Ch. 15: An unexpected opportunity, and an impasse: NSDC I

op·por·tu·ni·ty noun
a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something
a chance for employment or promotion

im·passe noun
a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock.

By the summer of 1978 I had been teaching for 10 years. 

I had helped found and implement a successful alternative high school (ALPHA) at which I had worked for 6 years.

I had earned two graduate degrees.

I had failed to get jobs I had sought and turned down one that I sensed would not be right for me.

And I felt the emotional fatigue of working with at-risk students whose academic, family, mental health, and addiction problems often felt overwhelming.

So I was ready for something different with new challenges and problems to be solved.

Such an opportunity came from an unexpected source.

In the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, education saw important advances. Teacher unions were influential in Washington, the Department of Education had recently been created, and federal teacher center legislation was passed which in 1978 awarded competitive 3-year grants to about 30 school systems or consortiums of systems.

My district was part of one such consortium that included seven school systems in Northwest Wayne County near Detroit. 

A central feature of that legislation was the view that teachers should have a larger say in their own professional development.

To that end, the legislation required that the teacher centers be governed by policy board with a majority of teachers. (In 1979 the consortium also began receiving state funds with similar requirements.)

Because of my professional development work as a teacher leader in an innovative alternative high school and in leading workshops on teacher stress and burnout, I was encouraged to apply for the center’s executive director position.

I was selected, and in late September 1978 I went from my high school classroom to a 3-day meeting in Washington, DC for teacher center directors and board members, plus dozens of representatives of the federal government and of national and state organizations who had a variety of supportive roles. 

I quickly realized that the world of high school teachers and that of Washington, DC policymakers could not have been more different.

On Friday I was thinking about my lesson plans for the following week. On Saturday, in Washington, I heard speeches filled with terms and acronyms I didn’t understand about the specifics of the legislation whose requirements seemed baffling.

And that is how I became the teacher leader of the Northwest Staff Development Center (NSDC) which served about 4,000 teachers and administrators. It was called “Northwest” because of the location in Wayne County of the seven consortium districts, and “staff” development center rather than teacher center because one of the first decisions the policy board made was that it should serve administrators as well as teachers. 

(I later would think of it as NSDC I because a few years later I would be employed by the National Staff Development Council, NSDC II.)

The policy board selected an elementary teacher as an assistant director, and we immediately began translating the abstract language of proposal writers intended to please proposal readers into concrete programs that would begin within weeks. 

The center offered a variety of short and long-term workshops both during and after the school day. Mostly they were based on subjects identified through “needs assessments” in the seven districts.

One of my first professional development surprises was that while some topics, such as classroom management and motivating students, were overwhelmingly identified as “high need,” just a handful of the 4,000 educators would enroll in workshops or courses on those topics.

The center also provided mini-grants to individual teachers or a group of teachers who wanted to create innovative programs or curricula and individual grants to teachers for conference attendance or purchasing professional materials for a school or school system, among other uses.

We developed a monthly newsletter that listed upcoming events and described our evolving ideas about professional development.

It was an exciting time because both researchers and practitioners were seeking ways to understand, describe, and disseminate effective teaching practices.

And they were also thinking more deeply about professional development that would spread those teaching practices. 

I attended my first annual conference of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) in 1979. While there were just 125 educators in attendance, it was the organization’s largest conference to date, and my participation would prove to have a profound influence on my career.

At that conference I learned about the research of Bruce Joyce on effective training, which placed classroom follow-up and coaching front and center, features that were missing from all of our teacher center programs.

And perhaps most importantly, for the first time I engaged in deep conversations with others who shared the challenges and rewards of our often lonely work.

What did I learn in my 3 years at the teacher center before it closed in 1981?

• That teacher-planned professional development isn’t necessarily superior to that planned by administrators, and that the best decisions were made collaboratively.

• That “needs assessments” based on teachers’ perceptions were insufficient in planning programs that would make a difference in teaching and learning. 

• That our emphasis on finding the best presenters for workshops rather than designing programs intended to produce lasting changes in teaching and leadership that would benefit all students was wrongheaded, but it was all that we knew to do at the time.

• That a “presenter’s” charisma or ability to inspire were not a substitute for the use of effective teaching methods with educators—that is, that the presenter/teacher would be an outstanding model of the recommended practices. 

• That focusing primarily on individual development, not team development and creating school and district cultures of continuous improvement, was insufficient.

• That while federal and state policy-making and the daily work of teachers often resided in separate worlds, I learned how political decisions have important effects on schools and classrooms.

When Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980 one of his first actions was to eliminate the Teacher Center Program.

And so in 1981 I was unemployed, and while I could return to the classroom in a yet to be determined placement, I knew that I wanted to find a way to continue to use the important things I had learned at both ALPHA and NSDC I. 

But first I would have to invent a way to do so when no ready-made possibilities presented themselves.

Have you ever felt that your career was at an impasse? If so, how did you manage that period of your life?

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

Ch. 14: Choice points: Roads not taken

choice noun
an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities

Each of us has personal and professional roads not taken—that is, important and conscious decisions that sent us in one direction rather than another.

In my first decade of teaching, first at a structurally innovative high school with traditional teaching and then at an alternative high school, there were a number of such choice points for me.

I thought about and quickly dismissed becoming an attorney, perhaps considering it because I knew a few people who were in law school.

I also thought about photojournalism because I enjoyed photography and well-told visual stories. So I took courses which revealed to me that I enjoyed photography more as a hobby than a day-to-day responsibility.

I came to teaching because I wanted to be a school counselor which required that I first be a teacher. So I began teaching in 1968, and the following year I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in counseling.

Counseling positions were in short supply two years later when I received my degree, so I continued to teach while beginning a doctoral program in counseling with the goal of of being either a psychologist or university professor.

But when I finished that program in 1976 there were limited opportunities in university counseling programs and few K-12 school counseling positions. 

Later that year I applied and was selected for a high school administrative position in a nearby school system, but the superintendent overturned the decision made at a lower level in favor of the in-house candidate.

A year or two later I applied and was chosen for a counseling position in a medical school, a job I eventually turned down after carefully considering factors such as the long daily commute and a decrease in salary.

Through the process of applying for various jobs, and the reflection the application process stimulated, I realized I had little interest in administrators’ day-to-day responsibilities and that I most enjoyed working with groups of people, not individuals.

Because teacher stress and burnout was an issue in the mid-1970s, I developed a workshop and wrote about ways teachers could address this problem. Interest quickly spread beyond Southeast Michigan, and I often found myself invited to offer workshops throughout the state and beyond during the limited time I had available. While I enjoyed the attention and additional income it brought, I quickly realized that the intense traveling lifestyle it required was not appealing to me.

So I found myself in the late 1970s with a decade of experience, a graduate degree I had long sought, and a desire to try something new.

And then suddenly an opportunity arose that I could not have possibility anticipated that took my career in a totally unexpected direction.

Were there roads not taken in your career, and, if so, what were they?

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

Ch. 13: Deepening the conversation

con·ver·sa·tion noun
a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged

In the mid to late-1970s I was teaching at ALPHA and finishing my doctoral dissertation, which investigated what high school students shared with others about their lives. I also taught introductory counseling and group counseling courses at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.

I believed then and now that trust is the bedrock of a strong learning community, no matter the age of the students.

I also believed that trust required a deeper understanding and respect among community members, and that those qualities flowed from authentic conversations.

So I sought a rationale and organizer for such conversations that I hoped would appeal to students of all ages, and found one in Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell, a Jesuit priest, who described five levels of communication:

5: Cliche Conversation, which is shallow and filled with factoids. Trivia is shared and the conversation is “safe.”

4: Facts About Others, rather than about ourselves. This level also includes facts about events and things.

3: Ideas and Judgements, a level at which we are beginning to share more deeply about ourselves, but in a guarded way.

2: Feelings, a level at which through our emotions we begin to offer our uniqueness to others, especially when our feelings are paired with our ideas and judgments. Such disclosure is riskier because it answers the question posed in the title of Powell’s book, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?—I am afraid because if I reveal my deeper self to you and you reject it, you are rejecting the real me, not a facade.

1: Peak Communication, the deepest and most authentic form of communication, in which one person’s disclosure evokes similar disclosure in others as participants progressively reveal more of themselves.

Powell’s organizer explains that the simplest and most direct way to deepen conversations, whether with colleagues, friends, or family members, is by revealing something of significance about ourselves and inviting others to do the same while listening carefully and nonjudgmentally to their responses. 

Of course, just as some crave more authentic conversations, others for a variety of reasons are content with Powell’s levels 4 and 5, finding the deeper levels more emotionally demanding or riskier than they believe the effort is worth.

I recently came across a blog post by Brett MacKay and Kate MacKay about the role of conversation in character development and other forms of learning, benefits I had not considered in the 1970s.

The MacKays argue that such conversations:

• are a mental discipline that require that we pay attention to what we say, “…abstaining from non-sequiturs, excessive negativity and complaints, gossip, and inadvertent insults to the person to whom we are speaking and those they know.”

• are “…a singular exercise in being present in the moment. To engage it fully you must shut down the distractions of the outside world and disentangle from devices. To listen attentively to another, you must continually bring the mind back to the present each time it wanders. You must commit to the idea that there is nowhere else you’d rather be, than right there, right then, with this other person…. In the give and take of conversation, each partner offers responses that address and build on what the other person says, and the deftness of those responses can only grow out of attentive listening. 

• require courage because “…every step into conversation is a step into the unknown. How will it go? Will it result in connection? Intimacy? Embarrassment? Hostility?”

• promote deeper clarity and increase our influence as “We find that opinions which seemed crystal clear in our heads, emerge as a confused jumble when we attempt to articulate them…. People rarely change as the result of being lectured. A direct haranguing produces defensiveness rather than transformation.”

• can have long-term effects because “…something you say can strike another with meteoric impact. Indeed, sometimes a single conversation can change the entire direction of someone’s life.”

• “…fulfill the most basic of human needs: to be recognized, acknowledged, seen.”

I believed then and continue to believe now that we can choose the kind of conversations we want to have and extend invitations to others to participate with us in the adventure of enriching relationships, building character, and deepening learning.

What types of conversations do you find most satisfying, and what do you do to evoke them? 

Have you ever had a conversation that struck you with “meteoric impact,” that changed you in a significant way?

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

Ch. 12:  Climbing out of a deep academic hole

stu·dent noun
a person who is studying at a school or college
a person who takes an interest in a particular subject

There were many reasons for my academic troubles. 

Because my home life was often chaotic, I had trouble focusing on schoolwork, and when old enough I would often spend my evenings away from home doing non-academic things with my non-academic friends. 

As a result, I wasn’t developing the study habits necessary for academic success.

In addition, I was not a an adept memorizer, especially of decontextualized facts, which was what passed for teaching and testing in many of my classes.

At the time, if asked about my difficulties, I probably would have said, “I guess I’m not very smart.” 

I had the good fortune in high school to spend time with two extended families in which good grades and college aspirations were encouraged.

Nonetheless, raising my high school grade-point average to a level acceptable to a university would be a challenge, particularly given that by 11th grade I was standing in a very deep hole caused by several years of academic neglect.

In my junior year I was befriended by Richard, one of the “smart kids,” who sometimes helped me with my homework and in preparing for tests.

It was a few years later, after I became a high school teacher, that I began to appreciate and to have labels for the learning methods I used with Richard and informally experimented with in high school and beyond.

Richard’s help with my homework, for example, during which we talked through the process of, say, solving a math problem, was a kind of cooperative learning or tutoring that enabled me to understand what I could not comprehend during fast-paced teacher lectures and demonstrations. 

Looking back I remember particularly enjoying a university political science class in which we discussed and wrote about complex issues for which there were no right answers, as well as the rare undergraduate or graduate classes that employed group or project-based learning.

Those instructional methods were new to me and empowering. 

I discovered that I learned best when I saw the big picture of a subject before considering its details, an approach that enabled me to understand the otherwise invisible connections among facts.

In addition, I came to understand that I preferred learning methods which provided generous amounts of “think time,” whereas most of my high school and university teachers used a rapid-fire question-and-answer method which rewarded the fastest thinkers and most verbal students.

Over time I came to see that I had to slow down the learning process through reading, writing, and conversation if I was to truly understand the subject matter. That remains as true today as it was then.

Through these gradually-acquired insights, and the encouragement and support of several people, my grades improved during my 11th and 12th grade years, eventually climbing into the C+ range. That proved sufficient for me to be accepted in the fall of 1964 at a nearby commuter college where I stayed for just a year before winning a scholarship to a larger state university that allowed me to live away from home and have a more complete college experience.

There obviously was a lot more for me to learn about teaching and learning, much of it as a result of the challenges I faced during the day with my alternative high school students and in the evening with graduate students in classes I had started teaching in the mid-1970s near the conclusion of a doctoral program in counseling.

I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Until then, Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year.

What were your experiences as a student, and how did they affect your teaching?

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

Ch. 11: The unexpected

un·ex·pect·ed adjective
not regarded as likely to happen

In the fall of 1972 I was a teacher on special assignment at ALPHA, a small alternative high school which a team of four, including myself, had spent the summer planning.

Our start-up challenges were both expected and unexpected.

The anticipated challenges were with our students, many of them with long histories of academic failure and disengagement from school, as we oriented them to new approaches to learning and to school.

At the same time we were designing and implementing all the school’s processes and procedures.

The list of unexpected challenges was much longer.

The district administrators who oversaw our program thought that it would be a good idea for us to explain our school at faculty meetings in the two high schools from which we drew our 40 students, both experiences I remember as being quite contentious.

Some teachers felt strongly that students who broke attendance rules and had various behavioral problems should not be “rewarded” by a school that offered them more choices.

Most surprising was the resentment of some school counselors who thought that “problem students” were their domain, although many of them were in the group that thought such students should be punished rather than rewarded by undeserved opportunities.

That tension with teachers and counselors dissipated during ALPHA’s first year, but it never totally disappeared.

Another unexpected, but stretching challenge, was engaging with the broader educational community in unfamiliar ways.

Almost immediately, even in the midst of these start-up challenges, we had visitors from around Southeast Michigan and occasionally from farther away. Rather than simply observing we asked them to participate in the daily “workshop” and other meetings with students.

In addition, for the first time in my 4-year teaching career I was regularly invited to participate in district, regional, and state committees and administrative meetings.

It was also the first time I experienced what I would later describe as the “serial monologues” of such meetings with the discussion quickly shifting from topic to topic.

At one of those meetings I noticed Dolores Pascal, a woman who I would come to greatly admire, saying something I thought was similar to what I had just said (after summoning the courage to speak among my “elders”), but receiving a more favorable response. I observed her closely at several meetings, and over time tried to emulate both her positive tone and the clarity with which she spoke. It was a form of just-in-time on-the-job professional learning that served me well throughout my career.

Over the next several years I gradually became viewed as an “expert” on alternative education, a status with which I was distinctly uncomfortable because I knew how much we still had to learn to help our ALPHA students be more successful.

Several times a year I was invited to make presentations at regional and state conferences for administrators where I soon learned that older “learners” could present challenges not unlike those I experienced with my high school students.

I remember on one occasion a “participant” in a group of administrators who would not engage in a small group discussion as I requested because, as he put it, “If I had wanted to work I would have stayed in my office.” I didn’t know what to say other than to repeat my invitation to participate, which he again refused, sitting off by himself in a corner of the room.

During that time, and since, I marveled at how far I had come from the Western Michigan village in which I had grown up. Even more, I marveled that I had found success as a teacher after being at best a mediocre high school student.

I have heard it said that teachers who struggled with school themselves often better understand their students’ learning challenges.

I doubt that I became the teacher I aspired to be, but I do know that I had a kind of empathy for my students born of my own school experiences that helped me be a better teacher.

I will have more to say on that subject in my next post.

What is your experience with “one thing leading to another” in your work or life?

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

Ch. 10: Euphoria fades as reality sets in

re·al·i·ty noun
the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them

In August 1972 the Board of Education in Livonia, Michigan approved a small, experimental alternative high school that a team of 3 teachers and a counselor, myself included, had spent the summer designing. 

Our excitement about creating a school of which we were proud, at least on paper, was immediately tempered by the start-up problems we were now facing in September.

Two of us, an English teacher and me, a social studies teacher, would staff the school in its first year.

An opening date of October 1 had been selected which gave us a month to find a location for the school, to equip it with furniture and other necessities, and to select books that “disaffected” students would find so compelling they would not be able to put them down, the start-up task I most enjoyed.

Most important of all, we selected our first 40 students, 20 of whom in the first month of school were already in trouble with the school system’s new, more stringent attendance policy (as I recall, a school could drop students from classes after 7 unexcused absences), and 20 who had not run afoul of the policy but were attracted to the school’s design and opportunities. 

The approach we chose to use regarding various behavioral issues that would arise with students throughout the school year was based on William Glasser’s book, Reality Therapy.

While we didn’t see our school as “therapeutic,” we did agree with Glasser’s view that many problems in life were caused by “irresponsibility,” and that the solution required focusing on specific plans for future responsible behavior for which students would be held accountable rather than extended discussions during which students sought to excuse their misbehavior.

As a result, there was no “blaming and shaming” regarding rule or agreement violations, but instead a repetition of the question, “What is your goal and your plan?” Which meant that because many of our students had well-established habits of irresponsibility, it was a process that we applied until students (and sometimes their parents) understood that it was easier to be responsible than to repeatedly meet with their teachers to make new plans.

“Reality” was always the agreements students made with staff members and the unwavering expectation that they would keep their promises, that is, to behave responsibly.

This approach was applied to a wide range of problems and behaviors, beginning with attendance.

Prior to enrollment we met individually with students and their parents to explain the program’s features and our attendance policy—there would be no unexcused absences without consequence, a surprising policy to many students and parents given student problems with absenteeism in their home high schools.

We asked students and parents to sign an agreement stipulating that they understood the policy and would abide by its terms.

In the event of an unexcused absence students were required to meet with teachers, and perhaps their parents as well, to determine ways to address the problem and to create a new plan.

Our view was that because students were given a great deal of flexibility about when and how they learned, they could not unilaterally forfeit on the promises they made regarding their academic goals and daily participation in a tightly-focused two-hour skill development “workshop” designed to create a cohesive and mutually-supportive community of learners. 

For us, the attendance policy was a means to teach students about responsibility and integrity—that is, to consistently do what they said they would do.

But those were only our initial challenges, with new ones arising from unexpected sources, problems for which we as staff members proved to be ill prepared.

What methods did you or do you find most effective in addressing chronic behavior problems?

(In 1978, Mike Abbott joined the ALPHA staff where he taught until his retirement in 1994. Our decades-long friendship began then and has grown over the decades as we continue to meet on Saturday mornings for long walks and breakfast.)

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

Everyone has an important story to tell

lis·ten verb
take notice of and act on what someone says
make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something

sto·ry noun
an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something

Since 2012 I have published some version of this essay to recognize StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening.

What I said then is as important today as it was 7 years ago:

Everyone has a story to tell, and, given an opportunity, we all want to share the important stories of our lives, stories that explain who we are and where we came from, that prove we existed and mattered, that demonstrate our resilience, and that reveal the people and events that affected our lives.

And we can all learn important lessons from one another’s stories.

StoryCorps’ “National Day of Listening” provides an opportunity to evoke those stories.

On the day after Thanksgiving, StoryCorps asks everyone to take a few minutes to record an interview with a family member or friend.

You can use recording equipment that is readily available to you such as a computer, smart phone, tablet, or other voice or video recorder.

StoryCorps provides a free Do It Yourself Instruction Guide.

The lesson that everyone has an important story to tell has been reinforced time and again for me as a hospice volunteer who has been privileged to record dozens of hospice patients discussing their lives in conversations with family members.

All that is required of us is to extend the invitation and to listen deeply without interruption to those stories.

Once the conversation begins, it’s likely to proceed almost effortlessly, at least in my experience.

Some possible questions include:

• What elders or events influenced the person you’ve become?

• How would you like to be remembered?

• What advice would you like to pass along to your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, or others in your life?

There’s no gift human beings can give one another that is more important and precious than our undivided attention and genuine interest in the stories we all have to tell.

When that attention promotes storytelling that is preserved with video or audio recordings, it is a gift that benefits future generations for decades to come.


How have stories and storytelling shaped your life?

To whom would you like to reach out—an elder, a family member or friend, a veteran, a colleague, or a neighbor, for example—to invite his or her storytelling?

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,619 other followers



Recent Twitter Posts