Sunday, October 26, 2014

Developing A Spiritual Hazmat Suit

Two weeks ago, I attended the Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference at Mission High School in San Francisco.

In the morning, I participated in a session led by a woman who'd taught for some years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The title of the session was something like "Self Healing for Education Professionals."

Describing her time as a teacher in LAUSD, our facilitator told us about a time an internationally renowned African healer visited her school and mentioned to her that upon entering, he felt immediately that he'd stepped into a "energetically radioactive" environment.

If you've spent any time in public schools, particularly schools that serve large numbers of students who deal regularly with poverty, trauma, substance abuse, and institutional racism and discrimination; I think the notion of "energetically radioactive" might resonate with you. Particularly if, along with these factors, you also struggle with poor administration.

Our facilitator mentioned that, in order to work in these environments, it's important for educational professionals to develop what she referred to as a "spiritual hazmat" suit.

Toward the end of my tenure as a public school teacher in New York City, I began experiencing what doctors would later tell me were panic attacks.

One day in May of 2011, I was sitting alone in my apartment typing on my computer and, out of nowhere, I felt a streak of pain shoot through my forehead. A few seconds later, my heart rate shot through the roof as if a bear had jumped out of the closet. However, NOTHING had happened. I began doing deep breathing to calm down whatever in my body was happening, but it didn't seem to work, and I dealt with a tightened chest and high heart rate for the next few minutes.

The stress of working 10-12 hour days with an hour commute to and from work, combined with a lack of exercise and sleep, and relatively inadequate diet, had me showing up to work with bags under my eyes and tremendous irritability.

Students who experience trauma at home don't need to spend their days at school with teachers and counselors who don't have a strong hold on their own lives. It leaves us less compassionate, less capable, and less able to deal with the hard problems that show up at our schools on a daily basis.

I now think of my experience in NYC as the first step on my journey toward creating my own spiritual hazmat suit. I've strengthened it over time through the development of balance in my own life, meditation, proper diet, exercise, and (most importantly) regular sleep patterns.

When you begin teaching in high-needs schools straight out of college, you have this sense that if only you care enough, you'll change the world.

And you're half right.

The caring part is important. But you can't care with reckless abandon. If you do that, you'll send your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and find yourself unable to meet your own basic needs. Forget about tending to the needs of the children who walk through your school's doors every day.

We call this burnout, and it is one reason we see such high turnover in public education professionals.

Do you want to last in public education? Here are my recommendations for developing your own spiritual hazmat suit. These things should not be negotiable.

- Sleep regularly, and enough to allow you to wake feeling energized.
- Have one off-day per week where you do not allow yourself to think about work or do anything related to it.
- Make time for play.
- Get over yourself. You cannot do it all, nor should you be expected to.
- Do a small number of things well rather than a large number of things poorly.
- Breathe deeply and meditate for 15 minutes a day.
- Take a nap mid-day.
- Take time to work out the food you're going to eat throughout the week with attention paid to meeting your dietary needs. Seventy-five percent of your diet should be fruits, grains, and vegetables.
-  Move. It can be any type of movement that works for your body, but we all desperately need to move.
- Speak with students and colleagues as positively as possible at all times. Never pass up an opportunity to complement someone.
- Work to ensure the environments you inhabit most often are welcoming and feel good (e.g. your classroom).
- Think deeply about your life's purpose and how the activities you participate in on a daily basis support that purpose.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Don't We Need Standards?

A recent developer of professionalism says to my staff, "We all know we need to be teaching standards. If we're not, the kids just aren't going to learn."

Holy cow. What a comment! Without standards, children can't learn.

Woe to those miserable educators since time immemorial who tried teaching anyone anything without standards. Glory to contemporary American schooling.

In my fourth year of teaching, I worked at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) in Washington, DC. I had just moved to DC and was impressed with how organized the administration seemed to be around supporting instruction in the school. The administrator over the social studies department mentioned on a number of occasions that CHEC was was committed to "standards-based instruction." He talked at length about the perils of planning your instructional activities before thinking through your standards.

At the time, I remember wondering: So if we do 'standards-based instruction,' what's the alternative? Presumably, you would only have to voice your commitment to such a practice if some sort of other practice existed. I'm pretty sure I asked him what the alternative was once, and his response was something along the lines of "crappy teaching." And there I had it. Wondering over.

In January, I wrote a post on why I think standards are murdering school. In today's post, I'd like to further deconstruct the notion of standards as essential to teaching and learning.

For decades, plenty of educators have eloquently voiced their resistance to the notion of standardizing education. They tend to have more liberal/hippie attitudes toward teaching and learning, and have often been quickly dismissed by more conservative thinkers and administrators toward the top of the educational career ladder who like standards for what they can offer in terms of data and assessment.

In his extraordinarily popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra notes that the origin of our current school model dates back to the Age of Empire, approximately 200-300 years ago. (You can find a more detailed history of the primary school in Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire, which I talked about in this podcast.) Mitra says that the most incredible computer was actually not a computer as we think of computers. It was, in fact, the European bureaucratic machine. The output was society, and the inputs were civil servants - people who had been trained in school to read, write, and think the same way in order to participate in the creation and maintenance of society, or in the case of the British, empire.

Hobsbawm refers to the period between 1870-1914 as the Age of the Primary School. This was not coincidentally also a period of time when Europe's newly emerging nations were competing for citizen allegiance. You see, back then, the notion of countries and nations was still a relatively new idea. Convincing the average citizen to pledge their allegiance to some government and flag by the name Germany or Italy (both countries only came into existence as we know them today in the 1800s) was still a work in progress for the European political elite. The primary school turned out to be a pretty effective tool for unifying diverse peoples with different languages and dialects under national banners. This was largely done with language instruction (languages that had only recently been, or were in the process of being, standardized).

It turns out that when your goal is to create a society of people who think and act alike in service of some larger purpose, standards can be pretty useful.

BUT here's the rub: humans are incredible organisms. As a species, we've thrived for millennia without standards or classroom agendas. There will forever be an infinite vastness of skills and knowledge for humans to learn. Seen in this way, learning is really just an expression of our attempt to interact with our environment. We never really achieve total understanding or mastery of anything. We merely strive to exist and to adapt.

Now - I understand that, in that last paragraph, I've perhaps gone far to the left of any of the administrators who may work 'downtown,' or the education policy wonks in DC. But I have to defend this perspective on learning because I feel it is a far more humane way to view what should be happening in schools.

Our 21st-century world is an outrageously complex place and time. It would be naive to disregard the idea of standards-based instruction entirely. There are some very important uses for standards. However, the notion that students will not learn except from standards-based instruction seems to me a tremendously unhealthy way to understand the human brain.

Believing that students cannot learn without standards is extreme pedagogical arrogance. Students learn all the time, and mostly the learning that is meaningful to them is not in alignment with the teacher's goals. Learning is natural, and it comes easily given the right context.

As Dewey pointed out, the purpose of school in the modern world is primarily to help students develop literacy (see more on literacy here), which requires at least some formal instruction for most students to find success. Literacy and numeracy can be helped along tremendously by educators who have clear goals in mind for their students. But the most wonderful parts of learning are mostly accomplished by the individual and align with his or her unique strengths.

For these reasons, I will always see my job primarily as a facilitator of student development than as a deliverer of standards. 

I'm a Racist, and You Are Too. Accept It.

It’s the beginning of a new school year, a time when I find myself reflecting on the parts of myself that brought me into this work.



It was the fall of 2005 when I first stepped in front of a group of diverse students. I stayed up all night planning the perfect thirty-minute lesson. I must have tweaked it, reworked it, and totally re-planned it dozens of times before I went to bed late at night.

Then, I believed excellent teaching was about perfect planning, exact timing, and lots of energy. Now, I believe it’s more about appropriate perspectives on school, society, and human behavior.

In the years since that first lesson plan, I’ve learned hundreds of times over that I have led a tremendously privileged life. And while I believed that in 2005, teaching in urban schools has allowed me to experience its veracity many, many times firsthand.

Nine years later, I’m still discovering assumptions I make about people and behavior that need reexamining. This is a fundamental part of human nature buried deep in our amygdala. A predisposition toward prejudice is part of the package.

The question is not whether you will be biased toward a group of people for this reason or that. The question is which group of people it will be and how it manifests itself in your behavior. To believe otherwise is to put yourself on a pedestal – to raise yourself above the rest of us. Our society is not post-racial because we as individuals are not, and never will be, post-racial.

Unbeknownst to people who claim not to be racist, nobody lives 100% of their life in their pre-frontal cortex. Prejudice and the tendencies toward oppression that accompany it are deep-seated and often unconscious.

This is important for people who work in institutions that serve as cornerstones of democracy (like public schools) to understand. We endeavor to create a more equitable, less oppressive society that honors the individual while addressing the needs of the group. (It’s a noble goal, anyway.) To believe that you behave without bias often serves only to reinforce oppressive behavior by closing your mind to valuable opportunities for reflection.

The perfect instructional plans are years in the making. Anyone who teaches knows the importance of experience in crafting valuable learning environments. You’ll get there if you persist, but only if you understand humans (and yourself) for what they are and how they’re inclined to behave.

Prejudice does not make a person evil. And it shouldn’t be thought to exist in one person or another, but rather to be a inextricable piece of humanity. Combatting it in others can be both challenging and meaningful, but sometimes less so than doing that work within yourself.

I can think of no group of people who need to understand this more than educators.