Sunday, March 28, 2021

Mission Mentality

Today is the last day of 2020. Obviously, it's been a challenging year for everyone. There have been huge health challenges for so many people across the world, income and economic challenges for workers, teaching challenges for folks in education, learning challenges for students across the world, social, racial, and political division and mistrust, and certainly emotional challenges that accompany all of these for folks in so many ways. 

Our world is in desperate need of healing. And, individuals are in desperate need of direction, purpose, and peace. This has been the topic of many conversations for me in recent days and weeks. and I would like to share just a couple of thoughts as we move into 2021.

I will begin with a quick story about my college age son. He is currently a sophomore at the University of North Carolina and has experienced his own challenges with the pandemic and all the uncertainty which accompanies it. Last year, as a freshman, he made the decision to become a leader in the Young Life program. As a Young Life leader, he is tasked with leading Young Life activities and club meetings at a regional high school. In addition, he will forge relationships with the high school students who attend the meetings and endeavor to be a positive role model in their lives. The Young Life leaders at his high school were very good to him and he is giving back in a similar way. During his freshman year, when he was deciding if this was a good activity for him, we had quite several deep conversations. At one point, he told me that when you are a Young Life leader, you wake up every day asking yourself, "How can I care for someone else today?" I have thought about that quite a bit over the past year or so. I am not sure that I could have said that when I was 20 years old. That is a pretty cool daily mission for a college sophomore.

My wife has been listening to a the Spotify Daily Quote recently which  encourages folks to consider a quote and then expands on that quote to some extent. Recently, the quote of the day was from reggae rapper, Bad Bunny. While the quote itself doesn't have strong application to my thoughts today, the insights that followed the quote precipitated some interesting thoughts for my wife. In the pandemic environment, we like so many others have been home constantly. So many of the daily tasks have become repetitive, mundane, and at times laborious. The one that is hit her hardest has been cooking for our high school senior son. He is an athlete and on a special high protein diet to build muscle and strength. In support of that diet, my wife finds herself making baked chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and white rice every day. His diet involves five meals a day and the work to keep this specific food available to him is never ending. It could easily become a very negative chore on her list. She was explaining to me that it is so much more positive to view this to-do list as an opportunity, rather than a chore. She mentioned to me that the concept of chores was strong in her home growing up. And, it is so much more enjoyable to accomplish things, rather than simply complete chores. Her mission, in this task of cooking, is to support our son's athletic goals. Viewing those darn sweet potatoes as part of a mission is a much healthier way to approach the task.

I feel like I have been fairly successful in this pandemic environment.  I have been able to maintain a positive attitude, starting each day with a sense of joy. The word I have used with regards to my work over the years is mission, which brings me to the point of this essay. For me, approaching each day with a mission mentality is an important key to happiness, fulfillment, and a general air of positivity in my daily life. When I approach my tasks as mission, there is a much greater purpose. Mission implies importance. Mission implies commitment. Mission speaks of doing something for the greater good which is much bigger than one's self. I believe that we can find mission in virtually every move we make during the day. 

When I was a young man, I had an awesome job at a local jewelry store in Indiana, PA. My work at the store began as simply a way to make a little bit of extra money. I learned how to engrave jewelry, do basic bookkeeping, and greet the public on the floor of the store. But, after a period of time, the work at the store became more of a mission. I became much more committed to my close friend who managed the store, the ownership, and most importantly, to the mission of providing folks with friendly service, reliable quality, and a trusted voice in their purchases. I developed a true loyalty to the mission of the store and developed deep relationships with the folks that taught me about the business. I approached my job with a mission mentality.

As I finished up college and began my teaching career, my first teaching opportunity was in Palmyra Pennsylvania. I have written about it before, so I won't spend too much time on that work here. But, suffice it to say, that I approached that work with a mission mentality. The string program was quite small when I arrived at the school and I was challenged to develop the string program for the school district. I had a mission. It was clear. I committed to it fully and spent six years giving all of myself to that mission. (As a sidebar, I was having a conversation with my son about success in the workplace yesterday. I told him that I really believe that early in one's career, you must commit fully and be willing to put in long hours, hard work, and not be concerned about work-life balance so much. It's really not a popular stance in today's society, but in 1987 that was the way we did things. It was the era of the yuppie, long hours, and getting ahead quickly. I think this was seminal to my commitment to mission mentality.) My mission at Palmyra was successful and other opportunities came quickly. I had a similar experience at Eleanor Roosevelt high School and spent nine years there pursuing my mission before coming to the North Carolina School of Science and Math.

In the ensuing 20 years at NCSSM, my mission has changed from time to time. Most recently, I have been named Fine Arts Chair for the Durham and Morganton campuses. This is a new mission for me and I'm really excited about whatever the future holds. We are currently in the process of hiring administrators for the new school in Morganton and I am also happy to be guiding two new music faculty members through their transition into our school environment in Durham. I have a mission.

Obviously, the mission changed in March of 2020. Suddenly, the mission was to keep engaging students in Orchestra and music while caring for them as individuals through the two-dimensional Zoom environment. It is a tricky mission. And, throughout that time, to continue to support my other Fine Arts colleagues, advance the school’s mission, and navigate all of the stresses that go with working from home, family trials and tribulations throughout the pandemic environment, and personal emotional ups and downs. But, the great thing about having a mission is that one bad day doesn't change the mission. In fact, in some ways, it can galvanize one's resolve to do better in the future. That has certainly been the case for me. I have found that my failures of today become my challenges for tomorrow. This is the essence of mission mentality. 

So, I challenge you today to consider what is your mission? What is your purpose? What do you hold in highest importance in your tasks throughout the day? 

I believe there can be multiple answers to these questions. Some days, my mission is in family matters. I work to be a good example to my kids, a partner to my wife, and a helper wherever possible. Other days, my mission is in my art. I am practicing, writing new music, recording audio guides for my students, generating blog or video content, and other artistic endeavors. On the other days, I am a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a student, a son. Yet, in all these rolls, I can have a mission mentality. These roles and accompanying tasks are important to me. I approach them with purpose. And, I try to approach them with joy and good humor. As I often say in this blog, I am not perfect. I don't always achieve my goals. Sometimes, I lose sight of my sense of mission. Sometimes the tasks in front of me simply become chores. Those are my worst days. They are the days that I feel unfulfilled, unhappy, or downright depressed. So, I try to keep the days I lose sight of my mission to an absolute minimum.

Let me encourage you today to find your mission. It requires some deep thought.  What do you hold as truly important - so important that you are willing to dedicate your time, your heart, and thoughts. What is your true purpose? Certainly there are multiple answers to these questions.  You are likely doing many of these things already. But, are you committed to them as your mission?  Perhaps 2021 is your opportunity to refocus or refine your sense of mission. Even the exercise of putting my thoughts in writing today has provided that opportunity for me. I wish all of you the very best as we move into 2021 and the continuation of the academic year. I know that so many of us are growing weary of distance learning and the pandemic environment. Hang in there! You have a mission. You can do this! 



Friday, March 12, 2021


One of my favorite words and concepts is "steadfast." Lately, that word keeps coming up in my thoughts and ruminations about life, the pandemic, and teaching. I don't know exactly when I started thinking about this word. But I do know that the first thought that comes to mind around the word steadfast is my father. My Dad, who is now 85 and still very active and had an amazing career in public education. He's one of the few educators I know who spent an entire 42-year career in the same school system. First he was an elementary teacher, then Principal, then Director of Elementary Education, Assistant Superintendent, and finally, was Superintendent of Schools in my hometown for the final 25 years of his career.  He retired in 1997. Steadfast. But, it wasn't just in his longevity at one employer. He was in it for the duration from the beginning. He had enduring friendships and collegial relationships with virtually everyone I knew who worked for the school system. He was not only their leader, he was also their friend. He and my mom have been married for 66 years. Steadfast. He served the church for many years as a member of the session and for the last several years as Clerk of the Session. This was a leadership position that carries very little adulation and a great deal of influence and importance in the Presbyterian Church. He was steadfast for his church as well. 

So, what exactly does steadfast mean and how does it relate to my life today and the work that we all do in the midst of the pandemic?

To be steadfast is to be resolute. To be steadfast is to be unwavering. Steadfast is firmly fixed and immovable, firm in belief, determined, and loyal. It's funny because I can remember times in my young life when I was criticized for being loyal. And, in fact, sometimes I was loyal to a fault. But that's okay. It has manifested as I have matured into a quality I am proud of.

I truly desire to be steadfast in so many facets of my life and work. First and foremost, it is important that I am at steadfast member of my family. I have been married for 30 years and I can honestly stay that the longevity of our relationship and friendship is based on a common value of this concept. I also truly hope that my kids find my unconditional love for them to be steadfast. We don't go up and down based on daily actions, mistakes, or successes. The way I feel about my boys doesn't change from day to day. My love for them is steadfast. 

I'm celebrating 20 years at NCSSM this year. To some extent, I feel like my work at the school has also been reflection of this value. There have been some hard days over the years. But there have been way more fantastic days. There have been some failures. But there have been way more successes. And, all of them are a direct result of this inclination to be steadfast. Have there been other opportunities that have come my way? Of course. But none of them seemed quite right. It felt much more natural to be steadfast. As I move into a new leadership role at my school, I truly do think about this concept as it relates to my work in guiding curriculum, faculty, and programs.

I feel like steadfast can also be a daily approach.  Is my attitude unwavering?  Is my approach unwavering?  I guess no one is truly unwavering. We all have ups and downs, good days and bad.  But, can I be generally consistent?  This is my goal.  Can I be steady?  Predictable?  Our role as educators is exactly this.  Our students desire consistency.  They need us to be predictable in the manner we communicate, teach, discipline, correct, assess, and interact.  I really try not to get too high or low when things go well or poorly. Class didn't go well today? There is always tomorrow.  A performance was exceptional?  Excellent - that is what we were striving for! Now, what is next?

As I approach the end of this academic year, I continue to seek to be steadfast.  We are all getting weary of the pandemic and all of the inconveniences associated with its impact on education, learning, and life in general.  But, in the midst of the storm, I will continue to try to be steadfast, unwavering, and consistent.  And, when we get back to in person learning, I will do the same. I encourage you to consider this approach as well.


Monday, March 8, 2021

ASTA 2021: Relative Topics for High School String Teachers

 First, I want to thank all of the ASTA Members who participated in the moderated discussion on Sunday on Relative Topics for High School String Teachers. It was a great discussion and it was my honor to participate and moderate!!

I promised that I would seek out some more information on longitudinal involvement in the arts as a benefit toward college admission.  I will place it here as I find more.

Check out this article as a start: Why Extracurriculars Matter in College Admissions

Also this: How Colleges Weigh Extracurricular Activities

Finally: What Do Colleges Look for in Students

I believe that each of these articles will she some light on the process and give you some good talking points for your administration, colleagues, students, and families!

I will post more as I have it.

Again, thanks for participating and I look forward to the next time!