My Dear Seniors…

Another graduation over, another senior class sent off into the Great Unknown. Each year I write a letter to the graduating class, and this year’s goes like this:

My Dear Seniors,

Only a few months ago I remember being concerned that your class did not seem very excited about your upcoming Thailand trip. One of your classmates said to me, “Don’t worry. We just like to keep our expectations low, that way we won’t be disappointed!” I smiled at this comment, and sure enough, all of us were pleasantly surprised at what a great trip we had!

This perspective seems to work in certain situations. If you don’t expect much, you won’t be disappointed. On the other hand, avoiding disappointment is not our mission in life. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Sometimes daring to hope is risky. It takes courage, yet without it life lacks color, imagination, and joy.

As children of God, we, of all people, have cause to hope. Through Jesus’ triumph over death, we have a hope that assures us of eternity, and we know that he is working all things for our good and for his glory. We have hope that what we see now is not the way things have to be, and we can dare to make them different. We have hope that though our way may not always be easy or pleasant, “just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hope springing high, still [we’ll] rise” (Maya Angelou).

Hope is what fuels many of the people seated in the audience at your graduation ceremony. Your parents watched anxiously as you took your first steps, sacrificed to send you to a school like CAJ, held their breath through your games, concerts, plays, all the while believing that each new venture you undertook would bring you closer to who you are meant to be. Your teachers worked long hours planning courses, grading assignments, guiding your growth, and teaching you skills like reading, problem solving, writing, and thinking for yourself. They were hoping always that you would choose to form habits that would lead to lifetime of learning. Hope has brought you here.

As you encounter the gifts life will give you, you have a choice in how to receive them. You can keep expectations low, avoid disappointment, and never truly experience the thrill of diving headlong into joyful learning. Or you can live with hope. You can demand the most from yourself, believing that you have much to offer. You can trust in other people, realizing that even though you will occasionally be disappointed, you will also find love. You can live with hope, knowing that God is in control and he will take good care of you.

As you go from CAJ, my hope is that you will go forth in peace and justice, to love and serve the Lord and others. Please stay in touch as you do!

 

 

 

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Lessons

The title of this blog is “Lead Like Mom,” largely due to the fact that most of what I learned about leadership, I learned through motherhood. This title also reminds me to reflect on leadership through a female lens or from a feminist perspective. This year has not changed my attitude about leadership, but holding the job of Head of School while still retaining the job of high school principal has been more like being the mother of triplets. With colic. And diaper rash. And then finding another baby, so really it was quadruplets, but no one told me. Maybe quintuplets.

This is why I haven’t written in about three months, but more than that, I haven’t had much opportunity to reflect, because like a new parent, I have been moving frantically from one crisis to the next, putting out fires, soothing feelings, and trying to move forward while also figuring out which direction “forward” actually is. I suspect not everyone in school has that same sensation, because I try to move cautiously so as not to tip the boat, but all the while I have begun to realize how tippy the canoe really is. How many metaphors have I used so far? Only one can’t possibly suffice.

At the risk of reducing the drama, trauma, and intense learning of the past year into soundbites or easily digested tidbits, I am feeling the need of some level of reflection as the year draws to a close. So here, in no particular order, are some lessons I have learned through being immersed in leading like the mother of a herd.

1) It really does take a village.

I am more grateful than ever for this wonky and wonderful community I live and work in. It’s important to have organizational charts and job descriptions, but I also am thankful for people who just see what needs to be done and then jump in and help. By expanding our Leadership Team we accomplished more than we expected, and by putting people in partnerships working toward school improvement, the load is shared and people have more fun. Collaboration is vital.

2) You’ve got to find the comedy in the midst of the drama.

I had a student talking to me the other day about a personal crisis he was facing. We were deeply into his issues when a lizard scurried across my office floor. Both of us lifted our feet up and started laughing. Soon we were crawling around on the floor, trying to catch the lizard. It evaded us, and we delved back into the issues this young man was facing, until I realized the lizard was climbing up his leg. By this time, the challenge had more or less melted away, and we both gave up on being serious and howled together. Mark Twain once wrote, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” I’m not sure it’s the only weapon, but it sure works for me!

3) Keep the main thing the main thing.

When we are bound together by a unifying mission, we have harmony in the midst of differences. When we have to make hard choices about how to use space, how to spend money, what curriculum to teach, what activities we will offer, going back to the mission as a filter to sort what is good from what is best is the only way to make wise decisions.

4) You can accomplish so much if you don’t need the credit.

I have found great joy in empowering others to supervise, manage, and lead. Sometimes the idea I hear coming out of someone else’s mouth sounds remarkably similar to conversations I may have had with that person in the past, but the important thing is that the mission goes forward.

5) Schools are emotional places.

I have this sentence posted on the bulletin board above my desk, and its simple truth reminds me that this is just the way it is. Student will melt down, teachers will get frustrated, parents will be angry. It’s not about me — that’s just the nature of the beast we call school. Quiet reason sometimes helps, but more often than not, the emotions just need time to settle down.

6) It really helps to have encouragers and mentors.

I was able to seek advice from a long-distance mentor who pointed me to valuable reading and guiding principles. Even when I became so swamped that I did not communicate with him regularly, just knowing he was available was a support. I also gained a new appreciation for colleagues who are friends. I may be their supervisor in the way the arrows in our flow chart are drawn, but they encouraged me, laughed with me, cried with me, and told me I was doing a good job, even when that was highly doubtful.

7) Education has many faces.

I recently had a teacher tell me we aren’t emphasizing education enough, because students were missing classes to organize a student-led carnival raising money for street children in the Philippines. Not only was this a worthy cause, but the education these students received through their collaboration, problem solving, research, accounting, artistry, performing, and communication was beyond anything our organized classes could have offered. Not all education happens in the classroom.

8) Sometimes, it’s a “calendar thing.”

The school year has a rhythm and a flow. Now that I have been principal for nine years, I can anticipate when I am about to be buried in details, when students will grow fragile, when teachers will complain, when parents want to know. I had a whole new rhythm to get used to this year, and sometimes the two different jobs provided me with two different beats. I could either tear my hair out, or just try to dance. I choose dancing.

9) Communicate, communicate, communicate.

I thought this was a strength of mine, but I did not make it enough of a priority this year. It is almost impossible to communicate too much. When people feel like they know what is going on, they approach it with more confidence and comfort. Confident and comfortable people have a lot more joy.

10) Graduation does happen eventually!

June 2, 2017, fifty-three students will walk across that stage, give me a handshake or a hug, and they will be off into their bright and shining future. This day was almostĀ  impossible to imagine only a few long weeks ago, but it is now upon me. T. S. Eliot wrote, in his “Four Quartets,”

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The seniors might understand that in many ways, they are back to where they started, and so am I, ready to begin exploring all over again.

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The Tale of Four Families

Once upon a time, there were four young men from four nice families. These teenagers were ordinary guys — they were testing limits, looking for a little excitement, but not hardened criminals. One fine day, as they were leaving school, they saw a motorcycle parked along the street leading toward the train station. It looked out of place parked there, just inviting a little mischief. Little did they know that the motorcycle belonged to someone connected to their school, in fact, to the husband of a teacher. To them, it appeared that the bike was an easy target on which to practice mischief of one kind and another; it was just begging to be vandalized. The four boys egged each other on, each doing their creative part to damage the motorcycle. Because these boys were not well versed in the ways of crime, they were not terribly clever with their vandalism, and they were spotted and reported by a neighbor.

So far, the story is much like many days in the life of an international high school, but the developing action of the plot builds in the way each young man and each nice family responded.

The high school principal and the guidance counselor invited the perpetrators and their parents to come to school. They planned to have the families meet with the owner of the motorcycle with the hopes that the boys would learn a valuable lesson about actions and consequences. Boy #1’s parents sat with pained expressions on their faces. They understood that harmony in the community had been broken, and that restitution needed to be made. Boy #2’s mother shed tears of grief, deeply concerned that her son was making bad decisions and desperately seeking the path to growth. With their parents’ guidance, both of these boys offered to work to repay the damages, and later they performed “community service” through doing landscaping for the owner. The motorcycle had been damaged beyond repair, but its owner saw the value in offering the gift of hard work to these boys, even if it could not possibly compensate for the loss of property. You see, someone had offered him the same gift in his youth, and he knew the value of remorse and restitution.

If the story ended here, it would have a happy ending. It did have a happy ending for these two boys. Years later, they would describe the “motorcycle drama” as a turning point in their young lives. Both are now gainfully employed adults, making valuable contributions in their own ways to their churches, communities, and families. But there were two other families involved. These other parents asked the question, “What was the motorcycle doing there, anyway?” They asked, “Was it really so bad? It was an old motorcycle after all.” They argued, bargained, blamed others — even themselves — and tried to manipulate the system. They wanted to protect their sons at all costs and prevent any pain from entering their lives, even the pain caused by their own bad decisions. These two boys did not face any consequences at that time, but their lives have been marked by a whole series of consequences spiraling lower and lower, deeper and deeper into lives of addictions, broken relationships, and sorrow for them and their families.

Obviously the motorcycle incident was not the sole determination of the direction their lives would take, but it gives a hint as to how their parents dealt with the challenges their sons faced then, and would continue to face.

As a parent, I know the anguish of wanting to protect my children from any pain, discomfort, or tough lessons. There are certainly times when I needed to be their advocate, but I have also seen the strong and determined adults they have become through having to learn and grow through consequences, and even through the challenges arising through the chances of life. As a school leader, I am also faced with the option of sometimes allowing the natural consequences of bad behavior or dumb decisions to painfully work their way in students’ lives, while other times offering an alternative way out of the situation. When these choices arise, I try to remember the lessons I learned through this story that happened once upon a time. Grace will always win in the end, but as Anne Lamott so eloquently wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” Sometimes grace is not taking the easy way out, but rather the tough love that is willing to take the hard way through, and to help our children and students further along in their journey than the place they were before.

 

 

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Living in the Layers

It’s been a while since I’ve written, not because nothing has happened or because life is boring. Not because I have nothing to say or because I am overwhelmed. Sometimes it is simply to difficult to put into words the strata of living that make up a day, a week. In his lovely poem “The Layers,” Stanley Kunitz wrote,

In my darkest night

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

‘Live in the layers,

not on the litter.'”

The layers are often what create the nuances, the ambiguity and challenges that fill the days in my office. Some of the layers are still too fresh, too personally connected to people in my community to even write about. Teenagers so often deal with pain beyond what their age and experiences should produce. Sometimes that spills over in tears, sometimes in cuts, sometimes in words spit in anger or frustration. Parents lash out in fear that this child they watched smile her first smile and take his first steps might be walking in the wrong direction. Their fears may or may not be rational, but they feel the burden of them and need to find someone to share the load or to blame for the weight they feel so heavy on their backs.

There are also the layers of what might be. The challenges of taking steps in the direction that will take us where we need to go as a school. Leadership involves seeing possibilities while still being aware of the present. I can’t rush ahead to where I think we could be, yet I can’t dwell in the past where we once were. This involves conversations with others about the future they imagine for the school. It involves community, a living, organic entity, moving and breathing together, following a mission we all believe in, but sometimes need to be reminded about.

The layers of past, present, and future, of tragedy and triumph, of routines and surprises, aren’t always the stuff of great novels or even management textbooks, but they are where I live. I am trying to see the layers as what provide the texture of the days, and what keep me from the litter.

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Shelter

Posting about anything political these days is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. I’ve ventured into the fray tentatively, aware that I it is not wise to use my role as a head of school as a platform for personal politics. But I am still an individual dealing with grief and confusion over the choices my own country has made, though I hope and pray I am wrong about my fears, and strongly desire restoration.

Back in the days of my youth, the Rolling Stones sang:

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

I don’t know if war is actually threatening or not — it feels that way to me, but maybe that is hyperbole and metaphor (I was an English teacher, after all). Literal battles between people with vastly differing points of view and threats to people who are under-represented and disenfranchisedĀ  cause many to feel like they desperately need shelter. Our new Commander in Chief is not a calm and measured man.

Back in my little world, far away from inaugurations and senate hearings, other dangers cause the children to cry, “Gimme shelter.” Different kinds of storms and floods threaten their well-being and make them feel vulnerable and exposed. Sometimes the dangers don’t look that scary to the adults in their lives. How scary is a test, a project, a friendship crisis, a break-up, or applying to college, right? My only response to those questions is another question: did you forget what it was like to be 17? Other children struggle with demons inside that truly threaten their fragile psyches and even their lives: depression, anxiety, family trauma, fears of the future — adolescence is a perilous time.

It’s hard to know how to provide shelter to the women, minorities, immigrants, and even school children needing protection in this new era, when I live thousands of miles from where the storms threaten. But I can provide refuge and a sense of belonging to students where I am, who can eventually leave that safe haven to fight for justice long after I am out of the battle.

I read a quote this week from women’s rights icon Gloria Steinem. She said, “Women grow radical with age. One day an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the earth.” With age, I’ve learned that the battle for what is right is not about personal gain or fame, but it’s about the future for my kids, and now my grand-kids. It’s about that growing number of my children-through-education who will inherit this world we adults are messing with. This radical, gray-haired army of women will probably not fight battles in the same way puffy white men do, and each of us will need to learn how to do it in our own way.

My friend Kaye, guidance counselor at my school before she went out and started her own, had a sign over her office door students had scrawled on brown cardboard reading, “Shelter from the Storm.” Students knew they could find a place where they would be accepted when they entered that room, even when they had made mistakes, experienced failure, or were simply fed-up with life.

Providing shelter for the hurting, the exhausted, the questioning, the disconnected, the disillusioned is one way to equip the children who are caught in the storms. It makes my job all the more serious to me. We have so much at stake in the world today. Who will make the changes? Who will fight for truth? Who will hold leaders accountable? I am one of the gray-haired army of women who has the ability to provide the shelter to equip a new generation to go out and change the course of the storm.

“Gimme Shelter”

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Fear Not!

“Mama, mama! Did you know Baby Jesus was born on Christmas?

“Yes, isn’t that awesome?”

“And the Angel Gatorade told them, ‘Fear not!'”

So said my three-year-old granddaughter last week after Sunday School. “Gatorade” really knew something we still need to be reminded about: there is much to cause fear in our world right now.

A little over 1000 kilometers away from my home here in Tokyo, lives a trigger-happy dictator in North Korea, with a very odd haircut and access to nuclear weapons. When I return to my passport country, there is a megalomaniacal president-elect with another very odd haircut who seems to threaten the democratic principles of the country. He also will have access to nuclear weapons. I try not to think about these fear-mongering leaders all that much, but when I do, terror is the response that most naturally rises in my stomach.

Fear is often the easy and logical response to much that we face everyday. Only this week, I have talked with two teenagers who are having difficulties facing the normal stresses of life, actually considering death as an alternative. Meanwhile, a close friend is threatened with death, clinging to life with all she’s got, while her husband stands by to fend off this enemy attacking her brain. These dear people face very legitimate fears, and it is difficult for me to not feel fear on their behalf. How does one go out into the day, knowing that death lurks nearby?

The scary perils do not need to be death and doom. Leading a school is fraught with frightening hazards that can keep me awake at night: staffing, finances, curriculum, accreditation. These all bring such a steep learning curve for me that I often feel like I am scaling the Cliffs of Insanity.

And thousands of miles away, adult children make decisions and live their lives so far from my helpful interference. Will they be safe? Will they find their purpose? Will they find all it is they are searching for?

Into the darkness, into the chasm of icy emptiness, the angels Gabriel and Gatorade still call, “Fear not!” Or as Anne Lamott wrote in a recent post quoting the great Wendell Berry, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…Practice resurrection.” Just another way of saying the words of the angels.

Schools, and the big world they occupy, have plenty of fear to fuel all the neuroses our planet can handle. My family’s credo for some time has been “Fear less, love more.” I think this goes along with practicing resurrection. The evidence may give us abundant reasons to cause us fright and flight, but we do have a choice in the matter. Fear may come naturally, but we can choose love. We can choose to step into the challenge. I am not likely to face the sort of fears Nelson Mandela confronted, yet he said that he had learned that “courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

So I talk to those two teenagers, and to their parents, and try to find them the help they need to choose life. I visit the friend and pray as I leave. I learn as much as I can about the school monsters and keep scaling those cliffs. And soon I will be hugging those big children of mine, and letting them know I choose love over fear.

“Fear not!” from the Angel Gatorade, and Merry Christmas from me .

 

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When the Earth Shakes

Monday afternoon, I was having my weekly coffee date with my partners in leadership, our elementary and middle school principals. Each Monday afternoon we escape for an hour, take our mutual temperatures, check on each other’s mental health, tell our funny or sad stories, and encourage each other. We always meet in the coffee shop in the train station through with most of our students pass on their commute to and from school. Suddenly the whole building gave two mighty jolts: kaBOOM, kaBOOM. Living on a volatile fault line, our first thought was, “Earthquake!” and we jumped from the table to return to school, 5 minutes away. It wasn’t quite the same as an earthquake feeling though. We get to be experts on the different sorts of tremors–rolling, bouncing, jerking, shaking–and this one didn’t match. As we rounded the corner and saw 2 trains stopped at the crossing, the awful truth dawned: someone had jumped in front of a train right here at our own little station. It was 3:00, and soon our students would be heading right into this trauma. Members of our crisis team met, and we went into action. We kept the students in their respective places until we were certain the aftermath at the station was clear. My mind couldn’t process what would prompt someone to be so desperate as to do such a thing; we only wanted to protect our students from having to experience such devastation at an intensely personal and visceral level. Within the hour, we were able to release them, yet knowing the world we were letting them venture back into is a scary and broken place.

Tuesday morning, the ground shook again, and this time it literally was that volatile fault line. It wasn’t as jarring to me as some have felt, but when the phone rang minutes later, I knew it was worse than I had initially experienced. The levels of awareness peeled away in my mind: magnitude around 7. The epicenter was off the coast of Iwaki. Our school choral ensemble was in Iwaki. They had been evacuated to the top floors of their hotel. Tsunami warnings were in effect. The phone calls began, the emails to these children’s parents written, my hopeful words saying, “Please don’t worry. All are safe.” I prayed they were indeed. Plans about bringing them home by the safest route possible evolved, while I had to move through the day at school with an assembly to run, meetings to lead, people to help. I slogged through the uncertainties until all those in my care returned home.

But the jolts were not over. My dear friend, our elementary art teacher, the wife of our school business manager has just heard the words no one wants to hear: brain tumor. All else pales in comparison, yet the grief and uncertainty are cumulative. How uncertain our world is. The illusions of control fade, and I realize how completely helpless I really am.

The words of old hymns come back to me more than platitudes or philosophy, the words of God in poetry:

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My strength all-sufficient shall be thy supply.

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

I don’t have a happy ending yet. I have to still live with hope, trusting that God truly does have my students, my children, my dear friends, and me in the palm of His omnipotent hand. I am weak, but He is strong.

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