We Are All In a Megaband…

Never Take Great Teaching For Granted

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

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

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

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

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


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

But this crossover experience is just getting started.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may even be better.

 

What I Forget…

Forgotten Memories Are Still Shared Memories

Remember that time…

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

The problem is I don’t remember them all.

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

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

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

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

Then I got over it.

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

So let it be.

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

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

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

But I’m glad you do,” I’ll tell them.

My Origin Story

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

I became a teacher because of Isiah Thomas.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

I was a writer.

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

I was 14.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your origin story?

Squish Yourself In or Squish Yourself Out

My five-year old is obsessed with slime. Truth be told, he’s obsessed with anything goopy, sloppy, messy, or mushy, but the advent of slime being sold as a “toy” has totally changed his worldview. Couple that with the fact that he can now make his own slime, and you can imagine what my house looks like on most days.

The thing about slime is once it’s been created, once it’s been played with, there’s really nothing parents can do with it. It’s not like there’s a specific container made for slime, and its malleability, while fun for kids, doesn’t lend itself to easy storage. Ultimately, parents are left trying to squish slime into something until it squishes itself out. What doesn’t make it in a container ends up in the trash or down the garbage disposal, never to be heard from again.


So much of teaching and leadership is, well, slimy. Teachers are asked to squish in as much content, assessment, social-emotional learning, professional development, activities, chaperoning, SGOs, and happy hours as they possibly can. Leaders are asked to squish in as many classroom visits, observations, professional development, meetings, parent refereeing, strategic planning, QSAC reviews, and emotional support as they can.

Eventually, something is going to squish out.

The trick, then, is to figure out, well in advance, what you’re willing to squish in and what you’re comfortable allowing to squish out. Determine how messy is too messy, when enough is enough, and when it’s time to put the slime down and slowly back away.

There may be no more amorphous a profession than education. Despite misguided narratives from on high and uninformed references to “summers off,” a life in public education is a life of, well, slime. Educators contort, flatten, absorb, repel, sparkle, maintain, camouflage, and adhere. Every. Single. Day.  

As you recharge and restore this summer, invite yourself to squish in as much as you want, and accept the reality that things will squish out.

There’s a brand new container of slime waiting for you in September.

 

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.

 

My Professional Mistakeume

Showcasing and Leveraging Mistakes

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

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

Level Up Leaders, I present to you my Mistakeume.


Brian Kulak

Anytown, NJ 08000

Leveluplead.com

(856) 555-1111


Objective

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

Leadership Mistake Experience                                        July 2014-Present 

November 2014

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

February 2015

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

June 2015

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

May 2016

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

September 2017

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

January-February 2018

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

Special (Mistake) Skills

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

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

What is on your professional mistakeume?

Not All Ivy is Poison

Separating the patch from the climbers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tap into those teachers.

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

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

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