Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I Don't Rehearse

The terror.

When I was younger, I was terrified of public speaking. I think like many adolescents, I was petrified to stand in front of a group of my peers and speak. I would shake, stutter, and was obviously uncomfortable whenever I had to perform in front of a group. I would rehearse, line-by-line, exactly what I wanted to do/say, and I would always draw a blank when the moment to speak arrived.

Image: Pixabay
The big turning point in my anxiety came during high school, when I performed in a jazz band. We had to improvise, on stage, and there was an entirely different preparation process. Instead of practicing, note by note, I had to take a different approach.

Of course, practice was fundamental, but it was a different kind of practice. The main music (known as the "head") had to be fluent - you couldn't think about it, it had to be a natural extension of what you do. The movements, chord progressions, and cues all needed to be second nature. Then, there was the matter of practicing scales. You had to know all the scales for each chord in the progression, and again, they had to be second nature.

Improvisation isn't just "making things up"

In essence, I had to establish a baseline of proficiency in the fundamentals. Once I had that, the improvisation, the pace, the movement from one note to the next, all came without conscious effort. I eventually reached a point where my brain knew what I could (and, more importantly, what I couldn't) do with my instrument. My muscles knew how to make happen what my brain wanted. It became less of a performance, and more of an experience. I began to ignore the crowd, and focus instead on my own process.

I've carried this lesson with me throughout my life. Any time I need to speak in public now (which is far more often than I'd ever imagined I would as a child), I follow this same process.

  1. Establish a plan. Know the material, the tool, the concept, or the core of what I'm going to be presenting. The only real way to do this is to invest the time and energy in learning it by doing.
  2. Build a solid foundation. In music, it was scales. In my career, it's personal philosophy and mission. I know what I believe, what I want to achieve, and what I feel is critical.
  3. Allow the experience to happen. I don't force it. If I feel like moving away from what I had anticipated covering, I do it. I don't allow a script to dictate with absolute authority what I will and will not do.
  4. Enjoy it. This one took a long time to learn. I still get nervous. I still shake sometimes. But instead of letting this stop me, I can now embrace it. I even share my nervousness with the people I'm presenting to. Just because I'm intimidated doesn't mean I can't have fun at the same time.
Rehearsal covers the first two elements well. It would let me establish a plan and foundation upon which to build. But it precludes the improvisational nature of public performance that I find exhilarating. I would spend more time thinking about the script than I would about the actual moment in which I was experiencing. I would, in effect, miss out on the experience.

Preparation and Rehearsal are not the same thing.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly spend time preparing. In fact, I prepare quite a lot. However, I don't worry about going "off-script" when a moment of inspiration strikes. I often move away from my prepared slides (and, in fact, I rarely make it to my final slide, since I enjoy finding a new way to reach my goals). I allow the moment, the crowd, the mood, and the room to determine what I do, just as much as I follow the plan. I never forget where I want to go, but how I get there is entirely dependent on the unique experience.
Image: Pixabay

It's not always a smashing success, certainly. But there are times when it ends up so much better than I had planned, that it's worth the risk. By focusing on myself, instead of my topic, I can present with integrity, authenticity, and enthusiasm. I'm sure I could do the same with a scripted presentation, but it wouldn't feel as natural to me.

And, in the end, I'm as much concerned with keeping my own passion afire as I am about igniting it in others.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Award or Recognition?

WARNING: This post contains abundant opinion not backed up by research or fact. It's just how I happen to feel.

On Twitter, I caught an interaction between Dean Shareski and Rafranz Davis, two educators whom I respect and admire. They were discussing the idea of awards, and how we simultaneously ask our students to ignore them while at the same time, celebrate them in popular culture.
I mentioned that recognition from someone I respect and admire would be so much more meaningful than an award from an organization that only focuses on awards as a business. Okay, I wasn't that erudite, but I only had 140 characters!

It got me thinking (which is why I admire those two so much): what is the value of each? What makes them important? Why do we emphasize recognition, and can we do it in a better way? Ultimately, my thinking brought me back to a theme central to my life. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


Young Artist Award
Image: Wikimedia Commons
They're public celebrations of achievement. They reach a wide audience. They bestow the recipient with prestige. But what makes them prestigious? There have been sites popping up, claiming to be awarding excellence in education, but with a more sinister motive: they want links to their website which will increase their advertising revenue. (I recently read a blog post about this topic, but can't find it. If you can provide a link, throw it in the comments so I can edit the post and include the info.) An award is as valuable as we make it, and no more than that. Its value is based on the perceived authority of the organization bestowing the award.


In the new economy of free exchange of ideas, recognition is a valuable asset that comes directly from your peers. Being recognized by the people you're helping as someone who can help is, in my opinion, a more satisfying feeling than receiving an award. Sure, it's not as flashy. You can't put it on the mantle. You can't throw a line in your email signature or badge your blog as "helpful person" (okay, maybe you can, but that's not really the point). Recognition comes from doing good work and being generous. This can be public, and to a wide audience, or it can just be among friends. The value doesn't come from the prestige, but instead comes from the positive change you've facilitated.


I see this as a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Awards are something you aim to get. There's a competition - not everyone can win the award. It ranks us, puts us into a hierarchy where some are more valuable than others. Sure, there are good awards out there, and I certainly am interested in following some of the award-winning educators to learn from them. Awards aren't a bad thing. In my opinion, they're just not as valuable as recognition. Being recognized as a leader comes from working with people, not in front of them. 

The big difference comes back to a conversation I often have with my parents, about the way the intellectual economy works. It's different from a financial economy - our resources are not finite, and do not lower in value the more they are dispersed. Imagine an awards show that's more than three hours long - how valuable is the prize awarded twenty minutes into the show? Does anybody really watch with baited breath, waiting to find out who wins it? I certainly don't (although I'm sure there are those who do). As we bestow more and more awards, each reduces in its perceived value. If there were only one prize handed out, it would be the focus. As we increase the number of awards, each is worth less in our minds (which, I believe, is the only place an award's value matters).

However, recognition is a different thing altogether. As we share recognition, it becomes more valuable, not less. It actually increases in value the more we dispense it. This isn't always true, since we need to respect and admire those who are doing the recognizing, but in my experience, the people I admire recognize others, and I've always gained from that recognition. I find new people, new ideas, new connections, and they tend to be people who are looking to make things better. Being recognized is not something one sets out to do - it's a reaction to what they do. And as we give out recognition, it only gets better.

Why do we do what we do?

Are we looking to win? Are we excited to stand in front of a crowd, hold up our trophy, and thank them? Or are we looking to lift others up? Stand them up in front of a crowd and thank them? In my opinion, a great leader doesn't stand and get thanked - a great leader stands up and thanks those who have helped him (or her) get to where he (or she) is today.

I'm not a great leader. Not yet. But I have people who help me every day, and I try to give back. Not because I want an award, but because I want them to succeed. As educators, we are agents of change, and ultimately, if we do a great job, we will help our students grow, succeed, and help others. We can't all win awards, but ask anyone to tell you a story about a teacher who made a difference in their life, and they'll have one. Recognition isn't public, it isn't sexy, and it doesn't sell, but in my mind, it's far more valuable than any award I could ever win.