Can I Kick It?

Creating a Culture of Yes, You Can!

Readers of this blog are well aware of my affinity for the 1990s Seattle sound. And while my listening preference often leans toward the grunge and alternative end of the dial, I dabble in all kinds of genres.

Enter A Tribe Called Quest.

The New York based hip hop foursome revolutionized the scene with its 1991 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The group’s sound, which they would pioneer, was dubbed “alternative hip hop,” and was highlighted by the 1992 single, “Scenario.”

Recently, I re-acquainted myself with the crew and had “Can I Kick It?” on repeat as I started my journey as a K-5 principal. The song, which features a heavy sample of Lou Reed’s classic, “Walk on the Wild Side,” is catchy, upbeat, and includes an answer to the titular title, “yes, you can!”

My first month as the proud leader of a small elementary school in New Jersey was marked by a careful combination of anxiety and excitement, one often fueling the other. I shook hands, offered high fives, met with kindergarten parents, and hosted my first ever staff meeting. By all accounts, it was a positive, collaborative opening and one on which I will look back with pride.

But something curious happened more times that I can count during that first month. Teachers and students alike kept approaching me with a familiar refrain, “Can I…?”

As a hallmark of my leadership, I want to say yes more than I want to say no. In his outstanding work, Lead With Culture, Jay Billy reminds us that having a “sure, why not” approach to leadership fosters risk and empowerment. Such risk and empowerment cannot happen without the right question. For me, “Can I?” starts the bidding.

Can I change that bulletin board so it looks like a Harry Potter house but with kindness messages? Yes, you can!

Can I change my schedule so math isn’t always the last thing we do? I think the kids need it. Yes, you can!

Can I start Feel Good Friday during which we all wear kindness shirts and invite the kids to do the same? We can even play music as the kids come in! Yes, you can!

Can I use my prep to go visit a teacher during Workshop? I think I need to see her in action. Yes. you can!

Can I start a Girls’ Group at lunch to work on some of the drama I’m seeing between our 5th grade girls? Yes, you can!

Ultimately, creating a “Yes, you can!” culture is more about letting go than it is about giving in. Too often, leaders are reluctant toward anything new for fear that it undermines their authority or flies in the face of “what we’ve always done.” Or worse, some leaders need to feel like every idea has to be their own rather than stepping back and allowing their teachers to take ownership over the building and its culture.

So whether you’re just starting your leadership journey or you recognize that your leadership needs a shot of hip hop, start with a simple question: Can I?

Yes, you can!

 

Busy Is Not An Affliction

In the canon of small talk, few responses to the age-tested question, “how you doin’?” will ever rival “good.” The word is so vague, so generic and yet so powerfully sufficient. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t require creativity, and it never, ever commands a follow up question about the state of being good.

However, a new response to the most common pleasantry has announced its intention to unseat the incumbent in a way that is so brash, so self-important, and so woebegotten that it might just have a chance.

Busy.”

Never has the world seen so versatile a response. Witness the myriad ways the word can function in common conversation.

~Hey, man, how you doin?

Yeah, you know, busy. The kids are both in sports, I’m working on my MBA online, and my wife just launched a website.

~Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?

Ugh, busy! I’m on this diet, so I’m constantly meal prepping, I just got engaged, and my parents are getting divorced, so that’s a nightmare. Just busy.”

~We’re heading out for happy hour. You in?

Thanks, but I’m so busy. I have to finish up these financials for the new quarter, my mother needs me to set up her new phone, and I have to get to the gym.

In each scenario, we have to assume the first speaker didn’t intend to receive a busyness resume as part of the response. In the first, our old stalwart “good” would have sufficed because the pleasantry had been asked and answered. In the second, because of the reference to time elapsed in between seeing each other, “good” would suffice but would necessitate a brief qualifier. In the final, most egregious, example, an alternative would be “I can’t” or “Sorry. Maybe next time.

So while the context may change, what remains constant is a growing cult of folks who kneel at the altar of busy. For some, being busy is just how they operate. They thrive on stress and deadlines, they don’t understand how the rest of the world can be so utterly relaxed, and they often wear their busyness like a badge to be shined every so often. For others, being busy is more a state of mind, a way to combat the often mundane, task-oriented days which lead one to the next.

And then there’s the true cult of personality: the busyness is my affliction group.

As if being busy is something that is perpetually happening to them, the cult of busy can often be seen wearing ostentatious buttons that read: Ask me about my busy! Harried and often out of breath, the afflicted seek out opportunities to remind the world how busy they are and dare us to compete, task-for-task, with their busyness.

But busy is not an affliction.

It didn’t befall us unawares, and we aren’t unwitting accomplices to its crimes. Busy doesn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder, and whisper, “you’re it!” We don’t inherit busy, we don’t live with busy, and we don’t survive busy. There aren’t 5K walks devoted to busy. Busy won’t present with a rash and a low-grade fever.

Be mindful that a busyness arm-wrestling contest only serves to diminish the importance of each other’s versions of busy. In any conversation, the busyness scoreboard should read 0 to 0.  

Because busy is not an affliction.

 

7-Hour Prep

I mean isn’t it just, like, a seven hour prep?

I guess.

I remember having this conversation about educational leadership with a dear friend and mentor over lunch in 2008. It was a cool five years before either of us would join a leadership team. Ironically, he was the first to make the transition, from high school history teacher to middle school vice principal; I left my position as a high school English teacher the very next year. We both taught at our alma mater.

To be fair, our conversation wasn’t full of derision and mockery. Rather, we were talking about the difference between management and leadership. In our school at that time, the former ruled, morale was slumping with each passing reference to properly leveled window blinds and locked classroom doors, and we couldn’t help but wonder what the largely spectral administrative team did all day.

Okay, maybe there was a hint of derision.

Still, this conversation happens every day in staff lounges and parking lots, over drinks and through group texts. In far too many schools, those in which management trumps leadership, administrators are viewed as foremen, barking orders through a megaphone from a perch high above his minions below.

Now that I am on the other side of that conversation’s table, as the principal of a K-5 building, I can confirm that leadership, at least for me, is, in fact, a seven hour prep. Actually, it’s more like ten hours, but who’s counting?

I am prepping for a difficult conversation with a family whose child I have to recommend be moved to a self-contained room in a different school.

I am prepping for an active shooter drill, which terrifies me despite my demeanor to the contrary.

I am prepping for a slew of meetings I have to hold because folks at the state told me I have to.

I am prepping for my “Monday Message,” which is scrawled on a light-up dialogue bubble outside my office.

I am prepping for the impending death of one of our parents; his twin, kindergarten daughters wholly unaware.  

I am prepping for our Book Fair, Week of Respect, Ice Cream Social, and QSAC monitoring, all happening this week.

I am prepping for my daily walkthrough, ever mindful that I see everyone as often as I can.

I am prepping for an upcoming Twitter chat which I’ll moderate. I’ll get to that after I catch up on my Voxes.

I am prepping for our first I&RS meeting in reference to kids whose names I’m still learning.

I am prepping for my response to parents when the bus is late again.

I am prepping for weather disruptions to recess, skinned knees and bruised (fragile) egos, and a diabetes monitor to go haywire.

I am prepping for that which I can’t possibly be prepared.

So, yes, I guess my friend was right. Leadership is a seven-hour prep.

 

Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

Arms Folded

The Power of Silent Communication 

A particular curse befalls most English teachers. You know the one.

We see the world through a constantly shifting mosaic of overanalysis, empathy, and symbolism. To us, everything means something. Nothing is an accident. We are convinced that every writer of every piece of literature chose to take pen to paper in an attempt to provide the world with the foundation for a profound lecture, a thoughtful writing prompt, an eventual film adaptation.

Our students sit obediently as we pontificate on the importance of the green light in The Great Gatsby, the brilliance of Cormac McCarthy’s lack of punctuation, the beauty of Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18. Basking in our own analytical glow, we convince ourselves that, yes, everything does mean something.

During a routine walkthrough, I stop in on several teachers without a clipboard, without a cell phone, without a laptop.  For me, walkthroughs are as much about getting out of my office as they are about seeing our talented staff work. Doing so without the pretense of an evaluation signals to teachers that I support them and am happy to provide, usually ultra positive, feedback on any given lesson.

Last year, at the end of the day after such a walkthrough, a math teacher stopped into my office, a bit sheepishly, to ask if everything was alright. Did I see something, she wondered, that upset me. Dumbfounded, I told her I didn’t know what she meant and that I didn’t yet get a chance to send my thanks-for-letting-me-pop-in email.

“Oh, ok. It’s just that you stood off to the side with your arms folded the whole time. I thought maybe something was wrong,” she said. “I’m just not used to seeing you stand like that. Usually you get involved in the lesson.”

She was right. I did stand off to the side with my arms folded the whole time. For me, it was just the preferred posture for that brief moment in time. For her, it was tacit disapproval of something I saw. It was a disappointed father of a girl who missed curfew, a harrumphing customer in a too long line at Target.

On one hand, the fact that the teacher, any teacher, is “used to seeing me” is a positive sign that I’m seen enough to have a typical, or in this case, atypical pose.

But on the other hand, and much more importantly, that teacher’s reaction to me standing with my arms folded provided confirmation that, English teacher curse or not, everything does mean something. It just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Since then, I have been uber mindful of my body language, voice inflection, and eye contact. The subtle ways in which I communicate often speak more loudly than does my voice. Ask yourself how you communicate with the world when you’re not speaking. As teachers, do we bend down when consulting with a student? As leaders, do we wear an expression that belies or supports what we’re thinking? As parents, do we indicate that we are proud of our kids without having to say so?

Unfold your arms. Wipe away that pesky RBF/RDF (you can investigate these on your own). Smile more often than you don’t.

Because everything means something.

 

Specks of Significance

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.  

To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.

Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.

Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?


As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.

In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.” 

Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.

And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.

 

A Preposition Problem

Start The Year ‘With’ Not ‘For’

Conventional linguists and defenders of Standard American English will argue that formal writing, and to a lesser extent speaking, should not include prepositions at the end of sentences. In an oft cited, and basartized, quip attributed to Winston Churchill mocking this rule, the prime minister said, “this is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” Whether he said it or not doesn’t change the fact that the rule is, if nothing else, a bit snooty.

Still, regardless of their placement in a sentence, words matter. When we speak to our students, each word acts as both an independent contractor and as part of a larger corporation. When we speak to our colleagues, our words convey our willingness to collaborate or a lack thereof. When we speak to our parents, our words are heard only in the context of the children about which they are spoken. Sometimes, those pesky prepositions can make all the difference.

Last year, I was asked to supervise, formally, a dear friend. So dear, in fact, that when I left the classroom five years ago in a school in which we taught together, she inherited my schedule and my classroom. Now, truth be told, I suggested that she would be perfect to scoop up my seniors and our school newspaper, but that didn’t mean the administration had to listen. Thankfully, they did.

A few years later, that same school created a leadership position for her. Immediately, we scheduled regular meetings to compare notes, to bang our heads against the wall, and to support each other. This year, she joined our team, and I was asked to supervise her. Without blinking, I accepted and we got to work immediately. She didn’t need my help as much as she may let on, and while I did have to click some buttons to formally evaluate her, our relationship, then and now, is firmly rooted in a preposition that will appear at the end of this sentence: with.

So when I announced that I would be changing my role in the district, which meant I would no longer be her supervisor, she penned a thoughtful poem in which she wrote: The year I worked for my friend. Before I could continue, my eyes fixated on that proprietary preposition.  After gathering myself and reading the rest of the beautifully written piece, I texted her.

Thank you for the poem. I’m going to frame it and hang it at Tatem. But you never have and never will work FOR me. We will always work TOGETHER. <3”

In this case, the difference between for and with is reflective of seeing ourselves as managers or as leaders.

No one will ever work for me.

That is an idea up with which I will not put.

 

The Edu Sunken Place

Appropriating PLNs Without the Pesky Hypnosis

I miss the movies. I don’t mean the novelty of going to the theater, the nervous excitement of a teenage first date, or the ginormous tub of popcorn and seemingly bottomless soda without which the whole experience would be ruined.

I mean sitting down to watch a great film. I mean having that film stay with me for days. I mean scouring IMDB and blogs to discuss the film with other cinephiles. I mean being able to stay up past 930 to actually finish a film.

For years, I would make it a point to find and watch films that were off the beaten path (Frailty, Her, The Machinist, to name a few). I would set my watch by my favorite director, Christopher Nolan, and carve out time to watch, consider, and discuss each film. I would participate in discussion board threads on nuances, I would analyze ambiguous endings, and I was the “Have you seen…” guy at parties.  

Now, because of work-life balance, two small children, and Netflix true crime documentaries, I may watch two or three films, in their entirety, a year. Of course, there are two inherent flaws to such a myopic approach to cinema. First, how do I choose what makes the cut? Oscar buzz? Lead actors? Secondly, it’s entirely possible that what I do choose to watch is awful and wastes my time (looking at you, Wolf of Wall Street).

Sometimes, however, a perfect storm forms and I get it right. I choose something that has folks talking, that I can digest and analyze, and that I would watch again.

For me, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, checked all the boxes.  

Director? Check

Recognizable but not necessarily household name actors? Check

A perpetual watercooler buzz? Check

A socially relevant message? Check

Without question, Get Out is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. While I realize that such an endorsement is watered down by how seldom I can make such a claim, I do encourage readers to check it out. I would love to discuss it with the #leveluplead faithful.

I’ll spare the elevator pitch plot summary and teasers, but I will sum up the film in a single word: appropriation. The film, through clever writing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, examines how often and to what lengths people will go to experience life a bit, er, differently.


In the Eduverse, teachers and leaders, at least the ones who are obsessed with growth and improvement, appropriate with impunity. We appropriate each other’s followers, ideas, professional development strategies, discipline referral forms. Look, we basically appropriate everything.

The difference, however, between what we do and what Peele’s film mocks sardonically is that educators invite appropriation. We recognize, in a truly egoless way, that there are countless people doing what we do just a little bit differently. A little bit better. So when we seek counsel from these folks, as I did with Rich Czyz of Four O’Clock Faculty fame, they are all too willing to share.

When I hear folks discussing how difficult a time it is to be in education, it’s hard to argue. With so much imposed upon us from on high, so much riding on flawed, one-off assessments, and so much nonsense that removes us, literally or figuratively, from the kids, it’s no wonder so many people throw their hands up in resignation.

But we could also make the case that there’s no better time to do what we do because a new idea is only a couple of clicks away. While we may have to bob and weave around red tape, we can do so with an ever-growing tribe of shameless appropriators. With a band of outlaw poets, scientists, yogis, historians, and student whisperers. With follows, RTs, likes, and shout outs. With hand-written thank you notes and clever hashtags. With virtual support and real life conferences. With each other.

So while Peele’s film plays on the idea of “getting out,” appropriating PLNs is all about getting in. And all it takes is hitting that blue Follow button.

 

Change Your Bat Angle

Imperceptible Adjustments Are Key To Professional Growth

Read this blog long enough and you’ll realize how obsessed I am with baseball. Inevitably there will be posts devoted to baseball, anecdotes will center around baseball, and metaphors will be drawn from baseball.

Barguments often focus on which sport is the most difficult to play, the most demanding physically and mentally, the most failure heavy. As a lover of all sports, I can appreciate that an argument can be made for each of the four major sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey but, to me, there’s really only one answer.

Baseball.

Because of the physics (round ball, round bat), the variables (pitcher, weather), and the psychology (streaks, slumps), there is nothing more difficult than hitting a baseball consistently. A monster game at the plate can just as easily be followed by a soul crushing slump of weeks, or months, the time in between at bats seeming equal parts interminable and immediate as you perseverate on what went wrong.

As a 41 year old weekend warrior, I only get a chance to play games on Sunday mornings. While my preparation for each game often dictates some midweek tee work or live batting practice, I’m still only playing once a week. Admittedly, I take baseball too seriously, but part of me doesn’t apologize for that because I don’t understand why folks would set out to do anything poorly, so I want to play as well as I can each week.

A few years ago I suffered through my worst season ever, and I’m including my high school playing days, during which I hit a paltry .179. During that summer, getting on base was such an anomaly that I can recall when I did reach base because it was only a handful of times. That ain’t good.

Deflated but undaunted, I continued to work that offseason because I was not going to return to my team the same player. At one point, I sent a video of myself taking swings off the tee to a friend who is a hitting tactician. In seconds, he responded with a diagnosis and, ultimately, saved my swing.

“Dude, look at how far you’re wrapping the bat around your head. Change the bat angle to 1 o’clock before you load, and you’ll be quicker to the ball.”

Change. Your. Bat. Angle.

Changing my bat angle has improved my game and my leadership.

No amount of work on my own would have led me to that conclusion because, though I would have been working hard, I would have been working incorrectly. There was no way for me to self-diagnose my own flaw, so I had to ask for help.

Now,  I “change my bat angle” all the time.

When I’m struggling with a certain colleague, I change my bat angle.

When I’m trying to convince my five-year old that he can, in fact, put on his own socks, I change my bat angle.

When my early morning writing process stalls, I change my bat angle.

As you approach the upcoming school year, I challenge you to change your bat angle. Reflect intentionally on that which you have done the same way each year and change it.

  • Experiment with flexible seating and let the kids help you design the classroom’s layout
  • Revolutionize your “Back to School Night” by asking parents to leave their kids a video via Flipgrid
  • Reframe your instructional walkthroughs to focus on the kids, even a specific kid, in each room and then write those kids a note of appreciation
  • Flip and hang old posters and allow kids to recreate them using their own words and images
  • Print, laminate, and hang Tweets or blog post excerpts about which you want your staff and students to think
  • Use a mobile desk so you’re in the hallways more and in your office less
  • Take time for yourself each day, even if it’s five minutes of nothing but sitting and breathing

Baseball is a game of failure, and in many ways, so is education. In each, the best players make adjustments all the time in order to best help their team. In each, those who refuse to make adjustments all the time don’t often have teams for long.

Change your bat angle.

 

Debarked

Provide Student Voice in Everything We Do

When we arrived at the rescue shelter that Sunday morning, I knew I didn’t have a choice.

Surreptitiously, my wife had begun graduate level research on what would become our next dog, and though she couched the idea to visit a Philadelphia shelter as “just a visit,” I have a feeling contracts were already drawn up and that everyone was in on the ruse. Except me.

With pinpoint accuracy (how many times had she been here?), she directed us to the kennel of a sweet, malnourished, Bichon Frise named Polly. Instantly, Polly meandered over and lent credence to the power of the expression “puppy dog eyes.” At that point, I was convinced that even she was in on the con. She knew she was coming home with us.

Debarked Daisy (left) and her alter ego, Sassy Daisy (right).

After spending a few minutes with her outside, we requested the paperwork to be drawn up.  It was our 11th anniversary, and our kids didn’t know we’d be coming home with a new dog. Clearly, it was going to be a good day.

However, something about Polly, who would quickly become Daisy at our daughter’s request, was off. Sure she was underweight, she needed a haircut, and her eyes had dark patches under them, but it was something else.

She didn’t bark. At all.

While the thought of a silent dog does have its merits, a dog without a bark is like a child without a voice. Daisy had been debarked. She had no voice.

Without being too graphic, the Pennsylvania Amish Country puppy mill from which Daisy was rescued was horrifying. My wife found pictures of it, of Daisy, online shortly after we brought her home. Among other atrocities, debarking dogs is fairly common. Frankly, the whole idea of puppy mills is unconscionable to us both.

But a funny thing happened a few months into her transition into our family. When she gets excited to go for a “walkie” each day, like most dogs, she prances around, pants, and leads one of us to her leash and to the door.

At first, she just jumped up on my legs to affirm that she was, indeed, interested in the walk.

But then one day she barked.

It was strained and almost scratchy, but make no mistake, Daisy had found her voice.


The importance and power of student voice has inserted itself into PD plans, book proposals, and Twitter chats across the nation. It’s about time. Finally, and in some deeply entrenched traditional districts, begrudgingly, adults are starting to frame their thinking around student voice. Decision making committees are beginning to include kids. Class libraries, Makerspaces, and common areas are taking shape with students at the helm. Social-emotional learning strategies and practices are considered by kids rather than for kids.

At long last, adults who have preached their love of children as the driving force behind their careers in education are replacing themselves with children as they look in the mirror.

We cannot underestimate the power of voice.

To return to Daisy, she is a completely different dog. The same dog who didn’t know how to go up or down stairs, who longed so desperately for human affection, and who had no idea Beggin’ Strips were a thing, is now playful, spunky, and, quite frankly, proud of her voice. She uses it with impunity, believe me.

Now, think about all the students you have taught, and have yet to teach, who found their voice. There’s an authentic glow and a stifled smile that accompanies that realization. For some, it happens, well, in utero (see: my own kids). For others, it happens in elementary school as they feel their way through letters, sounds, and numbers. For still others, it happens much later when they meet a teacher who gives them agency and audience, perhaps for the first time.

Voice, even in bark form, is the purest form of identity. Without it, students are reduced to a SMID, a plotted point on a data table, a standardized test score. With it, they are elevated and empowered; they are resilient and fierce; they are who we want them to be without us telling them who we want them to be.

They’re us before we became us.

As you plan your PD for the year, as you look at your budgets for next year, as you devise your district’s strategic plan, as you do anything that directly affects kids, give them a voice. Call them together, form a student leadership team, ask them to complete a Google Form. Take them seriously, praise their contributions, compliment their parents.

Then do it all over again.

Let the kids bark.