Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Justice People

Justice People

Dr. Jonathan T. Jefferson

just·tice 1: just or right action or treatment …4: the quality of being fair or just

                Approximately a dozen years ago someone called me a “Justice Person.”  It was the first, and only, time I ever heard that description.  At that time I was agitated by the unfair treatment someone else was receiving.  No, I don’t remember what it was in reference to, but in retrospect the description suits me well. 
During the summer of 1999, when I was a teacher and high school cross country coach in New York, my superintendent refused to allow me to take my team to South Carolina for an invitational cross country meet.  We were to be joined by two other local schools, and many college coaches were scheduled to be present.  Initially, the superintendent stated that he did not want students missing school.  I respected his wishes, and changed the teams travel arrangements so that our flight left after school on a Friday; instead of during school on a Thursday.  Once again, the superintendent denied the trip.  This time he stated that the student-athletes should run in the Empire State Games in upstate, New York.  Now the justice person in me was awakened.  We had fund-raised for this trip, so there was no cost to the school district.  There was no high school cross country races in the Empire State Games.  Also, college cross country coaches would not be there in mass evaluating talent.  I suspected the superintendent had a less than ethical reason to deny my request.  I could not prove this, but I wrote him a lengthy letter expressing my displeasure.  Hence, one of the characteristics of a justice person is that they would never hesitate to confront superiors within an organization.
As a school district administrator in a public school district, I am able to observe many attributes of teachers within my department.  There are those who routinely go the extra mile, others who smile at me joyfully while neglecting their teaching responsibilities, and still others with illusions of grandeur.  All in all, they are no different than individuals in any organization.  Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find another justice person within my department.
Todd (name changed to protect the just) is one of those teachers who readily go the extra mile when asked.  He does not request to be paid extra for his time, nor does he expect an exorbitant amount of time to complete less than overwhelming tasks.  Todd contributes for the betterment of the school district, and the students he serves.  How do I know Todd is a justice person?  The requirements for being exempted from hall duty were very lax.  This year his principal decided to tighten the requirements for exemption to make sure enough teachers were in the halls to assist with maintaining the school’s overall functioning.  As in the past, teachers who were exempted for doing practically nothing in the grand scheme of things requested continued favorable treatment.  The principal held firm, but did decide to allow two teachers from each department to have an exemption.  Without conferring with their colleagues, two teachers from Todd’s department volunteered themselves for the exemptions.  Todd, who has his hands full running one of his school’s clubs at no cost, asked his principal what criteria she used to allow their exemptions.  Without explanation or provocation, Todd found himself on the defensive.
To Todd’s surprise, his principal stated that his department, physical education, does not have the same level of responsibilities as other departments.  She actually said this to a man who works in the most dangerous area of her school, the pool, and has made dozens of lifeguard rescues over the years, trained countless school personnel in first aid and CPR, and taught hundreds of students how to be lifeguards.  His principal was also oblivious to the fact that the PE department also conducted pre and post tests for Student Learning Objectives based exams.  Why the criticism?  Todd may never get an explanation for this as I have yet to hear a sound reason for why my team was not allowed to travel to South Carolina.
Unfortunately, the injustice Todd experienced only grew worse when he tried to have the matter of department exemptions addressed by his colleagues.  Many of them agreed with him in private, and turned around to do everything possible to disparage the discussion at a department meeting.  One who agreed with him acted as if he did not care, and made motion to exit the meeting post haste, another inquired why there was even an attempt to discuss the matter since it was up to their principal, and only one said he would love to be exempt as he exited the meeting.  The rest remained quiet.  Unfortunately, weak individuals put friendships and loyalties ahead of fairness and reasonable professional discourse.

Worry not Todd.  There are other justice people out there who appreciate your integrity, fearlessness, and desire to do what is fair for all.  Do not allow the frailties of others to determine your personal way of being.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Letter to Student-Athletes

October 14, 2014

Dear High School Student-Athlete:

There are many reasons to participate on a high school sports team.  Movement is the only way to nourish your brain.  A coach can be another adult in your life who wants you to succeed.  Your teammates become friends for life, and what’s cooler than representing your community?

In the New York Times bestselling book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Harvard Professor John J. Ratey, MD, it was reported that three months of exercise increased blood flow to the brain’s memory and learning areas by 30%.  There you have it.  The science behind why student-athletes outperform the general school population academically.  Athletes are also most likely to succeed in college and their chosen profession.  “Dumb jock?”  Don’t believe the myth!

When I was in high school (soon after Noah’s flood), I became bored during my sophomore year.  My grades were fine, but I wanted to quit school to experience more adventures in life.  The day I planned to drop-out, my PE teacher asked me to join his track team.  It was just the injection of adventure I needed.  To challenge myself to run faster, and to try to jump higher and farther every day was thrilling.  My coach spoke quiet words of wisdom as needed, and the thought of not finishing school never again crossed my mind.  Before graduating, I experienced the thrill of running on one of New York City’s best 3200 meter relay teams!

The teammates I met nearly 30 years ago are friends of mine to this day.  They are engineers, attorneys, police officers, civil servants, and great parents!  If I need expert advice, I know who to call.  When my spirits are down, they are there to lift me up.  I could not imagine growing old without them.  We were soldiers on the same high school battle grounds, so they know where I’m coming from.

For all of the above reasons, and many more, your participation on one of our high school teams will benefit you in ways yet to be revealed.  I support your continued growth, and will remain a resource for you as long as I walk this earth.  I’m confident your coaches will do the same.

Sincerely,

Jonathan T. Jefferson, Ed.D.

Director of Health, PE, & Athletics

Friday, August 22, 2014

Energy

Energy

By Jonathan T. Jefferson

“Where attention goes energy flows.”  While I’d heard this saying often enough, I didn’t begin to truly digest its meaning until I was in my mid-twenties.  Nearly 20 years later, the application of energy began to re-invade my thoughts while watching the World Cup soccer games this summer – particularly the manner in which the wailing and tearful Brazilians observed the pinnacle of their soccer empire get thoroughly dismantled by the German machine.  Brazil’s grief was soon matched by their arch rivals, Argentina, who would go on to lose to Germany in the World Cup finals. 

To grasp my position on the topic of “energy”, a brief glimpse into my maturation may prove enlightening.  Before graduating college, I had already dispensed with some of the follies of mankind’s design.  I no longer subscribed to any religion or held any political party affiliation.  This wasn’t the result of elite higher-educational programming, but because I never stopped asking the question “why?” 

It was not until graduate school that additional follies such as sports and race also landed in the unnecessary distractions corner of my mind.  Yet don’t be mistaken, this does not mean I take civic shortcuts:  I vote during most elections, I watch sports more than I’d like to, and I act against prejudice and discrimination how I deem best.  The point, however, is that I do not apply undue energy to any of these areas.  As a result, I’m never the person you’d observe crying over their outcomes.

During my early twenties, I was still lacking spiritual enlightenment.  On the subject of “God”, I created the following personal statement:
I believe in something.  I believe there is something in existence that we have not yet discovered, or that has not yet allowed us to discover it.  This something is not necessarily singular, plural, good or bad.  What is it?  I don’t know.

It became obvious to me that many of mankind’s beliefs come from a collective inability to accept the discomforting uncertainty of the not-knowing.  Living by my personal statement left me open to receive information from a universe of sources.  Hence, as previously mentioned, my epiphany regarding “energy” emerged during my mid-twenties.

Ultimately, I’ve come to maintain that there is not much difference between religion, sports, and political parties.  Each has their devout followers (fanatics), leaders, houses of worship (church/stadium), etc.  For the purposes of this article, I will focus on sports.   How do most people choose a sports team to follow?  Like religion and politics it is likely the result of parental emulation, or communal socialization based on the community in which one lives.  In other instances, a fan may inherit a team if it happens to receive the most media exposure at the time of enlightenment.  For example, when I became aware of baseball, the Yankees were back-to-back champs, and Reggie Jackson had recently become “Mr. October.”  Such overwhelming popularity pulled me into the fan fray.
 
So what does this have to do with energy?  Have you ever wondered where the burst of energy comes from when a crowd erupts into cheers while jumping to their feet?  Does a ball going in a basket, scaling a fence, or entering a goal really emit enough energy to make an entire nation explode with excitement?  Of course a ball doesn’t have that amount of energy.  Think of the yin and yang symbol, and the fact that each action has an equal reaction.  The energy then comes from the opposing team’s fans.  At the very moment that one team’s fans erupt with joy, the opposing fans sink with disappointment.  This exchange of energy is easily observable in crowds divided with both teams’ fans.

This one way exchange of energy is temporary and potentially destructive.  There were riots in Argentina after their team lost in the World Cup final.  I certainly don’t need to discuss the wars that religions have caused, or the stalemate that two party politics has caused to solidify my point.  Sports are a win or lose proposition.  The benefits of sports, like the benefits of religion and democracy, must be taught.  The best teaching is by example.

I was a successful high school middle distance runner, but I never cried when I was defeated.  The other runner (or runners) was simply better on that day.  My functional approach was to congratulate them, thank them for competing, and keep life moving forward.  I was also a successful middle school and high school track coach.  Win or lose, my charges and I were able to enjoy the bus rides home.  The way I was as an athlete resonated through me as a coach.  My runners trained hard, competed at their best, and marched on with life win, lose or draw.

If too much attention/energy is focused on the hopes for a favorable outcome to an event, a negative outcome can lead to sorrow, depression, and rage.  Too many fans and officials have lost their lives due to sporting event outcomes.  Have we forgotten about the Columbian soccer player (Escobar) who was murdered after the 1994 World Cup for mistakenly scoring a goal for an opposing team?

As an athletic director, however ironic, I don’t believe in the concept of a “big game”.  Too often people ask me if I’m going to the big game.  So as not to explain my position each time, I simply respond “yes” or “no”.   Not even the NFL Super Bowl is a big game.  I do believe a game can be big in scale, but not big in importance.  That applies to the FIFA World Cup as well.  In my book, “important” and “game” have little reason to appear in the same sentence.

Ultimately, we can all gain lasting energy by attending to arrangements of a more win–win nature.  Volunteer at a hospital, plant trees, help a neighbor shovel heavy snow, etc.  If an activity brings you satisfaction while lifting another’s spirit, it is a synergistic sharing of energy; in these circumstances 1 + 1 = 3. 


In the final analysis, it’s the sport of life that ultimately makes the difference.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the Brain

By Jonathan Jefferson

“SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, MD is the one book that all educators must read to fully understand the inseparable connection between exercise and the brain’s ability to acquire knowledge.  Long before this well structured, research-based book was released in 2008, I had admonished my colleagues that it was a misnomer to equate academic learning and exercise as two separate spheres if for no other reason than that the brain can only receive nourishment through movement.  Movement increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain priming it for the development of new neuron-passage ways.  Recent studies have also shown that coordinated movement (e.g. dance, martial arts, & yoga) are the most effective “steroids” for the brain.

Why is this topic important?  Far too often we find well-intentioned educators unwittingly act on assumptions which are too detached from prevailing research to be anything but ineffectual.  Having students engage in physical activity before classes and exams is much more beneficial than having them sit quietly and read.  However, the “control freaks” contingency of educators are disinclined to relinquish their illusion of control, which ultimately contributes to the detriment of student performance.  Let us truly put kids first and embrace the maxim of doing what is best for them; not what is most convenient for the adults.

Dr. Ratey thoroughly shared the success of Naperville Illinois’ school district in his book.  This district is lead by their physical education and wellness program.  On the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Naperville’s eighth graders placed sixth in the world in math and first in science.  He also reported that in Naperville students are deliberately scheduled for their most difficult classes following physical education class.  This is done to take advantage of their brain’s readiness to learn at that time.  Imagine that; a striving school district actually applying proven research to a successful end.

I am not surprised that “SPARK” is a best seller.  The research shared explains the benefits of exercise on stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal changes, aging, and learning.  There is something for everyone, and acting on the research shared can improve the quality of life for many.


In addition to this fine work, another great read specific to movement and the brain is Math and Movement by Suzy Koontz.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bullying

Bullying

Dr. Jonathan T. Jefferson

“Never be bullied into silence.  Never allow yourself to be made a victim.  Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.” – Harvey S. Firestone

Chapter three of my book MUGAMORE begins with the above quote.  Bullying is one of the topics touched upon in that chapter, which is based on true personal accounts experienced during the 1976 – 77 school-year.  Believe it or not, as I keenly look back on my third-grade experiences, I believe the merciless physical and verbal abuse endured may have inadvertently led to beneficial outcomes in the trajectory of my life.
  
 How, you might ask, could being bullied have possibly produced positive outcomes?

Well, let’s consider that I had just been transferred from my neighborhood school to a higher performing school ten miles away.  As a late-year baby (November), I began kindergarten at age four.  I was physically smaller than most of the other children; especially the boys, and now I was academically smaller as well.  Canadian hockey fans know the benefits of being born earlier in the year (author Malcolm Gladwell gives extensive attention to this topic in his book Outliers).  In my case, consistent fear for my physical well-being made focusing on third-grade academics difficult at best.  After a miserable school-year fraught with repeated absences, I was back in the third grade the following school-year (’77-’78).  However, the gift of retrospect maintains that this was the best thing that could have happened to me.  During my second third-grade stint I found the other children were more my size -- physically and academically.  Consequently, I quickly found my stride and soon after began to thrive above and beyond expectations.

Clearly, I am not a proponent of bullying, nor am I promoting it as a path to some greater end-game.  It was just a coincidence that it contributed to a pivotal decision made for me by a concerned teacher.  The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) that became a law in New York State on July 1, 2012 is a step in the right direction.  It “…seeks to provide the State’s students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.”  To make this law complete, employees of the school system should have been afforded the additional protections (no intimidation, no taunting, & no bullying), and statements against cyber bullying should have been included.


To learn more about what you can do to contribute to a bully-free society, visit the following sites: www.bullying.orgwww.cyberbullying.ca, and www.bullyingawarenessweek.org. There are a growing number of resources available on this topic.  Hopefully, in the near future, no child will need to experience the perils I did my first year in third grade.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

I Never Took an SAT Exam

I Never Took an SAT Exam
By
Jonathan T. Jefferson

How better to make my point than to share my own experiences?  I am not a fan of college admissions tests, and find it absurd the amount of time and money spent preparing for them.  The “haves” can spend the money while the “have-nots” cannot.  This does not make the haves smarter than the have-nots; just more aware of the strategies employed to help maximize their test scores on a specific test.  The new SAT tests (2016) will try to balance this equation by giving have-nots access to similar test strategy training.  After all; civility, social ability, mechanical inclinations, and creativity are only secondary considerations for colleges that rely on admissions tests.

Back in 1986, I arrived at my high school one day with no knowledge of an exam being given that morning.  My 11th grade peers were equally in the dark when we were told our first two class periods were canceled so that we could take an exam called a PSAT.  We shrugged in unison when it was explained to us that this was a practice SAT exam.  No big deal.  If they want us to practice, we’ll practice.  Without preparation, or excess stress, we took the exam and went about our day.  Several weeks later we received results that did not appear to count toward anything, so the exam was quickly forgotten.

Spring ahead 20 years to 2006, and the PSAT has become as prepared for and stressed over as the SAT.  There are merit scholarships attached to PSAT results, and the cavalier attitude my generation had toward that test is long gone.  Also of note is the fact that 20 years after taking a PSAT, I was finishing my fourth college degree.  My route to a doctorate was atypical.  I never took an SAT, but earned my Bachelor of Science degree with honors.  I never took a GRE, but earned my Master of Education and Advanced Certificate degrees with Distinction.

Aware of my past successes without standardized admissions tests, I asked the head of the doctorate program I applied for in 2002 to wave the MAT requirement.  He refused, so I begrudgingly took the MAT.  I did so without preparing, and did not score high enough to meet the doctorate program’s requirement (despite three college degrees).  The department head accepted me in the doctorate program along with 30 others, but required me to re-take the MAT.  I practiced my analogies by adding my dollars to the pockets of a test prep book publisher, and easily scored high enough the second time around.  If the test had any merit, being the last of the 30 cohort members to qualify should have resulted in me being one of the last to complete his doctorate.  Reality was much different.  I was the second one in my cohort to complete his doctorate.


As a New York City public school student, admission to City University of New York colleges was determined by high school transcripts.  The graduate schools I attended; Springfield College and Mercy College also made determinations based on my college transcript.  I’m sure I would have performed just as well in my doctorate program if I had never heard of, or took, the MAT.  Are we doing students an injustice by valuing standardized tests ahead of years of study?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Effective Leadership: The Importance of Protocol

Effective Leadership:
The Importance of Protocol
By
Jonathan T. Jefferson
                Ineffective leadership is reactionary.  There are other forms that ineffectual leadership takes, but this essay will focus on reactionary people in leadership positions who do not understand the importance of protocol.  Protocol can be defined as “the official procedure or system of rules governing affairs of state or diplomatic occasions.”
                The following scenarios are based on true accounts, but the perpetrators will remain nameless.  A school district superintendent recommends cuts to the school district’s budget for the following school year.  He explains to his board of education that the cuts come from every department to be fair.  Student participation, and per pupil cost, are taken into consideration.  A parent of a child on the middle school bowling team is disappointed that the bowling team has been cut.  This parent speaks to a board of education member who happens to be her neighbor.  Said board member calls the superintendent to inquire about the bowling team.  Instead of explaining the legitimate reasons why the bowling team was eliminated, the superintendent feigns ignorance, and directs his business administrator, and athletic director, to reinstate the program.  Clearly, this is not leadership, but reacting in fear to one voice from the community.
                What would proper protocol have been in the above scenario?  Firstly, board members have no authority acting independently.  Board members must act as a unit (board of education) to monitor, and set, school district policies that do not violate their state’s department of education mandates and laws.  The board member could have told the parent that he would revisit the issue the next time the board met.  The superintendent could have reminded the board member that his budget was approved by the board, and that the matter could be readdressed during their next budget meeting.  The manner in which the superintendent reacted led to the reinstatement of another team later that school year when one parent inquired about that team at a PTA function.  Leadership requires making decisions that will not please everyone, and having the conviction to defend those decisions.
                In this scenario, a teacher learns that she is being transferred to another school, and decides to fight the transfer by speaking with a board member who happens to be a retired principal of her school.  This board member speaks to the superintendent, and the superintendent immediately calls his assistant superintendents, and department director, to tell them to reconsider the transfer.  The department director, who does have the courage to defend his decisions, explained to the superintendent that the decision was made in the best interest of instruction after meetings with the principals of both schools.
                Once again, a weak reactionary person in a leadership position can cause chaos by ignoring protocol.  If this teacher were to be successful at thwarting a transfer, what authority would her principal or directors have in future dealings with her?   Especially disturbing is the fact that a former principal (now board member) would act in a manner that would undermine the current principal.  This board member should have told the teacher that the decision was within the unilateral purview of the school administrators.  An effective superintendent would have politely reminded the board member of the proper protocol in place (if any) to appeal such decision in this instance.
                As a school district administrator, the most effective superintendent I have had the pleasure of working with was a former Marine.  She believed fully in the benefits of protocol, and held everyone to it.  If a member of the community raised an issue at a board meeting, she would redirect them to the appropriate administrator and through the appropriate channels for such matter to be addressed.  She was a stickler for following through with her decisions, and never backed down or shied away from the procedural soundness of her decisions when questioned.  Through courage, conviction and commitment to community (rather than personal) objectives, this former marine more effectively managed a nine member board than the inept superintendent worked with his five.