Learning Through Discomfort

George Couros came to DC Everest to inspire us; more importantly, he came to challenge us not just to do new, but to do better and to reflect about what it means to innovate and make learning meaningful for our students.

A key takeaway – for me – is that it is not enough to just do “new” to innovate; we must do “new” and better.


One element George stressed again and again in his conversation with our leadership team is that digital portfolios can become a powerful means to provide evidence for our learning and effectiveness.  I spent part of this summer struggling with a re-boot of my blog, and now I know why:


George gave me that compelling reason this morning.

As a result of my learning this morning, I developed an action plan to do better for students and staff:


I just talked with one of the teachers I will evaluate this year, and he agreed to take this leap of faith and use a blog as a digital portfolio to show evidence of his effectiveness and of student learning.

All this because of a day spent learning through discomfort.


When was the last time you did something for the first time?

One of my favorite singer/songwriters asks the question, “When was the last time, yeah, you did something for the first time?” in his song “For The First Time.”

That question has rolled around my head as I actually got ready to try something for the first time (again).

This week I made a major change in my approach to BBQing. After years of smoking food with my 55 gallon drum smokers (UDSs), I decided I could not longer find enjoyment in hugging my barrel every time I needed to dump it and clean it out.

It took me nearly eight years to perfect cooking food on my drum pits, and I still decided to make a change to a smoker/grill I could hang on to for a long time.

Of course, this means having to unlearn some techniques I learned along the way while diving into learning how to use my new cooker.

My new smoker is a Grilla Grills Silverbac, made by a company in Holland, MI that understands the difficulties of using a smoker in the winter in the northern midwest. Besides the heavy-duty steel construction and thermal metal jacket (double walls), this smoker uses pellets as fuel.

For people who poo-poo that and say, “But Jeff, what about wood?” I can assure you that for the first time – with the exception of over a camp fire – the fuel used in my cooker consists of 100% wood.

That new fuel and the different operation of the cooker, itself, provides the new learning curve. And I can tell you I feel more than ready for this new learning. Rather than approach this new challenge with fear or anxiety, I will embrace it. Why?

Because I am a lifelong learner. My dream job would be one where I got paid just to go to school. Since nobody is offering those jobs, I will settle for constantly learning, unlearning, and learning again. That same curiosity applies outside of my professional life.

My non-educator friends will benefit from this sidebar about learning and unlearning because this is a crucial skill in our ever-changing world. If you don’t want to read about it, skip this post and wait for the next one where I should actually roll out a recipe.

Earlier this month, George Couros shared this tweet linked to an article written by AJ Juliani:

As Juliani notes in his post, “When we learn something new, we often have a pretty picture in our head of what it will look like.” He goes on to note that “Learning can be exciting and exhilarating but it can also be embarrassing.” This fear of embarrassment got me thinking about our students.

Despite a teacher’s best laid plans, detailed preparation, and charismatic delivery, how many of our students don’t give everything they could to learn something new because they fear embarrassment?

Before you say, “But that’s what school is for,” I want you to think about adults you know. How many of them refuse to take risks or try something new because they are afraid they will feel embarrassed? I have friends who won’t leave unfulfilling jobs because they don’t want to feel like they don’t know anything in an interview. I have friends who won’t try to learn something new and will actually run away to avoid having to attempt that new learning.

If this is true of adults, we should recognize that our students, who often feel anxious, insecure, embarrassed – and even a little afraid – might shy away from learning a new concept in Algebra II or Chemistry. And how many teacher who may love physics or math or another subject have forgotten how much they didn’t want to learn in a subject where they saw potential embarrassment?

In his post, Juliani goes on to talk about a specific learning experience (learning to play guitar) and he walks through his “learning cycle” explaining how learning in isolation can prove so difficult. We need “teachers, mentors, and guides” for learning to happen. Go ahead and give the article a read – even if you are a non-educator – because I think you may see bits of yourself in post.

One element I would add is that I believe you have to truly want to learn something to get past the abstract conceptualism Juliani discusses. I, too, wanted to learn to play the guitar. I grew up surrounded by music. My dad had albums by so many great drummers and singers.

My friend group in high school and I grew up in the 80s wanting to be like Billy Idol, Journey, Supertramp, Triumph, Van Halen, etc. And around the age of 40, I bought a Martin guitar and took a few lessons, and bought a lot of books, and watch a lot of videos, and never learned to play the guitar. I still get a lot of grief about that guitar – deservedly so – because I passed up buying a boat to get that guitar.

At first I believe like Juliani that I was bad at playing guitar and would never get any better. In reality, I didn’t really want to learn how to play guitar – I just thought I did. My mom knew this because of failed attempts at piano, organ, and coronet. I loved music; I just really didn’t want to learn how to make music.

Once you do find something that you really want to learn, that is where teachers, mentors, and guides play such a vital role. In my next post, I’ll reflect on Juliani’s thinking some more, trying to focus on why unlearning and learning depends on those teachers, mentors, and guides for success.

Reflection: Sing it with me…”When was the last time, yeah, you did something for the first time?”


Tools Are Just That – Tools

In my last post, I filled in everyone on my inauspicious start in BBQing and cooking. I spend much of the weekend working on the floor in my upstairs bathroom, making mistake after mistake because nobody had showed my how to use some of the tools I needed to use.

I’m fortunate to have some fantastic tradespeople I call friends at out campground. Under their instruction, I have learned to use a small set of tools well while building our deck and three season room and can complete most tasks I need. What was the difference between the bathroom debacle and the deck/room success? Instruction. That got me reflecting about my last post and the way we far too often roll out technology in education.

That shiny Weber Kettle I received as a gift became nearly useless because BBQing experts had not taught me about direct vs. indirect cooking or even small-scale smoking. Somebody gave me a tool, but no instruction came with the tool.

Left to my own devices, I stumbled along, and came to believe that I just wasn’t meant to be good at BBQing because everything came out overdone, undercooked – or worse – a combination of both. Only after I built my first smoker with my own hands and discovered two sites where I could ask questions and learn, did I start succeeding as a cook and BBQer.

The first site – the BBQ-Brethren Q-talk forum – will scare non-techies. It’s a discussion forum site and doesn’t look all that user-friendly, but the people using that site couldn’t be more friendly. These folks walked me through my first pork but quote, asked questions, requested pictures to troubleshoot, and helped me cook a serviceable pulled pork for our family Christmas.

To me, this illustrates what needs to happen when we roll out technology to teachers. Yes, some folks will know what to do and run with it, but others need to ask questions, fail, and receive patient feedback and assistance until they feel comfortable enough top move forward. How often does this happen in a technology rollout? Too often, folks disconnected from the classroom decide on the technology, purchase the technology and then had it to teachers with an implied “Good luck!”

Another site that helped move me forward by leaps and bounds was Meathead Goldwyn’s Amazingribs site, referred to by some as the Rosetta Stone of BBQing. This site interested me for reasons that will surprise my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wray. I like the science behind what Meathead does on his site. I hated science in high school, but I can’t get enough of the science of cooking. I especially like when the resident physicist, Dr. Greg Blonder, dispels long-held beliefs about cooking – this one aspect, alone, makes me want to learn more every day.

Again, what if we used this approach when rolling out technology to teachers? To me, the science of BBQing meat – and cooking in general – is the “hook” that Dave Burgess talks about in Teach Like A Pirate. How can we use a pirate hook to roll out technology to teachers? Instead of just another thing they have to learn, how do we make it something they want to learn about and improve their skill set? In the case of Meathead Goldwyn above, meathead knew if he could bust myths that made BBQing seem difficult, he could get more people interested. HIs website can prove challenging to navigate at times, so you may want to check out his book: Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.

So, what hook should we use to roll out technology? For me, it is about helping teachers buy back time. When I first learned Google Apps, I discovered the wonderful Doctopus add-on and now I could help teachers free up hours from their weekly workload while still allowing them to provide feedback on student writing. Once teachers had that time, they always came back, wanting to free up more time. I think the “hook” answer lies somewhere in that type of thinking.

A tool is just a tool without training. My Weber Kettle, alone, did not make me a better cook. Technology, alone, did not make me a better teacher. We need to make sure we help people learn what they need to know in order to use those tools well.

Reflection: For this reflection, I want to have a question for both weekend chefs and educators.

  • Weekend chefs, what’s one new BBQ or cooking skill you could share with someone new to barbecue and grilling?
  • Educators, what pirate “hook” could you use to make technology more relevant for reluctant staff members and create that need for them to learn?


A Most Ignominious Beginning

In my excitement to cook something, I did not wait for the smoker to come to high enough temperature to turn billowing white smoke into thin blue smoke. And so, it probably did taste like an ash tray, but it was an ash tray I made on a smoker I made with my own hands.

When I got married, my aunt and uncle gave us a Weber kettle grill as a wedding gift. It was new and shiny, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it other than dump in some charcoal, squeeze on a bottle of charcoal starter and light it up.

This made perfect sense because as a non-adult I had never had reason to pay attention when either of my parents grilled. All I know was to stick chicken directly over high heat and take it off when the outside was charred correctly.


In actuality, that made no sense. Much like putting someone into a classroom without proper training makes no sense. Oh, they know how to unlock the door, and they can mimic the way they were taught in school, but they really don’t know the art of teaching – good or otherwise.

I spent years flailing around, doing my best but not knowing where to turn for help or guidance. All of my known relatives had come of age in the 1960s and 70s where large fire and quick cook resulted in many hockey puck burgers and inedible chickens.

We can hit the fast forward button here, because I spent nearly 20 years making the same BBQ mistakes and not learning from them at all.

One day while teaching my Written Communication class for the umpteenth time, I grew discouraged by the number of students who simply went to the Tires Plus Website and copied instructions for how to change a tire. In my despair, I found inspiration and decided to learn how to do something on my own and outside my comfort zone. I’d learn how to build and use a 55-gallon steel drum smoker – something that would stretch someone who had not taken a shop class since 7th grade.

After weeks of reading and learning, I bought my first barrel, drilled some holes, found some pallets for burnout, and set it all on fire. The result doesn’t look like much, but it was a thing of beauty to me.

And the first thing I ever cooked on the smoker was this:


A bacon-wrapped, pork sausage roll known in the BBQ world as a “fatty.” I though it was the best thing I had ever tasted. My wife did not agree. In hind sight, she was probably right. In my excitement to cook something, I did not wait for the smoker to come to high enough temperature to turn billowing white smoke into thin blue smoke. And so, it probably did taste like an ash tray, but it was an ash tray I made on a smoker I made with my own hands.

I share this lackluster beginning because it fits nicely with education on several fronts:

  • If I wanted my students to stop copying directions for the web, I had to show them a different way. Plus, once I learned how to make better food, I actually brought the smoker into school and gave a hands-on demonstration and fed them.
  • If I wanted my students to take risks and actually learn, I had to take a risk and actually learn.
  • And – maybe most importantly –  I learned the importance of failure. After that first, terrible dish, I gradually got better. I think I only made one other item that tasted too much of acrid smoke. Caught in that area of “flow” in learning, I did not have enough skill – but I wanted that skill – so I kept learning. This hands-on experience helped me to truly understand Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

My next post will show you some meals I made, places where I learned and how that learning impacted me as a cook, learner, and educator.

Reflection: Until next time, what is something you learned that was completely outside your comfort zone or skill set, and how did that experience help you as a learner, educator, and/or leader?

Cooking With Fire

I decided to take a risk and do something crazy. Instead of keeping these thoughts to myself, I decided to create a YouTube channel and put together videos of dishes I BBQ and blend in my reflections on connections to my work in education.

I have spent that last two-plus weeks thinking about education, my role in it, and BBQ. Eduheroes Jessica Cabeen, Jessica Johnson, and Sarah Johnson wrote a book called Balance Like A Pirate, and while I do not yet have a copy, the sentiment of finding balance between my professional and personal life occupied much of my thinking.

In February, my oldest daughter and her fiancee brought my first grandchild, Logan Aaron, into the world, and from that day on I have not been the same.

Contrast that with earlier in my career where as a teacher I spent hours at school grading and prepping for the next activity or unit. In short, balance did not even register on the radar.

In addition to Logan’s arrival, I have spent the past year living apart from my family during the week and cramming family into Friday night through Sunday afternoon. My job as an Assistant Principal at D.C. Everest Senior High School is the best I have ever had and fulfills me professionally. But I go to work and then head to my in-laws to eat dinner and sleep before starting the cycle again. Definitely no balance.

All of these factors played a role in my decision to unplug and find balance for during two weeks of vacation. I turned on my away message in outlook and disabled notifications. In an emergency, someone would call, not text or email.

During this time off, a something wonderful happened – I connected again with my passion for BBQ. I’ll explain in later posts why I love BBQ (much of it has nothing to do with eating), but this re-discovery also caused me to reflect on my work as an educational leader.

My heroes Joe Sanfelippo, George CourosAdam Welcome, Peter Dewitt, Shelley Burgess, Dave Burgess, Beth Houf, Todd Whitaker, Tara M. Martin, and so many others had surely reflected about their thinking before taking a risk and putting those ideas in blogs, or vlogs, or other venues. As I cooked one dish after another on my smoker or grill, I saw connections to teaching, education, and leading.

So – long story short(ish) – I decided to take a risk and do something crazy. Instead of keeping these thoughts to myself, I decided to create a YouTube channel and put together videos of dishes I BBQ and blend in my reflections on connections to my work in education. My close friends will finally get some of the secrets to my recipes (not all), and fellow educators can also see why their work is mostly messy but matters so much. If I do this right, everyone can watch the videos and come away hungry. Hungry for BBQ and hungry for doing the important work in education. And maybe we’ll have a little fun and learn how to find balance together.

While we wait a few weeks for my next BBQ cook, I may hop on the Interwebs and post here providing a little backdrop to this unlikely combination of BBQ and Education. You’ll see the first smoker this non-tradesperson ever built and hear about some terrible food that started out as a good idea.

Until then…We’re not cooking with gas here – we’re cooking with fire.


We Are One

Since the beginning of the year, I have regularly posted pictures of the fantastic school lunches served every day by our cooks and cafeteria staff. For people working outside of schools this may seem strange, but these ladies work incredibly hard – limited by federal law and mandates – to provide a hot, nutritious lunch to an audience that may not always appreciate their efforts.

Last Tuesday, the ladies served a fantastic, tasty pulled pork sandwich that surpassed what I have had in restaurants that charge significant prices for braised pork with ketchup and apple cider vinegar that passes for pulled pork.”


As I took my first bite, I noticed something unexpected – a nice, smokey flavor that only comes from actual smoked pork shoulder or helped along with liquid smoke. This sandwich, along with all of the other healthy options you can see on the tray above filled me up to the point that I could not finish my entire lunch.

Sated, and feeling grateful, I returned to my office and started thinking about what I had learned from my friends Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf about the importance of Anchor Conversations and noticing the impact of choices people make. If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of Lead Like A Pirate. You will find ways to “make school amazing for your students and staff.”

I went into the “treasure chest” in my office – yes, I have a treasure chest in my office full of “pirate” booty to engage staff – and pulled out a card I use for noticing the impact. I let the ladies know I noticed their use of liquid smoke and told them I appreciated it and that it made a distinct difference in the taste of the sandwich. And I let them know I appreciated everything they do daily to serve good food. I also thanked them for making lunch an enjoyable experience. If Anchor Conversations and Noticing the Impact work with teaching staff, why not with other members of the school team?

At the senior high school, we have the theme #DCEWeAreOne, and I take that to heart. When I say “We are one,” I mean everyone. Our cooks, servers, secretaries, educational assistants, custodians, teachers, administrators, athletic directors, department heads – EVERYONE – matter. Without all of the pieces working well and working together, this place we call school does not run.


I did send a handwritten card to the cafeteria supervisor, but I want to make sure to publicly thank Kathryn Jensen, Samantha Kind, Deborah Koval, Sarah Kraemer, Brenda Niemuth, Karry Salber, Cheryl Suchon, and Anne Wierzba for all they do every day. The work they do and the choices they make do not go unnoticed!

Challenge: Who on your staff might not be “feeling the love?” How can you show them appreciation, notice the specific choices they make in their job, and give them recognition for what they do that helps this place we call school to run?

Connections Lead To Ripples

I try to convey to others the importance of connecting to others in today’s world of education. During our opening convocation, Todd Whitaker shared an example of the power of Twitter by relating what happened on the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Teachers across the country shared lessons they had planned for the occasion.
One teacher had created a multi-disciplinary unit aligned to standards. In response, a HS physics teacher shared a unit he had developed allowing students to work through the physics involved in that sinking – aligned to standards. Todd shared several other examples and then laid down the following challenge: I’m sure your lessons to mark the sinking of the Titanic were great, but what might they have been had they collaborated with people around the world?
I am connected with a brilliant group of passionate, brilliant educators from around the world, including Jay Posick, an intermediate school principal from “Little ol’ Merton, Wisconsin,” as he would say. I shared out what I was doing by using a Google Form so teachers could easily share with me positive things they saw in some of their students, so I could call home and share with parents on the teacher’s behalf.
Jay relayed that he had asked teachers to take pictures of students new to the school and district and describe what they were doing, so he could email the parents and assure them the student was doing well and adjusting to his school. I LOVED this idea, so I emailed my staff and asked them to do the same thing. Even though I am new and still making connections with staff, a number of them took me up on my request.
I share the email I sent to staff afterwards because it cannot fit into 140 characters and it is too long to share via Voxer – even if it is a good story. But, I still want to share it because it illustrates the importance of being connected, both digitally and in person. I have removed student names and identifiers:
Good evening, everyone!
I wanted to say a sincere thanks to those of you who indulged me and sent photos of our new students doing well in our classrooms.  Five teachers took me up on my request and sent in photos with a brief explanation. The parents have responded more positively than you can imagine!
One student’s dad was thrilled, and he passed along that he appreciated seeing her smile because she has had trouble adjusting – which I passed along to Jodi Devine, her counselor. Even better, another student hails from out of state, and his mom had concerns about a new state and a new school. At the Parent Visitation Night, she approached me and thanked me for sending the email, but I said she should make sure to thank Scott Jirik because he captured that moment – I just passed along good news.
Why do I share this with you? Because I firmly believe that it is the little things that allow us to accomplish the big things. I received a phone call from Laticia in Nutrition Services today telling me that that male student’s mom had called and wanted to pay off some negative lunch balances for some of our students. Think about that. She’s new to our district, but because Scott let her know her kid was safe with us and doing well, she wanted to take care of other students not doing as well.
It’s all about ripples. Alone, they may not seem like much, but together???
As always, thanks for tolerating my obnoxious positivity and treating me like I belong here. I can’t wait to see what the next ripple brings – or who creates that ripple.
Call to Action: How will you get connected and use those connections to help others create ripples?