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.
We 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.
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.
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.
I 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!
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.
We 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.
Working in schools isn’t like painting a wall. Teachers don’t get to blue tape the edges of their students and fill in the gaps until they are fully colored and vibrant.
Mid-May in schools is rife with many emotions. Teachers and administrators are ready to bid the year farewell and to get to summer vacation. Mid-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 material 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 don’t 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.
Many summers down the road, water passed under bridges, calendar pages turned, former students realize they forgot something back in the spring months of their school days. At some point in the journey of their lives they recognize what happened and some seek out former instructors to tell them something profound: “you changed my life.”
It’s not entirely fair to expect students living in these mid-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. They haven’t lived enough life and that’s okay. As educators, we know that our students are not finished products. They have more to learn.
And so do we because, in the mid-May morass, we are just as likely to forget to acknowledge to ourselves that we have, in fact, changed lives.
Working in schools isn’t like painting a wall. Teachers don’t get to blue tape the edges of their students and fill in the gaps until they are fully colored and vibrant. Teachers don’t get to see the results of the hours of preparation and the early mornings and the late nights. Teachers don’t know the seeds they are planting as they are dropping them in fertile ground. Teachers don’t 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 mid-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 say something about this profound work:
You have changed lives.
Treasure giving that gift, even if those who receive it are not always able to acknowledge that they have.
Schools should embrace the right kind of trouble, not shy away from it.
Working in schools, we sometimes find ourselves in trouble, as it were. We find ourselves at odds with others. We find ourselves at loggerheads. We find ourselves emotionally keyed up and in stare downs across the faculty room. Often, we don’t know how we got into these situations. They seem to just happen.
I remember far too many of these sorts of moments from my time in schools. I remember staring down a colleague who was sure I mismanaged the timing of a field trip to such an extent that it impacted his afterschool activities with students. He was probably right. I remember standing in my principal’s office moments after he had appeared in my classroom to berate me in front of my kids. He was absolutely wrong. I remember all manner of conflict running the gamut from right to wrong stopping at all points in between.
This kind of trouble ought to be avoided. It’s bad for business.
However, not all trouble should be avoided and, for good or for ill, there are people with whom we work with whom we ought to be in trouble. Always be in trouble with the right people for the right reasons.
Once, in a conversation with fellow administrators about a teacher’s desire for assigned courses she would instruct the following year, I was told by someone a step up on the organizational chart: “it’s not your call.” At the time, I was serving as Assistant Principal for Faculty and Curriculum. By any stretch of the imagination, having input on what teachers (who, for better or worse, fell under my charge) would teach was a subject on which I held valid opinions, a subject with which I was intimately familiar. While the final decision rested with those above me – it was, in fact, their call – the idea that I was in conflict with this particular person over this particular decision didn’t upset me. That this person was heavy-handed and attempting to put me in my place with his language may have, but the fact that we disagreed did not.
This was the right fight to have, the right trouble to be in. This administrator was the right person to fight, the right person to be in trouble with.
I found myself in trouble with this person over-and-over again. Bracketing the ego I know I have and the argumentative nature that can be a part of me; bracketing the petty fights I may have instigated and the silly conflicts we may have had, the trouble I got into with this person was the right kind of trouble and this person was absolutely the right person to have trouble with. I suspect few tears were shed by this person when, years later, I left the school for different work in education. Frankly, this person should have shed tears and should have recognized our troubles as good ones.
The troubles we had centered on the different ways we thought students should be treated. They centered on we believed administration should partner with teachers. They centered on how parents be engaged. The troubles we had centered on issues of mission. They centered on fundamental questions of how we should proceed as a school.
The bottom line is that trouble in a school can be a change agent. Schools should embrace the right kind of trouble, not shy away from it. Schools should be happy for trouble over equally good ideologies, trouble around valid pedagogical methods, trouble about different ways to proceed when the ways to proceed seem similarly good.
May the Fourth and Other Teachings from a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Even in the privacy of our own homes, if we’re out there on the computer or on our phones, we are On.We are On continuously. Perpetually. All the time.
It’s May the 4th and, as a Star Wars fan (I cannot truly say “life-long Star Wars fan” as the movie came out when I was seven), I decided to use this edition of Teach & Serve to mention some of the lessons Star Wars taught me and the ways it inspired me as a teacher. I have often apologized to The Cinnamon Girl, my wonderful wife, because I don’t know if she realized, when we married, that I am in a perpetual state of story, that tales of heroines and heroes move me and that I cannot and do not want to shake heroic myth.
I took every class in my English major that related to heroes and myth. I found a way to work Star Wars into conversation, into essays, into my academic work. I was an undergrad in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though it is hard to imagine now, back then Star Wars wasn’t particularly hip. Neither was I. That’s easier to imagine.
In my early years teaching, I was assigned British Literature classes. Brit Lit was not my specialty or focus in college and I knew I needed to find a way in for myself, a way to love the subject matter so I could convey some passion to my students. The way in? Star Wars and the Hero’s journey. Long before teachers world-wide began talking about Harry Potter as the paradigm, Luke Skywalker was Gilgamesh, was Beowulf, was Odysseus, was King Arthur. The Force was with me.
When the initial preview for The Phantom Menace was released, my school had just spent a bundle installing Smart Boards in every classroom. As a teacher, I was just mastering the technology. As a Star Wars geek, however, I knew what to do with it: stream that preview on the giant smart board time and time again. And invite friends. I really have no idea how many times I and other like-minded nerds watched that thing. More than a handful to be sure…
I wrote about what Star Wars means to me on the day The Force Awakens was released. I’ve never written, though, about the lessons Star Wars taught me. So, in no particular order and off the top of my head, here are Ten Lessons from Star Wars I brought into the classroom.
“There’s always another fish” – Qui Gon Jinn was a wise Jedi, indeed and his metaphor is spot on. Just when you think you’ve caught the biggest catch, there’s another one coming. Just when you feel you’ve lost the greatest opportunity you’ll ever have, another shows up.
“So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view” – Teaching English afforded me and my students many things… what it rarely afforded (outside of grammar rules) was absolutes. Obi Wan was right.
You can be princess and warrior – Princess Leia was royalty and beautiful along with being tough and savvy. Not a bad role model for young women and I told them so when I taught them.
“Already know you that which you need” – Yoda knew what good teachers now – the process is not about information transfer, it’s about awakening what is already
We need mentors who don’t coddle us – Obi Wan and Yoda didn’t coddle Luke. Qui Gon Jinn didn’t coddle Obi Wan. They all loved their charges, let them know that and also held them accountable, just like good teachers do.
If you want to succeed, you have to believe – Remember when Luke didn’t believe he could use the Force to lift the X-Wing? That was why he failed.
Choose peace – Jedi do not use the Force for attack, but to center themselves, to connect to those around them and to learn.
Don’t get cocky – Thanks Han. Enough said.
Beware of “always,” “never” and other absolutes – “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” so we shouldn’t. Ever.
Know what you stand for and stand for it – Yoda sums up a mission statement as only Yoda can: “Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.”
During this Teacher Appreciation Week 2016, I intend to share a memories of my years in teaching – some I’ve posted in years past and some new ones – if only to recall the moments that stand out and the moments that have somehow inspired me to press on.
Mentoring That Changed My Students’ Lives
I completed my student teaching at a co-ed Catholic school in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC, just over the Virginia state line. I was as intimidated as hell going into the practicum, as we called it, and nervous to meet the teacher with whom I would share a semester of my young life. The cooperating teacher to whom I was assigned seemed very, very seasoned. He was a veteran among his peers. I noted right away how they deferred to him and I felt that I’d been stuck with the “no fun” guy. One of my classmates was working with a gentleman who had already made it clear how to use personal days to the utmost: “never get caught at the end of the year with one” he told my friend. Later, this guy proved he lived by this mantra has missing a 3 days before and 3 days after the Kentucky Derby. I got the sense the 3 days before were so he could get tuned up and the 3 days after were to recover.
My cooperating teacher turned up his nose at this.
As I said, very seasoned. Frankly, he looked old.
That is my perspective now, 20 years after I worked with him. He was probably younger than I am now.
He taught me much, mainly through osmosis. I watched what he did; emulated his cadence. I learned strategy and management and craft and all of that was critically important and I began to fill my tool box, as it were, with things that he did. I reach into that box all the time.
One thing he said, though, has remained with me all these years. Working through his students’ final exams with him before summer break, I was surprised to see him change a grade. I won’t pretend that I remember what the exact numbers were, but I watched him move a student’s grade up a few percentage points – certainly more than one. He must have picked up on my surprise and he said: “If I don’t know these kids by now, I’ve done something wrong. Aren’t we paid to make these distinctions?”
In thinking about this blog, I went and google searched my old cooperating teacher. He retired last year and has published a book of prayer through Paulist Press. That’s one I’ll pick up.
22 years after I worked with him he’s still taking me to school.
Just How Old Do You Think I Am?
Teaching is sometimes – often? – an exercise in humility. I stopped short of writing “humiliation,” but that word is probably more accurate. When you stand in front of 4 – 5 collections of 25-odd young people daily, whether they are interested in what you have to say or not (spoiler alert – usually not), they are, in large part, staring at you. Sometimes they like what they see. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are judging you. Sometimes they are judging you.
Yeah, I wrote that twice.
I remember, in my first year teaching when I was 22 years old, standing in front of a class on Halloween. It was All Hallows Eve 1992. I had assigned them homework – this year, Halloween was in the middle of the school week – and was deflecting the complaints coming at me like fireflies to a light. They had plans, these juniors in high school. They were going to Trick-or-Treat. They had parties. They weren’t interested in whatever I wanted them to do.
I teased them. I told them that, when I was their age, I stayed in on Halloween and Christmas and worked. I loved school, I continued, and would skip parties and movies to be dedicated to my studies.
“Sure,” a girl in the front row said, “that’s what kids did. In the 1960s.”
So that happened.
An Apology Never Proffered
When I moved into administration it was as Dean of Students for the all girls Catholic high school at which I currently teach. In our model, the Dean of Students is responsible for maintaining student discipline and correcting serious student behaviors. It was, frankly, not a position I was dying to fill when it was opened, but I did want to move into administration and felt lucky to have the job.
I lasted two years.
In those two years, I dealt with a gun on campus, drugs in a bathroom, infractions against our dress code policy and various other sundry offenses, some highly notable, some not so much. I presided, most unfortunately, over the expulsion of one of our students – my worst day on the job – and was forced to recommend it for others. These things tore me up. The Dean job and I were not entirely compatible.
There was a drinking incident that I fondly remember because of its hilarity. On one of the last days of school – it may have been the actual last day of school and I do remember it was a Friday – rumors started flying among our very small student body (this was in the first year of existence for the school and we only had 172 students, all freshmen and sophomores) that a freshman had been drinking after school and was going to get on the bus drunk. The bus was going to take our students to Catholic Schools Night at Denver’s Elitches amusement park. The other administrators and I found the information we had credible and by “credible” I mean iron clad.
I had the fifth of vodka, disposed of hastily in a garbage can in the cafeteria
I had a Mountain Dew can which many girls reported seeing this freshman consuming that smelled – strongly – of alcohol
I had the student in my office which, upon her arrival, most suddenly smelled strongly of alcohol
I had written statements from at least 10 different students who had seen her drinking and heard her sharing her John LeCarre-like master plan of how she sneaked the vodka from home to school – in her book bag!
But the kid denied it. She denied it up and down. Asked me to “ask anyone!” Told me what a good kid she was and that she’d never, ever had a drink. Swore on a bible (not really; we don’t go in for that sort of thing anymore).
I made her call her mom in my presence on speakerphone and had her tell her mom what she was “in” for. Then I stepped in with my comments. I could tell mom was not altogether convinced of her daughter’s innocence, but it would take mom about an hour to get to school and I was stuck with the kid.
I put her on ice in the Main Office and went on about my work of wrapping up for the weekend. The she sat there, angry, stewing, ready to snap at me. After about 45 minutes of her death stares, I decided to give her one last chance.
“Drunken Obnoxious Girl (not her real name and I hope she’s not a Facebook friend),” I said, “we’ve been at this for over an hour. Your mom doesn’t seem to believe you. She’s on her way from work. She had to leave early. Didn’t sound too happy about it. Our principal doesn’t believe you. I don’t believe you. Are you saying that this is all going to end up with you proven innocent and my apologizing to you for wasting your time?”
“Yes,” said Drunken Obnoxious Girl, “that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Some Mistakes Are More Painful Than Others
Not all my teaching memories are good. Not all of them are funny. Unfortunately, not all of them make fill me with positive feelings about myself.
I have learned something from all of the experiences I’ve been reliving the last few days.
I am an administrator and my primary area of responsibility is supervision of faculty. The bad memories – the bad stories – they help me in two ways: first, they keep me honest and, hopefully, humble, and, second, they give me real stories to share.
There is always much to learn.
I teach young women. The chances of one of them finding herself in a difficult position goes up exponentially with the number of students who pass through the halls of the school. Hopefully, when that happens, these young women have the fortitude to make good choices from themselves and for the futures. We’ve been lucky to only have a few girls have to deal with these choices and I can say that I’ve been impressed by each of them.
I was teaching an AP English Literature class a few years ago. One of the students in the class was going to be late to school – about a month and a half late – so that she could make and live with the right choice for her life. I was so very impressed with her. She was, and I am certain, remains a terrific young woman. I knew she was coming back to class. I knew what day she would return. I was ready to deflect any uncomfortable comments around her, protect her from any derision. I guess I was so ready to do so that I lost sight of something very, very basic: my lesson plan in my own class for the day she returned.
The day she returned, I was conducting a Socratic Seminar. A Socratic Seminar is a class discussion for which students prepare for days. The research questions based on a novel or some other text so that they can speak intelligently and analyze deeply the work at hand. The idea is that their preparation allows them to carry on conversation without teacher intervention. It’s a big deal and, if done correctly, can be a very rewarding experience. The class had been prepping for this lesson for weeks. I was going to give the young woman a perfect score and move on, never mention what she’d been through, make this class a safe place.
She came in, I acknowledged her presence – didn’t call attention to her – and got the class in place for the seminar.
As the students began speaking, I almost cried. Truly. The seminar was moving. It was under its own power. I could have stopped it, but how? Wouldn’t that have called more attention to what was a painful and impossible situation? I could have stopped it and made a judgment call not to do so.
When teachers make bad decisions or handle situations poorly, when I would like to be disappointed in one of them, I remember this moment. I remember this young woman and her first day back.
I remember the Socratic Seminar on The Scarlet Letter.