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.”