Saturday, September 6, 2014

Voluptuous Panic

Sometime over the summer, I don’t know where or when, I heard someone say that they operated in a world of “voluptuous panic.” I found that a delicious phrase and I couldn’t wait to find a use for it once I got back to blog-writing.

I have been back in Jordan for over three weeks, have started to write a blog entry a dozen times, but the beginning of the school year, going from the slumberous summer days to school daze really does fit the bill for voluptuous panic.

I decided to do a little etymological digging, because that word ‘voluptuous’ implies a saucier adjective than I might normally use to modify the noun ‘panic.’ But when you look a little in the on-line sources, you find that voluptuous comes from an Old French word for “full of pleasure and delight,” and linked to the word for ‘wish.’ Hmmm…actually, that word fits very well for the ‘panics’ that creep in at the beginning of a school year for me.

I should state, for the record, that the beginning of this school year has seemed the calmest, strongest, and most stable in the 8 years of our little academy. So it isn’t ‘panic,’ with a capital P, but rather, all the hopes and wishes of an entire school year are wrapped up in the opening weeks of school. And if you have been a faithful reader of the blog, you know that I derive great pleasure and delight from school. So all my little panics are wrapped up in the voluptuous hopes of the school year…

So what have I been doing since I arrived 25 days ago? Let’s review the exciting days of late August and early September!

I never arrive back in Jordan with much time to spare. I stepped back on campus on a Tuesday evening and 12 hours later I was at meetings with the school’s senior staff, looking at the entire year, checking on calendars, talking goals and expectations, and jumping into the minutiae of new faculty orientation. We greeted 25 new members of the faculty, showing them around Jordan, engaging in discussions about teaching, about the nature of the project of our little academy. It was exciting to see them again—I had interviewed almost all of them and it was fun to see them gel and cohere together as a group. We had dinners every night—fancy dinners to acclimate them to Jordanian food and hospitality, discussions about their babies, their textbooks, their hopes and dreams of journeying to Jordan, always taking me back seven years to when I first arrived and the school opened for the first time. I tried an unusual exercise with them one day to see how they would do in a group setting, dependent on seeking out answers and fitting pieces puzzle pieces together. And they did marvelously, transcending a break-the-ice game and working to solve the puzzle. That is my theme this year for the faculty—will you be the piece that completes the puzzle that is King’s Academy??

The four days with the new faculty ran smoothly and served as confirmation that we had hired faculty with intelligence, grace, humor, stamina and grit. As I worked with them I remembered the exciting interviews that led us to offer them contracts, eager to see them with our students very soon. I guess I say this every year, but this group seems especially strong and congenial. It is a panic, a voluptuous panic, watching all these disparate people come from around the world and settle in.

Then the returning faculty descended on campus. About fifty of them came back on my first Monday back, and off we went to race through all the orientation process. Our leader and headmaster, truly worthy of the label ‘fearless,’ decided that we should not sit and just hear speeches all day, but that we should engage in small-group discussions and conversations about pedagogy and critical thinking and the mission of the school. Each table group chatted away, new people contributing and sharing freely, and within a few hours, a new faculty had been born. We had honed the questions, trying to think of the best ways to shake off the summer doldrums and rev back into the overdrive that is school. Again, little nettles of voluptuous panic poked at me, and each day, another exciting day watching a faculty settle in.

Wave after wave of people came in—the student proctors returned to campus, followed by the couple hundred new students, and finally, all the hundreds of returning students. Each day the now well-oiled machine of orientation kicked into higher gear, absorbing more people, but kindness and civility ruled, and each day, each department seemed ready to tackle all the burdens and moving parts in our organization.

One of my responsibilities is the Teaching Fellow program. We invite about 8-9 young teachers each year, kids fresh out of college, and I set up a seminar hoping to send them off to classes armed with ideas, insights, tips, strategies and techniques to find success. This is the fourth year that I have been at the helm of the seminar, and each summer I totally revamp the way I will run the seminar. It is an interesting and scary mission—trying to think of the multifarious things to equip these talented young people with the right amount of knowledge and faith to teach effectively. They are bound to make some mistakes—hey, isn’t that half the fun???—but it is so rewarding watching them grow in these first few months. But talk about a voluptuous panic!!!!! What should be the first thing you tell them? What should be the warnings? The trumpet sounds of joy? How can you talk about teaching and not sound utterly sentimental? Do you discuss classroom management first? Do you share your horror stories first, second or third?????? What a delicious panic stew ordering this seminar and seeing how it should work!

This year another little feature of the voluptuous panics is that my friend, and education soul mate, Christy Folsom, has arrived for the fall term. Christy is on sabbatical from Lehman College in New York, and has come to work with the faculty for the next 100 days. It is a bit of a panic in that I know of her brilliance and I hope she works as well as she might here, coaching and mentoring faculty as they search for a higher level of effectiveness.

There are always the voluptuous panic swoons about new things—new courses, new directions, new adjustments. Each year one must adjust to students who have graduated and faculty who have departed. This year I have the unprecedented newness of launching a radical new AP course, called the Capstone, which is unlike any other kind of AP course that the College Board has designed in its history. AND I have the exciting, delightful, pleasurable panic of inaugurating our faculty appraisal system. We have spent several years methodically studying and working on a system, evolving into one that truly does seem predicated on growth and renewal. Oh, but the voluptuous panic stings over that!

I can’t remember a school year that started without pangs. I remember writing a letter to a friend in 1996, as I started working in New York at Hackley, in which I hoped I wouldn’t be discovered as a fraud. I don’t think that’s it—I think it is as simple as I love this career path so much and set such high hopes and wishes each year, and hope to match and even surpass each year’s delight and work.

But there have been a few lapses into a nostalgia trap in the last three weeks as well. At the beginning of the second week here, I paused on August 20th, to remember the birthday of Casey Brown. Casey graduated from Charlotte Latin in 1993, having been in my AP Modern European class, and starred in several of my plays, most legendarily as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  By any account I would ever give, Casey ranks among the most colorful, fiercely brilliant, and charismatic students I have known. Sadly, in 1995, he took his own life. Rarely has a month gone by that I haven’t thought of him for one reason or another. But this August 20th I paused to remember that Casey would have turned 40 this year. I couldn’t help but think of what we would be like as friends had he lived. There is always that panic about a student you love and worry about.

I also got a little caught up in an alumni magazine from Hackley this weekend, reading all the Class Notes, remembering the faces and triumphs and panics of that school. I don’t think of Hackley very often, but this was a lovely reminder of that important and bittersweet chapter of my life.

But when all these voluptuous panics mount, threatening to become real panics, I do stop and marvel at the beauty of the people around me. I am a bit of a novelty in the faculty since I am the American who has stayed the longest at our school. Several of the new people asked me what has kept me here. I started to say, “Oh, the students are wonderful.” And they are. But I have found the students in each of my four schools in which I have taught to be wonderful. I have stayed here because of the team I work with, the inspiring adults I call colleagues and friends. Never in any of my schools have I worked with such a dedicated group of educators who take on the voluptuous panics of this kind of school and continue to grow and improve. I stay because I am willing to take on all of these little stinging panics of a new school year since we back each other up kindly and with integrity and honor.

Oh, I know…it’s school time again, and here is Idealistic Johnny waxing on and on about a perfect work place. I didn’t say that. And there are those little attacks every day if I am going to get it right. But again, I work with a team of visionaries who make the panics as voluptuous as imaginable. I wish it so for everyone.