Unself Conscious

Maybe I’m just rebranding empathy. Maybe I just had a hankering for some word play. 

Somewhere sandwiched between Siggy Freud’s Id, Superego, and Ego is the Unself, the part of us that lets the other three play in a messy psychological sandbox while we think about everyone else’s sandbox. 

For some (actually, for far too many), this part of ourselves is underdeveloped, malnourished, absent. But for educators, the unself becomes the self. 

The faraway look of an otherwise present colleague. 

The deafening silence of a staff meeting. 

The muted smile of a kid with good news she can’t wait to share if only someone would ask.

The unself notices it all, sending tiny pinpricks of awareness to the rest of our brain, urging us to check in, to smile, to ask, “you okay?” 

Oftentimes, we end up in a wrestling match with the unself, ping-ponging between the desire to help and the guilt of choosing not to. Because the unself doesn’t tell us how to intervene; it only sends us a signal that we need to intervene. 

Moreover, there is no unself conscious manual replete with if-then scenarios and Venn diagrams. There is no unself conscious badge we can flash while exclaiming, “It’s okay, everyone! I’m an empath!” There is no easy unself conscious response to folks who don’t want our help and who not-so-politely ask us to mind our own business while we whisper under our breath, “but you are my business.”

Despite all the messiness, the variables, and the imbalance, ask any unself conscious educator if they would consider toning it down a bit, sitting out a few plays, focusing on the actual self and they’ll all tell you the same thing. 

I don’t know how

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Six Seconds

Six seconds.

Less time than it takes to prepare your morning cup of coffee. 

Less time than it takes to sort through your daily mail. 

Less time than it takes to wash your face before bed. 

Six seconds. 

That’s how long it takes for our brains to process an emotion. 

That’s how much time we have to plan for our response to someone else’s emotion. 

Six seconds. 

For our most regulated kids, six seconds might seem like a perfectly acceptable amount of time to digest that nasty social media post, that college acceptance letter, that playground incident. They can apply the applicable emotion in the appropriate way and move on with their day. 

The same goes for regulated grown ups. Our ability to cycle through the rolodex of emotions available to us is precise, seamless, and imperceptible. 

But what about when we pepper in some dysregulation, some trauma?

That six seconds quickens, the brain’s access to appropriate emotions is shut off, the response is disparate and unsettling. 

The thing is it’s not what the affected person is feeling in those six seconds because we can’t control how that person feels. How we respond in the wake of those six seconds matters most. 

Look at the difference between these two responses. 

What is wrong with you

What happened to you?

The former speaks to blame, to a Scarlet Letter, earned or branded, that puts the onus of responsibility firmly on the affected person. 

The latter shifts that narrative in such a way that the affected person no longer bears the weight of both cause and effect. Instead, he sees his reaction after those six seconds as a result of something out of his control. 

So those six seconds are no more random than they are orchestrated. They are prescribed as part of being a particular human with particular experiences, some of which we haven’t learned to process. 

In those six seconds is a lifetime. 

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The shortest distance between two people is a story.

Think about those late night conversations with a high school best friend or college significant other. The belly laughs and tears, the remember-whens and I’ll-never-forgets. Even as you read this, your mind is likely taking you there. You’re having a visceral reaction. You may be smiling. 

Because the shortest distance between two people is a story. 

Form enough relationships and the stories may start to fall away from you. Sometimes they bleed into one another, like a dreamscape where, in isolation, only fragments make sense, but together, they create a mosaic of your lived experience. And in that experience you are the main character, the 1st person, the POV. That’s what gives you those goosebumps. What makes the corners of your mouth curl into a smile. What makes you linger on that story for longer than you intended. 

Here’s the thing. In so many other stories, you’re also the supporting character, the 2nd person, the sidekick. You’ve played a significant role in the lives of so many people, many of them children because of the field you’re in, and you didn’t even know it. 

Sitting cross-legged at a sleepover, kids will bring your name up as they remember that time in 4th grade. A red bubble hovers over your DMs on the other side of which is a former student having beers with friends and remembering that time you said that thing and everyone got quiet. At a former student’s wedding, you’ll shake hands and give hugs in between stories involving you. Stories you can’t quite remember, but it doesn’t matter because they did. 

Because the shortest distance between two people is a story. 

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Not-To-Do List

Make the dogs’ grooming appointment.

Add Eddie Vedder’s new solo project to Spotify playlist. 

Review I&RS action plans ahead of next meeting. 

Request day off for March Madness. 

Man, it feels good to strike through our to-do lists doesn’t it? 

Whether that flick of the pen is done with violence or gentleness, through frustration or pride, taking control of our often Byzantine workaday existence by eliminating tasks does more than end a process. It starts one. 

We feel a sense of relief to have crushed that list because our brains reward us by releasing dopamine. That high we feel is as real as whatever Snoop was puffing on during the halftime show, and we want to feel it again. 

So we add more things to our list and chase that, well, “dope” again. 

But if we need to finish things to feel satisfied, then doesn’t that mean we are perpetually unsatisfied? 

In his new book, The Practice of Groundedness, Brad Stulberg challenges readers to flip that paradigm by creating a “not-to-do” list. A way of tricking the brain into reminding itself that we can feel a sense of accomplishment by not doing, reverse engineering the dopamine dump and removing the anxiety of the unfinished. 

Like this.

Beat myself up about being tied to my office on a particular day. 

Respond to an irrational parent voicemail immediately and aggressively.

Check school email after 5 pm. 

Hold off on checking in on a teacher who is clearly struggling. 

Then, post your not-to-do list in an obvious and accessible place so as to remind yourself that not doing is as willful and cathartic an act as doing. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me.

Obsess over every word in every blog post. 

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Cleaning Up

The place was spotless. 

I mean spit-shined, dust mote free, a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place clean. The vacuum cleaner treads were still fresh when I got back to the townhouse on that Friday night. Frankly, I walked through our place with an overwhelming sense of calm because it was always me who cleaned and tidied, so it was refreshing to have some help. 

Before I could form the first syllable of a “thank you” to Lew, the roommate who was responsible for the deed, the doorbell rang. 

“Hi, is Lew here. I’m Brittany,” she said.

And then it made sense. There was nothing altruistic or even bro about Lew’s frenetic Friday cleaning. He was staging. Posturing. Playacting. He cleaned up because he had a date. 

He cleaned up because he had to. 

I won’t confirm or deny that I put a silent hex on that date, but let’s just say that Lew’s wife’s name is Kristin, not Brittany. 

Every day in school leadership, we are faced with that which we have to do vs. that which we want to do. None of us is particularly enthused about signing timesheets or sitting through hours long meetings, but each is an implicit part of our job, like it or not. Conversely, all of us would like to be in classrooms more, co-teaching a lesson, or running a lunch bunch with a group of kids. 

And then, of course, there’s the constant specter of the unknown, looming over playground incidents and unannounced parent visits. It’s hard to clean up when we can’t see the mess coming.

How, then, can we negotiate the two?

For me, cleaning up  is rooted in my locus of control. 

Recognizing the pull of wanting to play in a playground football game against having to finish up my budget proposal, only one of which has a due date, demands that I clean up my accounts. 

Identifying when a teacher needs an extra prep or an “is everything alright” conversation helps me clean up our building culture. 

Emailing a mom after witnessing her child deliver a random act of kindness helps clean up that child’s perception of himself. 

Calling a pop-up vent session with leadership colleagues, via Zoom or at a local brewery, allows us to clean up our sanity. 

At a time when our collective control switch is constantly being toggled for us, it’s imperative that we clean up as much as we can, on our terms. 

Not on Brittany’s. Bless her heart.

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While teaching from one of my favorite novels, Stephen Chbosky’s seminal YA work The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the main character’s de facto love interest, Mary Elizabeth. Though only a bit character, she proves a perfect foil to Charlie, and Chbosky’s wily name choice for this ultra-feminist, insecure, faux intellectual provided a gift wrapped challenge for my students. 

Me: So of all the names he could have chosen, why this sort of stuffy, first-and-middle name? In fact, it’s even hard to say over and over again, but she only goes by Mary Elizabeth. 


Me: Okay, so what do we know about her?

Them: Well, she’s super annoying, she doesn’t stop talking, usually about herself, and she wants to, like, make Charlie into her boyfriend instead of just letting him be who he is and be her boyfriend. 

Me: Getting closer. Now, look at her name but only as initials. 

Them: M-E. Yeah, so. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, ME! 

The thing about Mary Elizabeth is she’s as incapable of accepting her own narcissism as Charlie is of understanding that people actually think that way. To him, other people are the focus, are the priority, are the story. He is, after all, a wallflower. 

I think that’s why I connect so closely with Charlie. He spends his short life thinking about others, about how he can affect the lives of people he loves by sacrificing himself. In fact, such selflessness becomes his albatross, his cross to bear, and it nearly kills him. 

As educators, we’re all Charlies. We deliberately sacrifice ourselves in the interest of others: our kids, our colleagues, and our own families. And we do so based on an internal locus of control, a speedometer set firmly on Go, which few of us are willing, or capable, of resetting. 

So the pandemic hit reset for us. 

Now, we are all forced to change our camera angle so it faces us. Our life’s camera roll includes far more selfies than it once did as we weigh our own health, the health of our own children and parents, our work-life balance, our mental health. The list goes on and on. We’ve gone from Charlies to Mary Elizabeths. 

And that’s ok.

Because in doing so, we are finally prioritizing ourselves, not as part of an either-or ultimatum, but as part of a necessary shift in our point of view. A shift that, if considered earnestly, will only serve to make us better educators, better colleagues, and better people. 

Take more selfies, my friends.

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Rear View Mirror

I’m telling you I adjust it multiple times a day. 

Maybe it’s caused by some malevolent sprite with a penchant for moving violations.

Maybe it’s my own posture as I intermittently slouch (after a long day of, well, slouching) and sit straight up so I can scream-sing the lyrics to Dinosaur Jr.’s “Get Me.”

Maybe the dang thing needs to be fixed, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. 

Whatever it is, my Jeep’s rear view mirror is causing an existential crisis. 

The windshield-rear view mirror provides the clearest metaphor for life despite each’s dichotomous utility. Forcing us to simultaneously hurtle toward an unknown future at varying speeds while constantly (read: obsessively) checking for what’s behind us. A flaw in either distorts our reality to the point at which driving can become unsafe. 

It’s a trip, man. 

So here we are. Cruising toward the one year Covidversary at a cool 55 mph, just trying to avoid the myriad distractions, frustrations, and anxieties in front of us, like a perverse version of the classic video game Paperboy. Still, our rear view mirror hangs at the fringe of our periphery, daring us to peek at what we just left behind. 

But here’s how we flip the script on the metaphor: the rear view mirror must be used as a sort of visible wormhole allowing us to course-correct what lies on the other side of the windshield. 

We need to rethink state testing. We need to reframe our social studies and history curricula. We need to reconsider the length of our school day. We need to review what social justice means to and for our community. We need to reenvision public education. 

Or we choose to disregard everything our collective rear view mirrors have taught us since last March. 

And just keep driving.

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Brian Kulak


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. 


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!

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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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