Talking About Tragedy

-by Jack M. Jose

Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.

Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.

Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.
Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.

What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.

What do you know?

With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.

The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot.  It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.

What do you fear?

This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.

The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.

Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.

The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear

I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight.  “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.

Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.

What do you hope?

Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.

One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.

Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it.  A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring

This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.

17k53yHow can you act?

Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.

What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?

When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”

Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.

With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.

In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.

No Failure of Nerve

-by Jack M. Jose

Often we have used this blog to talk about our strengths – strategies we have used at Gamble Montessori that have resulted in a greater sense of student belonging, or increased learning. In this post, however, we examine a philosophy that seems at odds with our character as a student-centered Montessori blog. The book at the heart of this post, A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, challenged me like few other books have. I struggled with it, I denied its value, I argued its premise, while feeling a strong undertow of truth. In fact, even though it prompted strong and decisive action on my part, it may have been only in this week that I have come to fully understand its underlying message, and how it fully fits with what we do here.

This week (June 14, 2016), I had the pleasure of listening to and talking with Dr. Steve Perry. We had invited him to the Cincinnati Public Schools’ principal retreat for a shot of adrenaline and encouragement at the end of the year. We already knew his commitment to children. Dr. Perry received the honor of being featured in CNN’s Black in America series because of his success in his Hartford, Connecticut magnet school, Capital Prep. One measure of his success is that 100% of his predominantly minority and impoverished students have gone on to 4-year colleges, every year since 2006. He is a dynamic and engaging speaker, and an advocate for the potential of every child.

Jack with Dr. Steve Perry
Jack with Dr. Steve Perry at the 2016 Cincinnati Public Schools Principal Academy

During his presentation, he talked about times when he had to draw tough lines which could not be crossed by parents or teachers. I found myself drawn to him because he seemed to have great comfort and facility, and to even revel in drawing these hard lines. Lines that many of us are not comfortable drawing. Conversations few of us seek out. I suspect that I may be even less willing to draw these lines than the typical principal.

He seemed to particularly relish taking a righteous stand in consistent defense of the dress code. He exuberantly recounted exerting his authority against the wills of those teachers who wanted to wear jeans to school, “Are you kidding me?” he asked us facetiously, drawing laughter from the crowd of principals and assistant principals. Likewise, to the parent who suggested a special day when students, perhaps as a fundraiser, could come to school without their uniforms, “Are you nuts?” Laughter again, spurred on by his deadpan delivery. Perhaps we were all drawing the mental picture of having the occasion to ask those words of a parent – I am sure we each had a particular parent in mind – and then actually delivering them to her face. I laughed nervously, wondering why he would take a stand so strong the dress code, on a matter seemingly so trivial.

He admitted to finally relenting and explaining his seriousness to the parent. The dress code was so stringently enforced because he knew that some of his poorest students’ best clothes were their school uniform clothes. What message did he send if, in the interest of raising funds for whatever deserving cause, the rules designed to create a greater sense of dignity and equality for students could be discarded. “So her kid could wear her new jeans to school?” He paused for effect. “No.” And to the teachers, to whom he offered no explanation, the implication was that they should clearly know better than to send a message to children that teachers were granted privileges not given to the students, and were thus in some way above them. Or to suggest that less was asked of teachers in the classroom than was asked of the students. It is clear that this should not happen in a school where everyone is a learner.

I admit it was thrilling, inspiring even, to hear a principal speak so brashly. So forcefully. When the time is right, I hope I can muster the needed moxie. I wonder, what are the issues that are this serious? As the phrase goes, on what hills are we willing to die? Dress code, promotion, good instruction, respect, homework, safety?

I invite you to join me as I ask myself that question. On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Perry is famous and influential and controversial not just because he takes these stands, but because he has created successful schools in multiple places. He has done it his way, with confidence, and bravado. He has stepped on some toes along the way, and has been willing to offend those who he felt provided obstacles to his goals for the school. I do not seek to emulate him in this, or recommend that others do. I suspect even he doesn’t act that way all the time, as he also expressed a sincere personal commitment to learning from everyone he encounters. But there is evidence that it is important to take strong, non-negotiable stands on some things. Without clear boundaries, the student and the classroom and the school are left confused, their possibilities unfulfilled.

In sociologist Edwin H. Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve_, published posthumously, the author worked to summarize the findings of a life spent examining leadership.

Failure of Nerve

Three years ago I was asked to read this book as a vestry member – an elected leader in my church – by our newly hired Dean, Gail Greenwell. She meant it as a challenge to us, I believe, to be willing to do unpopular things in order to do what is right for the organization. Given that the nature of the advice in the book is that there are appropriate times to exclude people from your community, I eventually came to find irony in its selection as a book for a church that prides itself on inclusion. I read it, cover to cover, with notes and underlines and dog-ears up to the last page before the epilogue. It was a tough slog, being as it was stitched together by his editor and family members after his death (this is not necessarily a book recommendation!) and, just between us, I think I was the only person on the vestry to get through the whole thing. I suddenly find myself wondering which vestry members might actually read my blog. I guess I will find out Sunday!

In short, Friedman argues the need for boundaries, and lays the responsibility of the health of the organization squarely on the shoulders of the leader. First, though, he argues that the leader must embody the change. “If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them,” (page ix) and later, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.” (page 17)

Physician, heal thyself!

This is his challenging call to the leader: you only must transform yourself. This is far harder for a leader who prides himself on being inclusive and supportive, and who perseveres in the belief that each of us is capable of success.

In discussing a community as an organism, he suggests that a focus on empathy rather than responsibility can allow a “virus” to survive, and eventually consume the organism. He argues that the “virus” is the individual who has no ability to self-regulate, who is “by nature all take and no give.” While he gave the example of attempts to work out a “mutual accommodation” of Hitler prior to the onset of World War II, where various efforts were made to appease Hitler. One of these was the Munich pact, which handed a key portion of Czechoslovakia over to the dictator. A year later, the country did not exist, and the Germans invaded Poland. From Friedman’s book, a less dramatic example persists in my recollection, nearly four years after my first reading.

On what hills are YOU willing to die? What issues are worth taking a non-negotiable stand? How do you decide?

Dr. Friedman was a panelist at a convention, and the time came to take questions from the audience. His comments had elicited some strong feelings, and one woman crowded her way through the line, commandeered a microphone, and demanded to be heard. The decision fell to an organizer of the event, and he allowed the woman to speak. This was a failure of leadership, or a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, to allow her to speak simply because she was so passionate. She was permitted to impose herself on the entire organization, the entire convention. Not surprisingly, her comments did not bring up a new perspective, instead becoming a jeremiad against Mr. Friedman and other panelists. The whole process disrespected those who lined up according to the instructions, it insulted the panelists, it offered nothing new to the conversations and was instead a plea for the individuals to abandon their years of research and deeply held beliefs in order to accommodate her feelings.

There are parallels to this behavior in the classroom, PTO meeting, or the school office. We have seen the student or the parent who has decided that their immediate needs and strong feelings should take precedence over the schedule and the rules.

When should you take a stand? Certainly for matters of safety. For instance, a child who crosses a street out of the crosswalk deserves a strong response and quick correction. That behavior is not acceptable because it is not safe. This is not controversial.

However, what about the dress code? What about promotion and retention? What about crowding in line? What about civil discourse?

Each year, one or more parents schedule a meeting with me in the early summer to make the argument that their child should be promoted to the next grade, regardless of their academic achievement and effort. In almost all of these meetings, there are real – and sometimes heartbreaking – explanations of why that child did not complete the work at home and did not achieve promotion. We provide countless supports in the classroom. Students have differentiated work, reduced homework loads, support from the teacher and intervention specialist, after-school support, and on some teams “amnesty days” where old work can be turned in. Parents have unprecedented access to their child’s grades through an online gradebook system, we send home paper report cards 8 times a year, we have student-led conferences at least twice a year, the second time focused on students who are not thriving academically, along with open houses and multiple modes for parents to reach teachers.

I ask my teachers to do everything they can to assist students. We are all accountable for learning and promotion. However, at some point the student owns the responsibility for doing the work. If I were to yield in this conversation, it would disrespect their work and the work of other students, some of whom encountered their own personal heartbreaks and struggles during the year. Standards mean something.

To the parent of the child who makes a compelling and emotional appeal about the effect of non-promotion on their child: I understand. What you are saying is true. It is also true that the standards mean something. Effort means something. No child who works hard and makes progress will fail. Failure, however, to meet a given standard, is not the end of the story. It is a moment. We love the child the most when we say “you have not reached this high standard … yet. But you will.”

The disrespect of promoting a child who fell short of the standard because of a passionate plea of a loving parent would be one of the symptoms of the “virus”, and the effect on the system would be immediate and apparent. A student who sees someone trying less but still getting promoted, may seek an easier way out next year, and might feel that their hard work is not valued. They might resent the inconsistency and lose trust in the system. And the child herself would know that she had been given, not a gift, but a pass. This child would get the implicit message from her teachers, “we didn’t think you could do it.” Allowing this to happen would demonstrate a failure of nerve, according to Friedman, a failure of leadership.

In this regard, though, we understand that teachers are not students. Their stakes are higher. A failure by a teacher to meet the needs of a child, by being disrespectful to a student, by not challenging students fully, by physically invading their space or by failing to call them by their given names, is a different infraction. This must be met strenuously, and can’t so easily be forgiven. A teacher should never be the virus.

Not every line we draw at school is non-negotiable. Not every infraction requires the hardline response. At Gamble, promotion is one of those non-negotiables- there are clear expectations and you must meet them. For Dr. Perry in Hartford, the dress code was one (of many).

What are your non-negotiables? Comment with a time you made a hard stand on an issue.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

-by Jack M. Jose

Years ago, after the last day of school, I was rushing to clean up my room and finishing items on my check-out sheet. I was trying diligently to accomplish the work that stood between me and my hard-earned summer. I was hot and tired, it felt like I had been battling my students for the last two weeks of school. I was ready to be finished.

Jerry walked into the room with a friend of his I had seen a couple of times. Jerry and I had battled all year. He seemed impervious to encouragement, scolding, poor grades, phone calls home, conferences, and other tactics I could manage in the early stages of my teaching career. He insisted on not doing much work outside of the classroom, and seemed satisfied with the mix of Ds and Fs on his report card.

“I’m out, Mr. Jose. I’m gone and you ain’t gonna see me again, I’m done with this place.” He waived a withdrawal paper in my direction. “Bye.”

In my frustration, and exhaustion, I dismissed him. “Well, go on then. What’s the difference, you weren’t doing much work anyway.”

His entire disposition changed, and his next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.” He gestured to his friend who followed him into the emptying hallways and out the front door of the building.

Now, this was not exactly a difficult conversation, in the sense of a conversation where an important message had to be delivered and understood. This was a simple, short impromptu exchange between a teacher and a student. The way that I screwed the conversation up is apparent in the re-telling, but very human in the moment. Here is what I missed, upon reflection: a student who I had struggled with all year, in whom I had invested hours of calls, meetings, papers getting corrected, and conversations at his desk and in the hallway, was looking forward to leaving the school where he struggled. Before he left, however, he stopped in to see me. I believed at first that he had shown up to tell me off, and so I sort of beat him to the punch. My response to him was, essentially, “Good riddance.” Only after time could I see that he was probably more eager to leave the school and be done than I was, and yet he went out of his way, up to my second floor classroom, to visit me. I see now that there is another, better interpretation of his visit. This young man, who struggled with school, and who had finished his last day and was in fact leaving the school for good, stuck around at the end of the day to come see me and to tell me he was leaving. It is apparent to me that quite possibly he appreciated my effort, and felt that we had forged a connection. I was worth sticking around for, on the last day of school.

Periodically, it becomes clear that a particular topic for the blog, or a particular skill or habit we practice at Gamble Montessori, was derived almost entirely from one particular book, (Or, as in the post “Giving an A”, one particular chapter of a book.) This post is similar. However, instead of being a memory of a book that helped in the past, this book arises both because it made an impact AND because it still has some wisdom to impart. That book is Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Stone, Douglas; Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila, 1999.)

One of my cousins confessed to me that he really didn’t ever enjoy coming to church, so he only came a couple times a year. We had just attended a holiday ceremony with our extended family and were walking out of the nave. He marveled aloud at how each time “the sermon seems to be talking to me, about me.” He stopped the act of loosening his tie and made eye contact with me. “It’s spooky. If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something to this church thing.”

That is how I feel about Difficult Conversations. It is downright discouraging to note that almost every word in the introduction about the need for this book – especially the unwillingness of people to have the hard conversations necessary to sustain their most vital relationships – seems to fit my ongoing situation, and me personally. It’s spooky.

DaringGreatly-EngagedFeedback-8x10
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability – revealing your mistakes or flaws to make it okay for other people to show theirs. Vulnerability, paired with contribution, can be a pathway to powerful and life-altering conversations.

The work of teachers and administrators is fraught with difficult conversations, especially this time of the year. The student whose 4th quarter push fell short, the parent frustrated with a disciplinary action taken late in the year, questions about the evaluation of adults in the building, from paraprofessionals to the principal, all bring challenges to the professional’s judgment and integrity.

One reassurance I take from this book is the authors’ constant reminder that avoiding hard conversations is a common human coping strategy. Our jobs are hard, life is complicated, and things will eventually sort themselves out. So we all avoid.

Of course, I can’t detail most of the hard conversations I have, or the ones I haven’t had. Their intensity and their private nature is what makes them so hard to have, and makes them unfit for sharing here.

In outline, Difficult Conversations examines the ways that each hard discussion is like the others. While acknowledging that there are many different kinds of important hard conversations, each of those conversations have three definable conversations happening within them.

The “What Happened?” Conversation – this occurs when something important goes wrong, due to miscommunication or other factors, and the participants cannot discuss the issues below the surface that created the conflict. Some teachers’ relationships are so strained from past experiences that when they need to work together to accomplish a goal, they struggle to address each other. Even when something insignificant happens, they fail to communicate effectively, and cannot address the issue, instead retreating into blame, which solves nothing.

The Feelings Conversation – in conflict, especially in the professional world, we attempt to eliminate feelings to stay focused on “business.” However, these conversations are hard because they deal primarily with feelings, and failing to acknowledge and address them keeps the conflict alive even if the current issue seems resolved. Krista reminds me of this all the time. Often this is inseparable from the “What Happened” conversation, except that when the feelings, especially of disrespect, go unaddressed, the “What Happened” conversation can never get fully resolved.

The Identity Conversation – in every exchange, each individual is conscious of what their stance and the outcome reveal about them, the speaker. These conversations are often a challenge not because of their importance to the company or the relationship, but because they force us to confront and perhaps question a deeply held belief about ourselves. For instance, a teacher might not want to speak with me about their interaction with a student that led to a conflict with the student. A teacher who sees herself as a loving advocate for students might not want to face the suggestion that she mishandled the interaction with a student, or to learn that there is something to do to repair the relationship.

In these conversations, we consistently take a limited amount of knowledge, that portion derived from our own perspective and experience, and we draw all of our conclusions from that incomplete starting point. We also make judgments about the other person based on our past experience with them.

Our human tendency to misunderstand another’s actions, what is described in the book as the “first mistake” in judging others’ intentions, caused me to horribly bungle the interaction with Jerry on the last day of school. I believed I knew his intentions, and responded to that belief, rather than to his words. In doing so, I made a mistake that I can never repair. Fortunately, I can learn from my experiences, and not repeat the mistake. Well, not that PARTICULAR mistake!

His next words were spoken with an edge of hurt and anger. “Alright, well I see how it is. Fine then.” He started for the door, but turned around to deliver the final words, “And fuck you.”

Instead of having the “what happened” conversation at all, we both acted on emotions. I was reacting to my personal frustration and tiredness without regard to Jerry’s situation at all. Instead of addressing feelings, we left them below the surface of our words, sharp rocks just under the waters offshore. What if I had expressed just my feelings, “Jerry, I need to say that this news is so frustrating for me. I feel like I worked really hard with you this year, and that you are sort of throwing that away.” How differently would that exchange have gone? Finally, there is the identity conversation. I put Jerry in a place where he needed to show his friend he controlled the situation and that he did not need school. I put him there because in that moment, my view of myself as an effective teacher had been severely damaged.

Instead, I attacked. Stone, Patton, and Heen effectively address the common conversational misstep that always feels like an attack: the tendency to assign blame, typically to someone other than ourselves. This is not a type of conversation, it is a tendency to pre-litigate the situation in our heads, then have the whole conversation as if trying to prove that it was someone’s fault, rather than to determine the best way forward. As a teacher, it is a simple habit to assign blame to the student; as an administrator, to the teacher or student. This is a common cause of conflict between people in working relationships, especially between teachers and students. Perhaps you have seen a version of this conversation play out in your classroom: “You didn’t do the work correctly/completely.” “Well, you didn’t explain the assignment very clearly.” This creates conflict from the outset of the conversation, and is often resolved by the teacher “pulling rank,” and the unintended consequence is the student feeling like he is no longer in a cooperative environment, and is instead fighting against the assignment and the teacher.

Many of us chose teaching or education-related fields because we want to help others. I suspect this is why I commonly find others – and myself – making a special version of the blame mistake: blaming themselves. This can often lead to avoidance, meaning important conversations don’t happen at all.

Here is how that happens. A teacher fails to turn in an assignment, such as a printout of their grade distribution, at the end of the quarter. Instinctively, I think “that teacher usually does a really good job at handing things in on time, I must not have communicated very clearly.” Then I make a note for how to nudge them, perhaps by adding a friendly reminder in the bulletin, or mentioning it in the blog, hoping, perhaps in futility, that they will read it and amend their ways. I feel good because I gently reminded them, indirectly without blame or confrontation. Meanwhile, the teacher might remain blissfully unaware; either they have forgotten about the assignment, or they are too busy to complete it at this time (and probably too busy to closely review the bulletin or read the blog), or they thought they turned it in. In short, they are not benefiting from the lack of a conversation, and the work is not getting done.

That is the heart of these difficult conversations. In all of the places where the gears of the school are grinding instead of smoothly meshing, there is a challenging conversation to be had. In each, all three conversations – what happened, feelings, and identity – need to be acknowledged. The inclination to blame should be repressed.

Instead of blame, one should focus the conversation on “contribution” instead. Perhaps all of the aspects mentioned above are contributing factors – perhaps notification could have been clearer or more pervasive, and perhaps the teacher was very busy and deprioritized the important work of examining their quarterly grades. Focusing on contribution allows for the reality that inactions or mistakes often have multiple causes. Reality is messy. However, the work still needs to get done. In this case the hard conversation needs to be initiated by the person who recognizes the problem, and needs to be had promptly, preferably with neutral language. For instance, rather than addressing my concern passively through the bulletin, I might approach the teacher and say, “Good morning, my records indicate that you did not turn in your grade distribution at the end of this quarter.” This wording feels very different from “why didn’t you turn in …” which clearly (and perhaps inaccurately) assigns blame to the teacher. In this case, the teacher could identify the problem, and provide information. “That’s odd, I thought I sent it to you already. Did you see the email I sent entitled ‘Pesky B’s’? It seems like every class had a large percentage of B’s, which struck me as odd.”

Here is what I did:

  • I named the situation (you did not turn in your grade distribution)
  • I identified how it came to my attention (my records indicate)
  • I stripped blame from the statement while still naming the concern
  • I allowed for any possibility in the answer – seeking contribution, and allowing for the possibility that my records were flawed

Focusing on contribution allows me to have the conversation with the teacher without blaming, and without violating my “identity conversation” with myself – that I see myself as a fair and supportive teacher-leader, rather than a demanding principal. And in this case, the teacher was able to address the issue without blame, and point out that the work had been submitted in a format I was not expecting. Accountability was maintained, my opinion of the teacher was confirmed, and I did nothing to discount their professionalism.

Even as I recount successes and failures, it is clear that this book’s most powerful use is as a reference kept within arm’s length of your workstation, to be consulted whenever a hard conversation presents itself. If you are human, like me, this will often come in handy.

 

 

 

“CUES Cast” Center for Urban Educational Studies

The Hamilton County Center for Urban Educational Studies explores best practices for teachers working in urban environments, especially in the greater Cincinnati / Hamilton County area.  Their mission is to provide support and resources to teachers searching to improve outcomes for their students.

Krista and I were honored to be interviewed for the UrbanESC podcast this April, where we had a chance to talk about the great work being done at Gamble Montessori every day, and to advocate for socio-emotional learning for all students as a way to equip them with the tools necessary to exhibit grit while also demonstrating grace and courtesy.

We are thankful to Paul Smith and Jason Haap for inviting us on their program, and asking thoughtful questions about the work we – and so many others – find profoundly fulfilling. We encourage you to follow this link to the podcast, then respond here: react, comment, question – we would love to hear from you.

What important questions did not get asked? What details did we leave out?

Here is the direct address of the podcast:  http://www.urbanesc.org/2016/04/04/angels-and-superheroes/

 

Lead by Helping Others Lead

-by Jack M. Jose

Getting suggestions has never been a problem for a school administrator. When I transitioned from being a teacher to being a principal, I noticed a significant change in how people started sentences when they spoke to me. Instead of offering me congratulations or encouragement, parents and friends were offering me … advice. Suddenly “You should …” became a common conversational opening. When I was a teacher I did not field many suggestions about what to do in my classroom. But now that I had completed 15 years of teaching, and my second post-Bachelor’s degree, and had been selected by a group of teachers, community members, and others to lead a school, I was clearly always in need of one more unsolicited idea. Principals, apparently, exude the impression that they are grasping for suggestions, and need input on every step, from the most mundane idea to ideas that would completely transform the nature of the school. Among suggestions I received: “You should paint that curb yellow,” “You should secretly rank your students and report that to colleges,” “You should do away with the bell schedule,” and “You should require everyone to get two credits of home economics.” Often suggestions are helpfully couched with evidence of dubious merit, usually stated “Like they did in my high school.”

Lead by Helping Others Lead

Of course, I am exaggerating the nature of the suggestions and (somewhat less so) their frequency. In fact, deftly handling suggestions is an important part of the work of any leader. The best leaders involve a wide array of individuals in the act of molding all aspects of the school, and find ways to let others lead.

More than a decade ago, prior to moving to Gamble, I was involved in discussions surrounding the reorganization of a public school in Cincinnati with an eye toward creating a teacher-led school. The goal was to create a system whereby teachers would collectively make the key decisions about the school – program structure, schedule, disciplinary decisions – and the administrator would serve largely to assist in making those decisions happen using his (my newly-acquired) administrative status. (Only now does it occur to me to have been something of a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, perhaps I was seen to be collaborative; on the other hand, perhaps I was perceived as potentially a weak administrator. I choose to go with the first understanding.) I know that when I was a teacher working daily with other trusted, hard-working teachers, constantly acting with the best interests of the students in mind, this seemed a logical conclusion in the evolution of schools. Who better to make the decisions than those of us closest to the “front lines”?

Well, the pie-in-the-sky hope did not come to fruition. And since then, time and again, the structure in CPS schools – and almost everywhere else – has remained largely static and hierarchical. There is a principal, one individual making the final call on the entire range of decisions; size and budget permitting, there may be one or more assistant principals; finally, there are teacher leaders, both in name and stipend, and in energy and spirit.

Though that particular effort to create a teacher-led school was unsuccessful, the concept itself is not misguided or even ill-fated. In fact, any school can be a teacher-led school, provided the administrator is willing to let it happen. Below are suggestions for a controlled, thoughtful way that an administrator can share authority with teachers. These are all strategies that have been applied regularly, albeit imperfectly, at Gamble Montessori. The first hurdle in utilizing these suggestions is having an administrator who wishes to involve teachers directly in the process of decision-making and responsibility-taking.

Sharing responsibility and decision-making with teachers, parents, and students is not a novel concept in education. Nor is it a new thought in any business model to involve front-line employees in making the most important decisions. Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People discusses this sharing of the work and decision-making as the difference between mere management and true leadership. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, in The Art of Possibility, call it “Leading from any Chair,” and describe this as the most important aspect of leadership. In the end, it creates not just a better product, but a shared sense of accomplishment and ownership.

Listening to suggestions:

First, a leader must find an intentional way to elicit input from others involved in the task. Listening to suggestions is best exemplified by Zander’s own example, wherein he encourages the musicians in his orchestra to provide suggestions on how the music should be played. Those who are closest to the situation are in the best position to understand the problems and the changes that need to be made to affect the best outcome.

This does not mean taking every suggestion and implementing it, or even promising to implement it. It does mean that you have to develop facility for handling suggestions in a way that ensures they get fair treatment. Sometimes this means allowing a teacher to take leadership on an initiative that they have championed, and sometimes this means referring the idea to a relevant committee that is in position to make the suggested change.

Sharing responsibility:

To be most effective, a manager must not only listen to suggestions, but must create structures to implement important ideas and changes in a regular manner. At Gamble Montessori, there are few aspects of the structure and daily running of the school that have happened without the tacit approval, and sometimes the explicit approval, of a majority of the staff. This can be accomplished anywhere with a couple simple steps.

First, create committees to achieve certain goals or accomplish work that needs to be done during the school year. Though not an exhaustive list, three examples of this at Gamble, and at many schools, are:

  • Graduation committee, created to plan and implement the annual commencement ceremony;
  • Positive school culture committee, responsible for overseeing instruction around fair implementation of the school’s rules and policies for students, and the effectiveness of a particular approach;
  • Communications committee, responsible for maintaining the school’s website and social media presence.

Second, create a governing structure where the principal is a critical component, but not the only one. An example of this is an instructional leadership team (ILT). In Cincinnati Public Schools an ILT has a defined composition and roles that require a certain percentage of teachers, parent membership, and the presence of the principal to create a quorum. Such a structure similar to an ILT at any school could be used to make a wide variety of decisions. The wider the changes they are empowered to make within boundaries, the better. These should not be minor decisions; this committee is not best used to decide when the school play should happen (that is a job for a sub-committee). The ILT should be used to make substantial decisions such as setting the focus of annual improvement efforts, and monitoring the success of teams and individuals in achieving the goals that were decided upon.

However, the simple creation of a governing structure is not the goal. A leader must commit to giving those structures the space they need to do their work effectively. That means allowing the committee to structure the work that comes out of it – including the Principal’s work. I occasionally lament that our ILT exists to create my to-do list, but it is an empty complaint. I understand that to lead by example, I have to be willing to allow the decisions of the group to become my work. I must also enforce decisions when they become the work of the group.

Establishing priorities:

One replicable way that we have become transparently teacher-led is in collectively establishing priorities for key decisions. There are many “hidden decisions” that get made in the daily process of running a school, or any business. Every phone call handled by a secretary or returned by a teacher helps set a tone for the school (ask Zappos or Wondermade Marshmallows about the importance of good customer service.) Grading decisions made daily by individual teachers have large impacts on student success and outward signs of student success like grade point averages, which in turn affect college acceptances. Even though these decisions are powerful for individuals and their sense of connection to the school, they are made away from the public eye, in the privacy of our classrooms or dining rooms. These are the kinds of actions for which there must be a framework that establishes priorities. Not everything on a teacher’s to-do list can be the most important thing.

Another example of hidden decision-making comes when we schedule students. With only 7 classes in a school day, over two semesters, a course choice in high school has ripple effects for everything that happens afterward. I became aware of this early on, when the school was small enough that I did the scheduling by hand each July. Where a class fell in the school day impacted the ability of the student to take (or not take) other elective classes, or determined whether a team could have common planning time during the day. Several years ago I listed the factors that drove course selection and decision-making during scheduling, and I challenged our ILT to prioritize these factors. Earlier this year we revisited the process.

We used our leadership structure to involve everyone in determining our scheduling priorities by defining key terms, and taking an initial list back to our constituencies. We came back together with questions and suggestions for all of the scheduling factors. An example of the items that might run up against each other during scheduling, are “expanded elective choices,” “reduce class sizes,” and “access to remediation.” We then decided on a voting structure, created ballots, and voted as a staff, creating a final prioritized list. This list will guide those of us who schedule students as we make decisions, allowing us to do it independently and in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the school.

This process is time-consuming. It took us a couple of weeks. However, the result is well worth it. Ultimately everyone got to weigh in on our school’s scheduling priorities, and collectively we made a decision that will guide many behind-the-scenes decisions made by administrative staff while scheduling individual students and classes.

When you become a leader, you are going to get suggestions. Creating a shared responsibility system for handling suggestions is going to help everyone feel empowered and supported in making everyday decisions, and it will determine whether you are successful.

The Long Game

-by Jack M. Jose

It was the end of the second Monday in March, the time of year when we are all so focused on spring break and just getting through, that we forget about the “long game” of creating confident, competent students. The Teacher:Teacher mentoring meeting had just begun. The plan is for veteran teachers to light the way with enthusiasm and optimism so new teachers feel supported. Today I looked around the table and I felt sympathy for George Washington examining his troops at Valley Forge. My teachers – ESPECIALLY the veterans – looked defeated and lost.

I made a critical error. I asked, “How’s it going?”

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It was early March. March presents several consecutive 5-day weeks of warmer weather, with the prospect of spring break looming, making teaching all but impossible. In short, the less we ask “How’s it going?” the better we all get along. You’re much better off greeting someone by saying, “It’s nearly Friday!” or “Only 48 days left!” Like Washington’s soldiers, my teachers needed sleep, food, and possibly even a warm blanket.

I should have known better than to ask, really. Recent comprehensive studies show that new teacher attrition is an alarming 17% after 5 years[1].  We know that involving new teachers in communication and decision-making is empowering, and helps to keep teachers in the profession[2]. Support is why we created a mentoring program. The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

A veteran teacher, Julia Bauer*, spoke up. She quietly offered a litany of woe and exhaustion: restless students, insufficient time for curriculum, field experiences, state testing and more, the details of which echo in all teachers’ experiences. Raised eyebrows and meaningful eye contact around the now-silent table spoke clearly: they all felt the same way.

It is times like these that we have to intentionally work to focus on the “long game.” This term, often applied to politics, applies to any endeavor when a larger goal can only be accomplished after a series of strategic maneuvers and even tactical losses. Education is the ultimate long game. We meet students as children, in mind and body, and, 6 years later, send them into the world as adults. In between, there is a lot of important work to be done. It is hard work, and it can be messy.

I was upset that a mentor was the one to express this note of doom; I should have been thankful. She was articulating what the younger teachers were thinking, and allowing us to feel this way out loud and together. The teaching career is a hard one. Teaching is much like parenting, and March is much like a week of lost nights’ sleep with a colicky infant. One could easily look at March and decide it is not all worth it, because, honestly, if it was March all year long, it might be unbearable.

We are playing the long game. Each discipline conference and corrected assignment is a step toward Commencement. Now we meet parents to discuss grades, and later we will embrace them and talk about college choices. There are disagreements and setbacks, but there will be celebration. It was always going to be hard work; we knew that from the beginning. And it is always going to be worth it in the end.

The mentors probably knew better than to ask “How’s it going?” in March, a question designed to make young teachers pine for a job waiting tables at Denny’s.

I possess an old invitation to an event I missed. Leslee McElrath, a student of mine a decade earlier, was receiving her doctorate in medicine. I was shocked by the invitation to the ceremony, and the reminder about the “long game”. One year I pushed her to write her portfolio, and explicate Shakespeare. Later I checked up on her to verify that she was meeting her potential. When her college was inundated by Hurricane Katrina, other teachers and I sent her a replacement computer. Somewhere in there, by pushing her academically, and supporting her personally, and doing what I considered my job, I left an indelible impression. And she repaid the favor with a simple invitation that profoundly reminded me all the effort was worthwhile.

It’s messy. There will be bad days, sometimes in bunches, for teachers and for students. Perseverance, cooperation, and working together to support each other will guarantee that we will be okay. We are playing a long game.

[1] Gray, Lucinda, and Soheyla Taie. “Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study.” Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study (n.d.): n. pag. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

[2] Teacher Retention: Why do Beginning Teachers Remain in the Profession?; Inman, Duane; Marlow, Leslie. Education124.4 (Summer 2004): 605-614.

*All names used with permission.

Make the Most of Spring Break

-by Jack M. Jose

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Spring break is right around the corner, and parents are looking to find the balance between structuring every moment, and losing the entire week to sleeping in and video games. Because it is just a week, there is no worry about losing skills like with “summer slide”, so spring break should be a time for extra rest, reading for pleasure, and practicing skills. Here is a guide to a great week.

If your children are going to be home alone for much of the week, help them set up a schedule for each day, with check boxes for each item (here’s a Google search to useful article and checklists.) Be sure to leave them instructions for calling for help if something goes wrong, and when they should or should not call you at work. Each day should contain one or more of the following:

  • chores that can be accomplished independently, like those described here, with lists by age;
  • instructions for a meal to be prepared independently, based on the skills and responsibility of your child;
  • scheduled “screen” time – video game / t.v. / Youtube, etc. – with a time limit;
  • reading time – with a Saturday trip to the library in preparation*;
  • time to practice a hobby – writing, playing an instrument, knitting/sewing, drawing. These should be done with a plan to accomplish a larger work over the course of the week, like writing a short story, learning a new song, perfecting a certain shot or working on a particular throw.

If you are fortunate enough to be home with your family during the week, and/or can spend time together on the weekends, here is a plan of attack for a successful spring break.

Thursday night: plan your week.

  • Look at the weather forecast and pick at least one “indoor” day and one “outdoor” day
  • Ask your child/children what they would like to do and find a place for it in the schedule

Friday night: welcome to Spring Break! Plan a family / family + friends night to kick off spring break in style.

Indoor days: Here are some great ways to spend time together on a day when the weather is uncooperative.

  • Art museum, (In Cincinnati we are blessed with great affordable arts. The Cincinnati Art Museum has free admission every day, and $4 parking, or take the Metro, route #1);
  • History museum, (The Natural History Museum, Cincinnati History Museum and Children’s Museum are under the same roof);
  • Local Water Works often offer free tours and fascinating exposure to how we provide clean drinking water to a community;
  • Volunteer for a local charity, preparing meals, serving food, sorting clothing and more;
  • Factory tours;
  • Aquarium (discount tickets to the Newport Aquarium can be purchased at Kroger stores.)

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Outdoor days:

  • Unscheduled outdoor play in the yard, (this can be penciled in your calendar almost daily, but should not be the sole plan for spring break week);
  • Outdoor play at a neighborhood park or sports field further from home with supervision as appropriate;
  • Visit a seasonal fruit farm, and pick ingredients for a cooking project, (better for locales further south than Cincinnati);
  • Hike a local trail, or walk between a couple of local historical sites, (find lists at CincinnatiUSA.com or a local tourism board);
  • Visit a local college to introduce the idea of going to college and forming preferences. This can be incorporated into family travel plans as well.
  • Zoo, (Cincinnati Zoo discounted tickets can be purchased at Kroger stores).

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And at night:

  • Game nights are always a hit at my household. We can play a game for four, or invite family members or other friends for a great group experience. Choose your family favorites, or try one of ours:
  • Movie night is a great way to relax after a long day of activity. MovieMom can help pick developmentally appropriate movies while providing thought-provoking discussion questions.

A good mix of structured and unstructured time helps everyone feel rested and fulfilled over spring break. No promises about whether your child will be ready to return to school!

*while these examples are specific to Cincinnati, most towns and cities have similar offerings.

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Real-World Experiences: Solving Problems

-by Jack M. Jose

As the high school English teacher my first year at Gamble Montessori, I was able to put together a memorable and educational field experience

Recording in the "GarageBand" studio - a computer lab.
Recording in the “GarageBand” studio – a computer lab.

with the help of my co-teacher, Tracy Glick. This happened through perseverance and planning, and high student tolerance of changes as we adapted to obstacles.

This was a real-life experience in which students used the recording program GarageBand to create a song that met certain technical qualifications: it had to be 3 to 5 minutes in length, it had to use at least one original sound captured with a microphone, one sound played on an instrument, and one edited loop (pre-recorded sound available in GarageBand.) While some of the students were excited to record a song, several students admitted they joined my intersession because it was the only one they could afford.

How was this a “real life” experience? First, students worked directly with the tools that recording artists use on the computer and at the studio, and used the language of professionals. Second, except for some requirements to explore the functions in GarageBand, I outlined few restrictions on their final product; the final songs were as varied as the individual students. Third, they problem-solved with each other, co-creating, sharing music, teaching each other how to layer and clip sounds, edit and create loops, and more. “Real life” is just that – organic learning and sharing in an environment built to foster a specific activity, often resulting in a larger final product. Each student received a copy of a CD with all of the completed songs, and a cover collage of the artwork they produced to accompany their song.

Ten full days, fifteen students and four locations presented the typical obstacles that arise in planning any experience. Ultimately, we are only limited by our imagination, planning, and effort to make the best possible field experience for students. Well, and the obstacles, of course, some of which are legitimately insurmountable. In that case, we are only limited by our capacity to respond to the situation with optimism, and our willingness to realize that the old plan was a bad idea anyway, and our new idea is much better. Put simply: move on and accept it.

We encountered many obstacles that were particular to our songwriting intersession. Carey’s song disappeared from his computer, despite the automatic backup feature. He had to start over (luckily it was early in the intersession!) One song developed a randomly occurring static sound that Le’a and I were unable to eliminate (we decided it fit the theme of her song: you have to cherish each moment because unexpected events happen.)

Jynn, blessed with a beautiful voice, found herself overcome with nerves and unable to sing in front of her peers (so we arranged for her to record vocals in a separate room, and she recorded a song I still sometimes pull out to hear again.)

One day we were entirely on each others’ nerves and we took a break at a park. An “inside” joke that developed there emerged in one of our “skits” – short unscripted moments at the studio that we included in the album.

In the computer lab, students created their own songs. At the studio, they attended to the serious business of experimenting with the instruments, and interacting with each through the headphones. From the chaos and inexperience, students, only one of whom walked in with any recording experience, created an album of original songs and skits that exceeded the expectations. They were recording artists!

After I had copied the CDs, I gave them to my intersession students as they entered my class. Delron did a double take when I handed him the album. “Wait, I did this? This is me?”

That is the moment we are seeking – genuine pride in a new accomplishment.

Teachers at Gamble Montessori and elsewhere have found many ways to solve the problems that are part and parcel with creating a valuable experience. This attachment lists common obstacles and proposed solutions: Problem-Solving Field Experiences

We know this is not an exhaustive list of problems or suggestions, and we encourage you to list a problem and/or solution not listed above!

Giving An A

-by Jack M. Jose

Teaching is science and art. Educators must seek wisdom and growth everywhere. I have attended development for business managers, curriculum managers, teachers, data specialists and more, and I am constantly reading business best-sellers and teaching blogs. I cannot anticipate where the next good idea will be discovered.

imgresAt separate trainings in 2010, including the Cincinnati Public Schools ASCEND Institute, I  encountered Rosamund and Benjamin Zander’s provocative book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. In it, renowned conductor and teacher Ben Zanders relates advice on getting the best performance from the musicians in his care on stage and in his classroom.

One chapter transformed evaluation at Gamble for two years: Giving an A. (Check out the “Giving an A” TED talk.) The philosophy jibes with our core belief that all children want to learn. All of us want to be successful at our work and be our best selves. However, obstacles prevent us from reaching our full potential. So to undermine the voices that tell us to be just enough to get by, I followed the Zanders’ advice. I eliminated part of the evaluation.

At that time, the CPS evaluation had two parts: one was based a school-selected goal, such as addressing a specific state report card goal; the other part was based on achieving a self-selected goal. It was for this second goal that I told my staff I was giving them an “A”. In my letter to them, I explained:

So, to take away evaluation anxiety as an impediment to teacher development and calculated risk-taking for the benefit of students, I am giving every teacher I evaluate this year the score of “Exceeded” for their teacher-selected goal. The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria:

  • It must be written in the past tense, as if you wrote it in May 2012 looking back on this school year, starting with the sentence, “Dear Mr. Jose, I got my ‘Exceeded’ rating because …”; it cannot include phrases such as “I will …” or “I intend to …” – this is you looking back on this year;
  • It must explain why you earned that “Exceeded” rating for your goal, and describe not just specific goals met or work completed, but the person you have become based on your effort to meet that goal this year. It is okay to be impressed with that person and the hard work and growth that was demonstrated.
  • You must turn that letter in to me on (or before) your annual or PRE initial conferences. 

I was not sure I was allowed to do this. I promised my staff that I would give them the highest rating on half of their evaluation for writing a letter about what they hoped to achieve, and who they hoped to become. That was NOT the intention of the teacher evaluation system. Or was it? Didn’t we want to unleash our highly trained staff to be the best they could be? My best defense, which ultimately I never had to use, was prepared: “I learned it at the mandatory training. I assume you wanted me to apply what I learned there?”

The reactions were strong. In pre-conferences with me, more than one teacher cried and expressed gratitude at feeling so supported. One teacher cried at feeling unsupported – in retrospect I imagine it was the contrast between this particular action and other events of our time together. I had just established an exceptionally high bar for administrative support for teaching. And I followed through. At the end of the year it was rather simple to enter those scores for those who wrote the letters.

The only catch (and of course there is a catch, and it is a challenging one) is that you write me a letter that meets the following criteria…

Between my request and the end of the year I saw inspired teachers engaging students, inventive lessons, teachers wrestling with data and differentiating in the classroom and working closely with academic coaches to improve instruction. And at the end, I saw a group of professionals who lived into their visions of themselves.

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Jack M. Jose

Real World Experiences / Field Experiences Overview

-by Jack M. Jose

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Students exploring a river on a school day.

Summer 2014, I was walking to a speaking engagement at the Westwood library when a car pulled into the driveway in front of me. Two young men stepped out. Both had been in my class and my songwriting intersession 5 years earlier. The driver, Devon, was the type of student who would good-naturedly accept your correction on his behavior, and would apologize and commit to self-improvement. However, he would then, after an hour or a couple of days, continue right along making the same mistakes. Course failures caught up to him and he dropped out of school without a plan to support himself or continue his education.

When Devon got out of the car, he greeted me heartily, “I wanted to thank you, Mr. Jose.”

I reflected on the ways I felt I had failed him: how I sat through conferences where I pointed out his weaknesses and called for improvement without acknowledging his strengths, how I was unable to figure out how to keep him focused, how I failed to make him to see the importance of education, and the fact that he left the school without earning a diploma. I genuinely felt that his thanks was unwarranted.

“Mr. Jose, you guys never gave up on me, and you let me know I could be something once I put my mind to it. Oh, and remember the song intersession? I think about that a lot. And white-water rafting? I wish school could have been like that all the time.”

Devon’s last comment demonstrates the powerful nature of experiential learning. Years after he left his formal education, he remembered positively two events with us: two spring “mini-courses” that we call intersessions. The songwriting intersession, and a white water rafting and mountain ecology intersession, had created permanent positive associations with school. He successfully completed the kind of academic work in those events that he struggled to complete during the rest of the school year. These intersession activities kept him engaged and motivated, and he clearly required more of that then we could provide.

A thorough education acquaints a student with many disciplines, of course, but it must do more than that. At Gamble Montessori, we incorporate field experiences to deepen students’ understanding of the world outside the classroom. Field experiences are improved by having as many of the following structural components as is practical:

Components of a Successful Field Experience:

  • learning with experts in the field (including passionate teachers);
  • cover sheet / cycle plan that details the “theme” of what students are learning, captures the “big idea” and key questions to be considered during the study;
  • intense advance preparation
    • teaching about what to expect
    • planning details of the trip together
    • providing a complete checklist of all the work to be accomplished
  • related reading(s) and a seminar (formal guided discussion on topics related to the experience)
  • kickoff and culminating ceremonies or activites to add to the sense that this is a special event, set off from other instruction;
  • community service component, preferably related to the focus of the seminar;
  • a cooperative game to help foster a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment among  participants;
  • culminating project – some permanent keepsake / totem (for my songwriting intersession, every student got the “album” of our collected songs).

Jack M. Jose