Pandemic Life Lessons from the Breachway

Josh Doyon Leadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership® Questionnaire, Student Leadership

by Josh Doyon, Director of Student Affairs, Cushing Academy (MA)

For three years now, my mobile home screen has been the same image: the view from the bow of a boat, staring down the breachway to the Atlantic Ocean. This image captured the first time I went out to sea for a fishing trip. For over a decade my family has spent portions of the summer in Rhode Island, and we are always looking for opportunities to get off the beach and go ‘out.’ The opportunity to go ‘out’ and the possibility for me to take such a picture came from an in-law, Paul, who was looking for a fishing partner. He enlisted me and fellow gcLi graduate, Aaron Schubach, on vacation from Colorado. Paul’s instructions were simple: show up on time, bring sunscreen and enjoy a day on the water. With a clear plan in place, we agreed to meet the next morning. Having been on various outdoor excursions with Aaron and knowledgeable of Paul’s seaworthiness, we seemed to be in good hands.

The next morning, the plan was executed perfectly. We arrived at the docks on time, with our sunscreen in hand, ready for the day. Having seen other boaters access the ocean through the breachway, I had a basic understanding of what to expect. Navigate, at high speeds, through a rocky manmade jetty for roughly 400 yards, where once we break the channel and hit the ocean, it would be smooth sailing. My confidence and short-sightedness got the better of me and I took a front-row seat on the bow of the boat as we navigated through the breachway.

Leading up to the entrance of this ocean gateway, I was surprised by the serenity of the water and the morning. I was more surprised to have this sense of calm interrupted, as Paul yelled, “sit down, hold on, and be quiet” as he engaged the motors. I tumbled back into the bow seat, almost losing my hat and falling onto the deck floor in the process. Speeding toward the end of the jetty, Paul exclaimed, “waves look big today, this could hurt, get ready.” This possibility was not mentioned in the planning phase of the trip. Knowing there is no turning back at this point in the trip, I asked myself three questions:
“Am I prepared for this?”
“Is my seat a flotation device?”
“We won’t sink, right?”
As I processed these questions, we crashed through four swelling waves that led to some jostling of bodies around the boat. Then just as swiftly our craft turned to starboard, we hit smooth water and enjoyed the rest of the day with only a minor tussle with seasickness. Ultimately, I never had to seek an answer for my second and third questions. While it was an adrenaline-filled and somewhat terrifying first adventure going ‘out,’ this became the first of many voyages over the next three years.

Naturally, by learning from these experiences, each trip has become smoother. As discomfort is confronted, there is more predictability, and those on board with experience are more agile, prepared, and wiser on how to respond to deviations that might occur. Many educators view their school year with a similar framework. Each year has roughly the same objective, the same method and approach, and you trust in past experiences and student and colleague feedback to ensure a successful year. You identify what you want to accomplish, create a plan and execute on said plan, adjusting as the year unfolds. While you have seen it, have lived it, learned about it from others’ experiences, you head into each year with a certain degree of growing confidence, hope, and blind-trust, knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know until you get to June.

In 2020, what we knew (or thought we knew) became irrelevant. This perhaps is why the background image on my phone started to take on new meaning over the past nine months. The image spoke to an isolated summer moment of heading out to the ocean, but the experience resonated with me more and more as 2020 unfolded. Despite all of the planning, despite the thoughtful approaches and basic understandings, all is lost when you hit that first wave. The idea of responding to what is in front of you becomes essential. The image spoke to uncertainty, but also an approach of unwavering trust in a process and those around you to make it through the wave or storm. For much of the spring and summer, the simple phrase of “sit down, hold on, and be quiet” became a guiding light as every day presented a new challenge and the need to process questions that in previous years didn’t exist. In 2020 and now 2021, we embrace it, move forward, and prepare to address the next challenge.

At my current institution, we have lived through an opening of school during a pandemic (the first time since 1918), we created a thirteen week on-campus learning and living experience for those students who were able to come to Massachusetts this fall, were fully remote in our winter session, and are now implementing a second repopulation of campus late winter into spring. In many ways, though it is still important to look toward the horizon, we brace for the coming waves and look toward calmer seas. Working with student leaders, faculty, and the larger community, it’s important to focus on what you can control. Preparing for the rest of 2021 and this next journey, and focusing on my sphere of influence, I find myself searching for ways to say “yes” to the following three questions: Am I prepared for this? Is my seat a flotation device? We won’t sink, right?

Josh Doyon is currently the Director of Student Affairs at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA.  He attended the gcLi Leadership Lab in 2014 and is this year’s recipient of the gcLi Scholarship in School Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.   Prior to Cushing, Josh worked in independent schools in Colorado, California, Connecticut, and Maine.