Squish Yourself In or Squish Yourself Out

My five-year old is obsessed with slime. Truth be told, he’s obsessed with anything goopy, sloppy, messy, or mushy, but the advent of slime being sold as a “toy” has totally changed his worldview. Couple that with the fact that he can now make his own slime, and you can imagine what my house looks like on most days.

The thing about slime is once it’s been created, once it’s been played with, there’s really nothing parents can do with it. It’s not like there’s a specific container made for slime, and its malleability, while fun for kids, doesn’t lend itself to easy storage. Ultimately, parents are left trying to squish slime into something until it squishes itself out. What doesn’t make it in a container ends up in the trash or down the garbage disposal, never to be heard from again.


So much of teaching and leadership is, well, slimy. Teachers are asked to squish in as much content, assessment, social-emotional learning, professional development, activities, chaperoning, SGOs, and happy hours as they possibly can. Leaders are asked to squish in as many classroom visits, observations, professional development, meetings, parent refereeing, strategic planning, QSAC reviews, and emotional support as they can.

Eventually, something is going to squish out.

The trick, then, is to figure out, well in advance, what you’re willing to squish in and what you’re comfortable allowing to squish out. Determine how messy is too messy, when enough is enough, and when it’s time to put the slime down and slowly back away.

There may be no more amorphous a profession than education. Despite misguided narratives from on high and uninformed references to “summers off,” a life in public education is a life of, well, slime. Educators contort, flatten, absorb, repel, sparkle, maintain, camouflage, and adhere. Every. Single. Day.  

As you recharge and restore this summer, invite yourself to squish in as much as you want, and accept the reality that things will squish out.

There’s a brand new container of slime waiting for you in September.

 

A Race Worth Losing

Photo credit: Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman)

I first met Jayvon on a routine walkthrough of our self-contained MD classroom last year. As a fifth grader, he was shy but affable. Curious about who I was as I walked through and talked to his teacher and aides, but not so curious as to ask me any questions. For some reason, Jayvon stuck with me long after I left; less than a year later, I officially met him, and now he’ll stick with me forever.

While on a formal observation of our middle school Spanish teacher, Jayvon saw me across the room, walked right up to me, offered his hand, and introduced himself. As part of his program, Jayvon was encouraged to introduce himself to people with whom he wasn’t familiar.

“Nice to meet you, Jayvon! I remember you from Miss D’s class last year! I’m Mr. Kulak.”

At first I could tell he couldn’t process that I remembered him, and in full disclosure, I couldn’t explain how I remembered him either. But when he realized that we knew someone in common and that I was someone he could trust, he beamed with delight. After retreating to his desk to start his class, I caught him looking over and smiling a couple times.

Shortly thereafter, I made it a point to eat lunch with Jayvon. So on a random Tuesday, I made my way to the cafeteria and plopped myself down next to him as if invited. Again, it took him a second to process what was happening, but then he started chatting me up like I was an old friend, like I was supposed to be there. Maybe I was.

Eventually, we got around to his sneakers, which I complimented, to which he responded that he was also very fast.

“Not as fast as me!” I deadpanned.

“Oh yeah? Let’s race!” he challenged.

Just like that our “race of the century” was born. After months of preparation, we had our day and time chosen, but that was cancelled after an unplanned evacuation drill went on for over an hour. Undaunted, Jayvon’s teacher and I continued to find mutually convenient times, and on Wednesday, June 13th 2018, I raced Jayvon in front of hundreds of his classmates and our staff.

After video review, I conceded that I lost by a fraction of a second.

Sometimes all it takes to level up is to lose a race to an amazing kid who managed to run 40 yards while smiling widely from start to finish.

 

My Professional Mistakeume

Showcasing and Leveraging Mistakes

As a district leader, I spend hours interviewing, and truth be told, I really enjoy it. There’s something exciting about meeting people, seeing how they choose to present themselves, and listening to them respond to questions. However, I prefer to interview without a generic script and want to see how folks do when the questions aren’t from the Interviewing 101 Handbook.

One of my favorite strategies is to ask candidates to reflect on a particular mistake they made and how it affected a positive change in their instruction or leadership. Recently, I realized it’s something we all should do.

Level Up Leaders, I present to you my Mistakeume.


Brian Kulak

Anytown, NJ 08000

Leveluplead.com

(856) 555-1111


Objective

To identify and leverage my mistakes as a tool to facilitate professional growth

Leadership Mistake Experience                                        July 2014-Present 

November 2014

  • Provided departmental feedback on secondary literacy initiative to all supervisors 
  • Did not include literacy coach in that feedback
  • Coach told me I “cut her off at the knees”; she was right

February 2015

  • A teacher parked in my spot, so I emailed him and asked him not to
  • Realized it’s only a parking spot and maybe I shouldn’t be a petulant whiner

June 2015

  • Created Makerspace in our secondary library/media center and formed committee to plan launch
  • Forgot to include award-winning middle school tech-ed teacher, who was devastated

May 2016

  • Congratulated a candidate on being named to the position before she went on final interview
  • An hour later my superintendent asked me to sit in on that same interview, so I had to explain that I congratulated the candidate preemptively

September 2017

  • Decided to use department meetings as teacher led PLCs, called departmental PLCs, which had specific goals
  • Decided to use district in-service time as teacher led PLCs, which had different goals
  • No one had any idea what I was talking about when I said PLCs; mass confusion ensued

January-February 2018

  • Asked a supervisor and coach to plan a stress-relief PD activity for secondary staff
  • When they didn’t do it as quickly as I would have (but didn’t communicate a timeline to them), I jumped in and totally invalidated their work (which was excellent)

Special (Mistake) Skills

  • Speak very quickly and will often be difficult to understand
  • Perseverate on things I can’t change or of which I am not in control
  • Capable of wearing frustration on my face for the world to see

Clearly my mistakeume is incomplete. But the longer we keep our mistakes hidden, the longer we deny their existence, the longer it will take for us to grow as teachers and leaders. Rather, call out your mistakes by name. Give them their own space in your practice. Share them with your colleagues and staff. Use them to your advantage.

What is on your professional mistakeume?