He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.
Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.
“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”
At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.
“What? Why would you think that?” I began.
“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”
Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.
“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”
I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.
“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.
“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”
He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.
There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.
As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.
#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during 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.
Liz Follis and I have known each other for a long time. As a student during my first year in the classroom, she was precocious and hard working. As a friend since then, she has become an amazing educator and student advocate. I’m proud of who she has become and fortunate to have been invited along for the ride. In this piece, Liz reflects on her realization that going home doesn’t always mean being where we belong. Her experience is both triumphant and a cautionary tale.
Since I was 5 years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a teacher; I was going to teach kindergarten, and I was going to do it in my hometown. When I graduated from college, my hometown took me off the bench and put me up to bat as a designated hitter. I was given a maternity leave position, as a HS history teacher (not kindergarten, sigh), and I was determined to prove my worth.
Let me preface this story by saying that I am not a history teacher by trade. It was my worst subject in high school and college, but I was determined to give my students a better experience: more fulfilling, extremely relevant instruction when delivering my lessons. I studied up. I asked other teachers questions. I ingested the material with a newfound hunger.
Then the “Containment Policy” incident occurred. I taught the Policy of Containment to what I believed was the best of my ability, but I was greeted with a sea of blank stares. In response, I was blunt; I came out with it. Explain to me. What went wrong? Where is the disconnect?
A student raised her hand with trepidation. “Ms. F… what does containment mean?” Then the bell rang. I racked my brain. How can I make them understand, explain containment, and give them an experience they’ll never forget? The light bulb went on. I explained my idea to my fiancé at the time. He said, “Liz don’t do it. This is a bad idea.”
The ROGUE educator in me knew that meant this is EXACTLY what I should do. The next day, I came to school with all my supplies. I used my prep to get ready. Teachers passed by looking quizzically in my room. I was juiced! The bell rang, the kids came in, and I asked the students a simple question.
“What do you see before you?”
A student said, “A swimming pool!”
“You’re right! What’s in the pool?”
Another student said, hesitantly, “uhm water?”
“Great! You’re correct! The water in that pool is contained.”
The looks on the kids’ faces during this “aha moment” was amazing. I have that feeling bottled up for when I have a bad day.
The next moment is when I realized that maybe this district wasn’t ready for my ROGUE teaching. I asked my classroom of historians, “What happens when I lift up the pool?” The kids clearly saw that the water would go everywhere. So I did it, I modeled the concept, and that’s when the principal walked in. His face was aghast but that wasn’t going to stop this learning experience. I didn’t miss a beat. I continued, “So, now that we know what containment means, why was it so important for the war?” You should have seen the hands go up and heard the meaningful discussion to follow.
At the end of the period I was met simply with, “Ms. Follis please see me at the end of the day.”
I met with the principal and was given strict instructions: direct instruction, worksheets, and no deviations for the rest of my time there. The school district I once knew, the one that I thought was on the precipice of progressive instruction, had just capped my teaching. The educational system that helped mold me, served as an example for my own teaching, and challenged me to be the best version of myself did not support my teaching style. Looking back to those days, I continue to rationalize that I was revolutionary in my teaching; however, the stronger PLN I develop, the more people I meet, and the more schools I work in, the more I realize that going home, for me, would have been going backward.
I am hopeful that my alma mater, the place I will always love, will become rejuvenated like a Phoenix from the flames. I am hopeful that my nephews will have the same experiences I had as a student. Unfortunately, until they find stronger leadership that isn’t afraid to break past their own “containment policy,” teaching, and therefore learning, will be stifled.
Elizabeth Follis has been in the education field for twelve years. She is excited to start her fourth year in the Palmyra School District. Although she began her tenure in Palmyra as a middle school special education teacher, Elizabeth will begin a new position this fall as a teacher coach and is very excited for the possibilities that this new adventure will bring. Outside of the classroom, she is the head coach for both Fall/Winter Cheerleading and Girls’ Spring Track and Field.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during 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.
For our first installment, I turn the keys over to Elyse. Like so many of us, she has become reflective since her time in high school. Through age and experience, we often look back at who we were during those formative years with equal parts nostalgia and nausea. Her message speaks to appreciating from where we came, giving back to those who helped us along the way, and, ultimately, living our best life.
Now fourteen years out of high school and, like most people I know, I have regrets. I don’t regret nights when I stayed home to study instead of going out to party. I don’t regret working overtime to afford the down payment on my first home.
I regret not returning to Golden Slipper Camp, to the place that changed my life.
I was a camper and counselor, from the ages of 13 to 16, at the overnight charity camp in the Poconos. It was an amazing experience, and it left a mark on my soul that time can never erase.
I was a really awkward kid, was heavy, and was not very cool. So I got teased a ton, was really shy, and had no confidence. Golden Slipper changed everything for me. I found friends who loved me for who I was despite the ugly glasses and constant silliness. I came home a completely different kid.
During the summer between junior and senior year of high school, I decided to get a job near home to make more money, so I could buy a car. Camp didn’t pay enough, and I really wanted that green 1995 Ford Contour. What I didn’t realize is that job would be the first of many, all of which were chasing money that I thought I needed for whatever it was I thought I wanted at the time.
Now, years later, I have had to make hard decisions and huge sacrifices to get back to the camp that I love so deeply. I drive hundreds of miles each summer, splitting my time between camp and my full time nursing job. But I get to provide kids, who are just like I was, with an experience that shapes who they are and who they will become.
I would give anything to go back in time to spend more summers at camp. Looking back on it all, I’d be happy to make significantly less money to have spent more time at a camp where I felt such love and empathy. Sadly, I chose to put more value in money and material things than in people and relationships.
Whatever you do in this life, you need to do it for the right reasons. Go to summer camp, go on the road trip, take the vacation, see the band you love live in concert. But make sure the things you choose bring you joy. You don’t want to look back years from now, like I did, and think, “wow I wish I had done it differently.” You have the time now! You have the freedom now! You’ll never be so unencumbered as you are right now! So go out and find something that makes you insanely happy and throw yourself into it.
Elyse Realey is a 2004 graduate of Audubon High School. She is a critical care nurse in New Jersey.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Remember when we were kids and two of our favorite shows would surprise us with a crossover episode? You know the one.
Josie and the Pussycats help the gang from Scooby Doo solve a mystery.
Those silly kids from Beverly Hills 90210 found themselves caught up in the tempestuous lives of Melrose Place tenants.
Or when Family Guy and The Simpsons squared off in the courtroom over copyright laws.
We love when our favorite shows, which often take place in the same “universe,” team up for an episode because we feel like we’re in on something, like we’re part of something.
In November 2016, Seattle megaband, Temple of the Dog, played its only tour together: eight shows in five cities, beginning in Philadelphia. Combining members of grunge icons Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, the group recorded only one album, in 1991, in memory of their mutual friend, Andy Wood, the frontman for an earlier Seattle band, Mother Love Bone. Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, the ominous harbinger to the birth of what is now Pearl Jam.
But this crossover experience is just getting started.
The show was transcendent. Equal parts an escape from the present and a return to the past, the band’s frontman, Chris Cornell, who also fronted Seattle’s Soundgarden, was on fire. Though I had just seen Cornell live a couple years back as part of a solo tour, this was something different; he was something different. He evoked his friend Wood, he gave us chills, and he reminded us all what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s.
Six months later Cornell hanged himself after a show in Detroit.
When I reflect on what had to go right for me to be a part of that crossover experience, it is always sobered by what had to go wrong for Cornell to commit suicide months later.
A month earlier during his speech in honor of Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, David Letterman noted, “Never take the opportunity for live music for granted.” I didn’t miss my chance to see Cornell live, but if I had, I would never have gotten a chance to see him again.
In education, we get to see “live music” every day. Sometimes we are the conductor, sometimes we are the rhythm guitarist, and sometimes we are in the cheap seats just happy to be in the room.
We cannot take our role in the lives of our kids for granted. Furthermore, we cannot take our role in each other’s lives for granted.
Teachers: Go see colleagues teach. Co-teach with them. Guest teach for them. Get off campus and see other teachers work. Investigate powerful PLNs on Twitter like #4OCFpln, #ProDriven, or “Like a Pirate” groups like #tlap or #LEADLAP.
Leaders: Provide opportunities for your teachers to form their own crossover experiences. Offer to teach a lesson with or for them. Celebrate your teachers when they form megabands. Find more ways to say yes than to say no.
Ultimately, crossover experiences allow each other and our kids to see the same thing from a different perspective.
As I sat in the Tower Theater watching some of my favorite musicians on that November night, I knew all the words to all the songs, but they were somehow different, somehow better.
As our students sit in their classrooms and participate in a read aloud led by someone other than the lead teacher, they know what to expect and how to engage, but it is somehow different.