Nat Damon

educational consultant • researcher • writer

Mr. Nat Damon's book, "Time to Teach: Time to Reach - Expert Teachers Give Voice to the Power of Relational Teaching" (Relational Schools Foundation, Cambridge, UK) will be published in May, 2018, in both Kindle and print format. Nat's area of expertise is assessing and strengthening the relational (i.e. qualitative) elements that excellent teachers incorporate in their classrooms. These elements are based on establishing trust, encouraging exploration, achieving authenticity, building connection, cultivating hope and taking time to reflect. Nat's book is a compilation of interviews with teachers in the US, UK, and Finland who have all logged in 10 or more years in the field.

Additionally, Nat has written two other books, both memoirs, about his sister and about his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Nat has a 25-year career in education that began in 1993 as an intern at The Park School in Brookline, MA. Until recently, Nat was the Assistant Head of School and Upper School Director at The John Thomas Dye School in Bel Air, CA. Before that, Nat was the founding Dean at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, CA. Nat served on the Board of Directors for Valley Charter Schools in North Hills, CA, as Board Chair. As an English teacher grades 7 through 12, Nat taught at Derby Academy in Boston, MA and at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, CA.   

Nat is currently living in London.


Drew Kugler: Thanks for coming today, Nat. Really good to sit here with you. We have the advantage of not only having professional compatibility in our interests, but also having the neighborhood where we both live; so, I'm jealous today in terms of the ease of this.

Nat Damon: It's nice to walk over here in my bathrobe.

DK: There we go; perfect. So with that in mind, let me tell the listeners why Nat is here. As you might have noticed through listening to some of the episodes of the show, I've been pretty—somewhat selfish—in picking the guests. I've been lucky enough to talk them into doing it. But I have also made sure that it is things that I'm interested in. Nat that is someone that I chose very carefully and happily to talk about the profession and the conversations that go in to becoming a great teacher. I—when the girls were little—I—they didn't really understand what I did for a living as a coach and I finally was able to successfully equate it to being a teacher. So from then on I have always taken an interest and I still have the pleasure in the summertime of teaching at Hebrew Union College in the summer, so I try to keep my feet into it. But no one that I know has thought recently certainly over the history of his work and more deeply about what it means to be a great teacher. And Nat that has recently completed and is about to publish in May for those teachers and people looking for a light summer reading, a book called Time to Teach: Time to Reach, and we'll talk about that today. So thank you for coming.

ND: So honored to be here Drew. Thank you very much for having me.

DK: So a few questions will get us and the listeners a better understanding of how you think about teaching and what they can hopefully perhaps either dealing with teachers that their kids are handling or maybe in their own thinking about education, that you'll be able to help them. That's the goal of the podcast. But to understand that let me first ask you to tell us a little bit about your general sort of biography of when you began to teach and where it has taken you to today.

ND: Sure. I was an English teacher for twelve years in both Boston and Los Angeles. Before that though I think my teaching career actually started as a camp counselor and overnight camp counselor when I was in high school and college, because learning—teachable moments as we would say in the education profession—happen all the time. And there's nothing like overnight camp where you watch in a very short period of time young—in my case young boy—grow just in incredible ways in that kind of environment. And I would say that even at sixteen seventeen eighteen years old I really tapped into the real joy of watching a kid develop and develop and in so doing, also develop a sense of mastery, but also a sense of self-confidence that he did not have on that first day of camp. So I think I always look back at camp as being kind of where I guess my spirit was ignited to teach. And then right after I graduated college I went into a teaching internship program in Boston and for a year and then ended up having my own classroom at twenty three years old. And then taught for eleven years and then moved into administration and learned the dynamics of running a school for twelve years afterwards. So right now I can say that I've spent half my career teaching in the classroom and half of my career working with teachers in building a strong a school ethos as possible so that the students in my school become like those campers who are—and what I mean by that is that they are going to school in an environment that is encouraging of their own personal, intellectual and ethical growth. 

DK: And Nat—one of the things that Lisa and I like about him is his humility in terms of what he's accomplished. And all you have to do is look at the bio. What he didn't tell you is the prestigious institutions that were good enough to use his skills and that's where this learning came from. So it raises it raises a question—two-part question actually. The first part is as you think through those teaching experiences, what were the the best parts of it—what are the memories? You mention a little bit of it around watching a child grow. How about a little more in terms of the experiences you saw that gave you the most satisfaction?

ND: What's the word for that when you can see colors in your head, when you think about a number or when you listen to music you see colors? There's a—I'll have to look it up—maybe it's called aphasia. I think I have a degree of that when I'm in the classroom. And I noticed this from my first year—it's—and what I mean is—there is something incredibly powerful when I'm standing in front of a group of kids who it's almost like I take the ball and I toss it out to them. And I'm watching them take the ball—it's an idea like a prompt or a concept—and I listen to the kids as they kind of pass the ball around. And and in so doing they are articulating their spin, their angle, on the concept that I toss out to them. And to me, what I see, I can kind of see the zigzags that connects the kids, forming a type of web in the classroom. And that to me is—that image of a web, is a web that's that's fused by ideas—is something that I always think about comes to mind first when I think about the classroom, a healthy optimal classroom dynamic. And when you're when you have that web achieved it's not so much the teacher at the front of the classroom being the stage on the stage, and the font of all knowledge; it is the permission that comes within the classroom for kids to be able to take risks, be able to share ideas of their own, and and gain the confidence that comes with their own peer feedback, as well as the feedback of the teacher in front of them. That's powerful stuff and I think that that is an example of where a school is different than a board meeting or a administration meeting, or in the private sector, any sort of corporate meeting. It's not so much that you're watching the ideas banter back and forth and that's the value, it is—but in the classroom it really is.

Output matters and we're certainly in an age of data and incredible ability to assess a student's performance using technology, but the part of teaching that I noticed early on that really kind of hooked me, was not the summit of data, the outcomes; but the process. And the process of learning is so individualized and it is so nuanced. And when you're a teacher, and these master teachers I interviewed for the book have all been able to articulate that what they do is they teach their kids how to learn, and they themselves remain learners also. And if I were to think of any kind of special sauce or magic pill for what separates the experts teachers from the non-expert teachers, it's this ability on the expert teachers to be able to utilize these qualitative relational elements of their own teaching to connect with their students and to build a classroom of safety, risk taking, exploration together, that benefits the student learning. Because the last thing I'll say is that learning—research backs up now particular contemporary research—the fact that learning is both cognitive and emotional. In order get to the cognitive, you've got to open up the heart. And in order to challenge students, you've got to have them know in their hearts that you believe in them. And if the student knows that you, as a teacher, believe in him or her, he, they will absolutely work for that teacher. 

DK: Right. So as you're describing this instilling of belief, in your mind's eye as you think about these expert teachers, translate the instilling of belief to action, to a behavior, that you would encourage teachers who are—or people who are listening to this—what something they must do that creates that feeling of belief.

ND: You know it's interesting because it doesn't have to be that complicated. It's as easy as walking down the hallway, seeing a student that's been on your mind as a teacher, like oh you know I noticed that this kid seems a little out these these past couple weeks, or this kid is just thriving in this arena. And having a quick sidebar with them like hey, hey Jimmy got a second—I'll walk down the hallway. Where you going to? Going to science class? I"ll walk with you to Science. And just have a quick conversation. You know Jimmy might be a fifteen-year old insecure, pimply little kid teenager, and I might kind of act like I'm a little bit—like oh you know—OK— but because you're just walking down a hallway and he's got to get to science class anyways, you have that opportunity as a teacher to walk with Jimmy side-by-side, communicate something to him—just one little message—what I call a sidebar conversation in the book—and that can make a huge difference. Whether he expresses or not—and chances are he won't—but he absolutely knows that that messaging—the fact that my teacher saw me, picked me out a crowd in the hallway, walked with me to class, shared with me this little nugget where there was positive or negative feedback, but in a way that he cared enough. That helps. And you can blow that up a little bit and just say hey go to a game, go to see the the school play. Like do something that you—watch some of your students and then over the weekend—Monday comes along and you bring up to that student in the hallway perhaps or in the classroom, “Hey I saw you on the soccer field. You know you looked great out there on Friday in the game against—” That also goes a long, long way. So all of that feeds into “My teacher believes in me or knows me.” Because belief comes from being known. And if there's anything that a teenager particularly—it's that weird tension between, “I want to be invisible because don't look at me don't you know I'm growing and I'm trying to figure myself out.” But, “Please do see me, please help shape what I know in my heart I'm becoming. I'm becoming somebody vital and somebody—I want to becoming you—adult teacher. And I and I know that I'm going down the road toward adulthood. This kind of feedback helps. Seeing me helps. Don't marginalize—not marginalizing me—but also giving me that room to grow.”

DK: Right, right. I was just struck as you were telling the story of noticing the kid in the hall— the many, many halls of corporate life that I've walked through with clients, where people ignore each other. Where people don't feel certainly recognized. And you even look and talk about people defining this key leadership component of inspiration—when you ask an employee to define what it means to be inspired—they say it means to me that I matter, that I literally exist. So what you're pointing to in that classroom hallway is very similar, and for every listener here who's thinking about what does it take to truly connect, what you're showing is that it really can hopefully begin when we're children, and then learn it and apply it later when we're adults.

Well, let me ask you the contrasting question. The contrasting question would be those are the fine moments that you point to what makes teaching though—what are the hardest moments of teaching?

ND: Of the hundreds of teachers I talked with regarding this book, the central area of dissatisfaction was time—having enough time to be able to connect and to foster these relational connections with our students. And it's interesting because time has become commodified and the concept of time is something that stretches and condenses. Largely also the way we the way we view time, the way we shape our time. And so I'm not of the opinion that teaching has become overwhelmingly busy, like full with busy work, and that supplanted the magic that happens in the classroom or in the hallway or in the lunch room or whatnot. But I do absolutely accede to the fact that these thoughtful teachers are acknowledging the fact that while technology, for example, it's easy to take a look at technology and its influence on schools because we didn't have much technological influence on schools until about twenty, twenty-five years ago, when the Internet and e-mail and the web and everything opened up. And as a tool it's phenomenal. Obviously everything, every bit of knowledge in the world, is accessible at our fingertips.

But we still don't quite know how to mindfully engage in technology. And schools I think are coming out of this period where they've bought, spent so much of allocated— so much on their hardware and on teacher training for how to employ the hardware in their classrooms. But that kind of learning on the teachers' part is challenging and it takes a lot of time. And in the—with the goal being, for example, closer communication between schools and parents or teachers and parents, it's added a new responsibility to the role of the teacher that wasn't there twenty, thirty years ago, for sure. When I started teaching we didn't have e-mail. We had a phone in the middle of the English Department office. A telephone and if it rang, somebody would be the one who had to pick up the phone and take the message for the teacher who was ostensibly in the classroom. Whereas today you have teachers being pinged on getting text messages from parents or at least e-mails from parents. And I ask—a way we can help with this is—I was asked a question if I were a parent, is this something that is this issue on my mind something that I would have—that I would make a phone call about, or could it wait? Because it's so easy to be able to send out a text, or so easy to write up an e-mail about something that might not actually be that time sensitive. But a teacher who wants to do right and wants to—doesn't want to afford an opportunity to connect with a parent, will feel obliged to read it, and you know and it will interrupt their teaching, their day. And so there's a lot of that that has accumulated in the past...

DK: And makes the job more challenging.

ND: And makes the job more challenging. Absolutely.

DK: Right. Well speaking of more challenging—and it came to mind as you were talking about the extra training the teachers need to take. I was just thinking not only do they now supposedly have to learn how to use technology better, but now supposedly if if a certain way is had, they're going to have to learn to use guns. And that's only half a joke. The world changed a few weeks ago. And it's sad almost to say that, because it's been changing in many tragic ways within schools for quite a few years now since Columbine. At least within the popular media. So my question then becomes with Parkland and that school taking such a front and center stage between how the students, the survivors, have emerged in such strong ways. I want to ask you about the teachers at Parkland. I mean I don't imagine you know any of them personally, but I'm sure you've studied and thought about the different demands put on them. What role do you believe the teacher can play in such a challenging, awful, tragic thing other than the energy that it would take to learn how to handle a gun?

ND: Yeah. And you were only half joking with the initial comment about teachers carrying guns and that is such a statement of where we are as a society and not a not a hopeful one. But teachers have hope. The good the excellent teachers have hope. And what teachers do and what these Parkland teachers have done since the shooting has been to encourage these students to go out there and to organize these protests and to be the voices of their generation in a way that I think honestly only a teacher can do. Because what teachers have the privilege of is access to these kids on a daily basis and they do know them, sometimes better than the parents, right? Because what you know particularly high school students the way they are in the classroom is sometimes more honest in the way that they are at home. Because they with an expert with an excellent and an expert teacher lead in the classroom they are hopefully bringing out the best in the students. And they're seeing the best in these students; through challenging them, through working with them, through inspiring them. They are seeing the best in these fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year olds, when society is kind of casting them off as though they're just teenagers or just adolescents. Their prefrontal cortex hasn't been fused yet, so don't take them seriously.

No, no, no; these teachers take their students seriously! And when you have something as tragic in—shockingly tragic as a school shooting—these teachers at Parkland have listened to their students and they are encouraging them to share their feelings, but more their articulation of how what just happened in their own school, to their friends, is symptomatic of an unhealthy culture. And the adults we've always talked—that's not new to us to be to be reading from psychologists and from religious leaders and from politicians about how culture is not perfectly healthy in the U.S.. But to hear it from the kids, themselves, and to have that voice. A teacher's behind that, and I can only praise the teachers of Parkland for the role that they've played, first of all through the trauma which is traumatic to them, as well as the students. And the parents, everybody in the community, the school, but also afterwards. This is a time that it is—through this tragedy we are also celebrating, not just that idealism—but that articulation of what they view the future to look like. I believe, Drew, that the world changed also in a fundamentally positive degree with the student marches that have happened recently as a result of the Parkland shooting, and a result of the teachers and the other adults in their lives saying, “Go for it.”

DK: Excellent; thank you for that. You know hope coming from the ashes of all that is something that we can hold onto. That's for sure. But as you know I'm a parent of two kids that have fortunately made it into the college world and are forging on their own, for their relationships, predominately. I can't think of the name of one of my kids' teachers. But back in the in the days of them being in elementary and middle and high school, the relationship that Lisa and I carved with the teachers of our kids was very important to us. So I would turn to you, knowing these teachers you do, aside from having a maybe taking a pause before you send the text, what other advice knowing these expert teachers, as you came to know through your book and your research, what other advice do you give to parents, especially when you were such a highly regarded administrator—how did you help parents be better parents to the teachers?

ND: I can approach that question actually looking at—I just had a conversation with a senior minister at a well regarded school high school here in L.A. yesterday—and he was sharing with me how... what a tough role a teacher is in actually when it comes to parents who may have heard—like for example we were talking about a student coming home to his parent to his mom and saying, “Hey Mom, you know this teacher is awful, this teacher doesn't like me and I'm just not doing well.” The teacher might be thinking something very different like, “I'm challenging this this kid. I'm working with him. I've given extra time on my comments and on his essays and I've given him verbal feedback and I think things are going quite well.” But the parents hear from the student something different. That parent might communicate to another parent, “My child's not happy in this class. How do you feel about that? How's your child doing in this teacher's class?” It becomes this kind of court of public opinion that grows, that has a potential to grow outside of the classroom, and certainly outside of the teacher's domain. What comes to the school dean or the school principal comes from the parent outside of the classroom. So it's almost like—and this is a conversation I had yesterday with this administrator—it's sometimes very, very hard to see a teacher developing or just it being spoken about truly unfairly. And not being able to do much about it. They the game of hearsay kind of takes over.

So all that to say I think that what a parent can really do is try to remember that it doesn't help to feed into your child's dissatisfaction with a class, with a school, with teaching. I mean, keep in mind that learning is hard; just the practice of learning. The best learning comes through challenge. The best learning comes through grinding through and then coming out the other side. And your long term attention then is enhanced and you can—then you can build confidence from the challenge and learning and you just move forward. That's what learning, true learning, feels like.

Keeping that in mind, not to react in front of your child, not to share what your child said with anybody on the outside, really. If it is a repeated situation, if it is something where your child is giving examples that don't truly don't settle with you, go talk to the dean, or to talk to the principal, or to talk to the director, division director, or the advisor directly. So I think that really it's no one on the front end who... and working with that system. It's there in place for a reason. And remembering that a teacher's job is so centered in her classroom and so not fully understood or construed by people outside of the classroom, that you want to, as often as you can, honor that teacher's role. It's a fundamental.

DK: Right. When one parent has a concern that you, I think, properly invite them to go share with the administrator or the head of school, whatever it may be. What are the characteristics or the distinctions between those conversations that are created by the by the initiative of the parent, somehow aggrieved or concerned. What are the characteristics of those conversations that work better, versus the ones that sound like whining and complain all the rest? I mean what, where, is the difference?

ND: About seven years ago Professor Carol Dweck released a book called Mindset up at Stanford—a professor—and she really—that was a 7.3 tremor—seismic—had a seismic effect on an educators all over the U.S., and essentially the world. On a very simple—on the surface—simple concept—which is in order to teach effectively, you want to instill in your students a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. Oh I'm horrible at math, Spanish, I'm not a good musician. No, no, no; let's us break that down. You're horrible at math. What concepts and math really challenge you? And to get to that because I believe that anybody can do can math. And anybody can really sort of get an A in math or whatnot. But it's going from that fixed “I can't” mindset to a growth “I could” mindset. OK. I think about that when I think about the way that I would, in a dream world, envision every parent to have a growth mindset when they go into a meeting with their teacher, and their son's teacher or their daughter's Dean or principal. Let's grow from this. Let's—how can we take this negative situation and grow from it together?

And whether or not the student is present for the meeting—and that's completely to the liberty of the administrator—always envision the student right there in the middle between you know you and the administrator of the teacher. Like don't forget the student, don't forget, and the teacher, a good teacher, will not forget the student. And it will be coming from the angle of, “I want the student to be happy in my class.” What teacher doesn't want their soon to be happy in their class, really? I mean of course they want their students to be happy in their class. So how can we together build on this?

DK: Grow it.

ND: Grow it.

DK: Well, it is ironic If people now press rewind back to an episode a couple weeks ago—you are now you've now brought Dr. Dweck into the educational field—as the C.E.O. of Microsoft brought Dr. Dweck in the reference to the book—which I can point to my left—that's on my bookshelf—as to the difference that the growth mindset has made at evolving the culture of Microsoft. You now talk about it evolving, ironically, both in conversation—the use of it in terms of the difference it can make in an educational setting. So good for Dr. Dweck. I happen to be re-listening to it as well. So pitch pitch pitch for Dr. Dweck's great writing.

My last question. Before we wrap up here, I've always loved the saying we stand on the shoulders of giants to do good work. And what that really means is we do our work based on the influence of those who we have learned from, or been around, or been subject to their mentoring. Who do you pick, that helped maybe indirectly create this book? And create your approach to the part of the you know career that has become obviously very important to you? who do you look back is your singular influence? The shoulders you stand on.

ND: There's so many teachers that stand out to me. I would say, and I really do need to look back at a teacher, because I've worked with many mentors and they all have delivered advice, wisdom, experience that have helped inform who I am as an educator. But I have to go back to the more primordial years of being a student in what I observed in this one teacher Michael Connelly, who is in the introduction in my book—just was that teacher that I needed at the time. And it was—he was my junior year English teacher and he—I wasn't a great writer—and I was not a great reader actually. I did not take to books the way that most people do when you think about people who loved English class. And I didn't have the organizational structure in writing that I really wish that I had had at the time, but I just couldn't quite grasp it. And so Mike Connelly—I come into his class and he gets us writing, but he starts us off with just one paragraph responses to prompts. And these prompts aren't really heavy prompts. They are not that sophisticated, they are not that complex. They're basically like prompts that would really get us to engage our writing. So you know write about a certain athlete or a certain actor, a certain experience you had this summer, a failure you had—that you rose above. The kind of open-ended open kind of questions. But shaping the thesis in the evidence and being able to use your evidence to back up your thesis, and just kind of getting that rhythm, that writing rhythm, into our our minds. All of us. And then I noticed after about a month or two he was able—he then assigned us essays that were much more complex and much more you know academic focused. Yet I realized that I was nailing the paragraph structure and from the work that we that he'd done earlier.

But I also noticed and this is more important I think he learned a lot about me through those first few paragraphs that we really September, October, because what I realized he was really getting at was, “I wanted to get to know my students.” And so he began to start using analogies with me about sailing for example; that is something I grew up doing. And I remember writing about sailing and he would use kind of sailing analogies with me in my writing. And I noticed that he was able to then connect with me on a deeper, more personal level.

And that is the essence of my book. I mean if I think about Time to Teach: Time to Reach, it's the idea of building trust and encouraging exploration, and being an authentic leader in front of the classroom, and cultivating connections, and finding hope, and having time for reflection. All those six elements are what these experts all kind of came back to in these interviews, and those six elements make up the pillars of what relational teaching is in my book. Mike Connelly is a phenomenal example of that. And layered on that, I have to say, was his passion for literature, particular American literature, was infectious. And any teacher who still maintains a passion of the subject matter that they're teaching is going to win over the majority of their students. But more importantly than that, any teacher who still maintains their passion for teaching and learning, and still has that twinkle in their eyes when when a student gets a concept—those are the teachers that students, one hundred percent of the students, will really thrive under.

DK: Got it. Wow. What a great answer. Well, speaking of shoulders of giants, I've had a chance to to look through Time to Teach: Time to Reach, and you provide some great foundations in this book, which is we said is coming out in May. Let's let's give the publisher there a little wiggle room one way or another. But again, Time to Teach: Time to Reach subtitled Expert Teachers Give Voice to the Power of Relational Teaching. The author, my friend and a great teacher, Nat Damon; thank you for joining Tell Me What to Say today. And please everybody, take a look at this book and apply as you've heard what Nat has seen work in the classroom. I'll bet great teachers are great leaders and that will apply clearly to any context that you are looking to excel in. And thank you.

ND: Thank you so much Drew. It's been a pleasure.