Out of the Box – Part 2

The topic is to discuss a time when we pushed against the boundaries and challenged the system. In my post last month, I talked about lessons learned. Today, I want to share why.

I am not going to discuss Innovative Uses of “Stuff” (technology,) bringing in iPads or Chromebooks will not, by itself, change much of anything if we are only using new things to continue working in the present model.  Improvement is also not a topic today. Tweaking existing practice (standards based grade cards, block scheduling) will not have significant impact on student learning. Not just my opinion, Alan November has been preaching this sermon for over 20 years.

Innovation must address the fundamentals of our system, and it must address pedagogy.  Innovation is changing how people think, their attitudes, and ultimately, their behavior.  Innovation changes paradigms, it does not refine them.

Too many of us are comfortable in our skins, our classrooms haven’t changed much since our first day of teaching. A couple of video links below will reinforce this point. Change is uncomfortable. We are good, and good is the enemy of great. The teacher down the hall needs some serious professional development, the district down the road could certainly do better for their kids. But we are doing just fine in my classroom, and in my district.

In the opening of his book The Eden Conspiracy, Dr. Joe Harless shares this quote from William Bennett, taken from his book Our Children, Our County, “If the current reform movement is to succeed, it must rest on the conviction that the public schools belong to the public, not the experts, or social scientists or professionals, or the educational establishment.”

While I disagreed with many of the positions advocated by Mr. Bennett during his term as Secretary of Education, this is not one of them. The A Nation At Risk report was released during his tenure in 1983, it remains a seminal work in my profession.  It was followed in 1994 by Prisoners of Time, another seminal work filled with good intentions, but minimal impact on the profession.

One of the lessons learned, under the umbrella of Rules for the Revolution, is that innovation never initiates within a system. The catalyst occurs either on the edges of the system, or outside it.

Many of us realized several years ago that our current system of public education was not adequately meeting the changing expectations placed on our schools by society, or the needs of our students to function successfully in that society when they become our age.

I was corrupted by reading the following subversive literature early on as we worked to change the system for our students:

If It Ain’t Broke…Break It – Robert Kriegel and Louis Patten; Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers – Robert Kriegel and David Brendt; Expect the Unexpected or You Won’t Find It – Roger von Oech; A Whack on the Side of the Head – Roger von Oech; and The Macintosh Way – Guy Kawasaki.

They were followed by Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson; and The Eden Conspiracy by Dr. Joe Harless.  Dr. Harless’ book was the model for the creation of the Central Educational Center in Newnan, Georgia, a truly outstanding school. One of the honors of my career has been working with, and earning the respect of that staff.

Dr. Harless, like the rest of the authors of these books are not from the mainstream of public education in America.  They personify my belief that changes occur from outside the system.  With all due respect to ASCD, NASEP, NASSP, et al, you cannot order these books from them. But they are worth the investment on Amazon…

Wired magazine recently posted this article, again.  “American Schools are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist”

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

We recently were taken to court for continuing to ignore the obvious:

Sir Ken Robinson could have been called as an expert witness:

Yet we persist in teaching to the average student, when we know that the average student does not exist:

Sidebar, Todd is keynoting the Blended and Online Learning Symposium, hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning in San Antonio on October 26. End of sidebar.

While I respect the work of those who research schools and my profession, I also understand that they are not in schools and classrooms on a daily basis.  They blow in, blow off, and blow out. While they have a wonderful grasp of strategies and techniques, test scores, the latest fads and all the jargon and acronyms, they do not have an understanding of our kids; the challenges and opportunities they face every day. Nor do they get to work with our parents, our communities, or the dynamics of our schools.  In other words, they will not be there tomorrow.

The only people who fully understand what is happening in our schools are the kids. As teachers, we know what happens to our kids in our classroom. But too often, we don’t know what our kids brought to school with them, what happened in the classroom before ours, what will happen in the next classroom, and what is waiting for them at home.

I am an Assistant Principal at a middle school. Every day, my world revolves mostly around the lives and loves of about 600 fifth and sixth graders, out of a total population of about 1,100 kids. I am trusted every day with other people’s kids. They are not intensive, strategic, benchmark, nearing proficient, proficient, or advanced. They are the best kids that Mommas have to send me.They are the cutest and handsomest grandkids any grandparent has. And I must earn their respect, every day.

I will be there for them tomorrow, doing my best to think in the future while acting in the present.

Theodore Roosevelt inspired my feelings about my job, and my role in the lives of our students.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Machievelli predicted our struggles at reform very accurately when he presumably said   “Whoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”

He followed this with, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

With all due respect to Mr. Bennett, public schools belong to the public, as custodians of the public trust for generations of students yet to come.

I will listen to them.

The Power of Presence

Topic of the week is to write about a time when we have been contacted by a former student, and reflect on the impact we make on people’s lives.

I have former students who are now in their 50’s, and have been honored as many of them have contacted me through the years to share what they learned in my classes that had nothing to do with band or orchestra.  And many of those conversations happened before the Age of Social Media. I won’t go into those here, my stories are no different than anyone else’s stories, and too often we take for granted the impact we make on our students and colleagues.

As a staff developer for many years, I would make this point when we shared the Art and Science of Teaching in our conversation about the Best Teacher You Ever Had.  I have written about it here.

So now the Essential Question.  What do you want your students to remember about you after they have forgotten everything that you have taught them?

After all is said and done, teaching is about service.  As a teacher, it is all about you. It isn’t about the content, the lesson plan, the activities, the classroom decorations.  It’s about YOU!

The sacrifices we all make, the nights spent grading papers, planning and creating activities, attending evening programs, even if we only stay long enough to be seen by the kids, tossing and turning at 2am worrying about a student, time missed with spouses and children, it’s all about service.

Who served us?  How?  And how are we paying it forward?

There is a framed document hanging by my desk, in my line of sight as I visit with students and parents.

“Today I placed several people in front of you…Did you inspire, teach, motivate, hug, share a smile, share a warm thought, buy their lunch, show them your love, show compassion or put yourself in their position? Or…did you just turn away and shrink back into yourself? Not quite what I had in mind…But I know you’ll get better at it. I’m sending some more your way tomorrow.   God”

And so it goes…