Sunday, June 19, 2016

Do Your Best. Then, Do Better.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou

Here are three true statements (that some may find impossible to believe) about the first principal I ever worked for as a teacher:

  • She smoked cigarettes in her office occasionally.
  • She sometimes paddled children with a wooden paddle when they misbehaved.
  • She was an outstanding principal who I liked and respected a great deal during the five years I worked with her. To this day, I still consider her a friend and mentor.
At the time, I was teaching first grade in a suburban area just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Admittedly, I am very old--as my PLN friends are quick to point out--but this was not the Stone Age; it was the 1980s. And my principal smoked in school and paddled kids. And I thought she was awesome. In considering these three points from my first year of teaching, some may find the fact she smoked in the principal's office the most incredible. Others may find using a wooden paddle to punish kids even more incomprehensible.
However, I would not be surprised if some find the fact that I actually liked and respected the principal--one who smoked and paddled children--the most surprising of all. To those of you, I promise, you would have liked and respected her, too, if you worked for her during that era. She was a student-centered leader who truly cared about every single child in the school of over 1000 K-5 students. She cared about every staff member, too. In fact, thanks in large part to her leadership, we were a close-knit staff who worked hard together when at school and enjoyed each other’s company outside of school.
How can I speak so highly of a school leader who smoked in her office and occasionally paddled children who misbehaved? At the time, such behaviors were completely acceptable parts of the school and district culture--and were equally acceptable throughout that part of the country. To use Angelou’s quote, you might say she was doing the best she knew at the time. However, because she was a lifelong learner who was open minded and welcomed change, when she knew better, she did better. In my final year of teaching there, she had stopped smoking and put a halt to corporal punishment, even though both were still legal (and widely practiced at neighboring schools) at that time. So, what are the implications of my first year teaching experiences from decades ago for those of us practicing as teachers and school leaders in 2016?

First, it is important to realize that best practices evolve over time. What we think is best practice right now may well be looked at with scorn and horror many years hence. Still, we must move forward, doing the very best we can today, armed with the very best knowledge we have available to us; at the same time, we should constantly examine and reflect upon what it is we consider best practice today and always be open to changing when we find a better way. We simply cannot continue to do things if the only reason we have for doing them is the fact that we have always done them. In my first year of teaching, the principal paddled children--and the vast majority of the staff supported and even encouraged this behavior--simply because it had always been done. There simply was no other defensible reason for doing this. Thankfully, we are no longer using corporal punishment in most schools across the country. Fortunately, smoking is no longer allowed in schools either. Believe it or not, however, in every school I visited this year--including those in my own district--staff still did things simply because they have always done those things. Like my first principal, the people doing these things are neither bad people nor lazy professionals. In fact, many are passionate individuals dedicated to their kids, colleagues, and schools. Yet some traditions continue in schools today that serve no real learning purpose. When we notice this happening, we should confront it, discussing it openly among all affected parties. Ultimately, if we cannot support our current practice or policy in ways other than, “Well, we’ve always done it that way,” we should seriously reconsider such practices or policies.

In full disclosure, my principal that year was not the only educator in the building doing stupid things. To be completely honest, I suspect that I was right up there atop the leaderboard in terms of educators doing stupid things. In fact, I am still writing apology notes to the children in my classroom during that era. If memory serves, I may have even shared a cigarette or two with my principal in her office during the year! It is of some comfort, I suppose, to know that if, today, we were to poll every one of my colleagues working in the school that year, I suspect each would say the same thing: as much as they cared about their kids and their profession, in hindsight, they engaged in some practices then that seem rather ludicrous today.
So what lessons can we learn from the somewhat shocking behaviors that occurred many years ago which seemed perfectly normal at the time? And, what lessons can we learn from much more recent--if less extreme--practices that we no longer consider best practice? My answer is that we must be extremely vigilant about monitoring all we do, measuring whether it is producing the desired results, and implementing new and better ideas whenever we discover them. Realizing that times change and our practices can and should change with them is important. The vast majority of us are doing the very best we know how each and every day. Still, we must be open to the possibility that what we are doing today as “best practice” may not be the best we can do tomorrow. Doing our very best on a daily basis--and then doing even better when we know better--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Tennis, Anyone?

“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” 

I am a horrible tennis player. However, in the 1990s, I played competitively and practiced regularly, eventually reaching a level of proficiency I would describe as, “not too embarrassing.” During that time, I noticed something interesting as I tried to “master” the game of tennis--admittedly, a rather lofty, if unattainable, goal.

At the time, I was teaching in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Most evenings, I would practice, and on weekends I was part of a team that competed in a citywide tennis league. My closest friend at the time was a fellow teacher who lived nearby. We had similar schedules and a common tennis court available so we had the opportunity to practice together frequently. Even though this person was one of my closest friends, I hated playing tennis with him. You see, as bad as I was at the game, he was even worse, a step below my own meager ability level. Whenever we played, I would win nearly every game, without much of a challenge. I found myself a bit bored and--more importantly to me at the time--not improving my game. On the other hand, there was another person on our tennis team who was able to practice with me, albeit much less often. I looked forward to these sessions. Although we were not as close personally, this fellow had exactly what I needed when it came to tennis: he was slightly better than I was! Most times we played, he would win our sets by scores of 6-3 or 6-4. On occasion, I was even able to win a set. Playing against someone of his skill level was precisely what I needed to stay totally focused and engaged during every single shot of every single game. Moreover, I found myself getting better whenever I played against him. In this instance, winning was not nearly as important to me as getting better. Although I consider myself one of the most competitive people around (perhaps too much so), in this case, I was less worried about competing against him (winning) than I was about competing against myself (improving).

So, how does this relate to the world of teaching, learning, and leading? Reflecting on this experience hearkens me back to Dan Pink’s seminal work about what motivates us. Anyone reading this post likely needs no reminder that Pink identified three essential elements related to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Although all three may be applicable here, my tennis experience is most connected to the “Mastery” component: I had a strong urge to get better and better at something that truly mattered to me at the time. I realized I was not going to get any better playing my good friend, while I was equally confident I would get better playing an acquaintance whose game was a step above my own and pushed my own performance. As classroom teachers, this is vitally important to remember. Are we assigning work that is too easy? Stuff our kids already know and can do with no real challenge to them? If so, we may find our students losing interest in the work, possibly complying with the assignment by doing it without truly being engaged and trying to grow and get better. At the same time, we cannot create student work assignments that are overly challenging. In my tennis analogy, if I had played tennis against Serena Williams, who presumably has the ability to defeat me 6-0 every single set, I would neither improve nor be overly engaged in the game for long. As teachers, it is equally important that we not assign work that is too far beyond our students’ current skillset.

As with so many other things in our profession, what holds true for students also holds true for adults. When designing professional learning experiences for our colleagues, as an example, we need to
take into account each individual's current "Point A" and then
identify each one’s “Point B” on the learning continuum, holding everyone on the team accountable for extending their learning, but never expecting all adults in the school to be at the same point on the learning continuum at a given point in time. We must design professional learning experiences that stretch everyone based on their current level of proficiency in a certain area. We must keep expecting educators to grow and get better by providing learning experiences that matter to them and are challenging, yet attainable.

Both Dan Pink and Michaelangelo make the connection between work and mastery, suggesting that one will never approach mastery without putting in the necessary work. Motivating ourselves--and our students--to embrace the work on the road to mastery require us to intentionally assign tasks and performances that push each individual just beyond their current level. We need to provide our kids--and ourselves--with what Pink calls “Goldilocks tasks,” challenges that are neither too hot, nor too cold; not overly difficult, yet not overly simple. One source of frustration in classrooms and during professional learning sessions is the frequent mismatch between what people must do and what people can do. When what they must do exceeds their capabilities, the result is anxiety. When what they must do falls short of their capabilities, the result is boredom. We must find the sweet spot in between.

Achieving total mastery in any area may never actually happen; however, motivating people to strive for mastery in important pursuits is a noble and attainable endeavor. Motivating our students--and each other--to get better and better at something that matters is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Staying in the Moment

“Good teams stay in the present and what's going on right now. They stay focused on the day, the at-bat, the pitch.” 
David Ross

via: Chicago Tribune
Everyone who knows me, realizes I am a passionate, lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. Like Cubs fans everywhere, I have noted a new practice this quirky team seems to have adopted: Players who reach first base point to the ground with both fingers. Apparently, this is a practice adopted after learning about the importance of staying in the moment from a psychologist, Dr. Ken Ravizza, who often works with sports teams. With all the hoopla surrounding the potential of the Cubs this season, it makes sense for them to not get too carried away about the possibilities down the road and, instead, focus on staying in the moment.
via: Chicago Tribune
Although many have predicted a World Series in their future this season, the Cubs know that World Series success is earned one day, one pitch, one hit, one throw at a time. Just as importantly, with the team's dismal past record of postseason success, it is equally important that they not dwell on these past failures. If they were to base their future success on what has happened in the past, they would be planning a World Series run in the year 2124. Indeed, if the Chicago Cubs are to maximize their chances for success over the course of the current 162-game season, it behooves them to make the most of each individual day, living intensely in the moment rather than looking too far ahead or worrying about what has come before. The only way our beloved Cubbies can realize the long term success they seek tomorrow is by doing everything in their power to succeed today.

via Chicago Tribune
In thinking about this, I realized the many parallels which exist between the 162-game baseball season and our own 180- day school year. There are many opportunities for educators to lose sight of the present moment, whether looking ahead to upcoming events or reflecting on previous events or past performance; it becomes easy to take our eye off the ball: what is happening right now, in every classroom, in every school, in every cafeteria, hallway, playground, and with every student and staff member with whom we are interacting and serving. The most successful teachers and administrators I know are simply masterful at “being present,” focusing like a laser beam on the lesson they are currently teaching, the conversation they are currently having, the meeting they are holding with a parent, the feedback they are giving to a student or colleague. Of course, these great educators are also planners, who well know what units of instruction are
approaching and how they are thinking of teaching these or what professional learning opportunities they want to offer next year for various staff members. Yet, while planning these short and long term events, they never lose sight of what is most important: the future that is unravelling before their very eyes right now, whether that is the child who needs their full attention or the colleague who stops by unexpectedly with a question.

Before long, many of us will be nearing the end of another school year. Approaching the end of any school year is akin, perhaps, to approaching the end of any baseball season; whether we have had a stellar "season" or a somewhat challenging one, it becomes ever-so-tempting to lose sight of the current year and look ahead to the off season or even next year. When tempted to do so, let’s remember to “point to the ground” as a reminder to focus on making the absolute most of every second we have available to us to ensure that our outcomes--and those of the kids we serve--are the ones we are all hoping to achieve.

In the quote above, David Ross---a back up veteran catcher for this year’s team--wisely observes that good baseball teams stay in the moment, focusing intently on today and even a single pitch, a single at bat. Good schools are made up of team members who behave similarly, never losing sight of today and the single lesson, the specific question, the simple kind gesture that may just make all the difference in the world to someone else down the road.

Working in schools is an amazing opportunity; it is also a ridiculously challenging profession and when we are in the middle of our season, a myriad of responsibilities, tasks, duties, and events hit us at a head-spinning rate. Losing sight of the here and now to take care of what is coming next is always tempting as a strategy to save time; however, based on my experiences, the more we attend to what is before us this very moment and the less we try to multi-task or look ahead, the more time we save in the long run. 

Moreover, the better our collective
focus is on this single day, the greater our chances of success for many tomorrows. Our season--like the baseball season--is a long one. Our likelihood of long term victory--a successful school year for us and our students--is based largely on the “small” victories we are achieving today. Cumulatively, these small victories will add up to a celebration worthy of the one the Cubbies hope to experience when they finally win the World Series! Staying in the moment and being present for our kids, parents, and each other are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Are We Settling?

“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.” 
Thomas Merton

I rarely watch television other than news and sporting events and it is rarer still that I notice any advertising campaigns on those infrequent occasions when I am watching TV. However, this month is probably my heaviest television-watching month of the entire calendar year due to college basketball’s March Madness, which remains my favorite sporting event ever. During this year’s March Madness tournament, I could not help but notice an ad campaign by DirecTV called, The Settlers, which plays on the word, presenting a frontier-era family in a suburban neighborhood who stick to antiquated ways such as a horse-and-buggy, making their own clothes, faceless dolls, and...cable TV. Although I have no clue as to whether DirecTV is superior to cable TV, this ad campaign did cause me to wonder: In education, are we in any way “settling” for less than the absolute best? If so, in what areas? And, in which areas is it imperative that we do not settle?

In general terms, our profession’s customers--the children who attend our schools--are simply too important to allow ourselves to settle for less than the very best we can provide. Whether we are talking about facilities, finances, curriculum resources, technology, or extra curricular offerings, our children deserve the very best available. Having said that, I do reside in the real world and can accept that there are budgetary limits in all walks of life, and education is--and should be--no different. In what ways, then, is it ever acceptable to "settle" in education and where must we draw lines in the sand, insisting we hold out for nothing less absolute best? 
  • An obvious standard for never settling is for each and every one of us to commit to giving our personal best every day when we arrive to work. This is easier said than done, of course, yet it is the one area over which we likely have the most control in terms of consciously deciding to not settle.
  • Another “no-settle” zone is to always ask, “What is best for kids?” when making any decision. We should never waver from this as the gold standard for decision-making in our schools. It may well be that budget constraints limit our choices, but once we have identified the choices available within these budget constraints, the question must always be answered based on which alternative will result in better outcomes for students. 
  • Another area where we must resist “settling” is in the area of school facilities and classroom learning environments. Once again, we may not have enough money to build new state-of-the-art schools every few years or even outfit our classrooms with the most up-to-date furnishings and equipment. At the same time, we must do all in our power (and within our budget) to never settle in ensuring that our facilities and classrooms are safe, clean, welcoming, learning-focused places in which to teach, learn, and lead.


Finally, and most importantly, at this time of year, I am reminded of another area in which we should never settle: hiring new staff. Currently, many schools around the world are in high-gear hiring mode, filling teaching positions along with a host of other educational roles and filling these just as fast as they can. Filling these positions is as important as any decisions we make for those of us involved in the process. Make the right decision and the lives of our children will be enriched, perhaps for decades to come. In addition, our own lives will improve, as we surround ourselves with new professionals who bring with them new skill sets, new perspectives, and new energy, while at the same time becoming the type of team member who fits in well with the current staff, committing to the mission, vision, and values of the team, focusing on learning, results, and collaboration with their colleagues and student-centered teaching in their classrooms. Make the wrong decision, however, and a school/district could be in for an equally-long period of time--a time marked by disappointment and frustration, as we learn the person we selected is neither a good fit, nor equipped with the knowledge and skills to succeed with their students and/or their colleagues. 

Although the hiring process is arduous--particularly if a school or district is hiring large numbers of new staff--this is a primary area in which we should simply never settle. “Never” is a rather strong and absolute-sounding term, yet I think it is appropriate in this instance. That may mean that we interview a multitude of candidates, only to find that we need to keep looking and start the process anew. That sounds like a whole lot of extra work and time. Better, methinks, to spend this time and energy upfront, than settle now and spend much more time and energy later correcting this mistake.

As important as many of our programs are in schools, Todd Whitaker hits the nail on the head when he insists that it is people, not programs, that make the difference. People are always the problem and they are always the solution. Programs themselves are never the problem and never the solution. The true variable in our schools is our people. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to never settle for a candidate who we are not 100% convinced has the skills, knowledge, character, attitude, and relational capabilities--or, at a minimum, the potential to grow enough in these areas, and quickly--to succeed with the students and parents they serve and the staff with whom they will collaborate.

I am, by nature, a practical person, comfortable living with rules, procedures, budgets, limitations, and the realization that sometimes doing the very best we can do is all we can do, even when we suspect it is not enough. However, there are some situations with which I am not comfortable. Settling for a mediocre candidate to fill any role in which the person will be working with children is one. In the ad campaign referenced at the start of this post, the father says to the son (when he asks why they cannot have the supposedly better technology), “We’re settlers, Son; that’s what we do.” Well, let’s not be settlers in our schools. As Merton suggests in the quote above, "settling" is quite a tempting proposition; however, this is a temptation we must resist. Never settling for less than the best we can do each and every day and never settling by hiring a less -than-stellar educator are more ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!