There’s always that one teacher—the one whose content they taught pales compared to the lessons you learned from them. One of my favorite teachers growing up was the art teacher in my hometown. I say “the” art teacher because, as with many small midwestern towns, the teacher is there the entire time we are in school and even beyond. And as we entered a summer unlike any other we’ve faced as educators, Mr. Holdren’s approach to life offered a personal lesson that helped me reflect on the school year to come.
Beyond his work as a teacher, Mr. Holdren and his family are ardent travelers, even moving abroad to Australia for a year in a teacher exchange program. During his various travels, Mr. Holdren collected sand from locations all around the world. He has also supplemented his collection with additions from others, provided they have pictures and a story to go along with it. I always wanted to give him some sand, but I just hadn’t found the right opportunity to accompany it.
Fast forward to this summer. I, like many other principals, have become exhausted with all things COVID-19. The endless Zoom meetings, risk dials, building reopening and contingency plans, 24-hour news, and Facebook posts have taken their toll. The pandemic has consumed nearly all aspects of life at school and at home.
We recognized the need to take some time to recharge and reconnect as a family. Our family decided to venture to Port Townsend in the Pacific Northwest to visit my cousin and his family. One of our planned activities was crabbing. And where there is crabbing, there is a beach. And a beach means sand. And in that sand, my hope, a story.
After arriving at my cousin’s home, we got settled, let the kids go off on an adventure, and unwinded for the evening. I couldn’t help but notice a pint-sized mason jar filled with small pieces of colorful objects. My wonder turned to intrigue as my cousin explained the small, colorful jewels contained within the jar.
I had never seen, much less heard, of sea glass. It originates from old bottles, jars, and even windshields and taillights, which were often dumped in or near oceans or other bodies of water. Port Townsend, I learned, is one of the best places in the world to find it. Common colors, such as clear, amber, or green, are abundant on sea glass beaches. A rarer color, blue (my cousin’s favorite), was also readily visible in his jar.
In the rainbow of sea glass colors, one of the rarest, red, can only be found once in every ten to twenty thousand pieces. As a result, it is sometimes referred to as the Hope Diamond of sea glass. With my art teacher’s project in mind and my cousin’s sea glass searching experience, my mission had become clear: Find a red piece of glass.
I quickly found sea glass collecting to be a rewarding and family-friendly activity. If you have the right beach, you are going to find sea glass. The kids exuded excitement with each piece they found. It was one of the first times in months I had seen them so engaged in an activity, and I’ll cherish the memory of that day.
In the days that followed, I continued to look at our bag of glass, and couldn’t help but think about how much sea glass represents my mindset heading into the upcoming school year. I have been so consumed with COVID there hadn’t been much time to frame my thinking. There are so many parallels between COVID and sea glass, and I knew I was onto a story or at least a blog post. What follows are my top lessons learned from my search for sea glass, as contemplated while taking quiet strolls along the beach in Port Townsend.
Theme 1: Trash
Sea glass doesn’t occur naturally. It is leftover trash people dumped years ago. Much like our current situation, none of us wanted or expected to be put in the position we are in as educators. We have had to accelerate our learning and temper expectations to navigate our way through the pandemic. My heart goes out to the countless health and educational professionals working tirelessly to keep everyone safe. And my heart goes out to the families whose lives have been turned upside down by the loss of jobs, housing, and loved ones.
Theme 2: Turbulence
Sea glass can’t obtain a polished patina unless it has had a rough life. Smooth edges result from constant movement and crashing along rocks and sandy beaches. As we experience tough times in education, be reminded that we, as leaders, will only enhance our skills in the coming months. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” Although our seas are rough, we need to take time to reflect and grow along the way.
Theme 3: Time
The average weathering process for sea glass can take decades. For principals, we are expected to have perfect plans in a few months’ time while we are being challenged with perhaps the biggest disruption we’ve ever experienced. It will take time for us to learn the lessons we need to get things right. Give yourself and give others grace as we move forward together as educators. Reach out to others and be patient with one another.
Theme 4: Mind the Tide
As the tide rises and falls and waves crash into the beach, sea glass is redistributed daily. As principals, we probably feel more like we are treading water than anything else. Look for your breakthroughs when the tide is low, and you’ll have a clear view of the landscape ahead. Be alert when the tide is high and the sea is unsteady. We may not know when the next innovation is out there, but it might be just below the surface.
The act of walking and searching for sea glass helped ease my cluttered mind. The value of the sea glass wasn’t nearly as important as the peace from simply stepping away for a few hours. Weeks of being bound by the mental constraints of the pandemic seemed to loosen. And, as luck would have it, I hit paydirt with only about two hundred yards remaining on our walk. While casually bending over to collect a beautiful cobalt blue piece of sea glass, the coveted red one appeared.
Smaller than the size of a popcorn kernel, I held it in my hand for a moment and smiled. Within that moment, I felt refreshed by the most basic of human of elements that connects us all: Hope. Hope that there will be a time when our schools will be filled with students. Hope for the hustle and bustle of a building without the concern of personal protective equipment. Hope that we will come out of this better at what we do than we were before it started. I’ve held onto this feeling long after I placed the small red piece of sea glass into my Ziplock bag.
When I arrived at the car long after my cousin and boys, I had a pleasing mix of green, clear, ambers, and blue pieces. My mind, however, was solely on my red piece and my renewed outlook moving forward. Yes, there will be turbulence, tides, and trash, but beneath all of that, there will be beauty. Much like the life lessons from my art teacher, my hope is that years from now when l look at my small collection of sea glass, I will never forget the hardships that have been caused by COVID-19. I’m thankful for my colleagues and staff for all they are doing to prepare for the school year. I’m excited to take my story and gems to my former teacher.
Yet one question remains: What should become of the red piece? I think I know where it belongs.
Find your beach. Find your gems: Be on the lookout for ideas and innovation from your colleagues and staff. Treasure them. Take time to unplug: Find peace in order to stay refreshed for your students and staff.
Ross Ricenbaw is principal at Waverly Middle School in Waverly, Nebraska. He is the 2019 Nebraska Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@jugglnprincipal).