Teach & Serve IV, No. 37 | Secrets, Secrets

Teach & Serve IV, No. 37

Secrets, Secrets

April 17, 2019

If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.

There is power in knowing something other people do not know. There is magic in holding onto a secret, in deciding when to tell, and who to tell. There is a draw to being in the know, in the loop, in the inner circle.

We have all felt it, right? At one point or another, we have had those moments when we found something out before most others did or when we heard the story prior to it getting out.

What is it about being in on the secret that is so enticing?

In school settings, there are hundreds of examples – daily – of things that not everyone needs to know. There are situations with students that should not be revealed. There are personnel issues that should not be broadly discussed. There are decisions that should not be shared too soon. In school settings, there are good reasons to maintain confidentiality – some of them legal, some of them moral and some of them valid.

But not all.

Beware of the word “confidential.” Use it sparingly. Use it wisely. Use it only when you must use it.  If you say or write the word “confidential” without asking, each-and-every-time, “whose interest am I protecting by walling off this knowledge?” you are doing it wrong.

Schools work best when knowledge is shared. That is kind of what they are there for, right? Schools work best when everyone knows as much as they possibly can know. How many times are we going to have to be confronted by stories of school personnel that had knowledge of warning signs about students that they did not share until tragedy struck? How many times are we going to see reports of colleagues suspecting something was not quite right with a co-worker and they did not tell anyway until it was too late? How many times before we get it?

When I was a dean of students and, later, an assistant principal and a now a principal, there were and are many things I did not and do not broadly share. Further, there were and are things that I was and am constrained to not share at all, by law and by valid concerns about confidentiality. There were and are things I did not and do not share because of potential damage of all kinds.

Yes, there are things that should not and cannot be shared.

But these things are few. And these things are far between.

When the default position of a teacher or administrator when confronted by sensitive information is to hold all those cards as closely to the vest as possible, to prize secrets and horde them, to equate knowledge of what is going on in people’s lives with power, something is very, very wrong.

The work of an educational professional is not to work to keep things secret, the work is to bring things to light and understanding.

Those teachers and administrators that get a charge from knowing more than everyone else have forgotten that and they are doing something foolish and potentially dangerous – foolish because, at some point, keeping secrets for no reason undercuts rather than strengthens moral authority and dangerous because, inevitably, things go wrong, and things get out. Those teachers and administrators that repeat – as a mantra – “I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential.” are not doing themselves or anyone else any favors.

Teachers and administrators, here is the thing: what must be, by law, confidential, must be confidential. Period. If it is illegal to share, do not share. If you do not know the law, learn it.

When you know what actually must be kept confidential, file it and share everything else.


Share as much knowledge about students as possible. Share as much about staff as appropriate. Share as much about the state of the school as you can. Create an environment where sharing is the default position.

Beware the word “confidential” and only use it when you must.

EduQuote of the Week | 4.15.19

If you look at your class as anything less than life or death, you do not deserve to be a teacher. If you walk into the classroom ten minutes late, week after week, you need to resign. You wouldn’t come in late on your job all the time, but I venture to guess that some of you do it on Sunday.

Bill Wilson

Teach & Serve IV, No. 36 | Good Schools | Great Schools

Teach & Serve IV, No. 36

Good Schools | Great Schools

April 10, 2019

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.

It has been a few years since I first wrote on this topic. It seems a good one to revisit periodically.

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 did not 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.

But, here is the rub. Here is the problem with being great. It takes work. It takes bravery. It takes consistent drive from leadership that is not afraid to have questions asked – and answered – about the health and life of the school.

Great requires energy and dynamism.

No educational leader sets out to have a good school. Likewise, no leader decides it is acceptable for her school to be lifeless. Rather, leadership builds 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 are doing. Why change? And then ways of doing things become locked in because we have  had success doing things this way and, really, is not this the way we have always done things? Should we not keep doing them this way? Why mess with success?


Because good hires become tenured. Good hires become tired. Good hires become mediocre when they are not challenged. Leadership becomes insular when it is not pressed. Energy wanes.

Good Schools are like the teacher you had when you were in high school: he was engaging and energetic when you were in his classroom 15 or 20 years ago; he is still doing the exact same things and still being praised for doing so. “Everyone loves his class!” People say. “He really knows his stuff!” People rave.

But is anyone asking why he is still using the overheads he made during his first year of teaching instead of his digital projector, instead of connecting students to materials on their devices, instead of anything new? Is anyone asking why he has not gone to any significant professional development in years? Is anyone asking why he insists on keeping the traditional text he has always used instead of moving to an electronic one?

No. He’s good so he is all good.

Good Schools are just like this 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 do not have is life. Good Schools do not change. They do not want to. Because they do not 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 have told themselves they are. They have 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 do not 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.

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

What can we do, indeed?


Teach & Serve IV, No. 35 | Dying is Easy; Living Is Harder

Teach & Serve IV, No. 35

Dying is Easy; Living Is Harder

April 3, 2019

Before we die on any hill – we should consider what living on the hill would mean.

There are moments in our careers which we believe force us to take stands. There are incidents that challenge us – our morality, our convictions, our constitutions. There are crucible moments which, when we recognize them, inspire us and galvanize us. When we confront these incidents, we can feel like this is the time, this is our time, this is when we say who we are and command respect from those around us. These are the moments when we can think we must define who we are.

These are the proverbial hills on which we choose to proverbially die.

And there are surely times when dying on hills is the absolute right thing to do.

Often when we die on a hill, we do so in spectacular fashion. Dying on a hill is frequently associated with burning bridges, with sowing salt in the land, with backing ourselves into certain and absolute corners. Dying for our causes is a last move. There is no coming back from it.

But we ought to be careful. When we are engaged so vitally as to die on a hill, our blinders can pop up.

Before we die on any hill – we should consider what living on the hill would mean.

Living on the hill, fighting the battle, continuing engagement, winning detractors to our side, these things are difficult. They are draining. They require humility and perseverance. But, in these circumstances, when we have determined that the issue at hand is so critical, dying for it seems the right thing to do. It is that important. We are willing to die for it.

Should we not, then, be equally willing to live for it?  

Dying for something is a powerful statement, but it is also a final one. You do not get to influence change and debate when you are dead.

In the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton, George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton “dying is easy, son, living is harder.”

No doubt.

EduQuote of the Week | 4.1.19

Never compare one student’s test score to another’s. Always measure a child’s progress against her past performance. There will always be a better reader, mathematician, or baseball player. Our goal is to help each student become as special as she can be as an individual–not to be more special than the kid sitting next to her.

Rafe Esquith 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 34 | Our Burgeoning Toolbox

Teach & Serve IV, No. 34

Our Burgeoning Toolbox

March 27, 2019

Educators are many, many things but (and after over a quarter century in the field, I know this for certain) the good ones are builders.

Toolbox with tools. Skrewdriver, hammer, handsaw and wrench. 3d

Fair warning: I am an English teacher. I embrace metaphor.

For four years, I had the immense honor of working in a “district-level” position serving a network of Catholic schools. I worked from home and had an office in Washington, DC right near the White House. I got to travel the country (and out of it on one occasion) in association with this work and I was most privileged to be in the job. It was a terrific four years.

Part of my responsibilities was instructing in and, later, coordination of seminars, the curriculum of which was designed to assist educational professionals in recognizing and realizing their leadership in their schools. It was the intention of the program to provide people with a balance of the theoretical and the practical over the course of their time with us. The theoretical ranged from best leadership practice to self-reflection to deep dives in current research about topics such as gender in schools and the dynamics of change. The practical portions of the program, the faculty of these seminars summed up in one phrase:

We want you to build your toolbox.

Educators are many, many things but (and after over a quarter century in the field, I know this for certain) the good ones are builders. In order to build – to build our curriculum, to build our programs, to build up our students – we must have the right tools. We must have a toolbox and we should be putting new tools into it each-and-every year we remain in the profession.

Over the course of my instruction in these seminars, we would tell the participants to put the tools – the practical ways of proceeding to which we were introducing them – into their tool box. We would note that we wanted to accumulate more tools each session of the seminar. At some point I said “here’s another tool for your burgeoning toolbox.”

The participants in that session never let me live the term “burgeoning toolbox” down.

Thinking back, I believe “burgeoning toolbox” is an exact right metaphor for what we were doing (it must be, because I said it!) because it implies something very important about educational professionals: we should always be learning. We should always be growing. We should always be on the look out for the next tool which can make them a more effective educator and a better professional.

And, yes, our toolboxes should ever be burgeoning.

Be aware of the next tool you can use, the next tool that works in your context. Listen for it. Learn it. Grab it. Put it in your toolbox.

You can never have too many good tools to use.


EduQuote of the Week | 3.25.19

Teach people to fish, but first teach people to be fair. Take less, give more. Give more of yourself, take less from the world. Nobody owes you anything, you owe the world everything.

Suzy Kassem 

Teach & Serve IV, No. 33 | Where Are Your Feet?

Teach & Serve IV, No. 33

Where Are Your Feet?

March 20, 2019

Where do we center ourselves in our work? From where do we draw balance and power? From where do we operate? Where do we walk and with whom?

Awhile back, I heard a leader I respect very much speaking about being present to the educational communities we serve. He posed a question that was brilliant in its simplicity:

“Where are your feet?”

What an excellent metaphor for us.

Where do we center ourselves in our work? From where do we draw balance and power? From where do we operate? Where do we walk and with whom?

I suggest that if are feet are out the door at the earliest opportunity each day, if they are planted firmly in faculty rooms and main offices, if they are in places that keep us away from the groups we should be serving and with whom we should be walking, we ought to re-assess our path.

Where are your feet?

Consider that. It is a simple and great question.


EduQuote of the Week | 3.18.19

When we did art with the kids, the demons would lie down.

Anne Lamott