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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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

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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Ed Tech Journeys Status

Below, find an excerpt from a chapter of one of my writing projects, “Zen and the Art of Teaching”. “My First Day” takes place in January of 1974. I offer this brief look at the beginning of my teaching career to my daughter Kate who will be student teaching this Fall, and to all aspiring educators who will someday step forward to lead their students on the incredible journey of learning.

If you enter the profession realizing that you are not just teaching a subject; but you are also teaching students; if you can grasp that you have as much to learn as your students do; if you can persevere through days like my first day, which was pretty much a blueprint for the rest of my horrible first year…

…then you will have taken the first, and maybe the most difficult, step on the path to professional mastery. There will be many lessons to learn as you progress through your career; but remember, you are not alone; many of us have shared your pain. If you open to self-reflection and learning; things will get  better.

My First Day

From “Zen and the Art of Teaching”

Pete Reilly

I remember vividly the forest of adolescent hands in the air, waving urgently at me, trying to get my attention during my first day in the classroom. It was mid-year and they had completely routed the young, female teacher who had preceded me. She had quit over the Christmas break.

I stood looking out at the class, pleased to be in charge, pleased to be in the front of the room, with all the authority. I called on one particularly harmless looking kid with jet-black hair that swung down to cover one eye and the side of his face.

He smiled nicely and asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”

I knew this was a ruse. “No.” I replied.

“But I really have to go!” he said plaintively, clearly playing to his audience of peers.

“No” I repeated. “You had time to go between classes.” I was no fool. I knew the rules.

“But I Mrs. Rogers kept us after for a few minutes and my locker was stuck. I didn’t have time to go!”

I remained tough, “Not my problem. Just hold it for the rest of class!”

The class was clearly happy and entertained. I was not savvy enough to see that the longer this conversation went on, the more foolish I looked.

“Well, I have to go and I don’t think I can make it to the end of class!”

Now, how the Hell did I get myself into this, I thought to myself. There were giggles in the back of the class. This seemingly harmless student now pressed his advantage, effortlessly making an ass out of me.

“I have to go number one!”

Outright laughter from the class. I didn’t like being laughed at, “I said No, that’s enough! I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

I moved to call on one of the other hands that were waving to get my attention. I had gotten myself in a bit of a mess and it was time to get out; only I wasn’t really in control.

“Well if I go in my pants, then it’ll be your fault. You’re the one that’s gonna have to explain it to the Principal and my mother!”

Was it possible that I was making a mistake? What if he really did have to go? There truly wasn’t much time between classes. Why would he be so persistent about this if it wasn’t a real issue for him? Was it worth taking the risk with this student? This bathroom pass thing really was a bunch of bull anyway. There was silence in the classroom as I pondered Solomon-like in the front of the class. And then I broke down and blurted out in an exasperated tone,

“Okay! Go to the bathroom; but hurry up and get back here! No stopping anywhere.”

There, I had shown magnanimity and mercy, even though I didn’t have to. I looked into the face of my nemesis (what I could see of it) and I knew immediately I had been had. He had a vicious grin on his face, not the thankful look of one who had been saved from an embarrassing accident in class. He stood up, looked at the class victoriously, almost as if saying,

“Piece of cake! Too easy! We’re going to feed this guy to the dogs!”

He sauntered to the classroom door, opened it, and just before exiting smiled and waved to the class; who, for just a moment, were embarrassed for me. The door slammed shut behind him; a final insulting flourish.

I stood there breathless. I was aware that I had just been shown up, and humiliated, in front of the entire class. I gulped hard. Suddenly, a dozen hands shot up. The owner of one of the hands didn’t wait to be called on and shouted out,

“Can I go to the bathroom, too? I have to go! Real bad!”

Order had broken down. “Quiet! I shouted.

I was clearly frustrated. “No one else is going to the bathroom!”

“Why not? You let Tim go! How come he got to go and I can’t? I was in Mrs. Roger’s class too, and I got out late, too! It’s not fair!”

“Fairness has nothing to do with it! You’re supposed to go to the bathroom between classes, not during classes!” I spoke with all the authority I could muster.

“Well, I can’t help it if I have to go! My body doesn’t work on a bell schedule! When I need to go, I need to go!”

Actually, I had to hand it to this kid; he had a good point. “You didn’t have your hand up to go before I let Tim go. You can hold it.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, I guess I can hold it; but only for about 10 minutes or so. I ain’t gonna make it to the end of class. I know it.”

“That’s too bad!” I replied.

“Well you gotta explain to Mr. Ellis, (the Principal) why you let Tim go; but you made me stay and pee my pants!”

“No, problem! I’ll do that.” I said angrily.

“Yes, problem.” he replied. “You’ve got a double standard. Some kids can…”

“Stop it!” I shouted.

“I can’t help it. I gotta go!”

“I said, No. I mean, No!”

“Why? Why are you mad at me? I didn’t do anything. All I asked for was to…”

Suddenly, I cracked, “Go! Go! Get out of here! Hurry up!”

He jumped out of his seat and quickly left the room without any of the antics that Tim had displayed. I was definitely out played, out gunned, out smarted; and for the rest of the year I would pay the price.

Another student shouted out, “Can I go to my locker?”

Another, “What’s for lunch today?”

I felt like a surge of water swirling around the shiny porcelain before being swept down the toilet bowl. This may have been the high point of my first year of teaching. It got far worse, as the class continued to entertain themselves by torturing me, the way a cat toys with its prey, before killing it.

Shutting Down the Machine

My last post elicited a passionate response from David Truss advocating that we do more to support young teachers, ANY teachers, for that matter, that take the risks that are involved in transforming teaching and learning.

The educational machine is powerful and it can be unforgiving. A teacher who ignores the status quo will soon learn about ‘institutional homeostasis’. It might come in the form of scorn from their colleagues, admonitions from supervisors and administrators, or in the form of parents complaining because they want the same experience for their children as they and their own parents had as students. My first year teaching I experienced two of the three on the list.

So, what will it take to transform teaching and learning? What will it take to shut down the pleasant hum of the machine that is so good at turning out 20th century students even though we’re entering the second decade of the 21st century?

Leaders with Courage and Commitment!

I think this clip from Norma Rae is both inspiring and informing. In it, her supervisor, security police, and the factory boss himself, try to intimidate her. She gets fired from the job she holds so dear.

Norma is leading from the front, by example. Pushed over the edge, she takes action. She steps forward with no assurance that anyone will stand with her. Norma Rae puts herself on the line.

She is all in!

Whenever I see Norma Rae’s face, and the faces of her co-workers, I see fear and hope co-mingled. It inspires me to take a stand for what I believe in! By stepping forward with all she had, Norma Rae eventually gives others the courage to follow her lead.

When we set about following our hearts and doing what we think is right; we hope that what we are doing works, that other people see that it works, and that everything turns out for the best. Sometimes things work out and, unfortunately, sometimes they do not. We don’t have to look further than the assassination of Martin Luther King to understand that.

Leaders, whether they lead from the classroom or the district office, need to understand that there are powerful forces aligned against change.

So, it is our blessing and our burden to have the seeds of leadership in each of us.

There is no tiptoeing around this thing. Those who truly desire a transformation of educational system will have to endure many of the same trials and tribulations as those who fought and fight for change in other domains. While educational change agents may not endure the physical pain that so many activists experience; it should come as no surprise that some will be intimidated, or refused tenure, or shunned by colleagues.

If we are going to shut down the momentum of the educational machine, if we are going to transform the factory floor, we will need to be “all in”.

Courage and Commitment!

pete

Beliefs and Change

I used to believe that I had all the answers and that the people around me who weren’t on board with my view of the world were subversive. They “Didn’t Get It” and I believed that they needed to be ‘fixed’ or ‘banished’. Not a great formula for building trust with others; and a great example of a belief that got in the way of being a successful leader.

I used to believe that older teachers were too set in their ways to embrace new technologies. Because of that belief I skewed technology deployments to younger teachers. What a great example of a self-reinforcing belief.

I used to believe that there was no way that the community would support large technology initiatives. A wonderful example of a belief that was limiting my vision and horizons.

Where did these beliefs come from? That’s an exploration for another post. What is important to note is that none of these beliefs were contributing to my success. In fact, they were undermining all my good intentions.

Beliefs are not ‘real’, they are not facts. They’re nothing more than constructs of our minds.

I like the example of two couples walking in the park at night. One couple believes that walking in the park at night is romantic. The other couple believes it is dangerous. Suddenly the wind blows. The bushes shake, the leaves scuttle along the sidewalk. The couple that feels walking in the park at night is dangerous experience fear. The couple that thinks the park is romantic at night experience the beauty of nature.

What we believe shapes our experiences. Our beliefs are like a pair of glasses that influence the way we see the world. Some beliefs are supportive and helpful. Others are limiting and not helpful.

As leaders we need to reflect on our beliefs. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because many of our beliefs our invisible to us. For many years I had no conscious awareness that I believed that logic and sound arguments were the way to get teachers to change their old habits and embrace the new ones I wanted them to adopt. I kept making logical arguments. It didn’t seem to matter whether they were successful in producing the outcome I wanted. I was simply acting the way I believed was ‘proper’.

It took many years for me to become aware of this invisible belief of mine. In fact, it was a leadership coach who helped me identify my belief and then to examine whether it was a useful belief or not. Through this process I developed a new belief, that it takes the heart, the mind, and the body; not logical arguments alone, to shift the behavior of others.

There are beliefs that we hang on to even if they do not serve us because we feel we have evidence that makes them ‘real and factual. For all of human history it was commonly believed that man could not fly. There were thousands of years of evidence for this. If Orville and Wilbur Wright had adopted this view of reality, this belief, they would never have experienced flight.

Unless we believe something is possible, the odds of it happening are slim.

Do you believe that one computer per child is possible? Do you think that teachers will shift their pedagogy to engage and empower students in constructivist learning? Do you believe that all teachers, regardless of age, will adopt technology if it helps them improve teaching and learning. Do you believe that you have the ability to inspire people to adopt difficult changes?

When you believe it, you will see it!

La Mancha and the Heart of a Teacher

When I think back to my days in the classroom the most important moments happened when I looked past the hardened sneer of a difficult student to see them as they really were. They were never what they seemed on the surface. Somewhere deep inside them 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. The one’s who needed love the most always seemed 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 is essential for teachers to have the heart of ‘Don Quixote’, the Man of La Mancha. Don Quixote sees the beauty in life; and he sees the inner beauty of the people around him including Aldonza, a hard hearted and angry whore. Quixote sees her as Dulcinea, a virtuous lady, and treats her as such. Aldonza rejects Quixote’s vision of her. She insists she is nothing. She can deal with anger but not with tenderness.

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

I wish every teacher could see the best that lies hidden in their students. I wish every teacher would  do their best to bring that ‘best’ to the surface.

The classroom is a complex organism. It is composed of many, many unique individuals, each with their own set of experiences, each on a journey to find their place in the world. It’s easy to lose the heart of Don Quixote and to simply deal with the world as we see it. 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.

In fact, it is Aldonza, the most hardened of souls, that finally begins to see herself as Quixote has seen her. She feels the good soul within her. It is Aldonza, the student, who revives Quixote, the teacher, from his despair.

Don Quixote has touched the soul of Aldonza. She will never be the same. No longer a whore. She is Dulcinea, the lady.

May the heart of La Mancha burn 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.

pete