Heart-Centered Work

I read non-stop for the past few days of my fall break to finish The Book of Two Ways – Jodi Picoult’s latest gift. Inspired by her son’s account of The Book of Two Ways in Egyptology, Picoult wrote a textbook about archaeology set amidst a brutally honest account of the choices we make, or don’t make, that change the course of our lives. In the novel, Dawn’s two possible futures unravel and collide. Her journey is familiar to us – who would you be, if you weren’t who you are now? 

When you get to be a certain age, old memories and questions are always in the back of our minds. What might have been? What if you went to the college where you were waitlisted, chose the job in another city, did not get on that train, you get the picture. It is also really heartwarming when you can look back with no regret and know that the choices you made were meant to be, even if you did not know it at the time. And, yes, even winding paths can lead you to where you belong.

Dawn also describes her work as a death doula, supporting people in their end of life process, as heart-centered work. This is the phrase that has played in my head all weekend. Why would you want anything less? All of our work should be heart-centered. We should be passionate about our career and love what we do. Or, why do it? 

COVID-19 has made me see my role as the Head of Kent School in a slightly different way. It is now, more than ever, a heart-centered position. We opened for in-person instruction on September 8. Planning and decision making has been mentally exhausting. But, it is the heartfelt caring for humans – faculty, those who support teaching and learning, students, and their families, that must be the highest priority in this time of great anxiety and added responsibility for everyone. 

And, while, all of the experts say you must also take time for yourself, the reality is that this is almost impossible right now. If my work were not heart centered, I would not be able to keep the pace with which I have allowed myself to work. My school community means so much to me. I am doing it for love. 

Fall break this past weekend was a chance to reset, relax, and breathe. So glad I had The Book of Two Ways to guide me.

The Writing Spider

Kent School Admission Office visitor

I am not a fan of spiders. I admit that if I see one, I will have to yell for Jim to take care of it. When Jenna was a little girl she interrupted Jim while he was watching an Orioles game one night to get a spider in her bathroom. Of course, it was the bottom of the ninth inning, the Orioles were down by three runs, and the count was three balls, two strikes, with two outs. Jim totally downplayed it and told Jenna not to worry about the spider so he could watch the final batter. As luck would have it, Chris Hoiles hit a walk off grand slam for the Orioles win that night, and Jim saw it. When he finally got up to check on the spider, I heard him yell from the kids’ bathroom, “Jenna, get my slipper.” It was a little bigger than he imagined, but that is another story. 

Recently, I learned that yellow garden spiders are also called writing spiders – now, that piqued my curiosity. What do they write?

The writing spider can be found throughout the temperate grasslands, prairie and scrublands of North America.  This common spider, sometimes called the black and yellow garden spider, is regularly found in backyards. Argiope aurantia prefers sunny areas among flowers, shrubs and tall plants. Open fields and meadows are another typical home for this sun-loving arachnid (Milne and Milne 1980). 

The writing part of its name refers to the way it spins its web. The white zigzag in the centre of its web is called the stabilimentum or web decoration and resembles a zipper. Many believe the way the spider moves back and forth zigging and zagging is similar to writing. 

While I have never seen this particular spider working, I imagine it is like Charlotte in one of my favorite children’s novels by E. B. White which tells the story of a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte. When Wilbur is in danger of becoming the farmer’s dinner, Charlotte writes messages in her web praising Wilbur in order to save him. Charlotte is the first writing spider I ever knew.

Writing, for me, can also be a zig zagging process. Author Gustave Flaubert wrote: The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. This statement truly captures my personal experience with writing. I often get new ideas for my blog through conversation. But those ideas don’t become mine until I write about them. Clear prose means clear thought and, for me, writing is all about thinking. It solidifies my thoughts and helps me formulate new ones. 

Writing is also about re-writing, editing, and reflecting on your message to be sure it represents your thoughts appropriately and authentically – zig zagging as it mirrors my stream-of-consciousness thinking. 

The ancient Chinese regarded the written word as a transformative force able to move heaven and earth and unite the reader with the source of all things, the Tao. (The Art of Writing, Chou Ping) If we all took some time to use the written word to formulate our opinions before we said them aloud, we might all get along just a little bit better. At a minimum, we would be more civil towards one another.

Everyone is a writer. Yes, to pursue it as a career takes education, special training, and endless practice. But, for most of us, on a daily basis, all it takes is time with your thoughts and their subtle back and forth, and a basic desire to elevate others with your words, like Charlotte. 


I have been inspired lately by the meditations of the late Richard Wagamese, an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation of Canada. His storytelling is one of Canada’s many gifts to the world. This morning his words spoke directly to me: I sit and contemplate where the words will lead me today…the magic that is storytelling propelling us forward….and the peace of words planted in the rich and fertile landscape of the page.

His comforting words give me pause, among the noise that is the world we live in right now. I am so grateful for the moment of silence on my porch, save the lone Osprey, of a nest of four, waiting to join his family on their long journey south. The Chester River is very calm and my soul is nourished by its glass-like surface. River, our black lab, is peacefully asleep beside me. Wagamese tells me this morning that there is such a powerful eloquence in silence, and I could not agree more. 

Sometimes people just need to talk, they need to be heard. Especially now. I, myself, have been writing less this summer and talking more. Maybe this is the wrong approach. Returning to my medium of choice, I will try and share my story of the summer of 2020. A summer of great disappointment due to the cancellation of our family vacation in Montana due to COVID, and a summer of deep reflection, as well as swift action as we plan to return to the Kent School campus for in-person instruction on September 8. 

Trust me when I say that opening Kent School is not political. Even though I have been hurtfully accused of this recently. We are following the health metrics where we live and following all of the guidelines established for schools. There are three main reasons we can return safely to campus – our incredible outdoor spaces, our large classrooms, and our small community. The beauty of independent schools is that we operate independently. Never has this meant more to me.

Children need to be in school for their health and well-being. Parents need their young children in school so they can work. We all know that nothing can replace the rich interactions between teacher and student that happen in the classroom. And, we all have to learn to live responsibly with COVID. I have lost a lot of sleep this summer. I am very mindful of the fact that there are no zero-risk scenarios, and that I have the lives of our students and teachers, and the livelihood of our employees and families in my hands. But, I also believe that the layers of mitigation we have put in place will minimize virus transmission in a region with a small number of active COVID cases.

I am trying to work more on my listening skills. My first reaction is generally to counter, defend, or correct. Maybe that is not my role in this complicated time. Maybe my role is to wait in silence for the talker to say all of the words they need to say. Maybe articulating their feelings helps them come to their own decision. I can not tell a family whether or not they should send their child back to school in two weeks. Each families’ circumstances are unique, and each parent’s thought process is different. These are personal family decisions, made with great thought, and which I deeply respect. 

Four new faculty members will be on campus Monday at Kent School, and all faculty return on Tuesday. I cannot wait to be together, with face coverings and socially distanced seating, as we dive into professional learning, create COVID-responsible classrooms and schedules, and support each other as we begin, what I am sure will be, a very interesting and fluid academic year. 

From Wagamese’s Embers the following exchange sums up my thoughts perfectly and I plan to share them with all employees on Tuesday.

Old Woman: Choose what leads you to the highest vision you can have for yourself, and then choose what allows you to express that. What you express, you experience. What you experience, you are.

Me: How do I prepare?

Old Woman: Breathe…


In the Cool, Open Air

Last weekend Jim, Jenna and I spent a quiet and appropriately distanced few days on Tilghman Island, a charming Eastern Shore watermen’s village. We went for relaxation and to unplug for a short time in this crazy time of COVID. We are supposed to be with Kelsy in Montana, visiting James. I was disappointed not to be in Big Sky country with our whole family, but there is always next summer.

On Tilghman Island we spent a few nights at the Wylder Hotel. A beautiful waterfront spot complete with an outdoor restaurant perfect for dining in the time of COVID. Al fresco dining is something I truly love. Jim and Jenna are not fans (something about Eastern Shore flies), but we had no choice except to eat outdoors so they made the best of it. For me, it was simply perfect. 

The phrase al fresco is Italian meaning “in the cool air,” although it is not used to describe eating outdoors in Italy. Al fresco dining is, of course, popular here in the summer and I greatly enjoy it on my screened porch when it is not 100+ degrees. The auto industry also uses the phrase “al fresco motoring” to describe driving a convertible with the top down, but I like to think I am driving al fresco when I have my sunroof open with my hand up catching the wind. 

Being outside on a summer morning or evening, in the cool air, breathes life into each of us as we emerge from the long, cold COVID springtime and face the months ahead. I am busy with the Kent School team as we plan to return to campus for in-person learning in September. We are thinking a lot about outdoor learning and activities so that we can maximize time outside in our teaching gardens, and on the back field under tents, on our riverside campus in the cool, open air.

At one time in its hundred-plus-year history, Roland Park Country School (my previous school) left the four walls of the classroom behind and became an Open Air school. Open Air schools were built on the concept that fresh air, good ventilation and exposure to the outside contributed to improved health (Wikipedia). The concept originated in Germany and these schools were designed with movable walls to the outside to prevent tuberculosis before World War II. The concept is a good one in my opinion. One particularly cold day this past winter, before we knew about COVID, and when there were numerous absences due to influenza at Kent School, I asked all employees to throw open the doors and windows to get some fresh air inside. At a minimum, it made everyone – faculty and students alike – laugh at me, smile, and breathe deeply. Cool, crisp air is definitely restorative.

I am a writer who loves to write outside in the early morning. As we speak I am on my porch, writing al fresco in my open air “office.” The slight chill in the air and the breeze after Hurricane Isaias inspires me and the call of my ospreys motivates me to keep at it. (The coffee also helps the creative process along!) 

Thinking ahead to dinner, it is definitely a good day to plan a grilled meal in the cool, open air.

Who Will Tell Your Story

Last night Jim and I viewed Hamilton, the film, on Disney+. Yes, we were those people who signed up for the service in time to see Hamilton. We could not wait to watch the original cast in the show that completely blew us away last summer when we saw Hamilton: An American Musical on Broadway. I had wanted to see the musical in the seat of the American revolution, New York City, since the musical opened at the Richard Rogers Theatre in 2015. The show focuses on the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics and book by the incredibly creative Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was inspired after reading the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow. Jim only agreed to go to NYC with me last summer because he is a lover of history. (He knows he was my second choice guest, but that is another story.)

Like one of my Kent School students studying for an assessment, I prepared for weeks to see Hamilton in NYC. With apologies to my next door neighbors for blasting the combination rapped-and-sung musical score, my first step was learning the entire soundtrack. All 46 songs. So that I could sing in the theatre, of course. And, I sang along on my couch last night! I also read the synopsis of the musical by scene last year, which I found online, and felt confident I could easily follow the storyline.

Last summer I also read about Alexander Hamilton in one of my children’s high school U.S. History texts still on our bookshelf, and filled in some memory gaps about our Founding Fathers. Yet, it was the reading about our Founding Mothers that really fascinated me. I read with interest about Martha Washington, the first FLOTUS, Abigail Adams, an advocate for education for children, and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, co-founder and deputy director of the first private orphanage in New York City. Their lives and their work inspires me.

Abigail Adams said: If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation. I believe that this is still relevant today, and all of my previous research made me increasingly excited as showtime neared yesterday. On Independence Day weekend, I can think of no better film/musical theater masterpiece to watch. Hamilton is truly a gift to the history of the United States and, without question, the history of American musical theatre. Contemporary and meaningful today. If you have not yet seen this, get Disney+, you won’t be disappointed.

At the end of the first acte after hearing these words, I suddenly realized, I am like Hamilton. I understood how it must have felt for him to have so much to say with so little time.

How do you write like you’re

Running out of time?

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?

How do you write like you need it to survive?

How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

Hamilton is a kindred spirit to my writer muse and I vow to put his Federalist essays on my reading stack. But, alas, Alexander Hamilton, left us too soon, something about a duel with Aaron Burr. The final words of the show continue to resonate with me.

Every other founding father story gets told

Every other founding father gets to grow old

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name?

Who keeps your flame?

Who tells your story?

And, although Elizabeth Hamilton, broken hearted by her husband’s infidelity, claimed she would not help tell his story, after his death she established his legacy by collecting his letters and writings from others. She added to the narrative of her husband’s life by keeping his flame alive.

Jim and I loved seeing the film last night and are still talking this morning about who will tell our story. Our children for sure will have one version. And, Jim or I, whomever is last standing, will tell the story of us. 

Who will tell your story…

Accidental Tourist

I love Anne Tyler’s quick wit, her storytelling, and her quirky characters. I first became aware of her work when I moved to Baltimore in 1987 and read The Accidental Tourist, a beautiful and complicated love story between a travel writer and a dog trainer. The novel perfectly showcases Tyler’s ease with developing relationships between her characters and making them feel completely authentic – and in many cases, very Baltimore. The Accidental Tourist was my introduction to Anne Tyler, and I have eagerly read every single book she has written since.

I was in a Baltimore relationship at the time myself which resulted in marriage, children, dogs, more dogs, and also included the Orioles, the Ravens and crab feasts. (To this day, I still cannot understand the appeal of whacking a steamed crab with a mallet to get a tiny sliver of backfin, when you can just eat a crab cake, but that is another story.)

Jim and I moved to the Eastern Shore four years ago this summer and sometimes we still feel like tourists discovering new places. Now that Maryland is in Phase II, the past few weekends we have done some first-time things close to home like picking strawberries at Redman Farms and getting crabs from Billy’s. It is always fun to visit someplace new or try something different, and being a tourist can be heartwarming and exhilarating. 

Shankar Vedantam, journalist, writer, and science correspondent for NPR, and the host of Hidden Brain whose reporting focuses on human behavior and the social sciences, recently said, “Periods of disruption invariably lead to invention and reinvention. When chaos strikes, we all become tourists in our own lives. We start to see with fresh eyes, and when we do, we realize the world really does have endless possibilities.” 

This has resonated with me since a colleague shared it. Being an accidental tourist in our own lives as we navigate the intersection of two pandemics, COVID-19 and systemic racism, has helped me reflect on the most important parts of myself that I need to keep at the fore when we get to the other side of the disruption. For me, I know it will lead to more learning, listening, conversing, and understanding issues of race. The most important thing is where we go next, because without a doubt, we do have endless possibilities. 

As a school leader I am thinking about both of these disruptors this summer as we develop plans to re-open and think about curriculum. I am also reflecting upon my word for the upcoming academic year. There are endless possibilities.

The Right Amount of Bold

Calligraphy and artwork by Jenna Mugele

A colleague of mine recently said that a Head of School had to have “the right amount of bold.” This has resonated with me since I heard it, and like a memorable song lyric, I cannot get it out of my head. I am pretty sure he was not using the definition of having a strong or vivid appearance (although, that is definitely another story!). I am certain he meant the definition to take risks while being both confident and courageous. 

As Dorothy said to the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz: You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. Before becoming a Head of School, I knew that leadership and communication skills were integral criteria; I did not realize, nor could I have ever imagined, the importance of courage as so necessary for serving in this role. I never saw the word listed anywhere in the position description; yet, serving as Head during this unprecedented and uncertain moment in world history, I now know courageous people must be sought to lead schools.

Courage is the ability to do something that frightens you, or to show strength in the face of a crisis. COVID-19 has brought a singular crisis to our doorstep. While I was not quite prepared for something of this magnitude, the courage and confidence that I could lead a school amid uncertainty, fear, and anxiousness was certainly tested. 

So, is there a right amount of bold? Or, must leaders just be bold. This essential question has been nagging me since I heard the phrase. I have decided that yes, there is a right amount of bold. Balancing boldness with empathy and kindness is the best recipe.

Maya Angelou said: One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest. I have found this to be especially true in the past few months. Courage or boldness is the key ingredient that helps me prepare each day to lead a learning community in a consistent and thoughtful way, even when surprises occur, like the shift to distance learning in the midst of a global health crisis. Courage has become the voice in my head, but it most certainly must partner with my heart, to help me find the right amount of bold.

Making Sense of This

I have not been able to write for weeks. I could say it was the stress of COVID-19 and trying to lead a school at a distance. But, that would not be true to myself, and my beliefs – something I tell my students is so very important and meaningful. COVID-19 has been worrisome, and managing distance learning for three months has been challenging, but neither has made my heart ache like the racism that exists in our country and our world. Several recent events have brought this to the fore – yet, again.

What is wrong with us? Nelson Mandela wrote: No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love; for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Each and every one of us, as educators and role models for children, must do better. To say change is necessary is not enough. We must commit to doing the work immediately, and continually, as we listen, learn and have meaningful conversations about race in our country. This will be hard.

I believe that we can and should have these conversations in elementary schools. This is not only the work of secondary schools and colleges. The younger, the better. I told the Kent School employee group yesterday in our closing meetings that along with our rigorous and relevant curriculum which may be delivered in a hybrid way, kindness will also be the focus of next academic year. We must intentionally teach children how to be kind to each other, and to love each other. I have hope as I watch children interact that they will not repeat the societal mistakes they see. I have hope as I watch my own children’s current outrage over a broken system. I have hope as I witness crowds of multiracial humans protesting peacefully against injustice.

I believe that the country needs compassionate, empathetic leadership in politics and policy making. The void that exists now across our country must be filled. Use your vote in November to change the tide. We can no longer stay silent.

All I Can Do Is Write About It

Author Gustave Flaubert wrote: The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. And, with a nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd and his ballad All I Can Do is Write About It, I have decided to share my thoughts about COVID-19 in writing. For me, ideas don’t become mine until I write about them. Clear prose means clear thought and, for me, writing is all about thinking. It solidifies my thoughts and helps me formulate new ones. The ancient Chinese regarded the written word as a transformative force able to move heaven and earth and unite the reader with the source of all things, the Tao. (The Art of Writing, Chou Ping)

Where do I even begin to unite with the source of all things? Living amid a global pandemic, working from home with Jim, wearing masks to go out, leading a school community at a distance, and worrying about adult children and extended family is starting to take a toll. It has been two months since the Kent School Talent Show – our final hurrah before spring break, and the last time students were on our beautiful riverside campus. Our students are missing the breathtaking spring blossoms in the Little School garden, on the cherry and dogwood trees, in the rain garden and Monarch Waystation, and missing the harvesting of the vegetable garden they so painstakingly planted. 

Clinical counselor Phyllis Fagell, author of Middle School Matters, joined our community for a Virtual Town Hall last week. She shared an acronym I am adopting. We are all NUTS for a reason. The situation we find ourselves in is a New, Uncertain, Threat, that has vastly changed our Sense of control. In a NUTShell, that sums up how I am feeling and I know many of you share this.

The uncertainty of the situation for schools has me going NUTS. In Maryland, at the moment, schools are expected to be back on their campuses on May 18. Planning many different what-if scenarios is exhausting for my leadership team. We need clarity and time to plan how the final month of school may or may not play out. It surprises me that planning piece-meal is deemed acceptable. I fully recognize how hard it must be to make decisions for an entire state, but significant thought needs to be given now to all schools, all teachers, all students and all parents, to make plans for May and June….and, don’t even get me started on September, or August – that is another story I cannot write yet.

For the time being I am going to remain positive, and continue to write down my thoughts. It is all I can do. 

Words Matter

With all due respect to Easter, Passover, Earth Day, and showers, April means National Poetry Month to me. I know I am a literary geek, but as a poet myself, I am inspired by this month dedicated to poets and their craft. National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry. 

For me, poetry has always been the vehicle which allows me to observe and comment on my world. I cannot remember a time when I did not read and write poems, and I can still recite poems memorized in my childhood. I especially loved reading and writing Haiku as a young girl and later expanded my writing using rhyming techniques. In my early 20s I began to explore free verse or open form poetry, which does not follow a specific pattern, and that is the style I currently use. 

My first published poem appeared in my local hometown newspaper when I was in the 6th Grade. I won a town-wide poetry contest and that was all I needed to throw myself into writing. I have had several poems published in Poetic Voices of America anthologies over the years and they sit on my bookshelf as a reminder to Write On. I wrote a poem to each of my children when they were born – that is another story – but, I have a journal for each of them which I hope one day they will treasure. 

As poet Lucille Clifton noted: Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language. Rob Evans, noted clinical and organizational psychologist and the Executive Director of The Human Relations Service, spoke to School Heads in a webinar last week. He advised us to turn to poetry for nourishment during our current reality. I couldn’t agree more. Poetry is a lifeforce, and my go-to, because I believe with my whole heart that words matter a great deal. 

In this time of great uncertainty and anxiety, now, more than ever, our words must be hopeful, healing and drenched in love. We cannot give real hugs to our extended family and friends, but we can give the warm embrace of our words. As a school leader, communications and conversations are all I have to connect with many families. I hope that my love for our school, their children, and our entire learning community is evident in every word I choose to send.

As I write now from my home office (aka kitchen counter) which faces the Chester River, I am mindful of the important work that the Kent School faculty, and all of those who support teaching and learning, are doing to stay connected to our students and their families at this time. Beyond content, it is the connection that is most important. A connection that is built by empathetic and caring words.

Follow me on Twitter @nancymugele for a taste of poetry each day during the month of April.