Jailbreak!

As a kid, I couldn’t wait until Friday night. Without the specter of another school day looming, my friends and I would play “Jailbreak” for hours on end, losing time and making memories. The street on which I grew up, Princeton Road, was full of kids, fifteen to be exact, separated by five consecutive houses. Add to that our friends who would come from all over town to play in our weekly game, and we could easily be mistaken for the kids from Lord of the Flies, without all that pesky murder.

For the uninitiated, the rules of Jailbreak are simple. Two teams decide on a playing area, a grid, in which one can hide. Then, one team tries to capture the other and keep them in jail. However, despite being captured, players can be freed by a teammate who approaches the jail, avoids the sentry on duty, and touches the jail while yelling, “Jailbreak!” Once all the members of that team are captured, the teams switch roles. The beauty of the game is that there are no winners and losers because it is just as fun to hide as it is to seek, so the game can go on for hours.

In our case, it went on for years. 

For me, the intrigue of jailbreak was in the darkness. Playing a game at night seemed somehow dangerous, somehow adult, like being in the very same yards in which we played wiffle ball during the day made us renegades. The darkness made what once was familiar an undiscovered frontier full of danger and wonder. Moreover, it was never in my own yard that I would prefer to hide. To do so would be commonplace, safe. 

As I hid from my captors, I remember tiptoeing around backyards just noticing things. 

The Thomases rarely used lights at night, so how did they see?

The O’Brien yard always had way more fallen branches and detritus than any other yard. 

The Johnsons’ was the only yard with a chain link fence surrounding it.

The Kramers’ yard had a majestic treehouse, which no one ever used. 

The Fishers’ yard, like the people inside, just seemed sad. 

Make no mistake, there’s something special about a backyard at night. Whether you’re supposed to be there or not, the yard maintains its integrity, its personality.

This is what it’s like when you visit another teacher’s classroom. You know what to expect, you know how things are supposed to look, but somehow you know very little else. 

At first, a cursory glance around the room provides a backdrop for the class and teacher personality: walls adorned with content specific visuals, anchor charts, and character ed reminders; a desk with understated glimpses into the teacher’s personal life or a slew of yet-to-be-scored papers; desks in rows or pods; a box of tissues or band-aids. 

Then, watch that teacher in action. Notice how she pulls a small group to the back table and is still able to manage the other 20 kids during centers. Listen to the subtle way she compliments a student after an answer that had absolutely nothing to do with the question. Marvel at how his affect and intonation are the only classroom management strategies he needs. Steal every great idea that teacher has.

Next, watch the kids. Better yet, only watch the kids. Whose constant movement and inattentiveness are you noticing again and again? Which kids are natural leaders, able to lead and carry group work through to presentation? Whom are you just now noticing for the first time as if she just transferred in yesterday? Whose parents do you need to call to thank them for sharing their amazing kid with you daily?

It’s funny. Back then, I would have done anything to not get caught during Jailbreak. Now, I will do whatever I can to make sure that I’m seen.

Space Invaders

Let’s face it. They’re everywhere. 

In the gym, they stand directly in front of the weight rack while completing an exercise, making it impossible to access what you need. 

In the supermarket, they leave their carts in the middle of the aisle, usually on a diagonal, while they browse a shelf, daring you to breach their line of demarcation. 

At the soccer field, they meander behind you, cell phone in hand, discussing loudly how they’ll break it to the kids that sometimes grown ups make mistakes and have to “go away for a while.”

At the concert, they assault your field of vision with repeated selfie sessions while singing largely inaccurate lyrics.

They are the Space Invaders, and like their video game namesake, they just keep coming. 

What’s even more menacing is there are two types of Space Invaders: those who know exactly who and what they are and simply don’t care and those who have no idea they take up the space they do. The former are beyond reproach and the latter are simply clueless.

So where does that leave the rest of us who just want to grab a bottle of Hidden Valley Fat Free Ranch off the shelf and be on our way. 

The answer, my friends, is not to fix or cure the Space Invaders; rather, we need to practice self-awareness to the point at which we don’t become Space Invaders. 

Presence

What true Space Invaders are incapable of understanding is how their physical presence affects those around them. Whether they constantly hover over a particular student’s desk or find themselves parked in a familiar spot in the faculty lounge, Invaders can dictate a mood, a day, or a culture. 

Be mindful of your presence as often as possible. Consider if a disaffected kid needs you to move closer or to stay away. Think about how often you speak during group conversations or staff meetings. Ask yourself if your staff would describe your presence as hovering or lording. 

Swivel

Space Invaders tend to lock in on a certain target and allow the rest of the world to melt away around them. In some ways this can be a virtue as they are keenly focused on what’s in front of them, often literally. 

To borrow from my former life as a basketball coach, keep your head on a swivel. Build an awareness of what’s going on around you, both the seen and unseen, to determine if you’re invading space or if someone needs you in their space immediately. 

Reflect

Like their video game namesake, Space Invaders don’t have time for all that pesky reflection. Because they’re so laser focused on what is, it doesn’t dawn on them to consider what was or what will be. They just keep invading, daring the world to stop them.

For the rest of us, reflection is what helps us determine how to best use our space daily. Whether it’s through a journal, a blog, or a happy hour, reflecting on the space we inhabit for and with our schools is what keeps us from joining forces with the Invaders. And for the daring few (like me), it’s totally worth it to ask your teachers what they need and expect an honest response. If that response is, “yeah, man, you’re kinda all up in my business, and I need you to back off,” then stand down. 

Whether they’re pixelated and falling from a digital sky or wearing a sharp pants suit and standing uncomfortably close to your clearly private discussion, Space Invaders aren’t going anywhere.

So be warned, friends. And if you are an Invader, kindly let the rest of us through. We come in peace.

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

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!

As A Parent

I remember how much I loathed hearing it. And more often than not, I knew it was coming. Like a high-arcing arrow fired from the opposing front line, I could see it coming but was powerless to avoid it. 

As a parent

Sometimes parents would lead with it, an opening salvo intended to set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Other times, they’d keep it in their back pocket until they really needed a counter punch. And for the first ten years of my teaching career, I was defenseless against it because I was childless. 

But a funny thing happened after my daughter was born in 2009. The assumed parenthetical after the first three words of that phrase changed, and so did my association with it. 

As a parent (which you surely can’t understand because you’re single and childless)

turned into…

As a parent (a role we share so I’m appealing to your sense of paternity to make you see my point)

What once caused me to recoil and go on the defensive became a tacit invitation to a fraternity for which I didn’t know I was rushing. I didn’t consider being a parent as part of my professional identity any more than I considered being an educator as part of my personal identity. But that was short-sighted, indeed, because I can’t shed either part of myself even if I wanted to. 

Moreover, I’ve started to purposely wear my dad hat while at school because it helps to disarm both students and parents. At Back To School Night, I share a photo of my two children and close my remarks with a familiar refrain: we’re in this together. While I have spent more than half my life as an educator and feel confident in my ability to lead every time I walk in the building, I have only been a parent for ten years and there are days on which I have no idea what I’m doing. 

Still, considering my decisions, my students’ lives, and my relationships through my dad lens has only strengthened my leadership and emboldened my resolve. Similarly, I can’t help but visit our fifth and first grade classes with my own children in mind. In this way, I borrow from my professional life to help my personal life because I watch how other children interact with the world and with learning every day, so when I get home each night, I’m better prepared to help my own children. 

I have no idea how often life blending happens in other professions, but I would argue that it’s a vital part of ours. If we preach being a better listener, learner, and person to our students, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the same as adults. 

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. 

Mic drop

Ok, then don’t care about baseball.

Rachael said it so matter-of-factly and with such confidence that I almost believed that she had rehearsed that line in front of her mirror, knowing at some point she’d say it to me. It was a perfect analogy, delivered with genuine conviction, to help me understand how her mind works. 

And how my mind works so similarly. 

We were discussing the recent withdrawal of Carlos, one of her second graders with whom she had developed a close bond. Having worked with him last year, she was wholly aware of how challenging his life was, bookended by two absentee parents. In the middle, a man who had dated Carlos’s mother and, upon her flight from adult responsibility, accepted the role of stand-in father.

But something was off. 

Still, Rachael found him in her class again this year and was excited at the prospect of another chance to provide seven hours of stability in his otherwise chaotic life. Despite her natural empathy and maternal instinct, despite countless street-side conversations and calls home, despite my intervention during a formal meeting to discuss attendance, lateness, and academics, one day Carlos stopped coming to school. Later, we’d find out his adoptive family moved amid alarmingly flimsy circumstances. 

Her: Can we call over to his new school? Something is off with Manuel (adoptive father). I can feel it. We have to at least alert the school that this child may not be safe. 

Me: Sure, I will call over and tell them what we know. But you have to let him go now. You did amazing work with him, but you have to let him go.

Her: Ok, then don’t care about baseball. 

Mic. Drop.

Knowing how much I love the game and still obsess over the previous weekend’s at bats or performances on the mound, Rachael practiced what I preach all the time.

She met me on my level. 

I can’t turn off my love of the game, I can’t control dreaming about baseball (often under bizarre or losing circumstances), I can’t help but draw analogies between the game and our profession, and I can’t help dreading the day a doctor or my wife tells me I have to stop playing. 

So, I can’t simply attach a platitude, or Disney song, to my love for the game and “let it go.”

Nor can Rachael stop caring for students with the same fervor and empathy with which she cares for her own children. She can’t look over at Carlos’s empty cubby or table and be like, “meh, bummer.” She won’t put him into a former student box, tucked away in her consciousness, with the rest of her wistful, mournful, or otherwise transcendent memories of students from days gone by. 

It was foolish and short-sighted of me to suggest Rachael flip a non-existent, unrealistic, and aloof switch in the wake of Carlos’s departure. None of us is capable of simply turning off our passion when it becomes inconvenient. 

Down by one run last Sunday, I led off the 8th with a strikeout looking (the pitch was high, but still), and I haven’t been able to shake my disappointment since.  

Because I care about baseball, and I can’t turn it off. 

I don’t much want to either.