I was typing out another blog post for my teaching. Riding Amtrak back to see my family. I heard an Eminem song for the first time in several years. Mockingbird. I damn near started crying. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to carry on doing what I’m doing. I’m not sure I have the ambition required to make all my plans come true. I need my family. I need my wife. I need my daughter. I need time daily to connect with both of them. So how the hell am I going to provide the life that I want both of them to have.
I want to design new learning environments. That’s not something I set out to do two years ago when I started talking to people about a new charter school in Kimberly, Wisconsin. I just wanted to create a new school like the ones I’d seen in Minnesota. As the process has unfolded, I’ve become dedicated to the movement. Not the charter movement or the unschooling movement, or even the community learning center movement. I’ve become obsessed with the learning movement. How do we establish places to prepare people for their profession of choice? The only way I got into the teaching profession was through nepotism and hard work. Indeed, I would not have gotten my first job if it weren’t for my father. Connections with people he knew allowed me into the room. Once I was at the interview the hardwork kicked in. But how do we create places of learning that prepare students for their profession and build in networks to the community so people have inroads into professions? This is driving me on a daily basis. On some days, it drives me away from my family. It takes me away from my current students. It neglects my coaching duties. It disrupts my serenity and destroys my humility. Is it worth it? Am I doing anything of value to adolescents and communities? I’m not posing these questions so family members and consultants paid out from these efforts fill in niceties in the comment box below. I’m writing this because it’s real and it’s hard. It’s one thing to say that something is hard or that it’s more work, it’s another to live it. Over the last year, my drive has ruined collegial relationships and sent people away from the new school project. My ego, my ambition, my enthusiasm, my method of sharing every struggle with my team– these affablilities backfired when dealing with many adults. I wish I would have learned from what a wise person once told me. A few years ago, I interviewed for a varsity boys’ basketball position at a local Catholic school. After the interview, a nun pulled me into the hall and said, “You have to be careful about how you share your enthusiasm. It scares some people.” I’m so grateful for her pointing out one of my character flaws in such a gentle way. I know now what she means.
I’m writing this out now because another transition is about to occur. I am going to have something that I’ve wanted for the past two years, a team of practitioners. I want to chronicle the journey and describe the 2-year grind that’s taken place. This school that’s opening with students is kind of like having a family before having children. When my wife and I first got married, she said, “I just really want our kids to know that they’re coming into a family that’s already loved each other.” The same is true for the students at Kornerstone School. They’re coming into a school that’s already been created by lots of people with great intentions. The Kornerstone School team is filled with hundreds of people. Jon Dewey to Wayne Jennings to MNCS (& EdVisions) to VNS. I could list hundreds if not thousands of people that have shaped this school and put in time. Whether it’s Barry Golden at DPI who read nearly 30 drafts of the planning grant, or if it’s Aaron Grimm with EdVisions who I’ve talked with on nearly a daily basis for the last year and a half. So many people have put in work. Tom Krause and Brad Klitzke put in front end design that is going to breathe in a school environment. Both of these guys are doing tremendous work on the Kornerstone School Incorporated Governance Board. My wife has put in over 50 hours of work for free with designing brochures, business cards, and direct mailings. And people like Marcia Van Hout have kept the school student centered. Dozens of people have come in and out of this project and it would take another 3000 words to list how instrumental they’ve been. One person needs to get a shout out here. Laurie Asher is the assistant superintendent of Kimberly Area School District and she’s been phenomenal. She has been the top-dog administrator in charge of this project since April 2010 and I’ve really enjoyed working with her. I’ve learned a ton about appropriate communication and coalition building from her. I try not to do too much airing of District business or even call out the place where I work on this blog, but this has to said: many districts in Wisconsin are simply grabbing the federal money and creating programs. Schools within schools. I’ve only been to one true charter that’s an instrumentality. I haven’t been to all 200+ instrumentality charters, but I’ve been to enough and I’ve been working at one for four years. Many districts are not honoring the autonomy piece of the federal charter law, but the districts are living up to the weak state law (I thought federal laws trump state laws?). The Kimberly Area School District has gone out of its way to honor the autonomy piece. They will get results. Laurie Asher understands this autonomy piece and has done incredible things to work get Kornerstone School to where it’s at. A big thanks to the Minnesota charters for giving away so much of what they’ve worked hard to build. Guys like Doug Thomas and Jamie Steckart have opened up my eyes to possibilities. I am grateful to have a job at a place where they want to be a part of a new learning environment for young adults. They have allowed me an incredible amount of latitude. And now, the transition from agitating start-up guy to Lead Teacher is taking place and I couldn’t be happier. It’s time to hire teachers, it’s time to be a part of a team of teachers carrying out our greatest professional responsibilities ever. It’s time to prepare students for their profession of choice and live up to our mission.
I was speaking with Jamie Steckart this week, and I asked him a direct question, “How do I avoid founders syndrome?” A lot of people who are at the ground floor of starting new schools don’t last. This is a huge concern of mine. I’m a strong willed person who can also be down right pouty when I don’t get my way. I want to be one of 5 Lead Teachers. I don’t want to be the quasi-administrator of the school because that will kill many of the democratic teacher led initiatives. Jamie’s response was a verbal backhand to my face. He said, “You have to remember who the school belongs to. It belongs to them out there (pointing to his students), and they allow me to teach here. I’m lucky enough to work for them…Give away power at every opportunity.” Servant leadership in action. Jamie’s wisdom was like getting an awesome check-up with a chiropractor. That big exhale that goes with every vertebrate cracking was what occured from my heart to my brain as his words soaked in. This is their school. I’m just lucky enough to work for them.
Right now I’m pounding this out on an Amtrak on my way back home. I’m coming back from three days of training at schools in Minnesota. Pandora has been dropping everything from Get Up Kids to James Brown with a bit of Wu-Tang mixed in. It’s bizarre how Eminem got to me like it did. I’m not sure what part almost had me crying. I don’t cry often, maybe twice per year when circumstances dictate it. Everything always happens for a reason I guess it was never meant to be but it’s just something we have no control over and that’s what destiny is. That’s what got me started. Those lines caught my attention and caused pause. It got me thinking about all of the people I’ve met over the last few years. Many of the people I identify with the most are working as independent consultants. They’ve been divorced. They’re workaholics. They figure out the work, family, play balance in their late 40’s or early 50’s. My personal goal at the beginning of this school year was to improve my family, work, coaching balance. I would give my self a 1 on a 4 point scale. I’m sure my wife and daughter would also give me a pretty low mark. My guy Steve Jones tells athletes all the time, “A goal without action is called a dream.” I have to stop dreaming and start taking action. I’m glad that song hit me the way it did and lit this post. Over the next several months, I plan on writing school design narratives on this blog. I also plan on giving over control of the other blog to the other teachers we hire. I know I sound like a whiney guy. I know thousands of people spend entire weeks on the road away from their family. I’m not trying to compete or compare my experiences with theirs. All that I’m saying is that I don’t want to be away from my family anymore; especially, when I’m consumed by work even when I’m at with them at the house. I’ve been away from my family for the past 2 years. It’s time to come back home.
Thanks everybody. I do love the grind.
You know yourself well. That will carry you a long way. Don’t forget that your work, though not complete, has reached a lot of people who are rooting for you and supporting you every step of the way.
Thanks Susie! That means a lot coming from such a good teacher.
Very reflective piece. The reflective aspect of teaching is often left behind due to the daily grind of serving our students, yet as you move forward in your school set up periods of purposeful times to step back and do this as individuals and as a team.
Make a habit of periodic questioning of basic assumptions. I encourage you to use the three “R’s” Re-visit, Re-ground, Re-affirm, this will allow your team and students to renew and rekindle their faith and hope for better things.
Keep writing, keep the faith. We are in the vocation of soul craft, and as a result our labor may go unnoticed, unwanted or undesired, yet be undeterred.