Teach & Serve II, No. 4 – Fight the System

Teach & Serve II, No. 4 – Fight the System

August 31, 2016

Because we often venerate those who came before us in our institutions, we tend to venerate the systems they created right along with them.

We sometimes talk about “human systems” – the architecture of people who live and work and journey together. These human systems are the ways we relate, the hierarchies we put in place to deal with one another. They help orient where we stand. And how. They are important sociological structures that keep our schools functioning. Without these, our schools would descend into chaos.

systemsOf the many elements that unite schools – private, public, charter and otherwise – perhaps none are so prominent as the fact that schools are places which rely on human systems that create systems on which we all rely. Attendance procedures, grading scales, assignment turn in policies, employee handbooks, you name it, schools have them. They prescribe how cell phones are to be used, where food can be consumed, how people (students and faculty alike) can dress. Systems and structures abound in school settings. Even those schools that cast themselves as innovative and free, open and would like to suggest they don’t have systems do.  They have systems. They have structures.

How does a student get out of class to go to Counseling? Fill out a pass. Have it signed and countersigned. System.

When does a teacher round up a students’ grade? Check the manual. System.

How do we get to the parking lot during a fire drill? System.

What are the on-boarding procedures for our new faculty and staff? System.

Here’s where the trouble comes. We sometimes define ourselves and our schools by our systems. Because we normally do good work and our schools and collaborate to develop solid systems, it’s hard to recognize when the time has come to shut them down. Because we typically trust the people with whom we’ve created said systems, we have trust in the systems themselves. Because we often venerate those who came before us in our institutions, we tend to venerate the systems they created right along with them.

Therefore, we sometimes adhere to systems long after we should for fear of offending someone. We resist updating outmoded policies and procedures because Janney designed them in 1998 and we love Janney.

No one wants to make Janney feel bad.

But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, as our schools move through the years, the systems that looked so shiny, so snappy and so smart when we designed them inevitably show their wear-and-tear.

How many libraries in our schools kept the card catalogs years longer than necessary? Raise your hand if your school still has it…

How many schools resisted moving to data driven decision making processes because the systems they had in place – largely anecdotal, often inaccurate – had worked just fine for years, thank you very much.

How many schools continue to prop up old systems instead of building new ones?

Break up the system. The system is not the person.

Schools that are forward thinking, ready to adapt and change to meet the needs of any new day, understand that systems must change even when the people behind them do not change. Schools that do this with facility build into their systems the understanding that they are temporary, that they will become obsolete. This is stated truth and lived fact.

It’s often not the people who need to change, it’s the system.

Separate the two.

Fight the system.

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?

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.

Teach & Serve No. 1 – “I Am A Teacher”

Teach & Serve 

No. 1 * August 4, 2015

I Am a Teacher

If we considered the many roles are called on to play, the many aspects of the work before us, the many groups we’re called to serve – if we considered all of this before we entered the profession, it’s possible we’d have chosen another path for our lives. But we didn’t. Be we counselors or coaches, teacher or administrators, staff members or librarians, we are all teachers and our lives are better for the pursuit.

I was born the first moment that a question leaped from the mouth of a child.  I have been many people in many places.  I am Socrates exciting the youth of Athens to discover new ideas through the use of questions.  I am Anne Sullivan tapping out the secrets of the universe into the outstretched hand of Helen Keller.  I am Aesop and Hans Christian Andersen revealing truth through countless stories.  I am Marva Collins fighting for every child’s right to an education.  I am Mary McCleod Bethune building a great college for my people.  And I am Bel Kaufman struggling to go Up the Down Staircase.

The names of those who have practiced my profession ring like a hall of fame for humanity – Booker T. Washington, Buddha, Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Moses and Jesus.  I am also those whose names and faces have long been forgotten but whose lessons and character will always be remembered in the accomplishments of their students.

Teach and Serve 2I have wept for joy at the weddings of former students, laughed with glee at the birth of their children and stood with head bowed in grief and confusion by graves dug too soon for bodies far too young.  Throughout the course of a day I have been called upon to be an actor, friend, nurse and doctor, coach, finder of lost articles, money-lender, taxi driver, psychologist, substitute parent, salesman, politician and a keeper of the faith.  Despite the maps, charts, formulas, verbs, stories and books, I have really had nothing to teach; for my students really only have to learn who they are, and I know it takes the whole world to tell you who you are.

I am a paradox.  I speak loudest when I listen most.  My greatest gifts are in what I am appreciatively willing to receive from my students.  Material wealth is not one of my goals, but I am a full-time-treasure-seeker in my quest for new opportunities for my students to use their talents and in my constant search for those talents that sometimes lie buried in self-defeat.

I am the most fortunate of all who labor.  A doctor is allowed to usher life into the world in one magical moment.  I am allowed to see that life is reborn each day with new questions, ideas and friendships.  An architect knows that if a structure is built with care, it may stand for centuries.  A teacher knows that if he or she builds with love and truth, what he or she builds will last forever.

I engage in daily battle against peer pressure, negativity, fear, conformity, prejudice, ignorance and apathy.  But I have the great allies of intelligence, curiosity, parental support, individuality, creativity, faith, love and laughter.  They all rush to my banner with indomitable support.

And whom do I have to thank?

I must thank the people who have made my labors possible: the parents of my students, for they have done me the great honor of entrusting to me their greatest contribution to eternity: their children.  And so I have a past that is rich in memory.  I have a present that is challenging, adventurous and fun because I am allowed to spend my days with the future.

I am a teacher … and I thank God for it every day.


By John Wayne Schallter, Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, 2012.