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.

Closed Door Policy

Honor Time Without Announcing It

I have a closed door policy.  Don’t @ me.

Announcing an open door policy as part of a leadership philosophy is like a pitcher announcing he’s going to throw the ball to the plate. Yes, of course it’s supposed to happen but having to tell people about it seems disingenuous.

When my door is closed, I’m with a troubled 9-year old who “doesn’t understand the point of living.”

When my door is closed, I’m with a first-year teacher who just needs to vent and admit that she is very tired.

When my door is closed, I’m on the phone with the superintendent because I want to triple check before I call DCP&P and create further chaos in a 5-year old’s life.

When my door is closed, I’m finishing up a hug with a teacher who can finally announce her first pregnancy after years of IVF.

When my door is closed, I’m conducting a post-observation after one of the best lessons I’ve seen in my time in leadership.

When my door is closed, a veteran teacher is in tears as she tells me she just can’t do it anymore and needs to retire.

When my door is closed, a smiling 8-year old is coloring while I try to contact her step father who has forgotten to pick her up. Again.

When my door is closed, I am decompressing, if only for a moment, after my door was closed all day.

So much happens behind closed doors every day. Imagine what we’d miss if those doors remained open.

Say It

Developing an Intentional Leadership Style

The first couple times I do it, folks don’t know what the hell is happening. Most look down or immediately blush. Some shift their weight from one foot to the other absentmindedly. Others stare back at me for an uncomfortable two or three seconds to make sure I’m finished.

Whether as a result of being a father and telling my kids how amazing I think they are all the time or because I’ve become more reflective as I age, I now subscribe to a simple mantra, Say It.

Witness:

After a Saturday morning jaunt to a trampoline park with my kids, we decided to stop at Dunkin Donuts for a snack. The young man behind the counter, who was clearly working harder than everyone else there, gave my son a free Munchkin as we waited for our food. My daughter, who had already found us a table, didn’t get one but didn’t even realize it. Several minutes later, the attendant walked over with another Munchkin and apologized for not seeing my daughter in the first place. We thanked him, and then I just started to watch him work.

He was frenetic in his approach. He was cheerful in every interaction. He knew regulars by name and by the time of day they came in. He was really good at his job.

So I told him.

“Say man, thanks again for the freebies. You’re really good at your job. You should be proud.”

Like I said, people don’t know what to make of me at first. My sense is our society has become so sarcastic, so negative, so sub-Tweet-y that our natural instinct is to expect the worst from each other. But when he realized, after a long couple of seconds, that I was genuine, he just smiled and squeaked out a barely audible “thank you, sir.”

Telling people what they mean to me, how proud I am of them, or how good they are at their jobs, has changed the way I the way I see the world and how I choose to lead.

When I watched my math interventionist instill confidence in struggling learners, I crafted an email on the spot that started with the line, “I love to watch you work.”

When I finished an observation in 4th grade, I made a beeline for the teacher, who was already beaming because her kids had crushed the lesson, and told her how insanely good the lesson was, tipping my administrative hand long before I submitted her scores.

When a 3rd grader forgot her homework, I let her back in the building and then marched over to the waiting car in which sat her mom and grandma, “Can I just tell you how much I love your daughter? She is constantly smiling, working hard, and being kind. You should be proud.” I can’t be sure, but I think mom teared up as she rolled the window back up.

But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop in my professional life.

My wife is beautiful and an uber talented fundraiser, so I tell her.

My son is ridiculously funny for a 5 year old, so I tell him.

My daughter is creative and empathetic and already a better person than me, so I tell her.

My brother has had a difficult life but is really trying, and I’m proud of him, so I tell him.

At first, shifting our consciousness from thinking it to saying it is intentional and uncomfortable. Eventually, however, it becomes ingrained, an expectation, an accepted invitation from the world to see it and say it.

So, see it. And say it.

#JurorWoes

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these amazing educators provide us a glimpse into their world, a world we all share as educators. 

Tina Olsen was the first person to convince me that everything would be okay. After news broke that I would be switching roles with her former (outstanding) principal, Tina wasted no time in texting me as the spokeswoman for our school. Her message was concise, clear, and wise beyond her years: This is a hard job. Please let me help you

And help me she has. Every day. That’s why I wasted no time in asking her to be the first #ColleagueCorner contributor and why her story, while so common, serves as a cautionary tale for leaders who may forget how good they have it when they work with people like Tina. 

__________________________________________________________

I saw them.

Those dreaded eight black letters staring back at me: JURY DUTY. Naturally, my first reaction was how could three years have passed so quickly. My next thought was convincing myself that it’s part of my official civic duty to serve. So, I put in for the substitute, and off I went to the Hall of Justice with a bag full of books that were never read.

What in the world does this have to do with education? Well, I’m getting there.

What I anticipated to be a one-day-I’ll-just-read-for-seven-hours sort of juror experience turned into quite the opposite. I was instantly called up and put in a pool to serve on a three-month long case. Immediately, the lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” popped into my head. How on earth could I leave my students for three months? I panic leaving them for a 30-minute special period let alone 90 consecutive days! The thought of not seeing my kids (yes they become your kids when you spend almost more time with them than their own parents) gave me a panic attack in my seat.

I was never forced to think about teaching coming to an absolute halt, especially one that was completely out of my control, and it was scary. Thoughts flooded my head: Who will replace me? How will my kids react to a new teacher? Will he or she undo all of the progress I made with my kids? How am I going to survive without seeing my colleagues-turned-closest-friends?

Even on the hardest days of teaching there is always something bright that shines through. If chosen, I would not see my kids learning, laughing, smiling, joking, and blossoming into the amazing people they are destined to be. There was NO WAY I could be picked for the trial; I had more impactful things to do in my own classroom.

Luckily, after what seemed like the longest two days of my life, I was officially dismissed from the case. The whole experience really forced me to put my career as an educator into perspective. I did miss my crazy classroom for those two days. I do love teaching, and sometimes I take for granted just how lucky I am to educate, nurture, and learn from my students every day. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked back into MY classroom, my sanctuary of chaos. Let the learning begin again!

Until the next summons…

Tina Olsen is a first grade teacher in Collingswood, NJ. She is also a K-12 graduate of the Collingswood School District. Following high school, Tina went to Stonehill College in Massachusetts, only to return to the beloved town where her academic journey started! She has her Masters in Special Education and one day hopes to obtain an academic supervisor or principal certification. She is currently studying to obtain her certification as a Group Fitness Instructor. Tina loves to bake, work out, and travel with her husband Ray.

Back (Pocket) Pain

I have the back of a man twice my age.

Despite being fanatical about my workouts, which take place immediately after I write each morning, following a daily stretching routine, practicing yoga, seeing a chiropractor, and getting massages, I am perpetually one false move away from lying prostrate on the floor with wicked spasms. For close to twenty years, this has been my norm.

Likely due to an unholy combination of poor genetics and years of athletics, my back is just a liability.  As a result, I have to spend significant time strengthening my core and reminding myself to get up and go for a walk if I feel myself sitting for too long. However, even as mindful as I have become, I simply can’t think of everything. Sometimes I need a little help.

A routine trip to my chiropractor, Shane, and a fairly common question led to a lifestyle breakthrough.

Do you keep your wallet in your back pocket?”

I mean what man doesn’t keep his wallet in his back pocket, accessible at a moment’s notice? Though relatively thin (we’re not talking about a George Costanza sized wallet here), my wallet did reside in my back right pocket for as long as I could remember. For just as long, I didn’t think once about it being there or about the way it could affect my back. Frankly, it was like an appendage.

The day Shane asked me about my wallet was its last as a resident of my pants. Rather, my wallet is rarely in the same place for long: in my car, in my briefcase, in the inner pocket of a blazer. In fact, when I do slip it in my back pocket absentmindedly, it isn’t there for a full minute before I quickly remove it.

For years, I was carrying around this equilibrium time bomb in my pocket, so I had to wonder, what else am I carrying around just waiting to wreak havoc on my otherwise healthy existence?

I would argue there isn’t a profession in which its members internalize, empathize, and reflect more than education. Whether it’s the high after teaching an amazing lesson, the dread of an uncomfortable post-observation conference, or the worry over a marked difference in the personality of a ten-year old, we carry with us the weight of everything that happens in our day. Frankly, our back pockets don’t have room for much else.

Yet that’s what draws us to education. We are people who have always liked school, have, for the most part, done well in school, have always liked working with kids, and have had some positive association in our own education which led us back to the field as professionals. The curse, as it were, is that we can’t just remove who we are from our back pocket when our profession gets difficult, like it is right now.

We can, however, look to shed something, anything, that is weighing us down.

Maybe it’s the lack of confidence akin to being a new teacher.

Maybe it’s the toxicity of a particular presence in the faculty lounge.

Maybe it’s the one-sided friendship from which we receive nothing.

Maybe it’s the convenience of using the same worksheet (blech) during the same lesson for the last twenty years.

Maybe it’s the self-doubt that so often plagues us as we do our best to do our best.

Ask yourself, then, what do you carry in your back pocket that needs to be shed?

Three Assists

Cultivating a Culture of We

On that day, I saw things happen long before everyone else did. I was operating on a different level, and although it didn’t happen often, when it did, man it was sweet.

It didn’t take me, or my parents, long to recognize that sports were going to be a major part of my life. By 6 or 7, I knew that I loved to play anything that involved a ball or puck; by 8 or 9, I knew that I was pretty good; by 13, I was a twelve-month, three-sport athlete. At 42, I still play baseball eight months a year, and I ain’t stopping unless my wife or a doctor tells me it’s time to hang ‘em up.

But this isn’t about athletic glory days. It’s about an indelible memory, with soccer as the backdrop, that has shaped my leadership philosophy.

Most athletes call it “the zone.” That fleeting but powerful expanse of time during which we simply cannot be stopped. It can manifest itself in any number of ways: a triple-double, a 12- strikeout shutout, a hat trick. Of course, the elite athletes live there while the rest of us only rent property at the far end of town a couple of times a year.

By halftime, we were up 3-0. All three goals were majestic, tic-tac-toe setups to three different scorers. I know because I was the player who set them up. As we huddled on the sideline, scarfing down orange wedges in between gulps of water, I uttered the question that led to this post.

32 years later.

Do I get credit for those three assists?

Though I can’t explain why I asked because I knew the answer, I can explain why this memory has stayed with me: the answer.

Well, the whole team does.

Our coach was the father of our best player, Shawn, who would go on to become one of the best player’s in our high school’s history. A stern, mustached, no-nonsense guy, Tom put me in my 10-year old place without humiliating me or making an example of me. He was right. I was on a team, we were up 3-0, and we were all responsible for the team’s success.

The exchange probably took five seconds. The impact is perpetual.

As the leader of an incredibly gifted staff, a perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful energy, I receive emails and calls of praise weekly. Sometimes those compliments are specific to a particular teacher or experience; sometimes they are broad and overarching. Each time, my response is the same.

Thank you so much. We have an amazing staff. I’ll make sure to share this with them.

And then I do share it with them. Whether through a forwarded email or quick, early morning conversation, I provide the assist to the person who should get the credit. Then, I shut up about it already.

During my first ever principal evaluation, I purposely steered the conversation back to my teachers. When my superintendent asked about our scores, I referred to our teachers’ work ethic. When he asked about my transition to principal, I referred to the handful of teachers who made a conscious decision to support me through overt kindness and well-timed advice. When we finished, I reminded him how fortunate I am to work with this group of teachers.

Right now, I’m back in that zone I talked about earlier. Only this time, I won’t be fishing for compliments or checking the stat sheet at the end of the game. I don’t need or deserve the credit.

The whole team does.

Skipping Along

It’s been a while since there’s been a new discovery.

In those early days, they come in waves: recognizing parents’ faces, playing with the dog’s tail, babbling full of gobbledygook. But, eventually, discoveries begin to spread themselves out, like points on a scatter plot.

So when my five-year old son began to skip as his preferred means of travel while on a weekend trip to Baltimore, I took notice. To that point, he hadn’t skipped once and hadn’t shown any interest in learning, but somewhere between the beginning of kindergarten and the winter holidays, he learned. And to his credit, there was no fanfare, no showing off, no all-too-typical, “Daddy, watch this!”

Dude just discovered he could skip and started skipping.

One of the truly magical parts of being in education is the two-way mirror through which we get to observe discovery. Though more prevalent in elementary school, our kids are perpetually discovering. For little ones, like my son, they discover a new skill, a new way to add, a new way to start a sentence, and a new way to communicate daily. For the older ones, discovery is both academic and personal. They’ll discover a love for music, an interest in the same sex, an eventual college major.

And we get to witness it all. It’s an immense responsibility, indeed. Because we are so often  privy to our students’ discoveries before their parents are, we need to celebrate with our kids. In fact, in too many cases, our kids have no one with whom to celebrate discovery, so it becomes paramount that we do.

Observe mindfully as a little one correctly spells a sight word. Then spell it with her.

Listen intently for the I did it in your classroom. Then celebrate it.

Watch closely for the wry smile during a moment of intense concentration. Then acknowledge it.

Accept graciously the Can I talk to you request. Then protect it.

Discovery happens more frequently and more rapidly than we can keep up with. It comes in small moments and on grand scales. It awakens in isolation, and it manifests over time. It invites an audience, and it prefers solemnity. It charts a path, and it provides a signpost for growth.

When was the last time you discovered?

Forgetting How to Smile

For an undetermined amount of time in my formative years, I simply forgot how to smile. And I don’t mean in the Hamlet “I have of late…lost all my mirth” kind of way. Sure, I was a surly teenager, but I didn’t forget how to smile because I forgot how to live, love, and be happy. In fact, if memory serves, I had plenty of reasons to smile from the ages of, say, 14-17, but for whatever reason, the muscles in my face required to execute a proper smile took an extended leave of absence.

Eventually, those same muscles came back to work around the time I graduated high school, but to have asked me to say “cheese” during that four-year stretch must have been a real doozy from the other side of the camera. Yikes.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, an awkward period during adolescence is about as familiar as the sun rising and setting. The manifestation of said awkwardness takes place on a spectrum that is roughly as long as Route 66, but like any long road, it eventually ends. I regained the ability to smile and order was restored to my universe.

While I will never be able to pinpoint why I forgot how to smile, I don’t regret that it happened. First, it gives me an easy go-to for self-effacing humor when I’m around people who lived through that time with me. Second, my kids love the pictures from that era. But most importantly, it reminds me that no matter how many times I have done something, voluntarily or otherwise, there’s always the possibility that I’ll forget how to do it. That I’ll lose my way. That I’ll have to take out a map even though I’m driving cross-country on a road without turns.

In education, we often forget how to smile. For some of us, that’s a very literal phenomenon during which our faces take on a very haggard, colorless look, matching how we feel on, say, Monday, February 5th at 730 am as first period begins. We just aren’t going to be smiling today. Perhaps our faces look this way because our spouse lost her job while sleep training our second child and waiting for a text from her mom to see how the cancer scan came out. Or, maybe our faces look this way because it’s the day after the Eagles first Super Bowl, and we just didn’t sleep well the night before.

Eventually, our faces will return to their regularly scheduled programs.

For others, forgetting how to smile isn’t literal at all, but it’s no less palpable or noticeable. Maybe we are churning out the same lesson on mitosis for the millionth time, but it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we spend our day looking at the ticking clock more than the kids because we just don’t feel like being here anymore. Maybe we’re in a serious and prolonged crisis of confidence because we just can’t get through to that talented but largely unmotivated teacher.

Here’s the thing: without a strong sense of self-awareness, we wouldn’t even realize that we forgot how to smile. Now, in fairness, there was photo evidence of my transformation, for better or for worse. The best teachers and leaders I know don’t need photo evidence because they’re constantly reflecting on teaching, learning, and leadership. As such, if they did forget how to smile they would be wholly aware of it and take steps to retrain their faces to smile. Moreover, these folks don’t feel shame in the fact that they lost their way briefly because they know it’s only a pit stop, sometimes in the most necessary location on their journey.

Ask yourself, then, have you forgotten how to smile?

Unfinished Drinks

Leadership Is About Letting Go, Not Reeling In

They’re everywhere.

Menacing, mocking, unflinching. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They can spill, they can regenerate, they can infect, they can consume.

My house, nay my marriage, has been overrun by unfinished cans of liquid.

At first, it was charming. The idea that my wife didn’t like the final couple sips of a Coke Zero or a mango-cherry LaCroix was endearing. It was cute. Rolling my eyes lovingly, I’d scoop them up, dump them out, and shoot jumpers into the recycling can with them.

Then, I dared to ask why she didn’t just (a) finish the can (b) place it in the proper receptacle.  

The response was simple, almost rehearsed, as if she were expecting that line of questioning on advice of her counsel.

I don’t like the last couple sips. I do recycle them, just not as fast as you do it.

And that was it. She had both exposed my tendency to busy myself, all the time, and an age-old leadership faux pas known to befall even the greatest leaders: doing things my way.

All marriages are marked by such subtleties, and as an equal partner in the relationship, I, too, have foibles, which are no doubt maddening. The difference is they don’t bother my wife to the point at which she would ask me why. Why do I still play baseball eight months a year? Why do I always listen to 90s grunge? Why do I seem to clear my throat so often? For her, these aren’t unanswered questions hanging over our marriage like a cloud of confusion. For her, these are just parts of my personality she’s come to accept.

Speaking of acceptance, while I still may glower at each unfinished drink as if it had insulted me, I no longer ponder the reasons for its omnipresence in my house.

The irony is that my leadership style is nothing like my husband style. I don’t micromanage, I don’t psychoanalyze my staff, and I don’t flaunt a tattoo that says My way or the highway. In fact, leadership is full of unfinished cans left by countless people for countless reasons. To try to determine each’s origin, motivation, and purpose would undermine the fact that each has a unique origin, motivation, and purpose.

So rather than focusing on the part of the can that’s unfinished, that’s no longer useful, celebrate the rest of the can. Tap into all the wonderful things that your staff does daily. Shed the bombastic ego, which has no place in educational leadership in the first place, in favor of a thoughtful, collaborative approach that asks, “Can I recycle that can for you?” rather than “Why don’t you just recycle that can?”

We have far too much great work to do together to waste time and damage relationships on pettiness and ego.

For cripes sake, it’s only a can of water.

Be A Noticer

Our World Is Always Showing Us Something

I’m a noticer. I suppose there are worse things.

The imperceptible sound of a tissue hitting the bottom of a trash can. The expression your significant other makes when she is really concentrating. The way the drummer in your favorite band seems to smile throughout the entire set. The faraway gaze of a desperately lonely stranger.

It wasn’t until I read an article in the January-February 2019 issue of Experience Life magazine (“The World According to Highly Sensitive People”) that I realized that my penchant for being acutely tuned in to so much of what is happening, or not happening as it were, around me is one of five traits associated with being an HSP: Highly Sensitive Person. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a part of my personality I lead with in conversation, I don’t have a business card with HSP emblazoned on it, and I don’t sit around at breweries with my buddies challenging them to notice along with me. In fact, the latter would likely get me punched or ostracized by my band of merry idiot friends.

But for years, and in an exaggerated sense as a principal, I was the “did you ever notice?” guy. Being met with blank stares after a comment about a doppelganger in our midst or polite nodding at an assertion that the couple across the restaurant must be on a first date because of their body language hasn’t stopped me from noticing.

It’s like being in The Truman Show only in reverse.

But a funny thing happened after I made peace with my HSP, in itself an ominous acronym in the wrong hands.

I became proud of it.

The article’s writer, Jessie Sholl (@jessie_sholl), notes, “(HSP) awareness of subtleties is useful in a number of ways, from simple pleasure in life to strategizing our responses based on others’ nonverbal cues.” Without question, working with elementary students is firmly rooted in nonverbal cues. From a hastily plucked eyebrow to subtly wringing hands, our kids tell us so much without uttering a word. Similarly, when a typically bubbly teacher seems perpetually distracted or a never-miss secretary makes several avoidable errors, being an HSP is a saving grace, not an albatross.

Because of the way I see the world, I have been able to forge relationships based on simple things I noticed about my students or colleagues. A bold new haircut, a fresh pair of sneakers, or a shiny unicorn headband each becomes a gateway to a conversation. An unusual quiet, pep in a step, or sparkly adornment to a particular finger each provides passage into a relationship. A stolen glance, subtle fist pound, or playful nod at an inside joke each allows for a deeper understanding of how the people around me work with, play with, and love each other.

So while I may be the source of eye-rolls at yet another, “You ever notice that Christian Bale looks exactly like the Dodgers pitcher Homer Bailey?” reference (side note: it’s true.), insignificant nuggets of nothing like that in my personal life are offset by, “Hey, is everything alright. I’m here for you,” in my professional life.

And, look, if the former causes a black eye, I’ll just ask the latter not to notice.