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.

 

The Edu Sunken Place

Appropriating PLNs Without the Pesky Hypnosis

I miss the movies. I don’t mean the novelty of going to the theater, the nervous excitement of a teenage first date, or the ginormous tub of popcorn and seemingly bottomless soda without which the whole experience would be ruined.

I mean sitting down to watch a great film. I mean having that film stay with me for days. I mean scouring IMDB and blogs to discuss the film with other cinephiles. I mean being able to stay up past 930 to actually finish a film.

For years, I would make it a point to find and watch films that were off the beaten path (Frailty, Her, The Machinist, to name a few). I would set my watch by my favorite director, Christopher Nolan, and carve out time to watch, consider, and discuss each film. I would participate in discussion board threads on nuances, I would analyze ambiguous endings, and I was the “Have you seen…” guy at parties.  

Now, because of work-life balance, two small children, and Netflix true crime documentaries, I may watch two or three films, in their entirety, a year. Of course, there are two inherent flaws to such a myopic approach to cinema. First, how do I choose what makes the cut? Oscar buzz? Lead actors? Secondly, it’s entirely possible that what I do choose to watch is awful and wastes my time (looking at you, Wolf of Wall Street).

Sometimes, however, a perfect storm forms and I get it right. I choose something that has folks talking, that I can digest and analyze, and that I would watch again.

For me, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, checked all the boxes.  

Director? Check

Recognizable but not necessarily household name actors? Check

A perpetual watercooler buzz? Check

A socially relevant message? Check

Without question, Get Out is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. While I realize that such an endorsement is watered down by how seldom I can make such a claim, I do encourage readers to check it out. I would love to discuss it with the #leveluplead faithful.

I’ll spare the elevator pitch plot summary and teasers, but I will sum up the film in a single word: appropriation. The film, through clever writing and sleight-of-hand storytelling, examines how often and to what lengths people will go to experience life a bit, er, differently.


In the Eduverse, teachers and leaders, at least the ones who are obsessed with growth and improvement, appropriate with impunity. We appropriate each other’s followers, ideas, professional development strategies, discipline referral forms. Look, we basically appropriate everything.

The difference, however, between what we do and what Peele’s film mocks sardonically is that educators invite appropriation. We recognize, in a truly egoless way, that there are countless people doing what we do just a little bit differently. A little bit better. So when we seek counsel from these folks, as I did with Rich Czyz of Four O’Clock Faculty fame, they are all too willing to share.

When I hear folks discussing how difficult a time it is to be in education, it’s hard to argue. With so much imposed upon us from on high, so much riding on flawed, one-off assessments, and so much nonsense that removes us, literally or figuratively, from the kids, it’s no wonder so many people throw their hands up in resignation.

But we could also make the case that there’s no better time to do what we do because a new idea is only a couple of clicks away. While we may have to bob and weave around red tape, we can do so with an ever-growing tribe of shameless appropriators. With a band of outlaw poets, scientists, yogis, historians, and student whisperers. With follows, RTs, likes, and shout outs. With hand-written thank you notes and clever hashtags. With virtual support and real life conferences. With each other.

So while Peele’s film plays on the idea of “getting out,” appropriating PLNs is all about getting in. And all it takes is hitting that blue Follow button.

 

Change Your Bat Angle

Imperceptible Adjustments Are Key To Professional Growth

Read this blog long enough and you’ll realize how obsessed I am with baseball. Inevitably there will be posts devoted to baseball, anecdotes will center around baseball, and metaphors will be drawn from baseball.

Barguments often focus on which sport is the most difficult to play, the most demanding physically and mentally, the most failure heavy. As a lover of all sports, I can appreciate that an argument can be made for each of the four major sports: baseball, basketball, football, and hockey but, to me, there’s really only one answer.

Baseball.

Because of the physics (round ball, round bat), the variables (pitcher, weather), and the psychology (streaks, slumps), there is nothing more difficult than hitting a baseball consistently. A monster game at the plate can just as easily be followed by a soul crushing slump of weeks, or months, the time in between at bats seeming equal parts interminable and immediate as you perseverate on what went wrong.

As a 41 year old weekend warrior, I only get a chance to play games on Sunday mornings. While my preparation for each game often dictates some midweek tee work or live batting practice, I’m still only playing once a week. Admittedly, I take baseball too seriously, but part of me doesn’t apologize for that because I don’t understand why folks would set out to do anything poorly, so I want to play as well as I can each week.

A few years ago I suffered through my worst season ever, and I’m including my high school playing days, during which I hit a paltry .179. During that summer, getting on base was such an anomaly that I can recall when I did reach base because it was only a handful of times. That ain’t good.

Deflated but undaunted, I continued to work that offseason because I was not going to return to my team the same player. At one point, I sent a video of myself taking swings off the tee to a friend who is a hitting tactician. In seconds, he responded with a diagnosis and, ultimately, saved my swing.

“Dude, look at how far you’re wrapping the bat around your head. Change the bat angle to 1 o’clock before you load, and you’ll be quicker to the ball.”

Change. Your. Bat. Angle.

Changing my bat angle has improved my game and my leadership.

No amount of work on my own would have led me to that conclusion because, though I would have been working hard, I would have been working incorrectly. There was no way for me to self-diagnose my own flaw, so I had to ask for help.

Now,  I “change my bat angle” all the time.

When I’m struggling with a certain colleague, I change my bat angle.

When I’m trying to convince my five-year old that he can, in fact, put on his own socks, I change my bat angle.

When my early morning writing process stalls, I change my bat angle.

As you approach the upcoming school year, I challenge you to change your bat angle. Reflect intentionally on that which you have done the same way each year and change it.

  • Experiment with flexible seating and let the kids help you design the classroom’s layout
  • Revolutionize your “Back to School Night” by asking parents to leave their kids a video via Flipgrid
  • Reframe your instructional walkthroughs to focus on the kids, even a specific kid, in each room and then write those kids a note of appreciation
  • Flip and hang old posters and allow kids to recreate them using their own words and images
  • Print, laminate, and hang Tweets or blog post excerpts about which you want your staff and students to think
  • Use a mobile desk so you’re in the hallways more and in your office less
  • Take time for yourself each day, even if it’s five minutes of nothing but sitting and breathing

Baseball is a game of failure, and in many ways, so is education. In each, the best players make adjustments all the time in order to best help their team. In each, those who refuse to make adjustments all the time don’t often have teams for long.

Change your bat angle.

 

Debarked

Provide Student Voice in Everything We Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t bark. At all.

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

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

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

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

But then one day she barked.

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


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

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

We cannot underestimate the power of voice.

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

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

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

They’re us before we became us.

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

Then do it all over again.

Let the kids bark.

 

We Are All In a Megaband…

Never Take Great Teaching For Granted

Remember when we were kids and two of our favorite shows would surprise us with a crossover episode? You know the one.

Josie and the Pussycats help the gang from Scooby Doo solve a mystery.

Those silly kids from Beverly Hills 90210 found themselves caught up in the tempestuous lives of Melrose Place tenants.

Or when Family Guy and The Simpsons squared off in the courtroom over copyright laws.  

We love when our favorite shows, which often take place in the same “universe,” team up for an episode because we feel like we’re in on something, like we’re part of something.


In November 2016, Seattle megaband, Temple of the Dog, played its only tour together: eight shows in five cities, beginning in Philadelphia. Combining members of grunge icons Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, the group recorded only one album, in 1991, in memory of their mutual friend, Andy Wood, the frontman for an earlier Seattle band, Mother Love Bone. Wood died of a heroin overdose in 1990, the ominous harbinger to the birth of what is now Pearl Jam.

But this crossover experience is just getting started.

Seattle megaband, Temple of the Dog (from left): drummer, Matt Cameron; guitarist, Stone Gossard; bassist, Jeff Ament; singer, Chris Cornell; and guitarist, Mike McCready.

The show was transcendent. Equal parts an escape from the present and a return to the past, the band’s frontman, Chris Cornell, who also fronted Seattle’s Soundgarden, was on fire. Though I had just seen Cornell live a couple years back as part of a solo tour, this was something different; he was something different. He evoked his friend Wood, he gave us chills, and he reminded us all what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s.

Six months later Cornell hanged himself after a show in Detroit.

When I reflect on what had to go right for me to be a part of that crossover experience, it is always sobered by what had to go wrong for Cornell to commit suicide months later.

A month earlier during his speech in honor of Pearl Jam’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, David Letterman noted, “Never take the opportunity for live music for granted.” I didn’t miss my chance to see Cornell live, but if I had, I would never have gotten a chance to see him again.


In education, we get to see “live music” every day. Sometimes we are the conductor, sometimes we are the rhythm guitarist, and sometimes we are in the cheap seats just happy to be in the room.

We cannot take our role in the lives of our kids for granted. Furthermore, we cannot take our role in each other’s lives for granted.

Teachers: Go see colleagues teach. Co-teach with them. Guest teach for them. Get off campus and see other teachers work. Investigate powerful PLNs on Twitter like #4OCFpln, #ProDriven, or “Like a Pirate” groups like #tlap or #LEADLAP.

Leaders: Provide opportunities for your teachers to form their own crossover experiences. Offer to teach a lesson with or for them. Celebrate your teachers when they form megabands. Find more ways to say yes than to say no.

Ultimately, crossover experiences allow each other and our kids to see the same thing from a different perspective.

As I sat in the Tower Theater watching some of my favorite musicians on that November night, I knew all the words to all the songs, but they were somehow different, somehow better.

As our students sit in their classrooms and participate in a read aloud led by someone other than the lead teacher, they know what to expect and how to engage, but it is somehow different.

It may even be better.

 

What I Forget…

Forgotten Memories Are Still Shared Memories

Remember that time…

I can’t count how many times a former student has started an exchange, email, or tweet with this trio of words. After fifteen years in the classroom, most of which was spent with seniors, there’s certainly no shortage of inside jokes, heart-to-heart conversations, and class-specific memories to go around.

The problem is I don’t remember them all.

Remember when you gave that fire and brimstone speech after the Heights game and you thought I was smiling? No.

Remember when you did that silly dance in the front of the room? Negative.

Remember when we had that discussion about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and you said I made a point you’d never considered after teaching it for so long? Sorry, nope.

Because there’s only one of me and well over a thousand former students, math and cognitive psychology alone dictate that I can’t possibly remember all there is to remember. For a while, I begrudged that immutable fact. I cursed myself for not storing up all the memories and all the feels in the same way my students did. I wondered how present I was during those fifteen years.

Then I got over it.

It doesn’t matter if I remember what my kids remember. What matters is that I gave them something to remember. Our shared experience is really only based on circumstance. Our association with and contribution to that shared experience is wholly personal.

So let it be.

Let your students and colleagues remember what they want to, how they want to. Absent a floating, omnipresent scoreboard indicating how often you actually remember what others remember, being a main character in someone else’s memory should be enough.

Teaching and leading are deeply personal endeavors because they include people every day. How we choose to interact with those people, to treat those people, and to honor those people will shape their memories whether we remember them or not.

So the next time a former student or colleague starts a conversation with “Remember that time…” I’ll be honest if I don’t.

But I’m glad you do,” I’ll tell them.

My Origin Story

How an NBA point guard, a mundane essay, and a cosmic influence launched a career

I became a teacher because of Isiah Thomas.

In 1991, while the Hall of Fame NBA point guard for the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons was adding to his legacy as one of the greatest players in the game, I was watching. When uniform selections were made for all the various teams for which I played as a kid, I always chose #11 in honor of Isiah. For my high school graduation, a friend’s parent gave me a gold necklace with that number dangling from it; I wore it for years.

Like most kids, I was obsessed with someone I could never be.

By that point in my life, I was certain of only a few things: I loved to read and write; I loathed all things math; I had terrible hair and acne. Only the first one matters now, though I would argue the other two are still relevant.

So when my freshman English class was asked to write an essay using the prompt: If you could trade places with anyone in the world, who would it be and why, I didn’t blink before I started to write about Isiah.

NBA point guard, Isiah Thomas, a central figure in my origin story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Sue McKenna, then head of the high school English department, walked into my classroom a week later, arms full of loose-leaf paper and gravitas, I thought nothing of it and prepared for a lecture.

But when she started to read my piece on Isiah Thomas, stopping for effect at several points and rereading my last sentence, “But why, I wonder, would Isiah want to trade places with me?” I sat near the back of room C209 blushing through a combination of fear and pride. On the one hand, I didn’t want anyone to know how insanely excited I was for fear of (further) social isolation, but on the other hand, I wanted everyone to know how insanely excited I was that an adult chose my work to use as an exemplar.

Roughly 43 minutes later, I walked out of the classroom as the still anonymous writer of the Ode to Isiah. It didn’t take long for my friends to catch wind of the experience and to out me as the writer, but by then, I was too euphoric to care what people thought.

I was a writer.

That, by way of an otherwise mundane writing assignment the likes of which kids today are still completing, is how I knew I wanted to become a teacher.

I was 14.


From that point on, my focus was razor sharp; my life’s plan was myopic. I would teach high school English. For me, making a conscious decision to never leave school was made with clarity, confidence, and cause. I knew teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

Four years after that watershed moment, I was declaring a major at Rowan University while friends were still trying to figure out how to scrounge up enough money for a 12-pack of Natural Light.

Another four years later, as a (still pimply) 22 year old, I was a month into my student teaching experience at Pennsauken High School when I received two calls from two separate teachers at my old high school. The first was from my former basketball coach, and now close friend, Casey Clements, who told me, rather bluntly, “I need a JV coach. Job’s yours if you want it.”

I knew that, for whatever reason, teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

Then, hours later, the true measure of the cosmic alignment of my teaching career occurred when, my mentor, John Skrabonja, who served as my real-life John Keating, called to tell me that he was being pressed into emergency action as a guidance counselor after the sudden death of a beloved counselor and that he was recommending me as his replacement.

So on February 1st, 1999, a cool eight years after I wrote about Isiah Thomas, I walked into room C206 on my first day as the new high school English teacher in my old high school. I replaced my hero, in his room, in which I sat, just a few years prior.

Sure, Isiah helped get me there, and I still do wear the #11, but, unlike so many others, my destination had been signposted for me long before I had anything to say about it.

What’s your origin story?

A Flippin’ Transcendent Conference

Inaugural FlipTech East Coast Builds Community, Shifts Focus Back to Kids

Man, was there some flippin’ leveling up last weekend.

After over a year of planning, my district played host to an international conference on flipped instruction and educational technology. The brainchild of our (only) resident flipped instructor, David Walsh, and his wife Melissa, FlipTech East Coast invited folks from around the world, virtually and in person, to share their experiences as flipping and ed tech gurus.

Highlighted by keynote addresses by Aaron Sams and Kelly Walsh, the weekend was inspirational, confessional, and educational. From those just dipping pinky toes into the waters of flipped instruction to those who have written books and traveled the country espousing its power, a palpable feeling of community and belonging served as the backdrop for dozens of sessions, countless laughs, and transcendent conversations.

Conference co-creators David and Melissa Walsh smile through our student-led panel discussion. Photo credit: Kate Baker.

For fear of #TLDR syndrome, I’ll be brief in providing a panoramic snapshot of the weekend’s brilliance.

  • Our friend Diana Duran came from Colombia by way of Atlanta and Detroit and then Philadelphia, which caused her to miss day one entirely. Undaunted, she arrived on day two and provided a powerful session on Flipping Foreign Language courses.
  • Dan Welty finished his impactful session on Transforming Assessments with an audience singalong on flipping set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
  • AJ Bianco’s session on Personalized Learning and Student Choice was quite literally bursting at the seams, causing organizers to scramble to find more seating.   
  • Lindsay Stephenson’s session on Fast and Effective Digital Feedback will help transform how we speak and write to our kids and colleagues.
  • Carolina Buitrago and Martha Ramirez, also from Colombia, presented (twice) on Flipping EFL Writing Workshops and did so with humor and expertise.
  • And Kate Baker did what Kate Baker does: present with panache and poise, this time on Class Structures to Support Flipped Learning.

However, with due reverence to our presenters, the weekend’s finest hour came by way of our student panel. Nine upperclassmen graciously agreed to give up time on the first Friday of their summer to talk with a room full of strangers about their experience with flipped learning and ed tech. Equal parts heartwarming and honest, our panel acquitted itself with the kind of grace and professionalism to which all 100+ adults in the audience should aspire.

Of course, I’m leaving out so much about the weekend’s blur of awesomeness because it may or may not involve alcohol, horrendous flippin’ puns, and quiet moments between people who finally got to meet in real life after a year or more of developing professional relationships online.

Without question, we are living in the most challenging time in which to be educators. However, what this weekend did for me, and for so many others, is “flip” the conversation from all the things we’re told we aren’t doing well to all the reasons we made the conscious decision to never leave school: the love of learning, the desire to work with people who inspire us, and, of course, the kids. 

 

My Professional Mistakeume

Showcasing and Leveraging Mistakes

As a district leader, I spend hours interviewing, and truth be told, I really enjoy it. There’s something exciting about meeting people, seeing how they choose to present themselves, and listening to them respond to questions. However, I prefer to interview without a generic script and want to see how folks do when the questions aren’t from the Interviewing 101 Handbook.

One of my favorite strategies is to ask candidates to reflect on a particular mistake they made and how it affected a positive change in their instruction or leadership. Recently, I realized it’s something we all should do.

Level Up Leaders, I present to you my Mistakeume.


Brian Kulak

Anytown, NJ 08000

Leveluplead.com

(856) 555-1111


Objective

To identify and leverage my mistakes as a tool to facilitate professional growth

Leadership Mistake Experience                                        July 2014-Present 

November 2014

  • Provided departmental feedback on secondary literacy initiative to all supervisors 
  • Did not include literacy coach in that feedback
  • Coach told me I “cut her off at the knees”; she was right

February 2015

  • A teacher parked in my spot, so I emailed him and asked him not to
  • Realized it’s only a parking spot and maybe I shouldn’t be a petulant whiner

June 2015

  • Created Makerspace in our secondary library/media center and formed committee to plan launch
  • Forgot to include award-winning middle school tech-ed teacher, who was devastated

May 2016

  • Congratulated a candidate on being named to the position before she went on final interview
  • An hour later my superintendent asked me to sit in on that same interview, so I had to explain that I congratulated the candidate preemptively

September 2017

  • Decided to use department meetings as teacher led PLCs, called departmental PLCs, which had specific goals
  • Decided to use district in-service time as teacher led PLCs, which had different goals
  • No one had any idea what I was talking about when I said PLCs; mass confusion ensued

January-February 2018

  • Asked a supervisor and coach to plan a stress-relief PD activity for secondary staff
  • When they didn’t do it as quickly as I would have (but didn’t communicate a timeline to them), I jumped in and totally invalidated their work (which was excellent)

Special (Mistake) Skills

  • Speak very quickly and will often be difficult to understand
  • Perseverate on things I can’t change or of which I am not in control
  • Capable of wearing frustration on my face for the world to see

Clearly my mistakeume is incomplete. But the longer we keep our mistakes hidden, the longer we deny their existence, the longer it will take for us to grow as teachers and leaders. Rather, call out your mistakes by name. Give them their own space in your practice. Share them with your colleagues and staff. Use them to your advantage.

What is on your professional mistakeume?

Not All Ivy is Poison

Separating the patch from the climbers

My grandmother’s house, in which she’s lived for over fifty years, is full of ivy. The kind of ivy that crawls up toward the roof with an equal parts majestic and menacing trajectory. It’s earned the right to travel in whichever direction it chooses, and it’s defiant should you suggest otherwise. Like all ivy, her climbers started as part of a patch at the base of her two-story brick and mortar home. 

Ivy’s trick is that it secretes tiny globules with extraordinary sticking power, which allows it to adhere to even the roughest of surfaces. If that weren’t enough, removing ivy is a methodical and painstaking proposition that, even when finished, can cause permanent damage to the brick to which it’s attached. In a worst case scenario, it may be necessary to torch the old roots to totally eradicate them.

Still,  there’s something beautiful and comforting about the ivy. Drive by an old house, particularly one in a neighborhood in which that house has withstood surrounding construction, and you’re bound to respect its consistency.  Look at that house just a little longer and you’ll be convinced that the ivy is supposed to be there, that without the ivy the house would look naked and vulnerable. Like visible veins leading to the house’s heart, the ivy gives the house character, panache, stateliness.

Moreover, ivy doesn’t magically appear on walls and dare you to remove it. Rather, like I mentioned, it begins as part of a large patch at the base of a home. We can picture that patch holding its own meetings to decide which tendrils should begin to climb the walls “just to see if it’s safe.” Then, when those first few strands prove they can indeed adhere to that rough surface, we can envision the patch cheering those strands on even as most of the patch has already resigned itself to remaining in the relative comfort of the base.

But then a curious thing happens. As those devil-may-care early risers continue to climb, they often look down at the patch wondering why it looks very much the same as when it left. Similarly, the higher and more adhesive those tendrils become, the more resentful the patch becomes because, after all, we all started in the same patch, right? Perhaps that’s why ivy is so stubborn: regardless of where it is, of where it chooses to be, ivy is in constant competition with itself.


Most of our schools, in theory or in practice, are good ol’ fashioned brick and mortar structures. Sure, some are shinier, brighter, more expensive, or prioritized differently, but in the end, our schools are filled with kids eager to learn from teachers eager to teach.

The ivy analogy, then, is a reflection of how that school views itself. Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch so long as the patch is maintained, or controlled, by leadership? Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch until such time that it is prepared to leave? Then, how does the school juxtapose reticence with ambition? Surely, the entire patch can’t rise at once, nor can one bold tendril make its way toward the roof without any reassurance from whence it came.

Let’s say we identify a small group of teachers, still existing in the patch, who we would like to see begin the slow ascent to the roof. Maybe they’re veterans who have become comfortable to the point at which leaving the patch seems ill-advised. Maybe they’re terrified newbies who have been so crammed full of theory during their undergrad experience that the practice of teaching is simply too much, too soon for them to leave the patch. In either case, we need to support their growth in a way that’s both genuine and specific. That’s where the rest of the ivy comes in.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to our best teachers, or their supervisors, and asked for their help. At some point, whether by evaluation protocol or by word of mouth, our best teachers have been labeled as such for specific reasons.

Tap into those teachers.

  1. Start your conversation by calling attention to their excellence and let that be the segue into how they can help a colleague. Lead with questions that begin with “how do you…” and then really listen.  Offer to pair the climber with the patch, step back, and allow each to grow.
  2. Create localized professional development opportunities led by high risers. Just because we only have a finite amount of district in-service days doesn’t mean those are the only days on which professional development can take place.  If presented by the voices of teachers you value most, you’re already doing more than most schools.
  3. Invest in your teachers’ growth by creating opportunities for them to see each other work without administrative oversight.  Such creativity takes improving teacher efficacy from theory to practice.
  4. Hire and train coaches, who straddle a tenuous but necessary line between staff and administration, and allow them to support teachers in a systematic, collaborative, and mutually beneficial way.

Of course, without a commitment to each other and to our kids, our collective ivy is nothing more than a nuisance, an eyesore, a distraction. Planning for its inevitable growth, tending to it, and shaping it will ensure that we all continue to grow.

Ultimately, we all need to be reminded that, like ivy, together we have “extraordinary sticking power.”