Many Problems, One Solution

#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

When I first met Mickey Welde, I had already heard about Mickey Welde, and between us, I wasn’t buying it. There’s no way, I convinced myself, this kid is that good. Sure he was uber positive, creative and energetic, and a born leader. But there had to be some smudge mark on this kid’s record, some glaring character flaw. Nope. When you read his piece, you’ll see how wrong I was.

I’m riding the train on my way home from work. The window to my right faces south. Beneath the bridge the tide flows north. In the distance I see the stadiums.

I appreciate this part of my commute. This short stretch over the Delaware River generates gratitude and wonder. A peaceful moment to ponder the questions, “What’s going on here? What’s the purpose? Where are we headed?”

I grow still. My thought process slows. I feel present.

We complete our pass over the bridge and go under the streets of Camden. This momentary experience of intense awareness reduces as the train stops at City Hall. Strangers enter through the opening doors.

A woman sits down in front of me and a dude stands in the aisle next to her. They’re having a conversation as they approach. I hear the dude say:

“Well now that I’ve given up on all my hopes and dreams I have a lot of free time.”

[Actually… let’s have you read that correctly.]

Here’s the dude, very gossipy:

“Well NOW… that I’ve given up on all my HOPES AND DREAMS… I have ALOOOOTTTTTTTTT of free time.”

Talk about a first impression.

He continues:

“College lied to me… College said I would make a difference in kid’s lives. And now… AND NOW!… Well… Now I believe it’s all a WASTE OF TIME! College was a waste of money! I wanted to be a teacher in the 80s90s… and early 2000s…PRETTY MUCH BEFORE I BECAME A TEACHER!”

It sounds like a story he tells often. I think about how painful it is to be around negativity. I put on headphones as the dude continues talking:

“He asked me… Where’s your word wall? And I’m like … MY WORD WALL! Where’s my word wall? I never once saw a word wall in high school! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE EXPECTS ME TO MAKE A WORD WALL!”

It feels like an in-person Facebook rant. I catch myself being impacted by the negative energy. I pick the first song I see, “Crack the Case” by Dawes.

The dude’s voice disappears. I watch the familiar sites go by. I feel relaxed.

Intense focus and presence re-enter my being.

There’s a lyric that says, “It’s really hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.”

When deciding to share this story I thought about you. Many of you are teachers, administrators, and leaders who deal with tough situations, undedicated students, and unnecessary word walls. We all have complicated lives.

No one on Earth knows your complete story. Just like I don’t know this dude on the train’s full story. This interaction doesn’t define the dude’s character; however, it gives us a glimpse into some pain he’s going through.

Life is difficult. If I had the chance again I would smile at him.

Teachers and counselors are on the front line of acclimating this world’s youth into society, which is a near impossible (but important) job. People depend on you to bring positivity into your teaching and to speak life into young people’s situations. Despite the resistance I know you’re up for the task.

However, for anyone considering “giving up on all your hopes and dreams” like the dude on the train, take a moment to step back and appreciate the position you’re in. Breathe.

If zero things are appealing to you about your job, that is okay!

Your potential students and I will appreciate it if you try a new career path.

[That’s a win-win for everyone!]

If teaching is no longer making you happy, it’s cool. Sorry you wasted money, but do something else that is fulfilling and motivates you every day.

No matter what field you’re in, you are constantly influencing the people around you. A person’s past interactions, relationships, or disputes do not matter today. Gratitude is contagious so find things that make you appreciate your life.

Everyone deserves your best moving forward, especially you. Be a teacher or mentor who spreads love and appreciation. Be a role model of compassion and kindness. Be grateful and find a way to inject positive outlooks into the lives around you.

Love.

———-

Mickey Welde lives in Mount Holly, NJ with his three favorite ladies — wife Julie, daughter Quinn, and cat Beefy. For the last five years he’s worked at the Curtis Institute of Music as Assistant Video Editor and Audio-Visual Arts Coordinator. Mick likes spending time outdoors appreciating this beautiful planet and documenting the mysteries of life. He serves as Production Team Leader at LHT Church in Lumberton, NJ and is a firm believer in spreading kindness. Go love everyone!

IG: @mickeywelde

Old School

The 2003 film Old School didn’t take long to cement itself in the pantheon of must-watch-whenever-it’s-on, quotable comedies. From its absurd plotline (three 40-something dudes decide to start a fraternity to offset their otherwise humdrum lives) to its ensemble cast featuring heavy hitters (Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) and clever cameos (Snoop, Warren G), Old School invites us to laugh both at and with it. 

I admit that I’ve fantasized about what it would be like to be back on a college campus (major networks have yet to accept my proposal for a “reality show” to this end), studying, partying, and dating like I did in the often wee hours of 1995-1998. I often have dreams about being back in college but invariably I am misplaced, lost, ill-equipped, or lonely in those dreams, my brain’s way of reminding me that I am, in fact, too old for school. 

But I’m not “old school.”

As our district embarks on meaningful, if not overdue, trauma informed care work, I am equal parts excited and panicked. I know our staff will embrace the philosophy and strategies covered in the trainings. But I also know there are countless people in education who will harrumph at TIC under the guise of being old school. 

I’m sorry, I’m old school. Everyone deserves consequences. 

These kids just need to suck it up. That’s what we did in our day. 

There was no such thing as trauma informed care when we were in school, and we turned out just fine. 

Sound familiar? 

Now picture thinking that in reference to a child whose in-and-out father once held him by the ankles over a balcony and threatened to drop him if he didn’t behave. Or to the kindergartner who spent the first sixty days of her life detoxing, in the dark, from her mother’s drug use. Try one on for size with a fifth grader who is routinely beaten by his mom while he cares for his three younger siblings and blind grandmother. 

Man, kids today are soft. Am I right?

I recognize that education, like most fields, operates as if on a pendulum. Stick around long enough and you’ll have seen it all; each initiative re-branded as something revolutionary and necessary. As such, I understand the implicit skepticism and exaggerated eye roll when the pendulum swings in a familiar direction. But in this case, we’re not talking about a math program or discipline policy. 

We’re talking about kids. 

Finally.

Want more leadership ideas? Pick up a copy of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame today!

Turning 21

The first time I turned 21, I felt like I was miscast in a coming-of-age film about a guy turning 21. With a late September birthday, my firsts were always linked to being last. All my friends—all of them—are older than me, so I sat on the sidelines, or in the passenger seat, while each of them drove, tried chewing tobacco, voted, and drank. So when I finally turned 21, my squad was already over it, the shine had worn off, and I was just a little brother finally allowed, legally, to tag along. 

I think that’s why turning 21 again is so meaningful. Again, there will be little pomp and circumstance, and, just like last time, few people will even care that it’s happening, but I’m proud to be 21 again. 

Because I’ve been in education for exactly half my life. 

21 separate plays with completely different story arcs, characters, and denouements.

21 years of “My bad” and “I’m glad I was your teacher” and “Welcome Back!”

21 first days and last days. 

21 chances to take chances. 

21 opportunities to provide opportunities. 

Of course, catching up to myself just means that while the starting line (21) will always be the same, I’ll move farther away from that line each year I remain doing what I love, until the part of my life that isn’t in education is dwarfed by the part that is. 

And I’ll drink to that. 

How old are you turning this year?

Release

I’ve made no secret about my borderline obsessive relationship with Seattle grunge gods, Pearl Jam. They’re referenced in my bio, they’re always on shuffle and repeat in my head, and they’re represented in my most recent tattoo. But my affinity isn’t about wanting to be Pearl Jam; it’s about how Pearl Jam is a part of me. 

When they exploded onto the scene in 1991, I, like most of the country, was awakening from a long 1980s malaise filled with hairbands and awful ballads. Music that didn’t really speak to me because I wasn’t ready for or interested in the following: (a) action tonight (b) cherry pie (c) Dr. Feelgood or (d) sugar being poured on me. Thankfully, the boys from Seattle showed up and served the scene notice. They’ll take it from here. 

The final song on their masterful debut album Ten, “Release,” has served as a mantra since I first heard it almost thirty years ago. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic drone takes listeners on a 9-minute journey through his bizarre, posthumous relationship with a father he didn’t think he had. Ultimately, Vedder pleads with his dead father to release him of the man he couldn’t be so Vedder can be the man he needs to be. 

Enduring a tempestuous relationship with my own father, albeit without the same level of confusion, made “Release” seem written for me.  Pearl Jam has this effect on a lot of listeners.

As educators, we have an innate need for control. Bound by bell schedules, state mandates, and rubrics (so many rubrics), we live in a perpetual state of oversight. In this way, control is often imposed on us, which sends our own need for control into hyper-drive. It’s a maniacal cycle. So break it.

As you prepare for the upcoming school year, do so with the idea of “release” in mind.

Release control of a read aloud to your kids. 

Release responsibility over your next PD to your teacher leaders. 

Release feedback on a writing piece instead of a grade. 

Release yourself from the noise of the notoriously negative 10%.

Release your first blog post or podcast episode.

Release your teacher leader so she can observe other leaders in your district. 

Release stress by unplugging and unwinding.

Release yourself from feelings of Edu-guilt over not doing enough, not being enough.

So much of our Edu-identity is made up of what we’re supposed to be. From crowded lecture halls to oddly spaced, platitude-heavy tweets, we’re told what and how to be as teachers and leaders. But it’s when we shed those cookie-cutter expectations, when we demystify prescribed formulas for greatness, and when we chart our own path that we can, like Vedder, release. 

Your Face!

C’mon, you remember using, or at least hearing, this odd non-sequitur in the throes of an argument when you were a kid.

Dude, you totally suck at guitar. 

Your face! 

Though it makes no sense in virtually any context other than dermatology, your face took on a powerful, full stop role in just about every schoolyard in America. Because there’s no retort, the recipient of the your face was left speechless, wondering just how he lost the upper hand. 

But your face, your actual face, is a leadership tool that cannot be undervalued. 

During a Level Up Leadership workshop with Dr. Joyce Jeuell’s ed leadership cohort at Chestnut Hill College this week, I was reminded of what our faces mean to our leadership. The group was discussing leadership in the midst of awful, unforeseen trauma, something each member of the cohort could speak to but only from a teacher perspective. A recent mishandled communication after the death of a staff member at one of her student’s schools led to the discussion during which Dr. Jeuell made clear the first line of leadership defense when the unexpected happens. 

How does your face look when things like this happen? It’s the first thing your staff will see, so what will yours look like?

As leaders, you’ll receive news for which you are unprepared.

You’ll sit with a domestic violence victim as she slides the TRO across your desk for you to put on file. You’ll hold the hand of a seven-year old who can’t process her parents’ divorce. You’ll spring into action when a staff member takes a tumble and is visibly disoriented. You’ll listen as an unstable parent lambastes you for all the world to hear. 

How will your face look?

While we may not be able to control contours, crow’s feet, and laugh lines, we can absolutely control how we use our faces to stem a rising tide. Whether we’re working with children or grown ups, our faces will tell them everything they need to know long before our words will. 

Use it to your advantage. 

Easier said than done? Not really. 

In any situation, there’s a fraction of a second during which your mind is processing what is happening. It’s the time between the pitcher throwing the ball and committing to your swing. It’s the moment when too-hot coffee touches your tongue. It’s the instant when the OBGYN asks if you’re ready to hear the gender. 

In each, and every, scenario your mind has a split-second to tell your face what to do next. Being mindful of that granule of sand slipping through the hourglass is all it takes to instill calmness, confidence, and control over any situation. 

Your leadership style? It’s written all over your face.

Thought About You

I was watching The Office, the one where Jim pretends to be Dwight, and totally thought of you. 

That Radiohead song “Idioteque” came on my Spotify, and I thought of your class. 

I was cleaning out my Inbox, and I came across an email you sent me when I first started here. I think I’ll keep it. 

There’s something particularly powerful about being thought of. 

Think about the last text, tweet, vox, or phone call you got that started with, “Hey, I was just _______ and thought of you.” You can fill in that blank with any mad-lib verb you want (unless it’s like, you know, creepy), and it won’t change the smile forming at the corners of your mouth. In fact, the reference really doesn’t matter as much as the sentiment and the person from whom it comes.

It’s the human connection. 

Twice in the last month I’ve spent time with former students, reaching as far back as the class of 2005, who have “thought of me” while working on writing projects. Now, as their former English teacher, there’s little mystery as to why each reached out: writing is my jam, and I published a book.

But, there’s far more to it than that. 

Being thought of is the result of a purposeful approach to the time we spend with other people. It happens when we personalize our instruction, our leadership, and our empathy, so that people around us feel something. They may not know it at the time, but such a human investment catalyzes later, causing people to associate the seemingly random with the distinctly specific: us.

Listen, I spend far too much time thinking about leadership and how to improve. But the focal point of such thought is always people, not practice.  It’s committing to restorative justice practices with a certain student or two in mind. It’s developing our master schedule with a team of teachers rather than absent of them. It’s creating leadership opportunities for teachers I know I will lose to other positions very soon. It’s considering the importance of #SEL4Adults as I build our PD schedule for the year. 

I can’t imagine living an anonymous life, especially one devoted to people. So when you have those fleeting flashes from your subconscious, when a passage from a book reminds you of your 7th grade teacher, when you begin to free associate your world with those with whom you’ve shared even the slightest human connection, tell them. 

Tell them you thought of them. 

Love Letter

Sometimes, during a move or a frenetic cleaning session, I’ll come across some of my old yearbooks, poetry, and undelivered love notes. Usually, I’ll read them quickly, marvel at where I was in life when I scribbled (not typed) such words, and then wash out the slightly acidic taste of angst and self absorption with a finely crafted Allagash White.

It’s an unhealthy cycle, indeed.

Now, as I approach my first ever 5th grade promotion with my first ever 5th grade students, I have worn out the backspace button, repeatedly closed the lid to my Chromebook, and played chicken with not writing a speech at all.

Maybe I should just wing it.

The thing about being a first year principal is you only get one shot with that graduating class. Following an incredibly talented predecessor is hard enough, but making a lasting, positive impression on this group of 5th graders in one academic year is nearly impossible.

But, we did it. Together.

We made up handshakes. We took selfies and tweeted them at celebs. We learned what the word “retarded” really means and why it’s not okay to use it perjoratively. We played Moss and 4-Square.

We were met with loss and how to manage grief. We were fans of Stranger Things and disagreed about the true rock gods of the 90s (spoiler: it’s Pearl Jam despite one of my friends always wearing his Nirvana shirt). We were super silly and super serious, each when the situation called for it.

We had “High, High  Hopes for a living” and we said goodbye and hello to a full time teacher in the same year. We won our district Track and Field Day, and we lost a little innocence in health class. We developed crushes and frenemies.

We graduate on June 19th, 2019.

Now, if I could only figure out what to write about in this dang speech.

Antic Disposition

Negotiating Our Professional and Personal Lives

Say what you want about my man Hamlet, but he was one talented actor.

The title character in what is widely regarded as Billy Shakespeare’s finest play, Hamlet is all in knots over a complex vengeance-love-incest-legacy-mortality-honor-also-a-ghost plotline that involves him sorting it all out.

Unsure who he is and who he is supposed to be, Hamlet pledges “to put an antic disposition on,” so no one is really sure if he is, in fact, bonkers. Like all good method actors, Hammie convinces both the audience and the characters that he is, like, really mad. Picture Christian Bale stopping at Starbucks for a Green Tea Frap before he heads home to catch up on laundry all while dressed and acting like Batman.

That’s Hamlet. All. The. Time.

Eventually, Hamlet’s madness, vengeance, and grief get the best of him, and really everyone in the play, and he dies after avenging his father’s death at the hands of his slimy uncle.  But the true mark of his brilliance is that we never know where the man ends and the actor begins.

As educators, we’re all Hamlet, at least a little bit, minus all the soliloquies and Oedipal Complex. Every day we are faced with negotiating who we are when we are with our students with who we are the rest of the time. It’s a complex and confusing dance not covered in any undergrad pre-service teaching text.

Nor should it be.

Though many of us may have dabbled as “Octopus #2” in The Little Mermaid Jr. or even shined as Sandy in Grease, we aren’t actors. We’re real people with real lives outside of our schools who have committed to a field in which we’re on a proverbial stage every day.

Aye, there’s the rub!

The most talented and transcendent teachers in our collective past and present aren’t those to whom we couldn’t connect because we couldn’t figure out who they were. Instead, we recall and reminisce about those teachers who were as authentic Monday morning during first period as they were when we bumped into them at the neighborhood Farmer’s Market. They shared who they were with us, they admitted their flaws, they told hilarious tales of self-effacing woe, they connected with us so we could connect with what they taught.

The same is true of leaders. While less on stage than those they mean to lead, Edu-leaders still have to commit to the part. On a delicate fulcrum, we have to commit to leading with authenticity the same way we taught with such an approach. Too formal and distant and we run the risk of alienating our staff as we sit aloft in our towers. Too fun-loving and accommodating and we run the risk of alienating ourselves as our staff runs its own show.

We are all who we are for myriad reasons, and while it’s highly unlikely that one of those reasons is our father was murdered by our uncle causing us to descend into madness, faux or genuine, the students and staff with whom we work deserve our authentic selves.

It’s up to us to be or not to be.

Year in Review

It’s been just over a year-and-a-half since I committed to a daily writing regiment, to a way of life that looked for reasons to instead of reasons not to. Soon after, thanks to Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) and my EduMatch family, my bucket list was reduced by one after my first book, Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame, hit the virtual shelves.

But it’s the blog, it’s always been the blog, that gets me up in the morning and that helps me see the world as part of an analogous spectrum on which all things education reside.

As we prepare to close out our academic year, I want to reflect on five pieces that resonated most with readers. Because I love barroom debates that start and end with “top 5 _____, go!”, that’s how I’ll frame this reverie. Below are the debut post and the most read, and shared, posts over the past year. Thanks to my readers for commenting, RTing, and connecting with the writing. You’ve all leveled up!

Number 5 : Not All Ivy Is Poison (May 31st, 2018)

This is the post that started it all. After five months of planning and writing, I decided to push “publish” on my writing career with this piece. I grew up in two houses with ivy prominent around each, so somewhere in my subconscious there, too, was ivy growing.

Number 4: Closed Door Policy ( March 11, 2019)

Faithful readers and friends alike know my unhealthy disdain for edu-catch phrases. So loathsome do I consider them that I devoted an entire piece to their faux-intellectual power to bore. “Closed Door Policy” is a result of that aversion and a promise that the person behind a closed door with me is my singular focus.

Number 3: Having A Catch (April 30, 2019)

I wish I never had to write this piece, and to be fair, I suppose I didn’t have to. But, then again, this not-so-subtle reminder to the collective state departments of education and our ineffectual Madam Secretary of Education is meant to cast a very large, football shaped shadow over that which we are told is important in education: test scores, attendance rates, data points. To one little boy and to one big boy, none of that matters.

Number 2: What I Forget (July 12, 2018)

Simpy put: this piece is a love letter to my former students. Having been out of the classroom for a full four years when it was written, I thought my kids deserved an homage. I miss my seniors deeply, but I am fortunate to call so many of them friends so remembering seemed more with them than without them.

Number 1: In Sum(mative) (May 30, 2019)

Look, man, I’m not naive. This post was aided by a kind endorsement from Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy ), but that’s just who she is. Still, folks had to click on the link in her RT to see what all the fuss was about. Summative evaluations either need a new PR firm to represent them or leaders willing to insert themselves into such conversations as part of a discussion, not a lecture.

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Because of Writing

I stared down at that page for what seemed like hours. I could read what was in front of me, but I just could not make sense of it. What came next was truly humiliating.

Mr. Kulak. Are you okay? I can ask someone else, came the squeaky, 7th grade voice.

I’m sorry. I think you should, came my defeated reply.

I slid the math worksheet back over to the study hall student who had just asked for help. His unanswered request for help hung in the air for a second and then disappeared. The next unanswered question was for whom that exchange was more uncomfortable.

Though I had long since resigned myself to the fact that my relationship with math had been one-sided, dysfunctional, and emasculating, I hadn’t been asked to face down such a demon in public for over twenty years.

Despite the research about growth mindset, grit, and resilience, I’m not a “math guy.” I’ve made peace with it. I’ve laid it to rest. I’ve moved on with my life.

Because of writing.

From poorly constructed tales of time travel and shape shifting to summative evaluation narratives, from love letters to welcome back emails, from birthday cards to #bekind thank you notes, I have been writing for over thirty years.

Make no mistake, the writing isn’t always polished. In fact, in many cases, it’s been downright cringeworthy. It’s been full of emotive gobbledygook, misplaced modifiers, and passive aggressive angst. It’s been unread, unresponded to, and unimpressive. It’s been crumpled up, moved to the trash folder, forwarded to the inbox of a superior.

But it’s also changed the shape my leadership. It’s changed my life.

The first communication I had with my wife was in writing.

I expressed my interest in joining a leadership team in writing.

I wrote love letters to my unborn daughter while we waited for her to join us in the world.

My family is notorious for the pride we take in what we write to each other in birthday cards.

When I left the classroom, a dear friend and mentor got me a gift, a pen-holding paper weight, inside of which she wrote on a yellow sticky note: Remember you are a writer.

My notes to staff, both formal and informal, are unique, personal, and thoughtful. Like each of them.

Too often when we consider our weaknesses, we do so without the inevitable yin to that yang.

The same is true for our students and for our teachers.