This is part of a "blog exchange" program of dozens of educators around the country through the month of November. I will be posting many other posts with the theme of gratitude from guest authors on a special GUEST BLOGGERS PAGE, and highly encourage you to go read their work and check them out!
As a 23 year old kid fresh out of UW-Stevens Point, I entered a job market relatively high on supply and low on demand for Social Studies teachers. Wisconsin had just passed legislation to cripple the powers of the Teachers Union and it was a time of great uncertainty for the profession in our state. Math and Science were the hotly recruited positions, but I knew the reality was any openings for a Social Studies teacher would mean my resume would be one of hundreds on an administrator’s desk. I took a calculated gamble: risk looking like an unprofessional goofball that was too young and lacked the seriousness for the job by encouraging anyone thinking about hiring me to look at my crappy parody music videos on YouTube.
Somehow, some way, Beloit Turner called and said they wanted me to come down for an interview, and as I sat there rehearsing canned lines in my ill-fitting JCPenney clearance rack suit, an important looking man walked by, stopped, turned to face me and said “you’re General Dan Sickles!” referring to a “mockumentary” I had made for a college assignment that was posted on my YouTube channel (which you can watch here). It was fun to make, but we’re talking about scenes with the stock Windows MovieMaker grainy black and white effect while my roommate threw a basketball at my leg to simulate Civil War cannon fire. It definitely risked making me look like an unprofessional goofball that was too young and lacked the seriousness for the job.
“Dennis McCarthy! I’m the Superintendent,” he said as he extended a hand for me to shake. “This is either really good, or really bad,” I thought to myself.
Turns out, it was a really good thing that I led the administrative team of Beloit Turner to my YouTube channel, because they wanted someone that was willing to get creative, think differently, and do whatever it took to engage kids. They held true to that for the entire seven years I taught there, and I received nothing but guidance, encouragement and support. I did some dumb stuff, don’t get me wrong… like, thinking I could use Nacho Libre to help demonstrate the physical geography of Mexico-level dumb stuff, but they seemed to recognize the intent was in the right place and didn’t want me to stop trying new things.
I will always be grateful for Superintendent McCarthy. As a 23 year old interviewing for the job, he made me feel like despite his position and title, he would be approachable and work with me as teammates rather than a boss, and for the entire 7 years I was at Turner, he stayed true to his word. He took time to connect on a personal level, and I had countless discussions about football with him. His daughter was in my class for the first three years of my career, each a different subject and grade, each the first time I had ever taught it, and he saw firsthand some terrible rookie mistakes, but never said a single negative thing about it.
This anecdote is actually only a small window into my experience with administration over 7+ years as a professional educator. However, as I reflect on my experiences with all of the administrators I have worked with, I’ve realized how common it has been for my administrators to treat me with the same levels of respect, friendliness and collegiality. I may be lucky, and I may be the exception, but in the month of November with gratitude and thankfulness on our minds, I feel it is appropriate to show gratitude to my own administration.
Administration… In the lexicon of educators, this is often a swear word to be spit out with disgust and contempt. Everyone in education has heard administration horror stories. At its worst, administration can be a roadblock to common sense solutions, a wet blanket to creativity and passion, an ineffective middle-man for contact with the community, or a pusher of bad ideas. The very definition of the word administration refers to running a school. I’ve been a classroom teacher for 8 years and have not once experienced any desire to become an administrator.
But just because I don’t want to become an administrator doesn’t mean I have experienced those horror stories first hand. I cannot think of a single administrator I’ve worked with that hasn’t made me a better teacher in some way. I cannot think of a single administrator I’ve worked with that hasn’t earned my respect. I am unbelievably blessed and I genuinely feel bad for educators that do have those horror stories about their own administrations.
Thinking about the struggle that happens between administrators and teachers reminds me of the song "Know Your Enemy" by Rage Against the Machine.
Yes, I know my enemies!
They're the teachers who taught me to fight me
Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission
Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
All of which are American dreams
Sometimes teachers think administrators are pitting us against each other, forcing us to compromise, fit into a box of how they want things to go, all while ignoring the realities of the situation. I admit, I've thought of it that way before...
But those thoughts never remained permanent. That's not what any of my administrators have actually believed and followed through on.
There are plenty of ACTUAL enemies to what we are trying to do in the classroom. Poverty, hunger, parent and student apathy, broken homes, lack of resources and funding, social distractions and pop culture, the list goes on and on and on. Administration is not the enemy. Don't misdirect your rage against the machine of your school district. There are other machines involved.
So now on a more personal level, I have chosen to essentially show my gratitude with a series of short stories. I know it may not mean the same to you if you don’t know these people personally, but I hope you find the themes relatable. If you are also an educator, maybe it will give you pause to reflect on some of your own administrators you are grateful for. If you are a student, maybe you’ll think about some relationships you have with all the adults in your building.
I will always be grateful to Steve Schulte, Assistant Principal my first 4 years, for his sage advice as I was finding my way in a new profession. He always knew what to say to ease my anxiety, and showed me a human side of administration. He participated in a prayer group with several other teachers and myself, often leading the discussions. When my wife and I bought a foreclosure house and had the inspection done, it revealed a bunch of huge problems our naive little mid-20 something brains had to know were possible, but for some reason did not register as possible. I had just listened to a voicemail from my wife, in tears, listing some of the biggest issues and then started walking down the hall to a meeting when Steve saw me coming.
“Hey John, you OK?”
“Ahh, I just got kind of a laundry list of issues with this foreclosure we’re buying”
“You know what though?” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder. “At your age and with house prices where they are right not just try and keep thinking about the long-term, because before you know it, the value will be way up and you get to do the updates your way. We thought we were in too deep when we bought our first house, but in the long term I almost can’t believe we were worried.”
Now, Steve was not an economist, and the housing market of 2013 was not the same as when they bought their first house, but I just remember feeling so calm all of a sudden. That’s what Steve could always do for me in any situation.
I will always be grateful for Chris Koeppen, a guy that started as my peer teaching Spanish in the Middle School and High School. He opened my eyes to the world of Standards Based Grading. I admit, I figured I was becoming a cynical veteran when the idea first started circulating and I didn’t pay too much attention. Then I listened to Chris talk about it in his typical way: heavy on the logic, shutting down haters with hypothetical questions they can’t answer because it makes them contradict everything they just said. It stirred something up inside and I knew this was something I had to pursue.
When he became Assistant Principal, he was the chief driving force behind our transition to standards based grading. So much of my own assessment philosophy can be directly traced back to Chris, and we continue to discuss it digitally and in person even though I am in a different district. When I was able to rig a hybrid system where I could assess on standards and still have it fit Waunakee’s total points calculations, he was the one I sent the screenshot to in triumph. Some day when I lead the SBG revolution at Waunakee Middle School (which may still be quite a way off, but we’ll see) it will almost exclusively be due to his influence.
I will always be especially grateful for Cory Everson, my principal for all 7 years at Turner Middle School. He coaxed me into leadership roles I would never have taken on by myself, and all through that time he truly valued my input and took suggestions to heart. When my wife and I decided to seriously look at job openings to move to the Madison area I worried a lot about how to approach Cory and tell him about our plans. There was no guarantee a job would open up and there was no guarantee we would be leaving, so I was nervous about alarming him and being treated differently. Of course I had to tell him so it wouldn’t be a surprise if I asked for a letter of recommendation and he didn’t know it was on my radar, but I was honestly terrified.
When a job opening came up from Waunakee Middle School, I told him I finally had one I wanted to apply for and would appreciate a recommendation.
“I’m gonna sandbag that thing so hard!” he said with a huge smile. “I gotta do anything to keep you around… but no, really,” he said in a much quieter and more serious tone, “Anyone would be lucky to have you, and I will make sure they know that.” I know he had my back 100% through the whole process, and my current principal still gushes about all the great things he said about me on the reference check.
I cannot believe I thought there was even a CHANCE he would be bitter. He wanted to do everything in his power to help me grow through seven years, and he didn’t stop just because I was planning to move on.
And now some quick hitters:
Christine Brown was my Assistant Principal for one year before transitioning into the Director of Pupil Services role. She challenged my thinking about the interactions between special education students and regular education students.
I don’t know what kind of relationship most teachers have with the Business Managers in their districts, but after coaching middle school football with Brad Boll for three years (and developing a pretty fair impression of him according to people I will not name here for the sake of their safety since they still work with him) I knew I was going to have a unique relationship with our Business Manager anyway. The guy had cameos in video projects and hooked me up when I completely misunderstood the insurance rules, plus entertains me with his sports rants on Twitter.
And as for my new administrators in Waunakee, I can’t give much more than a quick hitter because I have only been there for two months. However, they have certainly preached family from day one and have backed themselves up when it comes to arranging schedules around my kids. They talk about spending time and money to develop teachers professionally and have backed my expensive trip to Chicago coming up to present at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference. And they’ve given myself and the two other new 7th grade Social Studies Teachers very free reign in creating a curriculum from the ground up this year.
Bosses can frustrate employees in any industry. Education is no exception, and school administrators often seem like they can hurt more than they help. But deep down, those administrators got into the field to help kids just like you did. You may not agree with them all the time, and I’m not telling you I’ve always agreed with my administrators either, but I can respect their efforts to help their students and staff. I challenge you to show your own administrators some appreciation this month… ESPECIALLY if you have found yourselves on opposite ends of an issue lately.