Friday, January 22, 2016

Keep Your Focus on Your Growth

I had a bad week. Everything frustrated me - other people, circumstances, the weather, work and even my hair. It was bad.

I vented to a friend. He's a good friend, so I was hoping for a little sympathy and maybe an "oh, poor you."

I got neither. Turns out, sympathy was not was I needed. The problem with sympathy (in situations like these) is that it makes feeling crummy and wallowing in self pity acceptable. It validates an unwillingness to change something about how we think and operate.

Instead of coming to my pity party, my friend took off my party hat and said "the party's over." He reminded me that there are always opportunities to learn - even in bad situations. He reminded me to focus on the things that I can see and control and capitalize on those to buoy me through difficulties. The best part of the advice was this: keep your focus on your growth and everything else will fall into place.

Remaining focused on growth means I can take charge of how I shape my day. Am I concentrating on the right things? Connecting with people who can support my growth? Reflecting on my actions, thoughts and behaviors? Evaluating my output?

The problem with the pity party is that it leads to inertia and stagnation. Focusing on growth, empowers me to take charge of the things I can control, be grateful for the opportunities I have to learn (even the hard ones) and, well, grow!

Friday, January 15, 2016

(A Story) can change the world

"Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music,  or a book can make a difference. It can change the world." ~ Alan Rickman

Years ago I fell in love with Alan Rickman. I was in college and home for winter break and my mom forced all of her teenaged & young adult children to watch Truly, Madly, Deeply. I was hooked. A few years later, my brother and I would chronically watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves realizing it was a terrible film but relishing in Rickman's wit and talent. He went on to play Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility - my favorite of Jane Austen's impressive body of work. And while I was a fan long before Alan Rickman became Professor Snape, his role as Snape appealed to my inner nerdy teacher. Professor Snape was demanding and exacting, but he really knew his stuff.

I love what Alan Rickman had to say about the power of storytelling to create change. Looking back at his body of work, both the sublime and the ridiculous, I can identify things within each story that helped me to see things in a new light or adjust my thinking in some way.

As educators, we seek to change the world. We have many avenues through which we try to accomplish this change. Some of our "interventions" are "data-driven" or "researched based." But it is important to keep in mind the truth in Rickman's statement. Stories and the people who tell them, can change the world.  And we must let them. We must create opportunities for students to hear stories and to tell them. To act in theater and to watch. To perform music and to hear it be performed. To read books and to write them.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Process is the Goal

Only recently have my sons allowed me to take them to the barbershop. "It is a manly place, mom," they would say. "You won't like it."

The truth is, I love going to the barbershop with them. Even though I don't smoke cigars or ride a motorcycle, I enjoy reading magazines about them. I am prone to ask questions of the barbers themselves and I suspect THIS is the reason why my sons had previously banned me from the barbershop. Everything there is so foreign to me, so I seek to understand and create meaning.

On a recent visit right before Christmas, I was asking the barber about his holiday plans. He told me about a fishing trip he'd planned to take after the new year. He planned to fly to Florida and fish for 2 weeks.

"Do you try to catch anything in particular?," I asked.


"Do you eat what you catch?"

"I throw it back. To me, fishing is more about the process and less about the end result," he said.

Over the last two weeks, this statement really stuck with me - and the more I thought about it, the more I recognized the truth of the statement.

As educators, we tend to focus on goals for ourselves and our students. These goals often take the form of an outcome. "By June, so-and-so will be able to do such-and-such with 90% accuracy." That would be great for so-and-so, but the problem with goals stated in this way is that while the outcome is "measurable," the process gets the short shrift. Likewise, we make "transition plans" for students as they approach certain milestones to help them segue from one phase to another.

If you think about it, these practices overlook an important reality of living and learning - humans are always in transition. Just when we become comfortable with an idea, we are confronted with a challenging one. Just when we master a skill, we are required by circumstance to develop a new one.

Thinking back on my own year of transition, I can identify several events that were not "goals" of mine, nor were they situations one could "master with 90% accuracy." Losing my sister, leaving a job that I loved, being rejected for several new opportunities but finally starting a new position within an excting organization, recovering from pneumonia, supporting my kids as they find their separate ways in this world - these aren't the things for which you plan, and yet they are the things which all humans face.

Perhaps it is time to change the conversation and the language we use when thinking about "goals." Certainly, we must encourage students and colleagues to set goals, but it is time we focus more on the process. How do we maneuver life's challenges and not be swept underneath them? Are we giving students the tools with which to do this? In thinking about my barber/fisherman friend, I think there are lessons to be learned from his approach.

Keep you eyes open for what comes, not just for what you want. Often, we set specific goals and our hyper-focus on them prevents us from seeing other opportunities that might be lurking. In other words, don't just fish for one kind of fish, but for whatever you happen to catch.

Devote time to looking. (or fishing). New growth takes time. That might be a two week fishing trip, a brisk walk every morning to clear our thoughts, time spent blogging or journaling - whatever it looks like, we must help students (and ourselves) to make time to notice and reflect on what is out there.

Develop a rhythm. In fishing, haircutting, dishwashing, thinking and any other process you can name, each person has her own rhythm and pace. Practice helps us develop this, but once the rhythm is set, it enables us to go through the motions when we really don't want to. Think about a time when you have struggled with grief or depression. Daily living was hard, but the rhythm of the processes you must engage with helped you function, until you recovered enough to want to care again.

Be alone sometimes. This is harder for some than for others, but it is important to be able to reflect upon our process and opportunities without the opinions of others. This helps us know our own thoughts on the matter.

But seek the counsel of others. Knowing our thoughts and feelings is helpful, but sometimes we need to strategize with someone smarter, more knowledgable or more experienced.

Get used to disappointment. Setbacks are part of living. All of us need to learn to face them with dignity, take them in stride and learn something new from each disappointment.

Celebrate small milestones. On most days, we don't get the perfect job, ace the test or get accepted into out first choice college. However, on most days, we can find something to celebrate. The math problem was less confusing today, I didn't lose my temper with that annoying student, my boss complimented a project I had worked on - these are never earth shattering events, but they are worth recognizing and help us focus more on the process and less on the "outcome."

Feel. Laugh, cry, get mad, be grateful, experience confusion. These are all part of the process.

Be determined. I almost left this one off the list. Determination can look a lot like single-minded drive towards a goal. But that is not the best kind of determination. Think about the time you have been afraid, but squared your shoulders and moved ahead anyway. That is the kind of determination we need to teach students and ourselves to embrace. No matter how long you stand there and don't catch a fish, you keep casting your line anyway.