Whispers

It started some fifteen years ago. The time, circumstance, and context were different, but its presence was visceral, consuming. 

We spoke in hushed tones about it most of the time, as if we were trying not to awaken the elephant in the room. If we did, we thought, it would surely trample us. Say nothing of what that elephant would do to our friends and families. 

So we continued to whisper through doctor’s visits, injections, and blood work. We whispered so only we could hear. We whispered those three letters over and over again, so much so that if you listened closely, you’d confuse it for a chant. An incantation. 

i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. i.v.f. 

Being told we couldn’t have children without medical intervention sequestered us into a statistical corner from which we thought we may never return. Sure, we found out, there are countless people who are huddled in their own corners, but it didn’t make ours seem any less claustrophobic. And because of a nascent, growing shame, we hushed our tones and suffered in relative silence.

And then Abby was born, thirteen years ago today, in fact. What came next was a guttural, cathartic yawp of those same three letters. We were finished whispering. We were ready to exclaim. 

I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F. I.V.F.

Now the whispers are back, but instead of us doing the whispering, we have become the subject of the whispering. 

Did you hear

I had no idea

Someone has to find out what happened.

The news of our divorce was surprising only to those who weren’t paying attention. But that’s not what caused the whispers. People get divorced every day. No, these whispers were meant to protect us and to insulate others. 

No one wants to talk openly about divorce because that’s salt in the wounds, an inadvertent schadenfreude. Plus, people don’t want to speak the word into existence, so they whisper it, convinced it won’t hear as it searches for its next victim. 

But we took that power away. We talked to each other every step of the way, against the advice of counsel, and hid nothing from our kids. We’ve said the word divorce so many times and in so many ways that it’s become semantic satiation

Where we once shouted IVF, we now shout DIVORCE.

____________________________________________________________

Is your school full of hushed tones? Are students and staff terrified to say the quiet part out loud for fear of reprisal? Are trauma informed practice and SEL big, bad wolves we don’t talk about (like Bruno) for fear that they’ll come for us? Do your teachers share their “stuff” with each other? With you?

Listen, I won’t tell you that our culture is so synchronous that we never whisper, conspiratorially or otherwise. And we don’t overshare, blurring personal and professional lines. But we do know each other and our kids. We care deeply about each other’s lives outside of school. We model and celebrate what it means to be connected every day. We speak up when one of us is threatened or demeaned. 

And we listen. 

Because sometimes those whispers are begging to be heard. 

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Close Your Eyes

It’s a short list, but the older I get, the longer it becomes. 

Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye.”

Pearl Jam’s “Release.”

James’s “Out To Get You.”

Regardless of where I am (except in the car; I’m not a lunatic) or what’s happening in my life, there are certain songs that make me close my eyes. A reaction both genuinely involuntary and intimately purposeful. A strange, dichotomous shutting off of one sense in favor of another, telling our eyes to sit this one out while our ears do the heavy lifting. 

And then there’s the goosebumps. The sensation, dubbed frisson, is triggered by a dopamine flood measuring 4-5 seconds associated with seeing, hearing, or experiencing something that triggers an emotional response. Interestingly, the brain elicits the same reaction to fear. 

I like to think about it as moment recognition. My conscious decision to dim everything else in an effort to brighten the experience of a deeply personal, infinitely resonant moment in my life. But in order for it to take hold, to really matter, I have to remember that moment, often at a random, unrelated or loosely connected time. 

So I do. 

And it works. 

Now, while I don’t walk around my school, eyes shut, meditating on moment recognition, the practice itself has made its way into my leadership. Instead of song lyrics, however, it’s small moments with kids, staff, and community. 

When a kindergartener found out he would be repeating this year, he said, “it’s okay. I love kindergarten, and Mr. Kulak is my best friend.” 

When I responded to a twitter question about leadership catchphrases, a teacher chimed in that I often say, “I trust you” and don’t even realize it. Now, I do. 

During promotion, a Tatem OG, whose final child was leaving, approached me sheepishly and asked for a hug. I told her to bring it in, and she cried while we hugged. 

Education, unlike any other profession, is a mosaic of these experiences. Without the predictability or isolation of other fields, we have daily opportunities to create and store these brief moments of zen. And the best part? They will always include other people.

So do it. Find small moments for which you close your eyes, literally or figuratively, and store them up. There will come a time, and it might be soon, when you want to close your eyes because of frustration or fatigue, and when you do, behind your eyelids and just within reach will be these moments of frisson. 

Close your eyes. 

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Welling Up

The entire theater knew it was coming, as Robert Zemeckis’s foreshadowing had all the subtlety of a frying pan to the face, and there I sat, huddled against the wall in the final seat of an aisle as Forrest narrated Jenny’s death. 

You died on a Saturday morning. And I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life.

And that’s when it happened. As a wiry, pimply faced, 17 year old, I didn’t need any more ammo to fuel my self consciousness, but, of course, I started to well up, a scant four inches away from my then high school sweetheart and another couple. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four teen moviegoers, one set of tears. 

And let’s just say that tearful deluge wasn’t an anomaly. 

It happened when I heard Jeff Buckley cover Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Trocadero in 1995. 

It happened as I stood curbside during the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series parade. 

It happened when I finished reading David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (both times).

Look, I’m not saying I routinely end up in a fetal position unable to breathe, but I have become quite adept at the wipe-and-look-away method (trademark pending) when I do well up. And until a few years ago, each instance was relegated to something in my personal life. 

But then it started happening at school. 

When a fifth grade teacher told me she was moving to Chicago. 

When finishing up a summative for a first-year teacher who overcame a challenging start. 

When our staff felt comfortable sharing after a particularly risky reconnect activity I tried to start a staff meeting. 

Thankfully, by now, I can stifle the reaction, so I can avoid ground-shaking awkwardness with whomever else is involved.

I also started to shift my perspective from self consciousness to pride because, ultimately, welling up is a manifestation of how deeply I care about the people in my orbit. As a result, I have become comfortable telling people exactly how I feel about them. In fact, I wrote about it a while back, and it has become a fundamental part of my leadership.

And if the alternative is a creepy, lifeless animatron version of myself well, then, I say bring on the waterworks. 

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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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Stories

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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Selfie

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. 

<crickets>

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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