About shaprincipal

Husband, father, friend, and leader. Principal of Highland Tech Charter in Anchorage. shaprincipal@eduglogs.org. U of I, NLU, Loyola. Mastery is the goal.

Civic Conundrum

I’ve been trying to write this post for over two months. I struggle to find balance since I recognize that as an educator, as a “public figure” my words have some kind of influence, even if it’s minimal. I’ve started and stopped, written and re-written these words half a dozen times. I’m done re-writing. I’m just going to put them out there.

As a citizen, I struggle to find an appropriate outlet for my outrage and indignation. As an educator, in particular as a principal, I struggle even more in giving appropriate guidance to my high school social studies teachers who are responsible for teaching civics. Part of me wants to tell them to throw out the book, call the administration on the carpet and say flat out, “This is wrong. This is not what this country stands for.” Is that taking a political side? I don’t think so, any more than I think that pointing out that alternative facts are not facts, they are untruths, is not political. I recognize that alternative viewpoints on both the qualifications of the cabinet nominees as well as the executive orders exist. I just struggle to find a defensible position for the opposition. I struggle to find, in these executive orders, appointments, and proposed legislation anything that benefits the majority of Americans.

Our Level 4 social studies students (mostly sophomores) are currently studying the civil rights era. In class the other day they listened to 60’s protest songs that told the stories of Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer falsely accused of murder, CSNY’s “Ohio” about the Kent State shootings, and other songs about injustice, prejudice, and inequality. I was stunned, sitting in on the class, how profoundly they struck a cord with the students. There were tears and no lack of outrage. They recognized that in many ways, the struggle was being waged anew. They couldn’t understand how these battles had not ended long ago. I envy their idealism.

Teachers and teachers unions tend to support a progressive political agenda. The root word being “progress.” The opposite of progress is “regress.” That is my fear is an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen.

Cultural and meteorological observation: It’s finally snowed in Alaska! My first two winters I think the total accumulation of snow was less than Chicago got on Super Bowl Sunday, 2015 (how ironic that I’m writing this on Super Bowl Sunday 2017). As of today, however, the total accumulation of snow this winter is over 5 feet in Anchorage, a more average Alaska winter. Why then, do these people not know how to plow roads? Seriously. There are still patches and swaths of road that are trampled by cars but have never been plowed! This is Alaska! Maybe I need a side job with an F150 and a huge shovel.

Jack of all Trades or Master of One?

Last night I attended a concert. As I sat and marveled at the skill of the musicians (and cursed my parents for never encouraging me to learn an instrument) I thought about how much time, perseverance, and commitment it takes to be truly great at one thing. I never gave one area of interest that laser focus. I was a decent athlete, a good student, and a pretty good actor. As a young man I was content to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I look back and think I was well-rounded, but wonder what direction my life might have taken had I put all of my energy into a single pursuit? As an older person, I wonder what the right course of action is as a parent when it comes to my own kids or an educator when it comes to nurturing the interests of students.

Years ago I had a student who struggled. My teachers were frustrated by what they deemed lack of effort and interest on his part. They believed he was under-achieving. He was a musician, a drummer, and I would see him perform with the school bands and I thought he was good. Then came the school talent show and my jaw dropped when he played with classmates in a garage band. He wasn’t talented, he was gifted. He channeled the majority of his focus into drumming and the results were electric. He could’ve been on that stage last night. But academically, he suffered. That was the price of hyper-focus in one area.

Are there, then, two types of people: those who are pretty good at a lot of different things and those who are brilliant at only one? Should we mentor our children to be one or the other? Clearly there are pros and cons on both sides. Singular attention to one aspect of life potentially isolates one from other people and other sources of joy. There may be a certain loneliness in genius (if the bio-pics of celebrated geniuses are to be believed). Perhaps not, if one is able to connect with other like-minded, like-gifted souls, as evidenced by the band last night, or a team of athletes like my beloved Cubbies.

On the flip side, experiences in a variety of settings, artistic, athletic, intellectual, or social give us a broad perspective of the world and the people who toil within it. Do those of us non-specialists have a greater empathy or understanding of people and matters outside our direct spheres of experience? These are no doubt broad generalizations and there certainly exist non-specialists who enjoy a great deal of success and accomplishment just as there are specialists who appreciate and dabble in other aspects of life. After all, Shaquille O’Neal made a movie and Michael Bolton went to spring training. I claim no expertise in these matters, nor am I a trained sociologist (I just play one on TV). However, I wonder, again as a parent and educator, in which direction to encourage/advise the young people I’m responsible for.

Cultural Editorial: I started to write a post about the current national anthem brouhaha, but felt I was veering into tricky territory. As a principal, as an educator, I have influence, however small it may be, and I remain cautious about sharing political opinion. I did, however, want to share this quote from the film, “The American President,” because I think it’s an apt civics lesson.

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”. – Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd


For the majority of my career I worked solely with middle school students. At the start of each year I would address the 8th grade class, the school leaders and models. A recurring theme in those talks was the concept of “legacy.” I would ask them what they hoped would be the legacy of the Class of 2012, for example (after ensuring that they understood what “legacy” meant, which they did). As I get older and further into my career I think a lot about my own legacy; at the schools I no longer work at as well as my current school. More than these, however, I think about my legacy as a parent.

I make no secret of the fact that as passionate as I am about my work, my own children are my highest priority. That may seem a bit strange when I’m parenting from 3000 miles away, but they always have been and they always will be what is most important. When I consider my “legacy” as a parent my focus narrows to the lessons I’ve taught my children. After a great deal of introspection I have to be honest: I’m not entirely positive what my children have learned from me. I could write pages on what I hope I’ve taught them, explicitly, implicitly, by word and by action, but I’ve never asked them. I’d like to believe that since they are both good students, kind to their friends, and seemingly happy and well-adjusted teenagers (yeesh, I have two teenagers) that they’ve learned many positive lessons from my wife and me.

If I had to zero in on just a few, it would be these:

1) Decency – Personally, I veer too often towards sarcasm and dismissiveness. Cynicism can trap one these days. Between anti-intellectualism and the derision of facts, it’s become too popular to decry this as a nation of idiots. It isn’t. Regardless, I want my children to be decent towards family, friends, and strangers alike. It needs to be a conscious choice.

2) Curiosity- I recently saw “Captain Fantastic,” a wonderful and unique film about a man raising his six children almost completely off the grid. Sparing the reader a detailed synopsis, what I admired most about the parental approach was the reverence for curiosity in his children. Again, it takes a conscious effort to get their heads out of Snapchat, Instagram, and Pokemon Go, but I really want my kids to be curious – about the world, other people, other cultures and ways of seeing the world. Work to be done on this one.

3) Love – Cliche? Maybe, but above all I want them to feel loved and to feel love. Otherwise, what’s the point?

This is what I hope my children have learned from us. In fact, I hope it’s what our students have learned from us, as well. That would be my wish for a meaningful legacy.

Cultural Observation: At our cross-district in-service last week we were led through a workshop on equity by members of an organization called First Alaskans, an native group dedicated to advancing Alaska natives through community engagement. There were many meaningful takeaways. One was the dismissiveness of Alaska’s nickname, “The Last Frontier.” It presumes that this land was not inhabited, not important or meaningful until it was settled by whites. Many Alaskan sayings and traditions take on new meaning when viewed through a native lens. I suppose the same could be said for much of American culture.

On Dignity

In the last week I’ve had several conversations regarding the intangible elements of education. I’m talking about the “soft skills,” the unquantifiable attributes that standardized tests don’t measure. I’ve always believed that these are as important, if not more so, than content knowledge. Whether it’s perseverance, social-emotional intelligence, metacognition, or executive functioning, as an educator I believe these abilities measure potential and success more than innate intelligence. For those familiar with the Carol Dweck research on “mindset,” this is what I’m talking about.

A former teacher from a fledgling curriculum start-up contacted me recently after hearing my podcast interview on “Educators Lead.” He was interested in putting together what he called “lightweight” lessons on some of these topics. At the same time, we’re examining our school’s standards in the areas of Personal Social Service, Careers, and Technology, many of which fall into these same categories. All of this demonstrates a way of identifying the kind of people we want our students to be when they leave us. We want them to have a well-rounded academic experience, but we also want them to be thoughtful, decent, inquisitive people. The word “dignity” has been hovering in thoughts. I think we want our students to be dignified and to value dignity in others.

How do you teach “dignity?” How do you teach students to recognize and appreciate the dignity of others? It’s more than social-emotional awareness. It’s different from empathy. It pertains to respect, pride, perhaps even honor, and like those other immeasurable qualities, it’s as important as knowledge. The most straightforward way to teach it is to model it. As educators it is incumbent upon us to model all of the qualities we prize in our students: life-long learning, empathy, curiosity, etc. Certainly, dignity is no different. But how do we do it?

1. Model. Model. Model. If dignity is a product of respect and honor, then we model respect and we act honorably in all things. Students will not respect a teacher who does not respect them.

2. We never take a student’s dignity from him. Kids, particularly young adolescents, can be frustrating to the point of hair loss. There’s no point in denying it. However, when we lose it, when we show that frustration, it often manifests itself in taking a student’s dignity from him, either by calling out his behavior or worse, publicly humiliating him. Discipline and correction ought to happen privately.

3. Highlight examples outside of the classroom. As I wrote last week, talking to students about the political climate can be treacherous, but there are examples in the public sphere. Whatever one may think of the President’s politics, empirically, he has been a dignified leader and has rarely, if ever, overtly undermined the dignity of others.

We don’t talk about dignity very often, in or out of school. I think we ought to. We need to re-emphasize its importance in our society. We’ve lost a lot of our dignity as a people recently and we need to re-gain it.

Meteorological Observation: I think it’s snowed more in March than in November through February. Three years ago there was record snow up here. This year there’s record lack of snow. But the jury is still out on climate change, right???

A Daunting Task

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” — Thomas Jefferson

I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that our job as educators is more important than ever. We live in an era where facts are denigrated, the intelligent and educated are distrusted, and denial of truth is a badge of honor for some. Pundits and layman across the country and around the world have been trying to pinpoint the various causes of the meteoric rise of the leading Republican candidate for President (whose name I choose to avoid even typing). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of the reasons is a failure in the education system.

Now that kids have 24/7 access to information, I would argue that once they’ve been taught to read, we have to work harder at teaching them to think critically. They need to be taught to be thoughtful and critical consumers of information. There’s a glut of it at their fingertips and so much of it is hyperbole and rhetoric masquerading as fact. As teachers, we’re still required to walk the ethical line, particularly when it comes to politics, since our positions give us influence over young minds, but that should not preclude us from guiding students in pursuit of truth.

How do we accomplish this without revealing our personal beliefs (and even biases)? How do we help them call “BS” without calling it for them? We need to spend time on delineating fact from fiction and truth from belief. It is a fact that unemployment is at its’ lowest point since April, 2008. It is opinion that the country is “headed in the wrong direction.” It is a fact that there are over 2.5 million veterans of the Irag and Afghanistan wars. It is opinion that these are/were unjust, immoral wars. We can and should have these conversations with our students. At what age it would be appropriate to begin these conversations is debatable. My opinion is that middle school age students are ready for this conversation. Tread lightly, but tread we must.

Finally, the current Presidential campaign has also revealed a deploring lack of decency and civility in our society. Social-emotional learning has become a critical component in public education across the country, and the current political climate has revealed a desperate need for it, from the infantile behavior of candidates to the volatile behavior of campaign supporters. These last several months have been a shocking revelation of the worst of us. We need to show and teach our children to do and be better.

Cultural Observation: The largest state in the Union is one gigantic small town. The population of Alaska is just over 700,000. That’s about equivalent to Wrigleyville. Beyond that hyperbolic statistic, though, there is a small-town friendliness and pride in the state. Trajan Langdon, a former Duke and NBA player was the first Alaskan to play in the NBA. He was recently named an NBA executive and he was celebrated like a conquering hero. The daily sports section of Alaska’s biggest newspaper regularly highlights the accomplishments of the four current Alaskans in the NHL and NBA. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but it’s cute.

Well Done, Downton

In another life I endeavored to write professionally. My best friend and I sojourned to Los Angeles where we toiled in obscurity, dashing off scripts for TV shows we hoped would get us an agent. Long story short, the LA “scene” wasn’t for me and I found my calling in education. A writer must write from a place of purpose and meaning. If you don’t have a story to tell, you’ve no business writing. Finally, after some months of stopping and starting (and a dissertation defense mixed in) I have a new story to tell.

Re-watching a scene from “Downton Abbey” today I was struck by the understanding of the writer of the importance of a teacher building relationships with his students. For non-Downton watchers, a recent subplot involved Mr. Moseley, one of the household servants being invited to teach at the local school. His initial lesson was an abject failure, with the students ignoring him and mocking him. However, in his second attempt he hit upon the key to successful teaching: relationships. He allowed the students to see him as a person, to get to know him a little and build a rapport, which he then parlayed into a lesson in which the students were engaged. It’s the most fundamental principle in teaching, the importance of the trusting relationship.

A former colleague used to ask prospective teachers what he deemed a trick question. He would ask, “Without using the word ‘respect,’ is it important for your students like you?” The correct answer is, of course, yes. If your students like you, moreover, if they know you like them, care about them, they’re going to want to be successful in your class. It’s more important than content knowledge, well-designed lessons, or classroom management. A teacher’s success begins and ends with his/her ability to connect with students. I found it fascinating that “Downton Abbey” was able to convey that in this small story.

Really it’s Maslovian. We all have a basic need to be liked/loved/accepted/appreciated. A teacher who is able to create connections with students has the greatest chance of connecting students with learning. I think that’s the collective strength of my current staff, the ability to build relationships with students. While vastly different in style, they all have an inherent understanding of this critical component of teaching. It’s an attribute that’s hard to coach. Lucky for me, they’re naturals.

Cultural Observation: The three hour time difference between Alaska and Chicago is, for the most part, awesome. Whether it’s the Academy Awards or a triple overtime hockey game, live events are generally over at a very reasonable hour. Although I must admit an 8:30 AM Blackhawks game on a Sunday morning is a bit odd, the Oscars were done by 8:00.

What’s Up, Doc?

If all goes according to plan, I will defend my doctoral dissertation prior to the New Year. I won’t deny it, I’m pretty jazzed. This will be one of my proudest personal accomplishments. It’s been “a long and winding road” between changing topics, stalling out in my second chapter, struggling to find school districts willing to cooperate with my research after a successful proposal defense, a hiatus during my first several months in Alaska, a false research start when a cooperating district turned out to not meet research criteria, and bouts of writer’s block.

Here’s the thing, though. When it’s all finished, I will be a Dr. instead of a Mr. Two of my closest friends and former colleagues are finished and are Dr.’s instead of Mr.’s. What deep pedagogical knowledge and magical administrative powers do they possess that I do not? None. Please, don’t get me wrong, They worked hard and deserve their titles. I’m envious that I’m not there yet. The difference is, all three of us had lengthy papers to write. They’re finished with their papers. I’m not quite done yet.

If and when the day comes that I find myself searching for my next career challenge, no doubt the change in title will be a boon, particularly if that next position is at a higher administrative level. It has certainly been a worthwhile pursuit and it has also come with a superintendent’s endorsement. When I look back on our doctoral coursework and the lessons learned in pursuit of the title, I am reminded of the process I went through earning my administrative certification. That coursework made me deeply reflect on my practice and philosophy as a teacher. This process has inspired new depths of reflection about the role and significance of a principal.

Getting my administrative certification made me a better and more purposeful teacher. I believe this process has made me a better and more thoughtful principal.

Cultural Observation: Enough with pumpkin spice flavored things! Seriously.

And Other Duties As Assigned

No job description can fully depict the myriad activities in which a principal engages on a daily basis. First and foremost, the safety of all is paramount. After safety, there is the educational leadership side — the ongoing improvement of teaching and learning, coaching teachers, advocating for students. Professional development is a critical responsibility, inextricably linked with teacher and student growth. There is the human resources side — hiring, supervision and evaluation, and contract administration. Student management, for better or worse, takes up a chunk of time, particularly with middle schoolers.

Then there is the contractual codicil many of us revel in, “…and other duties as assigned.” Throughout my administrative career I have prided myself on the little things that make up “other duties as assigned.” In the past that has included putting the bleachers away after an evening basketball game, picking up hallway detritus, pushing a wheelchair halfway across a baseball field, re-filling the water cooler, and organizing the staff holiday meal. At Highland Tech, a small school with a small staff and no daytime custodian, “other duties” has taken on a whole new meaning. These days I make the staff coffee every morning, then clean the pot and re-stock the mugs. I move furniture, regulate the building temperature, adjust the school clocks (manually), and manage the lost and found.

Most days I unlock the front doors and turn the lights on and very often I lock the doors and turn the lights off at the end of the day. Before school started I painted and reassembled classrooms, hung bulletin boards and clocks, moved bookcases and anchored them to the walls, and even assembled a new gas grill purchased for us by our PTSO. I believe my most important job as a principal is ensuring the physical and emotional safety of my students and staff on a daily basis. My second most critical responsibility is educational leadership. But at the end of the day, I do enjoy rolling up my sleeves and doing whatever needs to be done. “That’s not my job” is not in my vocabulary, nor in the vocabulary of the best principals I’ve worked with during my career.

Cultural Observation: The greatest failure of technology in the last twenty years is far and away the car alarm. I don’t know if this is a living in a city as opposed to a suburb thing, but not an evening goes by when I don’t hear an alarm and not a weekend day goes by when I don’t hear four of them. Not once do I, nor does anybody else think, “Oh no, some poor soul is having his automobile burgled. Quick, someone contact the proper authorities!” No, what every person in the neighborhood is thinking is “Come on !#@!!!&*%$#!!!”

A 6th – 12th Grade Middle School

I’m a middle school guy. I’ve worked with middle school students for twenty years. Call me crazy, I love it. I’m also a green guy, or try to be. When I set out to write my doctoral dissertation my original topic was sustainability education in schools. I really struggled with it when my wife knocked me in the head (figuratively) and convinced me that I should be writing about the middle school philosophy. I took her advice and hope to finish up in the next couple of months.

When I came to Anchorage I had never worked with high school students before. It was the unique philosophy and concept of mastery learning that brought me to Highland Tech and after a year I can truly say that I love working with high school students as much as middle school students. Part of the reason I think I love it so much is that our 6th through 12th grade school adheres very much to middle school philosophy.

Quick primer even though most of you who read this (I mean, both of you who read this, understand the middle school philosophy): middle school emphasizes teaching students over teaching subjects, encourages cross-curricular integration, focuses on the whole child, and has a dynamic advisory program in which teachers truly advocate for students. Check. Check. Check, and check. At Highland Tech we do all of these things 6th-12th. Our teachers work in teams and engage in an exceptionally high level of collaboration. They take their role as academic coaches/advisors as seriously as their roles as teachers. We have created a safe, nurturing, yet challenging learning environment. See, that’s always the knock on middle school vs. junior high, that it lacks rigor.

If done incorrectly that may be true. If, in an effort to integrate learning and have small teams (both noble pursuits) teachers are shoved out of their instructional comfort zones and pushed to teach content they’re not familiar with, that can happen. It’s ok to nudge teachers out of their comfort zones. That’s how we all grow. But they shouldn’t be shoved, and certainly not at the expense of rigorous instruction.

So I revel in my 6th – 12th grade middle school where we work in teams, integrate content, focus on the needs of kids, and foster a safe place to learn. I’m proud of our commitment to our students as well as our principles.

Cultural Observation: Summer is slowly coming to a close in Alaska. Why none of you have visited yet I have no idea. There are likely very few places more beautiful in the world than Alaska in the summer. However, Alaskans have a strange concept of temperature. I think just as living in a warm climate thins the skin, living in a cold climate must over-toughen the skin. My administrative assistant and I have talked about playing tennis together since I moved up here last summer. A couple of weeks ago I texted her in the evening to see if she wanted to play tennis after the work the next day. Her response: Are you crazy? It’s going to be boiling tomorrow. The forecast: 75 degrees. Now I’m not apt to play back in Chicago when it’s around 90, but 75? Besides, it’s a dry heat…

Year Two

I begin my second year as principal of Highland Tech more informed, better adjusted to the ways of Alaskans, and even more optimistic than when I arrived in Anchorage exactly one year ago today. A new principal is always (well, usually) permitted a year of ignorance and adjustment. Though I came here a veteran administrator I came to an entirely different state, an enormous school district, and a most unique learning environment. If Socrates was the most intelligent man for knowing what he didn’t know, I am now Mensa-ready with a year’s glimpse of what I didn’t know, particularly when it comes to competency-based learning.

What I know now about my remarkable school challenges me as chief recruiter as new families come calling this summer. I want Highland Tech to be a place where all students can grow as learners and as people. It is that, as well as a smaller, perhaps safer environment in comparison to neighborhood middle schools of 1000 or high schools of 2000, that prompts me to open our doors to all prospective families. But after a year I also know how challenging mastery based learning can be for students used to a traditional approach, especially if they’ve chosen us because we’re small and nurturing and different, and not because we challenge all students to learn all concepts and processes at a proficient level.

I lean heavily in favor of acceptance. I endeavor to be as transparent about our system as possible and giving students who, on paper, appear as if they may struggle with it mightily, every chance to try. Many of them come to us because they’ve tried the traditional system and it doesn’t work for them. Some come to us because they’ve felt outcast at neighborhood schools. Whatever the reason, it is our responsibility to take them where they are and move them forward in their learning, even if moving forward means moving on from Highland Tech.

Cultural Observation: I’m a big Springsteen fan as those of you who know me well are quite aware. I’ve seen him in concert more times than… well, more than anyone should see one artist in concert. Even the casual observer knows that Bruce is a man of the people, working class hero, blue collar artist, so you’d think he’d play really well up here in Alaska. It doesn’t seem so. I know many of you have moved on to Trivia Crack but I still play Quiz Up. I’m Best in Springsteen in Alaska (all time) and the only one to have played in July. Well, I did a little research and I can’t find any evidence that he’s ever played live up here. Maybe that’s why no one’ splaying. So, Bruce, if you’re reading my blog (which of course you are), and if you end up touring again, put Anchorage on the schedule. We deserve it at least as much as Uncasville, Connecticut (if that’s your real name, “Uncasville”).