Passion and Professional Development: Three More Anecdotes

Last week I posted Passion and Professional Development: Four Anecdotes, the first part of a chapter I’m writing for a book edited by Mike Lawrence. This post includes three more anecdotes written for the same chapter. Again, I’d be thrilled if some of you find inspiration here – and I’d be grateful for any feedback you can provide.

No Fate But What We Make

One of my favorite stories about the future is the science fiction action-adventure film Terminator 2. As much as it’s an escapist entertainment experience (and as much as it might seem an unlikely subject for an anecdote in a book on education), it was a well done film on many levels, and provided a philosophical life lesson that resonates with me – and with many of the workshop participants I share the story with.

You may or may not be familiar with the story, but I’ll repeat the important parts here to illustrate my point. In the future, John Connor is the leader of a “human resistance” that is ultimately victorious against Skynet, the artificial intelligence behind a “rise of the machines” that nearly annihilates humanity. In a last ditch effort to win the war before it’s begun, Skynet sends a terminator back in time to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor. The terminator is of course defeated in the story, but Sarah (and later John) have now learned of the dark future that awaits humanity. The story is a neatly wrapped paradox because the human soldier sent back in time to stop the terminator turns out to be John’s father, and there is an overarching theme of predetermination. John can’t stop the war that Skynet brings about… and Skynet can’t stop John from ultimately winning the war.

In the second film, though, another terminiator is sent back in time to kill John himself, and the events that follow reveal to John and Sarah a way to stop the war. In the movie we learn that John sent a message for his mother back in time with his father: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” When this is revealed, Sarah has carved “No Fate” into a wooden table as she dreamed. Ultimately, John and Sarah are successful in their efforts to stop “judgement day” and the future war that would annihilate humanity… thus changing the future that they had presumed was inevitable. The movie ends with a wide-open road leading into an unknown future, underscoring the theme of “no fate but what we make.”

In education there is much that seems predetermined and inevitable. I fall victim to deterministic (and pessimistic) thinking often myself when I consider the challenges we face, particularly as educational technologists. There are forces beyond any individual’s control that have effected educational institutions for decades – and will effect them for decades to come. It is easy to believe individual educators are powerless in the face of government policies, public perceptions, and broad social challenges like poverty. But professional development is an opportunity to empower individuals… and effective professional development cannot happen without participants believing they can make a change that makes a difference – that they can make their own fate (and effect the fate of their students) to some degree.

When I welcomed educational leaders from around the world to the Google Teacher Academy for Administrators in San Antonio on March 5, 2010, I included a story about the principal I worked with as a beginning teacher and young technology coordinator. I enjoyed working with Dr. Tom Antal, the principal at Estancia High School at the time, but didn’t fully appreciate what he had done for me (and the school) at the time. He empowered me and the people I worked with to make big changes at the school – to dream up and act upon a bold new vision for technology at the school. What we envisioned had never been done before – and wasn’t inexpensive. But he supported our efforts and we were very successful, well ahead of our time. I recognize now that it was this success (and Tom’s early support). That helped lead me to where I am today.

In fact, I remember when I first mentioned to him I was looking at a full-time educational technology position at the district level. I was surprised (and mildly hurt on some level) that he didn’t try to talk me out of it. Instead, of course, he wished me luck and later let me know that he’d never want to hold me back. Now I understand that much better than I did then, and I’m grateful.

When I told this story to the educational leaders at the Google Teacher Academy, I naturally challenged them to empower the people that worked for them as well. I asked that they support risk taking by giving their people to opportunity to fail “early and often” (as they say in software development). I asked that they “get out of the way” whenever they can, and let them know that simply having their support can make a meaningful difference in the young (and old) educators they work with, especially over a lifetime. Naturally, the same is true in the relationship between teachers and students in the classroom.
And the same is true in professional development. Many workshops leave participants with no sense that the thing they’re learning about will make any difference to them, their colleagues, or their students. This is one reason why so many training opportunities are seen as “drive by professional development” and are ultimately ineffectual. Participants are given a sense of efficacy. Instead they see professional development as something that happens to them, and more than likely they see their curriculum as something that happens to the students.

I ended this anecdote at the Google Teacher Academy by quoting Barack Obama:

We can’t see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It’s time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change… our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

Whatever your views about his politics, it is significant that he wrote these words in 1995, more than a decade before his historic (and largely grass-roots driven) campaign for the presidency. I also shared a rewritten passage in terms I hoped might speak more directly to the educational leaders in the room:

We can’t see teachers or students as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It’s time for administrators and educational leaders to take the next step and see teachers, students, and parents as producers of this change… our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

Ultimately, participants in professional development sessions must see themselves as producers of change… and, ideally, as a part of a larger more meaningful movement. We must empower the educators we work with to believe they too can be change agents – and that there is “no fate but what we make.” I often use this quote, and the Terminator 2 story, as part of a reflection activity where I ask participants how they will use what they have learned during the workshop to change the future for their colleagues and students.

A Caring-Based School

For the past year, I’ve made it my goal to visit as many innovative schools as I can. As a professional developer traveling from school to school and seeing so many that deal with the same problems in the same ways (if they deal with them at all), it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of powerlessness – or into the feeling that you’ve seen everything (or have all the answers). It’s been refreshing to visit the places that are different and that are truly innovating on a regular basis. Some of the places I’ve visited have been private schools or charter schools, but some have been extraordinary schools operating in an otherwise very ordinary public school system.

One of these extraordinary schools was Minarets High School, which serves students in the rural (and economically depressed) central California Chawanakee School District. Despite the economic challenges of the area (and to some degree because of them), the district was able to build something special when they built their new high school. The beautiful new facility certainly forms a unique foundation for a new kind of school, but it’s the strikingly different culture they’ve been allowed to build that makes the real difference.

From early on, the district accepted (and acted on) input from visionary educators like Jon Corripo, now the school’s technology coordinator, and Michael Niehoff, now the school’s principal. By thinking outside the box, they were able to change the school library into a student media lounge, include electric guitars with amplifiers (“marshal stacks”) in the band room, and convert the text book storage room into a green screen studio. This last was possible because they purchased only class sets of traditional paper-bound text books. With the money they saved they also purchased every student a Macbook. The school has given students access to a variety of frequently updated online resources by subscription, in addition to their (already dated) textbooks. They have a “no homework” policy, and project-based learning is the norm at the school, often requiring students to create their own videos and other multi-media artifacts using their laptops (which they are often happy to continue working on after school). The school runs a Google Apps implementation for collaboration, and resources for every class are posted on a public wiki. The teachers even share their cell phone numbers with students and encourage them to text their questions any time of day or night.

All of this is amazing (and very much a work in progress even so), but the real difference in the school became apparent when I started interviewing students. When I asked what made their school different, some of them mentioned the technology – but not many. More of them talked about the way they are encouraged to create their own projects and follow their own passions (Minarets has a unique course catalog too). One girl, though, captured the essence of the difference. When I asked her what made Minarets different from other schools (where she had experienced significant turmoil it turned out), she mentioned none of the things I’d been observing and looking for; instead she replied, “I guess it’s more of a… caring-based school.”


This is evident when Minarets teachers answer students’ text messages. And I saw it in the effort the whole campus made to get another girl’s cell phone back to her after she left it behind in third period. These things respect the world of the student – and stand in stark contrast to the policies at most schools I visit.

I’m not saying that teachers don’t care in other schools – I know they do. But I’ve never heard a student describe another school as a “caring-based” school, and I think it’s no coincidence that this happened at Minarets. I believe the innovative approach they’ve taken to everything from the physical plant to the typical assignments contributes to the culture there – and it’s no secret when a visitor walks that campus that the educators there are passionate about what they do. It’s true of the students too. I saw several of them during a professional development event scheduled during their summer break. They had come in during their vacation to help out, and couldn’t wait for school to start again in September.

This is why I work at what I do – and why I’m writing this chapter. I want more schools like Minarets. I want my boys, Clark and Finn, to go to a school like Minarets. And, ultimately, I want to help participants in my professional development sessions to believe that they can help create more schools like Minarets, that they can create their own “caring-based school.”

What do you want to learn?

Because of my involvement with the Google Teacher Academy, I often have the opportunity to lead professional development sessions for educators interested in using Google’s free tools in educational contexts. I’m always careful to start these sessions with an introduction to the innovative culture Google has fostered, which I think is as good a model for school culture as their tools are valuable tools for educators and students.

Google’s corporate mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I suggest to workshop participants that our mission as educators might be “to help students access and use the world’s information.” In the spirit of this shared mission, I illustrate some of the elements of Google culture that I think are most important for Educators to learn from – and recreate in their own classrooms.

On their corporate web site, Google shares the following “ten things that Google has found to be true”:

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There’s always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn’t good enough.

Many of these are clearly applicable in education. For instance, students will certainly agree that fast is better than slow. And some of these can be enhanced by re-writing them in terms more relevant to educators.

In my position as an educational technologist and professional developer I’ve found that a reminder to “focus on the student and all else will follow” often serves me (and the participants in my workshops) well.
Educators are no stranger to the idea that “it’s best to do one thing really, really well.” After all, we each specialize in a particular grade or subject area. And I would never expect participants in my workshops to master everything I’m sharing with them. I hope each of them will find (at least) one thing they’ll be passionate about to learn well.

When speaking to educators, I rephrase number four as “democracy in the classroom works.” We’ve all heard educators say “this classroom is not a democracy” and we may have said it ourselves, but students learn best when they are given a say in what – and how – they will learn. The same is equally true for adults in a professional development context, if not more so. As much as possible, I try to give participants in my sessions the opportunity to direct their own learning, and to pursue efforts that are meaningful to them.

As we’re seeing more and more, “students don’t need to be at their desk to need an answer.” Minarets teachers respect this tenet when they encourage students to text them at any time for an answer. I would also argue that this is a good reason to encourage students to use their own mobile devices for learning – both on and off campus. Helping students learn to do this effectively is arming them with powerful life skills that will be relevant and useful in many parts of their lives.

And of course, though I question it some days, I like to believe that “you can teach without doing evil.”

The last four mantras on the list are self-evident in their relationship to education, but number nine has a special significance for me. My time at the Orange County Department of Education (in California) left me with the strong belief that I need to dress in a suit and tie when presenting to educators, but the philosophy that you can “be serious without a suit” has given me the freedom to meet more educators where they are, at least when I’m presenting on Google.

I usually share several other aspects of Google culture following this list as well. The first of these takes a concept that teachers are familiar with and takes it one step further. As educators, we know that a hungry student can’t learn as well as one who is well fed. This is why schools in this country have free and reduced lunch programs (if not breakfasts). But at Google, no Googler (a Google employee) is further than 150 feet away from food. Each of their offices include a number of micro-kitchens (and not so micro kitchens) where Googlers can satisfy their appetites at any time of day or night. Google offices are also build ergonomically, with many Googlers opting to sit on brightly colored exercise balls (in the primary colors of Google’s logo of course), and collaboratively, with everyone (including founders Larry and Sergey) sharing an office space – often with transparent walls. Google is also famous for having volleyball courts, swimming pools, and on-site massages at their offices, not to mention the game rooms where engineers and other employees can blow off steam when they need to figure their way through a problem or get the juices flowing. Imagine if our schools (or our professional development for that matter) subscribed to the same philosophies?

Another element of Google’s offices that I love to see educators get excited about is the ubiquitous white boards – or white board paint that makes entire walls into writable surfaces. The creative doodles and brainstorms that fill the boards have given birth to many of Google’s most innovative products, whimsical ideas, and most memorable (however contraband) images of Google offices. I’m happy to report that on many occasions, after seeing these or hearing about them, educators have returned to their classrooms and libraries to make their own walls writable for students.

The most important Google philosophy I share with educators, though, is Google’s concept of “20% time.” Google doesn’t actually pay terribly well, but the culture I’m describing here is a big draw. More important than the massages and free meals, though, is every employee’s opportunity to determine how they will spend their own 20% time. The idea is that every employee will be expected to work on their job – what they were hired to do – approximately 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, they’ll be encouraged to devise projects to pursue on their own, with the resources of the company at their disposal. Many Google products, including Gmail, Google News, and Google Scholar (not to mentio the Gooogle Teacher Academy) were born out of 20% time, as well as countless other features in a wide variety of tools (just check out Google Labs in Gmail or Google Calendar for me examples).

To me, 20% time sounds a lot senior projects. When I was teaching senior English, my school had recently adopted WestEd’s Senior Project model. As it was implemented at our school, the students worked all year on a project of their own choice, writing a research paper on the topic, serving at least 20 hours as an intern in the field, and completing a final project that they would present to a panel of school staff and members of the public at the end of the year. It was a graduation requirement, and an awesome learning experience for everyone involved. (As a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as an undergrad, I was no stranger to the idea of senior projects and came to appreciate them as both a student and a teacher.) In my classes, I wound up adopting the practice of giving my seniors most Fridays to work on their projects. In retrospect, I was giving them 20% time.

If I were back in the classroom today (at any grade level), I’d do the exact same thing. I’d tell students that 80% of the time, or four days a week, they’d be working on assignments I’d give them as they worked to master the state standards (which, of course, it would be my job to teach them). But I’d offer them 20% of our class time, or one day a week, to work on a project of their own choice. I’d encourage them to explore their passions and build islands of expertise, with the freedom to try something new without fear of failure. In short, I would ask them, what do you want to learn? And I would support them in their efforts to answer that question.

When I imagine what schools could look like if we started from scratch today (or in the near future), I keep coming back to this question. I think that asking students “what do you want to learn?” should be a fundamental part of educating them at any age. Clearly, it will fall to educators and parents to also expose students to new ideas, but how much more relevant and powerful will the tools, techniques, and traditions we share seem if students discover them in the context of pursuing their own passions?

Happily, many of the participants in sessions where I share this idea have reported returning to their classrooms and putting it into practice – giving their students 20% time. This one change in a classroom makes me feel I’ve made more of a difference for students than many of the tools I share regularly. I hope that other professional developers will also pass on the 20% philosophy – and I hope they’ll apply it to their own sessions as well. At least 20% of a professional development experience should be a self-directed project of the participant’s choosing.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope you got something out of it. And I hope you’ll consider offering me some feedback in the comments below.