The Culture of They

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The word “they” is a  pronoun used to describe a group of people, or a person of unspecified gender.  Lately, the word has been used to categorize people into opposing ideological groups .  This term, and accompanying mindset, seems to be on the rise.  A quick glance at social media or any daily newspaper will confirm this trend.    

Whether personal or professional, there is a danger in categorizing people into opposing groups referred to only in the third person.  They fails to recognize and respect individuals.  My travels and experiences have taught me that people are incredibly complex.  They have unique identities shaped by their life experiences.  Holistically, people tend to dwell on areas in which they differ, and rarely focus on what they have in common.  We are all more complex than the simple labels we use to identify political ideology, race, religion, sexual orientation, or favorite team.  I don’t believe we have to lower our personal standards or compromise our own beliefs to coexist with others who hold differing opinions.  We just have to respect those who disagree with us.  We need to listen and seek to understand opposing viewpoints if we wish to be treated with similar respect.  

They also encourages “group think”.  Groupthink is a well documented phenomenon in which a group of people make decisions without dissenting viewpoints.  A culture of they insulates people to believe their viewpoint is right and vilifies the beliefs of others.  Poor and divisive decision making is often the result of groupthink.  

It’s not easy to have your beliefs challenged and it’s uncomfortable to deal with conflict.  However, we shouldn’t fear these experiences.  We should view them as opportunities to share our personal convictions with others, and offer them the same opportunity. 

Joie de vivre in a New Year

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Fifteen years ago I was a first year high school social studies teacher.  My first assignment was at a small, rural school where I was essentially the history department.  Most of my first year is a blur; hazy recollections of early mornings and late nights.  There were long stretches of road interrupted only by sips of coffee and the familiar noise of a staticky radio and squeaky shocks.  I taught six different classes my first year and one of these courses was entitled Missouri History.  Course materials were less than robust and teaching the course was a challenge.   One weekend while preparing lesson plans I reviewed information related to French culture in Missouri.  It was at this time I discovered the french term Joie de vivre.  The literal translation is the joy of life.  I found this term to be interesting, mainly because it was lacking in my own life.  I was stressed and overwhelmed by the challenges and trials of being a first-year teacher.  Instead of taking time to celebrate success, I seemed to have a singular focus on failure.   

Fifteen years later I find myself in need of a similar reminder- to embrace the joy of life.  We all have important jobs and responsibilities to fulfill, and because we care about those who depend on us it can be stressful.   There are daily challenges, and if we aren’t careful this is where we direct our full attention.  Even worse, we will spend time worrying about dilemmas that don’t exist but fear might happen.  

During winter break I had time to read at leisure.  A common thread through each book was overcoming fear.  The book Chop Wood Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf discussed how the development of a positive mindset could offset the fear of failure.  There are many great takeaways in this book, but two stood out for me.  They are (a) to live present, and (b) surrender the outcome.  The idea of living present is relatively straightforward.  How many great moments in our lives are missed while worrying about the future?  You can’t change the future through worry alone, so why waste time obsessing over problems that have yet to materialize?  The second key principle is related to this concept.  We have to surrender the outcome of events in our lives and trust in our preparation and training.  Too often we obsess over the outcomes of meetings or new initiatives.   If we have prepared accordingly and done everything we can to be successful then that in itself is enough.  No amount of additional worry and anguish will improve the outcome.  

I believe we fear failure because we don’t view it in the proper context.  The idea of “failing forward” has become popular in recent years.  It basically states that it’s acceptable to fail, you just need to learn from your mistakes.  Overcoming and understanding adversity was a key theme in the book Saint John Paul the Great:  His Five Loves by Jason Avent.  Pope John Paul II overcame adversity his entire life, including the loss of his mother when he was 8, the loss of his older brother in his teens and the death of his father while living in Nazi-occupied Poland.  Cardinal Andrej Desku put the Pope’s suffering into context stating, “Everything the Holy Father endured in his life, prepared him for what he had to be.  Just as an arrow is readied for the shot from the bow, God prepares the proper people, He prepares his arrows”.  The next time you stumble or experience failure, think of it as preparation for greater opportunities in the future (It’s doubtful you will become Pope, but some lessons are universal).  

The ability to embrace Joie de vivre amidst the daily grind is a skill I hope master in 2017.  With this in mind, I picked up a copy of Stephen Covey’s The Leader in Me and read several chapters.  Covey quotes Daniel Pink who describes the necessary attributes for success in today’s world.  Pink states,  “The people who are truly thriving in today’s reality are those who are also good listeners and team builders.  They are able to “understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others.”  Perhaps this is simply an evolution of Joie de vivre; helping others find joy in life as well.  I hope to embrace joy in 2017, and I hope you do too.  

The Gift of Time

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Daily life is filled with routine.  There are those who enjoy their daily rituals while others grow weary of them; nearly all agree they are necessary.  We need them to ensure lunches are packed,  clothes are washed, dishes are done and trash is taken to the curb. During the holiday season demands are amplified.  Finding the perfect gift for everyone on our list can be a challenge.   In our haste, we often overlook the most obvious and meaningful present we can offer.  The gift of time.  

Last week I had a chance to volunteer for a local charity.  I met people from all walks of life.  It provided an opportunity to catch up with old friends, colleagues, and former students.  I also made new acquaintances as friendly strangers stopped to make donations.   During my three hour shift two gentlemen stopped to make a donation and talked to me at length.  This made me uncomfortable until I realized why they were talking to me.  They were lonely.  The first gentleman told me he would be alone this Christmas as he had the previous two.  He had tears in his eyes.  I asked him what happened three years ago and he said, “ I can’t talk about it.”  When his ride appeared, I shook his hand and let him know I would be thinking about him.  I met the second stranger a short time later.  I thanked him for his donation and he thanked me for my time.  He told me “my mom taught me to give at Christmas time and it always stuck with me.” It was obvious he had lived a hard life and a lifetime of bad decisions reflected in his eyes.  You could also tell Christmas reminded him it wasn’t too late to make better decisions.  

I didn’t do anything special last week.  There are many people who volunteer more often than I do, but it was a powerful reminder that the greatest gift you can offer is your time.   We all have relatives and friends we haven’t seen in months, if not longer.  This Christmas bypass the ugly sweater and the multi-purpose golf tool.  Instead, hit pause on those daily routines long enough to visit Uncle Bill or volunteer to help someone in need.  It’s a good reminder that life is about people, not the stuff we buy for people.  

Aerosmith & Technology Implementation

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The other day I embarked on a trip to the local grocery store and took a detour down memory lane.  I was cranking Sirius XM’s 90’s on 9 when I heard Amazing by Aerosmith.  It was a quick reprieve from middle age as I relived the early 90’s, adolescence and the sage wisdom of Steven Tyler as he sang “life’s a journey not a destination”.  It is a simple yet profound statement.  Life is not the pursuit of a singular accomplishment or achievement.  It is about building relationships and sharing experiences with others.  Ideally, you learn from these experiences and strive to be a better person, sibling, parent, and spouse.  We also reflect on our experiences to become better professionals, and as educators there are many lessons to learn.  

Our school district  recently made the decision to adopt a 1:1 technology initiative.  An obvious goal of 1:1 is to bolster technology access by providing a device for each student   Our decision to embrace 1:1 sparked discussion concerning the impact of technology in the classroom.  As odd as it might sound, we don’t want the device to be the focus; we want to harness the device to bolster student centered and innovative instruction.  George Couros states in The Innovator’s Mindset, “learning is the driver; technology is the accelerator.”  We can’t adopt technology initiatives without first identifying what learning should look like in the classroom.   With this vision we can  best utilize technology to enhance learning and create new experiences for our students.   A good visualization of this process can be found in Dr. Ruben Puentendura’s SAMR  model .  

The SAMR model is an acronym that stands for (a) substitution; (b) augmentation; (c) modification and (d) redefinition.  

  • Substitution:  We substitute technology for tasks that could be accomplished with paper and pencil.  Ex.  You type a paper in lieu of writing with paper and pencil.  
  • Augmentation:  Technology provides a functional improvement, but the task is relatively the same without technology.  Ex.  Administering an online test.  
  • Modification:  Technology allows for task redesign.  Ex.  Students work on a group project using Google Applications for Education.  Collaboration can continue for students outside of the classroom.  
  • Redefinition:  Technology allows for activities that were not possible using traditional teaching practices.  Ex.  Students create blogs that essentially serve as online portfolios

Puentendura describes this process as a ladder to climb.  Steven Tyler would describe this process as a journey.  Educators adopting technology begin by substituting technology for traditional teaching practices and progress to redefinition.  The journey to redefinition is exciting because it allows students to analyze, evaluate, and create by applying and demonstrating what they have learned in the classroom.  Our technology journey will not be easy or mistake free, but it will be a great learning opportunity for us as professionals, and ultimately for our students.  

Loving Leadership and Hating Christian Laettner

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I developed a dislike for all things Duke Basketball in the spring of 1992.  I sat in stunned silence as Christian Laettner stomped around the basketball court (and Kentucky players) after he drained a near miraculous shot to stun the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament.  Three years later I was taking an unhealthy amount of delight in Duke’s fall from the upper echelon of college basketball.  Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) took a leave of absence to recover from back surgery.  Duke languished under the direction of assistant coach Pete Gaudet who went 4-15 as the interim coach.  However, rumors of Duke’s demise were greatly exaggerated.  Since Coach K’s return, Duke has experienced unprecedented success returning to five Final Fours and winning three national championships.  They are a model of sustained excellence in the basketball world, and it is a credit to Krzyzewski’s leadership.  

Quality leadership is critical to the success of any organization.  Duke is a prime example as the ‘94-’95 team was 9-3 with Coach K, and 4-15 without him.  Today, businesses and organizations pay Krzyzewski tens of thousands of dollars to speak to their employees and inspire similar success.  We have all observed and experienced great leadership, but why is it so tough to replicate?  What universal qualities do transformational leaders possess?  

They are Unique

To quote William Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”  You can hire a number of talented leaders to speak to your organization, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee success.  I do not believe you can take guiding principles and philosophies of others and adopt them as your own.  Philosophies, beliefs, and leadership practices have to be developed by personal conviction, failure, experience, research, and reflection.  You have to utilize your unique personality and talents to become a transformational leader.   It is impossible to recognize and harness the unique talents of those you lead if you fail to do the same on a personal level.  

They Build Capacity

Great leaders do not see themselves as the all knowing fount of knowledge.  They are confident in their abilities and not threatened to bolster leadership within their organization.  They build relationships with those they work with and help them utilize their strengths and talents.  Unfortunately, we have all experienced leaders who seek to promote themselves by limiting others.   A transformational leader isn’t someone who gives orders, they empower those they work with by cultivating and sharing leadership opportunities.  

They Understand You Can’t Please Everyone

Leaders who strive for continual improvement understand it is impossible to please everyone.  Dynamic leaders establish priorities aligned with the mission and vision of their organization.   In a school setting the mission is to best serve students, parents, and the community.  They also are careful to avoid marginalizing their staff to accomplish their mission.  While it is impossible to please everyone, it is not impossible to communicate that everyone within an organization is valued and has a voice.  Effective leaders value feedback and listen to concerns.  I have found that when people are upset they typically do not have accurate information.  Leaders who empower others through shared decision making often make sound decisions for the right reasons.  They also make themselves available to genuinely listen to concerns and communicate with their staff.  However, they stand by decisions that are best for their organization, even if it upsets a few individuals.  

They Understand the Job is Important BUT Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously.  

Those in leadership positions have to take their job seriously while avoiding taking themselves too seriously.  A leader must understand that many people in an organization are depending on them, but not dwell on it.  An uptight leader can create an unnecessary divide between themselves and their staff.  Leaders should be confident, organized, and reliable.  They should also be approachable and convey that they enjoy their job.  A leader who enjoys what they do bolsters morale and allows others within the organization to enjoy their work.  It’s hard to relate to someone who seems overstressed, uptight, and unavailable.  I also believe effective leaders make time for themselves.  They exercise, eat a healthy diet, and take time to recharge their batteries through rest and relaxation.  Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint.  People who fail to take care of themselves are at risk of experiencing burnout.  It’s hard for others in an organization to enjoy their job when their leader is unhappy.  

They Balance Leadership and Management

Effective leaders prioritize people over managerial tasks, but they make sure the mundane is completed efficiently.  This is a tough tightrope to walk, but great leaders prioritize and structure their day to ensure attention is given to critical activities.  In an educational setting these include conducting walkthroughs, spending time with students, planning professional development, and monitoring curriculum and instruction.  They understand that emptying the mailbox, returning phone calls, and checking email must be completed, they just ensure these tasks aren’t given priority throughout the day.  

Just as I have forgiven Christian Laettner, I have also learned to forgive myself when I fail to live up to these standards.  I don’t believe leadership is a mystery, but it is difficult.  It requires patience, compassion, skill, and persistence.  There are many days I fall short, but I try to be the best version of myself each day.  I also believe it is important to help others be their best as well. 

Is Technology Implementation a Trick or a Treat?  

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Halloween was on a Monday this year, which added stress to an already hectic morning.  In addition to packing lunches and checking backpacks, we were also hot gluing costumes and packing treat bags.  However, this chaotic storm of Pop Tarts, chocolate milk, and Lunchables was interrupted by a nice family moment.  My wife’s Timehop featured a parade of Halloween memories. There was the Wizard of Oz costume (custom made by my mother-in-law) and a picture of my youngest dressed as Buzz Lightyear.  This made us laugh because she thought she would be able to fly in her costume.  She spent a significant part of the evening sulking because she was a mere mortal, panhandling candy on foot.  Our Timehop morning moment was a reminder that technology can be a blessing.  

Technology can also produce challenges, and lately, I’ve had several conversations about the challenges associated with implementing technology in the educational setting.  These challenges include costs, infrastructure, and providing adequate professional development.  While the challenges are real and need to be addressed, there are many benefits that make technology implementation worthwhile.  

Equity

This month’s Educational Leadership is devoted to disrupting inequity and contains insightful statistics about public school students and poverty.  Currently, “more than half of K-12 students in the United States now come from low-income households” (Suitts, 2016).  This is concerning given the negative relationship between socioeconomic status and student achievement.  Low-income students not exposed to technology in our classrooms face additional challenges to academic success.  Students living in poverty are less likely to have devices or internet access in the home setting and are at-risk of being ill-prepared for life after high school.   

Value Added Learning Opportunities

Ubiquitous technological access is advantageous for students and teachers.  Technology can provide real-time feedback through formative assessment and increase student engagement.  Technology can also bolster differentiated instruction by harnessing “apps” and programs that individualize instruction to student needs.  Creativity and collaboration are also promoted in a technological setting allowing students to demonstrate and apply knowledge through performance tasks and authentic assessment activities.  

21st Century Skills

Let’s face it, whether or not we  are comfortable with technology, our graduates will be immersed in a technology-centered world.  We should prepare our students with the necessary skills to flourish in a digital environment.  These skills include navigating a course management system, being familiar with Google applications, using e-mail, collaborating online to complete a group project, and conducting research to determine the validity and credibility of sources.   

Conclusion

Just like a scary clown costume, technology implementation can produce anxiety.  However, it can also produce unique and rewarding learning opportunities that are tough to replicate without technology.  While there will be challenges along the way, they won’t be as significant as the challenges faced by our students living in poverty.  Infusing technology into our classrooms will provide enriched learning opportunities and equitable access for all students.

Student Engagement and Blue Jeans

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I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I still get birthday money from my Mom.  Even more embarrassing, my Mom still calls me “tiger” as she hands me my annual gift.  What do I do with my birthday loot?  I  buy a pair of expensive jeans …guilt free.  I would never buy such a lavish gift with my own money, but my Mom always says, “Spend it on something you want, not something you need…Tiger.”  When I went shopping this year, I decided to buy a different style of jeans as I recently noticed my current style was no longer in vogue.   At some point over the last 12 months, the demographics of those wearing skinny jeans shifted from flat bill wearing skateboarders to the mainstream.  Armed with my birthday money and advice from the really ultra-hip sales associate, I was able to make the necessary wardrobe adjustments.

Fashion is fickle and can change overnight.  School trends are no different.  This is my 15th year in education and I’ve experienced a complete cycle of education trends and pedagogy.  In college ,we learned about interdisciplinary units and drafting engaging and creative lesson plans. I entered the profession at the inception of No Child Left Behind, and creativity took a back seat to accountability scores.   Priority standards, pacing charts and item analysis reports took precedence over creativity and engagement.  I would like to state clearly that I do not think a well-articulated curriculum impairs a quality education.  It is essential key concepts are taught and assessed with fidelity.  However, it seems as if innovation, fun, and creativity were deemed as mutually exclusive from strong academic performance.  It’s refreshing to see the pendulum swing the other direction.  Twitter is full of innovative strategies and ideas such as Breakout Edu, Stem, Genius Hour, and coding.  Contemporary educational dialogue is heavily centered on student engagement.  Presenters such as Dave Burgess and John Antonetti preach the gospel of student engagement to audiences hungry to receive the message.  No educator wants to attend dull, stagnant, and lecture laden professional development.  Students are no different and deserve dynamic and engaging learning experiences.  Unlike blue jeans, creativity and engagement should never go out of style.