Saying Thank You: The Undergraduate Years

For the most part, I’ve lived a charmed life. Despite the daily challenges of being human that we all inevitably deal with, I was born lucky, and my adult life has been pretty full with success. I am especially blessed when I reflect on the path I’ve taken professionally. I was lucky enough that people who knew nothing about me beyond a 1 hour interview were willing to take a chance on me as a 24 year old guy with a masters degree in school counseling burning a hole in my pocket, and I’ve never looked back. There have been many people along the way who have nudged, bumped, pushed, and even hip-checked me forward, all the while giving me the strength to continue my education and set (what didn’t always feel like attainable) professional goals. They believed in me, and it has made all the difference.

I want to give thanks, publicly, because it’s just so easy to gloss over the importance of saying it in the busy push-and-pull of life. So I’m starting a series of posts on my blog that do just this, say “thank you.”

———————

For those of you who know me personally, it might be hard to believe that I entered my undergraduate studies fully believing that I was bound for medical school. What I do now is so far from that that it seems absurd to even suggest it. But it’s true. There I sat in the fall semester of 1998, my first college class as a freshman in a 400 person lecture hall, heading down the road as a biology major along with what felt like 1000 of my closest friends. And the journey began.

It lasted three semesters.

I was foiled, like many before me and surely many after, by Introduction to Organic Chemistry. The. Complete. Worst. It was in the fall of 1999, my sophomore year, that I knew everything was wrong. I had struggled through all of my science classes, pulling Cs, barely getting by as a student that I didn’t even recognize, and hating every moment of what was supposed to be my passion. I went to Organic Chem on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with one of my roommates who insisted that we always sit in the front row. At 8:30 AM. It was academic torture. I needed a change, and it needed to happen fast. I wanted to feel connected to what was going to be my life’s work. After much self-reflection and driving my friends crazy as I worried about “giving up”, I decided that what was missing was a connection to people. I needed to work in a way that would directly impact the lives of others.

Enter the School of Education and Human Development and Jill Seymour.

It took one meeting with Jill, the sole academic advisor for the Human Development Program and the beacon of hope for so many within a larger University system that just didn’t have time to care about my personal journey, and I knew I had found my home. My family and friends couldn’t figure it out. I had always talked about being a doctor. What was I going to do with a degree that would surely leave me with a career in human services living paycheck to paycheck? Had I really thought about what I was giving up? It was a time in my life where I felt like I was bungee jumping without the bungee. What if I was really screwing everything up?

When I needed direction most, Jill was there as a gentle guide who listened to me, laughed with (and at) me, and ultimately helped me navigate the senselessly complicated intra-university transfer process. She must have immediately picked up on my inherently nervous nature, always willing to meet with me and reassure me that she’d walk with me down my chosen path. And she did.

My years as a student in SEHD were good ones. I served as a peer advisor, helping students like myself navigate the program and welcoming potential students through admissions events. I experienced a satisfying and challenging internship at a nearby inner-city high school counseling office, and I was always surrounded by people who believed in the good work that we were readying ourselves to do. Two-and-a-half years later, in May of 2002, I graduated on-time with a much improved GPA and a bachelors degree in Human Development, and I headed right into my 60 credit masters program at a new university, never looking back.

Fast-forward 16 years and I couldn’t be happier with my decision to change my major, and, in turn, my life. I’ve had a very rewarding career in education. Of course there are things I could have done differently back then (I still kick myself for not pursuing a foreign language), but I can honestly say that without Jill’s calm and intuitive guidance I would not have had the confidence to make a sharp turn three years ago down this new path away from school counseling and into school leadership. I know that she will forever be a part of the collective voice in my subconscious that guides me.

I truly believe that we are who we are, in part, because of the people that we meet along the way. I got lucky when I met you, Jill. Thank you for everything.

Change and the Chance to Say Goodbye

Note: I’m writing this in the air over the East Coast as I make my way to Atlanta for ISTE 2014.

Today is June 28th. In a flash, the halls of my high school are quiet. Students have begun that glorious bit of childhood called Summer Vacation. The last faculty meeting of the year, an opportunity to recognize our achievements, our highs and lows, and our colleagues who are moving on, was a success. Graduation, my tenth as an educator, was the celebration that it’s always meant to be. Classrooms are being emptied of items so they can be cleaned and refreshed for September, and planning for summer instruction is in full swing.

Transitions are quick in the world of education.

We say goodbye to people who worked in classrooms next to us for decades in the midst of a rush to make sure we’ve entered final grades, handed in keys (if you do that sort of thing), and accounted for textbooks. Soon enough we are on to orienting new teachers, planning new curriculum for the fall, analyzing state and local test data, and ensuring the building is ready for the upcoming school year.

Then, suddenly, we realize we never even had a chance to say goodbye.

I am the walking definition of bittersweet these days. It seems that each time I complete a task or participate in one function or another I quietly remind myself that this will be the last time I do it in my current role, at my current school; the school where I got my start, my professional home for 10 years, a place where I was given the chance to grow, take risks, fail, and ultimately forge my own path. As I ready myself to transition into a principalship in two weeks at a new school, with a new level of kids, and in a new district, I am experiencing a combination of excitement, nervousness, reflection, and a little bit of sadness. How do I rectify the idea of walking away from the people who have played a part in making me who I am today, something that I recognize as a type of grief, with the notion that, in order to grow, I need to embrace this new challenge? So far I’ve done it by recognizing that, second only to teachers, data illustrates that as the principal I will be the person in the building who will have the most educational impact on student learning. I will be able to set the tone for my building, to open the doors for teachers to provide new opportunities for all, and THAT is an amazing feeling!

Working in the field of education is unlike any other job out there. When a building has a strong culture of collaboration and support, it can be the most rewarding thing in the world. Educators can form strong bonds as they weather the ebb and flow of unfunded mandates and today’s answer to all of our woes (instructional, behavioral, etc.). Once those bonds are formed, it takes a lot to break them down. To leave my own bonds behind to explore the unknown of a new culture can be downright frightening for sure, but if we never leave comfortable behind, we’ll never know what we’re truly capable of. That’s what I’m telling myself these days.

Transitions are quick in the world of education. How we prepare for those transitions defines the path we will travel. Sometimes those transitions mean moving into a new classroom or teaching a new class. Sometimes the transition means deciding it’s time to retire. But nearly always, a transition means willingly diving in to a new endeavor head first because the opportunity presents itself where you least expect it. I am prepared to embark on a new path, to take my head-first dive, and I know I will have ten years worth of relationships behind me, pushing me, whispering in my ear “Listen first. Talk second. Act third.” That’s why I don’t really need to say goodbye as I pack up and walk out the door for the last time. Those people, these relationships, will always be with me. And for that I am the most grateful man in the world.