When I was in high school and home for vacations during college, I used to sleep until noon, minimally. When I woke up, my father would tell me over and over, that I “missed the day!” When he was really feeling playful, he would come into my bedroom and pull off all my covers at once, yelling, “You’re missing the day, time to get up!” I never thought it was that funny, but his whole body shook with laughter, each and every time.
Today is the 4th anniversary of my father’s death. Harold Juli was an Anthropology professor at Connecticut College and the best teacher I’ve ever known. He was 59 years old when he died from an extremely rare form of cancer.
I think generally, when people find out they are dying, they want to do something, anything, just as long as it’s something new and different in their life; skydive, travel to Europe, or quit their jobs. Not my father. A few years before he became ill, my dad and I were talking about our jobs. He told me that this many years into his teaching career, he was still just as excited for the first day of school as he was the first day he ever taught. He said I must always love what I do, to have passion for my work. But it’s one thing to say that when healthy, and another thing entirely to live it when dying. When faced with his own death, all my Dad wanted to do was live the exact life he already had. No travel, no new adventure. Above all, he wanted to continue teaching. And he did, right up until the very week he entered the hospital for the final time.
My father never missed the day, not once, not ever. He woke up each and every morning, some time after five. He was always an early riser and at his desk on campus by 6:30 at the latest. I joked that as an Anthropology professor, he didn’t need to rush; everything he was studying had been dead for quite some time. But he was in such a hurry to get to work that he couldn’t afford to waste even a minute. He pre-tied all of his ties, so they were already knotted, and all he had to do was tighten them.
On my father’s deathbed, in the days before he lost consciousness, he was speaking with one of his many visitors, and someone asked him if he was angry. My father’s response was simple, and I will still consider it for many years to come. He said that he wasn’t angry at all. He said he knew who he was, regardless of his having terminal cancer. He was incredibly proud of his personal and professional accomplishments and cancer wasn’t taking any of them away. He said every day, whether sick or healthy, we must wake up, think about who we are, and what we have to accomplish that day. My father knew who he was. Cancer didn’t change who he was, at any time during his illness.
I think about knowing who I am and what I have to do all the time. And it’s why I’m writing this post. In my understanding of leadership and in my context, knowing who I am, and what I have to do today, is essential to doing my job well. On most days, from the moment I arrive at school, until I exit in the evening, the day is crazy. My colleagues and I joke that if we tried to pitch to a book publisher what happens in a regular day in our urban schools, no one would believe us. So I think it’s vital in the context of the daily craziness around here to know where we’re trying to go, and how we all fit into getting us there.
As leaders we have to know ourselves, and we have to know what we want our schools to become. If we can’t name it, clearly and articulately, how can our teachers imagine our future school with us? If our teachers aren’t invested in a collaborative vision of the future, how can we connect today to tomorrow and beyond with and for students?
In addition to being an Anthropology professor, my father was also an archaeologist. He didn’t do archaeology every semester, but I was fortunate to participate in several digs when I was old enough to know what was happening. Watching my father lead an excavation was like watching a beautiful piece of art come together. When I teach teachers, I work to help them develop real word applications to their course content. Digging with my father was an opportunity to see the past transformed into a relevant, hands-on curriculum.
He combined thoughtful research, hard work, organization, strong excavating techniques, technology, and humor on every dig. My leadership style is modeled after the way my father ran a dig. He made time to teach and learn every day. He organized the day, and ran the show, but made sure to spend meaningful time moving the dirt just like everyone else. He made decisions on the fly, and included everyone in his process, so we all knew why decisions were being made. And best of all, I got to watch him hold a dirt covered artifact in one hand and a turkey sandwich in the other. He’d lick the artifact as his own technique to date it, and then take a bite of the sandwich virtually all in one motion.
I know that teachers and leaders work incredibly hard everywhere. But the task here, in an urban district is so daunting. To make meaningful, purposeful, and visible change to benefit student learning in my district, I have to know who I am, and what I want to do today. I have to be able help others to envision themselves as actively engaged in defining and creating the schools we want to be. I remain just as excited and passionate about this work as I was my first day as a teacher in Jackson Heights NY. I know from my father that passion is one part of what I need to do this job well. But passion alone isn’t enough. Amidst the sadness of today, and the regular craziness of everyday, I have to know how to lead us forward. Sometimes it’s easy to say aloud, but it’s never easy to put real change into action.
So tomorrow, I don’t plan on missing the day. I’ll wake up early, either a little before or a little after my four year old son comes to visit us, and I’ll make the time to give some thought to who I am, and what I plan on accomplishing. Then, I’ll put one foot in front of the other, just as my father taught me. It’s the only way I know to make meaningful steps towards the change our students need.
Sunrise on Black Sea by tonigri
I’ve Reached the End of the World by Stuck In Customs
Walking Away by JosephB
Dig the Past Sarasota-11 by sokabs
This is cross posted on Connected Principals