My COVID-19 Diary: A routine on a Sunday?

One of my favorite sections of the Sunday paper and I suspect yours also, is the Sunday Routine. This is an every week installment that features some individual who lives in the five boroughs, but usually, Manhattan, describing their routine on a Sunday. This section has spotlighted New Yorkers from every walk of life, from the rich and famous to the poorest and quirkiest. Here’s a shortlist of some of my favorite celebrities they have featured: Robert De Niro, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, John Mullaney, Marla Maples, Ty Jones, Neil Patrick Harris, Spike Lee, and Derek Jeter.

But lately, the Routine has skewed to essential workers, the heroes of COVID-19: 

How a Nurse Who Gives Last Rites Spends His Sundays

How an Edible Arrangements Delivery Worker Spends Her Sundays

How a Food Bank Manager Spends His Sundays

How a Triage Nurse Spends Her Sundays

My mom’s brother, Uncle Charlie, worked in Key Food.  My mom venerated him. As a ‘snot-nosed’ kid, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. But if only he was around today, maybe they’d feature him in The Times on a Sunday, “How grocery clerk, Uncle Charlie, spends his Sundays”. Say what you want,  I for one am extremely grateful that grocery workers are having their moment.

More on this tomorrow… meanwhile, wash your hands.



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My COVID-19 Diary: Friday un-Focused #7

If someone put together a highlight reel of great moments in “Adult Unfocused History” they would include a video of former Atlanta Braves first baseman, Adam Laroche. LaRoche has ADD. In 2006, he fielded a routine ground ball and lost track of how many out there were. download (10)Jogging to first base he was beaten out by the runner, allowing the Washington Nationals to come back and win the game.  ESPN reported

LaRoche concedes that his mind occasionally drifts off to other things while he’s in the field or sitting in the dugout. Playing a sport that comes with so much idle time only makes things worse. 

This likely sounds familiar to people presently forced to stay at home. We’re all playing baseball now. Idle time allows the mind to drift to other things. 

I’m going to talk about those “other things”.

69361982_749892168802510_4430361372592701440_nYou learn quickly when you’re an educator that kids think you’re old. I was 23 when I first started teaching, I thought I was pretty young, cool even. To my students, I may as well have been Methuselah. In a Zoom class with a group of fifth-graders yesterday,  I joked that I’m so old that I was around for the last pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918. They believed me. One kid asked me what it was like. I told him pretty much like it is now, the Wi-Fi wasn’t as good.

I need to get new equipment for listening to Zoom calls. I have a great deal of activity swirling around me as I work from the dining room table. I need earbuds to drown out the background noise. download (11)But I’m developing “earbud ears”. That’s when you’ve had those things in your ears so long that you feel like they’re still in there even when they’re not. Is this widening the opening to my ear cavity? I’m afraid the “murder hornet” is going to fly in there. 

One of my favorite characters in the COVID crisis is Dr. Deborah Birx. She’s the image that comes to mind when you hear, “Elementary School Principal”.

images (1)When she cautioned us about going out to the supermarket,  I heard:

“OK children, the temperature is below 55° and it might rain, you know that means we’re not having recess today. Don’t have your parents call, it’s right there on the website. Stop asking your teachers, it’s not their decision, it’s just the thermometer. We can’t go out to recess. Now lineup on both sides of the hallways we’re going to the library.” 

Dr. Birx would also probably tell us, “Wash your hands, boys and girls, make sure you wash your hands. Do it as long as it takes to sing happy birthday. But you don’t have to sing it out loud, stop singing Happy Birthday out loud Donald. The bathroom is next to my office and you’re driving the secretary crazy.”

Best of luck focusing. There’s a ground ball coming your way and you can’t remember how many outs there are.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Writing. Who are your buddies?

Before the quarantine, I never realized how much the mere presence of other people in my life pushed me to accomplish more and meet the expectations the world has for me. It’s not like people passed me on the street and said, “Hey you, get back to work!” It’s just that you felt the presence of humanity and responded to it. Several sources have written about feelings of inefficacy during this quarantine. It’s difficult to know if you are doing the job you are supposed to be doing, both professionally and personally, when the people you rely upon to give you feedback are no longer in your daily face-to-face interactions. As we are forced to remain in our homes with whatever small group of family or friends we ended up with, the vibrant and dynamic feedback loop that normally holds us accountable has been severed. Some of us are even holed up in homes and apartments singly  (if you know somebody who is quarantined alone, stop reading and call them, RIGHT NOW!). Stuck in our little worlds, there’s nobody to hold us accountable. 

silhouette of boy running in body of water during sunset

It’s not easy to cultivate good habits.  Charles Duhig, in the Power of Habit, writes about the force of social connections when trying to develop a new routine. If you are a beginner runner, recruit a friend to join you and arrange to run together at set times. You’ll feel accountable to show up for your partner and complete the workouts. When it’s raining or cold, or early in the morning and you don’t want to get out of bed, you’ll lace up and get out the door because you won’t want to disappoint your buddy.  Duhig calls this an “accountability partner”. This advice extends to other areas of experience. It can help with your writing routine as well. 

As far as my writing, at this point, I’m accountable to myself. I’ve locked into a routine and my expectations for myself. But, if you haven’t developed a habit,  try Duhig’s advice and link to a friend or two;  make a commitment to a blog post once a week or every two weeks. A group of my connected colleagues is starting a blogging PLN called #BlogginThroughIt. We’ll use a shared Google Doc, Twitter, and Voxer to connect. I’m looking forward to the ideas, feedback, support, and encouragement that will come from working with this group of friends and passionate educators. You can do it also. Just check the hashtag on Twitter and join us.

With partners, even if it rains, or it’s cold… you’ll write! How might you use “accountability partners” to start a healthy, productive habit in these challenging times?  We’d love to hear your ideas.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Writing. “There’s always things.”

When it comes to writing, everybody has their own processes. Here are some things that are working for me:

Write something, there’s always something. Jake Tapper, a reporter for CNN, published a book of historical fiction last year. It’s a political thriller set during the McCarthy era. Tapper is a guy who travels around the country in his role as a journalist. It’s rare that you turn on CNN any time of the day or night, weekdays and weekends, when you do not see Jake Tapper on the screen. It’s both intimidating and impressive that he found the time to write this book. It hardly seems fair. I heard him interviewed during the promotion for the book and he described his process, “I tried to write 1500 words every day. I would write whenever the time presented itself to me. You’d be surprised how much you can write when you do it when opportunities present themselves.”  I’m not sure I have available to me the same resources that he does. I drive my own car and I don’t fly a lot so I’m not trapped on a plane with just my laptop and few distractions. I also don’t have an editor. I occasionally ask my wife to proofread my work but it’s not her paid gig. So committing to 1500 words a day for me, and probably for you, is quite a challenge.

blank blank page business data

I can’t follow Jake Tapper’s guidance entirely but I might adapt it slightly.  When the opportunity presents itself, write something.  I once complained to my wife that I feared I might not have anything about which to write, she replied with one of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing, “There’s things Don, there’s always things.”   As a former English teacher, I know that your first draft is just that, a first draft. You’ll come back to your writing and make it better. Just write something. I keep all my drafts in one Google Doc and don’t worry about how my initial pieces sound. I know I’ll go back to them and edit later. Writing is rewriting. 

Sweating helps. One problem with the “Pad Tip” from the previous post, what to do while exercising? Due to something scientific having to do with charging  neurons, my best ideas come upon me when I am exercising, especially running or riding my bike. So many great thoughts occurred to me on a 45-minute workout yesterday on the Peloton but I was too sweaty to write them down. Besides, I didn’t want to stop my workout and lose traction in an already futile attempt to keep up with my wife’s stats (the Peloton keeps track!).  I’ve learned to keep a pad next to the bike, the treadmill, or wherever you sit to remove your sneakers after a run; record all the inspiration you had as soon as you finish your workout. 

Drop your post at the same time or day of the week or the month.  This idea I got online someplace, I can’t remember. I time my posts to go out at 7 AM each morning. There’s a consistency to this that the 2 or 3 people who are reading my posts appreciate, one of them is my brother, the other one is my wife, so I have to keep them on my good-side. 

I’ve got a couple more ideas, I’ll post them tomorrow, at 7:00am. Meanwhile, write something, there’s always things.  


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My COVID-19 Diary: Writing. What works for me.

This is my 35th daily post since the COVID-19 quarantine began. A group of my colleagues initiated a blogging group that I have committed to. It’s called #BlogginThruIt. CheckTwitter, you’re welcome to join us. Maintaining a writing routine can be exceedingly difficult. I’d like to offer a few ideas of things that have worked for me in this blogging journey.  

Find your spots. I find the best time of day to write is early in the morning before the rest of my house is awake. I can edit a piece all day long but to sit and compose, using voice to text in my case, I need stillness. Figure out when you do your best work and seize those moments. Avoid letting other tasks infringe upon them. If you’ve got kids, and writing takes place best when they are napping, do that. It’s unfortunate that the same machine that I use to write is also capable of delivering Twitter, Facebook, and Voxer. Don’t let your social media feed distract you, keep these tabs closed on your browser and turn off phone notifications for your favorite feeds.   

black ball point pen on white notebook

Get small pads. I got this suggestion from the trailer for a David Sedaris Master Class on writing that I’m threatening to take but haven’t done so yet (those things are expensive!). I’m an inveterate note jotter. I’m good with follow up only because I write things down. Sedaris uses small bound notebooks (were they leather? couldn’t tell, I only watched the trailer).  I seem to do fine with the pocket size spiral notebooks from Staples. I get them in bulk in varying colors. This way, the red one is for work notes, the blue one for writing ideas, the green notebook is for home tasks/grocery, and “to do” lists. The main thing, have something you can use to record the ideas that occur to you when they occur to you. Index cards. Junk mail envelopes (I like the slight heft of these). You can use your phone if you want. For me, I find there’s something organic about writing ideas down in my own cursive handwriting that is itself an act of intention. Whatever you use to record your thoughts, these are the ideas you’ll come back to when you sit down to write.

Keep your posts short. If you write a post approaching 1000 words, when they open it on their computer or phone, especially during this coronavirus, many people won’t read it. The typical attention span of a blog reader seems to be between 300-500 words. If I find I’m writing a post exceeding this, I break it up into two, three, or even four shorter posts. This piece is part of perhaps 4 pieces that were originally written as one long reflection on writing blog posts. Of course, if you keep them short, you’re more likely to maintain your momentum in writing every day. 

Going to stop here and take my own advice to keep this short, more humble reflections on writing tomorrow.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Why write?

I’ve joked in previous posts about how little I am accomplishing during the quarantine. This is partially true, adapting the challenge of working from home has mediated any productivity I might have derived from having fewer “live” people around to distract and the lack of a commute that previously consumed about an hour of every day. If I have to give myself a grade for my performance during the quarantine, and why not, everyone seems to be grading themselves, I’d score myself a fairly generous “C+”.  

One thing I have managed to do is publish a blog post every day during the quarantine. I’m happy to have done so for a variety of reasons. I appreciate the opportunity to offer my reflections during this unusual time. It’s not that the Library of Congress is calling to include this blog in its collection but, yes, these are historic times. So much is beyond my power at this unprecedented time, but I have total authority over my writing.  I can’t govern when the quarantine will end or how I need to act during it. My older sons are quarantined, as is my dad, 86, struggling with dementia; I miss seeing them “in person”. Writing helps me to win control in a time when it’s easy to lose a sense of purpose and agency.

As a school leader, I welcome the opportunity to communicate and share the struggle with stakeholders. I’m not sure if my kids read my posts but some parents and members of the community do. It’s fun when, on the rare occasion when I do interact with them in person or virtually,  folks say something to me that indicates I’ve made a connection. Three different people last week reached out to tell me they have a version of the “Re-Wear Chair”. I’ve discovered a dozen others who also have Pelotons and enjoy sharing their rides with me. Some parents at my school reach out with cooking challenges; I have a wicked paella planned using a recipe from one of my 8th graders. Blogging regularly has helped me reconnect with the power of narrative. Sharing stories connects us with other people at the level of the heart as well as the mind. 

Hoping to keep going.  What are you doing to beat the quarantine? What’s your story?

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My COVID-19: Friday un-Focused #6

My favorite writer on the topic of attentional issues is Edward Hollowell who wrote the books Driven by Distraction, Delivered from Distraction, and my favorite, Married to Distraction. His books contain abundant wisdom about managing an adult life in which it is difficult to focus and stay on-task. A Hollowell tip, find points in the day that work best for different tasks and do those things at those times!  Of course, during this global pandemic, I can’t remember any of his other advice, so I’m just going to offer random thoughts:

We all have shining moments in our day.  Mine are the notifications I get on my phone from Waze telling me how long it will take  to get to my next meeting if I leave the house now. “Scheduling meeting with Chad – Light Traffic – Leave now to be there in 27 minutes.”  During quarantine, I arrive to this meeting at my dining room table via Zoom in 27 seconds. I suppose I’m saving gas but I would love to get in my car and drive to that meeting at school.


Whenever I take the parkway here on Long Island there is a sign that says, “Stay home, Stop the Spread.”  My 9 year old daughter, Juliet, who I drag along with me anytime I leave the house,  always remarks, “Dad, aren’t they a little late. If we’re here, we didn’t stay home.” She may be falling behind in science but Juliet’s pretty observant.   

IMG_5674None of you will admit it but now that you have less contact with people in the outside world, you have a version of “Re-Wear Chair”.   The Jericho T-shirt you wore for only 10 minutes to do the morning announcements, the jeans you dressed in to buy an onion at the grocery, the collared shirt you donned for 20 minutes for a Zoom meeting attended by people who aren’t in your immediate family; I’m not gonna wash those! Have you seen the lines at Costco? I’m sure they’re out of Tide Pods! (Don’t tell my wife about the “Re-Wear Chair” She has yet to catch on.) 

Can somebody tell my wife that although Wayfair does in fact have “just what we need”, we don’t need everything that Wayfair has? And would it kill them to throw an extra screw and a washer into the box. Also, what godforsaken units are used for that Allen wrench they include; it’s not metric, it’s not imperial! That Allen wrench is NOT in your toolbox.  If you lose the bloody thing you better send the whole item back or are you going to use the box it came in as your end table.

It was W.C. Fields who declared, “Never work with children or animals.” For school leaders, this approbation has taken on a peculiar poignancy. Lately, I’m on video often. I try to clean myself up and my kids occasionally wander into the frame of the video, but my youngest daughter is nine years old and she already looks like a teenager (see video below). How can I compete with my colleagues who have babies, toddlers, and puppies jumping in their laps or onto the bed beside them? I’m open to ideas but it’s not like we’re getting any puppies or babies here before the quarantine is over. Suggestions to “amp up the cuteness” welcomed.

I know there was something I was going to do before I started writing this post, oh yeah, wash my hands. You should too! Stay safe, stay well, stay sane.

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My COVID-19 Diary: Is it a snow day? “I don’t know”

John Dewey wrote, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn by reflecting on experience.” But what experiences can leaders draw upon to learn about the pandemic?  The most challenging thing about our current condition is its singularity. The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 people in this country, but that was in 1918. There’s so much we do not know because no one alive today has lived through anything like this. 

Admitting “I don’t know” may be one of the most difficult things for me to acknowledge as a leader, but there’s one area of school management in which I should possess a great deal of practice with this simple phrase.  Indeed, most middle school principals in the Northeast of the United States have practiced saying it for decades with regards to a peculiar regional phenomenon: The Snow Day. 

download (8)

Weather is fickle. I don’t know if this will change now that students have been forced to remain in their homes for nearly 10 weeks, but it can be taken as an article of faith that middle school kids love a good snow day.  If the forecast calls for snow, kids will study the sky and scour weather reports on their phones to determine whether school will be closed the following day. 

As a principal, I make it my business to be present in the hallways as much as possible. On days of impending snow, if 500 kids pass me in the hallway, I’ll be asked 500 times, “Is school closed tomorrow, Dr. Gately?”  The skilled middle school principal has learned to keep a poker face at times like this. Of course, I say,  “I don’t know.”  In my setting, these decisions are made by the superintendent of schools, not by the principal (thank goodness). Nevertheless, my kids either don’t realize this decision isn’t mine or they think I have an inside track on the determination.  So they ask, constantly.

Adolescents are discerning observers of facial expression and body language. After all, middle school is essentially like Marine Boot Camp devoted to preparing students for a life of social interaction.  So I occupy a world in which kids are keenly attuned to nonverbal communication. They watch everything we do. It’s essential that I remain stone-faced when I’m asked if school will be open. If I say,  “I don’t know”, but my facial expression communicates, “I wonder if there’s gas in my snowblower?”; my 13-year-old amateur detectives will pick that up until the whole school believes, “Dr. Gately said we’re having a snow day tomorrow.”   Even before social media, a rumor like this would travel around my school in about eight minutes. You’d hear a collective cheer raised by the entire student body. But this doesn’t happen because I possess years of experience with “Snow Day Stone Face.”  I really should play more poker, but I don’t allow gambling in the lunchroom. images

Our generation may not have dealt with a global pandemic before, but we have experiences, however tangential, that can be referred to for guidance as we cope with one.  What experiences are you calling upon to be successful in these trying times?  I need to know. I need all the help I can get.

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My COVID-19 Diary: What you don’t know

The job of the principal in the school building is to know things.  I need to know what’s going on in the classrooms of the school, but also in the lunchrooms, and the hallways, and on the athletic fields, not to mention the locker rooms (oy… the locker rooms). Curiously, I’m also expected to know what’s happening in the boiler room and that room with all the electric wires. For the record, I know where these rooms are but I rely on our incredible Head Custodian, Mr. Mandrachia, to tell me the deal with boilers and circuit breakers. What makes this role both uniquely challenging and exciting is the diversity of people and processes with which you engage every day.  It’s a lot to know about.  


Kids think I know how to spell the Spelling Bee words

However, when you are a school leader or any kind of leader, you must recognize that there are times when the only appropriate answer to a question is, “I don’t know.”  At times of crisis such as we are experiencing now, this is ever more critical.  Folks are willing to give you trust based on the accuracy of the messages you relay, yet providing reliable information has never been more challenging. Even scientists are having to admit there’s a great deal they don’t know about the virus at the center of the pandemic. Every week the shape of coronavirus symptoms seems to change. First, it was respiratory impacts, kidney failure soon emerged as a common impact, then cardiac arrest, and this past weekend there was an article about “COVID-19 Toe”.  This is not the kind of shifting fact pattern we are accustomed to from science. In this context, how can a humble middle school principal be expected to transmit correct information to his staff and to families? It’s critically important for those in positions of leadership to ensure precision of information, or, lacking this certainty, to admit they do not know.   

Over the past eight weeks, I have said “I don’t know” in a professional context more often than I have uttered these words in my entire career. And I better get used to it. I watched Governor Cuomo’s news conference when he closed school buildings for the year. I thought his decision would answer the big question. But it took scarcely a beat for reporters to ask: What about Graduation? Prom? Grades? Summer school? What about September?

Leaders can become more comfortable saying, “I don’t know”; but can the rest of us get used to hearing it?

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My COVID-19 Diary: I don’t know?

In my personal life, I rarely say, “I don’t know.”   It’s not that I know a lot, far from it, but I’ve always felt that when you’re in a conversation with somebody, you are there to contribute. 

Before I explain, one exception…. 

I have one exception to this rule. It’s a deviation I have learned over long experience. 

When asked, “Do you know where the ______  is?”  or “Have you seen the ______?”; unless I know exactly where the item is, and I can go get the _______ and produce it to the delight of the seeker who posed the question, I do not offer an opinion or admit the last place I saw it.  Here the thing young readers, this question is a trap!  When you offer a theory or admit that you saw the “kitchen shears” (in my house,  ______,  is usually scissors) on the dining room table earlier in the day, it is now your fault that they’re missing. If you offer a theory about where they might be, it is now your job to find those kitchen shears. In the category of lost items, I have conditioned myself, much as it causes me great emotional turmoil, to respond, “I don’t know.” 

Otherwise, I find it difficult in conversations with family and friends to say, “I don’t know.” 

It’s like rowing a boat where two people each have an oar,  if one of them doesn’t pull their oar equally, the boat’s simply going to go around in circles. If we’re talking, it’s my job to pull my oar by sharing my thoughts. Someone I admire once told me, “When asked a question, you aren’t always expected to give an answer, sometimes all that’s required is to talk about the question.”  I’ve consistently tried to deliver on that requirement. If you expected me to say “I don’t know” why did you ask me?  

Perhaps it’s in my DNA. My ancestors, who valued conversation with near-religious reverence, huddled around a turf fire in a dark pub in Galway, wouldn’t countenance,  “I don’t know”. Even if I have no expertise in an area, I’m willing to give you my thoughts or venture an opinion on what I think the answer might be. I make sure to provide context, never asserting that what I’m about to declare is empirical truth.  “I read an article about”, “something like that once happened to me or to somebody I know”, or “I don’t know much about this but here’s what I think” are typical sentence starters in these circumstances. Verbalizing a theory or planting a flag somewhere in the vicinity of the query is something owed to the person on the other end of the conversation. My position is that people who say “I don’t know” are refusing to hold up their end of the chat. It’s the price one pays for admission to the discussion right?

This is a quirk of my personal life, how I am, ‘at home’.  In my PROFESSIONAL life, however, as a school leader, I have learned that it is sometimes essential to say “I don’t know.”  This deserves more conversation. But we want to know, in what ways are your personal selves the opposite of your work selves, and you’re not permitted to say, “I don’t know.”   

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