As budding scholars, we gravitate to the evidence: robust lines of research, rigorous studies, and statistics. As human beings we gravitate to stories: the power of the individual experience to illuminate general trends. Growing evidence supports the notion that one of the features of exemplary principal preparation programs is an emphasis on high quality mentoring relationships. Last week, I was sent out into the field to gather individual perspectives or stories of why and how mentoring works. Practicing and aspiring principals are busy people. Their work days are usually long and often fragmented. Getting in to see them is the first hurdle. Making excellent use of the time they have so generously allotted is the second. I needed a tech tool that would be simple to use and that would enable me to get enough video to capture their experiences as mentors and proteges. One of the other professors needed the office Flip video that day. What to do? Enter the video feature on a tech tool I carry in my purse everyday – the iPhone. Ease of use meant being able to explain the purpose of the conversation while I was turning on the video feature. The size of the phone meant being able to hold it and make eye contact and encouraging facial responses to the interviewees as they talked. Familiarity with the features meant being able to concentrate on the content of the conversation, rather than fussing about the tech tool.
“Arms out at chest height. Shift your weight onto one foot. Lift your opposite leg from the hip. Cross one foot over the other. Shift your weight onto that foot. Glide.” No, I wasn’t re-learning how to walk. It was my weekly skating lesson and doing crossovers was a lot more complicated than it looked. Persistence, however, comes in handy for a whole host of activities, from ice skating to dissertation writing. And time on task counts. In his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly references the “10,000-Hour Rule,” his hypothesis that success or mastery of a skill is there for anyone willing to practice for the aforementioned number of hours. I don’t aspire to mastery, nor do I have that kind of time at this stage of my life to devote to ice skating; however, about 3 hours of instruction and close to 30 hours of practice have yielded graceful, tick-tock gliding, one step crossovers, and backward swizzles – none of which I was able to do six weeks ago. Of course, part of my progress has been due to “just in time” feedback from one very experienced coach. The kind of on the spot, timely feedback Doug Reeves recommends that teachers give students in classrooms and that instructional leaders look for from teachers as they visit classrooms. As for the 30 hours of practice? Well, for that I have to thank Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian born psychologist who first defined flow, the state of being totally absorbed in a voluntary activity that challenges the mind and/or body. Concentrating on remaining upright while listening to directions and attempting to twist all parts of my body into the positions my skating teacher has just so effortlessly demonstrated, is both absorbing and challenging for me. Time dissolves. There’s no room in my brain for anything else. Just this movement. Just this challenge. Just this moment. It’s self re-enforcing, almost addictive.
It’s billed as a distraction-free writing time. There’s a pledge to sign, a basket to park your cell phone, and a vast silence broken only by the clicking of computer keys, the turning of pages, and the occasional clink of shifting ice as some poor soul tries to unobtrusively pour a glass of water from one of those diabolical plastic jugs. (A great goal, but impossible.) It’s Lehigh’s dissertation boot camp and one of the best of many activities organized by the Graduate Life Office. After a full breakfast, replete with plenty of protein, fruit, and grad student fuel (read coffee) there’s always a motivational speaker to kick off the day. This morning, Greg Skutches, Lehigh’s Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, spoke to the group. I collect quotes, so the one he started off his presentation with made me laugh out loud, “You either wrote today. Or you didn’t.” His advice was practical and included such commonsense tips as organizing one or two writing spaces where all you do is write, resist temptations to clean up your writing site instead of writing, limit your social interactions, write every day, and give yourself permission to write an awful first draft. He even referenced one of my go-to researchers on scholarly writing, Robert Boice.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach. This shouldn’t sound like such a scary proposition, given that I am a former elementary and middle school teacher, as well as a certified second language teacher (French, not English, but that’s another story). But I wasn’t teaching eager-eyed first graders or even those steely-eyed arbiters of cool (read 7th graders). No, I was teaching adults, professional ones with considerable expertise and experience with the topic I was planning to teach. I only briefly felt like an imposter, as Brookfield termed adults who go back to school and feel they have no right to be there. After all, as a former principal, I had some expertise and experience of my own to share. Adult students, however, present challenges and opportunities unique to their ages and stages. As educators themselves, they have a keen eye for good teaching and are in an excellent position to evaluate bad teaching. And while they probably won’t act out if they experience the former, they can disengage from the whole process so politely that you won’t even notice the energy drain until it’s too late.
Recently, I blogged about analyzing qualitative interview data. Using a constant comparative method, themes emerged upon multiple readings of the data. Done by hand, the process was laborious, time-consuming, and highly instructive. In other words, I learned a lot. However, as in other areas of life (electric screw drivers, anyone?) having the right tool for the job can save an enormous amount of time, not to mention muscle power. Time and energy that might be spent in better ways, say in writing up the analysis or catching up on your professional reading, or even polishing off the last of your online Christmas shopping. So when I received over 50 pages of newly transcribed interview data, I decided it might be time to investigate tech tools to do the job more efficiently, even more precisely.
WORD POWER Words are one of a teacher’s most powerful tools. Like tools, they can be wielded to construct, disassemble, or repair. Israeli born educator and psychologist, Haim Ginott’s most famous quote on the relationship between teachers and students included the lines,
“It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”
Ginott’s work centered mostly on younger children and teenagers. His book Between Parent and Child, originally published in 1965, drew on his work with troubled adolescents in Jacksonville, Florida, and emphasized the need to combine compassion with boundary setting. Of course, compassion and her sister, kindness, serve a teacher well at any stage of a student’s development. Parrhesia, or bold speaking, may serve a teacher better when a student is a little older or when the relationship is already strong enough to withstand some shaking.
Choosing a research topic and appropriate research methodology seems so straightforward in the textbooks. Identify an area in which you have an interest and one you can “live with” through the lengthy dissertation process. Read broadly in your area to detect gaps in the literature. Formulate a question that will help fill the aforementioned gap. Tailor the methodology to fit the research question(s). It all seems so logical and, well, linear. Recently, as an “in-process” dissertation writer, I was invited to speak to an online research methods class, on how I chose an area, identified research questions, and selected a methodology. Immediately, I felt a sense of what Stephen Brookfield terms “impostership.” What did I know about it? My process certainly hadn’t been straightforward or linear. Pictures, not words, came to mind. Multifaceted stones, hexagonal soccer balls, lush jungles, interlocking gears, and Ferris wheels represented the process far better than paths or stairs.
Attending a professional conference can serve a variety of purposes; among them the opportunity to deepen one’s core knowledge in the field, attend paper presentations of research in progress, subject one’s own work to the scrutiny of informed peers, and be inspired by conference speakers, often the field’s established scholars and thought leaders. The novelty provided by a break in the daily routine, along with the chance to interact with like-minded colleagues promotes reflection and renewal. As an added bonus, attending a high-caliber professional conference can unsettle, discomfit, and disconcert you. Better it can interrupt any number of your most dearly held assumptions. In other words, it can mess with your mind.
Recently, I attended the annual convention for University Council for Educational Administration in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, the presenting to informed colleagues part took place on day one. I made a small contribution to a paper and was grateful to get my two minutes of (nerve racking) fame over with so soon, leaving me free to enjoy the rest of the sessions. Paper sessions are a form of academic blitzkrieg where scholars have a scant 12 minutes to present research in progress. In short order one can ponder prevailing discourse analysis in policy, principals’ career trajectories in low-performing schools, heteronormativity in curriculum and hiring decisions, and social justice principal practice in successful ‘outlier’ schools. It often helps to get out and walk. In the late fall sunshine on a break between sessions, walking Pittsburgh’s downtown Strip District interrupted an unexamined assumption. The city is lively and personable, not industrial or gritty.
One of the most powerful graduate school experiences I had drove home the point that we all “see” the world through our own filters. In small groups, my classmates and I were asked to visit a local coffee shop, sit together, observe the environment for 20 minutes and write a description of what we saw. Then we were to share and compare our field notes. Of course, our notes shared similarities; after all we were in a small, communal space. We all noted the menu, the number of tables, and an overstuffed couch in the corner. However, we had each noticed different things. One of my classmates, who’d built furniture as a hobby, included a lengthy description of the chairs. Another, the mother of two children, focused on describing the play area at the back of the shop where the owner’s four year old was playing. Coming from a family of movie buffs, I described in detail the vintage film posters on the walls. In short, what we noticed revealed as much about ourselves as it did about our surroundings. In a way, it reminded me of that cartoon where a group of people were looking at a house. The real estate agent saw her commission; the young couple saw their first home; the roofer saw loose shingles: well, you get the idea.