Because of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then and Now: A 10 Year Challenge

#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. 

No More Music

Surely, the time is nigh.

At some point, we’re going to run out of music. The chords, progressions, riffs, beats, and melodies will all be used up. There won’t be silence, per se, but we’ll have heard the last new music meant for our ears. I suppose, then, we’ll just start over.

The funny thing about music is its slavery to itself. Everything is derivative, each generation owing to another’s brilliance and transcendence. Barguments over the greatest bands ever pay homage to those whose imprint is timeless (Stones, Zeppelin, Beatles) and to those who changed the course of the industry (Queen, Pearl Jam, Wu Tang Clan). Those same conversations often spill over into nostalgia and reverie, the kind that gives you goosebumps and puts you squarely in the arena with the people closest to you when you saw that band live.

We pine for the days when and for the kind-of-frontman who, and then we put on our favorite tracks, on whatever device is nearest to us, and disappear with the music. But we don’t think about the music ending. We don’t perspire as a fictional use by date approaches. We don’t throw our hands up and prepare for the silence.

We keep listening.

Because the music isn’t going to die.

Neither is public education.

The cyclical nature of music is mirrored by the cyclical nature of education. Combining a perpetual been-there-done-that old guard with a have-you-tried-this-new-thing-called excitement, each field provides a significant and momentous choice: accept that change is coming or deny its existence.

From Twitter to Flipgrid, Buncee to Ted-Ed, our newest teachers are experiencing and changing education in ways many of us couldn’t have imagined as recently as ten years ago.  

Connected educators need only to pick up their phone or open their laptop to access relevant, real-time PD.

Children around the world are meeting and learning with and from each other through Skype or Flipgrid.

Professors are building social media into their pre-service teaching curriculum.

Leadership programs are espousing the importance of self-care and social-emotional learning.

So whether you’re dusting off that old 8-track or scrolling through the new releases on Spotify, the music will always be there, simultaneously changing and remaining the same.

Just like us.

Choose Joy

#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.  

“Miserable!”  

“Today!”  

“Awesome!”  

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:

Choose.

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.

Friendsy

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.

Finally…

As a former English teacher, I have had quite a love affair with words for the last twenty years. Like my marriage, my relationship with words undulates, palpitates, and frustrates. Sometimes words come in a flurry, frenetically and furiously. Other times words have to be coaxed and cajoled in order to get them to land on the page.

Still other times I find myself musing over how some words can pack such a wallop depending on the context. My current word-du-jour has caused a bit of a stir in my noggin. Its power and impact can measure at alpha and omega and everywhere in between.

Finally.

This word has the power to lift up and the power to utterly destroy. It’s placement in a sentence can be the difference between elation and devastation, and I can prove it.

Finally! Game of Thrones is back! #teamarya

Finally! My daughter finishes up her semester abroad and will be home tonight.

Versus…

She came to her senses and is leaving him. Finally!

Did you hear he put his retirement paperwork in? Finally!

It’s that last one that terrifies me. But it’s also a powerful motivator.

Typically, there are two distinct and oppositional reactions when word leaks that a colleague has decided to retire. The first is a mournful pause followed quickly by collective joy for a person who deserves a hero’s send off.

The other reaction, my aforementioned motivator, is abject relief. A sort of what-took-so-long harumph coupled with a wry smile and that duplicitous word, finally.

Close enough to say it without whispering and far enough away to keep it at a mythical length, I think about my retirement from a removed, third-person perspective. But part of that perspective includes a varied cast of colleagues, real and imagined, whose possible reactions provide the motivation to grow and improve.

Perhaps we need to consider our careers using backward design. What, then, is our ultimate goal in a life devoted to education? While the semantics will vary, I envision our collective goal is touching the lives of as many people as we can before bowing out gracefully. To extend the analogy, I imagine our activities and assessments to that end center around our relationships, our conversations, our decisions. Our lesson plans consider with whom we work, how we communicate with them, and how we help improve each other.

Finally, we reflect on a career marked by true connections with our kids and our colleagues. A career after which those same kids and colleagues celebrate with us, lean in for a hug, and whisper, you deserve this.

Finally.  

State of Sorry

We need to stop apologizing.

Even the glib, “Sorry, not sorry!” begins with the very sentiment it proclaims not to be.

Whether it’s part of a global deference to authority, a knee-jerk reaction to, well, anything, or an internal wiring, educators have become far too apologetic. And it needs to stop.

For me, it’s gotten to the point to which I have to correct teachers for beginning their sentences with “sorry.”

Sorry, I was just finishing up when you walked in. I can do the lesson again!

Sorry, I just wanted to stay with her for a little while because I think something is going on at home.

Sorry, can I leave right at 3 today because my son has a cross-country meet near here, and I never get to see him run.

Part of me thinks the apologies are because I give off some as-yet-to-be-named pheromone which induces teachers into a temporary state of sorry. Then I came across the image that serves as the banner for this post, and I felt relieved. The state of sorry isn’t localized to my small, southern New Jersey school. It is, in fact, pandemic.

Perhaps it’s the inherent people-pleaser in each of us. After all, we consciously entered a field in which the principle resource is people.

Maybe it’s because we often work with parents who come at us from all sides, armed with lawyers and entitlement, so our Pavlovian response is the apology.

Or it could be an unholy combination of generational guilt and working for a leader for whom apologies are the norm, not the exception.

As leaders, we need to do our best to suspend, if not end, the prevent defense culture associated with the apology. If our teachers are compelled to apologize to start a sentence, it likely says as much about us as it does about them.

And, I’m sorry, if you’re the kind of leader who expects an apology as a salutation, then you aren’t reading this blog in the first place.


That Was Me

#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.

Promise.

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.

Okay

In a classic Simpsons episode, Chief Wiggum implores a group of onlookers that “there’s nothing to see here” before he turns around to see what the huddled masses are gawking at and invites them to “get a load of this flaming wreckage.” At the time, I remember laughing out loud. Now, Chief Wiggum, a most unlikely source, provides us with valuable leadership advice.

In an often chaotic world, be the constant your staff and students need by reacting the same way despite the circumstance. What comes after that initial reaction will change, but providing unflappable stability creates a sense of calm before any storm.

The mad pooper has struck again. This time she smeared it to spell out HI.

Okay.

I have no idea who this person is who is coming to pick up Naheem; we can’t let her take him because she’s not on our record.

Okay.

This group is the most challenging I’ve ever worked with. I know I can do it. I just need your help.

Okay.

We haven’t heard from Cal or his family in six days. I think we should call the police.

Okay.

Mrs. A would like us to bring in a gender clinician from CHOP to talk to our staff about Mallory’s transition.

Okay.

We didn’t hear the evacuation drill announcement in the APR. That’s not good.

Okay.

My ex is drinking again, and I don’t know if I trust him with the kids.

Okay.

My husband and I talked about it, and I am going to stay home with the kids. I love teaching, but I can’t pass up this time with my children.

Okay.

The kids want you to be steady quarterback at recess.

Okay.

I have a parent on the phone who says the lunch lady is mean to her grandson.

Okay.

The superintendent would like you to call him back about an anti-homework parent group petition.

Okay.

Sometimes your “okay” will come with hard-to-veil heartbreak, sometimes your “okay” will come with a toothy smile, sometimes your “okay” will sound robotic, sometimes your “okay” will sound melodic.

More often than not, people should walk away from their conversations with you feeling like everything is going to be okay, and if it’s not now, it will be soon.

Okay?

Winning at No Cost

#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 installment’s writer, whom we’ll call Cassandra, prefers to remain anonymous, and I can’t blame her. In that nebulous place between graduation and finding her forever teaching home, Cassandra is stuck. Dubbed “grasshopper” because we always joked that she would replace me in the classroom someday, Cassandra’s post is all at once sad, cathartic, and hopeful.


When I long term subbed in a kindergarten class, I was used to playing games like red light green light and duck duck goose. Sometimes the kids would stumble and fall, but they always kept playing. One lesson I made sure my students knew is that it is perfectly acceptable to fail sometimes, just as long as they keep trying their best.

Fast forward to my current placement—a high school—where instead of tiptoeing to the finish line, I am tiptoeing around administrative politics and instead of running around to crown the next “goose,” I am just running around in circles. Unfortunately, students are just getting pushed through and are not really expected to do or be anything more.

One Friday, I was told by an administrator that I was “not allowed” to fail any seniors because it is bad for retention rates. Unfortunately for me, the few seniors I have, like the majority of my students, just don’t want to do the work. They know they will receive a 50% whether they do it or not. So the solution I was given is to start curving test scores and give out elementary level work. I have to do what I have to do to get them to pass, I was told. It is all about the numbers, both in percentages and dollars, I heard.

This has been a vicious cycle set in motion long before I set up my cheap Target decor along my walls. When students came to me, they expected that I knew the pass and go drill, and, even more so, viewed me as a nervous, little first year teacher not willing to swim against the tide. They know that the more students graduate, the more money the school receives. Moreover, they know that this can be an opportunity to get an upper hand.

When I began to give out reading homework and quizzes weekly, they failed. When I continued to give out reading homework and quizzes (with a few modifications) on a weekly basis, they still failed. Slowly, they began to realize that I would meet them halfway, but not at the cost of my expectations. When I caught a student cheating and gave him a zero, he lashed out because “[his] answers were right and I can’t mark them wrong.” This inflated sense of entitlement is a direct effect of the system and its bastardization of the idea of winning. To them, success is getting as far as they can by doing as little as possible. And it is only hurting the kids that go into the world thinking doing nothing is winning.  

I refuse to just let them slide, to just continue doing what they have been doing since they started school here. I refuse to be a glorified babysitter. I refuse to not give these students a chance to win the right way.

By allowing this “pass at all costs” policy, we are really failing our kids in the long run. While funding is important and a necessary evil, it is costing my kids the education they deserve. Because education extends beyond the classroom. Kids are going to try and they are going to fail; it is a necessary lesson in growing up. There is winning in failure. There is growth in failure.

But this push to “just get them through” is an adult game of duck duck goose: money gets spent, kids “pass,” more money comes in.

There are no winners.