One Continuous Adventure

My posts have slowed down — always do during the school year — but I just found a quotation that summarizes just about all I’ve ever tried to say in my writing about a life in school. H/T to James Clear.

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know.

From Wislawa Szymborska in The Poet and the World 

Beautifully Put Why for Reading

I sent a friend and colleague the quote below. It comes from this article about Lois Lowry.

Though she often reads to understand the past, Lowry has long thought of reading as a way to rehearse for the future. She remembers lying in bed with her mother reading The Yearling and crying when the protagonist’s best friend died. “I was preparing myself for losses I would face later in my life, griefs I would undergo,” she said. 

She wrote back quickly: what a beautifully put why for reading!

The Pedagogical

I’m teaching mythology for the first time in ages, and I stumbled upon this lovely quotation from Joseph Campbell. I’ll leave the unpacking to you.

[That’s] one of the main functions of myth. It’s what I call the pedagogical: to carry a person through the inevitable stages of a lifetime. And these are the same today as they were in the paleolithic caves: as a youngster you’re dependent on parents to teach you what life is, and what your relationship to other people has to be, and so forth; then you give up that dependent to become a self-responsible authority; and, finally, comes the stage of yielding: you realize that the world is in other hands. And the myth tells you what the values are in those stages in terms of the possibilities of your particular society. (32)

Source: An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms

On and Off the Pitch

When considering your organization’s strategies, it is useful to begin at the beginning: what industry are you in?

From there, it becomes possible to define your most direct competitors. That shouldn’t be difficult, and as a result, it might not give you much of a longterm advantage. Perhaps more interesting, and more advantageous, is to seek to identify competitors that your entire industry might not see coming (or might not even see as competitors if they did see them coming). So sure, you’re competing against company or school B and C . . . but it’s also true that you + company / school B + company / school C are all, together, competing against _________. If it wins, then you all lose.

Here’s a nice applied example from Will Page in the August 13 FT Weekend:

Consider the enlightening story of American football team the Atlanta Falcons, who took the bold decision of improving the quality of catering inside their glitzy new stadium while slashing prices. On-the-night spend . . . went up 16 per cent. They identified competition at home — a 72-inch smart television, say — and outside too, in the US culture of tailgating, where sports fans drink beer and barbecue food by the backs of their cars in stadium car parks. The Falcons realised they were competing for attention on and off the pitch.

What’s your industry’s version of the 72-inch smart screen and the culture of tailgating? (One easy answer is that we’re likely all competing against the former in one way or another.)

Faculty Wellbeing: An Opening Exercise

Faculty wellbeing is a focus for us this year at Montclair Kimberley Academy, as it likely is for many schools. Below are the slides we used to structure our division’s first in-service meeting. It helped us to not only set the tone for faculty wellbeing, but also to surface as many ideas as possible. (Such surfacing is optimally possible when people are feeling positive and working with a full tank at the start of a year.)

Feel free to borrow or adapt the slides for your own use. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that teacher health, both mental and physical, should be a global concern.


The first slide is a question, the point of which is to clear space for your faculty to think together about themselves and their community.

The next slide builds off the first. Each sentence stem from the box on the right was written on a giant piece of butcher paper and then placed in the corner of a room. Groups of faculty wrote their answers on the butcher paper and then rotated to a new question.

As they rotated, faculty members both read what others had written (the classic “wisdom walk” concept) and added emphasis.

So, as an administrative team, we now have dozens (and dozens!) of ideas to consider as we build out our wellbeing strategies for the year. I say “strategies” because we’re trying to avoid one-off morale building events. Instead, we want to work on long-term commitments that play out, consistently, over time; we want to tie most actions intended to support wellbeing to larger goals. So, for example, instead of simply hosting a barbecue (which could be a one-off event), we may set a strategic goal of offering seasonal opportunities for the faculty to spend time together in a social and congenial environment.

If you’re approaching the topic of faculty wellbeing from a similar or different angle, I’d love to connect. You can use my contact form or holler at me on Twitter (@sjvalentine).

Uniquely Intentional & Beautifully Effortful

I’m always thrilled to stumble upon a stretch of text wherein someone skillfully notices and explains a deep example of expertise. Here’s one from a recent Pitchfork Review by Gabriel Szatan:

Typically, producer-DJs absconding from the dancefloor will strip out the low end entirely, as if to prove they don’t rely on kick drums as a crutch. The separator on Half Moon Bay is how much Tomu DJ retains. The album’s opening two tracks hover around 130-145 bpm, respectively—very pacy indeed for ostensibly mellow music. Even when tempos decelerate, her downtempo has an uptempo gait. Chatty hi-hats, beat switches, and snare rolls float around like club music’s afterimage, injecting unusual insistency into a field that can sometimes struggle to justify its stasis.

To me, it doesn’t matter that I’m not familiar with the artist about which the critic is writing or the context the critic is providing. What matters is the critic/writer’s precision and the care she takes to wield it in service of presenting an artist in context.

As a teacher and leader, I aspire to be able to articulate to others the precise ways in which they are excelling. That’s one end of good feedback, often neglected, and it’s not easy.

And as a practitioner in a variety of fields and contexts of my own, I appreciate the potent reminder: greatness is uniquely intentional and beautifully effortful.

Teacher-Writing as Innovative Practice

This post features the writing of teachers from several New Jersey area schools. But first, some context:

I recently co-presented a keynote at the NJAIS Innovation Conference. Here’s a write-up from an attendee that offers a summary. After the keynote, I had the chance to run a workshop with a small group of educators interested in learning more about what I call teacher-writing. This presentation has been, as they say, a long time coming. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve been writing about teaching since the very first time I stepped into a classroom (almost 25 years ago), and the two practices, for me, are intimately entwined. I can’t imagine one without the other, the other without the one, and both, for me, are whatever they are because they’ve been commingled.

Here are the slides from my workshop:

The workshop was a mix of instruction, “inside baseball” type insight into the life of a teacher-writer, and actual practice. At the end, I invited the group to share their work with me so that I could share it with you. A few of them did!

Their prompt was to reflect on “great teaching.” I believe that we all benefit from imagining such a thing, from making room for imagining such a thing, and from hearing how others imagine it for themselves.

I’ve introduced each teacher by the name and / or handle that they provided to me, and I listed their school only if they asked me to.

Here’s something from Bill Campbell (@BillCamp) of Dwight-Engelwood School:

Great teaching puts the student at the center of the classroom and requires teacher empathy to understand why the student is there and what they will do with their learning. It also requires teacher vulnerability in showing the ability to learn. 

It is important to understand a student’s motivation for being present, something about how the student learns, and what the student might do with what you have taught. It is also important to be open to learning along with your students. Be authentic and not afraid to show or say that you don’t know something. In fact, you might just use that not knowing as an opportunity to demonstrate your own learning process for your students.

Next up: @kbkennedy7 from the Peck School

A great teacher is passionate about the subject they are teaching and cares deeply about their audience. When I feel this passion for the subject I hope it comes across to my students and that they feel the excitement and curiosity that I do about the topic. The payoff for me is when I see those ah-ha moments and see kids collaborating, thinking, synthesizing their ideas, and growing in their understanding. A great teacher can get kids to see why learning about an area is interesting, important, and helps them to grow as a person.

Passionate teaching has the potential to inspire and change both students and their teachers. Bringing your passion for a subject to a classroom is both easily recognized and different for each educator. For me it means bringing science to life in a meaningful way for my students. I would argue that teachers agree that what they see in their students’ curiosity, creativity, and thinking is a reward that can become intoxicating and inspiring to the teachers themselves.

Next up: Anna Macleod from Villa Walsh Academy.

Great teaching requires teachers to be great learners.

We must always be open to learning more about what we’d like to teach, how best to teach it, how to help our students, etc. We must be willing to learn from our students and to believe that they have knowledge to impart to us — no matter how young and/or inexperienced they may seem.

Yes, work goes into learning the subject matter that you must teach. But the real learning for teachers can only happen in the classroom with students. Ask them to give you the questions they have about the topic. Can you answer them. No? Good. Now is your chance to show students what learning looks like. Learn it together. Get messy. Connect with your students during this process. Now you are a great learner. Now you are becoming a great teacher.

Next is Lauren Kelly (@TeacherWrenK) from Far Hills Country Day School.

The teaching of content is punched and prodded until it fits into a rigid box, created by administrators, faculty gone-by, and writers of textbooks and curriculum packages all over the country. Great teaching, however — really great teaching — breaks through the confines of that rigidity by focusing on a singular idea: all content delivery, and in fact all teaching, should at its core be student-led.

Students are traditionally the learners at desks who are as equally rigid as the created content. Raise their hands, study for their tests, flashcards and homework and sports. Rinse, repeat. We as teachers are desperate to inject innovation and interest into our lessons, and to do so, we must step back and allow students out of their box; we must ask about, listen to, and record the interests of the students. Pop culture and social media, sure, but within the confines of the content, as well.

In Biology, some students love hiking and plants. In Math, some students love money and cost analysis. In English, there is a huge rise in interest in graphic novels and anime. Developing these interests into directionality for our teaching allows teaching to become less mundane and more inviting to students, thus invigorating both the students and the teachers themselves. 

Jonathan A. Martin (he/him) is a 7th Grade Dean and  Middle School Theater Teacher/Director. He chose a different prompt, looking at the wide scale benefits of a theater education.

In Theater, we focus on four main things: creativity, collaboration, compassion, and critical thinking. We believe that all stories have value, including students’ own stories which are being written (and can be told) every day.

In addition to learning the skills needed to tell a story well (projection, diction, posture, and body language), we also spend time developing students’ confidence and comfortability speaking in front of the class. We also build empathy in students by helping them see the value in the stories that others share. By embracing the challenges of public speaking and building empathy, we can teach students to appreciate the value of storytelling while simultaneously improving those essential skills that will benefit them in any future career path. 

One Year from Now

Where do I want my school to be one year from now (June 1, 2023)?

Given that it’s NBA championship time, I’m going to answer that question by reflecting on two legends from the Golden State Warriors and by borrowing some of the language of sports.  If people look around the room during any faculty meeting — and whether they like it or not — they are all teammates to each other.  And sometimes, they are the coaches of one another.  So they are always teammates and sometimes coaches.    

A year from now, I would like for us to be able to say that we found joy in our work by encouraging each other and by noticing what is great or emerging in each other.  In fact, that’s the only way that I know of to consistently find joy in this work.  

So back to basketball and the Golden State Warriors… If you’ve ever listened to audio of Steve Kerr coaching his best player — Steph Curry — you will find that he always tells Curry to keep shooting, even when Curry is missing shots.  And he trusts Curry, even when Curry is taking crazy, circus like shots.  There is never a moment where he allows doubt to creep into his relationship with Curry, in part, I think, because he can’t afford for Curry to doubt himself.  They argue, sure, and they disagree, but the Coach (Kerr) never wants the player (Curry) to doubt his talent.  Not for a second.  All he wants to do is to encourage Curry to be Curry.  And, next June, I’d like to be able to say that more of us treated more of us that way, when called upon to support each other. 

And… as pure teammates, there’s another thing to learn from the GSW.  If you’ve watched the NBA finals, Curry hasn’t been that consistent.  He’s had some rough patches.  And yet his team is still leading the series.  And that’s because other, lesser known players have really stepped up.  These are players that no one in the league saw coming.  And some of the best photos from the games have been photos of Curry looking at these players with great pride and clear joy.  Even when he himself is not having a great game, he is clearly enjoying and appreciating and cheering for the efforts and successes of his teammates.  He’s happy that their talents are on display.  He’s happy that their hard work is paying off.  He’s happy that his team is succeeding, close to winning a championship, even if he himself is having an off day.  

So next June, I want to be able to say that I spent more time encouraging others to be great in the ways that only they can be great and appreciating them for being great in the ways that only they can be great.  Watching them teach a lesson that they can really go deep on, listening to how they construct lessons and wrestle with their craft, overhearing them connecting with a student, seeing them lift up a colleague when they are in need, noticing that they put out fresh flowers at the school’ entrance, and catching all the ways that they tell each other — and me — to keep shooting, no matter how many we’ve clanked off the rim. 

Leadership Analogy

This one’s from the world of composting (and a WITI by Cass Marketos).

In order to make your compost good, you need to be able to get to know it. What do you see? What do you smell? Is the pile crumbly and dry? Is it slimy? These simple and observable features will help you make small adjustments, over time, to what you add and when you turn so that you can work your way toward an ideal pile. 

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately because I’ve been observing classrooms (5 – 8 per week), and I’ve been reminded of the power of getting out from behind my desk (or laptop). The simplest sensory data tells me much of what I need to know about what’s happening in my school and what small adjustments might be necessary, over time.