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


Advice from Laszlo Bock

If you don’t know, Laszlo Bock is the head of human resources for Google, or what they call “Google People.” He is the man behind some of the most innovative hiring practices and workplace policies that are being used today. Google attracts some of the best talent in the highly competitive market of silicon valley. Business Insider recently published an article highlighting 10 principals used by Bock at Google and why they are effective. I tried to relate these principals to hiring people in a public education setting. While some are definitely possible (on a smaller scale), some would be difficult given the differences between the business and education worlds.

Advice that works

1. Giving meaning to your employee’s work – This one is easy. Bock is a strong proponent of making work more meaningful than a paycheck or quarterly earnings. In education that higher purpose is built into the job. We are charged with educating and developing young people. If you don’t see the higher purpose in that then you should find a different career. However, leaders in a school or district should focus on making that higher purpose the central focus of their decision making and show employees that they feel the same connection to the work.

2. Trusting your team – A lot of school leaders can learn from this piece of advice. An easy way to move toward a culture of trust is by having communication channels that are clearly defined and performance reviews and feedback are discussed openly with everyone involved. The quickest way to lose trust or show that you do not trust someone, is to make decisions behind closed doors and failing to discuss the implications of those decisions with the team. If you have a program in place for training and developing employees along with clearly defined objectives for your team, there is no need to micromanage anyone.

3. Conversations about development and evaluations should be separate – Depending on the district and years of experience, a teacher is usually formally evaluated once or twice a year. These are great times to discuss student data, progress toward goals, curriculum ideas, goals for the future, and other big picture items. Conversations should happen throughout the year about what is going well, not going well, tough issues that have come up, or plans for improvement. These are initiated by either the administration or the teacher and always focused on improvement. DO NOT ONLY DISCUSS IMPROVEMENT AT THE YEAR-END EVALUATION! By this time you’ve missed all of the opportunities to actually improve.

4. Pay attention to your best and worst performers – This is my favorite item on the list. So often schools under-utilize their best employees. People who are great at using technology in the classroom should have opportunities to share that knowledge with the rest of the staff. Average teachers should be given the chance to peer observe the top teachers in the building. On the other end, people that are performing poorly should be closely evaluated. Is there are way to better utilize their strengths or some development that would be beneficial to them? If development doesn’t work, it is more difficult to let an employee go in public education than in the business world but it isn’t impossible. But the evaluations and improvement plans must be honest and show an accurate picture of performance or lack thereof.

5. Nudge people in the right direction – This is a very applicable piece of advice no matter the leadership position you find yourself. Bock basically says that they best way to move the team in the right direction is with guidance and subtle cues rather than blanket directives. It’s more or less a workplace law that people resist change and they violently resist change that is forced on them. Model the type of performance you want from your team and encourage them through debate and conversation to join you.

6. Ease into change – I view this as being closely related to the last point but on a larger scale. He points out that mistakes are inevitable when changing anything in a large organization and you MUST have a minimal threshold of supporters to make it last. This is easier to achieve by being open and transparent and providing opportunities for everyone to buy into the process and be involved. Employees need to be invested. The best example I have is when we recently undertook an update to our strategic plan. All 150 teachers in the building were involved in taking surveys, joining committees, and writing action plans. It was a conscious effort to include as many as possible and take in all opinions. Once it was over the site plan was approved faster than any in recent memory with the fewest changes because the process was slower and more deliberate up front.

Advice that would be difficult

7. Only hire people that are better than you – This is great advice for companies like Google and Facebook. These companies attract and compete for the most talented people in their fields. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he gauges whether to hire someone by asking himself, “would I work for this person?” The approach ensures that the talent is always at a high level and employees are challenging each other. Unfortunately for those of us in the real world we have a finite number of applicants for each position. Yes, we do want to hire the best of the best from the ones we have access but that can often be limited. I would adjust this by saying “hire people that are better than you whenever you get the chance.”

8. Keep things fun and innovative – I don’t have to tell any experienced people in education how difficult this can be. Much of what happens in a public school is not under the control of those working there. Fun and innovation should be found in as many small ways as possible but we can’t be like Google and install sand volleyball courts and tube slides in our cafeteria. We can however have fun and engaging staff days and staff outings. We can use extra-curricular activities like sports and drama to provide connections to the school outside of the classroom.

Advice that will not work

9 & 10. Be selectively generous & Pay unfairly – Of course the two pieces of advice from Mr. Bock that would be near impossible for school leaders have to do with money and benefits. First, he advocates for spending money on things that really matter. Find out what people want and devote your resources in that area. Secondly, he talks a lot about paying people what they are worth to the team. People that are contributing most to the advancement of the organization should be compensated accordingly. Virtually impossible to accomplish in an educational setting. For one thing, you are paying with public money which comes with all kinds of rules. Second, teachers are unionized which comes with a whole other set of issues when not treating people equally. The idea is nice but school leaders will need to come up with more creative ways of rewarding the best and most influential employees. (Pssst…a little secret…they don’t want another flash drive or school t-shirt).

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.


Technology Literacy

Is technology literacy  and institutional responsibility or an individual responsibility?

Schools are moving to a more digital landscape, some quicker than others. One-to-one initiatives are slowly becoming the norm in many districts across the country. Some prefer the tablets and provide students with iPads while others are purchasing Chromebooks. Other districts are taking the cost efficient but risky strategy of “bring your own device.” There are so many factors and variable involved in the move to toward 21st century skills and digital literacy that it can be difficult to keep up. As a member of our district’s strategic planning team, I co-chaired a committee charged with writing our strategies and plan concerning digital learning. Because many aspects were out of our committee’s control (e.g. purchasing devices, approving new tech, etc.), we focused on how to better utilize the tools and devices that were already available or soon to be available. We wanted our teachers and staff to be able to maximize our resources to improve classroom instruction.

There was one question that kept eating at me throughout the process. Every time we discussed any of the new technology or trends that were out there in education today we heard the same response. “I (we) would love to use that, but we’ve never been trained.” There is also the common response, “I (we) do not have time to learn all of this new tech stuff.” I had to ask myself, who is responsible for making sure teachers can use many of the tools that are currently available?

Staff Development?

One idea that kept creeping into the discussion was to include training for all of these new tools in our yearly staff development plan. Oh wait…we also have to include college and career readiness training, best teaching practices, Gallup Strengths, classroom management training, and on and on. There are only so many staff development hours set aside throughout the year and technology receives a small piece of that. Besides, there is simply too many options out there for teachers to possible provide training on everything.

Optional Training?

Another idea was to provide staff with optional training sessions held during off-contract or planning times throughout the year. This is a great idea for those who are highly motivated and have the free time available. The problem is providing trainers for these sessions during a time when budgets are shrinking.

The Solution

When I say this is the solution it by no means implies that we took this approach or that I have seen it work in practice. This is my own personal vision for how technology can grow and develop with a school system. If we decide that digital learning is important to our mission then it must become an expectation that much of the technology is self-taught by teachers and peers. This is an organic solution that starts with developing a culture centered around a clear vision for a forward-thinking digital climate. It must be expected that we aren’t going to waste staff development hours teaching a group of teachers how to open and respond to an email. We can’t plan staff development around the least common denominators that do not devote time to improving their craft in a way that includes technology. Administrators…hold your people accountable for identifying needs, researching solutions, and solving problems without the need for endless, structured staff development sessions aimed at improving the skills of those stuck in the 20th century. We must ask ourselves, how do our students know so much about this technology? Why do some teachers need very little formal training while others take months or years to catch up? The technology is out there and much of it is free to use, experiment with, and learn. Let’s stop wasting time and resources on those who refuse to take advantage of that fact.


Thoughts on Leadership – Emotional Wake

One of the areas I struggle most with is the emotional aspect to leadership. I am not a very emotional person by nature. My top Gallup strengths are analytical, deliberate, competition, and achiever. I am as far away from emotion on the strengths spectrum as you can get. I’m passionate about my job, I am enthusiastic, but I don’t express personal emotion very well. I am awkward when consoling someone who is grieving and often passive when giving praise. Those whom I know well know this about me and understand. However, those who do not know me well may take it as a sign that I do not care as much as I should, which is not the case at all.

Through our leadership training and my experiences in our district I have come to grow in this area and appreciate the importance of the emotional (or relational) side of leadership. Emotional wake refers to how one’s emotions affect others in the organization. If the leader makes a decision out of anger, responds to a request with disinterest because of their mood, or acts annoyed at every question during a team meeting it affects how the team responds. It creates a culture of uncertainty and unpredictability within the organization if no one knows how decisions are made because they are made based on the mood of the leader on any given day. My advise, be conscious of how your mood as a leader affects your decisions as well as the responsiveness of your team. Reset your emotions at the start of each day or even throughout the day when things happen that alter your emotions in a significant way.

– Lance

Digital Education Part 3: The 21st Century Classroom

Digital education has earned a reputation recently. At first it was the new kids on the block which made it interesting and unique. We became excited about using digital video and students having access to information 24 hours a day from anywhere. Digital assessments could save us so much time on grading while giving instant feedback to students. Then it grew and became more complex and more powerful. We have adaptable learning environments that can alter questioning or instruction based on correct or incorrect answers. Assignments can be given digitally, handed in digitally, and shared among peers. Today, the apps have taken over the digital learning landscape. Everything is about new and better web application or iOS applications used on classroom iPads. This obsession with new software, new apps, and new devices has disrupted the real progress that educators are seeking.

The 21st Century Classroom

Besides what many might think, the 21st century classroom does not look like this:

Elementary students in a computer lab

When kids are plugged in to an online or software based learning tool it is just that, a tool. We are using a different medium to teach the same concepts and get the same results. Some students may retain information better this way, although I doubt it. The real 21st century classroom looks like this:

robotclass            IMG_7909

The “new” classroom should be about creating, presenting, collaborating, and synthesizing complex information in ways that go beyond showing basic sets of skills. Teamwork, innovative thinking, and learning across disciplines is what 21st century learning is about. So when you see they newest app or software program, ask yourself, “is this making our students better thinker and citizens or are they doing a worksheet on a computer?”

– Lance