The Struggle Is Real

#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.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is in rarified air. As a leader of my undisputed heavyweight favorite class of all time (2004) she represents so much of why ours is a most powerful profession. She’s the kind of teacher we all want on staff: able to inspire students, to lead colleagues, and to reflect on her practice. Like so many of my “formers,” I’m thankful that we stayed in touch.


Chasing Leadership

When I started my journey to become an educator, I didn’t want to be a teacher. Sounds weird, right? I still don’t want to be a teacher. I am one, I have been one for ten years, but I have always wanted to be a school leader. I’ve always thought that my perspective on education transcends the four walls of the classroom and the page numbers of curriculum. I want to do more, be more in the world of education, but I have been met with struggle on my path to a school leadership position.

Struggle #1:  Age. I can hold my own in a room full of men and women of any stature in a school district, local organization, or national council. I’ve served as a leader in many capacities within my school district, in my content area, and among my local education association. However, I always feel like the “kid” in the room because more often than not I am the youngest.

Personally, I’ve combated this feeling by never considering my age (32) as a reason to not take me seriously as long as my input was meaningful and respectful. In fact, I decided early on to overcome this struggle by commanding respect through leading by example, working in the trenches along with my peers, and communicating effectively. I was so thirsty for  leadership opportunities that I put my name in for elections for a leadership position of my local education association as a non-tenured teacher. Yea, I’m a little crazy. What won it for me eight years ago? Respect. Respect is the reason why I still proudly hold the position. Respect trumps age in my book.

Struggle #2: Opportunity. I never shy away from an opportunity to lead, both formally and informally. Mine is the first name on the volunteer list for every school committee and district initiative. I jump at the chance to show that I deserve to be considered for leadership opportunities. But what happens when after ten years the opportunities are running thin and the big jobs aren’t available? I fear that all of my hard work, time, and dedication will be forgotten.

How do I stay relevant in the minds of my superiors? Do I leave the comfort of a quality district to find leadership opportunities elsewhere? This is an area where I feel networking and professional relationships are extremely valuable. I have to remind myself that it is okay to share my struggle with those who have come before me and who can advise what my next steps should be.

Struggle #3: Family. I am at the point in my life and in my marriage where having children is the life path I want to follow. This means that I’ve had to slow down my leadership chase so that I could chase my almost two-year old daughter, all while I prepare to have another child as we just found out that I’m expecting. Now I find myself weighing my priorities of holding a school leadership position against the needs of my family.

My dad was a school leader for many years and for many years he wasn’t home for dinner, he wasn’t able to make it to my soccer games, he wasn’t there in the summer months at the beach. As a mother, I question if I can continue to dedicate the time and effort to school leadership and balance the demands of family at the same time. I’m eagerly seeking balance when it comes to being a woman in leadership.

In the meantime, I’m still chasing leadership, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s not my time for the “big role.” I still have the desire to lead, but have fulfilled my need to lead in smaller ways, like continuing my education in order to learn more about this profession I love. That’s what I can do right now because my struggles have caused my priorities to change.  I’m taking a detour at the moment, but I’ll be back when the time is right.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is a middle school Spanish teacher in Medford, NJ. As a graduate of the beloved Audubon High School class of 2004, Monica enrolled in Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. After the “best four years of her life,”  she landed her first (and current) teaching job. She later added to her portfolio a Master’s degree in School Leadership, a NJ Principal certificate, and an English as a Second Language certificate. At home she enjoys the endless loop of Trolls and Moana movies with her daughter Jade and fancy dinners with her “foodie” husband Ryan.

 

What Can You Make Out Of This?

Sharing Yourself To Lead Others

I have the 1980 disaster film spoof Airplane! to thank for shaping my personality as a teacher and leader. In conversations about earliest memories, my mind always flashes to the time this silly comedy made my stoic, Polish father cry with the kind of unabashed, uncontrollable laughter I would only see a handful of times in my life. It was a watershed moment for my childhood, and while it might only be a blip on my collective experience radar, I’m so thankful that it’s there.

Squished on a very old couch, I remember laying with my dad, but not head-to-head. I liked to pretend I was just as tall by scooching down so my feet were adjacent to his. It was a silly life hack, but that’s just the kind of thing little-boy-me would do.

In the film, an effeminate air traffic controller named Johnny (Steven Stucker) makes several rare but scene-stealing appearances. To this day, he’s one of my favorite cinematic characters. At one point,  Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is handed a weather bulletin. After studying it for a second, he begins the exchange that reduced my father to tears.

McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat, a brooch, or a pterodactyl.

And that was it. The scene spans eleven seconds (I checked), and if you look closely, you can see Stucker grin at his own brilliance. But those eleven seconds were all my brain needed to process that seeing my dad laugh-cry was proof that underneath the unflappable facade, he was human. He was capable of great joy and sadness. He just preferred to keep it to himself.

Former students will tell you that I often shared, probably too much, about my life. To me, being as human as possible was the only way to convince teenagers that what I was teaching them was actually relevant, meaningful, and useful. Instruction was often interrupted by a tangential anecdote or a whimsical memory. I was convinced that if I could make them laugh with me, even at me, it would strengthen our connection and motivate them to do great things. I’d like to think that #formerstudentFriday is proof that it worked.

As a leader, I don’t shy away from the same kind of genuine honesty and self-effacing humor that I used in the classroom. People know, for instance, that my daughter is an IVF baby. They know that I still play baseball eight months a year. They know that I have wicked Imposter Syndrome. They know that my wife and I were set up, despite living in different parts of the country, by her cousin, who was a student in my class at the time.

My failures and hang ups are all on full display. Faithful readers of this blog will remember my Mistakeume, a detailed list of mistakes I’ve made in the first several years of my leadership, which I shared with our staff in my first-ever welcome back letter last summer.  I won’t hold back laughter or tears, and I certainly won’t ask that of my staff. It’s only one leadership style, but it’s mine.

I am convinced that experiencing my dad’s laughing fit with him made me wholly aware, even back then, that we are who we are for a lot of reasons, so it’s up to us to share ourselves, warts and all, with the people we mean to lead.

 

 

Compliment Conundrum

When Complimenting Your Staff Becomes the Norm 

The first time is always met with equal parts shock and delight, a spontaneous combination of reddened cheeks and raised eyebrows. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before; it’s not that it’s disingenuous.

It’s that it’s unexpected.

My name is Brian, and I’m a complimenter. (Choral ResponseHi, Brian!)

The irony of this leadership trait is that I put people in positions with which I am very uncomfortable when in reverse. As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of compliments. Never quite sure if I should thank the complimenter, always a bit skeptical that the compliment was paid as part of some adult handbook on how to relate to kids. As an adult and professional, I recognize that many of us can go for long stretches without anyone telling us something positive about ourselves. And that’s not to say that the older we get the less there is to compliment.

We just choose to stop doing it.

So I’m choosing the opposite.

While putting together the agenda for our most recent staff meeting, I decided to write in a segment called “Triumphs and Tribulations,” which I borrowed from my leadership mentorship program. Essentially, it would act as a prescribed time, at the end of the meeting, during which we would celebrate each other or ask for help, out loud. When the time came to introduce the idea, I explained that I didn’t expect anyone to actually contribute today but that I would go first to model the activity. I spoke about my amazing secretary, Cecilia. Underpaid and overworked, she is one of the kindest, skilled people I know, and because I’ve never worked with a secretary before, I thought it was imperative that she be the first person complimented in front of our staff.

When I finished, I started to say something about how next month we could start the tradition. However, I was interrupted by a teacher who said, “Wait, can we just..” and then she started to applaud. Then we all applauded.

Then the compliments poured out. Each followed by a chorus of, you guessed it, applause.

Thank you, _____. Not only have you provided me academic support in math but you’ve taught lessons! I don’t know what I would do without you.

Yeah, Fundations has been fun to teach, but I struggle. ______ has gone way above and beyond to help me.

I love my (grade level) partner. We are so in sync and constantly bounce ideas off each other.

I know this isn’t a revolutionary idea that will land our staff in educational journals for years to come. Still, there’s a profound difference between knowing something exists and making it your own. For just a few minutes at the end of a staff meeting, we shed the red tape, put away the agenda, and celebrated each other.

And we solved the compliment conundrum.

 

Revisionist History

#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 is a particularly special installment.

Garrett Kampf checks several boxes. He’s brilliant, self-aware, civic, and, in full disclosure, my cousin-in-law. Garrett’s mother, Carol, introduced me to her niece, Allison, some thirteen years ago; shortly thereafter, Allison and I were married, and Garrett, and his sister Jackie, went from former students to current family.  Garrett’s piece, like the David Foster Wallace passage that precedes it, is raw and unabashed. My man has come full-circle personally and professionally, and he’s only 27.


The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

-David Foster Wallace, This is Water

I left Rutgers University on fire, determined to tear down systems that I spent the previous four years critiquing.  Accordingly, I set out for Kansas City as a 2013 Teach for America corps member. At best, I was taking part in a movement that would radically expand meaningful educational opportunities to all students regardless of race or class.  At worst, I was motivated by fear to prevent my experience from being reduced to stereotype: the white savior complex. Some probably pejoratively viewed me a social justice warrior. Looking back, my idealism was naïve, but it was pure!

To some extent I feel like a fraud writing this piece.  I never intended to remain a teacher.  Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was always the dream. However, education and the criminal justice system for me have always been inexorably connected.  Failure in the former often leads to entry into the latter. This idea of meritocracy, unconscious but near universally worshipped in the American psyche, is built on the flawed premise that we are masters of our own destiny.  My success was largely contingent on socioeconomic factors entirely outside of my control. Similarly, the criminal justice system is contingent on a corollary principle that is equally flawed: judging human autonomy in a vacuum.  When determining one’s blameworthiness, it is inconvenient to take circumstance into account.

It would be charitable to say that my record as a teacher was mixed.  I was woefully ill-equipped for the job. But what I found invigorating about the profession was all of the many hats I would wear at any given moment: educator, counselor, confidant, advocate.  I learned quickly that I was never going to tear down a system that perpetuates inequality. My more measured approach was finding a way to validate the potential of at least some of my students and invest in them.  Sometimes it was as simple as listening to what was going on in their lives without judgment.

You see, it took a while for this to happen in my own life.  I was an aimless and apathetic high schooler until a 10th grade history teacher saw that I was worth something.  Once my potential was validated, he effectively extracted it.  This investment encouraged me to trudge my chosen career path. There’s something rudimentary human in all of this that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

I am now in my 3rd year of law school at the University of Oregon.  Whether you are a teacher or an attorney, you must work within the confines of the system, implicitly acknowledging the reality that no matter how hard you fight against it, the system isn’t going anywhere.  In many ways I have been forced to trade in my idealism for pragmatism. This isn’t meant to sound like some call for political quietism or surrendering to some nihilistic reality. It’s merely about humility in paying it forward: equipping others with purpose or treating others with dignity, the way it was done for me.  My life’s work as an aspiring public defender in the criminal justice system is fighting to prevent someone from being eaten alive by it.

My twenty-two-year-old self would be so disappointed in my tacit acceptance of the way things are rather than waging war for the way things ought to be. Put differently, I’m not sure how much of a large-scale difference I make. That doesn’t matter to me much anymore. By working in the pursuit of my own sense of purpose through helping others, my life has meaning.  Today, that surely is sufficient.

Garrett Kampf is a 2019 J.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon School of Law. He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2013 with a B.A. in Philosophy. He spent 2013-2015 teaching middle school English and Language Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Garrett lives in Eugene, Oregon where he enjoys exploring the state, playing golf, seeing live music, and quoting the Big Lebowski wherever possible.

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.