The Man of La Mancha and the Heart of a Teacher

When I think back to my days in the classroom some of the most important moments happened when I looked past the hardened sneer or a facade of indifference of a difficult student to see them as they really were. They were rarely ever what they seemed on the surface. Somewhere deep inside of them, like all of us, there was something more. Of course, this inner spirit was often walled off and starved; and the more a student needed my help, the more they pushed me away. It seemed the one’s who needed love and attention the most were almost  always the hardest to love. There were many, many days I lost sight of my students as people. I gave in and saw them as they wanted to be seen and not as they truly were.

I believe it’s essential for teachers to have the heart of ‘Don Quixote’, the Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote saw the beauty in life, as well as the inner beauty of the people around him including Aldonza, a hard hearted and angry prostitute. Quixote sees her inner spirit and goodness and treats her as Dulcinea, a virtuous lady. Aldonza, hurt by her hard life, walled off and angry, rejects Quixote’s vision of her. She insists she is nothing. As the lyrics reveal, she knows how to deal with anger but not with tenderness.

Quixote’s response? “Never deny that you are Dulcinea!”

I wish every teacher could see the best ‘self’ that lies hidden in each of their students. I wish every teacher were able to  bring that best ‘self’ to the surface. But the classroom is a complex organism. It’s composed of many, many unique individuals, each with their own set of experiences, each on a journey to find their place in the world. We’re busy, and it’s easy to lose the heart of Don Quixote and to simply deal with the world, and our students as they are on the surface. Near the end of his life even the Man of La Mancha lost faith in his own quest to see others as their best selves.

Interestingly, it’s Aldonza, the most hardened of souls, that finally begins to see herself as Quixote has seen her. Without realizing it he has planted a seed in her heart. The seed begins to grow and she feels the good soul within her. It’s Aldonza, the student, who revives Quixote, the teacher, from his despair.

Don Quixote has touched the soul of Aldonza. She’ll never be the same. No longer a prostitute, she is Dulcinea, the lady. Touching the hearts of our students isn’t easy. but it’s here in the realm of the heart, that we are most apt to experience the true magic of teaching.

May the heart of La Mancha burn in your heart and in the heart of every teacher. May we open our eyes to the Dulcinea’s and the Quixote’s that enter our classrooms every day. May we help them see the goodness within them.


The Power of the Spider

From my book: A Path with Heart..

.preilly_smallI was on the phone with my “teacher”. The conversation had moved to an important crossroads, I was learning to open my heart more fully. At that moment, he said softly, “Look at that, a spider just appeared by the window.” I was confused. What did this spider have to do with our work together? He continued, “Some Native Americans interpret spiders as having ‘grandmother energy’. Grandmothers are so often touchstones of unconditional love.” I immediately thought of my own grandmother and like the petals of a delicate flower, my heart opened and I felt the unconditional love she had for me. It was an important moment in my life.

A few days later I spoke with my wife, Liz, a middle school math teacher, about what had happened. It might not have made complete sense to her; but she listened intently. A month or so later, we were eating dinner and Liz told the following story.

“We were in math class today and one of the girls saw a spider on the classroom floor and screamed. The kids nearest her jumped out of their seats to see it. In just a few seconds the entire class was up, probably happy to have a little incident to add some excitement to the day. They were definitely over-reacting.

Several of the boys approached the spider and there were shouts from the group to step on it. “Kill it!” the kids were all screaming. One of the boys was happy to oblige; but before he could stamp on it, I said loud enough for them to hear, “You know my husband says that spiders hold grandmother energy.” They stopped and looked at me. “What’s that?” one of the girls asked. I continued, “Some Native Americans believe that spiders carry the energy of their grandmothers.” The class had a look of general confusion, “Really?”

I stepped over to where the spider had stopped. One of the boys shouted, “Don’t kill it!” Another shouted from the back, “Pick it up and put it outside!” At that an entourage of students carefully worked the spider onto a piece of paper and the entire class escorted it to the window where they gently released it to the softness of early spring.

We all stood watching to see what it would do and in seconds it disappeared from our view. No one wanted to return to their seats. An odd mood had overtaken the class. We had moved from frenetic middle school excitement to quiet pride. Like we had done something important and meaningful.

Did they believe it was “grandmother energy”? I don’t know; but I know they’ll never look at a spider again without having the thought pass through their heads.”

As educators we take so much of our power for granted. For the most part, our influence ripples through the world and over the generations silently, unnoticed. Our lessons are seeds. They are blown on breezes far and wide. They are carried by lively streams to rivers and oceans where currents move them to lands we will never see ourselves. Whether these seeds germinate in distant lands or close to home, whether they grow immediately or wait for decades, our gift is nestled in the hearts of our students.

Remember the power of the spider. From lips to lips, from heart to heart; the gifts we bestow, the lessons we teach, ripple through time and place.


The K-12 Classroom Dojo

For the past 12 years I have maintained a practice in Aikido. We learn Aikido in a ‘dojo’ which means “place of the Way”. What would it look like if we structured each of our classrooms like a dojo?

Aikido is a Japanese martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba as a synthesis of his martial studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. Aikido is often translated as “the Way of unifying with life energy” or as “the Way of harmonious spirit”. Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

First, there is a teacher, the sensei. Sensei is one who has demonstrated his mastery and continues to study and practice his subject. This is similar to the traditional teacher in our classrooms today.

The pedagogy is simple and direct. The teacher demonstrates a technique with a partner chosen from the students in the class. He generally chooses a senior student called a sempai. Sensei does not usually over explain the technique. He illustrates it by performing it with his partner. After a showing the move a few times, the students in the class begin practicing it.

Students of all ability levels take part in the same class. This is a throwback to the one- room classrooms of 19th century America. Senior students train with the newer students, and assist them in perfecting their technique. This is beneficial to both the new student and to the sempai, who by helping in this way, become more aware of the nuances of each technique themselves.

Sensei moves about the dojo, observing students at their practice. He may stop someone to show him how to improve a particular part of his move. He may provide encouragement to someone who has done something well. He may step in to work with someone individually, or to stop all the practice and re-teach the move, focusing on some point he feels the students are missing.

The key point here is that students are learning by doing. The amount of time sensei spends instructing in front of the class is minimal compared to the practice time of the students. All instruction from that point on is specific to the individual students and their needs.

Aikido training is structured for students to obtain mastery. What does this mean? There are basic techniques that are foundational and practiced nearly every day. No matter how basic the move may seem, there is always more to learn, and more to master. For example, a beginning student might be learning the footwork of the move, an intermediate student may be doing the same move but learning more about proper spacing, and a senior student may be focusing on feeling the energy of his attacker and maintaining a steady flow of movement and breath.

This is unlike our classrooms which focus on checklist type learning. “I took that already.” I already learned that.” This type of learning fades away into oblivion over the years, because it was never really ‘learned’, only memorized.

What about testing in the ‘Classroom Dojo”?

Sensei is always watching his students. When he feels one has reached a certain level of competency, he asks the student to ‘test’. When sensei asks someone to take a test it’s safe to say that they’ve already passed because he would never ask a student to test if they are not ready. Some students learn quickly and move through the ranks relatively fast; while other students move more slowly…always at their own pace. It doesn’t take long to realize that it is not helpful to compare oneself to others in the class.

The test itself is a chance to demonstrate the student’s level of mastery to the rest of the class. A student isn’t tested on what he knows; but on what he can “do”. Learning in a dojo is never about what one says, thinks, or believes; but it is more about what new actions one is able to take.

What if the ancient concept of the dojo were adapted to our educational system?

Could we find a way to group students that wasn’t solely based on age or ability level?

What would it take to create a culture of learning based on Mastery?
Is it possible to re-define learning from an abstract knowing to an ability to do something with what we know?
Could we create classrooms built on practice?
Might it be possible for students to learn from each other?
Could testing become a ritual meant to demonstrate what one has learned after one has already satisfied the teacher?

I’ve found my years in the dojo to be an incredible and affirmative teaching and learning experience. I still maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’ and do my best to stay on the road to mastery because it’s a lifelong journey. My hope is that every K-12 student find a classroom/dojo, and a teacher/sensei who can help bring subject matter to life and arouse their curiosity and passion. Done well, learning can be the adventure of a lifetime.


Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor: The Keys to Classroom Effectiveness

I agree with Willard Dagget, founder and President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, that the keys to classroom effectiveness are the three R’s…Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor.

Daggett’s point about relationships is that learning is personal. When teachers have strong, trusting relationships with their students, they work harder and achieve more. We may have lot’s of ideas about what we’d like to do and teach in our classrooms; but without trusting relationships, we’ll find ourselves charging up San Juan Hill…alone!

It’s not unusual for us (teachers) to get excited about what we teach. For many of us, sharing our passion is why we entered teaching in the first place. The challenge comes when we’re so enthusiastic, we plunge right into teaching without building strong foundational relationships with our students.

There are lot’s of ways to build trusting relationships with our students (we won’t go into those today), but the most effective teachers go about creating it consciously and deliberately. It takes a little time, usually early in the year, but once trust is established and relationships are strong, teaching and learning are much less stressful. After all, students work harder for teachers they trust and respect. Teaching is more difficult when kids hold back because they don’t trust the environment enough to participate, or because they feel disconnected…their needs pushed to the back burner.

After we establish Relationships (trust) we can move to Relevance. The more students understand how what they’re learning is relevant to them, to their community, or to the world at large; the more motivated they’ll be to learn.

As teachers it’s important to create narratives that address Relevance. The most powerful narratives address Relevance in two ways: 1) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit YOU, as an individual? and 2) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit the world outside yourself?

Teachers who can create narratives that express the ways learning will take care of the students’ personal concerns, and at the same time explain how learning will be making the classroom, school, or world a better place; have set the scene for great things to happen

Relationships and relevance make rigor possible.


Getting Out of the Way and Blending

The experienced practitioner of Aikido learns to blend with his attacker. Physically, it involves getting out of the way, then ‘blending’ or ‘shadowing’ (looking in the same direction as your attacker for a moment), while feeling the energy, power, and momentum that they’re bringing to the situation.

Blending allows us to move without direct conflict. We don’t overreact and add ‘fuel to the fire’, but use only the energy and power required for the situation, and nothing more. No one gets hurt. Once again, when we’re in the classroom, ‘blending’ isn’t a physical move, but a psychological one.

Several years ago, I watched in awe as a veteran principal blended with a disgruntled teacher who had been challenging some of the ideas being discussed during his school’s staff development program. The teacher was clearly frustrated, and eventually blurted out angrily,

“I’d like permission to leave. This program is stupid and it’s not relevant. I’d rather go back to my classroom and do some lesson planning.”

The presenter reacted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and the entire staff looked stunned. The principal, who was sitting in the back of the room, broke the ensuing silence and spoke in a measured and sincere manner,

“We’re not asking for you to adopt every idea that’s being presented in the program. But why not give it till the lunch break and see if there might be a few things that you can use to help you?”

The teacher protested, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

The principal continued to blend, “You’ve already brought a lot to the program by challenging some of the ideas (the presenter) has brought forth. I think you surfaced a few thoughts that some in the group may have been thinking about, but weren’t willing to verbalize. We need people like you, with different points of view, to be active and vocal so that the learning here is real. The worst thing that could happen is we leave this session and have the real discussion and questions relegated to complaints in the teachers’ room.”

The principal sat quietly looking at the angry teacher, who was surprised by the principal’s openness. His face began to soften and the moment opened in possibility.

The teacher nodded his head, “If you think it will help, I’ll give it a try.”

The veteran principal smiled warmly, “It will. Thanks.”

I’d never seen a ‘blend’ done so well anywhere outside of an Aikido dojo.

The principal was clearly a master teacher.


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Soft Skills and Personal Development Are Key to Teaching Mastery

It should come as no surprise that great teaching has many components, and while schools are good at focusing their professional development efforts on the trainable aspects of teaching…knowledge and skills; the opportunities for us to focus on the more complex aspects of teaching…attitude, self-awareness, authenticity, and trust, are almost non-existent. These, and other personal attributes, are often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ inferring their lack of importance. However, extensive research (as well as our own experience) indicates that it’s our personality and presence that makes the greatest impact on learning in our classrooms. In essence, soft skills are ‘essential skills’, and our development as teachers challenges us to consider personal development as an important component of professional development; part of the path to professional mastery.

It’s who you are, your personality, your soft (essential) skills, that are the keys to teaching mastery; and it’s by bringing your best self to the classroom that you’ll experience the most success. Why? Because, by taking care of your own mind, body, and heart (your inner ‘self’), you’re also taking care of your students. After all, as Parker Palmer says,

“You teach who you are.”

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.



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A New Focus

As you can see by the new header for the site, I’ll be changing the focus of the Ed Tech Journeys blog, from leadership and technology, to the teacher’s path.

At no time in my life has teaching been under such pressure. To me, teaching is more than a job, it’s been a calling. Education has always been about teaching the whole child, heart and mind. The great teachers and coaches I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life have always made me feel special, connected, and loved. They encouraged me, and nurtured me; as they’ve done with all their students.

But times have changed and we’re in the midst of downsizing the educational workforce, while adding the demands of high stakes testing, the Common Core Curriculum, new professional evaluation processes, more mainstreamed students, more paperwork, more angry parents, and more professional development with initiatives from anti-bullying to new technology. Stress levels are at an all-time high. Even the best teachers in the best schools are feeling the weight of an educational environment that is permeated by a culture of scarcity, a fear-based system of accountability, union demonizing, and teacher bashing. Add a growing number of students with emotional, language, and behavioral challenges and it isn’t hard to see why nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years.

We can do better. We can maintain teaching as a path with heart without abandoning academic standards. In fact, the research shows that it’s a teacher’s personal attributes, ’soft’ skills, and presence; not their IQ, that makes the greatest positive impact on student achievement. So, by focusing less time on the external elements of teaching, and more time on the inner life and well being of the teacher, we can create classrooms that produce academic success AND nurture our students’ personal growth and special gifts.

This blog will be the first of several endeavors I will launch to support teachers as they walk the path to mastery. If you’re one of those on the front lines feeling the pressure, hang in there. What you do matters! It’s important…and so are you!

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