Our Own Students

#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. 

Cristin Introcaso is the kind of person I am thankful I was able to share space with. Any space. In my case as her supervisor for a year, it was her choir room, our auditorium, and a tucked away corner of a second floor atrium at Rowan University. She’s the kind of person kids flock to and adults aspire to. Her Colleague Corner proves why.


I recently read Brian’s piece, Forgetting How to Smile. In it, he makes the case that, as educators, we need to check in with ourselves often, to make sure we haven’t fallen into a rut and that we are still (to borrow a phrase) sparking joy. The post got me thinking about what other aspects of this multifaceted profession are also worth pausing to think about.

On the best days, a classroom is a collaboration between teacher and students. In that vein, I propose a question to consider: Would I want to be a student in my class?

It can be incredibly easy to forget what it is like to be a student. Educators are teaching to standardized tests, trying to get a project in before the end of the marking period,  trying to make deadlines on various district initiatives, and a host of other things, big and small. But we sometimes need to pause and step into the shoes of the students and see things from their perspective. The same way we all know that administrator who has forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher, we don’t want to forget what it’s like to be a student.

This idea can manifest in many ways. I’m going to focus on two ideas that I think are big picture concepts.

The first is emotional. When I was a student, I really noticed the day-to-day attitudes of my teachers, especially if it seemed like they were in a bad mood and “taking it out on the class,” as 15 year olds perceive it. Students tend to think teachers live in the classroom closet and emerge, renewed and refreshed every morning to teach Geometry. Of course that is not the case. We are people and our job is just one aspect of our lives.

When something is going on in our personal lives or if the last class was challenging, we strive to not bring it into the classroom. But some days that is not possible; the situation has stuck with us like a bad cold. On those days, I think back to myself at 15 and what I would have needed from my teacher. I would have wanted a heads up, so I am upfront with my students. I don’t burden them with details, which would be inappropriate. I simply share that it has been a rough day and ask for their patience with me. Most of the time, the students respond positively. It helps us be more human and allows space for the students to be empathetic in kind.

The second point is one of the harder things for educators to remember:  your class is only one small aspect of the students’ day. At the secondary level, we are so passionate about our subject that we have dedicated our lives to teaching it. But for the kids behind the desks, even those who love you and your subject, this is one of multiple classes and some days your class isn’t taking top priority. Your class is among all sorts of demands on their time, some elected like clubs and athletics and some necessary like a job. In fact, working is the most significant shift I have seen in students over the last 16 years. Jobs are essential to some of our kids, with many students helping to contribute to their households or babysit younger siblings while parents take a second shift. As much as the students think of us as living in the classroom closet, we sometimes think of them in a similar way. Is it essential that the homework be done by Monday or can there be flexibility?

I need this post as much as anyone. It’s the end of winter, myself and the students are feeling the low energy due to a lack of sun, and right now it is easy for me to get frustrated with them. Writing this forced me to take a moment to see my class from their eyes.  I realized that I am projecting low energy out; the students are simply giving it back to me. So I acknowledged the funk I was feeling, changed up the routine, took some time for relationship building, and hit reset on the class. Now we are back to a class I would want to be in as a student.

We are sparking joy again for each other.

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Cristin Charlton Introcaso is in her sixteenth year as director of choirs at Collingswood High School. Mrs. Introcaso received her Bachelor of Vocal Music Education and Master of Music in Choral Conducting from Rowan University. An active member of ACDA and NAfME, Mrs. Introcaso is the Auditions Chair for Region III All South Jersey Chorus, has presented sessions for the NJMEA conferences, conducted the 2014 SJCDA Elementary Festival, the Camden County Music Educators’ Professional Development Day, and most recently was the co-chair for the Together We Sing sessions at the ACDA Eastern Division. 

At Your Service


#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.

Caitlin Porter was my first ever “hire.” As a senior in my journalism class, I tabbed her as editor-in-chief because she was just that talented. She was my eyes and ears, she was my proofreader, and, to be honest, I was really her second-in-command. Her story reminds me so much of Garrett’s and Kaylee’s because all three remind us that the most direct paths are often the longest and most winding.


Throughout high school, undergrad, and graduate school, I prided myself on earning the highest marks I could. I spent countless hours pouring over research, reading articles and books, writing papers, creating study cards, and taking exams. I earned scholarships for further education, four academic honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude recognition and a 4.0 GPA in graduate school.  This sounds great, right? It is great in many ways; however, what I have learned outside of the classroom has equal if not greater value.

As a student at Catholic University of America, I tried to find opportunities that would promote growth as a person, but it was not until a mission trip to Belize that I realized that deep in my heart, I knew that serving others is what I wanted to do in life.  In Belize, CUA students and I helped renovate a Catholic school during our first week and tutored them in language arts during the second. Interacting with the students and their families proved to me that there are simple joys to life, much beyond wealth and materialistic belongings.

During the fall semester of my senior year, I attended a long term service fair out of curiosity. There, I met the director of Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, who sold me on the idea that my foreign language background (French) and desire to help others could be utilized by volunteering forty hours per week at Lutheran Family Services Refugee and Asylee program.  With my family’s support, I left to pursue a year of service among the underserved in Denver, CO.

Working with refugees for the following 11 months would be one of the most rewarding, yet emotionally taxing experiences in my life. I was able to watch the resettlement process from start to finish, encounter cultures I had only ever dreamed of, and hear stories of heartbreak, determination, and hope.  I remember sitting with one gentleman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been struggling with his physical health. He and his wife had many children and neither could hold a minimally paying job, leaving them with accruing bills every month. This gentleman, a tailor by trade in Africa, told me that life in America was far more difficult than he ever expected and that returning to his homeland, despite the violence, would be easier because he would be able to provide his family with a decent life. A few weeks after our conversation, he secured a job in tie production at a tie company that prided itself on providing unique employment opportunities to refugees. Recently, I found out that he is now the production manager at this company three years later and is thriving.

A year of service inspired me to learn more about helping others and I returned to Rutgers University to work on my Master’s in Social Work, with a vigorous class schedule and 2 internships. It was in graduate school that I learned more about the populations I could and could not work with. Now, almost two years as a psychiatric social worker, I continue to discover more about what this world needs and how I can best serve the underserved populations. Without my experiences that have come outside of and in conjunction with the classroom, I would never have discovered where my passion lies or created a career that allows me to be inspired by my clients while giving them opportunities to advance in life.

Caitlin Porter has a Bachelor’s in French Language and Literature from The Catholic University of America and a Master’s degree in Social Work from Rutgers University. She currently works at Northbrook Behavioral Health Hospital as a psychiatric social worker and serves as the Healthcare Ethics Committee co-chair and liaison to Rutgers University for MSW interns. In Caitlin’s free time, she often self-cares by running long distances, traveling, and baking!

IT’S LAUNCH DAY!

On January 2, 2018 I committed to a writing life. Today, I am a published author, a dream I’ve realized a thousand times in my head. Level Up Leadership will always be my first-born, a neon green reminder that I am a writer.

Thanks to my EduMatch family for believing in my work, for answering all my questions, for tempering my neuroses, and for putting my book out into the world.

Player One. Press Start.

Tackling Impostor Syndrome

#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.

Megan DiGesare beat me to the punch. Since I became aware of Imposter Syndrome, it has helped explain so much of my life. Though I had a post on it ready to go, Megan skillfully and gracefully discusses the malady far better than I could have. She and I have stayed in touch, largely about books we love, and she recently reminded me that there was rarely a day that went by in my class during which we didn’t laugh. I’m thankful she chose to write this. 


I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” – Mike Myers

The Impostor Syndrome struggle is real. Not sure what I am talking about? Remember that time you nailed an amazing job interview, only to then doubt yourself, your qualifications, and your ability? Yep, that! That nagging feeling affects more people than you would imagine.

Why do we think we don’t deserve greatness?

Why do we champion the thought of empowerment, but fear being empowered?

I didn’t know what this feeling was called until recently. I didn’t even think there was a name for it. I just thought I was being too hard on myself.

I was recently offered a job through Linkedin. My current employer found me, sent me a message, and the next thing I knew I was sitting in an office interviewing for a position to which I didn’t even apply. I felt, as I walked out, that I nailed the interview. I was offered the job, accepted, and then this feeling of inadequacy crept up little by little.

It’s not that I think I haven’t accomplished anything, or that there isn’t anything I am proud of, but often times, I just don’t believe I got them on my own merits. My brain tells me that I succeeded because of someone I knew, some dumb luck, or a mistake. I feel like I am always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” The feelings, the thoughts, and the negative words – they directly affect how we feel about ourselves.

When we were younger, in school, we were told if we studied hard we could be anything. We did our homework, our projects, and our assignments and we felt accomplished when we got our grades back because we worked hard for them. We put in the time, the effort, and the literal blood, sweat, & tears.  But somewhere along the way we lost that sense of self-worth and attached a stigma to it.

I recently listened to a podcast about this very subject by former lawyer and current life coach, Kara Loewentheil J.D. called Unf*ck Your Brain. I have felt this way for a while but hearing her put it so plainly is when it actually clicked. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Basically, what I took from her podcast was the fact that we need to develop our mantra that tells us “We deserve to be where we are.”  We need to re-train our brain by starting every morning by realizing what we have done, how far we have come, and tell ourselves that it was our abilities, talents, and perseverance that got us here. By telling our brain that NOBODY else is responsible for where we are today, we can slowly start to believe ourselves.

I know I am not the only person who feels like this. It’s a subject that needs to be more openly discussed. It can happen to anyone, male or female, and research suggests that the more successful you are, the stronger the feeling becomes. So yes, of course we are waiting for someone to discover us, someone to yell “FRAUD” as we walk through the door, all the while knowing, deep down, that we do deserve to be here.

So let me leave you with this:

You are talented. You are worthy. You are supposed to be exactly where you are. Go for that next promotion, raise, or dream job with the mindset that you got there on YOUR OWN merits.

Megan DiGesare is an operations assistant for Hampshire Properties in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating from Audubon High School in 2005, Megan attended Rutgers University. After school she tried out a few different jobs before landing with a company where her “puzzle piece” fit. Aside from her 9-5, she is a social media manager for various clients. At home she enjoys cooking and hopes to one day write a cookbook. When she isn’t cooking (and posting the photos to Instagram) she is exploring the restaurants NYC has to offer.

The Struggle Is Real

#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.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is in rarified air. As a leader of my undisputed heavyweight favorite class of all time (2004) she represents so much of why ours is a most powerful profession. She’s the kind of teacher we all want on staff: able to inspire students, to lead colleagues, and to reflect on her practice. Like so many of my “formers,” I’m thankful that we stayed in touch.


Chasing Leadership

When I started my journey to become an educator, I didn’t want to be a teacher. Sounds weird, right? I still don’t want to be a teacher. I am one, I have been one for ten years, but I have always wanted to be a school leader. I’ve always thought that my perspective on education transcends the four walls of the classroom and the page numbers of curriculum. I want to do more, be more in the world of education, but I have been met with struggle on my path to a school leadership position.

Struggle #1:  Age. I can hold my own in a room full of men and women of any stature in a school district, local organization, or national council. I’ve served as a leader in many capacities within my school district, in my content area, and among my local education association. However, I always feel like the “kid” in the room because more often than not I am the youngest.

Personally, I’ve combated this feeling by never considering my age (32) as a reason to not take me seriously as long as my input was meaningful and respectful. In fact, I decided early on to overcome this struggle by commanding respect through leading by example, working in the trenches along with my peers, and communicating effectively. I was so thirsty for  leadership opportunities that I put my name in for elections for a leadership position of my local education association as a non-tenured teacher. Yea, I’m a little crazy. What won it for me eight years ago? Respect. Respect is the reason why I still proudly hold the position. Respect trumps age in my book.

Struggle #2: Opportunity. I never shy away from an opportunity to lead, both formally and informally. Mine is the first name on the volunteer list for every school committee and district initiative. I jump at the chance to show that I deserve to be considered for leadership opportunities. But what happens when after ten years the opportunities are running thin and the big jobs aren’t available? I fear that all of my hard work, time, and dedication will be forgotten.

How do I stay relevant in the minds of my superiors? Do I leave the comfort of a quality district to find leadership opportunities elsewhere? This is an area where I feel networking and professional relationships are extremely valuable. I have to remind myself that it is okay to share my struggle with those who have come before me and who can advise what my next steps should be.

Struggle #3: Family. I am at the point in my life and in my marriage where having children is the life path I want to follow. This means that I’ve had to slow down my leadership chase so that I could chase my almost two-year old daughter, all while I prepare to have another child as we just found out that I’m expecting. Now I find myself weighing my priorities of holding a school leadership position against the needs of my family.

My dad was a school leader for many years and for many years he wasn’t home for dinner, he wasn’t able to make it to my soccer games, he wasn’t there in the summer months at the beach. As a mother, I question if I can continue to dedicate the time and effort to school leadership and balance the demands of family at the same time. I’m eagerly seeking balance when it comes to being a woman in leadership.

In the meantime, I’m still chasing leadership, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s not my time for the “big role.” I still have the desire to lead, but have fulfilled my need to lead in smaller ways, like continuing my education in order to learn more about this profession I love. That’s what I can do right now because my struggles have caused my priorities to change.  I’m taking a detour at the moment, but I’ll be back when the time is right.

Monica Stillman Oppenheimer is a middle school Spanish teacher in Medford, NJ. As a graduate of the beloved Audubon High School class of 2004, Monica enrolled in Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. After the “best four years of her life,”  she landed her first (and current) teaching job. She later added to her portfolio a Master’s degree in School Leadership, a NJ Principal certificate, and an English as a Second Language certificate. At home she enjoys the endless loop of Trolls and Moana movies with her daughter Jade and fancy dinners with her “foodie” husband Ryan.

 

Busy Is Not An Affliction

In the canon of small talk, few responses to the age-tested question, “how you doin’?” will ever rival “good.” The word is so vague, so generic and yet so powerfully sufficient. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t require creativity, and it never, ever commands a follow up question about the state of being good.

However, a new response to the most common pleasantry has announced its intention to unseat the incumbent in a way that is so brash, so self-important, and so woebegotten that it might just have a chance.

Busy.”

Never has the world seen so versatile a response. Witness the myriad ways the word can function in common conversation.

~Hey, man, how you doin?

Yeah, you know, busy. The kids are both in sports, I’m working on my MBA online, and my wife just launched a website.

~Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?

Ugh, busy! I’m on this diet, so I’m constantly meal prepping, I just got engaged, and my parents are getting divorced, so that’s a nightmare. Just busy.”

~We’re heading out for happy hour. You in?

Thanks, but I’m so busy. I have to finish up these financials for the new quarter, my mother needs me to set up her new phone, and I have to get to the gym.

In each scenario, we have to assume the first speaker didn’t intend to receive a busyness resume as part of the response. In the first, our old stalwart “good” would have sufficed because the pleasantry had been asked and answered. In the second, because of the reference to time elapsed in between seeing each other, “good” would suffice but would necessitate a brief qualifier. In the final, most egregious, example, an alternative would be “I can’t” or “Sorry. Maybe next time.

So while the context may change, what remains constant is a growing cult of folks who kneel at the altar of busy. For some, being busy is just how they operate. They thrive on stress and deadlines, they don’t understand how the rest of the world can be so utterly relaxed, and they often wear their busyness like a badge to be shined every so often. For others, being busy is more a state of mind, a way to combat the often mundane, task-oriented days which lead one to the next.

And then there’s the true cult of personality: the busyness is my affliction group.

As if being busy is something that is perpetually happening to them, the cult of busy can often be seen wearing ostentatious buttons that read: Ask me about my busy! Harried and often out of breath, the afflicted seek out opportunities to remind the world how busy they are and dare us to compete, task-for-task, with their busyness.

But busy is not an affliction.

It didn’t befall us unawares, and we aren’t unwitting accomplices to its crimes. Busy doesn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder, and whisper, “you’re it!” We don’t inherit busy, we don’t live with busy, and we don’t survive busy. There aren’t 5K walks devoted to busy. Busy won’t present with a rash and a low-grade fever.

Be mindful that a busyness arm-wrestling contest only serves to diminish the importance of each other’s versions of busy. In any conversation, the busyness scoreboard should read 0 to 0.  

Because busy is not an affliction.

 

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. 

 

O Carrigan, My Captain

#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.

For our next installment, we hear from Robert C. Baumgartner. We all know a student like Bob. He boasts a dry wit, a deep passion for history and social studies, and a contagious affability.  I remember him, where he sat, and what we shared in 2002. He is an amazing person. In this piece, we are reminded of the power of human connection, a far greater content than that for which we are paid to teach. 


The United States Military Academy at West Point has a poster adorning the walls of the history department with the words, “Much of the history we teach was made by those we taught.” Typically, such a poster might seem overzealous and belching of one’s own platitudes, but in the hallowed halls of the Point, rightfully so.

Perhaps, as a teacher, one could amend the phrase to, “much of my history was made by those I taught.” Think for just a moment: every year a new mandate arises, whether it be from the state or a new district initiative, so some evolution is needed in our own teaching. However, I feel I owe most of my teaching evolution to my students. There were those who presented me with situations so outlandish and so preposterous that I learned better classroom management. There were also those who presented a situation so challenging or so rare that I carefully and thoughtfully intertwined compassion with duty.

During my undergraduate years, I had a professor at Rowan University named William Carrigan. He once told me that it was best to take a professor and not a class for you could learn anything from that professor since you embraced their methodology. Dr. Carrigan is to this day a cherished friend and mentor. I model much of my teaching philosophy from him and that is largely due to our relationship.

When I was a junior, I  experienced a grand mal seizure. I had e-mailed Dr. Carrigan to let him know I would not be in class and to discuss the make-up work. That was that, or so I thought. He had mentioned my absence to my class, all of whom were shocked as I was usually the first one there. Again, I thought nothing until a classmate told me that he was really upset about it.

This all made sense in 2011. I was completing my thesis for graduate school and undergoing radiation treatment at the time for a lymphoma. My thesis analyzed faculty attitudes in relation to intercollegiate athletics at the university level. Part of that research would be to poll the faculty about athletics. One evening I received an e-mail from Dr. Carrigan, but it was a group message. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit reply all by mistake and I read a letter to the faculty from Dr. Carrigan telling them that he had known me through 3 major medical issues, epilepsy, testicular cancer, and lymphoma, and attested that I was a diligent research student imploring them to take part in my survey.

Later, in my third year of teaching, I became the high school version of what Dr. Carrigan had been to me. I had lived how a teacher gave me such a tremendous gift because he thought highly of me. That never would have happened if he did not take the time to listen to what I was going through.

My students past and present have divulged things to me that I never thought I would hear. You cannot be prepared to be a teacher through classroom lectures on pedagogy.   It is the classroom of life that prepares you. Much of who you are comes from those you have met. If I hadn’t had Dr. Carrigan, I probably would be a different teacher. Not better or worse, necessarily, but I know I would be different.

That is how we we are changed. We pay attention to something important to our students. I challenge you to reach back into your memory of a teacher who did something special for you and think, how did that impact me? It was your impact on them as much as it was their impact on you. Remember:  you once sat in your students’ desks, just as your colleague, who is ready to retire next year, once did. We are not different inherently, only through our experiences.

Our students shape us far more than we may realize.

Robert C. Baumgartner is a history, law, sociology, and psychology teacher at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, NJ. He is a member of the faculty advisory board of the Declaration Project at Harvard University where they are currently creating an educational video game for the American Revolution. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Camden County College and a member of the adjunct faculty pool at Kapio’lani Community College in Honolulu. He has been featured on The Rogue Historian Podcast and has spoken on several instances at the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table. He is currently working on a research project dealing with geography education in the United States.

(no subject)

Subjecting to the (no subject) email

There may  be no more disquieting a combination than an English teacher with anxiety. Pepper in some empathy and add a touch of savior complex, and we have ourselves a downright Frankensteinian creation. As such, we tend to make complicated what should be simple, we (over)analyze the simplest of circumstances, and we think, ad nauseum, about the lives and happiness of other people. It’s all very exhausting.

My superintendent, the best leader with or for whom I’ve ever worked, is notorious for the (no subject) email. So much so that when such emails come through, my Pavlovian response is to hold my breath for a second before opening them. Immediately, I start to wonder to what this could refer. Without a subject line, the possibilities are endless and rife with disaster.

I consider: did I make a mistake recently so egregious that he couldn’t even bring himself to name it in the subject line. I think: is what I’m about to read so sensitive that giving it a name in the subject line somehow emboldens it. I worry: should I get my resume together?

One of the most challenging parts of leadership is reminding ourselves that everyone is not going to lead the way we do. Accepting that reality is paramount to our growth. My superintendent is amazing at his job because he is uber pragmatic, definitive, and articulate; he’s also a former high school math teacher, so, unlike me, he economizes his words under the banner of efficiency. To him, a subject line is no more than an unnecessary adjective in an already long sentence. An adornment to an already busy wall.

To me, a subject line is the billboard you see as you drive up to the stadium for a concert. It alerts the reader to what’s to come, it provides brief context to pique the reader’s interest, and it has a touch of my own personality, which signals the mood and tone of the email to follow. None of this is necessary, none will enter my emails in a competition for most clever subject line. However, because of the Frankensteinian combination to which I referred earlier, I cannot bring myself to start an email without a trailer.

In order to level up our leadership, it is imperative that we reflect on these nuances as often as we can. For a moment, step back and take a panoramic shot of your leadership team. Consider what each member does exceptionally well and how those strengths contribute to the success of the team. Then, and this is the hard part, consider what each member does differently than you. Though you may not be able to understand the motivation behind such differences, each provides you with an opportunity to hold a mirror up to how you choose to lead. Finally, create your own Frankensteinian leader with spare parts left over from members of your team.

But for goodness sake, put a stinkin’ subject line.  

A Race Worth Losing

Photo credit: Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman)

I first met Jayvon on a routine walkthrough of our self-contained MD classroom last year. As a fifth grader, he was shy but affable. Curious about who I was as I walked through and talked to his teacher and aides, but not so curious as to ask me any questions. For some reason, Jayvon stuck with me long after I left; less than a year later, I officially met him, and now he’ll stick with me forever.

While on a formal observation of our middle school Spanish teacher, Jayvon saw me across the room, walked right up to me, offered his hand, and introduced himself. As part of his program, Jayvon was encouraged to introduce himself to people with whom he wasn’t familiar.

“Nice to meet you, Jayvon! I remember you from Miss D’s class last year! I’m Mr. Kulak.”

At first I could tell he couldn’t process that I remembered him, and in full disclosure, I couldn’t explain how I remembered him either. But when he realized that we knew someone in common and that I was someone he could trust, he beamed with delight. After retreating to his desk to start his class, I caught him looking over and smiling a couple times.

Shortly thereafter, I made it a point to eat lunch with Jayvon. So on a random Tuesday, I made my way to the cafeteria and plopped myself down next to him as if invited. Again, it took him a second to process what was happening, but then he started chatting me up like I was an old friend, like I was supposed to be there. Maybe I was.

Eventually, we got around to his sneakers, which I complimented, to which he responded that he was also very fast.

“Not as fast as me!” I deadpanned.

“Oh yeah? Let’s race!” he challenged.

Just like that our “race of the century” was born. After months of preparation, we had our day and time chosen, but that was cancelled after an unplanned evacuation drill went on for over an hour. Undaunted, Jayvon’s teacher and I continued to find mutually convenient times, and on Wednesday, June 13th 2018, I raced Jayvon in front of hundreds of his classmates and our staff.

After video review, I conceded that I lost by a fraction of a second.

Sometimes all it takes to level up is to lose a race to an amazing kid who managed to run 40 yards while smiling widely from start to finish.