If you close your eyes and really concentrate, I’ll bet you can activate all five senses.
The trance-inducing landscape of flashing neon lights above patterned carpets.
The hypnotic sound of pellets being gobbled and points being racked up.
The stale smell of adolescent sweat and adrenaline.
The mouth-watering flavor of greasy pizza and fountain soda.
The joystick’s round knob fitting snugly into your increasingly damp palm.
It’s a Friday night in 1988, and you are about to empty your pocketful of quarters at the local arcade.
Go ahead and push Start.
Nostalgia is a powerful, personal time machine through which we can transport ourselves to someplace long gone, someplace better. Often triggered by one of our five senses, we visit such memories with fondness and a faraway smile. Then, only seconds later, we return to real life as our now ushers out our then.
For far too many folks, however, then remains now, and they find themselves left behind, stuck like a video game glitch caused by “how I’ve always done it” and “that’s just the way I am.” They are Atari leaders in an age of Playstation 4 and XBox Live.
Leveling Up as a school leader doesn’t require advanced degrees or publication. Moreover, there’s no universal, prescribed way to do it. For some, leveling up is as simple as a shift in their point of view; for others, leveling up may mean using or creating a “walkthrough” of their practice. For still others, the path to leveling up is actually internal as they seek to restore their health, not through potions or magic mushrooms, but through self-care.
Though there is no final boss or cinematic end to our leadership, we do need to level up to continue to grow in our practice.
Point of View
For years, video game designers, by choice or by limitation, created worlds gamers could see from a third-person perspective, providing a panoramic through which we could control the movements and decisions of our characters. Moreover most games scrolled from left to right allowing us to quickly move on from the past and feel safe in the knowledge that whatever came next was in full view.
But as gaming evolved, our characters’ perspective changed. Developers started to limit our point of view through a first-person lens. Now, instead of seeing a world in front of them, gamers could only see what was immediately in front of them. A myopic and claustrophobic perspective completely changed how gamers interacted with, strategized for, and completed games.
Ironically, school leadership has shifted its perspective in reverse, and it’s about time.
As leaders, our point of view should be both dynamic and vast. The former allows us to shift between first-person and third-person at a moment’s notice rather than owing to one or the other regardless of the circumstances. The latter, like the proverbial mother with eyes in the back of her head, forces us to be proactive during each unpredictable day in education.
Reflect on any given day and ask yourself how often you used a third-person perspective (strategic planning) vs. how often you used a first-person perspective (working with a trauma-affected child).
Now consider the same day but use the opposite point of view. To get bogged down in strategic planning through a first-person perspective eliminates your attention to the myriad needs of your building, teachers, and kids. Similarly, employing third-person perspective while working with a child in need distracts you from the care that child needs.
The answer, though by no means simple, is to be open to and comfortable with both. Level Up leaders understand that their daily landscape and “gameplay” are never the same and that flexibility and self-awareness are paramount to leading with empathy and vision. Ultimately, how you choose to see your leadership will determine how you react to its needs.
Walkthroughs and Cheats
In the earliest days of gaming, gamers were completely at the mercy of game designers.
Before the internet brought the world into our homes, gamers were left to their own devices to figure out, through trial and error, how to finish a game. Of course, finishing a game implies that designers intended gamers to finish, and old school gamers know that most games did not have a finish line.
Slowly, however, gamers started to create their own subculture in response to the infinite and frustrating worlds that designers created. At first, walkthroughs and cheat codes were available through magazine subscriptions and word of mouth, but eventually, each were made available online, leveling the playing field and changing gaming forever.
Education has followed a similar trajectory.
Once left to our own devices to figure out how to juggle the daily expectations of our field, teachers, even those with the best leaders at their disposal, just had to “figure it out.” As educational silos started to erect in classrooms around the country, teachers had few options to grow and learn. Moreover, a pervasive and misguided philosophy dominated the field: asking for help is a sign of weakness. Basically, teachers had to sink or swim on their own.
But, like in gaming, the internet ushered in a new approach to teaching and learning. While there are still pockets of old school leaders all over the country, they are (mercifully) being replaced by those who subscribe to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes of their own.
Level Up leaders not only understand but promote the importance of destroying long standing silos in favor of a global, collaborative, and reflective practice. Again, with the advent of the internet, there is no shortage of access to Edu walkthroughs and cheat codes. Hop on Twitter and search any number of hashtags, from the general (#education) to the specific (#k12artchat), to find a treasure trove of resources, testimonials, and requests for help. Voxer groups pop up every day to provide educators with verbal walkthroughs and cheat codes. Teachers and leaders are publishing about their experiences, their ideas, and their stories in a way our profession has never seen before.
So despite a political narrative to the contrary, there’s never been a better time to be an educator because for the first time, we are taking charge of our profession, supporting each other, and writing the walkthroughs and cheat codes instead of having them written for us.
Think back to the first time you played, or watched someone play, Pac-Man. Desperate to gobble up all those pesky pellets, gamers have four chances to level up on each board, through pulsating, white orbs which make Pac-Man’s enemies temporarily vulnerable so he can gobble them up. Strategy and ego collide as gamers had to carefully consider when to use those power ups.
In Super Mario Brothers, help came in the form of mushrooms, flowers, or bouncing stars allowing the diminutive plumbers a chance to level up on their way to saving the ill-fated Princess Toadstool.
Regardless of the game, developers understood that their characters, and the gamers who assumed those identities, were going to need help in order to succeed. Now, sometimes help is offered in plain sight and sometimes gamers have to work for it, but make no mistake, the gaming industry was far ahead of the education field when it came to health restoration and self-care.
But we’re catching up.
Thankfully, the absurd days of “don’t smile until Thanksgiving” and don’t-you-dare-take-a-day-off-or-say-no-to-anything if you’re a non-tenured staff member are beginning to fade away. As a new generation of teachers and leaders grab the collective joystick, a dramatic, if not galacial, paradigm shift is ushering in a new, necessary philosophy: if we mean to take care of our kids, we need to take care of ourselves.
In order for us to level up, leaders need to not only understand but also support the social emotional needs of our teachers. As relationships start to slowly replace content as the most important facet of our complex field, leaders need to find ways to provide teachers with time, support, and room to work on themselves as people, not just as teachers.
And just like scarfing down those magical orbs in Pac-Man, providing our teachers with their own power ups and health restoration isn’t very difficult.
Rethink your district or building professional development plan. Instead of investing in programs or high-priced consultants, invest in each other. Build in time for them to use as they see fit. Create space for them to collaborate, with or without you, on something about which they’re passionate (read: not lesson plans). Budget funds to purchase subscriptions to mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace. Spend part of every staff meeting with a celebration of each other. Shift your professional reading from theory to practice. Share who you are with your staff and invite staff to do the same.
Health restoration and power ups need to be provided, not just suggested. When we focus on the social-emotional health of our staff, we allow them to breath, to grow, to struggle, to overcome, and to teach on their terms, not on ours.
Leveling up isn’t a destination; it’s a state of being. Like gaming, your EduGame is constantly evolving and so are you. Are you ready to push Start?
Brian Kulak is the author of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame. He is a K-5 principal in New Jersey, a devoted family man, a baseball fanatic, and a Pearl Jam aficionado.
Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame challenges readers to advance their EduGame through an extended analogy between gaming and educational leadership. By comparing the eerily similar evolution of the gaming industry to its educational counterpart, Level Up Leadership evokes a collective nostalgia on the way to a deeper understanding of what it means to be an educational leader today.
The book is available now on Amazon.