Friday, December 2, 2016

Re-Evolution as a Biped

       Since I tore my Achilles tendon on October 1, I have gone through a series of methods of mobility: two crutches, knee scooter, walking boot with two crutches, walking boot with one crutch, walking boot by itself. Sometimes I switch between modes depending on how far I have to go and how sore my ankle is. This past Sunday I showed up at church with just my boot, prompting a friend to gush, "You've re-evolved as a biped!"
       Yes, I have been very grateful to be back on my own two feet, even in limited fashion. The injury has been as brutal as I've always heard. Beyond the physical part, it's also been hard to know how much of a burden this has placed on other people and their generosity. Plus I can be a pretty self-absorbed patient. I am truly grateful for their kindness. And at moments I'm tempted to keep crutches with me because of the sympathy they can provoke. But I hope I'm never on them again, for the sake of myself and others.
       Currently I am learning how to walk again without any bracing or support. I mean that literally. I really didn't expect this part to come so slowly, although it makes sense given the nature of the injury and length of total bracing. I have to think about each step and stride, making sure I go heel-toe, aiming for equal paces, trying not to have any hitches or leg-drags. Forwards and backwards. On a treadmill and across the floor. I draw inspiration from recalling when my children learned to walk, how they were very tentative until it all clicked and they took off.
       Recently the experience has me considering teachers and some of what I suspect many of them have been feeling during this time of rapid change and the implications for schools. I suspect many feel as if they are having to learn to walk all over again. But while I'm striving to regain my normal and natural stride, in many ways they are being asked to develop entirely new gaits. Think about trying to rewire years of muscle memory and feeling as if you had to perform new motions flawlessly after just a few tries, if not sooner. While I still advocate change and want to see it occur faster, perhaps I have more empathy now.
       Of course, as with most things--and I may become dreadfully platitudinous here--conquering any challenge depends on our attitudes. At my physical therapy appointments, sometimes I see a guy who looks to be around twenty years old. He's lost his right arm, and he seems to be training other parts of his body to compensate. I've never spoken with him, and his eyes are distant. But he goes through his exercises with solid determination. It's trite to say this, but...yes, my injury has been a complete drag; yet I still have a complete right leg. I have the chance to rehab my injury and come back perhaps even stronger.
       As teachers and school learn to wend their ways through all the pathways of this emerging world, we have to embrace all the possibilities. Naturally some of those trigger fear. Look beyond that shroud, though, and it's gloriously exciting. After all, how many true chances do we ever have to re-evolve?

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Post-Election Challenge for Educators

       After the recent presidential election, as a school leader I felt the need to share some thoughts with faculty and staff. Their reaction has prompted me to post it here as well. I hope it provides some food for thought, a bit of comfort, and a ray of optimism:

Dear St. John’s,

            Obviously the recent Presidential election has triggered strong reactions across our nation. Naturally, that holds true for many at St. John’s, a school full of passionate, thoughtful people who hold diverse perspectives.
            At such times, people experience myriad emotions, all valid and needing to be worked through. Doing so may take some of us a long time. Perhaps like me you find yourself swinging wildly across a gamut of feelings while groping to make sense of it all.  If your candidate lost, you may be angry and despairing. If your candidate won, you may feel joyful and misjudged. You may wonder about people you have considered colleagues and friends. Whatever the case, we must not let recent events divide us. Always we should uphold our fifth tenet of Episcopal education to be “an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected.” Such respect begins with striving to understand. If we don’t, we tend to demonize.
            Even before the campaign, our nation was beginning to fracture, mainly because of fear. We live in what’s been called “the age of anxiety.” Depending on our particular circumstances, we tremble with fears real and imagined. They are personal, often intense. Fear can overwhelm everything else. It causes that fight-or-flight reflex. It lurks in the reptilian, most primal stem of our brains.
            We have evolved far beyond that. We can rise to our better nature, to evoke our higher angels. We can gather our courage and tap into the unique human spirit comprised of heart, mind, and soul. It allows for rationality and empathy and forgiveness and compassion and love. It urges us to seek unity in an ongoing search for the ideal, with hope a shining beacon.
            Such optimism propels our individual and collective mission as educators.  The challenge of this historical moment is how we seize it to become better educators in all aspects of our lives.  To educate shares its etymology with educe, meaning “to bring out something latent.”  Our ultimate calling is to educe that which is potentially awesome, not only in our students but also in ourselves, in each other, and in our nation. I urge that we strengthen our resolve to do just that. Thus we will foster the safety and healing and love our world needs, now and in the future.
            In the meantime, if you wish to talk about this or anything else, as always I’m here for you.

Sincerely,
--Mark

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Leadership Reminders From a Torn Achilles

       One of my favorite songs by Lou Reed is "Sick of You." I'm sure I'm thinking of it right now because after almost four weeks, I'm absolutely sick of dealing with things having to do with my ruptured Achilles tendon. In the song Reed gives a long list of cultural issues that disgust him; and I could do the same about my situation, but I try never to be a whiner. Instead, I try to keep in mind one particular lyric from the song: "They say the bad makes the good / and there's something to be learned / in every human experience." Adopting that mindset, I've been strongly reminded of three key leadership ideals in the form of metaphors.

  • We frequently hear about the idea of leaning into discomfort. When one is truly leading, as much joy as there can be, there is always a degree of discomfort. Because of the heavy boot I wear 24 hours a day and the need to keep my foot elevated, I'm always in some physical discomfort, and I twist myself into some yoga-like positions seeking relief. It comes to varying degrees and lasts only for a while. But I have to endure it as part of my treatment.
  • I've had to cede some control, even beyond not being able to drive when I never like being a passenger. I know it's weird, but I enjoy cleaning the kitchen and loading the dishwasher, mainly because those tasks are among the few things in my life that have a definite completion and satisfaction point. Plus I like to load things in the dishwasher a certain way. (I know what you're thinking...) But now other people are putting stuff in there, in places I wouldn't. Lo and behold, the stuff is coming out just as clean.
  • It's a daily reminder to take the long view, let the process unfold, and celebrate the little victories along the way. I've been told total recovery is six months before I can resume full activity. Yet I was thrilled when I could once again wiggle my toes after about two weeks. Still, I have to learn not to push things. At my first post-surgery check, the doctor said I had twice as much flexibility as usual at that point and I may get in a walking boot sooner than planned. Being the over-achiever, I asked if there were any exercises I could do to ensure that happening. The doctor smiled and simply said, "No. Let things heal."
       The Achilles tendon, of course, is named after the great Greek hero Achilles, who slay Hector outside the gates of Troy. He was invulnerable except for that one small spot in his heel, and he eventually died from a wound caused by an arrow. From that we have the term Achilles' heel, meaning a person's weak spot.
       And we all have them, just as we have our strengths. The challenge lies not in ignoring or even trying to eliminate our weaknesses. That's impossible--and I'd say even undesirable, as they are part of what makes us human. What really matters is how we cope with them, particularly in times of high stress. If we do that right, not only do we survive the situation, but we can learn and grow from it and become even stronger, as people and as leaders. I hope this post serves as a reminder of that, just in a much less physically painful way than I got it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Independent Schools We Need--Now More Than Ever

        The current presidential campaign, particularly in the past few weeks, has many schools wondering how to respond. They're wondering about the trickle-down effect, from kids' behavior prompted by poor adult modelling to topics in civics classes. The worry may increase after tomorrow night's debate. It's understandable, and some schools have suffered quite unsavory incidents. Plenty of resources and guidance exists in various places, so I don't intend to offer much in the way of specific here (no "top ten ways to deal with political nonsense"). It's not my real point. Besides, I suspect the answer lies in some things that have always been true about proper behavior and great education. And while the angst is genuine in the immediate, I hope it also prompts some larger reflection, especially for independent schools.
       As part of that reflection, first we have to acknowledge that this is not a new problem, suddenly roaring into existence the past few weeks or even few months. It's existed throughout the campaign. In fact, it's become politics as normal for a long time. I wrote about it last January in this piece and in another post linked within it three years before that. Our political system has become one of anger and divisiveness, with black-and-white thinking spurring hard-line action. Meanwhile, the populace likes to throw stones at politicians. But cultures, like individuals, reap what they sow. The whole thing feels like too many Internet fora come to life. In a way, in their past independent schools have been a part of the problem, given the status many held as bastions of privilege, ensconced on our glorious campuses and blissfully ignoring social issues.
       But in our modern manifestations, that is no longer the case. In times such as the current one, the best thing we can do for ourselves, along with the families and students we serve, is to re-emphasize and commit to what independent schools are supposed to be about. Yes, our missions play out in different ways within particular cultures; and the work is exceptionally complex and ethereal. But we can distill it to three key qualities:

  • earnest, dogged intellectualism within the context of holistic human development;
  • critical examination of topics via rational discourse;
  • humane, civil behavior guided by a firm ethical underpinning.
They are those things so missing from the campaign and often from our culture. So it's not the time for us to be blindly partisan, but to live up to our names and be independent. We have to resist the larger culture so our students can grow up to be the ones to improve it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

From PD to the Classroom

       We have our interim reports due to our accrediting agencies, and one of the questions asks us to describe the school's approach to professional development, along with a summary of some specific examples. Just to see what people would say, I sent a query to all St. John's employees. While I'm always proud of the people here, their responses made me especially so. I was struck not only by the incredible amount of professional development they had done--whether as part of our in-house activities or own their own--but also by how much they had reflected on it and grown as educators through it. It epitomized a communal growth mindset.
       One other point made an impression on me: the incredible range of activities.People had read books, articles, blogs. Attended conferences and workshops. Collaborated with colleagues here and elsewhere. Studied YouTube videos. Joined groups on Pinterest. Attended an EdCamp. Set up professional portfolios. Visited other classes and schools. Joined Twitter to follow threads and participate in chats. Those are just the things popping into my mind right now, and I know there are others. Furthermore, great range existed within each of those activities.
       In many ways, we're talking about the ideal learning scenario. People were operating under some broad objectives tied to our vision for the school. But at the same time, they could pursue learning per their particular motivation and and personalities and preferences. Because of that, people embraced the professional development opportunities and actually, well, developed.
       And if it's good for adults, might it not be good for kids? Yes, the question is rhetorical. So now I'm wondering how might we make more of the student experience work that way?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Old Metaphor Renewed

       For the first time in at least a couple of years, the orchid in my office (which used to be at home) has started to bloom. I'm not sure how or why.



But it seemed appropriate to refer to a four-and-a-half-year old post.


Monday, September 19, 2016

More Vivid Verbs: Language of Education

       Shortly after starting Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, I tweeted:
To which Kevin Ruth (Chief Executive of European Council of International Schools) replied:
Potent, indeed.I'm making my way through it more slowly than I do most books, as I find myself drifting into wild speculation based on the not-so-long-ago inconceivable scenarios Kelly lays out. They have brewed a concoction of giddy anticipation and some plain terror.
       The noun-verb metaphor holds together much of the book. It appeals to me greatly, in large part because of my background as an English teacher. I'm particularly sensitive to how language affects how we perceive and act. It is our primary cognitive tool, and I've enjoyed watching students debate whether language drives thought or vice-versa. On a less ethereal level, as a writing teacher I preached, "The verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. Make them vivid!" Often I would tell students they needed to aim for fewer words overall but relatively more verbs.
       Considering how language reflects our thinking about education is nothing new. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith points out how many of the words we use have their ties back to our schooling model being inspired by the Prussian army's training protocols: "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 in mathematics, and wars against illiteracy." That we use this language so naturally, Smith argues, shows how deeply ingrained such thinking is. This notion has stuck with me since I first read it nearly twenty years ago, and I've often referred to it in various ways. Kelly's line has sparked some more particular consideration, with focus on the idea of nouns and verbs as applied to education.
       Nouns dominate our educational language. When we talk about  a student, we talk about, for example, "a seventh grader" or a "high school junior." Sometimes we individualize a bit and say the student is "a visual learner." Learning (as a gerund) equals the accumulation of lessons and facts, and that learning occurs in a defined space such as a classroom. We use the text to deliver the curriculum, emphasis on the definitive article, as if these are immutable, near-sacred objects. These examples, especially when linked with the many others I could cite, erect a rigid, finite framework.
       The issue is captured perfectly by the practice of grading, even in the best type of assessments such as performance tasks or open prompts or project-based studies. I cite those because they involve students doing something--usually multiple things--as they construct knowledge and skills and understandings. But then we, often per the rubric which clarifies the standards, slap a grade on a piece of work. And what is a grade? A desperate, ultimately futile attempt to capture the quality of a bunch of verbs in a single noun.
       Like grades, words are how we try to express what we really mean. They connote what we deem important. But they are intrinsically limited. Mention a table, and it's quite unlikely any two people see exactly the same object. Become more specific, i.e. desk, and we gain a bit more control over the message. I intentionally used a noun, but the same idea applies to verbs, such as run versus jog versus sprint.  The more precise we can be, the closer we come to accurate expression not only of what we mean but also of what we value.
       Writing chock full of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs without vigorous verbs drags somnolently. It fails to inspire. It deflates. It doesn't probe our human essence. Vigorous writing compels us to play in an imaginarium, a place grounded in reality with innumerable paths meandering into possibilities. There we question and explore and create and hypothesize and analyze and... Thereby we learn. Shouldn't those be the words of education?
       More vivid verbs, please.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Guardian Angels, Friends, and Enemies

       In 1993 at the Westtown Seminar led by the late David Mallery--I'm so specific because "Westtown" and "David Mallery" will make certain readers feel a warm glow--I heard The Rev. Paula Wehmiller speak.She challenged us to rethink the concept of a guardian angel. Instead of being a force/person who looks out for and protects you, she suggested one's guardian angel may be the person who most drove them crazy. She asked us to consider that the person annoyed us so much because they were forcing us to face things about ourself that we would rather not.
       During some recent conversations with other school leaders, we were talking about how deep relationships can become. Most often they are very rewarding, very positive. Just last night I saw one of my former trustees whom I hadn't seen since he rolled off the board and we warmly embraced right away. While the working relationship remains paramount, it really does become friendship in unique ways. But leadership inevitably means making some enemies. Of course, we're not talking about mortal feuds; but sometimes relationships break in ugly fashion, animosity lingering longer than it should. That's especially true when one has to make big, thorny decisions...though it can happen even with small ones. It goes back to the adage that you can't please everyone, and sometimes people on either or both sides of an issue refuse to move on. Problems can become particularly fractious when people feel their children are being wronged somehow. Wounded egos heal slowly.
       I found myself recalling how Paula flipped the guardian angel concept, and I wondered if there is a similar way to consider one's enemies. A bit of the guardian angel concept applies in that we should consider their points, our decision and delivery, et cetera. After all, we should be able to learn from any situation. We can strive to separate the rational and the emotional while acknowledging the validity of each. Ultimately, we can struggle to truly forgive. Maybe we can even do it. But I wonder if any but the absolute best among us can ever fully trust the person again or see the person without a tinge of "enemy."
       That being the case, another question emerges: How does one keep the enemy from winning? The best leaders reflect regularly, often focused on that which has gone wrong. They can become fixated on an enemy and perseverate in unhealthy, unproductive ways. There exist many time-honored ways. Focusing on the positive. Celebrating victories. Mindfulness. Expressing gratitude. My personal trick is that before I leave my office, I think of three things that went well during the day.
       Reflecting on all this, I've thought of another way to think of a leader's enemies. It comes with the caveat that the leader has acted virtuously. If so, perhaps the enemies become badges of honor--living, breathing signs that the leader has done the right thing. Perhaps it meant taking a stand on an ethical issue. Defending an employee. Protecting a student. Adopting a new curriculum. In a school, who knows what the divisive issue could be?
       This reminds us that perhaps one quality is most vital to leadership: integrity. I mean that in two senses. The first is the common ethical meaning of the word. The second has to do with how everything thing is a leader must be integrated in the whole of that person. In other words, the leader must stand for something. Then, rather than toss and turn, he or she can enjoy the sleep of the just.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Creative Limits?

       Recently I finished re-reading Bruce Nussbaum's Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. Towards the end he writes,

We need to trade in an economics of efficiency for an economics of creativity. Because creativity and uncertainty exist outside the dominant economic model, there is little room for encouraging the role that start-ups play in economic growth. Yet it's start-ups--and larger corporations that haven't lost their connection to their founders--that are, by and large, driving modern innovation and job creation. Why shouldn't our economic model reflect that? We should be moving away from a model of economics based on the 'culture of control' that is embedded in the efficient market theory toward a new model that embraces a 'culture of chance' (237).
I saw that I had made a note: "Could make for great link to education. Blog post?" I'd never written the post, but the ideas certainly have threaded their way throughout this entire blog. A little bit later, Nussbaum raises a question with which I've also struggled: "How do we assess creativity?" (252). He cites several encouraging examples, ranging from portfolios to certain types of performance tasks. I'm proud to say that we use many of them here at St. John's. At the same time, though, while such assessments mark clear improvement in this area, I found myself thinking about how they can set us up for the same traps that have plagued education for so long.
     Soon after, I posted this Tweet:
Responses were varied. One I particularly appreciated came from Adam Fachler, who sent me a link to a piece by Grant Wiggins.
His response captures how, as great as it can be, sometimes Twitter is per its nature an unsatisfactory medium. This topic is not one explored well in short-form thinking. I also know that I won't have done it justice when this post ends.
       A response from Lee Finklestein captured part of the dilemma:
I completely agree with Lee, but I also think we need to extend his thinking in some clear and important directions. Beyond creativity being so highly contextual and nuanced, any time we apply standards and/or expectations in any form, we create limiting frameworks. They can affect how we assess, and they can greatly influence--consciously or subconsciously--the work of the creator. We automatically look for certain qualities and/or we try to please the audience. It becomes that much harder for us to see with an open, uncluttered mind. That is especially true when the assessment has some sort of stake attached to it. The subsequent anxiety can stifle the creativity even more. After all, we know the countless stories of those--especially artists such as Picasso or Pollock--who suffered rejection. I suspect the majority of us don't really accept the creative until somehow it has survived to become nearly mainstream because that artist not only touched upon something so human, but also managed to persevere. And how do you measure that?
       Let's take a concrete example from a junior level high school English class. Think about how you would have dealt with this. The course focuses on various aspects of language--what it is, how we use it, the various issues. For their first essay the students were told to write on any topic related to the novel they'd read. No rubric existed, but students were told to explore the boundaries of language and take some chances. Most students make some noble attempts, but for the most part stayed within fairly universal essay structures. Except one young lady. She wrote her essay on a box. I don't mean on a box, as in the topic was a box. I mean literally on a box. An introductory paragraph was on the top. Each side has a paragraph on it. She had set it up so the order made sense depending on where you chose to begin. In the middle of each side was a small door. When you opened the door, you found a small icon about the paragraph's primary example. The bottom of the box had a concluding paragraph. I wish I had a picture so you could see just how beautiful it was, and it was intellectually profound. But I have to admit, when I first received it, I wasn't sure what in the world to do with it in terms of assessment...even though I recognized the true creativity. I also admired the student's guts. Not surprisingly, when she received positive feedback, more students took such risks. If I had been using a typical rubric, would she have created such a work? Perhaps. If she had, how would I have graded her? I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this and can follow the lead to the logical conclusion of the fear mentioned at end of my first paragraph.
       The question for education, then, is quite daunting, especially if we truly consider the implications. Yes, we have to wonder about how we assess creativity. Perhaps more importantly, we need to ask--and answer quite honestly--how creative we ourselves are willing to be.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Employee Sketchnotes from Summer Reading

       This past summer our employees chose from a menu of books for their "required" professional reading. The titles people chose were Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, Susan Cain's Quiet; Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, Sir Ken Robinson's Creative Schools, 's Mahzarin Banaji's Blindspot, Marilee Adams' Teaching That Changes Lives, and Todd Rose's The End of Average. On our first day back people broke into small groups. (Some books had several groups; some one.) I then gave each group one poster-sized sheet of paper. The task: to produce a single-page sketchnote synthesis of their book. You can see all the results below. Once again, I'm blown away by the St. John's people.
       To share and expand the conversation, groups posted their sheets at various points around the school. When they did, another sheet of paper was put up for people to pose thought and questions so that we could expand each group's conversation. Now I invite you to do the same in the comments section of this post.















Saturday, August 13, 2016

Joy of Summer Endiing

       In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, "I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free" (48). I immediately thought of Twain's famous line, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education. Also, perhaps because school is shortly to resume--teachers come back Tuesday--the line made me think about the joys of summer.
       I've always worked through the summer*, especially now that I lead a school. But it's a very different kind of pace and energy. The hours shift, and while there is plenty to do, the tugs are not as urgent or multi-directional. Basically, summer provides a gift of time. Time to read, to reflect, to dream. It's restorative. It creates space for moments of serendipity, of random connections. The professional and the personal no longer feel in frantic competition. Instead, they sometimes feed each other symbiotically. I had one such moment this summer on our family vacation. We had hiked to Inspiration Point in the Grand Tetons. As we gazed across Jenny Lake towards the distant horizon, suddenly a puzzle I'd been struggling with at school came together for me.
       Coates' reference to the library suggest another way summer benefits me so much: I have the chance to read even more voraciously than usual. Beyond that, consider the way I go at it. I have a running list of books I hope to read. It's rather esoteric, built as I see different things I find at all interesting. During the school year, I choose from it quite pointedly, picking books I see as a priority for work. But during the summer I choose more randomly, checking the public library's database to see what's available. When I go to pick up my selections, I usually end up with something unplanned. In fact, two of my favorite books from this summer (McKeown's Essentialism and Seelig's Insight Out) were ones I discovered near something else I was getting.
       When I enjoy such moments that feed my autodidactic self, I wonder why school can't be more that way. Why we can't allow students to set more of the agenda, to pursue their own interests, to make it all more personal. And I think we can...to a degree. While school should be about kids, it can't be all kid driven for one simple reason. Kids don't know. Or, more accurately, they don't know enough. Just as I rely on mentors and experts to steer my learning to a certain degree, kids need that even more. As with most of life, the challenge lies in finding that sweet spot between structure and freedom, between the individual and the collective. In various forms it has vexed philosophers for millennia.
       And it's all wonderful, important reverie, the likes of which educators really only have time for in the summer. Then we jump back into the reality of doing the work. And this is not a lament. Quite the opposite, actually. As Coates reminds us, engaging in in the work of life immerses us in "the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope" (71). Life is not a thought experiment. It's the hands-on, make-a-mess, clean-it-up, learn-and-do-better work of helping young people make a life. What work could have more meaning and purpose? So no matter how many joys fill the summer, one of the greatest always comes when it ends.

*Contrary to what it seems the general public thinks, I've never known any good teachers who don't work on school stuff in some form or fashion during the summer.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Litmus Test for Leadership

       In many ways, leadership is complicated. And the larger the organization, the more public the role, the more complicated it becomes. Still, no matter what variables, it's multi-faceted. Psychology, sociology, vision, small details, policy--we could create a lengthy list of all the elements a leader must consider. That said, leadership can be distilled to one overarching objective: fostering and preserving the desired culture.The litmus test comes when something or someone threatens that delicate framework.
       Observing the US presidential campaign this year has provided some important lessons in leadership. Now, I suspect you may be thinking that I am about to join either the anti-Trump or anti-Clinton side. I'm not. Nor am I about to defend and/or support either one of them. I could, but I won't, even though I have my opinions. But I am going to focus on Trump's campaign in making my argument because it captures a larger question about leadership: when to take the strongest possible stance despite the possibility of personal loss.
       While many express surprise at his becoming the nominee, perhaps we shouldn't be. After all, in deciding to follow, people often become a cult of personality. (Anyone else remember the song by Living Colour?) Plus Trump has tapped into what seem increased levels of frustration, fear, and loss. Those are much easier to whip up than confidence and optimism, meaning they can overwhelm rationality. Ironically, in a very basic way--though coming at it from a very different angle--Trump is delivering the same message that Obama used to fuel his successful run in 2008--that politics as usual is broken and we need change.
       Of course, that very different angle is what has so many people upset about Trump. His comments and tweets on just about every topic have infuriated people. These include many prominent Republicans; they worry that they have lost their party and may never get it back. People like party leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell state their "strong disagreement" with things that Trump says, but they go only so far in their denunciation. As leaders--as the educators of their followers--everything they do sends messages subtle and overt.
       I understand the political delicacy of their position. But I also know, no matter how hard it may be, what I would need to do with an employee who were to rip at my school's cultural threads. It's part of honoring all those who have built something and all those who strive to preserve its best qualities. If the leader doesn't do that, it slowly crumbles and then collapses.
       Meanwhile, many wonder if the latest Trump-ism will be the straw that breaks the back of his campaign.  I wonder at what point supposed leaders have flunked the litmus test.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Creative Discipline

       For the past year, here at St. John's Episcopal School we've been immersed in the early stages of some large-scale marketing work. After the initial research, we moved into all the areas of branding, design, copy, et cetera. The process has proven fascinating, and I've learned a great deal. As part of that, I've spent extensive time talking with various "creatives." Fortunately, we've engaged incredibly talented people for this work, and I'm in awe of their work. I've also enjoyed learning about them and their work because I've been calling for more creativity in schools for quite a while. (See this or this.) It's in line with the work of people such as Tony Wagner and Sir Ken Robinson.
       One thing which has surprised me--but probably shouldn't have--is how tied to process these people are. They are, contrary to the assumption and stereotypes many people have, quite committed to certain rituals and disciplines. In fact, in the only case where we weren't pleased with some of the work we received, I realized we had basically forced the creative to operate in a way that was not his normal methodology and thus out of his comfort zone.
       I've read enough about creativity that I should have realized this basic truth. Creativity, Inc, for example, spells out in great detail the systematic process that Pixar uses. Most writers and artists have very specific work routines, whether the times they work or how they lay out materials or follow certain steps.Some of this is the sort of exacting discipline required for success in any area. Too often people forget, or perhaps never understood, that creative pursuits share a great deal with other areas. We seem to think that creative work is somehow different, that it strikes at random moments of inspiration; and that when it strikes, somehow stunning art suddenly appears.
     But in many ways creative work is not that different than any other. Just as an athlete must practice a skill over and over, a painter works on brush strokes. Just as a scientist studies all the theory in their field, a musician studies past songs from many genres. More than that, it's simply a matter of getting the work done. And a great deal of it, because the misses far outnumber the hits. Picasso produced 79 different drawings in coming up with Guernica. In fact, while we know of several famous Picasso works, his total output numbered more than 1800 paintings, 1200 sculptures, 2800 ceramics, and 12000 drawings. In music, beyond their noted compositions, Mozart composed over 600 pieces;, Beethoven, 650; Bach, over a 1000. Compare that to the number of papers of Einstein's 248 publications or patents of Edison's 1093 had real impact. So even beyond creativity, it's about persistence.
     It also affirms my belief that we can teach creativity. Or, to be more accurate, design educational experiences that nourish our innate creativity. Well, at least not tamp it down, let alone beat it out of us. There exist plenty of practical and philosophical arguments for this, and I don't need to reiterate them here.They all seem to have one underlying commonality: life as a work of art. How does that happen? Creative discipline. So perhaps as we rethink these intellectual conveniences that we call academic disciplines, we need to make creativity one of the new disciplines of future education.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Shocked Out Of Silence

                As an educator, I’ve long held schools should teach students how to think, not what to think. Such a high wire can prove tough on which to balance, especially with older students when exploring meaty topics. Some of my proudest teaching moments came when, after particularly heavy discussions, students said they couldn’t figure out my exact beliefs about the issue at hand. Having incredible power to influence students, teachers must tread carefully. Quite often, that necessitates adopting as objective stance as one can. I feel this even more strongly as a head of school. It can be hard, both professionally and personally. You can grow frustrated with feeling that on certain subjects you must restrain, even silence yourself.
                The shootings in Dallas on July 7, 2016, have me reflecting on this stance. Dallas has been my home since 1990. Any time something extreme happens in your backyard rather than elsewhere, it ignites an ember previously only smoldering. St. John’s Episcopal School has a special relationship with some Dallas officers, as do a few employees in their personal lives. Furthermore, if my family had not been out of town, my daughter likely would have attended the peace march. I probably would have gone with her; my wife and son may have come. Our dinner conversations often become animated about political and social issues. We’ve all agonized over events of the past several years. My wife worries about what it means that for this generation of teens 9/11 is a first memory, the beginning of a grotesque panoply of violence around the world.
                It’s not just Dallas. In this country it’s Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Charleston, Orlando, Baltimore, Ferguson, Staten Island, San Diego, Newtown, assorted schools and universities. Abroad it’s Paris, London, Baghdad, Jakarta, Turkey, Jerusalem, Somalia, Tehran, Norway. As those are just the ones popping into my mind, the list is thus sadly incomplete. The cruel irony is while statistically we live in one of the safest eras ever, we feel quite the opposite. Perhaps our anxiety stems from the random yet not-so-random nature of the violence. The terrorists—and aren’t all these acts of mayhem acts of terror?—seem to strike anywhere at any time, yet with very specific intent. No group seems immune from someone’s bile. Our fear and loathing spike off the charts. Life seems to have reached some sort of tragic singularity, the real world and the worst of the Internet having merged. In such a climate, I derive a weird tinge of gratitude that I still can be shocked.
                We also shouldn’t be totally surprised by this happening in Dallas. Yes, we have progressed greatly over the past few decades. The marchers portrayed a diverse mosaic, protestors and police swapped flowers while taking selfies, and we saw a beautiful lovefest at Potter’s House. But we suffer from the same human vices as most areas. We remain a city deeply divided, and not just by the Trinity River. De facto segregation organizes our neighborhoods and public schools and churches and civic organizations. Dallas is called one of America’s gay-friendliest cities, yet homophobia is prevalent. And Dallas is one of the more liberal areas of Texas, where state officials see keeping transgender people in the “right” bathrooms as a top priority. Right now in Dallas—everywhere, I think—the hope is that the love found within the pain endures. Only then will come deeper, more systemic healing—from not just recent events, but also institutionalized wrongs.
                Education can provide a balm. For that, we have to rethink its purpose and embrace its possibilities. School can’t be just about measurable outcomes, test scores, securing employment, and international competitiveness. Education needs soul. An education that matters helps young people gradually discern how to lead a life full of meaning and purpose. That’s intensely personal. For many young people today, that means battling injustice. For example, they wisely reject the notion we should—or ever could—be color blind regarding race. Instead, they desire to see empathetically how all our individual differences affect the way we experience the world…and the myriad ways each of us can enrich the world. I’m proud St. John’s Episcopal School strives to be “an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected.”
                I still believe schools must walk a fine line. In reality all schools teach two general curricula. One is the explicit curriculum: the subjects, the defined program. The other is the implicit curriculum: the lessons a student discerns through watching adults and the cultural practices. While both matter, the latter has vaster implications. Thus, while we should not overtly proselytize or politicize, we can insist on some basic and universal human values. Ideally, a school encourages us to fly with our higher angels.
                I don’t pretend to have all the answers to our massive challenges. My current pain and confusion, combined with ongoing experience, erase any such quixotic fancy. After all, traces of festering rot have plagued humans forever. Still, I believe we can contain their spread. To draw strength these days, I find myself often recalling a story from earlier in my career, when I worked at another school. An administrator and I were dealing with a painful racial incident. As we sat in his office, he began to weep and stammered, “I’m trying so hard to deal with this as the head of the upper school and not as a black man.” Suddenly I had a tiny understanding of race in a way I never had before. As my own tears formed, I said, “You’re the head of upper school and you’re a black man. Don’t try to separate those two things. In fact, I think it’s going to be extra powerful for these kids to see how this incident has affected you in both ways.” He needed that permission not to silence part of himself. Once he had it, he helped us all move forward.
                Now I’m giving myself the same permission, even though I’m not sure exactly what it means as a head of school. I suspect it will be much like it was when I worked with students. I won’t preach or make sweeping declarations of truth. But I will ask many very pointed questions. I won’t be as silent. Then maybe together we can figure all this out.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hoping for Better Conversation

       On June 22, 2016, The Atlantic published "America's Not-So-Broken Education System." Contrary to what we see from too many education writers, the author points out several ways America's education system has improved slowly and steadily: improved teacher training, a more cohesive curriculum, and certain measurable outcomes. We could dispute his case and even the underlying philosophy; we could argue all of what he says may be true, but it's not good enough. I certainly maintain these bits of progress are not really worth celebrating all that much and we still have plenty to fix.
       But that's not really my point. The article prompted some new reflection on my dismay over the often nasty nature of dialogue about education. (Two examples: here and here.)* Granted, in many ways education presents a fairly easy targets. Even people not in the field offer strong opinions. I point out them out not because they shouldn't be commenting, but because I think they fail to grasp the complexity of what a school is trying to do. With the one-to-one teacher-student relationship complicated enough by itself, consider the mosaic of an entire school, especially ones as diverse as our typical public schools. Sometimes I'm a bit awed by how well many schools do in their circumstances, whether the myriad needs and backgrounds of their students or larger cultural forces. That seems forgotten amidst the negative criticism.
       Still, I generally agree with the basic content of much of the criticism. It's often based on legitimate concerns and frequently raises important questions. I ask them myself. My frustration grows for other reasons. The first is the tone and stance many of the critics regularly adopt: pure negativity, laced with snarkiness and sarcasm. There's something stereotypically adolescent about it. As much as I dislike the smugness, I'm more annoyed by what's usually missing.
       Ideas, answers, new models, solutions--those seldom appear. In other words, the critics, while great at pointing out problems, are not nearly as good at fixing them. Any ideas, even the better ones, remain overly general or simplistic. Certainly they fail to account for all the challenges of implementation, especially in a system as complex as a classroom, a school, a district. Yes, sometimes it's a communication issue, depending on medium or lack of larger context. Too often, though, it's attitudinal. I think of fans who slam professional athletes competing at the highest level.
       As frustrated as I am with "outside" people who operate this way, I become even more annoyed with "inside" ones who respond in certain ways. Perhaps they chuckle at the flippancy and scornful gibes. Perhaps they think they aren't part of the issue. Perhaps they shift blame to the system or administration or parents. It amounts to self-absolution. They seem to plead, "I would have ideas and make things better, but I don't have that power; I just have to accept the way it is even though I complain about it."
       That's when my mad morphs to sad. I don't think many of these people are by nature cynical. Many are probably crushed idealists. Whichever is the case, it can't be great for kids. However we want to break down mission or philosophy or purpose, education should be about helping kids become the best possible versions of themselves. That means empowering them to develop agency. Kids need educators who model that quality in purposeful, positive fashion.
       Yes, the challenges may seem insurmountable. But they're not. We know of amazing success stories, miracles conjured through all sorts of hocus-pocus. I certainly don't have the answers, illustrated by a rather motley resume of hits and misses as I keep swinging. I do know, however, a great place to start would be to insist on more mature, measured, meaningful ongoing conversation.

*I realize that someone could read this post and accuse me of hypocrisy based on what I am about to write. I'll take that chance and hope my overall records shows otherwise. If not, I need to rethink some things.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Leadership as Obsolescence

       A true paradox for most leaders in appointed positions is that, if you've done your job well, you render yourself obsolete. We are hired for a particular reason at a certain point in time, usually based on clear institutional needs and/or desires. A clear list of objectives thus exists; they may even be part of some larger strategic plan. Check off the items as you achieve them by using the skills in your toolkit and fly the mission accomplished banner. Then, however long that process, arrives the time for the next person to take over.
       That's a rational, utilitarian perspective. It makes sense, and it fulfills our desire for tangible progress. It's realistic. It's also too shallow.
       On some levels, working through a check list is relatively easy. It can become procedural, systematic; people comply with the items and do their jobs. But do they embrace them? That's where we start to sense the deeper reasons we should aspire to leadership as obsolescence. It's about culture. It's about what Peter Miller called "the smart swarm," those organizations which function like flocks and hives. They are in sync yet without an obvious hierarchy, the common goals leading to great efficiency fueled by each member's contribution. In a human institution this produces a virtuous cycle and subsequent long-term sustainability. Meanwhile, the leader fades into the background, having helped to create something that endures long after that person is gone.
       We can have a hard time looking at leadership this way. Daily minutiae obscures the horizon, and this stance demands the longest of views. Plus it's in our short-term interests to make ourselves seem indispensable. And certainly we need the right leaders at any given time.
       Can a leader avoid obsolescence? Perhaps so, although the way may involve another paradox, or at least some irony. It may take less ego, making things more about others than one's self. It may take more humility, realizing--and admitting--how little one actually knows. Then one can grow and learn and evolve right along with the institution. Because the truth is not that the institution needs that particular leader. When the culture is right, they benefit from each other.