#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do
When I first met Mickey Welde, I had already heard about Mickey Welde, and between us, I wasn’t buying it. There’s no way, I convinced myself, this kid is that good. Sure he was uber positive, creative and energetic, and a born leader. But there had to be some smudge mark on this kid’s record, some glaring character flaw. Nope. When you read his piece, you’ll see how wrong I was.
I’m riding the train on my way home from work. The window to my right faces south. Beneath the bridge the tide flows north. In the distance I see the stadiums.
I appreciate this part of my commute. This short stretch over the Delaware River generates gratitude and wonder. A peaceful moment to ponder the questions, “What’s going on here? What’s the purpose? Where are we headed?”
I grow still. My thought process slows. I feel present.
We complete our pass over the bridge and go under the streets of Camden. This momentary experience of intense awareness reduces as the train stops at City Hall. Strangers enter through the opening doors.
A woman sits down in front of me and a dude stands in the aisle next to her. They’re having a conversation as they approach. I hear the dude say:
“Well now that I’ve given up on all my hopes and dreams I have a lot of free time.”
[Actually… let’s have you read that correctly.]
Here’s the dude, very gossipy:
“Well NOW… that I’ve given up on all my HOPES AND DREAMS… I have ALOOOOTTTTTTTTT of free time.”
Talk about a first impression.
“College lied to me… College said I would make a difference in kid’s lives. And now… AND NOW!… Well… Now I believe it’s all a WASTE OF TIME! College was a waste of money! I wanted to be a teacher in the 80s…90s… and early 2000s…PRETTY MUCH BEFORE I BECAME A TEACHER!”
It sounds like a story he tells often. I think about how painful it is to be around negativity. I put on headphones as the dude continues talking:
“He asked me… Where’s your word wall? And I’m like … MY WORD WALL! Where’s my word wall? I never once saw a word wall in high school! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE EXPECTS ME TO MAKE A WORD WALL!”
It feels like an in-person Facebook rant. I catch myself being impacted by the negative energy. I pick the first song I see, “Crack the Case” by Dawes.
The dude’s voice disappears. I watch the familiar sites go by. I feel relaxed.
Intense focus and presence re-enter my being.
There’s a lyric that says, “It’s really hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.”
When deciding to share this story I thought about you. Many of you are teachers, administrators, and leaders who deal with tough situations, undedicated students, and unnecessary word walls. We all have complicated lives.
No one on Earth knows your complete story. Just like I don’t know this dude on the train’s full story. This interaction doesn’t define the dude’s character; however, it gives us a glimpse into some pain he’s going through.
Life is difficult. If I had the chance again I would smile at him.
Teachers and counselors are on the front line of acclimating this world’s youth into society, which is a near impossible (but important) job. People depend on you to bring positivity into your teaching and to speak life into young people’s situations. Despite the resistance I know you’re up for the task.
However, for anyone considering “giving up on all your hopes and dreams” like the dude on the train, take a moment to step back and appreciate the position you’re in. Breathe.
If zero things are appealing to you about your job, that is okay!
Your potential students and I will appreciate it if you try a new career path.
[That’s a win-win for everyone!]
If teaching is no longer making you happy, it’s cool. Sorry you wasted money, but do something else that is fulfilling and motivates you every day.
No matter what field you’re in, you are constantly influencing the people around you. A person’s past interactions, relationships, or disputes do not matter today. Gratitude is contagious so find things that make you appreciate your life.
Everyone deserves your best moving forward, especially you. Be a teacher or mentor who spreads love and appreciation. Be a role model of compassion and kindness. Be grateful and find a way to inject positive outlooks into the lives around you.
Mickey Welde lives in Mount Holly, NJ with his three favorite ladies — wife Julie, daughter Quinn, and cat Beefy. For the last five years he’s worked at the Curtis Institute of Music as Assistant Video Editor and Audio-Visual Arts Coordinator. Mick likes spending time outdoors appreciating this beautiful planet and documenting the mysteries of life. He serves as Production Team Leader at LHT Church in Lumberton, NJ and is a firm believer in spreading kindness. Go love everyone!
The 2003 film Old School didn’t take long to cement itself in the pantheon of must-watch-whenever-it’s-on, quotable comedies. From its absurd plotline (three 40-something dudes decide to start a fraternity to offset their otherwise humdrum lives) to its ensemble cast featuring heavy hitters (Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) and clever cameos (Snoop, Warren G), Old School invites us to laugh both at and with it.
I admit that I’ve fantasized about what it would be like to be back on a college campus (major networks have yet to accept my proposal for a “reality show” to this end), studying, partying, and dating like I did in the often wee hours of 1995-1998. I often have dreams about being back in college but invariably I am misplaced, lost, ill-equipped, or lonely in those dreams, my brain’s way of reminding me that I am, in fact, too old for school.
But I’m not “old school.”
As our district embarks on meaningful, if not overdue, trauma informed care work, I am equal parts excited and panicked. I know our staff will embrace the philosophy and strategies covered in the trainings. But I also know there are countless people in education who will harrumph at TIC under the guise of being old school.
I’m sorry, I’m old school. Everyone deserves consequences.
These kids just need to suck it up. That’s what we did in our day.
There was no such thing as trauma informed care when we were in school, and we turned out just fine.
Now picture thinking that in reference to a child whose in-and-out father once held him by the ankles over a balcony and threatened to drop him if he didn’t behave. Or to the kindergartner who spent the first sixty days of her life detoxing, in the dark, from her mother’s drug use. Try one on for size with a fifth grader who is routinely beaten by his mom while he cares for his three younger siblings and blind grandmother.
Man, kids today are soft. Am I right?
I recognize that education, like most fields, operates as if on a pendulum. Stick around long enough and you’ll have seen it all; each initiative re-branded as something revolutionary and necessary. As such, I understand the implicit skepticism and exaggerated eye roll when the pendulum swings in a familiar direction. But in this case, we’re not talking about a math program or discipline policy.
This post originally appeared on October 1st, 2019 as part of a series written by EduMatch authors.
If you close your eyes and really concentrate, I’ll bet you can activate all five senses.
The trance-inducing landscape of flashing neon lights above patterned carpets.
The hypnotic sound of pellets being gobbled and points being racked up.
The stale smell of adolescent sweat and adrenaline.
The mouth-watering flavor of greasy pizza and fountain soda.
The joystick’s round knob fitting snugly into your increasingly damp palm.
It’s a Friday night in 1988, and you are about to empty your pocketful of quarters at the local arcade.
Go ahead and push Start.
Nostalgia is a powerful, personal time machine through which we can transport ourselves to someplace long gone, someplace better. Often triggered by one of our five senses, we visit such memories with fondness and a faraway smile. Then, only seconds later, we return to real life as our now ushers out our then.
For far too many folks, however, then remains now, and they find themselves left behind, stuck like a video game glitch caused by “how I’ve always done it” and “that’s just the way I am.” They are Atari leaders in an age of Playstation 4 and XBox Live.
Leveling Up as a school leader doesn’t require advanced degrees or publication. Moreover, there’s no universal, prescribed way to do it. For some, leveling up is as simple as a shift in their point of view; for others, leveling up may mean using or creating a “walkthrough” of their practice. For still others, the path to leveling up is actually internal as they seek to restore their health, not through potions or magic mushrooms, but through self-care.
Though there is no final boss or cinematic end to our leadership, we do need to level up to continue to grow in our practice.
Point of View
For years, video game designers, by choice or by limitation, created worlds gamers could see from a third-person perspective, providing a panoramic through which we could control the movements and decisions of our characters. Moreover most games scrolled from left to right allowing us to quickly move on from the past and feel safe in the knowledge that whatever came next was in full view.
But as gaming evolved, our characters’ perspective changed. Developers started to limit our point of view through a first-person lens. Now, instead of seeing a world in front of them, gamers could only see what was immediately in front of them. A myopic and claustrophobic perspective completely changed how gamers interacted with, strategized for, and completed games.
Ironically, school leadership has shifted its perspective in reverse, and it’s about time.
As leaders, our point of view should be both dynamic and vast. The former allows us to shift between first-person and third-person at a moment’s notice rather than owing to one or the other regardless of the circumstances. The latter, like the proverbial mother with eyes in the back of her head, forces us to be proactive during each unpredictable day in education.
Reflect on any given day and ask yourself how often you used a third-person perspective (strategic planning) vs. how often you used a first-person perspective (working with a trauma-affected child).
Now consider the same day but use the opposite point of view. To get bogged down in strategic planning through a first-person perspective eliminates your attention to the myriad needs of your building, teachers, and kids. Similarly, employing third-person perspective while working with a child in need distracts you from the care that child needs.
The answer, though by no means simple, is to be open to and comfortable with both. Level Up leaders understand that their daily landscape and “gameplay” are never the same and that flexibility and self-awareness are paramount to leading with empathy and vision. Ultimately, how you choose to see your leadership will determine how you react to its needs.
Walkthroughs and Cheats
In the earliest days of gaming, gamers were completely at the mercy of game designers.
Before the internet brought the world into our homes, gamers were left to their own devices to figure out, through trial and error, how to finish a game. Of course, finishing a game implies that designers intended gamers to finish, and old school gamers know that most games did not have a finish line.
Slowly, however, gamers started to create their own subculture in response to the infinite and frustrating worlds that designers created. At first, walkthroughs and cheat codes were available through magazine subscriptions and word of mouth, but eventually, each were made available online, leveling the playing field and changing gaming forever.
Education has followed a similar trajectory.
Once left to our own devices to figure out how to juggle the daily expectations of our field, teachers, even those with the best leaders at their disposal, just had to “figure it out.” As educational silos started to erect in classrooms around the country, teachers had few options to grow and learn. Moreover, a pervasive and misguided philosophy dominated the field: asking for help is a sign of weakness. Basically, teachers had to sink or swim on their own.
But, like in gaming, the internet ushered in a new approach to teaching and learning. While there are still pockets of old school leaders all over the country, they are (mercifully) being replaced by those who subscribe to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes of their own.
Level Up leaders not only understand but promote the importance of destroying long standing silos in favor of a global, collaborative, and reflective practice. Again, with the advent of the internet, there is no shortage of access to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes. Hop on Twitter and search any number of hashtags, from the general (#education) to the specific (#k12artchat), to find a treasure trove of resources, testimonials, and requests for help. Voxer groups pop up every day to provide educators with verbal walkthroughs and cheat codes. Teachers and leaders are publishing about their experiences, their ideas, and their stories in a way our profession has never seen before.
So despite a political narrative to the contrary, there’s never been a better time to be an educator because for the first time, we are taking charge of our profession, supporting each other, and writing the walkthroughs and cheat codes instead of having them written for us.
Think back to the first time you played, or watched someone play, Pac-Man. Desperate to gobble up all those pesky pellets, gamers have four chances to level up on each board, through pulsating, white orbs which make Pac-Man’s enemies temporarily vulnerable so he can gobble them up. Strategy and ego collide as gamers had to carefully consider when to use those power ups.
In Super Mario Brothers, help came in the form of mushrooms, flowers, or bouncing stars allowing the diminutive plumbers a chance to level up on their way to saving the ill-fated Princess Toadstool.
Regardless of the game, developers understood that their characters, and the gamers who assumed those identities, were going to need help in order to succeed. Now, sometimes help is offered in plain sight and sometimes gamers have to work for it, but make no mistake, the gaming industry was far ahead of the education field when it came to health restoration and self-care.
But we’re catching up.
Thankfully, the absurd days of “don’t smile until Thanksgiving” and don’t-you-dare-take-a-day-off-or-say-no-to-anything if you’re a non-tenured staff member are beginning to fade away. As a new generation of teachers and leaders grab the collective joystick, a dramatic, if not galacial, paradigm shift is ushering in a new, necessary philosophy: if we mean to take care of our kids, we need to take care of ourselves.
In order for us to level up, leaders need to not only understand but also support the social emotional needs of our teachers. As relationships start to slowly replace content as the most important facet of our complex field, leaders need to find ways to provide teachers with time, support, and room to work on themselves as people, not just as teachers.
And just like scarfing down those magical orbs in Pac-Man, providing our teachers with their own power ups and health restoration isn’t very difficult.
Rethink your district or building professional development plan. Instead of investing in programs or high-priced consultants, invest in each other. Build in time for them to use as they see fit. Create space for them to collaborate, with or without you, on something about which they’re passionate (read: not lesson plans). Budget funds to purchase subscriptions to mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace. Spend part of every staff meeting with a celebration of each other. Shift your professional reading from theory to practice. Share who you are with your staff and invite staff to do the same.
Health restoration and power ups need to be provided, not just suggested. When we focus on the social-emotional health of our staff, we allow them to breath, to grow, to struggle, to overcome, and to teach on their terms, not on ours.
Leveling up isn’t a destination; it’s a state of being. Like gaming, your EduGame is constantly evolving and so are you. Are you ready to push Start?
Brian Kulak is the author of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame. He is a K-5 principal in New Jersey, a devoted family man, a baseball fanatic, and a Pearl Jam aficionado.
Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame challenges readers to advance their EduGame through an extended analogy between gaming and educational leadership. By comparing the eerily similar evolution of the gaming industry to its educational counterpart, Level Up Leadership evokes a collective nostalgia on the way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be an educational leader today.
I remember how much I loathed hearing it. And more often than not, I knew it was coming. Like a high-arcing arrow fired from the opposing front line, I could see it coming but was powerless to avoid it.
As a parent…
Sometimes parents would lead with it, an opening salvo intended to set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Other times, they’d keep it in their back pocket until they really needed a counter punch. And for the first ten years of my teaching career, I was defenseless against it because I was childless.
But a funny thing happened after my daughter was born in 2009. The assumed parenthetical after the first three words of that phrase changed, and so did my association with it.
As a parent (which you surely can’t understand because you’re single and childless)…
As a parent (a role we share so I’m appealing to your sense of paternity to make you see my point).
What once caused me to recoil and go on the defensive became a tacit invitation to a fraternity for which I didn’t know I was rushing. I didn’t consider being a parent as part of my professional identity any more than I considered being an educator as part of my personal identity. But that was short-sighted, indeed, because I can’t shed either part of myself even if I wanted to.
Moreover, I’ve started to purposely wear my dad hat while at school because it helps to disarm both students and parents. At Back To School Night, I share a photo of my two children and close my remarks with a familiar refrain: we’re in this together. While I have spent more than half my life as an educator and feel confident in my ability to lead every time I walk in the building, I have only been a parent for ten years and there are days on which I have no idea what I’m doing.
Still, considering my decisions, my students’ lives, and my relationships through my dad lens has only strengthened my leadership and emboldened my resolve. Similarly, I can’t help but visit our fifth and first grade classes with my own children in mind. In this way, I borrow from my professional life to help my personal life because I watch how other children interact with the world and with learning every day, so when I get home each night, I’m better prepared to help my own children.
I have no idea how often life blending happens in other professions, but I would argue that it’s a vital part of ours. If we preach being a better listener, learner, and person to our students, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the same as adults.
#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Anna Muessig and I grew up together, just not in the traditional sense. As members of the same English department, we found ourselves eerily similar by way of style and substance. Later, after she took time off to start her family, Anna returned only to replace me when I moved on from the classroom. Still later, we reunited at our current district where we’re each doing our best to do our best. She’s humble, kind, and reflective, and she makes the people around her better every day.
Unless you live in this world, you probably just don’t get it. After all, why anyone would choose to do such a crazy thing.
But those of us who live in this world understand why we do it.
Being a motorcyclist is far less challenging and far more predictable than teaching. I have a lot to learn about both, but one specific parallel between bikers and educators struck me today.
When bikers pass each other on the road, they have a greeting. It’s a simple gesture–left hand off the handlebars, extended low, sometimes a full hand and sometimes with the first two fingers extended. If you’re not a biker, you’ve probably never heard of this before. You may even be thinking, “So what. Bikers wave and have a moving high five or something. Big deal.”
The thing that non-bikers probably don’t get is that this little gesture is (as far as I know) a universal communication that approximately translates to the following.
“Dude. I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. We both know how awesome it is to crank the throttle and how chill it is to cruise down a beautiful, open country road. We both know what it’s like to ride through the elements without the protection of the walls or roof around you. We both know how careful we have to be because drivers don’t see us and can take us out in a split second. We both know how serene an escape from the chaos of life a long ride can be. We both know that if your battery is dead and you don’t have a jumper on you, you’re screwed. We both know what it’s like to taste the smell of something gross that’s been squashed into the pavement and what it feels like to hit a pocket of cool air on a hot day. I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend.”
And yes, a two second gesture says all of this.
Educators, as far as I know, don’t have this two second gesture exactly, but we do have ways to tap into that same kind of connection.
We (hopefully) have colleagues who encourage us on rough days, push us when we need a push, and cheer us on when our students’ faces finally light up with that “ah-ha” moment. We have Twitter and Voxer and other ways that we can connect with educators across the globe, to share ideas, and to remember that we aren’t really in this alone. We have EdCamps where we can meet with other educators who want to share ideas, make connections, and continue growing.
Both teaching and biking can feel like completely solo exercises. And that’s not always a bad thing–both can be incredibly empowering. But from time to time we are energized by being reminded that we are not alone, and that others genuinely see and feel what we see and feel.
If anyone hasn’t told you this yet today, whether you teach elementary, secondary, regular ed, special ed–Dude, I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. (Otherwise, why would you be reading a blog post about education?) We both know how awesome it is when a student finally can show you that she has mastered that skill. We both know how difficult it can be to do this well when we’re not at our best because we’re tired, fighting some germ, or stressed about something in our personal lives. We both know how rewarding it is to see our students move on to great things and to know that we were able to guide them on part of their life journey. We both know how careful we have to be because the responsibility we shoulder is heavy, and kids are too important for us to take their needs lightly. We both know that lesson plans are often a pain in the butt to write, and that some of the things we’re required to do are exercises in compliance that don’t make a difference for kids. We both know that when our students move on, we’re proud and excited, but we miss them because our care for them doesn’t end when they walk out the door.
I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend.
Anna Muessig (@mrsmues) has worked in the field of nurturing children for as long as she can remember. Along the way, she has nannied, taught preschool, directed a summer camp, substitute taught at almost every grade level and setting within a public school, taught secondary English, served as an instructional coach, served as a district curriculum administrator, as well as nurtured her own two energetic boys in partnership with her amazing husband. She currently teaches English Language Arts to high school students in New Jersey.
She believes wholeheartedly in the value of changing the world one person at a time, taking risks, and reflectively questioning the assumptions we all unconsciously carry.
I still can’t decide if the term is meant as a compliment or an insult: Weekend Warrior.
From pot-bellied beer league softball dudes to ultra ripped CrossFit maniacs, real and faux athletes alike fall under this same ambiguous moniker. Because induction into this fraternity, or sorority as it were, is voluntary, throngs of grown ups flock, each weekend, to whatever arena houses their activity of choice. For hours each weekend, Warriors shed their traditional workaday armor for titanium lacrosse sticks, worn-down cleats, or, in my case, wooden bats.
For the last nine years, I’ve devoted my Sunday mornings, eight months a year, to baseball. If I’m being honest, I’ve devoted most of my life to the game. Growing up in a town where baseball is life, I had little choice in the matter. The thing is for many Weekend Warriors, the real Warriors, our weekends start to bleed into our weeks.
Sunday morning games are supplemented by midweek batting practice or bullpen sessions. Monday afternoons require uploading stats to the league website. Wednesday nights feature an “in or out?” text to the guys on my team in preparation for that week’s game. Friday nights or Saturday afternoons include lineup consideration and construction. Ultimately, my weekends are often parts of five days long.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
However, for far too many teachers, especially the new and novice, being a Weekend Warrior is neither a choice nor a chance to unwind while participating in an activity they love. It’s an expectation, a challenge, a crucible. And it has to stop.
I often joke that I won’t stop playing baseball until an orthopedist or my wife tells me I have to, but playing a child’s game doesn’t pay my bills or provide my health insurance, so walking away would be a bummer, for certain, but it won’t be devastating. For teachers who feel compelled, by nature or by nurture, to work tirelessly over the weekend, the opposite is often true. Or at least that’s their perception.
But there’s a difference between working on the weekend to prepare for next week’s instruction because you have to and because you think you have to. The former is likely a byproduct of inexperience; the latter speaks to an underlying, unspoken expectation put forth by leaders.
There’s a growing turf war between teacher martyrs and self-care advocates. The former will have us believe that because we are in the business of kids, our very essence is an extension of that truth. After all, if we aren’t thinking about our kids during every waking moment then we must be doing it wrong. The latter espouses the notion that if we don’t take care of ourselves then we can’t possibly take care of our kids. After all, if we aren’t allowing ourselves time to decompress and be something other than educators then we must be doing it wrong.
Now imagine being a young teacher trying to figure out with which team she identifies. Too much of one or the other will surely ostracize her. Too little of one or the other will surely ostracize her. It’s simply a fool’s errand.
So it’s up to leaders, the good ones anyway, to provide our teachers with permission, tacit or explicit, to explore their inner Warrior through an outlet that isn’t education.
Try this: on Mondays, make a habit of scrapping the mundane, “How was your weekend?” in favor of a teacher-specific, Warrior question.
–Did you train any clients this weekend? (Personal Trainer Warrior)
-Do anything cool with the kids this weekend? (Mom Warrior)
-Did you hit up the cool, new winery we were talking about? (Wine Warrior)
-I saw there was a car show in Philly. Did you go? (Gearhead Warrior)
Now, your staff starts their new week by being identified as something, anything other than a teacher. In turn, watch as they ask you about your weekend in non-education speak.
We were all something before we entered our field. Some of us waved goodbye to that person; some of us won’t accept the breakup.
While I did flirt with a fairly common but truly hideous grunge style goatee in the 1990s, so began and ended my facial hair career. Call it vanity or the folly of youth, but I was always clean shaven.
But a funny thing happens the older we get. Vanity can no longer afford the front row seats, so it shows itself to the back. Much like Forrest Gump, who famously decided to stop running, I just decided to stop shaving. Frankly, I really can’t stand the practice anyway, so that aversion coupled with a growing desire for a change led to my new look as a bearded man.
With my wife’s approval, of course.
The thing about growing a beard, I accepted early, is it’s a labor of love that takes time and patience. In the beginning, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the middle, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the end, well, you get the idea.
The other thing about the beard is its impermanence. All the work we put into growing and grooming can be undone in a few minutes with the help of a powerful razor. Moreover, what is undone leaves in its wake a completely different face with completely different maintenance and care needs.
Think, leaders, about how much time and effort you put into the maintenance and care of your staff. Think about the conscious decisions you make, both daily and long term, to shape your culture, to notice when something is out of place, to leave well enough alone, to recognize when you need to make a change.
Then think about how easily your culture can be altered, temporarily or permanently, with the same power and intensity of an electric razor. Whether that razor’s blades are sharpened by ego, petulance, pride, or insecurity, they cut quickly and mercilessly.
The first time I turned 21, I felt like I was miscast in a coming-of-age film about a guy turning 21. With a late September birthday, my firsts were always linked to being last. All my friends—all of them—are older than me, so I sat on the sidelines, or in the passenger seat, while each of them drove, tried chewing tobacco, voted, and drank. So when I finally turned 21, my squad was already over it, the shine had worn off, and I was just a little brother finally allowed, legally, to tag along.
I think that’s why turning 21 again is so meaningful. Again, there will be little pomp and circumstance, and, just like last time, few people will even care that it’s happening, but I’m proud to be 21 again.
Because I’ve been in education for exactly half my life.
21 separate plays with completely different story arcs, characters, and denouements.
21 years of “My bad” and “I’m glad I was your teacher” and “Welcome Back!”
21 first days and last days.
21 chances to take chances.
21 opportunities to provide opportunities.
Of course, catching up to myself just means that while the starting line (21) will always be the same, I’ll move farther away from that line each year I remain doing what I love, until the part of my life that isn’t in education is dwarfed by the part that is.
I’ve made no secret about my borderline obsessive relationship with Seattle grunge gods, Pearl Jam. They’re referenced in my bio, they’re always on shuffle and repeat in my head, and they’re represented in my most recent tattoo. But my affinity isn’t about wanting to be Pearl Jam; it’s about how Pearl Jam is a part of me.
When they exploded onto the scene in 1991, I, like most of the country, was awakening from a long 1980s malaise filled with hairbands and awful ballads. Music that didn’t really speak to me because I wasn’t ready for or interested in the following: (a) action tonight (b) cherry pie (c) Dr. Feelgood or (d) sugar being poured on me. Thankfully, the boys from Seattle showed up and served the scene notice. They’ll take it from here.
The final song on their masterful debut album Ten, “Release,” has served as a mantra since I first heard it almost thirty years ago. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic drone takes listeners on a 9-minute journey through his bizarre, posthumous relationship with a father he didn’t think he had. Ultimately, Vedder pleads with his dead father to release him of the man he couldn’t be so Vedder can be the man he needs to be.
Enduring a tempestuous relationship with my own father, albeit without the same level of confusion, made “Release” seem written for me. Pearl Jam has this effect on a lot of listeners.
As educators, we have an innate need for control. Bound by bell schedules, state mandates, and rubrics (so many rubrics), we live in a perpetual state of oversight. In this way, control is often imposed on us, which sends our own need for control into hyper-drive. It’s a maniacal cycle. So break it.
As you prepare for the upcoming school year, do so with the idea of “release” in mind.
Release control of a read aloud to your kids.
Release responsibility over your next PD to your teacher leaders.
Release feedback on a writing piece instead of a grade.
Release yourself from the noise of the notoriously negative 10%.
Release your first blog post or podcast episode.
Release your teacher leader so she can observe other leaders in your district.
Release stress by unplugging and unwinding.
Release yourself from feelings of Edu-guilt over not doing enough, not being enough.
So much of our Edu-identity is made up of what we’re supposed to be. From crowded lecture halls to oddly spaced, platitude-heavy tweets, we’re told what and how to be as teachers and leaders. But it’s when we shed those cookie-cutter expectations, when we demystify prescribed formulas for greatness, and when we chart our own path that we can, like Vedder, release.
C’mon, you remember using, or at least hearing, this odd non-sequitur in the throes of an argument when you were a kid.
Dude, you totally suck at guitar.
Though it makes no sense in virtually any context other than dermatology, your face took on a powerful, full stop role in just about every schoolyard in America. Because there’s no retort, the recipient of the your face was left speechless, wondering just how he lost the upper hand.
But your face, your actual face, is a leadership tool that cannot be undervalued.
During a Level Up Leadership workshop with Dr. Joyce Jeuell’s ed leadership cohort at Chestnut Hill College this week, I was reminded of what our faces mean to our leadership. The group was discussing leadership in the midst of awful, unforeseen trauma, something each member of the cohort could speak to but only from a teacher perspective. A recent mishandled communication after the death of a staff member at one of her student’s schools led to the discussion during which Dr. Jeuell made clear the first line of leadership defense when the unexpected happens.
How does your face look when things like this happen? It’s the first thing your staff will see, so what will yours look like?
As leaders, you’ll receive news for which you are unprepared.
You’ll sit with a domestic violence victim as she slides the TRO across your desk for you to put on file. You’ll hold the hand of a seven-year old who can’t process her parents’ divorce. You’ll spring into action when a staff member takes a tumble and is visibly disoriented. You’ll listen as an unstable parent lambastes you for all the world to hear.
How will your face look?
While we may not be able to control contours, crow’s feet, and laugh lines, we can absolutely control how we use our faces to stem a rising tide. Whether we’re working with children or grown ups, our faces will tell them everything they need to know long before our words will.
Use it to your advantage.
Easier said than done? Not really.
In any situation, there’s a fraction of a second during which your mind is processing what is happening. It’s the time between the pitcher throwing the ball and committing to your swing. It’s the moment when too-hot coffee touches your tongue. It’s the instant when the OBGYN asks if you’re ready to hear the gender.
In each, and every, scenario your mind has a split-second to tell your face what to do next. Being mindful of that granule of sand slipping through the hourglass is all it takes to instill calmness, confidence, and control over any situation.
Your leadership style? It’s written all over your face.