Separating the patch from the climbers

My grandmother’s house, in which she lived for over fifty years, is full of ivy. The kind of ivy that crawls up toward the roof with an equal parts majestic and menacing trajectory. It’s earned the right to travel in whichever direction it chooses, and it’s defiant should you suggest otherwise. Like all ivy, hers started as part of a patch at the base of her two-story brick and mortar home. It was, like all ivy, part of something bigger than its individual strands, which would inevitably leave the patch and travel north on its own. And, like all ivy, if left unattended hers would simply cover the brick, leaving little, if any, room for other ivy to take its place.


Ivy’s trick, you see, is that it secretes tiny globules with extraordinary sticking power, which allows it to adhere to even the roughest of surfaces. If that weren’t enough, removing ivy is a methodical and painstaking proposition that, even when finished, can cause permanent damage to brick. In a worst case scenario, it may be necessary to take a torch to the old roots to eradicate them.


But there’s something beautiful and comforting about the ivy. Drive by an old house, particularly one in a neighborhood in which that house has withstood surrounding construction, and you’re bound to respect its consistency. Look at that house just a little longer and you’re bound to think that the ivy is supposed to be there, that without the ivy the house would look naked and vulnerable. Like visible veins leading to the house’s heart, the ivy gives the house character, panache, and stateliness.


We can then picture that patch at the bottom holding its own meetings to decide which tendrils should begin to climb the walls “just to see if it’s safe.” Then, when those first few strands prove they can indeed adhere to that rough surface, we can picture the patch cheering those strands on even as most of the patch has already resigned itself to remaining in the relative comfort of the base.


But then a curious thing happens.


The higher and more adhesive those tendrils become, the more resentful the patch becomes because, after all, we all started in the same patch, right? Perhaps that’s why ivy is so stubborn: regardless of where it is and where it chooses to be, it is in constant competition with itself.

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Most of our schools, in theory, or in practice, are good ol’ fashioned brick and mortar structures. A foundation has been laid, a plan for its shape and aesthetic is in place, and hard-working folks erect the building with the full expectation that it will, in fact, withstand the test of time. Sure, some are shinier, brighter, more expensive, or prioritized differently, but in the end, our schools are filled with kids eager to learn from teachers eager to teach. The ivy analogy, then, is a reflection of how that school views itself. Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch so long as the patch is maintained, or controlled, by leadership? Does it encourage its staff to remain part of the patch until such time that it’s prepared to leave? Then, how does the school juxtapose reticence with ambition? Surely, the entire patch can’t rise at once, nor can one bold tendril make its way toward the roof without any reassurance from whence it came.


Let’s say we identify a small group of teachers, still existing in the ivy patch, who we would like to see begin the slow ascent to the roof. Maybe they’re veterans who have become comfortable to the point at which leaving the patch now seems ill-advised, seems not worth it. Maybe they’re terrified newbies who have been so crammed full of theory during their undergrad experience that the practice of teaching is simply too much, too soon for them to leave the patch. In either case, we need to support their growth in a way that’s both genuine and specific. That’s where the rest of the ivy comes in.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to our best teachers, or their supervisors, and asked for their help. Because it’s arrogant and foolish to assume I know how they rose to such a level of prominence, of expertise, it is necessary to ask.


  • How do you so seamlessly streamline the first and last five minutes of your class?

  • When you addressed that student’s behavior was it impromptu or were you prepared to deliver that message?

  • Are your lesson transitions scripted or fluid?


At some point, whether by evaluation protocol or by simply deduction, our best teachers have been labeled such for specific reasons. Tap into them.


  1. Start your conversation by calling attention to their excellence and let that be the segue into how they can help a colleague. Lead with questions that begin with “how do you…” and then really listen. Offer to pair the ivy with the patch, step back, and allow each to grow.

  2. Create localized professional development opportunities led by high flyers. Just because we only have a finite amount of district in-service days doesn’t mean those are the only days on which professional development can take place.

  3. Invest in your teachers’ growth by creating opportunities for them to see each other work without administrative oversight. Whether you formalize this process, like we did in Collingswood through our Teacher-2-Teacher peer observation model, or you offer your time to cover classes so folks can see each other without giving up a prep, such creativity takes improving teacher efficacy from theory to practice.

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Of course, without a commitment to each other and to our kids, our collective ivy is nothing more than a nuisance, an eyesore, a distraction. But, as I mentioned earlier, there can be something beautiful and dignified about its place among the bricks. Planning for its inevitable growth, tending to it, shaping it, and even making the next owner aware of its presence and personality will ensure that we all continue to grow.


About the Author


Brian Kulak is in his 24th year in education. For the first fifteen, he taught English and journalism at his alma mater in New Jersey. He is currently a K-5 principal.


In 2019, Brian published his first book, Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame. Using the evolution of the gaming industry, the book blends gaming nostalgia, educational philosophy, and practical leadership strategies.


His blog, briankulak.com, combines a shared educational experience with his unique style. Using self-effacing humor, pop culture, and storytelling, Brian challenges readers to see themselves and their leadership differently.


His work has been featured on Edutopia, in Educational Viewpoints, and in Stories in EDU. Brian has also presented on teaching, learning, and leadership at conferences such as NJAMLE and NCTE/CEL. He’s an Edcamp regular and organizer and #SEL4ADULTS advocate.


Brian is a baseball fanatic, a Pearl Jam aficionado, and a devoted father. He lives in New Jersey with his two children.


Brian Kulak Twitter: @bkulak11 Website: briankulak.com Link to My Book #levelupleadbook Currently Reading: Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr Currently Listening To: Manchester Orchestra Currently Watching: The Handmaid's Tale (no spoilers please!)

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