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Seniority and Merit

The basketball coach, a local legend, was retiring after thirty-some years that saw numerous sectional championships.  The state championship proved elusive, but the pennants strung along the perimeter of the gym were testament to his ability to instill in his boys the desire to win.  Like only one other coach I have known, this coach had the ability to make starters out of kids who would have ridden the bench or quit in other schools. 

But here was the most remarkable thing:  He was more than willing to sit a kid out who was slacking off on his academic work, and the kids knew it.  So some of his boys pulled their best grades during basketball season.  And their attendance was excellent.

I had enormous respect for him, so during his last season I asked him if he had a recommendation for a successor since there wasn't a clear heir apparent.  He did – a young man who had played for him in high school and had returned to the district to teach elementary school.  The students liked and respected him and the parents supported him.  He had volunteered his time with the coach over the past couple of years Basketball-court  and the coach had had the opportunity to see him in action.  He was very young, however, and boys’ basketball was the major sport at the high school.  I worried that he wouldn’t be mature enough to make good decisions although I had seen nothing to suggest that.  But on the retiring coach’s recommendation, I was ready to take the young man’s name to the board.

Of course, that would have been too easy.  When word leaked that the young man was in line to succeed the retiring coach, the faculty mobilized behind another coach who had been on staff for much longer and who had aspirations for the job.  Interestingly enough, no one insisted that he would do a better job; instead, the faculty’s argument was that he “deserved” the position by dint of his seniority.  Well, in the end we appointed the young man but not without a lot of angst in between.

Seniority should be acknowledged; after all, senior teachers and coaches have put in their time and deserve consideration.  But merit, when you can use it, is the trump card.  The teacher who has both experience and merit is a treasure – like the retiring coach.  Longevity, however, by itself, is just that.  And, of course, in the end if you have to make a choice, it’s about what the kids deserve, not what the faculty deserves.

Slouching Towards Fogeyville

Last month I wrote about digital immigrants and digital natives.  The immigrants are the adults – teachers and administrators – who have had to learn technology piece by piece with each advancement.  The natives have never known a world without technology and are often far more proficient than the adults in their lives.

As an immigrant I have to admit to being a little discouraged trying to keep up with it all.  But it turns out that technology advances so swiftly that even the natives have generation gaps spanning just a few years.  Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has written a book about these gaps.  It’s called, Rewired:  Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn.

The Net Generation, born in the 1980s, says Rosen, spends a couple of hours talking on the phone and still uses email frequently.  The iGeneration, born in the 90s and 2000s, spends more time texting than talking on the phone and communicates over instant messaging networks.

Smartphone There are other differences too, but of particular interest is that according to Rosen, the iGeneration expects instant responses and is impatient with anything less.  You have to wonder how this is going to play out in school.

Except at the elementary level, schools are not exactly “instant” responders.  That paper you wrote?  Back in three weeks.  Results from those state tests?  Maybe in a few months.  Application to college?  Some time late spring.  But imagine how much quicker kids could learn with faster feedback.  Instead of practicing errors, they could adjust and correct quickly before those errors are ingrained. 

Of course, some delays are inevitable and patience is a virtue.  But the simple lesson here is to give kids feedback in a timely fashion so they still recall the point of instruction.  The days of the teacher who collected homework, “seasoned it” for a few weeks, and then pitched it when kids had forgotten about it are long gone. The iGeneration isn’t the end of the line; just the latest iteration.


Grooving the Brain

Golf  Sometimes I think that rote learning has gotten a bad rap.  One of the most useful skills I have is the ability to type, which I’ve been able to do since 9th grade.  Every single time I watch someone hunt and peck his way through a document I am grateful that I was forced to take typing to fill my schedule in high school (even if my guidance counselor told me to take it so I’d have “something to fall back on”).

I’m also grateful that someone insisted that I memorize my multiplication tables, a chore that many educators find, for some reason, too onerous a task to expect elementary children to tackle.  How onerous is it to have to add together five 9’s for the rest of your life? I wonder.

Then there’s the poetry I had to memorize that stays with me today.  Frost poems. Lines from Shakespeare.  The Gettysburg Address.  The beginning of the Declaration of Independence.  “Invictus.” 

Once on the golf course a man came up to us as we were waiting on the first tee and asked if he and his father could play with us for the first few holes.  His dad had Alzheimer’s, he said, but he still loved the game.  His father may not have remembered even his son’s name, but he remembered how to tee the ball, and his swing was grooved.  He played with us for a couple of holes, focused but silent.  “He was a great golfer,” his son said. 

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers postulates a “10,000 hour rule.”  Talent, says Gladwell, is just the beginning of excellence.  The difference between good and great is 10,000 hours of practice.  The idea of endless practice to attain excellence is a concept currently out of favor in educational circles.  The few who embrace the idea today are athletes and artists. It’s another one of those educational false dichotomies:  either memorization OR making your own learning.

So yes, rote learning is repetitious, and yes, it’s mindless, and yes, it’s boring.  But it’s the solid foundation upon which you can build your house however you want.  Memorization of math facts or poetry or a famous speech or spelling words or punctuation rules is like having a little Kindle in your head. 




A National Day of Silence

The officers of the senior class made an appointment to see me.  Their class wanted to take part in the National Day of Silence, an observance for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals “to heighten the awareness of persons being silenced about homosexual or transgender issues through BeautifulSilence  political or social means, or even death.”  The observation is sponsored by LGBTA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Alliance) and students take part by remaining silent and not talking to anyone verbally or in writing for the entire day.

The students and I sat in my office and talked through their proposal.  Participation was voluntary, they said, but they had met with their class and nearly everyone wanted to participate.  They showed me a sample of the t-shirt they would wear, and it did not violate the school’s dress code.  I expressed my concern that silence during classes would not be conducive to education.  They thought about that and then came back with another proposal:  They would remain silent only during their lunch period.

I was impressed.  The students were concerned, sincere, and committed enough to give up their own social time to make a point.  I gave my permission and my support.

And that’s when the community rose up. 

By the time I got to school the next morning, I had a stack of calls from parents.  Led by the ladies of the Parents’ Association, they were definitely not happy and had plenty to say about my “encouraging those kinds of beliefs.”  The rumor mill was churning, and 30 minutes of silence at lunch soon morphed into a K-12 gay pride parade around the school and down Main Street.  The local newspaper called as well as television stations, and thankfully all decided to downplay the incident.  One parent, whom I had respected up to this point said, “If not supporting this makes me a bigot, then I’m a bigot and proud of it!”  Well. 

The Parents’ Association ladies came in and told me that I was not to let students be silent during lunch.  I told them I doubted that I could make them talk if they didn’t want to, half expecting one of them to say, like in an old Harvey Korman sketch, “Ve haf vays to make zem talk!”

At this point, I decided I would not back down unless the Board of Education ordered me to.  I simply could not rescind my approval to the seniors’ very reasonable, even admirable request.

After a few days of turmoil, the seniors made another appointment to see me.  They had decided to abandon their idea.  It was now causing problems for students whose parents had forbidden them to participate.  It had become divisive issue for their class.  So they decided it was best at the moment to let it drop.  They thanked me for my support.

As they left my office, the class president turned back.  “We just want you to know, Ms. T,” she said, “that the irony of this situation is not lost on us.”




Private to Public

I worked as a private school administrator for 5 years.  I was the Academic Dean, responsible for curriculum, faculty, extra events, hiring, parent meetings, and duties as assigned. 

I was a public school teacher for over 10 years before I became a private school administrator, and I brought a lot of ideas with me from the public sector that significantly improved curriculum and teaching in the private school.  When I returned to the public schools as an administrator, I brought a lot of ideas with me that improved the way I worked with personnel and parents.

Private school teachers in some states do not have to be certified.  The up side of this is that they often had a more profound understanding of their subject area.  The down side is that few of them have any classroom experience when they first begin to teach, but then again classroom management can be a problem for first-year teachers whether they are certified or not.  The private school newbies, however, lacked basic skills in lesson planning and instructional strategies.

Private schools not only sell prestige, smaller classes, and individualized programs; they also sell their faculty.  We promoted our faculty’s knowledge of their subject area as something that the average public school teacher lacked.Parents    We also sold what was basically customer service.  After all, if parents were paying thousands of dollars a year for something they could get for free in the home school district, we had better be able to show that the difference between private and public was worth it.  Private schools, after all, are tuition driven.  If their results are poor, they don’t get more state aid; they close.

USA Today reports that as a result of the recession, parents are pulling their children out of private schools and enrolling them in public.  The US Department of Education estimates that from 2006-09, public school enrollment grew by 1%, roughly a half million students.  During that same time period private school enrollment dropped by 2.5%, about 146,000 students.

As private school children return to public schools, both the children and the public school have had to make adjustments. While children have had to adjust to larger classes and more independent learning, they also have more programs and courses from which to choose and probably better equipment and technology. 

Parents of these children expect that the public school will be as responsive to their needs as their former private school was.  After all, they are paying “tuition” in the form of taxes.

While not all administrators will see these parents as a boon (to put it gently) to their day, those private school expectations and pressures may result in a more responsive public school and a better education for all students.  That’s not a bad thing.

Working Longer or Working Smarter?

The idea of a longer school day, reportedly favored by the President and the Secretary of Education (and now Malcolm Gladwell) has once again reappeared.

It’s not about working longer; it’s about working smarter.  A longer school day or even a longer school year might benefit children, but not if it’s just an extension of what we’re currently doing.Oliver-twist_350  

What if we poured our resources into primary education so that nearly every child could read by third grade?  What if every primary teacher was a reading specialist, specifically trained to work with all children no matter where they were developmentally when they entered school?  What if primary classes were small enough that every child had an individual educational plan with specific goals for the year?

What if we actually paid attention to the reams of research that show the benefits of early foreign language instruction and began foreign language in the primary grades?

What if basic technology wasn’t another course that students had to take, but was fully integrated into reading, math, social studies and science?  What if we refused to schedule study halls, but extended class time so that all kids would have a chance to practice what they just learned with the teacher still present as a resource?

What if we worked hard on attendance and keeping kids in school – because kids who don’t attend now aren’t going to attend when school is extended?  What if we made a serious effort to engage parents in elementary school and middle school because if we wait until high school it’s too late?

Well, you get my drift.  Unless we improve what we’re doing now, the extended day or year will just be more of the same.  The work expands to fill the time.









When Dinosaurs Walked the Earth

When I first became a superintendent, dinosaurs still ran local school districts.  It was top-down in many schools, and our regional monthly superintendents’ meetings were fascinating not because information was widely shared, but because no one revealed anything.  Dinosaur  Out of 18 superintendents in the region, only two of us were women.  

Of course, things changed rapidly.  We left X Theory and moved into Y territory.  Shared decision making emerged (as a top down requirement from the State Education Department, but still…). Fifteen years passed, and now about half the superintendents in the region are women. 

So I was struck by the interview with Gordon M. Bethune that appeared in the Business Section of the New York Times on January 3.  Bethune was the chief executive of Continental Airlines from 1994 to 2004 (I began superintending in 1993.) I was struck because Bethune wasn’t a dinosaur in 1994.  He was a Y guy right from the beginning.

“Here’s my theory,” he says.  “Let’s say we’re all middle managers, and one VP slot is going to open up.  I’ve got 10 guys working for me, and for the last five years, every time I got any recognition, I said, ‘Bring them on stage with me.’ Who do you think is going to get the job? “

Publicly recognizing good work is a key tenet of strong leadership.  This is a concept I learned in private school as a dean watching the headmaster.  He was so secure in his authority and power that he could easily praise his leadership team and bring them into the spotlight.  The ability to defer authority and power increased the perception of his.

Bethune also says, never lie.  “You don’t lie to your doctor.  You don’t lie to your attorney, and you don’t lie to your employees.  And if you never lie, then when it hits the fan … they’ll believe you.”

Also, you don’t have to worry about remembering what you said, and you don’t have to continue to fabricate if things get worse.  Not a bad tenet for any leader to keep in mind.

Bethune’s take on leadership is a reminder that we all need to have a periodic "Tyrannosaurus Rex" check.






A Time for Compassionate Leadership

It’s not possible to watch the news from Haiti without a stone rolling over your heart.  Homes, schools, hospitals, whole communities destroyed and loved ones dead or missing.

It is too dreadful to fully understand. 

This is a time when school administrators can set examples of compassionate leadership.  Perhaps a group at your school has already come to you seeking approval for fundraising to help the Haitians.  Of course you gave your unqualified and public support.  If no one has volunteered for the effort, it is up to you to seek out an energetic teacher or a particular class or club or group to spearhead efforts to assist those in need. 

What Haiti needs is money, and it appears that the country will need it for a long time to come.  Your efforts don’t have to be complicated -- a jar or can for contributions, maybe a bake sale.  We’ve done it before, unfortunately. 

What needs to be very clear to everyone, however, is that you completely support these efforts and hope that everyone else will too.  It’s a prime moment to use your bully pulpit to educate both staff and children about our global connectedness and responsibility for one another.

Oh, yes … and it would be a great time to lead the way with your own generous donation that will be duly noted among those who are collecting and counting the contributions.  You can’t ask others to do what you do not. 



I See You

I’m not a big fan of movies over 2 hours.  The last one I saw – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – seemed to last two or three days (yeah, we get it – he was born old and he’s getting younger).  So I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing Avatar, which was listed at 2 hours and 41 minutes.  In addition, Entertainment Weekly had noted that it was long on graphics, short on story.  I’m kind of a story person myself.

Avatar-Teaser-Poster  So it was with that attitude I reluctantly agreed to go with friends to see Avatar, 3-D glasses and all.  The theater was packed, so we had to find single seats.  Mine was next to a 6-year-old with a soft drink as big as her head perched on the armrest we shared.  I figured it was only a matter of time before I was wearing it.

Despite my bad attitude, it took me about 10 minutes to be totally into this movie.  Unbelievable.

You’ve already read about (or seen) all the spectacular computer generated animation, and it is, well, spectacular.  The story itself is a stock piece – soldier sent to reconnoiter enemy falls in love with the alien culture and an alien herself, goes native, and watches his former colleagues destroy most of the alien culture.  But the good guys win in the end.  It’s an allegory worth seeing.  I wouldn’t say the time flew by, but I wasn’t looking at my watch after an hour.

Here’s the small detail that will stay with me after the graphics and the story have faded:  “I see you.”

The Na’vi tribe of Pandora do not say, “I love you.”   They say, “I see you,” which means “I see inside you; I know you.”  It reminds me of the Buddhist “namaste” -- roughly, “my soul recognizes and salutes your soul”. It’s less about love, more about respect.  It’s about trying to understand who people are and why they do what they do. 

By the way, the drink didn’t spill.  But this is not a movie for little kids.  The six-year old next to me wavered between being bored and being terrified.  But she and her mom stayed the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes.  I don’t think her mom “saw” her.



 I walked into the main office and thought, What time does the movie start? Somebody had made popcorn in the small kitchen area near the office and the smell permeated the entire area.Popcorn   

I usually put up with the occasional smells that floated from that area – warmed up pizza, leftover mushu pork, various frozen lunch entrees.  I didn’t like it, but I never wanted to make a big deal about it.  After all, the office staff often ate lunch at their desks so they could continue working, and I didn’t want to give them a hard time.

But today I had to rethink the situation.  Food smells definitely detracted from the professional ambiance I wanted.  And really, people shouldn’t be eating at their desks.  Not only is it not good for business, it’s not really good for them either.  They need to take a break.  They weren’t happy with the new rule, but they complied.

The problem is that in some schools there’s no place for the staff (including the administration) to eat.  If you’re lucky you have a staff lunchroom that’s separate from the faculty room.  My secretary, for example, never wanted to eat in the faculty room because either a) people tried to pump her for information or b) she had to listen to criticism of a recent administrative decision.  She solved the problem by going home everyday for lunch.

I usually chose to eat in the kitchen of the school cafeteria.  I’d go through the line so as not to engender criticism but then duck back into the kitchen area where I ate at a small cutting board table.  There were two major benefits to eating lunch here.  First of all, I could taste and monitor what the kids were being offered and confer with the kitchen staff.  Secondly, faculty knew my routine and could find me there if they needed to talk to me.  The danger for some administrators who choose this venue is it is easy to be lulled into not paying for food.  This is a huge mistake and one that will be duly noted outside the kitchen.

The other danger is putting on an easy 5 pounds a year.  




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