Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Not a Connected Educator?

     Irony prevails in my writing this post now, the penultimate day in Connected Educator Month. For the past couple of months, I have felt less connected, at least in the technological sense. I've been posting less frequently. I've been reading fewer blogs. I've reviewed Twitter less often, have missed some chats I wanted to participate in, and tweeted less frequently and with less discernment. My detachment has been neither intentional nor borne of laziness. In fact, I've just suddenly realized what's been happening. It's been a case of, as I often say, "Life intrudes."
     It's also ironic in that just about anyone reading this post probably already has grasped its basic message. Perhaps those folks can pass it on, use it to support the cause, maybe even convert someone.
     Because I've been so busy, I can't say that I've really missed my usual on-line activity. That would imply an awareness that didn't exist. But now that the fog is clearing, I've begun reflecting on the notion of being a connected educator. That leads me to one direct question:

Why wouldn't you be a connected educator?

     I remember my early days as a teacher during the mid-1980s. I was in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I had little contact with other independent school people. Budget and location limited professional development opportunities. Yet I was an inexperienced, hungry teacher craving a steady diet of implementable guidance beyond the general mentoring I received. My primary source of inspiration became The National Council of Teachers of English. I would devour the issues of English Journal. More than that, I looked forward to the quarterly arrival of Ideas Plus, in which teachers from all over shared ideas for lessons. I would study it carefully, making tons of notes and then writing reflective pieces. All the information would then go into my lesson plan book, which was not your typical daily planner. Instead, I had it organized by category and theme (color-coded even, with shapes and numbers that allowed for cross referencing). It helped me grow tremendously as an educator. For years that served as my pedagogical bible.
     Now we have such resources available at all times, in all different formats, accessible in multiple ways. It's really quite remarkable how this has blossomed since I began teaching thirty years ago. Sometimes we seem to take for granted the amazing nature of being so connected and the  ways in which we have benefited. For instance, even though I haven't felt as connected the past several weeks, online experiences have been helping in my work, whether by referencing ideas picked up in chats or using images someone Tweeted out to make a point in a presentation. So the surface may seem different, but the connections have become deeply rooted. That's true even with people I've never met in person. Recently another head and I exchanged some great thoughts about failure, and I bantered with a dean from MA about his love for Oreos.
     So I have to ask again: Why wouldn't you be a connected educator? Well, I suspect my first paragraph is one reason. Life can become crazy busy in unexpected ways. Teaching is intensely demanding work, and there is life outside of school. Plus the first sentence of the previous paragraph is another reason I've heard people express. There's so much that it can become overwhelming.
     I accept both of those points as realities, but I do not see them as legitimate excuses. I always have believed that a committed educator's default mode should be one of constant improvement. The work is so important that we must keep learning how to do it better. Plus it's simply good role modelling to be the lead learner. This truism seems especially apt now, when constant flux has become the norm and the ability to learn in new ways is at a premium. To be perfectly direct, I see this as a basic requirement. I ask during interviews how a candidate does this. I'm not interested in hiring anyone who doesn't take advantage of opportunities to grow. That necessitates being connected in some fashion.
     Because I believe this, I also feel a responsibility to offer some advice to those who find it too difficult and/or don't know where to start. It's probably old to many folks, but could help those afraid to dive in.

  • First, don't think of it as overwhelming. Think of the options as being like a teacher who is incredible at differentiating instruction. You don't have to tap into all the resources. I blog and love Twitter; but I've never used a Google hangout, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Try different things until you find what works for you.
  • I'm certain in your school there are people savvy at being a connected educator. Connect with them first. No doubt they want to help. Knowing you, they can help you figure out where to start, help you navigate a path, and provide concrete tips.
  • Even though many of us like to use Seth Godin's metaphor about there not being a map, I recommend you develop a plan focused on a few key objectives related to how you want to grow. That can help to determine the best path to follow.
  • Similarly, be judicious in selecting those paths. For example, when I show people how to use Twitter effectively, I talk about selective following. Before you follow someone, look at the quality and frequency of their Tweeting to help you decide on its value to you. Plus you have to decide just how many people you can follow. 
  • You also can let the tool help you. In another Twitter example, I encourage the use of columns set to search for certain hashtags. That highlights information related to what you want to learn. Another Twitter trick is, because chats can be overwhelming, to read just the archive. If you like blogs, use an aggregator such as Feedly to help you follow quality bloggers. That way you don't have to keep looking for new posts.
  • Don't try to keep up with it all. Don't read deeply all the time. Skim along the surface and then decide when to dive.
I'm not bulleting my final point because it's not really just friendly advice. If you're not a connected educator, consider it more of an admonition. Why aren't you a connected educator? Could the real reason be discomfort? Fear? Fixed mindset? Whatever the reason, would you accept it from one of your students?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Thanks, Dallas Police

     Right before I began to draft this post, I did one of my quick checks of There was the breaking news banner--2 killed in shooting at a Reno, Nevada middle school. I sighed, feeling a mix of relief because such incidents still sadden me, but anger that they no longer shock me. But it's also a stark reminder of my intent in writing this piece even before seeing this news. I want to thank our security people, who are off-duty Dallas police officers.
     We actually have been using these officers for several years now. It began because of an unfortunate family situation. At first, we had an officer here only when circumstances seemed to warrant it.Now we have one here daily, and they have become a fixture on campus. Just as I expect St. John's employees to embody our mission, these officers truly protect and serve.
     They do all the things that one would expect. Patrol the campus and watch the perimeter. Keep a careful eye on students at recess, during the parade to and from chapel, and in the cafeteria. They stand outside the sanctuary when so many people are gathered for chapel. They help traffic flow at carpool. They make sure visitors have signed in.
     But they go beyond doing their mere duty. They have embraced the school and feel very connected to us. I'm sure we are a welcome relief to their regular interactions. We have benefited in some obvious ways. They keep us informed about any situations that could affect us, such as when helicopters were circling in the area a few months back and the officer let us know what precautions to take. When we had some trespassers repeatedly using our soccer field during off-hours, chasing them away was easier. One was able to do a complete security audit for us, and they do extra patrols at night. (This is also good for our neighbors.) I'm certain that in the event of a true emergency, police would respond extra quickly.
     One particular story captures their dedication. Without our prompting, a couple of the officers showed up in plain clothes at some end-of-year activities last year. They just wanted to make sure there were no problems. And they wanted to see the kids graduate!
     Like most schools, since the Newtown tragedy we've been reviewing all our security and emergency policies and procedures. We've always stressed safety--it's a regular agenda item at administrative meetings and reminders often go out to people--so in some ways it was a natural process. Still, it leads to a slippery balancing act. We want to create the safest possible environment, but we also want to maintain a warm and welcoming environment. I also see it as one of those implicit curriculum issues that can teach kids important lessons, often indirectly.
     In this case, I hope the officers' positive presence helps to shape our students' perception of the police. And I hope it's the polar opposite of mine when I was in elementary school. I was born in 1961, so I grew up often hearing police officers referred to as "pigs" amid cries against the establishment. On tv I saw protesters often in violent conflict with police. When I was just a bit older, I remember loving Peter Mass' book Serpico and assuming most cops were corrupt. I'm not sure when or why my perception shifted. Early adulthood, perhaps.
     I don't want students here to take that long to respect and value police. Without being scary, I want them to understand how these officers put themselves at risk for their community, the sacrifices they make to maintain civil order. In a way they fit right in as living exemplars of St. John's' emphasis on service. For that we are truly grateful.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Failure of Promoting Failure

     For the past few years, we've heard much talk about failure in education. Not in the usual sense that our schools are failing, but in calls for all the reasons students need to experience failure. The calls seem particularly loud in the independent school world, where so many of our students are so success driven and have experienced little but that. I know people's intentions are in the right place. They want to help young people develop grit and resiliency and character. Qualities that will hep them succeed in life. No quarrels here. Still something has bothered me about how easily and loosely some commend this idea.
     The a few evenings ago I came across a Tweet from Josie Holford, the head at Poughkeepsie (NY) Day School. It resonated with me and led to this exchange:

I've never met Josie in person, but I have great respect for what I've seen her put out in social media. (A great example of the power of connectivity in the digital era!) We ended up favoriting each other's comments, and I've decided I need to try to articulate my concerns with "this whole failure trend." So I credit her for the prompt.
     First, we need to consider the word failure itself. It's a strong word, packed with negative connotations, suggestive of catastrophe no matter how much we may chant "failure isn't fatal." Words don't lose their power very easily. Let's rethink the language a bit and consider setbacks and misfires and missed attempts...possible replacements abound. And they likely are more in line with the mindset we want to promote. Some may say I'm being much too literal in how I am looking at the word. Perhaps. But language matters.
     Once we have done that, let's dig a bit deeper. Given the implications of failure, it certainly isn't conducive to learning. After all, I'm sure we can agree that failure--however handled--creates stress. And Rule #8 in John Medina's Brain Rules is "Stressed brains don't learn the same way" (p 169). He doesn't mean for the better. Yes, some stress can help. But Medina explains how stress "hurts declarative memory (things you can declare) and executive function (the type of thinking that involves problem-solving). Those, of course, are the skills needed to excel in school and business" (p 178). He adds, "Quite literally, severe stress can cause brain damage in the very tissues most likely to help your children pass their SATs" (179).
     You may be ready to dismiss my point by saying, "Yes, but he says 'severe stress.'" Sure. But don't you think children today feel stress from incredible pressure to succeed in very tangible and public ways? And we're throwing around the idea of failure as somehow good for them. I think that ramps up the stress more than it helps them deal with life's adversities.
     Plus I happen to believe that we learn better when we experience success. When we do something well, reflect on how we did it, rinse and repeat. Of course, part of that process necessitates considering what didn't work. It's much easier to do that when not sorting through what has been casually labeled a failure. The neurotransmitters most associated with the maintenance of mental health--serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine--are released ruing more positive activities. Meanwhile, the levels of adrenaline and cortisol released during stress can cause damage if the stress is chronic. More particularly, cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling the ability to learn and remember.
     Please understand that I am not advocating taking it too easy on students. I believe kids like to jump for high bars. It's about what sort of learning experiences we create for them. Medina cites studies which show that "a certain amount of uncertainty can be good for productivity, especially for bright, motivated employees. What they need is a balance between controllability and uncontrollability. Slight feelings of uncertainty may cause them to deploy unique problem solving strategies" (188). I'd argue this holds true for students as well.
     Throughout that process we must be extremely careful about our words and our actions. If we aren't, the students are not the only ones who will have experienced failure. We will have failed them.