Dr. Jonathan Eckert is an engaging speaker with a depth of experience and research to back up what he shared in his recent Curriculum Trak webinar. Dr. Eckert is currently the professor of Educational Leadership and the Linda and Robert Koppel Endowed Chair for Christians in School Leadership at Baylor University. Jonathan has over two decades of experience in education and served in the U. S. Department of Education in both the Bush and Obama administrations. His research efforts include collective leadership, teaching effectiveness, evaluation, and strategic compensation to enhance that effectiveness and science education.

In this webinar, he shared some principles from his latest book available through Corwin Publishing entitled Just Teaching: Feedback, Engagement, and Well-Being for Each Student. To hear the full webinar, visit our website here

It’s great to be with you all. I would much rather be doing this in person, but the cool thing about this is we can have people from Tegucigalpa, Kyrgyzstan and Lancaster, PA in the same space. So that’s a blessing.

The talk today is about this book that just came out. It’s been a great book to write because over the last three years we’ve been collecting evidence from schools all over the country and some from all over the world. We’ve transitioned to different forms of education, but the core of teaching and learning doesn’t change.

This summer our son, who’s 19 and a sophomore at Baylor, did a study abroad program where he spent the summer in Madrid, Spain. So my wife and I decided we’d take our two daughters to meet him at the end of his study abroad time. And my wife thought it would be a great idea to go to Pampas, Spain, and do the running with the bulls. This is something that I knew very little about other than that it seems crazy to get in a street that’s about 20 feet wide with 1500-pound bulls with razor sharp horns that stick out about three to four feet. My wife, however, thought it was a great idea. My son who’s 19, of course, with the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, thought that was a great idea as well.

So we left Madrid, went to Barcelona and then ended up at the running of the bulls, which they haven’t done the last two years because of Covid. So there was pent up demand for this. And so I’m thinking, We’re going to be there two days. We’ll watch it the first day. That will help bring my wife and son to their senses. (My wife never had any intention of running, but she thought it would be a great idea for my son and me to do it.)

And so we get on this third floor balcony overlooking what’s known as Dead Man’s Curve. Again, why anybody voluntarily puts them in front of a place known as Dead Man’s Curve, I don’t know. I look over at my son who’s in the balcony next to me and he is completely fired up like, Yes! this is a great idea and we’re going to do this tomorrow.

I was struck by the fact that this is a little bit like how the last three years in schools have felt. So I named the bulls 2020, 2021 and 2022. We’ve had all this polarization, at least in the U. S., isolation or kids have been isolated on screens for days and months on end. Depression. And then the deprofessionalization of education in the United States has become a real thing as we hit teacher shortages and people decide that teaching is too much. So, let’s just open up to anybody because we need to fill these classrooms with someone. And I feel like teachers have been just getting trampled, and administrators maybe only slightly better.

So that’s what it’s felt like. Now to give you a sense of the kind of energy that I think we could have when we’re doing sane things (not insane things), about two minutes before they shoot the gun off at 8 a.m., I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much adrenaline flowing through a person as my son as we’re about to hear a gun and 12 1500-pound bulls are released on cobblestone streets behind us, with a bunch of semi-drunk or hungover people who’ve been drinking all night running all around us. The sheer terror is about to ensue, but this is two minutes before.

My smile in this moment is not really a smile of joy. It’s just a smile that I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m doing this with my son because if something would’ve happened to him, I would feel like a horrible father if I could have dragged him out from under a bull. So I’m going along for the ride, but I am very risk averse and this is legitimately the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.
So at the end of our hour, I’ll wrap up with how this all ended up, but the goal of the run is to end up in a bull ring with the bulls, with 20,000 people in that ring cheering loudly, not for us, but for the bulls.

How do we make it feel like we’re not getting trampled by bulls? We can just focus in on feedback, engagement, and well-being, which makes the nice acronym F. E. W. We really have to start with well-being, because if educators and students aren’t well, none of the rest of it matters. Are students well? Are they engaged? And are we giving them feedback for how to get better? That’s what teaching and learning is all about. And if we do that for each student, we’re doing that for justice and flourishing.

If we lose each student because we’ve lost the trees for the forest, where we’re looking at some students or all students, but we’re missing each student, then we’re not teaching for justice and flourishing. We do this for each student and they are made in the image of God. And it’s our job to come alongside and walk with them for the time the Lord’s given us to help them become more that He’s created to be. So that’s the justice and flourishing aspect of it.

I’ll give you one quick story on that. When I was in the U. S. Department of Education, I was talking to a senior official and she was telling me that we needed to decomplexify education for educators. And when she said that, I just paused for a minute. She looked at me like, what’s wrong? And I said, “Do you mean simplify?” And she said yeah. I don’t really think decomplexify is a word, but it seemed like such a classic move by a federal bureaucrat to complicate the word simplify.

And I feel like that’s what’s being done around the world with education where more and more is being asked of educators with typically no additional resources. We just continue to spread people thinner because there’s a huge need. And so this book, Just Teaching, is meant to distill down to its essence what teaching is all about. Each chapter starts with the chapter “decomplexified” because right now most educators don’t have time to read a book. We’ve also started a podcast called Just Schools, and we’re interviewing people that are in the book and highlighting their stories.

Engagement and feedback: that’s the core of what we do in teaching. So for well-being, that’s purpose driven flourishing. It’s flourishing with wisdom undergirding it. Whether you’re in public schools or private schools, this is the goal. In Christian schools, we can be explicit about the why. And that’s pretty powerful. Engagement, I distill down to four C’s.

  • Content: you’ve got to have engaging content.
  • Consolidation: You’ve got to have time for students to consolidate that content where they can review, synthesize, integrate into their own thinking.
  • Collaboration: There’s got to be time for collaboration with educators and students with each other.
  • Creation: And then ultimately, we want to move students to content creation where they’re synthesizing new ideas and putting things together in new ways so that they’re the ones driving the learning.

And then all along the way, it functions almost like an apprenticeship where they make an attempt. They get feedback from peers or us. They make another attempt. They get more feedback and they do the beautiful work that they are called to do. So that’s the purpose driven wisdom for growth.

Ultimately, if we do those well, those should lead to schools of character where love and justice flow out of wellbeing. Humility and service flow out of engagement. Thinking quality and excellence flow out of feedback, which then lead to the personal virtues that are moral, civic, intellectual, and performance oriented.

So they ripple out from there. The idea is if we get that core, these other pieces should flow. You have educators and students who are living out these virtues in the outer ring, which is ultimately the goal of education that people would flourish and become all that they were created to be.

Simply put, feedback, engagement, and well-being equals joy. We’ve got to find ways to bring that joy back into education.

Now, there was a disturbing video that I saw in December that popped up and went viral in the U.S. There’s a student who looks like to me to be in first or second grade, and the class is in an assembly where there are a lot of adults Students are engaging in a song and some activities, and then there is a student that is completely excluded, even though the teacher is aware and looks down at her, but does not include her in any way. I wonder how much of this happens when we’re not videoing and there aren’t adults in the room. I hope this is really rare, but I fear that it’s not. This is not what just teaching is about.

Here’s an example of feedback, engagement and well-being, in a two-minute clip from the movie CODA. It was the 2022 Academy Award winner. CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and it tells the story of Ruby, who you see there in the background. She’s a senior in high school. She joins the choir her senior year because she thinks she might be interested in a boy, and she loves to sing. But she lives in a family where her mother, father, and brother cannot hear. So she’s growing up in an environment where she’s not ever gotten any feedback on whether or not she can sing. She just does it all the time. And she’s not had any affirmation that it’s a gift of hers.

Her choir director, Mr. Villalobos is talking to Ruby. So many times in movies, we get the interaction between teachers and students wrong. Even when we’re trying to elevate the teacher, it’s usually about how the teacher is working against the system. Mr. Villalobos is not the hero here. He’s just doing what good educators do. So here’s what Mr. Villalobos says.

Mr. V: You can sing. You have no control, but your tone is lovely.
Ruby: Thanks. It’s my favorite thing.
Mr. V: What are you doing next year?
Ruby: I don’t know. Working with my dad. (Her father’s a fisherman. They live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and so all she’s ever thought about is her family career of fishing.)
Mr. V: No college?
Ruby: I’m not good at school. I can’t afford school.
Mr. V: They have scholarships.
Here’s how he wraps up the conversation–this is his response to that.
Mr. V: You will need to sight read and learn a classical piece. (He’s thinking of her auditioning for an elite music school in Boston that he had graduated from.) I will need you nights and weekends. I do not waste my time. So if I’m offering, it’s because I hear something.

He doesn’t give her some long lecture. He doesn’t give her inspirational talk. He just tells her to try and then he waits. I think so often as educators, we think there’s got to be some inspirational talk or whatever, but his waiting communicates an expectation that she can do it.

So she’s engaged. He’s already given her feedback. He’s not letting her off the hook. And then she ends up expressing something more beautifully visually than I think you could put into words. You can see it floating away, all the tension and anxiety she feels, and I don’t think you could put that into words because she’s now expressed that in her heart language.

He gives her feedback: you have no control, but your tone is lovely. He’s giving her very expert feedback.  And he’s very blunt. The last thing that sometimes gets lost is the well-being piece. He’s imagining a future for her that she doesn’t even have a context for. She’s just thinking she’s going to be in a fishing family. She doesn’t even know about music schools, but she doesn’t have a vision for college. And not only does he give her a vision for it, he gives her a route for it, and he’s going to give her the support she needs to get there.

One of the things I think we do as educators is we think anything worth doing has to take tremendous effort. So therefore we try really hard. We complexify, micromanage, and overthink so that we end up burned out with none of the results we want.

Education, leadership, teaching, learning all do take effort. But how do we move into life-giving, where the most essential things can be the easiest ones? How do you focus on feedback, engagement, and well-being?

So there’s a definition that I think should drive the way we want to lead where leadership is not about us: It is about finding the easier path. It’s about engaging other people. It’s about doing the life-giving work that matters. And that’s what we want to see from a catalyst.

Are you trying to be a superhero? Here’s the reason why that’s an arrogant mindset. I’m doing important work that matters most and I have to be the one to do it, because other people will get it wrong or they won’t do it as well. That’s arrogant. That’s making the work about me, and focusing on what I have to do. Even if I’m doing it in the service of others, I’m not thinking they’re serving me. I’m thinking I am the superhero, with the messiah complex. I will come in, and I will help you fix everything.

This is unlike Mr Villalobos, who says, “You’re going to have to do the work. I will come alongside and help you. And I’m going to give you some extra time, but it’s because I hear something.” It’s not about him. It’s about how he maximizes what Ruby can do. So he’s a catalyst. That’s a confidently humble person.

I love the term, confidently humble, because as Christians, I think this is what we should be. We know there’s truth out there. We know there are answers. But we also know we don’t have all the answers for each kid. We need to engage their community, their families, themselves to help them become all they were created to be. There’s a confidence as we move forward, but there’s also a humility in knowing that it’s not about us.

Dan Duke, a sociologist observing schools, said that he sees schools functioning like a crab bucket. Now, I’ve never been crabbing, but this is what Dan Duke asserts: a crab bucket doesn’t need a lid. And that’s not because crabs can’t climb out. When a crab starts to make progress up the top, the other crabs will drag it back down. We do that a lot in schools, even in Christian schools, where we really shouldn’t be doing this. Somebody starts to get noticed for doing something well, and we tear them down. That’s a super unhealthy way to operate and it’s not the work of a catalyst.

One other encouragement I would give you: people talk about venting a lot and they feel better when they vent. If you’re venting, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Who am I venting to? Why did I pick this person? And are they going to help me reframe this so I can work toward improvement? If they’re not the right person to talk to, what’s going to happen is you’re going to feel better because you’ve dragged them down into your negative feelings. You’ve solidified those in yourself, you’ve pulled them into that muck, and you now agree that you do not like this person or you do not like this idea. That is not what we’re called to as Christians, and that’s going to be toxic to school culture.

Greg McCown wrote this book, Essentialism, 10 years ago, a New York Times bestseller. He described where you’ve got to get the small rocks out first and then put the big rocks in and then everything will fit. You’ve seen this experiment. I’ve seen sermons with this and it’s not a new idea. But what he eventually found was that life got really out of hand for him. So even though he’d gotten really good at removing the nonessential things, even the essential things were overflowing his jar.

It feels like over the last few years this has happened. So then it came to the point of like, how do we make the most essential things feel less effortful? I think effortless is a misnomer. There’s always going to be some effort, but I do think it can be life-giving effort because not everything requires the extra mile. We have to identify the things that do, put the time in there, and then release the things that don’t require the extra mile because ultimately our joy is a catalyst for student learning.

Part of that is laughing. Marcia Tate says this: “Our brains do not know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter. So just laugh.”

When we look at what gets us motivated to teach, if it’s not around feedback, engagement and well being for each student, we need to rethink what it is. I taught middle school science for years. And the sixteenth time I’d done a lab, it wasn’t the lab that got me excited. It was the engagement of students and the way they came to the lab for the first time that got me engaged and motivated in what was going on because I’m seeing it through their eyes. And that’s the key.

It’s that fun, classroom environment where we’re engaging in learning in a way that’s joyful. So is that joy there? Are you eliciting stories? Are you sharing stories and then getting students to elicit their stories, modeling gratitude, creating and elevating moments? That’s building out of Chip and Dan Heath’s book The Power of Moments.

How are you elevating things? Are you having fun and seeing whole people? Are there opportunities for that in your classroom? Look at your school. Look at your district and see where there are differences. Where are you excelling or where do you see particular teachers excelling in your school? Where are there places where there’s opportunity for growth? And where can you get some observation to learn how to do that better? Because ultimately, we want to move what we do in education from being an occupation to a profession to a vocation where we have missional professionals, particularly in Christian schools.

We should be leading the way on this. It’s not missional versus professional. It’s missional professionals who do this work really well because ultimately we get to do the best job in the world. There’s no question that the world has a deep need for education right now, and for Christians leading in that way.

And here’s the thing, there’s never been a better time to be in education because we know more about how people learn and we have more tools than ever before. But ultimately it’s not about the tools and the delivery method. It’s still this very human endeavor where it’s about us. When we do this work, it’s for the flourishing of each kid.

John Steinbeck writes in Captured Fireflies about a teacher who created in him a new thing, a new attitude, a new hunger. And he says, “I suppose that to a large extent, I’m the unsigned manuscript of that teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.” So this is the work we get called to and it’s all about the human beings that we get put in contact with.

So I’m going to wrap up with one last metaphor for what we get to do, but I didn’t want to leave you hanging. Ben and I did make it into the bull ring. I had to jump over two or three people. I’ve got a bad knee. I’m 48. I played too many years of basketball, but my knee felt like I was 16 again. I felt nothing as I ran through the streets in sheer terror with bulls running alongside and behind me.

But we made it into the bullring. So two very different experiences there. My 19-year-old was exhilarated, and I was thinking I was just grateful I was alive and that I didn’t have to tell anyone that I was injured running with bulls. So that’s where it ended.

In the end, all of us are in it for each of our students and for each other, because what we’re doing is so powerful and meaningful. There’s not a better metaphor that I’ve come across than this one: The Sequoia Redwoods in California, 2,500 years old, 300 feet tall, and over 6, 000 tons. As a science teacher, this kind of blows my mind. It feels like it should be physically impossible. The roots are only 6 to 12 feet deep, but those roots make it possible for the trees to survive because they’re interconnected. They provide support to each other. In times of drought, they even share water, they share nutrients, and that’s how they’ve existed for this long.

And so what we’re really about is growing giants. How do we grow with each other? And how do we grow students that do this?

Photo by San Fermin Pamplona – Navarra on Unsplash