Monday, December 31, 2012

The Choices We Make

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to heaven,
we were all going direct the other way

            How often have these lines from the Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities” been referenced in various posts? Too often they have been presented as a dichotomy that leaves the reader to believe the world can always be easily divided into the either/or, black/white, yes/no choices. As we head into 2013, I’m committed to expanding my options. I want to leave behind what Collins referred to as the “Tyranny of the OR” which he defined as “The rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time.  This pushes people to believe that things must be either A or B, but not both. It focuses on the Dickens allusions above leaving folks to craft resolutions, reflect on the bad year they just experienced, and hope for better days in the upcoming year.

                  There is more to the Dickens lines that don’t get the same reference level. The rest of the passage reads:

in short, the period was so far like the present period,
 that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received,
 for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

This speaks to the notion that many of our actions are driven by the choices we make in response to our view of the situation. We don’t see the world the way it is we see the world the way we are. Collins alternative option is to embrace what he called the “Genius of the AND” which he defined as “the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time.”  Instead of choosing between A or B, individuals figure out a way to have both A and B.

            Educators work in a world where it seems that dichotomous choices must be made - change or stability, extrinsic or intrinsic, academics or behavior, high standards or success for all. As the New Year unfolds, let’s challenge each other in our schools, in our PLNs, in our communities to stretch beyond the OR and embrace the AND. Let’s be conscious of the choices we make and keep in mind this John Wooden quote:

There is a choice you have to make,
In everything you do.
So keep in mind that in the end,
The choice you make, makes you.

In this time of reflection AND anticipation let’s also remember that reflection turns experience into insight. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

My New Favorite Things

            This Christmas has been my best ever and it’s not because of anything material that I received. It’s the best ever because of family. We had the pleasure of having our three kids, their partners, and our three grandkids with us in our new house and I loved every minute of it. It’s been tough to see them head back to their respective homes and I feel very fortunate to have had all of the quality time.
There’s something special about seeing your kids grow up to become adults that my wife and I are so very proud of and whom we love to be around. The level of adult conversation, their intelligence, caring and compassion along with the three brilliant adults, their partners, they have brought into our lives is better than any gift. But that pales in comparison to the three (and counting, hint hint) little delights that were also part of our holiday. The world just stops when I get to be with Isabella, Leah, and Liam and I look forward to much more memory-making time. These are definitely the moments of our lives. With apologies to the original artists and their version, here is my modified version of “My Favorite Things”.

Teething drool from Leah, and Liam’s big smile
Playing with Isabella for quite a long while
My arms and legs being used as swings
These are a few of my new favorite things

Tiny wet fingers stuck in my ears and nose
Counting up all the tiny fingers and toes
Walking outdoors (and mostly carrying)
These are a few of my new favorite things

Liam’s furrowed brow as he’s deep in thought
Leah heading up the stairs hoping not to get caught
Isabella bouncing around as she quietly sings
These are a few of my new favorite things

When they leave and our empty home is echoing
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my new favorite things
And then I won't feel so bad

I hope you also had a memorable holiday and took time to create some special memories. These are the things that will serve as positive reminders when the dark clouds circle. Here’s wishing you a healthy and happy 2013!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What I Learned This Week (Volume 10)

           Like many people I have spent a great deal of time pondering the horrific events that took place in Sandy Hook at an elementary school (I shudder every time I see those words – elementary school – associated with an event like this). I’m not sure what I learned in all of the dialogue that is out there and I know it will take further time to gain any perspective on this event. What I do know is that I won’t utter the shooter’s name, as I’m trying to etch in my memory the names of those who lost their lives. That’s part of my commitment when I think about the tragedy that occurred.

   As I listened to the commentary, I was shocked to hear this: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Again, I’m not interested in publicizing the name of the individual who gave the quote but I am troubled by it. Not by the content as much as by the naiveté that underlies it. You see bad guys are not so easy to spot. They don’t self-identify. No one ever speaks after the horrific event and says, “Yeah, we all knew he was a bad guy.” I’m guessing until the gut-wrenching events at Sandy Hook, some might have characterized the shooter as a good guy. He went to shooting practice and became quite proficient long before he became a bad guy. Or how about the guy in Chicago who was arrested after threatening his local school? A regular gun enthusiast who took pride in his 47 guns and $100,000 worth of ammunition – a good guy I suppose. Is he now a bad guy and should we be worried about him? The local police chief stated that he felt the man was “just bluffing when he made the ominous remark during a heated argument with his wife.” Does that return him to the good guy side of the slate? Bad guys aren’t identified as such until after their heinous acts. Perhaps someone has a way of identifying them and ensuring they don’t get weapons but I doubt it. Or how about this information from the Journal of the American Medical Association: Since 1997, at least 427 000 people have died of gunshot wounds in the United States, including more than 165 000 who were victims of homicide. To put these numbers in context, during the same time period, 4586 Americans lost their lives in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Were the shooters all bad guys? Could any of them have been good guys, perhaps even part of the suggested “extraordinary corps of patriotic, trained, qualified citizens" that could "join with local school officials and police in devising a protection plan for every single school”? We don’t have a way of identifying most of our bad guys and, notwithstanding a long overdue dialogue on mental health care, many of them appear as good guys for large parts of their lives. That’s why it’s about access to guns and yes, as the numbers above indicate, guns DO kill people. Bad people are everywhere and the fact that on the same day as the school shooting a bad guy in China stabbed 22 elementary school children is proof of this. Here’s the difference – the 22 children in China are all still alive and will be back with their families! 

           As for the good guys (and I use the term as gender neutral)? They are easy to spot. They are the ones at the front of the class or kneeling by a student at their desk or working with them at lunch or coaching their team. They are unarmed but can disarm the most unmotivated student with caring, compassion, and time. I made reference to this in a previous post with a comment from an aspiring teacher who chose to invest time in a student. When she said “but I took a moment…” she touched that child’s life for an eternity. You’ll see the names of good guys on the list below. They are alongside the names of a vivacious group of kids who will never get a chance to grow up and experience the true freedoms and liberties of the great nation they live in.  And that is the saddest part of this entire event.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What I Learned This Week (Volume 9)

            This week I want to focus on the connections we make and the enduring aspects of our work that continue to shape positive outcomes for our students. As I was completing this post, the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded and the words below rang ever more true for me. Such a tragic loss of young lives, and the lives of those who cared for them, can never be comprehended and the impact is far reaching. On some levels the impact of the work of a teacher has never been clearer.

            My youngest daughter has just completed her extended practicum and she is so excited about the work of a teacher and the connections and impact she can have in that role. We have been chatting at various times and it’s a thrill for me as well to see her take on the role of a teacher. All parental bias aside, she is going to be an outstanding addition for a school out there eager to pick up a passionate educator who “gets it”. We had been talking about the end of her thirteen-week stint and how she and her students responded just prior to my leaving for a week of presentations in Woodridge, IL and Raleigh, NC. I told her I wanted to continue the conversation when I got back.

            While in Woodridge, I had the chance to go out for an evening with my host, Greg Wolcott, and was delighted that his Dad, John, was able to join us. John is just one of those people who you warm up to right away and I enjoyed the stories he shared. He’s the kind of guy I would have loved to have as my Dad. The evening disappeared far too quickly. Greg had indicated to his father that I worked with schools on positive culture and relationships. John was generous in acknowledging me in this area and asked about whether he had got it right back when he was a Principal. He told me how he felt it was really important to get to know the kids, their strengths, and how it was easy to avoid challenges this way. He spoke about the importance of relationships as he shared stories. He absolutely “got it right” all those years ago.

After returning to my hotel room, I opened an e-mail from my daughter and she described a rich experience that occurred on her last day with her students. Here’s part of what she shared with me:

In my last week I had an experience that fully validated my teaching philosophy and that I was on the right path. As I have told you my philosophy of teaching is that every child has the ability to learn and succeed and my job as a teacher is to find ways for all students to have success. Children come to us every year from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with different behavior issues, and with unique skills and weaknesses yet regardless of the background of each student they should start the year with a blank slate and with endless possibilities. Along with this I think every child should feel special. If every student feels they are one of the teachers’ favorites then I am doing a good job. There was one boy in my class who was a bit chatty and unfocused at times and might be written off by some as a trouble maker but I had a feeling that his home wasn't perfect so one day after school I took the chance to talk to him and get to know him a bit better. We talked a little bit about his family and about the project he was working on. It seemed like no big deal, and it certainly took no extra effort on my part but I took a moment to listen to him and let him know I cared. I didn't think much of it but on my last day as I was saying goodbye to the students, the young boy gave me a present that was clearly his personal belongings and things that were important to him (a small plastic toy and a piece of wood chewed by a beaver that he had found) and gave me about 8 hugs. It showed me that he knew that I cared about him and I was glad to make that small impact in his life. As a teacher I hope to make every student feel special, and let them know that each and every one of them has limitless potential and even if they don't believe in themselves, I always will.

As a Dad, I am bursting with pride as I read this. As a future colleague, I can’t wait to work alongside this teacher who also “got it right”.

            My final connection to the theme came as I was arriving late to my hotel in Raleigh and checked the messages that had accumulated while I was in transit. Once was from a former student who is now a teacher. Heidi took the time to share her joy at being a teacher and to reach out to me with this message:

I have been following you on Twitter, and have enjoyed what I am reading.  You are doing amazing things! I am a middle school teacher in the Greater Victoria school district, and am loving my job. Anyway, I thought that I would check in and thank you for your work.

It was a great energy boost at that late hour and propelled me through the next two days with a feeling that perhaps I also “got it right” occasionally, and that Heidi definitely has “got it right” as she describes her work.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What I Learned This Week (Volume 8)

            The completion of the move into our new home was interrupted by a trip to Las Vegas, which is not a bad reason to interrupt the unpacking of boxes! Charlie Coleman and I did the U.S. launch of the two-day workshops built around our book Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive School Environment and had a great group representing four provinces and seven states.

The workshop re-affirmed for us the critical thrust of the book - behavior and academics are inextricably linked – and we must find a way to focus on both if our students are to have the ongoing level of success they are capable of. As one participant put it:

“It’s hard do the collaborative work of a Professional
Learning Community if your school is struggling
with student behavior and school climate issues”

The notion that we create great lessons for the academic outcomes we expect all students to achieve but only focus on consequences to address lapses in behavior needs to change. In the absence of equally structured and effective lessons for imparting our behavioral expectations with students, we will continue to find ourselves reacting. This rarely leads to effective solutions and often produces “more of the same” in terms of the misbehavior. Students who routinely run the consequence route find ways to get even and their methods are often less sophisticated (graffiti, destruction and damage to property, physical and verbal abuse). They also tend to become more disengaged resulting in increasing time demands on all educators.

            It’s also important for educators to understand that positive behavioral outcomes are the expectation for all students. It’s a mistake to assume that our most capable students always understand the reason behind demonstrating expected behavior. Simply performing the task does not mean understanding the task and may not lead to the task being demonstrated in a time of stress. The riots in Vancouver were an indicator of this as the individuals charged with breaking the law have come from a cross section of society that would mirror the academic range found in most schools. Our work in building a behavior matrix is based on the notion that all students should know the expectations in all settings. Lesson plans for social skills need to be incorporated across the grade and content levels.

            What I learned this week, or had reaffirmed, was the idea that our best hope for moving students, schools, and districts forward lies in effectively altering the outcomes for all students. By co-creating (all staff, all students, all parents and community members) our expectations based on our values, we stand the best chance to generate the types of results students are capable of. And the exciting part is that this really does reflect the best practice of teachers over time. As another participant shared after the two days:

“The beliefs you passed on struck a strong chord with
me and reflect many of my own views on education.
I hope they will make our school a better place.”

I’m certain they will!