The Professionalization of Independence

Summer 2011

By Stephen J. Valentine, Stephen Valentine

A confession: I joined the ranks of independent school teachers at least in part because I wanted to teach like John Keating, the protagonist in Dead Poets Society. I know, Keating is a complicated character not always worth emulating. But I thought then — and still think now — that he embodied some essential characteristics of great teachers: He taught with deep knowledge, great passion, an enduring love of kids, and a sense of joy. 

The fact that I didn’t end up teaching like Keating is partly due to my innate characteristics, but it’s also partly due to a series of observations upon which I frequently reflect. In my first few years as a teacher, when I was trying to sort out my own teaching persona, I met a handful of veteran teachers who looked like faded versions of John Keating — maybe what Keating would have become if he hadn’t lost his job. These teachers had entered the profession as a way to “follow their bliss” and share it with young people. They were great, even legendary teachers, but not for the length of their careers.

Some of these teachers were downright disgruntled — almost passionately so. They did most of their complaining as they mucked around in the faculty room, flapping the day’s newspaper to add emphasis to their sometimes funny, sometimes sad observations. More damaging, they seemed at their best when engaged in the “us” (teachers) versus “them” (administrators) rhetoric that wafts around our schools to varying degrees. When starting out, I remember saying to my future wife that my biggest fear about heading down the independent school career path was that somehow, at the end of it all, my near ecstasy for teaching would end up as bitterness and scorn.

So, I started to study the teachers who “made it” — that is, the teachers who hung on to the lightness and joy of leading students through the nuances of a discipline, while still contributing to the larger school community; who forged meaningful relationships with administrators; who, in fact, partnered with administrators during the earliest machinations of strategic planning. These teachers even took on some of the least pleasant duties of school life without moping or sulking.

Attending the Klingenstein Summer Institute a few years later, I picked up a useful terminology that gave me a way to speak to others about these teachers’ successes. In their book, Approaches to Teaching, Gary Fenstermacher and Jonas Soltis discuss three stances to teaching. As a teacher, one can be an “executive” who functions as a “skillful manager” of all his or her duties. One can be a “facilitator” or “therapist” who focuses on “developing and nurturing” students. And finally, one can be a “liberationist,” using a respective discipline to serve as a “liberator of the mind.”

Applying the theory to the teachers I observed, I realized that the successful veteran teachers I knew did not adopt only one stance. They generally used at least two of the stances described above, with one caveat. They all had some of the tools of the “executive.” The best liberators also had the best scaffolds; they understood how to move students through a discipline in an organized and efficient manner. The best facilitators thought of “soft skills” in a meticulous way, knowing that skills such as listening and counseling are acquired through hard work and long practice.

I would like to suggest that a successful independent school career, especially in an increasingly professionalized environment, follows the model of the best teachers I knew at the start of my career. They didn’t walk around looking for “either/or” solutions. They didn’t think, either you’re a teacher or an administrator. They didn’t argue that either you’re free to teach what you want to or you’re compromising your integrity by serving a standardized test or a department chair. Instead, they adopted a “both/and” stance. They taught students and worked closely with intense parents. They prepared students to think for themselves and helped them credential themselves in order to gain admittance into the college that was truly right for them. 

All of this led me to some driving questions: Could John Keating thrive in independent schools of today, when the demands would inevitably pull him outside of the domain of his classroom? Could he remain happy and focused in, say, the midst of a massive fund-raising effort or a push to raise SAT scores? Could he be convinced of the importance of returning an email in a timely fashion? Could he map his curriculum? Would he? What about technology? Could the man be convinced to step out of the front of the class and allow students to collaborate through a Google Doc? 

I like to think he could do any of the things we do today — but he could do them only if he learned to accept, and even celebrate, tension as part of the job. He would have to accept, in fact, that certain tensions yield a balanced platform from which to perform the work of independent school education. 

The lesson of successful veteran teachers is clear: We all need to edge forward in our professional conduct. That seems to be one of our few certainties. Passion and knowledge are great, but they won’t sustain us over time. Today, we also need to hone our communication skills so that our parent correspondences are clear and student centered. We need to manage email accounts, web portals, and RSS feeds. We need to teach our classes while also developing programs to expose students to community service and global educational activities. We need to conduct meetings and give speeches and identify key data points. And tomorrow, there will be new skills to learn.

I used to say to my wife, “I’m off to school.” Lately, I say, “I’m heading to work.”

The professionalization of independent schools, of course, should never look the way it looks in a rigidly corporate setting. For lack of a better word, we have an obligation to keep the “human” alive in our schools. More than most places, our schools deal in what Isaiah Berlin called the “crooked timber of humanity.” No matter what our dashboards succeed in measuring, our schools will always be messy, funny, serious, unfinished, raw, awkward affairs that we steer as much with luck and charm as we do with tools and authority. 

To put our dilemma (and opportunity) in plain sight, then: Our schools need to remain human while also becoming more efficient and better at what they do. By embracing the tensions inherent in our work — and using them to seek balance — our schools will remain vital as an educational choice for families. 

What follows are four tensions that I think are particularly important to understand.

Tension # 1: Planning and Improvising

There is no shortage of applications to help us manage our to-do lists. But school life has a funny way of messing with our plans. Teachers today read and write piles of email. They manage online content. They counsel young people who are in trouble (real or perceived). They provide academic guidance outside of their specialty. They study and apply brain theory. They find their way around technologies, old, new, and emerging. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, they proceed as planned, teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets or the Great Depression or lab skills or calculus.

Despite constant intrusions, the act of planning has its value in that it can help us focus on priorities. The challenge comes in balancing the plans and the intrusions. Experts have been telling business professionals for years that they should isolate the few most important tasks of their day and try to accomplish them as early as possible in the day. Recently, in his blog, best-selling author Seth Godin wrote, “The first rule of doing work that matters” is to “make your schedule before you start. Don’t allow setbacks or blocks or anxiety to push you to say, ‘hey, maybe I should check my email for a while….’” What he calls “situational decisions” are best made before you are swept up in the rapids of another day.

What would this practice look like in school, where most teachers don’t fully generate their own schedules? I recommend a three-part approach — plan to do what you must do, plan to do what you value, and forecast to spot those problem areas in your schedule that can keep you from doing either of the first two. 

With these items in mind, build your to-do list (in any application that suits you). Just don’t think that your list is ever so sacred that it can’t be interrupted by a student or an opportunity to do something special in your school community. You have to save room for “purposeful improvisation” — the lending of a helping hand, the informative digression, the special guest speaker, and so on.

Purposeful improvisation should be tied to both the mission of your school and your own value system — the reasons you work at one particular school instead of another and do this particular work in the first place. On the subject of improvisation, musician Brian Eno knows more than most. Here’s how he describes the way he works with his fellow bandmates: “The problem with improvisation is, of course, that everyone just slips into their comfort zone and does sort of the easy thing to do, the most obvious thing to do with their instrument. Luckily neither Leo [Abrahams] nor Jon [Hopkins], are that kind of person. They like going somewhere they haven’t been before. So, I try to make up rules that encourage that.” 

What rules do you have for your own purposeful improvisations? Do you try to meet a few new students every week? Do you walk through different parts of the building at a set time? Do you systematically select new school activities to attend in order to avoid the routine of only attending a certain type of event with a certain type of student? When you expose yourself to new corners of the school, you avoid falling into habits of perception or activity. You will find this refreshing — and be, yourself, more refreshing. 

The bottom line is, we’re not in school only to teach; if we’re only in school to do anything, it’s to align our work with the mission of the school. Sometimes that means we need to plow through a to-do list, taking care of urgent items. Sometimes it means we need to respond to the student who bursts into our offices with real problems, accidentally knocking our to-do lists into the recycling bin.

Aspire to know when to stick to your plans and when to abandon them. Ask yourself, at the end of the day, if you made the right choices. Experiment with different ways of doing your job. Or, if you’re not in the habit of looking at your to-do list until lunch, start the day with it and see if you feel a greater sense of control as your day unfolds. 

Tension # 2: Looking Outward and Honoring Our Missions

Watching my Twitter feed these past few months, I’ve seen the following scenario unfold about a dozen times. Someone working in a school’s tech department is facing a computer problem. She needs a computer to do something, it’s not complying, and at some point, the breakdown is going to affect a teacher’s class or a student’s project. The tech worker with the problem sends out a tweet, asking for help. Quickly, responses pour in. One of the responses solves the problem. The next time she receives a similar plea for help, the tech worker shares as much as possible. A kind of virtuous circle is confirmed. A way of working in the 21st century is validated.

Deconstructing this anecdote provides some valuable insights about the way work at independent schools is changing — and how we might be invited to adapt. The tech worker is paid, more or less, to fix tech problems. By building a network of people who can help her, she becomes better at her job. But she is only truly successful if she can translate her received knowledge into the current, local conditions within which she works. 

These days, when we all have the option to be connected, it’s only a matter of time before the ones who exercise that option will end up out in front of those who do not. This is a hard prediction for some people to swallow because they are already much too busy to consider extending their work responsibilities into the twitterverse or the blogosphere. Our own schools ask enough of us, right?

Right, but back to our example. Like the tech worker described above, those network-hesitant folks will find that spending a little time working in the world outside their schools can actually save them time within their schools. Additionally, the world outside our schools can accelerate our access to the best available ideas. Einstein famously said: “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” On more than one occasion, I have seen a raucous conversation on Twitter dislodge a problem that had stumped a highly competent team within a school. 

The case for branching out is simultaneously being made in the business world. The healthy organization stays healthy, according to Les McKeown, author of Predictable Success, “by exposing itself, through its executives, to other experiences, other realities, other solutions, other questions, other answers.” He advises executives “to prevent the onset of this slow ossification” by encouraging and taking “regular sabbaticals. Allow executives to job-share with others. Consider temporary job exchanges where one or more of your executives trade places with a peer from your supply chain, a major customer, or even another industry.” McKeown’s suggestions aren’t options for most teachers, but we can certainly expierence new solutions, new ideas, new people — by occasionally looking at a screen that is hooked up to the Internet. 

At the same time, I hope I’m not the first educator to admit that it is significantly easier to contribute to an online personal learning community than it is to contribute to one’s own school community — one’s own school mission. The point is almost spiritual in nature: It’s much harder to love and serve the person who exists in closest proximity to you than it is to love and serve someone distant. Colleagues drive us nuts in deeply personal ways. They interrupt us. They correct us when we misspeak. Some of them give off odors or need to brush their teeth. Often, it’s so much easier to fire up your Twitter account and share a bunch of links with one of your followers than it is to help a teacher down the hall try something new.

Schools need folks to be “out there” connecting with the broader community and fully engaged with the school’s mission in a specific, tangible way. If we don’t learn from the available conversations, we’ll lose. If we only participate outwardly, we’ll lose. In schools today, agility is essential.

Tension # 3: Managing Shallow Filters and Cultivating Deep Filters

Email is a filter. Calendar programs, like iCal, are filters. Twitter, RSS readers, listserves: These, too, are filters. Some of these filters provide information we need to keep our jobs (for example, an email from our head of school about an important meeting that has been rescheduled). I call these “shallow filters.” Other filters also contain information that can actually help us to do our jobs better over time (for example, a tweet that shares a link to an article about a new approach to grammar instruction). These I call “deep filters.”

The argument for managing one’s shallow filters need not be made. Most of us want to keep our jobs, and these filters tell us the things we must do. One problem with shallow filters is that they collect information that ranges from the urgent and the time-sensitive to the completely unnecessary. A quick scroll through my school email folder shows an email from a prospective job candidate, an email from my boss who needs to meet me this afternoon, an email from a colleague who has asked me to look over a document that he needs to distribute in four days, and two coupons from a clothing store in which I have never set foot.

On days when we are tired or a little unfocused, we can spend an entire morning taking cues from the emails that pop up in our inboxes. This robotic compliance — a substitute for intentional action — is what happens when we fail to actively manage our shallow filters — and, as a result, we fail to do the work we want to do. 

One of the best ways to manage email is to think about scheduling the times that we check it during the day. Matt Wullenweg, founder of WordPress, advocates “Leo Babauta’s approach from The Power of Less. [Babauta] suggests small steps, like checking email five times a day instead of ten. It’s like dieting.” Or you might consider moving your email into Gmail and using some of Google’s prioritization features.

If you are overwhelmed by your calendar, chances are you are probably not spending enough time looking at it early in the week (or, better yet, on Sunday night) and using it as a planning tool. Yes, there are plenty of items that will appear on your calendar because an administrator puts them there. You will have to attend meetings and school functions, and if you don’t study your calendar in advance, you will feel constantly blindsided by these events.

At the same time, your calendar also holds the key to your “open” time. It tells you when you have chunks of time, even if they are only very small, where you can schedule everything from self-improvement (for example, visiting someone else’s class) to demonstrations of interest (attending a school play or sporting event).

Managing your shallow filters allows you to feel in control of your school day, and to successfully accomplish urgent tasks and tasks that keep you plugged in to your community. Critically, though, urgent work is not always important work.

Tony Schwartz, blogging for Fast Company, defines “important work” as whatever adds “the most enduring value if I get it done.” When work is “important, but not urgent,” to use Stephen Covey’s language, we are likely to put it off in favor of work that is, “more urgent, and easier to accomplish, and provide[s] more immediate gratification.” 

Deep filters help us to do important work, over the long haul, because they expose us to a steady stream of inputs that rise above the fray of our daily work.

Deep filters can be people. The best mentors, for example, help to steer their mentees through the sound and the fury of a school-based career. They save their mentees a good deal of time by helping them to focus on what is most important. If you are lucky enough to have a good mentor, or even a close colleague at a school other than your own, make it a habit to pick up the phone and talk with this person. It’s possible that you will have a relationship like this at your own school, but much like spending time with your spouse, spending time with your direct colleagues can easily devolve into conversations about local problems, urgent problems, your own kids.

Deep filters can also be print or online publications. Good books, magazines, and newsletters with a specific focus on education remain important filters. Online, one of my favorite publications is the Klingenstein Klingbrief. (Full disclosure: I serve on the editorial board.) This monthly online publication collects important articles for independent school teachers and leaders. Because it has an actual editorial board that wrestles with the content each month, it acts as a valuable deep filter.

To access yet another deep filter, you can scan the conversations that take place on school-directed social networks like the Independent School Educator’s Network (ISEN). These conversations, because they are mainly open to members, allow you to see what is on the mind of independent school colleagues — and, by sheer number of responses, which questions spark the interest of the larger community. 

My favorite deep filter, though, is Twitter. I know this sounds counterintuitive to people who see Twitter as superficial or gossipy. And, yes, Twitter can be these things if you follow people who act in a superficial or gossipy manner. But my Twitter feed routinely provides me with valuable links and perspectives (see, for example, @raventech, @willrich45, and @wstites), idea streams that matter to me (@tedtalks or @danielpink) or links to new posts from bloggers I follow regularly (@jonathanemartin). These tweets keep me plugged in to an “important but not urgent” stream, one that adds value and direction to my work.

Which leads to a key question: Do your filters, both shallow and deep, allow you to do the work you need and want to do? Some filters keep your engine running. Other filters show you all the places you might go. Without the former, you can’t arrive at the latter. Without the latter, the former can dissolve into tedium. 

Tension # 4: The Teachers We Want to Be and the Teachers We Need to Be

The headmaster at my school, Tom Nammack, once asked our faculty to think about the difference between being the teachers we want to be and being the teachers our students need us to be.

When he offered up that challenge, I thought immediately of a unit from early in my teaching career. I wanted to teach Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book that meant a great deal to me when I was young. My students worked through it with me, but after a while, they grew tired of its repetitiveness, the whininess of its narrator, and the fact that this man kept leaving comfort behind for reasons that escaped even the most reckless among them. Given the nature and tenor of that class, they would have been much better off reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That I didn’t love Huckleberry Finn should not have been the determinant for choosing another, less suitable, book in its place.

In teaching, passion is important — showing your classes what it means to love something so much that you want to devote all of yourself to understanding it. But your attitude is equally important. You have to be able to reach the students who end up in your classroom, and this requires an ability to connect with individual students as well as the ability to mix and mingle within the chemistry created by groups of students. 

Some go so far as to say that attitude on the job is all-important. 

William Taylor, citing companies like ING Direct and Southwest Airlines, posits that “high-impact organizations that are changing the game in their fields… [have] adopted a range of strategies and business models. But they all agree on one core ‘people’ proposition: They hire for attitude and train for skill. They believe that one of the biggest challenges they face is to fill their ranks with executives and frontline employees whose personal values are in sync with the values that make the organization tick. As a result, they believe that character counts for more than credentials.”

Being the teachers we want to be leads us to spend our summers in NEH fellowships or traveling to places of note in our discipline. Being the teachers we need to be leads us to take a chance with a new technology or share our own students’ work with colleagues.

Being the teachers we want to be leads us to share stories and pictures from our own lives to try to engage students with every resource we have available. Being the teachers we need to be leads us to present our lessons to our colleagues and ask for ways that we might clarify our learning targets — even if this means a good deal of revision and rethinking.

If you have ever shadowed a student, you know that school happens in hundreds of different places and hundreds of different ways — every day. School happens in the student lounge, when a teacher confronts a student about his behavior. It happens in the classroom when an English teacher helps a student understand how to use a comma, or a math teacher introduces a new formula. It happens on a field when a coach benches a player for yelling at a referee. It happens when a student takes a test or receives a grade. It happens at the lunch table and in the library and on the lawns in between classes.

During these exchanges students learn or fail to learn; students build good habits or bad habits; students develop attitudes about school, learning, adults, peers, communities. From these exchanges, students go home happy or angry, confused or enlightened, motivated or distracted. And all these exchanges, over time, make some schools great, some schools good, some schools mediocre, and some schools poor.

Juggling the aspirations to be both the teachers we want to be and the teachers we need to be is probably the most important tension on my list — and perhaps the one that speaks most clearly to my original Keating question. Choose too much of one side, and you will clearly be off balance in today’s independent school climate. 

The Inverse Drucker

Peter Drucker, who died in 2005, has been a continuing luminary in business circles for many reasons. He wrote clearly and decisively. His interests and intellect ranged far and wide. And, perhaps most important, he introduced a human touch to the corporate enterprise. As reported in The Economist in November 2009, “[Drucker] treated companies as human organizations rather than just as sources for economic data.” School thinkers sometimes flirt with the inverse of that statement, treating our all- too-human organizations as sources for data. Peter Drucker became a kind of tonic for the business world, reminding them to be human; we have to be careful not to embrace thinkers and leaders who appear to provide tonics for the things we do best — building relationships with students, carefully advising students, passing on skills and knowledge to future generations, modeling empathy and character.

In short, we must not lose the John Keating in all of us — the part of us that fell in love with a math problem or a science experiment or a poem and then decided that we should not only know, but also share, everything there was to know and share about an entire discipline.

To hang on to this part of us means navigating a world whose “independence” is increasingly professionalized. It asks that we move through our days with purpose and yet be completely open to the spontaneous needs of particular students. It asks that we learn as fast as the world learns, but roll up our sleeves in our local communities and do the hard work of implementation. It asks that we process information in an organized and efficient manner, and that we search deliberately for new knowledge. And finally, it asks that we continually recalibrate our expectations for our own teaching so that it aligns with the needs of our students and our school communities. 
Stephen J. Valentine

Stephen J. Valentine, an administrator and teacher, works with great people at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey), blogs at, and is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center's Klingbrief.

Picure of Stephen Valentine
Stephen Valentine

Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the assistant head, upper school, and director of academic leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy and coordinating editor of Klingbrief, a publication of the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University. He is a coauthor of Blending Leadership: Six Simple Beliefs for Leading Online and Off and a columnist for EdSurge.