a tale of two teachers

This is a description of last week in the life of two teachers. The second teacher is the one to remember.

The first teacher is me

Last week I accepted Ash Kaluarachchi‘s kind annual invitation to serve as a “shark” for startup founders at EdTech Week in New York City. It’s always great to see so many bright, dedicated people trying to solve problems and improve learning with innovative ideas. As usual, among all of the entrepreneurs, executives, consultants, creatives, advisors, and investors, I was the only currently practicing teacher. I listened to founders’ pitches and I helped them understand the K12 environment.

It is often difficult for business people – even former teachers – to empathize with the experiences of teachers and students in classrooms today. The two environments and cultures are so different. It’s hard to teach. It’s even harder to teach and do other things at the same time, especially if those things require (a) a lot of mental bandwidth and (b) a deep desire to change the status quo.

This balance has defined the last 30 years of my career. I try to help both public servants and capitalists understand the implications of what we’re all doing to school. So I took a few days away from home, worked even more remotely than usual, and went to meet Ash and company.

Truth be told, it was a hell of a lot more fun than telling a 9th-grader for the 23rd time to put away her phone.

It was exciting to meet in person!

I flew on an airplane with lots of people.

I stayed at a hotel.

I reconnected with old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

And I had a really good sandwich.

Originally I planned to dedicate this week’s blog post to reporting on the people and ideas from the conference. But there is more than one reality here, and unless we address the conditions in which teachers are trying to teach, school will simply be a place where good ideas go to die.

The second teacher is not me

The day after I came back, I picked up a weight rack that I’d bought online from a really nice guy whose fiancée, it turns out, is a second-year teacher.

“How do you like teaching?” I asked her.

She shook her head and stared at the ground. “I think I’m going to quit.”


“I’ve wanted to teach my whole life. And my first year started off great. I was in a first grade classroom with 23 students and a really supportive supervising teacher. But when the school year ended I wasn’t offered a job. The principal told me it was because they couldn’t predict enrollment and they didn’t know if they’d have enough students.

”I had to apply to every district in the county. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep my apartment. I couldn’t even get an interview.

“Finally I got an interview and a job offer. At that point I had to take it even though it’s an hour and a half each way from my apartment. I stay with friends during the week. It’s too much driving and I can’t afford the gas anyway.  Now I only see my fiancé once every two weeks. It’s hard on our relationship. My salary is about thirty thousand a year, which is barely enough to pay bills. But we’re strong … he just got back from his second tour in the middle east so I know we’ll make it.

“Actually, I’m really not sure how long I can do this.

“The thing is, this year I have 38 fourth graders and they all have some sort of special need or trauma. And their parents. Last week a girl in my class forgot her water bottle on the playground. I couldn’t let her go back outside by herself – it was 105 degrees – but I planned ahead for moments like this. I bought water bottles for each student and kept them full, so I handed her the one with her name on it.

“Her father came to the school and cussed me out in front of all the students and their parents. He jabbed me in the chest with his finger and told me he was going to beat the shit out of me. Why? Just because I gave his 10-year-old a bottle of water I bought with my own money instead of letting her wander around unsupervised in 110 degree heat by herself?”

She wiped away a tear.

I asked, “Are you ok?”

She seemed surprised by my question. “It’s been a week since that happened and you are the first person to ask me that. Yeah, I guess I’m OK. But I have to park my car away from the public lot, around the back of the buildings so no one sees me walking to or from my classroom. I’m scared every day. I just don’t think I can do this anymore.”

Why this is a Dickens novel

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as the story of two protagonists who are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed, against the backdrop of a civilization that was disintegrating in ways that would bring about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

That’s us, right now.

Every teacher is at risk. We are all one misunderstanding away from being censored, fired, beaten, canceled, or worse.

So, while I am truly grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with innovative entrepreneurs for what I hope is the betterment of our education system and everyone in it, I stay mindful of all my colleagues in classrooms who must calmly and kindly fight for their lives every day.

For decades we’ve had the data that describes and analyzes teacher burnout. We know that teachers “must constantly navigate complicated interactions ‘charged with feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear or despair.'”

As many policy makers and school administrators like to say: “Data drives instruction.” All of the qualitative and quantitative data indicate that teachers are being abused.

There is no more standing by on the playground while the nice kid gets tortured.

Whoever you are, and whatever else you believe or do in life, it is your responsibility to protect and defend our teachers. Start by asking if they are OK.

I strongly believe that technology can improve our systems and practices in learning – but we need people and purpose much, much more. This is not a “yes and.” This is a “first we must.” If we fail our teachers, education technology will be worse than worthless.


we belong

The clerk at the 7-11 on Pacific Coast Highway smiled as I brought the coffee to the counter. “Where are you going at three o’ clock in the morning?”

To my very first triathlon.

I signed up for the Malibu Triathlon (1.5k ocean swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run) as my first training event to prepare for the Indian Wells 70.3 Ironman in December.

I pulled into the parking lot at Zuma Beach on Saturday at 4:14am.

I asked around and found the check-in tent. Then I got my timing chip and race bib and made my way to the transition area, where I racked my bike and found a volunteer to write my race number in marker on my upper arms and left calf.

Sooner or later, I knew I’d have to have the Conversation.

The Conversation began when I was a freshman at UCLA. I remember looking around at orientation and thinking, “When is someone going to figure out that I don’t belong here?”

If it’s left unchecked, this irrational fear of being exposed as a fraud can become what psychologists call imposter syndrome.

Sure enough, the voices started:

You’re 52 years old.

You’ve had asthma your whole life. Multiple surgeries on your back, both shoulders, both knees.

You’re afraid of swimming in the ocean. Even the veteran Ironman competitors say this is the hardest event to swim. Today is big surf. Look at it. Listen to it. BOOM. You don’t know what you’re doing. The lifeguards will have to fish you out.

You don’t belong here.

These thoughts are invitations to a mental party I no longer attend.

One feature that distinguishes Open-Source Learning from traditional school is the concept of Mental Fitness. We practice mindfulness to understand and navigate our focus, memory, and emotional landscape.

I practice what I preach.

After I finished setting up my gear, I zipped up my wetsuit, headed back to my car, got in the driver’s seat, set the timer on my phone for 10 minutes, and closed my eyes. I sat still and listened to my breath.

Some people call this meditation. Some call it zazen.

I focused on my breathing. I allowed whatever thoughts passed through my mind to keep right on going. Every time I got distracted by a thought, I refocused on my breathing and listened to the sound of each inhale and exhale against the compression of my wetsuit.

I sat.

And then suddenly 10 minutes had gone by and the alarm on my phone went off.

When I opened my eyes it was daylight.

I headed to the beach and eyed the start.

I felt ready. At least, I felt as ready as I was going to get. It was time to get going. I took one last selfie and headed out.

Almost as soon as I ran into the waves, I got smacked in the head by another swimmer. The impact dislodged my goggles and they started leaking. The saltwater stung my eyes. I made it out to the first buoy but I still had over a kilometer to go and my eyes were really smarting.

“Hey do you need a hand?”

One of the lifeguards paddled over on her board. It’s legal to ask for help during a triathlon as long as it doesn’t give you an advantage, so I put my elbows on the board, took off my swim cap and goggles, dumped out the water, put them back on, snapped the cap back into place, and kept swimming.

The swim was rough but I finished, staggered out of the water, crushed the bike ride (that’s my favorite event), and survived the run.

I finished my first triathlon.

I am not fearless. For weeks before this event, just the idea of swimming in the ocean made me feel anxious every time I thought about it. I can’t avoid fear, but as Norman Schwarzkopf put it, “Courage is being afraid and going ahead and doing your job anyway.” That is something that I can test and prove to myself. And when I do, I feel stronger for the experience.

There were so many little moments that made my day. Every volunteer, lifeguard, law enforcement officer, and EMT at the event was kind. Athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability levels called out to encourage each other: “You got this!” “Way to go!” “You’re almost there!”

Yes. We are almost there. We’re also right where we belong.


madeleine moment

An average guy is having an average — no, make it a mediocre, even crappy day. He comes home and his mother gives him a little cake and tea.

The experience blows his mind. In his words:

“One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.

“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

That’s the “madeleine moment” from Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (later translated as In Search of Lost Time). Proust was writing in a different language for an audience of a different era, but the theme of involuntary memory is still compelling. How can dipping a cookie in tea catalyze transcendence? What is it that tickles our senses, activates our hypothalamus, and suddenly gifts us the experience of deep insight?

Meanwhile, exactly how the fuck do we possessors of such magical capacities keep forgetting and ignoring the most basic information that may yet save us from ourselves?

How many times do we need to be told that going for a hike is a bad idea when it’s 114 degrees at the trailhead? Even doctors – like this neurologist (read: expert on the brain) – die on the trail when it’s too hot. Those examples are just from this past week. Each year from 2004-2018 about 700 Americans died from natural heat exposure. And every article that reports on every one of these incidents includes “Hot Weather Safety Tips” and “Signs of Heat Emergencies” and the like.

You’d think maybe everyone would get the message and learn. Nope. Every year, people still hit the trails in the heat, and they still die.

Memory Hurts Less Than Addiction

As George Santayana famously observed, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I first read that quote as the epigraph to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a book on my grandmother’s shelf with a terrifying cover and an even more terrifying cautionary tale within its pages.

But now that the last of the Holocaust survivors are dying, too many Americans act like it didn’t happen. Or that Nazi Germany didn’t see the Jim Crow south as a design worth imitating. Or that assholes like Henry Ford didn’t run around promoting lies like the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Worse, we are now doing some of the same things in America that Nazi Germany did before World War II.

In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wrote, “We seem unwilling, even uninterested, in nurturing from the tangled roots of our past a better future. How else can we describe a time when many Americans cling to blind and unexamined notions of the nation’s ‘greatness’ yet lash out at schools and teachers, fearing what a thoughtful look at our country’s history might uncover? The battles we are fighting today are battles about whether as a society we choose honest understanding of the past over willful blindness.”

I encourage you to read the whole piece.

This country was never perfect. It won’t ever be perfect. And unless we have the guts to face our imperfections so that we can improve upon them, we are damned.

Cheer up. This blog post is actually one of hope. Little things often remind me of big ideas. That’s why I teach.

I don’t want hikers to die in the heat. I don’t want our country to disintegrate.

So, please… if you do nothing else, at least consider this: the hiker who ignores heat warnings kills only himself. The racist xenophobe who ignores our country’s past kills everything good about the word American.

Learn about our past so that together we can build a better future.





make change

Open-Source Learning represents a significant change in education. Gone are the syllabi. Gone are the textbooks. Gone are the days when teachers had to act like all-knowing content experts and sergeants-at-arms.

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river. -Plato

One of my favorite things about working as a management consultant was that it gave me professional license to act like a five-year-old. No matter what a client said or did, I always got to ask: “Why?”

The most common examples occurred when executives explained their routines and meetings.

Client: “Our team meets every Thursday morning at 10.”

Me: “Why?”

Almost every single time, the answer was, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.”


Is the practice important to someone? Does the routine serve a purpose? Do participants get the same meaning and value from the experience as they once did?

When the ‘why’ question is received as an information-seeking expression of genuine curiosity, the ensuing conversation can become informative and even collaborative. But when a person interprets ‘why’ as a challenge to authority, defensiveness can escalate into conflict.

I think that’s fantastic. Conflict can be very productive, especially when it’s a catalyst for change.

The Illusion of Comfort

Everything is changing. Some things are growing. Others are falling apart.

Things that seem permanent are, in point of fact, not. Institutions, cultural norms, and even natural resources require diligent stewardship. Just a few years ago, Americans thought very differently about things previous generations took for granted: school, religion, the Supreme Court, and the Office of the President. Just a few years ago, every American city had enough potable water.

Given the facts facing us today – especially the ones threatening our survival – you’d think that more people would be interested in honest conversations about facts. Our democracy is being tested. Our planet is becoming less habitable.

So why do so many of us still consider the truth inconvenient?

Because changing our minds and habits offends the part of our brain that loves efficiency.

The same mechanism that makes our brain efficient at achieving short-term outcomes (“I’m really good at brushing my teeth!”) can create long-term deficiencies (“I practice brushing my teeth every day with my dominant hand. When I try to brush my teeth with my non-dominant hand, I look like I should be wearing a helmet in my own bathroom.”).

Demanding more from our brains is actually good for us. Challenging our minds and bodies sharpens our thinking skills.

But most of us don’t seek out opportunities to sharpen our thinking skills on our own. Many of us avoid it. We’d rather maintain the illusion of comfort. We indulge in confirmation bias and we take every opportunity to stay the same, even as the world around us changes. We rationalize. We procrastinate. We say stupid shit like, “I can quit at any time,” or, “Man, I really need to lose 15 pounds” while driving around the parking lot eight times, spending an extra $3.92 on gasoline, and arguing with motorists to get a spot closer to the entrance of the gym.

Right now there is something in your life worth doing differently to improve. Will change be comfortable? Who cares? You’re going to feel a whole lot more comfortable when you’ve done something worth doing.

Scaling Change

Sometimes change is easier when it’s implemented at a systemic level (i.e., when someone else tells you to).

On September 3, 1967, Högertrafikomläggningen Day, Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. Just ten years before that, 83% of the population voted against the change. But the facts were in: other nearby countries all drove on the right, and most of Sweden’s cars were designed to drive on the right.

So, at 5:00 on September 3, all the traffic in Sweden was ordered to stop and move to the opposite side of the road. The signs had been posted, the traffic lights reversed, and – this is important – the expectation had been set.

It worked.

Traffic resumed, and for the next two years there were actually less accidents on the roads.

My doctoral research focused on change in organizations. I studied how schools and learning communities considered changing traditional agrarian school calendars (the ones you’re used to, with summer vacations) to year-round calendars. Year-round calendars offered higher compensation, more efficient use of campus resources, and a variety of other benefits. But teachers and parents rejected every proposal.

Make Change

Don’t let the game come to you. The Earth will not open and swallow you whole if you do something different today.

Newton’s first law also applies to the psychology of change. It takes force. Force can come in the form of gentle nudges or pandemics, but they are always a call to adventure.

Yoda was right: Use the Force. Start a habit. Break a habit. Take a different route home. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Wear a helmet in your bathroom.

And when you create change in an organization, expect a ripple – maybe even a backlash. This isn’t worth fearing, but it’s important to account for. Interdependence doesn’t require conformity. You may not get everyone on the right side of the road, but at least you’ll know where you’re going.

The difference between leadership and management is that leaders are going somewhere. Somewhere new, somewhere else.

Take a look around. We can’t stay here.

Make change.