First Day Firestarters

Now that the first week of school is in the books, it’s a great time to return to my blog. I started this blog last year with the hope of developing and maintaining a new way to communicate with the John Champe community. Admittedly, near spring, it became difficult to maintain, but I am back again this year and look forward to keeping the community informed about a range of topics (previous entries can be accessed from the archives).

That being said, I would like to kick-start this year’s blog with an early entry from last year. It’s still appropriate and timely, and I hope again that you did not hear the word “nothing” last week.

Do you know what one of the worst replies you could hear over the dinner table on the first day of school is? “Nothing.”
Yet time and again at dinner across the country, that is the response that students give their parents when asked what they did in school. The problem with this response isn’t that it’s a sullen student who is disengaged; the problem is that they are probably telling the truth which is unfortunate to say the least.

Every student looks forward to the first day of school. While students have varying reasons for their excitement (seeing friends, wearing new back to school clothing, finally being able to drive to school, or looking forward to a certain class or seeing a favorite teacher), they come in excited for the first day. And then that excitement is squashed. In fact, too many teachers excel at deflating that first day enthusiasm. What that generally looks like is the following: students go through all of their classes and are repeatedly told what they can and can’t do; they learn about classroom policies and procedures; and they read syllabi and sign out textbooks. That bubbly enthusiasm is quickly replaced by exhaustion and boredom well before the end of the day. And so when they are asked at night what they did, they’re likely telling the truth. However, it’s my hope that in the John Champe High School community, your experience on August 24 was different.

Each year I ask teachers new John Champe High School (and new to the Champe way) if they are firestarters or fire extinguishers? I walk them through the above scenario and explain that those teachers are fire extinguishers—and I ask them if that is the kind of class they would want to be in on the first day of school? And so I challenge them to be firestarters because as Sophocles wrote, “Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.” The first day of school is a great (best?) opportunity to kindle that flame—to show students why we are passionate about what we do, why we love our subject areas, and why we have made this our life’s work. I encourage them to showcase their best lesson that day or have an activity that will get students excited about their subject matter and want to come back for the second day of class. There is plenty of time to go over rules and procedural stuff (even at some point on the first day—it just doesn’t have to be the focus for the entire period), but there is very little time to get students enthusiastic and engaged, so it is imperative that we lead with something interesting!

This philosophy is a core value at John Champe High School and we honor it by visiting classrooms on the first day of school to see the great things that are happening (and sometimes even get to participate). Moreover, we even have a monthly recognition at faculty meetings for a teacher who best embodies this notion. And that is why on Twitter you might have seen photos of classes where students were highly engaged on the first day of school—such as in Mr. Hansen’s earth science class where students constructed towers, Mrs. Zappia’s class where students completed an escape-the-room activity, or Ms. Webb’s class where students participated in an Algebra QR code scavenger hunt. And so I hope that when you spoke with your student about their first day of school that s/he had much more to say than “nothing,” because at John Champe High School, it is Not Business As Usual (NBAU).

Kindness is Cool

​It is with great excitement and enthusiasm that I return from winter break ready to work and ready to wrestle the challenges and issues that will arise in 2017! Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed my time off and I am sure that your students did as well. It’s just that the work we do is so important, so critical, that it is hard not to be excited to be back.

Along those lines, in my last post, I reflected on our generous students and their impact with a couple of fundraisers. And while helping others might not be considered our main work as a school, it is still a significant part of who we are at John Champe High School, and as such, I wanted to take this opportunity to extend that prior notion just a little.

Every year since we have opened, an anonymous donor has made a financial contribution to the school for the purpose of helping students in need (technically, it’s not entirely anonymous as I know this person, but this person has insisted for various reasons that I not disclose their identity in return for the donation). I have struggled with this because this person’s generosity has helped us to do a lot of good things for students and families; the most recognizable thing is the Road to Success scholarships we offer each year for $2,000 based on student-need as much of the other charitable work is often unseen and behind the scenes.

Anyway, I decided to write about this because I just received a check today from this conscientious donor and again find myself wanting to recognize this person. On some level, blogging about this person somewhat fulfills that need because this person deserves some kind of recognition, even if it is anonymously because each year this person makes sure to set aside a sizable chunk of money for our community and asks for nothing in return. This person makes a point of remembering us, budgeting for us, and then mailing a check to us: I don’t take that for granted. While those actions might seem like small ones and the check the larger one, I’m sure that if you were to reflect on all of the “I want to” moments in your life that you didn’t fulfill because of our modern, frenzied existence, I think you would agree that this is no small gesture. Oftentimes it is the smaller actions that preclude us from delivering on the larger ones. And then on top of that, I don’t ask this person, I don’t remind this person. This person consistently does this of their own volition. Every year. That’s worth something.

And that got me thinking: we spend a lot of time around the holidays focused on goodwill and kindness but then it seems like the further away we get from New Year’s, the less focused we become. And so I know it sounds cliché and hokey, but I really hope that as a community we can commit to being kind year-round, not just when the holidays draw us together.

Anyway, January 3 was a great day back from the break. There was a buzz in the building, students were excited to be back, and teachers were energized; on top of that, I noticed all kinds of deliberate kindness throughout the day as well as even some random acts of kindness. My new year’s hope is that everyone can keep in mind that kindness is cool and that we maintain that level of care, compassion, and commitment towards one another in the second semester.


​With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror and more holidays on the horizon, it is natural to engage in some sort of reflection this time of year. To start my three year-old in thinking along those lines, I prompted him to reflect on what he was thankful for over the Thanksgiving Break. His response? His motorcycle (technically, it’s a Big Wheel). Of course he needed a little more prodding to dig a little deeper to see what else he could be thankful for, but the ground had been softened and a small seed planted. Going through that exercise with him got me thinking: what was I thankful for? Naturally, my first response would be family, health, and so on, but it had been a while since I had really thought beyond that, and so what I kept coming up with was our students.

If you’ve ever heard me speak, then you have heard me say how great our students are. However, that is usually done in the context of an awards ceremony, on the heels of an athletic accomplishment, or sometimes in just highlighting that we have students of strong moral character. But this time I was looking at differently. Allow me to explain.

Right before we left for the break, the books had finally been settled on two fundraisers that our students had rallied behind. The first one was the fight against SMA, or Spinal Muscular Atrophy. In this case, it was to benefit infant twins who were born with the illness and have a connection to the Champe family. Through tee shirt sales for a navy-out at a home football game, students raised $3,000 to help this family with treatments and costs associated with it. The next fundraiser was our Pink-out activities to raise awareness for breast cancer and to show support for the strong women in our lives. Many in the Champe community have been impacted by this, so since we opened, we have worked hard to help support the Loudoun County Breast Health Network: all proceeds help residents in Loudoun who are undergoing treatment (see for more information). Through our faculty volleyball game and pink fundraisers, John Champe High School was able to donate $3,400 to this great cause.

And so that is what I was thankful for: generous, big-hearted students who care about those in need. And I know I am not the only one. I know the community is thankful for our students especially at this time of year as they are engaged in food drives, clothing drives, and even shoe drives. Their kindness has a positive and far-reaching impact on our community and even beyond, for which I am grateful. If you share my sentiment, would you please consider dropping food off at the school for the Dulles Food Pantry or an unopened toy for Toys for Tots to help out people in our community over the next few weeks? If you know of someone in need, or are in need yourself, please know that John Champe will do its best to help. We have a new parent liaison, Lisa Rael, so please do not hesitate to reach out to her.

In the meantime, I look forward to teaching my son what a new year’s resolution is—and might even have a couple of suggestions for him.