Before breakfast musings from Boston

8466295059_e70a20f351_z-1I seem to be waking up early in other cities a lot lately. This week it was Boston, where I visited some educational programs and schools. I’m working on a short book, on behalf of the Philanthropy Roundtable, on teacher and principal quality. The itinerary I had both days involved me reporting somewhere at 6 a.m.

So I was waking up at 5:15. I don’t particularly like setting an alarm for 5:15, but every time I do, I’m happy I did. I walked the streets of Boston as the city was just starting to wake up. The coffee shops were open. Commuters started hustling down the streets a few minutes before 6 a.m. Already in mid-September it was clearly fall, with the brisk temperatures waking me up. That first day, I visited the offices of Building Excellent Schools before riding the T with these prospective school leaders to go visit the Excel Academy in East Boston (we did Match Community Day on Tuesday). By 2:00 p.m., I’d observed multiple classes and interviewed various people, which left the afternoon free for a 30 minute walk around downtown Boston, and then lots of reporting and writing in my hotel room for other projects. Add in a radio interview at 5 p.m., and a conference call from 5:30 to 6:30, and then my realization that I should take advantage of being away from home to write in the evening hours, and it was kind of a long day. But by waking up early, I managed to get 13-14 productive work hours in, and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Having access to early morning hours feels like manufacturing time.

Touring schools and talking with various people in education has cemented something I’ve been mulling over lately. Individual talent matters and should be developed. But individual talent within great systems can reach heights that are hard to fathom on your own. Two years ago, in the 2011 Boston Marathon (which should be the most famous one, but which, thanks to 2013’s tragedy, won’t be), Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever recorded. It doesn’t count for the world record because of various rules, but it was a full 57 seconds faster than the current world record. What’s crazy about that is not just the time, but that Moses Mosop, the second place finisher, was only 4 seconds behind him. Several other runners (including Ryan Hall, who came in 4th) beat the course record that year by a lot. They fed off each other. It was competitive, but collaborative in a way, too.

There’s a parallel in education. In a chaotic school, a smart and energetic teacher can create an oasis of calm, where students actually learn. But in a high-functioning school, her principal is in there coaching her to get even better. She’s observing other effective teachers and picking up techniques from them. They’re critiquing her lesson plans and she’s critiquing theirs. Everyone feeds off each other and elevates their games.

Of course, such high-functioning systems are hard to create. Particularly in student situations, well-meaning adults often stress collaboration in ways that are doomed to fail. You need people with at least somewhat similar preparation levels and motivation. It wasn’t the bulk of the Boston Marathon runners who pushed Mutai to run so fast. It was the elite runners in the pack.

Nonetheless, I’ve been pondering how other systems can create such feedback loops and examples to draw inspiration from. I probably should read more than I do…

Photo courtesy flickr user Sarah&Boston

4 thoughts on “Before breakfast musings from Boston

  1. Happy Boston! Lived there for several years and is my favorite “big city”.

    Love the pic you used…I wonder if people will think there’s actually snow in Boston now. 🙂

    1. @arden – ha ha. Based on the early morning temperatures when I was there, I’d say give it a month and there will be 🙂

  2. work travel is the working mamma secret. professionally you can work more. personally at home for me work travel is a great reset button. I’m always astounded when I come home how well it went without me (maybe a little bruised in the ego too) but it ‘s like my kids have reconnected with their father and all my weak parenting areas (bedtime) have been whipped into shape… it is a great reset on family life… seeing them play with stuffed animal conference bling is also always nice !
    this issue of coaching for me as an entrepreneur it is important and hard to find… both to have help in managing yourself and also to learn how to manage others. between companies there is often no real motivation for anyone to do this for another who is not their direct under them report… in your book you mention a program of millionaire club in New Jersey that is an accountability program … can you email me that person’s contact info I’d like to join that group… it is also tricky in competitive industries.. so in sales you want to see another person’s pitch and style but the chances they will let you into their meeting are low b/c it is competitive
    . Individual talent matters and should be developed. But individual talent within great systems can reach heights that are hard to fathom on your own.

  3. I’m thinking that I must be less disciplined than most…or maybe I don’t travel often enough, but when I find myself with a night or two away, I can’t seem to do more than binge on reading/TV-watching and sleep. I do come home refreshed, but not at all ahead on my work.

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