Teach & Serve II, No. 3 – One Thing at a Time, Not Everything All at Once

Teach & Serve II, No. 3 – One Thing at a Time, Not Everything All at Once

August 24, 2016

Don’t ignore. Don’t demolish.

Work the problem. Work it piece-by-piece.

No matter what subject we teach, we think it parts, not wholes. Take US History for example: when history teachers begin the year, they know where they have to end up. They know they have to get to the election of President Obama (in truth, many US History teachers will be happy if they hit the chapters on the Reagan presidency by the end of the year, but that’s neither here nor there). They know where they are going and they begin to plan how to get there. They plan units, they plan chunks, they plan blocks, they plan lessons.

Nesting DollsWe hope our students do things the same way. We preach at them to do so. Start the lab. Put on your goggles, then look for the chemicals. Learn the vocabulary in Mandarin before you attempt speaking the language. Understand the equation and then apply it. Begin the research paper with, you know, the research, then start to write. Look at homework assignment-by-assignment, not at the totality of what needs to be done on any given night.

Assess the big picture. Paint the small strokes and make it coalesce.

Why don’t we apply this same thinking to the challenges facing our schools?

All too often, especially at the beginnings or ends of school years, we look at what we perceive as being wrong with our schools and become paralyzed. We see problem linked to problem, issue feeding issue, hazard upon hazard and our reactions do not always help. Our reactions break down into two categories, neither of which is particularly constructive.

We either throw up our hands, stymied by the enormity of the trouble, by its complexities, fearful that pulling any thread on the quilt will rend the thing asunder or we leap to solutions that will tackle the entirety of the trouble, consequences, ramifications and collateral impact be damned.

The systems that exists in our schools are comprised of human beings each full of talents and commitments and agendas and weaknesses and strengths. Rarely do any of us set out to create complexity and tie Gordian Knots around our institutions. But it happens. It seems to always happen.

Some leaders believe the way to overcome these challenges is with the precision of hand grenades. Blow the problem up and start anew. Some leaders believe the way to overcome these challenges is to trust people to do good work and let the problem work itself out.

I understand both reactions. I’ve had them. I’ve lived them. I’ve turned away from the beast. I’ve challenged it head on. Not the best plans.

We can solve the issues we face if we do one thing at a time, address one problem at a time and, wherever possible, keep the pieces separate and the issues distinct. We actually can, with discipline and planning, take on each part and create a chain reaction that will solve the whole.

Don’t ignore.

Don’t demolish.

Work the problem. Work it piece-by-piece.

We don’t expect our teachers to teach everything at once. We don’t expect our students to learn everything at once. We cannot solve each issue our schools face all at once.

But if we don’t start with the first step, we’ll never solve anything.

And if we try to jump to the last step, we’ll likely solve even less.

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?

EduQuote of the Week: August 15 – 21, 2016

Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.


Office Door Quotes 2

Teach & Serve II, No. 1 – Teach Boldly

Teach & Serve II, No. 1 – Teach Boldly

August 10, 2016

…you have the opportunity, the responsibility to do more and be more. You can animate. You can inspire. You can engage.

The beginning of the beginning is ramping up in schools all over the country. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a teacher or administrator knee deep in preparation, cross checking lists of all that needs doing in these opening days and preparing for these early moments of 2016-2017 as best you can.

May I please make a suggestion? No matter what you do in these initial days, no matter the pressure you feel, the demands you take on, the time crunch you suffer, no matter what you do in these days, do it with as much positivity as you can. Go about your work with energy. Greet students and colleagues and families with smiles. Celebrate the beginning of the year. Be bold in your embrace of all the possibilities it brings.

BoldLet boldness be your home base this year.

Teach boldly. Administrate boldly. Coach and direct boldly.

Let that be your rallying cry: teach boldly.

Students respond to boldness. Colleagues are searching for it. We hear that schools should inspire. They should challenge. They should dare. How do these things happen if we ourselves are not bold in our individual rooms and days and works?

Shouldn’t we want to be bold? Wouldn’t we rather be bold than be… well, what’s the alternative? Timid? Reticent? Fearful?

Those aren’t the descriptors for which our work in education calls. None of them are even close.

Be Bold. Be resolute. Be heroic.

Teachers, your students want to be engaged. Inspire them. Be bold.

Your colleagues want to hear what you have to say. Engage them. Be bold.

Administrators, your staffs want to be led. Animate them. Be bold.

Make this year a year for boldness, for courage, for fearlessness.

Your students, colleagues and staffs need this from you. They hurry from class-to-class, assignment-to-assignment, meeting-to-meeting and running that gauntlet is both daunting and draining. When they come to you, when it’s your class, your assignment, your meeting, you can give them what they’ve come to expect, most often a kind of dull proficiency. You can give them reserved professionalism. You can give them cautious platitudes. They won’t be shocked if you do. They’ve seen this before; they know how to respond.

But you have the opportunity, the responsibility to do more and be more. You can animate. You can inspire. You can engage. While they may not know it, your students, colleagues and staffs are thirsting for this. They are thirsty for boldness.

Teach boldly. At the end of the day – at that end of the year – teaching boldly may be the only kind of teaching that truly matters.

Best Teachers in Fiction: 5 – 1

School is (or is just about to be) back in session all across the country. As things are gearing up for the 2016-2017 school year, and in anticipation of rolling out this new blog, Teach Boldly presents THE FIFTEEN BEST TEACHERS IN FICTION.

The Best Teachers in Fiction (5 – 1)

No. 5: Professor Charles Xavier

“Professor X” as his students call him became a teacher out of a sense of duty: he wanted to help others like him. He wanted to teach others to live full and happy lives despite whatever personal limitations they might feel they have. He wanted to teach that all people are beautiful and worthy of respect. He wanted to spread love. Crazy stuff from a comic book character but it makes sense when one considers that the character has been said to be modeled on Martin Luther King, jr.

Professor X

No. 4: Professor Robert Langdon

Professor Langdon challenges norms and the status quo as good teachers should. Engaging and a lecturer and brilliant as a writer, Langdon travels the world to research his subjects and is willing to put himself at the center of controversy to make his points. Dedicated to uncovering the truth at all costs, Langdon is an example of dogged pursuit in academia.



No. 3: Doctor Henry Jones, jr

Does anyone on this list make education more exciting than Doctor Jones? Armed with vast experience, his practical, real world application of his subject matter, his dislike of reptiles, his ability to survive every calamity (including nuclear explosions and Shia LaBeouf), and his ability to use knowledge to battle evil makes him a lock for the top five on this list.

Indiana Jones Teaching


No. 2: Jane Eyre

Passionate, committed and caring, Jane Eyre is a wonderful teacher. She believes in the power of education, knows that being disciplined and expecting discipline from her students is critical and embraces the idea that love conquers all. She teaches by example, has a stalwart moral compass and educates all around her – adults as well as children.


No. 1: Mr. Glenn Holland

Glenn Holland surprised even himself when he discovered his calling was a life in education and discovered, as many of the best teachers do, that no matter the subject – in his case music – teaching is about challenging students to learn so they can live better and fuller lives. Mr. Holland consistently makes good choices even in the face of temptation, reaches out to those in need, inspiring his students and, eventually, finds his compass doing so. He is certainly one of mine.

Mr. Holland

Best Teachers in Fiction: 10 – 6

School is (or is just about to be) back in session all across the country. As things are gearing up for the 2016-2017 school year, and in anticipation of rolling out this new blog, Teach Boldly presents THE FIFTEEN BEST TEACHERS IN FICTION.

The Best Teachers in Fiction (10 – 6)

No. 10: Ralph Hanley

Mr. Hanley managed to keep his students out of trouble while saving the world as the Greatest American Hero (how has this property gone without a reboot?). Mr. Hanley balanced the life of a superhero, boyfriend and teacher, seemingly like he was walking on air. His most important lesson was that his understanding that one person can make a difference … believe it or not, it’s just him.

You know you want to hear it… click HERE for the Mike Post theme song!

Oh, and a quick bit of trivia… Ralph Hanley’s name was originally Ralph Hinkley, but that surname was changed after the attempt on President Reagan’s life by John Hinkley, jr.

Ralph Hanley


No. 9: Ben Kenobi

Speaking to his students Anakin and Luke Skywalker with nuggets of wisdom so compelling and thought provoking, we can ignore the fact (can’t we?) that his first student went on to almost destroy hope and freedom in the galaxy.  Connected to an inspirational greater power, he inspired his students to discover truth, and also had the ability to do and not just teach – take that, haters!

Ben and Luke


No. 8: Gabe Kotter

Thomas Wolfe said “you can’t go home again, but former Sweathog, Gabriel Kotter broke the rules when he returned to his alma mater to teach. As someone whose career followed a similar path, I find in Mr. Kott-air’s dedication to his work fruit for the journey of being an educator. Never one to back down from a challenging situation (such as 1970s television would allow to be broadcast), Mr. Kotter endeared himself to his students and to American TV viewers.

Mr. Kotter




No. 7: Ms. Norbury

is there another teacher in fiction who can match Ms. Norbury’s sweet sarcasm? The best of a crop of questionable educators, Ms.Norbury spins her love of a well-turned phrase into timely advice for her most troubled students. She has self identified “pusher-ness” – she pushes people – and she knows (at least she thinks she knows) when to use it. She also has an incredible likeness to Liz Lemon. Anyone else notice that?

Ms. Norbury


No. 6: Professor Ross Gellher

Ross Gellher has undying commitment to his subject matter and while his desire to educate all around him, no matter how much they don’t want to learn, can annoy his… er… friends, his enthusiasm in all circumstances, never-say-die attitude (he gets fired from positions and keeps coming back), thumbing his nose at rules by dating his students all mean we should never forget that… he’ll be there for you.

Ross Gellher

Best Teachers in Fiction

School is (or is just about to be) back in session all across the country. As things are gearing up for the 2016-2017 school year, and in anticipation of rolling out this new blog, Teach Boldly presents THE FIFTEEN BEST TEACHERS IN FICTION.

The Best Teachers in Fiction (15 – 11)

No. 15: Mr. Miyagi

Mr. Miyagi comes in at 15 for his dedication, his care of his students, his ability to push his them beyond limits both physical and mental, his understanding that good education requires balance, his desire to only want the best for his students and his most obvious bad-assery!


No. 14: Batman

Bracketing the fact that a Robin (Jason Todd) died on his watch (does Batman get points because Jason came back to life?), one has to admit that training teenage boys to become world class crime fighters is quite an accomplishment. Batman has taken at least seven young people under his wing and taught them almost everything he knows. At the end of the day, he even loves these students as all good teachers should.

batman and robin

No. 13: John Wheelwright

The narrator of John Irving’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany (this bloggers favorite book), John Wheelwright learns that what he loves best in life, after his friend Owen, is to read. Wanting to share the gift with others, Wheelwright becomes a teacher and a good one at that. Irving himself was a teacher and the classroom scenes he writes ring very true.

Owen Meany Cover

No. 12: Sarah Simms

In the New Teen Titans comic book and later on the television show Teen Titans Go!, fans are introduced to Sarah Simms, a young woman who dedicates her life to working with students who have suffered some kind of amputation. Written with deep compassion and care by Marv Wolfman in the comic book, Sarah comes across as dedicated, concerned and real-world. She’s a great model for teachers everywhere.

Sarah Simms

No. 11: Lydia Davis

On Fame, the incredibly dedicated and talented Ms. Davis (played brilliantly by the brilliant Debbie Allen) told her students (every week on the opening credits voice-over) “You’ve got big dreams. You want fame. Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying.” Her students paid. And they loved her for making them work.

Lydia Davis


Teach & Serve No. 41 – Thresholds

Teach & Serve 

No. 41 * May 25, 2016

Related Content from And There Came A Day:

Today is the last edition of Teach & Serve for the year.

Tune in next fall for Volume II


We may, like many of our students who are about to leave our schools or our colleagues who are moving on to other work, want to stand on this side of the door, we may want to hold here, just for a while longer.

As the end of the year draws closer, and the promise of summer is all but upon us, we revel in the prospect of sunny months, of halcyon days, of down time. Sometimes we revel in that promise more than our students do. We plan the time off or, rather, we enjoy the notion that we don’t have to plan – we don’t have to plan time, we don’t have to plan new classes, we don’t have to plan at all. We see the door before us, opening on to the summer, and we’re eager to rush through it. We’re ready to cross the threshold.

No more lessons, no more books (or iPads or tablets), no more students’ dirty looks.

Bring summer on!

Something nags, though. There is something that holds us in place. In these late spring moments, we stand at the door with a little reluctance to push through. We have one foot in next year, but we also have one still in this one.  We are aware of the students with whom we’ve journeyed these many months, of the colleagues with whom we’ve worked. We’ve shared the moments of the year together – moments that have been good, moments that have been bad, all the moments in between.

We’ve been part of the lives of hundreds of other people. And all of that is about to change for the group of people we’ve lived with, day-in-and-day-out, this group of people who occupied the minutes and hours of this year will never be assembled again. Not after the door opens, not after we pour out into the summer.

It’s all about to change. Once we cross that threshold, it changes forever.

So, we may, like many of our students who are about to leave our schools or our colleagues who are moving on to other work, want to stand on this side of the door, we may want to hold here, just for a while longer.

But, we cannot stand in threshold. That’s not the job.

The work of today – today on one of the last days of the school year – is what it has been throughout the school year: moving forward. The work has been to ready the way, to direct the traffic. From the moment the year began, from the moment the faculty meetings opened in the fall, we’ve been pointed in this direction, pointed to the threshold, to the door.

Door HandleWe stand by the door, not at it, not in front. We stand with one hand on the handle, ready to open the latch.

We do not stand in the threshold.

The work of the educator is constantly in motion and focused forward. The work of the educator links from one lesson to the next, one unit to the next, one demonstration, one equation, one experiment to the next. We link one year to the next. We are future focused people, though, in the moments of the school year, we don’t always realize it.

It is not always easy to push open the door. There are students who we would like to bar from passing through because we believe they are not ready. There are colleagues we want to hold on to who are going to go. We know some of what is on the other side of the door. We know what can happen when the threshold is crossed.

We also know that it must be crossed. And it will be. We hope the students are ready. We hope they are ready to move on to the next level, to the next step, to the next school. We hope we’ve done the job well.

We’ve led our students to the threshold. It’s time to watch them walk through it. It’s time to let them go. It’s time to close the door on this year and to rest, relax and recharge.

And we need not worry too much. When we reach the end of the summer, we will stand at another threshold: the threshold to a new year.

That is one of the blessings of the work we do.