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?

A Flippin’ Transcendent Conference

Inaugural FlipTech East Coast Builds Community, Shifts Focus Back to Kids

Man, was there some flippin’ leveling up last weekend.

After over a year of planning, my district played host to an international conference on flipped instruction and educational technology. The brainchild of our (only) resident flipped instructor, David Walsh, and his wife Melissa, FlipTech East Coast invited folks from around the world, virtually and in person, to share their experiences as flipping and ed tech gurus.

Highlighted by keynote addresses by Aaron Sams and Kelly Walsh, the weekend was inspirational, confessional, and educational. From those just dipping pinky toes into the waters of flipped instruction to those who have written books and traveled the country espousing its power, a palpable feeling of community and belonging served as the backdrop for dozens of sessions, countless laughs, and transcendent conversations.

Conference co-creators David and Melissa Walsh smile through our student-led panel discussion. Photo credit: Kate Baker.

For fear of #TLDR syndrome, I’ll be brief in providing a panoramic snapshot of the weekend’s brilliance.

  • Our friend Diana Duran came from Colombia by way of Atlanta and Detroit and then Philadelphia, which caused her to miss day one entirely. Undaunted, she arrived on day two and provided a powerful session on Flipping Foreign Language courses.
  • Dan Welty finished his impactful session on Transforming Assessments with an audience singalong on flipping set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
  • AJ Bianco’s session on Personalized Learning and Student Choice was quite literally bursting at the seams, causing organizers to scramble to find more seating.   
  • Lindsay Stephenson’s session on Fast and Effective Digital Feedback will help transform how we speak and write to our kids and colleagues.
  • Carolina Buitrago and Martha Ramirez, also from Colombia, presented (twice) on Flipping EFL Writing Workshops and did so with humor and expertise.
  • And Kate Baker did what Kate Baker does: present with panache and poise, this time on Class Structures to Support Flipped Learning.

However, with due reverence to our presenters, the weekend’s finest hour came by way of our student panel. Nine upperclassmen graciously agreed to give up time on the first Friday of their summer to talk with a room full of strangers about their experience with flipped learning and ed tech. Equal parts heartwarming and honest, our panel acquitted itself with the kind of grace and professionalism to which all 100+ adults in the audience should aspire.

Of course, I’m leaving out so much about the weekend’s blur of awesomeness because it may or may not involve alcohol, horrendous flippin’ puns, and quiet moments between people who finally got to meet in real life after a year or more of developing professional relationships online.

Without question, we are living in the most challenging time in which to be educators. However, what this weekend did for me, and for so many others, is “flip” the conversation from all the things we’re told we aren’t doing well to all the reasons we made the conscious decision to never leave school: the love of learning, the desire to work with people who inspire us, and, of course, the kids. 

 

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?