Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Breakfast Club

My school district's administration has experienced a fair amount of turnover lately. As each position is filled, we are made more aware of the fact that there are jobs, there are people, and there is way these elements fit together. That last aspect can be the most important of all, and requires the search committee to actually do much more than find the most qualified candidate for each position.

Since our administrators do tend to refer to themselves as a "team," I guess it's time for a sports analogy.

No it's not. Would it be that a small guard isn't able to take the place of a wingback? Is it a question of mid-fielders making bad floating half-nelsons? Does it all come down to beaters not generally being nimble enough to function as seekers? I have no idea (except for that last one, of course). Clearly I don't know enough about sports to do it this way, and I'm not going to take the time to find out. Remember, one of the goals of your Slacker is to do this whole thing without having to look anything up. If you want my one and only sports analogy, see: here.

Instead, we'll use an '80s John Hughes film. I could have done the same thing using The Princes Bride, The Simpsons, or Pulp Fiction. Perhaps I will do so in some future post, but for now here is our cast of characters:

The Princess - He or she is attractive, well-groomed, charming,  and dripping with social skills. Look for expensive haircuts, well-fitting suits, and a mouthful of flashy teeth. Ideas come to this person like the air itself, and he/she can regularly charm others into moving on these ideas before any thought has actually been applied. You'll feel really good while talking to this person, and then upon leaving his/her office discover that you've been screwed with your pants on. He/she was probably effective in the classroom, or at least appeared effective--based on the slavish devotion of students, particularly of the opposite (or gay students of the same) gender. Still, there is no question of how this person ended up in administration. Expect promotion through the ranks to the level of his/her incompetence.   

The Brain - School districts are complicated. Someone in charge should be capable of sweating the details, and interested in doing so. As a principal, this person manages the impossibly difficult tasks, like creating testing schedules and determining where each class meets. Like the prom/wedding table thing (see also:here), people of average intelligence and attention span have great difficulty with tasks like making sure that each room has only one class in it, contains only students who registered for that class, and doesn't meet last period in the fall when the teacher is almost always away with the golf team--not just a pretty good average on this stuff, based on the law of large numbers, but entirely correct. He/she may end up as your director of finance, or in charge of curriculum and instruction, but it is important that he/she have enough power to insert a dose of reality into the Big Ideas brought forth by the Princess and some of the others.

  The Athlete - Big and beefy, tall and lean, or tight and compact (depending on the sport that spawned the individual model), he/she possesses a wide smile and perhaps only average smarts. Might have had a professional sports career, except for that knee injury (possibly incurred by falling down the steps at the big frat party). You won't see any visible tattoos, but there may be Greek letters (or the name of an ex-girlfriend--note: no gender-neutral adjustment needed on that one) on his/her butt. The tattoo could also be on a calf muscle that is still too large to accommodate proper dress socks. He/she is only serving as assistant principal on a path toward athletic director. That's okay, the world needs athletic directors, and in the meantime he/she can get some real work done in terms of student discipline and morale--items that the others are too pretty or too otherwise-occupied to stay interested in.  

The Basket Case - You don't think you need this person, but you're wrong. Side note: don't think that she has spent her life waiting for The Princess to come along and put lipstick and a headband on her to let her know how pretty she is--Allison Reynolds was lots hotter before her makeover, and I'm certain that she went back to normal the next day. But I digress. This person was an art teacher, or perhaps something in special ed, and got principal certification for a reason no one can really figure out. Whatever it was, it's a good thing because he/she brings a very different skill set and thought process along. Most importantly, he/she can serve as a liaison to all of the freaks in the school--teachers and students--and make sure that they stay on the rails. Not to be overly dramatic, but this can literally save lives in the most difficult cases.  

The Criminal - This person may have been an abysmal teacher, but sometimes finds his/her stride in administration. He/she can be invaluable as a disciplinarian because having done every bad thing imaginable provides insights into the motivations of these behaviors as well as the methods of hiding them that worked best. Again, how he/she ended up with a principal certificate is something of a mystery--you'll wonder if there was an element of blackmail or other nefarious influence involved. Like the Basket Case, he/she brings a distinct advantage in interactions with certain demographics that can be most valuable. Do be careful, though, that he/she doesn't rise too far in the ranks. Reform is possible and should be celebrated when it happens, but too much power for this one may not be a great idea. 

The Principal - Not really a member of the Club, but let's not forget that it is sometimes important to have an adult in the room--even if he is a "Dick." Having to pass your ideas through someone who clearly has no patience for you can help to sharpen your argument and burn off all intellectual chaff and impurities. Also, keep in mind that Mr. Vernon spent his Saturdays at the school, attempting to keep the whole disciplinary system functioning. He's a villain for sure, but as one ages as an educator, he becomes a slightly more sympathetic one.

First Corinthians, chapter 12 has that whole bit about each part of the body having its job to do, and that a body made entirely of noses wouldn't function very well at all. An administration made up of too many of any of the above types cannot function. Too many Princesses can become an echo chamber for increasingly bizarre ideas. Too many Brains, and there will be no one there when someone needs to address a large group of people and stir them into action. Someone needs to interact with the students, someone needs make the trains run on time, someone needs to have a vision, and someone needs the ability to communicate that vision. Each type has deficits, and the proper mix will allow each of them to fill in where another isn't so strong.

Of course, no one is a perfect example of any of the types listed; each is some combination of these types and no type at all. One could rebut my thesis in the words used at the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT!) in Brian's essay "You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...and an athlete...and a basket case..."

Still, to simply pick the very best individual, ignoring the universe he/she will inhabit, is a mistake. As any casting director will tell you, the interaction of the characters can be as important as the skills of the actors themselves. In anything beyond a fourth grade school play, the director looks beyond the actor's ability to read the lines properly--even convincingly--and tries to put an ensemble together that is more engaging and believable than any of them would be alone. A person who is perfect for a position on one team may not do so well on another. It may not be entirely fair to incorporate these factors when viewed from the candidate's perspective. It is, however, crucial to the entire operation that it not be headed by an entire team full of quarterbacks.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Writing a novel isn't that hard. This is the theory, at least, behind the National Novel Writing Month--a program successful enough that a good many people know what you mean when you say "NaNoWriMo." Putting a word like that into the language must endow its creator with a real sense of pride.

The premise of NaNoWriMo is that you don't need to quit your job to be a novelist. You don't need a particularly fancy computer, or to be an English major, or wear special clothes, or drink special coffee (or bourbon) to be a novelist. You needn't be on anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-psychotic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-ballistic medications to be a novelist. The only thing you need is to carve enough time out of your life to type out 50,000 words, or so.

Even though I clearly failed in this effort, I did write 19,541 words of a novel in November, which is precisely 19,541 words more of this novel than I have any other month. In fact, months later, 19,541 is still the count. In my defense, I do have a little baby in my life, and did take a graduate school class in that time, but the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is that no one has the time to do this. You just do it anyway.

While I didn't "win" in NaNoWriMo parlance by getting to 50,000 words (they don't seem to care if you just type "kill Flanders" a whole lot at the end, so winning really is an achievable goal), I did learn some things in the process that I think are worth mentioning.
  1. Writing a novel isn't that hard - This bears repeating, in part because most of us assume otherwise. We may be confusing writing a novel, which isn't hard and isn't especially rare, with making money from a novel, which certainly is. For me, it was simply a matter of thinking up a premise, inventing a character (somewhat autobiographical, so as to skimp on any kind of research), and following where he goes. 
  2. Writing a novel is probably easier for Slackers - The idea is to write a first draft of a novel, not to end up with anything polished. Much of what I wrote was terrible. Much of what I wrote will be deleted, but my goal was to spend all of the time allotted to writing engaged in typing. When I encountered a point in the story where I needed to make a decision, I just picked something. When I wrote myself into a corner, I just started somewhere else. I wasn't even aiming for 50,000 words--I was hoping for 40,000, or a B-.
  3. Writing a novel in a short amount of time helps - Another brilliant aspect of the NaNoWriMo concept is, in the words of Duke Ellington, "I don't need time, I need a deadline." I've written about deadlines before (see also: here) but the most helpful aspect with this program is the idea that you won't still be living this lifestyle on the first of December. Forgoing Facebook (which I did, somewhat), Twitter (which I did, somewhat), and housework (which I excelled in, let me just say) is hard, but less so if you know it's only temporary.
  4. Writing a novel can provide more self-discovery than a journal - I'm a terrible journal writer. I have a dozen or more journals dotted around my life that have two or three entries each. In fact, lots of people are like this as well--do a random search of Blogger and see how many entries begin with "I haven't written in a while." I haven't yet read what I wrote in November, but I do know that the things my character faced, and what he did in the face of those things, will tell me something about my true self--at least the one that existed in November. Looking inward in the process of ostensibly doing something else can yield a more honest assessment than setting out to do self-examination. I recently heard a piece on dreaming that explained that our minds are doing much the same thing throughout the night.
Which brings me to the lame excuse portion of this post. Why didn't I win NaNoWriMo? Why didn't I even meet my own depreciated goal? Why is the word-count still stuck at 19,541?

I think part of it is that November isn't such a good month for this--at least for me. For example, I think  Thanksgiving break is meant to be a helpful chunk of time towards the end of the month in which to do a final push. It probably is for young, hip people who are sitting on long flights home, and then trying to fill time between coffee dates with old friends in the morning, and get-togethers at bars with old friends in the evenings. My Thanksgiving break involves cooking a turkey, and then preparing a house--as well as later recovering a house--where that turkey to be eaten. I also needed to do a concert program, and final rehearsals, and a few other things to keep my job(s) at the end of November.

More generally, though, I think it tells me something about the power and limitations of goal-setting, particularly for Slackers. Specifically, I blame the little graphic above, and my relationship with it throughout the month. As you can see, assuming your eyesight is pretty good, and/or you're not reading this on your iPhone, I started off pretty well. In fact, given that I started a few days late, I started off really well. Then, things bogged down. Each leveled-off spot on the graph represents a day that I didn't do any writing. That meant that even if the days I did write were "on pace," I realized I was never going to make it. NaNoWriMo provides additional statistics, like how many words per day you're doing, how many needed to finish, and when you'll finish at your current pace. Each passing day, those numbers got worse and as things got worse, I apparently gave up.

I'm watching lots of my friends and colleagues get master's degrees these days; others seem to be undertaking serious weight-loss programs; still others preparing for grueling physical challenges (triathlons, marathons, mud runs, etc.). Each of these endeavors seems to have parallels to NaNoWriMo, except that success could possibly actually get you somewhere. Watching the various strategies to these large tasks is interesting, and I'm curious to see how each works out. Some post regular updates on their progress to Facebook, while others are very quiet unless you ask a direct question. Some have given themselves hard deadlines, others seem to put their heads down and don't look too far toward the horizon. Perhaps some have quietly given up, and I haven't noticed yet.

One day last summer I let MapMyRide know that I was riding my bike around the neighborhood so that I could use it to keep track of the miles I'd ridden, and the calories I could then indulge (one Hop Wallop = about five miles, in case you're wondering). Over the winter I've gotten increasingly desperate emails from them that started with "Sean, why aren't you tracking your miles?" and have progressed to "Sean, are you okay?" and most recently "Sean, why have you descended into this spiral of self-loathing?!?"

I don't know if things would have gone better if I'd let MapMyRide announce to all of my friends what I was up to. I don't know if writing in a virtual community (or a real community--NaNoWriMo hosts writing marathons at the coffee shop one town away) would be helpful. I do know that the ways in which they set, tracked, encouraged, and generally participated in my goal was very helpful. Or it wasn't. Figuring out which may be an important ingredient in the next big goal.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

You're Doing It Wrong

I knew a whole lot about teaching before I'd ever tried it. Like most students, I was fairly good at observing a teacher and figuring out what he was doing wrong. I could discern the precise moment the lesson went off track. I clucked my tongue as a teacher tied herself into knots explaining a complex topic. I sighed as the entertainment factor began serving as a distraction rather than a motivator. I shook my head as I noticed that he was riffing on a topic on which he wasn't entirely confident. I made the logical leap to the assumption that if I could see these problems, I could certainly do better.

To gauge your own potential for this, try this little quiz:
  1. Do you sometimes ask the teacher questions to which you already know the answer, in hopes that this will refocus the lesson and/or enlighten others in your class?
  2.  Do you sometimes remind the teacher of an assignment that is due, careful not to tip off others to what you're doing?--"So, I was taking my dog, Stoichiometry, to the vet the other day..."
  3. Do you have a collection of topics that are more-or-less guaranteed to get the teacher off on a tangent, rant, or pointless story.--"Do you have a daughter? Does she play the violin?"
  4. Do you sometimes steer discussion topics (ala #3) in an attempt to distract the teacher from collecting an assignment that you haven't done?
  5. Is there someone in your class with whom you tag-team to utilize these methods? Have the two of you found that your running commentary is especially enjoyable and rewarding with this person as your audience of one?
If you answered yes to all five questions, you may already be an education major.

Speaking of education majors, I have somehow become a fairly regular student teaching co-op--which means I've kinda gone pro with this whole critique thing. It's a good gig for me, as I have lots of opinions about teaching and stuff--75,000 words worth of Slacker Guide posts may have clued you in to that--and these people are pretty much forced to listen to me. Through this work, I have seen that for many, student teaching is the first time they are confronted with the divide between what improvement potential one can see in others, and what can actually be accomplished in themselves.

Here's the thing: It is much easier to notice that something is wrong than to correctly diagnose what that something is. It is much, much easier to diagnose something than it is to devise a proper course of action. It is much, much, much easier to devise the proper course than to actually follow through on that forever. A friend who also frequently serves as a cooperating teacher says, "I can make them better than I am, because I can make them do the things I would do if I were willing." For me, I too often say,  "I don't actually do it this way, but you should try to...."

You may have stopped reading this by now if you are one of those rare eccentrics who has always seen teaching as a science, an art, and a difficult profession. Perhaps you are among the majority of people who fear speaking (glossophobia) in public more than death (necrophobia). Perhaps you've never begrudged any teacher his fancy wardrobe from Kohl's, ten-year-old Honda, daily access to Maxwell House Select French Roast, or carefree summers of part-time jobs and grad school. Even so, I hope you're still with me, because once you discover this whole thing about the limits of criticism you'll see it in other aspects of life as well.

Like government and politics--and not just the class Government & Politics but, like, the actual thing.

The GOP has discovered our little trick here, and has shifted strategy accordingly. Their most common method these days is simply shooting down others' ideas, rather than devising any of their own (for an awesome rant on this, see also: here). One example is that we've seen thirty-six attempts to repeal Obamacare (at a cost of $50 million). At one point, they were advocating what they called "Repeal and Replace." Apparently that was way too difficult, as they have more recently settled for "Repeal and ..."

The fact is, the Affordable Care Act is a mess, as all things produced through compromise tend to be. It is, however, a fixable mess.

That is, if fixing it were actually the goal. Unfortunately, it's not anymore. As a result, they can't even do things that a vast majority of Americans find it to be fairly sensible, if a small but vocal minority says no. Instead, things only seem to function when members of congress may not be able to fly home on the weekend. The goal is no longer to do stuff, it is to win.

I hate to put it this way, but it all comes down to "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours." This sacred covenant is built on the foundation of mutually assured humiliation. It is a contract in which both sides accept some vulnerability in exchange for something. If one side reneges on the bargain, that side wins by virtue of having the solitary means of critique, criticism, and shaming. Democrats have been whipping out their ideas for a decade now, and keep meeting with the same outcome. We can't even accomplish anything when we basically start with their ideas, like chained CPI, banning assault weapons, and ruining education.

Half of our major political parties is now a group of kids sniggering in the back of the class, critiquing the efforts of the poor guy standing up there doing his little dance. So far, this method has been fairly profitable and successful; thus, they seem truly committed to the effort. However, trying to run a country with half of its brain tied behind its back is clearly not working. Tell us what you really want to cut from the budget, how you would actually fix the healthcare problems, and how you're going to improve the financial world as experienced by the majority of Americans. Then we'll tell you how wrong you are.