Skipping Along

It’s been a while since there’s been a new discovery.

In those early days, they come in waves: recognizing parents’ faces, playing with the dog’s tail, babbling full of gobbledygook. But, eventually, discoveries begin to spread themselves out, like points on a scatter plot.

So when my five-year old son began to skip as his preferred means of travel while on a weekend trip to Baltimore, I took notice. To that point, he hadn’t skipped once and hadn’t shown any interest in learning, but somewhere between the beginning of kindergarten and the winter holidays, he learned. And to his credit, there was no fanfare, no showing off, no all-too-typical, “Daddy, watch this!”

Dude just discovered he could skip and started skipping.

One of the truly magical parts of being in education is the two-way mirror through which we get to observe discovery. Though more prevalent in elementary school, our kids are perpetually discovering. For little ones, like my son, they discover a new skill, a new way to add, a new way to start a sentence, and a new way to communicate daily. For the older ones, discovery is both academic and personal. They’ll discover a love for music, an interest in the same sex, an eventual college major.

And we get to witness it all. It’s an immense responsibility, indeed. Because we are so often  privy to our students’ discoveries before their parents are, we need to celebrate with our kids. In fact, in too many cases, our kids have no one with whom to celebrate discovery, so it becomes paramount that we do.

Observe mindfully as a little one correctly spells a sight word. Then spell it with her.

Listen intently for the I did it in your classroom. Then celebrate it.

Watch closely for the wry smile during a moment of intense concentration. Then acknowledge it.

Accept graciously the Can I talk to you request. Then protect it.

Discovery happens more frequently and more rapidly than we can keep up with. It comes in small moments and on grand scales. It awakens in isolation, and it manifests over time. It invites an audience, and it prefers solemnity. It charts a path, and it provides a signpost for growth.

When was the last time you discovered?

Forgetting How to Smile

For an undetermined amount of time in my formative years, I simply forgot how to smile. And I don’t mean in the Hamlet “I have of late…lost all my mirth” kind of way. Sure, I was a surly teenager, but I didn’t forget how to smile because I forgot how to live, love, and be happy. In fact, if memory serves, I had plenty of reasons to smile from the ages of, say, 14-17, but for whatever reason, the muscles in my face required to execute a proper smile took an extended leave of absence.

Eventually, those same muscles came back to work around the time I graduated high school, but to have asked me to say “cheese” during that four-year stretch must have been a real doozy from the other side of the camera. Yikes.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, an awkward period during adolescence is about as familiar as the sun rising and setting. The manifestation of said awkwardness takes place on a spectrum that is roughly as long as Route 66, but like any long road, it eventually ends. I regained the ability to smile and order was restored to my universe.

While I will never be able to pinpoint why I forgot how to smile, I don’t regret that it happened. First, it gives me an easy go-to for self-effacing humor when I’m around people who lived through that time with me. Second, my kids love the pictures from that era. But most importantly, it reminds me that no matter how many times I have done something, voluntarily or otherwise, there’s always the possibility that I’ll forget how to do it. That I’ll lose my way. That I’ll have to take out a map even though I’m driving cross-country on a road without turns.

In education, we often forget how to smile. For some of us, that’s a very literal phenomenon during which our faces take on a very haggard, colorless look, matching how we feel on, say, Monday, February 5th at 730 am as first period begins. We just aren’t going to be smiling today. Perhaps our faces look this way because our spouse lost her job while sleep training our second child and waiting for a text from her mom to see how the cancer scan came out. Or, maybe our faces look this way because it’s the day after the Eagles first Super Bowl, and we just didn’t sleep well the night before.

Eventually, our faces will return to their regularly scheduled programs.

For others, forgetting how to smile isn’t literal at all, but it’s no less palpable or noticeable. Maybe we are churning out the same lesson on mitosis for the millionth time, but it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe we spend our day looking at the ticking clock more than the kids because we just don’t feel like being here anymore. Maybe we’re in a serious and prolonged crisis of confidence because we just can’t get through to that talented but largely unmotivated teacher.

Here’s the thing: without a strong sense of self-awareness, we wouldn’t even realize that we forgot how to smile. Now, in fairness, there was photo evidence of my transformation, for better or for worse. The best teachers and leaders I know don’t need photo evidence because they’re constantly reflecting on teaching, learning, and leadership. As such, if they did forget how to smile they would be wholly aware of it and take steps to retrain their faces to smile. Moreover, these folks don’t feel shame in the fact that they lost their way briefly because they know it’s only a pit stop, sometimes in the most necessary location on their journey.

Ask yourself, then, have you forgotten how to smile?

Unfinished Drinks

Leadership Is About Letting Go, Not Reeling In

They’re everywhere.

Menacing, mocking, unflinching. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They can spill, they can regenerate, they can infect, they can consume.

My house, nay my marriage, has been overrun by unfinished cans of liquid.

At first, it was charming. The idea that my wife didn’t like the final couple sips of a Coke Zero or a mango-cherry LaCroix was endearing. It was cute. Rolling my eyes lovingly, I’d scoop them up, dump them out, and shoot jumpers into the recycling can with them.

Then, I dared to ask why she didn’t just (a) finish the can (b) place it in the proper receptacle.  

The response was simple, almost rehearsed, as if she were expecting that line of questioning on advice of her counsel.

I don’t like the last couple sips. I do recycle them, just not as fast as you do it.

And that was it. She had both exposed my tendency to busy myself, all the time, and an age-old leadership faux pas known to befall even the greatest leaders: doing things my way.

All marriages are marked by such subtleties, and as an equal partner in the relationship, I, too, have foibles, which are no doubt maddening. The difference is they don’t bother my wife to the point at which she would ask me why. Why do I still play baseball eight months a year? Why do I always listen to 90s grunge? Why do I seem to clear my throat so often? For her, these aren’t unanswered questions hanging over our marriage like a cloud of confusion. For her, these are just parts of my personality she’s come to accept.

Speaking of acceptance, while I still may glower at each unfinished drink as if it had insulted me, I no longer ponder the reasons for its omnipresence in my house.

The irony is that my leadership style is nothing like my husband style. I don’t micromanage, I don’t psychoanalyze my staff, and I don’t flaunt a tattoo that says My way or the highway. In fact, leadership is full of unfinished cans left by countless people for countless reasons. To try to determine each’s origin, motivation, and purpose would undermine the fact that each has a unique origin, motivation, and purpose.

So rather than focusing on the part of the can that’s unfinished, that’s no longer useful, celebrate the rest of the can. Tap into all the wonderful things that your staff does daily. Shed the bombastic ego, which has no place in educational leadership in the first place, in favor of a thoughtful, collaborative approach that asks, “Can I recycle that can for you?” rather than “Why don’t you just recycle that can?”

We have far too much great work to do together to waste time and damage relationships on pettiness and ego.

For cripes sake, it’s only a can of water.

The Ones Who Get Away

#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.

Jess Turkot is an amazing teacher. So amazing, in fact, that I had the opportunity to present her with the Teacher of the Year Award in 2017. Maternal, kind, and reflective, Jess’s post speaks to a part of teaching about which we rarely talk: the ones who get away. If she had her way, she would save them all.


Sometimes the most powerful moments as a teacher are those when there is nothing we can do. The moments when we are forced, for one reason or another, to walk away. The moments when we straight up ugly cry after all our resources have been exhausted, and we’re simply left with a broken heart, pondering what could have been done differently.  

I have suffered through students dropping out when they were meant for much more, students who have been bullied to the point of self-harm, and others who have tried their best to overdose, but have thankfully been unsuccessful, after suffering bad days. These heartbreaking moments are the ones that have changed and defined me as a person, as a teacher, and that will stick with me forever.

My most recent heartbreak is still so fresh and raw that I cannot help but tear up each time I think of this child because of the painful knot it creates in my stomach.  He has become the one I wish I could bring home, the one I wish I could hug to take away all of his pain, the one who I wish others could empathize with because he is so much more than most people choose to see. However, he is also the one I am being forced to walk away from because state laws override my classroom, even though they can’t change what is held firmly in my heart.

This young boy has lived lifetimes in his twelve short years.  He has been rejected by his family, ridiculed by most of his peers, and has not been provided with useful supports throughout his education at the numerous schools he has attended.  You see, this boy, my heartbreak, has been in and out of seven foster homes, has spent many nights hungry, and has been robbed of the life his adopted siblings have been lucky to receive.

Where does he go from here?  

The answer: self-sabotage.  He makes it so that he cannot be hurt because he thinks ahead to cause his own pain.  He won’t allow anyone to hurt him again, so he decides to hurt himself because, he is convinced, that will solve his problem.  The only decision he can make is to do wrong, so this is exactly what he does.

As a teacher, how can I change this?  How can I make him see that he is worth the battle? How can I make him see what I see and prevent the pain he is bringing upon himself? I want to provide so much for him and to finally witness him receiving the love and happiness he deserves, but I will not because I cannot.  I am being forced to walk away as he is again being sent off to another foster home, a change of schools, and a huge amount of uncertainty.

This is my most recent heartbreak.  I will know there will be many more and that the powerful moments to come with them will remain a part of me forever.   

Jessica Turkot is a middle school Read 180 teacher in Collingswood, NJ.  As a graduate of Audubon High School class of 2001, Jessica enrolled in Rutgers University.  After college, she began her first teaching job in Collingswood as an elementary teacher and then transitioned to middle school where she discovered her true passion.  She is currently working to add to her portfolio a Master’s degree in Education with a Special Education certification from Saint Joseph’s University. At home she enjoys cheering on her three children, Autumn, Ariana, and Dylan, while they perform on the court or on stage and playing pickleball with her husband Paul.

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.

Writeaversary

Commit to Yourself, Not to the Calendar

I never subscribed to New Year’s Resolutions. To me, they seemed trite, tired, weak. If I want to do something, I just do it. An over-caffeinated news anchor turning a literal calendar to illustrate a figurative change doesn’t encourage me to hit the gym, to take a cooking class, or to experiment with origami.

So I can’t explain why, after 41 years, I chose to commit to a New Year’s Resolution on January 2nd, 2018. In my defense, there was no formal proclamation or motivational tweet.

I just decided to write every day. Then I did.

(Disclaimer: I did not write the day after the Eagles first-ever Super Bowl victory, and I took a much needed week-long break between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I suppose I’m at least a little phony. My apologies.)

As I reflect on the year since, two things are clear. First, traditional resolutions have a finite end: the following year. In this way, mine is more an intention than a resolution because I’m not going to stop. More importantly, I’m now a published author, a reality that only existed in a parallel universe before I committed to my intention.  

Whether I decided to write every day on January 1st or August 1st, the confluence of events that took place as a result would likely still have taken place. I would have met the same amazing people, I would have started a blog and written a book, I would have presented at conferences, and I would have written this post. What matters is that I committed to writing. I committed to myself.

There is something very special happening in education right now.  A growing contingent of folks who have pledged their own resolutions are lifting each other up, retweeting each other, writing and presenting together, and committing to growth and connection as a result of each other.

If you haven’t already, challenge yourself to your own resolution, intention, or promise. Disregard the calendar, mute the doubter in your head, allow yourself to fail forward, and create an anniversary in honor of yourself.

Miss Teaching

Do you have a second, Eddie?

I do, Miss Teaching.

I read your story last night, and I was truly impressed. I just wanted to tell you how proud of you I am. I hope you know that.

I do, Miss Teaching.


Do you promise to keep in touch when you graduate, Abby?

I always will, Miss Teaching.


I can tell that you’re hurting, Coleman. Do you want to talk about it?

I do, Miss Teaching.

And no matter what you tell me, you’ll always know that I care about you, right?

I know you do, Miss Teaching.


I’m very tired today, class. It’s been a year since I lost my husband, and I miss him terribly.

You’re allowed to, Miss Teaching.


Would you mind if I co-taught a lesson with you, Anna? I think it would be fun!

You can, Miss Teaching!


Okay, gang, this is a difficult concept and I want you to understand it.

You always do, Miss Teaching.

Tackling Impostor Syndrome

#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.

Megan DiGesare beat me to the punch. Since I became aware of Imposter Syndrome, it has helped explain so much of my life. Though I had a post on it ready to go, Megan skillfully and gracefully discusses the malady far better than I could have. She and I have stayed in touch, largely about books we love, and she recently reminded me that there was rarely a day that went by in my class during which we didn’t laugh. I’m thankful she chose to write this. 


I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” – Mike Myers

The Impostor Syndrome struggle is real. Not sure what I am talking about? Remember that time you nailed an amazing job interview, only to then doubt yourself, your qualifications, and your ability? Yep, that! That nagging feeling affects more people than you would imagine.

Why do we think we don’t deserve greatness?

Why do we champion the thought of empowerment, but fear being empowered?

I didn’t know what this feeling was called until recently. I didn’t even think there was a name for it. I just thought I was being too hard on myself.

I was recently offered a job through Linkedin. My current employer found me, sent me a message, and the next thing I knew I was sitting in an office interviewing for a position to which I didn’t even apply. I felt, as I walked out, that I nailed the interview. I was offered the job, accepted, and then this feeling of inadequacy crept up little by little.

It’s not that I think I haven’t accomplished anything, or that there isn’t anything I am proud of, but often times, I just don’t believe I got them on my own merits. My brain tells me that I succeeded because of someone I knew, some dumb luck, or a mistake. I feel like I am always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” The feelings, the thoughts, and the negative words – they directly affect how we feel about ourselves.

When we were younger, in school, we were told if we studied hard we could be anything. We did our homework, our projects, and our assignments and we felt accomplished when we got our grades back because we worked hard for them. We put in the time, the effort, and the literal blood, sweat, & tears.  But somewhere along the way we lost that sense of self-worth and attached a stigma to it.

I recently listened to a podcast about this very subject by former lawyer and current life coach, Kara Loewentheil J.D. called Unf*ck Your Brain. I have felt this way for a while but hearing her put it so plainly is when it actually clicked. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Basically, what I took from her podcast was the fact that we need to develop our mantra that tells us “We deserve to be where we are.”  We need to re-train our brain by starting every morning by realizing what we have done, how far we have come, and tell ourselves that it was our abilities, talents, and perseverance that got us here. By telling our brain that NOBODY else is responsible for where we are today, we can slowly start to believe ourselves.

I know I am not the only person who feels like this. It’s a subject that needs to be more openly discussed. It can happen to anyone, male or female, and research suggests that the more successful you are, the stronger the feeling becomes. So yes, of course we are waiting for someone to discover us, someone to yell “FRAUD” as we walk through the door, all the while knowing, deep down, that we do deserve to be here.

So let me leave you with this:

You are talented. You are worthy. You are supposed to be exactly where you are. Go for that next promotion, raise, or dream job with the mindset that you got there on YOUR OWN merits.

Megan DiGesare is an operations assistant for Hampshire Properties in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating from Audubon High School in 2005, Megan attended Rutgers University. After school she tried out a few different jobs before landing with a company where her “puzzle piece” fit. Aside from her 9-5, she is a social media manager for various clients. At home she enjoys cooking and hopes to one day write a cookbook. When she isn’t cooking (and posting the photos to Instagram) she is exploring the restaurants NYC has to offer.

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.

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.