Friendsy

It’s funny what the brain hears when it’s really only half listening.

The word, a common one, was frenzy.

But what I heard, and believed to be true, was friendsy.

Like many of you, my morning workouts aren’t complete without my earbuds providing the conduit to a Spotify 90s mix, the new National album, or pre-concert prep for, say, the upcoming Psychedelic Furs/James twinbill. But sometimes I’ll give the melodies a break and listen to whatever must-listen podcast to which I’ve been referred.

My wife, a gifted fundraiser for the Temple Lung Center in Philadelphia, recently discovered that podcasts are a thing, and now she’s obsessed to the point to which our two children’s eyelids aren’t yet closed at bedtime before she has her own earbuds in. As a result, she’s constantly sending podcast suggestions my way; oftentimes, she identifies some intersection of health care and education before making the recommendation.

WorkLife with Adam Grant represents such a cross-section, and only three episodes in, I’m already a better leader because of it. Grant, a wunderkind Wharton professor, writer, and organizational psychologist, expertly examines motivation, creativity, and organizational management in a way that is accessible to plebeians like me.

During an episode in which Grant visits the writers’ room at The Daily Show, he describes the experience with the word “frenzy.”

But for some reason, my brain heard the word “friendsy.” The misnomer didn’t even dawn on me until several seconds later because what we hear in the writers’ room sounds like a large group of friends throwing out jokes for that night’s episode. So I didn’t hear frenzy; rather, I heard friendsy.

So, why? Why did I hear a commonly used noun and mistake it for a colloquial slang term which doubles as a hookup app. Ultimately, the answer is simple: I immediately thought of my former students, staff, and colleagues whom I consider friends.

So much of who I am as a leader is rooted in relationships, and while I can certainly draw a line of demarcation between friendly and friends, I’m not turning down a lunch invitation from two amazing teachers who wanted to welcome me to my new role or a wedding invitation from a student I taught 18 years ago.

I’m not going to pass up the chance to send a hilarious meme to a teacher after she finds a swear word scrawled on the wall outside her classroom.

I’m absolutely going to support a colleague who is about to begin IVF treatments because, as she now knows, that’s how my wife and I were blessed with our daughter.

I can’t explain why my brain misheard such a common word, but I’m thankful that it did because it forced me to reflect on 20+ years of a career that may best be categorized as friendsy.

Finally…

As a former English teacher, I have had quite a love affair with words for the last twenty years. Like my marriage, my relationship with words undulates, palpitates, and frustrates. Sometimes words come in a flurry, frenetically and furiously. Other times words have to be coaxed and cajoled in order to get them to land on the page.

Still other times I find myself musing over how some words can pack such a wallop depending on the context. My current word-du-jour has caused a bit of a stir in my noggin. Its power and impact can measure at alpha and omega and everywhere in between.

Finally.

This word has the power to lift up and the power to utterly destroy. It’s placement in a sentence can be the difference between elation and devastation, and I can prove it.

Finally! Game of Thrones is back! #teamarya

Finally! My daughter finishes up her semester abroad and will be home tonight.

Versus…

She came to her senses and is leaving him. Finally!

Did you hear he put his retirement paperwork in? Finally!

It’s that last one that terrifies me. But it’s also a powerful motivator.

Typically, there are two distinct and oppositional reactions when word leaks that a colleague has decided to retire. The first is a mournful pause followed quickly by collective joy for a person who deserves a hero’s send off.

The other reaction, my aforementioned motivator, is abject relief. A sort of what-took-so-long harumph coupled with a wry smile and that duplicitous word, finally.

Close enough to say it without whispering and far enough away to keep it at a mythical length, I think about my retirement from a removed, third-person perspective. But part of that perspective includes a varied cast of colleagues, real and imagined, whose possible reactions provide the motivation to grow and improve.

Perhaps we need to consider our careers using backward design. What, then, is our ultimate goal in a life devoted to education? While the semantics will vary, I envision our collective goal is touching the lives of as many people as we can before bowing out gracefully. To extend the analogy, I imagine our activities and assessments to that end center around our relationships, our conversations, our decisions. Our lesson plans consider with whom we work, how we communicate with them, and how we help improve each other.

Finally, we reflect on a career marked by true connections with our kids and our colleagues. A career after which those same kids and colleagues celebrate with us, lean in for a hug, and whisper, you deserve this.

Finally.  

State of Sorry

We need to stop apologizing.

Even the glib, “Sorry, not sorry!” begins with the very sentiment it proclaims not to be.

Whether it’s part of a global deference to authority, a knee-jerk reaction to, well, anything, or an internal wiring, educators have become far too apologetic. And it needs to stop.

For me, it’s gotten to the point to which I have to correct teachers for beginning their sentences with “sorry.”

Sorry, I was just finishing up when you walked in. I can do the lesson again!

Sorry, I just wanted to stay with her for a little while because I think something is going on at home.

Sorry, can I leave right at 3 today because my son has a cross-country meet near here, and I never get to see him run.

Part of me thinks the apologies are because I give off some as-yet-to-be-named pheromone which induces teachers into a temporary state of sorry. Then I came across the image that serves as the banner for this post, and I felt relieved. The state of sorry isn’t localized to my small, southern New Jersey school. It is, in fact, pandemic.

Perhaps it’s the inherent people-pleaser in each of us. After all, we consciously entered a field in which the principle resource is people.

Maybe it’s because we often work with parents who come at us from all sides, armed with lawyers and entitlement, so our Pavlovian response is the apology.

Or it could be an unholy combination of generational guilt and working for a leader for whom apologies are the norm, not the exception.

As leaders, we need to do our best to suspend, if not end, the prevent defense culture associated with the apology. If our teachers are compelled to apologize to start a sentence, it likely says as much about us as it does about them.

And, I’m sorry, if you’re the kind of leader who expects an apology as a salutation, then you aren’t reading this blog in the first place.


Relax Your Tongue

I want you to relax your tongue.

I’m serious. Relax your tongue.

It must be difficult being a tongue. My man rarely gets any down time.

The first time my yoga instructor said this during our practice, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Having practiced yoga for years, not one yogi ever asked a class to relax our tongues. Now,  I look forward to her saying it. I expect her to say it. And I comply.

Bringing awareness to arguably the most overlooked, but necessary, part of our body has instilled in me a subtle and powerful level of mindfulness.

Now, I find myself relaxing my tongue countless times a day: after a tense parent meeting, on my drive home, as I write each morning. For me, this micromove has become a physical manifestation of a mantra. No matter how many times I do it, I can always do it again.

Relax your tongue.

Find your own thing. Count to 10, hold your breath, focus on a picture of your kids, watch cat videos, sing your favorite song in an Irish accent.

In the end, you need to find something that reminds you to press pause.

Relax your tongue.

Just Dance

An excerpt from Increase Mather’s 1684 essay, “An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures.”

Now this [dancing] we affirm to be utterly unlawful, and that it cannot be tollerated in such a place as New-England, without great Sin…The Design of Dancing is only to teach Children good Behaviour and decent Carriage.


I wonder what ol’ Increase and his band of merry Puritans would think of the “Orange Justice.”

When I first started teaching in 1999, part of the sophomore ELA curriculum was devoted to the Puritans, so I taught the above essay along with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” among other totally teen relevant fan favorites.  I used such seminal works to teach discourse, persuasion, and syntax, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to open up discussion about life in the 17th and 18th century. Later in the year, we’d read The Crucible, so starting with the real Puritans to prepare for the fictional ones was necessary, foundational work.

As you can imagine, kids were aghast at the idea that people were against dancing. Though we discussed the Biblical interpretation, the cultural climate, and the fundamental fear of God, students in the 20th century just could not grasp the Puritan way of life.

I mean, to be honest, I still don’t.

But that brings us to 2019: new century, same disdain for dancing.

My elementary school kids love Fortnite, and the ones that don’t, including my 9-year old daughter, love the dances associated with game. So from the aforementioned “Orange Justice” to “The Wiggle” to “The Floss” kids are dancing out loud and it’s driving the adults insane.

But, why?

What is it about children dancing that turns us all into residents of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692?  

Maybe we see junior versions of ourselves in those little, dancing bodies, and we long for the days when we, too, could just stop what we’re doing and dance. Inhibitions be damned (not our souls).

Maybe we conflate dancing with an overt smack to our orderly, Charlotte Danielson fearing faces.

Maybe we, by nature, aren’t dancers, especially in public, so the prospect of children dancing willy-nilly in our halls and in our rooms evokes a primal envy we didn’t know existed (note: if this describes you, please stop reading and seek help).

Maybe we weren’t allowed to watch Footloose or Grease as a kid, so seeing them play out in real life serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe we work for a 21st century version of Increase Mather and fear being smote on the spot, Dunkin’ coffee in hand, for not putting a stop to the wickedness.

But maybe, just maybe, we should let the kids dance if they want to.

Hell, maybe we should join them.

Closed Door Policy

Honor Time Without Announcing It

I have a closed door policy.  Don’t @ me.

Announcing an open door policy as part of a leadership philosophy is like a pitcher announcing he’s going to throw the ball to the plate. Yes, of course it’s supposed to happen but having to tell people about it seems disingenuous.

When my door is closed, I’m with a troubled 9-year old who “doesn’t understand the point of living.”

When my door is closed, I’m with a first-year teacher who just needs to vent and admit that she is very tired.

When my door is closed, I’m on the phone with the superintendent because I want to triple check before I call DCP&P and create further chaos in a 5-year old’s life.

When my door is closed, I’m finishing up a hug with a teacher who can finally announce her first pregnancy after years of IVF.

When my door is closed, I’m conducting a post-observation after one of the best lessons I’ve seen in my time in leadership.

When my door is closed, a veteran teacher is in tears as she tells me she just can’t do it anymore and needs to retire.

When my door is closed, a smiling 8-year old is coloring while I try to contact her step father who has forgotten to pick her up. Again.

When my door is closed, I am decompressing, if only for a moment, after my door was closed all day.

So much happens behind closed doors every day. Imagine what we’d miss if those doors remained open.

Say It

Developing an Intentional Leadership Style

The first couple times I do it, folks don’t know what the hell is happening. Most look down or immediately blush. Some shift their weight from one foot to the other absentmindedly. Others stare back at me for an uncomfortable two or three seconds to make sure I’m finished.

Whether as a result of being a father and telling my kids how amazing I think they are all the time or because I’ve become more reflective as I age, I now subscribe to a simple mantra, Say It.

Witness:

After a Saturday morning jaunt to a trampoline park with my kids, we decided to stop at Dunkin Donuts for a snack. The young man behind the counter, who was clearly working harder than everyone else there, gave my son a free Munchkin as we waited for our food. My daughter, who had already found us a table, didn’t get one but didn’t even realize it. Several minutes later, the attendant walked over with another Munchkin and apologized for not seeing my daughter in the first place. We thanked him, and then I just started to watch him work.

He was frenetic in his approach. He was cheerful in every interaction. He knew regulars by name and by the time of day they came in. He was really good at his job.

So I told him.

“Say man, thanks again for the freebies. You’re really good at your job. You should be proud.”

Like I said, people don’t know what to make of me at first. My sense is our society has become so sarcastic, so negative, so sub-Tweet-y that our natural instinct is to expect the worst from each other. But when he realized, after a long couple of seconds, that I was genuine, he just smiled and squeaked out a barely audible “thank you, sir.”

Telling people what they mean to me, how proud I am of them, or how good they are at their jobs, has changed the way I the way I see the world and how I choose to lead.

When I watched my math interventionist instill confidence in struggling learners, I crafted an email on the spot that started with the line, “I love to watch you work.”

When I finished an observation in 4th grade, I made a beeline for the teacher, who was already beaming because her kids had crushed the lesson, and told her how insanely good the lesson was, tipping my administrative hand long before I submitted her scores.

When a 3rd grader forgot her homework, I let her back in the building and then marched over to the waiting car in which sat her mom and grandma, “Can I just tell you how much I love your daughter? She is constantly smiling, working hard, and being kind. You should be proud.” I can’t be sure, but I think mom teared up as she rolled the window back up.

But it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop in my professional life.

My wife is beautiful and an uber talented fundraiser, so I tell her.

My son is ridiculously funny for a 5 year old, so I tell him.

My daughter is creative and empathetic and already a better person than me, so I tell her.

My brother has had a difficult life but is really trying, and I’m proud of him, so I tell him.

At first, shifting our consciousness from thinking it to saying it is intentional and uncomfortable. Eventually, however, it becomes ingrained, an expectation, an accepted invitation from the world to see it and say it.

So, see it. And say it.

#JurorWoes

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

Tina Olsen was the first person to convince me that everything would be okay. After news broke that I would be switching roles with her former (outstanding) principal, Tina wasted no time in texting me as the spokeswoman for our school. Her message was concise, clear, and wise beyond her years: This is a hard job. Please let me help you

And help me she has. Every day. That’s why I wasted no time in asking her to be the first #ColleagueCorner contributor and why her story, while so common, serves as a cautionary tale for leaders who may forget how good they have it when they work with people like Tina. 

__________________________________________________________

I saw them.

Those dreaded eight black letters staring back at me: JURY DUTY. Naturally, my first reaction was how could three years have passed so quickly. My next thought was convincing myself that it’s part of my official civic duty to serve. So, I put in for the substitute, and off I went to the Hall of Justice with a bag full of books that were never read.

What in the world does this have to do with education? Well, I’m getting there.

What I anticipated to be a one-day-I’ll-just-read-for-seven-hours sort of juror experience turned into quite the opposite. I was instantly called up and put in a pool to serve on a three-month long case. Immediately, the lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” popped into my head. How on earth could I leave my students for three months? I panic leaving them for a 30-minute special period let alone 90 consecutive days! The thought of not seeing my kids (yes they become your kids when you spend almost more time with them than their own parents) gave me a panic attack in my seat.

I was never forced to think about teaching coming to an absolute halt, especially one that was completely out of my control, and it was scary. Thoughts flooded my head: Who will replace me? How will my kids react to a new teacher? Will he or she undo all of the progress I made with my kids? How am I going to survive without seeing my colleagues-turned-closest-friends?

Even on the hardest days of teaching there is always something bright that shines through. If chosen, I would not see my kids learning, laughing, smiling, joking, and blossoming into the amazing people they are destined to be. There was NO WAY I could be picked for the trial; I had more impactful things to do in my own classroom.

Luckily, after what seemed like the longest two days of my life, I was officially dismissed from the case. The whole experience really forced me to put my career as an educator into perspective. I did miss my crazy classroom for those two days. I do love teaching, and sometimes I take for granted just how lucky I am to educate, nurture, and learn from my students every day. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked back into MY classroom, my sanctuary of chaos. Let the learning begin again!

Until the next summons…

Tina Olsen is a first grade teacher in Collingswood, NJ. She is also a K-12 graduate of the Collingswood School District. Following high school, Tina went to Stonehill College in Massachusetts, only to return to the beloved town where her academic journey started! She has her Masters in Special Education and one day hopes to obtain an academic supervisor or principal certification. She is currently studying to obtain her certification as a Group Fitness Instructor. Tina loves to bake, work out, and travel with her husband Ray.

Back (Pocket) Pain

I have the back of a man twice my age.

Despite being fanatical about my workouts, which take place immediately after I write each morning, following a daily stretching routine, practicing yoga, seeing a chiropractor, and getting massages, I am perpetually one false move away from lying prostrate on the floor with wicked spasms. For close to twenty years, this has been my norm.

Likely due to an unholy combination of poor genetics and years of athletics, my back is just a liability.  As a result, I have to spend significant time strengthening my core and reminding myself to get up and go for a walk if I feel myself sitting for too long. However, even as mindful as I have become, I simply can’t think of everything. Sometimes I need a little help.

A routine trip to my chiropractor, Shane, and a fairly common question led to a lifestyle breakthrough.

Do you keep your wallet in your back pocket?”

I mean what man doesn’t keep his wallet in his back pocket, accessible at a moment’s notice? Though relatively thin (we’re not talking about a George Costanza sized wallet here), my wallet did reside in my back right pocket for as long as I could remember. For just as long, I didn’t think once about it being there or about the way it could affect my back. Frankly, it was like an appendage.

The day Shane asked me about my wallet was its last as a resident of my pants. Rather, my wallet is rarely in the same place for long: in my car, in my briefcase, in the inner pocket of a blazer. In fact, when I do slip it in my back pocket absentmindedly, it isn’t there for a full minute before I quickly remove it.

For years, I was carrying around this equilibrium time bomb in my pocket, so I had to wonder, what else am I carrying around just waiting to wreak havoc on my otherwise healthy existence?

I would argue there isn’t a profession in which its members internalize, empathize, and reflect more than education. Whether it’s the high after teaching an amazing lesson, the dread of an uncomfortable post-observation conference, or the worry over a marked difference in the personality of a ten-year old, we carry with us the weight of everything that happens in our day. Frankly, our back pockets don’t have room for much else.

Yet that’s what draws us to education. We are people who have always liked school, have, for the most part, done well in school, have always liked working with kids, and have had some positive association in our own education which led us back to the field as professionals. The curse, as it were, is that we can’t just remove who we are from our back pocket when our profession gets difficult, like it is right now.

We can, however, look to shed something, anything, that is weighing us down.

Maybe it’s the lack of confidence akin to being a new teacher.

Maybe it’s the toxicity of a particular presence in the faculty lounge.

Maybe it’s the one-sided friendship from which we receive nothing.

Maybe it’s the convenience of using the same worksheet (blech) during the same lesson for the last twenty years.

Maybe it’s the self-doubt that so often plagues us as we do our best to do our best.

Ask yourself, then, what do you carry in your back pocket that needs to be shed?

Three Assists

Cultivating a Culture of We

On that day, I saw things happen long before everyone else did. I was operating on a different level, and although it didn’t happen often, when it did, man it was sweet.

It didn’t take me, or my parents, long to recognize that sports were going to be a major part of my life. By 6 or 7, I knew that I loved to play anything that involved a ball or puck; by 8 or 9, I knew that I was pretty good; by 13, I was a twelve-month, three-sport athlete. At 42, I still play baseball eight months a year, and I ain’t stopping unless my wife or a doctor tells me it’s time to hang ‘em up.

But this isn’t about athletic glory days. It’s about an indelible memory, with soccer as the backdrop, that has shaped my leadership philosophy.

Most athletes call it “the zone.” That fleeting but powerful expanse of time during which we simply cannot be stopped. It can manifest itself in any number of ways: a triple-double, a 12- strikeout shutout, a hat trick. Of course, the elite athletes live there while the rest of us only rent property at the far end of town a couple of times a year.

By halftime, we were up 3-0. All three goals were majestic, tic-tac-toe setups to three different scorers. I know because I was the player who set them up. As we huddled on the sideline, scarfing down orange wedges in between gulps of water, I uttered the question that led to this post.

32 years later.

Do I get credit for those three assists?

Though I can’t explain why I asked because I knew the answer, I can explain why this memory has stayed with me: the answer.

Well, the whole team does.

Our coach was the father of our best player, Shawn, who would go on to become one of the best player’s in our high school’s history. A stern, mustached, no-nonsense guy, Tom put me in my 10-year old place without humiliating me or making an example of me. He was right. I was on a team, we were up 3-0, and we were all responsible for the team’s success.

The exchange probably took five seconds. The impact is perpetual.

As the leader of an incredibly gifted staff, a perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful energy, I receive emails and calls of praise weekly. Sometimes those compliments are specific to a particular teacher or experience; sometimes they are broad and overarching. Each time, my response is the same.

Thank you so much. We have an amazing staff. I’ll make sure to share this with them.

And then I do share it with them. Whether through a forwarded email or quick, early morning conversation, I provide the assist to the person who should get the credit. Then, I shut up about it already.

During my first ever principal evaluation, I purposely steered the conversation back to my teachers. When my superintendent asked about our scores, I referred to our teachers’ work ethic. When he asked about my transition to principal, I referred to the handful of teachers who made a conscious decision to support me through overt kindness and well-timed advice. When we finished, I reminded him how fortunate I am to work with this group of teachers.

Right now, I’m back in that zone I talked about earlier. Only this time, I won’t be fishing for compliments or checking the stat sheet at the end of the game. I don’t need or deserve the credit.

The whole team does.