Finally…

As a former English teacher, I have had quite a love affair with words for the last twenty years. Like my marriage, my relationship with words undulates, palpitates, and frustrates. Sometimes words come in a flurry, frenetically and furiously. Other times words have to be coaxed and cajoled in order to get them to land on the page.

Still other times I find myself musing over how some words can pack such a wallop depending on the context. My current word-du-jour has caused a bit of a stir in my noggin. Its power and impact can measure at alpha and omega and everywhere in between.

Finally.

This word has the power to lift up and the power to utterly destroy. It’s placement in a sentence can be the difference between elation and devastation, and I can prove it.

Finally! Game of Thrones is back! #teamarya

Finally! My daughter finishes up her semester abroad and will be home tonight.

Versus…

She came to her senses and is leaving him. Finally!

Did you hear he put his retirement paperwork in? Finally!

It’s that last one that terrifies me. But it’s also a powerful motivator.

Typically, there are two distinct and oppositional reactions when word leaks that a colleague has decided to retire. The first is a mournful pause followed quickly by collective joy for a person who deserves a hero’s send off.

The other reaction, my aforementioned motivator, is abject relief. A sort of what-took-so-long harumph coupled with a wry smile and that duplicitous word, finally.

Close enough to say it without whispering and far enough away to keep it at a mythical length, I think about my retirement from a removed, third-person perspective. But part of that perspective includes a varied cast of colleagues, real and imagined, whose possible reactions provide the motivation to grow and improve.

Perhaps we need to consider our careers using backward design. What, then, is our ultimate goal in a life devoted to education? While the semantics will vary, I envision our collective goal is touching the lives of as many people as we can before bowing out gracefully. To extend the analogy, I imagine our activities and assessments to that end center around our relationships, our conversations, our decisions. Our lesson plans consider with whom we work, how we communicate with them, and how we help improve each other.

Finally, we reflect on a career marked by true connections with our kids and our colleagues. A career after which those same kids and colleagues celebrate with us, lean in for a hug, and whisper, you deserve this.

Finally.  

State of Sorry

We need to stop apologizing.

Even the glib, “Sorry, not sorry!” begins with the very sentiment it proclaims not to be.

Whether it’s part of a global deference to authority, a knee-jerk reaction to, well, anything, or an internal wiring, educators have become far too apologetic. And it needs to stop.

For me, it’s gotten to the point to which I have to correct teachers for beginning their sentences with “sorry.”

Sorry, I was just finishing up when you walked in. I can do the lesson again!

Sorry, I just wanted to stay with her for a little while because I think something is going on at home.

Sorry, can I leave right at 3 today because my son has a cross-country meet near here, and I never get to see him run.

Part of me thinks the apologies are because I give off some as-yet-to-be-named pheromone which induces teachers into a temporary state of sorry. Then I came across the image that serves as the banner for this post, and I felt relieved. The state of sorry isn’t localized to my small, southern New Jersey school. It is, in fact, pandemic.

Perhaps it’s the inherent people-pleaser in each of us. After all, we consciously entered a field in which the principle resource is people.

Maybe it’s because we often work with parents who come at us from all sides, armed with lawyers and entitlement, so our Pavlovian response is the apology.

Or it could be an unholy combination of generational guilt and working for a leader for whom apologies are the norm, not the exception.

As leaders, we need to do our best to suspend, if not end, the prevent defense culture associated with the apology. If our teachers are compelled to apologize to start a sentence, it likely says as much about us as it does about them.

And, I’m sorry, if you’re the kind of leader who expects an apology as a salutation, then you aren’t reading this blog in the first place.


That Was Me

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into their world, a world we all share as educators. 

Jenna Bruner is going to be okay. Part catharsis and part advice column, Jenna provides a necessary nudge to new and novice teachers who left undergrad with a trove of theory, but little practice, at the ready. She’s reflective, sarcastic, and fiercely protective of her kids. Aside from a disparate taste in music, we are , in fact, very similar.

To new educators:

So…You just graduated college! Congratulations! You’re bright eyed & bushy-tailed, and you’re super eager to go out into the classroom.

Oh boy! What fun this will be! I get to be around kids all day long! I am so passionate about my field! How hard could it be?”

That was me.

I was in your shoes not too long ago. As I write this, I’m reflecting on my seemingly long and arduous college career that began ten years earlier at a southern New Jersey university. I lived in a small, prison-like dormitory on campus with my best friend. I had 8am classes (the worst!), I had to walk to those classes in the pouring rain, and I ate that awful cafeteria food because I had no means to really cook for myself.

Five and a half years later, I’d graduate with two Bachelor’s Degrees in Elementary Education and Spanish, and a minor in International Studies.

Little did I know in May of 2014, I’d be a lost little puppy in a sea of what my university didn’t really prepare me for: “The Real (Teaching) World.”

So, I say unto you, dear reader, there are many, many things that my classes did not teach me:

How to handle a student who cried on my shoulder every day for a month because her father refused to see her.

How to absorb that a sixth grade girl was molested by her uncle and is just starting to be brave enough to tell her family.

How being myself will get my students to respect me.

How parents really just want the best for their kids and not to panic right away when you get an email from them.

That sometimes having a bad day is okay, and that mental health days are necessary sometimes.

That my best resources at school are the custodians and secretaries and I should always treat them extremely well.

That when the autistic student in my classroom interrupts with outbursts to roll with it.

That I would want to take home every child that has told me how horrible their home lives are and feed them and tell them everything is going to be okay.

That sometimes I just have to do things my way.

So even if you think you know it all right now. You don’t.

And that’s good.

You’ll make it.

Promise.

Jenna Bruner grew up in central New Jersey before starting as a freshman at Rowan University in the fall of 2008. She graduated in May 2014 with Bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Education and Spanish. During her time in undergrad, she got to study abroad in Costa Rica for 5 weeks. Jenna has been teaching Spanish since the fall of 2014, working at 3 different schools with the most recent being Collingswood Middle School. She hopes to spend the rest of her career there.

Okay

In a classic Simpsons episode, Chief Wiggum implores a group of onlookers that “there’s nothing to see here” before he turns around to see what the huddled masses are gawking at and invites them to “get a load of this flaming wreckage.” At the time, I remember laughing out loud. Now, Chief Wiggum, a most unlikely source, provides us with valuable leadership advice.

In an often chaotic world, be the constant your staff and students need by reacting the same way despite the circumstance. What comes after that initial reaction will change, but providing unflappable stability creates a sense of calm before any storm.

The mad pooper has struck again. This time she smeared it to spell out HI.

Okay.

I have no idea who this person is who is coming to pick up Naheem; we can’t let her take him because she’s not on our record.

Okay.

This group is the most challenging I’ve ever worked with. I know I can do it. I just need your help.

Okay.

We haven’t heard from Cal or his family in six days. I think we should call the police.

Okay.

Mrs. A would like us to bring in a gender clinician from CHOP to talk to our staff about Mallory’s transition.

Okay.

We didn’t hear the evacuation drill announcement in the APR. That’s not good.

Okay.

My ex is drinking again, and I don’t know if I trust him with the kids.

Okay.

My husband and I talked about it, and I am going to stay home with the kids. I love teaching, but I can’t pass up this time with my children.

Okay.

The kids want you to be steady quarterback at recess.

Okay.

I have a parent on the phone who says the lunch lady is mean to her grandson.

Okay.

The superintendent would like you to call him back about an anti-homework parent group petition.

Okay.

Sometimes your “okay” will come with hard-to-veil heartbreak, sometimes your “okay” will come with a toothy smile, sometimes your “okay” will sound robotic, sometimes your “okay” will sound melodic.

More often than not, people should walk away from their conversations with you feeling like everything is going to be okay, and if it’s not now, it will be soon.

Okay?

Relax Your Tongue

I want you to relax your tongue.

I’m serious. Relax your tongue.

It must be difficult being a tongue. My man rarely gets any down time.

The first time my yoga instructor said this during our practice, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Having practiced yoga for years, not one yogi ever asked a class to relax our tongues. Now,  I look forward to her saying it. I expect her to say it. And I comply.

Bringing awareness to arguably the most overlooked, but necessary, part of our body has instilled in me a subtle and powerful level of mindfulness.

Now, I find myself relaxing my tongue countless times a day: after a tense parent meeting, on my drive home, as I write each morning. For me, this micromove has become a physical manifestation of a mantra. No matter how many times I do it, I can always do it again.

Relax your tongue.

Find your own thing. Count to 10, hold your breath, focus on a picture of your kids, watch cat videos, sing your favorite song in an Irish accent.

In the end, you need to find something that reminds you to press pause.

Relax your tongue.

Winning at No Cost

#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

This installment’s writer, whom we’ll call Cassandra, prefers to remain anonymous, and I can’t blame her. In that nebulous place between graduation and finding her forever teaching home, Cassandra is stuck. Dubbed “grasshopper” because we always joked that she would replace me in the classroom someday, Cassandra’s post is all at once sad, cathartic, and hopeful.


When I long term subbed in a kindergarten class, I was used to playing games like red light green light and duck duck goose. Sometimes the kids would stumble and fall, but they always kept playing. One lesson I made sure my students knew is that it is perfectly acceptable to fail sometimes, just as long as they keep trying their best.

Fast forward to my current placement—a high school—where instead of tiptoeing to the finish line, I am tiptoeing around administrative politics and instead of running around to crown the next “goose,” I am just running around in circles. Unfortunately, students are just getting pushed through and are not really expected to do or be anything more.

One Friday, I was told by an administrator that I was “not allowed” to fail any seniors because it is bad for retention rates. Unfortunately for me, the few seniors I have, like the majority of my students, just don’t want to do the work. They know they will receive a 50% whether they do it or not. So the solution I was given is to start curving test scores and give out elementary level work. I have to do what I have to do to get them to pass, I was told. It is all about the numbers, both in percentages and dollars, I heard.

This has been a vicious cycle set in motion long before I set up my cheap Target decor along my walls. When students came to me, they expected that I knew the pass and go drill, and, even more so, viewed me as a nervous, little first year teacher not willing to swim against the tide. They know that the more students graduate, the more money the school receives. Moreover, they know that this can be an opportunity to get an upper hand.

When I began to give out reading homework and quizzes weekly, they failed. When I continued to give out reading homework and quizzes (with a few modifications) on a weekly basis, they still failed. Slowly, they began to realize that I would meet them halfway, but not at the cost of my expectations. When I caught a student cheating and gave him a zero, he lashed out because “[his] answers were right and I can’t mark them wrong.” This inflated sense of entitlement is a direct effect of the system and its bastardization of the idea of winning. To them, success is getting as far as they can by doing as little as possible. And it is only hurting the kids that go into the world thinking doing nothing is winning.  

I refuse to just let them slide, to just continue doing what they have been doing since they started school here. I refuse to be a glorified babysitter. I refuse to not give these students a chance to win the right way.

By allowing this “pass at all costs” policy, we are really failing our kids in the long run. While funding is important and a necessary evil, it is costing my kids the education they deserve. Because education extends beyond the classroom. Kids are going to try and they are going to fail; it is a necessary lesson in growing up. There is winning in failure. There is growth in failure.

But this push to “just get them through” is an adult game of duck duck goose: money gets spent, kids “pass,” more money comes in.

There are no winners.


Just Dance

An excerpt from Increase Mather’s 1684 essay, “An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures.”

Now this [dancing] we affirm to be utterly unlawful, and that it cannot be tollerated in such a place as New-England, without great Sin…The Design of Dancing is only to teach Children good Behaviour and decent Carriage.


I wonder what ol’ Increase and his band of merry Puritans would think of the “Orange Justice.”

When I first started teaching in 1999, part of the sophomore ELA curriculum was devoted to the Puritans, so I taught the above essay along with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” among other totally teen relevant fan favorites.  I used such seminal works to teach discourse, persuasion, and syntax, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to open up discussion about life in the 17th and 18th century. Later in the year, we’d read The Crucible, so starting with the real Puritans to prepare for the fictional ones was necessary, foundational work.

As you can imagine, kids were aghast at the idea that people were against dancing. Though we discussed the Biblical interpretation, the cultural climate, and the fundamental fear of God, students in the 20th century just could not grasp the Puritan way of life.

I mean, to be honest, I still don’t.

But that brings us to 2019: new century, same disdain for dancing.

My elementary school kids love Fortnite, and the ones that don’t, including my 9-year old daughter, love the dances associated with game. So from the aforementioned “Orange Justice” to “The Wiggle” to “The Floss” kids are dancing out loud and it’s driving the adults insane.

But, why?

What is it about children dancing that turns us all into residents of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692?  

Maybe we see junior versions of ourselves in those little, dancing bodies, and we long for the days when we, too, could just stop what we’re doing and dance. Inhibitions be damned (not our souls).

Maybe we conflate dancing with an overt smack to our orderly, Charlotte Danielson fearing faces.

Maybe we, by nature, aren’t dancers, especially in public, so the prospect of children dancing willy-nilly in our halls and in our rooms evokes a primal envy we didn’t know existed (note: if this describes you, please stop reading and seek help).

Maybe we weren’t allowed to watch Footloose or Grease as a kid, so seeing them play out in real life serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe we work for a 21st century version of Increase Mather and fear being smote on the spot, Dunkin’ coffee in hand, for not putting a stop to the wickedness.

But maybe, just maybe, we should let the kids dance if they want to.

Hell, maybe we should join them.

Closed Door Policy

Honor Time Without Announcing It

I have a closed door policy.  Don’t @ me.

Announcing an open door policy as part of a leadership philosophy is like a pitcher announcing he’s going to throw the ball to the plate. Yes, of course it’s supposed to happen but having to tell people about it seems disingenuous.

When my door is closed, I’m with a troubled 9-year old who “doesn’t understand the point of living.”

When my door is closed, I’m with a first-year teacher who just needs to vent and admit that she is very tired.

When my door is closed, I’m on the phone with the superintendent because I want to triple check before I call DCP&P and create further chaos in a 5-year old’s life.

When my door is closed, I’m finishing up a hug with a teacher who can finally announce her first pregnancy after years of IVF.

When my door is closed, I’m conducting a post-observation after one of the best lessons I’ve seen in my time in leadership.

When my door is closed, a veteran teacher is in tears as she tells me she just can’t do it anymore and needs to retire.

When my door is closed, a smiling 8-year old is coloring while I try to contact her step father who has forgotten to pick her up. Again.

When my door is closed, I am decompressing, if only for a moment, after my door was closed all day.

So much happens behind closed doors every day. Imagine what we’d miss if those doors remained open.

Say It

Developing an Intentional Leadership Style

The first couple times I do it, folks don’t know what the hell is happening. Most look down or immediately blush. Some shift their weight from one foot to the other absentmindedly. Others stare back at me for an uncomfortable two or three seconds to make sure I’m finished.

Whether as a result of being a father and telling my kids how amazing I think they are all the time or because I’ve become more reflective as I age, I now subscribe to a simple mantra, Say It.

Witness:

After a Saturday morning jaunt to a trampoline park with my kids, we decided to stop at Dunkin Donuts for a snack. The young man behind the counter, who was clearly working harder than everyone else there, gave my son a free Munchkin as we waited for our food. My daughter, who had already found us a table, didn’t get one but didn’t even realize it. Several minutes later, the attendant walked over with another Munchkin and apologized for not seeing my daughter in the first place. We thanked him, and then I just started to watch him work.

He was frenetic in his approach. He was cheerful in every interaction. He knew regulars by name and by the time of day they came in. He was really good at his job.

So I told him.

“Say man, thanks again for the freebies. You’re really good at your job. You should be proud.”

Like I said, people don’t know what to make of me at first. My sense is our society has become so sarcastic, so negative, so sub-Tweet-y that our natural instinct is to expect the worst from each other. But when he realized, after a long couple of seconds, that I was genuine, he just smiled and squeaked out a barely audible “thank you, sir.”

Telling people what they mean to me, how proud I am of them, or how good they are at their jobs, has changed the way I the way I see the world and how I choose to lead.

When I watched my math interventionist instill confidence in struggling learners, I crafted an email on the spot that started with the line, “I love to watch you work.”

When I finished an observation in 4th grade, I made a beeline for the teacher, who was already beaming because her kids had crushed the lesson, and told her how insanely good the lesson was, tipping my administrative hand long before I submitted her scores.

When a 3rd grader forgot her homework, I let her back in the building and then marched over to the waiting car in which sat her mom and grandma, “Can I just tell you how much I love your daughter? She is constantly smiling, working hard, and being kind. You should be proud.” I can’t be sure, but I think mom teared up as she rolled the window back up.

But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop in my professional life.

My wife is beautiful and an uber talented fundraiser, so I tell her.

My son is ridiculously funny for a 5 year old, so I tell him.

My daughter is creative and empathetic and already a better person than me, so I tell her.

My brother has had a difficult life but is really trying, and I’m proud of him, so I tell him.

At first, shifting our consciousness from thinking it to saying it is intentional and uncomfortable. Eventually, however, it becomes ingrained, an expectation, an accepted invitation from the world to see it and say it.

So, see it. And say it.

#JurorWoes

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these amazing educators provide us a glimpse into their world, a world we all share as educators. 

Tina Olsen was the first person to convince me that everything would be okay. After news broke that I would be switching roles with her former (outstanding) principal, Tina wasted no time in texting me as the spokeswoman for our school. Her message was concise, clear, and wise beyond her years: This is a hard job. Please let me help you

And help me she has. Every day. That’s why I wasted no time in asking her to be the first #ColleagueCorner contributor and why her story, while so common, serves as a cautionary tale for leaders who may forget how good they have it when they work with people like Tina. 

__________________________________________________________

I saw them.

Those dreaded eight black letters staring back at me: JURY DUTY. Naturally, my first reaction was how could three years have passed so quickly. My next thought was convincing myself that it’s part of my official civic duty to serve. So, I put in for the substitute, and off I went to the Hall of Justice with a bag full of books that were never read.

What in the world does this have to do with education? Well, I’m getting there.

What I anticipated to be a one-day-I’ll-just-read-for-seven-hours sort of juror experience turned into quite the opposite. I was instantly called up and put in a pool to serve on a three-month long case. Immediately, the lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” popped into my head. How on earth could I leave my students for three months? I panic leaving them for a 30-minute special period let alone 90 consecutive days! The thought of not seeing my kids (yes they become your kids when you spend almost more time with them than their own parents) gave me a panic attack in my seat.

I was never forced to think about teaching coming to an absolute halt, especially one that was completely out of my control, and it was scary. Thoughts flooded my head: Who will replace me? How will my kids react to a new teacher? Will he or she undo all of the progress I made with my kids? How am I going to survive without seeing my colleagues-turned-closest-friends?

Even on the hardest days of teaching there is always something bright that shines through. If chosen, I would not see my kids learning, laughing, smiling, joking, and blossoming into the amazing people they are destined to be. There was NO WAY I could be picked for the trial; I had more impactful things to do in my own classroom.

Luckily, after what seemed like the longest two days of my life, I was officially dismissed from the case. The whole experience really forced me to put my career as an educator into perspective. I did miss my crazy classroom for those two days. I do love teaching, and sometimes I take for granted just how lucky I am to educate, nurture, and learn from my students every day. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked back into MY classroom, my sanctuary of chaos. Let the learning begin again!

Until the next summons…

Tina Olsen is a first grade teacher in Collingswood, NJ. She is also a K-12 graduate of the Collingswood School District. Following high school, Tina went to Stonehill College in Massachusetts, only to return to the beloved town where her academic journey started! She has her Masters in Special Education and one day hopes to obtain an academic supervisor or principal certification. She is currently studying to obtain her certification as a Group Fitness Instructor. Tina loves to bake, work out, and travel with her husband Ray.