Trying to be helpful, but…

Truly, I love the staff I work with and I’m often incredibly impressed by their professionalism and skills. We’re a big district with lots of moving parts and lots of variables to juggle (that’s education in a nutshell). So I try not to read too much into these types of pleas for help.

“My computer doesn’t work. Why?”


“There’s a red light instead of a green. Can you make it green?”


“It’s slow. You know. Slow.”


“My phone doesn’t have a dial tone. What do I do?”

That’s it. Single lined emails in my inbox with no context, much less origin (sure, I have a name, but again, we’re a big district and I’m not sure what school the problem is at). Often these are emails stuck in a thread dealing with some other topic completely, thereby making it all the harder for me to piece context together.

Typically I laugh. But I have become a bit more – shall we say – to the point in my seeking clarifications. Please provide context! I’m trying to be helpful, but….


Do what you love

I grew up Dutch Reformed which, besides being its own particular flavor of Christianity, is also a culture. Lots of strong families, strong work ethics, and strong community support. The food runs bland, the faith runs studious, and on Sundays you made sure not to mow the yard for fear that the neighbors might think you weren’t taking a true Sabbath.

My attitudes towards work were imminently shaped by my home culture.  Protestant work ethic certainly was fundamental (work hard). While not formally spelled out (at least at a young age), the idea of “domains” (home, church, and work) was very evident. Each domain deserved your time, energy, and sometimes money.

When it comes to what type of work (or the question of “what am I suppose to do in this life?”), I remember two specific messages from two different pastors.

The first pastor said “God doesn’t care. You going to be a ditch digger, be a ditch digger. Going to be a doctor, be a doctor. What matters is that you’re giving Him glory in whatever you do.”

The second pastor said essentially the same thing. He also put some historical context on the question of profession. “This is modern problem. For most of history, you did what your parents did, which was farming.”

This message contrasted with the message often heard during my college years and, I confess, often given to my students when I was in the classroom (at least to a certain degree).

That message was that in choosing your work profession, make sure to do what you love.

There are problems with the message. And Miya Tokumitsu does an excellent job of explaining those problems in her article “In the Name of Love Elites embrace the “do what you love” mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers.”

An example of a good takeaway quote:

DWYL is a secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, presumably it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

As I work on a series of posts and a presentation on how technology is radically altering the labor market, I found this article to resonate because many of the jobs left in this current economy are service jobs. Boring, repetitious, non creative, jobs (fast food, dependent care, big box stores).

And sometimes it’s good to remember that work is just work. Not a higher calling or a reflection of who you are as an individual.

New Year Goals: 2013

Because it’s always a good thing to write down.

1. Write More

Always number one on the list. To be honest, 2012 wasn’t too bad of a year, especially given the fact that I started a new job. That said, I want to write (blogging or otherwise) 5 times a week. By the end of the year I’d like to have at least 180 posts on ArdenLane or MisterV. Keeping the fingers crossed.

2. Practice and Encourage Gentleness and Patience

These are virtues as a father that I always want to build. I don’t have super trying children (although at times they can be difficult), but they grow slowly and steadily with a gentle and patient hand.

These are all virtues I so want my daughters to have as well. Live by practice.

3. Increase Discipline

There is, to some extent, more freedom that comes with more responsibility. My new job requires a steady discipline of focus and a strong dose of self-control in achieving (and setting) goals. In this day and age this sometimes feels ever more difficult (what with tweets, emails, gchats and headline feeds), so I’m adding it to the goals list this year. Practical discipline.

4. Learn HTML5 and JavaScript

I already know decent bits and pieces of both. The goal is further the knowledge.

5. Develop Leadership Skills

To be honest, adult leadership has never really been a focus. Now, as a Director, it’s front and center. I always did pretty well at getting my students to follow me…working with teachers and administrators is a different matter. There’s much to learn here.

Visual Data

Numbers tell stories*. The difficulty is in getting them to do so in a way that humans understand.

A side project (feasible?) I’m currently working on for work is a functional, real time data dashboard. In my mind I can picture the end result of a dashboard that serves up relevant and understandable data that teachers and administrators can use to shape the direction of their school and classes.

This is an enormously difficult task. Tracking multiple variables and presenting them in a way that the average teacher, parent, and student can read requires a profound knowledge of statistics, coding, and graphic design (not to mention a bit of cognitive psychology).

Whenever I encounter such difficulties I always find myself wondering when “the big intelligences” are going to create the tools that open up possibilities for the layman and woman. For example, my mom used to balance a checkbook using graph paper and an old (2 foot by 2 foot) calculator. It took her hours. Now I just have Mint do it for me with its ever so cool graphing apps to display my spending habits (my major weakness: alt-bluegrass).

I want the app that takes datasets and turns them into stories.

Google (any surprise?) and Microsoft (see Pivot Post) are starting to tackle this problem. It’s easy to get lost in the data subsets that Google’s Public Data Explorer has available. Want to see Ohio’s personal income per capita get kicked in the face by other states? Check out this fun graph:

For a thought experiment, swap out Ohio and use students…or classes…or schools…or socioeconomic classes…or (gasp) teachers. A short, animated display of data allows you to connect the dots quickly and immediately. Google lets you upload your own datasets (but it still takes some knowhow). When this becomes drop dead easy, why not use it constantly in education?

Final datashare – I love this 4 minute history lesson that really hits home. A social studies class could do a lot with this:


And, in my opinion, good storytelling is good teaching.