'We have to get through this together'

We recently interviewed Lincoln High School Principal Mark Larson for episode 63 of the LPS podcast, Stories from Lincoln Public Schools. The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview. 

LPS Communications: I'm here with Mark Larson, principal at Lincoln High, and of course when I say here we're meeting via Zoom because that's all anybody does anymore, right? So are you sick of Zoom yet?

Mark Larson: (laughs) Yes, very much so. We just got done with our final staff meeting of the year and did that via Zoom and that was really weird. That's a tradition that usually includes a lot of tears and a lot of hugs and high fives and stuff, so to not have that and have to do that over Zoom was definitely a microcosm of what the last nine weeks have been like. 

LPS Communications: To start off, like you mentioned, it’s been about nine weeks. Do you remember what was going through your head as all of this unfolded so quickly?

Mark Larson: I was just reflecting on this with somebody this morning. It was during spring break, when I was starting to follow the news...And I remember our family was in Omaha. We were going to go to the Henry Doorly Zoo. And I got a call from some people at district office who said I needed to be a part of a Zoom call at one o'clock. So the rest of my family went into the zoo and I stayed in the parking lot in our car and was on a Zoom call on my phone. That was the first time where it really hit me like, Man, we're probably not going back to school for a while. And even in the moment, I don't know if I fully understood what that was going to look like.

But I definitely remember that moment and all the thoughts that were kind of rushing through my head of what that was going to mean and all the work that we had to do and things like that - and a lot of emotions right away. As I look back on that...like I said, we just got done with our staff meeting and I'm not a huge crier, but I just got done crying because I think many of us have spent the last nine weeks bottling up our emotions just because there was so much to do. And I don't think I've really given myself an opportunity to go there emotionally until things started to really wrap up, if that makes sense.

LPS Communications: What have been some of the challenges about this whole experience?

Mark Larson: The most salient one has been just figuring out how to communicate, how to teach using technology, and our staff has been amazing. The collaboration that I saw over the last eight or nine weeks, in many ways I don't think would have happened if it wouldn't have had to have happened. But teachers coming together and sharing ideas and learning from each other - because they had to - was one of the positive things that I hope we take away from this experience. Teachers learning from each other, how to use different technologies, and learning from each other how to take their content or their curriculum and put it into an online environment. Those were huge challenges that we had to overcome and work through together and that was awesome to see. 

And I think one of the biggest challenges was - you know, the work that educators do is really hard. And we all know that when we get into it, but the payoff or why we do the work, or why we grind through it, is because every day we get to see our kids, we get to be able to see the light bulbs go off. We get to see our kids grow, we get to see smiles on their faces and so I think the hardest part of this whole thing was not that the work was hard, we're used to the work being hard and we're used to having to figure things out. But the hardest part is in the midst of everything that was hard is that we didn't get the fulfillment that we're used to getting from being with our kids, and knowing that they're okay, and knowing that they're growing and developing and that we have a hand in that. That's been probably the hardest part.

LPS Communications: You have a lot of students at Lincoln High who depend on school for a lot of things beyond the traditional classroom, whether it's meals or English language instruction or working with guidance counselors. That had to be a big concern of yours, too. 

Mark Larson: Like you said, a ton of our kids come to school not only not only to learn, but they come to have their needs met. And those needs are physical needs like getting fed and things like that, but they're also social emotional, too. That was honestly concern number one for us, figuring out ways to do the best we could to check in on our kids. We had staff members who went to students’ homes to make sure they were okay. We connected about 50 kids with internet who didn't have internet before. I was running the numbers and we served over 3,000 meals at Lincoln High in the last nine weeks - most of those going to Lincoln High families.

One of the things that our teachers experienced right away was that they were expecting Zoom office hours to be an opportunity for them to answer questions that kids had about learning that was happening. But what was really happening was kids were just tuning in, not because they had questions but because they just wanted to be with their teacher and be with each other. And we took that and we said, Let's change what our hook is for office hours. Instead of, Hey, come to office hours to get help on your homework that I put on Google Classroom on Monday, come to office hours because we're going to do a connection circle; come to office hours because I want you to share a photo of your family; share a photo of your favorite memory of this school year...And I think that's the piece that many of our kids missed the most - just that idea of community. And it's hard to be able to recreate that in many ways virtually.

LPS Communications: So you mentioned the food distribution, and I know you were at those and this week you've been at Lincoln High when seniors dropped off items and picked up their caps and gowns. And I know you've said before that you've really enjoyed those experiences, just being able to see those faces.

Mark Larson: Like I said earlier, those are the interactions that keep me going, and those are the things that I've missed the most, just those everyday interactions that I get to have with kids. Yesterday at return and retrieval I think was the first time that I realized at this point in the year in a normal year, I've got a pretty good idea of where most of our seniors are in terms of graduation. And I have had conversations with a lot of them in terms of, Hey, what are your plans for next year? So to see so many of them this week and realize I haven't talked to so many of these kids in nine weeks because I'm not a teacher. I don't have regular office hours or I'm not regularly connecting with, quote unquote, my kids and so to be able to see all of them this week and have those conversations about Hey, how are you doing? What are your plans next year? That kind of thing. And being able to reflect back on who they were kind as freshmen. That's been really fun this week and I think a necessary, emotional piece in terms of closure for me, selfishly, but also for our kids.

LPS Communications: As the school year is winding down and we're heading into summer, if you had the chance to say one final thing to your students and your families, what would you say to them if you could?

Mark Larson: That I miss them and that we care about them. That we're going to do everything we can, do everything in our power to make next year the best thing it can be under the circumstances, whatever, whatever those are. And one of the things that we've talked about is one of our core values is unity...that's one of our links. So one of the messages that I've been trying to make clear to our students and staff is we have to get through this together, that we're part of something bigger than ourselves.

LPS Communications: And one final question. Are you going to keep your quarantine beard?

Mark Larson: (laughs) The verdict is still out. But the most important vote is that my wife approves as of right now. So for right now it's going to stay but I guess we'll have to see if the beard is still there when school starts.

Published: May 29, 2020, Updated: May 29, 2020