Misunderestimating My Students

Been out-of-sorts at work lately. The technical term is “professional funk” or PF. I’m disillusioned with the direction K-12 and teacher education are going and I feel disconnected from too many of my colleagues. As a result, I’m putting more time and energy in my non-work life.

This semester even my teaching seemed a bit off kilter. Classes are organic, constantly shifting entities. I’ve learned lot about teaching over the decades, things that increase the odds of me having success, but when students know and like one another and decide to engage with the content, it’s easy to create positive momentum, and like an orchestra conductor, direct a successful class. By “success” I mean students learn challenging content and skills they value while enjoying the process.

Similarly, when students don’t know one another and go through the motions, it can be a semester-long uphill battle to create positive momentum and an enjoyable, successful class. This semester my first year writing seminar was of the uphill variety. Even mid-semester, when I’d arrive right before class, everyone often sat waiting in complete silence. Class discussions were lopsided, with the same half of the class doing all of the work. Their initial writing assignments revealed a few strong writers and more than normal weak ones.

I didn’t dwell on my PF and kept on keeping on. It took longer than normal to create rapport and I never felt that we truly clicked. Did they like my amazingly clever short stories about my first year college daughter like the time her high school science teacher accidentally lit her dress on fire? Was that muted chuckle out of politeness? To make matters worse, a few of them couldn’t believe the marks I gave them on their first papers and obsessed about grades all semester.

All in all, I didn’t feel too successful especially when late in the semester one of the more energetic students said “I have to talk to you after class.” Modern College Student texts, she doesn’t talk, especially face-to-face with her professor, so I looked forward to learning what was on her mind. “You talked too much during class today. I didn’t feel listened to. It’s like you said at the beginning of the semester, good discussions require active listening otherwise some people give up. Momentary silence is okay.”

“Thanks for taking the initiative to call me on that,” I replied. “I appreciate it and I apologize. I’ll try to do better in the discussion or two we have left.” Simultaneously, I thought, “Why don’t you just take this letter opener and jam it into my heart and put me out my misery.” I pride myself on being a very good discussion leader, and on this day, I couldn’t even hang my hat on that.

Normally, teaching is the best antidote for PF. Interacting with students in the classroom cancels out mind numbing faculty meetings, difficult to work with colleagues, and university politics, but this semester I had a particularly resistant strain.

Then I read my writing students final essays.

Suffice to say, to borrow from W, I “misunderestimated” them. They found the course both interesting and helpful.

Here are two examples in their own words, one from the only student courageous enough to get up in my grill and critique my teaching in person.

• An excellent result of this course is that I enjoy writing again. When I was in elementary school, there was nothing I enjoyed more than composing. By the time I was in high school essays had become a chore. Luckily, this course has altered that attitude. Maybe it is a product of the confidence or maybe it’s because I enjoy the course theme, but I enjoy writing again. Not only have I learned about education from this course, I have learned about myself and I now know that I am capable of accomplishing more than I would have ever imagined.

     • Beginning the semester, I wasn’t convinced that my voice rang through my writing. I was effective, but not creative. In hindsight, I believe this was due to a lack of confidence in my own ideas. I really related to Frank McCourt, author of Teacher Man, his autobiography of his teaching career in New York City. While Frank was slowly developing confidence in the classroom, I was becoming sure in my own convictions, abilities, and ideas. This growth may not be evident to my professor or classmates in my writing, but I believe it was evident in our class discussions. I never feared speaking initially, but rather had trouble defending my ideas when challenged. I remember during one of our first discussions on Educating Esmé, the class was disputing Esmé’s obligation to respect authority. I was raised to believe that respect for authority is implicit, but many students disagreed with my point of view. I took their criticism personally and ceased defending myself. Over the last fifteen weeks, I have become more confident expressing and supporting my opinions. Now, I am really thankful for a classroom of diverse, opinionated students who tested my beliefs. This external confrontation led to an internal cultivation of character and confidence. This new found voice may not yet be obvious in my writing, but I hope to continue to nurture it. 

I’m glad I misunderestimated how the class went.

Their papers were a moving reminder of how fortunate I am to have a job that affords me the opportunity to make a positive difference in young people’s lives.

What If Your Street Was Joplined Tomorrow?

Glad or sad I’ve run out of athletes that we’re all alike?

Utter devastation. Joplin, Missouri, before and after.

What would you do if you knew, tomorrow, the place where you store your stuff and sleep at night was going to be demolished?

Not long enough to rent a storage space and move everything into it.

My approach is muddled by the wife and daughters. The daughters are locked into a hoarders-like “Queen of Clutter” competition. Whomever wins the tiara won’t be able to find it in their bedroom.

So my first decision, the family is on their own. I’m taking one car and leaving them the other. When the GalPal stuffs her Clutter Queens and all of her bulky, three-ring 1970’s and 1980’s photo albums into the Hyundai, there won’t be any room left for things like clothes, shoes, water, and food.

Already in my trunk is one of the top priorities, my new golf clubs. On second thought, I’m taking the Hyundai because the bike is going on the roof rack. Next, bike gear, the laptop, iPad, and backup drive. After that, some hard copy pictures. Also, water, dried Mangos and apricots (current addiction), and important papers—birth certificate, tax returns, personal finance deets, passport. Next, some of the CQ’s childhood artwork and the letters my dad’s friends and colleagues wrote following his passing. Note to self, scan those before the big one. Then, half of my relatively small wardrobe (of course including Puff Daddy), my pillow, comforter, and shoes. Almost forgot some dishes, the blender, and bottle opener.

And last, but not least, the third “D”. After the Digital info and Down, the Dog.

One advantage of simplifying and then choosing selectively is I’ll have ample room left over in the car. That way, when the inevitable happens and the Girls Club begins pleading with me to take some of their spillover, I’ll be able to, thus earning valuable points in the up and down game of family life.

We’re All Lance Armstrong

We’re greatly influenced by—sometimes positively, sometimes negatively—those we associate closest with in our work lives and our private lives.

I found Tyler Hamilton’s 60 Minutes interview fascinating from more of a social science perspective than a moral one. Hamilton’s and Armstrong’s performance enhancing drug use is an interesting social-psych case study. At some point, probably decades ago, performance enhancing drug use reached a tipping point where a majority of cyclists said, “Screw it, I’m in.”

From that point forward, anyone with Hamilton’s and Armstrong’s physical tools and off the charts competitive drive probably had very little problem rationalizing it with the same mindset that regularly trips up thousands of young people every year, “Everyone’s doing it.”

It’s the same phenomenon we sometimes see on the freeway when it’s turned into a parking lot as a result of a bad accident. One person eventually decides the risk-reward is worth it, so they pull out from the far right lane onto the shoulder and take off into the horizon. Then, a second person. Then, a third. I can either sit and reflect on my moral superiority or get home at the same time as them, but not both.

Given the work culture of his chosen profession, I almost find Armstrong a sympathetic figure. To have “just said no” he would have either had to have found something else to do with his life or settle in as a second-tier domestique stuffing water bottles down his back.

Almost a sympathetic figure because through his repeated, robotic denials, he wants everyone to believe he’s special. He’s the only one who stayed in his lane, but somehow still arrived home before everyone else. That’s how good he was.

It’s as this point, Armstrong turns into a fascinating psychological case study. In one respect, we’re all Lance Armstrong in the sense that everyone one of us maintains public personas, revealing less than the truth about ourselves to the larger world. Of course the difference with Lance is the degree of duplicity.

He must wake up at night worried about what the federal grand jury’s findings might do to his athletic legacy, his future marketing potential and income, and donations to his foundation.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t ever expect him to come clean, just doesn’t seem he’s nearly introspective enough. And that’s too bad, because I’d gain some respect for him if he did. Of course, my acceptance and approval are meaningless compared to the rewards of self acceptance.

We’re All Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


When I was a pipsqueak, switching sports with the seasons, my guys were Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and later, Magic “Earvin” Johnson.

Now my favorite superstars are Dave Gordon, Lance Matheson, and Dan Mathis.

It’s kinda hard to believe Kareem is 64 now. It seems like yesterday I was in college, squatting in front of our fuzzy t.v. in a Palms apartment, as Mark Eaton watched helplessly as Kareem’s “most points in NBA history” setting baseline skyhook hit nothing but net.

Kareem has always been cerebral, aloof, and apparently, not too personable.

Last week, he said he felt slighted by the Lakers since they hadn’t built a statue for him yet out in front of LA’s Staples Center. That complaint could convince me to never erect a statue, but after digging a little bit into the context, I realized Kareem, just like all of us at times, feels unappreciated.

If Kareem felt appreciated by the Lakers, I doubt he’d sweat the statue. The Lakers in essence have said it’s tough to appreciate Kareem, given his aloof, prickly personality. He’s made his own bed.

Some of my co-workers don’t feel fully appreciated by others at work. Some of my friends don’t feel fully appreciated by their partners. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t feel fully appreciated by Barack Obama. Maria Shriver feels unappreciated. I don’t like that I feel unappreciated at times.

I wish I was more self sufficient when it comes to feeling appreciated.

But the truth of the matter is I’d like a statue too. A couple of ’em. One for three decades of conscientious teaching. Another for three months of extra cooking and cleaning while the galpal fights plantar fasciitis. And another for Friday’s lawn work.

Maturity is one’s ability to show appreciation for others without worrying about it being returned in equal measure. The challenge is to switch from “Woe am I, so unappreciated” to “I resolve to out-appreciate you.”

Ever deepening selflessness, characterized by ever increasing appreciation for others, is a key ingredient of a life well lived.

We’re all Tiger Woods Now

Remember how the 1992 “Dream Team” waltzed through the Olympic basketball competition on their way to their gold medal? Fast forward to 2004 when the US lost three times and settled for bronze. Fast forward some more to today. A Sports Illustrated mock NBA draft shows five of the first eight teams taking international players.

What about golf? There are four U.S. players among the top ten, and with Woods dropping fast, that will probably be three soon.

Tennis? The top U.S. player, Mardy Fish, is ranked #10, Roddick is #11, and then you have to scroll down to #26 before finding another American.

Soccer? FIFA has the U.S. ranked 22nd in the world.

The marathon? The first 14 are East African and 65 of the top 100 are Kenyan.

Long distance triathlon? Linsey Corbin, from Montana, is ranked 7th, the only American woman in the top 10. Timothy O’Donnell is tied for tenth among the men.

The most recent international test scores (NAEP) were recently published. In math and reading, U.S. students are in the middle of the pack among students from OECD countries. In science, back of the pack.

People suffering from acute “greatestcountryintheworldhysteria” will look hard to find different competitions we’re winning (personal debt, football by default since hardly anyone else plays it, health care inflation, gun ownership, fossil fuel usage, military spending). While their parochial heads are buried in the sand, more and more of the world supersedes us in classrooms and on athletic fields.

We’re all Tiger Woods now. The rest of the world isn’t the least bit intimidated. All young international students and athletes want is the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with us.


What gives with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss of US Rowing/Facebook/Social Network movie fame?

A federal appeals court has declined to review a legal challenge from the Winklevii who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook.

The Winklevii on Monday lost their bid for a rehearing of a 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the $65-million settlement they reached with Facebook in 2008. But, and I kid you not, they’re not deterred, they’re going to ask the Supreme Court to hear their case. I wonder, when they lose a rowing race, do they just say “the hell with it” and keep rowing, rowing, rowing, in the same way I once, as a pipsqueak playing flag football legend in my own mind, ran WELL beyond the endzone on a double reverse?

The original settlement was in two-parts, $20m in cash, and the rest in Facebook shares, valued at the time at $45m. If they had learned patience at Harvard, sat on their shares, and tried somehow to live off the $20m in cash, their Facebook holdings would be worth $200m today.

They claim their steady stream of appeals are about principles, not money. The Winklevii get my vote for the 2011 least credible claim and most out-of-touch twin brothers award.

And does anybody think these dudes would be any happier with hundreds of million of dolares instead of tens of million?

The Satisfaction Treadmill

I’m a third of the way into William B. Irvine’s excellent book, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Irvine “plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.”

The first “Stoic psychological technique” is negative visualization or regularly contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. There are several reasons to practice negative visualization, but the main one is “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”  Psychologists refer to this as hedonic adaptation. We experience hedonic adaptation when we make consumer purchases, in our careers, and in our relationships. Irvine writes, “As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.

He adds: One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. . . . The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

Irvine goes on to contrast two fathers–one who periodically reflects on his child’s mortality and the second who refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. The second father assumes his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father, he concludes, will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second.

So far, I’m down with modern Stoicism. Even though I’m probably more contemplative than the average bear, the notion of a satisfaction treadmill resonants with me. I take things for granted that I know I shouldn’t, especially my health; my family’s health; my material well-being; my work; and a promising future. I experience wake-up calls—the literal phone call of my father’s sudden death tops that list, the death of a neighbor’s child from leukemia, stories of cyclists getting hit and killed, and more subtle nudges like illness, and job loss and home foreclosure stories.

My take-away from the chapter on negative visualization is to be much more intentional about reflecting on the bad things that can, and in many cases ultimately will, happen to me. Stop depending on being surprised by late night emergency phone calls, and instead, make time every day or week to reflect on losing the things I most value—my family’s health, my marriage, my health, our friends, our home.

And, of course, my faithful Pressing Pause readers.

Cry Freedom

I was running with a friend one early morning recently when he started complaining about the gradual, seemingly inevitable, decline of freedom in the U.S. It takes a whole village, government intrusion, I’ve heard it all before, but this time I snapped.

“FOR EXAMPLE?” “Well, making fast food restaurants list the calorie count for every item on their menus.” “Wow, that is egregious, giving consumers more information to make better decisions. Maybe we should go into grocery stores and remove the same nutritional information from all the canned goods and other items. What else?” “Forcing people to wear helmets.”

I guess he’s correct, if by freedom we mean more specifically the right to eat crap without knowing it and the right to crack our heads open when we fall off our bicycles and motorcycles.

Then over breakfast, I kicked on National Public Radio and listened to Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera’s story. Nabagesera has just been awarded an international human rights award for fighting for LGBT rights in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal. Earlier this year, her closest colleague, David Kato, was killed, most people believe, for being openly gay.

And then we have the stirring examples of Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemenis, and Syrian democracy protestors willing to die so that their fellow citizens might have the right to assemble, vote, and speak freely.

The U.S. is imperfect, but thanks to our constitution, we can assemble, vote, and speak freely about our right to eat crappy food and crack our heads open. And we can choose where and how to live, work, worship, and raise our children.  We can criticize our elected officials without fear of reprisal and we can tweet and blog until our heart’s content.

Maybe Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly should lead an Arab Awakening tour abroad so that my right wing nutter friend and his friends can better appreciate the freedom they seemingly take for granted.

Sports Mindlessness

Hi, I’m Ron, and I’m a sports addict.

It’s mind boggling how many devoted sports fans like me there are given the sports landscape—too many players breaking too many laws; the inability of players and owners to divide the billions of dollars in television and other revenue; exceedingly wealthy owners expecting the general public to subsidize their billion dollar sports cathedrals; the performance enhancing drugs; not to mention the tendency of too many athletes and their fans towards violence, homophobia, and misogyny.

Of course, interspersed within all those negatives are sublime moments of pure competition, athletic excellence, Nike commercials, and joy.

Maybe professional sports are like television, just a reflection of ourselves, and in some cases, our less impressive selves.

As a sports-minded person, I wonder, what form might socially redeeming sports-mindedness take? Someone who values non-violence, level playing fields, the character building effect of sports, and the amateur ideal. Maybe I should limit myself to amateur sports, college sports, or minor sports, or high school sports, or minor high school sports?

That’s it! Maybe I should return to my high school athletic roots and start a cable television channel and website devoted to high school golf and water polo (AGWP-Amateur Golf and Water Polo).

Until some VCs see the brilliance of that idea, maybe I should just substitute personal athletic activity for the time I spend reading about, watching, and listening to sports.

The Inevitability of Interpersonal Conflict

One of the most depressing insights in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is that 9/11 would in all likelihood been avoided if key figures in the upper reaches of the FBI and CIA had respected one another more, communicated better, and in the end, just plain got along. Instead, the people entrusted with our security despised one another, purposely withheld information from one another, and didn’t do as good a job as they could and should have.

Recently a friend told me his pastor and the church’s worship leader don’t get along at all, to the point that it’s become a distraction for others in the church.

While reading on the couch the other day, a teenager approached me and said, “Can you go downstairs and read so I can watch t.v.?” “In ten minutes.” “Why?! Why can’t you just read downstairs now?!” Mind swirls, pulse doubles, beads of sweat form on brow, firey mini-lecture bubbles over. Teenager angrily retreats to bedroom. Once my pulse returns to near normal, I pursue my prey. She’s maimed and I’m going in for the kill. If she thought my original response was tough-minded, she’s about to be served a super-sized version of the same.

While approaching the bedroom door I worry it’s not going to go well. This particular teen, who will remain anonymous, is a digger-inner. Whenever there’s a conflict, instead of taking some responsiblity for it, she almost always defends herself.  So when mid-lecture, she quietly said, “I’m sorry,” she stopped me dead in my tracks.

Her apology immediately defused everything. I thanked her and later praised her maturity in front of her mother. It was a teachable moment, the lesson being, conflict is inevitable. Nobody is ever immune from it. Maybe “normal” or “natural” are even better words. Our challenge is to get more comfortable with it. And to figure out how we sometimes escalate it and other times defuse it.