Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Leadership Reminders From a Torn Achilles

       One of my favorite songs by Lou Reed is "Sick of You." I'm sure I'm thinking of it right now because after almost four weeks, I'm absolutely sick of dealing with things having to do with my ruptured Achilles tendon. In the song Reed gives a long list of cultural issues that disgust him; and I could do the same about my situation, but I try never to be a whiner. Instead, I try to keep in mind one particular lyric from the song: "They say the bad makes the good / and there's something to be learned / in every human experience." Adopting that mindset, I've been strongly reminded of three key leadership ideals in the form of metaphors.

  • We frequently hear about the idea of leaning into discomfort. When one is truly leading, as much joy as there can be, there is always a degree of discomfort. Because of the heavy boot I wear 24 hours a day and the need to keep my foot elevated, I'm always in some physical discomfort, and I twist myself into some yoga-like positions seeking relief. It comes to varying degrees and lasts only for a while. But I have to endure it as part of my treatment.
  • I've had to cede some control, even beyond not being able to drive when I never like being a passenger. I know it's weird, but I enjoy cleaning the kitchen and loading the dishwasher, mainly because those tasks are among the few things in my life that have a definite completion and satisfaction point. Plus I like to load things in the dishwasher a certain way. (I know what you're thinking...) But now other people are putting stuff in there, in places I wouldn't. Lo and behold, the stuff is coming out just as clean.
  • It's a daily reminder to take the long view, let the process unfold, and celebrate the little victories along the way. I've been told total recovery is six months before I can resume full activity. Yet I was thrilled when I could once again wiggle my toes after about two weeks. Still, I have to learn not to push things. At my first post-surgery check, the doctor said I had twice as much flexibility as usual at that point and I may get in a walking boot sooner than planned. Being the over-achiever, I asked if there were any exercises I could do to ensure that happening. The doctor smiled and simply said, "No. Let things heal."
       The Achilles tendon, of course, is named after the great Greek hero Achilles, who slay Hector outside the gates of Troy. He was invulnerable except for that one small spot in his heel, and he eventually died from a wound caused by an arrow. From that we have the term Achilles' heel, meaning a person's weak spot.
       And we all have them, just as we have our strengths. The challenge lies not in ignoring or even trying to eliminate our weaknesses. That's impossible--and I'd say even undesirable, as they are part of what makes us human. What really matters is how we cope with them, particularly in times of high stress. If we do that right, not only do we survive the situation, but we can learn and grow from it and become even stronger, as people and as leaders. I hope this post serves as a reminder of that, just in a much less physically painful way than I got it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Independent Schools We Need--Now More Than Ever

        The current presidential campaign, particularly in the past few weeks, has many schools wondering how to respond. They're wondering about the trickle-down effect, from kids' behavior prompted by poor adult modelling to topics in civics classes. The worry may increase after tomorrow night's debate. It's understandable, and some schools have suffered quite unsavory incidents. Plenty of resources and guidance exists in various places, so I don't intend to offer much in the way of specific here (no "top ten ways to deal with political nonsense"). It's not my real point. Besides, I suspect the answer lies in some things that have always been true about proper behavior and great education. And while the angst is genuine in the immediate, I hope it also prompts some larger reflection, especially for independent schools.
       As part of that reflection, first we have to acknowledge that this is not a new problem, suddenly roaring into existence the past few weeks or even few months. It's existed throughout the campaign. In fact, it's become politics as normal for a long time. I wrote about it last January in this piece and in another post linked within it three years before that. Our political system has become one of anger and divisiveness, with black-and-white thinking spurring hard-line action. Meanwhile, the populace likes to throw stones at politicians. But cultures, like individuals, reap what they sow. The whole thing feels like too many Internet fora come to life. In a way, in their past independent schools have been a part of the problem, given the status many held as bastions of privilege, ensconced on our glorious campuses and blissfully ignoring social issues.
       But in our modern manifestations, that is no longer the case. In times such as the current one, the best thing we can do for ourselves, along with the families and students we serve, is to re-emphasize and commit to what independent schools are supposed to be about. Yes, our missions play out in different ways within particular cultures; and the work is exceptionally complex and ethereal. But we can distill it to three key qualities:

  • earnest, dogged intellectualism within the context of holistic human development;
  • critical examination of topics via rational discourse;
  • humane, civil behavior guided by a firm ethical underpinning.
They are those things so missing from the campaign and often from our culture. So it's not the time for us to be blindly partisan, but to live up to our names and be independent. We have to resist the larger culture so our students can grow up to be the ones to improve it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

From PD to the Classroom

       We have our interim reports due to our accrediting agencies, and one of the questions asks us to describe the school's approach to professional development, along with a summary of some specific examples. Just to see what people would say, I sent a query to all St. John's employees. While I'm always proud of the people here, their responses made me especially so. I was struck not only by the incredible amount of professional development they had done--whether as part of our in-house activities or own their own--but also by how much they had reflected on it and grown as educators through it. It epitomized a communal growth mindset.
       One other point made an impression on me: the incredible range of activities.People had read books, articles, blogs. Attended conferences and workshops. Collaborated with colleagues here and elsewhere. Studied YouTube videos. Joined groups on Pinterest. Attended an EdCamp. Set up professional portfolios. Visited other classes and schools. Joined Twitter to follow threads and participate in chats. Those are just the things popping into my mind right now, and I know there are others. Furthermore, great range existed within each of those activities.
       In many ways, we're talking about the ideal learning scenario. People were operating under some broad objectives tied to our vision for the school. But at the same time, they could pursue learning per their particular motivation and and personalities and preferences. Because of that, people embraced the professional development opportunities and actually, well, developed.
       And if it's good for adults, might it not be good for kids? Yes, the question is rhetorical. So now I'm wondering how might we make more of the student experience work that way?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Old Metaphor Renewed

       For the first time in at least a couple of years, the orchid in my office (which used to be at home) has started to bloom. I'm not sure how or why.

But it seemed appropriate to refer to a four-and-a-half-year old post.

Monday, September 19, 2016

More Vivid Verbs: Language of Education

       Shortly after starting Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, I tweeted:
To which Kevin Ruth (Chief Executive of European Council of International Schools) replied:
Potent, indeed.I'm making my way through it more slowly than I do most books, as I find myself drifting into wild speculation based on the not-so-long-ago inconceivable scenarios Kelly lays out. They have brewed a concoction of giddy anticipation and some plain terror.
       The noun-verb metaphor holds together much of the book. It appeals to me greatly, in large part because of my background as an English teacher. I'm particularly sensitive to how language affects how we perceive and act. It is our primary cognitive tool, and I've enjoyed watching students debate whether language drives thought or vice-versa. On a less ethereal level, as a writing teacher I preached, "The verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. Make them vivid!" Often I would tell students they needed to aim for fewer words overall but relatively more verbs.
       Considering how language reflects our thinking about education is nothing new. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith points out how many of the words we use have their ties back to our schooling model being inspired by the Prussian army's training protocols: "the deployment of resources, the recruitment of teachers and students, advancing or withdrawing students, promotion to higher grades, drills for learners, strategies for teachers, batteries of tests, word attack skills, attainment targets, reinforcement, cohorts, campaigns for achievement in mathematics, and wars against illiteracy." That we use this language so naturally, Smith argues, shows how deeply ingrained such thinking is. This notion has stuck with me since I first read it nearly twenty years ago, and I've often referred to it in various ways. Kelly's line has sparked some more particular consideration, with focus on the idea of nouns and verbs as applied to education.
       Nouns dominate our educational language. When we talk about  a student, we talk about, for example, "a seventh grader" or a "high school junior." Sometimes we individualize a bit and say the student is "a visual learner." Learning (as a gerund) equals the accumulation of lessons and facts, and that learning occurs in a defined space such as a classroom. We use the text to deliver the curriculum, emphasis on the definitive article, as if these are immutable, near-sacred objects. These examples, especially when linked with the many others I could cite, and erects of a rigid, finite framework.
       The issue is captured perfectly by the practice of grading, even in the best type of assessments such as performance tasks or open prompts or project-based studies. I cite those because they involve students doing something--usually multiple things--as they construct knowledge and skills and understandings. But then we, often per the rubric which clarifies the standards, slap a grade on a piece of work. And what is a grade? A desperate, ultimately futile attempt to capture the quality of a bunch of verbs in a single noun.
       Like grades, words are how we try to express what we really mean. They connote what we deem important. But they are intrinsically limited. Mention a table, and it's quite unlikely any two people see exactly the same object. Become more specific, i.e. desk, and we gain a bit more control over the message. I intentionally used a noun, but the same idea applies to verbs, such as run versus jog versus sprint.  The more precise we can be, the closer we come to accurate expression not only of what we mean but also of what we value.
       Writing chock full of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs without vigorous verbs drags somnolently. It fails to inspire. It deflates. It doesn't probe our human essence. Vigorous writing compels us to play in an imaginarium, a place grounded in reality with innumerable paths meandering into possibilities. There we question and explore and create and hypothesize and analyze and... Thereby we learn. Shouldn't those be the words of education?
       More vivid verbs, please.