Archive for the 'Professional learning' Category

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.”]

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. 13: Deepening the conversation

con·ver·sa·tion noun
/ˌkänvərˈsāSH(ə)
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
/ˈst(y)o͞odnt/
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.”]


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