are about to happen. We must be careful not to allow the fear and fatigue that so many of us are feeling to weigh us down.   

The excess baggage that many families are dealing with during this time is not limited to adults. Our children carry baggage as well. As we continue to deal with changes that are associated with a very different lifestyle, I encourage you to respect the importance of managing your mental health. While the craft of education is still crucial in this season, educators must also remind themselves of the toll that the added weight takes on our students. Students can not be expected to engage in critical thinking when they are struggling to have their basic psychological needs met. Students must feel safe, secure, and loved before they can focus on their education. If you or someone you know is struggling in this season, help is available, and we encourage you to reach out. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you need support to lighten the load you are carrying.

Be simple, don’t carry the baggage of the past,
open your hands, and let it go.
– Debasish Mridha

Sleep Well

“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.” – JoJo Jensen

When I was a kid, my grandfather went to bed early. When I say early, I am talking about evening news early, not 9:00 early. In fact, it was a well-established rule that if you wanted to talk to my grandpa, you had to call before the local news went off at 6:30. After that, he was either getting ready for bed or already in it. Now, to be fair, he was up well before the sun, and you could call him at five, and he might already be up and out of the house. As I have grown older, either that experience with my grandpa or genetics has pushed me towards the same kind of rhythm. I am usually ready to go to bed by 8:30 and prepared to get up much earlier than the rest of the house. For me, sleep is critical to be ready to perform at a high level each day.

We are only beginning to appreciate and understand the importance of sleep, and this is especially critical for our students. The world we interact with sends students mixed messages about rest. For many of them, they know it is essential, but they also have other stuff they either want or need to get accomplished. They procrastinate and then stay up late to complete homework. They get immersed in a video game with friends and play until the early hours of the morning. I understand that my sleep rhythm and that of most of society might be different. Still, the importance of getting the correct quality and quantity of sleep is critical to our success. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders. Sleep deficiency is also associated with poor judgment, an increase in human errors, and a higher risk of injury for both adults and teens. Without it, we may find ourselves acting like two-year-olds without even realizing it. We need our rest.

In the last month, our lives have been completely disrupted, and our stress levels have increased. It is more important than ever that we get our rest. Research suggests that our sleep can be positively impacted by our decisions, especially those we make in the afternoons. Limiting our intake of caffeine, sugar, and processed foods have shown to improve the quality of our sleep. Exercise and sunlight both have positive effects on our sleep. Limiting our exposure to the blue lights associated with electronic devices just before bed can lead to a better night’s sleep. To be at our best during the day, we must take the time to clear our minds and give our children the same opportunities. 

If you have young children, you have more than likely experienced the effects of lack of sleep. I remember when our son was a newborn, he was afraid he was going to miss something and fought going to bed on a nightly basis. It was during this season of our lives that I started to appreciate the value of a good night’s sleep. On the nights I rested well, I was a better teacher the next day. While I feel for the many of you that struggle to get enough rest while dealing with young children, we must do everything in our power to maximize the quality and quantity of this time. Better sleep leads to better days.

How will we pay for it?

‘WE MUST ALL SUFFER ONE OF TWO THINGS: THE PAIN OF DISCIPLINE OR THE PAIN OF REGRET.’  -JIM ROHN

We are living in a brave new world.  For most of our educational carriers, many of us have worked for rewards like grades and accolades.  When we sent students home earlier this spring, their educational world changed. Many of our students already know that they will most likely pass if they were passing before they left.  Underclassmen will still return to high school classes in the fall. They now must choose how much effort they are willing to put into the learning opportunities that are being made available by their teachers.

One of the great motivators for high school students is competition.  For some students, this competition comes in the form of athletics, and for others, it may be marching band or a host of other academic and extracurricular options.  One thing that they all have in common is that success requires preparation. The student-athletes that continue to prepare will likely be more successful than their peers that make more unfortunate choices.  Band students that continue to practice will be further along than other students. In short, preparation matters. The time sacrificed to get better in the offseason matters. The pain associated with the discipline of preparation has a far greater payoff in the long run.

This principle is also true academically.  Students that continue to work through this pandemic will be better prepared for the courses they will take in the fall.  Math is an excellent example of this process. Each course within a school’s math framework builds on the classes that come before it.  So, it is fair to assume that the student taking their Math 3 course after only half a semester of Math 2 will not be nearly as prepared as the students that worked hard in Math 2.  A student’s competency determines their grade in a class, and it is difficult to be competent and master a subject without a solid foundation. Not taking classes seriously during this pandemic is the equivalent of building a house with only half a foundation.  

The opportunities and limitations created by the events of the last few weeks will stay with us for a while.   Many things are outside of our control, including when we lift quarantines or how soon we get back to a more regular schedule.  There are choices that we do control. I am so proud of the students that continue to choose to engage with their instructors and continue working.  Know that this work will pay off. You will be better prepared for the world that lies ahead because of this decision. Our education costs us our time.  The time we spend working now allows us to pay with discipline and preparation. Those students that postpone this payment will pay later when they are expected to work harder to catch up and build the foundation that they could be working on now.   Remember, in life, the pain of preparation is always cheaper than the pain of regret.