Be A Noticer

Our World Is Always Showing Us Something

I’m a noticer. I suppose there are worse things.

The imperceptible sound of a tissue hitting the bottom of a trash can. The expression your significant other makes when she is really concentrating. The way the drummer in your favorite band seems to smile throughout the entire set. The faraway gaze of a desperately lonely stranger.

It wasn’t until I read an article in the January-February 2019 issue of Experience Life magazine (“The World According to Highly Sensitive People”) that I realized that my penchant for being acutely tuned in to so much of what is happening, or not happening as it were, around me is one of five traits associated with being an HSP: Highly Sensitive Person. Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a part of my personality I lead with in conversation, I don’t have a business card with HSP emblazoned on it, and I don’t sit around at breweries with my buddies challenging them to notice along with me. In fact, the latter would likely get me punched or ostracized by my band of merry idiot friends.

But for years, and in an exaggerated sense as a principal, I was the “did you ever notice?” guy. Being met with blank stares after a comment about a doppelganger in our midst or polite nodding at an assertion that the couple across the restaurant must be on a first date because of their body language hasn’t stopped me from noticing.

It’s like being in The Truman Show only in reverse.

But a funny thing happened after I made peace with my HSP, in itself an ominous acronym in the wrong hands.

I became proud of it.

The article’s writer, Jessie Sholl (@jessie_sholl), notes, “(HSP) awareness of subtleties is useful in a number of ways, from simple pleasure in life to strategizing our responses based on others’ nonverbal cues.” Without question, working with elementary students is firmly rooted in nonverbal cues. From a hastily plucked eyebrow to subtly wringing hands, our kids tell us so much without uttering a word. Similarly, when a typically bubbly teacher seems perpetually distracted or a never-miss secretary makes several avoidable errors, being an HSP is a saving grace, not an albatross.

Because of the way I see the world, I have been able to forge relationships based on simple things I noticed about my students or colleagues. A bold new haircut, a fresh pair of sneakers, or a shiny unicorn headband each becomes a gateway to a conversation. An unusual quiet, pep in a step, or sparkly adornment to a particular finger each provides passage into a relationship. A stolen glance, subtle fist pound, or playful nod at an inside joke each allows for a deeper understanding of how the people around me work with, play with, and love each other.

So while I may be the source of eye-rolls at yet another, “You ever notice that Christian Bale looks exactly like the Dodgers pitcher Homer Bailey?” reference (side note: it’s true.), insignificant nuggets of nothing like that in my personal life are offset by, “Hey, is everything alright. I’m here for you,” in my professional life.

And, look, if the former causes a black eye, I’ll just ask the latter not to notice.

Perfect Strangers

Because We All Need A Cousin Larry

I am Balki Bartokomous.

Fans of 80s pop culture will remember, with mixed reviews, the off-beat comedy series Perfect Strangers, which featured everything we’d come to expect from a primetime, major network sitcom : fish-out-of-water storylines, an immediately recognizable catch phrase (“Now we do the dance of joy”), and a laugh track. For the uninitiated, the show’s two main characters, Larry and Balki, are previously unaware distant cousins, the latter hailing from a fictional Greek island called Mypos. When Balki arrives in Chicago to live with “cousin Larry,” they duo engages in all kinds of zany hijinks, tomfoolery, and skullduggery.

Ultimately, the cousins learn as much about themselves as they do about each other. Through Larry, Balki begins to assimilate to American culture; through Balki, Larry learns to level out his own neuroses and live a little. While the sitcom wasn’t hoarding Emmys, it does remind us of the power of relationships, even if those relationships are formed in the most unlikely of ways.


I first reached out to Rich Czyz in November of 2017. At that point, I hadn’t committed to my current writing schedule, hadn’t started a blog, and hadn’t a clue about how to publish. But I had just finished his book, The Four O’Clock Faculty: A Rogue Guide To Revolutionizing Professional Development, and knew that he, too, was in New Jersey. So, without much of a plan in mind, I emailed him. 

Because I am Balki Bartokomous, and Rich is my cousin Larry.

We met on a cold January afternoon, and like Balki, I had countless questions.

Did you self-publish?

What is your writing schedule?

How do you balance your writing with your day job?

Did you have to hire an editor?

The list went on and on, as did our meeting, which clocked in at well over 90 minutes. Not once did Rich glaze over at my incessant questions. Never did his secretary pop in with a previously fabricated excuse to get this stranger out of his office. His patience was remarkable. His advice was sage. And he did it all because he’s the kind of person who would do it all.

In the year since that original request for a meeting, I’ve blown up Rich’s Voxer far too much, I tag him on all my blog posts, and I’ve marveled, from a virtual distance, at the success of his book, blog, and career. So when the time came for me to consider someone to write the foreword for my debut book, I thought immediately of my cousin Larry. In typical Rich form, he accepted despite what I can only assume is a barrage of similar requests from people all over the country.

A year ago, I had no idea who Rich Czyz was. Now, his words will be forever linked with a book I was never sure I would write until he convinced me that I could.

We are blessed, in this life of education, to meet and connect with people over whom we can have a profound influence, in whom we can see and foster greatness, and from whom we can learn about ourselves. There’s no shortage of #relationshipsmatter posts, memes, and TED talks from which we can draw inspiration, but without the requisite reflection on our own relationships, however they may form, such inspiration is second-hand, once removed.

I challenge you to find your cousin Larry, and if you are fortunate enough to become someone else’s cousin Larry, accept your Balkis with patience and humanity.

Then, together, find a quiet place and do the dance of joy.

I Need Help

Learning How To Ask For Help 

One of my favorite shows of the 80s was the family dramedy Family Ties. From the theme song to the set design, I can remember so much of the show with pinpoint accuracy. Though I was young, I was taken by how the show could make me laugh and make me think. Never too silly  or too heavy-handed, Family Ties was simply a well written, well acted show in an television era that featured Alf and Small Wonder.

Led by star-in-the-making Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, the cast was often supported by guest stars, many of whom were unknowns at the time but who would go on to boast big time Hollywood careers. In fact, one such guest star has had a touch more that moderate success on the silver screen: Tom Hanks.

Before Splash, Big, and Forrest Gump, Hanks was Alex’s Uncle Ned, a once prominent executive who had a devastating fall from grace thanks to his alcohol addiction. Though he only appeared in a couple of episodes, one such episode (“Say Uncle”) has stayed with me some 35 years later.

Fox and Hanks perform a brilliant dance during this scene in which they blend zingers with painful revelation. Immediately, I associated Uncle Ned with my own grandfather, a loving, thoughtful man capable of providing great joy. When he wasn’t drinking. Like Uncle Ned, my grandfather, affectionately named Barney (I was his Fred), had things in his life he wasn’t capable of working through without alcohol. He just needed help.

That’s the point, though. We all need help.

I’d like to think that I would have arrived at this conclusion without the help of a television show, but I do know that seeing someone else, though fictional, grapple with real-life problems helped me plan for how to handle my own.

As a young teacher, I was woefully in need of help. All the time. I may have hid it well from the masses, but those teachers who supported me during those early days know how often I came to them. Tired or frustrated, elated or contemplative, I went to my mentors with frightening regularity. Each time, they listened, offered advice or feedback, or, in some cases, bought me a much needed beer.

Now, as a still-new leader, I am borrowing from Uncle Ned and Barney, albeit minus the alcohol, all the time. I ask my teachers for help with everything from scheduling to decorating. I ask my secretary for help with everything from fire drills to purchase orders. I ask my leadership mentors for help with everything from discipline issues to parent communication.

Despite my all-too-comfortable approach to asking for help, I do understand the plight of Uncle Ned and Barney. At what point do we finally admit we need help? How much have we tried to take on ourselves before asking for help? It’s a delicate fulcrum, indeed, but in order to lead with empathy and grace, we have to recognize and accept our own limitations.

We need to ask for help.

 

Formal Wear Friday

Adults: The Kids Have a Lovely Seat For You in The Back

The idea was so simple, so unadulterated, so fun. But then the adults got their hands on it.

Formal Wear Friday was the brainchild of one of my all-time favorite students, Conner. He and his sister Kaitlin are the kind of kids who were ready to be finished with high school long before they got to me during their respective senior years. Witty, worldly, and wise, they each saw the world for all it could be and took steps to make it better on their terms. I’m grateful to have had time with them.

Conner, an accomplished musician and natural leader, thought it would be cool if people dressed up on Fridays, and by dressed up, I mean dressed up. The thing about Conner is there was no pretense, so other than the fact that the idea was a well-kept secret from the staff, he didn’t concoct the plan to cause disruption or to see what he could get away with. Rather, he wanted the school to “look nice” on Fridays. A fun way to end the week and to facilitate kindness through compliments, Formal Wear Friday was an instant hit.

Until it wasn’t.

The first complaint came from a teacher: If he can lead something like this, who knows what he’s capable of.

What he’s capable of.

An absurd and exaggerated response to a notoriously “good kid” trying to leave a positive stamp on the school from which he was about to graduate turned into a veritable witch hunt.

As adults started to pile on, the principal got involved and pulled the plug on FWF. Conner came to me full of frustration and disappointment. I couldn’t explain or rationalize the administration’s decision because I didn’t believe in it, and I wasn’t giving Conner a corporate line. This made no sense, and he had every right to be upset.

By this point, I had a foot out the door of my alma mater, the school I loved so much. As education’s pendulum started swinging in a progressive, student-centered direction, my school remained obstinate, staunchly refusing to accept its inevitable arc.

Ultimately, I have Conner, and his sister, to thank for my leadership style. Creating a culture of “yes, if” rather than of “no, because” really isn’t that hard. Formal Wear Friday could have been so much more if the adults got out of the way and allowed the kids to lead. It could have been a charity drive whereby students who chose to dress up paid a nominal fee, the proceeds of which could have gone to a local animal or homeless shelter. A calendar could have been created to be sold to parents at graduation. A cheesy music video full of tuxedo-and-gown-wearing students could have been posted to the school’s website. But none of these things happened.

Now, I am fortunate to work with a staff that is constantly asking, “Can I?” In a recent post, I paid homage to A Tribe Called Quest and to the countless people in my professional life, like Conner, who are willing to ask, to try, and to risk to move our building forward for our kids.

What Conner doesn’t know is I currently have a fourth grader, whom we’ll call Layne, who routinely wears a tuxedo to school because he feels like it.

Man, I wonder what he’s capable of.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

#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

Dylan Tracey’s story is not all that uncommon. Boy has goal. Boy pursues goal. Boy alters goal. Boy pursues that goal. Boy learns about himself in a way that may have been the goal all along.  A reflective, intelligent empath, Dylan’s story made me think, “Yup. I can totally see Dylan being great at that.” Thanks for sharing, Dylan!


Living abroad and teaching English in Vietnam was never something I envisioned for my future. I have always had a passion for traveling and becoming a teacher was my goal at the start of college, but for the longest time it never occurred to me that those two things could coexist in one career.

Unfortunately, Rutgers-New Brunswick did not have an actual education major, so I ended up graduating with only my English degree, making finding a decent teaching job in the U.S more difficult.

That’s when a friend told me about how he was moving to Vietnam.

It took some time after I graduated to make it to Vietnam. I was poor from being a college student for so long, there was what seemed like an endless amount of paperwork to be done, and I had to earn my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages) certification in order to teach overseas.  I decided to earn my TESOL in Asia as opposed to doing it online, because most programs include required teaching practice , which I felt I desperately needed.

The program I was certified though was located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I lived and studied for three weeks while teaching in an orphanage. I won’t lie to you; it was rough. Phnom Penh is far from a “tourist destination” and there were times I was convinced the company I paid for was just one giant scam. Thankfully I left Cambodia with both my TESOL and my sanity, and headed off to Vietnam.

When I had finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a similar feeling to being in Times Square for the first time. I got off the bus, bright-eyed and eager to make the city my own. This was also the first time I was completely independent from my parents and the feeling of “sink or swim” was hanging heavy. “Adulting,” as my generation likes to call it, is hard enough, but add living 8000 miles away from home and a severe language barrier makes it even more of a challenge.

However, things like finding an apartment, landing a job, and learning the “lay of the land” was all that much more of an accomplishment with all the extra hoops I had to jump through. It was exhilarating in a way, making my way through a world that was completely foreign to your own. At first Vietnam felt like another planet, but after a while I really began to settle in and feel like I truly belonged there.

I will never forget how nervous I was walking into my first class as the teacher. It was a room full of teenagers who I felt weren’t much younger than me. I asked one of the students if there would be a TA, and he replied “No teacher, we are a teenager class, we don’t need a TA,” and in my head I thought “…well I do!” Nonetheless, like most teachers, I survived my first class and each became easier as time went on. It felt like I was learning more than I was teaching at times. Each mistake was a lesson, every class was more experience, and it seemed like I never stopped learning something new to improve my teaching.

The best advice I could give to someone is to go out and see the world. Go on an adventure, get motivated, be inspired, figure out who you are before you dedicate yourself to a certain path. Now that I am back home, I am finding myself back where a lot of people are when they first graduate college. I have a lot of options in front of me in terms of what I want to do next with my life and going forward I know I will be grateful for the experience I gained in Vietnam. My time there taught me a lot about myself, about what my strengths and weaknesses are, about what’s important to me, and about how to be independent. I’ve found there’s a certain confidence that comes with being a teacher and leading a classroom and that has definitely translated into other aspects of my life. I am still searching for what will be my next career, but am certain what I’ve learned thanks to teaching ESL and living in Vietnam will help me find it.

Dylan Tracey is a 2015 graduate of Rutgers University and currently teaches English for VIPKids, working online with students in China.  He earned his TESOL certification in Cambodia and spent nearly two years teaching in Vietnam, where he was named Teacher of the Year in 2017.  While living in Asia, he also visited Thailand and the Philippines. In addition to his teaching, Dylan spent the past summer at the Jersey shore and is looking forward to exploring new opportunities in Indianapolis, at the beginning of next year.

Maybe It’s Only Us

Looking Inside to Make Sense of What’s Outside

One of my favorite literary characters of all time may surprise you.

Sage and sacrificial, Lord of the Flies Simon has always fascinated me. His role in William Golding’s transcendent novel is brief, his dialogue is terse and wise-beyond-his-years, his death is swift and symbolic. Representative of the spiritual side of humanity, Simon understood the island and its horror long before the rest of the boys and was powerless to make them understand what was happening.

In one particular exchange with Piggy, the scientific yin to Simon’s spiritual yang, Simon delivers a line that has stayed with me, and served as a mantra, for twenty years.

Piggy: I know there isn’t no beast…but I know there isn’t no fear, either….Unless we get frightened of people.

Simon: Maybe there is a beast….maybe it’s only us.

As Piggy struggles to convince the paranoid crowd that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as a beast, Simon struggles just as mightily to communicate that the beast is in fact real; it’s just not what the boys think it is. Giving into their primal bloodlust, he opines, is the beast. Unfortunately, such a theory, though valid, is simply inaccessible to the rest of the boys, and shortly thereafter, Simon is proven correct when he is murdered by the very group he was unable to convince.

Without diving headlong too far down an analytical rabbit hole, suffice it to say that Simon’s prescient warning speaks volumes about our innate capacity for everything from fear to empathy. For some, that which is “only us” drives us to greatness, fosters our relationships, and strengthens our resolve. For others, it is because of what is “only us” that we cannot do or be more than we are.

Now consider what is “only us” for our staff and for our kids.

For so many of our kids, we are the only adults who they can look up to and whom they trust. 

For each other, we are our only internal support system. We prop each other up during those times when state test scores and bureaucratic mandates cut us off at the knees.  

For ourselves, we are the only ones who can truly experience the elation of a positive connection with one student or the utter desperation marked by the inability to reach another.

Regardless of how we associate with Simon’s warning, placing the emphasis on the word only or on the word us, we need to accept that there is, in fact, something inside each of us that led us to this profession, that keeps us here year after year.

Maybe that “thing” changes over time. Maybe that “thing” is the only constant in a life full of variables. Maybe that “thing” isn’t all that hard to express after all.

Maybe it’s only us.

 

What Can You Make Out Of This?

Sharing Yourself To Lead Others

I have the 1980 disaster film spoof Airplane! to thank for shaping my personality as a teacher and leader. In conversations about earliest memories, my mind always flashes to the time this silly comedy made my stoic, Polish father cry with the kind of unabashed, uncontrollable laughter I would only see a handful of times in my life. It was a watershed moment for my childhood, and while it might only be a blip on my collective experience radar, I’m so thankful that it’s there.

Squished on a very old couch, I remember laying with my dad, but not head-to-head. I liked to pretend I was just as tall by scooching down so my feet were adjacent to his. It was a silly life hack, but that’s just the kind of thing little-boy-me would do.

In the film, an effeminate air traffic controller named Johnny (Steven Stucker) makes several rare but scene-stealing appearances. To this day, he’s one of my favorite cinematic characters. At one point,  Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is handed a weather bulletin. After studying it for a second, he begins the exchange that reduced my father to tears.

McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat, a brooch, or a pterodactyl.

And that was it. The scene spans eleven seconds (I checked), and if you look closely, you can see Stucker grin at his own brilliance. But those eleven seconds were all my brain needed to process that seeing my dad laugh-cry was proof that underneath the unflappable facade, he was human. He was capable of great joy and sadness. He just preferred to keep it to himself.

Former students will tell you that I often shared, probably too much, about my life. To me, being as human as possible was the only way to convince teenagers that what I was teaching them was actually relevant, meaningful, and useful. Instruction was often interrupted by a tangential anecdote or a whimsical memory. I was convinced that if I could make them laugh with me, even at me, it would strengthen our connection and motivate them to do great things. I’d like to think that #formerstudentFriday is proof that it worked.

As a leader, I don’t shy away from the same kind of genuine honesty and self-effacing humor that I used in the classroom. People know, for instance, that my daughter is an IVF baby. They know that I still play baseball eight months a year. They know that I have wicked Imposter Syndrome. They know that my wife and I were set up, despite living in different parts of the country, by her cousin, who was a student in my class at the time.

My failures and hang ups are all on full display. Faithful readers of this blog will remember my Mistakeume, a detailed list of mistakes I’ve made in the first several years of my leadership, which I shared with our staff in my first-ever welcome back letter last summer.  I won’t hold back laughter or tears, and I certainly won’t ask that of my staff. It’s only one leadership style, but it’s mine.

I am convinced that experiencing my dad’s laughing fit with him made me wholly aware, even back then, that we are who we are for a lot of reasons, so it’s up to us to share ourselves, warts and all, with the people we mean to lead.

 

 

Compliment Conundrum

When Complimenting Your Staff Becomes the Norm 

The first time is always met with equal parts shock and delight, a spontaneous combination of reddened cheeks and raised eyebrows. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before; it’s not that it’s disingenuous.

It’s that it’s unexpected.

My name is Brian, and I’m a complimenter. (Choral ResponseHi, Brian!)

The irony of this leadership trait is that I put people in positions with which I am very uncomfortable when in reverse. As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of compliments. Never quite sure if I should thank the complimenter, always a bit skeptical that the compliment was paid as part of some adult handbook on how to relate to kids. As an adult and professional, I recognize that many of us can go for long stretches without anyone telling us something positive about ourselves. And that’s not to say that the older we get the less there is to compliment.

We just choose to stop doing it.

So I’m choosing the opposite.

While putting together the agenda for our most recent staff meeting, I decided to write in a segment called “Triumphs and Tribulations,” which I borrowed from my leadership mentorship program. Essentially, it would act as a prescribed time, at the end of the meeting, during which we would celebrate each other or ask for help, out loud. When the time came to introduce the idea, I explained that I didn’t expect anyone to actually contribute today but that I would go first to model the activity. I spoke about my amazing secretary, Cecilia. Underpaid and overworked, she is one of the kindest, skilled people I know, and because I’ve never worked with a secretary before, I thought it was imperative that she be the first person complimented in front of our staff.

When I finished, I started to say something about how next month we could start the tradition. However, I was interrupted by a teacher who said, “Wait, can we just..” and then she started to applaud. Then we all applauded.

Then the compliments poured out. Each followed by a chorus of, you guessed it, applause.

Thank you, _____. Not only have you provided me academic support in math but you’ve taught lessons! I don’t know what I would do without you.

Yeah, Fundations has been fun to teach, but I struggle. ______ has gone way above and beyond to help me.

I love my (grade level) partner. We are so in sync and constantly bounce ideas off each other.

I know this isn’t a revolutionary idea that will land our staff in educational journals for years to come. Still, there’s a profound difference between knowing something exists and making it your own. For just a few minutes at the end of a staff meeting, we shed the red tape, put away the agenda, and celebrated each other.

And we solved the compliment conundrum.

 

Revisionist History

#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 is a particularly special installment.

Garrett Kampf checks several boxes. He’s brilliant, self-aware, civic, and, in full disclosure, my cousin-in-law. Garrett’s mother, Carol, introduced me to her niece, Allison, some thirteen years ago; shortly thereafter, Allison and I were married, and Garrett, and his sister Jackie, went from former students to current family.  Garrett’s piece, like the David Foster Wallace passage that precedes it, is raw and unabashed. My man has come full-circle personally and professionally, and he’s only 27.


The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

-David Foster Wallace, This is Water

I left Rutgers University on fire, determined to tear down systems that I spent the previous four years critiquing.  Accordingly, I set out for Kansas City as a 2013 Teach for America corps member. At best, I was taking part in a movement that would radically expand meaningful educational opportunities to all students regardless of race or class.  At worst, I was motivated by fear to prevent my experience from being reduced to stereotype: the white savior complex. Some probably pejoratively viewed me a social justice warrior. Looking back, my idealism was naïve, but it was pure!

To some extent I feel like a fraud writing this piece.  I never intended to remain a teacher.  Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was always the dream. However, education and the criminal justice system for me have always been inexorably connected.  Failure in the former often leads to entry into the latter. This idea of meritocracy, unconscious but near universally worshipped in the American psyche, is built on the flawed premise that we are masters of our own destiny.  My success was largely contingent on socioeconomic factors entirely outside of my control. Similarly, the criminal justice system is contingent on a corollary principle that is equally flawed: judging human autonomy in a vacuum.  When determining one’s blameworthiness, it is inconvenient to take circumstance into account.

It would be charitable to say that my record as a teacher was mixed.  I was woefully ill-equipped for the job. But what I found invigorating about the profession was all of the many hats I would wear at any given moment: educator, counselor, confidant, advocate.  I learned quickly that I was never going to tear down a system that perpetuates inequality. My more measured approach was finding a way to validate the potential of at least some of my students and invest in them.  Sometimes it was as simple as listening to what was going on in their lives without judgment.

You see, it took a while for this to happen in my own life.  I was an aimless and apathetic high schooler until a 10th grade history teacher saw that I was worth something.  Once my potential was validated, he effectively extracted it.  This investment encouraged me to trudge my chosen career path. There’s something rudimentary human in all of this that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

I am now in my 3rd year of law school at the University of Oregon.  Whether you are a teacher or an attorney, you must work within the confines of the system, implicitly acknowledging the reality that no matter how hard you fight against it, the system isn’t going anywhere.  In many ways I have been forced to trade in my idealism for pragmatism. This isn’t meant to sound like some call for political quietism or surrendering to some nihilistic reality. It’s merely about humility in paying it forward: equipping others with purpose or treating others with dignity, the way it was done for me.  My life’s work as an aspiring public defender in the criminal justice system is fighting to prevent someone from being eaten alive by it.

My twenty-two-year-old self would be so disappointed in my tacit acceptance of the way things are rather than waging war for the way things ought to be. Put differently, I’m not sure how much of a large-scale difference I make. That doesn’t matter to me much anymore. By working in the pursuit of my own sense of purpose through helping others, my life has meaning.  Today, that surely is sufficient.

Garrett Kampf is a 2019 J.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon School of Law. He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2013 with a B.A. in Philosophy. He spent 2013-2015 teaching middle school English and Language Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Garrett lives in Eugene, Oregon where he enjoys exploring the state, playing golf, seeing live music, and quoting the Big Lebowski wherever possible.

Shopping Cart

Taking Risks and Getting Away With It

The plan was simple. The target was unwitting. The execution was flawless.

I stole a shopping cart in broad daylight and got away with it. This is both a confession and a blueprint. How often do you get to conspire with a low-level thief?

Spying the unattended, Shop-Rite cart resting haphazardly against a parking block, I knew it was time to make my move. Enlisting the aid of a driver (my wife) turned out to be paramount because the snatch and flee would have been far more difficult on my own.

Slowly, my wife backed our Jeep Patriot into position. Casually, I approached the cart as if to use it for a shopping trip, as if I were saving it from relative obscurity. Mightily, I lifted the cart into the trunk, the seats of which had already been folded down to maximize my time. Finally, I slammed the trunk shut, returned to the passenger seat, and gave my getaway driver a sly smile. We had done it. We had become the most pathetic Bonnie and Clyde knockoff ever, and it felt so good.


Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and its inclusion in my senior English class marked a shift in my career. Set against the backdrop of an unnamed apocalypse, the story follows two characters, named only the Man and the Boy, a father and son trying to “make it south” to survive. The bleakness of the landscape is matched only by the dearth of dialogue, marked by McCarthy’s refusal to use punctuation, and the lack of material possessions at the duo’s disposal. Essentially, they have a lone item.

A shopping cart.

Though I taught the novel to seniors, I knew they would struggle. McCarthy’s style is best described as functionally simple–as I mentioned he considers most punctuation a waste of time–but philosophically complex. After all, the end of the world tends to bring about some pretty heavy issues.

I wanted my students to experience the novel, not just read it, so I had to bring the novel’s desolation to them in a way that made sense. I couldn’t do that without the shopping cart, so I decided to risk my own freedom, and that of my accomplice, to do just that.

When the cart first appeared in my classroom, kids were understandably abuzz. Promising to explain more later, I deflected questions about why it was in my room and, more importantly, how I got it.

“I borrowed it,” was my preferred euphemism.

Finally, I shared the tale of the cart’s heist and its purpose in my room. My kids would consider their impending graduation as their “adolescent apocalypse” and contribute at least one item to the shopping cart with which they were not willing to part in the new world. Then, they had to present on that item to the class and field questions about its inclusion.  It worked like a charm.


So many teachers and leaders are skilled thieves. They know where to look to find great ideas, they recognize that in order to grow they have to beg, borrow, and steal, and they risk their own egos to bring their content to life.

Moreover, the word “risk” has risen to the top of the education cliche leaderboard, but it earned such status for a reason. There’s a distinct difference between telling our students about our content and showing it to them. Without risk, the latter is nearly impossible. SImilarly, as leaders, we constantly challenge our teachers to take risks, but how often do we model such risk? How often do we show our teachers that we are willing to fail forward as leaders?

Whether you’re stealing a shopping cart, presenting at an Edcamp for the first time, or pushing publish on your first-ever blog post, you are in complete control of the risk you are taking and need to be prepared to accept the reaction such risk brings.

After all, sometimes all it takes to level up is commiting a minor misdemeanor.