Friday, October 23, 2015

Don't Give Up the Ship

I've had a bad week. I will not lie. Things were not going well from the outset. Generally, I am a fairly positive person, but I struggled this week with negative thoughts.

Without going into the painful details of what exactly went wrong, I can tell you that the underlying problems were, well, problems. Things not running smoothly, disruptions to the schedule, set backs in "the plan."

In my more frustrated moments, I did a lot of complaining. My message was clear: "This will never work."

This is not a sentence I utter often. For most of life, I believe in possibilities and work hard to make them realities. This historically has been easier for me, but maintaining this mindset this week has been a challenge.

I was fortunate to be exposed to some forward thinkers this week, who helped me to focus on what could be and what was working. I've taken their thoughts and put them into a handy list to help myself when I have another bout of negative thinking.

Focus on what is working. Things will always go wrong, but it is important to pay attention to the things that are going right. Not only does this help us be more positive, it helps us find solutions for the things that are going wrong. If we pay attention to what creates success, we can use those strategies when things aren't working.

Remember why you came. We took jobs in education for a reason. To have an impact, to support students, to grow professionally. The list is long. On days (or weeks) that go poorly, it helps to remember why we do what we do.

Surround yourself with good people. Nay-sayers and haters have their place in our lives, but not when we are struggling to remain positive. It is best to keep it real with people who are willing to remind you of the vision and encourage you not to quit. Be intentional about calling them, e-mailing them or walking over to their classroom.

Keep working... It is tempting to call in sick and take a break from the failure. Don't. That just prolongs the agony.

But do take intentional breaks. Going next door to chat and laugh with a colleague, walking around outside to get some vitamin D, or watching a few mindless YouTube videos can help you refocus and stay positive.

The bottom line is don't give up the ship! While there are times  when we need to know when to pull over from a project or idea, quitting prematurely never feels good. Chances are good we won't end up like James Lawrence who died aboard the USS Chesapeake in 1813. More likely, we will survive with the ship in tact and sailing towards our goals.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Being Understood

My 9th grader called me yesterday after school. "Can you pick me up?," he asked. I had not planned to, but my mommy sense told me I should say yes.

When I arrived at school he was sitting by the tennis courts doing some homework. He looked a little sad.

As parents, we want to make sure our kids our ok. As the parents of teenagers, we know better than to ask, so I waited to be told.

The conversation started with the usual topics. How was your day? What should we have for dinner? Eventually, he opted to drive with me to pick up his brother from cross country. And that is when I got the goods.

No, he was not bullied in school. No one stole his lunch money, he wasn't sick and he didn't lose his Chromebook. What happened was something that has happened to all of us - he wasn't able to explain his thinking.

It was the end of the last class of the day. Many of the kids had left early for a soccer game, so the teacher asked the students a series of questions. For each question, she called on three students to answer and then moved on to another topic.

My son's comment was heard, but he didn't feel that it was properly recognized or explored. As a result, he felt misunderstood.

I know what you are thinking - 9th graders should have thicker skins, moms need to let their children experience frustrations like these, it is not right to judge the teacher based on one exchange. All of these things are true, and yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was a little wrong.

Being understood matters. It is a basic human need that is the basis for all human relationships. Humans do all kinds of things to be understood by those around them - we talk, draw, write, blog, dance, sing, yell, and post our ideas on social media so that those around us know who we are.

Teachers have a unique ability to allow this type of self-promotion with an eye towards getting others to understand who we are. Most teachers are inherently good at it. But yesterday's experience made me wonder how educators can be more intentional creating ways for learners to be understood. In the 24 hours since yesterday's conversation, I developed a quick list:

  • allow students to elaborate on their ideas
  • provide avenues for digital collaboration with others
  • call on kids who aren't raising their hands
  • allow students to lead class discussions
  • have students explain the thinking of someone else
  • scrap the lesson in favor of a great learning experience
  • ask students to make things and then present and defend them
  • have show and tell with books or ideas
  • allow students to direct learning
This stuff isn't rocket science, but it matters and it makes a difference in all aspects of learning. When students feel understood, they are motivated and engaged. They feel valued and respected.

To me, this is an imperative. Not just for my own child, but for all the children out there who need to be understood in order to navigate life and grow into healthy and happy individuals who turn to the person next to them and seek to understand.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Vision That Drives What We Do

What guides your institution? I've given this a great deal of thought lately. Leaving one institution for another provides a special lens through which to compare and analyze. I've found myself thinking about why - Why is policy in place? Why do we value that thing? Why do we show up every day?

To be clear, I am not saying "we did it better at my old school" or "my new institution is an improvement over my old one." Rather, having been part of a school culture and being faced with the task of navigating a new one has given me the opportunity to evaluate both.

This month I've been reading Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I haven't made a great deal of progress with the reading, but the book has enabled me to do a great deal of thinking. One of the chapters is about vision. I read it last week, but have thought about the idea of vision on a fairly consistent basis in the days since.

Lehman and Chase make a compelling case for creating schools that are a "unified whole" where "vision drives what everyone does." We all agree, right? But the question I grappled with all week was What if this vision is faulty?

At both my old school and my new organization, a vision was visible (sorry, I couldn't resist). The driving force guiding actions was noticeable in the attitudes of the adults, the responses of the students, the internal and external discussions, the decisions made and the priorities valued. At times in both organizations, these were points of pride - things we do well or innovative practices.

However, there are always parts of a school culture that make us uncomfortable. Attitudes such as "we've always done it this way," "there is no way to make that work" or "we're so good at what we do we don't need to worry about improvement" have always been hard for me to swallow. In truth, these ideas are also part of the vision of a school - the hope that in the future we will look pretty much the same as we do today.

Here is where we need to clarify the language. Often we confuse words like practice, policy or mission with vision. While I believe these ideas must all be aligned and unified, they are not really the same thing. Our practices, policies and missions should indeed support the vision, but the vision itself is an aspiration. It is implied that we aren't quite there yet. We can see a vague shape, maybe, or have glimmers of hope for what can be, but we haven't reached it yet. Schools must also realize that practice and policy reflect the vision, so if the vision is stale, it will be obvious in the organizational structures.

The critical question becomes "How do we shape the vision?" Again, things get interesting here. Many people in the educational community will say that leaders shape vision and that is true to a certain extent. But the best leaders are those who can shape vision as a result of listening, paying attention and collaborating with the community. What is working? What is not? What are teachers and students excited about? What systems and structures do we need in place to maximize engagement and learning? What do we value too much or too little?

Making time for these discussions is imperative. Without it, institutions are doomed to focus on policy and practice that are disconnected from the vision, or worse, reflective of poor vision. Supporting innovation and risk taking is also essential. We can't envision the future of schools if we aren't willing to try new things.

Are we there yet? I'd like to think that some schools are. Certainly, some organizations are close to embracing a vision that drives all they do - one that is void of egos and agendas, but inspires every member of the institution to strive for something bigger. I've been fortunate to be close to this goal in both my new and previous organization and be able to arrive at work with a shared mindset of "how can we make what we do today matter tomorrow?" - and that is a really great feeling.

If you think about it, "the future" is a place at which we can never really arrive. It will always be elusive and unknowable and, as a result, a little bit scary. But vision is all about the future and vision is less elusive and more knowable. We may not know exactly how to get there, but schools must have a THERE to get. It must be a THERE that takes into account the fact that people and ideas matter. A THERE that embraces innovation and change. A THERE that is authentic and collaborative. A vision that drives all that we do.

Friday, October 2, 2015

An Indelible Mark


My sister died this summer. It was unexpected and awful. She was funny, generous, thoughtful and warm. It was impossible to be around her and not laugh.

Amy was older than me by five years and so, naturally, I worshipped her. Years ago, she had a pair of purple shoes (it was the 80s!) that I coveted. My feet were smaller than hers at the time because I was only 10. She said that she'd give them to me when my feet were big enough.

Besides the shoes, Amy had many gifts that I admired - as a 10 year old, throughout my teens and later as an adult. She knew how to mark an occasion. She threw great parties, paying careful attention to every detail. She remembered milestones.

But it wasn't just the celebratory moments that Amy acknowledged. She knew the importance of marking the more difficult moments in life as well. When my oldest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Amy sent him balloons. His delight was infectious and he played with them for days until they fell limply to the floor. The balloons - and her act of sending them - did more to chip away at my fear and grief that you can imagine.

If I needed a laugh, a shoulder to cry on, someone with whom to be snide, Amy was there.

We had moments of conflict, too - no relationship is without those. But because of my history of hero worship, it was hard for me to stay angry with her.

While Amy was never "a teacher" she educated many people about many different things. She had an ability to help people see the world with an open mind and be willing to try new things. She enjoyed experiencing new things and was usually up for adventure. Amy talked me into parasailing, reading cool books, and going new places. As a teacher myself, I grew to appreciate and adopt her persuasive strategy of "come on - try it! It will be fun!"

One of the things that Amy was never able to talk me into was getting a tattoo. About three years ago we were at our annual winter family gathering. The weather was crummy and there wasn't much to do at the house we had rented.

"Let's go get matching tattoos!," she said. "Hell no," I replied.

In August, a month after Amy died, I finally got the tattoo. It is just her name, in her handwriting, on my foot. After all was said and done, I felt shabby that I had dismissed Amy's suggestion so quickly. It didn't really hurt all that much and I don't look like I am in a biker gang. In hindsight, I should have said "hell yes."

I love the way the tattoo looks on my foot. I love seeing her handwriting every time I look down. I like feeling as though we still walk together. Mostly, I love that I have an indelible mark on my foot that is a visible sign of the indelible mark she left on my heart.