March Madness

SPRING“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

In schools, March comes in like a lion and leaves like a Tasmanian Devil.  As an Assistant Principal I can say that my work in the discipline realm picks up in March.  Kids are tired, teachers are tired – people seem to reach the end of their ropes.  I have been contemplating the reasons for this on the last day of my least favorite month in school.

First, with winter clinging on (although here in Northern California I’ll have to put “winter” in quotes), the students and teachers look tired.  Like Sisyphus, teachers have a never dwindling stack of papers to grade, and students have a full planners and backpacks.  Teachers try to squeeze the last bit of content before the high-stakes tests, making everyone feel frustrated and rushed.  Kids see their grades become a permanent part of their “records,” and understand that choices they may have made back in August continue to get in their way.  For seniors, AP exams loom, college acceptances and rejections color each day, and with one foot in adulthood, they sometimes revert back to making childish choices about what to do before a spring dance.  March is an endless march forward into the end of another school year.

The frustrating thing is that the madness of March can be avoided.  School doesn’t need to culminate in high-stakes entrance to the right college, content doesn’t have to be “covered” in 182 days, homework doesn’t have to suck up the free time of our young people, tests don’t have to dictate what and how we learn.  The logic of our present system is illogical, yet as those who have been successful in this system, it is very hard to consider how to make our way out of it.  We continue to tinker around the edges when what is needed is a completely new way of education.

Let’s end the madness of March by ending the madness of public education as we know it.  Hand me a sledge hammer.


Respectful Disagreement


Image from Phil McKinney.

As a school leader, I have always valued working with teachers and others who openly disagree with me and are willing to come talk it out with me.  I seek out possible dissenters to get their feedback on how something is going, or how they experienced a meeting.  One time I was so successful, that a teacher spend 45 minutes in my office, and while continuing to disagree with a decision I had made, hugged me good bye.

Making room for conflict when leading for change is not a particularly revolutionary idea, but I have been reading more about it lately.  In a recent post, George Couros makes a case for the value of hearing the Naysayer and the Antagonist – making room for public dissent so that it doesn’t fester in the parking lot and behind closed doors.  In a 2011 article, Doug Reeves makes a similar case about dealing with Skeptics and Cynics, arguing that school leaders must make room for the former, while making the rather more controversial assertion that cynics should be “banned” from meetings as they are not open to learning and new ideas.  I was at a workshop recently and the presenters from The Table Group also described the necessity of allowing disagreement in order to create a culture that can eventually move forward. How could a leader disagree?

The problem, however, is in the execution.  Often, the dissent is masked by a culture of politeness.  I am new to my current school, and while teachers may agree with me about a decision, a comment I made, or how I planned a professional development meeting, often they are too polite to come into my office to express their concerns.  This means that they will politely agree with something, smile and nod, and then just go about doing things the way they have always done them.  With the most toxic form of this dysfunction, the conversations occur in the parking lot, or in classrooms with closed doors.  I am confident that I will be able to build trust and will soon have teachers coming to me, but in the meantime I must intentionally seek the dissenting voices and ask them their opinions.

The problem of politeness is most acute when striving for peer accountability in schools.  I have seen this play out in department team after department team where the team makes agreements about curricular changes, only to break them the moment they are alone in their classrooms.  Rather than disagreeing in the moment and having the difficult discussion in the open, passive resistance takes the day.  Then the perception can be that teachers who disagree are “in trouble” for disagreeing, rather than held accountable to what they say they were going to do in the first place.  The problem of politeness is compounded somewhat by the US West Coast culture in which I work – people are sensitive of constructive criticism and tend to shy away from disagreement.

In addition to embracing and listening to dissent, leaders need to make room for respectful disagreement everywhere in schools, cultivating a culture where many ideas contribute contribute to the best school possible for all students.  Any ideas?

“Who Owns the Learning?”

charlierubickscubeWe were lucky to have Alan November as a guest speaker at the Marin County Office of Education in February.  At a Round Table discussion before his talk (captured here), one teacher asked him what to do when today’s students don’t really know how to learn – he said they have become passive sponges, taking in what teachers say without curiosity of their own.  I had to remind that teacher that I see kids wanting to learn and taking initiative for their own learning all of the time – just not what we want them to, when we want them to.

I walked in to my son’s room the other day and he was sitting with his iPad on his lap. watching something with his Rubik’s Cube in his hand. I was ready to yell at him for going online without permission, and then I realized what he was doing – learning how to solve the Rubik’s Cube by watching YouTube videos others had posted. He can now do it on his own, from any arrangement. He was motivated to learn, and he quickly found a Rubik’s Cube expert to help him.  He also recently viewed the video “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” about computer coding, and within minutes was on to begin creating his first website, learning as he went from the tutorial on the site.

Alan November asks “Who Owns the Learning,” advocating for the answer to be the students.  I know as a former history/social studies teacher that there are certain “things” students should know to be productive, engaged citizens. I also know that these “things” aren’t interesting to many students in their raw form.  Rather than tell them what they need to know, it is incumbent upon me, and all teachers, to create learning situations where they need to know in order to solve a problem or answer a question that is interesting to them.  If I hear a teacher say, “he’s not motivated to learn,” I want to ask – to learn what and how?

I have to apply this same logic as a site leader – I can’t just stand up and point fingers at the teachers.  When I offer training and professional development, I have to remember that teachers are learners, too. I can’t only tell teachers that they should be motivated, I have to ways to help them own their learning by helping craft questions and problems that interest them, and that they can help each other solve and learn.  My standing up in front of a faculty and telling them what they must to is no more effective as a learning opportunity than a history teacher doing that with a class.

Once we ask the right questions, we can all own the learning together.