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Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach
Beginning my position as a new Head of School, I opened our first full staff professional learning session with the above quote from educator Parker Palmer. Determined to shift from my voice to our voices as quickly as possible, I moved almost immediately to a learning activity modified from one Palmer describes later in his book.
Imagine a moment when everything was going right for you as a teacher; when your teaching was so good you felt you were born to teach, and you knew you were making a difference for students.
The happy social buzz of first day greetings, which had begun shortly before our learning session as we arrived for a welcome breakfast, continued. The ebullient, celebratory mood of greeting friends and colleagues after a summer apart gently moved deeper, broaching seldom asked questions about qualities of teachers that lie at the heart of learning; transcending curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
After a short time, I invited teachers and staff who wanted to do so to share with the whole group; acknowledging teachers’ humility and reluctance to speak in a manner that might feel like boasting. The stories inspired. Some were about individual students’ triumphs in overcoming challenge or adversity; some about entire classes making remarkable progress; and others about a key attribute of a teacher that positively impacted students year after year. We applauded each and every speaker, beginning our year with appreciation.
We then moved just a bit deeper as Parker Palmer encourages us to do. I asked teachers to focus, not on their own celebratory stories, but on those of their colleagues, identifying the gifts, the personal strengths and qualities within their colleagues, that bring success. Colleagues talked about care, the ability to listen, patience, perseverance in the face of challenge, and grounding in enduring values. They spoke, meaningfully and thoughtfully, not about skills or specific knowledge, but rather about qualities that enable teachers to connect and build relationships with students. Intuitively, teachers reached beyond themselves, emphasizing the need to understand our students, equating greatness in teaching to connection with students; as individuals, as a class, and as a school-wide community of learners.
As we concluded the session, I shared with teachers my commitment to being present in classrooms regularly, not to judge, but to engage, learn, appreciate, and support. In time, I plan to offer ongoing non-judgemental feedback to prompt teacher reflection. Yet in the beginning, as teachers at my new school and I get to know each other and develop trusting relationships, I choose to refrain from offering feedback and instead to focus almost exclusively on presence and heartfelt appreciation. As the Head of School of an independent school, in which the format for teacher evaluation is not mandated by a district or the state, I have that freedom. I can take some time, engage with teachers, and collaboratively design a feedback framework emphasizing growth.
In the past I interpreted, or more likely misinterpreted, educational research as indicating that paradoxically praise is judgmental and disrespectful of teachers’ and students’ abilities to reflect on their own learning; successes and mistakes alike. Teachers opened my eyes; sharing the pain of giving heart and soul and only infrequently, if at all, receiving appreciation from supervisors. I have heard from teachers about how disconcerting it is to feel as if one is “on stage” as a supervisor, even a caring supervisor, observes. Trained to focus on learning from mistakes, teachers often, almost obsessively, analyze what went wrong in a lesson,while glossing over what went right. We frequently see ourselves through intensely critical lenses and imagine those observing us do as well. We too often neglect to celebrate our successes, inadvertently missing out on the potential to build from our strengths.
As Parker Palmer boldly asserts, it takes courage to teach. That courage deserves appreciation.
And so, I reach out to teachers in my own school, and to colleagues more broadly wondering about ways of structuring appreciative, reflective exploration of teaching practice. If you were able to structure a system of feedback for professionals to promote growth, in lieu of formal evaluation, what process would you use? What components would you include? What would be helpful for you?
It’s been more than three months since I’ve written in this blog; the longest stretch away since I began blogging. I suppose there are many reasons, prominently among them is the reality that professionally I had been standing between two stories. At the end of June I left a position as Lower School Principal, which I had held for thirteen years. At the beginning of August, I began a position as Head of School at a school serving students from pre-school through eighth grade.
On one of the last days at my previous position, my Head of School there asked me what I would miss most. It was a thoughtful question, which I realized I couldn’t yet answer. “I don’t know yet,” I said honestly. “I suppose I’ll recognize what I miss once I’m gone.” Perhaps it’s at heart the uncertainty of transition, what I will miss and what I will inherit, that has left me so quiet.
When I began my position in my previous school my daughter, now entering her senior year of high school, was in a four year old pre-K program and my son, now beginning high school, had just begun a two year old program. I dreamed of leading our school to offer the quality and community I, as a young mother and idealistic educator, dreamed of for my own children. Today my daughter aspires to become an elementary school teacher and my son aspires to become a high school history teacher. Regardless of where their professional and personal life paths take them, I now dream of leading the type of school in which I would be proud for my own children to teach; a school in which each teacher can make the maximum contribution, building on her or his strengths to empower students to maximize their own talents, interests, and abilities. It is a collaborative and embracing vision, constantly evolving through ongoing appreciative inquiry into the strengths of our school, our community, each of our professionals, and each of our students. It is not my story; but rather our story.
In my high school yearbook, the quote beneath my picture is from Muriel Rukeyeser and reads: The World is Made of Stories Not Atoms. I found the quote, in my pre-google high school days, in a writers’ journal filled with inspiring quotes and blank pages. At the time, I didn’t know who Muriel Rukeyeser was, and didn’t take the time to go to the public library and find out. I just loved the quote. Today with a google search, it takes seconds to learn about Muriel Rukeyser; an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism. She was a more appropriate choice for me as a high school senior than I imagined. Like her equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism were central to my life. I appreciated poetry and dreamed of becoming a novelist.
I still love stories, yet I no longer write fiction. I love emerging stories, the stories that are written not primarily with words, but more significantly, with actions. I remember a friend of mine in middle school sharing that she thought of her life as a movie. The idea has remained with me all these years. With time, the image of life as a movie, or as a story, has become more nuanced and interesting for me. Today, as an educator, I strive to view school as multiple stories happening simultaneously, with each student the star of her or his own story and each teacher and me playing supporting roles in all of the stories. It’s a humbling exercise, and of course I can’t truly see students’ stories through their own eyes, nor focus with the emphasis I would like on my role in each and every story. But trying helps me be a better educator.
Stored for all but eight days a year in white packing paper within large cardboard boxes in the back of our garage, the ritual of unpacking our Passover dishes is for me poignant. Although not officially part of the holiday ritual, unwrapping those dishes to see the light of day after a year in darkness is an integral part of my holiday ritual. The dishes are necessary because the Passover laws not only mandate that we not eat bread, but also that we have separate dishes used only with kosher for Passover food. Yet for me, more than a requirement, the dishes have become a symbol, rife with meaning and standing out even in a holiday filled with symbols.
As I glimpse at the familiar pattern for the first time in a year, I remember the day I bought the dishes, my then two month old now seventeen year old daughter in my arms. I remember, almost concurrently, each of our family Passover celebrations since – where we were in our life journeys; the challenges and the joys. I remember Passovers before I purchased my dishes, with my grandparents and my parents. I remember the “me” I was, consider the “me” I am today, and reflect on the “me” I am becoming.
The dishes remind me of the packing and unpacking, literally and metaphorically, that lies ahead. In August, I will start a new job as Head of School at The Solomon Schechter School of Queens, leaving The Solomon Schechter School of Westchester where I have been Lower School Principal for the past thirteen years. As the similar school names imply, much will be the same. Yet, much will also be different. I think about the advice the wise coaches and mentors I have gathered close to me in recent years have offered on this new beginning.
Listen more than you speak.
Focus on culture and relationships.
Share in a short phrase what is most important to you.
I think back, striving to remember the guidance given me when I began my current job thirteen years ago. As I recollect, it was a list both longer and more specific than the current advice given me; connected to the particular challenges and strengths of the school I was joining. Although I couldn’t articulate this at the time, looking back I recognize that the insights shared were far more about “doing” than about “being”. At times the guidance served me well, but when times were toughest the guidance failed me because at heart culture is stronger than strategy, change isn’t easily scripted, and communities can’t recognize their own blind spots without carefully creating space for those with differing perspectives.
I am more experienced now and I hope, more humble as well. I recognize that before I can truly listen, I will need to establish enough trust for people to speak. I understand that people will experience many different emotions at the prospect of a new Head of School; anxiety, excitement, and even indifference. I will need to be patient and present, seeking to understand the culture and community I am joining and to develop strong, respectful relationships.
As one of my mentors suggested, I have reflected on the short phrase about what is most important for the school community to know about me as a leader and an educator, and shared it on my first meeting with teachers and with parents at The Solomon Schechter School of Queens. It is a reflection of the me I am becoming.
We build on our community strengths to empower our children to build on their strengths.
Stemming from appreciative inquiry, positive psychology, and strengths based coaching, I choose, as much as I can, to recognize and celebrate strengths to be nurtured rather than deficits to be fixed. This doesn’t mean I’ll ignore challenges and problems. It does mean I’ll deliberately seek to focus on quality by enhancing what is good within the school community. Most of all, I hope to help teachers and even more significantly students to recognize, embrace, and build upon their own strengths, abilities, and qualities of character.
As I look to my short phrase on what is most important for the school community to know about me as a leader and an educator I realize, with some surprise, that it is not twenty-first century specific but an enduring statement on the lens with which we can choose to view the world. Like my Passover dishes, it connects the “me” I was, the “me” I am today, and the “me” I am becoming; enabling me to focus on what is core, enduring, and of ultimate import in a rapidly changing world.
As I pack away my Passover dishes, and reflect and plan for the year to come, I wonder what to consider. What advice and guidance do you have? What insights might you share? I thank you, in advance, for your perspectives, ideas, and wisdom.
My first digital story, created for #etmooc in tribute to #educoach: Friends Who Have Never Met
When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a novelist. I wrote short stories, poetry, and even a children’s book. I played with words, wondered about adjectives, and imagined characters, plots, and settings. I lived in the universe of story.
My father encouraged me both to write and to come up with a “Plan B”. “Novelists,” he shared, “can rarely support themselves.” I considered becoming a journalist, even began my studies in journalism. And yet, somehow journalism didn’t quite work for me. Reporting on events others impacted was interesting, yet not how I wanted to spend my career. Joyfully, I found my way to education, a place in which the stories are real and the stars are the students whose learning and life journeys we have the privilege to impact, support, influence, and perhaps even inspire. My work became engagement in the present and my stories faded to the background.
Signing up for #etmooc, a learning experience that for me feels like something between an on-line course and a network of learners exploring areas of interest, awakened my interest in story. We were asked to experiment with digital storytelling. I was nervous. While expressing myself in words flows for me, naturally utilizing a skill set developed honestly through hours upon hours of creative writing from the age of seven, I’ve never been particularly capable expressing myself visually.A snow day gave me the gift of time I needed. I turned to the #etmooc provided resources, sifting through. There were numerous project options touching on different skill-sets: defining and collecting, animating, creating, composing, visualizing, remixing, collaborating, and playing. Not surprisingly, the most compelling activity for me involved creating:
I dutifully reviewed Alan Levine’s excellent resources, tutorials, and examples. I followed his three step guide.
And off I went, creating my first digital story ever. It is a rather straight-forward autobiographical tale, created in several hours on a snow day. I was quite nervous, yet persevered, had fun, and emerged intrigued by the potential of digital storytelling.
Collage of presenters at CO13: Connecting Online for Instruction and Learning Conference
Today was my two year anniversary on twitter and I was serendipitously honored to celebrate by presenting a course on Learning and Leading in Online Community about my work with YU2.0 for the Connecting Online for Instruction and Learning Conference (co13). Learners included a lecturer at Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland, a teacher and researcher in Romania, an ESL teacher in Italy and an ESL teacher in the Philippines, a psychology teacher in Puerto Rico, a dance teacher in Massachusetts, an English teacher in Egypt, as well as learners in Nigeria, Argentina, England, Sweden, India, Senegal, and Australia. We joined together to discuss our learning and leadership in online community in a conversation I would not have dreamed possible two years ago when I tentatively ventured into the world of Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) and online collaboration and engagement.
I joined the conference as a learner with excitement, and as a teacher with humility, recognizing I would be speaking with individuals who have tremendous knowledge and experience. Through both the session I taught, or more aptly facilitated, and the sessions in which I participated as a learner, one primary big idea emerged for me – an idea which has similarly emerged for me in my current learning as part of #etmooc, a mooc (massive open online course) on educational technology and media. We must as professional learners own and personalize our learning. We must accept the role as “stars” of our own learning journey; just as we must, as educators, strive to empower our students to be the stars of their own learning journeys.
Participant driven professional learning, and student-centered learning in schools represent a seemingly subtle, yet profound shift in learning today. There are no recipes, no clear paths, and no right or wrong ways to learn. There are possibilities and potential, actualized when we set our own learning goals, find guides to help us reach those goals, and remain open to shifts in the journey in directions we never imagined possible.
Two years ago I couldn’t imagine connecting in real time with educators from six of the seven continents (nobody participated in the session today from Antarctica, but you never know). I couldn’t imagine unconferences like edcamp in which experts and keynotes are eschewed and learners relish in learning with one another. I couldn’t imagine creating collaboratively with strangers who although we’ve never actually met, have become friends.
There was a time, before Columbine, when school shootings were unimaginable; the very definition of an evil so unspeakable as to be in our minds essentially impossible.
I have never forgotten the seriousness with which my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, defined “evil”. An educator nearing the end of her career, Mrs. Jackson captivated my imagination with the detail, nuance, and emotion with which she conveyed tales of how her family survived the Great Depression. She often had substantive conversations with us about topics connected to character and values. With all she shared, it was her definition of “evil” that most shaped my world views. In response to our class’ use of the term “evil” as slang, dramatizing minor, annoying behaviors, Mrs. Jackson sat us down for one of her serious chats. “Evil,” she said, “would be a terrorist entering a school and shooting children.” The image horrified; representing what we could not imagine as even conceivable. I never again used the word “evil” for anything short of the mass murder of defenseless people.
Then came Columbine. The inconceivable occurred; only at the hands of troubled youth, not terrorists. And this Friday, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
After Columbine, as a relatively new educator and new mother, I was painfully unprepared for the fear of my students and their parents. Hearing students speak about where they would hide if armed attackers entered our school, I recognized the need for reassuring conversation, yet I had no idea what to say. I hastily directed teachers, similarly unprepared, to speak to their students about the tragic event. Sending teachers into a panic and understandably angering our school’s guidance counselor, who recognized how ill-equipped we all were, I was swayed to reverse my directive. We would say nothing. It was the best we had at the time. It wasn’t enough.
This monday will be different. Never prepared to speak of the unspeakable, sadly, we have more experience. Since the days and weeks after September 11, 2001 school psychologists have rallied with a plethora of resources to help. Compilations of resources guiding parents and educators include: Resources for Talking To Children About Traumatic Compiled by Michael Fisher of Digigogy and Resources for Talking to Children About Traumatic Events Compiled by Edutopia.
Our school’s educational leadership will spend much time this weekend planning ways of supporting our children physically and emotionally. In preparation for our children’s return to school, our faculty will meet at 7:30 AM monday morning. We will support one another in finding ways of shepherding our children through the difficult emotions we anticipate. We will be in close communication with our on-site security and our security consultants, who quickly on Friday patrolled the perimeter of our campus and stood in close supervision of teachers and students playing outside during recess. We will be in contact with our local police department; who rushed to our school on Friday after news of the shooting to patrol, on high alert. The officer who arrived, visibly emotional, shared that it was his privilege to be able to be present with us and his hope that there was also police presence at his own children’s school.We will be guided by the wisdom of our school psychologist concerning age-appropriate conversations. We will be supported by our school rabbi who will listen to our pain and provide us with prayers to express the deep emotion we experience. We will grieve. We will express gratitude for the privilege of being alive. We will do our best to strengthen one another so that we may be fully present for our students.
As quickly as we can, we will return our students to comforting routines. Soon, on the surface, school will look as it always has. Students, parents, and teachers will again be concerned about academic challenge, social difficulty, and the range of normal upsets and tribulations that are part and parcel of growing up and of life in schools. And yet; the unimaginable has occurred and the scars will remain. We’ll study our emergency plans more carefully; consider more thoughtfully how to explain lock down drills to our students; and deliberate on what we as schools and as society can do to keep our children safe. I can’t anticipate what our conversations as a school and as a nation will bring. We will do what we can to bring comfort, knowing that we live in a world in which the unimaginable has occurred. We’ll do what we can to find the words to speak about the unspeakable.