Reverse Enigeered

Sometimes the answers are right there in front of us all along; we just weren’t paying attention closely enough. Or maybe we didn’t want to accept them. 

As a fan of (most of) M. Night Shyamalan’s films, I look forward to solving his labyrinthian puzzles before the big reveal just before the closing credits. So far, however, I’m batting a paltry .000. 

In The Sixth Sense, all I had to do was recognize that Bruce Willis’s character never changed his clothes, and I would have realized he was dead all along. 

In The Village, all I had to do was listen more closely to the villagers’ grizzly accounts of their pasts to realize the whole story took place in modern times (fun fact: Shyamalan was nearly sued for copyright infringement by Running Out of Time author Margaret Peterson Haddix). 

In Unbreakable, I mean, c’mon, he slaps us in the face with the fact that Willis’ character is the superhero to Samuel L. Jackson’s villain. 

If only I could have reverse engineered each story…

The thing about reverse engineering, the process of understanding through dissecting that which already exists, is that the answers are all right there in front of us. We just rarely look. 

Visit any elementary school classroom, and you’re sure to see (and hear) kids being met where they are in their own learning, being given license to move around the room, and being expected to work collaboratively. 

~If you need a check in, meet me at the back table. If you can help a friend with this, go ahead!

~Find a spot in the room that will help you concentrate.

~Turn and talk to a friend about what you just read.

Now do the same exercise on a secondary campus, and you’re sure to see (and hear) the difference. Kids sitting in rows. Teachers at the front of the room. Compliance showing creativity the door.  

 ~Please stay in your assigned seat until the bell.

~I shouldn’t hear anyone talking!

~Complete 1-30 on page 382 for tomorrow. 

Don’t even get me started on higher education. 

So, why? Logically, shouldn’t the reverse be true? Shouldn’t it be the older kids to whom we hand the keys and get out of the way? Shouldn’t it be the littles for whom we assume the heavy lifting? 

What if we reverse engineered public education? What if we looked at all the ways at which we expect elementary students to learn and grow together and applied it to the secondary level? 

While I realize nothing is as simple as wishing it into existence, we need to start focusing on what is working, harness it, and apply it to all grade levels.

Otherwise, we are no different than so many M Night fans left wondering how we didn’t see the end coming, and by then, it’s too late.

Whispers

It started some fifteen years ago. The time, circumstance, and context were different, but its presence was visceral, consuming. 

We spoke in hushed tones about it most of the time, as if we were trying not to awaken the elephant in the room. If we did, we thought, it would surely trample us. Say nothing of what that elephant would do to our friends and families. 

So we continued to whisper through doctor’s visits, injections, and blood work. We whispered so only we could hear. We whispered those three letters over and over again, so much so that if you listened closely, you’d confuse it for a chant. An incantation. 

i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. 

Being told we couldn’t have children without medical intervention sequestered us into a statistical corner from which we thought we may never return. Sure, we found out, there are countless people who are huddled in their own corners, but it didn’t make ours seem any less claustrophobic. And because of a nascent, growing shame, we hushed our tones and suffered in relative silence.

And then Abby was born, thirteen years ago today, in fact. What came next was a guttural, cathartic yawp of those same three letters. We were finished whispering. We were ready to exclaim. 

I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F.

Now the whispers are back, but instead of us doing the whispering, we have become the subject of the whispering. 

Did you hear

I had no idea

Someone has to find out what happened.

The news of our divorce was surprising only to those who weren’t paying attention. But that’s not what caused the whispers. People get divorced every day. No, these whispers were meant to protect us and to insulate others. 

No one wants to talk openly about divorce because that’s salt in the wounds, an inadvertent schadenfreude. Plus, people don’t want to speak the word into existence, so they whisper it, convinced it won’t hear as it searches for its next victim. 

But we took that power away. We talked to each other every step of the way, against the advice of counsel, and hid nothing from our kids. We’ve said the word divorce so many times and in so many ways that it’s become semantic satiation

Where we once shouted IVF, we now shout DIVORCE.

____________________________________________________________

Is your school full of hushed tones? Are students and staff terrified to say the quiet part out loud for fear of reprisal? Are trauma informed practice and SEL big, bad wolves we don’t talk about (like Bruno) for fear that they’ll come for us? Do your teachers share their “stuff” with each other? With you?

Listen, I won’t tell you that our culture is so synchronous that we never whisper, conspiratorially or otherwise. And we don’t overshare, blurring personal and professional lines. But we do know each other and our kids. We care deeply about each other’s lives outside of school. We model and celebrate what it means to be connected every day. We speak up when one of us is threatened or demeaned. 

And we listen. 

Because sometimes those whispers are begging to be heard. 

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Sitcom

At 5am, the options at my gym are limited, so I am locked in on 90s sitcoms. 

In the most recent installment of Family Matters, Eddie (the eldest Winslow sibling) and a buddy get themselves mired in the seedy underbelly of local, pool hall gambling. Though it was clear to Erkel that the pool shark was conning his friend, it wasn’t until Eddie was on the hook for five hundred dollars that the gravity of the situation crystallized. 

But have no fear! In a shocking twist, Erkel steps in to bail out his neighbor by using math to determine the angle and speed at which he had to strike the cue ball to run game and win Eddie his money back. 

Plot twist! One of the pool sharks takes Erkel’s glasses and smashes them to nerdy bits just as he was about to win Eddie his money back!

<Commercial break>

Another plot twist! Somehow Carl and Estelle Winslow find out about the hustle and show up! Yay! Carl, in full police uniform, which has to break some sort of protocol, offers not to break up the game and arrest the con men but to step in for Erkel and finish the game. Predictably, he runs the table and is about to sink the eight ball but a horrendous leave makes that shot a statistical improbability, much to the delight of the sleeveless villain. 

Another (another) plot twist! For reasons we can’t fathom, Estelle, a stout octogenarian, offers to step in for her son and Erkel and attempt the impossible shot. After a poorly edited slo-mo and some spotty interpretation of billiards rules, Estelle sinks the eight ball, all gambled monies are returned, and order is restored. 

All in a tight 30 minutes.  

The irony, of course, is that sitcoms have taught us not that the world’s problems can be solved in half hour increments but how ridiculous it is to expect them to be. 

In our school, the schedule runs on the half hour, which means that, theoretically, teachers have 30/60 minutes to teach a mini lesson, allow for guided and independent practice, offer centers, collect data, combine groups, include brain breaks, expect and adjust to struggle, answer questions, and transition to the next subject. 

Secondary teachers have it even worse with the specter of the bell looming over each lesson. Picture a deep discussion on a novel or a group presentation on social justice being cut short because, well, time’s up. The prospect of returning to that flow the next day with the same level of depth or passion is as flimsy as any sitcom’s premise.

So we do the best we can, we support teachers’ autonomy when lessons do run long, we praise the process not the destination, and we try again.

And we stay the hell out of pool halls when Estelle Winslow is shooting stick.

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Take A Knee

I beat Colin Kaepernick to the knee by a cool twenty-six years. 

Before the former 49ers quarterback literally took a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness about police brutality and social injustice, I had already begun the practice, albeit for a far less political purpose. 

As a waiter at a local Pizza Hut, I started the unorthodox practice of taking a knee when I took orders. Regardless of who was in front of me, I just thought it was easier, and more comfortable, to take a knee and write the orders on my pad while leaning against the table. For me, it was about ergonomics because standing and writing was awkward, and because I have terrible handwriting, I needed to lean on something to ensure I would be able to understand what I wrote minutes later. 

At one point, my boss called me over and asked why I took a knee. I explained, and he just looked at me and said, “But it looks weird. I’d rather you stand up.” 

Now, at 19, I wasn’t about to make a stink. He was my boss, and I needed the part-time job. Still, as I look back on it, what difference did it make? I would argue my customers appreciated me meeting them on their level instead of making them look up at me like some deranged, pizza-wielding, megalomaniac. 

A few years later, as I started my teaching career, I took a knee all the time. When I would stop by a student’s desk to offer feedback, to redirect, or to check in, I would take a knee. Now, in year twenty-four, I still find myself on bent knee, despite one of them being ravaged by arthritis and a torn meniscus, and I make sure to start on day one. 

Whenever I meet our new kindergarteners during summer meet-and-greets, I always take a knee when I offer my hand to introduce myself. The action has become as involuntary as a sneeze; the reaction from kids invariably features disarmed smiles and enthusiastic high fives.

As conversations in education continue to focus on equity and access, we need to be mindful that our students first associate equity with their access to us. Providing a model of those two complex concepts ensures kids can see and feel each Immediately. 

But it’s much more powerful than that when you consider that children are forced to look up to grown ups as a matter of course, their little necks perpetually craned to get our attention. Taking a knee flips that script in such a way that balances power, something children experience rarely. 

Ultimately, we are all just grown up versions of the children who once had to look up to people all day. Some of us still do. But no one should have to. 

Take a knee. 

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Close Your Eyes

It’s a short list, but the older I get, the longer it becomes. 

Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye.”

Pearl Jam’s “Release.”

James’s “Out To Get You.”

Regardless of where I am (except in the car; I’m not a lunatic) or what’s happening in my life, there are certain songs that make me close my eyes. A reaction both genuinely involuntary and intimately purposeful. A strange, dichotomous shutting off of one sense in favor of another, telling our eyes to sit this one out while our ears do the heavy lifting. 

And then there’s the goosebumps. The sensation, dubbed frisson, is triggered by a dopamine flood measuring 4-5 seconds associated with seeing, hearing, or experiencing something that triggers an emotional response. Interestingly, the brain elicits the same reaction to fear. 

I like to think about it as moment recognition. My conscious decision to dim everything else in an effort to brighten the experience of a deeply personal, infinitely resonant moment in my life. But in order for it to take hold, to really matter, I have to remember that moment, often at a random, unrelated or loosely connected time. 

So I do. 

And it works. 

Now, while I don’t walk around my school, eyes shut, meditating on moment recognition, the practice itself has made its way into my leadership. Instead of song lyrics, however, it’s small moments with kids, staff, and community. 

When a kindergartener found out he would be repeating this year, he said, “it’s okay. I love kindergarten, and Mr. Kulak is my best friend.” 

When I responded to a twitter question about leadership catchphrases, a teacher chimed in that I often say, “I trust you” and don’t even realize it. Now, I do. 

During promotion, a Tatem OG, whose final child was leaving, approached me sheepishly and asked for a hug. I told her to bring it in, and she cried while we hugged. 

Education, unlike any other profession, is a mosaic of these experiences. Without the predictability or isolation of other fields, we have daily opportunities to create and store these brief moments of zen. And the best part? They will always include other people.

So do it. Find small moments for which you close your eyes, literally or figuratively, and store them up. There will come a time, and it might be soon, when you want to close your eyes because of frustration or fatigue, and when you do, behind your eyelids and just within reach will be these moments of frisson. 

Close your eyes. 

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Modifiers

On its surface, it’s just a new computer. Maybe a bit sleeker; maybe a bit faster. But it’s just a computer. Paid for with my PD money. Nothing to see here. 

Only the keyboard is different. Included on the far right is a vertical number pad, the likes of which I haven’t seen or used in years. As a result, I’ve spent the first several days fumbling through anything I type, wearing out the backspace button, and re-positioning my hands.

Perpetually lost and frustrated, highlighted by an alarming number of inadvertent semicolons, I find myself having to relearn how to type, and, in some ways, how to think. 

Then things got weird. 

Because of the repeated mistakes I was making, I had to actually consider each keystroke mindfully. Like I was building relationships with each key, orienting myself to its new position on the keyboard, reminding my hands that while we used to interact with the keys a certain way, we just can’t anymore. Because they’re different. 

It also gave me a new, and frankly kind of bizarre, appreciation for the “modifier” keys (I had to look that term up). Shift, Alt, Ctrl: the keys that only work in concert with other keys.  Buried at the bottom of the keyboard and often forgotten, these keys make other keys different. They just need to be asked. 

Our schools, and especially mine, are made up almost entirely of modifiers. 

When hiring (6) new positions in the spring and summer, I did so with a team of dedicated teachers who wanted to help me find and hire the best people. 

When our building needed some creative problem solving to address limited space, my custodian said, “what if we do it this way.” And that’s how we did it. 

When I struggle with master scheduling (which is, like, every year), I texted our scheduling maven and she had the problem solved inside an hour. 

When a talented 5th grade teacher, who can see the light at the end of her grad school tunnel, asked me if she can help me during the summer, I handed her the keys to all things opening day, and a myriad of other administrivia, and let her run with it. 

When parents have questions throughout the summer, my secretary, who is only supposed to work a handful of days, answers them without me even knowing. 

There are modifiers everywhere, and even if there are some keys who only do one thing well (looking at you, caps lock), we still need them from time to time. 

We need only ask. 

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Welling Up

The entire theater knew it was coming, as Robert Zemeckis’s foreshadowing had all the subtlety of a frying pan to the face, and there I sat, huddled against the wall in the final seat of an aisle as Forrest narrated Jenny’s death. 

You died on a Saturday morning. And I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life.

And that’s when it happened. As a wiry, pimply faced, 17 year old, I didn’t need any more ammo to fuel my self consciousness, but, of course, I started to well up, a scant four inches away from my then high school sweetheart and another couple. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four teen moviegoers, one set of tears. 

And let’s just say that tearful deluge wasn’t an anomaly. 

It happened when I heard Jeff Buckley cover Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Trocadero in 1995. 

It happened as I stood curbside during the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series parade. 

It happened when I finished reading David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (both times).

Look, I’m not saying I routinely end up in a fetal position unable to breathe, but I have become quite adept at the wipe-and-look-away method (trademark pending) when I do well up. And until a few years ago, each instance was relegated to something in my personal life. 

But then it started happening at school. 

When a fifth grade teacher told me she was moving to Chicago. 

When finishing up a summative for a first-year teacher who overcame a challenging start. 

When our staff felt comfortable sharing after a particularly risky reconnect activity I tried to start a staff meeting. 

Thankfully, by now, I can stifle the reaction, so I can avoid ground-shaking awkwardness with whomever else is involved.

I also started to shift my perspective from self consciousness to pride because, ultimately, welling up is a manifestation of how deeply I care about the people in my orbit. As a result, I have become comfortable telling people exactly how I feel about them. In fact, I wrote about it a while back, and it has become a fundamental part of my leadership.

And if the alternative is a creepy, lifeless animatron version of myself well, then, I say bring on the waterworks. 

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Digging In

I was ready for a fight, man. 

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

I was ready to dig in. 

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

And I was pissed. 

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

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

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

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

No digging in. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unself Conscious

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

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

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

The faraway look of an otherwise present colleague. 

The deafening silence of a staff meeting. 

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know how

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Six Seconds

Six seconds.

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

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

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

Six seconds. 

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

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

Six seconds. 

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

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

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

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

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

Look at the difference between these two responses. 

What is wrong with you

What happened to you?

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

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

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

In those six seconds is a lifetime. 

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