Feeling Competent – Or Not

California to British Columbia. Teacher to administrator.

One of those jumps is a big deal. Both of them together are a head spinner.

Screenshot 2017-08-26 at 10.11.13

Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled about my new job. The other two administrators I work with are great. The clerical staff is so helpful. Teachers have been super welcoming. The district admin mentoring program – non-evaluative, opt in, paired with an administrator not at your school, tailor the conversations and meetings around your needs – seems thoughtful as well. But it is a BIG set of changes.

Day one was a head-spinner. I ask a lot of questions; that’s how I process things. But you can’t ask questions every time anyone says something. That’s both not feasible and annoying. I left that day feeling kind of lost.

Again, that was to be expected. New education system and new country, new role.

Day two was a little different. I was working on tangible things. I asked questions – lots of them – when I had them. I think that I started to get used to feeling lost in larger conversations. Which is fine – I’ll learn the context of these conversations over time.

But I left day two feeling more accomplished. Did I get more done? No, not really. But I knew what I was doing (kind of). I felt competent (kind of).

As I thought about that feeling – competence – it was a little jarring. As a teacher, I usually felt competent: I knew what I was doing to try to get students from point A to point B and how I might fix it when it didn’t work. But in a new role and in a new place that systemic understanding, that path forward, is currently lacking for me.

This feeling, a lack of competence, was a good reminder. As a new teacher, I felt that lack of competence a lot. I slowly lost that feeling: I knew how to reflect, who to talk to about that field trip, what teacher might have an insight on an issue I was struggling with.

Competence is important. Not to lower the bar – excellence is important too. But feeling competent is a win. A huge win, at times. I need to remember that going forward. How can I help people feel competent? What about new teachers or people new to a school? That’s about a quarter of the staff this year.

I’m reminded of what a brilliant friend of mine Darren Hudgins talked about in his newsletter a couple months ago: how are you helping people start the year by feeling ‘right’? Helping them start the year with small wins? In his words, a bit more elegantly:

So as the year continues – or starts – how are you making students and teachers feel competent? How are you helping people feel right? Helping them get small wins? Because my head-spinning couple of days was a reminder of just how important that feeling of competence and the humility of being a beginner really is for us as educators.

Charlottesville, Michael Brown, and What We Do in Classrooms

I recognize the privilege of this post. It’s important to share our journeys, even if we aren’t proud of them.

For a long time, I was scared to talk about issues of racial injustice in my classroom. I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to make sure I did it right. This attitude – grounded in my own privilege and fear – ran counter to what I thought about other units. “Not quite perfect? No worries. Teach it and make it better for next time.” Nope. Not in this area.

As a straight white cisgender male, it’s easy for me to say that. To look the other way. To not know the enormity of the problems around racial justice in the US because those problems don’t directly touch me. I’m not proud of any of that. But it is the case. And I don’t think that I’m alone in those feelings – of fear, of I’m not sure how to do it right, of it doesn’t really impact me, of avoidance of a topic like this with my students.

Again, I’m ashamed by this feeling, this ability to hide that I took advantage of. Denying our common humanity, a threat to one is a threat to all – I’m not proud of ignoring this. But it was part of my journey, and unfortunately I don’t think that choice of avoidance by white educators is a unique one.

There was something about Michael Brown’s death that broke that feeling for me. Broke the I’m scared of doing it wrong. Broke the this doesn’t really impact me. Snapped me out of my privilege and made me actually teach American racial injustice with my students.

I wish it hadn’t taken that. I wish I had had the courage, the principles, to teach hard things like current racial injustice in the US in my class before his death. But I didn’t. Luckily, I had a couple of amazing teachers I worked with who said we have to teach this.

On the heels of this past weekend, I’m hopeful that more white educators will have a similar realization after the events in Charlottesville. I hope more white educators find their privilege jarred, knocked askew, and see the problems of racial justice as their problems. I hope they find the courage to teach about these things. To have the hard conversations with kids. To teach issues like this without fear of doing it wrong. To do what needs to be done to teach current – and historical – American racial injustice in their classrooms.

Because despite my long period of inaction around teaching issues of racial justice with my students, ignoring issues like these isn’t right. It won’t get better, we won’t get better, if we just hope it.


Edit: My buddy John asked for resources about teaching issues like this. For Charlottesville specifically, check out this post. For issues of social justice generally, I like Teaching Tolerance.

“Why’d you leave the classroom? I want a blog post about that.”

Next week I’m starting a new job as a vice principal. A friend I was chatting with asked me why I left the classroom. Except she didn’t want an answer in the DM we were chatting in – she asked for a blog post. So here it is 🙂

It’s a long answer, and has to do with my past and my future. First, the past. I came from as close to a perfect position as a teacher could ever dream of. I got to loop with my students for two years and teach a world history class with a cross-curricular Humanities focus. The English teacher I collaborated with on this is a brilliant teacher and human being. The smaller learning community team I was on – the math, science, and English teachers that shared the same students I taught – was nails. I was 1:1. I had administrators that trusted me to take risks and do right by my kids. I had colleagues that pushed me to be better. I got to take risks and get pushed and do what I wanted, do what my students and I wanted – in my classroom. That’s a hard spot to get immediately back to.

But the larger part of my rationale for leaving the classroom dealt with the future. As a middle class straight white cisgender male with a Masters degree, I am the epitome of privilege in this world. If people like me, people with incredible privilege, aren’t going to try to maximize the positive impact that they are having on the world, well, what’s the point? I agree everyone can help. But for me there’s an urgency there, to try to make the system that benefits me so much better for more students, for more people.

I loved the impact I got to have on the 110 kids I got to teach every year. But could I have a bigger impact? Could I help create the space and support for more teachers to take risks to do right by their kids? Could I help more kids feel loved, feel valued, than I did?

For me, a way to try to answer those questions meant to leave the classroom. But I honestly don’t know if the answer to those questions is yes or not. I am hopeful that it is.

I also know that I could teach history for the rest of my life and love it. But I want this challenge. I want to step outside my comfort zone and see if I can do this. If I can have a bigger positive impact. We’ll see if it happens or not. I’m excited and thrilled for the opportunity though!

What You Look For Matters

Note: this is another post from my old blog about some powerful reflections I had while looking for a job this year. They seemed worth sharing here as a reminder to me as another school year is about to start.

Binoculars by Pexels from Pixabay

As I apply for jobs for the first time in a decade, some interesting thoughts swirl through my head. Having spent almost a decade at my last job, searching for a school that wants to add me is a different feeling. As I think about myself and what I bring to a job, the way I look at who I am and what I can add to whatever school I end up at matters.

I’m a new educator in a new system: going from a place and education system I knew well – California – to a new education system in British Columbia. Not just a new state, but a new country! On top of that, British Columbia has just instituted a new set of education standards, further complicating the transition. That’s a big hurdle for someone to overlook when they’re looking to hire me.


I could look at the things I was able to do in my almost decade at Hillsdale. What I did in my classroom. What my students did in my classroom. Committees I was a part of. Professional development opportunities I helped organize and facilitate.

It’s a very different way of looking at yourself: what can you do, what do you know versus what can’t you do, what don’t you know? That deficit model – looking at weaknesses – can be really toxic. If I spend too much time thinking about what I don’t know, about what I can’t do, I get doubtful. I’m a risk – someone needs to overlook that big gap in knowledge that I have to hire me. But if I look at what I can do, what I do know, what is transferable between contexts, it feels very different.

I’ll own it: I’ve looked at other educators and focused on what they can’t do in the past. I don’t feel good saying that, but it is true. By doing that, I’ve missed strengths people have. Things they can teach me. The amazing things their kids are doing in their classrooms. Thankfully, I’ve had to eat some humble pie in those areas, as my perceptions of what people can’t do has been impacted by what I’ve seen them actually DO. The outlook – what could this educator do better – was wrong. Should we work on weaknesses? Sure. But focusing on weaknesses and ignoring strengths – as I have done about myself in my job search – is toxic.

How many times have I focused on weaknesses with students? How often did they feel like their areas for growth were being hammered on and their strengths ignored? That’s not a question I can answer, but it something I can take forward: look for strengths in students. Look for what fellow educators are great at. Focus on building on those things people do well, not on things people could get better at.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Wejr’s TED talk on strengths-based education at the end of this post. Chris is brilliant, and his talk is everything you’d hope it would be.

How Edcamp Changed My Career

Edcamp apple from Edcamp Foundation via wikimedia

Note: this post is from my old blog, but it’s an important one. Hence the cross-posting.

** Full disclosure: I serve on the Edcamp Foundation board. I don’t come at this without bias. However, I strongly believe what I am writing is true regardless of this bias. Now, to the story 🙂

In late July, 2011 Diane Main told me, “Hey. There’s a thing going on in the East Bay in early August. You should totally go.” Being new to the edtech world – and trusting Diane’s opinion – I signed up to attend the first edcampSFBay.

I remember it being a great day. I remember great conversations. I remember great energy. I remember seeing people I looked up to on Twitter there – a lot of them. I have no idea what sessions I attended. Or even if I said anything at those sessions. But at the end of the day, I filled out the evaluation form and checked the “I’m willing to help organize next year’s edcampSFBay” box.

Fast forward a year: the second edcampSFBay was at my school. Where I taught! I was nervously excited. We set up everything the night before. Signs. Session board area. Wifi information.

Then came Saturday morning. And naturally there was no wifi when we got to school. In upgrading a cable somewhere in the IT maze on Friday night, something had fried. It was unclear when wifi was coming back. I was crestfallen – how was edcamp going to run without wifi? How embarrassing!!

You know where this is going: people had a great day. Talking. Engaging in conversations. Sharing hard problems. Did we tweet much? Nope. Was the edcamp a success? Yup.

But this isn’t a story about a near-miss disaster. It’s a story about validation. See, when you help throw a party – and it is successful – you get excited. You feel brave. Ready to take risks. Your realm of the possible expands from that confidence – things that seemed hard or far-fetched before all of a sudden seem attainable. And my realm of the possible expanded because of organizing edcamp.

When it came time to rethink my classroom, I was ready to take big swings not little steps: I was CONFIDENT. When there were other edcamps in California, I hopped on a plane and flew to LA – or Orange County, or Palm Springs – and attended. #caedchat was born at edcampLA! When a couple friends started talking about running an online edcamp, I was all in and edcampHome happened. (Three times, in fact.)

The confidence from helping organize an edcamp transferred to my classroom, to my students. The confidence I gained from helping to organize an edcamp helped me rethink my classroom: my role in that classroom, my students’ role in the classroom – things happened there because I believed in myself. I was confident – confident enough to take a risk.

That confidence came from helping to organize edcamp. From helping throw a party – or an edcamp 🙂 – that people came to, and wifi or not had a good time. That confidence has meant and continues to mean the world to me.

Hopefully that confidence meant something to a bunch of students that passed through my classroom as well.