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Professional Services for Teachers, Administrators, and School Families

Arc Professional Development helps teachers and school administrators make thoughtful and productive choices about the evolution of their careers. 

Myths About Independent Schools (a countdown): #10

Myth 10: Independent schools don’t admit “average” students.

Fact: There are many independent schools that turn away far more students than they admit. But there are also many schools that accept over half of their applicants. You might be tempted to say, “Oh, yeah, the good schools are in the first category and the, um, less good schools are in the second.”

There are normal kids in every school. (That’s a much nicer word than “average,” don't you think?) Even at the most competitive schools, acceptances include star athletes who are average students, hard workers with middling test scores, and children of alumni/ae who are just plain good kids, if not academic superstars.

My experience suggests that geography plays a bigger role than traditional measures of merit: In the Washington area, there are more applicants per slot in DC itself because of the perception that the District’s public schools are not as desirable as those in Montgomery (Maryland) and Fairfax (Virginia) counties. To be sure, most of the highly competitive DC independents offer superb programs — but so do many schools outside DC, even if their admission rates are not as competitive.

If your child is blessedly “normal,” she might get into a highly competitive school because she has other things going for her. Or she might find a “normal” school that fits her just as well — or, believe it or not, better.

“I’m not sure you can teach anybody anything”

The other day we received the current issue of the Brown Alumni Monthly, from my wife’s alma mater. I have enough trouble keeping up with my own mail, but the cover headline of the issue, “Diversity Now,” intrigued me. I opened it up and, alas, became distracted by an article on a beloved professor, Barrett Hazeltine, who’s now 84 years old and has taught at Brown since 1959.

My wife remarked immediately, “Oh yeah, everybody loved him.” A Brown senior quoted in the article affirmed, “He’s a legend, is what he is.” (I submit this as proof that Ivy League seniors speak in tautologies and Ivy League copy editors cling to commas as rats to sinking ships — in attempts to make sentences less, well, tautological. And, as is my pattern, my first digression waited all the way until the second paragraph.) Back to the topic at hand…

Two photos of Professor Hazeltine teaching in 1983 are splashed across the first text spread of the article. (I’ve stolen them without scruple to reproduce here.) In the photos it’s obvious that the man is excited, his posture animated and enthusiastic. The caption/pull-quote reads: “Hazeltine constantly checks in to see if he still has everyone’s attention. He tries not to teach, but to fuel students’ desire to learn.”

How strange it is to highlight such a sentiment. It’s not strange because it’s wrong — it’s strange because it’s so obviously right — and so obviously not the norm. It seems like everybody already knows that “fueling students’ desire to learn,” i.e., stoking internal motivation, is inherently more valuable than simply “teaching” — if by “teaching” we mean telling students what they need to know.

Examples flooded my hippocampus:

  • The kindergarten teacher who “takes control” of her sprites by constantly telling them what to do next
  • My eleventh-grade English teacher who told me he didn’t care whether I liked the book we were reading
  • My daughter’s history teacher who assigned six times the reading over a break because students — what? — shouldn’t have any actual breaks from school?
  • The insipid online course on concussions I completed a few weeks ago. A well-meaning guy produced about 30 videos of 90 seconds or two minutes, consisting entirely of his speaking in a well-meaning monotone. (“Students” have to watch each one without skipping ahead, despite the entire transcript appearing below the video so I could read it in about 15 seconds.)
  • The coach who screams at his players, demeaning them each time they don’t perform as he has instructed them — “I’ve told her a dozen times how to do that!”

The surprise isn’t that there’s a Professor Hazeltine; there are lots of Hazeltines. But there are many, many more, orders of magnitude more, who think teaching means requiring students to read something, take notes, and then feed back the right answers.

We know how to make kids memorize stuff, and even to apply what they’ve learned. There are students who are really good with that kind of “teaching,” and when they perform well, we tell them they’re “smart,” we congratulate ourselves, and we laud our schools — nearly all of which, by coincidence, happen to serve the children of parents who were really good with that kind of teaching, too.

We know what makes people successful. Helping kids to be successful is harder that teaching them to be “smart,” but it produces better “learners,” not just better “teachers.” It is well past time for bright people to stop clinging to the one-dimensional kinds of education we had in the past, and to recognize that “fueling students’ desire to learn” serves all of them.

Teaching IS Coaching: Bringing the Classroom to the Baseball Field

I got “the call” this season. As any baseball fan knows, “the call” is a call from a Major League team to a minor league player. Okay, it’s not quite that glamorous. With some shifting sands on the team, and some experience coaching at the high school level, I offered to join the coaching staff.

It’s not exactly the pros, but it’s still reasonably serious, especially if you’re not involved in kids’ sports. My son plays about 80–100 games a year and he loves the sport — the mental aspects of baseball as much as playing the game itself, if not more. His mind is given to the intricacies and strategic nuances of baseball, and he’s been playing fairly seriously (to him, anyway) since he was four and played an invisible game (no bats, no balls, just running) with a friend at recess for weeks at a time. From the harbinger of rebirth that is spring training to the “October Classic,” he’d quit his day job as a seventh grader and dedicate 16 hours a day to baseball if it were an option. Once again, the parents have it all wrong.

As for me, I signed on because I thought I could bring a new and complementary approach to kids’ development, one based on more than two decades of school experience. As I wrote to the other coaches:

“It's not enough for an adult to show kids how to make a good pickup of a ground ball and expect that they will learn to do so without repeated practice of their own. Similarly, it's not enough for adults simply to tell kids how they can think and behave in order to improve — it's too easy for adults to get preachy and just talk at the kids about what's important to us. Experience and actual research demonstrate clearly that the kids will improve faster and more systematically if they practice specific strategies designed to help them think about various aspects of the game (or anything) more effectively.”

Though we’ve been practicing indoors since January, we finally got outside last week, and I introduced my approach to the players. Largely based on ideas from Carol Dweck’s seminal Mindset, we discussed what our team did well at our first scrimmage and what still needs to improve. We did this even though we won that first scrimmage handily.

We discussed seeking and embracing criticism as a tool to improve, and to identify specific areas that need practice. (Example: One can act on “keeping my head in” during a swing, rather than acting on “hitting” — specific, actionable skills are always most valuable in criticism.) We discussed process over outcome, noting that even Steph Curry can’t control what happens once the ball leaves his hands. He can only develop the process that leads to that moment —the timing, his posture, the position of his hands, the arc of the ball, and so forth. He can’t actually do anything once he lets go of the ball.

We developed plans individually for the week — a few players need to improve the accuracy of their arms; a couple need to stop double-clutching after picking up a ground ball; one needs more balanced head movement on his swing; a few could use some more strength conditioning. (Your correspondent, by the way, needs all of that, but he has aged out of 14U.) And every one of the players has room to improve his approach to the mental game — how he behaves after walking two in a row, after striking out, after a poor call on the bases, after a teammate’s sloppy error, and even after things go right, like a bases-clearing double. (There are lots of kids who have the physical ability to play baseball. The ones who manage their mental and emotional approaches effectively will have a better chance.)

There have already been many highlights, but two stand out for me. First, after an initial team discussion of about ten minutes, the individual work took about five minutes per player. Each player talked about what had gone well for him this season, what specific skills he’s working on, how he’s going about practicing those skills at home, what parts of our coaching are working for him, what the coaches could do more, and what he’d like to see us do less. (No promises — it’s a team sport, after all, not an individual sport — but we’ll consider earnestly what each player has to say.) Sure, that took an hour of my time, but it took each player out of practice for almost no time at all.

I cribbed from my friend and unintentional mentor Abigail Wiebenson her great 1-to-10 evaluation tool. Example: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate today’s practice overall? And after hearing a rating of, say “7,” the reply is: What would it take to make it an 8? Incremental improvement — this is brilliant because it can be applied to nearly any situation in which one seeks to improve, it’s nearly immediate, and it’s portable: With practice and repetition, any player can ask himself this question any time. One goal is get an answer that can help us improve. Another goal is to train players to do this to the point where they won’t need us any more.

The second highlight, if it can be called that, is the reminder of how unusual this is. Several players and parents noted that on previous teams they had never been asked how they viewed the process of improvement. They saw their input as valuable, but it had never been solicited. One parent said that her son had never had this happen on a team, but it was clear that it seldom, if ever, happens in school either. It reinforces the subtle idea that school is something we do to students, not something they participate in fully or often even willingly. If they get no say in school, why do we think they’ll show up eager to learn?

We can agree that a main goal of teaching is to transfer responsibility for specific tasks and overall success from adults to children. We can also agree that people improve at tasks when they practice those tasks. If those statements are true, it follows then that if we want children to build their own mechanisms for improvement over their lifetimes, we must gather their feedback and act on it, and we must allow them to practice improving. How come we do so little of that in our schools and on our teams?

Better coaches (teachers) respond to individual players’ needs, partly by involving players (students) in discussions of what those needs are in the first place, seeking criticism from them to help us improve our connections, and thinking seriously about what they tell us. It takes time to develop that kind of culture on a sports team, maybe even more than it does in a classroom; my experience is that many coaches are so sure their way is right and so unwilling to seek criticism for fear that it betrays weakness. Of course, the exact opposite is true.

Education and coaching are manifestly the same thing. Done as a one-way exercise, it is ineffective and even demeaning. But mostly it’s just ineffective —people improve more and faster when they play roles in the process. If it works in the classroom, it’ll work on the ball field.

They’re just different arenas for the business, and joys, of learning.

Successful, Not Smart #2, or The Umbrella: Self-awareness

In my November 30 post, there is one item that I didn’t include, both because I didn’t hear it regularly in groups I led, and because it’s not so much a characteristic as an umbrella for all the others in my “top ten” list.

In my last school job, at an independent school near Washington, DC, I often led tours of prospective parents. Almost inevitably, on one of these tours, a parent would ask some variation of, “What is a typical graduate of your school like?”

It was an answer that came easily to me: “The thing that characterizes our graduates, the single most important trait I’d like for each of them, is self-awareness.”

Self-awareness is the necessary underpinning of our other characteristics, the trait that actualizes each of our “top ten.” Self-aware people understand their strengths and weaknesses, their roles in the world, the effects they have on others, the need for compromise. Self-aware people are more likely to ask for help, more likely to understand the causes of failure and seek to address them, more likely to use constructive criticism, well, constructively.

It is nearly impossible to learn from reflecting on our experiences if we do not perceive those experiences more or less as others do. Indeed, the development of self-awareness is a primary developmental task of childhood and adolescence. By developmental task I mean that it must occur at a specific time — the window opens and then later closes, rather than remaining open indefinitely. Think of infant attachment: Babies who do not attach to their primary caregivers between roughly six and twelve months of age cannot just “make it up” later — it is likely those children will have difficulty developing secure relationships for the rest of their lives. That’s what I mean by “developmental.”

Similarly, I have never met an adult sorely lacking in self-awareness who later developed it in any significant measure. (Depressing, but true.) If you make it through adolescence without knowing who you are, it’s unlikely that you’ll suddenly stumble upon that characteristic.

If you doubt either the importance of self-awareness or its developmental nature, consider the people with whom most others find it difficult to work. Almost invariably, those difficult personalities are marked by a lack of self-awareness: They do not perceive their strengths and weaknesses, their effects on others, or their communication skills accurately. They often respond inappropriately to situations — by inflating their own contributions or detractions (“I’m so great!” “I’m so terrible!”), by blaming others, or by finding it difficult to accept their own roles in challenges.

A teacher with whom I worked years ago seemed to find criticism so painful, no matter how gently I tried to phrase it, that I could almost see the wall that came down like an electric garage door between us (only faster) each time I raised a concern about his teaching. After many years and many conversations, many attempts to communicate in different ways, and many attempts to bring others’ skills to bear, I ended up, sadly, firing him. He told me that he didn’t understand why. Right there, I thought — that. That was exactly why.

I’m sure most are familiar with Michael Scott, the bumbling character played by Steve Carrell on “The Office” from 2005 to 2011, and perhaps the most obvious popular example of a well intentioned person with a near-complete lack of self-awareness. Michael assumes an expertise on sensitive topics — romance, human relations, diversity, finance — that leaves others uncomfortable. He sees himself as deeply caring while others recognize his narcissism; he seeks to help in situations that others perceive as inappropriate. He presumes a level of intimacy with others that leaves them uncomfortable. His timing is profoundly awkward. Most people who lack self-awareness don’t show every one of these signs, of course; Michael is the lead in a sitcom, after all.

It is also not to say that the Michael Scotts of the world lack positive characteristics; quite the contrary, they are often sensitive, helpful, and bighearted. But acknowledging people’s good intentions only goes so far in a situation, like a work environment, in which “success” in some measure or another is important.

In a 2008 interview I read with Carrell, he was asked, “Has everybody worked with a Michael Scott at one time or another?” He responded, “If you haven’t worked with a Michael Scott, there’s a good chance you are Michael Scott.”

Luckily, I’ve worked with one or two, so I take pleasure in my exoneration.

***

Currently in the process of refining the original list of 10, perhaps to expand to 12, with the help of some gracious colleagues. Stay tuned.