Teaching in the Age of Controversy

My good friend Jeff once shared this quote on his blog:

A child who is protected from all controversial ideas... is as vulnerable as a child who is protected from every germ. The infection, when it comes—and it will come—may overwhelm the system, be it the immune system or the belief system. (Source: Jane Smiley, Chicago Tribune)

In today's era of increasing polarization, it seems that anything labeled "political" is also considered "controversial." When so many problems are ultimately caused by ignorance, I worry what this means for the future. This year, I taught ninth-grade Human Geography, a new course for me and our curriculum. Some of the topics that came up: migration, climate change, religious freedom, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, changing definitions of race, and other "political" topics.

I think that I successfully managed to help the students learn about these topics without causing unnecessary angst, but I was certainly wary of potential phone calls from angry parents. But at the same time, it was not an option to not cover these topics. Take migration, for example. A very charged topic right now, but the understanding of migration is crucial not only to Human Geography as a subject but to the mission of my school as a Catholic, Jesuit institution.

I've seen other teachers attacked for simply presenting topics that students or parents felt were "too political." In almost every case, those topics were, I think, vital for students to understand and equally vital to our school's mission. Our Mission Statement says very clearly that our school:

promotes justice and mercy, develops critical minds and nurtures compassionate hearts to serve others

It's impossible to develop critical minds, compassionate hearts, and promote justice if certain topics are considered verboten. It's not about indoctrinating students–though at a mission-based school, it should certainly be expected to express that some points of view fit our mission and others do not. But if we, the teachers, do not helps students to wrestle with challenging topics, to understand their blindspots, biases, and ignorance, then who will?

So when people say, "Teachers should not be political in the classroom," what do they really mean? My fear is that they are trying to remove from discussion any topic that would threaten their own power, whether economic, social, or political. A tweet from the pseudonymous @sisyphus38 put it succinctly:

Who determines what is political and what is educational...(And how are people tricked into thinking there was such a difference?) Who determines what is on the agenda or off the agenda? Power does of course and power serves power.

Being "neutral," as some recommend, is not an option. As a teacher, either I am helping students uncover the truth, particularly when it comes to areas of injustice, or I am actively perpetuating oppression. As Elie Wiesel said when accepting the Nobel Prize:

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant."

As a teacher, I have to be willing to address topics of injustice, even when I'm worried they may be too "political." That means working hard to craft lessons that challenge the students and to provide a safe space for students to grow into their own understanding of the world. If I don't take up this task, then I am ceding the role of instructor and guide to others–to social media and to that same culture of polarization and tribalism that has gotten us to this place. The students deserve better.

As an administrator, I have to also make sure that the other teachers feel empowered and protected when their own lessons receive pushback from students, parents, or colleagues who feel threatened. How can we make it clear as a community that we have a duty to prepare students to engage with the world thoughtfully, even (especially) when it's uncomfortable? We have to be willing to dialogue with those who disagree, but also stand firm about our role. I feel fortunate to work at a mission-based school, where we can be very upfront that this is a school with a point-of-view. Every member of this community is here as a volunteer.

To help keep me grounded in this mission as an educator, I have a poster hanging in my office with a quote from Paulo Freire:

Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

I cannot think of a better call to action for educators.


Three Org Charts

The always-wise Michael Lopp, a.k.a. Rands, recently tweeted:

There are three org charts you must understand as a leader: the org chart, the political org chart, and the technical org chart.

Much of my formal training in educational leadership could've been condensed into those 128 characters. Without understanding the team in place, and both the formal and informal structures that shape that team, a leader has no hope of effectively managing significant change.

After reading this, I spent some time on a recent flight sketching out what those three charts might look like based on the schools in which I've worked. These are specific to my experiences, of course (but no names!), but general enough that I think others who work in schools may appreciate the exercise. These sketches are glossing over countless complexities and nuances, but the point is that it's a good exercise for any school leader to undertake.

The org chart

The org chart at the private schools with which I have the most experience tends to be very hierarchical.

The org chart at the private schools with which I have the most experience tends to be very hierarchical.

My experience has been primarily at private schools, and the official organizational chart tends to be a pretty simple hierarchy. If a leader is implementing change, they must understand the formal structures within which that change will be happening, and how those structures may be impacted or challenged by the changes. The fact that schools are so hierarchical, with relatively few positions of formal leadership, is a real challenge (more on that below).

The political org chart

The political org chart can vary widely, but the point is: the head of the organizational structure may not actually have the most influence.

The political org chart can vary widely, but the point is: the head of the organizational structure may not actually have the most influence.

Obviously, this varies widely from school to school (or even from month to month within a school). In my experience, the head of the political org chart may be one of the formal administrators–but perhaps (often?) not the one at the top of the structural org. Just below them are the groups of teachers that wield quite a bit of political sway. These tend to be veteran teachers, though "veteran" could mean four years or twenty-four years, depending on the context.

Some of these teachers hold political influence because not only do they have history in the institution, but they are well-liked. They may or not be the best teachers or colleagues (cf. the next chart), but most of the faculty and staff enjoy working with them, and so their opinion carries a lot of weight. If these teachers are onboard with a change, it can make things much easier for everybody else to adopt.

There can also be a group of veteran teachers with similar influence because they (or their influence) is feared. These are the teachers who can end a discussion with a well-timed remark or a conspicuous lack of support. If these teachers aren't onboard with a plan, their gravitational pull can make it that much harder for other teachers to buy in.

The skills org chart

There's a new book written every hour about the skills needed for teaching, but I think most of it falls into mastery of these three categories.

There's a new book written every hour about the skills needed for teaching, but I think most of it falls into mastery of these three categories.

In a school, the "skills" are much more varied than what Rands deals with in his work managing engineers, but they're just as important. There are countless ways to try and make a chart of the various skills that are evident in a school, and even more ways of trying to quantify or label those skills. This overly simple chart is just meant to show the obvious–there exist among teachers different skill levels. Again, if a leader is working to effect change, they will need to understand the skills of the people undertaking the change.

I think it would be a good exercise for any leader to try and sketch out their own versions of these three charts, both in general terms like I've done, but also thinking of the specific individuals in the organization. The real value comes in examining where the various charts align, because that's where conflict can arise, particularly while managing change.

  • Is the person at the top of the org chart also at the top of the political or skills charts? If not, what does that mean for the leader's chances of success?
  • What are the political forces that will need to be onboard for any change to succeed? Understanding the political org chart would be helpful in conducting a force field analysis.
  • Are some of the most-skilled people at the bottom of the org chart or the political org chart? That's a recipe for disgruntled employees and a culture of mediocrity (at best).
  • What's the Venn diagram of overlap between these charts? If somebody is near the top (or bottom) of one, two, or three of these charts what does that mean for that individual and for the institution?
  • Is the leader's view of these charts the same as the individuals in the organization? Are there people who see their role differently than the organization as a whole sees them?
  • What if somebody is a great teacher, a leader within the school, but does not want to leave the classroom to become an administrator? What are the structures in place for talented employees to grow and to benefit the community in broader ways, without them choosing an entirely new field?
  • Who is around the table when the big decisions are being made? Those at the top of the org chart, the political chart, or the skills chart? If somebody is at the top of the political or skills chart but not involved in decision-making, how much support and expertise will there be for implementing those decisions?

On that last point, I recently read a passage from Kim Scott's Radical Candor that illustrates this very clearly (emphasis mine):

In his book A Primer on Decision Making, James March explains why it’s a bad thing when the most “senior” people in a hierarchy are always the deciders. What he calls “garbage can decision-making” occurs when the people who happen to be around the table are the deciders rather than the people with the best information. Unfortunately, most cultures tend to favor either the most senior people or the people with the kinds of personalities that insist on sitting around the table. The bad decisions that result are among the biggest drivers of organizational mediocrity and employee dissatisfaction.

Any leader who doesn't understand these three org charts and how they interact in their institution is likely going to have a bad time.

It's Important to Imagine

When Adam was born, he got a few moments to cuddle with his mom, but then the nurses wanted to get him to the NICU. I moved to hand him to a nurse, but she said, “You can carry him, just follow me.” I’d been a parent for all of 10 minutes, but there I was carrying my 4 lb. 12 oz. newborn son down to the NICU. I stayed with him while they started an IV (it took five agonizing-to-watch attempts) and got him on oxygen. I stayed with him for an hour (an hour for which my wife still hasn’t entirely forgiven me) before I finally tore myself away. My wife and I spent the better part of the next 17 days in the NICU with him. Even though he was mostly just lying there sleepily, awake for only 30 minutes at a time between naps, it was still hard to leave him. We drove the 13 miles to and from the hospital two or three times every day until he got to come home (on Father's Day).

Adam's first moments at home.

Adam's first moments at home.

This morning, two years to the day since he came home from the hospital, I took Adam to daycare. The whole way there, he was singing the names of all the people (and dogs) he’d see at daycare. He ran to the door. But as soon as we walked in, he started grabbing at me and whining, “Up, please? Dada, up...” He was begging me not to leave him. I don’t worry about him for half a second while he’s at daycare. He’s happy, engaged, actively learning, and safe. But still, it broke my heart to pull him off me and walk out the door.

I can’t imagine the experiences of families escaping terror in their homes, coming to the United States seeking asylum, and having their children ripped from their arms. These parents aren’t leaving their infant or toddler with loving NICU nurses or saintly daycare providers, but with uniformed officers who are not allowed to provide comfort to the child, and kept in cages. The parents and children have no idea when or if they'll be reunited.

I say, “I can’t imagine,” because that’s what we all say. “I just can’t imagine,” we say, shaking our heads.

Of course, it would be more correct to say, “I don’t want to imagine.” I’ve tried to imagine what that would feel like for me if Adam were taken away, not knowing where he is or when I’d see him again. It's not that I can’t imagine, it’s that I’m not willing to. I refuse to imagine it. It's too terrifying, too damaging to even allow the thought any entry.

Some say the policy is a "deterrent," even though many of these families are legally seeking asylum and that the U.S. is likely violating international law.

Laws aside, it's unethical for any country, any human, to treat children like this. I don't want to think about the situation of these families, but I owe it to them to try. Because maybe by really, fully considering the horror they are living I can be forced into action.


→ Responsibility vs. Compliance

I've written about homework before, and it's a topic I consider often.

Over at The Teacher and the Admin, the two authors have written several posts lately on the this very topic. In one post, Gary Armida decries what he sees as the false notion that homework is necessary for students to learn responsibility.

We now give more work to kids than ever before. That “more” isn’t developing responsibility. That “more” is developing compliance.

I think the distinction between "responsibility" and "compliance" is a key one in schools today, and applies to more topics than just homework. How often do we teachers reward compliance over genuine learning?

Drowning in Information

Twenty years ago, noted biologist and author E.O. Wilson wrote:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. (Source: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge)

I think this has only become more true over time. That's why all this debate about STEM vs. the humanities has been so exhausting to me. If we don't give students the opportunity to learn both, we end up with billionaires building rockets... to shoot their sports car into space.

Then there are studies like this one, that indicate STEM majors are less politically active:

An analysis that we conducted shows that college students studying STEM disciplines — that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were among the least likely to vote. STEM students appear less interested in other forms of political and civic engagement, too. One study found that students who took more science and engineering courses were less likely to participate in politics by donating money to a campaign or attending a political meeting. Another found that engineering majors were less committed to social activism than their non-STEM peers.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote a couple years ago (emphasis mine):

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.

Instead of such a singular focus on a relatively narrow field of topics, we should be spending our energy on how to integrate all the subjects that have been kept in such distinct silos for too long.

→ "Ten Ways to Leverage Student Choice in Your Classroom"

The longer I teacher, the more I look for ways to empower my students to make choices the direct the class. I enjoyed this list of simple strategies for giving students more choice in the classroom, while still respecting the role of the teacer:

When we incorporate choice, students own the learning process. We honor their agency and empower them to become the life-long learners we want them to be. At some point, they will leave the classroom and they won’t have a guide right there by their side. They will have to take charge and make decisions about their own learning. This is why student choice is so critical.

The Heroic Work of School Counselors

Recently, I was asked to put into writing the role our counselors have in our school, as the school leaders are discussing staffing. As I am wont to do, I probably wrote more than they intended to read and they regret asking my opinion. Since this week is also National School Counselors Week, I’m going to share that email below.

Cura personalis. That phrase is uttered often by administrators here, stamped on the admissions brochures, and posted throughout the school. It is at the core of everything we do here. One thing I have learned is that the work of cura personalis doesn’t really scale. If we add ten more students to the community, the daily workload of the Registrar or the Asst. Principal does not change significantly. But if a counselor has ten more students, they don’t suddenly have more time in the day to meet with those students. They can only be present for one student at a time.

The work of cura personalis is messy. It is slow work, getting a student to go from failing her classes, to passing them, to getting As and Bs. To help a student grieve for a lost friendship or a lost parent is a process full of stops and starts. The timeframe is not measured in 60 minute meetings, but often in semesters or years of the students’ time here. That work is simply not possible without our counselors. Period, full stop.

The needs of our students are not declining. In fact, there is much evidence that the mental health of adolescents nationwide is as precarious now as at any time in our nation’s history. Depression, anxiety, social isolation, addictions, perfectionism—our students have very real struggles. We are fortunate that many of our students come from homes with very supportive parents, but that is far from an inoculation against these challenges. In addition, the school is actively looking to bring in a more diverse population, to be a school for all students who want to be a part of our mission. Many of these students have even more external pressures, and our counselors are a vital source of support for them.

What would additional staffing in the counseling department mean for our community? It would mean making a commitment to live out the mottos that are so frequently bandied about. It would mean making a commitment to our students that we care about their well-being, not just their grades. I could go on for pages about the students in crisis who are still here only because of the tireless work of our counselors. One need only to attend a single retreat to hear of the times our counselors have literally saved the life of a student. However, just as important are the names I don’t know, the students who passed through here or transferred out without having made a connection.

Our counselors are not the only ones responsible for our students’ wellbeing, of course, but their role cannot be understated. I'm fortunate to work at a school with a focus on the students' whole person, and that mission is embodied in the work of every adult here. But if you are a teacher or administrator, give your school counselors an extra "thank you" this week for all their tireless work.

Media Diet: 2017

Because I am a broken person, I track every book I read and movie I watch. Astonishingly, despite finishing my second graduate degree this year, raising an infant who has become a toddler, and the usual 60-hour work weeks, I managed to read more books and watch more movies than I have in a long time. Since I have so much less time available to me, I value the time I do have differently. As my friend Paul Cumbo wrote on this topic:

The most striking discovery I’ve made since becoming a dad is the shifting economics of time and productivity... A sneaky little irony about parenthood is that you suddenly have less time but you get more done than ever before. Since becoming a dad, I’ve become a lot more productive. And the irony here is that I have far less time to myself.

For me, that means that when I'm finally done for the night, I tend not to stare mindlessly at my phone, reading whatever new horrors Twitter presents. Instead, I more consciously choose to read or watch a movie.

So below are some of my favorites from 2017 (whether or not they were released then):


According to Letterboxd, I watched 46 movies this year (which doesn't count all those times I'd sit down and see The Dark Knight or A Few Good Men on TV and watch until the end). Some of the highlights:

  • John Wick and John Wick 2: I watched the first movie when I was home with a fever. What a fun, classic action movie–and the sequel is just as good.
  • Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok: The annual slate of comic book movies had some pleasant surprises (Logan, Thor, and Wonder Woman), as well as some reliable, if unremarkable, hits (Guardians and Spider-Man). While I think Wonder Woman was overrated by most, anything new is good.
  • Children of Men: I'd seen this movie before, but not in ten years. Watching it again in 2017, with everything going on in the world and being a new parent, it felt like a brand new experience (though the cinematography was just as gorgeous as I remembered).
  • Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan's movies had become a bit overstuffed lately, at least in terms of plot. The simplicity of this story really let the craftsmanship of the film shine through.
  • The Vietnam War: This Ken Burns documentary is just as good as everybody has said.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I could write a whole post about this, but the world doesn't need that right now. I'll just say that this is a Star Wars movie that really tries to be about something–and I think it succeeds marvelously.
  • Get Out: Another movie that tells a taut story well. Deserving of its inclusion on all the end-of-year lists.
  • Lady Bird: Set in an all-girls Catholic high school in 2003 (I graduated from a Catholic high school in 2001 and now work at an all-girls school), this movie got just about everything right.
  • Honorable mention movies I saw either again or for the first time in 2017 that I enjoyed or made me think: Silence, Pulp Fiction, No Country for Old Men, Baby Driver, Logan Lucky


I somehow managed to read almost 12,000 pages in 2017. That's a lot, even for me. The ones that stuck with me:

Fiction and comics

  • Irredeemable, Mark Waid: I devoured this series from Mark Waid. A fun subversion of the usual tropes: what if Superman turned evil?
  • Saga, Book 2, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples: Still the best comic series out there, and one of few that I still look forward to monthly.
  • The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett: I'd been scared away by the sheer size of the book, but I was looking for something long I could really sink my teeth into, and this didn't disappoint. For such an expansive work, it actually focuses on relatively few characters, so by the end I felt very invested in them.
  • The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller: I loved everything about this novel, and can't wait to read Circe. Rare is the writer in this genre of historical fiction who has a grasp of the history/mythology and is also a strong writer.



Every year that goes by, I find myself increasingly worried about the amount of stress that students are under–and the impact of that stress on their health and well-being. A recent New York Times article by Benoit Denizet-Lewis focused on the increasing number of students in high schools and colleges who suffer from severe anxiety. From that article:

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year.

When I first started teaching, I would often blame the parents. And certainly I've heard from plenty of students who feel a lot of (undue) pressure from their parents to succeed. But more and more, the parents I meet are not the primary source of anxiety; rather, the students are putting this pressure on themselves. From that same New York Times article:

It’s tempting to blame helicopter parents with their own anxiety issues for that pressure (and therapists who work with teenagers sometimes do), but several anxiety experts pointed to an important shift in the last few years. “Teenagers used to tell me, ‘I just need to get my parents off my back,’ ” recalls Madeline Levine, a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-affiliated nonprofit that works on school reform and student well-being. “Now so many students have internalized the anxiety. The kids at this point are driving themselves crazy.”

It's not just anxiety or depression–there are many ways in which stress impacts students' physical and emotional wellbeing. From a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Alexandra Ossola:

But too much stress has many effects on the body and mind, [Mary] Alvord says. In the short term it can cause anxiety; over long periods of time, elevated levels of stress hormones can degrade the immune system, cause heart problems, exacerbate respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, and bring on chronic anxiety and depression. That’s bad for anyone, but it can be especially bad for high schoolers... And since everyone has a different psychological capacity for stress, it’s hard to know when a student is pushed to the point of degrading his or her health.

As educators, we can't fix all these issues, but we have to be attentive to them and do what we can to help our students succeed without sacrificing their physical, mental, or emotional health. As writer (and writing teacher) John Warner puts it:

Increasingly, I think there’s a barrier I haven’t previously considered that needs addressing if my students are going to succeed: anxiety... We need to build a pedagogy that removes some measure of that anxiety and that allows students to practice–and see the benefits of–resiliency.

And you don't have to take my word for it. Ask the students, as they're acutely aware of the different stressors in their lives. In 2015, a junior at Palo Alto High School wrote about "the sorrows of young Palo Altans," and much of it sounded very familiar to me. Ms. Walworth may have only been a junior in high school, but I can't say it any better than she: "Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress."

So what do we do?

Earlier this spring, the New York Times covered some attempts to address this issue in Lexington, Mass.:

Elementary school students now learn breathing exercises and study how the brain works and how tension affects it. New rules in the high school limit homework. To decrease competition, there are no class rankings and no valedictorians and salutatorians. In town, there are regular workshops on teen anxiety and college forums designed to convince parents that their children can succeed without the Ivy Leagues.

There's a trend to say that schools should focus on teaching "grit," but to quote John Warner again, "Simply demanding greater resiliency isn’t going to work. We don’t badger people suffering from depression to be happier." I have little patience for teachers who justify policies that exist primarily to cause stress by saying, "I have to teach them a lesson," as if by simply living in a state of anxiety or stress for long enough is enough to help them learn to cope. As Alfie Kohn writes:

But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.

So the key is to give students some experiences where they feel challenged, while maintaining an environment that is unconditionally supportive. Alfie Kohn again writes about the importance of "unconditional teaching":

One study found that students who felt unconditionally accepted by their teachers were more likely to be genuinely interested in learning and to enjoy challenging academic tasks—as opposed to just doing things because they had to and preferring easier assignments at which they knew they would be successful (Makri-Botsari, 2001). To provide this unconditional support, we must actively oppose the policies that get in the way, such as those that encourage us to value children on the basis of their academic standing—or, worse, merely on the basis of their test scores.

Mr. Denizet Lewis' piece spends some time discussing the use of exposure therapy, an important piece of cognitive-behavioral therapy for those suffering from anxiety. We teachers are not clinicians, of course, but those same principles could perhaps inform how we aim to challenge students while still supporting them unconditionally. How can we help students have challenging experiences, while still making it clear to them that they are safe?

If teachers are challenging our students, stretching them to try new experiences, learn new skills, and think in new ways, it's not inherently bad that they feel some stress or anxiety about the process; those moments of discomfort can be where the growth happens. At the same time, we teachers can make sure that students feel entirely supported throughout that process. For example, do my classroom policies make students feel stress or anxiety about valuable things, like trying to write the best paper they can, or do I cause them to feel stress about extraneous details like unnecessary deadlines? Many times I worry that the entire process of assigning grades to student work is counter-productive to this unconditional support, but if grades are a necessary evil, how can I minimize the damage? I can say to my students, "Don't worry about grades," but if only the students with the highest GPAs are recognized, what message does that send?

I have my own experiences with anxiety, and my heart goes out for these kids who find themselves feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Life is challenging enough, and if we in schools make it unnecessarily difficult for our students, that's not some kind of vaccine that will protect them later. We can't make their world completely free of stressors, nor should that be the goal. But I do think we have a duty to support them–in many cases, better than we have done.

→ "5 Dumb Things I Used to Think About School"

This is a thoughtful post, but I really liked the point the author makes about deadlines and late work (a topic I've mentioned before):

“Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback.”