Feeling pride in our profession

My goal at the beginning of the school year was to publish several chapters of my professional memoir each month through May.

But at this deeply troubling moment when so many things in life have been upended that goal doesn’t seem very important.

So while I will not be publishing additional chapters for the foreseeable future, I will occasionally share thoughts with you on other subjects, as I am today.

Sometimes teaching was discouraging. At other times it was immensely rewarding.

And sometimes, like today, I felt immense pride in being a teacher.

I am watching resilient teachers and administrators around the country invent ways of supporting children during the unprecedented educational, social, and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are creating ways of providing food for children and families in need, such as a Michigan school district using school buses to drop off meals at prearranged times and locations on their routes.

They are staying in touch with their students online and through regular telephone check-ins, particularly those students most in need of such support.

They are finding methods to continue to teach with little opportunity for preparation so that students have purposeful things to do at home and to minimize the academic loss that may result from this unpredictably long break.

And this is just the beginning. 

There will be more inventing ahead as educators care for their own families and their students.

What have you observed or experienced that is causing you to feel pride in our profession?

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes…

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would appeal to our worst instincts, especially fear.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would denigrate science and expertise, telling us that he is the only source of knowledge and truth. Trust only him.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would bully those who disagree with him, and, if necessary, destroy them.

If a leader wished to amass power for his own psychological and financial purposes, he would distort, deny, minimize, redirect, and lie. He knows that if you tell a lie often enough it may become the truth.

What have I missed?

Ch. 20: Hospice volunteering

hos·pice noun
/ˈhäspəs/
a program designed to provide palliative care and emotional support to the terminally ill in a home or homelike setting so that quality of life is maintained and family members may be active participants in care; also a facility that provides such a program

I didn’t belong here at this intimate moment, perhaps life’s most intimate moment. It was not what I had planned, but here I am.

The patient I had come to see was actively dying just a few feet away as a relative, perhaps a sister, crouched next to her softly singing hymns into her ear.

I am there as a hospice volunteer. 

Earlier that morning her husband had asked me to visit to record his wife’s life story not realizing that her death was imminent. 

Now he was looking at me hoping I could help him understand what was happening or perhaps even to prevent it.

Not for the first time I wondered how I found myself there at that particular moment at this time in my life.

I can’t say why for sure, but I have long had a more than ordinary interest in death and dying.

Long ago I had intellectually accepted that death awaited us all, and I never considered it “morbid” to acknowledge and discuss the significance of that reality.

Perhaps that was because my grandmother would often tell me when we parted company that we might not see one another again because she could die, even though there was no obvious reason for that being so.

In my 20s I read several books about death and dying, and as part of a graduate school project I interviewed morticians, elderly people, and religious leaders about their perspectives on dying.

I knew that when I eventually left my job at the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), which required a great deal of travel, I wanted to be a hospice volunteer. I also knew that I wanted to support hospice patients and their families in telling and preserving their life stories.

I have always admired those who do hospice work. Nurses, doctors, social workers, and spiritual care providers. In my view they are as close to angels as I am likely to encounter.

I felt drawn to hospice volunteering because I believe that people can learn important things throughout their life spans, even until the very end of life, and because it would allow me to meaningfully apply skills I had spent a life-time developing—particularly being fully present and listening deeply. 

In addition, I thought it likely that hospice patients and their families would teach me important lessons about living life fully now, and that those lessons would support me when it became my time to navigate that passage.

I was not entirely confident about what to say or do around dying people and their loved ones, but I eventually learned that human presence was sufficient and that words were often unnecessary.

In 2010 I created a volunteer position for myself that enabled me over the next several years to make dozens of video and audio recordings of patients’ life stories, often told in conversation with family members.

That was how I found myself in a living room with a dying woman whom I had never met, knowing that it was too late to do what I had come to do, but not too late to offer whatever comfort I could to her husband, taking my leave a few minutes later as family members and friends began to fill the house.

Have you ever felt “called” to do a particular thing, and, if so, what effect did that calling have on your life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 19:  I walk a step behind

so·cial class noun
a division of a society based on social and economic status

I experienced social class before I had a name for it, and I developed habits to address it without consciously knowing I was doing so. Some of those habits have lasted a lifetime.

For instance: The room is very large and filled with round tables covered with white tablecloths. It is likely in a restaurant or hotel banquet room. 

Or the room may be smaller, located in, say, a country club or perhaps the dining room of a large home.

Everyone is dressed appropriately depending on the type of event and the time of day.

Such places were not a part of my childhood.

Because these settings were unfamiliar to me in my early years I learned to walk a step or two behind others as I enter the rooms, watching what they do, a now unconscious habit I developed during my university years as I learned to navigate a new social world. 

Do people stand or sit? If standing, do they form small groups? What do the people in those groups talk about? 

When they sit what do they do first? When the meal is served, which fork do they use?

The first such room I remember entering was in my senior year in college when my high grade-point average led to an invitation from an honors society to a dinner at the town’s premier restaurant at which I had never eaten.

While the dorms at my university socialized young men by requiring that we wear jackets and ties for dinner on Wednesday and lunch on Sunday, I had had no experience with such formal dining.

I was watchful, not doing anything until someone else did it first, which was likely the beginning of my lifelong habit.

When I began college in 1964 neither my father, who hoped I would someday have a job to which I would wear a suit and tie, nor I, could have guessed what it would mean for me and for our family to leave a blue-collar life to live in a white-collar world.

Like many others who were the first in their blue-collar families to attend college with hopes of white-collar lives, I never again would feel fully at home in either world. 

In college and especially later as a teacher in an affluent Detroit suburb I began to occupy a strange new territory, a social and cultural limbo in which I had left one world to become a participant-observer in another, a cultural anthropologist in a kind of foreign land in which I felt like a perpetual outsider. 

In my new white collar world I spent time with people who usually assumed that my upbringing and early experiences were like theirs, a background that today might be called “privileged.”

In their presence I often felt like an imposter who didn’t understand the unwritten rules of my new world and whose false identify might be exposed at any moment by a mistake or what my white-collar self might call a faux pas. 

Decades later I came across a book that helped me gain a better understanding of the unease I often felt.

In Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano describes the often invisible power of social class:

“Class is script, map, and guide.… It affects who we marry; where we live; the friends we choose; the jobs we have; the vacations we take; the books we read; the movies we see; the restaurants we pick; how we decide to buy houses, carpets, furniture and cars; where our kids are educated: what we tell our children at the dinner table.… In short, class is nearly everything about you.”

Social class was not a term I would have used in high school, although I had experienced it then in the school’s social strata and in the differences between my family and the family of my mother’s sister who were members of both the country and yacht clubs.

Similar to Lubrano’s description of himself in Limbo, I preferred to read books than to talk about cars and their repair, subjects of endless fascination to my friends.

I also knew from my first jobs (paperboy, bagger in a small grocery store, and summer employment in factories and as a milkman for summer residents of Lake Michigan cottages) that I most enjoyed work in which I had autonomy and used my head as well as my hands.

My friends, on the other hand, seemed quite content doing the jobs I found most oppressive and boring, like 8-hour shifts running a drill press in a small factory, a summer job that lasted just two weeks for me.

Like Lubrano, I sometimes wondered why I was so different from those friends and was troubled by that difference.

Lubrano says that for ”Straddlers,” the term he uses to describe those who are in limbo, “there was a moment, a specific place and time, when the difference between the class in which they were born and the ones above it were made clear to them.”

There may well have been a series of such moments for me:

Perhaps it was as an early teenager when the only way I could play golf with a friend at the country club to which his family belonged was to pretend to be his caddy until we were out of sight of the clubhouse. (Golf ultimately proved to be as uninteresting to me as car repairs.)

Perhaps it was being invited to “dinner parties” at which I felt distinctly out of place.

Perhaps it was when someone who serves others, such as a waiter or waitress in a restaurant, was not treated respectfully by my companions. (My mother was a waitress.)

Or it may have been more gradual as I learned that many of the things I talked about in my white-collar world, like movies or books, did not interest my blue-collar family or friends.

A benefit of the struggle to find a place in the white-collar world was that I knew I could live without its trappings and that I could start over, if need be, or, as a Straddler in Lubrano’s book explains it, “I was always willing to say, ‘Take this job and shove it,’ because I knew I could survive no matter what.”

Another benefit was that because I invented my life as I went along and saw most things from at least two perspectives—blue collar and white collar—I had more independence of thought than others whose lives moved along largely predetermined lines.

I also found myself drawn to people who, like me, didn’t quite fit in, who had rough edges and a lack of pretense.

A doctor Lubrano quotes says “the patients he feels closest to are the ones who struggle to get somewhere, because he believes the struggle says a lot about a person.” 

I felt that way as a teacher, which was probably one reason I spent several years teaching in an alternative high school.

While I chose to live in the Detroit area rather than Western Michigan where I was offered a teaching position in 1968, I resonated with Lubrano’s description of those who can never totally leave their origins behind. “Every once in a while,” he writes, “Straddlers have to go back and touch the place that launched them…. They need to go back to the world they left to see what’s still there.”

As a result, I made near monthly visits home in the 1970s and 80s, a practice that more or less continued until my mother’s and father’s deaths, visits that often took me on solitary car rides along the rural roads I walked as a child not imagining the good fortune that would lie ahead of me. 

And the challenges and unexpected learning that were yet to be.

To what extent did you have to navigate boundaries between social classes, race, and/or other factors?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 18: Becoming a “thinking partner” to teams

think verb
\ ˈthiŋk
to form or have in the mind
to have as an intention
to have as an opinion
to determine by reflecting

partner noun
\ ˈpärt-nər
one associated with another, especially in an action 

In 2007 after 23 years as executive director of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward), I was ready for a change in responsibilities and new challenges that would enable me to apply what I had learned over the decades about school leadership, teamwork, and school culture.

In my years at NSDC I came to believe that the most powerful leverage point for continuous improvement was the professional learning of principals, teacher leaders, and system administrators.

I also knew that that work had to be intense and sustained for at least a year, if not longer, and to be focused on teams as well as individuals.

In addition, I had learned from several experiences with videoconferencing, which was fairly new in the early 2000s, and telephone-based leadership coaching, that I did not have to be physically present for every meeting. That process would mean that I could meet two goals simultaneously—maintaining relationships and momentum over time, and reducing my travel schedule, which had proven overwhelming in my final years at NSDC.

My book, Leading for Results, which I intended as a text on leadership development, had just been published, and I saw that it had a central place in the work I wanted to do.

I described myself as a “thinking partner” for educators, a kind of relationship in which we used the skills I taught to improve relationships, strengthen teamwork, create cultures of continuous improvement, and sustain momentum over time.

I would visit each site early in the school year for a 2-day workshop with the team or teams I would be supporting that school year. The workshop was followed by monthly videoconferences which were led by a local facilitator and to which I contributed.

The facilitator and I would prepare that month’s agenda based on the challenges team members were facing, what seemed to be the logical next steps, and the learning that would enable those actions.

Even the discussion of a relatively common practice like, say, teamwork, became very complex when we moved into the details of what that meant. A deep conversation about teamwork, for instance, inevitably led to a discussion of trust, which led to the subject of promise keeping and speaking honestly and respectfully with teammates. Each one of those subjects could take one or more videoconference sessions as we worked through the nitty-gritty of what that meant for their team.

My timing was not superb with the Great Recession beginning the following year, but I had a sufficient number of client schools and school systems to keep me gainfully employed doing satisfying work.

While I was enjoying the work and felt like I was making a positive difference, I knew that there was still something missing, a kind of connection with my community that had previously alluded me.

That missing piece proved to be volunteering at a local hospice where I was able to carve out a unique niche for myself by inventing a previously nonexistent service for patients and their families, which will be the subject of a later post.

What work for which you are uniquely qualified do you think would make the greatest difference?

(I want to express my appreciation to Corrie Ziegler of the Edmonton, Alberta schools who encouraged and funded my first videoconferencing experiments with administrators in Edmonton, which led to similar long-term work in her district and many others.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 17: NSDC II: Settling in for 23 years

settle verb
set·tle | \ ˈse-tᵊl
to place so as to stay
to establish in residence
to furnish with inhabitants

It is hard to capture the essence of my almost 30-year association with the National Staff Development Council, my NSDC II. (In a previous post I noted that my previous employer was the Northwest Staff Development Council, NSDC I.)

In the late 1970s and early 80s I served the organization as a trustee and president. 

Then, in 1984, Pat Zigarmi, the Council’s executive secretary, decided it was time to move on, and the Board of Trustees sought a new executive secretary at an annual salary of $13,000. 

I was selected and immediately “promoted“ to Executive Director because the Board of Trustees wanted me to have a title on par with leaders of other professional associations. 

I maintained that job and title for the next 23 years before deciding, like Pat Zigarmi before me, that in 2007 it was time to move on. 

In 1984 NSDC had about 800 members. It published a monthly newsletter, The Developer, and a semi-annual journal, the Journal of Staff Development. It also sponsored an annual conference and offered institutes around the country on effective professional development.

The only other employee then was Shirley Havens, a part-time administrative assistant, whose office was in her Oxford, Ohio home. In that tradition, I established an office in my home from which I worked throughout my tenure with the organization.

That pattern of housing staff members in their homes continued for almost 20 years as Stephanie Hirsh was added in Dallas as deputy executive director, Joellen Killion in the Denver area managing special projects, and Joan Richardson near Detroit overseeing publications. Eventually, office suites were established in Oxford and Dallas. 

I learned many important things in my 23 years with NSDC, some of them looking inward at organizational leadership and others looking outward at the field of professional development.

About organizations, especially those with multiple work sites (not unlike school systems), I learned: 

• first and foremost, to hire well, as illustrated by the staff members mentioned above, and to follow that hiring with a generous amount of autonomy within a guiding structure. That hiring included a careful consideration of the complimentary strengths each person would bring to NSDC’s leadership team.

• that disciplined action required a thoughtfully conceived and ambitious strategic plan, the first of which was adopted in 1986 and updated every 5 years thereafter. This series of plans provided a blueprint for our work, and it also allowed for improvisation based on what we were learning in the process of implementation.

• that a meaningful strategic plan begins with a clear statement of beliefs; is motivated by goals so ambitious that they require individuals to leave their comfort zones to make deep changes in their beliefs, understanding, and/or habits; and concludes with strategies that guide staff members’ daily work.

It took many hours of serious, candid discussion to reach consensus among board members and participating staff regarding a relatively small number of beliefs that would serve as the foundation of the plan. 

While this extended discussion of beliefs meant that we moved slowly at the beginning of planning, we quickly picked up speed because many decisions were much easier to make with a solid foundation of shared beliefs.

The Council’s stretch goals took us into the realm of the highly improbable but remotely possible. These goals required that we think differently about our structures and processes, which is always challenging when current practices and results seem “good enough.”

• that teamwork among staff members and with trustees was essential to the achievement of the organization’s stretch goals. We continuously aspired to use team members’ strengths to their best advantage within a clear and focused strategic structure.

• about the power of consensus decision making that extended beyond the strategic plan to all important decisions made by the Board of Trustees and staff. 

We defined consensus as everyone being able to authentically say, “Although this decision may not be my first choice, I can live with it and will support it when I leave this room.” That definition meant that when someone said they could not live with a decision the group took those objections seriously and sought to find a win-win alternative. When such an alternative could not be found, which rarely happened, the group’s leader, sometimes me, would make the final decision.

• about the value to educators provided by professional associations that connect them to a larger purpose and to like-minded people. For many NSDC members the Council was one of the few places in which others “just got it” without a need to explain or justify the importance of their work.

Looking outward at the field of professional development I came to:

• more deeply understand the fundamental role of school and system leaders in continuous improvement. It is simply impossible to have professional learning that benefits all students in all classrooms without knowledgeable and engaged system leaders, principals, and teacher leaders, all equally involved in its planning and implementation.

• better appreciate the power of school culture to determine the quality of teaching and learning across classrooms. Culture truly does trump innovation.

During my final years with NSDC I became increasingly aware that I missed the sustained, direct contact I had previously experienced with teachers and administrators in their schools.

Much of my work at NSDC was with groups formed for a brief moment in time whose members I would likely not see again. While such groups are appropriate to introduce a topic for expanded study and practice, they are insufficient to change the quality of professional learning, improve teamwork, alter the culture of a school, and, most importantly, affect teaching and learning.

That awareness, after 23 years of employment with NSDC, led me to conceptualize the next phase of my professional life as one that would enable me to work directly with administrator and teacher leadership teams over time focused on a relatively small number of essential leadership skills. 

And so in 2007 I left the security of a job I enjoyed with people I admired for a new chapter in my professional life that I could only see in outline, much as I had done 35 years earlier with ALPHA and then with NSDC I.

Have there been times in your career when you knew it was time to move on, and how did you navigate that transition?

(I had the privilege for most of my employment at NSDC II to have as my colleagues Shirley Havens, Leslie Miller, Stephanie Hirsh, Joellen Killion, and Joan Richardson, who each in their own way strengthened our leadership team, contributed to the quality of Council work, and enriched my life. For all of those people I am appreciative and grateful, as well as for countless NSDC presidents, trustees, staff members, and volunteers too numerous to mention.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 16: Working without a boss

boss noun
/bôs/
a person in charge of a worker or organization
a person in control of a group or situation

boss verb
give (someone) orders in a domineering manner

With the closing of the federal teacher center program in 1981 at the beginning of the Reagan administration I sought a job that would enable me to use the valuable things I had learned about teaching and professional development over the previous 3 years.

Finding nothing suitable, I decided to try my hand at independent consulting on the topics that had consumed my professional interest over the previous decade—alternative education, teacher stress and burnout, professional development, and effective teaching. 

An advantage of such work is the absence of a boss, although unknown to me at the time it may mean having several bosses at a distance. A disadvantage is the absence of a predictable income, or perhaps not having any income at all. 

I had the immediate good fortune through a referral from someone I had met at the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) of securing a consulting contract for a few days a month with the U.S. Department of Education to support an initiative on professional development for effective teaching.

It was clear even to my relatively inexperienced eye, after just a few days spent in the half dozen or so school systems spread around the United States with whom I was consulting, which ones would likely achieve positive results and which wouldn’t, although I might not have been fully able to articulate the reasons at the time.

In one district, for instance, the professional development “program” involved a box of research reports on effective teaching placed in teachers’ work rooms that teachers would hopefully peruse, study, and implement in their classrooms. Success measured by change in teaching and improved student learning seemed unlikely.

But with another grantee I was part of a well-planned, carefully-implemented, and sustained professional development effort that engaged both teachers and their principals in a multi-year effort to study and apply effective teaching research with generous amounts of classroom coaching and other forms of follow-up.

Most of my other consulting work with schools or school systems extended over one or more years and included at least 5 days of study of effective teaching during a semester or school year with opportunities for classroom observation and feedback.

In a few districts, however, because of a fear of being unemployed, I regretfully signed contracts for three or four workshop days with no classroom follow-up. Not surprisingly, teachers and students saw few benefits, other than those obtained by a small number of highly-motivated teachers.

I vividly remember one such district about which I knew little in advance. Participating teachers were universally angry with district administrators, and that anger dominated every meeting in which I participated. Some of that anger, not surprisingly, was directed at me.

I honored my initial semester-long contract with the district, experiencing the stress of working with extremely unhappy teachers (their principals did not attend). At every opportunity I expressed my concern to the district administrators who hired me, and they beseeched me to continue for another semester acknowledging that perhaps it was a mistake to begin with teachers regarded as “remedial,” a fact that I had not previously known. I gave in to their request, against my better judgement, and the second group of teachers were as angry as the first. I don’t know that I have ever been as relieved and happy as when that school year ended.

During those years I also had an opportunity to closely observe an elementary school that had for many years been a troubled and dispiriting place for students, staff, and parents, which showed up in its low test scores. 

A long-time principal was replaced by a new principal on her first administrative assignment. Over the next 3 years, by every objective and subjective measure, the school became a better place for students to learn and teachers to teach.

But as is often the case, the district promoted the principal to a district office position to spread what she had done to other schools. I don’t know her effectiveness in changing other schools from her systemwide role, but I do know that the principal who followed her was similar to the principal she replaced, and the school again spiraled down.

During the early 1980s I also had the privilege of working with respected colleagues on a videotape-based series on professional development for effective teaching, a first-of-its kind effort for a national professional association. As a result, I found myself in many school systems around the country where I again observed firsthand the impact of school and district leadership on the quality of innovation, professional development, and teaching.

What I learned:

• That the quality of school leadership provided by principals and teachers and of system leadership provided by administrators and teacher union officers matters. It affects educator morale, the spread of good ideas and practices, and the quality of teaching and student learning.

• That learning about something (say, “wait time”) is not the same as learning to do it, particularly when the new practice is contrary to well-established teaching habits. I later would learn that this phenomena is called the “knowing-doing gap.”

• That it is a privilege to work with respected colleagues from whom we often learn far more than we give in return. With them we have a synergy that significantly exceeds the sum of our individual efforts. 

All these “lessons” would take on special meaning when in the mid-1980s my work took yet another unexpected turn.

What lessons have you learned, perhaps the hard way, that have served you well throughout your career?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]


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