Starting At The Beginning

78240_n-150×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”150″ height=”150″ />A little less than a year ago, I wrote my last post about attending the funeral of one of my students. Since then, I’ve sat down to write many times, but I just couldn’t put the proverbial pen to paper. The education blogosphere is so positive, and I had such a difficult year. I couldn’t figure out how to frame what

was happening at Design Lab without it sounding negative. So I didn’t write. I also backed off on twitter and became much more of a lurker than a participant in the wonderful conversations occurring.

Have you ever seen a Double Dutch jump rope game? Two people each hold the end of an enormous jump rope and swing it in a circle, and a third person finds the right moment to

jump in. It takes incredible timing to jump in and participate. For me, this past year the blogosphere was the jump rope, and I was the kid who just couldn’t find the right moment to jump in. Daily, I read such thoughtful posts andtweets from teachers and leaders whose thinking and actions I so admire, and I couldn’t find anything the blogosphere wrote or tweeted occurring in my daily experiences at school.

I found the incredible disconnect between the school I want, the schools I read about on twitter and blogs, and the school I’m in each day to be…overwhelming.

I didn’t get to go to school to talk about flipped classrooms or purchasing Ipads or any of the other cool, important, or interesting topics we’re discussing on twitter. Last year, I went to school everyday to fight. Too often, I found myself physically between students, breaking up altercations, but mostly I fought for the hearts and minds of our teachers, parents, and students.

My teachers want to believe that our school could be a great school, but none have ever had the opportunity to work in a school that actually works for students or adults, so could our school really be one that works? I fought to maintain and hold the hope my teachers have that our school could be better.

Too many of our students’ parents had incredibly negative experiences in their own schooling and the result is they view school as a necessary evil. I fought to frame education as a means to a stable job in this changing economy, and I fought to make our school a place where parents could trust that we have their children’s best interests at heart.

I fought for our students also. So many of our students view school and horrific boredom as synonyms. Some want a diploma and some don’t know what they want. Most of our students come from difficult and dangerous neighborhoods and worry far more about getting to and from school safely than getting any homework done.

I fought physically, emotionally, and mentally. I fought in every way a person can fight, and in the end, most, but not all, of my efforts failed. I failed in large part, because it was “I” and not “We” and because telling people we can be different and leading and modeling our efforts to be different are not one and the same.

The new school year starts tomorrow and I’m committed to learning how to be the principal my teachers, parents and students deserve. This summer I stepped back from the chaos and thought about the school we can build. I reflected upon what I’ve learned in this amazing blogosphere and tried to frame it in the context of my own experiences in city schools.

Here’s what I know for sure: A good school is based on a foundation of care.

What happens day to day in an inner city school where teachers, students, and parents feel cared for? What happens at school if we purposefully treat our students like they are our own children? How will teachers participate differently if they feel cared for, supported, and acknowledged? How will our relationships change with our parents if we listen and really hear their concerns? We’re going to ask and learn how to answer these questions with our actions, beliefs, and behaviors this year.

Instructionally, we’ll focus on the start, the end and the transition points in the lesson. While we ultimately want to offer a curriculum where we empower students as learners, we still have to start framing instructional practices at the beginning to get to our destination.

Truth be told, every aspect of Design Lab Early College High School needs to be improved. But it isn’t going to happen all at once. I’m putting aside the posts about BYOD, and flipped classrooms, and Ipads. My sixteen month old is somewhere between minutes and weeks away from walking, and I don’t expect him to run before he walks. I need to practice the same patience with my school. So we’re starting at the beginning, with care and the foundations of good instructional practices.

I hope I have the courage this year to share our progress along the way. When Design Lab is a school we would all send our children to, I think it’s important to have documented the long journey to get there. If you have any resources for framing discussions and learning around care in schools, please send them my way. In the meantime, I think I’m ready to try out my jump rope skills. See you at the double dutch game.

CC Images:

Finish/Start by I like on July 4, 2009

Writing samples: Parker 75 by churl on September 22, 2006

Double Dutch by photobunny on May 17, 2008

Concrete for foundation poured, and roof choice for LEED house in Houston by quotlman on March 17, 2011

This is also posted over at Growing Good Schools


  1. Excerrpt form Louis Schmier – Random Thoughts: “Rumi said, “Observe the wonders as they occur around you.” Not to be filled with joy in that classroom is one of the great sins in academia. In that classroom before us are potentials so many and so great we and they can’t imagine them. This is a place overflowing with possibilities. This is a place heaped with opportunities. This is the future! To know all that,to understand that, to be understood, my teacher’s eyes, mind, and especially heart, have to be like parachutes, for they function properly only when they are open. And, when they are open–open to all without exception and without condition–they offer faith, hope, support, encouragement, and love. I know when I am open, I am assured that I’ll never grow old; I may die of old age, but I’ll die young; and, my teaching will never get old. We have to open our inner tap and let that faith, belief, hope, and love flow vibrantly out from us.
    To succeed, we first have to believe in each student–in each student; we have to help each student–each student–believe. No teacher has the right to give up on any student. I’ll repeat that: no teacher has the right to give up on any student. Wasn’t it Buddha who said, “If we could see the miracle in single flower clearly, our whole life would change?” What if we saw such a miracle in a so-called “average student?” What if we saw an angel walking before each student, proclaiming, “Make way! Make way!
    Make way for someone created in the image of God?” A strong positive belief in a student will create more miracles than any “wonder” technology, publication, or grant.
    That understanding has to be lived, not merely spoken. St. Francis of Assisi was right, it’s no use preaching unless our walking is our preaching. After all, reputations are not built on what you say you should do or what you’re going to do.
    If we fail to embrace the opportunity, we lose the prize; we lose the student. We have
    to focus on that place, on the classroom, not just on the lab and archive and publishing house. Why? Well, “What the mind of man creates,” said Edison, “his character controls.” Because that’s the prize: to do whatever it takes–whatever it takes–to help each student open her or his eyes, mind, and heart so she or he can see where she or he will be, not where they have been or are; that there are no short cuts to any meaningful place; to help them see just how noble and sacred and valuable they are whatever their GPA, their gender, their religion, their race, their ethnicity, their sexual preference, their whatever; to help them see that living a life of integrity is the greatest lesson to learn; to help them to understand that the whole of existence is change and process, that life is change and process, and each of us is change and process; but, also understand that while achievement is not certain, failure is not final. As I have said so often, we have to help them learn that they are “human becomings,” not just “human beings.
    The most important thing I, as a teacher, can do in a classroom, then, is to do something that will outlast and go beyond both me, the physical confines of the classroom, the restrictions of the class subject, and time limits of the term. And, that is to show that belief is more powerful than interest; that all in life is an experiment; that all in life is choice; that while you seldom get to choose how you die; you always choose how to live; that there is no guarantee and absolute security; that there is no perfection; that there is only opportunity and possibility; and that with self-confidence, self-esteem,self-respect, commitment, dedication, perseverance, and sweat supposedly average people can do the work of supposedly superior people.”

    August 22, 2012
  2. Randy Seabrook said:

    This is the first time that I have read anything in the edusphere that has so closely reflected my experience as a Principal. I want you to know that you are not alone in this fight and that your efforts will change your school and staff into the vision you hold in your heart. It will take time because the conditions you are trying to change developed over many years. It will take all of your time, effort, and sacrifice to manifest it but you are endowed with all of the tools you need to get it done. You are the catalyst for the change you want to see. Share your vision, your expectations, and your priorities with your school community. But before you do any of that decide exactly what it is you want for your students . Write it in stone and keep your eyes and heart on that. Let your staff know why you want these things-let them know your heart . Then align everything you do with your bedrock goals. If it’s not good for the kids, it’s not good period. In September I will begin my 8th year as Principal. I was where you are 8 years ago. Our school is still a work in progress because our students are not all achieveing at grade level yet but they have made massive improvements already . Our focus is on instructional improvement now and not on safety and survival. It took all of us to get to this place and it took all of me to lead the change. I had to really understand who I was and what I really believed about education and life in order to stay on course. I did and do a lot of reflecting and analyzing with my staff about everything we do in our school there would have been no progress without them. Look for the stars on your staff-those people who do the things that need to be done without being told to do so. Find the people that the students respect and add them to your team. The people on your team will support your vision and help make it reality. The last two pieces are crucial to your success – your faith and your family. I am a Christian and I put my trust in God, who is my strength and refuge. I know that all things are possible with God. I would not be able to survive as Principal without my family. My husband is my rock and anchor in every storm . My beautiful children are the reason that I became a Principal – to give other children the opportunities and the love that I have given my own children. You will succeed in changing your school and your students because of your love and determination. Keep moving forward toward your goall and celebrate every small improvement. Soon they will grow into big improvements.

    August 22, 2012
    • Eric Juli said:


      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. It’s great to hear that you’ve moved your school forward and can make teaching and learning the focus now. I’m confident we’ll get there too.



      August 25, 2012
  3. Amy said:

    Wow. Thank you for your honest reflection. So often, we read blogs and tweets about the amazing things happening in schools, but it is a courageous leader who shares the trials and tribulations of the work! I have worked in schools like you describe yours to be, and I have seen great successes over long periods of time. But you are right, it takes time and a team effort- you cannot make sustainable changes in isolation. Good luck on your journey this year (and in the future!). One quick recommendation- if you and your teachers haven’t read Understanding Povery by Ruby Payne, it might be a good place to start the conversations.

    August 22, 2012
    • Eric Juli said:


      Thanks for your comment and the book recommendation. I have read Ruby Payne’s work and it is a nice starting point.

      Thanks again,


      August 25, 2012
  4. Loved every bit of this piece, Eric.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful reflection — and for being committed to changing the lives of poor students in a tough, urban school. That commitment is something that I just have never been able to find.

    And keep writing — people need to see and know your truth.

    Rock on,

    August 23, 2012
    • Eric Juli said:

      Thanks Bill,

      Given what a prolific writer you are, it’s high praise to hear you say I should keep telling this story. If you ever change your mind about being in inner city schools, you can always come work with us.



      August 25, 2012
  5. Thanks for this post. Although the details are different and our schools sound rather different I think our personal situations are very similar. I thank you for the honesty in your post – I suspect that some of the “high fliers” we admire (and envy) would admit that their journey has not been an easy one.
    One of the lines in your post that appeals to me most talks about teachers teaching their students as if they were their own children. I think such a simple “rule of thumb” approach has great merit that cuts through all the complicated models, protocols and procedures by which schools are governed. Treat our students as our kids, our staff as our family. Such an approach would shift mindset (probably resulting in no need to really adjust processes that much at all – since most protocols start out with good intent and sound objectives). Changing mindset goes a long way towards changing behaviour…which goes a long way towards achieving educational outcomes. So, that simple line really resonates with me as a way of putting the humanity back into the schooling process.
    Thanks again for the post, for reminding me that most of us do struggle to achieve our objectives – but that the struggle is worth it.

    August 24, 2012
    • Eric Juli said:


      I think ultimately when we put aside technology, curriculum, flipping classrooms, textbooks, ipads and everything else, every student deserves the opportunity to attend the kind of school the principal and teachers would send their own children to. Whenever I walk into a classroom, my litmus test is whether or not I’d feel comfortable with my own children in this classroom. If we learn to treat every student at our school like we treat our own children, we’re headed in the right direction.

      Thanks for your comment,


      August 25, 2012
  6. Hi Eric, I hope you will continue to write about your journey and your school. School’s like yours that deserve “conditions for excellence.” Keep sharing, and in the meantime, I’ll be thinking of ways I can contribute. The only thing I can think of now is orienting your students’ projects towards sharing their learning in the community. Recently, for example, Suzie Brooks shared a project her young students created–they researched why reading to infants was important, they created reading bags for new moms with letters that tell why reading to babies is important and books. Those are the kinds of projects that might begin to build a sense of power and voice in your school. My best to you and your family. – Maureen

    August 25, 2012
    • Eric Juli said:

      Thanks for your comment Maureen.

      I’ve been thinking and reading all summer about how to connect our students with real projects that matter in my students’ community. I agree these types of projects lead to empowerment and student voice. But, I’ve also learned I have to balance my own sense of urgency with a slow and steady mentality. Empowerment is certainly the goal. But my current thinking is to get to empowerment, we need to learn how to care and be cared for first. When our students, parents, and teachers think of us as a caring community, we’ve taken a step in the right direction. Thanks for being willing to lend your voice to this difficult conversation. I really enjoy all your tweets where you frame your own thinking about teaching, learning and your own classroom.

      Thanks again,


      August 25, 2012
  7. Oops–“schools” like yours. Also, is there the chance that you could have some local colleges or Universities contribute volunteers related to research, student clubs, etc.

    August 25, 2012
  8. FlashRope said:

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    August 27, 2012
  9. aolsonssc said:

    I commend your reflective approach and commitment to improvement. I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to some truly wonderful educators and suggest that you and your staff identify the compelling reasons why your school needs to improve (opportunities available to students with an education vs. those without) and commit to a shared vision and values. These are the foundational pieces that you will come back to during challenging times. You’re not alone. Identify your priorities and keep your focus. Best wishes for a very successful school year!

    August 28, 2012

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