Books I’ve Read, January 2023

2023 is off to a strong start for reading, and January was pretty eclectic. The content included stress, irregular warfare, dystopia, and a Cormac McCarthy novel (possibly his last).

The biggest recent change for me has been incorporating Audible into my daily routine. While I ran or lifted in January, I was listening to a book, which killed two birds with one stone. However, I’ll always find time for both physical and Kindle books. From my experience, audio, physical, and digital content can all serve a beneficial purpose when consuming information and learning.

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy (Hardback)

Stella Maris is simultaneously a prequel and coda to The Passenger, and while I found The Passenger to be a deep and worthwhile read, Stella Maris was much better–so much so that reading Stella Maris helped me appreciate The Passenger even more.

There were times I had to put Stella Maris down and process the portion I had just finished. Maybe “process” isn’t the best word… It was more like wallow in the sadness, bitterness, and (possibly) nihilism McCarthy presents to the reader. There’s a section of dialogue about the cold depths of Lake Tahoe I’ll never forget. In instances such as this, it’s the beauty of McCarthy’s prose that’s the only thing that makes the horror bearable.

The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease by Elissa Peel, PhD (Audiobook)

This book was recommended by Wim Hof on Twitter, and based upon that recommendation, it ended up being the first book I downloaded on Audible. The Stress Prescription is perfect if you’re, well, experiencing a lot of stress. Even if you don’t feel overwhelmed, this book can help with the moderate amount of stress (“green stress,” Dr. Peel calls it) that we all face on a regular basis. There are a lot of common prescriptions offered such as cold showers, meditation, breathing techniques, and cultivating a deeper sense of awareness. Even if you’re familiar with these fairly common methods, the book is worth reading in order to be emerged in Dr. Peel’s worldview on how to live a more peacefully life.

Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare by Seth G. Jones (Hardback)

Irregular warfare is not something I’ve heard or read about in the news, but it’s the tactic Seth G. Jones states is happening against the U.S. by Russia, Iran, and China; and he argues the U.S. should conduct more irregular warfare against its enemies. Three Dangerous Men focuses on the following three leaders: Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, the deceased Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, and vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Zhang Youxia. The book discusses the men’s formative years, their rise to power, and the threat they pose (or posed, in the case of Soleimani) to the U.S. At roughly 200 pages, the book is an easy read if you’d like to quickly learn more about the threats that face America in 2023.

1984 by George Orwell (Audiobook)

I first read this novel when I was nineteen, and now I’ve read it a second time at forty-two. It hits a lot differently in one’s middle years. I’m older now than the main character (he’s thirty-nine at the beginning of the story), and I’ve lived long enough to have experienced some of what Orwell describes in his book.

We’re not living in the same world depicted in 1984, but examples of doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime can be found throughout history and even in the present day. If you’re up for a grim and chilling portrayal of a dystopian future (can’t blame you if you’re not), this is the book to read.


I give myself permission to stop reading a book if I don’t find it helpful. In those instances there are times when I’ll return to the book later. Other times I’ll abandon it altogether.

Below are the 17 books I finished in 2022, along with my thoughts. If you’d like to check out the books I read during previous years, you can do so here: 20182019, 2020, and 2021.

I hope there’s a book waiting for you below that enriches your life and inspires you to face the New Year with knowledge in your head and hope in your heart.

1. Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis

The main idea in Wanting is based upon the work of French polymath René Girard, who believed humans are taught to want what they want. We imitate each other more than we realize. Our desires are not really our own and understanding this is important for determining what we truly want, or more importantly, what we actually need.

Wanting provides many examples of models that manipulate us into wanting what might not be good for us. An exercise Burgis provides is to read a newspaper that’s at least a week out of date. With hindsight we can better determine how we are unknowingly influenced. Burgis wants us to rely on our own meditative thought, which includes having the patience to allow truth to reveal itself without relying solely on the opinions of others.

2. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke

As the subtitle states, Americans live in a time of indulgence. We are constantly distracting ourselves from the present moment, and entertainment reigns supreme. Unfortunately, the pleasure dopamine provides comes with consequences. Lembke writes that based upon studies conducted by neuroscientist Nora Volkow, “prolonged consumption of high-dopamine substances eventually leads to a dopamine deficit” (page 55). She explains the continual pursuit of pleasure for its own sake can lead to anhedonia, “which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind” (page 57). Every pleasure has a price, and in most cases that price is diminishing returns. The first moment of pleasure never feels as good as the second.

So how do we combat this? Through pursuing pain. There is a connection between pleasure and pain. Lembke quotes Socrates: “… whenever the one is found, the other follows up behind” (page 147). If we attain a fleeting moment of pleasure, pain isn’t too far away. Likewise, if we seek forms of pain, pleasure may arrive as a byproduct.

What are some healthy pursuits of pain? Intermittent fasting, exercise, cold showers, “pro-social shame,” and truth-telling. Of course, experiencing pain can become an addiction on its own, so it’s important to seek balance. This is helpful to know, but it drives home a point with which we’re all familiar: life isn’t easy.

3. Just Keep Buying: Proven Ways to Save Money and Build Your Wealth by Nick Maggiulli

As the title suggests, Maggiulli is a proponent of investing as frequently as possible. With dollar cost averaging and compounding interest, he does a good job explaining the difference between investing and saving, which makes Just Keep Buying a helpful book for those getting their financial house in order. He provides tips I haven’t read in other books, such as the 2x Rule to spend money guilt free (i.e. anytime Maggiulli wants to splurge, he has to take that same amount of money and invest it). Some other rules Maggiulli includes are “saving is for the poor, investing is for the rich;” “save what you can;” “focus on income, not spending;” “save at least 50% of your future raises and bonuses;” “debt isn’t good or bad, it depends on how you use it;” “you’ll never feel rich and that’s okay;” and many more.

4. Peer Power: Unite, Learn, Prosper: Activate an Assessment Revolution by Paul Bloomberg, Barbara Pitchford, Kara Vandas, et al.

Peer Power has a number of contributors, and I found almost every chapter to be helpful. The biggest clarity it brought to my thinking is what “empowering all learners” truly means. For me, being empowered means that students own their learning. You may ask, “What does owning your learning mean?” For me, students own their learning when they can answer the following questions: 1) Where am I going? 2) Where am I now? 3) How will I be successful?

5. From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks

This book’s beginning is pretty gloomily because it discusses the ages at which adults begin to decline, and it’s unfortunately much sooner than you’d think. By the end of Chapter 1, Brooks provides three “doors” one can choose to go through once the decline has begun.

1. You can deny the facts and rage agains the decline–setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. 2. You can shrug and give in to decline–and experience your aging as an unavoidable tragedy. 3. You can accept that what got you to this point won’t work to get you into the future–that you need to build some new strengths and skills.

From Strength to Strength, page 22

The rest of the book is dedicated to door 3, and I highly recommend what Brooks shares.

6. The Outward Mindset: How to Change Lives and Transform Organizations by The Arbinger Institute

This book if for leaders, and I can sum it up as follows: having an outward mindset means you do not use people as a means to an end. Leaders must find ways to garner buy-in, determine win/win scenarios, and produce results.

7. Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry

Comanche Moon is the fourth book McMurtry wrote within the Lonesome Dove saga but the second chronologically. It provides readers with everything they’ve come to expect in a story featuring Woodrow Call and August McCrae: unforgiving landscapes, the absence of justice, violent and unexpected deaths, love lost, and an enthralling tale.

It took me two years to finish the Lonesome Dove saga, and I’m so thankful I did. After investing so much time in the previous books, passages such as the following approach the reader like a melancholic drift through the prairie.

Several times in his life he had felt an intense desire to start over, to somehow turn back the clock of his life to a point where he might, if he were careful, avoid the many mistakes he had made the first time around. He knew such a thing was impossible, but it was still pleasant to dream about it, to conjure, in fantasy, a different and more successful life, and that is what he did, sitting on a large rock by the river and watching the brown water as it rippled over the rocks where Matty had caught the turtle.

Comanche Moon, page 614

The characters McMurtry created will be with me forever, and I’m thankful for the experience. That’s whey we read fiction, right?

8. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain

This past spring was a bittersweet time of my life–perhaps more bitter than sweet. I probably wouldn’t have purchased this book if I wasn’t experiencing what I felt then, but I’m glad I did. Cain provides a compelling case for why its beneficial to embrace the bitter portions of life. Pain helps us see clearly. By embracing it, creative people can “look pain in the eye, and… decide to turn it into something better” (page 61).

Cain’s insight is helpful. “Just because someone makes a claim against you doesn’t mean it’s true,” a friend once told her (page 156). Or regarding painful experiences, another person says: “It’s like a cracked mirror now… Something is always missing. The mirror doesn’t get put back the way it was, but if you work, you can get a piece back” (page 202). Or in regard to our life partner: “This means we should stop longing for the unconditional love of our missing half; we should come to terms with our partner’s imperfections and focus instead on fixing ourselves” (page 29).

Bittersweet helps the reader acknowledge that it’s ok to embrace pain and longing because by doing so we can live healthier, richer, and more meaningful lives.

9. The Midrange Theory by Seth Partnow

A good book for hardcore NBA fans. Partnow describes the evolution of the game from where it was, where it is now, and where it might be going. If you’re familiar with Steph Curry, you know basketball has changed a lot over the past decade, and the midrange shot (10-16 feet from the basket) waned as the 3-point shot became triumphant. In addition to delving into this evolution, Partnow shares a lot of additional insight into the game. He discusses what makes teams playoff contenders, the true definition of “good stats,” and how to conduct successful basketball analytics.

Not surprisingly, the data Partnow provides is interesting, but it also does what data is notorious for: providing more questions than solutions. At one point he even writes:

In fact, as models become more sophisticated and precisely tuned, the ‘black box effect’ of not knowing what’s going on underneath the hood grows more prevalent.

The Midrange Theory, Location: 1,751 (Kindle edition)

Although our human brains seek order and certainty, it’s refreshing to read a sports writer who’s comfortable saying he’s uncertain. In fact, at one point he states:

It’s unsatisfying, but ‘I don’t know’ is usually a better answer than the false projection of confidence, and when it comes to defense, there’s much more that we don’t know than that which we do.

The Midrange Theory, Location: 2,873 (Kindle edition)

There are some ESPN pundits that could benefit from this sentiment.

10. The TB12 Method: How to Do What You Love, Better and for Longer by Tom Brady

Most football fans fall into two camps when it comes to Tom Brady. They either think he’s the GOAT or a fraud. I fall into the former group, and this year I finally read The TB12 Method. The book can be described as follows: Brady’s biography, workout (pliability), nutritional plan, and brain training.

The TB12 Method can be helpful if you’re interested in a new framework for becoming more healthy. I haven’t adopted everything Brady outlines, but the two things I have incorporated are his advice on hydration and becoming more pliable through the use of a roller before workouts.

11. True and False: Hersey and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet

David Mamet is an American playwright and screenwriter, and he wrote True and False to teach actors how to approach their craft on the stage. In the book Mamet refers often to Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was a theater legend. Here’s my best shot at what both men would say good acting is: Actors leave their personal lives outside the theater, they learn what their character wants and perform the action that’s needed to bring the character to life, they work simply and without unnecessarily flourish, they trust their own common sense and do not read too much into the playwright’s intent, they show courage through fighting self-doubt, they do not complain, and at the end of the show they leave it all on the stage.

You don’t have to be an actor to find wisdom in this book. Yes, Mamet provides constructive thoughts on how to perform well on the stage, but his advice can be applied in any professional field. Take this except:

The greatest performances are seldom noticed. Why? Because they do not draw attention to themselves, and do not seek to—like any real heroism, they are simple and unassuming, and seem to be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the actor. They so fuse with the actor that we accept them as other-than-art.

True and False, page 79

In other words, work hard and don’t go out of your way to draw attention to yourself–the goal should not be to garner recognition.

Mamet also provides the reader with a salutary reminder about complaining and feeling sorry for oneself.

Such remarks as ‘I am a fraud, I am no good, I was terrible tonight’ are the opposite of effective self-improvement. They are obeisance to an outside or internalized authority—they are a plea to that authority for pity for your helpless state.

True and False, page 48

And later:

‘Oh, how terrible I was.…’ How difficult to keep those words in—how comforting they are. In saying them one creates an imaginary group interested in one’s progress. But give up the comfort of an imaginary group. This ‘group’ that is judging you is not real; you invented it to make yourself feel less alone.

True and False, page 49

One shouldn’t confuse feelings of worthlessness with self-improvement. Instead we must try our best and leave it all on the stage–both in the theater and in life.

12. Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardware Warrior by Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson knows success, and this book is a thoughtful, meditative explanation of his worldview. It also provides great lessons for leaders. Jackson writes:

Albert Einstein once described his rules of work: ‘One: Out of clutter, find simplicity. Two: From discord, find harmony. Three: In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ That was the kind of attitude I had to have… I had to let go of my compulsive need for order and learn how to stay composed when everything seemed hopelessly out of control.

Sacred Hoops, page 70

I know the feeling. Another feeling leaders know:

An NBA team is a highly charged environment, and players are always grumbling about something, no matter how compassionate the coach is or how well the team is doing.

Sacred Hoops, page 103

Leadership is hard, and there are so many excerpts I could share from this book that I underlined. Jackson knows it takes a clear mind and open heart if you want to be a leader, and this book is a great source of quiet strength for anyone bold enough to lead others.

13. Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates

This is a great book to read if you want a clear understanding of what Balanced Literacy is. For a while I placed excerpts at the end of my morning emails to my staff just to provide some food for thought. Some of these include:

Orthographic mapping is aligning speech to print. Decoding is aligning print to speech.

Shifting the Balance, page 99


In fact, it seems a bit crazy but thirteen little words account for more than 25 percent of the words in print!

Shifting the Balance, page 91

If these snippets sound interesting, then you’ll really like the book.

14. Will by Will Smith and Mark Manson

I mentioned to a few people I was reading this book. Each time I received the same question: Why?

The answer is that during a Dodgers game Mookie Betts was mic’d up on the field and answered a series of questions–one of which was which books he recently read. Will was one of them. (For the record, I’m a Giants fan.)

It would be a shame to avoid Will because of “The Slap.” The book is fascinating because a careful reading helps explain why The Slap occurred. Will was published well before the Oscars ceremony, which makes its revelations even more astonishing. Smith cracks himself open and offers an unvarnished look at his psyche. Because of this, I found Will to be the most engaging book I read this year.

If understanding what makes Smith tick (or explode, for that matter) doesn’t interest you, maybe you’ll find his insights, and–dare I say–wisdom interesting.

In the book Smith refers to himself as “Uncle Fluffy.” Uncle Fluffy is the one who wants everyone to like him. With the help of a therapist named Michaela, Smith begins to understand the destruction that comes from trying to please everyone. Michaela tells him:

We need you to be solid; we need your ‘yes’ to be a yes, and your ‘no’ to be a no. As long as you are twisting and contorting and selling yourself for the affection of others, you will always be untrustworthy.

Will, page 379

She continues:

I want you to have an experience of yourself minus the need to be approved of… Who are you really? What does your heart truly want? What are your deepest values and authentic goals? The problem with Uncle Fluffy is that you are never free to make a pure decision, one that is honest and true for you. You are always forced by Fluffy to compromise and to do the thing that gets the most approval, likes, or sales. Will’s creativity is thwarted by Fluffy’s need for approval. What are Will’s feelings, Will’s opinions, Will’s needs, Will’s ideas?

Will, page 380

Michaela says Smith becomes trapped by the expectations of others because he doesn’t want to let them down and receive their disdain. She ultimately wants him to become a “Freestanding Man.”

…a Freestanding Man is self-aware, self-reliant, self-motivated, self-confident, and utterly unswayed by people’s approval or disapproval. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants. And because of this, he surrenders his considerable gifts into the service of others.

Will, page 381

This is good advice for a people pleaser. It’s also possible this realization planted the seeds of The Slap. Who am I to say? Banishing a people pleaser mentality is healthy, but like anything, every strength has a weakness.

15. The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is my favorite novelist, and this is his first book since 2006’s The Road. A friend of mine and I have talked and texted a lot about this novel, and at the end of each conversation we basically conclude that the book is impenetrable, but we’re thankful McCarthy has given us something new.

The experience of The Passenger is similar to reading a really long poem. Don’t expect a traditional plot or an author who holds your hand during the character’s dialogue (all without quotation marks). McCarthy makes you fend for yourself. If, however, you’re up for the challenge, once in a while you’ll catch a glimpse of, perhaps, what McCarthy wants you to understand–or at least halfway comprehend. Towards the end he writes:

To prepare for any struggle is largely a work of unburdening oneself. If you carry your past into battle you are riding to your death. Austerity lifts the heart and focuses the vision. Travel light. A few ideas are enough. Every remedy for loneliness only postpones it. And that day is coming in which there will be no remedy at all.

The Passenger, page 379

If you’re not interested in what any of that could possibly mean, steer clear of The Passenger.

16. Heat 2 by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner

I was 15-years-old when I first watched Michael Mann’s Heat in the movie theater with my dad. From what I remember I liked it, but it’s really been in my thirties and early forties that Heat has become a staple I watch on an annual basis.

This novelized sequel isn’t as great as the movie, but it is good. Heat 2 takes place both before and after the events of Heat, and it’s entertaining to see how the characters’ pasts and futures weave together. During a podcast interview Mann said he was going to make Heat 2 into a movie. I’m not sure how that’s possible–De Niro, Pacino, and Kilmer can’t reprise their roles. Will Mann recast the actors? Use age reduction technology à la The Irishmen? Make it a CGI film?

Heat is perfect and the sequel is entertaining. Part of me thinks Heat 2 should remain a novel, but I could definitely be wrong.

17. Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds by David Goggins

This is the other book Mookie Betts mentioned when he was mic’d during a game. He said that Goggins makes you feel like you can “run through a wall.” Betts was spot on.

Can’t Hurt Me is an anecdote to a lot of bad advice out there, and its wisdom is a culmination of what’s shared in many of the other books I read this year: embrace pain and suffering to become stronger. Goggins is one hard individual, his difficult upbringing and the many obstacles he’s overcome have built him into a barrier breaking machine. Time and again he asks himself, “What am I capable of?” Then he seeks out the most difficult challenges in order to prove to himself that nothing can hurt him.

Toward the end of the book Goggins mentions The 40% Rule, which states that once we think we’ve hit our limit running, studying, etc., we most likely still have 60% more effort we can give. This is the mindset he has used to complete ultramarathons, break world records, and train within elite military organization.


As I wrote my thoughts for these books, it gradually dawned on me that there’s a theme of pain and survival threading the works together.

Nothing is easy in life, and there’s no guarantee hard times will subside, but books provide us with solace and inspiration, and I’m grateful I was able to read the books listed above.

Here’s to a great year of reading in 2023.


Below are the books I read in 2021. Just like previous annual lists I’ve shared (2018, 2019, and 2020), I haven’t included books I didn’t finish due either to time restraints or because they were boring.

I read 19 books this year, which is lower than my average over the past few years. A wife who’s battling cancer, running an elementary school and opening a second, and raising two kids left little spare time, but I’m thankful for the moments I had to read, which was usually late at night.

The titles have been placed in reverse chronological order, so the first book listed is the last book I read this year. I hope there’s one waiting for you that enriches your life and inspires you to face the New Year with knowledge in your head and hope in your heart.

1. The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees by Ben Mezrich.

In one sense, the world is changing dramatically. In another, status quo reigns supreme. I’m not sure if this dichotomy was a major theme Mezrich considered while writing The Antisocial Network, but it certainly stood out to me .

2. Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates.

This is a helpful primer for differentiation in one’s reading instruction.

3. Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry.

A wonderful novel by Larry McMurtry that’s first chronologically in the Lonesome Dove saga. (It was the third book written.) Not as epic as Lonesome Dove, but what is?

4. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and and Max Gladstone.

I like the idea of this book, but I found the story impenetrable. I understood just enough to get the gist, but I didn’t fully enjoy the experience because of the constant uncertainty I felt regarding what was occurring on the page.

5. The Coffee Bean: A Simple Lesson to Create Positive Change by Jon Gordon.

A good reminder that we have control over our reactions.

6. The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Edith Eger.

My wife read this after me, and she loved it, which is high praise for this autobiography.

7. Exhalation by Ted Chiang.

The inventive short stories in this collection made me think of technology in a way I never had before, which I appreciate, but a few stories went on too long and lost my interest.

8. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein.

Important ideas in a mediocre book that could have been an insightful article.

9. Freedom by Sebastian Junger.

I’ll read anything by Junger; he opens my eyes to a truth for which I’m thankful.

10. God’s Debris: A Thought Experiement by Scott Adams.

Interesting ideas that are fun to read in an undergrad sort of way.

11. PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, John T. Almarode, Karen T. Flories, and Dave Nagel.

The best thing about books written by Fisher and Frey is the consistency between them. They don’t focus on shiny new ideas and strategies but rather reveal how the same topics can be used within different situations at a school.

12. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson.

Peterson’s books are important to read because they remind us of our own personal responsibility in this world.

13. The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking by Saifedean Ammous.

The best argument for why owning Bitcoin is important.

14. Making Sense of Phonics: The Hows and Why’s by Isabel L. Beck.

This pairs well with the book I mentioned above entitled Shifting the Balance.

15. Kings of Crypto: One Startup’s Quest to Take Cryptocurrency Out of Silicon Valley and Onto Wall Street by Jeff John Roberts.

This book documents the genesis of Coinbase, which is a major platform people use to purchase crypto.

16. Connecting with Students Online: Strategies for Remote Teaching & Learning by Jennifer Serravallo.

This was helpful last year during distance learning… Time will tell as to whether the strategies will be needed in the future.

17. Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin To Munger by Peter Bevelin.

The best book I read this year.

18. Bitcoin Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.

A sequel of sorts to The Social Network (AKA The Accidental Billionaires).

19. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake.

A difficult book of short stories with which to begin the year because I found the narratives hard to track. I would love to discuss the stories with someone… Let me know if you ever read the collection.

That’s it! I hope you found this list helpful. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Here’s to a great year of reading in 2022!


The early hours of the day are important. I film the morning announcements in my office, send the link to the teachers, and walk outside toward the playground. I’m facing east, and the sun is peaking over the mountains. Light beams across the sky until the sun shows its full roundness. Water collects from the sprinklers on the grass, and these pools will fascinate the students. They’ll surround the tiny ponds until a yard aide says they must be careful or they’ll ruin their new shoes, and the children will laugh as they scatter.

The campus is brand new, and it’s these moments before students and adults arrive that I can think about what I’ve learned opening Highgate Elementary School as a principal. Below are twelve of those reflections. Of course, the year has just began. There will be triumphs and hard lessons learned, but there are already takeaways I can share that might be helpful to future leaders at brand new school sites.

1. Understand the implications of a blank slate.

As you can imagine, a new school is completely empty. Schools in existence for a year or more have historical knowledge embedded within them. When you’re a new principal at these established schools, you can spend your first year learning the answers to questions such as: Which gates are used for arrival and dismissal? How do parents approach the school? Where are the best places for them to park? How will the kindergarten students leave the cafeteria? Who will walk with them? What locations should the supervision aides monitor in the morning and afternoon?

And those are just logistics. At a new school you must develop answers to the above questions, but the blank slate includes so much more: supplies that haven’t yet arrived (thanks, COVID). Incomplete kindergarten cumulative files. Teams that must get to know each other and build trust. Parents with important questions. Students who have never stepped foot on the campus. Instructional systems that need to be implemented, executed, and monitored.

A blank slate is difficult because paralysis can set in. When you can do anything, where should you begin? What’s the best first step? Whose questions should be answered first? Which system is most important to establish right off the bat?

On the flip side, a blank slate means there are no bad habits. The culture hasn’t been built, so there’s neither a pre-established positive or negative culture. It’s all up to you and the team you’ve assembled.

2. You may have to work two jobs.

For a new school to open properly in the fall, the principal must at least be hired the previous January. Work for the new school begins immediately, but that doesn’t mean you cease leading your current school. The new school requires communication, a mascot, furniture orders, supply orders, hiring, etc. At the same time, the principal must take care of the responsibilities at the current school. This includes moving forward with the vision, supporting students and staff, putting out fires, and implementing directives that are received (instructionally and COVID-related).

This is part of the deal. Unless you’re given a year to open the new campus without school site leadership responsibilities–which is rare–you’re doing two jobs. You have to be ok with this.

3. Build a team by determining who will work well together.

The hiring of teachers and staff members must begin immediately. Since you’re still leading your current school site, the temptation will be to rush through interviews and cobble a team together because of the other responsibilities you’re facing–especially if the pandemic is still raging. This must be avoided at all costs.

The team you build will create the culture and ultimately determine what students will experience on the new campus. This hiring phase is the most critical, but it can easily be treated as perfunctory if you’re not careful.

Most importantly, you must hire people who will work well as a team. I’ve interviewed approximately 150 people for the new school, and there have been amazing candidates. It’s easy to determine who’s good; what’s hard is determining who will work well with each other. You’ll have to say “no” to great candidates–people you’ll hopefully work with in the future–because they unfortunately don’t fit well with the teams that are forming. Saying “no” to good people is difficult; it may be the most difficult part of opening a new school.

4. Don’t let anything distract you from establishing a strong culture and purpose.

Once the team is assembled, you’ll receive directives and be expected to lead instructionally. There will inevitably be stumbling blocks while establishing an edifying culture. Expectations will be thrust upon you, and the pressure to perform will build. You’ll feel like this must be implemented… and that. It wouldn’t be a school without this program, and the teachers must receive professional development for this strategy. The to-do list will quickly grow, and if you’re not careful, you’ll shift from leading to managing as you delegate, train, and share the burden of your stress.

At a new school, the culture–which is fragile and has not yet been established–will suffer if this happens. Even though people will tell you to spend time developing the culture, there will be precious little time. You must also contend with COVID, which makes meeting in person difficult as you keep people physically safe while at the same time building relationships. This isn’t an easy task.

It’s also important to establish the school’s purpose and tie everything back to that purpose. At Highgate Elementary School, the purpose is “Empowering all learners.” We’re careful to make sure that whatever we commit to empowers our learners: children and adults. This means students owning their learning and teachers building collective efficacy are high on our priority list.

Culture can’t be built without communication. Clarity needs to be established for the staff, and it’s also extremely important that communication occurs with the future students and families right away. Providing students with a voice in choosing the mascot, colors, and purpose statement of the school is extremely important. This will foster early buy-in and help everyone become excited to be part of opening a campus.

5. Supplies are difficult–doubly so because of the pandemic.

COVID has been devastating for many reasons, and one of those is the supply chain. It’s late September, and there are still supplies that haven’t arrived, but that didn’t mean we postponed the start date of school. The teachers are invested in doing a good job, so they’ve begun Donors Choose projects, Amazon Wish Lists, thought outside the box, and spent their own money to furnish classrooms and ensure students have what they need.

Because this is the first year of the school, there aren’t supplies remaining from previous years in the workroom. There are no extra dry erase markers or construction paper. Reams of paper aren’t stashed away, and you’ll pray the toner that comes with the new copy machine lasts long enough for the next shipment of toner to arrive.

Being a non-Title I school, you’ll have to contend with a budget that’s on the smaller side. Teachers from Title I schools will wonder why you’re being stingy, and teachers from schools that had a laissez faire approach to supplies will wonder why you’re such a Scrooge. They’ll become frustrated, but they may not say anything, which is why the next reflection is so important.

6. If there’s no conflict, someone’s voice isn’t being heard.

This sentiment was said to me years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. As a principal, I’ve repeated it multiple times because I believe it to be true.

When things are quiet, that’s when I’m most worried as a principal. Oftentimes, when leaders aren’t hearing complaints, they believe they’re doing a good job, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Quiet can mean something is stewing. That’s why it’s important to build relationships and seek out people’s true feelings to know what they’re actually thinking.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but I operate under the assumption that everyone is disgruntled about something, and it’s my job to stay positive and solve problems. If I’m wrong and people are happy, then I can be pleasantly surprised. If I’m right and people are indeed upset about something, then I’m mentally prepared to deal with the issues at hand, which leads me to the next lesson.

7. Take care of students by taking care of your staff.

Often I hear leaders say we need to be in this profession for the students and not the adults. It is without question that student learning is the priority and why we exist as an organization. I would just add that it’s a false dichotomy to say you have to be either for students or adults. Principals are not in the classroom on a regular basis. Because of this, we don’t have the same effect on students as teachers do. It’s the teachers and support staff who spend the most time with students, and so it makes sense (to me, at least) that a principal who takes care of the school’s employees is taking care of the students. This ties back to four of the previous items I’ve shared: focus on the team, establish a strong culture and purpose, work on getting people the resources they need, and welcome healthy conflict. If you accomplish these things, you’re on your way to supporting the adults on campus who work the closest with students.

8. Say “yes” more than “no.”

Start with yes. This should be the default mindset. If you’re opening a new school, it’s important to not squash ideas. If people want something, try to find a win/win situation. If you can’t give people what they want, it’s important they know why and let them express their frustration. Sometimes staff members will feel more comfortable going to a grade level lead, academic coach, or assistant principal with a concern. This is totally fine, and when you hear concerns secondhand, it’s important to address the need.

9. Say “no” more than “yes.”

You need to start with yes when it comes to people, but you must start with no when it comes to new initiatives. Steve Jobs famously said there should be a thousand no’s for every yes. As a leader, it’s so easy to say “yes” to items that should receive a no. I try to keep things simple, and I fortunately am surrounded by people who tell me when we need to scale back, or they remind me to not get us involved in something that will take too much time and stress the system. When people tell you what they think, that means they’re empowered, and that’s a good thing.

Saying “no” helps you skate to where the puck is going as opposed to where it is. All school site leaders know state and district directions change, so it’s important to stay light on your feet and not bog teachers down with tasks when the landscape shifts.

10. You have to live there for a while before you can make certain decisions.

It’s important to accurately determine what you’ll need at the new school site as soon as possible, but when you’re still a principal at one school, and you’re trying your best to fill the classrooms and the office at the new school with furniture, your forecasting isn’t going to be perfect. Even though you have the blueprints and know the sizes of the rooms, you don’t know precisely the best way to furnish each room; especially when it comes to such things as: number of file cabinets, where people will eventually want the furniture, the best places to house technology, where to put copiers, and more. It might be good to have a few different lists: a preliminary list of items you’ll know you’ll need, a second list for items that will be purchased once you’re functioning on campus, and a third (smaller) list for all other items that are necessary.

11. Aesthetics matter.

Clip art, comic sans, and images made in Google Slides have their places, but the branding of a school is important, which includes the mascot, logo, colors, typeface, online presence, spirit wear, and more. It’s important to collect feedback from the future students, families, and staff, and you must employ professional help in order to create vector files and high resolution images, which will be helpful in the future for a variety of reasons.

12. As much as possible, turn off work when you step through the front door of your home in the evening.

Life is short. Health is fragile. Good times don’t last long enough. Building a new school is thrilling at times, but if you’re still leading another school while opening the new school, you have to protect yourself and ensure you have time with your family and friends. Even if you’re not doing double duty, opening a new school is stressful. You must prioritize your health, which includes exercise, eating well, and attending health appointments–something principals skip far too often.

Your health is the most important thing you have. If you’re not healthy, then you can’t help others.

In conclusion

I’m thankful I have a part in the genesis of something that will outlast me and affect the lives of students for decades to come. Opening Highgate Elementary School has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m so thankful for the hardworking team I’m a part of that empowers all learners.

I’ve written two previous posts about being a principal: What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal and What I’ve Learned As a Principal After One Year of COVID.


Last spring I wrote a post entitled What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal. Now that I’ve finished my second year, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect upon what I’ve learned as a principal during the “COVID Year.”

1. You’ve got to take care of your health first.

This is intuitive yet easy to ignore. Exercise, eating well, and adequate sleep are required to perform as a leader. If these items are pushed to the side, the result could range from lowered performance to significant health issues. It’s a cliché to state that you can’t help others until you help yourself, but it’s true.

The slow-carb diet, assembling a gym in my garage, Apple Fitness+, running outside, and tracking my sleep on my Apple Watch have all contributed to a healthier lifestyle for me this past year. My plan is to use the Calm app more often this summer and into next school year.

Also, now that I’m 40, when it comes to losing weight I’ve learned that diet trumps exercise. My time is better spent prepping for a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner rather than working out (if time is a factor).

2. The students want to see you.

When students returned to in-person instruction, I began doing morning announcements via Loom as opposed to over the loudspeaker, and I was shocked by the response. I thought that sending a link to teachers every morning to share with their classes would quickly get old for everyone, but students have overwhelmingly provided positive feedback. Even though they were learning remotely for a large portion of the year, they now feel connected to me in a way that wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t watching the announcements every morning.

3. Winning is the best way to improve an organization’s morale.

I’ve known this since my high school sports days, but I’ve come to greatly appreciate this truth over the past school year. An organization that experiences clear wins is going to function better than an organization that doesn’t. The best way, and possibly only way, to improve a culture is to reflect upon successes.

So schools should celebrate student growth on formative assessments. They should celebrate students’ behavior growth. They should recognize all the positive things their hard work is reaping. And if you can’t identify any wins, then the job of the team is to get a quick win right away so momentum can begin and morale can improve.

4. Humor solves or exacerbates problems.

My attempts at humor often result in lame dad jokes, but I have found some success injecting humor into situations that desperately need it. Saying a pun, even a well-timed and clever pun, will induce groans and eye rolls, but it can reset a conversation and bring levity to meetings that are either in-person or via Zoom.

Of course, this can backfire. Too many jokes, or coming across carefree while everyone else is in crisis, is a surefire way to kill culture. You’re walking a tightrope when using humor as a tool, which means it can work spectacularly or fail miserably.

5. Clarity is critical.

Learning progressions, learning intentions, success criteria… I’m learning about these important components of teacher clarity, and I’m realizing how important they are for student achievement. We want to be clear so students can own their learning–that’s the ultimate goal. Likewise, administrators must provide clear messages to team members. This means there is coherence and alignment in not just what is communicated, but also in what teachers are expected to accomplish.

6. COVID made everyone edtech experts.

Teachers learned so much over the past school year. Folks who rarely checked email began uploading assignments to Google Classroom and Canvas, communicating digitally with students and families, and replying to emails. I used to be in educational technology, and I worked hard to help teachers adopt digital tools and blended learning strategies. The pandemic forced all of us to adapt, and there’s nothing else in recent memory that spurred the same amount of professional growth within the field of education. Necessity truly is the mother of invention… and learning.

7. You will not make everyone happy.

People are divided. It’s a safe bet that whatever decision you make in our current climate is going to thrill half the people and upset the other half.

As leaders, our job is to understand that nothing is easy. Everything worth doing takes hard work–oftentimes painful work. And as we know, it’s during the hard times that we need solid leadership the most.

8. Family trumps all.

I wrote “family trumps all” at the end of last year’s post What I’ve Learned After One Year As a Principal, and I’ve relearned the importance of prioritizing one’s family. Here are some statements I think about regularly.

Life is short.

Life goes by way too fast.

Things disappear sooner than you think they will.

If everyone took care of their own family, the world would be a better place.

If you stopped working right now, your organization would continue. The wheel would continue turning. It’s important to remember this because oftentimes leaders mistakenly believe that everything would fall apart if they disappeared. This is definitely not the case, and we must remember why for two reasons: 1) It will keep us humble, and 2) It will help us keep our priorities straight.

In conclusion…

This has been a hard year, and to be honest, I don’t see the road getting easier anytime soon. That’s ok. There have always been difficult times, and it’s our duty to get out of bed every morning and try to make the world a better place.

Next year I’m opening a new school, so during the spring or early summer of 2022, I’ll write another post about what I learned throughout the process. Stay tuned.