Chris Lin: ‘We have to play to learn’

With a cup of office-made coffee in hand, Chris Lin is on the move.

The assistant principal is a smiling, positive presence as he walks around Intrinsic Schools’ Belmont Campus in the Hermosa neighborhood of Chicago. He stops to chat with students, collaborate with teachers, and provide a genuine moment of connection with whomever happens to need it.

“Chris really ensures that he has a strong relationship with every staff member in the building,” Principal Michelle Trojan said. “Chris is the guy that we lean on to inspire our staff.”

Lin said that working in a collaborative and innovative environment—filled with passionate educators—is what drew him to Intrinsic Schools, a Summit Learning partner. Who he works with is equally as important as the work itself. 

“If you don’t like the people you work with, it makes the work really hard,” Lin said. “We need to be a team because the load is way too heavy to carry on your own. So if you see someone who’s down, recognize that and figure out what they need. Do they need a break? Do they need a little bit of a pep talk? A joke to laugh at?”

“Education is really serious because what we do every day affects kids’ lives. Every interaction has the potential to be life-altering. It is serious work, but it doesn’t have to be somber work. We can have fun, too.”

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“It’s like you’re juggling a thousand eggs, and you just have to be okay with a bunch of ‘em hitting the ground,” Chris Lin said. “You can’t keep every egg in the air. But you don’t want to let the important ones hit the ground.”

Lin, who laughingly points out that he doesn’t actually juggle eggs, said the key is to focus on the proverbial eggs still in the air and not fret about those that have cracked and made a mess on the floor.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied, or that everything will ever be good enough for my high standards,” Lin said. “But at the end of the day, you just have to be happy with the progress that you’re making. And don’t drop those eggs that will cause a lot of problems if you do.”

“I’m a big Spirit Day person.”

If there’s a themed dress-up day at school, Chris Lin is almost guaranteed to be in some type of costume. He’s also known to sometimes wear a wacky outfit on a random Tuesday to lighten the mood and spread good vibes to his community.

“He thinks being goofy is what gets people to let their guard down, and it totally works,” Principal Michelle Trojan said. “He’s also known for telling ‘Dad Jokes’ that are so funny and so cheesy. He really helps people take a deep breath and know that you’re talking to a human on the other side of the table.”

Trojan recalls a time during distance learning when Lin spent an entire day on Zoom dressed like a pirate.

“He was sitting at home in his basement in this full-blown pirate costume, with the long wig and the curls,” Trojan said. “Chris reminds us that it’s good for staff morale to bring joy.”

As a high school tennis coach for 10 years, Chris Lin had several memorable seasons with talented players. But his favorite was his first year, when his team was mostly filled with players learning the basics of the game.

“Many of them had never picked up a racket before,” Lin said. “They just wanted to come out, have fun, and learn something new. It was so nice to see them get better and watch them grow, not caring so much about the results.” 

Lin, who has also coached a Science Olympiad and robotics team, keeps a coach mentality in his role as an assistant principal that focuses primarily on coaching math and science teachers on curriculum and instruction.

“Learning has to be collaborative and experiential,” Lin said. “The whole process is like a fun puzzle to me. It’s fun to try new ways to reach students. In this day and age, it’s no longer good enough to know things. It’s about, ‘What do you do with that knowledge?’”

Chris Lin has a preemptive apology for the teachers and administrators at the future school of his two young children.

“I’m sorry, I’m totally going to be that annoying parent who is always calling,” Lin said, laughing. 

Lin said becoming a father (his daughter is 4 years old and his son is nearly 1) has added more clarity and purpose to his passion for impacting positive change in education.

“How do I make sure that my kids’ educational experience is one that’s promoting diverse thinking and problem solving?” Lin said. “In such a rapidly changing world, we really need to rethink a lot of what we focus on.”

But as much as Lin’s mind is on the future, he also makes it a point to stay in the present. When he watches his children’s eyes widen with excitement when learning something new, he’s inspired to bring that same childlike wonder to the 7th-through-12th-grade students at Intrinsic Schools’ Belmont Campus.

“I love the imagination of my four-year-old and it’s fascinating to see how she learns and what her thought pattern is,” Lin said. “These are the special years where everything is magical. I think that certainly applies to one of my teaching philosophies. 

“We have to play to learn.”

Chris Lin is one of three recipients of the inaugural Gradient Learning School Leader of the Year Award. Learn more about the award.

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.