Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

What Baby Boomers Get Wrong

The “Get Wrong” series is so popular, the Good Wife recently asked when I’m going to post on what she gets wrong. Since she’s a card carrying Baby Boomer, here’s some of what she gets wrong.

First, some context. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a full-fledged generational cage match going on and the Millennials bring it via YouTube!

At first glance the vid appears to be light-hearted entertainment. In actuality, it’s poignant, hard-hitting social criticism. When it comes to generation gaps, Baby Boomers like me (I’m a tail ender) make two mistakes over and over and over.

Mistake 1—Based upon a few negative encounters with Millennials, we get so worked up, our brains shut down; consequently, we overgeneralize about all young adults. Here’s an idea Boomers, let’s stop starting sentences with “Millennials”. Any sentence that begins with the word “Millennials” is likely to be a gross and inaccurate generalization. Unless, of course, it’s “Millennials make some damn good videos.”

Mistake 2—Baby Boomers are lightening quick to say Millennials suck, and yet, take no responsibility for their alleged shortcomings. That’s the brilliance of the vid. Their flaws are the direct result of our parenting, teaching, coaching. Millennials didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether like the first invertebrates. Here’s another idea Boomers, let’s stop ripping the Millennials without explaining our culpability.

Still Progressing Toward the Standard

That phrase is from my favorite sentence in Dahlia Lithwick’s recent funny-sad Slate essay (penultimate paragraph). Thanks to Dahlia for saying aloud what all of us have long suspected, educational jargon is out-of-control.

Why so? Because education is so much more complicated than in the past? That might explain a tenth of it. More consequential, educator’s confusing language reflects muddled thinking.

Here’s a recent fav example from the torrent of acronyms and tortured language I have to wade through daily. It’s from the promotional materials of a highly sought after teaching consultant.

Students advocating for educational improvement, researching classroom climate, and leading new approaches to learning and teaching stand together in the architecture of involvement, effectively demonstrating what school change looks like when the hearts, heads, and hands of students are infused throughout the process.

Come again? The “architecture of involvement”. Please stop. The more times I read that sentence, the more confused I become. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.

I should start a contest for the best example of educational jargon by a non-computer, and by “best” of course, I mean worst. But participants would probably cheat by using this educational jargon generator. The situation is so desperate that humor is the only viable response.

Switching gears, I added the briefest of postscripts to Friday’s triathlon post. Basically, a link to the results. If you take the time to skim the results, you’ll see that I HMAHTM (that’s a triathlon acronym which stands for Had My Ass Handed To Me). Props to Kennett. I can’t complain. I raced well and was only 2 seconds slower than two years ago. At this stage of my life, I’ll gladly give Father and/or Mother Time one second a year.

Kennett passed me early on the bike and then we leap frogged a bit. The first time he said, “You’re in the duathlon right (a separate bike/run division)?” To which I said “No.” Afterwards I thought of better responses like, “Yes” or “You don’t swim that fast.” A few miles later, when he passed me again, he asked me my name and I didn’t reply. Regretted that and so when I passed him back a mile later, I told him my name and asked his.

When racing I enjoy taking time checks on the guys ahead of me to see if I’m gaining ground or not. When they pass a landmark I glance at my computer and then glance at it again when I pass the same place. Throughout the middle of the bike his cushion yo-yoed from 11 to 31 seconds. By the 56 mile finish he had put about 2 minutes into me. I was hoping I could run him down, but he ran really well and beat me by 7-8 minutes. Based on athlinks.com, it was a career day for him. Afterwards, he didn’t bother to thank me for pushing him to a personal record and when I congratulated him on his race he barely acknowledged me. The only consolation was he could barely walk and looked like shit. In contrast, after a quick dip in the lake, and a change of clothes, I was my normal uber-handsome self.

Right now, according to edmunds.com, my 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid with 100k miles on it, is valued at $6,800. His bike cost well north of that. More triathlon jargon—Cervelo P5, Di2, Zipps. My old hand-me-down, heavyish, Dura-Ace 9 speed time trial bike is probably five minutes faster (over 56 miles) than my roadbike. I think I might gain another five on his bike. Then it would just be a matter of those pathetic/disastrous transitions. Send money so I can take revenge next year!

A jargon-related footnote. In my postscript I said I got spanked, which is of course, sports jargon. It’s a synonym for ass whupping. A few weeks ago, the GalPal said some team really “spanked the other”. To which I immediately said, “No!” “What?” she said innocently while smiling. She knew just how dangerous it was for her to start down the path of sounding like she knows what she’s talking about. I told her that you have to have an athletic background to use the work “spank” or “spanking” in a sports context. The zenith of her athletic career was when she laid the basketball in the opponent’s basket while “starring” at Peralta Junior High School in Orange, CA.

Fight the power this week, write and speak plainly.

Teaching Teamwork

In May, 2011, Atul Gawande gave an insightful commencement address to Harvard’s Medical School graduates.

He reminded the graduates that the practice of medicine had changed markedly, and that increasingly, the best docs are members of teams.

Gawande pointed out that, “The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become.”

I’m having my graduate-level teacher certification students read the address. On the copy I’m providing them, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “medicine” and written in “teachers” and “education”.

Here’s Gawande’s primary point:

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Today, isn’t it a workplace truism for nearly everyone that “. . . you can’t hold all the information in your head. . . and you can’t master all the skills”?

Gawande adds:

The public’s experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

On my students’ copies, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “people” and substituted “teachers” and “students”.

Gawande acknowledges that medical education fails to teach docs to function like pit crews for patients. The same is true for teacher education.

Too often nursing, medical school, and teacher education faculty wrongly assume that novice nurses, docs, and teachers will naturally, through osmosis, form knowledgeable, skilled, interdependent work teams. Absent intentional team-building curricula, in which case studies would be an integral component, professional apprentices depend upon the modeling of their veteran colleagues, often out-of-step ones pining for old school independence and autonomy.

When in comes to intentionally teaching teamwork, what can and should professional preparation programs do to shift the balance from cowboys to pitcrews? More generally, what can employers do to teach teamwork?

They shouldn’t assume it’s something someone is either born with or not. Effective teamwork can be taught through case studies that illuminate what the best teams do and what commonly trips up most others. And by proactively providing pre-professional students positive examples of excellent teams during their fieldwork.

Job Prospects in the New Economy

Last Sunday the family and I woke up at 3:45a to drive the college junior to the Portland airport to catch an early flight. The airport was the midway point of our ultimate destination, a vacation spot in central Oregon. Like a couple of comatose puppies, the high school senior was curled up with her older sissy in the back seat of the car. Picture overlapping blonde hair everywhere. While they dozed the GalPal and I listened to a BBC segment about job prospects in the new economy.

The participants were Oxford or MIT professors. Cut me some slack, at 4:30a.m. the world’s best universities all kind of blur together. They made two points, the first which I’ve been making for awhile. The more my daughters (and their friends) develop sophisticated data processing knowledge and skills, the more job opportunities they’ll have. Quantitative analysis is probably a better term since data processing might conjure up mindless keypadding. This turn towards numbers is not a fad, the Quantitative Era is here to stay. Nearly every organization is analyzing more data than ever before—hospitals, schools, businesses, prisons, college and pro athletic teams, churches, you name it. People steeped in statistics and adept at using SPSS will be able to write their own tickets.

Which doesn’t help the sound asleep sisters. They did well in math, but didn’t embrace it, and have and will stop as soon as they’re able. According to the egghead professors, all is not lost, there’s another strand in the economy that holds promise for secure employment. Work that requires empathy.

They highlighted the work of preschool teachers. I was surprised by the choice, but clearly, unlike most jobs today, skilled preschool teaching can’t be automated because it requires nonstop empathy. The problem of course is unlike most quantitative analysis jobs, preschool teaching doesn’t pay a livable wage.

This excellent BBC dialogue made me think about our empathetic daughters who may end up leveraging their empathy as teachers or counselors. Other empathy-dependent jobs include pastor, social worker, nursing home worker, and nurse.

Had the BBC invited me to participate in the dialogue I would have posed some questions.

• Given the breadth of probable work in the future, why do we emphasize STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the expense of the humanities and related disciplines?

• Certainly, empathy is part nature, but also part nurture. How do parents nurture empathy?

• How do primary and secondary teachers encourage it—without usurping parents’ rights?

• More specifically, how do we help young males be more empathetic?

As always it seems more questions than answers, for me, for you, for the sleeping sisters and their friends.

Compared to Teaching, Charles Barkley’s Job is Easy

In a round about way, this provocative Selena Robert’s piece about Tiger Woods highlights what’s unique and especially challenging about teaching well. Robert’s quotes Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers. Most damning, Chamblee says Tiger extracts from the game but doesn’t give back to it.

Usually, the most popular analysts and critics—whether in sports, the arts, or politics—are extremely opinionated. People like analysts and critics who aren’t afraid to rip a failing player, actor, or elected official. In sports, Brandel Chamblee is simply following in the footsteps of Howard Cosell and Charles Barkley.

What the best teachers do 180 days a year is infinitely harder than what Chamblee and Barkley and other popular analysts and critics do. Teachers have to thoughtfully provide constructive criticism to young people with whom they work closely day-after-day. Young people whose self esteem is a work-in-progress.

Chamblee knows he’s never getting invited to Tiger’s pad to have dinner so what does he have to lose? When Sports Illustrated wrote about Michael Jordan’s gambling problem he never spoke to any of their writers again. Which of course made it even easier for them to be critical. It’s easy for analysts and critics to rip failing public figures from the safety of their websites, studios, and media stages.

Teachers, on the other hand, often have to tell students up close and personal that their work doesn’t measure up. And most challenging of all, students are sensitive in different ways and to differing degrees meaning teachers have to continuously tweak their message. The best ones challenge students to do better without crippling their confidence or harming their relationship. It requires a mix of respect, tact, diplomacy, and care that the public doesn’t understand or appreciate. I’m most successful at it when I lead with students’ strengths. Encouragement makes everyone more receptive to how they can improve.

Parents face similar challenges on a daily basis. They often have to tell their children, “Sorry, that wasn’t thorough, thoughtful, or responsible enough.” The most successful ones do it in loving and supportive ways that are educative. Their actions communicate, “I want you to become more competent and independent”  rather than “Don’t forget I’m in charge.”

Compared to the teachers at the school down the street from you, Brandel Chamblee’s and Charles Barkley’s television jobs are a piece of cake.

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On Honesty, Rigor, and Success in College

Recently, I spoke to a group of AmeriCorp volunteers at Peace Lutheran in Tacoma, WA. Many were University of Puget Sound graduates working in K-12 classrooms and tutoring after school at the church. I was told they wanted to know the answer to two questions. What is learning? And how do students learn?

The fact that these whip smart young people didn’t think they knew the answers to those questions communicates a hell of a lot about schooling today. Specifically, too few teachers take time from “teaching to the standards” and “collecting and analyzing data” to think together with students about the learning process.

The cynic in mean assumes self-assessment and student-led conferences are en vogue because some policy analysts think they’ll lead to higher test scores. What’s needed is a genuine, substantive commitment to intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. Too few teachers “press pause on the class DVR” and ask what went well in today’s activity? What could have gone better? Which aspects of your group’s work went especially smoothly? Which parts were most challenging? When working with classmates, what do you do well? How do you know that? What could you improve upon? Why? What contributes to your learning? What thwarts it?

I asked the AmeriCorps to list a few meaningful things they’ve learned in the past. Looking for patterns and themes, I then asked them to reflect on how they learned them. “I’m learning how to cook,” one offered up, “by hanging out with roommates who are really good cooks.” We could have spent the entire two hours mining that gem of an anecdote.

When I turned to assessment, I implored them to honestly evaluate the quality of their high schoolers’ work. I said many of the secondary students they tutor get very good grades because they distinguish themselves by attending class regularly and turning in their work. Their simultaneous nodding communicated they understood this rarely talked about dilemma for many urban and rural poor districts and schools—you can’t fail the majority of your students, so students who attend and submit work get passing grades without nearly enough attention paid to the quality of their reading, thinking, math, and writing skills. Understandably, college admissions’ offices know and adjust for this, but that complicates those students’ transition to college.

Absent rigor, many students start to think of themselves as “A” students. But grade point averages can mislead. So it’s understandable that they’re sometimes devastated when they receive “C’s” on their first college assignments. Which is why I keep a box of kleenex handy in my office.

How can teachers, tutors, and parents help high schoolers come to grips with the fact that they may not be ready for college level work without those students giving in to a debilitating hopelessness? There’s no easy answer to that question, but passing students along without honestly assessing the quality of their work is inefficient and uncaring. Here are three starting points:

1) Impress upon them that their commitment to improving their skills is the single most important variable in determining whether they’ll catch up to their college bound peers and that closing the gap will take months and years of tireless work.

2) Invite successful college students from their community back to tell them that they too can overcome the same long odds if they commit to working hard and taking advantage of the resources available to them.

3) Make sure resources are in place, whether it’s well funded public schools, Peace Lutheran-like after school tutoring programs, or intensive summer remediation programs hosted by college campuses admitting first generation college students.

No Child Left Bored

Teaching would be still be damn hard if every student in every classroom read, wrote, and solved for x at the exact same grade level. Curriculum, interpersonal, and time management challenges would still overwhelm at times.

But of course classrooms almost always have some students who are either well behind or ahead of their peers, making teaching especially tough.

In the United States, in the last decade, political, business, and other opinion leaders have realized that the U.S. will be at a serious disadvantage in the global economy if a third of young people drop out of school only partially literate. Through initiatives like No Child Left Behind more attention has been paid to struggling students.

Even if the “No Child Left Behind” rationale is more utilitarian than humanitarian, that curricular emphasis is long overdue, but it’s also important to think about strong students who don’t find school interesting or challenging enough. It’s time for a “No Child Left Bored” campaign.

Conventional wisdom on how to prevent school boredom—go faster—is wrong. In “No Child Left Bored” classrooms teachers would routinely include an enrichment activity or “extension” in every lesson or homework assignment. These enrichment activities or extensions wouldn’t require more time, just deeper thinking. Here are some examples:

• A Pacific Northwest middle school science lesson on the water cycle, how to test for water quality, and how sewer run-off impacts Puget Sound waterways. The extension is an in-class discussion or outside-of-class research writing assignment. Should dams be removed for the sake of salmon populations? Why or why not?

• A high school civics class on the U.S. electoral college. Homework is to watch one of the Presidential or Vice-Presidential debates and then answer a few questions about it. The extension is a homework option intended to take the same amount of time as the debate questions. In life we often learn the hard way that the way we say something is sometimes even more important that what we say. Put differently, style sometimes trumps substance. Offer a theory about the relationship between style and substance using examples from the debate, and if possible, your own life. Be sure to explain whether one is more important than the other or whether they’re equally influential.

•A second grade art lesson is in essence a review of primary and secondary colors. Students practice mixing primary water colors to make secondary ones. The extension is a discussion about whether artists should paint what people might want to buy or whatever they want. How important is money?

Leave no child bored by asking students of all ages more open-ended questions that are usually thought of as “adult” questions. Questions that reasonable people disagree about. Questions that adults haven’t figured out. Conceptual questions. Questions that make your head hurt. In a good way.