Book Report: Lean In

A few months ago, the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg caught my eye at Target.  I had never heard of her.  I didn’t know anything about this book.  But the title intrigued me, and the book jacket description intrigued me more.  It stayed in the back of my mind for awhile.

A few days ago, I finally bought the book.  I had watched Ms. Sandberg’s TEDTalk, and I could wait no longer.  I knew I would have to intentionally read Lean In through a filter of “I’m NOT in business.  The culture of a school is certainly very different from the culture of an organization whose objective is to make a profit.  How can I apply this to my own career?”  Throughout the book there is an underlying current about women in workplaces surrounded by men.  As I’m sure you would expect, elementary education is the opposite of that.  Women dominate both the teaching staff and the administration in my school district.  I wanted to read Ms. Sandberg’s story, but my question was…  Does gender really affect my workplace experience in any way that is worth addressing?  Ms. Sandberg made a few excellent points that are, in fact, relevant to my experience.

You are in charge.  Don’t wait for opportunities to find you.  Don’t wait for the perfect time.  Your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder, and you can climb whichever direction you choose.

Don’t leave before you leave.  Don’t take action based on children you don’t yet have, for example.  Take a break when it’s time to take a break, not in anticipation of needing a break.

The work-life balance is an important concept, but a bad name.  Who would choose work over life?  Instead, we should remember that engaging in purposeful, compelling work is an important and satisfying part of life.  I especially loved a story Ms. Sandberg told to illustrate the challenge of setting boundaries and sticking to them.  There were two married women with children and one single woman on a panel of speakers.  The married women were discussing how hard it was to balance their lives, and the single woman interjected that she was tired of people thinking that issue was only for people with kids.  The single woman’s need to go to a party is just as important as the married woman’s need to attend her child’s soccer game.  You have every right to a full life, whether married or single, parent or childless.  The kicker is, you have to set your own boundaries.  Your employer is going to continue to make demands on your time.  It’s your responsibility to decide what you are willing to do.


Book Report: The Power of Habit

If motivation is responsible for what we do intentionally, then habit is its partner.  Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business.  Habit is responsible for what we do without thinking or making a conscious choice.  The first time we do something, like maybe starting the coffee pot first thing in the morning, we do it on purpose.  And if we do it again the next day, it’s a tiny bit easier.  Eventually, we don’t really think about it or choose it, it’s just what we do.  That’s a habit: we respond to a cue (getting out of bed) with a craving (caffeine!), followed by a routine (making coffee) that delivers the reward we crave (caffeine!).  You might not even know what the cue is, or what the reward is.  If you figure out what reward is delivered, you might not even understand why it’s a reward.  (What is so rewarding about biting one’s nails?)  But that’s the habit loop, responsible for many of the actions we take.

I thoroughly enjoyed that stories from various people and organizations, especially the chapters about Febreze, Starbucks, and Saddleback Church.  There are lessons for every area of my life, from career to housework to exercise to spirituality.

A very relevant lesson for most readers involves turning something that feels hard to do into something easy by exploiting how habits work.  Creating a new habit is all about identifying a cue and following it with a routine that delivers a reward.  This is pretty basic common sense.  But the key, Duhigg says, is the craving.  While you’re building a new habit, think about the reward often.  You can make your brain crave something that the routine will deliver.  For example, in order to turn running into a habit, I think about the reward delivered by running: I feel happy, pleasantly warm, and full of energy for several hours after a run.  If I crave that feeling, it’s easier to go for a run before it becomes a nearly unconscious habit.

Duhigg’s second lesson for the reader was how to change an unwanted habit.  He lays out advice for identifying the routine you want to eliminate, the cue that signals your brain to do it, and most importantly and most difficult to figure out, the reward that you are craving.  Once those three factors are identified, he suggests inserting a new routine that will satisfy the same reward.

What I would have liked to see is advice for what to do if another part of the habit loop, not just the routine, is unacceptable to you.  A smoker who craves nicotine and wants to quit smoking, for example, doesn’t usually want to rely on patches or gum for the rest of their lives.  They want to eliminate the craving for nicotine.  But smoking is surely too complex an example, addiction plus habit working together.  So I put this to the test in my own life, with my ridiculously powerful habit of eating dinner — and overeating — while watching TV.  So I followed Duhigg’s advice, and I experimented with other routines to decipher the true reward.  I expected it to be that I just like to overeat.  (People just like to overeat, right?  Some evolution-related drive that humans no longer need?)  And the desire to overeat as a reward is not acceptable to me.  It turns out…I don’t like to overeat.  If I’m paying attention, I find it almost impossible to eat past fullness.  The reward I was getting was mental rest.  The very state of NOT paying attention is what I crave!  I spend many hours of my day in a high-stimulation, high-interaction, high-decision-making environment, which I love, but when I get home I want to “zone out” for a bit.  Finding a routine to deliver that reward is acceptable to me.  Overeating is not necessary, at all, to deliver that reward.  Most days, I find that a few minutes of playing a game on my phone is perfectly satisfying.  Then I can go on with my evening.  I’m still experimenting with other routines that might satisfy the craving.  In this situation, Duhigg’s theory holds.

Book Report: Drive

Daniel Pink’s engaging and relevant book, Drive, identifies three factors that impact motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  This concept has obvious implications for how I run my classroom.  My students will be highly motivated if I can satisfy their need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work.  But I find myself focusing on my own need for these three things, and their implications in the field of teaching.  For me, mastery and purpose are both motivating factors in my job.  Teaching is challenging without feeling impossible.  And it is always clear to me that teaching affects the greater good.

If you ask, “Can I turn around this whole organization?” the answer, unfortunately, is no.  You can’t.  No single person can.  But maybe that’s not the right question.  Instead, ask yourself, “Is there on thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things a littler better?”  The answer to that is almost always yes.  Start small.  Pile up small wins.  And worry less about changing everything than about doing something.  (Drive, page 176)

Autonomy is the hard one.  Autonomy is where I need to identify something in my domain that I can make better.  It’s hard, at first glance, to identify much autonomy in the job of a classroom teacher.  Pink says we desire autonomy over task, time, technique, and team.

I currently teach 1st grade.  The task is what it is, to some extent.  I initiate my priorities, such as teaching conflict resolution rather than having a reward and punishment economy, and my focus, as a model literacy teacher for my district.  And I am always aware that I chose this field of work, and this specific assignment, and every time I sign another contract, I am choosing it again.  When reframed this way, it’s all the task autonomy I need.

I feel autonomous over technique — how I accomplish my goals — because I perceive my principal and coaches are teaching new techniques to be helpful, and not mandating how we use those techniques.  I own my learning in that area.  I also constantly find myself trying techniques and methods not initiated by my bosses.  I feel free to do that in my job.  There is no status quo to follow or defy when it comes to technique.

Team is a more pliable issue than it seems.  No, we do not get to choose our fellow grade-level teachers.  For the record, I happen to adore my team.  But there are other ways to define “team.”  Since I am a model literacy teacher, my coach and principal and I are a team.  Other model teachers become my team.  Like-minded teachers become my team.  My students and I are a team.  I have the autonomy to access whichever team I need in each situation.

A side note on teams:  Having relationships with people who think and work differently from us is part of life.  It is also valuable.  I try to consider every difficult interaction an opportunity to practice kindness and compassion and an others-centered focus.  I’m not great at any of those things, but practicing them is more important — and ultimately more satisfying — than choosing my favorite people to work with.

Time is a tricky issue, for everyone.  Someday, I will crack the code of mastering time management for classroom teachers.  For now, I’m renaming some things.  I have “contract time” when I am required to be at school.  The problem with that is this:  When contract time is over for the day, any other time I spend on work feels like unpaid overtime.  The truth is, teaching is a salaried job, not an hourly job.  Instead of “contract time,” think of those specific hours as the “performance.”  Delivering instruction is only half my job.  The other half is responding to that performance and preparing for the next performance.  And absolutely nobody cares or checks to see when or where I am doing that half of my job.  Whether I choose to spend 12 hours a day in my classroom, or whether I rush out at the end of contract time and spend 8:00 pm to midnight every night on my couch working, or whether I work exactly 7 1/2 hours a day during the week and spend 20 hours on the weekend…the only thing anyone is watching is the effectiveness of my instruction, not how or when I do the things that make it happen.  My job is 50% autonomous, regarding time, when renamed in this way.

I think the “one thing I can do tomorrow in my own domain to make things better” is to be conscious of how I talk about that other 50% of my time.  Those planning and responding hours have great value.  Done well, they make the performance hours more fun and less stressful.  The planning and responding are what drives instruction, what allows us to be intentional and strategic, what makes us effective at all.  And what I say affects what I think, which affects how I feel.  I crave the feeling of being completely prepared and able to focus entirely on the moment while the students are there.  It is engaging to look at student work and consider next steps.  It is satisfying to see progress.  All of those moments happen during that other 50% of my job, the part that I can do whenever and wherever I want.  It’s not a bad way to look at things.  🙂

Book Report: Orange is the New Black

I need to write about this book today.  TODAY.

Why, you ask?

Because I have become completely addicted to the Netflix show, and it has a much different feel from the book.

The author, Piper Kerman, spend a year in minimum security prison for smuggling drug money 11 years before.  I loved this book.  Ms. Kerman takes the reader on a journey into a community of women very different from myself and yet not so different.  She drives home the point that for many women in the prison system, it is but for my access to a few life advantages, and their lack of access, that they are incarcerated and I am not.

Ms. Kerman tells a story of temperance.  She speaks of slowly learning the culture she has been dropped into, of wisely observing and avoiding drama and setting boundaries even as she bonds with her fellow inmates.

It is a story of strength.  She tells of the saga of flying with Con Air to testify at another trial, and spending time in what sounds like a more miserable, less community-minded prison while waiting for her role in this trial.  Parts of that story I could hardly bear to read, because she makes the reader care so deeply.  There was one incident on board Con Air, a ten-second observation of someone — we never even learn her name — being treated unkindly by the male prisoners on board, that left me broken-hearted, sobbing for this person whose story is unknown to me.

It is a story of humility — the good kind, the soul-transforming, joy-producing kind.  Ms. Kerman’s fiance and family are supportive and selfless throughout the story.  Ms. Kerman helps the reader understand how her fiance, especially, was punished by the whole experience as well.  She makes the reader feel that although prison is an awful experience for all involved, it is especially awful for the children of prisoners, and the mommas who miss years of their children’s lives.  She highlights the lack of “correction” in the department of corrections, the inmates’ poor preparation for returning to life outside, the system of using the fewest resources and officers possible with few real avenues for prisoners to assert their rights or improve themselves in any way.  She doesn’t minimize her own experience but she emphasizes that she is doing time for a crime she committed, that there is justice here.  Possibly my favorite theme of the story, Ms. Kerman shows the gifts from her experience, the women who changed her and widened her understanding of compassion and humanity.

Now, the show…  It is fantastic, off-beat, unique, risky, and raw.  Funny and disgusting.  Distasteful and sweet.  “I can’t believe they did that!” and “I want to see more!” live side-by-side in my mind.  It is loosely based on the real characters from the book, but remixed to make a great, addictive TV show.  The fiance is not so steady, the main character is not so temperate, and the corrections officers are more involved in the story…and much more disturbing.  I can’t wait to see where the plot will go in the second season.

Book Report: Punished by Rewards

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn was well worth my time.  It is academic, a little heavy for bedtime reading, and written to convince you of something.  But Mr. Kohn convinces us both by his attitude and the voice of his writing and by the fact that almost nothing is said without evidence to back it up.

I’m obviously reviewing this book from a teacher’s perspective, but he equally addresses rewards in the corporate workplace and in parenting.  That really gives teachers a double dose, since we are concerned both with learning and with behavior.  Teachers should definitely read the parenting chapters as well!  There are two chapters that are just about incentives in the workplace, and I found them very interesting, but teachers and parents should feel free to skip them if your time is limited and you want to get the useful information out of the book.  I’m also reviewing this book at greater length than usual, for the benefit of my teacher friends that want some useful information but don’t have time to read a long, serious book right now!  🙂  It’s just my notes and reactions, but I hope you find it helpful.

If you are a teacher (or parent, I assume) reading this book, be prepared to continue your “business as usual” even as you become convinced that your actions might be wrong.  Alternatives do not appear until the final section of the book.

The first part of the book has the purpose of convincing the reader that rewards and punishments are not so great.

* Rewards and punishments are really the same thing.  You can be punished by not getting a reward, and rewarded by avoiding a punishment.  Both are all about power: a more powerful person getting a less powerful person to do something.  (So from here on, when you read something about rewards, assume it is true for punishments, and vice versa.)

* Rewards damage relationships.  Among students, they discourage collaboration, patience, generosity.  Between student and teacher, they send the message: “I want to see what a good job you can do,” rather than: “I am here to help you learn how to do this well.”

* Rewards ignore the cause of the problem.  “Do this so you’ll get a sticker,” does not address why they were doing something else.  It would be like a doctor giving a patient Tylenol for strep throat, which would ease the pain and fever for a couple of hours, instead of giving them an antibiotic, which would destroy the thing that is causing the pain and fever.  Rewards are the Tylenol, which doesn’t solve the problem, but just makes it less visible for awhile.

* Rewards discourage risk-taking.  They cause “unreflective expedience” — doing what it takes to get as many rewards as possible.  This is the opposite of learning a few important things deeply and well.

* Rewards send the message:  “This task is unpleasant.  You won’t like this.”

* Praise is simply another form of reward.  When you are inclined to praise, what they need is either feedback or relationship.

—Positive feedback:  Be descriptive.  (“You put spaces between your words today.  That makes it really easy for me to read your story.”)  Negative feedback:  Present a problem to be solved.  (“I’m having a hard time seeing where your words are.  I can show you how to put spaces between them to make your story easier to read.”)

—Relationship:  They need my positive regard to be unconditional.  They do not need to earn my love.  “I like the way Bobby is standing quietly in the hall,” is not a nice thing to say!  (If you work with me, you’ve heard me say this stuff…probably in the last 48 hours…this is SUCH a hard habit for me to break!)  (A better thing to say:  “If you’re not sure what to do right now, you can look at Bobby.  He is showing us one way to make sure he doesn’t interrupt the classes that are working.”  That way, it’s not about what I think about someone or their behavior, but about how we solve problems and take care of each other.  It’s still sort of praise-ish, especially if everyone is already standing quietly.  If possible, just don’t say anything.)  For the purpose of building a connection with Bobby, say things like, “I’m glad you’re here today!” and “Hey, how was that soccer game last night?”  Don’t just give him verbal sugar!  🙂

The second section addresses how rewards are used in the workplace, for learning, and for behavior.

* For learning:  We as teachers don’t choose whether or not grades are used with our students.  What we can do is make sure that evaluation holds no value in our conversations.  Grades and assessments should be feedback (see above), not currency.  By the time we are talking to our students about their grades, the value has already been achieved.

* For behavior:  Consider the goal.  We want kids who can make meaningful decisions, not simply obey.  We want kids who will make a thoughtful choice when there is no adult watching, ready to reward or punish.

—Sidenote:  They do not need to get “paid,” in the form of rewards or lack of punishment, for making a good choice.  What keeps you, as an adult, from robbing a bank?  The consequences?  People who rob banks don’t think they will get caught — They truly believe they will succeed, that there will be no consequences.  For you and I, mainly, we don’t rob banks because we believe it is wrong, because we are aware that our choices will affect others, because we are aware that the money we would steal isn’t ours.  We don’t need to be rewarded for not robbing a bank, because we have learned to make a meaningful decision about things like this.

Part 3…finally!  Beyond Rewards!  “So, if you don’t give them candy or prizes or stickers, what do you DO?”

* There is no trick or script.  How to respond depends on my goal as a teacher and the problem in front of me.  It is a way of looking at people and situations that guides decision making.

*  As the adult (teacher or parent), we need to understand the difference between structure and control.  Structure is helpful — it makes things predictable and calm.  Kids (and other people!) like to know what to expect, what will happen next.  Structure is information and love.  Control is the desire for power.  Control is looking for mindless obedience, a “do what I say right now” kind of goal.  I’m not yet ready to articulate this well, but teachers, I urge you to ponder structure versus control in your classroom.

* For learning:  Collaboration, content, choice…

—Collaboration:  “Ask your neighbor.  Help your neighbor.  Work together.”  As much as humanly possible, don’t make them work alone.  Encourage them to be each other’s teachers.

—Content:  This thing I want them to learn…Why is this awesome?  Why is this absolutely fantastic?  What is interesting, puzzling, funny, or fun about this thing we are doing?

—Choice:  The child decides as much as possible.  In what order are you going to do your reading stations?  How are you going to solve this math problem?  What are you going to write about today?  Within that comfy and secure structure, the child gets as much control as possible over his own world.

* For behavior:  Ah, the part everyone has been asking about!  What you want is information you can use tomorrow, right?  🙂

1.  Teacher and kids are problem solving together:  “Something has gone wrong.  What can we do about it?”  Teacher is not responding: “You’ve misbehaved, now here’s what I’m going to do to you.”  Solve the problem together, don’t inflict something on someone.

2.  Model the kinds of responses and attitudes you would like to see in the children.  How would you like the child to react when another child offends them in some way?  Let them see you respond that way when a child misbehaves.

3.  Discuss, discuss, discuss.  Have real conversations, where the kids have the right and the opportunity to say what they really think, not just answer the way they think you want them to.  Tell them what you think about specific caring and helpful behaviors.  Ask what they think.  Revisit problems that were addressed earlier in the day, and ask the kids how it turned out.  Make up problems and ask what someone could do about it.  Allow space for processing out loud.  (I love my daily class meetings for this!  Lots of days, I just make up a problem.  “I saw a 1st grader once who…..  What would you try if you had that problem?”  And everyone gets a turn to answer.)

4.  Attribute positive intent.  The child was not trying to make you angry.  She had a problem, and she tried to solve it the only way she knew how at that moment.  “You were mad (angry, sad, whatever) because ________________, and you didn’t know what to do, so you ____________.  (Wait while the child tearfully nods and suddenly is willing to look right in your eyes!)  Oh, my, that must have been hard.  Let’s ask our friends what you could try next time…”  You don’t have to be certain about the feeling or the reason.  The important part is that you tell them you can see they wanted something and didn’t know how to get it, or felt a certain way and didn’t know what to do, and you’re not upset and that the whole community is going to help them so they know what to do next time.  (Mostly, they won’t know next time.  It will take a bunch of times.  But it’s worth it.  This strategy is one of my favorite things ever.)


This book represents one puzzle piece that fits very well into how I run my classroom when I’m doing it the way I want to.  My method of community building and problem solving has evolved for the last eight years, before I ever laid eyes on this book.  I’ll write a post soon about what this really looks like in my classroom.  I’m not perfect, far from it!  I don’t always do it the way I want to.  I fall back into “I’ll give you this if you do that.”  I get tired and I get irritable with the kids, and I say things like “You know what to do, how come you can’t just do it???”  And “I’m not going to pick you if you’re not sitting quietly.”  Or “I don’t have time for questions now, just do it, please.”  Eeesh.  I get distracted by academics, and other adults watching me teach, and the urgency of the schedule, and sometimes I don’t want to take time to stop teaching and solve a problem as a school family.  I spent the entire school year last year pretty much forgetting everything I believe about classroom community, the poor kids.  But I have also had periods of days and weeks in a row most years where I didn’t solve a single problem, because I had set up a caring community and invested time in making thoughtful kids.  Imagine the power of a teacher who can just teach, and the kids solve their own problems?  A classroom where the teacher and students love to be there?  On those days, the schedule doesn’t feel urgent, and I’d welcome the President and First Lady into my classroom to watch me teach, because I can really be on my game with the academics.  (I’m pretty fearless when it comes to being watched, but let’s not make that one a reality, okay?)  Those are the days when it’s fun!  Which leads me to one last point:

5.  Let go of your need for justice.  They don’t need to be punished just for the sake of fairness.  Embrace grace, compassion, forgiveness.  If you can reach that sweet spot where everyone in the room, teacher and students, feel really awesome about each other, they’ll do whatever you ask them to do.  I promise.  I’ve been there, and it is not easy, but it is awesome!

“Teachers who have moved toward creating a caring community in the classroom, a place where children work together to make decisions, sometimes say they would quit rather than go back to a program of behavior modification and rule enforcement.”  (p. 256)

That’s me!  I would quit teaching, without question, without hesitation, before relying on candy jars, treasure boxes, taking away minutes of recess, etc.  It is just too awesome the other way!

Book Report: Teaching With Intention

As you may have noticed, I’m on a nonfiction kick, and I’m trying to get through a small stack of teaching-related books before school starts.

I read bits and pieces of another book by Debbie Miller during the school year, at the recommendation of the literacy coach I work with.  I enjoyed Debbie Miller’s deep understanding coupled with her method of taking the reader into her classroom and into her thinking as she makes decisions.  So when I saw Teaching With Intention at Half Price Books, I decided to pick it up and see what else she had to say.

The information Ms. Miller shares in Teaching With Intention is old news to me, since I’m lucky enough to work for a district that promotes the gradual release of responsibility model within a workshop setting.  It was fun to read about the teachers she worked with and the lessons that happened in those classrooms, and I found some good reminders throughout.  Some chapters I marked up with notes and highlighting, and others I just sat back and enjoyed watching what happened in the classrooms.

The important message can be summed up by a quote the author included from To Understand by Ellin Keene (a book I now would like to add to my stack…I’m going to run out of time before I run out of books…):

“If we return to the conclusion that we learn most effectively when we learn a few important concepts at a time, taught in depth over a long period, and apply them in a variety of texts and contexts, then it becomes clear that we must be very clear about these concepts.”

In other words, from Ms. Miller:  “Slow down, determine what’s essential, and teach those things deeply and well.”

Book Report: Teachers Have It Easy

2013-07-23 15.43.31


Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers is not a book to read during the school year, teachers.  My recommendation?  If you must read this book, read it in the middle of the summer, when you are no longer burnt out but have several weeks to recover your optimism before going back to your work.

I will readily admit, I first noticed this book because I had a defensive emotional response to the title.  “Teachers have it easy???  I must read this book so I can get angry and sarcastic and refute everything they say!”  Then, of course, I read the subtitle, and wondered what the authors had to say about America’s teachers.

Mostly, I cannot recommend this book to my teacher friends.  The focus of the book is money, and the big picture of how more money would help teachers and students.  True — we all know it’s true — but it’s not something individual teachers can do much about.  Ranting and raving about money doesn’t get the job done…and neither does it result in more money.  We choose this, and we choose to come back each year.  If you want to be a teacher, you can.  If you’d rather make a lot of money doing something less satisfying, you can do that instead.  Conventional wisdom applies:  You can’t have everything.  That doesn’t only apply to teachers.

One point that was driven home by this book was how we as teachers feel we are perceived by society as a whole.  When a new acquaintance asks what I do for a living, and I say I am a teacher, I react to how I think they think about me.  (Crazy sentence…Are you still with me?)  Most of the time, I perceive that they think I’m patient, cheery, altruistic, self-sacrificing.  When all they know about me is that I’m a teacher.

I wish “I’m a teacher” made people think that I’m smart, ambitious, outgoing, hardworking, and relentless.  Because from my perspective of actually being a teacher, those five words are essential to a good teacher.  I needed to possess those characteristics before I could be a good teacher.  Being patient, cheery, altruistic, or self-sacrificing are lovely, but certainly not true of all teachers, and certainly not always true of me!

Despite its negative focus, I would recommend this book to non-teachers who truly want to understand the perspective of teachers.  I would also then recommend that they find a way to understand why smart and ambitious people love this work, why we choose to stay, despite the challenges…perhaps because of the challenges.

My favorite quote from the book, from Dan Lortie, a sociologist who focuses on education:

The basic condition that makes the job of teachers difficult is that teachers — as persons, as individual, and particularly in the lower grades — are trained to think that they’re dealing with individual kids.  But in fact they’re dealing with twenty-five individual kids in each class.  Somewhere in there, it is so emotionally trying that it’s very hard for teachers to feel successful.  There’s always a sense that somehow or other, they could have done a better job.  The irony in this is that the smarter and more sensitive the teacher is, the more likely they are to feel that way.

So to my teacher friends, if Mr. Lortie is correct, that feeling that you should have done more or better is a signal that you are good at this!

Previous Older Entries