Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Where the Values Meet the Tarmac

As a young teacher in my prime I was riding the wave of technology integration. I was passionate about thinking and writing with tech and lucky to be in a newly created position as Technology Coordinator in a small rural school district in Nevada.

Creating change was like swimming hard up fast river.  It was easy to give up and drown. Fresh from the classroom where I was passionate about my craft I had a lot of teaching spirit to keep me going. Doing professional development helped me live my values. However, as I learned the ins and outs of district politics I became disenchanted.  It seemed to me that my bosses did not hold students as their number one priority.  This stung and I was chewing on this values mis-match when I met a wise man with enormous institutional experience and a unique experiences in ultra real pursuits.  For a brief time he became my mentor. It's a an experience I've always treasured.

The man was Alan Bean. He was the fourth man to walk on the Moon.(Yes, I asked him about walking on the moon: "Like wading in thigh deep corn flakes".) As a graduate of the Top Gun fighter school and a carrier pilot Bean had been a remarkable aviator. His two months as Skylab Commander had given him a literal global perspective. (Myth debunked: You can't see the great wall of China from Earth Obit. The materials are too similar to the background colors of China and the wood smoke pollution ruins visibility from space.) As the director of operations and training during the Challenger Mission he'd seen his crew lost to disaster.  As a fine artist he still paints space exploration events he witnessed first hand.  In every way Alan Bean is a true explorer and a remarkable man.

I'd written a grant to bring Alan to my school district to give a series of lectures to our kids. My delightful job was to be his guide. I talked to him initially about his art. My father as well as my grandfather were artists.  I understood the process. I think my unorthodox approach (Bean's art first, his explorations second) help us connect.

At one point I opened up about my frustration with the school district.  I put kids first. I was very much a classroom teacher in a temporary administrative position.  I wanted my district to put kids first too.  Alan asked me where in the top ten list of priorities the school district placed students.   I answered about 6th on the list. (Values like personal power, prestige, appearences and money were well ahead of kids.)

Bean told me something that I took to heart: " If your top priority (value) is in the top 10 of the organization you are working in, stay with it. If not, time for a change."  

Sage advice from someone who rose in the Navy and NASA to the top of the pyramid (and literally all the way to the Moon).

So I ask you: how many of your top 10 values are shared by the system you work in? Listen to Alan Bean:  If you find values congruency, stay put. If not; change the culture of your workplace, or change your work place. This is just what I did more than a decade ago when student welfare slipped off the top ten in my district.

I did take a leap into private enterprise. I went corporate for a few years as a sales trainer and tech writer for a UNIX based networking company.  There I learned very hard lessons about what it was lto carry a shield for an organization where my values had no meaning. I'd traded a teaching career where I could follow my passions for double the salary, a sharp office, and a big title.  The value of these things came home to me as I was flying into Las Vegas in our corporate jet. I was on the way to Comdex with the company elite. There was typical small plane turbulence as we landed. I held my breath waiting for touchdown. Suddenly we slammed into the tarmac.  I remember thinking thank God we're on the ground. Next thing I know we're in the air sideways with the engines screaming and a Vegas hotel towering above us. I remember thinking "I'm going to die with people I don't respect."

Our pilot flew us out a it. I got off that plane very glad to be alive. I then spent the next 3 days of my life following the CEO of my company around as he paraded his ego up and down the vendor isles.

This experience helped me 'clarify my values'. Then the time came to make a choice;  follow a friend to a Silicon Valley start up, or take a pay cut or go back to the classroom.

I followed my heart. I was born to teach.  I returned to teaching and have never regretted the move.

As I think back over the last decade to the groups of educators I've worked and learned with with at the Milken Family Foundation, ISTE, the Illinois Science and Mathematics Academy, and the University of Wisconsin Stout I feel the strength of purpose and resonance that comes from spending my time with folks who hold common values.

I earned my 10,000 hours of expertise by passionately pursuing my dreams and living these values:
  • Put the student at the center
  • Learn and teach how to think
  • Empower students with technology
  • As a teacher, always be a student
  • Do good work
  • Be grateful for the chance to earn an living with your mind
  • Show up and give the best you've got each day
  • Be an optimist about the future
  • Help teachers become writing teachers
  • Help teachers become information fluent

If I'd stayed in the Silicon Valley game I doubt my list would look like this. I'm proud to be a veteran teacher and lifelong learner. I'm endlessly excited to be alive and thinking in these revolutionary times.

I've learned that to preserve my teaching spirit I need to live my values.

~ Dennis Thomas O'Connor
January 29, 2013