A blog post one year in the waiting, and decades in the making.
I would like to share some thoughts about a life with my first teacher - my dad.
Just like any young boy, I loved spending time with my dad. There was no need for any rewards because time with dad was reward enough. My earliest memories involved him taking me for a walk down to the creek near our apartment with my little sister in tow. I had sweet rubber boots and an even sweeter one-piece “creek suit” and was free to roam about wherever I wanted. I made dams and sent stick ships down the creek to my amusement. Minutes seemed like hours in those days. We visited all of the parks around the city too. Whenever there was a new park we were early visitors. I couldn’t get enough. And my dad wasn’t the type to sit on the sidelines. He chased my sister and I all around, and encouraged us to be fearless of heights and new challenges. I never heard "don't do that" or "get down from there".
As I got older, we did all those goofy things that most boys and their dads do. We would exit a building and immediately start racing to the car – first one to touch it won (I don’t think I ever did). Other days we would be playing catch and my dad would drop a wicked curveball, or if he really wanted to show off, would fire a heater right down the pipe and into my glove. Sometimes he would show me the power of the short punch, holding his fist inches from my shoulder before thundering in and then calmly asking me to give it a go and pop him back. My attempt always seemed to hurt my small fist more than it did his muscular shoulder.
Spending time with dad almost always involved a trip to downtown. Compared to metropolitan cities, downtown Thunder Bay wasn't much, but to us it was everything and it seemed like my dad knew everyone in town. We were always running into people he knew, and each time we would stop to talk to everyone he would say “hey, you remember my boy, right?” and I remember those big, large men stopping to shake my hand, tussle my hair and perhaps even reach inside their pockets to hand me “two-bits”. Ultimately we’d end up at the Arthur Café where I would be treated to fries with gravy and a coke. I recall my dad walking by tables and grabbing cheques off his friends’ tables and carrying them up to the register and taking care of them. “I got it,” he would say.
On top of this all, my dad was the best hockey player I knew (soooo fast), and just seemed to be that kind of athlete that could try something and just be a natural at it. In his 40s he decided to take on something new, a triathalon, and completed it almost completely on will and natural athletic ability.
As I got older our relationship changed in the ways that they do as kids become teenagers. “Time with dad” just became less of a priority as I explored my independence and time with friends. My dad just rolled with it, but continued to give me what I needed. You got some pocket money? Gas in the tank? Car running ok? He came to watch all my high school basketball games and was always a happy spectator, standing in the back and taking it all in. That pride carried over into University where he always made sure my tuition and books were taken care of. Just like at the Arthur Café, he was still grabbing cheques, but this time they were mine.
Throughout his life as my dad, Tom Fero made his living on the docks of the Thunder Bay waterfront. As a Graintrimmer, his job was to load grain from the harbour elevators on to the lake freighters which would come up the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay from all around the world. As a key break-of-bulk point for prairie wheat, Thunder Bay was a busy place. I knew enough to know that this wasn’t always easy work. Winters in Thunder Bay were bad enough, but a winter on the waterfront was a savage environment of its own. I remember the cold, snow, driving wind and rain, and thinking “Dad is working outside? In this?” I would lie in bed, listening to the intense thunder (the city was appropriately named) and staying partially awake listening for the door to open signalling me that dad was home safe and it was ok to go to sleep. I don’t remember my dad missing a day of work in his life.
This post could not be complete without recognizing that my dad, for all his beautiful ways did have his share of shortcomings. However, like most things with dad, this too had a way of turning itself into a teaching moment and I learned from the person closest to me that not everyone is perfect.
From the tense I have been writing in, you can surely tell where this post is heading. It was just over a year ago that I lost my dad. The tough, athletic, unbreakable man I knew and loved was stopped suddenly by heart failure. In his final days my dad was able to pass quietly, surrounded by the love of those closest to him and under the watchful eye of my beautiful sister who was his faithful sentinel, refusing to leave his side over days and nights. He didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him, and used his fading words to only ask others how they were doing, and how life was for them.
Losing a parent is tragically unbearable and I know many others have been unwillingly forced to manage these times as well. I’ve had my tears and my dark moments, but I hold the best thoughts closely. When I think of my dad, I smile. I smile because my memory can easily transport me. When I close my eyes...
I still hear the slow trickle of the creek by the apartment.
I still feel the bony arch of my back as I sneak past dad’s tag on the park.
I still sense that anticipation that our next race to the car would be mine.
My hand stings from the fastball, and the shoulder from the short punch.
I still taste the fries with gravy.
I still see his hair flowing from his helmet as he streaks down the right wing.
I still feel that sense of comfort afforded when the front door opened after a cold, rainy night.
He’s always standing quietly in the background at my game.
I always have pocket money. The gas tank is always full. The car runs fine.
I will never forget looking into his beautiful blue eyes and sharing our final farewell: speaking the words “I love you” and hearing the same in return.
My first teacher was mine from birth. While he never set out to teach me one lesson in particular, he ended up teaching me almost everything I needed to know. There will always be a lot to smile about.
I try not to overestimate my role as school principal. I know that it's the teachers and support staff that do much of the heavy lifting in the building on a day-to-day basis. Through my years as an administrator, I know there are benchmark moments in the school year where I am asked to make key leadership decisions that will strongly influence the life of the school and those same teachers and staff which commit so much. One of these moments is budget time.
I highly respect the way our district allows principals to make the important decisions for their schools through the budget process. The simple explanation of the process looks like this - the school is allocated funds based on a variety of factors, but primarily projected student enrolment. From this allocation the principal then leads the decisions regarding staffing for the school. The entire district knows this as RAM time (with RAM an acronym of Resource Allocation Method) and planning begins in earnest in April.
While teachers and staff have an understanding of the process, it does not make times any less worrisome. If the school population is likely to stay the same, staffing will likely look similar. If population is projected to increase, there is a good chance that additional staff will be hired. Finally, if a school population is on the decline, hard staffing decisions need to be made. Staff will often begin to predict the budget implications and it's impact on their position almost immediately.
As a leader, these are the difficult times. As I have talked about in my previous blog posts, the school staff become a family of our own. Everyone puts their heart and soul in their work for our students and school. We come to know each other as professionals, and as friends. While I am fortunate to receive amazing counsel from my administrative team, it is ultimately the principal that signs off on all budget decisions. I'm not going to lie, these difficult decisions are heart-wrenching. In the end, I rely on some key principles to guide me through these times:
1) Students First - the first step is to work with the current staff and school administrative team to determine the needs of the students moving into the next school year. Key elements in this stage are ensuring class sizes start at right numbers, and that students with complex needs have support staff available to assist.
2) Listen to the Staff - beginning as early as February we begin to analyze school needs as a staff. It often occurs past the mid-way point of the school year, which is enough time to determine the value of decisions made for the current year. No one knows better than the staff what needs to stay the same and what needs to change for the next year.
3) Staff over Stuff - when you value relationships as part of student learning, you know that investing in the relationships and the people that build them is essential. At the school level, we can often look at alternative options such as limiting copying and paper use, or forgoing tech purchases, in order to keep the staff that matter at our school.
4) Deliver News Directly - when bad news is coming it becomes evident right away and everyone knows it. There is no need to delay the delivery of news. My way of working is to talk with staff directly in a one-on-one manner. I also don't delay the news or "sugar coat" what's coming. I say what needs to be said as straight as I can and, if needed, provide the rationale for school decisions.
5) Support Staff Through the Process - Delivering bad news isn't the last step, and in my view it's just the beginning. Frequent check-ins afterward are important, and it's even more essential to find out what the preferences of that staff member are toward their next steps. From there, I try and reach out to colleagues in order to gauge the possibility of a match for our displaced staff. I remain on their side, always.
Being a leader in good times is pretty easy. I've been in the position to add staff throughout this process and to ensure everyone at your school has a guaranteed position and to welcome in new people into the fold can be exciting and fun. Leading through a lean budget isn't easy at all. As I muddle through the series of difficult decisions the common refrain from friends is "oh well, that's why you get paid the big bucks". I am fully aware that my decisions impact people in both their professional and personal lives and I don't take that responsibility lightly. My only hope is that my guiding principles make the process a bit easier for those impacted.
I think I have always been a pretty busy guy. When I use the work busy, I don't mean it in the sense of feeling overwhelmed with life, but I mean it in the way in which I always seem to be able to find ways to busy myself. I don't relate to boredom, and I don't think I ever have.
As a kid, I could always find something to do. I wrote about some of my experiences in my December post, Play, but I want to expand on that. When it comes to dealing with boredom, I think I was always able to handle things. If I was on my own I had Lego, Adventure People, Hot Wheels, and lots of action figures, boats, cars, planes, and other toys. In my mind I can easily revisit those memories and when I think of it now I marvel at the creative scenes and situations I could invent in my mind. Oh, and man was I the MASTER of sound effects. You can bet that every car hitting a jump, or a plane taking off had a wicked sound effect with it. I built roads and garages. I gave my action figures names and I invented entire back stories for them. There were good guys and bad guys and they all had motives. And, of course, no play scene was complete without sharks and / or lava.
As a parent, I loved those moments with my own kids, and could insert myself pretty easily into their free play. Both of them seemed to inherit that sense of creativity and fun. My recent curiosity relates both to my own kids, and my students. The question for today's world is do children even have the chance to be bored anymore? Truth is, since they have discovered their screens, I don't think my own kids have ever had to deal with real boredom.
Wrestling with boredom is not an original thought. It's been documented in many ways, but when related to my own context and experience it becomes all too real. I think my experiences were most accurately captured in Clive Thompson's article in Wired magazine and as I read this I found myself nodding my head an awful lot.
Recently, I have come to know boredom. A broken ankle can do that. And while I am a bit too old to pull out my Lego and action figures, I still find that my mind activates in the same ways it did in my youth. I can "feel" how boredom leads to creativity. So, what is the message for adults? Boredom can be ok for kids. Let them be bored, and don't rescue them from this time. Let it happen, and see what emerges. When they say "I'm bored" respond as my parents did, "go find something to do."
What are your experiences with boredom? How did you deal with it?
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.