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.
I was watching The Office, the one where Jim pretends to be Dwight, and totally thought of you.
That Radiohead song “Idioteque” came on my Spotify, and I thought of your class.
I was cleaning out my Inbox, and I came across an email you sent me when I first started here. I think I’ll keep it.
There’s something particularly powerful about being thought of.
Think about the last text, tweet, vox, or phone call you got that started with, “Hey, I was just _______ and thought of you.” You can fill in that blank with any mad-lib verb you want (unless it’s like, you know, creepy), and it won’t change the smile forming at the corners of your mouth. In fact, the reference really doesn’t matter as much as the sentiment and the person from whom it comes.
It’s the human connection.
Twice in the last month I’ve spent time with former students, reaching as far back as the class of 2005, who have “thought of me” while working on writing projects. Now, as their former English teacher, there’s little mystery as to why each reached out: writing is my jam, and I published a book.
But, there’s far more to it than that.
Being thought of is the result of a purposeful approach to the time we spend with other people. It happens when we personalize our instruction, our leadership, and our empathy, so that people around us feel something. They may not know it at the time, but such a human investment catalyzes later, causing people to associate the seemingly random with the distinctly specific: us.
Listen, I spend far too much time thinking about leadership and how to improve. But the focal point of such thought is always people, not practice. It’s committing to restorative justice practices with a certain student or two in mind. It’s developing our master schedule with a team of teachers rather than absent of them. It’s creating leadership opportunities for teachers I know I will lose to other positions very soon. It’s considering the importance of #SEL4Adults as I build our PD schedule for the year.
I can’t imagine living an anonymous life, especially one devoted to people. So when you have those fleeting flashes from your subconscious, when a passage from a book reminds you of your 7th grade teacher, when you begin to free associate your world with those with whom you’ve shared even the slightest human connection, tell them.
Sometimes, during a move or a frenetic cleaning session, I’ll come across some of my old yearbooks, poetry, and undelivered love notes. Usually, I’ll read them quickly, marvel at where I was in life when I scribbled (not typed) such words, and then wash out the slightly acidic taste of angst and self absorption with a finely crafted Allagash White.
It’s an unhealthy cycle, indeed.
Now, as I approach my first ever 5th grade promotion with my first ever 5th grade students, I have worn out the backspace button, repeatedly closed the lid to my Chromebook, and played chicken with not writing a speech at all.
Maybe I should just wing it.
The thing about being a first year principal is you only get one shot with that graduating class. Following an incredibly talented predecessor is hard enough, but making a lasting, positive impression on this group of 5th graders in one academic year is nearly impossible.
But, we did it. Together.
We made up handshakes. We took selfies and tweeted them at celebs. We learned what the word “retarded” really means and why it’s not okay to use it perjoratively. We played Moss and 4-Square.
We were met with loss and how to manage grief. We were fans of Stranger Things and disagreed about the true rock gods of the 90s (spoiler: it’s Pearl Jam despite one of my friends always wearing his Nirvana shirt). We were super silly and super serious, each when the situation called for it.
We had “High, High Hopes for a living” and we said goodbye and hello to a full time teacher in the same year. We won our district Track and Field Day, and we lost a little innocence in health class. We developed crushes and frenemies.
We graduate on June 19th, 2019.
Now, if I could only figure out what to write about in this dang speech.
Say what you want about my man Hamlet, but he was one talented actor.
The title character in what is widely regarded as Billy Shakespeare’s finest play, Hamlet is all in knots over a complex vengeance-love-incest-legacy-mortality-honor-also-a-ghost plotline that involves him sorting it all out.
Unsure who he is and who he is supposed to be, Hamlet pledges “to put an antic disposition on,” so no one is really sure if he is, in fact, bonkers. Like all good method actors, Hammie convinces both the audience and the characters that he is, like, really mad. Picture Christian Bale stopping at Starbucks for a Green Tea Frap before he heads home to catch up on laundry all while dressed and acting like Batman.
That’s Hamlet. All. The. Time.
Eventually, Hamlet’s madness, vengeance, and grief get the best of him, and really everyone in the play, and he dies after avenging his father’s death at the hands of his slimy uncle. But the true mark of his brilliance is that we never know where the man ends and the actor begins.
As educators, we’re all Hamlet, at least a little bit, minus all the soliloquies and Oedipal Complex. Every day we are faced with negotiating who we are when we are with our students with who we are the rest of the time. It’s a complex and confusing dance not covered in any undergrad pre-service teaching text.
Nor should it be.
Though many of us may have dabbled as “Octopus #2” in The Little Mermaid Jr. or even shined as Sandy in Grease, we aren’t actors. We’re real people with real lives outside of our schools who have committed to a field in which we’re on a proverbial stage every day.
Aye, there’s the rub!
The most talented and transcendent teachers in our collective past and present aren’t those to whom we couldn’t connect because we couldn’t figure out who they were. Instead, we recall and reminisce about those teachers who were as authentic Monday morning during first period as they were when we bumped into them at the neighborhood Farmer’s Market. They shared who they were with us, they admitted their flaws, they told hilarious tales of self-effacing woe, they connected with us so we could connect with what they taught.
The same is true of leaders. While less on stage than those they mean to lead, Edu-leaders still have to commit to the part. On a delicate fulcrum, we have to commit to leading with authenticity the same way we taught with such an approach. Too formal and distant and we run the risk of alienating our staff as we sit aloft in our towers. Too fun-loving and accommodating and we run the risk of alienating ourselves as our staff runs its own show.
We are all who we are for myriad reasons, and while it’s highly unlikely that one of those reasons is our father was murdered by our uncle causing us to descend into madness, faux or genuine, the students and staff with whom we work deserve our authentic selves.
It’s been just over a year-and-a-half since I committed to a daily writing regiment, to a way of life that looked for reasons to instead of reasons not to. Soon after, thanks to Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur) and my EduMatch family, my bucket list was reduced by one after my first book, Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame, hit the virtual shelves.
But it’s the blog, it’s always been the blog, that gets me up in the morning and that helps me see the world as part of an analogous spectrum on which all things education reside.
As we prepare to close out our academic year, I want to reflect on five pieces that resonated most with readers. Because I love barroom debates that start and end with “top 5 _____, go!”, that’s how I’ll frame this reverie. Below are the debut post and the most read, and shared, posts over the past year. Thanks to my readers for commenting, RTing, and connecting with the writing. You’ve all leveled up!
This is the post that started it all. After five months of planning and writing, I decided to push “publish” on my writing career with this piece. I grew up in two houses with ivy prominent around each, so somewhere in my subconscious there, too, was ivy growing.
Faithful readers and friends alike know my unhealthy disdain for edu-catch phrases. So loathsome do I consider them that I devoted an entire piece to their faux-intellectual power to bore. “Closed Door Policy” is a result of that aversion and a promise that the person behind a closed door with me is my singular focus.
I wish I never had to write this piece, and to be fair, I suppose I didn’t have to. But, then again, this not-so-subtle reminder to the collective state departments of education and our ineffectual Madam Secretary of Education is meant to cast a very large, football shaped shadow over that which we are told is important in education: test scores, attendance rates, data points. To one little boy and to one big boy, none of that matters.
Simpy put: this piece is a love letter to my former students. Having been out of the classroom for a full four years when it was written, I thought my kids deserved an homage. I miss my seniors deeply, but I am fortunate to call so many of them friends so remembering seemed more with them than without them.
Look, man, I’m not naive. This post was aided by a kind endorsement from Jennifer Gonzalez (@cultofpedagogy), but that’s just who she is. Still, folks had to click on the link in her RT to see what all the fuss was about. Summative evaluations either need a new PR firm to represent them or leaders willing to insert themselves into such conversations as part of a discussion, not a lecture.
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I stared down at that page for what seemed like hours. I could read what was in front of me, but I just could not make sense of it. What came next was truly humiliating.
Mr. Kulak. Are you okay? I can ask someone else, came the squeaky, 7th grade voice.
I’m sorry. I think you should, came my defeated reply.
I slid the math worksheet back over to the study hall student who had just asked for help. His unanswered request for help hung in the air for a second and then disappeared. The next unanswered question was for whom that exchange was more uncomfortable.
Though I had long since resigned myself to the fact that my relationship with math had been one-sided, dysfunctional, and emasculating, I hadn’t been asked to face down such a demon in public for over twenty years.
Despite the research about growth mindset, grit, and resilience, I’m not a “math guy.” I’ve made peace with it. I’ve laid it to rest. I’ve moved on with my life.
Because of writing.
From poorly constructed tales of time travel and shape shifting to summative evaluation narratives, from love letters to welcome back emails, from birthday cards to #bekind thank you notes, I have been writing for over thirty years.
Make no mistake, the writing isn’t always polished. In fact, in many cases, it’s been downright cringeworthy. It’s been full of emotive gobbledygook, misplaced modifiers, and passive aggressive angst. It’s been unread, unresponded to, and unimpressive. It’s been crumpled up, moved to the trash folder, forwarded to the inbox of a superior.
But it’s also changed the shape my leadership. It’s changed my life.
The first communication I had with my wife was in writing.
I expressed my interest in joining a leadership team in writing.
I wrote love letters to my unborn daughter while we waited for her to join us in the world.
My family is notorious for the pride we take in what we write to each other in birthday cards.
When I left the classroom, a dear friend and mentor got me a gift, a pen-holding paper weight, inside of which she wrote on a yellow sticky note: Remember you are a writer.
My notes to staff, both formal and informal, are unique, personal, and thoughtful. Like each of them.
Too often when we consider our weaknesses, we do so without the inevitable yin to that yang.
The same is true for our students and for our teachers.
#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Jenn Floyd is an excellent teacher. Rather than play superlative roulette, I’ll just leave it at that. Her 2nd graders experience, rather than simply receive, education. From countless, creative ways to deliver content to well-timed, deeply personal random acts of kindness, Jenn is the foundation on which elementary schools are built. She’s also on her way to an educational leadership degree, so I’ll need to soak it up because she’ll be leading her own school very soon.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few months cynically rolling your eyes at celebrities’ “10 Year Challenge” photos as you scroll through your social media feed. Are we all going to just turn a blind eye to the amount of filters these pictures contain and reply with heart-eyed emojis instead? I’d much rather keep my “glory days” behind me, wrinkles under concealer, and roots under the occasional touch up of hair dye.
That is, until Read Across America Week this year.
Like any typical elementary school, the first week of March includes a sea of red and white striped top hats roaming through the building while celebrating Dr. Seuss’s work. Throughout the week, students and staff lined the halls for a school-wide reading hour, teachers swapped classrooms to read their favorite books, and parents brought in green eggs and ham – and my favorite French Toast casserole – during our renowned “Books and Breakfast” celebration. Points for crazy hats, wacky socks, and pajamas were tallied and tweeted as classrooms worked together to show their Seuss spirit.
During one particular event, high school students joined each elementary class to share their love of Seuss. As I welcomed the former students through the main entrance of our building, one familiar smile jumped out at me. As I showed him the way to my second grade classroom, I had an immediate flashback to a time during my student teaching practicum – 10 years ago.
Sitting in front of a group of second graders as a twenty-something practicum student was both nerve-racking and a dream come true. My cooperating teacher gave me my first task: class read aloud. Not bad, right? Each day after lunch, the students sat on the edge of their seats, anxiously awaiting the day’s story.
My cooperating teacher taught me all of her read aloud tricks – including editing Junie B. Jones when her responses were a little too fresh and modifying character names when they were too much of a tongue twister. What I wasn’t prepared for was the slew of dinosaur names discussed in Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark. Needless to say, there were no strategies to avoid the words introduced in this book’s adventure.
Pteranodon has a silent p, right?
One day, as the students waited for the twists and turns that Jack and Annie would face during their journey, I found myself on an adventure of my own. Luckily, one student in particular was well versed in dinosaur and quickly came to my rescue like a scene straight out of Jurassic Park.
“It’s Ter-an-uh-don,” Noah stated, as I stumbled over the first few syllables. Surprised – and a bit relieved – I quietly acknowledged his help and continued on.
As you would expect, the Pteranodon was a main character in the story, and the word came up quite often. Each time I began mumbling the letters, he would quickly jump in. “Ter-an-uh-don,” he would repeat, time and time again.
Well-prepared questions and thoughtful conversations aside – this was the moment that stuck.
10 Years Later this high schooler was now the one sitting in the teacher’s seat with his favorite Dr. Seuss themed book in hand: The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That: All About Dinosaurs. After sharing his memory of me, in his second grade classroom, and his love for the species – that stemmed back to his childhood – he began to read. My students sat on the edge of their seats as he read every rhyme, displayed the colorful pictures, and shared the importance of the glossary in the back of the book. We then snapped a few pictures for Twitter and said our goodbyes.
This former student and the read aloud moment that stuck with me has inspired me to begin my own 10 Year Challenge:
Rather than getting bogged down by the next big thing in standardized testing or losing yourself in the endless piles to grade, spend the next 10 years focusing on those small moments within your classroom – and within your life – that will always make you smile.
The next 10 will be gone before you know it, and unlike the latest trends or pop culture icons, the meaningful moments can never be photoshopped.
Jenn Floyd (@floyd4edu) spends her days in second grade in Collingswood, NJ, where it’s cool to be kind. She has a Masters in Reading Specialist/Literacy Coach and is currently working toward a degree in School Administration at Rowan University. When she’s not counting words for her annual NaNoWriMo writing club, you can find Jenn, and her husband Zach, checking out the best local bookstores and ice cream shops that the east coast has to offer.
#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these stories provide us a glimpse into our colleagues’ world, a world we all share as educators.
Sarah Whitman is not a miserable cow. In fact, she is so effusively positive that she committed to a one-minute daily dance party, which she posts to her social media accounts, just to remind people that joy is a choice. An amazing middle school ELA teacher and aspiring school leader, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have her in mind when I came up with #ColleagueCorner. Boooooo the moooooooo.
Every year on the first day of school, I direct my students’ attention to a framed sign in the front of my classroom. The sign contains a single sentence:
Awesome things will happen today if you choose not to be a miserable cow.
I inform my students that this sentence will be our mantra for the year ahead (and then I explain what the heck a mantra is so they stop looking at me like I’m nuts). I then ask the students to tell me which word in our mantra is the most important.
Typically, a few over-eager students will immediately blurt out words.
Sometimes I’ll even get an enthusiastic cry of “things!”
But every year, there is at least one student who takes a few moments to reflect on each word in the sentence before ultimately uttering the one I’ve been waiting for:
Because the truth is, cliche as it may sound, our attitude is something we choose every day. And our students need us to choose well.
I know that my students are watching me even when I’m not officially “teaching,” and that they can learn much by watching me repeatedly choose happiness, choose kindness, and choose integrity.
I know that my attitude in the classroom can directly influence not only my students’ attitudes, but also their achievement.
Most importantly, I know that some of my students rely on me to offer encouragement and positivity that they may not be receiving from the other adults in their lives. I know that some of my kids don’t go home to happy, peaceful havens, and that for some of them, my joy might be the only joy they see in the course of a regular day. I can’t think of a more compelling case on behalf of optimism.
I try to keep my miserable cow days–and even my miserable cow moments–to a minimum.
But I’m also a human, and sometimes I fail. Sometimes I fail impressively. Therefore, my students know that I am permitted a maximum of three “miserable cow days” per school year. I don’t think I’ve ever used all three, but I’ve also never made it through a school year without at least using one. Every teacher, and every student, is different, so while three days is my self-imposed limit, others may need to give themselves a little more, or a little less, leeway. Know yourself and what you can handle, and try not to judge others if they need a few more miserable cow days than you.
My best advice for those days (and we all have them) is this: if you do decide to take a miserable cow day, or a miserable cow moment, own it. Take steps to relieve the stress that’s caused it, whether by way of a few mindful breaths, a walk outside, a good cry (my method of choice), or a few intense punches into a pillow. Do what you need to do, but don’t take it out on students. Don’t give students a reason to mistrust you or doubt your continuing love and care for them. If you fall short in this regard, apologize. Occasionally, I’ve made a sarcastic remark to a student, or given a detention too hastily, and when it happens, I’m instantly regretful. Instead of just shrugging and moving on, I make a point of apologizing. My students know that I’m human, and a sincere apology goes a long way.
Multiple times each day, we are all faced with challenging situations, challenging colleagues, and challenging students. The more we choose to respond to these challenges with joy and love, the easier it becomes to do it again, and the further away we move from the land of the miserable cows.
Choose to be the “happy cow” your kids so desperately need in their lives, and you will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond the last day of school.
Sarah Whitman (@wonderwhitman) is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Collingswood Middle School. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked in the study abroad industry. Sarah is passionate about teaching her students to communicate well, demonstrate kindness, and “embrace their weird”! She is also passionate about Jesus, her family, Anne of Green Gables, and finding the world’s best scone.