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?

Relax Your Tongue

I want you to relax your tongue.

I’m serious. Relax your tongue.

It must be difficult being a tongue. My man rarely gets any down time.

The first time my yoga instructor said this during our practice, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Having practiced yoga for years, not one yogi ever asked a class to relax our tongues. Now,  I look forward to her saying it. I expect her to say it. And I comply.

Bringing awareness to arguably the most overlooked, but necessary, part of our body has instilled in me a subtle and powerful level of mindfulness.

Now, I find myself relaxing my tongue countless times a day: after a tense parent meeting, on my drive home, as I write each morning. For me, this micromove has become a physical manifestation of a mantra. No matter how many times I do it, I can always do it again.

Relax your tongue.

Find your own thing. Count to 10, hold your breath, focus on a picture of your kids, watch cat videos, sing your favorite song in an Irish accent.

In the end, you need to find something that reminds you to press pause.

Relax your tongue.

Winning at No Cost

#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

This installment’s writer, whom we’ll call Cassandra, prefers to remain anonymous, and I can’t blame her. In that nebulous place between graduation and finding her forever teaching home, Cassandra is stuck. Dubbed “grasshopper” because we always joked that she would replace me in the classroom someday, Cassandra’s post is all at once sad, cathartic, and hopeful.


When I long term subbed in a kindergarten class, I was used to playing games like red light green light and duck duck goose. Sometimes the kids would stumble and fall, but they always kept playing. One lesson I made sure my students knew is that it is perfectly acceptable to fail sometimes, just as long as they keep trying their best.

Fast forward to my current placement—a high school—where instead of tiptoeing to the finish line, I am tiptoeing around administrative politics and instead of running around to crown the next “goose,” I am just running around in circles. Unfortunately, students are just getting pushed through and are not really expected to do or be anything more.

One Friday, I was told by an administrator that I was “not allowed” to fail any seniors because it is bad for retention rates. Unfortunately for me, the few seniors I have, like the majority of my students, just don’t want to do the work. They know they will receive a 50% whether they do it or not. So the solution I was given is to start curving test scores and give out elementary level work. I have to do what I have to do to get them to pass, I was told. It is all about the numbers, both in percentages and dollars, I heard.

This has been a vicious cycle set in motion long before I set up my cheap Target decor along my walls. When students came to me, they expected that I knew the pass and go drill, and, even more so, viewed me as a nervous, little first year teacher not willing to swim against the tide. They know that the more students graduate, the more money the school receives. Moreover, they know that this can be an opportunity to get an upper hand.

When I began to give out reading homework and quizzes weekly, they failed. When I continued to give out reading homework and quizzes (with a few modifications) on a weekly basis, they still failed. Slowly, they began to realize that I would meet them halfway, but not at the cost of my expectations. When I caught a student cheating and gave him a zero, he lashed out because “[his] answers were right and I can’t mark them wrong.” This inflated sense of entitlement is a direct effect of the system and its bastardization of the idea of winning. To them, success is getting as far as they can by doing as little as possible. And it is only hurting the kids that go into the world thinking doing nothing is winning.  

I refuse to just let them slide, to just continue doing what they have been doing since they started school here. I refuse to be a glorified babysitter. I refuse to not give these students a chance to win the right way.

By allowing this “pass at all costs” policy, we are really failing our kids in the long run. While funding is important and a necessary evil, it is costing my kids the education they deserve. Because education extends beyond the classroom. Kids are going to try and they are going to fail; it is a necessary lesson in growing up. There is winning in failure. There is growth in failure.

But this push to “just get them through” is an adult game of duck duck goose: money gets spent, kids “pass,” more money comes in.

There are no winners.


Just Dance

An excerpt from Increase Mather’s 1684 essay, “An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures.”

Now this [dancing] we affirm to be utterly unlawful, and that it cannot be tollerated in such a place as New-England, without great Sin…The Design of Dancing is only to teach Children good Behaviour and decent Carriage.


I wonder what ol’ Increase and his band of merry Puritans would think of the “Orange Justice.”

When I first started teaching in 1999, part of the sophomore ELA curriculum was devoted to the Puritans, so I taught the above essay along with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” among other totally teen relevant fan favorites.  I used such seminal works to teach discourse, persuasion, and syntax, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to open up discussion about life in the 17th and 18th century. Later in the year, we’d read The Crucible, so starting with the real Puritans to prepare for the fictional ones was necessary, foundational work.

As you can imagine, kids were aghast at the idea that people were against dancing. Though we discussed the Biblical interpretation, the cultural climate, and the fundamental fear of God, students in the 20th century just could not grasp the Puritan way of life.

I mean, to be honest, I still don’t.

But that brings us to 2019: new century, same disdain for dancing.

My elementary school kids love Fortnite, and the ones that don’t, including my 9-year old daughter, love the dances associated with game. So from the aforementioned “Orange Justice” to “The Wiggle” to “The Floss” kids are dancing out loud and it’s driving the adults insane.

But, why?

What is it about children dancing that turns us all into residents of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692?  

Maybe we see junior versions of ourselves in those little, dancing bodies, and we long for the days when we, too, could just stop what we’re doing and dance. Inhibitions be damned (not our souls).

Maybe we conflate dancing with an overt smack to our orderly, Charlotte Danielson fearing faces.

Maybe we, by nature, aren’t dancers, especially in public, so the prospect of children dancing willy-nilly in our halls and in our rooms evokes a primal envy we didn’t know existed (note: if this describes you, please stop reading and seek help).

Maybe we weren’t allowed to watch Footloose or Grease as a kid, so seeing them play out in real life serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe we work for a 21st century version of Increase Mather and fear being smote on the spot, Dunkin’ coffee in hand, for not putting a stop to the wickedness.

But maybe, just maybe, we should let the kids dance if they want to.

Hell, maybe we should join them.