Unexpected Messages (Ideas Emerging Unhurriedly Over Years)

We’ve taken a little escape to the coast, just a few hours from home. A landscape of roiling seas (summer or winter), sand, rock, bluffs, wind, mist. Big chunky seals carousing about in the surf. Red-tailed hawks skimming low circuits over meadows, looking for lunch.

We watched the film The Red Turtle one evening. All things of course are connected in this Universe, but still I was stunned by how apropos a choice this film was for this particular setting. Perhaps there is a future post dedicated to this film, however let this suffice as an invitation to watch one of the most powerfully metaphoric works of art I can recall experiencing.

One thought I will share from watching this film: At times things happen in the present that only take on meaning much later. A man is on a desert island (we see him arrive under difficult circumstances but don’t know anything about what came before). One day an empty bottle washes up on shore. It becomes a useful way for him to store fresh water. Years later, his son rediscovers this bottle and it takes on a different meaning. There is no message inside it (perhaps as we were expecting or hoping when his father first found it) – the bottle itself becomes the message and prompts him to see his environment differently. Now please see the film so I don’t stress about spoiling it!

Pictures of sunsets are a dime a dozen…yet each sunset is truly a unique assortment of form and color and requires careful study – perhaps even a master’s thesis. 

One of the key differences between working as a teacher and a school leader is the time signature of an idea. In a classroom, a teacher can have an idea between periods 1 and 2 and implement it – something wasn’t quite right the first time around, so let’s try another approach (and then between periods 2 and 3…). These classroom “story cycles” are a bit more on the 24-hour cable news timeline, and information (the words the teacher says, the thoughts and words students produce) is in constant tidal sway. The classroom as a thought construct is a place of action.

As principal, the timeline of an idea, on average, is much longer – sometimes years. Each day is filled with hundreds of small decisions whose impact we can see more or less immediately. But when we look to move beyond the quotidian scramble, and look to push larger thought boulders up the hill, we require the patience (and imagined happiness) of Sisyphus. At times it feels like looking out from the sandy beach of an unmapped atoll, wondering if you are all alone with this thought, anxious that you may never see this idea take tangible shape.

I’m not suggesting that waiting for an idea to take form – and take root – is a bad thing. Ideas that form the basis of any substantive transformation by necessity need time, regardless of the scale of the transformation (maybe we’re retooling our jumpshot over the summer; maybe we’re creating a new means of reporting on student learning and ditching A-F grades). But I do think that the time signature of these bigger ideas can be a deterrent to wonderful potential leaders who may not have a tolerance for all that waiting – all those hours where we are (seemingly) alone on the far-off shore. Often I find myself at wit’s end.

But sometimes, ideas I’ve had take root…and flower! Ideas that often I forget I had years ago, but that continued to quietly germinate. It is a unique feeling to read something you wrote years ago and see how those ideas (at least some of them, in some form) now live in your present tense. Recently I was scrolling through old notes on my phone. Often I’ll jot down ideas on post-its or any random piece of paper within reach – not the best habit for recall. I came across two separate entries from 2012 that I scarcely recall writing down; in essence, ideas for my (former) school and also for me in my own work as an assistant principal to really clarify and highlight (for myself first, then for others) what I cared about. Three of these entries really stood out to me – we do them now at my school:

  • Rotating periods. Here is our rotating class bell schedule. Why have a bell schedule like this? So no class is ever relegated to the Hades of being the 7th Class of the Day. Every subject deserves to have students and teachers at their “freshest.”
  • Retreat. – ropes course. What does it mean to take risks as a professional? Here was our first day together this year as a teaching staff.
  • Communicate with good news postcards. Best comm is ongoing. 

We send out about 1,000 of these a year – to students, to colleagues, to parents.

I saw this whiteboard while waiting to get a flu shot – evidence of their last team retreat. In purple: “Implementation – why do our ideas never start?” 

Never? Once you’ve had an idea you can consider it started. Be prepared to wait. Be prepared to feel lonely. Be prepared to experience the most beautiful surprise when one day (time signature unknown) it washes up on your shore.

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