Alligators up to your neck! Preventing bozo explosions?

Right in the middle of a video on TCP/IP – Whack! Vinton Cerf (co-inventor of TCP/IP) said

“When you're up to your neck in alligators, you forget that your job is to clear the swamp.”

So Vinton Cerf collects alligator heads! Alligators are “near and dear to my heart” in a way as my brother in law is the largest alligator farmer in this part of the country. Even when they are small, they will still “bite the tar out of you” as my grandmother says.

This is especially poingnant for many teachers today. How can a teacher see the big picture and teach when they are concerned for their job? When standards are evolving, or the case of technology — you are still teaching floppy disks when you need to be teaching wikis, blogs, and XML.

Decentralization. Empowerment. Trust. These are the hallmarks of good businesses. As I was reading Guy Kawasaki's blog today about “How to prevent a Bozo explosion” I felt some of his comments apply to education:

  • Insist that managers hire better than themselves.

Often administrators and teachers on committees hire people who won't rock the boat rather than teachers who will “rock the world” of the students. Some of the best teachers I've ever known have come from the business world or untraditional backgrounds. (I am too, but I let my students and peers decide that!) Take a risk! Enthusiasm and intelligence go a long way in a teaching world that is 93% face, voice, and body language. Worksheets and textbooks are cheap compared to the pricelessness of a truly good teacher.

  • Eradicate arrogance.

Guy says:

Arrogance manifests itself in two principal areas: first, when your employees describe the competition using terms like “clueless,” “bozo” (ironically), or just plain “stupid.” Second, when your employees start believing in “manifest destiny”–that is, that your company deserves, and will achieve, total market domination. Your competition probably isn't stupid, and trees don't grow to the sky.

When teachers call students “clueless,” “lazy,” or just plain “stupid” that is arrogance of the worst kind. When teachers believe that their school deserves to be the “only game in town” they are forgetting that America is a land of diversity. We thrive on competition.

I believe we need public, private, and homeschoolers as we strive to nurture and grow our society to appreciate and understand the complex nature of our world. We should spend less time demeaning the competition and more time improving ourselves! We can learn from one another as we are all trying to educate our little corner of the world!

  • Understaff.

I'm a big believer in having low student to teacher ratios so I'm not in favor of “understaffing” per se in the classroom. However, in administration, understaffing forces decentralization and more empowerment at the school level! How do businesses force decentralization: cut headquarters middle management!

However, in the rush to fill all positions in education I agree with Guy on one point. It is wrong to have the attitude:

“Hire any intelligent body, or we'll lose business–we'll sort everything out later.”

One bad apple rots the whole barrel!

  • Undergrow.

This is important. I know we have to accommodate population and have schools for the children in the area. I must agree with Guy when he says, “Staying small and fine is a perfectly acceptable management policy.”

Why not have more schools that are smaller? Why not have mini schools within schools? Target schools? Magnet schools?

Having gone to and now teaching at a “small” school, here at Westwood we experience synergies and a family experience that cannot be gotten at “mega schools.” Our seniors “adopt” a little brother and little sister in the K5 class. It is one of the most treasured memories those children have. Older children in my high school classes teach and mentor young children on how to use computers.

After I teach the module on dissassembling computers, I have my tenth grade “teach” the fourth and then fifth grades how to identify the internal components of a computer. I grade my students on how well they “teach” the fourth and fifth graders. Within twenty minutes those fourth and fifth graders could identify over 30 components of the inside of the computer. They understand RAM, processors, CMOS batteries and the inner workings of the computer. It is a rich, energetic, exciting learning experience. The fifth grade teacher and I sit back and marveled at the incredible classroom our students created for themselves. They praise one another, brag, encourage, and laugh! About as close to perfect as a classroom can get.

If you want to know something, teach it. The effort and energy it takes to teach something well requires a solid knowledge base. My students were pouring over their computer science book scrounging for more to “teach” “their kids.” Wow! It is truly one of the high points. Our science department does the same thing after completing dissections. (I always test this chapter AFTER teaching the elementary. I rarely have less than a 95 on this test of over 50 questions!)

  • Look beyond the resume.

Guy says that “the goal of hiring is building a team of great employees.” I have hired (and unfortunately fired) during my time in the business world.

It is worth it to take the extra effort to find the right fit. Attitude is everything! The right fit is vital to your team. All it takes is a little arsenic, a little lead, a little poison to kill somebody or cost you your job. Do not underestimate the importance of hiring positive, energetic, happy people. Don't make excuses!

Happy people are going to be happy, regardless of circumstances. Likewise with unhappy people. Look at why they are leaving others — that is why they will leave you. (See the happiness research I've quoted before if you don't believe me!)

  • Diversify.

Like some companies, some schools “look like the corporate version of the Stepford Wives: people are too similar…It's a bunch of Me and Mini-Mes.”

Different teaching styles, backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, ages, and interests make it more likely that your students will find someone that relates to them. It also combats boredom. We need a wide variety of people to educate our leaders of tomorrow.

  • Merge and purge.

“You owe it to your employees to take corrective action, and if necessary, terminate people as soon as issues come to light.”

There's a balance here. I always asked myself “is this a human flaw or a CHOICE.” No human will ever be perfect. We have to learn to live with each other. A habitual liar is a danger to your school and your students!

I'd rather have an honest, optimist than a dishonest pessamist any day regardless of ability! This is especially important in the academic world where students are subjected to one-on-one interactions with a teacher for extended periods of time. If you can't trust them to tell you the truth, shame on you if you put them in the classroom. Teachers should treat students with honesty, kindness, fairness, and love. They should model good behavior.

Dishonest teachers are trouble waiting to happen.
It makes me angry when I perceive that students are being treated unfairly. In your effort to avoid alligators, avoid this type of person!

On alligators and bozos.
I have restored my alligator head to a place of pride in my room. I cannot do much to handle the “administration of my school.” (Which is excellent, at this time, by the way.) I can, however, help find people for job openings, encourage people who are down, and remain an advocate for my students. I can speak my convictions and hope it helps.

I can make my classroom a bastion of excellence, education, and energy. I can strive to reach higher, think bigger, and have more fun. I can refuse to “settle,” “phone it in,” or “fall into a rut.”

I won't put up with mediocrity, shut up about the future, nor let up on my expectation of excellence!

In conclusion, alligators kept me from posting yesterday! If you want to see some of what we've been learning in Computer Science for the past two weeks, look at the review wiki created by my students during the last fifteen minutes of class today. Those of you who took the time, thank you for commenting on our new class blog.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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