When I was coaching basketball I was always excited on the day the schedule came out. There were certain games that we would always look forward to throughout the year. There was a multitude of reasons for the anticipation...the competition was really good, the venue was awesome, or we knew the gym was going to be packed. Any or all made for a heightened sense of excitement.  Those dates would get circled and though we knew the “one game at a time” mentality would impact the meaning of the games, we always looked forward to taking the floor when a little more was at stake.  I’ve had the absolute honor of traveling this summer to speak to groups of people who are looking to Tell their School Story or Hack Leadership or use Social Media...all experiences have been wonderful and humbling to say the least. As I was looking at the calendar to start the summer, one date continued to jump out. On August 23rd I got to walk into a school district that gave me the opportunity to be a teacher. In 1996 I student taught in Pulaski, WI. In 1997 they offered me a chance to teach 2nd grade. On the first day of new teacher inservice that year, I met my gorgeous wife. We bought our first house in Pulaski, and two of our kids were born during our time there. It clearly holds a special place in my heart. So, when I was asked to keynote their opening day, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

I arrived early to walk through Glenbrook Elementary school and take stock of what I had left long ago. I walked down the hallway and looked into the room that I spent countless hours in during my first 3 years of teaching. I think I was waiting for some big rush of nostalgia, but it never happened. The room looked fine and the hallway looked the same. The current principal, who I had not known at all when I was there, was fantastic. He was welcoming, asked great questions, and talked about the wonderful group of people he got to work with at the school. As I exited the building I felt odd. I really thought it would be different. I thought I would have a ton of emotions or memories would fill my mind as I walked through, but they never came. It was a little disappointing, actually.

I walked into the High School and started to see familiar faces. All held the effect of 14 years of life, all smiled, and all were beyond welcoming. The woman I did my student teaching with had retired from the district years ago but came back to see the keynote because she “wasn’t going to miss this for anything.” The guys I used to play basketball with on Friday mornings were ready to tell stories. The retired teachers I worked with in my first 3 years were back...and wanted to see pictures of our kids.  

I was excited to see everyone, but as I combed through the 500 people in attendance I was looking for one face. 17 years ago a bright eyed young boy with an infectious smile named Colin sat in my classroom as a 2nd grader. He was a great student, but a better kid. People followed him. He was a leader, he knew it, and he used that leverage to help those around him all the time. He was awesome. As things happen, we lost touch, found it, and lost it again…but today, amongst all the other educators in Pulaski, I knew he was going to be there. That bright eyed kid was there because it was his first inservice as a 2nd grade teacher in the district. He was a teacher. He. Was. A. Teacher. I looked, found him, hugged him, took the proverbial selfie, and tried to keep my emotions in tact.

As I started the keynote I could see him in the crowd. He looked up and I felt like I was back in the classroom with a kid that just wanted to learn. A kid that wanted to hear a story...so I told one, and I don’t know if I have ever had more fun on a stage. I spoke from the heart and got to share my family with those who knew us years ago. We talked about how to celebrate the great work they were doing and how we can change the narrative if we never give up the opportunity to say something great about our schools. When we were finished I saw parents of kids who I had in class during my time there. They told stories of what their kids remembered from being in our room. The books we read and the games we played. None of them mentioned a math worksheet or grammar lesson. They talked less about what their child did and much more about how they felt.

Before I left town the Superintendent, who was also beyond welcoming, took me through Glenbrook again. This time the feeling was completely different. Teachers were in and around their classrooms reconnecting after their time away. The nostalgia I looked for in the hallway and my old classroom hours ago was found in the faces and actions of those I used to call colleagues and the new group that carried the traditions forward. The memories that I wanted to jump out when I walked into the building were not found in the walls, but the stories that started with “Remember that time…” New buildings, old buildings, those with character, those with none...they’re just walls and ceilings without the laughter, joy, tears, and love of the people inside. As you start the year and think about all the things you have to do, never forget why you are there. The name tags, books, lockers, the organization of your room...it will get done, but when kids walk into the room for the first time they are looking for you. The awe factor of what the room looks like will last minutes. The awe factor of how they feel when they meet you will last years. Take the time...look into their eyes...know that you mean something to them. You never know...17 years later it may be their turn. Go Crickets.

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AuthorJoe Sanfelippo