Can we all be leaders?

Our theme for professional development this year is leadership, and we’re coming at it from two different angles.  First, we’re talking about being leaders ourselves.  And then, we want to talk about building leadership skills in our students.  Way back in 2007, I wrote about being a leader without the official title.  That idea has stuck with me and I’ve built on it over the years.  I think the following still describes much of how I see myself as a leader:

I see myself in a quieter, smaller role, leading a smaller group of people. I see myself doing what I did as president of the GSA: having conversations, guiding people, offering advice, saying what I think to people in power. I hope in some small way that what I do inspires and motivates others. I see some evidence that it does. I see students pursuing technology careers as a consequence of their working with me. I ran a successful conference last week. I’ve written articles that have gotten a good response. I get regular emails from people around the country asking for advice. And I tend to forge ahead into new frontiers fairly regularly. I try to be generous with what I have to give–knowledge, information, assistance, connections. I believe that generosity is an important aspect of leadership

When I wrote that, I remember feeling the need to dig into myself and figure out in what way I believed myself to be a leader, because I was being told, directly and indirectly, not just that I wasn’t a leader, but that I couldn’t become one.  As a teacher, I would never tell a student that they couldn’t learn a skill.  And leadership is a skill, a skill that takes practice.  And leadership comes in lots of forms and styles.  I joked with someone the other day that I liken myself to Joe Biden, or even Al Gore, if you will, the Vice President who never becomes president.  But both of those men are leaders.  No one would say they didn’t accomplish enough just because they didn’t make it the next rung up the ladder.

The task before us for this year is to convince everyone that they have leadership qualities within them and to help them build those leadership qualities.  Some people say that if everyone is a leader, then you have no followers (and so no real leaders, I guess).  I disagree.  For two reasons.  One, everyone leads differently.  Some may be the kind of leader who quietly gets stuff done while another is someone who’s good at rallying the troops.  Two, everyone leads at different times.  In my daily activities, there are times when I’m clearly in a leadership role and times when someone else is.  Different activities need different kinds of people to lead them.  That said, I bring my leadership qualities with me wherever I go. If one of my qualities is about facilitating conversations between people with differing points of view and bringing people to a decision, then I’m going to use that skill whether or not I’m the person at the front of the room.

In my mind, if everyone comes to the table with a sense of leadership, of leading a community toward a common mission and goal, in whatever way they can with their particular skills, then we are all better off.  And we all have ownership of our work and goals.  It seems to me that that creates a pretty powerful organization.


Coming up for air

English: The Kraken roller coaster ride at Sea...

Ironic that my last post was about self care and then almost two weeks go by.  The first two weeks of school are like a freight train.  I forget.  Actually, I think a more accurate description is it’s like the downhill of a roller coaster.  We spend a lot of time prepping, chugging up the hill, and then wheeeeee. It’s not all downhill, for sure, but the pace is pretty breakneck until winter break.

New photo added to galleryFollowing on the heels of a big opening week that ended with the installation of our new head of school, this past Thursday and Friday, we traveled to Baltimore for a bonding/service trip.  It was exhausting, but I think the kids had a great time.  I personally enjoyed going to the Orioles game.  It had been a long time since I’d been to a baseball game.  There were kids among us and one adult, even, who’d never been to a baseball game, so that was fun, too.  As usual, I enjoyed the company of kids and adults alike. My advisees and I took a selfie, and had a realization that this was our last class trip together.  I went with them to Italy in 9th grade, to DC last year and to Baltimore this year.  Next year, they’ll be going on college visits instead of a class trip.  We lost a classmate when she moved last year, but we gained an exchange student this year.  We (really they) are pretty close at this point.

Last night I attended the new parents cocktail party and had some wonderful conversations with new and not so new parents alike.  And of course, got to see some colleagues and chat with them as well.  I’m an extrovert, so I find these kinds of things energizing, but I still need my rest.

And today, I had a day where I had two pieces of string cheese and some sliced apples for lunch.  But I had the pleasure of ending my day working with a group of colleagues who are the leaders within the school, mostly department chairs, but also some program coordinators and representatives from other parts of the school.  I really like working with them because I can put a challenging question or problem in front of them, and we will work through it together.  They are thoughtful and empathetic.  They have the best interests of the school, especially students and faculty, at heart.

These days are a roller coaster ride for sure.  But it’s worth it.  It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Parenthood. No, working at a school isn’t quite like parenting, but I think grandma’s story here applies.

Self Care

Need Care?

When you love your job, and you have responsibility as one of your strengths, it’s easy to put yourself last.  That’s kind of happened this first week of school. I had every intention of going to work out in the afternoons.  Not so much.  I was going to have that glass of wine with dinner on weeknights as a weight loss strategy.* Not so much.  And I did some work every night.  I did manage to eat relatively healthily and I met my step goal every day.  So there’s that.

The first week of school is always hard.  In addition to just being “on” for 8 hours a day, there are a lot of extra activities.  We had conferences with parents yesterday afternoon, and there were two evening events.  Tomorrow is a super big deal day as we celebrate the Installation of our new head of school. We always have a big opening assembly the first week, but this one is going to be really special.  It’s also Geeky Girl’s senior year and the seniors have a special place during the installation tomorrow (as they do at every big assembly).  So that will make it even more special for me personally.

I’m holding on to the energy of these events to keep me afloat.  And, there are more to come.  Parent evenings.  Cocktail parties.  Class trips. It’s more than usual, and it’s really challenging to get through in one piece sometimes.  But next week I’m going to try to hit a routine.  Some of it is planning, working with my family to schedule things, and just closing the laptop.  Some of it is forcing myself to not worry about stuff so much. Yes, there will be deadlines to hit, and there will be times during the year when there’s a lot going on, but when there isn’t the pressure of a deadline, or when time isn’t squeezed because of an event, I need to just take time out for myself.  I often tell other people, “It’s all going to be okay.”  I need to tell that to myself, too.


*Surprisingly, I lost a pound anyway.

Setting the scene

Stage small
Stage small (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Classes begin tomorrow.  I guess I’m ready.  I actually don’t have a class until Wednesday, but like all my colleagues, I’ve been prepping and thinking about the new school year.  Our leadership team has been talking a lot about scene setting, about creating the conditions for success, mostly at the school level, of course, but I’ve come to think that setting the scene is important at every level.

Our challenge for the year is to create a sense of community.  That’s a challenge for any school in any year, but it feels especially important for us this year as we welcome a new head of school.  While I’ve always felt it’s important to create a sense of community within my classroom, it’s easy to let that go after a while, to just assume in a small community everyone knows each other.  So I’m working on some deliberate ways to focus on community building in all the activities I’m involved in.  In my classroom, I’m opening with some activities for us to get to know each other and will continue to create opportunities for students to get to know each other.

For a committee I chair, I’m doing some mission-setting activities and I’ve moved a retreat that used to take place in April up to October, so that we can set the scene for the year(s) to come.  And I’m hoping to continue to do work to bring this group closer together.

In general, I’m thinking more about creating community in everyday interactions as well.  It’s hard sometimes to work on bigger picture issues when you get bogged down in daily work.  You think you don’t have time to eat lunch with people, chat in the hallway, etc. You think you need to get down to business rather than do things that build relationships and camaraderie. But these are the things on which you build not just community but a functional institution.  I’ve always believed that people are the most important aspect of any institution.  We ignore that at our peril.  It can be messy and hard to work on these issues.  It’s easier to buy new software or create new spaces.  People, though, use that software and those spaces.  It’s always about the people.


One more weekend

bbqSchool begins on Tuesday, so this is the last summer weekend.  Of course, as I just said to Mr. Geeky, the weekend before school starts isn’t quite a weekend.  This past week has been exhausting, but really great.  On Monday, we welcomed the new faculty and staff.  I had the pleasure of being a discussion leader and got to hear our new faculty and staff and their mentors discuss their experience with school, how they feel about girls’ education, and their strategies for dealing with the school year.  One woman noted that it was not just important for us to support each other to ease each other’s stress, but also because we are modeling collegiality and collaboration for our students.  If we aren’t willing to work together and help each other, then there’s no way our students will.  Two student leaders came and talked about their Baldwin experience, and one started by thanking all of us and telling us that it was our support and guidance that meant the most to her.  I cried.

On Tuesday, the rest of the faculty showed up and our new head of school opened up our faculty meeting with an activity that allowed all of us to get to know each other better.  Again, I had the privilege of facilitating that conversation.  Then our head interviewed two of our most senior people, a maintenance crew member and a Latin teacher.  The maintenance crew guy talked about how he felt Baldwin was a second home to him and that he loved coming to work every day and so appreciated the sense of community here.  I cried again (this is a theme).

On Wednesday, we had mostly nitty gritty meetings, but it was still great to have everyone together, and we ended the day with our faculty/staff BBQ, the picture seen here.  And yesterday, I got to meet with my department, which just reminded me of how many great ideas they have and how wonderful it is to work with them.  It really is going to be a great year.

How Gender Bias Works (and how to fix it, sort of)

Gender equality
Image by duncan c,

I mentioned awhile back the sexist comments made by Olympic commentators.  Those comments are indicators of their gender bias, and they perpetuate gender bias in their audience.  It might seem petty to remark on those, but they are part of a larger picture of gender bias that permeates everything we do, not just in our sports-watching activities.  In the case of the Olympic commentary, those comments might deter young women from pursuing high levels of achievement in their sport.  And it belittles the achievements of the women their commenting on, which can reflect not just on the activity at hand but all activity by women, such that people begin to think that women can’t achieve or that their achievements are not the result of their own hard work.

Over the weekend, I tweeted this CNET article that showed that tech companies are biased when it comes to selecting candidates to interview.  You’re surprised, aren’t you? (hint: you shouldn’t be)  But you might be surprised by how big and impact the bias has.  A recruiting firm gave the resumes of 5,000 candidates to companies.  The first time, they included name, background, etc.  Of the candidates that the companies selected for interviews, 5% were women.  The second time, the recruiting firm removing identifying information and left only their job experience and skills.  This time, 54% of the candidates selected were women.  We’re not talking an incremental improvement here, but a giant increase.  This is not the first time these kinds of experiments have been done.  Researchers have changed gender information on resumes and given people names that sound hispanic or stereotypically black.  They show time and time again that given the same experience and skills, when people believe the candidate is not white and male, they’re less likely to be selected.

One person asked when I tweeted this, what happens during the interview?  The study did not go that far, but I happened to have just listened to a podcast that dealt with that very issue.  In the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner examines gender barriers.  The issue with resumes is covered, but so is the interview process. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.  I highly recommend the whole thing.  But for the interview process, one of Dubner’s guests recommends constructing a set of interview questions ahead of time, asking those questions of every candidate, and then comparing answers in a way where you don’t know who said what.  You give each candidate a number, for example.  You can then rank the answers to each question for the candidates and then come up with a total.  It’s an attempt to rid yourself of bias, whatever that may be.

We’re learning a lot about bias and about how that bias manifests itself, and then coming up with ways to short circuit that, which will, perhaps, move us toward eliminating the bias, or decreasing it.

Peak Performance

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarte...
Student teachers practice teaching kindergarten at the Toronto Normal School, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mentioned last week that I did a lot of reading.  The first book I actually tackled was Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  I liked this book a lot, and much of it is applicable in my teaching, in mentoring others, and in my own efforts to get better at things.  The message at the heart of the book is this: “There’s no such thing as talent, only practice and hard work.”  The author is a longtime researcher in the area of expertise or how do experts become experts.  It’s a fascinating area.  Our most obvious and observable experts are sports stars.  It’s easy to see as someone racks up more home runs or more gold medals or beats their own records.  Their improvement is easily measurable.  When it comes to areas of expertise outside of physical prowess, what measures exist to see that expertise?  And that’s where things get really interesting.

First, just like our muscles, our brains can be changed through practice.  Musicians and chess players, for example build up areas of their brains related to those skills.  Second, people who develop skills in mental areas are actually developing mental models of their activity, making it possible for them to retrieve information more quickly (or at all).  One example the author gives is London cab drivers.  Their brains have been examined, and indeed, cab drivers who have been driving longer have more developed spatial areas of the brain.  And, through interviews, it’s apparent that they’ve developed extensive mental models that allow them to create routes from point A to point B more quickly.  It’s like indexing information in your brain.  And finally, in many areas, specific effective training techniques have been developed that have proven to have effective outcomes in developing expertise.

That last idea turns out to be really important, especially as the idea of reaching expert levels of performance applies to our everyday lives.  Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time doesn’t mean you’re an expert or that you can’t get even better.  To reach peak performance, one must participate in deliberate practice, practice that takes you out of your comfort zone and challenges you to get better.  This kind of practice is something that is baked into the work of an athlete or musician.  They spend hours each day practicing, often with a coach or trainer who pushes them beyond their comfort zone.  But teachers, for example, don’t have this opportunity, necessarily, unless they take the opportunity.  Expert teachers, in my mind, have studied the research on teaching and learning, and they try new techniques with their students.  They then collect feedback on the new techniques–through surveys, through having someone observe, or through measuring the outcomes of their students–and use that feedback to determine if the technique works and what they might do even better.  They keep using that technique, and they get better at it.  But some teachers shy away from using new techniques and keep doing things the same way, and then claim to be experts just because they’ve been teaching for a long time.  And maybe their student outcomes are just fine so they see no reason to change.  But I always want to ask, “Could they be better?”

I think one of my favorite things about the book is that the author believes that anyone can become an expert in something.  It’s a matter of practice, yes, but also a matter of finding something that you are motivated enough to stick with when the practice gets hard.  Because it will get hard.  You will plateau.  You will get frustrated, etc.  He gives specific real life examples of how people pushed past difficulties.  And they’re not just, “And then, Steve became a chess master.” without detail.  He describes how Steve got there.

As a teacher, I also especially liked his advice for education.  My colleagues and I have conversations about teaching skills versus knowledge all the time. He succinctly puts his advice to teachers like this:

Begin by identifying what students should learn how to do. The objectives should be skills, not knowledge. In figuring out the particular way students should learn a skill, examine how the experts do it. In particular, understand as much as possible about the mental representations that experts use, and teach the skill so as to help students develop similar mental representations. This will involve teaching the skill step by step, with each step designed to keep students out of their comfort zone but not so far out that they cannot master that step. Then give plenty of repetition and feedback; the regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again, and so on is how the students will build their mental representations.

He also suggests working with students to help them develop some area of expertise while they’re students so that they can sense what success feels like and use that experience to develop expertise in other areas.

There are lots of other tidbits and specifics in the book, but one thing he made clear at the end, knowing how to develop expertise is incredibly important:

[P]eople coming into the work force today should expect to change careers two or three times during their working lives.


As for the children being born today, no one knows, but I think it’s safe to say that the changes won’t be slowing down. How do we as a society prepare for that? In the future most people will have no choice but to continuously learn new skills, so it will be essential to train students and adults about how to learn efficiently.

We, as educators, often talk about teaching our students how to learn or to become lifelong learners.  This research shows us precisely how we can accomplish that goal.

When did I become the mentor?

Image via Erik Drost,

I have been mentored, mostly informally, by many people over the course of my life.  It’s been invaluable to me to have people in my life that inspire me, that give me good advice, that I can turn to when I am stuck on a problem.  In the last 5-10 years, however, I’ve realized that, while I still have mentors in my life (thank goodness!), I am more often in the role of mentor.  With students, of course, that’s been true for a while, but it’s increasingly become true with adults.  And I have to say, it sometimes feels weird.  It’s not that I don’t think I have wisdom or knowledge to pass on, or that I don’t want to help people.  But I’ve found myself in situations where it’s clear people are looking to me not just for a quick tip, but looking at me like I can lead them to where they want to be, that I have something to offer that will truly impact their lives.  And that takes my breath away.  It’s humbling and it’s a hard thing to live up to.

I think I feel this way because I mostly feel like I don’t have everything figured out.  Partly that’s because I never stay in my comfort zone.  I’m always seeking new challenges and so, of course, when I find myself facing new situations, I think I need to be the one asking others for support and guidance.  As it turns out, that experience of seeking new challenges is partly what got me into this mess in the first place.  Because when you have a variety of experiences to draw on, you tend to learn from those and apply them to the next situation, and so you’ve learned a lot.  You’ve built an extensive mental map of “how things work.”  And people often recognize that and want to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience that they think you probably have.

I have always taken my role as mentor to students seriously, even when I was basically 3 years older than them (it’s true!).  Mentoring the adults that work with students feels even more important to me as they can then go out and use the lessons learned from me with their students, a kind of pyramid effect. And god, what if I get that wrong.  It’s a lot to have on one’s shoulders.  But one thing that’s great about the teachers and staff I work with is that I really do learn as much from them as they might from me.  They never take what I say without talking through it, without challenging some piece of it, changing something about it, and adding to it.  I’m really only as good as the people I’m surrounded by, and they impress me pretty much every day.  So while I may chafe a bit against the idea that I’m serving in mentor role, I take comfort in the idea that I’m always also being mentored as long as I’m still learning.

Ok, let’s talk about Pokémon Go

I mentioned in my post from Friday that Pokémon Go was motivating me to do more walking.  It can be thought of as a fitness tracker with a game built in, but of course, it was created as a game.  Pokémon was a big thing in our house for years.  We had the cards.  We watched the TV show.  We played the games on GameBoys.  I posted these pictures to Facebook recently:

Thad with Pikachu cake.
Thad with Pikachu cake.
Pokeball cake

Geeky Boy was five.  We had years of Pokémon ahead of us.  So I was excited when Pokémon Go came out, a potentially solid reboot and modernization of the original games and shows.  And to some extent, it is that.  If you’ve never played, I’d recommend the trailer.  It’s a pretty good depiction of the game’s vision with some actual screen representations thrown in.  So it’s cool to have a representation of yourself walking around what is clearly the streets around you but it looks like a video game, and then, when you find a Pokémon, it’s surrounded by what’s clearly “the real world.”  Fun augmented reality stuff. Here are some Pokémon photos I took:

Goldeen swimming in my computer.
A bird in the hand . . .
The elusive Meowth

Fun, right?  And yes, you do look a little weird catching Pokémon in public, but no weirder than the person texting or responding to email.

It is fun . . . when it works.  And this has been the big issue for the makers of Pokémon Go.  They were flooded by users in the early days of release.  It appealed across many age groups.  In my own neighborhood, I’ve seen 13 year olds and 50 years olds and everything in between playing the game, often in groups.  The flood caused server crashes, followed quickly by frustration.  The flood may have passed, but there are still many, many issues.  I struggle to log in except under certain conditions.  Near as I can tell, I have to be in my house on wifi.  Once logged in, I can leave the house and walk around, but if I log out while away, I rarely can get logged in again.  Which meant, for example, when I went downtown this weekend, no Pokémon for me.

The Pokémon subreddit (yes, I read it, why?) was filled with rage over all the issues with logging in, getting kicked off the server, etc.  For those of us experienced online gamers, it’s called new release day.  But there were other issues with gameplay, like not tracking km accurately and the nearby Pokémon feature not really working.  And then, then, they shut down some third party sites that added a cool layer to the game.  You could look at your neighborhood, or the next neighborhood over, and see what Pokémon were hanging around.  And then you could try to run out and catch them.  They claimed it was cheating.  And that was just it for some people.  I mean your game is your community and your community is going to make stuff around the game.  It’s what gamers do.

So there are problems.  And I’m not even talking about all the scare stories out there.  I have no time for those.  People do stupid things.  It’s not about the game itself.  I think it still has promise if they can get the kinks worked out.  Augmented reality hasn’t been my thing per se, but connecting the virtual with the real in ways that make sense, even if it’s just to have fun, really takes us somewhere interesting, I think.  Pokémon Go isn’t the first game or application to do this, but it’s the first that captured not just the 13 year olds, but a large chunk of people who would never call themselves gamers nor who knew what augmented reality even was.  It’s a step toward mainstreaming some of this stuff.  And once that happens, things start to take off.

Smarter Faster Better

To do listI read a lot this summer.  Despite my Ph.D. in English, I don’t read much fiction.  I love reading nonfiction, especially the Malcolm Gladwell style books that boil down interesting research into stories that are directly applicable.  So I read quite a few books along those lines, mostly about learning and accomplishing goals.  I’m going to write about all of them eventually, but I’m going to start with the one that has stuck with me the most.  I keep telling stories from this one.  It’s, as the title of the post suggests, Smarter Better Faster by Charles Duhigg.  I read his other book, The Power of Habit, a while back as well.  What I liked about both books is that Duhigg is trying to find solutions to his own problems using evidence from psychology, social science, and neurology.  So the solutions he presents are evidence based, which I love.  He would admit, I think, that science changes over time, so these solutions might too.  But this is what we’ve got for now.

There were a lot of great tidbits in this book, a lot that were applicable to me as I try to grow my own skills, but also applicable to me as I try to grow the skills of my faculty and students.  The very first chapter is about motivation, and I’ve been telling stories from that chapter perhaps the most, as I often struggle to motivate people to do challenging things (and I struggle with motivation myself, who doesn’t!).  The coolest thing he says about motivation is that it can be learned.  A lot of people I talk to, especially teachers, but others as well, believe that if someone isn’t motivated that they’re a lost cause.  But we as teachers, co-workers, and spouses can create conditions under which those we’re trying to motivate (including ourselves) can practice self-motivation.  A key, Duhigg points out, is believing that you’re in control:

The first step in creating drive is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with a sense of autonomy and self-determination. In experiments, people are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands.

When you have something difficult or unpleasant to do, figure out what’s in your control, make a decision about it, and that will motivate you.  If you have to write a tedious report, decide on the font or the title.  Another word for self motivation is internal locus of control.  That is, you believe that the decisions you make are what leads to success or failure.  If you fail, you blame yourself not someone else.  Shifting the locus of control from external to internal can be done through practice.  If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, that’s what it’s all about.  It’s retraining students to think that they are in control of their abilities by focusing praise on their hard work, something they can control, rather than on their innate intelligence.

When things get really challenging, you might need to draw on a lot of self-motivation to get through.  Finishing a Ph.D, getting through boot camp, finishing any long project or difficult task takes a lot of motivation to see through to the end.  In addition to making choices along the way so that you continue to feel in control, you can also connect those choices to a bigger picture, the why you’re doing the task in the first place.  As Duhigg puts it, “we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals.”  The smaller, sometimes unpleasant, tasks along the way are part of a bigger picture, an emotional reward bigger than the task itself.

These ideas about motivation have really helped, and will help in the year ahead.  The other chapter that resonated with me significantly was the one on setting goals.  I had gone through with the department chairs the idea of setting SMART goals after I saw that some of the goals people were setting were super vague and really wouldn’t guide their work in meaningful ways.  Duhigg points out, though, that SMART goals are really only the beginning.  Some people who set SMART goals

are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set. “You get into this mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important than asking yourself if you’re doing the right things,”

When I was in GTD mode, I did that a lot, although it did ultimately lead me to finishing my dissertation and stretching myself, which is exactly what Duhigg suggests we do, stretch ourselves.  And here is how he puts it:

So one solution is writing to-do lists that pair stretch goals and SMART goals. Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, month?

I ended up providing my department chairs with a chunk of the chapter on goals.  I want people to dream big.  What’s something that seems crazy to tackle and then figure out how you might get there.  I’d rather see one goal like that than three goals that can be accomplished within the opening months of school (i.e. attend a conference or get more organized which should be smaller goals tied to a bigger one).

There’s a lot more to the book, chapters on teams and managing others, a chapter on mental models that’s really great for those of us who teach.  He discusses using data, both in decision making and in changing how you do things.  There’s also a helpful guide in the back that articulates easy ways to put the ideas in the book into practice.  I keep returning to this book over and over again, in conversations with others, in structuring my own work, in thinking about how to approach my classes.  Well worth a read.