Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Leadership Now

What does academic leadership look like in the 21st century?
I've wondered about this question for some time now. As a department chair, I sometimes wish the answer was authoritarian: I tell you what to do and, voila, you do it. There is no way that would be an effective style today, especially in the humanities. Teachers want autonomy. They need autonomy. So what role do academic leaders play?

Most importantly, I think the role of an academic leader is to inspire teachers to move forward in the direction of the school's vision, but the school's vision must be open enough to allow teachers the opportunity to be creative. Without the freedom to create, teachers become dull and bored. We must allow them to sharpen their pencils and try something new and have ownership over the work they do. Plus, the world is changing too fast for leaders to effectively make policy on each new, as an example, technological advancement. Giving autonomy helps teachers mature and gain wisdom. We must trust them to make good decisions when shifts in the outside world blow our way.

But what about teachers who are ineffective?

Leaders have an obligation to support those teachers, either through professional development, encouragement, inspiration, or quality feedback. There is something ineffective teachers haven't learned yet, and leaders need to discover what that is. When we learn we cannot help but change.

But who makes the big decisions?

If we have helped create a discussion culture, an environment where each community member feels heard, then the decisions should practically make themselves. In other words, it is no longer a top-down model of leadership: "I make the decisions, and if I'm wrong, I'm the only person who takes the heat." We make the decision. Everyone has a stake in the game.

So that's it? That's everything?

No, one more thing - an academic leader has to make time for teachers to reflect on their experience, their pedagogical challenges, their fulfillment of the school's vision, etc. That is a requirement for good leaders. Effective leaders want this reflection. It is essential to the community's growth and happiness, and to their own.

Monday, January 9, 2017


“Of course there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office – to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

-          Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The American Scholar”

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Good Teacher Dies

I think we all imitate our favorite teachers from high school and college, to some degree at least. Although educational scholars suggest this pattern can inhibit student learning in the 21st century (believing, that is, that there's only one way to teach well because that's how the material was presented to us), I think that there are things to hold onto from the past, if for no other reason than that those things from the past still remain relevant in our present.

My British Literature professor at Presbyterian College,
Dr. James Lister Skinner III, died this week. He was one of "those" professors: tougher than hell, passionate to obsessive, and relentlessly critical of anything that distracts us from what's important - literature, love, emotion, humanity. Those who took his class showed up scared to death, but left changed forever. I liken it to a sculpture my dad keeps in his office: a glass man shedding a copper skin, emerging from the cocoon of all that wastes our time, dampens our spirits.

I remember when he introduced Pride and Prejudice how he told us that when he proposed to his wife, he told her that whether or not she agreed to marry him, she should know that he'd always be in love with her and another woman - Elizabeth Bennett.

I remember, too, when I failed his test on Vanity Fair (because I thought fraternity life was just a little more important), he wrote at the end of my test, "You have deprived yourself of a great deal. Why?"

He lectured most of the time, but we didn't mind. His passion captivated us. And yes, it's possible to keep the attention of a teenager by lecturing for 50 minutes. Perhaps the difference between him and other lecturers is that we students believed what he said and we believed he believed it. He said once that his lifetime goal was to finish the entire Trollope collection. I have no doubt he met that goal. He was a voracious reader. During graduate school he always left a Victorian Novel on his dashboard and read it when he was stuck in traffic or stopped at intersections.That's the kind of person he was.

He was the first teacher who revealed to me that literature could actually change your life. And there is little doubt that he put me on a trajectory to becoming a teacher. What I learned from him? What do I hope my students see in me that I saw in him?

1. When the classroom door closes, nothing else matters but the lesson of the day.

2. Passion is contagious and inspiring.

3. If you don't believe in what you're teaching, neither will your students.

4. The best teachers teach themselves: who they are and how their subject changed their life.

Thank you, Dr. Skinner. RIP.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sometimes You Just Have to Play Football

I started my career at Blue Ridge School (BRS) in St. George, VA. A boarding school wrapped tightly by Appalachian mountain, BRS gave me my first opportunity to learn about what it takes to be a teacher. Most boarding schools require its personnel to teach, coach, and participate in the residential program. BRS was no different. One of the first – and greatest – lessons I learned about education came on the football field, as a coach. 

I learned my lesson during our rivalry game with St. Anne’s Bellfield (STAB), although I don’t think they considered us much of a rival (we were underdogs by a large margin). It was my second year and I had been named defensive coordinator for the season. My approach to teaching defense was to have my boys memorize the schemes, get to a spot, and then react to the offense. We were a decent defense that year, but I didn’t really know how to improve us. The players knew my schemes, my calls, yet there was something missing. I’ll call it comfortability. The defense ran like a machine, not individuals making independent decisions. 

Against all odds, we found ourselves up by five in the fourth quarter with about two minutes to play. STAB was threatening from our 35-yard line. My defense had bent on the drive, but finally held them to a desperate 4th and 12. We were going to win. You could feel it. I called “King” coverage, which was my call for Cover-3 (i.e. three defenders drop back like safeties to make sure no receivers came open near or after that first-down mark). It’s a safe call in a situation like the one we were in. 

The QB snapped the ball, pivoted right, and tossed it to a sweeping running back. You don’t run sweeps in this type of situation…it was a trick play. We coaches could see it develop, like the players were in slow motion. Their tight end slipped past our middle safety, who had bitten on the run, and was wide open in the middle of the field. My two cornerbacks, though, were in great position. One was guarding a man in his zone, but no receivers were anywhere near the other cornerback. He could have easily run down the slower tight end, covered him, and made sure he didn’t catch the pass.

But he didn’t. He stayed on his third of the field just like I coached him to do. You see, in Cover-3 each safety is responsible for a third of the field and is coached that no receivers can get behind them in their respective third. I had told him countless times – drilled it into him – never to leave his third of the field, his zone. Usually, that’s correct. He shouldn’t ever leave his responsibility. But it’s really only correct when the other ten players on the field have done their jobs effectively. And as I said, my middle safety had bitten on the run.

The STAB running back set his feet, threw a perfect ball, and the tight end caught it and ran in for the touchdown. We lost the game.

I was exasperated. It was an intense moment. So close to victory and then to lose on a mistake like that. When Ben (not his name) ran to the sidelines, I was there to greet him. 

“What happened, Ben! Why didn’t you cover him?”

“Coach, you told me never to leave my zone. He wasn’t in my zone!”

“But, Ben,” I pleaded, “sometimes you just have to play football.”

And that’s when it hit me. I had not spent enough time teaching him how to play football: how to adjust to other players’ mistakes, how to see the whole field, or how to use his good judgment to help the team win. No, instead, I spent the majority of practice making him memorize schemes. I kept him in his narrow bubble and made him play the game as if he were an X or an O. As I reflect back on it now, it was probably a control issue: if I allow him to use his judgment, he might make the wrong decision and fail. And then the team might fail. And then I would look like a failure. My goal was perfection; it should have been empowerment. 

More than ever, students must graduate prepared to navigate the obstacles, accelerations, and shifts the 21st-century world will throw in their paths. And the only way to prepare them for that environment is to empower them to be autonomous, curious, and tenacious, attributes best developed in schools where the focus is on the application of knowledge, not just knowledge itself. Any kid with an XBOX and a copy of Madden 17 knows what a Cover-3 defense is. Information is now ubiquitous. It takes good coaches and teachers to show what can be done with that knowledge, especially when the opponent’s tight end is wide open in the end zone. 

I didn’t do right by Ben, but now my players take part in the process of defensive scheming. They are given the power to change the scheme based on what the offense shows. They participate in halftime “adjustment” meetings. When they fail, they know why they failed and can explain it to me. They self-correct. I am there to provide organization and leadership and act as a mentor who shares ideas, experience, and best practices. In short, I am now focused on giving them the tools to “just play football.”