Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Give Back This!

Yet another former B-list actor, recently paroled from a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, is ‘giving back’ by going to schools to help kids learn how not to do what she did: drink and drive.

Based on multiple iterations of such assemblies, one could imagine her telling her youthful audience about the multiple narrow misses of driving drunk without having killed anyone, as well as the breaks she was afforded by the star struck police and judges.  One can imagine her plea: ‘I was warned and warned but I did not listen so I am begging you children. Promise: never drink and drive!’

Certainly the Kindergarteners within earshot would gladly sign the pledge, or at least those who can write will sign: the rest will have to make their marks, duly witnessed, of course.

Can we stop the ex-(con, addict, alcoholic)-exhortations in schools, please?

From speakers who examine only their regret we learn very little about how not to wind up wherever it was that speaker wound up. While the speaker’s horrific outcomes and consequences might be affecting, at best students leave these talks sometimes sorry, sometimes scared, but rarely changed.

Worst of all there may be a underlying message, especially from someone who has really turned his or her life around, that you can completely screw up, and still wind up ok. This is not a bad message; I am, after all, the president of the Infinite Chances Club. However our kids need not only instruction in how to clean up a mess, they need to learn how not to make the mess to begin with!

People who achieve successes generally do so by having a ‘future’ vision they really want and are able to look beyond any momentary decision into the future impact that such a decision might have on such a vision and weigh it before acting. Doing this well consistently (not perfectly) is a good habit, no more and no less. Good habits are how all of us struggle through difficulties, upon difficulties, upon difficulties without getting wholly off track.

Good habits are how we resist habitually (so-called) negative behaviors: not because these behaviors are bad in and of themselves, but because there is something more meaningful to be gotten by not habitually indulging in them. This doesn’t have to be about drugs or alcohol alone: it is just as important to resist habitually self-defeating thinking as it is to resist habitually getting high. Indeed one school speaker, a former addict who actually examined his life, was able to express how not having a positive ‘vision’ for his own future was one of the main reasons he drifted (not descended) into the very drug use he once also pledged he would never do. 

Those of us who have taken on the responsibility of parenting and teaching need to start being aware of the fact that the more dramatic message of we first got lost, and then found our way back, needs to be at least sometimes replaced by the less exciting but more powerful message of how we identified future goals and made more thoughtful, informed and often only microscopically incremental decisions than poor decision to get there.

Of one thing I am certain: if you don’t know what you want, you’ll take whatever you can get.

I, for one, am tired of role models who have taken whatever.

I want my kids to learn how to succeed without first completely screwing up.

A Prescription for Teacher Burnout

During my first semester as a NYC teacher I found myself in the staff lounge across from a veteran teacher whose face was obscured by the newspaper he was reading. I ventured a question to see if he might he be able to provide any insight to my struggle to reach a difficult student.

He bent back a corner of the paper and looked at me. “Oh yeah, you’re that new teacher, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s me.”

“Well, don’t worry,” he said, returning to his newspaper, “you’ll get over it.”

One of the things I am proudest of in my professional career is being able to say that I never did ‘get over it,’ at least not yet.

Teachers struggle every day carrying a load that is often difficult and unwieldy. We have to answer to everybody, and right away. We must deliver individualized learning to a wildly diverse set of students that (the the same time) meets the needs of parents, each of whom has a specific vision for their own child, and the requirements of a host of administrators and school officials each of whom has an opinion about what ought to happen as well. Frequently these people are partners, but sometimes, it needs to be said, they are adversarial and, occasionally, unreasonably so.

I’ve been on all sides of this equation, as parent, teacher and supervisor, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  Here’s the truth. You cannot be 100% successful. You cannot meet the needs of everyone, all the time: a certain amount of missing the mark is inevitable. Sometimes teachers just burn out and give up: we all know some who have. Some really good teachers have left the profession and some, unfortunately, who have given up haven’t left. This is also true amongst other professionals as well, especially in the ‘helping’ professions.

In reality everything I have ever heard from a teacher who has given up appears to me to be absolutely true. Difficult, incompetent administrators, impossible parents, poorly behaved students or an unappreciative public, as Madeline Kahn said in Blazing Saddles, “it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”  But so what! What is also true one day in school can be absolutely untrue the next.

And even if it’s not, so what!

Reality doesn’t cause burnout: burnout happens when mission is obscured by a loss of vision. To prevent burnout, or to cool it down, cede some time and careful thought to the development of a serious ‘philosophical’ teaching ideal that you can act on. I advocate doing this is not because you’ll wholly achieve this ideal, nobody will, but because what we need is a measurement tool for something greater than the ups and downs of a school day, or a school year or a even a school lifetime.

Teachers leave school every day with a knapsack full of ways they must improve to become better teachers, not to mention a tower of student work that needs review and lessons that need planning, and a whole life outside of school that must be administered to before the next bell. Teachers also carry home a million reasons to call in sick the next day. But coming back with a measure of renewed spirit must be driven by more than the just the pay. Like a watch, what we do must be worth more than merely the sum our parts. Remember when the pieces of a clock have been assembled you have more than just a functioning object, you also have a way to measure time.

The belief that our actions are associated with a larger purpose, like a philosophical ideal that is in our control to act upon, gives us hope, power and purposefulness as opposed to merely being buffeted by the whims and edicts of others. When you can articulate a fully thought out purpose, that includes rigorous academics, you can discuss, rationally, and measure how what you are doing is leading to the learning you intend to accomplish in both the affective and academic realms. And again, more than the sum of its parts, such clarity also opens one to inputs in the same vein. Instead of merely being overwhelmed by others’ directions and directives, we can measure their suggestions for how they fit into our intended plans.

I have found when I am driven by a true and focused passionate belief in something that is in my control to act on when I’m right, I know it, but when I am not right I also know that, too. When I am not right about something in which I have invested deeply I always get a feeling deep in my guts, a kind of tight queasiness that at first I always seem to want to interpret as something I ate. I may not want to admit it, but I know it, and in the end, because what I am trying to do (I hope) is greater than just me, I have to emplace my mistakes, triage the situation as best I can, and move forward in a better way.

So to prevent burnout, take a moment to create some hope by having a belief system about the value of teaching that is more than just passing grades and meeting administrative objectives. And because nothing keeps us more honest than knowing that we have left a trail of evidence, write it down, even if it’s just for you.

That is my prescription to prevent burnout for this school year: take a tablet of that philosophical hope every evening, with a nice glass of wine, and call me in June.

How Courtesy Leads to School Success

A popular story currently Facebooking around, (in it Winston Churchill's father pays for Sir Alexander Fleming's education after Fleming's father saved young Winston from drowning and then Fleming’s discovery of penicillin saved Churchill), is simply false. According to the biography, Penicillin Man: Alexander Fleming and the Antibiotic Revolution, Fleming himself declared this "a wondrous fable.”

While this is a fairly innocuous story I can’t help but feel that, at its core, these sorts of fantasy stories diminish the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. It makes us feel like we can forgo everyday kindnesses and courtesies because in some made up internal drama we’ll pay back the whole world in some extraordinary moment. It ends up, sometimes, being an excuse for allowing us to be self-centered and even boorish. I’ve actually had a conversation with someone who excused his business illegalities and venalities by assuring me that, once he made his fortune, his foundation would assuage all his sins. Still waiting for that foundation, by the way.

In real life ‘good’ looks much more like this:

     One morning Joseph K. awoke in a bad mood but because his partner said something nice and encouraging he left the house in a slight better mood so when the clerk spilled K’s coffee he responded gently rather than angrily and the clerk appreciated the understanding, and carried on her day with good humor and kindness so that everyone who came in to that store left feeling a little better than when they walked in and several even remembered the thank the drivers who let them in the traffic line and those drivers went home that evening feeling grateful and appreciated for their simple courtesy and read with their children, rather than taciturnly watch television, and then all those kids got on the honor roll at school.

Ok, so I got a little dramatic too, but seriously, can we please start circulating celebrating simple decency and courtesy, at least once in a while?

New Century, New Kid, Same Old School


The nature of authority, in case you hadn’t noticed, has changed.  Yet school, especially how adults interact with students, is still largely a reflection of the way teachers themselves were taught and it is, unfortunately, perfect for another time. Or rather, perfect for the fantasy of another time.

For good or ill our current students do not offer teachers and school officials respect simply because of their positions. Of course few teachers offer administrators respect simply because they are administrators. Nor can even a president or prime minister expect respect simply because of his or her position.  In our schools, in our classrooms, in our society leadership, as Dennis Sparks has written, “is no longer a position, it is an action. One can lead from anywhere.”

Authority and respect, which used to be commanded, now must be earned. While teachers must maintain authority in their classrooms to be effective, the means by how that authority is established has become more complex and negotiable. Hence, new teacher practices must be developed where high expectations, such as in building student responsibility for self-management, as well as respect and trust, are facilitated rather than demanded.   

Here is an example of how to shift that dynamic.

Many teachers use the beginning of the school year as an opportunity to set rules and expectations for the year. Once upon a time this could be accomplished by merely posting the rules and strictly enforcing them.   Of course this still works, albeit less effectively, but more to the point, it’s also much less useful to our children. The modern economy is continually moving toward employees being independent, resourceful and able to apply critical success skills such as self-regulation and persistence to see a vision through to fruition.  In this context learning to be compliant is much less important learning to be cooperative out of self-interest: compliance for a purpose.

Instead of just posting rules, consider asking students to collaborate on developing a chart of successful learning behaviors. The fear many teachers have when embarking on such an enterprise is that if they allow students to create such a list, it will merely devolve into silliness:

rule 1:  no homework, ever!

rule 2: class attendance optional

However if you begin by getting students to own some truth about their own successful learning experiences, they’ll think more deeply about times when they genuinely learned.  Through a writing prompt or discussion ask students to visit a time when they felt successful as learners. Although for the most part you will get school related learning, you may also be amazed at what proficiencies some of our most reluctant learners are achieving outside of the walls of school.

You will hear stories of coaches and parents and bosses at work engaging our students in all kinds of amazing ways to help them connect to their competencies. Other students, who in your class founder, will recognize other classes where they have mastered complex subjects. When all the anecdotes have been shared, drill down to what specific qualities were extant during these successes.

Doubtless you will have to wean them off such generalities as, ‘I had a good teacher’, or ‘it just kind of happened.’ Ask instead what qualities the teacher was exhibiting, and what qualities the students bringing to the learning experience. What you begin to evolve are classroom conditions and learning behaviors that identify how students were able to be successful such as: teachers excited about their subjects; students paying attention; staying on task; everybody using positive language; being encouraging. Work at it bit more and you can refine it into a series of behaviors that can be created into actionable items that empower the teacher and student to achieve learning success by:

·         using encouragements instead of criticisms;

·         listening more than you speak;

·         talking myself through difficulties by reminding myself of when I have succeeded before.

Once you have asked students to base their suggestions for a great classroom on previous actual successful learning experiences, the silly get replaced by a startlingly accurate list of what students must do, and want to do (and how teachers can help them) to foster a great classroom work ethic and achieve academic success (you’d also be teaching cause and effect, by the way).  Indeed you may find that the student list will mirror the very list you planned to present to them.

Of course such a chart, like a bicycle helmet, is only effective if used. Savvy educators employ these charts not only as teacher driven assessments (to be clear this exercise in no way diminishes the need to hold students accountable) but as key reference points to facilitate guided student self-reflection for growth and progress.  It also gives teachers excellent ‘data’ for developing effective teaching behaviors that these students have already identified as effective.  

Educators that do this do more than teach a subject. They do more than teach students how to develop habits of success and critical thinking skills. They do more than teach kids how to be life-long learners. What they teach is the future.

Intention & Growth

When I was still a student, and long before one would have to spend half an hour explaining what this saying refers to, I saw on the wall of a classroom: "Caution: Make sure Brain is Engaged Before Operating Mouth." If you're too young to know what this refers to, ask your parents. What it means seems to me simple and direct: if you are only sure of what you mean to say, and not what you mean, think further before you speak.

The critical importance of being clear about intentions, and not just actions, seems to me not only beyond argument, but elementally a part of professional growth. In that regard, in my little education world, it is better to teach an intentional lesson less effectively than to teach a great lesson accidentally. 

Reflecting on successful teaching alone hits a dead end. Great, how will you bring that success into the classroom tomorrow?

Reflective practice and professional growth truly begin with intentionality and clarity.

Plans that outline how a student will be smarter when they leave the classroom than when they walked in (SKILLS/knowledge), how those activities and teacher actions will make them smarter in that specific way and, of course, how in the hell the teacher will know if they’re smarter or not give us the critical perspective for meaningful reflection on the whole teaching and learning process.

Far from being prescriptive, in such a context teachers may improvise at will knowing not only where such spontaneity is intended to take the students but also how to reflect on the success of such improvisations so they can then become part of one's continued practice or laid aside for a more appropriate ‘jam.’

The same is true at the administrative level: what you do needs to be married to what you mean. Genuine, purposeful and professionally meaningful reflective practice really only exists in that space between intention and outcome.

Learned or Smart

In trying to encourage students we sometimes hold up as iconic those who are smart and successful. And we should. My motto is that we must always celebrate success. But when encouraging, it's often more important to encourage process rather than only outcome.

Often those in possession of deep knowledge, or a well developed skill, look as though they were just born that way. Looking like a genius is part of the art. A skilled dancer or mathematician should look as though they accomplished with ease what was a complex series of skills practiced over and over and over again. For entertainment, brilliance puts on a great show. For teaching, the brilliance show alone does not always help.

One struggling reader, perhaps echoing the perspective of many struggling readers, once identified good readers as having some kind of a ‘special reading gene.’ He went on to note that to be a good reader you either had this gene or you did not: he was quite certain he did not.

Now I would be remiss if I did not note that there are some readers simply born to it, who internalize skills with greater ease. The rest of us get the slow, repetitive, sometimes demoralizingly lengthy process of learning a collection of literacy skills that eventually produces reading fluency.

Merely pointing out to a struggling reader how well her classmate is reading does not help. However sharing how that classmate practiced recognizing site words in order to improve just might.

The same is true with us, as teachers, especially as examples.

Once, while encouraging my students to dive into the depths of a novel, I was told that of course I could see all that underlying stuff. “It’s easy for you. You’re smart!” 

While full disclosure of personal insecurity dictates I must sadly admit that I wanted then (and still want to) jump on every opportunity to be considered smart, I was also aware that my being ‘smart’ was not a very effective teaching tool.  Instead I made a sincere effort to capture that teachable moment by showing that my supposed brilliance was derived not from my abundant intellectual gifts but rather an ordinary interest in literature and a desire to reread the book repeatedly and study critical texts to both deepen my personal understanding of that book and find interesting ways to teach it.

In other words, folks, I wanted to teach this truth: that what appeared as smart was actually just learned. Recognizing process and rewarding progress, no matter how microscopic, is amazingly critical, especially when engaging still evolving students. The message has to be uniquely about process because in the end process is all they or we can control.

Make sure your students and children know that smart without learning ain’t really all that smart. It’s learning that makes smart smart, and learned is what all of us can be.


New Students in the Same Old School

As teachers our role is to help all students learn, not just those few who key into our particular teaching styles or our personal concepts of what qualifies a student (and a student’s dream) of being “worthy.”  To do this we must also learn how to be successful with students who come to school not fully capable of being successful. To be effective as a teacher in the United States today, and to be effective in teaching critical success skills (such as self-regulation and persistance) in particular, teachers and administrators will need to rethink long established roles.

The role of teachers who wish to help students truly find their way must get the hell out of the judgment business and get the hell into the facilitation business, pure and simple. The function of a modern teacher in our very changed society demands this “coaching” approach to engender student engagement and success. Kids are different today and trying to teach them with the system that worked in the past simply no longer works.

 Our job as professionals is very clear: stop whining about how kids have changed and start changing to meet the needs of our kids. The essence of being professionals means that we can change, embrace new technologies and new relationships, while still maintaining the core values of highly effective teaching. The meet the new dynamics and new skills we need merely to move from a structure dominated by our intentions, to a structure driven by student intention.  

As we move forward, we will begin learn how to apply this changed way of interacting with students.  In such a facilitative structure these critical success skills (which include developing key pro-social skills, time management, decision making and organization in addition to the two noted previously)  can be employed as a teaching/school management toolsAs students embrace and internalize these practices, it can work to dynamically to change the way students feel about themselves and their potential and allow them to take better, more positive command of their learning and their own lives.

​Motivate This, You Yo-Yos!


I mean to take nothing away from all of the ‘motivational’ speakers out there. Although I may be one on those 92% of people who make up statistics on the spot, I think 87% of persons that advertise themselves as speakers, regard themselves as motivational speakers.

And so they might be. In truth, many of them have powerful and even inspiring stories to share. Often those stories do the job of exciting and motivating people, including me, to act. However, let us not over-estimate the value of inspiration.

In reality almost any dynamic speaker can be said to be motivational. Certainly I was proud to have been deemed motivational in an anonymous comment received after recent presentation. However, what I know is that exhorting people to act, especially those who are available to be convinced to act, is not in and of itself a magical act. Helping maintain motivation, keeping up the same level of commitment long after the initial ‘action high’ has become the grind of churning out inches of progress, is really the larger victory.

In this regard helping develop habits, rather than motivating, is the gift that keeps on giving. Indeed, any immediate change in behavior or emotion can often be easily accomplished but intensely difficult to maintain.

“Quitting smoking was not the least bit difficult,” Mark Twain said, “I quit at least a hundred times last week alone.”  Thinking about trying to lose a couple of pounds?  The first ‘yo’ is motivation and frankly, once motivated, it is often easy to get through that first watchful day. It’s that second ‘yo’ that is the tough one. In part, the difficulty of that second ‘yo’ is why so many of us become ‘yo-yo’ dieters,

Habits are a tough nut but when we are seeking change, or trying to motivate others to seek change, we’d better be able to make some plans for help and motivation beyond the first yo!  This is precisely why, in schools especially, I advocate for commitment to facilitation and coaching long term because real change - meaning change in habit - takes time, commitment, fortitude and a constant means of renewing that initial motivation. Real accomplishment, after all, is messier on the ground that it looks in one’s plans.

Face it: unless the elasticity of motivation, a critical first step, eventually becomes the steel of habit, we are all bound to be yo-yos! 

What Never Again Really Means

Ugly immigration orders from the White House are unfortunately part of long history of ugliness and fear toward immigration. Always the excuses are the same: there is always a because, always some critical difference between the ones that came before and the ones that want to come in now.

It was exactly the same ugliess in the Twenties and Thirties. That fear (expressed in the belief that Nazis would have secreted spies amongst the Jews begging to come to the US, or that the Jews themselves would subvert American democracy and American values) led to the United States closing its doors to Jewish refugees. This is the same horseshit that is being exhibited toward Muslims...the same, exactly.

Current immigration vetting has served us well and there is no need to have an immigration moritorium or to exclude anyone on the basis of faith, or unsubstatiated fear. As the child of immigrants, as the child of Holocaust survivors, I am deeply saddened that we have devolved into a society that is so fearful that we are willing to give up our values to give in to it.

I am posting a photograph that I have posted before. The taller man in the hat is my Grandfather, Samuel Heisler, on the day he arrived in Auschwitz in 1944. Perhaps if our country had not been riddled almost century ago by the same kind of fears that we have today, that was then directed toward Jews, this might have been a photograph of my Grandfather on the day he arrived safely in The United States instead of a photograph of him in the selection line of Auschwitz on the day before he was murdered.


Samuel Heisler.JPG

Teaching Success

Of course you can learn from failing, but you can also learn from succeeding.

Studying why something worked, even if you just stumbled upon it, can be applied intentionally to greater success in the future but only if you take the time to understand what skills and abilities you applied in the process to make it work. Working with teachers, students, children, colleagues, always try to focus on and understand why something worked, rather than only on why it fell apart.

Perhaps this is exactly what John Milton (or maybe Branch Rickey) meant when he said "Luck is the residue of design."

To really succeed, study success!

Check the Clock

Our students operate in two time zones, only one of which is in school. But our actions resonate in both time zones.

In school-time  we watch our students struggle, and often feel deeply for them. Their issues sometimes seem alarmingly simple to fix from our perspective. Our maturity and experience makes us think, if only he would. . . . If only she would. . . . If only. Sometimes we even think that with the right motivation or the right kind of consequence we can make it happen...we can fix this, easy.

In reality, fixing a problem is sometimes the right thing to do, but mostly it is not, and if you're not sure of when to do which, as a rule of thumb it is probably always better not to fix the problem yourself. However, don't just wash your hands of the problem, either.

When students try to solve thier own problems, with our continuous facilitative guidance as neccessary,  they not only get to be the hero of thier own story, they also take with them the learning they'll need for the next problem when it arises. And even when on occasion they are overwhelmed by their struggle, so long as it is not a matter of life and death,  for the most part, any day is just one day, any decision is just one decision, and any problem is just one of many decisions and days and problems that flow in life-time.

Life-time is longer than school-time but school-time is sometimes more powerful. Our main effort, above all, should be that we use our authority and our wisdom wisely, as compassionate, professional educators, to try to assure that what we do in school-time does not undermine a student's belief in their own power to solve whatever problems life brings to them or rob them of their resilliancy and hope for another crack at that problem tomorrow and tomorrow and all the tomorrows after that.


Frankly I am not one of these folks who think that failure is great, particularly for kids. Actually I am not sure failure is good for anyone. Yet titles abound promising greatness as a result of it: The Gift of Failure, The Power of Failure, Fueled by Failure, among others.  I suppose if I were savvy I’d just shut the hell up and write The Joy of Failure and take a limo to the bank.

But, unfortunately, I don’t really buy that tough of kids crap. To my way of thinking, although many advise us to let our kids fear, fall and fail, making kids fearful might be just another, more socially acceptable version of spare the rod, spoil the child.

The problem is that failure, like success, or even happiness winds up being defined as a state of being. Pursuing happiness, our guaranteed American right, has been transmuted from a pursuit to a place. Am I happy, we ask ourselves; are you happy others want to know; are you in your happy place?

Success and failure have also become states of being.  Since we define people as ‘successes’ one would assume that they have found some magical place where everything is right where it needs to be, and is there at all times.  Likewise failure is a label, too, a Scarlet Letter slung around the neck of someone who has entered that state of being. Winners and looooooosers!

Reality is more complex, of course. No need to belabor that here: successful people are simply folks who are not always successful but usually understand how to renew the lease on success over and over again.

But here’s a news flash: successful people know something that others may not. They know that failure does not exist as an entity but rather as something that only we, ourselves, can create.  To be a success, in anything, you must refuse to create failure, that’s all: FAILURE ONLY BECOMES FAILURE WHEN WE QUIT: UNTIL THEN, IT’S JUST PROCESS!

Now I am not suggesting that we rescue kids constantly; we know that struggle is critical. But struggle itself teaches kids no more about success than consequences teaches kids about behavior. These things reinforce learning but until we change what students know, and know how to do, they’ll just keep doing the same things over and over again.

When we teach kids that they are in control of failure - if they don’t quit, they cannot fail - and help them develop the skills to deal with the struggle of the process, then we have a shot to teach them how to succeed. What we need to teach, in school, at home and everywhere, exactly what I once read on the door to a teacher’s room: “In the end everything will be ok. If it’s not ok, it is not yet the end!”

Critical Success Skills: Easy to Teach, Hard to Learn

I am an advocate for teaching what I call ‘critical success skills.’ These skills are: persistence, self-regulation, organization, time management, decision making and appropriate ‘work-place’ social skills.

Why are they critical?  Simply because, as my experience and research has shown me, possession and use of these critical success skills is, by and large, the difference between those children who succeed and those who struggle.

It often comes down to this: children who are successful see the locus of control for their lives as being within themselves; those who are less successful see the locus of control as being outside themselves.

This is the essential aim of teaching success skills: empowering students to be able to take control of their lives and futures. 

For clarity’s sake, let me state unequivocally that I am neither advocating nor advising that parents and teachers give up their authority. Empowering children while maintaining clear authority over their lives is critical for children to be able learn how to manage themselves. Persons who have abdicated their authority (sometimes under the boneheaded idea that children left to their own devices will learn to manage themselves) effectually rob their children of the necessary structure within which context all good decisions are made.

No less an authority on child development than Dr. Benjamin Spock bewailed this misinterpretation of his prescription for powerful parenting. He noted that he had never advocated permissiveness in anything and in fact only advocated treating a child as a person, with his or her own feelings, hopes and dreams. The child supplies the power,” said Dr. Spock, “but the parents have to do the steering.

Parents and teachers who engage with and empower their children in limited forms of decision making are, in fact, teaching decision making.

Critical success skills are actually easy to teach; most kids know exactly what they need to do to be successful in school. However, being successful requires more than knowledge. It requires a meaningful and habitual application of these critical success skills. And habits, especially good habits, like the willingness to set aside a fun opportunity today for a deeper accomplishment tomorrow, take time to acquire. Frankly these skills are rarely learned without extensive facilitated practice.

Is this kind of deep, habitual learning best done at home, by parents, over the lifetime of their child rearing? You bet.

However, critical success skills are necessary for student achievement. Hell, all successful people everywhere exhibit the use of these skills! But, if critical success skills are not taught at home and they are necessary for student success, where, pray tell, will the children learn them if not in school?

Fortunately facilitating critical success skills learning can be easily infused right into existing curriculum and does not need to be cumbersome. Teachers (and parents) just do what they normally do but with a slightly more intentional, more facilitative approach, and sure enough, after a few (ok…sometimes a few hundred) repetitions it becomes a good habit.

Most importantly, and this is what makes it worth the investment, these are the kinds of skills and habits that once they are yours, they are yours forever.

Loco Parentis

I have been an educator for over 25 years and am the author of The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills. 

I wrote this book in part because my experiences in schools showed me that school personnel have totally misunderstood the concept of Loco Parentis as a license to discipline, and to sometimes discipline harshly. 

In fact what Loco Parentis offers educators is the opportunity and the responsibility to act in a parental way which ought to be not just disciplining kids but rather lovingly, and persistently, teaching and training kids to discpine themselves. 

While this absolutely requires parents and educators to enforce consequences, it also involves second chances, third chances and even four thousand more chances. Our children need to feel at the end of the school day, or at the end of the actual day, that they are still decent human beings and there is hope for a better day tomorrow.

Educators and parents of all colors and ethnicities need to learn this first before they can be effectively teach anything else.

The One Great Question All Great Teachers Ask


Every school mission statement I have ever read always includes some derivation of the idea that school must help students become independent, life-long learners.

It is certainly true that a great many teachers do help students become life-long learners.  Many by exemplifying their passion for a particular subject or just their passion for learning, but to be frank my experience seems to indicate that very little of this independent learning development is actually designed into teaching.

In light of that, I observed a powerful moment recently while coaching a teacher who is still fairly early in her career. A student approached to ask for help with a problem during an independent work session in her math class. She seemed as though she was going to answer the student but, instead, she instinctively (and brilliantly) asked, “well, what questions do you think I would ask you?”

I know it was instinctive because in discussion, even with my prompting, this interaction went unremarked. Finally I brought this moment to her attention and with a little more prompting she was able to see this instinctively powerful moment as the meaningful interchange it was.

Learning is driven by the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ and ‘how comes’ that are often supplied by others. Self-driven learning accesses these same questions but as internalized, habitualized reactions to all the emotional, intellectual and sensory stimuli with which we are constantly bombarded. Simply put, when some stimuli sticks to the self-driven learner, curiosity is piqued, and they’re off!

The trick, of course, is to move dependency to independency, which is no simple matter. It is slow learning that takes plenty of time.  In this case, this particular teacher, like many really wonderful teachers do, saw the value of what she did and made a commitment to make this great instinctual re-action a part of her established practice of intentional action. “How,” she asked, “can I make this work with every student.” 

Because I had been working with this teacher for a while, and because I had not just been asking her questions, rather I had asking her to apply and reapply those questions that I had been asking her over and over again, I was able to get simply to the point where I could use that great question and be, for at least that moment, a great teacher.

“Well,” I asked, “what questions do you think I would ask you?”

When Good Enough is not Good Enough

Ok, so somebody posts a student test paper online where a teacher has marked that a student's correct subtraction is not acceptable and everybody loses their minds. ‘What is American education coming to,’ some teachers, some non-teachers, all wail in six-part harmony. But from my point of view, and in the view of many others, what this teacher exemplifies is the critical teaching skill of intentionality and he or she was absolutely right to flag this student response as incorrect.

Being intentional simply means that the teacher must be clear and precise about what the learning is and whether or not the student has, ultimately, learned that specific knowledge or skill. Intentional use of formative assessment ought to measure how close or how far a student is from the learning they are supposed to acquire. While there are certainly better or worse ways of holding kids accountable, that we ought to be assuring that students are growing in their learning seems to be without argument.

In this case the intentional learning selected by the teacher, the way in which the kids were going to be smarter when they leave the classroom than when they walked in, is that they will have learned the ability to estimate (one assumes, of course, that they already know how to subtract).  Thus, accepting the student’s ability to subtract as ‘good enough’ is in fact an example of the kind of teaching that causes students to stagnate. The function of intentionality, carefulness and precision in teaching is to assure students learn, grow and progress.  

So kudos to this teacher for having the courage of his or her intentions by trying to make sure that student is continuing to progress and shame on those teachers and parents and others who think that when it comes to student learning good enough is ever good enough.


They're Right: Teaching is not Rocket Science

Ever heard the expression: teaching is not rocket science? I wholeheartedly agree. Survey responses to few simple questions reveal the unarguable, definitive truth.

How many rockets do you deal with at any one time? Scientists - 1; teachers - 20 (minimum).

How many propulsion systems? Scientists - 1; teachers - 20 (minimum).

How many trajectories? Scientists - 1; teachers - 20 (minimum).

How many destinations? Scientists - 1; teachers - 1 .

So, if my data is correct (which it is), at any one time rocket scientists deal with one rocket that has one propulsion system moving on a single trajectory toward a single location. Difficult? Sure, of course!

But, on any given day, teachers handle a minimum of 20 rockets (often more), with at least 20 propulsion systems (depends on the time of day) all moving on sometimes wildly different trajectories. And (this is the fun part) teachers must get every single rocket, every single one of them, to the same exact location in roughly the same time frame.

Yeah, I'd definitely say teaching is not rocket science. Looks to me like teaching is one whole hell of a lot more difficult. 

Doing The Right Thing Even When You Don’t


“I was so frustrated,” she said, “having to say the same thing over and over, and it just came out. I was angry.”

This statement, which happened to be spoken by a teacher but could well have been spoken by anybody, was in explanation for a cross statement made to a student that was not, by a long shot, even close to the worst things ever said to a student or a child. In fact, if truth be told, it was not dissimilar from many statements heard in many classrooms, including my own, which are never acceptable but are as common as pencils.

She offered that she would have apologized, but that somehow the time just got away. She explained that she had no problem saying she was sorry and, if she had found the time, she would certainly have told the student that she shouldn’t have yelled and normally wouldn’t except that the student really ‘frustrated’ her and ‘made her’ lose her cool.

In the course of any relationship, but particularly with children, many sorts things are occasionally said in anger that ought not be said at all that do not quite rise to the level of unforgiveable.  Sometimes we are thoughtless, sometimes we are just momentarily mean, sometimes stuff that’s rattling around in our brains just slips out. It’s never ok and it’s never good but well, we are all flawed humans interacting with other flawed humans and as long as such statements are extremely rare, and are not delivered with a cruel intent to inflict damage, we have to find the right way to deal with not doing the right thing.

When you do something ‘wrong’ just apologize. And don’t just put it on the agenda, do it as soon as possible. If it was said or done in public, apologize in public too. Make it sincere, genuinely try to do better but please: don’t blame the victim. You screwed up because you screwed up, regardless of what the child did. You weren’t backed into a corner and the reaction you chose wasn’t your only choice (which is exactly what most teachers would say to a kid claiming he or she was forced by the other kid to act as he or she did).

Look, try as we might we will never prefect ourselves but while we can never hope for perfection, we can always strive to be our better selves. By striving to be our better selves, we are also teaching, by our actions, how our students and our children can learn to be their better selves as well. Yes, doing the right thing all the time is incredibly important but since we cannot hope to always do the right thing, maybe learning to make things right might be the important right thing of all.

Teacher Habits Matter

When I was about to start my first job as a school administrator I planned to visit classrooms often and regularly. A senior administrator, well known for never leaving his office, warned me to go ahead, if I wanted to, “but remember, nobody likes a ‘got’cha’.”  Although I agreed that nobody likes to be got I also felt that if you were doing what you weren’t supposed to be doing, or not doing something you were supposed to be doing (like teaching your class!)  you deserved to get got and that too was my job. I still believe that.

A decade later a school I work with recently instituted unannounced 'walk-throughs.' They chose, wisely I think, to focus each walk-through on a few key classroom and teaching attributes rather than making a generalized overview of everything all of the time. Savvy administrators, like skilled writing teachers, understand that better revision happens when students revise several times, each with a specific narrow focus, rather than do a single revision about everything.

Focused walk-throughs were undertaken and administrators followed up with both positive and negative comments directed only to the specific teacher that had been observed. However the administrators conducting the exercise were totally taken aback by how miffed some of the teachers were by the negative comments especially because they took care to provide something positive first.

It almost goes without saying that everyone likes being caught doing things right and nobody likes getting nailed doing something wrong. However administrators, like teachers, can foster a positive, growth oriented atmosphere by identifying the difference between what happens as a result of habit and what merely has happened as the result of a single mistake. While this is true about both positive and negative habits, where positive findings tend to always foster positive habits, negative findings tend to provoke reactions only some of which are positive.

This is not to say that administrators happening on an unprepared or unprofessional teacher should not take stern action. However little but dyspepsia will be fostered with a criticism that happens upon a single minor incident (for instance, forgetting to write down the lesson objective on the board) particularly if it happened as a result of momentary neglect by a teacher who for the previous 106 lessons had actually done things exactly the right way.

The first time you note something positive, communicate it. The first time you note something negative that does not rise to the level of egregious, note that too, but have patience, Grasshopper. If you are dedicated to doing your job well, you will visit that classroom again and again. If you see the same thing again, that tells you something you might want to mention in passing. But if you see it again after that, what you might be seeing here is a habit and habits, whether they result in positive or poor teaching performance, are exactly what you want meaningful professional communications to be about.

I Just Breathed…Now What?

I just saw this short film reminding people (kids and adults) about how breathing deeply will reduce stress and help control anger. And while I agree that deep breathing is an effective tool for calming down, it is calming down that follows self-control not the other way around.

Emotions are powerful impulses but part of our maturation process is to learn how to modulate our reactions to these powerful impulses. Often we do this because we start recognizing the self-interested need for self-regulation or we start identifying the nuances of emotional impulses.

I'm not looking to get into an argument here but honestly all this breathing is kind of worthless for those who have little self-control. However deep breathing while reflecting on one’s intentions (contemplating, for instance, negative outcomes that might occur as a result of an emotional explosion) is a good start. Understanding the range of feelings packed in an emotional reaction is another key to activating some meaningful action during contemplative time.

Think of the difference between controlling light with an on-off switch versus a dimmer switch to get a sense of the impact recognizing emotional nuance. A powerful and simple resource to help develop such nuanced understanding students might need to modulate reactivity is a little thing I like to call language. What if, along with high frequency words, we also posted(and employed!!)  nuanced iterations of emotional words as well? All this deep breathing is essentially about dealing with this one emotion, so here are some synonyms for anger : enraged, exasperated, furious, indignant, irate, resentful, chafed, displeased, nettled, vexed, annoyed.

It doesn’t take much to see that there are plenty of gradations from the full on enraged to the more moderate annoyed.  Nor is it a big jump to expect, having identified one’s anger as perturbation rather than fury, that the ability to dial one’s reaction down from total annihilation to mere grievance is made equally easier.

Contemplate, while breathing or not, what that feeling is that you are actually feeling and you may be well on your way to being able to develop a powerful internal relationship with your own feelings that allows you to not just breathe, but breathe a little easier.