I stared down at that page for what seemed like hours. I could read what was in front of me, but I just could not make sense of it. What came next was truly humiliating.
Mr. Kulak. Are you okay? I can ask someone else, came the squeaky, 7th grade voice.
I’m sorry. I think you should, came my defeated reply.
I slid the math worksheet back over to the study hall student who had just asked for help. His unanswered request for help hung in the air for a second and then disappeared. The next unanswered question was for whom that exchange was more uncomfortable.
Though I had long since resigned myself to the fact that my relationship with math had been one-sided, dysfunctional, and emasculating, I hadn’t been asked to face down such a demon in public for over twenty years.
Despite the research about growth mindset, grit, and resilience, I’m not a “math guy.” I’ve made peace with it. I’ve laid it to rest. I’ve moved on with my life.
Because of writing.
From poorly constructed tales of time travel and shape shifting to summative evaluation narratives, from love letters to welcome back emails, from birthday cards to #bekind thank you notes, I have been writing for over thirty years.
Make no mistake, the writing isn’t always polished. In fact, in many cases, it’s been downright cringeworthy. It’s been full of emotive gobbledygook, misplaced modifiers, and passive aggressive angst. It’s been unread, unresponded to, and unimpressive. It’s been crumpled up, moved to the trash folder, forwarded to the inbox of a superior.
But it’s also changed the shape my leadership. It’s changed my life.
The first communication I had with my wife was in writing.
I expressed my interest in joining a leadership team in writing.
I wrote love letters to my unborn daughter while we waited for her to join us in the world.
My family is notorious for the pride we take in what we write to each other in birthday cards.
When I left the classroom, a dear friend and mentor got me a gift, a pen-holding paper weight, inside of which she wrote on a yellow sticky note: Remember you are a writer.
My notes to staff, both formal and informal, are unique, personal, and thoughtful. Like each of them.
Too often when we consider our weaknesses, we do so without the inevitable yin to that yang.
The same is true for our students and for our teachers.
#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 our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Jenn Floyd is an excellent teacher. Rather than play superlative roulette, I’ll just leave it at that. Her 2nd graders experience, rather than simply receive, education. From countless, creative ways to deliver content to well-timed, deeply personal random acts of kindness, Jenn is the foundation on which elementary schools are built. She’s also on her way to an educational leadership degree, so I’ll need to soak it up because she’ll be leading her own school very soon.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few months cynically rolling your eyes at celebrities’ “10 Year Challenge” photos as you scroll through your social media feed. Are we all going to just turn a blind eye to the amount of filters these pictures contain and reply with heart-eyed emojis instead? I’d much rather keep my “glory days” behind me, wrinkles under concealer, and roots under the occasional touch up of hair dye.
That is, until Read Across America Week this year.
Like any typical elementary school, the first week of March includes a sea of red and white striped top hats roaming through the building while celebrating Dr. Seuss’s work. Throughout the week, students and staff lined the halls for a school-wide reading hour, teachers swapped classrooms to read their favorite books, and parents brought in green eggs and ham – and my favorite French Toast casserole – during our renowned “Books and Breakfast” celebration. Points for crazy hats, wacky socks, and pajamas were tallied and tweeted as classrooms worked together to show their Seuss spirit.
During one particular event, high school students joined each elementary class to share their love of Seuss. As I welcomed the former students through the main entrance of our building, one familiar smile jumped out at me. As I showed him the way to my second grade classroom, I had an immediate flashback to a time during my student teaching practicum – 10 years ago.
Sitting in front of a group of second graders as a twenty-something practicum student was both nerve-racking and a dream come true. My cooperating teacher gave me my first task: class read aloud. Not bad, right? Each day after lunch, the students sat on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the day’s story.
My cooperating teacher taught me all of her read aloud tricks – including editing Junie B. Jones when her responses were a little too fresh and modifying character names when they were too much of a tongue twister. What I wasn’t prepared for was the slew of dinosaur names discussed in Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark. Needless to say, there were no strategies to avoid the words introduced in this book’s adventure.
Pteranodon has a silent p, right?
One day, as the students waited for the twists and turns that Jack and Annie would face during their journey, I found myself on an adventure of my own. Luckily, one student in particular was well versed in dinosaur and quickly came to my rescue like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park.
“It’s Ter-an-uh-don,” Noah stated, as I stumbled over the first few syllables. Surprised – and a bit relieved – I quietly acknowledged his help and continued on.
As you would expect, the Pteranodon was a main character in the story, and the word came up quite often. Each time I began mumbling the letters, he would quickly jump in. “Ter-an-uh-don,” he would repeat, time and time again.
Well-prepared questions and thoughtful conversations aside – this was the moment that stuck.
10 Years Later this high schooler was now the one sitting in the teacher’s seat with his favorite Dr. Seuss themed book in hand: The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That: All About Dinosaurs. After sharing his memory of me, in his second grade classroom, and his love for the species – that stemmed back to his childhood – he began to read. My students sat on the edge of their seats as he read every rhyme, displayed the colorful pictures, and shared the importance of the glossary in the back of the book. We then snapped a few pictures for Twitter and said our goodbyes.
This former student and the read aloud moment that stuck with me has inspired me to begin my own 10 Year Challenge:
Rather than getting bogged down by the next big thing in standardized testing or losing yourself in the endless piles to grade, spend the next 10 years focusing on those small moments within your classroom – and within your life – that will always make you smile.
The next 10 will be gone before you know it, and unlike the latest trends or pop culture icons, the meaningful moments can never be photoshopped.
Jenn Floyd (@floyd4edu) spends her days in second grade in Collingswood, NJ, where it’s cool to be kind. She has a Masters in Reading Specialist/Literacy Coach and is currently working toward a degree in School Administration at Rowan University. When she’s not counting words for her annual NaNoWriMo writing club, you can find Jenn, and her husband Zach, checking out the best local bookstores and ice cream shops that the east coast has to offer.
At some point, we’re going to run out of music. The chords, progressions, riffs, beats, and melodies will all be used up. There won’t be silence, per se, but we’ll have heard the last new music meant for our ears. I suppose, then, we’ll just start over.
The funny thing about music is its slavery to itself. Everything is derivative, each generation owing to another’s brilliance and transcendence. Barguments over the greatest bands ever pay homage to those whose imprint is timeless (Stones, Zeppelin, Beatles) and to those who changed the course of the industry (Queen, Pearl Jam, Wu Tang Clan). Those same conversations often spill over into nostalgia and reverie, the kind that gives you goosebumps and puts you squarely in the arena with the people closest to you when you saw that band live.
We pine for the days when and for the kind-of-frontman who, and then we put on our favorite tracks, on whatever device is nearest to us, and disappear with the music. But we don’t think about the music ending. We don’t perspire as a fictional use by date approaches. We don’t throw our hands up and prepare for the silence.
We keep listening.
Because the music isn’t going to die.
Neither is public education.
The cyclical nature of music is mirrored by the cyclical nature of education. Combining a perpetual been-there-done-that old guard with a have-you-tried-this-new-thing-called excitement, each field provides a significant and momentous choice: accept that change is coming or deny its existence.
From Twitter to Flipgrid, Buncee to Ted-Ed, our newest teachers are experiencing and changing education in ways many of us couldn’t have imagined as recently as ten years ago.
Connected educators need only to pick up their phone or open their laptop to access relevant, real-time PD.
Children around the world are meeting and learning with and from each other through Skype or Flipgrid.
Professors are building social media into their pre-service teaching curriculum.
Leadership programs are espousing the importance of self-care and social-emotional learning.
So whether you’re dusting off that old 8-track or scrolling through the new releases on Spotify, the music will always be there, simultaneously changing and remaining the same.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.