Last night, we shared a dinner table with a diverse group of incredibly nice folks. Compass House, our local Safe Place, was hosting their annual dinner and my family had a wonderful time hanging out with some of the incredible people behind this organization. We’ve made a few friends there this year, and last night, we became acquainted with some of their friends.

Anyway. One of the gentlemen at our table struck up a conversation about his kids, who are teenagers right now, and how disappointed he has been with the quality of the education they have received.

“They can spit anything back on a test,” he said. “Asking them to think is an entirely different matter.”

I nodded. Vigorously.

You may not believe this, but it’s true,” he insisted, ” my kids don’t want to have to think. They want someone to tell them what to do. They want someone to just tell them what to memorize. They want to be handed things.”

The conversation didn’t go much further than that. It wasn’t that I didn’t want it to–I did. But I knew that most of the people at our table (um, including my husband and my children) weren’t really interested in continuing it. We were there for bigger reasons, after all.

We were there to listen to some important stories.

Pam was sixteen when she first came to Compass House. Her mother was an addict, and she abandoned all six of her children to the street in the process. Pam said she came to Compass House full of attitude.

“I was ugly,” she said with a smile, referring to her anger and despair, “but these people took me in, and they’ve become my family.”

Pam’s life has been riddled with challenges, but with the help of people at Compass House, she graduated from high school, earned a professional license, and found support through some incredibly tragic times.

“When my daughter was born, she had Turner’s Syndrome,” she explained. “My baby died. She died, and I had no one to help me. I had to bury her, and I needed help.”

Her family at Compass House provided her that help.

“They handled it,” Pam said simply, and this seemed to amplify the complexity of her emotions.

“Compass House provides kids a warm meal, a warm bed, and the support they need to make their own decisions and stay safe,” Sylvia Nadler explained. Sylvia is the Executive Director at Compass House and someone my daughter Laura has grown to adore over the last year. “We teach them how to do their own laundry, and we teach them how to write a check, and we teach them other things as well–whatever it takes to help them stand on their own two feet.”

It’s been apparent that the most important things the folks at Compass House are teaching their kids is what compassion looks like and what it feels like to be valued.

“We don’t make decisions for them. We don’t tell them what to do,” Sylvia assured us. “They make their own choices. We just teach them better processes for doing so.”

Which is how they came to call themselves Compass House. It is also, incidentally, how they came to be as successful as they are. They don’t tell kids what to do. They teach them how to make solid decisions.

Approximately 18 youths come to the Resource Center daily to meet with case managers or Independent Living Instructors. The Resource Center provides assistance to 16-20 year olds. 75% of these young people choose to remain active with the program for over a year, and check out these exit outcomes:

  • 98% of youth return to safe living arrangements (over 40% of them enter independent living situations)
  • 83% of youth have no contact with the legal system during program involvement

The Emergency Shelter provides youths ages 12-17 short term shelter, food, and care. Each day, there are about nine kids living at the shelter. They stay for approximately 10 days. Just over half of the kids who came there last year were runaways, nearly 30% were homeless, and 16% were throwaway kids. 99% of these kids went to safe living arrangements with family members or friends. Only 12% of these kids were placed in residential facilities.

Some of the staff at Compass House were past clients themselves, and what struck my husband and I most was the way in which those that worked there gave each other props throughout the night. There were a whole lot of people in attendance and the group was scattered throughout the room, but as Sylvia recognized her staff and volunteers, they all cheered for each other, patted their colleagues on the back, offered warm hugs, and rose to their feet with tears in their eyes.

These are people who are focused on the right things for the right reasons, and they know that they are making a difference. They also have perspective around what is most important in life.

They know what it takes to hook even the “ugliest” kids.

They teach them how to think. They teach them how to choose. They hand them the reigns, and they trust in their ability to rise to the challenge and make good decisions. They also offer to catch them when they fall.

They give them the things they need as well, to be sure–food and clothes and furniture and cleaning supplies. But the greatest gifts they give aren’t products…they are processes.

Maybe content isn’t king after all. Maybe it isn’t just about traffic and who we draw to our site, our classroom, or our session. Maybe it’s about what we’re doing with the traffic we generate, which requires us to know why we wanted it in the first place. Our words become purposes. Our purposes drive our actions.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a time and a place to deliver “the goods”. Sylvia needs to make sure her kids have food in their bellies and clothes on their back just as much as teachers need to make sure that students have basic facts and the resources to apply them. Good blogs provide great content and so do good staff development providers.

In all of these cases, though, content only contributes so much in the long run. Compass House doesn’t aim to function as a band-aid. Teachers never want to either. The blogs that I value most aren’t maintained by those who are simply doing what they do to make a profit or win some kind of race. Their content is about process, and their process wasn’t motivated by profit. These people are driven by their desire to change things for the better….whether that’s the life of one child, the kids in one classroom, or a system in need of an overhaul. Content doesn’t fix any of that. Process does, and cultivating great process is a far messier venture.

“So, what is your son up to this year?” I asked the gentleman at my table–the one who was rightfully frustrated earlier in the evening.

“Oh, I pulled him out of that school,” he assured me. “We’re in a better place now. We’re happier.”

Which is a good thing.

But it doesn’t solve the bigger problem that all of us are facing.

Solving the bigger problem is going to require some thinking, I’m thinking.

Sometimes, the people I work with expect me to hand them “stuff”, give them the answer, and tell them or others what to do (or even do it for them). When I don’t deliver “the goods”, much frustration ensues. I know I’m not the only coach and trainer who finds herself in this position. It’s common, and for good reason: people like us have created teachers like them. We’re responsible, in some ways, for this phenomena.

We can’t fault teachers for valuing content over process when as leaders, we’ve done the same. I struggle with this almost daily right now, because I seem to lose some people along the way in my own attempt to promote process over content. This is isn’t easy work, and I know I’m not alone in my current position. How do we find a balanced approach that keeps everyone invested? Is it even possible? I don’t know.

Here is one thing I do know, though–I wish there were more parents out there like the one I met last night. It’s hard to speak up and take action, but unless everyone starts expecting more, I’m not sure how we’re ever going to get where all of us claim we want to go. None of this is comfortable, but necessary and comfortable are two very different things.

The status quo loves silence, and speaking up often causes conflict. It often invites judgment…even pain. But all of that is better than the alternative. In the end, it’s the status quo that really complicates our lives, and it’s our apathy and our inaction that hurts us most when all is left unsaid and undone.



  1. Thinking is a skill. It is something that is learned and developed. In most cases this skill is taken for granted, especially where children are concerned.

    The ability to think is looked at as something that a child either possesses or doesn’t, but it’s not as straight forward as that. Thinking is a tool and it is something that can be sharpened, honed, and improved.

    With children it is very easy to get them thinking as they are at a stage in their life where that is what they do most of the time, so why not give them things to think about that will benefit their learning and personal development? Why not promote problem solving and design a constructivist approach where kids can learn and discover on their own?

    Teachers feel too content bound and tied to the tests to take a step in this direction. For people who are used to only thinking in terms of what has always existed, it takes a lot of effort to let go of these set ways. We need to focus on helping teachers to understand that curriculum and the tests are not just about content, but about the embedded skills within that content. And, the most important embedded skill is thinking.

  2. This post gave me a thought…in the form of a title for a book I’ll be writing with you soon: Educational Entropy: Reframing Traditions and Defining A New Order.

    We’ll do the whole thing on Google Docs. (I’d say wiki…but, you know…)

    I’m really impressed with your philosophy. Going back to the beginning of your post to reference, Liz and I were talking with friends the other night and one of our friends was being kind of a blow hard and said, “I trust teachers, I just don’t trust the system.” I responded that neither are broken, they are just misaligned. In the end, I opted not to argue with the misinformed logic, as it is easy to peer into a crystal ball and see the broad view, but it is another thing entirely to be inside the glass peering out and trying to make sense of one’s “ceiling.”

    The comment from your friend underscores the inherent silliness in NCLB, which enables the traditional to keep on keeping on. There is a deep rooted fear in change but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to occur within a new frame of risk taking behaviors that will develop the cognition, critical thinking, and problem solving skills that our “tested to death” students seriously lack.


  3. “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.” — Henry Ford

    “We haven’t failed. We now know a thousand things that won’t work, so we are much closer to finding what will.” — Thomas Edison

    “If you’re going to do good work, the work has to scare you.” — Andre Previn

    “To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks.” — A. A. Milne

  4. Carol Weintraub Reply

    Your posts, particularly the past few, always enlighten me and, well, MAKE ME THINK.
    So you are taking the first step in your intended revolution. Reading your thoughts makes me want to do a better job as a staff developer, coach, teacher, and parent.

  5. Writing makes me want to be, ironically. It really helps, having this space. Carol–you need to be on Twitter!

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