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Education reform is overflowing with suggestions for what to do. It’s easy to find new ways to differentiate, new ways to incorporate student response, and improved methods for increasing student engagement. Suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks abound each one adding to an educator’s tool box, knapsack, and quiver. The implication being that the more robust your repertoire, the more capable you are to meet student needs. Sensible.

A quick scan of Edutopia alone will return more options than a single educator could implement in five years of practice. Randomized student response and cold calling students both improve student participation substantially. Project Based Learning is a fantastic change in practice that requires a lot of work and preparation that can improve outcomes for students. Sometimes, however, it’s what you don’t do that has the most impact.

I’ve written about “Andy” before. He was a student in my AP World History class and I’ve continued to work with him during his time as a running start student. In particular I’ve been working with him on writing for the college application process.

He was asked to respond to the following prompt as part of an application: [Our] students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)

Andy was initially a bit perplexed about how to respond so I encouraged him to just write a bunch of ideas and then we’d come back to it and sort out the mess. This was part of our general pattern of working together. Write a bunch of rough stuff and we’ll work it out later. He came back with the following two paragraphs. I’m including them with his permission:

When I was just a bit younger, I was apathetic to education. Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might. The ceaseless snorts and guffaws that erupted from my math teacher did little to improve my feelings about algebra. In the midst of this rather bleak time, I met Mr. McCormick. Mr. McCormick taught AP world history. As much as I disliked math, it was still leagues ahead of my disdain for history.

However, Mr. McCormick introduced something new. He brought a human element. He showed me to the idea that a teacher could care, and in doing so was the first person in years to tell me that if I wanted to build rockets, I should try. While seeing the stars reaffirmed my desire to work in the space industry, I would have never been using the telescope had Mr. McCormick not shifted my attitude to what it is now. I believe that I have intellectual vitality, I have the hunger to learn and the need to improve the world. I’m not sure I would, had it not been for Gabe Mccormick.

I don’t remember the interaction. Andy’s statement that he wanted to go to space didn’t impact me. To me it was one in a series of things kids say: “I want to be an astronaut.” “I want to be a senator.” “I really need to pass this class.” There’s a huge category of things kids say that begin to just wash over you as an educator. My response was likely automatic.

“Mr. McCormick, I want to be an astrophysicist.”

“Cool, go for it.” And then I’d move on.

To me I was acknowledging his participation without making a big deal out of it. To him I was validating his dream.

“Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.”

What if we reverse the pattern? Tell a kid to pursue his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.

As educators what we say carries weight. Often far more weight than we imagine. In the way that every one of an artist’s brush strokes are intentional, so should an educator be intentional with their language. In education we talk a lot about how to encourage kids and the danger of negative interaction, but it was never real to me until Andy described it this way. My sentence impacted his life. I gave an automatic response. How much more impact would I have made if my response had been deliberate? In conversation with him about it I asked him what made the difference. He said simply, “You didn’t laugh at me.”

How many other people did laugh at him? How many times does a student offer up a desire to be president, or a scientist, or a rock star and get laughed at? Some students are resilient enough to keep going, or they have support at home, or from peers, but not all of them.

When a student becomes vulnerable and shares their desires our responsibility as educators is to help them see the possibility. I don’t encourage lying to students or misleading them about realities, but far be it from me to shut the door for them. Some of our students only have their teachers for guidance.

Willpower. Not necessarily a new concept. I’ve been thinking of willpower primarily as the ability to activate self control. When one has high willpower they are better able to resist temptation, restrict behavior, and work through the push to act impulsively. I also thought that willpower was fixed. Some people have a lot, some people have a little bit, and that’s all you get. After spending six hours with Kelly McGonigal as part of the New Teacher Center Symposium, I’ve learned that I held an incredibly impoverished view of willpower, how to activate it, and how to grow my own capacity for willpower. After one day, her work on willpower has completely invaded my life.

For McGonigal (a psychologist) willpower encompasses the regulation of three primary impulses: I won’t, I want, and I will. These three components work as a unit to create a willpower system that we activate differently. We may activate willpower to decline dessert, to encourage ourselves to jump off a high dive, or to maintain focus on a long term goal.  All three of these impulses require the work of the prefrontal cortex in different ways and based on our experiences and our neural pathways we are more or less adept at activating different aspects of our willpower.

With a base definition out of the way McGonigal proceeded to add her own definition for willpower layered on top of that three part system, framing issues of willpower as a competition between different versions of our self. These different selves exist concurrently and it is through our willpower that we balance their competing influences in order to create the best version of ourself. The version of ourself that best aligns with our values. By recognizing and accepting this duality we can best leverage and grow our willpower. This is an incredibly empowering concept of willpower as it honors one’s current status and expects growth and change will occur.

Willpower with a Growth Mindset

Central to the entire framework that McGonigal established is the assumption that willpower is a growable skill. In short that Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset for intelligence is immediately applicable to one’s willpower. There’s been research lately around willpower that we have a finite amount of it, and once depleted it needs to be restored. McGonigal did not refute this, however, she made it very clear that this store of willpower, while finite in the short term, is expandable in the long term. This is an extremely important distinction because it means we can get better at leveraging willpower and McGonigal used a muscular model to explain the concept.

In the muscle model of willpower we have to work our willpower much in the same way we develop physically. This means that we can begin to develop our willpower now. It’s an easy misconception to think that we need to fix something before we work on a difficult task, but part of the point of developing willpower is that difficult actions get easier when we take action. It’s the whole point of the growth mindset. Jumping off that high dive looks extremely intimidating until you do it the first time. Do it once, and it’s immediately much easier to do again. The other key component is that we need to see failure as progress. When you’re weightlifting, you regularly push your muscles to the point of fatigue and the recovery day is where your body rebuilds itself you get stronger. You only know your max deadlift by hitting your max, and then failing the next rep. The same goes for willpower. You need to get to the fatigue point in order to know where your limits are, then you recover, recharge your energy, and come back stronger. This can be easily leveraged by setting up willpower challenges for yourself in the same way you’d design a muscular or cardiovascular workout. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that this will work for my willpower in the same way that it works for my posterior muscle chain.

The last important piece of the growth mindset framework for willpower is that the feedback loop has to focus on effort and growth. You improved your ability to resist refined sugar by 10%? Fantastic! Honor that growth and keep growing. Set the next benchmark. You worked really hard to avoid that cigarette, but finally gave in? Honor the effort you put in. You probably resisted longer than you did last time. Respect that you tried, and try again next time. Beating yourself up for failure won’t help. In fact, beating yourself up over failure or relapse completely undermines the growth mindset and often encourages us to double down on the coping mechanisms or behaviors we’re trying so hard to change. We need to act from a place of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Willpower Requires Self-Connection and Compassion

This is where McGonigal’s talk seriously opened a crack in my reality. I could easily accept that willpower is potentially infinite and we can develop it through practice. That concept fits for me right next to my thinking about a growth mindset, but when I hit the failure wall with willpower I’m pretty quick to apply some guilt and try to shame myself into correcting the behavior. The theory goes like this: I hate that I procrastinate, so if I give myself the third degree when I procrastinate then I’ll be motivated to stop procrastinating. Right? Wrong.

Turns out that doesn’t work. When we apply shame or guilt to an action (or lack of action) we encourage ourselves to apply the coping mechanism that we already use and we run back to familiar neural pathways. When I berate myself for procrastinating I make it more likely that I will continue to procrastinate because I want to avoid the feelings associated with thinking about procrastination. Simply put, you can’t shame or guilt yourself into improvement. You need to honor the fact that the self that wants to procrastinate and the self that wants to change that behavior coexist in you. This may be frustrating to think about the self that procrastinates, but it also means that your best self already exists. You just have to activate it.

In order to facilitate this process McGonigal claims that self compassion and forgiveness is the proper path forward. By practicing self-compassion we can be mindful of our stress, suffering, and failure, without perseverating on them. This allows us to act from a position of non-attachment and without judgment. (McGonigal definitely has some semi-covert Buddhism going on in her work.) By doing that we can perform what she calls “self-mentoring,” meaning that we can advise ourselves as a mentor or coach would: maintaining big picture perspective, and encouraging corrective action instead of perseverating on our failures. This is extremely important because it’s so easy to spiral in on ourselves and dwell in our perceived failure without performing the necessary actions to correct for that failure. By removing our self-attachment, while still acting from a position of self-compassion we can remove judgment, which can be paralytic, and act.

Know Yourself

The cherry on top of the self-compassion sundae is self-connection. If willpower is making decisions that align with our long term goals when those goals conflict with short term rewards, then we can only properly exercise our willpower if we understand our long term goals. Similarly, if willpower helps us maintain a personal agenda when other try to hijack it, we need to be sure enough of our personal agenda that we are confident that the agenda of others is inappropriate. Therefore in order to use our willpower effectively we need to know ourselves and understand our goals.

I did not initially expect this, however, it became immediately clear when McGonigal explained it by saying that when we feel a weak connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our current self, while if we feel a strong connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our future self. Said another way, if we don’t know what we want in the future, we ignore it, and focus on the present. This immediately highlighted the importance of self-reflection to our ability to grow our willpower. If I want to stop eating sugar, and eat some celery instead, I need to have a very clear image of the long term benefit of eating less sugar. Without that clear image I’m weighing an immediate, concrete, desire to eat sugar against a vague image of “I want to be healthy.” This vague goal simply cannot compete against the concrete desire for sweet things.

To this end McGonigal introduced a practice of vividly imagining self defining future moments from a self-compassionate perspective. She described it as creating future memory. Want to get fit? Create the most detailed image of yourself being fit as you possibly can. What will you look like? Where will you exercise? What will you eat? How will it taste? What will it smell like? What does it feel like to be covered in sweat? What’s it going to feel like when you do push-ups until you fatigue? The more completely you can create that future memory, the more clear your target is for your willpower. By concretizing (new vocab word!) your long term goal, you make it easier to make decisions that lead you do that goal and you begin thinking about the process by which you can achieve it. You’re building pathways that support your willpower to replace your current neural pathways.

Conclusion

Willpower is about control. Physiologically, It’s about using your prefrontal cortex to rationally control your midbrain urges. In more everyday terms it’s about subordinating your immediate urges in favor of your more long-term goals for yourself.

It turns out this is pretty difficult. Those immediate impulses are strong, and there are a myriad of internal and environmental factors that encourage us to act on impulse. We are well trained to listen to our midbrain In order to more reliably act in support of our long-term goals we need to practice and grow our willpower. This includes creating a concrete image of our future self, thus allowing more equal competition between long-term goal, and immediate impulse. We also need to reframe willpower and failure within the framework of a growth mindset. This allows challenge to become a growth opportunity, and failure becomes a learning experience. Lastly we need to practice a mindful acceptance of our failures as observation without judgment. This will allow us to understand the influences that cause us to submit to impulse while viewing ourselves with compassion, thus helping us to stop perseverating on failure, and encouraging positive action.

This five hour talk has seriously invaded my life. It’s only been a couple days and I already know that I will continue to reorganize and apply the information to my work as an instructional mentor, my work as a spouse, and my work as a human being. There are significant portions of McGonigal’s work that I’ve omitted (like her excellent presentation technique and her focus on the role of the physical in developing willpower) for the sake of space, and I’m sure, as with Mindset, I will be continually revisiting these concepts.

We’re coming up on the semester in my district, and it’s a good time to take stock of the year so far and think about opportunities to make changes.  So far nearly all of my teachers have been working in triage mode, responding reactively to address needs as they arise, always working to prevent getting overwhelmed.  They tend to move from one problem to the next with a high degree of presentism.  Similarly, I’ve been working reactively with my teachers, targeting those teachers that I perceive to have the highest needs, and trying to get everyone to a baseline of “this job is doable” before deeply pushing practice.  I want to change this in the second semester both for myself and the teachers I work with so that we can push a more philosophical and transformational approach to developing a teaching persona.

To this end I’m scheduling midyear reflection meetings with each teacher. In each of these meetings I’m specifically blocking out time to move our discussions away from the day to day issues and to look at first semester holistically, then setting focus areas for our work in the second semester.  In light of my previous thoughts on structuring discussion, I’ve put together a template for the discussion, something of a hybrid between open discussion, and a formal protocol.

The process works as follows with room for individual variation:

Step 1: Begin with an informal post winter break check-in to reestablish the teacher/coach relationship.

This is a quick way to reconnect and remind teachers that I am focused on supporting them as an individual person within the teaching role.  They are a human being first, and a teacher second.  A trusting relationship is essential to all of our work together, and therefore I need to remember to deliberately inject micro moments of relationship building into the process.  I cannot simply jump straight into the work and assume that a relationship will follow.  I need to intentionally build collegiality and trust so that my teachers will feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.

Step 2: Explain purpose of mid-year reflection.

The purpose of the meeting is to explicitly step away from the day to day, reactive, work of teaching.  Put aside the discipline issues, step away from evaluations, and put down the grading.  By stepping back like this we are able to get a more holistic perspective to the work, and we can move in a more proactive direction.  This wider perspective is commonly lost on teachers, and they are unable to see bigger patterns in their work due to a myriad of immediate needs.

In addition to the shift in focus, the timing of the meeting is highly intentional.  I am a big proponent of making change immediately once a need is identified, however, some changes (such as a change to grading system) need to wait until the semester.  Additionally, my teachers with semester classes have a chance to completely reset the structure of their course.  With a structured conversation that reflects on first semester, and makes plans for second semester, I can help teachers put their desires into practice at a logical time while continuing to act against the sentiment of, “next year I’d like to…”

Step 3: Move into a reflection on successes to date.

I specifically address successes before areas of growth because of how infrequently my teachers discuss their own success.  Whether from a sense of humility, high standards, or a lack of perspective my teachers rarely lead with discussing their successes.  Self-critique is far more common.  While thoughtful critique of areas of growth is extremely important, it is also important for my teachers to be able to identify and name their areas of strength.  This serves to boost teacher morale at a difficult time in the school year, as well as to improve teachers’ reflective accuracy.  Appropriately identifying areas of strength and success, is equally important to identifying weaknesses when building a teacher’s ability to self- assess.

In practice, I find that teachers have many more success than they initially give themselves credit for.  By taking the time to think critically about success, and not just failure, we can investigate how to maintain successful practices, and how to extend those patterns of success into new areas of instruction.  This serves as an important foundation for creating longterm patterns of growth.

Step 4: Ask teacher what they would like to add to their list of successes.

I’ve found great success wording the transition from discussing success to growth as “now that you’ve identified your success so far, what would you like to add to the list?”

This question does two things that benefit the teacher.  Initially, this wording honors the list of success and places value on them.  There is an agreement between teacher and coach that the previously identified successes are valid.  This confirmation is an important piece of feedback that helps teachers improve their self-reflection.

Secondly, there is an assumption inherent in the question that it is possible to grow the list of success, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.  This is a subtle move, and extremely important.  Continued growth is an essential component of success, and I want the teacher to work from an assumption that these are workable goals.  When I, as a coach, assume that my teachers are capable of growth, it makes it easier for them to grow in those areas.  This is also an act of modeling.  I show that I operate with an assumption of continued growth, and teachers can take that into their working in the classroom to help students grow.

Step 5:  Explore how to begin making progress toward those new items.

This is the step where we move from the reflective stage into practical planning.  We prioritize from the collaboratively generated list of ideas, and start to lay out the steps by which these areas will be developed.  This step is highly differentiated based on the specific needs of the teachers, but the goal is to turn the plans for growth into a reality.  The process can vary from a few simple interventions where a teacher needs exposure to new ideas, or it can be a more involved process that requires a teacher to think deeply about their identity as a teacher, and what that means for how to structure their classroom.

So far this process is going well.  I am only part way through my caseload, and I am seeing meaningful gains.  For some teachers this includes managing difficult teaching assignments, for some it is establishing more collegial relationships with their co-workers, and for others it is finding the personal strength to forge their own path despite external pressure to conform.  I am hoping that these midyear meetings will establish the focus I found lacking in the first semester.  I also hope that from our first semester work my teachers are empowered with the skills needed to work through many of the smaller issues with teaching more independently, thus allowing me to focus on developing their persona as a teacher and honing the more philosophical aspects of the profession through the second semester.

It’s that time of year again. Students and teachers are anxiously preparing for winter break, a much needed respite from the day in, day out, school routine. Meanwhile, governments, and media are pouring over the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

Do a quick search on the PISA exam and you’ll find all kinds of articles wondering “Are American Students Falling Behind the World?” or “Can’t We Do Better?” These aren’t terrible questions necessarily, but they’re misguided.
“Can’t we do better” is not an interesting question to me. Yes. We could do better on the PISA exam, and other international exams. More compelling is figuring out whether we should; whether this is the proper target for our energy.

Assessment informs instruction and you get what you measure. This makes sense. If you measure how far you can run without stopping, that’s what your subject will improve on. Your speed may not improve, but your ability to run long distances without stopping should. If you measure students test scores on an exam, that’s what will improve. Should we improve our scores on an exam? Well, that depends on what the exam measures. What’s most important is to ensure that our measure aligns with our intended outcomes.

Let’s stick with running for a bit. Imagine that Jane is trying to get faster. She wants to run a mile in under six minutes. As a coach, it stands to reason then that I should measure how fast she can complete one mile of running and include interventions that will help her run a faster mile time. Measuring how quickly she completes a 5K run, or measuring how far she can run without stopping do not provide the data that lets me know if she’s progressing toward her goal. Just because I’m capable of collecting these other kinds of data, doesn’t mean I should collect them. In fact if I measure data that does not inform the goal (such as distance without stopping) I may try to implement interventions that hinder the initial goal. Strength training is essential to improving times over shorter distances, less important to increasing a runner’s endurance.

The same holds true in education. I need to set goals for what I want to improve in education and measure accordingly. At every level of education, from the individual classroom, all the way up to Arne Duncan’s office, the first question has to be: “what do we want to improve?” (The follow up question is “how do you know that’s the right choice,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Do we really want to improve PISA scores? Does PISA measure the data that we want? Is that the best goal we can come up with? I really hope there’s something more interesting that’s getting discussed at the Department of Education. You want to improve PISA scores? Ok here’s a freebie: figure out what the test measures. Teach it. Go home satisfied.

My challenge to education reform is that we can do better. Measuring changes in test scores is certainly easy, but they tell us little. Learning is an extremely complex system the is influenced by countless variables including, but by no means limited to: parents’ education level, income, age, physical health, mental health, peer group, and class size. Let’s work on developing more complex measures of student learning. I’m much more interested in whether students can create a reasoned argument, if they are curious, if they have the social-emotional ability to sustain effort, if they have a growth mindset, and if they’re interested in developing their community. Ability to take a standardized test does not inspire me.

I’m missing the argument for why PISA is a good assessment. Everywhere you look there’s a push for better scores, but no reflection on the value of those improved scores. We’re making an assumption that improving these scores will tell us that education is solved, and that’s simply untrue.  Shanghai tops the chart regularly, and their students work in an extremely competitive environment centered entirely around improving scores on exams. Singapore also scores well on PISA and their government spends large amounts of money on consultants to help shift focus off of standardized exams in order to build in more time for discussion and student-centered education. There is evidence that some of Japan’s intense bullying in schools is a reaction to extreme academic pressure to succeed. Is this what we want to create?

PISA scores are easy. We can count and stack rank anything we want. I am suspect of an easy solution to a complex problem. Improving our scores on international exams won’t fix our education system. In fact, when controlling for child poverty the United States scores extremely well already. Ability to follow instructions, and do what you’re told is not invaluable, however it is not enough. We need citizens capable of critical thought and if we want our students to improve their critical thinking, we should model it for them by thinking critically about how we measure academic achievement and how we define successful education.

I would normally say that I don’t believe in protocols for structuring discussion.  Oh they work.  But I don’t need them.  They work for other people.  I know how to participate in and lead discussion. I don’t need the strict structure.  In fact, the strict method of a protocol just gets in the way of quality conversation.  My mind got changed last week.

As part of a series of professional learning my district has the fortune of working with Mark Church from the Harvard Project Zero and Visible Thinking.  The first part of his work is rooted in the power of protocols for structuring conversation around difficult topics.  In our first session Church had participants practice a protocol for sharing aspects of our practice (in this case a success).  It works in groups of at least three participants as follows:

  1. The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
  2. The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
  3. The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
  4. The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining group members

I entered into the protocol with minimal faith in it’s effectiveness, however, being a good student, my group committed to following the protocol with fidelity.  I was very happy to have my initial cynicism proven wrong.  In both the listener and presenter role I learned a great deal about myself and my colleagues and found the protocol to be extremely effective.

When I was in the listener role I discovered how one of my colleagues defines success.  For her success is a partnership.  When she collaborates, or when she can find teamwork she is successful as a mentor.  She is successful when the whole group succeeds.  As she was describing her success in step one I immediately found myself relating her story back to my interactions with her and many puzzle pieces began to slide into place.  This process helped me understand how central collaboration is to her, and this should help me work more effectively with her in the future because I understand her values more completely.

The listener role also helped me definite my own success to share when I took the presenter role.  Initially I was unable to come up with a success that I though was worthy of discussion.  When my colleague shared her success, and defined her process for helping her teacher, I was able to apply that to my own practice and redefine what I thought of as “good enough.”

The presenter role was much more difficult than the listener role for me.  I found that in order to share a legitimate success I had to be extremely vulnerable and trust my teammates.  This is where the protocol proved its worth.  Since I knew that I had time to explain my story (3 minutes) and that there was built in time for clarifying questions (5 minutes), I was confident that my colleagues would not get the wrong impression, and if there was a miscommunication it could be rectified.  This knowledge helped me relax into the process and allowed me to share more authentically.  Additionally I found the time when the 2 listening members of the group to be incredibly empowering as my colleagues found more aspects of success in my story than I had initially identified.

The result of the entire process was that I was able to understand my own success more completely and I was better able to see the value in my colleagues’ work.  This is an enormous gain for very minimal output.  I am confident that if Church had said “share about your successes” we would have had a much less productive conversation.  The protocol forced me out of my comfort zone by forcing me to listen without responding, and by forcing me to share about my successes, and I am better for it.

Nancy Jones taught English during my junior and senior years at Interlake High School.  When I had her she’d been teaching since the opening of the school in 1962.  My senior year was her last year at the school.  She was notoriously difficult and had a reputation for being a very tough grader.  She would regularly use words that left students (and often colleagues) scratching their heads.  This woman did not suffer fools.  I’ve been extremely privileged in my education.  I’ve been blessed with powerful educators at all levels of my formal and informal schooling.  Nancy Jones is the single greatest teacher I have ever had and I never told her.

Dear Ms. Jones,

Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching belligerent and uncooperative teenagers.  Thank you for being unwilling to accept mediocrity.  Thank you for your deep commitment to equity and equality of educational opportunity.  Thank you for never surrendering.

In my junior year of high school my motivation for quality was strictly limited to “good enough for a B” because that was the threshold for my parents leaving me alone.  (I discovered this threshold during my freshman year.)  I had a firmly established policy of putting in the absolute minimum amount of work to get a B, and by my junior year I was seriously testing the line.  To this end my pattern was to quickly write up an essay the night before it was due, turn it out without revision, and see where the grade fell.  I generally had no trouble landing in the acceptable range.  Until I hit your class.

In your class I tried this method and was met with words that changed my world: “You need to rewrite this.  I know you can do better.”  This rocked me to my core.  I’d never had a teacher hold me accountable for my best.  Good enough was always good enough and here you were telling me that I would have to work hard, and that through working hard I would improve.

Reworking that essay forced me to examine my understanding of the purpose of writing assignments.  I was firmly rooted in a fixed mindset that linked my writing ability to doing the least work and earning the highest grade.  I thought my work was excellent because I did well with little effort and you were telling me otherwise.  When you handed back the paper and made me revise it, you reminded me that the lowest acceptable level of work is one’s best work.  You also showed me, in no uncertain terms, what it really means to have high standards.

At the time I thought you were being mean.  I thought you were being a hard grader.  I thought you didn’t like me.  I didn’t realize that your insistence on nothing less than my best came from a place of unending compassion and caring.  I know now that you believe each and every human being capable of deep thinking and excellence.  I know it because you never dumbed things down.  You never lowered your standards.  You never gave in to protestation, and you, without fail, always called out students like myself who were disrespecting your class through mediocre effort.

Ms. Jones: I learned how to work hard in your class and I am forever grateful.  I learned the importance of universal respect in your class.  I learned not to suffer fools.  I cannot, at this moment, name all of the books we read in your class, (I do remember that you called me out for not having read Pride and Prejudice when I tried to skate by on another essay.) but I do remember your presence, your compassion, and your never-ending pursuit of the best in everyone.

Since your class I’ve become a social studies and AVID teacher, including three years at Interlake, and I am now mentoring novice teachers as they begin their work.  Your lessons and beliefs stay with me every day, from the continual demand for excellence, down to the specifics of how to write strong analysis.  Your legacy lives in the students’ who, like myself, are forever bettered as a result of your work.  Thank you.

With eternal gratitude,

Gabriel McCormick class of 2001

PS: No, this letter is not a rough draft.

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.