Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What's Worse Than Assessments?

German is remarkably efficient at capturing complex emotions in a single word.  The weight gain associated with a breakup or other emotional turmoil is called kummerspeck—literally, grief bacon.  Americans have appropriated the German word schadenfreude –taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others—I assume because it so perfectly captures the driving force behind much of our popular culture: reality television, tabloid journalism, the 24-hour news cycle.

I recently learned another German word that I feel needs to be embraced, if not by the culture as a whole then certainly by those of us in education.  Schlimmbesserung is an improvement that makes things worse.  I entered the teaching profession in 1995 and, since that time, have lost count of the number of times I've witnessed or been the victim of schlimmbesserung. 

Last month, a participant in one of my beginning teacher seminars asked my opinion of a new policy in his high school.  The faculty had been tasked with administering common formative assessments, or CFAs, that would provide baseline data against which they could measure student progress.  Concern arose that the students were simply marking random answers on their CFAs, which the leadership team interpreted as a failure to take the process seriously. 

(Il)logic Model
Before I reveal how they "solved" the problem, let’s first examine their logic.  I present the following syllogism:
  1.  Students marked random (incorrect) answers because they didn’t take the process seriously.
  2.   If students took the process seriously, more of their answers would have been correct.  
  3. Different answers would provide better data.

Now, this explanation applies if, and only if, the students both were and believed themselves more capable than their responses suggested, thus making their incorrect responses acts of pure defiance.

Research ethics, however, demand that we examine all the possible explanations of the data.  Is it possible that the students’ answers only seemed random because they didn’t know what the right answers were?  Alternatively, is it possible they marked random answers because they knew they lacked the necessary knowledge or skills to do otherwise?  In Why Don’t Students Like School?, cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham explains that people enjoy thinking but only “if we judge that the mental work will pay off with the pleasurable feeling we get when we solve a problem.”  Absent the belief that effort will yield the dopamine rush of success, most people will give up.  This is why I no longer even attempt sudoku puzzles.

If the students didn’t try because they either knew or suspected that their effort would not result in a payoff, there is no reason to believe that greater effort would have resulted in more correct answers.  More importantly, the administrative team ignored the very solid data their students provided, that, at best, they lacked confidence or motivation and, at worst, were incapable of correctly answering the questions.  “What forest?  I don’t see any forest!  There’s too damn many trees in the way!”

To incentivize the students, the principal mandated that their scores on the CFA be counted as 10% of their semester grade.  It is bad enough that those outside the profession dictate policy that is counterproductive to our students' needs.  I find it inexcusable that an instructional leader would demonstrate such disregard or ignorance of the function of formative assessment.  These are tools to collect data  regarding a student’s progress toward a learning goal which is then used to adjust instruction.  Formative assessments should never penalize students for not knowing information they have not yet been taught.  Nor are they tools for social engineering.

Even if we allow, for argument’s sake, that the original premise was correct, and the students randomly marked their tests because they didn’t take them seriously.  Is it reasonable to then assume that these same students will feel differently if you threaten them?  

I served my time in a public-school classroom and am therefore not unfamiliar with the many ways teenagers try to game the system.  They can be real asshats.  That impulse to test the boundaries and see what they can get away with is kind of what makes them teenagers.  What separates us—the adults—from them is our ability to resist the urge, however strong, to respond to their impulsive, short-sighted behavior with impulsive, short-sighted behaviors of our own.  

Educators do not take an oath of office, but maybe they should and, like doctors, pledge to, first, do no harm. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

New Teachers! It's Okay to Give Less than 100%

Ask the average person what it takes to achieve excellence in any field, and you won’t have to wait very long before hearing some variation on the expression, “You gotta give 100%!” 

This attitude goes largely unquestioned.  Until only a few months ago, I wholeheartedly believed that, to be brilliant or successful, you must be single minded and resolute.  And then a friend pointed out the simple arithmetical error in that line of reasoning:

“Make a list of all the things that are a priority in your life,” she said. 

So I did.

·       Work
·       Friends
·       Spirituality
·       Entertainment
·       Exercise
·       Pets
·       Personal Hygiene
·       Sleep
·       Eating
·       Romantic life
·       Home maintenance (cleaning, yardwork, etc.)

“Good.  Now, if you give 100% of your effort to being brilliant at work, how much is left for everything else?”

Even if we accept the cliché of “giving 110%,” and we hold that 10% in reserve, that leaves me spreading myself awfully thin.

Paradigms don’t fall easily, and so I argued, “But every person I’ve ever heard of who did something amazing said they put their all into creating that success!”

“And if you do a little digging, you’ll probably find out they were terrible spouses or cruel bosses or absentee parents or just miserable people all the way around.”

I had never considered this.  It certainly went a long way toward explaining why every other facet of my life seemed so empty. 

I shared this wisdom with a group of beginning teachers.  One of them in turn related a chilling anecdote about a colleague who had recently passed away.  At the wake, dozens of her former students approached her children with comments about how significant a presence she was in their lives.

After smiling through many such interactions, one of her daughters finally said, “Well, I’m glad you got to see that part of her.  We never did.”  In giving 100% to the job, she had nothing left for her own children.

Most of the young teachers I work with are immensely grateful to receive permission to have a life.  Others are harder to sell on the idea.  It’s not difficult to understand why.

Teachers are typically great students, and great students have an annoying habit of believing that everything they produce is either perfect or garbage.  And because there is nothing in between these two binaries, and obviously garbage is unacceptable, they cannot stop tinkering with a lesson plan or a seating arrangement or anything else until it is perfect. 

And suddenly it’s 7:30 pm, and you’re still at school, and you haven’t gotten to the gym, and you’re too tired to meet up with the friend who invited you to dinner, and there’s no time to take the dogs for a walk so you just let them out in the back yard and you fall asleep on the sofa, and tomorrow you’ll get up and do the same thing. 

Some Uncomfortable Realities

You have to recognize and accept that your work will never be perfect.  Your students are unpredictable and there’s 25 (or 41 or 155) of them, all of whom have quirks and preferences and intentions.  Stop trying to hit a target that will not stand still.

You should also know that the work is never done.  You can do this job twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and never finish because there’s always something else you can tweak or add or omit or polish.   

Only you can say when the work stops. Set a timer when working after hours.  When the timer goes off, go home.  If you’re worried about not fulfilling your commitments, make a list of all the things you have to complete.  Sort it into three categories: (1) must be done today; (2) complete before the end of the week; (3) mid- or long-term project.  Address the items in that order.

Trust that there is a huge range of acceptability that lies between perfection and garbage.  “Good enough” is actually good enough much of the time.  You’ll have lots of opportunities to improve if you don’t make yourself crazy in the process.

Outlasting the Odds

Teaching is an unusual profession for many reasons, not the least of which is that the responsibilities of a rookie on his or her first day are identical to those of a veteran of several decades.  Let that sink in for a second.  It may go a long way toward explaining the oft-cited statistic that fifty percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first three years. 

If you want to last, you have to learn to prioritize, and one of those priorities has to be you.  Schedule gym time, a date with your significant other, a nap, etc.  Put these appointments in your calendar and respect them as much as you would if you had made an appointment with someone else.  Don’t treat yourself worse than you would allow another person to treat you. 

I know some readers will remain skeptical.  Only the students matter!  Fair enough, but it’s worth noting that you cannot give what you do not have.  If you work yourself to the point that you have no energy, no joy, no humor, no love, how will you give those things to your students?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

When Caring for Your Students Becomes Dangerous

A few weeks ago, I binge-listened to the podcast “S-Town.”  Fascinating stuff.  Much like the early work of The Simpsons, it’s three stories packed like Russian nesting dolls.  Just when you think you’ve reached the resolution of one, another emerges.  I don’t want to reveal too much, so this set-up will necessarily be a bit vague. 

In the third act, the narrator suggests that the central character tried to save his quasi-protégé but may have realized too late that he lacked the skill to do so.  In trying, he sacrificed himself.  I could not help identifying with him and was transported back to my days in the classroom.

I tell people I got into teaching because I have a pathological need to feel important.  Following my first year in the profession, I was three days into summer vacation and realized that no one needed me for the next two months. This led to morbid fantasies where I died in my home and no one discovered my body until the neighbors complained about the smell. I need to be needed. 

April needed me.

At this time, it was unusual to have electronic contact with students.  Facebook and Twitter were still a few years off, and Canvass and Google classroom were mere glints in some software engineer’s eye.  I posted my students’ homework and other resources on a free online service for teachers and encouraged students to e-mail with questions about writing assignments or homework. What I didn’t realize was that my responses were not filtered through the site; they came straight from my home e-mail account. Once in possession of my home e-mail address, April began IMing me.

If I’m being completely honest, I was flattered. I had no personal life to speak of, so I was grateful to have someone to “talk” to in the evenings. It started out with the usual teenage troubles: school is stressing me out, mom doesn’t understand me, mom and dad fight all the time. I know what it’s like to have warring parents, so I was a sympathetic ear. I tried very hard to assure her that, although it might seem otherwise, her parents loved her more than they loved themselves and certainly, by all accounts, more than they loved each other. Sometimes, she would keep me online for upwards of an hour and a half. That began to weary me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I didn’t want her to view me as yet another adult who had abrogated her responsibilities to care for and protect her.

Several years earlier, a nice young man in one of my junior classes had turned up truant several days in a row. On the fourth day, I called his mother who apologized for his absence that day. I innocently asked, “Okay, so you know he’s been out every day this week?”


“I take you didn’t know that.”

“I’ve been out of town."


She asked rhetorically, “What has he been doing all this time?” and I heard the tremor in her voice that signaled the onset of tears. “I don’t know what to do with him. What do I do with him?”

“Look, if I knew . . . this is reason #18 I don’t have kids of my own.” She sniffed at my weak attempt at humor—the one I used every time I talked to the parent of a teenager doing the inexplicable things teenagers do. “Let me make some calls and see what I can do. I’ll call you back as soon as I know something.”

“Thanks, Deb.” I became addicted to hearing that phrase.

Eventually, the kid went into counseling.  His mom called to tell me, “He just stayed in his room the whole time he was absent. He wanted to kill himself. I don’t know how I can thank you for letting me know about all this.”

“Well, if I’m ever fired, can I count on you to organize the candlelight vigil?”

This time, her laughter was real.

Unfortunately, instead of immediately putting April in the hands of people who were trained to handle these situations, as I did with Evan, I overreached and tried to do it myself. Too late, I realized I completely out of my depth, and, even then, I persisted. I wanted to be the one to save her.

Only when her demands on my time became intrusive did I finally ask April if I could talk to one of the school’s social workers about her. She agreed.

Things got better for a while, and then one day she skipped math to come to my office, explaining that she couldn’t face going to class, that she felt like she wanted to jump out of her skin.  I was no stranger to panic attacks and suggested she was experiencing one and that she should see a doctor.

That night, April was admitted for in-patient treatment at a mental health facility. Thus began a descent that seemed to have no bottom. She developed anorexia and began self-mutilating. She was medicated with anti-depressants, anti-anxieties, anti-psychotics, anti-bipolars. She spent months in treatment facilities. Each time she was admitted, she fought to get released, and each time she was released she longed to go back.

This went on for the rest of her junior year, her senior year, her freshman year in college. Even after I moved away to attend graduate school, I would periodically receive e-mails and letters from her, each a catalogue of the most recent horrors.  With time and distance, I began to recognize my own culpability in her illness.  Riddled with guilt, I apologized to her for not getting her in touch with professionals earlier.

She credits me with saving her life.  I remain unconvinced.  Hubris masquerading as altruism is perhaps the most insidious form of narcissism. 

Dr. James Comer of Yale University is famous for his assertion that no great learning can take place in the absence of a great relationship.  Teacher preparation programs admonish their candidates to teach the whole child.  Even the bumper sticker and t-shirt industries proclaim that we don’t teach [insert subject matter here], we teach children.  What this means in real life is that effective teachers cannot remain ignorant of their students’ lives outside the classroom.  Knowing the context or cause of a child’s behavior allows you to respond to it more effectively. 

The problem is that, once you know, you can never not know.  And the people who become teachers tend to be people who want to fix problems.  I mean, it’s not called a “helping profession” for nothing. 

The tricky part is determining where the boundary between commitment and overreach lies.  I used to be the announcer for our school’s wrestling matches and would attend the “coaches’ meeting” at the local pub afterward.  Over a beer, one of my students’ fathers tried to ingratiate himself with me by bemoaning what a lazy student his son was.  I couldn’t resist correcting him: “He’s a good kid.  He’s really smart.” Pause.  “You know, he thinks you hate him.” 

The father seemed shocked, as any decent part would be.  “No, he doesn’t.”

I shrugged, “That’s what he told me.”

Did my action help?  I have no idea.  Was it appropriate?  Probably not.  I saw an opportunity to give this kid a voice and jumped at it.  If the guy wouldn’t listen to his son, maybe he’d listen to the teacher he was hitting on.

A legislator or central office administrator reading this might attempt to “solve” the boundary problem by creating a zero-tolerance policy for parent-teacher and student-teacher interactions outside of school.  Such a policy is absolutely untenable.  Even if you forego the bar, you’ll run into your kids and their families at the grocery store, at the burger joint, in the locker room at the gym.  Some teachers are related to the parents of their students or sing in the same church choir.  Teachers cannot simultaneously remain aloof and get actively involved.

So, again, where do you draw the line?  While others may reject my answer as irresponsible or unenforceable, I think the rightness or wrongness of your behavior lies in its motivation.  If your endgame is the acquisition of gratitude and love from your students or their parents, you have crossed over to the dark side.  

Unfortunately, as in my case, it may only be in retrospect that you recognize your error.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Great Teachers are Choreographers, not Dancers

My dogs know quite a few words: out, walk, cookie, ball, and grandma are particular favorites.  They acquired this vocabulary through association.  I held up a biscuit and asked, “Who wants a cookie?” and, because everyone wants a cookie, they quickly learned to associate that word with the snack they enjoyed so much.  It is important to note that the concept of a cookie preceded their acquisition of the word “cookie.”

In much the same way, very young children acquire vocabulary by pointing at things and making some sort of questioning vocalization.  Parents then give them a label for the thing.  “That’s a doggie!  Can you say ‘doggie’?”

At age three, my nephew scored off the charts verbally in large part because my sister and brother-in-law brought him to museums and aquariums and gave him picture books, exposing him to myriad items for which he desired names.  He could discern a backhoe from a bulldozer and a stegosaurus from . . . some other dinosaur.  Ask him.  I’ve forgotten most of that stuff.

In school, we tend to approach vocabulary in reverse.  We first offer students a new term—adjective, velocity, transpiration—and afterwards show them examples.  Without a mental model to anchor the terminology, vocabulary has nothing to hold it in working memory.  Students forget the words and what they mean. 

Sometimes we give them several related terms at the same time: conduction, convection, and radiation; comparison and contrast; associative, distributive, and commutative.  Again, without some mental model that allows them to keep each term separate, they conflate them.  If you’d like to see the truth of this, ask a random third grader to tell you the difference between narrative, persuasive, and expository writing.

I have become convinced that a better way to introduce content-specific vocabulary is to provide the examples first.  Let students figure out what the distinguishing characteristic is and only then give them the academic language.

In a recent seminar, a young teacher mentioned that her students struggled to correctly identify common written organizational strategies: chronological, process/sequence, etc.  I pulled together several bundles of paragraphs, each on a variety of topics but organized the same way.  Without any preliminary instruction, I gave groups of teachers a single bundle and asked them to figure out their commonality. 

When I checked in with the teacher whose classroom struggle had prompted the activity, her group had correctly identified their paragraphs’ structure as problem-solution.  She said, “I like this so much!  Instead of me telling them what it is, it’s like I’m drawing it out of them!”

I grinned for two reasons.  First, I love it when teachers see value in an activity I have offered them.   Second, she had unwittingly excavated the etymology of the word “education,” which comes from the Latin educere, meaning “to draw out.” 

I often hear teachers lament, “Our kids don’t have any background knowledge!” when they merely lack content-specific background knowledge. 

Knowing this, we are probably best served by determining what general knowledge can be brought to bear on our content.  Students may not think they know anything about thermodynamics, but they can tell the difference between a large container of water that won’t scald them and a small container that will. 

Instead of giving them the scientific terms heat and temperature and then letting them perform the lab, why not let them perform the lab first?  Let them explain what happened in their own words: “That big pot of water changed the temperature more than that little one with the boiling water, ‘cuz there was more of it, you know, so it, like, had more, I don’t know, like, power.”

“Power, nice!  In science, we call that ‘power’ heat.  Why does the big pot have more heat?”

“Because there’s more water in it!”

“Specifically, there are more water molecules in it.  So, heat is the sum of all the molecules together.”

The teacher I mentioned earlier put together a series of activities to engage students in recognizing text structure.  In addition to having them identify the common organization of several different paragraphs, she created puzzles with each sentence of a paragraph on separate pieces.  Students who placed the sentences in the correct order could more quickly assemble their puzzles.

I checked in with her recently to see how her students were handling the concept of text structure and organization.  She shared, “I had one student in particular say that he finally gets relationships between sentences.”

Over the course of my career, there were many days when I worked so hard in class I felt I should be wearing tap shoes and a sparkly outfit.  When the bell rang, I was bathed in sweat and physically exhausted. 

Great teachers are choreographers, not dancers.  You plan the moves that will bring the results you desire, but it should be your students who execute them.  It’s a more sustainable tack for you, and it is likely to lead to more learning for them.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why Won't My Students Talk to Each Other?

Earlier this week, I observed two classes, both taught by the same teacher, both sophomore English, both academic track.  The teacher was a recent attendee at a seminar where I had introduced a variation on the Socratic seminar called Socratic Smackdown (MONDAY! MONDAY! MONDAY!)

The first block, which ran from 7:15. until almost 9:00 a.m., was highly engaged, the second block not so much.  Given everything we’ve seen lately about how teenagers need more sleep, these results seem counterintuitive.  If any class should be disengaged, it’s the one that is still asleep.

As a closure activity, their teacher asked for feedback on their discussion, and several students mentioned how awkward the whole ritual felt.  When the teacher asked them to dig deeper into the cause of this awkwardness, one young lady claimed, “We don’t know each other!”

The teacher countered that they had been together for eight weeks, the implication being that they should know each other by now, and the student responded, “Just because we’re in class together doesn’t mean we talk to each other!”

I was immediately transported back to May 1996, the spring of my first year of teaching.  We were discussing Of Mice & Men, and one student made an excellent point to which another student said, “I agree with the boy by the window…”

I was horrified.

“The boy by the window?!  That’s Justin!  You’ve been in class together for eight months!  How do you not know his name?”

The problem is real and, while we didn't create it, it is in our best interests to solve it.   

The Difference Between Regular and Honors

I’ve heard more than a few teachers claim, “I could probably do that with my honors kids, but my regular kids just can’t handle it.”  The implicit assumption here is that honors students, by virtue of their superior intellects or work ethics, are more fitted to academic discourse than their less academically gifted peers.

I’d like to propose an alternative explanation.  Honors students take honors classes, which are fewer in number than the—call it academic, call it regular, call it what you will—middle track.  As a result, honors students tend to be in many more classes with the same people over the course of several years.  They may not like all of their peers, but they know what to expect from them.

By contrast, average students may have a completely new set of peers every period of every day every year, giving them limited opportunity to build relationships.  Consequently, they lack the trust in each other that allows them to share ideas.

In addition, there are very real social barriers that teachers ignore at their own peril. As they get older, student bodies separate according to a series of unwritten and unforgiving laws that dictate where they can and cannot eat lunch, who they can date, whose parties they can be invited to, what extracurricular groups they can join, and how enthusiastically they are allowed to contribute in class.

Unless a teacher has only students from a single social caste in his classroom, he will have to spend some time breaking down the barriers between students before they will collaborate successfully. 

Building Classroom Relationships

For several years, I taught a class for at-risk seniors.  One year, two young men--one was a very Caucasian athlete, the other a very Latino gang member—nearly came to blows a few times during class, convinced that they were mortal enemies.  I initiated a regimen of team building and class building exercises that would enable them to learn a little low-risk information about each other and discover some common ground.  Eventually, they stumbled upon the fact that they both liked girls and getting high.  I’ll grant you, I may have created problems for authority figures elsewhere in the community, but, as far as my class concerned, those two were no longer the source of any behavioral issues (and promised not to get high before or during my class).

If you want students who don’t know each other to work collaboratively, you must first help them break down those social barricades.  Assign them an activity that requires them to find out something about each other.  For example, while you take attendance, ask each student in a small group to speak for 30 seconds on any of the following topics: 
  • What did you do last weekend/what are your plans for this weekend?
  •  What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
  • If you had $1,000,000 but only one day to spend it, what would you do?
  •  If you could talk to one of your relatives who is no longer here, who would it be and what would you talk about?

There are a number of books with discussion prompts like this.  Ones that leap immediately to mind are The Complete Book of Questions and If  . . . (Questions for the Game of Life),Volumes 1-3 .  There are also quite a few websites that ask people to choose between two unpleasant options, e.g. “Would you rather change your last name to Hitler or give up chocolate for the rest of your life?” 
Realize that not all the material in these resources is necessarily safe for school, so use some judgment.

Other Activities

A Google search using the generic term “class building activities” yielded half a billion hits; there is no shortage of material out there.  I prefer tasks that enable the sharing of personal information over those that merely ask students to complete a physical challenge.  Any activity that requires a significant amount of physical contact or closeness should be viewed with extreme skepticism, but use your own comfort level as a guide.  If you wouldn’t want to participate in the activity, don’t foist it onto your students.

Bottom Line

Do some type of team building or class building activity three times a week—more if your students need it—and you will be amazed at the change that occurs in their willingness to participate and to support each other.  Students may resist initially, so I recommend that you participate in these activities and share information about yourself.  You are part of the team, and they need to know they can trust you as much as they trust each other.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

When a student dies

A former student of mine died last week.

I realize that declaration is utterly lacking in finesse.  So was Brandy’s death.  On Monday morning, she was alive, and by Monday afternoon she wasn’t. No lead-up, no warning. 

The default response of almost everyone close to her has been But I just talked to her…
this morning,
last night.

Like the execution of Ned Stark, the first time this happens, we are utterly unprepared, and the feelings that arise are equally unpredictable.

When I was 17, a classmate died in a farming accident.  We learned about it on Saturday night during a basketball game.  Friday he was at school.  Saturday afternoon he was dead.  I had harbored a bit of a crush on him and was shocked and saddened by his passing.  For weeks, I would forget that he was gone and turn toward his locker to tell him something during passing period.  I’d quickly realize my mistake and look around to make sure no one had seen me.  I have no better word to describe what I felt in those moments than jealousy.  In dying, he had attained an understanding of something that I could not comprehend, and I wanted to know what he knew.  I just didn’t want to die to get it.

At 38, Brandy was among the oldest of my former students.  She was smart, acerbic, prone to sarcasm, reliable, funny.  She was one of the many kids who found a place to belong in the school’s theater department.  As costume crew chief, she was my right hand for at least a half dozen shows.  In fact, she showed me the ropes when I was first hired.  She introduced me to my first Dairy Queen Blizzard.  She also introduced me to her older sister, who is my best friend.  If for no other reason, I am eternally in her debt for this.

Although I never discussed this with her explicitly, I don’t imagine that high school was particularly comfortable place for Brandy.  She did not possess the currency that is valued in high school.  She was not bubbly or athletic or cute and cuddly.

And that’s what makes her death all the more heart breaking.  From my limited perspective, it seems that it is only recently that she began to embrace all the possibilities open to her.  She had started a new job that was both emotionally fulfilling and potentially lucrative.  She began distance running and taking cool vacations.  There was so much she seemed poised to attempt.

I don’t know how the rumor got started that high school is the best time of your life, but it’s time we put it to bed.  There’s a reason they refer to graduation as Commencement.  When high school ends, that’s when the good stuff begins:

The careers. 
The loves.
The houses.
The pets.
The hobbies.
The friends.
The hair colors.

There’s an S on the end of each item on that list.  Do you honestly expect to want forever what you wanted when you were 18?

Some years ago, I attended a funeral for a 21-year old who was killed in a motorcycle accident.  The priest was given the unenviable task of imbuing this tragedy with some meaning that might comfort this young man’s family. The refrain he kept returning to was how wonderful it would be to remain 21 forever.

The sermon came from the same well-meaning place as the fatuous remarks with which you are inundated whenever an inexplicable tragedy strikes.

 “She’s with God now.” 
“You know, you can still talk to her, right?” 
“It’s all part of God’s plan for you.”

I reject all of these.

I have another former student, Linda, also in her thirties, who has metastatic cancer.  It is in her brain.  It is in her spine.   She has a three-year old son who has never known his mother when she was not sick.

You cannot make me believe that God needs this woman more than her son does.

I don’t think we are supposed to find comfort or meaning in a young woman’s death.  In fact, such events should make us profoundly uncomfortable.  The only useful purpose they serve is to shock us out of our complacency, to remind us that life is fragile and temporary, that today is a gift, and tomorrow is far from guaranteed. 

Since being diagnosed, Linda has completed her PhD in musicology, become a much sought-after author of concert program notes, begun a popular and highly respected blog debunking myths about classical music, and continues to be a wife and mother.  Occasionally, she’ll post on Facebook that the chemo slowed her down that day and, consequently, she was only able to finish two of the four writing projects she wanted to get to. 

Let’s stop looking for meaning in death.  Rather, let us allow the constant threat of it inspire us to lead full and intentional lives.

Friday, January 20, 2017

What Exactly Does the Inauguration Have to Do with Becoming a School Principal?

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way people began seeking me out as a mentor.  They ask me for career advice.  Me? All the time! 

I’m not being falsely modest when I say I don’t really know why.  My own career was built on a foundation of poorly researched choices, chutzpah, and desperation.  If not for a few instances of tremendous serendipity, I’d be living in the basement of my sister’s house and hoping to score an ACT tutoring gig at a store front in a strip mall.

Seriously.  I got my first teaching job totally by accident.  The names of most of Chicago’s suburbs are compounds of a limited number of natural phenomena. There’s Forest Park, just west of the city, and Park Forest to the south; Lake Forest on the north shore and Lake Park to the southwest. As a city dweller who didn’t drive, I had neither reason nor interest in learning these nuances, so I confused the names of a prestigious north suburban school district with a slightly less glamorous one to the west.  Glenbrook’s loss was Glenbard’s gain.  And mine.

But I digress.

I work with a lot of young teachers, and, I suppose because my terminal degree is in educational administration and policy, they often ask me for advice about becoming administrators.  First, I explain that I have little interest in either administration or policy.  My degree is a function of the department that employed the person who was chairing my dissertation committee—another poorly researched choice that eventually worked itself out—and that my interests lie in teacher quality and efficacy. 

This rarely discourages anyone from continuing to solicit my opinion.  So here’s what I tell them. 

Wait five years.

Most of you probably think that I’m alluding to the folk wisdom that it takes five years to become a teacher, that, if expertise is in large part a product of experience, five years is the minimum amount of experience needed to quality as an expert.

That’s not why I tell them to wait.

A good administrator has to have lived through at least one cycle of state and national elections. You have to experience firsthand overhauling your curriculum in an effort to comply with one administration’s policy only to be asked by another to dismantle and rebuild it four years later.  You need to feel the heartbreak that occurs when, after buying into a paradigm shift and working for two years to transition your practice to meet it, you are betrayed by the same people who pitched it to you in the first place.

Sometime in the late 1990s, the state of Illinois adopted a new certification process.  Teachers had five years to assemble evidence of their continued professional learning.  Hard copies of this evidence—transcripts, certificates, programmes, etc.—would then be submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education where, presumably, someone’s job would be to verify that every certified teacher in Illinois had attained the necessary number of credits.

There are approximately 130,00 teachers in Illinois.  If each of them submitted only five artifacts, the ISBE headquarters would collapse under the weight of nearly ¾ of a million documents.  Well, that’s what I was counting on anyway. 

For many of my younger colleagues (and, sadly, some of the older ones), this process was a source of tremendous anxiety.  I overheard more than a few panicked phone calls attempting to track down a certificate of attendance for a conference they’d attended six months earlier.   

I collected nothing—just waited.  I’d been around long enough to know this wasn’t going to happen.  

And it didn’t.  When the first few portfolios starting arriving in Springfield, those tasked with implementing the policy suddenly realized that lacked the time, the manpower, and the will to do so.

I don’t know what replaced it.  Presumably something equally superficial but less bulky.

One of the most important jobs a principal must do is to serve as a buffer between her faculty members and the continuous barrage of stupidity bombarding them.  A principal may not be able to excuse teachers from external mandates, but he can help them discriminate between tasks worth doing well and those worth doing well enough.  Great principals encourage their people to put their time and energies into executing policies that are meaningful and stand a chance of sticking around. 
The other stuff they let them half-ass.  

But until you’ve been in the classroom at least five years, it can be hard to tell the difference.