Passion: Not for Rookies

It’s the time of year when nearly all the seniors have either already chosen the college or university they will attend or will be making their final decision soon. About two weeks ago, one senior sat in my office chatting. Slowly, it emerged that she was a little worried. Did she make the right choice? She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to study, and she is feeling uncertain about whether she chose the right university.

Every now and then, someone – often a student – asks me how I became a teacher. “Did you always want to be a teacher?” someone will ask. The short answer is no. The long answer is much more complicated and not really all that important for the purposes of this post. I didn’t always want to be a teacher, and my passion for my work did not come immediately but grew steadily over time. Unlike the student I mentioned at the start, I thought I knew exactly how my life and career were going to work out, and no one was more surprised than me that I ended up in the classroom and actually have a deep and abiding passion for it. But the point here is that the passion didn’t occur at the start; it came after I began.

But apparently my experience is far from unique. Cal Newport studies how people end up forging careers and lives about which they are passionate. According to his research, the advice to “follow your passion” is as bad as it is common. In the talk I’ve linked to below, he explains why this is the case in a clear, interesting 20-minute talk that’s well worth a watch for students, teachers, and parents. To put it shortly, telling someone to follow their passion may actually make them less likely to develop that passion. I’ll let Cal explain why this is the case.

Unfortunately, more often than not we tell students, even if using different words, to follow their passion and they will be happy and fulfilled in their work. We need to reframe how we think about passion both for own work satisfaction and the well-being of our students. So many of our students are anxious about making the “right” decision about which school to attend and what major to choose. They have no idea what their passion is so how can they possibly follow it? I understand why they are anxious given how much higher education costs these days and given the job market that awaits upon graduation. Still, I want to tell them not to worry too much. Be open to what comes your way, know that you can and probably will change your course, and when you find yourself persistently working at something even when it is frustrating and possibly not all that enjoyable in the moment, that may be a sign that passion is coming your way…finally.

<p><a href=”″>Cal Newport: “Follow Your Passion” Is Bad Advice</a> from <a href=””>99U</a&gt; on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

What Teachers Can AND Cannot Do

On Monday evening, immediately after giving a brief presentation to my school’s Board, I read a post on my friend’s blog.  Both the presentation and the blog post starting me thinking about the strengths and limitations of teachers.  What can teachers do for any given student, and what can’t they do for that same student?

Sometimes we hear that teachers are the most important factor in determining how much a student achieves, but there is a caveat to this statement that often goes ignored.  Teachers are the most important in-school factor, but there are many out-of-school factors that play an even larger role in a child’s academic achievement.  Most studies suggest that in-school factors account for roughly 30-35% of a student’s level of academic achievement, while out-of-school factors make up the other 65-70%.  Out-of-school factors include things like family dynamics, home environment, socioeconomic status, etc. Out-of-school factors also include things like how much print material is in the home, whether the student sees his or her parents reading, and whether or not the parents talk about and share books with their children.  So as my friend wrote in her latest post, “At least part of the grade for each student on my recent test  is a reflection of a student’s reading ability.  That measurement is an assessment of their entire reading lives, not just the last four weeks of what has been learned in my classroom about this particular piece of literature.” That bit about “their entire reading lives” is important because she means both what the students encountered in all previous classrooms as well as outside school.

Now, let’s talk about that 30% because I’m a big proponent of maximizing that 30% to the utmost.  I can’t do much, if anything, about the out-of-school factors; that 70% is out of my hands.  Having said that, I can do a lot with that 30%!  Of all in-school factors that affect a student’s achievement, teachers are the most important factor of all.  In some studies, students with high-performing teachers performed 2 to 3 times better than students with low-performing teachers.*  Pretty remarkable when you consider that teachers educate dozens upon dozens of students year after year.  Think of the overall difference between 2 students at the end of 13 years of schooling if one student always had average to high-performing teachers and the other did not.

There’s this constant attempt to balance these two statistics in my mind. On my good days, I think only of maximizing that 30%.  On a bad day, those out-of-school factors loom much larger.  Some days, I place all the blame on my own two shoulders if my students don’t perform as well on an assignment as I would have liked.  (My students can tell you how annoyed I get…not with them, but with myself when I think I’ve messed up.  One of them did a fair imitation of me in this mode just last week!)  Other days, I get frustrated partly with them and partly with that 70% that I can’t control. That 70% sometimes feels like it’s dictating everything I can and can’t do for my students even though I know this isn’t true.

The trick for every teacher, I think, is to figure out how to keep these two statistics in balance, and that brings to mind the following:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

*If you are interested in more of this kind of research, check out Eric A. Hanushek’s research out of Stanford.

“Just” Teaching

I recently was asked a question by an administrator at another school.  His school is moving to a 1:1 environment in the near future, and the administration of his school is deciding whether or not to require all teachers to use the same platform for communicating with parents/students or allow teachers to choose for themselves or from among certain options. Having sat now in both the teacher’s seat as well as the administrator’s seat, I found it difficult to answer this question.  From a teacher’s standpoint, I like the idea of choice, but from an administrator’s standpoint, it makes it much easier to require a certain platform for all.  And therein lies the rub.

I wish that all teachers could experience at least a year in the seat of an administrator, and I believe all administrators should go back into the classroom from time to time even if only for one class for one semester. What a world of good it would do for communication between the two groups that so often seem to talk past each other if they could walk the proverbial mile in each others’ shoes.  How would such experiences affect school culture and outcomes?  I imagine quite a lot and in quite positive ways.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend this year walking between the two worlds of teaching and administration, but I also am very much looking forward to going back into the classroom full time next year. Starting over at a new school will be tough, but I am excited for the challenge.  I am confident that having had this year of leadership will make me a better classroom teacher and stronger member of my new school team.  Most importantly, however, this year in an administrative role confirmed for me that my deepest love and passion, the thing that gives me the most joy of all, is teaching.  (Well, that and reading and writing and talking with other teachers about teaching!)  But, and this is important, I wouldn’t have known that for sure without having “tried my hand” as an administrator.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve enjoyed the work, and I would be open to it in the future. However, it seems to me, at least in this moment now, that I would be more than content to “just” teach for the foreseeable future.

A friend of mine is considering her own jump into an administrative role. She asked me today about my experiences, trying to get a feel for what it will be like if she chooses to move to the other side of the desk.  I tried to be honest and balanced in what I told her, but the truth is she won’t know until she does it.  She won’t know if it’s for her until she tries it.  And I hope she does.  I hope she gets the chance to experience what it is like to be an administrator even if just for a year or two, for it can only make her a better educator all around.  If and when she does take on a leadership role, I hope her fellow colleagues are kind and supportive and encouraging with her…as they were with me, even when I made mistakes, which was often! 🙂  Thanks, my friends.