The Influence of Teaching (or not)

A new book came out this week called, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership by John Merrow. It’s a good read that received some great advance praise including this:

“John Merrow’s incisive observations and powerful, moving stories in his new book, The Influence of Teachers:  Reflections on Teaching and Leadership, are prescient at a time when the public is searching for solutions to America’s systemic educational challenges. His dedication ‘To Outstanding Teachers Everywhere,’ and his preface ‘Fighting the Last War’ foreshadow the problems and solutions that the book richly develops. A ‘must read’ for those responsible for American’s children and their future: that would be all of us.”

– Patrick Bassett, Executive Director, The National Association of Independent Schools

Daniel Pink states in his book Drive that as long people are paid enough, they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Even though teachers are only paid modestly, I can agree with those three things.  It’s obvious Bill Gates doesn’t need to ‘work’ anymore, but he continues working through his foundation trying to make this world a better place.

Pink’s name came up as a potential speaker for our regional fall conference, but it was clear that he needed a big carrot (too big for us) to come and speak. I don’t blame him. While he want’s to influence education, speaking to educators is clearly not is main purpose. But Whatever that is, I’m sure he has a great sentence that gives him meaning as well as enjoyment. I’m sure he wants to get better at it, and continue on his own  growth trajectory.  I’m also pretty certain that he has plenty of autonomy and can do whatever it is he loves without anyone else setting limits for him (except his publisher, perhaps).

Most great teachers make modest incomes, so they clearly didn’t go into education for the pay. It’s because of this that teachers fight so hard to protect the implied promise of tenure and increased pay over time. New teachers being paid low wages and the very senior teachers making the most. This implied promise of this pay scale, however, is being eroded in almost every state. Nonetheless, it’s not pay that drives teachers to teach. It would be nice if the US were like Singapore in this respect. They offer their top 20% of high-school graduates full scholarships (and stipends while they’re in college) to go into education. I know I work with many teachers who would meet this qualification. They are extremely smart people.

Teachers in the U.S. enter the profession after spending five years in college (most having much debt to contend with) and are then expected to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to be state certified. Many teachers will also go back to school to get a more advanced degree in order to increase their compensation. Some of the various teaching specific degrees can be found on Online Teaching Degree’s college program listings. Going to college is, of course all at the cost of the young teacher

This, of course is all at the cost of the young teacher – unless you are at a school that supports this and includes it in their professional development budgets. Some of those hoops are better in some states, but in the name of ‘accountability’ they are hoops nonetheless, and teachers must jump through them in order to remain certified. I know many teachers who spent three days away from their families to visit other schools as part of an accreditation team. Does the state recognize this time as professional development? Nope. In two weeks, the National Association of Independent Schools will have their annual conference. I was lucky to have my school support me attending this conference last year. This year others will be given the opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear back. Because this conference is out of state, however, teachers from outside that state will not be given any credit towards their professional development requirements by the state. Nonetheless, this conference last year made a huge impact on me. In fact, that conference was one of the main reasons I was inspired to start this blog.

Furthermore, new teachers (whether new to the profession, or new to a district are usually given the worst assignments – whatever that means). For me, my first year in public school, I taught in a portable with no furniture in the middle of a playground. It was still an amazing year, because walls and furniture aren’t the things that make a classroom, the relationships among the kids and what they learn are. In private schools, thankfully there is no seniority. While I don’t agree with teachers having permanent tenure, most independent schools only offer teachers one year contracts. There’s a downside to this, as some teachers feel like they cannot speak freely in fear that they may not have their contract renewed.

A lot of non-teachers will say, “but you get your summers off.” Well, they haven’t met most teachers. We work during the holidays. It’s not the same kind or pace of work as teaching during the school year, but let me assure you that all the teachers I work with put in significant amounts of their own time.  In the summer, many may use the time preparing for the new school year, adopting new curricula, learning new things to bring back to our classrooms. Teachers may seem to get more holidays than the average person, but teachers are not well compensated and are not able to choose when to take their vacations.

The book is a balanced, but provocative look at education, its problems, and possible solutions and Tony Wagner suggests both practitioners and leaders read the book. We’re held responsible to create healthy learning environments for children. Our leaders also need to create environments where teachers can truly be caring, collaborative, and respected.

I am extremely sensitive to our profession right now with all of noise, blame, and finger pointing in the headlines that place almost all the responsibility on the teacher. I’ll be the first to admit that teachers play a huge part in that responsibility and need to be accountable, but so do parents, administrators, and any policy maker involved in education.

The book talks about teacher pay, tenure, teacher evaluations, seniority, accountability based on testing and many other issues. Merrow also boiled down the reason for high teacher attrition to three things:

“Schools underpay and mistreat teachers and eventually drive them from the profession; inept school districts cannot find the qualified teachers living under their noses; and substandard training ill-prepares young men and women for the realities of classroom life.”

Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania told Merrow, “we can recruit all kinds of qualified people and persuade them to go into teaching, but if they get into jobs that aren’t well paid and don’t have particularly good working conditions in which they’re given little say in the way schools operate, it’s not going to really solve the problem because a lot of these people will leave.”

There is an illusion that teachers have a voice, for example, there are 8 people on the Think Tank for the NAIS national conference in DC which takes place in a couple of weeks. Not one of them is currently a classroom teacher. For an organization who prides itself on diversity leadership, I would suggest that the group (all administrators and one trustee) overlooked representation from a very important, but high stakeholder – a teacher. I’m glad to hear next year’s conference (in Seattle) will include a teacher.

I started this post with Daniel Pink’s main thesis about what drives us to do what we do and, unless it’s a mundane, repetitive task, carrots and sticks are not what motivates teachers. It’s not the pay nor the time off that motivate teachers. And while teachers influence their students, teachers don’t really influence policy makers. Most teachers will agree that educating a child gives them plenty of meaning and a satisfying sense of purpose. Wanting to grow and become better at what we do, is something I firmly believe most teachers are committed to as well. When teachers become micromanaged, disrespected, and lose our autonomy to do what we do best, that drive (which includes working hard, caring deeply about what we do, and developing strong relationships with our students, for example) diminishes. And those impacted the most are the kids.


Sometimes things need to be designed from scratch and our attachments and biases to old technologies or the way things have been done in the past need to put aside. One way to start is by establishing empathy with the end user.

A group of students from the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class at the Standford traveled to Nepal with a task of designing cheaper incubators (traditional ones cost $20,000) for premature babies. When they got there, they realized most of the expensive incubators were sitting in the hospitals empty. Traveling to the villages themselves, they realized it wasn’t cheaper incubators they needed since the villages were hours away from the nearest hospital and most premature births happened in the remote villages themselves. The resulting design was a $25 sleeping bag of sorts that had a phase change pouch that could be heated with boiling water and keep a constant temperature for up to 6 hours and then just needed reheating. Thinking outside the box and not bound by constraints of simply trying to take the known incubator technology and trying to cut costs with materials, the team redesigned from scratch. By visiting the women in the villages in Nepal, focusing on their needs, they were able to create an innovative, affordable, life-saving piece of equipment. You can read more about this product by clicking this link to embraceglobal.

How it Works

Empathy allowed these designers to understanding the end user and remove their biases from already existing technologies. By the way, their goal is to save 100,000 lives in 5 years.

Not only is empathy part of’s design process or one of Daniel Pink’s Right Brain Senses mentioned in A Whole New Mind, but it is something that is important in the development of young minds. Giving children opportunities to develop empathy should be part of any school’s social and emotional learning curriculum. When looking at problems in a classroom or school, sometimes it takes walking in that student’s shoes to begin to understand how one might go about designing a solution. Our kids will be able to tackle many of the so called insoluble problems of the world and many of these, if we remain optimistic and give them opportunities to innovate, will in fact, be solved.

Here is a TEDtalk featuring the product ‘embrace’.

Putting Square Pegs into Round Holes

The current oil spill in the gulf, and the resources and innovation needed to come up with a way to cap it, reminded me of a clip that was shown at this year’s NAIS conference from the movie Apollo 13. Sometimes constraints fuel the best ideas. Notice in the two-minute clip below, that no one views the task as ‘impossible’ and they work together to try and come up with a solution. I hope school’s prepare kids for this kind of problem solving. So much of our education system, especially in high school, is still so dependent on standardized test scores. These tests are most often done in isolation and require students to identify the correct answer. While a problem like the BP oil spill is vastly different to the Apollo 13 problem there is one similarity: the solution doesn’t appear in a set of four multiple choice answers. There are a lot of very smart people working on the oil spill problem right now. Let’s hope they succeed like the NASA engineers did in 1970.


NAIS Diversity Leadership Award Recipient 2010

Each year at the NAIS conference, there is a Diversity Leadership Award given out. This year’s recipient was Reveta Franklin Bowers. She began her acceptance by saying, “Stories shape the way we are, particularly those that are passed down in families.” I attended a different session at this time, but a colleague who was able to attend that session told me how moved he was by her family’s story. You can read it here (start 6 paragraphs down). Stories like hers are inspiring and demonstrate how important it is to listen to each other’s stories. We will find similarities and differences, agree with some and disagree with others, but we need to be able to set aside our biases and notice that many of the things we want are really the same, just viewed from different lenses. Many have written how humans are naturally drawn to people who are like themselves. Wouldn’t it be great if that likeness was a belief that because of our differences, we all have something unique and valuable to contribute towards making this world a better place for all.

Another source for great stories is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkley which promotes the study and development of human happiness, compassion, and altruism. Here’s another powerful story related to diversity from their December ’09 issue. If you get tired of news about all the crises in our world (financial, health, education, climate, disasters), their online magazine is a great alternative.

Another source for great stories told in 5 minutes or less is NPRs Story Corps. There have been a few that have made me tear up enough that I had to keep driving past the coffee shop in the morning to regain composure.

I think that’s the problem I had with the movie Avatar. While I was blown away by the stunning effects and the way the movie was able to make me feel like I was on Pandora, the story wasn’t new to me. I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, West Side Story, and such. I want to see the story of what happens next, what struggles they encounter, and how they overcome those. Perhaps that is why The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for best picture. I haven’t seen it yet, but I suspect its story was a little fresher.

Ishrad Manji: Asking Questions and Speaking Truth

The closing session of the conference featured Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. She is a muslim who believes that there is room for debate and critical thinking in all things. She challenges fundamentalist thinking which uses fear rather than dialogue. She encourages girls throughout the Islamic world to speak out, be curious and critical, and most of all, ask questions. Irshad Manji is the director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU and is frequently featured in the New York Times, BBC, CNN, PBS and other prominent media sources. You can read more about her at her website. With continued death threats, she continues to speak about how meaningful diversity embraces different ideas and not just identities.

Regardless of your beliefs or position on this issue, the main message was for us as individuals as well as independent schools to continue to ask the hard questions and, with respect, get over the political correctness and speak up.

Unfortunately, the message I got from her presentation about finding the courage to speak your truth seemed to be lost on some. During an informal Q and A at the end of the presentation, most who went to the microphone focused on her political message rather than the idea of courage. I cringed as one educator attacked Manji’s mission. This teacher who was coming from an emotional place, entered an intellectual debate with a very polished scholar. Unfortunately, the match was one sided and I felt like this poor woman was tackled by a 250 pound football player in front of an audience of thousands. Ouch!

Whatever our beliefs or convictions, she urged us to start with ourselves and find the courage to ask questions and engage in intellectual curiosity. My school’s mission wants to challenge every child to be a confident, curious, and courageous learner. Manji says we can’t really do that if we don’t start with ourselves.

Google and Code

The Power of Blogging

The wealth of resources out there, and the people willing to share them is incredible. Looking for a summary of a workshop I wanted to attend but conflicted with another led me to the presenter’s blog and a great summary of her workshop. She even included the slide show of her presentation (mac users only), practicing the number two principle. This workshop was called:

Be Like Google

Here are the 9 principles:

1.  Ideas come from everywhere
2.  Share everything you can
3.  You are brilliant, we are hiring
4.  A license to pursue dreams
5.  Creativity loves constraint
6.  Users, not money
7.  Innovation not instant perfection
8.  Data is apolitical
9.  Don’t kill projects, morph them

As the Future Catches You

Another speaker, Juan Enriquez discussed the importance of code, genetic code. I don’t even know how to start describing this presentation other than to say that I was humbled by how much I don’t know about the rapid progress in genetic science. I’m still pondering and I think I’ll just link to this summary. I don’t know if NAIS will release video of his presentation, but here is one from TED he gave about a year ago. Not sure what TED is? You really should check it out.


Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck spoke at the first session I attended on Friday. If you recall from our faculty book club last year, Mindset was one of the choices.

She reminded us that every era is known by the way it views and treats children. Carol talked about her own class experience in the 50s and how everyone was misusing Binet’s IQ studies. Some teachers sat children in the order of their IQ and also believed that IQ affected character. We now know that intelligence is not fixed and IQ is only one measure of intelligence.

There are two kinds of mindsets: Growth or Fixed.

There was a study that looked at what happened to teachers with either fixed or growth mindsets. They told both groups of teachers that the students got 65% on their first math assessment. Teachers with a fixed mindset concluded the children weren’t good at math and were less likely to encourage the student to improve and instead were more likely to console students instead. Those that had a growth mindset decided it was too soon to tell and that they would continue challenging these kids.

Students who buy into this fixed mindset become less interested in learning and less willing to exert effort (They think effort makes them feel stupid).  They are less resilient. Setbacks become deep and permanent and they perform worse as school becomes difficult. When kids are praised for intelligence rather than effort, it puts them into a fixed mindset. See Po Bronson’s book Nurture Shock.

When teachers were told that their students had a remarkable capacity to bloom that year, student achievement increased = Pygmalion effect.

New Neuroscience shows that our brains are plastic and capable of growth (more than we believed)

Adult brains grow.

Adult brains create new neurons (whether you keep them depends on how you work) She recommended reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself

Carol Dweck then talked about the vital role of motivation to learn.

We are all born with irrepressible exuberance to learn. We never see and unmotivated baby.

A Growth Mindset

Creates a community of learners among students

Creates a community of learners among teachers (coaches, too)

Administrators become facilitators vs. judges (they don’t have to have all the answers – it’s more of a collaboration)

When the story of OUR era is told, how will we be described?

Motivation should be learning itself. If your student is coasting to get that A, you should say, I’m sorry that I wasted your time. How can I help you learn something else?

We must disabuse parents and teachers of meaningless praise. The reward should be for the effort. Perhaps those who have to use grades should include effort in the grade – not just make it a consolation prize. Give it 25% (or more) of the grade. Read this article by Po Bronson about the inverse power of praise.

Mindset research in terms of achievement gap, racial stereotypes, poverty

especially important to teach growth mindset skills to these students

closes the gap (e.g. girls in math)


Attending a conference like the annual NAIS one for 2 and a half days is not only physically exhausting, but also mentally exhausting. I am still processing and digesting. There were so many great speakers and an endless supply of ideas I want to share with everyone. I hope to continue posting what I learned here on this blog as well as face to face. It truly was a great experience.

What I love about listening to and talking with colleagues and others in the field (and out) about education is how much our school is already doing. Still, there is always more to learn, more to consider, and more ways to grow.

Opportunities at our school abound and I look forward to us finding them together.

Keep checking back this week as I will commit to at least one post each day this week.

Update on Gender Stereotyping

Possibly because one of my sessions (see Straightlaced post) focused on gender stereotypes, this ad campaign from Dockers seemed to jump out at me. When leaving the conference this weekend to head home, I noticed ads all over the BART station using societal gender stereotypes to sell pants to men. Here is a photo I took from the Powell BART station platform. Visit their website. Offended?

Themes from Thursday at NAIS themes were evident in all the presentations today.

  • Empathy
  • Caring
  • Opportunity
  • Take Risks – we learn from our failures
  • Share and Collaborate
  • Adapt (we cannot expect kids to learn in a 20th century model because that’s how we did – they live in the 21C).
  • Have a purpose and find joy in what you do

What I take away from today is these themes aren’t just for our students, but for educators as well.

Tomorrow’s sessions look even better. I can’t wait!

I also love next year’s theme for this conference: Monumental Opportunities: Advancing Our Public Purpose

Pretty cool seeing the organization follow this years themes by taking the risk to act on them. Along with an infinite number of questions about the future of schools and education, there’s a lot of uncertainty ahead and some scary numbers to consider.  There isn’t gong to be one correct answer on a test that we can choose and fill in a bubble. But we’re not going to solve anything by doing nothing.

Innovation can be Taught

I attended a couple of different workshops featuring presenters from the You really should click on the link and explore. The future depends on innovation. Innovation requires collaboration and a willingness to accept that there are not always going to be answers and that failure is part of the learning process.

Without having to, it was clear to me that the traditional model of school does not foster innovation. Standardized tests can measure reasoning and logic, or worse yet, what you’ve been able to memorize. They don’t allow for failure and redesign.

The Design Thinking Process is circular and includes: empathy, definition, ideas, prototypes, and testing (and then back to empathy for a circular model). It’s not just about solving problems, it’s about finding them.

Tina Seelig led a session titled: Innovation as Contact Sport and gave great examples of the power of innovation and how (as cliche as it may sound) we can change the world.

Her quick list:

  • Identifying Opporutnities
  • Challenging Assumptions
  • Leveraging Resources
  • Value Creation
  • Execution
  • Teamwork
  • Risk Taking
  • Learning from Failure
  • Creative Problem Solving

She ended with this trailer. There’s definitely some very cool stuff going on at Stanford! I can’t wait to find a way to bring some of that back to my classroom.

Care about what you do, and your students will too.

This morning’s session led by Mike Roberts was titled,

How to Be the Type of Teacher They Make Movies About

Build relationships with your students. It’s that simple!

Robert presented his list of 9 things that make great teachers. It was a simple and wonderful list. He then played a clip of teaching moments from various movies as examples. Did he include the scene from Dead Poets Society where the kids salute John Keating with ‘O Captain! My Captain!’? Of course he did, and even though I’ve seen that clip over a dozen times, it made me tear up yet again.

His list paraphrased:

  1. Connect with kids
  2. Care
  3. Be involved in their lives
  4. Keep things in perspective
  5. Adapt your curriculum to your kids’ interests
  6. Show the kids your non-teacher side (how do you expect them to share with you, if you don’t share with them)
  7. Challenge every kid – set a high, but achieveable bar
  8. Allow yourself and your kids to make mistakes
  9. Push the envelope a bit  (this speaks to what most presenters today had in common with each other: We need to start adapting to the wold the kids live in and stop trying to make them adapt to ours)…



Upon leaving San Francisco after the conference, this ad campaign was splattered all over the Powell BART station. See my post.

It’s been a great start to the conference so far. Despite our flight being delayed over an hour and then flying at very low speed so SFO could catch up on landing all the planes, we made it to the registration table, greeted by our head of school with food and snacks only a few minutes late.

The workshop I attended was called Straightlaced, How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. You can click to read more about the film or see the trailer. The facilitators of the group were Wanda M. Holland Greene Head of The Hamlin School and Amy Scharf from Groundspark – Respect for All Project. We saw clips of Debra Chasnoff’s new documentary, Straightaced and discussed the effects of gender role stereotypes, cultural expectations, and homophobia. Two clips stood out to me. One featured a high school boy who said that he felt like he had to give up choir even though he was enjoying it so he could fit in with his friends. He even admitted that he thought he would have enjoyed it for a couple more years. Another clip featured another high schooler who was a dancer. He mentioned the reality of teasing but said he chose to dance, because that was what he loved to do.

What was different about these two boys’ experience? Could educators affect the mindset of students in such a way that our students can choose to do what they wanted to do?

I came away with several things from this workshop.

  1. Even though we naturally want to categorize things into boxes we can check off: Male/Female; Gay/Straight; Abled/Disabled; White/Black and so on, there is a spectrum that exists and if we want to see people as individuals, we have to give them their own box.
  2. It’s not just ourselves or our students that need to discuss and grow in our understanding of these issues, but also other faculty and parents too. We need to get over the discomfort and really seize upon teachable moments. If a 6 year old boy says to another boy, “Only girls like pink, you’re not a girl, are you?” Will we respond with letting that happen, or will we find a way to have a conversation with both boys so they all feel safe?

The film features kids in middle and high schools, but gender stereotypes start early on and is still pervasive in media. I also hope we remember that when we look at reports about brain research and its findings about how male brains differ from female brains, we don’t forget that a significant number of brains don’t fall into those boxes like the others.

From our discussions with other educators, it was energizing to hear the stories of how so many of their kids feel safe to be who they want to be.

NAIS Conference

I’m excited about the upcoming conference this week. The theme for the conference is: Adapt, Survive, Thrive. An alarming, but at the same time very hopeful and forward thinking theme. Check out the conference website and let me know if there are any specific things you’d like our school’s team to bring back. We’ve seen so many industries like music and newspapers struggle to keep up with the way the world is changing if they fail to adapt. What does this mean for independent schools? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.