Saturday, February 25, 2017

There's that...

A friend of mine told me she was having a crappy few weeks.  She was questioning her effectiveness as a teacher, her impact, her role.  She was half-heartedly considering other employment options.  "I'll be okay," she said, "But I just have to work on being cheerful right now."  

That’s how a lot of us are feeling this time of year.  It takes effort to stay positive and grateful.  

Not far from my house is a well-traveled road alongside which is a super-long stretch of corporate buildings.  It’s a suburbanized industrial park; you can take a right turn at any point and get lost in overlapping loopy roads with office buildings.  Big ones.

There’s this one, though. 

Inline image 1It is gigantic.  It looks like a person, with these enormous window-eyes.  It sits, all formidable and massive, on ginormous lot.   It looks like it was built there by a giant kid playing with life-sized Legos.  It is brown, and the land upon which it sits is brown, and I swear to heaven, the air around it is brown.  And every day, a whole bunch of people park their cars and walk inside, moving silently, like robots, and they stay inside and don’t come out until the end of the day, when they all come out again and get into their cars and drive away. There’s a giant water tower in the background, and I imagine it is there to give the corner office people something—anything—to look at. 

I have no idea what they do inside all day every day; I don’t know what they “make” or what work they are producing.  I have no idea what happens in the cubicles and offices within.   Sometimes I imagine that the people all go in and sit and stare at the wall, just waiting.  For something. 

Or maybe they do something fabulous for the world.  I don't know.  

Regardless, whenever I drive by the building, I think to myself, “I am so effing grateful I don’t have to walk into those doors every day of my life. “

Because every day, I get to walk into a building where there are children.  And children give us hope, and energy, and laughter. 

So there’s that.

Stay positive, friends.  We’ve got this.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Preparing for an Interview

“My daughter’s boyfriend’s brother has an interview next week for a teaching position.  Do you have any standard interview questions that you use?  I’d like him to be able to practice so he’s ready.”

If I had a dollar for every time I have gotten that question, I would be able to buy myself a really fancy steak dinner.  

Depending on how well I knew the person, I used to give sample questions or offer suggestions.  But I’ve changed my stance; my response is different now.    

Recently, a teacher I love and deeply respect emailed me.  She has been working with a student teacher; he is now interviewing for a job.  He’s pretty fabulous, she told me.  (Which means he really is.)  He needs to be teaching kids, she said.  (Which means he should.)  I want to help him, she said.  (Which means I wanted to help him, too.)

So I told her what I really think.

An interview isn’t something someone can study for.  For one thing, it’s impossible to guess what questions will be asked.  A thousand Google searches will reveal a thousand different sets of potential interview questions.  Looking through them and mentally preparing “correct” answers would be a bit like preparing for a spelling bee—you might study for weeks, but when you’re called to the microphone, you’ll likely get the one stupid word you hadn’t encountered in your studies, and suddenly you’re just like every other yahoo up there trying to spell words they don’t know.

But there’s another reason studying interview questions doesn’t work: your words don’t matter nearly as much as the place from which they come.  Are they coming from a desire to serve?  To help?  To make a difference?  To be a good teammate?  Or are your words coming from a place of desperation—to just get a job, already?

Your interview should reveal who you are. 

When I interview for open positions, I’m looking for kindness.  For generosity of spirit.  I seek someone who’s a hard worker, someone who values youth.  Who can admit mistakes and missteps, and isn’t judgmental about the mistakes and missteps of others. I’m not looking for a studious soul who sought potential questions and crammed, exam-style, for our conversation. 

An interview isn’t a means to an end.  It’s the beginning, in and of itself, actually.

So, when thinking about an upcoming interview, of course it’s a great idea to prepare.  But I tell people to prepare by buying a nice professional outfit, by considering your talents and skills as they relate to the position, by spitting out your gum before going into the room.  And then?  Breathe deeply.  Be the best true and authentic self.  That’s what they’re looking for.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Laughter: The Best Medicine

My late grandmother worked for Readers’ Digest back in the mid-seventies.  One of her jobs was to read through submissions for a section called Laughter:  The Best Medicine.  It was a beloved feature of the magazine sharing stories submitted by readers.  Each was less than a paragraph long, but each one captured the shared experiences of our hysterical, ridiculous, laugh-out-loud lives.

Each month, my grandmother would go to the office and gather the hundreds and hundreds of submissions that had come in.  She would schlep it all home in cardboard boxes, read through each one, and select the most amusing to turn in to her editors.  In the summers, when I visited, she’d let me read through the boxes with her.  Some were some duds, of course, but many were just wonderful—snort-worthy short stories that teased the silliness out of the life we live.  Reading them, I always felt better.  It seemed true:  Laughter really might be the best medicine.

So to my teacher and principal friends, I ask:  Have you gone too long without laughing out loud?  Have you stopped letting yourself enjoy the humorous parts of our jobs?  It feels good to give yourself permission to laugh, to smile, and to enjoy the work. 

How, though?  How can we?  Especially nowadays, when everything feels so important, so high-stakes, so stressful?

Well, we can find the humor, that’s how.  A couple ideas:

Embrace the tattle.  I literally keep a journal of some of the things kids say about one another.  They are hilarious.  My favorite this week was the indignant boy who pointed to the child next to him and furiously reported, “Mrs. Schwanke!  He’s giving me the silent treatment!”   (Let me pause to point out that I’d love to be given the silent treatment by that particular child, but that’s another story.)  Embracing the tattle won’t be as easy for my friends who work in middle or high schools, but I’m sure there’s still some humor in seeing how kids feel wronged or offended by one another.  Right?  Even a little? 

Practical jokes.  Not everyone likes a good practical joke, so this one comes with a caveat:  Most people love to play around a bit with each other.   Tease, joke around, find some tricks and little stunts to pull on your friends and colleagues.  And be a good sport when it’s reciprocated.  There’s nothing better than a good prank to get people smiling.   

Share your stories.  Not long ago, we called for outdoor recess when we had an unexpectedly warm day, but we needed students to stay off of grassy areas and muddy fields.  We told students on the intercom, “Outdoor recess, but blacktop only.”  A first grade student looked down at her outfit, dismayed, and wailed to her teacher, “But I have a blue top on!”

The teacher told me the story and I laughed like a fool.  Then I re-told it ten times, because each time I did, there was laughter.

Relax.  One of the teachers at the yoga studio I attend likes to remind as, as we grimace our way through an awkward pose, “Remember to chill, guys.  After all, it’s just yoga.”  When she says this, the air in the room lightens.  It's a good idea to remember not to take everything so seriously, so we can better enjoy the process. 

Ask the 10-10-10-10 question.  Sometimes, there are extremely serious situations in which we cannot and should not look for reasons to laugh.  Time, though, may make that change.  There are many versions of the “10-10-10-10” thing, but the one I use is this:  “Will this matter in ten minutes?  Ten days?  Ten months?  Ten years?”  Most of the time, I realize my situation will surely dissipate by the time I get to days or months, and all of them dissipate by ten years.  And then I wonder, “Will I laugh about this in ten minutes?  Days?  months?  Years?"  Most of the time, the answer is yes.  

Listen:  To be clear, I’m not suggesting we all run around making fun of life and whooping it up, party-style.  Not at all.  I just want us all to take a collective breath and smile a little more.  It can be a private thing, even—a shaking of the head, a private, “Huh?!” conversation in our mind, a hidden smile.  Or it can be connecting with others with a joke and a grin.  Doesn’t matter, really; it’s just nice to remember to laugh.  It’s medicine, after all.  Good medicine. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017


I avoid writing too much about the dramatics of my job, because I am fiercely protective of my students and their families.  Often there are stories I want to tell, but I don't, because to dishonor them would be to fail in a way I refuse to fail.

Some of the stories are really, really hard.  And complicated.  Even when I think I have the whole story, I usually don't.  With every issue and incident, there are layers of things that happened to lead to what happened.

When enough time has passed, though, I feel okay telling certain stories.  And with careful adjustment of names and details, I can be sure I am not hurting anyone.

Several years ago, we had a young student I'll call Janel.  She was a lovely girl, nine or ten years old, pretty as a movie star.  She was hugely personable and a natural leader.  Her teacher often sent her to the office on small errands. When she arrived, the air lightened and sweetened somehow.  She would grin and wave impishly when she saw me, as if she was so very happy that we knew one another.

From our light conversations, I knew Janel lived with her mother in an apartment a few miles away, across the highway.  I had never met her mother; Janel rode the bus to and from school, and her mother did not come in for school events or conferences.  Janel seemed happy and well-adjusted.  I adored her.

Midway through the year, on a nondescript winter morning, Janel's teacher caught me in the hallway.  "I'm worried about Janel," she lowered her voice to a whisper.  "She looks exhausted, and she seems reserved and quiet.  She's not herself.  Will you come see what you think?"

I went in the room and poked around, saying hello to a few kids, squatting to ask questions and ask about their reading.  My eyes flicked to Janel.  Sure enough, something was off.  Her eyes didn't look up; she sat quietly in the corner, reading.  Except she was not reading at all:  Her eyes were still, staring, not moving, not even blinking, it seemed.

I asked her to come with me.  We walked toward my office.  "Hey, sweetie.... Is everything alright?"

Yes, she said.

"Do you feel okay?"


"Did something happen this morning, or last night?"


I passed the guidance counselor's office and gave her a twist of my head; she joined us in my office.  I sat next to Janel, and the counselor pulled up a chair so we were all in a little triangle.

"So, nothing is bothering you?" I asked.

She shook her head.

We waited.

The counselor reached over and touched her knee. "Janel?"

And she started to cry.  And cry and cry and cry and cry.

It was a good long time before her drippy little eyes met mine.  Her chest lifted with a huge intake of breath.

"I don't know where my mom is," she said.

My shoulders clenched.

"Tell me what you mean," I said.

Janel had gotten off the bus the night before, and her mother wasn't home.  She didn't worry much at first:  "My mom gets busy with her friends," she said.  "If they go out for drinks, or something like that.  But usually they all come back to the apartment.  At least by the time it is really dark."  Janel couldn't think of anything to do other than wait.  Which is what she did, all through the night.  And then morning came, and Janel couldn't think of anything to do other than change her clothes from the day before and get on the bus for another day at school.

I asked questions, and the answer was consistently "no."  No, she didn't know where her mother could be.  No, there were no relatives we could call.  No, she hadn't eaten.  No, she hadn't slept.  She'd tried to draw and write in her journal, but time had passed slowly:  "The night was, like, a whole week," she said.

The guidance counselor took Janel across the street to get a bagel and some juice.  I made some phone calls.  A police officer and I went to the apartment and banged on the door, and in that stopped moment of time, I couldn't decide what I wanted more:  for the mother to answer the door, or for no one to be home.

No one was home.

It was a horribly long day.  I cleared my calendar so we could work through emergency placement--a place where Janel could stay until we figured out where her mother was.

"Let me take her," I pleaded with a caseworker at Children's Services.

She shook her head.  "It doesn't work that way."

"But I'm her principal," I protested, sounding feeble and desperate.

"It doesn't matter.  You're not licensed or trained." She was gentle but firm.  She walked to her Camry.  Janel followed, clutching the straps of her pink backpack across her chest.  And they drove away.

Hours later, police found Janel's mother wandering the Hilltop area.  Her relationship with heroin had gone sour; it was remarkable she was still alive.  By the time she sobered up and realized she'd lost 36 hours and, likely, her daughter, too much damage had been done.  She sunk into despondency and, apparently, more heroin.

Janel was withdrawn from our school to attend in the district where her foster family lived. And that's when the story ended for me; I never saw her again.

To be clear:  In my work, there are far more stories of joy and celebration than there are of grief, addiction, hate, pain, and absence.  Far, far more.  But that's the shitty thing about this memory we have:  The happinesses get put into one category, big and wide and full, but the uglies each get their own category.  Each one stands alone, and lurks, and lingers.

Monday, January 23, 2017


I admit it:  I'm struggling with this blog.

Not the writing—I love the that part of it.  When I have a topic that works for me, my fingers fly and I capture what I'm thinking and I'm all, like, happy and stuff.

I'm struggling because I don't know what this blog is.  I know what I originally envisioned for it—a place where I ruminated on things related to leadership.  But I've noticed that "leadership" is a word that's getting pretty diluted these days.  Everyone is talking about it and lecturing on it, and I'm not sure I have anything new to add.  And I'm not really that important of a leader.  It's not like I'm running Coca-Cola or something.  So the things I'm saying about being a leader are being said a thousand other places, making my voice pretty feeble.

I've spent the last few weeks posting things and then deciding they're stupid and taking them down and then doing it all over again and again—all the while asking myself some questions about this blog and where it should go.

Is it a place for me to ramble on about things I'm thinking?  I don't want it to be that, because there are enough people out there in the world rambling (it feels like spouting off, actually), and the last thing I want is to be another one of them.

Is it a place for me to take a stand?  No.  I stand up in my own ways, in my own time, privately and with my own type of force.  My writing has never been done to take a stand on anything, and it's not going to start now.

Is it a place for me to tell stories about my job and my work?  Well, maybe.  A lot of really hilarious, profound, interesting stuff happens to me every day, just because I work in a place where 700 people from age five to sixty-five rub elbows all day.

But I don't know for sure.

I'll find my way, I hope, because I want my writing to make an impact in the world, even in a tiny little way.  I've written my book, and people are saying really nice things about it, but I want to throw something more into the universe.

If you've got ideas or opinions, let me know.  Is there something out there missing?  Something that needs considered, said, thought about, written about?

I'm thinking input from my readers might help.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Teaching = Messy

Not long ago, I was in a first grade classroom completing a teacher’s formal observation.  The teacher was talking with the class about the important components of opinion writing.  After documenting their thinking, she transitioned students to the circle area for a reading of the book I Wanna Iguana by Karen Kaufman Orloff. 

 “I love this book,” the teacher told her class, opening to the first page.  “It is one of my very favorites!”

Clearly.  The book, a paperback, was, well…  ragged.  Its pages were faded, with edges folded and frilled; creases were evident everywhere.  The book had obviously been read many, many times. 
She began reading. In the story, Alex wants an iguana. Badly. In letters to his mother, he leverages all of his arguments about why he needs one.  Alex has strong negotiation skills; so does his mom.  She responds to each argument with a reasonable rebuttal; Alex comes back with reasonable counter-arguments. 

I found myself listening with a crinkled brow, eager to hear if Alex.  Gets.  His.  Iguana.  Does he?  Does he?  Will his mother finally relent? 

And then, just as the suspense couldn’t build any longer, the book fell to the floor in a fluttering, flying mess of paper.

The room was still for a moment.  We all stared.

“Well.”  The teacher said.  “That’s the end of the iguana book.”

Twenty-five little faces fell. 

“It’s okay,” she reassured them.  “Really, it is.  We can put this book back together and tape it up, good as new.”  The students helped her gather the pages.   She flipped and shuffled it all back to order—“Here’s page 23.  No, wait.  That goes here.  Where’s page 24?  Ooops!  Upside down!”  It took a few minutes for to get back on track and finish the story.

I felt bummed for her.  Here she was, sharing one of her most favorite books—during her annual evaluation, no less—and it had fallen to pieces right at the climax.  She’d lost all the momentum she’d built in reading the story.  She’d get it back, of course—teachers always do—but… Well,  it was just a bummer, that’s all. 

It’s a vulnerable feeling, being a teacher.  Their work is scrutinized and judged, for better or worse, either formally or formatively, by their principal, colleagues, parents, and even their students.  It’s exhausting. That’s why so many teachers angst when things go “wrong.”  They say, “I wish I had done that differently.”  Or, “If only I had planned for that!”   Or, “I’m sorry you saw that moment of chaos…”

Teachers want everything to be perfect.

Which of course, it isn’t.  Ever.  It can’t be.  Teaching is messier than that.

As the class finished the story, I closed the browser window where I’d been documenting her lesson.  And right then and there, I logged onto Amazon to order next-day delivery for a new—hardback—copy of the book.

After school that day, she came to my office.  “I’m so sorry the book fell apart,” she said.  “I certainly didn’t plan that!  And it kind of made the lesson awkward and clunky for a while.”

“I think you handled it beautifully,” I reassured her. 

“Yes, but…”  She sighed.  “It would have been perfect if…”

I stopped her.  “That’s teaching, though. Right? Just because your principal is in the room evaluating your work doesn’t mean things will magically work out as you’ve planned.  Just like any other day, the unpredictable will happen.  Students will behave poorly; resources will fall apart; the pace or sequence will be all off.  When those things happen, you have to adjust plans on the fly.  That’s normal.  And real.”

She said she appreciated my reassurance, but it wasn’t until the next afternoon when I went to her room, armed with a brand new copy of I Wanna Iguana, that I got to solidify my point.  I gathered her students’ attention and said, “I have something for you all.”  There were smiles all around as they realized their teacher’s favorite book had a brand new life ahead of it. 

“Here’s to adjusting on the fly,” I said, handing over the book. 

A student asked, “What does that mean?”  The teacher began to explain, and as I slipped out of the room, she flashed me a grin and a wink. 

It wasn’t the actual book that made her happy.  It was the token of reassurance that I understood how things work.  That no lesson ever goes by without a hitch.  All the planning in the world will never eliminate unexpected challenges.  But strong teaching means going with the flow, being flexible, and finding a way to make a learning opportunity out of every challenge.