Teach & Serve No. 34 – Good and Great; Life and Death

Teach & Serve 

No. 34 * April 6, 2016


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Good and Great; Life and Death

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.

 

Since the first day a grizzled, experienced and very, very veteran high school administrator shared with me his Good School/Great School Paradigm I have been fascinated by it, taken with it and convinced of its pure truth. Pulling me aside during an accreditation visit on which we were both visiting team members, this wise administrator for whom I didn’t work told me he believed that Good Schools are destined to remain Good Schools because they think they are great. He said that Great Schools are great because they ask themselves: “what can we do to be better?”

I am in love with this conclusion and I think it is absolutely spot on. The idea that Great Schools are consistently, constantly and consciously about improvement, about getting better, about changing is such a challenging, life renewing and exciting concept. I imagine Great Schools that passionately posit hard questions. I imagine Great Schools that redefine themselves as a matter of course. I imagine Great Schools that encourage creative dissent.

I imagine because I have to.

I worked in high schools for almost 25 years, man and boy, and that doesn’t count my degree work as an undergrad – those hours upon hours of observations – nor does it count my full time student teaching. It does count the five schools in which I’ve spent significant time. And, in all those years and all of that time, I can say that I can point to moments where I saw potential for greatness at the places where I worked, but it was rarely sustained.

Here’s the problem with being Great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that isn’t afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No school sets out to be Good. Likewise no school sets out to be lifeless. Rather, leadership build staffs primarily upon very good hires. Leadership institutes solid programs fostering good curriculum, good teaching and good discipline. Markers of success (enrollment, retention, standardized test scores, etc.) are met. The conclusion, then, is this all works. We know what we’re doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we’ve had success doing things this way and, really, isn’t this the way we’ve always done things? Shouldn’t we keep doing them this way? Why mess with success? Good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it isn’t pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school. While she was engaging and energetic when you were in her classroom 15 or 20 years ago, she’s still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves her class!” people say. “She really knows her stuff!” people rave. But is anyone asking why she’s still using the overheads she made during her first year of teaching instead of her digital projector? Is anyone asking why she hasn’t gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why she insists on keeping the traditional text she’s always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. She’s good. She’s all good.

Good Schools are like that and unless they start missing those markers of success, what is the motivation to change?

Good Schools often have good facilities, good teachers, good kids, good grades, good enrollment, good, good, good… what they don’t have is life.

desertGood Schools don’t change. They don’t want to. Because they don’t change, they are locked into what they are, locked into what they do, locked in. They are stuck in a place and a time and cannot even see the rest of the world passing them by because, of course, they are good. How do they know? They’ve told themselves they are. They’ve convinced themselves (because they have the high numbers and the nice facilities and the good kids and the credentialed teachers) that they are great.

But they are not great. They are dead and they don’t look to come back to life.

And they can stay dead and stagnant for a very, very long time. They can – and will – stay dead and stagnant until they are forced to change. They will actively protect their stagnation because their leadership has let them down. Their leadership has discouraged hard questions, resisted redefinition, and shut out creative dissent.

They are Good. And they are dead. Until there is a sea change, they will never, ever be Great.

I wish that I could say I’ve encountered as many Great Schools as Good Schools. I wish I could say that most of the Good Schools I’ve seen have found their way out of the desert and are on their way to becoming Great Schools.

But I cannot say that. I believe there are many, many Good Schools but there are few Great ones.

“Good Schools think they’re great. Great Schools ask ‘what can we do to be better?’”

What can we do, indeed?

EduQuote of the Week: April 4 – 10, 2016

door quotesCelebrate what you’ve accomplished, but raise the bar a little higher each time you succeed.

– Mia Hamm

Link’n’Blogs – 3.25.16 – Should These 10 Educational Words Be Banished?

LincolnLogsDetail


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I loved Lincoln Logs when I was a kid. Though I never entertained the idea that I would be a designer, engineer or architect, something about putting together these wooden and plastic pieces was simply simple fun. Connecting to ideas through the blogosphere seems similar to this pursuit, hence the title of this weekly post. Each Friday, I intend to post something interesting I’ve read out there on the internets. Hopefully others will find these posts as thought provoking as I have.

There is an entire dictionary of words, idioms and catch phrases that teachers, administrators and parents use when discussing education. The educational field has its own jargon – a collection of terms vast and deep. Many of the words are perfectly fine and completely suited to the field. Some, however, are used in ways that help neither teacher nor student and, in this insightful piece by Peter DeWitt, an author, presenter and former public school principal, an argument is made to drop more these 10 from use. Good ideas here.

Should These 10 Educational Words Be Banished?

– Peter DeWitt

Teach & Serve No. 32 – Emboldened by the Homilies, Embarrassed in the Hallways

Teach & Serve 

No. 32 * March 23, 2016


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Emboldened by the Homilies, Embarrassed in the Hallways

… when we’re challenged to alter our course, we’re not talking about the simple things… we’re talking about significant changes, sea changes.

… starting soft and slow, like a small earthquake and when he lets go, half the valley shakes …

Neil Diamond, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show

There’s little like the feeling of hearing a good homily or listening intently to a sermon or sharing that touches the heart and the mind. There’s a certain energy I feel when I’ve heard a terrific reflection – an energy that enlivens and emboldens. Like many people, I have been touched by homilies when I am at mass and other religious services be these homilies given by priests or deacons or lay women or men. I have heard words that have inspired, challenged and moved me and have left liturgies inspired to talk, to change and to do.

Likewise, I have gone to thousands of hours of workshops on teaching and administration, have heard from educators at professional development opportunities –  conferences and the like – and have embraced the messages they’ve given. Leaving these PD opportunities I have walked away ready to change my teaching or my leadership. I have been motivated to be a better educator by what I have seen, what I have heard and the passion with which the message was delivered.

Brother LoveInevitably, following these experiences, I head back to my life – to my desk or to my classroom – considering implementation of what I have heard, of what I have learned. And, without always being conscious of this fact, I begin a certain calculus: if the changes I have been inspired to envision deal with me and me alone and if they don’t represent much risk, they have a pretty good chance of happening. If they involve my relationships with others or require me bringing others on board for whatever change I am envisioning, they may well happen, but will take some work. If the changes are significant and will necessitate shifts in myself and others from ways we’re comfortable proceeding to ways we are not – ways that are new and different – then they chances they will occur fall. Tremendously.

So, personal easy changes I am willing to make. More challenging changes that involve others, I would like to make. Vast paradigm shifts for me and those around me, I am afraid to make.

Inspiration, where have you gone? Where was the boldness of the moment after the homily, during the applause at the conference, when I was writing my notes about a speech?

Let’s be honest: when were touched by someone’s words, when we’re challenged to alter our course, we’re not talking about the simple things, those things we can easily change in ourselves or ways in which we can quickly improve our environments at work, we’re talking about significant changes, sea changes.

It’s so much easier to smile about the homily and let it go. So many fewer feathers get ruffled when we say “yeah, I heard some really wonderful ideas at that conference last week” but we don’t really try to implement them. Our situations, personal and professional, seem somehow more secure when we’re not leading the call to action, the call to change.

I often feel emboldened by the homilies, but embarrassed in the hallways, as though my excitement over some message I’ve heard and want to share is somehow something of which to be ashamed, as if my interest in improvement and my desire to engage others on it is somehow silly.

For people who seek continual self-reflection and for institutions that are about perpetual self-renewal, embracing and preaching the message, singing the good news of who we are and what we can be is critically important.

Listen for what emboldens you, reach for what can improve you, search for that which will change your culture for the better. Don’t turn away from it. Don’t be embarrassed.

Be happy you heard the call.

It’s love, love Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show. Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes, ‘cause everyone knows about Brother Love’s show…

Neil Diamond, Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show

EduQuote of the Week: March 21 – 27, 2016

door quotesWhat makes Superman a hero, in fact this makes anyone a hero, is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely.

– Christopher Reeve 

Teach & Serve No. 31 – The Most Interesting Educator

Teach & Serve 

No. 31 * March 16, 2016


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The Most Interesting Educator

For someone in front of them each teacher is the most interesting educator alive. It’s an as awesome a responsibility as it is awesome.

The “news” that Dos Equis is retiring their “Most Interesting Man in the World” advertising campaign after over a decade of success (I guess they are sending him to Mars for his last commercial) got me thinking about how engaging that campaign was and how many times it made me laugh. A thought that commonly occurs to me followed – what would it be like if society celebrated educators the way it celebrates entertainers or sports figures or subjects of ad campaigns.

It would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?

So, at the end of last week and into this one, I’ve been tweeting using the hashtag #TheMostInterestingEducatorAlive, commenting about friends of mine I’ve known in my years in education and making some remarks (remarks I found both funny and true) concerning how they affect their students or how they have affected me in their vocations.

Most InterestingI am unsure of just how many teachers and administrators I’ve worked with over the course of my quarter century in education. The total must be over 500, of that much I am certain. Do I remember all of them? No. Certainly not. I wish I did, but my personal data banks are so filled with comic book and Star Trek and Denver Bronco trivia that the important stuff is sometimes forced to the outskirts of my numb skull. No, I don’t remember all of the people with whom I’ve worked.

But this much I do know. I know that to some student they taught, to some athlete they coached or musician they inspired, to some kid in a classroom or some teenager in the cafeteria, they were the Most Interesting Educator Alive.

This is true and it’s also an awesome responsibility. Educators make differences in people’s lives with each moment and in each circumstance. Their actions are remembered. Their word echo.

This is why I wrote “@UrCinnamonGirl knows stories about Traveler that Robert E. Lee himself never did” because her students leave her class with minds filled with the stories of history that make history worth knowing.

This is why I wrote of the talented @Sean_M_O’Dea “he wrote 94 of the 95 Theses.” Of course he didn’t, but to his students, it seems he did. That’s the level of command he brings to his subject.

This is why I wrote “@KellyQuigs knows the real UN could learn a thing or two from her Model UN Club” because she inspires a love of the real world in her kids and they get it.

This is why I wrote “Ice cubes wish they were as chill as @JoeLags.”  His students know that @JoeLags always approaches them calmly and with compassion. They trust him long after they leave his classroom.

 

This is why I wrote that “When Parker Palmer needs leadership advice, he asks @bhobbs63” – he teaches adults what it means to lead.

I’ve tweeted about almost 20 of my colleagues. I’ll continue tweeting about them and I encourage you to do so, too. Choose a teacher, compose a #TheMostInterestingEducatorAlive tweet and remind a teacher of what they meant to you. Remind an administrator of what they did for you. Remind an educator of what they do for eternity.

For someone in front of them each teacher is the most interesting educator alive. It’s an as awesome a responsibility as it is awesome.

EduQuote of the Week: March 14 – 20, 2016

door quotesIf I have any worth it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples.

– St. Patrick 

Teach & Serve No. 30 – Raise All Boats

Teach & Serve 

No. 30 * March 9, 2016


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Raise All Boats

When we are at the end of our tenures in our roles in our schools – we’re all going to come to the end of our tenures, sooner or later, I assure you – it is interesting to think about how we will be remembered

Take a moment, if you will, to consider the day after your retirement party. Your faculty and staff, the teachers with whom you’ve worked and struggled, with whom you’ve laughed and cried, have given you the sendoff, the card and the gold watch. They’ve said nice things about you at the retirement party, told great stories and jokes, shared their reminiscences. It’s all over but the cleanup and they head back to work the next day.

But not you.

You’re not back to work the next day; you’re retired, remember? You’ve moved on, but your colleagues have stayed behind.

For a moment, just consider: what are they saying about you? What are their memories, fond and otherwise? What did you leave behind?

Gold WatchWhen we are at the end of our tenures in our roles in our schools – we’re all going to come to the end of our tenures, sooner or later, I assure you – it is interesting to think about how we will be remembered. It’s an intellectual exercise we might want to take part in regularly.

Why?

Because, if we are successful in reviewing our time at our schools in its totality and our work with our students dispassionately, if we are successful in considering our interactions with our colleagues from a distance and our place in our institutions without bias, we might gain valuable insights about how we go about our work, where we put our energy and what we might leave behind.

I know that some of us would want to be remembered as challenging but fair – both as teachers and as administrators. Some of us would want equanimity to be our lasting impression. Some of us would hope for people to recall us as joyful.

Allow me to suggest we consider this question as we look back: did we raise all boats or did we scuttle some?

NFL quarterback Peyton Manning retired this week following an 18 year career during which he set almost every individual record a quarterback could ever hope to achieve. From touchdowns thrown to yards passed to wins accumulated, Manning holds almost every record imaginable. That’s an impressive feat, to be sure, and it deserves to be celebrated if you think that sports figures ought to be celebrated.

More impressive than these records to me, however (and this is coming from a dyed-orange-and-blue-in-the-wool Denver Broncos fan), is a concept that I have heard associated with Manning from the moment four years ago when he came to Denver. Former Bronco coach John Fox said, the day Manning was signed in Denver, that Manning was a player who raised all boats.

Raises all boats. Makes everyone better. Be the most valuable player who makes other players most valuable.

I really resonate with this idea. I like it. A lot.

Peyton Manning’s knowledge and skills made his teammates look better than they were. In his case, raising all boats meant making players around him who were good look great.

In the case of our work as educational professionals, raising all boats is a goal to strive for – a goal for which we ought to be known.

For too long, education has been viewed in terms of competition, competition for grades, for instructing the best classes, for getting the biggest promotion. All too often, we can look at those around us and think they are in our way. We can see those around us as obstacles to navigate and ships to scuttle.

If only these students tried harder, my job would be easier. If only my department wrote better curriculum, I would look better as a department chair. If only these teachers did what they were told, I would have a smoother time as an administrator.

Sound familiar?

Wouldn’t it be better if we saw ourselves as trying to raise all boats, trying to help everyone around us be better, trying to make others most valuable? Wouldn’t it be nice if we saw ourselves as servants of others and shifted the focus of all we do to that perspective?

Hey, it couldn’t hurt.

And, at the end of the day, what would people say about us if that’s the way we worked and taught and lead.

They might say we raised all boats.

There would be worse things to say about us, wouldn’t there?

EduQuote of the Week: March 7 – 13, 2016

door quotes

The most valuable player is the one that makes the most players valuable.
– Peyton Manning 

Teach & Serve No. 29 – Beware Edu-Babble

Teach & Serve 

No. 29 * March 2, 2016


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Beware Edu-Babble

… there is no profession that re-writes its jargon with such wild abandon as education.

Though I don’t know how one accurately quantifies such things, I am fairly certain I am on the top of any scale for measurement of a person’s fanaticism for Star Trek. Seriously, I am a huge fan and trivia and facts about the show are deeply rooted in my mind. One wonders what thoughts I could think if my brain weren’t populated with episode titles and quotes and guest stars and alternate reality theories about the crew of the Enterprise and their comrades. I love the show in all of its incarnations (the Original Series and Deep Space Nine being tied in my mind as the best televised versions) but I came into adulthood watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is not overstatement to say I never missed an episode.

When you watch something that carefully and think about it is as much as I did (and still do), you begin to notice certain cracks in the veneer. Great episodes of the show are great. Good ones are good and bad ones tend to suffer from the same problems which repeated themselves over the course of the show’s seven year run. I won’t enumerate them all here (that’s a subject for a different column in my blogosphere) but I will note that I was thinking of one repeated flaws just this week when my wife – a terrific and talented high school teacher who has been wowing her students for over 15 years – and I were talking about professional development opportunities.

“All professions have their jargon” she said. She really said this. She’s smart and throws out words like “jargon” all the time. “All professions have their jargon but can you think of any profession that changes theirs as much as teaching does? Every time you turn around, it’s some new edu-babble.”

“Edu-babble.” I love it. That word should trend.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, when it got in trouble would often get in trouble because of what the cast came to call “techno-babble.” Techno-babble was made up words and concepts that became more central to shows than plots and characters. Techno-babble was hard to say. Techno-babble contradicted itself. Techno-babble became boring and use of it illustrated a lack of creativity. If the Next Generation characters could just “techno-babble” their way out of a problem, where’s the dramatic tension?

technobabble

See? I know way too much about Star Trek.

I have a degree in secondary education. I was directly involved in high school teaching for almost a quarter century and taught hundreds of classes and thousands of students. I attended all manner and variety of professional development opportunities – some great, some not, most somewhere in between. I have read hundreds of thousands of words on the subject of teaching, given talks and lectures and written articles about it, thought about it with passion. And, of education and the jargon we teachers and administrators use within it, I can safely say this: my wife is right.

(I can always safely say that)

My wife is absolutely right. In terms of the “professional” world, there is no profession that re-writes its jargon with such wild abandon as education. I don’t mean adds to its jargon, by-the-way. I mean changes it, reformulates it, restructures it.

Look, I don’t mean to knock the shared language of education. I truly don’t. I do mean to simply point out that our profession changes its language far too readily. Education inspires great thinkers to think great thoughts. Education knows it should change and adapt. Education understands that it has to be studied, evaluated, written about. Thing is, it seems that every few years, the newest innovation in education (and YAY! for innovating! Keep the innovations coming, big thinkers!) is all too often accompanied by words and language that must be decoded and unpacked (cumbersome, friends, cumbersome). If one is not willing to adopt the language – and now! – one may feel on the outside looking in. When one experiences enough of these cycles, and is told often enough that they are saying it wrong, one stops engaging.

Why do we put the jargon in the way? Why is the edu-babble so important? It’s not that there aren’t excellent new ways of proceeding in education – great practices supported by new research that should be shared and tried and refined; there are wonderful new things to do as educators. It’s just that our profession all too often gets tied up in the words, in the edu-babble.

When the edu-babble doesn’t make sense, teachers – short on time, long on work – resent the time it takes to parse it out. When edu-babble begins to creep into their performance reports and teacher evaluation tools, those very reports and tools can be weakened.

It’s not about the words, friends, it’s about the concepts the words represent, it’s about the ways to help educate kids better. When we get hung up on the language, on getting the words just right, we surely lose the forest for the trees.

I don’t want to know the secret code to be considered a competent educator. I want to be one.

Beware jargon that doesn’t make sense. Beware edu-babble.