Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

The link between “deep thought” and solitude

Depth of thought matters in classrooms, in meetings for decision making, and in meaningful professional learning.

While depth requires time, a lack of time is not a sufficient excuse. There is always time to do what matters, and depth always trumps superficiality.

Depth requires:


Habits of mind and behavior that value slowness over speed, focus over multi-tasking, nuanced understanding over superficiality, and problem-solving over complaining;

Protocols that keep participants focused on paying attention to both the accomplishment of tasks and the quality of relationships; and

• Solitude.

Most of all, solitude.

Cal Newport offers 2 “lessons” about solitude:

“Lesson #1: The right way to define “solitude” is as a subjective state in which you’re isolated from input from other minds.

“When we think of solitude, we typically imagine physical isolation (a remote cabin or mountain top), making it a concept that we can easily push aside as romantic and impractical. But as this book makes clear, the real key to solitude is to step away from reacting to the output of other minds: be it listening to a podcast, scanning social media, reading a book, watching TV or holding an actual conversation. It’s time for your mind to be alone with your mind — regardless of what’s going on around you.

“Lesson #2: Regular doses of solitude are crucial for the effective and resilient functioning of your brain.

“Spending time isolated from other minds is what allows you to process and regulate complex emotions. It’s the only time you can refine the principles on which you can build a life of character. It’s what allows you to crack hard problems, and is often necessary for creative insight. If you avoid time alone with your brain your mental life will be much more fragile and much less productive.”

What are the conditions in your personal and professional lives that enable depth of thought?

Teachers are our first responders

I can no longer listen to the names and abbreviated life histories read out on radio and TV after yet another massacre of children

A New York Times article offers this straightforward explanation for mass shootings such as the one that occurred last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida:

“After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 incident. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society….

“‘In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,’ Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. ‘Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.’”

I don’t know if the United States has crossed a line from which there is no return because too many politicians have calculated that the sacrifice of children’s lives is an acceptable cost to bear so that Americans can possess 300 million guns, many of which are designed to kill as many people as quickly as possible.

When elected leaders lack the political courage to place reasonable limitations on gun ownership because of their fear of the gun lobby, teachers become this nation’s first responders both during and after these tragedies.

I try to imagine what it is like to be be a teacher who knows that no community is immune from gun violence as he or she seeks to reassure students that their schools are safe places.

They cannot help but see the faces of their students and of their own children in the  images they view on television.

How, I wonder, do teachers take care of their students and themselves and each other during times like these?

5 “truths” about teaching as a career

Resilient teachers understand that:

1.Those who can simultaneously do many complex tasks, teach; those who can’t go elsewhere (or at least we hope that they do). Teaching is intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding. When done well, is a career-long marathon, not a sprint.

2. It is better to teach as part of a high-functioning team than alone. Having respected and trusted colleagues, preferably as teammates, makes the intellectual, emotional, and physical requirements of teaching  sustainable across decades.

3. Continuously changing circumstances (student characteristics, curriculum, and so on) require new understandings, beliefs, and skills.

4. Therefore, teachers have a professional obligation throughout their careers to improve their knowledge and skills through deliberate practice and feedback from students and colleagues.

5. All of the above require skillful leadership on the part of both teachers and administrators, particularly in creating cultures of continuous improvement.

What have I missed?

The importance of self-care 

For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk. —Emelina Minero

Self care is an important topic at this time of year as people make New Year’s Resolutions or set annual goals.

Emelina Minero underscores the importance of self care in “When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too.”

Minero explains the link between student trauma and teacher stress this way:

“Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have impacts that extend far beyond childhood, including higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems later in life….

“For teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk. Sometimes called the “cost of caring,” vicarious trauma can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured,” according to the American Counseling Association.”

Minero offers several strategies teachers and administrators can use to address vicarious trauma:

Talking it out with colleagues, a life partner, therapists, and/or colleagues.

Building coping strategies to manage emotions (visualizing a calming place) and to identify and deal with more stressful times of the day.

Establishing coming home rituals such as turning off work phones or creating a to-do list for the next day before leaving work that provide clear boundaries between work and home life.

Minero’s suggestions promote self-care, an essential but often overlooked aspect of both physical and emotional well-being.

Three thoughts about self-care:

1. Self-care is not selfish. We cannot offer care to others if we don’t first care for ourselves.

2. Unless self-care is a routine and habitual part of our days it will quickly recede into the background when it is most needed.

3. To establish such routines and habits, it is helpful to view self-care as a promise to ourselves that assumes the same importance as promises we make to others.

What forms of self-care are most important to you, and how do you ensure that you engage in those practices on a regular basis?

What is your story?

For many years I had the privilege of interviewing leading educators regarding their views on various aspects of professional learning for articles that were published in NSDC’s (now Learning Forward) JSD (now The Learning Professional).

They were educators whose ideas have proved resilient over the intervening decades (Michael Fullan and Peter Senge, for example), and the stories they shared, sometimes couched in technical terms, about how individuals learn and organizations change demonstrated the link between resilience, influence, and storytelling.

The stories these “influencers” told often revealed the people, experiences, and values that animated both their personal and professional lives.

Here is such a story from my life:

Early in my teaching career I attended an inspiring and practical 3-day workshop on what was then called “mastery teaching.” My big “take away” was that virtually all students could learn virtually everything I wanted them to know given sufficient time and “correctives,” and that their improved grades would reflect that learning.

Soon after I returned to my school, however, I realized that to implement what I had learned I had to overcome a significant barrier in the form of my principal who believed that good teachers should distribute grades more or less on a normal-distribution curve slightly skewed to the high side to show that we were making a positive difference.

His strongly-held belief posed a problem – how would I give grades that he would accept that would also reflect the higher-levels of learning I anticipated in my classroom?

We met, and he decided to allow an experiment with one of my classes if I brought all student work to him for review for the remainder of the school year. (The experiment concluded at the end of the school year when I moved on to another assignment.)

Over the years I told that story many times to illustrate:

• The power of beliefs to shape professional practice.

• That unless professional development addressed the existing beliefs of teachers and administrators the innovations would flounder and likely fail.

Stories can shape attitudes (often unconsciously), bond groups, teach important lessons, and provide guidance and motivation.

They can be used in:

• classrooms

• faculty meetings

• family gatherings

• with friends

What stories have you used or might you use to teach, guide, or motivate?

There is no substitute for resilient leadership

Resilient people are often called upon to be leaders, a responsibility that both draws upon their resilience and cultivates it for future use.

Early in my career I did not understand the importance of leadership. Schools, I thought, would improve if teachers were simply given the tools to do their work and the freedom to use them.

But then I had an opportunity to closely observe a school whose teachers and parents were frustrated and dispirited. Students performed poorly, and everyone felt hopeless about the future.

Eventually a new principal came to the school. Over the next 3 years things got better. Staff and parent morale improved, as did teaching and student learning.

That principal eventually went on to another assignment, and the school’s new principal was more like the first one. Things spiraled downwards into a hopelessness that felt more profound because of the school’s rollercoaster journey.

Later on in my professional development work I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching and learning.

I enjoyed those conversations immensely except when teachers were angry and cynical.

Without exception, I observed that those teachers were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three.

My work came to focus on principals and teacher leaders because without their skillful leadership teacher professional learning and teamwork were unlikely to occur in ways that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

What is your experience—is it possible to continuously improve teaching and learning without skillful leadership?

You can’t boss me…

“[T]he latest research shows that terminally ill patients who seek aid in dying aren’t primarily concerned about pain. Those who have actually used these laws have been far more concerned about controlling the way they exit the world than about controlling pain… “It’s almost never about pain,” said Lonny Shavelson, a Berkeley, Calif., physician who specializes in the care of the terminally ill and who began writing prescriptions for lethal doses of medication in June, when California’s law took effect. “It’s about dignity and control.”” – Washington Post

The Washington Post article reminded me of a conversation I had with an elderly woman about the dissatisfaction she felt with her diminished life in a long-term care facility. She knew she would be happy, she said, if she could only have an apartment of her own.

I pointed out her children’s concerns about her safety, and she said she would rather die sooner living in an apartment than live longer in her current residence.

Most of us crave autonomy and respect, and we can tolerate many difficulties when those qualities are present.

We want to feel in control of our lives, to make decisions large and small whose sum total makes up the substance of our days.

I have worked at jobs where all the important decisions were made for me. My circle of influence was very small, and I often found myself feeling frustrated and unhappy.

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

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

What are the implications for leaders and parents of this universal desire for self-determination?

It means that we do everything in our power to give others as much decision-making authority and responsibility as possible and provide the learning and other supports required to enable success.

Do you agree: Is the desire for self-determination universal, and what can we do to meaningfully support individuals of all ages in its realization?

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