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?
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 Couros, Adam 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.
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?
The words Data Retreat and Empowerment do not seem like they belong in the same sentence. That could not be further from the truth. On Monday, like a lot of school districts across the country, the DC Everest School District sat down as schools to look through our data and identify actionable goals for the upcoming school year that align with district priorities. Still doesn’t sound like much fun? It is when you look at what happened on Monday.
As a young teacher at Oshkosh West, I worked under a number of principals who felt that a top-down approach would move the school where it needed to go. After all, the principals were experts and professionals and we expected them to have all of the answers. Too often, though, they were experts in their content areas and sometimes sound school managers but could do little to move the needle on student achievement. Towards the end of my time as a classroom teacher, two administrators – Ann Schultz and @Erin Kohl – trusted the staff as professionals who believed in teacher self efficacy and they let go of the reigns.
Ann got some tough feedback her first year as our principal and rather than rationalizing it away or dismissing it, she took that feedback and made meaningful changes to empower staff the following year. It was the beginning of a turn-around.
Erin came in after a career in elementary education and quickly recognized what a tremendous staff she had and she continued to leverage the power of her staff and leaders. She worked with a team of staff leaders who read Jim Collins Good to Great and developed their “Hedgehog” focus – that one thing Oshkosh West could do great. And then she worked with staff and got out of their way.
This takes me back to the photo that leads this post. In the middle of all of our messy work, we took time out to take in the wonder of the full solar eclipse. Some staff members took a quick look and passed welding masks or glasses to other members so they could experience the same totality. I became even more impressed when some of the staff took the equipment to a group of student athletes so that they, too, could share the experience.
That one small act exemplified the work we had done that morning and afternoon. Teachers wanted to share their passion and excitement with students and each other. As administrators, we jumped right in with our staff and enjoyed the ride – rather than act as task masters who had to complete an assignment.
As we went back inside to continue our work, the excitement seemed to carry over into the room. As administrators, we solicited even more staff input into our building goal and how we might measure progress towards that goal. Several staff members also looked for ways we might solicit student input into our decisions. I felt the same excitement that Ann and Erin must have felt years ago as they let go of the reigns and trusted the staff to make decisions that will support student learning and achievement.
Yes, there will be pockets of staff that will resist or not share the “wonder of totality” that we did, but I believe in the power of those teachers in that room. I believe that one small act like making time for the eclipse can change the dynamic and begin to change a building’s culture. And I believe that this is just the beginning. DC Everest Senior High School is a great school – I believe we have changed trajectory towards becoming a phenomenal school. I cannot wait to see where this rocket ship takes us.
How about you? Can you pinpoint the moment where everything changed at your school? In its culture? In its success? I’d love to hear how some of you have experienced totality.