How To Be A Dragonslayer

For some of us, the new year is also a new professional journey.

No one can tell you what’s ahead and that’s part of what’s exciting, but it’s also what’s scary. You wonder how you will battle the dragons ahead or handle the sea monsters that you can’t quite see, but that you know are there. Those monsters that regularly attack in the way of procrastination, inertia, and distraction.

Part of the journey is preparing for those monsters by having a plan for their attack or weapons to fight them. Every great story shows the heroes readying themselves for battle, whether it’s with a sword that turns blue for Orcs or a wooden stake to take down the Big Bad.

Taking inventory of your weapons, preparing yourself for the road ahead is a good practice. Verses that have been with me since childhood ask me to count the cost to see if I have the resources to meet whatever is ahead.

It’s hard on those around you because they want you to stay the person that you were when you left. They were comfortable with the “before the journey” you. Often, families dread and resist their children going to college because of this. Sometimes neighborhoods can conspire to “keep you in your place” by embroiling you in drama.

The illustration of crabs in a bucket is one I’ve used with my students because so many of them are the first to graduate from high school as well as being first for college. Your good fortune can threaten the status quo, so like crabs in a bucket, others may try to pull you down and hold you back.

                                             Image: Wonderlane/ CC BY 2.0

However, I often find that I’m the one pulling myself down. I give in to those dragons of inertia, distraction, and procrastination. But I’ve found that just like in fairy tales, dragons are defeated in threes. Here are three ways I’m going to prepare for the journey ahead this year:

  1. Exercise – It’s an old cliché off of Newton’s First Law of Motion, but that doesn’t make it less true: Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. For me, this means making myself get 30 minutes of cardio that I actually will repeat without hurting myself or easy strength training in every day. I keep telling myself: Do the thing you can repeat tomorrow. What good will it do me if I hurt myself or do something so painful that I hate it and won’t ever do it again? To help me keep this promise to myself, I sweeten the deal by loading up on podcasts I can listen to while I walk – either in my neighborhood (getting in nature is good for you, according to science) or on my treadmill, or making a motivating playlist to listen to (here’s one I’m partial to).
  2. Meditate/pray – this is one of those practices that’s important, but not urgent, so I put it off. It’s not like my clothes get tight if I don’t regularly engage in a spiritual practice. But I notice my mood gets worse if I don’t. There’s tons of science behind mindfulness and gratitude practices, but for my mind, it helps quiet the anxious monkeys of mayhem who regularly howl inside my skull. There are all kinds of ways to meditate/pray/focus on gratitude, but here’s some free resources I’ve incorporated into my day:  a meditation app, an app for centering prayer, and a quick link to tools to help build a mindset of gratitude.
  3. The 20/20 – this is something I’ve adapted from several places to not only help my students manage their time and attention, but to help me do everything from get a Master’s degree to write a book. It’s pretty simple: get a timer, set it for 20 minutes. Work on something that you really need to finish, but that you’ve been dreading. You only have to do it for 20 minutes, so it’s not so bad. Most dental procedures take longer than this, so it’s really a bargain, time and suffering-wise. After the timer goes off, reset it for 20 more minutes and do something you really enjoy. But here’s the catch – when the timer goes off, you have to reset it and go back to work for 20 more minutes. Viola! You’ve done a good hour that shouldn’t feel like drudgery. On weekends, I repeat the cycle 2 or 3 times if I’m working on a project. During the weekday, I not only wake up an hour early and use it to write, but I also pack this strategy with me to get my work done in the office.

Post image: Unsplash/John Jackson

Good Leaders Are Good Teachers

Good leaders are good teachers. All of the traits of effective teaching cross over into effective leadership.  

Taking the example of my best teachers – and the teacher I always aspire to be – I saw that they were model learners. They saw it as a strength to say: “I don’t understand – help me to see what you’re talking about.” They were always in the process of deepening their understanding, of knowing more, of deliberately refusing the mantle of “smartest person in the room.”

These great teachers put the subject – or problem – in the center and themselves to the side as a fellow learner with the rest of us struggling to understand.

One of my students once asked me: “Have you tried to do this homework you gave us?” The question stung because no, I had not. I assumed that the role was: I assign and you do. But her question completely changed my teaching. She showed me that if I wasn’t willing to do what I was asking my students to do, then I was an ineffective teacher.

From that day on, I began trying the work I was asking my students to do and it opened the way for me to be a much better teacher. Why? Because I could anticipate the pitfalls, the mistakes, the misunderstandings, and the difficulty of what I assigned.

Fast forward to my own practice as a teacher-leader and I find that it’s still good practice to attempt the work you are asking others to do. As a leader, you need to understand the problems you’re asking your team to solve. You need to have struggled with them yourself, to have shifted your perspective by putting yourself in the place of different people who will be affected by your decisions.

You need to do the homework.

Some people think it shows strength to stand in front of a group and say things like: “This is what we pay you for – figure it out.”

Ordering others to “figure out” what you don’t understand is weak and won’t help you grow as a problem-solver or a leader – or a person.


Losing The Ability To Listen and Discuss

This has been one of the saddest weeks, nationally, that I can remember in years. Two men executed by police and now five Dallas PD officers killed by snipers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

A constant in all cases: guns. When you pair rage and fear with a gun, horrible irreversible things happen. This is something we tolerate and I’m not sure why.

We are in love with guns and we are afraid. We believe that guns will save us, that guns grant us respect, that guns settle scores for us. And they certainly do scare people. I’ve seen them pointed at people and know how quickly it can shift an attitude. I know how I feel firing one.

When you don’t get the respect you think you deserve, a gun will make people fear you — which can feel like the same thing as respect, if only temporarily: If I cannot make you respect me, I will make you fear me.

I understand the impulse. I’ve watched my own fear and rage hold sway over me this week. But I know that words and actions are more powerful. They’re harder — much harder — but no one dies. No one gets paralyzed or blinded or crippled. Guns can’t kill the biggest monsters. They can’t kill fear or hate or rage or prejudice or bigotry. They can’t kill objectification and marginalization. They can’t kill blame.

People say they are “tired” of “political correctness,” which is what they consider any objection, criticism, or discussion of these issues. Yet they seem to have boundless energy for killing, for defending killers and guns. That’s because a gun is fast. A gun doesn’t think. A gun doesn’t have to be patient or tolerant or put up with your bullshit. A gun is a way of saying, “Shut your mouth. End of discussion.”

As someone with little to no patience for discussion of difficult issues, I can see the attraction of trying to solve problems with guns. I want to claw my face off when I’m forced to listen in a conversation. I want to be heard. My skin crawls when I have to understand the other person. I want them to understand me. Especially if I completely disagree with him or her.

We are not “tired” of discussing these issues — we just don’t know how. We’ve lost the ability to truly discuss. All we have are shouted talking points, pithy tweets, maudlin Facebook posts. We’ve lost the ability to sit with people, to sit with complex topics, to sit with our own complicated hearts.

Image credit: Discussion by Tim Nelson/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

How To Be A Change Agent

I’m so proud of this article for ASCD! It features the work of my colleagues at Palo Duro High School, my friend James E. Ford , and the awesome Rusul Alrubail:

Look inside >
Dare to Go First

What I Learned From 300,000 Miles of Travel in One Year

For someone who never really traveled much in her life, this past year spent traveling as the National Teacher of the Year has been a huge learning curve and “growth opportunity” for me. In short, I think travel made me a better human being. That’s certainly what Pico Iyer believes and writes about here.I’m not sure if travel made me richer or sexier, but it definitely taught me to think practically.

After reflecting on my year, I put together a list of stuff I learned for any of you who may be traveling a lot this summer (or year). Some of them may seem dumb, but I assure you, I learned each of them the hard way.

What I’ve Learned:

  1. Always pack flats or other comfortable shoes.
  2. Window seats let you see some cool stuff.
  3. Be nice to airport staff — you might do something really stupid like leave your carry on bag on the plane in Philadelphia and need their help.
  4. Stay calm and be nice to TSA agents — even if they are rude and yell at you like the ones in Newark. Don’t let that kind of behavior ruin your day or your trip. And often, TSA agents are kind and respond to kindness (and it would be hard to beat the sweetness of those in Manchester, NH).
  5. Be adventurous — use TripAdvisor, Yelp or other apps to find interesting things to see, to do and places to eat. Google Maps walking directions have taken me all over big cities and made me feel like a native.
  6. Be nice to fellow travelers — they feel the same as you. Many are flying for sad reasons. Little kindnesses, I’ve learned, have the biggest impact when you’re alone and vulnerable.
  7. Be nice to all hotel staff. You might get things like champagne and macaroons in your room, or chocolate covered strawberries.
  8. Drink lots of water — it makes a huge difference in your mood and energy level.
  9. Don’t drink booze on the plane. Just trust me on this.
  10. Exercise! Even if you can’t hit the gym, walk in the airports. You’ll feel 100% better, I promise. And stand as much as possible in the airport. Sitting makes you sad and tired.
  11. Pack a small Bluetooth speaker to make yourself feel at home in hotel rooms. Hearing my jazz music helped ground me on those nights when I suddenly awoke from a nightmare in a generic room and didn’t know where I was for a few minutes.
  12. Pack headphones and download your favorite music. I don’t think I could fly without it. Once, when my plane hit a vicious wind shear in Denver, I decided that if I were going to crash, Ella Fitzgerald would be the voice carrying me to the other side.
  13. Dress nicely to fly and smile at everyone, especially the crew. I’ve been surprised by the change in my treatment when I quit wearing sweat pants and frowning.
  14. Travel apps I love (for iPhone/Mac): TripIt (many times, it texted me flight updates before the pilot announced them or flight attendants knew what was happening), Signal, (which I use to text my family for free on international trips), Gate Guru (which always helps me find food in airports, and once helped me find a place that sells MacBook Air accessories when I left my power cord at a venue), Boingo (because I need stable, accessible wi-fi and this is the best, but a little pricey, option), CamScanner (a free app that turns receipts into pdfs for expense reports and then exports them to email — amazing), and Day One (a journaling app where I keep notes about this year along with pictures that spark my memory)
  15. Tweeting positive travel experiences at the businesses is a nice thing to do — especially if you get great service. One flight crew gave me free food and vodka (which I didn’t drink, but just collected in my back pack only to have it fall out in front of a community leader when I went to find my glasses).
  16. Sign up for reward programs — they’re worth it. Using a reward program got me the last seat on a flight home, a hotel room that magically appeared at a “no vacancy” hotel, and discounts on food.
  17. Life really does begin right outside your comfort zone. Take the risk of introducing yourself to someone new. Everyone knows something you don’t and what they know is often exactly what you need to learn. I’m an introvert, so I’ve had to push myself to interact with those I find seated next to me on various transportations or dinners. By doing one small thing and asking: What are you excited about right now? I’ve met fascinating writers who shared books with me, a man who’s spent his entire adult life traveling all over the world, a nice couple who showed me how to maneuver in the Beijing security line (who knew there were “secret security lines that magically open up?), speakers who shared their best pro tips with me (that’s for another post), and so on.

Image credit: Yimeng Wang, my host for a tour of Shandong Province, China in March, 2016. I’m with the Zhangqiu Middle School Journalism Club

Why Educate Girls?

Listening to statistics about the global lack of education for girls from Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, on this Harvard EdCast, I found myself thinking about a Somali student I once taught.

This particular student, I’ll call her Hawo, explained to me that her night school absences were caused by witchcraft. Not witchcraft that she herself was using, or the victim of, but witchcraft used by a neighbor on her brother.

Because I’m an English teacher, Hawo’s account of her brother’s predicament sounded to me like a mashup of Romeo & Juliet with The Crucible.

The condensed version: her brother was in love with another Somali girl, but her family didn’t like him. A complicating factor was an older man, to whom she was contractually engaged.

Eventually, the girl became pregnant. Because this would bring great shame on her family and probable violence upon Hawo’s brother, the two of them decided to plead witchcraft as the cause of pregnancy. They claimed that the older man had bewitched them both, controlling them with demonic power, forcing the teenagers to have sex with each other.

Even though this is an absurd story to anyone who’s ever been a teenager or raised one, it was a critical fiction. All around the world, girls know that sex is truly dangerous. The sheer scale of global incidences of violence toward females is hard to conceptualize. And that’s why this girl’s story stays with me beyond its bizarre details. She was a modern Scheherazade telling a story to save her life.

And it was a good story in so far as it was accepted by the insular Somali community in our small town. The teenagers were exonerated and the girl went through with the contract, marrying the older man.

All parties involved moved to a larger Somali community in Minnesota before the girl had her baby, so I never learned what happened. But I can imagine — and so can you — because we read. We know how these stories typically play out. It’s never good for the girl.

What kind of difference, I wonder, would literacy make for that girl? She was at the beginning stages of reading ability. I doubt that she has progressed beyond that, if the experiences of my other refugee students are a predictor. But would literacy have given her choice? Because I’m a teacher, I believe it would.

Bokova, in the talk, cites UN data saying that two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women. And why does that matter? For Bokova, it’s a matter of health and economic outcomes. Put simply, more literacy means more choices for girls and women. It means less domestic violence, sexual assault, sexually transmitted disease. It means that women can help bring a family out of severe deprivation. “The weakest point, in all the efforts and research,” she says, “is the transition from primary to secondary education because this is a very fragile moment for every girl.”

She ends the short interview with a plea for advocacy and for men to understand the need for girls to become educated. She ends with a quote that frames the education of girls around the idea of international security. Bokova quotes Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, who said “An educated girl is more powerful than a drone.”

And, I would add: an educated girl is more powerful than superstition. Literacy. That’s real magic.

Image credit:Malagasay Girls by Hery Zo Rakotondramanana

The Deep Magic

A takeaway from this last month of speaking and traveling is:

We’re saved by what we create, and by who and what we love.

For me, teaching is always triage – an emergency room where I try to apply reading and writing to the wounds my students have. Sometimes, a good story can save your life. Not always, but sometimes, and that’s enough for me. 

Reading aloud is a small thing, but it’s what I love. Creating learning experiences where the clock stops, where I don’t worry about how much weight I’m gaining or how I look when I turn to the side, and where we – whomever I’m with – are transported by story. Either our own stories or those we love by others. 

Nothing gives me energy like reading a really good piece of literature aloud to an audience who really needs it. The photo above is a gift of energy from my former students, Nat and Karen.

About a week ago, I was so exhausted, I thought I would burst into tears in the canned vegetable aisle at the grocery store.

Then I read this:

“Would you come read Skippyjon Jones to our kids in the afterschool program?” Nat messaged me.

At first, I thought: “I’m too tired.” Then I worried: “I have too much to do.”

But what you love pulls you. And so reading pulled me out of my pinched and crabby feelings.

Skippyjon Jones, a masterful series by Judy Schachner about a cat who thinks he’s a chihuahua and imagines epic adventures for himself, is a can’t-miss read aloud if you go all in on it. My juniors and seniors always want me to read it to them. I was a little worried about reading to small people because I don’t normally work with those under age 14.

And, the kids in their after-school class, Karen confided, “think reading is evil. They hate it.”

To read aloud well – to transport both yourself and your audience – you have to be unself-conscious. It’s taken me a long time to get there and even so, I still get shy.

I’ve stood at the back of my classroom because I was afraid to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” like I knew it should be read.

One of my most memorable experiences was reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Last Night of The World” to a group of seventh-grade boys who told me that reading is stupid. The story is mostly dialogue between a husband and wife, but the sense of dread that Bradbury creates chilled those inner-city kids on a hot August morning.

The story’s horror comes from knowing that the end is really coming and there’s nothing you can do. What is there to do, Bradbury asks us, but those last little comforting habits like hugging someone close, washing the dishes, and saying, “I love you” one last time?

“That felt real, Miss,” Anthony said. “It was like a scary ride that stays with you.”

That’s what the best read-alouds and the best lessons feel like to me: a ride that kind of scares me, but also gives me that adrenaline rush from doing something fun.

And we don’t give ourselves or our students enough fun because of so much pressure for “achievement.”

So, I’m giving you permission, just like I always have to give myself, to have fun. Read something you love. Go all in. Do the voices. Sell it. Make it feel real.

In this grinding month, give yourself one day to not worry about “the test.” Give yourself  – and most importantly, your students the gift of energy through the pure joy that comes from deliberately designing a day around a story you love.

Deep magic comes from joy.

Create some today by sharing what you love.



What Stands In The Way

You can’t see it on my face, but I am terrified in this photo. I won’t bore you with the details of just why the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is so special (and therefore intimidating) to me, but suffice it to say: being on this stage was a milestone in my life.

The other reason I’m terrified: I decided to be about as vulnerable as I’ve ever been with a group of people. Within this speech, “The Limitation is the Lesson: Using Adversity to Our Advantage,” I decided to speak about my anxiety. (The ASCD synopsis is here).

The most personal part was at the end where I basically paraphrased the information from this – a piece I’ve never published, but decided to share now because well, if I can tell a gigantic room full of people, why can’t I share it with you?

“What’d you learn at school today, Grace?”
“I learned that the antibacterial soap we use doesn’t work anymore and we’re making superbugs that will kill us all.”

This is a scene from the first season of Nurse Jackie illustrating the growing anxiety of Jackie’s 10-year-old daughter, Grace. Grace becomes fixated on the kind of “imminent doom” programming popular on cable channels and finds that she can’t look away from shows like Viral Armageddon and Could the Superflu Return? She begins having panic attacks at school and later, the school counselor tells her parents that he believes Grace has generalized anxiety disorder.

I sympathize with that little girl, even though she’s fiction, because I was that little girl.

And if my life were on DVD, like my copies of Nurse Jackie, it would be possible to cue up one of the early chapters in Season Two of my life, right around the time my parents were getting a divorce. There would be a scene in the Family Medicine Clinic where Dr. Ingham, drawing on his pipe like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, is asking the fourth-grade me why I wanted to see him.

“Because I feel like I’m going to die. I feel my heart a lot to see if it’s still beating. And I worry that my parents will die, or my sisters and brother, or my Meemaw will die. Or that the world will end because God is mad.”

Decades later, I can remember the smell of that pipe. The soothing applejack tobacco that ringed a halo above his balding head. His voice, deep, sonorous as a Sunday preacher, answered, “Oh Shanna, I don’t think you’ll die for a long time and I’m pretty sure none of your family will die for a long time either. I’m your doctor and you’re pretty healthy, so I’m not worried.”

I remember exhaling loudly, completely relieved to hear this.

“Send your mom in here for a minute, and then wait for her in the waiting room,” he said.

What he told my mother is that he was worried about my constant stomach aches (later revealed to be caused by an ulcer), and prescribed the same chalky liquid given to nervous petroleum executives in my hometown. He also told my mother it’d be okay to occasionally give me a quarter of one of her yellow five-milligram Valium if I became particularly agitated.

Move forward on this imaginary DVD to my 15th year for the next permutation of my anxiety.

“Mrs. Skinner said that Jesus is going to come back in a thunderstorm,” I told my grandmother after Sunday School. “So every time there’s a thunderstorm we should be excited because it could be Jesus coming back.”

Which is exactly how you create panic disorder in a teenager who’s been steeped in Southern Baptist End Times scenarios her whole life. And who lived smack in the middle of the Texas Panhandle’s “Tornado Alley,” guaranteeing at least a dozen operatic thunderstorms each spring.

“Oh, it doesn’t say that anywhere in the Bible,” my Meemaw said, a dismissive wave of her hand finalizing her thoughts. “The Rapture will happen at any minute and you won’t have any warning at all. Don’t worry about storms.”

Thunderstorms already made me uneasy and now the idea that they were possible harbingers of The Rapture rendered them terrifying. The very next storm caused me to cower in the covers, a pillow over my head, panicked prayers streaming in a rush. My grandmother found me like that and gave me one of her muscle relaxants.

But it didn’t work. I still felt like my heart would burst through my chest like the monster in Alien. Seeing this distress, my mother tapped a yellow pill with what looked like an arrowhead carved out of the middle of it. A Valium. And the arrowhead shot into the middle of the alien in my chest, quieting it.

Fast-forward to the school prom.

“I’m nervous about going,” I confide to my grandmother.

“Here,” she says, opening her personal medicine cabinet. She ceremoniously cranks the top of the child-proof cap off, delicately retrieving a pale blue pill with an arrowhead carved out of the middle of it.

“It’s a ten, break in half and you’ll have two doses, if you need them.”

I was 17, a full set of braces freshly removed, and a bad crown of permed hair weighing down my tiny self-image. My date: a pen pal from New York. I’d found his address in a Star Trek fan magazine. (No really). We’d never actually met until I picked him up at the airport earlier that day.

Of course I needed both halves of that blue pill.

Go forward a bit more to my wedding.

The guy I’m about to marry is a mistake. I know it. My family knows it. Even the doctor I work for knows it. And somewhere down inside his hollow heart, my fiancé knows this is a mistake too.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Meemaw says, zipping up the back of the wedding dress she spent three months making.

“But all those people. I can’t do it. I have to do it,” I said, starting to feel the alien scratch the insides of my ribcage.

“Do you want one?” she says. We both know what she’s talking about.

Under my veil I nod my head.

My dad is loaded to the gunnels with whiskey, as was his Saturday night custom. He and I lean into each other so we can make it down the aisle without looking like two ships caught in a storm at sea. I count the steps under my breath to keep my focus: one, two, one, two…

Click on the next chapter and you’ll see the montage of me clutching a paper bag over my mouth and nose to stop hyperventilating during various stressors over the next few years: the first Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, finding out I’m pregnant, deciding to divorce my husband and some other scenes that I can’t even really remember, but you get the idea.

The montage will also show that I became a borderline recluse because of the fear of public panic attacks. The montage ends with me in an E.R. being hooked up to an EKG because I’m certain I’m having a heart attack.

Fade out of montage into this bit of dialogue:

“You have a fairly severe anxiety disorder.”

Fade to black.

Andrew Solomon calls anxiety “The Noonday Demon” in his book by the same name. That’s what it feels like to me, emotionally. Like a creature that appears and disappears based on what’s happening in my life.

Physically, anxiety feels like I have swallowed an orange. My jaw and shoulder muscles tighten like mollybolts; my lungs seize like they’re drowning. Mentally, it feels like a troop of howler monkeys has taken up residence in my skull.

But I don’t reach for the arrowheads anymore. I’ve learned to face down the demon, the alien, the monster. Running helps. Five minute mindfulness breaks help. Writing helps most of all. Ten minutes of focused reflection, of being ruthlessly honest with myself on paper.

The poet, Rilke, wrote:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Could it be possible that anxiety needed me to recognize it as something good? I wondered. After some rigorous questions, I started to find answers I never expected.

Anxiety made me who I am. It’s made me empathetic to others because anxious people learn to quickly scan faces and body language, to read emotions. That’s helped me to be a better co-worker – and when I remind myself to breathe – a better partner, parent, and friend.

Anxiety helps me think through decisions much more carefully because I’m aware of how much I catastrophize.

As a teacher, anxiety blueprinted emotional supports for my students. It taught me to build support systems into every class. To value them at a deeper level, honor their voice, and foster self-management of their needs, or to seek the validation of a small group of their writing peers.
If they need the nurse or the counselor, they have the freedom to take my hall pass and go quietly. Anxiety taught me to check in with them to gauge their mood, allowing them to opt out of the lesson until they can recalibrate.

Because I’ve relied so heavily on writing, I am able to show them how writing can quiet their minds and their moods, how it can be used to build bridges to other minds.

Ruminating over flaws and failures taught me to build a culture where it’s OK to be human, where achievement isn’t your only worth. Where your competencies with humor, thoughtfulness, conscientiousness, friendship, and consistency are valued.

As a department chair, anxiety taught me the power of co-creation. How to lead from a shared power model because I know that I can’t wholly trust my own perceptions. My colleagues can see what I can’t and I need their vision. In a very real sense, anxiety helped me get better at trusting other people’s opinions, and to involve them in decision-making.

So yes, what stood in the way – anxiety – has become the way.

The dragon becomes a princess.

The battle becomes a blessing. The limitation becomes my lesson. The problem is my path.

Photo credit: Courtesy of ASCD


Something that often happens after I speak to a group of people is that I find several of them waiting for me after the event is over. They want to talk to me about a teacher.

They hug me sometimes, especially younger people. They hold my hands while they talk to me, put their arm around me as they tell me about a teacher they loved. Sometimes they cry and sometimes they smile. But they want to tell me this story. They seem compelled to tell me, almost like I’m their confessor.

Why does this happen? And why do they want to talk to me?

I think because I’m there and I’m available. Many of the people they want to tell me about are no longer living, so I think I am a symbol of the person they’re thinking about. Also, maybe they haven’t thought about their favorite teacher in a long time and they’re reminded , sitting in the audience, of a person who was important to them.

I’ve been privileged to hear so many stories and people give them to me like a gift. They seem to trust that I’ll hold these for them and somehow be an intermediary for Mrs. X, or Mr. Y, or Coach Z.

And they are a gift. They have similar themes, all of these memories. Regardless of age, they all say the same things about how this person saw something valuable in them. How no one else – not even themselves – could see this until a teacher pulled it from them like a coin from behind their ear.

Alternately, teachers – or former teachers – come  up to me to tell me that they had a student like the ones I describe in my speeches. Their eyes are often full of tears and they tell me how they’ve never forgotten Michael or Mikayla. They say that the speech made them want to go back in the classroom. And much as I want to believe that I’m bringing some kind of magical rejuvenation to them with my magical words, I know better. It’s not my words they’re reacting to, but their memories. They remember what these students looked and sounded like. They remember the relationship. They know now, looking back, how central that relationship is to their own identities as teachers.

What these occasions tell me is that relationships between teacher and student run deep. They stay in the memory for decades. This is why you can’t replace teachers with computers or even fancy robots.

We need each other.

We need someone to look at us, notice us, encourage us, motivate us, and call on our better angels.

Teaching is one of the most human enterprises because we are witness to the everyday miracles of human progress: Hawa writes her name for the first time. Alex realizes that his girlfriend breaking up with him won’t break him. Sasha looks amazed at a finished essay of her own thoughts, Griselda reads a book for the first time. And on and on. Every day miracles of achievement, self-actualization, and baby steps toward being better than the day before.

Teachers have a front row seat for this. We applaud every small victory, stunned by exhibit #1,022 that teaching moves mountains, pebble by pebble.

As students, we look at our teachers, seeing our own worth validated in their smiles, their nods of encouragement. The best teachers are those who love us through our half-formed selves, tolerating our awkwardness, yet celebrating us forward.

Forward into the next grade, the next phase, forward through the next obstacle.

You, teacher and you, student are never forgotten. Ever. In our memories, we conjure your face, your voice in those times when a speech or an image or a movie triggers us. We remember how sometimes, on some random Tuesday in our past, we consecrated our shared humanness and it blesses us still.

Image credit:  simpleinsomnia CC BY 2.0

5 Ways for Teachers To Be Kind To Themselves

When I was in my 20’s, I regularly startled awake with terror, grabbed a small paper bag, and hyperventilated into it until I began to feel myself become lightheaded. In my 30’s, I went to the emergency room twice for panic attacks so severe I thought I was having a heart attack. Is there a coincidence between the fact that I traded one high-stress job – journalism – for another: teaching?

I kept my panic and anxiety a secret, ashamed of the fact that “nothing was wrong with me.” Clearly, something was wrong, and the root of it was the driven nature of my personality. A driven nature rewarded for workaholism, yet had the side effects of severe anxiety and self-loathing.

Kindness was something I could give to anyone else but myself. And I see quite a few teachers who seem to have the same problem. Maybe it’s because the dark side of the profession can encourage codependency, martyrdom, toxic levels of guilt, and self-blame. Teachers, as a rule, aren’t kind to themselves.

In Othello, Shakespeare wrote: “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.” In other words, we are the ones who control what grows within us, for good or for bad. So, let’s start by being kind to ourselves. Without that base, it doesn’t matter what techniques you use, what strategies you employ – you’re going to burn yourself out like a played-out plot of land and be of no use to anyone.  

I resisted the temptation to write this post at the new year to keep it far enough away from Jan. 1 so as not to confuse it with a resolution. In February, it seems that diets die, all the Christmas bills come in, the weather turns nasty, and everything seems dark and depressing. Now feels like a  good time to prepare for the storms ahead, particularly the hurricane of stress that comes from spring testing.

Inspired by two writers, here’s a list of five concrete actions you can take to be kind to yourself that I’ve adapted for teachers. Each of the links lead to resources I’ve relied upon to keep me happier, more grounded, and more kind to myself – and others.

  1. Schedule a conference with yourself.

Give yourself “planning & preparation time.”  Deliberately plan to spend 15-30 minutes at the beginning or end of your day on just you. Feed your head and heart by reading, listening to music or watching something that inspires you, or helps you to understand yourself, or points you to topics that make you wonder, make you curious, and make you know that there is goodness in the world.

  1.  Nurture your inner coach.

Most everyone has an inner voice that runs game tape on everything, pointing out failures and flaws. Few of us have an inner coach, a voice that cheers us on and points out what we did well. When faced with inner or outer criticism, try to cultivate a voice that reminds you how much better you’ve gotten since this time last year. It takes practice to nurture that positive voice, but imagine your coach having the voice of someone who’s always loved you. Ask yourself: what would that person say to you in tough times? Then have your coach repeat that to you.

  1.  Develop a reflective practice.

Use a digital or physical journal to process your day. I try to do this once everyone clears out of the building and before I go home for the day. Start by setting a timer for ten minutes then thinking through three questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go so well?
  • What do I want to do?

The questions help you to remember your successes, which we often forget to credit ourselves for, plus ground you in the reality of what can improve. The final question keeps you from ruminating on what went wrong, cultivates a sense of hopefulness, and creates a more accurate picture of your practice.

  1. Do something small and good.

Because teachers make hundreds of decisions each day, it can sometimes be paralyzing to make decisions for yourself. On those days when you feel, to paraphrase Herman Melville, a dark, gray November in your soul, choose one of these to take one step towards the light:

  • On your lunch break, go to your car, drive out of the parking lot, put on your favorite song, and sing. Sing like no one’s listening – because they aren’t.
  • Or, turn your lights off, shut and lock your door with you on the inside, then put in your headphones and your best dance mix. Dance like no one’s watching – because they aren’t.
  • If the weather permits, eat lunch outside. This is something my dept. chair used to do to give herself a break – and to make herself scarce for a bit so she could have some moments to herself.  
  • Don’t feel guilty – this actually makes you a better teacher, plus there’s research supporting small breaks.
  1. Take a brain break.

I love videos of baby otters, of baby goats, or really any kind of baby. I also love clips from comedians who make me laugh, humor writers, and the pictures people send in to Awkward Family Photos. And I schedule 5 – 10 minutes to watch one in my day. Friends and students make suggestions, which introduces me to even more funny stuff, and the goodness of this is compounded when they’re watching and laughing with me.

When things get particularly stressful, I’ve noticed that even watching the video of the otter stacking cups for the 50th time can still make me smile, or that looking at really bad Christmas family photos makes me laugh. And again, science shows multiple benefits from laughter, so consider it a healthy practice.

Image: Good Friends by Juliana Coutinho via Creative Commons CC BY 2.0


Testing The Teacher

“What’s the best way to evaluate a teacher?”

The question, asked of me by one of the members of the National Teacher of the Year interview panel, was one I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“I’ll answer that by telling you a story,” I said.

Stories are how I make sense of anything. Partly because I’m just no good at remembering statistics and academic sources under pressure. Partly because I come from a clan of people who illustrate everything with a story.

My first year to teach Advanced Placement English was also my first year to feel completely successful as a teacher, if success meant getting perfect test scores. All of the AP students passed the test for graduation; half of them received academic recognition – meaning they answered all of the questions right and wrote high-scoring essays.

“I am a master teacher – be me,” I joked to my colleagues.

But down deep, I nurtured an almost electric thrill at meeting this marker of “objective” teaching success. I wanted to believe my own joke.

Rattling around somewhere in that little raisin-sized conscience of mine, I knew the truth: I hadn’t given much to those kids that they didn’t already have. Sure, I taught them how to finesse a few things in their writing, how to do some closer reading of texts. But really, they would’ve scored almost as well with a substitute teacher. Because that really happened one year at my school.

The “permanent substitute,” (one of my favorite education oxymorons), who took over a class for almost the entire school year, had better scores than veteran teachers. He had no classroom management; his class looked like a modern version of this:


And yet, “his” scores were not the worst in the department.

Which brings me round to another part of my story. That first year for AP was also my first year to teach two classes of refugee students. And they took the same graduation test as my AP students.

Spoiler alert: no one passed.

“I’m the worst teacher in the world,” I thought. “I should be fired.” Because once you factored in my ESL students’ scores, my 100 percent perfect average became 50 percent, making me – officially – the worst teacher on my campus.

And so I put to you the same questions I used to end my story at the interview:

“Which is the truth? Was I the worst teacher? Or the best teacher? And upon what criteria are you basing your answer?”

And that, dear reader, is the same spot we find ourselves in wherever teachers are judged solely on test scores.

I’m not even good at math, but here’s my statistical probability prediction: Where, what, and who you teach will show similar patterns of “successful” and “failing” schools and teachers across your district.

Any district.

And yes, please test me on that.


Images: no more tests by timlewisnm via Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

“The Blackboard Jungle” (1955) by Cliomuse

Seven Standards for Creating Relationships

One of the mysteries surrounding great teachers is the quality of the relationships they create with their students. Creating relationships with students is a critical attribute of good teaching and student achievement, according to research . Yet given the importance of this skill, there’s little that I’ve found in the way of identifying concrete ways to create the kind of caring and supportive relationships that really help kids. The question of how to do that has been one that’s absorbed me for most of my career. Are there concrete ways, or practical strategies, or essential behaviors that form the rapport of great teachers?

When I think about the big picture of how we get along with each other, I always reach for answers from whom I think of as The Elders. Those thinkers, writers, and philosophers who study the human condition. What patterns do they find? What did they learn that we can use? As I’ve gone deeper into the questions, I’ve discovered patterns of seven, which was intriguing, seven being such a mystical number. 

One pattern of bad relationships and miserable lives is summed up in the classic Seven Deadly Sins AKA the Capital Vices or the Cardinal Sins. They emerged in the fourth century as a way of describing behavior to be confessed and ultimately healed by confession. While somewhat variable over time, most recognize them as:








A parallel group of Seven Virtues began in the work of Plato, who identified four of them; the three rounding out the group refined by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Some have alternate definitions (perhaps because it’s easy to say what’s bad, but more difficult to describe what’s good) The list is:



Temperance (or Restraint)

Courage (or Fortitude)



Charity (or Love)

Rachel Kessler, author of The Soul of Education, created a curriculum of Seven Gateways to Soul in Education that she built from thousands of interviews with students and colleagues in the field of social and emotional learning. Her list is:

The yearning for deep connection

The longing for silence and solitude

The search for meaning and purpose

The hunger for joy and delight

The creative drive

The urge for transcendence

The need for initiation

The final set of seven I discovered is from the work of John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington, who became famous for a scientifically based model of predicting divorce with more than 90 % accuracy. Decades of  watching couples yielded a list of Seven Principles on the Road to Happily Ever After:

Know each other’s goals, worries, hopes, and dreams

Nurture fondness and admiration

Turn toward each other – respond to bids for attention

Let your partner influence you

Solve your solvable problems

Overcome gridlock

Create shared meaning

What do these have to do with teaching and how can you use it your classroom? That’s what I’m going to be exploring for the next seven weeks.

Image: Illuminated Manuscript, Duke Albrecht’s Table of Christian Faith, Seven Deadly Sins by Walters Art Museum via Creative Commons Public Domain

Falling On My Face

Being one of the only girls in the mass of neighborhood kids made me constantly compete with the boys and try to impress them. This led to frequent stupidity and pain.

After seeing George Hamilton play motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel at the movies, all of the boys – and me, the girl they deigned to let join them – decided to build a bike ramp. We wanted to reenact Knievel’s scenes of bike-jumping glory. Craig, who was an Alpha Male before I knew what that meant, decided that he would build the  ramp.


He ordered us to scavenge the neighborhood to find the proper materials for his ramp. Only a Craig-approved ramp could showcase his superior bikemanship. And we, who were not Craig, could only exemplify his magnificence by participating with all of our awkward failure.

My bike, a purple girly Schwinn, (a “Sting-Ray for Girls”), came with a flowered basket attached, a floral pattern on the banana seat, and streamers on the handlebars. I stripped it of all feminine affectation in a bid for Craig’s approval. It was still a girly bike, but now looked like it meant business.


Craig built the ramp much higher than I would have. He expertly pedaled toward it, his front tire barely kissing the ramp. The speed propelled him through a perfect and graceful arc. I can still see him suspended in the air, like a bike bird of prey. He landed expertly, his knees bent into natural shock absorbers. He ended with speed to power-drift into a 180-degree grace note.

I was in awe. My brain had only one thought: I want to be that. This thought pushed me toward the ramp, but my tire didn’t kiss the ramp – it mauled it. I realized, a balloon of panic inflating inside my chest, that I was not Craig. My bike dropped out of sky, stopping on what might have been a perfect front-tire wheelie stand, but I couldn’t hold on. Instead, I sailed through the handlebars toward the ground, the force of the fall rubbing my face across the gravel like a pencil eraser.


You’d think I’d learn after something so painful, but it took many trips to the emergency room to repair the damage wrought by all of my biking fiascos. This is what my ego often feels like when it attaches to these ideas of being Super Teacher. It takes lots of ego abrasions for me to let go of this idea of competitive teaching. Or teaching as performance.

And there are plenty of teaching Evel Knievels who have their own movies to induce me into more feeble copycatting. Our culture rewards Super Teachers and makes movies out of them. We worship these people, which isolates them and in a way, distances their experiences from us. As if they have some ability we will never have.


Education affords me an intoxicating mix of idealism and competition, giving me a gateway to prove my worth. And, my ego would say, proving my special Knievel-like superpowers.

I cling to this idea. I cling to my ego and suffer all the time. You’d think I would finally realize this and let go. It’s like a warped reenactment of Jacob and the Angel: “I won’t let you go, Ego, until you bless me.”

 Except the ego can’t bless. It just curses me with self-consciousness and self-absorption. It’s only those moments that I truly lose myself that I do anything of any value. When I am completely unselfconscious.

Education is set into hierarchies that ultimately hurt us. In my brief travels as NTOY, I’ve noticed that the schools doing the most interesting work, the most creative, the most relevant and helpful to its students, are those where I can’t tell “who’s the boss.” The teachers engage in the work as much as the students, the administrators as much as the teachers. There is much, much less ego in those places. No one clings to positions and titles. No one performs.

That’s part of what teacher leadership is. We have to see real, everyday examples of people doing great work. That’s why I’m much better off not watching movies, but instead watching the best teachers on my campus. And when I get really brave, I watch videos of my own classroom where I clearly see what is happening and not happening. Where I can ground myself in what’s real, not in the phony reflected shadows of trying to be someone else.

Each of us have our own teaching gifts. We are powerful when we give our talent as a gift rather than a performance. I have to remind myself that teaching is not a competition. It’s more about an attitude for the work that creates an aptitude for the work.

The best teachers are channels. And anyone can do that. You don’t have to be famous or special. The best make themselves available to what mystics call the numinous, and what others call God or the Universe, to animate our work.

And somehow, in a way I can never explain, this creativity, this energy, arrives. But it only arrives through the channel of my willingness to be present and of service. Trying to make teaching into a stunt to dazzle and amaze always causes this energy to leave and me to fall on my face.

 Image credits:

Evel Knievel VHS cover

Evel Knievel 1971

1970 Fair Lady

Soft Gravel Road in Illinois

Freedom Writers



I didn’t realize that posting a video showing a Muslim woman standing up in silent protest at a Trump rally would spark people to comment on my post (who have never commented on any posts of mine). I want to thank those people who argued with me for helping to remind me of my own values and how far I sometimes drift away from them.


“You can’t accept presents from black boys. They might get ideas.” “Are you going to the prom with your Abie Jew-boy?” “I got you these baby clothes, but I had to fight the Mexicans off them. They ruin everything.” “That boy is a secret-cell terrorist right there.” “AIDS is God’s punishment on gay people.”


All of the quotes were said to me. Except the last one. That one, shamefully, was one I said long ago and far away when I was a member of a Fundamentalist (some would say “extremist”) Baptist church in, of all places, California. And because I can own my own prejudice, bigotry, and hateful words, I know also that minds and hearts can be changed.


My friends don’t believe me when I explain that I used to be a hard-right, Fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who went door to door trying to convert “unbelievers” (read: any other belief than mine). But it’s true. It was only when I actually read the New Testament for myself and thought my own thoughts, rather than those of the pastor of that church, that I began to see how I labeled the “other” in my life. And how that labeling gave me a false sense of superiority.


It’s so easy to be right when you never get challenged. It’s so easy to label people if you don’t ever try to know them as people. It’s so easy to judge and condemn people. I loved that life because I didn’t have to think very much or very hard.


Listening – really listening to people who disagree with me, argue with me, and point out my flaws is humbling, hard, and painful. Meeting new people, especially those who speak a different language than me, is intimidating, anxiety-provoking, and difficult. Being empathetic to another person’s experience is really hard when that person behaves in a way that is uncivil, ungraceful, awkward, or embarrassing.


Carl Jung believed that we could find wholeness by embracing what he termed our shadowthat part of ourselves that is frightening, embarrassing, awkward, and sometimes evil. Dr. Phillip Zimbardo created a terrifying experiment that proved how, given the right conditions, any of us are capable of evil.


No one, it seems, bothers me more than someone who exhibits behaviors that I am ashamed of having myself. This American Life recently did a brilliant piece featuring how this shadow self motivates Internet trolls.


What helps is to admit it, to be aware of your own tendency to put labels on people and dehumanize them. Einstein believed we all could get better at confronting what he called humanity’s infinite capacity for “stupidity.”


The picture illustrating this post is from my all-time favorite children’s book The Sneetches, which I read often to remind myself that all labels are created by us to make us feel better about ourselves. There are also quite a few real-life McBean’s who make money off of labeling, and encourage all of our prejudices and bigotry. It’s a great, short read. This link is not so short, and not so easy to read, but it’s an important reminder that the main world religions command believers to treat others the same way they want to be treated.


[cross-posted from my Facebook page]


Have you ever done something you didn’t think you could do like lift something really heavy or run a 5K? The shaky, endorphin-fueled high that follows is the reward of your crazy physical shenanigans. And it’s the same when your brain lifts the equivalent of Volkswagen Beetle.


With my daughters on Thanksgiving after we finished a 5k

Today marks a professional milestone for me: my first peer-reviewed journal article published. This is something that I always wanted to do, but somehow never “got around” to doing. It’s amazing what a deadline, coupled with a generous invitation from Dr. Kim Pinkerton at the University of Houston-Downtown, will do. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: a deadline will concentrate the mind wonderfully.

The link to the online version is here at the archives of the Journal of Family Strengths :


“What Is Essential Is Invisible To The Eye”: Culturally Responsive Teaching As A Key To Unlocking Children’s Multiple Literacies

That title alone is so weighty and reminds me of my masters’ coursework. The part in quotes is from one of my “life books” – The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The Fox says this to The Little Prince:

Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.


If you know the book, you know that the Fox is the most memorable character because he teaches the young prince about relationships. Teaching, much like the Fox, has done that for me. If I had to sum up all of my teaching “wisdom,” it would be this quote.


Students in Palestine reenacting a scene from The Little Prince for me

My brain is still uncramping and a little wobbly. But I can’t stop smiling because in this publication, I see children’s questions validated, as well as research I’ve spent almost a decade collecting, in print. Finally.


Ronaldinho of Brazil scores! 


Amen and hallelujah

Image: the little prince by bekassine CC BY-SA 2.0

NTOY Year So Far, Pt. 2

For someone who never really traveled much in her life, this year has been a huge learning curve and “growth opportunity” for me. In short, I think travel made me a better human being. That’s certainly what Pico Iyer believes and writes about here. I’m not sure if travel made me richer or sexier, but it definitely taught me to think practically.

I’m one of those suckers for year-end listicles, so here’s one I put together for any of you who may be traveling a lot in the new year. Some of them may seem dumb, but I assure you, I learned each of them the hard way.

Travel Tips I’ve Learned: 

  1. Always pack flats or other comfortable shoes.
  2. Window seats let you see some cool stuff.
  3. Be nice to airport staff – you might do something really stupid like leave your carry on bag on the plane in Philadelphia and need their help.
  4. Stay calm and be nice to TSA agents – even if they are rude and yell at you like the ones in Newark. Don’t let that kind of behavior ruin your day or your trip. And often, TSA agents are kind and respond to kindness (and it would be hard to beat the sweetness of those in Manchester, NH).
  5. Be adventurous – use TripAdvisor, Yelp or other apps to find interesting things to see, to do and places to eat. Google Maps walking directions have taken me all over big cities and made me feel like a native.
  6. Be nice to fellow travelers – they feel the same as you. Many are flying for sad reasons. Little kindnesses, I’ve learned, have the biggest impact when you’re alone and vulnerable.
  7. Be nice to all hotel staff. You might get things like champagne and macaroons in your room.
  8. Drink lots of water – it makes a huge difference in your mood and energy level.
  9. Don’t drink booze on the plane. Just trust me on this.
  10. Exercise! Even if you can’t hit the gym, walk in the airports. You’ll feel 100% better, I promise. And stand as much as possible in the airport. Sitting makes you sad and tired.
  11. Pack a small Bluetooth speaker to make yourself feel at home in hotel rooms. Hearing my jazz music helped ground me on those nights when I suddenly awoke from a nightmare in a generic room and didn’t know where I was for a few minutes.
  12. Pack headphones and download your favorite music. I don’t think I could fly without it. Once, when my plane hit a vicious wind shear in Denver, I decided that if I were going to crash, Ella Fitzgerald would be the voice carrying me to the other side.
  13. Dress nicely to fly and smile at everyone. I’ve been surprised by the change in my treatment when I quit wearing sweat pants and frowning.
  14. Travel apps I love: TripIt (Anette Carlisle suggested this to me and it’s been a lifesaver), Gate Guru (which always helps me find food in airports, and once helped me find a place that sells MacBook Air accessories when I left my power cord at a venue), Boingo (because I need stable, accessible wi-fi and this is the best, but a little pricey, option), CamScanner (a free app that turns receipts into pdfs for expense reports and then exports them to email – amazing), and Day One (a journaling app where I keep notes about this year along with pictures that spark my memory)
  15. Sign up for reward programs – they’re worth it

Image: Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind – Seneca by Kate Ter Haar CC BY 2.0

As Long As There Are Teachers, There Is Life

For most of my career in education, easy clichés about school, well-worn phrases about its importance, and rote messages of uplift and inspiration flowed fairly easily from me. Then I went to the Middle East.

At the invitation of the State Department’s U.S. Speaker’s program, I visited Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. And what I saw there felt as though someone ripped off a pair of smudgy glasses and gave me new ones. The platitudes I’ve lazily used about education shattered as I met teachers who, in the words of Palestinian poet Rafeef Zadiah, teach life.

In Gaza, I met teachers through a digital video conference who explained how the trauma of ongoing violence has created an unnerving status quo. “I have a hole in the ceiling of my classroom,” one teacher told me. “Do you know how hard it is to convince a child that their dreams matter when there’s been a hole in the classroom ceiling for months?” But, she explained, the teachers hope in their students. “We’re traumatized too,” she said. “But our trauma is helped by taking care of our students. By making them know they are worthy of dreams. They are not just a number or statistic.”

In Lebanon, two young men explained the power of choice that education gave them. Both were products of the ACCESS program a U.S. funded initiative that uses the teaching of English to deliver American ideals through innovative lesson design. “I only had the madrassa,” Mustafa Hamad, 21, said. “They taught me only despair, only death. ACCESS showed me life, showed me that my dream could happen.” He is in college studying computer engineering. Another, Ibrahim Alsakhle, 22, equally enthusiastic about his experiences with ACCESS, decided to become a math teacher. “One sentence can change your life. It changed mine. My teacher said, ‘There is better for you if you go to college.’ So I did. I want my students to know that their brains matter,” he said.

For some children in Lebanon, it’s a matter of space and staff. The country is struggling to process an overflow of Syrian refugees straining their schools. “We have about 100,000 Syrian children in schools,” Hilda El Khoury told me. “We have to have school in two shifts to accommodate them.” I asked her what classes were like before the civil war that sent so many fleeing across the Lebanese border. “About 25 a class, average. That’s doubled now.”

Most chilling of all, El Khoury told me that it’s the children they know are in the country, but can’t be accounted for. “We know we have at least 200,000 children who are not in school,” she said.

As a teacher, that number terrifies me. So many children deprived of learning, many of whom are in the most sensitive neurological phase for language, math, and science lessons.

Dr. Wafa Kotob, who, when explaining the woeful lack of professional teachers in Lebanon’s public schools, nevertheless smiled at me and said, “But I’m an educator, so I have hope.”

Hope. Peace. Dreams. These words were repeated in Israel where teachers design lessons to specifically bring these words into the lives of their students. At Sharet High School, teacher Sarah Dayan gave me a sticker that each student gets on the first day of school. It is the Golden Rule in Hebrew. The same is true at The Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa where the school’s flag is a symbol of a peace being planted and bearing fruit.

That’s the thing about teachers. We can’t worry about the politics. We have to worry about the children. We have to believe that the seeds we plant in our students will bear fruit in a better world. Teachers, and particularly those who teach in war zones, are a concrete symbol of the future. As long as there are teachers, there is life, there is a plan, a belief that things will get better.
But when you rip teachers out of a society, as in Syria, you’ve unraveled the future.
On the plane home, I couldn’t shake the thoughts of all of those Syrian children who aren’t in school. Though the children in Gaza are traumatized, they have teachers who love and care for them, who are a daily reminder that they exist and are worth care and concern.
The Syrian children who are “off the books” are like ghost children, existing in a limbo of waiting for war’s end. They are learning. But what and from who?
These children deserve education. Their untapped potential, their wasted talent and creativity is a hidden casualty of a seemingly unending war. As a representative of the United States, I met many people who believe in and support education as our most powerful antiwar and anti-terrorism weapon. More information about this work is available here:
USAID for Syrian Children

Image: Syrian refugee children in a Lebanese school by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development via CC BY SA-2.0

Cross-posted at Huffington Post Education

My NTOY Year So Far, Pt. 1

“This year must really be a whirlwind for you.”

When people aren’t quite sure what to say to me in those inevitable awkward pauses that come in small talk, they say this. Whirlwind kind of captures the experience, but a whirlwind is something you get caught in, something that happens to you. The whole process of the Teacher of the Year is something you are chosen to do, something you choose to do; something you sign on for. So for me, it’s much more accurate to say:

“This year has been like one bull ride after another.”

Not that I’ve ever ridden a bull, but I have been a fan of bullriders because they sign up to do something really scary. Just look at the 27-second clip of   J.W. Harris embedded at the top of the post. This is the metaphor I keep coming back to because the whole business of trying to represent something as big as 3 million teachers and U.S. public education feels about as foolhardy as climbing on top of some giant beast and trying to hang on. You just hope you can keep your form, be somewhat graceful in your dismount, and not get trampled.

For someone who is basically an introvert to decide that yes, she will try her best and attempt to do what her predecessors have done so masterfully , feels much like climbing up on a giant, irritable beast. And thank God for them because they showed me that it can be done and done with style. (Seriously, click those links – they’ll take you to their awesomeness).

And so, as I try to reflect at the end of the year, what keeps coming back to me are the faces of the people I’ve met. They’re saved in pictures on my phone, sure, but they’re embedded in my thinking, in my speaking. What I know down deep is that the same kind of person becomes a teacher. I don’t care where you live or what you teach or what language you speak. You, like me, believe in concrete hope.

Hope is no abstraction and no cliché for us. We believe that the seeds that we plant in our students every day will bear fruit in a better world for all of us. So many teachers work in what feels like anonymity, but they are vital to their students. They are the person for them who is unrelentingly positive, who stands at doorways in classrooms everywhere saying, “I’m here and I’m going to help you. You can do this and I’m going to help you find out how.”

When it’s quiet, when I catch my breath, I think about the teachers who do this work. They’re riding their own bulls and making it look so easy. They gracefully handle the beasts of poverty, addiction, mental illness, trauma, domestic violence, despair, and snarls and snares of bureaucracy. To be a teacher is to master all of that while keeping one hand free for whoever asks for your help. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bruises and there’s not pain, but man what a ride.

Image: Bull Rider by diosthenese licensed under CC BY 2.0

Video via rwillie22 @ YouTube edited with TubeChop

Warriors of Hope

Recently, I wrote about what it means to me to be a warrior of kindness. That phrase is paired with another in the speech I quoted from: warrior of hope.

The whole idea of using warrior in the context of a person doing battle with the difficulties of life  comes from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer. Her writing – while not about teaching or education – nevertheless speaks to me in my experience over nearly 14 years of teaching.

Chodron writes, in her new book Living Beautifully:

“Your desire is to make a difference in even one person’s life, so that they can feel that someone is there for them.”

Yes, exactly. The most idealistic part of me strives to be that.

However, here is the dark truth of teaching:

“Then before long, you find yourself so activated by the behavior of young people that you totally lose it and can’t be there for them anymore.”

Continue reading Warriors of Hope

Risk Being Real

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about leadership is deceptively simple: Good leaders are authentic and vulnerable.

Genuine leaders, in my own experience as well as those who’ve historically emerged as effective influencers, are those who risk being real.

Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher, says that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And she’s right. When a leader isn’t afraid of their own vulnerability, they can foster it in those they hope to lead.

When I took on my first leadership role in education, it was an almost excruciating exercise in vulnerability. Suddenly, I faced the fact that I had a group of people looking to me to help them. The only help I seemed to have at the time was sharing all the mistakes I’d made. But, gradually this openness about my experience, coupled with an honest report of my practice created trust within my team. That trust released the team from a need to push an agenda, angle for position, or any of the other ugly behaviors that spring from insecurity. That’s when I realized that you can’t create trust unless you are willing to be real.

Brown’s definition of vulnerability is not one of weakness or humiliation. Rather, she sees it as a mindset. It springs from a deep sense of worthiness, from self-honesty, and self-acceptance. In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she explains this counterintuitive advice as a willingness to accept uncertainty and a lack of control.

That definition runs counter to most management philosophies and strategies. But that’s just it. We’re not talking about management, we’re talking about leadership and to me, vulnerability and authenticity are the crucial distinctions between the two.

For example, at my school, it’s the teachers who are willing to say that they have more to learn, and who are open to learning from others, that create true innovation in their classrooms. They are willing to face the discomfort of not being “the smartest person in the room,” to examine their practice, to research, experiment, and work with others to find solutions.

This is the same idea exemplified in Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to actively build what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin famously named the “team of rivals.” He deliberately sought out those who opposed him as the ones to give him honest assessment of his plans during one of the nation’s most critical eras.

In art, it took an unheard of willingness to risk authenticity when those whom we now describe as Impressionist painters used their rejection from the Academy to create their own showing. The success of Renoir and Monet completely changed the course of modern art.

In music, Louis Armstrong’s innate sense of his own worthiness gave him the confidence to step out as a solo jazz performer, which in turn paved the way for musicians like Duke Ellington and Les Paul.

Closer to our own time, entrepreneur Richard Branson believes his willingness to embrace his dyslexia taught him to think differently and more creatively.

The lesson is a hard, but necessary paradox: leadership comes from embracing the people who argue with you, from risk, from change, and accepting our own limitations.

When we risk being real, when we do one small brave thing by saying to each other, “Here’s  what I’ve tried, what have you tried?” That vulnerability is what creates true collaboration. And collaboration is what saves us. It’s what’s always saved us. It’s what defines true leadership.


Video: Louis Armstrong’s amazing “St. James Infirmary”

Slideshow & essay: Impressionism

Image credit:

“The Velveteen Rabbit”  illustrated by William Nicholson is in the public domain


5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year

I love end of the year self-improvement articles – especially if they come in list form. Imagine my surprise when I found teaching advice that’s more than 100 years old, yet still pretty fresh as well as easy to listify.

Among the many wonders of the Internet is Project Gutenberg where you can download several lifetimes’ worth of free ebooks. Which is how I came to know Craftsmanship in Teaching by William C. Bagley, published in 1912.

Bagley was an elementary teacher before becoming a professor of education at the University of Illinois and later Teachers College at Columbia. 

Surely, I thought, this old book would be something to laugh at over a glass of champagne while I keep myself warm burning worksheets in my fireplace. Continue reading 5 Vows Every Teacher Should Make For The New Year