Friday Joy/Sunday Dread

Disclaimer:  This is not a post heavy on practical teaching or leadership advice.  Personal narrative and philosophical musing on the profession may follow.  Read at your own risk. 

This past weekend Joanna, Tallulah, and I made the trek down to the peanut field in Gaston.  680 students now go to school on those twenty-seven acres.  51 of those students were the graduating seniors of the Pride of 2010. 

Our second class did not have an easy time of it in their middle school (and high school in many cases) years.  This is a common theme in many new schools.  The founding class gets an intense experience and develops a high achieving, personable, and entitled vibe.  The next class struggles more academically, in part because of the retainees from the founding class.  They also develop an occasionally bitter persona because of the adulation heaped upon the founders.  Lessons learned…

  • I stopped talking to kids and teachers about the qualities of “this class” or “that class”.  This language never helps individual kids and serves only to reinforce pedestals and dungeons-neither of which are healthy places to be.
  • Looping can never go beyond two years.  This is one case where I should have listened to the research.

It was a real honor to be there to see the Pride of 2010 transition to college and life beyond. In addition to the enormous pride and joy I felt for these young men and women, their Commencement raised some essential questions. The countless times I lost my temper in the early years should have (and sometimes did) damage relationships beyond repair.   However I stayed long enough in Gaston that many of my worst mistakes became funny stories for the high school kids to tell disbelieving fifth graders.  How do we make it possible for more people to do this work for a long time? 

I watched a talk recently from Robyn Jackson about her book Never Work Harder than Your Students.  As I moved past my initial discomfort with the title and reflected on the classrooms of the most effective teachers and the staff cultures of the most effective leaders I realized this is a mindset that has to be embraced.  Putting more of the work on the students  through better questioning, increased independent practice with feedback, and classroom jobs is not only better for a teacher’s sanity it also improves achievement.  The same holds for leadership.  The more responsibility is distributed the more likely the leader is to last and lasting matters to kids and families.

Another idea that I keep coming back to is the sabbatical.  Teachers and leaders should get the chance to step out of the current and re-enter.  The economics of this may seem ugly but I am convinced if you study the costs of losing a strong and experienced teacher or leader you will find that they outweigh a year or two of salary.

Teachers and leaders who want one need a voice in the big picture issues.  Many of our best people are great practitioners and great thinkers.  How do we get their voices in the policy and strategy debates without taking them out of the classrooms and schools?

Our language drives our beliefs.  It’s hard not say things like “moving up” when someone moves into leadership from the classroom or into a national role from a local one but we need to talk about these roles as matters of best fit rather than of value.

This year I made a major discovery-Sundays.  For the last thirteen years I couldn’t imagine Monday without working for a large chunk of the day on Sunday.  Imagine the longevity if we found a way to make weekends two days for our teachers and leaders.  Does this happen by teaching people better habits of personal productivity?  Does better sharing of resources across schools and networks help this happen?  Do we need to allocate planning time differently?

Apologies for the delay in posts-I was taking some leave to focus on fatherhood.  Thanks so much for the comments and emails from some of the busiest people in the universe.  Can’t wait to hear more.

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2 Responses to “Friday Joy/Sunday Dread”

  1. jsmith6 Says:

    Great post (per usual), and I was especially intrigued by one comment. “Looping can never go beyond two years. This is one case where I should have trusted the research.”

    As you know, I’m returning to Gaston next year to teach 2012, who I also taught in 7th grade and 8th grade. I would love your thoughts on how to make that a good thing, and am curious what the research says.

    • mrdolan Says:

      Your situation is an interesting test of that theory. In short: my hunch is that the gap between 8th and junior year is a big enough one that the kids and you will be able to have a fresh start.

      A lot of the hardest work with knowing kids over a long time is finding ways to forgive each other past transgressions.

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