It’s been a cold and snowy winter in New York. As we quarantined with our immediate families, whether the cold and precipitation was a blessing or a curse is open to debate.
At least when it’s freezing outside, you can blame the weather for your hibernation, instead of the pandemic. At times you felt as though you’d never leave the house again. Recently, we’ve had brief thaws when it was over 60 degrees by midday. I had to run an errand and I did something I do, pretty much never, I left the building during the school day …. I got that feeling of optimism that you get every year on this day when it seems that winter might actually one day come to an end. But, this year it was different, I also began to feel that maybe the pandemic, along with its many restrictions on our lives, might one day come to an end.
This of course is called “hope”.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
In a not-so-subtle allusion to the Dickinson poem, a comedian titled one of his books “Without Feathers.”
My lifelong instinct in matters such as these has been to lean more towards the comedian than the poet: Expect the worst, hope for the best. Stated another way, “Persevere, keep your head down and get to the other side.” After all, doesn’t too much hope set us up for disappointment? This doesn’t mean that I’m not positive. I sincerely believe I’m one of the most positive people you’ll meet. Well, the fact is, I hang around a lot of positive people so, I guess it depends on the people you meet. You’re welcome to disagree with me but I do not hold these two ideas to be contradictory. We can guard against the pitfalls of hope and at the same time remain positive.
So with spring upon us, Passover, Easter, whatever you believe, or don’t believe, warmer days, more vaccines, kids returning in-person to schools, that’s what we’re left to figure out. What’s the right amount of Hope? I’ll continue to guard against it, but like many of you, I’m a positive person, and those warmer days keep coming.
People say that 2020 was a difficult year. Many of us lost heroes. Alex Trebek, Bill Withers, Kobe Bryant, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, all died in this unusual and tumultuous year.
My siblings and I lost a great hero who occupied a singular place in all of our lives.
I am from a family of five, four brothers and a youngest sister.
In our lives, when you were proud of something, if you made a team, got a good grade, won an award; my mom was the first one you wanted to tell about this. It was to my mom that you brought your report card, your certificate, or your trophy.
When you’d messed up, or needed to be helped out of a jam, it was invariably my dad who got involved.
A few examples:
When I was younger, I was a very poor reader, and I guess consequently a bad speller too. I was in first or second grade, maybe third grade, and I got a “D” on a spelling test. I don’t know what calculus the nun who was my teacher at St. Vincent Ferrer used to come up with a grade of “D”. I’m pretty sure they didn’t use standards-based grading. While, as a progressive 21st Century educator, I may be having trouble making sense of this grade, my mother suffered from no such equivocation. A grade of “D” on a test was not acceptable to her. Mary Gately may have read a draft of the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and taken it as a handbook for 1960’s academic parenting. She expected us to get good grades in school. This was 1968. Nobody had anticipated spellcheck or Grammarly, so my deficits as a speller certainly reflected poorly on my family.
I’m not sure how they divided parenting duties when it came to school failures, but as far as my spelling grade, mom said that dad was going to handle it. My mom was a smart cookie. She probably realized that with my dad working late and then going to a meeting afterwards, the sword of Damocles hanging over my head as I waited for him to return home would be punishment enough for my poor test grade. And it was. Add to that, my brother Marty passed the time telling me how much I was going to “get it” when my dad got home.
It was late when my dad eventually arrived. When I heard the key in the door, I ran upstairs and hid under the bed. Maybe my mom told him where I was, but I have long suspected Marty tipped him off. I picture him whispering in dad’s ear when he had one foot in the door, “He’s upstairs hiding under the bed.”
From my warren I heard my dad say, “Donald come down here, I want to talk to you about your test.”
I’d spent the day imagining all the consequences my father was going to visit upon me for a poor test grade, but when I crept down the stairs, my dad put his hand on my shoulder and asked me just one question that I’d never anticipated, “Do you know how to correctly spell all the words you got wrong on this test?”
I admitted that I didn’t.
My dad said, “Well that’s the point Donald. You can fail, but you have to learn from your mistakes.”
Nobody worked harder than my dad. He was a splicer for the telephone company. That day, he had probably put in a 10 hour day and then attended a meeting that took two hours. But he sat there at the dining room table with me until I knew how to correctly spell all the words I got wrong on that test. It took me almost an hour to correctly spell the word FRIEND. He had me say it again and again: “Friend – F-R-I-E-N-D – friend.” Many years have passed but I remember the cadence of those six letters and the feeling of my dad’s hand on my shoulder, so much later than my usual bedtime, as I finally mastered the spelling of this challenging word.
My dad taught us to never give up, that life is about failure sometimes. But it’s mostly about hard work.
Fast forward about six years. I’m 13 years old. While riding my skateboard down Avenue H in Brooklyn with my friend Brian, a car, speeding to pass another car, hit me. I go over the hood of the car and my arm hooks in the side view mirror on my way to the ground. My elbow was broken and the left side of my body was one huge bruise. Somebody called an ambulance and Brian said, “I’ll run to your house to tell your parents.” I told him, “See if you can tell my dad without my mom knowing, I don’t think she can take it.”
As far as I know, the message got relayed through one of my brothers to my dad who came to Avenue H right away. My mom found out soon enough but he accompanied me in the ambulance to Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital. I was pretty calm laying on the street and held it together when they put me on the stretcher to get in an ambulance; maybe I was in shock, but when my dad and I were alone in the back of the ambulance, I couldn’t stop crying. I had made the mistake of looking down at my arm. I cried all the way to the hospital, my dad’s hand was on my shoulder the whole way, telling me there’s nothing to be afraid of, everything is going to be okay.
I don’t know how well you know Kings County Hospital in 1973, but when we got to the emergency room, a 13-year-old kid who broke his arm riding a skateboard was pretty low priority. They parked my stretcher in the hallway as a steady stream of gunshot wounds and stabbing victims came through for treatment. Everyone was very nice to me but it took us a long time to be seen by a doctor. All the while, my dad kept his hand on my shoulder and told me everything was going to be okay. But I kept crying. At one point, he said, “OK Donald, stop crying now. You don’t see the guys who got shot crying do you? You’re getting everybody upset.”
And I stopped crying.
My dad taught us that it’s okay to show your emotions, but sometimes you need to be brave too.
Because I was one of four teenage boys in our family, I couldn’t be satisfied giving my mom a peaceful night’s sleep*; three years later, a senior in high school with a “snow day”, on a dare, I rode a sled into a tree on a ridiculously steep hill in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, putting myself in an ambulance once again. For over two weeks I lay in a hospital bed while severe contusions to my internal organs resolved themselves. I studied the color of my pee like a Druid priest, hoping for the healthy color that would prompt the doctors to send me home. Four times a day a nurse would check on this, shaking a test tube and studying the hue of my micturate. I’d ask, “What color is it supposed to be?” The persistent response, “Not this color.” It was beyond boring.
The only thing that kept me sane was the entertaining company of the guy with whom I shared my hospital room. My roommate in the hospital, Rich, was a carpenter who worked for the Mass Transit Authority (MTA), the New York City subway system. While there wasn’t anything inherently fascinating to me about carpentry, there was a subject upon which Rich could orate for hours, a topic about which I have had a lifelong niche interest, RATS. Toiling for years in the tunnels of all the subway lines, Rich was an expert on subway rats, the quixotic genre of “rat” for a seventeen year old high school kid. By his account, he’d seen rats the size of small children down there and he never held back in his descriptions of them, and by that I mean, I never grew tired of asking him to tell me stories about the rats he’d encountered in the subway tunnels of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
While in the hospital, I’d be visited by my mom and my siblings most evenings, but every day, my dad would come to see me at lunchtime. He drove the telephone company truck so he could park wherever he needed to. He’d bring coffees and plain crullers. One for me and one for him, sometimes he’d also bring for Rich. The fact that I cannot call to mind a single thing we talked about those still winter afternoons may have to do with the many years that have passed, but my memory for such things is fairly competent, it’s more likely we just hung out together drinking coffee. I do recall that he’d put his hand on my shoulder and reassure me that I’d get to go home soon.
I don’t remember why Rich was in the hospital, but he left before I did. When he was waiting for his wife to collect him he said to me, “You know Don, your dad is a terrific guy. He loves you so much.”
I very much appreciated him saying this but I asked him, “How do you know this. You’ve only known him a little over a week.”
He said, “You can just tell.”
And since my dad died a week ago, that’s the same thing I’ve heard on Facebook and on the phone and in conversations with countless people. “Your dad was a terrific guy.”
And it’s true, he was.
My mom probably told us every single day of our lives that she loved us.
BUT my dad showed us that he loved us every single chance he got…
These are my stories but my siblings each have similar anecdotes that illustrate the heroic aspects of my dad’s character. Perhaps it was just part of his chemistry, or maybe because he’d spent the better part of his life earning his sobriety as an active and pious constituent of the organization dedicated to the community of those battling alcoholism, Donald Gately Sr. had an intimate understanding of human frailty and vulnerability. When you had an armload of problems and challenges of your own making, my dad was the person to whom you brought them. He recognized the essential truth that even the best among us often forget: we are not our mistakes. We are better than our worst days. There is no stigma in weakness, we should be ashamed only when we do nothing to overcome our mistakes.
These are all things I learned from my dad. We will honor his memory by living these truths in our own lives every single day.
* My brother Matt would say I wrapped myself around that tree because I couldn’t bear not occupying the center of my family’s attention.
In a previous post I wrote about the last step before you jump out of an airplane to skydive.
I have more to say on this topic.
This is another COVID-19 post. I promise.
The thing you need to know about my skydiving experience was, before I jumped out of the plane, I was already doing a series of things I thought I would never do.
First of all, the plane. There’s a quote whose provenance I cannot discover but I’m willing to theorize has its origin in soldiers who declined to volunteer for service duties that involved parachuting, “Why would I want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” Let me just say that to describe the planes used by these small skydiving schools as “perfectly good” would be stretching the truth. They appear to have been purchased from the Iraqi military, after Desert Storm. The plane I jumped from would more aptly be characterized as a tin can with wings attached.
Secondly, you fly in the plane sitting on the floor, that’s it, just sitting on the floor of this horrible airplane, with no seatbelt. I don’t fly often, but when I do I find it exceedingly rude when people in front of me recline their seats without giving just a slight heads up before doing so. Hate that. Sitting on the floor of the “airborne tin can”, I suppose I avoided that indignity.
Thirdly, you’re flying with the door to the airplane completely open. I have flown to Florida, to California, to Ireland… never have I flown in a plane with the door open. In movies, when the door to the plane opens, if Harrison Ford doesn’t grab you by the ankle, you get sucked out somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. In the skydiving planes, you’re not travelling at jet speed so this doesn’t happen. If that’s supposed to make you feel better, it doesn’t. The door to the plane, it’s OPEN!
I went with two other friends. It was explained to us that in order to reduce the weight of the plane, the heaviest jumpers go first. I took solace from this fact as my friends were each over 6 feet tall and clearly weighed more than I do. But when we reached 3000 feet, the instructor said, “Don, you’re up first.” The smiles on the faces of my buddies communicated that they’d lied about their weight on the form. This whole thing was their idea in the first place, and I recalled that on the car ride to New Jersey we got into a conversation about diets and how much each of us weighed. Gee, what a coincidence. What else were they not telling me?! Was there even a parachute in my backpack?
Skydiving appears on the bucket lists of many of your friends and family members. It may at one time have been on mine. This is probably because of the thrill of facing your fears and doing something you thought you’d never do. The thing is, when skydiving for the first time, before you even jump from the plane, you’ve already done several things you probably would have labeled insane at most junctures earlier in your life.
I suppose the same is true of teaching and learning through COVID-19.
What if you had told me the following, even as recently as 12 months ago:
One day, kids are only going to attend school every other day. The kids and the teachers are going to be wearing surgical masks. Their desks are going to be 6 feet apart and will have plastic tri-fold barriers. They won’t use lockers, you’re going to let them carry their bookbags again. Kids at home are going to watch classes as they are live-streamed. You’re going to try to keep kids 6 feet apart at all times, in the hallways, on stairwells, in bathrooms. They can’t eat at the same tables. They can’t make physical contact with each other at all. Whenever you need a break from this routine, you’re going to wash your hands. In fact, that’s mostly what you’re going to do, wash your hands. Constantly… wash your hands.
Like skydiving, I might’ve said, “I’m not doing that.”
But, like skydiving, I’m doing that.
So, yeah, you’re doing that.
And at some point we’ll all reach the ground. We’ll have learned a lot and we’ll have stories to tell for a very long time.
Among many dumb things I’ve done in my life, one of the dumbest might have been skydiving. I’m certain some readers are thinking, “Are you kidding that’s the most awesome thing in the world.”
I’m not going to argue.
When considering the risks of skydiving, everyone focuses on a singular facet, does your parachute open up and hence, do you live? As far as I can tell, this happens almost always. What gets scant attention is the fact that even with an open parachute, on a warm day with little wind, when you hit the ground, you feel like you are a nail being driven into a piece of wood with a hammer. Your knees and other parts of the body don’t like it. But that was just my experience. My encounter with skydiving would provide fodder for at least half a dozen blog posts, but I wish to examine one particular aspect that relates to our current situation.
When I carried out this ill-fated pursuit, there must have been a Republican administration in power because personal injury litigation was clearly at its nadar across our region. I suspect this to be true because I was able to drive to New Jersey with my friends, train for about seven hours and then get taken up in a plane and jump out of it with my parachute-backpack tethered to the plane so that it would deploy after I had free-fallen about 150 feet. You jumped out of the plane at 3000 feet. So yes, you can go to a sky diving school early in the morning, train all day, and jump out of an airplane later that afternoon. That fact alone should tell you that this is a dubious undertaking at best.
Maybe this was for the best because if I had the opportunity to train and then went home to the safety of my couch I might have come to my senses. As such, going through the various training exercises throughout the day my adrenaline had risen to a point where I was willing to climb out of the plane, stand on a metal step, launch myself away from the plane, assume an arched back, spread eagle position, so as not to interfere with the tether cord that opened my parachute and begin my trip back to earth. That’s correct, as you prepare to jump from the plane, you are standing on a small steel step holding onto the wing of the plane.
Anyway, at some point during the day, one of my friends asked, “What if we have second thoughts when we are up there, can we chicken out?”
The instructor replied, “Sure. In fact, if you get cold feet, and you return back to the hangar in the airplane, we’ll let you come back on another day and try again. There is one thing you need to know though however. Once you step out onto the metal step, you can’t come back in the plane. It’s dangerous. If you step out onto the metal step and you’re not willing to jump, we’re going to push you.” That unsettled a few of us but the instructor blithely pointed out, “What’s the problem, you have a parachute.”
Demanding more explanation, the instructor was compelled to offer several anecdotes about people who had tried to climb back in the plane and broke their arms, suffered concussions, tangled their legs on the metal step and had to be rescued dangling from the plane at 3000 feet. He obviously had practice offering these stories.
As the instructor put it, “It’s more dangerous if you don’t commit. Once you’re on the step, you gotta go, you’ll do more harm than good if you don’t jump.”
Like I said, this is a post about COVID-19. As I write this, school is just three weeks away. We spent all summer examining different plans for the opening of school. In New York, as in most of the country, schools are opening under some version of: all remote, all in school, or some hybrid of the two. With school opening just over the horizon, we are now past the point of wondering what is going to be. We are now on the metal step. We need to commit.
Regardless of the approach to reopening at your school, you need to commit yourself to your purpose. In my school I am privileged to work with the most amazing staff who are possessed of an unflinching clarity of purpose. They know that our role as educators is to nurture the learning and well-being of our kids, to love them so that they know they belong and that we are their champions.
I love this video that’s been going around.
It’s a TickTock video, nothing special I guess. But there’s something that strikes me about it. Watch the Dad in the middle. Why is he so awesome? Why? Is he the best dancer? Is his technique superb? No. He’s awesome because he commits. he is totally into it. You can see it. He is all in. And the result is amazing. This video has been seen hundreds of thousands of times because of the Dad who commits.
So, my friends, that is the deal. We’ve got to be all in. I know it might be hard, we’re going to have our bad days, our bad moments. We are standing on the metal step. Whatever path your school is taking, we’ve got to commit to this. Whether you’re going to see your students in person behind a mask and maybe a plexiglass barrier or on the other side of a screen, we’ve got to commit. If we go into this half hearted, we will be doing more harm than good. We must commit. I know that’s what I’m going to do!
2018 Super Bowl LII When the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, fans in Philadelphia started flipping cars and lighting trash on fire in the streets.
2014 World Series After the San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series, Giants fans set fires, vandalized buses and police cars, shattered windows of businesses, scrawled graffiti, and threw bottles at police. Two people were shot, one person was stabbed, and a police officer was badly hurt from fireworks exploding. 40 arrests were made.
1993 Stanley Cup Montreal experienced a riot shortly after their Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, as victory celebrations mutated into unrest. Stores were looted and police cars were set on fire. The riots eventually caused $2.5 million in damage.
1991-1997 NBA Championships Rioting and looting occurred in Chicago after the Chicago Bulls won the NBA Finals in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997
Football, baseball, hockey (in Canada!), and basketball. Riots, criminal destruction of property, injury and loss of human life occurred in connection with championships in each of these sports.
These are just several examples, there have been so many more.
While residents of these areas no doubt condemned these events, nobody suggested that the Eagles, Giants, Canadiens, and Bulls give up their championships. It’s difficult to imagine any fans abandoning their teams because some people committed crimes in a way that was adjacent to the culmination of the season. In fact, as far as I can tell, the fact of this lawlessness did nothing at the time they occurred, or in the years since, to tarnish the achievements of the teams that prevailed.
Why then, when riots and looting occur in connection with otherwise peaceful protests seeking justice and equity in the wake of another black man, George Floyd, killed at the hands of police, do some people, many people, in fact, insist on shifting the attention to instances of violence and lawlessness, instead of focusing on the source of these protests.
Further, some use this lawlessness, via some twisted logic, to negate the righteousness of the cause itself. Why?
I have friends and family who are business owners, cops, and other emergency workers directly involved right now in the midst of this chaos in New York City. I fear for their safety. I condemn the violence that’s occurring. ALL good people condemn this violence. Of course they do!
But, we must not allow this to divert from or substitute for our attention on the righteous cause that motivated these protests, justice and equity for ALL.
After publishing this piece, I saw this statement by James Mattis, esteemed Marine General and former Secretary of Defense under President Trump. Felt it needed to be added:
IN UNION THERE IS STRENGTH
I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.
My mother died several years ago. The cause of death was complications from lung cancer. You will get no argument that cancer is a scourge on humanity. You know somebody, or you yourself, have been a victim of cancer. You, or somebody you know, has donated money to a charity that seeks to find a cure for cancer. You, or somebody you know, has participated in a 5K run, or a walk, or slept on the field behind your high-school overnight, circling the track in shifts, to raise money and awareness about treatments and finding a cure for cancer.
Here’s what you don’t hear when you admit that someone you love is suffering from cancer:
Cancer? There’s no cancer in this country anymore. There may have been cancer at one time, but that was a long time ago. And none of my ancestors were even in this country when there was cancer. It’s not my fault.
We had a president of the United States with cancer (Ronald Reagan) aren’t we past this?
Cancer? What about spinal injuries or heart disease? Why are you raising money for cancer? Why is everybody so focused on cancer? People are sick of other things too you know.
That’s the problem in this country, people are stuck on cancer. That’s all these people want to talk about. I don’t see cancer. I treat everybody the same, whether they have cancer or not. Why can’t we move on?
I don’t have cancer. I eat right, I don’t smoke. I don’t have cancer. No one in my family has cancer. Everybody should just eat right and not smoke. We don’t need to keep talking about cancer.
So why is it different when it comes to racism?
Why do we deny it exists? Or if we admit it exists, insist it’s less of a problem than it is?
Why do we assume racism is somebody else’s problem?
Why do we question the notion that we should be anti-racist? (You’re anti-cancer aren’t you?!)
Why do we feel that racism will go away if we are just kind to one another?
Why do we feel racism is not a problem provided it doesn’t affect us directly (that is, if you’re white, you may be fortunate enough that it doesn’t affect you directly).
(And for the record, the “we” used in the hypotheticals above, in case you haven’t figured it out, refers to white people, well, apparently, a lot of white people.)
When my mother was suffering from her disease, everyone who surrounded me was supportive, compassionate and generous. They asked me what they could do to help. They sent over meals for her and my Dad, they sent cards, they called often to check on her and on our family. Because she was sick, with cancer, that’s what you do.
Dr. Edward Hallowell offers tips on coping during COVID-19: “Start a new project you can do at home, like start that novel or memoir you’ve been meaning to write or at long last straighten up the basement or attic or both.”
These are good tips, but not on Friday.
After a week of non-stop Zoom and Google Meets, I’m going to simply offer some random thoughts:
The list of things you thought you’d never see happen certainly deserve their own blog post but, of all the things people are getting angry at public figures for, I never imagined we would direct our rage at politicians for getting haircuts. I guess they have access to black market barbers? People… it’s just a haircut.
We have one of those Roomba vacuums. To my knowledge, it’s the only robot we have in our house. I’m going to admit, while I love the fact that this thing cleans my whole house while I sit on the couch eating chips, I feel a vague sense of resentment towards it. How does it remember which parts of the floor it already vacuumed? There’s no way I could do that. Especially now. I can barely concentrate enough during this quarantine to take a shower and not miss parts on my own body! This thing doesn’t miss an inch in the whole darn house. In my defense I can travel across the room without getting stuck on the H-Vac vent, which the Roomba does every single time. Stupid Roomba!
When you’re in a Zoom meeting with many people, sometimes there’s two people in “grid view” who are clearly looking down at their phones. Admit it, you’re wondering if they’re texting about you. Do I have schmutz on my face?
Our kitchen garbage can broke. It was the kind where you step on the lever and the lid opens up. My wife replaced it with a gray one, the other one was blue, it was old. When you stepped on the blue one, the lid opened up kind of slowly, according to its own timetable. This new one, when you step on the lever, the top snaps open to attention like a marine when the drill sergeant walks by. It’s fairly aggressive. Do you think when the blue one passed the gray one on its way to the curb he told him, “You better open that lid, these folks don’t play.”
If I don’t clean both my ears with a Q-tip after I take a shower, I don’t feel clean. I have forgotten and turned my car around on the way to work and went back home to take care of this. It’s a thing. I just used the last Q-tip in the container. They come at Costco in packs of three. If you do the math, you just walked out of Costco with almost 1900 Q-tips. I use exactly one of them per day: two ends, two ears. So that means I haven’t bought Q-tips in five years! Wow, it seems like only yesterday. Just for fun I yell down to my wife, “Babe, we’re out of Q-Tips again!” I’ll bet I bought a pair of khaki shorts that day. I always get khakis shorts when I go to Costco.
My COVID-19 Diary is going on hiatus for one week. I ruptured my bicep tendon and I need to get it fixed. I was lifting a heavy propane tank out of my gas grill at an odd angle. Not coronavirus related. Although we have been using the grill a bunch during these times, so, maybe…
I hope you’ll come back to reading my blog when it returns.
I also hope you remember to wash your hands without me to remind you every Friday.
I’m reflecting on virtual relationships in the educational environment during the quarantine. What are the obstacles teachers face in developing new connections and maintaining the bonds they had built in the first 24 weeks of school? Will it be possible to create the kind of close, supportive relationships that are the bedrock of our school culture next year with a new group of students if we continue remote school in September?
Thinking of my own experience as a reference point gives me cause for optimism. I have some very good friends with whom my associations are almost entirely online.
Ted is a middle school principal in St. Louis. I’ve been friends with him for about seven years. He is an expert on so many things related to programs and curriculums. He’s also an amazingly positive individual. Whenever cynicism threatens to insinuate itself a conversation, Ted brings it back to kids and the higher purpose that guides our leadership. I’ve only met him one time in person, at a conference in Washington D.C. at which he was honored as “Missouri Principal of the Year.”
Joy is a middle school principal in Connecticut. We’ve known each other for about seven years. She’s one of the most reflective people I know. I’ve learned so much listening to her discuss challenges at her school and the humility she brings to her work as a leader. I know all about her own kids and her husband. She is the “mommy” to her school, she’s also hysterical, always makes me laugh. I’ve met Joy one time in person, in Philadelphia. She had dinner with my wife and I and another middle school principal.
Chris is a middle school principal in Kansas City. We’ve been friends for two years now. His leadership always keeps me focused and inspired. His blog https://leadlearnerperspectives.com/ is a must-read for middle school principals. There have been instances when I needed advice on a matter, and Chris was on the phone with me in a matter of minutes. I’ve never met Chris in person.
Laura is a middle school principal in Wisconsin. I’ve known her for about three years. I admire her combination of vulnerability and strength, they are NOT opposites. She reminds me of the importance of integrity and the urgency of focusing on what’s right for kids. I’ve never met Laura face-to-face.
Brenda is a middle school principal in Duluth, Minnesota. I’ve been friends with her also for seven years. If a “thing” can happen in a school, anything, it has happened to Brenda at her school. And yet, she perseveres and faces every day with the most incredible optimism and passion for kids. She’s a brilliant photographer and she often posts beautiful photos she’s taken by the lake. I’ve never met Brenda in person. But my wife has. She tells me Brenda is as awesome in person as she is online.
Jay and I have been friends for about 9 years. He’s a middle school principal in Wisconsin. Jay has a running streak going. He has run for over 10,000 consecutive days. At his school, if the crossing guard is absent, Jay is the crossing guard. If the cook is sick, Jay cooks lunch. When the volleyball team didn’t have a coach, you guessed it, Jay coached the volleyball team, he’s also coached the basketball team. He’s everywhere at the same time. The kids and parents at his school must think he’s triplets. Jay recently published a book, Principals In Action: Redefining the Role. In it he provides a roadmap to being an amazing hands-on school leader. I highly recommend it. I’ve only been together with Jay in person about four times. We rode our bikes around Manhattan once.
Samantha is a middle school principal in Virginia. I’ve been friends with her for about four years. She’s always got a thoughtful approach to intractable problems that I thought couldn’t be solved. When she describes the way she implements programs, I always have my notebook and pen ready to write down what she says. She captures the exquisite balance of leadership and management that effective principals need to possess. I’ve never met Samantha in person.
These friends and colleagues are all members of a virtual middle school principals’ group to which I belong. There are other amazing people in the group who I have more frequent face-to-face contact with because they’re from Long Island and New York: LaQuita, Lisa, Tim, Dennis, Joe. Nevertheless, even though we are closer geographically, we too rarely find the time to talk in person. I appreciate the opportunity to connect with my “N.Y. People” any time of the day or evening (if I Vox them in the middle of the night, they’re sure to respond first thing in the morning). This is not to discount the power of “in-person” connections. Those occasions when I’ve spent time with friends from this group were incredible. It felt like I was meeting a relative I’d discovered on Ancestry.com. I look forward to one-day meeting Brenda, Samantha, Laura, and Chris in person.
So my personal experience makes me somewhat optimistic about virtual relationships. It can be done. But, I am a grown-up, so to speak. One of the cardinal sins of mediocre educators is to apply the rules of adulthood to the experiences of children. I’ve been doing this too long not to realize that it’s different for kids. So, can a teacher do the same thing with 100 kids that I have managed in a digital group of middle school principals from across the United States? I’m not sure.
The public, since the time of John Dewey, has lamented the disappearance of the three “R’s” in education. It’s an expression archaic enough that it deserves explication for our younger readers: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. Anytime a reform movement has emerged in the education field, there’s always a hue and cry for the “3R’s”. Talk about a need to address critical thinking skills, civics, organizational skills, social-emotional literacy (SEL) and you can be certain there will be pushback from fundamentalists for a return to basics, the “3R’s”. Over the past several decades, there has emerged a recognition that there is in fact a fourth “R” in education. Relationships. Relationships are the 4th “R”.
This is not an original idea. I’ve written several posts about the critical nature of relationships in education. This notion dominates most education twitter chats and is the cornerstone of research on school culture. Because learning involves risk and vulnerability, it thrives in an environment characterized by trust, belonging, and love. Not just our kids, we all learn better when we have a strong positive relationship with the teacher and with the other learners.
Several of my colleagues have commented that it’s fortunate that the coronavirus came upon us in week 24 of the school year instead of week three. As I commented in a previous post, at my school we are reaping the benefits of a strong school culture that we have built. We place learning above compliance and we recognize the vital importance of relationships. If you didn’t use those 24 non-COVID weeks to develop strong, positive, caring relationships with your students and families, then you are in a lot of trouble trying to do so now on the other side of a device screen. The teachers in my school, when asked what they teach, won’t first say science, math or Spanish. Our teachers will say that they teach KIDS. We love our kids and we work hard to make sure they know it. To an extent, this culture has carried us through the quarantine.
But we’re in the home stretch of the school year at this point. What happens next. Can these connections be sustained over the internet? And how will we forge these relationships with our new kids next year?
I have a very good friend who works for an Internet marketing firm. For years I’ve been telling him he has the best job in the world. For one thing, he frequently has to decline invitations on the weekends because he is at a tech convention in San Francisco, Chicago or Las Vegas. Sometimes I text him and he replies from London or Miami where he is meeting with clients on business. Even on a Friday afternoon, he’ll send me selfie‘s from the coolest bar in Brooklyn where his company took an early afternoon road trip to watch a European Cup soccer match. I got to tagalong once when his company rented out Citi Field for batting practice. I worked in a school where the staff all bought tickets together to sit in the picnic area at Citi Field for a Mets game but we didn’t get to step foot on the field, and they certainly didn’t throw batting practice to us. For the record, I managed to rope one over second base that probably would’ve dropped her a single, but I’m pretty slow, I can’t guarantee I would’ve beat out a strong throw from center. And Noah Syndergaard wasn’t pitching either.
His office environment is equally as hip. Once, while driving upstate, we took a detour to Keegan‘s Brewery for lunch. He disappeared and returned with two small kegs of one of their signature beers. Asked what they were for, he said they were for the office. That’s right, they have a kegerator in their office. I think they have ping-pong tables, a pool table, and a bocce court as well. As a public school middle level principal, I probably don’t have to tell you that my work life does not resemble his.
Absent the dynamic and exciting work environments that characterize their work, individuals in the tech field can still accomplish much of what they did in the office from home. My buddy assures me that with a couple of minor adjustments he’s been able to completely adapt to working from home and the quarantine has not significantly affected their business. Another good friend, also in the tech field, shared with me a similar story. He went further, when this is over his company is thinking of doing away with their office space entirely. They don’t need it, and the opportunity to avoid exorbitant rent in Manhattan is a positive consequence of our present crisis. Facebook, Spotify, and other tech giants are moving in this direction as well.
As an educator it’s impossible for me not to compare the conditions we presently face and those of my two tech friends. They kind of miss the office environment, it’s not difficult to see why, but they’re able to accomplish at home pretty much everything they were doing in the office during the quarantine. Educators, students, and families are confronting the remote school dynamic and all that was lost as we left our school buildings and moved school onto the World Wide Web. We find ourselves contemplating all that can and cannot be accomplished without face-to-face interactions. We don’t just “kind of miss” being in the building, in many ways, we’re lost without the face to face interactions we took for granted before all this started.
Have you washed your hands in the past 10 minutes, go to it!