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.
via buzzfeed.com
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.
via foxnews.com
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.
via emilysquotes.com
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!



8 comments:

  1. Jeff- Thank you for your transparency. Next year will be my 30th year in education. I have reflected on this very topic. I'm guilty of keeping kids in from recess, 0's, no re-do's, averaging grades, homework, and being a controlling teacher that wanted compliance. Shame on me! But even worse is that these are STILL common practices. I'm learning and growing every day. Hopefully next year will be even better than my last. Thanks again for easing my guilt just a little. My students from those earlier years still come back to see me with great memories. Thank goodness I didn't complete damage :)

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Thanks also for serving as an educator who continues to grow and get better. Like you, I am always gratified to hear positive comments from former students--even when I fear I was not exactly doing the right thing when they were in my class. I think the most important thing is they know we cared about them. Thanks again; best, Jeff

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  2. Love this post Jeff! I appreciate how you tethered together times back then to times now! Well done. Your comments about best practices being in the now and evolving are spot on. I also resonated with your comments about the kids you once taught and writing them letters based on your reflection of that work. As I read this I reflected on how far I have come as an educator in my career and my hope in being the best one I can be. There is always lots to learn and I appreciate your transparency and post. I look forward to meeting you in KC at #WGEDD in October!

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    1. Hi Brent! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am so excited to finally connect face-to-face in KC! Best, Jeff

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  3. Jeff,

    This is a great post on reflecting on our growth as educators. Education is a practice and it is something that we want to grow and develop as we continue in the field. I applaud you for calling out your own practices that no longer apply or are effective. The constant growth and change in education is what keeps me invested and involved.

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    1. Ari,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I agree with you that we must always focus on growth and change for the benefit of our kids. Thanks again; best,
      Jeff

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  4. So much has changed since then--it really was a different world. And to be fair, many or most of the parents would have smoked AND paddled their kids. Thank you for another thought-provoking post. It makes me wonder what teachers will cringe about in 2046 when they look back to 2016! I love what you praised in your principal--she was student-centered and caring. Not a bad place to start when we examine our own practice.

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    1. Shenach, Thank you for reading and commenting. You hit the nail on the head: what will we be cringing about in 2046 that we are doing today? The more we consider this, the less likely it is we will cringe, perhaps. Thanks again,
      Jeff

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