Teach & Serve No. 26 – Is It Getting Hot in Here?

Teach & Serve 

No. 26 * February 10, 2016


Related Content from And There Came A Day:


Is It Getting Hot in Here?

As a learned friend of mine said: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”

 

I am not an expert on Peter Senge, the brilliant systems analyst who is currently a senior lecturer at MIT and who is a leading Systems Theory expert, but I am familiar enough with him to say that serious  professionals, educational and otherwise, should know who he is and what he does. In his deeply engrossing book The Fifth Discipline, Senge outlines a concept of how effective and dynamic learning organizations work. He is not talking specifically about schools; Senge is describing organizations that can learn, that can grow and that are dynamic. He is detailing how people can inspired to strive for the common good of the organization – no matter what that organization is or does – and how those organization can exist in a constant and healthy state of reinvention. His conclusions, especially as applied to schools,  are at once exciting and harrowing.

They are exciting because Senge paints a vivid picture of what schools could be if they were built on principles that encouraged educational professionals to consider the school community overall as more important than their individual needs and desires and that supporting the broad vision and work of the school (assuming it is a high performing learning organization) actually has the effect of making their individual lives in it better. Senge’s work is harrowing because of what a tough sell that concept is.

Senge outlines the five disciplines that learning organizations share, hence the title of the book. He also describes what he calls learning disabilities that can hamper learning organizations from reaching their potential. “Learning disabilities” is a bit of an awkward appellation given its current connotation, but Senge published the first edition of The Fifth Discipline in 1990, so he can be forgiven for this.

As I reviewed the book for my work teaching a seminar in Jesuit school leadership this week, I found myself reflecting on Senge’s concept of learning disabilities in general and one of them in particular: The Parable of the Boiling Frog.

boiling-waterSurely, you’ve heard this parable before, yes? If a frog is put in a pot of room temperature water on a stove and the heat is slowly and incrementally increased over a span of time, the frog will not leap from the water even as the temperature approaches the boiling point. It’s not that the frog doesn’t feel the change, the frog does. However, because the change is gradual and incremental, the frog doesn’t sense anything particularly out of the ordinary. He notes the shift in circumstance and moves on. He takes it in stride. He adjusts and adapts. He resets feeling that each rise in temperature is simply the new norm. He doesn’t leave the pot and doesn’t react to the danger until it is far too late.

This isn’t a nice story for the frog, to be sure. It’s kind of disturbing, actually.

But the story is all the more disturbing if we apply it to human systems. Senge says this is one of the learning disabilities that holds human systems back from being truly effective learning organizations. When things get off course in small ways, without major crises or “big” moments or institutional blow ups – when they simply slide downward, slipping inevitably, losing grip and losing focus, people in those systems tend not to notice… until it’s too late.

Can this parable be applied to our academic departments? Does it describe our schools? Have we ever felt as though we were the frog in the boiling water?

I think we would be well served to make a practice of “taking the temperature of the room” and discerning whether our schools, or departments, our PLCs are approaching the boiling point. We would be well served to do this early and to do it often. Looking around the room and asking, “hey, when did it get so hot in here?” may be a necessary thing to do. It may be something that needs to happen at our schools right now. But, if the water is at 210 degrees already, we can’t pat ourselves on the back for turning the burner down now. The closer we get to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the longer it will take the pot to cool. The closer we are to the boiling point, the more likely it is that we’ve done some permanent damage. We might be able to turn down the flame before the water bubbles over, but someone is likely to have already been singed.

Here’s the thing: it’s not particularly insightful, for example, to point out our schools are off track when our students aren’t scoring well on standardized tests they used to ace or that the school is off track when it doesn’t pass its accreditation review with flying colors or that the institution has a problem when enrollment dips 8%. Noting that something needs to change in light of these sorts of problems is kind of like fixing the barn door after the cow has come home… the farmer appreciates the work but isn’t going to get back the hours she spent looking for Bessie.

No, the insight comes in recognition of those problems before they become problems and dealing with them prior to their coming to a head. Leadership is when the potential issues are never allowed to become issues.

As a learned friend of mine said this week: “Anyone can call the fire department. Leaders are checking the wiring before the spark ever ignites.”

Check the wiring. Turn down the flame. Save the frog.

Oh, and read The Fifth Discipline.

 

 

EduQuote of the Week: February 8 – February 14, 2016

door quotes

Although the life of a person is in a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. – Pope Francis

Teach & Serve No. 24 – Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

Teach & Serve 

No. 25 * February 3, 2016


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Students Don’t Fail in February, Teachers Do

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession.

During one year of my administrative career, I served as Acting Principal of my alma mater, the school where I had worked for almost two decades. I could devote an entire series of posts to the perils of the words “Acting” or “Interim” before the word “Principal” and perhaps I one day will. Frankly, being an “acting” anything is an almost impossible challenge and success in the role is dependent upon many factors – especially the support one has from one’s superior.

But that’s a story for another day.

failing-grade-editIn February of the year of my acting principalship, a teacher I knew well and respected, a teacher I had when I was a student (remember, this was my alma mater), a teacher under whom I had worked in any number of capacities in my years at the school approached me. He informed me a student was failing his class and was unlikely to make a passing grade for the semester. This student had failed first semester and grading policy at our school was such that if he passed second semester, his failing grade for first semester – a grade we called the “K” grade – would become a “D” and the student would be awarded whatever grade he earned for second semester. As things stood, I was told, there was “no chance” this student would pass second semester. According to the teacher, the kid was simply not grasping the material. And he had no chance of grasping to a degree by which he could pass the class. The student couldn’t do the work, the teacher informed me. The student as so far behind the curve in terms of the material (in February according to the teacher) that the wouldn’t and couldn’t pass the class.

The class was Algebra I. The student was working very hard.

I should know. The student was my step-son.

And the teacher was convinced, in February, that he should fail the class.

That I was compromised and biased in this situation is obvious. On reflection, I see myself as entirely cowardly as well. I was principal, acting though I might be, and was within my purview to intervene.

I did not.

Allowing that teacher to fail my step-son in February was a mistake and it remains one of the worst professional decisions I have ever made. Frustrated and angry, not at my best and not having taken enough time to reflect on the scenario, to call in the advice of those I trusted and to challenge my step-son’s teacher’s policies, I acknowledged – I didn’t accept – what the teacher was telling me, pulled my step-son out of the class creating a study hall for him though our school didn’t offer study halls (being Acting Principal had to have some privileges) and never looked at my colleague in quite the same manner again.

I have never looked at myself in quite the same way again, either.

My step-son had struggled mightily in this Algebra I class throughout the first semester of his freshman year. During the first semester we tried everything. I spent many a night trying to assist him with the material.  When the limits of my algebra knowledge were reached – and they were reached very quickly, my wife and I hired a number of tutors for my step-son, finding that the fit wasn’t right with most of them. We met with my step-son’s teacher searching for solutions. We explained to the teacher that my step-son had a diagnosed processing disorder and discussed how he best responded to instruction in class. Finally, we settled on a tutor who my step-son liked and to whom he responded well. For a few weeks, my step-son showed some significant signs of improvement, but circumstances changed and this tutor became less effective as assignments wore on. That my step-son’s teacher became increasingly less cooperative with the tutor is a sad but true statement.

So, my step-son failed Algebra I and, by the end of that year, transferred from the school. The teacher who failed him remains. The Acting Principal who let this all go on is no longer at the school.

What came next is what is instructive. Somehow deciding in the first semester of his sophomore year and his new school that he loved math, somehow deciding that he was a gifted math student despite his earlier failure and somehow deciding that he wanted to take an Advanced Placement math course by the time he graduated high school, my step-son took control. He met with his counselors and math teachers and plotted an ambitious schedule of math courses for himself over the remainder of his high school career. This plan included him taking Algebra II and Honors Geometry concurrently during his junior year, taking an online and self-directed Calculus class during the summer between his junior and senior years so that he would be ready to take AP Calculus AB his last year of high school. Oh, and he had to get A’s or B’s in these classes to satisfy his teachers and counselors.

He received all A’s.

Do you see where this is going?

After failing Algebra I, this kid worked as hard as I’ve seen any kid work to get to a senior level, AP math class. And he took the AP test. And he got a 4.

The message here is less about my step-son (and I could write post-after-post about this kid, about the incredible kid he is) than it is about the teacher who failed him.

In February.

While one could make the argument that my step-son’s failure motivated him to work as hard as he did, I contend that that argument is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine what might have happened if that teacher had worked with my step-son for, clearly, my step-son had the drive and the ability to do great things.

As teachers, we cannot – must not – give up on our students. Ever. What they can do should amaze us. What they can do should inspire us. If we are not amazed and inspired by our students, it’s time to find a new profession. It’s not for us to limit them. We work with them, in every way we can, to help them grow. That’s the mission.

Yes, some students will not meet the standards by which we must judge their performance and, at the end of the day, some will take all we offer and do nothing with it. But, let’s be honest:

Students don’t fail in February, teachers do.

EduQuote of the Week: February 1 – February 7, 2016

door quotes

My definition of success is to be happy in what you like to do best. It’s not a monetary value; it’s an internal value in itself. If you’re happy from the inside-out, that’s what is important. Success comes as a day to day value or reaching a goal that you have, and you’ve got to prepare yourself for what’s to come when success is there. – DeMarcus Ware

Teach & Serve No. 24 – Sliding Not Deciding

Teach & Serve 

No. 24 * January 27, 2016


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Sliding Not Deciding

Decisions and the processes we go through to make them define who we are as teachers and administrators.

Educational professionals make decisions.

Wait, let me state that another way: educational professionals are often called upon to make decisions. Important ones. No, that’s too strong. One more try here: educational professionals can be called into many situations and scenarios in which decisions must be made. Not quite right. One more attempt: educational professionals are frequently faced with having to make decisions.

Terrible… it seems hard (at least for the purposes of trying to illustrate my point in this post day) to simply and clearly state that teachers and administrators make decisions. I think there are many reasons why this is true, but let’s clear one thing up for purposes of this discussion. Making decisions is different than making choices. Teachers and administrators are asked to make choices constantly. Which book will we read? What unit comes first? Which teacher will have what “other duty as assigned”? And so on and so on. These are choices, not decisions. Choices are important, no question about that, and choices fill our days as teachers and administrators. But decisions are bigger deals. Decisions and the processes we go through to make them define who we are as teachers and administrators.

DecisionsThe longer one spends in education, the more time an individual puts into the job, the more likely she or he is to be asked to make decisions or to take part in some decision making process that will be important to the school. As opposed to choices, the types of decisions to which I am referring here have high stakes, impact and gravitas. These decisions affect our future as educators and the future of our schools. Decisions are about who we are and what we want to be. Decisions can change the course of our professional lives and alter the direction of our institutions.

Decisions are big deals.

So, how to we arrive at them? What process do we employ? What do we do – as individuals and as schools – to make decisions?

My fear is that, often, we don’t. We don’t actually make decisions. Sure, we embark on a process. We have conversations. We weigh the pros and cons. We engage. We talk. Through this, clarity about the direction we might want to go sometimes emerges. Sometimes it does not.

The trouble with decisions is that they are, in fact, big deals and they do, in fact, have a lot at stake in their making. As such, they can cause tension and disagreement. They can foster unrest. They can make us uncomfortable because they are not choices, they are decisions and the ones we make – and how we make them – says something about who we are and charts the course of where we are going.

As administrators and teachers, we are well served to have practiced our decision making process before we actually have to make any decisions. We better know how we make decisions and the manner in which we do so prior to actually making some. At the end of the day, our decisions are just things. They are results. Decisions are made and we and our colleagues agree with them, disagree with them, celebrate them, revile them. Decisions are things. And, frankly, they are less important, sometimes, than the process with how we made them.

As we engage in making decisions, it can be easier to settle. It can be less challenging to ourselves and our communities to ease into decisions, to slide into them. When we know we’re staking a claim for our future, it’s natural to approach with trepidation and caution. With second guessing. Without confidence.

It’s easy to slide into new positions. It’s harder to reach out and take them.

Let us be confident in how we do so, confident in the process we employ and confident in our decisions. Let us practice and make perfect. We will be stronger teachers and administrators when we develop facility making decisions. We will be stronger leaders when we stop sliding into our positions and start deciding them.

Our students and our staffs should know us as decision makers.

Educational professionals make decisions.

EduQuote of the Week: January 25 – January 31, 2016

door quotes

If nothing else in life, I want to be true to the things I believe in and, quite simply, to what I am about. I now I’d better because it seems, whenever I take a false step or two, I feel the consequences. 

– Peyton Manning

Teach & Serve No. 23 – Advice to Teach by – and My Father Said He Didn’t Like School

Teach & Serve 

No. 23 * January 20, 2016


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Advice to Teach by – and My Father Said He Didn’t Like School

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had.

At this point in my life, I have come to understand that we tend to idealize those people who have come and gone in our lives. By this I mean those we’ve lost to death or to movements and flows of life or to other circumstances both within and beyond our control. When those we love move out of our lives, we have a tendency to idealize them – who they were, what they stood for and what they said.

I guard against this temptation when I think of my father, though I am sure that a bit of idealization sneaks in. How could it not? I loved him.

Dad, if you asked, would have said terrible things about school. He may have even said terrible things about teachers. No, strike “may have.” Dad did say terrible things about some teachers and those things may even have been true.

DSC00630
Dad’s High School Graduation Photo

Dad attended the same Jesuit high school I did and he told great stories about it, including the undated, signed notes my grandmother would give him of the “Please excuse Mickey from class…” variety and the tale of a teacher picking up a talkative student’s desk and throwing him, desk and all, through the door of the classroom without skipping a beat of his lesson.

Dad could tell stories.

Dad could also give advice, when asked, so, like a good son I never really asked him his advice about teaching. Terrible, isn’t it? Dad wasn’t a teacher, didn’t seem to have adored his educational life and I didn’t turn to him for advice when I entered the profession.

Looking back on who he was and how he lived and, perhaps, idealizing him a bit, I think I can discern what he may have told me had I asked him.

Dad never took himself too seriously. Seriously. Though he was involved in a serious profession and found himself, in his work as a deacon, dealing with people in challenging times of life, he never let the moments get the best of him. He also never let himself think he was any better than anyone else. I remember him telling the story of when, during a baptism he was performing, he continually referred to the child – let’s call the baby “Chris” – as a boy when, in fact, she was a girl. “It’s a girl, dummy!” the baby’s grandmother finally corrected him during the ceremony. Dad loved to tell that story.

Teachers and administrators need a healthy dose of self-deprecation. If they take themselves too seriously, the work can become burdensome. They are public figures whose mistakes are going to be critiqued and scrutinized. If educators live and die with every challenging moment, the work can take a deeper emotional toll. Educators are well served by stepping back and smiling at themselves. Often.

Dad was very decisive. There may have been a lot of internal debate going on with my father and, surely, he and my mom talked about big decisions in their lives but, professionally and personally, Dad struck me as very decisive and, once he had made a decision, he didn’t spend too much time looking back.

Educators are called upon to make decisions minute-by-minute. While not all of these decisions are filled with import, many need to be made with confidence. This doesn’t necessarily imply that decisions must all be made quickly, but, once decisions are made, dwelling on and second guessing them as a matter of course can be very draining.

Dad had a great sense of humor. He could make fun of almost anything and could be highly irreverent.

Teachers and administrators who cannot laugh and who do not have a sense of humor can certainly do the job. They can do it at a high level, even. But I have found that those who don’t have a sense of humor simply don’t enjoy the work as much as those who do. If you’re not going to enjoy being in a school, the other rewards of the vocation may not be enough for you.

Dad connected with people. When Dad died, I spoke in the eulogy about his “guys.” Dad had many, many “guys,” people whose lives and his had intertwined over the course of his work with the Church and simply because of the man he was. There was a great number of people who called Dad “friend” and a lot more whose lives had been touched by him and, surely, who had touched his life in turn.

Much like not having a well-developed sense of humor, it is possible for educators – teachers and administrators – to do the work without connecting with kids and with parents and with their colleagues. It is possible to do the work, certainly. I am just not sure how well the work is done by people who don’t enjoy connecting with others. Actually, I am pretty sure that those people don’t do the work nearly as well. Teachers and administrators must connect. It’s part of the job description.

Dad had a terrific sense of justice. I suppose having a strong sense of justice was part of Dad’s job description as a deacon. He was very in tune with this, could sense an imbalance of power or a bad situation readily and reacted strongly to them. He was motivated by those who had been abused by any system, inspired by David vs. Goliath stories, championed those who had less. The homeless came to Dad. He worked hard for those with less. He never stopped fighting in this area. He also, from the pulpit, didn’t shy away from talking about issues of justice, even when such homilies made people uncomfortable.

Educators are called to not only be fair and just, they are called to highlight injustice around them. They are called to act in a just manner and to point out to developing young minds the injustice that exists in the world. Further, they are compelled to help students understand that they can be part of changing unjust systems. If we’re not about this as we teach, we’re simply doing a disservice to students.

Dad was a great storyteller and loved to listen to others’ stories. I miss a lot about being able to talk with and listen to my Dad. I try to emulate much of what he was in my own life. Yes, as I have written above, I know that I idealize my father in many ways, but not in this one. Dad was a terrific storyteller and could command “the room” so to speak. He told wonderfully engaging and funny stories. He also loved to listen to others telling stories and would often ask for the same story to be told over-and-over again. He would want to hear about the same moment, the same incident, the same funny instance. And, when he listened, his reactions and smile and attention validated the storyteller and made that person feel very special.

Shouldn’t educators tell great stories? Beyond delivering content and inspiring skills in our students, shouldn’t we also be able to tell them great stories about our subject matter and convey or love of it? Shouldn’t we also listen to those around us at least as much as we speak to them?

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He should have written a book about education. If he had, it would been titled Lessons about Teaching from a Guy Who Didn’t Like School.

I would have bought that book.

EduQuote of the Week: January 18 – January 24, 2016

door quotes

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education

– Dr. Martin Luther King, jr

Teach & Serve No. 22 – Is What I am about to Do Helpful?

Teach & Serve 

No. 22 * January 13, 2016


Related Content from And There Came A Day:


Is What I am about to Do Helpful?

We are leaders. We are public figures. And, no matter whether we believe it’s fair or not, we are held to a higher standard.

When I think back to the twenty-three years I spent in high school as a teacher and administrator, I remember many an afternoon drive home (and, at various times in my history in a school, I lived well over half an hour away from work) during which I had LONG conversations with people who were not in my car. I would talk to the principals who may have upset me by making a decision with which I did not agree. I would chat with the department chairs whose policies made it impossible for me to do my job well and to be the best teacher I could be. I would talk to the students who pushed every and all of my buttons during the day. I would have conversation after conversation, often thinking “I wish I’d said that” and sometimes, in the case of conversations I repeated ad infinitum in my head, I would convince myself I had, in fact, come up with the perfect rejoinder in the moment.

But only one person I can think of has ever been able to recreate the circumstances surrounding a conversation to get to actually use such a rejoinder, and it didn’t go so well for him:

The bottom line on these kinds of conversations is that, most likely, what I thought I wanted to say was, in the end, better left unsaid.

As teachers, educators and administrators, we are called upon to make decisions – all kinds of decisions – sometimes with time to ponder and consider, sometimes in a split second. As educators, we encounter people all day long. Some of them come to us at their best and some at their worst. Most come to us somewhere in between. They come to us with questions, with concerns, with often with emotion. They come to us with challenges that, perhaps, they want us to solve or challenges that they are putting to us.

And they find us, because we are human, in whatever state we happen to be in at the time. We might be up or down, happy or sad, relaxed or keyed up. What I discovered in my years in schools is that it rarely mattered (or, rather, it only mattered to an empathetic person) what my condition was in being approached or how I felt. No, when someone wanted something, wanted to talk, wanted to confront, their moment was now no matter how I felt about it.

Okay, that’s fine – especially for administrators – because what am I doing in school leadership if I am not as available, physically and emotionally as I can be, to help, to aid, to assist? I would argue that, if being available to those around you isn’t in your top 3 goals as a teacher or administrator, you should consider another line of work.

In some instances, those contacts are terrific. I am not writing about those here. I am writing about the ones that are not terrific, the ones that get under our skin, the ones that truly bother us and leave us having phantom conversations in the car on the way home.

We get upset. We’re human. We get overwhelmed. We entitled. We get frustrated. Okay, wait… here’s where we need to be careful.

Because we can get so into our history of “I should have said this” that, in a trying moment, we might actually say it or something like it. We can get so upset that we feel justified. We can get so overwhelmed we give ourselves a pass. We can get so frustrated that we might cross a line that cannot be uncrossed or burn a bridge that cannot be rebuilt.

And we are confronted by such perils dozens of times a day.

We must be careful. We are leaders. We are public figures. And, no matter whether we believe it’s fair or not, we are held to a higher standard.

In the heat of the moment or an hour later or in our car on the way home or as we’re about to press “send” on that email, there is a simple question to ask: is what I am about to do helpful?

Is what I am about to do helpful?

If not, I would argue it shouldn’t be done. If what I am about to do is not constructive, I need to discard the thought. If what I am about to say only tears down with no possibility of building up, it’s the wrong way to go. If how I am about to act destroys, I must take pause. I am an educator. I build. I don’t destroy.

Is what I am about to do helpful?

Good question to ask.

Repeatedly.

EduQuote of the Week: January 11 – January 17, 2016

door quotes

Come on up for the rising. Come on up lay your hand in mine. Come on up for the rising. Come on up for the rising tonight. 

– Bruce Springsteen