Shut Your Door

“Don’t ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone, for any reason, ever, no matter what. No matter where. Or who, or who you are with, or where you are going or… or where you’ve been… ever. For any reason, whatsoever.” ~Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin Scranton

I can remember pieces of advice right down to the moment. 

In the car, after I was the losing pitcher in the 12-year old championship game.

Dad: There’s always going to be somebody bigger, faster, and stronger. 

Courtside at a high school basketball game lamenting to my former coach that I was terrified to student teach.

Coach: You’ll do it. Just like you’ve done everything else. 

During my first year teaching, complaining to my mentor about some of the archaic, bureaucratic parts of the job.

Mentor: Just shut your door and teach.

That last one was a watershed moment in my career. I could either take Beth’s advice and run my classroom my way, despite the risk of chastisement or poor evaluations, or disregard her advice and become the kind of robotic teacher I refused I would become. 

Obviously, if you read this blog, you know it wasn’t much of a decision at all. 

But that was twenty-three years ago. Before the country decided to force teachers into one of two, equally horrifying categories: martyrs and pariahs. Now, teachers are leaving the profession with nothing but an existential crisis and a box of KN95 masks to show for it. 

The funny thing is the pandemic, politics, and protocols haven’t shined a light on bad teaching.  No, the bright lights of Twitter threads and resignation letter screenshots have flipped the script and exposed terrible leadership. And it’s long overdue.

So now it’s my turn to give advice to teachers. Teachers who have that resignation letter queued up but haven’t hit send yet. Teachers who have to sit in their idling cars for several minutes as they work up the strength to enter their buildings. Teachers who have been forced to trade creativity for compliance, relationships for data, passion for paychecks. 

Shut your door and teach. 

Teachers don’t serve leaders; they serve kids. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Standards can be explored without being drilled. 

So shut your door and teach.

Lesson plans, which will likely be unread by leaders, can be copy and pasted. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Formal assessments are only one, often flawed, way to measure growth. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Lousy leaders either know they’re lousy and don’t care or don’t know they’re lousy at all. 

So shut your door and teach. 

Shut your door and teach. 

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Not-To-Do List

Make the dogs’ grooming appointment.

Add Eddie Vedder’s new solo project to Spotify playlist. 

Review I&RS action plans ahead of next meeting. 

Request day off for March Madness. 

Man, it feels good to strike through our to-do lists doesn’t it? 

Whether that flick of the pen is done with violence or gentleness, through frustration or pride, taking control of our often Byzantine workaday existence by eliminating tasks does more than end a process. It starts one. 

We feel a sense of relief to have crushed that list because our brains reward us by releasing dopamine. That high we feel is as real as whatever Snoop was puffing on during the halftime show, and we want to feel it again. 

So we add more things to our list and chase that, well, “dope” again. 

But if we need to finish things to feel satisfied, then doesn’t that mean we are perpetually unsatisfied? 

In his new book, The Practice of Groundedness, Brad Stulberg challenges readers to flip that paradigm by creating a “not-to-do” list. A way of tricking the brain into reminding itself that we can feel a sense of accomplishment by not doing, reverse engineering the dopamine dump and removing the anxiety of the unfinished. 

Like this.

Beat myself up about being tied to my office on a particular day. 

Respond to an irrational parent voicemail immediately and aggressively.

Check school email after 5 pm. 

Hold off on checking in on a teacher who is clearly struggling. 

Then, post your not-to-do list in an obvious and accessible place so as to remind yourself that not doing is as willful and cathartic an act as doing. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me.

Obsess over every word in every blog post. 

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Parent Primer

It’s been six hours since your child came home from school and told you she had a bad day. It’s been two hours since you started crafting an email to her school. In another twelve hours, you’ll expect a response and an action plan. 

Before clicking send, here’s a handy primer for emailing your child’s school. 

Don’t click send when this email:

  • Is a projection of your own school experience in such a way that you’re writing it for yourself, not your child 
  • Is written hours (or minutes) after hearing about your child’s day
  • Is in response to something you saw on Facebook or heard at the soccer field
  • Is requesting a full investigation without being aware of your school’s code of conduct or your state’s HIB law
  • Includes phrases like, “I’m not the only one” or “all the other parents” 
  • Is requesting that the school help you parent your child 

Go ahead and click send when this email:

  • Seeks to understand on the way to responding
  • Has had time to marinate, much like the situation about which you’re writing
  • Is based on a series of experiences your child has had, particularly if they all include the same people or themes
  • Provides context for how your child is feeling about or responding to her school experience
  • Alerts the school of changes in your child’s life that may affect how he presents in school
  • Is just a note of kindness and gratitude for your child’s teacher

Look, man, parenting is super hard. I’m talking existential crisis inducing-small victory seeking-perpetually self reflecting-ugly crying hard. 

But so is teaching. 

The difference is we don’t open up our email to read about our parenting. 

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Cleaning Up

The place was spotless. 

I mean spit-shined, dust mote free, a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place clean. The vacuum cleaner treads were still fresh when I got back to the townhouse on that Friday night. Frankly, I walked through our place with an overwhelming sense of calm because it was always me who cleaned and tidied, so it was refreshing to have some help. 

Before I could form the first syllable of a “thank you” to Lew, the roommate who was responsible for the deed, the doorbell rang. 

“Hi, is Lew here. I’m Brittany,” she said.

And then it made sense. There was nothing altruistic or even bro about Lew’s frenetic Friday cleaning. He was staging. Posturing. Playacting. He cleaned up because he had a date. 

He cleaned up because he had to. 

I won’t confirm or deny that I put a silent hex on that date, but let’s just say that Lew’s wife’s name is Kristin, not Brittany. 

Every day in school leadership, we are faced with that which we have to do vs. that which we want to do. None of us is particularly enthused about signing timesheets or sitting through hours long meetings, but each is an implicit part of our job, like it or not. Conversely, all of us would like to be in classrooms more, co-teaching a lesson, or running a lunch bunch with a group of kids. 

And then, of course, there’s the constant specter of the unknown, looming over playground incidents and unannounced parent visits. It’s hard to clean up when we can’t see the mess coming.

How, then, can we negotiate the two?

For me, cleaning up  is rooted in my locus of control. 

Recognizing the pull of wanting to play in a playground football game against having to finish up my budget proposal, only one of which has a due date, demands that I clean up my accounts. 

Identifying when a teacher needs an extra prep or an “is everything alright” conversation helps me clean up our building culture. 

Emailing a mom after witnessing her child deliver a random act of kindness helps clean up that child’s perception of himself. 

Calling a pop-up vent session with leadership colleagues, via Zoom or at a local brewery, allows us to clean up our sanity. 

At a time when our collective control switch is constantly being toggled for us, it’s imperative that we clean up as much as we can, on our terms. 

Not on Brittany’s. Bless her heart.

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Misdiagnosed

When I walked off the mound after the final out, I knew something was wrong. Stifling my grunts and trying to walk with a normal gait, I made it to my car and just sat there, mind spinning. 

What if it’s my ACL?

Was that the final game of my career?

What if I never walk the same again?

Later, when a doctor floated the possibility of a meniscus tear, I really didn’t hear much after that. I knew it sounded bad, would involve surgery or months of physical therapy or both, and would almost certainly end my Weekend Warrior baseball career. Immediately, the physical diagnosis had affected my mental health, so from top to bottom and inside and out, I was broken. 

No more baseball.  Now what?

A month and a new doctor later, I was able to listen and comprehend throughout the conversation: 

Doc: You want the good news or the bad news?

Me: I mean that’s not my favorite bedside manner game, but gimme the bad. 

Doc: You’re getting old, Bri. It’s arthritis. 

Me (already starting to calculate when I can start to throw and swing again): And what’s the good news, then?

Doc: I’ll shoot you up with gel and you’ll be good as new. 

Had I accepted the misdiagnosis, I would have likely never played again, and though it may sound hyperbolic, my life would have changed in a profoundly negative way. 

While we spend countless hours trying to diagnose our kids’ academic and social emotional needs, think about how often we misdiagnose teacher mental health. 

Imagine, then, moving through any week, month, or entire school year assuming your staff is “fine.” Consider the lack of clarity, awareness, and honesty necessary to identify when a staff member is struggling and in need of a check in. In essence, we misdiagnose them this way because they’re grown ups, but we all bring our “stuff” to school with us. 

Grown up stuff is just easier to hide. 

A shoddy marriage.

A terminally ill parent.

Postpartum depression.

Burnout.

Through extensive SEL and trauma informed work, our staff has learned to diagnose student learning and behavior in a way that cannot be overstated. From daily references to the zones of regulation to private, in-the-moment restorative practice, to focused walk-and-talks, teachers exhaust so much emotional capital on their kids, and rightfully so. It’s their job to take care of the kids.

So, leaders, I implore you to invest in the same level of empathy and care in your staff.

It’s our job to take care of them. 

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Selfie

While teaching from one of my favorite novels, Stephen Chbosky’s seminal YA work The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the main character’s de facto love interest, Mary Elizabeth. Though only a bit character, she proves a perfect foil to Charlie, and Chbosky’s wily name choice for this ultra-feminist, insecure, faux intellectual provided a gift wrapped challenge for my students. 

Me: So of all the names he could have chosen, why this sort of stuffy, first-and-middle name? In fact, it’s even hard to say over and over again, but she only goes by Mary Elizabeth. 

<crickets>

Me: Okay, so what do we know about her?

Them: Well, she’s super annoying, she doesn’t stop talking, usually about herself, and she wants to, like, make Charlie into her boyfriend instead of just letting him be who he is and be her boyfriend. 

Me: Getting closer. Now, look at her name but only as initials. 

Them: M-E. Yeah, so. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, ME! 

The thing about Mary Elizabeth is she’s as incapable of accepting her own narcissism as Charlie is of understanding that people actually think that way. To him, other people are the focus, are the priority, are the story. He is, after all, a wallflower. 

I think that’s why I connect so closely with Charlie. He spends his short life thinking about others, about how he can affect the lives of people he loves by sacrificing himself. In fact, such selflessness becomes his albatross, his cross to bear, and it nearly kills him. 

As educators, we’re all Charlies. We deliberately sacrifice ourselves in the interest of others: our kids, our colleagues, and our own families. And we do so based on an internal locus of control, a speedometer set firmly on Go, which few of us are willing, or capable, of resetting. 

So the pandemic hit reset for us. 

Now, we are all forced to change our camera angle so it faces us. Our life’s camera roll includes far more selfies than it once did as we weigh our own health, the health of our own children and parents, our work-life balance, our mental health. The list goes on and on. We’ve gone from Charlies to Mary Elizabeths. 

And that’s ok.

Because in doing so, we are finally prioritizing ourselves, not as part of an either-or ultimatum, but as part of a necessary shift in our point of view. A shift that, if considered earnestly, will only serve to make us better educators, better colleagues, and better people. 

Take more selfies, my friends.

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Rear View Mirror

I’m telling you I adjust it multiple times a day. 

Maybe it’s caused by some malevolent sprite with a penchant for moving violations.

Maybe it’s my own posture as I intermittently slouch (after a long day of, well, slouching) and sit straight up so I can scream-sing the lyrics to Dinosaur Jr.’s “Get Me.”

Maybe the dang thing needs to be fixed, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. 

Whatever it is, my Jeep’s rear view mirror is causing an existential crisis. 

The windshield-rear view mirror provides the clearest metaphor for life despite each’s dichotomous utility. Forcing us to simultaneously hurtle toward an unknown future at varying speeds while constantly (read: obsessively) checking for what’s behind us. A flaw in either distorts our reality to the point at which driving can become unsafe. 

It’s a trip, man. 

So here we are. Cruising toward the one year Covidversary at a cool 55 mph, just trying to avoid the myriad distractions, frustrations, and anxieties in front of us, like a perverse version of the classic video game Paperboy. Still, our rear view mirror hangs at the fringe of our periphery, daring us to peek at what we just left behind. 

But here’s how we flip the script on the metaphor: the rear view mirror must be used as a sort of visible wormhole allowing us to course-correct what lies on the other side of the windshield. 

We need to rethink state testing. We need to reframe our social studies and history curricula. We need to reconsider the length of our school day. We need to review what social justice means to and for our community. We need to reenvision public education. 

Or we choose to disregard everything our collective rear view mirrors have taught us since last March. 

And just keep driving.

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Syllabus

Brian Kulak

Leveluplead@gmail.com

Tuesdays and Thursdays 5p-8p

Benaroya Hall

Good evening! Welcome to Nothing As It Seems, an educational leadership class designed to provide a practical dance partner to the theoretical. Here’s a brief outline of what to expect this semester. 

Course Description: This graduate level class is designed to address edu-leadership issues about which we rarely speak. From the taboo to the absurd, future leaders will experience edu-leadership through anecdotes and empathy.

Course Objectives: 

  1. To pull back the curtain on educational leadership theory
  2. To develop useful communication skills for use with crazy people
  3. To challenge candidates to accept the human side of leadership
  4. To engage in discussion about what once was considered taboo

January 4th-22nd

Unit 1: The 10% Corollary: Accepting That 10% of Any Organization is No Bueno

Guiding Text: Whispers in the Staff Lounge by Mark Lanegan

Focus: Whether it’s the 10th man on a 10 man basketball roster or a small group of staff who wake up each day with the intention to complain, the 10% corollary exists and isn’t going away. This unit will help us develop strategies to work with or, in some cases, ignore the 10% so we can focus on the other 90%.

January 25th-February 12th

Unit 2: Death and Dying On Campus

Guiding Text: We Have Some Sad News by Jeffrey Ament

Focus: From the sudden to the terminal, death and dying on campus are an inevitable part of your leadership career. In some cases, you’ll take on a paternal role for children who lost a parent. In other cases, you’ll serve as a grief counselor for a staff who can’t process the loss of a colleague. In still other cases, it will be your own loss that your staff and community must help you grieve. This unit will help us prepare for loss by first accepting that it’s going to happen. 

February 15th-March 5th

Unit 3: Lesson Plans and SGOs Are Stupid

Guiding Text: What Does the DOE Actually Do? by Tanya Donnelly

Focus: All educators have the spectre of a department of education looming over us. Nameless and faceless, the DOE quietly, and often confoundingly, makes bureaucratic decisions for us all the time. Sometimes the DOE graces us with its presence at conferences and delivers new and exciting buzzwords for us to begin using! This unit will help us understand how to work with, and sometimes outside the confines of, the department of education.

March 8th-26th

Unit 4: Middle Finger Emojis and Other Delightful Communication

Guiding Text: The text for this unit will just be a series of emails I received that may or may not invite me to copulate with myself, border on the criminally insane, or eschew any conventional spelling, grammar, or punctuation. 

Focus: The keyboard is a fierce weapon in a war that is often waged in the brain of its possessor. Voicemails left at bizarre hours allow for a responseless audience. Side eye and passive aggressive parking lot discussions keep everyone guessing as part of an interminable and often irreparable conflict. This unit will prepare us for the myriad ways in which communication styles, decisions, and exchanges dictate our leadership. 

March 29th-April 16th

Unit 5: In Loco Parentis, Like, For Reals

Guiding Text: Can You Talk to Her? by Chris Cornell 

Focus: While we are responsible for our students during school hours, there will be times when you’re asked to literally stand in as a parent. From the at-her-wits-end mom to the completely over-matched single dad, the better you are at your job the more likely a parent will ask you to do theirs for them. This unit will provide strategies for accepting and denying such responsibility. 

Grading: 

There will be no grades for this course because we’re all adults, grades are meaningless, and most graduate programs are “A” factories anyway. 

Good luck, future leaders!

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Know Things

Principals are the Tyrion Lannisters of education, minus the heavy drinking and patricide, of course. Because as principals, we tend to know things.

We know about a student’s abject poverty because we dropped off remote learning toolkits at her apartment.

We know about pod learning facilitators because they remind us of all the myriad ways we could be teaching differently.

We know about Facebook warriors who have an arsenal of memes, “friends in other districts,” and incredibly personal and myopic anecdotes at the ready.

We know when a teacher’s face looks different, when her affect is slightly off, when the lilt in her is voice gone.

We know about pregnancies, deaths, and diganoses before the rest of the staff. We know none of it is our news to share.

We know we have to remind teachers that SGOs and observations are business as usual even though everything is unusual.

We know our own families notice a difference in our mood and energy. We know because they told us.

We know this too shall pass.

We just don’t know when.

The Lawnmower Man

Call me The Lawnmower Man. 

No, not that Lawnmower Man.

In a truly cosmic insult-to-injury, my two-year old lawnmower keeps crapping out on me. To make matters worse, the grass in the back of my house grows exponentially faster than the grass in the front, which has created a two-tiered, multi-step lawn maintenance regimen that, frankly, I couldn’t be less interested in.  

During quarantine, properties across America have no doubt been manicured in a way that would make The Truman Show community proud because, hell, we have the time. And while I don’t go gaga over a freshly cut and edged lawn, I can appreciate the work it takes to maintain  my property. After all, I’m in full control of that maintenance in a time when our control has largely been usurped by the virus. 

So the fact that my stinkin’ mower decided to only work the equivalent of a long hockey shift before shutting down has been maddening at best. I tried charging the battery more often. I tried charging the battery less often. I tried changing the height of the blades. I tried only mowing in sub-90 degree weather. 

And I kept failing. 

Finally, I read the instructions (total dad move to do that last), and voila! I had been working the mower too hard. 

See, the mower can only cut as fast and efficiently as it is designed to. But because I can only work as fast and efficiently as I am designed to, the mower and I, well, we’re not bros. 

Shortly after that discovery, a staff member called, likely to discuss the myriad unrealistic reopening expectations placed on NJ public educators. 

“You need to slow down. I’m worried about you,” she said. 

“I’m fine. There’s just so much to do,” I told her. 

“Listen to me. You have to slow down. You can’t work this much and be healthy.”

The call came about a week after our staff meeting, which I opened by telling our staff that I’m not going to pretend all is well and that if we all stick together we’ll get through this. Because platitudes are weak and reductive. Especially now. 

I told them that I am struggling. I told them I haven’t written. I told them I wasn’t excited about the opening of the MLB season.I told them my anxiety is through the roof. I “joked” that at least I can count on my Lexapro. 

That’s how I realized that I have become The Lawnmower Man. 

But instead of my mower not keeping up with the frenzied pace that I set for it, I can’t keep up with the frenzied pace I set for myself. 

If we’re going to lead in the age of COVID, we’re going to have to work harder than we ever have. But part of working harder is working smarter.

Take it from me, The Lawnmower Man.

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