Ride On

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators. 

Anna Muessig and I grew up together, just not in the traditional sense. As members of the same English department, we found ourselves eerily similar by way of style and substance. Later, after she took time off to start her family, Anna returned only to replace me when I moved on from the classroom. Still later, we reunited at our current district where we’re each doing our best to do our best. She’s humble, kind, and reflective, and she makes the people around her better every day.

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Unless you live in this world, you probably just don’t get it. After all, why anyone would choose to do such a crazy thing.

But those of us who live in this world understand why we do it. 

Being a motorcyclist is far less challenging and far more predictable than teaching. I have a lot to learn about both, but one specific parallel between bikers and educators struck me today. 

When bikers pass each other on the road, they have a greeting. It’s a simple gesture–left hand off the handlebars, extended low, sometimes a full hand and sometimes with the first two fingers extended. If you’re not a biker, you’ve probably never heard of this before. You may even be thinking, “So what. Bikers wave and have a moving high five or something. Big deal.” 

The thing that non-bikers probably don’t get is that this little gesture is (as far as I know) a universal communication that approximately translates to the following. 

“Dude. I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. We both know how awesome it is to crank the throttle and how chill it is to cruise down a beautiful, open country road. We both know what it’s like to ride through the elements without the protection of the walls or roof around you. We both know how careful we have to be because drivers don’t see us and can take us out in a split second. We both know how serene an escape from the chaos of life a long ride can be. We both know that if your battery is dead and you don’t have a jumper on you, you’re screwed. We both know what it’s like to taste the smell of something gross that’s been squashed into the pavement and what it feels like to hit a pocket of cool air on a hot day. I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend.”

And yes, a two second gesture says all of this.

Educators, as far as I know, don’t have this two second gesture exactly, but we do have ways to tap into that same kind of connection. 

We (hopefully) have colleagues who encourage us on rough days, push us when we need a push, and cheer us on when our students’ faces finally light up with that “ah-ha” moment. We have Twitter and Voxer and other ways that we can connect with educators across the globe, to share ideas, and to remember that we aren’t really in this alone. We have EdCamps where we can meet with other educators who want to share ideas, make connections, and continue growing. 

Both teaching and biking can feel like completely solo exercises. And that’s not always a bad thing–both can be incredibly empowering. But from time to time we are energized by being reminded that we are not alone, and that others genuinely see and feel what we see and feel. 

If anyone hasn’t told you this yet today, whether you teach elementary, secondary, regular ed, special ed–Dude, I see you. And we’re connected because we both love this thing we’re doing right now. (Otherwise, why would you be reading a blog post about education?) We both know how awesome it is when a student finally can show you that she has mastered that skill. We both know how difficult it can be to do this well when we’re not at our best because we’re tired, fighting some germ, or stressed about something in our personal lives. We both know how rewarding it is to see our students move on to great things and to know that we were able to guide them on part of their life journey. We both know how careful we have to be because the responsibility we shoulder is heavy, and kids are too important for us to take their needs lightly. We both know that lesson plans are often a pain in the butt to write, and that some of the things we’re required to do are exercises in compliance that don’t make a difference for kids. We both know that when our students move on, we’re proud and excited, but we miss them because our care for them doesn’t end when they walk out the door. 

 I see you. I feel you. Ride on, my friend. 

Anna Muessig (@mrsmues) has worked in the field of nurturing children for as long as she can remember. Along the way, she has nannied, taught preschool, directed a summer camp, substitute taught at almost every grade level and setting within a public school, taught secondary English, served as an instructional coach, served as a district curriculum administrator, as well as nurtured her own two energetic boys in partnership with her amazing husband. She currently teaches English Language Arts to high school students in New Jersey.

She believes wholeheartedly in the value of changing the world one person at a time, taking risks, and reflectively questioning the assumptions we all unconsciously carry.


Weekend Warrior

I still can’t decide if the term is meant as a compliment or an insult: Weekend Warrior

From pot-bellied beer league softball dudes to ultra ripped CrossFit maniacs, real and faux athletes alike fall under this same ambiguous moniker. Because induction into this fraternity, or sorority as it were, is voluntary, throngs of grown ups flock, each weekend, to whatever arena houses their activity of choice. For hours each weekend, Warriors shed their traditional workaday armor for titanium lacrosse sticks, worn-down cleats, or, in my case, wooden bats. 

For the last nine years, I’ve devoted my Sunday mornings, eight months a year, to baseball. If I’m being honest, I’ve devoted most of my life to the game. Growing up in a town where baseball is life, I had little choice in the matter. The thing is for many Weekend Warriors, the real Warriors, our weekends start to bleed into our weeks. 

Sunday morning games are supplemented by midweek batting practice or bullpen sessions. Monday afternoons require uploading stats to the league website. Wednesday nights feature an “in or out?” text to the guys on my team in preparation for that week’s game. Friday nights or Saturday afternoons include lineup consideration and construction.  Ultimately, my weekends are often parts of five days long. 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

However, for far too many teachers, especially the new and novice, being a Weekend Warrior is neither a choice nor a chance to unwind while participating in an activity they love. It’s an expectation, a challenge, a crucible. And it has to stop. 

I often joke that I won’t stop playing baseball until an orthopedist or my wife tells me I have to, but playing a child’s game doesn’t pay my bills or provide my health insurance, so walking away would be a bummer, for certain, but it won’t be devastating. For teachers who feel compelled, by nature or by nurture, to work tirelessly over the weekend, the opposite is often true. Or at least that’s their perception. 

But there’s a difference between working on the weekend to prepare for next week’s instruction because you have to and because you think you have to. The former is likely a byproduct of inexperience; the latter speaks to an underlying, unspoken expectation put forth by leaders. 

There’s a growing turf war between teacher martyrs and self-care advocates. The former will have us believe that because we are in the business of kids, our very essence is an extension of that truth. After all, if we aren’t thinking about our kids during every waking moment then we must be doing it wrong. The latter espouses the notion that if we don’t take care of ourselves then we can’t possibly take care of our kids. After all, if we aren’t allowing ourselves time to decompress and be something other than educators then we must be doing it wrong. 

Sound familiar? 

Now imagine being a young teacher trying to figure out with which team she identifies. Too much of one or the other will surely ostracize her. Too little of one or the other will surely ostracize her. It’s simply a fool’s errand. 

So it’s up to leaders, the good ones anyway, to provide our teachers with permission, tacit or explicit, to explore their inner Warrior through an outlet that isn’t education. 

Try this: on Mondays, make a habit of scrapping the mundane, “How was your weekend?” in favor of a teacher-specific, Warrior question. 

Did you train any clients this weekend? (Personal Trainer Warrior)

-Do anything cool with the kids this weekend? (Mom Warrior)

-Did you hit up the cool, new winery we were talking about? (Wine Warrior)

-I saw there was a car show in Philly. Did you go? (Gearhead Warrior)

Now, your staff starts their new week by being identified as something, anything other than a teacher. In turn, watch as they ask you about your weekend in non-education speak. 

We were all something before we entered our field. Some of us waved goodbye to that person; some of us won’t accept the breakup.

It’s the Warrior in us that blends the two. 

Want more leadership ideas? Pick up a copy of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame today!

Beard Guy

I was never a beard guy. 

While I did flirt with a fairly common but truly hideous grunge style goatee in the 1990s, so began and ended my facial hair career. Call it vanity or the folly of youth, but I was always clean shaven. 

But a funny thing happens the older we get. Vanity can no longer afford the front row seats, so it shows itself to the back. Much like Forrest Gump, who famously decided to stop running, I just decided to stop shaving. Frankly, I really can’t stand the practice anyway, so that aversion coupled with a growing desire for a change led to my new look as a bearded man. 

With my wife’s approval, of course. 

The thing about growing a beard, I accepted early, is it’s a labor of love that takes time and patience. In the beginning, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the middle, it can be patchy, oddly colored, itchy, various lengths, and, frankly, pretty unattractive. In the end, well, you get the idea. 

The other thing about the beard is its impermanence. All the work we put into growing and grooming can be undone in a few minutes with the help of a powerful razor. Moreover, what is undone leaves in its wake a completely different face with completely different maintenance and care needs. 

Think, leaders, about how much time and effort you put into the maintenance and care of your staff. Think about the conscious decisions you make, both daily and long term, to shape your culture, to notice when something is out of place, to leave well enough alone, to recognize when you need to make a change.

Then think about how easily your culture can be altered, temporarily or permanently, with the same power and intensity of an electric razor. Whether that razor’s blades are sharpened by ego, petulance, pride, or insecurity, they cut quickly and mercilessly. 

Changing the face of your staff. 

Causing you to start all over again.

Turning 21

The first time I turned 21, I felt like I was miscast in a coming-of-age film about a guy turning 21. With a late September birthday, my firsts were always linked to being last. All my friends—all of them—are older than me, so I sat on the sidelines, or in the passenger seat, while each of them drove, tried chewing tobacco, voted, and drank. So when I finally turned 21, my squad was already over it, the shine had worn off, and I was just a little brother finally allowed, legally, to tag along. 

I think that’s why turning 21 again is so meaningful. Again, there will be little pomp and circumstance, and, just like last time, few people will even care that it’s happening, but I’m proud to be 21 again. 

Because I’ve been in education for exactly half my life. 

21 separate plays with completely different story arcs, characters, and denouements.

21 years of “My bad” and “I’m glad I was your teacher” and “Welcome Back!”

21 first days and last days. 

21 chances to take chances. 

21 opportunities to provide opportunities. 

Of course, catching up to myself just means that while the starting line (21) will always be the same, I’ll move farther away from that line each year I remain doing what I love, until the part of my life that isn’t in education is dwarfed by the part that is. 

And I’ll drink to that. 

How old are you turning this year?

Release

I’ve made no secret about my borderline obsessive relationship with Seattle grunge gods, Pearl Jam. They’re referenced in my bio, they’re always on shuffle and repeat in my head, and they’re represented in my most recent tattoo. But my affinity isn’t about wanting to be Pearl Jam; it’s about how Pearl Jam is a part of me. 

When they exploded onto the scene in 1991, I, like most of the country, was awakening from a long 1980s malaise filled with hairbands and awful ballads. Music that didn’t really speak to me because I wasn’t ready for or interested in the following: (a) action tonight (b) cherry pie (c) Dr. Feelgood or (d) sugar being poured on me. Thankfully, the boys from Seattle showed up and served the scene notice. They’ll take it from here. 

The final song on their masterful debut album Ten, “Release,” has served as a mantra since I first heard it almost thirty years ago. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic drone takes listeners on a 9-minute journey through his bizarre, posthumous relationship with a father he didn’t think he had. Ultimately, Vedder pleads with his dead father to release him of the man he couldn’t be so Vedder can be the man he needs to be. 

Enduring a tempestuous relationship with my own father, albeit without the same level of confusion, made “Release” seem written for me.  Pearl Jam has this effect on a lot of listeners.

As educators, we have an innate need for control. Bound by bell schedules, state mandates, and rubrics (so many rubrics), we live in a perpetual state of oversight. In this way, control is often imposed on us, which sends our own need for control into hyper-drive. It’s a maniacal cycle. So break it.

As you prepare for the upcoming school year, do so with the idea of “release” in mind.

Release control of a read aloud to your kids. 

Release responsibility over your next PD to your teacher leaders. 

Release feedback on a writing piece instead of a grade. 

Release yourself from the noise of the notoriously negative 10%.

Release your first blog post or podcast episode.

Release your teacher leader so she can observe other leaders in your district. 

Release stress by unplugging and unwinding.

Release yourself from feelings of Edu-guilt over not doing enough, not being enough.

So much of our Edu-identity is made up of what we’re supposed to be. From crowded lecture halls to oddly spaced, platitude-heavy tweets, we’re told what and how to be as teachers and leaders. But it’s when we shed those cookie-cutter expectations, when we demystify prescribed formulas for greatness, and when we chart our own path that we can, like Vedder, release. 

Your Face!

C’mon, you remember using, or at least hearing, this odd non-sequitur in the throes of an argument when you were a kid.

Dude, you totally suck at guitar. 

Your face! 

Though it makes no sense in virtually any context other than dermatology, your face took on a powerful, full stop role in just about every schoolyard in America. Because there’s no retort, the recipient of the your face was left speechless, wondering just how he lost the upper hand. 

But your face, your actual face, is a leadership tool that cannot be undervalued. 

During a Level Up Leadership workshop with Dr. Joyce Jeuell’s ed leadership cohort at Chestnut Hill College this week, I was reminded of what our faces mean to our leadership. The group was discussing leadership in the midst of awful, unforeseen trauma, something each member of the cohort could speak to but only from a teacher perspective. A recent mishandled communication after the death of a staff member at one of her student’s schools led to the discussion during which Dr. Jeuell made clear the first line of leadership defense when the unexpected happens. 

How does your face look when things like this happen? It’s the first thing your staff will see, so what will yours look like?

As leaders, you’ll receive news for which you are unprepared.

You’ll sit with a domestic violence victim as she slides the TRO across your desk for you to put on file. You’ll hold the hand of a seven-year old who can’t process her parents’ divorce. You’ll spring into action when a staff member takes a tumble and is visibly disoriented. You’ll listen as an unstable parent lambastes you for all the world to hear. 

How will your face look?

While we may not be able to control contours, crow’s feet, and laugh lines, we can absolutely control how we use our faces to stem a rising tide. Whether we’re working with children or grown ups, our faces will tell them everything they need to know long before our words will. 

Use it to your advantage. 

Easier said than done? Not really. 

In any situation, there’s a fraction of a second during which your mind is processing what is happening. It’s the time between the pitcher throwing the ball and committing to your swing. It’s the moment when too-hot coffee touches your tongue. It’s the instant when the OBGYN asks if you’re ready to hear the gender. 

In each, and every, scenario your mind has a split-second to tell your face what to do next. Being mindful of that granule of sand slipping through the hourglass is all it takes to instill calmness, confidence, and control over any situation. 

Your leadership style? It’s written all over your face.

Thought About You

I was watching The Office, the one where Jim pretends to be Dwight, and totally thought of you. 

That Radiohead song “Idioteque” came on my Spotify, and I thought of your class. 

I was cleaning out my Inbox, and I came across an email you sent me when I first started here. I think I’ll keep it. 

There’s something particularly powerful about being thought of. 

Think about the last text, tweet, vox, or phone call you got that started with, “Hey, I was just _______ and thought of you.” You can fill in that blank with any mad-lib verb you want (unless it’s like, you know, creepy), and it won’t change the smile forming at the corners of your mouth. In fact, the reference really doesn’t matter as much as the sentiment and the person from whom it comes.

It’s the human connection. 

Twice in the last month I’ve spent time with former students, reaching as far back as the class of 2005, who have “thought of me” while working on writing projects. Now, as their former English teacher, there’s little mystery as to why each reached out: writing is my jam, and I published a book.

But, there’s far more to it than that. 

Being thought of is the result of a purposeful approach to the time we spend with other people. It happens when we personalize our instruction, our leadership, and our empathy, so that people around us feel something. They may not know it at the time, but such a human investment catalyzes later, causing people to associate the seemingly random with the distinctly specific: us.

Listen, I spend far too much time thinking about leadership and how to improve. But the focal point of such thought is always people, not practice.  It’s committing to restorative justice practices with a certain student or two in mind. It’s developing our master schedule with a team of teachers rather than absent of them. It’s creating leadership opportunities for teachers I know I will lose to other positions very soon. It’s considering the importance of #SEL4Adults as I build our PD schedule for the year. 

I can’t imagine living an anonymous life, especially one devoted to people. So when you have those fleeting flashes from your subconscious, when a passage from a book reminds you of your 7th grade teacher, when you begin to free associate your world with those with whom you’ve shared even the slightest human connection, tell them. 

Tell them you thought of them. 

Mic drop

Ok, then don’t care about baseball.

Rachael said it so matter-of-factly and with such confidence that I almost believed that she had rehearsed that line in front of her mirror, knowing at some point she’d say it to me. It was a perfect analogy, delivered with genuine conviction, to help me understand how her mind works. 

And how my mind works so similarly. 

We were discussing the recent withdrawal of Carlos, one of her second graders with whom she had developed a close bond. Having worked with him last year, she was wholly aware of how challenging his life was, bookended by two absentee parents. In the middle, a man who had dated Carlos’s mother and, upon her flight from adult responsibility, accepted the role of stand-in father.

But something was off. 

Still, Rachael found him in her class again this year and was excited at the prospect of another chance to provide seven hours of stability in his otherwise chaotic life. Despite her natural empathy and maternal instinct, despite countless street-side conversations and calls home, despite my intervention during a formal meeting to discuss attendance, lateness, and academics, one day Carlos stopped coming to school. Later, we’d find out his adoptive family moved amid alarmingly flimsy circumstances. 

Her: Can we call over to his new school? Something is off with Manuel (adoptive father). I can feel it. We have to at least alert the school that this child may not be safe. 

Me: Sure, I will call over and tell them what we know. But you have to let him go now. You did amazing work with him, but you have to let him go.

Her: Ok, then don’t care about baseball. 

Mic. Drop.

Knowing how much I love the game and still obsess over the previous weekend’s at bats or performances on the mound, Rachael practiced what I preach all the time.

She met me on my level. 

I can’t turn off my love of the game, I can’t control dreaming about baseball (often under bizarre or losing circumstances), I can’t help but draw analogies between the game and our profession, and I can’t help dreading the day a doctor or my wife tells me I have to stop playing. 

So, I can’t simply attach a platitude, or Disney song, to my love for the game and “let it go.”

Nor can Rachael stop caring for students with the same fervor and empathy with which she cares for her own children. She can’t look over at Carlos’s empty cubby or table and be like, “meh, bummer.” She won’t put him into a former student box, tucked away in her consciousness, with the rest of her wistful, mournful, or otherwise transcendent memories of students from days gone by. 

It was foolish and short-sighted of me to suggest Rachael flip a non-existent, unrealistic, and aloof switch in the wake of Carlos’s departure. None of us is capable of simply turning off our passion when it becomes inconvenient. 

Down by one run last Sunday, I led off the 8th with a strikeout looking (the pitch was high, but still), and I haven’t been able to shake my disappointment since.  

Because I care about baseball, and I can’t turn it off. 

I don’t much want to either. 

I or Me?

Though I have yogis in my family, the idea of practicing yoga always seemed foreign to me. If I were going to spend time working out, I would take the barbell over the mat, the “skull-crusher” over the half-pigeon pose. Still, as I got older, something about the local yoga studio kept catching my eye. I convinced myself that it was a challenge, it would be great for my fading core and non-existent flexibility, and it would provide some versatility to my admittedly stale workout routine. 

Within minutes of my first “hot” yoga practice, I was hooked. As an all-too-obvious rookie, I spent more time watching than posing during that first hour of my yoga career, and veteran yogis were happy to let me observe while I figured out each pose. I was drawn to the community of breath and movement, and as an anxiety sufferer, the physical routine and overt mindfulness of each session provided a sixty-minute respite from my mind’s insistence on overthinking and overanalyzing. Before long, I felt more comfortable, stronger, and more flexible. 

I don’t pretend to know anything about yoga instructor training, but like in any other field, I have to assume some instructors are just better than others. Some are workmanlike. Others are fun. Some are too chatty. Others are too aloof. 

Like the proverbial porridge, for me, Leigh is just right. A clever mix of experience and energy, Leigh can somehow tap into the collective personality of the ever-changing cast of yogis surrounding her. She is constantly in motion, employs a session-specific Spotify mix during our practice, and leads each practice with intention. 

What makes Leigh special is what she says at the end of each practice. Sometimes she jokes about how hard she was on the class on a particular night. Other times she’ll share an anecdote that she knows will resonate with most of the class. And sometimes she forces us to look inward just as we are about to “take rest” at the end of a practice. 

At the end of one particular session, Leigh talked about the difference between “I” and “me.” As a former English teacher, my inner grammarian perked up. However, this wasn’t a grammar lesson. Leigh was about to analogize how each word forms the foundation for our intention, for the way we see the world, and for how we view ourselves. 

I gives. Me takes,” she said. 

Think about how often we frame our world as either I or me statements and about the profound difference between the two. Using I is a way of claiming ownership, of affirming our place in any moment or in life, of being an active participant in our own lives. Using me removes us from that space. Me suggests that life is happening to us; it has a selfish connotation, whether we mean for it to or not. 

As educators, do we shape-shift that mentality depending on who we are in front of, on what we need in a given moment? Do our personal and professional lives share these pronouns or are they at odds with each other? Are we active (I) or passive (me) participants in our practice and in our relationships with kids and colleagues?

Now, as yoga preaches, I am mindful of how each word shapes my intention, strengthens my relationships, informs my leadership, and makes me a better husband and father. I have Leigh to thank for that. 

Ask yourself: are you an I or a me person?

(We) Have the Power!

I have the powerrrrrrrr! 

When I was a young scamp, I loved me some Saturday morning cartoons. Without a care in the world or a understanding of how awesome sleep is, I would wake up early to sit mindlessly in front of our very boxy, very retro television. For hours.  From Adventures of Gummi Bears and Bravestarr to Transformers and Thundercats, those Saturdays were both formative and carefree. 

But, photon laser to my head, I was a He-Man and The Masters of the Universe kid. I had the action figures, I had Castle Grayskull, I had He Man’s sword, and I had a very intense, confusing crush on She-Ra, He-Man’s scantily clad twin sister. Sadly, that crush came to a screeching halt when the real life, scantily clad She-Ra spelled my name “Brain” on a comic book during a photo-op after the live action Masters of the Universe film in 1987. 

But, I digress. 

Like so many superheroes, He-Man is really an alter ego of the very Scandinavian- inspired Prince Adam. When Adam needed to transform into He-Man to defend Castle Grayskull from the nefarious Skeletor, all he needed to do was lift his sword triumphantly and yell, “By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!” Clearly, he would have been a total frat bro.

But he’s right. He has the power to choose when and how he reacts to threats, haters, and villains. I mean he can’t sit idly by while his home planet, Eternia, is overrun by Evil-Lyn and Beast Man. On the other hand, he’s not going to proclaim the power and then binge Fraggle Rock reruns over an iced latte. 

Every once in a while, I come across the “other side” of Edu Twitter. The side that includes long, winding, vitriol filled threads bashing educators as hacks, charlatans, and frauds. The side that wonders aloud, “if you need a book to tell you to connect with kids, you might want to choose a new profession!” The side whose righteous indignation emboldens its base in an echo chamber of faux superiority and very transparent envy. 

The side I, nor readers of this blog, simply don’t understand. 

Like He-Man, we all have the power. We have the power to lift each other up, revel in each other’s success, invite each other into our worlds, support each other in times of need, hug each other IRL, and RT the bajeezus out of each other. 

The constant in that list is each other. Whether we’re convening at Castle Grayskull or on Voxer, we have the power to decide how to interact with each other. We can raise our swords against each other or in support of each other.

What will you do with your power?