Education is Hard!

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Education is hard! Teaching is hard! That’s got to be the center of my reflection for this week. It’s hard, it’s tiring and it’s not for the weak.

I started back to school with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and passion for what I do. I mentioned that in my last post. I felt like I could do anything for our kids. Every Kid. Every Day. No Matter What It Takes. That may sound like a lot but I think that’s what kids deserve. Quickly the people around me tried to sap that enthusiasm. People who have a vision that is different than yours can sap that energy. People who have that ‘we’ll-see-how-long-this-lasts’ attitude can eat away at your positivity. People who don’t understand the changes that need to happen in education can be a drain on your enthusiasm.

What I found this week is that keeping your head up and your vision in tact takes work. Hard, tiring work. Every day this week I went home exhausted and every day I thought of things that I wish I would have done or things that I did that could have waited. I tried to smile when people were negative and I tried to walk away when I could feel the energy meter running low. By nature I avoid confrontation. Reflecting at the end of the day there were many instances where I should have confronted the situation.

I feel like I have great relationships with our teachers. Relationships are everything in this business. Sometimes, though, I think I avoid the hard conversations because I don’t want to damage the relationships. I don’t mean addressing things that are obviously bad for kids. What I’m talking about are the small things that don’t ruin kids but also don’t bring out the best in them. One example from this week: We have a class of students who are notoriously low achievers and behavior issues. These students were stereotyped from the outset of the year. Not one teacher gave them a clean slate. They expected that they would be behavior problems and they were. Well, yes, self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had a chance this week to chat with a former colleague. Great guy and excellent teacher but also a person who has always challenged me to think. He said that there is always one person wherever he has gone who reminds him of the superintendent that we had when we worked together. The kind of person who is an authoritarian leader and runs people out of an organization due to the destruction of the culture. I tried to identify the people in our building who played that role. What I discovered is that they are not at the top but they are in the trenches. There are people who damage the culture on a daily basis by the way they run their classrooms, by the way they do there jobs and by the way they interact with people. And, I guess it goes further than actual actions. The way some people talk about kids, parents, colleagues and probably me damages the culture at the basic level.

Luckily for us there are only a small number of those people in our school so the strong keep the culture afloat. Also, even though there are some negatives, all in all we have an excellent group of ‘teachers.’ We teach well, some of us just need some work on our relationship building.

So, my reflection for this week is that it’s got to get harder for me. I have to start being more assertive and addressing each of these little items. Our culture depends on it and I don’t think there is much more important to our students than a culture that is uplifting. I’m going to continue to be tired and my wife is going to wonder why I am spending so much time in my office. I get it and I know she will understand but I refuse to be weak and I refuse to be weakened.

 

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Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.

These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.

The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.

So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.

To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.

LMGTFY

Ran upon this site today when someone replied to a question on Facebook with a link to the site. I instantly fell in love with the site because of its sarcastic notion. Then my head spun in a different direction and I pondered how LMGTFY reflects the changes that are necessary in education. BTW, if you haven’t figured it out yet, check the link.

I get a little tired of rehashing the same old arguments about how education needs to change to better serve our youth. The 21st century competencies have been talked about now for almost two decades and in many arenas – dare I say most? – we are no further along at assuring that our students are creators, critical thinkers, communicators and collaborators than we were in 1999. In 1999 not many people were walking around with a microcomputer in their pockets.

You remember 1999. We were worried about Y2K, TLC was averring that they wanted no scrubs, President Bartlet was ruling The West Wing and The Phantom Menace was crushing the box office. Yes, that’s Episode 1. Schools that were progressive were buying the first iMac and the rest of us were pounding away on 120 MHz Pentium processors and storing our data on the Jaz Drive. I had a phone, like many in my generation, but it was too expensive to use it. More of a status symbol than a useful tool.

You may have taken your class to the lab then whereas now you may have some computers in your classroom. If your district is really pushing the envelope you may even be 1:1. Google was around then but you were probably using Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves.  Those microcomputers in everyone’s pockets? Until a few short years ago no teacher in their right mind would allow a student to use it in class and their are still some feet draggers out there. I’m guessing that was the same attitude at the advent of the calculator. Times have changed and we must embrace the new horizons that are attainable when we don’t have to worry about teaching Googleable content – yes, that’s a word!

Of course the turn of the century also saw the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act,which ironically left a hell of a lot of children behind probably an entire generation, and the emergence of ‘teaching to the test.’ A sad time for educators that were trying to use emergent technologies and teach soft skills. A time that while technology grew exponentially, teaching muddled on in the same format.

The key point that I want to make is this:  Are you really doing anything differently than you did in 1999? Are you asking students to create with those shiny new Chromebooks? Have you allowed your students to expand their audiences by sharing content and collaborating outside of the classroom? When was the last time your students communicated with an expert or another student that is on the other side of the world or across town without leaving the building? Do your students know how to analyze ‘fake news’ – the bane of 21st century social media? If you are not, if they do not, you may as well invest in more pencils.

Instead of having students memorize states and capitals have them videochat with a peer in that state and ask them questions? Instead of asking students the significance of color in The Great Gatsby ask them to collaborate with a partner to brainstorm a conversation that they might have with Gatsby and Eliza. Instead of writing definitions to vocabulary words teach students how to use Google – like that don’t already know that – to look up unknown words that they come upon in their reading. Encourage debate over current events so that students learn to think critically rather than have them summarize an article to hand in. These are just a few easy options. By eliminating Googleable content we open up our students’ worlds to more STEM activities, Makerspaces, project based learning activities, the list could go on and on. In the process we will make them more confident people, more independent learners, more concerned citizens and more active contributors to society.

If you have any questions, let me Google that for you.

 

Pennsylvania’s Hunger Games

My younger daughter this week announced that her final project for English 12 is a research paper. For their research, they have to utilize a novel that they read in class this year. Her chosen title is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World was dystopian literature before dystopian literature was the realm of young adult literature. My thoughts went to a comparison and contrast of BNW with one of this generation’s dystopian trilogies: Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner.

 

I’m not going to write her paper for her but I was interested in finding some thematic connections. I was especially interested in the theme of social class in these novels and how they might have changed to reflect the political scene of the times. The same thing kept coming back to me as I read about the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons of BNW, the 13 Districts of The Hunger Games, The five Factions of Divergent, The Inner Party, The Outer Party and the Proles of 1984: This reminds me of education funding in Pennsylvania.

 

I’ve written on this topic before. The injustice created in education exists throughout the world but the 500 districts of Pennsylvania provide a microcosmic glance at what occurs worldwide. I read a couple of pieces this week that brought that notion to light. The first was from Downingtown School District’s technology department: “Downingtown First in Nation to go 1:1:1.” The gist of the article is that every student will have an electronic device for every class. From Kindles for English and iPads for math to Fitbits for PE and Android phones for World Languages. Sounds awesome! The other piece was actually cited by many members of the Pennsylvania House: “Wolf Angers GOP with Funding Formula that Gives Smaller Hikes to Most School Districts“. The linked article is specifically about Lehigh Valley schools but you can find similar articles in newspapers across the State. GOP lawmakers, in general, are upset that the schools that need the money to offset current inequalities, are receiving more money than other districts in the state. The three big winners are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh City Schools and the Chester Upland School District. Chester Upland is the school district whose teachers famously started the year without being paid because of the dire straits of the District’s finances. Being a winner in this case is more like a consolation prize.

 

For this analysis let’s just say that Downingtown is District 1 of The Hunger Games and Chester Upland is District 12. District 1 is the wealthiest of the 13 Districts where they reportedly have a device that turns graphite into diamonds.  Downingtown, while not the richest school in  the state based on aid ratio, is benefitting from a new amusement park that will soon move them up the ladder. An aid ratio of .35 puts them at the number 65 spot of the richest schools in PA.  District 12’s chief function is coal mining and is the poorest of the District’s. In the Hunger Games District 12 historically has no chance of winning the Games. They view the tributes as a sacrifice of their children. Chester Upland is the 4th poorest school district in the state based on aid ration at .85. At Chester Upland being economically disadvantaged is the norm with 82% of the student population falling into that category. Downingtown, on the other hand, has fewer than 1 in 10 students who are living at that economic level. http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/93 http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/135

 

To make this characterization even harder to swallow, the cuts of 2011-12, hit the poorer districts harder than the richer districts. Districts in the bottom quartile, the poorest 125 school districts, saw an average cut of almost $1300. The top quartile, on the other hand, saw an average increase of about $125 per student. Yes, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The median household income in District 1 was $40,000. District 12 maxed out just over $70000. Katniss and Peeta have no chance to catch up. 

 

The mindset of the legislator seems to be that some children deserve more than other children. And let’s remember, that’s what we are talking about: children. Children who didn’t make the decision about where they live. Children who didn’t make a choice to be poor. Does every child in our state deserve the same chance to succeed? Does every student in this state deserve to be prepared for the 21st Century? How can we in good conscience continue to support the concept of the haves and the have nots?

 

A fair funding formula is necessary to support our children. An equalization of opportunity is vital to the future of our children. Katniss and Peeta with the help of Haymitch rose above the richer Districts to become champions but even in their triumph they were unable to break the chain of poverty in District 12. No amount of grit is going to save Chester Upland. A few may get out and break the chain for their families but many will continue to repeat the cycle of poverty for another generation. We definitely need a Brave New something. A Brave New approach to funding would be a godsend for many of our children.
Until then, May the odds be ever in your favor.

The Struts – They Get Me

 

I love rock music. The good old fashioned kind. Electric guitars, bass guitars, drums and some dude wailing. Real, new rock is hard to come by. When I am in Pittsburgh I listen to WDVE and when I am in Philly it’s WMMR. These two along with WMMS in Cleveland are consistently the top rock stations in the east. I’m not talking alternative, acid, death metal, or punk just straight up rock and roll. There is one reason that I love rock music; It makes me feel good. It is fun and allows you to scream lyrics and rattle the dashboard with bass. I like all kinds of music: my playlists have something from just about every genre. But to feel good, I can’t wait until I get to those points on the PA Turnpike where i can begin to hear DVE or WMMS.

There is a point to this that relates to education. Just keep reading.

As I think I mentioned before, my number one professional goal for the year is to bring the fun. I’m trying hard to bring the joy with me to work every day. The goal is to improve the culture in a positive way. To do everything in my power to suppress the negative and accentuate the positive.

The video that I posted above is by a band called The Struts. The Struts get it. They embodied my beliefs in this song. The point of bringing the joy is to get the most you possibly can out of life. Embrace the struggle because it is part of living. My expectation isn’t that everyone will be happy everyday; my expectation is that we will try to find fun in our work. My expectation is that when we fall, we will learn together to get up. When we feel shame we learn from it and when we fell pride we celebrate it. When we taste pain we grow from it and when we fell love we shout it from the rooftops. When we look back on our lives we don’t want to have regrets, we all want to live better lives and we don’t want to say, “Damn, that could’ve been me!”

Let’s be honest, working in public education isn’t something that we chose to do for the glory, the paycheck or the constant positives from the public. We got in to education to impact lives. Little lives or big lives, at some point we all wanted to make a positive impact. We can’t do that with a negative attitude. We need to be All In Every Day! All in for our kids and all in for ourselves. We have a very finite window in which to complete our life’s work. Like The Struts say: Don’t let your life be an untold story; Don’t live as an unsung melody.

I’m probably driving the staff nuts (and my family) but I am committing to writing my story everyday and I am committed to Bringing the Fun; Bringing the Joy!

More Cowbell – The Education Edition

MoreCowbell

I Got A Fever

Saw this meme on Facebook a week or so ago and since then have heard “more cowbell” at least three times. The meme is meaningless if you never saw the SNL skit. Hilarious! We were at a field hockey game last week toting our Temple University cowbells when a university administrator standing beside us said, “There’s no such thing as too much cowbell!”

Of course, like most things, I thought about thus statement in the context of education. I know, I’m a nerd. But think about what the cowbell signifies. Cowbells are the joy! When you here a heavy, clapping cowbell you know there is a celebration. A hero in our midst. A fan trying to muster the last bit of energy for his or her team.

Education needs more cowbell!

I have made it one of my goals this school year to bring the joy; bring the fun everyday. When I am having fun and enjoying my work I fell like I am better at my job. People tend to connect more with people who are bringing the enthusiasm to work. It has benefited me to relax the facade of the expected principal and take ‘selfies’ with the kids, interrupt their class to get them a little wound up. The staff seems more at ease when they see the real me and know that when its serious we will be serious. Making connections and building relationships makes it easier when you have to have the unpleasant conversations.

So in education, what is the cowbell?

In my reflection, the cowbell is the times that you relax a little and not only enjoy your job but genuinely enjoy your students.The cowbell is the times that you celebrate the achievements of your staff and your kids. The cowbell is the times that you remember to ask your staff about their families or things you know that are going on in their lives. The cowbell is the sincere, straightforward ‘thank you’ to staff and students for making this place a great place to work. The cowbell is calling parents to tell them their kid didn’t something wonderful.

Cowbells cannot be disingenuous

If you have ever heard a cowbell, you know when you’ve heard it. You know what instrument makes that sound and it is clear and unmistakable. It’s important to keep that in mind no matter what your cowbell is. Everyone knows when they are not hearing a cowbell. They know when you are blowing wind up their skirt.

Does Education Have a Fever?

I don’t know if I have that answer but if it does, I know the prescription!

Let’s Get Gritty

On my summer reading list for 2015 was Mindset by Caroline Dweck. Dweck’s research looked at ‘growth mindset’ vs.‘fixed mindset.’ The book is intriguing and I was disappointed that I had let it sit on my shelf for so long. A colleague had lent it to me and at first blush it seemed rather dry. I was pleasantly surprised from page 1. I would describe the book as ‘easy to put down’ or more appropriately ‘necessary to put down.’ I don’t mean that negatively but it is a book that will cause you to be introspective. When you start reading a passage that you identify as your own personal fixed mind set it startles and frustrates you and you need to put it down to reflect on that trait in your psyche.

The reason for me writing this is that in conversations that I have had I believe many people confuse the growth mindset with grit. Or maybe they don’t and I have a different connotation of grit. Angela Duckworth out of the University of Pennsylvania studies grit at the Duckworth Lab at UPenn. She defines grit as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. The assumption is that grit is more important in determining success than talent or IQ.

In that definition, grit and the growth mindset are definitely comparable. The growth mindset as defined by Dweck is when people believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Both imply that success, in any pursuit, requires practice and resiliency. The ability to see one’s mistakes and begin to do the work it takes to remedy those mistakes. The desire to work hard at your craft and to stand up every time you fall.

In Dweck’s book, she mentions General James Stockdale. Stockdale is also a player in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great where he writes about the Stockdale Paradox. Collins described the paradox as accepting the brutal facts of your present reality but maintaining faith that you will prevail in the end. Stephen Covey’s ‘Sharpen the Saw’ draws on a similar mentality: Stay active in physical, social/emotional, spiritual and mental self-renewal. All of these writers/psychologists have hit upon the same notion, becoming an overnight success takes a long time and a lot of work. Malcolm Gladwell attempted to quantify becoming an overnight success in his book Outliers. By his estimate it takes about 10,000 hours of work to become incredibly successful at anything.

That is the background of where I am coming from today. The notion that hard work is important and, despite your limitations, with a little talent or at least average intelligence, anyone can be a success. I love the idea but this is where our roads diverge. One characteristic that isn’t mentioned is that all people don’t come from the same socioeconomic condition. I know there are plenty of examples of people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps but the reality is that many more don’t even have bootstraps. In Dweck’s book she compares the fixed mindset of Sergio Garcia to the growth mindset of Tiger Woods. A great comparison but both of them were born into opportunity. Can we even imagine the amount of talent, creativity, intelligence that never gets the opportunity to work hard? Those whose long term goals are to survive. Those whose brutal facts of reality have crushed their faith and optimism. How many talented, intelligent, athletic people use up there 10,000 hours caring for sick children or parents, working extra jobs to feed their family, searching for a place to spend the night? I agree with Dweck and Duckworth and Stockdale and Covey but some people use up their resiliency just trying to survive.

This is where I believe that public education is exceptionally important. I believe that schools are one of the only mechanisms that are readily available to break the chain of lost opportunity. Schools need to be the places where talents are recognized. Schools need to be the places where students’ experiences are broadened. Schools need to be passionate about helping to break the chain. We have to be able to be a place of respite for the weary. A place for empathy and a place for caring.

As we begin a new school year please remember that hard work, resiliency, optimism are important. We should be careful though to not assume that everyone comes to the table with the same experiences and the same opportunities. While mindset and grit, resiliency and practice lead many to be successful, many need to have their basic needs met first.

I’ll end with this Tweet for the Blunt Educator: