Friendsy

It’s funny what the brain hears when it’s really only half listening.

The word, a common one, was frenzy.

But what I heard, and believed to be true, was friendsy.

Like many of you, my morning workouts aren’t complete without my earbuds providing the conduit to a Spotify 90s mix, the new National album, or pre-concert prep for, say, the upcoming Psychedelic Furs/James twinbill. But sometimes I’ll give the melodies a break and listen to whatever must-listen podcast to which I’ve been referred.

My wife, a gifted fundraiser for the Temple Lung Center in Philadelphia, recently discovered that podcasts are a thing, and now she’s obsessed to the point to which our two children’s eyelids aren’t yet closed at bedtime before she has her own earbuds in. As a result, she’s constantly sending podcast suggestions my way; oftentimes, she identifies some intersection of health care and education before making the recommendation.

WorkLife with Adam Grant represents such a cross-section, and only three episodes in, I’m already a better leader because of it. Grant, a wunderkind Wharton professor, writer, and organizational psychologist, expertly examines motivation, creativity, and organizational management in a way that is accessible to plebeians like me.

During an episode in which Grant visits the writers’ room at The Daily Show, he describes the experience with the word “frenzy.”

But for some reason, my brain heard the word “friendsy.” The misnomer didn’t even dawn on me until several seconds later because what we hear in the writers’ room sounds like a large group of friends throwing out jokes for that night’s episode. So I didn’t hear frenzy; rather, I heard friendsy.

So, why? Why did I hear a commonly used noun and mistake it for a colloquial slang term which doubles as a hookup app. Ultimately, the answer is simple: I immediately thought of my former students, staff, and colleagues whom I consider friends.

So much of who I am as a leader is rooted in relationships, and while I can certainly draw a line of demarcation between friendly and friends, I’m not turning down a lunch invitation from two amazing teachers who wanted to welcome me to my new role or a wedding invitation from a student I taught 18 years ago.

I’m not going to pass up the chance to send a hilarious meme to a teacher after she finds a swear word scrawled on the wall outside her classroom.

I’m absolutely going to support a colleague who is about to begin IVF treatments because, as she now knows, that’s how my wife and I were blessed with our daughter.

I can’t explain why my brain misheard such a common word, but I’m thankful that it did because it forced me to reflect on 20+ years of a career that may best be categorized as friendsy.

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.

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.


#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.

When The Pen Isn’t Mightier

#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

Kyle Phillippi is a far better writer than I’ll ever be. He’s also the stepbrother of my best friend, who was the best man in my wedding, and a former student to whom I aspired while his writing career was taking off. Still, like so many #formerstudentFriday posts, his path was all at once direct and winding, with a destination that is still unclear.


You know that cliche movie scene where the main character boards a train or a bus, grabs a window seat on an otherwise empty cabin and enters a deep, contemplating stare out into the distance? Oh, and it begins to rain while an overused song by The Fray plays over the background, don’t forget that part

That moment – sans ‘How to Save a Life’- was reality for me as I boarded a NJ Transit train in New York City at 1:30 a.m.

I had just finished my shift at the Major League Baseball media offices in Chelsea Market when I realized how close to the needle I was cutting it… I had approximately 15 minutes to travel about 15 blocks and catch the final train of the night to The Garden State.

Naturally, I flung my backpack over my shoulder, hustled down four flights of stairs and – seeing no taxi at initial glance – put my head down and entered a sprint.

Fast forward 15 minutes, I was the last passenger to board as the doors closed behind me. I found a quiet spot fittingly by a window, drenched in perspiration, and that’s where the aforementioned ‘a-ha’ ‘moment came about as a light drizzle lathered the sides of the train.

What was that moment?

It was time for me to change careers – to put aside my goal of becoming a national sports reporter – and to take my first step into adulthood.

From a young age, I knew what I wanted and knew what I enjoyed. That was writing for me, and specifically sports writing. I found success fairly early, mostly because I kicked down the door on any and all opportunities that I came across. I found my byline appearing everywhere from The Press of AC to Sports Illustrated from covering events like the Winter Classic to Philadelphia Eagles training camp.

Failure never was an option for me. Yet, a brief conversation with a professor of mine at Rowan University opened my eyes to something when she asked, “What’s your back-up plan?”

I stared blankly… navigating through my thoughts trying to grasp at something, only to come to a realization that I never had a back-up plan.

Like I said previously, I never considered failure. I’m not someone who prepares for the worst, I prefer taking things in strides. I told my professor just that, “I’ll cross that bridge if it ever comes up.”

Well — surprise — it did come up. Despite being featured in major newspapers and media outlets, none of them offered full-time status which meant no salary, no benefits, and no way of truly beginning my adulthood.

That was my bridge and I had two options: continue trudging through the up-and-down nature of a freelance journalist or veer of the road and find a new path.

I chose the latter, entering the business world, and now having been in it for over a year and a half, I can proudly say I made the right decision.

Don’t get me wrong, there still are moments where I wish I was still perched somewhere in a press box overlooking a Flyers-Penguins game or standing behind the net taking in the Phillies batting practice. I’ll always feel like I was born to be a writer, but sometimes — I’ve learned — there can be a second avenue.

I always wonder that had it not been for that conversation with my advisor as a freshman, would I have ever truly considered a back-up plan? It was in that moment in which the wheels spun ever so slightly on what life after journalism would be for me. While that previous career went on for a good five years after that encounter, I owe a lot of where I’m at today to that moment.

No matter where you’re at currently, things can change in a hurry. Whether it’s internally or from forces you can’t control, change is inevitable. How often do you ever hear of someone sticking with their first job out of college for life?


Never.

Writing is my passion — always will be — but I learned that sometimes a passion doesn’t always lead to a career, and that the best path of travel can sometimes be your back-up plan.

Kyle Phillippi has a BA in journalism from Rowan University. Prior to switching careers, he currently works as a Territory Manager at Swisher International, Kyle saw his byline across numerous publications. His sports writing path saw him make stops at Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, Major League Baseball, The Philadelphia Inquirer and various newspapers across New Jersey, including The Star-Ledger and NJ.com

Back (Pocket) Pain

I have the back of a man twice my age.

Despite being fanatical about my workouts, which take place immediately after I write each morning, following a daily stretching routine, practicing yoga, seeing a chiropractor, and getting massages, I am perpetually one false move away from lying prostrate on the floor with wicked spasms. For close to twenty years, this has been my norm.

Likely due to an unholy combination of poor genetics and years of athletics, my back is just a liability.  As a result, I have to spend significant time strengthening my core and reminding myself to get up and go for a walk if I feel myself sitting for too long. However, even as mindful as I have become, I simply can’t think of everything. Sometimes I need a little help.

A routine trip to my chiropractor, Shane, and a fairly common question led to a lifestyle breakthrough.

Do you keep your wallet in your back pocket?”

I mean what man doesn’t keep his wallet in his back pocket, accessible at a moment’s notice? Though relatively thin (we’re not talking about a George Costanza sized wallet here), my wallet did reside in my back right pocket for as long as I could remember. For just as long, I didn’t think once about it being there or about the way it could affect my back. Frankly, it was like an appendage.

The day Shane asked me about my wallet was its last as a resident of my pants. Rather, my wallet is rarely in the same place for long: in my car, in my briefcase, in the inner pocket of a blazer. In fact, when I do slip it in my back pocket absentmindedly, it isn’t there for a full minute before I quickly remove it.

For years, I was carrying around this equilibrium time bomb in my pocket, so I had to wonder, what else am I carrying around just waiting to wreak havoc on my otherwise healthy existence?

I would argue there isn’t a profession in which its members internalize, empathize, and reflect more than education. Whether it’s the high after teaching an amazing lesson, the dread of an uncomfortable post-observation conference, or the worry over a marked difference in the personality of a ten-year old, we carry with us the weight of everything that happens in our day. Frankly, our back pockets don’t have room for much else.

Yet that’s what draws us to education. We are people who have always liked school, have, for the most part, done well in school, have always liked working with kids, and have had some positive association in our own education which led us back to the field as professionals. The curse, as it were, is that we can’t just remove who we are from our back pocket when our profession gets difficult, like it is right now.

We can, however, look to shed something, anything, that is weighing us down.

Maybe it’s the lack of confidence akin to being a new teacher.

Maybe it’s the toxicity of a particular presence in the faculty lounge.

Maybe it’s the one-sided friendship from which we receive nothing.

Maybe it’s the convenience of using the same worksheet (blech) during the same lesson for the last twenty years.

Maybe it’s the self-doubt that so often plagues us as we do our best to do our best.

Ask yourself, then, what do you carry in your back pocket that needs to be shed?

Three Assists

Cultivating a Culture of We

On that day, I saw things happen long before everyone else did. I was operating on a different level, and although it didn’t happen often, when it did, man it was sweet.

It didn’t take me, or my parents, long to recognize that sports were going to be a major part of my life. By 6 or 7, I knew that I loved to play anything that involved a ball or puck; by 8 or 9, I knew that I was pretty good; by 13, I was a twelve-month, three-sport athlete. At 42, I still play baseball eight months a year, and I ain’t stopping unless my wife or a doctor tells me it’s time to hang ‘em up.

But this isn’t about athletic glory days. It’s about an indelible memory, with soccer as the backdrop, that has shaped my leadership philosophy.

Most athletes call it “the zone.” That fleeting but powerful expanse of time during which we simply cannot be stopped. It can manifest itself in any number of ways: a triple-double, a 12- strikeout shutout, a hat trick. Of course, the elite athletes live there while the rest of us only rent property at the far end of town a couple of times a year.

By halftime, we were up 3-0. All three goals were majestic, tic-tac-toe setups to three different scorers. I know because I was the player who set them up. As we huddled on the sideline, scarfing down orange wedges in between gulps of water, I uttered the question that led to this post.

32 years later.

Do I get credit for those three assists?

Though I can’t explain why I asked because I knew the answer, I can explain why this memory has stayed with me: the answer.

Well, the whole team does.

Our coach was the father of our best player, Shawn, who would go on to become one of the best player’s in our high school’s history. A stern, mustached, no-nonsense guy, Tom put me in my 10-year old place without humiliating me or making an example of me. He was right. I was on a team, we were up 3-0, and we were all responsible for the team’s success.

The exchange probably took five seconds. The impact is perpetual.

As the leader of an incredibly gifted staff, a perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful energy, I receive emails and calls of praise weekly. Sometimes those compliments are specific to a particular teacher or experience; sometimes they are broad and overarching. Each time, my response is the same.

Thank you so much. We have an amazing staff. I’ll make sure to share this with them.

And then I do share it with them. Whether through a forwarded email or quick, early morning conversation, I provide the assist to the person who should get the credit. Then, I shut up about it already.

During my first ever principal evaluation, I purposely steered the conversation back to my teachers. When my superintendent asked about our scores, I referred to our teachers’ work ethic. When he asked about my transition to principal, I referred to the handful of teachers who made a conscious decision to support me through overt kindness and well-timed advice. When we finished, I reminded him how fortunate I am to work with this group of teachers.

Right now, I’m back in that zone I talked about earlier. Only this time, I won’t be fishing for compliments or checking the stat sheet at the end of the game. I don’t need or deserve the credit.

The whole team does.