Old School

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. 

Sound familiar? 

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. 

We’re talking about kids. 

Finally.

Want more leadership ideas? Pick up a copy of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame today!

As A Parent

I remember how much I loathed hearing it. And more often than not, I knew it was coming. Like a high-arcing arrow fired from the opposing front line, I could see it coming but was powerless to avoid it. 

As a parent

Sometimes parents would lead with it, an opening salvo intended to set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Other times, they’d keep it in their back pocket until they really needed a counter punch. And for the first ten years of my teaching career, I was defenseless against it because I was childless. 

But a funny thing happened after my daughter was born in 2009. The assumed parenthetical after the first three words of that phrase changed, and so did my association with it. 

As a parent (which you surely can’t understand because you’re single and childless)

turned into…

As a parent (a role we share so I’m appealing to your sense of paternity to make you see my point)

What once caused me to recoil and go on the defensive became a tacit invitation to a fraternity for which I didn’t know I was rushing. I didn’t consider being a parent as part of my professional identity any more than I considered being an educator as part of my personal identity. But that was short-sighted, indeed, because I can’t shed either part of myself even if I wanted to. 

Moreover, I’ve started to purposely wear my dad hat while at school because it helps to disarm both students and parents. At Back To School Night, I share a photo of my two children and close my remarks with a familiar refrain: we’re in this together. While I have spent more than half my life as an educator and feel confident in my ability to lead every time I walk in the building, I have only been a parent for ten years and there are days on which I have no idea what I’m doing. 

Still, considering my decisions, my students’ lives, and my relationships through my dad lens has only strengthened my leadership and emboldened my resolve. Similarly, I can’t help but visit our fifth and first grade classes with my own children in mind. In this way, I borrow from my professional life to help my personal life because I watch how other children interact with the world and with learning every day, so when I get home each night, I’m better prepared to help my own children. 

I have no idea how often life blending happens in other professions, but I would argue that it’s a vital part of ours. If we preach being a better listener, learner, and person to our students, then we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the same as adults. 

Want more leadership ideas? Pick up a copy of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame today!

Turning 21

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. 

And I’ll drink to that. 

How old are you turning this year?

Release

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. 

Your Face!

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. 

Your face! 

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.

Thought About You

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. 

Tell them you thought of them. 

Mic drop

Ok, then don’t care about baseball.

Rachael said it so matter-of-factly and with such confidence that I almost believed that she had rehearsed that line in front of her mirror, knowing at some point she’d say it to me. It was a perfect analogy, delivered with genuine conviction, to help me understand how her mind works. 

And how my mind works so similarly. 

We were discussing the recent withdrawal of Carlos, one of her second graders with whom she had developed a close bond. Having worked with him last year, she was wholly aware of how challenging his life was, bookended by two absentee parents. In the middle, a man who had dated Carlos’s mother and, upon her flight from adult responsibility, accepted the role of stand-in father.

But something was off. 

Still, Rachael found him in her class again this year and was excited at the prospect of another chance to provide seven hours of stability in his otherwise chaotic life. Despite her natural empathy and maternal instinct, despite countless street-side conversations and calls home, despite my intervention during a formal meeting to discuss attendance, lateness, and academics, one day Carlos stopped coming to school. Later, we’d find out his adoptive family moved amid alarmingly flimsy circumstances. 

Her: Can we call over to his new school? Something is off with Manuel (adoptive father). I can feel it. We have to at least alert the school that this child may not be safe. 

Me: Sure, I will call over and tell them what we know. But you have to let him go now. You did amazing work with him, but you have to let him go.

Her: Ok, then don’t care about baseball. 

Mic. Drop.

Knowing how much I love the game and still obsess over the previous weekend’s at bats or performances on the mound, Rachael practiced what I preach all the time.

She met me on my level. 

I can’t turn off my love of the game, I can’t control dreaming about baseball (often under bizarre or losing circumstances), I can’t help but draw analogies between the game and our profession, and I can’t help dreading the day a doctor or my wife tells me I have to stop playing. 

So, I can’t simply attach a platitude, or Disney song, to my love for the game and “let it go.”

Nor can Rachael stop caring for students with the same fervor and empathy with which she cares for her own children. She can’t look over at Carlos’s empty cubby or table and be like, “meh, bummer.” She won’t put him into a former student box, tucked away in her consciousness, with the rest of her wistful, mournful, or otherwise transcendent memories of students from days gone by. 

It was foolish and short-sighted of me to suggest Rachael flip a non-existent, unrealistic, and aloof switch in the wake of Carlos’s departure. None of us is capable of simply turning off our passion when it becomes inconvenient. 

Down by one run last Sunday, I led off the 8th with a strikeout looking (the pitch was high, but still), and I haven’t been able to shake my disappointment since.  

Because I care about baseball, and I can’t turn it off. 

I don’t much want to either. 

I or Me?

Though I have yogis in my family, the idea of practicing yoga always seemed foreign to me. If I were going to spend time working out, I would take the barbell over the mat, the “skull-crusher” over the half-pigeon pose. Still, as I got older, something about the local yoga studio kept catching my eye. I convinced myself that it was a challenge, it would be great for my fading core and non-existent flexibility, and it would provide some versatility to my admittedly stale workout routine. 

Within minutes of my first “hot” yoga practice, I was hooked. As an all-too-obvious rookie, I spent more time watching than posing during that first hour of my yoga career, and veteran yogis were happy to let me observe while I figured out each pose. I was drawn to the community of breath and movement, and as an anxiety sufferer, the physical routine and overt mindfulness of each session provided a sixty-minute respite from my mind’s insistence on overthinking and overanalyzing. Before long, I felt more comfortable, stronger, and more flexible. 

I don’t pretend to know anything about yoga instructor training, but like in any other field, I have to assume some instructors are just better than others. Some are workmanlike. Others are fun. Some are too chatty. Others are too aloof. 

Like the proverbial porridge, for me, Leigh is just right. A clever mix of experience and energy, Leigh can somehow tap into the collective personality of the ever-changing cast of yogis surrounding her. She is constantly in motion, employs a session-specific Spotify mix during our practice, and leads each practice with intention. 

What makes Leigh special is what she says at the end of each practice. Sometimes she jokes about how hard she was on the class on a particular night. Other times she’ll share an anecdote that she knows will resonate with most of the class. And sometimes she forces us to look inward just as we are about to “take rest” at the end of a practice. 

At the end of one particular session, Leigh talked about the difference between “I” and “me.” As a former English teacher, my inner grammarian perked up. However, this wasn’t a grammar lesson. Leigh was about to analogize how each word forms the foundation for our intention, for the way we see the world, and for how we view ourselves. 

I gives. Me takes,” she said. 

Think about how often we frame our world as either I or me statements and about the profound difference between the two. Using I is a way of claiming ownership, of affirming our place in any moment or in life, of being an active participant in our own lives. Using me removes us from that space. Me suggests that life is happening to us; it has a selfish connotation, whether we mean for it to or not. 

As educators, do we shape-shift that mentality depending on who we are in front of, on what we need in a given moment? Do our personal and professional lives share these pronouns or are they at odds with each other? Are we active (I) or passive (me) participants in our practice and in our relationships with kids and colleagues?

Now, as yoga preaches, I am mindful of how each word shapes my intention, strengthens my relationships, informs my leadership, and makes me a better husband and father. I have Leigh to thank for that. 

Ask yourself: are you an I or a me person?

Love Letter

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.

Antic Disposition

Negotiating Our Professional and Personal Lives

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 up to us to be or not to be.