My years of teaching junior high will always be the most memorable for me. I was young and had a lot to learn. I was part of a young staff; most of us were new to teaching. The best part was that we had amazing administrators who knew how to have fun with us. I have so many stories to tell, but my Michael Jackson party will be one that will go down in history. I had decided to throw a Michael Jackson party as an end of year celebration. It all started when a student of mine started singing a song, which I was certain was by MJ, but my teaching partner at the time corrected me by saying it was by Queen. Nevertheless, I thought it would be a great idea to have a Michael Jackson themed dance off during the last week before our summer break.
The day had arrived. Kids were excited. Some had never heard of Michael Jackson, but I had encouraged them to catch up on his greatest hits. Much to my surprise, some had the perfect outfits to go along with their MP3 selection of MJ music (this was 2009). We danced the afternoon away! We even did a loop around the school dancing to ABC as easy as 1–2–3 by The Jackson 5. We didn’t mess around. When we all returned to school the next day, we had nothing but fond memories of our glorious end of year party. The next day would have been our last day of school!
Considering we were not allowed phones in class, we didn’t hear of any news till we all went home that day. It turns out, Michael Jackson died that afternoon. I was devastated. I assumed the kids would be too! The next morning, as I walked into the school, my principal called me into the office. She, and my assistant principal, were concerned, laughing, concerned, confused, and bewildered at the course of events. She finally said to me, “Papa, I think you might have caused some trauma. You might need to have a talk with these kiddos.” I was beside myself. My assistant principal replied, in the only way he could, by stating, “Whatever you do, don’t throw a party for me!” In what world could something like this have happened? As I walked into my room, I was greeted by 30-some kids who were crying. Our last day of school was not as I had pictured. We chatted, cried, even the ones who had just been introduced to MJ were crying, and we continued to play his music till we said our goodbyes that afternoon. The following year, back by popular demand, we ended the year with our second annual MJ dance off. Two of those students are now educators themselves. We talk about those years of junior high, and to my amazement, they turned out ok, after all of the adventures they had with me!
The secret is to linger in the moment, hold space for the sadness, find meaning, and use language that kids understand. We made some good memories and I wanted to hold those in the forefront of their minds and experiences.
Read my full interview with Authority Magazine for more lessons on teaching and leadership.