Good Morning, Vietnam!

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do

Dylan Tracey’s story is not all that uncommon. Boy has goal. Boy pursues goal. Boy alters goal. Boy pursues that goal. Boy learns about himself in a way that may have been the goal all along.  A reflective, intelligent empath, Dylan’s story made me think, “Yup. I can totally see Dylan being great at that.” Thanks for sharing, Dylan!


Living abroad and teaching English in Vietnam was never something I envisioned for my future. I have always had a passion for traveling and becoming a teacher was my goal at the start of college, but for the longest time it never occurred to me that those two things could coexist in one career.

Unfortunately, Rutgers-New Brunswick did not have an actual education major, so I ended up graduating with only my English degree, making finding a decent teaching job in the U.S more difficult.

That’s when a friend told me about how he was moving to Vietnam.

It took some time after I graduated to make it to Vietnam. I was poor from being a college student for so long, there was what seemed like an endless amount of paperwork to be done, and I had to earn my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages) certification in order to teach overseas.  I decided to earn my TESOL in Asia as opposed to doing it online, because most programs include required teaching practice , which I felt I desperately needed.

The program I was certified though was located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I lived and studied for three weeks while teaching in an orphanage. I won’t lie to you; it was rough. Phnom Penh is far from a “tourist destination” and there were times I was convinced the company I paid for was just one giant scam. Thankfully I left Cambodia with both my TESOL and my sanity, and headed off to Vietnam.

When I had finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a similar feeling to being in Times Square for the first time. I got off the bus, bright-eyed and eager to make the city my own. This was also the first time I was completely independent from my parents and the feeling of “sink or swim” was hanging heavy. “Adulting,” as my generation likes to call it, is hard enough, but add living 8000 miles away from home and a severe language barrier makes it even more of a challenge.

However, things like finding an apartment, landing a job, and learning the “lay of the land” was all that much more of an accomplishment with all the extra hoops I had to jump through. It was exhilarating in a way, making my way through a world that was completely foreign to your own. At first Vietnam felt like another planet, but after a while I really began to settle in and feel like I truly belonged there.

I will never forget how nervous I was walking into my first class as the teacher. It was a room full of teenagers who I felt weren’t much younger than me. I asked one of the students if there would be a TA, and he replied “No teacher, we are a teenager class, we don’t need a TA,” and in my head I thought “…well I do!” Nonetheless, like most teachers, I survived my first class and each became easier as time went on. It felt like I was learning more than I was teaching at times. Each mistake was a lesson, every class was more experience, and it seemed like I never stopped learning something new to improve my teaching.

The best advice I could give to someone is to go out and see the world. Go on an adventure, get motivated, be inspired, figure out who you are before you dedicate yourself to a certain path. Now that I am back home, I am finding myself back where a lot of people are when they first graduate college. I have a lot of options in front of me in terms of what I want to do next with my life and going forward I know I will be grateful for the experience I gained in Vietnam. My time there taught me a lot about myself, about what my strengths and weaknesses are, about what’s important to me, and about how to be independent. I’ve found there’s a certain confidence that comes with being a teacher and leading a classroom and that has definitely translated into other aspects of my life. I am still searching for what will be my next career, but am certain what I’ve learned thanks to teaching ESL and living in Vietnam will help me find it.

Dylan Tracey is a 2015 graduate of Rutgers University and currently teaches English for VIPKids, working online with students in China.  He earned his TESOL certification in Cambodia and spent nearly two years teaching in Vietnam, where he was named Teacher of the Year in 2017.  While living in Asia, he also visited Thailand and the Philippines. In addition to his teaching, Dylan spent the past summer at the Jersey shore and is looking forward to exploring new opportunities in Indianapolis, at the beginning of next year.

Maybe It’s Only Us

Looking Inside to Make Sense of What’s Outside

One of my favorite literary characters of all time may surprise you.

Sage and sacrificial, Lord of the Flies Simon has always fascinated me. His role in William Golding’s transcendent novel is brief, his dialogue is terse and wise-beyond-his-years, his death is swift and symbolic. Representative of the spiritual side of humanity, Simon understood the island and its horror long before the rest of the boys and was powerless to make them understand what was happening.

In one particular exchange with Piggy, the scientific yin to Simon’s spiritual yang, Simon delivers a line that has stayed with me, and served as a mantra, for twenty years.

Piggy: I know there isn’t no beast…but I know there isn’t no fear, either….Unless we get frightened of people.

Simon: Maybe there is a beast….maybe it’s only us.

As Piggy struggles to convince the paranoid crowd that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as a beast, Simon struggles just as mightily to communicate that the beast is in fact real; it’s just not what the boys think it is. Giving into their primal bloodlust, he opines, is the beast. Unfortunately, such a theory, though valid, is simply inaccessible to the rest of the boys, and shortly thereafter, Simon is proven correct when he is murdered by the very group he was unable to convince.

Without diving headlong too far down an analytical rabbit hole, suffice it to say that Simon’s prescient warning speaks volumes about our innate capacity for everything from fear to empathy. For some, that which is “only us” drives us to greatness, fosters our relationships, and strengthens our resolve. For others, it is because of what is “only us” that we cannot do or be more than we are.

Now consider what is “only us” for our staff and for our kids.

For so many of our kids, we are the only adults who they can look up to and whom they trust. 

For each other, we are our only internal support system. We prop each other up during those times when state test scores and bureaucratic mandates cut us off at the knees.  

For ourselves, we are the only ones who can truly experience the elation of a positive connection with one student or the utter desperation marked by the inability to reach another.

Regardless of how we associate with Simon’s warning, placing the emphasis on the word only or on the word us, we need to accept that there is, in fact, something inside each of us that led us to this profession, that keeps us here year after year.

Maybe that “thing” changes over time. Maybe that “thing” is the only constant in a life full of variables. Maybe that “thing” isn’t all that hard to express after all.

Maybe it’s only us.

 

What Can You Make Out Of This?

Sharing Yourself To Lead Others

I have the 1980 disaster film spoof Airplane! to thank for shaping my personality as a teacher and leader. In conversations about earliest memories, my mind always flashes to the time this silly comedy made my stoic, Polish father cry with the kind of unabashed, uncontrollable laughter I would only see a handful of times in my life. It was a watershed moment for my childhood, and while it might only be a blip on my collective experience radar, I’m so thankful that it’s there.

Squished on a very old couch, I remember laying with my dad, but not head-to-head. I liked to pretend I was just as tall by scooching down so my feet were adjacent to his. It was a silly life hack, but that’s just the kind of thing little-boy-me would do.

In the film, an effeminate air traffic controller named Johnny (Steven Stucker) makes several rare but scene-stealing appearances. To this day, he’s one of my favorite cinematic characters. At one point,  Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is handed a weather bulletin. After studying it for a second, he begins the exchange that reduced my father to tears.

McCroskey: Johnny, what can you make out of this?

Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat, a brooch, or a pterodactyl.

And that was it. The scene spans eleven seconds (I checked), and if you look closely, you can see Stucker grin at his own brilliance. But those eleven seconds were all my brain needed to process that seeing my dad laugh-cry was proof that underneath the unflappable facade, he was human. He was capable of great joy and sadness. He just preferred to keep it to himself.

Former students will tell you that I often shared, probably too much, about my life. To me, being as human as possible was the only way to convince teenagers that what I was teaching them was actually relevant, meaningful, and useful. Instruction was often interrupted by a tangential anecdote or a whimsical memory. I was convinced that if I could make them laugh with me, even at me, it would strengthen our connection and motivate them to do great things. I’d like to think that #formerstudentFriday is proof that it worked.

As a leader, I don’t shy away from the same kind of genuine honesty and self-effacing humor that I used in the classroom. People know, for instance, that my daughter is an IVF baby. They know that I still play baseball eight months a year. They know that I have wicked Imposter Syndrome. They know that my wife and I were set up, despite living in different parts of the country, by her cousin, who was a student in my class at the time.

My failures and hang ups are all on full display. Faithful readers of this blog will remember my Mistakeume, a detailed list of mistakes I’ve made in the first several years of my leadership, which I shared with our staff in my first-ever welcome back letter last summer.  I won’t hold back laughter or tears, and I certainly won’t ask that of my staff. It’s only one leadership style, but it’s mine.

I am convinced that experiencing my dad’s laughing fit with him made me wholly aware, even back then, that we are who we are for a lot of reasons, so it’s up to us to share ourselves, warts and all, with the people we mean to lead.

 

 

Revisionist History

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

This is a particularly special installment.

Garrett Kampf checks several boxes. He’s brilliant, self-aware, civic, and, in full disclosure, my cousin-in-law. Garrett’s mother, Carol, introduced me to her niece, Allison, some thirteen years ago; shortly thereafter, Allison and I were married, and Garrett, and his sister Jackie, went from former students to current family.  Garrett’s piece, like the David Foster Wallace passage that precedes it, is raw and unabashed. My man has come full-circle personally and professionally, and he’s only 27.


The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

-David Foster Wallace, This is Water

I left Rutgers University on fire, determined to tear down systems that I spent the previous four years critiquing.  Accordingly, I set out for Kansas City as a 2013 Teach for America corps member. At best, I was taking part in a movement that would radically expand meaningful educational opportunities to all students regardless of race or class.  At worst, I was motivated by fear to prevent my experience from being reduced to stereotype: the white savior complex. Some probably pejoratively viewed me a social justice warrior. Looking back, my idealism was naïve, but it was pure!

To some extent I feel like a fraud writing this piece.  I never intended to remain a teacher.  Becoming a criminal defense lawyer was always the dream. However, education and the criminal justice system for me have always been inexorably connected.  Failure in the former often leads to entry into the latter. This idea of meritocracy, unconscious but near universally worshipped in the American psyche, is built on the flawed premise that we are masters of our own destiny.  My success was largely contingent on socioeconomic factors entirely outside of my control. Similarly, the criminal justice system is contingent on a corollary principle that is equally flawed: judging human autonomy in a vacuum.  When determining one’s blameworthiness, it is inconvenient to take circumstance into account.

It would be charitable to say that my record as a teacher was mixed.  I was woefully ill-equipped for the job. But what I found invigorating about the profession was all of the many hats I would wear at any given moment: educator, counselor, confidant, advocate.  I learned quickly that I was never going to tear down a system that perpetuates inequality. My more measured approach was finding a way to validate the potential of at least some of my students and invest in them.  Sometimes it was as simple as listening to what was going on in their lives without judgment.

You see, it took a while for this to happen in my own life.  I was an aimless and apathetic high schooler until a 10th grade history teacher saw that I was worth something.  Once my potential was validated, he effectively extracted it.  This investment encouraged me to trudge my chosen career path. There’s something rudimentary human in all of this that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

I am now in my 3rd year of law school at the University of Oregon.  Whether you are a teacher or an attorney, you must work within the confines of the system, implicitly acknowledging the reality that no matter how hard you fight against it, the system isn’t going anywhere.  In many ways I have been forced to trade in my idealism for pragmatism. This isn’t meant to sound like some call for political quietism or surrendering to some nihilistic reality. It’s merely about humility in paying it forward: equipping others with purpose or treating others with dignity, the way it was done for me.  My life’s work as an aspiring public defender in the criminal justice system is fighting to prevent someone from being eaten alive by it.

My twenty-two-year-old self would be so disappointed in my tacit acceptance of the way things are rather than waging war for the way things ought to be. Put differently, I’m not sure how much of a large-scale difference I make. That doesn’t matter to me much anymore. By working in the pursuit of my own sense of purpose through helping others, my life has meaning.  Today, that surely is sufficient.

Garrett Kampf is a 2019 J.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon School of Law. He graduated from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2013 with a B.A. in Philosophy. He spent 2013-2015 teaching middle school English and Language Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. Garrett lives in Eugene, Oregon where he enjoys exploring the state, playing golf, seeing live music, and quoting the Big Lebowski wherever possible.

Busy Is Not An Affliction

In the canon of small talk, few responses to the age-tested question, “how you doin’?” will ever rival “good.” The word is so vague, so generic and yet so powerfully sufficient. It doesn’t have to be true, it doesn’t require creativity, and it never, ever commands a follow up question about the state of being good.

However, a new response to the most common pleasantry has announced its intention to unseat the incumbent in a way that is so brash, so self-important, and so woebegotten that it might just have a chance.

Busy.”

Never has the world seen so versatile a response. Witness the myriad ways the word can function in common conversation.

~Hey, man, how you doin?

Yeah, you know, busy. The kids are both in sports, I’m working on my MBA online, and my wife just launched a website.

~Oh my goodness! I haven’t seen you in so long! How have you been?

Ugh, busy! I’m on this diet, so I’m constantly meal prepping, I just got engaged, and my parents are getting divorced, so that’s a nightmare. Just busy.”

~We’re heading out for happy hour. You in?

Thanks, but I’m so busy. I have to finish up these financials for the new quarter, my mother needs me to set up her new phone, and I have to get to the gym.

In each scenario, we have to assume the first speaker didn’t intend to receive a busyness resume as part of the response. In the first, our old stalwart “good” would have sufficed because the pleasantry had been asked and answered. In the second, because of the reference to time elapsed in between seeing each other, “good” would suffice but would necessitate a brief qualifier. In the final, most egregious, example, an alternative would be “I can’t” or “Sorry. Maybe next time.

So while the context may change, what remains constant is a growing cult of folks who kneel at the altar of busy. For some, being busy is just how they operate. They thrive on stress and deadlines, they don’t understand how the rest of the world can be so utterly relaxed, and they often wear their busyness like a badge to be shined every so often. For others, being busy is more a state of mind, a way to combat the often mundane, task-oriented days which lead one to the next.

And then there’s the true cult of personality: the busyness is my affliction group.

As if being busy is something that is perpetually happening to them, the cult of busy can often be seen wearing ostentatious buttons that read: Ask me about my busy! Harried and often out of breath, the afflicted seek out opportunities to remind the world how busy they are and dare us to compete, task-for-task, with their busyness.

But busy is not an affliction.

It didn’t befall us unawares, and we aren’t unwitting accomplices to its crimes. Busy doesn’t sneak up on us, tap us on the shoulder, and whisper, “you’re it!” We don’t inherit busy, we don’t live with busy, and we don’t survive busy. There aren’t 5K walks devoted to busy. Busy won’t present with a rash and a low-grade fever.

Be mindful that a busyness arm-wrestling contest only serves to diminish the importance of each other’s versions of busy. In any conversation, the busyness scoreboard should read 0 to 0.  

Because busy is not an affliction.

 

Find Yourself

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Kaylee Collins first walked into my life as a wide-eyed sophomore in 2000. She was a leader, a thinker, and an empath. I had her again as a senior, and in the years since, our roles have reversed. She’s taught me more about myself  than I ever taught her in class. In all ways that matter, I envy her.


In my last semester at Ithaca College, I completed my major with a course called “TV Journalism Workshop.” In the past, this class had been known for helping seniors make newsreels that we’d physically mail out with cover letters and resumes as we competed for jobs in local newsrooms.

During my junior year, I had started to question if I even wanted a job in local news. I knew I loved meeting people, hearing their stories and helping them share those stories with their communities, especially in video format,  but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the direction in which I wanted to go.

For the first time ever, I didn’t know what my next step would be, which was terrifying and liberating all at once.

On the first day of TVJ Workshop, our professor asked us to go around the room introducing ourselves. Most of us had had classes together since first semester freshman year, but he was the communication school’s Visiting Scholar in Residence, so many of us were new faces for him.

With our desks in a U-shape, so we could all easily see one another, we began: “I’m Aaron. I’m a senior, and I want to be a news producer after graduation.” Next, “I’m Lindsey, and I’m a junior. I want to be a reporter after I graduate.”

The class was filled with aspiring news directors, sports broadcasters, newspaper copywriters, reporters and producers. About half way through the room, it was my turn.

“I’m Kaylee, and I’m a senior…And, well…”

I heard audible sighs and saw someone rolling her eyes. Unfazed by my friends’ reactions, I continued.

“I’m reading this book right now that says your twenties are for finding yourself and your thirties are for your career, so I’m going to go with that for now.”

Though I wasn’t being funny, I got a few chuckles, and our visiting professor grinned. Then, as my classmates settled, he agreed with me that taking the time to figure out who I am and who I want to be is important and that more people should take the time to do so.

I hadn’t verbally shared my confusion about post-grad life before, but in that brief moment, I was validated.

TVJ Workshop ended up being one of my favorite classes. I was provided with an opportunity to use my journalism skill set for something other than news. Instead of creating our newsreels for future job applications, we created a TV show focusing on small businesses in Central New York. Think Shark Tank but in 2006 and on a much smaller scale.

Our professor pitched the show pilot to WCNY in Syracuse, and once the show was picked up, he offered me a job as an Associate Producer. Among three classes, I was the only student to be granted a full-time position on the show’s production team.

I like to think that in that moment of honesty on the first day of class I had earned my very first journalism job.

In the first few years after college, I held many different jobs: English teacher in France, freelance journalist, nanny, waitress, substitute teacher, bartender, event manager, restaurant manager, cheerleading judge.

In that same time, I also traveled Europe, attended music festivals, ran my first 5K, earned a digital photography certificate from UArts, published a blog with a friend, and began my goal of visiting at least one new place each year. I’d met amazing people and have maintained beautiful friendships, learning something from each and every one.

And while my current résumé may span several industries, it’s what’s in the margins, between the bullet points and in the blank space that tells the story of who I really am.

Now in my 30s, I’m finally feeling more confident about my career path, but it’s only because I spent my 20s discovering, unapologetically, myself.

Kaylee Collins is an event marketer in the Philadelphia area. In October, she’s making a career move bringing her back to Ithaca College as Assistant Director of Regional Programs, continuing to build alumni bonds through event programming in cities across the country. She’s also an avid reader, music enthusiast and Francophile. Kaylee plans to use that journalism degree to produce a documentary some day, but she still has time left in her 30s to work on it.

 

Spectacular Failure

Professional Growth Through Abject Failure 

Before a snooping investigative journalist blows the whistle on my deepest professional secret, I’ll go ahead and share it. I failed my first pre-service teaching exam in spectacular fashion. I failed that Practicum I, blue book, short-answer only exam so badly that I considered changing my major, altering a career path I had decided upon as a freshman in high school.

I scored a 44.

Out of 100.

On my first meaningful education exam.

As a sophomore at Rowan University In the fall of 1995, I waltzed into Dr. Blohm’s Practicum I course ready to demonstrate my brilliance. If nothing else, I would set myself apart from these other jokers with whom I’d be competing for jobs in a few short years. I would make cogent points about lesson design, I would model mini-lessons to the envy of my peers, and I would write thoughtful answers in response to the most pressing issues facing pre-service teachers.

So when I received back that menacing blue book, nary ⅓ of the pages filled with my surface level responses, with a slightly left leaning 44 scrawled in red pen in the upper left hand corner, I think I blacked out. Now, I don’t mean I literally experienced a psychotic episode during which I couldn’t be responsible for my behavior. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of that class session.

When class ended, I just sort of roamed around campus. I didn’t have a destination in mind, I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t have a purpose. I was lost. If there were a soundtrack to my life, REM’s “Everybody Hurts” would have been playing.

As I mentioned, I knew I wanted to be a teacher shortly after my 14th birthday, so from that time forward, nothing got in my way. In fact, there’s power in such certainty because with the next seven or eight years mapped out, I didn’t experience the stress of not knowing what I wanted to do.

Until the 44.

When I finally arrived back at Chestnut Hall, I remember sitting on my bed and cycling through my options as I saw them.

  • Drop out and become a street performer.
  • Speak to my advisor about changing majors to “undeclared” until I drop out and become a street performer.
  • Request a meeting with Dr. Blohm to figure out what had just happened, thank her, and then drop out to become a street performer.

I ended up choosing the latter, though what once was a waltz into her classroom morphed into a tail-between-the-legs shuffle into her office.

“It’s really quite simple,” she started. “Your answers aren’t wrong; they’re just not right enough.”

As we leafed through the blue book, she referred me to her comments, which read like the dialogue of a marital spat.

“And?”

“So?”

“I need more.”

My answers weren’t wrong, I repeated to myself, they just weren’t right enough. For whatever reason, I didn’t demonstrate the kind of depth I would eventually expect of my students.

At the end of the meeting, Dr. Blohm thanked me for coming in and admitted that students rarely seek her out after a score like this. Instead, she suggested, that first exam was all part of a “weeding out” process she had to go through at the beginning of each semester. When the semester ended, I wrote her a note thanking her for pushing me to want to be better and insisting that I would be back for more advice.

As it turned out, I most certainly did fail that first education exam with a 44, but I passed Dr. Blohm’s first test with a side order of humble pie.

Spectacular failure, which could be the name of my grunge revival band, is a necessary part of our growth as teachers and as leaders. We should expect it, embrace it, and refer to it as a signpost on our path.

Now, if I could only remove this silly “44” tattoo from my chest.

 

The Truth About Leadership

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Amanda Leonardi is one of the first people I thought of when I started #formerstudentFriday. Our relationship started in our fourth period class, a group that remains close to my heart, and has continued since 2006.  We check in with each other often, and I’m so proud of her. She is kind, empathetic, and fierce. Her piece reflects each.


I started off 7th grade on a high note – my parents got divorced and my Grandma died all in the same week. It could only go up from there, right? In my personal life, things didn’t get worse, but I wouldn’t exactly say they got better. The mess just got messier and I learned how to deal with it. When I look back on my high school experience, what I learned doesn’t stick out to me, but who I learned from is what I really remember.

The experiences I had in the classrooms of a few teachers were the cornerstones of my success in education. I might not have known it then, but these teachers were leaders of education in my life and according to a study by Barry Posner and James A. Kouzes, the authors of The Truth About Leadership, people around the world have had the same experiences with their teachers.

This study collected and analyzed data from more than a million people around the world to assess leadership practices. In their study, they provided participants with a list of 8 different types of people (teacher, parent, political leader, etc.) and asked them to identify the person they considered a leader/ role model in their life. The data revealed that 26% of respondents between the ages of 18 – 30 identified a teacher or coach as “the person they’d select as their most important role model for leadership.” This put teachers and coaches in second place behind parents as an important role model for leadership. This sentiment did not disappear as people age either. The study indicated that 14% of participants over the age of 30 also identified teachers and coaches as their most important role model for leadership.

Through the mess of my personal life, these teachers all brought positivity into my life. They were all present in the classroom, they believed in me, and they invested in my life through their teaching and our daily interactions. None of these teachers knew about the details of my personal life, and it wasn’t until recently that one of them just peeled back a layer of that onion.

As a teacher, you don’t have to know an exhaustive history about your students’ lives nor do you need to know every detail about their day-to-day lives, but you do need to act with purpose and care genuinely. The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I had a teacher who showed up to his classroom every day. He made class fun and relatable. He challenged us to think differently. He was there to celebrate our successes and help us navigate the challenges.

Creating a meaningful educational experience isn’t about being your students’ best friend, or creating the coolest bulletin board, or developing the most “out of the box” lesson plan. I recently saw a clip from America’s Got Talent and the contestant said, “It is not the dream that I always had, but that is okay because I showed up and I did something I never believed I could do.” Creating a meaningful educational experience is about learning how to connect with your students so the experiences they have in your class go beyond the grade they receive on their report card and help them achieve something they never thought they could do.

Amanda Leonardi grew up in South Jersey but currently resides in Washington DC. Since graduating from high school, Amanda has enjoyed a varied career route with some of her favorite time spent as a barista in Mt. Laurel and an after-school aide in Camden, NJ. Amanda currently works in Human Resources for a commercial real estate company headquartered in Bethesda, MD.

Am I Ugly?

Responding to Students in Pain 

He was milling around, shuffling the same papers over and over again. Tying his shoe. Trying desperately to look like he wasn’t girding himself for the conversation ahead. Like he wanted me to see he needed to talk but not as much as he didn’t want other kids to see he needed to talk.

Finally, the last student left, and, man, he didn’t waste time.

“Mr. Kulak. Am I ugly?”

At first, I sort of giggled to validate that his ice breaker was clever. But when I looked at him and saw tears start to well up, I recognized that this was a kid in pain.

“What? Why would you think that?” I began.

“Because it’s true. I just wanted someone else to tell me it’s true. Girls won’t talk to me. They won’t even look at me, so I must be ugly or something.”

Dave was a senior in high school. He had patchy facial hair, tinted glasses, and he spoke with a slight lisp. He was also very kind, determined, and funny. But he wasn’t asking me about personality traits. He was expecting an answer about how he looked, about vanity, about the part of himself that showed up first. Before the rest of who he was even made it through the door.

“Dude, you are not ugly. Besides who even decides these things? I mean look at me. I’m in my 30s, I have ears that look like open cab doors, awful hair, and I still have pimples. Am I ugly?”

I could see him start to breathe differently. His eyes dried up a bit. I think the corners of his mouth started to form a slight smile before thinking better of it. He wasn’t prepared for me to flip the script on him, and it worked.

“No, I wouldn’t say you’re ugly,” he said.

“And I wouldn’t say you’re ugly. In fact, I probably wouldn’t use that word for anyone. At least not to describe how they look.”

He stayed in my room through lunch and during most of my prep. I just wanted to keep him talking, get him to laugh a bit, and allow him to leave when he was good and ready. Nothing I had to do was more important than that conversation.

There’s no way for us to prepare for these kinds of experiences with our kids. No overpriced and underused textbook on Answering Students’ Difficult Personal Questions exists. However, Dave came to me because he trusted me, because I made a conscious and concerted effort to connect with my kids long before I asked them to even consider the content of the class.

As you start a new year, pay attention to subtleties. Pay attention to everything. You’ll have countless Daves walk through your door, each with a unique and personal backstory. To commit to learning such backstories takes time, patience, and emotional wherewithal, but, as I see it, we don’t really have a choice.

So, again, Dave. You are not ugly. I promise.

Containment Policy

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Liz Follis and I have known each other for a long time. As a student during my first year in the classroom, she was precocious and hard working. As a friend since then, she has become an amazing educator and student advocate. I’m proud of who she has become and fortunate to have been invited along for the ride. In this piece, Liz reflects on her realization that going home doesn’t always mean being where we belong. Her experience is both triumphant and a cautionary tale.


Since I was 5 years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I wanted to be a teacher; I was going to teach kindergarten, and I was going to do it in my hometown.  When I graduated from college, my hometown took me off the bench and put me up to bat as a designated hitter.  I was given a maternity leave position, as a HS history teacher (not kindergarten, sigh), and I was determined to prove my worth.

Let me preface this story by saying that I am not a history teacher by trade.  It was my worst subject in high school and college, but I was determined to give my students a better experience: more fulfilling, extremely relevant instruction when delivering my lessons.  I studied up.  I asked other teachers questions. I ingested the material with a newfound hunger.

 Then the “Containment Policy” incident occurred.  

I taught the Policy of Containment to what I believed was the best of my ability, but I was greeted with a sea of blank stares.  In response, I was blunt; I came out with it.  Explain to me. What went wrong? Where is the disconnect?

A student raised her hand with trepidation.  “Ms. F… what does containment mean?” Then the bell rang. I racked my brain.  How can I make them understand, explain containment, and give them an experience they’ll never forget? The light bulb went on. I explained my idea to my fiancé at the time. He said, “Liz don’t do it. This is a bad idea.”

The ROGUE educator in me knew that meant this is EXACTLY what I should do.  

The next day, I came to school with all my supplies.  I used my prep to get ready.  Teachers passed by looking quizzically in my room.  I was juiced! The bell rang, the kids came in, and I asked the students a simple question.

“What do you see before you?”

A student said, “A swimming pool!”  

“You’re right!  What’s in the pool?”

Another student said, hesitantly, “uhm water?”

“Great! You’re correct! The water in that pool is contained.”

The looks on the kids’ faces during this “aha moment” was amazing.  I have that feeling bottled up for when I have a bad day.  

The next moment is when I realized that maybe this district wasn’t ready for my  ROGUE teaching.  I asked my classroom of historians, “What happens when I lift up the pool?”  The kids clearly saw that the water would go everywhere.  So I did it, I modeled the concept, and that’s when the principal walked in.  His face was aghast but that wasn’t going to stop this learning experience. I didn’t miss a beat.  I continued, “So, now that we know what containment means, why was it so important for the war?” You should have seen the hands go up and heard the meaningful discussion to follow.

At the end of the period I was met simply with, “Ms. Follis please see me at the end of the day.”

I met with the principal and was given strict instructions: direct instruction, worksheets, and no deviations for the rest of my time there.  

The school district I once knew, the one that I thought was on the precipice of progressive instruction, had just capped my teaching. The educational system that helped mold me, served as an example for my own teaching, and challenged me to be the best version of myself did not support my teaching style.

Looking back to those days, I continue to rationalize that I was revolutionary in my teaching; however, the stronger PLN I develop, the more people I meet, and the more schools I work in, the more I realize that going home, for me, would have been going backward. 

I am hopeful that my alma mater, the place I will always love, will become rejuvenated like a Phoenix from the flames.  I am hopeful that my nephews will have the same experiences I had as a student.  Unfortunately, until they find stronger leadership that isn’t afraid to break past their own “containment policy,” teaching, and therefore learning, will be stifled.

Elizabeth Follis has been in the education field for twelve years.  She is excited to start her fourth year in the Palmyra School District.  Although she began her tenure in Palmyra as a middle school special education teacher, Elizabeth will begin a new position this fall as a teacher coach and is very excited for the possibilities that this new adventure will bring. Outside of the classroom, she is the head coach for both Fall/Winter Cheerleading and Girls’ Spring Track and Field.