Controversy

I’ve spent some time away from my blog for a while this summer. This was partially intentional as I have been focusing on other things but has also been a result of not finding the right topics to write about. I find that forcing myself to write about things that I’m not passionate about or don’t have strong feelings for turns out to be poor writing anyway. I would rather take some time away than write about things that I am indifferent towards. Being in education provides a unique layer and a unique filter to my content. Journalists, professional bloggers, stay-at-home dads (or moms), and people from a wide variety of professions can articulate ideas and feelings about almost any topic in the public’s interest and generate debate without repercussions.  For those of us in education, our ideas and feelings must pass through a filter to decide how we will be interpreted by students, parents, administrators, and the community. Recently, this filter has been set at the highest level. Every interesting topic right now has only two sides (in the public opinion arena). If you have opinions one way you are conservative or right wing and if you have opinions the other way you are liberal or left wing. The worst place to be, which I often find myself, is having a “conservative” opinion on one issue and a “liberal” opinion on a different issue and, god forbid, switch positions when you find out more information.

As a teacher I naturally play the role of devil’s advocate because I want to hear people’s rational for what they believe. I want to challenge assumptions and see them defend their positions. Even if I agree. In the current environment of vitriol and closed-mindedness, the simple act of asking tough questions implies that you hold the opposite viewpoint when the reality is that you just want more information. I would never share my views on a public blog regarding gay marriage issues, abortion, race, politics, women’s rights, immigration, climate change, minimum wage, immunizations, etc. I can assure you that some of those topics I would fall on the left, some on the right, and some I go back and forth as I hear new perspectives on the conversation. What prompted me to write this post was a conversation I had with a good friend of mine recently.

It was about 10:00 pm and I received a text that read “Hey, how much research have you done about vaccines?” This was around the time of the measles outbreaks in different parts of the country. We both have small children and we both had differing opinions on the subject. We were able to talk for about an hour sharing information and different sides of the argument. He finally said, “It’s nice to talk to someone about it without anyone getting so upset.” I agreed completely. Perhaps the internet has given people the security they need to voice outrage without an actual confrontation or maybe the loud ones just drown out the level headed people. Either way I encourage everyone, including my students, to question everything including your own point-of-view and disagreeing with someone doesn’t have to mean you hate them or they hate you. It doesn’t imply intelligence or a lack thereof on either side. Civil debate is a powerful tool but is also an art that we all should practice a little more often.

– Lance

My Favorite Students

As a teacher I am charged with the daunting task of convincing my students that the work we do in class is relevant, important, useful, and sometimes can be fun. I understand completely that not every student is going into a math-related field just as I understand that many of the topics we discuss will never be seen again after they leave my room. The lesson I try to leave them with is that I am not guaranteeing you will use this in your life. I am providing you with the opportunity to use it if you need it. I am providing you with some basic skills and knowledge that opens the door for a future in a math-related field or further math study. Whether you walk through that door is completely up to you.

I am finding it more and more prevalent to hear adults (and sometimes even other teachers from other subject areas) promoting the idea to students that math is in fact useless and they will never need it in their lives. My job of providing context and relevance is completely undermined when this type of thinking is reinforced by every other adult in that student’s life. One of the biggest fallacies I hear is when students or adults take one anecdotal example of a successful person and use it to prove school isn’t important because that person made it without being great in school. So here, on the last day of school, I am providing my own anecdotal examples from successful people. These are not math related but reinforce the lessons I strive to get across in my classroom each day.

Magic Johnson

“Every kid [every minority kid] can be successful if they focus on their education.”

“I try to hire people I don’t have to motivate.”

Magic talking about his father – “Look, let me tell you something. If you don’t do this job the right way, you are gonna just always go through life doing things halfway. Every job you have, whether you’re playing basketball or what you’re doing in school, you gotta do it the right way. And you gotta make sure you always get the job done.” He just blew me away with that. I’ve been doing things the right way ever since and making sure everything we do here, everything I do as a man or as a husband, I do the right way. And that I complete the job.

Charlie Day

“I don’t think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run…Let yourself fail. Fail and pick yourself up and fail again. Without that struggle, what is your success anyway?”

Elon Musk

“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

You see, my best students or favorite students (I know, we aren’t supposed to have favorites but that’s human nature. Relax.) are not the ones who can ace every test. They are not always the ones that get A’s or turn in all of their homework. The best students are the ones that have an internal motivation to do well and do great things. They are not motivated necessarily by the math itself but by the learning, thinking, and problem solving. The best students are the ones that understand that they attitude and mindset they have for the things they love must also apply to things they don’t love as much because those attitudes only make you successful when they become habit. And habits form when you are constantly practicing them. They trust that an education has the potential to be valuable in the long run and are not as concerned if they cannot see the explicit value of every topic right now. One of the biggest myths of the education reform movement in recent years is that if the application of a topic cannot by explicitly stated and understood NOW then it’s not important. That mindset needs to shift toward one that believes if we put in the time and work necessary to master the foundation then we have the potential to reach those topics that have real meaning for us in the future. Even if we can’t see what that is right now.

– Lance

Favorite Books of the Past Year

The school year is wrapping up and I was putting together some ideas for books to read over the summer. I am not a fiction reader except for a few of the classics (e.g. 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.). Most of the books I’ve read over the past few years have been about leadership, coaching, competition, education, or any mixture of topics that I can use in my day to day life. I haven’t decided on a summer reading list yet but here are some of my favorites from the past year. In my next post I will list some of the books I plan to read over the next few months.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

I am personally a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and have read many of his books. While some of his rational and extreme viewpoints on certain topics has come under scrutiny by certain groups, there are many lessons and perspectives that can be taken from his work. I would put David and Goliath somewhere in the middle of Gladwell’s books. It wasn’t as good as Blink but more useful that Outliers. There were many connections that could be made directly to education as well as athletic competition in regards to using perceived weaknesses as strengths or taking advantage of situations that seem arduous but provide great opportunity. Being a math teacher I particularly enjoyed the many references to the idea of diminished returns which applies to everything from salary to class sizes. Basically, more of a good thing is not always a good thing. This is an extremely important concept for many ideas in society and in education. The intelligence of Gladwell’s writing makes him an interesting read and the accessibility in the way he writes makes him a fun read.

Relentless by Tim Grover

Tim Grover is famously the trainer for several professional athletes including Michael Jordan, Dwayne Wade, and Kobe Bryant. According to those in the sporting world, Grover’s genius is not only in his workouts but in the way he teaches the mental aspect of competition at the highest level. He has been credited with providing athletes the mental conditioning needed to manage the pressure of being world class and using mental toughness to elevate physical performance. While it is heavy on the athletic side, he clearly states in the book that it applies to everything you do in life that has any competitive component. Whether you are in business, education, or athletics, at some point you will need to perform at a high level or you will face adversity. Grover provides tools on how to handle that. A list of his “relentless 13” traits to be a “cleaner” hang at my desk and I refer to them often. Many go against what you’ll read in a lot of leadership books but if competition is high on your strengths list, this book is for you.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

I love biographies. There are few things more valuable to learning leadership or excellence than by studying those at the top. Steve Jobs was arguably one of the most fascinating leaders of our generation and had an immeasurable impact on the way we live our daily lives today. His leadership style turns many people off. He was harsh, brutally honest, and downright rude much of the time. A different approach probably would have made his companies even more productive. But many believe that they never would have broken through what everyone else thought was impossible without being pushed by Jobs. The biggest takeaway I had from this book was the visionary piece. He had the amazing talent of looking beyond the status quo, creating something no one even knew they wanted, paying painstakingly close attention to every detail, and filling everyone’s homes with ipods, iphones, and ipads.  Whatever your opinion of Jobs and his style, he got things done and that is worth a lot in my book.

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

I thoroughly enjoyed every book on this list, except this one. Don’t get me wrong, the content of the book is practical, useful, and backed up by many anecdotal examples. The problem I had with this book was that it didn’t provide anything new. Wiseman takes ideas that you would find in almost any leadership book and repackages those ideas with different vocabulary and then doesn’t provide any real research. Like I said, the content is solid. Leaders should focus on developing those around them and leveraging their talents to “multiply” the talent of the organization. She talks about challenging those around you and asking great questions. She discusses holding people accountable but also giving them autonomy to fail and grow from it. All of these recommendations are great but could have been summarized in half the number of pages. I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of reading it, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of anyone’s list. It is a great supplement to many leadership resources and can be useful in creating a common language within an organization.

There were a few others that I read on occasion but these were my staples over the past school year. As you can tell, I don’t read many book directly about education or strictly regarding leadership. I feel that the best lessons can be learned from studying really smart people performing in really difficult situations. If an idea or lesson can’t be applied across all aspect of your life (family, friends, school, work, etc.) then it’s most likely not a great idea in the first place. Stay tuned for my upcoming summer book list. I would welcome any suggestions in the comments or on twitter.

-Lance

Parental Honesty

Aside

I recently attended the wedding of a cousin that happened to attend and graduate from the current high school where I teacher. That being the case, there was not a shortage of former students and parents of current and former students in attendance. Toward the end of the night I had one short conversation with a parent that quickly put many things back into perspective and reminded me that we tend to forget the most important part of our profession in the search for the latest and greatest.

This parent had five kids attend our school over the past several years. I personally had two of them in class and coached one. She told me how great it was to send her kids to a school with such professional and caring teachers. She said, “that’s really what makes the difference between [your school] and every where else.”

That small dialog reminded me that we can continue to search for the newest technology and study that latest techniques for teaching literacy in math but it all comes down to building positive relationships with kids and teaching them with passion and enthusiasm. I enjoy my job very much and was given a gift to talk to this mother. She has re-energized me to power through the remainder of the school year knowing that my attitude toward my job is making a difference to my students.

– Lance