Thoughts, links & ideas from the 2008 National Teacher of the Year

Each time I've taken off in a plane since May (which is a lot), I've been writing in my journal, then adding these journal entries on this blog.

Check in often, or subscribe to get headlines fed to you! Oh, and the views expressed here are not those of anyone but me.  And anyone who happens to share the same views, I guess.

(Note: the blue posted dates are actually the dates I wrote the journal entries, not when I posted them online.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Your Holiday Homework Assignment

Okay, so a couple of my readers (i.e. half of my loyal following) have wondered what on earth they will do when I remove myself from civilization for three weeks and retreat to a remote beach in Mexico, far from suits, conferences, airplanes, and (gasp!) my computer!  Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do: not much of anything related to suits, conferences, airplanes or computers.


We're going to surf, sleep, eat, play, make music, and listen to the ancient sound of the pounding waves.  We won't be showering much, but we'll be smiling plenty.  Ah, the good life.  [pictured are my cousin, Mike, and my son, Aspen (always training!)]


As for the rest of you, don't worry.  I have a plan to keep your inquisitive and insatiable appetites for more National Teacher celebrity gossip and deeply meaningful pedagogical discussion well fed.  Here's how it works:


Look back to some of the previous posts (there are now 63 of them, easily accessible from the Blog Archive on the sidebar, right) and re-read them.  Then, in an effort to make this more of a discussion (say "Web 2.0") post a comment or two!  I must say that Paul Bunyan and RunningGal have been the teacher’s pets in the comment arena, and a few of you have chimed in from time to time.  But in the spirit of good teaching, I’m going to leave the discussion to all of you.


Perhaps my absence will be a good thing.  Perhaps it will renew my hope that I’m not just spouting off into oblivion.  Perhaps we’ll build a community here.  It’s up to you.


I would propose the following guideline:  check in just as often as you always have, but each time you visit for the next three weeks, instead of reading a new post from yours truly, read an old post or a colleagues comment and leave a new comment.  (Dad, this means that there should be approximately 84 comments from you.)


You don’t have to be a blogger to comment, you don’t have to use your real name if you don’t want to (although Paul Bunyan does,) you don’t have to sign up for anything, and you can even post anonymously.  There is no risk whatsoever!  But the rewards are great.  Think of all the brownie points you will earn.


Feel free to disagree, challenge, question, and wreak havoc while I’m gone (but keep it clean, eh?  This is a family show.)  I want to see some discussion, not just “you’re the best thing since sliced bread, Mike!”  A couple of those are nice for brownie points, but keep it real.


Happy holidays.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Halfway to the Moon

Redmond, OR

Well, I’m halfway to the moon.  According to my flight tracker, I’ve logged enough airline miles to circumnavigate the earth nearly 5 times, or fly halfway to the moon.  I’ve spent almost eight full 40-hour workweeks in the air since May (and that’s not counting all the time sitting on the plane waiting to take off or deplane, or the time in airports, or in taxis, or…)


Time-wise, I’m about halfway done with my reign as Mr. Teacher of the Year.  So I have a big decision to make: do I turn around now and hope to make it back home by next summer, or do I keep flying toward the moon?


I am, of course, speaking metaphorically.  I have made dozens upon dozens of trips, but each of them has included a return journey.  In fact, I’m actually sitting on my couch right now (my first official post not originally written while on a plane!  Does it feel different to you?  To me, it feels, well… much more comfortable.)


Jen says, “Go to the moon!  It’s the trip of a lifetime!”


“But how will I get back,” I am compelled to ask.


“Oh, we’ll figure that out later,” she assures me.  “You’ll probably have enough frequent flyer miles to at least get out of the moon’s weaker gravitational pull.”


I think what she is trying to say is “enjoy the journey, and go hard until the end of it.”  She fully supports me returning to the classroom next year.  She knows that’s where my heart is, and where I get so much of my creative energy.  But the journey wouldn’t be quite as unique if I turned around half way.


My flight tracker also informs me that I’m just over 1/1000th of the way to the Sun.  I don’t think that destination is worth the effort.  Plus, I’d burn up and stuff.

(Scientific note: The diagram above is to scale in terms of the moon's distance to the earth in relation to it's diameter.  Farther than you think, eh?  I am not to scale in the diagram, though.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Thinking About the Box

Redmond, OR


The cardboard box.  Within the cardboard box lies the future of all humanity.  Children recognize this potential, and act!


It is a shelter, a space ship, a table, an outhouse (my kids have very active imaginations.)  The possibilities are endless, and children enter a different world when they enter the box.  It is their world.


We’ve all seen children ignore the contents of a box, choosing instead to sail the vessel in which those contents were packaged.  Perhaps it is this limitless appeal that encouraged the National Museum of Play to add the cardboard box to its Hall of Fame in 2005.  (Just a month ago, they added the lowly stick.  I was in agreement, remembering the time that my own children entertained themselves on a 7-hour road trip with a stick and a drinking straw.  No, they’re not weird.  They’re just more creative than we are.  They’re free.  They’re children.)


It is this imaginative spirit, this creativity, this freedom, which hold the future of humanity.  They hold our cultural and economic futures.  These are the qualities that make us uniquely human, and are essential in the increasingly technological and global world in which we live.


We need to teach our children, yes, but we ought to be learning from them, as well.  Learning how to recognize the potential, and act!  Learning to not only think inside the box, or outside the box, but to ask "what can I create with this box?" or “where can this box take me?"


Our response to the potential of the box may very well determine whether our nation is destined to live in a cardboard box, or whether we will sail it to the stars.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Hartford, CT


Passionate.  Cooperative.  Always learning.  Creative.  Hard-working.  Team player.  Inquisitive.


On and on they went (not as many –ing words as I might have expected from several hundred ING employees!)  These were the qualifications for someone they would hire to work with them at one of the world’s leading financial management companies (which is also a major supporter of the Teacher of the Year program and other education programs.)


After a dozen such wonderful adjectives, I finally had to ask, “what about knowledge?  Knowledge of markets, of analysis, of tax law?”


The two main responses:  “Oh, knowledge should be a given,” and “Specific knowledge can be easily learned by a person with these other qualities.”


Fairly astute observations that these business people made about education and what we should be more formally valuing in our students!  I think when we have a more balanced approach from our leadership, we find that these qualities begin to emerge from our students on a more regular basis and more consistently across the demographic gaps.  Not only would it be better preparation for our students as corporate workers in the 21st century, but as global citizens, too.  Perhaps we ought to listen more carefully to some of our major stakeholders, and less to our educational traditions.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Workin' Stiff

Redmond, OR


Well, back to the ol’ grind.  Today, just a quick little overnighter to Connecticut, then another to Texas later in the week.  No international intrigue, no language difficulties, no free little socks that don’t actually fit very well on trans-oceanic flights.  Just regular ol’ domestic travel, domestic accommodations, and domestic bliss (I got to see my family for three whole days in a row!)


But if I can survive a few more short trips, I’ll be on a beach in Mexico with my family.  Granted, there probably won’t be Margaritas, and definitely not a heated pool.  There won’t be running water or even a town within 50 miles.  Or a solid roof to sleep under, for that matter.


I’ll be hundreds of miles from my nearest suit, my computer, my phone, or an airplane, with nothing to do but hang out with my family, surf, play music around the fire, and cook good food.  That vision is getting me through right now.  I’m ready for a break.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This Week's (Japanese) Top 40

Tokyo, Japan

Holy Shinto! What a week!

I am forever indebted to the Baba Foundation, Nakajima-san sensei, my guide Endo-san, and all of the wonderful people I met while in Japan this past week. I was very well taken care of and learned an incredible amount about Japanese culture, education, history, food and people. And one day I was a big boy and navigated Tokyo all by myself. In Japanese.

I'm scheduled to arrive home today, a couple of hours ago. Gotta love crossing the date line! (Of course, Jennifer would say that I haven't crossed the date line in over a decade.) But before I leave Japan (and technically after I land at home, too) I'll sum up what I learned this week in a handy list.

1. When traveling to a non-Western country, secure a local guide. Try to get one who specializes in rail-travel and local food, like I did.

2. Don't take a guided bus tour in Japan unless someone gives it to you as a gift. You'll feel like a stereotypical Japanese tourist. In Japan. This will be true even if your local guide comes along with you.

3. The Japanese have nearly perfected the science of public transportation. We should do that.

4. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and usually walk on the left, too. But not always. This anomaly seems to appear randomly. Dodge and deal with it.

5. Middle school students are middle school students wherever you go.

6. When a Japanese store clerk hands you your change and you reply with "good morning," she will smile and graciously bow to accept your sorry linguistic offering.

7. Even the uniformed workers who seem to have no apparent job other than standing on the sidewalk, bowing, and occasionally gesturing in a general direction take great pride in their work. They usually wear hard hats for safety, too.

8. No one leans on a shovel in Japan. If you're not hustling, you're not contributing to the greater good.

9. Japanese are proud of their country. And they should be.

10. I'm almost tall.

11. Check your socks for holes before leaving the states, and check to make sure your socks match before leaving your hotel room. Oops.

12. It's handy to like fish.

13. It's honorable to like highly fermented soybeans wrapped in straw.

14. It's handy to have copious amounts of sake to chase the soybeans down. This is also honorable.

15. A little sake goes a long way. A lot of sake goes even further. This is also honorable.

16. There will be more garbage cans in your hotel room than in an average Japanese city, but the city will have less garbage laying around.

17. Don't bother trying to learn written Japanese for your visit. It takes years.

18. Most Japanese homes have heated toilet seats. Hotels have even crazier toilets.

19. All Japanese students take Engrish crasses during junior and senior high, but they never practice actuarry speaking in Engrish. They just read it and study it. This strikes me as rudicrous.

20. Something like 99% of Japanese are literate. This strikes me as really impressive.

21. When Japanese educators ask what you will lecture on for your guest lecture, "lecture" is the key word.

22. I can't hold still enough to lecture for very long.

23. It's difficult to teach with 50 adults and four TV news crews in your classroom. It's also difficult when you don't speak or understand more than a dozen words of the native language.

(Also, see the news coverage of the class at this link. Open it in a new tab and be patient, it takes a minute to load.)

24. It feels pretty good when every student asks for your autograph after class.

25. Bring lots of business cards to Japan.

26. When handing a small gift to someone, tell them what it is before they open it. This is customary. "It's chopsticks."

27. When grocery shopping in Japan, be prepared to be yelled at by dozens of store employees soliciting you loudly to buy interesting foods that you won't recognize. (If you can't find a grocery store, try looking in the basement of any department store, right below the floor with women's makeup and jewelry.)

28. If a Japanese person sucks in through their teeth and clutches their nose as if they had just eaten a liter of green tea ice cream way too fast, they're telling you "no." But they won't actually say no.

29. No one says "sayonara" in Japan, either. At least not that I could understand.

30. If you slur a bunch of words together and end with "mossss...," it passes for "thank you" and other various greetings, and it mildly impresses people. But then they might start speaking Japanese really fast to you.

31. College roommates living abroad can be a great source of entertainment and insight.

32. There are something like 80 million Shintoists in Japan, 90 million Buddhists in Japan, and 120 million people in Japan. Do the math. That's pretty cool.

33. Most Japanese celebrate Christmas, too. It's a good excuse to drink and give people presents.

34. Obesity is not a common problem in Japan. It is a national sport, however.

35. U.S. Ambassadors are from Texas. At least, both of the ones that I met this month are. Interesting coincidence?

36. Japanese children are dang cute.

37. When Japanese are on the phone and repeatedly say "Hi! Hi! Hi!," they're not just excited to hear from someone, nor do they have a bad connection. "Hai!" means "yes."

38. When obtaining food from a communal dish or plate, use the other end of your chopsticks. Unless you've eaten with a person a few times, then it's okay to spread germs.

39. People wearing face masks around town are not Ninjas. And they're probably not even trying to protect themselves from viruses. They're most likely trying to protect everyone else.

40. After three weeks of international travel, I'm ready to be home with my family. I will definitely go back to both Japan and Switzerland. Next time, though, I'd like to take my family with me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mike Geisen Does Japan

San Francisco, CA


Konichiwa!  I’m about to hop over the other pond and land in the hamlet of Tokyo.  And while I’m understating things… I’ll be staying under a thatched roof and eating some rice and fish.


The Baba Foundation has hosted the National Teacher of the Year for many years now, and so I will have the unique opportunity to tour Japanese schools, a science museum, a high-energy particle accelerator (KEK), meet with the Vice Minister of Education, sightsee in Tokyo and Kyoto, drop in on the U.S. Ambassador, and even teach a couple of science classes to Japanese junior high students!  I wish I was feeling remotely prepared.


I’ve been cramming a bit after returning from Switzerland two days ago: memorizing a few phrases (“My futon is too short, may I please have a longer bed?” and so on,) reading up on Japanese culture and history, and listening to a book-on-tape to hone my diplomatic skills (Dave Barry Does Japan (which is actually a pretty good primer on touring in Japan.  Really.))


This should be an interesting week.  And that may be the biggest understatement yet.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

What I Learned in Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland


While in Switzerland, I attempted to steal a Rolex executive’s watch, dozed off during lecture by one of the world’s top scientists, and introduced my imaginary friend to an audience of Ambassadors, members of Parliament, and top-level executives of multi-national corporations.  I’d say my diplomatic mission was a success.


I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of about 20 American “Young Leaders” to join about 20 of our Swiss counterparts for a week of dialogue, Swiss culture, personal diplomacy, panels, presentations, tours, and some of the exquisite food and wine I’ve tasted on either side of the Mississippi.  Most of the participants were politicians, executives, analysts, entrepreneurs, or writers.  I was the first K-12 teacher they’ve had in the 19 year history of the conference, although there were a couple of university professors there, too.  Overall, just a remarkable group of accomplished young human beings.  And me.


Our mission this week was to better understand each other as individuals, as cultures, and as economic and political players on the world stage.  I think we succeeded, and forged some new opportunities, partnerships and friendships.  It was an incredible week.


There were too many unique experiences to write about, so I’ll just share the top 20 things I learned:


  1. Fly business class on trans-oceanic flights if at all possible (special thank you to Swiss International Air Lines for generously donating flights to all participants!)


  1. To blend in on the streets of Europe, wear dark stylish clothing and smoke a cigarette.  A scarf will help, too.


  1. A large majority of Europeans were very relieved about the U.S. presidential election, and very hopeful.


  1. Even some U.S. Republicans are hopeful, too.


  1. The Swiss are generally modest and somewhat reserved compared to Americans, but open up quite a bit once they get to know you.  Drinking helps accelerate this process.


  1. Americans tend to open up a little too much when drinking.


  1. There’s a reason why Swiss watches are world renowned for quality.  Too bad I’ll never own one.


  1. I like Switzerland even more than I used to, and that was a lot.


  1. I have many new friends in Switzerland.


  1. Numbers 8 and 9 (see above) work quite nicely together.


  1. Five-star hotels use up a tremendous amount of natural resources.  But they’re pretty comfy.


  1. People have more commonalities than they have differences.


  1. Being a gentleman crosses cultural boundaries and never goes out of style.


  1. Going out dancing is a great way to improve bi-lateral relationships.


  1. Swiss would generally like to emulate America’s creativity and spirit.


  1. Americans would generally like to emulate the Swiss’s craftsmanship, financial market success, and attention to detail.


  1. Pride, tradition and patriotism could make numbers 15 and 16 (see above) difficult.


  1. Dignitaries seem to enjoy being formally and repeatedly recognized at gatherings, which I find time-consuming and mind-numbing.


  1. PowerPoint presentations are not any better on the other side of the Atlantic.


  1. Wherever you go, people are people.  I like that.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Acquisition de l'anguage

New York, NY


Le dang!  I wish I had paid closer attention during French class in high school.  I would have known just enough to be dangerous, and given the flight attendants something to chuckle about.  (As I write, I just said “gracias” for the menu.  Le doh!)


I actually do know just enough French to be dangerous (c’est trop dangeroux!)  When I was last in Europe, I was able to roughly interpret the instructions on the hotel room door for escaping a fire.  They went like this: “In case of fire in  your room, guard Sigmund Freud, and cry out ‘Ah! Fool!’  In case the fire alarm sounds, leave your room after a brief delay.  Do not put your mattress on the flames immediately, leave your room saying ‘good-night’ as you reform the door.”


Good thing there wasn’t a fire.


The Swiss attendees at the conference I will be attending speak a minimum of three languages, many of them even more.  In fact, there are four official languages in Switzerland, and many Swiss also choose to learn English.


Unfortunately, we in America don’t place the same value on multiple language acquisition.  We have a great deal of linguistic diversity in the U.S., like the Swiss do, but we tend to take a more arrogant approach with our dominant language.  I wonder how long our nation will be able to get away with that in a truly global society?


I’ll be able to survive this week thanks to the generosity of others who will be speaking about complex issues not in their primary language.  (Then it’s on to Japan, where I know even less!)  But it’s never too late to learn.  I’m looking forward to assimilating a bit more of their language and culture into my own.  Maybe I’ll even pick up a cool accent while I’m there.


An Historic Night

Washington, D.C.


(Sigh of relief…)


The results are in, and history has been made.  Barack Obama will be the first African-American President of the United States.  But more important than the color of his skin is the content of his character.  While both candidates were men of exceptional character, I am excited to have a president who takes a bigger picture view and longer-term approach to solving complex issues we face as a nation.  I look forward to the level of respect we will return to in the world, the intelligent and reasonable discourse in which I hope to participate, and the hope for more optimistic future for my children.  We’ll see what can be done.


I was highly impressed by both McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s acceptance speech.  They were gracious, civil, hopeful and optimistic.  I’m not normally moved by politician’s words, but that night was an exception.  After an oftentimes ugly campaign, I was proud to be an American.


I was less proud, however, the following day when I heard of the same bickering, finger-pointing, and blatant racism that we heard during the past months.  On talk radio, TV, and in opinion letters, many Americans took the low road and opted for low levels of civility.  I hope that both Obama and McCain continue to model grace, respect and optimism about the results.


I also hope that, given my position of Teacher of the Year, I’ll get a chance to meet our new President.  We’ll see what I can do.  I’ll have my people start working on it…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Portland, OR


Election day.  Finally.


It’s been an interesting and exciting few months (the campaigns were much longer, I know, but I don’t start paying too much attention until the pre-season games are over.)  But I’m ready to be done with it.  I want to know whether we should stay in Mexico this winter and extend our beach camping and surfing trip by a few years.


As National Teacher of the Year, I’m not actually allowed to support any particular candidate, ballot measure or product.  So no hemorrhoid cream ads for me!  But it allows me to present my message without having it tainted by political affiliation.  It also gives me an air of mystery and intrigue, which is nice.


I’ll actually be in DC tonight as the results come in, which may be interesting.  I’ll be leaving for Switzerland on Thursday, which may be convenient.


Monday, November 3, 2008

College Interrupted

Redmond, OR


I ran into Jett’s dad at the airport this morning, and was excited to hear how my former student was doing at college this fall.  Except he isn’t.


Jett, the inventor of the Shock-a-Dog (that’s a hot dog cooker), who used to bounce off the walls of my classroom, managed to graduate last spring.  He was not one of the kids that many people would have expected to graduate, and indeed, he barely made it.


His plan was to start at our community college this fall, though, and become… a science teacher!  (Pinnacle of all humanity.)  This is still his plan, his dad told me, he’s just put it on hold until next quarter.  I hope.


I’ve talked about Jett quite a bit this year during my presentations.  I was able to connect with Jett and inspire him because I really valued and appreciated his unique intelligence.  Not everyone did.


So do I keep telling Jett’s not-quite-as-inspirational-as-it-used-to-be story?  I think I will.  Regardless of the eventual outcome (do we ever really arrive, anyway?), I did something to inspire him.  And even if he never reaches the fully enlightened state called “Science Teacher,” I was successful with him.


I also need to remind myself that I’ve spent far less than even 1% of Jett’s life with him.  A teacher can only do so much.  But I think I’ll give him a call one of these days and see if I can do a little more to encourage him.  After all, I’m a teacher.  I’m used to working overtime.


Friday, October 31, 2008


Denver, CO


Left… left…left, right, left!


That’s what a typical day looks like for most adolescents in American schools.  About 4 out of 5 classes focus on the brain’s left hemisphere, and one might focus on the right.  “That art class is all some kids have to look forward to!” administrators say.  “It’s what keeps those kids in school!”


So we’re asking kids to trudge through five or six hours of hell so they can have 45 minutes of creative time?  I don’t think I’d last 12 years if I was one of “those kids,” either!


The responsibility falls upon each of us (“core” and “exploratory” teachers) to make every class period enjoyable, engaging and creative.  Students need to be using both sides of their brains all day long to analyze and synthesize, to research and create.  They’ll only be half engaged, half motivated, half alive if we continue to teach to half of their brains.

But arts teachers can fall victim to this as well.  I was a pretty good musician when I was younger, but I was a left-brained musician.  I could play the notes, and play them with accuracy and some expression.  I was very good at analyzing and interpreting the mathematical formulas on the sheet of music, and very nice melodies emanated from the piano that I commanded.


But they weren’t my melodies.  I wasn’t my music.  Not until later, after learning a bit of guitar, did I really start to explore on my own and create my own music.  My left-brain musical training helped me, but it wasn’t complete without my right brain creating something new with it.  My hemispheres had to work in concert to produce music that was truly meaningful to me.


Obviously, playing in a band or orchestra at school has benefits that extend well beyond the musical values we hear in a performance: teamwork, dedication, intense focus. These are essential skills in the 21st century world.  But a great music program must go beyond playing someone else’s music, and develop musicians who take risks, improvise and create.  A great science program should do the same.  Or art, math, social science, physical education, language, or any program.


We need people who can march in time and march to the beat of their own drum.  Right…right…right, left, right! will also get you there.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Let's Talk College

Redmond, OR


My daughter went to college this week.  She’s only 9, but she did well!  Built a structure that would withstand a 500-year wave and tested it in the world’s largest tsunami research center, created both endothermic and exothermic reactions in the chemistry laboratory, and even ate with the big kids in the college cafeteria.


Mrs. Renz, Mrs. Zistel and Mr. Morton are taking every 4th grader at Tom McCall Elementary to college this year in the hopes that it will expand the opportunities for many of them for whom college is not a part of their family’s regular vocabulary.  And research seems to back them up: students who visit college campuses early in their education are more likely to attend college when they’re older.


But it’s not just a one day field trip (which, by the way, Mrs. Renz told me didn’t cost them anything except bus costs and meal cards.  Look into it at your local college or university!  OSU was super organized with multiple activities, tour guides and outreach programs! (Perhaps they’ve read the research, too!))  The 4th grade experience is rooted in college themes all year long.  I’m thrilled, not because I worried that Johanna wouldn’t pursue a post-secondary degree, but because many of her classmates would otherwise never be exposed to the possibility.


I sat by the president of a community college at a recent event at which I spoke, and she said that one of the biggest obstacles for many students is their family.  Parents who didn’t attend university are often scared that they will essentially lose their children.  Lose them to a different geographical area, a different socio-economic class, or simply lose the ability to relate to them.


This struck me as an interesting thought, because I assumed that all parents would want the highest possible education for their children.  But it’s not always the case.  This is something that we need to address at the K-12 level as we encourage and prepare students for the 21st century economy in which a college degree is really just the starting point.


I’m convinced, Jen’s convinced, and so were the other 21 parents who helped to chaperone the field trip.  With support like that, the future looks bright for these kids!


Friday, October 24, 2008

No Frothy Punch for You!

Fargo, ND


Scandal!  The new North Dakota teacher of the year isn’t a member of the union!


Beth, who happens to be a remarkable teacher, passionate advocate for students, and a really kind and sincere gal, was the clear choice for ND teacher of the year.  However, when she was in the lobby of the hotel prior to the afternoon reception for the TOY finalists, she was asked not to attend.


“Two members of our leadership team gave her opportunities to join the union today,” I was told, “but she chose not to.  That’s just sad.  I hope she comes around at some point.”


I guess I can understand their disappointment, and I realize that they were paying for the event, but that’s just plain rude.  Can’t we all honor her achievement and hard work on behalf of children?  Can’t we respect the fact that many teachers have a different viewpoint on some issues than union leadership?  Can’t we all just get along?  I kind of thought we were all on the same team, at least.


I hate to put it this way, but as a middle school teacher… let’s grow up a little.


[Editor's note: some relatives of mine saw this on the front page of the Grand Forks paper and forwarded it to my dad, who forwarded it to me.  Scandal! ]


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Feeling Presidential

Washington, D.C.


1736…1737…1739…  Hey, I’m supposed to be in 1738!  Where’d it go?


Here’s where my room is supposed to be, but all it says is “Presidential Suite.”  Bing! (Light bulb.)  Sweet!  I get the suite!  (Second thought: what a waste of money.)


So I enter the room and check out my new pad for the next two nights.  Large dining table, bar (unstocked), several couches and chairs, giant TV, top-floor views… nice place.


But one minor problem.  I’ve looked everywhere, checked the adjoining rooms, and finally had to call the front desk: “Hi, this is Mr. Geisen in room 1738.  I have a slightly embarrassing situation… I can’t find my bed.”  “Oh, yes, your room must have a Murphy bed, sir.  It pulls down from the wall.”  “Nope, don’t see it.”  “Okay, check the couch.”


Sure enough.  Hide-a-bed.


I'm certainly not complaining.  I actually slept just fine, because I was exhausted and I’m used to sleeping on the ground.  I was just struck by the irony of the situation.


This is where I should probably make an educational analogy here, something along the lines of  “people say they really value teachers, but when we step into the room they’ve reserved for us, all get is a hide-a-bed.”  But the analogy doesn’t quite work.  We don’t have a giant TV, trendy couches, nice views, or anything else, either.  Just a sign on the door that says “Highly Valued Member of Society.”


Oh well.  We’re used to sleeping on the ground.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Expert = Teacher?

Norfolk, VA


Where do folks get the idea that if you’re an expert on something, you’d be a good teacher?  In the final presidential debate, McCain was talking about how we ought to have more programs like Teach for America and Troops to Teachers and less certification to become a teacher.  We should basically just take them from the battlefield, or the boardroom, or wherever, straight to the classroom.  We need teachers now!


What a ridiculous idea.  Most of these people would be eaten alive, wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, and the kids would suffer the most.  The idea that we can “fast-track” people into the classroom is seriously flawed.  When people say that an expert in their field would make a great teacher, they’re ignoring what research and experience tell us is most important to their success: good pedagogy, passion for learning, and a love for children.


I met Chauncey Veatch, the 2002 National Teacher of the Year, last weekend at a task force on the arts in New York.  What an incredible guy.  Each day, he teaches high school, middle school, 4th grade, and pre-school kids.  Most of them don’t speak much English, are from extremely poor families, yet their success rate in school is remarkable.  Many of them go to top colleges.  Chauncey is a product of Troops to Teachers, and goes to show that career folks can make highly effective teachers.  I had a similar path from professional forestry, but went through a more traditional masters degree program.  TFA and TTT are great programs, but they are the minimum we should expect in teacher prep.  And many of these new teachers don't last long, or are ineffective in the classroom.


Good teaching can be learned, but it usually takes time and guidance.  Programs that minimize the time as a student teacher under the guidance of a master teacher, or that aren’t providing enough educational theory and research to fully prepare people for the rigors of the classroom are doing a great disservice to the pre-service teachers and to the students.  There are exceptional people who will make great teachers no matter how they get there, but in general, the idea that we need less rigorous certification processes will not benefit our educational system or our children.


It’s a slap in the face to educators to imply that any expert in a field can teach, because we know that teaching is so much more than imparting content knowledge.  Great teaching is art, science, pedagogy, passion, love, expertise, patience, and hard work.


What you teach is not nearly as important as how you teach.


[For another excellent response to this debate question (in fact, questioning the question), please check out my colleague Mike Smart’s commentary at  Good stuff.]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do the Math

New York, NY


Delta Air Lines has done the math.  They had two employees working through the TSA screening line checking to see when each traveler’s flight departed.  Those who were in danger of not making it through security in time were escorted to the express line.  They must figure that rescheduling a flight and shifting folks from one itinerary to another is too costly.  Costly enough to hire people (or at least shift people around) to expedite the security screening process.


Have we done the math for our students?  When will we realize that the cost of a student dropping out of school is substantial enough that we ought to invest early to prevent it from happening in the first place.  The costs of lost productivity, lost income revenue, retraining, social services, and possible incarceration are enormous and would easily pay for the needed staff and resources to ensure that they make their flight in the first place.


Not to mention the enormous lifelong cost to each individual traveler who may never make it to his or her destination.


In a system that so heavily values mathematics, why don’t we do a little math ourselves?  I think we would find that the investment would be worth it.  I’ll even let you use a calculator.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Surfing in South Dakota

Denver, CO


South Dakota reminded me a bit of North Dakota, except it was a bit further south.  My folks both grew up in a little farming town in northeastern North Dakota and we used to visit every couple of summers.  We never could talk them into a Christmas visit for some reason.   Hmmmm.


Yesterday, as I walked the streets of Pierre (pronounced “Peer,” by the way), it had a similar feeling to some of the small towns in North Dakota that I’ve visited.  That “slowly drying up” feeling.  Kinda sad.  Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t have that vibrant bustle that many towns do.


I remember my cousins in N. Dakota talking about how the culture always took a few years to get there from the rest of the country.  Movies, fashion, ideas, they all had a lag time.  And it seems that is still somewhat the case, but I think that the time is diminishing rapidly.


As I wandered the streets, I wondered how applicable a talk about teaching skills for the future would be.  But I think it might be even more applicable in some ways for small towns across this land.  The future is coming a bit faster because technology is catching them up all that much quicker.


Will they rear end the rest of us?  (I say “they” as if I’m from a big city, which I’m not.)  Will they survive the acceleration?  Will they grab onto this charging bull and harness it’s power?  Will they pop up and surf this tsunami of changes?  Will they…


Time will tell, and with the exponential growth rate of technology, culture, ideas, commerce and e-communities, it may not take us very long to find out.


Rapid City, SD


John Candy and Steve Martin, eat your heart out.  I think it’s about time for me to rent Planes, Trains and Automobiles again, although this time it might hit a little close to home.


I’ve been traveling for over 10 hours already today, and I’m only now about to take off on a plane.  I haven’t even left South Dakota yet!  Thankfully, I haven’t had a rental car catch on fire, no one sang the Flintstones theme song on our bus trip, and I haven’t had to room with any large men who leave their enormous underwear in the sink.  So I should be thankful.


Unfortunately, now I won’t be getting the Perfect Attendance Award at the end of the school year.  Due to my flight cancellation today, I won’t be able to make it to Pennsylvania for the Teacher Forum in time to speak.  So I’m heading home.


If all goes well, I’ll be home by 10pm tonight, a full 18 hours after I started my journey.  It might have been quicker to drive!  Unless, of course, I let John Candy take the wheel.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I've been replaced by a science teacher named Michael

Redmond, OR


“…and the new Oregon Teacher of the Year is… (envelope please)… a science teacher named Michael!”  What a kawinkydink!  Except our 2009 representative, Michael Lampert, teaches high school in West Salem.  And he’s been to Antarctica.


I’m thrilled for him, and look forward to meeting and working with him.  From what I’ve read and seen, he sounds like a remarkable guy!  When they announced his selection at a surprise assembly, his students definitely thought so!


But I also feel a slight twinge of pain for him, for his life will never quite be the same.  He will meet new people, be exposed to ideas, and be asked to step into a new role that will stretch him like never before.  I think he’ll handle it marvelously.


Each state handles their Teacher of the Year program a bit differently.  Some teachers have a yearlong sabbatical (about a dozen states and the national teacher,) while others, like Oregon, remain full-time in the classroom.  Some receive large cash prizes and a car for the year, while others, like Oregon, are more modest (we receive $3,000 dollars from Intel.)  Some are highly scheduled, sought after, and publicized, while others, like Oregon, each make what they want of the position.


From the little I know about Michael Lampert, he’ll make the most of it, and I will encourage him to do so.  Teachers and students need to make their voices, stories and ideas heard, and Michael will have an attentive audience this year!


Congratulations, Michael, and be bold!


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Where Grow From Here? [sic]

Salt Lake City, UT


Where Do We Grow From Here?  “That’s not a typo, by the way,” reassured Jon Quam, followed by some good-natured ribbing.  (There actually was a rare typo on the cover of our conference binders, however, that said “Where Grow From Here?”  Very Yoda-like, actually.)


That was the theme of our weekend retreat as we dove into the personal and professional choices that we all must make as our Teacher of the Year terms officially end, and our longer journey as teacher leaders begins.  As Jon frequently reminds us, “you will always be the 2008 [insert state name here] Teacher of the Year.”  Our voices will be heard, and our words will carry more weight.


So what will we say?  What message will we bring to the policy-makers, our fellow educators, and our communities?  Ultimately, what will we say to our students, for they are the ones we must answer to.  And speak up for!


Teachers of the Year have taken many paths through the years: instructional coaches, dept. of education employees, consultants, administrators, educational product developers, and yes, even classroom teachers.  In fact, most of us return to the classroom to do what we love most.


But we return as different people.  Not only in our pedagogy (which we have reflected upon and collected many new ideas for,) but in our roles as teacher leaders.


When a leader continues to prove themselves “in the trenches,” they are more effective and their voice is more respected.  Like my colleague from Montana, Steve Gardiner (see “The Schmuck and the Streakers” post from Sept. 25th, below), who runs in every practice with his high school cross-county team: when his athletes go to a meet and realize that many coaches don’t run, they tell Steve, “man, that other coach just stands over there and yells really loud!”  He’s a coach that isn’t being as effective as he could be.


This year I still feel like I have one foot in the classroom, and now one foot at 30,000 feet.  No wonder I feel stretched!  But it gives me a voice that would fade quickly if I weren’t still a classroom teacher.


We need to continue to develop this role of the teacher leader, without over-burdening our already exasperated teachers.  Teaching part-time and finding other ways to lead and share would be an ideal fit for me and for other high quality teachers.  I know there are other creative solutions out there, too.  Just don’t stretch us too far.  Only grow so much we can.

The Fellowship Disperses

New York, NY


Well it’s pretty much officially over.  At least for the rest of the Fellowship.  The other 55 state teachers of the year are mostly done with their official reigns by now, and we had our last formal meeting this weekend in Princeton, NJ, and New York City.


In my final speech to them, I likened my journey to that of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings (although I’m not really sure what the ring represents, or why I’d need to huck it into a volcano.)  I’ve been selected from my humble little shire in rural Oregon for a monumental task.  The other state teachers are like the elves, humans, dwarves, wizards, and so on that all have different skills and personalities (although I don’t have a freaky looking creature stalking me talking incessantly about his “precioussss.”)  Our final gathering felt sort of like the gathering of the Fellowship in the elf village before Frodo embarks on his quest (although the elf village didn’t have cool wastebaskets that opened automatically when you waved your hand over them.)

After all of the support that my colleagues have given me, and despite the fact that they have shared with me so much, it’s now just down to two of us (although we can all email each other and stuff, which wasn’t available in Middle Earth.)  It’s now just me and Jen, who of course is represented by Sam-wise (although Jen is waaay better looking, has no hair on her feet, and isn’t always saying “if there’s any good left in the world, Mr. Frodo…”)


But she’ll be with me until the very end, no matter what.  And while the other teachers may understand the battlefield more completely, no one is more loyal or supportive than my wife.


She knows me, and is there for me like no one else can be.  Without Jen, I wouldn’t be here, nor would I have the strength to carry this burden.


It’s been a few years since I’ve read the Lord of the Rings (or seen the movies,) so I don’t have a great quote from Frodo to sum it up.  But Jen is now sitting beside me on the plane on the way back from the New Jersey elf village having supported me every step of the way.  And she’ll be beside me until the end.


[If you’d like to help her be physically beside me, please donate to the Spouse Of the Year Travel Opportunity Fund Unlimited at


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Schmuck and the Streakers

Salt Lake City, UT


Okay, now I’m feeling like a schmuck.  A lazy schmuck.  Jen and I are on our way to New Jersey for the final gathering of all the state teachers of the year, and we get to be on the same flight as Hal Adams (Utah) and Steve Gardiner (Montana).


Steve was just telling us about how he wanted to challenge he cross-country athletes to run every day – what he called “consecutive days” (others call it a “streak,” although streaking is something entirely different in my mind.)  So, like good teachers do, he tried it himself.  After a summer of 100 consecutive days running for at least half an hour, he got his athletes started.  Some went 50, some made it 100, one girl went 360, and another went over 600 straight days.


One young man clocked over 1000 consecutive days of running during his high school career, and would occasionally e-mail Steve with updates from college: “Hey coach, 1124.  –Dave”


He injured himself, though, and broke his consecutive days streak.  When he saw Steve, he disappointedly told him about it.  “But… I’m at 122 now.”  He had started over!  That’s strength of character, commitment, dedication.


Steve is currently at 3000+ consecutive days of aerobic workout (he modified it slightly to account for things like pulling a pack sled for 8 hours and then camping on a glacier in northern Greenland.  Tough to go jogging in those conditions.)  He’s an incredible guy.


Hal (from Utah) was the first person to suggest that I keep a journal this year.  I’m not really a journaler, or much of a writer, but I so appreciate Hal gently challenging me to go for it.  I decided to write each time I got on a plane.  It would be a good use of my time, and for some reason I feel contemplative and more creative as I ascend into the air.


So how many consecutive flights have I journaled now?  20? 40? 60?  Actually, I’m at one.  I’ve been slacking off.  Sometimes I’m just not sure what to write about, but that’s a pretty lame excuse.  I just need to write.


As for exercise… that’s a whole ‘nuther story this year.  I’m a double schmuck.


[Editor’s note: The word “schmuck” has 6 consonants and only 1 vowel!  Crazy!  Are there any other (non-Russian) words like that?!]


[Editor’s 2nd note:  Just got word that Steve’s cross-country team won it’s sixth straight city championship, and also took 2nd in the state meet!  Great job, Steve and his athletes!]

Monday, September 8, 2008

Teaching Experience: Several thousand years

Salt Lake City, UT

Several thousand years.  That was the amount of teaching experience in the room this morning at the annual convention of the National Retired Teachers Association.  A couple hundred retired educators (that's the several thousand years part) and me (that'd be seven more.)  I'm not worthy!

Jen sent me a quick message this morning: "Have fun charming the cute old ladies.  You'll drive them crazy."

I think I did, and here's my evidence: I'm fairly certain one gal had her friend fake camera trouble so she could keep her arm around me for a little longer.  :)

But it was a supportive and enthusiastic group, and I was honored to bring a new perspective and some stories from the front lines to these veterans.  They sure appreciated it.

Together, we've touched over half a million lives!  (Them, half a million; me, a wee bit over a thousand.)

First Class

Washington, DC


I’m sitting up front in First Class!  Not sure how that happened, but here I am.  I must have surpassed a major milestone in the frequent flyers program or something.


So I did what I think you’re supposed to do in first class: read the Wall Street Journal and try not to make eye contact with the steerage filing toward the back of the plane (of which I was a part yesterday, and will be again this afternoon.)  I think I played it off, but I didn’t have much interest in what I was reading.  I’m not sure too many people do.


At some of the district events I’ve been to this year, it was curious that oftentimes the administration and teachers keep their distance from each other.  At one event, I was sequestered with the school board, mayor, and other dignitaries (in a nice room with snacks!) and we were then led in at the last moment to sit in the front row as the program started.  I tried to downplay it in my mind, but I was wearing a tie, so it was hard.


Why the separation?  Is it just human nature?  Adult versions of middle school cliques?  An insidious plot by the proletariat to remain in power?  Probably not, but whatever the cause, the divisions need to dissolve.  They only tend to breed mistrust and misunderstanding.  We need to sample each others’ worlds and gain an appreciation of what the other is dealing with.


My time here as Teacher of the Year is limited, and so is my time in first class.  I’ll enjoy it while I can, and learn about it, too.  But soon I’ll be back in my class, in the coach cabin with the rest of the travelers, where I belong.  But I’ll be there with a new understanding.


Now you must excuse me, I need to finish up my complimentary Bar de Granola and glass of chardonnay.  Then it’s off to the executive washroom to see if the quarters are as cramped as I’m used to in the back of the bus.