How to Lead: More Questions Than Answers

When I first became a parent, I had so many questions and so much self-doubt.  Every decision seemed so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I went looking for the definitive text book on parenting.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to parent.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

It did not take long to discover that while there were what some would call “answers” to be found in these books, these often directly conflicted with one another.

“Feed your baby on demand” vs. “Acclimate your baby to a feeding schedule.”

“Sleep with your baby” vs. “Never, ever sleep with your baby.”

“Practice ‘baby-wearing’” vs. “Put your baby down, so he gets used to entertaining himself.”

“Pick up a crying baby” vs. “Let your baby ‘cry it out.’”

The list goes on and on.  My quest for the “Baby Care Answer Key” proved to be both endlessly frustrating and futile.  It took me ten months to finally give up on finding it.  By then I was exhausted, but I settled on the following advice.

  • Listen to your baby
  • Trust your judgement
  • You know more than you think you do

Not a very precise set of guidelines, but my children are currently ages 17 and 13, and so far, it doesn’t appear that I have ruined them for life.  Can we agree that counts as some semblance of success?

Thankfully, I no longer have the raising of babies to worry about.  However, throughout my career as an educator, I have found myself consistently drawn toward leadership.  And when I reflect on my development as a leader, and how I have approached this growth, it eerily resembles what becoming a parent felt like.

As a team leader, I feel responsible for the success and health of my team in much the same way that I felt about raising my children.  And I feel the weight and worry of potential mistakes in much the same way as well.

Every decision seems so important and so fraught with risk.  What exactly should I be doing when, and why?  So like any good student, I have been looking for the definitive text book on leadership.

There is an overwhelming plethora of information out there.  Every bookstore seems to have an entire section devoted exclusively to books on how to lead.

“How exciting!” I initially thought. “The answers are in these books; I just have to read them — all of them.”

But, of course, just like books on parenting, books on leadership all seem to have different, and sometimes conflicting, advice.

Should leaders strive to hear all voices and work toward consensus, or identify clear goals and push others to achieve them?

Does effective team building happen through activities that help people like and trust one another, or through the struggle and conflict of putting challenging ideas on the table?

Do institutions function best when they are run as top-down or bottom-up?

The answer to all of these questions appears to be, “yes,” … depending on who you ask.

I have read many books about leadership, and each one seems to have its own take on the subject, leaving me with no clear answers.  However, these three books stand out as being the most influential for me.

  • Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
  • Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber
  • A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman

They are presented here in the order in which I read them.  This is notable, as this mirrors the level of personal challenge that I found within them.

Brené Brown’s work was the most accessible for me, as in many ways she “speaks my language.”  Craig Weber pushed me to deeper self-reflection and to identifying my growth edge. Edwin Friedman challenged seemingly everything that I thought I knew to be true about good leadership, and in some ways turned it upside down.

It is not possible to fully explore the depth of each of these author’s work here; however, I have attempted to capture some of the most salient points.

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines a leader as, “anyone who holds him- or her- self accountable for finding potential in people and processes.” (185) She indicates that this potential should be channeled into cultivating positive change, or what she dubs, “Minding the Gap.” She defines this as working toward reducing the difference between the Aspirational Values of an institution – those values that we espouse and that represent our best intentions – and the Practiced Values of an institution – how we actually think, behave, and feel.

Brown recognizes that working toward this alignment is a challenging, and potentially uncomfortable, task.  She notes that true leadership is scarce because being uncomfortable is a job requirement of the role.  She writes, “If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” (211)

Fortunately, although the work may be uncomfortable, Brown provides some insights into how to support teams in the challenges of growth and learning.  She describes this as an inherently vulnerable process, as to learn and grow, one must be willing to risk failure.  She also examines the critical role of constructive feedback, noting that people are “desperate” for feedback that inspires growth and engagement. (198)

Accepting feedback, growing, learning, and changing are all risky business.  In order for people to be willing to take on these risks, they must be supported by healthy organizations.

Brown describes healthy organizational cultures as places where:

  • Empathy is a valued asset
  • Accountability is an expectation rather than an exception
  • The need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control

In the absence of this type of safe space, people will disengage in order to protect themselves – they will stop showing up, stop contributing, and stop caring.  This disengagement is a form of institutional crisis.  To support leaders in avoiding this scenario, Brown provides this “Leadership Manifesto” for guidance.

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Conversational Capacity

In Conversational Capacity,  (which I’ve written about previously here) Craig Weber agrees with Brown’s assertion that leadership requires discomfort.  He, too, focuses on the importance of managing the human side of teams, but he defines the most critical aspect of this as the development of what he calls conversational capacity.  He defines this as “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.” (15)

From his perspective, a healthy institutional culture “embraces productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously,” and is “strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints and challenging questions.” (19)  Weber asserts that it is only through the intentional cultivation of conversational capacity that this can occur, and it is the leader’s responsibility to develop this within the team.

Weber identifies a continuum of responses to challenges, such that minimizing (or low candor) behaviors exist at one end of this spectrum while winning (or low curiosity) behaviors exist at the other.  He indicates that the way to develop conversational capacity, or work toward the “sweet spot” found in the center of the continuum, is to work against one’s natural tendency to “minimize” or to “win” in the face of challenging issues.

He notes that when conversational capacity is not well-developed:

  • We remain silent when we should speak up
  • We argue when we should cooperate
  • We downplay our concerns when we should blurt them out (27)

Like Brown, Weber notes that in the absence of conversational capacity, we are risking institutional crisis.

To examine the various ways this crisis can appear, Jack synthesized Weber’s “sweet spot” continuum with the related Heat-Light balance described in Meeting Wise  by Boudett and City (which Jack has previously written about here).

Jack created this graphic which examines the ways in which being unbalanced relative to minimizing, winning, heat, and chill can lead to passive-aggression, direct aggression, sabotage, and shut down – each of which are damaging to institutions and pull teams out of the “sweet spot” or the “light” in which effective and positive change can occur.

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A Failure of Nerve

Although both Brown and Weber note the importance of leadership for the health of an institution, neither writes in as strong language about this as Friedman does in A Failure of Nerve (which Jack has previously written about here.)

Friedman asserts that when institutions are not functioning well, it is always due to a failure of nerve among its leaders.(2) He describes this “nerve” as self-differentiation –  or having clarity about one’s own goals, as demonstrated through a focus on strength rather than pathology, challenge rather than comfort, and taking definitive stands rather than seeking consensus.

He boldly claims that leaders must not be “peace-mongers,” who attempt to “regulate their institutions through love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.”(12)  He states that working toward consensus leads to sandbagging and sabotage by team members who are not aligned with the leader’s identified goals.

In accordance with this, he suggests that the way to change institutions is to work with the motivated members of that institution rather than focusing on the recalcitrant members.  He indicates that by orienting one’s focus toward those who are not in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals, and attempting to get them on board through seeking compromise and consensus, the institution itself becomes weaker.

Friedman suggests that the way to strength is to consistently engage members of an institutional community who operate in alignment with the institution’s mission and goals. By shifting to a focus on strength, rather than weakness, recalcitrant members who want to remain a part of the institution have to adapt to the established community, rather than requiring the institution to adjust to the expectations of the recalcitrant members.

Friedman believes that a lack of self-differentiation among leadership, or in other words confusion around the goals, culture, and expectations of an institution, leads to systemic anxiety.  And that this anxiety causes reactivity – both in terms of intense emotionality and dogged passivity – among its members.

Counter to the common understanding of job stress, Friedman believes that it is not unrelieved hard work that is the root cause of burnout, but rather it is chronic, systemic anxiety that is to blame.

Once again, he identifies self-differentiation of leadership as the antidote for chronic anxiety.  He calls on leaders to be both present and non-anxious relative to the challenges of their institutions.  Noting that while it is easy to be non-present and non-anxious, or conversely, present and anxious, in the face of difficulty, he instead prescribes that leaders become “transformers,” who allow the current of adversity to run through them without getting zapped.  They reduce the anxiety of the institution by the nature of their own presence, by their self-differentiation, as defined above.

Friedman explores leadership through a lens that at first glance seems different from anyone else.  However, like Weber, he identifies continuums and the need to find the center between the extremes, and like Brown, he focuses on the importance of establishing a safe, institutional space, which he defines as one that is resistant to anxiety.

Friedman prescribes perhaps the most difficult solution, indicating that self-differentiation is demonstrated through finding the balance between these ten indicators or “tensions” during times of institutional crisis.

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Synthesis

Each of the above texts focuses on the inherent challenges of leadership and the difficulty of leading well.  Each delineates the risks to an institution in the absence of effective leadership.  Each indicates that the difference between success and failure lies in the hands of an institution’s leaders.  That is a heavy responsibility to bear.

Brown charges leaders with gently guiding others to “dare greatly.” Weber challenges leaders to work to build “conversational capacity” in themselves and others.  And Friedman insists that leaders tackle the difficulty of “self-differentiation.”

While none of these books provided me with the clear, definitive, and, dare I say, easy, answers that I have been seeking, each elucidates pitfalls of leadership and provides suggested remedies.  Each has informed the way in which I lead.

Like in parenting, I have come to the devastating conclusion that there are no simple solutions, and that there’s no singular right way.

Like in parenting, I’ve come to believe that the following is true:

  • Listen to your team (Weber)
  • Trust your judgement (Friedman)
  • You know more than you think you do (Brown)

So based on that, this summer I spent some time constructing my own model of what I believe to be the fundamental components of good leadership. In my model, each of the bottom layers serves as the foundation for the ones above it, and each is a prerequisite for the success of the subsequent layers.

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I’d like to assert that if these six components are implemented with fidelity, leadership will be easy and all will be well within an institution.  Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case.

As Jack frequently reminds me, “We work with people, and people are messy.”  Every team has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and needs.  Every situation is different, and requires a unique response.  Although I desperately long for the formula that says, “If x happens, then do y,” and to have that formula elicit a successful outcome every time, this is a utopian ideal that is not rooted in reality.

Leadership is hard, and I have become convinced that it is more about process than it is about product.  So I will continue reading books, asking question, mulling things over, and muddling through the messy morass of team development and institutional health.  Currently, I have more questions than answers; perhaps someday, the angel of experience will bless me with more answers than questions.

 

 

 

What Is Teacher Leadership?

Change is hard. All sorts of change. Not just the pumpkin spice flavored everything showing up in bakeries and coffee shops each fall – though that is also difficult – but change in general.

A new route to school. A child graduated and off to college. A new evaluation system.

All of these changes make life subtly different. However, even when the changes make life incrementally better, the changes themselves can be hard.

Perhaps you have read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or one of dozens of other recent best-selling books about making significant changes in your life. These books focus on the impressive power of habit to make or break your efforts to excel in what you do. While the power of habit is a sort of current in the ocean of your life, these books insist that you can make changes that seem to force the tide your way.

However, there may still be an undercurrent which is not always flowing in the intended direction.

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to take a class taught by Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. The premise behind this course and his life-changing book is that people have a natural defense against making changes. It is not just that people do not like or even want to make change, it is that their mind conspires against that change in important ways.

How powerful is this immunity to change? Perhaps as powerful as the body’s own immune system. A survey of heart patients directed to make life-saving changes in their diet and exercise revealed that only one in seven successfully did so.

One in seven. 14%. Life-saving change.

So this year in your classroom likely started off with some big promises for yourself. More timely return of graded work? More comments, fewer final scores? Fewer discipline referrals? A ratio of positive to corrective comments of 4:1?

In Cincinnati Public School we are already headed into our fourth week of instruction as this Labor Day weekend winds down. Now is the time when that habit can either take hold or it can die a neglected, lonely death.

Let’s give it a boost.

Teachers and principals must accept the responsibility for changing themselves, and must be open to that change. After all, your self is the part most directly in your own control. No matter how much one complains, organizations and societies do not simply reform themselves to meet the needs of those who raise concerns.

Everyone exhibits what Robert Kegan and his co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey named an “immunity to change”, where they unconsciously try to preserve the status quo, even if they are outwardly unhappy with it.

Kegan asserts that “[c]ollectivities – work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations – also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire.”[1] It is precisely this tendency in groups, and in individuals, that leaders must learn to defend against. If even the most sought-after change a person wants to make, such as losing weight to avoid dying of heart disease, is subject to a fierce defense from internal self-sabotage, then something as superficial as your new grading policy does not stand a chance.

But this is not a hopeless situation.

The most important step here is to make internal adaptations to defeat the immunity. Teachers who wish to change their classroom, their school, or even to affect a specific change in the habits and practices of an individual student, must determine their place in the current set of habits, and make intentional change.

Then we must identify what it is we are doing that stands in the way of the thing we want to do. That is, you must identify your hidden competing commitments.

Perhaps you have made one of the commitments above, but you find yourself taking on several new challenges as the year starts. Suddenly your ability to make comments on every paper the way you planned is encroached upon by the time you are spending on your new projects.

Why do you do this? Why do you take on so many projects? Maybe you want to be seen as helpful, and a leader in the school. This is a noble goal, and a common one.

So, maybe your hidden commitment to be helpful to everyone is now in competition with your commitment to better serve your students’ progress with commentary on their papers.

What can you do about this?

Well, you have already taken a difficult step, you have identified the hidden competing commitment. Now decipher why that commitment is in competition. What are the big assumptions that lie beneath your willingness to overcommit? Perhaps you believe that if you stop being valuable to others, you will lose your role in the school, or lose your peers’ respect? Or perhaps by not getting things done, and telling people no, you will appear to be superficial and worried only about yourself.

Teachers tell their students every day to be ready, willing, and able to change themselves. This act of self-reinvention is scary, and the teacher must be willing to lead and model this change. If you have identified your commitment, what you are doing instead, the hidden competing commitment, and the big assumptions, you have all the information you need to make the significant change.

And now you must enlist those around you to help you make that change. This interdependence is important because in order to make substantive change, we must empower each other to help us get better at what we do. We cannot do it all by ourselves.

Teachers understand the unique needs, challenges, and fears of the profession in a way that no one else can. Who better to offer advice and support to a teacher, than a teacher? Who better to offer correction and redirection? A peer can offer advice without it being evaluative. A peer can offer advice from the perspective of having the same demands on their own time and energy. A trusted peer can listen to fears and flaws without judgement, and help balance the stresses of personal and professional life. There are many formal and informal ways for teachers to step up and provide for each other the leadership that is needed in any situation.

Seek informal mentors

One teacher, wary of placing additional stress on others, and not wanting to be seen as bothersome for asking too many questions, “adopted” a set of informal mentors. If she saw someone who had a strength in organization, she observed them closely, sometimes asking specific questions about their rationale for doing things a certain way, other times merely co-opting a certain structure or behavior that seemed effective.

Another teacher, struggling with the weight of the many roles he had taken on in the school, purposely went to the principal to ask for advice on being organized. This particular tactic, seeking out mentorship from other leaders including administration, can serve multiple purposes. First, it alerts administration to the teacher’s desire for self-improvement. Second, the leader likely has some good advice on managing the tasks and the work, which can be incorporated to lighten the burden. Third, it allows for informal conversations to reveal which work is most valued and to build the relationships that help form any successful community.

 

Intentionally mentor others

Draw one person under your wing by letting them know you are available for questions, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the work, and getting involved in their teaching. Show them around the building. Advocate for them to get preferable lunch times or a more favorable schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, offer to help with a specific task. Are they grading an assignment? Offer to do half. Share a rubric or a procedure for how this work gets handled efficiently in another classroom.

The reality is that mentorship creates teamwork, and teamwork has an indescribably powerful effect on one’s work efficacy and overall feeling of satisfaction. Working with them side by side – to hang curtains, or sort out schoolbooks, or to move a heavy desk when the custodian is difficult to locate – helps make everyone’s load lighter.

 

Join or create a formal mentoring program

One teacher leader strongly advocated to create a mentoring process that would do three things: provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building, assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations, and include a deep sharing of the school culture. 

After weeks of discussing potential approaches to this work and looking for viable models for how to do it, school representatives met with Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s, a prominent local pizza chain to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. Gamble Montessori educates children. What could possibly be learned?

As it turns out, quite a lot. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about. A number of statements stood out during that meeting. Mr. Cundiff emphasized that the employer has a responsibility to grow team members, and you need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish. Additionally, the best teachers are your peers. The person taking orders at the table next to you is able to provide support, modeling, and even polite correction in a way that a manager cannot.  Finally, in order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller.

At Gamble, we made sure to include scheduled 1:1 check-ins between the mentor and mentee allow for the pair to problem-solve concerns and for the veteran to provide encouragement and support. Intentionally setting aside time for this work means that a new teacher does not have to feel as if they are imposing when they ask a question that is complicated to answer.  It removes the stigma of being the one who asks too many questions, or the feeling of responsibility for having “wasted” someone else’s time. This is time well spent.

 

Work with your team to create PLCs

At every school, there are additional ways for teachers to take on leadership with or without the support of administration. School teams regularly form professional learning communities, or PLCs, as described over dozens of years by Richard DuFour. The work of this PLC can be called many things, such as a 90 day plan or a turnaround plan, and can be incorporated in personal or professional growth plans, school One Plans, or nationally required improvement plans associated with Title I grants.

Whatever it is called, the true goal of a PLC is to identify a common problem directly related to student learning and solve it as a team. The process to work toward change, and hold one another publicly accountable for it, is exhaustively described in other resources, but it merits a quick summary here.

The team identifies an area related to student learning outcomes where the results are poor, inconsistent with other scores across the building or some larger area, or simply could be better. This could relate to test scores, embodiment of the school’s core values, or visible indicators of academic success such as grades.

Then the team drills down to find the details. What exactly is the measure of these suboptimal results?

Research is the crucial next step. This is where PLCs differ from typical team solutions. Often teams of teachers get together to solve a problem and the depth of their knowledge comes from their own experience. It may sound like, “At my old school we …” This is an attractive song, like sirens on the rocky shores. Do not be lured in.

Past practice does not mean best practice. Even the most veteran teacher finds their knowledge limited by their own narrow scope of professional experience. Seeking outside sources for ideas, including books, scholarly articles in professional publications, and even reading teaching blogs by teachers in the same subject or age band, allows the team to discuss and evaluate a wide array of possible solutions.

Armed with new knowledge, the team reviews possibilities and decides on a way forward. Then they collectively implement it for the indicated period of time. This typically provides for a midyear check-in to evaluate progress, and an end-of-year final review.

If the intervention worked, the team keeps it and adds it to their repertoire. They may even seek to apply this approach to other subjects, classes, or situations if it is readily transferrable.

Or maybe the team does not solve anything. Maybe the data reveals that they did not impact the problem. This is information too. Sometimes the strategy the team believed was most likely to impact the problem has no effect at all. This too is data, and “no effect” is not failure. The only failure is not to try something different in order to impact the outcome.

Teams that use the PLC approach do not solve all of their problems all at once. They do, however, solve their most pressing problem. More importantly, perhaps, they solve the problem together, and build capacity and resources for solving future problems together. This provides a rich and satisfying work experience and improves outcomes.

 

Individual or paired skill building

Another way teachers can gain the competencies they need to feel successful is through individual or paired skill building and self-study. Recently, I saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure is On. I found the presentation eye-opening. Knowing that Krista was intentionally seeking out ways to develop herself professionally, I suggested that we read the book together. We carved out time to read the book, discuss it, and to implement the ideas.

Craig’s premise is that a critical factor for teams is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.”

He describes this as being in the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that, “[w]hile it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.”[2]

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

Krista and I worked on these ideas together over the course of the year, applying the ideas to specific situations in our own leadership and in the building and thinking about how to improve our own practices to match the advice in the book. Along the way, we reached out to Craig, the author, and engaged him in our discussion, even providing him some material he said was useful for his follow-up book.

There were mixed results, as happens in the implementation of new practices and the development of new skills. The important part was that they were engaged in a professional practice of intentional improvement.

 

Today, teacher burnout is an existential threat to public schools. In Kansas they are having trouble hiring enough teachers because of the triple-whammy of retirement, working age teachers leaving the profession, and low salaries failing to attract new teachers. It is tempting to think that tucking into a fetal position in your classroom is the answer. Or to believe that what the new teacher down the hall really needs is a good laugh and a distraction from his work so he won’t appear so bothered.

This type of thinking suggests that if you can just spend enough time distracted from your work, then somehow work will be better. That is demonstrably untrue.

What this really does is leave the work undone, to be completed in less time, likely in a rush, and with less attention to quality. This means that lesson plans, feedback on grading, and ultimately student academic growth is set aside in the service of buoying a teacher’s mood.

That is an upside down view of the role of schools.

What really makes people feel better at work is a sense that they are accomplishing the work with a high level of skill, and that they are achieving results. Even if it is very hard work, and time consuming, positive outcomes for students are a powerful mood booster.

The solution to better job satisfaction for all, then, is to take a leadership role in the school and help pick up one of the important pieces of the larger work. Share the load with someone. Work at their side. Gain the capacity to do more, and to do the existing work more effectively.

Become a leader.

 

[1] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 87.

[2] Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 15.

 

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

This post was originally published on 9/19/16; however it reflects the commonality of our fall camp experience each year.  This year our camping trip takes place the weeks of 8/28 and 9/5.  In order for every student to participate, we are actively seeking donations for student scholarships.  If you are interested in helping, please contact me at taylokr@cps-k12.org

 

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

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Grading to Encourage Effort

The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori.  It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”

This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.

images-1This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.

There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.

It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.

I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?

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Creating Change: Yes, We Can!

An education for a year for sixteen girls in underprivileged countries.

 My students made that happen, and they did so much more.

As teachers, we are taught to “begin with the end in mind.” When planning any unit, we are told to start with the intended learning outcomes.  Design the assessment first, and then teach students what they need to know.

But sometimes, that’s just not how it goes …

And on this occasion, if I had begun with my anticipated outcome in mind, I would have sold my students’ determination, passion, and creativity far short of what they were ultimately able to envision and achieve.

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Let’s Meet! (Good Books: Meeting Wise)

Let’s meet.

Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.

Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.

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Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom

During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.

My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?

Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.

My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.

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What is this “Montessori Thing” and Secondary Montessori

*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016.  Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.

 Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:

  • Project-Based Learning
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Social-Emotional Learning
  • Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
  • Real-World Experiences
  • Rigor
  • High Expectations

These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?

Wrong.

Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.

Maria Montessori

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Commencement – A Celebration of the Individual

-by Jack M. Jose

Originally published May 16, 2016. Updated June 2, 2017.

Graduation 1
In community, preparing for commencement.

It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.

Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy that was at times painful for him, but he had a goal. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.

On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.

This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.

Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.

Seated students Commencement 2017

The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_traditions.php . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.

In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.

Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar.

For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.

[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]

Commencement is best when the focus is a celebration of students’ talents and interests, and those define the ceremony to make it unique. It is crucial to honor the individual student, and to honor each and every individual. Just as a conscientious teacher builds choice into classwork and tailors assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, a conscientious administrator understands that to truly celebrate community, we must celebrate each of our individuals at commencement. We understand that when we share the responsibility and share the limelight, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students can be entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs.:

  • Allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally. Often, as it was in 2017, students will choose the valedictorian, as this person has typically exemplified herself as a capable student who responds well to adversity and can be depended on to deliver a strong speech.
  • Allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. Given enough lead time, local politicians and activists, and even celebrities, are honored to be asked to speak at a commencement. Our students have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. This year they chose two current teachers to share the responsibility. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
  • Allow students to choose their graduation gown color from one of the school colors, instead of assigning them by gender. It creates an attractive and varied group picture, and avoids the discomfort and frustration that can come from mandating gown colors.
  • Have student videos featuring pictures and quotes, or even baby pictures. Another option is to have posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves. Finding a different way to honor the students, rather than merely having their name read aloud the moment they cross the stage, makes for a more engaging ceremony for the crowd of family members who might only know one of the graduates and will be pleased to see their familiar face in more than one place.
  • Allow students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings. In 2017, our own band was able, for the first time, to perform Pomp and Circumstance.
  • Allow students the chance to – tastefully and within appropriate boundaries – decorate some part of their gown or mortarboard.
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2015 Gamble Montessori Mortarboards celebrating the journey, the future, college, and life-long friendships!

In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional, it had to fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.

Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that it is not appropriate to applaud and cheer loudly (of course it is! This is a time of celebration!), we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend at the other side of the stage.

Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.

One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”

One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.

The best commencements are the ones where the crowd can feel just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.

Between our rehearsal and the actual ceremony, some time is carved out for students to be in community with one another. One year teacher Josh Vogt used the opportunity to read a short story to the seniors, one that challenged them to think about their relationships with one another an with the community. This year we used that time to open our gratitude box, filled over the past several years from various ceremonies around gratitude, and reflect on the people and circumstances that helped get us to this point. What is important is that you can take a minute to be, again, one last time, in community.

Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.

 

This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.

How Do You Measure a Year?

By Krista Taylor

It happens every year, so one would think I would be used to it by now.  The school-year seems to move along, as slow as molasses, at times feeling somewhat interminable. And then, suddenly, it’s over. This catches me entirely off-guard.  And I’m not ready.

The curriculum has been taught, the tests have been administered, the paperwork is complete, the culminating projects are finished, and yet I am still not ready.

I’m not ready to let them go.  I’m not ready to say good-bye.

I am not ready to have my 8th graders move on to high school. And even though my 7th graders will return to me next year, I’m not ready to spend 12 weeks apart from them.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  It probably is ridiculous. But I don’t transition well.  Every year it takes me a week or longer after the end of the school year to complete the check-out process that somehow every other teacher manages to get done by the last day.  But I’m not ready.

However, this year, exactly one week before the end of the year, I looked around the circle at the faces of my students during morning meeting, and I suddenly realized that whether or not I was ready, my students were.

The seventh graders, who had entered our building in the fall looking for all the world like little lost lambs, were ready to assume the mantle of leadership.

And the eighth graders had become so strong, self-assured, and independent that they were ready to tackle the new demands and challenges of high school.

How had this leadership emerged?  It felt abrupt when I suddenly saw it staring back at me in black and white during that morning meeting, but I knew that it wasn’t.  I knew that their leadership had been cultivated and nurtured over time and through great dedication and diligence.  But how?  What exactly were the critical components that allowed that transformation to happen?

As I tend to do, when I saw them with new eyes that morning, I acknowledged it.  I told my 7th graders that I had just realized that they were ready – ready to fill the 8th graders’ shoes, ready to lead our community next year.  And I asked them how they had learned to do this.  Their response did not surprise me, but it did delight me.  They said, “The eighth graders taught us.”

And, of course, that is how it had happened.  This is peer transmission of culture, and it is a powerful thing.

Being social and engaging in peer relationships is the primary motivating force of the adolescent.  As a result, they can teach each other far more powerfully than any lesson presented by an adult.  This is why peer pressure is such a powerful phenomenon.

Teen-agers desperately want to fit in, to belong.  They crave this social inclusion, and while adults often fear its power to lead children astray, peer pressure can be positively channeled to guide students toward valorization as well.

“Teens join peer groups in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their families and grow more independent … When most people think of the phrase ‘peer pressure,’ images of underage teens participating in destructive behavior spring to mind. But most people overlook positive examples of peer pressure, including situations where friends push teens to grow in beneficial ways.”[1]

Students can reach each other more deeply than any adult ever could.  Who better to teach them how to be leaders than their peers?  This is the rich benefit of multi-age grouping in a classroom.  Older students model expectations for younger students, and this results in powerful learning.

Multi-age groupings, like those seen in Montessori classrooms among others, readily allow the transmission of classroom culture to occur through peer relationships.  And my students’ recognition of this was what I found so remarkable on that day when I looked around morning meeting and suddenly recognized their transformation.

Multi-age classrooms are a fundamental component of the Montessori model, but this philosophy is beginning to reach traditional education as well.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted that, “Multiage education … puts learners at the center, socially and academically. On the social side, younger children look for guidance to older students who know the ropes, while the older students in the classroom organically learn about mentoring, leadership, and collaboration.”[2]

This is exactly how it happens.

This mentoring, leadership, and collaboration is very intentionally constructed in the Montessori middle school classroom.  At the beginning of the year, the eighth graders are asked to take on all the leadership roles.  They are expected to model what positive leadership looks like in our classrooms.  We overtly identify and discuss this – honoring the role of the eighth grade leaders. We also note that over the course of the year, the seventh graders will be provided with increasing opportunities to fulfill these duties, so that by the following year, they will be prepared to do the modeling for incoming students.

Initially, however, the eighth graders are given all the classroom leadership responsibilities such as: running morning meeting, helping new students manage a checklist of assignments, and reinforcing behavioral expectations.

Additionally, the language of leadership pervades our discussions with students. The poem “Great Leaders” by Meiji Stewart is displayed in each of our classrooms, and we use this as a tool to identify what leadership is.  On a near daily basis, we say things like, “I need a couple of leaders,” “Where are my leaders?” “Can I get some leader volunteers?” or “It doesn’t matter where we are, we always behave like leaders.” Leadership is always referenced as an expectation for all, not just a quality that a few motivated students will demonstrate.

This is why student reinforcement is so critical. Every classroom has students who are internally motivated to lead and are responsive to teacher mentoring. Sometimes we call these students the “good kids” or “the bright ones” or “teachers’ pets.” A shift in classroom climate occurs, however, when all students are expected to demonstrate leadership, and I suspect that this can only be accomplished through positive peer pressure.

At Gamble, peer leadership modeling begins in earnest with the closing ceremony at fall camp.  Camp happens early in the school year — within the first three weeks.  The 7th graders are brand new to us, and their official initiation to the community occurs on the final night of the fall camping experience.

This ceremony is entirely planned by the eighth graders.  In our community, it never fails that year after year, the eighth graders want to initiate the seventh graders by identifying and labeling their character strengths.  This practice was begun with our first group of students, and each year it is handed down as tradition.  This is a powerful example of peer transmission of culture.

So, invariably, just days before camp, a large group of eighth graders spend their lunchtime in my room frantically preparing certificates with individual names and character strength labels.

Listening to them discuss what they have observed in their seventh grade peers is so sweet.  It sounds something like this:

“What about Dahlia, what’s her strength?”

“She’s talkative.”

“Oh yeah, she is.  But that sounds kind of bad.  How can we make it good?”

“I don’t know.  Outgoing?”

“Yeah, that’s good.  What about Ramon?”

“Ramon, I don’t know.  He’s so quiet.  I hardly even notice him.  Ms. Taylor, what is Ramon’s character strength?”

“Hmmmmm … sounds like you need to observe him a little more.  Do you think you can do that and then come back tomorrow and have a character strength for him?”

“Yeah, we can do that.”

This work of identifying character strengths requires them to do multiple things.   They must review the various character strengths, intentionally observe their new classmates, and see them in a positive light.  What an incredible way to begin leading a group of new students.

This type of leadership is a responsibility, an expectation, and an obligation, but it is also so much more.  Because it is done by students year after year, it is seen as an honor, as something to be earned and entrusted with.

When treated this way, leadership becomes a somewhat revered role.  I believe this is why I typically have so many students willing to take on leadership tasks, even when they know that it usually involves additional work. All I have to do is ask, “I need a couple of leader volunteers.  Who’s willing to help?”  And every time, many, many hands go up.  It is an honor to be called on to complete these tasks, and the work is viewed not as a menial job, but as a responsibility to be assumed for the good of the group.

I giggled this spring upon overhearing the following exchange between two young ladies.  We were outside taking a break from the stressors of standardized testing, and Aaliyah began picking up pieces of trash.  Mi’Neasia looked at her and said, “What are you doing that for?”  Aaliyah’s response made me so proud.  “You know Ms. Taylor’s going to make us do it in a minute, so we might as well get started.”

Let’s be clear, no one likes to pick up trash.  But Aaliyah knew that “Leaving a Place Better Than We Found It” was part of what we always did as leaders, and she viewed it as an obligation.  She took the initiative before being asked, and then transmitted this expectation to a peer.

I am certain that if I, as the teacher, solely dictated the requirement of completing these types of extra jobs, I would be met with complaining and resistance, but when peers model diligent completion of the work, the entire experience shifts positively.

Of course, leadership doesn’t develop exclusively as a result of peer modeling.  There must also be opportunities for leadership development built into the curriculum, but I do not believe that we would get nearly the same results without the benefit of students leading the way.

And like all growth, leadership doesn’t develop in one neatly-graphable, continuous line, and it isn’t developed overnight, or even over a few weeks. Although I was startled by my sudden recognition during morning meeting that the students sitting before me had become leaders, there was really nothing sudden about it. My students had been working on leadership all year, and it was the consistent guidance and direction of their eighth grade peers that had steered them toward that readiness. They recognized this and were able to articulate it.

Each year, while the eighth graders are in Pigeon Key, Florida engaged in an intensive marine biology study that serves as our culminating middle school experience, the seventh graders prepare a celebration to honor them.  It is a bit of a mirror image of the fall camp ceremony, and serves to pass the torch of leadership.

This year, as part of the ceremony they planned, they wrote this:

“Dear 8th graders,  It’s been a long year with everyone.  A lot of things have changed with improved grades, behavior, and leadership skills.  It’s been a big transition throughout the year.  Everyone has shown growth tremendously, and I would like to thank the 8th graders for showing me the path to be an 8th grade leader.  Everyone will be missed.”

And this.

“I know not only 7th graders improved, but you did as well.  You were once in the same position as us, now look where you’re at.  You were such a big help to us because you taught us how to be the 8th grade leaders you are today.  We will miss every, single one of you, and hopefully you’ll miss us too.  Most importantly, as you go to the 9th grade, just remember that you’ll always be UL leaders.  P.S. Try not to make Ms. Taylor too emotional when you leave.”

They were ready to move on, and they recognized this in themselves, and in each other.

Just one week after that culminating moment, we said good-bye.  The seventh graders headed off into another long summer break, and the eighth graders did the same, prepared to engage in an entirely different academic adventure upon their return.

They had come so far, and, while they often tease me about being “too emotional,” I know that they, too, felt the bittersweet pang of farewell. For a full ten minutes after the bell rang on that last day of school, my teaching partners and I had students clustered around us for hugs and final words.

Lisa, who ended the year with beautiful grades, threw her arms around me, as I whispered in her ear, “You’ve worked so hard. Remember that first quarter conference when you had to tell your mom that you were failing? Just look at you now!” She burst into tears and hugged me even tighter.

Derek, an 8th grader, who was incredibly immature when he arrived at Gamble and who spent the better part of a year being the class clown, stood tall and gave me a tight hug, as he said proudly and confidently, “You know I’m gonna miss you next year in the 9th grade.”

And Astrid, a painfully shy 7th grader who has finally begun to find her place and her voice in our community. As is her way, she waited patiently and silently for her hug until all the more boisterous students had gotten a turn. I looked into her eyes, and saw such longing for recognition there. I told her what I know to be true: “You will be such a powerful leader for our new students next year. You know all the quiet ones? The ones who are so afraid to come to high school? You’re in charge of them next year, okay?” She silently nodded as her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me good-bye.

And even Andrew, who had a very difficult year and will be repeating the seventh grade, waited for his hug, and then shoved a crumpled post-it note in my hand saying gruffly, “Read that.” It said, “Thanks for helping me do better and have grit. I will miss you these three months.”

I was almost certainly “too emotional” when they left.  Because I was not ready.  But they were. They were ready to move on to the next level of challenge, and that is what matters. That is how you measure a year.

 

[1] “Peer Pressure.”Teenagers and Peer Pressure – Causes and Effects. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

 

[2] Miller, Stuart. “Inside a Multiage Classroom.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 May 2017. Web. 27 May 2017.