By Renee Koplon
There is a story that I often tell incoming freshmen on their first day of high school. I take them back to my annual summer weekend with my aunt and uncle at their cabin on Lake Sacandaga, in upstate NY. It is a magical place where we swim and sail, cook and read. A number of years ago I decided to challenge myself and swim across the lake. I’m a fairly strong swimmer and the lake is only about a mile wide at the cabin. I wasn’t worried. We drove up on Thursday evening and I announced that I would be swimming across the lake in the morning. It was important that everybody know that I would be forgoing our usual big breakfast. My husband was all set to take the rowboat alongside me, to protect me from motorboats and to bring me back. Friday morning both of my children decided that they too wanted to go in the rowboat. I got my goggles on and stepped into the lake. The water was colder than I expected as I started swimming. For some reason, I was very quickly out of breath. I lifted my head and said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I was used to swimming in a pool, where there are lines painted on the floor. I could look around and see how much further I had to go. The deep water was dark, and there was a little bit of a current. I tried to swim a little more, but I was just getting more anxious. It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t catch my breath. I said I’m going back. My husband and my children said, “C’mon, just swim a little further, you can do it.” So I tried again. I finally got into a rhythm and swam the whole lake. Each time I lifted my head to take a breath on my right side, I saw the rowboat right next to me. While I was swimming, I was thinking … I know this sounds corny, but I was thinking, this is just a metaphor for life. I’m doing something challenging, but something I know I should be able to do. Yet I could not do it without the support of my family alongside me, rowing along and cheering me on.
I thought a lot about that rowboat as I started my new job as a high school principal. First, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I had been working at one high school for seventeen years and living in a big city close to friends and family. Professionally, the new job was a great opportunity. But personally? Could my husband and I get comfortable in a new community, leaving our children and family and close friends behind? We had adapted so well to city living. We didn’t even own a car. But we decided to look upon the next chapter in our lives as an adventure, and it was an adventure that we embraced. We acquired two cars and started on a series of countless trips to get settled in our new suburban hometown.
I felt I had to spend the first year watching and learning. It was important for me to understand the culture of my new school. I asked a lot of questions during year one. When faculty members or parents came to me for answers, I was asking more questions in response. One of my most frequent responses was, “How was this done in the past?” I knew I had to make my own decisions, but I also knew that those decisions had to fit within the culture of this school. I learned, for example, that my new school is truly committed to meeting the needs of each individual student. Sometimes this means that a student athlete is exempt from taking a course like gym, or that a student gets extra help or enrichment in a particular subject. It means that we return papers and tests in student mailboxes, not in class, so that students can look at their mistakes and the teacher’s comments in private. As a community school with students from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds, we require participation in morning prayers, and at the same time provide a variety of prayer experiences so that each student is comfortable.
It was a year of firsts for me. I ran my first 5K charity run. I experienced my first basketball tournament. I watched my first lacrosse game. I went to my first prom. I worked with the faculty on some new, successful initiatives. Together we organized our first STEM day. We strengthened the math team and sent the team to their first national competition, hosted on a university campus. They competed and won. We changed the way we delivered the daily announcements and we tweaked the way we gave out senior awards.
I participated in weekly administrative staff meetings. Every Wednesday morning, the principals and assistant principals of the different divisions, along with department heads, gather around a conference table for an hour and a half with the head of school. I anticipated feeling resentful that my time was being wasted. But it turns out that I look forward to that meeting. It is the highlight of my week. We have refreshments, camaraderie, and the conversations around the table make me feel like part of something bigger. The discussions taught me a lot about the culture of the school and the expectations of my role. I was let into the inner sanctum, with its rules of thumb and private jokes. I heard the story about when the lower school principal was up to her elbows in frosting and I learned that “Don’t cut cake,” is code here for “Never get caught up doing work that should be somebody else’s job.”
I spent over two decades teaching math at both the college and high school levels. During my seventeen years in the first high school, I took on an ever increasing administrative role. I learned the business of education on the job. I read piles of books and articles and attended workshops and conferences. I had excellent mentors all along the way and I find myself listening for their voices in my head when I have to make a decision or have a difficult conversation. Deep down I knew I was sufficiently prepared for this position, but yet I had my self-doubts. At the end of year one, I am significantly more comfortable in my position. I am so comfortable, I admitted to my Admin group that I have no education in education. I got a big laugh, but what do they really think? I have a feeling those self-doubts will never completely go away, but I feel my colleagues in my rowboat. When starting a new school, a new job, or just riding the waves, you need the support of the people in your rowboat.
Though this job is ridiculously hard, I know I can keep swimming – and I know that next year will be even better than this year because of those rowing along and cheering me on.
Dr. Renee Koplon is the principal of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School in Baltimore, Maryland.