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Sunday, August 13, 2017

This Day Forward

I presented these words to the staff of our school n the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001. The message rings true on this day following a different terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This is a day that will define us – not as educators – but as people. This is a day that we were not prepared for by college, but by our parents, family, and friends. This is a day to ignore the scores on a test, but concern ourselves with the test of our mettle. 

Our school is special because of the people within it. You were each hired because of your care and compassion, commitment and cooperation. If we are determined to pursue a mission borne of fostering hope and feeding dreams, then we must sustain that belief throughout this day and those that follow. 

Let us conduct ourselves with dignity and civility, sensitivity and faith. We must serve as purveyors of information, and reservoirs of understanding. Rest anchored to facts, not fiction; objectivity, not opinion. 

When the school bell rings, on this day that the nation mourns, we may be judged - not by grades and points, but by hugs and tears. If we are resolved to a future of freedom, then we must remain strong, speak as one, and act for all.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Buying and Selling

I recently, and reluctantly, parted ways with my car, after 178,000 miles. Many of us, including me, may loathe the process of buying a new care for fear of the complicated and burdensome interactions required to advance from looking for a car to signing on the bottom line of a contract. I never looked forward to dealing with salespeople.

That changed after reading Daniel Pink's book, To Sell is Human, and reviewing my notes from Harry Beckwith's Selling the Invisible. Pink makes the convincing case that we are all involved in selling on a regular basis, once we escape the notion of limiting sales to an exchange of money and products and understand that sales involve "moving people" through concepts and proposals... We are "selling" ideas to others all the time, whether it's making a pitch for which movie to watch tonight or explaining why we should not drink and drive.

Within that context (please read both books, it will be a wise investment of your time) I perceive myself as a person who sells ideas in exchange for the resources of time and energy and commitment. Think about it - effective schools "sell" parents on the value of their children sustaining a 13 year commitment in quest of a diploma that will lead to....? This is not like convincing a car buyer to purchase a specific car. The customer can see the car, touch the car, drive the car, and imagine how this car will make them feel. It's a transaction centered on a concrete object that results in an immediate receipt of a product by the consumer.

Conversely, as educators we must make a persuasive case for parents extending their commitment for a product (a diploma certifying standards and levels of performance) that they cannot see or feel. hence, Beckwith's book, Selling the Invisible. Beckwith contrasts selling a concrete object with selling an idea that is invisible that extends into the future with the following advice - "Selling aspirin to someone with a headache is much easier than trying to sell life insurance to a twenty-two year old bachelor." One has an immediate need, while the other is something that is not seen or touched or used for perhaps many years into the future.

That's the challenge for educators - selling the value and purpose of education to the community in a convincing enough fashion that the taxpayers will maintain financial support.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Something Old, Something New

As soon as one school is completed, preparations for another begin. One of the primary responsibilities in forging plans for the upcoming school term involves hiring staff members.

I have been performing this task for many years now. It's a challenge I enjoy. Nurturing growth in staff members is rewarding. I especially like observing the energy and enthusiasm that accompanies the resume each candidate brings to the interview.

However, the longer I remain in education, the more echoes of the past emerge. With a career than spans four decades, I have experienced a robust array of programs and practices pushed by consultants (all too often former educators imbued with the sales pitch of a snake oil salesman seeking to bilk public funds from anxious consumers in search of a quick remedy...) at conferences. During the course of a lengthy career, one hears programs explained in terms that sound vaguely familiar. Peering beneath the shade, light is cast on elements or concepts that are true, but couched in updated buzz-words and enhance with the technology of the time - all, to appear different enough to distinguish the program from earlier versions. Think about paraphrasing a quote, or citing a reference with a footnote in tiny font at the end of the book/article. As kids say, "the same, but different."

Somehow, amid all of the hype and noise, arise research based proposals that have survived critical analysis and been identified as viable solutions to stated needs. Even these programs are subject to subtle, nuanced tweaks that accumulatively have the effect to cloak the original and birth a new product.

Such was the case when I, many years ago as a new teacher, excitedly explained to my mother-in-law (a former teacher at a one room school house in Kansas, and later a principal of a small rural school there) about the new concept entitled "cooperative learning." I recounted the wisdom and recommendations presented by the authors (themselves products of a one room school house) and went on and on about the virtues of the philosophy and practice. My audience of one was patient, gracious, and accommodating.

Finally, after exhausting my knowledge and effort, my mother-in-law politely offered that it, "sounds a lot like what I learned years ago when studying the work of John Dewey." That took a little wind out of my sails, though she clearly did not intended to dismiss or discount my interest in cooperative learning. Nor did she imply that the Johnson brothers who formed the basis for cooperative learning were copying the work of Dewey, but rather building on his efforts and refining/updating the practice.

Nonetheless, it was an example of what continues to occur in the field of education, old practices and programs wearing new, more stylish clothes to impress shoppers.

Here's the Bill

After a rumbling sound emerging from the bowels of my car that could no longer be ignored by turning up the volume of the radio, I accepted reality, combined with my ignorance of things mechanical, and trudged into the local auto dealership. I drive the car 50 miles each day, to and from work, with little idea of how it works. I know there are pistons and spark plugs, valves and hoses... but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

The phone call from the service department could well have been conveyed in another language other than English. It was replete with acronyms, slang, and unknown terms that left me bewildered. When they arrived at the final cost of services there was nothing I could say. After all, how would I know what each part cost, or how long it took to replace? So, whether they said it would be $200.00 or $600.00, who was I to claim otherwise. I paid the bill.

On the way home from the garage, I realized that too many parents leave school after attending conferences with the same forlorn, perplexed, sense of resignation I felt when handed the bill because, like my puzzled mind sorting through terms and concepts that were foreign to me, they are often left in a fog of educational acronyms and esoteric data. Questioning educators by seeking clarity may expose the parent as less intelligent than they really are and serves to reinforce an asymmetrical knowledge relationship where the teacher holds power due to their possession and use of unknown phrases or uncertain meanings. Rather than expose their lack of understanding in an issue considered significant (the education of their child), the parent likely accepts the outcome and walks away as I did after paying the bill for car repairs.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Full Meetings of Empty Calories

Wikipedia defines "empty calories" with the following words: "In human nutrition, the term empty calories applies to food such as solid fats or added sugars supplying food energy but little or no other nutrition. The USDA advises, "A small amount of empty calories is okay, but most people eat far more than is healthy."

I have labored to endure a series of monthly meetings of a coalition that has mired itself in the consumption of empty calories that lack any form of nutrition. In other words, the members, though well intended, appear to measure themselves by the number of meetings they attend and the amount of words they deliver. They routinely arrive, address vague goals and undefined outcomes, dispense with updates on what their organization, watch the clock, and then bid each other farewell until next month.

The lack of cohesion toward a clear purpose and the meandering progress of the coalition have prompted my decision to invest my valuable time and energy elsewhere. I can't sustain myself on empty calories.

Go To Your Corner

The demands and challenges of school leadership, or virtually any leadership position, can be taxing. At times, the onslaught of people seeking answers, advice, or an opportunity to complain, can become overwhelming. Once emotional fatigue seeps in, subsequent decisions can be negatively impacted. Responses can be exaggerated, wrong, or emotional.

Before it reaches the stage of fight or flight, I seek refuge in an environment that has the potential to restore energy, reaffirm purpose, and return to equilibrium. It has varied from assignment to assignment, but it's always a welcoming atmosphere. It's usually been a particular classroom where a visit serves as a reminder of why we're involved in leadership, includes learners and teachers who are positive and constructive, and overall breathe life back into an otherwise deflated soul.

Among a few specific retreats within the building I work, one stands out. The kitchen is occupied by several women who are committed to providing nourishment for the bodies of our 400 learners in the form of two meals per day, and provide nourishment for the self-esteem of our 400 learners in the form of personalized communication featuring comments of recognition and acceptance. Both of these functions are exercised at high levels of performance. On top of those contributions, the kitchen staff members have a collective sense of humor and offer support through casual banter. They treat me like a person, not a boss.

As I thought of how the kitchen staff is a source of revitalization, I conjured up the image of the trainer and medical staff that jumps into the ring and supports a boxer during breaks between rounds of a boxing match. They provide the boxer with advice and encouragement. Similarly, the kitchen staff uses smiles, laughter, and personal stories (and a taste test of whatever meal they are preparing) to offer a brief respite from the daily work that often seems like the jabs and punches the boxer tries to dodge.

Who vs. What

We have recently been conducting search and selection procedures in an effort to fill a few vacancies and long term substitute positions. This process usually involves a number of different methods and people. Despite the time and questions and responses and ... the decision is reduced to the "who," as opposed to the "what."

That is, who the candidate is, not what the candidate is. The resume of the applicant reveals the degree status, schools attended, certifications held, work history, and often grade point average. To a large extent, this data, or "what," is very similar among all applicants. Each prospect must possess the required certification - which also correlates to a particular degree, and assumes a grade point average necessary to receive a degree. All teacher applicants have at least a student teaching experience, many have some experience (though not too much, because it means the candidate is sacrificing their seniority status in their current position, and it increases their expected salary at a time when most school districts remain operating under budget constraints).

What separates prospective employees is "who" they are and "who" they want to become. My experience leaves me feeling that the vast majority of candidates prepare themselves by emphasizing the "what," and enter the process lacking a description of the "who."