Category Archives: Personal

The one thing I can do

I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but we’re having a tragically terrible summer. More innocent black Americans have been killed by the police, the police in turn have been targeted and murdered, the Leave camp won the Brexit referendum, a terrorist murdered 84 people in Nice, France, the Rio Olympics are likely to be a zika-virus/Russian-doping/inept-government disaster, and there was just a failed coup attempt in Turkey. The upcoming election in the US is a source of dreadful angst. The stock market is at an all-time high, but with bond yields at record lows, this is not a source of comfort or optimism. Essentially, all the news is bad news, and it’s hard not to take it to heart.

Sure, the summer months are always filled with unrest, and since I’m on vacation and have more time to pay attention to the news, world events weigh more heavily on me. Normally the Olympics would be a delightful diversion since the Columbia fencing team always sends some great representatives to the games (this year there is the amazing Nzingha Prescod to cheer on), but I can’t help feeling like the games in Rio may be the economic and human-rights disaster that finally seals the coffin for the whole modern Olympic movement.

When things get this bad, I ask myself, “What should I be doing to help heal the world?” Should I be marching in protests? (Yes, I’ve got the time.) Volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen? (Yes, although the logistics are tough with an infant in the family.) Running for political office? (I have little faith that I could make a difference in our current system.) But then I remember: I’m already doing the one, best thing I can to help make a better future. I work at a school.

The world of the present is seemingly unredeemable, or, if it can be fixed, it will take powers well beyond my small influence. But the world of the future is very much in my hands (and yours!), and working as a teacher is the strongest commitment I can make to construct a less discordant tomorrow. It’s times like these that I take pride and feel relief that I work at an institution devoted to the Quaker ideals of peace and equality. The world needs a lot more of both, and education is how we will get there.

Although I’m about to retreat to a cabin in the woods in Vermont for the next month, I’ll still be managing George School’s rising sophomores’ summer reading and blogging project. Some prescient colleagues selected The Other Wes Moore as the required text for the rising sophs, plus our school is doing a community-wide “one book” reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Thus, even though I and our students are on vacation, we are still at work pollinating our minds with narratives that broaden our understanding of injustice and discrimination in the US. After a year off from the classroom, I’ll be teaching one section of sophomore English next year (AP Language and Composition), so I need to reflect and plan carefully how I can address these two powerful books in the opening week of the school year.

Merlyn’s speech about the power of learning as the best cure for boredom (and all the other ills of the world) from The Once and Future King has been over-popularized lately, but I feel a special closeness to it since I taught the book for seven years. Also, I read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk this year, and T.H. White looms in the background throughout the book. Every time we return to a work of art, or a text, we bring a slightly different set of life experiences and find ourselves noticing nuances that escaped us on previous viewings. The piece of Merlyn’s speech that jumps out at me today is, “you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics,” which always struck me as too strongly worded in the past. The world I grew up in, despite the Cold War that was going on, seemed lacking in evil lunatics. The world of 2016 seems to have an overabundance of them. Time to take Merlyn’s advice and focus on learning (and, in my case, teaching). Luckily, it’s the one thing I can do.

Father’s Day Number One

I enjoyed my first Father’s Day as a dad today. My son is only seven months old, but somehow he managed to buy me a card and a framed photo collage! Maybe he has found a paid, freelance night job writing copy for online advertisers. Kids these days; they grow up fast.

My father hosted the family at his house. I got to see my sister, who was in from the west coast, and my in-laws. It’s a joy being the sandwich generation; I am both a dad and I have a dad at the same time. Father’s Day makes us stop and think about the debts we owe our fathers, but at the same time reflect on the kind of father we wish to be.

Fatherhood has already changed me in ways that are predictable. I can’t dedicate as many hours to work as I used to. I can’t indulge my every whim the way I used to. As Aziz Ansari put it in that episode of Master of None, if I want to go out for pasta in the evening, I might not be able to. (Although my son is getting better at behaving in restaurants, his 6:30pm bedtime is a bit of a challenge.) Still, I knew what I was getting into before we decided to have our first child, and I had been looking forward to those trade-offs for more than a decade.

The unpredictable part of becoming a parent, for me anyway, has been the way in which it makes me reevaluate time. How old will I be when my son is 18? When he’s 30? When he’s 45? How many years do I have to save for his college tuition? How ┬ámany more years do I have to work, and how old will he be if I retire early? Or late? How old will he be when the mortgage is paid off? (Because I’m a 42-year-old new dad, the answers to some of those questions aren’t pretty.)

That stuff is all a cliche, however. I also have to wonder: How many years until climate change makes the planet uninhabitable? Will I teach my son to drive, or will driverless cars be the norm before he turns 16? Will the professions that my generation aspired to even exist when he is done with college? Will Congress ever pass sensible gun control legislation?

These questions about the future of technology, the nation, and the globe explain why so many parents of young kids seem to be politically active, and sometimes radically so. Look out Washington; I’m coming to a march near you soon! The idea that I might spend my final years in an environmentally degraded ecosystem is troubling, but the idea that my grandkids might grow up in such a world are unconscionable. Time to get to work on the problem(s).

Paternity Leave is Trending

Since I normally blog about my work as an educator, I didn’t expect to have much to write about while out on paternity leave. But it turns out that paternity leave itself is the topic du jour! About two weeks after my wife and I welcomed our firstborn into the world, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan made news with the birth of their daughter (and their plans to give away billions of dollars to charity).

Zuckerberg also made news by very publicly announcing that he is taking a two-month paternity leave; exactly the length of my leave. In today’s NYTimes, Claire Cain Miller examines how Zuckerberg’s leave might help reduce the stigma associated with men taking time off after the birth of a child. Despite the fact that my employer provides equal opportunities for fathers and mothers to take parental leave, it’s evident that the moms take leaves more often, and for longer stretches of time. I can understand why: though no one at work is putting any pressure on me to cut my leave short, I have internalized angst about how it might affect my career anyway.

The details of my leave fit with the data discussed in Miller’s article. She writes that, “Fathers of sons were twice as likely to take leave as fathers of daughters, though it is unclear why.” I am indeed taking paternity leave to welcome a son into the world, but I was planning a leave of this length regardless of the gender of the newborn, and my wife and I left that as a surprise for ourselves. (The first question everyone asks when they hear that you are having a baby: “Do you know what you are having?” Why this obsession with the gender of the child?) I believe that I’d be taking the same two-month leave either way, but since we had a son, I guess we’ll never know.

Miller also writes that, “[m]en who worked in jobs with a large share of female workers were also more likely to take leave.” Indeed, I am a faculty member at an independent school, and the entire field of K-12 education skews toward a female workforce. Were I an investment banker or a consultant or a lawyer, would I feel equally empowered to take a long paternity leave? The data seems to suggest that I would not. (Ironic, since I would presumably be in a more enviably financial position to take such a leave!)

The important reason to take a paternity leave of at least two weeks in length comes later in the article, when Miller writes “that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave were significantly more likely to do child-care tasks like diapering and feeding later on.” My leave has been motivated mostly out of a desire to be an equal partner in parenting with my wife, and it’s encouraging that the data supports that these roles, once set during an initial parental leave, persist long after the leaves are over. This makes plenty of sense; my wife and I are learning to handle diapering and comforting our son together. If I didn’t take the time away from work, there would quickly develop a powerful imbalance in terms of which partner in the marriage was skillful at these childcare tasks. I don’t want to be the dad who doesn’t know how to dress the baby, or what to do with the dirty diapers, or how to get the baby to stop crying.

Apparently Zuckerberg is publicly taking a long leave to set an example and thereby make it okay for Facebook employees to take all of the (generous) parental leave time that they have coming to them. While I am away from work, fretting over what my leave might be doing to my career, I might also be making it easier for more of my future-dad-colleagues to take a full paternity leave after their children are born. (And I am already benefiting from paternity leaves taken by some male colleagues in recent years who made it more acceptable for me.) If I reframe the issue in my mind, perhaps I can feel a sense of pride in what I am doing instead of worrying about the career consequences.

Week One Reflections

It’s six o’clock on Sunday evening, and I’m on duty in the Deans’ Office. With study hall coming up in 90 minutes, the boarding students who were off-campus for the weekend are trickling in, and the center of campus is quiet as most students are at dinner. This week has been a blur, so I thought I’d pause and try to process it a little bit.

My Friday night open mic concept went well. I’m trying to run a 30 minute music-plus-announcements kick-off to the weekend every Friday night in our Dining Hall, and the first one was a relative success. Five terrific student musicians performed, I made some announcements, and the room was packed. Not all of the students in the audience were as quiet and respectful of the performers as I would like, so I need to think about how to shape the environment a little more to encourage people to listen. It might be as simple as dimming the lights and putting a spot on the performer. The first part is easy; the second part . . . I don’t know. Either way, I’ll run this event again this Friday, and I want to quickly turn the management of it over to the students themselves.

Another thing I wanted to try as a new dean this fall was to stand at the circle where parents drop off their kids each morning. I’m posting myself there from 7:30 – 8:00am, and it has been a hoot. It is helping me learn the names of some new students, and I’m maintaining connections to students whom I taught last year. I can problem-solve for students and parents on the spot, and I’m discovering who has a learner’s permit. The kids seem to think that I’m standing there to intercept a student who is in disciplinary trouble, but nope, I’m just trying to be welcoming.

Seeking approval for my team’s Adaptability Project proposal is another item on the front burner for me this fall. When we made our presentation to the faculty, we handed out “I like . . . / “I wonder . . .” cards to solicit feedback. Having read the cards this weekend, it is clear that my colleagues have no problem with the proposal to hire an academic technology coordinator, but that’s the least challenging piece of the larger proposal. (And we are always happy to spend money that isn’t ours, right?) The other pieces of the proposal met with mixed reactions; some very positive, some quite negative. All of the comments were respectful, however, which I appreciate, and the snark was restrained. The backs of those cards asked teachers to write down an example of blended learning that they have done in the past with their classes. Some people left this blank, but most teachers wrote down something. The majority of the examples strike me as “technology-rich” classroom techniques, not actual blended learning. After we share the results of the cards with the faculty, I’d like to write them all an email to reintroduce them to the SAMR concept which I presented to them in February 2014. (Alas, it doesn’t seem to have taken root.)

In terms of my own reaction to my new role, I am starting to get my sea legs. I have much less free time during the school day (none, really), but when I finally leave the office, I’m pretty much done. On past Sunday nights when I’ve been on duty in the Deans’ Office, I’ve had grading and planning to do that was hanging over me ominously. Tonight, I have nothing to worry about other than doing my dean work well. I’m on duty next weekend, so the next eight days are going to be exhausting, but once I get past that, I’ll have a decent stretch of time in which I can get into a good rhythm. I need to learn all of my new duties and areas of supervision very quickly, master them, and then concoct a plan to hand them off to other people while I’m on paternity leave. The fall is going to fly by, I am sure.

Start of the School Year, Goals, Etc.

I remember reading the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson when I was in college, and I was stunned that Snorri’s version of the Norse myths includes activities after Ragnarok. Isn’t Ragnarok supposed to be the end of the world?

This school year feels a little post-Ragnarok-y to me. Some dear colleagues are gone now, and I’m adrift without these pole stars to keep my ship (a Viking longship?) pointed in the right direction. Nonetheless, I’m a believer in creative destruction, and now it’s up to the rest of us to rebuild our world. I guess that’s my mission this year.

This is my seventeenth year as an educator, but my first as a full-time administrator with no classroom duties at all. Add to that the impending birth of my first child, and you can understand why I’m somewhat out of sorts. I tell everyone that I’m a permanent beta guy, so this is my opportunity to live it. I was hoping to get my goals posted here before the school year began, but things have been so hectic that my blog will have to take what it can get: the evening of the second day of school.

Goals for School Year 2015-16

  1. Establish an efficient routine for myself in the Deans’ Office that will maintain my reputation as a colleague who gets things done.
  2. Support our interim Dean of Students wholeheartedly and good-naturedly.
  3. Use my influence as “minor discipline czar” to show students compassion and help them be their best selves.
  4. Use my paternity leave to truly unplug from work and build my new family.

That last goal is the scary one. A lot of men feel that there is a stigma around paternity leave, and they worry that taking one will derail their career. I’m very blessed to be in a good position to take a paternity leave, and my employer’s policy will enable me to do it, but I’m very unused to taking time off during the school year. This article in the NYTimes over the summer is a great primer on the topic. It cites a study that shows that men who take paternity leave lessen the number of sick days that their female partners need to take after they return from their maternity leaves. Interesting.

I’ve got other things that I need to do this year, too. I’m still a member of my Adaptability Project team, and we are going to continue to meet this year. We presented our “Technology Renaissance” proposal to the full faculty last week. We have feedback cards to collate and process, and then we need to formulate a road-map to get this proposal approved. My paternity leave means that I won’t be able to present at NAIS with the other Adaptability Project folks, and that’s a disappointment. I’d love to be there to support my colleagues (and run the Twitter backchannel), but having a baby is clearly priority number one.

The pace in the Deans’ Office over the last week has been positively frantic. In truth, I’m energized by that, but it isn’t infinitely sustainable. I have long-term projects that I want to steward, and I won’t get anywhere if I’m always reacting to what’s walking through the door. I actually read a book about workplace productivity over the summer to prep myself for this (Work Simply by Carson Tate), but I’m still getting knocked off my game over and over again. I need to find some serenity. (Good thing that I’m still an academic advisor, so I attend Meeting For Worship here at GS.)

I look forward to finding new ways to use my blog this year to reflect on my work. I apologize in advance if I transform into a predictable daddy blogger in November.

Alfie Kohn on “Growth Mindset”

As I sat down to participate in #sunchat on Twitter this morning, I discovered the Connected Educator world was abuzz with reactions to Alfie Kohn’s new article for Salon, The education fad that’s hurting our kids: What you need to know about “Growth Mindset” theory — and the harmful lessons it imparts.

Kohn went after the “grit” fad last year, and now he is taking on an even more entrenched, but still recent, educational fad: Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset,” which is official doctrine in many schools (including mine). I love Kohn’s iconoclastic willingness to tackle the school orthodoxy, but I’m a little surprised that he took on the mindset devotees. I would think that he would see this as support for his intrinsic motivation focus, but he distinguishes between the two in his piece in Salon.

The common thread that unites Kohn’s take-downs of both grit and the growth mindset is his concern that the focus on these non-cognitive skills is distracting attention away from the real enemy: soul-crushingly dull classroom instruction that forces kids to sit still and march through tedious, mindless exercises and drills. He worries that teachers who are lecturing at their students each and every class, and then assigning hours of useless homework (busywork?), are using the grit and growth-mindset trends as excuses to avoid having to confront their contribution to their students’ lack of interest or engagement. It isn’t their fault that they are doing nothing to find more interesting ways to hold their students’ attention; it is the students’ fault for not having grit or for having a fixed mindset.

On a different note, Twitter is also alive this morning with tributes to Julian Bond, who just passed away at age 75. An alumnus of George School, Bond was a frequent presence on campus in the last few years, and it was a privilege to have met him. The number of GS alums who have taken to social media this morning to pay their respects is moving. We have many alums who do us proud, but none like Julian Bond.

Blogging 201: Day One

For the next two weeks I’ll be participating in an blogging seminar conducted by the good folks at WordPress. Our first task is to identify three concrete goals for our blogs. This is a useful assignment for me since my blog is going to need to change in focus a little bit going forward. I originally envisioned it as a classroom blog that would be a place for me to reflect on my teaching and share work from my students. I’ve used it that way over the last two years, but now my role at school is changing. I’m moving out of the classroom to become a full-time administrator, so I won’t have access to the wellspring of blogging ideas that teaching provides. What then should become of this blog? Some goals . . .

1. Follow education news from the mainstream media and other edubloggers more closely, and use my blog as a place to participate in the conversation. This can be a challenge at times since so much of the news and media coverage is aimed at the world of public education, but there is more than enough that is relevant to my work in the independent school world if I visit the right sites and use my Twitter PLN for leads.

2. Reflect on my work. Although my work as a dean will often involve issues that can’t be shared online, I can reflect on the tough philosophical dilemmas that face school administrators. A blog is a good place to write up those thoughts since members of my PLN can chime in via the Comments. It is also helpful to be able to go back and look at my evolving opinions on tough issues and matters of philosophy as they change over time.

3. More creative writing. Occasionally I feel moved to write a little satire (such as this piece from last year) or poetry, and it would be good for me to try to do more. I’ll be returning to the classroom as an English teacher sooner or later — maybe next year; maybe in two decades — and I need to keep my own writing skills sharp. I should make it a goal to publish something creative on my blog at least once a month.

I admit that these goals aren’t as concrete as some of the examples from the Blogging 201 Daily Assignment instructions. However, I’m not actively looking to “build my brand” or drive a lot of traffic to this site. As an educator at an independent school, my personal brand is subsumed by the brand of my employer, and I’m not trying to pick up nickels and dimes via advertising. I’d be happy if the visitors to my blog came away feeling that the level of discourse was high and the quality of writing was halfway decent.