Growth Mindset: an Essential Tool of Positive Leadership

This past weekend, I was pleased to receive an invitation to help @LeeAraoz prepare for a presentation by sharing my experience with growth mindset. I was asked to post a video on his growth mindset Flipgrid.

Because of a combination of not figuring out how to post my video on his Flipgrid, and the distraction of yet another in a long series of remodeling problems on our home, I missed my opportunity. Given my belief in the importance of a growth mindset, I will share my thoughts, here.

When I first heard the term “growth mindset, I had to stop and think about what it meant. After a little research, I was excited to discover that I have been talking about and teaching the concept for decades. In my leadership consulting practice, I referred to the concept of learning continuously as striving for “relentless improvement.”

I much prefer the more apt and elegant descriptor, “growth mindset.”

I have long believed that this focus on relentless improvement, growth, and learning is an essential tool of positive leadership, whether as a manager or supervisor in a business organization, a principal of a school, or a teacher in the classroom. We must always strive to pry open our minds to growth. We must be willing to challenge our assumptions at any point in time as we work to be better at what we do and produce better outcomes.

Change and growth are an essential part of life for both people and organizations. When the outcomes we produce tell us something is not working, doing nothing is irresponsible. It is a silly analogy, I know, but imagine changing the decorations on a cake but never baking a new cake. Sooner or later you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Someone, many years ago, shared with me the advice of a ski instructor, who said:

“if you are not falling down once in a while, you are not really skiing.”

When we extend ourselves to the cusp of our knowledge and experience, we fall down. It’s what we all do; it is how we learn. The best advice I can give people is “don’t sweat the mistakes we make, celebrate them.”

“Stop complaining,” is another challenge I offer to current or aspiring positive leaders. Complaints are the province of the weak and powerless. When unhappy about some aspect of your life, job, or organization, instead of complaining, offer a better idea or solution. If you do not have a better idea or alternate approach of your own, become a positive advocate for someone else’s proposal for change. If no one has a better idea, put your heads together and discover one.

There will always be a better way if we take the time and teach ourselves how to search for it. Train your mind to push the boundaries of your imagination, to reject complacency, to ask tough questions, and challenge your assumptions. Nothing hampers a growth mindset like complacency and inertia.

My mission in life, for the past decade, has been to stop the failure of disadvantaged kids. These kids are not destined to fail, and they do not struggle because they are incapable of learning, or because they have bad teachers and bad schools. If we listen to these kids, and observe their behavior, it becomes apparent that they are “street smart.” They learn what is important to them and they learn what works for them in their unique environments. The only way to convince them that what we are striving to teach them is important is by convincing them, through our words and actions, that they are important.

Growth mindset is an essential tool of positive leadership.

When disadvantaged kids struggle and fail in school it is because the education process in which their teachers are expected to teach does not allow them to give every student the time, support, and attention they need to overcome their disadvantages. Those disadvantages, un-remediated, leave young people at the mercy of discrimination.

Until teachers give up, themselves, and leave the profession they chose with such high hopes and aspirations, I can assure you they do everything they can to give kids the time and attention they need to learn. The education process in which teachers are expected to work, however,  is not structured to support them in that effort. The education process at work in American schools, both public and private, has become brittle and unresponsive to the changes taking place in the world in which their students must live and teachers must work.

The moment a process, product, service, or idea can no longer be improved is the point at which it becomes obsolete.

That’s why I developed The Hawkins Model©. It offers an education process that has been designed to serve teachers and students as they do their important work, not the other way around. It’s a simple question of “who exists to serve whom?”

Never underestimate your power to influence to the world around you. Cultivate a growth mindset for yourselves and create an environment that fosters relentless growth and learning for the people around you.

To leaders: It’s not about you!

The most important lesson new leaders must learn is that it is no longer about them. A leader’s role is more like that of a teacher whose job it is to help people learn and grow, not catch them doing something wrong. 

Occasionally one does find someone doing something wrong but that says more about the quality of our leadership than about the capabilities of our people. The response must not be to come down hard on them rather to give them more positive attention and affirmation. On the rare occasions where an individual’s behavior is unacceptable, deal with it quickly, efficiently, privately, and with emotional detachment.

A leader’s job is not to show others how smart they are rather to help people learn how smart each of them can be. It is to give them ongoing feedback to help them optimize their talents and abilities, to remove obstacles, and to have their back.

If a leader wants a more effective organization and better performance from his or her staff the solution is to be a better leader.

Ultimately, a leader’s work must be judged  by the success of their people and organization. 

The Primacy of Relationships and the Challenge of Peer Pressure – Part 1

Relationships are everything to human beings, as we have discussed in earlier posts. What we do not spend enough time discussing is the power of peer pressure and how it affects relationships, learning, development, and self-esteem of our students.

All human beings are subject to peer pressure and this is especially true of school-aged children. This was true when I was a kid but, today, that pressure is magnified by the ubiquitous nature of social media. Has it ever been more powerful than it is in present times? We will come back to that thought.

One of my all-time favorite teachers was Mrs. Swartz, my seventh-grade social studies teacher at Johns Hill Junior High School, in Decatur, IL. The fact that I remember so much of what Mrs. Swartz said and taught should illustrate how much of an impact she had on my life. She was my favorite teacher and I truly believed that I was her favorite student. I looked forward to 4th period every single day.

One day she began a period by sending one of the class’s best students to the library for a pre-arranged visit to pick up literature of some kind. As soon as our classmate left the room, Mrs. Swartz drew five lines on the black board. Four of the lines were the same length and one was noticeably shorter. She then proceeded to explain to the class what we would do when our classmate returned from the library. No doubt, some of the teachers reading these words have conducted the same exercise.

Mrs. Swartz explained that the purpose of the exercise was to test the power of peer pressure. She asked us to say yes when asked if the lines were the same length. She also asked us to predict what our classmate would do when it was his turn. Would he report what was obvious to see, that one line was shorter than the others or, would he succumb to peer pressure and go along with his peers?

Because he was one of the smartest and most popular students in our grade, my classmates and I were almost unanimous in our belief that he would say that one line was shorter. We all watched with growing anticipation as Mrs. Swartz worked her way around the classroom and we observed as each kid announced, without a moment’s hesitation, that all five lines were of equal length.

When, finally, it was the turn of the subject of our experiment, we were stunned to hear him say, as did we all, that the lines were of equal length. As we sat in disbelief, our teacher finished her trek around the classroom so that every student had an opportunity to respond.

Taking care not to embarrass our classmate, Mrs. Swartz proceeded to explain peer pressure, noting that it has the power to affect everyone, even one of the most intelligent and independent students in our class. She asked our classmate how he felt during the exercise and he said he was confused when, one after another, we all announced the lines were the same length. He said, “it didn’t make any sense, so I just kept staring at the lines, trying to understand why I was seeing something different than everyone else.”

As she questioned him, he described being pulled in opposite directions. Part of him wanted to say “ we were all crazy and that line number five was clearly shorter than the others. Another part of him felt pressured to go along with the crowd.”

He then laughed and we all laughed with him, but his was loudest of all.

Even in such simple situations, kids feel pressure to conform to the ideas and behavior of their peers and it is this writer’s assertion this has never been truer than it is today. All educators and parents are aware of this pressure but how many formal strategies exist to help protect kids from this incredible force that diverts and distracts them from their priorities? The answer is that very little is done to deal with the power of the peer group.

There is an interesting side note to this story from 1959. It  was not until the next year, when my friends and I were talking about how much we missed having Mrs. Swartz as our social studies teacher, that I was stunned to learn that every single one my friends truly believed that he or she was Mrs. Swartz favorite student. It  made us love and miss her even more.

What if we could give every child a Mrs. Swartz and allow him or her to keep her as their teacher for 3 or even as many as 5 years? What kind of an impact would that have on a child’s emotional and learning development? What if we could help more young people develop a powerful self esteem that would enable them to make sensible decisions and stay focused on their priorities, even in the face of negative peer pressure? Providing such an environment is one of the purposes of The Hawkins Model©.

There is a need for transformational change in public education, but do we have the will?

If you are teacher, do you see anything on the horizon that gives you reason to expect the daily stress you endure will be lessened and the success of students will be assured?

Recent studies have found that American classrooms can place teachers under stress; often debilitating stress. This is not news. Teachers and their most capable leaders have known this for decades. If non teachers would spend just one day in the classroom of a Kindergarten, first, or second grade teacher, with more students with which any one teacher should be required to deal—students with wide disparity in academic preparedness—they would experience real stress; from the first bell to the last, each and every day.

We could say the same thing about the desired academic achievement of students. Every meaningful measure of academic achievement conducted over the past few decades has demonstrated that children of color, with economic disadvantages, and for whom English is a second language, struggle. How we justify ignoring this data for so long is difficult to understand.

Like all the challenges facing public education, stress and low achievement are symptoms of dysfunction and obsolescence; it is systemic.

As a teacher, you cannot change public education in America from your classroom. Just doing your job requires more than most people outside the field of education can imagine. Systemic changes to public education in America, however, cannot happen without your individual and collective advocacy. Your unions and associations can be powerful forces to drive positive change, but it is never enough to register complaints and protests. Instead, be a powerful advocate for a positive, new idea.

If you are a principal, you lack the authority to act unilaterally even if you had a solution yet you, too, can be a positive advocate for change. Seek support from your colleagues and from your professional associations on a state-wide or national scale. Complaints and protest are the tactics of the powerless, however, even for administrators. What we need from principals and administrators is for them to rally around a positive solution to the challenges facing our public schools and urge their districts to act.

Superintendents for school corporations and school districts have a clearly defined responsibility to provide the highest possible quality of education to the children within their district’s boundaries. If you are fortunate to lead an affluent school district with historically high achievement, you may feel confident that a quality education is exactly what each of your students receives. You also know that not all your colleagues and their school corporations are so fortunate.

Teachers, administrators, and school boards have not come forward with an alternative approach that can transform public education in America and neither have policy makers and state legislators. They have not found a solution because they are not looking outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom. And, no, school choice and charter schools are not the answer. Charter schools are a diversion that distracts us from what should be our primary focus. We must find a new, comprehensive, and integrated process that works for every child, whatever their unique requirements, and supports rather than impedes the efforts of every teacher.  We need all educators and public officials to open their minds to the possibility of a better way. Then, we need educators, at every level, to use their individual and collective power as positive advocates to fight for that solution.

Superintendents of community school districts with multiple schools and thousands of students who struggle must become more than just advocates for change. They have an obligation to be powerful, positive leaders in relentless pursuit of success for their kids. These superintendents and school boards know that the teachers of your struggling schools are no less qualified or capable than their colleagues in high performing schools. Further, you know that few if any of the innovative methodologies, technologies or curricula you have employed have made sustainable progress.

Sustainable, transformative change must commence with an acknowledgement that what we have been doing for decades will not work no matter how hard we ask teachers to work or how many new and innovative ideas we employ. Putting new wine in old wineskins will not produce the quality education process that our children, their communities, and our society so desperately need.

In a new book I am working hard to complete, I will introduce an education model designed to produce the outcomes we need. This education model has been crafted to place teachers and students in an environment in which they can thrive and with a process focused on success. You need not wait for my new book, however, to examine the model.

Visit my website at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ and take a look at the model with the hope that, at the very least, you will discover some ideas worth your time and consideration. You may be pleasantly surprised to find an education model and process that will resonate with educators; a process that will make it easier for teachers to teach and for kids to learn. Have no illusions, however, that teaching will be easy. Teaching children is challenging work and this model will not alter that reality. It will, however, make it achievable and remove much of the stress for both teachers and their students.

If you are a superintendent, consider implementing the model in one of your low performing schools. What do you have to lose? Students in those schools have been struggling for years. If you are principal, strive to enlist support from some of you colleagues and present an action plan to your superintendent. If you are a teacher talk about the model with your colleagues and then approach your principals.

Please make time to read the model. Are the struggling students of your schools and community not worth an hour or less of your time?  

Finally, if you are a parent and you like what you read, share it with everyone you know. Proceed as if the lives of your sons and daughters depend on it because, indeed, they do.

Response to [at] stampingout re: Competency Based Education (CBE)

Thank you for taking the time to comment and I appreciate the referral to Jean Robbins’ paper in The Federalist. It has taught me a lesson in semantics because what she is writing about when she refers to competency-based education (CBE) and what I am talking about are two entirely different things. I hope you will take the time to understand the difference because I believe we share the same passion for doing what is best for our nation’s children.

In the interim, I will come up with a new label for the “success-based approach to education” that I envision in the education model I have developed and which is what I have referred to as competency-based education (CBE). I hope you will take the time to review my education model. I believe it will speak to your heart.

The essence of my model is that the teacher and student relationship is an essential variable in the education equation. One of the many flaws in the current education process is that children, beginning at the tender ages of five and six, are not given enough time to form, let alone sustain, a nurturing relationship with a teacher who is going to care about them, deeply, while helping them learn. The acquisition of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life is a daunting process with which they will need patient support.

One of the other essential variables is that kids need time to learn. What we must strive to do is help them experience success in learning because it always leaves us yearning for more. Success is a process, not a destination or even an “A” in a teacher’s grade book. An “A” is nothing more than the equivalent of a “digital badge” to which Robbins refers in her paper. What students must acquire are building blocks of the knowledge, understanding, and skills they will need to build an academic foundation from which they can create a life for themselves.

So much of the focus in the current education process is on failure. We need to distinguish between mistakes and failure. Mistakes are nothing more than disappointing outcomes that can be improved if we are given enough time to learn from them. When a child does poorly on a chapter test, for example, it does not become a failure until we deprive them of the time they need to go back and learn from their mistakes. This is a fatal flaw where the current education process breaks down in the face of the relentless pressure to keep a class on schedule. Teachers do their best to help struggling students keep pace, but the larger the number the more problematic that becomes.

We know learning from mistakes takes longer for some children than it does for others. Yet, when teachers must move kids along to a next lesson, ready or not, it is likely they will never experience the “aha” moment that most of us have had when a lesson clicks in our minds and we understand. Such moments are “successes” that prepare the student for future lessons in a subject area. It is only a matter of time before students who never experience success give up on learning and stop trying.

Not all kids are not headed to the same destinations and they did not start at the same point of embarkation. Students will go to college or to some type of vocational school; others will go directly into the workforce or to the military according to their own interest, demonstrated capabilities, and achievement. Unfortunately, a great many children, particularly the disadvantaged and minorities, fall out along the way and they leave school in possession of few, if any, choices about what to do with their lives.

Yes, many school districts boast a ninety percent graduation rate, but the rates reflect the creativity in finding alternate criteria for graduation qualification on the part of administrators rather than the capabilities of the students. Sadly, few educators, witness the challenges these young men and women face when confronted with real life; when they are bereft of meaningful choices. Graduation rates are not an effective measure of success.

What employers see when these young people enter the job market and what military recruiters see when their candidates fail the ASVAB, echoes what the results of state academic competency exams and NAEP assessments are telling us. Far too many students are not learning the subject matter presented to them well enough that they can utilize it in real life situations. Because we are so quick to point the finger of blame for the results of such testing rather than take the time to understand what they are telling us, we wrongly hold schools and teachers responsible for the performance of their students. Such tests
DO NOT measure the effectiveness of schools and teachers, but THEY DO MEASURE THE SUCCESS OF THE EDUCATION PROCESS with which teachers and schools are expected to work. Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive, but if a process produces bad outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they are, the process is the problem. People can only do what the process allows them to do.

The reality is that the education process does not work for millions of students and this is the real crisis in American education. I wish educators could see how poorly prepared their students are when they are unable to pass a basic assessment of their math and reading skills needed to qualify for a job or pass the ASVAB for enlistment in the Armed Forces. Thirty to thirty-five percent of recent high school graduates and high school seniors are unable to get the minimum score for enlistment eligibility, often after taking the ASVAB up to four times. The percentage of blacks and other minority candidates passing is lower, still. I cannot begin to describe the anguish on the faces of these young men and women when they walk out of a testing room with a piece of paper that says this door is closed to them.

My Motivation to Develop an Education Model that Works for All Kids!

My wife and I have four grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by the eldest of our two daughters and our son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, and golden-brown skin. The second is a little boy, who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law, has skin that is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest two grandchildren are the biological offspring of our youngest daughter and her husband. The eldest (and our third) is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. Our fourth, not yet three years of age, has skin not quite as pale as his big sister’s but hair every bit as red.

These four children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and like all grandparents we love them so much that it hurts.

These kids have magnificent smiles that light up our lives even more than the lights of the holiday season and laughter that warms us during the coldest of times. Such smiles have reminded me that throughout my whole life, whenever I have been blessed to see children smile, I am blind to any of the other features, that for reasons that are difficult to fathom, cause some human beings to pass derisive judgment. For me the smile of any child is a source of incalculable joy that is as common to the shared universal human experience as anything else in life.

I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color produce such extremes of enmity.

I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered to be equal under the Constitution.

In 1951, I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school that was twenty-five percent black. It was at school where I learned to be a friend and playmate with one of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism. Somehow, I never noticed that when I was playing with my black friend that my white friends were off doing something else and vice versa.

When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friend, I was devastated. My black friend and I never played together, after that. At the time I did not understand whereas he probably thought to himself “I should have known better.” This was nothing new in his life. For me, innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.

Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for young children to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All these kids were black, save one. While I was responsible for the boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who came to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised. While my job was to keep them safe and be a mentor, I must confess that these youngsters taught me far more than I ever could have taught them.

For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of nine and seventeen. I also worked with their families. I have vivid memories of sitting at a kitchen table, having a cup of coffee with the mother of a young boy or girl—some white and others black—who was desperate to understand why her child was failing in school and seemed unable to stay out of trouble. “My kid’s not stupid!” they would often say. I had no answer for them, but I agreed that their sons and daughters were not stupid. In fact, their “street smarts” was apparent.

A decade later, I was one of the founding board members of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged, as a volunteer, to be around, play with, and serve a diverse group of children. When in an environment where these children felt safe and received unconditional affection, patience, and affirmation their joy and laughter was contagious. These kids were voracious learners, quick to listen to adults with whom they felt a special connection. They were anxious to soak up whatever lessons their adult leaders might offer. If they struggled with a lesson, they sought the help of their trusted friend.

Often, the adults would scratch their heads and wonder why so many of these children, so full of life and curiosity, were failing in school. I was only beginning to comprehend.

More than a dozen years later, when I decided to relinquish my leadership and organizational-development consulting practice to focus on my life-long dream of writing books, I worked part-time as a substitute teacher for my local public school district. In those high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, I was able to walk in the shoes of public school teachers and observe, first hand, the struggles of so many of these teachers and their students. Once I got over feeling overwhelmed by all that was swirling around me, I began to wonder why these classrooms were so different from the game rooms and playgrounds at the Boys and Girls Club or the churchyard in Philadelphia.

What I learned about children during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids and they can all learn from someone who cares about them if given a fair opportunity. Whatever their backgrounds there are more similarities than differences between them.

They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to warmth and affection with warmth and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents, feel disconnected in many of their classrooms, or when bullied by their peers.

All these boys and girls are capable of learning; they are all curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete in classrooms that never should have become competitive environments in the first place.

They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation. They all deserve the best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of these children fail provides irrefutable evidence that what we are doing does not work for everyone.

Despite the heroic effort of our teachers, it is here, in our elementary schools that we will find the roots of the problems that beleaguer us as a nation and society. Whether we are teachers, administrators, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education, we must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible.

The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. That children are failing is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and black kids and other minorities is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce. Like any other production, service-delivery process, or software application, our education process can be reinvented to produce the outcomes we want and need.

This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is that they are the people in the best position to identify the failure of this flawed educational process, yet they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have learned to perceive themselves as powerless.

Teachers must be challenged to accept that, for professional men and women, powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice.

Grades Based on Age and Focus on Standards and Testing Obscures Purpose!

In the mid-19th century, the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher working with children at varying stages of learning, each pursuing different academic objectives, began giving way to Horace Mann’s vision of an education process. Mann was influenced by the Prussian education model that organized students by grades, based on age.  The Prussian model was designed for organizational efficiency and discipline. Mann’s model and focus remains the process of choice, today, in private, parochial and public schools.

If there is meaningful research to show that this is the best way to structure classrooms and organize students and teachers for learning, I hope someone will share it with me.

In a one-room schoolhouse, a teacher’s priority was to help every child get from where they were upon arrival for their first day of school, to where they needed to be when they left school to embark upon life as an adult citizen. Some students only needed to learn how to read and write; others needed to prepare to find a job or to take over their family’s farm or business; and, some  aspired to go to college to become teachers, doctors, and other professionals. Each student was guided by their inherent abilities, their unique interests, by their own dreams for the future and the dreams of their families, and by a caring teacher.  That teacher’s only purpose was to help each child prepare for whatever future to which he or she aspired.

It is my assertion that the existing education process, to which so many educators are loyal, has obscured that mission and purpose, for generations.

One of the characteristics of organizations, irrespective of venue, is that if leadership is not diligent in remaining focused on and reminding the organization and its people of its core mission or purpose, the process that was created to serve that purpose becomes the entity’s focal point. Over time, that mission or purpose becomes obscured by the clutter of the process. This is what happened when administrators and policy makers  committed to moving students from Kindergarten or first grade to twelfth grade, as a class.

The existing education process requires that “students at each grade level” be able to meet certain criteria before they are deemed ready, as a population, to move on to the next lesson or grade level. The shift in focus from preparing individual students for their unique future to preparing all students of a given age to advance as a group is subtle, but with each school year the degree of separation between the original purpose and the secondary agenda, expands.

When formal academic standards were established, teaching to the standards and meeting their arbitrary time frames grew in importance. No longer were we teaching individual children according to their unique level of academic preparedness or pace and style of learning, rather we were marching to the cadence of the Prussian fondness for order and organizational efficiency. The standards also opened the door for high-stakes testing, that was viewed as a method of assessing the effectiveness of schools and teachers. Not only did we begin teaching to the standards, we began teaching to the tests.

What high-stakes testing measures, however, is not the effectiveness of teachers and schools. It reveals, instead, the ineffectiveness of the education process in helping individual children learn as much as they are able at their own best speed; despite the efforts of public school teachers. Educators must cease viewing the results as an indictment against themselves and use it as evidence to show what they are asked to do does not work for all kids.

Can you imagine a teacher in a one-room school house telling a child, I’m sorry but time is up! I need you to move on to the next lesson, along with your classmates, ready or not?

I’m certain some of you are thinking, “but we don’t teach in one room schoolhouses!” And, of course, you are not. But, “are you teaching kids to prepare for their own unique futures or are you “teaching to the standards” or “teaching to the test?” You need not feel guilty after answering truthfully. Neither should you feel powerless to bring about a transformation.

The appropriate question educators and positive leaders at every level should be asking, is: “has our fundamental mission and purpose changed?”  And: “should mission and purpose be driven by structure and process or should it be the other way around?” It is this author’s assertion that mission and purpose should always drive structure and process and assuring that this is the case is the responsibility of positive leaders.

At one time, holding a student back so they could repeat a grade (be given a second chance to master the subject matter) was not uncommon. Gradually, educators gravitated away from that practice because it was perceived to be the greater of two evils.

A decade ago, writing about this issue in Educational Leadership, Jane L. David[i] wrote, describing the reality in public education:

 

“School systems cannot hold back every student who falls behind; too many would pile up in the lower grades. Moreover, it is expensive to add a year of schooling for a substantial number of students. Therefore, in practice, schools set passing criteria at a level that ensures that most students proceed through the grades at the expected rate.” (March 2008, Volume 65, Number 6).

 

By sacrificing so many children to preserve the process we demonstrate that the process was then and continues to be viewed as more important than our students.

Had “mission and purpose” been driving “structure and process,” educators and policy makers of an earlier time might have asked the question positive leaders should pose, relentlessly, “who exists to serve whom?”

What I have endeavored to create is an education model designed to remain loyal to “mission and purpose” amid the dynamic changes taking place around us. It offers a process that gives educators the freedom and support necessary to: form close, long-term relationships with students; elicit the support of parents; help children experience, celebrate and expect success; shield them from loss of hope that comes with repeated failure: and, to apply leading-edge methodologies, tools, and innovations for the benefit of their students.

Please examine my model at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/

 

[i] Jane L. David is the Director of the Bay Area Research Group

“Street Smart” Translates to Every Other Kind of Smart!

When working with kids, outside of a classroom setting, their level of “street smart” is easy to recognize. What “street smart” tells us is that these kids can learn anything that is important to them. The fact that so many do not learn in school is because it is not important to them. If their families, from their own negative school experiences, do not value education we can be certain child will not. The operative question, therefore, is how do we make learning at school important to all our students?

The key is relationships but given how many people of color and other disadvantaged Americans are suspicious of teachers, especially white teachers, it is not easy to break through. This is particularly true when skeptical parents tell their kids, “don’t let the teachers treat you unfairly” and this is a common occurrence. As a juvenile probation officer almost every mother I spoke with expressed concern about their child being treated fairly at school. What I also discovered was that listening to them works better than talking, and if they feel they are being interrogated, they will clam up quickly. If I was patient and just engaged in a normal dialogue with them, they would become more forthcoming with info about themselves and their families.

For a white teacher with children of color, this is most true and I am confident that most teachers know this. It is so easy when we are busy, however, to revert to interrogation and giving orders. When they begin to learn that you have a genuine interest in hearing what they have to say—hearing their story—they become much more open. Nothing convinces them they are important to you better than paying attention to them.

The way we win the parents over is by winning their kids over. When they start talking to parents about their teacher as being nice, a parent or guardian’s natural curiosity becomes an ally.

Especially early, as teachers work to form relationships with new students, the kids will be quick to pass judgment on their teacher. It is ironic that so many teachers and parents think their children never listen to them. Whether or not they appear to be listening, I can assure you that they hear and see everything you say and do. And, when what you say does not jive with what you do, your integrity is diminished. You won’t know this, unfortunately, until you feel them pulling away from you, emotionally.

It is an oversimplification, I know, but things we wish to teach them in school are not important to them until they become convinced that they, the students, are important to us. I also learned that as suspicious as they may be, they hunger for closeness with adults. They will not open themselves to a teacher, however, until they begin to trust.

In the summer of 1966, in Philadelphia, I supervised a churchyard recreation program. The church sat on the border between the territories of two gangs and our purpose was to offer a sanctuary for kids—no gang recruiters allowed. All I did was play with the kids, ages 8 to 16, and listen to them, rarely offering advice, not that I had much advice to offer at age 20. My goal was to keep them coming and on any given day we would have between 15 to 30 kids on the grounds, some days even more. The only evidence that I was making a personal connection to them as individuals was 1) the fact they came every day, and 2) they began to share more intimate details about their lives.

The summer after my time in Philadelphia, I was in the Army, stationed in Maryland. I went back for a weekend, not knowing whether I would even be remembered. When I walked into the churchyard, the teenagers were aloof, at first, but the young kids charged me and dragged me to the ground. If you have ever been mauled by a litter of puppies, you can appreciate how I felt. Never had I felt more loved than I did wrestling under that pile of kids. The teens quickly came around, as well.

While I choose to believe that teachers care deeply about their students I do not believe enough of them take the time to listen to their students and then demonstrate that they care through their actions. Like anything else, we need to sell them on our commitment to their success. When we have accomplished that, parents become so much more accessible.

One more story, this one from my first year of subbing, and then I will get on with my point.

It had been 36 years since my summer in Philadelphia and almost 25 years from my last day as a probation officer when I subbed for a 3rd grade class. I had only been subbing for a few weeks After the first 20 minutes, I noticed a young black boy was following me around the classroom. When I gave a teacher a questioning glance she said, “he won’t stay in his seat. We can’t get him to listen to or do much of anything.” For the entire day, he was my shadow. He let me help him with his assignments; read to him; and, when we marched to art class, to lunch, or recess, he held my hand. Again, the teachers were astonished and told me he never let anyone get close to him.

I was only at that school for one day. One of the most difficult things about subbing is that you may never see the same kids again and rarely get an opportunity to build on even the smallest foundation of the occasional connections you make. To this day, I am ashamed to say that I did not stay in touch with that little boy, whether as a tutor, or “big brother,” or some other way. My only excuse was that, in addition to dealing with a couple of personal issues at the time, I was a rookie substitute teacher and was feeling overwhelmed by what I was experiencing, every day. I think of that child, often, and wonder how he is doing. He would be in his late twenties by now.

Back when I worked closely with kids I would have responded to this child’s need for affection, instinctively. In that summer in 1966, on Germantown Avenue, and when I began work as a juvenile probation officer a few years later, I learned far more from my kids than they learned from me. The most important lesson of all was that it is all about caring.

Teachers are just people and there are times when all are distracted by personal issues. Somehow, teachers must have sufficient strength of character and relentless commitment to their purpose, however, that they are able to set their personal issues aside when they walk into their school each morning. If you treat each student as if he or she is your number one priority; listen to them empathically and are able to convey through your words and actions that they are special, you gain a tremendous amount of leverage with respect to your ability to influence them in a positive way.

If you have any experience at all you know that you can never let up because they will test you almost every day, to reassure themselves that your concern for them is genuine. This lesson had quite an impact on me as a father and I think the lesson applies to teachers and parents, alike.

“It is every bit as important that we pass the tests our kids give us as it is that they pass the tests we give them.”

How often we pass their tests and demonstrate unconditional love and concern has a profound effect on our ability to make a difference in their lives. It is imperative that we not wait until they are 16 before we begin working to form the kind of connections that, truly, will transform lives. We need to recreate the education process so that its over-riding priority must be to help teachers form close, personal bonds with their students beginning on their first day of school. The structure must be engineered to support this purpose, time must be fully allocated, the ratio of teacher to student must be sufficient, and teachers and students must be allowed to remain together for more than just one school year.

From the first day a 5 or 6-year old child arrives at school, our focus must be to treat each boy and girl as a beautiful, unique child of creation. For some children it will be easy but there are some who will test us, severely. They are the children about whom my grandmother was referring when she told me that the “child who is the hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.”

Their first few weeks of school may the most important period of a child’s academic life. Making certain they feel special and are not being pushed beyond their cusp of knowledge and understanding must be our absolute priority. Thereafter, the education process must be a place where they feel special, where they discover that learning is a process they can master and where their successes are celebrated. The powerful self-esteem that comes from feeling special, combined with the confidence that they can create success for themselves will ensure that they will have choices in life; real choices.

The way our schools and classrooms are structured today and the misguided expectations we place on our students and teachers do not allow us to give our students what they need most. Nothing we can do, incrementally, will be enough. The process must be reinvented to fulfill its purpose. A process exists for no other purpose.

We can create a process that helps us provide our students with a solid foundation upon which they can build a future for themselves. What we discover is “street smart” translates to every other kind of “smart.” If we accomplish this for our students we will have also created a process that provides teachers with the sense of personal and professional fulfillment that comes when we help another human being create a life for themselves,

We have the power to create such a process. Time and children are being wasted while we tinker with this or that. Working together, educators like you and advocates like me have the power to reinvent the education process. All it takes is our imagination, courage, and determination to accept nothing less than the best for our students and nothing less than the best for ourselves.

While writing this post, today, I saw a tweet from and Jimmy Casas, an educator, (@casas_jimmy) who tweeted:

“Let’s not hide behind the standard line “I don’t have time.” We determine what we have time for & what we don’t. When something matters a great deal to us, let’s find a way to make it happen. . . .”

It fit perfectly with the theme of this post. It helps when the structure and process are created to focus on purpose. If our purpose is that all kids learn then the process makes providing that time its priority. The proper response is not “I don’t have time” rather it is “that’s what I’m here for!”

Please take the time to examine my education model at http://bit.ly/2k53li3 not in search of reasons why it cannot or will not work rather looking with hope that it might work. Also check out some of the 150 or more articles posted on my blog.

Brainstorming Session!

How many times throughout your lifetime have you heard other people say “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

The way you are asked to teach your students, today in 2018, is because someone, many decades ago, sat down and designed an education system in a way they thought would make it easy to teach kids. In present times, we continue that tradition of one teacher per classroom of 35 or fewer children.

Now, imagine that you and the other teachers at your school decided to create an opportunity to spend a day brainstorming, without the participation of administrators telling you what you can and cannot do. Imagine that the challenge you were given was to create an education model from scratch that would enable you to do all the things you have always wanted but were unable to do with and for your students. Would it look anything like the education process in which you work today?

Go ahead and try it! Plan a brainstorming session some weekend and see what happens. What do you have to lose?

Like seeds, ideas germinate the easiest when planted in fertile soil so, to kick it off and get everyone in an “exponential-thinking mindset” so you can all think outside the box. Someone told me recently that “think outside the box” has become cliché. The phrase might be cliché but the process of getting outside of one’s frame of reference is an essential tool of creative thinking.

Suggest to your colleagues that they review my education model before arriving for your brainstorming session at https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/ just to get a glimpse of what might exist beyond the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Then, set both my model and “the way you have always done it” aside and have at it. Start with a clean whiteboard and no constraints. There is no such thing as an idea too crazy to consider.

Start by going around the room and asking every participant, one after another, to identify anything and everything they can think of that children need in order to learn. Do not stop until there are no more ideas. Then, work together to try to consolidate and prioritize that list, but do not erase anything. Remember, you want to teach the whole child and even the smallest things might make an enormous difference. Once you have completed this step then start back around and begin to suggest ways you could organize yourselves to ensure that every child has every one of his or her needs, met.

Remind yourself that the existing education process was designed a century ago and things have changed since then; in fact, everything has changed since then, many times over. Educators have experimented with modifications and there have been many innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies over the decades, but the original model is still at work in public schools, as well as private and parochial school, all over the U.S.

The reason these ideas have not proven successful is not because they were bad ideas and not because teachers are incapable. The innovative approaches, tools, and methodologies have been disappointing because we tried to force them into an outmoded and brittle process. As I have written, before, it is like the parable of storing new wine in old wineskins that leak and turn sour the wine we had worked so hard to produce.

Today, you are teaching in an archaic structure and process only because that’s the way we’ve always done it. This would be okay if the way we teach worked for everyone. But, of course, we know it does not.

Some of you might be thinking, “it works in my school” but if there is a single failing grade in even one teacher’s gradebook, then a child has failed. There are many schools where it we be difficult to count all the failing grades that have been recorded in the gradebooks of all the teachers in a given school over the course of a semester.

We have been conditioned to think this is the best we can do and that the responsibility for the failure of children who live in poverty, a disproportionate percentage of whom are also children of color, must be borne by society, not our public schools.

As education reformers and other critics of public education have become more aggressive and are now offering alternatives to traditional public schools, it is only natural that public school teachers have grown defensive. That it is why it is vital that public school teachers, administrators, and policymakers step back and challenge their fundamental assumptions about what they do and why. It is my belief that teachers are in the best position to take responsibility for this process because they are close to the problems. Teachers live with the challenges of teaching every day and they witness the struggles and failure of children.

Consider one last chilling thought. We have noted that educators suggest that it is up to society to address the problems of poverty before teachers can be expected to teach millions of our nation’s disadvantaged students. Guess what? Society has done something to address the issues of poverty that make it so difficult to meet the needs of all our nation’s children; needs that are often extraordinary.

Over the past fifty years, American society has spent trillions of dollars building school buildings in communities all over the U.S. and have staffed them with the most qualified teachers our colleges and universities can produce. Society has been waiting on you, the best teachers we can produce, to find a solution because the American people don’t have a clue. You, America’s teachers—unsung heroes all—are the only Americans who truly understand the needs of the children with whom you work every single day.

America needs each of you to put your heads together and come up with a new way of teaching that will allow every child to learn and be successful in the classroom and that will refuse to let a single child fail. You know better than anyone that your students do not start off from the same point with respect to academic preparedness and with reference to your state’s academic standards; you know that they do not all have supportive parents; you know they do not all learn at the same pace; and you even know that there is no expectation that they will all arrive at the same destination. You also know that they are children and that they need us to like them, to be patient with them, to support them in every conceivable way.

You also know that our nation’s disadvantaged students, are the most vulnerable. They need us to tailor an academic process to their unique requirements and they are also the students who need us the most no matter how challenging it might be to teach them. Remember, the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most.

What you may not have considered is that American society needs these kids every bit as much as they need us. We can no longer afford the enormous cost of caring for a growing population of Americans who lack the academic skills to support themselves and their families. We can no longer afford the incalculable opportunity cost that these generations of children represent if we are to rise to the unprecedented challenges the balance of this Twenty-first Century will present.

Finally, we all need to understand that we cannot legislate an end to the prejudices in the hearts of the American people. Neither can we legislate an end to the resentment, bitterness, and anger in the hearts of Americans who are frustrated that they are asked to pay taxes to support people whom they perceive to be unwilling to support themselves. What we can do, gradually, is to reduce the population of Americans who have become entrapped in a maelstrom of poverty, failure, hopelessness, and powerless; thus, leaving others to find something else to be angry and embittered about.

This is not something that can be done in a day. After all, it takes eighteen years to raise a child and it takes thirteen years in school to help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and understanding they will need to have choices about what to do with their lives to find joy and meaning when they leave high school. They must, also, be able to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy.

Teachers, I urge you not to wait for someone else to fix the problems in our nation’s public schools. And do not forget that education reformers are working hard and spending huge sums of money to take that responsibility away from you. Scariest of all, these reformers haven’t taken the time to understand the real challenges in our public schools and are oblivious to the harm they do. You, our teachers, are the only ones who can stop the reformers and the only way to stop them is to render them irrelevant.

Vignette #4 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, My worst day as a substitute teacher!

Vignette #4 took place in a high school gym class and turned out to be the single worst day of subbing over a ten-year period.

 

In this half day assignment, the gym teacher for whom I would be subbing was still in his office when I arrived. As he explained about the one class I would be handling, he instructed me to take attendance both at the beginning and, again, at the end of the period. He said this was a very large class, approaching sixty students, and the kids would skip out early if I did not pay close attention, particularly since this was the last period of the day. He said the only ones who will receive credit will be the students who are present for both beginning and ending roll calls. The class was fairly equally divided between male and female students and was over fifty percent African-American students, which was also true of the school as a whole. The rest of the students were evenly distributed racially with equal parts white and Hispanic students and with a smattering of Asian students.

Although the students were loud and not all were willing to participate in the planned activity, there were no problems of significance during the bulk of the ninety-minute period. The students who did not wish to participate sat along the wall and talked amongst themselves. The biggest challenge, given the size of the gym and of the class, was keeping tabs on them. In addition to the doors leading out of the gym into one of the interior corridors, there was an unlocked door leading to an outdoor athletic field and a door to an internal storage room for athletic equipment; also unlocked. Anytime my attention was directed elsewhere, one or both of those doors would open.

As instructed, I took attendance at the beginning of class. As we approached the last ten minutes of the period I got the class’s attention and explained Coach _________’s instructions for the end-of-the-period attendance. Of course, the students began complaining that the Coach never took attendance at the end of the class.

I began calling names and attempted to make eye contact with each student as he or she answered. About a quarter of the way down the list, an African-American female student answered in response to the name I called. She was standing directly in front of me, less than ten feet away. A short while later, as I proceeded down the list, this same student answered a second time, when another name was called. I immediately addressed the student, telling her that, as she had responded to two different names, I needed to know who she was and, also, which of the two students whose names I had called was not present.

The student immediately and loudly insisted that she had responded only to her own name. When I repeated that I had clearly observed her responding to both names she began screaming denials at me, coming closer to me as she did so. Within seconds, two other girls, also black, came to her defense and also began yelling at me and, by that time, all three girls were within inches of my face, screaming at the top of their lungs; saliva splashing in my face as they did so. I had been standing against the wall next to the door and I was trapped against the wall.

“Coach ______ doesn’t take attendance at the end of class!” one of the girls yelled. “You’re just doing this because we’re black!” she screamed.

Another of the group screamed that “we all look alike to you white people!” and repeated her friend’s claim that I was just doing this because they were black.

By this time, my heart was racing and my ears were ringing. I could also feel my face turning red as they pressed even closer to me and as I struggled to maintain any semblance of poise. I could also see that other students were taking advantage of my predicament and leaving before the bell had rung.

Striving to keep an even voice, I asked the girls to calm down but there was no recognition that I had spoken and no lessening of their screeching. By that time, my head was pounding. As I felt a sense of panic creep into my throat, I was desperate to create some separation between the three girls and me. At this point, I reached out with both hands and gently took hold of the elbows of the girl directly in front of me to push her away.

As soon as my hands made contact with her, she reacted suddenly and violently, and screamed even louder, “Don’t touch me!” she said, “don’t you ever touch me.” She then pushed both of her hands against my chest and shoved me back against the wall. All three of the girls were now screaming so loud and my ears were ringing so badly that I could understand nothing they were saying.

I kept hoping another teacher would hear the racket and come to my assistance but no one did. Given the distance of the gym from the main hallway, it is entirely possible that no one heard the screaming although I would have thought it could have been heard at the far end of the building.

By the time the bell rang, my whole body was trembling and I was feeling a rage grow inside of me. Fortunately, within seconds after the bell had rung, the three girls were gone. All I could think about was that I didn’t even know the names of the girls who had confronted me. As the last few students streamed out of the gym, I asked if anyone could tell me the names of the three girls but the students just walked faster, avoiding my question.

Fortunately, this was the last period of the day. When the last student had departed I sat down, feeling exhausted, and tried to calm myself. Before leaving for the day, I wrote notes to the gym teacher and to Student Services, explaining what had happened, in detail.

At no time, after leaving the school that afternoon, did I hear from the gym teacher, the principal, or any of the school’s administrators.