In the 1993 social satire Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a recently laid off defense contractor who, quite frankly, loses his mind as he treks, on foot, across Los Angeles to attend his estranged daughter’s birthday party.
As he makes the modern pilgrimage, he encounters a cast of characters who either validate his journey or fuel his rage. At one point, he fixates on a black man, dressed very similarly to him, who is holding up a sign that reads “Not Economically Viable” as he rails against his recent firing. At the end of the scene, the two men lock eyes, and the black man, now in the back of a police cruiser, says, “don’t forget me,” to which Douglas nods imperceptibly.
A late year meeting with my superintendent was probably long overdue. That year, my 4th as the Chief Academic Officer (nee: curriculum and instruction) of a K-12 district and 19th in education, was my worst as a professional. The combination of being a year from tenure in a district I love, during a contract year for our staff, while negotiating the looming feeling that “it was time to start looking” made for a level of perpetual discomfort I hadn’t felt as an educator. Plus, I simply wasn’t my best. Ideas I had landed with a palpable thud. Interpersonal issues among our team could no longer be ignored.
Something had to give.
“You need to make yourself indispensable. I don’t know what the budget will look like beyond next year,” he told me.
Suddenly, there was a very real possibility that I was no longer economically viable.
Curriculum and instruction positions are a beautifully flawed cog in the leadership wheel. With an aerial view of the district’s mission and vision, we provide our district with identity and our teachers with support. Because of the aerial view, however, we are wholly ignorant to the daily grind of building leadership, we don’t interact with parents often, and, let’s face it, there are no curriculum emergencies.
Then, quite miraculously, a shift in the leadership team included me switching places with one of our K-5 principals, a woman I respect and admire deeply and who provided me guidance as I navigated the first couple years as CAO. Suddenly, I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory, like those dreams where you come to school naked.
But I was coming to school fully clothed and ready to lead this group of talented teachers.
At the end of my first year, one in which I found myself having to replace five teachers, all of whom had children, a long term sub left me this card.
Well played, universe. Well played.
Ultimately, my superintendent was right. I hadn’t made myself indispensable. In fact, I was woefully dispensable during that slump year. Now, that word is emblazoned on my psyche, like an invisible tattoo, demanding that people “don’t forget me.”
In the pantheon of ambiguously worded, cleverly passive-aggressive, pseudo compliments, “outkicking the coverage” lands firmly in my top 3. I’ve used it ad nauseam and have reveled in having to explain it to the unsuspecting buddy to whom it refers.
Derived from a term in football, outkicking the coverage means you’re dating a woman who is far too attractive to be seen with you, let alone date you on purpose. Though I don’t know if there’s a female equivalent, I remember my friend Jennie, herself a beautiful blonde mother of three, asking me if I knew what it meant because someone said it about her and her ex-husband.
Yes, of course I have. I love it! And yes, your ex definitely outkicked his coverage.
Therein lies the complexity of the euphemism. It simultaneously suggests that a woman is beautiful and her partner is, well, not. What’s the proper response, then?
Um, that’s not very nice (but thank you!).
There’s more to a relationship than looks (but thank you!).
Somehow, there are couples all over the world whose very existence evokes eyebrow raises and elbows to the ribs from gawking onlookers. Inquiring minds just want to know how those couples are even a thing.
Because sometimes things just don’t make sense, and that’s okay.
Think about some of your “best” kids. Your interactions with them are universally pleasant and positive, you look forward to seeing them, you miss them when they graduate, you know they’ll be happy, successful people. Typically, behind those kids are functional, empathetic, kind grown ups who once had the very same things said about them in their youth. So, it adds up.
Now think about some of your most challenging kids. Your interactions with them are universally forced and generic, you notice when they aren’t at school because it means they won’t be in your office that day, you worry about them when they graduate, and you aren’t sure if they’ll be happy, successful people. Typically, (way) behind those kids are dysfunctional, aloof, or absent grown ups who once had the very same things said about them in their youth. So, it adds up.
What about those kids, however, who outkick their parenting coverage? Whose temperate, well-adjusted, anomalous existence, despite having little to no grown up influence, makes us question everything about everything. Moreover, such kids inadvertently, and simultaneously, dim the brilliance of the “best” kids (because of course they’re set up for success) and shine a light on the challenging kids (because of course they’re set up to fail).
When we recognize such kids, it’s vital that we call attention to them. Praise them effusively, elevate the otherwise mundane or expected results to hero status, empower them by asking them to help us support other kids, thank them for sharing space with us.
Because as much fun as it is to make fun of our friends who have outkicked their significant other coverage, myself included, it’s just as important to remind our kids that they are so much more than the sum of their parts, especially when their parts equal a grand total of one.
She knows about Santa. Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long.
My 10-year old daughter mythbusted right through the Santa facade last year but chose to celebrate as if she hadn’t. You know, for old time’s sake.
So this year she made it clear that she knows and wants in on the action when it comes to her 6-year old brother. Not quite blackmail, not quite quid pro quo. Just a tacit agreement that she would help us keep the magic alive for him as long as we let her help us with hiding our Elf on the Shelf (mundanely named Rob) and other ancillary holiday chores.
A holiday win-win!
Thankfully, that was something we got to experience as a family. We were all “in on it” as it were, and Abby didn’t hear the truth about Santa on a random Tuesday over a bag of Cheetos and a Dragonfruit Vitamin water in the cafeteria at school.
But that’s not always the case.
Last week, I had to handle the fallout after a particularly graphic sexual conversation between a group of my fifth graders. Suffice it to say that the word they were bandying about didn’t enter my lexicon until I was about 14. Now, I was a late bloomer, but yikes. I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation with the students’ parents, and I found it increasingly difficult to even utter the word (it rhymes with some) to them knowing each’s background, values, and parenting style varied so dramatically.
However, one of the fifth grade teachers, a mom of three small children and someone whose professionalism and grace I respect, provided me a tagline that Don Draper and his merry band of narcissistic ad execs would be proud of.
That’s a conversation for parents to have with their children, and now that opportunity has been taken from them.
While the grown ups in school act in loco parentis for the grown ups at home, oftentimes in a far more functional way, we can’t protect against everything. Conversations like the one this group of kids had happen every day on campuses across the nation, so whether it’s about an oversized, and presumably over caffeinated, man delivering presents (or coal) to children around the world or about the slang term for what happens at the end of sex, we know they’re talking.
And the answer is not to stop them. It’s to remind them and their families, that Santa, and a host of other things real or imagined, is still a mystery for many of their friends.
We need to let those mysteries be solved by the proper detectives. Unless, of course, Fred, Thelma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scoob are available. Then, just call them.
#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.
The thing about teaching is if you do it long enough you’ll have taught every character archetype imaginable. It’s like being in a never-ending Steven Soderbergh film. For me, there’s a Super Bowl MVP, a murderer, a kick ass video game designer, a model, an award winning writer, and so many others.
Pat Barker sat to my right, about three or four seats back, as a senior in my English class. He was self-effacing, sharp, and far smarter than he gives himself credit for. His humor was too bright for scatalogical laziness, too witty for a typical high school audience. So, he bided his time, tried traditional adulting, and ended up exactly where he is supposed to be. Like so many other #formerstudentFriday posts, Pat’s winding path was the most direct.
I wish someone had told me that this was an option. Or, more accurately, I wish I had been listening when they did.
When I say this, I mean the life I’m leading now. I’m currently in my seventh year in Los Angeles. In three days I start my new job as a writer and producer for a TV show on Fox Sports One. A couple months ago I wrapped my last job as a writer for the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin. Between those jobs, I was a full-time Uber driver – a very common story in the notoriously “feast or famine” world of Hollywood. I went from writing jokes that made Robert DeNiro laugh on a Saturday to driving strangers to the airport on Monday. I’ve lived this reality for the last seven years, and there’s no place I’d rather be in life. I know because for the seven years before that, I did the exact opposite.
When I started high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be. Maybe an accountant? My uncle was an accountant, and he made good money. Drove a Lexus. That’s a nice car. Accountant it was! Until I took a few accounting classes in high school and realized something – being an accountant sucks. Sorry to anyone reading this that ended up in that field. I’m sure you love it, the thrill of balancing debits and credits and all that. But it just wasn’t for me.
When I started college, I still had no idea what I wanted to be. Maybe I should get into business management? Managing businesses seemed like a “successful guy thing.” So I registered for that as my major, thinking that my worst case scenario was changing my mind and my major the next year. Wrong. Worst case scenario, as it happened, was graduating and getting a degree in a field I just didn’t care about. I went through all five years (yeah I know it’s only supposed to take four, shut up), took all the classes, had no passion toward the subject matter, and graduated. Then I took a job managing a CVS – a job that I’d hold for seven years – and did it every day, even though I had no passion for it. I did it because I thought that’s what life was. I didn’t even realize how much I hated it at the time, because I didn’t think there was any realistic alternative.
The alternative had been under my nose the whole time. I started doing standup comedy as a junior in college, and it turns out that I was pretty good at it. I quickly rose through the ranks of the still-developing Philadelphia comedy scene, and by the time I was 26 I was a big fish in a pretty small pond. I absolutely loved doing stand-up, and the contrast with my professional life was so stark it was ridiculous. I was just too close to see it. I had my “real life” – 50-60 hours a week, good yearly salary, benefits, the whole deal. Then I moonlighted as a comedian, a career that seemed like an absolute pipe dream even as I was achieving it. There’s no stability in comedy, and therefore I never saw it as a viable career option. So here I am, with a thing that I’m passionate about and really good at, and I’m just putting it off to go in at 6 AM and unload trucks to set up the Tide display. Crazy, in retrospect.
In 2013, CVS scheduled an inventory on my birthday. Inventory was always insane – managers would typically work around the clock to make sure their store was in immaculate condition. I worked 36 straight days leading up to that inventory, and on my 30th birthday I celebrated by telling my district manager I wanted to transfer to a store in LA. This officially started my new life.
I only lasted three months at the CVS out here. It sucked, and it wasn’t what I moved here for. I took a job at a warehouse instead, then transitioned into Uber driving. As I worked my way down the career ladder, I started succeeding more in the entertainment industry. Somehow, it all led to me doing more cool shit than I ever thought possible and making a real living in the process.
The moral here, I suppose, is that there’s no universally correct path. I’m sure there are accountants out there who are reading this from their Lexus and thinking, “damn, this guy’s an idiot.” Fair. But this life, with all of its uncertainty, works for me. I spent so much time worrying about being “realistic” that I never considered being happy. I’m a father now, and I can’t wait to tell my son he can do anything he wants with his life. My parents told the same thing to me. Wish I didn’t take 30 years to listen.
But hey, better late than never.
Pat Barker is a comedian and writer. Since beginning his standup career in 2005, he has gone on to appear on Comedy Central and the NFL Network, as well as release a full-length album titled “Nice Jokes”.” Pat has also written for HBO, Fox Sports, SpikeTV, Comedy Central’s Roast of Alec Baldwin, and four straight years of Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” award show. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son.
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.
#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do
When I first met Mickey Welde, I had already heard about Mickey Welde, and between us, I wasn’t buying it. There’s no way, I convinced myself, this kid is that good. Sure he was uber positive, creative and energetic, and a born leader. But there had to be some smudge mark on this kid’s record, some glaring character flaw. Nope. When you read his piece, you’ll see how wrong I was.
I’m riding the train on my way home from work. The window to my right faces south. Beneath the bridge the tide flows north. In the distance I see the stadiums.
I appreciate this part of my commute. This short stretch over the Delaware River generates gratitude and wonder. A peaceful moment to ponder the questions, “What’s going on here? What’s the purpose? Where are we headed?”
I grow still. My thought process slows. I feel present.
We complete our pass over the bridge and go under the streets of Camden. This momentary experience of intense awareness reduces as the train stops at City Hall. Strangers enter through the opening doors.
A woman sits down in front of me and a dude stands in the aisle next to her. They’re having a conversation as they approach. I hear the dude say:
“Well now that I’ve given up on all my hopes and dreams I have a lot of free time.”
[Actually… let’s have you read that correctly.]
Here’s the dude, very gossipy:
“Well NOW… that I’ve given up on all my HOPES AND DREAMS… I have ALOOOOTTTTTTTTT of free time.”
Talk about a first impression.
“College lied to me… College said I would make a difference in kid’s lives. And now… AND NOW!… Well… Now I believe it’s all a WASTE OF TIME! College was a waste of money! I wanted to be a teacher in the 80s…90s… and early 2000s…PRETTY MUCH BEFORE I BECAME A TEACHER!”
It sounds like a story he tells often. I think about how painful it is to be around negativity. I put on headphones as the dude continues talking:
“He asked me… Where’s your word wall? And I’m like … MY WORD WALL! Where’s my word wall? I never once saw a word wall in high school! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE EXPECTS ME TO MAKE A WORD WALL!”
It feels like an in-person Facebook rant. I catch myself being impacted by the negative energy. I pick the first song I see, “Crack the Case” by Dawes.
The dude’s voice disappears. I watch the familiar sites go by. I feel relaxed.
Intense focus and presence re-enter my being.
There’s a lyric that says, “It’s really hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.”
When deciding to share this story I thought about you. Many of you are teachers, administrators, and leaders who deal with tough situations, undedicated students, and unnecessary word walls. We all have complicated lives.
No one on Earth knows your complete story. Just like I don’t know this dude on the train’s full story. This interaction doesn’t define the dude’s character; however, it gives us a glimpse into some pain he’s going through.
Life is difficult. If I had the chance again I would smile at him.
Teachers and counselors are on the front line of acclimating this world’s youth into society, which is a near impossible (but important) job. People depend on you to bring positivity into your teaching and to speak life into young people’s situations. Despite the resistance I know you’re up for the task.
However, for anyone considering “giving up on all your hopes and dreams” like the dude on the train, take a moment to step back and appreciate the position you’re in. Breathe.
If zero things are appealing to you about your job, that is okay!
Your potential students and I will appreciate it if you try a new career path.
[That’s a win-win for everyone!]
If teaching is no longer making you happy, it’s cool. Sorry you wasted money, but do something else that is fulfilling and motivates you every day.
No matter what field you’re in, you are constantly influencing the people around you. A person’s past interactions, relationships, or disputes do not matter today. Gratitude is contagious so find things that make you appreciate your life.
Everyone deserves your best moving forward, especially you. Be a teacher or mentor who spreads love and appreciation. Be a role model of compassion and kindness. Be grateful and find a way to inject positive outlooks into the lives around you.
Mickey Welde lives in Mount Holly, NJ with his three favorite ladies — wife Julie, daughter Quinn, and cat Beefy. For the last five years he’s worked at the Curtis Institute of Music as Assistant Video Editor and Audio-Visual Arts Coordinator. Mick likes spending time outdoors appreciating this beautiful planet and documenting the mysteries of life. He serves as Production Team Leader at LHT Church in Lumberton, NJ and is a firm believer in spreading kindness. Go love everyone!
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.