Monday, October 27, 2014

Ego Tripping

Since I attended the fantastic Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute a couple of weeks ago, the idea for this post has been popping in and out of my mind. Usually when that happens, I jot down notes in my journal, hoping that someting takes shape well enough to produce a post. Not this time, however--no notes, no plan, no real idea of where this may go. So excuse me if it gets away from me. That's because I feel some trepedation about this post; in fact, I'm even reluctant to write it. I easily could come across as a rather pompous jerk in here. But since that probably happens too often anyway, I'm going to go for it.

During the conference many clear themes emerged, but one stands out in how it has resonated since then. Empathy. The concept is simple enough. And in education one would expect loads of it wafting through our schools like enticing bakery smells. Like so many things, however, the theory is simple. The practice is not. So what trips us up? Ego.

Please don't misundersttand. I want to clarify immediately that I'm not calling educators raging narcissists or massive egomaniacs. Are some? Of course. Just as some of anything likely are. However, I truly believe most are not and, in fact, went into the profession becasue they are not--that they have a strong desire to serve others before themselves. But they are human, and humans are very ego-driven creatures. It's part of our deepest survival instincts going back to early humanoid stages, and it remains embedded in our basic make-up. For a simple example, think about the pleasure tied to the serotonin that courses through us when someone favorites a Tweet of likes a Facebook post.

Certainly that's harmless. It's even necessary in some ways. I mean, imagine if you never received any affirmation. The danger comes when the ego trips us on the journey towards fulfillment of our larger mission as educators. What are some of the tell-tale signs? Not listening well, if at all. Closed-mindedness to new ideas. Believing one has all the answers. Negativity and cynicism. Those are the extremes, but they can occur.

The problem can begin in a way that seems harmless. It probably even is...until it runs amok. The emphasis on my. My students, my classes, my curriculum, my lessons--overuse of the pronoun signals a shift in priorities. At the very least, it certainly suggests a teacher-centered--perhaps even dominated--classroom. The slope gradually becomes even more slippery, to the point where the teacher's wants and needs can completely obscure the student experience. When that happens, teachers pile on work without considering the cumulative effect of students' outside lives and don't coordinate major assignments. They may fail to collaborate or to share professionally. Sometimes they become jealous of each other. Meanwhile, their empathy evaporates.

A few weeks ago Grant Wiggins posted a reflection by a veteran teacher who shadowed a student. It's gone viral; and people have reacted as if this were an eye-opening, even shocking revelation that kids' days are exhausting and full of passive listening and being chided, often sarcastically. I've shadowed students many times. Luckily I've worked in healthy schools, so there wasn't much negativity--but I'd feel worn out by lunch. Even if I hadn't done that, I don't think the post would have surprised me. All one really has to do is think about what a typical day must be like for a student in even the best schools. Loads of highlights, for sure; but plenty of regimentation and performance pressure as well. Then throw in all the stuff besides academics. Add the homework.

I think sometimes we become so caught up in our jobs that we easily forget to consider the experience through their eyes. Why does this happen? Well, I don't think there is a single answer to that. Some of it is the same reason such behavior can happen in any area. We all, for example, can probably think of stories of bosses who micromanage and demand complete control. However, I don't think that explains the issue in education. I think a primary explanation is a bit more ironic.

It's because so many teachers care so much and give so, so much of themselves. Simply put, they want the best for their students and believe so passionately in the importance of the work that they can develop a sort of tunnel vision. The focus can become narrow and myopic, the sense of urgency swelling beyond reason. Without realizing it, a teacher can seem to believe, "I have to finish these kids this year"; when our real goal should be helping them grow in ways that insure their learning never ends.

I'm not sparing heads and other administrators from this analysis. Yes, our roles involve considering the larger picture, and we often have more pieces of the puzzle than others. That, however, can just as easily lead to our failing to realize what the daily life of a teacher may be like. I try hard to remember how technology has made the job much more demanding in some ways, particularly when it comes to the type of communication families may expect. Plus there are ongoing changes in curricula and pedagogy. Most are for the better and should be encouraged, but it is demanding.

The balance necessary is a delicate mix. Everyone needs a degree of affirmation; that's natural and even vital to a healthy ego and sense of self. But the ego can be fragile, often tied to our being rather emotional creatures. One point to consider is the source of fulfillment, and that should align with mission. We ned to ask continually, "What's best for kids?" That doesn't necessitate being totally selfless. Actually, it a Zen sort of way, it relates to a saying I shared with a group of new heads recently in a leadership seminar: "Shrink yourselves so that others may grow."* For real educators that's the most nutritious way of feeding one's ego.

*Unfortunately, I cannot recall where I first learned this saying or the root source.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Greater Expectations Post Changing the Odds Conference

     For the past two days I have enjoyed the great privilege of attending the Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute. This is a group of over 600 community and business leaders "committed to transforming kids' lives." They now run two schools in Dallas, and their success rate is very high, with their students going on to graduate high school at much higher rates than other public school students (other supporting data here). The key is that Momentous focuses on kids' social-emotional well-being.
     Simply because of the amazing line-up of speakers, I knew the conference would be a treat (even if I had to miss Wendy Mogel at the end). I'd heard some of them before, and I'd read about some of the others. I'll cite several of them as this post proceeds. Pieces of the conference are coming together in a way that speaks loudly and clearly to what whole-child, modern education should be about. This post is my first attempt to weave that tapestry, so forgive the dangling threads. They are all coming together under the idea of expectations.
     Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators, is always an energetic and dynamic speaker. After pointing out how Google allows people to be the architects of their own learning, he stressed that "it's not about what you know; it's about what you can do." I found myself thinking about this in terms of how schools often assess, even when using more project-based approaches. We say we assess because we want to see what students can do. I agree, and I see how important this is when it comes to certain essential skills. We must, for example, make sure a child is learning to read proficiently. A students must learn basic numeracy. However, too frequently we assess students within a rigid framework based on our preset determinations for their performance. Overly strict guidelines and rubrics are two examples. Some will argue that those help students know what is necessary to experience success. Yes...but within limits. It risks limiting the possibilities of what they can achieve. This coexists with the "single curriculum" that Wagner says he sees across most schools, driven by standardized measures of accountability and notions of success.
     Think about the typical school project, even a relatively open-ended one, and compare it to these two examples shared by Ron Berger, chief program officer of Expeditionary Learning and author of An Ethic of Excellence. He told of the young teens from Springfield, MA, who did energy audits in their school district and saved them over $150,000, and were then asked to expand their work on a larger scale. Even more amazing were some Chicago elementary students who lived in the center of an area riddled with gun violence. They campaigned against it, even approaching gangs to put down their weapons and for there to be a day without any shootings. It worked in their neighborhood. They also produced a beautiful book commemorating neighborhood angels working to lessen the violence.
     Yes, extreme and amazing examples, but also illustrative. When we let them, kids can do amazing things. They epitomize Berger's opinion that "everyone wants to create something original, beautiful, and of value." So why limit that? Why be surprised when they do? That says something about our expectations, and it speaks loudly to those young people hearing the message. Do I believe all kids will go out and do something such as those two wonderful stories? Not necessarily. But I believe each could. I'm not sure I'd want someone who doesn't working with my kids. But too many people don't. Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers, David and Goliath) talked about how we have a national fixed mindset, one that causes us to overlook all sorts of talent, which harms us individually and collectively.
      Part of the problem is that teachers are accustomed to pointing out what's wrong with something. Marking points off, if you will. And, as Dr. Rick Hanson explained, the brain is hard-wired to latch on to adversity more readily than other experiences. Since experience leads to cortical thickening, this leads to the type of mind-brain connection that we don't want. It reaffirmed both scinetifically and emotionally why I have concerns with the current, I hope faddish, emphasis on failure in school. Handled correctly, this can build resilience. But the effects can prove devastating, as captured in the riveting story of her life told by Consuelo Castillo Kickbusch, who grew up poor and abused, only to be affirmed in her late teens that she was very bright. Give the encouragement and put in the right environment, she became the first woman commissioned in the Texas ROTC and had a star twenty-year military career. And that brings me back to the Wagner quotation in the third paragraph, Yes, he's right, but per the maxim, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Educators must create the environment in which young people can thrive in all parts of their lives--mind, body, and soul.
     And that comes down to expectations. Expectations not just for academic performance, but expectations for how we are going to treat each other as individuals of worth. As individuals who will do great things. We should never discount the possibilities of what any young person can achieve. After all, I'm writing this just a couple days after seventeen-year-old Malala became the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.