Sunday, November 23, 2014

Finishing second

I stood in the interview room. On my right, the coach spoke to a group of reporters. 

Directly in front of me stood a circle of fifteen girls. Each one a Novi High School student. Each one a member of the Novi High School volleyball team.

Now the team stood, arms encircled one another. Heartbroken. Tears filled their eyes. 

Just minutes before these Novi High School volleyball players had lost in the 5th and deciding set of the Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship game. Down two sets to none, these girls won two sets in a row to force the fifth and deciding set.

Just a night before the girls had found themselves in the same situation. Down two sets to none, they faced the task of winning three straight sets if they wanted to advance. Amazingly, thrillingly they did.

Then less than twenty-four hours later, they faced the same situation. And it appeared they might pull it off one more time.

But they didn't.

And now, in front of me, I saw a team smiling, crying, holding on to each other.

They were not champions. Instead they finished second.

The point of sports is to win. In our society finishing second is frowned upon. Champions are celebrated. Those that finish second are forgotten.

But I am here to suggest that the point of high school sports is about more than winning.

Every team wants to win. Every coach wants to win. The sacrifice, the sweat, the time is all given in an effort to win. 

Winning is the point.

But, in high school, I would submit that the point of athletics is winning plus . . .

Plus helping our students build character. 

Plus developing tenacity, grit, and perseverance.

Plus building an understanding in our students of how to depend on teammates and how to be a teammate.

Plus creating in our students deeply passionate connections with others.

Plus learning how to support others with your presence, with your voice, with your talent.

Plus learning what it takes to grow, improve, and develop talent.

These young ladies wanted to win. They did everything they could to finish as champions. 

But, my guess is, these young ladies will remember the lessons that they learned that go beyond winning.

Even though they finished second.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why high school students inspire me

On Thursday I walked into a Novi High School Biology classroom and watched as students and the teacher worked through a discussion about cell division. One of the students participating actively was a student I had seen the previous Tuesday evening working as part of her high school volleyball team as they won their match that sent them to the state semifinals.

I saw this student again last night as her team stormed back to win their state semifinal match. Today they play for the state championship.

High school students are amazing!

The boys cross country team at Novi High School was academic all-state with a combined team GPA of over 3.9.

On Thursday I walked into the TV production studio at Novi High School and watched as students directed, broadcast, and problem-solved their way through a live news broadcast. 

Just down the hall I had left a dance classroom where students practiced their  latest dance performance. Later that morning I saw one of the students who was in that dance class working her way through chemical notation in her chemistry class.

Upstairs students were working their way through primary source documents in AP US Hustory. 

Back down on the first floor I saw students putting together a lawnmower engine that they had recently taken apart. As I watched one of the students approached me and joked about how slick the roads were that morning. Smiling he wondered if we should close school.

High school students are so much more confident, skilled, and capable than I was in high school. 

We hear a lot about high school students - some not very complementary. I'm here to say that the high school students I see amaze me. 

I know high school students make some interesting and dubious choices at times. So do adults. 

What I see are wonderful students who need deeply committed adults in their lives to help them continue to become all they dream of becoming.

High school students - all students - truly are amazing!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What I learned from Bus #2

By 7:00 AM tomorrow I will have spent approximately 84 straight hours with 8th graders from Novi Middle School.

Right now it's about 10:00 PM on Saturday evening. A long bus ride is all that stands between us and the end of our Washington DC field trip.

We came to Washington DC, we toured Washington DC, and we have left Washington DC.

In the 84 hours that I will have spent with our 8th graders, I learned, or at least remembered, several things.

One, 8th grade boys touch anything and everything. Walls. Railings. Each other. 

Two, the wonders of history can make an impression on 8th grade students who are bombarded with technology and entertainment and Instagram and text messages and Twitter. It may take awhile but the power of Arlington National Cemetery or the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial or the Lincoln Memorial can make 8th grade students think about their place in the world.

Three, 8th graders will spend foolishly. Five dollars for a lollipop as big as your fist - seriously!

Four, the world is as difficult for 8th graders to figure out as it is for adults. 8th graders question why there are so many graves at Arlington, why the Declaration of Independence was so revolutionary, why a President could be shot in Ford's Theater. 

Five, 8th graders sometimes don't pay close attention. One young man, sitting in Ford's Theater, having just listened to the National Park Service Ranger talk about how Lincoln was shot in that very place, looked up at his chaperone and asked, "Wasn't Lincoln shot in a theater?"

Six, there are adults who care a great deal about children who are not their own. Approximately 30 Novi teachers, our Assistant Principal, our Novi school nurse, and the Novi Chief of Police voluntarily chose to ride a bus from Michigan to Washington DC and back, eat with, walk with, and share with a group of 8th grade students.


In the hope that these young men and women would learn about the American spirit so that they can be part of the American dream.

It was a noble and generous gesture. One for which I am deeply grateful.

My final lesson remembered - the seventh lesson - has been that giving of yourself to others is never easy and not always rewarded. But it is always worth it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

To the Parents of Bus #2

I sit in the middle of Bus #2. In the middle of your sons and daughters.

It is late.

Novi Middle School is on the way to Washington DC. Tonight we travel so that tomorrow we can tour the sights and see the historical documents of our country.

The school and the school district promote the trip as being educationally relevant. It is. Eighth grade studies US History. There is a lot of US History in Washington DC.

Eventually, your sons and daughters will study Civics and some will even take an Advanced Placement class in Government and Politics.

At some point one or two of our students, perhaps your son or daughter, will decide to run for political office. They may look back on this trip to Washington DC as an inspiration. They may remember the Lincoln Memorial or the Capital Building or the King Memorial as particularly meaningful.

But for tonight, education is not the primary focus.

I have sat for three hours listening to your sons and daughters laugh and giggle, talk and whisper. They have leaned over seats and across aisles. 

There are cell phones and iPads, tablets of all shapes and sizes. 

At one point there was a student with a book right in front of me. And he was reading it. Wonderful!

We just stopped on the Ohio Turnpike. You should be glad you were not at that turnpike stop. Everyone who stepped off the bus stepped back on. One hurdle cleared.

I am not with your children every day of the school year. Instead I am a visitor, a frequent guest to the classrooms, the hallways, the lunch room at Novi Middle School.

I see your sons and daughters in places and in ways that as parents you do not. I hear them chatter. I see them run when they should walk. I see them talk when they should be quiet. I see them lean in close to share secrets. I see them open lockers that at times are remarkably organized and at other times amazingly cluttered.

I also see them think deeply, struggle to solve problems, find joy in learning. 

Tonight I have seen them navigate the bus. It is a remarkably delicate dance.

Eighth grade is a year of transition. For you as parents. For your sons and daughters as children.

Your children are beginning to recognize that there there is a life beyond school. They are beginning to recognize their passions, wonder about life beyond your house, beyond Novi.

Tonight is emblematic of their life.

They are scared and excited and hopeful.

You are scared and excited and hopeful.

But for tonight they are kids on a bus. So rest easy parents of the students on bus #2 - your sons and daughters will soon be asleep. Perhaps.

And hopefully so will I.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Are "educational reformers" legitimate?

Think back to the best teacher that you ever had.

How many teachers did you think of? I immediately remembered six.

Miss Harriger - 2nd grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Hixenbaugh - 4th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mrs. Chapman - 5th grade Inez Elementary School - Albuquerque, New Mexico

(Evidently I had a really good experience at Inez Elementary School!)

Miss Getz - 9th grade Language Arts Monroe Junior High - Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miss Ely - 10th grade English Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico
Coach Braig - Latin I and II Sandia High School Albuquerque, New Mexico

Great teachers - everyone of them.

Why did I believe that they were so good?

They respected me. I had a voice. The valued my opinions and ideas. They gave me freedom. I knew what to expect day to day. They treated everyone in the class fairly. They made me work hard. They challenged me to become better.

I thought of those teachers as I read Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. In his chapter on the limits of power Gladwell talks about the principle of legitimacy.

It turns out, according to Gladwell, that leading and moving and motivating and encouraging and managing people turns on this principle of legitimacy.

Students view good teachers as legitimate. Students respect the teachers because we believe in them. As a result, we follow those teachers. We follow them to places that we never thought we could go. We become better than who we thought we were.

Students also are very sensitive to teachers who are not legitimate. These are the teachers who cannot relate to students, do not believe in students, have poor classroom management skills, do not challenge students, and who do not move students forward.

I can think of some of those teachers as well.

As I read Gladwell's chapter I also thought about the educational reform battles we are waging. Why are the battles so fierce?

It is possible that the battles are so fierce because those of us in education do not view the "reformers" as legitimate.

The "reformers" don't give educators a voice.

The "reformers" keep changing the rules.

The "reformers" treat groups differently.

The "reformers" are not actually in schools working with students every day.

The "reformers" talk about the changes that need to take place but they have never actually demonstrated that they have the ability to make these changes.

As a result, those of us in education don't believe the reformers.

Do schools need to improve? Absolutely.

But does that mean teachers are terrible, administrators are incompetent, and public schools are a failure? Of course not.

But the rhetoric of the "reformers" castigates educators. Instead of trying to listen to our voice or inviting us to participate in the dialogue, the reformers push us away.

They know best - that is the message they send.

As a result, those of us who work with students and parents every day, those of us who understand the variety of needs within the students who come to our schools every day, those of us who have committed our lives to being with and beside students, don't believe the reformers.

I am not suggesting that the reformers do not value students and that they do not genuinely want schools to improve.

But the reformers by pointing fingers and claiming to have the answers undermine their legitimacy and go against Gladwell's points on the limits of power.

As Gladwell states, "when people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Imposing my will

I began my teaching career as a 6th grade teacher in Hale Center, Texas. Go Owls!

During my first year of teaching I, at times, struggled.

I received plenty of advice. Some advice I sought. Some came to me unsolicited.

My principal suggested I needed to be tougher. More discipline. Don't let the little things slide. Stop misbehavior in its tracks.

Impose my will!

I tried that approach. It wasn't me.

What I discovered was another approach.

I made my class interesting. When I did interesting things that connected in a meaningful way to my students interests I had few, if any, discipline issues.

I thought of that as I read Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath: Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. In his chapter on the limits of power, Gladwell talks about a teacher named Stella. He suggests that the students in Stella's class misbehave because Stella does an "appalling job" of teaching the lesson.

Gladwell states that a natural response to disobedience in many situations is to crack down. Use your authority to make people do what you want them to do. But, Gladwell makes an interesting point: "Disobedience can also be a response to authority. If the teacher doesn't do her job properly, then the child will become disobedient."

As I read this chapter I was once again struck by the tremendous responsibility those of us in leadership have to do the right thing.

Gladwell says it best when he says: "When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters - first and foremost - how they behave."

I can get compliance as a leader.

What I want is commitment and passion.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes. Teachers lead. Parents lead. Friends lead. Colleagues lead. Creating a space that is productive depends not on power and the ability to impose your will. It depends instead on creating a space where people are engaged, invested, and committed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Threats - real, perceived, and created

Threats are all around us.

Some are real. Some are perceived. Some are created.

Take, for example, birds.

Birds face real threats. Cats, high tension wires, cars. Each of these threats kill lots of birds.

But the biggest threat to birds are buildings and windows. Out of every 10,000 bird deaths, buildings and windows are responsible for close to 6,000. (See chart below.)

Yet, wind turbines and windmills used to generate electrical power are often blamed for bird deaths. True wind turbines and windmills do kill birds. But the numbers are incredibly small when compared to the other threats that face birds.

What does this have to do with education?

Our students face many threats to learning.

Some of the threats are real. Poverty, lack of opportunity, safe learning environments. Each of these present real threats to students learning.

Yet, there are some who would have us believe that teachers are the greatest threat to student's learning.

It is just not true. Teachers, by and large, have a tremendously positive impact on students and their learning. Teachers help connect students in meaningful ways to their lessons. Teachers create enthusiasm for their subject. Teachers help students learn.

Are there teachers who pose a threat?

Yes. But the number of teachers who pose a threat is so very small. I understand that when teachers do pose a threat to learning - through indifference, through neglect, through incompetence - the outcomes can be devastating. I am not trying to minimize that negative impact.

But there are some in our society who seem to promote this idea that it is the teachers who pose the greatest threat to students. These people then work hard to create policies and pass laws that unnecessarily focus on changing teachers.

There are other threats to student learning that are so much more powerful and devastating than teacher indifference or incompetence.

Instead of creating a threat let's focus on the real threats to student learning - poverty, societal indifference to learning, learning environments that are not safe, and on and on - and work hard to eliminate those threats.

That will make a real difference in our students' lives!