Friday, March 30, 2012

The Real Offense

The New York City Board of Education is hoping to ban certain words from standardized tests. I’m quite certain that certain words shouldn’t appear in those tests, and I imagine you can think of some yourself. But here’s a quick question: are birthday and dinosaur on your list? Because they sure aren’t on mine. Neither are some of the other words that have them concerned: religion, Halloween, Christmas, divorce, television, and over 40 others. Why? Because each word evidently has the potential to offend someone and thus create undue stress during the standardized testing situation. (I’m sure you’re curious how, so here’s the link to CNN’s story on the piece.)
I’m so flabbergasted by this that I’m unsure where to start. I mean, I’m gobsmacked. With all the issues confronting education these days, I can’t imagine that this merits the amount of time, energy, and money that went into this issue.  Notice I didn’t say thought. There probably was some, but not of the type that’s needed.
I appreciate the intent. No educator wants to create a situation which so offends a student that he or she can’t perform well, particularly in such a high-stake situation. In this case, I think the decision-makers have overstated that possibility. So points for trying.
But plenty of points off for other reasons.
Think about experiences that have helped you learn and grow significantly. For me, they involved a degree of discomfort, sometimes even pain. Yes, we want schools to be safe, nurturing places. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we want to ensconce kids in sterile bubbles. Eventually, the training wheels must come off. Plus I’ve always thought the best teachers know just how to prick and prod kids at the right time and in the right way.
                Instead of worrying about this issue, I wish these folks had spent more time reflecting on the really fundamental, huge questions about education. They could start with two. What it’s for? Is it working? Then perhaps they might see why I’m offended not by any of those words they want to ban, but by the damage caused by the standardized testing craze.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Humbling Thought

                It’s hiring season in independent schools. This time is full of contradictory emotions as we think about the people leaving but also imagine the talents and energy any new employees might bring. Last spring I published a post titled “Hiring Mission on the complexity of the process and how, for me, in many ways it boils down to someone who embodies the mission of the school.
So I read with great interest John Spencer’s at TeachPaperless blog on the notion of hiring someone with humility as the key to finding a 21st century teacher. In particular, I love this passage:
I'm not suggesting that administrators should deliberately search for unqualified candidates. Often, the most humble teachers have already done amazing things. Still, humility is the gateway to innovation and growth and sustainability. Humility works paradoxically to bring about greatness. Humility enables empathy and communication and collaboration that goes beyond the structures implemented by a school.
He has prefaced this by explaining that a teacher doesn’t have to know how to use all the technology, but, instead, has to be willing to ask for help. A teacher also has to be open to new methodologies and paradigms.
                To me this notion also highlights how we have to re-think the role of the teacher within the classroom. No longer should we perceive a teacher simply as a subject expert, a repository of knowledge. And there is certain lack of humility inherent in that time-honored role. Besides, information is now pretty cheap, even free if you tap into the Internet at your public library. If education is just about running through simple right and wrong bits and bytes, then a teacher really could be replaced by a less expensive, more efficient processor.
Instead, the teacher must exhibit an insatiable curiosity—or at least fake it when necessary—about all that we don’t know. Because right now, the way just about everything in the world is swirling and reforming, we don’t know much. At least not for sure. And that’s really humbling.

Friday, March 16, 2012

100th Post! The Next 100?

This is my 100th post on the To Keep Things Whole blog. I've noticed how on many other blogs that such a landmark is often commemorated in various ways: long reflections, particularly on what the author has learned through blogging; a recap of most popular posts; some statistical analysis; plans for the future of the blog.

I'm not going down any of those paths.

Thanks very much for reading. I'm thrilled that I seem to have developed a fairly dedicated audience. The blog has over a thousand page views a month (not giant, but more than I ever expected) and readers all over the world. That's without strategically trying to grow the readership through hot topic and key words and tweets and likes and other social media tricks. I have no problem with those tactics, but I'm happy to just write and hope the message resonates with enough people that they pass it on. Old fashioned, I know. But if you type "to keep things" into Google, the blog comes up, usually on top.Recently is was there when I reached the ke.

Now, 100 posts in, I face a real challenge. I enjoy blogging, but I don't want to repeat myself too much--and I find myself struggling more and more for topics. So help a guy out! What topics would you like to see me ponder?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Working or Grinding?

            Today the Harvard Business Review blog had a post by Tony Schwartz entitled “The Magic of Doing One Thing at A Time.” It raised the usual question about work habits and made some good suggestions on increased productivity. Two paragraphs in particular jumped out at me about the deleterious effect of most people’s work habits:

The biggest cost — assuming you don't crash — is to your productivity. In part, that's a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you're partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it's because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you're increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.
But most insidiously, it's because if you're always doing something, you're relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.
Schwartz is writing about adults—those who, in theory, have developed the skills and self-discipline to handle the demands of their jobs. (Read full post here.)
But in reading the post, I couldn’t help but think about the way we ask young people to go about their lives. I won’t delineate every detail here. Yet I encourage you to spend a few moments pondering a typical 24 hours in the life of a student, especially one at a school with a culture of high achievement.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Leadership as Life and Death

                Gradually since the tragedy at Columbine High School, we’ve become a bit more numbed to school shootings. For example, I don’t think I heard anyone mention the recent one near Cleveland. Of course, as a head of school, they register quite loudly with me. The safety and well-being of everyone here is my primary concern. Safety and security is a standing item on our administrative meeting agendas; we’ve been re-evaluating all our emergency procedures; and I’m sure employees are tired of my reminders to carry their walkie-talkies. Even so, my reaction is no longer shock and outrage. Instead, it’s simply sadness at another one.
                But another recent shooting at a school has sent me reeling. On Tuesday, March 6, tragedy struck Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, FL.  A man came onto campus with a guitar case and went to see Dale Regan, the Head of School. He opened the guitar case, removed an assault rifle, killed Dale, and then committed suicide. Earlier that day Dale had fired the man, who had been a Spanish teacher at the school.
                I assume the reasons this craziness has rocked me are obvious. I didn’t know Dale, but independent school heads form a rather tight community. When we first meet each other, there is an almost instant connection. I guess because it’s a very unique type of job: part CEO, part teacher, part pastor, part parent, part inspirational leader, part manager, part data cruncher, part visionary, part shaman. Besides, there really aren’t that many of us. We have varying personalities and styles and philosophies and approaches. But we all share one quality: we care deeply about education and the people in our school communities.
                So I know that about Dale Regan. If you think I’m just speculating, this was a woman who served Episcopal for 35 years, the last seven as its head. I also believe I know something else about Dale and the act that led to her death. I am quite sure that she terminated that employee only after careful consideration and because she had deemed it best for the school community. Separating someone from a school—be it an employee, a student, a family—is one of the worst parts of the job. That’s true even if the cause is egregious. After all, having to do this goes against certain principles which brought many of us into education in the first place. Most of us, while no longer idealistic, remain essentially hopeful. Also, we like to believe that with the right guidance anyone can improve steadily and even come to excel.
                Terminating someone is also a brave act of leadership, even beyond the confrontation in which the person is informed. It sends numerous signals to the community about what the leader values, what is acceptable and what is not, how the leader treats people. And a head of school has to make such decisions based on often conflicting data points and myriad intangibles. For example, I have heard a complaint about a teacher literally while I was receiving an e-mail praising that same teacher. Neither was right or wrong. It just points to how complicated evaluation and subsequent decisions can be. A parent often has one data point—his or her child. The head has dozens. In weighing them and deciding on any action, the head essentially takes a stand. At the same time, one tries to do so in a ways that preserves the dignity of all involved.
                So this tragedy has really prompted deep thinking about leadership. For years I have studied leadership. I’ve observed and analyzed leaders (good and bad), considered historical figures, read plenty of theory, and participated in various programs. I reflect on the subject quite regularly. In fact, one of the aspects of my job I most enjoy is that it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and exercise leadership in new ways. Now, I keep coming back to a question that I’ve encountered a few times throughout my study: What do you believe in so strongly that you would be willing to die for it? It’s led to some fascinating discussions.  Usually we were speaking metaphorically, in the sense that you would take a stand even if it meant being fired. Now the question takes on a frighteningly literal meaning.
                This brings to mind one of the conclusions I’ve reached about leadership. Too much of what’s been written as the secret to leadership involves technique. I believe leadership depends on integrity. I mean that in both the usual ethical sense and in the sense of unity, of oneness. Everything about the leader must center around a core ethos, with all actions radiating from it. I think this idea is captured beautifully by the Quaker aphorism “Let your life speak.”
                More and more schools are emphasizing leadership, and towards this end add special programs and mandatory electives. Surely those can’t hurt. But I believe that all of education should be teaching leadership. Classroom protocols, interactions between adults, disciplinary practices, and so on—schools have myriad ways that can help young people discover who they are and how they want their lives to speak.
                I’m not going to insult anyone by even beginning to speculate what raced through Dale Regan’s mind in her final moments. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Dale died in the service of the school she had served so lovingly. I pray that the Episcopal High School community can find some peace in how her memory will continue to lead them.  Dale’s life will not only speak; it will echo loudly.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sleepless—but not in Seattle

          So the 2012 NAIS Annual Conference is going on in Seattle, and I’m still in Dallas. I think I’ve missed only two of these in the past couple of decades, so it feels rather strange. And this year’s program looked particularly inviting. So I’m really kind of bummed not to be there. However, it simply wasn’t a good time to get away because of too many things happening at once. Plus this Friday night is our annual gala, which our fabulous PA puts on every year and will be spectacular. So if I’m going to miss, it’s for a great reason.
          I’ve been trying to follow the conference a bit through various means. Conference bloggers, other blogs, Chris Bigenho’s Daily Find, the Twitter stream, the community portal—there certainly is no shortage of ways to get information about the conference. But I’m not there, and so I don’t get to revel in the real power of the conference. I’m not bumping into former colleagues and old friends at random. I don’t get to enjoy leisurely, delicious meals with favorite people. I can’t check in with folks from my New Heads workshop and see how they are doing. I can’t feel the energetic idealism that fills the conference center.
          And in getting my information, it’s hard to sort through all the pieces and pull out meaning. For one thing, while many of the tweets resonate, from the outside many seem so unimportant. And no matter how good they are, how thoughtful a blog post may be, it still lacks context and the filtering weakens the personal experience. I want the direct experience, and I want the human contact.
          So in what I guess is a certain irony, so much of the conference is about educational leaders learning and growing. Particularly this year when the theme is Innovation. As part of that, I gather that there has been quite a bit of talk about leveraging social media in schools. I’m not opposed to that at all. Yet, while my experience is not optimal to how this might be done in a school, I very much see the limitations coming clear. So as much as I’m about re-inventing many parts of school, I want to throw a note of caution into the discussion. This is where the irony comes in. I’m not at the conference, but I’ve been reminded of something very important.
          As we talk about innovation and social media and on-line learning, let’s make sure that we never lose what makes independent schools truly remarkable, life-transforming places. It’s that they are so human, so much about the right people in the right places doing the right things. No technology, however well utilized, can adequately replace that.