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What Stories Will They Tell Themselves?

Crossing a swollen Spirits Creek.

Fellow hiker crossing a swollen Spirits Creek. One of the two photos from a rainy day.

Day three of a backpacking trip in December was cold and wet.  It was also the day I found that my old raincoat was no longer waterproof.  Early that morning we crossed a swollen Sprits Creek on the Ozark Highlands Trail.  I took two photos, packed my camera away in a waterproof stuff sack, and never took it out again for the rest of the day.

That day was not eventful other than that scary early morning creek crossing.  We just hunkered down and walked through thirteen miles of cold and constant rain. Being a compulsive photographer, I have 40-50 pictures from every other day yet, my memories of that third day with only two photos are among my most vivid.  I would later see that cold day as one of several peak experiences on that thirteen night trip.

Two later events stick out in my memory. The first was a beautiful sunny day when we climbed up the Narrows (sometimes called the “Narrs”).  It was like a sidewalk in the sky with sheer bluffs on either side.  Views of “skull bluff” and the Buffalo River far below were a thrill to see.

View of Skull Bluff from the "Narrs"

View of Skull Bluff from the “Narrs.”

On our next to the last day, we were within the last ten miles of our 180-mile trek when we realized we were off course.   We like to say we weren’t lost, just confused for an hour or so. We backtracked and discovered our route with great relief because daylight was growing short.  That night we camped in a beautiful cedar grove close to Collier Homestead.  This experience of being “lost” and then found formed another peak experience.

Collier Homestead

Collier Homestead

On our last day, I walked slowly, not from fatigue but from a desire to make the experience last.   We even added a couple of miles that were not part of our original itinerary because we wanted more time on the trail. Every step felt like a special gift.  I found myself mentally planning my next trip, already excited about tackling another trail.

The memory of that pleasant last day and those earlier “peak” experiences became a lens through which I viewed the totality of that winter backpacking trip.  Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes this phenomenon as the “Peak/End Rule.”   He explains that each of us has an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self.”  Our “experiencing self” lives in the present.  Our “remembering self” determines how we interpret experiences based on a few peak events and how the experience ends.  The interpretations of our “remembering self” also influence future decisions.

With this “peak/ending rule” in mind, the month of May becomes critical in schools.  We sometimes hear phrases like “winding down the year” or “coasting to the end” but these are destructive approaches.  These last weeks have a strong impact on how our students remember the totality of this school year and future decisions about learning.

I have very clear memories of my worst teacher.  The “peak” experiences in her classroom were periodic emotional outbursts and strong negative messages.  There were no community building rituals or end-of-year celebrations.  Fortunately her negative impact was somewhat mitigated by good teachers.  My fourth grade teacher, Ms. Break, supplied memorable “peak” experiences as she performed oral readings for our class or connected with us as individuals when coaching us on schoolwork. While she had a stern streak, I have only fond memories of her.  Years later as an adult, I would greet Ms. Break as if I were still in elementary school, so excited to see my teacher.  I remember fourth grade as a good year.

Ms. Break, fourth grade teacher

Ms. Break, fourth grade teacher

Daniel Kahneman says, “The remembering self is a storyteller.  And that really starts with a basic response of our memories – it starts immediately.  Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.”  Look for opportunities to create peak and positive ending experiences so the learners in your school will tell themselves positive stories about this year.  The results will be students and adults who are excited about continuing their learning this summer and into next year.  Students and teachers will remember you favorably, but more importantly, you might shape future decisions about learning that will impact many lives for years to come.

Written for the May issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators’ newsletter.

Second picture from day three.

Second picture from day three.

Two Ministers of Sorts

This is a short interview and song from two great thinkers.  I first learned of Parker Palmer during one of my first experiences with the Arkansas Leadership Academy.  His book, Courage to Teach, was available to us that week.  I found myself underlining like crazy and identifying with many of Dr. Palmer’s struggles in teaching.  I’ve come to think of Palmer as a minister of sorts because he challenges me to be congruent in my thinking and actions.  He also challenges me to be more understanding of others, their stories, and their struggles.

I can’t remember how I learned of Carrie Newcomer’s music but suspect her name was mentioned during a talk Parker Palmer gave at a conference I attended several years ago.    Carrie Newcomer writes songs that draw out the significance of everyday events.  She is a minister of music for me because her lyrics instruct and sometimes have a healing effect.


Carrie Newcomer and Parker Palmer




Sometimes what you know can hurt you.  During a wilderness first aid course I recently completed, the instructors spent a fair amount of class time debunking ineffective first aid actions and replacing them with evidence based actions and protocols.  Many of my assumptions about first aid were wrong and I had a lot of unlearning to do.

The trainers had a habit of saying, “The body counts are in and that’s no longer the right way to treat that emergency.”  In other words, new evidence suggests new practices.  Will we learn from the evidence and change our practice or continue to do what has been shown not to work?  Will the victim of an emergency be helped by our involvement or will we make things worse?

My first session in the Leadership Academy Principals’ Institute was all about unlearning.  I’d entered the principalship with some misconceptions about what was important in school leadership.  I was overwhelmed when faced with all that I needed to unlearn!  This was a painful and sometimes embarrassing process.  I describe the leader I was back then by saying, “He looked and acted like a principal.  Folks liked him and he cared about the kids but he wasn’t anywhere close to being what the teachers and students needed.”  This was hard to admit, but that admission was necessary before growth and new learning could occur.

In last month’s AAEA newsletter, Dr. Abernathy challenged us to think outside of the box and apply for waivers to enable us to implement new and different approaches to helping our students.  He challenged us to look at barriers to innovation and apply to have those barriers removed.

As I began to work with teachers on this I found that I needed to unlearn ways of thinking that have become automatic over the last few years.  We’ve always said, “We can’t consider looping classes from fourth to fifth grade because of certification issues.” But now the question to ask is, “Why not?”   It took effort to suspend judgment long enough to let an idea float for a moment without moving immediately to constraints of present rules, time, or money.  As we worked together, we found several innovations that didn’t even require waivers.  Thinking in terms of “what if” and “why not” allowed those ideas to present themselves and we look forward to continuing this process.

A great educational leader speaking to our staff a couple of years ago said, “You would be appalled to learn how some children are treated right here in our own state.”  Part of what he meant was that some adults who should care the most about children are harsh and cruel in their interactions.  He was also referring to poor treatment in the form of ineffective instruction.  Evidence has shown that certain teaching methods are ineffective yet we often see these practices continuing.  Being stuck in a classroom under an ineffective teacher is the ultimate in cruelty.  If the “body counts” are in and the evidence shows that a practice is ineffective, it’s time to make a change!

Changing what we do with students at the point of delivery in the classroom is difficult. Changing teaching practices requires a willingness to unlearn and a deliberate effort to do something in a new way.  There will be costs in time, money, and emotions, but the rewards for persistence are great.


When we’re moving toward more effective practices and feel pushback, we must be relentless and keep plugging away.  We can work with early adopters and the big middle of our staff to move forward, giving resistors limited attention.  If we provide the conditions for change and allow teachers to gain the necessary learning, we’ll reach a tipping point and see acceleration in positive change.

During classroom walkthroughs recently, I enjoyed seeing the results of a challenging change we made in teaching practices over the last four years.  If I tried to take teachers back to their previous ways of instruction in this area, they’d run me out of the building, and rightly so.  I realized that the change was real and now part of how we do things. Making this change was hard but seeing the benefits to children and adults is rewarding.


When we feel resistance to change, we must ensure that we’re doing the work needed to support that change but, we must not fall into the trap of believing all change must be slow and incremental.  Sometimes we must have the courage to say, “ENOUGH! The body counts are in.  We’re stopping this practice and beginning to do that practice instead.  It’s time to unlearn, relearn, and change!”

Written for the April issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter

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