Passing the Torch

Demarcus Ware is one of those athletes I knew of but didn’t really appreciate his legacy. I knew he was a great defensive tackle but didn’t know his story and how respected he is among his peers. As a sports fan, I’m always intrigued by the way star or veteran athletes pass down their knowledge to rookies. I’m a sucker for those who talk about “the game being bigger than they are” and also those who reference how great players helped them and how they feel obligated to pass things down for the next generation for the good and well-being of the game.

Listening to Von Miller and others talking about the impact of Ware’s efforts to support their growth and leadership development was powerful. This type of passing down of knowledge and wisdom is part of the tradition of so many sports. Those who do this intentionally are beloved by teammates and fans alike. Once again, we are seeing the best in the world getting even better because of sharing. As a pickleball fan, I appreciate how this sense of community and mentorship is prevalent in all sports, fostering a spirit of camaraderie and improvement. For those new to the sport, knowing how do you play pickleball for beginners is essential to getting started and becoming part of this supportive community.

I had a conversation today with a first-year teacher. She’s not doing particularly well. She has a challenging class and some difficult parents and administrators who are as supportive as they could be. It broke my heart to hear about someone who has invested 4-5 years of her life toward a dream and is now facing that critical point where she may not choose to stay in the profession. This is not an isolated issue. If you’re reading this you may have someone who mirrors of this situation. The answer is not easy and the problems are complex.

As I watched that documentary about Ware though I couldn’t help but wonder how we pass along our knowledge and wisdom to young educators. How many of you could like Von Miller in the clip above point to a veteran educator who helped you become a better teacher? I’ve worked with many good teachers but I don’t know that I can point to any that took time to do what Ware did for Miller and his other teammates. Yes, a football team and school staff do not work together nearly as much and the opportunities are not as accessible. It’s not that teachers are withholding their insights but the opportunities to see each other in action remains a conversation we talk about but don’t act upon.

I realize that this sounds like a call for mentorship and while that would be ideal I’m not sure it’s realistic or even necessary. It’s a bit daunting for both parties. I’m trying to imagine a culture where the passing down of learning and experiences happen more informally. I won’t write about a solution here but rather plant a seed for leaders to think about what it could mean if we honored veteran teachers by celebrating their work and achievements which would in turn help young teachers identify potential mentors. I’d also plant a seed to consider more opportunities to share stories and reflect on tips and strategies for success. My life as an educator has always been blessed by the many who have found time and space to blog and share online. The final seed I’d plant is for leaders to model what that might look like if they started unsolicited, and pass along wisdom to their new teachers. It seems that in professional sports there is an unwritten rule that since the game has been good to you, you owe it to pay it forward. I’m not sure that same sentiment exists in our educational institutions.

The collective knowledge of our institution is enough to sustain us and keep us relevant and essential. Our problem remains designing structures and opportunities for that knowledge and care to be shared and experienced more broadly.

We Don’t Need Good Leaders…We Need Great Ones

My post asking Who Would Want to Be a Leader has received a great many responses both on my blog but also in conversations with leaders. It’s not hyperbole to say we are in a leadership crisis. The conversations on my podcast almost always explore succession challenges and the continued struggle to find good school leaders, particularly at the principal level.

I know many districts have and continue to have programs and initiatives designed to develop leaders internally. I also know many who are struggling to make these effective and produce the desired results of more great leaders. What I do know is that unless school districts are actively working to develop great leaders we are going to be facing a further acceleration of burnout and teacher shortages beyond what we’re currently witnessing. While there are multiple reasons and factors creating dissatisfaction, one that is referenced either directly or indirectly is the degree to which they feel supported and valued. More specifically, this is about leadership. Leaders who actively support, encourage, and work to reduce workload and stress are going to have a huge impact on teacher burnout and teacher retention.

My oldest daughter has a teaching degree and spent a few years as a classroom teacher. She had 2 early short-term contracts at high schools. The first one had a principal who was “okay” but when she was struggling with a few students, didn’t get the support she was hoping for. The second experience was with a principal who checked in on her daily and let her know regularly that she was doing a great job. After those contracts ended she began looking for another position. She was far less concerned about the role but very concerned about which school it was at and who the principal was.

When I look back at my 14 years as a classroom teacher I didn’t have a bad principal. I had mostly good principals. I didn’t really need much in the way of support. They were for the most part good administrators. I don’t think I needed a great principal, just a good one. Today, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think the vast majority of school leaders are good. I think most teachers are good. I don’t know how many are great. The job has become more demanding and the need to have colleagues that have your back, can keep you encouraged, and provide you with the things you need to be successful is critical and perhaps the linchpin to recruitment and retention. Don’t get me wrong, we do have many great leaders it’s just that we need more and that good leaders just aren’t good enough anymore.

There’s no magic solution to addressing this challenge. There are those who are naturally gifted leaders and inherently do the things that make leaders great. But I’d argue that most of us have to learn what it means. As I mentioned in the aforementioned blog post, teachers play a role here as well. They need to be able to step up on occasion to support and encourage their leaders. The one piece of advice I would give that is certainly easier said than done, is that leaders need to act like their having fun. While the job is certainly not always fun, the view from the outside often suggests that it’s not only not fun but it’s drudgery. The message that is sent to teachers and students is “I don’t want their job”. For many, it may be drudgery but I also think that for many spend too much time talking about and focusing on the difficulty of the job and not nearly enough time on the good stuff. As my friend Joe says, “Start and end your day with joy” We have to begin with those already serving in leadership and help them be conscious that others are watching and wondering if they should pursue leadership. In the same way teachers model to their students that while their job is hard they love it. Again, I know not everyone feels this way and those are the ones struggling. But we do have principals and teachers who are choosing to stay in the profession because they think it’s worth it and they find joy and satisfaction in their work. Many of those aren’t actively modeling that disposition to others and my argument is they need to in order to encourage young people to consider education as a profession. Many will talk about managers vs leaders. That’s part of it for sure but I think it’s more than that. There are those who are leaders more than they are managers but they aren’t excellent leaders.

How are you working to find and create great leaders?

Delight 30: David Ayres and Drafts

I’ve been blogging since 2005. That’s over 100 in blog years. I’ve written over 1,200 posts. I actually go back and read stuff I’ve written in the past and consider how much my ideas and thoughts (see what I did there) have either evolved or remained the same. One of the other things I noticed in a recent review is the number of blog posts that are in draft form. I have 42 unpublished posts. One of those posts was part of my delight series entitled “David Ayres”. I had a moment when I wasn’t even sure who that was and why in the world I would be writing about him. But then I quickly remembered.

David Ayres was the emergency backup goalie sitting in the Air Canada Centre in the early winter of 2020 when the unthinkable happened. Both of the visiting team’s goalies for the Carolina Hurricanes were injured and David was called into duty. This is one of those rarities that has only happened once or twice before in the history of the NHL. I recall being at home and not watching the game when social media exploded. I quickly turned on the game to witness the second miracle of the night…he won! Essentially you have a man on the street being pulled into the biggest stage and succeeding. While Ayres was indeed a top-quality amateur goaltender, he wasn’t anywhere near the level required to play in the NHL. And yet for one night, one moment, he stood his own and had the experience of a lifetime.

Everyone loves the underdog story and this was the ultimate story. In fact, it appears it’s going to be made into a movie.

The delight I experienced from this comes at 2 levels. First, the shared experience that many had to watch this event unfold was joyous. Surprise is often associated with delight and this was not on anyone’s bingo card that night. Knowing what this meant to him, his family, and even the way the Carolina team embraced him was pure delight.

The second aspect here is a bit more meta. This event took place on February 22, 2020. I began writing this article on March 12, 2020. One look at those dates and you can figure out perhaps how this ended up in my draft folder for 3 years. But looking back and recalling the event, it still makes me smile. I spent a little time looking at videos of the event. Drafts are a bit like photos that you forget about and emerge on your timeline or other random places. They spark a memory that if you’re careful to savour, can bring you back and allow you to relive something nice. I’m grateful that that post didn’t get lost. It’s a 3-year-old story that still makes me smile.

Delight 29: Apples

I grew up in a small town, a farming community but I’m not a farmer. Even growing up, my parents never had a garden. I really am more of a city boy at heart. That said, I grew up with a lot of farmers and can at times fake my way through a discussion about agriculture.

13 years ago we moved into our current home and I planted an apple tree. I love apples. We all know store-bought apples are a gamble and of course, we’re all trying to understand who are the people buying Red Delicious apples. They are putrid. But like any freshly picked fruit or vegetables, they are in a different category altogether. Add to the fact they are my apples from a tree I planted and these apples are amazing. I’m sure if you tried them you’d think they were fine but for 3 weeks, I looked forward to each day I’d walk into my backyard and eat these beauties.

From early spring when the tiny apples began to appear I would regularly go out with my grandkids and talk about the day when we would pick and eat them. The anticipation most likely added to the delight.

We ate them right off the tree, my wife made apple crisp and the boys simply liked lining them up and counting them.

It’s not lost on me that my ramblings about this can seem overblown, inflated, or even pretentious but I truly do find delight in these seemingly trivial moments. The practice of savoring is not easy. I write this as part of that practice and maybe spark others to find delight in the things others miss.

Unveiling the Magic: Exploring the Enchanting World of Generative AI

I wanted to get some of my initial thoughts on Generative AI out there mostly for myself and to preserve my own thinking. This space has served me well over the past 18 years as a repository of my own thinking. Ideas evolve, shifts occur and concepts get refined and at times dismissed. I could likely comb through the 1200 posts and find numerous examples of things I no longer believe or got wrong. Unlike a book that is permanent, this space is built around the opportunity to record streams of consciousness and other moments in time. Like my own learning, it’s never finished. All that to say, these thoughts are current as of August 30, 2023. If you’re reading this any time after that I could be wrong and might think very differently. If that happens, I hope to record another post that addresses those changes. For now, here’s where I’m at.

Technology, when it’s at its best is like magic. Arthur Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I prefer the science fiction writer Nick Harkaway’s version:

New technologies are often on the precipes of our senses and those who are less immersed in technology can sometimes be more enamored with that magic but I actually relish the times when technology amazes me.

Generative AI has that vibe at the moment. I’ve dabbled in a few tools but mainly use ChatGPT as well as Descript for my podcast. Being able to provide a good prompt or input and see instantly an improved output is quite satisfying.

SideNote:

For this post, I had originally titled it “My Current Status Around Ai” I noticed I have a Headline Analyzer built into WordPress. I gave me a score of 25/100 for that title. I broke down in more detail the reasons for the score. I then entered my post in ChatGPT asking for a more provocative title. It gave me 3 options. I tried each one and the title I’m using gave me a score of 85. There’s part of me that thinks that’s great and trusts it may increase clicks/readers but there’s part of me that finds it less than human. For now I’ll leave it but would love to know your thoughts on this specifically.

As fun and interesting as some of these tools present themselves it’s not difficult to look beyond the instant gratification of these tools to recognize the danger and potential for disruption in the worst ways. That said, I don’t feel confident to argue too much on either end of the spectrum. I’m simply trying my best to pay attention.

But I’ll tell you 3 sources that I think bear the street cred to pay attention to at least in the education context.

Chris Dede has spent a lifetime in this space. He is also willing to admit some hesitancy in knowing exactly how things will play out. He and fellow Harvard colleague Lydia Cao wrote a nice paper with advice for educators. They use a powerful analogy about how the brain and the mind are different and that AI is much like a brain without a mind. They also address the limitations of what AI can teach.

Important skills and dispositions such as higher-order thinking, leadership, creativity, resilience, and open-mindedness cannot be taught explicitly. When we try to teach them, we often reduce them to a recipe and procedure that do not reflect the complexity of the real-world (Dede, 2022). A Chinese idiom says “Words transmit, actions teach (言传身教),” acknowledging the importance of both explicit teaching through words and implicit teaching through modeling and action.

The paper ends with 4 things educators can do:

  • Demystify AI: Teach learners the nature of generative AI
  • Focus on the process of learning rather than just the product
  • Honor learner agency and orchestrate multiple sources of motivation
  • Cultivate skills that AI cannot perform

From that same generation, I also look to Gary Stager. Gary has been a long-time friend who has a proven track record with computing. If you’re looking for someone to dance around the issue and work to stay politically correct, Gary may not be your man but if you want someone to speak from experience and an unwavering commitment to children, Gary is your guy. Gary has been talking about AI and mostly working to demystify it as well as focusing on what children can and should be doing with computers. There are lots of interviews and videos of Gary addressing the issue and here’s one.

Finally, I’ve read the thought-provoking work of Dan Meyer. Dan has been a long-time part of my network and falls into the category of wicked smart. Dan has helped many math educators and educators writ large think differently about math education and writes to provoke and share insights many of us miss. His take on the way education tries to adopt the current AI technologies speaks to the lack of consistent belief and understanding many have about the purpose of learning.

If you are a technologist and do not have a concrete theory of learning, you are navigating the world of edtech without a compass and blaming the people you meet there for not appreciating the tools you brought with you.

If you are a teacher and do not have a concrete theory of learning, you will succumb too easily to a marketing campaign that is without precedent in my lifetime, a campaign designed to convince you that generative AI’s transformation of learning is inevitable, designed to convince you that these scraps falling from the table of commerce are, in fact, a multi-course meal. Your theory of learning will tell you whether or not they’re right. 

My theory of learning tells me: 

Don’t eat the scraps. Demand a meal.

So my journey is just beginning.

Our journey as a company is moving at a bit faster pace albeit with intention and care. My colleague Amos Fodchuk has written a little about our approach as a company. ALP is well positioned to engage communities interested in thoughtful consideration around generative AI that balances the need to embrace its potential with a focus on humanity. It’s been interesting talking with school leaders and hearing many different approaches. Understandably so. This is something that requires each of us to partner with trusted leaders and thinkers, folks who have been around the block and time or two and have demonstrated a commitment to educators, students, and education as a whole. Who are you looking to to help you navigate this?