March 9, 2009
In an article in the LA Times this weekend, Sam Calavitta was celebrated as an extraordinary high school math teacher. The author wrote “think drill sergeant and trusted advisor” in his description of Sam. In an earlier post I wrote about the need to set both high standards and be on the side of your people in teaching and leadership. Sometimes it’s hard to visualize what this means in practice, and the article brings the concept to life. It sounds like Sam is a terrific role model for anyone working to make a difference in the classroom — and well beyond it.
Sam sees himself as a math coach. We often think of teaching and coaching as very different activities, but the differences are superficial. I stumbled on to how similar they are when my dream to coach college basketball was derailed by an injury. I thought I left coaching behind when I became a teacher, a painful decision at the time, but I soon realized I was coaching every day in the classroom.
The article ended with a poignant quote by Sam. It speaks to another truth in both teaching and leadership, which is that when it works, it’s not a one-way gift:
If you want to make a difference in a kid’s life, you have to first of all let them know that they make a difference in your life.
March 5, 2009
One of the pleasures and privileges of my job is the chance to observe a lot of teachers. This number has spiked recently, and I’ve been struck by the sheer diversity of teaching styles and mechanics. I have come to believe that this diversity is not particularly relevant to classroom outcomes, despite my profession’s focus on it — it’s not style or mechanics that ultimately make the difference, but rather a very simple pattern in a teacher’s orientation towards students. Teachers succeed when they set high standards for students while also being firmly on their side in the learning journey.
When well-intentioned teachers struggle, it’s often because of an implicit belief that these two dimensions somehow trade off with one another. You can demand excellence or root for your students, but not both, so goes the logic. For example, a new teacher who is worried about being taken seriously often sets high classroom standards but enforces them in ways that undermine students’ trust. Standards are high, but students don’t feel safe enough to take the risks that learning demands. They’re highly distracted by judgment and performance, unwilling to follow the instructor into uncertain territory.
Other teachers stumble by channeling their empathy for students into lowered expectations. Even if students appreciate the choice on some short-term level, it destroys the learning dynamic over time by not pushing students beyond their intellectual comfort zone. They become disengaged in a classroom culture of mediocrity, in an environment that lacks a strong enough incentive for hard work.
The essence of great teaching, I believe, is learning how to set high standards while also being devoted to the student’s journey. And I think the same thing applies to effective leadership. A central challenge of great leadership is setting high standards for our colleagues while simultaneously being devoted to their growth and development. It’s not easy to achieve, but it’s vital to the success of both classrooms and organizations. And as I heard a colleague say recently, I won’t lower the bar because I like you.