Sunday, August 7, 2016


"It is through HIM that we have received grace (God's unmerited favor) and our apostleship to promote obedience to the faith and make disciples for His name's sake among all the nations." - Romans 1:5

Mastering leadership is a myth as it is always changing. In fact, to be more accurate to the overall purpose and development of a leader, the term should be expanded to "servant leadership". In this way, as the leader is always in the service of those he leads, he can never master leadership since he has to always adapt to the needs of those around him. One can't add value to others until he first adds value to himself. Everyone raises their hands when given the question of who believes leaders are learners because that is an easy crowd-pleasing question - a no brainer. However, when asked what areas do they need to work on or what are they currently learning, you hear crickets in the room because no one wants to seem frail or lacking any skills in front of their peers. This is an attitude that needs to change as well. We would agree that one skill of a good servant leader is being transparent. Well that applies not only within the workplace among direct reports, but in those meetings with your peers as well. Learning opportunities are all around us. An area you need improvement in may be an area of strength for someone else and vice-versa. That is an opportunity for a new collaboration and in that collaboration is strength. One of my favorite sayings is ,"None of us is as smart as all of us". Once we realize this, we will begin the never-ending journey of servant leadership.

John Maxwell once stated that, "the bottom line in leadership isn't how far we advance ourselves, but how far we advance others. Leaders add value to others by serving others." No matter how many titles or degrees we possess, we need to remember that we are of no benefit to others unless we add value to them. If we do not add value to them, they will not follow, and a leader with no one following is just out for a walk.  Servant leaders need to take the time to find out what makes their direct reports tick. What are their needs and wants? How can the servant leader support these desires? By taking their own experiences and knowledge and COACHING their direct reports through situations, rather than TELLING them what to do, they are adding value to them. Everyone needs to grow through their own experience, not someone else's.

As you go forward, consider the following thought, "If you desire to add value by serving others, you will become a better leader." How does this work for you? What does it look like in your life (professionally and personally)?

Monday, March 2, 2015

What Future are we Preparing our Students for?

When we look at the recent history of education in this country, we find that there has always been a clear purpose and intent to education. Education was made compulsory to remove children from the workforce and allow the jobs to go to adults trying to provide for their families. Additionally, in an industrial society, we needed a workforce that was educated and trained to do the work required by the particular industry. This was a time when specialization was on the rise. A person could find a job doing a very specific task and do that task every day for 20-30 years. With the introduction of outsourcing and the evolution of certain industries (as well as the recent recession), jobs dried up and a whole generation of people prepared to do one task well, found themselves without any opportunity to perform that task.

In many communities and towns, the expectation was that unless you went away to college, you would join the local industry (usually a factory or something similar). Today, those industries have dried up, taking those jobs with them. Unfortunately, many educational institutions failed to adapt in time to provide an alternate type of training for their students to prepare them for this economical shift. As a result, students seeing very few prospects for themselves, came to rely on public assistance, drugs or some other nefarious means of obtaining income.

It has often been said that today's student is preparing for a job that hasn't been created yet. This speaks to the constant changing in technologies and industries that we experience. What this also means is that our current set up may not be the best way to prepare our students. In an earlier blog post, I suggested that perhaps CTE schools got it right. They offer a blend of traditional learning along with equal parts of hands-on, practical training. In these schools when students ask the question, "Why do I need to know this?", they see why within the next half of the class when they are putting what they learned in the classroom into practice.

Of course, preparing for a job yet unknown is a difficult proposition. Unlike the previous labor intense jobs, the exact skill set needed to perform the job well is not known. There has been a shift from physical jobs to more intellectual jobs. Don't get me wrong, there will always be a need for mechanics (though even that industry has become very technology driven), plumbers, electricians, and the slew of civil servants that are required to help a city run. However, as the number of factory jobs is reduced and those individuals, having no other skills, apply for civil service jobs, the competition for them increases. As our economic structure shifts to the so-called intellectual job, the more technology-related jobs, there has to be a different way to prepare our students. Some of the more common skills and traits that employers and colleges/universities look for are communication, organization, leadership, working with others, and entrepreneurship. These are very broad in nature, rather than being highly specialized. At the same time, how do you teach these?

Where our schools fail currently is that they haven't taught our students HOW to think. They do a fine job telling out students WHAT to think.  If our students are to be prepared to excel in our new technology-based society, our educational institutions need to focus more on the HOW and not so much on the WHAT. Those students who are able to make something out of nothing or very little will have an advantage over those who cannot. Those who are able to think critically and make connections that are not so obvious will fare better than those who cannot. How do we make sure our students are able to develop these skills?

While I do not have the answers ... yet ... the conversation needs to be had as to how we will adjust, if not totally revamp our current educational system. Many people are quick to speak disparagingly about charter schools, but many of them take this alternative path to education. There is more of a focus on the development of the aforementioned skills while learning specific subjects. They are willing and admittedly more able to provide more opportunities to develop these skills. Many traditional public schools are following suit with their scheduling and pairing of classes or through the creation of academies. It is this structure that will help to prepare our students. Some schools have formed partnerships with mentoring groups to help provide insight into what students can expect in their futures (look out for future posts regarding mentoring and its effect on our students). So while students may not know WHAT to prepare for the future, they will certainly know HOW to prepare for it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Student Education Does Not Need To Be Harder, but Smarter

While attending the taping of the Student Town Hall segment of NBC's Education Nation and listening to the intelligent young adults who voiced their opinions on the state of various aspects of their education, I had cause to think about just what we are doing to our students.  We claim that we need to prepare our students to be able to compete in a global marketplace (which is true and admirable), but are we going about it in the best way?  To attach so much of a student's (and by extension, a school's) success to a test score, or even a set of scores, does not necessarily gauge that student's true potential or aptitude.  How many of our country's millionaires DO NOT have a college degree?  How many of our college graduates are either unemployed or working at a job that IS NOT in their degree area?  Just what are we really  preparing our students for?

A group of students in Providence, R.I. staged a demonstration where they dressed as zombies to send the message that the current state of education, with its heavy emphasis on testing, is killing their future.  It was a powerful image.  This is not to say that there is no place for standardized testing, Common Core or otherwise.  This type of test should not be the ONLY way to assess our students.

Common Core addresses the "Make schools SMARTER" aspect by reducing the overall number of standards to be covered and seeking to ensure student mastery of a few key standards.  The new tests will reflect this change in expectation and rigor.  This is not the problem.  The problem is relying solely on these exams as a measure of student success - especially when everyday professionals and experts in their fields can't even pass them (as demonstrated by the students in Providence who challenged professionals in their city to take the state exam - many of whom failed).

In order to truly assess a student's aptitude, a variety of assessments should be utilized, including portfolios and performance-based assessments.  Many students perform very well with their hands and when called to put theory into practice - not just through abstract thinking.  Accompanying these assessments will be rubrics that fully address the standards that need to be measured to ensure the level of objectivity that is required.  When it comes to performance-based assessments, vocational and CTE schools seem to have the right idea.  These schools combine classroom book work with hands-on application to ensure students fully understand a given set of concepts.  In fact, because of this shift in learning and the rigor associated, many CTE students outperform their traditional high school counterparts on state exams.

Another way to make schools smarter is to incorporate more in the way of classroom conversation through debate and Socratic seminar.  These types of activities encourage and foster deeper understanding while engaging more students in the class, not just the handful that seem to carry the discussion.  When I taught middle school in the Bronx and utilized the Socratic seminar and the fishbowl technique, more students had a voice in the conversation, more viewpoints were explored, a greater tolerance and appreciation for other students was developed, and students had a firmer grasp of the material - which translated to increased test scores and report card grades.  This was not the be all, end all, however, as there were students who did not thrive on the state exam because they could not express their knowledge in the confining way of the state exam.

When educational systems realize that the answer to helping failing schools is not to increase the number of tests that are taken, but to determine HOW to assess students in a way that will expose their strengths, we will be able to create a society of students who will be ready for the college and career options of their choice.

Perhaps the quote of the Education Nation Teacher Town Hall is the following: "Those who CAN, teach; those who CAN NOT, create policies about teaching".  Let's begin creating policy and systems that truly focus on the success and needs of the student we have in front of us and not the one that policy makers are imagining.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Case for Middle Schools

I recently came across a discussion in Linked-in dealing with the issue of whether we should continue to utilize middle schools or more greatly advocate the use of a different model.  While I did respond to that forum, I decided to include my thoughts here.  This is an age-old discussion. There are those that advocate for the K-8 model, some advocate for the 6-12 model, while still others agree with the current configuration of K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. From a curriculum continuum standpoint, the K-8 and/or 6-12 models seem to make sense. By having teachers and students in the same building it is possible for collaboration not only within the grade, but among the entire building. Teachers on a particular grade level will be able to discuss curriculum with teachers a grade level below or above them to better set their plans and expectations. Families will understand not only what their students need to know at the current grade level, but what they will need to know at the next level and how this will prepare them for that. In school districts that are small enough, this can be accomplished even though they employ the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 configuration.

However, there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration when dealing with the middle level child. It goes without saying that you need to address every aspect of every child - academic, emotional, social, physical - and this becomes even more apparent with the middle level student. This student is a completely different creature. He is truly a "middle child". The youngest child (K-5) receives the most attention. Parents/guardians are extremely involved in the lives of these students, often walking them to and from school, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. The oldest child (9-12) has the most freedom. Parents tend to trust these students with more responsibility and give them more privileges. The middle child (6-8) is torn. He wants the attention of his younger sibling, but at the same time he wants the freedom of the older. Add to the mix the hormonal changes and the adolescent need for acceptance among her peers, and you truly have a challenge. For this reason, it becomes necessary to have a specialization for middle school. State licensing may need to reflect this as well. Currently, most states have K-6 and 7-12 licensure. Since 6th grade is not necessarily elementary school and grades 7-8 are not necessarily high school, it may become necessary to create a license that reflects addressing the specific needs of the middle level student.

As for the behavioral problems associated with this age level, this is usually more prevalent in the larger school districts that don't have the same level of oversight that smaller districts do. When you allow for students to attend who are out of district/area, you eliminate the sense of community that is so important. If students and parents have to travel long distances, their level of participation will be reduced as will their stake in the progress and achievement of the school overall. Another concern that needs to be raised with these models is the grouping of the ages. It makes people uncomfortable to know that there are 17-18 year olds in the same building, utilizing the same spaces as a 12-13 year old (6-12 model) or even a 13-14 year old sharing space with a 5-7 year old (K-8 model). It is more comfortable to have students who are all within a 3 or 4 years of each other rather than 6 or 7 years.

The middle level student is a challenge, perhaps the most challenging group of the three, and needs to have specific needs addressed that cannot be addressed in the K-8 or 6-12 models. Additionally, this age group needs more parental involvement/supervision rather than less, which is usually the case. It isn't that middle schools do not work, a different approach to how they are structured and staffed needs to be addressed.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

FUN - the new dirty word in Education?

As I was driving and thinking (something I frequently do in my car), something made me think of a panel discussion that I observed a few months ago.  The conversation was about how to get students to take more responsibility for themselves in the classroom.  There were adults from the community in the audience and the panel was made up of high school students.  The students stated that they would do better in their classes if the teachers made them more fun.  Why did they say that?  Each adult who responded jumped on them for wanting school to be fun.  Comments like, "School is not supposed to be fun", "That's the problem, you are focused on the wrong thing", "When I was in school you did the work because you had to, not because it was fun", were the dominant thoughts.

The point that the adults missed, that I pointed out to them, was that it wasn't about the classes being more "fun", but rather they be more engaging.  It is true that many students are bored in class.  Why show up to or do the work for a class in which you have no interest?  While many adults feel that fun should not be a factor in the learning process, it is something that students hold as important.  They will get more out of the content if they are engaged in what they are doing.  When asked why they like a particular class, a typical response is that the class is fun.  We have to understand that this is the language the students use.  To them FUN = ENGAGED.  That was the point that was missed.  Students want to go to class, they just want a reason other than "you have to".

Perhaps the biggest reason the adults in the room had such a problem with the word "fun" is that they equated fun with frivolity and being non-productive.  If we actually think back to our days in school and remember the classes we liked the most, we would also say they were the ones that were the most fun.  Some people may use other euphemisms such as, "The teacher was funny", "The class was challenging", or "I really learned a lot."  There is nothing wrong with classes being fun.  We need to find ways to get our students engaged in their learning so they begin to create their own knowledge, rather than the teacher being the owner of the knowledge and lecturing.  If that means introducing "fun" into the mix, so be it.  We are trying to prepare our students to be college and career ready.  Wouldn't it be easier for them to get and hold onto information if they enjoyed the process by which they obtained that information?  Wouldn't we like our jobs more if we enjoyed going, if we actually had "fun"?