Month: May 2017

Review of The Secret Lives of Teachers, by Anonymous

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One morning in the spring of 1992, Brad Gioia called me to ask if I’d be interested in applying for a teaching internship at Darlington School, my alma mater. Mere months from graduating from Chapel Hill, I had been accepted into law schools but had little interest in going (my father’s dream, not mine; cue the “I don’t want your life!” scene from Varsity Blues), and teaching English sounded like a fun way to while away the time while I figured out “my next move.” I didn’t have an idea in my head that hadn’t been put there by someone else, and I knew even less about the subject of English (to say nothing of teaching it), but after an interview that could only be described as desultory, Brad nevertheless saw fit to offer me the job.  Given my limited role as an intern, I suspect he thought the damage I’d inflict would be minimal – a dangerous assumption with one as earnest as I.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over my first few years, I gave various administrators plenty of reasons to fire me (impersonating the headmaster in a play lampooning a young teacher’s life at the school?  Check.), and it was common for me to stand in front of my class and feel like a complete charlatan.  But if I knew less than nothing, I cared deeply – for the school, for my students, and for my colleagues – and fortunately I was given the time and enough mulligans to cobble together something resembling a pedagogy and an educational philosophy. I wouldn’t have lasted long as a new teacher at my current school today.

I paint that brief portrait not to kill all future job prospects (I’ve grown, I promise!), but rather to underscore what all teachers instinctively know: that we are human beings, and by nature as flawed as we are virtuous. I suspect that many of my independent school compatriots would, in a paroxysm of honesty, admit to an origin story similar to mine: we didn’t intend to be teachers, and we have screwed up mightily on occasion, but nonetheless here we stand, empodiumed – and at times, still making it up as we go along.

 The Secret Lives of Teachers doesn’t explore such conflicted histories or motivations, but they are the basis on which it deconstructs the myth of the selfless and sacrificial teacher (held largely by those outside the profession), an impossibly high standard to which one might hold a human being (and ones as poorly compensated as we). In its place the book paints a far more human portrait of the modern prep school teacher.

This is one of the best books (or, in the author’s estimation, a “series of interlocking essays”) about being a teacher (about actually being one, with all its humiliations and petty jealousies, as well as its joys and triumphs) that I have ever read — about a life lived in service to others and, at times, in mere servitude. It’s not a call to arms about the state of teaching in America or the national obsession with uniform academic standards.  In fact, it’s a very specific window into a particular kind of life in education – that of the prep school teacher.  It’s about how hard this job can be, even when you’re holding a pretty favorable hand, as most of us who work in independent education are.

It’s worth exploring why the author felt he needed to hide behind “Anonymous,” the ultimate pseudonym. First, doing so hints at a truth so brutal that our aging history-teacher-cum-author must be protected from its searing heat; it implies, to quote the immortal Sisqo, that something “so scandalous” lies within — equal parts Primary Colors and Kitchen Confidential.  And scandal sells, even if here it’s unreasonable parents or moldering coffee cake in the staffroom or the monthly fear of not being able to making the car payment – the quotidian indignities each teacher faces – rather than something more salacious (though we all know stories of teachers who manage to do those things, too.  But that’s a different book.)

Anonymous has his limits as a writer, especially when it comes to rendering classroom dialogue in a convincing way, and most often his attempts to recreate it fall flat.  Even while he decries “Mr. Chipsian” self-aggrandizement, he can’t escape it entirely (he names his narrator Horace Dewey, after all.)  And the parents, students, colleagues, and administrators who populate the book — no doubt amalgams of real people in Anonymous’ professional sphere – come across as ciphers rather than flesh-and-blood examples.  The rough frame of the book, which is a year in the life of the school, allows him an excuse to cover the ground he wants to, but it too feels constraining and forced at times.

The book really sings when Anonymous skips the anecdotes and speaks from his personal perspective; in these instances, the book is smart, trenchant, and very funny. The best chapter, entitled “Compensations” (which was excerpted on, highlights the compromises all teachers must make once they have committed to this profession.  His take on the financial plight of teachers is clear-eyed and unapologetic. [Long story short, we all eventually pay the bill for deferred maintenance.] Whether you agree with him or not, his honesty is refreshing – and, truth be told, quite novel. Teachers don’t like “telling tales out of school,” especially when it comes to the gory details of their real lives.  Credit Anonymous for keeping it real, and for (mostly) not succumbing to the platitudes that plague most writing about our profession.

As always, my bottom line with any book is, “Why read it?”  Is it just to be reminded that teachers are imperfect, as human as everyone else?  That hardly seems worth the purchase price or the time.  Instead, the real value here is the book’s ability to force us to contend with our imperfections. When it works, the book asks us to reconsider assumptions about our work, our students, our goals, our limits, and our teaching lives. It is possible you will view yourself – and your profession – differently after you’ve read it.




Review of Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

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When I was a kid, my uncle Bob (Darlington School class of ’66) was my coolest relative. He drove an Alpha Romero convertible; he had long, wavy hair; he rode horses; and he did all these things while living in California (Fresno, actually, but I didn’t know any better; I assumed the entire state of California was sunshine and palm trees). Whenever Bob would catch a red-eye home for Christmas, we weren’t to disturb him until he awoke around midday (even his jetlag seemed cool.)

When I was in college, Bob gave me a copy of A Grateful Heart, a collection of ecumenical blessings from a broad array of faith traditions and secular sources (Bob had some West-Coast hippie in him, too). He knew knew that a disposition of thankfulness – of feeling grateful – would keep me grounded in my journey through life. Years on, I still have the book, which I thumb through regularly, mining its wisdom.

Gratitude is an idea I’ve been chewing on a lot these days – especially as I watch some of our students routinely miss opportunities to express thanks to our faculty for the letters of recommendation, the hours spent explaining (and re-explaining) the Krebs Cycle, the endorsements of their various candidacies, or to their parents for their extraordinary sacrifices to send them to our school. I don’t blame them for being blind to this, though; we do a poor job of teaching them how to communicate gratitude in authentic ways.

More troubling, it’s also at the center of what seems to be a rising tide of dissatisfaction among a subset of our parents who view independent schools on a strictly transactional basis. When “their” dreams of Harvard-Princeton-Yale-Stanford prove to be out of reach of their children, well…gratitude isn’t exactly the emotion they’re feeling.

Which is why Oliver Sacks’ monograph Gratitude caught my eye. Most people know Sacks, a British neurologist and author, from his portrayal by Robin Williams in the 1990 movie Awakenings, based on Sacks’ book of the same name. Sacks was a humanist, and not a person of faith, so I have always felt a certain philosophical connection to him (though to compare my lazy conclusions to his years of thoughtful writing would do him a profound disservice.)

Gratitude is a deeply affecting collection of four essays Sacks wrote for the New York Times during the two years before his death from cancer at age 81. The final essay, “Sabbath,” was published just two weeks before his death. This book will remind some of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, a book that, I must confess, never quite sat right with me. To be sure, the tragedy of Pausch’s death hit me square in the heart, but the book also felt a little opportunistic for some reason. Sacks’ book feels less filtered; in fact, it reads like he is taking stock of his life as he is writing it. It is also not much of an autobiography; for that, see Sacks’ excellent On the Move: A Life.

In the first essay, “Mercury,” (a reference to Sacks’ lifelong fascination with the periodic table), Sacks paints himself as conflicted as most people would be, especially because at the time he wrote it, he was still in relatively good health, though he had recently been given a devastating diagnosis.  He reflects on his unshakeable belief that his life is just beginning even as it has almost reached its end. He balances feelings of joy and regret with the knowledge that his mental life and perspective are expanding, and that he has been granted the freedom to “bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together” (11). The tone of this first chapter is one of hopefulness, and its focus is on life – and what of it remains – not death.

Later essays concern the additional perspective Sacks gains as the end of his life looms. Sacks notes that he now sees his life “as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts” (18). What emerges is a sense of mindfulness about his life and what it means to him, as well as an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those he loves and who love him and for what he has given and been given.

The centerpiece of my school’s mission statement is an aim to “provide each student an education that will enable him or her to live a moral, happy and productive life.” “HappyMoralProductive” (one word) has become an oft-repeated shorthand for that statement. Gratitude seems to me to be an essential element (or at least a natural byproduct) of living a good life and a notion we and our students would do well to appreciate more fully.

Sacks seems to agree; as he says at the book’s conclusion, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself” (45). Further, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure” (20). That he can still feel grateful in the waning moments of his life serves as a reminder to me of the power gratitude has to shape one’s heart and mind.

Sacks’ little book truly has a lot to offer us.


A version of this review appears online here.

Review of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, by Donna Hicks

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When I was in college and for many years after, I worked for the Virginia Beach Leadership Workshop, a program run by the city school system in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It’s a camp, basically; in addition to leadership training, it has all the trappings of a regular sleep-away camp: decades of history, traditional songs, athletic competition, nightly skits, summer love (some years), intense longing (every year), and moments of epiphany.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at VBLW where I started my career in education. It’s where I learned that I loved teaching, even if I wasn’t especially good at it.

It’s also where I was introduced to a short book called The Silent Majority: The Problem of Apathy and the Student Council, written in 1971 by Kent M. Keith. Keith’s thesis is that there are legions of students who wander through schools each day feeling no connection to the institution or those who fill it. He describes that existence as “…a world of lost longings; of things one would like to do but does not have the ability to accomplish…or of things one would like to understand, but does not have the insight for…a world which, if painless, may seem empty and meaningless” (4). It seemed (and seems) to me to be at best a sad way to go to school, and at worst a scenario with potentially tragic consequences. To Keith, student activities exist as an antidote to this – as a potential conduit for connection between students and the school. Student leaders, then, are the primary catalysts to create a culture of acceptance and mutual value in schools.

Given that I totally bought what Keith was selling, it’s not hard to understand why, halfway through Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (2011), I wanted to stand up and cheer when I encountered an analysis of “the profound human desire to belong, to feel the comfort and safety that acceptance brings” (48). Dignity is a book with some age on it now, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly surfacing at conferences and in conversations with educators. And with themes ripped right from the philosophical playbook of any caring educator, this important book is indeed worth reading.

Dignity also comes at a critical time in our evolution as a species and as a nation, beset as we are by the difficulty we have in connecting with each other in authentic ways. As Hicks rightly notes, “We all seem to know how to belittle and criticize others” (13) (thanks, Snap Chat!) Hicks believes we can re-learn to connect with and value each other – and, what is more, to create genuine cultures of dignity. I hope she’s right.

Hicks defines dignity as “an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things” (1). She contends that violations of dignity are often at the root of conflict (she ought to know; she’s mediated intractable conflicts between warring parties across the globe), that treating others with dignity is a fundamental human right, and that establishing a culture of dignity is essential to organizations that want to thrive.

Dignity’s organization is simple. Part one describes the essential elements of dignity; for example, giving people the freedom to express their authentic selves, making others feel like they belong and are safe, treating people as equals, and believing what others think matters. Operationalizing this section of the book would help make every conversation in a school more authentic and our schools feel more welcoming. All educators would be wise to commit to memory its precepts. (I am tempted to send copies to our state legislature).

The second section is an analysis of what violations of dignity look and feel like. Not surprisingly, these violations are easy to commit, and it’s even easier to play an unwitting role in violating our own dignity. Hicks maintains that most of this – avoiding conflict, saving face, resisting feedback, blaming others to avoid guilt — stems from a deep-rooted desire for self-preservation.

The final section of the book is a treatise on how to reconcile conflicts by using dignity. It contains an extended recounting of a reconciliation that Hicks helped mediate between a former member of the IRA and a British police officer he shot and almost killed. Hicks contends that recognizing dignity has the potential to heal deep rifts between people.

One of the most poignant anecdotes Hicks shares is her fish-out-of-water story of leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a fellowship at Harvard. Upon arrival in Cambridge, and for a variety of reasons feeling inadequate and unworthy, Hicks found herself questioning her decision to join this new community. It wasn’t until she was literally welcomed with open arms by a colleague that she began to feel safe and valued.  How many of our new families or faculty feel that same indecision, panic, and dread when faced with joining our school communities for the first time – or, after, when they feel their dignity has been violated? It’s fun to envision the schools we would have if all of our constituents — every family, employee, and alum — felt as Hicks did when her colleague exclaimed, “Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you!”


A version of this review appears online here.





Song of the day: “Ran” by Future Islands

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I’ve always flitted around the edges of Future Islands, liking the singles but not digging much deeper. Their new song “Ran” has fully grabbed my attention, though — it’s a mix of Flock of Seagulls, The Fixx, and Joe Cocker. There aren’t many pop singers with Sam Herring’s unique pipes, and the alchemy they weave here is mesmerizing. This is retro-pop perfection.

Also, check out David Letterman losing his mind about their performance of “Singles” in March 2014. Watch until the end.

Review of Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, by Ron Ritchhart

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Among the more vexing trends in education is our current fixation on developing “21st Century Skills.” The lists of skills vary a bit, but they typically include competence in at least some of the following areas: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Perhaps it is the “21st century” designation itself that is most annoying; it has never been clear to me what makes these skills unique to our new millennium. Wasn’t communication important in the 20th century, too? (And the 17th?) And when this movement goes the way of all flesh, as such things do in our line of work, will schools stop emphasizing these skills and move on to…something else that starts with a “C”?

But there is no denying the importance of these skills, no matter the century, and as aims for education they certainly seem to have taken root – especially “critical thinking,” that most intellectually muscular of talents. In fact, one could argue that given current events, the ability to think critically is more urgent now than ever before.

When I visit schools, I always ask members of the community what makes their school distinctive. Apart from the close relationships between teachers and students, the response I hear most frequently is, “We teach students how to think.” Of course at some level everyone already knows how to think; if not, we couldn’t get out of bed each morning. When pressed, they often refine it to “We teach critical thinking,” which sounds important but is similarly inexact.

Generally, what we mean by teaching “critical thinking” is that we teach students to be discerning, to weigh competing claims and to determine their merit, to synthesize, to reason and make effective decisions. In addition, when we teach students how to think, we also try to teach them how to think about themselves as well – how to be thoughtful, introspective, and self-evaluative. Becoming your best self requires a lot of critical thinking skill, too.

Unfortunately, most teachers I know (and I include myself here) have at best fuzzy notions about how they teach thinking skills – and even less of an idea of how to measure their success in doing so. We hope that the educational environment – caring teachers, time-honored curricula, and motivated peers – will work some kind of alchemy and that critical thinking will simply happen as a result. Specifics (and a game plan) are in short supply.

I’ve made my feelings clear about educational literature in past reviews (i.e., I think a lot of it is garbage), so it is with humility that I say that reading Ron Ritchhart’s outstanding book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools was indeed a transformational experience for me. It gave shape and structure to how to teach critical thinking that before I had only vague notions about.

Ritchhart hypothesizes that we can create environments of thinking by being more intentional about the forces that shape educational culture in schools.  He identifies these forces as

  • Expectations
  • Language
  • Time
  • Modeling
  • Opportunities
  • Routines
  • Interactions
  • Environment

He then discusses in great detail how teachers and administrators might alter the learning environments in each area at both the classroom and school level to create cultures of thinking. For instance, in his chapter on language, Ritchhart outlines how the language we use in the classroom can have a direct impact on our students’ development of critical thinking skills. He advocates for a variety of changes: analyzing and altering the language a teacher uses in the service of learning (down to the last pronoun), increasing wait time when responding to students, changing the ways we ask questions, and modeling the language of thinking, to name but a few. Ritchhart delineates these alterations and their outcomes in a more nuanced way than I have space and time to review here. Suffice it to say that the effect can be significant, and I have dozens of pages dog-eared and ideas scribbled in the margins for how to change my own teaching.

Reading this book made my brain hurt (but in a good way). In every chapter, I found myself asking, “Do I do this? Why not? Could I? Yes!” Weighing my own teaching against Ritchhart’s best practices was an exercise in embarrassment; in his ideal classroom, teachers are purposeful about every word, every minute, and every activity, each of which is harnessed in the service of creating cultures of thinking.  “People often mention that in a culture of thinking, there is a sense of purpose to the learning,” he writes. “This…imbues the group’s efforts with personal and collective meaning” (4). It was also daunting – Ritchhart’s methods ask a lot of teachers in terms of time, energy, and focus. The first way to ensure your students are thinking critically, he says, is to think critically yourself about your own teaching…and then work, work, work.

This book forced me to stop and contemplate the muddled mess of my teaching – and to begin to formulate a plan to fix it. Creating Cultures of Thinking is my new guidebook for becoming the teacher my students deserve. I highly recommend it.


A version of this review can be found here.

Review of An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Robert Kegan et al.

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I am embarrassed to admit that for months An Everyone Culture battled for my attention on my nightstand with another book (John Taylor’s In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran), but finally I turned to it, in part because I kept receiving karmic suggestions to get going. On a recent visit to the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, for instance, I saw it perched on the bookshelf of Bob Ryshke, director of Westminster’s Center for Teaching. Bob is someone I like and respect a great deal, and when I mentioned I was reading it, too, he recommended the book enthusiastically.

As it turns out, An Everyone Culture is a provocative and thought-provoking book about creating cultures of aggressively intentional personal and organizational development that I suspect would give most seasoned teachers and administrators pause. But I realized in the early stages of reading this book that we should now be creating work environments not just for ourselves, but for a new generation of teachers, young people who are pursuing workplaces that promise more than stability and security and the chance to be left alone to teach – what the authors call the new incomes: “personal satisfaction, meaningfulness, and happiness” (7). In a marketplace where new entrants into the field expect individualized strategic plans for their personal development, this book is a welcome blueprint for how to transform a school’s culture to meet their needs – and to improve as an institution in the process.

Although the book has broad appeal for organizations of all types and definite applications for schools, it is designed for business leaders, and it focuses on three corporate examples:

  • The Decurion Corporation, the L.A.-based parent company of a variety of subsidiaries, including a west coast theatre chain.
  • Next Jump, an e-commerce company in New York that (I think) designs and manages corporate loyalty programs for companies like Dell and Hilton. Their motto: Better Me + Better You = Better Us.
  • Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund management firm based in Westport, CT.

These companies have unique cultures and have developed what the authors call “deliberately developmental organizations” (DDOs). DDOs bake in the expectation that everyone’s development will be accelerated, from the CEO on down. They have a financial interest in doing so, to be sure, but these companies also evince an extreme level of commitment to their employees. Here is the statement on Decurion’s homepage, entitled “Flourish:”

Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be. We believe that every human being has something unique to express (perhaps several unique things over the course of a lifetime). While building each of our businesses to world-class standards, we seek to create the conditions in which that expression will emerge. Flourishing is the process of living into one’s unique contribution. We expect to do this through our work.

 Here’s a snippet from Bridgewater’s Principles & Culture page:

We want an idea meritocracy in which meaningful work and meaningful relationships are pursued through radical truth and radical transparency. We require people to be extremely open, air disagreements, test each other’s logic, and view discovering mistakes and weaknesses as a good thing that leads to improvement and innovation. It is by continually striving together for the highest levels of truth and excellence that we create meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

It’s a fascinating proposition – central to the organization’s mission is the development of its human resources, which can only happen through “radical truth and radical transparency.” Our authors breathlessly describe this yeasty alternative to the pallid professional development programs that most of us have experienced: “Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day” (4). The result? A company full of intensely enthusiastic and loyal employees who see their own growth and development as essential to the success of the organization.

Sadly, in this system, gone is that annual junket to the National Council of Reflexology Practitioners that you enjoy so much. This professional development is all about exposing one’s weaknesses and mistakes, being vulnerable, and taking risks. As the authors note, “Development requires a willingness to surrender a familiar equilibrium for what will eventually be a new, more adaptive one” (113). “Constructive destabilization” is the coin of the realm in DDOs, and “members expect to be regularly, but manageably, in over their heads” (99). These companies believe that intentionally putting people in destabilizing positions forces growth. “The conditions for a strong developmental pull [a challenge that motivates growth] are created,” the authors write, “when someone is placed in a role or responsibility she hasn’t mastered or for which the complexity of the task is slightly above her current capability” (147). And once you get comfortable – once you finally feel competent – it’s time to move to a new job. It’s not for everyone, though [Next Jump even buys out employees who can’t get on board with their ideology.]

Reading about these radical corporate practices – the “issues logs,” the “talking partners,” the “situational workshops” – was exhausting, a result of my projecting myself into a DDO and imagining what must be, at least at first, a very unsettling work environment (though in the book’s examples, that lack of stability is seen by community members as an organizational strength and an attractive part of the culture). Frankly, it sounds brutal – like Tribal Council on Survivor, but one where giving and receiving honest feedback about one’s weaknesses is a daily expectation rather than the run-up to getting voted off the island. And it also seems to be transformative. And also clearly not for every organization – the authors are painstaking in their efforts to make it clear that cultures that support this kind of personal development have to be carefully built over time.

This book is essentially about feedback – continuous, authentic, and candid feedback – and about creating an organizational culture where exposing weaknesses is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than something to be hidden or circumvented. Success requires self-confidence, bravery, and openness from everyone. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but what could our schools accomplish if everyone in them was committed to mutual growth and development? This book supplies some solid answers. I highly recommend it.

a version of this review appears online here.