No Soloists (an Excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from a speech I gave at Montclair Kimberley Academy’s opening meeting (8/30/21). I’ve touched it up slightly to make it relevant to any group of school colleagues starting their work together. And to you I say, godspeed and good luck!

There are No Soloists: What I Learned from Reading about Pecan Trees in Franklin, North Carolina

Toward the end of the summer, I drove my family to a house that was hanging off the side of a mountain in Franklin, North Carolina. The view of the Smoky Mountains afforded me wonderful perspective – the chance to really take stock of a tough 18 months. 

It also allowed me, finally, to feast on a book that had stared up at my from my coffee table throughout the 20 – 21 school year. 

Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants was everything I hoped it would be. I’m still processing much of it, but I wanted to share some of what I learned about what is called “mast fruiting” and how it happens in pecan trees. 

If you had a pecan tree in your front yard, as I now understand it, it wouldn’t always produce lots of pecans.  Some years, you might have to shake the limbs to find them.  The crop could appear almost dormant. 

And then, at some point, there would be an all-out pecan explosion – a bumper crop – unpredictably. 

I want you to take a moment to think about why this might happen. 

I had you develop your own hypothesis because that’s what a science teacher might do at the start of a lesson. They might try to surface or guess where your natural perceptions of the world might actually get in the way of your understanding of scientific truth.

So here’s where Kimmerer expects us to go wrong if left to our own common sense about the way “mast fruiting” works:

This boom and bust cycle remains a playground of hypotheses for tree physiologists and evolutionary biologists. Forest ecologists hypothesize that mast fruiting is the simple outcome of [an] energetic equation: make fruit only when you can afford it. That makes sense.

Maybe you were close to that . . . and maybe you weren’t.  Maybe you thought that each pecan tree just had to be fiercely individual enough to save up enough materials to produce a glorious yield.

According to Kimmerer, that’s not how it works.  And here’s her big reveal:

If this were true, each tree would fruit on its own schedule, predictable by the size of its reserves of stored starch.  But they don’t.  If one tree fruits, they all fruit — there are no soloists.  Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove; not one grove in the forest, but every grove; all across the country and all across the state.  The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.  Exactly how they do this, we don’t yet know.  But what we see is the power of unity.  What happens to one happens to us all.  We can starve together or feast together.  All flourishing is mutual.

All flourishing is mutual.  The trees need each other to do their best work.  

When I read that last line the first time, it almost made me fall off the mountain I was reading it on. And, yes, it made me think about collaboration among teachers.

When my seniors are responding to a questionnaire this fall, they will be bringing to bear a standard for teaching that they established in someone else’s classroom. When I ask them about SEL in my class, for example, their standard for good teacher-student relationships, for how they hope to be treated, might well have been established in a kindergarten or sixth grade classroom with a completely different teacher.

Or when several more senior colleagues watch a second year math teacher teach and then talk excitedly at the lunch table before heading back into their own classrooms with new energy, they will flourish because that new teacher is flourishing.  

Like the mast fruiting of pecan trees, no one knows exactly how great teaching happens, but we do know that a school is likely to surface bumper crops of learning when its teachers don’t think of themselves as soloists, when they recognize, instead, that all flourishing is mutual. Not one teacher in a department, but the whole department.  Not one department, but a whole division.  Not one division, but a whole school. 

Email Bankruptcy (Elegant and Graceful)

I really can’t stop writing about email. I admit I am likely treating the symptoms of a problem instead of actually digging up — and dealing with — the root. But that’s a project for another day. Today, again, I’m chipping away at the symptoms ailing almost everyone I speak with, deeply, about their work.

I have a repeating, yearly calendar event that simply says “Declare Email Bankruptcy.” The idea is to send an email to lots of people and tell them, “I’m declaring email bankruptcy. Sorry if you emailed me and I didn’t respond. If the problem hasn’t resolved itself or if you need me to see something, please resend.” But every year I consider the reminder and dismiss it. In fact, I have never — not once — followed through on it. Instead, the old emails that I didn’t answer . . . simply become older emails that I don’t answer.

Recently, though, I received an email reply from a very thoughtful friend and colleague. Her opening paragraph is a subtle declaration of email bankruptcy, but it’s so elegant and graceful that I really enjoyed receiving it and had no problem accepting it.

One of (what I thought was low-hanging fruit) goals for the summer was to zero my inbox. I had a pretty long list of emails that I’d wanted to dig into and never did properly. I realize I had a lot from you that I really appreciated and saved, but never even bothered to acknowledge when you sent them…. including this one. So thank you for any inspiration you sent my way that I sat on!

As my students might say, there are good vibes all over a statement like that. I feel appreciated. My colleague and I have a clean slate for our post-summer, start-of-year communication. She likely feels relieved. And one more high performing, hard charging person in my life has finally acknowledged her human limitations. I celebrate, especially, that last part. (Maybe we’re getting closer to the root of the problem, after all…)

#RWArchive Tweets

Lately I’ve been scheduling tweets from the Refreshing Wednesday archive. I pick a random Wednesday in the not-too-distant future, write and schedule the tweet, and move on with my day. I was inspired to start doing this by an automated element in Word Press.

Whenever I publish a new post, click on it, and scroll to the bottom, Word Press shows me three related posts. For example:

I have no idea how the selection criteria works, but it’s a delightful little trail for me to follow. Sometimes it leads to a post I haven’t thought about in a long time. Sometimes what I find is embarrassing in that my thinking has evolved. Sometimes I feel like I’m involved in some kind of connoisseur level navel gazing. And sometimes, the best times, I’m reminded of a person that I wrote about and maybe haven’t been in touch with for a while. (Hello Owen and Drew and DBA and Pearl and Eric and Keri.)

At any rate, I don’t mind this particular human-machine tango. And the tweet that follows is based fully on my judgment of what I find, so I’m still in control. Machine-inflected, maybe, but mostly human still!

Providing Help or Inflicting Help?

Often, you become a school leader (or leader of any kind) because other people notice that you’re good at solving problems. They promote you because you’ve demonstrated ingenuity. You’re more than happy to accept the role because, at the end of the day, solving problems and demonstrating ingenuity makes you feel good.

And then, inevitably, a more seasoned leader helps you to understand that too much of a good thing can actually tip over into negativity. Over time, in the case we’re considering, if you solve people’s problems for them, you don’t help them to build their own problem-solving muscles. You reduce their agency. You take away opportunities for them to develop.

You can actually end up developing yourself, and your own agency, at some cost to those you were originally asked to lead.

Ed Batista has a long history of coaching leaders, and I turn to his blog often. He’s not afraid — and/or he’s well equipped — to dig into the nuances of leadership. Here, he deepens the basic idea I’ve been exploring both in this blog and in my own practice. He’s asking leaders to be radically honest with themselves. That’s not an easy route, but it’s one that leads to the opportunity to make different choices.

Emotion Regulation

It’s essential to understand and regulate the emotions that underlie our helping impulse. Logical analysis can influence our behavior, but our actions inevitably have an emotional dimension, although at times these feelings may lie just beyond our conscious awareness. Comprehending the emotions that motivate our desire to help can allow us to sense when they’re causing us to inflict help, slow down our reflexive helping responses, and create opportunities to make different choices.

We’re driven to diminish our negative emotions and enhance our positive emotions, and helping relationships can trigger powerful feelings on both sides. When we feel the need to help we perceive a problem that we want to alleviate, and its persistence can trigger discomfort, anxiety, anger, and fear. The task here is to gain a greater sense of comfort with our discomfort, to simply notice these feelings and sit with them without being compelled to take action in order to soothe ourselves.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, when we feel the need to help we perceive an opportunity to distinguish ourselves while being of service, and this can trigger excitement, enthusiasm, and even joy. The task here is to calm ourselves in the face of these stimulating emotions, to simply notice these feelings and, again, sit with them without being compelled to take action to maintain this pleasurable state.

As colleagues, friends and family members, we’re asked to help in almost every sphere of life. Leaders and those of us in the helping professions may have even chosen our career path because it allows us to respond to such requests on a consistent basis. But being mindful of the difference between providing help and inflicting it is what allows us to truly make a difference.

Source: Ed Batista’s blog.

Podcasting is Teaching (b/c Everything is Teaching)

This summer, Reshan and I have been developing a theory that can be concisely summarized as “everything is teaching.” With that on my mind, I answered some questions from Thrive Global about my podcast, Inquiry to Insight. The full interview can be found here. But I’m copying below the part where I focused on the ways that, I believe, successful podcasting is just like intentional teaching.

Podcasting is Teaching Excerpt

As I’ve said, any success I have as a podcaster comes from my training as a teacher at a school that takes the training of teachers very seriously — it’s almost like a teaching lab. And, in my own writing and research, I’ve thought a lot about how teaching practices apply to fields outside of education. In fact, at the close of Make Yourself Clear, my last book, co-authored with Dr. Reshan Richards, we wrote a chapter called “Think Like a Teacher.” That invitation holds true for podcasting, as well. Successful podcasts do what successful teaching does, with one caveat. I’m not talking about the kind of teaching that most of us grew up experiencing, wherein a “sage” (teacher) offers lessons on a “stage” (the front of a classroom). I’m talking about teaching that puts the student at the center of the action.

So here goes…

  1. First, successful podcasters, like successful teachers, practice active listening — they don’t listen until they get to speak or enlighten, they listen with the intention of helping the speaker (student) to articulate their understanding and enlightenment. Their job, as listeners, is to show the speaker that they are fully hearing them or to ask questions in order to promote successful discovery and communication.
  2. Second, successful podcasters, like successful teachers, practice preassessment, helping them to understand where their interviewee (student) is situated at the start of the conversation. Preassessment yields information that preps the ground for a successful interaction.
  3. Third, successful podcasters, like successful teachers, use formative assessment. They’re not listening to their interviewees with the intention of judging them or forcing them into a box. Instead, they are listening in order to adjust their own plans, their own questions, their own posture, their own view of the interviewee (student).
  4. They may have an idea about where they want the interview to end up (which is the fourth teaching move, called understanding by design), but they are willing to follow the needs of the interviewee.
  5. Fifth, successful podcasters, like successful teachers, attempt to create an experience for their interviewee that is meaningful, relevant, and personalized. If you’ve ever been in a classroom where those elements were not present, then you understand why they are so important. Your interviewees will engage and share to the extent that the conversation is in service of transformation for all involved rather than a mere transaction. If it feels meaningful to them, and it’s obviously meaningful to you, then together you will make something that could only be created in that particular circumstance — like a great class.

All of these practices — active listening, preassessment, formative assessment, understanding by design, and meaning making — make for a successful classroom or podcast. Podcasting is teaching.

Appropriate Labor

I’ve been dipping in and out of Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It is challenging me in some important ways.

Here’s a typical insight. It comes from this interview with Burkeman but is repeated almost verbatim in the book.

I’m perpetually fighting an email backlog, but I’m more at peace about the inevitability of that than I once was. I try to allot a certain amount of time to going through email, and then at the end of that time, I say, Okay, I labored for an appropriate amount and then move on, instead of holding on to the thought that I might finally get to inbox zero.

Acknowledging both one’s efforts and one’s limits is good for one’s relationship with email, sure. I’d argue that it’s also good for one’s relationship with all work (and probably one’s soul). Squeeze, then release. Focus, then unfocus. Work, then relax. Attend to, then forget, blur, widen, walk the margin. At least for a little while.

This line of thinking-doing reminds me of a quotation from Emerson, illustrated nicely by Austin Kleon.

Outstanding Leadership: USDVA Edition

My father and my uncle served in Vietnam. When they came home and in the years that followed, they never would have received a message like the one below. Honestly, I’m not sure what they would have done with it if it did arrive. It was a different time.

What I love about this particular outreach is that it encourages talking, meaning making, and connection. It acknowledges lived experience. It suggests that distress is “normal.” Last, it offers additional resources. It’s a different time, and leadership responds accordingly.

Dazzle Camo

Reading an old WITI, I came across a beautiful idea: dazzle camouflage. Typically, when we think of camouflage, we think of designs that enable people or machines to blend into an environment, so as to avoid being seen. Dazzle camouflage was developed when being seen was inevitable. Its intended effect was not to hide the object but to confuse the observer of that object.

Here’s an explanation of the origin of the practice.

How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. From the early stages of the war, artists, naturalists and inventors showered the offices of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy with largely impractical suggestions on making ships invisible: Cover them in mirrors, disguise them as giant whales, drape them in canvas to make them look like clouds. Eminent inventor Thomas Edison’s scheme of making a ship appear like an island – with trees, even – was actually put into practice. The S.S. Ockenfels, however, only made it as far as New York Harbor before everyone realized what a bad and impractical idea it was when part of the disguise, a canvas covering, blew away. Though protective coloring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.

[Norman] Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realized that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”

Later in the article, Professor Roy Behrens explains the concept’s efficacy. Apparently, when aiming a torpedo at a submarine, even a small miscalculation could ruin the attempt and save the submarine. Dazzling or confusing the torpedo launcher would be just the cover that a submarine needed. So the idea of dazzle camo was not only beautiful, but also practical.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine