Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pulling Back the Curtain...Just a Bit

As I near the end of my first school year as a head, naturally many people ask about my overall experience. The questions vary, but they can be grouped into three overarching themes. How do I like St. John’s?  How do I like being a head of school? What has been the biggest surprise? The first one is easy to answer. I’m thrilled to be part of this community. The latter two are a bit trickier to answer, so bear with me. There really haven’t been any true surprises in the standard head-of-school sense. That has a negative connotation. Certainly there have been things I didn’t expect, issues I had not foreseen, decisions for which I thought I would have more time.  I can’t share the most disconcerting ones. As I explained to some faculty who expressed their wish for transparency from the new head, they wouldn’t really get it, but they would get a degree of opaqueness. Confidentiality and privacy simply can’t be violated.
                I haven’t been totally surprised for a few reasons. One is simply my innate tendency to remain calm. I’ve prepared for this role for a long time, debating for years whether to take the leap. Several people served as powerful mentors along the way, from the very first days of my career. There is no area of school life I hadn’t experienced to some degree. I’ve studied a great deal in every way possible—observation, workshops, conferences, reading, interviews, visitations, projects, reflection. So I went into this with my eyes pretty wide open. I understood completely when my previous boss said I’d see the best and the worst of human nature. To some extent that’s already happened. Fortunately, much more of the best.
                Still, the learning curve has proven steep. I’m reminded of my soccer career. With each step up—better clubs, college, adult, semi-pro—there was always an adjustment. The pace quickened; the physical contact and demands increased; pieces shifted faster and more frequently. Eventually it would begin to feel just like the game I’d always played. Players could tell fairly soon if they could compete, as the markers of success were quite clear, although not always measurable.
                The move to headship strikes me as very similar…except the sense of success is much more elusive. Even when I feel it, I still wonder. Here I am, functioning as the school’s leader, at the same time I am just beginning to understand its culture. I don’t sweat just the big decisions; I deliberate on the small ones because I know each move and word carries extra gravity. I weigh the attention I give to faculty and administration and board and students and families and spouse and my own children and pray I’ve meted it appropriately.
                Experienced heads have told me this is perfectly normal. This helps. At the same time, their advice can prove confusing. Some say be patient and spend a year learning; others, strike immediately, while you have the most credibility. Some say focus on internal affairs first; others, spend most of your time on board issues. Some recommend micromanaging; others emphasize delegating. However, they all agree on one point from which I take heart: the role begins to feel more natural. That already has begun.
                So what does one do? Try to do it all, and eventually you’ll grow dizzy. You have to hit your own stride. I have found that it helps me to have what I’ve learned to use like a mantra. I’ve come to think of it as my P-Statement: You are in this place for a certain purpose at this point in time because of the person you are.
                This helps me re-center myself. I regain that balance and move forward. I can learn from the difficulties and refocus on the long view. When this happens, I am once again surprised anew by the joy I experience in being a head of school. Particularly of this one.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Words Can Hurt

Recently Scott McLeod’s blog reminded me of a post from last fall by David Warlick titled “Are They Students or Are They Learners?” Warlick includes a wonderful table in which he delineates the difference. Rather than give details here, I encourage you to think about it and then look at the table.
As usual, Warlick makes some excellent points. But he also makes a false distinction. The kids in our schools always are learning. The question is: What? In many ways they are learning how to thrive as a student, but not necessarily as a learner in the modern world. The majority of the standards from various associations stress discrete bits of knowledge and rather pedestrian skills. That’s bad enough. But many of education’s traditional practices exacerbate the problem. What have we taught a student by warning he needs to learn something because it will be on the test? Or threatening that she needs to do her best because this is for a grade? Why do we provide set frameworks and lengths and templates for assignments that should be about students demonstrating what they have learned and can do in myriad complexity? (N.B. As a former English teacher, one of my pet peeves in this regard is the five-paragraph essay. I can’t recall ever seeing a quality professional piece of writing which uses this structure.) What is the message when we tell a student to choose a course because of how it will appear on the transcript? A colleague always fumes when she hears a teacher exhort students to learn something because they will need to know it next year. I’m certain you can think of some other examples besides these rather obvious ones.
There exists a direct relationship between language and thought and action. So the words we use matter. Greatly. Obviously they can affect how students perceive education. Furthermore, in The Book of Learning and Forgetting Frank Smith presents an interesting twist on how teachers may be victims as well. Smith draws his argument from an unexpected source: military history. Early in the 19th century, most countries had rag-tag armies. They comprised social riff-raff and lacked any discipline. Then, in direct contrast, appeared the Prussian army, which “dressed as on, moved as one, thought as one, and confounded everyone who confronted it” (46). This army had rigid recruitment and training policies. Education officials took note, and these practices moved into the one room schoolhouse. It proved a perfect fit for the emerging industrial world and mass education. Smith points out:
Numerous relics of the militaristic origins of modern educational theory survive in the language we use today. We talk of 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, and wars against illiteracy. The fact that this language seems natural to us, that we have all become so accustomed to it, perfectly illustrates the insidious infiltration of militaristic thinking in education (47).
Our use of such language is part of why many people have such a hard time reimagining schools.
We need new language to talk about education. Language that is holistic and flexible and adaptable.  Language about growth and creativity and insight. Language that opens us to any possibility. Language that expresses what students will need to thrive in the modern world.

                I’m hopeful. In the independent school world some important work is emerging that can provide pointed agenda items for crucial conversations. A great resource is NAIS’ A 21st Century Imperative: A Guide for Becoming a School of the Future. Many thoughtful people are fomenting mini-revolutions in their parts of the world. Ironically given my point above, here we can draw some important lessons from the military. The U.S. Armed Forces, long the paragon of hierarchy to the point of paralysis, has realized modern warfare necessitates allowing front-line soldiers to make more decisions and to innovate as necessary. The government just revealed that the SEALs had to go to plan b during the Bin Laden raid. Soldiers today cannot just be students; they have to be life-long learners.

While we may not be at war except metaphorically, the stakes are still plenty high—our kids’ futures.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Oh, the times, they are a'changin'"

Think the pace of change is fast now? Agree it's being driven in large part by technology? Still find it interesting that people use their phones to send mail and check the time?
Just wait…
Per a post on “In ten or twenty years, what we now call ‘computers’ and how we do our computing are both guaranteed to be radically different and almost unrecognizable.” This infographic illustrates the past, present, and future.

(Click here to read the post
and to see the entire chart.)

                It’s probably not going to be even just good enough to keep treading water. “You better start swimming, or you’ll sink like a stone.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hiring Mission

                Fortunately, this year we have little hiring to do. There is not much turnover, and those leaving are doing so for family reasons. People stay here a long time, which is a tremendous tribute to them and to the school. Having received resumes from many strong applicants, I feel certain that we will find wonderful additions to the staff.
                For those few open positions, we’ve had many, many more applicants than I anticipated. People want to work in this community. Many applications have been unsolicited and general, the person simply hopeful  that we might have any opening in which he or she person could fit. This means we have a wealth of options. At the same time, I feel a tinge a touch of sadness. Several applicants have either been affected by budget cuts or grown totally disenchanted with their roles in the public system. Some people are making a career change, and I wonder if it was really by choice. Many seem to be fleeing a situation more than moving towards something. Also, teachers looking for their first position have it particularly tough.
                Hiring in a school is more complex than many people realize. The annual cycle imposes restraints. It’s not simply a matter of finding, for example, a sixth grade math teacher. Of course, basics exist: degree, experience, love of kids, et cetera. But then it becomes like fitting a tile into a mosaic. What are the person’s relative strengths and weaknesses? How would he fit into the team? The division? The vertical team? The school culture? What would she bring outside the classroom? Can he help advance a larger vision of where the school needs to go? What is the potential, good and bad? Does she add a missing ingredient? Does he have “it”?
                Risk always exists in hiring, no matter how much you try to calculate and minimize it. So much of what comprises a quality teacher defies objective quantification. Plus effective teaching is much easier to spout expertise about than it is to achieve.  I remember one case from many years ago. A woman impressed everyone with her vision for teaching writing and a great lesson to which she kept referring. In her demo she used something similar. We were blown away. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a two-trick pony.  (Yes, we checked her references. I could write another long post on reference checks.)
                In some ways the entire interview process has flaws. The end goal is to hire the best possible teacher for kids…yet most of the day is spent talking with adults. The teaching demo can prove revealing, but even that has inherent limitations. In some key ways the candidate is in an unfair position. She doesn’t know the kids, the curriculum, the progress, the gaps, the lingo. She and the students haven’t negotiated the implicit contract of expectations.
                Despite those issues, to me the classroom demo is key. In the classroom, the candidate can’t fake it. I can gauge the comfort, the instincts, the rapport. And just as I do when watching any teacher, I focus much of my attention on the kids. Very quickly I can sense the kids’ gut reaction. Also, what really matters in a class is student activity. Even in a demo lesson, the most impressive candidates create a student-centered experience. This kind of teacher focuses on student growth, on setting up kids for an engaging activity and guiding them towards successful understanding. It suggests how he enacts his philosophy. It also demonstrates courage.
                And therein lies the key. In Good to Great, Jim Collins emphasizes getting the right people on the bus and moving them to the right seats. In schools, I link this notion to the common saying “You learn by the company you keep.”  Similarly, much of what directs learning is a conception of whom a student imagines becoming. So it’s about much more than hiring the best possible classroom teacher for the job. It’s about hiring an adult who embodies the ideals of our mission.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Presenting Lessons

            Over the past few weeks I’ve given several large presentations to different groups. I enjoy doing it quite a bit. During my preparation—which is extensive—I often find myself experiencing flow. After a presentation I’m pretty amped up, almost like the high after great exercise, only to crash hard afterwards. Each presentation takes quite a bit out of me.
            While for some presentations I rely on words, I prefer to use PowerPoint to create a richer experience for the audience. It’s not death by PowerPoint, however, with bullets firing off one by one. Instead, I practice Presentation Zen as preached by Garr Reynolds. This entails a great deal of attention to slide design and the use of effective images, supplemented by just a few words at key times. I also tend to incorporate video and music; for a recent one I even created a short movie of images with a soundtrack. (I would post a slide deck, but they make little sense without my commentary. You can see Part 1 of a presentation from a couple of years ago here.) So when I plan a presentation, it’s a multi-step process drawing from a wealth of resources.
            I contrast this to a chapel talk I gave at my school back in the mid 1980s. I was urging the students to become involved in a service project, and I wanted to play a short song by Harry Chapin. So I dragged my CD player, amplifier, and speakers to school and set them up...then had to drag them home afterwards. Graphics? Maybe some sort of poster.
            Any time I present, I remember some of the basic lessons of public speaking: eye contact, slow and clear enunciation, guided movement and catchy gestures, et cetera. I’ve been using some of the same tricks to mark my notes for many years, although now I try to go note-free whenever possible. Still, I feel empowered tremendously by the easy-to-use, powerful tools at my disposal. Even my clicker frees me up to move as I want.
            Metaphorically, I think this highlights a real challenge for modern schools. How do we continue to stress the basic and essential, yet at the same time embrace the new and harness its potential?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Seal Training

                                                            --Slogan on back of my US Navy Seals t-shirt

                With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, we’ve heard incredible stories about the  U.S. Navy Seals’ training, talents, and execution—they truly are the elite.  It’s fascinating stuff, and I’ve always admired them. Of course, many talk shows have had former Seals on for interviews. Last Friday I heard one on the radio. Along with being a Seal, he had attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis and had three professional football try-outs.
                The entire interview intrigued me. In particular, two sections struck me as holding important lessons regarding education and the development of healthy, mature young people.
                First, Seals obviously have physical gifts that evoke superhero status. The long swims in frigid water, marathon runs with gear, surviving sleep and food depravation—it’s kind of freakish what they can endure.  This guy described how the Seals learn to be drownproof. With hands and feet bound, the Seal is thrown into a 10-foot-deep pool to “figure it out.” (I’ll let you think about how you might survive that; you wouldn’t have long.) But what really struck me was that the interviewee said this about his fellow Seals: “These guys are the toughest, hairiest athletes I’ve ever seen. Physically they can do anything. But what really stands out about every one of them is what great, creative thinkers they are.  They have to size things up immediately and innovate on the spot.”
I’ve written many times about how we have to help kids become creative, supple thinkers. Here’s the interesting personal connection for me as an educator. I taught a young man long ago who became a Navy Seal. I mentioned to my family the other day that none of his teachers would have expected it, given what we had seen from him. School was a constant struggle; while he was a wonderful person, some questioned if he belonged in the school because of his academic shortcomings. Compare that to the interviewee’s comment, and you can see the moral of the story.
Second, he made two powerful points about the grueling training. We assume a Seal survives the program because they can endure anything.  In fact, he stressed, “The point is not to see if you can survive everything. The training will destroy you. It’s how you respond to it; that’s what they want to see. It’s if you’re resilient.” A moment later he added, “Life is going to throw bad things at you. You can’t control that. You can control how you choose to respond to them.” You’ve all heard about the concept of helicopter parents. They are always hovering, ready to swoop in to rescue a child in mild distress. Recently I heard a new twist on this idea: the snowplow parent. This is the parent who keeps clearing any obstacle out of a child’s way.  These types of parents end up with what Wendy Mogel has termed “teacup children”—beautifully crafted but incredibly fragile. Tiny bits of stress—let alone life’s bigger challenges—can cause them to crumble. Over the past decade college health staffs have reported higher rates of anxiety and depression, and studies reveal more students with a “foggy sense of self.” If someone has never had to deal with failure or even struggle, how will he or she respond when life throws them in the pool?
This summer I’m going to be in Coronado, CA, where the Seals do much of their training. I’m in even a bit more awe of them and what we can learn from them, and I suspect I’ll buy a couple of new t-shirts.