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!
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.
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!
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.
In the pantheon of ambiguously worded, cleverly passive-aggressive, pseudo compliments, “outkicking the coverage” lands firmly in my top 3. I’ve used it ad nauseam and have reveled in having to explain it to the unsuspecting buddy to whom it refers.
Derived from a term in football, outkicking the coverage means you’re dating a woman who is far too attractive to be seen with you, let alone date you on purpose. Though I don’t know if there’s a female equivalent, I remember my friend Jennie, herself a beautiful blonde mother of three, asking me if I knew what it meant because someone said it about her and her ex-husband.
Yes, of course I have. I love it! And yes, your ex definitely outkicked his coverage.
Therein lies the complexity of the euphemism. It simultaneously suggests that a woman is beautiful and her partner is, well, not. What’s the proper response, then?
Um, that’s not very nice (but thank you!).
There’s more to a relationship than looks (but thank you!).
Somehow, there are couples all over the world whose very existence evokes eyebrow raises and elbows to the ribs from gawking onlookers. Inquiring minds just want to know how those couples are even a thing.
Because sometimes things just don’t make sense, and that’s okay.
Think about some of your “best” kids. Your interactions with them are universally pleasant and positive, you look forward to seeing them, you miss them when they graduate, you know they’ll be happy, successful people. Typically, behind those kids are functional, empathetic, kind grown ups who once had the very same things said about them in their youth. So, it adds up.
Now think about some of your most challenging kids. Your interactions with them are universally forced and generic, you notice when they aren’t at school because it means they won’t be in your office that day, you worry about them when they graduate, and you aren’t sure if they’ll be happy, successful people. Typically, (way) behind those kids are dysfunctional, aloof, or absent grown ups who once had the very same things said about them in their youth. So, it adds up.
What about those kids, however, who outkick their parenting coverage? Whose temperate, well-adjusted, anomalous existence, despite having little to no grown up influence, makes us question everything about everything. Moreover, such kids inadvertently, and simultaneously, dim the brilliance of the “best” kids (because of course they’re set up for success) and shine a light on the challenging kids (because of course they’re set up to fail).
When we recognize such kids, it’s vital that we call attention to them. Praise them effusively, elevate the otherwise mundane or expected results to hero status, empower them by asking them to help us support other kids, thank them for sharing space with us.
Because as much fun as it is to make fun of our friends who have outkicked their significant other coverage, myself included, it’s just as important to remind our kids that they are so much more than the sum of their parts, especially when their parts equal a grand total of one.
She knows about Santa. Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long.
My 10-year old daughter mythbusted right through the Santa facade last year but chose to celebrate as if she hadn’t. You know, for old time’s sake.
So this year she made it clear that she knows and wants in on the action when it comes to her 6-year old brother. Not quite blackmail, not quite quid pro quo. Just a tacit agreement that she would help us keep the magic alive for him as long as we let her help us with hiding our Elf on the Shelf (mundanely named Rob) and other ancillary holiday chores.
A holiday win-win!
Thankfully, that was something we got to experience as a family. We were all “in on it” as it were, and Abby didn’t hear the truth about Santa on a random Tuesday over a bag of Cheetos and a Dragonfruit Vitamin water in the cafeteria at school.
But that’s not always the case.
Last week, I had to handle the fallout after a particularly graphic sexual conversation between a group of my fifth graders. Suffice it to say that the word they were bandying about didn’t enter my lexicon until I was about 14. Now, I was a late bloomer, but yikes. I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation with the students’ parents, and I found it increasingly difficult to even utter the word (it rhymes with some) to them knowing each’s background, values, and parenting style varied so dramatically.
However, one of the fifth grade teachers, a mom of three small children and someone whose professionalism and grace I respect, provided me a tagline that Don Draper and his merry band of narcissistic ad execs would be proud of.
That’s a conversation for parents to have with their children, and now that opportunity has been taken from them.
While the grown ups in school act in loco parentis for the grown ups at home, oftentimes in a far more functional way, we can’t protect against everything. Conversations like the one this group of kids had happen every day on campuses across the nation, so whether it’s about an oversized, and presumably over caffeinated, man delivering presents (or coal) to children around the world or about the slang term for what happens at the end of sex, we know they’re talking.
And the answer is not to stop them. It’s to remind them and their families, that Santa, and a host of other things real or imagined, is still a mystery for many of their friends.
We need to let those mysteries be solved by the proper detectives. Unless, of course, Fred, Thelma, Daphne, Shaggy, and Scoob are available. Then, just call them.
#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.
The thing about teaching is if you do it long enough you’ll have taught every character archetype imaginable. It’s like being in a never-ending Steven Soderbergh film. For me, there’s a Super Bowl MVP, a murderer, a kick ass video game designer, a model, an award winning writer, and so many others.
Pat Barker sat to my right, about three or four seats back, as a senior in my English class. He was self-effacing, sharp, and far smarter than he gives himself credit for. His humor was too bright for scatalogical laziness, too witty for a typical high school audience. So, he bided his time, tried traditional adulting, and ended up exactly where he is supposed to be. Like so many other #formerstudentFriday posts, Pat’s winding path was the most direct.
I wish someone had told me that this was an option. Or, more accurately, I wish I had been listening when they did.
When I say this, I mean the life I’m leading now. I’m currently in my seventh year in Los Angeles. In three days I start my new job as a writer and producer for a TV show on Fox Sports One. A couple months ago I wrapped my last job as a writer for the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin. Between those jobs, I was a full-time Uber driver – a very common story in the notoriously “feast or famine” world of Hollywood. I went from writing jokes that made Robert DeNiro laugh on a Saturday to driving strangers to the airport on Monday. I’ve lived this reality for the last seven years, and there’s no place I’d rather be in life. I know because for the seven years before that, I did the exact opposite.
When I started high school, I had no idea what I wanted to be. Maybe an accountant? My uncle was an accountant, and he made good money. Drove a Lexus. That’s a nice car. Accountant it was! Until I took a few accounting classes in high school and realized something – being an accountant sucks. Sorry to anyone reading this that ended up in that field. I’m sure you love it, the thrill of balancing debits and credits and all that. But it just wasn’t for me.
When I started college, I still had no idea what I wanted to be. Maybe I should get into business management? Managing businesses seemed like a “successful guy thing.” So I registered for that as my major, thinking that my worst case scenario was changing my mind and my major the next year. Wrong. Worst case scenario, as it happened, was graduating and getting a degree in a field I just didn’t care about. I went through all five years (yeah I know it’s only supposed to take four, shut up), took all the classes, had no passion toward the subject matter, and graduated. Then I took a job managing a CVS – a job that I’d hold for seven years – and did it every day, even though I had no passion for it. I did it because I thought that’s what life was. I didn’t even realize how much I hated it at the time, because I didn’t think there was any realistic alternative.
The alternative had been under my nose the whole time. I started doing standup comedy as a junior in college, and it turns out that I was pretty good at it. I quickly rose through the ranks of the still-developing Philadelphia comedy scene, and by the time I was 26 I was a big fish in a pretty small pond. I absolutely loved doing stand-up, and the contrast with my professional life was so stark it was ridiculous. I was just too close to see it. I had my “real life” – 50-60 hours a week, good yearly salary, benefits, the whole deal. Then I moonlighted as a comedian, a career that seemed like an absolute pipe dream even as I was achieving it. There’s no stability in comedy, and therefore I never saw it as a viable career option. So here I am, with a thing that I’m passionate about and really good at, and I’m just putting it off to go in at 6 AM and unload trucks to set up the Tide display. Crazy, in retrospect.
In 2013, CVS scheduled an inventory on my birthday. Inventory was always insane – managers would typically work around the clock to make sure their store was in immaculate condition. I worked 36 straight days leading up to that inventory, and on my 30th birthday I celebrated by telling my district manager I wanted to transfer to a store in LA. This officially started my new life.
I only lasted three months at the CVS out here. It sucked, and it wasn’t what I moved here for. I took a job at a warehouse instead, then transitioned into Uber driving. As I worked my way down the career ladder, I started succeeding more in the entertainment industry. Somehow, it all led to me doing more cool shit than I ever thought possible and making a real living in the process.
The moral here, I suppose, is that there’s no universally correct path. I’m sure there are accountants out there who are reading this from their Lexus and thinking, “damn, this guy’s an idiot.” Fair. But this life, with all of its uncertainty, works for me. I spent so much time worrying about being “realistic” that I never considered being happy. I’m a father now, and I can’t wait to tell my son he can do anything he wants with his life. My parents told the same thing to me. Wish I didn’t take 30 years to listen.
But hey, better late than never.
Pat Barker is a comedian and writer. Since beginning his standup career in 2005, he has gone on to appear on Comedy Central and the NFL Network, as well as release a full-length album titled “Nice Jokes”.” Pat has also written for HBO, Fox Sports, SpikeTV, Comedy Central’s Roast of Alec Baldwin, and four straight years of Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year” award show. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son.
#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
When I first met Mickey Welde, I had already heard about Mickey Welde, and between us, I wasn’t buying it. There’s no way, I convinced myself, this kid is that good. Sure he was uber positive, creative and energetic, and a born leader. But there had to be some smudge mark on this kid’s record, some glaring character flaw. Nope. When you read his piece, you’ll see how wrong I was.
I’m riding the train on my way home from work. The window to my right faces south. Beneath the bridge the tide flows north. In the distance I see the stadiums.
I appreciate this part of my commute. This short stretch over the Delaware River generates gratitude and wonder. A peaceful moment to ponder the questions, “What’s going on here? What’s the purpose? Where are we headed?”
I grow still. My thought process slows. I feel present.
We complete our pass over the bridge and go under the streets of Camden. This momentary experience of intense awareness reduces as the train stops at City Hall. Strangers enter through the opening doors.
A woman sits down in front of me and a dude stands in the aisle next to her. They’re having a conversation as they approach. I hear the dude say:
“Well now that I’ve given up on all my hopes and dreams I have a lot of free time.”
[Actually… let’s have you read that correctly.]
Here’s the dude, very gossipy:
“Well NOW… that I’ve given up on all my HOPES AND DREAMS… I have ALOOOOTTTTTTTTT of free time.”
Talk about a first impression.
“College lied to me… College said I would make a difference in kid’s lives. And now… AND NOW!… Well… Now I believe it’s all a WASTE OF TIME! College was a waste of money! I wanted to be a teacher in the 80s…90s… and early 2000s…PRETTY MUCH BEFORE I BECAME A TEACHER!”
It sounds like a story he tells often. I think about how painful it is to be around negativity. I put on headphones as the dude continues talking:
“He asked me… Where’s your word wall? And I’m like … MY WORD WALL! Where’s my word wall? I never once saw a word wall in high school! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE EXPECTS ME TO MAKE A WORD WALL!”
It feels like an in-person Facebook rant. I catch myself being impacted by the negative energy. I pick the first song I see, “Crack the Case” by Dawes.
The dude’s voice disappears. I watch the familiar sites go by. I feel relaxed.
Intense focus and presence re-enter my being.
There’s a lyric that says, “It’s really hard to hate anyone when you know what they’ve lived through.”
When deciding to share this story I thought about you. Many of you are teachers, administrators, and leaders who deal with tough situations, undedicated students, and unnecessary word walls. We all have complicated lives.
No one on Earth knows your complete story. Just like I don’t know this dude on the train’s full story. This interaction doesn’t define the dude’s character; however, it gives us a glimpse into some pain he’s going through.
Life is difficult. If I had the chance again I would smile at him.
Teachers and counselors are on the front line of acclimating this world’s youth into society, which is a near impossible (but important) job. People depend on you to bring positivity into your teaching and to speak life into young people’s situations. Despite the resistance I know you’re up for the task.
However, for anyone considering “giving up on all your hopes and dreams” like the dude on the train, take a moment to step back and appreciate the position you’re in. Breathe.
If zero things are appealing to you about your job, that is okay!
Your potential students and I will appreciate it if you try a new career path.
[That’s a win-win for everyone!]
If teaching is no longer making you happy, it’s cool. Sorry you wasted money, but do something else that is fulfilling and motivates you every day.
No matter what field you’re in, you are constantly influencing the people around you. A person’s past interactions, relationships, or disputes do not matter today. Gratitude is contagious so find things that make you appreciate your life.
Everyone deserves your best moving forward, especially you. Be a teacher or mentor who spreads love and appreciation. Be a role model of compassion and kindness. Be grateful and find a way to inject positive outlooks into the lives around you.
Mickey Welde lives in Mount Holly, NJ with his three favorite ladies — wife Julie, daughter Quinn, and cat Beefy. For the last five years he’s worked at the Curtis Institute of Music as Assistant Video Editor and Audio-Visual Arts Coordinator. Mick likes spending time outdoors appreciating this beautiful planet and documenting the mysteries of life. He serves as Production Team Leader at LHT Church in Lumberton, NJ and is a firm believer in spreading kindness. Go love everyone!
The 2003 film Old School didn’t take long to cement itself in the pantheon of must-watch-whenever-it’s-on, quotable comedies. From its absurd plotline (three 40-something dudes decide to start a fraternity to offset their otherwise humdrum lives) to its ensemble cast featuring heavy hitters (Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) and clever cameos (Snoop, Warren G), Old School invites us to laugh both at and with it.
I admit that I’ve fantasized about what it would be like to be back on a college campus (major networks have yet to accept my proposal for a “reality show” to this end), studying, partying, and dating like I did in the often wee hours of 1995-1998. I often have dreams about being back in college but invariably I am misplaced, lost, ill-equipped, or lonely in those dreams, my brain’s way of reminding me that I am, in fact, too old for school.
But I’m not “old school.”
As our district embarks on meaningful, if not overdue, trauma informed care work, I am equal parts excited and panicked. I know our staff will embrace the philosophy and strategies covered in the trainings. But I also know there are countless people in education who will harrumph at TIC under the guise of being old school.
I’m sorry, I’m old school. Everyone deserves consequences.
These kids just need to suck it up. That’s what we did in our day.
There was no such thing as trauma informed care when we were in school, and we turned out just fine.
Now picture thinking that in reference to a child whose in-and-out father once held him by the ankles over a balcony and threatened to drop him if he didn’t behave. Or to the kindergartner who spent the first sixty days of her life detoxing, in the dark, from her mother’s drug use. Try one on for size with a fifth grader who is routinely beaten by his mom while he cares for his three younger siblings and blind grandmother.
Man, kids today are soft. Am I right?
I recognize that education, like most fields, operates as if on a pendulum. Stick around long enough and you’ll have seen it all; each initiative re-branded as something revolutionary and necessary. As such, I understand the implicit skepticism and exaggerated eye roll when the pendulum swings in a familiar direction. But in this case, we’re not talking about a math program or discipline policy.
The first time I turned 21, I felt like I was miscast in a coming-of-age film about a guy turning 21. With a late September birthday, my firsts were always linked to being last. All my friends—all of them—are older than me, so I sat on the sidelines, or in the passenger seat, while each of them drove, tried chewing tobacco, voted, and drank. So when I finally turned 21, my squad was already over it, the shine had worn off, and I was just a little brother finally allowed, legally, to tag along.
I think that’s why turning 21 again is so meaningful. Again, there will be little pomp and circumstance, and, just like last time, few people will even care that it’s happening, but I’m proud to be 21 again.
Because I’ve been in education for exactly half my life.
21 separate plays with completely different story arcs, characters, and denouements.
21 years of “My bad” and “I’m glad I was your teacher” and “Welcome Back!”
21 first days and last days.
21 chances to take chances.
21 opportunities to provide opportunities.
Of course, catching up to myself just means that while the starting line (21) will always be the same, I’ll move farther away from that line each year I remain doing what I love, until the part of my life that isn’t in education is dwarfed by the part that is.
I’ve made no secret about my borderline obsessive relationship with Seattle grunge gods, Pearl Jam. They’re referenced in my bio, they’re always on shuffle and repeat in my head, and they’re represented in my most recent tattoo. But my affinity isn’t about wanting to be Pearl Jam; it’s about how Pearl Jam is a part of me.
When they exploded onto the scene in 1991, I, like most of the country, was awakening from a long 1980s malaise filled with hairbands and awful ballads. Music that didn’t really speak to me because I wasn’t ready for or interested in the following: (a) action tonight (b) cherry pie (c) Dr. Feelgood or (d) sugar being poured on me. Thankfully, the boys from Seattle showed up and served the scene notice. They’ll take it from here.
The final song on their masterful debut album Ten, “Release,” has served as a mantra since I first heard it almost thirty years ago. Frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic drone takes listeners on a 9-minute journey through his bizarre, posthumous relationship with a father he didn’t think he had. Ultimately, Vedder pleads with his dead father to release him of the man he couldn’t be so Vedder can be the man he needs to be.
Enduring a tempestuous relationship with my own father, albeit without the same level of confusion, made “Release” seem written for me. Pearl Jam has this effect on a lot of listeners.
As educators, we have an innate need for control. Bound by bell schedules, state mandates, and rubrics (so many rubrics), we live in a perpetual state of oversight. In this way, control is often imposed on us, which sends our own need for control into hyper-drive. It’s a maniacal cycle. So break it.
As you prepare for the upcoming school year, do so with the idea of “release” in mind.
Release control of a read aloud to your kids.
Release responsibility over your next PD to your teacher leaders.
Release feedback on a writing piece instead of a grade.
Release yourself from the noise of the notoriously negative 10%.
Release your first blog post or podcast episode.
Release your teacher leader so she can observe other leaders in your district.
Release stress by unplugging and unwinding.
Release yourself from feelings of Edu-guilt over not doing enough, not being enough.
So much of our Edu-identity is made up of what we’re supposed to be. From crowded lecture halls to oddly spaced, platitude-heavy tweets, we’re told what and how to be as teachers and leaders. But it’s when we shed those cookie-cutter expectations, when we demystify prescribed formulas for greatness, and when we chart our own path that we can, like Vedder, release.
C’mon, you remember using, or at least hearing, this odd non-sequitur in the throes of an argument when you were a kid.
Dude, you totally suck at guitar.
Though it makes no sense in virtually any context other than dermatology, your face took on a powerful, full stop role in just about every schoolyard in America. Because there’s no retort, the recipient of the your face was left speechless, wondering just how he lost the upper hand.
But your face, your actual face, is a leadership tool that cannot be undervalued.
During a Level Up Leadership workshop with Dr. Joyce Jeuell’s ed leadership cohort at Chestnut Hill College this week, I was reminded of what our faces mean to our leadership. The group was discussing leadership in the midst of awful, unforeseen trauma, something each member of the cohort could speak to but only from a teacher perspective. A recent mishandled communication after the death of a staff member at one of her student’s schools led to the discussion during which Dr. Jeuell made clear the first line of leadership defense when the unexpected happens.
How does your face look when things like this happen? It’s the first thing your staff will see, so what will yours look like?
As leaders, you’ll receive news for which you are unprepared.
You’ll sit with a domestic violence victim as she slides the TRO across your desk for you to put on file. You’ll hold the hand of a seven-year old who can’t process her parents’ divorce. You’ll spring into action when a staff member takes a tumble and is visibly disoriented. You’ll listen as an unstable parent lambastes you for all the world to hear.
How will your face look?
While we may not be able to control contours, crow’s feet, and laugh lines, we can absolutely control how we use our faces to stem a rising tide. Whether we’re working with children or grown ups, our faces will tell them everything they need to know long before our words will.
Use it to your advantage.
Easier said than done? Not really.
In any situation, there’s a fraction of a second during which your mind is processing what is happening. It’s the time between the pitcher throwing the ball and committing to your swing. It’s the moment when too-hot coffee touches your tongue. It’s the instant when the OBGYN asks if you’re ready to hear the gender.
In each, and every, scenario your mind has a split-second to tell your face what to do next. Being mindful of that granule of sand slipping through the hourglass is all it takes to instill calmness, confidence, and control over any situation.
Your leadership style? It’s written all over your face.