Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dear students: This is my parting and final lesson for you.
From Surviving to Thriving Through Life’s Storms
Having passed through the halls of our schools you are all well on your way to fulfilling your destiny. You were not ready for this lesson back in our time together nor was I ready to deliver it. A good teacher's’ lessons are always carefully seasoned with a combination of life experience and content knowledge.
I would feel remiss if I did not give you perhaps the most relevant lesson I have imparted to date. I hope this message finds you via your most frequented social media platforms or perhaps by word of mouth.  Either way, life has a funny way of giving us what we need exactly when we need it. Among all life’s uncertainties one thing you can be certain of is this; there will be storms and you will get caught in at least one of them. Are you equipped to survive a storm?

Three important steps to surviving and thriving your storm:

  1. Always take the Low road. The low road is symbolized by; perseverance, patience, and restraint. Do not engage in the mudslinging and drama that are the essence of today’s world of media. I have taught you in broadcasting class that both reporters and media journalists are responsible to air all stories with the greatest of objectivity. And that this requires balanced and fair reporting. And that gathering all the facts is critical in fair reporting. I stand behind this but I must inform you it is no longer fully adhered to by today’s media professionals. In the quest to sell papers and attract viewers guarding the civic rights of an individual and extending the basic respect and honor due any human being has become optional. What is front and foremost is creating drama you know the kind that sells, the kind that commands viewership or goes viral on social media. We live in a culture addicted to reality TV whose viewers crave the opportunity to watch someone else’s life unravel on the public screen.

    1. Be responsible to preserve with dignity, respect, and honor due all people. Don’t allow profit, a win at any cost attitude, or viewership to become your driving force.
    2. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. You are a good person. There is no guarantee in life that you will not be violated in one way or another.

  1. Maintain self-control (restraint) No matter the conclusion of the “Court of Public Opinion” walk with your head held high and hold your tongue. Adversity is the best test of one’s true character. However, this may not be about character if it were you would not be here. It turns out the stellar reputation you may have built or honors you have garnered over the years don’t count in your defense. Organizations seek to minimizing risk and protect themselves over the individual. Nothing personal just protecting the status quo or minimizing perceived risk.  Actually, that is perhaps why you are here. You dared to stand out. You dared to leave the realm of the status quo. Good for you! Just know that comes at a price. There could be many reasons for these personal attacks on you; jealous colleagues or just plain evil acts by mentally unstable individuals. Don’t allow this to rock your solid foundation. Hold fast (persevere). The facts will be skewed even omitted and you may be dragged endlessly through the mud. Remember drama is what sells. Lean on your friends and family. This when you find out who your real friends are. What others think does not matter in the end. It never did you just may not have understood that before now.  Keep your family close. They love you very much.

    1. Vengeance is a dangerous path. The quickest way to zap your energy and cloud your thinking is to get off track thinking about getting even. It will harden your heart and you will become bitter.
    2. Forgiveness is a cure. For an added challenge forgive your transgressors. You will find the act of forgiveness very liberating and healing to your soul. In your heart thank them for lessons learned and don’t write them off as hopeless human beings. Everyone can change for better. Focus and conserve your positive energy to rebuilding a vision for your new future.

  1. Take care of yourself. In any storm there is always a quick way out. I won’t elaborate it will be obvious to you at the time. I hope you choose life. You are much stronger than you think. Recommit to living a rich life it’s the best revenge. And when you choose life, and I encourage you to, you will need to do these three things:      
    1. Nourish your body. It is common to lose weight as feelings of anxiety, despair, and defeat envelop you like a dark thick cloud. Eat better than you ever have in your life. Don’t self-medicate with unhealthy remedies such as alcohol or non-prescribed drugs. They will only pull you further down the tunnel of despair. Go to the gym and start working out with a group. It is a good time to have the support of people who are not familiar with your situation. Volunteer in your community. Get outside and hike, walk, or bike. Become grounded in nature. It is a positive way to manage anxiety.

    2. Seek the help of a good therapist. You may already have one. A lot of folks do in light of the everyday increasing pressures of our demanding culture. Your therapist will help you manage your anxiety. Talk, cry, be angry. This is a safe place to let it out. You will be on an emotional roller coaster for longer than you anticipate. Just when you think you are okay the next day seems to consume you with another wave of negative emotions. Remember you will heal. There is light at the end of what may seem like an endless tunnel.

    3. Feed your soul. If you already are a person of faith, then lean into your faith. Start attending gatherings, services, or meditation if this will work for you. Seek to understand the truths, rely on a higher power, and reflect on your journey. You will find you are not alone. Don’t be afraid of being alone. It can be an insightful time of learning more about yourself, the world around you, and the higher power that created it all. You may feel as though you dropped into a big black hole cut off from the world. That is scary at first. Calm yourself knowing this is meant to be, in a cosmic realm, and for good reason. It is in this stillness the universe speaks to you and you begin to hear so listen. Be still. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything you are going through someone has already gone through before you. Be anxious for nothing but in all things have hope(patience). Being present means giving attention to your every breathe, the smell of the air, the sounds of the world around you, and the beating of your heart. Feel all these things.

Yes, there will be a test but not by me. You are not subject to my tests ever again. Life will continue to test you and make opportunity for you to deepen your wisdom, strengthen your resiliency, and to increase your capacity to love. I am no longer the one to judge your academic standing. I don’t hold you in judgment I never did.  As your teacher and now your colleague in life I accept you with all that is you and continue to hold the highest hopes that you will reach your full potential and walk a happy and blessed journey. Know that I am always here for you.

See you on the next mountain top,
Mr. H.
2013 Vermont Teacher of the Year    
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”                                                                                                                       -Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Therapists and Educators Share a Common Road to Excellence

In fact, according to the latest research in the psychology field all professions and fields can achieve excellence following three steps.

In the May/June 2011 issue of Networker, Scott Miller and Mark Hubble outlined these steps to achieving excellence. My writing is inspired by their article and reference to a conference that took place prior to the article being published. The conference was held in Kansas City, Missouri and included internationally acclaimed researchers, clinicians, performers, and celebrities. The purpose was to lay out a series of steps for psychotherapists to achieve excellence in their practice. Conference presenters set out to show attendees what could be accomplished following these three steps with the goal of getting therapists to commit to the hard work necessary to attain excellence.

As the story goes a young female pianist Rachel Hsu entered the stage at the start of the conference dressed simply in a black satin dress and red sash. She calmly adjusted her bench and quietly sat at her piano. Her hands hovered over the keys momentarily and then at once she engaged fully into her piece. The composition for all of the classical music lovers reading this was the Concert Etude no.3 by Franz Liszt. This work is a famously challenging to play and a pleasure to watch as quoted in the article. It was said the difficulty level on a scale of one to ten was a twelve to give you some perspective. At the conclusion of Rachel’s performance, the audience was literally in tears so taken by the amazing and extreme skill with which Rachel commanded her moving performance.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Rachel was only 8 years old. Responding afterwards to a barrage of compliments and questions she stated humbly that she had made mistakes they just did not notice them. Later in the empty hall she and her mom went back to the music and examined her mistakes so she would know exactly what to focus on going forward.  How does an 8-year-old achieve such excellence? Does she mirror the researcher’s three steps to excellence in her approach to music? The answer to the later question is yes.
Likeness only
Rachel shared these three steps in her ensuing conversation (she was also presenting at this conference):

·       Step one; know your baseline and your potential.
·       Step Two; engage in deliberate practice.
·       Step Three; obtain ongoing feedback.

Rachel shared that she practiced 4 hours every day including weekends and holidays amassing more than 4,000 hrs. or the equivalent of almost 170 straight days at the piano.
Researchers reflecting on the hours and commitment therapists portrayed were a bit puzzled as they pondered why there weren’t more excellent therapists since it was also the intention of most therapists to become as good as they possibly could. Why weren’t they seeing the results they hoped for in patient outcomes etc.? Then it dawned on them as they recognized in Rachel’s background the nearly invisible social network that existed to support Rachel’s success. Rachel had a network of social support. The authors Scott Miller and Mark Hubble refer to this as the social network of support. Social scaffolding as it was explained is a critical element for one who’s goal is attaining excellence. Rachel’s parents, peers, coaches, and vast access to resources comprised her social scaffold and led to her success.

Let’s shift gears now to the field of teaching. I know you have astutely recognized the parallels to our profession. Educators are drawn to the field of education for the same basic reason as therapists, to help others. Like therapists we also want to be the very best we can be. There are not too many teachers that would say they do not want to be anything less than excellent. Why then don’t we see dramatic improvements in teachers? Why aren’t so many teachers efforts who’s desire it is to be excellent being realized?

To answer these questions let’s look at the three steps more closely.

1.     Do you know your baseline? How? Unless you have standards by which to assess your teaching how do you know where on the continuum of skill you fall? Have you considered your potential as a teacher? How much better do you think you can be? Get yourself a copy of: The InTASC Learning Progressions for Teachers

2.     When it comes to intentional practice do you focus on your mistakes in order to improve? Let’s face it most of us are not comfortable focusing on our mistakes especially when we are told our performance is linked to our pay. There needs to be a shift in the way we look at ourselves. Let me be vulgar for a moment. As my colleague said recently, “we need to embrace suck.” If we suck at something okay then, embrace it. When we can be at ease with looking at our shortcomings we are mentally positioned to make improvements in our practice.

3.     Do we obtain ongoing feedback? Having peers and supervisors look at our practice provides valuable input in planning our improvements and increases our effectiveness three fold. Ongoing feedback refers to frequency. The more often we receive feedback the quicker we can make changes and the faster we can grow. Consider setting up on line collaborations using Video Reflective Practice. We must structure our social network in such a way that we always have a feedback loop by which to see ourselves. That requires trust and aligning with people we trust and who honor our practice and can provide input without judgment. It also requires time to reflect.

Hopefully understanding the concept of social scaffolding will enable us to intentionally build our resources in order to support growing more highly effective. Ten thousand hours does not make one an expert if we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Having a good coach goes a long way in building our expertise. Also, shifting our thinking from just hanging on to the positive things we do to embracing our mistakes will engage us in making effective improvements. And finally, advocating for the time and structure we need to work along the continuum of improvement we will help us begin to see an increase in student achievement.
Isn’t that what it is all about?

* May/June 2011 issue of Networker article: The Road to Mastery by Scott Miller and Mark Hubble.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Administrators Make or Break Innovative Teachers

What key character traits do administrators possess who successfully facilitate the work of innovative teachers? I have pondered that question often in the last three years and even more recently I added these questions; Which role teacher or administrator is more critical in cultivating innovative schools? Which role would allow me to make the greatest sustainable difference?

Holding a degree in public school administration for as many years and contemplating taking on the principal role I have yet to find compelling evidence to do so until recently that is.

From my humble beginning in New York State where I began my education journey to Vermont where I teach to this day I have seen administrators take a beating from all sides. Often it seems they cannot please anyone and spend countless hours putting out fires.

Most recently, I have hit a wall professionally speaking. I think back in amazement that I have been able to accomplish as much as I have for so long. I consider myself an innovator when it comes to the unconventional application of technology in the classroom. Now with my signature programs that defined in many ways the teacher I am or was cancelled I am left picking up the pieces. Like an engineer at a plane wreck site I am trying to deconstruct the events and figure out the cause.

As I reflected back on my past administrators I identified four traits that contributed most to my successes and allowed me to soar: 

       Trust - Each new initiative I delved into I had an administrator who believed in me. This I know because they allowed me to venture outside the box. At my first middle school interview in Vermont I was very transparent about my intentions. I stated strongly that I intended to sell everything in the lab and build a new concept and if that were not okay then I was not the one for this job. He looked me in the eye and said; Take all the rope you want to hang yourself. I laughed liking the challenge of his words. He was true to his word and cleared the path for me to build an award-winning lab. He demonstrated his trust in me from the start. Micromanaging teachers infer the opposite of trust.

       Fair - even when they do not believe. Once outside of school at a social event my former AP shared with me an interesting tidbit. He said Jay remember When you asked for 22 new iMac Desktop computers? Yes, of course I replied. What did I have to lose? Well he continued, I only passed the request forward because I was sure there was no way in this world it would be approved. To his shock it was and a new era was launched for my students and me. I am still taken aback by his comment.

      Strong leadership - contributed greatly to keeping the wolves from my doorstep. You know what I mean. The wolves are the colleagues in your building who recognize your program has departed from the status quo of the school and try unceasingly to pull you down. One particular administrator rather than giving into the squeaky wheel told him/her to back off. He protected innovative programs.

       Visionary - Possessing a vision that goes beyond the school building allows teacher leaders to engage in effective advocacy and shape their profession on a global scale. In the local administrative line I have encountered two mindsets. One that was supportive to the outside initiatives I am involved with and another that pointed out what I was doing did not directly benefit the school I was a part of. I most appreciated when my principal commented to me during a post observation evaluation that I should think about mentoring my colleagues. He recognized my ability and shared his insight, which gave me clarity and helped me to focus and set my growth goals.

As I resolve my most recent disappointments I realize the great strides I was able to make were do in great part to the strong administrative support I experienced. I conclude therefore both teacher leaders and strong administrator roles are equally vital. One is no more or less important than the other. Unfortunately in our state administrators hold their positions an average between three to five years. That means constantly reselling your program/vision to each new admin team.

At times I wish I could play both roles. I like what I can accomplish as a teacher leader. Skies the limit. At other times in my frustration I want to right the wrong as an administrator having learned so much of what a teacher needs to be effective. That said I have decided beyond a doubt I will continue to teach to lead, reinvent myself as needed, and stay true to my mission of helping teachers all over in becoming more highly effective.

We need administrators who recognize teachers as experts and take a “hands off” approach allowing teachers a “hands on” experience.