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.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

#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

Dylan Tracey’s story is not all that uncommon. Boy has goal. Boy pursues goal. Boy alters goal. Boy pursues that goal. Boy learns about himself in a way that may have been the goal all along.  A reflective, intelligent empath, Dylan’s story made me think, “Yup. I can totally see Dylan being great at that.” Thanks for sharing, Dylan!


Living abroad and teaching English in Vietnam was never something I envisioned for my future. I have always had a passion for traveling and becoming a teacher was my goal at the start of college, but for the longest time it never occurred to me that those two things could coexist in one career.

Unfortunately, Rutgers-New Brunswick did not have an actual education major, so I ended up graduating with only my English degree, making finding a decent teaching job in the U.S more difficult.

That’s when a friend told me about how he was moving to Vietnam.

It took some time after I graduated to make it to Vietnam. I was poor from being a college student for so long, there was what seemed like an endless amount of paperwork to be done, and I had to earn my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages) certification in order to teach overseas.  I decided to earn my TESOL in Asia as opposed to doing it online, because most programs include required teaching practice , which I felt I desperately needed.

The program I was certified though was located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I lived and studied for three weeks while teaching in an orphanage. I won’t lie to you; it was rough. Phnom Penh is far from a “tourist destination” and there were times I was convinced the company I paid for was just one giant scam. Thankfully I left Cambodia with both my TESOL and my sanity, and headed off to Vietnam.

When I had finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a similar feeling to being in Times Square for the first time. I got off the bus, bright-eyed and eager to make the city my own. This was also the first time I was completely independent from my parents and the feeling of “sink or swim” was hanging heavy. “Adulting,” as my generation likes to call it, is hard enough, but add living 8000 miles away from home and a severe language barrier makes it even more of a challenge.

However, things like finding an apartment, landing a job, and learning the “lay of the land” was all that much more of an accomplishment with all the extra hoops I had to jump through. It was exhilarating in a way, making my way through a world that was completely foreign to your own. At first Vietnam felt like another planet, but after a while I really began to settle in and feel like I truly belonged there.

I will never forget how nervous I was walking into my first class as the teacher. It was a room full of teenagers who I felt weren’t much younger than me. I asked one of the students if there would be a TA, and he replied “No teacher, we are a teenager class, we don’t need a TA,” and in my head I thought “…well I do!” Nonetheless, like most teachers, I survived my first class and each became easier as time went on. It felt like I was learning more than I was teaching at times. Each mistake was a lesson, every class was more experience, and it seemed like I never stopped learning something new to improve my teaching.

The best advice I could give to someone is to go out and see the world. Go on an adventure, get motivated, be inspired, figure out who you are before you dedicate yourself to a certain path. Now that I am back home, I am finding myself back where a lot of people are when they first graduate college. I have a lot of options in front of me in terms of what I want to do next with my life and going forward I know I will be grateful for the experience I gained in Vietnam. My time there taught me a lot about myself, about what my strengths and weaknesses are, about what’s important to me, and about how to be independent. I’ve found there’s a certain confidence that comes with being a teacher and leading a classroom and that has definitely translated into other aspects of my life. I am still searching for what will be my next career, but am certain what I’ve learned thanks to teaching ESL and living in Vietnam will help me find it.

Dylan Tracey is a 2015 graduate of Rutgers University and currently teaches English for VIPKids, working online with students in China.  He earned his TESOL certification in Cambodia and spent nearly two years teaching in Vietnam, where he was named Teacher of the Year in 2017.  While living in Asia, he also visited Thailand and the Philippines. In addition to his teaching, Dylan spent the past summer at the Jersey shore and is looking forward to exploring new opportunities in Indianapolis, at the beginning of next year.

Maybe It’s Only Us

Looking Inside to Make Sense of What’s Outside

One of my favorite literary characters of all time may surprise you.

Sage and sacrificial, Lord of the Flies Simon has always fascinated me. His role in William Golding’s transcendent novel is brief, his dialogue is terse and wise-beyond-his-years, his death is swift and symbolic. Representative of the spiritual side of humanity, Simon understood the island and its horror long before the rest of the boys and was powerless to make them understand what was happening.

In one particular exchange with Piggy, the scientific yin to Simon’s spiritual yang, Simon delivers a line that has stayed with me, and served as a mantra, for twenty years.

Piggy: I know there isn’t no beast…but I know there isn’t no fear, either….Unless we get frightened of people.

Simon: Maybe there is a beast….maybe it’s only us.

As Piggy struggles to convince the paranoid crowd that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as a beast, Simon struggles just as mightily to communicate that the beast is in fact real; it’s just not what the boys think it is. Giving into their primal bloodlust, he opines, is the beast. Unfortunately, such a theory, though valid, is simply inaccessible to the rest of the boys, and shortly thereafter, Simon is proven correct when he is murdered by the very group he was unable to convince.

Without diving headlong too far down an analytical rabbit hole, suffice it to say that Simon’s prescient warning speaks volumes about our innate capacity for everything from fear to empathy. For some, that which is “only us” drives us to greatness, fosters our relationships, and strengthens our resolve. For others, it is because of what is “only us” that we cannot do or be more than we are.

Now consider what is “only us” for our staff and for our kids.

For so many of our kids, we are the only adults who they can look up to and whom they trust. 

For each other, we are our only internal support system. We prop each other up during those times when state test scores and bureaucratic mandates cut us off at the knees.  

For ourselves, we are the only ones who can truly experience the elation of a positive connection with one student or the utter desperation marked by the inability to reach another.

Regardless of how we associate with Simon’s warning, placing the emphasis on the word only or on the word us, we need to accept that there is, in fact, something inside each of us that led us to this profession, that keeps us here year after year.

Maybe that “thing” changes over time. Maybe that “thing” is the only constant in a life full of variables. Maybe that “thing” isn’t all that hard to express after all.

Maybe it’s only us.

 

Revisionist History

#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 is a particularly special installment.

Garrett Kampf checks several boxes. He’s brilliant, self-aware, civic, and, in full disclosure, my cousin-in-law. Garrett’s mother, Carol, introduced me to her niece, Allison, some thirteen years ago; shortly thereafter, Allison and I were married, and Garrett, and his sister Jackie, went from former students to current family.  Garrett’s piece, like the David Foster Wallace passage that precedes it, is raw and unabashed. My man has come full-circle personally and professionally, and he’s only 27.


The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

-David Foster Wallace, This is Water

I left Rutgers University on fire, determined to tear down systems that I spent the previous four years critiquing.  Accordingly, I set out for Kansas City as a 2013 Teach for America corps member. At best, I was taking part in a movement that would radically expand meaningful educational opportunities to all students regardless of race or class.  At worst, I was motivated by fear to prevent my experience from being reduced to stereotype: the white savior complex. Some probably pejoratively viewed me a social justice warrior. Looking back, my idealism was naïve, but it was pure!

To some extent I feel like a fraud writing this piece.  I never intended to remain a teacher.  Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was always the dream. However, education and the criminal justice system for me have always been inexorably connected.  Failure in the former often leads to entry into the latter. This idea of meritocracy, unconscious but near universally worshipped in the American psyche, is built on the flawed premise that we are masters of our own destiny.  My success was largely contingent on socioeconomic factors entirely outside of my control. Similarly, the criminal justice system is contingent on a corollary principle that is equally flawed: judging human autonomy in a vacuum.  When determining one’s blameworthiness, it is inconvenient to take circumstance into account.

It would be charitable to say that my record as a teacher was mixed.  I was woefully ill-equipped for the job. But what I found invigorating about the profession was all of the many hats I would wear at any given moment: educator, counselor, confidant, advocate.  I learned quickly that I was never going to tear down a system that perpetuates inequality. My more measured approach was finding a way to validate the potential of at least some of my students and invest in them.  Sometimes it was as simple as listening to what was going on in their lives without judgment.

You see, it took a while for this to happen in my own life.  I was an aimless and apathetic high schooler until a 10th grade history teacher saw that I was worth something.  Once my potential was validated, he effectively extracted it.  This investment encouraged me to trudge my chosen career path. There’s something rudimentary human in all of this that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

I am now in my 3rd year of law school at the University of Oregon.  Whether you are a teacher or an attorney, you must work within the confines of the system, implicitly acknowledging the reality that no matter how hard you fight against it, the system isn’t going anywhere.  In many ways I have been forced to trade in my idealism for pragmatism. This isn’t meant to sound like some call for political quietism or surrendering to some nihilistic reality. It’s merely about humility in paying it forward: equipping others with purpose or treating others with dignity, the way it was done for me.  My life’s work as an aspiring public defender in the criminal justice system is fighting to prevent someone from being eaten alive by it.

My twenty-two-year-old self would be so disappointed in my tacit acceptance of the way things are rather than waging war for the way things ought to be. Put differently, I’m not sure how much of a large-scale difference I make. That doesn’t matter to me much anymore. By working in the pursuit of my own sense of purpose through helping others, my life has meaning.  Today, that surely is sufficient.

Garrett Kampf is a 2019 J.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon School of Law. He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2013 with a B.A. in Philosophy. He spent 2013-2015 teaching middle school English and Language Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Garrett lives in Eugene, Oregon where he enjoys exploring the state, playing golf, seeing live music, and quoting the Big Lebowski wherever possible.

Find Yourself

#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.

Kaylee Collins first walked into my life as a wide-eyed sophomore in 2000. She was a leader, a thinker, and an empath. I had her again as a senior, and in the years since, our roles have reversed. She’s taught me more about myself  than I ever taught her in class. In all ways that matter, I envy her.


In my last semester at Ithaca College, I completed my major with a course called “TV Journalism Workshop.” In the past, this class had been known for helping seniors make newsreels that we’d physically mail out with cover letters and resumes as we competed for jobs in local newsrooms.

During my junior year, I had started to question if I even wanted a job in local news. I knew I loved meeting people, hearing their stories and helping them share those stories with their communities, especially in video format,  but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the direction in which I wanted to go.

For the first time ever, I didn’t know what my next step would be, which was terrifying and liberating all at once.

On the first day of TVJ Workshop, our professor asked us to go around the room introducing ourselves. Most of us had had classes together since first semester freshman year, but he was the communication school’s Visiting Scholar in Residence, so many of us were new faces for him.

With our desks in a U-shape, so we could all easily see one another, we began: “I’m Aaron. I’m a senior, and I want to be a news producer after graduation.” Next, “I’m Lindsey, and I’m a junior. I want to be a reporter after I graduate.”

The class was filled with aspiring news directors, sports broadcasters, newspaper copywriters, reporters and producers. About half way through the room, it was my turn.

“I’m Kaylee, and I’m a senior…And, well…”

I heard audible sighs and saw someone rolling her eyes. Unfazed by my friends’ reactions, I continued.

“I’m reading this book right now that says your twenties are for finding yourself and your thirties are for your career, so I’m going to go with that for now.”

Though I wasn’t being funny, I got a few chuckles, and our visiting professor grinned. Then, as my classmates settled, he agreed with me that taking the time to figure out who I am and who I want to be is important and that more people should take the time to do so.

I hadn’t verbally shared my confusion about post-grad life before, but in that brief moment, I was validated.

TVJ Workshop ended up being one of my favorite classes. I was provided with an opportunity to use my journalism skill set for something other than news. Instead of creating our newsreels for future job applications, we created a TV show focusing on small businesses in Central New York. Think Shark Tank but in 2006 and on a much smaller scale.

Our professor pitched the show pilot to WCNY in Syracuse, and once the show was picked up, he offered me a job as an Associate Producer. Among three classes, I was the only student to be granted a full-time position on the show’s production team.

I like to think that in that moment of honesty on the first day of class I had earned my very first journalism job.

In the first few years after college, I held many different jobs: English teacher in France, freelance journalist, nanny, waitress, substitute teacher, bartender, event manager, restaurant manager, cheerleading judge.

In that same time, I also traveled Europe, attended music festivals, ran my first 5K, earned a digital photography certificate from UArts, published a blog with a friend, and began my goal of visiting at least one new place each year. I’d met amazing people and have maintained beautiful friendships, learning something from each and every one.

And while my current résumé may span several industries, it’s what’s in the margins, between the bullet points and in the blank space that tells the story of who I really am.

Now in my 30s, I’m finally feeling more confident about my career path, but it’s only because I spent my 20s discovering, unapologetically, myself.

Kaylee Collins is an event marketer in the Philadelphia area. In October, she’s making a career move bringing her back to Ithaca College as Assistant Director of Regional Programs, continuing to build alumni bonds through event programming in cities across the country. She’s also an avid reader, music enthusiast and Francophile. Kaylee plans to use that journalism degree to produce a documentary some day, but she still has time left in her 30s to work on it.

 

The Truth About Leadership

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during 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.

Amanda Leonardi is one of the first people I thought of when I started #formerstudentFriday. Our relationship started in our fourth period class, a group that remains close to my heart, and has continued since 2006.  We check in with each other often, and I’m so proud of her. She is kind, empathetic, and fierce. Her piece reflects each.


I started off 7th grade on a high note – my parents got divorced and my Grandma died all in the same week. It could only go up from there, right? In my personal life, things didn’t get worse, but I wouldn’t exactly say they got better. The mess just got messier and I learned how to deal with it. When I look back on my high school experience, what I learned doesn’t stick out to me, but who I learned from is what I really remember.

The experiences I had in the classrooms of a few teachers were the cornerstones of my success in education. I might not have known it then, but these teachers were leaders of education in my life and according to a study by Barry Posner and James A. Kouzes, the authors of The Truth About Leadership, people around the world have had the same experiences with their teachers.

This study collected and analyzed data from more than a million people around the world to assess leadership practices. In their study, they provided participants with a list of 8 different types of people (teacher, parent, political leader, etc.) and asked them to identify the person they considered a leader/ role model in their life. The data revealed that 26% of respondents between the ages of 18 – 30 identified a teacher or coach as “the person they’d select as their most important role model for leadership.” This put teachers and coaches in second place behind parents as an important role model for leadership. This sentiment did not disappear as people age either. The study indicated that 14% of participants over the age of 30 also identified teachers and coaches as their most important role model for leadership.

Through the mess of my personal life, these teachers all brought positivity into my life. They were all present in the classroom, they believed in me, and they invested in my life through their teaching and our daily interactions. None of these teachers knew about the details of my personal life, and it wasn’t until recently that one of them just peeled back a layer of that onion.

As a teacher, you don’t have to know an exhaustive history about your students’ lives nor do you need to know every detail about their day-to-day lives, but you do need to act with purpose and care genuinely. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I had a teacher who showed up to his classroom every day. He made class fun and relatable. He challenged us to think differently. He was there to celebrate our successes and help us navigate the challenges.

Creating a meaningful educational experience isn’t about being your students’ best friend, or creating the coolest bulletin board, or developing the most “out of the box” lesson plan. I recently saw a clip from America’s Got Talent and the contestant said, “It is not the dream that I always had, but that is okay because I showed up and I did something I never believed I could do.” Creating a meaningful educational experience is about learning how to connect with your students so the experiences they have in your class go beyond the grade they receive on their report card and help them achieve something they never thought they could do.

Amanda Leonardi grew up in South Jersey but currently resides in Washington DC. Since graduating from high school, Amanda has enjoyed a varied career route with some of her favorite time spent as a barista in Mt. Laurel and an after-school aide in Camden, NJ. Amanda currently works in Human Resources for a commercial real estate company headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

On Day 1

On Day 1, there is a sense of a wonder, even if the surroundings are similar.

On Day 1, there is a sense of loss, because, as parents, we give up control.

On Day 1, we smile more. Our voices take on a singsongy inflection.

On Day 1, we meet a new cast of characters in our life’s play.

On Day 1, many of our students return to the structure and stability they so desperately crave. Ours may be the only normal they know.

On Day 1, we look for signs of greatness and for cries for help.

On Day 1, we become each other’s mentor, friend, confidant, therapist, surrogate, and advocate.

On Day 1, we invite change, we accept responsibility, we offset chaos, and we make connections.

On Day 1, we take pictures we’ll later frame. Years later we’ll mourn the images of those Day 1s because we can’t get them back.

On Day 1, we are reminded of all of our day 1s: as students, as teachers, as parents, as leaders.

On Day 1, we have a unique and powerful opportunity few others have because we are handed the clay with which to mold. And then we get to continue to mold that clay for ten months.

On Day 1.

 

Am I Ugly?

Responding to Students in Pain 

He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.

Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.

“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”

At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.

“What? Why would you think that?” I began.

“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”

Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.

“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”

I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.

“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”

He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.

There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.

As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.

So, again, Dave. You are not ugly. I promise.

Specks of Significance

Finding Meaning in the Mundane

That stinkin’ piece of dirt followed me everywhere for days. Its resilience impressive, its ingenuity unparalleled, its resolve intimidating. Three days, three pairs of shoes, three completely separate but equal segments of my life lived with the same piece of dirt.  

To chart its course would be impossible, but if I had to guess, the dirt first entered my life during my weekly baseball game. Likely, I acquired it while playing, it glommed onto my sock, transfered from my cleats to my slides, and came home with me that Sunday. Once it had successfully infiltrated my home, it lied in wait until it could make yet another move, this time to my comfy slippers, which I wear ad nauseum. Once inside, that sucker set up shop, making itself known intermittently, mocking me mercilessly.

Now, the layperson might ask, “why not just shake it out of your slipper? Why live with such a menacing presence when you were wholly capable of removing it?” Good questions indeed, but here’s the thing: I didn’t always know it was there. The brilliance of the dirt was that it made itself known when it felt like it, at odd times when I’d be in the middle of something else. Like a song lyric or childhood memory that arrives and leaves fleetingly, so you can’t remember what it was minutes later. That was my dirt companion. So while I could have easily shaken it out any number of times, for some reason, I didn’t. Maybe I grew to accept the dirt as part of my life. Maybe I subconsciously began to need the dirt like some demented Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Maybe I live in such a perpetual state of doing that the thought of stopping to remove the dirt terrified me.

Finally, after three days, the Biblical implication of which is not lost on me, I finally bid the dirt farewell. No speeches. No pomp and circumstance. No vigil. Just an upside down Ugg shaken loosely in the middle of my kitchen. I often think of that piece of dirt and wonder where it is now. Does it like its new home? Does it miss me?


As educators, we have the ability to become the pieces of dirt for our kids and for each other. While that may not be the most glamorous analogy, think about something you said to a student, in public or in confidence, that will always stay with them. Think about how, to extend the analogy, as students travel through their lives, the impact you had on them transfers from shoe to shoe, life event to life event. Like so many granules of dirt, we may not consider ourselves special, we may not understand how we function as part of a larger collection of dirt, and we may not purposely attach ourselves to the bottom of feet, but that doesn’t make any of those things less true.

In fact, it’s often the insignificance that is significant. I can’t tell you how many times a former student has referred to something I said or something we shared as being momentous, something she’ll “never forget.” 

Because for us, there are millions of those moments, those pieces of dirt, so it would be impossible for us to keep up. But for them, what they’re referencing is their experience, their unshakable nuisance, their piece of dirt.

And maybe they don’t want to get rid of it just yet.

 

Debarked

Provide Student Voice in Everything We Do

When we arrived at the rescue shelter that Sunday morning, I knew I didn’t have a choice.

Surreptitiously, my wife had begun graduate level research on what would become our next dog, and though she couched the idea to visit a Philadelphia shelter as “just a visit,” I have a feeling contracts were already drawn up and that everyone was in on the ruse. Except me.

With pinpoint accuracy (how many times had she been here?), she directed us to the kennel of a sweet, malnourished, Bichon Frise named Polly. Instantly, Polly meandered over and lent credence to the power of the expression “puppy dog eyes.” At that point, I was convinced that even she was in on the con. She knew she was coming home with us.

Debarked Daisy (left) and her alter ego, Sassy Daisy (right).

After spending a few minutes with her outside, we requested the paperwork to be drawn up.  It was our 11th anniversary, and our kids didn’t know we’d be coming home with a new dog. Clearly, it was going to be a good day.

However, something about Polly, who would quickly become Daisy at our daughter’s request, was off. Sure she was underweight, she needed a haircut, and her eyes had dark patches under them, but it was something else.

She didn’t bark. At all.

While the thought of a silent dog does have its merits, a dog without a bark is like a child without a voice. Daisy had been debarked. She had no voice.

Without being too graphic, the Pennsylvania Amish Country puppy mill from which Daisy was rescued was horrifying. My wife found pictures of it, of Daisy, online shortly after we brought her home. Among other atrocities, debarking dogs is fairly common. Frankly, the whole idea of puppy mills is unconscionable to us both.

But a funny thing happened a few months into her transition into our family. When she gets excited to go for a “walkie” each day, like most dogs, she prances around, pants, and leads one of us to her leash and to the door.

At first, she just jumped up on my legs to affirm that she was, indeed, interested in the walk.

But then one day she barked.

It was strained and almost scratchy, but make no mistake, Daisy had found her voice.


The importance and power of student voice has inserted itself into PD plans, book proposals, and Twitter chats across the nation. It’s about time. Finally, and in some deeply entrenched traditional districts, begrudgingly, adults are starting to frame their thinking around student voice. Decision making committees are beginning to include kids. Class libraries, Makerspaces, and common areas are taking shape with students at the helm. Social-emotional learning strategies and practices are considered by kids rather than for kids.

At long last, adults who have preached their love of children as the driving force behind their careers in education are replacing themselves with children as they look in the mirror.

We cannot underestimate the power of voice.

To return to Daisy, she is a completely different dog. The same dog who didn’t know how to go up or down stairs, who longed so desperately for human affection, and who had no idea Beggin’ Strips were a thing, is now playful, spunky, and, quite frankly, proud of her voice. She uses it with impunity, believe me.

Now, think about all the students you have taught, and have yet to teach, who found their voice. There’s an authentic glow and a stifled smile that accompanies that realization. For some, it happens, well, in utero (see: my own kids). For others, it happens in elementary school as they feel their way through letters, sounds, and numbers. For still others, it happens much later when they meet a teacher who gives them agency and audience, perhaps for the first time.

Voice, even in bark form, is the purest form of identity. Without it, students are reduced to a SMID, a plotted point on a data table, a standardized test score. With it, they are elevated and empowered; they are resilient and fierce; they are who we want them to be without us telling them who we want them to be.

They’re us before we became us.

As you plan your PD for the year, as you look at your budgets for next year, as you devise your district’s strategic plan, as you do anything that directly affects kids, give them a voice. Call them together, form a student leadership team, ask them to complete a Google Form. Take them seriously, praise their contributions, compliment their parents.

Then do it all over again.

Let the kids bark.