Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough


  • The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question-what subjects shall we teach?
  • When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question-what methods and techniques are required to teach well?
  • Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question-for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?
  • But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question-who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form-or deform-the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes?

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?

The World is Made of Stories Not Atoms

Muriel Rukeyser

cc licensed image shared by flickr user paperbackwriter

cc licensed image shared by flickr user paperbackwriter

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.

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“It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning and the relationships,” is a statement that has become almost a refrain within   conferences and conversations about educational technology. And, that was the message at a session on educational technology to support school twinning programs I was privileged to present at recently as part of the International School Twinning Network Conference with my friends Amihai BannettAaron Ross and Tzvi Pittensky.

We spoke of Skype, Edmodo, Facebook, twitter, google docs, google plus, student created videos and wikis. We spoke of the challenges inherent in connecting over different time zones, in different languages, with different facility and access to technology tools, while utilizing different curricula. We spoke of synchronous and asynchronous means of connecting students and of varying approaches to creating collaboratively. We spoke of a range of differentiated approaches effective with lower, middle, and high school students. But most of all, we spoke of nurturing understanding and friendship across distances and in the face of language and cultural divides. We spoke of understanding.

In some ways, educational technology is like cooking. There are talented professional chefs and skilled avocational “foodies” who relish experimenting with flavor. I am unabashedly not among them. While cooking is not one of my favorite hobbies, I can follow a recipe, and can even deviate playfully to an extent, so long as I don’t stray too far from the instructions. Similarly, I am by no means a “techie”. Indeed, I was humbled to present at a conference with colleagues far more knowledgable about educational technology than I am; educators who I met via twitter and would not have known had it not been for the ease of developing community and relationships via technology.  While not an expert, I can follow instructions on how to use educational technology tools, even deviating playfully to figure out applications relevant to the goals of a particular project with which I am engaged. Just as I use a telephone to speak to family and friends, emphasizing the emotion, connection, and substance of the dialogue and not the telephone itself, I can use newer technologies as means to connect, collaborate, and create.

School twinning programs are not new. When I was in high school, I corresponded with a pen pal from Greece. Our handwritten letters to one another took days to arrive. Yet, we connected and even met each other when my pen pal had the opportunity to visit the United States. Today, technology enables us to strengthen global connections beyond what we could have envisioned in the days of handwritten, stamped letters sent via the postal service. We weren’t able to conduct an international holiday celebration with two classes via Skype, send instantaneous written communications via e-mail, speak to one another without travel via google plus hangouts, participate in shared learning experiences in an on-line classroom via Edmodo, nurture relationships in a fluid ongoing manner via Facebook or twitter, or create together via google docs or wikis. Our technology can positively impact our learning and our relationships. It is important; it’s just not the essence.

Ultimately, our session about educational technology was not about educational technology at all. The tools we shared are easy enough to use, either playfully figuring them out or by following user friendly instructions freely shared and posted in writing and in videos. Instead of those “how to’s”, we strove to remind those with whom we were learning of the “why”. Technology helps us connect in synchronous and asynchronous ways, nurture relationships over time, and create together. Which tool we use depends primarily on our purpose and our personal preferences among numerous good options. There is no one “right” way of using educational technology in connecting students globally. The technology itself is easy. It’s the learning and the relationships that need nurturing.

There are questions that resonate, holding our imaginations and keeping us wondering. There are questions that activate our learning, causing us to reflect and helping us to grow.

Do We Need Principals? asked  Josh Stumpenhorst in a blog post last May.

Do We Need (Great) Principals? responded George Couros replying to a question with a question in a blog post published shortly thereafter.

Recently Josh Stumpenhorst may have answered his own question with another post, this time an affirmation rather than a question:  We Need Leaders #cpchat.

Once overcoming my initial defensiveness at the very thought that principals might not be needed, I began to ponder a number of related questions. Do we need principals? Do we need great principals? What makes a principal great? Do we need leaders? Do we need great leaders? What makes a leader great? As a principal and soon to be Head of School, I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, but instead to honestly assess how to design my role in order to make a meaningful impact.

In search of insight, I turned to the research of John Hattie, whose investigation of more than 900 meta-analyses represents the largest collection of evidence based research into what actually works in schools. Citing a meta-analysis conducted in 2008 by Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe of 22 studies including 2,833 principals, Hattie defines three distinct types of school leadership: transformational leadership, instructional leadership, and learning leadership.

Transformational Leadership, according to Hattie is “inspiring teachers to new levels of energy and commitment towards a common mission, which develops the school’s capacity to work together to overcome challenges and reach ambitious goals, and then to ensure that teachers have time to conduct their teaching.” To me, this sounds quite good: inspiration, new levels of energy and commitment, a common mission, collaboration to reach ambitious goals, and respect for teaching time. And yet, Hattie reports that the impact of transformational leadership on student achievement is a mere 0.11, less than anticipated with no intervention at all.

Instructional Leadership, according to Hattie, occurs among school leaders who “attend to the quality and impact of all in the school on student learning, ensure that disruption to learning is minimized, have high expectations of teachers for their students, visit classrooms, and are concerned with interpreting evidence about the quality and nature of learning in the school.” To me, this also sounds quite good: a focus on student learning, high expectations, presence in classrooms, and attention to evidence about the quality of learning. And yet, Hattie found that the impact of instructional leadership was 0.42, barely above the 0.4 mark one could expect without any intervention.

Learning Leadership, according to Hattie, is leadership that emphasizes student and adult learning and occurs when leaders promote and participate in teacher learning through such approaches as providing coaching over an extended time, data teams, a focus on how students learn subject matter content, and enabling teachers to work collaboratively to plan and monitor lessons based on evidence about how students learn. (see Bausmith & Barry, 2011) In distinction to the minimal impact of transformational and instructional leadership, Hattie found the impact of learning leadership to be an impressive .84, placing learning leadership as among the most significant positive impacts on quality of student learning in schools. (Hattie, John (2012-03-15). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (Kindle Locations 3889-3892). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Interestingly, Hattie’s insights are not only for principals, our building leaders, but also for teachers, our classroom leaders. Just as John Hattie found a dramatic .84 impact when principals serve as learning leaders, he found the very same dramatic .84 impact when teachers serve as activators of student learning through offering feedback, accessing thinking, supporting challenging goals, and monitoring learning. Alternatively, he found a mere .17 effect size on student learning, less than anticipated with no intervention, when teachers act as facilitators of learning through problem based learning, simulations and gaming, and individualized instruction. (Michael Fullan, Presentation at the 2012 ISTE conference)

Perhaps the roles of principals and teachers, or at least the roles of great principals and great teachers, are not so different after all.

Trained as a transformational leader in the 1990’s, and serving in the mission-driven independent school world in which leaders are expected to inspire teachers toward a common mission, I have undergone a transformation myself in the past several years now striving to be a true learning leader. Hattie’s research, combined with my own experience, has led me to embrace two key ingredients necessary for greatness in principals, teachers, and students alike: coaching and collaboration.

Do we need principals? Of course we do. But, not the principals we may have imagined; not the disciplinarians and schedulers, not the visionaries, and not even the instructional leaders. We need principals who coach and are coached, who support teachers to look at student work together, and who humbly join mind and heart with teachers and students in the sacred task of learning.

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Spree2010

Among the many challenges faced by schools today are rising costs and shrinking budgets.

Within many independent schools requests for tuition assistance continue to increase, while enrollment may be less robust than in the past. Charter and public schools are also struggling with making the most of limited budgets during financially trying times. Some are turning to blended learning as the central feature of a cost cutting business model.

But will blended learning really cost less? And should that be the question?

I’ve been privileged this year to participate in a blended learning experience as a student, having enrolled in the course Charting a Direction for Online Learning offered by  Online School for Girls. The course skillfully conveyed information while at the same time modeling the experience of blended learning, combining a year of interactive online units with two in-person seminars.

Since sharing my reflections from the first Online School for Girls Seminar in  Learning On-Line, I have come to embrace for my school the potential of utilizing variations of what is known as the station rotation model in which students rotate through various activities in a continuous loop: individualized online instruction and assessments, teacher guided instruction, and collaborative activities and stations. I’ve learned much more in the past several months about online learning resources and I am energized by the potential to personalize and differentiate learning. And, yet, focus on affordability has turned me into a skeptic, at least a financial skeptic, not compelled by the suggestion that blending learning may solve our affordability and budgetary challenges.

As an educator in a Jewish day school, I look with interest at The Bold (Blended and Online Learning in Day Schools) Project. The generous grant program seeks to fund  up to 8 Jewish Day schools to implement blended learning school-wide, documenting the process and measuring effectiveness along the way in order to provide guidance to other schools. The program hopes to “foster cost reduction and lower tuition while personalizing learning and energizing teaching.” Schools accepted into the program are required to fully implement blended learning within three years, committing both to having every child participate in a minimum of two blended class periods per day and to restructuring the school’s educational/financial model to lower costs and reduce tuition.

The primary route to cost savings as far as I can glean is by increasing the school’s student-teacher ratio in one of three primary ways:

  • Increasing class size (nonetheless maintaining personalized learning by having students rotate between independent online learning and teacher guided learning experiences in small groups within which students receive much individualized attention)
  • Increasing the amount of sections a teacher teaches (by combining in class and on-line learning so a teacher might teach 6 sections instead of 4, but still have the same amount of time with students)
  • Offering on-line electives in lieu of electives taught by teachers in the school

Some suggest there might be savings in textbooks and other curricular resources although I wonder how that is possible given the technological costs involved in blended learning, even in schools where students bring their own devices. Others argue there will be an increase in revenue as blended learning will be so engaging that more students will enroll. The Bold Schools Project cites potential overall operating cost reductions of 25% and per pupil cost savings of $1,000.

As a result of financial pressures, we may well need to grapple with the value of small student-teacher ratios, even within independent schools that have long prided themselves on a small student-teacher ratio. Yet for me student-teacher ratio and blended learning are two separate conversations. I will persevere with blended learning, but without any anticipation that we will glean cost savings as a result of our blended model. I will not commit to full school implementation in which each student must participate in at least two blended class periods per day. A large part of the potency of blended learning is the ability to think in new, creative ways about the use of time, space, and technology to support learning. Perhaps schedules will look dramatically different. Perhaps students will be able to learn in different locations in addition to school. Perhaps we won’t even think in terms of class periods anymore. The possibilities are endless. We are embarking on a learning journey without knowing the final destination. And that is ok with me.


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.

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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.

  1. Outline a Story Idea (He advised that for the purposes of this workshop, you need to think of a rather short concept that can use perhaps 4-8 images, text, maybe audio or music to bring a story to life on the web.)
  2. Find Some Media 
  3. Pick a Tool and Build Your Story 

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.

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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.

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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.

Personal Bests

The heroic human journey is to function as you are supposed to function, to achieve your personal best

George Sheehan, Personal Best,  Quoted by Jim Knight in High-Impact Instruction at the beginning of chapter one: Personal Bests


cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

cc licensed image shared by flickr user ActiveSteve

Several years ago in preparation for a school lockdown drill, a large, muscular, uniformed and armed police officer leading the drill shared that at 3 AM he can be downtown with the range of unsavory characters present and not be afraid. “But,” he revealed, “were you to leave me for a day in a room full of elementary school students, I’d be terrified. You guys are heroes.” We smiled and applauded, surprised and pleased by the recognition of the challenging, even heroic work of teachers. It’s not recognition often received.

Heroism is a topic that has long been of interest to me. For well over a decade, I’ve delved into biographies and research on the lives of Holocaust rescuers. I’ve been transformed as an educator and a parent by the insight that among the very few factors that distinguished these moral exemplars from others was the presence of an influential adult in their early lives who held the consistent expectation that they help others. Also vital was a community of individuals who supported their efforts. Works such as Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s Altruistic Personality and Eva Fogelman’s Conscience and Courage opened my eyes to the impact of modeling in specific ways on the development of individuals who later transcended tremendous adversity in order to help others. I also learned about the importance of a supportive community. Over the years I’ve grown to admire more and more, not only these exemplars, but also the parents, teachers, and other adults who guided them to develop into the remarkable individuals of character they became as well as the friends, family members, and colleagues who lent their practical and moral assistance, approval, and encouragement. I’ve come to hold in the highest esteem the heroism not only of the exemplars, but of the mentors and guides who supported them.

Beginning Jim Knight’s newest book High Impact Instruction as part of the February #educoach book chat, occurring Wednesday nights at 10 PM EST, I anticipated insight on learning and teaching. I hadn’t imagined that from the very first chapter my notions of heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle, discomfort, and tension would be so positively challenged. Could it be, as in George Sheehan’s quote shared above, that striving to achieve one’s personal best is the essence of the heroic human journey? I read the words, was moved, and wondered. I pondered and reflected.  While the answer for me remains “no”; aspiration for one’s personal best is not heroism, I have gained and expanded my thinking. For me, heroism is not about doing one’s best in any area of human achievement, but rather heroism is making a positive impact in the lives of others.

My thinking has been deepened by Sheehan’s perspective. Knight quotes Sheehan describing running as much more than exercise.

My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow. (George Sheehan, Personal Best, 1989, p. 21; quoted by Jim Knight, High Impact Instruction, p. 2)

I embrace the notion that happiness follows the striving for one’s personal best. Even more, I embrace the notion that combining a meaningful act that has a positive impact on the lives of others such as teaching with striving to do one’s personal best can be both heroic and joyful. I imagine that the joy Jim Knight finds as a runner, striving to get better and achieve his personal best, energizes the heroic efforts in which he is engaged as a father of seven children (thanked in the books’ acknowledgements) and as an instructional coach of instructional coaches, helping to improve the quality of learning for so many students. I recognize the intersection of joy, heroism, and personal bests.

With perspective on heroism and happiness; we can broach the messier topics of school change efforts: the struggle, the uncomfortable, and being discontented. “It’s more comfortable not to try. But life is, or should be, a struggle: Comfort should make us uncomfortable; contentment should make us discontented.” (Sheehan, p.30, Quoted by Knight, p. 9). It’s not easy to stretch beyond our comfort zones. Knight sensitively shares, “For many of us, the journey toward a personal best, although highly attractive, can feel overwhelming, especially if we feel we are embarking on the journey all by ourselves.” (p.8) Seeing teacher resistance as a sense of being overwhelmed by the struggle enables us as colleagues, coaches, and supervisors to support one another to face the discomfort and to find within that struggle both joy and meaning.

Add tension to heroism, happiness, meaning, struggle and discomfort and the need for robust support alongside high expectations becomes ever more evident. Knight quotes Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (1990), saying:

The juxtapolisiton of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are realtive to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension”: a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives. (Senge, p. 132, quoted by Knight, p. 9)

How might we reframe stress in schools in the context of creative tension which does not overwhelm but instead energizes? What are possible ways of responding sensitively to the complex emotions, including joy, meaning, discomfort, and tension, that  administrators, instructional coaches, teachers and students experience in the course of striving to achieve our personal bests? How can we support one another to constantly strive toward achieving our personal bests?

As we continue reading High-Impact Instruction, and as I strive to share my reflections on the reading, I hope to find together some  answers as well as many more questions. Looking forward to the learning!

Who is Wise?

Ben Zoma says:
Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave?
The one who subdues his negative inclination…
Who is rich?
The one who is appreciates what he has…
Who is honored?
The one who gives honor to others…
(Talmud – Avot 4:1)

Sometimes ancient wisdom becomes new again.

Although blessed with an alphabet soup of degrees – BA, MA, M.Phil, Rabbinic Ordination, and Ph.D – along with years of experience, there came a point several years ago that I found myself painfully unprepared for the demands of contemporary educational leadership: higher standards, fewer resources, new technologies, and a rapidly changing world to which to adapt. It’s not that I wasn’t trying. Indeed, I was in process of implementing a strategic plan more ambitious than any of us initially involved in drafting it had understood. At heart, the plan was reaching at a notion we could not yet clearly articulate – a paradigm shift from a focus on what is taught to evidence of what is learned. We were becoming a truly student-centered school, although we didn’t yet know it.

Image from Tony Gurr, and Tom Whitby,

Image from Tony Gurr, and Tom Whitby,

I had reached a wall; glimpsing a vision of more for our students, yet unclear as to how to articulate that vision and uncertain as to how to provide our teachers with the very significant supports they would need to make the shifts we strove to accomplish.  I set out in search of wisdom.

Through engaging with educators throughout the world via social media, primarily twitter but other venues as well, I discovered more than I ever anticipated; I found not only wisdom, but also bravery, riches, and honor as Ben Zoma defines the terms. I found Ben Zoma’s ancient wisdom within the very contemporary notion of a PLN (professional learning network).

When reaching out to learn with others I anticipated finding educators who would share practices, recommend readings, and answer questions. Yet, I hadn’t dreamed of  the creative collaboration and problem-solving with which I was embraced. Through the learning, I gained the strength not only to acknowledge, but to celebrate the fact that I’m not an expert. I’m a learner. And that wisdom has made all the difference.

Paradoxically, embracing what I did not know enabled me to develop the trust and credibility to lead other learners on-line and in my own school. I didn’t have to have the answers, I didn’t even have to have all the questions. Yet I was open and attentive.

Image from Tony Gurr,

Image from Tony Gurr,

I learned not to strive to “fix” teachers, or even myself. Instead, I strove to focus our school system to build on strengths, transform dreams to high expectations, and foster joint responsibility for the success of all our students. I found bravery in overcoming the inclination to tell others what to do; discovered riches in appreciating the greatness within my own school; and attained honor in honoring others.

As I learned, I gained the opportunity to lead, or more aptly, to facilitate. As a co-moderator of #educoach, a community on twitter dedicated to instructional coaching, I’ve deepened my understanding of providing robust job-embedded professional support for teachers. As a facilitator of YU2.0, a Community of Practice invested in learning, collaborating and integrating technology in Jewish education, I’ve  engaged with other Jewish educators interested in the connections between ancient, enduring values and contemporary paradigms of learning and growing.

My recent participation in #etmooc, a connectivist mooc (massive open on-line course) on the topic of educational technology and media makes me wonder about the future of professional learning both on-line and off. Through my participation in #etmooc, I’ve learned that within connectivist moocs participants set their own learning goals and  strive to create knowledge together. Perhaps that’s the essence of contemporary learning – setting meaningful learning goals and creating the knowledge necessary to achieve those goals together.

As I prepare to teach a course next week for the C013 Connecting Online Conference titled  Learning and Leading In Online Community I reflect on ways learning and leading in online community may be evolving. What have been some of the benefits and insights you have gleaned from learning and leading in online community? What do you anticipate the future may bring for learning and leading in online community? What questions do you have? What wisdom have you gleaned?

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