Syllabus

Brian Kulak

Leveluplead@gmail.com

Tuesdays and Thursdays 5p-8p

Benaroya Hall

Good evening! Welcome to Nothing As It Seems, an educational leadership class designed to provide a practical dance partner to the theoretical. Here’s a brief outline of what to expect this semester. 

Course Description: This graduate level class is designed to address edu-leadership issues about which we rarely speak. From the taboo to the absurd, future leaders will experience edu-leadership through anecdotes and empathy.

Course Objectives: 

  1. To pull back the curtain on educational leadership theory
  2. To develop useful communication skills for use with crazy people
  3. To challenge candidates to accept the human side of leadership
  4. To engage in discussion about what once was considered taboo

January 4th-22nd

Unit 1: The 10% Corollary: Accepting That 10% of Any Organization is No Bueno

Guiding Text: Whispers in the Staff Lounge by Mark Lanegan

Focus: Whether it’s the 10th man on a 10 man basketball roster or a small group of staff who wake up each day with the intention to complain, the 10% corollary exists and isn’t going away. This unit will help us develop strategies to work with or, in some cases, ignore the 10% so we can focus on the other 90%.

January 25th-February 12th

Unit 2: Death and Dying On Campus

Guiding Text: We Have Some Sad News by Jeffrey Ament

Focus: From the sudden to the terminal, death and dying on campus are an inevitable part of your leadership career. In some cases, you’ll take on a paternal role for children who lost a parent. In other cases, you’ll serve as a grief counselor for a staff who can’t process the loss of a colleague. In still other cases, it will be your own loss that your staff and community must help you grieve. This unit will help us prepare for loss by first accepting that it’s going to happen. 

February 15th-March 5th

Unit 3: Lesson Plans and SGOs Are Stupid

Guiding Text: What Does the DOE Actually Do? by Tanya Donnelly

Focus: All educators have the spectre of a department of education looming over us. Nameless and faceless, the DOE quietly, and often confoundingly, makes bureaucratic decisions for us all the time. Sometimes the DOE graces us with its presence at conferences and delivers new and exciting buzzwords for us to begin using! This unit will help us understand how to work with, and sometimes outside the confines of, the department of education.

March 8th-26th

Unit 4: Middle Finger Emojis and Other Delightful Communication

Guiding Text: The text for this unit will just be a series of emails I received that may or may not invite me to copulate with myself, border on the criminally insane, or eschew any conventional spelling, grammar, or punctuation. 

Focus: The keyboard is a fierce weapon in a war that is often waged in the brain of its possessor. Voicemails left at bizarre hours allow for a responseless audience. Side eye and passive aggressive parking lot discussions keep everyone guessing as part of an interminable and often irreparable conflict. This unit will prepare us for the myriad ways in which communication styles, decisions, and exchanges dictate our leadership. 

March 29th-April 16th

Unit 5: In Loco Parentis, Like, For Reals

Guiding Text: Can You Talk to Her? by Chris Cornell 

Focus: While we are responsible for our students during school hours, there will be times when you’re asked to literally stand in as a parent. From the at-her-wits-end mom to the completely over-matched single dad, the better you are at your job the more likely a parent will ask you to do theirs for them. This unit will provide strategies for accepting and denying such responsibility. 

Grading: 

There will be no grades for this course because we’re all adults, grades are meaningless, and most graduate programs are “A” factories anyway. 

Good luck, future leaders!

Grab a copy of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame today!

Know Things

Principals are the Tyrion Lannisters of education, minus the heavy drinking and patricide, of course. Because as principals, we tend to know things.

We know about a student’s abject poverty because we dropped off remote learning toolkits at her apartment.

We know about pod learning facilitators because they remind us of all the myriad ways we could be teaching differently.

We know about Facebook warriors who have an arsenal of memes, “friends in other districts,” and incredibly personal and myopic anecdotes at the ready.

We know when a teacher’s face looks different, when her affect is slightly off, when the lilt in her is voice gone.

We know about pregnancies, deaths, and diganoses before the rest of the staff. We know none of it is our news to share.

We know we have to remind teachers that SGOs and observations are business as usual even though everything is unusual.

We know our own families notice a difference in our mood and energy. We know because they told us.

We know this too shall pass.

We just don’t know when.

Hope and Grace

As we embark on this unprecedented bizarre frightening school year, we do so, perhaps for the first time ever, on a parallel course with each other. Gone are the days of imagined or tangential shared experience. Ours is now a visceral, often public, and daily collision course with the unknown highlighted by more variables than constants. 

But it’s also an opportunity. 

During the spring shutdown, I committed to recording and tweeting a short, daily vlog for our community because I wanted the kids to see my face and hear my voice, and I wanted the grown ups to know I was right there with them. So from the mundane to the existential, I turned our separation into connection. After all, our motto at Tatem Elementary School is “We Are All Connected.”

Ahead of Monday’s first day for our kids, I will share a vlog with our community called “Hope and Grace.” Though I realize it sounds like a zany new Thursday night comedy on CBS this fall, the title, and the vlog’s message, has been bouncing around my head for weeks. 

The thing about hope is it’s not necessarily a promise or guarantee. While it operates on the idea of something better, it allows for the very real possibility that something better may have already skipped town a long time ago. Still, it’s an abstract concept on which we can build concrete, and very personal, foundations. 

As for grace, well, I think my staff is already tired of hearing me talk about its importance for us and for families. But from the absurdity of hard and fast Zoom etiquette rules for every learner to a growing beck and call expectation for teachers, we’ve gotten so far from the power of grace that asking for help or saying no have become synonymous with weakness and selfishness. And that has to stop. 

If we are going to move forward, and my school community will, using hope and grace as a mantra (and a shiny new hashtag!) then we have to both personalize and practice each. Hope is what propped my wife and me up during our years long infertility experience. Grace is what I led with when I became a principal, assuring my staff that I need them more than they need me. 

Hope and grace are what will get us to the other side of this impossibly long journey we didn’t know we were going to take six months ago.

Hope and grace. 

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Level Up Leadership: Advance Your Edugame is now available on Amazon.

The Lawnmower Man

Call me The Lawnmower Man. 

No, not that Lawnmower Man.

In a truly cosmic insult-to-injury, my two-year old lawnmower keeps crapping out on me. To make matters worse, the grass in the back of my house grows exponentially faster than the grass in the front, which has created a two-tiered, multi-step lawn maintenance regimen that, frankly, I couldn’t be less interested in.  

During quarantine, properties across America have no doubt been manicured in a way that would make The Truman Show community proud because, hell, we have the time. And while I don’t go gaga over a freshly cut and edged lawn, I can appreciate the work it takes to maintain  my property. After all, I’m in full control of that maintenance in a time when our control has largely been usurped by the virus. 

So the fact that my stinkin’ mower decided to only work the equivalent of a long hockey shift before shutting down has been maddening at best. I tried charging the battery more often. I tried charging the battery less often. I tried changing the height of the blades. I tried only mowing in sub-90 degree weather. 

And I kept failing. 

Finally, I read the instructions (total dad move to do that last), and voila! I had been working the mower too hard. 

See, the mower can only cut as fast and efficiently as it is designed to. But because I can only work as fast and efficiently as I am designed to, the mower and I, well, we’re not bros. 

Shortly after that discovery, a staff member called, likely to discuss the myriad unrealistic reopening expectations placed on NJ public educators. 

“You need to slow down. I’m worried about you,” she said. 

“I’m fine. There’s just so much to do,” I told her. 

“Listen to me. You have to slow down. You can’t work this much and be healthy.”

The call came about a week after our staff meeting, which I opened by telling our staff that I’m not going to pretend all is well and that if we all stick together we’ll get through this. Because platitudes are weak and reductive. Especially now. 

I told them that I am struggling. I told them I haven’t written. I told them I wasn’t excited about the opening of the MLB season.I told them my anxiety is through the roof. I “joked” that at least I can count on my Lexapro. 

That’s how I realized that I have become The Lawnmower Man. 

But instead of my mower not keeping up with the frenzied pace that I set for it, I can’t keep up with the frenzied pace I set for myself. 

If we’re going to lead in the age of COVID, we’re going to have to work harder than we ever have. But part of working harder is working smarter.

Take it from me, The Lawnmower Man.

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your Edugame is now available on Amazon.

Other People

The first time I saw Dumb and Dumber, in a cold theater during my senior year of high school (1994), I didn’t laugh once. In fact, I wanted to leave. I don’t know if it was the company I kept on that night, if I was feeling sorry for myself because the movie I wanted to see was playing next door, or if I thought I was above the raunchy, slapstick material, but neither Jim Carrey nor Jeff Daniels was getting a smirk from me. 

Because it was about me. 

But a funny (literally) thing happened a couple years later when I saw the film again. This time I wore out the pause button on my remote because I was laughing so hard that I had to stop to make sure I didn’t miss the next gag. From the one liners to the absurdity of the script, I was all in, like SeaBass and those boilermakers. 

And though many scenes stand out (this one made me cry, in fact), it’s an easily overlooked scene that serves as the impetus for this post. 

Because it’s about other people. 

Forget the almost anachronistic phone booth and focus on this hilarious interplay between these two characters. One guy is on the phone; another guy wants to use the phone. Simple enough. 

But the end of the scene reflects where we are in society right now. 

If you listen closely, you can hear all the empaths around the world screaming, “Told ya!” But, you know, really politely. 

COVID has forced us into one of two cocoons. The first is wound tightly by a spool of self-preservation and narcissism. After all, if no one else is going to grab another bottle of sanitizer, why shouldn’t I grab a tenth? 

The second is hyper focused, though still enshrouded in relative safety, on the concept of, wait for it…other people. Stuck in a paradoxical loop of I’m-okay-but-what-about-my-aging-parents-or-all-the-health-care-workers-and…you get the idea. 

Both are satirized in the Dumb and Dumber scene because even though the man outside the booth uses the concept of other people as a way into the phone booth he is still fueled by a self-serving motivation to get inside and make his call. The man on the inside is going to take his sweet old time because, hell, he was there first. 

That, my friends, is how we arrived at a Dumb and Dumber society. 

Still, as it so often does, it takes something horrific to make us realize we’re not in this alone. The world, in large part, has chosen to come together to celebrate other people rather than to ask “what about me?” School parades, nursing dance parties, global concerts, and, thanks to Jim Halpert, a weekly news segment focused on all that is good in the world have widened a once myopic camera angle. All we have to do is adjust how we look through it. 

When we do, man, there will be a lot of other people looking back. 

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is available on Amazon.

Shrug

It’s a big day, Leaders! 100 blog posts! However, under the circumstances, celebrating seems a bit tone deaf, but I would like to thank my faithful readers. Meeting with and learning from people all over the world has changed my career in a way that I’m not sure I fully understand yet. Thank you!

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In the pantheon of silent communication symbols, few can rival OGs like peace, love, eye roll, peekaboo, and wink. Each is a universally accepted way of conveying that which stands on its own without benefit of a verbal qualifier. Sure, the context may change depending on the communicator (an eye roll from a 10 year old student carries with it a far different message than, say, one from your 94 year old nana), but make no mistake, wordlessness is a language all its own. 

Even in the wake of our new digital, often pixelated, can-you-hear-me? communication style, an old dog has learned a new trick.

The shoulder shrug has become the universally understood response for any COVID based question from our friends, families, and communities.

Witness:

How are you guys holding up?  

Do you have any questions about how to connect to Zoom?

When do you think we’ll go back to school?

What day is it?

In a time during which we are obsessed with being in the know, with being the first to break a story we saw on Twitter, with having a hot take on the NFL draft, the latest White House “press briefing,” or the state of humanity itself, it’s perfectly okay to defer to our baser instincts and just shrug. 

Because the truth is even the people who are supposed to know, the ones with that pesky MD after their names, don’t even know what is happening. Then there are those who pretend to know what is happening and are convinced that if they say what they think loudly or often enough it will become true. Finally, there’s the rest of us: the shruggers. 

Look it’s perfectly fine to not know the answer to questions big and small. One time my son asked me if vampires sneeze. C’mon, bruh! But the difference between the non-shruggers and the shruggers is the former is convinced that there’s only one answer to every question. The latter is willing to accept that even all the answers aren’t all the answers.

So come with me, shrugging friends! There’s a whole world of questions on which we need to remain non-committal!

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is now available on Amazon!

Goldilocks

It’s funny. The last post I wrote before this new normal was entitled, “Bad Feeling,” yet it had nothing to do with the virus’s inevitable collision course with what used to be our everyday lives. Maybe I’m psychic. Maybe it’s Maybelline. 

In any case, it’s been a cool six weeks since I’ve written anything of value. Caught between trying to do everything I can for our families, working with my own children, and convincing myself that I am doing neither, I swapped out blogging for daily video reflections

And then I rediscovered “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

Though I could probably recite the fairy tale by heart, I couldn’t help but apply it to our current controlled chaos. Moreover, the story, though so simple, has inspired parallels in everything from business to statistics to developmental psychology. The Goldilocks Principle, The Goldilocks Fit, and The Goldilocks Effect all borrow from the fairy tale to make sense of that which needs explanation. 

In education, even in the most certain, stable, and safe of times, the analogy fits as neatly as Goldilocks herself fits into Baby Bear’s chair. We consider all the ways in which we can help children, find the best fit for each, and then apply that fit. If something is too easy or too hard, we do our best to make it just right. Sometimes we do, sometimes the chair breaks right out from under us. 

So we try again. 

What we most often forget or refuse to consider is the Bear Family itself. On an otherwise normal day, their lives are disrupted by an uninvited guest whose only motivation is what fits her perfectly. Forget the overt invasion of the Bears’ home and routine. Forget the unsanitary way in which Goldilocks eats from each bowl of porridge. Forget the broken chair she leaves in her wake as she tests out each bed before settling in Baby Bear’s. 

What about the Bears? 

Our families, like the Bears, are trying to establish their own new normal after an uninvited guest shows up. Parents are forced to allow us into their homes through Zoom, Meet, Dojo, or worksheet, and then are forced to adapt to us rather than us to them, a model that is centuries old. For some, what we ask for is too easy; for others, what we ask for is too hard. But getting it “just right?” Well, that’s a fairy tale. 

The reason we need to align ourselves with the Bears, not that malignant narcissist Goldilocks, is it’s the Bears who have to keep on keepin’ on (or whatever it is that bears do) regardless of what Goldilocks did to disrupt them. Once she’s gone, new porridge has to be made, the spoons need to be cleaned, the broken chair needs to be replaced, and each bed’s sheets need to be washed. 

Friends: we have to resist becoming Goldilocks.

There are far too many bears in far too many forests (with far too many human-like qualities) to think that we, like Goldilocks, are superior.  

Be more Bear. 

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is now available on Amazon.

Failure Dreams

Each one is almost exactly the same. 

I’m back in college but not supposed to be there. At my current age, I wander around a campus I don’t know, enter a dorm without a roommate, and never attend a single class.

I’m most often at the plate when the pitcher blows fastballs by me from what seems like an arm’s length away. Sometimes I’m in the outfield, but I can never seem to make the catch. 

I’m back in the classroom and have totally lost control of the kids. No one is listening, the computer doesn’t work, and the noise is unbearable.

My failure dreams are perpetual, vivid, and haunting. 

But they’re only dreams. 

I’ve always maintained that were it not for education, I’d be in Psychology. Fascinated by how our minds work, the subconscious, and, obviously, dreams, I suspect I would have carved out a nice career built on curiosity and research. So I did the next best thing. 

I blended the two. 

This year our district embarked on a three-headed monster of vital and related issues: trauma informed care, restorative practices, and SEL. For me, it was like being traded from the Philadelphia Educators to the New Jersey Psychologists. Sure, I would play the same game but in a totally new league. And I couldn’t wait. 

Now, I can leave my bizarro world failure dreams on a subconscious shelf while I delve into the very real world of my students. 

Crippling anxiety without an identifiable antecedent. 

Just beneath the surface and difficult to prove abuse or neglect. 

Imbalanced group dynamics which always result in a party of one. 

Hormonal changes at a rate that is far too fast or far too slow. 

For these kids, there is no fit or start to wake them, no alarm clock to signal the end of a panicky, dark, unsafe dream. 

Theirs is a failure reality, one that demands our attention, our kindness, and our compassion. 

It’s time to wake up and help them. 

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is available on Amazon.


WTF is IVF?

Listen, I spend far too much time thinking about (read: obsessing over) the social emotional health of my staff. I check in too often. I will occasionally overstep. I have their backs. I don’t know any other way to be.

As I cleaned up my Drive, I stumbled upon a piece I wrote over ten years ago that, though unpublished and apropos of nothing, helps to bring into focus why I choose to lead the way I do. Ultimately, our humanity in any field, but particularly in education, is what leads us to and makes it nearly impossible to leave each other. We all have “stuff,” and the moment we forget that, we’re doomed.

So here we go. From the fall of 2009:

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WTF is IVF? The other side of infertility

I’ve really only been fooled by women twice in my life.

When I turned 21, my mom told me I needed to go to the proctologist for a consult because “you know what happened to your father.”  I agreed, begrudgingly, and made my appointment with the Ass-Man.  While the first ten minutes would fall under the category of a consult, as my mom had promised, the final five would belong under the more appropriate banner of “exploration.” When the doctor said, rather matter-of-factly, “while you’re here, let’s just have a look,” I’ll never forget the silent arsenal of swear words I unleashed at my mom, no doubt smiling to herself over her duplicitous deception, which ended with some combination of fingers probing my caboose.

The second time I was duped was when my wife talked me into visiting our fertility doctor with her because it would help me understand what she could only loosely translate after each weekly visit.  I hadn’t been putting off joining my wife for any particular reason. Besides, she assured me that my presence was really only necessary in cup form during the early stages of the process.  Again, I marched dutifully to yet another doctor’s office, still reeling from the last time I was asked to go some fifteen years ago, and again, I was hoodwinked. 

What I thought was going to be a routine meet-and-greet, “you’re-the-husband-I-keep-hearing-about” kind of appointment rapidly disintegrated into a “now-that-your-wife-is-in-the-stirrups-do-you-want-to-see-her-ovaries” fright fest.  No amount of ER episodes or George Romero films could have prepared me for that legs-up position usually saved for nights when we’ve both had a bit too much to drink.

But that became our life, and as I hopped, skipped, and slid over fertility handbooks, how-tos, and metric equations on a regular basis, I noticed that there really was a dearth of literature about infertility from a man’s perspective. Ironically, the books my wife had wallpapered our house with seemed to borrow titles from their bizarro world counterparts in pornography.  In the same way that porn gives us The Boobyguard (nee: The Bodyguard), I woke up to find A Few Good Eggs (nee: A Few Good Men) staring up at me from under our bed.  As I thumbed through it, I was met with a cornucopia of now germane phrases and acronyms I once thought reserved for 400 level grad school courses in Anatomy and Physiology. 

No longer would my acronymic lexicon be limited to DVD, DVR, and PS3.  From then on, I’d have intimate knowledge of any combination of the following: PCO (Polycystic Ovaries, from which my wife suffers), HSG (Hysterosalpingogram, a horrifying procedure featuring an unclogging of the female machinery through the use of dye inserted directly into the uterus), IUI (Intra-Uterine Insemination, the gynecological version of “capture the flag,” which we tried once and then bagged), and COH (Controlled Ovarian Hyper Stimulation, which amounts to Roger Clemens doses of uterine steroid injections meant to get those “few good eggs” ready to party).

If that weren’t enough, my actual vocabulary had been sullied as a result of words like retrieval (what my baseball players do after an overthrow), sample (borrowing old riffs and chord progressions to create, largely, hip-hop jams), and even shot (Jolly Rancher, Lemon Drop, Mind Eraser) morphing into pregnancy specific terms far superior in form and function to their predecessors. 

Then came the mother lode of all OB/GYN acronyms, proven to cause a sigh of resignation or a cheer of jubilation, in one fell swoop, depending on the clients to whom it is spoken.

 IVF (In Vitro Fertilization).

After our woefully unsuccessful IUI attempt, our doctor breathed this possibility in our general direction, which elicited a distinctly antithetical response from each of us.

Me: So, we still have a shot?

Wife: No, this is it. This is our last shot; then it’s over.

The fact that three letters could cause euphoria and devastation at the same time speaks to the procedure’s awesome power to create life or to forsake it.  What once was a perpetual education in science was now a profound and life-altering test of faith…in science.

Almost four years ago, we ventured into our first IVF retrieval and transfer process. One miscarriage and another IVF later, we had our daughter, Abby, a process that took two-and-a-half years. 

Finally, my wife and I could add three more letters each to our life’s Pinterest board. 

M-O-M and D-A-D.
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Never forget the awesome responsibility you have to protect, support, nurture, challenge, and connect with your staff.

Because we all have “stuff.”

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is now available on Amazon!

Indispensable

In the 1993 social satire Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a recently laid off defense contractor who, quite frankly, loses his mind as he treks, on foot, across Los Angeles to attend his estranged daughter’s birthday party. 

As he makes the modern pilgrimage, he encounters a cast of characters who either validate his journey or fuel his rage. At one point, he fixates on a black man, dressed very similarly to him, who is holding up a sign that reads “Not Economically Viable” as he rails against his recent firing. At the end of the scene, the two men lock eyes, and the black man, now in the back of a police cruiser, says, “don’t forget me,” to which Douglas nods imperceptibly. 

A late year meeting with my superintendent was probably long overdue. That year, my 4th as the Chief Academic Officer (nee: curriculum and instruction) of a K-12 district and 19th in education, was my worst as a professional. The combination of being a year from tenure in a district I love, during a contract year for our staff, while negotiating the looming feeling that “it was time to start looking” made for a level of perpetual discomfort I hadn’t felt as an educator. Plus, I simply wasn’t my best. Ideas I had landed with a palpable thud. Interpersonal issues among our team could no longer be ignored.

Something had to give. 

“You need to make yourself indispensable. I don’t know what the budget will look like beyond next year,” he told me. 

Suddenly, there was a very real possibility that I was no longer economically viable. 

Curriculum and instruction positions are a beautifully flawed cog in the leadership wheel. With an aerial view of the district’s mission and vision, we provide our district with identity and our teachers with support. Because of the aerial view, however, we are wholly ignorant to the daily grind of building leadership, we don’t interact with parents often, and, let’s face it, there are no curriculum emergencies. 

Then, quite miraculously, a shift in the leadership team included me switching places with one of our K-5 principals, a woman I respect and admire deeply and who provided me guidance as I navigated the first couple years as CAO. Suddenly, I found myself in completely unfamiliar territory, like those dreams where you come to school naked. 

But I was coming to school fully clothed and ready to lead this group of talented teachers. 

At the end of my first year, one in which I found myself having to replace five teachers, all of whom had children, a long term sub left me this card. 

Well played, universe. Well played.

Ultimately, my superintendent was right. I hadn’t made myself indispensable. In fact, I was woefully dispensable during that slump year. Now, that word is emblazoned on my psyche, like an invisible tattoo, demanding that people “don’t forget me.”

Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame is now available on Amazon!