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Reflections

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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Although we’re told that the fourth Thursday in November is the day to be grateful, I always find that I’m more reflective at the New Year. As I near the end of a long holiday break, I’ve had time to decompress and relax, more so than I usually do at Thanksgiving, which typically sneaks up on me in a rush and when exam season is just around the corner, always on the brain.

So, with that said, I’ve been thinking lately about 2015. It hasn’t been a perfect year, to be sure, and I could (if I wanted) list all of the things that didn’t go my way or left me disappointed. But I don’t want. On balance, it’s been a pretty great year, and I have much to be grateful for: my health and the (relative) health of my friends and family, a wife with whom I can share the highs and lows and for whom my love grows every day, a job that leaves me feeling challenged,  No, all things considered, it’s been a pretty great year.

Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights from 2015:

In March, I helped chaperone a 15-day service learning trip to India. As a bonus, because Emily was doing weekend duty on campus last year, she was eligible to travel as a “faculty participant” at cost. It was an incredible and humbling adventure for both of us—something neither of us will ever forget.

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In June, Emily and I bought a “new” (gently used) car: a 2012 Subaru Outback with low mileage. This was the first car either of us had bought on our own, so we’re pretty proud of her. I did have about a week of buyer’s remorse as I feared that we bought more car than we really needed—and we did—but we got a good deal. I drove Emily crazy with all the research, but in the end, she agrees, we got the right one.

Later that month, I headed north in the new whip to the Boston area, where I spent the summer on the campus of Wellesley College working as an administrator for the same summer program where I cut my teeth in education as a college student. It was a crazy, exhausting two months, but it gave me a ton of great experience for my new role (see below). I saw a lot of myself (my old self) in the staff: energetic and idealistic. Hard not to be inspired in an environment like that!

It was tough being apart for Emily for two months (though she did come up to spend the Fourth of July in Boston—an experience I highly recommend for anyone who has the chance), but being on my own in a new environment did have an upside: it allowed me to reset some of my habits (especially around eating and exercising) and build some healthy new ones. I spent the summer eating well and running, and in the end, I lost about 30 pounds. (Actually, at one point, it was closer for 40 pounds, but after the holidays…)

I got a promotion as well, and in August, I returned from Boston to start in my first administrative position. It was a whirlwind few weeks, especially since my boss was out of the country for the start of school, but I eventually got my feet under me. I’m still learning a lot (and making mistakes), but I’m trying to practice what I preach and keep a growth mindset.

Finally, after an incredibly busy 11-month run (India over Spring Break, Boston for the summer), Emily and I finally got some much-needed R&R during the first part of the Thanksgiving holiday. Having loved our trip to East Africa in the summer of 2014, we decided to check out another part of the African continent. On the recommendation of a friend and colleagued who has lived and worked there, we spent several days in Senegal—mostly reading and relaxing in a hammock and sleeping in a treehouse built into a baobab tree and eating amazing French food. We didn’t do a lot of sight-seeing on this trip, but it was a glorious experience nevertheless. To top it off, we were able to take advantage of a direct flight from DC to Dakar to make it home in time to spend Thanksgiving with our families.

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So, all in all: 30 pounds, two continents, two new jobs, and one new car. A pretty great year overall.

Over the last few days, I’ve spent some time looking forward as well as back—thinking about what the next few years might hold for myself and for Emily. My new role has brought about some fresh thinking in terms of the issues I want to work on, and the New Year gives us reason to reflect on all that we have to be thankful for and all that we hope for in the years ahead.

Perhaps I’ll write more about that going forward, but I’ll end with my resolutions for 2016. For now, I have two: to be a better (i.e., more communicative) son/brother/friend, and to make more time to write (whether here or elsewhere).

I haven’t posted much here in a long while. My last post detailed the reasons for my last hiatus. I’ll be far less descriptive this time. Suffice it to say, the new job (I guess it’s not so new anymore) doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Or rather, that kind of time is not readily apparent in my schedule; it must be carved out. I don’t know that I’ll do any better this time around, but I do miss writing, so I hope to try.

Year 2 in the “new” school is well underway, and I can already tell a difference. I’m more comfortable with the culture and the personalities, more confident in my interactions with both students and colleagues. I’m also teaching a new course (theology) for the first time this year, which has proven thus far to be invigorating, and I will serve as the head coach of the JV basketball team. All in all, there’s a lot going on.

Last year was a blur, and in some ways, a rather rude awakening. Having spent five years teaching at an all-girls school (and mostly teaching junior and senior girls, at that), I suddenly found myself in classrooms and a dormitory hall full of freshman boys. Talk about a culture shock! As I’ve come to tell people, the difference–in terms of maturity–between an 18 year-old girl and a 14 year-old boy is not four years; it’s about ten! So the past year has been an eye-opening experience, for sure. I’ve been forced to confront my deeply held beliefs about education, and at times, I’ve found some of them wanting. I had grown too comfortable in my previous school, I think, and though there are aspects of that job that I miss quite a bit, I believe that stepping out of my comfort zone has forced me to become a better teacher.

One adjustment–though it comes as no surprise–is the lack of time and mental/emotional distance that comes with working at a boarding school. During the three years that I lived off-campus at my previous school, I was a much better teacher (in the strictly academic sense) because I had more control over my evenings. I could plan more thoughtfully and reflect more regularly on my classroom practice. But the beautiful opportunity (and challenge) of boarding schools is that teaching is rarely defined in strictly academic terms. Over the past year, I’ve found it rewarding to have difficult conversations with students about their lives outside the classroom, and at times, I wonder if those types of interactions will not have a greater impact that what I teach in the classroom. I suspect they might. Despite the adjustment, I’ve also found it rewarding to help boys as they mature into young men. I’m increasingly coming to believe that schools and society are not generally friendly places for teenage boys, and they need help as they learn what it means to be a man. But that’s another post for another day.

I’m a bit late in posting this reflection for the month of September, but a little over a month into the school year, I was feeling as though I deserved three Fs:

–          one F for feeling like a First-year teacher

–          one F for feeling like a Failure, and

–          one F for feeling like a Fraud.

I was probably being too hard on myself, but that’s how I operate.

You see, this year has very much been a process of adjustment for me. Although I’ve kept my sections of American history (which are going very well overall), I’m also teaching Western Civ for the first time, which is why I feel like a first-year teacher. In a way that I haven’t done since my “rookie season,” I’ve expended considerable energy just to “keep ahead” of what I’m teaching. So far, so good, but feeling like a first-year teacher in my fifth year has made me feel like a failure. I’m supposed to have it all figured out by now, right? I guess not.

What really bothered me, though, was the third F: feeling like a Fraud.

Because I’m teaching Western Civ for the first time, I’ve found myself relying on a lot of old teacher tricks: multiple choice quizzes, traditional grades, etc. In other words, I’m using methods that I don’t necessarily agree with as a crutch, simply because I don’t know the material as well as I feel I should—certainly not as well as I know American history.

I’ve also found myself thinking things (e.g., “some of these kids just don’t seem motivated”) that I don’t generally believe. I tend to believe that if students aren’t motivated, that’s at least in part a failure of the teacher to present the material in an interesting way. Because I haven’t taught the class before, though, I haven’t had a chance to really figure out what sorts of questions or issues motivate students. I’m just starting to get a very vague sense, and I think things are slowly getting better, but in the meantime, I’ve found myself wanting to blame my students for my own failures. That’s a tough thing to admit to myself, let alone to the world (as if anyone reads this).

After talking with my Outward Bound Educators Initiative mentor (more on that some other time), though, it occurs to me that there is probably a lot of learning going on in this situation—on my end as well as theirs. As I described some of my concerns to him, Michael pointed out that my “comfort zone” in Western Civ is much smaller than my comfort zone in American history. He basically gave me permission to not incorporate the classroom community-building techniques we learned in that class, given that I already seem to be well into my “stretch zone.”

Thanks. And good point. I’m adjusting to a new course with new content, as well as a new grade level with new developmental expectations. Maybe I should be willing to let go of some things and just deal with my discomfort on those levels.

From my students’ perspective, I’m asking them to take responsibility for their own learning—to play an active role in the acquisition and application of knowledge. For many of them, especially those who are accustomed to more passive learning environments, that’s getting into their “stretch” (or maybe even “panic”) zones. Like me, they blame the other party (i.e., me), but as teenagers, they’re less discreet in their frustration. In class, I’ve seen eye rolls and heard heavy sighs and under-the-breath remarks. Outside of class, I was hearing about much grumbling to friends and advisors.

So, a week or so ago, we spent an entire class period hashing things out. More accurately, I spent an entire class period soliciting their input on why the class was frustrating them and what they would change if they could. I tried to make it clear upfront that although I valued their opinions and suggestions, I could not promise that their requests would be honored.

It was an interesting day. Put succinctly, most of the students who spoke up seemed to be saying (in not so many words, and probably without realizing it) that they needed more structure, and a smaller number seemed to be saying that what they really wanted was the passive, teacher-centered environment that they’ve grown accustomed to. I made it clear that although I would consider the request for more structure, I was firm in my commitment to fostering independence.

After thinking through those conversations over the weekend, I brainstormed a list of minor changes that I’m going to be implementing. Most of them are attempts to have students create more structure for themselves. My hope is that these changes will be a win-win; students will get more structure, and they will also do the work to create it.

I’m feeling better about the classes already, and what I’m most proud of is the way I’ve acknowledged my shortcomings and tried to learn from them. I didn’t really think of it this way at the time, but on reflection, I hope that I’m successfully modeling a positive approach to failure, the same thing that I spoke about in my convocation address at the start of the year.

I have to acknowledge, though, that it hasn’t been an easy thing. I feel as though I’ve been fighting against old authoritarian habits that are shared (I think) by many teachers. It has crossed my mind that to admit fault is to “weaken oneself” in the eyes of the students—a corollary to the old saw for first year teachers about not smiling until Thanksgiving. (Although I didn’t follow this advice, I did once accept its wisdom. Today, though, I tend to believe in a different cliché: “Until they know how much you care, they won’t care how much you know.”) I’ve had to work to let go of the notion that “strength” is the most important stance I can present in the classroom.

On a more positive note, there is one thing I have done well in my Western Civ classes. I’ve worked hard to implement formative assessments and use that information to shape my own instruction, particularly for writing. I gave two short, ungraded writing assignments, and I encouraged students to revise them. Both of these influenced my instruction leading up to our first graded essay, and all in all, the results were pretty good. When I compare them with what I’ve seen from my American history students (a year older and honors-level), I’m pretty impressed. Unfortunately, I made some assumptions about the skills that I could expect from my 11th grade honors students, and I didn’t do as much to prepare them for the assignment. I now see that I should have–but luckily, they too will have the opportunity to revise and learn from their mistakes. Just like me. And that is the value of formative assessment.

So, all in all, I’d have to say that my progress report probably wasn’t good, but I think my grades are already starting to climb.