The Big Short: When the Education Bubble Bursts

Jack M. Jose

On September 15, 2008, the giant financial company Lehman Brothers, unable to meet its obligations to borrowers, completely collapsed, closing its doors and halting all transactions as it fell swiftly into unthinkably large debt. 25,000 Lehman employees lost their jobs.[1] The company would never re-open. In the same week, the largest banks in the United States all shared warnings of nearing a similar fate. This event was the primary public face of the start of the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in modern history. The US government stepped in to bail out the largest banks before they followed suit with Lehman Brothers, eventually spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to shore up our economy. The Lehman crash, and the bank crash in general, was connected with the bursting of the US housing bubble, where suddenly home prices crashed back from extravagant highs, costing homeowners billions in actual and unrealized gains in their personal net worth. In the end, billions of dollars of value of stocks, companies, and people’s homes and jobs were essentially vaporized. Even after 5 years of sustained job and economic growth following the official end of the recession in 2012, by some measures the United States has not yet unburied itself from this financial disaster.

There were many contributing factors to this economic crash, and many books and even movies helped to tell parts of the story. One best-selling book-turned-movie exploring the causes of this crash was The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.

“Wait,” you say. “This is an education blog. Why are you discussing the economy?”

Current conditions in the educational system in the United States, and particularly in specific states, resemble the situation that preceded the crash and Great Recession. A generation of reforms, from the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report to the transformative and bipartisan Bush II No Child Left Behind law to the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act, have eroded safeguards that tied tax dollars and community oversight to the education of our children. This has left our nation open to an educational crash, the sort of which has never happened, for which there is no roadmap or precedent, just as there was no precedent for the real estate and banking collapse in 2008. For many of us, just as for many experts in the banking industry, this collapse was a complete shock. Nothing could have prepared us for the long-lasting effects of the crash, and only in hindsight could we see all the signs of the impending crisis. Only a few people, generally well-read experts in the field who had proven willing to buck prevailing wisdom, were able to see the coming default. No one listened to them.

The Great Recession was caused by a number of related factors in the economy. One cause of the crash was deregulation. In a major windfall to banks and other lending institutions, Congress loosened restrictions on lending practices, allowing for larger and riskier loans, with fewer safeguards for borrowers. New companies, envisioning windfall profits, sprang up seemingly overnight and began competing for customers.  First time and repeat borrowers, excited for an opportunity to buy their first or their biggest house, flooded into the market, and found they had a wide array of companies competing to sell them a loan as cheaply as possible.

This deregulation combined with an extreme profit motive allowed for a second cause to emerge: predatory lending. With deregulation there came an expansion of banks, some of which became “too big to fail.” This phrase did not mean that they could not fail. It just meant that their failure would cause widespread economic disaster. The US government would, in this case, be forced to prop them up and to guarantee that their loans were covered. These institutions were assumed to be essentially unbreakable. Deregulation also meant such growth in the banking industry that new, non-bank companies got into the business of offering home loans and dealing mortgages. These new lending institutions looked and acted less and less like traditional banks, and they began enticing and even recruiting home buyers in the full knowledge that they would be unable to pay off the loans. This happened even while these institutions paid exorbitant salaries to CEOs, often with sales bonuses for the middle managers, creating incentives to make riskier and riskier loans.

Additionally, the oversight for these new kinds of banks, making these new kinds of loans, was essentially nonexistent. Traditional systems of measuring the effectiveness and liquidity of banks were overmatched by these new rules. The use of innovative and complex accounting, perhaps intentionally, made oversight of any sort more difficult. Specifically, the creation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations made it nearly impossible to assess the riskiness of investments. It is hard to judge the risk inherent in buying something most people cannot understand or explain.

Finally, signs of an impending crash were ignored by almost everyone. Time and time again lenders and monitors alike allowed themselves to participate in what now is understood to have been “magical thinking”, the belief that these risky pools of unexplainable investments would somehow continue to increase in value forever. In fact, at times the warnings were so loud that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was notoriously reluctant to speak directly to future trends or concerns, made multiple public statements to dismiss these warnings. Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist, catalogued many of those warnings in his first article as a regular columnist at Forbes Magazine.[2]

These factors have parallels in the current movement in education, as described below.

Deregulation – creating the bubble

In order to encourage the growth of the “ownership society” as espoused by President George W. Bush during his successful Presidential campaign[3], his administration and a Republican congress undertook several initiatives aimed at increasing home ownership. These were well-intentioned and broadly popular bipartisan acts aimed at placing more people in their own homes, and prompting them to be better citizens in general, because they would now have a stake in the success of the community. However, these enticements created unforeseen consequences. Homeowner down payment assistance and efforts to simplify home-buying drew in record amounts of new home owners. Some of these home buyers were not, according to traditional measures, a good bet to stay in the house and pay off their loan. Unscrupulous lenders capitalized on these eager new buyers, offering them larger and riskier loans than ever before. Folks with bad credit got loans, folks with good credit got larger loans than they could handle, all with the promise of future gains in the value of these houses.

The expansion of the charter school movement in the US parallels this change in the banking system, and seems poised to create a similar bubble. While a long-established system of education exists, with a history dating back to the first colonies on Plymouth Rock, and overseen by elected school boards in nearly every city and county in our country, recent deregulation in education law has created an expansion of school-like entities called charter schools. These schools often get permission to operate with a different set of rules than public schools, typically privileges to experiment with curriculum, seat time, salary scales, and more, often under the guise of being “laboratory schools”, free to experiment with ideas that might work better for education. These types of schools flourished under the Obama administration, and seem set to practically explode during the current administration. Just last week Florida approved $200M for a major expansion of charter schools in the Sunshine State.[4] In addition to brick and mortar schools, largely to save on costs associated with maintenance and transportation, charter schools have innovated and quickly expanded online learning. Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, lead states in enrolling students in online schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). And the expansion has been accelerated through the use of novel, some might say experimental or even suspect, techniques for delivering education. In the 2014-15 school year, 38,500 students in Ohio alone took all of their classes on computers from home through an online school.  For the 2015-16 school year, Ohio paid online schools $267 million to educate those students — more than a quarter of what it paid all charter schools in the state. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (OVA), with 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively, are the largest online schools in Ohio. More on ECOT later.

In May of 2014, the New York City legislature created laws that they touted made New York “friendlier [to charters] than almost any other city in the nation.” By increasing the per pupil allocation allotted to charters, eliminating salary minimums for teachers and other staff, and by requiring public schools to offer up unused space at a significant discount, many charter schools are given advantages that would seem to tip the scale in their favor. It would be hard to argue that these private or public charters are indeed true laboratories for innovation of best practices, given the tremendous advantages they have over public or even private schools.

The US Senate’s Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the financial crisis was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.”[5] Might a charter school bubble and resulting education crisis happen the same way? Might the leverage of a few powerful textbook and test printing companies create a system that is “too big to fail”? Might a pending educational crash similarly be the result of state and national legislatures failing to rein in the excesses of “Big Ed”, a conglomerate of test makers, book printers, and educational consultants profiting handsomely from the creation and amalgamation of more and more charter schools?

 

“Bundling”: Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and joining forces

One of the effects of deregulation was the creation of new ways to buy and sell groups of mortgages. One of the ways that the lenders protected themselves from economic trouble was by creating complex financial vehicles called credit default swaps (CDS). These CDSs could be created without collateral – that is, without proving that there was anything of value to be sold in case the investment went wrong – and thus they were at higher risk for a default. These junk bonds, accurately named because they were groups of mortgages that were without value (hence “junk”), were often quickly bundled with other similar loans and sold in large amounts to larger companies who were investing on the continued growth of the value of real estate in the United States.[6]

Just like the creation of new banks and lenders looks like the expansion of charter schools, so too does the creation of CDS look like the persistent closing and combining happening among charter schools. Time and again failing charter schools are merged into larger existing entities, in much the way Lehman Brothers sopped up smaller banks in order to bundle their mortgage assets.

The national White Hat Management group’s Cleveland experiment is an example of how deregulation and recombination make it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of individual schools. White Hat management ran into legal difficulties, accused of being beholden to particular publishers and vendors, rather than operating independently. Instead of amending their practices, they chose to sell major operations to a Pansophic education (founded by the same people who helped found the charter school system K12) which overnight became one of the largest charter school sponsors in the state of Ohio[7].

Other national vendors of charter schools, such as K12 and KIPP, have expanded through a combination of opening new branches and purchasing or absorbing existing charter schools. This makes it impossible to truly gage the effectiveness of the schools. In 2014, the law in Ohio called for charter schools to release their state report cards in their third year of existence. The average length of operation of a charter school in Ohio was 2.5 years. On average, schools chose to fold or divest rather than reveal their results. This has the effect of skewing charter school data to look better than it actually is. How? If, in any data set, you allow the option for the low-performers to opt out before being counted, the resulting data is inaccurate. This makes the data, which shows that charter schools tend to slightly underperform public schools on average, even more frightening.

Also in Ohio, the I Can charter school chain – started by former leaders of the well-regarded Breakthrough charter schools – has faced poor results and negative feedback from the public in Cleveland. The chain has additional schools in Akron and Canton and one in Indiana. In response to the poor results, the chain was turned over to Accel Charter School network. In their public statement on the transition, school officials explained that “running quality schools at the state’s $6,000 funding per student is too great a challenge and that they want to be with a larger network to save money.”[8]

“The teachers, the students and the parents will not notice a difference,” said I Can lawyer Jamie Callender, a former state representative for western Lake County.

It is hard to find these words reassuring, given that the transfer happened because of poor results.

 

Profit motive and predatory lending

Another contributing factor to the market crash and resulting recession was the large profit motive leading to predatory lending. Here is how it worked in the banking and mortgage business: mortgage lenders could bundle these mortgages (and the associated risks) and pass them on to banks and bank-replacements. They could – and did – adopt loose underwriting criteria (encouraged by regulators), and some developed aggressive lending practices.[9]

What might this look like in the education world? Much the same as it did in the mortgage world, it might look like charter schools targeting residents of urban areas and promising a new world of opportunities. It might look like glossy postcards and slick advertising campaigns, and promises of access to the internet at home for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It might look like promises of safety and order. It might look like colleges enticing students to borrow beyond their means in the hope of enhanced future earnings. 

It might look like dozens, maybe more than a hundred, for-profit colleges identified as having an unacceptable debt to earnings ratio. This ratio is “how much money typical program graduates are required to spend on student loan payments every year, and how much they earn in the job market two years after graduation.”[10] The administration of President Barack Obama labeled schools with unacceptably high ratios of debt as “profit mills”  – schools designed to create profit for themselves with little concern for their actual benefit to the students. A list of such programs was available at this Department of Education site at the time of publication of this article.

And there is big money to be made. One example of a well-paid executive in the charter school business is Ronald J. Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc. According to SourceWatch, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, Packard received compensation of over $19.48 million from 2009 to 20013, almost $4M a year. In 2013, he owned over 2 percent of K12, which had a market cap of around $1.25 billion in September 2013.

Education publication companies are already massive. Pearson, a textbook and testing company, has a market value over $4.5B. McGraw-Hill, according to Reuters, anticipated a valuation of nearly $5B when they offered an initial offering of stock in 2014. A third major educational publishing company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, currently is worth about $1.5B. The Chief Executive Officers of these companies are making major deals that will determine how our students and our schools are taught and tested, and their ability to work a deal that is good for the company will be a primary determinant of their value to the company, and the source of their compensation. They are even working in many states, as well as at the federal level, to create mandatory testing. Thus the law will guarantee that their product is purchased. They could be moving from free market salespeople to the sole deliverers of a multi-billion-dollar government mandate.

There is significant economic pressure to deliver a contract, especially a federal contract with billions of dollars.

Well-compensated CEOs, and multi-billion dollar publishing companies are sources of concern. But the mere ability to earn a major profit is not evidence of wrongdoing.

Profit-mill colleges are a bigger concern, but these do not, necessarily, rise to the level of wrongdoing or fraud. They are merely concerns.

However, actual wrongdoing was recently uncovered at Ohio’s ECOT school. This for-profit online k-12 school was cited this September by the Ohio Department of Education for charging the state for higher attendance than the school actually could verify. Online schools are very different from traditional schools, as students do not have to physically show up at school in order to be counted as present. They merely have to log in from home. The problem at ECOT was that they claimed compensation for 9,000 more students than they could prove they had.[11] With about 6,500 students verifiably enrolled, ECOT received an estimated $60M in funding that they did not merit for the school year. This fraudulent claim on taxpayer dollars should be a major concern for taxpayers.

Fortunately, this fraud was caught through oversight, and public records claims would help reveal the same information. Efforts to undermine the transparency of the system could create a system where such schools could hide their efforts to defraud states and taxpayers. In fact, reducing oversight seems to invite poor behavior.

Lack of Oversight

A final important cause of the 2008 economic collapse was that deregulation had led to a serious lack of oversight, which meant that important signs of impending collapse were ignored, or were never seen at all. “In 2007-2010 the lack of transparency in the large market became a concern to regulators as it could pose a systemic risk.”[12]  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that the financial crisis was avoidable and was caused by “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision.”

In a revealing scene in the movie version of The Big Short, an investor approaches a woman he knows well and who works at the Securities Exchange Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the banking market. He learns she is still providing oversight to these companies, even while she is actually seeking a higher-paying job from them – whichever one will hire her. He asks if there are laws preventing her from moving from a regulatory agency directly into a position with a large bank she was supposed to be investigating. She shrugs. “Since we got our budget cut, we don’t investigate much.”

For now, it is unclear whether the level of oversight is up to the task of managing the level of attempted fraud and poor performance. In addition to the ECOT investigation in Ohio, the Charter School Commission also proved willing to take charters away from low-performing schools.[13] These are positive signs.

Despite these isolated reports of identified fraud, the national move has been to reduce the amount of oversight, rather than increase it. In fact, one legislator, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, introduced a bill to end the Department of Education on December 31, 2018. And while this is likely just a symbolic gesture, the symbolism is not empty in a government with Congress and the White House under the control of one party. The House of Representatives recently scaled back implementation of oversight proposed under the new ESSA law.[14]  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made millions of dollars buying and selling charter school companies, and seems predisposed to favor charter schools over public schools. Just last week Bloomberg reported efforts by Betsy DeVos’ education department to take away protections for students taking out large loans to attend college, including the profit mills described above.

 

So these 5 risk factors, which set the stage for the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to exist in education today: deregulation, “bundling”, profit motive and predatory lending, and the potential for a lack of oversight. But what does that presage?

Just what does a crash in the educational system look like, exactly? It has never happened, as far as we know. And an education, unlike a dollar, is incredibly complex to track and measure. But we can speculate.

It could look like individual communities bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with state and federal dollars siphoned into the hands of a few corporations, who expand charter schools into additional markets, perhaps with the help of new federal laws. These communities whose public schools will be pitted against charter schools, already perpetually struggling to make ends meet, could find themselves over the next three years hit by a double-whammy of the loss of federal government support for individual programs and a federal hiring freeze, and the specter of funding a charter school system to run in direct competition with their own public system. Bankruptcy and receivership can mean the permanent fiscal end to a community, as inhabitants pack up and move away, or it can mean incorporation into a neighboring municipality.

The losses here, however, are perhaps as significant as they hard to measure.

On an individual scale the losses might be even worse than mere dollars and cents. Losing two or three years of a child’s education, as well-intentioned parents direct their children into profit-mill schools, can actually have a measurably devastating effect on a student. These schools often hire untrained and uncertificated teachers, or teachers who have been unable to find or keep work in other schools. We know that being assigned to an ineffective teacher for three consecutive years results in a 50% lower performance at the end of the three years than similar peers taught by the best teachers.[15]   We know that the lack of ties to a community that comes from answering to a private board rather than a public one can create a loss of identity for students and the community. What is the effect of schools that continually close, reorganize, and open again? How can they build continuity of relationships, standards and expectations, professional growth among teachers and administrators? What happens to students treated like widgets, or worse? What happens to the communities as these students grow up feeling a little less connected, a little less educated, a little less prepared for the future?

The housing bubble, and the resulting market crash, had devastating effects on people’s homes and lives. Billions of dollars were lost. The economy lost millions of jobs. People had to move from their homes. It was devastating. Money, however, can be earned back over time. The cost of thousands of lost educations, as corporations populate laboratory charter schools with our next generation, and those schools churn and change hands every couple of years, is incalculable.

 

[1] Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” Editorial. NY Times 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

[2] https://www.forbes.com/2008/12/31/housing-bubble-crash-oped-cx_bb_0102bartlett.html

[3] https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/08/20040809-9.html

[4] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article144515349.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[7] http://www.ohio.com/news/break-news/white-hat-management-reportedly-selling-ohio-charter-school-operations-to-out-of-state-company-1.599723

[8] http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/03/i_can_charter_schools_turned_o.html

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis_of_2007%E2%80%932008

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/upshot/harvard-too-obamas-final-push-to-catch-predatory-colleges-is-revealing.html?_r=0

[11]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/09/ecot_attendance_inflated_by_9000_students_audit_finds_60_million_in_state_funding_in_jeopardy.html

 [12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap

[13]http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2016/10/state_will_take_charter_schools_away_from_21_sponsors_slapped_with_poor_ratings.html

[14] http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/09/514148945/about-that-bill-abolishing-the-department-of-education

[15] http://thehiddencostsoftenure.com/stories/?prcss=display&id=266542

The Systemic Problem of Teacher Burnout

Last week, my students and I were out of the building on a field experience. As our speaker wrapped up, he called on one final student who had his hand-raised. The student said, “I’d like to acknowledge you for taking the time to talk to us today and for answering all our questions.”

Acknowledgments are a regular practice at Gamble, and I typically ask students to provide acknowledgments for our hosts at the conclusion of our field experiences.  This time, I had forgotten.  But Peter had not.

When Carissa, who was sitting next to me, heard Peter’s unprompted acknowledgment, she turned to me, smiling, and whispered, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

She didn’t know it, but her statement was akin to throwing me a lifeline. You see, it was just two days before spring break, and I was running from the specter of teacher burnout and losing ground fast. It was a race to the finish to see which would break first – the school year, or me.

Burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” (Mirriam-Webster)

Teacher burnout is described in many ways, but I found this list of warning signs to be particularly helpful.[1]

  • Exhaustion – a fatigue so deep that there’s no way to “turn it off”
  • Extreme graveness –Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing
  • Anxiety – The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more
  • Being overwhelmed – Questioning how you can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate
  • Seeking —Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm
  • Isolation –Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability

The stress and exhaustion of teaching is well documented. A recent Gallup poll indicates that 46% of teachers experience high levels of daily stress. This is on par with nurses, and tops the list of surveyed occupations.[2]

Another indicator of stress and exhaustion is the statistic that 43% of teachers sleep an average of six or fewer hours a night.[3] It’s little wonder then that “sleep” was the number one response my colleagues provided in answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about spring break?”

This continual stress and exhaustion leads to burnout, but teacher burnout is more than just a problem for individual teachers and schools. It is so pervasive that it has profound impacts on the profession as a whole.

NPR cites the following concerning statistics: [4]

  • 8% of teachers leave the field each year; only one-third of this attrition is due to retirement
  • 50% of the teaching profession turns over every 7 years
  • 40-50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
  • Enrollment in teacher-training programs has fallen 35% in the past five years; a loss of 240,000 teachers

What exactly is it that causes such high levels of stress in teaching? Those who are not in the field of education are often stymied by this. “Seven hour school days and all major holidays and summers off,” they reason. “What’s so stressful about that?”

However, the difference between the working hours obligated by the contract (as described above) and the fulfillment of the contractual requirements of the job (as described below) is profound. I used to count my work hours each week, but after spending a year consistently tallying 65-70 hour weeks, I stopped counting. It was too overwhelming. And I’m not different from any of my colleagues. All of us work a tremendous number of hours beyond our contractual obligation. Some of this is expected. No one goes into teaching actually believing that the work will be contained within school hours, but how does a contracted thirty-five hour week balloon into seventy hours of work?

Let’s begin with the school day. For me, five of the seven hours each day are spent actively teaching. I am fortunate to have two “planning bells” each day; however one of these is used every day for different variations of team meetings, and the other one is almost always consumed by parent conferences or other meetings. On average, I have one bell (50 minutes) a week that I can actually use to plan.

During my half hour lunch, I open my classroom to students who need help with their work, or who are just seeking a calmer and quieter option than the cafeteria. I eat and work. Sometimes I forget to eat.

I have meetings after school every day with the exception of Fridays, and the third Thursday of the month. These meetings run for 60-90 minutes. Sometimes I have back-to-back after-school meetings.

All of the remaining requirements of teaching must occur outside of the time already listed above. These requirements include:

  • Designing curriculum
  • Writing lesson plans
  • Creating materials
  • Preparing the classroom
  • Grading student work
  • Entering grades
  • Discipline logging
  • Making parent phone calls
  • Completing paperwork (SLOs, IEPs, ETRs, 504s, WEPs, 90 Day Plans, … )
  • Copying
  • Stapling
  • Hole punching …

My friends in business can’t understand. They ask me why I don’t just delegate some of this work. “Delegate?!” I laugh. “To whom??” Teachers are at the bottom of food chain; most of us have no one to whom to delegate. (I am fortunate to have a paraprofessional on my team; however she is shared by seven teachers, so her time is spread very thin.)

There are additional stressors beyond those of limited time as well. Some commonly cited external factors are:[5]

  • Lack of resources
  • Low pay
  • Test score pressure
  • Changing assessments and expectations
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Ever-increasing paperwork requirements

It’s not a mystery why fewer and fewer college graduates are choosing to become teachers. Those who do choose to enter the field of education join dedicated veteran teachers in seeing teaching as more than just a job. For most, teaching is a calling or a purpose.

Anything that is seen not just as a profession, but as a vocation, a mission, a passion, and a purpose requires an internal fire to fuel it. And all fires run the risk of being extinguished.

There is precious little fire-feeding oxygen left in American education, and this is showing up in extraordinarily high rates of burnout and teacher turnover.

So what can we do about it?

When I turned to the internet for answers, I was startled by what I found. There was certainly no dearth of advice, but all of it placed the responsibility for solving burnout on the struggling teacher herself, – “Teacher, heal thyself!”

“5 Ways to Prevent Teacher Burnout”

“6 Signs of, and Solutions for, Teacher Burnout”

“7 Self-Care Strategies”

“10 Steps to Avoiding Teacher Burnout”

And my personal favorite …

25 Tips to Reduce Teacher Burnout”

Because that’s just what a stressed-out and overwhelmed teacher needs – 25 more things to add to her to-do list. Number 2 on that list, by the way, is “Smile.”

The message that these types of articles are sending is that burnout is a failure of the teacher to properly take care of herself.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that each of the suggestions on all of those lists are good ways to encourage people to take care of themselves, and they place the locus of control with the teacher, which is empowering. My issue, however, is two-fold: these articles attempt to treat the symptoms and not the problem, and they ask the teacher whose internal fire is dying to re-kindle her own flame, when she is likely the person least able to do this.

Let’s start with the problem. I am often told that I “shouldn’t work so hard.” That’s a nice platitude, but I find it profoundly frustrating because when I ask which part of my job requirements I should fail to complete, or complete with marginal quality, in order to save myself some time, I never get an answer.

I often say that the greatest challenge of teaching should be educating the students in our classrooms. That’s a hard job all by itself for a wide-variety of reasons. When it is made harder by policies, inefficiencies, and bureaucracy, we have done everyone involved a grave disservice. I have previously written about the seemingly insurmountable challenges placed on teachers by educational legislation here and here.

A friend of mine who has studied organizational management had this to say regarding teacher burnout, “I think with what we are asking of teachers the question is, ‘How could teachers not be burned out, and how can all of us (administrators, community members, school boards) help to combat this?’”

And that’s just it. If education is important to our society, then teachers must be deemed important as well, and all of us must help to solve the societal problem of teacher burnout. Our children need good teachers, and good teachers work very hard. Keeping them in the profession is a shared responsibility.

Some action steps:

  • Vote for school levies, even if you don’t have a child in school – resources, especially as related to staffing (the greatest single expense), are key.
  • Speak out against the school reform madness – especially if you are a parent in an affluent school district.
  • Don’t participate in teacher or school bashing, or allow others to do the same – the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s teacher and school. The narrative that America has a preponderance of bad teachers and bad schools is simply not upheld by data.
  • Demand that your local school board set decent wages for teachers, and that they provide appropriate cost of living increases.
  • Support your child’s teacher – give the benefit of the doubt, encourage your child to develop independence, and nurture his or her self-advocacy skills before getting involved in potential school conflicts (see The Gift of Failure)
  • Acknowledge teachers for the positive work that they do – better yet share these acknowledgments with administrators. Parents with complaints readily share their concerns with administration; positive comments should be shared as well.
  • Don’t tell a teacher to “take time for herself – sleep, exercise, meditate, invite a friend for lunch, smile” unless you’re willing to help take something off her plate that allows her to do that.
  • If you know a teacher, ask how you can help – anyone can cut, collate, staple, hole punch.
  • Say thank you – again and again and again. This is why we do what we do.

I remain hopeful that those things can make a difference, but I don’t have much faith that the epidemic of teacher burnout will change soon. The anti-education “school reform” movement is powerful. It will take time to weaken its death grip on the throat of public schools.

But in the interim, all is not lost. Who better to support burning out teachers than those who know the industry the best – teachers. We are all on fire, but we burn with different levels of brightness at different times. We can each use our spark to help kindle the dwindling embers of another’s fire. A wise teacher I know said, “When we become a true community of educators in our building and in larger society, I find that I am not the island.”

Catherine McTamaney writes about this same thing in her book, A Delicate Task. “Teaching is hard. [We] are asked to give up so much of ourselves, to make ourselves humble and lowly before the child, to be servants, to be scientists, to be saints … but there are others on the path with us. We can lean on each other. We can walk in each other’s footsteps. Sometimes we’re at the front of the path. Sometimes we’re following another traveler. Sometimes we’re resting … Sometimes we’re so far ahead or behind that we can’t even see each other anymore. But we’re not alone. We are each other’s navigational stars.”[6]

To be “each other’s navigational stars,” we have to be connected to one another, and we have to pay attention to one another. While I believe that all teachers can help each other to combat burnout, my interpretation is that this work should fall most heavily on veteran teachers, mentor teachers, building leadership, and administration.

In supporting each other, we must not simply be content to provide inspiration. We must work to create environments that make teaching easier without sacrificing the best interests of our students. Here are some of the in-building supports that teachers say help them to be more resilient.

  • Leadership that is supportive and non-punitive
  • Having someone willing to slow down and listen when they have a concern
  • The provision of more time to allow for planning and collaboration
  • Work that is equitably shared by everyone
  • Meeting time spent to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness in the classroom, not to create additional work
  • Good communication
  • Consistent expectations
  • Follow-through: being able to trust that what was agreed upon will occur
  • Celebration of successes
  • Acknowledgment of good work

In my role as team leader, I’ve recently initiated a process to try and help with some of this. For each of the last two quarters, I’ve met one-on-one with every member of my team. To prepare for our meetings I’ve asked them to consider their responses to four questions.

  • What are three things you want to brag about from this quarter?
  • What is your current burning issue?
  • How can I help?
  • What I can do to be more effective in my role as team leader?

We’ve had some rich conversations, and I’ve gotten to know each of them better, but my great hope is that I’ve helped them to see the value in what they do, and to examine how they can keep improving.

The hardest question is always “What are three things you want to brag about?” At just about every conference, I hear, “I can’t think of three.” My response? “Yes, you can. Think harder.” And they do.

Asking them to identify a burning issue is the same thing as saying, “What do you most want to improve?” – except somehow it feels more approachable.

How can I help?”  is my favorite of the four questions. I’ve learned that it is much more powerful than its more common counterpart, “Let me know if I can help.” The latter provides an option to decline by omission; the former does not. If I ask about a burning issue and then don’t seek ways to help, I am essentially saying, “I see you struggling. Best of luck to you!”

The final question is purely selfish. I simply want to know how to get better at what I do.

I have only just begun this process, so I cannot say how effective it will prove to be in the long run, but I’ve gotten short-term positive feedback. Recently, I offered the opportunity to correspond via email if scheduling meetings took too much precious time. In response to this, one of my colleagues said, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to give up the deliciousness of that meeting with you.” While I can’t say whether or not our meeting was “delicious,” we did have a powerful dialogue.

No single strategy will suffice to fix the great challenges and stressors in education. Teachers must remember, sometimes through the fog and the haze of exhaustion, that it’s really all about the students. The students are the most powerful motivators and sustainers of all. I, like many teachers, keep a file full of notes like this one.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, every day if necessary, that the work we do matters.

As Carissa said, “That means you’re doing your job right, you know.”

Hold on to those lifelines. Write them down. Remember them, and help each other to see them.  Keep those fires burning.

 

 

[1] Pillars, Wendi. “Six Signs Of—and Solutions For—Teacher Burnout.” Education Week Teacher. N.p., 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[2] Turner, Cory. “Teachers Are Stressed, And That Should Stress Us All.” NPR. NPR, 30 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[3] Stuart, Dave, Jr. “Not Getting Enough Sleep? Tired Teachers Aren’t Usually the Best Teachers.” NEA Today. National Education Association, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

[4] Westervelt, Eric. “Frustration. Burnout. Attrition. It’s Time To Address The National Teacher Shortage.” NPR. NPR, 15 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[5] “Surviving Teacher Burnout.” NEA Today. N.p., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

[6] Edd, Catherine Mctamaney. Delicate Task: Teaching and Learning on a Montessori Path. Place of Publication Not Identified: IUniverse Com, 2012. Print. p.xv.

 

The Militarized Classroom

In early October I received a postcard-sized advertisement in my mail at school. This is common. Each week I receive a dozen or more postcard advertisements, full size color brochures, and even catalogs for anything you can imagine that can be marketed to schools. This one stood out. It was for a whiteboard on wheels, for classrooms.

It was bulletproof.

A bulletproof whiteboard on wheels. For classrooms.

The ad implied that with the right purchase, I could save lives. It implied that one of my responsibilities as a school leader was to prepare for the unthinkable, and that any resource not spent in that endeavor was wasted.

The other advertisements got tossed, unopened, into the recycling bin. This one got propped up against my desk clock. I would look at it and seethe. The rush of adrenaline was palpable each time it caught my eye. It took me weeks before I could figure out why that postcard made me so angry.

It said: you aren’t doing enough.

It said: you aren’t doing enough to protect children.

It said: violence at school is not an aberration. It is something for which you must prepare.

Worse yet, it pointed to misdirected priorities, and an abdication of our primary role as educators. We know that school shootings are most often perpetrated by students who attend the school. The message was that rather than find a way to connect each child to the community, we must instead accept that one or more of them are inevitably going to want to hurt us.

It said: we must plan to protect ourselves from our children.

I know the statistics[1]. How many children are shot in schools each year. How often the principal is among the targeted people. How the number of school shootings has increased in recent years, in coincidental tandem with an increase in gun sales, and in similar tandem with the use of standardized test scores to rate schools.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you. When it happens to you.

That there can be violence at school is not news to me. I know that there are real threats to our students and schools every day. I know my role, as a school leader, in making sure our students are safe. Most often this means being aware of individual conflicts and working to make sure that they do not boil over into physical conflict. Sometimes it means helping to break up a fight. And I know that sometimes the potential exists for a more dangerous incident.

Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted a new protocol to respond to potential shooting incidents.  Called ALiCE, it is a specific set of steps to be taken in case of an event where someone enters the school intent on harming one or more people in the building. It has a reasonable premise that makes it an improvement over the old response model. In the ALiCE response, you can take steps to defend and protect yourself.

ALiCE is, of course, an acronym. It works like this:

A – Alert. When you realize an incident is occurring, you make an announcement to the whole school. You also alert authorities. A sturdy radio box was installed in my main office with a large red button. Pressing that red button quickly handles several tasks: it sets off an alarm in the school that indicates that the building is on lockdown, it immediately connects you, via radio, to emergency dispatch (and, curiously, to every other school that has one of these boxes), it disables the key card readers at the doors and locks the front door, making the building harder to access. It also sends an emergency text to my phone, and I suppose the phones of a CPS security staff. The red button is serious business. I’ve told my office staff they can never press the button without my order, unless I’ve been shot. (More on that later.)

L – Lockdown. Initiated by the red button, or by a PA announcement during drills or non-emergency lockdowns (such as when police notify me they are pursuing an armed suspect in the vicinity of the school), lockdown is a common drill. There is a series of steps that teachers should take in their classroom, mostly to make the room inaccessible and to make it seem empty, and thus not a target.

i – inform. [Note: not a typo. A trademark protection prevents the creators of this system from using all capital letters.] This is where the new system deviates from the old one. The old protocol was that after you were placed on lockdown, you waited under your desk until the voice of an authority figure announced you were safe. Now, with the use of cameras and the PA system, my responsibility is to try and locate the person intending to harm others, and share his location with the whole school. These give important information to teachers, and are also meant to disorient and frustrate the individual attacker.

C – counter. Another innovation in this system is the permission  to “counter” the individual. Instead of sitting passively in a ball under your table, you can act to protect yourself. A disoriented attacker is more likely to fire his gun inaccurately or to move on to an easier target.

E – evacuate. Using the information provided over the PA system, teachers now have the opportunity to decide whether it might be in their best interest to get their class out of the building and away to a safe place – in our case, St. Catherine’s. If they determine that the attacker will not see them, they can exit the building to go to our rally point.

CPS has assured teachers that they can now use their best judgement in an ALiCE event, and will be protected from prosecution if something happens during their evacuation.

This new twist on the protocol prompted an unusual conversation outside of school. Cora is a family friend in the fourth grade at St. Catherine’s, a school on the other side of the park behind our school. At a recent community event, she approached me excitedly. “Mr. Jose, your school is our safe place in case we have to get away from a shooter.”

“Hey, yes, I knew that. Your principal and I agree to that every year. Your school is our safe place.”

She was eager to tell me more, “And, you know what?”

“What?”

“If someone comes in to shoot us, we get to throw things at him!” Her enthusiasm was clear. In a child’s mind, this situation, and the chance at self-defense by throwing a book at an assailant, was a wonderful adventure. These are the sorts of flights of fancy a person’s mind naturally takes in daydreams, or heroic stories they tell themselves and each other while playing. A child tries on certain roles, and then can easily discard them – a police officer, a criminal, the President, a teacher, a superhero. But this self-defense training is an awful intrusion into the world of play for a child. The message that this particular act might not be play one day is damaging. You may have to throw a book to save your life; you might not be safe here; we don’t have bulletproof whiteboards.

This postcard said: it is too hard to figure out why it is happening. Just accept it, and make sure you are ready when it happens to you.

When it happens to you.

When the district adopted this ALiCE protocol as policy, principals were required to attend training to implement it. Designed by our district security and facilities staff, this half-day in a conference room felt a little like officer training. We were given the outlines of ALiCE, with a bevy of statistics. Dozens of students shot and killed in mass victim incidents in Columbine and elsewhere. (This was before Sandy Hook, another school name we should never have heard, but which now haunts our collective consciousness as unspeakable terror.) Individual students shot in dozens more incidents, which gained less publicity, throughout the school year. We learned that time and time again assailants were successful in getting into the school, which is a relatively soft target. We learned terms like “soft target” – which means a building that is not set up to actively defend against unwanted visitors. We called the aggressive student the “perp”, short for “perpetrator.” We learned about “choke points” for student egress, where students can’t all get out quickly and become easier to harm, spots to be avoided during evacuation. We learned that frequently these angry students had easy access to weapons, and they used them to inflict harm on one or more people. We learned that more than half the time, one of the targets was the principal.

I was half joking when I told my staff they could only press the red button if I had been shot. As part of the training, we learned that statistically it is more than just a possibility, in the event of a shooting at my school, that I will be a victim too, along with one or more of my students and staff. Along with the terminology, that night I carried home some of the machismo that was communicated through the training. “It’s okay,” I reassured my wife. “Almost seventy percent of the time when a principal is shot in one of these incidents, he lives.” It took several minutes for her to be able to speak to me, to ask me to vow that I would never joke about that again.

I knew that my actions in the moment could actually save lives, and I took that seriously. This was not news to me. I already believe my actions every day are saving lives, or at least changing them forever.

We were provided a slide show that talked about the history of the ALiCE concept, and the ways that the process might work at any given school. And then we were shown a video.

Slightly grainy black and white, this video was taken from up above the subjects, as if the camera was on the ceiling. Framed on the right side by a shelf of books, it must have been from a library security camera. The movement below a table was confusing at first, then I realized there was a crouching girl in a white sweatshirt, and I knew for sure that I was watching a surveillance video from one of these infamous school shooting incidents. When a male figure entered from the left, I did not need to see anymore. I could not see anymore. I stood, said to no one in particular “I can’t watch this. Get me when it’s over.” Then I walked out of the room.

On my way out, I heard our instructor announce that this was video from Columbine. He named the young man who had just entered the picture, a name too familiar to us now, and I heard the voice of a young woman pleading for her life. Then, thankfully, the door shut behind me, and I sat down on the floor in the hallway, and willed myself not to cry. I was sick to my stomach. Even now, more than three years later, I viscerally experience the intensity of that moment.

I did not need to be convinced of reality. I did not need to be persuaded to do all that I could to protect my students. I did not need to hear the pleas of frightened children, or hear the pop of semi-automatic gunfire in order to take my work seriously. I do not want to become callous to those sounds, or familiar with them. But I still cannot reconcile this strange contrary aspect of my job, the expanded role of protector of my students against immediate threat, and the chief nurturer and educator. Ten minutes later the group took a break and the other principals left the room, subdued.

We know that safety codes and frequent drills work to keep people safe in public buildings. The last death in a public school due to a fire was in the 1950s. Strict building codes have made fires less frequent, and largely eliminated blocked exits and broken signs and signals.  Schools are required to do safety drills continually for a variety of potential threats. Recent changes in the expectations in the state of Ohio have added emergency drills, for the potential of a shooter, to the bevy of fire and tornado drills. In total, we are required to do 14 such safety drills a year – one fire drill each of the 8 months we are in school, one tornado drill each of the three months we are in school during tornado season, and three safety / ALiCE drills.[2]

Teachers take these drills seriously. The questions I am asked come from a desire to understand the policy fully and to implement it effectively. We work to take the drill as a full “dress rehearsal” – if we are to evacuate silently, we do. If we are to crouch or sit, we do, even if just briefly.

I know that these ALiCE drills traumatize my students and my teachers. Several years ago, at a team leader meeting, one teacher was nearly in tears as she sought answers to a question about her windows. To reduce theft, first floor windows were built to only open enough to let air in, but not a person. Likewise, in the event of an emergency, a person could not get out. Her students were going to have questions, and she wanted to get the answers right.

A year earlier, in our old building, an officer knocked loudly on the door of a classroom and identified himself as a school officer. With the teacher’s permission, a student let him in. “Bang!” he yelled. “You are all dead. You can never let anyone in until the all clear has sounded.” Some students laughed. Others jumped and crouched harder in place.

 

Shortly thereafter, when the all-clear had been announced, we called home to have a parent pick up the student who opened the door. She was so distressed that she could not stay in school the rest of the day. Our students understand the nature of violence, and some of them have seen it play out in their lives. Some of them walk home to houses on streets that my teachers suggest are too dangerous to drive down.

This year, Krista related the hard questions her students asked her as they debriefed the drill.

“Why can’t we let someone in?”

The answer? “It might be a hostage situation.”

“What happens if one of us gets shot?”

“I won’t leave you.”

I understand that fires and tornadoes happen. I understand that conflict happens in school.

I can’t understand why shootings occur in school.

Following the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, where 26 students and staff were shot and killed, several parents of the victims created Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing school violence. While they acknowledge that larger solutions need to be taken societally, their approach has been school-based. The emphasis is on providing support for every student, and being aware of the signs of social isolation and aggressive behavior, is the right approach to helping solve the problem. Their awareness video, entitled “Know The Signs”, is a powerful reminder to us to make sure we are vigilant and attentive to the needs of every student. We are inclined, in reviewing the video, to see a perpetrator. But what we see is a child.

Intentionally building community among students, whether in very large high schools or in small elementary schools, is the best way to make sure no student feels so angry and left out that he must make such a dramatic statement.

How do we do that?

  1. Build community into the school. Using specific classes such as advisory, or a team-based approach to schools, allows teachers to intentionally develop a relationship with individual students;
  2. Strengthen access to mental health support. Through hiring counselors and partnerships with mental health agencies students in crisis can be given the individual support they need to get through an individual incident or a long-term mental health concern;
  3. Teach grit, and that it gets better. Let students know that their current personal, academic, and interpersonal concerns are not world-ending. Instead they are temporary, and they have solutions.
  4. Teach empathy. Give everyone the skills and the responsibility to look out for one another. Let them know who to talk to if they are worried about themselves, or if they are worried about someone else.
  5. Offer multiple definitions of “success” in education. Celebrate athletes, artists, academics, and advocacy. This allows for students to be part of the community of the school without having to pursue one or two narrow definitions of what it means to fit in.

In a society where children have nearly unlimited access to every imaginable media, from supportive videos reassuring them that “it gets better,” to destructive videos idolizing and rating school shooters, we cannot put up a barrier to keep problems out. We must instead equip students with the skills and the support to make wise decisions and to look out for one another. The answer is not bulletproof whiteboards. The answer is not ALiCE. These are band-aids as a response to needed heart surgery.

 

 

[1] And here are some of them: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/promise/pages/17/attachments/original/1445441287/Gun_Facts.pdf?1445441287

[2] https://saferschools.ohio.gov/sites/default/files/HB178-TB15-001%20-%20Flow%20Chart%20-%20final.pdf

Conversational Capacity: Learning How to Lead

by Krista Taylor & Jack M. Jose

Sometimes the right thing comes along at just the right time. Other times, you have to wait for it. My search for the right leadership tool was one of those “wait for it” times.

In the fall of 2012, I took on my first real leadership role – special education department chair. I was nervous about it, unsure if I was really ready. But, I reasoned, perhaps like parenting, it’s the kind of thing that you can’t ever really be ready for until you are in the midst of it.

It didn’t take long before I made my first giant mistake. I was leading a department meeting that had already extended beyond the provided time, and I was explaining, for what felt like the umpteenth time, the administrative directive concerning how to prepare test administrators for giving accommodated tests. It was an unpopular initiative, as it required additional work. As I spoke, a few people were off-task, and others had already begun packing up their materials. I felt frustrated and angry. In the midst of all this, one of my colleagues commented, “I think what we have been doing is just fine. I think we should just continue doing that.” Instead of listening and responding appropriately, I snapped back, and I quote, “It actually doesn’t really matter what you think.”

Ouch. The meeting came to a screeching halt, and we adjourned in discomfort.

I immediately knew I was wrong, and I did the only two things I knew to do to try and fix things. I called Caroline to apologize, (She didn’t answer, so I had to leave a voice message) and I also sought out Jack to tell him exactly what I had done and to acknowledge my error.

Things moved on. We had more meetings, but I never was able to correct things with Caroline. Our relationship remained haunted by this conflict.

After this incident, I began actively seeking leadership mentoring. What I discovered was that there is a dearth of people who feel comfortable with this. Jack often says that the entirety of his induction and training into the principal-ship was a handshake and a hearty, “Welcome Aboard.” When I off-handedly asked him for leadership support, he just looked at me as if I was speaking some foreign tongue.

I next asked one of the academic coaches assigned to our building, who also happened to be a friend of mine. Her response shocked me. She laughed and said, “Krista, you are a natural leader. There is nothing that I can teach you.”

What?! How was I supposed to learn if no one would teach me?!

I settled on a teacher nearing retirement, who had been in a Team Leader role for a number of years. She didn’t actually know that she was serving as my mentor because I had lost the courage to keep asking for this, but I intentionally watched her and tried to learn from her.

So I watched, and I learned, and I stumbled, and I grew along the way.

I knew I was improving, but I also felt like there was something missing – my mistakes always seemed to be made in the same vein, but I couldn’t quite articulate what it was that was happening. I just knew I wasn’t satisfied.

Then early in this school year, (a mere five years after my initial foray into leadership), Jack saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity,

He said this about it:

Craig’s work related to much of what is explored in Kegan’s Immunity to Change. This is challenging work, where the individual reader or participant seeks to reveal the hidden motivators and obstacles that prevents one from making changes in oneself. It aligns with a key leadership theory in the Harvard Urban School Leaders program: to change a school or other organization you must first change yourself. You must become the leader it needs. Similarly, Craig argues that if you want to have productive conversations, you must read the dynamics of the conversation and change your actions. Doing this creates the most insightful dialogue that exposes the most important information and encourages the right set of possible next steps.

Jack was so impacted by this presentation that he asked if I would like to read the book with him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Not only did the title promise to help me improve team functionality during high-stress situations, but I also figured that if Jack and I were reading this together, I could trick him into serving as my leadership mentor without him realizing it. As enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into.

Turns out that Conversational Capacity was both the challenge and the answer that I had been seeking for so long. Craig cites Robert Kegan in defining the role of leaders. “Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.”[1] (29)

“Shaping the nature of the discourse” – this was what I needed to learn to do better.

Craig’s premise is that the critical factor for teams is not the much touted establishment of trust and respect, rather it 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.” (15) He goes on to describe moments in which this is happening as the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that while this sounds deceptively simple, our human nature tends to get in the way of our ability to remain in this balanced place when under pressure or when discussing challenging issues. “While 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.” (15)

After having read only the first chapter, I understood several things about this work:

  • It was serendipitous that Jack and I were reading this together because we represent both ends of Craig’s spectrum. When things get challenging, Jack tends to “shut down” while I “heat up.”
    I tend to “heat up” while Jack “shuts down

    This serves neither of us well.

  • Getting pulled out of the conversational sweet spot was exactly what I had been struggling with as a leader, and what I hadn’t had words to describe.
  • This was going to be hard. As Craig says, the development of conversational capacity is not “a simple gimmick or quick fix … if we want to improve our teams and organizations, we have to improve ourselves.” (3)

Jack experienced a similarly immediate and powerful response to the concepts in this book.

 Craig’s work immediately resonated with me. Perhaps this was because Craig admits that he, too, is a “minimizer” – one who works to keep everyone’s feelings intact, and seek out solutions that felt like an emotional middle ground.

It was a relief to hear someone else admit that. Years before, I was in a leadership training program at Ohio State University, and everyone in the group completed a leadership style inventory. We were then directed to stand in the part of the room that corresponded to our results. I found myself essentially alone in one corner of the room. Diagonal from me were a group of administrators whose answers revealed them to be decisive winners of conflict. Decision-makers. Men and women of confidence, and apparently full of correct answers. In my corner, almost entirely alone, a consensus-builder who believed in empowering professional educators to make key decisions.

Although Jack has a tendency to shut down, and I have a tendency to heat up, this is often a non-issue for both of us. Craig notes that it is easy to stay in the sweet spot when discussing routine problems – challenges that we know how to work through. However, we can readily get pulled out of the sweet spot when we are facing situations for which we don’t have easy answers.

Craig argues that these stressors trigger our fight or flight reflexes, or in his language, our urge to “win” (heat up) or to “minimize,” (shut down) and that both of these responses pull teams out of the sweet spot and lead to unproductive conversations. It is important to note that the goal here is productive conversations, not non-conflictual ones. In fact, being in the sweet spot is likely to involve what Craig describes as productive conflict – “productive conflict and a willingness to disagree, publicly and rigorously, need to be an integral part of a board’s operating culture.” (19)

Of course, not all conflict is productive. The conflict that occurred in the meeting where I was explaining testing protocol was conflictual, but it was far from productive. When I perceived that my authority was being threatened, I went straight to “win” behaviors, and I went there hard and fast. In doing so, I damaged my relationships, but more importantly, that testing initiative never did get enacted. As a team, we never were able to explore how to make our practice in this area more functional.

Minimizing behaviors can be equally unproductive. Jack’s explanation demonstrates what can happen when minimization of issues occurs.

The simplest way to phrase it misses the point. Some say that I just “want to be liked”, and that drives me to be unwilling to make decisions, especially substantive ones. But it is more complex than that. If people are invested in opposing viewpoints, say about placing teachers in certain classrooms, or a response to a certain misbehavior, I believe that they are using their best judgment. I believe they have put together the best argument that they can. I worry: if they “lose,” will they be less invested in the whole project? What else will be lost in terms of their morale and self-confidence? Whether they like me or not is secondary to my concern as to whether they will still be invested in the school.

 However, I know that my “minimize” behavior is based on an oversimplification all its own. Making an argument and having a stronger or more persuasive case prevail is not likely to cause someone to choose a new career. That does not make sense in a rational mind.

Minimization emphasizes caution over candor and runs the risk of having important issues not discussed in order to maintain comfort. “When our need to play it safe overwhelms our clear and noble intentions, we sacrifice progress and effectiveness for comfort and safety.” (39) Jack’s visceral response to this quotation: So. Many. Examples. And they all hurt someone. Ugh.

Conversely, when, as Craig describes it, “we are hijacked by our need to win, … our mind shuts and our mouth opens, and we grow increasingly arrogant and argumentative.” (45) Yuck. That felt so uncomfortably familiar to me.

It is said that “knowing is half the battle,” but I’m not convinced. I think knowing might only be about one-fourth of the battle.

After reading chapters one and two of Conversational Capacity, I knew what my battle was, but I didn’t yet know how to win it. And, of course, for me, the answer was quite the opposite of “winning.”

Jack was similarly drawn in.

Conversational Capacity became a page-turner for me. I wanted to figure out how to improve the conversations in the building. I was committed to creating a culture in the school that matched the one we were trying to create in the classroom. I wanted to make it okay for teachers to help each other get better at what they do. The fact that Krista texted me two days later and announced that “all the answers to everything” were in the book, of course, prompted me to continue.

Both Jack and I were eager to engage in the work of finding the sweet spot. To this end, Craig notes that no one universally operates on one side of the spectrum.

Everyone demonstrates both “win” and “minimize” tendencies; however it is helpful to determine where one generally falls along this continuum and what is one’s default mode when things become challenging. Recognizing this helps us understand what behaviors to watch out for and what strategies to implement to help us move away from the ends of the spectrum and toward the central sweet spot – that place where an equilibrium exists between candor and curiosity and the “dialogue is open, balanced, and nondefensive.” (15)

Craig notes that in order to increase conversational capacity and be able to stay in the sweet spot more consistently, we must balance the strengths of our natural tendencies with the intentional cultivation of checks on this tendency. I have mentally relived that terrible moment from that department meeting over and over again. I know I could have done it better, but what was the right way?

How could I move myself away from “win” and toward the discipline of conversational capacity?  How could Jack move away from “minimize” and toward that same discipline? I was grateful that he was going through this process with me, and that he too, was taking a critical look at his foibles.

Together, we explored the list of identified “win” and “minimize” behaviors that Craig describes, and noted those that we each typically engage in. We were both surprised to find that we demonstrate many behaviors from our “non-default” side of the spectrum. While it was important to be aware of these as well as our natural tendencies, the focus of our change efforts would revolve around the behaviors to which we were most habituated. For me that was those in the win column, and for Jack it was the behaviors that fell in the minimize column.

It did not feel at all good to admit that I regularly exhibit the following “win” behaviors:

  • State positions as fact
  • Dismiss alternate views and perspectives
  • Solicit support
  • Fail to inquire into alternate points of view
  • Interrupt others
  • Use dismissive body language

Jack experienced similar humility when identifying the “minimize” behaviors to which he is most prone:

  • Cover up your views, ideas, information, or concerns
  • Ease in – water down your concerns to make them more palatable
  • Avoid issues
  • Make excuses to let people off the hook
  • Use email or voicemail to express concerns
  • Feign agreement or support

So, what next? How could we both do better?

Craig addresses the method for improvement in a brilliantly simple manner. He says that people demonstrating a minimizing perspective exhibit low candor — or the willingness to speak forthrightly in the face of challenge. Those demonstrating a winning perspective exhibit low curiosity – or the willingness to actively seek out views that are different from one’s own.

To combat a minimizing perspective, one needs to exhibit greater candor, and to combat a winning perspective, one needs to exhibit greater curiosity. Craig delineates just two critical skills to cultivate in each area.

Candor Curiosity
1. State a clear position 1. Test an existing view

 

2. Explain the thinking behind a position 2. Intentionally inquire about differing perspectives

Easy, right?

Well, not exactly.

As soon as I read this, I knew the answer to my concerns about my leadership. I had to demonstrate greater curiosity, and I had to reign in some of my candor to provide space for that. And, of course, for Jack the opposite was true. He had to fight against his tendency to minimize and push himself to exhibit greater candor.

For about a month, I reminded myself of this before every meeting I walked into.

No change.

My Conversational Capacity checklist

I invariably found that after the first few minutes, I lost sight of my goal and promptly returned to my old patterns of behavior. I was so frustrated with myself that I designed this visual to help me remember. I even went so far as to embed scripted language prompts into my chart.

I’ll be honest. It didn’t help much. I was successful with dialing back my usual level of candor, but I really continued to struggle with increasing the curiosity that would allow me to truly shift.

I had the opposite problem. I often withheld my opinion or position on a matter. I did this for a variety of reasons, mostly hinging on the idea that I had positional authority over the teachers engaged in the conversation. I worried that stating a position early on would bias the discussion, and cause dissent to remain unexpressed. My goal was noble: I wanted to hear dissenting views. The result was not noble. Too often, I exerted my opinion near the end of a conversation or discussion, and this had the effect of summarizing or “deciding” the matter.

We found reassurance in Craig’s words at the end of the book, “If we’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. When we fall back into our old habits, we should say yes to the mess, see what we can learn, and move on. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our minimize and win tendencies. Recognize that they’re a part of us, that they often conflict with other intentions, and that we have to keep an eye on them. It’s also important to adopt a constructive learning-oriented mindset by taking note of our strengths and not just bemoaning our weaknesses. A conversation I had with an executive in Seattle provides a case in point, ‘My win tendency is too strong,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be overly hard on yourself,’ I suggested. ‘Try reframing it this way: you’re exceptionally good with the candor skills. Your goal now is to put in enough practice so you’re just as proficient with the curiosity skills.’” (179)

Okay, so I’m “exceptionally good with the candor skills.” However, I need to keep working at building curiosity.

In a meeting just last week, I think I did it. I think I found balance and stayed in the conversational sweet spot. Jack was proposing that we significantly move up a deadline for the completion of a huge, school-wide task. In typical fashion, I responded with candor, stating my clear position that it was too much, too fast, and then explaining the reasoning behind my thinking.

But then I heard myself say, “Now tell me what your thoughts are.” There it was — an expression of inquiry!

Jack shared his position, and then, taking both perspectives into consideration, the committee was able to develop a plan for moving forward that embedded some extra time and seemed feasible.

Craig notes that the whole group benefits when any member improves his or her conversational capacity. I suspect that exhibiting the skills of inquiry is easier for me in the face of Jack’s increased candor.

Here are his thoughts about his transformation in progress:

Recently I have adopted Craig’s advice, stating my position clearly at the beginning, but inviting dissenting views. By putting my ideas out early in the conversation, I cannot serve as the final decider. Also, by inviting dissent, I clearly make it okay to provide counter arguments. It turns out that the teachers are more than willing to disagree with me!

Even these small shifts feel great. Now let’s see if we can keep doing it the next time. Or maybe the time after that.

Personal change is hard. It’s so much easier to keep doing what we’ve always done. Conversational Capacity is a powerful book that pushes us beyond our comfort zones into a higher level of functioning. I cannot say it better than Craig does himself, “Be warned, this book will present you with a choice … will we let our experience reinforce the primal, self-centered aspects of our nature, or the nobler, more purpose-driven aspects of our humanity? Will we grow more candid or more cautious? More courageous or more timid? More curious or more critical? More humble or more arrogant? Far too many people opt for the lower, easier, less rigorous route. This book will encourage you to take the higher, more adventurous road – the road less traveled.” (9)

Learn more about Craig’s work here.

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

 

Angels and Superheroes Reader Survey

Friends, Angels, and Superheroes, we are very thankful for your readership. For more than a year, and over 60 posts, we have provided research, personal stories, insights, and perspective on a broad range of educational topics. Some of you have patiently tolerated our musings, while others have eagerly read articles and passed them on to your friends. In one case, you have passed an article on to some 360,000+ other readers!

We are inspired by each of you. Krista once said that it was ridiculous for one of us to be named “Educator of the Year” because none of us are angels or superheroes. Instead, we are all hard-working, passionate individuals. Many of us spend our extra time and spare cash improving our school and the lives of those who enter it. It takes all of us.

So we want to hear from you. Please take 5 minutes (or less, depending on the length of comments you choose to make) to answer the questions at the link below. This will help us make Angels and Superheroes even better. Next week we return with a look at how to make conversations more productive in every setting, discussing the work of our friend Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity.

Please select this Survey link.

Or copy and paste this address into your browser:  https://goo.gl/forms/saL8X8dCT4yjigQW2

Thank you,

Jack and Krista

Growth Mindset: Creating A Culture of Courage

 – By Krista Taylor

“For me, the United Leaders way of thinking has made me see the world in a new light. I’m much more gritty than before and much more willing to be brave and courageous and to try new things.” – Adalira

This was a student’s response to the prompt, “How do the ideas of grit and growth mindset impact you?” I expected to hear words about perseverance, grit, and optimism. References to courage and bravery surprised me.

Courage. And bravery.

Courage and bravery don’t always look like martyrs facing down veritable lions or tigers. Sometimes they look like an adolescent working on a math problem.

When Shauna arrived at Gamble, two and a half years ago, it was hard for us to believe that she had not already been identified with a learning disability. Her educational needs were profound, and her faith in herself had been severely impacted by years of academic difficulty. Math was the most challenging subject for her, and she often coped with this by putting her head down, refusing to do work, demonstrating resistance to instruction, and sometimes even crying in class.

It is hard, perhaps impossible, for a student to learn when she is this disengaged.

But a few weeks ago, during my Algebra class, I overheard Shauna say something that once would have seemed nearly miraculous. She was working on a math problem with a peer when I heard her say the words: “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes. It says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this,”

Getting to witness a student’s blossoming self-confidence is an extraordinary event – one deeply rooted in the concepts of grit and growth mindset – and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Gamble was first introduced to the book Mindset, Carol Dweck’s seminal work on growth mindset, through a mini-PD that Jack gave at a staff meeting in 2011.

Dweck’s research has been so rapidly and widely embraced by the education community that it seems silly now, just six years after that training, to speak of it as revolutionary. But when Mindset was published in 2007, it was a radical concept.

Dweck proposes the notion that intelligence is not fixed. Rather, she argues that intelligence can be increased through the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These neural pathways are generated through repeated practice, or perseverance, in a task.

Dweck refers to this shift in cognitive understanding as “the power of yet” as opposed to “the tyranny of now.”[1] Learning and development, she argues, are not a binary system. It isn’t an “I can” versus an “I can’t” proposition. Rather it is an ever-evolving continuum, and we need to shift our language to reflect what one is learning to do, or what one can “not yet” do.

Clearly, having a growth mindset is of value to all learners, so how can teachers and parents help to develop this attribute in children? Dweck says that the key for developing a growth mindset is to focus on effort, use of strategies, and progress. This is a shift from the traditional focus on achievement or on “being smart,” which Dweck claims leads to the development of what she calls “a fixed mindset” – the notion of an unchangeable level of cognitive ability.

Dweck argues quite convincingly, providing data to support her claim, that students who are regularly fed either the fixed mindset language of “being just not good at that” or, conversely, that of “being so good at that,” develop a near-paralyzing fear of failure. In the binary system of can and can’t do, when faced with a challenge, or when confronting error, students who have a fixed mindset tend to do one of three things – avoid the task, compare themselves to someone who has performed worse than themselves, or cheat. These students have been taught that their success stems directly from their innate intelligence or a lack thereof.

It is easy to accept that implying to children that they simply aren’t good at something is problematic. It is more challenging to understand that it is equally damaging to buoy self-esteem by noting mental acuity.

“You’re so smart,” may sound like positive reinforcement, but unfortunately, this belief has a dark shadow correlate. The covert message is that if success is due to natural intelligence, then any lack of success must be due to a lack of intelligence. And if intelligence is intrinsic, so too must be lack of intelligence. So every time a well-meaning teacher, parent, or coach praises a child for being smart, or talented, or athletic, they are unwittingly reinforcing the belief that these “gifts” are outside of the child’s control, and that therefore, when the child next experiences failure, that too is out of his or her control. If success and failure are outside of a child’s locus of control, then there is no reason to exert effort – either success comes easily, or one might as well not even try. For those with a fixed mindset, failure is a debilitating event.

However, students who demonstrate a “growth mindset” – an understanding that their success is dependent on their effort, and that learning and skill development are the reward for their investment of time and energy– prove just that. These students are functioning with a mentality of “I can’t do it yet,” not “I can’t do it at all.” These students are able to persevere through challenge without giving up, and as a result their performance improves. This is what leads to that blossoming self-confidence.

A few weeks ago, Shauna was working with a partner on a math assignment. The two were deeply and joyfully engaged in the task at hand – working with the slope-intercept form of linear equations. It was on this day that I was privileged to overhear Shauna’s words, “No, I don’t think that’s right. Look here in the notes, it says we have to do it like this. I think the right answer is like this.”

No one walking into my classroom would have seen anything particularly noteworthy, but that’s because they would only see the snapshot of that particular day, and not the movie reel of the last few years.

The important piece here is not whether or not Shauna was correct in her mathematical thinking; the important piece is that she exhibited the self-confidence to challenge a peer’s thinking, indicate a replacement solution, and provide reasoning to support her answer.

This was an act of courage and bravery.

And I believe it was a direct result of a focus on growth mindset in the classroom.

growth mindset language

Much of Dweck’s insight focuses on language choices, and there are many options available on the internet of student-friendly versions of replacement language used for encouraging a growth mindset. Here is the version my team uses.

When we first introduced this concept, the students snickered; we snickered. It seemed strange and stilted to say things like, “I’m going to train my brain,” or “Mistakes help me improve,” but we were surprised by how readily students embraced this shift. It has now become completely commonplace to hear students use these phrases to encourage themselves or others. Just the other day, I heard Dalya, who was struggling to grasp point-slope formula, mutter under her breath, “This is hard. I don’t get this.” Moments later, I watched her take a deep breath, and quietly say to herself, “This may take some time and effort.” I witnessed her emerging courage and bravery– the creation of growth mindset in action.

If Dweck’s work revolutionized our understanding of learning, Angela Duckworth’s related philosophy on the importance of “grit,” shared via a TED talk in 2013[2] served as a rapid-propulsion catalyst for getting these paired concepts into the public eye.

Duckworth’s research indicated that what she dubbed “grit” – a combination of perseverance and passion – is the number one indicator of future success. This flew in the face of the commonly understood importance of intelligence and talent, and thus, fit neatly hand-in-glove with Dweck’s work on growth mindset.

The concept of “grit” exploded in education circles and rapidly became a mandatory buzzword. It stands to reason that teachers would naturally embrace this concept. The ability to cultivate student perseverance as a way to increase success provides hope for struggling students, and a construct through which we can understand the importance of increasing engagement and stamina in children.

Duckworth directly credits Dweck with having the best insight into how teachers can instill growth mindset, and by extension, grit, in their students.

In Mindset, Dweck outlines three strategies commonly implemented by students with a growth mindset when they approach a challenging task – essentially helping them to develop Duckworth’s concept of “grit.”

  • Keep trying (sustained effort)
  • Attempt a new strategy
  • Ask for help

But the ultimate question remains – how can teachers instruct and reinforce these practices? And how can we avoid inadvertently setting students up for more failure and frustration by implying that they just simply have to “try harder?”

To answer that, I think there is a third critical piece of research – The infamous marshmallow study.

This study, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, examined the correlation between a child’s ability to delay gratification and better long-term life outcomes. In the study, young children were presented with a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) and told that if they waited and didn’t eat the marshmallow, they would ultimately be given two marshmallows. The results indicated a strong relationship between the ability to delay gratification (not eat the marshmallow) and higher SAT scores, greater academic achievement, and lower BMI indexes in adulthood.[3]

Since self-control seems to be an underpinning factor in both delaying gratification and persevering through challenge, Duckworth’s grit work is arguably related to Mischel’s marshmallow study. However, it is a replication and extension of Mischel’s experiment that I think reveals the key missing piece. (I first learned of this new research through this article written by my friend and high school classmate, Andrew Sokatch.)

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester recreated the marshmallow study with an additional variable – trust.[4] This version of the study included two sets of tests. Children were first given a box of used crayons and told that if they could wait to begin coloring, these crayons would be replaced with a box of brand-new crayons. After the required time length, half of the children who waited were given the promised new crayons, and half of the children were told that a mistake had been made and no new crayons existed. Then, like the original study, children were provided a marshmallow and told that if they could wait, they would be given two. The children who had been rewarded with the new crayons were able to wait a significantly longer period of time to earn the second marshmallow than were the children who had waited on new crayons, only to receive nothing.

I believe that this provides important insight into the work of Dweck and Duckworth. We know that poverty is a critical factor in the academic challenges that many students face. We know that poverty often brings with it instability and inconsistency –the archenemies of trust. If we accept that the development of grit and a growth mindset are tremendous indicators of success, and we connect that to an ability to exert self-control, then we can readily see the direct connection in a student’s ability to trust in the environment, and in the adults in charge of that environment, with a student’s ability to succeed. And we then know where it is we have to begin. With trust.

When I began teaching growth mindset about five years ago, I hoped that concepts like “perseverance,” “strong-mindedness,” and “asking for help” would become common parlance among my students. But I never would have guessed that courage and bravery would be part of that. Grit and growth mindset are avenues to success, but what I didn’t yet understand when I introduced this idea was that before students can even begin down this path, they have to be able risk error. They have to be able to trust.

Learning is a risky endeavor. Learning requires mistakes – sometimes public ones.   To learn, we must have courage, and we must be brave. For many students, it is much easier to avoid potential failure, to hide, to give up – the antithesis of grit — than it is to take the risk of making a mistake in order to learn and grow, in order to succeed.

Learning is an act of courage. My students remind me of this every day:

“Growth mindset has affected me strongly. I have struggled with many things that no person my age should go through. By powering through it, it has changed me in ways I didn’t know I could change. I have changed into a better person, and a very strong-minded one.” – Caden

“Grit means to keep trying – like in math we are knowledgeable to answer the questions given, and we all encourage each other to do better. I get gritty in language arts and in math because all of the hard problem in math and all the essays we have to do, but as a result, it pushes me farther, and I am determined to be successful because of my teachers. My teachers show us step by step to make us understand, and when I learn something new, I get excited and want to do more. [It] gave me a lot of courage to change and do new things.” — Dahlia

As teachers, our very first task it to get our students to trust us. And the more unstable and inconsistent students’ previous experiences have been, the more difficult it will be to establish trust. There is no substitute, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to establish trust is to uphold your promises, create a safe space, and to keep showing up again and again and again. Students have to believe that you’ll follow through on what you say, that mistakes are okay (and even encouraged), and that you will be there for them on both the good and the bad days.

Trust is a bit of a magic elixir, for once students trust, they can exhibit courage and be brave. They can risk making mistakes. They can face challenges and not lose faith – the essence of grit.

Shauna’s transformation into a “gritty” student did not occur overnight, and it would be inaccurate to say that it is complete, but it is remarkable. Over the course of two years, and through tremendous amounts of coaxing, modification of assignments, and a focus on growth mindset, Shauna has been able to conquer her fear of failure in math – to have courage and to be brave. This, in turn, has allowed her to learn. It would be inaccurate to tell you that she has become a brilliant math student. She remains the most challenged learner in my math classroom, and she still has days where she simply gives up, but these are becoming fewer and farther between. More often than not, she is one of the students with their hand raised ready to answer a question, and sometimes now, she is the student begging to be able to show the class how to work through a given problem.

When students can be brave and risk failure long enough to witness their own success, they can then begin to believe in their own ability to succeed– to persevere and “be gritty,” to develop a growth mindset. And we know that growth mindset leads to greater success. And hasn’t that been the goal all along?

Developing growth mindset and grit is a process. There is no such thing as, “Make Every Kid Gritty in These 6 Easy Steps That Will Work the First Time!”

However, there are some strategies that can help students develop growth mindset.

  • Directly instruct the concepts of growth mindset and grit.
  • Change your language to reinforce effort, not intelligence. I found this was easy to do for students experiencing challenges, but quite difficult for students who were demonstrating high-performance.
  • Find ways to incorporate student-friendly language shifts in the classroom, and encourage students to embrace them.
  • Normalize mistakes. I often tell my students, “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning.” Or as Dweck says, “So what should we say when children complete a task—say, math problems—quickly and perfectly? Should we deny them the praise they have earned? Yes. When this happens, I say, ‘Whoops. I guess that was too easy. I apologize for wasting your time. Let’s do something you can really learn from!’”[5]
  • Don’t get so caught up in looking for proficiency that you miss growth – and don’t let your students do this either. Deliberately draw attention to their gains, and remind them that this is a direct result of their effort and engagement.

[1] Dweck, Carol. “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Nov. 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve>.

[2] Duckworth, Angela Lee. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” Angela Lee Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance | TED Talk | TED.com. TED: Ideas Worth Sharing, Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance>.

[3] “Delaying Gratification.” Science 306.5695 (2004): 369l. American Psychological Association. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

[4] Sokatch, Andy. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow: It’s Not (just) the Kids; It’s the Context.”Medium. N.p., 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <https://medium.com/@asokatch/on-not-eating-the-marshmallow-its-not-just-the-kids-its-the-context-2687855c4fd1#.ftqr96ahm>.

[5] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset. London: Robinson, an Imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2017. Print.

 

Flow: Getting beyond gamification and badges in the classroom

It is that moment we live for as teachers. There is an energy in the room, students engaged in their work, with very little unfocused conversation, or perhaps no talking at all. Maybe students are eagerly calling the teacher over to examine their final product, or they are so immersed in their work that the teacher has become merely an observer. Or perhaps it is a classroom seminar, and the students are fascinated by the core question, pondering over possibilities. The bell rings. Students groan, “Aww, man, do we have to go?” “It’s that time already?”

It’s a narwhal moment. That is, a moment that exists, but is rarely seen in the factory model classroom where teachers hand out one assignment after the next, and then a bell rings to dismiss one group to make room for the next. Students have reached a state of optimal concentration. Immersed completely in their work, they have lost track of time, and perhaps even where they are. They are in a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (me’-hi chick-sent-me’-hi) calls “flow”.

It is not a rare phenomenon. Athletes, students, artists, and professionals of all sorts can experience this. Children can easily find this place when they are playing or learning a new skill. Young children paint with water and brushes on a summer sidewalk, see their art disappear, then trace and retrace the strokes of the brush. They perfect the moves with ever-circling, ever-delicate changes in how they hold the brush, or twisting the bristles with the angle of their wrist, each pass similar to the last, but slightly more perfect in the eyes of our budding expert. Then, suddenly, the motion mastered, they move on. Or less optimally, they are pulled away by parents with schedules too busy to allow  the perfection of brush strokes, and their flow is broken by the business of the life of their household.

These moments, when they occur in the classroom, leave educators energized for hours or even days. It provides a “teacher’s high” that is far more effective at creating an innate desire to teach than our paychecks.

Why are these narwhal moments of deep concentration, where a person is so in the flow that they lose track of time and space, so rare in the classroom? And how can we create this flow more readily? There is an answer, and the tools for creating a space where it happens more readily are in the hands of teachers.

A hot trend in classroom engagement these days is “gamification”. Hoping to capture or perhaps replicate the intense fascination some of our students have with video games – losing hours in front of screens mastering delicate moves of the hand and wrist not unlike our sidewalk artist above – teachers are turning to technology to help students keep score of their work and even earn awards called badges for completing assignments. These are artificial attempts to emulate the very real and reproducible experience of “flow”. Flow is not gamification, exactly, though it does involve bringing parameters to the classroom that we most commonly associate with gameplay.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihaly gathers other people’s descriptions of what he calls “optimal experience”:

    a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. (p. 97)

That is what we want in the classroom. So let’s break down that description he provides, and see what we can do in the classroom to make it happen.

 

A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand.

The chart used to describe flow shows the y axis as the challenge, and the x axis as the learner’s skill level. As long as they are matched, a person can experience flow. Dancing, hitting a tennis ball, reading a book, learning an instrument, constructing a model – all activities are susceptible to this model. If the challenge outstrips the skill, a student becomes anxious, agitated or frustrated, and is likely to quit, or to certainly fall out of flow. If the task is too simple, and their skill level exceeds the challenge, the learner becomes bored or worse.

Matching the challenge to a student’s skill level increases the chances of achieving flow.

What can we do to match a student’s skill level with the challenges at hand? Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky described this area just beyond a person’s current skill set as their “zone of proximal development,” or ZPD (often pronounced “Zo-ped”). He describes a learner in this state as rapt in attention, and likely to even be verbalizing their thought process – talking out loud to guide themselves through a challenge. A student who is zo-pedalling their way through a challenging task looks a lot like a student in “flow”. Striving at the edge of their skill set, they are talking themselves through the finer points of the task. Vygotsky was observing one aspect of flow, life in the channel between anxiety where the challenge was too great for their skills, and ennui, where the challenge was too little to engage their interest.

So first, we have to know where a student is in regard to specific skills or objectives. Detailed testing, or close grading of student work, can provide the necessary level of insight.  Better than assessment, careful observation can give a teacher the clearest picture of a student’s development of targeted and necessary skills. In an era of online tests and automated grading and feedback, a clipboard and a well-constructed observation chart is still the most powerful observation tool available. A trained professional educator remains the most sophisticated data collection tool in our schools. With the information we gather, we can provide targeted coaching in the student’s ZPD. Is the student struggling with capitalization? Specific practice in capitalization is needed, not writing another 5 paragraph essay. Is the problem with borrowing numbers in subtraction? Let’s target those skills.

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines many examples of small geographical areas that suddenly produce a pool of great talent, with most of his examples coming in athletic talent. In each case, the practice that those athletes are doing is specific and targeted on key skills of a large puzzle. An example from his book is of a group of soccer players who mastered the intricate footwork to win one-on-one challenges on the field. They practiced by playing an indoor, small-room version of the game that depended entirely on mastering this close-action ball control. These athletes were playing a modified version of the game, working in their ZPD, while mastering a talent that can be a pivotal difference in a soccer match.

We can do this for our students, giving them practice on a skill they are mastering. We can also allow them to self-select work just “above” or just “below” where we think they are. They will almost always make the right decision for themselves, if we would let them. The Montessori method of instruction allows students access to shelfwork that is beautiful and engaging, and to which students can return again and again. A student may return to a beadboard to practice multiplication and understanding the relationships of groups of ten. Another may return to a book that is technically below their reading level, followed by their engagement and curiosity to investigate another aspect of the reading that is not determined by the book’

 

A goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing

Well, one would think the modern classroom would be the very model of this description. We are asked to emphasize specific standards, micromanaging and micro-reporting results from testing with information on specific objectives and strands mastered. We have online gradebooks that allow the student and parent to peer inside the gradebook. Here one sees the making of a transparent classroom with everyone fully aware of each student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, that is not what has been created.

In too many cases, students report their homework as “read these pages”, or “do those problems.” Students still describe work as the task, and not the skill to be learned. More targeted work might ask students reading the same novel to complete different work based on their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps one student would be asked to gather information about a specific character, to learn how the author used actions and dialogue to reveal their true nature, while another student would be examining similes and metaphors for their impact on the reader and what they revealed about the action of the book. This work could be scaffolded based on a student’s skill level, and in fact could be worded in such a way that students could do similar work in different novels as their skill level and reading level increased.

We have the tools to have this kind of conversation, and yet we too seldom have it. We have not done a good enough job drawing the students in to conversations about their progress acquiring specific skills. In fact, it is a conversation we often are ill-equipped to have.

This is a daunting task. Several years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools adopted an elementary grade card that reported not merely a letter grade for student performance, but instead gave parents a detailed list of skills and where their child was in mastering them. It came to its demise rather quickly, somewhere between the questions from the parents of “but how is my child really DOING?” and frustration with printing a 3 to 5 page report card for each child 8 times a year.

That was likely not the answer. So what about standardized test results?

For reasons entirely out of our control, our students are forced to sit through hours of standardized testing each year. If we then ignored the actual, meaningful data this effort generated, it would be us, and not the state, who was wasting the students’ time.

This year, Gamble Montessori looked closely at our AIR test (the current state graduation test) results at our instructional leadership team meeting. The scores were poor, in almost every measure. It was a shocking departure from years of success on the preceding tests, the PARCC (which had been discarded by the state after one year of use) and the Ohio Graduation Test. It was stomach-turning. However, we reasoned that since our students might likely be taking these tests for years to come, and would spend hours engaged, AND we got somewhat detailed strand information back, it made sense to focus on shoring up our weaknesses.

Guided by academic coaches, a specific role in Cincinnati Public Schools used to support principals in helping improve teaching in their building, we looked at our math and reading data. With additional input from our math and English teachers, we then chose a strand, a somewhat narrowed set of related standards, in which to focus. Then our teams built 90 day plans of action to focus on those areas, with a hope to see improvement in our next semester’s data.

This kind of conversation is becoming more common at Gamble and other schools.

“But Jack, this blog is ostensibly totally against standardized testing, and now you are talking about using test results to guide instruction.”

Much like I might use a student conflict to teach students about how to avoid conflict, there is no inherent crime in making the most of a bad situation. We are required to give the tests. We are evaluated by them. They determine a student’s qualification to graduate. Those things are true.

We can take the information provided and make it part of our dialogue. If we combined our close observations with our homework and classwork results, and the information from the tests, we could more clearly articulate where each student was and where they needed to be in every key strand. The result would be students with a clear understanding of our expectations. If we then made clear where they needed to get and gave them feedback and personalized work, the student would feel more supported, and less burdened, by homework.

Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to make acquiring specific standards a bit more fun. You can move a student’s ZPD further up the skill set by asking them to do something faster, or with fewer words, or in partners, or by evaluating others’ work with a rubric. Gamification attempts to meet this need, but can often do it in an awkward and inauthentic way, by tracking the number of attempts or minutes on task over time. Gamification seems to think that placing a screen in front of a student creates engagement, or that learning can only happen if the teacher can make something fun, or if a tangible reward is given at the end. This can be motivating to some, but the artificiality of it will quickly lose its luster for the student who is used to playing video games with plots developed by Hollywood screenwriters and animated with teams of technical artists. A teacher can certainly try this out as a way to engage students in a particular activity. The goal is to make the objectives clear to students, and provide a structured classroom environment where they have “clear clues” about how they are performing on the specific task and in the class overall. However, expecting this to stand in the place of authentic conversations about learning about topics of interest to students is short-sighted and damaging.

 

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. 

Maria Montessori once described an optimal classroom experience of her own, exclaiming, “the students are now working as if I did not exist.” Her careful preparation of the classroom environment, filled with work that engaged students by meeting them just beyond their current capability, allowed this to happen. Eager students concentrating on number beads or parts of speech work, or perhaps carefully coloring an illuminated letter with precisely sharpened colored pencils, perhaps a student with her face wrenched in concentration … AND THEN A BELL RANG.

 

And everyone packed up and left.

The factory model has a way of doing that. Of pulling the rug out from under a teachable moment. There is great happiness in the narwhal moment of disappointment at the end of the bell. The hidden sorrow in the anecdote above, where interrupted students express surprise and shock that time has passed so quickly, is that the interruption happens at all.

You’re having a narwhal moment. Don’t you want more of them?

A teacher can help concentration happen by creating longer and longer blocks of productive work time in her classroom. Clear rules about entry and exit procedures are necessary. A student knowing where to put completed work, and how to silently request the teacher’s attention with work, is a student who can focus on developing in the standards.

There is no harm in taking days at the start of the year to teach these very discreet skills. How can a student request a bathroom pass without interrupting others? Where is the stapler? What do I do if the stapler is not where it should be? No such skill is too small to teach so a student may master the use of their time and space, without interrupting others.

Providing work that is repeated and familiar, such as specific rules for highlighting and notetaking for every text in every subject, prevent confusion about how to interact with each new text. Utilizing blocks of time for extended big work, like writing and editing, or silent reading, with provisions for silent transition into other work as a child’s individual concentration shifts, can help stimulate concentration.

Many aspects of the conditions of flow in the classroom are within a teacher’s purview. How we communicate the work and allow for students to articulate it, and how we match specific tasks to a student’s level of performance are choices we make each day while planning lessons. How to structure feedback and goals and rules are part of our annual planning for opening days, starts of new semesters, quarters, or even the day after midterms.

There is an interesting caveat to all this talk of what is possible. Csikszentmihalyi also described conditions under which a person will be unable to achieve flow. Clearly from the examples, a student who is challenged beyond their ability will become anxious, and be unable to perform well at all. A child who is asked to do a task that is too simple for them, will fall into boredom or ennui, and quickly seek activities to become a distraction to himself and others in the classroom. (Being too challenged can mask itself as ennui. Beware the student and parent who assert that disruptive behavior is happening because the child is too smart for the work they have been given. This allegation is often made without either parent or student providing any proof that the work can be completed at an acceptable level!)

Flow can never be achieved, he argues, in a person who is self-conscious, self-centered, or experiencing anomie (a breakdown in the connection with societal values) or alienation. In these cases, a child must be brought back into a sense of community. Only here, where a student feels a sense of belonging to the larger group, can he experience the blend of challenge and success that makes time disappear.

You can conquer that by…   AND THEN A BELL RANG.

Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.

During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.

Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.

Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.

Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)

We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.

The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.

The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.

They selected quotes like these:

“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”

“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”

Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.

Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.

They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.

The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.

As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”

My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”

Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.

As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.

Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.

When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.

As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.

The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.

An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.

Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.

Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent.   So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.

Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:

  • How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
  • How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?

The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.

An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.

One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”

And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.

And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.

The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.

For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Racial Bias: Reflecting Inward, Projecting Outward (Part 1)

Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.

But . . .the results were yielding something different.

90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%

These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.

As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.

But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.

Black student responses
White student responses

As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.

It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.

Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.

I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.[1]

Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.[2]

None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated

Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?

Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.

We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.

Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.

So, for more than a year, we did nothing.

Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.

Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose,  Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …

It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.

We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one,  who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.

While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.

But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.

With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.

We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.

As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.

But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.

We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.

And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.

But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.

The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.

I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.

“That used to happen at my old school.”

“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”

“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”

And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”

The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.

Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.

We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.

At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.

When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.

During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.

On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.

It was through this process of self-reflecton that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.

Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.

The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.

Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage is these conversations.

This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice  and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist and engaged in rich conversations on each.

 None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.

It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.

 

[1] U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.

[2] Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.

 

We don’t play dodgeball in PE (and it’s not why you think)

A dodgeball

Gamble Montessori, as a new school, established a varsity football program relatively recently. Then we came in second in our first 3 football games. But this hot Saturday in early September, we had a good feeling. We had 24 young men on the team, which meant that though many of our best players would spend the balmy afternoon playing offense AND defense, we would have the chance to do some substituting. Having this few students always put us at a disadvantage against our opponents from bigger schools, but today we were playing a rival from a nearby program, a K-12 school from CPS: Oyler High School. They had just about the same number of players, which meant they would be as tired as us in the 4th quarter. So instead of watching a 4th quarter lead evaporate, as it had in 2 of our first 3 losses, there was a chance that we could build a lead and then win a war of attrition under the hot autumn sun.

Our Gamble Gators team did not have a lot of amenities. The coaches and players themselves carried much of the equipment onto the field, much of which had been borrowed or donated to the program: a parent-purchased kicking tee, two water coolers borrowed from the school’s camping supplies, and 6 Gatorade squirt bottles donated by a vending company rounded out our sideline possessions. At least today we were wearing matching uniforms in the school colors of green, purple, and black. This was a step up from the pre-season, when the local newspaper ran pictures from summer practice with our players in borrowed uniforms of brown and white, the word “BEARS” emblazoned across the front of each pictured jersey. A couple of fathers who had volunteered to help with the team, perhaps discouraged by our slow start, had other plans develop for this Saturday afternoon, and I soon realized that we had no waterboy on the sideline. So I volunteered for the job.

Not the Bears.

It is a unique  and humorous experience – observing the look on a player’s face when he realizes the waterboy who just arrived in the huddle is his principal.

In addition to having the authority to direct the young men to take a drink they might otherwise refuse, being waterboy meant I was present on the field in a unique way. I had access I did not usually get – even as the principal of the school – access that is unique to the sport. Only the coaches and players themselves were closer to the action. This was how I got to see Jordan Sheffeld up close. Jordan was an exceptional athlete. A strong lineman with unusual agility, he could keep his balance well when blocking and tackling. On most teams, the quarterback was the onfield leader, but our young program had a freshman in that position, and so Jordan, who played offense and defense on most downs, was a team captain. He was the one who calmed down players in the huddle, and he could adjust the players based on the call that came in from the sidelines. This was part, but not all, of how he won the game for us that day.

Long story short, the game went just as described above. We got out to an early lead. A strong defensive stand in the middle of the final quarter meant we could run out the clock and seal our first ever program win.

Coach West (right) moments after a Gatorade shower celebrating the Gamble Gators first football win.

I spoke to him Monday after the game. “Jordan, you were remarkable.”

“Thanks, Mr. Jose.”

“But do you know what you did?”

“Well, we won. So, I guess that was what I was thinking you were talking about.” He gave me a quizzical look and paused digging in his locker. “What are YOU talking about?”

“Well, you know that guy who lined up across from you?” He said he did, and supplied his uniform number and, to my surprise, his name. He explained that they had played basketball and football together growing up. I continued, “Well, you dominated him.”

“Yes, I suppose I did,” he grinned at being recognized. In fact, on several plays he recorded what is called in football a “pancake.” It is a descriptive phrase for how the guy you blocked looked after the block: flat on his back, like a pancake.

“But it wasn’t just knocking him down. It was that after each play, you picked him back up. And then, on the next snap, you knocked him down. One time when I ran out there, I swear you told him, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get me next time.’”

“Um, yeah, I remember telling him that.” He smiled at the subtle taunt. “I told him some other stuff too.”

“But then you picked him up again. You know what you did?” I waited till he looked me in the eye. “He didn’t put up much of a fight in the 4th quarter, did he? It’s because you broke his spirit. With good sportsmanship, and a dominant physical performance, you defeated his desire to beat you.

“I would say that you provided about the most Montessori performance one could ask for – you did your job perfectly, for the whole game, and you picked up your opponent after each play, then went out to beat him again.”

Montessori education is occasionally parodied as the refuge of pampered upper middle class children who clamor for participation medals after lacing their shoes. These imagined Montessori children become weak-kneed in the face of competition, and they blanch at the prospect of hard work.

In fact, the Montessori athlete is much like any other. Reveling in a sense of personal growth and self-development, Montessori athletes understand that practice is an important part of successful performance, and they embrace challenges in team and individual situations. They are not magical thinkers who only find satisfaction in winning, and thus seek out ways to be seen as winning without effort. Instead, they are hard workers who understand that competition with others is an important part of the athletic equation. In fact, it is often through competition with others that some of us can discover the inner drive to be our best selves. They seek out tests of their strength and speed and acumen. They challenge the clock, and set personal goals for weight lifted or the accuracy of a throw, or the excellence of an intended outcome.

The untested or unchallenged student athlete might believe wrongly that she is the best at an activity merely because she feels an intense sense of freedom within the activity itself. The Montessori child has moved beyond defining her performance solely on the basis of how it feels in the moment or solely on the basis of whether the work produces a victory. I think we all, at some point as children, believed we were the fastest runners in the world. Our children call us over, breathless, to watch them run across the yard at what seems to us to be an entirely ordinary child’s speed, then they insist to us that they are practically flying, and look to us for confirmation. What can we say? “Yes, indeed, that WAS very fast!” And our parents relate that we, too, repeated this ritual in our youth. So only when our children line up next to our neighbors’ children and see that one or two of them are far faster, do they begin to understand that running fast is a gift and a blessing, but running faster requires preparation and skill.

An athlete lines up a free throw.

Most sports confer this concept adequately, but some sports do it better than others. For instance, runners in cross country and track, while they run against each other and there is a winner in the sport, are also always running against their own best times and the conditions of the track. Additionally, a runner can compete against published record times and a personal best time; in a sense, any runner can “compete” against the very best runners in their city, county, state, or the world, by reviewing posted times. In these sports, as students enter any competition with any number of opponents, there are two goals ever in mind, both require individual improvement: beat the fastest person, achieve my fastest personal time.

Some team sports develop this duality better than others.

Football exemplifies a team sport with many factors that complicate individual improvement. In this most recent season, 2016, our football team found itself on both sides of lopsided games. We won an important rivalry by 35 points early in the season. Five weeks later we lost by nearly 40 points. Had we gotten weaker? Slower? Less skilled? Had we truly regressed the comparative equivalent of 80 points? While the competition on the field offered each player the chance to practice his skills and improve himself in each game, the physical size and number of players on one football team can serve to mask the personal growth or regression. The tremendous advantage of size is compounded over the course of four quarters, in some cases making it less about personal improvement and more about personal safety. In each lopsided game, the smaller team found itself physically outmatched, and unable to improve in their skills. A taller basketball team starts with an advantage that is not unsurmountable, but which noticeably impacts the game at each end of the court on every possession.

Gamble teachers play a game at our summer retreat.

It is important to note that the fields and courts used by our athletics teams are not the place where MOST of our students experience athletics at school. We require EVERY student to take physical education. In these physical education classes, our goal should be to encourage every child to understand what it means to be fit, and to seek out ways to, among other things, recognize “the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.”[1] Part of this is teaching students the rules and spirit of different sports. And, of course, that should be done in a way that promotes health, safety, and a sense of community. One uncontroversial adjustment made at most (if not all) schools is teaching flag football or “touch” football (where one or two hands on an opponent with the ball ends the play). Of course we make adjustments to make that sport safer. In other sports we make minor variations to increase participation as well, such as creating balanced teams and modifying rules to increase enjoyment among students who are less athletic. (Unfortunately, these sometimes are categorized as “girls’ rules” in some places, which sends distressing messages to our most athletic girls and our least athletic boys.)

We SHOULD make adjustments to these sports to make them more inclusive in physical education class. We should support and encourage our students to think about how to make the adjustments to create more inclusive but still cooperative games that they play on the playground and in the neighborhood. Cooperative game guru Karl Rohnke, author of Silver Bullets, a collection of cooperative games, provides a rationale for adjusting games on the fly: what is the point of a game if it is only fun for a few? Another pair of games enthusiasts, Adam Fletcher and Kari Kunst, introduce their article with a quote that suggests the existence of two kinds of games, the finite one, with fixed rules and a winner and loser, and the infinite one, which features changing rules and an intent to never end.[2]

Now, about dodgeball.

When I directed my physical education teacher to stop playing dodgeball in class, some of my students were vocally upset. Others were supportive. I was confident that I had taken an important stand for what is good about athletics, and what can be bad about it. My decision was not based on stories of injuries and lawsuits. I was aware of some of them, like the Bronx school where an ill-advised indoor recess dodgeball game resulted in painful and expensive broken orthodontia from a soccer ball that struck a student who had opted out of the game. I had heard myriad stories about broken bones and bloody noses, but at the time I was not aware of state-wide bans in summer camps in New Hampshire and New York. My decision was not even, or at least not entirely, driven by the regular appearance of students in my office who had been wounded physically during dodgeball, or who had been wounded emotionally by the prospect of having things thrown at them by more athletic and more aggressive students.

No, it was primarily that dodgeball differs significantly from traditional team sports. Unlike basketball or soccer, there is little opportunity for actual strategy or running designed plays. Unlike individual sports, there is no measure for judging whether you have improved or even mastered a skill. In short, there seemed no argument for it. There were better ways to practice throwing for accuracy, and running, and even dodging. Kick ball for instance offered a chance to do these things, with the opportunity for respite at the next base, or the chance to score a run and assist the team. Meanwhile, in dodge ball, instead of providing ongoing support and contributing to the group’s success, your team is slowly whittled away.  The acceptable athletics strategy of attacking another team’s weakness means, in dodgeball, that the least athletic student starts the game being targeted by one or more of the best athletes on the other side of the line, each throwing balls in his or her direction. This player then spends the bulk of the game, perhaps dazed by being struck with a ball to the head or face, sitting on the sidelines, ostensibly rooting for their team.

It is widely accepted that there are good and bad kinds of competition. I believe that dodgeball is inherently structured to emphasize the potential negative aspects of competitive games. It defies modification. Even as a fifth grader, I recognized the irony in the rule added by my PE teacher, who announced that if you got hit in the face you were not out. He meant to encourage us to throw balls at our classmates’ bodies, but the practical application was that moments after you got hit in the face, your teacher announced that you were still a viable target, and a dazed and embarrassed target at that.

In immediate response to the ban, students posted a petition in the hallway outside the gym. Thoughtfully, they included a few caveats for how they would conduct themselves when they played the game in the future. For instance, they suggested that students who were uncomfortable could just opt out. I spoke with the petitioners. I remember vividly our discussion, which focused on this “opt out” clause. Students could choose not to play without penalty. During the conversation, it was acknowledged by several people that it did not make sense to play a game where, by the act of playing it, several students would feel targeted and would instead choose to sit on the sidelines. That concept certainly violated our core value of community, for what is the value of a game if not everyone can enjoy it? If at the outset of the game, we knew that some students would be permitted to not participate? The very act of choosing to play dodgeball would then become exclusionary. One of the students who had signed the petition had privately expressed a concern about the nature of the game to me. I realized that in the conversation, I had to be careful not to expose that she had, in a sense, taken both sides of the argument. She never revealed to her friends her opposition, but, speaking as a signatory of the petition, she provided valuable arguments against dodgeball. She said to the group that the argument about including everyone was a valid point she had not considered.

After a few weeks, the petition was taken down.

Recently, I was approached by a coach who wanted to run a dodgeball tournament as a fundraiser for our program. He approached me as if he had been sent on a fool’s errand. “I heard you’re probably going to say ‘no’ to this request, but I was wondering if we could have a dodgeball tournament?”

“People sign up? Their own choice?”

“Yeah, they pay to enter,” he explained. “We have a small prize for the winner.”

I thought for a second. I considered how this request was different than in physical education class. A group of individuals will self-select to enter this tournament as a group, understanding the rules. Each would opt in because of the cause, or an interest in the game and playing with friends. They will have chosen to take the risk, and would not see it as anything other than fun if they themselves got hit and eliminated from gameplay.

“Sure. Sounds like fun.” My reservation was not about dodgeball the activity, but was instead about requiring children in physical education class to play a game that held so much potential for bad outcomes.

The Gators boys basketball team pauses for a picture following their first ever tournament game.

So, how can we work to make sure all of our students get to participate in our physical education games, and the games we play on field experiences or as community-building activities?

 

Ask yourself these questions, in this order:

  1. Does this include everyone?
  2. Is everyone getting an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the team / group?
  3. Does it promote physical activity and teach specific skills? Are the roles defined?
  4. Is it fun? (Variations of this question: when someone is “out”, is it fair and clear?
  5. How can I change it so the answers above are all “yes”? (OR At what point in the game can I ask students to change it so the answers above are all “yes”?)

When we teach students to compete in this way, instead of watering down their skills or teaching them that competition is without value, we call out their highest instincts for achievement.

One Monday night last school year, the Gamble varsity volleyball team beat Riverview East in The Swamp (as we call our home field. We are, after all, Gators).  The final point of the 3-game sweep was a smash by Carrie that brought the raucous crowd to their feet.  It was exciting!  However, the best moment of the match for me came 7 points earlier.

On that point, a Gamble player struck the ball, and it landed on the opponent’s line for a point, according to all who saw it.  The volunteer line judge, a Gamble student, flapped his flag indecisively.  Riverview questioned the call and one referee went over to question the linesman, who indicated that he had moved the flag because he was unsure what to do when the ball hit the line.  The referee called out “Gamble point.” However, our girls were already shouting to the head referee, “We will play the point over.”  Just like that, they gave away a point.  And 7 points later, they won anyway.

Having a faith in playing the game the right way, and responding appropriately to confusion over a call, demonstrates the kind of character we are attempting to instill in each of our students.  Applying it during a crucial game against our oldest rival takes respect for self and respect for the game. And it does not cheapen our performance or weaken our skills.

 

[1] National Standards for K-12 Physical Education Copyright 2013, SHAPE America –Society of Health and Physical Educators, 1900 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191, www.shapeamerica.org.

[2] “Why Play Games When There is Work to Do?”, Fletcher, A., Freechild Newsletter, accessed via the internet at http://campsource.pbworks.com/f/CooperativeGames.pdf 2017.1.15