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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Touching the Future

“I touch the future. I teach.”
― Christa McAuliffe – Teacher and Astronaut, from Concord, New Hampshire

I have also endeavored to touch the future throughout my lengthy educational career. Despite many struggles, I have pressed forward in an ongoing attempt to positively influence the lives of others and make a difference in their lives as they develop and invent their own futures. I believe all good teachers have that commitment as a common denominator.
January 26, 1986 marked the last day of Christa McAuliffe's life - but it did not end her influence on others. That was the day that NASA sent the first teacher aloft in orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Tragically, the Space Shuttle Challenger (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of all seven crew members, including teacher/astronaut Christa McAuliffe. It was a heartbreaking scene captured on live television for the millions who watched the launch. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of central Florida at 11:38 EST (16:38 UTC). The fate of the vehicle began to unravel after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB attachment hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the separation of the right-hand SRBs aft attachment and the structural failure of the external tank. Aerodynamic forces promptly broke up the orbiter. (wikipedia)

I watched in horror as the spectacle occurred on television. I was in my fourth year as an elementary principal in the Amarillo Independent School District in Amarillo, Texas. It was a shocking scene that immediately produced turbulent emotions. Countless educators across the country had joined in enthusiastic anticipation of the incredible experience that awaited this first teacher-astronaut in the time leading up to the actual launch. I was an educator who sensed the importance of a teacher granted the privilege to participate in the ongoing process of discovery sponsored by NASA. The fatal accident was received like a collective punch to the stomach to all those who watched those 73 seconds of flight and the silence of the television announcers covering the launch and the horror that soon followed when it became apparent that something was terribly wrong.

Fifteen years later NASA experienced another tragic mishap when the Space Shuttle Columbia burst apart on February 1, 2003 while reentering earth’s orbit, killing all seven crew members.

The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation the size of a small briefcase broke off from the space shuttle external tank (the 'ET' main propellant tank) under the aerodynamic forces of launch. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system (TPS), which shields the vehicle from the intense heat generated from atmospheric compression during re-entry. (wikipedia)

This last October, many years after moving back to New York,  I returned for a brief visit to Amarillo. At that time I was again reminded of the potential influence a teacher can make as well as the sacrifices made by those determined and courageous adventurers who seek to stretch the boundaries of our known world through discoveries. Not long after the 1986 Challenger disaster and well before the 2003 Columbia tragedy, astronaut Rick Husband commemorated the loss of the Challenger crew and reminded children who were mourning the death of Christa McAuliffe, America's teacher, that progress and discovery are often the result of courage and sacrifice. The price of advancement can at times exact a heavy toll, but we must sustain our commitment if we expect to improve life.

The truth, and irony, in those words were never more true than when my plane touched down in Amarillo and successfully landed at Rick Husband International Airport, the airport named in memory of Amarillo native Rick Husband, commander of the ill fated Space Shuttle Columbia

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Superintendent and Supernintendo

I was on the phone soon after 5:00am this morning with two superintendents of school districts adjacent to ours to discuss the weather and how it might impact the operation of school today. We determined, based on reports that the area would receive only 2-4 inches of snow and the temperatures would likely rise to 35 during the afternoon, that we would all maintain normal school hours today.

The thought of snow days and school cancellations takes me back perhaps a dozen years ago to a conversation I had with children sharing their lunch-time with me when I was a principal. On that particular day we were joined by the superintendent of the school district. The kids weren't familiar with the title of superintendent and had likely never heard the word before so they asked who he was and what role he served. As he explained many of his responsibilities to the young children he casually mentioned that he was the only person who could decide to close school. The kids liked that since they always enjoyed an unexpected day off of school.

Now, I must point out that I always ask the kids who eat lunch with me what they want to be when they grow up. I also have to remind you that at the time of this incident Nintendo video games were extremely popular. Well, when it came time for one first grade boy to announce his intended occupation, he pointed to the superintendent and proudly exclaimed that he wanted to be a supernintendo, just like him, so he could close school whenever he wanted.

It was just a matter of a few letters that separated superintendent and supernintendo, but there are days when the myriad bureaucracy and paperwork make my job seem like it is a game.

Stay warm and drive safely on the snowy roads.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Budgets and Bullets

Tragedies of the magnitude of mass shootings in our schools attract instant attention and nearly as quick reactions in the form of proposed policies and renewed debates on school safety and gun control. This Blog entry is not meant to engage in any discussion on gun control, but rather an examination of other issues involved in these heinous crimes and what schools must consider in an effort to ward off repeated instances of school shootings and loss of life.

While the setting of the recent killings at Newtown is atypical, in that it was an elementary school whereas most of the shootings have occurred at high schools, nonetheless, the profile of the shooter remains fairly typical of the profile for perpetrators of this crime. That is, based on news reports the shooter was a male who was a social loner and perhaps suffering from some emotional or mental health issues.

Set aside the heated words that quickly evolve in any conversation on the second amendment rights to bear arms. Let’s look at the common traits of the shooters. Absent guns in the strictest of gun control legislation, we still have males aged 15-20 who exist uncomfortably outside the social circles of their peers and battle emotional and mental health concerns. While the schools cannot impact gun control, they can exercise efforts to address the issues surrounding these disenfranchised males who eventually reach such a flash point that they are determined to end their own lives after exacting injury and death upon others. The DASA (Dignity for All Students Act) legislation enacted in the state of New York on July 1, 2012 is designed to reduce and eliminate bullying in schools. That's certainly a start in the right diretcion.

Klebold and Harris, the infamous duo that spread death throughout Columbine High School in April of 1999, were later found, through analysis of their journals and computers, to harbor resentment toward those classmates who operated within the more visible and popular social groups in public high schools (i.e. athletes,..). Revenge was a contributing factor in their actions. They felt invisible, detached and inconsequential. They were reportedly picked on by others at school. They were unaffiliated with any organized school sponsored program beyond being names on a class roster.

There are many different and interesting extra-curricular groups that exist in most high schools. The most public and the largest of these groups tend to be athletics, the expanse of which is related to the size of the school. According to Jason Koebler, writing for US News, (  “More than 7.6 million students played sports during the 2010-2011 school year, an increase of nearly 40,000 students compared to 2009-2010. The organization estimates that 55.5 percent of all high school students play a sport.”
In addition, there has been a wide array of other activities made available at most high schools, often depending on the size of the school and available funds. For instance, there is Student Council, National Honor Society, Debate Clubs, Foreign Language Clubs, Community Service, Yearbook Club, School Newspaper or Journalism Club, as well as a variety of Music offerings such as Band, Chorus, and Orchestra, and other possibilities too numerous to list. It should be noted that learners with a voracious appetite for engaging in extra-curricular activities result in a duplication in the percentage of participants (i.e. an athlete who is also a member of Student Council).

This brings me back to the profile of a school shooter. The perpetrators have generally not been affiliated with such extra-curricular experiences, but rather loners who have felt excluded from them, either because of an inability to qualify for them or a lack of interest in what was offered. We should examine opportunities to expand the reach of extra-curricular activities and create programs that attract learners who have interests outside of the usual menu of extra-curricular activities, but are presently unaffiliated with any school sponsored activity beyond attending classes.
However, the economic problems facing schools in the form of decreased funding, together with an increase in accountability, per state mandated assessments, have forced many schools to make difficult choices in allocating scarce resources that may result in funds being shaved from everything and anything not directly related to those subject areas tested. That posture leaves extra-curricular activities vulnerable to financial cuts.

Budget cuts not only deprive schools of the prospects of developing programs of interest to some of those seeking association but lacking any selections on the current menu of extra-curricular activities, but the safety net available for troubled teens is becoming smaller as well. Those staff members who attempt to address the needs of learners struggling with social and emotional problems (social workers, counselors,...) have likewise been subject to budget cuts. Unfortunately, it seems that the general factor in many cuts tends to relate to the degree of connection the personnel or program has with those areas contained within state mandated assessments. This is a potential dilemma or outcome of budget battles occurring in districts that have decreased programs and people to the point where they have been making decisions based on the lesser of evils. That is, mandated programs remain and non-mandated programs are vulnerable to reduction or elimination.

In sum, schools are simultaneously contending with two significant issues in the midst of a fiscal crisis that may not allow sufficient attention to effectively meet both areas of concern; 1) a clarion for higher performance on state mandated assessments; and 2) heightened anxiety about school security that is in part related to the potential negative impact of socially and emotionally troubled teens who feel disenfranchised and unsupported. How much longer can schools hope to "do more with less?"

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Position Desired

No one questions the impact of the imbalanced ratio of supply and demand in the education market for prospective teachers. The lingering recession and the constant, albeit somewhat smaller, flow of freshly minted graduates armed with teaching certificates have created a glut of applications for all but a few instructional positions.

What do you say to an aspiring teacher saddled with college loans and damaged dreams when they are faced with incredible odds competing for a lone vacancy? Three years ago I received 1,400 applications in response to an advertisement seeking an elementary teacher.

Well, I recently was asked to speak at a college in the area to address seniors in the education department as they began the process of creating application materials and portfolios in hope of winning the job lottery. I focused on three items.

1. What do you want to do? I pointed out that most resume templates have an element stating - Position Desired: I then asked all of them to explain what position they desired. Predictably, they responded in the manner I expected. that is, they said, "Elementary Teacher" or, more specifically "5th Grade Teacher," or "Middle School Math Teacher." I asked them to imagine a stack of 1,400 applications (cover letters, resumes,...). Then I shared with them that perhaps 99.9% of the applicants identified their desired position just like they had - in a very limited perspective. If they wanted to distinguish themselves and grab attention of the reviewer, and also demonstrate that they understood the expansive responsibilities of a teacher, I suggested they describe the position desired in terms that reflect what a teacher can do. Namely, the position desired is: "An opportunity to make a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others." Now that means so much more than - Elementary Teacher.

2. Cover Letters often determine whether your resume is even given the light of day. Picture the resume as the "what" of a person, an objective compilation of various facts. It details college attended, certification, degree, GPA,...These are items that offer a fairly narrow range and don't generally differentiate much among applicants. I mean, they are all certified, the rank or status of the colleges may not be too dissimilar, the GPA's usually spread from 3.2 - 4.0 (and besides, what research supports a high correlation between GPA and success in teaching anyway). So, if the resume is the "what" and you want to stand out among competitors then you need to concentrate on the "who."

This is where the cover letter enters the equation. Most cover letters are unfortunately a narrative of the resume. Instead of the confines of a template, words are added and placed in a story form, merely regurgitating what is already contained in the resume. Instead, I asked these seniors to imagine they were in a book store and were looking for something to read on the beach during vacation, without a particular author in mind or any specific book title. I asked them how they'd find the book they were looking for. They answered by saying they'd look at the blurb on the back or scan the tease inside the book jacket, and maybe read the first page of the book. That's right, they wouldn't read the entire first chapter to see if they liked the book because they couldn't invest that much time with each book or they wouldn't have time to enjoy their vacation. This is the same reason that people involved in the search and selection process don't read every resume.

The cover letter is the "who" of the candidate. It's a chance for the applicant to tell about themselves, unfettered by the restrictions of a resume template. Explain who you are, what you believe in, how you can add value to the district and contribute toward the pursuit of their mission. What is it that makes you special? What can you offer the system beyond work in the classroom? What experiences have you had outside of education that can provide the school with added benefit?

3. In a segue from the last point above - many candidates overlook an opportunity to enhance and broaden their appeal by assuming that they should only list experiences on their resume that they've had in education or a related field, like working at summer camps teaching Sunday school. However, there are many different jobs in which people are trained in skills that are transferable to the classroom. For instance, one candidate was able to describe how her training as a cashier enabled her to acquire conflict resolution skills (think of how that could assist a teacher during a heated parent-teacher conference, or resolving a dispute in the classroom).

The fact is, the job market is crowded and competitive, but a candidate can lower the odds that confront them by understanding what the real core of teaching is (listing their desired position on the resume as - making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others), explaining who they are and why they are the best candidate (effective use of the cover letter) and expanding their possibilities by showing how their out of education experiences have broadened their skill set (transferable job skills).

Good luck candidates!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Who, What, When, Where and Why

Everyone is a learner and the key is to engage each individual as an active participant in a dynamic process that is relevant, valuable, and meaningful. The term "everyone" refers to learners of all ages, at all stages.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”
Margaret Mead

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
“Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
― Abraham Lincoln

“Why not spend that time on art: painting, sculpting, charcoal, pastel, oils? Are words or numbers more important than images? Who decides this? Does algebra move you to tears? Can plural possessives express the feelings in your heart? ― Laurie Halse Anderson
“To educate a person in the mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
Theodore Roosevelt

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”
Jean Piaget

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
Henry Ford

“All of life is a constant education.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”
John Lubbock

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela

“When you know better you do better.”
Maya Angelou

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
W.B. Yeats

“Give a bowl of rice to a man and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to grow his own rice and you will save his life.”
“Liberty without Learning is always in peril and Learning without Liberty is always in vain.”
John F. Kennedy

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
James Madison

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Derek Bok