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

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

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

Teach & Serve No. 21 – #OneSong

Teach & Serve 

No. 21 * January 6, 2016


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#OneSong

May their precious blood bind me
Lord, as I stand before your fiery light

If you’re not reading my good friend Sean Gaillard’s terrific blog Principal Liner Notes: Education Reflections, you are missing out. Do yourself a favor. Add it to your reading list. Today

In his New Year’s offering, Sean adapted the “one word for a new year” philosophy to something new and different. Sean writes

In the last couple of years, many have adopted the One Word approach to greeting the New Year. This is based upon One Word by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton and Jimmy Page. (Mr. Page is not to be confused with the Led Zeppelin guitarist.). The premise is to choose a word that will sustain and inspire you throughout the year. I learned about it last year. My hope was to reach a moment of clarity on a cosmic word for 2015.

Now, I am not sure if he adhered to cosmic word or not last year – he says he did not – but this year he decided to settle on a cosmic song to help define his 2016. What a terrific idea! I figured I would steal from this best for this first Teach & Serve of 2016.

I love music. I’ve been in garage bands, cover bands, liturgical music groups and played solo at coffee house gathers on and off (mainly off of late) for the past 30 years. I am not a terrific guitar player but (and there is a future blog post in this thought somewhere) I know that I am good enough to be the number 2 or number 3 player in a group. Strictly rhythm and strictly out of the spotlight, my playing gives me great joy when the band is in a groove, making good music and having fun.

As I discussed 2016 with my wife and children and we talked about what we want for the new year as professionals (my wife is a highly accomplished teacher) and as students (all three kids have high academic goals) I considered what I wanted for this year. I considered where I am, where I want to be and how I can get there and a word hit me: passion. The concept of passion is going to be central to me this year – passion for my wife and kids, passion for my work, passion in my life.

In thinking about #onesong for the year, specifically in my life as an educational professional, that idea of passion resonated and I began to think about the artists I love who seem driven and passionate themselves. I am the first to admit that me musical tastes are not vast but what I miss in diversity, I make up for in loyalty. Looking through my playlists and my iTunes library, the singer I think is the most passionate kept coming to mind: Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen

I knew my #onesong was going to be one of his and began to consider which tune it would be.

It didn’t take me long.

Come on up for the rising

Come on up, lay your hands in mine

Come on up for the rising

Come on up for the rising tonight  

Yeah. That’s the spirit. That’s what I need and want my 2016 to exemplify. An upwards trajectory. A positive outlook. A community. A shared goal.

Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising is from his album of the same name and we most associate with 9/11 as it was released soon after the tragedy and as many songs were anthems for a country in sadness and fear.

I’ve never read about this song (and, in another blog post to write at some point I’ll comment on why I think reading about what an artist wants her or his reader/viewer or listener to feel and understand just limits art) but I think it might be about a firefighter. Ok. Good stuff.

But I hear in it a passion that I want to grasp. Come on up! That’s as good an invocation as a year could have. Come on up for the rising. We’re headed somewhere – somewhere good – together.

And we’ll head there through whatever challenges we have to meet. We’ll meet them together, and we’ll rise above them.

Nothing we do in education is easy. There are too many factors involved for it to be so. We are challenged. We are thwarted. We are often forlorn. But we are never alone. We do this with our colleagues, with our students, with their parents, with a greater power.

When it’s dark, we know that light will come. When we’re down, we trust that we can get back up. When our energy has left us, we know we will be filled.

We know we will rise.

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)

Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)

Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)

Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)

Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)

Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight

Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)

Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

It’s a “dream of life” I am looking for, a “sky of blessed life.”

It’s the beginning of a new year. More germane to us in the education game, it’s the beginning of a new semester. We’ve had time away from the grind. We’ve had time to recharge. We’ve been able (I hope) to take some reflection time. To assess what we did last semester. To emphasize and repeat the good things and to deemphasize and adjust those that things that were not so good.

We have a chance to start a new. To refocus our energy. To

We have a chance to “come on up.”

Let’s do it.

Here’s Bruce (pretty low res, my apologies):

And, as a bonus, here’s Sting’s take on this incredible anthem:

 

Teach & Serve No. 20 – Do or Do Not… Wait, Isn’t There a Try?

Teach & Serve 

No. 20 * December 15, 2015

THE NEXT TEACH & SERVE WILL BE PUBLISHED ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 6, 2016.


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DO OR DO NOT… WAIT, ISN’T THERE A TRY?

There’s got to be a “try.”

Unless you live under a rock on the forest moon of Endor (or you’ve intentionally willed yourself to be unaware of these sorts of things), you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters world-wide this week. It’s certain to be a hit with movie goers of all ages, shapes and sizes. It’s likely to be a global phenomenon and I am very much okay with that. Though I truly have tried to keep myself blissfully ignorant of what actually happens in the movie until I see it (preview showing on Thursday 12.17, thank you very much!), I can make a few educated guesses:

It will be full of characters drawn in broad, moral strokes.

Good and evil will be easily identified.

Heroes will lose; heroes will win.

Lines from the movie will be quoted for years to come (this has already started “it’s all true” and “Chewie, we’re home” being two of the tastiest thus far).

Again, I am very good with all of this, especially the quotes which will become part of our culture. Lines from the Star Wars movies have been in our collective consciousness since George Lucas first unspooled A New Hope in 1977 (it was only called “Star Wars” back then, but we won’t go into that kind of geeky minutiae). Most of the lines we volley back-and-forth to each other are iconic, very cool and fun to wrap our heads and tongues around.

But… but, there is one that kind of bothers me as an educator. I understand the point that is being made by the speaker of the quote, and it is, perhaps, the right point in the moment, but I would be very leery of any educator who made this particular quote the cornerstone of her or his educational philosophy.

Do or Do Not

“Do, or do not, there is no try” says Yoda to a despondent Luke Skywalker. Luke has been challenged by Yoda to use the Force to lift Luke’s X-Wing fighter from out of the Dagobah swamp where it crash landed. Luke responds: “I’ll give it a try” which brings on Yoda’s admonition.

So, yes, in this context, I get it. Hey, Luke, don’t just give it a little effort. Be all in or all out. Sure. Yes. Right. Check. In this context, I get it.

However in the context of the work we do with students in classrooms and with our colleagues on our staffs, isn’t there an awful lot of room for “try”? Isn’t that what we want students to do when they are confronted by new possibilities? Don’t we want them to try things out? Don’t we want our students to fearlessly attempt new things precisely because we’ve created environments wherein they are safe to try and fail?

Don’t our colleagues who are early experimenters with new technology or who take on a new mode of instruction or attempt a new kinds of simulation with their students sometimes impress us as much with their failures and their learnings from those failures as they do with their inevitable successes? What if Yoda was there telling them not to try?

C’mon, Yoda! Give us a little space to learn from trying, from failing.

Yoda is pretty hard on Luke and perhaps he has to be as Luke is “our last hope,” but cut the kid a little slack, right? Do you grade on the curve, Professor Yoda, or is it all pass/fail with you. Sure, I get it, it’s going to be pass/fail when Luke gets his hand cut off by Darth Vader and, yes, I know you’ve been training Jedi for 800 years… but, as an educator, perhaps you might take a page from Obi Wan Kenobi’s book. Obi Wan encourages Luke to try, knowing that he will likely, on his first attempts, fail. Obi Wan creates an environment for Luke where it’s okay to fail and to learn from the failure.

Those are the teachers and administrators I want around me: those who set up environments where it’s okay to explore, to fail, to learn and to grow. I want the teachers and administrators who encourage risk, who ask for creativity, who allow students and colleagues to challenge barriers. These are the teachers and administrators who inspire others to be better and to grow.

Of course, if Yoda wanted to join my staff, I’d let him because, hey, he’s Yoda!

EduQuote of the Week: December 14 – January 4, 2016

door quotesLet go of your hate. – Luke Skywalker

Teach & Serve No. 19 – Your All-Star Cast

Teach & Serve 

No. 19 * December 8, 2015


Related Content from And There Came A Day:


YOUR ALL-STAR CAST

We’ve experienced groups clashing painfully and failing. What’s the difference? How does a cast go from a cast to an all-star cast?

As I sat at my computer this weekend wrapping up a few work projects that had spilled over into Saturday, my Facebook Messenger chime went off and I was delighted to spend a few moments in virtual conversation with my old friend Sean Gaillard who is the talented and well respected principal of John F. Kennedy High School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Blog post after blog post have been written extoling the importance and potential of robust Professional Learning Networks that can be built online and I am very happy to say that Sean has led the way for me getting my head around this concept. He leads by example here, connecting himself with teachers and administrators all over the country. He’s had played a significant role in pioneering Twitter movements such as #Read4Fun and #CelebrateMonday along with moderating online chats and professional development. He’s absolutely a guru of this stuff and I am always happy to have a chance to learn from him.

Given that, do you know what we talked about?

The cast of the 1970s miniseries Centennial, of course.

CentennialPeople of a certain age remember miniseries. If you’re too young, think of them as Netflix or Amazon dropping 10 – 13 episodes of a complete season of a show and you moderating your binge watching to three episodes a night. Does that ring bells for anyone out there? Do you remember Centennial?

We got on the topic because we were exchanging addresses for our Christmas card lists and I informed my old friend that I live in Centennial, Colorado. From there, it was rapid-fire word association playing on the author (James Michener), the miniseries and the novel. Sean even dug up and sent me a picture of his tattered copy!

As we talked about the miniseries, we began to run down the actors we remembered from the cast. As you may recall (again, if you of a certain age), it was a pretty amazing cast. Richard Chamberlain, Robert Conrad, Sally Kellerman, Raymond Burr, Timothy Dalton, Richard Crenna… need I go on? One could say it was an all-star cast.

As Sean and I wrapped up our chat, it occurred to me that what good leaders – like Sean – do is create all-star casts around them. Good leaders put people in positions to work together in cooperation. Good leaders empower people to combine their strengths, to deemphasize their weaknesses and to work towards shared and clearly articulated goals.

I don’t want to open up an extended sports metaphor here (though it might be apt to do so) and I don’t need to because sports teams are not the only teams many of us have experience of in our lives. Whether we played a sport in school or not, we’ve been put on teams: teams to do projects, teams to choose textbooks, learning teams to plan curriculum. Teams. Teams. Teams. (Okay, yes, you could read the last three words as a Hoosiers paraphrase, but that’s as far down the sports road as I plan to go).

We’ve been on the team, a part of the committee, in the cast. We’ve experienced groups working well and succeeding. We’ve experienced groups clashing painfully and failing.

What’s the difference? How does a cast go from a cast to an all-star cast?

I am not sure it always comes down to the composition of the group. Frankly, I think that’s lazy thinking and lazy leading. I’ve ever been wary of the leaders who come newly into a situation and say “when I get my people in place, things are really going to work.” What about making things work with the people already there, with the cast already on its marks?

I believe good leaders work with casts to take them from being different individuals vying for the spotlight and shouting their lines over one another to being casts that work together, supporting each other and moving towards a standing ovation.

Is the metaphor too strained? How about this, then: I believe good leaders put people in positions for success, places where that play to strengths and deemphasize weakness. I believe good leaders structure the roles, responsibilities and tasks of their committees, advisory groups, departments and tasks forces cognizant of the makeup of the groups and understanding that one of the primary roles of the leader is to help people succeed. I believe good leaders create organizations of people within their communities who work together not only because they have to but sometimes because they want to.

In order to do this, good leaders know their people; they know their makeup and their personalities. They understand their strengths and their weaknesses. They’ve taken the time to communicate, to meet and talk and learn.

They know their actresses and actors.

Good leaders know how to assemble people into all-star casts.

Would Centennial have been as good without Robert Conrad’s Pasquinel or Richard Chamberlain’s McKeag? I think we all know the answer to that question.