Friday, June 18, 2010

The Importance of Self-Reflection

Well, it’s the end of June; time for goodbyes and getting caught-up on the list of home repairs and improvements that we’ve all been avoiding. It’s a time for summer relaxation, recharging, and mowing your lawn. Maybe you’re planning a trip. I also know that many of you will be looking at your lesson plans for next year and getting yourself ready to begin anew. As all of this takes place, I’d encourage you to reflect on 2009-2010. What worked? What didn’t? What could be better? Reflection is harder than most people think – you have to be prepared to acknowledge the positive and admit your weaknesses.

The practice of self-reflection goes back many centuries and is rooted in the world’s great spiritual traditions. During my later years as an athlete, I was taught visualization techniques, a component of reflection, to help with my soccer skill. I found these techniques invaluable in more areas than just sports. Adherents of formal practices include the Christian desert hermits and Japanese samurai. More contemporary proponents include Albert Schweitzer and Ben Franklin. Franklin, in particular, had a rather comprehensive and systematic approach to self-reflection. He developed a list of thirteen virtues and each day he would evaluate his conduct relative to a particular virtue. Daily self-reflection was a fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life.

It’s important to note that while we all don’t have the motivation for a formalized practice, there are certain times when genuine reflection is easier with regard to time. The summer months are the perfect time for this.

A sincere examination of one’s self is not an easy task. It requires attention to what has not been attended to. It involves a willingness to squarely face our mistakes, failure, and weakness. It requires us to acknowledge our transgressions and actions which have caused difficulty to others. The fourth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program asks us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Albert Schweitzer’s suggestion was to “make a secret account of what you have neglected in thoughtlessness or in consideration of some other person’s existence.” Such self-reflection leaves little room for blaming others or complaining about how we have been treated.

As human beings, we possess the heartfelt desire to know ourselves and find meaning in our lives. We have the capacity to do so. Actually, we may be the only creatures in the universe who can reflect on ourselves. We can observe our own thoughts and feelings and recall the actions and events of the past as if observing ourselves in a mirror. This capacity for self-reflection holds the key to our intellectual evolution, while, at the same time, residing in the roots of our own suffering.

So let us give ourselves a gift and embark on a summer journey of reflection. On this journey we’ll destroy falsehoods, do battle with ego, get snared by pride, get stuck in selfishness, and then, finally, swim in serene ponds of gratitude and confidence. Yet even as we travel, we may become aware that the path, and the ability, even the desire to travel, are gifts themselves.

Enjoy your weekend and your summer.
Resource: ToDo Institute

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tread Softly

I recently was introduced to Sir Ken Robinson, a British Author and internationally-renowned expert in the field of creativity and innovation in business and education. His visionary consultancy skills are employed by governments, major corporations and cultural organizations worldwide. I watched a video of him giving a speech at TED 2010 regarding the education revolution. He ended the speech with a quote from one of my favorite authors, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), who wrote,

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Sir Ken Robinson concluded by saying, “Every day, everywhere our children spread their dreams beneath our feet and we should tread softly.”

I would encourage you to watch his speech at

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reflections on Our Footsteps in Education

This week's thoughts were composed by one of my contributing writers. Mrs. Carol Rossi-Fries, 2003 Teacher of the Year, SUNY Potsdam Education professor, and former 8th grade teacher at AAK Middle School. Today she delivers a unique message to us as she has traveled where we are. Reflection is always one of the hardest, yet most productive practices that we can endeavor in. I hope you enjoy today's thoughts.

June! A month that is both dreaded and eagerly anticipated is finally here. As the school year is now winding down at AAK, it might be good to take stock of it both personally and professionally. In the middle of the chaos we call the end of the year you might want to take time out for yourself and consider where you’ve been and where you are going. I could guarantee that sometime this year you probably have asked yourself, “Is teaching really worth it? Do I have anything left to give? Can I make it any further? Do I really make a difference?”

I considered those questions hundreds of times in my 27 years at AAK and still do to this day. Luckily, something happened back in April that reaffirmed my career, or more aptly, my lifestyle choice. For me, the answer to all of the questions above is a resounding “YES!” How do I know?

Again this year, SUNY Potsdam continued its tradition of hosting an academic festival every three years on issues pertinent to the college and the world at large. This year it had a much more personal meaning to us here in this neck of the woods since the theme of this year’s festival was Footprints in the North Country: Pathways on the Planet.

What does this have to do with Friday Focus and the questions posed above, especially now at the end of the school year? A lot, as it turns out.

As part of the festival, Jamie, Randy and I were invited to participate in a Thursday morning session entitled Footprints in Education. Based on our invitation and the initial description of the event, the three of us were a little uncertain as to how this was going to work, and we had our doubts as to how meaningful the session would actually be. In fact, we wondered if anyone would even show up to listen to the old hands talk about their experiences in education. We were going to be among the last to speak because of our positions in the “line-up” which were based on where we were in our journeys as educators. Randy and Jamie were billed as “veteran teachers” and Chip Lamson and I, both conspicuously grey haired and sporting bifocals, obviously represented the (semi) retired in the profession. Much to our surprise, it turned out to be an experience in time travel which left us with a myriad of feelings we did not expect: amazement, hope, gratitude, exhilaration, bewilderment, satisfaction, affirmation, lucky, and just plain old YIKES!

Let me explain. Before it was our time to speak to a few questions that the moderator had prepared for us ahead of time, we were treated to listening to others who were at various stages in their professional journeys. Preceding us in the line-up were those individuals who are now treading in places that we once walked – mainly with uncertainty, the three of us agreed. First, was “Becoming an Educator: The Early Lessons,” addressed by current field experience students. They were followed by “Complete Immersion: Trial by Fire,” with current student teachers. Then, recent graduates who are out there teaching now moved up the ladder with “Educational Preparedness: How Did We Do?” Finally, our intrepid AAK dynamic duo stepped up to the plate with “Ongoing Reflection and Growth: A Seasoned Point of View.” Lastly, Chip and I finished with “A Muse: I Have Walked Where You Will Go.” The session was followed by a Q&A in which most were fielded by Randy and Jamie who modeled professionalism and a sincerity that made an impression on the audience of SUNY education students and faculty, alike. When they were done answering questions, it was no wonder to anyone why AAK earned the “Schools to Watch” distinction.

As the session unfolded, the three of us were amazed by the maturity and poise of the guest speakers regardless of where they were in their journeys as educators. This gave us hope for our profession and the future of the kids we strive to mold every day in our classrooms and beyond. We were grateful for the idealism and enthusiasm that were the hallmark of the current field experience students who were ready to save the world. Their outlook was rosy and the sky was the limit; anything could be accomplished with some hard work and caring. The student teachers concurred, but added the realization that the work was a little harder than they initially thought. Like Jamie, Randy and I, the teachers who were now out in the field in their own classrooms were exhilarated by the rewards and challenges of teaching despite their realization that they couldn’t save everyone. They have also come to know that it is difficult to balance one’s personal life with the demands of their professional one and struggled with this daily.

Sound familiar yet? It certainly did to us as we kept asking each other, “Remember feeling like that? Do you believe we’ve been there and done that?” Bewildered, we kept asking each other, “Where did the time go? How did we get here on the end of the line-up? How did this happen? Was it really 20 years ago (or even more!) that we were the new teachers – some of us flitting on a cart between classrooms?”

As the session wore on, the seasoned veterans shared their experiences and mantras about teaching being a lifestyle and fair isn’t equal; fair is getting what you need. They extolled the benefits of working on teams that are like family and were satisfied knowing that they have made, and continue to make, a difference in more lives than they probably realize. The (semi) retired affirmed these notions and more. We recognized that we will never get rich in monetary terms because our investments were made in the hearts and minds of our students – “our kids.” The realization of their potential is our greatest dividend and that defies quantitative measure by any standard or state test. As we looked back – and forward to different dimensions of teaching on our never ending journey of being life-long learners and teachers – both the gray haired folk knew that the rewards of teaching far outweighed the seemingly overwhelming challenges inherent in our vocation, and that it has been a gift to have been called to this way of life. We agreed we were lucky and wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

Over lunch, we all reflected on the morning’s event and the chatter continued about the time that has seemingly passed so fast. We marveled at how we managed to make it through the rites of passage that the youngsters who preceded us in the line-up are going through now. They are following our “footprints on this planet” just as we have followed in the steps of those who came before us. Have we changed over all that time? Yes and no. Change (paradoxically) is a constant, but we have basically stayed true to whom we believe we ultimately are and why we do what we do every day, year in and year out. We were content.

YIKES! What a revelation! I HAVE walked where you will go on your journey as a teacher. I HAVE been there and done that. I HAVE repeatedly asked myself the questions posed at the start of this Friday Focus, but the answers weren’t always as clear as they are today. I guess age has its advantages. From my vantage point of looking back – and forward – my answer is clear now because I have come to realize the secret to being happy and fulfilled is to “do what you love and love what you do.”

So ….wherever you are on your journey, enjoy your summer and take the time to look back – and forward – to think about the questions, to find balance and answer with a resounding, “YES!”