Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

Birthdays, in my experience, become more odd the older you get. My friend Gini, when I told her I would be 52 this year, said: “Your fifties – you just live them. You’re not old or young. I never remembered how old I was in my fifties.”

So, on this even birthday year, I decided to make it more memorable by writing about things I’ve learned. My inspiration for this came from Srinivas Rao and Eleanor RooseveltI’m always inspired by her and I decided to give myself time to reread her slim, yet profound book:  You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys For a More Fulfilling Life . Written in 1960 when she was 76, Roosevelt positions her ideas around the practice of lifelong learning because, she writes, When you stop learning you stop living in any vital or meaningful sense.”

Continue reading Yes You Can Get Smarter Every Year

What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?

A favorite opening question of mine in professional development workshops is: What do you struggle with the most as a teacher?

The answers are almost always:
1. Students’ lack of motivation
2. Students don’t value education
3. Parents aren’t supportive
4. Students don’t believe in themselves
5. Technology distracts students

These comments are not facts, and viewed differently, they become design questions: Continue reading What If We’re Designing for Disengagement?


I love teaching because it is the hardest job I’ve ever had. I love teaching because it breaks my heart and makes me cry. I love teaching because it makes me so happy I feel like I swallowed a helium balloon on those days when a student owns his or her own power of expression. I love teaching because it is the only job I’ve ever had that hugs me back, that argues with me, that makes me feel like the one candle I can light in my little corner dispels a bit of darkness in the world. I love teaching because it calls on me to be smarter and braver than I ever want to be.

Yes, it’s hard. But then what do you ever commit to that isn’t hard? Yes, it can make you feel like you’re burnt to a crisp, but then isn’t that what happens when you really care? There’s a passage from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that I turn to when I feel like I can’t gin myself up for another day: Continue reading #LoveTeaching

The Personal Spin Cycle: Blame

…we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain.The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort.- Brene Brown 


Pain and discomfort are the ground of teaching and learning. So, to hear Brene Brown describe blame as the way to discharge that makes sense to me.

I don’t have to sit in too many meetings or listen to too many people, like the cardiac nurse who hooked me up to the treadmill for a stress test, to know how often blame is heaped on teachers or students. Sometimes both.

Why isn’t (fill in the blank) happening? Teachers.

And teachers will say: students. A few will say: administrators. Others will say: parents. And around and around it goes, the blame cycle picking up speed and creating enormous distance between people.

This graphic is from a post meant for construction contractors, but it elegantly describes what blame does and how it proliferates along its own vector.

Brown outlines, in her brilliant TED talk, a way out of the cycle. One that is initially much more painful and uncomfortable: the courage to be seen for who we really are:

To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”


Image credit: Patrick McManaman/Unsplash


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

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