Archive for the 'Creation/invention' Category

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

op·por·tu·ni·ty noun
 /ˌäpərˈt(y)o͞onədē/
a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something
a chance for employment or promotion

im·passe noun
/ˈimˌpas,imˈpas/
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. 11: The unexpected

un·ex·pect·ed adjective
/ˌənəkˈspektəd/
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. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
/hōp/
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

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

Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
/inˈvent/
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

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

6 important contradictions in life and work

Most of us find it difficult to simultaneously hold in our minds two or more contradictory beliefs. 

Nonetheless, sometimes one idea and its opposite are both true.

Here are several examples:

1. Plan carefully and persist in doing what’s important to you and to others, but be prepared to improvise because of unanticipated events. Plan, but hold those plans loosely.

2. Recognize the value of expertise and research, but also understand their limitations. Be open to new learning while simultaneously inquiring about the evidence upon which recommendations are being made.

3. Trust yourself, but ask respected colleagues and friends to offer their perspectives on your experiences and point of view.

4. Know that one person or a small group can change the trajectory of an organization, but don’t underestimate the power of systems and processes to affect what we think and do each day.

5. Conventional wisdom may offer guidance, but don’t unconditionally follow its dictates. In fact, make it a habit to surface and thoroughly examine the often unexamined assumptions that guide our lives.

6. Aim big. There are situations that require large, seemingly impossible goals to stretch us out of our comfort zones, but remember that such stretch goals are achieved and celebrated in incremental steps.

What contradictions would you add to this list?


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