The greatest gift


One of the greatest gifts we can give others is to bear witness to their lives.

One of the most important and readily available ways we can bear witness is to evoke and listen to the stories people tell that reveal what it has been like for them to live their lives.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day that can serve as a prompt to honor and express our gratitude to those who came before us in our families and communities by inviting their storytelling.

To that end StoryCorp proposes that family members accept its invitation to “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” in which a StoryCorps app is used to record elders’ stories.

“The app helps users select questions and record and then upload interviews to the StoryCorps archive in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress,” NPR noted in its report on the project.

My experience as a hospice volunteer videotaping the life stories of patients near the end of their lives revealed to me the power of such storytelling for both the patient and for family members.

Take a moment this weekend (and throughout the year) to ask the elders in your life to share a few of their stories.

Include the teachers or mentors who were important to you  in your list of those you might interview.

I promise that you will cherish those conversations for years to come.

Good advice


In Louise Penny’s mystery, Bury Your Dead, a senior police inspector tells a junior colleague that he will benefit in his career if he learns to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I need help. I don’t know.”

With the U.S. Thanksgiving Day on the near horizon, I would add: “I am grateful.”

Many problems in our personal and professional lives would disappear or be significantly diminished if we learned to regularly say those things, one at a time or in various combinations.

What do you think—good advice?

Paying attention to what matters


Giving our full attention to what’s in front of us rather than succumbing to unrelenting interruptions is one of the biggest challenges many of us face in our professional and personal lives.

Multi-tasking interferes with productivity and undermines relationships, both at work and at home.

It is impossible to do deep, engaging work and to establish satisfying relationships with colleagues or family members if we are not paying attention to the task or to the people who are in front of us.

For most of us digital devices lead the list of disruptors.

In this post Henrik Edberg offers “10 habits that help me to keep my attention on what truly matters – both at work and in my private life – and at the same time minimize stress and overwhelm.”

I particularly appreciate #10: “Remember the 5 little words for sanity: One thing at a time.”

What would you add to Edberg’s list?

Skillful leadership


Early in my professional development career I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching. I enjoyed those conversations except when…

Teachers were angry, cynical, or otherwise emotionally unsuited to have such conversations. Without exception, those teachers were…

Poorly led. They were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three. Over time that led me to…

Focus my work on leaders, particularly principals and teacher leaders because their skillful leadership was essential to meaningful teacher professional learning, particularly the kind of professional learning that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

• The emotional tone of a school.

• Whether the school’s culture focuses on the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students or on maintaining the status quo.

• Whether teachers primarily work in isolation or benefit from strong, effective teamwork.

What is your experience? Is it possible to have continuous improvements in teaching and learning for all students without skillful leadership?

Deep work


A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

Self determination


When it comes to teaching methods, Glanz observed that most techniques teachers used “promote the feeling that students have little control over or responsibility for their own education.” —Larry Cuban

I recently talked with an elderly woman about her dissatisfaction with the diminished life she has in a long-term care facility. She knew she would be happy, she told me, if only she could have an apartment of her own.

I pointed out her children’s concerns about her safety, and she said she would rather die living life on her own terms than live longer in her current circumstances.

While this may be an extreme example, no matter our age or life circumstance all of us want to feel in control of our lives, to make decisions large and small whose sum total makes up the substance of our days.

I have worked at jobs where virtually all important decisions were made for me. My circle of influence was very small, and while I knew that I could choose my attitude about those circumstances, I nonetheless often found myself feeling frustrated and unhappy.

A child says, “You are not my boss.” A dissatisfied worker says, “Trust me to make decisions about my work.” An elderly woman says, “I would rather die than not be able to do the simple tasks of life that gave me purpose and responsibility.”

The desire for self determination is deeply embedded in the human psyche. People have been willing to give their lives on its behalf.

What are the implications of this “truth” for school administrators and teachers?

From my perspective it means that we do everything in our power to give those with whom we work—both young people and adults—as much decision-making authority as possible, pairing that authority with appropriate responsibility and abundant learning opportunities to increase the likelihood of success.

When we trust others to take responsibility and enable their ability to do so we will be richly rewarded by the continuous flow of expertise and energy such trust generates.

What is your experience with both young people and adults in enabling self determination?  

Schools are intensely interpersonal


“[T]he transmission of knowledge is not done in a vacuum. The quality and influence of relationships has a tremendous influence on how and what is shared, and with whom.”

Tarsi Dunlop

Schools are intensely and unrelentingly interpersonal. That’s why the continuous improvement of teaching and learning requires strong relationships founded on trust.

And that’s also why “reforms” predictably fail when they are based primarily on technical remedies such as high-stakes testing and poorly-designed teacher evaluation systems.

A recent study supports those conclusions:

“What we have found over and over again is that, regardless of context, organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals.

“Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; information sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement; and a collective sense of purpose….”

High-quality teaching and learning for all students requires that administrators and teacher leaders develop school cultures that have at their core high levels of integrity, mutual respect, and trust, attributes that are challenging to cultivate and even more challenging to sustain.

Leaders who ignore this challenge or minimize its demands will fail in their most important responsibility—the creation of school communities in which everyone thrives, no matter their age or role.

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