Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 2017 Dozen: What Can I Do?

All right. So some folks are pretty upset about 2016.

There was certainly lots to not love about the year on many scales. Some of that is real (Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds gone in two days??!!), and some of it is just heightened sensitivity to what is not really news (What?! America still has racism!?). There's a veritable cornucopia of reasons for folks to be dissatisfied with the year. On the other hand, personally, my son got married, my daughter delivered her second child, my wife and I made a cross-country trip I've always dreamed about, and we are expecting twins next summer. Plus I still have one of the best jobs in the world.

 So as we've all been trying to answer the question of how to move into 2017, I've been thinking about the space between the personal view and the larger picture. The larger picture can seem loaded with lots of frustration and despair and helplessness, but on the personal level...? On that level I get to choose what I do, how I react, what steps I take . It's where my greatest power lies, and so, my greatest responsibility.

So here's what I tell myself going into 2017.

1) Be present and pay attention. It is easy to get wrapped up in the To Do List of the classroom teacher. Well, easy for me, anyway. But our students need to be present and paying attention, to hear what they say and see who they are even when they aren't explicitly trying to be seen and heard. Nothing that I do in a classroom is more important than finding the connection to each student.

2) Do not wait for someone else to stand up. Do not count on someone else to advocate for what I care about. Do not leave it to someone else to call a Congressperson or a state official about the issues that matter. Especially don't say, "That's what I pay union dues for. They can handle it." Call. Write. Speak up. Stand up.

3) Don't waste energy. Don't waste energy getting worked up about things that haven't actually happened yet. Pay attention, but don't mistake your predictions and fear for true future history. React to what actually happens. You know you've lost the thread when you are angry at students, colleagues, friends, and elected officials for things they haven't actually done.

4) Read up. Study up. Know what there is to know about the work of teaching, and keep trying to learn more.

5) When the door opens, say yes. If it's the teachable moment, don't reject it because it's not in the plan. If it's the moment someone needs you, don't turn your back because you have other things to do. If it's opportunity, don't close the door because the timing is inconvenient. Mostly you don't get to choose when the door opens, but you do get to choose whether or not to say yes. Say yes.

6) Be honest. There isn't anything more important. Even if it bothers members of your own tribe. Even if it isn't what was true to you yesterday. Even if you are afraid to be seen by those who may strike back.

7) Give the students more feedback more often more soon. I make this pledge every year. It's possible I will not ever be satisfied with my results.

8) Remember that while you share fundamental human qualities with every other human being, you have vastly different experiences. Your normal is not everybody's normal. In particular, remember that other people may be struggling on a hill that you never even had to climb. Do not confuse a difference in experience for a difference in basic humanity; if you imagine that the hill they are struggling on would never have stopped you for a second because you are stronger or grittier or better, you probably don't understand either yourself or that hill as well as you should.

9) Value people. Value people. Value people. Money and power and privilege are only important insofar as they help you take care of other people. The circumstances of your life, particularly the circumstances of your profession, have put a whole bunch of people right in your path. Start by looking out for them.

10) Advocate for what you want, not what you don't want. You already know this from the classroom-- it is infinitely more useful to tell a student what you want him to do instead of what you want him not to do.

11) Always say what you mean, and say it like you really mean it. Never stop considering the possibility that you may need to change your mind.

12) Never let tradition, authority, systems, habit, or other people's power substitute for using your best fresh judgment. Start the question from scratch; if you were in the right place before, you'll be lead right there again. Don't just grab last year's unit plan-- ask yourself how you, right now, would teach that unit. And always make sure your best fresh judgment includes consideration of the ideas and words of other smart people.

That's my dozen for this year-- which should be an exciting year indeed.


  1. Incredible, inspirational, and intelligent, as always. I feel like #8 will stick with me a good long time. (As an avid runner I'm all about those hill analogies!) Your blog kept me far better informed and aware in 2016 than I otherwise would have been, and for that I thank you profusely. Happy New Year.

    Also: twins?????? CONGRATULATIONS!!!

  2. Peter, thank you so much.
    I'm going to print this out and put it on the wall near my desk, where I can look at it every day.

  3. I never miss a post and this one really hits it. Thank you, Peter Greene!

  4. All excellent advice! I particularly like the way you explain #8.