Must Be Nice

Must be nice to use this passive aggressive phrase as an Edu-shield and sword simultaneously.

I’m not sure, exactly, what bothers me most about its use, but I can take a few stabs at it: the presumption, the derision, the mirrorless homes in which it lives.

Let’s play a game, shall we? For each of the following, scenarios, select the best possible answer. It is, after all, testing season.

1. You never send kids out of the room for discipline.

A. Must be nice.

B. You must have built relationships with your kids before doing anything else.

C. Can we talk about your strategies? I’d love to pick your brain.

D. I think it’s going to be Sansa on the Iron Throne.

2. You wrote a book during the school year?

A. Must be nice.

B. Tell me about your inspiration.

C. Tell me about your writing schedule. I’ve been thinking about getting started.

D. I have a feeling it’s going to end up being Tyrion somehow.

3.  You always have kids in your room during your lunch.

A. Must be nice.

B. Is that incentive based or do you just like to give them the option?

C. Do you think I could sit in some time because I’ll teach many of them next year?

D. But what if it’s somehow Bran? I mean it can’t be, right?

4. You have a really supportive PTA and community.

A. Must be nice.

B. How did you build such a sense of community?

C. I’d like to model my community outreach after yours.

D. I think I’ll be disappointed if it’s Jon Snow. I’m kind of sick of him, frankly.

5.  You spend a lot of time promoting your district on social media.

A. Must be nice.

B. I’m just not comfortable with it yet. Maybe you can help?

C. Do you get any pushback?

D. Regardless of who it is, what do we do with our Sunday nights now?

You can expect your scores next fall.

No More Music

Surely, the time is nigh.

At some point, we’re going to run out of music. The chords, progressions, riffs, beats, and melodies will all be used up. There won’t be silence, per se, but we’ll have heard the last new music meant for our ears. I suppose, then, we’ll just start over.

The funny thing about music is its slavery to itself. Everything is derivative, each generation owing to another’s brilliance and transcendence. Barguments over the greatest bands ever pay homage to those whose imprint is timeless (Stones, Zeppelin, Beatles) and to those who changed the course of the industry (Queen, Pearl Jam, Wu Tang Clan). Those same conversations often spill over into nostalgia and reverie, the kind that gives you goosebumps and puts you squarely in the arena with the people closest to you when you saw that band live.

We pine for the days when and for the kind-of-frontman who, and then we put on our favorite tracks, on whatever device is nearest to us, and disappear with the music. But we don’t think about the music ending. We don’t perspire as a fictional use by date approaches. We don’t throw our hands up and prepare for the silence.

We keep listening.

Because the music isn’t going to die.

Neither is public education.

The cyclical nature of music is mirrored by the cyclical nature of education. Combining a perpetual been-there-done-that old guard with a have-you-tried-this-new-thing-called excitement, each field provides a significant and momentous choice: accept that change is coming or deny its existence.

From Twitter to Flipgrid, Buncee to Ted-Ed, our newest teachers are experiencing and changing education in ways many of us couldn’t have imagined as recently as ten years ago.  

Connected educators need only to pick up their phone or open their laptop to access relevant, real-time PD.

Children around the world are meeting and learning with and from each other through Skype or Flipgrid.

Professors are building social media into their pre-service teaching curriculum.

Leadership programs are espousing the importance of self-care and social-emotional learning.

So whether you’re dusting off that old 8-track or scrolling through the new releases on Spotify, the music will always be there, simultaneously changing and remaining the same.

Just like us.

Choose Joy

#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. 

Sarah Whitman is not a miserable cow. In fact, she is so effusively positive that she committed to a one-minute daily dance party, which she posts to her social media accounts, just to remind people that joy is a choice. An amazing middle school ELA teacher and aspiring school leader, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have her in mind when I came up with #ColleagueCorner. Boooooo the moooooooo.


Every year on the first day of school, I direct my students’ attention to a framed sign in the front of my classroom.  The sign contains a single sentence:

Awesome things will happen today if you choose not to be a miserable cow.

I inform my students that this sentence will be our mantra for the year ahead (and then I explain what the heck a mantra is so they stop looking at me like I’m nuts).  I then ask the students to tell me which word in our mantra is the most important.

Typically, a few over-eager students will immediately blurt out words.  

“Miserable!”  

“Today!”  

“Awesome!”  

Sometimes I’ll even get an enthusiastic cry of “things!”

But every year, there is at least one student who takes a few moments to reflect on each word in the sentence before ultimately uttering the one I’ve been waiting for:

Choose.

Because the truth is, cliche as it may sound, our attitude is something we choose every day.  And our students need us to choose well.

I know that my students are watching me even when I’m not officially “teaching,” and that they can learn much by watching me repeatedly choose happiness, choose kindness, and choose integrity.

I know that my attitude in the classroom can directly influence not only my students’ attitudes, but also their achievement.

Most importantly, I know that some of my students rely on me to offer encouragement and positivity that they may not be receiving from the other adults in their lives.  I know that some of my kids don’t go home to happy, peaceful havens, and that for some of them, my joy might be the only joy they see in the course of a regular day. I can’t think of a more compelling case on behalf of optimism.

I try to keep my miserable cow days–and even my miserable cow moments–to a minimum.

But I’m also a human, and sometimes I fail.  Sometimes I fail impressively. Therefore, my students know that I am permitted a maximum of three “miserable cow days” per school year.  I don’t think I’ve ever used all three, but I’ve also never made it through a school year without at least using one. Every teacher, and every student, is different, so while three days is my self-imposed limit, others may need to give themselves a little more, or a little less, leeway.  Know yourself and what you can handle, and try not to judge others if they need a few more miserable cow days than you.

My best advice for those days (and we all have them) is this: if you do decide to take a miserable cow day, or a miserable cow moment, own it.  Take steps to relieve the stress that’s caused it, whether by way of a few mindful breaths, a walk outside, a good cry (my method of choice), or a few intense punches into a pillow.  Do what you need to do, but don’t take it out on students. Don’t give students a reason to mistrust you or doubt your continuing love and care for them. If you fall short in this regard, apologize.  Occasionally, I’ve made a sarcastic remark to a student, or given a detention too hastily, and when it happens, I’m instantly regretful. Instead of just shrugging and moving on, I make a point of apologizing.  My students know that I’m human, and a sincere apology goes a long way.

Multiple times each day, we are all faced with challenging situations, challenging colleagues, and challenging students.  The more we choose to respond to these challenges with joy and love, the easier it becomes to do it again, and the further away we move from the land of the miserable cows.  

Choose to be the “happy cow” your kids so desperately need in their lives, and you will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond the last day of school.

Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman) is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Collingswood Middle School.  Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked in the study abroad industry.  Sarah is passionate about teaching her students to communicate well, demonstrate kindness, and “embrace their weird”!  She is also passionate about Jesus, her family, Anne of Green Gables, and finding the world’s best scone.

Having A Catch

Currently not in a leadership program text, in the coursework, or on the exam:

Having a catch with a six-year old little boy who doesn’t know his father will die later that day. The fight is over, and his father lost.

So we had a catch. Just the two of us.

Each tight spiral or miraculous grab was stamped with his smile and expert analysis on how to throw and catch a football.

Sometimes we ran one-man patterns toward the end zone. Sometimes we talked about how oddly a football bounces when we miss it. One time he made a fingertip catch while tiptoeing around the sweatshirt he shed to show me his Eagles jersey.

A couple of times my throws were really awful. I think I was distracted.

A couple of times his throws were way off the mark. I don’t think he was distracted at all. Not yet.

When we finished, he asked to have lunch together. So we did.

Eventually, his mom came to pick him up. He had no idea why.

Remind me again about the importance of lateness policy, homework, and state testing.

I’m all ears.

Little Fish

#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

We’ve all taught someone like Emily Grassi. Quietly confident, constantly smiling, and effusively positive, Emily sat in my English IV (H) class ready to graduate when the year began. Like many of my former students, she was prepared, academically and emotionally, for college long before her peers. But first, she had to put up with me for a year. Her post, and her success, are completely unsurprising to those who know her.


I am the cliche of the small town girl in the big city, but how did I get here?

When I was younger, I was eager to leave my small town high school and go away to college. In my second year at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, my friends pushed me to go out for the campus radio station, so once a week I would share two hours of air-time with someone that would ultimately become a very good friend. We were both in the marching band, and had similar tastes in music, so during our show we would play our favorite songs and talk about campus events. It was just fun.

A couple of years later I would hear an advertisement on Radio 104.5 urging college students to apply for an internship with iHeartMedia. I was completely shocked that they actually called me in for an interview, let alone hired me. It did seem logical for me to work with stations like Q102 (WIOQ) and Radio 104.5 (WRFF) though, because I love music and I have always been curious about the industry and media. Every day, that internship felt like one stressful, but fantastic, dream. While there, I was encouraged by my mentors to ask every question I had and to take on every single opportunity with curiosity and excitement.

As my college graduation approached, I applied everywhere, including CBS, NBC, FOX, and Disney. With the internship still fresh, I was not prepared to settle for anything smaller than a major media organization. A couple of months after commencement, FOX News was the first to contact to me, and I jumped on it in fear of no other door opening.

I have been with the company now for a little more than three years, and I have been promoted twice while expanding my network in unexpected ways. Each new position has come with its own challenges, and sometimes the weeks go by so quickly that it doesn’t feel real. With encouragement from my producers, I am fearlessly pursuing big name guests, enhancing my writing skills, and developing audio editing skills. My work with the FOX News Rundown podcast has pushed me to understand both sides of an argument, to continue to ask a lot of questions, to sit back and listen carefully to the other person talking, and to stand strong in my beliefs while keeping an open mind.

Recently, I had saved a quote that was in an autobiography by Alan Alda where he wrote, “not knowing what’s coming next can be a pleasant state, if you trust it.” I wasn’t sure why, but I now understand the reason this stood out to me.

I never expected to end up here. I was never interested in spending time in New York City until my best friend was living there, and I never followed politics or news that wasn’t local or directly affecting me until I started working for FOX News. As opportunities bring new challenges, every question asked and every connection made will open new doors and expose places I never expected. My time in New York City has been an unforeseen step for me, but it has opened my eyes to appreciate the friends that I have made throughout my life. Even though I moved away, I feel closer than ever to those that I consider my “home” friends.

Taking this time to reflect on my experiences, I can honestly say that I have become more confident in myself, in my beliefs, and in the people who mean the most to me. I am actively paying attention to the world outside of my bubble through my work and through my own research. I am no longer afraid to ask questions, or to keep pushing until I tackle each challenge in front of me.

Emily Grassi is a Podcast Coordinator for FOX News Radio in New York City where she works closely with the daily FOX News Rundown podcast (FOXNewsRundown.com). She graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania in May of 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies and a minor in Spanish. She is a graduate of the Audubon Jr./Sr. High School class of 2011. In her free time, she loves to travel, find new music, and be with her friends and family. 

You can follow her on Twitter @emilyrosegrassi. 

Friendsy

It’s funny what the brain hears when it’s really only half listening.

The word, a common one, was frenzy.

But what I heard, and believed to be true, was friendsy.

Like many of you, my morning workouts aren’t complete without my earbuds providing the conduit to a Spotify 90s mix, the new National album, or pre-concert prep for, say, the upcoming Psychedelic Furs/James twinbill. But sometimes I’ll give the melodies a break and listen to whatever must-listen podcast to which I’ve been referred.

My wife, a gifted fundraiser for the Temple Lung Center in Philadelphia, recently discovered that podcasts are a thing, and now she’s obsessed to the point to which our two children’s eyelids aren’t yet closed at bedtime before she has her own earbuds in. As a result, she’s constantly sending podcast suggestions my way; oftentimes, she identifies some intersection of health care and education before making the recommendation.

WorkLife with Adam Grant represents such a cross-section, and only three episodes in, I’m already a better leader because of it. Grant, a wunderkind Wharton professor, writer, and organizational psychologist, expertly examines motivation, creativity, and organizational management in a way that is accessible to plebeians like me.

During an episode in which Grant visits the writers’ room at The Daily Show, he describes the experience with the word “frenzy.”

But for some reason, my brain heard the word “friendsy.” The misnomer didn’t even dawn on me until several seconds later because what we hear in the writers’ room sounds like a large group of friends throwing out jokes for that night’s episode. So I didn’t hear frenzy; rather, I heard friendsy.

So, why? Why did I hear a commonly used noun and mistake it for a colloquial slang term which doubles as a hookup app. Ultimately, the answer is simple: I immediately thought of my former students, staff, and colleagues whom I consider friends.

So much of who I am as a leader is rooted in relationships, and while I can certainly draw a line of demarcation between friendly and friends, I’m not turning down a lunch invitation from two amazing teachers who wanted to welcome me to my new role or a wedding invitation from a student I taught 18 years ago.

I’m not going to pass up the chance to send a hilarious meme to a teacher after she finds a swear word scrawled on the wall outside her classroom.

I’m absolutely going to support a colleague who is about to begin IVF treatments because, as she now knows, that’s how my wife and I were blessed with our daughter.

I can’t explain why my brain misheard such a common word, but I’m thankful that it did because it forced me to reflect on 20+ years of a career that may best be categorized as friendsy.

Finally…

As a former English teacher, I have had quite a love affair with words for the last twenty years. Like my marriage, my relationship with words undulates, palpitates, and frustrates. Sometimes words come in a flurry, frenetically and furiously. Other times words have to be coaxed and cajoled in order to get them to land on the page.

Still other times I find myself musing over how some words can pack such a wallop depending on the context. My current word-du-jour has caused a bit of a stir in my noggin. Its power and impact can measure at alpha and omega and everywhere in between.

Finally.

This word has the power to lift up and the power to utterly destroy. It’s placement in a sentence can be the difference between elation and devastation, and I can prove it.

Finally! Game of Thrones is back! #teamarya

Finally! My daughter finishes up her semester abroad and will be home tonight.

Versus…

She came to her senses and is leaving him. Finally!

Did you hear he put his retirement paperwork in? Finally!

It’s that last one that terrifies me. But it’s also a powerful motivator.

Typically, there are two distinct and oppositional reactions when word leaks that a colleague has decided to retire. The first is a mournful pause followed quickly by collective joy for a person who deserves a hero’s send off.

The other reaction, my aforementioned motivator, is abject relief. A sort of what-took-so-long harumph coupled with a wry smile and that duplicitous word, finally.

Close enough to say it without whispering and far enough away to keep it at a mythical length, I think about my retirement from a removed, third-person perspective. But part of that perspective includes a varied cast of colleagues, real and imagined, whose possible reactions provide the motivation to grow and improve.

Perhaps we need to consider our careers using backward design. What, then, is our ultimate goal in a life devoted to education? While the semantics will vary, I envision our collective goal is touching the lives of as many people as we can before bowing out gracefully. To extend the analogy, I imagine our activities and assessments to that end center around our relationships, our conversations, our decisions. Our lesson plans consider with whom we work, how we communicate with them, and how we help improve each other.

Finally, we reflect on a career marked by true connections with our kids and our colleagues. A career after which those same kids and colleagues celebrate with us, lean in for a hug, and whisper, you deserve this.

Finally.  

State of Sorry

We need to stop apologizing.

Even the glib, “Sorry, not sorry!” begins with the very sentiment it proclaims not to be.

Whether it’s part of a global deference to authority, a knee-jerk reaction to, well, anything, or an internal wiring, educators have become far too apologetic. And it needs to stop.

For me, it’s gotten to the point to which I have to correct teachers for beginning their sentences with “sorry.”

Sorry, I was just finishing up when you walked in. I can do the lesson again!

Sorry, I just wanted to stay with her for a little while because I think something is going on at home.

Sorry, can I leave right at 3 today because my son has a cross-country meet near here, and I never get to see him run.

Part of me thinks the apologies are because I give off some as-yet-to-be-named pheromone which induces teachers into a temporary state of sorry. Then I came across the image that serves as the banner for this post, and I felt relieved. The state of sorry isn’t localized to my small, southern New Jersey school. It is, in fact, pandemic.

Perhaps it’s the inherent people-pleaser in each of us. After all, we consciously entered a field in which the principle resource is people.

Maybe it’s because we often work with parents who come at us from all sides, armed with lawyers and entitlement, so our Pavlovian response is the apology.

Or it could be an unholy combination of generational guilt and working for a leader for whom apologies are the norm, not the exception.

As leaders, we need to do our best to suspend, if not end, the prevent defense culture associated with the apology. If our teachers are compelled to apologize to start a sentence, it likely says as much about us as it does about them.

And, I’m sorry, if you’re the kind of leader who expects an apology as a salutation, then you aren’t reading this blog in the first place.


That Was Me

#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 their world, a world we all share as educators. 

Jenna Bruner is going to be okay. Part catharsis and part advice column, Jenna provides a necessary nudge to new and novice teachers who left undergrad with a trove of theory, but little practice, at the ready. She’s reflective, sarcastic, and fiercely protective of her kids. Aside from a disparate taste in music, we are , in fact, very similar.

To new educators:

So…You just graduated college! Congratulations! You’re bright eyed & bushy-tailed, and you’re super eager to go out into the classroom.

Oh boy! What fun this will be! I get to be around kids all day long! I am so passionate about my field! How hard could it be?”

That was me.

I was in your shoes not too long ago. As I write this, I’m reflecting on my seemingly long and arduous college career that began ten years earlier at a southern New Jersey university. I lived in a small, prison-like dormitory on campus with my best friend. I had 8am classes (the worst!), I had to walk to those classes in the pouring rain, and I ate that awful cafeteria food because I had no means to really cook for myself.

Five and a half years later, I’d graduate with two Bachelor’s Degrees in Elementary Education and Spanish, and a minor in International Studies.

Little did I know in May of 2014, I’d be a lost little puppy in a sea of what my university didn’t really prepare me for: “The Real (Teaching) World.”

So, I say unto you, dear reader, there are many, many things that my classes did not teach me:

How to handle a student who cried on my shoulder every day for a month because her father refused to see her.

How to absorb that a sixth grade girl was molested by her uncle and is just starting to be brave enough to tell her family.

How being myself will get my students to respect me.

How parents really just want the best for their kids and not to panic right away when you get an email from them.

That sometimes having a bad day is okay, and that mental health days are necessary sometimes.

That my best resources at school are the custodians and secretaries and I should always treat them extremely well.

That when the autistic student in my classroom interrupts with outbursts to roll with it.

That I would want to take home every child that has told me how horrible their home lives are and feed them and tell them everything is going to be okay.

That sometimes I just have to do things my way.

So even if you think you know it all right now. You don’t.

And that’s good.

You’ll make it.

Promise.

Jenna Bruner grew up in central New Jersey before starting as a freshman at Rowan University in the fall of 2008. She graduated in May 2014 with Bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Education and Spanish. During her time in undergrad, she got to study abroad in Costa Rica for 5 weeks. Jenna has been teaching Spanish since the fall of 2014, working at 3 different schools with the most recent being Collingswood Middle School. She hopes to spend the rest of her career there.

Okay

In a classic Simpsons episode, Chief Wiggum implores a group of onlookers that “there’s nothing to see here” before he turns around to see what the huddled masses are gawking at and invites them to “get a load of this flaming wreckage.” At the time, I remember laughing out loud. Now, Chief Wiggum, a most unlikely source, provides us with valuable leadership advice.

In an often chaotic world, be the constant your staff and students need by reacting the same way despite the circumstance. What comes after that initial reaction will change, but providing unflappable stability creates a sense of calm before any storm.

The mad pooper has struck again. This time she smeared it to spell out HI.

Okay.

I have no idea who this person is who is coming to pick up Naheem; we can’t let her take him because she’s not on our record.

Okay.

This group is the most challenging I’ve ever worked with. I know I can do it. I just need your help.

Okay.

We haven’t heard from Cal or his family in six days. I think we should call the police.

Okay.

Mrs. A would like us to bring in a gender clinician from CHOP to talk to our staff about Mallory’s transition.

Okay.

We didn’t hear the evacuation drill announcement in the APR. That’s not good.

Okay.

My ex is drinking again, and I don’t know if I trust him with the kids.

Okay.

My husband and I talked about it, and I am going to stay home with the kids. I love teaching, but I can’t pass up this time with my children.

Okay.

The kids want you to be steady quarterback at recess.

Okay.

I have a parent on the phone who says the lunch lady is mean to her grandson.

Okay.

The superintendent would like you to call him back about an anti-homework parent group petition.

Okay.

Sometimes your “okay” will come with hard-to-veil heartbreak, sometimes your “okay” will come with a toothy smile, sometimes your “okay” will sound robotic, sometimes your “okay” will sound melodic.

More often than not, people should walk away from their conversations with you feeling like everything is going to be okay, and if it’s not now, it will be soon.

Okay?