At the beginning of my career, I was told (more than once) to “not smile until after Christmas”. As a new teacher, I was told that it would be important to ensure that students respected me and took me seriously, and if they saw that I was “too nice”, they would lose respect for me. I am not the only teacher to have received this advice in my career.
Yet I genuinely like students. I always have. So the thought was that I need to be something I am not. Personally, I feel a much better connection with people that seem to genuinely care about me. I am not talking about being “friends”, but have a caring nature for those that you serve.
But some people will take this as “do you expect me to be friends with the kids?” Not at all. I expect students to be treated with a caring and respectful nature while having high expectations. Kind of the same way we would want to be treated as adults.
If we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind. Spending time to develop relationships and building trust is crucial to moving forward as a whole. Without culture, there is no culture of innovation. It all starts by creating an environment where people feel cared for, supported, and are nurtured—the very things we know that impact learning for students in the classroom.
In a world where digital interaction is the norm, we crave human interaction more than ever. That’s why the three things you need to ensure that innovation flourishes in your organization are relationships, relationships, and relationships. Fifty years ago, relationships were the most important thing in our schools, and fifty years from now, it will be no different.
You can push people, but they need to know that you have their back. The best professional and personal relationships I have had exemplified those two traits.
The next time you hear someone share, “Don’t smile until after Christmas” as an educational strategy, I encourage you to ask them how they would do in that same environment? I don’t think I would want to be there past Thanksgiving (Canadian or American!).
I have changed a lot of my thinking in the years of writing this blog, but my belief in the importance of relationships in education will only get stronger over time. It is the foundation we build on to create amazing schools. It is not the only thing, but without, you have nothing.
John Spencer is someone I have connected with and followed for years. I have become a huge fan of his work, and I am proud to have been a part of his book “Empower” with AJ Juliani. He now has a Makerspace Master Course available. Here are some of the details:
The Makerspace Master Course
John Spencer has designed a week-long Makerspace Mastermind Course. He has spent the last two months interviewing experts throughout the maker movement with the goal of creating a self-paced course for anyone who wants to design a makerspace. The result is a framework you can use to design your own makerspace in a week.
Easy-to-follow lessons? YES
Instructional videos? YES
Curated resources? YES
A set of five complete makerspace projects, unit plans, and resources you can use from day one? YES
Supportive community of fellow teacher-makers? YES
Unlimited access to personal coaching with a design thinking coach? YES
The course costs $125 but you can get it for the price of $99 if you use coupon code “George” when you are checking out.
If you are more interested in learning about John and his thoughts on education, and in particular makerspaces, below is a post of his on “Seven Things That Happen When Kids Embrace a Maker Mindset”. I also encourage you to read his excellent blog, “The Creative Classroom“.
I once taught an eighth-grade student who had written four novels online, despite the fact that she had only been learning English for three years. She spent her free time in class looking up how to set up lead magnets and create funnels for an email list. She read blog posts about how to create more suspense in a plot and how to use action rather than description to develop characters.
She had a maker mindset.
I once had a student who taught himself how to code by playing around with Scratch when he was in the sixth grade. With the help of a teacher who mentored him along the way, he was the first child in his family to graduate high school. And now, he’s working on a master’s degree in engineering.
He had a maker mindset.
But I also taught students with immense talent who never pursued their dreams because they were waiting for an invitation that never came. They were compliant and well-behaved, but they weren’t self-starters. They were adept at the art of filling out packets but they didn’t know how to solve problems or design products. So, they continued for years, waiting for an offer that never materialized.
The Old Formula is Failing
Not long ago, you could follow a formula. Work hard, study hard, go to college, and climb the corporate ladder.
It wasn’t about choice or passion or interests. It was about compliance. It was about putting in your time so that you could make it in the world. And it worked — not for everybody and not all the time — but for enough people that society embraced it.
We live in an era where robotics and artificial intelligence will replace many of our current jobs. Global connectivity will continue to allow companies to outsource labor to other countries.
The corporate ladder is gone and in its place, is a complex maze.
Our current students will enter a workforce where instability is the new normal and where they will have to be self-directed, original, and creative in order to navigate this maze.
The Hidden Opportunity
This is a terrifying reality.
And yet . . .
There is a hidden opportunity in all of it. True, the rules of have changed. But that also means students can rewrite the rules.
People often say, “We need to prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist right now?” But who do you think will be creating those jobs? Who will be dreaming up new possibilities? Who will be building a future we could never imagine?
This is why we want students innovating right now:
Not every student will create the next Google or Pixar or Lyft. Some students will be engineers or artists or accountants. Some will work in technology, others in traditional corporate spaces and still others in social or civic spaces. But no matter how diverse their industries will be, our students will all someday face a common reality. They will need to have a maker mindset.
Makers give it a try; they take things apart; and they try to do things that even the manufacturer did not think of doing. Whether it is figuring out what you can do with a 3D printer or an autonomous drone aircraft, makers are exploring what these things can do and they are learning as well. Out of that process emerge new ideas, which may lead to real-world applications or new business ventures. Making is a source of innovation.
Isn’t that what we want for our students?
Seven Things That Happen When Kids Embrace a Maker Mindset
They engage in iterative thinking: When students engage in rapid prototyping, they realize that mistakes are a part of the learning process. They learn to distinguish between fail-ure (permanent) and fail-ing (temporary). As they revise and improve, they begin to design products that are better than they initially imagined. This is iterative thinking. It’s the idea that we should constantly test, tweak, and improve our work until we succeed.
They become problem-solvers: Every creative work, whether it’s a documentary or an engineering challenge, is a series of problems. When students embrace a maker mindset, they learn how to look at a problem from multiple angles and generate strategies for solving it. Over time, they become critical thinking problem-solvers who embrace big challenges.
They learn to think divergently: Divergent thinking is all about looking at things from a unique lens. When students think divergently, they are able to connect seemingly disconnected ideas. They find new and unusual uses for common items. They learn to ask, “What if?” Some of the best maker projects involve creative constraint, where students must work within tight parameters to create something new. I used to do MacGyver-style projects in our classroom makerspace. Here, they had five items and had to design a a product or solve a specific problem. At first, they struggled with the process, but over time they learned to find new applications for everyday items. They were thinking divergently.
They take creative risks: When students embrace a maker mindset, they begin to take creative risks. It might involve launching their work to an authentic audience or it might mean trying out something new even if they are worried that it might not work.
They begin to own the creative process: When students embrace a maker mindset, they own the entire creative process from the initial concept through the ideation, into the prototyping, revision, and launch process. The more they experience this ownership, the more likely they will be to define themselves as makers and designers. And when this happens, they take this maker mindset outside of school as they initiate their own projects at home.
They become systems thinkers: Being a maker requires people to navigate systems. These might be digital platforms, physical products, or human systems. But it goes beyond navigation. The more they develop a maker mindset, the better they are at designing their own systems for their creative work.
They grow more empathetic: The best design begins with a sense of empathy. Students might interview a group of people or set up a needs assessment and this pushes them to think about others and to see things from a new perspective. As they work through the design process, they gain a deeper sense of understanding of what others think and feel. This is vital for the creative economy, where companies need products to fit the needs of their customers. But it goes beyond this. When students learn to be empathetic, they learn what it means to serve others. They become better people.
So, how do we actually make this a reality in our schools?
We Need Makerspaces
If we want students to develop this maker mindset, we need to design spaces where making can thrive. You might be thinking, “If making can happen anywhere, do we need a special space for it?”
But makerspaces aren’t designed to limit creativity to one space. Rather, they are spaces that open up new worlds and inspire new possibilities. As students develop the maker mindset, they take these ideas home with them and transform their own worlds.
I love the way Dale Dougherty puts it:
We must try to bring this kind of magic into schools, hard as it may be. I have been focusing on the importance of creating a space where kids have the opportunity to make—a place where some tools, materials, and enough expertise can get them started. These places, called makerspaces, share some aspects of the shop class, home economics class, the art studio, and science labs. In effect, a makerspace is a physical mash-up of different places that allows makers and projects to integrate these different kinds of skills.
In other words, a makerspace is all about vintage innovation – connecting to a tradition of making and also pushing innovation. It’s not about STEM or STEAM. It’s interdisciplinary and connective. It’s the powerful moment when students learn to think like designers, builders, problem-solvers, and tinkerers. When this happens, you realize that making is magic.
Just something I was thinking about the other day…excuse the ramble.
Years ago as a principal and assistant principal, I would go to the same McDonald’s for breakfast about once a week and over four years, and the same young lady was working the drive-thru. After maybe two visits, I swore she would literally recognize my voice through the intercom and would greet me with an awesome “hello!” When I would pull up to the window, she would always have the biggest smile and would always go out of her way to talk to me in a way that would make my day. Her demeanor always led me to having a better day at work and probably easier to be around that day.
When I asked her about her work at McDonald’s, she told me that she loved it because every single day she would get to interact with people and bring joy to their day. She made a difference through what she did in her job, not necessarily in what her job did for the world.
Yet, I often hear people demean jobs like working at McDonald’s. What I believe is that their notion of “success” is placed on to someone else, and we look down upon them. I have met owners of companies who make a ton of money who are miserable and hate what they do, and then I have met people like that young lady who work at McDonald’s who feel they are making a difference in their work every single day.
When I think of her, I think of this quote from Macklemore:
Part of the reason I challenge the notion of what happens today in schools is that there is often a pretty narrow interpretation of what “success” means. When I went to school, we were told over and over again that going to university meant your were a success, and if you didn’t go, it was looked down upon. On a blog that focuses mostly on education, I can honestly say that my goal isn’t that every student goes to post-secondary. My hope is that we can help every student find meaning in what they do, and happiness. I want them to have options and if post-secondary is something they need to do to get where they want to go, I want to make sure that I help open that door, but that they understand that there is not only one door to success.
I have great concerns about the educational fetish of entrepreneurship. As I’ve written before, the danger here is passion and vocation are synonymous. The idea that being your own boss, like driving your own learning is the ultimate goal. While providing these options for students is what we should be doing, I fear we have sent an unintended or worse, an intended message that innovation and entrepreneurship and branding should drive your work and learning life. Owning your learning is not the same as being an entrepreneur.
What this emphasis does is devalues people like your custodial staff who work behind the scenes maintaining the spaces where children learn. As the article states, the vast majority of human work is in the area of maintaining. Those privileged few who carry the label of innovator or entrepreneur, are beholden to men and women who do the daily work of maintenance. Even within education, there is a great deal of maintaining. Maintaining might be considered “status quo” which is almost always seen as a dirty word in education. But many aspects of status quo are useful and healthy. The mantra of change continues to suggest that everything schools have been doing is wrong or outdated. Reading good books, learning about the world, singing in a choir, developing healthy bodies are all part of the maintenance of our education system. Are there opportunities to innovate within those activities? Certainly. But there is an equal, perhaps greater amount that doesn’t need to change.
Your success is not my success, and vice-versa. It is not our students’ success either. They have their own path.
One of the reasons that I talk about “innovation” as a mindset, not a product, is that in any role, a mindset that looks at doing something with what they know is always applicable. Whether it is what you do in work, parenting, or other aspects of life, the solutions we create to make our lives and the lives of others better, makes a huge difference.
“His shift is when the kids are gone, so oftentimes they lack that connection between the night staff and the students here in the day,” said Mitchell. “It really drives home the point that there are so many people that come in here after you’re gone and they work so hard to make a safe, comfortable, and happy place for you to learn. He’s an employee of the school, but he’s a stranger to the kids so to take that extra time with these small gestures really drives home that personal connection.”
Little ideas that we bring to fruition, no matter what role, can make a positive impact on the lives of others, which only spreads to others.
After reading what I have written so far, I just hope that every student we serve finds a place where they can make a positive difference in the lives of others in a way that is meaningful to them. How they make that difference can be so unique and different, and in so many different roles in their lives, but do we help them find their own path, or do we try to predetermine one for them?
5. When hiring, high GPAs and test scores don’t matter
Relying heavily on data crunching, Bock told The New York Times a few years back that GPAs and test scores are worthless as a criteria for hiring, unless you’re an entry-level grad. Google found that they don’t predict anything.
As Bock tells the Times, “After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow; you think about things differently.”
Consequently, it’s not uncommon to find 14 percent of some Google teams are people who’ve never attended college.
High test scores in school do not equal success in that area. There are so many other factors that need to be considered. I have met many leaders in education who know all the theory but can’t connect with people. If you know all the best leadership strategies but you do not have the emotional intelligence to connect with people, does it matter what you know in leadership?
I have said this over and over again if we focus on improving scores in schools from our students, we are trying to fit students into a box they might not want to be put in. If you focus on finding the strengths and talents of your students, you can do that tomorrow. Don’t get this mixed up with the idea that I do not believe we shouldn’t teach students content or have some type of standardized assessments. I am saying that school should be much more than that, and how we see “success” is an extremely personal venture. There is more to life than “test scores”, and school should be no different.
When I first started putting this blog/portfolio together in 2010, I wanted to think of a name for it. To some, the title of their blog is something that has actually held them back from starting it in the first place. They have great ideas but they can’t find that “perfect” title. It is kind of a big deal!
Throwing around ideas with some friends on the title of the blog, I shared my focus on helping people embrace “meaningful change”, and hence since I was a principal at the time, “The Principal of Change” was born. To this day, I am still told that it should be “The Principle of Change”, and instead of saying that the title is a play on words, I just say I am Canadian and that we spell differently.
But what about the subtitle?
That decision was actually easier. I love both hearing and telling stories, and since the focus was on learning and leading, “Stories of Learning and Leading” seemed to make the most sense. Personally, things resonate with me on a different level when there is a story connected. I can feel it on an emotional level, not only with writing but when watching speakers as well. I am not against “lecture” at all in today’s education world. The class that I enjoyed the most and seemingly learned the most during my university days was on 20th Century European History. The professor lectured every single class, but he didn’t just share facts, he shared and weaved into every “lecture” both personal and applicable anecdotes that resonated with me in an extremely deep manner. I could honestly say that I remember more from his class than others I took because he didn’t lecture; he told stories. I would rush to his class, where others I would often show up late. Lecture, done as an art, is extremely powerful. It is not the only thing we should do as teachers, but I am not against the “sage on the stage”; you just need to know when to stand up in front of learners and share your wisdom, and when to get out of the way. This is part of the art of teaching.
Yet, is this just a personal preference or is there something more here?
According to the article, “Your Brain on Fiction” (I encourage you to read the entire article), stories can “stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 FMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.
When we see ourselves in a story and make our own connections, ideas resonate and stick.
Now all this is interesting. We know that we can activate our brains better if we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other have such a profound impact on our learning?
The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.
We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found:
“Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”
Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. That’s why metaphors work so well with us. Whilst we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust or else.
Part of the idea of sharing stories and helping people make their own connections is my own belief on “changing others”. As stated in my book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“;
The question I am most frequently asked in my talks and workshops is, “How do we get others to change?” In reality, you can’t make anyone change; people can only change themselves. What you can do is create the conditions where change is more likely to happen.
To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”
My hope is that through story, I compel readers to want to know more and find their own conclusions. But it is also in hopes that they see themselves in the story. I often share stories about my family, my daughter, growing up, my parents as immigrants to Canada, some of the frustrations and complexity of being an educator, amongst other things, so people can find similarities to one another and not focus on what makes us different. Often, people will come up to me after a talk and say, “I totally was thinking of my own family the entire time you were sharing your story.” They see themselves in the story and see that it is applicable to them as well. Again, as the Heath brothers share;
The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.
Personally, I like sharing stories and anecdotes in my own writing. It helps the ideas stick in my own mind, and creates a long-term connection to my thinking. Selfishly, this is my space to learn and my space to share my thinking. If “stories” or “anecdotes” do not work for you, that is something I totally understand. If every person was wired exactly the same, teaching would be a pretty easy profession.
That being said, I do believe our stories are what connect us and make us human. The stories of our students are the same. Have you ever had a student tell you a story of their life and it totally changed the way you taught them because it connected you in an emotional level that might not have had been there before? You understood them on a different level, which compelled you to do something different, even better.
Stories are what makes us human, and I believe they help share our past to help us move towards a better future.
A principal friend of mine asked if I could send their staff a message before they open a brand new school. Here is what I shared with them:
As many educators in North America are on summer break right now, and whether you are starting a new job, starting a new school, or going back to a new position, I hope this message applies.
When you start next year, you start with a blank slate. It is year one of the rest of your career.
Don’t hope other people will do something for you that will put you onto a different trajectory. It starts with what you do and how you look at the world.
Tony Sinanis, a very good friend of mine and very thoughtful and thought-forward leader, has just started his first superintendency. In a text conversation we had (he is okay that I share this), he said “my priority is to be the best superintendent ever!”
In response I told Tony, “far too often, people are focused on where they want to go, not where they are now, which harms both the present and the future. Focus on doing an amazing job there, and doors will open for you when they are supposed to.” I know because of his focus on doing an amazing job right now, he will be successful, which means those that he serves will benefit.
I always go back to a point in my career where I was ready to quit. A new opportunity came my way, and instead of going into the new opportunity with the same attitude, I changed how I looked at education and, more importantly, how I looked at myself. The biggest change was me, not my environment.
Take advantage of whatever is in front of you, even if it looks the same as last year. You can always change yourself.
Shift your perspective and it will alter your path.
I woke up one morning not feeling the best, after receiving a message about something that needed to be dealt with for work that was a bad surprise. After that, I had some more bad news, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. Everyone has complications from work.
Then I finished off a blog post I had been working on and posted it. Within a few minutes, I had received a private message from someone criticizing my use of a wrong word. To the point where they said they could go no further on my post regarding discussing the “basics” of education. It was pointing out a mistake that had stopped them from reading any more of what I had to share.
But this is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the second message that I had received that was also telling me about an error that I had made in my post.
Another educator reached out to me, shared how powerful the post was and the following comment:
After reading your article, I have a greater understanding about the importance of change and how we, as educators must adapt our teaching curriculum and strategies to this rapidly changing society.
They then went on to mention that I had mixed up “our” with “are” in the post. In both cases, I went to fix my error, but which one do you think inspired me to continue writing? This is not the first time I have received these types of messages, and I know it will not be the last.
This is not to say that I don’t appreciate feedback; I do tremendously. I don’t mind people criticizing my work, especially my ideas. It pushes me to get better. It is the tone and delivery of feedback that means more to me though. I have people that are always there to support me who literally go onto my blog and fix errors of mine. Not because I pay them or I compelled them to do so, but because they want to help.
When I posted about this on Facebook, a former student of mine (who was probably smarter than me when he was a student and is still showing brilliance to this day) posted this comment:
I often wonder how much of the spelling errors actually bother the person reading them, and how often they are using it as an excuse to “look smarter” than someone else. Quite the ego boost to criticize someone publicly (For someone who doesn’t understand how they are affecting someone else’s eagerness to speak up).
Your purpose might be to help someone to get better, but if they don’t know that intent, does it matter? Are you doing it from a place of helping me get better, or from a place of showing superiority? If your delivery makes me tune out, does your message matter?
The amount of spelling and grammatical mistakes I make in this blog are probably astronomical, or at least more than I am comfortable with. But here is the thing; I actually like writing. I also like writing for an audience. If I go a few days without writing. I feel like my brain is going to explode and it is a good way for me to release my thoughts in the world. Some people go to the beach to relax, but I blog. This love of writing is something that no teacher could get me to feel. I hated the process of writing in school and it wasn’t until I was in my mid 30’s that I actually started to enjoy the practice. When I think about my own education as a student, the same amount of criticism on things that seemed to be simply nitpicking, kind of killed my love of writing, and sometimes even learning in general.
All this being said, I still do not see myself as a “writer”. I see myself an educator that writes. I do not see myself an expert in anything, but a learner. I think that is one of the powerful things about blogging in the first place. People that were not writers were able to share their ideas with others in their respective professions, as well as give a glimpse to outsiders as well. Many “non-educator” friends of mine have shared their appreciation for my work, and in turn, have taken some of my ideas and applied it to their own context. You now have insights from people that before blogging existed, you didn’t receive. Their writing may not have been perfect, but the ideas were out there.
You can see this audience effect even in small children. In one of my favorite experiments, a group of Vanderbilt University researchers in 2008 published a study in which several dozen 4- and 5-year-olds were shown patterns of colored bugs and asked to predict which would be next in the sequence. In one group, the children simply repeated the puzzle answers into a tape recorder. In a second group, they were asked to record an explanation of how they were solving each puzzle. And in the third group, the kids had an audience: They had to explain their reasoning to their mothers, who sat near them, listening but not offering any help. Then each group was given patterns that were more complicated and harder to predict.
The results? The children who didn’t explain their thinking performed worst. The ones who recorded their explanations did better—the mere act of articulating their thinking process aloud seemed to help them identify the patterns more clearly. But the ones who were talking to a meaningful audience—Mom—did best of all. When presented with the more complicated puzzles, on average they solved more than the kids who’d explained to themselves and about twice as many as the ones who’d simply repeated their answers.
Personally, I think a lot more about what I write when it is public than I did before. In the same article, Thompson states the following:
Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face areal audience, you have to be truly convincing.
The process of writing has proven to me over and over again that it helps me truly think about why I do what I do, along with the how and the what. The process is vulnerable, yet deep. It is why I am a firm believer as this space as one of reflection; a place to look back so that I can move forward.
After completing my first book, “The Innovator’s Mindset“, people were saying very kind words about the book, but also challenging or asking me about the ideas shared. I wanted the book to be a conversation, not a “formula” so I was grateful for the conversations that still continue from the book. Yet one comment within the first few weeks of its release from an educator was this; “You spelled Carly Rae Jepsen wrong.” That was it. No congratulations, no challenging of ideas, just a pointing out of an error. I asked, “Is that all you got out of the book?”, and I am not sure that I ever received an answer. To be honest, I didn’t care much after what they had to say. Did their comment help or hurt? Maybe both? I fixed the error in the book, but it felt more like a “gotcha” moment than anything. This was not out of a lack of trying to make the book as perfect as possible. With a couple of editors reading it over a few times, as well as myself, we missed it over and over again. I think there are some great ideas in the book that could tremendously help schools, but if that one thing held you back from learning from the book, who lost out in the end and for what reason?
Here is something I think about often…my parents, both immigrants to Canada, are two of the best learners that I have ever met in my life. My mom went to school until grade six, and my dad until grade two. I often think if they were such amazing learners because it wasn’t schooled out of them. They didn’t spend so many of their developmental years being told where they were constantly wrong and weren’t scared of making mistakes through the process the way a lot of adults are to this day. Again, feedback is helpful, but delivery is crucial.
By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.
Is this to help me get better, or to show you are better? Again, perception is crucial.
In Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor“, she shares how “guidance” is crucial to helping people grow, but there are two elements that are crucial;
There are two dimensions to good guidance: care personally and challenge directly.
It is also important to note that I have been guilty of criticizing without showing caring. People that I work with on an ongoing basis know that I can be direct and harsh at some points, but they also know that it is from a place of getting them better. Yet sometimes, they need the reminder and I cross a line where they believe it is criticism for the sake of criticism. I am trying to get better in so many facets of my life but I fail often.
One person that has become one of my closest colleagues is someone that I criticized sharply on social media, only to have dinner with them that evening. It was embarrassing to myself as I know that my words hurt the person, although my belief was it would help them. Sure they might have learned from it, but when I saw them for dinner that night and met them for the first time and I could tell I had a negative impact on their day, I forever changed how I used social media. It was a nice little reminder that there is always a person on the other side of the screen, and I now do everything I can to ask questions first, and challenge later.
A few months ago, I had noticed that an awesome educator who I have known for awhile, was criticizing the grammar of a “well-known blogger” and I challenged them saying something to the effect of, “When you say this, so many people reading your comment do not want to share their ideas because they watch how easy it is to get criticized for something so little. You do not want to shut down their voice.” After our conversation, she totally got my point and eventually wrote a post about it.
I am by no means perfect and certainly make mistakes from time to time like everyone else. But in this particular blog post the error, to me, was so obvious that I couldn’t help myself. I have been a teacher of literacy for 24 years. The last 15 of them have been as an English teacher in a middle school. With that being said, there are certain things that drive me crazy. Grammar is one of them. To be clear, I did not call that blogger out by name nor did I post my comment directly on the blogger’s social media feed. Trust me, in retrospect, if I could do it all over I would have kept my mouth shut. I took some serious heat for my sarcasm albeit my comment opened the door to a healthy discussion about how being critical stifles others from having a voice.
She then saw how this came back around to her when she had felt her voice was being shut down at an EdCamp:
Every time I opened my mouth to say something it was met with a snarky comment, laughter, or simply dismissed. I have to be honest, after the first two times, I didn’t think much of it. I just attributed it to a tight-knit group of people and I wasn’t part of their crew. But as it happened two more times I began to wonder that something was really going on here. In the end, I still don’t really know what that was all about or where the motivation came from to treat a fellow EdCamper in that manner. But what I can say with certainty is that I did not like how that experience made me feel.
But it did also occur to me that I may just be on the receiving end of what I put out into the universe a few months back. I was attempting to share my thoughts and ideas and they were met with sarcasm and snickering. The more I thought about it the more I just couldn’t help but see the parallel between what I said about that blogger and what happened to me yesterday in that session. By commenting on that blogger’s grammatical error instead of focusing on the content of the post it was no different than what these guys did to me. I clearly began to shut down in the session, thought twice before sharing anything, and took the first opportunity I could to leave and move on to a different room.
I commended her for her humanness and vulnerability in the post, and sharing her learning and growth. Isn’t this why so many educators are blogging? To share their own development, growth, ideas, and to share their own thoughts?
This post was so powerful to me because we are all on a journey. As soon as you think you know it all is the second you are falling behind.
We are in a time where education is seeming to be under continuous attack. We need educators to feel empowered to share their voice, not stifled.
To be honest, a spelling error here and a grammatical issue are not things that will hold me back from continuing to blog, but if I would have been crapped on for little mistakes when I first started writing, I don’t know if I would have continued. As somewhat of an established blogger, I actually sometimes like if I have the occasional error because it models to others that no matter the size of your audience, continue to share your message and your ideas, even if you make mistakes. I read blogs so that I can find inspiration from others, not to see if you have correctly used “their, there, or they’re”.
I keep coming back to read comments made here. I’ve connected to some of these “bloggers” on Twitter. Hitting that publish button on my blog doesn’t come easy. Unkind, critical individuals would make it so much harder, when there are so many better ways to make a comment
The thought of an educator with so many stories to share, and who is so positive to so many others, being nervous to hit “publish”, made my heart sink.
Bill Simmons, a very popular sports analyst, writer, and media personality, shared this comment in a podcast and it has always stuck out to me:
The biggest muscles in the world are Internet muscles.
You never know what is going on the other side of the screen so always remember that your comment could either lift someone up or tear someone down. Lifting someone up doesn’t mean “don’t criticize”; it means help them get better from a place of caring, not superiority. We can all get better on how we interact with one another (myself included) and we can all help each other get better as well.
“Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof when your own doorstep is unclean.” Confucius
This post is not meant to criticize anyone other than myself. I have been guilty of what I write about more than I am comfortable with. It is to offer a different perspective and hopefully help people think about what they share with others, and how they share it. We are all learning together, but one of the hardest things to learn in this space is that what might be a five-second comment to one person, might destroy someone’s day (or longer). I always try my best to err on the side of the positive, but I fail often and want to get better. I am writing this as a reminder to myself more than anything.
I truly believe education as a whole is better off when we seek to learn from others and realize that the best people educators can learn from are other educators. When I am done with my career, I hope that I have done more to inspire educators and students alike to share their voice, not stifle it. There is not one educator I know that wouldn’t want the same.
Feedback so that we can grow is important but always remember that delivery matters.
If you clicked on this blog post because of the title hoping I would provide answers, I am about to disappoint you. I think I have more questions than answers after so many thoughts being shared on Twitter. I am blogging to learn here, not to necessarily share learning. Bear with me.
After reading a tweet from an educator talking about how they didn’t use social media when they were kids and they turned out just fine, and that schools should “focus on the basics”, I tweeted this question out:
Honest question…when someone says, “focus on the basics”, isn’t it important that we understand the “basics” change over time?
(Please find time to read the thread on Twitter…some really interesting conversations happening there.)
First of all, what has been traditionally considered the “basics” in education, and why? The standard response are the 3 r’s; reading, writing, and arithmetic (I hate that only one starts with an ‘r’ but I digress). Making my own assumption on “why” the “basics” are seen as crucial, is that these are considered the basic minimum skills that anyone would need to have in our world. That last sentence was hard to write. I almost wrote to “succeed” in today’s world, but if you can read, write, and do math, this doesn’t mean you will be successful. Yet, they are a foundation. That makes more sense to me. (I told you I am trying to figure it out.)
When I first wrote this, I was thinking, “Are using email and the Internet ‘basics’ in 2017?” This response really helped me past that thinking:
IMO email is a tool. Being able to effectively communicate in a variety of arenas are the basics now.
So is “communication” a basic skill in our world today? If so, would all of the “four C’s” be considered “basics” (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity) in today’s world?
If they are considered “basics”, we have to understand that what they look like over time change. “Critical thinking” in 1970 might look significantly different to today in a world of information overload, as do the others.
I always talk about this with educators in relation to how communication, and our views of it have changed over time. When I first became a principal, the thought of writing an emoticon in an email to a staff member would have been insane to me. What I learned quickly is that the “smiley face” was one of the best tools that I could use to ensure the tone of an email was not perceived as negative. That being said, I would not suggest to a student today that they would use an emoticon in a cover letter.
Thanks for your time to look over my information; it would be a true pleasure to work for your organization
Is there a balance between using “best practice” while also focusing on innovation in education? Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant stated to the effect of “best practice is often the enemy of innovation”. Blockbuster didn’t move forward with purchasing Netflix because their evidence had show that their model worked in the past. What do you believe the balance should be of going out and trying something new, while also using what we believe to be “tried and true” practices?
I love writing comments on blogs because it makes me really try to understand what the author is sharing, but also spurs me to think deeply about a topic. When I wrote the following,
Blockbuster didn’t move forward with purchasing Netflix because their evidence had show that their model worked in the past.
it really made me think about what “best practice” is based on, and will those measurements still hold true for the future? In a conversation with Katie Martin, she stated, “if the world is changing, the research and evidence become irrelevant if you don’t consider a new context.” That statement really pushed my thinking. When we talk about the “basics”, are we considering what that means in the context of our world today.
One of the commenters on Twitter (there were so many), suggested moving away from the term “basics” to “foundational skills”. These are the minimums of what we hope all students walk away from our schools. Does the shift from “basics” to “foundational skills” mean something different?
I searched for “what are the basics of education” (is searching for information online a “basic”…see how I did it , and the number of answers and differing opinions was overwhelming (I can’t stop thinking about if in my last use of brackets, is it okay to end a bracket as a smiley face, or should there have been a second bracket; ie :)) It just doesn’t look right either way.)
I have no answers here. What I think is that we need conversations in our communities. As was pointed out to me, the context of your community matters in what is believed is to be essential. Do we have the conversation with our communities though? Perhaps some would argue that the “basics” should be the same in every school as our students will grow up in a much more global community that we did as students, and maybe that would be right. Either way, have the conversation. We need to do that more.
Here is one thing that I do think I know (or maybe I don’t)…if we think the “basics” are the 3 R’s only in our world today, we are robbing our students of essential skills that will be deemed necessary.
Wait…there is one more thing I know.
If we only focus on the basics in school, we take away a lot of opportunities from our students. This quote from Yong Zhao (which I have shared as many times as possible), always resonates:
Yes, the “basics”, whatever those are today, are crucial. I would just contend that our kids need so much more from their time in our schools. I hope that is one thing that we could all agree upon.
We can talk about environments that empower students all we want, but if the educators in the building do not feel empowered themselves, we have a problem. When we switch from the word “students” to “learners”, this puts the onus on education to do this for everyone, not just our students. It is extremely hard to teach someone flexibility if we work under leadership that is focused on rigidity.
“Empowering” learners is not just a nice thing to do, but a crucial one. In a world where the pace of change is happening at a speed that is quicker than ever, Juliani and Spencer argue that “ownership” is crucial to learning in education. They aren’t wrong either. If students learn to depend on their teachers to “engage” them in learning, how will they adapt when an educator is not present?
Another big challenge is the way we educate our population. We go to school for twelve or more years during our childhoods and early adulthoods, and then we’re done. But when the pace of change gets this fast, the only way to retain a lifelong working capacity is to engage in lifelong learning
Think of it this way; a teacher will not always be present, but a learner will. If we create a system, as Spencer and Juliani contend, that empowers learners, they will be prepared for anything that comes their way.
Not just the students, but the educators as well. We all need to see ourselves and others in education as learners first. Empowered educators that can adapt to whatever comes their way quickly are more likely to develop students to do the same.
You can fight change, adapt to change, embrace change, create change, and/or lead change. No matter your choice, it’s not going away.
“True literacy is always a two-way transaction. We don’t just consume; we produce. We don’t just read; we write. The ability to receive information is always the first part of the literacy equation that is necessary for the masses, and then the ability to express information generally follows, as we strive to quench our desire to communicate. The root of communicate is to commune.” (Stephen Apkon and Martin Scorsese)
To this day, many schools still block YouTube from students. Admittedly, not as many as five years ago, but still many do.
My concern is not only that if you do this in schools that students aren’t able to learn to access important information, but the likelihood of them sharing and creating information goes down exponentially.
When we see literacy about more than reading and writing, meaningful consumption and creation of media in different elements should be a norm while continuously evolving.
I always ask education audience these two questions;
How many of you know who Sir Ken Robinson is? (Majority of hands go up.)
How many of you knew of him from his book before his video? (Majority of hands go down.)
It is crucial we empower our students to not only hear others, but share their voice in meaningful ways as well in mediums that are more the norm than we seem willing to admit.