What if Chicken Little Started Knitting? by Nick Gehl

image1I am thrilled to introduce my first guest blogger! Nick Gehl is the Department Chair of Fine Arts at Evanston Township High School. Nick and I worked together many years ago and I am happy to say that we made the transition from “work friends” to “real friends” due to our shared enthusiasm for talking about worklife, leadership, and good BBQ.  I appreciate Nick because he is a thoughtful, analytical, creative thinker who is constantly challenging himself and others to learn, do, and be better.

Thank you, Nick!


My friend Chris is a teacher…and a runner…and married with children…and a cross country coach…and he works with an organization that supports at-risk youth…and he likes to knit, sometimes.  Chris clearly has a very full schedule and several facets that make up his life. Now each of these things don’t all happen at once and the commitments vary, however, he is actively involved in each to some capacity on at least a monthly basis.  When Chris and I go for long runs we typically go through each of these aspects of his life (because you can only talk about Netflix shows for so long) and he shares the various ups and downs. But I have noticed there is always at least one area that is currently successful and bringing him joy.  He has never expressed dissatisfaction with everything at once. Chris is someone I would hire to work in my department.

After working at four different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of different people.  One of my observations has been how people handle themselves at work; Their values and expectations, how they respond to situations, challenges, change, conflict, etc.  And over time and with enough interactions, I could categorize the people into those I enjoy (or enjoyed) working with and those I don’t. To be more specific, I enjoy working with people who can have an honest conversation about a subject without going off the deep-end.  Someone who can collaborate well and who doesn’t overreact and go all Chicken Little on me. You know the people, you can’t even present them with an idea because they’ve already thought of the five reasons it won’t work or their expected reaction alone makes you not want to even share the idea.  Sharing feedback with them is equally unsuccessful and their ability to reflect poor.

When I think about the people I don’t enjoy working with and what I know about how they balance their work and life, they typically aren’t Chris.  They don’t have multiple facets of their life and typically only have one or two: a teacher/administrator at the school and perhaps a member of their family (spouse, dad, etc.)  And I get it, making time for anything else can be challenging. Both roles are extremely important and take a lot of time, energy, and emotion. But when something happens at work that is challenging Chris, he is stabilized by several other aspects of his identity that are going well.  He might have had a bad day at work, but a great session with his at-risk students and a strong running workout. His work-life balance allows him to maintain perspective, which helps him respond more productively and positively with adversity.

When our Chicken Little is presented with a challenging situation, they often respond negatively because much of their identity and self-worth is being threatened and they have little else to balance themselves out.  Their reactions can also have ripple effects on the larger organization and staff. For example, decisions can be influenced by their difficult behavior and not what’s best for students. Or the staff lost respect for a leader because of their negative reaction and behavior.  

Everything about American culture and education would lead us to discredit this perspective on work-life balance.  We’ve been taught that ‘first to arrive and last to leave’ is the definition of hard work and commitment. Education has told new teachers not to say “no” until they’re tenured.  And administrators are continuously putting the needs of the school ahead of the needs of themselves. But this work culture is leading to burn out, undesirable jobs and high turnover rates, and toxic work environments that don’t support anyone, including students.  Here are a few things we can do to support our staff and a better culture in the building:

  1.  We can model and support work-life balance for our staff.  Encourage staff to take time for themselves and be cognizant of adding events to the school calendar, evening/weekend email expectations, and summer responsibilities.  Continuously model that you are not a school-robot and you don’t expect them to be either. Share your stories and success from other aspects of your life and ask about theirs.
  2.  Hiring staff with an effective work-life philosophy can be critical to creating a collaborative culture.  What if we asked interview questions like, “Can you give examples of how you are successful outside of teaching?” or “How do you balance the physical and emotional demands of education in your life?”  We might be more likely to hire people who still care about education and will be more successful in the long run.
  3. Helping young educators learn coping and time-management strategies and shaping their perspective will lead to a more sustainable and high-performing career over time.  The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Be direct with your new staff about the importance of work-life balance. Tell them to leave the building, to not respond to your email on Sunday morning, and set clear goals for their first few years.

Hopefully with more attention on work-life balance, we can continue to provide our students with a solid education and improve the cultures of school buildings.  If work-life balance and educator sustainability interest you, I’d encourage you to read Peak Performance by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg and listen to Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” podcast episode, “When Work Takes Over Your Life.”      

Moments of Clarity and Connection: ISTE Reflections


Two weeks ago, I attended the annual ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. As you can see from the infographic above, ISTE was big. Really big.

It’s taken a while to sort through my thoughts about ISTE. It was different from my expectations in a few surprising ways: I assumed that my most valuable takeaways would include replicable ideas for staff professional development, Makerspace plans, new robotics offerings, and many conversations with vendors. Some of that did happen, as evidenced by my copious Google Keep notes containing ideas shared by education practitioners from around the world. I learned about a few new websites, cool (free) digital tools (check out Incredibox), and some innovative districts to follow.

The Expo Hall

I had heard that many vendors hold contests for prizes and give away swag in order to entice attendees to stop by their booths. I walked through the Hall but quickly realized that I am not interested in free t-shirts, pens, stress balls, or Post-Its, and I definitely don’t need to be inundated with cold calls and emails.

I also needed to delegate my time and energy with intention. Each vendor interaction takes a few minutes, so if you stop at every booth and enter every contest, your time is quickly swallowed up. My M.O. for walking through the hall became identifying a distant target and walking through the aisles as quickly as possible, making little to no eye contact with anyone on either side of me. It was hard, because the Expo Hall felt a little like a carnival– jubilant hawkers on microphones announcing the newest this or that, exciting spin-the-wheel games and drawings, demos of the newest AR/VR/Robot/IWB gizmo on the market. I felt a little guilty sidestepping all of this, but I knew that my time would be better spent attending sessions and talking to other educators.

I also kept thinking about this tweet sent to me by a colleague before the conference:


This is a cynical perspective, but one that I think is warranted because Every. Single. Edtech company claims that their product enhances student learning. But what does that really mean? So again, I prefer to learn about companies via my PLN on Twitter, in my district, and via regional edtech organizations. Maybe I missed out on a great company, but if they’re really worth their salt I know I’ll hear about them soon enough.

Moments of Clarity

As for what had the greatest impact on me, what it all boils down to are Moments of Clarity and Connection. By Moments of Clarity, I mean those moments that caught me by surprise, cut through the noise, seemed “essential” in some way. The following are a list of those moments:

  1. Flocabulary Concert and Open Mic Night.
    Many edtech companies host evening social events during ISTE. The hottest ticket this year was to “EdTech Karaoke”, which drew hundreds of attendees to the House of Blues. I would argue, however, that the best and most important event was Flocabulary’s Concert and Open Mic Night. Flocabulary is an edtech resource that uses hip hop to teach academic content and vocabulary. Our district recently purchased a subscription, so I was excited to attend the event and meet some of the Flocab staff and a few of their hip hop artists. The event was held at Reggie’s, a music venue on the south side of Chicago. I was going to try and describe it, but then I read Matt Hollowell’s excellent post “ISTE18: Rap-up, now with truth”, which captures exactly what was so special about the event. In a nutshell, it was about everything that ISTE purports to represent: student voice and engagement; teacher voice and engagement; equity and diversity. At no time did the Flocabulary staff get on stage to talk about subscriptions, pricing, or anything remotely feeling like a sales pitch. Instead, students from Young Chicago Authors shared their poetry on stage, educators tried their hand at rapping about their classes, and even Flocabulary’s own hip hop artists rocked the mic with some Flocab raps as well as their own songs. I also talked to one of the co-founders for a while about how we can continue connecting teachers, students and the artistic community in meaningful ways. For this white, suburban educator, it was an incredible moment of clarity.
  2. Pernille Ripp’s “Ignite” Talk.
    Pernille Ripp is a teacher, speaker, author, and creator of the widely-acclaimed annual Global Read Aloud, in which many teachers in my district participate. She is also a Danish citizen, though lives and works in the United States. I presumed, when she took the stage as the last in a series of “Ignite” talks, that she would talk about the Global Read Aloud or some other education-related topic. She began, however, with a story about how her white skin and blond hair had gotten her out of a potential immigration-related arrest many years ago. This was a talk about white privilege and immigration. You could practically see everyone’s jaw drop– the room was silent. After the conference, Pernille published a blog post containing the full text of her talk. Here is one line:For 20 years no one has ever asked me for my papers again. I have walked freely wherever I wanted to without being questioned, without being asked where I am from, without anyone asking me where I was born, all because of how I look. That is white privilege. When I wrote about how I am never assumed to be an immigrant, someone replied; ‘Well, that is easy to understand, after all, you look like an American.’” Hearing this at an education conference felt so right, and so important– it was one of the few moments at ISTE when I felt like some uncomfortable, yet necessary, truths were spoken, truths that we need to hear because they are lived by our students, their families, and even our colleagues– on a daily basis.
  3. “#EpicFailures by Women Leaders in Educational Technology #oktoplayoktofail”
    This panel discussion addressed two of my favorite things to learn and talk about: 1) Failure and 2) Women in Leadership. The panel included a variety of women in edtech leadership positions. They shared personal stories of professional failure, and how those experiences shaped them and ultimately helped them grow in their careers. They spoke about the importance of sharing these experiences of failure with other women, since it can seem like, as a minority in edtech spaces, we shouldn’t ever admit to anything less than perfection. They also spoke about the importance of sharing successes– and ways in which we can support and encourage one another.

There were a few other important moments, including some thoughts on leadership without fear, student “Ignite” talks, a session about using Virtual Reality with special needs students, and a performance by Chicago’s Hip Hop ConnXion youth dance company. What these moments had in common was that they addressed bigger themes in some way– diversity, equity, student voice/engagement, and authentic leadership.

Moments of Connection

The other significant element of my ISTE experience were Moments of Connection. There’s nothing more energizing than talking to others who are passionate about what they do. First, I made a whole host of new Twitter connections. Whenever I would hear from or meet someone with an interesting perspective, I would immediately follow them on Twitter. Because ISTE was more diverse than my current professional community, I was able to connect with many more people of different races, religions and ethnicities than I ever have before. One thing I have been reading a lot about lately is the importance of diversity of perspective. We are at our best, most productive and successful when we hear from people with experiences that differ from one another. The best place I made these types of new Twitter connections this year was at the Flocabulary event, where I followed the teens from the Young Chicago Authors organization (including Patricia Frazier, Chicago’s National Youth Poet Laureate!), working hip hop artists passionate about music AND helping young people, a diverse group of educators who attended and tweeted about the concert, and some of the amazing Flocabulary staff, who shared their passion for the work they’re doing.

I also enjoyed spending time connecting with regional and CCSD21 colleagues who I don’t get to see often enough. Our state-level organizations affiliated with CoSN (Consortium for School Networking) and ISTE threw a great bash at the Museum of Science and Industry, which provided an excellent networking opportunity.

Finally, it’s been interesting seeing all of the blog posts coming out of other attendees’ ISTE reflections. I am grateful to be part of such a passionate community– especially when some of its members are willing to question sacred cows (most notably in this critique of Google’s newest announcement, in Pernille Ripp’s and Nicholas Provenzano’s pushback against empty edu Twitter platitudes, and in the growing voices of concern regarding ISTE’s embedding of RFID tracking chips in attendee badges). While at times uncomfortable, these conversations are vital to our continual advancement as individuals and as a profession.