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

Simple & Effective


On the wall to my office, when I was an Assistant Principal, were two posters: How to Pass and How to Fail.  On the latter poster there were 30 or so entries of which these few are examples:

  • always arrive late, and when you arrive late be sure to be as loud and disruptive as possible;
  • never, never ever do your homework (if nothing else your teachers will admire your consistency;
  • When the teacher says ‘turn to pg. 26’ ask: ‘what page?’

 However, the poster that read How to Pass was remarkably simple:  

  • Show Up
  • Pay Attention
  • Do your Work
  • Behave.  

That’s it: four steps.  It seems such a simple prescription but ironically the shorter list is the harder list. It is harder simply because success is always harder. Failing is as easy as saying I quit, and we are always inventing new reasons and new ways to fail. But the ingredients to success, in school as in life, end up always the same.

Show up. In school it’s as easy as being there when the bell rings, even before the bell rings. Have a job: same deal. But more than being there, out in the real world, showing up means having a vision, creating a plan, managing time, organizing. But it also means being there when you need to be there. Showing up is making your 13th business lunch of the day feel like a date with the most exciting paramour your imagination can invent. That’s your job, not theirs.

Pay attention. Know where you want to go, stay focused on it. Make more high quality decisions, especially in stressful moments. Know when it’s ok to answer that gut squeezing desire to grab the closet want and when you’ve got to let it walk by while you answer the needs of that distant call of the bigger dream. It’s not in that moment that you’ll feel great, but you may feel better than great later on when you are standing exactly where you wanted to stand.

Do your work: Persist, persist, and then persist some more. Look beyond the moment. Keep the distant image near but take a distanced view of close things. A young man wanted to be an full-time developer-entrepreneur, and could have started that day. Just enough money was there, in a small savings, in retirement funds, to get started but how much sacrifice, he was asked, was he willing to make. To make such a enterprise happen, he would have to leave his apartment in the city, move back home to the suburban parents.. How much sacrifice you are willing to make to make your dreams come true?  That, my friends, is doing your work.

Behave:  “Good girls go to heaven,” said Mae West, “bad girls go everywhere!” So let’s make it clear, right away, that to behave does not necessarily mean to do what you are told. Rather it means knowing when to do what you are told to do and when you need to go your own way. It means being wise and self-regulating. Behave in the way you need to behave to get to what it is you really want rather than what you want right then.

Guess what you can do?  You can behave in a very friendly way even if you’re really pissed off at a co-worker; you can be co-operative, even if you feel a bit taken advantage of; you can be in a good humor even if you had the worst morning of your life and you cannot stand the sight of the idiots in your office for even one more day! 

Why do this? You do this only when it is in YOUR best interest to do so. This is choosing with power and authority instead of resentment. My boss may be unfair and unyielding to behavioral change (but to be clear I am not suggesting we tolerate abuse) but my plan is to deal with it the best I can while I work on my bigger plan of completing my degree to get a better job. Behaving sometimes means opening your mouth but sometimes it also means shutting the hell up. Managing your behavior, knowing when to do one and not the other is behaving, and successful people know how to behave.

And please, have a sense of humor about things! Not every offense requires a 14 megaton response! Some things, many things, you can just let go. Why? Because it is in your best interest to do this. Real power is when the only buttons that get pushed are the ones you push yourself!

Teach this to your children, to your students and to yourself. Success skills successfully applied: simple and yes, difficult, but quite possibly the only way to earn success. 

Balanced, and Fair

One time I was kept waiting by a movie manager I asked to see. I waited five minutes, then ten. Frankly it was frustrating. Every couple of minutes I wanted to just leave, but I hung in. After all, I had something I needed to say. Finally, the manager appeared. I was glad, too, because the conversation with the manager allowed me to practice what I preach.

What I believe is simply this: when you have got a complaint, air it. Air it respectfully (sometimes a struggle), air it directly, and of course, air it tactfully. That's my philosophy, but that is not all of my philosophy.

I also believe that if you're willing to register a complaint when warranted you ought also be at least as willing to register a compliment when one of those is warranted. Most people don't.

It's not that people don't compliment or are not thankful; my experience is that most folks are. However sometimes we are more parsimonious about our time when it comes to complimenting vs complaining. When an impediment arises, like waiting a few minutes, well..frankly, who has time?

At the movies, in fact, I was waiting to tell the manager how one of his employees went well out of her way to help me resolve what might have been a costly mistake. I was grateful, and wanted to be thankful as well, but more importantly (can't shake the teacher in me) I wanted to make sure that the extra effort was rewarded with a bit of extra effort as well. What better way is there to promote positive behavior than to reward positive behavior with positive behavior.

I think about this especially when I am observing classes and see a teacher being parsimonious with even truly earned compliments and praise. But it is also clear how this is played out in the way education professionals communicate with home. The ratio of complaint calls home about students outnumber positive calls somewhere around 10 - 1.  Why? The answer is actually frighteningly simple: complaints really serve us directly. Compliments, though they serve us also, serve us indirectly.

When you call home to complain that little Billysuebobbyjo is misbehaving, disrupting the class, essentially we are making the call for us. What we're doing is asking for help to limit such disruption, and there is not a thing wrong with that. Parent must be partners in their children's success however the willingness to call Billysuebobbyjo's mom when she or he has had an amazing day? Well, somehow, when it comes to extolling the virtues of that same child for a job well done, we just can't find the time, and that is a problem.

There is little doubt that being enraged and needing satisfaction,  or the desire to ask for help, is a great motivator for getting us to find time to get done what we need to get done. But in my world, if you are willing to do the former, you damned well better be willing to give the same level of commitment when it comes to doing for others.

An education professional, really anyone serious about building collaboration, communication and partnerships, will find this simple action a very good place to begin.


A Simple Rule Before Opening Your Yap

Observing a teacher the other day and, while she was addressing one student in particular, I started noting a pattern of harsh behavioral feedback statements. It bordered on, and eventually even crossed the line of acceptability. However when I reviewed the specificity of the language later I found it, at least on paper, reasonable though perhaps pushing the line of acceptable student teacher interaction.

A couple examples: "I don't want excuses, I want your work." Another: "No you don't need an eraser until you start writing something."

Of course the issue was not what was being said, but how. An old jazz tune said it very, very clearly in it's opening lyric: "It's not what you say it's the way how you say it." Very simple, very accurate advice.

Setting aside the specifics of this teacher it occurs to me how much I hear interactions of negative tone that are not necessarily negative in language. Sometimes it's sarcasm, or even dismissive, sometimes it's even unintentional. In the worst cases it is actually speech infused with a sense of implied superiority. Of course teachers, as well as other leaders, need authority. but authority does not need to be built on a disregard for how other receive, or may receive, what we as authorities need to say to be effective instructors and leaders.

A simple rule of thumb. Before you speak, before you give in to the snap emotion you may be feeling, give that impulse a nano second more of thought. Here's a simple test that you can employ in that extra bit of thought.

Imagine those exact words, in that exact tone, being said to you out of the mouths of your students (or peers, or employees). Ask yourself how it would make you feel. If you would not accept it from them, you probably shouldn't accept it out of your mouth either. 

Fifty Shades Of Success

A million or so years ago, when it was still in my head I might be an actor, I took private singing lesson from an amazing teacher named John Baylis who is still teaching actors and singers in New York City. From him I learned something so critical it changed the entire course of my life which is, of course, exactly what great teachers do. 

When I first began going to his studio, a fourth floor walk-up, my aim was enough singing ability so that perhaps I could start working in my chosen profession at a time when musicals dominated paying work. I had sung on-stage in school and summer stock but my singing was little more than bravado. 'Selling a song' may work when you're the actor they want, or when the pool of actors is thin, but competing with legitimate actors with amazing voices? Let's just say I wasn't working much.

John was having none of it, though. From the moment I warbled my first scale he was interested only in my potential and saw his job as offering me the most rather than the least he could provide.  I was a tough sell. Notoriously thin on frustration tolerance, I was quick to drop anything that didn't pay dividends almost immediately,  When I picked up guitar as a teenager the music I heard in my head was Clapton and Cream but the actual sound I made was a bouquet of discordant notes that approximated the sound of mice scratching in metal walls. Soon  I was as done with guitar as I was with everything else that demanded challenge over time. 

What John did, that I don't recall any other teacher doing as persistently as he, was to remain supremely positive, absolutely honest and exceptionally kind. To some extent, as both teacher and businessman, John's need to maintain regular clientele may have created this dynamic but irrelevant of why, as all great teachers do,  John was able to assess my needs and work with my strengths. Whatever potential John saw in me he knew to make the journey of my getting there about me. For future reference, kindness always works better for me than harsh demands.  

When I practiced my scales at home, he noticed; when I did not he noticed that too but without rancor. When I did something right during the lesson, he shared in the joy of the accomplishment and pointed out to me what I did to make that sound. When it didn't happen, which was often, he was patient, and, most importantly, told me what I should do and then focused for a bit on that one single thing. Singing, like many complex activities, involves learning and internalizing a vast array in interconnected physical and mental actions, some of which are actually counter-intuitive. Except for those who seem to be born singers, learning and doing each action individually is difficult. Learning them well enough to be able to string them together in a unified action is really difficult.

John kept at it, lesson after lesson after lesson, pointing out my little victories. 'Right there, wow, that sound right there was almost perfect! Remember though, tongue against the back of your lower teeth"   We had even evolved a language of metaphors and abstract descriptions driven by my own self interpretations of what I understood I had to do inside my own head and body to sing well:  an internal checklist so to speak.  For instance the words 'tin can,' which would mean nothing in any other singing lesson, immediately gives me clear understanding of how to hold my body and employ my diaphragm to support the breath so that I can reach the notes I wanted to sing.

Did I want to quit?  Oh yeah, plenty. Though every so often I made a decent sound, I was still deeply frustrated by my inconsistency and, as with my earlier forays in complex learning, every sour note was an embarrassment as well as a bell clear announcement of my utter lack of talent.   But John's incessant positivity made the 'classroom' an always pleasant, compassionate place that made my wanting to be there stronger than my negativity and hopelessness that wanted me to quit.

And then, one day, about 8 months after I had started my lessons, I went through my internal checklist, listened for John's piano chord cue, opened my mouth and out of me came a sound I had never, ever heard before. Rich, powerful, soaring, full of vibrato and bass-baritone buzz.

"Was that me?"   The shock of it made me stop singing. John was laughing.  I tried again and there it was again, my open, soaring voice. At first it felt like I had stumbled into some wonderland, or had been anointed, so sudden and shocking was this moment.

Later though, instead of seeing this moment only as an sudden leap, I was able instead to connect this moment to the hundreds of small successes, and the frustrating ups and downs  of the previous months. This was, absolutely, the rocket's sudden, explosive trajectory but was just as surely culmination of a mass of crumpled, scrawled formulae out of which the right computations were culled. A big victory, for sure, but as much the confluence of a set of practiced individuals skills that came together finally, perfectly, at least for once, after having gotten it wrong before so many times. 

Now the perfect ending to this essay would be a coda of how I went from a West-Forties low-rise to LaScala but the reality is, as it is for most of these things, the moment of success is really just another beginning of yet another phase demanding renewed commitment. My singing improved, and I stayed with the lessons for quite some time, but by then I had already begun to move on from the dream of being an actor into other quests and, frankly, no longer had the drive to move from having a good voice to the greater levels of consistency, growth and musicianship that would have moved me toward actually becoming a singer.

But it’s effect?  Being able to manage the evanescent process that is inherent in doing anything complex (such as learning a foreign language, writing books,  becoming a better teacher, being able to master the basics of guitar or taking an idea from vision to fruition) has changed my life immeasurably, and continues to affect my life in many ways, large and small. 

From John Baylis, a great teacher, what I really learned was how to learn.

Only I thought then that he was just teaching me to sing.

The Road to Misery

Almost invariably when teaching, and in particular teaching professional adults, the main point of stress can be summed up in a single word: perfection. Somewhere along the way I have, as have so many others, gotten the idea that the more we drive ourselves to perfection to more we bring ourselves closer to excellence. What I have learned, and what I keep trying to teach others as well as myself, is that nothing could be further from the truth.

What I try to do, when it comes up, is virtual surgery in the classroom. With a thin, highly accurate tweezer, I reach into the brains of whomever is my student and pluck out the word perfection. Unfortunately sometimes it has deep roots: surgery is just too dangerous. In that case all I can do is get them to acknowledge that it's there and repeat, as necessary:

The road to perfection is the road to misery. The road to excellence is the road to excellence.

And excellence, my friends, is a journey worth taking.

The No-Bully Zone

I am opposed to bullying, let me put that right out there.  Are you are impressed by my courageous stand?

OK, so it's not really an act of courage to oppose bullying but let me further elucidate. I am particularly opposed to bullying by grown ups, and particularly the kind of bullying that is done to students under the guise of 'teaching' and classroom management.

Politeness, kindness and courtesy in the classroom should be exemplified by the teacher so that it can expected of students. The no bullying zone applies to the staff as well as the kids. 

Here is an example of just the kind of 'bullying' under the guise of motivation. A teacher from a parochial school, requiring an essay of a particular length, thought very highly of the fact that she papered the doorway with a student’s (admittedly somewhat modest) writing submission that had the requisite number of pages but with huge spacing and exceptionally wide margins.  She took great store in the fact that his humiliation engendered a more serious revision. Bully for her, literally.

It was no better when an assistant superintendent in a full high school auditorium called out a student in the audience for quietly chatting with his neighbor while she read from her carefully prepared lecture given to meet the district’s anti-bullying education requirements. She stopped mid-sentence and demand the student rise and share what was so important that he had to speak while she was speaking.

“Nothing,” he replied, “it was nothing, Sorry.”

She insisted he rise and speak but the student, clearly embarrassed already, demurred.  When the Assistant Superintendent redoubled her efforts to force the student to humiliate himself, another student rose instead and sarcastically challenged the speaker. “Isn’t this an example of the bullying which we’re not supposed to do?”

As an educational leader, certainly she must have taken great pride in the fact that these students understood the message she was trying to promote.

Wilber Dungy, a teacher and the father of football coach Tony said, “The sign of a great teacher is someone who brings out the best in every one of his students, someone who can do it without tricking them, or bullying them or wanting credit for their achievements.”

Take any ideal from lifelong learning to persistence to organization to time management and there is a pretty good chance that if parents and teachers are not exemplifying it, the kids are not learning it either.  It’s really quite simple.  If you don't want students to learn how to be bullies, simply don't do so yourself! If you screw someone up, apologize, and make a sincere effort to do better. Screw up in public, apologize in public, and make a sincere effort to do better.

Honestly, this is all there is to it. Before you speak to a student, really to anyone, before you say that sarcastic thing that you think will be so funny to say you only merely need to answer this question: whom does such a rejoinder serve? If it's for your entertainment, and especially if it is at the expense of the student, just don't do it. Say something helpful instead, say something hopeful, say something kind.

At the end of the day, our children look to us not for perfection. Rather what they need from us is something tangible on the higher scale of positive human behavior that gives them the ability within themselves, as Abraham Lincoln said, to seek their “better angels.”


Facing Difficult Realities

Lately I have been thinking about an incident that occurred during a high school dance.

As per policy the school was required to have a Police Oficer present to prevent any problems. However, when a male student got into a meaningless little argument with female student near the Officer, it was the Officer who escalated the issue by confronting the male student.

Any teacher worth his salt would know immediately to first engage with the student rather than confront him but instead the officer immediately asserted his authority. The student reacted, poorly it needs to be clearly stated, but the officer became immediately enraged, and in the space of about a (literally) a few seconds the officer was ready to cuff and arrest the kid. Fortunately there was a teacher nearby who was able to defuse the situation. It was actually harder to calm the officer down than the kid. In the end, the student had to be asked to leave if only to assuage the officer.

I write this not to fault the Police Officer; he was no less right or wrong in his behavior than was the student, but I have been thinking about this lately because of the shooting of Tamir Rice.

Like many, I have no idea what to think about the shooting death of this 12 year old child other than it is tragic is beyond words. That is is tinged in our climate of racial strife is also a factor.

Whether it was racially motivated or not is a question yet to be answered, and may never be answered. However if we can set aside the race issue momentarily we might be able to look at this confrontation from a very different perspective.

While this is complete conjecture based on public news reports the key issue here at the outset seems to be one of time. What we have is a 12 year old boy who appears to have a weapon in a confrontation with an armed adult, with the child supposedly being ordered to put up his hands. Instead Tamir reaches for the toy gun in his belt.  According to the New York Times, the period of time that elapsed from the moment the patrol car rolled up until the officer fired his weapon was about two seconds.

Two seconds. Less time that it takes me to write the actual words two seconds.


With deference to the Police Officer, two seconds facing a life and death decision is oppressive and frightening. Given my brain I am certainly not a person who would function well under such circumstances. More to the point, neither would many of my students.

What I have learned as a teacher however is that what may be simple and direct and easily understood information to one student may well be gobbydegook to another. What students understand and what they do not, both on the learning and on the compliance side, is critical information in the classroom and while I do not make an equation between the intensity of decision making under the stress of an armed confrontation and the interaction of a teacher, still being able to answer the question of what the person to whom you are speaking knows is critical understanding. 

Great teachers learn how to give simple, clear directive, avoid excess verbiage, and check for understanding and sometimes must do so under stressful circumstances, most of the time not facing down the barrel of a gun.

At the high school dance I witnessed two people confronting each other at about the the same level of mis-understanding. However one was an armed adult and the other a foolish kid acting like foolish kids act in school. It seems to me it was incumbent on the adult to act as an adult, take a measured and calm response, but he did not in all probability because it was simply not in his training and vocabulary to respond that way.

And it makes me wonder, how much of understanding of a kid (or even an adult) goes into the way officers interact with others. To be sure teachers have much to learn from parents and police officers but it does seem, at least in reflecting upon such interaction, officers have something to learn from us. It doesn't seem to me such a stretch that a few seconds of engagement might well save a life time of regret.

Love What You Do and You Will Love What You Do

Find what you love to do is often proffered as the key to a successful work life. So, all I need to do then is find something I love doing, then when I do that I will not only derive a living from it, but I will also live a happy life.

Piece of cake.

Throw in a weekend place in Malibu and life is perfect.

Except that it usually isn't!  Paul Simon even notes in one of his songs that it is only some people's lives that roll easy.

The real truth is few people actually get to do exactly what they 'love' especially in highly competitive areas. I personally know several folks whose early career desires (actors, artists, and athletes for instance) never came to fruition. Sometimes desire, even desire coupled with fierce and heroic dedication, just isn't enough.

Most everybody I know has made some kind of compromise against their perfect life-work vision in order to make a living and a life and there is nothing inherently unsuccessful in that.  No less a brainiac than Albert Einstein even warned not try to make a living doing something we love.

Of course there are folks there who have been able to live lives without compromise but as parents and teachers we need to be careful not to allow the desire for the 'iconic' to create constant dissatisfaction. There is something to be said for teaching and learning how to love what one has already. The old adage that if you are not getting what you want, start learning to be happy with what you have is applicable here.

Work related joy can be gotten in a lot of different ways however to get there one needs to be able to make a genuine distinction between the importance of having everything one wants and what is really important to have. Then learn to appreciate - a term used to assess incremental value but really means to find something or someone's true worth. 

Acceptance is not complacency, nor does it preclude one from continuing to search for paths of greater satisfaction and meaning. Finding what you love to do is a great option if it's available but one can also be successful by finding reasons to love what you already do and what you already have. In the beautiful film, Il Postino, the main character actually learns to love the very pace he hates not by leaving, but by learning to see exactly the same things in an entirely new way.

This is applicable in work, in friendship, in marriage, everywhere. When you keep finding reasons to love what you do and what you have and who you love, you'll always get to love what you do, what you have and who you love.




Two Parenting and Teaching Truths

So much about high competency teaching and outstanding parenting that I believed was incontrovertibly true has fallen by the wayside in my almost quarter of a century in public education and being a parent. However two strategies have proven to be almost universally applicable, even to adult relationships. They are:

  1. don't argue in the moment and; 
  2. the more you talk, the less they hear.

Tired of arguments every time there's any kind of controversy? Me, too.  Ironically my mind goes back years ago, long before I became either a teacher or a parent, to a woman standing outside of a play cave at the Central Park Zoo reasoning with her child to come out because Mommy had an appointment and being a good cooperator was actually a nice thing for him to do because good cooperators have lots of friends, and do well in school, and drive high end sports cars and live in triplexes overlooking the park (ok, some of this I made up). 

These are the times to have discussions and there are times to cut the chatter.

"You have two options," is one approach that Mommy can take, "come out willingly and we can go on with our terrific day or I come in an get you and there will no television tonight. I'm counting to five."  After such a statement, nothing more than numbers need be said. The discussion about the genuinely highly important issues the mother was addressing are critical but must come later, when everyone is calm and receptive. In the middle of an argument, or a power struggle, nobody is receptive.

However even when that conversation happens, what I have leaned is that clarity, brevity and a soupçon of your child's attention are critical components. When it comes to talking to kids (sometimes even adults) less is usually more. Think whole cloth when talking!  Remember that even the richest, most beautiful, most dense fabric is still only multiple strands of thin, single threads woven thickly together over time.

As a teacher I "dumb" nothing down.  What I do try to do instead is weave the eventual whole cloth of complexity one simple strand at a time. What simple idea can I teach, how can I check for understanding, what will I see or hear to know that the learning is taking root, what's the next thread?  Likewise, as a parent I can do the same thing.

Assume for instance you have a child whose disorganization reveals itself in mounds of clothing, papers and empty candy wrappers covering the floor of his or her room. If the remedy you have chosen is a consequence driven ultimatum to clean the room by the end of the day, save time and just start the consequence at the end of the sentence. Alternatively though you could ask for a simple action such as 'pick up you socks'. A sock hunt can actually be an entertaining activity and a sock hunt today might lead to a underwear search later and a game of Candy Wrapper Detective after that. 

Simplifying? Absolutely. Dumbing down? Hardly.

The reality is what you are actually doing is teaching a manageable organizational strategy simply that, over time. your child may be able to learn and internalize in a complex way. From my perspective, not a bad long term outcome in the classroom or in the home. Teach a layer, check for understanding, observe application (praise!!!!!!) and slap on another layer. 


  1. don't argue in the moment and; 
  2. the more you talk, the less they hear.

Trust me: these things are absolutely true. And I know because every time I forget and get to the point that I want to scream, I remember that I should have done exactly this and just try to do better next time.


Professional Collaboration and Success Skill Development

I recently published a book, The Missing Link, Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills. The core idea of this book is predicated on that fact that 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. The difference between a child who is successful in school (and elsewhere) is rarely matter of intelligence or ability but is most often a matter of skillfulness in the ability to be successful. 

Because of that, my book seeks to place such skills as decision making, persistence, self-regulation, organization, time management and even the skill of appropriate “work-place social skills” into the strata of critically important learning. 

However the development of these skills does not jibe with traditionally structured schools. Success skills cannot be effectively taught  if groups of individuals are giving different messages, or appear to be giving different messages, and not working collaboratively. Like in families,  lack of unified consistency amongst those responsible for child development almost always results in very little development of these these self-efficacy skills.

In academics such collaboration is somewhat less critical but when it comes to developing critical success skills, professional educators must become more unified and collaborative, clear and consistent. In other words communicate meaningfully, and repetitively, and consistently about student development, as well as communicate with each other to facilitate genuine individual character development, The reality is all of these victories are always individual. 

The problem of course is that overwhelmed professional educators do not need more stuff to do. That's why in my book I foster ways to do the same things differently so that the cost of time is really the same but the outcomes are significantly different. It's really so simple: we all do what we usually do, but with a slightly different method and focus so that children learn how to manage time, manage emotions and manage themselves. 

Poor Little Kyle, in trouble again

Recently I have been a party to a Facebook flapdoodle over a purported misbehavior report wherein a middle school student was being formally chastised because he gave his food to another child.

"What is America coming to?"  was the general horrified consensus, "that poor little Kyle gets in trouble for being kind and offering food to another student." 

It's fine to get all bent out of shape about this 'self-less' act and the 'ogres' who are suppressing an action that seems just common sense to us in our homes. However, before you criticize, be certain that you will be as supportive of that same action putting food into the hand of a child to which he or she is severely allergic. Being responsible for other people's children, often several hundred of them if not more, is a bit more complicated than the kitchen responsibility of supervising your child and perhaps another child or two more. 

The age of the student makes little difference. Even in middle school, last I checked, children don't always apply long term wisdom to immediate choices.

Sometimes policy decisions are enacted without deep thought, that's true. Sometime consequences are meted out without deep thought also. How the learning comes to this student certainly may be an issue that ought to be discussed but the complexity of the management itself is often lost on folks who have never been there.  

 I'm not saying there aren't better ways of doing things - there are always betters ways of doing everything. I am only saying that we ought to be a little more circumspect before passing knee-jerk judgments on the actions of school personnel who make more professional decisions in the course of an hour than most professionals make in a week or a month or a even a year. We ought to at least try to understand the whole picture of even a single  decision before level criticism based on just a small part of the picture.


Real Student Choice

“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero,” or so writes Chuck Palahniuk in his novel Fight Club.

It similarly can be said that on a long enough timeline everyone's chance for success climbs to 100%. The key is to know how to keep on climbing otherwise, on that same timeline, it drops to zero.

Our students make this choice everyday. In which direction are we helping them go?  That choice in ours, every day.


All Teachers Will Be Required to Take 17,000 Hours of Professional Development in Instruction (the good news is that they have already taken them!)

I've said for years to young teachers that the one subject they have studied more than anything else is teaching. A recent post I read noted that number somewhere around 17,000 hours. I neither want to nor will bother to validate that number and instead just say it sounds about right to me.

However the context in which this writer posited these figures he noted that since most math teaching is 'bad,' math teachers drawing on such experiences will likely be equally bad.


Well, ok, lets say I watch somebody inattentively cross a busy New York street while texting. Let's also say that as a result of this inattention that person winds up with, as MIchael V. Gazzo might describe it, an "ass full of taxicab bumpers." Let's further say that without thought I decide to do exactly the same thing. What can I logically construe from such an observation?

 If it is that the same thing will not happen to me, I'm might well be in my way to a rude awakening, a very rude awakening. Similarly, if I was poorly taught and I just thoughtlessly teach the way I was taught, I might likewise also be in for a rude awakening, assuming I am awake enough to recognize said awakening when it arrives.

Each of us has billions of experiences from which we are free to learn or not learn. This is no less true about of our 17,000 hours of instructional development that we are all, apparently, offered as a bonus for all the years we are in schools learning other stuff.

Reflective teachers passionate about being outstanding teachers will take all of their experiences and, applying thoughtful reflection, select those actions which had positive impact. Or they will test out an action that may not have worked just as an idea. In any case a thoughtful, reflective teacher will subject each and every professional action to meaningful scrutiny and decide if it delivered the necessary impact, or if it did not. The point is that, good or bad, experience is a teacher and once taught, why waste the experience?

The more important question to ask is if you are supervising a teacher who gives that little attention to his or her profession, why is that person still teaching in your school?


An Amazing Irony

Here's an amazing irony. Because I had not yet learned how to be successful when I was a freshman at the The University of Texas at El Paso, I flunked out. Now they have a copy of my book, The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills, a book about helping students succeed, in their library. If only they had a copy of my book back then I'm sure it would have helped ensure a much better outcome.

Or better still, since I was not much of a dedicated reader back then, maybe my teachers and advisers might have helped me learn the critical skills of success, rather than merely inform me about the importance of applying them. We need to start embracing the idea that to be successful you need to know how to be successful, and start really intentionally teaching the skills that help all kids succeed!

The True Power of Teachers

As we begin yet another new school year it is wise to remember that not only can this new year be a new beginning, but each day can be a new beginning. Of course, paraphrasing Carl Bard, you can never return to yesterday and do it over, but you can always start from today to make a better tomorrow.  That is the true gift of teachers: to be able to reset the clock, to start again, and to keep on starting again until the student has learned to start themselves.

News Flash: All Children Really ARE Special!

Empathy is often misinterpreted. When blamed for a generation of parents refusing to enforce limits with their children, Dr. Benjamin Spock bewailed that his empathic parenting advice was simply misunderstood. "I have never advocated  permissive anything," he said, 

The result of the misapplication of empathic teaching and the self-esteem building ideas?  American children excel at feeling excellent but, unfortunately, not at being excellent.

However, empathic teaching (and empathic parenting) is not at fault. Larding a child with praise to the point where a child feels rewarded for having done nothing at all is not a tenet of the "self-esteem" movement.  Rather empathic teaching is about helping children discover, even in small increments, that which is special and unique about them.

True, not every child is a great mathematician, or a great athlete, but neither does every child have a kind and compassionate nature. In school, perhaps even in life, one's uniqueness, well developed, is essentially no better or no worse that any other uniqueness well developed. It's my opinion, of course, but from where I sit, any parent (or teacher) not willing to help their child discover what is special about them would be a pretty piss poor parent or teacher indeed. 

What Really Matters About Praise

In the Department of almost perfect, a seventh grade science class teacher asked a student a question to which he couldn't quite get the answer. The gutsy teacher stayed with him, offering a couple of hints and best of all, almost two minutes of wait time and incorrect answers. The kid really hung in and finally got the answer.

"Friction," he said.

"Absolutely," said the teacher, obviously and rightly pleased. "exactly right, Great job."

I know that there are a lot of debates regarding praise. No less an educational authority than Alfre Cohen says that praise weakens students, makes them dependent on others rather than able to take care of themselves. To a large extent, I do agree, however, when it comes to praise, all praise is not always the same.

Weak praise, non specific praise (such as noted in the example) and worst of all, meaningless praise and praising the wrong stuff all contribute to making praise less useful and sometimes weakening. It may be a chicken and egg argument but it does seem that in order for a child to understand and be able to praise him or herself independently of other's opinions, they first must internalize a sense of what is praiseworthy and some kind of system to independently measure him or herself accurately. Specificity, rather than generalities, are what drive this process. 'Great use of an descriptive adjective' beats 'great job' every time.

What matters is that praise be used to guide a student's understanding of his or her own strengths; the real purpose of praise should not be praise but the ability to self-assess. In the case above, it was not the answer itself. He got it right,  but so what? What was critical was that the student did not quit, he didn't give up, he stayed with the "problem" until he got it solved which is a far more critical skill to develop.

Einstein often noted that he was not unusually smarter than others (well, actually he probably was) but that he was unusually willing to stay with a problem longer (he probably was that, too). Employ a meaningful use of praise to help a student connect the dots between his own strengths, and the strengths of one of the world's greatest thinkers, and you are not almost there, you are really finally onto what really matters.

Nobody's Right, If Everybody's Wrong

Don't know Audra McDonald personally but she strikes as uniquely talented and richly deserving of the awards she has won.  Most recently winning her Tony Award she thanked her parents for having the courage not to medicate their hyperactive daughter and to allow her to find her own way.

That is warm praise indeed but a bit troubling. Though I cannot tell you where exactly Ms. McDonald's sympathies lay, there seemed somewhat implicit in this statement a suggestion that medicating kids is always wrong. For instance, she might well have just thanked her parents for helping her find her own way and left it at that.

Being neither physician, psychiatrist nor pharmacist, I cannot speak to the efficacy of medications used to treat hyperactivity and related behaviors but that it is being over-prescribed I have little doubt. Shortcuts are always in style and doctors, parents, educators (all of us, really), spurred on by plenty of encouragements from pharmaceutical makers, are often open to a quick pill to solve any issue. However what I do see in the “medication” debate, like just about every public debate in our society, is that it has become another either/or argument.

Few, if any ideas in public debate gets, or even should get, complete agreement. Nothing works for everybody, nothing is right for everybody, there are no absolutes. Sometimes we choose to believe absolutes, and then very often build a nice wall around it to keep them safe from reason, and evidence.  Usually, around anyone proffering an absolute, hold tight to your wallet and your heart: he or she has something to sell you. This debate is actually quite simple, as most are.

If Ms. McDonald and her parents, are happy with their decision, it was certainly the right decision, However last I checked, not everybody is as gifted as Ms. McDonald nor even able to go into a profession where individualized creative response is as warranted as it is on stage. A TV writer once impulsively quit a hit show he was working on only to return a few days later telling everyone that it was just a joke and found himself, after a few awkward minutes, welcomed back without rancor. Something tells me that such a scenario would be much less well received in a Fortune 500 company boardroom than it was in that writer’s room.

Sometimes people have to conform to be successful, have to learn how to function in a world where they must control rather than feed impulses. As a parent and an educator with 25 years of experience I can tell you that there are many, many  medication-free successes, but I can assure you that there are many medication free failures. Likewise for every medication success, there is a medication failure as well. However my concern is that  because of such a dysfunctional public debate, people are forced to choose sides instead of choose wisely. Few educators, particular those working with Child Study Teams, have not heard from some parents a blanket statement that whatever is going to be discussed, medication is off the table and will never happen no matter what!

I know that choosing to medicate a child is a complex and difficult decision for any parent to make, and to be sure it should not be made lightly. However it should be made with input that is thoughtful, professional and medical, and free from external biases for or against. Really this ought to be the way we decide everything but at least when it comes to a child, no decision is ever absolute. Whatever your decision, wise parents continue to monitor, and assess the decision that they made and leave themselves open to adjust, correct, rethink.

Though not absolute, if you can tweet your position in any debate, you probably haven’t left your thinking enough space for nuance & growth.  (just tweeted that, by the way).

Getting to Student Success: Facilitate Before it's Too Late

So much of our discussions about how to get students to do what it is we think is in their best interest is wasted. In reality, short of coercion, children (most of us, really)  will do very little they are not actually motivated to do, even if it is in their own best interest. Getting anyone to act even in their own self interests involves a commitment to shift from directive to facillitative.

People quite naturally embrace that which they help create and, at least initially, push away that which is foisted on them. Think for instance how most of our hearts will open to our crying child on the adjacent plane seat and shut like a vault door when its someone else's kid wailing in the same seat.  

The key to facilitating is being willing to to spend the time and the care to have the student identify and embrace a specific and personalized goal. Once a student has defined what he or she wants, very frequently the paths and behaviors toward that goal virtually create themselves. The rest is just the kind of facillitative guidance that looks an awful lot like good teaching: guiding questions that help students solve the problems that fate and circumstance has manage to toss in their paths. 

So why the resistance?  Sometimes educators fear is that given free choice students will always make less consequential decisions and that facilitating reduces teacher authority. This is a real concern, but one that is not surmountable. While it is true that if you present studying for a test as optional students might choose not to study (I sure as hell would) no such choices need to be presented.

Consequences are real, and need to be kept real: true consequences are critical to good facilitation. However the essence of being a good facilitator is to help the student see how decisions they make, not the whims of others, control their desire for better grades, higher self-satisfaction, greater range of college choices. In this way the path the student takes is the path they have embraced, instead of the path onto which they were forced. And in reality, given real choices, most students will choose for themselves almost exactly what we would have chosen for them.

What It Means to Succeed

Paul Tough’s NY Times Magazine article, Who Gets to Graduate, clearly underscores what I learned early on in my high school teaching career and what, ultimately, became the core of my teaching practice and the subject of my recently published book: The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills

The difference between potential and achievement is rarely a matter of intelligence and almost always a matter of the ability to be successful. The frequent argument from colleagues that teaching such success skills – self-regulation and persistence primarily – is the role of parents is unarguably true but the reality is if they don’t learn them at home, and they don’t learn them in school, where, pray tell, will they learn them? 

What Dr. Laude’s work confirms is that is never to late to help students develop the habit of applying success skills but like most learning, developing such habits earlier is simply easier and better. 

Simply put, our schools need to do a better job of intentionally teaching students HOW to succeed. If they don't, they are unintentionally teaching only to those who already know how to succeed and teaching the rest to fail.