March 26, 2009

Flipping The Bozo Bit

flip the bozo bit v. Decide that someone is a clown, and stop listening to them.
From Joel on Software: How To Be A Program Manager

Once the bozo bit has been flipped, it's an almost permanent situation. Once it's on, it's on. Unflipping the bozo bit is a rare occurrence.

Don't Flip the Bozo Bit

Sometimes people annoy me and I'm tempted to flip the bozo bit on them. Even students. But I never do it. Flipping the bozo bit is the most blatant form of the ad hominem fallacy. It's counterproductive and only tears down your team. If you flip the bozo bit on someone, you basically end the relationship and create an antagonistic situation, which can be fatal to an organization, especially if the bozo bit is flipped on one of its leaders.

Some of the people I've been tempted to flip the bozo bit on have turned out later to be among my most valuable team members.

What If The Bozo Bit Is Flipped On You?

In my two years of teaching, three students have flipped the bozo bit on me for reasons which may or may not be valid. One student just decided that he didn't like my class, so he flipped the bozo bit. Another student was stuck in the way that the previous advisor ran our organization, so she flipped the bozo bit on me. For a while, I thought Kevin flipped the bozo bit on me too, but now I don't think he actually has, although he certainly would have a reason to.

If someone has flipped the bozo bit on you, should you just give up? Is it possible to regain any credibility after that point?

After The Bozo Bit Has Been Flipped

The answer is yes, but it's very difficult. You will never be able to unflip the bozo bit yourself; only the other person can. The way to do it is to not flip the bozo bit on them in retaliation. Respect and courtesy earn courtesy and respect. If you treat people with respect and courtesy consistently and are persistent in your efforts, your bozo bit can be unflipped. But it will take some time. Don't try to get them to unflip the bozo bit – don't try to force it. Just be respectful and courteous.

George Bush: Leading With A Flipped Bozo Bit

Most of the country flipped the bozo bit on George Bush during his last years in office. What impressed me was that he kept his chin up despite his unpopularity and despite the difficult situation he found himself in. He carried himself with grace even when the country overwhelmingly threw his party out of office. He did not get bitter. In fact, he did just the opposite. He steadfastly stayed the course with his policies, confidently made decisions, and graciously welcomed the new administration. I'll stay silent on his policies, but this aspect of his leadership style is something I admire and look up to.

More Information On Flipping The Bozo Bit

Jim McCarthy: Dynamics of Software Development
Amplifying Your Effectiveness
Set The Bozo Bit
Wikipedia: Bozo Bit

March 15, 2009

Crossing Paths

When I worked in community theatre, the last performance of a play always came with mixed feelings. You worked closely with the same group of people for the last two months. All of you put your best efforts into the production. There were successes and failures. Then, one day, it’s all over. You all tear down the set and go home. Part of you is relieved, part of you is proud of what the group did, and part of you is sad that it’s over. The end of the school year is less than a month away, and I’m already anticipating a similar experience.

People who work in theatre a lot take this as part of the job. It becomes easier with each play you do. You’re sad to see the production end, but you know that more adventures lie ahead.

I wrote that during my student teaching experience. The end of my first year teaching evoked similar emotions, and this year is no different. I can't imagine DECA without this group of kids; I can't imagine the school store without this group of kids. I feel like next year, after these seniors leave, things just won't be the same. When I think about DECA, I'll always think about this group. To me, these people are DECA. I couldn't ask for a better group. And I'm not just saying that – I did not feel the same way about last year's students :)

The logical part of my mind tells me that this is all nonsense. It tells me that next year will bring all sorts of new joys and new challenges and new students. It tells me that I've gone through many, many, transitions before, and I've always been happy after the change. But still, I've got this annoying nostalgic thing going on in my brain.

It's almost unfair. You work all year building relationships with a group of people, and then they all leave, never to be seen or heard from again. Does it get easier? Veteran teachers tell me no.

The answer, of course, is to not hold on too tight. Life is a journey – the fun comes from experiencing it from one present moment to the next, not about reminiscing about the past or thinking about the future. The landscape of my life is full of lots of wonderful people. Wonderful people whose paths have crossed mine for a brief period of time. I look back and remember them all fondly. People from my hometown, people from college, people from my previous jobs. I'm extremely grateful for having had these people in my life.

Ultimately we are all solo travelers. When our paths cross with the paths of others, those are times to be cherished. But all paths inevitably diverge. Don't hold on too tight. Just keep going and see what other paths you'll cross next.

Is this post a bit over-the-top? Maybe. That's why I'm not a professional author. The general principles hold though. Teaching involves emotions. This coming from a stone-faced Rational.

March 11, 2009

Messing With People's Lives

Teachers are sometimes forced to make very difficult decisions which have big effects on the lives of their students. This is one of those things that you don't find out until you're actually a teacher.

Last weekend at our state DECA conference, I told Kevin (not really!) that he would be banned from the national conference because of a discipline issue. He was pretty bummed out but also remorseful about what he had done, and he accepted the consequences. Two days later, he not only qualified for nationals, but actually won first place.

I ultimately concluded that my original decision was incorrect, a mistake, and today, I told Kevin that I'd love to have him come with us to nationals, and by the way, sorry about all of the confusion.

Now, I'm leaving out a lot of details here – there are many things that you, the reader, don't know – but the original idea seemed like a good one at the time. However, now I'm convinced that my ultimate decision was the correct one. Anyway, none of that is really the point of this article.

Tough Calls

The thing is, I really wanted Kevin to come with us. Teachers aren't supposed to have favorite students but let's be honest, we all do, and Kevin is one of the top students in DECA. He worked hard on his event. He gets straight As and has been nothing but helpful and friendly all year. I really wanted him to come with. He deserved it. I hated telling him he couldn't go. I didn't want to do it. But these tough decisions were part of my job, and I had to follow through and make the call. In fact, my fear of showing a perception of favoritism toward this student was one reason I was so hard on him initially. My logic here was clearly flawed.

But It Was A Mistake

In my old job as a software engineer, I worked on a computer all day. If I made a mistake, I didn't hurt anyone's feelings. I could go back and fix a mistake on a computer. Mistakes then certainly didn't affect people's lives.

When teachers make mistakes, people are involved. I caused Kevin a ton of unnecessary stress because of my mistake. He's understandably upset. Teachers need to make these difficult calls, and our decisions can substantially impact a person's life, and mistakes actually can hurt people.

Not allowing him to attend the national conference would have been an even bigger mistake, though. He would have missed out on a great opportunity that he'd remember for the rest of his life, just because his advisor said so.

Are you willing to accept that kind of responsibility? Are you prepared to mess with people's lives? For me the answer is yes, as long as I learn from my mistakes and make less of them in the future, but this is a responsibility that I didn't really know was involved in teaching before I got into it.

March 6, 2009

The Tenure System

The tenure system does not make practical sense for K-12 educators. It is nerve-wracking for non-tenured teachers, takes legitimate and necessary power away from administrators, rewards underperforming veteran teachers, and harms students. In my state, a new teacher who teaches for three consecutive years in the same district automatically receives tenure.

Non Tenured Teachers

The first three years of a teacher's career are pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. If a teacher makes it past the three year mark, he knows that he's set for life. If he doesn't, he knows that he has to start completely over from ground zero. These are big stakes. A teacher's first year is filled with enough stressors the way it is. He should not have to worry about a looming Judgment Day on top of it all.


Before they let a new teacher get to three years, administrators must be pretty darn sure they want to keep a new teacher around, because after three years, they're stuck with him. In some districts, teachers are watched like a hawk during their third year, with administrators constantly popping into the classroom. Other districts have reputations for dragging new teachers along, only to drop them right before tenure kicks in. I really can't blame administrators for this. If they're being forced to keep someone on their teaching staff, they have a responsibility to make sure that person can perform. Non-tenured teachers know that administrators do this, which sort of freaks us out.

Underperforming Teachers

Every school has some faculty members who simply shouldn't be teaching. Some teachers get burnt out, some don't care about their jobs, and some don't even like kids. Tenured teachers really have no incentive to improve their craft or even maintain an adequate level of performance, because they know that their jobs are basically safe no matter what. This keeps ineffective teachers on the teaching staff when they should be let go.

Administrators need the power to motivate these people and remove them if necessary. The tenure system takes that power away.


This, of course, has the effect of harming students. Students are stuck with poor teachers who should have quit years ago.

Where The Tenure System Does Make Sense

The tenure system does make sense at research universities. It's important that professors and researchers be given academic freedom to explore fringe, controversial, and unconventional ideas, both in the classroom and the laboratory. This is often how social and scientific progress is made. If these positions were subject to chest-beating politicians and administrators, this academic freedom would be lost.

However, the type of learning that takes place in a K-12 system is different than what happens at a university. In the K-12 system, the protection of academic freedom (which tenure creates) is less important than keeping a motivated and effective teaching force (which tenure destroys). For better or worse, there is virtually no need to protect academic freedom in K-12 systems, because K-12 educators are mandated to teach a state-approved, standards-based curriculum. Tenure, a devise whose purpose is to protect academic freedom, is being applied to an institution in which that protection is unnecessary. We're getting all of the drawbacks of the tenure system without any of the benefits.