Teach & Serve II, No. 11 – Failure Is an Option

Teach & Serve II, No. 11 – Failure Is an Option

October 19, 2016

Failure, under the right circumstances, is good for us and good for our students.

Apollo 13 is a wonderful movie. It has everything I love in film. It’s beautifully directed by Ron Howard, has a great cast featuring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinese, the Oscar nominated Kathleen Quinlan and Kevin Bacon and, those of us with minds for such things, remember Ed Harris (also nominated for an Academy Award) and his performance as NASA stalwart Gene Krantz. In fact, after “Houston, we have a problem” his line “Failure is not an option” is the most quoted bit of dialogue from the film.

apollo-13Remember the moment: the astronauts running out of oxygen, their ship seemingly irreparably damaged and the earth-bound engineers have to find a way to get them home. Certainly, in that moment, failure was absolutely not an option and fail the brainiacs at NASA did not. Astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew were brought safely back to Earth.

In our work as educators with our students and, perhaps, more pressingly, their families, do we sometimes err too much towards the idea that failure is not an option?

I am not talking about failing grades. We all understand the high stakes involved when we “fail” our students. The ramifications are tremendous and can have disastrous consequences for our students. Surely, some will receive these grades and will have to do what they can to recoup their losses. But this is not the failure of which I write.

If one is coming from the perspective that an educator does all she can to ensure that a student does not fail, I am in almost complete agreement. I almost completely support that perspective. I respond very, very well to teachers and administrators who believe no one should fail on their respective watches and put in place all the machinations to try to keep failure at bay. I hope we all do all we can to help our students succeed.

Do you read some hesitation here?

I am hesitant. I am hesitant to wholly endorse the idea that part of the role of educators is to eradicate failure.

When we fail at something – something about which we care and this is an important distinction (this entire post is predicated on the idea that good educators inspire students to care about their subjects and their work) – can we not learn from the process? Does our failure not often compel better effort and harder work in the future?

I would argue that it does. Our failure, in the hands of the right teacher, does inspire us to be better. It does inspire us to do better. Again, if the teacher has the trust of the student and has made the material relevant to the students’ life, failure is an option.

We know that our society mocks participation ribbons and critiques the “everyone is special” culture. We know that there is a line of thought that suggests that this sort of treatment of kids is making entire generations soft and is leaving them unprepared to face the “Real.” “World.”

I don’t know that I would go that far. But I do know that some failure, some striving, some reaching for that which has alluded our grasp and is difficult to attain is good for us.

Failure, under the right circumstances, is good for us and good for our students.

Though, I grant it would not have been good for those fellas on Apollo 13. For them, I am glad failure was not an option. For the rest of us, let’s create an environment in which it is.

EduQuote of the Week: October 17 – October 23, 2016

We cannot teach people anything. We can only help them discover it within themselves.

Galileo

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Teach & Serve II, No. 10 – Leaders Should Hold Themselves to the Highest Standards

Teach & Serve II, No. 10 – Leaders Should Hold Themselves to the Highest Standards

October 12, 2016

… we don’t meet these standards because we are being watched. We meet them because we know that meeting them makes us better leaders, more integrated leaders, more authentic leaders.

I, like many, am fatigued by our current political season. I am fatigued by the rhetoric. I am fatigued by the tone. I am fatigued by the analysis.

I am fatigued.

I am not an historian and my experience teaching history is limited to the terrific experience I had as part of a team taught American Literature/American History class. I leaned heavily upon my co-teachers for the history portion of the curriculum. My time instructing American Studies was spent, primarily, in the literature part of the course – for good reason. However, one does not need to be an historian to recognize that, of the many things lost in the current political climate, one thing that is certainly rarely discussed in any kind of real fashion is personal responsibility.

This is a damn shame. Truly. In a presidential election, our thoughts can be inspired. We ought to consider those who strive for the office of President leaders. If they have gotten far enough in their professions and in their lives to be “in the conversation,” then they should be leaders. Whether we agree with their platforms and outlooks, those we consider for this office ought to be, at the very least, leaders. They ought to hold themselves to the highest standards of professional conduct, to be sure. Some would argue that they ought to hold themselves to the highest standards of personal conduct as well.

I know. There is much to say about that this election cycle and those embroiled in it.

That’s not the purpose of this post. Better, smarter people than I can take this on.

Instead of placing our focus on our upcoming choice, let us focus more close to home.

We are teachers, administrators, educators. We are, in a very real sense, leaders.

To what standards do we hold ourselves?

We are watched. Our roles are public. Our students and our colleagues notice us. They pay attention to what we do.

standardsDo we in timeliness to and from appointments, in our structuring of the starts and stops of our meetings, in dismissing students from our classes, in our connections with our parents and students and staff hold ourselves accountable to schedules? Do we meet deadlines in the manner we expect deadlines to be met? Do we answer emails in a timely fashion? Voicemails? Do we sign in and out of our buildings as we expect others to? Do we take attendance? Do we enforce dress codes? Do we dress as we should?

This list could go on.

The reality of our lives – our lives in the spotlight – is that we are watched. What we do and how we do it influences our ability to lead.

The “higher” on the ladder we climb, the less we are “watched.” There are fewer people sharing the rungs with each step we ascend. Therefore, there are fewer people in supervisory roles of us. And that’s as it should be. As we progress in our leadership journeys, we are trusted more fully.

Commensurately, there are fewer holding us to high standards.

Therefore, we have to pay all the more attention to holding ourselves to them.

And we should. We should hold ourselves to the highest standards. If we are administrators and our teachers have to attend an in service, so should we. If we are department chairs and members of our departments have turn in written lesson plans, we should, too. If we are coaches and we demand our players be dressed out on the field at a certain time, we should be there to meet them. If we are teachers and we demand work turned in on time with no exceptions, we must hold ourselves to that same standard in our grading of student work.

And we don’t meet these standards because we are being watched. We meet them because we know that meeting them makes us better leaders, more integrated leaders, more authentic leaders.

We meet them because it’s the right things to do.

Think of the leaders you admire. My guess is you don’t admire them because they cut corners. You admire them because they don’t.

EduQuote of the Week: October 10 – October 16, 2016

What the teacher is, is more important than what the teacher teaches.

Karl Menninger

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Teach & Serve II, No. 9 – You Don’t Get to Choose When the Crisis Hits

Teach & Serve II, No. 9 – You Don’t Get to Choose When the Crisis Hits

October 5, 2016

As teachers and administrators we exist to do many things, one of those things is to provide stability in the face of crisis.

I read comic books. I’ve read them since I was in the first grade and, though I tried to give them up my freshman year of college, the effort to “grow up” didn’t take. I have moved into the 21st century in my collecting and no longer buy physical issues, but purchase my comics electronically and access them via my iPad. Pretty cool stuff.

batmansketchOne of the major tropes in traditional, superhero comic books is villains do bad things that heroes have to address. What works out great for the heroes is that these bad things villains do normally happen in sequences. The Joker causes Batman trouble for a few issues, then Two-Face, then the Riddler. Rarely do they overlap in their assaults.

How kind of them. It gives good old Batman a chance to recover from one crisis and plan for the next.

I have found in my career that rarely are the circumstances of crisis so kind. I never got to choose when the crisis hit.

When the waters are troubled, when things challenge our institutions, when tragedy comes or bad things happen, inevitably our students, families and colleagues look around them for stability. They look around them for leadership.

They look to us.

As teachers and administrators we exist to do many things, one of those things is to provide stability in the face of crisis.

It’s not just about having crisis plans though, if you don’t have them, you’d better get them put together quickly and, if you don’t have an ongoing process of review, you’d better develop one. Crisis plans are important, without question. However, they are steps in processes. They are ladders to climb and guidelines to follow. They help center and routinize and react.

They don’t help lead.

Bracketing the debate about whether leaders are born, not made, there is little doubt that most good leaders share similar qualities and one of those is preparation. Most good leaders are prepared and they are ready.

But how can we be prepared for what we don’t know is coming?

There are ways.

Leaders anticipate events. They anticipate the good but, perhaps more importantly, they anticipate the bad, the challenging, the tragic. When good comes, it’s smiles all around. Good is an easy place from which to lead. Bad, on the other hand, is not. It is a challenging place from which to lead – perhaps the most challenging. Teachers who anticipate the cheating, the loss of their own cool, the bad behaviors in their classrooms are not surprised when these things (and others) occur. They are ready because they knew they were coming. Administrators who know they will have to dismiss employees, confront their own errors in judgement, handle difficult parents and other negative scenarios do not collapse from their shock at having to address these kinds of events because they anticipated them.

In order to be ready for crisis, excellent leaders visualize what’s coming. What will it feel like when a student directs their negative energy at me? What will it feel like when a teacher has such a terrific lapse in judgement that they have to be dismissed? What will it feel like when there is a death in our community? We can think through specific events before they happen. And we should.

Athletes and actors rehearse. They learn their parts and, through the exercise, they improve. Why do we not emphasize this sort of activity for ourselves? We can role play events before they happen. In schools, we are going to confront terrible events and we can name the scenarios: discipline issues in our classrooms, irrational staff members, irate parents, suicidal students. The list is significant. How much better might we be at handling these issues if we brought together other leaders in the schools and played out these scenes. Have someone play the role of the teacher whose lapses in judgement require probation or dismal or have them play the unhinged parent or the grieving family. Have them take on the character of a social worker coming to the school to interview a kid or of a kid who’s reporting a sexual assault. Do what you can to make it seem real. Don’t let the crisis be the first time you’ve considered what you will say and how you will be effected – how you will react. Role play the challenges of which you can think. In this way, you face the issues before they come and work through them.

I wish the crises I face were more like the Joker, Two Face and the Riddler. I wish they came on predictable schedules and were heralded by maniacal proclamations. My crises are not like this and I am not like Batman.

What I can be and hope, more often than not, I am is prepared. If we anticipate, visualize and game plan, we can lead through crisis even though we don’t get to choose when it hits.

EduQuote of the Week: October 3 – October 9, 2016

The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.

B.B. King

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Teach & Serve II, No. 8 – I Hope Our Students Are Better

Teach & Serve II, No. 8 – I Hope Our Students Are Better

September 28, 2016

… the idea that somehow being less is really being more is dangerous.

I do not understand.

I do not understand the how or the when.

How did it become a good thing to be less informed, less inquisitive, less prepared?

When did it become a strength to be unclear, unfocused and obscure?

confusion-005There’s something going on in the United States that, as educators, we should consider and counter. There is a significant shift in our cultural consciousness from valuing intelligence and preparation to valuing … something else, something other, something dangerous.

Dangerous is the right word for us as educators because, if the culture says being undereducated and unprepared is what we should be, schools might as well close up shop. If the culture is saying intelligence is bad, what the hell are we doing? If the idea is that a high level of preparation and proficiency should be mocked, are we not just wasting our collective time?

When did this all become okay?

I love watching smart people doing smart things. I love being in conversations when the talk around me is high level talk and the people are smarter than I (and I am in a lot of conversations like this). I love seeing ingenuity at work, intelligence on display, preparation in abundance.

I spent many years talking to students about being smart, being hard working, being prepared. I talked about these things as gold standards, as things to be admired, as values to be attained. They were things to which we should aspire. I would challenge students. Be cleverer. Be better prepared. Be controlled. Be quick and nimble and intelligent.

Be smart.

I am not currently in a classroom and, lately, when I ruminate about how I might discuss with young people this shift in national consciousness, I am at a loss for concepts and words.

Perhaps that’s okay. I guess that is what is valued now. We want our students to be at a loss for words, right? We want them to grope for the simplest vocabulary. We want them to only access the most basic concepts. We don’t desire multi-step, multi-faceted plans. Why would we? Plans with one or two steps should suffice and, if the problems to be addressed by our plans are more complex than we can imagine, we simply need to beat them into the shape of our mindsets. There is nothing beyond our frames-of-reference that we should know. All that is beyond us should conform to our perceptions.

That’s so much easier. And it requires so much less of me as a leader, as a teacher, as a person.

That’s good, right? To be less? To find the easiest route? To dumb it down?

This is dangerous, teachers. Dangerous. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, unaffiliated or uninterested. In this context, the idea that somehow being less is really being more is dangerous.

Teaching has a counter-cultural bent to it. It always has. When you give young people the keys to the kingdom, as it were, and teach them how systems work and how they don’t, when they find out how to put the apples in the cart and then upset that same cart, when they are exposed to truth, they sometimes think they know better than their teachers.

In many ways, in our current context, I hope they do. I hope they know better than the messages they are receiving.

I hope they are better than we are currently proving ourselves to be.

Teach & Serve II, No. 7 – Don’t Waste a Good Laugh Being Too Professional

Teach & Serve II, No. 7 – Don’t Waste a Good Laugh Being Too Professional

September 21, 2016

… how often are we wound tightly by the seriousness of our work? How often are we so taken with the gravity of the job that we forget to smile? How often, each and every day, do we laugh.

the-mostWhen I first began teaching, I didn’t laugh. Isn’t the oft repeated adage “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas”? I thought that good advice. For a very long time, I tried to rein in the impulse to laugh, to joke, to be humorous. Later when I became an administrator, I thought it all the more important to be serious – to treat administrative jobs with as much gravitas as they deserved.

And, for a very long time, the very last thing I would laugh at publically was myself.

True story. I once applied for a job I didn’t get and, for me, it was kind of a big deal.

I had served a year as acting principal of my alma mater, taking over the role after the individual who preceded me was let go in late May. It was not a part of the ways that was terribly well orchestrated or planned out, in my opinion, and, though I was hopeful to have a principal job at some point in my career, stepping into this one this way was not how I had drawn it up.

In the spring of the ensuing year, I had applied for the position, eager to get the term “Acting” removed from the title, anxious to hold the position without asterisk. I interview. I thought I had done well. I received signals indicating I was the horse to beat. I heard from my direct supervisor that I could rest easy.

I didn’t get the job.

Some of the hardest months of my professional life were those immediately following that decision. They may well have been some of the hardest months of my life in general. At this point, most of those days have slipped into the comforting obscurity of memories I’d rather not remember. I am, however, afraid that a particular memory will never leave me.

In truth – and this is not hubris – most people thought I would receive the position. When I did not, there was some surprise and the faculty had to be told. I thought they needed to be told by my supervisor. He agreed and we determined that the faculty would be informed at the normally scheduled faculty meeting which was only two days after I was told I wouldn’t be staying on.

I didn’t want to be there.

We agreed that I would wait in the hallway outside the library while he gave the news and I would come in after he was done. We calculated that 10 minutes would be more than enough time for the news to be conveyed and, when 600 seconds had passed, I opened the library doors and walked through them.

… you know the electronic sensors most libraries have at their doors to prevent books growing legs? Our library had these and, while I wasn’t carrying a book of any kind, those sensors decided that announcing my presence to the gathered faculty at that particular moment was the right thing to do.

I came in. The alarms blared. The faculty turned to see what was causing the sound and there I was.

“Perfect.” I said, laughing. “That’s perfect.”

And it was.

I laughed. I laughed loudly and deeply. I laughed perhaps the most real laugh I had been able to muster since hearing I wasn’t the choice for the job because – what the hell? – it was pretty damned funny.

When I laughed, the room broke up as well.

Perfect. It was the moment we all needed.

What we do is serious work. We hold the future of children in our hands. We are trusted to do hard and good work with them. This is a pursuit none of us should take for granted or lightly. But how often are we wound tightly by the seriousness of our work? How often are we so taken with the gravity of the job that we forget to smile? How often, each and every day, do we laugh.

And how often do we allow others to laugh at us?

As teachers and administrators, we have to give our colleagues and our students our permission to laugh at us. Sometimes, they even need our permission to laugh with us. Please, please, give that permission because what we do is serious and it often is hard and challenging. We are, in fact, shepherding the future.

It’s a pretty awesome responsibility.

Let’s not make it a grave one, as well.

Let’s laugh and let’s allow people to laugh with us.

And laugh at us.

If we don’t, when the library alarm sounds, we might be scared, embarrassed and broken instead of smiling.

EduQuote of the Week: September 19 – 25, 2016

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.

John Dewey

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