Teach & Serve III, No. 41 – You Changed My Life

Teach & Serve III, No. 41 – You Changed My Life

May 23, 2018

This is the final edition of Teach & Serve for the 2017-2018 school year.  Teach & Serve IV will begin next fall on 8.8.18

At some point in the journey of their lives your former students recognize what happened and many seek out past instructors to tell them something profound: “you changed my life.”

Late May in schools is rife with many emotions. Teachers and administrators are ready to bid the year farewell and to get to summer vacation. Late May brings with it the promise that an opportunity for rest and recharging is not far away. Certainly there are some obstacles yet to clear what with exams or grading final projects, cleaning out of classrooms and turning in of reports, packing up materials and checking out of buildings.

Though the end is nigh, there are still things to do.

Our students have things to do, too and they normally do not accomplish one of the most critical tasks of the end of the school year. With varying degrees of seriousness and success, they approach their final projects and tests. They clean out their lockers. They sign their yearbooks and they say their goodbyes. But they typically leave out something very important.

Multiple summers down the road, when water has passed under bridges and calendar pages have turned, many former students realize they forgot something back in the spring months of their school days. At some point in the journey of their lives your former students recognize what happened and many seek out past instructors to tell them something profound: “you changed my life.”

It is not entirely fair to expect students living in these late May moments to understand what has occurred in their lives. Some do. Some know the debts of gratitude they owe. Some are able to articulate this to their teachers. But the vast majority have not the breadth of knowledge, the introspection or the reflective capacity to get it.

Not yet.

They have not lived enough life and that is okay. As educators, we know that our students are not finished products. They have more to learn.

And so do we because, in the late May morass, we are just as likely to forget to acknowledge to ourselves that we have, in fact, changed lives.

paintingWorking in schools is not like painting a wall. Teachers do not get to blue tape the edges of their students and fill in the gaps until they are fully colored and vibrant. Teachers do not get to see the results of the hours of preparation and the early mornings and the late nights. Teachers do not know the seeds they are planting as they are dropping them in fertile ground. Teachers do not always know the affect they have until long after they have had it.

At this moment, I know full well that many of your students are not paying attention to you in class, are pushing every button you have, are just as ready to be away from you as you are from them. I know that many of us are just as ready for summer as our charges are. I know that there is much to accomplish and much to do. I know this. But I know something else, too. In late May teachers need this critical perspective and I would like to provide it.

Please allow me to remind all the teachers and coaches and administrators and educational professionals: you have changed lives these last nine months. Please allow me to remind you about something that is profound in our work:

You have changed lives.

Treasure giving that gift, even if those who receive it are not always able to acknowledge that they have.

Teach & Serve III, No. 40 – The Final Thank You of the Year

Teach & Serve III, No. 40 – The Final Thank You of the Year

May 16, 2018

Bottom line at this busy time of year: if you can only steal a moment to thank someone, to show your appreciation for one person on this list, make it yourself.

You deserve it. Know that in your heart. Feel it in your soul. Repeat it in your head.

Any way you look at the present situation, this much is true: there is very little time left in this academic year.

Please allow me to encourage one last practice: say “thank you.”

Find 10 minutes, just 10 for appreciation and gratitude. Go somewhere quiet. Put on your earphones or put in your earbuds. Sit alone. Reflect. Take out a piece of paper or use you iPad or phone and make a list of those to whom you might say, “thank you.”

  • Thank your family and friends, you boyfriends and girlfriends and significant others who support you in this work.
  • Thank those who put you in this school, the administrator or H.R. personnel who hired you.
  • Thank the parents who entrusted their children to you.
  • Thank the students who sat in your classrooms, who played on your fields, acted on your stages, made music in your rehearsal spaces, deliberated in your student councils and mock trials and model UNs.
  • Thank your colleagues, those with whom you’ve journeyed this year, for their guidance, support and love.
  • Finally, and critically, thank yourself.

Give yourself credit for all you have done, for the long work you have begun, for the way you have influenced your students, for the gift you have been to them. Thank yourself for getting near the finish line, for perseverance, for faith. Thank yourself for each time you went on when you thought you could not, for each step you took when you were exhausted, for each time you went the extra mile or five or ten. Thank yourself for being part of this vocation, this incredibly important work.

Bottom line at this busy time of year: if you can only steal a moment to thank someone, to show your appreciation for one person on this list, make it yourself.

You deserve it. Know that in your heart. Feel it in your soul. Repeat it in your head.

You.

Deserve.

Thanks.

Give it to yourself, please.

Teach & Serve III, No. 39 – Appreciation

Teach & Serve III, No. 39 – Appreciation

May 9, 2018

To my teachers, professors, colleagues and friends: THANK YOU. You have given me the gift of education and that is a blessing I can never, ever fully repay.

In the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week 2018, I am reminded, with more intentionality than I would typically apply, of the many teachers and educators who have made a difference in my life. During the course of the week, I have been tweeting my appreciation of the impact they have left on me. This post continues and expands on this theme.

The first teacher who made a mark on me was my grandmother, Lucille Kirk. She taught elementary school at Brown Elementary in Denver, Colorado, and she never, ever made teaching seem to me to be a chore. She made it seem an adventure. I have heard from so many of her former students of the life she led and the lives she changed. What a gift she must have been in the classroom. She was surely a gift to me as a grandmother.

I am more grateful than I can express to Mrs. Janet Batman, Ms. Barb Baxter, Mr. Henry Sellers and so many other teachers who took care of and inspired me when I was in kindergarten and elementary school at Parr Elementary School in Arvada, Colorado. These three educators and their colleagues nurtured in me a love of reading, of adventure and of imagination. Drawing through-lines across the map of my life, I can see the seeds they planted becoming the trees from which I now swing and in which I build makeshift houses. I wish I could time travel back to share with them my admiration and love.

At Regis Jesuit High School in Denver, Mr. Ralph Taylor and Mr. Dan Sarlo taught me about analysis and academic rigor. Mr.  John Vowells, SJ and Mrs. Anne Smith awakened a love of theater. Ms. Charlotte Read and my good, good friend, Mr. Michael Buckley introduced me to writing and photography. Mr. Tim Newton (good luck on your retirement!) challenged me to become a better artist (and to draw something – anything – that was not superheroes or Star Wars). Sister Benita Volk engendered in me an undying love of the English language. Dr. Chris Wheatley deconstructed and reconstructed everything I thought about education when I was in his classrooms at The Catholic University of America. These people set me on the course my entire life would take: the course of being an educator.

I wish I could be in a library run by Teri Brannan, my old Parr Elementary classmate. I wish I could observe Sean Gaillard, my best friend from college, as he shepherds the school at which he is principal. I wish I could more often see my sister, Janna Petersen, at work in her library. I miss Angie Mammano, the first teacher I could call “peer” who showed me in my initial years of teaching at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, MD, what this life is all about. I remember being amazed by Kim Smith, stunned by the knowledge and humor of John Staud, humbled by the gentle good will of Chris Pramuk, all of whom I worked with early in my career when I came to teach at my alma mater.

I cannot fathom the impact my best friend Jim Broderick King has had on me. He is one of the best teachers I know. I am humbled by those who came into my life as teachers when I was an administrator. Mike Meagher and Barb Bess could both put on clinics in excellent teaching. My friend Ryan Williamson is as passionate about doing right by students as teacher I have ever met. Cameron Turner, a former student of mine, is a better teacher than I will ever be. Leslie Larsen is the most empathetic teacher I have ever encountered. My son, Matthew Sheber Howard, will join this profession in the fall and I could not be any more proud. And my wife, Caroline Howard is simply an unequivocally and immensely gifted educator.

I am humbled to be joining the staff of Mullen High School in Denver in 3 short weeks. In my time there, I have already seen brilliant instruction, compassionate approaches to students, caring teachers and staff and a real commitment to this life and vocation we all share. I am already intimidated by their passion and zeal and I know their students are well cared for and loved. What a wonderful environment to join.

It is true that the work we do with students can be hard. It can be challenging. It can be heart wrenching. It is also true that appreciation for that work is, sometimes, faint and distant. We do not always hear “thank you.” We do not always feel the difference we so clearly make in people’s lives – in our students’ lives.

To my teachers, professors, colleagues and friends: THANK YOU. You have given me the gift of education and that is a blessing I can never, ever fully repay.

I will continue to try to be worthy of it.

Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

Teach & Serve III, No. 36 – Look Up In The Sky

April 18, 2018

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

When I was in the first grade, the day before school picture day, I ran into a brick wall – not a metaphor, I, literally, ran headlong into the corner of our house, smashing open my head on solid brick. My father took me to get stitches – seven of them as I recall – and, on the way home, changed my life.

My father was forever changing my life.

He bought me my first two comic books.

Thanks, Dad. Tens of thousands of issues later, I am pot-committed as a comic collector. More important than that, I have become more than an aficionado of comic book collecting and consider myself something of an expert on the study of comic books as an American literary art form.

You read that right: comic books are a form a literature.

The two comics Dad bought me that day featured two of the most famous American literary characters (in any list, they would have to be listed in the top ten): Batman and Superman. In case you’re wondering, I still have the issues – Batman Family #10 and Superman Family #181.

Superman is the longest running, continually published character in American literary history. Let that sink in for a moment. No other creation of any American writer or artist has been in continual publication as long as Superman has. That is something. That is special. That is powerful.

Superman is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, any quick search will convince one of that. And, today, the comic book in which he first appeared reaches its astounding 1000th issue. That is not a typo. Superman’s Action Comics hits number 1000 today.

Superman has not simply appeared in Action Comics, of course. He has starred in his eponymous title and in many, many others. He has starred in a newspaper strip, in radio and television and movies. He has been featured in video games and music and cartoons. He is all but ubiquitous.

The question, then, must be why? Why has Superman remained part of American (and world) consciousness for all these years? Why do we still look up in the sky?

One could discuss Superman as a myth or as the genesis of the superhero or as a stand in for Moses or Jesus Christ. These reasons could be posited as causes for his longevity and I would not argue with them. But I have another.

Superman endures because what he stands for endures. Superman fights a never-ending battle. It is a battle of absolutes. There is good. There is evil. Good people resist evil. They resist temptation. They resist taking the easy way out. Superman stands for all that has been good, is good and can be good again in humanity. Superman, as he beautifully says in the majestic and (in my not-so-humble opinion) misunderstood 2013 film Man of Steel, stands for hope.

He would have made a wonderful educator, this Superman, this hero who fights a never-ending battle, who does not give up, who is a champion of truth. He would have been an amazing teacher, a role model who has endless reserves, who rallies in the face of injustice, who empowers those around him. He would have been a inspiration in a classroom.

Oh, wait. He very much is.

Superman, as I have written about before and in my accompanying blog Superheroic Leadership, inspired me. He inspired me to read. He inspired me, “in his guise as Clark Kent” to write. He inspired me to lead.

Clearly, I am not alone.

1000 issues. 80 years. A massive and recognizable presence in the world.

I guess that is why they call him Superman.

I know this: my life would be much, much different without him.

EduQuote of the Week: April 16 – 22, 2018

Superman Week

For a lot of people, Superman is and has always been America’s hero. He stands for what we believe is the best within us: limitless strength tempered by compassion, that can bear adversity and emerge stronger on the other side. He stands for what we all feel we would like to be able to stand for, when standing is hardest.

– J. Michael Straczynski

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

February 21, 2018

… how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate?

First, let us get this out of the way: our schools exist to serve our students. They – in a very real sense – are the bosses and they should be in charge. Not many of our organizational charts for our schools reflect that, however. Our org charts illustrate the adults who are “in charge.”

Okay. Fair enough.

When considering that, we can note that very few of us are actually the “Big Boss” or the “Head Cheese” or the “El Numero Uno Honcho” of our contexts. Schools are hierarchical systems. Typically, no matter our position as educational leaders, we answer to someone. Teachers answer to department chairs, department chairs to assistant principals, assistant principals to principals, principals answer to presidents, presidents to boards, and so on. This comes as little surprise to any of us working in schools.

It should also come as no surprise, then, that how we follow says very much about how we lead.

If we are good leaders, we expect that we will be followed. Whether we are consultative, collaborative or servant leaders – how ever we define our leadership – we anticipate that, if we are doing a good job as leaders, we will be followed. But even the best leadership cannot function in the real world without sometimes creating conflict or friction or unintended confusion. We know this. No process is perfect. No system is perfect. No leader is perfect. Not everything will go as we intended or planned.

If we are competent leaders leaning toward good leaders, we can navigate these waters and restore faith and trust. If we do a good job in that process, all will be well. Importantly, though, our followers must allow us to do a good job. The reservoir of faith and trust we have built up indicates much about how we will recover.

But so does our followership and here is the point: how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate? Do we presume their good will, listen to their explanations, give them the benefit of the doubt? Do we reflect on what has happened and consider our role in the issue? Do we seek to come to resolution, conclusion and positive outcomes? Or do we perseverate? Complain? Gossip? Vent?

As educational leaders, how we model followership may well be as important as how we lead.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 3 – All the World’s Waiting for You

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 3

All the World’s Waiting for You

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


It is very difficult to remember that, before Wonder Woman was released this past summer, the movie was considered something of a gamble. I will not delve too deeply into the sociological impacts of these concerns, but they were clearly related to the fact that films starring women in lead roles and films directed by women simply do not draw wide audiences. Add to this the fact that superhero movies have been specifically designed to feature men and one can understand that concerns.

They were for naught.

Wonder Woman became the hit of the summer, grossing more than any other film and becoming one of the biggest hits Warner Bros has ever had.

Very cool.

But let us not lose the thread here: the character has an over 75 year publishing history, is one of the most recognizable characters in the world and, most importantly, stands for something.

Wonder Woman’s roots are in peace. She is a character designed to bring peace. And, as imagined in the movie, she also brings joy.

This was an amazing film. It presented a character – a woman – who is powerful, intelligent and strong. She is the driving force of the movie and she is devastated by her perception that humanity does not want to be better, to be joyful, to be peaceful. She is terrified by the idea that people wallow in their situations without being thankful, without being grateful, without being joyful.

And, when she is about to turn away from that society, when she is faced with the reality, she chooses instead to overcome her preconceptions and to fight for justice and peace.

What is amazing about this is that, in the hands of a lesser director than Patty Jenkins and a lesser actor than Gal Gadot, this could all seem naïve and silly.

It does not.

Wonder Woman stands as a reminder that we can see the world in a positive light. We can look up to strong, confident women. We can strive for peace.

What an inspiring message to this world at this time.

And, if you want to smile, give the below a listen!

Teach & Serve II, No. 31 – Leadering: Honing Communication Skills

Teach & Serve II, No. 31 – Leadering: Honing Communication Skills

March 8, 2017

It is difficult to overestimate how important communication skills are for a leader. A leader who is an effective communicator has such an advantage over a leader who is an ineffective one.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Teach & Serve will be discussing “leadering” activities.  In essence, these are the critical steps, as I see them, that individuals take as they become leaders. These are the universal gates through which they pass. These are their shared signposts they come across. These are the things leaders do as they go about “leadering.”

  1. Knowing Oneself
  2. Identifying Weaknesses before Celebrating Strengths
  3. HONING COMMUNICATION SKILLS
  4. Exercising Authority Appropriately
  5. Achieving Balance and Blend
  6. Humbling Oneself
  7. Letting Go

It is difficult to overestimate how important communication skills are for a leader. A leader who is an effective communicator has such an advantage over a leader who is an ineffective one. Those leaders who write and speak with purpose and clarity are much more likely to inspire their students and staffs than those who cannot. Deciding whether one is a good or bad communicator should be one of the primary goals of any team interview candidates for leadership positions. Hiring leaders and teachers who are not solid communicators is a recipe for trouble. It is not that these people cannot lead, it is that they will not lead as effectively as those who can communicate well.

Honing communication skills is very much leadering. Those who wish to be leaders can seek out and embrace opportunities to develop this ability. Certainly, there are those who have talent for writing and a predilection for public speaking. There are those who are in their wheelhouse when they are in front of a computer, pecking away at their phone, addressing a crowd. However, everyone who aspires to lead – to administrate or teach – can and should engage in leadering around honing their communication skills.

Seek out opportunities to address large groups of people. Look to take over the department or school twitter account for a period of time. Develop a professional blog. Develop a personal one for that matter. Apply to be a presenter at a professional development conference. Write and publish articles.

COMMUNICATE.

The more one speaks in public, the easier the task becomes and clearer communication follows. The more one writes for precision and purpose, the better the result.

Leaders must be able to effectively and clearly communicate. Teachers, likewise, must be able to convey what they mean in what they write and what they say.

Take advantage of leadering opportunities that will allow you to become an excellent communicator. You will need them when you are in leadership positions.

EduQuote of the Week: August 22 – 28, 2016

The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.

Todd Whittaker

Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve II, No. 2 – Playlist 2016-2017

Teach & Serve II, No. 2 – Playlist 2016-2017

August 17, 2016

As I don’t work in school settings anymore, I have adapted some of these rituals. I still rearrange my offices – if only the memorabilia on the walls and shelves. I still move the furniture. And I still put together the playlist.

Playlist.PNGI worked in high schools for over 20 years and I loved the fall. I loved returning to the rituals I’d left behind in May and I sank comfortably back into them I loved gearing up for back to school, cleaning the classroom, writing lesson plans, preparing for the year.

I remember being in various classrooms or sundry offices decorating the walls and moving desks and furniture around, trying to visually symbolize the beginning of something new and fresh. I would come to school with a CD player or I would take one from the library. Please, don’t tell on me. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on procuring devices from the library without signing for them.

The music to which I would listen was, years and years back, whatever album had most struck me in the prior summer. Later, when I could burn CDs, I would make a Back-to-School Playlist. Still later, I would program what I wanted on my iPhone, grab some speakers (again, from the library), set them to 11 and get to work. And, though I doubt that any of the new teachers with whom I worked when I was an assistant principal remember, I carried over that musical tradition to training programs and I would play my favorite back to school tracks in transition times during our meetings.

As I don’t work in school settings anymore, I have adapted some of these rituals. I still rearrange my offices – if only the memorabilia on the walls and shelves. I still move the furniture. And I still put together the playlist.

In Teach & Serve Volume I last year, I wrote about #OneSong, stealing the idea from my good friend and esteemed educator Sean Gaillard. The playlist is more than one song… it’s a concept album for an entire school year.

How do songs make my playlist? They land there for one of two reasons.

First, I like how they make me feel. In the fall as the year begins, I am searching for energy, excitement and enthusiasm. You won’t find too many ballads on the playlist, but you may find some instrumentals.

Second, the lyrics resonate with me, move me, inspire me and send me a message.

I listen to the playlist all year, adding to it, deleting from, adapting it like any good teacher should do.

Here’s this year’s edition (at this point):

  • My Old School – Steely Dan
    • I like the idea of getting back to where we’ve been and though the actual point of the song may not wholly positive, I resonate with the phrase “my old school.”
  • Carry On – Crosby, Stills and Nash
    • Soaring harmonies, a surprisingly upbeat pace and a great message. Carry on, teachers! Carry! On!
  • Classical Gas – Mason Williams
    • Is there a better, more uplifting pop guitar piece?
  • Someday We’ll Know – New Radicals
    • Teaching is such a hopeful profession. Someday we’ll know if we made a difference (spoiler alert: you make a difference!)
  • To Sir, with Love – Lulu
    • A classic, must have for every teacher.
  • Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? – Chicago
    • At the beginning of the year, does anybody care?
  • Everyday Is a Winding Road – Sheryl Crow
    • Good anthem to think of the long view of the school year
  • Masterblaster – Stevie Wonder
    • Sometimes, you just want to have fun as the year begins.
  • Shake It Off – Taylor Swift
    • This is an obvious choice, yes? The chorus is a rousing mantra when we let ourselves take things too seriously
  • It Keeps You Running – The Doobie Brothers
    • It sure does.
  • Teacher, Teacher – 38 Special
    • Another classic that actually asks the right question: “Can you teach me?”
  • Paradise – Coldplay
    • We’re shooting for something like this, right?

The list will grow and contract and change with my moods during the 2016-2017 campaign and that’s good. We shouldn’t be too static in our approach to our work. We should rock it!

What are you listening to this fall?