The Best Teacher You Ever Had

During the staff developer part of my career, workshops focused on what characteristics separated the great schools from the good schools.

To be honest, we all teach from the same texts and materials, and since the adopted curricula used by most of us prior to the Common Core was based on standards adopted by various national organizations such as NCTM, NCSS, and NCTE, there wasn’t much variation in what was being taught.

It should come as not surprise to any of us that the differential was the impact of the teacher in the classroom, and the quality of the relationships established between the teacher and the students.

As part of the conversation, I would ask teachers to think of the Best Teacher You Ever Had as a Student.  Then I would ask them to think of the one characteristic that separated that teacher from every other teacher they ever had.  We would then share the one thing that mattered most, and list them either on a flip chart or a screen.  Most of listed items were things like, “She cared about me,” “He had a sense of humor,” She knew me as a person,” “Learning was exciting and fun in that classroom,” and “I felt valued and important.”

The next step was to compare the list with the characteristics used on the district’s adopted teacher evaluation document.  Seldom were there many matches on the two lists.

The first list we called the Art of Teaching.  The things that really mattered.  The things that were remembered after we forgot what the teacher taught us.  The things that made us want to become teachers.

The second list we called the Science of Teaching.  You can go to a class or a workshop and get better at them, but I can never recall things like “lesson plans were clear and concise” showing up on the first list.

The reflection that followed was really fun, listening to teachers talk about their role models.  It wasn’t unusual, particularly in smaller districts and schools, for the role model of a younger teacher to be in the room with us.  I cannot describe the feeling when a new teacher shares that the reason she became a teacher “was because of the impact of the best teacher I ever had, and she is sitting on my left.”  Do we realize we have that kind of influence on young lives?

And we never know when we will make that one statement, smile that one smile, share that one moment, that will never be forgotten.

We all have that one teacher.  Mine was Mr. Dan Kolb, freshman English.  I don’t recall ever opening a textbook in his class, but I remember reading, writing, and acting in ways unheard of in 1970.  As a music teacher, I had the opportunity to return to my Junior High school in 1984 for a music contest.  My first stop on the building tour was the library to see if some of the stuff we wrote in 1970 was still in the reference section.  Couldn’t find it, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Mr. Kolb and I had the opportunity to visit many times after I entered the profession, he knew the impact he had on me.  He was by no means the only great teacher in my student career, I was blessed with many in Dodge City, Kansas.  As a trumpet major, my high school trumpet teacher, Mr. Bill Charlesworth is in a class by himself.  Eighth grade English teacher Mr. Fred Deyoe was deservedly inducted into the Kansas Teacher Hall of Fame after retiring.

I have the honor of working with teachers like Mr. Kolb, Mr. Charlesworth, and Mr. Deyoe.  The Quiet Heroes who come to school every day, not doing what they can, but doing what they must, to make a difference in a young person’s life.

With sincere thanks to another of my heroes, Mr. Dan Clark, from his song “Quiet Heroes,”

“The world is full of quiet heroes, who never seek the praise.  They’re always back off in the shadows.  They let us have the limelight days.  You’re the one I look up to, because of you I’m free.  You set an example I could follow, You helped me see my destiny.

I wouldn’t be where I am today, I’ve won my share of time, unless you coached me through the maze and pushed me on the hardest climbs.  It’s just your style, the extra mile, no glory, must be tough.  You let me have the accolades.  A smile, you said, was just enough.

So even though my thanks don’t show, unnoticed you will never go.  I need to say  I love you so.  You’re my hero!”

Thanks to all the Quiet Heroes who inspired me then, and continue to inspire me every day.

Shakespeare, Prince and Other Great People

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. ”
Maybe if we linked Shakespeare with Prince, more kids would discover the magic of Shakespeare. Instead, he is endured as something “we have to read in the Common Core.” The great teachers, however, see the adopted curriculum as merely a starting point to building meaning and nurturing the love of learning.

And so it goes…

Reflections on Columbine

Thinking about Columbine today, remembering not only where I was and what I was doing on this day in 1999, and what has happened since in our schools.

For many of us, schools should  be seen as a safe place, where students can attend and learn without fear.  Unfortunately, in too many places, this is not the case.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that our schools are a microcosm of the communities where they are located.  Schools have bullying / harassment issues, drug problems, homeless student issues, student pregnancies, etc. because those issues exist outside the school buildings as well.

Too many schools are tasked by their communities to become the solution to community issues, and too many schools accept that charge.  So we have valuable inservice time taken up by conversations along the lines of arming teachers to defend against intruders.  Doors in many hallways remain locked in the event someone may try to break in.

To me, this does little to alleviate fear in the building, it raises it.  A student who may be a minute or so late to class because of a bathroom break, locker issue, or late drop off by the parent is sent a message of dis-invitation by having to wait for a locked door to be opened.

Is it worth the false sense of security?

Have we forgotten that within the first minute of shots being fired by the shooters at Columbine, an armed deputy sheriff returned fire, thus driving the shooters back into the building?

It is interesting that the community issues remain during the summer months when schools are not in session.  I have worked in schools where we willingly accepted our role in both contributing to the problems in our community, and understood the role we could play in the solutions.  We also insisted that we were not the only people at the table.  We did not allow community issues to be placed on the schoolhouse steps for us alone to address and solve.  Bringing multiple resources together allowed all of us to address the issues and develop solutions that made a difference.

We were allowed to address the causes, not just the manifestations.  The two shooters at Columbine were crying for help long before the morning of April 20, 1999.  Many tried to answer them, obviously to no avail.

But that doesn’t mean we need to turn our learning centers into defensible fortresses where we operate in fear, and hope that the worst will not happen.

And delude ourselves with a false sense of security that we are prepared for it.

And so it goes…

The State of Professional Development

Topic this week is to talk about professional development.  What do we remember as great PD…

For purposes of full disclosure, I spent several years of my career as a Curriculum and Staff Development Specialist for a district with an enrollment of 145,000 students.  It was one of the highest performing districts in America, as measured by our NAEP scores.  Our district, along with Connecticut, led the nation in achievement as measured by that assessment.  We also had no statistically significant gaps in achievement between and among disaggregated groups of students.  The School of Education at Vanderbilt University was contracted to study our district to see what we were doing that could and should have been replicated. 60 Minutes did a story on our district. We were quite proud of our curriculum and staff development work, the study was extremely complimentary about how the quality of our professional development contributed to the successes of the district.  But we could have done better.

What follows is Reflection and a Rant of what I see as the state of professional development in our public schools.  In the spirit of Felson’s Law of Education, parts of  it are stolen from some seminal works written by colleague educators whose opinions I respect tremendously.  A big part of it is taken from a grant application that I helped write while I was the Superintendent of Schools in Center, Colorado in November, 1993.  The rest is mostly taken from “Dumbing Us Down:  The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Learning” by John Taylor Gatto, “From Master Teacher to Master Learner” by Will Richardson, and a recent blog post from Will Richardson, “5 Elephants in the Classroom that Should Unsettle Us.”  I hope this suffices for citations.  Sincere thanks to John Gatto and Will Richardson for all I have learned from you.

May the words of my mouth comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

1.  What is the ultimate purpose and goal of education?

2.  What are the student accomplishments desired as a result of the educational process?

3.  What is the gap between the current accomplishments and desired accomplishments?  What are the root causes of the gap?  What interventions are therefore indicated?

4.  What should be taught?

5.  How should education in our schools be redesigned and delivered?

I’m sure that we have all heard the less than anticipatory exclamations of excitement as our teachers show up for PD day.  When we review the end of session evaluations from teachers, they are generally polite enough to say nice things, but what is unwritten speaks volumes.  Too often, we see our teachers acting like our students.

And why shouldn’t they, our staff development too often looks just like our classrooms.  By that I mean that it is more about teaching than about learning.  It misses the characteristics of immersion, not producing.

I would suggest that the overall purpose of our individual schools and therefore, our system, is to produces graduates who have skills, information, and attitudes to become accomplished citizens.  In other words, our graduates are workplace ready, whether they enter the workplace directly out of high school, following a credentialing program, or a post-secondary degree program.  They are lifelong learners.

So I would like to acknowledge some of the “Elephants in the Classrooms” as they relate to both our daily classrooms and our PD efforts.

  1.  Most of us will forget most of the content that we “learn” during the session.  We tend to focus on content knowledge.  True learning is unforgettable, made up of things we want to learn more about, not what the presenter thinks we need to know.
  2. Many of us are bored and disengaged.  Let’s try giving our learners more freedom and control and see what happens.  Let’s define what needs to be learned, and let the learners decide how best to learn it.
  3. We know that deep, lasting learning requires conditions that schools and classrooms simply were not built for.
  4. We aren’t assessing many of the things that really matter for student success.
  5. Grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in.  Ask a teacher what a child has actually learned as represented by the grade and you will be greeted by silence.

To move to an accomplishment base for education from the current model of quasi-standards based will require a major shift in philosophy for most of us.  Despite decades of educational reform, the content of the curriculum is virtually unchanged.  Our students still struggle to memorize facts whose near and long-term relevance seems to them to be known only by the teacher. I suggest, if the truth were told, most teachers would be hard pressed to defend what so much of the student’s time should be spent trying to “learn” most of the stuff presented.

In addition to highly questionable content, teachers still by and large employ the same teaching and motivational techniques that have always been practiced:  I talk.  You listen.  You study.  I give tests.  I sort you into piles of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, F’s, Intensive, Strategic, Benchmark.  Here is the next set of facts.  Literally billions of dollars have been spent to support what has become to some a hopelessly broken model.

Until we recognize that brutal fact that what we have been trained to see as educational outcomes are actually inputs into a seamless process called life, we will continue to do nothing more that rearrange chairs on a sinking ship.

Random thoughts

  1. Assessments are still more about recall rather than application.  If Siri can answer the questions, we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice.
  2. Technologies are still mostly used as an institutional teaching tool, not a personal learning tool.  We install both literal and figurative filters on technology use, the most egregious being the “Internet Use Policy.”  If students don’t sign the form, we take away a powerful learning tool.  I can’t recall ever taking away pencils and paper when inappropriate notes were written about other kids, or when kids were otherwise off task from what the teacher expected, but we will certainly take away devices or use privileges if kids are off task.  How about a “Responsible Use Policy” as a way for all users – teachers and students – to learn what is appropriate?  Will this help us embrace, rather than resist the fundamental shifts that are confronting us?

What are those shifts?  What should we see as the new fundamentals?

  • learning is valued over knowing
  • making and doing are more important than consuming and memorizing
  • learners are empowered to learn deeply, richly and authentically using tools and technologies common in their lives
  • connect, collaborate and create as foundations of and for learning.

These challenge most of the basic concepts of school, but they take us from school to education.  Think of school as a noun, learning is a verb.

School is a place where people and information meet and value is added.  At one time, that meant that teachers, kids, and books were in the same place at the same time doing basically the same things.  That is no longer the case.  Information is now available anytime from anywhere, and our ability to connect with anyone is limited only by our imaginations.  School is now  where the learners are, it is not necessarily a building.

Yet the fundamental structure of the institution of the school, and the subset called the classroom hasn’t changed much since Horace Mann’s Common School, Frederick Taylor’s factory model, the curriculum of the Committee of Ten as measured by Andrew Carnegie’s  Units.  And we wonder why more and more of us, adults and children collectively defined as learners, find it increasingly irrelevant.

The goal of the school is to learn more.  Hence, measures of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act are SBAC, PAARC, ACT, SAT, IB, AP, or some form of alternate assessment which is a variation on that theme.  These are all great assessments for measuring the wrong goal.  The goal of learning is the ability to learn more, and these assessments are not designed to measure the capacity to learn.

Wiseman (2014) is on target when he writes, “The vast majority of us now work in environments where the ability to learn is more critical that what we know and where the most valuable currency is influence, not power.”  Since we tend to not teach from a contextual framework, it is very difficult to accurately assess learning.  It is not efficient, and probably not profitable.  I beg the question, are our graduates prepared for post-secondary schools and/or the world of workforce and careers?

Recent data suggests that they are not.  The “Meandering Toward Graduation” report released recently by the Education Trust looked at the graduating class of 2013.  It finds that 47 percent, or almost half, of American high school graduates complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study — defined here as the standard 15-course sequence required for entry at many public colleges, along with three or more credits in a broad career field such as health science or business.  It also shows that only 8 percent of high school graduates in 2013 completed a full college- and career-prep curriculum. Less than one-third of graduates completed only a college-ready course of study, and just 13 percent finished a career-ready course sequence only.  (Education Trust, 2016)

These findings closely parallel the annual College and Career Ready reports published by ACT.  A 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly one in four students enrolling in either a 2-year or 4-year post-secondary institution reported taking remedial coursework.

The news isn’t much brighter on the career education front.  The Changing the Equation Survey conducted by the Business Roundtable reports that 95% of American CEO’s believe their companies suffer from a skills shortage.  Business Roundtable Vice President for Education and Workforce Dane Linn believes the reality is the nation’s educational system “is failing to keep pace with the demands of the global economy,” despite acknowledged improvements, and said “the long-term negative impacts of this skills gap on workers, families, businesses, governments and the economy are potentially far-reaching.”  (Business Roundtable, 2016)

I believe that our high school diplomas should lead our students up, not just out.  And it appears that we have some work to do.  With all due respect, HISET looks great on a graduation report, but does it lead up?

We don’t need to do better, we need to do different.

  • Life is different;
  • Work is different;
  • What kids must know and be able to do is different; so…
  • Learning must be different;
  • Teaching must be different;
  • Tools must be different; and
  • Leadership must be different.

The only thing I can accurately predict about the world our current generation of students will graduate into is that it will be different.  Are we teaching them to adapt, adjust, to do different?  How do we know?

Our professional development should not be focused on making us better teachers.  it should be focused on making us better learners, for ourselves and for our students.  We have never needed teachers to be the best in the room at using tools of technology to teach.  We need teachers who are masters at how the tools of technology are used by students to learn.

I would like to close with one of the many Pearls of Wisdom and Insight from Sir Ken Robinson:  “Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed.  The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual achievements of each child, to put standards in an environment where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

And so it goes…





Learn From Our Mistakes

Grumpy Old Man Alert!  I have been immersed in various educational technologies since 1993.  There were not a lot of us playing on that field back then.  We made lots of mistakes, but we didn’t know any better.  But I believe without fully paying attention to the potential for learners and teachers, nor fully understanding the implications for what should change in classrooms to make a lasting difference, we will make the same mistakes today that we made in 1993.

I am a big believer in learning from failure.  When I have been a building principal or superintendent at various points in my career, staff were encouraged to get out of their personal comfort zones, understand the difference between taking a risk and taking a chance.  We were not afraid of failure, we celebrated it.  First lesson for new staff was along the line of “don’t make the same mistake twice, but never be afraid to make another mistake.”

I have read, and continue to read a lot, about how, in 2016, it isn’t about the technology, it’s about student learning.  I receive numerous solicitations every day telling me the best apps for “fill in the blank” class; how this workshop/webinar can solve all my problems with….  I’m sure all of you have inboxes filled with the same.  Many of us bought into the hype in 1993, many of us still buy into the hype.  That’s why the ed tech industry is worth billions today.  We were wrong to buy in then, and we are wrong to believe that the silver bullet exists today.  What many are missing is an educational plan that drives the technology plan that really serves more as a shopping list for the next conference exhibit area.  There is no real excuse today for us to be making the same mistakes we made in the mid-1990’s.  We know enough now to make different mistakes.

That being said, what follows is a transcript of remarks I made in a presentation to the Colorado Alliance for Science in October, 1995.  They were also published in the Alliance newsletter later that fall.  I tried to share lessons we had learned to that point, and some of the rationale we used to restructure our district.  For what it’s worth, please remember, this was 1995…

Society has left the information age and moved into the communication age.  Our schools, however, have remained mired in the agricultural/industrial ages.  Our parents’ generation had their ABC’s.  Our generation had our ABC’s, NBC’s, and CBS’s.  The current generation of students have their ABC’s, NBC’s. CBS’s, VCR. CD-ROM.  We have reached a point where many of our students have more access to computer, VCR and CD-ROM technology in their bedrooms than in their classrooms.  A car built in 1995 contains more technology than the Apollo 11 spacecraft, a Minolta camera contains more computing power than an Apple IIe, more PC’s have been purchased this year than televisions, phone lines today carry more data messages than voice messages.  We in the Center School District believe that the problems with our educational system are not that it has been doing its job poorly – it is that the task of education has not changed to meet the changing expectations which society has placed upon it.  Children today are different.  There has never been a time in their lifetimes when we have not been traveling in space.  We had telephones which were hooked to cables and our television reception was over an antenna.  Today, our televisions are hooked to cable and our phone conversations are transmitted between antennas.  Many of the eyes looking at us in our kindergarten classrooms this morning will not only see into the 21st century, but into the 22nd as well.  And we only have about 16 years to prepare them.

Change in education comes slowly, it at all.  There are many reasons for this.  First, unlike corporations, educational institutions have to prepare people for their entire lives.  This implies that changes, when made, must be made with caution.  Secondly, our educational institutions have many managers, but few leaders.  As Joel Barker says in his book Paradigms, “Managers manage within the context of a prevailing paradigm.  Leaders take us from one paradigm to another.”  Most attempts at educational restructuring are taking place within the current paradigm, and we feel that their impact will be limited.  It seems to us that if we are to learn anything from the people who drop out of school each year, staff as well as students, it is that many of our schools, by their very structure, fail to reinforce and develop the natural love of learning we all express on the first day of kindergarten.

In our efforts to restructure, we have many barriers to overcome, not the least of which is a long-standing, deep seated resistance to innovations in technology.  Let me share a few examples with you, and I assure you that I did not make any of these up.

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems.  They depend on their slates which are more expensive.  What will they do when the slate is dropped and it breaks?  They will be unable to write.”  Teacher’s Conference, 1703

“Students today depend on paper too much.  They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves.  They can’t clean a slate properly.  What will they do when they run out of paper?”  Principal’s Association, 1815

“Students today depend too much on ink.  They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil.  Pen and ink will never replace the pencil.”  National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Students today depend upon store bought ink.  They don’t know how to make their own.  When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement.  This is a sad commentary on modern education.”  The Rural American Teacher, 1928

“Students today depend on expensive fountain pens.  They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib.  We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world which is not so extravagant.”  PTA Gazette, 1941

“Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country.  Students use these devices and then throw them away.  The American values of thrift and frugality are being discarded.  Business and banks will never allow such luxuries.”  Federal Teachers, 1950

We are not immune today.  After all, it only took twenty years for the technology of the overhead projector to move from the bowling alley to the classroom.  And many of us in rural areas of the state are trying to wire buildings built somewhere between  the administrations of Warren Harding and Dwight Eisenhower.

The acquisition of technology cannot be the goal.  If we only dream to “put a computer in every classroom,” or “do a technology inservice for our staff,” we will have failed to fully utilize a powerful resource.  Instead, we will only be using new tools in old ways.  In other words, distance learning must be more than just full frontal lecturing.  Otherwise, a teacher will grow only from boring 25 students at a time to boring 250.  The MAIN THING is the fundamental changes which can and must occur as we bring a powerful new resource into the classroom.

Technology is, by itself, a neutral tool.  The same tools Michelangelo used to create the Pieta can also be used to destroy it.  We do not look to technology to solve all of our problems.  Rather, we view the integration of technology into our classrooms as only one more tool in the toolbox, or one more toy in the toybox to help us solve the challenges which confront us.  We expect technology to help us with:

  1.  Better meet the individual needs of students and staff
  2. Individualize instruction by allowing us to make practical use of multiple intelligence research.  As it stands, most classrooms today would look like 25 people sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, the doctor coming out and giving everyone the same prescription and asking them to come back tomorrow if it doesn’t work, and
  3. Empower students and staff to reach their potentials.

In order to accomplish this, we must:

  1. Change the teachers’ role from authority to facilitator
  2. Create active learning environments rather than passive.  I recently read of a person who, after  having observed many of our classrooms, described them as places where the relatively young gather to watch the relatively old work, and
  3. Work with parents and communities as partners rather than adversaries.  If I can relate to a question asked to the first panel this morning, I suggest that the key to educating and involving the community is their involvement in the planning processes which must take place in each district.

We understand that technical change is easy, the sociological transitions are much more difficult, but the transitions are the keys to success.  Organizations do not change, people do.  Technology will not meet changing expectations, teachers will.  If we do not change what we do, if we do not enhance our outcomes, to use the business jargon, if we do not see a return on investment, why then do we invest a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money in the power of technology?  Whatever we decide to do in each of our districts, we must see a planned, proactive response to identified needs rather than knee-jerk, short-term reactions driven more by available funding than the needs of kids.  Lewis Carroll summarized it well in Alice in Wonderland,  “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here,” Alice asked the Cat.  “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” said the Cat.  “I don’t much care where,” said Alice.  “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

Some parents are well educated and rich enough to insure that their children have access to today’s information tools at home.  Others are not so fortunate.  As a result, we run the very real risk that the gap between the financially rich and poor will turn into a gap between the informationally rich and poor.  This will result in complete disenfranchisement of a large part of our population and could cripple our society for at least one generation.

Colorado needs new learning communities which meet the demands of the communication age we have already entered.  Because the underlying premise of the old model of educational institutions runs counter to the needs of students in the 21st century, we cannot achieve our goals by simply extending the school year, nor by creating new tests of achievement alone.  We need to redefine the meaning of education in terms that meet the needs of the post-industrial age.  Only through restructuring the total community can we bring students and adults into the 21st century with employable skills for a global economy.  Technology has the power to facilitate this change, but technology must be thought about in the context of meaningful restructuring of the educational process.  The reason for this is technology can be applied in education to meet many objectives.  As I said before, technology is, by itself, neutral.  Therefore, it is essential that we place pedagogy above technology and allow our focus on technological futures to be guided by core beliefs and understandings about our goals and our awareness of ways to develop and maintain a lifelong interest in education in all learners.

We are each the inventors of our futures, and we all should be provided with the tools to become the architects or our futures rather than the victims of fate.  In the Center School District, we have adopted a forward thinking perspective which we are using as the basis for restructuring our district.  Our survival depends on our capacity to think in the future and act in the present.  Then, and only then, will be able to prepare our students for their futures, not for our past.

That’s what I thought in 1995, what do you think today?


Random thoughts during the Children’s Sermon at my church today.

After the proper set-up about how Valentine’s Day is about sharing with people you love, Pastor gave each child a couple of Valentine’s chocolates.  Said they could keep one, but had to give the other one away.  He asked them who they were going to give it to.  Needless to say, after giving little kids chocolates and asking them a question, he quickly lost control of the conversation.

Got me thinking about many conversations I have had over the years with parents and kids about choices they make.

It isn’t that we aren’t giving kids the opportunity to make choices, but we certainly want to protect them from the consequences of less than great ones.  And miss out on the subsequent SLO (Significant Learning Opportunity.)

It appears that many of us want rights without responsibilities.  We love taking advantage of the outcome.  Wish that more of us wanted to be part of the process.

That’s what I am thinking today, what are you thinking?