The Traveling Office

Matt Owsley knows a thing or two about how students behave. That’s because this Scottsdale, Arizona, principal has seen a thing or two as he pushes his rolling desk around the Black Mountain Elementary School campus.

“I kept hearing about these ideas—to be present—and what it does culturally for your campus and how it helps behavior,” Owsley said. But a desk (and stool) on wheels, complete with his nameplate? Claiming temporary office space in the cafeteria, on the playground or in a dance class? Why not, thought Owsley. Why not try something new, fun and unexpected to be visible.

And visible he is. You might find Mr. Owsley working at his desk on the field during a game. Or seated under an overhang along the school’s paved path. Or on the lawn, listening to a group of smiling children gathered around his desk. Or on the playground near the swings, with a desk phone to his ear (unplugged of course) while pretending to talk.

Simply standing in the hallway as groups of noisy students walk to the cafeteria did not cut it for him. Students are used to seeing Mr. Owsley around campus and so it takes more effort to get their attention, he said. “While sitting at the desk in the cafeteria the kids came up to me and were so confused and curious, they kept asking, ‘What’s he doing right now? What’s going on? Why is your desk here?’”

“Why are you in my office?” Owsley replied.

Relating to students in a positive way, most often with smiles and high-fives, is paramount for Owsley. With his worldview and personality, “positive” does not translate as stodgy. Positive means building and maintaining relationships with students as the conduit for improving behavior and grades, even acting goofy at times. (Did we mention snowball fights, dressing up as an elf or a leprechaun?)

But back to the rolling desk, which addressed two big concerns for Owsley. One, he wanted to capture the imaginations of the students. And two, he had been taking his office home, via the desk work and emails on his phone, and spent nights and weekends checking emails “just in case” he was needed. It consumed his life.

His solution: remove emails from his phone, keep them on a laptop computer and do his work during the day, at his desk in the field. “I thought if I can make it really like my desk it would catch the eye of the kids’ and be functional for me.”

On the January day that he (literally) rolled out his new office on a sidewalk, students and teachers smiled, laughed and took pictures, but soon they recognized that this was not just a one-day stunt.

Although he still conducts classroom visits and observations, his understanding of school and student needs deepens by being outside and available, in the moment. Kids with discipline issues rarely act up in class, he said. The bully, the loner, the leader and the followers reveal themselves on the playground, while coming out of the cafeteria or in the halls outside classrooms. With just over 500 students in grades K-6, Owsley has a chance to know them all.

“When you look at what kids want, they want relationships and we’re providing something they come to school for.” He never misses a moment to notice and recognize a student and is convinced that positive relationships change behavior. On those days that he’s out and about, he gets fewer disciplinary referrals.

Owsley maintains a second, stationary room with a door that closes for meetings, conferences and one-on-one conversations to communicate with parents, community members and students, who may require additional attention. From his experience as a teacher and now eight years as principal, he’s seen that his positive approach carries over into the classroom.

And the reactions from his staff? Some probably have thoughts they don’t share. Others are used to his antics, so much so that on the day he dressed as a leprechaun—in an outfit that had no pockets—people only commented that he was wearing a fanny pack. “Really?” he thought. “That’s the only thing you pointed out?”

His advice for someone who wants to try this? Just go for it. Staff from his facilities department welded the desk and wheels to ensure that it would hold up on the hilly campus terrain. But Owsley suggests experimenting with any desk. Too many ideas get lost in the blur of trying to achieve perfection.

He admits that although he bought into The Breakthrough Coach methods after attending his first workshop in 2013, and again after a second stint, his addiction to habits such as controlling emails and a less-than-pristine office may require multiple sessions to change. But one message resonated loud and clear: The limited time one has during the day.

“Unfortunately, we are too willing to take our lives and split the difference between work and home. I did it for 20 years, beginning with grading papers as a teacher late at night and on weekends, and now trying to run a school from anywhere on the planet. We don’t stop to be present in the places where we should be.

“I can now refocus my time wherever I am, to focus on the people who are with me, and know I will be productive wherever I am.” Even while working, anywhere on campus, at a desk with wheels.