John Muir once said, “Going to the mountains is going home.”  It’s the slogan on the front of my favorite t-shirt. The t-shirt is beginning to show its age, but I still pack it in the bottom of my bag on every trip I take.  I will have it on for every return trip home.  My wife jokes that we will have to stop traveling when the t-shirt finally wears out.   While I love to travel, I love home even more.   The mountains of Western North Carolina are special.  The smell of the springtime bloom, or sticking your feet in a mountain stream after a long hike in the heat of summer.  The view from a mountaintop as the leaves change in October.  The stillness of a winter snowstorm.  I love home. There is nothing like it in the world!   

There is a moment at the end of every trip.  It’s just north of Spartenburg if we are traveling home from the beaches south of us.  Coming from Raleigh, it’s just west of Morganton as you top a small hill.  Traveling east from Knoxville, it’s just after you turn west where I-40 and I-81 split near Dandridge, TN.  It’s the moment the mountains come back into view.  If I am traveling without my wife, it’s a reminder to call and let her know I am almost home.  I don’t have to tell her where I am, she knows.  She would say that she can hear it in my voice. There is something about that moment you get the first glimpse of home!

We take for granted so much of the world around us.  Living here day in and day out, we gradually lose our appreciation for what we get to live in each and every day.  Over the past few months, I have tried to pause each morning before I step off my front porch and appreciate the view. Sometimes we take what we have for granted.

That can’t be more true than with many of the common activities that have been limited over the past six months, and none have been as significant to many of us as the inability to have face-to-face instruction with our students.  I want to commend our teachers and students for doing their very best in a difficult situation.  While we will continue the remote instruction of some of our students, it is impossible to provide the same quality of education remotely as we can provide in person.   In a few days, we will have the opportunity to have many of our elementary students back in classrooms.   We are excited to welcome them back.

Appreciation has several definitions.  It is defined as the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.  It can also be defined in economic terms as the increase in the value of something.   The law of supply and demand dictates that it is natural for value to increase when an item is in limited supply.  In the past few months, the value of face to face education has certainly increased.  It has appreciated, and we appreciate it much more than we did before.

This pandemic has helped us get more comfortable with change.   When we return to school next week, we want to do it right.  We want to keep our students safe.  But, we are also reminded that we are not guaranteed that this will last.  We could be forced to send students back home at any point in the school year.   While we are planning for the worst, we hope that we will continue with having students in school for the rest of the year.   We must make every moment count. 

As I pulled onto campus this morning, I was reminded that we would have buses arriving the next time I go through this morning ritual.  This was the last morning of work without our students.  It was an “almost home” moment.  The same emotions I feel as I top the hill near the Burke County line and see the mountains in the distance after being gone for a while, I felt this morning.  There is an excitement in the air.  There is an anticipation for the days ahead.  Just like going home!

“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.”
Henry Ward Beecher

The Generous Harvest

I rushed home ahead of the rain.  I was on the clock.  We had a field full of potatoes, and the rain was coming in just a few hours.  The rain would make it impossible for us to get the harvest out of the ground this week and probably most of next week as well.  I changed clothes and headed to the barn.  I put the plow on the tractor and drove towards the garden.  Three hours and twelve boxes full of potatoes later, we have the harvest in the cellar as night fell on the farm.  I walked back home in the dark. 

On April 8th of this year, amid the COVID lockdown, we planted two rows of potatoes.  A single fifty-pound bag that I had acquired weeks before when the hardware store began stocking crops and seeds for the spring.  Over the summer, we would watch and wait.  Spraying for bugs.  Tilling the weeds and allowing the leaves to get as much sun and water as they needed to grow and thrive. On September 22, we harvested more than 200 pounds of potatoes.  Easily enough potatoes for us to make it through the winter and spring and into next summer.  We keep the large ones in the cellar while canning the small ones and those cut by the plow during the harvest.  Very little is wasted. 

Small family farmers in the country get very few promises.  They plant with the hope and belief that with the proper conditions and the right effort,  their small investment will yield a crop worth the time and energy they put into it.  Educators in this country make the same kind of investment every day, every week, and every year with our students.  Educators control a small number of variables in a student’s growth, yet, like the farmer, they bear the great responsibility for their success.  Like the farmer, they can’t control the weather, or in the case of 2020, COVID.  But they continue to sow seeds.  

What we do today matters.  And like the farmer that sees rain coming on the horizon at the end of a long dry spell, educators see the conditions changing.  Some students are starting to return to the building.  Other parents are watching anxiously to see if this will work.  They quietly ask themselves,  “Can safely have school amid the waning days of the pandemic?”  The answer will help them decide if they feel comfortable doing the same.  A successful harvest depends on the work we will do in the coming days and months.  I hope we can all agree after a six-month experiment with distance learning that the optimal place for student growth to occur is in the confines of the classroom, not the bedroom or the kitchen table. 

To do this well, we will need the help of parents.  I completely understand the temptation to send students to school when they don’t feel well.   We have dangled our feet in the grey space of “should we send them or not?” and decided that we need to work, and the only way to draw a paycheck is to send them to school.  This year, when placed in that situation again, we must choose carefully.  The decision could affect classrooms full of children, not just one.   Some of our ability to successfully grow students will depend on the decisions made at home. 

As I stood at the edge of the garden with the sun setting over the hill behind the barn, I thought of the last six months of work and was glad we had made the effort.   It will soon be time to plow up the ground and begin preparing for another harvest, but for now, I can take a minute to appreciate the benefit of months of hard work.  Eight months from now, we want to do this in our schools.  We look forward to being able to stand back and appreciate the fruits of our labor.  Tomorrow’s harvest depends on what we do today.

    We must give more in order to get more. It is the generous giving of 
ourselves that produces the generous harvest. 
Orison Swett Marden

What We’ve Lost

On Friday morning, a year ago, I was getting ready for school.  It was picture day, so I was wearing a suit and tie.  COVID had yet to strike the US, so my dad and I had a regularly scheduled breakfast in town at one of the few places that happened to be open before seven.   As I was leaving, I could hear the sirens from the local fire department responding to an accident a few miles from my home.  I thought about going to help, but I was in a suit and tie and wouldn’t be much use in an emergency.  My father-in-law, a volunteer with the department, drove out of our shared driveway in front of me headed to the station.  I thought about calling and checking in with him, but he had his hands full driving and listening to others responding, so I decided against it.  Twenty minutes later, I sat down for breakfast with my dad, having the normal Friday morning conversation about my week, politics, and sports when my phone rang.    It was my wife, and all that she said was, “Dad’s dead!”  

On September 20th of last year, at around 6:15 in the morning, my father-in-law was killed in a traffic accident while en route to help someone injured in another accident.  Needless to say, that phone call and the events of that morning have entirely changed the trajectory of the last year of my life.  There were people to care for in the immediate aftermath, a funeral to plan, and emotions to deal with.  But after the first few weeks, the hustle and hurry settled, and I was left to deal with my own emotions.

For me, the grief process was a lot like a washing machine.  For a while, I was flooded with one emotion and then with another.  I experienced several anxiety attacks in the months that followed, and I distanced myself from others.  At first, I was a bit embarrassed that I was a complete trainwreck on the inside.  I tried to fake it and make everyone around me believe I was ok.   The process of dealing with grief, trauma, and loss has not been easy.  I was blessed with family and friends that I could trust, which allowed me to have a place to open up when I was finally ready.  

I tell you all of this because there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental health in this country.  Sometimes, it keeps us from asking for the help we need, and we pass this perspective on to our children.  We are taught from an early age to keep these kinds of thoughts and emotions to ourselves.  

In a few weeks, we hope to begin to have a large number of students back in our buildings for the first time in six months.  Maybe their struggle isn’t exactly like mine, but they will bring six months of stress, loneliness, and worry with them when they arrive.   During this hiatus from onsite instruction, teachers, administrators, and other educational experts have had growing concerns about our students’ mental health.  For many students, school was a place where they could experience safe relationships and be provided with the mental health services they needed.  During our time apart, many of those supports have been missing.  

One of the essential parts of our responsibility to the next generation is to build trusting relationships.  I was fortunate to have people around me to talk with when I was struggling, and we need to see that every child has that same opportunity for connection.  That connection can be with a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or someone else in the community.  Those relationships matter more now than ever.  Giving our children the opportunity to open up about their struggles might be the key to their overall health and success.  We must help them understand that we can’t control what has happened to us, but we can control how we carry it as we move forward.

Making Mistakes!

Every child should learn to ride a bike.  It is one of the rights of passage for a child to eventually take the training wheels off and ride without an anxious father running along behind.  For my son, this happened when he was three years old. He had a bit of a stubborn streak, and we were camping in a remote campground in the national park.  All the other boys camping with us that week had bikes without training wheels, and he felt a bit slighted having to tag along behind with his “Baby Bike.”  Since bikes designed for three-year-olds don’t usually come with removable training wheels, we spent the better part of the first day walking through the campground looking for someone with the tools necessary to remove them.  He was insistent; he would not ride the bike with the training wheels.  After an hour of looking for tools, we used the only tool that might work to remove the wheels. A hack saw.  The move would be permanent, and we would not be able to put them back on after they were removed.  So I sawed off the training wheels from a brand new bike we had purchased the week before for the camping trip.  I had a bit of a lump in my throat because if this didn’t work, it would be a very long week!   

The wheels came off, and within the day, he was riding without me running along beside him.  By the end of the week, he was doing laps around the campground.  Yes, he went home with scabs on both knees and elbows, but he was riding his bike like the big boys.  It is still one of the best family vacation memories we have.  Those are great memories of sitting by the campfire watching as our three-year-old does laps around the campsite on a tiny bike without training wheels.   

While I am not a psychologist, nearly thirty years of working with young people have taught me the importance of letting students make their own mistakes.  Falling is an essential part of both our and their growth.   Students who build a degree of resiliency are far better prepared for an uncertain future than those who have not had these experiences.  Please don’t think I am advocating letting students get hurt or injured, but I encourage you to let them figure it out for themselves. If I’m honest, I was the parent that wanted to run along behind my son for much longer than necessary.  It was his mother that finally looked at me and said, “He has to learn to fall.”   These small falls are essential to what they become.

As we continue this experiment in remote learning, teachers are noticing that it is difficult for parents not to help students with assignments.  The student that is struggling to comprehend a reading passage suddenly answers every question correctly. The student that doesn’t know their multiplication tables is suddenly doing multiplication with larger numbers. The struggling writer is now writing like a published author. I know the temptation to help make sure an assignment is perfect is tempting, but it may not help our children as much as you might think.  

One of the core questions our teachers ask each day is, “Are our students learning the material that we are covering today?”  This may be the most challenging question that we ask during every remote lesson.  Teachers use the answer to this question to decide the direction they go for individual students during a lesson.  They must have useful data, and this data comes from the assignments students are doing at home.  When you help your child with this work, it gives the teacher an inaccurate picture of the student’s ability and makes it difficult for us to customize the instructional level that they receive.  These mistakes can lead to both growth and academic success.

In last week’s edition of the Principal’s Pen, I made a grammar mistake.  Some of you may have caught it.  I was horrified and angry with myself when I noticed it.  I changed the published copies that I could, but I realize there are still a few copies floating around with the mistake.  After I got over my initial anger with myself about the oversight, I realized it was the product of a late revision and an author that was in a hurry!  The mistake helped remind me that as adults, one of the ways we naturally handle our mistakes is to reflect on our actions so we can prevent the same error from occurring in the future.  This is precisely what we want to teach our children to do, and we rob them of the ability to figure it out if we fix it for them.  When my son fell off his bike, he had only one choice if he wanted to learn.  He had to get over the fall, get back on the bike and start peddling!

Gifted Grace

A few years ago, while attending a conference near the middle of the state, I received an email that would change the trajectory of the next few weeks of my life.  I was waiting for the keynote speaker to take the stage, and while I waited, I decided to check my email. I hoped to possibly start to get caught up on a days worth of missed emails that would need replies.   I didn’t want to spend the evening in my hotel room, returning emails.  When I opened my email, I immediately noticed an official email from a federal auditor that had been working with our district.   It seems I had made a small but incredibly significant typo in a request for a federal reimbursement, and now a large sum of our district’s federal funds was in jeopardy. Let me explain that I have struggled most of my life with reversing letters and swapping numbers when my stress levels increase.   I am usually pretty good about being self-aware of my errors and correcting them before submitting final copies of work.  Unfortunately, on this day, I missed one. Instead of dating one of the forms the 21st, I dated the paperwork the 12th.  This put most of my paperwork out of order and had the possibility of resulting in the denial of our reimbursement funds.  For the next three weeks, I worried and waited as my fate, and perhaps my career, sat in the hands of a federal auditor.  If you have ever work with a federal auditor, they are known for being by the book and not always being open to giving individuals very much grace when honest mistakes were made.   Fortunately for me, three weeks after the event began and with lots of explaining, agonizing, and apologizing, our reimbursement funds were granted. My mistake was forgiven.  I was the benefactor of the gift of grace.

As we hopefully return to school next week, we have talked about making sure we are giving students grace where we can.  We understand that every home situation is different, but most students will struggle somehow with the grind of doing school from somewhere other than the classroom.   As educators, we must remind ourselves of what life must be like for our students.   The standards still need to be high, but grace can’t be left out of the equation.

In the past few weeks, many of our teachers have faced a similar struggle. First, they have dealt with the necessity to learn an entirely new delivery system for instruction.   Then, after preparing for this possibility most of the summer, they have spent the last week waiting while our district deals with ransomware’s ripple effects on several district devices and servers.   In the end, the best we can do is to extend grace to each other and get through this difficult time the best we can.

Over the past week, I have heard both complaints and understanding about the weeklong closure of school.  It is very easy to catch ourselves doom scrolling through social media. Some find this as an appropriate avenue to voice both complaints and concerns.  I want to encourage you to look instead for opportunities to give others the gift of grace.   Each day, we find ourselves in multiple situations where we have the chance to give grace to those around us.  Not only is grace free, but it also benefits both the giver and the receiver.    With everything going on in the world around us, the gift of grace is just what many of us need.    

“The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.” – Aristotle

Green, Yellow, Red


“What’s that yellow band on your wrist for?”  This is what the six-year-old in the grocery store line asked me this evening.   Kids tend to cut through all the political correctness and get right to the point.  You may notice staff members at Hazelwood Elementary wearing colored bands on either their wrists or name tags.  These colored bands help identify staff members’ comfort level with proximity to others during the pandemic.  We certainly still recognize that the current orders from the Governor require both social distancing and masks for everyone that enters the building.  As we progress through the year, we are hopeful that students can return and that some of the safeguards that are currently in place can be relaxed.  As that happens, this is how our staff will communicate their comfort level with others that enter the building.  I want to be clear that this isn’t a license for our team to act outside of the current set of expectations for schools.  We just want to make sure that our staff members clearly communicate their comfort level and where their personal space should begin.

The green band is worn by staff that have the highest level of comfort interacting with others.  They have evaluated the risks associated with the disease and decided which precautions are necessary for them and their family.  The yellow band is worn by staff who are still a bit hesitant and want to continue maintaining their physical distance in most cases.   The red band is the most restrictive. It is worn by staff that wish to keep their distance from others with very few exceptions. So, Green means “Go,” Red means “No,” and Yellow is somewhere in the middle.   If you are on campus, you will see a variety of colored bands.  In some cases, we have teachers and teacher assistants working in the same rooms that have different levels of comfort with physical proximity.  We believe that you can have different opinions about the pandemic and still respect others and work together to educate students.  

These bands came in midweek, and I walked around the school, handing out bands to members of our school community.  As I did, I was surprised by some of our staff’s choices, some that I thought would be one color chose another.  I was surprised by some of the team members that requested a red band. We all work around individuals that may put on a good act, but underneath there is still a significant amount of anxiety working in close proximity to other individuals.  It has been a healthy exercise for our staff to see and understand how to best interact with their colleagues and respect their boundaries.

On day two, a staff member came into the office and asked if it was Ok to take a red band.  She had chosen a yellow one the day before and explained that she was yellow on most days, but today she needed a red one.  For many of us, our comfort level with the pandemic changes from day to day.  So, several staff members have multiple colors in their desks for this exact reason.  Some days we just need to be yellow or red when most days we might be green.  Whether it is wearing red every day or only on some days, we had to establish that it is ok to not be ok.  It is also a great reminder that these same emotions, thoughts, and ever-changing comfort levels are just as present for students as for staff.  If we have adult staff that have a heightened level of anxiety with social distancing due to the pandemic, then is it fair to expect that our students will experience these same emotions.

You might ask if we are going to provide bands for students when they return.  The answer is, “No for Now.” Here is why. We feel it is both our responsibility and our charge to do everything possible to protect our students from exposure.  With that in mind, we are treating all students as though they are wearing a red wrist band.  This is the safest option we have right now.  

I could not ask for a better group of people to serve with than the staff at Hazelwood Elementary.  As I said, we have staff choosing to wear a variety of colored bracelets.  Some red. Some green. Some yellow.  Most days I choose to wear a yellow band.  However, if I am honest, there are days I find myself wanting a red band.  Staff have started to recognize the comfort level of others and even ask questions like, “Am I too close? Do I need to move back?”  I have had staff walk into my office and walk up to my desk only to apologize and step back.   We want to do a great job of focusing on others’ comfort level as much our own.  I love our willingness to focus on others, especially our students.  We are just as ready to have students back in the building as many of you are.  We want to do it safely, and we want to make sure that we can sustain having them in the building without increasing the number of community exposures.  When the time comes, know that Hazelwood is a judgment-free zone, just as we have agreed that it is ok to be comfortable or uncomfortable with this pandemic, it is also ok to want your child to be in school or to wish to keep them home for remote instruction.  We recognize that some of our parents have a comfort level of green right now. For others, the comfort level is yellow.  For others, it is red.  It is our responsibility to build your trust so that you can have your students back in the building when you are ready. Regardless of your choice as a parent, know that we will do everything we can to help your child continue to grow into a responsible, respectful lifelong learner.  We look forward to working with you to make that happen!

In Our Togetherness, Castles Are Built!

Irish Proverb

Leading Up To Launch

Growing up in the 80s, I was entirely consumed by the space shuttle program.  I can remember the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in April of 1981.  I was just finishing up kindergarten, and in the weeks leading up to the launch, we talked about it and prepared for it.  To be honest, when Sunday, April 12th, 1981, finally arrived, the shuttle’s actual launch was much shorter than I had expected.  This spring will mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of the space shuttle.  I remember as much about the big deal made in the days leading up to the launch as I do the launch itself.

On Monday morning, August 17th, we officially begin a new school year.  In the first week, our teachers will meet with students, explain both what to expect and the expectations for online learning, get the necessary paperwork completed, and make sure students know how to use their technology devices.  Some of the assignments students will receive next week will be designed to help prepare students for the weeks to come.   These lessons will be designed to build student stamina and get them prepared for academic work.  We realize that many of our students haven’t completed serious, sustained academic work in many months, and it will take time to get back to where we were in March of last year.  Like an injured athlete who hasn’t exercised in several months, stamina must be built and maintained.   Other lessons will be designed to ensure students have the skills necessary to be successful in an online environment.  We will make sure they know how to email their teachers, submit assignments, and engage in live online classes.  Next week will be our “Lead Up to Launch.”  Our goal is to be ready to roll into full online instruction by the beginning of the following week.  

We believe that there are some behaviors that we can encourage students to have at home that will help them be more successful in an online environment.  We ask that you help us promote these behaviors as well.

  1. Create a Cadence In The Chaos

We all need routines to maximize our ability to be successful.  Most of us have specific routines that we go through each morning.  I get up, shower, shave, and dress for the day before feeding our dogs and having breakfast. I finish up with a quiet moment reading before leaving for work at almost the same time each day.  This process brings order and predictability to my day.  Our routines stabilize the chaos that surrounds us.   I have asked teachers to look at the assignments that they give every week and do their best to set up a cadence to the week to help both students and parents prepare for the weeks ahead.  I would ask that you do the same.  Help your child set up a schedule for school work that allows them to anticipate the work that will be coming and how they successfully navigate the workload and assignments that they will see each day and each week.

  1. Everyone Needs A Place

Everyone needs a place to work.  Help your child find a space where they can work each day or afternoon.  Having a specific place to do their school work helps set the stage for a successful experience.  Some of the students that we have heard who have struggled were trying to work from their beds or the couch while distractions surrounded them.  Moving to a space we have reserved for work or school helps trigger our minds to be better prepared for the vital work in front of us. 

  1. Set the Tone

Just like the location matters, so does the tone.  When I need to work, I often have to separate myself from the distractions of our main living areas. Sometimes, I may find a set of headphones and put them on without playing any music or sound.  This way, I can filter out the noise and focus on the task in front of me.  In learning about the tone where I get the best work completed, I know that sometimes I need a quiet space to finish the most critical tasks.

  1. Dress the Part

Several years ago, I heard a speaker talk about how she set herself up to be successful at home.  Her first encouragement was to dress for work.  She said that psychologically there was something profoundly different about the quality of her work when she got up and went through her usual morning routine and dressed for work before beginning her day at the table in her kitchen.   She said dressing the part was critical to producing her best work product. On Saturdays, when I get up early to write or work on school work, I have found that going through my morning routine and dressing for the moment really matters.  I encourage students to dress for school and prepare themselves for the school work that lies ahead.

As we prepare to launch a new school year, we hope that we can safely have students in our buildings very soon.  Know that we will do everything we can to create a safe environment where students can be successful. While we feel the best learning happens when we can conduct face to face instruction, we will do everything we can to help your child grow and be successful regardless of the instructional environment around us.  We look forward to this adventure with you that we are about to begin!

Thank You!

I wasn’t an exceptional elementary student.  I am sure if I continue to write these long enough, I will tell more stories about my elementary experience, and many of them are less than glamorous.  I didn’t always apply myself, and I was most likely one of those students that teachers would whisper about in the teacher lounge.  “I just hope you don’t get that “Trantham” kid when he goes to fifth grade.”  Yep. I’m pretty sure that was probably me.  Most teachers will tell you that mischievousness and intelligence are poor bedfellows, and I had enough of both to be dangerous.

At the beginning of my final year of elementary school, on one of the first few days of school, I was summoned for a conference with the teacher.  “Todd, will you come out in the hall with me for a few minutes.”  I had been summoned by Ms. Palmer, my new sixth-grade teacher.  At this point, I was still unsure of how to read her. She had a  sweet southern personality that had me more than a little concerned.  I was pretty sure she was a monster underneath that exterior that I did not want to mess with!  We walked across the hall to the library, sat for about fifteen minutes, and had a discussion that would change the direction of my life.  

She began by informing me that she knew I was capable of far more than I had shown anyone in my first few years of elementary school, and she expected more from me.  She also let me know that during the year, I would be helping out in one of our classrooms for exceptional children.  I would spend thirty minutes in their class two or three times a week working with students who needed my help and friendship.  I was partnered with a student twice my age that was nonverbal and had limited mobility.  We would become friends during the year, and through this experience, I was given a very different view of the world.  For the first time, I had been shown just how much I had been blessed.

In the coming years, my attitude towards school, my effort on my school work, and my focus changed.  From that day in August of 1986, I knew I wanted to be an educator.   I find myself sitting in my office this morning as the principal of Hazelwood Elementary.  I have taught and worked with hundreds of students in the last quarter of a century.  I can only hope that I have had half of as much of an impact on someone’s life as Ms. Palmer did when she called me out of class and reminded me of what I was capable of becoming.

Our mission at Hazelwood Elementary reads, To Empower and Inspire All Students To Be Responsible and Respectful Lifelong Learners. This is what we want to do every day for every student.  It doesn’t matter if we are all here at school in a traditional setting, all home in a remote learning environment, or somewhere in between.  This is why we do what we do. It’s why our teachers are ready to come back to school, even facing the dangers of a pandemic.  And, it is what Ms. Palmer did for me.  My hope is that one day our students will be able to point back to a moment in elementary school that changed the trajectory of their lives and search for a way to say  “Thank You.”

Thank You, Ms. Palmer, that’s what you did for me!

Punched In The Nose!

As a youngster growing up in Hazelwood, I led a pretty simple life.  I would wake up late, watch TV from the couch until nine.  I would then spend the rest of the morning cruising the greater metropolis of Hazelwood.  I stayed with my grandmother while my mom worked.   Mom worked as the Hazelwood school secretary and bookkeeper.  I know “secretary” is no longer a politically correct term, but in the early 80s, that is what they were called.  Granny’s house was a block from the school, so I was free to roam the majority of town, so long as I didn’t cause any trouble.  It’s a little crazy today to think of seeing a seven or eight-year-old free to roam town on his own.  

My summer mornings were filled with adventure. I would check in with mom and make sure she didn’t need anything.  That was just an excuse for being in the building as the gym was quite a distance from the office, and I knew I could play basketball in the gym as long as I didn’t disturb anyone that might be working.  From there, it was to the post office to check the mail.  To this day, I still love the smell of an old post office.  I would drop into Hazelwood Hardware and visit with Toot Nichols.  This was the place I would come after I had saved up enough money to buy my first pocket knife, and I can still see the enormous moose head on the wall.   While I am sure it was big, it looked the size of an elephant to a young boy.   I would wrap up most mornings with a stop at the pharmacy.  The Hazelwood Pharmacy had a flat grill and a lunch counter, and if I was lucky, my aunt would fix me a grilled cheese and a real cherry coke.  Sometimes I had to settle for two pieces of three-cent gum.  It depended on what change I had in my pocket and how pitiful and hungry I looked!  This was the early 80s, and the Cubs still had to play home day games because they didn’t have lights at Wrigley Field.  I would try and get back to Granny’s by 1:35, so I could watch Ryne Sandberg, and the beloved Cubs find a way to break my heart like they so often did.   I had a blessed childhood.

As I think back to growing up in Hazelwood, so many of my best memories came because those around me put me in a safe environment where trust was always far greater than the fear that something terrible was about to happen.  Trust was currency and was never in short supply.

But there were times in my childhood where the trust bank emptied and anxiety took over.  In the late summer of 1979, my mom woke me up early and told me to get dressed. She was taking me to something called preschool.  “Mom, I don’t want to go to preschool. Let me go to Granny’s.”   She insisted, and my morning routine was brought to a sudden halt.  I was dragged to the car,  threatened within an inch of my life that I would behave, and told that they would bring me back home at lunchtime.  This did not seem to be a place I would want to spend much time.  Mom walked me in the front door of the First Methodist Preschool building and introduced me to my teacher.  My teacher told me, “Everything is going to be fine. You will make friends and have fun.”  As Mom walked away, I felt the anxiety building up.  My trust was at an all-time low, and I had an ample supply of worry for me and any other student that might need it.  Within a few minutes, worry had turned to anger, “How could my mom love me and still leave me in this horrible place?”  The teacher must have detected my frustration.  She came over and got down on my level.  “You will be fine. This is a great place.”  I had had enough at that point, and no sweet words would convince me otherwise.  Before she could move away, I rared back and punched her square in the nose with everything I had.  

 It was not my finest academic achievement, and I am not proud of it, to say the least.  Let me make myself clear; I am not condoning my actions in any way.  But, in the past few months, many of our students and some parents have been faced with the same type of moment.  We have all found ourselves in a place where the trust that everything is going to be ok has been completely overwhelmed by the anxiety of our current situation.   It has not been fun, and it has not been easy.  As we start back to school this fall, it will look different.  Some students will be remote, while others might choose to return to the building at some point.  Regardless of what it looks like, we will all be faced with moments where we must fight back the urge to rare back and punch someone or something because our anxiety has overwhelmed the trust that things will get better.  

Relationships are more important than they have ever been for us as a school, as a community, and as a society as a whole.  We realize that your trust in us is critical to making school work, and we will do everything we can to create a safe environment where students can grow.  We hope that eventually, we can have students back in the building and return to something that looks somewhat like it did a year ago. We realize that all of you will not be ready to come back at the same time.  We will help you work through your hesitations and anxiety, and build the trust necessary to do this well.  

As with most of my childhood memories, this preschool story has a happy ending.  In the end, I loved my teacher and enjoyed the experience.  I still see my teacher around town, and she is always quick to remind me of my first day of preschool.  Eventually, the anxiety left, and trust returned.  I know that this season has made us all feel like we have been punched in the nose!  Most of us know well the nubbing sensation and awkward smell of taking one directly on the sniffer.  Our students have felt it. Parents have felt it.  We have all felt it.  I have to continue to believe that this gets better.  Our anxiety and worry over this season will pass, and just like my preschool experience, we will be better and stronger because of what we have experienced.  This story will have a happy ending for all of us. 

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