The Long Row Home: A First Year Principal’s Reflections on his Time at the Helm
The journey started here.
This morning I had one of the more enjoyable moments a father can have. My five year old son Zeke wanted to take a kayak out on the bay near Panama City, Florida. We had done it once before but only ventured out for about 20 minutes and he had enough. So as we pulled out of the Lynn Haven Marina, I asked him if he wanted to to the same short route as before. He thought about it for a minute and as he did I was sure he would pick the comfort of the familiar; but he surprised me. It was one of those quintessential moments of which John Eldredge writes as he describes the wunderlust of young males in Wild at Heart. “Dad,” Zeke said, “I want to go all the way across (the bay).” I asked him if he was sure. He just squinted into the sun and nodded his head eagerly. Off we went. We paddled about two miles by my estimation, but it might as well have been forty. Going all the way across the middle meant there were few guideposts. We just pointed the craft at a beautiful home on the other side and paddled, not really knowing the progress we were making. When we neared the other side, Zeke said he was ready to turn back. I, however, had been lost in Zeke’s Wild at Heart mindset and had visions landing the vessel and exploring the vast forest on the other side. Yet, wisdom and the fatigue of a forty-something year old body prodded me to turn around and head back. As we did, Zeke fell asleep propped up by the comfortable seats of the kayak and rocked gently by the mild current. At once, I was alone with my thoughts. Those thoughts took me directly toward reflection on the past year. It had been a whirlwind from accepting the Principal appointment at Trinity in April last year, finishing my work at Randolph, making the move to Montgomery, and then taking the helm of a Middle School and an Upper School. The kayak ride reminded me a great deal of my experience this first year. Here’s how:
During the first part of the journey in the kayak, I was the skipper leading from the back of the boat, steering the vessel, powering it. I was the engine, propelling us forward toward new ideas and new approaches. I came into the school with a big vision, lots of energy, and giving direction. Every paddle was robust. Each paddle lacked attention to technique.
As I began to tire a bit, I began focusing on my son in the front of the kayak. Several times during the first stage that was full of energy, our paddles collided. In a similar fashion, my vision and practice collided with some of my teachers and department chairs. At first, I just apologized and didn’t think much of it. As it continued to happen, I slowed my “paddling” a bit and observed more. Just like my son in the front of the kayak, I soon learned that my teachers were out in front of the boat and I needed to observe more. I had to see where my oar was most needed.
My son and I tried to keep a constant dialogue about where we were heading. Currents, wind, and loss of focus pushed us off course at times. Generally, I talked more than he did. In the same manner, the faculty and I kept a dialogue going about where we were heading. I went into classrooms often during the beginning of the year and offered feedback using the Marzano tool to individual teachers. Our monthly division meetings and in-service sessions helped us refocus our energies to goals out on the horizon.
Those aforementioned currents and winds got stronger on the way back. Like the luster of a new principal coming in from the outside, the allure of a trip across the bay was soon clouded by the knowledge that we had to paddle all the way back. Parent meetings, scheduling conflicts, test score analysis, and the news that a few key faculty members would be moving on at the end of the year buffeted the vessel and reminded me that while the role was thoroughly enjoyable, it did have its challenges.
On the way back, my son fell asleep. We were about a mile out still and now we (I) were/was going against the current. It reminded me of a division meeting early in the second semester when few faculty members showed up. I had failed to communicate as openly as I had earlier in the year and my message was lost. Some of my objectives lost steam, just like the tired boy in the front of my kayak. It was a strong reminder that navigating these open waters takes constant vigilance.
Around 2/3 of the way home, I began to have a greater understanding of all the work it would take to make it home. There had been a blissful ignorance I had on the way out that glassy appearance of the bay and the light winds would mean a struggle free journey. In the same way, I got to President’s day as principal with very little in the way of major drama. That changed later in February when, at once , a few faculty departures, a social media bullying crisis, and the spectre of lower elementary school enrollment meant we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I resolved myself to paddle harder and refocus on the targets ahead.
Soon I began to realize exactly the direction of the current (with the help of wise co-leaders and veteran teachers) and began to understand how I could still reach our targets while using the current. Some of this happened simply by getting out of the middle of the bay and drifting steadily to the side where the current and wind had a less dramatic effect. I relate this part of the process to the wonderful moments I had with department chairs and other teacher leaders when I invited them into the hiring process. I still was steering the vessel, but they guided me gently and favorably. I will never forget how enjoyable it was when those with whom I had philosophical disagreements with earlier in the year, worked side by side with me to find the right people to carry forth our mission and row the boat. When we were together focused on the mission and vision (getting home) we used the wind and the currents to our benefit and worked with synergy.
Around this time my son woke up. We were now on the original side of the bay and about 300 yards from shore. There were many more guideposts to look at and mark our progress. The winds that had buffeted us were now blocked by a large bridge and many boat docks. The marina was in sight. Similarly, at school, we were making progress. We enjoyed our awards days, celebrated some sports championships, nailed down all of our contracts for returning teachers, and had some time to reflect upon the merits of a wonderful senior class. The end was near. It was tangible. We could assess the merits of our hard work.
We pulled into the marina and I envisioned those two wonderful nights during the past week when we had baccalaureate and graduation. My son was glad to be home. I was equal parts exhilarated and relieved, just as I had been when all 75 members of the senior class we started with had made it home to graduation night. Graduation at our school was a little bit like the heaven I envision. All of the words spoken were high-minded, elevated. Everyone was dressed in heavenly fashion. We had a huge hall full of food where all the parents of the graduates met their sons and daughters. There are lots of hugs, lots of tears, and lots of joy. Best of all, everyone looks back at the trials and tribulations and has a laugh. None of what we thought of as life or death really mattered. What did matter is the wonderful relationships we shared between the students and faculty. All of this shines through at graduation and we collectively take a big sigh of relief.
Gene Butler, director of bands, enjoys a moment with his graduating band students.
I thank God and I thank my faculty for helping guide me through the year. I am also deeply indebted to a gracious mentor Head of School and a nurturing Lower School Principal who both helped row and steer the boat this year while giving me lots of license to direct where we headed. It was a wonderful adventure. I cannot wait to start year two!
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