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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An unholy confluence of nerves, anticipation, and judgment comes in the form of a Google calendar invite or an automated email from Genesis. Egos and relationships hang in the balance, planks are walked, single shafts of light descend from on high upon the chosen ones.
‘Tis summative season.
Let us all reflect before we click “sign and submit” on the 2018-2019 school year.
Please be seated.
As a first-year principal, I made it clear to our staff that I had a lot to learn. In fact, I admitted early on that I would have more questions than answers. Graciously, they allowed me to grow alongside them. But such transparency could make for imbalanced summative discussions during which I’m reminded of just how little I know, of how far I have to go.
And I’m the one handing out the scores.
The first, and arguably most important, thing I ask teachers to do is reflect on their year through a very specific lens: their most profound student success. In what has become very spooky, in sync timing, my friend Jon Harper wrote about something similar last week. In education, it’s so easy to focus on that which we didn’t accomplish, a series of near misses and if-I-only-had-more-times congealing into a messy mosaic of failure.
So, in my school, we are focusing on the opposite.
Teachers had two distinct reactions to that first question: a faraway smile as they immediately and confidently named their kid or pained conflict as they considered not whom but which because there were so many.
In a few short minutes, the summative nerves went to the back of the line. By putting a face and name to their year, teachers were reminded of their why. And, I assure you, it had nothing to do with a score.
Later, after discussing goals for next year, I told teachers they would never know what comments my superintendent makes during my own summative, and I don’t think that’s fair. Preaching transparency while my own suggestions for growth are “under audit,” as it were, seems snake oil salesman of me, and I’ve never been a good faker.
Part Brene Brown and part Jennifer Gonzalez, I need to be as vulnerable as I ask my staff to be.
So I steadied myself for responses to the next question: how can I get better?
In and among the powerful, thoughtful feedback about communication, discipline, and culture, a funny thing happened.
Can I tell you what you did that I really liked?
I had started to close my laptop when one of my teachers began to tick off parts of my leadership that she really appreciated: providing extra staff meeting time, treating us like professionals, honest feedback, listening to our needs, meaningful PD.
For this, I was not prepared.
Sometimes I have trouble making eye contact when people say and do kind things in my general direction. In this case, I may have blacked out a little.
The summative discussion needs to be just that. A two-way street with a mindful ebb and flow combined with active listening and human connection. As leaders, if we check the boxes and drone on using edu-catch phrases that only apply to the listener, then we deserve what we get in return: mediocrity, stagnation, and resentment.
Leaders are part of every teacher’s equation, so we must be a part of their sum(mative).
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.
At some point, we’re going to run out of music. The chords, progressions, riffs, beats, and melodies will all be used up. There won’t be silence, per se, but we’ll have heard the last new music meant for our ears. I suppose, then, we’ll just start over.
The funny thing about music is its slavery to itself. Everything is derivative, each generation owing to another’s brilliance and transcendence. Barguments over the greatest bands ever pay homage to those whose imprint is timeless (Stones, Zeppelin, Beatles) and to those who changed the course of the industry (Queen, Pearl Jam, Wu Tang Clan). Those same conversations often spill over into nostalgia and reverie, the kind that gives you goosebumps and puts you squarely in the arena with the people closest to you when you saw that band live.
We pine for the days when and for the kind-of-frontman who, and then we put on our favorite tracks, on whatever device is nearest to us, and disappear with the music. But we don’t think about the music ending. We don’t perspire as a fictional use by date approaches. We don’t throw our hands up and prepare for the silence.
We keep listening.
Because the music isn’t going to die.
Neither is public education.
The cyclical nature of music is mirrored by the cyclical nature of education. Combining a perpetual been-there-done-that old guard with a have-you-tried-this-new-thing-called excitement, each field provides a significant and momentous choice: accept that change is coming or deny its existence.
From Twitter to Flipgrid, Buncee to Ted-Ed, our newest teachers are experiencing and changing education in ways many of us couldn’t have imagined as recently as ten years ago.
Connected educators need only to pick up their phone or open their laptop to access relevant, real-time PD.
Children around the world are meeting and learning with and from each other through Skype or Flipgrid.
Professors are building social media into their pre-service teaching curriculum.
Leadership programs are espousing the importance of self-care and social-emotional learning.
So whether you’re dusting off that old 8-track or scrolling through the new releases on Spotify, the music will always be there, simultaneously changing and remaining the same.
#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.
It’s funny what the brain hears when it’s really only half listening.
The word, a common one, was frenzy.
But what I heard, and believed to be true, was friendsy.
Like many of you, my morning workouts aren’t complete without my earbuds providing the conduit to a Spotify 90s mix, the new National album, or pre-concert prep for, say, the upcoming Psychedelic Furs/James twinbill. But sometimes I’ll give the melodies a break and listen to whatever must-listen podcast to which I’ve been referred.
My wife, a gifted fundraiser for the Temple Lung Center in Philadelphia, recently discovered that podcasts are a thing, and now she’s obsessed to the point to which our two children’s eyelids aren’t yet closed at bedtime before she has her own earbuds in. As a result, she’s constantly sending podcast suggestions my way; oftentimes, she identifies some intersection of health care and education before making the recommendation.
WorkLife with Adam Grant represents such a cross-section, and only three episodes in, I’m already a better leader because of it. Grant, a wunderkind Wharton professor, writer, and organizational psychologist, expertly examines motivation, creativity, and organizational management in a way that is accessible to plebeians like me.
During an episode in which Grant visits the writers’ room at The Daily Show, he describes the experience with the word “frenzy.”
But for some reason, my brain heard the word “friendsy.” The misnomer didn’t even dawn on me until several seconds later because what we hear in the writers’ room sounds like a large group of friends throwing out jokes for that night’s episode. So I didn’t hear frenzy; rather, I heard friendsy.
So, why? Why did I hear a commonly used noun and mistake it for a colloquial slang term which doubles as a hookup app. Ultimately, the answer is simple: I immediately thought of my former students, staff, and colleagues whom I consider friends.
So much of who I am as a leader is rooted in relationships, and while I can certainly draw a line of demarcation between friendly and friends, I’m not turning down a lunch invitation from two amazing teachers who wanted to welcome me to my new role or a wedding invitation from a student I taught 18 years ago.
I’m not going to pass up the chance to send a hilarious meme to a teacher after she finds a swear word scrawled on the wall outside her classroom.
I’m absolutely going to support a colleague who is about to begin IVF treatments because, as she now knows, that’s how my wife and I were blessed with our daughter.
I can’t explain why my brain misheard such a common word, but I’m thankful that it did because it forced me to reflect on 20+ years of a career that may best be categorized as friendsy.
As a former English teacher, I have had quite a love affair with words for the last twenty years. Like my marriage, my relationship with words undulates, palpitates, and frustrates. Sometimes words come in a flurry, frenetically and furiously. Other times words have to be coaxed and cajoled in order to get them to land on the page.
Still other times I find myself musing over how some words can pack such a wallop depending on the context. My current word-du-jour has caused a bit of a stir in my noggin. Its power and impact can measure at alpha and omega and everywhere in between.
This word has the power to lift up and the power to utterly destroy. It’s placement in a sentence can be the difference between elation and devastation, and I can prove it.
Finally! Game of Thrones is back! #teamarya
Finally! My daughter finishes up her semester abroad and will be home tonight.
She came to her senses and is leaving him. Finally!
Did you hear he put his retirement paperwork in? Finally!
It’s that last one that terrifies me. But it’s also a powerful motivator.
Typically, there are two distinct and oppositional reactions when word leaks that a colleague has decided to retire. The first is a mournful pause followed quickly by collective joy for a person who deserves a hero’s send off.
The other reaction, my aforementioned motivator, is abject relief. A sort of what-took-so-long harumph coupled with a wry smile and that duplicitous word, finally.
Close enough to say it without whispering and far enough away to keep it at a mythical length, I think about my retirement from a removed, third-person perspective. But part of that perspective includes a varied cast of colleagues, real and imagined, whose possible reactions provide the motivation to grow and improve.
Perhaps we need to consider our careers using backward design. What, then, is our ultimate goal in a life devoted to education? While the semantics will vary, I envision our collective goal is touching the lives of as many people as we can before bowing out gracefully. To extend the analogy, I imagine our activities and assessments to that end center around our relationships, our conversations, our decisions. Our lesson plans consider with whom we work, how we communicate with them, and how we help improve each other.
Finally, we reflect on a career marked by true connections with our kids and our colleagues. A career after which those same kids and colleagues celebrate with us, lean in for a hug, and whisper, you deserve this.