Reflection On a Year Not Yet Completed

At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I retired as a full-time administrator. After a summer off without thinking about the upcoming school year, I found a position as an Academic Assistant in a local public charter school. I am now working with students in grades 6-12 in a high poverty school. And absolutely loving it! We are a college prep charter located in the poorest performing school district in our state. Our leadership has “broken the mold.” We have a 5-year graduation rate of 96%, 100% of those attending post-secondary school in the fall after graduation, and they all return as sophomores. With a couple of exceptions, everyone I work with is younger than my children. It is a gas watching them work!

I recently shared the following with them:

“To Staff.

 I am finishing year 40 something as a professional educator. One of the definitions of veteran teachers is that they have been hit by the same pendulum numerous times. I have seen a lot of stuff come and go, and come back.  I have those bumps and bruises. I also have several of what I call “self-inflicted scars,” gained because of changing the rules of the game and doing the right things instead of doing things the right way. My schools have changed the rules for everybody. From 1987-2006, every school or district I worked in was a either a state, national, or international model. I am humbled and honored to be part of this staff, working in another one.

I will never forget our CEO’s words to start this year. We are not just “teaching kids,” we are working for a movement. We exist as a challenge to the soft discrimination of low expectations. We have accepted the calling of all professional educators, to nurture hope and keep dreams alive. Our tools are weapons of mass instruction.

As teachers in a revolutionary school, you realize, as did other teachers I have worked with, that your jobs are too small for your spirits. You do not want to work for a school, you want to work for something that has a larger meaning and gives you a sense of purpose about what you are doing.

You have a desire for more meaning and purpose. We all want our lives, and consequently our work to matter, to be part of a larger vision. And to feel that we are contributing to it, for ourselves and the lives of the kids we touch every day. Our kids will be successful because of us and what we do with them, not despite their time spent here. I have worked in a district where the cars in the student lots at the high schools were a lot nicer than the cars in the faculty lots. I did not get the feeling that what I did mattered to the kids all that much. Going to school was becoming a job. So, I moved on.

It is never an easy task, not even “back in the day.” If it were, anybody could do it. But you have accepted the challenge by being here, and I for one am thankful and grateful that you have.

If I had to sum up our year in one minute, it would look like this:

“These people back here, that’s why I come to work. That’s why I build airplanes in the sky. We’re not just building a plane here; we’re building a dream. We don’t get a lot of thanks up here, but when I look over there and I see that little kid, the look in his eyes, that’s all the thanks I need.”

Pretty much sums it up for me, this year, and every other year.

I recently visited with a couple of high school students. There is a good chance you know them.

I noticed that one had logged in to a class at 1:14am. I asked what was going on that prompted him “coming to school” at 1:14am. His reply took my breath away: “I want to do well here and pass my classes, and while I was awake, I wanted to do something productive with my time.” This student is currently not threatening the honor roll list. I am sure his missing work report contains several entries. But at this point, we can’t help it that the work wasn’t turned in “on time.” What blew me away is that this student cares enough to be losing sleep about his work and showing up at 1:14am to make a difference.

I asked the other student what she wanted to be once she left high school. Not what she wanted to do, that is a completely different question. I shared with her that when I was in high school, I wanted to be happy as an adult. Then I could prepare for a career that would make me happy. I have been successful, so far.

Her response was not one that I expected. “I want to be stable. I have never been in the same school for more than 2 years. My Mom and my Aunt are the only ones in my house that help me, and I don’t want to go through that anymore.”

We all want stability. And every teacher is a counselor. We have staff that help our kids with college admissions, but that is a totally different job description than being a counselor for them. For us, that means showing up. Every day. Not just from 7:30-4:15. It means that a student can come to school at 1:14am and know that someone is “there” who cares for and about him.

I love to hike. A few years ago, I went on a sojourn with several friends in Rocky Mountain National Park. We walked across a joining of three streams, each about a foot wide, and could say that we were seeing the source of the Colorado River. As that water flows downstream, it will narrow and widen, flow around some rocks and over others, and the little stream we saw as about a foot wide will form the Grand Canyon. To me, that is the essence of what we do as educators. Our kids are energy in search of adventure. They all have many obstacles to overcome as they grow and mature, and we will help them navigate through many of them. Sometimes we wonder, “What can one person do? What difference will my effort make?” Great victories are won when ordinary people execute their assigned tasks. We will each continue to show up, every day, and be the stability that our kids are looking for. And with our help, they will also accomplish Grand things.

By training, I am a musician. My undergraduate transcript says that music was my major, education was my minor. So, if you have read this far, I will leave you with a song. Please pay attention to the lyrics. Particularly, the first 4 minutes or so.  And remember, we teach kids, not a subject. Our calling is to nurture hope and keep dreams alive. We must see the world through their eyes, not through ours, if we are to meet that calling.

Thank you for allowing me to be part of this special place, and for letting me do my part as we all matter in the lives of our students.

And may we always hear the Children of Sanchez.”

And so it goes…

Rendezvous With Yesterday

We live in a different world today that the world we lived in 12 months ago. As much as we like to reminisce about how the grass was greener then, the skies were bluer, and the smiles were brighter, out world will never again be what it was.

The pandemic has claimed over 500,000 lives in the U.S. in the last year. It has touched every aspect and segment of our society. Most of us acknowledged the existence of the coronavirus, the implications and consequences of contreacting it or transmitting it to others. Many of us changed our attitudes and behaviors, sacrificed short-term activities for long-term security. Most of us have accepted that how we live our lives today is not how we lived our lives in March, 2020, and we are adapting to the realities of the post-pandemic world.

Yet some of us still deny it, and are on the path toward a rendezvous with yesterday.

In our schools today, 21st century kids are being taught by 20th century adults using 19th century curricula and schedules on an 18th century calendar.

A bit of hyperbole, but not much. The course/curriculum sequence of the Committee of Ten is still the prevalent model, Frederick Taylor’s bell schedule still powers a time-driven system, Andrew Carnegie’s units continue to ensure that time is the constant, learning, and the application of it, is the variable in our schools.

Consider this schedule: age 8am you arrive at work. You are immediately busy with a quick problem needing to be solved. You get after it, but you have only about 3 minutes to complete it. Your focus is broken as you receive instruction for the next half hour or so, then it is off to another task. There may be a bit of discussion with a small group of people that you get to work with, but you are typically on task, dedicated, and usually working on your own.

After about an hour, you pack up your materials and move to a different work space where the process repeats itself, only around a different set of topics.

By the end of the day, you will change rooms, change focus, change tasks, change environments, and change peers around 6 times a day.

After work, you have several tasks that must be completed overnight. I won’t mention weekends…

The supervisors who oversee your various hourly commitments don’t really communicate with each other. Each treats their tasks as the number one priority in your life, not merely for that hour, but for that day. Overlapping is ignored.

This work schedule is “high school,” and in many places, middle school. For both students and teachers.

If you think this is not realistic in your school, ask your students how many times they have multiple tests on the same day. Then ask them what they did on the night before they have the multiple tests. How many of them are involved in school and/or family activities that make if difficult to adequately prepare for one exam the next day, let along several.

What other employer would regularly or realistically impose multiple deadlines on several major, discreet and unrelated projects on the same day?

Talk among yourselves. And make a point of starting to see your school through the eyes of your students. And let’s start listening to their voices.

“As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted to students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult roles.” John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling.

Is this an indictment of the current system of American education and those who work in it> Absolutely not! Indeed, the current system of American education is doing exactly what it was designed for. It is effectively educating the masses.

For a world that no longer exists.

We are married to a system that has not been properly re-evaluated for 21st century capabilities and capacities.

High school is still broken into silos of subjects called departments – English, math, science, social studies, arts, career-tech – but without viable links to how these departments fit into the students world after graduation. The result is a mess; individual departments attempting to simultaneously provide a broad overview of every major field and a narrow foundation for future specialized study at the post-secondary level. And we attempt to do this all at once, a little bit of everything, every day, for four years.

Skills become subjects.

Yet the skills each student is building are not unique to any one subject. Writing is not just a part of the English department scope and sequence. It is necessary in all classes. The same is true of reading and math. But in my experiences, they are seldom integrated across all content areas. There are few, if any, discussions across a building faculty about acceptable conventions, so what is acceptable work in one class, or department, is not acceptable in another.

Teachers tend to hold tightly onto what has worked for them in the past. So the traditions continue…

Having violated the Biblical injunction against casting the first stone, let me propose a solution.

Let’s use our transition into the post-pandemic world to move our schools from a focus on education (teaching) to a focus on learning.

It is interesting that most school leaders don’t put learning first. Instead, they start with state mandates, or standardized test scores, or parent mandates, and then try to figure out how to fit the processes of learning into reaching those outcomes.

Let’s build our new Holy Strategic Plans and annual School Improvement Plans on a foundation of our beliefs about how students learn most powerfully and deeply.

And then worked to figure out how to fit the tests, mandates, and expectations into the process of reaching those learning goals?

Been there, done that, still have some t-shirts from those schools.

As a few of my coaches used to teach, take care of the fundamentals of playing the game and the score will take care of itself. They taught us to shoot at the rim, not at the scoreboard.

Of course, this requires that we be clear about what we mean when we say learning. That we have some coherent, community-wide understanding of what it is, how it happens, and how to measure and evaluate it. That our system is built on a solid foundation of developing and nourishing engaged and literate learners who can navigate their lives, and the world, in innovative and impactful ways. We must redefine “success” of our graduates. At every level, primary to middle, middle to secondary, secondary to post-secondary.

Successful innovation starts by identifying a problem to be solved. Raising test scores, increasing the number or percentage of graduates, meeting state mandates do not stimulate innovation. Providing more “technology” by itself will not solve a problem, only create more.

Schools are first and foremost about people. The only way I know to change an organization is by changing the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the people who make up the organization.

One of the lessons I learned from the Total Quality movement, back when that was the BIG THING, (which has now evolved in to Data Driven Decision Making, so I guess it had legs), is that you can change the people, or you need to change the people. In other words, change the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the people, or get different people.

As we look at what schools, and learning should be, let’s accept that we need new ways of thinking, new actions, new beliefs and attitudes, new ways of doing old things, and indeed, new things to do.

Let’s find and nurture the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. As Apple once taught us.

Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

There is no history lesson more crucial than this: Yesterday’s methods can only yield yesterday’s results.

That’s why we must focus on new growth and new opportunities. From the certainty of all that has been, we must launch into the not yet discovered, the not yet achieved, the not yet mastered.

What the future holds is a shining new destiny for those with the courage to embrace change, seize the opportunities of the here and now, and welcome the dawning of a new day.

During my tenure, I have been fortunate to work in a couple of forward-thinking, innovative districts and schools. I was able to meet, learn from, and work with other believers in our cause. I must thank Ian Jukes, Will Richardson, Guy Kawasaki, copywriters at an ad agency contracted by Apple when it was still a computer company, Willard Daggett, and the late John Taylor Gatto for inspiring me to do the right things instead of doing things right. Their thoughts and words have been influences in my career, and are embedded in this post.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference in this world, so we can do what other claim cannot be done.

And so it goes…


I am a career educator, currently in year 42 as this is written, who is not buying in to the COVID slide.

Our kids are only falling behind on a scale that adults are defining for them – a scale determined by these scores and achievement measures that were designed decades ago to sort kids by their potential future impacts on the economy.

Kids are falling behind only if we choose to measure them on scales that have been broken for decades, and we refuse to change them, even during a pandemic.

Dr. William Daggett, President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, states that the most rapidly improving schools ask themselves three important questions.

1. What do our students need to know to be successful in the world beyond school?

2. What must our students need to do to succeed in the world beyond school?

3. What must our students be like to succeed in the world beyond school? Not just after graduation, but tomorrow?

I have written several times that the first job title a graduate will have is “employee.” Employers continuously train employees in the technical skills needed to perform their tasks.

I believe we should focus more on the “soft skills,” or “work ethic traits” that employers tell us they look for in employees. The remote learning environment we are in is the ideal laboratory for us to make the transition from assessments of outcomes as measures of successful schools to assessments of process as measures of successful schools.

I am not saying that we ignore assessing for the right answers. I am saying that too many of the right answers can be found with a simple search, a smart speaker, or photo math. A conversation about authentic assessments, and relevance of lessons is for another time.

Can we effectively and objectively teach and assess the soft skills and work ethic traits? Yes! Been there, done that, have a t-shirt from a school which does it.

All of us share the common vision of creating lifelong learners, yet we feel trapped by high stakes assessments designed to measure short-term goals. I have found that by focusing our efforts on the soft skills required in the workplace, meeting our short-term goals took care of itself.

Our kids aren’t falling behind, they are adapting. They are learning new skills They are overcoming. They are surviving a pandemic that has shaken their world before they even understand it.

I will not try to talk I about the jobs our graduates will fill, many of them haven’t been created yet. So let’s concede that we don’t have a strong grasp of the technical skills needed to fill them. But I am fairly certain that assessments of skills that have not changed significantly during my tenure in the profession are probably not the best predictors of how well prepared our kids are to enter into the world of careers.

It isn’t about what is wrong with our schools this year, it’s about what has happened to them this year. We owe it to ourselves, and to our students, to spend more time shooting at the rim and less time shooting at the scoreboard.

A mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions. I am not worried about the COVID slide with our kids. I am worried that our schools will slide back to what they were in March, 2020. And we will have wasted this opportunity to transition ourselves to better meet the needs of our kids and our communities.

And so it goes…

A Useful Crisis

In his blog, Seth Godin defined a useful crisis as a chance to get a lot of us involved. He wrote that “the Cuban Missile Crisis was an actual crisis”, the world was quite close to annihilation. Since then, we “have invented and exploited crises on a regular basis, often at the expense of focusing our attention on the chronic conditions , which are the real challenges. We notice the amplified moments in a crisis but it is what happens, and what changes over the long haul that matters. (Emphasis mine) A useful crisis provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible before. The long haul, the challenge, is the persistent posture of creation and possibility.”

Many of us in the profession of education accept that we are involved in a Useful Crisis today. AS the eminent American philosopher, and Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Some of us have already begun to re-examine the Sacred Language of the Holy Strategic Plan from the perspective that we are being impacted by all 6 Forces described by Michael Porter and Andrew Groves. And it is way past time for us to question our business fundamentals, how we have always done things, in order to meet the changing expectations being placed on our graduates.

There is no “one size fits all” solution. The needs of individual schools vary greatly. Schools reflect the cultures, values, and circumstances of their communities. Solutions must honor and respect that.

But I will start with a common end in mind. The first job title assigned to most every graduate is “employee.” So why don’t we take a look at what skills “employers” are looking for in the post-pandemic workplace?

An article posted in “Fast Company” on 10/27/2020 shared that “the pandemic has created enormous changes in the workplace. Regardless of their jobs, employees need to adapt rapidly to massive changes, ranging from working remotely to changes in operation and fulfillment. But job skills were changing even before the pandemic.”

“Gartner data found that the number of skills required for a simple job was increasing by 10% a year. And one-third of the skills in an average 2017 job posting would not be relevant by 2021. Gartner also found that role-based skills planning wasn’t helping organizations develop the right employee skill sets. Grouping unrelated skills doesn’t build the skills that will create competitive advantage.” (Emphasis mine)

So what are the necessary skills for the future?

As organizations continue to operate in a pandemic and plan for the future, here are some of the essential skills employers will need, as identified by those who will someday hire our graduates. They will not be learned by osmosis, each of you can determine who well you are teaching them, and how successful you believe your graduates will be when they hit the job market.

  1. Self-direction: in the midst of so much change, employees are going to need to take ownership of their roles and be highly self-directed.
  2. Digital Capabilities: employees are not only going to need to be comfortable using digital technologies, ranging form collaboration software to videoconferencing, but they’re also going to need to accept its role in evaluating metrics. Analytics was the No. 1 digital investment for HR executives.
  3. Empathy: the ability to understand the challenges other employees and organizations are facing and help management is also a skill that employers seek and need.
  4. Communication Management: communication skills now need to extend across platforms. Employees have to know when to use which platform and how to use audio, video, and digital communication in ways that won’t create “Zoom fatigue” or lack of engagement.
  5. Adaptability: as many workplaces evolve to hybrid models or have other significant changes in how they operate, adaptability is an increasingly necessary skill.
  6. Motivational Skills: in addition to the intellectual ability to do the job, ability to adapt to change, and communication skills, motivation and persuasion also play a big role. Being able to self-motivate and inspire other to see your vision could be the catalyst to inertia in the face of uncertainty.

Bit of a challenge for some of us, I’m sure. But in one of the elite schools I worked in, we partnered with our business community and gained their support in implementing a Work Ethic curriculum. Every student, in every class, every day, received a score in each of the following traits:

  1. Attendance
  2. Character
  3. Teamwork
  4. Appearance
  5. Attitude
  6. Productivity
  7. Organization Skills
  8. Communication
  9. Cooperation
  10. Respect

The Work Ethic score appeared separately from the academic scores on both the report card and transcript. It was one of the keys to our success. A powerful message was sent to our kids each semester when potential employers explained it to our new students, and assured them that they cared more about the Work Ethic score than they did the class rank or GPA.

It can be done. But not if we continue to implement the text-teach-test model driven by compliance more than empowerment. In that model, it is easy to say that a student has learned something. But has it been something worth learning?

Many of us will utilize the opportunities of this Useful Crisis to transition into a model of teach-apply the learning. In an authentic assessment, in a manner relevant to the student. The primary purpose of school is to prepare students for a world we cannot imagine, so that when they are stuck with something they have never seen before, they can choose to think rather than just remember.

A foundation of this model is building teaching and assessment around what we call the 3 C’s: 1) Connected – the work is accessible on any device, not just the school issued device and Google classroom; 2) Collaborative – who will the student collaborate with doing the work that would not be possible in a traditional model; 3) Create – what product will the student create that would not be possible outside this model.

You can do this, many schools already are. They turned loose of the traditions of past practice and embraced new traditions. They understood that when the rate of change outside your organization is happening faster than the rate of change inside your organization, your organization is in trouble.

I sincerely hope that we will never return to what we were in March, 2020. We all have experienced many new things, different ways to teach, learn, and assess. As Oliver Wendel Holmes said, “A mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.” The same is true of organizations.

There is no history lesson more crucial than this, “Yesterday’s methods can only yield yesterday’s results.”

That’s why we need to exploit this Useful Crisis, to focus on new growth, new opportunities, whole new dimensions in quality, productivity, and the absolute satisfaction of our customers.

From the certainty of all that has been, we can launch into the not yet discovered, the not yet achieved, the not yet mastered.

What the future holds is a shiny new destiny for those with the courage to embrace change, to seize the opportunities of the here and now, and to welcome the dawning of a new day.

And so it goes…

One Word – Thrive

My One Word for this year is Thrive.

Most things that we thought we knew about schools, teaching, and learning, have changed. I, for one, hope we never return to what we were in March, 2020. It’s time for many of us to rethink the Holy Strategic Plan and start over from Square 1.

There is no history lesson more crucial that this: “Yesterday’s methods can only yield yesterday’s results.”

That’s why we must focus on new growth, new opportunities, whole new dimensions in quality, productivity, and the absolute satisfaction of our customers.

From the certainty of all that has been, we launch into the not yet discovered, the not yet achieved, the not yet mastered.

What the future holds is a shining new destiny for those with the courage to embrace change, to seize the opportunities of the here and now, and to welcome the dawning of a new day.

I will not just survive in this year, I will thrive.

And so it goes…