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Teach the Parents Well

February 9, 2014

Freckle Face Girl with Sad Eyes“Parents have become…I really have to be careful…delusional.”

These were the first words spoken to an audience of educators by Madeline Levine in her presentation on “Creating Authentic Success in Our Students.” Dr. Levine, author of The Price of Privilege and Teach Your Children Well, went further to state that parents’ “false assumptions are damaging to their children and to teachers. It’s time to expose some of that.”

I gained some insight recently into the harmful misperceptions parents can instill in their kids. A few weeks ago, on a vocabulary quiz for my middle-schoolers, I found that about half the class missed the word struggle by choosing the same wrong answer: “to do badly.” How disheartening is was to hear some of my youngsters admit, “That’s what my parents told me it meant.” Of course, the real meaning is “to work hard,” a kind of struggle that sadly may be foreign to them.

Dr. Levine, who was instrumental in the formation of Challenge Success (an educational program for parents), wants teachers to help educate parents about the kind of damage they are doing to their kids. Here’s what she thinks they need to know:

  1. Kids believe there’s a single trajectory to success, and they get this idea from their parents. Let parents know that their inaccurate reporting about how success is reached can impair kids in terms of coping skills to deal with challenges. Recommendation: Advise parents to talk to kids at the dinner table about their own risks, failures, and mistakes – and how they learned from them.
  2. Kids become dependent on their parents for all the “right” answers, for clearing away all the obstacles to their becoming straight A students, which is what their parents think will make their kids more employable. Ironically, this means parents actually make their kids more unprepared to enter the work force. They do this by pushing kids away from activities that will make them employable (based on their own interests) and towards activities and decisions that will make them less prepared to enter the work force (more AP’s, tutors and test prep, ridiculous “community service” experiences abroad, etc.). Recommendation: Tell parents it’s better to send your kid to Target to work  than to Rwanda – at least they will learn some real skills in the process; help kids understand that businesses want to employ happy rather than sour, empathetic rather than entitled employees, young people who know how to solve problems rather than wait for others to provide all the answers for them.
  3. Kids are robbed of the “zone of proximal development” where real learning occurs. Parents step and do what kids should do. They react by doing what kids can almost do, and by confusing their own needs with their children’s. Recommendation: Parents need to stop and tend to their own needs and let children learn for themselves.
  4. Kids need to learn how to have “successful failures” – the kind that can give them a leg up to the next level of learning. Instead parents “find substitutes to give that leg up.” Parents who encouraged their kids when they were learning how to walk find themselves terrified that their children will make mistakes detrimental to their futures (even when failure and responsibility for it are the best lessons they can learn), resulting in serious emotional problems in their children. In affluent families, twice as many children than the rest of the population are emotionally impaired by the sixth grade; among all children, one in four has a clinical diagnosis as serious as true depression or anxiety disorders. Recommendation: Teach parents about the value of mistakes to teach resilience, self-control, self-management, self-soothing, etc.
  5. The greatest stressor among kids today now turns out to be school. Parents’ emphasis on academic success is taking its toll as they attempt to remediate every relative weakness. Recommendation: Help parents understand their children’s strengths and interests in order to cultivate a true zest for learning. We need to pay attention to what students are good at and what sparks their interest – and cultivate that.
  6. Students want, more than anything, to spend five minutes a day with a sane adult whom they can count on. Recommendation: Model the “soft skills” of kindness, empathy, trust, and caring that we want our students to learn; talk about justice and world peace, things that used to occupy the minds of the young, so that our kids will care about these things once again.

Levine’s Definition of “Authentic Success”

“While we all hope that our children will do well in school, we hope with even greater fervor that they will do well in life.

“Our job is to help them know and appreciate themselves deeply, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to approach the world with zest, to find work that is satisfying, friends and spouses who are loving and loyal, and to hold a deep belief that they have something meaningful to contribute to the world.”

Dr. Levine asks us to translate this idea of success for our students’ parents. To do that we need to set boundaries for parents to follow and stand tall in our profession to stop parents’ abuse of teachers as servants and scapegoats for any problem that arises. Maybe if we do, parents will start to listen and we can work together to help their children become healthy learners once again.

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography via Compfight cc


Play, Passion, Purpose

February 7, 2014

Previously, teachers held the key to knowledge. Today, knowledge is free and easily accessible. Because of this, knowledge is not the hot commodity it once was; everyone owns it. The world no longer cares about what we know. It cares about what we can do with what we know. Innovation is the golden ticket.

According to Dr. Tony Wagner, there is a gap between the skills that are necessary to be successful innovators and what is being taught in schools. He defines these skills as core competencies: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurial spirit, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination. He contends that we need to graduate more students who can solve problems and can manufacture ideas. From preschool to graduate school, the culture of school is fundamentally at odds with the methods that foster innovation.

Dr. Wagner points to research he completed on innovative minds that showed the teachers who had the greatest impact were outliers. They did not fall into the five traps that currently hinder schools:

1. Rewarding individual achievement

2. Compartmentalizing knowledge and encouraging specialization

3. Supporting consumption

4. Fostering a fear of failure

5. Highlighting extrinsic motivation

These teachers supported collaboration and teamwork, they fostered creation, they encouraged trial and error (which included failure), and they didn’t emphasize extrinsic rewards. The work they fostered and nurtured was all about play, passion, and purpose.

Why You Were Hired: One Division Head’s Definition of Great Teaching

February 7, 2014

What makes a great teacher? How do we perfect our own art and skills? Chris Gunnin, Head of Upper School at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth calls himself, “a student of great teachers”.  Chris attended St. Mark’s grades 6 through 12.  Prior to that he attended public schools in Richardson, TX.

Sharing personal stories about his time as an independent school student Chris spoke about how great teachers:

  • have a vision for students that is greater than the vision students have for themselves,

  • give students the experience of being a part of something greater than themselves,

  • provide their students with a lasting memory of treasured experiences.

In his talk Chris described 12 components  of great teaching that we can all aspire to.

Content Master

Great teachers have to be great content masters.  That does not mean we need to be master lecturers. In our practice we are being called upon to be content curators to our students rather than master lectures. In Chris’s words, “in the past I struggled to be the best lecturer.  Now I can point my students to the best lectures, or better yet, teach our students to find the best lectures themselves.”

Relational Expert

We don’t teach curriculum, we teach students.  How do get inside and capture the heart and mind of a young student? No significant learning occurs without a great relationship.  When Chris has seen faculty struggle, it’s not been with the content work, it’s been with the relationship work.

Teachers are called to do many different things.  They don’t care what we know unless they know we care.  Think of the impact the knowledgeable but uncaring professor in “The Paper Chase” made on the protagonist of that book and film.

Person of Character

Every adult on a K/12 campus is called to be a leader.  We must be people of character.  We must embody the principles of courage, honor and respect.  We are watched by young people at all times.  Who we are is hugely important. The subtext of what we are doing, our modeling for our students is huge.

Life Long Learners

How the world has changed.  Chris talked about how knowledge was scarce.  You could go to your teacher, your encyclopedia, your library.  He spoke about the process of using the card catalogue.  The question asked was “Did you find any sources?”

He spoke about how today the question asked is “how do you make sense of the 3 million sources you have found?”  How do we find time to be lifelong learners ourselves?

Tireless Worker

After all that a teacher does, the world does not recognize how hard we work.  We do 15 months of work in 10 months.  They think we get the summer off! However, we know that teaching is like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired, you stop when he gets tired. We also know that we must keep the coffee strong and within reach.”

Supportive Colleague and Collaborator

We have to figure out how the world is changing together.  Chris shared powerful stories of collegial camaraderie.

Dignity Agent

“At the center if all conflict is a dignity conflict.” Chris shared an extremely powerful story of a student falling asleep in chapel.  A student fell asleep in chapel when a guest speaker was there.  Instead of chewing out the student, Chris asked the student what was going on and learned that the student had had his wisdom teeth removed that morning and that he was on Vicodin.  We can respect the dignity of our students when we ask them what is going on instead of assuming the worst of them.

Student of Leadership

Schools are increasingly providing opportunities for teachers to be co-learners with students as we study what it means to be a leader.

Chris shared this definition of leadership by Jack Welch. Replace the word leader with teacher and it’s a great definition of teachers.

Jack and Suzy Welch on LinkedIn

Environment Builder

Students, often great students, go through terrible times outside of our schools.  The structure, safety, etc., of our schools often literally save lives.  Our spaces need to be safe spaces for ALL of our students.

Page 196 of Warren Bennis’s Organizing Genius provides terrific examples of building a terrific environment.

Partner with Parents

We can’t say to our families bring us the most precious things in your lives, drop them off at the curb and go away after you write a check for $20,000.  There is no class for independent school teachers dealing with independent school parents.

Rob Evans says 95% of your parents are fine, 5% are tough, that’s why your school administrators get combat pay.  Don’t go it alone with those troublesome parents.

Joy and Hope Promoter

Our media culture promotes the idea that high school and college years should be the happiest days of their lives. In how much of our professional lives do we experience joy? How much of that time are we actively able to promote joy?  We need to model joy for our kids.

Educational Reformer

While a self confessed traditionalist, Gunnin believes that we must be moving forward in terms of our practice.  We’ve been so successful in the old model why must we change? Gunnin has a two year old.  Gunnin wants the teachers of his daughter to be thinking about the skills his daughter will need to be a leader in 2050.

Education Fast Forward(EFF) has published a powerful statement about why school’s must reform.

“Good teachers set off a conversation that students can have with themselves for the rest of their lives. What educators do is holy and heroic.”

Dr. Ned Hallowell

When there is meaningful change and growth, we shift our identities.  Gunnin challenges us to embody each of these 12 characteristics in our practice.


  1. Content Master

  2. Relational Expert

  3. Person of Character

  4. Life Long Learners

  5. Tireless Worker

  6. Supportive Colleague and Collaborator

  7. Dignity Agent

  8. Student of Leadership

  9. Environment Builder

  10. Partner with Parents

  11. Joy and Hope Promoter

  12. Educational Reformer

Opportunities to Learn

February 7, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 1.20.15 PMI’ve had the enormous privilege of being both a teacher and learner in online educational environments; in essence, I’ve experienced learning on both sides of the screen, so to speak. According to Brad Rathgeber, Executive Director of the Online School for Girls, that means I’m more likely to believe in online learning at a rate of 70%. Amen to that.

My experiences as an online learner have been exciting, invigorating, and personally transforming. My experiences as an online teacher for CTYOnline, which offers courses to students worldwide, have allowed me to learn from topnotch educators who have created engaging curricula for students as young as fourth grade. In fact, the CTYOnline course I taught paved the way for my transition into teaching fifth and sixth-grade Language Arts.

Even more, I think of myself as someone who learns continuously in a multi-faceted blended format.  I get my best ideas from my personal learning network on Twitter, and I have the opportunity to engage with teachers from around the globe through my blogs for Getting Smart. At the same time, I also learn from watching the lower school teacher-leaders in my school, as Brad Rathgeber recommends. But I also take this experience into my own classroom by Skyping with other classes for International Dot Day, employing the discussion forums on our school’s web portal, and using digital sticky note tools, and blogging with my students. Blended teaching and learning feel as natural to me as getting up in the morning.

But I admit I’m also pretty fearless with technology. So I found myself nodding my head vigorously when Brad Rathgeber, in his presentation this morning (“Don’t Be Afraid – Engage: What the Rise of Online Learning Means for Teachers”), introduced the elephants in the room when it comes to moving teachers into the realm of blended and online classes: fear and misperceptions about what online learning really means.

Rathgeber goes beyond the fear factor to exhort teachers to see blended learning as an opportunity to extend the time and space of the classroom. He introduced the model of the Online School for Girls – that is, adopting the principle of taking the best of independent education into the cloud.

Never mind that 70% of students will take an online course in college. Never mind that we need to build in students the capacities they need to take those courses – things like creativity, independent thinking, and perseverance. Never mind that we need to be modeling the grit and innovation we want to inspire in our students.

Rathgeber tells us: You can do collaborative work online. You can help students know each other. You can offer an independent school seminar-style class online. You can discover new opportunities for learning by transcending time and space. You can experiment with new ways of reaching students and at the same time model risk-taking (and sometimes failing) for your students. Rathgeber says, “Because we don’t know the best ways to teach doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be experimenting – instead, we have an imperative to find out.”

Important shifts in how we teach and learn today are making demands on all of us. Rathgeber nicely sums them up as control, center, and time. Teachers now are thinking not just of contact minutes, but total time of instruction. We need to see these shifts as opportunities to improve our profession and our relationships with students.

How will you go back to your school with a new mindset towards the opportunities you can discover for learning online?

More information:

Professional Development Courses

OSG White Papers

Will students be ready to be out of the basement?

February 7, 2014

Yong Zhao’s son recently graduated from college with a degree in Art History. Because of his Chinese heritage, Yong’s son was worried about what everyone was going to think back in China. “How are you going to tell everyone that I have a degree in art?” he asked, his concern grounded in the age-old Chinese sentiment that only students who didn’t know much studied art. Yong reassured his son that he didn’t need to worry about that; it would be fine. He did, however, have one question: “Now that you are done learning what people have told you to learn, are you ready to be out of my basement?”


This idea that graduates need to be “ready to be out of the parents’ basement” was the theme of Mr. Zhao’s session. There are hoards of college graduates, yet hundreds of unfilled positions because companies cannot find qualified applicants. These graduates are still basement dwellers. Zhao maintains that students are stripped of skills like curiosity at an early age because we continue to use a curriculum that was developed over 100 years ago. 98% of students age 5 are creative geniuses. By the time these students are 10 this number drops to 30%. At age 14 only 10% are left, and by the time these students reach adulthood there will only be 2%. Middle class jobs of the future will be filled by the “creative class,” as the current middle class has dwindled because of automation and outsourcing. The current antiquated school model is broken. Schools need to foster curiosity and entrepreneurial skills along with individual talents.


In listening to Mr. Zhao, I couldn’t help but think of a great video about recognizing and nurturing individual talents, Failing Superman( 

Design Thinking to Go

February 7, 2014


Last summer I was introduced to the concept of design thinking at an ISTE workshop on apps for extending the design thinking process offered by educators at the Nueva School.  I had been working with teams of student designers, but struggling with the process. What as the best way to introduce brainstorming? How could I guide student inquiry? How could I keep my students working in “creative” mode? Suddenly, with just the outline of the design thinking process, all the balls I’d been juggling started to make sense.

Design Thinking Workshop

Co Barry of the Design School at Stanford led a workshop that extended my introduction to “Design Thinking” by stressing how it is best used to introduce a series of mindsets: human centeredness, mindfulness of process, showing rather than telling (concrete thinking), bias towards actions, radical collaboration, and creating a culture of prototyping.

Barry also introduced several exercises for priming the pump for design thinking. We interviewed one another and used images to illustrate our subjects’ key concerns; we created a group doodle; and we planned a party to experience the difference between responding “yes, and” rather than “yes, but.”  before asking us to take part in the process of collecting data from interviews and using it to build a prototype. One key element of the design thinking process that comes up again and again is building empathy. When we design for others, based on interviews, we suspend judgment and become more open observers. When we work on problems outside our areas of “expertise,” we actually come up with more innovative ideas.

 Idea Lab

After Barry’s practical, hands-on workshop, Jenny Velasquez, Garrett Mason, and Head of School Merry Sorrells hosted a visit to their new “Idea Lab” at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in New Orleans.  The lab showed off how students’ innovative thinking can be sparked with the right kind of space and resources to help teachers try out design thinking in their classes.  A little “idea paint” makes all the surfaces into spaces for writing, drawing, and brainstorming; comfy chairs invite collaboration, and access tools and supplies allows for on-the-spot creative thinking.

It was an inspiring afternoon and evening.  I’m looking forward to taking these ideas into my own classroom. Maybe I can convince my Headmaster to open an Idea Lab as well.

Young Zhao on the Changes We Need in Schools

February 7, 2014

Yong Zhou

The change we need in schools to provide employable skills

Individual differences

multiple intelligences

cultural diversity

curiosity, passion, creativity

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