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Old fart story #1: Be nice to everyone

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

I've noticed lately that I've been telling old fart stories (OFS). You know the kind I mean. Stuff that happened when most of the listeners were in diapers - if not just a twinkle in their fathers' eye. (That's an old fart expression, BTW.) Often told in extreme detail by a person in authority, OFS are meant to impart wisdom, but more often than not, evoke polite yawns.

Having been the victim of old fart stories all my life, I now claim the right in my near dotage to tell a few myself. Since this a digital medium, asynchronous, you lucky whipper-snappers don't even have to pretend to be polite. You can just go on to the next blog post, tweet, Facebook post, or porn site immediately. Lucky you. 

Anyway, here's an OFS. 

25 years ago I was the high school librarian in St. Peter, MN. The town was, and still is, the home to a regional treatment center for sex offenders. At the time, its juvenile wing was staffed by two lovely young women, Ann and Theresa. Despite the fact I had no formal responsibility at the treatment center at all, I would still on occasion drive over and help these two teachers with their computer problems - being the guru of all things Apple IIe that I was. And admirer of lovely young women.

Fast forward to 2014. I gave my annual departmental report to the school board Monday night. It was well received, and the school board president, Ann, reminded me that we've worked together for about 25 years. Yes, the same Ann that I helped format a floppy disk and navigate AppleWorks in 1989, is now my district's school board chair.

Here's the thing. Be nice to everyone. It's the right thing to do.

But it's also the practical thing to do since you never know who might eventually become your boss. 

Thus endeth the OFS.


Is our job children or data? Or is the question that simple?

I was very moved by Susan Sluyter's letter in the March 23 Washington Post "My job is now about tests and data - not children. I quit." After teaching for 25 years, she sadly concludes:

I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them. 

Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend.  I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.

I’d describe our current period as a time of testing, data collection, competition and punishment. One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms.

I was trying to survive in a community of colleagues who were struggling to do the same:  to adapt and survive, to continue to hold onto what we could, and to affirm what we believe to be quality teaching for an early childhood classroom.  I began to feel a deep sense of loss of integrity.  I felt my spirit, my passion as a teacher, slip away.  I felt anger rise inside me.  I felt I needed to survive by looking elsewhere and leaving the community I love so dearly.  I did not feel I was leaving my job.  I felt then and feel now that my job left me.

The actual letter goes into detail explaining the amount of assessment kindergarten teachers like Ms Sluyter are expected to do in Cambridge MA schools and that impact on her students. (Read it all.) I can't help but think that any parents reading her rational, well-supported, heartfelt resignation would actively question their children's school board about the amount and effectiveness of testing done at all grade levels.

Call me a sentimentalist, but I see pre-school and kindergarten not as college prep, but a time to build a positive view of education, of learning to work and play with other children, and to discover new ideas.* Our Scandinavian educators have an excellent solution to making sure all children read well. They don't start formal reading instruction until a child is at least seven years old - developmentally ready.

It is getting harder and harder for me at leadership meetings to speak unemotionally when even more testing is suggested as a solution to a real or imagined problem. Like the author of this letter, I feel what I consider why education is noble calling is leaving me - not the other way around.

But here is what really worries me. Since Ms Sluyter is a veteran teacher with over 20 years in the classroom, she remembers a time before NCLB, before RtI, before the craziness where we insist all children progress to the same level at the same rate regardless of what it takes. 

Our newest teachers - no matter how good, how dedicated, don't have that frame of reference. Unless they remember it from their own days in kindergarten.

I worry for my grandchildren...

I would be very interested in reading a counter argument to Ms Sluyter's letter that is child-centered.

*Come to think about it, I feel this way about all levels of education.



Get out of your office

Creative thinking in business begins with having empathy for your customers (whether they’re internal or external), and you can’t get that sitting behind a desk. Yes, we know it’s cozy in your office. Everything is reassuringly familiar; information comes from predictable sources; contradictory data are weeded out and ignored. Out in the world, it’s more chaotic. You have to deal with unexpected findings, with uncertainty, and with irrational people who say things you don’t want to hear. But that is where you find insights—and creative breakthroughs. Venturing forth in pursuit of learning, even without a hypothesis, can open you up to new information and help you discover nonobvious needs. Otherwise, you risk simply reconfirming ideas you’ve already had or waiting for others—your customers, your boss, or even your competitors—to tell you what to do. Tom and David Kelley "Reclaim Your Creative Confidence" Harvard Business Review, December 2012

OK, fellow tech directors, how often do you get our from behind your computer screens and purposely engage with teachers, principals, and students in their native habitat - the school itself? My goal is to visit each of our 16 sites at least once a month - more whenever possible*. I travel with clipboard in hand and ask any staff member who is not engaged with students "How's your technology working for you?" And I listen, I record, and I solve quite a few problems. 

Mr. Kelley's quote resonated with me when he says that by going out and talking to the people we serve we hear things we may not want to hear. (Oh, the wireless network is not quite as robust as we thought?) But I would also add that sometimes things aren't as bad as we think they are. (Oh, you didn't actually have any problems after the system update ? I thought everybody crashed and burned.) But you don't know unless you go. Surveys, e-mails, and formal meetings just cannot take the place of short conversations in hallways, teacher lounges, the librarian's office, or bus pick up areas.

I would also agree that creative solutions to problems come from listening and emphasizing.

You'll find more answers in your school hallways than on Twitter.

 * This winter in Minnesota was not very conducive to school visits. I may have slipped a little.