10 Podcasts To Prepare for Anything That Might Come Our Way in the 2020-21 School Year

Brian Miller
Secondary Principal

Years ago, when I wanted to be a writer, I read Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and was struck by one of his foundational truths: if you want to be able to write good stories, you need to be reading good stories - all the time.

I think the same can be true for anything we want to be great at, be it a sport, a craft, or a job. If we want to be great at something, we need to learn all there is to know about it, immerse ourselves in it, and allow it to become part of who we are.

And education is no different.

If I want to be a phenomenal educator, leader, and person, if I want to know about people and leadership, I need to learn more about pain and struggle, forgiveness and reconciliation, failure and success. I need to learn about humanity and life - all the time. Which is why I love podcasts, because they allow me an endless supply of stories, insights, research, and ideas.

The problem, though, is that I can easily waste a great deal of time sifting through the endless library of options. I can waste even more time listening to mediocre episodes that neither inspire, encourage, or teach me anything. They simply eat up time. And as an educator, I don't have much of that to spare… and even less so now than usual with the first day of school right around the corner.

Below are 10 of my favorite individual episodes from a variety of podcasts. These are the ones that will challenge you as a person, grow you as an educator, and prepare you for whatever awaits us in the year ahead. Most importantly though, not a single one of them will waste so much as a minute of your precious time.

I would never do that to you.

1 - Reality, Invisibilia

"How is it that two neighbors can look out their window at the exact same thing, and see something completely different?" the podcast asks. For us, as educators, parents, and community members, the same could be said about a great number of things right now. Most notably, masks.

I recently sat in a board meeting where, during the public comment section, science was used as the basis for truth on both sides of the extreme and everywhere in the middle as to why we should or should not require masks. "The truth is clear," it was said so confidently. Yet, the only clear thing about science - regarding masks anyway - was that it wasn't all that clear. Science seemed to find its way into both arguments.

How is that possible? How is it that both sides are looking at the same thing and coming to radically different conclusions?

More importantly, perhaps, how do we as educators and educational leaders handle this inconsistency? Do we acquiesce to the loudest voice? Or do we dig our heels in deep and become part of the conflict?

The answer isn't as easy as you'd think. But the solution could be.

It's always a good idea to be respectful of other people's feelings, including their fears and anxieties, no matter how you might be feeling about a particular situation yourself. When you look at it as an issue of mutual respect as opposed to conflicting beliefs, as long as the respect is reciprocal, you'll soon find that winning the argument isn't the important part. The mutual respect is.

And the reality is, mutual respect is something our world could use a lot more of right now.

2 - Grass is Greener, the Moth

In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster points out that when a story is talking about sex, it isn't really talking about sex, it's about something entirely different.

And when a story about a woman trying to have an affair finds herself in the predicament of having dinner with her hopeful replacement AND her husband at the same time, it's most definitely not about sex. It's about happiness, and how we find it.

"The grass isn't greener on the other side, the grass is greener where you water it."

During times such as these, where schools and life are rarely what we've envisioned or desired for ourselves and our children, it is easy to see greener grass all around us, to be discontented, frustrated, and eager to get to those greener pastures.

Nobody doubts that this coming year will be difficult because there is so much that is outside our control.

Yet, like the Reality podcast above, our experiences and interpretations of those experiences are still within our control. We can either water the grass on the other side of the fence, or we can water our own.

Reality is what we make of it.

3 - Facing Fear with Kim Chambers, Wild Ideas Worth Living

But then, what happens when reality kicks us in the face? Or, as in the case of Kim Chambers, when it tumbles us down the stairs and threatens to amputate our legs, what then?

For Kim Chambers, it came down to who she chose to surround herself with.

Kim Chambers never swam competitively in her life before her injury. But in order to save her legs - her life - she had to. So she surrounded herself with the right kind of people, the kind that "normalized greatness," and become one of the most accomplished marathon swimmers in the world. All because she surrounded herself with great people.

It is often said that we are the sum (or average) of the five people we spend the most time with. What the group normalizes, we become.

In a time such as this, who we choose to surround ourselves with will immediately and deeply impact how we choose to respond to our circumstances. Will we sit on our asses and complain about this and that? Or will we get to work, find solutions, and improve the situation?

Will our five people inspire us to swim oceans or conquer mountains?

If not, we need to find a new group. Because our productivity, influence, and happiness depend on it.

4 - Our Pursuit of Happiness 2.0, Hidden Brain

"Whatever we have, we tend to get used to it," the podcast states. "and the pleasure that they provide gradually diminishes."

Much like the grass is greener podcast teaches, happiness tends to be seen as something external. If I had that thing, that person, or lived there, then I'd be happy. And we would be, but only for a time. Soon, though, our joy with that external thing would diminish, leaving us more unhappy and more than a bit frustrated. "Now what?" we might wonder quietly or yell out loud.

The answer, although somewhat counterintuitive and largely against the mainstream flow of thought, is fairly simple: think of others.

Helping and serving others provides a sincere joy. A lasting joy. And a joy that does not diminish but grows and strengthens and encourages us to give more, do more, and serve more. Thus making us even more happy and willing to serve, which makes us more valuable to those we serve.

We just need to get better at how we do it. We also need to rid ourselves of the lie that in order to help, in order to really make a difference, we need giant dollar signs or promises of grand prizes… "You get a car, you get a car, YOU GET A CAR!!!"

Although great, for most of us, it's a bit unrealistic. We're more capable of serving sandwiches in the aftermath of a hurricane or simply raking our neighbor's leaves. Opportunities where we can serve and help others are fairly simple and absolutely all around us. We just need to be looking. And when the opportunity comes, we need to be ready.

As educators who are facing an unknown year with a variety of potential pitfalls and frustrations, it seems only appropriate to love thyself first and foremost. Which isn't necessarily wrong, but it is incomplete. Like we're told on an airplane, we must put our oxygen mask on first so that we're able to offer help to others!

Just like Genie Chance.

5 - This is Chance! Redux, 99% Invisible

"No one told her to do it, but there didn't seem to be anyone to ask for permission either." After one of the largest earthquakes ever measured had ripped through Anchorage on the night on March 27, 1964, nobody knew what to do, where to go,'or if anyone else was alive. It was dark, silent, and terrifying.

But then, Chance got on the air, and for 30 hours straight, she talked. And the people of Anchorage were no longer alone.

"We must be together," Chance later wrote, "As long as we are together, we are confident of the future."

In the coming weeks and months, we will all have our moments of sadness, frustration, and isolation. We may also feel completely lost. In those moments, after we've looked around and found that we're okay, it then immediately becomes our responsibility to start looking at what we can do to help others, using whatever skill or resource we have available to us.

Amidst this pandemic, this is exactly the kind of story we need right now.

6 - Transparency, TED Radio Hour

I recently gave a rock to a friend of mine. It was a very specific rock, one that I had recently found in a field and chose because it fits in his pocket, was smooth, and littered with tiny cracks and discoloration. I gave it to him because his life is requiring him to be a rock for a variety of people and I wanted him to know he could endure a great deal, that he could be the solid strength for the many people who were depending on him.

I also wanted him to know that although his life and experiences had softened him, if he wasn't careful, he would eventually crack and break or slowly erode away.

We cannot endure everything and be perfect and strong all the time. At times, we need others to bear our burdens, endure our pain, and know our true selves. Because that's what being human is. And in order to impact people, to speak into their lives or have an influence in their hearts, they need to see ours - faults and all.

I recently came across the quote that said, "There's no need to be perfect to inspire others. Let others get inspired by how you deal with your imperfections."

There is strength in having flaws that are entirely visible to the world. Just ask a rock.

7 - One Last Thing Before I Go, This American Life

Yet, the reality of our current situation is that there will be many people - students, parents, colleagues - who will experience loss of all kinds. When we are presented with a friend or loved one that is struggling, our first instinct is to help, to fix the problem, and offer solutions. We want to be a rock!

Yet, oftentimes the best thing for them is to grieve. To talk and cry, and to be sad.

This episode provides a window into the irrational yet rational reality of a grieving heart. It also provides a framework for how we can love, support, and provide for those who are simply trying to survive their loss: listen. And provide time and space.

Maybe even an abandoned telephone booth.

8 - That's Just Not Good Enough, At the Table With Patrick Lencioni

"I'm doing the best I can."

We've all heard this. Be it from our own mouth or from the mouth of a friend, family member, or colleague. And when we do, there is more than a bit of empathy because we can all relate.

But that doesn't mean it's okay. Especially in education because kids and their lives and futures are on the line. And we have to do better! Even when we don't feel like it.

"When we fail to say those words," Lencioni explains, "We may avoid the short-term discomfort but we end up creating bigger long-term problems."

This one was extremely challenging to me as it pushes me not only as a leader, but as a person. Sure, I may be trying hard or have all the best intentions, but if it just isn't good enough I need to hear it. I also need to have the ability - the strength - to say it to those I work with and love. Which means I need to work extremely hard at providing a safe place all around this conversation so that when it is said, it is not only heard but understood.

The words might actually be easy to say. The support and encouragement behind those words are where it gets hard, but that's the most important part. But if we've done the hard part, if we cared for and listened to those in pain, then you can be confident that you've fostered enough trust and security to say, "That isn't good enough"

Although uncomfortable and even scary, the alternative to not having the courage to help someone you love be their best is even worse.

9 - The Worst Game Ever, 99% Invisible

In the 1970's, Atari changed the gaming world. Then, about a decade later, they were gone - completely. All because of one terrible mistake: they made the worst game ever. It was so bad in fact that they buried it in a desert in hopes it would never be found again.

But it was. And although that discovery was unfortunate for Atari, it was extremely fortunate for educators because the historical downfall of Atari is an illustrative example of what the potential downfall of education could look like. It's failure is our warning. And we must not take it lightly.

From how we attack curriculum and prepare for our classroom, to the importance of intentionally creating frustration for our students, this episode embodies a company that neglected to say, "That isn't good enough", providing a warning for educators and education alike. Either get better, or get buried.

(For a further breakdown of this episode, as related to education, see: "Valuable Lessons from Atari on How to Level-Up on Education Post-COVID-19")

10 - The Laws of the Office, Planet Money

Yet, in the midst of all this craziness, we also have to contend with the tricks of our unconscious mind (and so do our students). The unconscious mind is actually capable of dictating our time and influencing our integrity if we let it run the show. However, if we can identify the tricks of our unconscious, we can better understand them. And if we can better understand them, we can avoid them. We can also use them to our advantage.

Tricks such as: Parkinson's Law which states that if you give people longer deadlines, they expand the work to fit those deadlines. Or, Goodhart's law which "essentially states that if a company decides to measure something, the employees are going to find a way to give you good numbers. You just may not like how they do it."

As educators, understanding these laws is crucial. Think deadlines for staff and students. How often do we extend a due date or provide ample time for a project yet it never seems like enough? (Tim Urban has a brilliant TEDTalk on this issue entitled, "Why We Procrastinate." Check it out. It's brilliant).

Or how about test scores? If that is the priority, teachers and students will rise to the challenge...but at what cost?

These are ideas all educators must wrestle with and laws we must control. Even if they are just simple unconscious tricks.

With days and weeks before students burst through our doors, we're all scrambling to make sure they enter a fully prepared and purposeful year. However, as you scramble, hopefully you can find some time to go for a walk, a drive, or hide yourself in a dark closet and fill your ears with comfort and encouragement in the form of the perfect podcast.

You are not alone! And your anxiety, fear, and irrational excitement is completely merited because you're an educator. Which means you care - deeply.

Good luck! And happy listening.

Bonus Podcasts!!!

Petty Tyrant, This American Life

This story is gold. GOLD! It won't make you a better person, but it will absolutely entertain you from beginning to end. It's about a school maintenance man who, for over 30 years, worked his way up the ranks until finally he was in charge of the maintenance department. Then, once in charge, he starts messing with his employees, punishing them with terrible work assignments, and secretly slashing their tires in the middle of the night.

For a teacher, this would be a great pairing with a novel like Animal Farm or any other story that wrestles with concepts such as power and control. As an educational leader, it could act as an allegory, and a warning.

If nothing else, you'll never look at your maintenance crew the same way again.

Brené on FFTs, by Brene Brown

I shared this podcast with my staff shortly after school shut down last spring. Several of them responded (which they don't often do) letting me know how encouraging and comforting it was. FFT stands for F-ing First Time, and Brene Brown does an excellent job articulating the knots in our stomachs and the frustration in our hearts when we try new things and fail. Which is crucial, because once we can name it, we can do something about it.

Brian Miller



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