True confession of a lifelong educator: I can’t do anything else.
And I don’t mean that in a fun-loving way. I mean I have no discernible skills outside of education. I can barely hammer a nail, I struggle with basic math, I have exactly zero interest in cars, business, or medicine. I’m a terrible salesman.
There’s a great Seinfeld scene in which George is trying to figure out his next career move after quitting his real estate gig abruptly. Though completely farcical, it hits a little too close to home for yours truly.
While there’s power and pride in knowing you were put on this Earth to do one thing, it is also terribly humbling and more than a bit intimidating to know you were put on this Earth to do one thing.
But hope is not lost.
During one of my “walk and talks,” a way for me to connect with kids outside the walls of our building, a 4th grader with whom I work often provided me with what could be a possible career backup plan should this whole education thing go awry.
Me: Tell me about what’s different for you since I got here.
Him: I dunno. The last principal wasn’t a therapist like you.
Me: Buddy, I’m not a therapist.
Him (after long pause): Well, you could be.
And there you have it. All the eggs in my educational basket were cracked by a 4th grader who associates his time with me as therapy.
I’ll take it.
Actually, despite my self-effacing commentary to the contrary, I often say that if I weren’t an educator, I’d be in the psychology field. I find it all fascinating and can picture myself wearing a tweed, elbow-patched blazer, puffing on a tobacco-less pipe, sitting in a gigantic leather chair as I opine, “Tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
Frankly, this field demands that we have a touch of therapist in our delivery and approach. Kids need to feel heard and advocated for by someone other than their parents. Ask any random sampling of people about their favorite teachers and you’ll inevitably hear about how those teachers made kids feel.
But there’s yet another facet to our work as educators: the journalist.
Communicating with parents, though not explicitly covered in pre-service lecture halls, is one of the most important, if not challenging, parts of our job. And for those of us who have a touch of therapist in our Edu DNA, that communication can become, well, confusing.
Reporting a student’s transgression should be simple. Give the day and time, the circumstance, and the punishment, if applicable. But as journapists, we have an innate desire to coax, cajole, and counsel our way through those conversations. Sometimes we have to steel ourselves against some common refrains.
As a parent, I get it…
He’s still a kid and kids make mistakes…
I would (insert blinding pearl of wisdom)…
The thing is, the more we speak to parents, the more journapist we become, like going to the gym but for social-emotional learning.
As a kid, I couldn’t wait until Friday night. Without the specter of another school day looming, my friends and I would play “Jailbreak” for hours on end, losing time and making memories. The street on which I grew up, Princeton Road, was full of kids, fifteen to be exact, separated by five consecutive houses. Add to that our friends who would come from all over town to play in our weekly game, and we could easily be mistaken for the kids from Lord of the Flies, without all that pesky murder.
For the uninitiated, the rules of Jailbreak are simple. Two teams decide on a playing area, a grid, in which one can hide. Then, one team tries to capture the other and keep them in jail. However, despite being captured, players can be freed by a teammate who approaches the jail, avoids the sentry on duty, and touches the jail while yelling, “Jailbreak!” Once all the members of that team are captured, the teams switch roles. The beauty of the game is that there are no winners and losers because it is just as fun to hide as it is to seek, so the game can go on for hours.
In our case, it went on for years.
For me, the intrigue of jailbreak was in the darkness. Playing a game at night seemed somehow dangerous, somehow adult, like being in the very same yards in which we played wiffle ball during the day made us renegades. The darkness made what once was familiar an undiscovered frontier full of danger and wonder. Moreover, it was never in my own yard that I would prefer to hide. To do so would be commonplace, safe.
As I hid from my captors, I remember tiptoeing around backyards just noticing things.
The Thomases rarely used lights at night, so how did they see?
The O’Brien yard always had way more fallen branches and detritus than any other yard.
The Johnsons’ was the only yard with a chain link fence surrounding it.
The Kramers’ yard had a majestic treehouse, which no one ever used.
The Fishers’ yard, like the people inside, just seemed sad.
Make no mistake, there’s something special about a backyard at night. Whether you’re supposed to be there or not, the yard maintains its integrity, its personality.
This is what it’s like when you visit another teacher’s classroom. You know what to expect, you know how things are supposed to look, but somehow you know very little else.
At first, a cursory glance around the room provides a backdrop for the class and teacher personality: walls adorned with content specific visuals, anchor charts, and character ed reminders; a desk with understated glimpses into the teacher’s personal life or a slew of yet-to-be-scored papers; desks in rows or pods; a box of tissues or band-aids.
Then, watch that teacher in action. Notice how she pulls a small group to the back table and is still able to manage the other 20 kids during centers. Listen to the subtle way she compliments a student after an answer that had absolutely nothing to do with the question. Marvel at how his affect and intonation are the only classroom management strategies he needs. Steal every great idea that teacher has.
Next, watch the kids. Better yet, only watch the kids. Whose constant movement and inattentiveness are you noticing again and again? Which kids are natural leaders, able to lead and carry group work through to presentation? Whom are you just now noticing for the first time as if she just transferred in yesterday? Whose parents do you need to call to thank them for sharing their amazing kid with you daily?
It’s funny. Back then, I would have done anything to not get caught during Jailbreak. Now, I will do whatever I can to make sure that I’m seen.
A year-long slump at the plate destroyed my confidence, forced me to move myself from the leadoff spot to the bottom of the order, and kicked my Imposter Syndrome into hyperdrive. If I had a closed umbrella in my hand, it became a bat as I took phantom swings around town. If I could sneak away for 30 minutes, I would take swings off the tee. If I was on social media, I found myself scrolling through baseball feeds, breaking down swings and trying to pick up anything to save my own.
Finally, I pulled the trigger on a most humbling decision.
I asked a teammate to film me swinging in the cage.
And it wasn’t pretty.
While I’ll spare you what I identified as the (glaring) problem, the video allowed me to break the fourth wall and provided me inside access to my own shortcomings. What’s more is my teammate filmed me in slow motion, allowing me to analyze (read: obsess) over every part of my swing.
The result, last Sunday, was a respectable 1-3 and a renewed sense that I don’t, in fact, suck.
Blessed with the kind of staff who is constantly “filming itself,” albeit not in the literal sense, my job is to be the cameraman and to offer the kind of honest, unfiltered feedback an actual camera would provide. Moreover, everything from pre-observation conferences to “hey-do-you-have-a-second” conversations are opportunities for each of us to get better, so the camera, as it were, should always be pointing both ways.
Let’s imagine, however, a world in which getting better didn’t even dawn on me.
I continue to insert myself in the leadoff spot despite my performance and the numbers screaming at me to the contrary. Each game, I am an assumed out, and in the leadoff spot that’s likely four outs a game, setting a negative tone and providing no lead for the rest of the lineup to follow. I am an albatross and everyone knows it, but, meh, I don’t want to get better. Maybe things will just change.
As a leader, I simply have too much to do to invest in getting better, so I complete observations, run monthly drills, attend district meetings, and call home when kids get in trouble. My staff rarely has questions for me, knows little about me outside of school, and dreads any interaction with me that isn’t mandated by contract or necessity. I am an albatross and everyone knows it, but, meh, I don’t want to get better. Maybe things will just change.
For me, and I’d like to think for most of us, getting better isn’t a final destination as much as a series of weigh stations on a perpetual journey. Moreover, wanting to get better isn’t synonymous with admitting failure; in fact, wanting to get better is the most important step to staving off failure.
For the record, my swing is messed up because I keep lunging, causing me to become off balance.
In the gym, they stand directly in front of the weight rack while completing an exercise, making it impossible to access what you need.
In the supermarket, they leave their carts in the middle of the aisle, usually on a diagonal, while they browse a shelf, daring you to breach their line of demarcation.
At the soccer field, they meander behind you, cell phone in hand, discussing loudly how they’ll break it to the kids that sometimes grown ups make mistakes and have to “go away for a while.”
At the concert, they assault your field of vision with repeated selfie sessions while singing largely inaccurate lyrics.
They are the Space Invaders, and like their video game namesake, they just keep coming.
What’s even more menacing is there are two types of Space Invaders: those who know exactly who and what they are and simply don’t care and those who have no idea they take up the space they do. The former are beyond reproach and the latter are simply clueless.
So where does that leave the rest of us who just want to grab a bottle of Hidden Valley Fat Free Ranch off the shelf and be on our way.
The answer, my friends, is not to fix or cure the Space Invaders; rather, we need to practice self-awareness to the point at which we don’t become Space Invaders.
What true Space Invaders are incapable of understanding is how their physical presence affects those around them. Whether they constantly hover over a particular student’s desk or find themselves parked in a familiar spot in the faculty lounge, Invaders can dictate a mood, a day, or a culture.
Be mindful of your presence as often as possible. Consider if a disaffected kid needs you to move closer or to stay away. Think about how often you speak during group conversations or staff meetings. Ask yourself if your staff would describe your presence as hovering or lording.
Space Invaders tend to lock in on a certain target and allow the rest of the world to melt away around them. In some ways this can be a virtue as they are keenly focused on what’s in front of them, often literally.
To borrow from my former life as a basketball coach, keep your head on a swivel. Build an awareness of what’s going on around you, both the seen and unseen, to determine if you’re invading space or if someone needs you in their space immediately.
Like their video game namesake, Space Invaders don’t have time for all that pesky reflection. Because they’re so laser focused on what is, it doesn’t dawn on them to consider what was or what will be. They just keep invading, daring the world to stop them.
For the rest of us, reflection is what helps us determine how to best use our space daily. Whether it’s through a journal, a blog, or a happy hour, reflecting on the space we inhabit for and with our schools is what keeps us from joining forces with the Invaders. And for the daring few (like me), it’s totally worth it to ask your teachers what they need and expect an honest response. If that response is, “yeah, man, you’re kinda all up in my business, and I need you to back off,” then stand down.
Whether they’re pixelated and falling from a digital sky or wearing a sharp pants suit and standing uncomfortably close to your clearly private discussion, Space Invaders aren’t going anywhere.
So be warned, friends. And if you are an Invader, kindly let the rest of us through. We come in peace.
This post originally appeared on October 1st, 2019 as part of a series written by EduMatch authors.
If you close your eyes and really concentrate, I’ll bet you can activate all five senses.
The trance-inducing landscape of flashing neon lights above patterned carpets.
The hypnotic sound of pellets being gobbled and points being racked up.
The stale smell of adolescent sweat and adrenaline.
The mouth-watering flavor of greasy pizza and fountain soda.
The joystick’s round knob fitting snugly into your increasingly damp palm.
It’s a Friday night in 1988, and you are about to empty your pocketful of quarters at the local arcade.
Go ahead and push Start.
Nostalgia is a powerful, personal time machine through which we can transport ourselves to someplace long gone, someplace better. Often triggered by one of our five senses, we visit such memories with fondness and a faraway smile. Then, only seconds later, we return to real life as our now ushers out our then.
For far too many folks, however, then remains now, and they find themselves left behind, stuck like a video game glitch caused by “how I’ve always done it” and “that’s just the way I am.” They are Atari leaders in an age of Playstation 4 and XBox Live.
Leveling Up as a school leader doesn’t require advanced degrees or publication. Moreover, there’s no universal, prescribed way to do it. For some, leveling up is as simple as a shift in their point of view; for others, leveling up may mean using or creating a “walkthrough” of their practice. For still others, the path to leveling up is actually internal as they seek to restore their health, not through potions or magic mushrooms, but through self-care.
Though there is no final boss or cinematic end to our leadership, we do need to level up to continue to grow in our practice.
Point of View
For years, video game designers, by choice or by limitation, created worlds gamers could see from a third-person perspective, providing a panoramic through which we could control the movements and decisions of our characters. Moreover most games scrolled from left to right allowing us to quickly move on from the past and feel safe in the knowledge that whatever came next was in full view.
But as gaming evolved, our characters’ perspective changed. Developers started to limit our point of view through a first-person lens. Now, instead of seeing a world in front of them, gamers could only see what was immediately in front of them. A myopic and claustrophobic perspective completely changed how gamers interacted with, strategized for, and completed games.
Ironically, school leadership has shifted its perspective in reverse, and it’s about time.
As leaders, our point of view should be both dynamic and vast. The former allows us to shift between first-person and third-person at a moment’s notice rather than owing to one or the other regardless of the circumstances. The latter, like the proverbial mother with eyes in the back of her head, forces us to be proactive during each unpredictable day in education.
Reflect on any given day and ask yourself how often you used a third-person perspective (strategic planning) vs. how often you used a first-person perspective (working with a trauma-affected child).
Now consider the same day but use the opposite point of view. To get bogged down in strategic planning through a first-person perspective eliminates your attention to the myriad needs of your building, teachers, and kids. Similarly, employing third-person perspective while working with a child in need distracts you from the care that child needs.
The answer, though by no means simple, is to be open to and comfortable with both. Level Up leaders understand that their daily landscape and “gameplay” are never the same and that flexibility and self-awareness are paramount to leading with empathy and vision. Ultimately, how you choose to see your leadership will determine how you react to its needs.
Walkthroughs and Cheats
In the earliest days of gaming, gamers were completely at the mercy of game designers.
Before the internet brought the world into our homes, gamers were left to their own devices to figure out, through trial and error, how to finish a game. Of course, finishing a game implies that designers intended gamers to finish, and old school gamers know that most games did not have a finish line.
Slowly, however, gamers started to create their own subculture in response to the infinite and frustrating worlds that designers created. At first, walkthroughs and cheat codes were available through magazine subscriptions and word of mouth, but eventually, each were made available online, leveling the playing field and changing gaming forever.
Education has followed a similar trajectory.
Once left to our own devices to figure out how to juggle the daily expectations of our field, teachers, even those with the best leaders at their disposal, just had to “figure it out.” As educational silos started to erect in classrooms around the country, teachers had few options to grow and learn. Moreover, a pervasive and misguided philosophy dominated the field: asking for help is a sign of weakness. Basically, teachers had to sink or swim on their own.
But, like in gaming, the internet ushered in a new approach to teaching and learning. While there are still pockets of old school leaders all over the country, they are (mercifully) being replaced by those who subscribe to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes of their own.
Level Up leaders not only understand but promote the importance of destroying long standing silos in favor of a global, collaborative, and reflective practice. Again, with the advent of the internet, there is no shortage of access to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes. Hop on Twitter and search any number of hashtags, from the general (#education) to the specific (#k12artchat), to find a treasure trove of resources, testimonials, and requests for help. Voxer groups pop up every day to provide educators with verbal walkthroughs and cheat codes. Teachers and leaders are publishing about their experiences, their ideas, and their stories in a way our profession has never seen before.
So despite a political narrative to the contrary, there’s never been a better time to be an educator because for the first time, we are taking charge of our profession, supporting each other, and writing the walkthroughs and cheat codes instead of having them written for us.
Think back to the first time you played, or watched someone play, Pac-Man. Desperate to gobble up all those pesky pellets, gamers have four chances to level up on each board, through pulsating, white orbs which make Pac-Man’s enemies temporarily vulnerable so he can gobble them up. Strategy and ego collide as gamers had to carefully consider when to use those power ups.
In Super Mario Brothers, help came in the form of mushrooms, flowers, or bouncing stars allowing the diminutive plumbers a chance to level up on their way to saving the ill-fated Princess Toadstool.
Regardless of the game, developers understood that their characters, and the gamers who assumed those identities, were going to need help in order to succeed. Now, sometimes help is offered in plain sight and sometimes gamers have to work for it, but make no mistake, the gaming industry was far ahead of the education field when it came to health restoration and self-care.
But we’re catching up.
Thankfully, the absurd days of “don’t smile until Thanksgiving” and don’t-you-dare-take-a-day-off-or-say-no-to-anything if you’re a non-tenured staff member are beginning to fade away. As a new generation of teachers and leaders grab the collective joystick, a dramatic, if not galacial, paradigm shift is ushering in a new, necessary philosophy: if we mean to take care of our kids, we need to take care of ourselves.
In order for us to level up, leaders need to not only understand but also support the social emotional needs of our teachers. As relationships start to slowly replace content as the most important facet of our complex field, leaders need to find ways to provide teachers with time, support, and room to work on themselves as people, not just as teachers.
And just like scarfing down those magical orbs in Pac-Man, providing our teachers with their own power ups and health restoration isn’t very difficult.
Rethink your district or building professional development plan. Instead of investing in programs or high-priced consultants, invest in each other. Build in time for them to use as they see fit. Create space for them to collaborate, with or without you, on something about which they’re passionate (read: not lesson plans). Budget funds to purchase subscriptions to mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace. Spend part of every staff meeting with a celebration of each other. Shift your professional reading from theory to practice. Share who you are with your staff and invite staff to do the same.
Health restoration and power ups need to be provided, not just suggested. When we focus on the social-emotional health of our staff, we allow them to breath, to grow, to struggle, to overcome, and to teach on their terms, not on ours.
Leveling up isn’t a destination; it’s a state of being. Like gaming, your EduGame is constantly evolving and so are you. Are you ready to push Start?
Brian Kulak is the author of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame. He is a K-5 principal in New Jersey, a devoted family man, a baseball fanatic, and a Pearl Jam aficionado.
Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame challenges readers to advance their EduGame through an extended analogy between gaming and educational leadership. By comparing the eerily similar evolution of the gaming industry to its educational counterpart, Level Up Leadership evokes a collective nostalgia on the way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be an educational leader today.
I remember how much I loathed hearing it. And more often than not, I knew it was coming. Like a high-arcing arrow fired from the opposing front line, I could see it coming but was powerless to avoid it.
As a parent…
Sometimes parents would lead with it, an opening salvo intended to set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Other times, they’d keep it in their back pocket until they really needed a counter punch. And for the first ten years of my teaching career, I was defenseless against it because I was childless.
But a funny thing happened after my daughter was born in 2009. The assumed parenthetical after the first three words of that phrase changed, and so did my association with it.
As a parent (which you surely can’t understand because you’re single and childless)…
As a parent (a role we share so I’m appealing to your sense of paternity to make you see my point).
What once caused me to recoil and go on the defensive became a tacit invitation to a fraternity for which I didn’t know I was rushing. I didn’t consider being a parent as part of my professional identity any more than I considered being an educator as part of my personal identity. But that was short-sighted, indeed, because I can’t shed either part of myself even if I wanted to.
Moreover, I’ve started to purposely wear my dad hat while at school because it helps to disarm both students and parents. At Back To School Night, I share a photo of my two children and close my remarks with a familiar refrain: we’re in this together. While I have spent more than half my life as an educator and feel confident in my ability to lead every time I walk in the building, I have only been a parent for ten years and there are days on which I have no idea what I’m doing.
Still, considering my decisions, my students’ lives, and my relationships through my dad lens has only strengthened my leadership and emboldened my resolve. Similarly, I can’t help but visit our fifth and first grade classes with my own children in mind. In this way, I borrow from my professional life to help my personal life because I watch how other children interact with the world and with learning every day, so when I get home each night, I’m better prepared to help my own children.
I have no idea how often life blending happens in other professions, but I would argue that it’s a vital part of ours. If we preach being a better listener, learner, and person to our students, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the same as adults.
#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.
Anna Muessig and I grew up together, just not in the traditional sense. As members of the same English department, we found ourselves eerily similar by way of style and substance. Later, after she took time off to start her family, Anna returned only to replace me when I moved on from the classroom. Still later, we reunited at our current district where we’re each doing our best to do our best. She’s humble, kind, and reflective, and she makes the people around her better every day.
Unless you live in this world, you probably just don’t get it. After all, why anyone would choose to do such a crazy thing.
But those of us who live in this world understand why we do it.
Being a motorcyclist is far less challenging and far more predictable than teaching. I have a lot to learn about both, but one specific parallel between bikers and educators struck me today.
When bikers pass each other on the road, they have a greeting. It’s a simple gesture–left hand off the handlebars, extended low, sometimes a full hand and sometimes with the first two fingers extended. If you’re not a biker, you’ve probably never heard of this before. You may even be thinking, “So what. Bikers wave and have a moving high five or something. Big deal.”
The thing that non-bikers probably don’t get is that this little gesture is (as far as I know) a universal communication that approximately translates to the following.
“Dude. I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. We both know how awesome it is to crank the throttle and how chill it is to cruise down a beautiful, open country road. We both know what it’s like to ride through the elements without the protection of the walls or roof around you. We both know how careful we have to be because drivers don’t see us and can take us out in a split second. We both know how serene an escape from the chaos of life a long ride can be. We both know that if your battery is dead and you don’t have a jumper on you, you’re screwed. We both know what it’s like to taste the smell of something gross that’s been squashed into the pavement and what it feels like to hit a pocket of cool air on a hot day. I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend.”
And yes, a two second gesture says all of this.
Educators, as far as I know, don’t have this two second gesture exactly, but we do have ways to tap into that same kind of connection.
We (hopefully) have colleagues who encourage us on rough days, push us when we need a push, and cheer us on when our students’ faces finally light up with that “ah-ha” moment. We have Twitter and Voxer and other ways that we can connect with educators across the globe, to share ideas, and to remember that we aren’t really in this alone. We have EdCamps where we can meet with other educators who want to share ideas, make connections, and continue growing.
Both teaching and biking can feel like completely solo exercises. And that’s not always a bad thing–both can be incredibly empowering. But from time to time we are energized by being reminded that we are not alone, and that others genuinely see and feel what we see and feel.
If anyone hasn’t told you this yet today, whether you teach elementary, secondary, regular ed, special ed–Dude, I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. (Otherwise, why would you be reading a blog post about education?) We both know how awesome it is when a student finally can show you that she has mastered that skill. We both know how difficult it can be to do this well when we’re not at our best because we’re tired, fighting some germ, or stressed about something in our personal lives. We both know how rewarding it is to see our students move on to great things and to know that we were able to guide them on part of their life journey. We both know how careful we have to be because the responsibility we shoulder is heavy, and kids are too important for us to take their needs lightly. We both know that lesson plans are often a pain in the butt to write, and that some of the things we’re required to do are exercises in compliance that don’t make a difference for kids. We both know that when our students move on, we’re proud and excited, but we miss them because our care for them doesn’t end when they walk out the door.
I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend.
Anna Muessig (@mrsmues) has worked in the field of nurturing children for as long as she can remember. Along the way, she has nannied, taught preschool, directed a summer camp, substitute taught at almost every grade level and setting within a public school, taught secondary English, served as an instructional coach, served as a district curriculum administrator, as well as nurtured her own two energetic boys in partnership with her amazing husband. She currently teaches English Language Arts to high school students in New Jersey.
She believes wholeheartedly in the value of changing the world one person at a time, taking risks, and reflectively questioning the assumptions we all unconsciously carry.
I still can’t decide if the term is meant as a compliment or an insult: Weekend Warrior.
From pot-bellied beer league softball dudes to ultra ripped CrossFit maniacs, real and faux athletes alike fall under this same ambiguous moniker. Because induction into this fraternity, or sorority as it were, is voluntary, throngs of grown ups flock, each weekend, to whatever arena houses their activity of choice. For hours each weekend, Warriors shed their traditional workaday armor for titanium lacrosse sticks, worn-down cleats, or, in my case, wooden bats.
For the last nine years, I’ve devoted my Sunday mornings, eight months a year, to baseball. If I’m being honest, I’ve devoted most of my life to the game. Growing up in a town where baseball is life, I had little choice in the matter. The thing is for many Weekend Warriors, the real Warriors, our weekends start to bleed into our weeks.
Sunday morning games are supplemented by midweek batting practice or bullpen sessions. Monday afternoons require uploading stats to the league website. Wednesday nights feature an “in or out?” text to the guys on my team in preparation for that week’s game. Friday nights or Saturday afternoons include lineup consideration and construction. Ultimately, my weekends are often parts of five days long.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
However, for far too many teachers, especially the new and novice, being a Weekend Warrior is neither a choice nor a chance to unwind while participating in an activity they love. It’s an expectation, a challenge, a crucible. And it has to stop.
I often joke that I won’t stop playing baseball until an orthopedist or my wife tells me I have to, but playing a child’s game doesn’t pay my bills or provide my health insurance, so walking away would be a bummer, for certain, but it won’t be devastating. For teachers who feel compelled, by nature or by nurture, to work tirelessly over the weekend, the opposite is often true. Or at least that’s their perception.
But there’s a difference between working on the weekend to prepare for next week’s instruction because you have to and because you think you have to. The former is likely a byproduct of inexperience; the latter speaks to an underlying, unspoken expectation put forth by leaders.
There’s a growing turf war between teacher martyrs and self-care advocates. The former will have us believe that because we are in the business of kids, our very essence is an extension of that truth. After all, if we aren’t thinking about our kids during every waking moment then we must be doing it wrong. The latter espouses the notion that if we don’t take care of ourselves then we can’t possibly take care of our kids. After all, if we aren’t allowing ourselves time to decompress and be something other than educators then we must be doing it wrong.
Now imagine being a young teacher trying to figure out with which team she identifies. Too much of one or the other will surely ostracize her. Too little of one or the other will surely ostracize her. It’s simply a fool’s errand.
So it’s up to leaders, the good ones anyway, to provide our teachers with permission, tacit or explicit, to explore their inner Warrior through an outlet that isn’t education.
Try this: on Mondays, make a habit of scrapping the mundane, “How was your weekend?” in favor of a teacher-specific, Warrior question.
–Did you train any clients this weekend? (Personal Trainer Warrior)
-Do anything cool with the kids this weekend? (Mom Warrior)
-Did you hit up the cool, new winery we were talking about? (Wine Warrior)
-I saw there was a car show in Philly. Did you go? (Gearhead Warrior)
Now, your staff starts their new week by being identified as something, anything other than a teacher. In turn, watch as they ask you about your weekend in non-education speak.
We were all something before we entered our field. Some of us waved goodbye to that person; some of us won’t accept the breakup.
While I did flirt with a fairly common but truly hideous grunge style goatee in the 1990s, so began and ended my facial hair career. Call it vanity or the folly of youth, but I was always clean shaven.
But a funny thing happens the older we get. Vanity can no longer afford the front row seats, so it shows itself to the back. Much like Forrest Gump, who famously decided to stop running, I just decided to stop shaving. Frankly, I really can’t stand the practice anyway, so that aversion coupled with a growing desire for a change led to my new look as a bearded man.
With my wife’s approval, of course.
The thing about growing a beard, I accepted early, is it’s a labor of love that takes time and patience. In the beginning, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the middle, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the end, well, you get the idea.
The other thing about the beard is its impermanence. All the work we put into growing and grooming can be undone in a few minutes with the help of a powerful razor. Moreover, what is undone leaves in its wake a completely different face with completely different maintenance and care needs.
Think, leaders, about how much time and effort you put into the maintenance and care of your staff. Think about the conscious decisions you make, both daily and long term, to shape your culture, to notice when something is out of place, to leave well enough alone, to recognize when you need to make a change.
Then think about how easily your culture can be altered, temporarily or permanently, with the same power and intensity of an electric razor. Whether that razor’s blades are sharpened by ego, petulance, pride, or insecurity, they cut quickly and mercilessly.
I’ve made no secret about my borderline obsessive relationship with Seattle grunge gods, Pearl Jam. They’re referenced in my bio, they’re always on shuffle and repeat in my head, and they’re represented in my most recent tattoo. But my affinity isn’t about wanting to be Pearl Jam; it’s about how Pearl Jam is a part of me.
When they exploded onto the scene in 1991, I, like most of the country, was awakening from a long 1980s malaise filled with hairbands and awful ballads. Music that didn’t really speak to me because I wasn’t ready for or interested in the following: (a) action tonight (b) cherry pie (c) Dr. Feelgood or (d) sugar being poured on me. Thankfully, the boys from Seattle showed up and served the scene notice. They’ll take it from here.
The final song on their masterful debut album Ten, “Release,” has served as a mantra since I first heard it almost thirty years ago. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic drone takes listeners on a 9-minute journey through his bizarre, posthumous relationship with a father he didn’t think he had. Ultimately, Vedder pleads with his dead father to release him of the man he couldn’t be so Vedder can be the man he needs to be.
Enduring a tempestuous relationship with my own father, albeit without the same level of confusion, made “Release” seem written for me. Pearl Jam has this effect on a lot of listeners.
As educators, we have an innate need for control. Bound by bell schedules, state mandates, and rubrics (so many rubrics), we live in a perpetual state of oversight. In this way, control is often imposed on us, which sends our own need for control into hyper-drive. It’s a maniacal cycle. So break it.
As you prepare for the upcoming school year, do so with the idea of “release” in mind.
Release control of a read aloud to your kids.
Release responsibility over your next PD to your teacher leaders.
Release feedback on a writing piece instead of a grade.
Release yourself from the noise of the notoriously negative 10%.
Release your first blog post or podcast episode.
Release your teacher leader so she can observe other leaders in your district.
Release stress by unplugging and unwinding.
Release yourself from feelings of Edu-guilt over not doing enough, not being enough.
So much of our Edu-identity is made up of what we’re supposed to be. From crowded lecture halls to oddly spaced, platitude-heavy tweets, we’re told what and how to be as teachers and leaders. But it’s when we shed those cookie-cutter expectations, when we demystify prescribed formulas for greatness, and when we chart our own path that we can, like Vedder, release.