If you’ve read my blog, you’ve noticed I tend to impart things I’ve learned from the corporate world into lessons for the classroom. I guess there are several reasons for this: First, it’s part of my DNA. Secondly, the big push is on “career and college readiness.” (Having worked for several of Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired Companies,” and as a father of two grown sons now successful in the workplace, career readiness is near and dear to my heart.) And, thirdly, being a Six Sigma Green Belt has made me an efficiency geek. “Work smarter, not harder” is a mantra you hear all the time at progressive companies like GE.
Unfortunately, while teachers constantly remind students to work smarter, they often don’t take their own medicine. Stephen Covey observes this keenly in the seventh of his celebrated habits for Highly Effective People. The last habit is “Sharpen the Saw.” That’s right. It comes from the story of a man sawing back and forth until dusk to cut down a tree. “How long have you been at it?” a friend asks. “Five hours,” the other replies. “Maybe you should take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw. Then the work would go faster.”
Aha! Sometimes we must force ourselves to take time to sharpen our saw. Covey recommends physical activity, such as exercise, nutrition, or stress management; mental activity, such as reading, visualizing, planning, or writing; social or emotional activity, such as volunteering; or spiritual activity, like reading, study, or meditation.
Think about what you have done for yourself lately. (It reminds me of my father’s sage advice about how not to go into debt. “Pay yourself first,” he would say, reminding me of the importance of saving.)
The way I “pay myself” is genealogy, and it fits perfectly with being a writer, historian, and teacher. After all, history is stories. And there are few greater rewards than finding interesting information about the ship my Danish grandfather boarded for his crossing to America, or about my great-great grandfather who marched barefoot for a hundred miles from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga during the Civil War, a great-grandmother who encountered “Indians” along the Oregon Trail in 1853, or another brave ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. (These are all true stories.)
Not only am I reliving history through my own ancestors, but I’m finding many friends along the way through Ancestry.com who have given me tips about how to look up pension files through the National Archives or unraveling pedigrees when that great grandfather you thought only married once had in fact married several times. Yes, the plot thickens.
Sadly, too many teachers suffer from burnout and leave the profession. If they would only work smarter, not harder, and take time for themselves, perhaps they’d come to class more refreshed and eager for the day. I’m certainly going to continue trying to ‘pay myself first’ so my battery reserves are always there for my students.
One of my strongest-held beliefs is that you can learn from anyone. (In business, the smarter companies believe that innovation can come from anyone.) Teachers, especially, must have this humility. It also is the fourth habit of Steve Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The skill one must develop to be an active listener versus just hearing – to understand, then be understood – is empathy. Empathic listening is with the ears, eyes, and heart – for feeling as well as meaning, according to Covey.
Last night I was in a graduate class where we had to read an article written by a Canadian teacher from northern Manitoba. He was proud of his 20-year teaching career and was looking forward to Parent Night that evening. His next appointment would be with the father of a boy in his class from the Cree tribe. Matthew had not been doing well in class, and his teacher was all prepared to confront the father to see what he would do about Matthew’s joking in class and unwillingness to learn.
The conversation did not go as expected. “How can you say that he can’t learn? He’s learned lots!” shouted the father. Then he proceeded to tell the teacher how Matthew had learned skills related to fishing and trapping that were way beyond the young boy’s years. Matthew also was a good artist.
“I had tried all kinds of methods to reach into Matt’s psyche,” the teacher reflected afterward. “I used basal readers, SRA Language Labs High-Interest/Low-Vocabulary reading series. I made him listen to prerecorded tapes while having the book in front of him. I threatened, I pleaded, I bribed – all to no avail. What I didn’t really attempt was that which would come from the boy himself. His father provided the key that unlocked it all. With this new-found knowledge, I began to work with Matthew and – wonder of wonders – he began to learn.”
Matthew’s teacher learned the hard lesson, even after 20 years in the classroom, that he had not been an empathic listener. Once he realized the error of his ways, he did a course correction and became a much better observer and listener.
“Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.”
Those words are the lyric to a well-known song in the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. In history, mistakes are made when people hear but do not listen. The same is true in the classroom and in our personal lives.
From 1995 until 2000, I lived in Hong Kong and traveled throughout Asia. That is when I learned this Chinese proverb, which I will never forget: “To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well and is as essential to all true conversation.”
In the classroom, I will be speaking. But, if I’m a good teacher, I also will be doing a lot of listening.
Some people have asked me, what was it about James Michener's The World is My Home that inspired you to create this blog? The answer has to do with creativity, setting one's priorities, and putting first things first, as Steve Covey would say. I listened to the audio version of The World is My Home during my commute from Redmond, Washington, to Renton, when I worked at Boeing. Michener told how when he returned from the war and was working as a copy editor in New York City, he would get up at 4 in the morning to write down his tales of the South Pacific, which later became a best-selling novel and was the basis for the musical South Pacific. He would do all this before work in the morning.
I thought to myself, "If he can do it, I can do it!" And so I did - going to bed at 10 and getting up at 4 am, cocooning myself in a warm robe and heading downstairs, trying hard not to wake anyone, so I could turn on the lights and a space heater in my office where I sorted stacks of paper (mostly photocopies of California medical archives) so I could write the fictional story of Dr. Jack Pitman, the young protagonist in my book, Inside the Barbary Coast.
The discipline paid off. What I learned in the process is that you (and only you) have to set your own priorities, and it starts with taking care of yourself. When I first got married, I used to tell my wife: "Eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest" -- to which she would jokingly add, "And take Geritol twice a day!!" recalling a well-known television commercial. "You can, if you want!" I replied, usually adding that if you eat right, you don't need vitamin supplements. But she knew that this was part of my constitution: to exercise every morning, eat balanced meals, and ensure I got enough rest, even getting up at 4 in the morning, to not be tired during the day.
Teachers routinely have to get up at 5 am to get ready and drive often considerable commutes to be prepared when their students walk in the door at 7:30. It requires creativity -- maybe having some exercise equipment at home to work out, rather than going to a gym -- and discipline to have lesson plans prepared well in advance so that your personal life is not stressed or in disarray. With the amount of energy teachers expend in their craft, they cannot afford to be inefficient about how they spend it.
Vision, Mission, and Values
These are things we talk a lot about in corporate communications. If businesses, large or small, don’t get it right, they waffle and lose direction. That’s often when more focused companies swoop in and take away their marketshare.
Before I relate the importance of Vision, Mission, and Values to teaching, let’s look at Hilton’s example. You can click on the screen shot to go directly to Hilton’s page detailing these attributes. Their Vision statement is appropriately aspirational: “To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality.” That’s awesome! As a former road warrior for GE and Boeing, a well-lit, welcoming Hilton Hotel was an oasis after a long journey.
Typically, Mission Statements tell why the organization exists (its purpose in life), and usually they imply a goal. Hilton’s Mission is to “be the preeminent global hospitality company – the first choice of guests, team members, and owners alike.” You can recognize Mission Statements because they’re easily supported by objectives, which in corporatespeak must be measurable. Thus, Hilton undoubtedly has metrics for financial performance and for satisfaction targets among its guests, team members, and owners. [Note how Hilton implies that happy team members make for happy customers.]
Coca-Cola has an interesting mission: “to refresh the world.” Quantitative and qualitative data informs Coca-Cola whether it is hitting that mark. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That’s a BIG mission! However, if you look at Google’s business decisions over the last three years (development of GoogleEarth and purchase of YouTube), you can see these decisions are aligned with Google’s stated mission.
Besides Vision, which is long-range and aspirational, and Mission, which is purposeful and nearer-term, companies hold true to Values, which I think are as fundamental as Vision and Mission. You hire, train, and reward people according to a company’s values. They are the conscience that weighs on all important decisions, such as whether to acquire a company with a contrarian culture, or not.
Hilton’s values are hospitality, integrity, leadership, teamwork, ownership, and now. As you can see if you go to Hilton’s website, each value is explained by a simple sentence. For example, its rather unusual value of “now” means, “We operate with a sense of urgency and discipline.” That’s critical when it comes to guest safety and customer service. Tomorrow is too late. Hilton is pledging through its values that it acts quickly and with rigor.
You can see from the above that Vision, Mission, and Values are easily translatable to any district, school, classroom, or teacher.
My vision is to educate and inspire students to objectively understand the lessons of history and be informed citizen-agents in the world they will inherit.
My mission is three-fold: 1) to encourage kids to think, 2) to encourage kids to care – about the past, the present, the future, and each other; and 3) to create a classroom climate that encourages discovery; that makes sense out of history and shows connection and relevance; that fosters inquiry, embraces and accommodates diversity, respects different opinions and historical perspectives, and is fun; and that meets state standards while recognizing the performance of every individual and team in my class.
My values are expressed in a commitment to always be…
Professional – in my dealings with students, parents, teammates, administrators, and the community
Informed – well-read in my subject, current on the latest trends and news, and an active participant in pedagogy, learning technologies and professional associations
Curious – so that I never get stale and am always inquisitive, always learning
Passionate – in hopes my love of history is contagious and that I never bore my students
Engaging – communicating with my students, not to them
Humble - checking my ego at the door (who needs it?!); forgetting self so I can be an active listener, and…
In the moment – disallowing distraction; concentrating, and being happily engaged with whatever lesson I am teaching and whose company surrounds me.
Full disclosure: I won’t live up to this Vision, Mission, and Values all the time. There will be weak moments; everyone has them. But I am determined to give it my utmost, because these words are my moral compass. It is who I am and what I promise.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Remember when grandma used to say, "Don't put the cart before the horse"? Benjamin Bloom was an educational theorist who also believed that. Essentially, he said students need to receive and learn knowledge before being able to fully comprehend it. The implications for teachers is that we have a responsibility to pre-teach certain information so that when it's introduced, it has meaning; we have to convey the major ideas, events, places, and even dates. But more importantly we must introduce why it's important to know. That, according to Bloom, begets comprehension, and comprehension begets application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation. I saw this being put into practice in Mr. Woods's World History class at Chaparral High School. A veteran teacher with an impressive background in Illinois and Arizona, he introduces the unit lesson on Monday (knowledge), allows for practiced reading on Tuesday (comprehension and application), encourages notes and cooperative groups on Wednesday (application and analysis), has groups present on Thursday (analysis and synthesis), and goes over current events and summarizes the unit on Friday. Bloom's original taxonomy of educational objectives first appeared in 1956. It was revised again in 2000. It may be that Mr. Woods's 2013 application is the latest re-blooming of Bloom.
Good storytellers always know their ending before they sit down to write a book. It should be the case with teachers, too. On Monday I had the opportunity to teach "Pre-History to 2,500 BC" as the opening lecture in Mr. Woods's World History class at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. We would be covering more history in 45 minutes than the students would get for the rest of the year! How could I pack it all in? And, more importantly with all those paleolithic and neolithic eras as such, how could I not put them to sleep. The dinosaurs had already come and gone. What's a teacher to do?! I started with a great YouTube video, "Why Study History?" featured on my homepage, and then started off with a bang -- literally. I used the analogy of rising raisin bread to explain how scientists have theorized that the universe started with a big bang and by close observation we can see the planets and stars gradually moving away from each other, just like those raisins being baked in a loaf of bread in the oven. Throw in a few graphic shots of "Lucy," and the 5,000-year-old "Ice Man" that was discovered in 1991 by two hikers in the Italian alps, and suddenly Catal Huyuk in Turky and Ur in Sumeria are a bit more palatable. Drama, yes. And now my 10th graders know that more is in store from that fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. To be continued!
There are great scenes of Robin Williams who portrays an innovative teacher in The Dead Poet's Society, and one of his mantras is Carpe diem, or "seize the day." It's important for teachers and students to live in the moment -- with planning -- but fully utilizing foresight as well as insight to make the use of every minute of every day. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and a subsequent version written by his son for teenagers), Stephen Covey says the first habit is to "Be Proactive." Two simple words, yet powerful. So when I got the good fortune of being assigned to intern at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, I made early contact with World History teacher James Woods, and he invited me to his school's in-service for all teachers at the beginning of the year. It wasn't required by my graduate program at ASU, but for a second-career educator-in-training it was a good and helpful dose of reality to learn that teachers are not just responsible for content and helping students progress in their academic career; we're responsible for their safety above all else. Thankfully, Chaparral has an excellent safety program, managed in part by dedicated, quality staff from the Scottsdale Police Department. Being proactive and seizing the day helped gain excellent insights to the complex dynamics, including safety, that comprise today's secondary schools.