And a happy first day of school to you!

If you’ve followed Principal Reflections in the past, you know that I dedicate the first post of the school year to the power and importance of the first day of school. Even though we are surrounded by that sense of electricity, wonder, and hope in our schools this morning, I am going to forgo that usual entry and instead welcome the Independence community to my blog.

Over the course of this year, I will post regular entries about a variety of topics related to Independence High School or even life in general. What you won’t find on this blog is informational items; meaning, if you need to know about meetings or specific details about events, especially once we are in the building, this is not the place for that. Those aspects would still be pushed out through regular means such as the school’s website, ConnectED, or social media (if you haven’t so already, please start following @IndyNationLCPS on Twitter and Instagram and Independence High School on Facebook).

Rather, my intention for this blog is to allow people to learn more about Independence High School, the staff, the community, adolescences, school-related matters, as well as me. It’s not heavy reading but I hope you will find it engaging reading, something that could easily be digested while you enjoy your morning coffee and maybe even tickle your brain a little.

You can certainly check back here from time to time to see if there is a new post, but I would also encourage you to sign up for alerts. That way you will know when something has been posted—and you can tell a friend as well! So in the meantime, please feel free to look over past entries and archived posts when I was the principal of John Champe High School until my next entry.

Anyway, I hope your student had a great first day and comes home with his/her sense of wonder and excitement primed and ready to go for the rest of the year!

“All I Know Since Yesterday is Everything Has Changed”

There is a saying—I think originating with American author and humorist Mark Twain—that the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. As my wife and I are up to our eyeballs in diaper-changing with our newborn, I can say that my daughter embraces change wholeheartedly. But for most people, that is certainly not the case. Myself included. We tend to fear change. And if it is not fear, it can be avoidance or reluctance: it is uncertainty of the unknown that causes feelings of anxiety.

Because uncertainty can be a risk. Uncertainty can be a threat. Uncertainty can be dangerous

As a result, many of us feel safer in what we are more comfortable with: it is what we know. We take a level of comfort in the routine, and from that we also gain structure and safety. That is likely why we don’t make changes even when we know we have to, even when we will be better off for it. Moreover, certainty and stability gives us knowledge which can give us a sense of control over our environment or over our circumstances. Change can also cause us to engage in introspection and reflection, which we might not be open to. This also makes change seem less attractive.

But as the school year comes in for a landing, every single one of us is faced with change for the upcoming year. The seniors are moving onwards and upwards. John Champe will only have grades 10 through 12 next year. Rising freshmen will be at Willard but will still have a foot in Champe. Returning students will face new challenges, new classes, and new teachers. I will be leaving to open a new school, and Champe will have its next principal named in a few weeks. And these are the changes that we know about: change is constant. We will of course be confronted with a myriad of other changes that will challenge and test us—they are just unseen and knowable, hiding in the shadow of the future.

All of this can be unnerving, but as we look to next year—or even tomorrow—it’s important to keep in mind and approach these changes as amazing opportunities. While that might not mitigate our unease, how we perceive our changes can determine how effectively we adapt to them. And so one of the last things I want to convey before we all go our separate ways is to emphasize how important our mindset, our beliefs, and our behaviors are each and every day, especially in the face of change. These are life-lessons that are important at 16 as well as at 60. We might struggle with them, but ultimately these lesson help us to continue to grow and help to shape us. So whether you are moving to Blacksburg, signing up for your first AP class, or preparing your resume, I wish you the best of luck as you embrace these changes and navigate your course.

Right is Right

About this time a year ago, I had blog post about Twenty One Pilots (and by the way, when are they going to have a new release?) entitled “Stressed out,” about doing the right thing, making the right decisions. This is something that we have emphasized at John Champe High School from our inception: in drawing upon the school’s namesake, we have regularly talked about the idea of courage and what that means and how it can manifest itself. In particular, how doing the right thing oftentimes takes courage, which is why the right decisions can sometimes be so hard.

There have been times on an individual basis or even on a small scale where we have been able to demonstrate this and our commitment to doing what is right. But recently, near the end of the winter sports season, on a much larger scale, we were faced with a situation where we could take the easy way out or we could model what we value.

To summarize briefly, it was pointed out to us that there was a question about athletic eligibility as it pertained to the basketball team. While we were in compliance with the rules and policies of the Virginia High School League, we were not compliant with Loudoun County Public Schools’ rules as stated in the athletic handbook (which by extension, are policy). The right thing to do was to advocate for what we believe in and what we think is best for students, which we did—which was an easy thing to do. However, we were unsuccessful in being able to reverse the decision about the local rule in question. As a result, we had a player who would not be able to play the remainder of the season, which is unfortunate for several different reasons. But we then faced a dilemma of how to proceed. That was not as easy.

If we decided to follow the guidance of the local rules—and even the VHSL—we would have fulfilled our obligation as school officials. We would have been finished with the situation and been able to quickly move on.

And yet, that didn’t feel quite right.

So after talking it through with Mr. Breinig, the athletic director, we agreed that the right thing to do was forfeit two of our wins. That was hard to do. These were district wins against Broad Run and Briar Woods, and we were confident that these would have been victories regardless. However, we ultimately decided that we didn’t want there to be a shadow of a doubt about our wins, let alone our integrity. So even though we were not required to, we forfeited those two games, and many fans and community members were not happy about that (but with some conversations, some understood why we had done and some even respected us for it).

Unfortunately, because these forfeitures were district games, they had an adverse impact on our seeding for the district playoffs. Instead of being the number five seed, we dropped down to the seven seed. The ramifications were that we would be squaring off against a tougher opponent (Stone Bridge High School, which had beaten us twice during the regular season by 29 and 25 points) earlier in the playoffs and that we would likely not host a game at home.

What was also especially difficult about this was that this was all in the public eye for everyone to see. Fans knew what had happened, parents were aware—even opposing schools knew when we played them. This was partially because we had sent an email to the program, but also because word travels fast, not just in subdivisions but even across the county. And so this also made it hard for our athletes, being on the court and knowing what people were thinking.

But to their credit, they held their heads high and played hard. And so when we traveled to the number 2 seed Stone Bridge High School for the district quarter final, it was so energizing to see our athletes compete and play with a zeal that we hadn’t seen in a while. And so that thrilling upset over Stone Bridge 62-58 was that much sweeter because our students had triumphed in the face of struggle and adversity.

My point here isn’t to pat ourselves on the back; rather, it is to highlight one of our learning opportunities. It is my hope that everyone was able to learn something from the actions of the students and the adults in this situation because learning doesn’t just occur in our classrooms or in isolation. Some of the most important lessons in life can be learned on the court, in the stands, or even on the way of the event. As such, I’m confident that our basketball program and our community is stronger for this and hope that they can draw from it in the future.


It seems that many parents (as well as even teachers) are not familiar with vaping. Students certainly are, but when we have contacted parents about it, many have never heard of it before, which is what prompted this blog post.

Vaping is an electronic form of smoking where the person inhales and exhales a vapor, as opposed to smoke from a traditional cigarette. You might have heard about e-cigarettes several years ago, and this is a form of that. However, you might not be aware that the e-cigarette landscape has changed significantly since it was first introduced, which has led to an increase in vaping across the country—especially since it is being marketed as a “safe alternative” to smoking cigarettes (but I would push back on that since vaping hasn’t occurred long enough for there to be a true longitudinal study to determine if there are health risks associated with it or not).

First, the old e-cigarette which resembled the shape and look of a cigarette is no longer used by most people who vape. Rather, what has become popular, especially in schools all across the country, are devices such as JUUL (you might also hear about kids who are JUULing, which is another term for vaping). What students love about them is that they are incredibly discreet and easy to hide. If you take a look below, you will see that they almost resemble a flash drive and are about the same size:

What complicates their detection even more so is that students can actually charge them off of laptops, so it genuinely gives the impression that they are working with their thumb drive. To the casual observer, or teacher walking around the room, he or she probably wouldn’t question it or give it a second thought (please know I recently shared this information with staff as well):

And because of their size, students are able to creatively hide them:

And when students vape, it is nearly colorless and odorless, which has led students to be more brazen about doing it publicly—possibly even in your house without you even knowing about!

Another thing to keep an eye out for are vape pods or vaping oils:

The legal age to purchase a vape is 18 years old, just like cigarettes, but also like cigarettes, students have been able to find ways to get their hands on them. Some will use it for nicotine or flavored oils, but there are also others who use it for completely illegal purposes such as vaping marijuana. Per the school board policy, students are not permitted to have vapes in their possession, so when we encounter these situations, consequences are given and we will call you to make you aware of the infraction.

It certainly seems like each day there is something else to be on the lookout for or to be aware of, but with the increase in popularity of vapes, I thought it would be worthwhile bringing it to your attention. If you would like to learn more about this, click here to view an ABC 7 On Your Side segment.

Don’t Break the Chain

I make no secret that I am huge Seinfeld fan.

During the nineties, Seinfeld was not just must-see television but a cultural phenomenon as well. So much so that we still see echoes of it today as it still permeates our shared understandings and vernacular—from its phrases (“yada yada yada”), common experiences (Jerry as Everyman), and focus on minutiae (close-talkers), much of the show is still relevant today. That it still holds up well is a testament to Jerry Seinfeld’s (and co-creator Larry David) wit and sharp insight into human nature and society, and one can only wonder what the comic genius would have done with such rich material all around him today.

Actually, you don’t need to wonder too hard as you can get a glimpse from either Curb Your Enthusiasm (George investing in an iToilet app, before losing his earnings to Bernie Madoff, and now there is a real-life AirPNP app) or the Modern Seinfeld twitter (modern plot points like a barista writing evil things on George’s coffee cup), or some fan-favorite full-length scripts that were penned (Seinfeld in the 9/11 era).

Anyway, because I am such a fan, I have Seinfeld as an interest on my Flipboard and I came across an article (“How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the ‘Seinfeld Strategy’”) again that I had read a few years ago and shared with my department chairs. Rereading it, I thought it was timely to share now.

The gist of the article is how Seinfeld maintained such consistency and has such a quality product over the years (both as a standup, then as a showrunner, and probably even now with his most current vehicle, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). James Clear zeroes in on a piece of advice Seinfeld gave to a young comedian. We all want to create or succeed, but for some reason we fall prey to procrastination or laziness. His advice to this budding comic was very simple: “Don’t break the chain.”

Basically, what he is advocating is not to focus on results, but on the task. In this instance, it was to write jokes everyday. It didn’t matter if they were good or not—the act of writing them was what was important. For so many of us, we might get disheartened if the jokes weren’t good enough which would cause us to maybe not write one day or another and then we are no longer productive or effective. For Seinfeld, that was irrelevant, you continue to write jokes until you have done so for a few weeks. After that time, you have a catalog to pull from and evaluate their efficacy. What was important was maintaining the practice. In this, not breaking the chain.

What he is saying, which is so relevant on the heels of New Year’s and all the accompanying resolutions that people make, is that it is easy to get discouraged and stop, especially if we don’t see immediate results. We need to look past that and settle into a routine. Once a routine is established, it is harder to break it—even if we don’t see the results at that time. If we maintain and nurture this habit, we are less inclined to end it and we will ultimately see those results.

And so if you are like me or most others, you might have made a resolution about exercising or working out. It’s easy to skip a day/night, but once that happens, it’s a slippery slope. And it’s even easier when we have sub-zero temperatures to contend with! But if we establish manageable tasks and commit to them or adjust them as needed (like getting steps indoors/going up and down stairs if it is too cold outside), then we have a better chance at not breaking the chain. The point is that the longer we are able to establish patterns, habits, or routines, the less likely we are to break them. This is just as applicable and important to students as well as we near the midpoint for the school year. It is easy to change bad habits and cultivate new ones, good ones, if we focus on developing and maintaining small and sustainable ones.

And so as the semester starts to wind down, I wish you the best with your New Year’s resolution and hope that you had a Happy Festivus!


In my first commencement speech four years ago, I made a reference to the HBO blockbuster, Game of Thrones. I think most people got the joke and maybe it was an overreach to think that GoT was so ingrained in our shared pop lexicon that people would understand the allusion. But four years later, I am much more confident that it is. The show dominates headlines, water-cooler talk, and ratings. So even if you aren’t watching the show, you at least know of it.

My wife had previously been one of those people—she had a very vague understanding of what it was but did not watch it. All that changed in October when I made another attempt at getting her to watch it with me. I was already caught up with the series, so it would mean re-watching the entire series from the beginning with her. That might sound tedious, but if you watch the show, you certainly understand how enticing that would be—to be able to see patterns and trends and hints that you would have missed on the first viewing. Or the anticipation and thrill to share in the horror, shock, and excitement of experiencing momentous scenes such as the beheading of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding. There was so much to look forward to!

And so we have binge-watched our way up to the season 7 finale (which if you only know about the show, this is significant because it means my wife is now 80 minutes away from where I was in the summer: a year and a half out from new episodes). So needless to say, my wife loves the show. She too appreciates the twists and turns, the cinematography and direction, the writing. And of course the characters. If anything, this show is all about its characters. It is clearer now who the heroes are (at least I think) but even the villains are likable (well, maybe Cersei has lost all sympathy now). And I think we are suckers for characters seeking redemption, such as Tyrion Lannister (again, I think). In fact, he is probably our favorite character; he is such a likeable character. And how do you not root for an underdog? Moreover, Peter Dinklage is such a talented actor, chewing up every scene he is in and delivering every line as if it were penned by the Bard himself. In fact, one Tyrion’s lines is a favorite of mine: “…a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.” Game of Thrones contains many truths and insights into human nature and our condition, but this line in particular is very fitting right now for a couple of reasons.

Ever since John Champe opened, we have placed an emphasis on reading. Whether it’s our African-American read-ins, the Honor Library in the main hallway, signs outside our doors advertising what we are reading, hosting a one-community book event, or focusing on literacy strategies with the faculty, we’ve made it clear that we promote reading and we value books. In fact, we should all be doing even more of it. Tyrion is right: it is good for our minds, it keeps us sharp. I would even argue that it is good for our souls as well. And you don’t have to interpret that in a religious sense: it is good for our nature and for our understanding of ourselves and each other.

And so if you are struggling with what to get someone for the holidays or a birthday, I would like to humbly suggest a book. Even an e-book would suffice (but maybe the value of an actual paperback over an e-book will be a topic for another time). Just get your family member reading (news articles don’t count—sorry)! Whether it is your spouse, your teenager, or your toddler, give them the gift of a book. And now is a great time to find books: they are on sale just like other gift ideas are this time of year. Plus, as we near the end of the year, newspapers and other forums are publishing their best-of lists so you can make a well-informed decision if you aren’t sure what to get.

And while you’re at it, pick one up for yourself too. It’s fun to relax with a book over the break. Plus, winter is coming.


Ping pong

I had forgotten how much I love ping-pong.

Before school this morning, I attended the ping pong club’s weekly meeting for the first time and it all came rushing back to me. I love ping pong. It might seem silly to some, but ping pong is such a fun, engaging activity (sport?), especially if you are a competitive person. Which I am.

Before this morning’s meeting, I hadn’t held a paddle in six years—and that was only when I had briefly visited a PE class and a student had challenged me to a game. Prior to that, it had been much, much longer than that. Easily a decade, likely longer. But cradling and twirling the paddle in my hand as I waited on my first student-challenger, I made a mental note that I needed to play more often.

Now, even if I had embarrassed myself and lost every game I played this morning, I probably would have still thought the same thing. Thankfully, I did not embarrass myself. I was able to shake the rust off fairly quickly and surprised club members as well as students and staff entering the building from the fine arts hallway who had to pass by us. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was Christopher Walken in Balls of Fury, but I held my own. It took a few minutes for returns, spins, and slices to come back to me, and it took a few more minutes after that for me to remember that I had three different serves on which I could rely.

Feeling more confident a little while after that, I experimented with a forehand smash, but it ricocheted high off a vending machine. Undeterred, I tried a few more times when the moments presented themselves to me and was ultimately rewarded with a cathartic pop as the ball cut across the table and snapped the opposite corner. I still had my share of unforced—and forced—errors, but by 8:50, I was in a groove and looking for someone else to play. To my dismay, the tables were being folded up and put away.

Certainly we could squeeze in one more game before the first tardy bell?

I suddenly felt like a teenager trying to fit in one more round of a video game as my mom called me to dinner. Or trying to get in when more game of pick-up before my curfew—of time forcing me to finish what I was doing. If you’re not familiar with the notion of flow, it is being so immersed in an activity that you are enjoying you don’t even notice time passing or even space around you. It’s been a long time since I had experienced that.

When was the last time you have? Or your student? Or maybe not that level of absorption, but doing something that you greatly enjoyed? Or had forgotten about but discovered again recently? With so many demands on our lives—as either students, adults, and/or parents—it is easy to get bogged down by the grind, by the equally competing demands on our time, energy, and attention that we lose sight or forget how to stop and enjoy little things that bring us happiness.

I hope you find your flow this weekend. And to the ping pong club, I will see you next Friday morning.


Do you recall whom Phillip Phillips is?

Probably not, as pop culture stardom can be a brief cycle and we have short memories. To help you remember, Phillips won American Idol in May 2012. His “coronation song” was “Home” and received heavy radio play. You would likely readily remember it—but still not him—as its catchy refrain found its way into movies, TV shows, and commercials soon after.

Anyway, it was on my shuffle this morning on my drive in to Champe and heading into tonight’s varsity football showdown with Briar Woods High School, I couldn’t help but think back to our inaugural year five years ago. While so much of that year still stands out to me, I have a special fondness for that song in particular. Not just because it is a catchy pop song, but because we had a tradition in our first year (maybe even the second year?) of playing that song over the stadium speakers at the end of every home football game.

We didn’t notch our first win until our second season, so that song took on an air of melancholy as it played the team and all of us out of the stadium. Many students didn’t seem to mind and even still sang along with it as they headed to their cars. But what I enjoyed about hearing the song every home game is that it spoke to one of the founding principles we sought to establish when we opened: the idea of family, of belonging.

Consider this verse from the song:

“Hold on, to me as we go

As we roll down this unfamiliar road

And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone

‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home”

And so six years later, while we don’t play that song after our games, the sentiment is still the same. Just know you’re not alone. Many students are looking to find a home, where they belong, and looking for someone to hold onto. Even some adults. But they are not alone here; they don’t need to feel that way. I hope that the past six years has shown students that there are many places to call home here at Champe. Whether it is theater, band, art club, the robotics team, forensics, the lit mag, sports, or something else, there are a myriad of homes and families reaching out to you at John Champe High School to make sure that no one feels alone.

If you get lost, you can always be found. And even new students who arrive after the year has started don’t have to feel alone—our student ambassadors who show them around when they register are always available to them, especially at lunch so they don’t have to feel alone in a cafeteria of 500 students. There are ways to be found here—just let us find you.

So, as we get ready for kickoff in a couple of hours, I’m looking forward to the game tonight. We won’t hear “Home” afterwards, but if you look around the stands, you will see how many students have made this place their home. And that is my favorite part about game night: win or lose against a vaunted team like Briar Woods, it is about seeing 2,000 people on the home side having a great night, making memories, and experiencing that sense of belonging.

Pt. 2

Six days ago, 29 students and seven staff members took a field trip to INOVA hospital in Fairfax to visit Ryan Kwak. It was one of the most emotional things that I think any of us have done, but if anyone was nervous by the prospect of seeing a student in the ICU, no one showed it.

We had heard on Tuesday that after three weeks in the hospital, Ryan was (understandably) depressed, exhausted, and in pain. He wanted his regular life back, didn’t see the point in trying to even roll over on his side, and was frustrated because he couldn’t talk or eat. He was supposed to have been transported to Johns Hopkin, but that was delayed due to a variety of complications further compounding his depression. Initially, the doctors did not approve a visit, but Friday afternoon, something changed. I am not sure what or why, but the doctors were going to allow everyone to visit. We scrambled to make it happen and thankfully we were able to pull it off—and it was the best possible medicine for Ryan.

As I wrote the other week, Ryan needed to know that we support him and are thinking of him. Having his room decorated with Champe colors, cheerleaders performing cheers for him, lacrosse and football players standing bedside, and friends and staff talking with him was exactly—and literally—what the doctor ordered. If you saw any of the pictures on Facebook, you will see a young man genuinely smiling and happy. A young man who was brought joy in a time of terrible darkness. A young man yearning for normalcy but thankful for his reality.

And I am thankful too. As I have said before, I appreciate how much everyone wants to help, how supportive they have been, how the community has rallied together for Ryan. The most recent example of the outpouring of goodwill was the Moe’s fundraiser on Wednesday. Through the generosity of the Maresca family (the owners), they offered to donate100% of the profits to the Kwaks. As a result, the community came out in full force: the line stretched to the back of the restaurant and out the door! People stood on line for 45 minutes to be able to do their part in Ryan’s recovery. And the event was an overwhelming success: the Kwak family will be receiving a check for $6,739!

I mention it because all of this has had such a positive impact on Ryan. I don’t know if you saw it on Facebook, but three days ago he was filmed listening to music on his headphones and dancing with his hands—in rhythm to the music no less! This is from a young man who was told he would be fully paralyzed.


And so it should come as no surprise that this morning Ryan was set to be transferred to Hopkins for the next stage of his recovery. There will certainly be triumphs and obstacles while he is there, and so I post this today to remind people (again) about the power of positivity and how important it is to support Ryan: it has gotten him this far, but Ryan will be depending on us to help him through the next phase of his challenging recovery.


Last year I had an entry about Champestrong, how it embodies some of our core values such as perseverance and our sense of family and how it is woven into the very fabric of our school community. And so when Ryan Kwak was seriously injured in a car accident over a week ago, Champestrong was an immediate rallying point for his support. As the extent of his injuries became more apparent, the word “Ryanstrong” spread quickly throughout the school, community, and social media. In fact, you might have seen one of the Ryanstrong shirts that the lacrosse team is selling. As of today, those shirts have raised $3,350 to help the Kwak family with the staggering cost of a rehab center. But this post is not about the fundraising that has been done—which is still important—but rather about Ryan’s spirit and the outpouring of support from the school and community.

I had the opportunity to visit Ryan yesterday, and if you have been keeping up with the updates on his GoFundMe page, you are aware of how significant his injuries are. To briefly summarize, he suffered a serious spinal injury and was told he would be paralyzed from the neck down and would never be able to walk again. He is fully coherent but is unable to talk because of the tracheotomy. Even having seen those pictures, it isn’t until you are in person that the gravity and enormity of the situation strike you. As a parent, it is a terrifying thought, and so I am amazed by his family’s strength and faith. I am proud of how well his friends are coping with not seeing him on daily basis in their senior year and how optimistic they are. But most importantly, I cannot fathom how Ryan must feel, the daily struggle and challenges he faces and will continue to face.

And so when I visited him, it was so heart-warming and inspiring to see him smile, to see a slight smile and a glimmer of optimism on his face. When I pointed out that we had matching purple wristbands (which SCA had been selling and as of this post 953 people had purchased with only 47 remaining) and that everyone wanted one at school, it was apparent that this meant something to him. I also shared with him how tonight’s football game at Broad Run was a purple-out (in honor of Ryan and his love for the Ravens) and that BRHS students would also wear some purple to show their unity, I could tell how much it meant to him. Between the meals being organized for him and all of the fundraising efforts, what is inspiring also is how much people want to help and how much they care. None of us know what he is going through but what we all know is that to feel that people are supportive can make a difference.

And apparently that has.

Ryan certainly faces an enormous battle, but a week ago he was told he would be paralyzed from the neck down. Perhaps you saw the video then three days ago of him waving his hand. He was told he would never walk again; two days ago, a video was shared of him in a wheel chair. These are miraculous feats, and Ryan is a person with a strong sense of faith, which has certainly comforted him and has helped him in his journey towards recovery. But it is also knowing that he is not alone, that his entire school and community is thinking of him and supports him that gives him the strength to continue, to persevere.

After I said goodbye to his mother, I returned to Ryan’s bed and told him I would see him soon. He raised his left hand and made a slight fist to give me a fist bump on my way out.

That is Ryanstrong.