May 16

On Kindness

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Tonight, a bunch of people I know, like and respect shared yet another video on Facebook of someone accidentally making a fool of themselves. The people who shared it were other educators, some SLA students, folks I know from other parts of my life… folks from across the myriad pathways of my life. I can only imagine how many times that video has been seen across the world by now.

For whatever reason, tonight, that made me really sad. I wondered what those people would think if that was their student, their parent, their child, their sibling. We’ve become callous to the people in those videos, to the people behind the screen, and maybe too many of us are callous to the people we see in person every day.

Certainly, Schadenfreude is nothing new. People have long gotten pleasure in the suffering of others. But that doesn’t make it right.

More than anything else in this world, I value kindness – real kindness where we extend ourselves to others simply because we can.

Kindness is more than being nice. Kindness requires empathy. It requires listening. It actually requires asking people what they need – not giving them what we think they need, but listening to their needs and acting upon them.

When we engage in true kindness, we must remove the space between us and those around us. We must learn to not treat people as “The Other.” We must enter into what Martin Buber called the “I and Thou” relationship. And it means we must acknowledge that other people are as important as we are.

I want to live in a world where people think about being kind as a reflex. I want to see schools where students, teachers, administrators are willing to see each other, listen to each other, and treat each other with kindness and care.

I truly believe that if we can build schools that operate first and foremost from a place of kindness that our kids can build a world that does as well. Our students will learn what we teach, what we model, what we live. Could there be anything more powerful than seeing our students go out and change the world to a place where people truly cared for one another?

As Mr. Vonnegut said, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Apr 10

Share Your Passion – Learn Your Best Teacher Self

This afternoon, the SLA Boys Varsity Ultimate found themselves with a home field for a game and no opponent. So the boys split up and scrimmaged in a game filled with some really amazing plays and more trash talk than I have heard in an Ultimate Frisbee game since I played in New York Summer League. The game was awesome – it was sixteen boys doing something they loved with people they love.

I got to coach the game. I love it in a way that is visceral.

Most mornings, you can find me coaching Ultimate. We don’t have fields or a gym at SLA, so all three of our Ultimate teams (Girls Varsity, Boys Varsity, Junior Varsity) practice from 6:30 am to 8:00 am in the morning. So does our softball team and our girls basketball team, and I think our track team is about to start. Our Students Run Philly Style team is going to go for a ten-mile run tomorrow (Saturday) morning.

Our debate kids are flying to Florida for Nationals with their coach, Jason Todd. Matt Kay’s poetry team is brilliant, and they write and perform after school what seems like every day. Doug Herman spends somewhere in the neighborhood of four zillion hours doing film projects with kids. Our robotics team…

You get the idea.

So… after-school activities. In most schools, they are the things that kids love most. It’s what they get to choose. That’s nothing new.

But I don’t know that we talk enough about what we as teachers can learn by doing after school activities with kids. In fact, I’ve heard teachers talk about how they are so different with their after-school kids than they are with their students, to which I always think, “Why?”

I think there’s a ton we can learn from the teacher-selves we are when we do are sharing something we love with kids who have chosen to be there too.

Years ago, when I was at Beacon and coaching girls basketball, there was a student teacher who asked to assistant coach with me. She was awesome. She had an incredible rapport with the kids. She was knowledgable. She laughed easily with the girls, and she could get them to push themselves to greatness.

So I was shocked when her cooperating teacher told me she was struggling deeply as a classroom teacher. I went in to watch her teach, and I didn’t recognize who I saw. She was tentative, unsure of herself, and deeply unsure how to bring out the best in the kids. After the class, the three of us sat down and talked about her teaching and her coaching. We told her simply, “Teach like you coach.” And it made all the difference for her. She really unpacked what made her successful on the court and found the ways to bring that into the classroom.

If we want “the curricular” to be infused with as much joy and passion and energy as the extra-curricular, we have to examine the role we the teachers bring to the student experience of extra-curriculars. And, yes, it is easier to be joyful and passionate and playful when everyone is choosing to be there together, but what if we brought that same persona to our classrooms?

The best teaching I ever did was on the fields and on the courts at 6:30 am. It was there I discovered my best teacher-self. It was in the relationships I developed with the kids who shared that time with me that I learned how to listen and be the adult the kids needed me to be. It was in the dedication of the kids who showed up every morning to practice that I learned what it meant to feel the need to work hard enough so that you never let down the kids.

All over the country, every day, teachers and students collaborate after (and before) school in service of a shared goal and passion, be it Ultimate frisbee, drama, robotics, the school newspaper. In doing so, students and teachers often find the best versions of themselves. The stories of what those activities do for teachers and students are multitudinous.

But maybe it’s time to unpack the people we are when we do those things so that we can take the best of who we are in those moments and bring them back our classrooms every day.

I’d argue that the people we are in those moments are our best teacher-selves. I think everyone wins if that version of ourselves found its way into the classroom every day.

 

Apr 09

Join the SLA Family!

It is hiring season for the SLA family of schools, and I am thrilled to post job opportunities for now three SLA schools – Science Leadership Academy – Center City, Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and Science Leadership Academy Middle School!

For teaching at Science Leadership Academy – Center City and Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber:

Call for Teachers:

  • “How do we learn?”
  • “What can we create?”
  • “What does it mean to lead?”

These three essential questions form the basis of instruction at the Science Leadership Academy high schools –  two Philadelphia high schools built on the notion that inquiry is the very first step in the process of learning. Developed in partnership with Inquiry Schools and The Franklin Institute — a nationally recognized science and technology museum — and its commitment to inquiry-based science, the SLA high schools provide a vigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

The Science Leadership Academy high schools are looking for faculty to continue to develop and implement a vigorous, inquiry-driven, project-based curriculum. In addition, all teachers at SLA have an advisory class where they work with the same students for four years. The SLA schools are a national models for “School 2.0,” a reform movement that seeks to harness the tools of technology, tied to a progressive pedagogy, to re-imagine what high schools can be. As such, both SLA schools are 1:1 laptop schools that uses multiple resources — web-based and traditional — to create meaning and understanding.

Positions Available — Science Leadership Academy – Center City:

  • Physics
  • Social Studies
  • Special Education / Math

Positions Available — Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber:

  • Bio/Chemistry
  • English
  • History
  • Math

Qualifications:

  • Applicants must be PA State Certified or eligible for PA State Certification in their subject area.
  • Applicants must be committed to the idea that we teach students first and our subjects second.
  • Applicants must be willing to challenge students to work in an inquiry-driven, project based environment.
  • Applicants must be willing to work collaboratively.
  • Applicants must be willing to work in a diverse environment with students who reflect the rich heritage of Philadelphia.
  • Applicants should have a strong background in technology infusion into the classroom and be willing to see their classroom as happening both on and offline.
  • Applicants should have an interest in developing extra-curricular activities.
  • Applicants should be energetic, flexible, and have a strong desire to work with administrators, fellow teachers, parents, and students to create a school that reflects SLA’s core values.
  • Applicants with multiple certifications are always appreciated, although that is not required.

How to Apply:

For more information, please visit http://www.scienceleadership.org and http://www.slabeeber.org or contact SLA at teaching@scienceleadership.org or at 215-979-5620. Resumes and cover letters can be sent to teaching@scienceleadership.org and all applicants must apply through the School District of Philadelphia Site Selection Process found online at http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/offices/e/ee/.

Contact Info:

Email: teaching@scienceleadership.org

Science Leadership Academy
55 N. 22nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: 215-979-5620
Fax: 215-567-2809
Administrator: Chris Lehmann

Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber
5925 Malvern Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19131
Phone: 215-581-2107
Fax: 215-581-2109
Administrator: Chris Johnson

And… I am so excited to announce that we are posting for a founding principal for our new middle school – Science Leadership Academy Middle School! (yes – SLAMS!)

Founding Principal – Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS)

  • “How do we learn?”
  • “What can we create?”
  • “What does it mean to lead?”

These three essential questions form the basis of instruction at the Science Leadership Academy Middle School (SLA-MS), a new Philadelphia neighborhood middle school proposed to open in September 2016. SLA-MS is built on the notion that inquiry is the very first step in the process of learning. Developed in partnership with Drexel University, The School District of Philadelphia and Inquiry Schools, SLA-MS has been designed as the middle school for the Powel Elementary School catchment area and the two schools will share a single campus. SLA-MS will provide a vigorous, well-rounded curriculum in all subjects with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and the entrepreneurial spirit. Students at SLA-MS will learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

SLA-MS will serve as a model program for meeting the specific needs of middle level learners while embracing an inquiry-driven, project-based, technology-infused instructional model. An ethic of care will guide all systemic, assessment and curricular decisions for the school.

The principal will be on special assignment for the 2015-16 school year as she/he plans for a September 2016 proposed opening.

Job Summary:
To work with the SLA-MS Leadership Team to plan and create and open an inquiry-driven, project-based modern middle school for the Powelton and West Powelton communities in West Philadelphia. The creation of this school is in alignment with the School District of Philadelphia’s goal of creating a diverse portfolio of high-performing schools for the children of Philadelphia.

The first year will include time spent at both Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and the Powel School, as the candidate will need to do a deep dive into the SLA educational model and learn the Powel School community and educational practices. The first year will also include collaboration with Drexel, The Franklin Institute, and the Academy of Natural Sciences to best leverage partnerships with these organizations. Finally, the first year will include work with the design and facilities teams to prepare to open the school in temporary space for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 schools years, and to plan for the design and construction of a new school facility that would house both SLA-MS and Powel as of school year 2018-19. At the end of the planning year, SLA-MS will open with its first class of fifth graders, with a powerful educational framework that can both be a national model and a benefit to the local community.

Essential Functions:

  • Creates the implementation plan, in consultation and collaboration with Inquiry Schools, for an inquiry-driven, project-based neighborhood middle school that leverages modern tools to provide an authentic and empowering education for its students.
  • Co-designs and outfits a state-of-the-art K-8 facility that would serve SLA-MS and the Powel School as of School Year 2018-19.
  • Creates a sustainable budget that takes into account the grade-by-grade growth of the school.
  • Implements a web-based technological infrastructure to serve as a model for a blended learning school web-site using tools such as GoogleApps for Education, Canvas and SLATE.
  • Collaborates with School District of Philadelphia to create an innovative project-based benchmark system that mirrored the SDP benchmarks.
  • Works with Drexel University, The Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Inquiry Schools to create deep partnerships between primary community partners and the school.
  • Works with the Powel School and the Science Leadership Academy to ensure a seamless academic and social/emotional transition between elementary and middle school.
  • Develops four-year advisory program that allows students, teachers and parents to work together to ensure student success.
  • Provides leadership in the recruitment, development, and retention of staff.
  • Hires and manages all founding faculty and staff.
  • Transitions from a planning process to an implementation process after the planning year.
  • Performs related duties as required.

Knowledge, Skills and Abilities
Demonstrated knowledge of:

  • the unique challenges and opportunities if the middle school environment.
  • technology infusion into the classroom as well as happening both on and offline.
  • developing a school with a rich after-school life.
  • current educational trends and research.
  • the unique needs and characteristics of students.
  • personnel management and supervision techniques.
  • curriculum theory and development.

Demonstrated ability to:

  • commit to the idea that we teach students first and our subjects second.
  • challenge students to work in an inquiry-driven, project-based environment.
  • work collaboratively in an educational complex shared by multiple schools.
  • administer all aspects of an educational facility.
  • coordinate the provision of professional development activities.
  • work in a diverse environment with students who reflect the rich heritage of Philadelphia.
  • be energetic, flexible, and a strong desire to work with community partners, fellow administrators, teachers, parents and students create a school that reflects SLA-MS core values.
  • communicate effectively, both orally and in writing.

Minimum Requirements

  • Master’s Degree from an accredited educational institution
  • Seven years full-time, paid, professional educational experience, two of which have been as a Principal or assistant Principal, illustrating successful experience in teaching, school administration, or significant leadership roles.

Certificates/Licenses

Possession of a valid Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Administrative Certificate for K-12 School Principal.

OR

Possession of a valid Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Administrative Certificate for Elementary and Secondary School Principal.

How to Apply:

For more information, please visit http://www.scienceleadership.org or contact SLA at teaching@scienceleadership.org or at 215-979-5620. Resumes and cover letters can be sent to Chris Lehmann at teaching@scienceleadership.org and all applicants must apply through the School District of Philadelphia Site Selection Process found online through the TeacherMatch job posting at https://platform.teachermatch.org/applyteacherjob.do?jobId=9689.

 

Apr 04

Intentionality and Serendipity

We had some visitors to SLA the other day, and when they were doing a debrief with me, a person asked me to unpack a statement we say a lot – “Standards, not Standardization.” It lead to a conversation about balancing being intentional in everything we do while also giving students voice and choice which bears some unpacking here.

First, the SLA learning ecosystem – with the core values, shared curriculum planning tools, common project rubric, grade-wide essential questions and aligned subject-specific standards – means that students can expect a consistent language of teaching and learning. The purpose of that is make sure that students spend as little time as possible trying to figure out the adults. By having a common language of teaching and learning, there is a framework that is empowering for students because it becomes much easier to move across the disciplines and learn.

Next, creating the space for 33 kids in classroom to all be able to thoughtfully investigate an idea and build toward making something powerful requires thoughtful planning. And it requires a balance of structure and freedom that takes a deft hand. Not enough structure, and there’s a real risk of having a lot of “inch-deep, mile-wide” work from students. Too much structure, and you’ll get “recipe-based teaching” where the vast majority of the student work looks far too much alike because the students weren’t given the freedom to make the work what they wanted or needed it to be.

A great example of how that work comes together is the work spearheaded by Roz Echols around creating a structure for our Capstone projects. Every year, 125 seniors create original inquiry-projects where the topics are completely student created. The structure of the capstone project has to be flexible enough to encompass student plays, event planning, and more “classical” deep research projects. The framework for the Capstone projects (found here) is simple, elegant, and it allows students enough of a roadmap to plan a year-long project while being open-ended enough to encompass so many different ideas.

Thoughtful frameworks for learning are at the heart of the idea “standards, not standardization.” The kind of intentionality required to allow students to engage in deep learning that is empowering, authentic and personally meaningful requires teachers to think about their classes not as day-to-day, but unit to unit and as part of the larger ecosystem of the school. When we are intentional about helping students to interpret standards, skills and content in ways that have meaning for them, understanding that there are many ways for students to manifest their learning, then we create the space for those moments in our classes where students can surprise us in wonderful ways by bringing their creativity and ideas to the subjects we teach.

Thoughtful structures can move us intentionally away from a scripted classroom and move us much closer to the kinds of classrooms where students and teachers have a shared sense of purpose and a shared sense of responsibility to each other. And in those classrooms, the ideas can flow freely, and those serendipitous moments of learning when things come together and the learning is powerfully communal can happen accidentally by design.

Apr 01

Exciting New SLA Partnership

As most folks who visit this blog know, these have been some very difficult years for the School District of Philadelphia. It has meant that many principals have found themselves in the role of Fundraiser-in-Chief. For me, it’s a skill-set I never really wanted to develop, but after years of cuts, it has become what was necessary to maintain the program at SLA.

Probably, we could have thought of a better financial time to open our second campus – SLA@Beeber, but so many families made it clear that an inquiry-driven, project-based education was what they wanted that, even under financial duress, we felt that we needed to move forward. And I am amazed at what the teachers, students, parents and principal, Chris Johnson, have done in such a short time.

Realistically, however, the work needs more support. SLA@Beeber needs to find a sustainable financial model to thrive as I know that it can. As such, Chris and I have been working to find ways to ensure that the incredible work of the students can continue, no matter what the outcome of Gov. Wolf’s and Mayor Nutter’s budget proposals.

It’s not easy work, and after nine years at SLA, I know how frustrating it is to chase grant after grant, donor after donor, knowing that all the time you spend fundraising is time you aren’t spending with teachers and students, doing the work you believe in the most.

Like it or not, this has become part of the job of the principal in too many under-resourced public schools all over the country. And no matter what SLA and SLA@Beeber can do as individual schools, it does not change the need for equitable and adequate funding for all of Philadelphia’s schools, and nothing changes our commitment to urging the politicians of our state to do the right thing for the children of this city and this state.

Fortunately, SLA has benefitted from the kind words of so many educators who have walked the hallways of our schools that we have been able to work with some amazing people who want nothing more than to see the schools — and the kids who do amazing work within them — thrive.

One of the challenges of fundraising is that often donors want to influence the work of the school. Too many grants, too many donors, often money with strings. We have been both very lucky and very deliberate in that all of the organizations we have worked with – whether it has been The Franklin Institute or Dell Computer – have wanted to support our work and grow and learn with us. I fully recognize the gift that has been, and I am thrilled to say that our latest donor shares the same belief.

Our dedication to our core mission – of an inquiry-driven, project-based education with a deep ethic of care is steadfast. Our donor spoke powerfully about how what he saw at our school could have saved him from making some of the bad mistakes he has made in his life. He spoke to our students, and in the midst of making his own personal, powerful changes, he saw a powerfully opportunity to give back. All he asked in return was one small change.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to announce the renaming of our second campus, now known as SLA@Bieber. Thank you, Justin!

See the full press release here.

Mar 29

Post for Admins: Question More, Solve Less

At first blush, being an administrator who is a problem solver seems like a uniquely positive trait. There are certainly enough problems in schools that require solving.

But problem-solving isn’t always as important as we think it is.

Sometimes, we can rush to solve the problem in front of us in a way that feels productive but doesn’t really help us to think deeply about what is going on in our schools. Sometimes, quickly solving the problem doesn’t allow us to see root causes. And worse, simply solving the problem in front of you quickly can have unintended consequences.

As frustrating as it can be sometimes, we need to move more slowly when we look at some of the problems in our schools.  More often than not, our schools are better served when leaders don’t merely solve the problem in front of them, but rather take the time to ask questions of a range of folks to get at the real question at hand.

What we need in our schools are more leaders who ask questions of many stakeholders. When problems arise – especially ones that seem like they could be solved by just being a little harsher, a little stricter – we need to ask better questions. And we should listen to the answers.

Just like we ask teachers to do with our students.

 

Mar 25

When Colleges Hurt Kids

This year has been a fantastic year for SLA college acceptances. We’ve seen our kids get into some of the most well-respected schools in record numbers – and many of our kids are the first SLA-ers to ever get accepted into these schools.

Whether or not they are able to go to is another question.

Today, I was sitting with one of our SLA seniors. She’s gotten into a wonderful college – her top choice. The school costs $54,000 / yr. Her mother makes less than the federal deep poverty level. She only received the Federal financial aid package with no aid from the school, which means that, should she go to this school, she would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt.

She would graduate with approximately $200,000 of debt – for a bachelor’s degree.

Now, how in good conscience could a college do that? I’ve sat with kids as they’ve opened the emails from their top choice schools. Watching the excitement of getting into a dream school is one of the real joys of being a principal. It’s just the best feeling to see a student have that moment where a goal is reached.

And as amazing as that moment is… that’s how horrible it is to sit with a student when they get the financial aid package and counsel them that the just isn’t worth that much debt.

I sat with my student today and pulled up a student loan calculator. I showed her that $200,000 of debt would mean payments of $1500 / month until she was 52 years old – and then we pulled up a budgeting tool so she saw how much she would have to make just to be able to barely get by.

Then we looked at the state schools she’s gotten into, and we talked about what it would mean to be $60,000 in debt after four years, because PA has had so much cut from higher education that Penn State is now $27,000 / year — in state, and we’ve noticed that their financial aid packages have dropped by quite a bit.

So we have to tell the kids to apply to the private schools because the aid packages the kids get from private colleges are sometimes significantly better than what the public schools are offering.  Kids have to apply to a wide range of schools and hope. And then we sit down with kids and help them make sane choices, as the $60K / year schools send amazing brochures and promises of semesters abroad and pictures of brand new multi-million dollar campuses, all while promising that there are plenty of ways to finance their tuition.

Dear colleges – you are doing this wrong.

It doesn’t have to this way. When I was a teacher in NYC even as recently as ten years ago, I felt that kids could go to amazing and affordable CUNY and SUNY schools if the private schools didn’t give the aid the kids needed. But Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of 50 in higher ed spending by state, and as a result, seven of the top fourteen state colleges are in Pennsylvania.

And as private colleges hit times of financial crisis and public colleges become more tuition dependent, students are being asked to take out more and more loans, which is putting a generation of working class and middle class students tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of dollars in debt to start their adult lives.

And the thing is — I still powerfully agree with those who say that a college education is a worthwhile investment. And on the aggregate, it is true – especially because the union manufacturing jobs of the last century have been lost. But when we look at the individual child, and the choices that kids and families are being asked to make, we have to ask how we can ask kids to take that kind of risk and take on that kind of debt.

And of course, all of this is exacerbated for kids from economically challenged families and for kids who are the first in their families to go to college. And if you are thinking about leaving a comment about kids getting jobs in college to help make it affordable, you show me the job market for college kids to make $30,000 / yr while in school full-time. I must have missed those listings in the morning paper.

A college education can — and should — be a pathway to the middle class.

Colleges should have a moral responsibility to offer sane packages that don’t saddle students with unimaginable debt to start their adult lives.

Work hard, go to college, live a meaningful life. That is what we hear promised to children all the time from President Obama to parents across America.

Colleges and universities have to be honest and fair agents in that dream. Asking students to take out $30,000 and $40,000 of debt a year for access to that dream is a betrayal of the educational values so many of us hold dear.

Mar 01

What is Your Educational DNA?

It’s a phrase I use a lot when I talk about SLA, “It’s in my DNA.” The ideas that form the backbone of SLA are the ideas that hold most dear about what I believe school can be. Much of the work I have done over the years has been developing a language for what I believed, refining the beliefs and figuring out how to make those beliefs easy to put into practice for teacher and students.

I’ve spent a lot of time tracing what’s formed that DNA. Certainly, being Sid and Janice Lehmann’s kid, being raised with a deep sense of social and educational justice, was a big part of it. I remember when I was in high school, and in my highly tracked high school, I had to choose between taking the Honors or the AP classes. My dad said to me, “Take the honors classes, because that’ll be the material the teacher *wants* to teach, the AP classes will be the material the teacher has to teach.” I remember my mother talking about the incredible projects she would have her students do in her classrooms. She never talked about how well they did on tests. She talked about the artist reports they did when her sixth graders came in dressed as the artists they researched, and projects such as that. It’s moments like that that resonated deeply when I went into my own classroom and thought about what and how I wanted to be teaching.

And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because more and more, I’m coming to the realization that having a core set of beliefs about teaching and learning that is radically different from “traditional school” is rarer than I’d like to admit. Most people weren’t lucky enough to come from parents who thought deeply about pedagogy. I did, and I hope that the work I’ve done in my career has honored the privilege I had in having parents like Sid and Janice.

And it makes me wonder how often we create the space for teachers and administrators to spend the time tracing why they came to the profession believing what they believe about teaching and learning, and tracing their evolution as teachers. Certainly, there isn’t much time given inside the traditional professional development calendar for such work. And I think we should.

At the heart of teaching is the idea that we should be intentional about what happens in our classrooms. To do that requires understanding how we got to that moment with our kids ourselves.

And in that vein – I ask… what is your Educational DNA? Why and how do you believe what you now believe about teaching and learning?

Feb 06

Be The Best Version of Your Teacher Self

When I was a pre-service teacher, I had a professor who we all loved. He was this very soft-spoken man who was amazing at letting his students’ voices come to the forefront of the class. And when a student said something he liked, he would nod his head and say, “hmmm… huh… interesting.”

We lived for a “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”

After seeing me teach, he said to me, “You know, Chris, you’re going to be a great teacher once you get over thinking you have to perform.”

I was crushed.

And as a result, in both my student teaching and early in my teaching career, I would try to dial back my personality, and whenever kids would say things I thought were awesome, rather than get excited, I’d try to remember to sit back and say, “Hmmm… huh… interesting.”

But I couldn’t sustain that because I was — and am — excitable. And one day the kids called me out on it, and asked who this person was who would say, “Hmm… huh… interesting,” because they liked the person that got really excited by their ideas. The kids liked who I really was, not who I was pretending to be. And I realized that as much as I liked my professor, he was wrong. The performance wasn’t the person who was super-animated in the classroom – that was who I was (and am) and instead, the performance was trying to act like him.

That didn’t mean I needed to be in the front of the class, and it didn’t mean that I wanted to run a teacher-centric classroom. It meant that I had to figure out that if I wanted kids to bring their best selves to the classroom every day, so did I. And I’m high-energy and excitable – I just am. I had to learn how to ensure that being a big personality did not mean that who I was was more important than who the kids were. I had to make sure that I didn’t ever confuse charisma with content. I had to understand early on the difference between engaging the kids and empowering the kids. In short, I had to learn the craft of progressive teaching while bringing an authentic sense of self to the classroom – which is one of the great challenges for all of us who want to make our teaching authentic and real.

I was thinking of this story today while having a conversation with a teacher-coach today about how to help soft-spoken young teachers develop their teacher-selves. Because, on some level, it’s a lot easier as a young teacher to have a big personality and a lot of charisma. For me, being a rather animated person by nature made that transition to the classroom easier, because that energy could cover up a lot for a lot of pedagogical mistakes I made while I was just learning the craft. But I worry that many soft-spoken young teachers are taught to work on having a “bigger” personality, to learn how to perform, rather than to make who they are work for them in the classroom. And that’s too bad, because it misses a chance for that young teacher how to bring the best sense of who they are to the classroom in a way that works for them.

For teachers who don’t immediately “command” the classroom as young teachers, they have to learn how to build those relationships 1:1, because the whole classroom will be harder. For those teachers, welcoming every student as they walk in becomes a way to connect so that the kids want to make the classroom a powerful space. Making sure there is time every day to have even 10-15 seconds of personal time with every kid means far more than the ability to have the kind of voice that can reach the back row of tables in the class immediately. Developing lessons and units that place the students at the center of class, through the work and projects they do means that the thoughtfulness of the work will mean more than the charisma of the teacher. And learning the art of being the kind of teacher who has the relationships with students such that the kids want to lean in for the moments when one has to have the attention of the whole class is amazing.

And of course, all of those techniques are important for any inquiry-driven teacher to develop, no matter how big their personality is. The trap for the charismatic young teacher is to forget that charisma isn’t a substitute for thoughtful pedagogy, and it’s not a substitute for real, meaningful connections with students. The trap is using a big personality as a crutch or an excuse not to keep working on your craft. And in that sense, my old professor was right – performance isn’t the point of teaching, substance is. But equally, a big personality isn’t necessarily a performance if that’s actually who you are.

We bring who we are to the classroom every day. Our teacher-selves has to be a recognizable version of who we are in all our moments outside the classroom. The trick is to be intentional as we learn how who we are as people impacts the style and structure of how we teach, and to make sure that our personality works in service of pedagogy, so that we bring the best of who we are to help the kids every day.

Feb 05

Be Your Own Awesome – We Need More Awesome

I’ve noticed something lately.

There seem to be a lot of people in the education social media space who are defining what they are doing as being better than what other people are doing. Without naming names, I’ve seen too many instances lately of saying, “We’re great, and other people are less great than us.” And it hasn’t been framed in the space of “let’s discuss the relative merits of different educational ideas,” which is a conversation we still need to be having, but rather, as a way to elevate one’s own work at the expense of others.

And that is really too bad, because awesome is not a finite resource. In fact, the best of what all these amazing tools can mean is that we can share. We can make each other better by learning from what we do and building on each other’s work. But the spirit of collaboration and sharing necessary to do that kind of work is very difficult to do when others are treating the amount of awesome in the world as a zero-sum game.

If social media is a metaphor for our classroom, think about the kind of classroom we want… do we want the kind of classroom where students don’t share with one another because no one wants to give another classmate an advantage? Do we want the kind of classroom where, when grades are distributed, kids are saying, “I got a 93…” “Oh yeah, well I got a 94!!!” I don’t think we do. Those kinds of classes were toxic for too many kids, and the students who felt insecure about their abilities were made to feel worse.

Let’s have the humility necessary to celebrate our own successes without needing to tear down others when we do.

Because it’s my hope that we remember that we still need so much more awesome in the world of education than we currently have. And that every single school, teacher, student, district, conference, etc… that is able to do really amazing things is increasing the amount of awesome in the edu-space which is great. Every time someone shares something with an honest desire to share and learn, we all get a chance to learn and apply those lessons in our own spaces.

Let’s share with an open heart and an open mind. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of work to go around. Let’s remember that if the only way we can elevate ourselves is by belittling the work of others, any gains we may have made are illusory and fragile at best.

Let’s keep working to learn from each other and be as awesome as we can for the kids in all of our spaces. And let’s celebrate the awesome that others are doing, both where we live and all over the world.

We need more awesome.