Shopping Cart

Taking Risks and Getting Away With It

The plan was simple. The target was unwitting. The execution was flawless.

I stole a shopping cart in broad daylight and got away with it. This is both a confession and a blueprint. How often do you get to conspire with a low-level thief?

Spying the unattended, Shop-Rite cart resting haphazardly against a parking block, I knew it was time to make my move. Enlisting the aid of a driver (my wife) turned out to be paramount because the snatch and flee would have been far more difficult on my own.

Slowly, my wife backed our Jeep Patriot into position. Casually, I approached the cart as if to use it for a shopping trip, as if I were saving it from relative obscurity. Mightily, I lifted the cart into the trunk, the seats of which had already been folded down to maximize my time. Finally, I slammed the trunk shut, returned to the passenger seat, and gave my getaway driver a sly smile. We had done it. We had become the most pathetic Bonnie and Clyde knockoff ever, and it felt so good.


Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and its inclusion in my senior English class marked a shift in my career. Set against the backdrop of an unnamed apocalypse, the story follows two characters, named only the Man and the Boy, a father and son trying to “make it south” to survive. The bleakness of the landscape is matched only by the dearth of dialogue, marked by McCarthy’s refusal to use punctuation, and the lack of material possessions at the duo’s disposal. Essentially, they have a lone item.

A shopping cart.

Though I taught the novel to seniors, I knew they would struggle. McCarthy’s style is best described as functionally simple–as I mentioned he considers most punctuation a waste of time–but philosophically complex. After all, the end of the world tends to bring about some pretty heavy issues.

I wanted my students to experience the novel, not just read it, so I had to bring the novel’s desolation to them in a way that made sense. I couldn’t do that without the shopping cart, so I decided to risk my own freedom, and that of my accomplice, to do just that.

When the cart first appeared in my classroom, kids were understandably abuzz. Promising to explain more later, I deflected questions about why it was in my room and, more importantly, how I got it.

“I borrowed it,” was my preferred euphemism.

Finally, I shared the tale of the cart’s heist and its purpose in my room. My kids would consider their impending graduation as their “adolescent apocalypse” and contribute at least one item to the shopping cart with which they were not willing to part in the new world. Then, they had to present on that item to the class and field questions about its inclusion.  It worked like a charm.


So many teachers and leaders are skilled thieves. They know where to look to find great ideas, they recognize that in order to grow they have to beg, borrow, and steal, and they risk their own egos to bring their content to life.

Moreover, the word “risk” has risen to the top of the education cliche leaderboard, but it earned such status for a reason. There’s a distinct difference between telling our students about our content and showing it to them. Without risk, the latter is nearly impossible. SImilarly, as leaders, we constantly challenge our teachers to take risks, but how often do we model such risk? How often do we show our teachers that we are willing to fail forward as leaders?

Whether you’re stealing a shopping cart, presenting at an Edcamp for the first time, or pushing publish on your first-ever blog post, you are in complete control of the risk you are taking and need to be prepared to accept the reaction such risk brings.

After all, sometimes all it takes to level up is commiting a minor misdemeanor.

Can I Kick It?

Creating a Culture of Yes, You Can!

Readers of this blog are well aware of my affinity for the 1990s Seattle sound. And while my listening preference often leans toward the grunge and alternative end of the dial, I dabble in all kinds of genres.

Enter A Tribe Called Quest.

The New York based hip hop foursome revolutionized the scene with its 1991 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The group’s sound, which they would pioneer, was dubbed “alternative hip hop,” and was highlighted by the 1992 single, “Scenario.”

Recently, I re-acquainted myself with the crew and had “Can I Kick It?” on repeat as I started my journey as a K-5 principal. The song, which features a heavy sample of Lou Reed’s classic, “Walk on the Wild Side,” is catchy, upbeat, and includes an answer to the titular title, “yes, you can!”

My first month as the proud leader of a small elementary school in New Jersey was marked by a careful combination of anxiety and excitement, one often fueling the other. I shook hands, offered high fives, met with kindergarten parents, and hosted my first ever staff meeting. By all accounts, it was a positive, collaborative opening and one on which I will look back with pride.

But something curious happened more times that I can count during that first month. Teachers and students alike kept approaching me with a familiar refrain, “Can I…?”

As a hallmark of my leadership, I want to say yes more than I want to say no. In his outstanding work, Lead With Culture, Jay Billy reminds us that having a “sure, why not” approach to leadership fosters risk and empowerment. Such risk and empowerment cannot happen without the right question. For me, “Can I?” starts the bidding.

Can I change that bulletin board so it looks like a Harry Potter house but with kindness messages? Yes, you can!

Can I change my schedule so math isn’t always the last thing we do? I think the kids need it. Yes, you can!

Can I start Feel Good Friday during which we all wear kindness shirts and invite the kids to do the same? We can even play music as the kids come in! Yes, you can!

Can I use my prep to go visit a teacher during Workshop? I think I need to see her in action. Yes. you can!

Can I start a Girls’ Group at lunch to work on some of the drama I’m seeing between our 5th grade girls? Yes, you can!

Ultimately, creating a “Yes, you can!” culture is more about letting go than it is about giving in. Too often, leaders are reluctant toward anything new for fear that it undermines their authority or flies in the face of “what we’ve always done.” Or worse, some leaders need to feel like every idea has to be their own rather than stepping back and allowing their teachers to take ownership over the building and its culture.

So whether you’re just starting your leadership journey or you recognize that your leadership needs a shot of hip hop, start with a simple question: Can I?

Yes, you can!

 

Busy Is Not An Affliction

In the canon of small talk, few responses to the age-tested question, “how you doin’?” will ever rival “good.” The word is so vague, so generic and yet so powerfully sufficient. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t require creativity, and it never, ever commands a follow up question about the state of being good.

However, a new response to the most common pleasantry has announced its intention to unseat the incumbent in a way that is so brash, so self-important, and so woebegotten that it might just have a chance.

Busy.”

Never has the world seen so versatile a response. Witness the myriad ways the word can function in common conversation.

~Hey, man, how you doin?

Yeah, you know, busy. The kids are both in sports, I’m working on my MBA online, and my wife just launched a website.

~Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?

Ugh, busy! I’m on this diet, so I’m constantly meal prepping, I just got engaged, and my parents are getting divorced, so that’s a nightmare. Just busy.”

~We’re heading out for happy hour. You in?

Thanks, but I’m so busy. I have to finish up these financials for the new quarter, my mother needs me to set up her new phone, and I have to get to the gym.

In each scenario, we have to assume the first speaker didn’t intend to receive a busyness resume as part of the response. In the first, our old stalwart “good” would have sufficed because the pleasantry had been asked and answered. In the second, because of the reference to time elapsed in between seeing each other, “good” would suffice but would necessitate a brief qualifier. In the final, most egregious, example, an alternative would be “I can’t” or “Sorry. Maybe next time.

So while the context may change, what remains constant is a growing cult of folks who kneel at the altar of busy. For some, being busy is just how they operate. They thrive on stress and deadlines, they don’t understand how the rest of the world can be so utterly relaxed, and they often wear their busyness like a badge to be shined every so often. For others, being busy is more a state of mind, a way to combat the often mundane, task-oriented days which lead one to the next.

And then there’s the true cult of personality: the busyness is my affliction group.

As if being busy is something that is perpetually happening to them, the cult of busy can often be seen wearing ostentatious buttons that read: Ask me about my busy! Harried and often out of breath, the afflicted seek out opportunities to remind the world how busy they are and dare us to compete, task-for-task, with their busyness.

But busy is not an affliction.

It didn’t befall us unawares, and we aren’t unwitting accomplices to its crimes. Busy doesn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder, and whisper, “you’re it!” We don’t inherit busy, we don’t live with busy, and we don’t survive busy. There aren’t 5K walks devoted to busy. Busy won’t present with a rash and a low-grade fever.

Be mindful that a busyness arm-wrestling contest only serves to diminish the importance of each other’s versions of busy. In any conversation, the busyness scoreboard should read 0 to 0.  

Because busy is not an affliction.

 

7-Hour Prep

I mean isn’t it just, like, a seven hour prep?

I guess.

I remember having this conversation about educational leadership with a dear friend and mentor over lunch in 2008. It was a cool five years before either of us would join a leadership team. Ironically, he was the first to make the transition, from high school history teacher to middle school vice principal; I left my position as a high school English teacher the very next year. We both taught at our alma mater.

To be fair, our conversation wasn’t full of derision and mockery. Rather, we were talking about the difference between management and leadership. In our school at that time, the former ruled, morale was slumping with each passing reference to properly leveled window blinds and locked classroom doors, and we couldn’t help but wonder what the largely spectral administrative team did all day.

Okay, maybe there was a hint of derision.

Still, this conversation happens every day in staff lounges and parking lots, over drinks and through group texts. In far too many schools, those in which management trumps leadership, administrators are viewed as foremen, barking orders through a megaphone from a perch high above his minions below.

Now that I am on the other side of that conversation’s table, as the principal of a K-5 building, I can confirm that leadership, at least for me, is, in fact, a seven hour prep. Actually, it’s more like ten hours, but who’s counting?

I am prepping for a difficult conversation with a family whose child I have to recommend be moved to a self-contained room in a different school.

I am prepping for an active shooter drill, which terrifies me despite my demeanor to the contrary.

I am prepping for a slew of meetings I have to hold because folks at the state told me I have to.

I am prepping for my “Monday Message,” which is scrawled on a light-up dialogue bubble outside my office.

I am prepping for the impending death of one of our parents; his twin, kindergarten daughters wholly unaware.  

I am prepping for our Book Fair, Week of Respect, Ice Cream Social, and QSAC monitoring, all happening this week.

I am prepping for my daily walkthrough, ever mindful that I see everyone as often as I can.

I am prepping for an upcoming Twitter chat which I’ll moderate. I’ll get to that after I catch up on my Voxes.

I am prepping for our first I&RS meeting in reference to kids whose names I’m still learning.

I am prepping for my response to parents when the bus is late again.

I am prepping for weather disruptions to recess, skinned knees and bruised (fragile) egos, and a diabetes monitor to go haywire.

I am prepping for that which I can’t possibly be prepared.

So, yes, I guess my friend was right. Leadership is a seven-hour prep.

 

Find Yourself

#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.

Kaylee Collins first walked into my life as a wide-eyed sophomore in 2000. She was a leader, a thinker, and an empath. I had her again as a senior, and in the years since, our roles have reversed. She’s taught me more about myself  than I ever taught her in class. In all ways that matter, I envy her.


In my last semester at Ithaca College, I completed my major with a course called “TV Journalism Workshop.” In the past, this class had been known for helping seniors make newsreels that we’d physically mail out with cover letters and resumes as we competed for jobs in local newsrooms.

During my junior year, I had started to question if I even wanted a job in local news. I knew I loved meeting people, hearing their stories and helping them share those stories with their communities, especially in video format,  but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the direction in which I wanted to go.

For the first time ever, I didn’t know what my next step would be, which was terrifying and liberating all at once.

On the first day of TVJ Workshop, our professor asked us to go around the room introducing ourselves. Most of us had had classes together since first semester freshman year, but he was the communication school’s Visiting Scholar in Residence, so many of us were new faces for him.

With our desks in a U-shape, so we could all easily see one another, we began: “I’m Aaron. I’m a senior, and I want to be a news producer after graduation.” Next, “I’m Lindsey, and I’m a junior. I want to be a reporter after I graduate.”

The class was filled with aspiring news directors, sports broadcasters, newspaper copywriters, reporters and producers. About half way through the room, it was my turn.

“I’m Kaylee, and I’m a senior…And, well…”

I heard audible sighs and saw someone rolling her eyes. Unfazed by my friends’ reactions, I continued.

“I’m reading this book right now that says your twenties are for finding yourself and your thirties are for your career, so I’m going to go with that for now.”

Though I wasn’t being funny, I got a few chuckles, and our visiting professor grinned. Then, as my classmates settled, he agreed with me that taking the time to figure out who I am and who I want to be is important and that more people should take the time to do so.

I hadn’t verbally shared my confusion about post-grad life before, but in that brief moment, I was validated.

TVJ Workshop ended up being one of my favorite classes. I was provided with an opportunity to use my journalism skill set for something other than news. Instead of creating our newsreels for future job applications, we created a TV show focusing on small businesses in Central New York. Think Shark Tank but in 2006 and on a much smaller scale.

Our professor pitched the show pilot to WCNY in Syracuse, and once the show was picked up, he offered me a job as an Associate Producer. Among three classes, I was the only student to be granted a full-time position on the show’s production team.

I like to think that in that moment of honesty on the first day of class I had earned my very first journalism job.

In the first few years after college, I held many different jobs: English teacher in France, freelance journalist, nanny, waitress, substitute teacher, bartender, event manager, restaurant manager, cheerleading judge.

In that same time, I also traveled Europe, attended music festivals, ran my first 5K, earned a digital photography certificate from UArts, published a blog with a friend, and began my goal of visiting at least one new place each year. I’d met amazing people and have maintained beautiful friendships, learning something from each and every one.

And while my current résumé may span several industries, it’s what’s in the margins, between the bullet points and in the blank space that tells the story of who I really am.

Now in my 30s, I’m finally feeling more confident about my career path, but it’s only because I spent my 20s discovering, unapologetically, myself.

Kaylee Collins is an event marketer in the Philadelphia area. In October, she’s making a career move bringing her back to Ithaca College as Assistant Director of Regional Programs, continuing to build alumni bonds through event programming in cities across the country. She’s also an avid reader, music enthusiast and Francophile. Kaylee plans to use that journalism degree to produce a documentary some day, but she still has time left in her 30s to work on it.

 

Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

The Truth About Leadership

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during 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.

Amanda Leonardi is one of the first people I thought of when I started #formerstudentFriday. Our relationship started in our fourth period class, a group that remains close to my heart, and has continued since 2006.  We check in with each other often, and I’m so proud of her. She is kind, empathetic, and fierce. Her piece reflects each.


I started off 7th grade on a high note – my parents got divorced and my Grandma died all in the same week. It could only go up from there, right? In my personal life, things didn’t get worse, but I wouldn’t exactly say they got better. The mess just got messier and I learned how to deal with it. When I look back on my high school experience, what I learned doesn’t stick out to me, but who I learned from is what I really remember.

The experiences I had in the classrooms of a few teachers were the cornerstones of my success in education. I might not have known it then, but these teachers were leaders of education in my life and according to a study by Barry Posner and James A. Kouzes, the authors of The Truth About Leadership, people around the world have had the same experiences with their teachers.

This study collected and analyzed data from more than a million people around the world to assess leadership practices. In their study, they provided participants with a list of 8 different types of people (teacher, parent, political leader, etc.) and asked them to identify the person they considered a leader/ role model in their life. The data revealed that 26% of respondents between the ages of 18 – 30 identified a teacher or coach as “the person they’d select as their most important role model for leadership.” This put teachers and coaches in second place behind parents as an important role model for leadership. This sentiment did not disappear as people age either. The study indicated that 14% of participants over the age of 30 also identified teachers and coaches as their most important role model for leadership.

Through the mess of my personal life, these teachers all brought positivity into my life. They were all present in the classroom, they believed in me, and they invested in my life through their teaching and our daily interactions. None of these teachers knew about the details of my personal life, and it wasn’t until recently that one of them just peeled back a layer of that onion.

As a teacher, you don’t have to know an exhaustive history about your students’ lives nor do you need to know every detail about their day-to-day lives, but you do need to act with purpose and care genuinely. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I had a teacher who showed up to his classroom every day. He made class fun and relatable. He challenged us to think differently. He was there to celebrate our successes and help us navigate the challenges.

Creating a meaningful educational experience isn’t about being your students’ best friend, or creating the coolest bulletin board, or developing the most “out of the box” lesson plan. I recently saw a clip from America’s Got Talent and the contestant said, “It is not the dream that I always had, but that is okay because I showed up and I did something I never believed I could do.” Creating a meaningful educational experience is about learning how to connect with your students so the experiences they have in your class go beyond the grade they receive on their report card and help them achieve something they never thought they could do.

Amanda Leonardi grew up in South Jersey but currently resides in Washington DC. Since graduating from high school, Amanda has enjoyed a varied career route with some of her favorite time spent as a barista in Mt. Laurel and an after-school aide in Camden, NJ. Amanda currently works in Human Resources for a commercial real estate company headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

Arms Folded

The Power of Silent Communication 

A particular curse befalls most English teachers. You know the one.

We see the world through a constantly shifting mosaic of overanalysis, empathy, and symbolism. To us, everything means something. Nothing is an accident. We are convinced that every writer of every piece of literature chose to take pen to paper in an attempt to provide the world with the foundation for a profound lecture, a thoughtful writing prompt, an eventual film adaptation.

Our students sit obediently as we pontificate on the importance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation, the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. Basking in our own analytical glow, we convince ourselves that, yes, everything does mean something.

During a routine walkthrough, I stop in on several teachers without a clipboard, without a cell phone, without a laptop.  For me, walkthroughs are as much about getting out of my office as they are about seeing our talented staff work. Doing so without the pretense of an evaluation signals to teachers that I support them and am happy to provide, usually ultra positive, feedback on any given lesson.

Last year, at the end of the day after such a walkthrough, a math teacher stopped into my office, a bit sheepishly, to ask if everything was alright. Did I see something, she wondered, that upset me. Dumbfounded, I told her I didn’t know what she meant and that I didn’t yet get a chance to send my thanks-for-letting-me-pop-in email.

“Oh, ok. It’s just that you stood off to the side with your arms folded the whole time. I thought maybe something was wrong,” she said. “I’m just not used to seeing you stand like that. Usually you get involved in the lesson.”

She was right. I did stand off to the side with my arms folded the whole time. For me, it was just the preferred posture for that brief moment in time. For her, it was tacit disapproval of something I saw. It was a disappointed father of a girl who missed curfew, a harrumphing customer in a too long line at Target.

On one hand, the fact that the teacher, any teacher, is “used to seeing me” is a positive sign that I’m seen enough to have a typical, or in this case, atypical pose.

But on the other hand, and much more importantly, that teacher’s reaction to me standing with my arms folded provided confirmation that, English teacher curse or not, everything does mean something. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Since then, I have been uber mindful of my body language, voice inflection, and eye contact. The subtle ways in which I communicate often speak more loudly than does my voice. Ask yourself how you communicate with the world when you’re not speaking. As teachers, do we bend down when consulting with a student? As leaders, do we wear an expression that belies or supports what we’re thinking? As parents, do we indicate that we are proud of our kids without having to say so?

Unfold your arms. Wipe away that pesky RBF/RDF (you can investigate these on your own). Smile more often than you don’t.

Because everything means something.

 

On Day 1

On Day 1, there is a sense of a wonder, even if the surroundings are similar.

On Day 1, there is a sense of loss, because, as parents, we give up control.

On Day 1, we smile more. Our voices take on a singsongy inflection.

On Day 1, we meet a new cast of characters in our life’s play.

On Day 1, many of our students return to the structure and stability they so desperately crave. Ours may be the only normal they know.

On Day 1, we look for signs of greatness and for cries for help.

On Day 1, we become each other’s mentor, friend, confidant, therapist, surrogate, and advocate.

On Day 1, we invite change, we accept responsibility, we offset chaos, and we make connections.

On Day 1, we take pictures we’ll later frame. Years later we’ll mourn the images of those Day 1s because we can’t get them back.

On Day 1, we are reminded of all of our day 1s: as students, as teachers, as parents, as leaders.

On Day 1, we have a unique and powerful opportunity few others have because we are handed the clay with which to mold. And then we get to continue to mold that clay for ten months.

On Day 1.

 

Am I Ugly?

Responding to Students in Pain 

He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.

Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.

“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”

At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.

“What? Why would you think that?” I began.

“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”

Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.

“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”

I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.

“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”

He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.

There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.

As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.

So, again, Dave. You are not ugly. I promise.