Tuesday, July 3, 2018

We are in this together: It's not us vs. them

Easy answers are easy to find.

An opinion piece recently was posted on the CNN website. It heralded the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding union dues. I am not here to discuss the merits of that decision.

What I would like to discuss is what was written in the first paragraph of the editorial when it states that with this decision the US Supreme Court provided an opportunity to overcome "two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education in America: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers."

That's an easy answer. But, in my opinion, it's not true.

I am not here to defend teachers' unions. But suggesting that they are two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education is not right.

The author makes no mention of things like:

poverty, racial discrimination, depression among children and teens, parental involvement, second languages, community support, funding, preschool education, the availability of public libraries, hunger, the impact of social media, an over reliance on testing,

In my opinion these are bigger obstacles to transforming education.

The teachers I work with everyday in my school district search for ways to make a difference. This year a team of teachers at our high school teamed up to support students who struggled and over 80% of those students earned credit they would not have earned without that intervention, credit towards graduation. We have 2nd grade teachers who have started a garden club to help 2nd grade students learn a variety of valuable lessons - both inside and outside of the curriculum. We have teachers who pay for students' lunches. We have teachers who make sure that every student hears his or her name every single day.

The vast majority of these teachers are union members. Their union supports them. That is not to say that they do these things because they are union members but being a union member is important to them.

Unions have professionalized education. Better wages. Better working conditions. Protections for teachers from people like me - administrators who are sometimes arbitrary and capricious and expect outcomes that cannot be achieved without fundamental changes in society. Unions have helped to identify what works in classrooms and with students, have raised relevant questions about how what goes on outside of classroom and school affects what goes on inside the classroom and school, and have, overall, exerted a more positive than negative impact over the course of their long history. 

I agree that unions have at times strayed from a laser-like focus on the issues that are relevant to classrooms, teachers, and improving schools.

Perhaps the point being made in this opinion piece was that teachers should have a choice as to whether they should belong to the union. If so make that the headline.

Suggesting that educational reform has been stymied by unions is to ignore the fact that teachers and their union leadership have fought for our students and fought to improve our schools for many years in large and small ways.

Are they always right? No.

Do they make mistakes? Yes.

Can they do better? Absolutely.

But are they part of the answer to improving education in my state and my district? I believe that they have been in the past and can and will be in the future.

Do we need to improve education in the United States? Absolutely! But we will never get to that conversation if we continually make the conversation about other things.

When we demonize institutions and people, when we artificially create us vs. them relationships, when we say if we could just change this one thing and everything will be OK, we prevent real dialogue and collaboration on really important issues. I would hope that we could move past attacks that seek to divide us and find ways to work with each other so that our students will ultimately benefit.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Can breaking and filling hearts teach lessons?

A lot can happen in two years.

Two years ago as I left Stoney Creek High School, our Novi High School girls' soccer team was heartbroken. Defeated in a shootout in the state soccer semifinals. 

Two weeks ago as I left Williamston High School our Novi High School girls' soccer team was joyful. Victorious in a 1-0 Division One championship game! 
This picture shows the joy and heartbreak. One team celebrates a championship. One team suffers in defeat.

From time to time we debate the value of high school sports. Clearly at times there is an over-emphasis on winning. There are many examples of the adults who are in charge of high school athletics acting irresponsibly. There clearly is an actual financial cost to high school athletics.

But I believe in high school athletics. I've seen teams lose and I've seen teams win. But the value is not in the outcome. The value is in the process.

High school athletics teaches lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom. In the afterglow of the championship or in the crushing sadness of defeat the lessons may not be readily apparent. But both teams will at some point begin to recognize that success is difficult to achieve and not guaranteed.

This game came at the end of a long season for both teams. Each team had worked hard to get to this point. They had suffered through bad-weather games, difficult-field-condition games, very-good-opponent games. Through it all they had managed to find ways to win. And now they would play for a championship.

One team won. One team lost.

But valuable lessons were learned. Lessons about effort, commitment, teamwork, collaboration, sacrifice, and hard work are worth learning. These often are lessons that are not learned from a book. These are lessons that are learned from living life.

And often the lessons are learned in ways that can break or fill a heart.

Not every student participates in high school athletics. Participation in our high school marching band or in our robotics team or our quiz bowl team or our DECA and HOSA student organizations also help teach these lessons. Novi, like school districts all over Michigan and all over the United States, invest in comprehensive school athletic and extra-curricular programs because the investment helps our students learn important lessons.

Lessons that at times can break or fill a heart.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

What do I see today?

As I drove down the road, the sun set before my eyes. It was glorious. I had to take a picture.
Realizing this was a pretty silly thing to do while I was driving, I stopped along the side of the road to take another picture. And watch.
No other car stopped. Traffic continued to fly by. Nobody it seemed was noticing - but me.

Every day incredible, wonderful, beautiful things go on all around me.

How often do I fail to see?

How often do I instead focus on those things that are not so incredible, not so wonderful, not so beautiful? How often do I not see the things that will bring me joy?

An age is called dark not because the world stops producing beauty. An age is called dark because people fail to see.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Why teachers are willing to look foolish

Here he was . . .
A grown man.

Inside a bubble.

Knocked flat by an 8th grader during a spirited game of Bubble Ball Soccer.

Legs splayed, students cheering.

Not everyone is meant to be a teacher. And this is one of the reasons why.

When you are a teacher you are willing to become vulnerable, exposed.

When you are a teacher it is you and twenty-two or twenty-seven or thirty-three students. Every minute. Every hour. Every day. For hours a day those faces look to you for guidance, for direction, for a way forward.

The faces of those students will let you know when you are awful at your job. Depending on their age they may even tell you when you are awful.

Vulnerable. Exposed.

But they will also erupt in joy, a smile spread across their face, a sparkle in their eye when the struggle pays off, when understanding comes, when their vision becomes reality.

To be a teacher means that you are willing to admit when you don't know an answer, to talk about how you struggle to find just the right word to finish your essay, how you get scared when you try to learn something new.

When you are a teacher you are willing to express your enthusiasm for history or solving complex problems or visiting museums. When you are a teacher you talk passionately about why you learn, how you learn, your longing to learn.

And at times your students will not understand. But, in time, you hope they will. 

Vulnerable. Exposed.

And you are willing to get into a bubble and play soccer knowing that you will look foolish because you understand that vulnerability breaks down barriers, open doors, cements relationships that can, at some point, lead to learning. And for that you are willing to be  . . .

Vulnerable. Exposed.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Tools to talk to kids about tragedy

The school tragedy in Florida makes most of my week’s activities seem trivial. I know what I do and what I talk about will be important, but it pales when considering the events in Florida.

Today, I want to be in my school district, walking the halls, reassuring teachers, saying hello to students, calming parents.

Doing that would calm me.

But more must be done. Our students need us - the adults - to help them process the news. However, we - the adults - have a hard time processing tragedies like this as well.

Here are two resources that might help.

We need to do more. Pass legislation. Reform existing laws. Support mental health initiatives. But those actions can wait for another day.

Today and tomorrow, and in the days to come, let’s make sure we can help our children talk about and reflect upon another day of terrible news. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

When the kids are swearing at me

"You should be mad," they said to me.

"I would never let kids talk to me like that," they said.

"These kids should be punished. They were very disrespectful," they said.

What did I do that made all of these kids mad?

I didn't call a snow day.

When we were in school most of us loved snow days. The unexpected day off. The sweet bliss of ignoring homework, staying up late, sleeping in. The interruption of the routine.

As the Superintendent the actual snow day is fun. Getting to the snow day - not so much.

I happen to believe that school matters. I know that learning can take place anywhere and that learning certainly is not confined to the hours of the school day.

But school potentially provides an enriching environment. Students lives are enriched when they feel safe, when they have positive peer interactions, when they have some structure and discipline to their day, when they experience new things, when they are challenged to think in ways that they have not thought before.

Being in school provides those experiences.

More importantly, students lives are enriched when they have positive interactions with adults who are not their parents. Students lives are enriched when school teachers and administrators and counselors and secretaries know students' names, ask about their lives, push, mentor, guide, and support them.

Those things happen in schools every single day.

So not being in school is a big thing to me.

But on occasion, it is not safe to be in school. A power outage, a water main break - there are a host of things that can make school not a safe place.

In Michigan, during the winter, snow is the thing. Getting to school. Getting home from school. Making sure teachers and students can arrive on time and safely is of utmost importance.

This year, on Super Bowl Sunday, it started to snow. But it was during the day. Our maintenance crew was on it, getting the plows out early. Our city sent their plows out. And, in the end, we received only about 4 - 5 inches of snow. The vast majority of it before night fell.

I was confident that we could have school.

But some schools were not so confident. They had buses that traveled over dirt roads, their city services may not have been as good, and so on. And those schools closed.

And the students in my district were mad. They took personal offense that I did not close our schools. I was not alone. Other schools around us were open. But that did not matter. Our schools were open and they wanted them closed.

And some of them took to Twitter and other social media outlets and let me have it.

Most of it was good fun.

And I enjoy the banter with the students. I joke with them. They joke with me. They create memes of me. I laugh. They laugh.

But some of it crossed the line. It became personal. Inappropriate and vulgar language was used. Attempts were made to embarrass or humiliate me.

People actually felt sorry for me.

What's the appropriate reaction to mean-spiritedness like that? I believe it becomes a teachable moment.

We live in a world where there are many examples of people yelling and cursing to make their point. My students see adults every day calling other adults names, trying their best to humiliate, embarrass, or belittle. It appears that there is an intoxicating allure to making one's self feel powerful by swearing at or embarrassing another person.

Schools can help. Schools can model for our students how to poke fun in a positive way. Schools can help students reflect on appropriate ways to express frustration or anger or disappointment.  Schools can be places where kids and adults figure out together the power of social media to influence another person.

And that is what has happened in the schools in my district. Teachers have used this as a teachable moment. Teachers have had conversations with their students about how messages are sent and how messages are received. This event has opened doors and allowed meaningful dialogue about social media to take place.

And today a major storm is predicted - for tomorrow.

What will I do? And what messages will I receive?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Compassion - By action not by proxy

Each year our Novi Middle School students take a trip to Washington DC. As part of that experience we visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Our students, familiar with Dr. King because of his legacy and his service to our country, have, like most of us, read or at least listened to his great “I Have a Dream” speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. On our visit to Washington DC our students visit the Lincoln Memorial and stand in the exact spot where Martin Luther King Junior stood as he looked out on hundreds of thousands of people and uttered those famous lines “I have a dream!” Those words mobilized a generation and today still capture our hopes and our dreams and our best intentions.

But the true genius of Martin Luther King Junior was not the speeches he gave in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
The true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was not his association with presidents and leaders throughout the world.
No the true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was his ability to live the words that he so eloquently spoke. When he spoke of making a difference, he lived a life that made a difference. He was able to put into action the words that he spoke about our hopes and dreams.
The true genius of Martin Luther King Jr. was that he not only was able to talk about the importance of supporting one another he was able to live a life that showed he really did care about other people.
Emblematic of this commitment was Dr. King’s last recorded speech. It was given on April 3, 1968, in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a speech given to support the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King would be shot and killed.
Think about that for a moment.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last recorded speech was given in a church in Memphis, Tennessee to support . . . garbage men.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Nobel Peace Prize awardee in 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – public speaker whose I Have a Dream speech attracted over 250,000 people to Washington DC in April 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – honored by presidents and politicians.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the power and the social cachet to do and be almost anything. Yet on April 3, 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee, to speak to and support . . . those who picked up other people’s garbage.
Why would he do that?
A clue is contained in the speech that he gave that evening.
In this speech Dr. King talks about the tendency of people – people like you and me – to engage in “compassion by proxy.”
The tendency of people to talk about the importance of helping other people, the tendency of people to recognize the need other people have, the tendency of people to understand intellectually that there is a problem, the tendency of people to actually see a problem but to not get involved.
Compassion by proxy is the belief that we are compassionate if we recognize and talk about the problem.
Dr. King emphatically and strongly stated that if we believe that we can be compassionate by proxy we are wrong.
Dr. King was clear. Compassion requires investment.
Compassion requires getting out of our office, out of our homes, out of our cars, and into the lives of those we seek to help.
We cannot be truly compassionate if we refuse to visit, help, work with, stand next to, sit with, eat with, talk to, walk with, and be with those who need our help.
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because we too believe in what he stood for. We believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., words that call us forward to support and help other people.
But we would miss the true intent and the true power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if we do not recognize that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls us to get involved, to act, to actually do something for others. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be glad that we honor him but more importantly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be happier if we actually do the work of being compassionate.
Let each of us commit to action that will make a difference for our community.
Let each of us identify specific things that we can do to support the cause of justice.
Let each of us find ways to help everyone in our community find their voice.
Let each of us not be satisfied with compassion by proxy.
Let each of us become people of action, those that will and do make a difference for others in our community.