Category Archives: Growth

Tools That Work And Why We Abandon Them

Some years ago I tried my hand at insurance sales. I had to learn the hard way that I am not very good at selling, though I really liked the guys I worked with, especially the boss, who was a prince of a man. He used to tell me on a regular basis that he would find a tool that was really effective and he would work it for all it was worth for several months. Later, he would find his sales were falling off and he would wonder why. On closer inspection he would find that for some strange reason he had stopped using the tool that had been so effective. It’s a strange quirk of human nature that we do this; we find something that works and use it effectively, then we feel like we have graduated past needing it and stop using it- to our detriment.

Strange as that may seem, I have found the same to be true of teaching. Several months ago I discovered the effectiveness of bending down to talk to a disruptive student and whispering in their ear (this is a stage whisper that can usually be heard by curious students three aisles over) “You are a bright student and I like having you in my class. However, I cannot tolerate these continuous disruptions. The next time you do that I will have to ask you to leave.”

This strategy works for several reasons; 1) most students are terribly self absorbed and a bit insecure, so a complement serves them well, 2) it is completely devoid of drama and rarely provokes a haughty reply, 3) it puts the onus of responsibility squarely where it belongs- on the student. There is no mystery about what is going to happen; the next time they disrupt you calmly take action. Period.

One of the  things I like most about this strategy is that I stay friends with the student being disciplined. There is no anger or drama, so I can see the student later in the day or on a following day and speak to them as if this incident never happened. I could not do that if I berated the student, told them how bad they were and then made a show of removing them from class as I saw someone else do today. I hate that… or at least, I did.

Yesterday, someone told me they thought I was mean. “What happened,” they said, “You used to be so nice!” I brushed the statement off at first since the one saying it had just been disciplined, but on further consideration I realized I had got away from quietly instructing students who misbehaved before pulling the trigger on discipline.

I know, some behavior does not warrant this approach. Yesterday I heard a girl call out and turned just in time to see her strike her neighbor. I immediately sent her out of the room without a warning. Students should know that striking another student is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. But other things, like talking out of turn, deserve a bit more finesse. That’s where the quiet description of what is going to happen works particularly well.

I promised myself today that I would go back to what I knew would work, and sure enough, it did work, just as it had in the past. Why do we move away from things we know are effective? I don’t know. Some strange quirk of human nature, I suppose. But we can overcome that tendency if we try.

Make careful note of what is working for you and review those notes religiously. Look for the things you may have drifted away from that could be serving you well now. Most of us know what we need to do, we just wander away from it after a time. Get back to basics and make things work for you again.


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Posted by on May 23, 2013 in Growth


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10 Things Teachers Can Do to Transform Their Summers





Oxygen toxicity occurs when the lungs take in ...



There is an old saying in the teaching profession that says, “My favorite parts of teaching are June, July and August.” Like most humorous sayings there is some truth behind this. Teaching is very hard work and most of us invest far more of ourselves than our paychecks might suggest. If for no other reason than the sake of our sanity, we all need a break from the grind, to expand our horizons, improve our skills and grow as human beings.



Contrary to what some may say, this is not a selfish act. This is a matter of survival and a hedge against burnout. Besides, what will you have to give to your students in the fall that is fresh and new if you aren’t growing as an individual? Think of the people you know that you consider fascinating; are they not the people that are continuously trying and learning new things? And if that is true of them, will it not also be true of your students when they learn during the course of the year that you have done something amazing with your time?



Of course, on a teacher’s salary the options may be somewhat limited, but here are ten options with the potential to help you grow and help you return in the fall with excitement in your voice and a quickness to your step:



  • Educate Yourself: I love the line from Good Will Hunting: “You dropped 150 grand on an education you could have got with a dollar fifty in late fees at the public library. Building on this idea, Josh Kaufman developed what he calls the “Personal MBA.” He decided he could have got the same education he got at MBA school if he had just read the right books. With that in mind, he has created a list of 99 books that will get the job done. Don’t want an MBA? Make up your own list and educate yourself on something new; preferably NOT in the subject you currently teach.
  • Archaeological Dig: Contact your local university to see if there are any opportunities to join an archaeological digs. You may not be able to bring home anything you find, but the memories you keep will likely be far more valuable and you will be making a contribution to our knowledge of history.
  • Learn a new skill: Doesn’t have to be a big deal, learn to play a musical instrument, scuba dive, dance the East Coast Swing, fly a plane, something new and challenging. Plus, you are likely to meet some very interesting people.
  • Get involved in a new sport: My wife and I were surprised a few years ago at how much fun kayaking was. It was relatively inexpensive, good exercise and in matter of minutes we could be in some very beautiful scenery. However, the same could be said of mountain biking, backpacking, kite surfing, hang gliding and a number of other great sports.

    John F Kennedy Baseball Team

    Become a baseball fan: Lots of big cities have a professional baseball team but pro ball can be expensive. Even more cities have farm teams that you can see for a fraction of the price to watch the same game. What’s more, farm team owners work very hard to make their games family friendly and exciting, with special entertainment during the game and fireworks after.

  • Master a new trade: Let’s face it, a lot of teachers are looking for ways to earn a few bucks over the summer months and rather than spend the time doing the usual like tutoring and grading standardized tests, why not learn a new trade. Printing, welding, woodworking, painting and more offer the opportunity to learn new skills and earn a few bucks as well.
  • Go pro with your craft: A friend of mine who was interested in photography took the plunge, got some of his best work framed and entered some art fairs. His work sold well enough that he was able to build a much nicer booth, go to more shows and eventually quite his regular job to devote himself to his craft full time. You’ll never know what you can do if you don’t try.
  • Get involved politically: By this I am not suggesting you join the teachers union to protest the latest issue, not that that isn’t worthwhile, but something outside your profession that you feel passionately about. While many in the world make light of teachers, most know they hold our suture in their hands and want to hear what they have to say. Make a choice to speak out for something you care about.
  • Travel, preferably out of the country: Nothing will expand your horizons quite like getting out of the country. Experiencing new people, places, languages, foods and sights is a guaranteed way learn new things and see the world with a new set of eyes. It’s not always cheap, but it is oh, so worth it. (My wife, a university professor, has become very creative at finding grants and other sources of funding to finance our travel plans.)
    English: Volunteer with her students in Ghana

    English: Volunteer with her students in Ghana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Last, but certainly not least, volunteer: You are a teacher so we already know you aren’t in it for the money and you may have a profound sense that you “gave at the office.” Nevertheless, the needs are great out there and volunteering is a way to get beyond yourself and make a difference in a whole new field. Plus, your skills as a teacher will make you invaluable to any group you help. Forget Shaw, those who can teach because real teachers are a rare gift to be treasured in any endeavor.

Emerson said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” You have a whole summer ahead of you to create your own experiments, learn new things, and return in the fall with a renewed commitment to your craft as a teacher.




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Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Growth


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5 Minutes a Day that Will Change the Way You Teach (for the Better!)

Florida State v North Carolina

Legendary football coach Bobby Bowden used to tell his players, “Everybody wants to win, few want to do the work to be a winner.” Such an attitude applies to activities far beyond college sports and includes teaching as well as most other professions. Clearly the vast majority of those who teach work diligently to perfect their craft (I have to admit to being humbled by some of the lengths teachers go to in their attempts to do a better job.) So telling someone who puts the long hours into teaching that there is something they can be doing in five minutes that will change the way they teach is a very bold statement. Let’s just see if it is worthy of consideration.

No less an authority than Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” For most of us, such a thought does not fit well with our busy works schedules; yet Socrates is adamant. He doesn’t say, “The unexamined life is less meaningful,” he says, “Not worth living.” Of course he is talking about growth, both personal and spiritual, which is something most of us don’t give a lot of thought to in our daily machinations.

george-santayana-262x232And what of George Santayana‘s famous statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Such a statement should give us pause; how often do we find ourselves making the same mistakes again and again. Does that not suggest we are not learning our lesson the first time? (It is one of life’s little axioms that we tend to get served the same lessons over and over until we finally learn from them.)

So, what does all of this mean? Can this discussion pass the “so what” test? Is there a way that we can do a bit of self examination without sinking into deep and meaningless navel gazing? I think we can, but we need to put limits on it to make it effective. I would suggest we spend just five minutes at the end of each day to consider how our day went and what we could have done to make it better. And since we are teachers, I would suggest we write it down. However, and here is the big caveat, we have got to limit the time and scope of this introspection.

Most of us spend hours and hours mulling over the dealings of the day in the back of our minds. Most of us use this time to beat ourselves up. If you are afraid this will cause feelings of guilty, then you need to pass until another time. The idea here is to learn from our mistakes, to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. None of the teachers I know need any more abuse, from outsiders, from other teachers or administrators, and most especially not from themselves.

We also need to limit the time we take for this process. Five minutes is just a tiny fraction of our day, yet it could bring huge benefits. Could you do it in three? Probably. Would ten be better? Probably not. Don’t get hung up on the time, just spend a few minutes with yourself thinking about what you could do better. Then, most importantly, stop thinking about it and focus on the many roles of you play in other parts of your day.

single-pen-quiver-for-pocket-notebooks-485 (1)I carry one of those little notebooks with the little elastic straps on it. At the end of each day I jot down a few notes about what the challenges of the day were; what worked and what didn’t. The benefits to doing so come in two flavors. The simple act of putting these thoughts to paper help clarify my thinking while the day is still fresh in my mind. Plus, there is the added benefit of being able to review these notes days, weeks and months later to see my progress, to see how I have grown and to see how I handled things in the past.

One of the strange facts of life is that we often find something that works, use it for a season, and then abandon it. As one might expect, the old problems resurface and we wonder why. Looking back at your notes will sometimes reveal that there was a time when you had this problem solved. What were you doing then that worked better? Can you do it again, or some slightly modified version of it? We are working with human beings and humans by very nature are complex and capricious, yet there are certain things that work again and again in a way that makes a bit of introspection well worth the effort.

How you do this doesn’t really matter. In the past I have used a little program on my computer to take notes for this purpose. After all, most of us have our computers up and working during the day and it is often the last thing we turn of at the end of the day. Why not spend a few minutes polishing the apple? How you choose to do this isn’t important, the fact that you do it is.

My mother, one of the wisest women I have ever known, used to say, “What we do today doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we do every day.” Clearly this is one of those habits that we do every day that can have a profound effect on our year, our career and our life.

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Posted by on April 26, 2013 in Growth


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