There was a temptation to produce just one sentence and the graphic below and end this post. That might have been funny, but Simple is not that easy. Simple is difficult. Simple requires discipline. Simple is not as simple as one word.


In Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win, authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin make the point that Simple is a Law of Combat that saves lives. In combat, communication must be quick, packed with information, and clear. Simplicity is vital.

In Extreme Ownership‘s business example for Simple, two managers had devised a system of incentives for workers. Willink’s account of counseling these leaders begins with their explanation of the top two levels of data analysis in the system. There was much more to the system than this, however. The system was ineffective, and its complexity made it incomprehensible to the workers. Replacing it with a simpler system and putting more energy into communication about the system solved the problem.

We must make simplicity a priority in teaching. We might waste Day One of a school year on a list of rules and procedures and how we might grade students’ work. We could work through a syllabus and a heading for assignments and many other things. None of that matters on Day One, however. Prioritize and Execute: our first priority is to build relationships with students. Keep it Simple. On Day One, we initiate relationships, and, as the old saw reminds us, we only have one chance to make a first impression.

If students want to know our goals on Day One, we should have a simple and accurate statement of them ready to go. “Our goals are to become more self-disciplined and to increase our skill at learning.” That’s all there is to say about academic things on Day One. Get back to relationships. There will be plenty of time to explain goals, but there will not be another Day One, and Day One is for relationships.

Our broad goal in education is to unleash disciplined lifelong learners to work for peace and abundance in a chaotic world. But to help our students fulfill this vision, we need focus. We need determination. We need to be efficient and productive with time and energy in our classes and with the years our students spend with us in school.

We need to keep it Simple.

Cover and Move

The second Law of Combat from Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win is Cover and Move. The first law was Prioritize and Execute.


Extreme Ownership co-author Leif Babin gives the specific introduction to this Law of Combat by recounting an incident where he failed to Cover and Move in Ramadi, Iraq, at the squad level. After completing a “sniper overwatch” mission at the same time as another squad, Babin’s squad, which had traveled farther from the command outpost, used Cover and Move among themselves to patrol safely back to base.

When he arrived at the base, a senior non-commissioned officer confronted Babin. The NCO had observed the squad’s movements from the command outpost. He was upset because Babin did not use Cover and Move with the other squad. Cover and Move was the right way to mitigate the risk inherent in Babin’s unit’s more isolated position and longer return trip. Leaders should look for and seize every chance to coordinate movements and establish mutual support within and among the units they lead.

In Babin’s business example, a manager was upset with the poor service his team received from a different company within a large conglomerate. He had to use this company’s services because both companies were under the same corporate umbrella, but he felt the poor service was hurting customer satisfaction and leading to missed opportunities.

We must use and teach Cover and Move. We should communicate and coordinate our work with the efforts of administrators, colleagues, and parents, who share our missions at different levels. We need their support as we help our students, and these education stakeholders will need our help, too. Many times this help will take the form of communication and data.

Many of us work in systems where two or more teachers lead students into the same challenges, in the same building or in two or more buildings. There are often other systems that coincide with ours geographically: American public, parochial, and private schools often serve students in the same area. We want all students to learn, grow, and succeed, so we should be collaborating and supporting each other in pursuing these goals, regardless of our affiliations.

Cover and Move is easier than ever thanks to technology, yet many of us isolate ourselves, surviving when we could be thriving. Communication is the first step out of this situation, but lines of communication are only open if we communicate regularly. That requires a disciplined effort on our part, but it pays powerful dividends.

Cover and Move is communication, coordination, and support. The manager in Babin’s business example solved his problem by contacting the leaders in the company his team had to work with and offering to help them with their challenges. His help led to improvements at the other company and solved his problem in the process.

Yes, the examples are from combat and business. We face the same kinds of choices even if the situations are different. We take more risk than we should when we work without support. When we complain about teammates instead of offering to help them we are making excuses and wasting energy. We should seek opportunities to coordinate and collaborate at all times.

We must teach Cover and Move to our students, too. It begins with modeling it. If we do not Cover and Move — if we do not communicate, cooperate, and support in our regular practice — then our students will never do it. They are always watching and learning from us, so we must start with ourselves. Communicate regularly up and down the chain of command, with colleagues, and, of course, with parents and students. Use those lines of communication to coordinate your work with theirs, and to provide and arrange support.

Cover and Move.

Prioritize and Execute

There are four Laws of Combat presented in the book Extreme Ownership by Leif Babin and Jocko Willink: Prioritize and Execute, Cover and Move, Simple, and Decentralize Command. As we delve deeper into leadership and how we can transform our teaching into teachership, we’ll refer to these.

The Laws of Combat are clear. There’s little chance that a teacher will not recognize their clarity and correctness. Let’s discuss the first one and then commit to applying it in our practice.


In Extreme Ownership, Babin relates a story from a mission in Iraq in which he and another American warrior left their unit mid-mission to chase down a “squirter” — an occupant of a building who responded to the pressure of American and Iraqi fighting men entering that building aggressively by fleeing after the forced entry but before the Americans and Iraqis could secure all exits. After catching the fugitive, Babin and his companion surprised several armed Iraqi enemies by their presence. Babin recounts that he needed to search the captive, determine his own position, determine his unit’s position, rejoin his unit and resume command and control on the mission, and deal with the enemies who had just turned a corner and were in the process of realizing that two Americans were lurking in the shadows.

Later in the book, Willink discusses a company that was struggling to return to profitability and had planned a host of actions to accomplish that. The term “decisively engaged” entered my vocabulary at that time, but as I heard and later read the definition, I recognized it from experience. To be “decisively engaged” means that the immediate actions in which a unit engages must succeed or face disastrous failure.

I thought of Custer at Little Big Horn as well as several occasions early in my teaching career: none of those turned out well. We do not want to put ourselves in situations where we have to overcome all of multiple challenges simultaneously just to survive: we need to prioritize and overcome single challenges, starting with the most crucial.

Babin made the armed combatants confronting him his first priority. He lived to participate in the writing of an excellent book on leadership. The unprofitable company directed every department’s discretionary effort to supporting the sales force. One would hope that the authors are not hiding a failure behind what appears to be a strong decision.

But what about teachers?

We do face multiple simultaneous challenges regularly. Some of the prioritizing that must be done can be done in advance. Students’ safety is always first, followed closely by the safety of all adults in the building. Building and maintaining strong relationships within the school community, first with students and then with colleagues, is next. Once these things are in order, it’s time to start looking at the implicit and explicit curricula students encounter.

At any given time, a teacher may also have to address a hodgepodge of competing priorities. For example, a student may have difficulty engaging in class activities after being a solid performer earlier in the year, students may await feedback on tests taken Thursday (and it’s Sunday night), a class may have a field trip planned for Wednesday and several bureaucratic tasks might remain to be done, and lesson plans for the week are not yet complete. This is to say nothing of our duties to ourselves and our families.

We must prioritize and execute just like any soldier in combat or business facing stiff competition. We must not be decisively engaged in multiple tasks. The stakes are too high for us to put ourselves in that position.

There is another reason we must prioritize and execute: our students are watching us. They know we have tough jobs. They are trying to manage parts of their own lives and failing (and learning) all the time. They know that their struggles with life and learning are important to us and that we have a hundred or more students to lead. Our approach to our own sets of simultaneous problems will be a crucial part of their learning, and this is one of those “soft skills” we’ve been discussing in recent years. It’s more important than content: if students can prioritize and execute, then they can improve as learners, and that is a win for everyone.

In a future post, I will explore how we can teach Prioritize and Execute to our students and get them to add Prioritize and Execute to their own problem-solving arsenals. That teaching, however, will fail unless our students see us trying and succeeding in applying it to our own situations. Successful actions inspire imitation and get students to learn independently. That is the best way to learn, if we can foster it.

When you face multiple simultaneous challenges and feel you are approaching “decisive engagement,” take a breath and asses the situation, select the most important and urgent task that you face, and do it. Review the remaining tasks, identify the most important and urgent task that remains and do that. Repeat. You will overcome obstacles and drive your work to success with this approach.

Do not deceive yourself into “multi-tasking.” What we call “multi-tasking” is “fast switching” between two tasks and is a sure pathway to decisive engagement. Dividing your attention among multiple tasks is a recipe for disaster. Focus and get after it.

Prioritize and execute.

First Check: Believe in the Mission

Leaders have to believe in the team’s mission and inspire teammates to accomplish that mission. Teachers are leaders. We have to inspire our students to accomplish the missions of our classes. We have to help them believe.


Chapter 3 of Extreme Ownership discusses a mission that commanding officer Jocko Willink had to sell to his task force of SEALs, one that was initially very unpopular with everyone. Higher-ranking officers had issued the order for that mission to Willink, and he had to find a way to believe in it and inspire his SEALs to accept the risks that the mission asked them to take.

My leaders want me to establish in my students strong conceptual and practical foundations for using and learning mathematics. That is very broad, which is good. The breadth of that mandate gives me freedom to devise a mission that fits my vision of what my students should become and which drives my practice in the direction I desire.

That might sound self-centered, but it fits my answer to the question “Why teach?” I teach to be the best teacher that I can be. This means that I need to assure not only my students’ growth and learning, but my own. I want to serve my students, but the overused phrase “for the children” does not explain why I am a teacher. I like teaching and supporting young people as they grow and improve. I teach so that I can help kids become learners. If I didn’t like teaching on my own account, I would begin searching for a new line of work.

I want my students to move as far as they can along Bloom’s taxonomy. They need to acquire an arsenal of facts, formulas, and concepts and remember all of them for at least several years, depending on their vocational choices. My students need to understand the facts, formulas, and concepts in that arsenal, and they must learn when and how to apply them.

Working at the three higher levels of the taxonomy will give their knowledge more permanence and depth. I want them to analyze relationships among the concepts they learn and link those concepts to other subjects. I want them to compare the concepts they learn to other things that they have learned or are learning. I want them to create illustrations, demonstrations, and tools using this knowledge.

Before the year starts, I have to prepare to get my leaders, my colleagues, and my students (and possibly their parents) to believe in the mission. I must distill the broad mandate I have from my leaders into a specific mission. I must propose that mission to my leaders and colleagues and secure their support. Then I will need to plan the process by which I will help my students believe in the mission and accept the challenge.

I have some mission development work to do. Check this blog for updates on my progress.

Inspiration for Teachership

extremeownershipI began studying leadership in 2017. I was an official student of school leadership for a few years in a graduate program, but as I only did it with the vague idea of gaining a credential and no sense of purpose, I won’t count those years. Yes, my twentieth year is rather late for me to start studying leadership, but it is good that I began, regardless of the timing.

I found a YouTube video by a favorite presenter of mine about a Navy SEAL commander who had led an urban combat operation in Iraq that ended in a “friendly fire” incident: his troops ended up shooting at each other. The officer had to account for the problems that led to this disaster and assign blame. The presenter explained that the officer had outlined all of the problems and given his SEALs a chance to own them, and then told each of his men that “You are not to blame.”

Then he announced to everyone in the room — his commanding officer, the investigators, and his own men — that he was to blame. He was the leader, and if outcomes were less than satisfactory, it was his fault. This didn’t mean that mistakes weren’t made by others, it just meant that he was not going to shift the blame to his men: he was going to fix the problems.

The SEAL officer’s name is Jocko Willink, and he and one of his fellow SEAL officers, Leif Babin, wrote a book about leadership: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.

I bought the audiobook and began listening. After listening to it twelve times over eight months, I bought the hardcover and took my highlighters to it.

The first thing I learned from this book was that every person leads, whether that person leads a large corporation just oneself. Implicit in that is, of course, that one cannot lead a team without leading oneself. The principles I present here — at least, in the beginning — are based on my understanding of combat leadership principles presented in this book. Extreme Ownership is the inspiration for beginning to study leadership and the book that inspires this blog.

The Media on Education 20180529

Teachership is not just about principles and practices in the classroom. Other people are writing about education. Let’s do some critical thinking about what they write, shall we?

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Today’s selection is from U.S. News and World Report, dated 28 May 2018, labeled “Commentary.” The article is by “The Hechinger Report,” with the title “The Growing Achievement Gap: Income inequality is exacerbating the gap between rich and poor school children.

The article opens with this: “Kids arrive at school with large achievement gaps between rich and poor, and that achievement gap grows over the summer.” We’ll ignore that “gaps” became “that … gap,” because there are bigger fish to fry here. The commentary does not provide facts that support what they meant to say. This is apparently a premise.

The article announces that “two new studies show that the summer learning gap between the lower and middle classes may be narrowing while the rich surge ahead of everyone.” Note that “the rich” are separate from “everyone,” but “everyone” is in the lower or middle classes.

The authors started with a statement about gaps that exist when students arrive at school. They then asserted that the gaps grow. What happened to the gap during the school year? What was the gap when the students left for the summer?

The first study the authors address concerned kindergarten students in 2010-11. These students are now entering seventh grade. Apparently there was a gap between lower and middle class kids. Middle class kids didn’t appear in the first statement at all. Where do they fit? Am I to assume that middle class kids and poor kids are experiencing similar results, which are  diverging more from those of wealthy kids? The categories are muddled, and I am left to assume much.

The next statement that grabs me is “By many measures, poor kids participated in fewer educationally enriching activities over the summer than middle class and wealthy kids.” I feel the authors ought to give us a contrast for perspective. Which “many measures” are we discussing? Can we have an example of a measure that produced a contrary result? The examples listed in the article are summer camp, cultural outings, “an art gallery, a museum, or a historical site,” as well as “a concert or a play.”

Did anyone send this checklist home with the kids in June, so that parents could get with the program? Do the kids live near such things? Kids in Montana might struggle to tour Civil War battlefields. Are we likely to find an art gallery or museum near low-income neighborhoods? Could it be that poorer folks had to trim budgets in 2011 and cut back on cultural outings?

Next: “More than half of rich and middle-class parents said they read to their children every day during the summer. Fewer than 40 percent of poor kids’ parents did so.” Why do parents read more or less to their kids? Why would poor kids’ parents read less to them? It seems that we are left to assume that if the parents had more money, then they would read more to their kids.

Not everything in these studies matched the authors’ preconceptions: “But there were surprises too. A larger subset of poor families than non-poor families said they had their children work on math and writing activities every day.” Categories remain vague. Poor kids’ parents are mean: “We won’t send you to camp or introduce you to our culture, but we’ll make you write your letters and do math!”

Now we encounter a fragment and a sentence bearing news the authors seem to welcome: “A couple of pieces of egalitarian news: three-quarters of kids played outside every day, regardless of household income. And one-third of kindergarten graduates of all income levels looked at or read books every day.” These statistics are not good news to me. Four quarters of kids should be playing outside every day. Three thirds of kindergarten graduates should be looking at or reading books every day. These statements herald a less-literate generation with insufficient vitamin D. Distributing deficiency equally is still distributing deficiency.

The authors drop a bomb on us in the next paragraph: “The last time [the National Center for Education Statistics] studied how kindergarten students spent their summer, in the summer of 1999, the questions were slightly different.” What could we possibly do to alleviate problems based on such infrequent and out-of-date analysis? Is this problem even important? Important problems merit constant investigation, not a check-in every decade or so.

Here is good news from the article, as out of date as it is: parents in 2011 were more likely to participate in activities with their children than parents in 1999. Note again that the authors have stopped separating the families into categories of relative wealth, and there are no data in this article to suggest a reason for this change.

Now that we are two-thirds of the way through the article, the authors are ready to tell us how the 2011 NCES study addressed economic differences. “All the non-poor children are lumped together, be they middle, upper-middle, or upper class, and their summer experiences are all averaged into one number.”

I have a confession to make. I read the entire article before starting to write this. Why did I act like I did not? To make a point about articles like this one: if you want to draw conclusions from such commentary, you must read the article carefully and to the end. Why am I making that point? Because most people do not read entire articles, particularly at news websites. They read enough to confirm their biases or to determine that they don’t agree with the authors, and move on. The authors or the editors know this, so they bury anything that might help to cure confirmation bias late in the piece.

Remember that there were two studies. The second is not by the bureaucrats at NCES, but by researchers at UC-Berkeley and Colorado State University and published in the American Sociological Review. Our authors report that these researchers report a divergence in parental investment over the last forty years — that’s 1978 to 2018, or so — driven by increased spending by the most affluent Americans on education and enrichment.

Is this so shocking? Have the authors also noted the increase in the price of higher education, and what people are paying for degrees? Were the resources involved and the money adjusted for fluctuations in prices for cultural outings and other educational investments? Is anyone studying the actual achievement or economic value — not necessarily the same thing — created by the investment of these additional dollars? This is a sociological study, not an economic study, so the answer to that question is “no.”

Okay, here’s one that will chap any decent math or science teacher’s hide: “They also found that this increase in parental investment in children was directly related to growing income inequality. That is, in states where income inequality grew a lot, so did disparities in parental investments. The higher the income inequality, the larger share of their income rich people spent on their children.”

This paragraph asserts a correlation between “parental investment” and “income inequality,” but we know that correlation and cause are not identical. Are the authors claiming that, in states where the gap between the “rich” and the “poor” is growing, the “rich” are exacerbating it by spending a greater portion of their income on their kids? If so, then it’s not “income inequality” that exacerbates the “achievement gap”: it is rich parents who choose to spend their wealth not on themselves but on their children.

I know this is true. I’m living it. My wife works at a summer science camp that we could not otherwise afford for our children. We planned a vacation for our daughters to see a sunrise over the Atlantic and then took them on an expensive aquarium adventure. We make sure our daughters have access to technology and know how to use it. We will refurbish an old piano soon and hire a piano teacher for them. We paid for our kids to take a seven-month tumbling course. My wife will continue to work in a Catholic school next year, but I will not, because I want to make more money. Why? So we can spend a lot of it on my kids, so that my children will be as far from “poor” in the future as they want to be.

The rest of the article repeats this warning that rich people are exacerbating income inequality by investing in their children.

I will conclude each of these reviews with a summary reaction, pretending a student submitted this article to me for a grade:

“Please tighten up your reasoning by limiting your assumptions and making them more explicit. Avoid disguising advocacy as factual reporting. If this is an essay with a call to action, then write it that way. Establish clear definitions early in the piece for your categories. Finally, make the timelines for your data more explicit. You may come to me or send an e-mail to me with any questions until 5:00 PM Friday. If I do not receive a revised article by Monday morning at least five minutes before classes begin, then the grade will be F.”

Ownership and Teachership

I know. The tag-line on my website’s title looks pretty brutal:

There are no bad classes — only bad teachers.

I mean it. The most important factor in the success of any class is the teacher, and the teacher is responsible for the instruction, the leadership, and the outcomes in the teacher’s classroom.

Every teacher makes mistakes. The mistakes we make are deficiencies in self-discipline, competence, and communication. Every mistake fits into one of these categories.

It’s easy to find a bad teacher: just look for the teacher who never makes mistakes. They identify themselves. When students refuse — actively or passively — to engage in learning activities, the teacher will identify every possible reason for this except the obvious one:  the teacher. The teacher is the leader. The teacher is responsible for everything that happens in the class.

When students begin a class, they are hoping for various outcomes. They are hoping to receive certain grades. They are hoping the class will be interesting. They hope the class will not increase the stress in their lives. They hope the class will not waste time. None of these facts make the students bad people: this is how most people approach required experiences. Most people do not take the optimal approach to anything, and this is even less so when an experience is mandatory. For most of us, someone must lead us well if we are to have a good experience in that situation.

We teachers have a challenge in addressing students’ hopes. The teacher must have and communicate a way of assigning grades that ties the grade to students’ effort, improvement, and competence. The teacher has to engage students in discussions that stimulate thought and challenge preconceptions about content. The teacher has to induce stress that is sufficient to stimulate growth and learning, but not so excessive that students abandon hope. Finally, the teacher has to lead the class — the pace has to be efficient and students have to believe that they are working at worthwhile tasks.

The best teachers do most of this most of the time. They are my heroes, and their students admire and love them. Good teachers are trying to do most of this some of the time, and their students respect them because these teachers do enough of this to demonstrate competence and commitment, and they do it with humility. The bad teachers, however, are sure they do all of these things all of the time, and, when the class fails to learn, they make excuses and blame others.

The difference between bad teachers and other teachers is ownership. The best way to understand ownership in this sense is to consider how people treat resources they do not own. Consider rental cars. Most people don’t treat rental cars as well as they treat their own cars. They don’t worry about how clean they are or drive them as carefully. The outcome is … well, let comedian Jeff Foxworthy explain it:

Most people are not all people, of course. Some people treat rental cars like their cars — they keep them clean, they drive defensively, and they minimize risk. This is ownership. They don’t own the cars, but they have made a decision to treat the cars as though they did. The resulting experience is ideal for everyone. Ownership is good, and if someone owns something, then they will care for it.

The best teachers own everything in their classrooms and probably everywhere else in their worlds. I’ve been blessed to work with several of these. When things don’t go as well as they hope — it happens to everyone — they assess themselves and change course humbly and with determination. They own and acknowledge everything that did not go well, and they commit to improvement. This is not a guarantee that all students will learn content well and have ideal experiences in these teachers’ classes. Students have flaws, too, and some enter some classes determined to be dissatisfied.

Good teachers make more mistakes than the best, and, like the best teachers, they take ownership of these mistakes and work to correct them. They own everything in their classrooms, and, while they are not the best teachers, they are trying to do better work. Students like these teachers, to varying degrees, but only the most callous students fail to respect them.

Bad teachers believe they own everything in their classrooms, but when it’s time to account for failure and error and commit to improvement, they own nothing. The students, the parents, the principal, and the other teachers have acted to frustrate the bad teacher’s amazing plans. The only person who has not made any crucial mistakes is the teacher.

When students identify a teacher as a bad teacher, they act individually to fulfill their hopes. Some students try to secure the grades they want by ingratiating themselves with a teacher who cannot deliver instruction but does fill out a grade-book. Others will begin conducting experiments, making class more interesting by providing behavioral stimuli and then observing the responses of the teacher. Still others will just behave well, do their work, and stay quiet. They won’t lead their classmates or seek challenges, and they won’t help the teacher. They want the class to end soon and quietly.

All of the students will dislike the class and the teacher, because they will be quite sure that going to this class is wasting time.

The good news is that the cure for this is leading and mentoring the bad teacher to become good, or, if the bad teacher resists, replacing the bad teacher with a good teacher. The students will respond to either improvement with engagement, learning, and growth, because there is no such thing as a bad class. Every class needs a good teacher.

Good teachers take ownership of everything in their work.

Bad teachers own only what they believe makes them look good.

There are no bad classes — only bad teachers.