I’m here now

The challenge of this year has been that I have had so little time and space to process all that has happened, but I knew this would be the case. I knew after accepting my current position that I would have to jump into the work almost right away, that I would not have the chance to think through the sadness of losing a job and position that I wanted so badly to keep.

When my dad passed away, I knew I would face the impossible task of leading a new school in an emotionally compromised state. I’d have to get to know new kids, a new community, a new staff, and new curriculum, and provide direction and support (!) that engendered confidence and excitement. I would have to do so while communicating affectively that “I’m fine.”

It is hard to objectively evaluate how I performed over the first few months of the job, but it seems like I’ve been okay. I’ve had some missteps and oversights, I continue to be hyper-aware of my weaknesses, and I’ve had some nice successes, too. Most importantly, my professional relationship with my principal has been strong. It is some kind of minor miracle that I think I have grown a lot professionally over the first few months.

I knew that I would have few moments of down time – having two young kids does not afford you too many opportunities to pause.

I have eagerly awaited this moment right now – winter break – because I knew this would be the only window of time where I would have a bit of time to engage in meaningful, uninterrupted reflection.

I’m here now. I am thinking about how sad I feel and how fortunate I am. I cannot believe the amount of loss I have experienced and how weary I feel. I am frustrated that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my brother, and I am frustrated that I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to my dad. I regret going to a couple more work meetings instead of going straight to the hospital. I cannot believe how much joy and happiness I am surrounded by every day. Death has made me acutely aware of all the “thin spaces” I wander into all the time. Death has (forcefully) made me aware that it too is a part of life with God. I’m not sure what I thought I’d find here, in this little, quiet coffee shop down in Portland, but I’m here now.

“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.

cancer narratives

i used to hate cancer narratives. during dennis’s illness, i avoided them because they usually ended in someone’s death, and i needed all the positive thinking i could get. then in the months that followed his death, i just was not in a place where i was willing to revisit the whole ordeal. i needed distance. plus, the thought that countless others had been marked by an experience with cancer seemed to cheapen my own experience. it was traumatic; and i needed that trauma to stand alone. i feared it’d be trivialized by being dumped in an endless sea of other stories.

but now, they’re an indispensable part of my life.

every time i come across someone’s story, i find myself terribly comforted by how familiar everything is to me: the phone calls and voice messages; the late night emergency room runs; the sounds and smells; the absolutely devastating conversations with doctors (it was never just one doctor); the absolutely devastating conversations with friends and family about the conversations with doctors; the low lighting of the hospital room; the images seared into the folds of my memory; the post-chemotherapy hospital visits; the frozen yogurt and takeout dinners; and the quiet desperation that pervades every corner of life. as i listen, i go through my mental check box, and say yes.

earlier this week at my school’s senior retreat, each student delivered a short proposal for their senior project. one complete pain-in-the-butt student that i absolutely love shared for the first time that a lump was found on his mom’s chest a few years ago. he was scared. he has no other family — no father, no siblings, no one. this loud-mouthed, off-task-all-the-time kid fought back tears as he talked eloquently about how he wants to use his senior project to start a small support group for kids of parents currently fighting cancer.

i am struck by the terrible bond i now share with my student. i’m also moved by how much gospel i see in his senior project. his woundedness will by god’s grace become a source, i hope, of comfort for kids who could use it. i know he will become a better man for it.

the formation of the student

this year, for better or worse, my school has turned its collective attention toward managing student behavior. we created a vision for how students are to behave in structured and unstructured environments, with detailed descriptions of what “good” and “bad” behavior looks like in both contexts.

our motivation for doing this is largely pragmatic: it’s just easier to teach when students aren’t going crazy. everyone is happier when the classroom is running in an orderly fashion — including the students who tend to be disorderly.

but there may be unintended consequences to this approach that may be worth reflecting upon.

the other day, one of my students was walking to his car in the parking lot when a security guard confronted him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him backward. i don’t know the particulars of the incident, but i do know the student was found to have done nothing wrong. this isn’t an unusual occurrence — my students are regularly harassed for no discernible reason. as i observed this situation unfolding outside my classroom, i found myself increasingly disturbed by my student’s lack of power to resist what was happening to him precisely because he reacted to this situation exactly the way we taught him to.

in some sense, our school is attempting to train our students to react to these (frequent) unfair situations precisely as john taylor gatto describes in his incriminating essay, “against school.” in this piece (which i had my students read and discuss), gatto claims that schools are “virtual factories of childishness” — that is, schools, by design, socialize students to never grow up. students are trained to do as they’re told, to submit to authority, and to uncritically obey the consumer ethos of american culture. we “reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” in every way, the public school is in service of the interests of the state while functioning under the misleading guise of student empowerment.

to further compound the issue, i’m wondering about how the church figures into this situation. for better or worse, the public school plays an enormous role in the formation of students, and unfortunately, as gatto might suggest, this kind of formation seems better suited to serve the interests of rome rather than the kingdom of god. as a christian teacher, i’m forced to consider what kind of student do i hope to produce, and i wonder if hauerwas’s idea of the resident alien could inform the way i think about shaping students as people who can live within a system, while looking forward to (and bringing forth) another way of being. as i explained to a few of my students, i hope that my students learn how to operate within the world, not so they can become servants of the world’s logic, but so that they can ultimately turn it upside down.

DONE (almost)

i can hardly believe it’s true, but i am ALMOST done with my second year in the classroom. i still have an enormous stack of finals to grade (why do i insist on making my finals so long??), but when i lock my classroom door on friday afternoon and drive away from the parking lot, my teaching responsibilities for this school year will be done.

when i decided to become a teacher, i could not have dreamt up a better situation for myself. even though i’m double-endorsed in special ed and english, i figured i’d only be able to use my special ed endorsement for years since it is near impossible to land a steady position teaching english. not the case for me. most of my time is spent teaching ap lang & comp, but since we have a compulsory model of ap, my whole special ed case load is mainstreamed into my ap classes (… that whole situation is a long blog post for another day). at times, it can feel impossible to do my job effectively with the enormous range of students i have, but i feel extremely lucky to have this position.

i came into the year knowing i would have every junior at our school (along with a section of seniors), and i also knew the juniors had the (deserved?) reputation of being a “hot mess.” all last summer, i feared starting the school year, and in some ways, the class lived up to its reputation. just a few weeks ago, i had a sub (jury duty… again) who left me a note about my 4th period class. as a retired teacher, he went out of his way to offer his sincere condolences for me having “one of the most dysfunctional classes” he’d ever been a part of. he reminded me to keep my “chin up” though since that 4th period class was “the type of class that you only have to deal with once every ten years.”

10 months after i started with this class, i recognize how blessed i am to have worked with this challenging, but incredibly rewarding group (and certainly in no need of consolation). when i talked to my 4th period a few days later, i just told them we’d let the past stay in the past. they breathed a huge sigh of relief, and for the rest of the period, we all busted our butts getting ready for my monster final.

there are many weaknesses in my teaching. i’m not always technically sound, and sometimes my well-planned lessons flop. but i’m really proud of the relationships i was able to build with kids that have had a rough go at school for a long time.

and now, i’m also feeling really excited to give it another go in september (especially if the plans come together and i start seminary in the fall). i visited my incoming students today and handed them their summer reading assignments: wesley yang’s paper tigers and amy chua’s why chinese mothers are superior

it’s gonna be a lot of fun working with the next group — but before it’s time to start analyzing yang’s rhetoric, summer beckons me.

tfa and the coe

one of my favorite professors while I was at the UW COE happens to be the current dean. even as a student, i swear i had the sense that he was kind of a big deal. he had a charisma and energy about him that told me he would do some bigger things before his time in education’s up. well, guess what. soon after i graduated, he was promoted to dean of the college of education, and he’s been making some big waves at a local and national level because of his involvement in helping tfa expand to seattle.

dr. stritikus is a tfa alumnus, himself, so he occupies a very unique space in the world of education. on one hand, he leads a high-profile, traditional teacher education program. on the other, he is a huge proponent (and product) of an alternative certification program that some (including myself) see as a fast track toward privatizing education.

i am a believer in keeping public education public. but i’m also a believer in dr. stritikus. he’s no snake hell-bent on turning public schools into corporate cash-cows with a captive audience. instead, he’s hell-bent on giving poor, colored kids the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty through education. he’s a sharp guy who knows a thing or two about the practices at the classroom level needed to educate kids who don’t speak english as their first language, and he knows a lot about the policies that need to change at the systems level to make those classroom practices possible (and widespread). it just so happened that all of his expertise has brought him to conclusions that i don’t support.

so i find myself in a familiar place of disagreeing with someone whom i hold with high regard, yet feeling inclined to trust their opinions over my own. i don’t buy the ideas but i’m fully behind the man behind the ideas. even though i don’t get his decision making, i trust that he knows something i don’t know. i hope (and trust) that tom is making the right decisions for the coe, seattle, and the kids here who need a second-to-none education.


“mr. lam, did you know i live in an orphanage?”

“uh, no you don’t. you live in an apartment with your family.”

“well, it’s like an orphanage, because we’re always adopting new kids, like this guy right here. he just moved in.”

“how many people live at your place now?

“mmm, 23.”


“yeah, i’m dead serious. and we’ve got one bathroom.”

two bedrooms, one bathroom, twenty-three people. in my two years of teaching, i’ve had the pleasure of working with four of the residents in that tiny little apartment. before i even had the chance to meet any of them, i heard tons of stories all about their antics, and honestly, i was a bit terrified at the prospect of having them in my classes. sounded like they had the potential to just destroy a classroom. but while they’re not quite model students yet, the stories about them were just lies.

getting to know them continues to be a growing experience. shortly after this school year started, i found them to be truly gifted readers and writers (even more so than many of my purportedly “smart” students). then, as i got to know them on a more personal level, i was stunned to hear that they lived in a tiny apartment with thirteen other people back in october. it was no wonder that they’ve always struggled to get homework in; there’s literally no quiet space to get anything done. i remember having a conversation with them just about the logistics of getting everyone adequate bathroom time in the mornings before school starts at 7:25 am. their thoughts? “it’s actually not that bad.”

knowing how loyal and hospitable they are to pretty much anyone in need around them, it’s not terribly shocking that the number of people living in that little apartment has ballooned to 23. as i reflected on our conversation from earlier this week, i thought a lot about how these students have been a witness of jesus’s love to me. their absurd decision to leave their doors wide open to seemingly anyone, and regardless of the cost (including bathroom space and time), struck me as radically christian. this family has given well beyond their means, beyond what is reasonable. they’ve given extravagantly what they could not afford, they continue to give everything. it’s been a blessing and a learning experience for me to see all this from my students and their family, word become flesh.


it’s that time of the quarter again. grades are due, and i’ve been busy reading student work. this can often be a long and laborious process that is at times really rewarding and really frustrating.

one of my students has a transcript full of failing grades and a file full of suspensions, detentions, and referrals. he has had a difficult time in school, despite the fact that he is one of my brightest students and one of our school’s best writers. he’s very aware of the fact that the way he looks often impacts the ways adults perceive him. his long flowing hair, dark skin, and baggy clothes helps him look the part of the “bad student.” that’s why i was so proud last semester to give him his first ever A — in AP Language & Composition, no less, one of just seven A’s I gave out. to cap off our unit of study on satire, i had my students write their own satire a la the onion about something they found annoying. he decided to write his satire on a personal experience he had just last week, and the paper my student wrote honestly made my year. check it out.

Delinquent Faces Maximum Punishment Caused By Itch

On March 22, 2011, it was reported that student Glen Cora was sent to the office and emergency expelled over an unprecedented itch. Daydreaming in his 3rd period class, Glen suddenly had an overwhelming urge to scratch his head. Upon raising his hand to get rid of this pestering itch, his teacher, Ms. Fugly, immediately stopped him, called security, and took him to the office to be interrogated.

“It was so frightening to imagine what would happen next, I didn’t know if he was getting ready to pull a gun out of his bushy bun! It was sooooooooo disrespectful of him.”

Although Glen claimed he was just dismissing an itch, his Principal, Ms. McCashwhole, claimed that some of his earlier comments in class like, “I’m glad it’s sunny” and “Where did my pencil go?” were threatening and disrespectful comments that led up to his head scratching disgrace.

“I mean look at him, baggy pants, and hoody with long hair? For all we know he could have been planning to kill all of HS3’s faculty!”

That afternoon, Glen’s hair was thoroughly searched for weapons, drugs, and narcotics and an excessive amount of dandruff was found. Security officials state that they’re not sure what this sinister teenager was up to but that these crusty flakes may have something to do with it.

When interviewed, the student said he had no idea sharing his thoughts about the weather and looking for his pencil were considered disrespectful. He added that if he knew that scratching his head would make him a menace to society, he would have simply stepped out.

After being lectured and questioned for hours, Glen learned that teachers and school officials just want to keep a safe and productive learning environment by singling out students who do not seem fit for a class setting, have a reputation for being a little rowdy, and those who simply look intimidating.

“I now understand that for singling me out for this simple and ridiculous reason, they are one step closer to making our high school a better place. If sitting in an office, being questioned for three hours, having lunch taken away, and being yelled at by teachers and staff is all it takes, then I’m happy to help,” said Glen Cora in a recent interview. Cora added, “Everyone should do their part!”