My COVID-19 Diary: Virtual friends, they’re real!

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.

EY9VS64WoAAgZQqTed 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 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.

EX3Atl5WkAMgDHEJay 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  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.

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My COVID-19 Diary: The 4th “R”

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? 

More on this… meanwhile, wash ya hands.


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My COVID-19 Diary: It’s not the same from home

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.  

aerial view of sports stadium during daytime

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.   

alcoholic architecture beverages building

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! 

More on this….



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My COVID-19 Diary: Friday un-Focused #8

One would be hard-pressed to design an environment more conducive to a lack of concentration than our present circumstances. The term “go to work” has gained greater currency for me during this crisis. We “go to work” because at home you can’t accomplish a damn thing. Try to write an important letter with your kids at home, bills you have to pay sitting right there, your neighbor blasting doo-wop from his garage, and a refrigerator across the room that probably has cheese in it. It’s not easy. 

By the end of the week I cannot focus enough to write a narrative with even a whiff of cohesion. I’ll simply offer some random thoughts:

rooftopsunbathermidtown1983One of my favorite Brooklyn expressions. On a sunny day, maybe you didn’t go to the bother of packing up the car or taking the bus to go to the beach, but you wanted to get a tan, so you would do something that was described thusly, “I’m gonna lay out“. I have few insights to offer on this expression, it speaks for itself. Note the lack of anything else that’s going to happen in the course of “laying out”.  While you’re soaking up the sun, are you going to read a book, listen to music, talk to your friend? “Nah, I’m just gonna lay out.” This pronouncement was accompanied later by a turn of phrase I heard uttered by my mom countless times, an expression also likely native to Brooklyn. When one returned to the house from “laying out”, she’d say:  “Oh, you got color”;  which translated meant that the time you spent in the sun mitigated that pasty Irish pallor you walk around with 10 months of the year. It was meant as a compliment. 

unnamedIf Hell has a smell it’s the smell of a bag of potatoes that you forgot was sitting at the bottom of a closet near your kitchen. Nothing compares to this as far as every day, surprising, household odors.  It’s what kids spray from head to toe on themselves before going to middle school in Hell.

My daughter was so happy she saw Frozen the musical for her birthday last year now that the Broadway play has officially announced it’s closing. When the quarantine is over I’m going to bring it back. But my version is going to be a gripping tale of a people struggling for connection and social power via a cruelly temperamental computer app called “Zoom.”  My play is going to be called, “Frozen.”

For various reasons that deserve their own blog post, my wife is not a sports fan. She’ll watch sports if it includes brunch but other than that she just doesn’t see the point. In that respect she’s one of the big winners of the quarantine. No NBA, MLB, NFL, Premier League Soccer (brunch).  None of these sports leagues are swirling around her with their pointlessness. She even resents sports metaphors, which, even in normal circumstances, are hard to avoid. I thought somehow this situation might awaken in her an appreciation for the escapism that sports brings, but it has only reconfirmed what she’s always believed, we can do without it.

Why are you reading this, shouldn’t you be washing your hands. I’ve been trying to keep my posts short, I want the CDC to recommend that you wash your hands for as long as it takes to read one of Don’s blog posts. Get on it! 

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My COVID-19 Diary: You can bring that on the subway?

So, here’s some reflections on the Sunday Routine:

I resent the features in which the subject works all day. It makes me feel lazy. It’s Sunday. Would it kill them to just sit down and eat pancakes?

Whether the subject of the piece is the richest woman in Manhattan or a DoorDash delivery guy from  Astoria, everyone knows the best places to eat brunch in the five boroughs. I think I just read them for the restaurant recs.  I never get the time to go to these places but I write them down. My wife and I like to fantasize of one-day having brunch where Ben Stiller gets his bagels and nova.

download (12)Only a small percentage of Sunday Routine people surf, but I love the ones who do. There’s nothing cooler in my mind than the image of somebody taking the “A-Train” to Rockaway with an 8-foot surfboard.  Duke Ellington wrote the quintessential jazz standard about this subway line, the longest in the city.  How could he possibly have left out the surfers? And they’re always surfing in the dead of winter.  I love to imagine people reading these pieces in Iowa, I’m sure they never imagined that the internationally recognized expert on James Joyce dons a wetsuit in December and “hangs ten” in the surf at 116th street. 

Many times I’ve started and stopped my own routine piece. Each time I do I end up walking away.  It makes me feel so desperately uninteresting. I cannot compete with all the yoga, 10K runs, and museum tours. For one thing, my coffee game needs some serious work. It also makes me realize I barely have a Sunday routine. Every week is different for me except perhaps the time between waking up and 10 AM. That’s the time I read the Sunday Routine.

grayscale photo of twin bell alarm clock

Nobody wakes up at 9 AM. Every subject is either awake before 6am or after 11am. I have admiration for both sets of people. I respect the industriousness of the folks who are doing yoga at sunrise but I also envy the jazz musicians who roll out of bed at noon because they performed until 4 AM and had breakfast at an impossibly marvelous Manhattan diner that’s open 24 hours a day.

They rarely feature a “newcomer” to the city. They don’t say it but I think the Times knows that if “Steve from Indiana Come Lately’s”  are featured too often, lifelong New Yorkers will cancel their subscriptions.

I want to start a letter-writing campaign for them to feature Anthony Fauci, Doctor Fauci.  I’m dying to know where he gets his cannolis when he’s back in Bensonhurst on the weekends.

Disagree with these reflections or not, each week the Sunday Routine section of the paper gives my brother and me material for hours of snarky conversation. With the quarantine, we all need our own versions of “say a lot about a little” (which, coincidentally, my wife has suggested as the new title for this blog). What are you “saying a lot about” these days? We need ideas.  

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My COVID-19 Diary: Did you read it yet?

Back in the day, when you read the newspaper in a print version, a singular treat when you were up and about on a Saturday night was to buy the Sunday NY Times and get a headstart on reading it before it was actually Sunday. There were newsstands on Flatbush Avenue that would get the papers around 11 o’clock so you could buy it on your way home from hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night. Back then, that was a trade secret reserved for “night owls”. Reading the paper today is a totally different experience. Articles that will appear in the print version on Sunday begin to get inserted into the digital version as early as Thursday. I didn’t realize this until I noticed my brother Matt was talking to me about subjects of Sunday Routine BEFORE Sunday morning. 

white ceramic mug on white printer paper

Sometimes I’m happy when he alerts me to an article that is sitting there getting ready for publication on Sunday, mostly the political pieces, because during quarantine, to have a scoop on family members can give me a critical advantage in rancorous political exchanges (that’s right, I said rancorous). If I know a couple of days ahead of time about Supreme Court arguments or a study that proved a thing that no one seems to agree about, well, that’s a score! But, one section of the paper I always leave for reading on a Sunday morning is the Routine section. Reading this section of the paper has become part of my Sunday routine, I wait to look at it with breakfast on a Sunday morning.

But, every Sunday, around 8 AM, I can count on Matt to start texting me about the Routine section. See, I told you we were going to get back to the routine section. More on this tomorrow. Go wash your hands, if you’re getting bored with that, wash somebody else’s hands.

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My COVID-19 Diary: What’s left to talk about?

I’m wondering, how many of you are running out of things to talk about during the coronavirus quarantine? It feels as though we are into week 72 of this thing by now. It’s hard to imagine there are shows on Netflix or Amazon that you haven’t already binge-watched. Our subscription TV game is very strong over here.  We came right out of the gate and watched several shows with subtitles that had multiple seasons. But when you start so strong, where do you go from there? After watching four seasons of Fauda, Tiger King is simply a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, my wife and I can spend several hours unpacking a single episode of the television shows we enjoy. During quarantine, hopefully, everyone is learning an art my mentor called, “saying a lot about a little.”


My brother Matt and I mastered the ability to do this long ago.  He and I are best friends.  Because we’re brothers and we share the same history, we either have nothing to talk about or we can spend hours chewing over the same funny stories from our youth, our parents, colorful people from “the neighborhood”, and a little bit of sports. We access the same media so we have a common set of reference points.  In fact, when I realized a couple of years ago that he didn’t read the New Yorker, I had to get him a subscription so he’d read the same urbane articles about global warming and Harvey Weinstein that I consumed and we’d have more things to talk about. 

Because we consume the same media,  Matt and I begin many conversations, “Don’t ruin it for me, I didn’t _____ “ (fill in the blank: “read the article”, “watch the game”, “see the movie”).  In Matt’s defense, he is fantastic at this. He has the ability to quickly pivot to some other subject that we have discussed perhaps a million times before, never running out of fuel to keep the conversation going, possibly the Giants v. Minnesota playoff game in the winter of 2000 and the guy we talked to in the parking lot at Metlife Stadium that day. Me, not so much.  More than a few times, just by arching an eyebrow,  I’ve ruined English soccer matches he recorded and spent the entire weekend looking forward to watching.

With all of us living in quarantine, I suspect you’re all making these adjustments in your communication patterns. What are you doing to fill the conversational void created by the absence of most human contact? Because it’s a thing.  I promise this story is going to meander back to the Sunday Routine.  Meanwhile, shouldn’t you be washing your hands? Get on that!

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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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