Education · Gregory Pittman


In Memoriam Chase Crossingham

As a middle school administrator, I spend a lot of time explaining how bad social media is for teenagers. I use their language, so I don’t come across as preachy, but I don’t mince words: social media is one of the worst inventions ever for the developing brain and the way young humans should interact with each other. But I was reminded this evening how beautiful social media can be.

Paul Razzell is a writer in Canada. His Mastodon introduction post appeared on my feed, and I was drawn to it because he mentions his project related to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherrent Vice.

I was a college freshman in 1991 taking the compulsory English 101 class. The instructor insisted we call him by his first name, Chase. He was as affable as he was burly. One of the first books we read for Chase’s class was Pynchon’s collection of short stories, Slow Learner. A writing assignment was attached to the reading, and when I received the graded paper back from Chase, there was a large A written on the cover page. I stared at that A for a minute. After class, I stayed behind to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. Chase assured me it wasn’t. I remember the conversation almost word for word.

“No. I enjoyed reading it.”

“But I never got anything higher than a C on any writing assignment in high school, and this is my first writing assignment in college. How can I get an A in college and a C in high school?”

“Because high school writing teachers sometimes think they have to be tough. They don’t. And some think they know it all. They don’t. You write well. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

I have told that story several times over the years; the impact that little bit of encouragement had on me was incalculable. But it wasn’t until my encounter with Paul Razzell earlier tonight that I thought to see what Chase has been doing since my English 101 class with him more than thirty years ago.

Chase continued to teach while working on his doctorate. As far as I can tell, he never finished his degree and eventually moved into financial planning, all the while maintaining his love for literature. Sadly, Chase died in 2014 at the age of 53.

Rest well, Chase Crossingham. You taught me not to be afraid to put my thoughts in writing. You also taught me to be a teacher who encourages students while maintaining high expectations. You taught me both are possible, and I have carried that conviction ever since. I have students of my own who are teachers now. I hope I have passed this belief on to them. If I have been successful, your legacy will live on for decades.

Reading With a Pen in Your Hand

I recently made a point to colleagues that there is a great chasm between avoiding failure and creating success. In an effort merely to survive, many schools and administrators default to the former. The irony is that to survive, we must default to the latter.

Tonight, as I was scrolling through Obsidian1, I came across this quote:

Atkinson proposed that behaviors are the result of the conflicts in an individual between these two tendencies to approach success and avoid failure.2

I have no active recollection of reading that statement or of entering it into Obsidian, but clearly, I did. So, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, the question is… Did I steal the idea from Atkinson, or did Atkinson pre-steal the idea from me? Atkinson’s point is not even related to the context in which I have been commenting, but the idea is not original to me, as much as I would like for it to be.

I’m happy to have had the reminder tonight that reading with a pen in your hand (or a keyboard under your fingers) works and that tools like Obsidian can help us link ideas. This idea will return in a research paper later this summer.

Reading With a Pen in Your Hand

  1. I’m still not comfortable with the way I have Obsidian set up. ↩︎

  2. Carifio, J., & Carey, T. (2009). A critical examination of current minimum grading policy recommendations. The High School Journal, 93(1), 23–37. ↩︎

Everything Changed a Year Ago

Friday, March 13, 2020. The second Friday in March tends to be a professional development day in a lot of school districts in South Carolina. What made this second Friday unique was the buzz that was in the air. Two days earlier, the stock market had crashed on news that countries around the world were going into lockdown to stem the tide of the spreading coronavirus. And the NBA canceled its season as players began to test positive for the coronavirus.

Our professional development day began at 8:00. For two hours, we sat through presentations on, well, I don’t remember what but I could take a pretty good guess; they’re always about the same thing.

We took a break at 10:00. When we resumed 15 minutes later, everything had changed. Word had come down from our district office that the schedule for the rest of the day had been scrapped. Teachers were to spend the remainder of the day preparing two weeks’ worth of at-home learning packets for our students just in case the Governor ordered schools to close.

March 15, 2021. The Governor of South Carolina declared an emergency and ordered schools to close for a period of two weeks.1 That initial period would be extended several times. Those two weeks of plans turned into an immediate immersion in virtual learning methods. Little did we know that when we put students on their buses or in their cars to go home on Thursday, March 12, we would not see them again in person for five months.

The Arts

The arts have been hit especially hard. Singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and actors all exercise specific breathing skills in order to perform our art. In the age of a relatively unknown and little understood airborne pathogen that rides on aerosols, our activities are among the most dangerous. We had to completely shut down for a time. When we became a little more comfortable and agile with the safety measures (more stringent than the ones published by the CDC), we were able to slowly and cautiously return to some of our activities. On top of the lost performance opportunities, we lost an entire year of recruitment. Arts education programs are developmental. We’re always building for the future. This year's new students are next year’s corp and the following year’s leaders. It will take two or three years just to get our programs back to where they were before the pandemic.

Broadway is not yet open. Gigging musicians are still fighting for their very existence.

We’re Almost There

Life is starting the lack road back to normal. Vaccines are rolling out worldwide. Schools might look a little closer to what we’re used to in the fall, now that teachers are eligible for vaccinations (despite our Governor’s objections). Arts programs will likely need to continue implementing many of the safety measures we used this year, but we’ll be able to sing and rehearse and perform and maybe even take trips to the special events that help our programs grow.

So as soon as it's safe, as soon as you've received your vaccinations and as soon as local officials say it's safe, go to a show. A movie would be fine but a live performance by local or touring performers would be even better. Support then artists that make our lives better. Support the students who will one day be those artists. Support the teachers that make that happen.

  1. He has since essentially apologized for that decision, saying that the great citizens of South Carolina should have been allowed to make decisions for their own health and safety without government interference. Most Republican governors agreed, with disastrous effects. ↩︎

Necessary and Meaningful

Meta-leaders craft the unifying mission for an array of different constituencies. They build a compelling narrative and create conditions that animate shared values, motivating goals, and each participant’s view of himself or herself as a necessary and meaningful contributor. Meta-leaders know that optimal progress does not happen on its own. Someone must see the opportunity and engage others to see it as well.1

In education, there is often a disconnect between teachers and administration. This disconnect is not intentional by any means, but it happens. It is vital that teachers feel they are necessary and meaningful contributors to their school’s success. Too often, teachers feel as though they are hourly workers at the fast-food restaurant up the street. “If you don’t include every aspect of this model in every class, learning cannot take place.” And with this one declaration, a 37-minute YouTube video was meant to replace an entire faculty’s collective education and teaching experience. Of course, no one really intended for the video to overshadow the training and expertise of a highly-skilled faculty, but that was the message the teachers perceived.

A school’s success lies within the commonalities among the administration, the faculty and staff, and the students. Administrators must make every effort to communicate to teachers that they are necessary and meaningful contributors to the school’s—and their students'—success, and not merely employees carrying out instructions from their supervisors.

1You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most by Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, et al.

Vinn diagram demonstrating showing a school's success lies within the commonalities among the administration, the faculty and staff, and the students

The Role of Leadership

It is not the role of the people we lead to make us look good. It is our role as leaders to make them look good. That is, our role as leaders is to provide every resource and opportunity our team needs to succeed in its tasks.

“No one in any position of rule, insofar as he is a ruler, seeks or orders what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous to his subjects… It is to his subjects and what is advantageous and proper to them that he looks, and everything he says and does he says and does for them.”

Plato (as cited in Ciulla, 2003)

We would do well in education to understand this.

Schools Work

Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success isn’t a book about education. But he comes to a distinctly profound conclusion about education in chapter nine, “Marita’s Bargain.”

An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasing school funding—all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. But look back at the second table, which shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.1

Did you catch that? Schools work! And let me put it a different way: Teachers work. Teachers are doing their job. Successfully. So when we try to add this initiative or that device or a “grading floor” or any other well-meaning but flawed policy, or when we demand that teachers participate in largely irrelevant professional development to fix the schools or the teachers, we’re trying to fix the wrong things. With very few exceptions, we don’t need to fix the teachers because the teachers aren’t broken!

Let me say that again: We don’t need to fix the teachers because the teachers aren’t broken!

(As an aside, Gladwell goes on to provide the KIPP Schools model as one possible solution to the achievement gap. The KIPP model involves longer school days and shorter summer breaks and is, by most accounts, hugely successful.)

1Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The Story of Success [Kindle] (Reprint ed.). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Adfo Books.

The Value of Arts Education

The American Psychological Association recently published an article that repeats what we already know: that, on average, music students perform better in their non-music classes than non-music students do. Arts educators and institutions have shared this article in droves recently. As arts educators, we know why music students perform better in their non-music classes than their peers. Music students have to think in multi-dimensional ways. They have to be able to take a chord and analyze and think about it and visualize it like Tony Stark was able to visualize holographic 3D models of his next invention. Music students have to learn perseverance; one can’t rehearse a four-measure phrase for an hour without some measure of stick-with-itness. But…

If we use this information to justify music’s (or, more generally, the arts’) existence in school, we do so at our peril. If we include the arts because they help students perform better in other classes, the arts will always be of secondary value. If a music student begins to fail English, then music must not be doing its job for that student. Pull him from band and put him in an academic strategies class. If an art student begins to fail chemistry, then art is not doing its job for that student. Pull her out of art and place her in tutoring, or virtual school, or any of the other remedial options we make available to students.

We should justify the inclusion of arts curricula in school for one reason:

In their own right, the arts are worthy of study and inclusion in all educational realms.