Year 20, Day 1

At our opening day faculty meetings, our Head of School handed me a watch to commemorate the start of my 20th year at Montclair Kimberley Academy. It was the first time that I actually thought about this milestone. I’m sure that some of you see 20 years as a really long, maybe too long, time. I see it differently, joyfully even.

My school is large, as far as independent day schools go, but it still feels knowable. I understand its boundaries and limits, and I embrace its constraints. At first, twenty years ago, these were instincts I picked up from writers I loved. Joyce was at his best when he was working the angles of Dublin, William Kennedy had Albany, and Springsteen had the Jersey Shore. Closer to home, my own father used to tell me that, for much of his youth, he didn’t think anything existed beyond the few block radius in Jersey City where he ran and played and sang and sometimes fought with his cousins and his friends and his rivals. He’s not a writer, but the stories he tells of those days are ebullient and memorable because they are bound to local details and people. I’m not comparing myself to these writers (or my father), but they all taught me to cherish the particulars of a place and to sense the enoughness all around me.

Over time, too, my love of the constraints of a single school simply became self-reinforcing, a positive feedback loop. It was good to walk the same halls and notice both the chips in the paint and the new coats of paint, to learn to leverage the patterns that mattered in human development, to earn a sense of nostalgia, and to see records set and then broken. It was good that the daily, improvised soundtrack of my working life was built upon a familiar tune. Good, too, to be sitting on the coastline when graduates washed back from the oceans of their life, ready to share their stories. And it was good to see new teachers and crafty veterans, all working their own angles of Montclair Kimberley Academy.

Was good and is good.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “[O]ur human and earthly limits, properly understood are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.”

Formal elaboration, in my case, has meant the 19 times I have taught Lord of the Flies, the thousands of lessons plans I have constructed, the hundred thousand words I have written on student papers, and the many (many!) hours I have spent in meetings with colleagues trying to build a better school and then an even better school. It’s all the same river, but the river itself is never the same.

Formal elegance is what I have often simply witnessed in or around or through others. I’ve seen it on our stages, in our classrooms, at our lunch tables, on our fields, in our library, and down our hallways. It has snuck up on me in the middle of student paragraphs or colleague emails, during class discussions and once even in a drawing of Tom Jones that a student handed in as the single, uber-answer to a six question quiz. It’s not unusual, I guess, to be loved by anyone.

As for fullness of relationship and meaning? That’s what I’ve worked at, sipped from, poured, made, remade. That’s the wood I’ve chopped and the water I’ve carried. And what I’ve enjoyed most, I think.

Year 20, Day 1.  


Source: Wendell Berry with a H/T to The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 16.

Ghosts and Machines

On November 4, 2014, at 8:07 a.m., I printed out an article about Charles Darwin. It wasn’t too long or life changing, but I’ve been carrying it around, in one folder or another, since that time. (Humans are weird.)

It begins by noting that Darwin was a “dogged, daily walker,” and then it goes on to tie this practice to his intellectual output, which was massive.

His path was a gravel track near his home. He called it his “thinking path,” and he walked it twice each day. Such walking kept him healthy in all the ways that walking does. It was also part of his “cognitive labor” — so, something he did each day to help him to solve problems in his work. It spurred his creativity. Here’s a notable passage from the article:

Scientists speak of “transient hypofrontality”: a state-of-mind promoted by pursuits that require physical exertion but little thought or concentration. The parts of the brain that coordinate general concepts and rules are turned down, while the motor and sensory parts are turned up. In this state, ideas and impressions mingle more freely. Unusual and unexpected thoughts arise.

Having said that, the author of the article draws together body and mind, and I’m guessing this is the point that made me carry it around for all these years: “Thinking is embodied, and acting is mindful. We are not ghosts in a machine.”

What’s at stake in such an assertion is human wholeness and flourishing. Not a life hack, but a life.

Source: Damon Young in The Guardian

Emotional Generosity

I like extended definitions that point to the world in a new or more precise way or that allow it to be a more generous, grace-infused place. Here’s an example that fits both criteria:

‘Emotional generosity’ is the ability to see past behaviours that we don’t understand and proactively look for compassionate ways to explain them. It’s easy to do this for young children. If they start crying or throwing a tantrum, we wonder whether they are hungry, or tired, or hurt. Sadly, it’s harder to do this for adults — and especially our co-workers. And yet a more generous interpretation of their difficult behaviour often ends up being right.

Source: The Founder Coach

After Ida

If you’ve read Make Yourself Clear or heard me speak about it, you know that I have a love/hate relationship with automation. I like when it can be set up to handle low-level, low-touch transactions in order to free up time for deep, meaningful, impactful work. Yet I run from it when it sends a signal, from one human to another, that the relationship is just not that important.

Automation is on my mind today because, as you may have noticed, I’ve been “scheduling” these Refreshing Wednesday posts. They publish, Monday through Friday, at 5 a.m. EST followed by a Tweet an hour later and then more randomly (but still automated) a few hours after that. Automating these posts allows me to write them whenever I want to and sometimes in batches. That’s good for me. Also, it allows me to show up consistently for my readers. You know what to expect from me. The value, if there is any, is reliable. That’s a big motivator for me.

But. . . I really, really, really don’t like automating a post on a Saturday, forgetting about it, and then seeing it show up at 5 a.m. after something terrible has happened in Afghanistan or a tropical storm has ruined the basements and possessions of my friends and neighbors.

Reshan and I always talk about going intentionally quiet when our voices could somehow take away from an important conversation or distract others in a time of need or simply claim too much privileged space at any given time.

So I’m struggling with and against the very technology that allows me to connect with you most mornings. Surfacing that struggle is the most honest and useful post I can offer right now. That and simply saying that I hope you, your families, and your communities are safe, recovering, and finding the support that you and they need.

What Resolution is Your Resolution?

In terms of resolutions, the start of the school year for educators is like January 1 to the tenth power. It’s such a drastic new start for most of us that it seems like an ideal time to begin some new habits or practices.

When I think back on my own start-of-school resolutions, my own hoped-for fresh starts, they are sadly . . . repetitive. Similar fitness or nutrition goals. Similar goals in terms of my role as a teacher or school administrator. Similar goals to read more, to take better notes, to reflect more, to support my colleagues with more precision and focus.

Listening to a Farnham Street interview with Kat Cole, I found an obvious (okay, embarrassing) gap in my resolution making. Cole mentions it while noting a difference between two relationships.

I couldn’t remember in my previous longterm relationship ever saying or thinking, I want to be a great partner. I remember thinking, I want to be a great human. I want to be an awesome leader. I want to be a great businessperson.… And I don’t remember ever prioritizing my role as a partner at home in an intentional way. My now husband said the same thing, and we both quickly came to the conclusion that we want to be different this time. We want to be as good if not better at home as we are in business. So then the question was, well how do you do that? And that answer was intentionality.

I’m not sure why hard driving professionals so often slack off at home, treating their relationships like sofas they can collapse onto on their way to a nap.

Okay, sometimes those relationships should serve just such a purpose. But they also require at least as much care, much of the time, as we would put into a slide deck for a Board meeting or an interview process for a key hire.

Cole’s quote made me think back to a valuable summer Tweet from Greg Bamford, Senior Partner + Co-Founder @leadanddesign.

I have to wonder if Cole’s comment would have landed with as much impact for me if I hadn’t first seen, read, and really thought about Bamford’s tweet. Which makes me think, practically, about change and leadership. Leaders put down mental velcro all the time. I’m wondering if enough of that velcro acknowledges the full scope of what it means to “go to work.” What stories do we tell as leaders? What storytelling do we invite or facilitate? What do we hold up, for our colleagues and our institutions, as admirable behaviors? What do we imply or signal about what it means to excel here (or there, or wherever you are)? Do we talk openly about the hidden costs of outward facing success and achievement? And are we really all that we might be at work if we’re not first all that we can be at home? Do we support resolutions that are operating at a high enough resolution, one that includes enough human pixels?

Guest Post from Ed Carter

Below you will find something brand new for Refreshing Wednesday — what’s called a guest post. Publishing it is part of my goal this year to better know and understand the faithful readers of this blog, and to support your work when possible.

This post comes from Ed Carter. Ed has worked with clients of all ages, backgrounds, and incomes. About 10 years into his career, he saw a need for financial planners who specialize in helping individuals and families living with disabilities. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website,

Get Your Small Business Up and Running: What You Need to Know as a Parent Facing Disabilities

Launching a small business is no simple task. When you have the added challenge of parenting and managing one (or more) disabilities, this goal can feel next to impossible. Thankfully, there are strategies that you can use to successfully enter the world of entrepreneurship while balancing the demands of your life and health.

Here’s what you need to know to begin your new chapter as a thriving business owner.

Write your business plan

Having a basic business plan is essential for a number of reasons. First, a business plan gives your new company an overall structure. Writing out your mission statement, market analysis, financial projections, and organizational structure helps you (and all future employees) better understand why your business exists, and what it plans to achieve. Think of this plan as the bones of your organization.

Next, this document will help you secure investors (if this is part of your plan). Investors need to have a detailed summary of your finances, products, and other core information. This helps them decide whether or not it is wise to invest in your business, and how much they should put into your company. If you need help, there are plenty of freelance professionals who can help you write a stellar business plan.

Outsource duties that make your life easier

Balancing the duties of a business owner and parent can be daunting for anyone. When you have a disability, you may feel even more overwhelmed. Prevent negative feelings and challenges by outsourcing tasks that make your life easier. This can include everything from social media marketing to virtual assistant duties.

Decide what to outsource by creating a list of tasks that you don’t enjoy doing. You can also include duties that you never find time to complete. From there, browse today’s most reputable freelancer platforms to find trusted professionals who can complete the work for you.

Select the best business structure

Too many new small business owners overlook the importance of selecting the best business structure for their situation. If you’re unfamiliar with what a business structure is, these are the designations that a business uses for tax and other purposes. Examples of business structures include an LLC, sole proprietorship, or corporation.

In addition to selecting an entity that suits your needs, you may also want to consider registering your doing business as name. A DBA is a name that is separate from what is listed on your company’s legal documents. DBAs can help you branch out into new services, and can sound less formal than your chosen legal name.

On top of these tips, lean on the expertise of other local business owners. By working with others in your area, you can create professional relationships that help you excel in your chosen field.

No Soloists (an Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a speech I gave at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s opening meeting (8/30/21). I’ve touched it up slightly to make it relevant to any group of school colleagues starting their work together. And to you I say, godspeed and good luck!

There are No Soloists: What I Learned from Reading about Pecan Trees in Franklin, North Carolina

Toward the end of the summer, I drove my family to a house that was hanging off the side of a mountain in Franklin, North Carolina. The view of the Smoky Mountains afforded me wonderful perspective – the chance to really take stock of a tough 18 months. 

It also allowed me, finally, to feast on a book that had stared up at my from my coffee table throughout the 20 – 21 school year. 

Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants was everything I hoped it would be. I’m still processing much of it, but I wanted to share some of what I learned about what is called “mast fruiting” and how it happens in pecan trees. 

If you had a pecan tree in your front yard, as I now understand it, it wouldn’t always produce lots of pecans.  Some years, you might have to shake the limbs to find them.  The crop could appear almost dormant. 

And then, at some point, there would be an all-out pecan explosion – a bumper crop – unpredictably. 

I want you to take a moment to think about why this might happen. 

I had you develop your own hypothesis because that’s what a science teacher might do at the start of a lesson. They might try to surface or guess where your natural perceptions of the world might actually get in the way of your understanding of scientific truth.

So here’s where Kimmerer expects us to go wrong if left to our own common sense about the way “mast fruiting” works:

This boom and bust cycle remains a playground of hypotheses for tree physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of [an] energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense.

Maybe you were close to that . . . and maybe you weren’t.  Maybe you thought that each pecan tree just had to be fiercely individual enough to save up enough materials to produce a glorious yield.

According to Kimmerer, that’s not how it works.  And here’s her big reveal:

If this were true, each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch.  But they don’t.  If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists.  Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the country and all across the state.  The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.  Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know.  But what we see is the power of unity.  What happens to one happens to us all.  We can starve together or feast together.  All flourishing is mutual.

All flourishing is mutual.  The trees need each other to do their best work.  

When I read that last line the first time, it almost made me fall off the mountain I was reading it on. And, yes, it made me think about collaboration among teachers.

When my seniors are responding to a questionnaire this fall, they will be bringing to bear a standard for teaching that they established in someone else’s classroom. When I ask them about SEL in my class, for example, their standard for good teacher-student relationships, for how they hope to be treated, might well have been established in a kindergarten or sixth grade classroom with a completely different teacher.

Or when several more senior colleagues watch a second year math teacher teach and then talk excitedly at the lunch table before heading back into their own classrooms with new energy, they will flourish because that new teacher is flourishing.  

Like the mast fruiting of pecan trees, no one knows exactly how great teaching happens, but we do know that a school is likely to surface bumper crops of learning when its teachers don’t think of themselves as soloists, when they recognize, instead, that all flourishing is mutual. Not one teacher in a department, but the whole department.  Not one department, but a whole division.  Not one division, but a whole school. 

Email Bankruptcy (Elegant and Graceful)

I really can’t stop writing about email. I admit I am likely treating the symptoms of a problem instead of actually digging up — and dealing with — the root. But that’s a project for another day. Today, again, I’m chipping away at the symptoms ailing almost everyone I speak with, deeply, about their work.

I have a repeating, yearly calendar event that simply says “Declare Email Bankruptcy.” The idea is to send an email to lots of people and tell them, “I’m declaring email bankruptcy. Sorry if you emailed me and I didn’t respond. If the problem hasn’t resolved itself or if you need me to see something, please resend.” But every year I consider the reminder and dismiss it. In fact, I have never — not once — followed through on it. Instead, the old emails that I didn’t answer . . . simply become older emails that I don’t answer.

Recently, though, I received an email reply from a very thoughtful friend and colleague. Her opening paragraph is a subtle declaration of email bankruptcy, but it’s so elegant and graceful that I really enjoyed receiving it and had no problem accepting it.

One of (what I thought was low-hanging fruit) goals for the summer was to zero my inbox. I had a pretty long list of emails that I’d wanted to dig into and never did properly. I realize I had a lot from you that I really appreciated and saved, but never even bothered to acknowledge when you sent them…. including this one. So thank you for any inspiration you sent my way that I sat on!

As my students might say, there are good vibes all over a statement like that. I feel appreciated. My colleague and I have a clean slate for our post-summer, start-of-year communication. She likely feels relieved. And one more high performing, hard charging person in my life has finally acknowledged her human limitations. I celebrate, especially, that last part. (Maybe we’re getting closer to the root of the problem, after all…)