Knot in the Gut

Shifting the focus of education to transferable skills that will support students in a world coming to terms with climate change both illuminates and shadows the soul. In one moment you can almost feel the electricity leaping between every individual cell in your body as connections pop into your mind at an alarming rate. In then next moment, only emptiness – a sucking void of limitations, inadequacy, and disappointment. Both can ruin and inspire the work.

I want to focus on the shadowing effect, because today it reared up for me, unyielding and demanding of my attention. I believe we all have our own physical experiences with this effect, and by naming that physical experience, we can begin to understand and ultimately accept it. My physical experience is the feeling of a knot just below my diaphragm, that wells up through my esophagus with a tightening just below my jaw. If this goes on for a couple of days, I get a sharp constant pain along the right side of my spine directly between my shoulder blades.

I don’t hate the knot. I see my journey in this work following a wave-like path; the knot will come and go. I don’t see the knot as an irritant or some intrusion into my otherwise centered and focused life. The knot is a signal that some epic struggle is about to begin, and that I should prepare to readdress my beliefs and reassert my core values. I am not exactly excited or encouraged when the sensation shows up, because I know it will bring plenty of anguish and self doubt, but these are things I must feel and think my way through, and so I do.

The knot today, and leading up to it this week, was in large part due to an identity crisis that I encounter from time to time as a teacher leader. I am doing the work (teacher) and analyzing how the work aligns to the vision (leader). In one moment I am engaged in high-leverage professional development with math best practices (teacher) and in the next I am considering trends in school wide implementation and how to make this work sustainable (leader). In a conversation with a colleague at the end of the day, the best way I could describe the sensation was, “It’s like performing surgery on yourself.”

Being a teacher leader can be a dizzying confusion of roles, and often there is very little refuge to find. As a teacher, administration looks to you for a “boots on the ground” perspective. As a leader, colleagues look to you for the inside scoop on administrative priorities. As a teacher, I pass no evaluative judgement on my colleagues and their practices. As a leader, I need to analyze organizational trends and patterns to move the vision forward. As a teacher, I worry about being timely with my assessments, relevant with my instruction, and engaging my students with all of the diverse experiences they bring in the moment. As a leader, I worry about communication channels between stake holders, teacher retention rates and working conditions, and the state of equity in my school.

Essentially, a teacher leader is the antithesis of the public education institution as it stands. They exist at all levels of the chain of command. They dance between all layers of the organization. They are on call, for all of their connections, at all times of the work day. They can be plaintiff, defendant, and mediator in the same instant. Being so connected can also be isolating at times.

It is this type of role, however, that is most important when we consider what makes the shift to teaching transferable skills take root and explode with tangible results. When a school encourages its teachers to move fluidly between previously rigid roles in a quest to make transferable skills a reality of their culture and climate, that’s when we are truly changing the landscape of public education. Teacher leaders disrupt the system in pursuit of creating a new norm, respective to the demands of the of 21st century uncertainties of global climate change.

Today, the knot reminds me of this. After two hours of writing this post, I don’t quite feel it anymore. And like that, I’ll charge on as a teacher leader. We’ll all move on past our own knots. Preparing future generations to address the issues of climate change requires this of us all.



How We Read the Fourth National Climate Assessment

Read it.

All of it.

No, you don’t get to come back and read what you think is my upcoming synopsis on it. You read it through and through.

Don’t forget to take notes.

I think you forgot to click on some of those info graphics.




The Fourth National Climate Assessment is large, intense, and overwhelming – all indications that it is a thorough and precise piece of work. It deserves attention, when and where you can give it, until you have digested it all. Download it as a PDF, print it, and keep it by your bedside. Keep it opened in a tab on your browser – the ever constant reminder that your work is not finished.

Avoid confusing or conflating it with the current Administration. The day it was released does not matter. Political reactions do not matter. The pundits and their opinions do not matter. The research, the hesitant scientific detachment, is a monumental totem that looms far above the coifs and spray tans below.

Distrust the appeal of a cleverly worded headline or a truncated analysis. The Fourth National Climate Assessment is much too important, much too omnipresent, to be left for the buzzards of interpretation. To read its full length is our right, our duty, our reckoning, our salvation.

Talk with others about what you read. Reference the research, repeat phrases that stand out, ask questions, pull at your hair, slam your fist, cry – share this all with others. Do not look for an easy solution, or any solution for that matter. Do not walk away from a conversation feeling like this has been put to rest.

Feel uncomfortable, feel affronted, feel lost, feel hope, feel…feel…feel. Make the Fourth National Climate Assessment a part of your deeply held memories, flood your brain with feeling, with norepinephrine and epinephrine, so much so that the experience is encoded into your hippocampus. Let it pop into your thoughts at unexpected times, and savor what that means, what the connection is, and how you can share that connection with someone else.

Let the Fourth National Climate Assessment become a place of regular reflection. Are your thoughts and actions cognizant of its presence? Embrace this gift of knowledge with fervor and zeal. We have very little time to understand and address global climate change. The work each of us does on a day to day basis needs to have clear, concise connections to mitigating this massive challenge that has been thrust upon us.

Read it. You must.

The Making Change Story

“I went to the store the other day and the kid behind the register couldn’t make change when the register malfunctioned. They don’t even teach the basics anymore…”

I hear this anecdote an obscene amount of times because I am a math teacher leading a massive shift in educational priorities. And if anyone should be an unyielding, pragmatic, last-remaining bastion against the tide of transferable skills, it should be the esoteric math teacher. So what am I doing, shirking my duty of making sure that everyone knows how to efficiently make change by promoting more time spent practicing transferable skills? If the kids can’t even count, how can they possibly pay bills, get loans, or do their taxes? They’ll be slaves to technology and never know how to think for themselves!

I am being facetious. But the whole story is built on hyperbole and assumptions. I’m usually told this story by people who genuinely want to understand how transferable skills will help the next generations address the issues of global climate change. They are often playing a form of “devil’s advocate” for the following dilemmas:

More time spent focused on transferable skills means less time spent on “practical knowledge”. Of course. From a quantitative view, there are only so many hours in a school day, and if you add something new, something old either gets thrown out or reduced. In time only though. Teaching content through the lens of transferable skills boosts the qualitative value of “practical knowledge.” For example, over the course of an hour in a math classroom, you can show students a procedure for subtracting and have them practice that procedure. Your evidence of learning will be how often they got the correct solution and maybe a self reflection. OR you can have them practice the component of PERSISTENCE that says, “I use what I learn to continue growing” by asking them to create their own procedure for subtraction after reviewing a previously learned procedure for addition. Your evidence of learning will be a procedure that is student-owned and explicitly connected to prior knowledge. Which leads me to the next assumption:

Mathematics is Arithmetic. And history is dates, and language is structure, and science is facts, etc. This utilitarian view of education is pervasive in our capitalist society. Knowledge must serve an economic purpose meant to increase efficiencies in established institutions. This view limits the truth of what we teach – that mathematics is the art of pattern-making, language is the constantly evolving fabric of communication, history is a complicated web of power and privilege, and the scientific method is our ultimate tool in furthering collective understanding of our world and our selves. This is what I strive to teach, and how beautifully transferable skills connect these practices. Speaking of institutions:

Education is the passing on of norms and traditions from one generation to the next. When new generations no longer uphold the same values and practices as older generations, then there is conflict. Members of the older generation may feel disrespected. Members of the younger generation may feel frustrated. This is a tension that has and always will exist. When we provide students the opportunities to practice and become proficient in transferable skills, we are setting them up to confront their frustrations with an open mind as young people, and to grapple with the changing nature of humans as older people. Education is about managing and preserving an ever-flowing river of change, not building dams and dikes to control it.

So the next time you’re at the store and you hand over $11 to the cashier for a bill of $5.45, take a moment to appreciate the incredible experience you’re about to have. You have knowledge that while it may be “easier” to hand over a $10 bill, you choose $11, because the difference is a return of four $1 bills or a single $5 bill. You know all about your day, your history and your perceptions, but chances are you know nothing of the cashier. Consider how communication, critical thinking, creativity, cultural awareness, wellbeing, and persistence will inform your interaction and help you connect better with this individual. Approach the situation with transferable skills in mind, and you’ll be the one making change!




Transferable Skills are REAL


Climate change has and will continue to present challenges of unprecedented magnitude and complexity, the likes of which our species has never confronted before. I say this often to myself, and only lately, after being honored as the 2019 VT State Teacher of the Year, have I begun to say this out loud to other people. So much of my career is caught up in legacy and seniority, and I was nervous to speak my thoughts out of fear of being written off as another crackpot do-gooder who would burn out or “come around” soon enough after a couple of years doing the day-to-day job of teaching. Seven years in and one massive school change effort later, I now see that the issues related to climate change are too large and daunting to keep my thoughts unspoken for such a selfish reason.

The only realistic way we will be able to come to terms with global climate change is by explicitly teaching the next generations how to identify, practice, and master the use of transferable skills. In my community, we call these skills Graduation Expectations (GX’s). They are:

I often find that these skills get thrown around indiscriminately in conversations without any real weight because they seem so subjective, so very “fluffy” compared to the content standards we are familiar with. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem is the same wherever you go, and to some people, it exists irrespective of their selves. But creativity? Now that feels like it could be a different thing to different people, and a very personal thing at that. Skeptics may even go so far as to say that it sounds like we are teaching aspects of personality, not unlike brainwashing.

In an attempt to bring some clarity, hope, and inspiration to what transferable skills really are, you may have noticed that I have linked Winooski’s own, community-created assessment rubrics for each GX above. Each rubric has dimensions that can be directly planned for, practiced, and assessed in large scale projects. They anchor every learning opportunity that is offered in our school, providing our students with multiple chances to become proficient at, yes, understanding who they are. My hope is that students leave with the wherewithal to encounter and overcome difficult situations through their true understanding of what it means to be human – that we have a brain that contemplates, grows, and changes itself. And because we can mold our selves for the better, together we can certainly do the same for the world.

In the end, this understanding of our selves and the skills we all share is paramount to overcoming the issues of climate change, because the issues of climate change are directly related to our collective activities. Only when we accept that these issues have human causes can we then find human solutions. Teaching transferable skills is how we get there.

Teaching With THE Purpose

It is a guarantee that if you are a teacher, or ever had a conversation with a teacher, that you’ll engage in the age-old question – why do you teach? This question is the ultimate common denominator for both the person who asks and the person who responds – it’s loaded with personal experiences of comfort and anxiety, respect and disenchantment, challenge and triumph, growth and proficiency. It puts both parties into vulnerable positions of revealing their beliefs about the most humanistic quality – “learning”.

Ok, so maybe I’m reading too much into what is typically a pretty innocuous question, but in my experience, honest and earnest responses to “run of the mill” questions have the most potential to bring about real dialogue – the type of conversation that builds relationships, pushes your thinking, and leaves you feeling just plain old good inside.

I could say:

I teach because I had the privilege of encountering amazing teachers who modeled what it means to be a genuine, amazing human. I teach because I enjoy reading, applying math, and living a self-reliant, academic life.  I teach because I have mastered the art of being a lifelong learner. I teach because every day in the classroom brings new experiences. I teach because facilitating groups of young people in their quest to uncover new knowledge is an incredibly exciting, honorable thing to do.

What I choose to say is:

I teach so that the next generation will have the skills and dispositions to overcome the challenges of global climate change.

Is this strategic? Absolutely. Global climate change is the single most urgent issue of the twenty-first century, and I take every available opportunity to open up dialogue about it.

Is this political? You betcha. I am a professional, driven by a focused mission, in a career that too many view as ancillary, uninspired, and failing. I am trying to change that perspective.

The deeper I have dug into this question, the more it becomes apparent that there is no other response that will suffice. The success of communities relies on ensuring that future generations maintain a better standard of living. Teaching the next generation the skills and dispositions to overcome the challenges of global climate change is the only sure bet in attaining that goal.

I encourage everyone to consider this as THE purpose of educating in the twenty-first century. By creating equitable environments, addressing issues of privilege and disparity, and making the intentional shift to teaching transferable skills above all else, we have a shot at truly addressing global climate change and the many issues that result from it – a vast, interconnected web of complex ecological and economical malaise, the magnitude of which the human race has never had to grapple with before.