“You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.”

As I shared in my previous post, my job status with SPS has been in flux. I knew that my position was in danger of being cut for most of the school year. While our team thought that my position would ultimately be salvaged, it has not happened. I accepted a job offer at another district.

I spent the last couple of months of the school year feeling sorry for myself, so I won’t rehash my own personal grieving process in full here. Franklin is special for countless reason, not the least of which is the fact that Dennis went to school there. Working at FHS allowed me to literally retrace his footsteps everyday.

From a professional standpoint, I loved the unique combination of naive idealism and pragmatism that animated our work. The way we imagined our work included the use of lofty language like building “the beloved community” and pursuing a more “diverse and pluralistic society.” For us, Franklin was always a singular instantiation of a much larger vision; we aspired to be a witnessing community. No surprise, given that the conversations we had about the specific functions of our position was peppered with words like “shepherding,” “pastoral,” “sacred,” and “mystical.” But all of these lofty ideals were always grounded in the day-to-day realities of how to turn our vision into things like policy statements and meeting agendas.

For all of these reasons, landing the AP position at Franklin was the dream job. I continue to try and make sense of why I am no longer there. I have some emerging ideas about this.

First, I am rediscovering my voice as a leader. I was a vocal, outspoken, highly opinionated, arrogant leader as a college student. I was humbled along the way, but in the process, my voice became timid and quiet. I am uncertain about the value of my perspective and I question whether or not I have earned the seat I have at the table. Moving from an admin team of four to a team of two will challenge me to trust myself and learn who I am as a leader.

Second, as an aspiring principal, I am now forced to think with more intentional focus on how to create a mission-driven organization. At Franklin, it was already built. That won’t necessarily be the case moving forward.

Third, I am reminded of the sage advice I heard over and over again during my time at Danforth: “You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.” Education leaders, I find, are always evoking the spiritual and metaphysical. For whatever reason, I was supposed to get a taste at Franklin, and then move on. I don’t fully understand why, but I need to proceed in faith that I am in fact where I’m supposed to be.

I am thankful for the opportunity to continue working as an assistant principal, working under someone who seems like a phenomenal leader, and in support of a diverse student body and tight-knit group of teachers. Slowly, my heart is catching up to what my head already knows is a good situation for me.

On Mission

Here we are now. Spring Break – much has happened since my last post over Winter Break. Among them are:

  • Had my first taste of Power, Justice, Freedom – Franklin’s annual student conference on social justice. We hosted a deeply encouraging day of learning – workshops for students facilitated primarily by leaders of local organizations, a keynote message from a local scholar at UW (who happened to teach my senior seminar class when I was an undergrad), a challenging (though much too brief) professional development with the aforementioned local scholar, and a community lecture from Dr. James Peterson. A powerful day for us. It’s hard for me to imagine ever leading a school where something similar does not happen.
  • Shaun King came and taught a history lesson for a city-wide event. Nikkita Oliver shared a spoken word piece on the day she announced her candidacy for mayor. The opportunity for King to speak at our school came out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon, and by Wednesday afternoon, we had a massive line of people making their way into our gym. My boss tells me this is the kind of serendipitous stuff that happens at Franklin.
  • My employment status for next year continues to be in flux. While our district as a whole is in a much better place financially than we were during winter break, there are still many question marks, and I probably won’t have many answers until summer.
  • Still, recognizing my job as fundamentally pastoral in nature has prepared me to continue moving forward unencumbered by fear or anxiety. I am on mission. I am buoyed by my sense of calling to this community at this time. I have no reason to believe I am not doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing right now, nor do I have any reason to believe that I won’t be doing exactly what I should be doing at this point next year. It was this conviction that gave me irrational confidence during the job hunt last spring, that compelled me to only apply for the few jobs available that I could do with fire, that has me doing the same thing again this spring.

There is not much time left in this school year. Just a couple of short months. We are already engaged in some end-of-year routines and about waist-deep in planning for next school year. Already, my mind is collecting and sorting the dozens of experiences I’ve had this school year where, if given another opportunity, I would respond differently. I am eager to know where I will get to apply all that I’ve learned this year.

I’m Not a Businessman

It has been an emotional and challenging rookie year, but I made it to my first winter break as a high school Assistant Principal.

Among my many notable experiences so far:

  • a gaffe that landed us some unwanted local and national media attention, and elicited painful accusations of racism
  • a post-election community event that included about a dozen community organizations, a dozen immigration and civil rights lawyers, and a few city leaders
  • a handful of uncomfortable conversations with colleagues around performance
  • struggling to gain traction with our school’s intervention team
  • learning about our district’s $74 million projected budget shortfall and the tenuous employment status of the district’s many new employees, including my own

I am savoring this opportunity to reflect on the ups-and-downs of the still new school year, because there are so few opportunities to stop and think. Leaders in public education often preach the value of reflection and its invaluable role in improving practice system wide, but I have found it nearly impossible to put their advice to practice during the normal ebb and flow of the regular school day. Thankfully, winter break affords everyone the elusive chance to reflect.

Of particular interest to me right now is how I understand the nature of my job. There are some who believe the school leader should model their work after business executives, who maintain a results-oriented culture. Others find the school-leader-as-doctor model more compelling, particularly for the emphasis it places on promoting healing and wellness.

While both capture important and often overlooked functions of the role, I don’t think either capture what I aspire to in my work. My vocation is to shepherd, to lead and guide, and provide care. I fight for a more just world, and do everything I can to ensure that everyone within my fold – students and staff alike – have what they need to thrive. My job is to help people believe that a better future is possible, and to know how to wield the tools to make it so.

That’s why I find it most helpful to think of my work as pastoral.

grace

i found out my brother was going to die in the middle of an intervarsity meeting. as with every new school year, the leadership team gathered to catch up with one another and to prepare for the work ahead. we broke off into small groups to share about our summers, and when it was my turn, i started off by talking about the joy of going on a month-long missions project to china and some of what i learned. but i spent most of my time describing how i found out dennis was sick in the hospital the day we returned, and how in the weeks that followed i would watch the baffled doctors misdiagnose dennis over and over again, until one day, during a procedure to install a shunt, the doctors found a massive tumor on his spine.

i kept my composure during this time well enough. i was deeply touched by the compassion and empathy of my friends and co-leaders. they calmly listened as i shared, and communicated so much care and love through their eyes. one friend struggled to recall what exactly he did over the summer because he could not get past what it would feel like if one of his brothers were to become ill. it seems strange to say this, but the severity of the situation did not sink in until he said that.

we took a break. some people got up to use the bathroom; others engaged in small talk. i took a glance at my phone and saw that i had a missed call and voice mail. it was my mom. i will never, ever forget how it felt when the absolute, bottomless pit of hell opened inside of my chest when i heard her say: “hi jeffrey, i have bad news. the cancer is terminal. okay, bye bye.”

i dropped my phone, gasped, mumbled a bit.  then i collapsed into a flood of uncontrollable tears and wailing. the words “its terminal… its terminal…”  slipped out of my mouth. i never experienced more despair, more hopelessness, than in that very moment, and i hope i never experience that again.

I remember dave wrapped his arms tightly around me on the floor. my friends put their hands on me, some prayed quietly. they all held me up,

it’s been almost seven years since that day, and it’s taken me about seven years to see the ways in which God’s grace was present to me even in that moment.

well i didn’t see this coming

well, it’s all but official at this point. i’m expecting a call from hr at any moment now to finalize my return to teaching at hs3.

this is not at all what i expected to happen after leaving teaching just a year before. that decision, made after many prayers and conversations with trusted friends, felt like an enormous step for me that signified a total change in career, and a willingness to take a step into the unknown world of academia. the original hope was that i would continue through  seminary on a full time basis and work toward building up my application for a phd program in theology. this has been a dream of mine for so very long, and it felt amazing to take a bold step forward in pursuing that dream.

but before my first full-time year in seminary could even start, carrie and i received the incredible news that we were pregnant. carrie bought a home pregnancy test at the tail end of our big road trip. inside a little hotel in medford, oregon, it was made clear to us that we would soon be parents.

this didn’t come as a total surprise since we had been trying to get pregnant for some time by that point, but in the months that followed, carrie’s growing belly became an increasingly disruptive force in our lives. suddenly carrie and i were both confronted with major questions concerning our future calling and vocation: should one of us stay home? if so, would we have enough income? most pressing for me was the question of whether or not i could see see us raising our baby on the east coast.

the unfortunate reality is that there is no phd program for theology in washington state. the dream would require a move. for most, this wouldn’t be a big deal. people move all the time. it is far more unusual to find someone like me who is a lifelong resident of a city. but what makes the prospect of moving so unpalatable is the fact that i would be leaving my parents. dennis is gone. and if i were to successfully complete a phd, there is no guarantee at all that i’d be able to return to seattle: i’ve been reminded often that the job market for theologians is weak and its outlook is not promising. i promised dennis that i would take care of my parents in his absence, and i’m not sure i’m willing to renege on that commitment.

so, the dream is on hold. i am thankful for me year in seminary, and i’m glad that i will be able to continue on a part time basis. the flexible schedule that i was afforded this year made the transition to parenthood as smooth as a transition to parenthood could be. i don’t know what the future looks like, but i’m certainly excited to return to the classroom. as painful and difficult as teaching can be, it is pretty fun, too.

happy birthday, dennis

it was a really special, first mother’s day weekend for our young family. my mom’s mom got to play with baby for the first time, and i was able to give my own mom a baby picture book we made. i knew she’d appreciate it, but i didn’t expect her to be as thrilled as she was. can’t imagine her being more excited about another gift.

as i watched my mom’s  smile grow bigger and bigger with each page turned, i had in the back of my mind the reality that this mother’s day happened to also be dennis’s birthday. dennis would’ve turned 35 (i wonder what he would be doing right now if he were still alive). we celebrated his birthday by visiting the cemetery with a bunch of his close friends. he’s been gone for over six years now, but we’d never gathered together like that before. of course, kyrie was there, too, visiting his uncle dennis for the fist time.

i know that the enormity of my mom’s delight was not far at all from some feelings of despair. i’m reminded this weekend that true joy and unimaginable sorrow are often heartbreakingly pressed into one another.

freedom

in my very first seminary class, i learned that true freedom is not what i think. it is not about personal agency. not about a capacity to choose. it’s not about having a lot of options. nothing about my ability to do whatever i want, whenever i please. freedom actually doesn’t have much to do with me at all.

true freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. this is a far cry from the way most think about freedom, as an individual’s right to act in his or her own self-interest. this is not freedom though, because i am only ever free when i am free for another. freedom is about being bound to God and God’s creation.

this is interesting to me, because i entered seminary with a deeply wounded faith, operating under the assumption that it’s up to me to determine the meaning of my religious identity. still reeling from the trauma of watching my brother die, i needed to unlearn and then relearn what it is to be christian.

i imagined myself to be at a sort of crossroads. one path led to a life with God, the other a life apart. i acted as though my Christian identity required me to exercise my freedom and agency to choose the path toward God, which also meant going to church, praying, and engaging other sacramental practices.

but i quickly learned that there was nothing “free” about choosing a life apart from God. freedom could only ever mean my decision to live life with God.

and then i quickly learned that i was wrong here again.

as i reflect upon the last five 6 years, i can only conclude that my Christian identity  has nothing to do with my choice of anything, but God’s choice for me, God’s decision to be present with me. i could have elected to deny God, but to do so would have meant turning a blind eye toward all that God was doing in my life, all the ways God had been near. it would’ve been to ignore reality, which in the end, was not really a choice at all.

i know i am free for God, free for my family and friends, free for the students that i  continue to mentor. and i know that i am free precisely because of the restraint and those relationships impose upon me. i am free to be with God because God chose to be free for me, because God did not choose to be God without me. i’m coming to understand that true freedom is indeed a freedom for.