Lean On!

The script of Arjan’s Ignite! speech delivered at the NCSM National Conference on April 13, 2016:

So—it’s 1980 and I get my first teaching job, and I’m loving it.

I go to the principal. “I’d like to go into a class with a really experienced teacher and learn,” I say. He agrees; we talk with the teacher. It’s set.

A few weeks later the time comes and I walk into Mr. C’s room. I’m excited. He’s shooting daggers at me.

Mr. C: “What are you doing in here? You spying on me?”

Me: “Today’s the day. We arranged this in Dr. L’s office.”

Mr. C: “Yeah, well that was his office. This is not how we roll around here. Don’t lean on me.”

So—fast forward to 2016. Last month. In class coaching in a regional project.

Teachers tell me consistently: they don’t visit each other’s classrooms. The only person who visits is the principal, maybe once a year, to do an evaluation.

So I ask a principal in our project, “Have you thought of having teachers visit each other’s classrooms?”

Principal: “Oh, I went to the Marzano training. I know all about the value of that. But I’m pretty new here. I can’t impose that on the teachers.”

Hmm… impose? Teaching is private? And the vulnerabilities are very high? I think about a New Yorker article by Atul Gawandi some years ago, in which he compared coaching in sports and singing to coaching in education. That article made a big impact on me, and I decided to do my own research.

The research begins with Rick Lewis. He coaches pro basketball players a notch below the NBA. I ask, “Do these guys feel vulnerable?”

Rick: “Arjan— very vulnerable. They want to be in the NBA. They aren’t making a lot of money. My job is to nurture them.”

Me: “How?”

Rick: “Well, really, I’m just pointing to techniques everyone agrees on. If your release point is too low, you’re gonna get your shot blocked.”

“If you’re playing man to man defense, and losing by 18 points as we were in a championship game a few years ago, you got to work together and switch to a zone.” Rick explains that they actually win their league championship every year—and that’s why players like Steph Curry, the best basketball player in the world right now, join Rick’s team in summer games to hone their skills.

Rick talked about a past player of his, Chris DeMarco. When Chris realized he wouldn’t be an NBA star, he went into business. He learned video editing skills and volunteered for the Golden State Warriors because he loves the game. He was using his video editing skills to give players feedback on technique.

Now he’s got a paying gig. He’s helping coach the best team in the world. He’s got a championship ring! How? Nurturing players by providing actionable feedback on agreed upon practices.

To find out about the singing world, I spoke with Katie Guthorn, a great bay area vocal coach. She and her colleagues work with performers at all levels. I asked Katie about the vulnerability issue.

Katie: “Arjan, many singers are highly sensitive. They have self-doubt.”

Katie’s colleague Seth Riggs has coached Barbra Streisand, helping her battle stage fright. Michael Jackson would consult with Seth for support as many as four times a day while he was touring.

Katie explained that her clients have been vulnerable for physical reasons. The Stone Foxe’s singer had a vocal polyp. The singer for Death Angel blew out his vocal chords. And both came to Katie for specific techniques.

I’m a student of Katie’s. I know the techniques. Like “bubbling.” It tones the vocal chords. Check it out:

[Arjan demonstrates the technique by bubbling over the song “Let It Bleed” by the Rolling Stones.]

Well we all need


We can lean on

And if you want it

You can lean on me

The biggest difference I see in sports and singing vs. teaching: Teaching is more private.

If teaching were more public, more visible, we could help each other a ton.

I realize we need sensitivity and respect. After all, the teaching profession has been quite maligned in the last couple of years. So we’ve got to band together, play as a group, and I think we’ll soar.

Realize – we agree on the strategies. We agree on the Standards for Practice. Rigorous math tasks. Discourse protocols. We all want to sing the same tune. That’s a big deal.

This is our time.  Let’s sing this Rolling Stones song together. Some sing well. Some are less confident. Many know the words. Some don’t. But, we’ll do this TOGETHER!

Well we all need


We can lean on

And if you want it

You can lean on me

Let’s do this together. Let’s make teaching more public. Let’s lean on each other, together. Lean on!