The most challenging time of year for educators is in late winter into early spring. This is especially true if you live in a state like New York where we battle through a long, cold, dark winter helping students to succeed and they need us more and more each year. It is rewarding when we can make a difference in the life of a child, but is also draining.
This year, we experienced an exceptionally long winter that lasted until the middle of April. Snow cost us the majority of spring break and, as we begin planning the next school year, the pressure mounts. We worry about our students leaving us; we worry about what may look different for us next year; we worry about what may be the same. It’s the final hurdle to overcome to ensure a successful year.
It’s can be challenge to remain positive–sometimes even your best friends and favorite students get on your nerves. This time of year, more than any, it is important to take time for yourself and your family. It is important to take a step back and reflect on what is important and to be aware that you may not be as patient as you were in September.
My answer to the March blues was a trip to “The City.” I had scored tickets to Hamilton and was taking my son Scott, my wife, and my mother. I was looking forward to forgetting about work for a day and hoping to recreate one of my fondest memories from childhood.
When I was about ten years old my mother and I went to Broadway to see 42nd Street with my grandmother. It was a special day that I will never forget.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. New York City was exciting and scary at the same time. It seemed like a different planet to me and I am sure to my mother as well. Before we left she reminded me how dangerous it could be. We wore no jewelry, made sure not to dress too fancy, and were given very explicit directions not to joke around, to look at anyone, or even smile until we got back to the safe confines of Ulster County. We often joke about how naive we were that day. Yet, despite ourselves, we had an amazing day. We had great food at Mama Leones, went to FAO Schwarz, explored the capital of the world, and we survived even though we smiled, laughed, and fool around. It was a special day, a day that I strengthened my already strong bond with my mother and grandmother.
I was excited to go and enjoy Hamilton with my family and provide a special day like my mother did for me so many years ago. We loaded into the car on what seemed like the first sunny and warm day we had seen in years. The 40 mile journey took us just over an hour and twenty minutes with only three or four horn blows and one flipping of the bird. We made it to Times Square, to Broadway with eyes wide full of wonder.
I find it hard to believe that anyone can experience the heart of Manhattan without a bit of awe. Everything about it is grandiose. The lights, the sounds, the obnoxiously huge advertisements, and all of the people, so many people. I may not be that ten year old boy anymore, but New York City still takes my breath away. The sun was shining, I was with most of my favorite people, and I was eating a delicious slice of New York. Life was good and the stressors of work were long forgotten.
I was hoping the show would live up to the hype and that no one would notice the inevitable nap I always seem to take once the lights go down and the curtain goes up. Narcolepsy always kicks in during these situations no matter how popular the show. I did manage to stay awake for a good 15 minutes of the Phantom of the Opera some years back–probably the most boring 15 minutes of my life. Phantom was not for me.
I not only made it through the first act without a fight from Mr. Sandman, I was fully mezmorized. I didn’t check my program once to see when intermission was! The whole thing was just so well done and, honestly, I was somewhat surprised. I heard the reviews and knew the buzz was positive, but how good could a bunch of boring old guys rapping be?
The show got better and better as it went on and more than lived up to the hype. The characters came to life and I learned so much about US history that I never knew or had long forgotten. I learned why the capitol is not in New York, but in DC. I learned of the grievances the founding fathers had with each other. I learned how our government was built. Most importantly, I learned that rapping old guys could be funny, fun, could tell a story, and could inspire. I am sure there are some inaccuracies in the story, but I know watching this play made me want to learn more about our history, about that time period, about what was fact, what was fiction, and what was up for debate.
I started watching looking for an escape, but what happened was I started making connections from the show to my work as an educator. I realized that history has so much to offer us today. I realized that maybe I can be a bit overly passionate(obsessed?) with my profession because as I am watching the most relevant play on the most relevant stage in the world, I wanted to whip out a pad to remember all of the connections I was making between the play and the work we do in schools.
Hamilton made me realize:
History Can Be Fun
When done correctly History or learning any topic can be fun for even the most easily distracted students. There are so many stories to tell in school, so many amazing stories. It may be history, it may be science, it may be English, but the stories are there—we just need to look for them. We need to package our amazing world in a way that is relevant and meaningful for our students. When we do this they will not only enjoy the subjects as much as we do, they are more inclined to remember important information we have provided and often times will look to find more answers to the “story” on their own.
Communication Is Power
Alexander Hamilton is remembered today and was relevant then because he was passionate and because he was smart. But without his ability to communicate, he would probably be long forgotten. He was a prolific writer who used his writing and his mind to influence and inspire others. To build a nation. Hamilton’s greatest weapon was his pen. The best leaders can successfully convey their message to others; the best teachers provide their students with this skill. Back then it was putting pen or quill to paper, today writing is still important, but it no longer has to mean a four paragraph essay. To me, writing, at its core, is the ability to express your ideas and communicate your thoughts to others. The best educators understand that some of most talented writers “write” in different ways. They embrace this and cultivate it. Some of the next generations best writers may never write a strong four paragraph essay and that’s ok.
Be Passionate, Believe In Something
Hamilton is remembered because he believed in something and he wasn’t afraid to put his life on the line for it. Thankfully, times are different in the United States, and we no longer have to fear death for being passionate and for taking a stand. Yet, it still takes courage to go out on a limb, to fight the good fight. The best educators are not afraid to take a stand for what they believe in, even if it may not be in their best interest or the best interest of their career. Do you want to make things better and willing to get your hands dirty or do you just keep your head down and try to survive?
Own Up To Your Mistake
Most people in theater groaned when Hamilton cheated on Eliza. Why would he do that!?! When he was called out on it, he could have denied it, could have tried to bury it, yet he took it head on. He admitted his mistake. He faced the consequences and was better for it in the long run. Today’s leaders could learn a thing or two from Hamilton’s lesson. We have all made mistakes, big and small. We are so much better off, we gain so much more respect when we admit them, learn from them, because then, and only then, we can truly move past them.
Mentorship Is Key
Not matter what your role is, no matter how smart you think you are, you can always learn from others. Hamilton had Washington. When he thought he knew better, he got himself in trouble. We all need mentors, people to look up to, people who teach us and bring out the best in us. Don’t get too big for your britches, and think you know better. When that happens, trouble will find you.
Be More Like Hamilton And Be More Like Burr
When I left the theater my first thought was we should all be more like Hamilton and less like Burr. We should be passionate, we should be dedicated, we should have an immense work ethic, and we should wear our hearts on our sleeves. We should not care about consequences if what we are doing what is right.
Burr didn’t stand for anything; he always sat on the fence. He was more worried about advancement than what was right. I was watching and thinking this guy has no “Why.” The more I processed though, I thought if Hamilton was a little more like Burr and Burr a little more like Hamilton they would both have been better off.
The Hamiltons of the education world would be wise to understand that sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war. You have to survive long enough to be able to make a difference. It is a ok to be diplomatic and, as Burr sings, sometimes we should “smile more and talk less.” If Hamilton had been a little more Burr maybe he would have been President, saw more of his ideas come to fruition and, I don’t know, maybe he wouldn’t have been shot!?! Burr, on the other hand, ‘Come on Man’ take a stand on something.
Do not be that educator who keeps his head low, counting the days to 30 years of service, looking forward to that great pension. That is no way to live life. A life without passion, a career without passion is an emptiness I do not wish on my worst enemy.
Have The Hard Conversations
One of the most difficult things to discuss today is race and race relations. In so many ways we have come a long way from the slavery days of 1776, but in other ways we have not progressed as much as we should. It is crazy to think that this country still had segregated schools in 1965. People alive today could not go to certain schools because of the color of their skin!
When directors like Lin-Manuel Miranda are courageous enough to continuously cast black performers to portrait famous white Americans he is forcing this important race discussion.
My trip to see Hamilton was a special day, just as special as that day back in the 80’s. It was a day I am sure I will remember for years to come and I hope my family will to. The day was special for me because of who I shared it with, but it was also special because it served as a way for me to learn and to look at things differently. It made me realize how important it is to expose our students to different experiences so they make their own connections.
Once again Rick Wormeli’s advice rang true ‘Metaphors and Analogies are power tools that can electrify learning.” I loved Hamilton and I loved what it taught me, but the ultimate lesson I learned that day was there is nothing better than spending time with people you love.