Friday, May 21, 2010

When Work Seems Like Work

Sometimes work is tough. We have tough days, tough hours, tough meetings, and tough conversations. It isn't always fun. Nobody likes conflict and sometimes things happen that make you wonder if it is really worth getting up and putting on that nice tie and pretty Joseph A. Banks suit to get insulted, slammed, and put down.

Yes... sometimes that is exactly what happens and we all hate it.

In the past few years, I’ve stumbled upon articles and books that have made me really dig down and think about my work, my life, and my approach to challenges. At the end of this entry, I have listed for your enjoyment Ten Paradoxical Commandments from one such book written by Kent Keith.

However, that is not what I’m writing to you today about. I am writing about what I see as a real challenge that we have in schools. This challenge is that schools; public, private, and charter, are facing a sort of identity crisis. We are struggling like adolescent kids trying to figure out what we are and we have so many people telling us we should be this, that, or the other. There is differentiated instruction, 21st Century Skills, budgetary items, homework, technology, professional development, meetings, etc, etc, pulling us in different directions. Yes, I realize that I have placed many of these stresses in your lives.

The fact is that we have a set of young, impressionable, bright-eyed clients that don’t really care what we are. To them we are THEIR school and they depend on us.

We are expected to deliver the best to them that we can offer – despite the critics. No matter what we are asked to do, we must do the best for those kids in our rooms who are waiting with hope and fear and excitement and boredom and interest and … (well, you get the point) … we must do the best for them despite the issues. No matter what happens they deserve the best education we can provide.

Today I was venting my frustrations about the many issues we face and someone with a voice of reason piped in and reminded me that tomorrow the kids will come to school and they deserve the best education we can offer. It does not matter what the adults do or say. They deserve the best. (Thanks, Kate.)

The type of environment I’m extolling is described throughout the Essential Elements of a Standards-Based middle-level program. More precisely, we educators need to be developmentally responsive to our students’ needs. AAK has been tested on this principle with the School to Watch designation and it’s important for us to rely on this when times are difficult. You do deliver an excellent education to our clients and AAK is a proven model for others. I am comforted by knowing this even when things at work seem like work.

Enjoy the weekend,

The Ten Paradoxical Commandments

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.

Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.

Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.

Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.

Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.

Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you have anyway.

Taken from the book, "Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World" by author Kent Keith

Friday, May 14, 2010


I’d like to be honest about something. I am a deviant. When I was in upper elementary, I tested the patience of every teacher. When I sat in school between the ages of 10 and 14, I engaged in deviant behavior. During high school I conformed enough to graduate with honors and enter the college of my choice, but this wasn’t easy for me. I found that even in college, I excelled at deviating from the norm. As a young teacher, I wanted to deviate even though my students would need to pass “the” test. Seriously, what self-respecting content specialist would teach science through a fictional book, paint t-shirts to save the Earth, begin a compost pile in the classroom, make art depicting the human heart with only masking tape, or have the students develop a dichotomous key for make-believe monsters. Honestly, what was I thinking?

Yet, the idea of being a deviant intrigues me. I’m not a big fan of labels, but I see many student behaviors in this office that certainly would classify as deviating from the norm. In looking to see if there can be a positive side to deviant behavior, I came across the phrase, “Positive Deviants.” The writer-physician Atul Gawande has written about the phenomenon of "positive deviants" in the medical profession, that small set of players who are mired in the same environmental conditions as everyone else but stubbornly refuse to allow themselves to be constrained by conventional wisdoms, and as a consequence are able to identify fresh and often counter-traditional ways to address seemingly intractable problems. Retrospectively, many of the students presenting the deviant behaviors are also displaying characteristics which would be admired in leaders in many situations. Was my deviant behavior as a student positive? Well, I wouldn’t have to ask my teachers to know the answer to that. Was my deviant behavior always a negative? No.

In speculating the aversions to deviant behavior, I think it comes to the root of change. Deviants desire change – for both good and bad, but change nonetheless. Conformists seem to balance out the deviant behaviors. This occurs in all realms of life, but it comes front and center in education. Education is grounded in tradition and change is slow at best. Conformists have more of an upper hand in this field than in most; let’s say compared to business or industry, where change occurs in the blink of an eye.

Maybe I’m being unfair to this field, but in understanding the effect that relationships have on learning I feel that we all need to display some positive deviant behaviors. To help explain this statement and since we recently completed the bulk of our state testing, I’d like you to contemplate these two related questions concerning all students.
  • Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t give them the information?
  • Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t provide them with an opportunity to analyze, synthesize, and share information?
One fact that I enjoy about AAK is that ideas are not met with pragmatism, realism, and skepticism; which would be common in education. That may be a factor in our designation as a School to Watch. I have witnessed many of you deviating from tradition this school year, allowing the students to create their own concept map instead of traditional notes, debate and construct the rules for a society, race like the Olympians, care for others through their actions, role-play, and collaborate. I’ve also seen some specific deviant acts committed by some of our professionals, such as crashing into a cardboard box, blowing little plastic bottles up in the hall, cheering for the students (pompoms included), having fun, debating policy and philosophy, creating an experience, listening, and collaborating. You deviants make me proud.

Enjoy the weekend.

Friday, May 7, 2010

“Diet or Regular? Medium or Supersized?”

Once again I have found some words of wisdom from my own faculty. Denielle Baxter is the 8th grade team leader and ELA teacher at AAK. Here are her words...

I’ve stumbled on a concept that certainly isn’t new. It isn’t even earth shattering. It’s something that I’ve incorporated into my life outside of school with my own kids, and it’s something that I’ve used in my classroom for quite a few years. For whatever reason, however, it is a notion that I’ve been more aware of over the last few weeks. It’s something that I’ve needed to use more consistently over the last two weeks. (I guess staying home for days on end over vacation with a charming two-year old “princess diva” and a very witty and clever six-year-old kindergartener will necessitate the need).

What is this wondrous concept? It’s choice…and we all need to have it in our lives. Whether we are two or six, eleven or thirteen, still in our twenties or thirties, or moving into the forties, fifties, and beyond, we need to feel that we have some control over what affects us in our lives. We need that empowerment.

I find it amazing how many clashes can be avoided just by giving some options. Done effectively, both “sides” win and can be happy. For the two year old, it may be the choice of which pair of pajamas to wear or which cup to use. For the six-year old who is really trying to put off bedtime, it may be “Do you want to brush your teeth before we read the next chapter or after?” For the teen, it might be giving a choice of completing a chore in the morning or waiting until after dinner. In any of these situations, the task at hand is accomplished, but the child can take ownership of how it was done.

In my classroom, one way I incorporate choice is in the form of how students may go about completing a project. It will still be completed based on the criteria I set, and it will still meet those all-important standards, but the student can decide what materials, which method, and what content to use. Student choice also benefits the teacher…think about the variety of material that can be appreciated when a project or task is assigned and later needs to be graded.

For adults…oh, admit it, you relish the idea of being able to make choices in life. It’s the message in Robert Frost’s classic poem “The Road Not Taken.” If you haven’t read it in a while, go ahead—read it and apply it to your own life. I’ll wait.

There. Now think about the choices and decisions you’ve made over the years. Good or bad, big or small, you were able to define your life based on your decisions—and the reason for that is because you were faced with choices. It’s made all the difference. It’s what makes us feel we are important—that we have a say in how things work. Even making a bad choice can still be viewed as a learning opportunity.

By giving children choices, we are giving them some control over their lives when it seems to them that adults have all of the authority. By giving students choices when possible, we are preparing them for the world beyond these hallways and for making good decisions in their futures. Even when we, as educators, are given choices, it makes us feel that our experiences and expertise matter. It’s what makes us feel that we are valued as professionals.

That isn’t to say that giving choices should be the only way. Of course, there are times when it just won’t work. I do find, however, that when people frequently have options to choose from, they are more willing to cooperate in a situation when choice just isn’t possible.

Do you want fries with that?

Happy Weekend,


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Relationships Matter

From time to time, I ask my teachers to provide an entry to my blog. This entry was written by Todd Kaiser, fifth grade teacher and varsity lacrosse coach. I hope you enjoy Todd's words.

Jon Gordon is a motivational speaker and the author of a new book called Soup. The main theme of this book is that soup is meant to be enjoyed by others. In his words, “Life is more meaningful and rewarding when you take the time to create relationships that make life more enjoyable.”

In this spirit, here is an excerpt from Soup, where Nancy, the CEO of Soup Inc. shares her thoughts about the power of relationships:

"Nancy walked back to Soup, Inc., headquarters thinking about all the turning points in her life and realized that every great event happened because of one relationship or another. She had met her husband through a relationship. She had landed her first job out of college because of a relationship. She’d been hired at Soup, Inc., because of a relationship. She reasoned that the people we meet and the relationships we develop have the biggest influence on the course of our lives. It was a lesson she wanted to impart to her kids and anyone who would listen: The world is a mosaic of people and opportunities, and when you make relationships your priority, the possibilities are endless. Great relationships lead to great outcomes. Develop as many great relationships as possible. Make time for them. Nurture them. Engage them. Not just at work but at home. In your community. On airplanes. At the ball field. Everywhere. You never know where your next idea, opportunity, or life-changing moment will come from or which relationship will be behind it.” Today, I want to encourage you to take a little more time and energy to invest in your relationships. I can’t promise you that the relationships you create will change the world but they will definitely change your world!

As we look forward to the end of the school year, it is a great time to reflect back on the relationships we have created with our students. Have we tried to reach out to every student we work with? Is there one little thing that you have learned about a particular student that you didn’t know before? Does a student believe in you because of the relationship that you established from day one?

We all probably have similar answers to some of these questions, but think about how we can improve our relationships with our students to try to help them be the best people and students they can be. By encouraging our students to continue to work on their social skills and developing and maintaining relationships, our students will be more prepared for the “real world.”

Next year will be difficult for all of us at PCS, but if we all take some time to think about the power of relationships and how they can impact our students, our fellow teachers, parents, administrators, and friends…we will be able to be successful!

Visit Jon Gordon’s website at

Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week…

Enjoy the weekend,
Todd Kaiser