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


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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

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:

 

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


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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.

Teach & Serve No. 18 – Do the Undone

Teach & Serve 

No. 18 * December 1, 2015


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DO THE UNDONE

There is more lingering out there as we approach Christmas Break than grading papers, exams and projects. There are other things that may require our attention.

December 1.

How did it get this late in the semester? I suspect teachers all over the Western world have a similar reaction to the calendar page turn to the first of December. Where did this semester go? How did I get so behind in my curricular plan? How can I finish everything I need to finish, grade everything I need to grade, get done all that I need to get done?

These questions are certainly timely. These questions are certainly real.

Checklist 2And these issues are likely to be resolved by teachers. They have to be. Finals have to be written. Papers have to be graded. Work has to be done. Though it’s difficult, sometimes, to look at the calendar and see how all the work will get done, it does get done. We create the time. We figure out a way.

Dare I say these are the easy things to address, easy because we know what they are? The truth is there are other things that need tending to as we approach the end of the semester – other things that, too, need to be done. Some of these are not obvious. They are not stacked on our desk or circled on our calendars. They are not tangible, but they are important.

Consider this: are there students in our classrooms with whom we’ve been at odds? Are there students who’ve managed to rub us the wrong way, about whom we are justified (in our minds, at least) to feel great frustration toward, those kids that we sometimes don’t feel deserve our time?

Are there calls we ought to make; emails we ought to write? Are there parents we know are stewing that we are content to let simmer in their own juices? Are we willing to simply write these things off and hope that they go away?

Are there faculty members we have avoided, those with whom we have conflicts – large or small – that we’d rather not speak with. Are these people in the faculty room that cause us to spin around in our tracks?

What does avoiding these things gain us? Much like we have “work” to do with grades and exams and closing out the minutia of the semester, these things, too, are “work.” The question is why do we often resist the notion that this kind of work is as important as all the other kinds of work?

Hopefully you don’t have many of these things in your life, professional or otherwise. Hopefully you tend to these issue as they come up and, because we work with people – with students, their parents and our colleagues – they will come up. Hopefully you don’t leave these things undone.

As we look to the semester’s end, though, maybe we can set our sights on doing those things that are undone. Perhaps we can wrap up some loose ends that are not tangible. Perhaps these final weeks allow us a moment to reflect on what needs to be addressed and give us the space to actually address it.

Perhaps we can do the undone.

That would be a great gift to share.

 

Teach & Serve No. 17 – Giving Thanks for Our Own Gifts

Teach & Serve 

No. 17 * November 24, 2015


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GIVING THANKS FOR OUR OWN GIFTS

Turn away from false humility and embrace what makes you special

It’s Thanksgiving Week, a short week for our schools and a time to be with friends and family and step back to be grateful for all that we have – for all with which we are blessed.

Every Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the famous quote by Meister Eckhardt, the German theologian, philosopher and mystic: “If the only prayer you ever said was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” Powerful thought.

I could write paragraph after paragraph about all of the things in my life for which I am thankful. I will do that sometime this week leading up to Thanksgiving, because I am thankful for so very, very much. I have a wonderful wife, incredible children, a home over my head, a job I love, a family that cares about me. I have leisure time to do things like write this blog. I have all that I could ever need. More than I really need, truly.

quotes-prayer-thank-meister-eckhart-480x480I will write about those things, as I said.

But I’d like to challenge all of us who work in education to do something else this week. As we think about all those things for which we are thankful, let’s take a moment to give thanks for our own gifts.

I don’t mean the external gifts we’ve been given like health or those things I listed above. No, I mean those internal gifts we’ve been given. Those things in us that are good and powerful. Those things in us that help us to be excellent educators and administrators. Those things in us that other people point out about us.

Let’s take a few moments to give thanks for ourselves.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, there is everything right with this. We can and should allow ourselves the space and time to be thankful for who we are and what we are. If you cannot identify those things about yourself for which we should be thankful, if you cannot readily list those things, I would suggest this: what would you say to build up a colleague, a student, a person in your charge? Say that to yourself. There is a difference between humbleness and false humility. Embrace being humble, for certainly that itself may be a quality for which you are thankful, but turn away from false humility and embrace, in equal measure, all that makes you special.

Because you are. You are an educator and a good one. Be thankful for you.

What better time to do so than this week?

Thank you for who I am. Thank you for what I can do. Thank you for the gifts I have to teach, to lead, to inspire.

Thank you for me.

That’s enough.

Teach & Serve No. 16 – The Networked Reality

Teach & Serve 

No. 16 * November 17, 2015


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THE NETWORKED REALITY

We are not encumbered by any walls, much less the four walls of our schools…

In the course of my work, I have the opportunity to spend time with large groups of educators who periodically come together for cohort meetings at locations across the country. The organization for which I serve helps put these events on for professionals in our network to bring them together so they can share with one another, learn from one another and simply be together with one another. In Chicago, Illinois last week, I was with over 65 principals from schools in our network. This week, the technology directors and folks with similar jobs in our schools will be gathering in Omaha, Nebraska.

As a participant in prior gatherings like this, I found them to be engaging and refreshing – chances to be with like-minded people discussing topics of the day that could make a difference in the lives of students back at my school. As a coordinator of said events, it’s very interesting to stand back and watch these gatherings unfold. Because the conferences in our network feature folks from a maximum of 90 schools, the people who come to them frequently know one another. Certainly they are familiar with each other’s schools. They have a shared bond beyond the jobs they do, so settling in and getting comfortable with each other doesn’t take very long and then the gatherings can really take off.

What I’ve found most intriguing (and, some might say, most obvious given that what I am about to write isn’t any great insight) is how connected these people remain between our periodic get-togethers. Though most of the schools in our network are spread across North America with miles-and-miles in between them, these people have been in contact in “off” years. They’ve been collaborating and working together, advising one another and staying abreast of developments in each other’s schools.

NetworkThe reality of our work today is that we are not encumbered by the “four walls” of our schools. We can be connected to wherever we’d like, whenever we’d like to be. We can reach out for expertise beyond ourselves, find wisdom in other contexts, look to people who are not us to tell us who we are and who we can be.

This is not just something we ought to do for fun. This is not just some opportunity we might consider taking advantage of when everything else at our school is going well and in place. This is not simply an option in the 21st century. It’s an imperative.

The reality of being able to be networked with other educators around our cities, our states, our country and our world is a reality that matters. It matters to our students, for their worlds are not our worlds. Their worlds are not the worlds in which we grew up or in which we learned to teach. Their worlds are interconnected and immediate. And we have to push into those worlds with force.

The networked reality calls us to do this. We don’t need to wait to read monthly journal articles about best practices being implemented in inventive schools half a country away from us. We can be connected to that progress, right here, right now in real time. We can bring experts to us. We can be experts for one another. The networked reality challenges us to be current, to build online Professional Learning Networks and to access them. To follow trends on Twitter. To fill our news feed with articles to parse, stories to read, strategies to attempt. The network reality makes our professional world so much larger while simultaneously rendering it so small we can grasp it, access it and use it to the benefit of our students.

After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Aren’t we about benefitting the kids? The best way to do that, in real time, is to get comfortable in the networked reality.

Get comfortable in it and get to work.