The coronavirus pandemic has taught us all a lot, including a greater appreciation for the little things, like Netflix. With this new appreciation, I came across a TV series I may have skipped over pre-COVID: “Cobra Kai.” It might sound vaguely familiar to any of us old enough to remember the iconic 1984 movie “Karate Kid,” with Danny LaRusso as the New Jersey-born city boy who finds karate and a mentor, Mr. Miyagi, to help him acclimate to life in Los Angeles. Even if you never watched it, don’t remember it, or just were not interested, I believe there are plenty of leadership and life lessons to be gleaned from the series.
(Note: Spoilers follow.)
In the movie, karate gives Danny the “balance” to overcome the ongoing bullying from his rival and karate opponent, Johnny Lawrence, and the rest of the Cobra Kai dojo. Johnny is perceived as a rich, privileged youth who enjoys being led by the “show no mercy” sensei Kreese, who loves to play dirty, and ultimately, Johnny becomes the story’s villain. (Interestingly enough, when I have gone back and watched “Karate Kid” as an adult, I see sensei Kreese as the real villain.) This movie is an epic tale of the underdog, resilience, the power of a trusted adult, and perseverance. I doubt there were many rooting for Johnny in the final scene of the movie, as he gave in to the pressure of his sensei to play dirty and attempted to win by cheating in the last round of the tournament against, of course, Danny. In all its ‘80s movie glory, Danny dramatically wins the All Valley tournament as he delivers the final blow with the epic crane kick to Johnny’s face, closing the scene and the movie.
The series “Cobra Kai” picks up some 35 years later, close to the boys’ teenage stomping grounds in Los Angeles. This time we get a window into the experiences and traumas that impacted both Danny and Johnny as they developed during those critical teenage years and how those experiences affected who they are today. Their perspectives are shared with one another throughout the series. “Cobra Kai” picks up with a glimpse into each now-man’s life. As we might expect, Danny is thriving, and Johnny is barely surviving. Danny has a family, a beautiful home, a thriving business, and pep in his step. Johnny is estranged from his teenage son, working in unfulfilling part-time jobs, and lives in a less-than-desirable home where he drinks away most of his evenings.
In between the cameos, crane kicks, strategic references to the old “Karate Kid,” and the ‘80s soundtrack—which left me totally engrossed in this guilty pleasure—I found myself reflecting on lessons for educators and leaders. Here are a few of my favorites.
Everyone Should Be Evolving
The best-intentioned, smartest, highest-ranking leaders are not always right. The importance of surrounding ourselves with people who think differently than we do and challenge us to think about other ways or opportunities became very clear in “Cobra Kai.” This includes having a healthy sense of self-awareness, as it is critical in knowing where our blind spots are and finding others who can shine light on them for us. Right now with all that is going on in our world, it is time we not only take a good look at ourselves, but also who we surround ourselves with to challenge us to be our best. We also should think about why we feel the way we do about others. In “Cobra Kai,” Danny often misreads, misjudges, and does not give Johnny a fair chance because of his perceived mistakes as a teenager, despite Johnny demonstrating growth as an adult. Danny, however, is continually challenged by his wife to think differently. She does not judge Danny for his beliefs. Instead, she poses questions that force him to reflect on why he feels the way he does. As an educator, this challenges me to always be kind, empathetic, and respond appropriately, considering not just what I think I know about a student, parent, or teacher, but to be brave and bold and challenge others when our beliefs do not align.
Like Johnny, I have had to challenge the opinions of one’s patterns of behavior—you know, the things we find ourselves saying or hearing from our staff: Once a fighter always a fighter, they are just being dramatic, or my newest least favorite, if they wanted to learn, they would turn their Zoom camera on. When students come Sarah Pyle Academy (SPA), it’s often a chance for them to reinvent themselves without the pressure of their past persona. Not that it hasn’t shaped them—instead, they recognize it hasn’t defined them or limited their ability to evolve. I have intentionally selected a team that pushes me to look at things differently, consider other points of view, and challenge my own biases to ensure we are always giving our students a fresh start and meaningful support. It’s also important to recognize that we bring our own biases to the table based on our experiences and confront those biases so they don’t define us. We all could use a healthy dose of awareness as we continue to evolve into our next chapter.
According to the Let Them Speak Implementation Guide, student voice is the practice of listening to the personal stories and viewpoints of our students in order to improve the quality of the student learning experience. Of course, it’s not just listening—it’s also collaborating with our students in a meaningful way to hear their concerns, solutions, thoughts, and ways forward, and inviting them to the table during implementation. We all can learn from each other as we all have different perspectives, and our students are no different. Student voice can help us and our school experience be better for everyone. It can assist in recognizing when our best-intentioned plans to be inclusive or accessible are leaving out someone or a group. Student voice is powerful, and if we listen closely and create a safe environment where all our students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and beliefs, we may be able to intervene when there are potential errors in thinking.
Student voice is a recurring theme in “Cobra Kai.” Johnny’s student Miguel reminds him of his closed-mindedness and pushes him to grow without judgement. Miguel often interacts with Johnny as his guide or teacher, and Johnny creates a safe environment for this to occur. But Johnny also has another student, Hawk, whom if Johnny listened to more closely would help him realize that his dojo was in crisis, and that there were other voices sharing messages with his students that were leading them astray.
Johnny opened the door to some voice, but not for all of his students. It is important that when we give the opportunity for student voice, it is for all voices, all students, all opinions, all the time. Danny has some issues with student voice, and however well intentioned, misses many opportunities to listen, to really hear what his students are saying and fearing. He relies on what his mentor taught him and reflects deeply, missing opportunities to understand when he leaves his students out of the arena to share their voice. Danny ends up making decisions in his own silo and has to live with the repercussions. He often does not hear his own daughter/student when she shares, and this strains their relationship.
As we continue to develop our plans for a safe and healthy school return at SPA, we are relying heavily on our student input, concerns, thoughts, pluses, and deltas to be as impactful as possible. We find our students have as much insight into what is going well as they do what they believe could be better. When we developed our remote schedule with two credits per six weeks of focus, and as we plan for our hybrid model, our student voice and the data around this choice are the two most important pieces of our planning.
Balance Is Everything
“Whole life has balance, everything will be better.” Mr. Miyagi’s message from the “Karate Kid” is given fresh meaning and purpose in “Cobra Kai,” and in the current state of global affairs, it feels like we all can take a page from this playbook!
Trauma is powerful and, gratefully, not everything. Although it could take a lifetime of engaging in protective factors and perhaps professional help in some instances, in order to find balance while coping with trauma, a healthy, balanced life is achievable. Johnny Lawrence demonstrates this extremely well in “Cobra Kai.” From the first episode, when we are given a glimpse into the trauma Johnny endured as a youth, our empathy and understanding begin to build for the villain. His lack of protective factors, including the manipulation from his sensei who he looked to for guidance and acceptance (and who should have been a protective factor), disrupted his balance well into his adult life.
Despite the poor role models, Johnny—with the help of his student Miguel—is continually reconciling the balance of humility, kindness, and purpose of martial arts with the more “traditional” version of aggressive “strike first and strike hard” ways of the “old” Cobra Kai. At the risk of potentially losing his family, Danny also finds himself out of balance and needs to assess where his priorities are. He reflects on and assesses his purpose and vision, recognizing that the more he puts into his karate, the less he has for his family and career. Danny also falls out of balance when he allows his biases to impact decisions, often discounting Johnny’s growth and ability to have changed when presented with an in-the-moment scenario. Instead, he often feels superior to Johnny because of what he has accomplished. As Mr. Miyagi said to Danny, “Karate is in our heads, hearts, and not our belts.”
As we all navigate the coronavirus for many years to come, our awareness of the impact of trauma and our ability to mitigate the effects is critical. Well after we are back to a more “typical” school year, all of us will continue to maneuver our way through the impacts of this shared global experience. And it will be very different for each of us, as we may be in the same storm but are all on different vessels. We can never lose sight of the importance and responsibility we have to our school communities relative to trauma, mental health, and overall school happiness agency. Reconciling how to regain balance for everyone will be difficult and begins and ends with each of us. Identifying the best balance for our students sometimes put us off balance with our staff.
For our school, knowing and understanding the warning signs of a mental health crisis and being trained on how to support our youth in crisis has been essential in establishing balance. SPA was extremely fortunate to be accepted in the 2019–20 pilot of teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA), where our students were trained on how to recognize the signs of mental health and substance use challenges and crises. They learned an action plan to help them navigate the process and feel empowered, and they developed a common language to help them secure assistance from a trusted adult when needed. Our SPA staff is also certified in youth Mental Health First Aid (yMHFA). This has tremendously helped us build on our capacity and understanding of our own self-care. Modeling this balance for our students has been beneficial for them—and for us.
“Cobra Kai” mirrored our current reality so eloquently (and entertainingly). It is a great reminder for us as educators and human beings that rarely is anything perfect or in complete balance. Yet, we possess the power and skills to reset the scales daily, and even multiple times some days. Education is not a zero-sum game. Our teachers and mentors, senseis, principals, and leaders truly shape our world. Our power and responsibility is infinite—we collectively must continue to use it wisely.
We stand at a pivotal place in educational history. Pay attention to the journey, invite everyone to be part of the conversation, and strike a balance that will not allow us to return to our old ways. Leading the way is in our heads and our hearts, not our titles. Isn’t that the best thing about educators—that we are lifelong learners, and we have the ability to continue to evolve?
Always keep adapting and looking for ways to be better for our students. Never stop evolving, and remember, a Cobra Kai never dies.