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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lessons Learned as an Educator


For nearly 35 years I have had the honor of serving as head of school at two private schools, one in Los Angeles, the other in Honolulu. My time as an educator has provided me with experiences and insights that I hadn't anticipated at the beginning of my career. As I look back at my memories -- most fond and inspiring, others sad and some downright tragic -- I remain grateful for all the experiences, as each and every one inevitably lead to valuable lessons learned.
My first year as a head of school began just prior to my 27th birthday. I was hired to run a Los Angeles area progressive, private school with a star-studded parent body. Though I had a diverse and valuable experience earlier, I began my first year as school head incredibly naive. In hindsight, at 27, I was clearly too young to become a head of school. But during my 29-year tenure there, I learned to understand and appreciate just how much heart, soul, energy, and sacrifice teachers give every day. Over time, I began to comprehend and realize how much love parents felt for their children.
One of my greatest sources of pride as an administrator came from helping to create and maintain one of Los Angeles' most socio-economic and racially diverse, LGBT-friendly campuses among the many private and independent schools in the area. As our state senator noted, we were a "model of diversity." In addition to the children of Hollywood celebrities, 30% of our student population was represented by children living in foster care or in families with incomes below the poverty level.
Lesson #1: Wealth and fame do not automatically translate to happiness; poverty does not automatically translate to misery.
Looking back, there were at least half a dozen early deaths (young people that did not survive their 20s) resulting from drug over doses or suicides. Without exception, each of these tragedies was to a young person with affluent or famous parents. By most standards, they had everything: money, material possessions, privilege, opportunities to travel, and a solid private school education. Unfortunately, all of this was not enough to provide them with what they needed. On the other hand, I've seen young people from very meager means thrive and become successful with nothing more than their very basic needs being met. The difference is they felt unconditionally supported, had a strong sense of self, and were able to celebrate what they had, rather than obsess over what was missing.
Lesson #2: Happiness comes from having a strong sense of self (not to be mistaken with an overinflated sense of importance or ego).
A strong sense of self comes from experiencing success with interesting life challenges. It also requires an ability to be content with what is and not always wishing for something else. Happy people have a distinct ability to live in the moment, without agonizing about the past or worrying about the future. They have a gift for finding contentment in the most mundane aspects to their day-to-day existence.
A great example of everyday heroes finding contentment in what is can be found at a unique and distinctive school in Honolulu serving students with learning differences. Five years ago, I became head of this school, guiding bright, creative, outside-the-box thinkers to achieve their fullest potential in a student-centered and accepting atmosphere, with an individualized, integrated learning environment that instills confidence and resilience. I've been able to use my own experience as a dyslexic with ADHD to better understand these exceptional children who happen to learn differently. One of the keys to our students' success is that we allow them to focus on their strengths and interests.
Lesson #3: We get kids excited about learning by allowing them ample opportunities to learn what they truly want to learn.
A few years ago I heard Bill Gates speak at an education conference. Following his remarks, an audience member stood and asked Gates to describe what his high school teachers did that contributed to his success. He answered, "They stayed out of my way." Recognizing young Mr. Gates' enormous potential, his teachers allowed him to pursue subject matter that interested him. We all know the end result. The approach with Gates is good for all students. When children want to know something, they instinctively find a way to satisfy their own curiosity and learn. The great educational philosopher John Dewey believed that the school curriculum should grow out of the needs and interests of the learner. Gates' teachers had that figured out.
Lesson #4: Unconditional support, guidance, and acceptance from a significant adult are the keys to nurturing confidence, resilience, and ultimately success.
In my own life, and through all my years as an educator, one of the most important and powerful lessons I've learned is the immeasurable value of acceptance and unconditional support in a young person's life from a significant adult. This is a universal truth cutting across cultural differences, socio-economic classes, learning differences, and all challenges. One of the greatest determining factors of a child's success is if that child has an adult who believes in him or her. A parent, teacher, coach, or any other caring adult can make all the difference in a child's life by believing in that child and holding a vision of a bright future for that child. One must believe that there is a future before one is willing to work toward that future.
There are many more lessons I could add to the list and I certainly could elaborate more on those mentioned here. But that would require a book. In the meantime, over the next 35 years, I hope that I'll be able to continue to grow, to learn, to evolve, and to share with appreciation whatever lies ahead.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Dyslexia


I was born dyslexic and I will always be dyslexic.  By the end of first grade, I was well aware of the fact that I was unable to read as well as my peers.  I didn't know why this was the case, but as a result, I developed feelings of inferiority that have haunted me for years.  

My life in school started out as mediocre and remained as such throughout my K-12 years and beyond.  I'll never forget meeting with my high school counselor and being told that I shouldn't bother taking the SAT because (as he put it), “it would be best if I would focus my attention on learning a trade that doesn't require college.”  Fortunately, my mother was there to build me back up saying, "everything will be OK, some people just need a little more time to realize their potential."  She helped me believe that someday I would make it to college.

School was a chore, but on the bright side, I excelled in sports.  They were my outlet and without them I truly would have been lost.  Because of sports, I always worked (and sometimes cheated) hard enough to maintain the "C" grade point average required for eligibility.

My biggest obstacle as a high school student was my attitude and lack of motivation.  I was angry and rebellious, always finding ways to rationalize my mediocre school performance on poor teaching.   I spent so much time in the Dean of Students office that in hindsight, I'm surprised I wasn't charged rent!  Over time, he became a mentor and friend. 

By 12th grade, I had three very significant advocates, my mother, my grandmother and my Dean.  All three, in their own way provided exactly what I needed at important stages in my life.  Their unconditional acceptance combined with a sincere belief in me are what got me through high school and into a local community college.

I spent my first two years in college on academic probation.  Not because the work was too hard, but because the work simply wasn't a priority.  By the end of my sophomore year, I managed to squeak out a 2.0 grade point average, just enough to transfer to the local state university.

In my junior year, my former high school Dean introduced me to a professor at the college I was attending.  This introduction turned out to be the single most important gift I had ever received.

Dr. Colwell, known as Maurice to his friends, was the most brilliant, charismatic, insightful and funny individual I had ever met.  We became close friends, discussing philosophy, education, mental illness, golf, baseball, movies, books and relationships.  Our friendship turned out to be more of a dialogue, a dialogue that lasted over 20 years (until Maurice passed away).  

While having lunch together during my senior year of college, Maurice brought up graduate school and the next thing I knew, I was enrolled in a master's program. Immediately after completing the program, I was offered a teaching position.  I accepted the position as an adjunct professor and continued teaching in the Department of Social & Philosophical Foundations of Education for over 30 years.  In looking back at my school experience, I'm often amazed that I went from academic probation to master's degree and college teaching in a span of five years.

My reason for sharing all this is because as Head of Assets School, I know there are parents dealing with the same anxieties my parents faced.  I know that we have students here at Assets who will make many of the same mistakes I made along the way, and I know that all of our students are bright, capable individuals deserving of the same level of unconditional support I had as a young person.

I will be "blogging" from time to time with the hope of discussing various issues relating to parenting, education and more, with the hope of striking a chord with others in a way that will allow for optimism, provide assurance and hopefully lend some practical guidance. 










Tuesday, October 1, 2013

K-6 Open House

This Wednesday, Oct 2, 2013, is Back to School Night for the K-6 parents at Assets.  Back to School Night is an opportunity for you to learn about your child's program directly from the teachers.  During the course of the evening, expect to hear about the daily routine for the students, teacher expectations, homework policy and special projects planned for the school year.

Teachers will not be discussing individual students, as the evening has been set aside for a more general overview of the program and to give you a glimpse into the day-to-day life of your child at school.

If you would like to spend one-on-one time with your child's teachers, please schedule a time to do so by contacting them via email and letting them know that you'd like to meet. You may expect to hear back from your child's teachers within 24 hours.

While here for Back to School Night, try to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with your child's classroom environment.  Is there a daily schedule posted?  Are there classroom behavioral expectations displayed?  You might want to jot down a short note for your child and leave it in his/her desk.  Most importantly, listen and try not to judge.

Our teachers are an amazing group of individuals working diligently to accommodate the unique characteristics and learning styles of our students.  Their jobs are very challenging, yet also very rewarding.  I enjoy walking into classrooms and seeing the magic.  I hope you will get a taste of it during Back to School Night.