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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
#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 our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Jenn Floyd is an excellent teacher. Rather than play superlative roulette, I’ll just leave it at that. Her 2nd graders experience, rather than simply receive, education. From countless, creative ways to deliver content to well-timed, deeply personal random acts of kindness, Jenn is the foundation on which elementary schools are built. She’s also on her way to an educational leadership degree, so I’ll need to soak it up because she’ll be leading her own school very soon.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few months cynically rolling your eyes at celebrities’ “10 Year Challenge” photos as you scroll through your social media feed. Are we all going to just turn a blind eye to the amount of filters these pictures contain and reply with heart-eyed emojis instead? I’d much rather keep my “glory days” behind me, wrinkles under concealer, and roots under the occasional touch up of hair dye.
That is, until Read Across America Week this year.
Like any typical elementary school, the first week of March includes a sea of red and white striped top hats roaming through the building while celebrating Dr. Seuss’s work. Throughout the week, students and staff lined the halls for a school-wide reading hour, teachers swapped classrooms to read their favorite books, and parents brought in green eggs and ham – and my favorite French Toast casserole – during our renowned “Books and Breakfast” celebration. Points for crazy hats, wacky socks, and pajamas were tallied and tweeted as classrooms worked together to show their Seuss spirit.
During one particular event, high school students joined each elementary class to share their love of Seuss. As I welcomed the former students through the main entrance of our building, one familiar smile jumped out at me. As I showed him the way to my second grade classroom, I had an immediate flashback to a time during my student teaching practicum – 10 years ago.
Sitting in front of a group of second graders as a twenty-something practicum student was both nerve-racking and a dream come true. My cooperating teacher gave me my first task: class read aloud. Not bad, right? Each day after lunch, the students sat on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the day’s story.
My cooperating teacher taught me all of her read aloud tricks – including editing Junie B. Jones when her responses were a little too fresh and modifying character names when they were too much of a tongue twister. What I wasn’t prepared for was the slew of dinosaur names discussed in Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark. Needless to say, there were no strategies to avoid the words introduced in this book’s adventure.
Pteranodon has a silent p, right?
One day, as the students waited for the twists and turns that Jack and Annie would face during their journey, I found myself on an adventure of my own. Luckily, one student in particular was well versed in dinosaur and quickly came to my rescue like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park.
“It’s Ter-an-uh-don,” Noah stated, as I stumbled over the first few syllables. Surprised – and a bit relieved – I quietly acknowledged his help and continued on.
As you would expect, the Pteranodon was a main character in the story, and the word came up quite often. Each time I began mumbling the letters, he would quickly jump in. “Ter-an-uh-don,” he would repeat, time and time again.
Well-prepared questions and thoughtful conversations aside – this was the moment that stuck.
10 Years Later this high schooler was now the one sitting in the teacher’s seat with his favorite Dr. Seuss themed book in hand: The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That: All About Dinosaurs. After sharing his memory of me, in his second grade classroom, and his love for the species – that stemmed back to his childhood – he began to read. My students sat on the edge of their seats as he read every rhyme, displayed the colorful pictures, and shared the importance of the glossary in the back of the book. We then snapped a few pictures for Twitter and said our goodbyes.
This former student and the read aloud moment that stuck with me has inspired me to begin my own 10 Year Challenge:
Rather than getting bogged down by the next big thing in standardized testing or losing yourself in the endless piles to grade, spend the next 10 years focusing on those small moments within your classroom – and within your life – that will always make you smile.
The next 10 will be gone before you know it, and unlike the latest trends or pop culture icons, the meaningful moments can never be photoshopped.
Jenn Floyd (@floyd4edu) spends her days in second grade in Collingswood, NJ, where it’s cool to be kind. She has a Masters in Reading Specialist/Literacy Coach and is currently working toward a degree in School Administration at Rowan University. When she’s not counting words for her annual NaNoWriMo writing club, you can find Jenn, and her husband Zach, checking out the best local bookstores and ice cream shops that the east coast has to offer.
#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 our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Sarah Whitman is not a miserable cow. In fact, she is so effusively positive that she committed to a one-minute daily dance party, which she posts to her social media accounts, just to remind people that joy is a choice. An amazing middle school ELA teacher and aspiring school leader, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have her in mind when I came up with #ColleagueCorner. Boooooo the moooooooo.
Every year on the first day of school, I direct my students’ attention to a framed sign in the front of my classroom. The sign contains a single sentence:
Awesome things will happen today if you choose not to be a miserable cow.
I inform my students that this sentence will be our mantra for the year ahead (and then I explain what the heck a mantra is so they stop looking at me like I’m nuts). I then ask the students to tell me which word in our mantra is the most important.
Typically, a few over-eager students will immediately blurt out words.
Sometimes I’ll even get an enthusiastic cry of “things!”
But every year, there is at least one student who takes a few moments to reflect on each word in the sentence before ultimately uttering the one I’ve been waiting for:
Because the truth is, cliche as it may sound, our attitude is something we choose every day. And our students need us to choose well.
I know that my students are watching me even when I’m not officially “teaching,” and that they can learn much by watching me repeatedly choose happiness, choose kindness, and choose integrity.
I know that my attitude in the classroom can directly influence not only my students’ attitudes, but also their achievement.
Most importantly, I know that some of my students rely on me to offer encouragement and positivity that they may not be receiving from the other adults in their lives. I know that some of my kids don’t go home to happy, peaceful havens, and that for some of them, my joy might be the only joy they see in the course of a regular day. I can’t think of a more compelling case on behalf of optimism.
I try to keep my miserable cow days–and even my miserable cow moments–to a minimum.
But I’m also a human, and sometimes I fail. Sometimes I fail impressively. Therefore, my students know that I am permitted a maximum of three “miserable cow days” per school year. I don’t think I’ve ever used all three, but I’ve also never made it through a school year without at least using one. Every teacher, and every student, is different, so while three days is my self-imposed limit, others may need to give themselves a little more, or a little less, leeway. Know yourself and what you can handle, and try not to judge others if they need a few more miserable cow days than you.
My best advice for those days (and we all have them) is this: if you do decide to take a miserable cow day, or a miserable cow moment, own it. Take steps to relieve the stress that’s caused it, whether by way of a few mindful breaths, a walk outside, a good cry (my method of choice), or a few intense punches into a pillow. Do what you need to do, but don’t take it out on students. Don’t give students a reason to mistrust you or doubt your continuing love and care for them. If you fall short in this regard, apologize. Occasionally, I’ve made a sarcastic remark to a student, or given a detention too hastily, and when it happens, I’m instantly regretful. Instead of just shrugging and moving on, I make a point of apologizing. My students know that I’m human, and a sincere apology goes a long way.
Multiple times each day, we are all faced with challenging situations, challenging colleagues, and challenging students. The more we choose to respond to these challenges with joy and love, the easier it becomes to do it again, and the further away we move from the land of the miserable cows.
Choose to be the “happy cow” your kids so desperately need in their lives, and you will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond the last day of school.
Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman) is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Collingswood Middle School. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked in the study abroad industry. Sarah is passionate about teaching her students to communicate well, demonstrate kindness, and “embrace their weird”! She is also passionate about Jesus, her family, Anne of Green Gables, and finding the world’s best scone.
Currently not in a leadership program text, in the coursework, or on the exam:
Having a catch with a six-year old little boy who doesn’t know his father will die later that day. The fight is over, and his father lost.
So we had a catch. Just the two of us.
Each tight spiral or miraculous grab was stamped with his smile and expert analysis on how to throw and catch a football.
Sometimes we ran one-man patterns toward the end zone. Sometimes we talked about how oddly a football bounces when we miss it. One time he made a fingertip catch while tiptoeing around the sweatshirt he shed to show me his Eagles jersey.
A couple of times my throws were really awful. I think I was distracted.
A couple of times his throws were way off the mark. I don’t think he was distracted at all. Not yet.
When we finished, he asked to have lunch together. So we did.
Eventually, his mom came to pick him up. He had no idea why.
Remind me again about the importance of lateness policy, homework, and state testing.
#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
We’ve all taught someone like Emily Grassi. Quietly confident, constantly smiling, and effusively positive, Emily sat in my English IV (H) class ready to graduate when the year began. Like many of my former students, she was prepared, academically and emotionally, for college long before her peers. But first, she had to put up with me for a year. Her post, and her success, are completely unsurprising to those who know her.
I am the cliche of the small town girl in the big city, but how did I get here?
When I was younger, I was eager to leave my small town high school and go away to college. In my second year at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, my friends pushed me to go out for the campus radio station, so once a week I would share two hours of air-time with someone that would ultimately become a very good friend. We were both in the marching band, and had similar tastes in music, so during our show we would play our favorite songs and talk about campus events. It was just fun.
A couple of years later I would hear an advertisement on Radio 104.5 urging college students to apply for an internship with iHeartMedia. I was completely shocked that they actually called me in for an interview, let alone hired me. It did seem logical for me to work with stations like Q102 (WIOQ) and Radio 104.5 (WRFF) though, because I love music and I have always been curious about the industry and media. Every day, that internship felt like one stressful, but fantastic, dream. While there, I was encouraged by my mentors to ask every question I had and to take on every single opportunity with curiosity and excitement.
As my college graduation approached, I applied everywhere, including CBS, NBC, FOX, and Disney. With the internship still fresh, I was not prepared to settle for anything smaller than a major media organization. A couple of months after commencement, FOX News was the first to contact to me, and I jumped on it in fear of no other door opening.
I have been with the company now for a little more than three years, and I have been promoted twice while expanding my network in unexpected ways. Each new position has come with its own challenges, and sometimes the weeks go by so quickly that it doesn’t feel real. With encouragement from my producers, I am fearlessly pursuing big name guests, enhancing my writing skills, and developing audio editing skills. My work with the FOX News Rundown podcast has pushed me to understand both sides of an argument, to continue to ask a lot of questions, to sit back and listen carefully to the other person talking, and to stand strong in my beliefs while keeping an open mind.
Recently, I had saved a quote that was in an autobiography by Alan Alda where he wrote, “not knowing what’s coming next can be a pleasant state, if you trust it.” I wasn’t sure why, but I now understand the reason this stood out to me.
I never expected to end up here. I was never interested in spending time in New York City until my best friend was living there, and I never followed politics or news that wasn’t local or directly affecting me until I started working for FOX News. As opportunities bring new challenges, every question asked and every connection made will open new doors and expose places I never expected. My time in New York City has been an unforeseen step for me, but it has opened my eyes to appreciate the friends that I have made throughout my life. Even though I moved away, I feel closer than ever to those that I consider my “home” friends.
Taking this time to reflect on my experiences, I can honestly say that I have become more confident in myself, in my beliefs, and in the people who mean the most to me. I am actively paying attention to the world outside of my bubble through my work and through my own research. I am no longer afraid to ask questions, or to keep pushing until I tackle each challenge in front of me.
Emily Grassi is a Podcast Coordinator for FOX News Radio in New York City where she works closely with the daily FOX News Rundown podcast (FOXNewsRundown.com). She graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania in May of 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications Studies and a minor in Spanish. She is a graduate of the Audubon Jr./Sr. High School class of 2011. In her free time, she loves to travel, find new music, and be with her friends and family.
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.
#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.
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.