Life-Ready: An Alternative to College and Career Readiness

In my former administrative position, I was assigned to serve on the district’s career and technology education committee. There was a lot of talk about “college and career readiness”. Most districts and states have had the same conversations.

One part of this dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way was how school counselors were being tasked with helping students discover possible career opportunities to set goals around. This discussion did not hit home until I realized that my son, now a 4th grader, was so very close to taking part in this initiative.

At that point in the committee’s proceedings, my mind was flooded with a series of questions:

  • How can some of our students possibly know with any certainty what they want to do once they graduate high school?
  • How can any educator make even a general determination as to the life trajectory of a child? What information are they using to make this assessment?
  • Why are we so focused on the future of a child and yet often oblivous to the present, especially when equity is not being achieved for all students in every classroom?
  • Who are we as educators to propose to a student’s family the possibilities of what we believe awaits their son or daughter?

Being the new member of the committee, I bit my tongue and did my best to listen without judgment.

In reflection, I think this eduspeak about “college and career readiness” brought up some personal baggage I have with my own experiences with education trying to make decisions for me about what I would do in the future. For example, I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, a personality profile tool that categorizes people based on whether they are extroverted or introverted, are more inclined to use their senses or intuition, and so on and so forth. Once you land in one of sixteen categorizes (I was/am an ISTP), a series of careers were suggested for you that “fit” with your personality.

Unfortunately for me, being an educator was not one of those suggestions. I gave engineering the old college try (literally) and found it to not be something I was passitionate about. Police work was out of the question. The Myers-Briggs assessment tool itself did offer some helpful insights, but only from what seemed like a cognitive standpoint.

Today’s focus on college and career readiness has good intentions. Some kids may benefit from learning what’s out there and then set goals to achieve their dreams. But how do we find this to be true when economists are telling us that half of us will be freelancers by 2020 and we will soon be switching jobs every three to five years? This information would seem to conflict with what we are espousing in schools today.

Why should all students have to meet the same goals?

-Susan Brookhart, assessment expert and ASCD author

Instead, I offer an alternative to the college and career readiness talk: Preparing students to be “life-ready”. What do these competencies look like? Given the unpredictability of future work and frequent changes in occupations, it would seem to come down to some of the noncognitive skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Work well with others
  • Imagination and innovation
  • Problem finding and creative solutions
  • Empathy and ability to take others’ perspectives

So how do schools teach these skills? In my opinion, through the curriculum that is already established and being developed at the school level. This integration increases the relevancy of student learning and makes the connections for students across and within disciplines. David Perkins offers a sound proposal for developing this type of “lifeworthy” curriculum in his excellent resource Future Wise.

At the ASCD Author Retreat I attended last week, we were asked as educational experts what success might mean for our students. Here were our responses:

For all of our expertise, how we defined student success varied considerably as you can see. If our collective thinking can be so diverse regarding one question, what that says to me is student success can and should also look very different depending on the needs and interests of our kids. Defining student success as merely “college and career readiness” seems to narrow the possibilities. Being life-ready might better honor every student’s potential.

Ten Ways to Not Make Mistakes as a School Principal

  • Always try to find a happy medium when working with staff and families regarding complex problems.
  • Announce all of your classroom visits and observations. That way teachers will have a heads up when you are coming and will be better prepared for instruction.
  • In your newsletters to families, avoid writing about topics beyond appopriate clothing for the seasons, upcoming school events, and generic forms of praise.
  • Don’t ever veer from the student handbook regarding attendance and student discipline, regardless of the circumstances or context.
  • Allow faculty issues to fester until it comes to head, and then swoop in to solve it for them.
  • Avoid the staff lounge for fear of catching unpleasant remarks about you or your performance as a principal.
  • Make no moves forward right away with an initiative to allow all staff members to feel more comfortable with the possibility of change.
  • Attend every teacher/team meeting and take copious notes. This will ensure that there are no surprises and conversations run smoothly.
  • Expect that teachers stick closely to the prescribed programs and collect weekly lesson plans. This way, the curriculum will be delivered with fidelity.
  • Have an open door policy so you can drop everything you are doing when someone stops in and asks if you’ve got a minute.

(This post is satirical, of course. Avoidance and black-and-white thinking may be less demanding cognitively, but the results are often worse than if we had acted. We were hired to be leaders and learners. So – lead and learn!)

The Tyranny of Time

Although it seems likely that losing track of the clock is not one of the major elements of enjoyment, freedom from the tyranny of time does add to the exhilaration we feel during a state of complete involvement.

  • Mihaly Czikszentmihalyl, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Right now I am keeping many plates spinning. There are multiple writing projects on the docket, a new job to prepare for that includes a move to a new town, and a family that deserves my attention. In addition, I enjoy all of my experiences online with others, learning together. Yet something has to give. Time is not standing still.

That is why I am taking a break from blogging, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle in August. It is necessary to pare down our tasks at times to focus on what is essential. Some friends of mine, Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, are doing the same thing with their blog Perspectives. Well known artists and creatives also take breaks from the Internet. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, is going on a tech sabbatical. He shared this video as a rationale, titled The Distraction Economy:

If you would rather read about The Distraction Economy, check out this article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic for The Guardian. I also highly recommend Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times.

When information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious.

– Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

For longer fare on the topic of focus and attention, I wasn’t disappointed by reading Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers and Reclaiming Conversation, also by Turkle.

As I ween down my distractions, I have made a point of learning more about developing routines for my writing. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Writer’s Guide to Persistance by Jordan Rosenfeld have been helpful guides. With regard to my role as a principal, The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin and Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker look promising upon first glance.

Also important is the environment in which I write, work, and live. For instance, we converted our four seasons room into a device-free zone (at least for me and the cats). William Powers would refer to this as a “Walden Zone”, after Thoreau’s famed location:


As my position picks up in our new location, I won’t be able to work remotely as much. I discovered a cabin with no wireless or television through a community connection for a few temporary stays until we officially move in. I look forward to the solitude, although I will miss my family. Hopefully by shedding some connections in my life in August, I will increase my involvement, effectiveness and enjoyment in the tasks at hand.



Mistakes Will Be Made


I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website ( in the meantime.

Blogging is Writing & So Much More

For many learners, young and old, there still seems to be a level of mental separation regarding the act of writing online. If we put it down on paper, that’s writing. If we write a post or tweet, that’s blogging. There’s really little difference anymore. What we used to know as writing vaguely resembles what it is today.

Students so often fail to connect their social media engagement and real literacy. Part of that is school’s fault. We educators rarely helps kids see these relationships. But it is also the responsibility of the learner to question what they associate with fun with some of the work asked of them in class. They cannot wait to get out of class so they can…read and write with their friends via smartphone and messenger apps. The irony…

For adults in my generation (X) and beyond, we have our own personal issues with writing vs. blogging. I have heard it all. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t have anything important to share.” “What if no one reads what I write? It will be a waste of time.” “People will think I am a show off.” “I don’t want to risk being misunderstood and offending anyone.”

This surprises me. All educators have something to share. I believe the various concerns listed previously really boil down to one main reason: “I am scared.” It is not unreasonable to feel nervous about putting oneself out there. Even after several years of blogging, I still feel an ounce of worry anytime I select the “publish” button.

But fear is not the primary emotion that should guide people’s lives. Fear can prevent us from making mistakes, and it can also prevent us from learning from experience. Fear can guide our decision making to play it safe, yet without risk how would we ever grow? Fear inhibits our emotions, but at the detriment of letting others know us better as people.

If you elect to avoid blogging, it does not mean that you are any less open to sharing your expertise and ideas with others. Maybe you have a group of educators that meets regularly and collaborates openly about your work. Yet it is unfortunate that others cannot reap the knowledge you have to share. Our world would be a smarter one. Just as important is that your students do not get to see digital citizenship in action. Students emulate what we model as adults, even if they won’t admit it.

So I ask – why not put yourself out there?



Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…

This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.

Starting Over Again

During the 4th of July weekend, our family visited my parents in the small town I grew up in. It was nice to see familiar faces and catch up on things. My son, a very curious nine year old (as most nine year olds are), asked what I did for fun when I was his age. He is aware that my childhood was not filled with smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming devices, or streaming video on demand, a.k.a. The Dark Ages. Reminiscing for a moment, I responded, “Well, we played outside a lot, especially around the creek down by the bridge.” Immediately, he wanted to check out this creek. Seeing neighbors heading the same way to let their dogs cool off, we joined them on the two block journey to the creek.

Walking with my son along a pathway I had followed many times myself, I couldn’t help but notice how life tends to circle back on itself. For example, I grew up in a large, historic home in a small town. We now have our eyes on a large, historic home in a small town (Mineral Point). Also, I started my career as a teacher in a rural school with a lot of community support. Seventeen years later, I am coming back to a rural school with a lot of community support. The journeys I have taken in my past experiences, both physically and emotionally, are becoming opportunities to start over again. Familiar as my surroundings may seem, new possibilities are just around the corner.

It is not just me that is preparing for this transition. My family is preparing for a move that none of us expected. The students, staff and families of Mineral Point Elementary School are preparing for a new principal. Former colleagues and connections in Wisconsin Rapids are preparing for the next principal at Howe Elementary School. I can empathize with both the excitement and the anxieties that this type of change can bring. No amount of preparation will fully temper or ease these feelings. And why should we? Life is a series of transitions. Taking time to acknowledge both emotions has been helpful for me to be present in and to enjoy the moments.

When my son and I arrived at the creek, we looked down from the bridge at the gentle rapids, teeming with darting minnows above a somewhat rocky bottom visible through the clear water. “How did you get down to the creek? Did you go in barefoot?” he asked. I explained that my brothers, friends and I threw on old tennis shoes to avoid stepping on any sharp rocks on the creek bed. More confident, he climbed down the side of the bank and stepped into the cold water with the neighbors. He was wearing Crocs, shoes I wish I would have had back then. Still, I didn’t feel the need to revisit the past for too long. As familiar as it might be, I am looking forward to what the future might bring.