Why does spring hope eternally for baseball but not schools?

Spring Training

Please excuse my cultural bias on the baseball analogy. We in the Alps are slogging through the last vestiges of winter and I cannot help but be inspired by the excited athletes as they play catch beneath the palm trees of Florida, smiling with the anticipation of a new year full of hope and promise.

Yes, many of us show up to work in beautiful places full of similar hope and promise. So do I. What I’m talking about is that magical focus that teams have that they are working towards (jump to link at end if you want). They get together. They analyze strengths and weaknesses. They focus on one goal. They put one another in a position to succeed. (The catcher doesn’t pitch, for example). They work together, not independently. They perform. They celebrate. They know what one another is doing. They watch film of their work. Primary teachers do this better than anyone I’ve seen.

I’ve seen a million posts about collaboration, teamwork, coaching models. This isn’t new. What interests me, though, is that drive, that goal, that competitive focus that is missing. The test as a goal just isn’t cutting it. University acceptance? Maybe, but that’s so distant and intangible. MUN? Global Issues Network? Getting closer…It’s more than that. It’s a cultural thing. Teams look at one another’s performance and make comments because what you do affects me. That’s it. What you do affects me. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Where’s that spirit? Where is that, “Here’s the goal, here’s our strengths as a team, here’s what we need to do this month and then after that we’ll work on this. Oh, and let’s talk about it. A lot.

Visualize your purpose. Demand focus. And maybe someday your school year or your class ends like this.

I hated school, so I became a teacher…

Anyone? Anyone?

I know you’ve seen that video clip a million times, but it captures my education and makes you wonder how on earth many of us went into the business to start with.

How often do we talk about our educational experience as a history of how we learned? I’ve heard many times that we teach how we learned. That is scary because for me because it wasn’t pretty. I had a couple of good teachers, but it was mostly stand and deliver in such a soul crushing way I still don’t know how I decided to become one.

At our school, we have a new faculty retreat and one of my favorite exercises with the new staff is to have them draw a history of their education and talk about it with their peers. It’s amazing what comes out of it. Not only do I learn about the type of people they are but it tells so much about how they interact with their profession and actually teach others. I wish we had time to do such exercises in the interview process. British systems, Canadian, Czech, Australian, Swiss. It’s amazing how disparate their educational experiences were and how it affects their interaction with our audience. It’s truly an experiment.

The noblest in our profession got into it because we are maybe passionate about a subject matter that for some reason we didn’t pursue as a career, or maybe we really like igniting that spark of learning, the energy of youth and the world of possibility. It’s all good stuff. I actually liked my critical thinking classes in history which is how I went after a degree in politics and pursued my passion to get others involved in the same. It led to my strong belief that young people can and should make a difference in the communities around them and thus a pursuit of service learning before it really had a name. I guess that part of school was okay.

It’s worth it to sit down and write your education history. Share it with others and discuss. How did you get where you are? Did you hate school? Was there a passion that you didn’t pursue or maybe something that you hope to ignite in others? Is there a passion that still drives you? I have to say, the dialogue that is happening now around learning has actually recharged my batteries and my passion around what I do. I still kind of hate school. But wow, do I love learning.

Tolerance of Frustration

So when I began my teaching career, and even as far back as my student teaching experience, the one thing that I knew I needed to work on was my tolerance to frustration. Back then I would get frustrated when a student didn’t understand a concept that I had “taught”, I would get frustrated when a decision didn’t go my way, I would get frustrated when a parent asked questions about my classroom management style or my philosophy on homework, and in a few of these cases I really didn’t do a good job of handling my reactions. It wasn’t just with my professional life though, this issue seeped into my personal life as well and I even remember as a young father getting frustrated over the silliest of things and reacting inappropriately. Over the years I’ve worked extremely hard to change, and one of the things that I’m most proud of as I slowly became a man and leader is how well my tolerance level has dramatically increased…to the point where I now see it as one of my strengths. Anyway, over the years I have made a point of watching how both students and educators react to frustration (probably because I relate to how difficult it is for many people to handle it effectively), and it’s interesting for me to see how it affects not only a person’s job performance, but their overall lives in general.

The important lesson and truth that I’ve come learn while watching and reflecting on people’s reactions to frustration, is that more often than not there is an underlying issue that needs to be explored, which is the real reason for why people react the way the do. For me it was an insecurity (or lack of confidence), and I would usually take things personally instead of looking deeply into why I was getting frustrated, or instead of asking myself what it is that is really causing this negative emotion. Back then my frustration with a student was not because I was angry at them, it was because deep down I knew I wasn’t doing a good enough job of teaching…my frustration with my “administration” was not because I had all the answers, it was because didn’t really understand why they had made a certain decision and I didn’t have the educational courage to ask the clarifying questions, or to push back to a point where I was able to see how a decision played into the overall vision of the school. I also came to realize that there are things in this world that are out of my control and getting frustrated by them is truly a waste of time and a whole lot of wasted energy…but it was hard work and it took many years.

The hardest part for many people, in my opinion, is to develop the introspective and reflective skill set which is necessary figure out what is really behind their frustrations, and then having the wherewithal to do something about it. I often counsel kids in this way, and I tell them that a low tolerance of frustration will hinder their opportunities and limit their chance for success and happiness. The same holds true for adults, and I get concerned when I see an educator get frustrated over things that are either out of their control, or a symptom of a much bigger issue…that’s when I know that it’s time for a chat. The other thing about having a low tolerance of frustration is that it impacts not only how your students see you, but how your colleagues do too. It affects your relationships, your mood, your approach to life, and your happiness. What I’m asking you this week, is that the next time you find yourself getting frustrated about something, look deeply into yourself and try and figure out why…then have the courage to tackle the real issue. Have that hard conversation with a colleague that has been rubbing you the wrong way lately, talk to the student that is getting under your skin, come and talk to me about the frustrations that you might be feeling about our school or your job, and get down to the heart of the matter. Finally, find it somewhere inside you to let go of the things that are out of your control…pick your battles…ask others about why they are frustrated about something…support each other, and let go of the negative energy that it stopping you from being the best person and educator that you can be. It’s hard work I know but it’ll be worth it! Developing a high level of tolerance to frustration has changed my life for the better and it’ll do the same for you.

Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week……..
Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning do to do afterward.
— Kurt Vonnegut

Amazing and Poignant TV Commercials – please watch (YouTube)

Dealing with Frustration and Frustrating People-

Interesting Articles and Websites on Tolerance of Frustration –

Get Your Hands Off My Hashtag

Generation Like

The above program on the American show “Frontline” is a pretty good look at how teens have adapted their lives to social media. The question is, have we? I am a card carrying member of Generation X. And I thought we were rebels. We were the heir apparents to the baby boomers in America (a generation of children born from World War II veterans, creating a population bubble). We were the ones breaking the mould, asking the questions, being rebellious. Oh, have things have changed.

Ok, just for kicks and giggles, I always get a kick out of this hashtag sketch even though it’s more for actual Gen Xrs than teens. I don’t even think teens use hashtags which I guess undermines the point of this post. But I digress…

Yes, hashtagging has been around for awhile. You know something has reached its trending peak when it gets panned on late night tv in America. That’s not the point. The point is when Gen X’ers try to be cool with this stuff it can backfire miserably. Enter the digital literacy class I am teaching to 11th graders. I announced the other day that since Facebook is no longer “cool” that we would be using Instagram for a project I wanted them to do on an issue. They got visibly and physically upset. Several shut down their smart phones and said that they would never share their Instagram accounts with me. I backed off. I felt like the parent entering my daughter’s slumber party with a flashlight, asking them if everything was alright. Clearly a line had been drawn. We neutralized the situation by agreeing to open up new dummy accounts that they could use for the project. Crisis averted.

Teaching of this sort is pushing the line between the teacher and learner unlike never before. Although “Generation Like” students are putting it all out there and making themselves vulnerable and exposed in ways never imagined before the digital age, the same does not apply to the classroom. There’s a line there that we cannot cross. But what about individualized learning and differentiation? What about “reach them and then teach them?” Not so fast. Teach me that “school stuff” but keep your hands off my hashtag. But whether we like it or not, the role and that line of teacher/student is changing dramatically and affecting the culture in ways that are going to take awhile to adjust. The meaningful use of technology is intensely personal, and pushing those borders, that personalized environment that we all talk about as educators is not necessarily shared with our students.

So, I opened up my own dummy Instagram account like my students. I tugged the lapels of my plaid tweed jacket, adjusted my horn rimmed glasses, and said, “Okay, kids, let’s get to work.”

Thank You Mr. Hacker For This Teachable Moment

Last week my email account was hacked. You know the message (or you might have even gotten the message from me!):

“Subject: Important Message

Please view the document i uploaded for you using Google docs. CLICK HERE just sign in with your email to view the document its very important.

Thank you”

Which would then lead anyone who did “Click” to a non-existent document.

Yes. It was a pain. Within 24 hours I had 50 emails from people asking me if I sent them this weird message. That, of course, meant I had to respond to all those people telling them no, unfortunately/fortunately it wasn’t me, but it was SPAM and maybe they should consider changing their own email passwords.

Most people were understanding, and had either experienced something similar or knew someone who did. Many had seen this message with another fake document “attached” before. No one was angry or upset. It is very much part of our digital lives- to be hacked.

What I wasn’t ready for though, was explaining what happened, what it meant and how to handle it to students in my elementary school who were sent the message- and of course opened it! (An “Important Message” from the Assistant Principal- what 8-10 year old wouldn’t open it?)

I was surprised then when a 4th grade girl sent me a series of emails about the hacking episode.  She took the situation, worked through it and then learned from it all. Here is how our correspondence went:

Student: Ms.Munnerlyn I am wondering what is this, because when I clicked on it, it said it was suspicious and when I click on it nothing comes up.
Me: Please don’t open. My email was hacked, and it was sent out. Thanks for letting me know. Please tell others. Mrs. M
 A few minutes later…
Student: OK, my mom thinks it’s a virus and it happened to one other friend.
A few minutes later…
Student: I just looked at it in Google and it is a scam, what it said is that scammers will see my password (had to log in) and start sending e-mails that scam other people. That website said to change password immediately, what do I do???
Me: To be safe, it might be good to change your password. Today at school I learned of 3 parents who had the same situation happen to them. Do you know how to change your password? If not, I will be happy to help you with that tomorrow. Tell your teacher you need to come to me with your computer ok?
Don’t worry- our tech director has told me this isn’t dangerous or anything. They are trying to get people to send them money. However- you and I are too smart for that. The problem for us is that this is an inconvenience only.
Thanks for checking with me. Your friend, Mrs. Munnerlyn


Not the conversation I would expect to have with a 10-year-old, but one which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately as it is the exact conversation I should be having with her- and others like her at our school.

You see, we offer digital citizenship weeks, and days and courses, and tell kids to be careful, cautious and aware online. We have given them examples and talked to them about reasons. Our students, for the most part, are good online. If anything it is a back and forth email spat which gets out of control. However, this is the first time I have had a real example like this: a scenario from the real, big, unpredictable world out there.

So who got schooled through Mr. Hacker’s teachable moment?

I did, of course. My student taught me that she is not only internalizing what we’ve been teaching, but maybe more importantly, she is showing signs of being a truly independent, savvy, and resourceful technology user.

It isn’t getting hacked that counts; it’s how you handle it. 

Photo credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/bb/No-spam.png

Under the Microscope

So I read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath over the holiday break and it really got me thinking. What I love so much about Gladwell’s writing, and this book in particular, is that he calls into question so much of what we take for granted as truth, and it makes us think critically about things that we don’t often think critically about. It is so easy to go through life without stopping to question the “how and why” of something, and it’s comfortable for us to “go with the flow”, and to do things because it’s the way that they’ve always been done…and this makes me think of education. I also just recently read a couple of blog posts from two international educators who have inspired me over the years, and these posts again made me wonder about the “how and why” of our current and traditional educational model.

Back in December, Bambi Betts wrote a piece titled, “On Average” for The International Educator on-line website and it questioned our current grading policies in schools. The fact that we average out a student’s grades over a particular period of time, and report it out as a commentary on their level of achievement is in many ways strange, but it’s something that schools are continuing to do simply because it’s the way that it has always been done…but is it the right thing to do? The second post, written a couple of weeks ago by a friend and mentor of mine Andy Ferguson, discussed school culture, and the many things that go into making a school who and what they are. He talks about the definition of school culture as “the way we do things around here”, and he eloquently discusses how important it is to question current practice and to think critically about whether or not the “way that we do thing around here” are actually the right things to do. All of this, in a round about way makes me think of the current winter Olympics, and the individual athletes who are relentless in their desire to take themselves and their sport to the next level, and to find ways through experiment and change to become the best that they can be…and again it makes me think of education.

I’ve been wondering lately if we as educators are doing enough to question and push back on the way that things have been done over the years, and to really think critically about why we’re still doing them. Things like assessment practices, grading and reporting practices, the way we deliver curriculum, the way we hire and retain faculty and the reasons behind these decisions, timetabling and the scheduling of classes, and the types of programs that we offer to our kids. There’s so much that is currently being done in schools that looks exactly like the way we’ve always done things, and I’m not so sure that these are the right things anymore. I know many of you are thinking the same thing, and have probably have been pushing back on the standard for awhile with some success but I’m not sure that it’s enough. I don’t have any concrete answers about next steps but I have some ideas, and I’m keen to put our current practices under the microscope so to speak to see if we are doings things for the right reasons, or if we’re doing them simply because it’s the way that it’s always been done.

I’m asking you this week to look at your own programs, as well as your approaches to assessment and grading and curriculum development, and start to push back. Let’s begin to openly discuss some opportunities for change, or upgrades to our current practices so that there’s no question that they’re still the right things to do. Let’s think critically about the “how and why” of our current educational model and see if we can’t take a page from the Olympic athletes and do what we can to take our sport to the next level. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week………
Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.
– Karl Weick

Book Suggestion – Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath
Join the Movement for Change –
Feel Good Olympic Video –
Recent Educational Research Review Articles –
American Educational Research Association –
The International Educator – On Average Blog Post

Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do!

Even if you’re not a Lost fan, Locke speaks for all of us.

There’s nothing like being inspired by someone who refuses to be told what they cannot do. It really can move you.

I went to a conference today in a chilly city gripped by the now infamous polar vortex, looking for that inspiration. I didn’t find it.

So I took a cab across town to meet an old friend at a nearby college that begins with “H” and thinks quite highly of itself. They even had a fireplace in the cafeteria. It was pretty inspiring.

But it was the cab ride that captured me. When I’m in foreign capitals, I love chatting up the cabbies. I find so much about the city I’m visiting, as well as their countries of origin, their language, their family stories, their sports teams, and sometimes their drama. It grounds me.

Jean Patrick is from Haiti. He now lives in Boston, the city I was visiting. I asked him why his cab didn’t have the thick glass between him and the passengers. He told me he didn’t want it. I asked if he was afraid of being robbed or worse. He said that “whatever happens happens and I cannot change that.” I pushed him. He told me about his friend who ended up in a wheelchair after getting shot for confronting a ride over six bucks. I answered that it sounded like a defense of the plastic wall, not against it. He said, “No, the plastic wall gives you a false belief that you are safe. You are never safe. If they want to rob me, they will rob me. Plastic wall, no plastic wall. I have guys show me their guns to my face and say that they’re going to take everything. I tell them there’s nothing I could do to stop them. They put their guns away and tell me I’m okay. Would a plastic wall do that?” I sat back in the plastic covered seat. He was right. Of course, it was reverse psych 101, but who could practice it in circumstances like that? No one could tell him what he could not do.

Jean Patrick was off the charts on emotional intelligence. When you are afraid, be it in the classroom, the boardroom, the parent meeting, how many of us allow ourselves to be told what we cannot do? How many of us put up the plastic wall? You’ve been burned so many times, held (figuratively of course) at gunpoint, so that you put up the divider, the barrier. Jean Patrick took his down. I could have reached right over and taken anything. He even told me he couldn’t stop me if I didn’t pay. It was so liberating that I had no choice but to follow his lead. No one could tell Jean Patrick what he could not do. I asked him if he wanted to speak at my conference. He laughed.

I handed him his fare and a large tip before I got out of the cab to wish him well. “I’m off to be inspired again, Jean Patrick,” I said. He laughed and looked at me. “Then you better get going,” he smiled as he drove off, without looking back.

You Had me at Hello

Well, it’s that time of year again. The recruiting season. Recruiters, I hope your conversations for that IB Physics teacher go a lot more like this rather than this

Sweaty palms, checking your texts 300 times a minute, darting glances around the room for someone to catch your eye and smile. High school dance or recruiting fair? Recruiting fair.

You nervously walk down the hotel corridor, the number of the room in your hand, shaking, excited with nervous anticipation, fixing your shirt at the last minute, wondering if this moment is going to change your life. You knock, she opens and smiles. After high school dance or recruiting fair? Recruiting fair.

You rip open the envelope, your eyes absorbing every word in the message, reading between and through the lines. “Nice to meet you,” he wrote. What did he mean by “nice?” Is it a sign?

You walk the room, beverage in one hand, hoping to catch that sparkle in his eye, that moment of truth. There he is, you approach, but ever so carefully as not to seem too eager. He looks up. He sees you. You smile. He looks away and pretends not to notice. You are crushed. You wonder why. You look down at the patterns in the carpet, the noise around you hushed. It wasn’t meant to be after all. High school dance or recruiting fair?

You get the drift.

Yes, it’s that time of year, where professionals from international schools around the world gather in a multitude of meeting places to put their best foot forward in hopes for the future and a career path that could take their lives in a totally new direction. Or not. As a recruiter, you feel the hopeful anticipation of the unknown, the many options in front of you, the competitive juices flowing as you think of the other suitors. And the candidates? You are filled with dread, hoping you will be chosen against all others, and that the leap of faith you took is somehow rewarded. The stakes are so high. The dreams are so crushed or fulfilled.

Just like high school.

I have been on both sides of “the table” and can assure the candidates that it’s no more fun being the suitor than it is being the…suited? We get dumped. Our phone calls are not returned. The one we really don’t want chases us down on the dance floor. We look for messages, for hope, any sign at all that you want us. Yes, it’s high school. So, if you’ve ever had one of those moments, years later, when you looked back and said, “If I could do it all over this is what I would do differently in high school..” listen to that voice. It will serve you well at a recruiting fair. Have confidence, faith in yourself, the ability to say no, and most of all, the perspective things happen for a reason.

Becoming a Teaching Principal

One of the best things about teaching at schools overseas is the opportunity to connect with consultants when they are in the region. Whether at conferences, or weekend workshops, we have many of the best-known thinkers in the area of education coming to and near our schools to help us all improve. Once abroad, those super-stars of the education world are just like us, navigating the visa line in Muscat, or trying to bargain in Nepal. It is a unique pleasure to have the chance to be with a guru: on a plane, in a taxi, or even in a classroom at one of our schools.

Last weekend, we hosted Matt Glover, early-childhood writing specialist, author, teacher and leader, at our school. Matt was moving through several schools in the region on his way to a NESA-sponsored weekend workshop in Muscat, Oman. We had one day for our Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers to work with Matt. He presented for a few hours, took our specific school-related questions to heart; then demonstrated some teaching moves in our classrooms, followed up by an afternoon working with teachers. Although I learned a great deal about writing and early-childhood best practices from Matt, (more on that here) what really stuck with me was the fact that he was a former principal who made it a point to teach too.

Eureka! That’s what I want to be.

I know high school and middle school principals- and I’ve heard of a few Heads of School- who teach a class. This allows them to stay connected to the kids and to the teachers through their “on the ground” work. I’ve always been impressed by the added workload and admired the desire to maintain that connection. However, what I’ve not seen is an elementary school principal who consistently teaches. Mainly because it isn’t easy to break the ES day into “classes.” (Nor is it necessarily good for younger children to have multiple leaders in the room, as it can confuse structure and routine.) So, how did Matt Glover do it? How can I be a teaching-principal too?

Well, as a principal of a large (800+) early childhood school in Ohio, Matt spent years teaching in classrooms to improve both his own understanding of how best to reach young writers, as well as how to support and lead his teachers as they took on the work. He knew it would be easier to bring along his whole school if he was a leader who was also trying to do the work he was asking his colleagues to embrace. Matt wasn’t acting as the teacher of an isolated class of children; he was the teacher of the whole school. He maintained his own learning stance, moving through the “how can we do this better” phase right alongside his teachers and the students.

The result is evident when Matt presents. He isn’t the sage on the stage, but rather someone who has built up his own repertoire of skills- over time, and with practice. Practice inside the classroom with real kids, practice doing the instructional work as much as getting it down on paper, and practice analyzing student writing to understand where to go with a particular child as well as the whole student body.

Last week Matt Glover taught me how to be a better writing teacher. He also helped me realize that the best way for me to be a leader is to lead from the work inside the classrooms.

If I can practice like Matt, my leadership might just be meaningful too.