Drugs Are Illegal. Reform’s Scary. Coffee Fixes the World.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 4.45.17 PMI want to have coffee with a friend. We struggle to squeeze it in.

“How about two Fridays from now?” Why can’t we get our calendars to stop fighting so we can drink coffee? Eventually, one calendar wins. Coffee arrives.

What starts as coffee with a good friend ends as vision. Always does. Soon, note pads, pens, Macs, iPhones and iPads clutter the table, pushing our freakishly healthy foods aside.

Usually when two or more teachers are in the room, venting begins. Bitching even. Everyone opens the valve a little. My husband doesn’t understand this. He wonders why teachers bitch. He hates it. He won’t go to “teacher things.”

“It’s not bitching,” I explain, “It’s ‘looking for solutions.'” Sure, there are People Who Bitch. They’re the ones speaking negatively about others–students, colleagues, and leadership. When good teachers gather, it’s not bitching. It’s seeking answers for real problems. When the fixes are out of reach, there’s frustration. Especially when frustration takes good people down.

“I’ll never go back into the classroom,” I hear it more and more. “I can’t do all this testing and stuff.” People go into leadership, guidance, or whatever because, they say, they’re “done with the classroom.” Others–good people–jump into those roles to save the world, finding windmills to fight on that side of the fence, too.

“This isn’t for me. I’m no good. Didn’t realize it would be this way–I wanted to change lives, not tabulate test scores.” That was roughly the quote I got from someone leaving the profession–literally, box in hand. Midyear.

Good teachers fear tests and evals. Sure, accountability’s in every profession. Can we do it better though? I heard Steve Blank talk at last year’s Business Innovation Factory conference. “Fire the idea, not the person,” he said.

Steve Blank is a pretty smart guy. As one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People in Tech,” he’s not only written textbooks on how startups should be created and grown, he even changed the way the National Science Foundation spends money to align with the systems of successful entrepreneurs–systems he invented.

Anyone who changes the way government spends money has the ear of this lowly teacher.

His thoughts were simple. Sometimes you need to fire the idea, not the person, he said. Run the numbers without blame. Then fix the problems.

Getting rid of judgment helps people be objective and take risks. Risks produce results. Taking risks in education can get a person low scores, though, so there’s fear.

Fear about things real or imagined shuts good people down.

Fear does not produce vision.

Fear is conquered by vision.

Vision, luckily, is found in a cup of coffee with a friend. It pours out our hearts into the vortices swirling throughout the mugs into reality. All the little things mixing and colliding in the swirls…that’s the vision. Every sip, gulp, cup waiting for a sip–vision. Leaving the cup on the counter to go cold is missing the possibilities–so easy to do when rushing around. Steam goes uncaptured into the universe. Vision lost.

But sitting with my friend, vision pushes aside inconsequential girl talk. It says things like, “Sounds like you might consider,” and “That happens to me. I’ve tried…” or “I notice you write a lot about this, but I’d really like to read it if you wrote this…” or “I’d buy that idea…”

Every single time I meet Vision Friend, I leave with a dozen working plans. On a good day, I have pages of notes. On a crazy day, we’ve got blogs, businesses, books, and concepts racing around the room trying to get to the finish line first so we might convert them to reality.

Vision conquers fear. And accountability defeats complacency. Inaction. Inertia. This is why vision needs company. It needs someone to say, “Hey, you told me you were going to….how’s that going?”

Otherwise, we’re tempted to “forget” we promised to do something, and vision dies. Vision often requires courage, support, and the swirly things in a cup of coffee to produce results. Follow-through. Reality.

I know vision’s in the room when my heart leaps just a bit and the notepad comes out. The more I surround myself with friends who make my heart leap just a bit and pages fill on notepad, the better I become. I want to be better. And I want to make other people feel that they are better for having known me.

It’s a simple goal. One I hope I can meet. I think I can, if I have just one more cup of coffee…with my good friend.


My “vision” friend, Alicia, blogs here: WriteSolutions under the tag “Student Learning Is No Accident.”


He Said, “No”

Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 6.08.24 AM

“Is this you following me on this blog?”

“Yes,” I said, nearly one year ago. I’d just started blogging. I got caught setting up a blog with a bad name.

Kamal made me promise to write. For real. He must have thought I spelled enough words correctly to elicit that promise. Promise. What would I write about? Who’d read it? I knew–I’d write about ed reform. I knew education. I set up a meeting with the Commissioner. Soon, I changed my mind. Reform’s contentious…it’d be less painful to stab myself in the eye with a chopstick than to jump into that ring. I like harmony.

“You should blog,” said Kamal.

“Okay. Set me up. I’ll do it.” I agreed. Reluctantly. Who’d read it? Every day?…That wasn’t the point. The point was to keep my promise.  Keeping my promise, I thought, would involve an essay or two. Simple. Blogging was a horse of a different color.

“No, you don’t need me to do that–it’s easy…You can do it yourself…Use WordPress. Take the domain name, too. You may want to do something with it later.” What would I possibly “do later” with a blog no one would read? (Literary folks: enter the element of foreshadowing).

Naming the blog was the challenge. That required me, in some sense, to define who I was and what I wanted to be. Not easy. I’d been institutionalized.

My friend Herb told me never to blog about education. “You’ll get fired. Be careful.” Herb’s practical like that. He’s much smarter than me–I usually listen. But I’d promised. I promised Kamal I would write. I promised Herb I wouldn’t shake the tree too much. I was stacking up promises to everyone but myself.

There were tons of names that were just plain bad. GreenyGal, for example. Maybe I’d write about food-freak stuff and sustainability. “Sounds like you’re sea sick,” my husband, Rusty, said. My friend Slash said “no” a lot, too. Slash sounds like a great name for a copy editor. It’s really a leftover guitar nickname from college.

Frustration. “No, no, no. You can’t do that…” We hear that a lot in life. It usually stops us, doesn’t it? Puts us in a box.

What would I write? Not fiction…not poetry. I stopped writing those long ago. Too serious. Before teaching, I did a lot of historical research…a blog about historical research? Bet that’d go viral…

Finally, I decided. I’d write about everything. If it entered my mind, I’d write about it. Mock it, even. Wittischism. Perfect title. Schism in my mind? Check. Witty? Check. Wit. Schism. Eureka! Turns out, it wasn’t such a good name.

I got caught exactly thirty-two seconds after I pushed the WordPress Button.

“Is that you following my blog?” #$@%*^! tech people–can’t outwit them. I’d done everything quietly, trying to make it a surprise. Truthfully, I was avoiding another “no.”

But WordPress connected me to everyone. It followed my brilliant writer friend Anna and others. And it followed the soul-touching blog Kamal uses from time to time. He doesn’t blog much now that he has two books of his own. If the most recent, Live Your Truth, had been available earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have suffered through some of these lessons quite so harshly. But it wasn’t the lack of the book–it was the blog that got me caught.

“Um…yes?” I could lie. These guys were as magic as Merlin to a tech newbie. They knew everything, developed an app for everything, and had gadgets I couldn’t pronounce. He had an app that saw into my brain. So I told the truth.

“You can’t use that name.”

Apparently you can’t choose blog names that are long, confusing, the public can’t spell, are non-common foreign language words, swears, or have double letters. You should also avoid the vowel “e” when naming your blog on Sunday.

Choosing a name was taking weeks. Frustration built with every “no.”  I should’ve recognized the lesson, delivered in the authentic zen style I knew well from years of study of Japanese sword. Americans expect a direct answer. True learning comes when you are led to, then discover the answers on your own. It’s how I teach. Ironically, I didn’t recognize that I was being taught, even with the lesson two inches from my face.  I wasn’t equipped yet to understand.

If I can’t even name this thing, how will I write? “Listen, do it right, or don’t do it at all,” said the text. I became upset. And out of ideas. He sensed that. The tone softened. “You can have this old blog name I don’t use if you want, but it should really come from you.” Finally, I named the blog. It came from me.

This blog wasn’t just keeping a promise. A year later, I see it wasn’t lessons in SEO or writing. It was a lesson in vision. We get stuck in our boxes.  Sometimes, we never get out. My gift was a friend who knew this, and was willing to power through my objections, because writing had helped him do the same. That literally changed my life. Often people say, “You should,” and the conversation ends right there.

My promise, finally, to myself was to return the favor…in my writing, my teaching, and in seeking out visionaries trying to change the world. It no longer feels like fighting windmills. Now, I’m talking to people who build them, and it feels good. It feels like I can push over the domino that starts a revolution. I’ve seen now, that it’s possible. It’s how I strive to teach–inspiring every student to push that domino.

I stop to think about my friend who cared enough to say “no,” opening up a whole new world of “yes.”  “Yes” is inside of all of us… the only thing stopping me, was me.


[This post is dedicated to, among others, DC, who seeks to open up honest conversations … pick a good name for that blog. If you can’t think of one, “Wittischisms” is available.]

Getting the Bird

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 8.56.06 AMI’m giving an exam. There’s a lot of human suffering–the kind that makes a kid have to go to the bathroom. One girl left to accomplish this task.

“Miss, there’s a bird.”

“Someone gave you the bird?” This is urban education, man. Toughen up.

“No. A bird.” Sure enough, there was a beautiful little bird flitting around the hallway, trying in vain to get out the window. It wasn’t going far, so intent at looking at the view outside, yet stuck in place by a pane of glass. Kinda reminded me of myself at times. I had to help.

I got a large plastic chip bowl–the kind of thing that clutters my classroom that I keep meaning to toss but I think, “hate to waste, maybe it’ll have some use.” Finally. It’s day had come. A colleague walked down the hall, seeing the bird and the chip bowl. “We should call maintenance.” I wasn’t sure how someone who fixes everything that breaks for me (my heroes) and who also bestowed upon my neighbor the Coveted Key To The Bathroom had any more training in bird catching than I did.

“No.” I said. “I got this.” My colleague went to prevent my class from cheating on my exam–a moot point, because they probably finished in the time it took me to get the chip bowl anyway.

Slowly, I snuck up on the little bird. He slipped over to the left, then the right, but not out of reach, and he never left the glass. It seemed to me that if a large, purple chip bowl was coming for me, I’d fly to the ceiling. Maybe he didn’t know that chip bowls and humans can’t fly. He was so intent–staring ahead, banging his head against the very thing that was hurting him–trapping him–holding him back and keeping him from being free. I stood still for a moment, and then slowly…put the bowl behind him a foot away.

“I know I can get out it in a minute…if I just…keep…at it.” So intent at breaking through…bang, bang, bang.

I put the chip bowl down on the glass. For just a moment bird did not move.

“Sorry, little bird…” I’d trapped his foot under the bowl. I picked up the bowl, just a millimeter, releasing his foot. The bird flittered inside. Bang…bang…bang… I had caught the bird. I’ve never caught a bird before. I’ve been given the bird, and once or twice I returned the favor, but I never caught one.

I realized something.

I was stuck.

“Hey!” I called out to my colleague. “I’m stuck. Dump a box and bring me a large piece of cardboard.” The clutter in my room was really starting to pay off. He came back with the bucket I use to clean out my fish tank.

“Not a bucket! Cardboard. I’m going to slip the cardboard under the bowl and make a lid. Then, I’ll take the bird outside.” He came back with someone’s posterboard. Sorry, to whoever’s project that was, but it served a higher purpose. Probably got you an A to begin with, but it saved a life as well.

I took the bird outside.

I released it. Such a simple act. I smiled. I watched the bird fly away. I hope his little foot doesn’t hurt too much.

How many times do we just…keep…at it. How many times do we bang our head against the glass, the wall, anything really, and keep ourselves from getting where we need to be? Probably more than we’re willing to admit.

Thank you, little bird, for the lesson. I hope I’ve helped. If I can ask just one thing in return–can you please tell your friends not to poop on my car? I’d appreciate it.

[image credit: allaboutbirds.org]


Honesty Is Such A Lonely Word

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 8.05.00 AM“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” –Thomas Jefferson

I was reading a message from a friend who wants to improve his product.  I said I’d give my honest opinion. The other day, I looked at a website. I said, “Looks good–news features are solid, a little intellectual for the topic, it’s clean, designs okay.”  It seemed like there was a disconnect I couldn’t put my finger on though.

“Really?” said my friend, “You’re the only one who likes it.” Well, then, either I’m stupid or a renegade. Either could be true.

“Who’s your market?” He told me. The market wasn’t me–it was my students. I knew exactly what needed to be done. I was honest.

Honesty’s tough to get. When you have people who will be honest, it’s gold. Not simply honesty–you can get that anywhere… “Do you think I look fat?” “Yeah, actually, I saw a picture of a cow and thought of you…” “If there’s a dumber person in the universe, I haven’t met him.” Not that kind of honesty–honesty with love.

Honesty’s no good unless it comes from place in the heart and soul that makes you want to be a better human being, even while you’re having the tough conversations.

I’ve learned volumes about honesly. I was setting up this blog. None of the names worked. My friend Kamal, the author, was helping–he’s plays the “no BS card” well, so he often gets veto power somewhere in the process. It goes like this:

“I was thinking of doing…”

“No, that won’t work.”

“Oh.” Repeat convo ten times. I used to get frustrated–nearly gave up on this blog.

If you’re not going to do this right, don’t bother doing it. Quit right now!” Doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. I set up a template under cover of darkness, so I wouldn’t be caught and told “no.” I’d get it running and surprise him. Truth was, my ego was bruised. Didn’t want to hear “no” again. Even if he was right.

“Is that you following me on WordPress?” How did he catch me? “You can’t call it that. “Wittischism?” That’s no good.”

Too clever. You can’t use words no one knows. NO ONE can spell that. Don’t use double letters. Short as possible. Try again.

The arrows flew. I hung my head and slunk away. Eventually, I succeeded. I love where I am today. Honesty with love…it’s magic.

Anyone can be a critic. But “honesty with love” means you want that person to succeed. “What do you really think of this?” When I am open to that conversation, I leave the table a much better person. My work is better. I am better. I am excited to improve. It’s game changing.

We are trying to do this in education. We’re not there yet. We’re in a very destructive place. We’ve set up a system intended to open the doors to feedback and dialogue, but made it so high-stakes and data-oriented, that it’s become “subjective honesty with fear” instead of “honesty with love.”

This year, I was afraid–terrified. Bad evals based on rubric checkboxes, coming up short on goals I wasn’t quite sure how to design…I was depressed. My husband told me I needed professional help. And that I was forbidden to talk about education at home anymore. Instead of getting help, I planted vegetables. There’s no copay involved and I can eat them.

The Right Kind of Feedback Matters

The Right Kind of Feedback Matters

We can solve issues in education by using “feedback with love.” Include the voice of the students, and do the hardest thing of all–set our own egos aside, and be willing to really listen and handle the truth.

When I look at someone’s manuscript, blog, or product, I know if I say, “Yeah, it’s good,” and it’s not, they suffer down the road–their product won’t be useful and it won’t sell. All because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s how it must be in education–groups of straightforward people inspiring each other to greatness. Right now, I do this with EdCamps and Twitter chats like #satchat and #edchatri,  We can do better. The technology’s there.

If we get this right in education, the paradigm shifts. Recognize everyone’s talent and promote feedback by taking away certification-ending fear. Everyone needs growth and we’re all experts in Our Thing. Put the politics aside and say, “It would be helpful if you’d…” or “Let’s try…” Game changing.

Can we think outside the box on this one?

Can we think outside the box on this one?

When fear, not love, is present, we shrivel up. Instead of seeking out others to exchange ideas, we sink further into our shell. It’s what’s happening now. It’s a place we don’t want to be.

Education needs “honesty with love.”  I asked my friend to tell me how he knows he’s a good doctor. People still get sick and injured. He’s the best. He knows. Even without a rubric.

Here’s the key: Hire good people. Treat them like they’re gold. As a business owner, this is critical. Because of this, we saw growth off the charts in one of the worst economies. We trust our stars to do their jobs with integrity and enthusiasm. The results don’t lie.

Loosening up the reins isn’t easy, but it’s the highest form of leadership. Nothing makes me work harder than when a visionary high-fives me. Nothing stifles my spirit more than micromanagement and fear. Let’s get out of the fear zone and into the vision zone in every area of our lives. It makes all the difference.

I can do better. We can do better, with a lot less effort–using honestly, openness, and feedback with love. Our results won’t lie either.

[images: dailyvowelmovement.com, ibikeburlington.com, thislifeasiloveit.blogspot.com]

Breaking Up the Band

guitar tabWe were playing guitar, last night. My husband is a classically trained guitarist. I’m an untrained disaster. It’s a perfect combination. Sort of like The Monkees, who I loved growing up. One musician and a cute front man. I’m the cute front man. I can strum, play my three country-folk music chords, and if I see a chord I don’t like, I skip it…

“Oh, that’s a B-minor-seventh-diminished-trampled-tenth,” he’ll say. “Simple.” If a chord sounds too much like math, it’s out. There’s a reason I don’t teach math.

Actually, music is a great way of disguising math. I learned this when I was flunking out of music school. I’d lock myself in a practice room, which reminded me like a cross between an old phone booth and a padded room–with my borrowed clarinet–I wasn’t even good enough to own my own–and I’d play the same scales and arpeggios–wrong generally–over and over and over, changing key, adding one sharp here, one flat there–never really being able to solidly read the music, just listening and memorizing as I went. Eventually, I started feeling like I was in calculus class. And I left.

But not before they kicked me out.

I always loved guitar. It gave me creativity. I didn’t need to have great skill or read music. Half the famous pop musicians don’t. I can write songs. Simple ones that make fun of things. When Coach wouldn’t play me–I usually played left-bench or left-out, I wrote “The Benchwarmer’s Blues.” I wrote diddies about people annoying me, things that were wrong, social injustice. It felt good. I used to play a lot, but life got in the way. I wasn’t going to be famous anyway–YouTube hadn’t been invented.

I remember the first time I played with my now husband.

“It’s not written like that,” he said. We were playing John Denver. I love John Denver. I have all his records.

“Oh, I don’t care.” I strummed loudly and sang.

“Can’t you see that rest?” said Rusty, a little more emphatically.

“Yes. There’s no rest on the record.” I had three versions.


“Music is joy! You are sucking away my joy!” I stomped away as only an artist can do. Except I am not an artist. I’m really pretty bad. Rusty is classically trained. He’s so good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to Prestigious Music School, except that no one in guidance told him about it, even knowing that he was signing Army papers before the “surprise reveal” at high school graduation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.20.32 AMI picture him as one of my students, standing there, dumbfounded, knowing he would have had that choice–a full music scholarship to an amazing place. Maybe he would have chosen the Army, maybe not–but that choice was taken away due adults who didn’t have that vision for him. I picture him standing at graduation with a sinking feeling, knowing music scholarship was dead because his military papers had all been signed. Knowing that the adults in his life made judgments about him and never envisioned him reaching the stars.

I try never to be one of those adults when I teach. Education is about vision. It’s about knowing the full range of possibilities that each student has in front of him or her, and giving the skill set and mentorship to make that happen. It is individual. It’s not standard. Lately, standardization is taking over, giving me less time to be the visionary. Seems it’s more about testing, goals, and benchmarks than looking at that kid and saying, “Hey, you got a music scholarship. Go. Be great!”

When I get discouraged, I think of Rusty. I look at the student in front of me, and I say, “What’s your plan?” And we tweak that idea, adding on hefty layers of time-based action plan to the pile until it’s quite a lot of work, and the students says, “Wow. I never thought I could be that!” You can. That’s the entire point of education, not whether they passed tests or I got a great score on my teacher evaluation rubric. It’s creating vision. Relationships. Continuing the mentoring even after graduation, because that’s when the lessons ACTUALLY set in. “Do…great…things.” Don’t reach for the stars–own them.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.23.52 AMLast night we sat down and played some Creed and Ozzy. It was fun.

“You can’t play that like that–see, only two strums.”

“Where do you see that?” I said

“It’s right there.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I can’t read it anyway. I have it on my iTunes.”

Deja vous.

In case you’re wondering about the end of the story, Rusty turned out okay–visionary even. After an amazing military experience, he went on to be quite the entrepreneur, transforming fitness in the region, with iLoveKickboxing.com. Maybe they should have offered him a business scholarship instead. Turns out, he wouldn’t have needed it. He needed a vision, and to reach for–and own the stars. He’s done both. And if you asked him, he’d say it wasn’t school that prepared him–it was life and hard work, and having the best people around him, people who also had vision and the desire to own the stars. That’s the entire secret.

I’ll remind my students before graduation.

But today, I’m going to skip some chords and sing loudly, even if it doesn’t say that in the score.

[images: ccsf.edu and jasobrecht.com]