Digging In

I was ready for a fight, man. 

I’m talking a sleeves rolled up, adrenaline pumping, expletive laden throw down. 

I was ready to dig in. 

As winter turned to spring here in Jersey, I was looking forward to our lawn, cared for by a local company, taking on that green, lush, make-the-neighbors jealous look the company touts in its brochures. But before long, it became clear that unless I paid for a more mosaic, brown-yellow-green combo (spoiler: I did not), my property looked more like an abandoned wasteland than a lakefront home. 

And I was pissed. 

My plan was simple. This charlatan was going to fix his mistake. At his cost. Immediately. And I was still going to blast him on social media. So I crafted a snarky, petulant email and shared it with my wife before hitting send. 

“Whoa whoa whoa. You can’t send that,” she started. “You go in guns blazing, and you don’t even let him explain what happened or offer to fix it. This is a dance. Let me handle it.”

And just like that, I was excised, like an unsightly boil, from the process. 

The result, as is often the case when my wife gets involved, was a perfectly reasonable mea culpa from the owner, complete with three options for us to consider and a full refund. No nonsense. No showdown at the OK Corral. 

No digging in. 

Because had we dug in, we would have spent more time (and money) digging out.

As educators, especially during this post-but-really-still-during-Covid nightmare, we are faced with the prospect of digging in daily. And oftentimes we are asked to do so at a moment’s notice. 

A disaffected junior has made it his mission to disrupt instruction daily. 

A veteran teacher refuses to ditch her lecture based instruction despite being provided with countless opportunities to improve. 

A grumpy bus driver continues to rack up complaints from parents. 

A lazy principal remains perfectly content doing as little as possible. 

In each scenario, and countless others like them, we could dig in and be justified in doing so. And, look, in some cases, digging in is necessary to keep people safe, to owe to policy, or to maintain integrity.  

But in my experience, digging in is more about our own ego, our own pearl clutching desire to win a fight, to be right. And as we continue to dig, we inevitably lose sight of why we started to dig in the first place.

So when we make the conscious decision to dig in, we need to be prepared to dig out from however large a hole we create. 

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Unself Conscious

Maybe I’m just rebranding empathy. Maybe I just had a hankering for some word play. 

Somewhere sandwiched between Siggy Freud’s Id, Superego, and Ego is the Unself, the part of us that lets the other three play in a messy psychological sandbox while we think about everyone else’s sandbox. 

For some (actually, for far too many), this part of ourselves is underdeveloped, malnourished, absent. But for educators, the unself becomes the self. 

The faraway look of an otherwise present colleague. 

The deafening silence of a staff meeting. 

The muted smile of a kid with good news she can’t wait to share if only someone would ask.

The unself notices it all, sending tiny pinpricks of awareness to the rest of our brain, urging us to check in, to smile, to ask, “you okay?” 

Oftentimes, we end up in a wrestling match with the unself, ping-ponging between the desire to help and the guilt of choosing not to. Because the unself doesn’t tell us how to intervene; it only sends us a signal that we need to intervene. 

Moreover, there is no unself conscious manual replete with if-then scenarios and Venn diagrams. There is no unself conscious badge we can flash while exclaiming, “It’s okay, everyone! I’m an empath!” There is no easy unself conscious response to folks who don’t want our help and who not-so-politely ask us to mind our own business while we whisper under our breath, “but you are my business.”

Despite all the messiness, the variables, and the imbalance, ask any unself conscious educator if they would consider toning it down a bit, sitting out a few plays, focusing on the actual self and they’ll all tell you the same thing. 

I don’t know how

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Six Seconds

Six seconds.

Less time than it takes to prepare your morning cup of coffee. 

Less time than it takes to sort through your daily mail. 

Less time than it takes to wash your face before bed. 

Six seconds. 

That’s how long it takes for our brains to process an emotion. 

That’s how much time we have to plan for our response to someone else’s emotion. 

Six seconds. 

For our most regulated kids, six seconds might seem like a perfectly acceptable amount of time to digest that nasty social media post, that college acceptance letter, that playground incident. They can apply the applicable emotion in the appropriate way and move on with their day. 

The same goes for regulated grown ups. Our ability to cycle through the rolodex of emotions available to us is precise, seamless, and imperceptible. 

But what about when we pepper in some dysregulation, some trauma?

That six seconds quickens, the brain’s access to appropriate emotions is shut off, the response is disparate and unsettling. 

The thing is it’s not what the affected person is feeling in those six seconds because we can’t control how that person feels. How we respond in the wake of those six seconds matters most. 

Look at the difference between these two responses. 

What is wrong with you

What happened to you?

The former speaks to blame, to a Scarlet Letter, earned or branded, that puts the onus of responsibility firmly on the affected person. 

The latter shifts that narrative in such a way that the affected person no longer bears the weight of both cause and effect. Instead, he sees his reaction after those six seconds as a result of something out of his control. 

So those six seconds are no more random than they are orchestrated. They are prescribed as part of being a particular human with particular experiences, some of which we haven’t learned to process. 

In those six seconds is a lifetime. 

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Stories

The shortest distance between two people is a story.

Think about those late night conversations with a high school best friend or college significant other. The belly laughs and tears, the remember-whens and I’ll-never-forgets. Even as you read this, your mind is likely taking you there. You’re having a visceral reaction. You may be smiling. 

Because the shortest distance between two people is a story. 

Form enough relationships and the stories may start to fall away from you. Sometimes they bleed into one another, like a dreamscape where, in isolation, only fragments make sense, but together, they create a mosaic of your lived experience. And in that experience you are the main character, the 1st person, the POV. That’s what gives you those goosebumps. What makes the corners of your mouth curl into a smile. What makes you linger on that story for longer than you intended. 

Here’s the thing. In so many other stories, you’re also the supporting character, the 2nd person, the sidekick. You’ve played a significant role in the lives of so many people, many of them children because of the field you’re in, and you didn’t even know it. 

Sitting cross-legged at a sleepover, kids will bring your name up as they remember that time in 4th grade. A red bubble hovers over your DMs on the other side of which is a former student having beers with friends and remembering that time you said that thing and everyone got quiet. At a former student’s wedding, you’ll shake hands and give hugs in between stories involving you. Stories you can’t quite remember, but it doesn’t matter because they did. 

Because the shortest distance between two people is a story. 

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Shut Your Door

“Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what. No matter where. Or who, or who you are with, or where you are going or… or where you’ve been… ever. For any reason, whatsoever.” ~Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin Scranton

I can remember pieces of advice right down to the moment. 

In the car, after I was the losing pitcher in the 12-year old championship game.

Dad: There’s always going to be somebody bigger, faster, and stronger. 

Courtside at a high school basketball game lamenting to my former coach that I was terrified to student teach.

Coach: You’ll do it. Just like you’ve done everything else. 

During my first year teaching, complaining to my mentor about some of the archaic, bureaucratic parts of the job.

Mentor: Just shut your door and teach.

That last one was a watershed moment in my career. I could either take Beth’s advice and run my classroom my way, despite the risk of chastisement or poor evaluations, or disregard her advice and become the kind of robotic teacher I refused I would become. 

Obviously, if you read this blog, you know it wasn’t much of a decision at all. 

But that was twenty-three years ago. Before the country decided to force teachers into one of two, equally horrifying categories: martyrs and pariahs. Now, teachers are leaving the profession with nothing but an existential crisis and a box of KN95 masks to show for it. 

The funny thing is the pandemic, politics, and protocols haven’t shined a light on bad teaching.  No, the bright lights of Twitter threads and resignation letter screenshots have flipped the script and exposed terrible leadership. And it’s long overdue.

So now it’s my turn to give advice to teachers. Teachers who have that resignation letter queued up but haven’t hit send yet. Teachers who have to sit in their idling cars for several minutes as they work up the strength to enter their buildings. Teachers who have been forced to trade creativity for compliance, relationships for data, passion for paychecks. 

Shut your door and teach. 

Teachers don’t serve leaders; they serve kids. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Standards can be explored without being drilled. 

So shut your door and teach.

Lesson plans, which will likely be unread by leaders, can be copy and pasted. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Formal assessments are only one, often flawed, way to measure growth. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Lousy leaders either know they’re lousy and don’t care or don’t know they’re lousy at all. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Shut your door and teach. 

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Not-To-Do List

Make the dogs’ grooming appointment.

Add Eddie Vedder’s new solo project to Spotify playlist. 

Review I&RS action plans ahead of next meeting. 

Request day off for March Madness. 

Man, it feels good to strike through our to-do lists doesn’t it? 

Whether that flick of the pen is done with violence or gentleness, through frustration or pride, taking control of our often Byzantine workaday existence by eliminating tasks does more than end a process. It starts one. 

We feel a sense of relief to have crushed that list because our brains reward us by releasing dopamine. That high we feel is as real as whatever Snoop was puffing on during the halftime show, and we want to feel it again. 

So we add more things to our list and chase that, well, “dope” again. 

But if we need to finish things to feel satisfied, then doesn’t that mean we are perpetually unsatisfied? 

In his new book, The Practice of Groundedness, Brad Stulberg challenges readers to flip that paradigm by creating a “not-to-do” list. A way of tricking the brain into reminding itself that we can feel a sense of accomplishment by not doing, reverse engineering the dopamine dump and removing the anxiety of the unfinished. 

Like this.

Beat myself up about being tied to my office on a particular day. 

Respond to an irrational parent voicemail immediately and aggressively.

Check school email after 5 pm. 

Hold off on checking in on a teacher who is clearly struggling. 

Then, post your not-to-do list in an obvious and accessible place so as to remind yourself that not doing is as willful and cathartic an act as doing. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me.

Obsess over every word in every blog post. 

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Parent Primer

It’s been six hours since your child came home from school and told you she had a bad day. It’s been two hours since you started crafting an email to her school. In another twelve hours, you’ll expect a response and an action plan. 

Before clicking send, here’s a handy primer for emailing your child’s school. 

Don’t click send when this email:

  • Is a projection of your own school experience in such a way that you’re writing it for yourself, not your child 
  • Is written hours (or minutes) after hearing about your child’s day
  • Is in response to something you saw on Facebook or heard at the soccer field
  • Is requesting a full investigation without being aware of your school’s code of conduct or your state’s HIB law
  • Includes phrases like, “I’m not the only one” or “all the other parents” 
  • Is requesting that the school help you parent your child 

Go ahead and click send when this email:

  • Seeks to understand on the way to responding
  • Has had time to marinate, much like the situation about which you’re writing
  • Is based on a series of experiences your child has had, particularly if they all include the same people or themes
  • Provides context for how your child is feeling about or responding to her school experience
  • Alerts the school of changes in your child’s life that may affect how he presents in school
  • Is just a note of kindness and gratitude for your child’s teacher

Look, man, parenting is super hard. I’m talking existential crisis inducing-small victory seeking-perpetually self reflecting-ugly crying hard. 

But so is teaching. 

The difference is we don’t open up our email to read about our parenting. 

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Cleaning Up

The place was spotless. 

I mean spit-shined, dust mote free, a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place clean. The vacuum cleaner treads were still fresh when I got back to the townhouse on that Friday night. Frankly, I walked through our place with an overwhelming sense of calm because it was always me who cleaned and tidied, so it was refreshing to have some help. 

Before I could form the first syllable of a “thank you” to Lew, the roommate who was responsible for the deed, the doorbell rang. 

“Hi, is Lew here. I’m Brittany,” she said.

And then it made sense. There was nothing altruistic or even bro about Lew’s frenetic Friday cleaning. He was staging. Posturing. Playacting. He cleaned up because he had a date. 

He cleaned up because he had to. 

I won’t confirm or deny that I put a silent hex on that date, but let’s just say that Lew’s wife’s name is Kristin, not Brittany. 

Every day in school leadership, we are faced with that which we have to do vs. that which we want to do. None of us is particularly enthused about signing timesheets or sitting through hours long meetings, but each is an implicit part of our job, like it or not. Conversely, all of us would like to be in classrooms more, co-teaching a lesson, or running a lunch bunch with a group of kids. 

And then, of course, there’s the constant specter of the unknown, looming over playground incidents and unannounced parent visits. It’s hard to clean up when we can’t see the mess coming.

How, then, can we negotiate the two?

For me, cleaning up  is rooted in my locus of control. 

Recognizing the pull of wanting to play in a playground football game against having to finish up my budget proposal, only one of which has a due date, demands that I clean up my accounts. 

Identifying when a teacher needs an extra prep or an “is everything alright” conversation helps me clean up our building culture. 

Emailing a mom after witnessing her child deliver a random act of kindness helps clean up that child’s perception of himself. 

Calling a pop-up vent session with leadership colleagues, via Zoom or at a local brewery, allows us to clean up our sanity. 

At a time when our collective control switch is constantly being toggled for us, it’s imperative that we clean up as much as we can, on our terms. 

Not on Brittany’s. Bless her heart.

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Misdiagnosed

When I walked off the mound after the final out, I knew something was wrong. Stifling my grunts and trying to walk with a normal gait, I made it to my car and just sat there, mind spinning. 

What if it’s my ACL?

Was that the final game of my career?

What if I never walk the same again?

Later, when a doctor floated the possibility of a meniscus tear, I really didn’t hear much after that. I knew it sounded bad, would involve surgery or months of physical therapy or both, and would almost certainly end my Weekend Warrior baseball career. Immediately, the physical diagnosis had affected my mental health, so from top to bottom and inside and out, I was broken. 

No more baseball.  Now what?

A month and a new doctor later, I was able to listen and comprehend throughout the conversation: 

Doc: You want the good news or the bad news?

Me: I mean that’s not my favorite bedside manner game, but gimme the bad. 

Doc: You’re getting old, Bri. It’s arthritis. 

Me (already starting to calculate when I can start to throw and swing again): And what’s the good news, then?

Doc: I’ll shoot you up with gel and you’ll be good as new. 

Had I accepted the misdiagnosis, I would have likely never played again, and though it may sound hyperbolic, my life would have changed in a profoundly negative way. 

While we spend countless hours trying to diagnose our kids’ academic and social emotional needs, think about how often we misdiagnose teacher mental health. 

Imagine, then, moving through any week, month, or entire school year assuming your staff is “fine.” Consider the lack of clarity, awareness, and honesty necessary to identify when a staff member is struggling and in need of a check in. In essence, we misdiagnose them this way because they’re grown ups, but we all bring our “stuff” to school with us. 

Grown up stuff is just easier to hide. 

A shoddy marriage.

A terminally ill parent.

Postpartum depression.

Burnout.

Through extensive SEL and trauma informed work, our staff has learned to diagnose student learning and behavior in a way that cannot be overstated. From daily references to the zones of regulation to private, in-the-moment restorative practice, to focused walk-and-talks, teachers exhaust so much emotional capital on their kids, and rightfully so. It’s their job to take care of the kids.

So, leaders, I implore you to invest in the same level of empathy and care in your staff.

It’s our job to take care of them. 

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Selfie

While teaching from one of my favorite novels, Stephen Chbosky’s seminal YA work The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the main character’s de facto love interest, Mary Elizabeth. Though only a bit character, she proves a perfect foil to Charlie, and Chbosky’s wily name choice for this ultra-feminist, insecure, faux intellectual provided a gift wrapped challenge for my students. 

Me: So of all the names he could have chosen, why this sort of stuffy, first-and-middle name? In fact, it’s even hard to say over and over again, but she only goes by Mary Elizabeth. 

<crickets>

Me: Okay, so what do we know about her?

Them: Well, she’s super annoying, she doesn’t stop talking, usually about herself, and she wants to, like, make Charlie into her boyfriend instead of just letting him be who he is and be her boyfriend. 

Me: Getting closer. Now, look at her name but only as initials. 

Them: M-E. Yeah, so. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, ME! 

The thing about Mary Elizabeth is she’s as incapable of accepting her own narcissism as Charlie is of understanding that people actually think that way. To him, other people are the focus, are the priority, are the story. He is, after all, a wallflower. 

I think that’s why I connect so closely with Charlie. He spends his short life thinking about others, about how he can affect the lives of people he loves by sacrificing himself. In fact, such selflessness becomes his albatross, his cross to bear, and it nearly kills him. 

As educators, we’re all Charlies. We deliberately sacrifice ourselves in the interest of others: our kids, our colleagues, and our own families. And we do so based on an internal locus of control, a speedometer set firmly on Go, which few of us are willing, or capable, of resetting. 

So the pandemic hit reset for us. 

Now, we are all forced to change our camera angle so it faces us. Our life’s camera roll includes far more selfies than it once did as we weigh our own health, the health of our own children and parents, our work-life balance, our mental health. The list goes on and on. We’ve gone from Charlies to Mary Elizabeths. 

And that’s ok.

Because in doing so, we are finally prioritizing ourselves, not as part of an either-or ultimatum, but as part of a necessary shift in our point of view. A shift that, if considered earnestly, will only serve to make us better educators, better colleagues, and better people. 

Take more selfies, my friends.

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