Teach & Serve II, No. 7 – Don’t Waste a Good Laugh Being Too Professional

Teach & Serve II, No. 7 – Don’t Waste a Good Laugh Being Too Professional

September 21, 2016

… how often are we wound tightly by the seriousness of our work? How often are we so taken with the gravity of the job that we forget to smile? How often, each and every day, do we laugh.

the-mostWhen I first began teaching, I didn’t laugh. Isn’t the oft repeated adage “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas”? I thought that good advice. For a very long time, I tried to rein in the impulse to laugh, to joke, to be humorous. Later when I became an administrator, I thought it all the more important to be serious – to treat administrative jobs with as much gravitas as they deserved.

And, for a very long time, the very last thing I would laugh at publically was myself.

True story. I once applied for a job I didn’t get and, for me, it was kind of a big deal.

I had served a year as acting principal of my alma mater, taking over the role after the individual who preceded me was let go in late May. It was not a part of the ways that was terribly well orchestrated or planned out, in my opinion, and, though I was hopeful to have a principal job at some point in my career, stepping into this one this way was not how I had drawn it up.

In the spring of the ensuing year, I had applied for the position, eager to get the term “Acting” removed from the title, anxious to hold the position without asterisk. I interview. I thought I had done well. I received signals indicating I was the horse to beat. I heard from my direct supervisor that I could rest easy.

I didn’t get the job.

Some of the hardest months of my professional life were those immediately following that decision. They may well have been some of the hardest months of my life in general. At this point, most of those days have slipped into the comforting obscurity of memories I’d rather not remember. I am, however, afraid that a particular memory will never leave me.

In truth – and this is not hubris – most people thought I would receive the position. When I did not, there was some surprise and the faculty had to be told. I thought they needed to be told by my supervisor. He agreed and we determined that the faculty would be informed at the normally scheduled faculty meeting which was only two days after I was told I wouldn’t be staying on.

I didn’t want to be there.

We agreed that I would wait in the hallway outside the library while he gave the news and I would come in after he was done. We calculated that 10 minutes would be more than enough time for the news to be conveyed and, when 600 seconds had passed, I opened the library doors and walked through them.

… you know the electronic sensors most libraries have at their doors to prevent books growing legs? Our library had these and, while I wasn’t carrying a book of any kind, those sensors decided that announcing my presence to the gathered faculty at that particular moment was the right thing to do.

I came in. The alarms blared. The faculty turned to see what was causing the sound and there I was.

“Perfect.” I said, laughing. “That’s perfect.”

And it was.

I laughed. I laughed loudly and deeply. I laughed perhaps the most real laugh I had been able to muster since hearing I wasn’t the choice for the job because – what the hell? – it was pretty damned funny.

When I laughed, the room broke up as well.

Perfect. It was the moment we all needed.

What we do is serious work. We hold the future of children in our hands. We are trusted to do hard and good work with them. This is a pursuit none of us should take for granted or lightly. But how often are we wound tightly by the seriousness of our work? How often are we so taken with the gravity of the job that we forget to smile? How often, each and every day, do we laugh.

And how often do we allow others to laugh at us?

As teachers and administrators, we have to give our colleagues and our students our permission to laugh at us. Sometimes, they even need our permission to laugh with us. Please, please, give that permission because what we do is serious and it often is hard and challenging. We are, in fact, shepherding the future.

It’s a pretty awesome responsibility.

Let’s not make it a grave one, as well.

Let’s laugh and let’s allow people to laugh with us.

And laugh at us.

If we don’t, when the library alarm sounds, we might be scared, embarrassed and broken instead of smiling.

EduQuote of the Week: September 19 – 25, 2016

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.

John Dewey

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EduQuote of the Week: September 12 – 18, 2016

The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than to provide ready-made knowledge.

Seymour Papert

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Teach & Serve II, No. 5 – Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.

Teach & Serve II, No. 5 – Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.

September 7, 2016

Isn’t that what we want our students to become? Explorers? Don’t we want them to be seekers? And are we really doing our best by them if we aren’t inspiring them to go boldly?

Teachers, listen up. Here is a quick history lesson for you… and it begins, as many journeys of discovery do, in failure.

A failed television show aired its last episode on a Friday night in the spring of 1969. The show was called Star Trek and the episode was called “Turnabout Intruder.” The less said about this seventy-ninth and final episode of Star Trek, the better. When the final title card lit television screens (not that many of them), Star Trek signed off the air with no fanfare and very little interest, destined to fade into… well, history as it turned out.

On the strength of syndication of the original seventy-nine episodes and through the support of a very dedicated, potentially crazy fan base (with a little help from a small, independent science fiction movie called Star Wars), Star Trek found its way back into production less than ten years after its cancellation, this time as a big screen movie.

At the conclusion of 1978’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a title card fills the screen following the Enterprise saving earth once again. “The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning” the card announces indicating that this first Star Trek movie would not be the last.

It wasn’t.

ST_50th-delta-logo-2Star Trek has spun off five times as television series to date. The sixth Star Trek television show premieres in January of 2017. Star Trek has spawned thirteen films to date. A fourteenth has been announced.

The phenomenon has gone on for fifty years. That’s right. Star Trek has been around for a half century. Thursday, September 8, 1966, the show went on the air. Thursday, September 8, 2016 is the actual mark, the anniversary, the big day.

So what? Why should anyone who is not a pop culture lover, not a science fiction fan, not a Trekker care? Why should teachers and educators care?

Is it because of the damned persistence of the show and its fans? The never-say-die, Spock Lives! attitude that kept the thing afloat all this time? Is that not a great lesson for us as teachers? Should we not learn something from this example, that each time we are down, we are not out? Should we not pass this on to our students? Should we not praise this kind of dedication?

Of course we should, but that’s not the only reason Star Trek should inspire us as educators.

Is it because Star Trek, at its best, presented a unified future where men and women of all colors and races (including alien ones) worked together in near harmony? Is it because Star Trek was the first (no hyperbole here, it was the first) show to feature a black woman in a role that had real responsibility, an Asian American who was not a villain or a sidekick, the first interracial kiss? Is it because Star Trek took on race riots and segregation and class warfare? It did all those things, you know. Should we not underscore these contributions to American thought?

Of course we should, but that’s not the primary reason we as teachers should celebrate Star Trek.

Is it because in a time when science fiction primarily portrayed bleak visions of the future, when dystopias were the rage in the sci fi world, when it seemed more likely that humanity would destroy itself rather than persist, Star Trek stood as an example to point to? Is it because Star Trek showed a vision of the future where humanity had conquered want and need and boarders and had reached – united – into the star? Should we not praise Star Trek for this message of hope?

Of course we should, but there is one better reason to applaud Star Trek.

its five-year mission: to EXPLORE strange, new worlds, to SEEK OUT new life and new civilizations, to BOLDLY GO where no one has gone before…

Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.

My goodness, if those don’t sound like words that all of our schools should have in their mission statements. What could be a better mantra for us to impart to our students?

Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.

I am a Star Trek fan from… well, from way back. I cannot remember a time when Star Trek wasn’t a part of my life. I thrilled to the adventures of Kirk, Spock and McCoy in reruns on weekday afternoons. I watched the spin offs. I saw the films. I wrote my own Star Trek fiction, read the books, immersed myself in this unique world. And why? Because I am a geek?

Sure, that’s true. But more critical for me and for so many others was the message – the mantra: Explore. Seek Out. Go Boldly.

It’s what made me a teacher. No doubt. Star Trek made me a teacher.

There is a terrific line in Star Trek Into Darkness where the irascible Mr. Scott, upon learning that the Enterprise is about to take on weaponry for their next mission, confronts Captain Kirk. “I thought we were explorers…” he says.

Isn’t that what we want our students to become? Explorers? Don’t we want them to be seekers? And are we really doing our best by them if we aren’t inspiring them to go boldly? To go boldly on their human adventure?

Star Trek not only celebrates the future, it celebrates the future of intelligence, of mastery, of education. It doesn’t fear smart people, it exalts them. You might be surprised at the number of conflicts in Star Trek that are not solved with weapons and fighting, but are solved with logic and reason and love. Sometimes using those tools is the boldest choice of all.

“Inside you is the potential to make yourself better… and that is what it is to be human… to make yourself better than you are” said Captain Picard of the Next Generation.

A teacher couldn’t have said it better herself.

Star Trek lives, and it lives in you if you are a teacher worth your salt… (which brings us to the first aired episode of Star Trek – “The Man Trap” – but that’s another story).

EduQuote of the Week: September 5 – 11, 2016

Lord, show me the way and I’ll do the work.

Deanna Jump

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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.

EduQuote of the Week: August 29 – September 6, 2016

The supreme art of the teacher is to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Albert Einstein

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Teach & Serve II, No. 3 – One Thing at a Time, Not Everything All at Once

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.

Nesting DollsWe 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.

Don’t ignore.

Don’t demolish.

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.

EduQuote of the Week: August 22 – 28, 2016

The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.

Todd Whittaker

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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?