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.)

Friday, July 25, 2008


Seattle, WA


3…2…1… Ignition… Blastoff!  (Or whatever they say these days.)  I’m heading to Space Camp!  (In Alabama.  In July.)


All the state teachers of the year (and about 20 international teachers) get to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama for a week.  In July.  (Temperature=Humidity.  Which does occasionally happen in central Oregon, too.  In January.)


I just stowed my carry-on bag for take-off, and it’s not a laptop bag this time.  It’s an old backpack.  Contents include: books, spiral notebook, energy bars, wallet, phone, Captain America suit.  The usual stuff.

For the opening ceremonies of International Space Camp, all the teachers are supposed to wear a costume that represents their state or country.  Since I’m the National Teacher of the Year, I’ve been informed that I must represent not just Oregon, but the entire country!  After considering outfits such as Miss America (I do have nice legs,) a bald eagle (bald guy in an Eagle’s uniform,) or apple pi (bad math joke,) we decided to fork out a few bucks for the Captain America costume.  It comes complete with sewn-in muscles and copious amounts of spandex.  It’s a little bold, but I have to do it.  Moral imperative.  Jon says I might get to give the opening speech in my costume (which he knows nothing about, by the way, which is probably good.)

I did a little research on the good Captain, and found out that he was developed in the early 40’s to help defend America during WWII.  Some wimpy dude couldn’t get into the armed forces because of his “weak constitution,” so he agreed to pilot an experimental government program in his personal quest to battle the Nazis.  The experiment involved the use of a serum (naturally) and a blast of “vita-rays” (eat your vegetables, kids!)  It worked, and wimpy dude became a specimen of human potential.  He had no special powers, just the maximum possible attributes that a human could possibly attain: he could run a mile in just under a minute, alcohol could not intoxicate him (handy!) and I think he even stayed odor-free.  (I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull that one off wearing a spandex suit in Alabama.  In July.)


Ironically, the goal of this government experiment was to produce a superior breed of human beings who existed at the limits of human potential.  No wonder they didn’t like the Nazis!  Direct competition!


After all of my exhaustive research (and I read it on the internet, so it must be true!) I realized that my choice of costume was quite fitting (and tight fitting!)  As great teachers always do, I will leave the analogy for you to fill in.  It actually fits pretty good.


Just don’t scrutinize too closely.  I am wearing spandex, after all.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hi Ho Silver Bullet!

Atlanta, GA


I love when people step up and challenge me, especially now that I’m teacher-of-the-universe. I think I have some good stuff to say, but it’s certainly not gospel!  I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t have the silver bullet.  I need to be challenged.  Everyone needs to be challenged.  Every idea needs to be challenged.


A young woman (senior in college) waited patiently for me after my presentation this morning, and after a couple of nice remarks asked if I had considered including any women in my three “visionaries of the 20th century.”  I have Albert Einstein, Ansel Adams, and Jimi Hendrix as exemplars of people who combined right- and left-brain thinking to radically change their respective fields.


But no women.  I had actually noticed this a few weeks previously, and a colleague had inquired about it, too, but I hadn’t righted the inequality.  I explained that really these were childhood heroes of mine that shaped the way I think, but I asked this young woman if she could think of any women in these fields that would also fit the bill of someone who has so perfectly found the conjugation of art and science.  She couldn’t think of any off hand, and neither could I (although I know there are many).  I think I will change the slide to say “heroes from my childhood” to more accurately describe how these three people influenced me to become who I am today.  But her point was well taken, and I promised to do more in my talks to encourage women to bring their perspectives to traditionally male-dominated fields such as science and math.


She wasn’t done with me yet, though!  She also asked why I didn’t talk much about human rights and environmental abuses when I talked about outsourcing and developing countries.  Again, right on the money.  I talked with her for a while about how my science classes are bordering on social studies because of how much attention we focus on global health, climate, ecosystems, energy and human rights.  These are passions of mine, but I haven’t integrated them into my talks on education.  And I need to.


These issues have been at the top of my list for years, yet now that I have a public voice I’m being asked to speak about education, which honestly hasn’t always been at the top of my list.  Certainly they’re related, but I don’t really consider myself an expert on education (at least in terms of understanding the history and the whole system of it.)  I’m probably more passionate about global issues because they usually involve the world’s worst-treated and poorest human beings (and other species, too!)


Education certainly hopes to right these problems by developing a critically thinking public that can make wise personal and corporate decisions.  That’s good.  But I need to do more to actually promote this aspect of our public education system as we move into a world that has never been more interconnected.  I need to guard against protecting our own ridiculously high standard of living at the expense of the rest of the world’s people.  Our children don’t have any more ethical value than theirs.  We are all important.


So thank you, Lone Stranger, for stepping up to challenge me, and for asking the hard questions.  I appreciate you more than you know.


The Mike Geisen Story? Probably not.

Charlotte, NC


I finally got a chance to see Ron Clark, 2000 Disney Teacher of the Year, best-selling author, founder of the Ron Clark Academy, inspiration for "The Ron Clark Story" movie, and friend of Oprah.  I think the Disney award fits, because he is one animated dude!  He’s passionate, energetic, and fun to listen to.


I actually didn’t know anything about him before this crazy year started, but a colleague was teasing me that since I’m the Teacher of the Year, they’re going to make a movie out of my life.  I kinda doubt that.  I'm hoping for a school named after me, though, so my name will be on everyone's gym clothes.


I had a few minutes to talk with Ron before his presentation last night, and he was very kind and personable.  Overall, I was impressed.  I didn’t think I would be.


I figured from what I had seen of him, he’d be fairly egocentric and somewhat Disneyfied.  And I suppose there was a bit of that, as is probably inevitable.  But his passion for kids, for education, and for community change within a global perspective is really quite amazing.  He doesn’t just talk about it (like I feel that I sometimes do,) he acts on it.  He acts in bold, courageous ways, and never with a half-assed effort.  He jumps in with both feet together (like when he jumped into a hot oven at Dunkin’ Donuts and got locked in… funny story, ask him about it sometime…)


While not every teacher can be a Ron Clark (and it’s probably best that they’re not!), his enthusiasm is certainly contagious (and exhausting,) and we can learn a great deal from his bold and innovative approaches to education.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mi Primera Fajita

Atlanta, GA


I just paid $7 for a tortilla filled with lettuce.  To the chef’s credit, my last three bites did contain some sort of chicken product.  It can be downright criminal what they allow in airports these days.


I’m heading to North Carolina to speak to college seniors about their first year of teaching.  My first year of teaching was an incredibly tough year.  I had the legendary class of miscreants that educators had been talking about since they were all in 1st grade together, we had a 2-year-old at home, Jen was pregnant, and a new home without a yard (we put that in during all our spare time that fall.)


The guidance I received on my curriculum basically consisted of five thin science books (“these are the 7th grade topics”) which I quickly shelved.  I had a hodgepodge of old chairs (still do, actually) and the student desks were just folding tables (two of which would regularly collapse, sending binders, papers and projects to the floor with a dramatic crash.)  Students encompassed an incredibly wide range of abilities (both social and academic), and I didn’t feel prepared to fully meet the needs of the range of humanity that I was charged to teach.  (I still don’t, actually.)


But I had a great principal (he was new, too,) a team of three other passionate teachers to meet with every day, and the freedom to do what we needed to do.  Oh, and a tireless work ethic, paired with a patient and supportive wife who truly believed in the transformative power of teaching.  That helped, too.


And I made it.  And the students made it.  Well, most of them.  Some moved, a few were moved (like the little guy who would scream at people and throw chairs.)  But I survived, and I grew, and it made me a better teacher, and a better human being.


Looking back, I just hope that I offered those students a little more than a tortilla filled with lettuce.  That I at least threw in a little bit of chicken, or some spicy sauce.  While I now offer my students a bit more of a menu of meal choices (or on my better days, help them prepare their own), that first year was a thrilling, scary, raw experience that I won’t soon forget.


The Precious Times

Seattle, WA


Holy smokes, I’m tired.  Getting up at 3:30 this morning was not on my list of things to do today.  That’s only 6:30am Eastern Time, but I haven’t been in that time zone for a full week now!  (A new record!)


We’re calling the Seattle area home for the next few weeks as we spend time with our families and friends near where we grew up.  We celebrated my dad’s birthday (he just turned 40 or so), and tomorrow we’ll celebrate our friend Lil’s 100th birthday!  Except I won’t be there, I’ll be back on Eastern time, 3000 miles away.

As John Candy’s character from Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Del Griffith) says, “those are the precious times… they don’t come back.”  I have a feeling there will be a few of those this year.

Aspen told me today that he didn’t want to be a teacher when he grows up because he “might get teacher of the year, and then he’d have to be gone all the time giving speaks.”


My heart hurts for that little guy.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Weekend Weather Angst

Salt Lake City, UT


Six days and eleven states (I think… we had a detour flying into Atlanta which allowed me to pick up South Carolina.)  And I still have to work this weekend.  Too much, really, but I handled it okay.  Tomorrow, Jen and I will drive to Portland for a school boards convention, which will hopefully allow us to spend a bit of time together.  We’re needing it.


So far this gig has been pretty tough on Jen.  It’s been tough on me, too, to be away from Jen, Aspen, Johanna, my friends, the mountains, our backyard, our bed, etc., etc.  But Jen is basically a single mom now, and while people frequently tell me how great of a job I’m doing and often hang on my every word (which is kind of freaky, by the way) Jen doesn’t always have that same experience at home.  And it wears on her.


While she’s at home with the same routines and responsibilities, I’m out meeting fascinating and passionate people with whom it’s easy for me to share ideas and stories.  Sharing out loud with my peers hasn’t always been a forte for me, and Jen is really the one who deserves the first cut from me.  But as much as I want to share with her, she’s not always there, or not an expert in that field.  We’re working on this, but it’s not easy when I’m gone so much.  We go up and down.


What’s especially tough is when one of us (or both) is having a down day when I’m home.  It’s a bit like looking forward to the long-awaited weekend so you can go hiking or climbing or biking, but then having a bad weather system move in and cancel your plans.  When you have to head back to work on Monday (and the sun always comes back out on Monday, doesn’t it?) you feel tense, frustrated and anxious about how long this next week will seem.


We’ll have quite a bit of time together this next week, though, even though I’ll be traveling solely in Oregon.  I’m hoping for some good weather.


I want to come out of this year stronger, but not just stronger on my own.  That will be inevitable, I believe.  I want to come out of this year stronger together.  I believe that will happen, but it’s going to take some hard work.  It’s not easy to change the weather.


Education on Charlie Rose

Atlanta, GA


Despite joking with President Bush that I might run for President, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t make a very good politician.  I think I would have a hard time balancing so many needs and not offending my constituents.


At the NEA convention, I think I was sort of expected to be the union man.  I had complete freedom to talk about whatever I wanted to, but I wasn’t there to make anyone mad (plus, an angry crowd of 10,000 is not conducive to leaving the building intact.)  My goal is usually to gently nudge, and I think I was able to do that regarding policy-makers and dealing with accountability. (See video in previous post.)


The next day, however, on national TV, when Charlie Rose asked about merit pay and the role of unions, my answers were probably not the “party line” at the NEA.  And that was kind of hard for me to do, because I’ve met some remarkable, intelligent and passionate people at the state and national level of the Education Association.


It sort of felt a bit like church, where when everyone is together there’s this feeling of “yeah, we’re all in this together, and we know how it really is.”  There’s a sense of community pride and unity.  But then, when you share on your own that you might not believe quite what the collective body has agreed upon as their beliefs, or that you’re still asking some deep questions, people aren’t quite sure what to make of you.


I guess we’ll see what happens.  The show airs tonight.  Regardless, I’ll be at home, snuggled up with Jen on the couch, and that’s what is most important.


(Here’s the video from the show, which was a great honor to take part in, by the way.  To be sitting at the round table with a hero of mine - not to mention three other National Teachers -  was quite remarkable.) 

Editor's note: Jen fell asleep.  Charlie needs to air much earlier on the west coast!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Small crowds make me nervous

Washington, DC

Jen made me practice my speech for the National Education Association Representative Assembly for her before I left home.  I got really nervous.  But when it came time to address the 10,000 delegates in D.C., it felt pretty natural.  Reg Weaver softened 'em up for me.

(The video has about 4 minutes of introduction by Reg Weaver, the NEA president, then my remarks for about 20 minutes.  Make some popcorn and smoothies, sit back, and enjoy.)

(Editor's note: My 9 year old daughter just watched this video and commented that, although she really liked Reg, he didn't make very good eye contact during his speech.  Those required Oregon speaking samples are doing some good!)


Charlotte, NC


It’s funny the memories that stick with you from your school days.  When I was an 8th grader, a classmate asked if I was right-handed.  (I was wearing a blue sweater at the time.)  He said he could tell because my left pectoral muscle was bigger than my right, and he figured it was because it had to make up for the weakness in my left arm.  Ever since then, I’ve been cognizant of it.  It was only 22 years ago, though, so it’s not like I have a complex about it or anything.


I did decide, however, that as I traveled this year I would carry my laptop bag (man purse?) on my left shoulder when I was traveling eastbound, and on my right shoulder when I was traveling westbound.  You know, to keep things balanced.  All the world-class bodybuilders have perfectly balanced musculatures.


I realized, though, that flying from Oregon to California didn’t quite work with my eastbound-westbound model.  So I decided to change it to “the way there” and “the way back.”  That worked.


Until this trip.  I have three engagements linked together: NEA convention in DC, Charlie Rose taping in NYC, and a Teacher Renewal Institute in Mississippi.  Now what?  I’m not going east or west, nor here nor there.  It’s a triangle!  (Sort of.)  To throw another wrench in the works, my connection here in Charlotte involved a walk of about 3 ½ miles.  It felt good to walk, but now my right deltoids are going to be huge!  Dang it!


Welcome to the mind of Michael Geisen.  I am a cursed man.


Maybe I’ll just go buy a backpack.



Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Glamorous Life of Ironman

Being National Teacher of the Year is not always as glamorous as you might imagine:

Kindergarten has the Answers

Redmond, OR

(continued from previous post) 

I think the answer to our 21st century woes lies waiting for us in kindergarten classrooms.  My son, Aspen, just graduated from kindergarten last month, and when I went to visit him in Mrs. Lay’s classroom, I experienced education as it should be at all levels: interactive, integrated, arts-infused, engaging, filled with choice and creativity!  And musical, too!  Kids just spontaneously bust into song all the time in the early grades.  It’s like living with the Von Trapp family!  This is a good thing, especially for Aspen.  He’s a musical little dude.


It’s interesting, though, that as students move into the higher grades, we tend to focus less and less on their bodies and start to concentrate more and more on their heads, and mostly on the left side!  I think this is a tragedy, not only for the child who is being devalued as a complete human being, but also for our country as a whole, which is not preparing a workforce to enter the creative complexities of the 21st century economy.


The situation is somewhat analogous to the practice in some cultures of forced right-handedness.  Wouldn’t it be convenient if everyone was right-handed?  No more bumping elbows at the dinner table, no more smeared ink while handwriting, no need for left-handed golf clubs.  Gee, that’d be pretty handy!  (Sorry about that.)  But what is the cost to individuals who are born left-handed?  Is it okay to tie an arm behind their backs and force them to be someone they’re not?  (And what would baseball coaches do?!)  Not a good idea, in my opinion.


We’ve been living in a right-handed dominated world now for a long time, but our international competitors on the baseball diamond are generally not in as good a position to develop good left-handers.  We have an opportunity in the U.S. to hang on to our high division standing despite the fact that more and more international teams are moving into our division and competing directly with us.  Perhaps we ought to value these elbow-bumping, ink-smearing lefties for who they are and what they are worth, not force them to throw with their off arm!


We’re wasting a tremendous amount of creative talent in our schools.  This creativity would serve our economic livelihood in a world market because the U.S. culture values creative thought and expression.  Why do we squander it in our schools?  Shouldn’t we be developing it to a higher and more rigorous level?  Shouldn’t we value the intelligence of our most creative thinkers and promote the innovation that will keep us alive in a changing global economy, instead of forcing these young innovators to try to succeed in spite of it?


This is really an issue of national economic security (to use the current government vernacular.)  But more importantly, it’s an issue of humanity.  When we begin to truly value both sides of the brain, we remind children that they are wonderfully human!


 If you haven't seen this 20min video of Sir Ken Robinson on TEDTalks, you really ought to check it out.  It has greatly shaped my thinking, and made me laugh rather hard at the same time.  A remarkable talk!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What is Achievement?

Austin, TX


Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:  “We shouldn’t try to water down accountability efforts with fancy sounding words like ‘authentic assessment’ or ‘multiple measures.’”


Rough translation:  “We’ll continue to use cheap, over-simplified standardized tests that enshrine a narrow set of largely irrelevant trivia and basic skills while de-emphasizing what students will really need in the global 21st century.”


Good idea.  Better yet, why not just walk around the conference room here and slap the faces of every teacher and student in the room?  I fully realize that she is in a different position than the rest of us, but this statement ruffled the feathers of every teacher that heard it, and it should.


We have a dramatic shift happening in America in the face of globalization and the exponential changes in technology, information, culture and the economy.  But it seems that many educators are unaware of this scale of this tsunami of change happening around them, and most policy-makers are unsure of what changes to our education system might actually work at the ground level.


People constantly talk about “achievement” and reference this “achievement” in relation to teacher quality, socio-economic status, absenteeism, race, the relative humidity, and any other variable we can compare it to.  But the fundamental question of “what is achievement in the first place?” is rarely addressed.  We have taken it for granted that we are accurately measuring how well our students “achieve,” and that we can put this number on a linear scale.  But we need to ask ourselves what achievement is.  And ask again.  And again.  And again.  Because the answer is continually evolving as the world around us changes.


A hundred years ago, reading, writing and math (all at a very basic level) were good enough for most students in public schools.  It was a physical workforce composed mostly of farmers and factory workers.  In the second half of the 20th century, knowledge became more important as machines and foreign workers did more and more of the physical work.  Education responded by becoming somewhat broader, more analytical, and modern high schools developed.  We stayed competitive by producing larger numbers of qualified knowledge workers.


We face a similar threat today, but perhaps more daunting, challenging and immanent.  Many white-collar knowledge jobs are being supplanted by highly skilled overseas workers or are being replaced (or at least fundamentally altered) by highly advanced technology.  At the same time, new markets are developing in unheard-of fields and locations worldwide.


Where will students go to find the jobs of the 21st century?  Will it be a “race to the bottom” if we attempt to compete directly with our overseas competitors who can do the same tasks at a fraction of the cost?  And how will we stay on (or near) the top if we continue to define “achievement” as being basic proficiency on century-old knowledge and skills?  These are the fundamental questions that we need to ask instead of moving blindly forward while looking to the past for answers.  Are reading, writing and arithmetic important?  Certainly!  They are "gateway" skills that must be learned.  But they are not enough anymore.


So what will we do?  That’ll have to wait until the next episode because the beverage cart is coming down the airplane aisle, and my urinary tract needs a shot of cranberry juice.  Later.