What Can You Make Out Of This?

Sharing Yourself To Lead Others

I have the 1980 disaster film spoof Airplane! to thank for shaping my personality as a teacher and leader. In conversations about earliest memories, my mind always flashes to the time this silly comedy made my stoic, Polish father cry with the kind of unabashed, uncontrollable laughter I would only see a handful of times in my life. It was a watershed moment for my childhood, and while it might only be a blip on my collective experience radar, I’m so thankful that it’s there.

Squished on a very old couch, I remember laying with my dad, but not head-to-head. I liked to pretend I was just as tall by scooching down so my feet were adjacent to his. It was a silly life hack, but that’s just the kind of thing little-boy-me would do.

In the film, an effeminate air traffic controller named Johnny (Steven Stucker) makes several rare but scene-stealing appearances. To this day, he’s one of my favorite cinematic characters. At one point,  Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is handed a weather bulletin. After studying it for a second, he begins the exchange that reduced my father to tears.

McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat, a brooch, or a pterodactyl.

And that was it. The scene spans eleven seconds (I checked), and if you look closely, you can see Stucker grin at his own brilliance. But those eleven seconds were all my brain needed to process that seeing my dad laugh-cry was proof that underneath the unflappable facade, he was human. He was capable of great joy and sadness. He just preferred to keep it to himself.

Former students will tell you that I often shared, probably too much, about my life. To me, being as human as possible was the only way to convince teenagers that what I was teaching them was actually relevant, meaningful, and useful. Instruction was often interrupted by a tangential anecdote or a whimsical memory. I was convinced that if I could make them laugh with me, even at me, it would strengthen our connection and motivate them to do great things. I’d like to think that #formerstudentFriday is proof that it worked.

As a leader, I don’t shy away from the same kind of genuine honesty and self-effacing humor that I used in the classroom. People know, for instance, that my daughter is an IVF baby. They know that I still play baseball eight months a year. They know that I have wicked Imposter Syndrome. They know that my wife and I were set up, despite living in different parts of the country, by her cousin, who was a student in my class at the time.

My failures and hang ups are all on full display. Faithful readers of this blog will remember my Mistakeume, a detailed list of mistakes I’ve made in the first several years of my leadership, which I shared with our staff in my first-ever welcome back letter last summer.  I won’t hold back laughter or tears, and I certainly won’t ask that of my staff. It’s only one leadership style, but it’s mine.

I am convinced that experiencing my dad’s laughing fit with him made me wholly aware, even back then, that we are who we are for a lot of reasons, so it’s up to us to share ourselves, warts and all, with the people we mean to lead.

 

 

Compliment Conundrum

When Complimenting Your Staff Becomes the Norm 

The first time is always met with equal parts shock and delight, a spontaneous combination of reddened cheeks and raised eyebrows. It’s not that it hasn’t happened before; it’s not that it’s disingenuous.

It’s that it’s unexpected.

My name is Brian, and I’m a complimenter. (Choral ResponseHi, Brian!)

The irony of this leadership trait is that I put people in positions with which I am very uncomfortable when in reverse. As a kid, I didn’t know what to make of compliments. Never quite sure if I should thank the complimenter, always a bit skeptical that the compliment was paid as part of some adult handbook on how to relate to kids. As an adult and professional, I recognize that many of us can go for long stretches without anyone telling us something positive about ourselves. And that’s not to say that the older we get the less there is to compliment.

We just choose to stop doing it.

So I’m choosing the opposite.

While putting together the agenda for our most recent staff meeting, I decided to write in a segment called “Triumphs and Tribulations,” which I borrowed from my leadership mentorship program. Essentially, it would act as a prescribed time, at the end of the meeting, during which we would celebrate each other or ask for help, out loud. When the time came to introduce the idea, I explained that I didn’t expect anyone to actually contribute today but that I would go first to model the activity. I spoke about my amazing secretary, Cecilia. Underpaid and overworked, she is one of the kindest, skilled people I know, and because I’ve never worked with a secretary before, I thought it was imperative that she be the first person complimented in front of our staff.

When I finished, I started to say something about how next month we could start the tradition. However, I was interrupted by a teacher who said, “Wait, can we just..” and then she started to applaud. Then we all applauded.

Then the compliments poured out. Each followed by a chorus of, you guessed it, applause.

Thank you, _____. Not only have you provided me academic support in math but you’ve taught lessons! I don’t know what I would do without you.

Yeah, Fundations has been fun to teach, but I struggle. ______ has gone way above and beyond to help me.

I love my (grade level) partner. We are so in sync and constantly bounce ideas off each other.

I know this isn’t a revolutionary idea that will land our staff in educational journals for years to come. Still, there’s a profound difference between knowing something exists and making it your own. For just a few minutes at the end of a staff meeting, we shed the red tape, put away the agenda, and celebrated each other.

And we solved the compliment conundrum.

 

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.

Can I Kick It?

Creating a Culture of Yes, You Can!

Readers of this blog are well aware of my affinity for the 1990s Seattle sound. And while my listening preference often leans toward the grunge and alternative end of the dial, I dabble in all kinds of genres.

Enter A Tribe Called Quest.

The New York based hip hop foursome revolutionized the scene with its 1991 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The group’s sound, which they would pioneer, was dubbed “alternative hip hop,” and was highlighted by the 1992 single, “Scenario.”

Recently, I re-acquainted myself with the crew and had “Can I Kick It?” on repeat as I started my journey as a K-5 principal. The song, which features a heavy sample of Lou Reed’s classic, “Walk on the Wild Side,” is catchy, upbeat, and includes an answer to the titular title, “yes, you can!”

My first month as the proud leader of a small elementary school in New Jersey was marked by a careful combination of anxiety and excitement, one often fueling the other. I shook hands, offered high fives, met with kindergarten parents, and hosted my first ever staff meeting. By all accounts, it was a positive, collaborative opening and one on which I will look back with pride.

But something curious happened more times that I can count during that first month. Teachers and students alike kept approaching me with a familiar refrain, “Can I…?”

As a hallmark of my leadership, I want to say yes more than I want to say no. In his outstanding work, Lead With Culture, Jay Billy reminds us that having a “sure, why not” approach to leadership fosters risk and empowerment. Such risk and empowerment cannot happen without the right question. For me, “Can I?” starts the bidding.

Can I change that bulletin board so it looks like a Harry Potter house but with kindness messages? Yes, you can!

Can I change my schedule so math isn’t always the last thing we do? I think the kids need it. Yes, you can!

Can I start Feel Good Friday during which we all wear kindness shirts and invite the kids to do the same? We can even play music as the kids come in! Yes, you can!

Can I use my prep to go visit a teacher during Workshop? I think I need to see her in action. Yes. you can!

Can I start a Girls’ Group at lunch to work on some of the drama I’m seeing between our 5th grade girls? Yes, you can!

Ultimately, creating a “Yes, you can!” culture is more about letting go than it is about giving in. Too often, leaders are reluctant toward anything new for fear that it undermines their authority or flies in the face of “what we’ve always done.” Or worse, some leaders need to feel like every idea has to be their own rather than stepping back and allowing their teachers to take ownership over the building and its culture.

So whether you’re just starting your leadership journey or you recognize that your leadership needs a shot of hip hop, start with a simple question: Can I?

Yes, you can!

 

Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

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.

Containment Policy

#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.

Liz Follis and I have known each other for a long time. As a student during my first year in the classroom, she was precocious and hard working. As a friend since then, she has become an amazing educator and student advocate. I’m proud of who she has become and fortunate to have been invited along for the ride. In this piece, Liz reflects on her realization that going home doesn’t always mean being where we belong. Her experience is both triumphant and a cautionary tale.


Since I was 5 years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wanted to be a teacher; I was going to teach kindergarten, and I was going to do it in my hometown.  When I graduated from college, my hometown took me off the bench and put me up to bat as a designated hitter.  I was given a maternity leave position, as a HS history teacher (not kindergarten, sigh), and I was determined to prove my worth.

Let me preface this story by saying that I am not a history teacher by trade.  It was my worst subject in high school and college, but I was determined to give my students a better experience: more fulfilling, extremely relevant instruction when delivering my lessons.  I studied up.  I asked other teachers questions. I ingested the material with a newfound hunger.

 Then the “Containment Policy” incident occurred.  

I taught the Policy of Containment to what I believed was the best of my ability, but I was greeted with a sea of blank stares.  In response, I was blunt; I came out with it.  Explain to me. What went wrong? Where is the disconnect?

A student raised her hand with trepidation.  “Ms. F… what does containment mean?” Then the bell rang. I racked my brain.  How can I make them understand, explain containment, and give them an experience they’ll never forget? The light bulb went on. I explained my idea to my fiancé at the time. He said, “Liz don’t do it. This is a bad idea.”

The ROGUE educator in me knew that meant this is EXACTLY what I should do.  

The next day, I came to school with all my supplies.  I used my prep to get ready.  Teachers passed by looking quizzically in my room.  I was juiced! The bell rang, the kids came in, and I asked the students a simple question.

“What do you see before you?”

A student said, “A swimming pool!”  

“You’re right!  What’s in the pool?”

Another student said, hesitantly, “uhm water?”

“Great! You’re correct! The water in that pool is contained.”

The looks on the kids’ faces during this “aha moment” was amazing.  I have that feeling bottled up for when I have a bad day.  

The next moment is when I realized that maybe this district wasn’t ready for my  ROGUE teaching.  I asked my classroom of historians, “What happens when I lift up the pool?”  The kids clearly saw that the water would go everywhere.  So I did it, I modeled the concept, and that’s when the principal walked in.  His face was aghast but that wasn’t going to stop this learning experience. I didn’t miss a beat.  I continued, “So, now that we know what containment means, why was it so important for the war?” You should have seen the hands go up and heard the meaningful discussion to follow.

At the end of the period I was met simply with, “Ms. Follis please see me at the end of the day.”

I met with the principal and was given strict instructions: direct instruction, worksheets, and no deviations for the rest of my time there.  

The school district I once knew, the one that I thought was on the precipice of progressive instruction, had just capped my teaching. The educational system that helped mold me, served as an example for my own teaching, and challenged me to be the best version of myself did not support my teaching style.

Looking back to those days, I continue to rationalize that I was revolutionary in my teaching; however, the stronger PLN I develop, the more people I meet, and the more schools I work in, the more I realize that going home, for me, would have been going backward. 

I am hopeful that my alma mater, the place I will always love, will become rejuvenated like a Phoenix from the flames.  I am hopeful that my nephews will have the same experiences I had as a student.  Unfortunately, until they find stronger leadership that isn’t afraid to break past their own “containment policy,” teaching, and therefore learning, will be stifled.

Elizabeth Follis has been in the education field for twelve years.  She is excited to start her fourth year in the Palmyra School District.  Although she began her tenure in Palmyra as a middle school special education teacher, Elizabeth will begin a new position this fall as a teacher coach and is very excited for the possibilities that this new adventure will bring. Outside of the classroom, she is the head coach for both Fall/Winter Cheerleading and Girls’ Spring Track and Field. 

 

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.