Sunday, November 8, 2020

What is professional development?

Exploring the concept of professional development, and how we can harness its power to score pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and a lot more. 

Aaron S. Robertson

For this post, I'd like to spend some time, using a variety of concrete examples as a guide, discussing how you can stand out from the rest of your co-workers and other job applicants with a simple concept: professional development. Take advantage of professional development to win pay raises, promotions, business and consulting opportunities, better starting pay at your next job, industry recognition, and more. Let's dive in and explore.

For starters, this Wikipedia article defines professional development as,

...learning to earn or maintain professional credentials such as academic degrees to formal coursework, attending conferences, and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage. There is a variety of approaches to professional development, including consultation, coaching, communities of practice, lesson study, mentoring, reflective supervision and technical assistance.

Now, let's back up for a moment. In all employment situations, you and your co-workers are all equal in skill level and dispositions, but only in the very limited, very superficial sense that you've all met, and continue to meet, certain qualifications and standards that your employer wants, at a minimum, for all of you to meet. If you and your co-workers fail to meet this minimum threshold, you wouldn't have been hired, and/or you wouldn't be there now.

But that equality in skill level and dispositions ends right there, with you and your co-workers all meeting and retaining that employer-mandated minimum set of standards. You're all the same, on paper, in this limited regard. Other than that, you are totally unique. You are truly one-of-a-kind, with an irreplaceable combination of skills, dispositions, experiences, hobbies and interests, education, and more. And this is where you have the opportunity to stand out from the rest of the pack and rise to the top. This is where professional development can come in to make your resume truly shine and get employers to take a closer look at who you are and what you have to offer.

Here are some of those concrete examples I was talking about:

Bilingual abilities - The ability to communicate in another language, like Spanish or one of the Hmong languages, for example, is a highly-desirable, and hence marketable, skill to have. So let's say you're an attorney, doctor or nurse, teacher, call center or 911 operator, law enforcement professional, or really any kind of small business owner, to name just a handful of examples here. As I stated earlier, you and your co-workers are all equal in the very limited sense that you're performing at a minimum set of standards that your employer has laid out for all of you. But you also happen to be fluent in a second language. With this skill, some additional doors are open to you. How many of your co-workers also happen to be bilingual? I'm guessing not very many. In the case of being a bilingual small business owner, you can utilize this talent to tap into new markets for your product or service, markets that may otherwise be under-served by your industry or profession. In short, what an impressive skill to have on your resume.

Professional development in the hospitality industry - Let's say you're currently working as a server at a restaurant. Plenty of high school and college students have jobs waiting tables, so this should be a great example to easily relate to. So you're currently waiting tables, and you're starting to have thoughts that you may really like this broader industry of hospitality and food service. You're thinking that you may want to stick with this business long-term and learn different aspects of it. You're wondering then, "How can I stand apart from my co-workers and other job applicants? How can I make myself more marketable and valuable to my current or future employers?" There are plenty of ways to do this. Some examples: When you're old enough to do so, assuming you're currently in high school, you may want to consider training to become a bartender and getting licensed by your state or local authorities to be able to do so. As a server, there are classes and workshops you can take that help you identify what foods pair well with one another, or what drinks (wines, beers, cocktails) pair well with certain foods and meals. Having this knowledge can equip you with the ability and confidence to upsell or cross-sell  items to your customers, which benefits both you and your employer. Your employer is going to like your ability to generate more revenue by increasing sales, and you're going to like the higher tips! If you're interested in learning the kitchen and working hands-on with foods, you may want to consider a culinary arts degree from your local technical college, which will not only help you develop your skills in the kitchen, but also provide you with a basic, introductory-level business education tailored to the culinary/hospitality industry. And don't forget - we're not just talking restaurants here. There's a whole world out there where you can learn/apply these skills and move up the ladder. This world includes hotels, cruise ships, banquet halls and catering businesses, and resorts.

Are you working in, or just starting to learn, a skilled trade? Consider adding a business degree to your resume down the road. Here's why - As I explained in a previous post, "Manufacturing and the trades in schools,": 

Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.

Certainly, this example also pertains to what we just discussed with the hospitality industry, as well. That big-picture business/management/leadership education can really complement and enhance all of the great hands-on expertise you're acquiring on the job, and can open many additional doors in your profession or industry.

Building true specialization in one or more areas - If you're an auto mechanic or auto body repair technician, or interested in becoming one, specializing in a particular make or model of car, either modern/current or vintage/classic, can be very beneficial for you. If you know that certain make/model inside and out, you're a true expert, and you can perhaps dominate an entire market, either locally, regionally, or yes - even nationally. Ditto if you're a computer/software programmer, or wanting to get into this line of work. Some months back, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and state unemployment systems instantly found themselves slapped with a massive surge of claims, a computer programming language called COBOL unexpectedly found itself in the spotlight making news headlines. COBOL is a 60+ year-old programming language that many state governments still use for systems like - you guessed it - unemployment. This Fast Company article from April 2020 explains the high demand and pay for those who can still work with this language, which the vast majority of universities and computer science programs stopped teaching in the 1980s! Certainly, many doctors, lawyers, educators, and investment professionals have specialties, as well. They've become the go-to experts for advice, news interviews and stories, and more.

Professional development can be formal or informal in nature, and it doesn't need to be time-consuming.

So far, we've discussed some instances where formal education via academic degrees can make for great professional development. But formal education is not always necessary, and it's not for everyone. In fact, some of the best ways to expand and build on your professional capabilities are very informal in nature and can either be free of monetary cost or very inexpensive. They also do not need to be very time-consuming or take up any additional time beyond your typical day, either. 

In fact, you can build professional development activities into your current work schedule. If there are additional skills you'd like to learn or continue to strengthen in your workplace, explain your interests to your manager(s). Perhaps they can work with you to build some time into your work schedule to focus on these goals. Perhaps it's a hard skill, like learning how to use a particular machine, tool, software program, or process that's applicable to your current work environment. Or maybe you'd like to focus more on building your soft skills, like the ability to communicate more effectively and collaboratively with co-workers and customers.

Sometimes, professional development may mean having to learn on-the-fly...

With the world of education (both K-12 and college-level) having gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators, myself included, all of a sudden found themselves having to learn all about Google Meet, Zoom, and a variety of other online learning tools and resources on a whim. But that's certainly okay. There's the old adage that goes, "With crisis comes opportunity." I'm now proficient in these virtual assets. Before the pandemic, I didn't really have to think about any of this stuff, simply because there was no need for me to do so. But the pandemic has forced me to add to my skills and hence broaden my horizons in this regard.

In closing, here are some more examples and ideas of informal ways to grow professionally:

Self-education through intense reading or project-based learning on a particular subject

Take courses through for as low as $11-12 each. I love Udemy and find it to be of great value. Read my recent review of Udemy.

Work on building your network of trusted experts and professionals

Seek out a mentor

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Udemy review

As promised in a previous post, "My summer 2020," here is my detailed post about an online learning Web site I discovered over the summer called Udemy.

As I explained in that prior post about my summer, I recently decided to change course for my Ph.D. dissertation. Rather than studying and writing about organizational culture, I decided to return to my political science roots (political science was my major for my bachelor's degree) by exploring China in the context of international relations (IR). More specifically, I'm interested in China's artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives, and how China's quest for dominance in this realm, among others, may lead to a significant shift in IR, including the possibility of a cold war that some experts predict. This change of course happened as the result of a couple in-depth, thought-provoking conversations I had in recent months with a former professor of mine from my political science studies as an undergrad.

Anyway, a couple months ago, back in August, as a part of my dive into international relations (IR), I discovered Now, I had seen quite a few ads and mentions about this site across the Internet in the past, but I suppose I never gave it much thought. Finally, one day in August, I caved in and decided to take a closer look to find out what this site is all about and what it has to offer. I'm really glad I did that. What a really neat site. 

So, what is Udemy?

In a nutshell, Udemy is an online learning platform that brings teachers and learners together from all around the world through video lectures, discussions, and downloadable resources like selected readings, notes, slides, and even e-books. Now, when I say "teachers," I use that term broadly here. I'm not talking specifically about licensed K-12 educators or university professors, although some of them certainly are. Many of those who are teaching on Udemy are professionals working in a particular field or industry. They possess expertise in a subject, and they're simply passionate about teaching that subject to others. They may be engineers, filmmakers, lawyers, photographers, Web developers and computer programmers, investment bankers and financial professionals, intelligence analysts, artists, architects, business executives, negotiators, Microsoft Excel pros, etc., etc., etc.

Even you can teach on Udemy, and earn income doing it. Here's how. 

How much do these courses cost? 

The vast majority of courses on Udemy have a cost. Some are free. The paid courses will get you a certificate of completion at the end, among other perks that we'll get to shortly. The free courses do not offer a certificate.

Now, if you browse through the site, you're going to see that many of these courses carry a price tag of $90-$100 or more. Don't be alarmed. The site often runs days-long sales at deep discounts. All the courses I've purchased so far were at these sale prices, ranging from $11.99-$13.99. 

What are the perks that come with the paid courses?

  • Online video content
  • Certificate of completion
  • Instructor Q&A 
  • Instructor direct message
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Free access to the course for life, including any updates made, and no matter if you paid full price or a sale price
The free courses only come with the online video content.

My experience with Udemy so far

Since August, I've taken several courses, most of them taught by Ph.D. professors, on various aspects of international relations. So far, I've brushed up on U.S.-Russia relations, various IR theories, and NATO, all while continuing to explore China's rise. I've even taken a couple courses on intelligence analysis, taught by a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col.

I'm really impressed so far with Udemy's platform, and I highly recommend the site for anyone looking to build new skills or strengthen existing ones. The site's interface is clean and crisp, and everything is easy to find and navigate through. I can tell that the teachers I've had so far have really put forth a lot of time and effort into their courses. I've even connected with a couple of them on LinkedIn and Twitter. It's money well-spent, and all courses are backed by a guarantee.

There's so much to explore here. When I find some additional time one of these days, I have several other courses waiting for me to start. I purchased them all in another big sale recently. They include, among others, the art of negotiating, an intro to international security, the fundamentals of submarine engineering, and even a course designed by a business professor who promises the equivalent of a complete MBA degree's worth of education all in his one course. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Back to school 2020-2021

Well, it's that time of year again - back to school. For me, that means a return to work as a special education assistant at the middle / high school I've been at since last year. We returned yesterday. We have one of the later starts in the area. Many schools, including colleges, have already been back in session for anywhere between 1-3 weeks or so.

I look forward to getting back in the swing of things after enjoying a nice summer (you can read about my summer here). I hope you enjoyed the summer, as well, and I'd like to hear all about it!

Well, here's to a successful and enjoyable 2020-21 school year! I wish you all the best. Stay safe and healthy, learn a lot, and take advantage of all the wonderful academic and co-curricular opportunities your school has to offer! Talk again soon.

Mr. Robertson

My summer 2020

I hope you enjoyed your summer. I enjoyed mine. I spent a large portion of the summer learning about China and artificial intelligence (AI), and advancing my understanding of international relations (IR).

Originally, I wanted to research the subject of organizational culture for my Ph.D. dissertation. However, after a couple of thought-provoking, insightful conversations with a former professor of mine during my undergrad years, I've decided to change course. I want to get back to my roots in political science, which was my major for my bachelor's degree. And so I'm now researching China and its artificial intelligence (AI) initiatives, and how China's quest for dominance in this realm, among others, may lead to a significant shift in international relations (IR), including a possible cold war that some experts predict.

In August, as a part of my studies in IR, I discovered the online learning Web site What a cool site! I had seen quite a few ads and mentions about this site across the Internet in the past, but never gave it much thought, I guess. Finally, I caved in and decided to take a look. I'm glad I did. I'll be writing a separate post all about Udemy soon, but in a nutshell here, I'm really impressed with its platform. I took several courses, most of them taught by Ph.D. professors, on various aspects of international politics.

So that was my summer, briefly. A lot of reading, writing, thinking, documentaries, and these courses. But all subjects I'm excited and passionate about. That's what makes it all fun and worthwhile.

How was your summer? Take any trips? Learn any new skills? I'd love to hear all about your summer. Share in the comments section below.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Free online learning resources from Varsity Tutors

Following are a number of great programs and resources that Varsity Tutors has put together to help support students and families with their virtual learning needs during these challenging and uncertain times. All of these services are free of charge, and students of all ages can benefit.

Happy Learning!

Mr. Robertson 

Virtual School Day: Nearly 200 free, live K-12 classes available all day long intended to help parents fill their children's day with enriched learning. Some popular classes are "Intro to Spanish for Kids", "Coolest Women in History", "Java Programming Basics", and "The Story of Your Favorite Fairy Tales". We have received exceptional ratings from thousands of parents and students.

Virtual Summer Camps: Free half-day summer camps are a week long, with enrichment-based classes in subjects like foreign languages, chess, theater, coding, Minecraft, how to be a detective, photography and more. These live, interactive camps will be taught by expert instructors vetted through Varsity Tutors' platform. We already have 300+ camps scheduled for the summer and 2,000 families per day signing up.

Adaptive Diagnostic Assessments: Measure a student's proficiency and identify strengths and weaknesses in hundreds of subjects. Get an effective learning plan along with free tools to improve.

Varsity Learning Tools: More than 250,000 free practice problems in over 200 subjects. Also available as mobile applications.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Substitute teaching in COVID-19 pandemic

Are you a substitute teacher here in the United States? Are you wondering what your work as a substitute teacher will look like when school resumes in fall 2020 with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic?

I'm a member of a Facebook group for substitute teachers. Recently, one of our members was looking for guidance for fall 2020, wondering if there was any word yet on rules, guidelines, and expectations. Following is my response, for whatever it's worth. In short, there are still too many unknowns at the moment, and, most likely, school is going to look a little different in each community across your state and the country due to local pandemic conditions and the needs and goals of local families and community leaders.
I would reach out to, or just wait to hear from, your school/district or staffing agency (TOC, EDUStaff, etc.) directly. They're ultimately the ones that are going to put rules and procedures in place. Right now, there are still too many unknown variables, so I'd imagine there's bound to be a lot of misinformation, potential scams, etc. floating around out there at the moment. I work as a direct-hire special ed aide at a high school, and I also work for TOC when it doesn't conflict with my direct-hire school's/district's calendar. My district still hasn't announced yet whether or not we'll be meeting in-person in the fall, but it has already put a number of procedures in place if we need to be on premises. They include wearing a mask, social distancing, and filling out a Google Form questionnaire regarding symptoms before we enter the building. Haven't heard anything from TOC yet. Like I said, simply too many unknown variables right now. But that would be my best advice - reach out to, or just wait to hear from, your school/district or staffing agency directly. Hope this helps.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Reading comprehension skills

A look at the failed promises of overemphasizing reading comprehension skills in today's elementary school environment. 

A version of the classic chicken or egg question here - which comes first? Do reading comprehension skills need to come first so that students know what to look for as they decipher and work their way through a piece of literature (in whatever form that may take on - a book, an article, a brochure, an advertisement, etc.), or must exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary come first in order to lay a decent foundation, set some context, and pique interest and curiosity to want to then go out and learn more about something? I'm placing all my chips on the table and betting on the latter.

Aaron S. Robertson


It's a fascinating question that's held a good amount of my focus for a little over a week now, all caused by having recently stumbled on an article whose headline really grabbed my attention and piqued my curiosity. It's entitled, "Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years," and it's written by Natalie Wexler. It was originally published on The Atlantic in April 2018, but I came across it on You can read the full article here. According to the author's byline, Wexler is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and she authored a book on this very issue, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System - And How to Fix It. I just purchased it, based on how fascinating I found her article to be. I can't wait to dive in.

My credentials

Now, I'm certainly not a reading specialist. I'm not even a certified teacher. At the age of 37, I'm about to wrap up my second school year working as a substitute teacher and special education paraprofessional at the high school level. Prior to my short time in K-12 education, I held various roles in private sector business and industry, and still maintain ties to business. And though I'm a Ph.D. student, my degree and dissertation focus are not in education. Nonetheless, as I continue my journey in education, working with, and monitoring the progress of, students from the front lines, I'm naturally intrigued by these subjects and policy debates, and this article really made me think back and reflect on both the what and how I learned in elementary school in the 1980s and 90s.

The problem

Wexler, citing a number of education researchers, argues that a major shift in focus, or rather, what I would contend in my layman's understanding is simply a return to the way things once were, needs to take place at the elementary school level. For quite a few years now, she points out, subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature have been kicked down the road to higher grade levels so that reading comprehension skills (along with math) can take center stage during the first several years of schooling. As Wexler explains in the article, "After all, the argument goes, if kids haven’t learned to read - a task that is theoretically accomplished by third grade - how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (para. 5)

It was essentially that argument, that mindset, that served as a main justification for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, which would ultimately be replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) some 14 years later, in 2015. As Wexler explains in her article, NCLB required that standardized tests be given each school year to students from third through eighth grades, followed by one more test in high school. NCLB imposed big consequences on schools that failed to raise test scores. While NCLB's successor law, ESSA, has reduced the sting of these consequences, it has retained a strong focus on testing.

Along with all this standardized testing comes the phenomenon of "teaching to the test," whereby teachers are increasingly pressured to focus on the skills that will be, or likely be, utilized on these tests, all in a vain attempt to raise test scores, or at least keep them from taking a dip. The problem with this strategy is that there's often a big misalignment, as Wexler explains, between the content (not the skills, but the content) covered on these tests and where the actual knowledge base of students is at.

When it comes to reading comprehension, for example, the passages that students must read and analyze on these tests may discuss subjects and incorporate vocabulary that they have no real understanding of. They lack repetitive exposure to, and hence true context mastery of, these subjects and words. Teaching the comprehension skills, alone, is not enough. We're clearly seeing it reflected in the test results. It can be difficult to answer questions like, "What’s the main idea of the passage?" and "What inferences can you make?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 9), when there are gaping holes in your knowledge base.

How to fix the problem

The solution? Wexler, along with a growing chorus of education researchers, is saying that exposure to subjects like history, science, the arts, and literature in those early years is absolutely critical for building general knowledge about the world, and hence, gaining vocabulary and context, which they say must come before we get to the mechanics of reading comprehension. I concur. Again, I'm certainly no expert. But I can understand and appreciate the debate as an educated layperson, and I can contribute anecdotal evidence from my era growing up in elementary school, the 1980s and 90s. You see, elementary school for me was exactly what Wexler and these other experts are calling for now.

My memories of elementary school in the 1980s and 90s

During my time in elementary school, kindergarten was largely what Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., recalls in his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups - we spent a lot of time learning and practicing Fulghum's Rules, so named after the author of the famous book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In other words, we learned social skills. We learned how to get along, how to play nice, how to clean up our own messes, how to be patient and wait our turn, and how to take responsibility for our actions.

Along with Fulghum's Rules, we learned about ourselves and the world around us through story time, little art and science projects, history lessons appropriate for our grade level, music, gym, field trips, and a good amount of unstructured play time. We learned our alphabet, numbers, colors, money, and how to tell time. We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence. Top that all off with a little math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing for good measure, and we received a well-rounded, largely low-pressure education that would help lay a solid foundation for life. And, as I recently argued in another post, inspired in turn by arguments and observations made by Dr. Sax, that's exactly what the real purpose of K-12 education is, or should be, all about - laying a foundation for life, not college.

In first grade, one of the major highlights I recall is that we learned how to write in cursive. That was certainly a big thing. And along with it, we added a little more math, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and writing to the mix, all while reviewing what we learned the year before in kindergarten, so that we were reinforcing that foundation as we were starting to build on it. We continued to learn about ourselves and the world around us through story time, art, science, history, music, gym, field trips, show-and-tell, and unstructured free time.

The remainder of elementary school operated out of the same playbook: continue to add a little more with each passing year while reinforcing what we were already taught. And while I don't remember the exact moment I realized I could read, I also don't recall there being a lot of time and special focus set aside by my teachers solely dedicated to reading. I don't recall there being any real pressure. The reading, along with the comprehension skills, just seemed to naturally grow and evolve over time with a great degree of ease.

Wexler goes on to state in her article that,
The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills (para. 15).
This is exactly how I remember elementary school, no kidding. By second grade, I easily recall knowing about Native Americans, Christopher Columbus, colonial times, the Revolution and the founding of the United States, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. I remember my third grade teacher, a young African-American woman, educating us on the lessons of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s at every opportunity. I realized at an early age that I loved history and social studies subjects. I recall both buying books and borrowing books from the school and local libraries on various history/social studies subjects all throughout grade school. I remember taking my social studies textbooks home on the weekends for the heck of it, even though I may not have had any homework in that subject. I would read ahead, bounce around, look at pictures and illustrations and read their captions. And when I think about it all these years later, at the age of 37 - the reason why I did all this reading was because I was given a small taste of these subjects in school. The lessons in school piqued my interest and curiosity, and I just naturally wanted to learn more.
"We had the classic show-and-tell time, where we in the audience got to absorb all sorts of fun knowledge and interesting insights from our classmates, while the presenter received the chance to hone his or her speaking skills and gain confidence."
It also helped that we had regular interactions and bonds with adults in our lives outside of school, something that is largely missing in today's society, where kids are teaching kids how to be adults. And while we certainly had video games - and believe me, we spent countless hours on them - we didn't have cell phones and technology addiction to worry about, distractions that are literally robbing today's 20-some-year-olds of social skills.

As I explained in another post that I just published, Building intergenerational connections, we kids had a large circle of adults - parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives, friends of family, family of friends, coaches, neighbors, etc. - that we learned from outside of school. We learned social skills, manners and etiquette, and how to get along with others from them, all things reinforced in the kindergarten classroom and vice-versa. We heard stories handed down and sometimes even first-hand accounts about immigrating to the United States, living during the Great Depression, World War II, etc. We were exposed to a wide variety of music, film, games, hobbies & interests, sports, and ethnic & cultural traditions by these adults. There were plenty of company picnics and tours where we got to learn about the kinds of work the adults in our lives did for a living. We learned where we came from. We learned about the history of our neighborhood and city. In short, a lot of general knowledge and vocabulary came our way from these adults, and if something came along that really caught my interest, just as the history/social studies lessons from my teachers did, I simply went out and read more about the topic. I wanted to learn more.

Let's really get philosophical here for a moment

Even as an adult now, I can verify anecdotally that I still require exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about a subject first, in order to learn about it through reading or other forms of media. If I don't learn of the existence of something first, then I can't go out and learn about it, because I don't possess any prior knowledge to know that it exists. It's through conversations with others; or through stumbling across new information while reading something else; or through watching a movie, documentary, or the nightly news; etc., that I acquire general knowledge about something. If that something catches my interest, or if I find it useful in some way to know more about, I'll dive deeper and research it further.

Placing such a strong emphasis on teaching reading comprehension skills in those early elementary school years first, on the premise that, "...if kids haven’t learned to will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?" (Wexler, 2018, para. 5), does not guarantee that students will, in turn, use those skills to initiate reading on their own accord, either for practical or leisure purposes. It may even turn many of them off to reading. However, exposing kids in those early elementary school years to history, science, the arts, and literature (and, I might add, Fulghum's Rules) at least guarantees that they were given basic exposure to these subjects. The students are now aware that these things exist. They now know that there's an entire world out there to explore, and if they want - or need - to take a closer look at something in it, they can - and will - do so through reading on their own accord. The reading and the comprehension will naturally follow and flow from this exposure to general knowledge and vocabulary about the world around us.        

Concluding with a look at kindergarten in Finland

A little while back, I came across another article, also from The Atlantic, about kindergarten in Finland. It was written by Timothy D. Walker and published in October 2015. Entitled, "The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland," you can read it here.

In short, play time - and lots of it - is still the main order of the day for kindergarten students there, and the students usually have the choice in regard to how they spend that time. The day is just four hours long. Reading usually starts in first grade, unless teachers get a sense that individual students may be ready and willing to start learning in kindergarten. There's no pressure. Each student is at his or her own pace, with learning fully tailored to where the student is at and wants to go. In fact, as Walker notes in his article, "Throughout Finland, kindergarten teachers and parents meet during the fall to make an individualized learning plan, shaped by each child’s interests and levels of readiness, which could include the goal of learning how to read" (para. 26).

And yet, this approach, this philosophy, which may appear lax or even outright irresponsible by modern-day American standards, doesn't seem to hinder the intellectual growth and capabilities of Finnish students years down the road. As Walker points out, "Finnish schools have received substantial media attention for years now - largely because of the consistently strong performance of its 15-year-olds on international tests like the PISA" (para. 9).

I'll end here with this passage from Walker, which I believe does a tremendous job of summarizing our side of the debate. Here, he is quoting two experts:
“...there isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University, explained in a video published by the advocacy group Defending the Early Years.

Research by Sebastian Suggate, a former Ph.D. candidate at New Zealand’s University of Otago studying educational psychology, confirms Carlsson-Paige’s findings. One of Suggate’s studies compared children from Rudolf Steiner schools - who typically begin to read at the age of seven - with children at state-run schools in New Zealand, who start reading at the age of five. By age 11, students from the former group caught up with their peers in the latter, demonstrating equivalent reading skills.

“This research then raises the question,” he said in an interview published by the University of Otago. “If there aren’t advantages to learning to read from the age of five, could there be disadvantages to starting teaching children to read earlier?” (para. 30-32)

Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups. New York: Basic Books.

Walker, T.D. (2015, October 1). The joyful, illiterate kindergarteners of Finland. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Wexler, N. (2018, April 13). Why American students haven’t gotten better at reading in 20 years. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Monday, June 1, 2020

Building intergenerational connections

Part of my occasional, ongoing work with the books, The Collapse of Parenting, and, Girls on the Edge, both by Dr. Leonard Sax.

It's important for children and youth to build intergenerational connections with trusted adults to help them truly navigate the world and workplace successfully, and to help them understand where we come from. Such a concept is certainly not new, but it seems to have largely gone extinct in recent times, replaced with the phenomenon of children turning to their peers for advice and insight.

Aaron S. Robertson


“Parents today suffer from role confusion…a term used by German sociologist Norbert Elias to describe the transfer of authority from parents to children,” writes Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., in his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-ups (p. 18). He continues, noting, “In American culture today, same-age peers matter more than parents. And parents are reluctant to change the rules - to insist, for example, that time with parents and family is more important than time with same-age peers - because parents are suffering from the 'role confusion' described by Elias” (Sax, 2016, pp. 19-20).

This situation is not new. It has been going on for some time now. Six years prior, Dr. Sax pointed out in his gender-specific book, Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, that, “Girls teaching same-age girls what it means to be a woman is a new phenomenon in human history. It’s fundamentally equivalent to the blind leading the blind. Teenage girls don’t have the wisdom, experience, and perspective that a 35-year-old woman or a 65-year-old woman can provide” (2010, p. 206). Certainly, this is going on with the boys, as well.

Tying into this wholesale abdication of parental authority and the phenomenon of kids turning to each other for advice and insight into navigating an increasingly-complex world, is the problem of technology addiction. Back in January, I wrote a post entitled, "FOMO is causing you to miss out on life." In it, I explain,
A few nights ago, I attended a program at my local public library on the subject of technology addiction among teens and young adults. The presenter was a local mental health counselor, and she did a wonderful job of offering facts, sound advice, and helpful resources concerning this timely, and, in my opinion, scary, topic. The picture is not pretty. But I'm hoping that, by you reading this post, you can help make that picture a little bit better in your own unique way.

According to the facilitator, kids as young as 5th grade are texting their friends at 3am, and she's counseling a number of young adults in their early 20s who want to learn social skills - skills that have been significantly stunted by technology addiction. In fact, as research has demonstrated and as she noted in her talk, being addicted to technology can certainly be as damaging as being addicted to a substance.
All of this sets the stage for the subject of this post - it's important for children and youth to build intergenerational connections - with their parents, their grandparents, other family members, and other trusted adults in their neighborhood/community, their place of work, and among their families' circle of friends. Such an idea is certainly nothing new. It may appear new to many children and youth today, but that's only because it seems to have largely gone extinct some time ago already in this country. We need to get back to that idea. As Dr. Sax reminds us, “One of the unique gifts we enjoy as a species is the ability to learn from other people who have lived in other times and other places.” (2010, p. 212)

My story

All my life, I have benefited from intergenerational bonds and friendships. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, to see children and youth of all ages socially mingling with one another and with adults of all ages was not uncommon. The social fabric was diverse and strongly interwoven.

It was as a young kid spending time with my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, other relatives, a large circle of family friends and their own families, coaches, boy scout leaders, and the families of my same-age friends that I developed a love for all kinds of music, film, art, games, hobbies, and sports (well, except for winter sports - it took the 16-year-old Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul to arrive at my doorstep via the cover of a Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine issue when I was 11 years old to change my mind about winter sports).

I learned fascinating family history, and the history of my neighborhood and city, which, growing up, was in Bay View, located on Milwaukee's south side. I received an education in ethnic and cultural histories and traditions. One of my childhood friends lived across the street from me, and his dad collected baseball cards and coins. I was already a big baseball card collector myself, and so we would swap stories and information about the hobby. He got me interested in coin collecting. I continue both hobbies a little bit to this day. While listening to a lot of the hit music of the day in the 80s and 90s, I also became fluent in 40s big band; 50s rock 'n' roll; the classic rock, pop, and soul of the 60s and 70s; and blues, jazz, and some country. I was exposed to all of this music, and grew to appreciate it all. A lot of the exposure was situational - it depended on whose home we were at, or whose party it was, if older relatives and other adults were in the crowd, and so on.
“One of the unique gifts we enjoy as a species is the ability to learn from other people who have lived in other times and other places.” -- Dr. Leonard Sax, Girls on the Edge
My friends and I learned a little bit about cars by watching our dads working on them. We heard stories handed down and first-hand accounts about immigrating to the United States, the Great Depression, World War II, and other major events and turning points in our collective history from older relatives, family friends, and adults in the neighborhood. These personal stories made learning about these subjects in the classroom that much more engaging and exciting, and vice-versa.

Speaking of World War II, I remember we had a barber in the neighborhood. His name was Frank, and he fought in the war - for the Germans. To be very clear, Frank wasn't a Nazi or a member of the SS. He fought in the regular army as a young man. Big, big difference. Just another young man, probably drafted at 18 or even younger, simply fighting for his country and trying to survive. It was interesting to get his unique, first-hand perspective on the war. He loved this country. I had a great-great uncle that fought in the Pacific theater against the Japanese. Uncle Buck was in the Army. I remember him a little bit. He passed away in 1990. He would share stories occasionally, along with proudly showing us his uniforms and other memorabilia from the war. Right up to his passing, he was always the entrepreneurial type. He would have many small business ventures throughout his life, and he would always have a few dollars for us kids. And I had another great-great uncle, Billy, who was a pilot in the war. He flew the B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber, in the European theater. Sadly, his plane was shot down while on a bombing run over Germany, and he and several of his crew members perished. But he would certainly leave his mark on his family for decades to come, and we cherished many stories handed down about his leadership and love for family.

And speaking of barbers - Frank was one of several men around his age in the neighborhood who were barbers. They all worked out of the same old-fashioned barbershop, and most boys and men in the neighborhood, including myself, were regular customers. They loved humor. They loved sharing stories. We loved hearing them. Their number one special was a "young man's haircut." We would go in and tell them, "Give me a young man's haircut," and they would fix us up nicely.

We learned how to cook, bake, grill out, set up camp, garden. We had regular, assigned chores we were responsible for. There were plenty of fun company picnics and company tours where we got to learn about the kinds of work our relatives and their co-workers and friends did for a living.

And it was through these intergenerational bonds that we learned social skills, how to get along with others, responsibility, and the world of work. We learned where we came from. We learned skills that have, so far, stayed with us our entire lives. We grew into well-rounded adults with the ability to easily adapt and endure.

Upon graduating from college in 2007, I started looking for ways to get involved in my community more, which was now Muskego, one of Milwaukee's southwestern suburbs. Among other outlets for involvement, I got active in a number of business networking circles and started meeting and getting to know many people from all walks of life, professions, and age groups - younger, older, much older, and same age, both men and women. Out of all this networking has come many rich, long-standing, personal friendships. And the learning that takes place - about various industries, the broader economy, self-improvement and professional development topics, volunteer opportunities, life and career advice, etc., etc. - is absolutely priceless.

Flash forward to the present day. The 2020-21 school year will mark my third year in the student government at Cardinal Stritch University as a Ph.D. student. I serve as a senator representing graduate students, a post I've held since the 2018-19 school year. This service brings back a lot of wonderful memories for me - I was very active in Stritch's student government as an undergrad, and had the privilege of serving as its president during 2005-06. Now older (37), heavier, grayer, and hopefully a little wiser, it's really fulfilling for me to be able to offer advice and insight to my younger undergrad colleagues on academics, life and the world of work, leadership, and the business of student government. As all of my degrees have come from Stritch, I'm also able to bring a lot of continuity to the table in terms of having historical context of the institution - with the exception of six years or so, I've consistently been a student of Stritch since 2001! And the learning is definitely a two-way street. I've learned so much from my younger undergrad colleagues about various issues affecting today's college students, and I'm a better person for having the opportunity to know, and work with, them.   

So what can we as educators, parents, and community and business leaders do to encourage more intergenerational connections?

Educators can assign projects and/or papers, and create fun, low-pressure learning activities, that seek to encourage engagement and understanding between students and their relatives and other adults in their lives - coaches & advisors, friends of family, family of friends, workplace managers, etc. The goal is to have students pick up some valuable life and/or career advice, or perhaps a new skill, or maybe even a hobby they'd like to take up.

Recently, I started reading another book entitled, Under-Resourced Learners: 8 Strategies to Boost Student Achievement, by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. Dr. Payne offers some suggestions that I think would work incredibly well here, too. She explains: 
Bridging social capital is Robert Putnam’s terminology, meaning people you know who are different from you. It is from people different from you that much learning occurs. Bonding social capital involves people you know who are like you.

a. One way to do it is with e-mail buddies [Mr. Robertson’s note here – think of this as the modern version of pen pals, updated for this highly-technological age]. They can be from another country, another part of this country, adults from the business community, or individuals from the non-profit community. The person is to provide information and support out of a much larger context. The e-mails always need to be copied to a school person. If the e-mail buddy is local, a meeting needs to take place with the buddy, the student and the school person. If the e-mail buddy is from another country or another part of the state or nation, the relationship will get set up only on recommendation of a school person.

b. Mentors are another way. One issue with mentors is that it’s difficult to find mentors, particularly when they’re supposed to come only at a certain time on a certain day. It usually needs to be more flexible to work with the mentor’s schedule. It’s better to ask if they can meet with the person once a week for at least 30 minutes. Again, these meetings must be supervised or in a public place.

c. Mentoring by the student himself/herself is another way and is very powerful. The student becomes a mentor to a younger student. (Payne, 2008, pp. 32-33)
Dr. Payne's ideas here recall for me a very successful and innovative partnership that the school district and chamber of commerce have built together over the years here in Muskego. As I recall in the post, Partnerships between school districts and chambers of commerce, back in October 2017,
A little shy of two weeks ago, on October 19, I had the immense privilege of participating in a luncheon at Muskego High School. The purpose of the event was to bring students and area business and community leaders together to discuss and reflect on the many career and educational paths that are available out there.

During this mentoring lunch, a joint effort between the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism’s Education and Mentoring Committee and Muskego High School, we broke up into two groups by gender, each in a separate classroom. From there, we broke up further into smaller tables, with one or two mentors joining a group of students for conversation and a pizza lunch. I was joined at my table by Rob Schopf, owner of the Indian Motorcycle of Metro Milwaukee dealership on Racine Avenue. Rob and I shared our stories of education, training, and work over the years with several young men that appeared genuinely interested in what we had to say. Likewise, we were certainly genuinely interested in what they had to say, and it was a great give and take of questions, talking, listening, and connecting.

After lunch and these small group discussions, the larger room joined together for elevator pitches, with each student and mentor standing up briefly and introducing themselves to the room. Mentors shared what they do, or did, for work, and offered meaningful career advice to the students. Students shared what they hope to study or do for work someday. After this, we broke up again into smaller groups for further conversation. This time, however, we changed the groups up in an attempt to match students and mentors around similar interests and work experiences based on what they shared in their elevator pitches.

The experience was as much of a learning opportunity for us mentors as it was for the students. We all became teachers and students of one another. For me, it was particularly rewarding to hear the stories of the other mentors. We had a diverse collection of talent assembled and backgrounds represented. Some of the mentors are college graduates, while others didn’t pursue formal education beyond high school. Some are still working, while others are retired. Some worked or are working for others, while others have pursued business ownership. Areas of expertise represented included sales and marketing, customer service, banking, engineering, trades, tech, police work, elected public service, office management, and entrepreneurship.

...In addition to this mentoring lunch, other events and activities that take place throughout the year in this powerful partnership include, among other items, mock job interviews and resume advice, interviewing skits, and career bus tours around town. And then of course, there’s the Chamber’s annual scholarship program.
Parents can start by, first and foremost, reclaiming their parental authority. On this important subject, Dr. Sax explains in The Collapse of Parenting,
Before we go any further in our discussion of the loss of parental authority, I have to make sure you and I are on the same page with regard to what I mean by “parental authority.” I have learned that when I speak to parents, many confuse “parental authority” with “parental discipline.” They think that parental authority is all about enforcing discipline. In fact, parental authority is primarily about a scale of value. Strong parental authority means that parents matter more than same-age peers. In contemporary American culture, peers matter more than parents. (2016, pp. 20-21)

What does it mean to assert your authority as a parent? It doesn’t necessarily mean being a tough disciplinarian. Among other things, it means ensuring that the parent-child relationship takes priority over the relationships between the child and her or his same-age peers. Not just for toddlers, but for teenagers as well. It means that parents are doing their job – fulfilling their biological role, if you like – of teaching the child how to behave both within and outside of the family unit. Recall that the purpose of a prolonged childhood in our species seems to be, first and foremost, for the child to learn the grown-up culture from the grown-ups. When parents lose their authority – when same-age peers matter more than parents – then kids are no longer interested in learning the culture of the parents. They want to learn the kiddie culture, the teen culture. Throughout this book we will see just how harmful that is. (2016, pp. 23-24)
This reclaiming of parental authority includes, among other things, eating dinner as a family at least several days a week, and without any phones or other devices at the dinner table; setting aside other time (besides dinner) on a regular basis for device-free bonding activities and conversations of real meaning and substance; and working to create a culture and understanding that, while having same-age friends is certainly important and necessary, family comes first. 

Community and business leaders can create a variety of engaging volunteer, enrichment, and career exploration opportunities through the many tools, resources, and networks they have access to, both as individual organizations and in joint cooperation with other organizations. Providing resume and cover letter advice, internships, apprenticeships, mock job interviews with constructive feedback, tours of their facilities, workshops and presentations on an array of insightful subjects, formal and informal mentoring programs, and finding outlets to partner with schools, are some of the ideas that readily come to mind. On that last point about partnering with schools, the partnership between the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism and the Muskego-Norway School District that I discussed earlier serves as a wonderful model.

In closing

I'll conclude with several quotes and passages from Girls on the Edge that are very relevant to this discussion. They're all taken from a chapter that Dr. Sax simply called, "Spirit." The chapter is devoted to the subject of helping girls discover who they truly are and where they'd like to go - essentially, helping them find and connect with their spirit. A lot of these passages are just as equally relevant for boys. Here they are:
“Community matters. The kind of community in which your daughter engages will shape the person she becomes. In Chapter 2, I described how a girl growing up 40 or 50 years ago was likely to be involved in communities that involved adult women, whether at church, or in her extended family, or just sitting on her neighbor’s front porch. Today, a girl’s community is more likely to consist primarily of other girls her own age. That means girls talking mostly with other girls. But Girl Talk can be toxic to girls, even when they don’t mean it to be. When girls talk with one another, the most popular topics tend to include their own personal problems. That’s as true of 9-year-old girls as it is of 19-year-old women. All too often, the sharing and self-disclosure can spin into an obsessive rehash of negative emotion. As the old saying goes, rolling in the mud is not the best way of getting clean…That’s what can happen when girls counsel other girls, because girls providing counsel to same-age girls isn’t the right kind of community.” (p. 204)

“The right kind of community bridges the generations. The right kind of community involves girls learning from women their mother’s age and their grandmother’s age.” (p. 205)

“It doesn’t have to be anything formal or structured. Sophia was a high-school girl working part-time as a receptionist at a medical clinic when she told me how much she valued the opinions and support provided by her coworkers at the clinic, all women. She had a huge crush on a guy at her high school, and he was taking advantage of her. The other girls at the high school saw nothing wrong with what was going on. In fact, they envied her because he was popular and athletic, and he wasn’t being physically intimate with anybody else. But he wasn’t making any promises to her either. When she told the older women in her office about it, they offered a different perspective…Sophia broke off the relationship…” (p. 205)

“How does a girl become a woman? What does it mean to be a 'real' woman? These are questions that almost every enduring culture has answered by providing a community of women to show girls the way. I’m not talking only about mothers teaching their daughters, but about a community of women teaching the girls. We used to have many such communities in the United States, formal and informal: quilting circles, sewing circles, all-female Bible study groups, all-female book groups, Girl Scout troops, the variety of women’s clubs that operated in association with the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and so forth. Remnants of such groups still exist, but girls today are much more likely to hang out with other girls their age than they are to mix socially with women their parents’ age.” (pp. 205-206)

“Your group should bridge the generations. That means ideally involving not just other parents but also grandparents. Encourage your daughter to develop friendships with women your age and your mother’s age.” (p. 208)

“Sometimes we may just need to rediscover old ways of connecting girls with women. Sewing circles were never primarily about sewing; they were about women and girls helping each other, which included helping girls negotiate the transitions through adolescence and into womanhood. The challenges are different today, of course, but the value of a mature adult perspective hasn’t changed.” (p. 208)

“Your daughter may know more than you do about how to upload photos from a cell phone to a Facebook page, but you know more than she does about how alcohol affects the judgment and behavior of teenage boys. She needs your perspective and the perspective of other adults your age and older.” (p.208).

Payne, R. K. (2008). Under-resourced learners: 8 strategies to boost student achievement. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.

Sax, L. (2010). Girls on the edge: The four factors driving the new crisis for girls. New York: Basic Books.

Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups. New York: Basic Books.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The success and beauty in failure

Part of my occasional, ongoing series working with the book, The Collapse of Parenting, by Dr. Leonard Sax.

Aaron S. Robertson

A couple of stories to open this discussion up

In his 2016 book, The Collapse of Parenting, Leonard Sax, MD, Ph.D., devotes Chapter 5 to attempting to answer the question, "Why Are So Many Kids So Fragile?" There are two stories from that chapter that I find fitting to share here.

The first one is about a young man named Aaron (that's a cool name, by the way). Aaron has been a gamer since early childhood, and he's a whiz at the game Madden NFL Football. In high school, during a routine checkup, the nurse practitioner told Aaron and his dad, Steve, that Aaron was overweight. She recommended sports as an outlet to increase his physical activity. Steve, in turn, suggested to Aaron that he give football a try. Steve was a football player throughout his time in middle and high school, and he really enjoyed it. He had already been encouraging Aaron to give it a shot for quite a few years, but to no avail. But when some of Aaron's pals, who were fellow gamers, decided to try out for the JV team, Aaron finally caved in.

Here's what happened, in Steve's words, from the book:
“Aaron was pretty cocky when he went to the tryouts. He thought that being master of Madden NFL Football would give him an advantage. But the coach said he wanted to get a sense of who was in shape and who wasn’t. So he had them do some sprints. Then he made everyone run a mile, and every boy was timed. Aaron’s times in the sprints were terrible, and he took nearly 12 minutes to run a mile. One mile. The coach said, ‘Son, I have no idea whether you’re going to be able to play this game or not. You’re out of shape. I expect to see you back here tomorrow morning at 7 a.m. with the other kids who are out of shape. You’ll run another mile around the track, then we’ll go the weight room.”

“What happened? Did Aaron go back the next morning” I asked.

“Nope. He never went back. That was his first and last foray into any kind of after-school sport…” (Sax, 2016, pp. 94-95)
Julia was a high school junior when her story was told in the book. She was very competitive by nature. Dr. Sax surmises that perhaps she got some of that from her parents. Mom is an investment banker, dad a surgeon. Long story short, Julia attempted to take AP Physics her junior year, a course that is usually taken senior year. Accustomed to always being at the top of her class, or at least very close to the top, she scored a 74 on the first quiz. Her teacher suggested after this first quiz that it wasn't too late to consider dropping the course. This, unfortunately, sent Julia into a downward spiral emotionally and mentally.

After some hard convincing by her mom, Jennifer, Julia started getting help from a tutor. She scored a 79 on the second quiz, and this sent her into a total depression. She couldn't handle getting a C in the course. Jennifer took her to see the pediatrician, who placed her on a low dosage of an antidepressant. It helped for a short period of time, but her mood and feelings relapsed. Jennifer then decided to take her to a psychiatrist, who recommended adding another medication to the mix. She was alarmed when she read the potential side effects of this medication, which included weight gain and diabetes. That prompted Jennifer to reach out to Dr. Sax for a second opinion (Sax, 2016, pp. 95-98). 

Here's the scoop: You're going to experience failure numerous times in life.

You're going to encounter failure throughout your life. Many, many times. Countless times, in fact. In all sorts of contexts, places, situations, and sizes - in school; the workplace; relationships of all kinds; sports; business ventures; tests of all kinds; not getting into your top college choices; your finances; not getting that dream job, internship, or scholarship; and from simple mistakes to what may feel like the end of the world to you.

There are two main contributing factors that lead to, or accelerate, these failures:

1) Simply encountering circumstances beyond our control, and there will be plenty of these.

There were many other applicants that were better qualified. The economy is crashing, and now I'm out of a job. The other team showed up to play, while my team was nowhere to be found. A recession is causing my investments to nosedive. I just didn't foresee this as a possibility, and so it caught me completely off guard. A sports injury has railroaded my dreams of going pro. And, let's be honest - there are people out there who are just jerks by nature, and nothing you say or do will ever change or please them. They will put up barriers for you without any particular rhyme or reason.

2) Circumstances that are totally within our control.

Instead of studying for the big exam, I decided to spend all that time playing video games with my friends. I didn't ask for help when I needed it, and now I'm in a mess. I could have been a better listener for my friend. I let my teammates down by not putting in the practice time I needed to. I never saved anything (money), and now I'm out of work. Etc., etc.  

Here are the solutions to overcoming failure and powering ahead

First off, accept and embrace failure as a natural part of life that's not going away. Simply accepting this fact is actually quite liberating and empowering. The earlier you can embrace this truth, the better you'll be prepared mentally and emotionally for when these times do come along, and they surely will. You'll be more level-headed, even-keeled, and able to look at things more objectively and reasonably. 

See every situation, every failure, as an opportunity to learn. Every situation in life and career is a learning opportunity that will better prepare you for future success. Ask yourself, and really take the time and effort to reflect on, questions like: What can I take away from this experience? What in this situation did I have control over? In regard to those things that I did have control over, what could I have done better? What could I have taken more seriously? How can these newfound insights better prepare me for the future?

The current situation that we find ourselves in, the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, presents many such learning opportunities to us, if we simply take the time to listen to them. In a post that I just published last week, "Building your own personal economy," I discuss, and offer a number of solutions to, how this crisis has fully unmasked (pun intended) the true magnitude of Americans' lack of savings. We're living paycheck to paycheck, we can't fund an unexpected $500 car repair, and missing work for even a week or two with all the lock downs and business closures across the country has left us in dire straits. 

Yin and Yang
Realize that success and failure are intertwined, and that you cannot have one without the other. Look at success and failure as Yin and Yang. It's an axiomatic truth that they are interconnected, and that one cannot exist without the other. We can't have success without failure, because it's learning from those failures that leads to the successes. And we can't have failure without success, because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to. And because we wouldn't have anything to compare failure to, we wouldn't have anything to strive for. We wouldn't know what success looks and feels like because it doesn't exist.       

One of the very first posts I wrote for this blog, way back in December 2018, is, "Success comes from not quitting." And in that post, I discuss the career highlights of several historical figures, mostly athletes. And the reason why they became legends - the reason why we know their names today - is because they simply kept going. Every day was a new day, a new opportunity to learn from yesterday's mistakes and defeats. A new day to notch another victory.

As I note in that post, pitcher Cy Young has the most wins in baseball, but guess what? He also racked up the most losses. Neither record is even close to ever being broken. The biggest loser in baseball is also its biggest winner. Babe Ruth was the home run king for decades before Hank Aaron came along and took the title. Decades after Aaron, as we know, Barry Bonds claimed it. But while Ruth was the home run leader for decades, he also held the record for most strikeouts. That record - the most strikeouts - was eventually claimed by another legendary slugger, Reggie Jackson. Michael Jordan and Bob Cousy were cut from their high school basketball teams. And Thomas Edison was said to have failed thousands of times on the light bulb before he finally got it right.

Adopt a Growth Mindset, and unleash the power of yet.

This next point ties in well with this notion about seeing every situation as a learning opportunity. I recently took an online course as a part of my ongoing professional development called "Teaching Online: Principles, Techniques and Strategies." The course covered, among other subjects, the Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset philosophy. I was already aware of this approach prior to taking this course, but it was great to get a refresher on it, and it definitely fits the overall topic of this post. Check out this video that was in the course. It does a wonderful job of explaining the concept:

And check out this poster, which ties in really well with the video:

The power of yet

Adopting a growth mindset and understanding the power of yet is what frees up your mind to allow you to see every situation - every failure - as a learning opportunity.

Try looking at your failure from a different perspective - it may not be nearly as bad as you think.

Here's my take on Julia's situation - I'm actually a little jealous of her. I make it no secret that I was a slacker in high school. From where I stand, her carrying a C in AP Physics is far more than I ever accomplished in high school, and college credit is college credit. A grade of a C is passing the course, and that means college credit before even filling out the admissions application. Combined with her other AP coursework throughout high school, she's well on her way to a much faster (and far less expensive) start in college - as well as in career and life - than I ever was. Whereas Julia saw that C as being a major failure, I see it as simply standing for the word, "Credit." There you have it - a different perspective.

Have backup plans.

Around six months ago, in mid-November, I wrote this brief post about the importance of cultivating many options - essentially, having a few viable backup plans ready to go in case things don't work out as you had planned, or simply to enable you to explore new territory and opportunities, or to hedge your bets against risks.

Finally, work on building courage, humility, and gratitude - NOT self-esteem.

I'll close with this passage from the book that I found particularly insightful and relevant for this post. It's on the dangers of self-esteem. Now, that may sound somewhat strange to say - that we shouldn't have a high amount of self-esteem - I found it somewhat strange and paradoxical at first, as well. But I read this passage a couple of times and really reflected on it for some time, and it now makes perfect sense to me. All too often, we tend to confuse self-esteem, because it's a big word or phrase that's ingrained in our culture, with what we should really be aiming for - courage, humility, and gratitude. These characteristics are different from self-esteem, as we'll discover here. Here is that passage:
Charlene has very high self-esteem. I don’t think that’s such a good thing. Her high self-esteem at age 15 is setting her up for disappointment and resentment at age 25. I have witnessed this trajectory many times. Soaring self-esteem in childhood and adolescence, carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, predictably leads to a crash after college, typically about 3 to 5 years after graduation, when it slowly dawns on the young adult - the same adult who had been so talented as an adolescent - that she’s actually not as talented as she thought. She discovers that just because she was repeatedly told that she is amazing does not mean that she is, in reality, amazing.

Put bluntly, the culture of self-esteem leads to a culture of resentment. If I am so wonderful, but my talents are not recognized and I’m still nobody at age 25, working in a cubicle - or not working at all - then I may feel envious and resentful of those who are more successful than me. How come that other young writer got her novel published, and she was on the TODAY Show and I can’t even get an agent?

One parent recently said to me, 'Kids need self-esteem. I want my daughter to have the courage to apply for that big job, her dream job. And that requires self-esteem.'

Not quite, I answered. Taking appropriate risks requires courage, first and foremost. Again, many parents confuse self-esteem with courage, just as some parents tend to confuse humility with timidity and cowardice. To be courageous means that you recognize the risks and your own limitations, but you find the resolve to move forward anyhow. The young person with bloated self-esteem, unaware of her own deficiencies, is unlikely to do well in the job interview. But the young person who is genuinely interested in what the recruiter has to say is more likely to get the job.

The right kind of humility helps you to recognize your own shortcomings. To be better prepared. To understand the risks. And to take those risks courageously, when necessary.

The antidote to the culture of bloated self-esteem is the culture of humility. If I am in the culture of humility, then I rejoice at the success of others, and I am happy with my portion. The culture of humility leads to gratitude, appreciation, and contentment. The key to lasting happiness is contentment.

This conclusion is now grounded in some compelling research. Investigators have recently found that if an individual has a grateful attitude toward life, that individual is more likely to be satisfied with life, more contented, and happier. (Sax, 2016, pp. 162-163).

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Building your own personal economy

If the coronavirus pandemic can teach us anything from a financial standpoint, it's that we each need to focus on building our own personal economies. We can't trust, or rely on, other people, politicians, or broken-down systems to do that for us.

If you're one of my high school or college -aged readers, you have the greatest asset going for you right now. You have time on your side. Don't squander it. Harness its great power before it catches up to you and is gone forever. And if you're one of my older readers tuning in, it's better late than never, as the old saying goes. You can immediately commit to these principles and strategies today, and dramatically alter your course heading for the better.

Aaron S. Robertson


As time goes on during the lock downs and business closures throughout the country due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, we're seeing more and more of the devastating financial effects all of this is having on families and businesses. As I write this, well over 30 million Americans are now unemployed during the pandemic. Food insecurity is creeping in, and children are going hungry. Lines to drive-up food pantries are backed up for miles in some areas of the country. Protestors are demanding an end to the shutdowns, with many pleading that they simply need to return to work in order to support themselves and their families. Rents, mortgage payments, and other bills are going unpaid.

A problem exposed that transcends all politics and personal beliefs about the virus

For this discussion, try to set aside any political or ideological persuasion you may have. Whether or not you think the coronavirus is a hoax; whether or not you're in support of these lock downs/closures; whether or not you feel your Constitutional rights are being violated - none of that matters for purposes of this discussion. These issues will be tested and battled out in the court system in due time. In the meantime, there's one indisputable fact that we know for sure right now in this very moment, and that is the purpose of this discussion - we Americans are not saving enough, and, as we're seeing, we can't weather out a storm, be it in the form of a pandemic, a natural disaster, an individual job loss, or a widespread economic meltdown.

A case in point: Here in Wisconsin, the "Safer at Home" order went into effect on March 25. Granted, schools had already dismissed prior to that date. The school district in which I'm employed, for example, held its last in-person school day back on March 13. Now, the "Safer at Home" order was originally scheduled to go through April 24, but it ended up being extended through May 26. So, let's assume, worst-case scenario, barring any court intervention or the governor lifting it earlier, that the order will stay in place through May 26. In total, that makes for nine weeks between March 25 and May 26 - a hair over two months. As this page on the Wells Fargo Web site explains, we should ideally have 3-6 months worth of expenses tucked away in an emergency fund. That's the typical advice doled out by financial advisors and economists across the board. But families and business owners are really hurting right now, and we're not even at the full nine weeks yet. I'm writing this on May 10, and we still have 16 days to go until we reach May 26. And, in fact, families and businesses were already feeling the pain and pleading to get back to work less than one month into the order. Clearly, we're not saving enough. We're living paycheck to paycheck. But we're great at spending and racking up debt, as Warren Buffett recently pointed out in comments he made about Americans' use of credit cards.

We need to focus on building our own personal economies so that we have the resources to effectively navigate through the storms that undoubtedly come our way in life. And they come in all shapes and sizes - anything from an unexpected car repair to an accident or critical illness. Anything from widespread economic decline to - yes - a pandemic. Back to unexpected car repairs for a moment - this press release issued by in 2016 pointed out at the time that 63% of Americans could not afford to cover a $500 car repair or a $1,000 visit to the emergency room. Four years later, in 2020, those numbers haven't improved much. According to this article published by CNBC back in January, 41% of Americans can cover a $1,000 emergency with savings. That leaves some 59% who cannot. And when it comes to the current state of retirement savings, the picture doesn't look pretty, either. According to this recent Washington Post story profiling six retired baby boomers:
Half of American families in the 56-to-61 age bracket had less than $21,000 in retirement savings in 2016, according to a longitudinal study by the Economic Policy Institute that used the most recent available figures. A less formal survey last year found that little had changed. Forty percent of Americans over the age of 60 who are no longer working full-time rely solely on Social Security for their income - the median annual benefit is about $17,000.
Clearly, what we're seeing right now, is that it took this current crisis - the pandemic - to unmask (pun fully intended) the dire problem of Americans' lack of savings. Tens of millions of Americans not being able to fund an unexpected car repair or emergency room visit, with each individual incident scattered over a long period of time, isn't going to make the news or create large-scale economic disaster. The problem is there, but this type of occurrence isn't enough to expose the true nature of it. But bring tens of millions of Americans together, all at once, who have been out of work now for anywhere between one and six weeks or so, and the lid has been fully blown off. We can't hide it anymore. We're now clearly seeing the magnitude of Americans' lack of savings.

Roots of the problem

I'd imagine that our inability - or unwillingness - to save is largely due to our collective consumer culture. With credit so readily available, it's all too easy to want to live for today by splurging and borrowing against the future. Tying into this is the whole "Keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. It's a trap that's easy to get caught in when it seems like everyone else around you is doing it. But a couple other factors, I suspect, are also at play here.

In addition to the consumer culture/keeping up with the Joneses dynamic, I'm betting that another factor contributing to the problem is that we just don't want to imagine anything bad ever happening. We don't want to think about those things - an accident, serious illness, job loss, natural disaster, pandemic, economic collapse, death - the car needing to be repaired. And because we don't want to think about the potential for things to go wrong, we're naturally caught off guard and perhaps even shaken to our core when they do happen.
"Tens of millions of Americans not being able to fund an unexpected car repair or emergency room visit, with each individual incident scattered over a long period of time, isn't going to make the news or create large-scale economic disaster. The problem is there, but this type of occurrence isn't enough to expose the true nature of it. But bring tens of millions of Americans together, all at once, who have been out of work now for anywhere between one and six weeks or so, and the lid has been fully blown off. We can't hide it anymore. We're now clearly seeing the magnitude of Americans' lack of savings."
Finally, a third contributing cause that I see here at work is our dependency on "the system" stepping in and providing relief when things go awfully wrong. We've come to expect unemployment insurance and other programs that collectively comprise what we call the "social safety net" always being there for us and coming to our rescue. The problem here is that the social safety net is marred by bureaucracy, inefficiencies and backlogs, technical woes, budget cuts, and politics. When it comes to the unemployment system alone, today's front page section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is replete with stories of working people still waiting after many weeks to receive their first unemployment payment. Furthermore, these programs were always meant to be a band-aid of sorts; a little bit of temporary help - a supplement in a jam. They were never designed to fully take the place of our own planning and saving. We can't rely on these programs like that.         

What should we do about it? What can we do?

Fortunately, there are a number of tools and strategies we can implement to help us prepare for these situations and significantly mitigate the effects on ourselves and our families. We, alone, must do these things for ourselves and our families. We can't rely on other people, on politicians, or on broken-down systems to do these things for us. It doesn't matter who's in office. It doesn't matter how strong the broader economy is. We have to do this important work ourselves and resist the temptation to take the words and promises of others at face value.

The best part about these tools and strategies? It doesn't matter what your income is. Your income is not tied to your ability to save, mitigate risks, and build wealth. We know plenty of people earning six-figures who are sinking in debt, and we know plenty of people earning far humbler numbers by comparison who have become millionaires by faithfully following the 10 things millionaires do not do. You can start today with many of these items with the proper mindset and a little discipline.

First, let's talk about that mindset - I don't know if I've transformed into a jaded, cynical, bitter old man in my 30s, or if I've simply become more of a reasonable realist. For me, determining where that line is can be difficult sometimes. But here's my philosophy and psychology in a nutshell, for whatever it's worth. It goes back to some points made earlier about people generally not wanting to think about bad things happening, only to be caught off guard when they do happen: If you can imagine it happening, it can happen. If it can happen, it's likely that it will happen. There's virtually nothing that surprises me anymore about the world - about how people react; about how we treat one another; about the motives of others; about bureaucracy; about chaos, destruction, disease, natural disaster, famine, mass death, economic collapse, situations beyond our control; etc. If it can happen, it's likely that it will happen. And that's why it's important to think in terms of possible worst case scenarios and hedge your bets accordingly in order to protect yourself and those you care about. That was the general gist of my post, "Cultivating many options," that I wrote back in mid-November. In that post, I argued the benefits of having a few backup plans always ready to go at a moment's notice.
"We have to do this important work ourselves and resist the temptation to take the words and promises of others at face value."
I love movies about Wall Street and the world of investing, and one of my favorite films of all time in this genre is The Big Short. Here's a clip from that movie:

Here are some particular lines from that above clip that do a great job of summarizing my overall mindset and approach to life:
Charlie: "Our investment strategy was simple. People hate to think about bad things happening, so they always underestimate their likelihood."

Narrator: "Their strategy was simple and brilliant. Jamie and Charlie found markets will sell options very cheaply on things they think will never happen. So when they were wrong, they were wrong small. But when they were right, they were right big."   
The envelope system - Back in early March, I wrote a post about how I just started utilizing the envelope system for budgeting and saving, a strategy that I picked up from a personal finance class I assist in at the high school I work at. Since starting the envelope system, I've managed to save over $2,200 as I write this. Now, granted, I concede that this number may be a little artificially propped up by Wisconsin's "Stay at Home" order - it's hard to spend money when there's nowhere really to go. Nonetheless, $2,200 is $2,200. I wouldn't have it without this system in place. At first, it took a lot of discipline and getting used to. Now, it's second nature, and it's working really well for me. I love it. I could kick myself in the rear for not starting it earlier.
"It doesn't matter what your income is. Your income is not tied to your ability to save, mitigate risks, and build wealth. We know plenty of people earning six-figures who are sinking in debt, and we know plenty of people earning far humbler numbers by comparison who have become millionaires..."
The snowball method and the avalanche method for tackling debt - The snowball method is taught to students in our personal finance class. It's highly effective yet very simple to implement. This finance article on CNBC discussing ways to tackle credit card debt does a great job of explaining the concept:
Popularized by “The Total Money Makeover” author Dave Ramsey, the snowball method prioritizes your smallest debts first, regardless of interest rate. To try it, start by listing out all of your debts, smallest to largest. Pay the minimum balance on each one, except the smallest. For that one, dedicate as much cash as possible each month until it is repaid. Then move on to the second-smallest debt.

The idea is that you’ll gain momentum by watching debts disappear - as you would watching a snowball grow bigger and bigger - and that will motivate you to continue.
That same CNBC article describes the avalanche method this way:
To employ the avalanche method, list your debts from highest to lowest by interest rate. Pay the minimum balance on each, but this time dedicate as much extra as you can each month to the one with the highest interest rate.

Mathematically speaking, tackling the highest interest rates first is the most efficient way to handle debt because it eliminates interest as quickly as possible. The debts that would be racking up the most in interest are dealt with first, so you can minimize interest paid.
Both the snowball method and the avalanche method are effective for tackling debt. However, it should be noted that, according to this research conducted by Harvard Business Review on paying down credit card debt, which the CNBC article cites, the snowball method appears to be the best way to go because it's easier to stay motivated. There's a psychological effect at play here. You're more likely to see the total number of your debts disappearing faster, even though your higher-interest debts may be getting paid off last, and it's seeing the total number of debts shrinking that will keep you energized throughout the process.

Using cash as a negotiation tool - Who doesn't like cash? Once you start accumulating some through saving, budgeting, and knocking some debts out, you can use cash to your advantage in many scenarios where you're able to negotiate, not just buying a car. Mark Cuban and Dave Ramsey explain the benefits of using cash to negotiate.   

Long-term care insurance - In December 2011, just days before my 29th birthday, I purchased a long-term care insurance policy. This Wikipedia article on long-term care insurance explains it well:
Long-term care insurance (LTC or LTCI) is an insurance product, sold in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada that helps pay for the costs associated with long-term care. Long-term care insurance covers care generally not covered by health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid.

Individuals who require long-term care are generally not sick in the traditional sense but are unable to perform two of the six activities of daily living (ADLs) such as dressing, bathing, eating, toileting, continence, transferring (getting in and out of a bed or chair), and walking.

Age is not a determining factor in needing long-term care. About 70 percent of individuals over 65 will require at least some type of long-term care services during their lifetime. About 40% of those receiving long-term care today are between 18 and 64. Once a change of health occurs, long-term care insurance may not be available. Early onset (before 65) Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease occur rarely.

Long-term care is an issue because people are living longer. As people age, many times they need help with everyday activities of daily living or require supervision due to severe cognitive impairment. That impacts women even more since they often live longer than men and, by default, become caregivers to others.
Now, most people in their 20s aren't thinking 40+ years down the road. But if you're one of them, you have a great advantage. Generally speaking, time and health are on your side, and the younger and healthier you are when you purchase one of these policies, the lower your premium amount. The odds that you're going to need this kind of assistance when you're older are high. And a policy like this can help mitigate those odds by protecting your assets down the road from being eaten up by healthcare costs, not to mention relieving loved ones from the burden of having to take care of you. Insurance agent and financial advisor friends of mine tell me that purchasing a long-term care policy when I did was one of the best moves I could ever make. Many people who purchase these types of policies don't start thinking about and buying them until they're in their 50s or older - to a significant cost disadvantage.

Finally, on this subject, if I pass away prior to having to tap into this policy, all the premiums I paid into it will be returned to my estate.

Disability insurance - I purchased an individual disability insurance policy (individual meaning that it's not tied to my employer-sponsored benefits - I own it as long as I continue paying the premiums on it, regardless of employment status or job changes) back in June 2017. If I become disabled and, hence, unable to work, this policy will provide a guaranteed monthly income for a set period of time. Additionally, at the age of 65, with the way my policy is structured, I can have my premiums returned to me. The amount of premium returned to me will depend on the amount of benefits I took from the policy. If I never have to tap into the policy, I'll have 100% of all the monthly premiums I ever paid into the policy given back to me at 65. I look at this as sort of a forced savings strategy. If I pass away prior to 65, I can have the premiums I paid up to that point go to a beneficiary.

This Wikipedia article on disability insurance sums it up well:
Disability Insurance, often called DI or disability income insurance, or income protection, is a form of insurance that insures the beneficiary's earned income against the risk that a disability creates a barrier for a worker to complete the core functions of their work. For example, the worker may suffer from an inability to maintain composure in the case of psychological disorders or an injury, illness or condition that causes physical impairment or incapacity to work. It encompasses paid sick leave, short-term disability benefits (STD), and long-term disability benefits (LTD). Statistics show that in the US a disabling accident occurs, on average, once every second. In fact, nearly 18.5% of Americans are currently living with a disability, and 1 out of every 4 persons in the US workforce will suffer a disabling injury before retirement.
Job loss insurance - Not long ago, I purchased a policy from SafetyNet, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, SafetyNet is no longer taking on any new customers, but you should be able to find somewhat similar coverage through another provider. These types of policies are becoming popular.

Anyway, at the time I had their coverage, SafetyNet provided an insurance policy that protected against job loss on two different fronts - job loss caused by an involuntary, no-fault-of-your-own layoff/shutdown/business closure that would prevent you from working for at least 30 days, and job loss caused by a covered illness or accident that would prevent you from working for at least 30 days. I believe there were three levels of coverage. You could pay $5 per month for a payout of x. That was the lowest premium/payout amount. The payout may have been $1,000. There was an amount in the middle. And I chose the highest amount of coverage. I paid $30 per month - one dollar a day - for a payout of $9,000. Well, that ended up being a good decision on my part. I ended up filing a claim in early 2018 when the business I was working for was experiencing financial difficulties and had to lay me off. It really came in handy, and I was able to collect regular unemployment insurance from the state of Wisconsin, as well.

Now, for these job loss type of policies, one thing to keep in mind is potential tax implications. With me taking a payout on the layoff/shutdown/business closure side of things, the payout counted as income, and I had to pay tax on that $9,000 when I filed my tax return for the year. Well worth it. I would have had to pay taxes on that $9,000 anyway if I had earned it working. By contrast, you do not have to pay tax on a payout from a covered illness/accident claim.

Finally, here are some additional tips, strategies, and resources from personal finance expert Dave Ramsey that I highly recommend:

30 Easy Ways to Save Up to $1,000

How to Save Money: 20 Simple Tips

How to Save Money Fast
8 Ways to Turn Saving Money Into a Game

These are just a few things you may want to consider employing as you seek to build up your own personal economy so that you can navigate the challenging times and curve balls that life, without a doubt, throws at us from time to time. I also have life insurance (both employer-sponsored and individual coverage) and some investments in my toolbox, but that may be better suited for a future post here. I'd also like to write a post in the future about employee benefits. Depending on what your employer all has to offer, there could be some really nice gems that can further help you in mitigating risks and planning for the future.

What are your thoughts, observations, and experiences? Do you have any financial tips and strategies not discussed here that have served you well during times of uncertainty and crisis? We'd love to hear from you! Please feel free to share in the comments section below.