Thursday, November 2, 2017

A Teacher's Ten First Jobs

                Jessica Lahey’s essay “Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic,’ which recounts an essay with Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), contains a great deal of inspiration.  It was first published nearly two years ago, and I recently encountered it again because of some Tweets. While I highly recommend the piece, one line in it jarred me. It’s part of a pull quote, and I’m not sure if it comes from Lahey or Teller. it, as I do any of her writing that I’ve encountered. It reads: “The first job of the teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.”
                I have so many problems with this statement that I’m unsure where to begin. If I try to thoroughly explain each of them, I’ll have the outline for a book. If I try to summarize, I’ll wind up with a frustrating mass of frustration. So I’ll reduce my basic argument to one rather sweeping assertion.  When our primary focus becomes teaching a subject, we create many of the other problems that plague education, because we forget an essential truth: that what we’re really teaching are young people.
                With that in mind, I’d like to propose ten other possible first jobs of a teacher, perhaps with the subject as context or even tool, although what that is really doesn’t matter.

     --Get to know and love your students.
     --Remember they are developing young people, not professors to be.
     --Tap into their innate curiosity by asking students what they believe and what they want to know.
     --Create a safe classroom culture.
     --Make learning relevant.
     --Share your own ongoing learning (not just that from the past).
     --Decide what risk you’re going to take.
     --Clarify—to them and to yourself—what the most important goals are.
     --Develop a plan for moving out of their way.
     --Shrink your ego so they can grow.

While each of these could be the first job, together they are the job. Do such work, and then a nice by-product may be that students come to love a subject.

Monday, October 23, 2017


     I discovered the word gallimaufry a couple of weeks ago, and it has stuck with me. It means a jumble or confused medley; applied to food, it's a hash. At the same time, it sounds rather elegant (gal-uh-maw-free). So the word captures what I hope this post becomes. Every once in a while I publish a piece which is simply a bunch of seeds that have been buried in my mind, but they've never sprouted into full posts, let alone full ideas. So from this point on, things may become disjointed, even jarring in the lack of transition and development. Perhaps some bits may shine a bit.

The more I think and read about grading/grades, the more I'm convinced it impedes deeper learning in all sorts of ways ..... I've asked many people in various realms what they think effect of current political climate is on young people. Already really concerned, I found this piece from CNN "What the 'Trumpification' of the presidency means to Generation Z" quite disheartening ..... We're being myopic if we don't look beyond Trump and look at larger cultural issues of which he is just extreme symbol ..... I'm encouraged by all the attention the Mastery Transcript Consortium is receiving. I haven't studied in that closely, but I must ask: How is this different than what Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools were advocating back in the 1980s? ..... So many schools now have a Picture of the Ideal Graduate. Wondering how many have a Picture of the Ideal Teacher ..... Speaking of which: What would be the three most important qualities of such? Which single one? ..... One of the things which goes against the idea of work-life balance is that, if we've found meaningful work, aren't we our genuine, passionate self in both? I know that's not really the idea, but I hope you get my gist. And if that's the case, we do better in both realms ..... The old saw claims that what gets valued, gets measured. In many cases, though, I think measuring removes potential value by limiting ..... I remain huge fan of Twitter, despite how toxic a forum it can become. But that's a human problem, not a technology problem ..... Wonder if most problems are really cultural rather than technical ..... Pre-k and K kids bopping in and out of school with oversized, nearly empty backpacks. No matter how many times I've seen it, I love it ..... Given the way handwriting was drilled into most of us as youngsters, why do we all have such distinctive, often messy, penmanship? That must be a metaphor for something ..... The idea of tattoos is growing on me, with greater appreciation for the art form. But I'm no closer to ever getting one, mainly because I can't decide what I would ..... Yesterday the rector at my church talked about the singularity in his sermon. I didn't have the heart to tell him how much closer we may be than the examples he presented ..... Aren't many of the reasons given for why schools must change actually reasons, if extended far enough, that school may not even need to exist? ..... Of course, people always will need something to do with their kids ..... I find it strange to be writing a post in this form when the past couple of months I keep feeling this strange tug to try writing a book.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Idealism vs Practicality

            One tension I feel acutely as a head of school is the constant need to balance my idealism and practicality. I know many other heads who feel the same. To be more specific, educational leaders maintain strong beliefs in what education can and should be as what many call one of the noblest professions. That last word, however, suggests the other side of the issue: that an independent school, while mission driven and non-profit, is a business. That is not to say a business cannot operate in high-minded fashion; indeed, I believe most independent schools do, and I know most people not in the upper administrative levels of education don’t think much about this part of their world. It is, though, a reality we must consider.
            The truly excellent and brave letter John Allman, head of Trinity School in Manhattan, sent to his community this summer resurrected this struggle for me. It was cited recently by the New York Times in an article on private schools and social justice. The letter reaches much further than that. I’d say it has much more to do with the commoditization of private education. One of John’s key points focuses on the loss which occurs when the relationship becomes more contract that covenant. When it does, we emphasize the transactions that occur, the products at the end, rather than the more ethereal aspects of the process. I’m oversimplifying John’s epistle, and I encourage you to read the entire piece. I imagine most school heads were nodding their heads vigorously while reading, wishing they had composed it. It sings with the voices of our highest angels.
            While this problem is not new, it has been exacerbated over the past couple of decades as our culture has become increasingly consumerist. Perhaps it is the emergence of the iCulture, with the ability to tailor more and more to our individual needs and satisfaction, the belief more and more should be personalized. Maybe it’s a heightened sense of competition. I’m not sure. But I know it’s pervasive.      
At the same time, I hope we in the independent school world also have looked at our role in the relationship. Complicity may be the right word. With our staggering annual tuition levels—in some markets well over $40,000—how could we not expect people to want a clear return on investment? What signal do the cathedral-like facilities send? What about bloated programs? It’s no wonder a hot topic right now is our economic sustainability
Thus, so many of us have engaged in marketed campaigns designed to differentiate us, to show the value-added.* For several years, first as a curriculum director and then as a head, I embarked on what I termed the quest for the golden metric(s). We all feel that pressure to prove our worth, to validate the cost. We take quite seriously that parents, as a friend of mine use to say, trust us with their two most precious possessions—their cash and their kids.
To accomplish that understandable goal, we do things such as publish matriculation and acceptance lists. We crow about high test scores and award winners. On a more micro level, we post honor rolls and confer all sorts of prizes. We use grades as carrots. We—and I readily admit my guilt as both school leader and teacher—do this because we feel we have to, like it or not.
We do so for very practical reasons. They are sometimes harsh realities. After all, we have to put food in our bellies. But what about nourishing our souls? The tension brews consternation about where any educator’s greatest idealism should aim: the impact on children. I worry that, along with other societal pressures, we’re stripping some of the joy from childhood.

*Whether they have succeeded or not is another question, particularly as to differentiation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Timely vs Timeless: A Thought on Mission Statements

     I can't find the Tweet now, and I can't remember who said it; so I'm probably going to misquote it. It went something like "Just adding innovative to your mission statement doesn't mean you really are." I found myself nodding and thinking about all the other trendy words have been added to countless mission statements over the past decade or so: leadership, diverse, mindful, 21st centuryresilient (or grit), global...please complete the list with your own favorites.
     As I've been reflecting on our own mission statement and asking others to do so as well, I've heard and read a great deal about what makes one effective. And, just as importantly, why most lack a certain something. We all know the reasons for each. But this Tweet crystallized for me a notion that I think is worth pondering, mainly because it points beyond mission to a larger challenge.
     When we add such words to our mission, we fall into what I guess is a human trap of grasping hopefully onto the timely. How many times can you think of education having latched onto something and proclaiming it as the silver bullet? Recall that even television was once seen as such. We do the same thing with more abstract concepts such as leadership. When it becomes a buzzword, often school even incorporate it into our mission statements. Our mission can then become like too much of our curricula--wider and wider with perhaps less depth.
     If schools really are re-imagining themselves and their mission statements, rather than take on the timely, they should consider the timeless. Don't just gaze into the supposed future. Instead, plumb the depths of what makes us human, those eternal qualities which have enabled us to innovate for thousands of years.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Charge to St. John's Employees Aug '17

The following is my charge to St. John’s employees during our in-service week. I usually work from notes alone, but I’ve drafted a prose version since some people asked for a copy. So the language is not quite the same as when I speak. It also definitely loses something without the slides, so maybe you can imagine them. And while you’re doing that, maybe you can conjure a sense of my delivering the remarks with an Obama-level rhetorical flair.

The picture you see is Inspiration Point in Yosemite. That seems appropriate given point of a charge. Plus, if we are going to think about the big picture, this puts it in perspective. That waterfall you can barely make out is actually just over 2400 feet tall.
Yes, normally I give you my charge the day before we start; but I decided to do it today for very particular reasons. You know we have our board retreat tomorrow, and heads of school know each of us is just one bad board meeting away. Plus I may still be in jail come Tuesday. No, not the drunk tank; I’m attending the political rally downtown on Saturday evening, and you never know what could happen.  Just as a priest often keeps politics out of the pulpit, I try to keep them from this podium. But there are times one shouldn’t keep silent. That’s tied to why I switched to today. Maybe it’s my own needs right now, and something about this feels a bit self-indulgent. But I know that some of you feeling the same yin-yang of this week as I am. We have the exuberance, energy, optimism as we launch into the new school year. Yet we can’t ignore the larger context of cultural malaise (only way I can describe it). Inspiration, indeed, is needed; and what I humbly will try to provide. I’ll do so by talking about why a St. John’s matters so, so much, especially now.
I’d like to begin by talking about this guy. Anyone know who he is? I doubt it, but if you do, don’t say. Let me give you some hints. He was born in 1976 in Arlington, and he later went to went to St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Austin (a fellow ISAS school), where he was a near-classmate of my sister-in-law. He then attended SMU, where he became an entrepreneur, starting the EZ Laundry dry-cleaning service on campus. He moved to Nashville and started a media company selling billboards for country music, which was bought by Clear Channel. Off to Los Angeles to start the cable network Reality Central. All of this by age 30. Obviously a total slacker.. Then came his second biggest claim to fame—he and sister finished second on The Amazing Race. Do you know yet? You certainly will by Blake Mycoskie’s greatest feat: founding Tom’s Shoes.
In case any of you don’t know Toms, it works this way: you buy a pair, and a pair goes to a needy child somewhere in the world. It started when Mycoskie was visiting Argentina in 2006, and he met a woman providing shoes for children. He learned of and saw the effects of being shoeless—blisters, sores, infections, long-term consequences. Very quickly he decided to start this shoe company, first called Shoes for a Better Tomorrow; shortened to Toms. He began with very limited resources, and was quickly overwhelmed by demand after a media story. By 2013, Tom’s had donated over 10 million pairs. He expanded beyond shoes. In 2011 Tom’s partnered with Seva Foundation to focus on eyeglasses. Each pair bought led to glasses, medical treatment, even optical surgery for someone. Then in 2016 Tom’s Roasters coffee started, with each bag purchased led to week of safe water.
Tom’s has influenced several others. Schools had Tom’s shoe events for their proms. The students would get their fancy duds, then buy Tom’s and decorate them to wear to prom. The Falling Whistles program involved selling whistles to combat civil war in Congo—a program that became part of the first 8th grade service learning capstone here at St. John’s. Warby Parker, which is a 1:1 eyeglass program. Method eco-friendly cleaning products gives part of their profits for environmental clean-up efforts. Veev, which features acai berries in beverages, donates a dollar for every bottle sold to rain forest preservation. Feed reusable grocery shopping bags provide free school lunches needy students. So the ripple effect has been tremendous.
This summer read Blake Mycoskie’s book, Start Something That Matters. At first I was plagued with all sorts of liberal guilt. Yes, I work in education, which certainly matters. But I thought about the privileged circumstances in which I’ve always done so. And it’s crucial for me to feel real purpose and meaning in my life. Meanwhile, the really big takeaway for me was that if you’re going to do something that matters, need three things. You have to care deeply. You have to imagine the possibility of better. You have to muster up the courage to act.
One I stopped wallowing in that liberal guilt, I started thinking hard about why what we do here at St. John’s matter. Maybe it’s rationalization, but we’re working with kids who will be in positions to make a real difference in the world. And that certainly matters.
The ripple effect of Mycoskie’s makes me think of the rice-chessboard story. The inventor of chess was asked by emperor what he wanted for his reward. The inventor asked that the emperor put one grain of sand on first square, and double it on each successive square. The Emperor quickly agreed, thinking he was getting off easy. Well, you can see what happened. Halfway through there were 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, and at the end there were 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.
Here’s the point—take this an analogy. And just as rice was so valuable back then, what you provide now is priceless. If you have a truly positive impact on 10 kids this year; then at some point they have positive impact on 10; then each of those ten… Very quickly you have somehow positively touched 1000 people. It’s not long until that hits a million. And that’s just one year’s worth of work. Plus—and this is truly awesome--any moment can be the one which makes that difference.
Why does that happen here so often at St. John’s? There are many, many reasons; I’ve synthesized them to three.
First, our values. Service, respect, gratitude, connectedness, civility, empathy—we bring those to the forefront and keep them there. They are our values as an Episcopal school. We don’t just talk about them; we put them into action. It’s education with a larger purpose. It’s learning what it means to lead a noble life. It’s how you foster that; how you model that.
Second, our approach to school—more particularly, our approach to learning. We see everything as a chance to learn, and to do so joyfully, and to grow through the process. We recognize that deeper learning involves a double loop. On the surface, one learns to solve a particular problem. But one is also, probably more importantly, learning the habits of learning. It’s also inherent in what we realize meaningful learning is and isn’t. It’s not just knowing answers; not just study or training. It’s more a cast of mind, an outlook, an approach to life. It’s not automatic. It requires energy, thought, even bravery. That’s because real learning is not just finding out what others already know. It’s discovering for ourselves by questioning, thinking, testing something it becomes our own.
Third, our approach puts us on the right side of history. You’ve heard me say many times we have to educate not for our past or present, but for kids’ futures, the world in which they will be living. To do so, have to accept we live in time of discontinuous change. Discontinuous, not continuous, as it can often feel because of numerous small changes. But really significant change happens through what I call the Slinky effect. Forces gather slowly, then burst forth. This pattern tends to prompt progress more than steady change does because it demands more extreme questioning, rethinking, and adaptation. Those are things one can do only if one knows how to learn, and to do it well.
We also are right side of history because of what we do. Think of it this way. If we were to look back at the 20th century and think about the most significant events and figures, a logical selection would be World War II. This would lead us to think of people such as Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt. But, as important as they were, I could argue they are not really the most significant. Instead, I’d hold forth people such as Einstein, Freud, Margaret Mead, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr. Why? They changed the way the world thinks! They caused us to re-imagine possibilities. And isn’t that what you do for kids each and every day?
More contemporarily, we live in a time of intense culture wars. We can assign plenty of blame to all points of the political spectrum and elsewhere, and we’re masters of finger-pointing. The issues are festering, heightening, gaping. There is no telling the effect on kids, now and in the long-term. Remember times like this have happened before and likely will happen again. When they do, it moves far beyond the political. It becomes ethical, spiritual, existential. While cultural, it becomes very personal. Right now, it’s gnawing at me that I taught a founder and now major leader of the alt-right. I wonder how that gangly, goofy kid became a face of evil. How does that happen?
If we look at our nation’s history, this is not something new. It has manifested itself in different ways. During one of our first presidential elections, Jefferson was scorned for owning a Koran. At different times we have feared Mormons and Catholics. We’ve spewed anger at various immigrant groups, including those from which many of us are descended. There’s been both overt and unspoken racism against Latinos, Asians, Blacks; and phobia directed towards members of the LGBQT+ community and other marginalized groups. Some of this we have forgotten. What we remember, we can’t believe we engaged in. Some of it lingers, sometimes in the form of painful scars.
But when we look at that history of our nation, we also should draw hope. We move forward, individually and collectively. The history of America, for all its dark moments, is one of gradually greater acceptance and inclusion. That is how it should be. That is why it’s so crucial that at St. John’ we stress intellectual analysis, civil discourse, character, and service. Our national history is one of gradually learning the principles we already know here, capture in our fifth tenet of Episcopal education, straight from baptismal covenant: respect the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we respond to hatred,  to what and whom we cannot understand with a Christian type of love. We strive to gain that understanding, some sort of clarity. We continue that ongoing quest to heal ourselves and the world
Ours is the type of education that will help answer the real question. It’s not how do we make America great again, but: How do we make America grateful again? Actually, it goes beyond that. The entire world needs the type of education that St. John’s aspires to provide. Because all those things I’ve talked about, those and more, they ultimately do perhaps the most important thing that people need: it’s an education that plants and nurtures seeds of love and hope.