Sep 07

On Teacher Labor

[The book is shipping! Order your copy of Building School 2.0 today!]

Today is a good day to think about all we ask of teachers.

Not the way we usually do… with stories of the martyr teacher who sacrifices all for her students. Because while that story is a powerful one, we often tell it for the wrong reason.

That story is important because many of those teachers leave the classroom after a few years. Often times, those teachers get taken advantage of by administrators who love that young teacher who can’t say no, because, let’s face it, there’s always more to do and rarely enough folks to do it. So in too many schools — especially the places where we serve children of color and children of poverty — we create systems that are unsustainable, then we work those who are willing to do the extra work until they can no longer do the work.

I stopped writing to re-read that paragraph to see if it felt as much like I was channelling Boxer from Animal Farm as I thought I was. I debated re-writing it, but the metaphor works. Those teachers believe in the school and will often do anything for the school… until they can’t anymore.

There are over three million teachers in America. Most of them bring their work home with them every night. The overwhelming majority of them take the emotions of the job home with them far too often. And yet, all over America, right now, teachers are finishing lesson plans and preparing themselves to be the best version of themselves for the kids in the classes tomorrow.

All of this and we live in a political time when teachers unions are treated like a political football in ways that we haven’t seen a union treated in decades.

Every parent should want the teaching life to be sustainable. It’s in our vested interests as a society to make sure that teachers sleep more than six hours a night, and feel like they can do their jobs well. It’s in the best interests of our nation to make sure that the people who teach our children don’t feel like they have to martyr themselves to serve the children in their charge.

We want our teachers to have rich full lives outside the classroom. We want them to be amazing parents and partners. We want them to have the time to read the occasional book, take a vacation, and maybe even go to the gym every now and then.

And we should want all this because it will make them better teachers.

And that’s the thing that we should not forget this Labor Day. We are a better country when the lives of our countrymen and women are in balance. What the fight for labor rights has gotten us is a better nation – despite all the mountains we have left to climb. Nowhere should that be more powerfully obvious than in our schools.

We, as a society, must take care of our teachers and not let them labor too long. After all, our teachers are who take care of our children.


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.

Nov 25

Teaching as Hope

Last night, the American system of justice let our country down.

Michael Brown’s death deserved a public reckoning in our judicial system. I wrote this last night on Facebook as part of a conversation on my page:

An indictment would have meant that there would have been a trial, in full public display, so that the public could hear testimony. An indictment – even of excessive force – would have made it clear that the responsibility we place in our police is one of the most serious and solemn trusts we have.

“We ask that you keep us safe.” That’s what we ask our police. And, yes, we ask them to go into dangerous situations every day and do things that I, frankly, could not do. But with that solemn trust comes incredible responsibility. And an indictment tonight would have sent a message that when police violate that trust – regardless of the race of the police officer and regardless of the race of the victim – there needs to be a full investigation in full light of day.

Michael Brown’s parents — and we as Americans — were denied that right tonight. 

I, along with many others across our country, woke up this morning angry and frustrated. For me, I admit, I was feeling more than a little defeated too.

And then I went to school. At this point, there didn’t need to be an email to all the teachers to tell them it was o.k. — and important — to talk about Ferguson in classes. Sadly, after Trayvon Martin… after Jordan Davis… after too many tragedies… SLA teachers know that we are a school where we talk about what needs to be talked about. Teachers were checking in with each other, making sure that kids had the chance to talk about Ferguson. Kids were seeking out their advisors to talk about it one on one when classroom discussions weren’t what was needed. Kids even sought out their principal.

We talked today. We talked about how we felt. We all did a lot of listening. We cried. We hugged. Some folks debated respectfully. Other folks just needed to say how they felt. And some people just needed to be a student today – and that was o.k. too. We were, in the best ways, deeply human today.

And we talked a lot about what it meant to have a space like SLA where we could come together. It is, for so many of us there, our safe space. It is the place we come together to make sense of the world together. It is the place that gives me hope.

We talked about that idea a lot today. We talked a lot about what to do next… about how we can, as a society, make a better world. I told every student who talked to me about that today that SLA was my best answer to the question of how to make a better, kinder, more just world. And I told them all that now, all of them — and my own two boys as well — were my best hope for a better world. We talked about how, if SLA matters to them, then they have the responsibility to spread the mindset that the teachers and students come to school with every day where ever they go in the world.

I woke up today feeling hopeless and defeated. I spent the day around 500 young people and 30 adults who give me hope every day. I’m going to finish this post and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow I will be with them again. And we will struggle to make sense of the world around us. And we will push each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And we will – together – work to make the world just a little bit better because we happen to live in it together.

And that gives me hope.

Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis’ killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources — and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum — are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking – what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

Aug 11

The Teaching Life – They Grow Up

SpiritFamilyOne of the wonderful things about the teaching life is that – when we are very lucky – we get to see the adults our students become. This past weekend, I got to see Spirit Family Reunion play a concert here in Philadelphia. They are a wonderful “Roots Music” band out of New York City, and three of the musicians are former students of mine from my days at Beacon.

The show was amazing, and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. And it was a blast to see some Philadelphia folks who were at the concert as fans of the band, and since I was — ahem – a bit older than the average concert-goer, there was some surprise from these young Philadelphians that I was there. That gave me the chance to brag that “I was friends the band…” which is not exactly something I expect to say often in my life.

More importantly, I relished the chance to spend some time after the show talking to my former students. It was simply lovely to hear about their lives, to hear about the band, and I was touched that they were excited that I had stayed up late enough to come out and hear them play.

Mostly, I was thrilled to see the adults they have become, and I was honored that they wanted to share their adulthood with me, their old English teacher.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years now. My first seniors are in their mid-30s. I have seen students become parents. I have seen them become PhDs. I have seen students become teachers and lawyers and doctors and programmers and police officers and artists and musicians and more. I have written letters to them in prison. Some former students are now some of my very dear friends. I have celebrated at their weddings, I have met their children and, sadly, I have mourned at their funerals.

And this is more than just an ancillary piece of the teaching life. The perspective of seeing students become adults can powerfully inform the way we teach. Knowing that we can play a small role in helping students on the pathway to adulthood is something that teachers are taught to understand from early on in most pre-service teacher programs, but the reality of knowing the your students as adults is different somehow.

There’s a humility needed to really see them as adults. If you don’t merely want to be part of their past, you have to learn who you are to the person they are now. And you have to see all that they are now, not only the student they were then. You do see the person they were as part of their adult self, but you have to see all that they are. On one level, you feel a little like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, seeing two people at once – the young person you know and the adult in front of you who you now get to know. And seeing that journey can — and maybe should — inform the way we work with the kids we teach now.

As teachers, we get to play a role in the development of the lives of our kids. More often than not, the role we play is small but, if we do it right, the role has meaning. And when we are lucky, we get to know the adults our students become.

Mar 04

The Wisdom of the Room

This is related to EduCon, but it’s also just about pedagogy.

I was sitting in a session at SXSWedu where a panel of educators were talking about how they had achieved a new initiative for their school. It was an hour-long session, and really, after about ten or fifteen minutes, it was clear what they had done — it was cool — but after that, the panel quickly got into the weeds about some very specific details about their implementation. I was sitting next to a friend, and we were quietly challenging each other about how this idea could work in our schools. And I realized that what I wanted was the chance to sit and talk about that idea with a few folks around me – in short, I wanted a more “EduCon-y” session.

I wanted this group to challenge the folks in the room to think about how the idea would work in their worlds. I wanted to be able to consider the stumbling blocks to the idea. I wanted to be able to collaborate.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t ever a place for panel discussions – there is. If you follow my twitter stream, you’ll know that I was in seventh heaven watching Randi Weingarten, Peter Cunningham and Valerie Strauss debate assessment and accountability. But when you have an idea about how to make schools better, letting people have the discussion and debate and engage fully in the idea will greatly enhance the probability that those ideas will stay with the folks in the room… and even better… you greatly increase the probability that some really novel ways to think about the idea will come out.

When it comes to playing with ideas, we need to remember that the wisdom of the room is something that needs to be respected. And when it comes to our classrooms, we need to remember that honoring the wisdom of the room also — and importantly — is a powerful way to ensure that students will more willingly engage in the idea itself.

Feb 13

Teaching Kids: Good For Teachers Too

[One of the cool things about being willing to talk through what you actually think about teaching is that sometimes you stumble across new ways of thinking about the things you think. This post stems from one of those conversations.]

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about what I believe about teaching has probably heard me talk about the difference between the statement, “I teach English,” and “I teach kids English.” It is at the core of what I believe about how we can make schools more caring, human places. Most of the time, we talk about this in terms of how this can make school so much more powerful for kids, but it’s also an idea that can make school so much more powerful for the adults as well.

One of the things that we worry about in our profession is teacher burn-out. It’s real. The job is exhausting, and there are any number of factors that can cause teachers to lose their effectiveness and lose their passion. One of those reasons is that it can be very difficult to keep finding the energy to teach the same thing over and over again for a forty-year career. And if you think of your teaching as “subject first,” not “student first,” maintaining love of the subject can get really hard. But our students are forever new, often (to me) fascinating, and as infinitely variable as we can imagine. When we focus on always learning who are students are as the first and most important thing we do, we can find one more way to sustain our energy for the work we do.


Sep 22

Kurt Vonnegut, Facebook and the Teaching Life


SLA Ultimate

SLA Ultimate

 “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five was one of my favorite books when I was younger – and it probably deserves a re-read now – and I was always struck by the idea of being able to live and relive the moments of one’s life at all moments of one’s life as the Tralfamadorians do, seeing life across four dimensions rather than three.

I am starting to think we all have become unstuck in time.

The other day, I posted a photo of the SLA Ultimate Frisbee team warming up before our first game of the year. Within an hour or two, there were “likes” and comments from former players, folks I used to coach against, former students and, of course, members of the current SLA community. What is incredible about that is that it connects the generations of my coaching and teaching life in some really amazing ways.

The teaching life is a strange one… as educators, we have these incredibly powerful relationships with kids at a moment in time in their lives and then they go on their way… and we do that over and over again. And over time – at least for me – it becomes harder to remember who overlapped with whom in the time they spent with you, especially because the time line is less important than the time spent.

And now, with Facebook, the teaching life overlaps more. Former students interact with current students with comments on photos like, “I remember 6:30 am…” and such.

My teaching life has become unstuck in time, and all of the students of my life can interact regardless of the moment in time we were teacher and student.

What a wonderful evolution of the teaching life.

Apr 22

Educators Are Lucky

[This post is in reaction to the incredible pain we are feeling in the School District of Philadelphia right now. We are facing down massive cuts to our schools, and with those cuts will come layoffs, and teachers and students both stand to lose unless things change very soon. But despite that, school ran today. The kids showed up. The teachers honored the trust placed in them and taught well. Learning happened. On some level, it was the best reminder to what we do and why we do it as I can imagine.]

At 6:30 this morning, I was on a field with fourteen young men, practicing a sport we all love.

At 9:00 this morning, I watched a group of students work with a teacher as they worked on a robot they were building.

At lunch today, I sat with a student and her advisor and looked over financial aid packages from the various colleges she was accepted to.

And this afternoon, I watched a group of kids performing Shakespeare in an 11th grade English class.

In between those events, there were emails answered, phone calls made, a memo or two written, but more importantly, there were lots of conversations with students and teachers, some light and fun, some serious. It was, in other words, a typical day at school.

We need to understand how precious that really is.

Most people don’t have the kind of days teachers have. Most people don’t have a chance to pull a student aside and make them think or care or wonder. Most people don’t laugh as much during the days as we do. Most people don’t cry as often as teachers do. Most people simply don’t feel as much as we do.

And many people have to sit in offices, which I did for a few years — school is more fun.

This isn’t to say the job is easy – it’s not. The point isn’t that we get our summers off or anything like that. Teachers work hard at an incredibly emotionally and intellectually challenging job every day. But we need to remember a few things:

  1. No one made us do this.
  2. We don’t have to keep doing it.
  3. We aren’t the only people in the world who work hard.
  4. We get to hang out with kids all day long.

We need to keep these things in perspective, because we do no one any good when we perceive ourselves to be victims or martyrs. We need to own that we made the decision to teach and keep teaching. And it was a good decision to make, because as hard as we work, and as ridiculous as some of the policies being imposed on schools are, we stay the lucky ones.

We get to teach.

Jan 07

Take the Work Seriously, But Don’t Take Yourself Seriously.

When I was sixteen years old, my three best friends and I decided to see how many tissues we could shove in our mouths. There was no reason. It was after school one day, and it was something we could compete over. I was “winning” this contest when the gag reflex kicked in and I came closer to choking to death than I’d like to admit.

I tell this story to say this — no matter what I do in my life, I am still the same moron who nearly died in a tissue-mouth-shoving contest. That’s important.

Think of the most ridiculous thing you did in high school. You are still that person. You will always be that person. It doesn’t matter how much wisdom you have accumulated in the intervening years, you are still that person.

And that’s a good thing for so many reasons.

A career in education is a powerful way to spend your life. The work we do is important, meaningful, and incredibly challenging. We should take the work of helping children learn incredibly seriously. But we should remember to never take ourselves all that seriously. Because, to quote the kids, “It’s just not that deep.”

When we have the humility to remember all the twists and turns in the path that got us to where we are today, we are more likely to be understanding of the twists and turns in the paths our students take.

When we don’t fall in love with our own ideas, we remain open to change and grow. We are more likely to allow our ideas to be influenced and made better by our students and our colleagues.

When we remember to laugh at ourselves, we display an openness to students that is so important to model.

When we have enough sense of the long view of our lives, we laugh more easily, smile more broadly and are more likely to share a sense of joy with the people around us.

When we are not overly invested in our own seriousness of purpose, we remember that we are the lucky ones – we get to spend our working lives teaching and learning with our students, and really, that’s a pretty awesome way to spend our time.

When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we remember that the work isn’t about us. It’s about the kids.

So let’s find a reason to laugh with the kids and our colleagues every day. Pick up the guitar and play with the kids, even if we sing off-key. Play basketball with our students – even if they cream us. Let’s let them see us as whole people, so that they might let us see them the same way.

And, then when we can really all talk to one another without the view of each other’s egos in the way, we can ask them what they think about our schools, and we can listen deeply to their answers and let their ideas change our own.