Who I am: Chris Lehmann
What I do: Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA (Opening 9/06).
What I did: Technology Coordinator / English Teacher / Girls Basketball Coach / Ultimate Coach at the Beacon School, a fantastic progressive public high school in Manhattan.
Email: chris [at] practicaltheory [dot] org.
Matt Skurnick about Sustaining the Teaching Life
Mon, 25.03.2013 14:05
Jon Goldman was both my
English Teacher in 9th
grade and Advisory Mentor
for my four years at
Karen Greenberg about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Tue, 14.08.2012 11:13
Perhaps a more apt term
would be "altering
physics - two objects in
Amethyst about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:51
I really appreciate this
blog entry. Our roles as
teachers require, at our
best, a deep [...]
Mark Ahlness about The Long Haul
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:33
Chris, thanks. Pete is my
hero, and has been for a
while, but now that I'm
retired, after 31 years
Gary Stager about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:15
No need to worry about
Others all around us are
debasing our [...]
Subscribe to Practical Theory
Tuesday, August 14. 2012
I went to a principal workshop today and the presenter had a lot of really good things to say. (And I'll be honest – I can be a tough audience.) Much of the powerful take aways dealt with building capacity for change in our schools, and how principals can unwittingly build resistance for their ideas rather than support. The talk was based on the book Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad, And the talk was good enough - persuasive enough - that I'm going to give the book a very careful read. And at a very basic level, I was appreciative of the fact that the presentation asked us to be reflective about our practice in a way that did not make me, or anyone else from what I saw, feel defensive about our work. That, in and of itself, is a worthwhile workshop.
But there was one piece of the presenter's talk that I felt uncomfortable with. Multiple times, he reminded us that we were, "In the arduous task of saving lives." And on one level, he had the chops to make that claim. He and his faculty, and without question he made sure we understood that his faculty did amazing work, took a school that had less than a 60% graduation rate and raised it to a 91% graduation rate in 6 years. Moreover, as he told his own story of being an English language learner and how he felt his own life was saved by a teacher who cared for him, it was clear that, for him, the work is around saving lives.
But I worry about that as a mantra - a lot.
And I say this knowing full well that I've used that phrase. I don't think I've used it in the talks I give, although it's possible I have. But I know that I've said it to SLA teachers when they have gone above and beyond over and over again to impact the life (thank you to Dave Childers for that phrase today) of a student. And so I am struggling with these ideas even as I write them. What better thing to blog about, perhaps.
I worry that when we say, "We are in the business of saving lives," we run the risk of doing several things wrong. I worry we over estimate our role in a child's life and under estimate the vital, powerful and important role of the parents, the community, and their culture, and in doing so, run the risk of becoming paternalistic in our dealings with both children and their families.
I worry that in the name of saving children's lives, we can use that as an excuse not to take care of the adults doing the work as well. Because, after all, how can you stop working if your job is to save lives?
Perhaps most of all, I worry that the idea that we are saving lives perpetuates the Messiah myth of the teacher and that myth leads to hubris which can blind us in so many ways.
I do believe we are engaged in the work of changing lives. I believe in the transformative school. I believe that a school that engages in deep learning within ethic of care can have a positive and profound impact on the lives of all of those who live in it. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the students and teachers and parents of SLA forever changed my life for the better, and I hope their interactions with me have changed theirs for the better as well. Enough of them have told me so, that I have faith it is true.
Maybe this is a semantic argument, but it doesn't feel like it to me. Schools should be places where young people and adults grow together. Yes, the adults are little older, a little more knowledgeable, and hopefully wiser, but hopefully still open to grow and open to learn. I believe students and teachers and principals can impact and change each other for the better. Change feels like a two-way street to me, but if we feel like we must be saviors, I worry that closes us off to be changed to ourselves, and in doing so, we make it that much harder to do the work we set out to do.
Saturday, June 30. 2012
One of the things that drives me nuts about the current corporate education reform dialogue is that so much of it atomizes it down to a wrong level, talking about how we need more "great teachers" and how we need to get rid of the bad ones. That's one of those seeming "Well, duh" statements that is so hard to disagree with on its face, but it fundamentally (and one might argue deliberately) misses a major piece of what is needed to make schools into better, healthier, more authentic places, and by doing so, runs the risk of doing real damage to the very folks who are doing the work every day.
While we can all agree that getting more amazing people into our schools would be great… and yes, there are some people working as teachers who should not be… to think that this overly simplistic "More Good, Less Bad" argument is dangerously misguided for any number of reasons. But the one I want to focus on is this: teaching is not an individual affair -- or at least it shouldn't be. Teachers are better when they work collaboratively - a point Yong Zhao made in his ISTE keynote last week - but even more than that, teachers teach better and students learn more when the school has a vision that actually means something and a plan to make that vision a reality.
Right now, the overriding mythos around teaching is the Hero Myth - that one teacher who can change a child's life, make a difference, and then get played by Hillary Swank or Edward James Olmos in a movie. And while yes, there are teachers filling that role in schools across the country every day, that is not the path to a systemic reform. There are over 4,000,000 teachers in America, and under the best of circumstances -- and we are not in the best of circumstances these days -- it is unrealistic to think all 4,000,000 teachers will be those "amazing" teachers who have a seemingly never-ending store of energy and passion for the kids. And, for the record, it is worth asking how that model is sustainable for all but a very few.
What we need to figure out - writ large - how to do is to build systems and structures that allow good people of honest intent to do great things. It is realistic to assume that we can build an educational system in this country around good people and smart systems. That does not mean teacher-proofing. That does not mean standardized content that strips the job of all of its creativity and passion and joy. It means understanding that people work best when they work in service of something that they can believe in. It means understanding that people work best when there is a pathway toward excellence. And it means understanding that people work best when they can collaborate. Good people are capable of great things under the right circumstances. But absent those circumstances, schools will squander the good will and best intentions of everyone - students and teachers - who work within them.
Sunday, April 22. 2012
So… I've come out of retirement.
I'm coaching again.
Roz Echols and I are coaching SLA Ultimate - we've got 30 kids coming to practice at 6:30 am every morning to work together build two amazing teams and one incredible community. And I've been reminded of how much I really, really love coaching. There is something incredible about working with kids first thing in the morning, all of whom have chosen to be there, working toward a common goal that is bigger than ourselves as individuals that has always just been incredible to me.
I love it. And I missed it even more than I realized.
And it got me thinking about the way we progress in the education realm, where with every move "up" away from the classroom, there is less and less direct contact with kids. I'm a really hands-on and involved principal, but, with the exception of my advisees, I have never been able to be as close to a specific group of kids as I was to the kids I coached. (Individual kids, sure… but not a group…)
And that seems wrong.
Having that incredible relationship where we, as educators, really have the opportunity to care for kids and have that transactional relationship where both teacher / coach / mentor and student make a difference in each other's lives, is a big part of what makes teaching such a profound profession.
Why is it that, in most districts, we discourage our administrators from working directly with kids?
What would happen if curriculum directors were still basketball coaches? If special education case managers ran the drama production at a school? If assistant superintendents ran after-school math help a few days a week? What if a district prioritized that and created the time and space for it?
How about this… what if corporations that had products in the "education sphere" actually had their employees and executives volunteer in school several days a week - not just as a one-off, but actually establishing the kind of caring relationships that we desperately need?
What if we worked to ensure that everyone who works with schools or works in education didn't merely talk about how important it is to make a difference in the lives of kids, but rather actually did. Not indirectly, not through a policy or a product, but by working directly with and caring directly for kids.
Wouldn't that move us just a little closer to building the kind of educational community -- in and out of schools -- that we so very much need?
(Oh... and Go SLA Ultimate!!!)
Wednesday, March 28. 2012
[Today, I found out that one of my colleagues from my teaching days in NYC, Jon Goldman, passed away. Jon started at Beacon the first year of the school and had taught for several years before that. Jon was ten years older than me which doesn't seem like much now, but when I was a 25 year old first-year teacher, that made him a wise old veteran of teaching in my eyes. Jon was one of those teachers who looked out for other teachers. He always felt that the job had to be livable…. that as amazing as we wanted to be for the kids, we had to make sure it didn't come at the cost of our own sanity. It was an important lesson for a young teacher like me to learn, and one I've kept with me ever since. It is with Jon in mind I write tonight.]
The overwhelming majority of the teachers I know work incredibly hard. When one factors in the paper grading, calls home in the evening, email answering and lesson planning (to say nothing of coaching and other extra-curricular work), the hours spent can easily push up and over the 60-70 hour a week level. Moreover, the hours themselves can be incredibly intense, working with students who bring all that they - good and bad - to the classroom each day. Learning how to successful navigate the minefield of student emotions, classroom expectations, state standards, test scores, parent expectations and every other pressure point in the teaching life can be daunting, and it doesn't surprise me when people cite statistics about how many young teachers leave the profession. Turns out, the job is hard.
So it falls to teachers and administrators and policy makers at every level to really look at the teaching life. What do we ask of our teachers every day? How can we figure out how to do this job well, do it with true commitment and care, and do it over time, such we can develop a truly masterful teaching faculty in our country… one that can see a roadmap to teaching for a career with passion and grace. The energy of a youthful teacher must transform into the skill and technique of a veteran teacher so that the job does not always need to be done by Herculean effort alone. And we must always ask ourselves - how much gets put on a teacher's plate? Is it always a livable life? Hard? Sure… but doable, achievable, rewarding for good, hardworking people of honest intent.
If we want teachers to be advocates for our children, we must ask ourselves - are we advocates for our teachers? Let us make sure we build schools that understand the value of sustained and sustainable excellence of all members of our school communities.
Rest in Peace, Jon. Thank you for teaching me that valuable lesson.
Monday, March 19. 2012
Something every principal faces is the inevitable conflict between students. For me there's always a frustration in that I wasn't there, I didn't see what happened, and it is always too easy to see both sides of the story. In that moment, students will look to us as leaders, as principals, to take their side, to do what's right, even when we know that taking a side isn't necessarily what's right.
The hardest thing about those moments is getting aggrieved parties to listen to one another. It's a natural instinct in that moment to want to be valid, to want to be told that your actions were not wrong, to know that what happened to make you feel hurt was not your fault. And certainly, there are moments where one student is simply trying to pick on another student - and yes, we must always be vigilant about bullying in our schools. But it is my experience that days where one person was absolutely right and another was absolutely wrong are not as common as one might think and most confrontations between students happened because both parties were acting from their personal place of hurt and, in that moment, could not see another solution except to cause hurt themselves.
It's not that students don't see that they were causing another pain, rather what they felt in that moment was that causing pain was justified because of the pain they were in. And to me, that's the moment where we can step in and teach. That is the moment of empathy. Because when the student is in pain, and when they feel justified in acting out of that pain and therefore causing others harm, we can ask them to combine both emotional intelligent and rational intelligence to draw a lot of conclusions of their actions. The problem is, too often we are looked to in that moment to mete out some sort of justice, as if a suspension or detention or some sort of punishment can make up for the harm caused. And while there are moments where that is needed, more often than not the best solution is to help students see the world through other eyes, to teach empathy, and rarely can we ask people to be empathetic when we are punishing them or telling them that their feelings which caused the actions were wrong.
So when a conflict between students reaches my desk, I try hard to look for reasons not to punish. I try hard to listen to both parties, and I try to get them to listen to one another. It is in those moments that inquiry often is most useful. When we can ask questions, when we can ask students to think both about their own feelings and about the feelings of others, when we can ask students to ask questions of each other – honest questions, real questions, questions asked with an open heart and an open mind – we can help students see the world from a wider perspective than their own.
In the end, the punishments students want us to enforce on the other are often the punishments they feel that they were create in the confrontation itself so they look to us to finish the job. In those moments, we should seek not to broker a winner's peace, but instead ask students to listen to one another, ask them to ask questions of one another, and ask that they increase the amount of empathy in the world, starting with the way they treat – and listen to – one another.
Sunday, February 26. 2012
New York City released the rating of thousands of teachers in grades 3-8 on Friday. These ratings are flawed for any number of reasons, as detailed in a lovely article on insideschools.org. And even Bill Gates - arguably the father of the teacher rating movement - has come out against releasing the scores, and his argument is a good one.
For me, my reasons against releasing the test scores comes down to one simple statement.
You will never, ever bully a teacher into caring for children.
How can anyone think differently is beyond me.
Wednesday, January 11. 2012
The "great teacher" myth continues. This is the myth that says, "If only we could get rid of the really bad teachers, we'd have better schools." It's particularly pernicious because it sounds so easy, right? Let's just dump the bottom (5% / 10% / 33% - depending on who's writing) and even if we only replace them with "average" teachers, we'll be better off, right?
In his NY Times column today, Nick Kristof would have you believe it were so.
I'm not going to take this one on from the "how do you really know who the great teachers are?" lens.
I'm not going to (directly) take it on from the "we have a massive young teacher attrition rate that research has shown has little to do with pay and more to do with working conditions, so where are these great (or average) new teachers coming from?"
I'm going to ask this question, "When are we going to start asking ourselves why we make it so hard to be a great teacher?"
And this isn't about professional development for struggling teachers.
This is about school-level reform.
The nation - or at least its politicians, its pundits and its billionaires - has made this debate about labor (read unions) by atomizing this debate down to the teacher level. And while there is room for conversation there, it misses the larger picture. Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers -- and students -- have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.
As long as high school students have to travel to eight different classes where eight different teachers talk about grading / standards / learning in eight different ways, students will spend far too much trying to figure out the adults instead of figuring out the work. When that happens, too many students will fall through the cracks and fail. If we built schools where there was a common language of teaching and learning and common systems and structures so that kind people of good faith can bring their ideas and creativity and passion to bear within those systems and structures and help kids learn, we will find that more teachers can be the kind of exemplary teachers that Mr. Kristof wants.
As long as there is little to no time in the high school schedule for teachers and students to see and celebrate each other's shared humanity, too many students will feel that school is something that is done to them, that teachers care more about their subjects than they do about the kids. As long as teachers have 120-150 kids on their course roster, and there is little continuity year to year so that relationships cannot be maintained, too many students will be on their own when they struggle. If we build schools where teachers and students have time to relate to one another as people - if we create pathways for students and teachers to know each other over time, so that every child knows they have an adult advocate in their school, we make schools more human -- and more humane - for all who inhabit them.
Let's stop falling victim to the soft thinking that just finding more "great teachers" and getting rid of all the bad ones is the way to reform education and start asking ourselves - "How do we create schools that make it easier for all students and teachers to shine?"
Wednesday, November 2. 2011
I sat in Mr. Latimer's Algebra II class today during my walk-arounds. I watched two students struggle as they attempted to figure out where they went along in a multivariable multistep equation. It was interesting because I watched them struggle with the step-by-step process, they couldn't see clearly how change in one line affected everything that came after. Mr. Latimer and the rest of the students in the class worked with the students to work through the process, and then Mr. Latimer talked about ways to get through being "stuck" in the middle of a complex problem.
What struck me as I was watching was that they were trying to debug the equation. And on some level that's not a radical thought. We know that math and computer science have profound links. But what struck me next was that the science teachers talk about this kind of process all the time too when they talk about experimental design and changing only one variable at a time. And I realized that we had at least three places in school where we talked around what, in my brain I was calling debugging, but kids weren't seeing the cross-connections. They weren't realizing they were doing the same thing.
So I went looking for Mark Miles, our computer-science / math teacher and he agreed that that was a skill that crossed discipline-based boundaries, but he called what I was talking about "incremental problem solving." And Gamal Sherif talked about how they teach the kids about dependent variables for much the same reason.
And the thing is, I don't care what we call it… I just want kids to realize that we're talking about the same thing.
And that's where common language comes in. It is good to help kids understand that we may call the same basic skill different things in different contexts, but it is also good to help them develop that common language so that they don't up spending a lot of time relearning something they already know in a different context… or as Diana Laufenberg put it when I was talked to her about it, "We have to allow for skill transference."
And that's at the heart of common language. Lower the bar of figuring out the adults, and you raise the bar of what kids can actually do by helping them get to the work more quickly and powerfully.
So Mr. Latimer (who is also chair of our Academic Standards Committee) and I sat down at the end of the day, and next Tuesday, when our Math and Science teachers sit down to talk about ways we can better craft common language between the two disciplines, the notion of debugging or incremental problem solving or whatever will be on the table as one of the ways we can tighten our language so students can transfer skills across disciplines more easily.
And why I chose to write about this tonight was because this wouldn't have happened if I was sitting in Mr. Latimer's class with a checklist of things I was looking for instead of just watching and using the more open protocol of "I noticed…," "I wonder…," and "What if…." It put me in a place where I could watch and think about what I was seeing and dream a bit too. And it wouldn't have gone anywhere if SLA teachers were defensive about their teaching or if they didn't make the time to talk to a colleague or a principal who was excited and working through a half-baked idea or if we didn't have structured time to talk about improving our practice or if we didn't have a commitment as a school to creating common language wherever we can.
One of the school-wide goals we made this year was to spend more time in each other's classrooms watching and thinking. There will be days we go in after having talked about our UbDs so we can look specifically for how we move from plan to execution. There will be days we walk through looking for opportunities for using the grade-wide themes. And there will be other lenses from time to time, too. But importantly, there will be plenty of time where we go in and just notice, wonder and dream, without a specific lens or notion of why we are there. Because the art of active observation and the will to question and dream are as important and powerful -- if not more so -- than any other lens might be.
Tuesday, October 25. 2011
[This post is my attempt to make sense of, and reflect upon, the many conversations I have had with parents recently. Some of those conversations left me deeply at a loss for words, and the best I felt I could do was to show a parent how much I love the person their child was that day.]
Not surprisingly, I've had roughly 37,000 conversations with kids over the years about parents. Teenagers often talk about how their parents don't understand them, and even more often, teenagers talk about how parents let them do what they want to do… or overreact when the kids make mistakes.
What I try to explain to students is this, that as much as one would think that the number one emotion is love, it often times is not. It's fear. Before I was a parent, little scared me. The world seemed to make sense, and I thought that I could exert a fair amount of control on my universe.
Then I became a father.
And the world terrified me. Every car that drove down our street became a threat. Every situation had to be examined for potential dangers.
It is my life's goal not to pass that fear onto Jakob and Theo, and so far so good, I think. But it's hard.
That fear is probably the thing I was least expecting about being a parent. It is the thing that is hardest to deal with, and while I know it comes from deep and profound love that I have for my children, I struggle with it. And I know many others who do as well.
So when students come to me and ask why their parents act the way they do, why they react so strongly, I say simply,
Because you used to fit in the crook of our arms. And every parent I have ever known remembers that feeling. Our bodies remember that, and there is no way to make it make sense to you, not now, not yet, Not until you become a parent too. But you used to fit in the crook of our arms. And every parent remembers that… And remembers thinking, "I will keep you safe."
And I try to remember that when I work with parents, especially when I am the bearer of bad news. The young adult in front of me used to fit in the crook of that parent's arms, that parent has promised to keep them safe, they got them to SLA, and they still worry and fear for all of pain the world can inflict on their child.
In our best moments as schools, we can help parents build that vision of their children for the wonderful, amazing young adults they are. We can help parents understand who their children are today and see that person they are today as part of the continuum from birth to adulthood. We can help parents see that children take what they need up their parent's dreams and use them, add to them, change them to build their own. And in our hardest moments, we have to comfort parents and understand them when circumstances arise such that that fear that every parent knows is given cause to rise to the surface.
Saturday, September 3. 2011
The adults at SLA spent the last week working.
We took apart the stuff we do and put it back together again. We spent several hours talking about standards based reporting, time on our senior capstone, time working in our grade groups, time going over our goals in each advisory grade, and more. We came to some decisions with difficulty, because consensus is pretty hard, but we worked through issues and made the school better because everyone took the time to do so. I ran somewhere around 15% of the workshops, the rest were run by the teachers who were incredibly thoughtful in their strategies to create meaningful workshops for their colleagues.
We use our Title I money to pay for the time to do that every year. And every year, we wonder, now that the school is a little older, a little more mature, do we still need that much time? And every year, we can't believe how important every minute of that time still is.
Every Wednesday afternoon this year - like every other year - we will gather in the library for two hours and work and talk and make our school better through the process of working together. We leverage student internships and capstones and our museum partnership to make that time available.
It has to get easier for schools to make time for that work.
I talked with friends in other schools and they talked about having two mandatory days before school to come in and get ready for the school year, and I think, how? How do you make shared decisions about the trajectory of the year in two days? How do you take time to revisit the ideals of a school in only two days? How do you let faculty work together to tweak policies and procedures in two days?
And then, even worse, how do you have to wait a month or two before you all get to spend an hour or two in the same space for some reflection and some refocusing?
And yet, at the vast majority of schools all over the country, that's exactly what happens.
One of my core beliefs about school these days is that we need to get teachers off of the hamster wheel of the current school-day model. Teachers need time to collaborate, to plan, to innovate. And schools need to find ways to build frequent - I believe weekly - time for everyone to sit in a room and work together to make schools better.
I had an amazing week of working with the most amazing group of educators. I finished the week - paradoxically exhausted and deeply ready for the work ahead.
Teachers and administrators need time to make schools better. There really is no shortcut to sitting together in the room and working it all out together.
For SLA, I wouldn't want it any other way.
(Page 1 of 8, totalling 74 entries) » next page
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"Freedom is only one side of the coin, where the other side is represented by responsibility"