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Reflections

After writing about my grandmother in my first post of this series, the subjects of my second post are perhaps predictable. Along with Maggie, my parents had the greatest hand in shaping me into the man—and the educator—I am today.

My mother and father divorced when I was young; I have no memory of them as a married couple. From what I’ve gathered over the years, it was not an especially happy marriage, so perhaps that is just as well. Following their divorce, there was a period of time when it was just my mother and me, and though my memories of that time are suspect given my age then and the intervening years, they are formative. My hazy recollection of my hard-working single mother humbles me, and even when forced to resort to feeding me Spam, she never failed to make time for me. I loved it when she read to me and once got so excited that I accidentally poked her in the eye with a children’s book cut out in the pointed shape of a cat’s ear, which left her wearing an eye patch. I imagine that she was a more cautious reader after that, but she still imparted a love of reading which I count among the best gifts I have ever received.

A few months before my seventh birthday, she remarried. I remember my stepfather, Bob, from that period as being extraordinarily tall and much more athletically inclined than my mother. (In her defense, my mother did have some athleticism. She used to tell me about playing volleyball and running track in high school, and a few years later, once I had grown a bit and was feeling cocky, I challenged her to a footrace. She demurred, but I continued to pester her. Finally, nearing her wit’s end, she consented. We took our marks, got set… and she promptly left me in the dust, crossing the finish line at least 5 yards ahead of me before limping around the house for a week.) At any rate, Bob was more than willing to throw the football and teach me how to shoot a basketball properly, and later, he would coach several of my Little League teams. On top of his investment of time, the addition of his income opened doors to me that had previously been closed, like trips to the aquarium and Tae Kwon Do classes.

When it came to parenting, my parents were strict. On Diana Baumrind’s spectrum of parenting styles, they were solidly authoritative, sometimes even leaning toward authoritarian. They had firm expectations and set high standards in everything I did. When it came to school, I was expected to earn Honor Roll. When it came to sports, they didn’t care so much about wins and losses, but I was expected to listen to my coaches and play hard. After I finally convinced my mother to let me play tackle football at age 11, I injured my foot in the third week of practice. She watched from the car as I sat on the sideline, and after about half an hour, she stormed across the field to inform me that she didn’t come to watch me sit on my butt. I could either get up and play, or I could get in the car and we could go home. I angrily told her that I would be happy to play if I could walk, and she accused me of being melodramatic. At the end of practice, my coaches carried me to the car. Bob was working late that night, and by the time he got home, I had gone into Maggie’s old room and gotten her walker. Seeing this, Bob decided that we should go to the hospital and get an x-ray. It turned out my foot was broken, and my mother felt terrible. I still like to hold this over her head, but I also take a strange measure of pride in it. My mother—the woman who refused to let me play football for fear that I would get hurt—bawled me out for not playing with a broken foot. Again, high standards.

I can’t remember my parents pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to do, with one noteworthy exception: piano lessons. I had no interest in playing the piano, but as I neared the end of elementary school, I looked forward to joining the middle school band. My parents told me they would happily support me in this, but that I would have to begin taking piano lessons a year in advance in order to learn how to read music. Playing the piano struck me as a fairly sissy thing to do back then, and I said so, but there was no getting around it. I wanted to join the band, so I learned to play the piano. (In fact, I ended up enjoying it and stuck with it long after my parents gave me permission to stop.)

The expectation was clear: If I was going to do something, I was going to do it the right way.

This was reinforced, not surprisingly, through extrinsic motivation, and if Maggie was the good cop, my parents played the bad cops. I don’t recall ever receiving any tangible rewards from my parents for good grades or strong play (though I probably did at times). Excellence, at least an excellent effort, was simply expected, and if I didn’t meet their exacting standards, I could definitely expect a consequence.

They were sticklers for discipline, but my parents were also open to reason. Even as late as my junior year of high school, I had what I believed to be an insanely early bedtime of 10:00pm. Most of my classmates did not have a bedtime at all, and to me, it felt infantilizing. (It was probably also infantilizing to have my mommy wake me up every morning, but I don’t think I complained about that.) Finally, before the start of my senior year, I presented my case to my parents. “I don’t think I should have a bedtime this year,” I started, and already I could sense them beginning to roll their eyes. We’ve been down this road before, they were obviously thinking. Still, I pressed on: “I’m going to be a senior, and next year, I’ll be away at college. I won’t have a bedtime there, and I need to learn how to manage my time myself.” They glanced at each other, and as I continued, I eventually got some nods. My argument seemed to be hitting home!

I don’t remember which one of them spoke first when I eventually rested my case, but I do remember what was said: “That sounds fine, on two conditions. First, we won’t tell you when to go bed, but we also won’t wake you up. You are responsible for getting yourself out of bed in the morning and getting yourself ready for school.” Eagerly I replied, “Of course! What else?” And without missing a beat: “The first time we see a C on your report card, your bedtime is 10:00.”

Occasionally these days, my students or players give me reason to talk about self-discipline. I like to quote John Wooden, who said, “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to.” Looking back on it, though, my parents’ thinking seemed to be, “We will discipline you so that someday you will be able to.” I’m sure I resented them for it at times, but as an adult, I am so grateful. I occasionally think about my parents when I force myself to go to bed early or pull myself out of bed at 5:45am. I don’t particularly like up before the sun rises, but I have found that I am at my best mentally in the morning, and I often use that time to read or write or prepare for the day. It would be so much easier to sleep as late as possible, but there are things to be done. Be disciplined.

My parents weren’t generally the type to preach, but they did make sure I learned the value of work at an early age. I helped out as a child, whether it was getting something from the pantry as my mother cooked dinner or helping my stepdad as he repaired the fence or built a deck. As a young teen, I had household responsibilities that I “owned,” including feeding the dog daily and mowing the lawn every weekend. Once I was able to drive, I was expected to find a paying job, and I worked pretty much year-round, with the exception of baseball season. Winters were often my busiest time of year, when I would go to school, lift weights with the baseball team after school, and dash home for a quick dinner before reporting to work. Luckily there were often slow periods at my job which allowed me to get homework done.

In addition to progressively developing my work ethic, my parents also took advantage of every opportunity to teach me about accountability and sacrifice. One morning during my senior year, I was running late and came into the school parking lot a bit too fast. (Per our arrangement, they had not woken me up.) In my haste to park and rush into my first period class, I clipped the right rear bumper of a friend’s car. When I told my parents that evening, they made it clear that paying for the damage was my responsibility. I remember being amazed at what it cost—$800 for something that small?!—but I have never had another careless accident like that. I didn’t have enough money saved up to pay for the repairs outright, so they agreed to pay my friends’ parents on the condition that I would pay them back a certain amount from each paycheck until my debt was cleared.

I felt bad about hitting my friend’s car (more accurately, her parents’ car), but at that age, I was most upset about how this would impact my ability to make the rite of passage “Beach Week” trip to Myrtle Beach with my friends after graduation. Of course, I also knew better than to complain to my parents about how “unfair” any of this was. I had created this problem for myself, and it was up to me to solve it. So I devised a plan. My parents usually gave me money (about $15 per week, if memory serves) to buy my lunch at school. Instead, I stopped at the grocery store on the way one morning and bought a box of saltines and a large jar of peanut butter. I kept them in my locker, and for most of my senior year, that was my lunch every day. I pocketed the vast majority of the lunch money my parents gave me and set it aside for Beach Week.

I don’t know if my parents were aware that I was doing this, but I think a small part of them might have been proud. Especially before she remarried, my mother had worked hard and made personal sacrifices to provide for me, and though my sacrifices were nowhere near as noble as hers, I had accepted responsibility for my mistake and I had made a choice that aligned with my priorities. I delayed gratification and sacrificed a full hot lunch for weeks on end, all with the goal of being able to make the trip to the beach with my friends.

In high school, I remember thinking my parents were extremely strict, at least relative to those of many of my classmates’, but looking back, they were not helicopter parents. They set high standards and communicated their expectations clearly, but then they more or less stayed out of my way unless I somehow came up short. I was allowed to make mistakes, and then I was corrected. I was sometimes micromanaged, yes, when it came to things like bedtime, but on the big questions, I was allowed to think for myself—to make my own decisions and then live with the consequences.

Given their unwavering expectation that I attend college, one might have expected them to pressure me to apply to this or that school, or to look over my shoulder throughout the application process. In fact, the opposite was true. As I recall, their only input during the college search came in the form of questions. At one point, I was enamored with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I talked about it non-stop. One day, probably as I waxed poetic about that unmistakable shade of blue, my parents asked, “How are you going to pay for that?” I had never considered the question. I replied, “Well, won’t you pay for it?” They said that they were happy to pay the lion’s share for an in-state school (I would still have to take out loans to cover some), but that anything above and beyond the costs for an in-state school were my responsibility. After a quick glance at the out-of-state tuition, UNC quickly fell from my list. I ended up applying Early Decision to the University of Virginia, and to be honest, I’m not even sure my parents were aware that I was working on the application until I asked them to write a check for the application fee.

As a teenager, being told (not in so many words) that I was limited to state schools struck me as unfair, especially since I had friends whose parents were paying all of their tuition for out-of-state or private colleges. As I matured, though, I came to appreciate my parents’ position, not unlike the way I appreciated my mother’s tough love on the football field. Aside from any purely financial considerations, Though I didn’t really think about it this way until well after the fact, I came to feel that I “owned” part of my college education in a very real sense, and I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I took it much more seriously than I did high school. When I left for college, my parents more or less stopped inquiring about my grades, but those student loan statements served as one last extrinsic motivator, hidden in plain sight. Still, one of the proudest moments of my young adult life was when I mailed my final student loan payment, several years ahead of schedule.

Like most kids, I suspect, there was a time when I thought my parents were just the worst. Now, though, I am incredibly thankful for the way I was raised. I know that my parents are responsible for many of my best traits—particularly my work ethic and self-discipline—as well as my tendency to set high standards for everyone around me, but first and foremost for myself. (They may also be responsible for my neurotic pursuit of “the right way” of doing everything, whether it’s loading a dishwasher, stapling a set of papers together, or standing for the Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame. I know these quirks drive my students and players—not to mention my wife—crazy at times, but I’ll take the bad with the good.)

In the classroom and on the field, I refuse to apologize for setting high standards. I want my students to learn from their failures, just like I learned from mine, and in order for that to happen, the bar can’t be set too low. Students must strive for excellence and still come up short at times. Hard work is a must, and I believe that work ethic and self-discipline combine to produce success and, in turn, self-confidence. It cannot be the other way around. These are the building blocks of autonomy and adulthood, and more than anything, that is what I want for my students—just what my parents wanted for me. Tough love is hard, and I know that I waver more than my parents did, but I try to “fight the good fight,” as I would much rather my students resent me now and appreciate me later than like me now and leave my classroom unprepared for whatever comes next.

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The summer of 1924 was a momentous time. International statesmen wrestled with the continued problem of German reparations following World War I, and Adolf Hitler sat in prison following his conviction for treason in the wake of the failed “Beer Hall Putsch.” Back home in the United States, Calvin Coolidge, having ascended to the presidency after the sudden death of Warren G. Harding the previous year, received the Republican Party’s nomination for a full term of his own. The United States was three-and-a-half years into its ultimately unsuccessful experiment with Prohibition, and many Americans were enthralled by the gory details of Leopold and Loeb’s “perfect crime,” which they believed would prove their status as übermenschen. Though financial recklessness would plunge the country into the Great Depression five years later, no one would have predicted that at the time. The American industrial economy was in full swing following its postwar reconversion, the stock market was beginning a tremendous bull market, and consumer goods—automobiles, refrigerators, and the like—were more readily available than ever before. Amidst all of this, on June 20, Margaret Orlean Owens was born to sharecroppers in rural Marengo County, Alabama. She was my grandmother.

Maggie, as I called her, was almost sixty when I was born, but until she was diagnosed with cancer, I never noticed any signs of aging. Unlike my grandfather, who dealt with a host of health issues, Maggie was vibrant and fun. She took a special interest in me, and she encouraged me to learn and get good grades—indeed, to pursue excellence in all things. If I brought home a stellar report card, I would often receive a card in the mail with a $5 or $10 bill a few days later. If I happened to play a great baseball game while she was in town visiting, I might get a silver dollar. (It’s worth noting that the use of extrinsic motivators was something of a family habit. Maggie’s older sister, whom I call Aunt Frances, once promised me $5 when I could name all fifty states and another $5 when I could name their capitals. I collected on the first offer; I never did on the second.)

Interestingly, as a teacher, I’m a fairly staunch opponent of extrinsic motivation for learning, and I can see the reasons why even in my young self. I’m not sure Maggie ever really recognized that she had created a monster, but when I was about eleven or twelve, I drew up a “contract” filled with what we now call “incentive clauses” for my upcoming baseball season. According to the terms, my parents would be obligated to pay me for certain milestone hits, RBIs, and stolen bases, as well as for each home run I slugged. Not surprisingly, my parents did not agree to the terms. Said contract went unsigned, and I remained in that sense a “free agent.” I have no doubt, though, that had I could have talked Maggie into signing such a sweetheart deal had she still been living.

Maggie had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was too young to understand what cancer was. She received treatment and was in remission for several years, but in time, the cancer returned. With her second diagnosis, Maggie progressively lost her independence, first moving to the town where we lived (though in her own apartment), and later, as both the cancer and the treatments became more aggressive, moving in with us. By this point, I was aware that Maggie was sick, but I thought her moving in with us was the best thing in the world. It meant that my greatest champion was just down the hall, and I could spend time with her every afternoon after school.

While she lived with us, Maggie often asked what I had learned about that day, and if her interest was feigned, she deserved an Oscar. I still received rewards for good grades, though sometimes it meant accompanying my mother to the bank to make a withdrawal on Maggie’s behalf. Showing my report card to my parents was something I had to do; showing it to Maggie was something I couldn’t wait to do. The money played a significant role in that, I’m sure, but looking back, it’s the warm glow of her pride that I can still feel after all these years.

I still have a few things from Maggie. One of those is the last card she ever sent me, which I saved though it contained no money. I was spending the summer at my father’s house, as I always did then, and Maggie’s condition deteriorated. When it appeared that the end was near, my mother sent for me, and I returned home. By the time I arrived at Maggie’s bedside, she had slipped into a non-responsive state. At my mother’s urging, I squeezed Maggie’s hand and told her I was there, and at this, the faintest hint of a smile crossed her lips. That was all, but it was enough. She had said goodbye. I was ten years old.

I know enough now to realize that this may have been an involuntary response, a stimulus of some kind from my squeezing her hand. Still, I prefer to think of it as one last smile for me. She passed away later that night without regaining consciousness, and a few days later, after the funeral, I returned to my father’s house. Waiting for me there was the card, which had been mailed just a day or two before I went home to see her. The envelope was addressed in my mother’s handwriting, and it didn’t immediately occur to me who it was really from, but Maggie had clearly insisted on signing it herself. You can tell from the signature—sloppy but unmistakably hers—that her strength had been fading. The card’s message was simple, but perfect: “Don’t forget—I love you.”

I had felt numb in the immediate aftermath of her death, and I had kept my emotions in check fairly well. But I remember vividly the moment when I opened this card. I was crushed, and I cried uncontrollably for what felt like hours. Even now, twenty-three years later, as a grown man, I am moved to sobs when I re-open this card and read it. That is the power of her enduring love.

Maggie loved me, and she believed in me. The love she gave was never conditional—never dependent on my performance in school or on the baseball field. Still, something about her love made me want to earn it. I’m not sure how she did that, or if she was even conscious of it, but Maggie’s masterful blending of unconditional love and extrinsic motivators set an early tone for my life. I knew that I was loved, and yet I strove to be worthy of that love. Maggie believed in my power to be extraordinary, and when I doubt myself today, I remember this. She confronted—and eventually succumbed to—a debilitating disease, and yet even in the most difficult moments, she invested herself in me. She shared her abundant love until the very end, and I never forgot it.

I can’t think of a better description of a teacher, and though becoming a teacher had never even crossed my mind when Maggie passed away, perhaps it was her example that led me toward this career. It is certainly one that I aspire to, despite knowing that I fall far short of it on a daily basis. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day: the assignments, the grades, the e-mails, but education is, at its core, about relationships. To have the impact that I hope to have, my students must know that I care deeply about them—that I believe in their potential and am willing to invest myself in them. As I enter the classroom today to begin my tenth year as a teacher, I’ll try to keep Maggie’s example closer to fore of my mind.

Next Monday, August 21, will mark the start of my tenth year in the classroom–a milestone which seems to invite some longer-term reflection. As I think back on my career so far, there have been so many people who have helped to make me into the educator (and indeed the man) that I have become, and it seems appropriate to commemorate Year Ten by paying homage to them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to write one post each month this school year (August through May) in which I reflect on the influence of some of my many teachers and mentors. Though I doubt that I could ever repay the collective debt of gratitude that I owe to these women and men, my hope is that my words will give them some small measure of pride as they themselves reflect on the lives they’ve led and the impact they’ve made.

This effort is not entirely selfless, however. In reflecting on why and how these individuals shaped my life, I’ll also strive to identify a few through-lines that will propel me forward into the next ten years.

 

As I’m sure many Americans have, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking—and worrying—about the concept of truth. I should say at the outset that while I have some strongly held political views, I generally believe that on any given issue, there are a range of reasonable opinions. And because I don’t appreciate others’ proselytizing, I generally try to keep my politics out of the social media sphere.

That said, I feel compelled to comment on President Trump’s casual disregard for the truth. I want to make it clear at the outset that this is not a narrowly “political” opinion. Rather, my anxiety on this issue stems from larger, longer-term concerns about the civic health of the United States. To be sure, Trump is not to blame for most of these concerns, but the President (regardless of party, regardless of personality) has an obligation to nurture a healthy American civil society, allowing—even welcoming—dissent even as he promotes his own agenda.

Throughout the campaign, Trump displayed a penchant for making bold claims—fairly typical “red meat” for his political base. This is not unusual. But when those statements later became political liabilities, he did not (as many politicians do) attempt to “massage” them. He did not (with the exception of his infamous “locker room talk”) even attempt to explain them away. He and his team simply denied outright ever having made them. The TV spot produced by the Clinton campaign in the wake of the VP debate illustrated this perfectly.

Trump’s supporters might argue here that all politicians play fast and loose with the truth, and they would not be incorrect. Still, I think there’s a difference between run-of-the-mill “spin” and what Trump has done and continues to do.

Now that he has taken the oath of office, we’ve witnessed a trivial but protracted debate over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration vis a vis Obama. (In the grand scheme of things, who cares?!—except that, obviously, Trump does.) Most of the notable comments have come from Trump’s press team, with Kellyanne Conway purporting “alternative facts” on a Sunday morning talk show and Sean Spicer asserting in a press briefing that “we can disagree with the facts” (as if facts weren’t facts at all).

On top of the inauguration silliness, there have been reports of a forthcoming investigation into allegedly widespread voter fraud. To be sure, if millions of ballots were cast illegally, I—like most Americans—want to know about it. But so far, no one has produced any real evidence to that end, and the Trump team seems convinced that this problem was really only a problem in states where Trump lost.

This is not new, of course. Let us not forget that this is the same Trump who built his political career on “birtherism,” refusing to accept Barack Obama’s citizenship and demanding to see his birth certificate. And yet, once the document was released, Trump refused to accept it. When he was challenged on this issue during the 2016 campaign, he sought to blame Hillary Clinton for the whole charade.

It boggles the mind, and it has me wondering: Is Donald Trump the postmodern president?

As an undergraduate, and especially as a grad student, I dipped my toe into the waters of postmodernism, and I initially found them intellectually stimulating. For someone who hated history in high school, it was exciting to learn that everything—even the very nature of reality—was subject to debate. My experience in high school was essentially: “Here are a bunch of facts that someone else has deemed significant. Now memorize them!” So you can imagine how it felt to be told, in effect, “There are no wrong answers. All perspectives are valid; just take a side!”

In graduate school at the University of Alabama, I took a class with Professor George Williamson (now at Florida State University). We read the German historian Leopold von Ranke, who advocated for a fact-based (as opposed to a mythological) history—history wie es eigentlich gewesen (“how it actually happened”). We read Peter Novick, whose book That Noble Dream questioned the whole Rankean conception of history as an “objective” discipline. And we also read Gertrude Himmelfarb, the conservative historian who decried postmodernism thusly:

In history, [postmodernism] is a denial of the objectivity of the historian, of the factuality or reality of the past, and thus of the possibility of arriving at any truths about the past. For all disciplines it induces a radical skepticism, relativism, and subjectivism that denies not this or that truth about any subject but the very idea of truth—that denies even the ideal of truth, truth as something to aspire to even if it can never be fully attained.

Throughout the semester, we tacked through the heady winds of intellectual discourse, zigging and zagging from left to right and back again. Week after week, Dr. Williamson’s class left me thoroughly confused and convinced that I was stupid. I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it. Nevertheless, long after the semester ended, I came to appreciate it more than any other class I took at Alabama. It was his class that provided me with a broad theoretical foundation for understanding history as a discipline, and in retrospect, it was his class that transformed me from merely a good student who happened to like history into a historian.

I must admit here that I am still influenced by certain aspects of postmodern thought: I remain skeptical of so-called “metanarratives,” and I do hold that truth—particularly historical truth—is a slippery and contested concept. The facts are always tentative and subject to change, and historians must (to the extent possible) be aware of their own biases. In that sense, I—like most historians, I suspect—share Novick’s view. However, I find much truth (and I choose that word deliberately) in Himmelfarb’s position. Postmodernism, intellectually engaging though it may be, is ultimately nihilistic and self-defeating. If there is no truth, even an imperfect one, then what’s the point? It reminds me of the famous line from Macbeth: “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.”

As the renowned historian Eric Foner states in his 2002 book Who Owns History?, “There are commonly accepted professional standards that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods like the denial of the Holocaust. Historical truth does [exist], not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation of the past.”

In short, even for historians who accept Novick’s contention that “pure objectivity” is unrealistic, a bright line still distinguishes between fact and fiction. Historians acknowledge that they are not writing history wie es eigentlich gewesen, but that is still a far cry from simply “making it up.” The entire historical enterprise is built on documentation of sources and the peer review process. In that, there is, in fact, a connection to the scientific method and, indeed, to the very ideals of the Enlightenment.

Not for nothing have I made a habit of posting the following quotation on the door to my office or classroom throughout my career: “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Those words come from an 1820 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote describing the University of Virginia, my other alma mater. For all of Jefferson’s many accomplishments, his role in founding the University was one of only three that he wished to have placed on his tombstone, alongside his authorship of both the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Clearly, Jefferson wished to be remembered as a man of the Enlightenment.

The United States is a very much a product of the Enlightenment as well, but it is the Enlightenment values—of truth, of reason—that Donald Trump appears to question. To my mind, few things could be more corrosive to the health of our civic and political institutions or as damaging to our republic in the long-run. As Americans, we can (and should) disagree; that is our heritage. It is one of the things that makes America great. But we must disagree reasonably. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. Without reason, however—without the pursuit of truth—we are simply wandering in the dark.

The new school year is underway, and so far, I’m really enjoying my new school. My colleagues have been welcoming and supportive, my students inquisitive and hard-working, and there is a strong culture of learning that aligns nicely with my own approach to education. All in all, I’ve felt very good about my decision to come to Tampa.

That said, as one might expect, there have been a few things that have required some adjustment. This being a much larger school than my previous two (more than double the size of my last school, for instance), it marks the first time in my career that I’m not solely responsible for the courses I’m teaching. In fact, in both my preparations (World History I in the 9th grade and U.S. History in the 11th grade), I’m one of three people who teach the course. Though we’re not required to be in lockstep, there is an expectation of general alignment across sections.

I’ve grown accustomed to having near complete control over what and how I teach (within reason, of course), but this year, I’ve had to recalibrate to the fact that my colleagues have different approaches than I do. For the most part, I think this will benefit me. The opportunity to get back to the classroom and continue honing my craft as a teacher was a major motivation for me to pursue this position, and collaborative planning and informal conversations with colleagues about what works and what don’t will only make me better. I’ve already noticed this in small ways.

However, in my last few years of teaching U.S. history (prior to this year, I hadn’t taught it since 2013-2014) I had adopted a thematic approach. I could write a post—or several—on why I now favor themes over chronological units, but my colleagues here were less enthusiastic. After some conversation, we settled on what I believe is a completely reasonable compromise: interspersing more traditional chronological coverage with intensive “modules” which consider some historical issue in greater depth. (For example, after lectures/textbook readings covering prehistoric America through the Puritan migration, we’re now considering the question of why history matters. By considering various portrayals of Columbus, Pocahontas, and John Winthrop, we’re examining the relationship between past and present and the ways in which history shapes—and is shaped by—our contemporary worldview.)

Of course, making room in the curriculum for these intensive mini-units requires sacrificing some coverage, and this brings me to the crux of my post. What has challenged me most this year is not the collaboration, as new as that experience is. It is, rather, the gravitational pull of the coverage model. In other words, by adopting a “textbook” (we’re using The American Yawp) and working through it chronologically, I find myself tempted to try to assign the entire thing. I volunteered to plan our first unit, which spans prehistory through the Revolution, and it was a constant battle with myself as I decided what content to pare back in order to make more room for the “deep dive” sections.

When I adopted the thematic approach around 2011 or 2012, I essentially dispensed with any semblance of coverage—and I was completely OK with that. The reality is that, even in American history (which is among the briefest of national histories), we can’t possibly cover everything that might be deemed significant. History is just too big, and if we try to cram it all in, we run the risk of turning history into “one damn thing after another,” which is exactly what led me to hate history as a high school student. In choosing a thematic approach over a chronological one, I abandoned the notion that I could cover it all, which was incredibly liberating. My students didn’t learn everything—they certainly would not have earned a 5 on the APUSH exam, for instance—but they definitely learned how to think about important ideas in American history and draw connections across vast spans of time. And they did learn a fair amount of “content” along the way. I felt good about it.

This year, though, as I’ve compiled lists of “Key Terms” for my students, I’ve found myself identifying many people and events that would never have seen the light of day in my thematic course (or come up only in passing). So how “Key” are they, really? And more importantly, why am I finding this so difficult? Is it the textbook? The chronological organization? I’m not sure, but this struggle has me reflecting on how the most seemingly basic decisions about curricular design can profoundly shape our conception–not to mention our students’ conception–of the discipline.

As I noted in my last post, I spent the 2015-2016 in an administrative role at my previous school. Serving as the Assistant Dean of Students at a boarding school was an eye-opening experience on many levels. Now that I’ve left administration (at least for now) to return to the teaching ranks, I thought I should take some time to reflect on what I learned. Much of this is common sense, of course, but I want to have a reminder of my current thinking should I ever go back.

Whenever I’m asked about my experience last year, I always say that if I had to describe it in a single word, that word would be “humbling.” The feedback I received from my supervisors was almost uniformly positive, but I rarely felt like I was doing a good job. This is no doubt a function of perfectionist tendencies, but in many ways, my first year as an administrator felt an awful lot like my first year as a teacher. I was learning on the fly, juggling a lot of new challenges at once, and at times, barely keeping my head above water. More importantly, I learned just how complex the task of running a school really is. As one colleague said to me after I took the position but before I started, “Get ready for lots of grey.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I quickly learned. Rarely does a school leader face a decision that is black and white. Most of the “easy calls” are made by others, so by default, the issues that land on an administrator’s desk are challenging and complex. There is often no right answer, and odds are good that someone will be upset with whatever decision you make.

The other thing that caught me off guard (but probably shouldn’t have) was the public nature of the job. There is a steep learning curve, but unlike your first year as a teacher, almost every mistake you make is exposed to your colleagues. As a teacher, you can close your door and make mistakes with the knowledge that the only people who (usually) see them are students–and they tend to be more forgiving than adults! Whether it’s a presentation in a faculty meeting or a difficult disciplinary decision, as an administrator, it can feel like your every move is being scrutinized behind your back. To do the job well, it takes thick skin and maybe even a bit of practiced nonchalance. Sometimes confidence is a choice–fake it ’til you make it!

A few other takeaways:

  • Before beginning, seek clarity about institutional priorities and how success will be defined in the role. There is only so much time in the day, and if you spread yourself too thin, nothing will get done well. When push comes to shove–as it almost certainly will–where should your attention be focused?
  • Find a mentor who is not your supervisor (or your supervisor’s supervisor). Ideally this would be someone who has done your job, but more important than that is finding someone who you feel comfortable asking questions of when you feel “stuck” or leaning on for support when the pressures of the job weigh you down. If you’re moving into an administrative role from the teaching ranks, this can be tricky, because many of the people you previously would have sought out may now report to you, which can alter the dynamic.
  • Early on, focus on “making sure the trains run on time” (that is, crucial logistical/organizational tasks and day-to-day management). We as a society seem to suffer from a “cult of leadership” in which “leaders” are visionary and heroic (think Steve Jobs) and “managers” are boring and maybe even a little bit soul-sucking (think Bill Lumbergh). Nobody aspires to be a “manager,” but in a leadership transition, it’s easy for things to fall through the cracks. No matter how incredible your vision may be, if you can’t (or don’t) “manage” the mundane aspects of the job early on, you will lose credibility and your ability to lead will be seriously compromised.
  • While you focus on the day-to-day, do take proactive steps to build your “leadership capital” for the long term. Even if you have a vision that you hope to implement, it makes sense to learn the lay of the land, and it’s always possible that your vision can be improved upon by others. Do this in the following ways:
    • Build relationships. Just talk to people. Get to know them better on a personal level, without an agenda. You don’t have to become best friends, but getting to know each other is more likely to create trust and make it easier to work through differences of opinion later on. (And for God’s sake, when those differences of opinion occur, don’t try to resolve them over e-mail. Get to know people well enough early on that you can say, “Hey, let’s talk.”)
    • “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey adapted this from the Prayer of St. Francis (“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . To be understood as to understand”). No matter where you get it, it’s good advice: ask questions in the spirit of curiosity. Envision yourself as the Direktor Grundsatzfragen or “Director of Fundamental Questions” (see p. 2 of the linked PDF), at least within your sphere of influence.
    • Empower people. I read recently that an administrator’s job is to “say yes as often as possible.” This makes a lot of sense to me, especially in schools. People typically choose to teach (or coach, or …) because they are passionate. Encourage them to develop their ideas, and if they bring one to you, find a way to make it happen if at all possible. It’s become a kind of cliche to say that leaders don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas, but just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
    • Focus on getting a few small “early wins” to build momentum and show people that you can lead. Keep in mind, however, that in keeping with the above, you shouldn’t try to do too much too fast or risk alienating people, so choose the areas you want to tackle carefully.
  • On an ongoing (i.e., daily) basis, be relentless about maintaining your connection to others–both students and faculty. This is important for any leader, but it becomes (I imagine) even more important the higher you climb. (That is to say, it’s probably easier to become “detached” as head of school than as department chair.) Do this in the following ways:
    • If need be, manage your schedule ruthlessly. This may seem like an odd follow-up to “foster a spirit of connection,” but it’s far too easy to get bogged down in e-mail and sit behind your desk all day. Carve out specific times for things like e-mail, phone calls, and daily tasks. Schedule reminders for things that used to be spontaneous, because it won’t be anymore (see below).  The inevitable crisis will throw you off some days, but self-discipline is a must.
    • Be visible. Yes, keeping the trains running on time requires a lot of “desk work,” but people won’t follow you if they can’t see you. E-mails are not an acceptable substitute.
    • Show appreciation for faculty. They work hard and need to know that you recognize that. A small gesture (a handwritten note or a shout-out in a faculty meeting–there’s a big difference, so know your target!) can go a long way. Again, e-mail will not suffice.
    • Even if it’s not spontaneous for you (i.e., you scheduled it on your calendar weeks or months ago), bring joy to people’s day in a way that encourages connection. Have donuts for faculty on a random Tuesday. Set up a hot chocolate station for students as they pass between classes. (In schools–especially high schools–joy and food often go hand-in-hand.)

In terms of the big picture, I learned that leadership can be a lonely business (as when making difficult or controversial decisions), but it can become even more lonely–perhaps dangerously so–if you are not careful and intentional about how and where you spend your time. In addition, effecting positive change in schools is a long game. As with the stock market, invest wisely and be patient, seeking steady growth rather than quick gains, which can be lost just as quickly.

And what about for me going forward? Well, I’ve learned that a formal leadership role can wait until I feel the NEED to lead. Looking back, I wanted to lead and was drawn to some of the challenges of the job in an intellectual sense, but I didn’t have the deep wellspring of passion and energy for the job that it required. Moreover, given the personal/family considerations that ultimately led me to Tampa, I probably wasn’t prepared to play the long game that leadership requires. Someday I might be, and I think this experience helped to clarify for me what kind of leader I would want to be. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity to learn so much relatively early in my career, but in the meantime, I’m happy to be back in the classroom, and as I get settled in my new school, I’ll seek out smaller, informal leadership opportunities in order to keep building my capacity.

Note: This post is an attempt to hash through an experience I had alongside my students earlier this semester. I’m attempting to make sense of some big ideas for myself, and I find that I think better through writing, so here goes. What follows may or may not come out in a clear, coherent form. (It should also be noted that this piece was written in dribs and drabs over a period of almost two months.)

I teach in a school that has an ambitious vision for education, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. While many schools talk of an “integrated curriculum” or “place-based education,” this place comes the closest I’ve seen to backing that up, with scaffolded themes and essential questions for each grade level (progressing from a local emphasis in the 9th grade to a global emphasis in the 12th). Each grade level also has a unique three-day “immersion trip” designed to bring these themes to life in an experiential way. Also incorporated throughout the curriculum is a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, though the degree of incorporation varies by teacher.

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For a sense of what this looks like in practice, I served on the 9th grade team for my first two years here, so I spent some time paddling a canoe around one of the most ecologically significant ecosystems in the entire Chesapeake Bay region, visiting one of the earliest and largest tobacco plantations in the area, talking with an elder of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, and thinking about the ways in which the Rappahannock River watershed might impact culture and economy (both historically and in the 21st century).

This year, I served on the 12th grade team, so the focus was much broader. In theory, our students are prepared by the 12th grade to address complex questions on a more abstract level, and so in early April, we spent a long weekend in the DC area, exploring questions of global significance. (Because I recently accepted a position at another school, this was also my last immersion trip, so it was very bittersweet for me personally—but what a privilege to be able to witness the entire progression of the program from 9th grade to 12th grade before I leave!)

The trip spanned Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, and we spent the first day hiking along the Potomac River in Great Falls Park and in Old Town Alexandria. The hike was a bit more strenuous than I expected—a lot of rock scrambling which tested my balance and ankle strength—but the views of the river were worth it. I had heard of Great Falls but never imagined that there was something of such impressive natural beauty and power in such close proximity to the nation’s capital. And that was the point. The trip was designed to take students—and first-time faculty, like me—from a place of relatively unspoiled natural wonder (unspoiled to the naked eye, at least) just a few miles into the city to demonstrate just how much our “built environment” affects the natural environment. After dinner and some time for exploration in Old Town, we ended up along the banks of the Potomac just downriver from its confluence with the Anacostia—a heavily-polluted and long-neglected waterway. We were also about two miles due south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, almost in a direct line with its north-south runways, which meant that there was a constant flow of planes overhead. I marked them at about one every 90 seconds. Except for the noise, it was hard to imagine a better setting in which to talk about global development and the triple bottom line. Not only was it literal the confluence of two rivers, it was the figurative confluence of people, environment, and economics—all very tangible for students in that moment.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society and its well-known magazine, where we visited with Robert Kunzig, Senior Environmental Editor. kunzig_port2_tnKunzig gave a brief presentation on climate change and the challenges we face, and I was pleased to learn that he is basically optimistic about our prospects. Without downplaying the reality of climate change at all, he acknowledged that there is a lot of scary, out-of-context information out there, and that meaningful improvement is within our reach… if we act. He offered a quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I found quite poignant: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Doctorow, of course, was referring to the process of writing a novel, but Kunzig applied the same principle to reversing climate change: We can’t necessarily see the destination right now, and we certainly can’t reverse climate change in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can get there.
The best part of the visit, however, was not Kunzig’s presentation; it was the Q&A that followed. The big question of the weekend for me—the question that kept playing in my head, as if on a loop—was “Where does culture fit into the ‘triple bottom line’?” If you’re familiar with the concept, you know that “triple bottom line” companies seek to achieve sustainability, which is defined not strictly as environmental protection, but as a balance of environment, equity, and economy (e.g., profit). But what about culture? Perhaps it fits into the equity (people) category, but that doesn’t feel quite right, as my understanding of equity is structured more around issues of fairness, etc. A company which seeks to profit but do so equitably may nevertheless destroy or change a culture in the process.

Nevertheless, this question of culture arose in my mind on the first night of the trip as we discussed the sustainability of Old Town Alexandria, and affluent community with many historic row houses and other buildings. In a discussion with students about urban planning, I suggested that the preservation of older buildings was one element of sustainability; by not tearing down old buildings to construct new, modern ones, fewer resources were consumed. One student rightly countered, though, that many of those old buildings leak energy, which led to a broader conversation about the “energy cost” of tearing down a building, removing the old materials, the environmental cost of disposing of them, etc. It was a good conversation, and the students were doing their best to consider the different elements of the “triple bottom line,” but I was struck by how quickly the conversation became about economics and ecology. For all of its flaws, one of the things I appreciate about Old Town Alexandria is its charming historical character, and this was barely a consideration.

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The question really came to life for me later that same night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the floor of the church where we were staying. Preparing for our meeting with Mr. Kunzig the following day, I read his article, “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future” (in National Geographic’s recent “Cool It.” issue).  In it, he connects Germany’s environmentalism to its culture:

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

As I read that, I began to think more about American culture. One “grand narrative” of American history involves manifest destiny: “Go west, young man.” Strike out for the frontier. Conquer the land. Bend nature to your will. Having grown up with this narrative likely gives us Americans a very different perspective on the environment. (I recognize that I’m oversimplifying here, but I do think the principle holds.)

During our conversation with Kunzig the following day, a student asked a question about climate change deniers, and Kunzig (who was surprisingly even-handed throughout) came the closest I saw to being dismissive. He basically said that those who deny the science of climate change aren’t worth wasting our time our breath on. While he was talking, though, it hit me: Why not use culture to “sell” action on climate change? It seems to me that many of the people who deny the science are the same ones who might actually be persuaded by a a more visceral cultural argument in favor of environmental sustainability. (Kunzig pointed out that there is a small evangelical movement focused on climate issues, and in response to a student question about the viability of living off the grid, he posited that he could see a rancher in Wyoming choosing to do so because he wanted to be “independent.”)

Yes!, I thought, when he said this. A rancher in Wyoming who installs wind turbines, solar panels, and a cistern for harvesting rainwater? This is rugged individualism. This is bending nature to your will for the 21st century. Of course, when thinking about the triple bottom line, we need to take into account the upfront costs of these technologies: what is the break-even point for recouping one’s investment? And, as the residents of Cape Cod could tell you, wind turbines may affect my neighbor’s business, property values, or  quality of life, so there are equity issues to consider as well. But culture has a role to play, too.

The triple bottom line model—useful though it is—is insufficient to address this. Perhaps it’s time to explore a quadruple bottom line.

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