Thursday, July 25, 2013

Advice for New High School Teachers

Address to new teachers to begin the school year

Welcome! Just as we are blessed by the renewal of our school through the many new families that are enrolled with us, so too are we blessed by our new teachers. We are happy you are with us!

You’re going to be overloaded with new information, so I want to keep it simple. Here’s my stab at distilling all the wisdom I can offer you as you begin your careers into five simple pieces of advice.
  • Be yourself. For sure, you have a role to play. If you’re young, you’ve probably never been called Mister Smith or Miss Johnson, and that will take some getting used to.  But you can be yourself within this role. I have never agreed with the maxim “Don’t let them see you smile until Thanksgiving.” The fact is, students respond better to authenticity. It’s OK to laugh at something the students say which is amusing—in fact, it’s quite disarming to them. It’s OK to let the students see you having fun.  It’s OK from time to time (not too often!) to be a little aggravated.  Ultimately, we can’t fool teenagers—they cut through pretense pretty quickly.
  • Be professional. Make sure that what is being taught is substantial and factual, make sure that home work requirements are consistent with what other subjects require, that assessments are frequent and fair, that work is graded in a timely fashion, and that classes are well prepared and taught from beginning to end (nothing destroys the "value" of the subject matter in the students' eyes more quickly than teachers "shutting down" early. The message is the subject matter is important only when the teacher defines it to be so, rather than the teacher being in service to the subject matter). In short, teach your subject as professionally as you can. The kids will follow.
  • Don’t “go it alone.” Seek the advice of your colleagues, share your frustrations with them, and ask questions. If a student is unruly and you’ve practiced the “1-2-3 strikes you’re out” technique (first time warning, second time after school detention, third time, an office referral), don’t be afraid to send them to the office. Too often new teachers fear that an office referral is a statement they “can’t handle things.” Nonsense. The school’s dean of discipline is there to support you.
  • Dive in! Don’t be a person who clocks in at 7:30 and clocks out at 4 each day. Come to ball games. Attend plays. Go to recitals. Nothing connects you with your students faster than to be able to say “Nice hit,” or “great singing,” or “I was impressed with your artwork at the show.” You can’t be at everything; high schools are a blitzkrieg of activity all the time. But make a point to be at one or two things each week. You’ll see kids in a whole new light, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too.
  • Stay close to the Lord. Throughout your career, you will experience crises of confidence, exasperation, frustration, unreasonable parents, troubled teens, bad classes, poor liturgies. You will be misquoted, misrepresented and for some periods of time, mistrusted. But you will also get the unparalleled gift to see the world with wonder again, through the eyes of young people. You will be made a confidante by a young person seeking advice, feel the joy of a weak student who does well on an assignment, cheer for your students in athletic contests, beam with a near parents’ pride as your students graduate. In other words, to borrow a line from our armed services, “It’ll be the toughest job you’ll ever love”. To keep yourself rooted, to keep your ideas fresh, to be the kind of faithful person our young people need to see first hand in a world with such cause for cynicism, stay close to the Lord, both in your daily prayer and in the reception of the sacraments. If you do, the Lord will bless you in your work and you will go to bed each night exhausted, but with a smile on your face.

Friday, July 19, 2013

No Matter Where You Go

It was Marshall McLuhan who is credited with the term “global village,” a phrase he used to explain how the world has been contracted into a village by “electric technology” and “instantaneous movement of information” (The Gutenberg  Galaxy: Making of Typographic Man).

Though it now sounds like a cliché, he coined the phrase in 1962, predicting that “the computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind. “

That’s a pretty remarkable prophecy.

I was reminded of all this recently when I came across this joyful video, combining the unitive power of music and technology for a glorious effect:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Technology Plan? Bah Humbug!

When accreditation teams come to a school, they often look for “technology plans.” By this, they usually mean a broad, comprehensive program that lays out the school’s over-arching goals for the curriculum, the necessary tech tools to achieve these goals, and a three year purchasing plan (similar to the process to the right). Usually these plans are created by “technology committees” that include faculty, administration and in some cases, parents and students.  The plan is then disseminated to all constituencies for implementation.

Having created such plans over the last twenty five years, I've slowly come to a rather startling conclusion: They're a waste of time!  First, the world of technology is changing too quickly for plodding plans that take a year or so to develop and many more years to implement. No sooner are these plans finalized than they become out-dated. As an example, I believe it's increasingly clear that many schools that have adopted "one to one" programs in technology  (a laptop or tablet for every student) have wasted their money.  An overwhelming majority of students in independent schools now own smart phones with computing power far beyond the average user’s needs.  Could we have predicted that even three years ago?

Second, technology plans are top-down, institution-driven initiatives that misunderstand the non-linear, paradigm-changing, disruptive nature of technology itself. Tech innovation occurs at the user-end level, as individuals begin to play with technology and customize usage to achieve their ends. As these individuals use these technologies, new possibilities emerge from which may spring new ideas and new initiatives. Top-down plans stifle or bore the institution’s most sophisticated users--the very innovators who can truly affect institutional change by their excitement and their willingness to show colleagues a better way.

Instead of a "plan," then, I advocate that schools operate according to the following set of flexible principles: 

First, best instructional practices and good curriculum should lead. Technology is a tool for good teaching, not an end in itself, nor a marketing gimmick to sell to prospective families. Schools are in the business of teaching and learning. 

Second, schools should promote gradualism instead of sweeping, top-down directives. We become technologically savvy by learning a skill that helps us do our current tasks more efficiently, but as we become more skilled in these technologies, new ways of doing things become apparent to us. Small things lead to bigger things. Institutional change happens more effectively at the grass roots level, as individual competencies improve and the culture is elevated to embrace innovation.

Third, schools purchasing technology should try to walk a middle position between being “early adopters” and technological luddites.  We should not allow ourselves to become “beta-testers” for tech companies. Schools that jumped early onto the “digital textbooks for all students” bandwagon have faced myriad problems, both in terms of getting textbooks onto the student devices (there is as of yet no digital clearinghouse to assemble and disseminate content from multiple publishers) and infra-structure capacity to handle the demand.  Those issues will be worked out, and we should be open to digital textbooks, but in a careful, measured way.

Fourth, we should prioritize equipping our most active users with the best and latest technology.  Equipping all users at the same time with equal technology is wasteful in that it gives some folks technology that is far beyond their abilities and needs, while limiting others who could serve as innovators and change agents for the institution.

Fifth, we should purchase technology incrementally, rather than making a large technology investment every 3-4 years. This allows us to continue to equip our best users with the latest technology and protects us from sudden innovation that makes existing technology dated or irrelevant, much like “dollar-cost averaging” protects investors in the stock market.  We don't want a school full of “beta-maxes” or “digital disc” devices, but we do want to preserve the means to move toward promising technologies as they emerge.

Sixth, we should create professional learning communities where new technologies are discussed, shared and taught to others.  The best professional development is always practitioners speaking to practitioners, showing each other a better way. We should work to create an environment where our most active and enthusiastic technology users share their ideas with less active users. Innovation thrives in such communities. We should prioritize these opportunities in our annual professional development planning. 

Seventh, schools should invest in classroom tech specialists. With more and more services now hosted "on the cloud," there is less need for true techies trained in information management and server maintenance, and more need for teachers who can champion technology with other teachers, meeting them at their level, introducing new tech tools, hosting 30 minute tech workshops after school, teaching, mentoring and advocating. Technological innovation doesn't come from "on high", but schools need champions who can support and mentor teachers on the one to one level if they want to truly germinate innovation from the ground up. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Pope, Scholar... and Saint!

John Paul II's ski-jacket, now a relic,
a gift of the Vatican to our students.
I woke up this morning to a text message that John Paul II was just declared saint. People are already asking me if Pope John Paul II High School will be need to renamed. It usually takes fifty, one hundred, two hundred years to become a saint. Who would have guessed just eleven years ago when our school was founded, with JPII still pope, that we'd have to have a serious discussion about that so quickly?

But such is the soaring figure of our namesake.

History will chronicle JPII as one of the most significant world figures of the 20th century. There's a lot of reasons for that: his influence in helping Europe shed off communism, his prolific writings and scholarship, his ecumenical and inter-faith emphases, his role in reinvigorating the faith for millions of Catholics around the world. George Weigel, the principal biographer to JPII in Witness to Hope, lectured at our school in 2010 about the enduring influence of JPII on the Church and world, which I've summarized here.

But to understand the "why" of his influence, look no further than this prophetic remark someone made about Karol Wojtyla when cardinals elected him pope in 1978:  “They picked a man not from Poland but from Galilee.” 

He returned the papacy back to its Scriptural roots--more pastor than monarch--traveling to over 100 foreign countries during his papacy, always to hundreds of thousands of people.  He connected with people on a scale that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes—literally millions of people from all over the world came to Rome for his funeral, in what NBC news said then was the “human event of our generation.”

His example and his writings have been a great inspiration to us at JPII. He loved young people.  He started World Youth Days, which were attended by hundreds of thousands of teens wherever they were hosted, and his consistent message to them was to have the courage to seek greatness in their lives, to not give in to mediocrity, to make Christ known to others, and to make the world more human. 

It’s a great challenge, and a great honor, to be the headmaster of a school that tries to live up to the example of its namesake, a saint!