The Call of the Wild

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.21.44 PMI was born and blessed, as are each of us, with a natural curiosity. There was a great wildness in it. As a child I’d see a shaft of sunlight illuminating a world of dust and delicate objects floating in air and I’d stop whatever I was doing and begin to explore this tiny universe. It was magical. I was called to learn. Curiosity was my birthright. It was in my DNA. It’s in yours.

My natural curiosity was like a wild animal and it hunted where it needed to in order to satisfy its deep hunger. As a child, I awakened each day with an insatiable appetite to explore, to discover, to learn. In my early years I was a voracious “wolf of learning”.  I believe deep in our DNA there’s a relationship between curiosity, learning and survival. We might call it “the burning relevance of an empty stomach”, because in past millennia our ancestors needed to be voracious learners in order to survive.
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Over the centuries, learning has become institutionalized. Vast school systems and local and national curricula are now the norm. And as these institutions have grown, they’ve pushed aside much of the wildness of our natural curiosity. Looking back I realize that as I worked my way through the educational system I became more tame and more timid. I can see now that in many ways I was being domesticated. I was no longer a “wolf of learning”.

How did this happen? To start with I had virtually no control over my education and whatever natural curiosity I had was replaced by a structured and scripted curriculum. I was rewarded for following directions and doing what I was told and reprimanded if I let my curiosity wander too far from the prescribed lesson. I was chewing on someone else’s agenda and not mine so I simply worked in “compliance mode”, putting forth minimum effort. Fear of retribution and bad grades become my prime motivators, not the excitement of discovery and learning.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.26.02 PMThus I became a ward of a system that trained me to expect to learn without going on the hunt. Like a domesticated pet I was offered bland processed learning, laid out in prescribed amounts, at certain times of the day. A pre-set curriculum guide that had little to do with me, my interests, my needs, or my gifts, decided what I was fed, how much, and when. I rarely experienced learning by my own wits, my natural curiosity, or even the magic of serendipity. I was no longer the wolf who’d gorge on learning and fight over the scraps until my belly was full.

I became so domesticated that I would’ve rebelled if asked to use the natural gifts for learning with which I was born. It would have been like releasing a pet house dog into the wilderness…the odds of survival would’ve been small, and within hours I’d have been back in front of the door begging to have my master serve dinner to me in a dish.

Now, rediscovering my own power, wildness, curiosity, and love of learning is my lifetime pursuit.

For the sake of our students,

may each of us find our own ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning…

…and answer the “call of the wild”.

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Administrator or Leader?

I believe that each of us has a leader within and that educational leadership is not the sole domain of school administrators. I’ve see classroom teachers step up and lead incredible school transformations without the authority of a title or degree. But that’s a topic for another day. Today, I want to examine the not so secret, ‘secret’ among educators:

While every school has at least one administrator, few have leaders.

A recent workshop participant paraphrased Peter Drucker and said it this way,

“Administrators do things right. Leaders do the right things.”

While that simple statement captures some of the gulf between leadership and administration, I think it falls far short.

I have a long list, developed over many educational leadership seminars, that outlines the differences between administrators and leaders; but today I’ll start with the one element that seems to encompass so many others…

Leaders deal from their hearts as well as their minds; administrators work almost exclusively from the mental framework.

We’ve all encountered administrators who kick off the school year with speeches stating the districts goals and objectives, or by reciting well meaning mission statements; but it’s rare to find leaders who articulate a vision and inspire their staffs to embrace that vision.

Administrators are comfortable speaking from and appealing to the cognitive domain, hoping others see the logic of their goals and objectives; while leaders want to stir the hearts, as well as the minds of those they seek to lead.

It’s the power of the heart that injects a special energy into the team. Leaders who use their hearts and minds when they speak have an authenticity that creates trust. Administrators who speak only from their heads may say the right words; they may have perfect scripts; but they appear less authentic, less fully committed, and therefore they create less trust.

Without trust it’s difficult to lead effectively.

I remember the Principal at my son’s eighth grade graduation ceremony speaking to the audience of proud parents and students. His first words were,

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here with you tonight.”

Unfortunately, he spoke these words in a monotone with no emotion (heart). Even worse, there was no smile, no crack in his bland and blank façade. He continued this way through the entire speech.

While I have no doubt that deep inside he meant every word he spoke; because he closed off his heart when delivered his words, it destroyed his message. It reeked of an administrator fulfilling his job requirements, when it could have been a leader expressing gratitude to his victorious 8th grade troops and sending them off to the high school full of inspiration and hope.

Not every leader needs to be a charismatic speaker. Even speakers who speak haltingly and uncomfortably, if they speak from the heart, touch the hearts of those around them; their authenticity comes through and with that, trust flows. We feel their commitment.

One of the first steps in the transformation from administrator to leader is to access the power of the heart. Tapping into the heart shows up in every aspect of leadership, not just in speaking. It is a way of tethering ourselves to something deeper than just our ideas and thoughts. It ties us to our purpose, values, and beliefs.

When we work from this place, we’re grounded. We don’t change directions every time the political breezes shift. We are more apt to go the extra mile, even if it seems risky. We walk our own talk. We don’t have hidden agendas, they’re all out there for people to see. When we work from the heart, we don’t make decisions based solely on complicated political calculations; but we factor in our beliefs and values.

Most importantly, when we’re grounded in the heart, we have the courage of a leader. Interestingly, the word courage comes from the French root ‘cour’ or heart. As leaders we don’t avoid difficult conversations, or put off difficult decisions out of fear. We address them because they need to be addressed. The heart gives us the strength and passion to do the difficult things.

The transformation from administrator to leader is largely a journey of the heart.

pete

Teaching as a Spiritual Endeavor

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 11.27.02 AMI’ve been thinking lately about how work in general, but especially teaching, is a spiritual endeavor. Not spiritual in a religious sense but in the context of satisfying the human desire to connect to something larger than ourselves, to live lives that mean something, and to do work that reflects our dreams, values and beliefs.

No doubt, that for some, work is just that, ‘work’. It’s simply a way to make living and pay the bills. But for many of us who spend the most productive part of our day and the most productive part of our lives at work, our profession is a crucible in which ‘who we are’ and ‘what we believe in’ is made public and tested. It’s through our work that we encounter challenges that bring us to the frontiers of our knowledge, experience, values and beliefs. It’s in the workplace that we face a variety of difficult choices and must take action, or refrain from it, having only our own ‘soma’, (mind, body, and spirit) to guide us. It’s in this unfamiliar place, in the midst of an unfamiliar crisis or challenge, an unscripted moment of truth, and left without a roadmap, that we find out who we really are, not who we think we are. Spiritual, no?

If we’re open to viewing work both  as a professional and spiritual experience we can use it as a mirror that reflects back to us what the external world, in our case our students, experience when they interact with us. They reflect back to us our best qualities and our gifts, as well as the places where we don’t quite live up to our own values and beliefs.

An example that’s seared into my memory from the early part of my own career is an incident with Kelly, a quiet and earnest young seventh grader. I had corrected 125 essays over the weekend and after handing them back to my students was stopping at each desk to point out an item or two that I thought stood out in their essay. I arrived at Kelly’s desk and quickly began pointing out her tendency to write in sentence fragments and run-ons. My finger was on her paper pointing to one of her errors when suddenly a teardrop splattered on the page near my finger smearing the blue ink. Before I realized what was going on another fell, and then another. I stood up and though Kelly’s head was down her entire body was heaving in silent sobs.

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It struck me like a thunderbolt that Kelly had written about the death of her pet dog. Obviously it was very emotional for her and yet I hadn’t stopped to acknowledge it. I was too concerned with my own agenda and my own focus on sentence mechanics to even give her a pat on the back. Any show of humanity or connection would have done the trick, but I was rushing. I wasn’t thinking of her as a real human being with real feelings, but simply dealing with her role...student. I use this example because I had a belief at the time that every student had a unique gift within them, and that every child had great value and should be treated that way. It was crystal clear to me that there was a huge gulf between what I believed and how I had been acting. Kelly’s tears mirrored back to me my own hypocrisy.

Yes, this was certainly a professional issue, but it was also a spiritual one. I vowed never to have something like this happen again. But how would I go about opening my heart in such a way that I would begin seeing my students as people, not just extras in the movie of my life? How would I learn to slow down, be present in the moment, and stay connected to my values and beliefs? The answers to these questions lay in my spiritual growth not in any textbook.

Over the years, as my new narrative, “work as a spiritual endeavor”, took hold within me; I profited professionally as well as personally. The better person I became, the better teacher I became…and it worked the other way too…the better teacher, the better person.

So, it may be that our definition of what it is to be a professional is in need of a major upgrade and that professional development and personal development are often two sides of the same coin. We can try to compartmentalize our ‘real self’ from our ‘teaching self’, but the truth is we have only one self. It can’t help but show up in our teaching.

If we’re open to it our students can be important partners in our personal and professional growth, and since we teach who we are, they also reap the benefits of our inner journey. It seems like heresy to say it, but the teaching profession is a great place to perfect our spirit.

Pete

Summer Renewal: The Exit Interview

The school year is winding down. Many of us are saying good-bye to our students, to our colleagues, and to another year in the classroom. For some, the year was long and difficult, for others it may have gone by in a blur. No matter what kind of experience we had during the year this is a perfect time for a reflective practice. Why not take a few minutes before you leave for the summer and do a personal exit interview

Here are some sample questions you might like to ask yourself:
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest how would you rate your own performance for the year?

Purpose and Calling
Do you feel successful and proud, or just happy to have the year over?
Describe 3-5 of your most happy moments during the year.
What was it that made them stand out for you?
Did what you accomplished this year match your expectations?

Stress and Overwhelm
Describe 3-5 of the biggest challenges that you faced this year.
Describe how you responded to each of these challenges.
What kind of stress, if any, did these challenges create?
How did this stress manifest itself- professionally and/or personally?
Is the stress still with you?
Is there a more effective way to handle the stress and anxiety of these kinds of challenges?

Strengths and Gifts
Looking back on the school year, what would you say were your greatest personal characteristics and strengths?
If you were going to build on one these strengths for the next school year which would it be?
What practices can you create to help strengthen this area?

Areas for Growth
What were some of the personal characteristics/behaviors you think were holding you back from even greater levels of classroom effectiveness?
What practices can you create to help you address these characteristics?

Student Feedback
Think about your students for a moment.
Did they have anything to teach you this year?
If you think of them as a mirror, what did they reflect back to you about yourself and your teaching?
Was there a student that you particularly liked? What was it that drew you to them?
Was there a student that you particularly disliked? What was it about them that you disliked?
Is there anything about yourself that your feelings about these students reveal?
How would your students rate your performance on a scale of 1-10?
What would they list as your greatest personal strengths?
What would they say was the area in which you need to improve?

There’s no better time for professional (and personal) reflection then the waning days of a school year and no better place to do it than an empty classroom. The purpose of this reflection is not to beat yourself up. It’s not meant to be “I should have done this.” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” guilt trip. It’s simply meant to allow us to step back and look at the year and our performance with some perspective (a perspective that’s hard to maintain during the year). I suggest you write you answers in a journal. Come back to them over the summer and before the start of the new school year.

A few suggestions:
Look out for burnout. At some point we can let our purpose and calling drift into a job. It takes work to keep reminding ourselves of the special work we do with children.
Be on the look out for the effects of stress on our thinking, our health, and our family life.
Be specific about our strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. We can build on our strengths, we can learn to address our weaknesses.
Students offer us a wealth of information on our classroom effectiveness if we’re courageous enough to look at the cues and clues they provide.

The questions I’ve presented are just suggestions. Your heart knows what questions are right for you. If you’re quiet and allow your inner teacher to come forward, it’ll guide you in the right direction.

Good luck and have a great summer!

Pete

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.

pete

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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.

gratitude,

pete

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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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