The Other Side of the Bridge – Did we all make it?

A personal story of self-care 

We got an unexpected day off from school Thursday, thanks to winter storm #Hunter as it moved through Kansas. I decided it was time to spend some serious quality time on the t-shirt quilt I’m making for my oldest son, my marathoning Airman. I admit – I’ve been avoiding that quilt. You see it started a long time ago, in a place that now feels far, far away . . .

My sons were young and as they began to participate in activities, they collected t-shirts along the way. As a history buff, I sensed these were artifacts that I might want to do something with to mark the memories being made, and I started saving them. I didn’t have a plan in mind when I started. I just knew I should save them now and figure it out later.

Of course I had no idea “later” would be so far down the road. I collected and planned and then I returned to the classroom when my youngest entered Kindergarten. That slowed the crafting / creative side of me down a bit because teaching and the boys’ activities kept ramping up. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

Then the Army sent my husband on a one year unaccompanied tour to South Korea and that slowed things down even more. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them. My husband returned and then I had the opportunity to pursue a life dream of earning my Doctorate.   And that’s where the creative side of me got off the train. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so focused on the professional-academic-data-research side of me – all things I have an equal passion for – but the creative part of me quietly exited stage left and faded to black. Professional challenges, boys in high school, then college and I never noticed it wasn’t there anymore. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

So two years ago, when I realized I’d reached the other side of the “bridge”, I began to take stock of myself and figure out what had survived and what was missing in my life. I made the New Year’s resolution to go back – go back and search for the things I loved and had abandoned or left behind along the way. Go back and find running. Go back and find my music. Go back and find gardening. Go back and find my creative self.

I decided the best place to start was to take stock of my craft room and get it organized again. As I started going through all my things, it began to remind me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Everything was frozen in time exactly as it had been nearly eight years ago when I stopped. Projects in different states of completion, plans for new ones waiting to get started, materials sitting there ready for me to make something with them. It was stark, abrupt, and startling. I’d completely turned my back on this, and yet I hadn’t even realized what a large part of me was missing until I stopped and looked around. I knew my resolve to go back had to start here.

As I began organizing, I realized that although I had stopped pursuing that part of my life, life had not stopped. The t-shirts had just kept coming. I started sorting all those shirts into categories that turned into themes, and the themes turned into years of memories. At first I was curious, then I was alarmed, and finally I was overwhelmed and on the verge of a panic attack. I had saved enough shirts for twelve full size quilts – TWELVE!! That’s insane! TWELVE?! OMG! I’m never going finish. Maybe I shouldn’t even start this. Why did I start this? Oh yeah – balanced life, inner joy, and self-fulfillment. Seriously? Maybe I need to do some more breathing first. This is feeling a little like the jungle again. Maybe it’s just too late to go back?

As usual, this situation (and breathing) brought me to some reflection. As much as I’d wanted to reach this new professional destination (and now I wanted to bring myself back into balance) I never realized that everything would change – including me – along the way. I also didn’t realize going back would probably involve some effort on my part – not all of it sunshine and roses – to bring it up to the present. I had a decision to make, both literal and figurative: Do I truly go back and bring those lost things out of the darkness into the sunlight on the other side, or do I just leave them where they are and move on?

Everybody has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves; each choice has its own sacrifice and reward. Neither is right or wrong – just unique to you. For me, I decided that all the work that went into reaching one dream wouldn’t really have been worth it if the price were to sacrifice all the other creative ones in the end. When I took stock, I realized “we” didn’t all make it; some members of “team me” were still back there on the bridge. If this new destination were going to mean anything, I’d have to try to find as many of those lost team members as possible and bring them with me here in 2018.   So like Forrest Gump continually going back into the jungle and bringing out buddies, so I’ve decided to go back and bring all those things forward to join me where I am now. And that means tackling those quilts, one shirt at a time.

We tend to think of self-care as pampering, cozy, and comforting. But sometimes, self-care is caring enough about yourself to do the work it takes to be well and whole.   Sometimes that involves hard conversations with yourself. Sometimes it means sweat, sore muscles, a little frustration, and a bad word or two. Sometimes it’s the small voice that says, “I refuse to give up. I will start again tomorrow.” For me, it’s time to lace up and, as we say in running, go fish for the stragglers and bring them home.

The Teacher’s High – Unicorns or Easter Eggs?

Most teachers know the feeling – that elusive mixture of pride, elation, joy, and surprise – when a student you’ve been working with for quite a while finally has the breakthrough. The light bulb goes on, the student has that look of “I’m doing it!” and all feels right with the world. It’s the Teacher’s High, and let’s face it – it’s probably one of the reasons most teachers become teachers in the first place. It sure was for me. That first time I saw a student finally put it together after all the teaching, support, tears, frustration, and try, try again . . . wow! It’s the best feeling in the world to know you had some small part in helping someone else understand and succeed at something they never thought possible.  There’s just no feeling quite like it. And the sad truth is . . . it’s a unicorn.

You glimpse it infrequently, but it’s enough to keep you hooked on finding it again. It inspires and drives you, and just when you’re certain it was a fluke – there it pops up again. It shows up just when you’re pretty sure you’re doing everything wrong as a teacher (or coach) and maybe you should do the world a favor and go work at Quick Trip when suddenly it shows up, like the sun breaking through clouds, and you think – well, maybe I’m doing something right.

However, once I left the classroom, those unicorns got even harder to find. As an Instructional Coach, I never worked with students long enough or directly enough to see those breakthroughs. However, that experience transferred and morphed into seeing that same excitement on the faces of the teachers I coached, but it wasn’t quite the same thing. Now as an administrator, I’ve pretty much accepted that the unicorns have retreated into the mist. But then something happened last week that turned everything on its head for me.

It had been an over-the-top day, and not in a good way. Too many behaviors, too much drama, WAY too many steps – I’d literally been running since I got to work. My head hurt so badly I was pretty sure my eyeball was going to throb right out onto the desk. With my head in my hands, I was pretty sure I was losing the battle that day. I’d been sitting for maybe a minute when one of our secretaries came to my door to say they needed me at the gym. Sighing, I grabbed my walkie-talkie and headed out.

As I came up on the gym doors, I saw it was one of my kindergarten friends sitting outside the door, crying. He’s done this all year, but recently he’s gotten so much better at getting it together. I wonder what set him off today. I squat down and ask him what’s up. He tells me in his unique gibberish that he can’t do the game today. “Ok,” I say. “Let’s go for a walk.” I hold my hand out to him and he grabs it, smiling. Wow, I think. That’s progress.

We walk for the hundredth time around the main floor, my friend “talking” to me all the way, and eventually we end up in the Music room. The Music teacher is working on the Field Day rotation schedule, and we chat for a minute about some details. Meanwhile, my friend is looking up at the wall where an alphabet is posted on the wall. I glance at him and notice he’s saying something. I get closer to him and suddenly freeze, totally shocked. He’s saying the alphabet!! He’s SAYING the ALPHABET!! OMG! He barely speaks, and when he does it’s nearly impossible to understand him because it’s a childish gibberish with a few recognizable words thrown in. I’m so excited I do a little happy shriek – smiling so big I’m sure I look like a nut – and give him the biggest hug ever. He hugs me back and looks surprised that I’m so happy, but he looks pretty darn proud and happy, too.

And there it was. The unicorn that I wasn’t even really looking for just showed up in the empty Music room. I can’t begin to describe how incredibly euphoric I felt at that moment. We’ve all worked so hard and the road has been so long and rough with this student – it truly felt like a miracle. And that it showed up on the day when I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything right for months – well, that validated all the daily work all of us have done to get to that moment. I suddenly realized how much I’d missed those moments, and in that one instance I felt renewed and ready to take on the world again.

But as we walked back to class, I realized that there was an easter egg in there too (an easter egg is a gamer term for hidden bonuses). The fact that my friend and I had built a relationship over this school year to the point that he would willingly come with me – that was pretty amazing considering he spent the first few months crying in my office for hours, yelling at me. That he holds my hand and tries to talk to me – that’s pretty terrific too. And that he got himself together enough after that to go back to class smiling – wow. So many huge accomplishments wrapped up in small moments – easter eggs – that almost got overlooked because they were so ordinary; and yet, they weren’t. Those small miracles were every bit as potent a high as those unicorn moments I’d had in the classroom. It got me thinking – how many have I missed over the years? Maybe I should be looking for more easter eggs, and less unicorns.

So as we celebrate teachers this week, I celebrate all of us who work with students – large and small, young and old – and get to share those unicorn moments of joy and accomplishment with them and with each other.   Those moments of growth, pride celebration are what teachers live for and they give us that Teacher’s High we can’t get doing anything else. I also celebrate and congratulate all of you who also recognize those easter eggs in your day and get just as jazzed about the little triumphs as you do about the epic ones.

When people ask us teachers “What’s your superpower?” we proudly say, “I TEACH!”

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Improving on Our Worst-Case Scenario

There has been a lot of interest in and writings on “grit” over the last few years, especially in the education realm. Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” gave the idea some legs with her research data and recommendations. However, some have found her conclusions to over-reach what the data said, and there is still another camp that believes grit is not really a good predictor of success nor can it be taught.

So what is grit and can we learn it?

In my opinion, grit is your capacity to persevere, endure, and possibly even triumph in a worst-case scenario. Can it be learned? Sure – the hard way. No six-week on-line course is going to really teach you how to stand up to and get through the emotional, physical, or mental hell that you have to face in order to survive to the other side. Most people don’t voluntarily sign up for something like that. Who voluntarily puts themselves through something they’re not entirely sure they’re going to get through without significant damage being done to them somehow?

Not many.

That’s why grit is still appreciated when we see it in action in others because most of us admire them for taking those challenges on. And who are some of these folks where we can see this in action? Our armed forces serving in operations around the world; our law enforcement officers; our first responders; those rescuing, saving, and helping in crisis; those overcoming tremendous personal issues or challenges that help blaze a trail for others to take heart and follow when their time comes, to name just a few. Gritty situations can be epic dramas that everyone sees or small private battlegrounds for you alone, but either way, it’s a scary no-man’s-land that has no guarantee of survival, much less success.   I don’t see too many people signing up for that course. That’s why we are in awe of those who do. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we “up” our grit? Is there a way to start slowly or do you just jump and pray? Well . . . yes to both.

As a running coach, I’ve always told my athletes that one sure way to improve your performance is to improve your “crap” end – the worst-case scenario. How do you perform when EVERYTHING goes wrong? The weather is the worst, your gear falls apart, you’re sick or injured on the appointed day, you’ve just received terrible, world’s coming apart news as you step off – every bad thing AND the kitchen sink. How do you perform? What can you count on yourself producing in that context? The answer involves one part character and one part training. What – training? Yep.

Where we can’t learn it in a traditional way – classrooms, books, papers, and tests – we can learn it in small ways by putting ourselves into those situations we don’t excel at, those situations where we doubt our ability, those times when we’re a little scared of coming up short or just flat out failing. In training, we push limits, try new tactics, and simulate worst-case scenarios, practicing our response to them both physically and mentally. Courage goes hand in hand with grit, and whether we’re taking on hill repeats or learning something new, every time we push the limit of what we think we can do, take on, or master, we’re increasing our grit. No, maybe not in epic world changing ways, but each one of those hard, scary, uncomfortable challenges we voluntarily meet head on teaches us more about ourselves – what we’re capable of, what matters to us – and it gets us prepped for those truly epic moments we never see coming. But you have to jump in and try – that takes some courage and grit right there!

I’ve had my share of those moments – we all have. At the time, I wondered how I was ever going to survive in tact to reach the other side of the crisis. The truth is – I didn’t survive in tact; I changed. And THAT’S the key to grit. In the digging deep, the humbling of failure, the embarrassment of screwing up, the wonder in getting it right, the awe in triumphing in the end – somewhere in the midst of all that persevering and trying and failing and succeeding, I learn more about myself, and it changes the narrative I tell myself about myself. I learn and I change.

So when the next gritty situation raises its ugly head, I might still feel like my insides are about to fall out, but . . . they’ve fallen out before and I KNOW I can stuff ‘em back inside and succeed because I’ve done it before. Now I tell myself “I KNOW I got this” because I’ve trained myself to “get” this. I recognize the situation or the set-up when it happens so I can stay calm, activate the plan, and tell myself to push through because I’ve already done this before. I don’t go forward because I’m no longer scared; I go forward because I know what to do while it’s all falling apart AND I’m still scared. In that moment, the narrative I tell myself about myself changes my response to the situation. I’ve gone from helpless to hopeful and from surprised to resolved.

So can we learn grit? Sure. If we’re brave enough to look inside and face the biggest obstacle any of us ever really faces – ourselves – and have the courage to rewrite our own narratives about who we are and what we can do on our best – and our worst – days. That’s some true grit that even The Duke himself could appreciate.

Where’s the Next Exit?

A while back I was waxing philosophical about the “Scenic Vistas” of life and the idea of pausing, not parking. I proverbially and literally got myself back out on the road again (running and work), looking forward to the next pull off point or exit ramp that took me somewhere new.

Sounds great doesn’t it? One small problem . . .

Where the @#&*! is the next exit?! OMG!

I started my new adventure thinking this was going to be a moderate scenic drive with regular resting points between paved stretches of road, and I soon found out I was “Jeeping” it in rugged terrain without a map. When did I sign up for this?! Was there small print I forgot to read somewhere? What the heck?! How did I get here? I can’t go back, so there’s only forward but . . . what in the world do I do now?

That was September. I soon started seeing work and running merging into the same issue – where I thought I was going and where I found myself were two very different places. I’d planned for one kind of experience and found myself faced with another. Why can’t anything be easy? I asked myself. But no matter, I thought. I’ll just use my experience and lessons learned to adjust and keep going. I’ll find the road I’m looking for soon enough and all will be well, I told myself. That scenic resting point is just around the corner. You just hit a rough patch – you’ll find that path soon. Just find a way to get there – keep going!

By October I was worried and by November I was exhausted. I kept thinking that if I just worked the problems in front of me, kept moving and looking for signs that things were improving, I would get clear of this morass I had fallen into and find the “pavement” again. With no data whatsoever to base my opinion on, I kept assuming the “exit” from this mess just had to be close – I’d come so far already. I was getting tired and more than a little desperate. That exit has got to be coming into view soon, . . . right? Maybe? I’m on it, I told myself. Just gotta hang tough.

With this dubious logic, I recommitted myself in December and hoped, rather than knew, that January would be better. But I wasn’t “on it” at all. And of course that’s when the wheels came off. It started with the pinched nerve in my hip during the Ground Hog run, quickly followed by my upper back going out and seizing up (an old injury that flares when I’m stressed – should’ve been a sign right? Apparently not.) As my back stopped flaring, my right foot started aching to the point I could barely walk, let alone run. Plantar Fasciitis and loss of heel fat due to overuse led me to more KT tape, Advil, and orthopedic inserts. Really?   Oy vay. There’s a fine line between positive thinking, determination and hubris. I think I just learned that one the hard way.

I’d literally been running myself into the ground trying to find this illusive path I thought I was supposed to be on, both at work and in my running plan, and unknowingly did things that just made it worse because I couldn’t admit that maybe – maybe – I couldn’t muscle my way through this one. It was like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to fit their feet into her shoe: they can’t. And there was my problem: I liked my plan. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the reality I’m in. I was operating off of old data. Current reality took me somewhere new all right, but it didn’t sink in on a conscious level with me. When things started going wrong, I just applied old remedies to the new ailment instead of stopping and realizing “Hey! I’m not in Kansas anymore,” so to speak. It’s ironic that the one thing that should have been my go-to for guidance – data – (and probably would have saved my poor body some pain and injury) was the one thing that never crossed my mind to consult until I had no choice. The harder I tried to make the old plan fit the new reality, the worse it got. When the data is not what I want to hear, it’s amazing how deaf I can become.

So that left me with a choice to make. To borrow a phrase from my oldest son – I could give up or give more. I’ve never been one to give up – even when it’s PAINFULLY OBVIOUS when I should – so giving more it is. But when all this finally came to a head three weeks ago, I knew I had to go forward with a helluva lot more sense than I had been up to now. So what does that really mean? And is it going to stink as much as I think it will?

The truth is I’m a lot more like Captain Kirk than Spock in this area (yes – I’m a huge Trekkie nerd). I just don’t believe in no-win scenarios. I’ve always been able to find a way through – until now. This little escapade has forced me to reconsider what “through” and “successful outcome” really means. And that’s where a little data – and a good dose of humility – comes in to give me some balance against my determination and confidence.  And then there’s another truth to accept – sometimes the data just bites. Sometimes there isn’t another option; this is it. I’m stuck on a bad bit of road for now, and I just have to make the best of it until I hit a better patch. Period. Not the answer I want at all! But there it is.  Guess I better focus on being grateful for being on any road at all, and look for sunny patches where I find them moment to moment.  The only no-win scenario is not being in the game at all, so I’ll take whatever scenario I’m given and work with it.

So where to go from here? Well . . . I’m not sure. I still don’t have that new map, and I’ve thrown my old one out the window so I guess that makes me . . . an explorer? I’m seeking out new options, new ways of thinking, and boldly going where I’ve never been before – working on enjoying the unknown – LOL!

Never Assume Anything

I was reminded of this piece of wisdom earlier this week while I was reading an article in a professional publication. I was reading along about the value of coaching – for both newbies, veterans, and everyone in between – and was happily surprised to see my school district featured in the article. The author made good points and her suggestions for how districts can continue to grow in this area were solid. The only unfortunate part was that she stopped short in her research and questioning about our district and drew the wrong conclusions about our policies and program. Because her data was missing some key pieces of information, she came up with possible next steps and solutions for problems we don’t actually have. Great ideas but they were completely irrelevant for us, and the article now paints an inaccurate picture of our district and the state of its coaching program. What a missed opportunity to get it right.

But it got me thinking – how many times do I miss those same opportunities because I fail to question or verify what I KNOW to be true (so I don’t have to question it)? When was the last time I verified what I’m just CERTAIN is true? Is it still true? How do I know? What if it’s not true anymore? Wow – just thinking about that makes my stomach do a weird little flip. When I think about the things in my life I KNOW are “True” and then pause to think about what if they aren’t . . . that kinda makes my whole world tilt on its axis – and not in a good way. Perhaps that’s why we tend to assume some things and shy away from periodically verifying them. Verifying just opens up a whole Pandora’s box of possibilities that we really don’t want to face. Verifying is potentially terrifying. However, when I think about the alternative – just going along with my head in the sand and assuming I know all the facts and have them right – makes me feel more than a little uneasy. What if I’m like that author and I’m coming up with good solutions and drawing reasonable conclusions but it’s all based on faulty data? That would mean I’m wasting my time and getting nowhere, wondering why nothing’s working. Hmm. Been there, done that more times than I care to think about.

The perfect example of this was my family’s latest escape room adventure. It was all four of us again and this time we were finally really working well as a team. We put all our past lessons and experiences to work for us, divided up the work and played to our strengths. We were doing great and got to what we were pretty sure was our last puzzle in 40 minutes. It was a math problem, but it was pretty straightforward. We got the answer, solved the puzzle to get the code to the lock and voila! Nothing. What?! We all tried solving the problem separately, and we all got the same answer. Try again. Nothing. Immediately we all started doubting the facts that were in front of us and went off on different tangents. We got a clue from our external observer that said we got the right answer. Use a muscle on the lock! All three guys tried and couldn’t get it to go. They concluded it was broken. The observer said the lock wasn’t malfunctioning. I was determined we weren’t going to lose because of a damn lock! I got mad, grabbed the lock and hit it on the counter HARD. Sure enough – it popped open! Success!! The guys were like “Really?! Mom? We’ll never live this down.”   A good laugh was had by all, but there was a moment of truth in that. Why did we assume that we were ALL WRONG? We had the facts in front of us and yet we were willing to believe that it must be wrong because the solution wasn’t working immediately, rather than thinking maybe we just weren’t applying it right.

Bottom line take-away this time? Never assume anything and stop assuming all the facts you have are all the facts there are.

So how does this play out in the rest of the areas of our lives? For me, although it sounds like being a cynic, I tend to question everything already – that’s the researcher in me. I’d rather live with the truth than base all my decisions on more palatable lies. But if I don’t question and verify everything, then who’s the one living in la la land? Me. But if I’m being honest, there are TRUTHS I shy away from verifying because I’m pretty sure I just don’t want to know if the facts don’t add up. I’ve turned over a lot of those rocks in my life and too often they tend to yield answers I wish I didn’t know. On the other hand, many times they confirm that my faith was placed correctly and things really are the way they seem or I believe them to be. And those are the moments I live for because it confirms that the effort – and the courage to ask – was worth the answer. I guess I’ll just have to keep turning over those rocks – and hoping I find pots of gold and not Pandora’s box.

Am I the Obstacle? The Results

And I’m back! It was an active and interesting two weeks to do my impromptu action research. In my last post, I was sharing research around formatives vs. summatives and questions to ask to get meaningful feedback on how to move forward. That got me wondering if maybe I was the obstacle getting in the way of a solution within my own environment at school. I decided to do a little action research on my own for two weeks and see what the data says. Here’s what I discovered.

My first task was to listen more for understanding – with compassion and without an agenda – and less listening to give people an answer. What I discovered was that when I just listened – really listened –I learned that most people just want to be heard and know that someone understands their point of view. When I listened without an agenda and without thinking about a solution, but just for my own understanding, we learned more about each other, strengthened our relationship, and clarified things for each other. Many times they actually answered their own questions, sorted their own feelings, or even solved their own problems without needing or wanting anything from me other than just being there to listen and support. I missed that previously so when I stopped talking, I learned a lot. My key take away – listening increases understanding and strengthens relationships. 

My second task was to stop assuming my way was the only way or was THE right solution. What I discovered was that good compromises and solutions emerge when you speak last. I have to admit – this one was hard for me. I’ve been in such a mode of triaging and moving from situation to situation this year that it has felt like I don’t have time to wait for others to come up with a solution; it’s just faster if I do it myself.   However, faster or more expedient isn’t always the best OR the only way to get things done. Sometimes, you have to slow down to go faster and more heads thinking through a problem definitely produce better results than one frazzled head trying to come up with everything on her own. And, when I got out of the way and let others take the lead on an idea, even if it doesn’t work out exactly the way we planned, we learned a lot from the effort and my input – when it came – was received more as one of the team’s and less as coming from a supervisor. We all felt more like we were in the work together, collaborating, rather than giving and receiving orders. My key take away – patience and sharing the lead is never a bad response.

My third task was to keep supporting our staff however I could. What I discovered was that being in the work with your team, side by side, means more than you realize. I know from my own past experience that those moments are the ones that end up defining you and binding you to others because of your shared experience. Relationships, trust, and commitment are woven together one moment and one experience at a time. I learned this at my grandmother’s side while we pulled weeds, cleaned dishes, folded towels, and she’d drill one of her favorite sayings into me – “Many hands make light work” – which was right up there with – “Do what you oughtta, not what you wanna.” I heard those so many times growing up that now she’s the voice in my head when I just want to flake out, procrastinate or just walk away. I can’t. Don’t get me wrong – I try! I’m just not successful going up against that voice. Those moments of shared work, shared focus, shared laughs, and sometimes shared sweat built up a strong bond between us over time. What I hadn’t realized is that works just about everywhere with everybody. Staff members have shared their appreciation for my support and sweat equity and I appreciate being able to help and be “in the trenches”, so to speak, with them. We’re building bonds through this shared experience and I hadn’t really noticed that until now. My key take away – commitment is built one moment and one experience at a time; it can’t be rushed or forced.

As I sat back and reflected on these results this past week, I realized it looks a lot like the recipe for a good marriage. Nice symmetry since last weekend was my husband’s and my 28th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I literally feel like a blinked and here we are. But those key words – listening, patience, and commitment – make up the foundation of our marriage. And like anything valuable, it was hard earned. We’ve tried, failed, and tried again to get those ideas right, and if we’re being honest, it’s the epitome of life-long learning. Just when we think we’ve gotten it mostly right for one season or reason of our lives, things change and we have to revise and grow with our new knowledge and circumstances.

Which brings me to my last thought: even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. Life itself is a work in progress so you’re never “done” until it’s over. That being said, you have to keep checking in on yourself, your work, your commitments to see if things are still tracking or not. Take some data, do some reflecting – even if it reveals something unpleasant – and take some action.

So what do you want to check on? Pick a topic, do some action research, and see what you discover!

Am I the Obstacle?

We had two more winter weather days this week (ice – yuck!) so more days off from school. However, it gave me a chance to catch up on some professional reading. I was reading some recent research on whether formative data or summative data is more beneficial to improve individual performance. Multiple research studies agree that formatives provide better actionable data than summatives (check out Viktor Nordmark at the Hubert Blog for the inspiration for this post). In other words, collecting data, analyzing it, and acting on it in very short cycles – 2 to 4 weeks at most – gives you better information to act on and improve – in real time – than waiting until the end of something and reflecting when it’s too late to improve anything. Makes sense and most teachers and coaches know this almost instinctively, relying on observations, hard data, and experience to constantly update their “read” on where their students are in relation to attaining their goals. I love it when research supports what our gut already told us was true!

As I read through the rest of the article, all the data pointed to the conclusion that the best kinds of formatives ask simple questions, get to the heart of the matter, and give us clear, actionable information. One of the oldies but goodies that jumped out at me was this 3 question formative:

  • What should I start doing?
  • What should I stop doing?
  • What should I continue doing?

Wow. Three very simple questions but the thought process they trigger is powerful.   I love that this works for just about any context – teaching, coaching, training, life goals, leading – you name it, these questions help you get there. And if you put these questions on a consistent schedule or cycle of “pulse checking” your progress, you’ve got a pretty sturdy rudder helping to steer you to your ultimate destination.

Of course, I started thinking about my own contexts and reflecting on these questions in relation to them. I found I could come up with a lot of “start doing” items, but I began to falter when I tried to come up with “stop doing” things. As I kept thinking about it, it occurred to me: what if I am the obstacle to the solutions I’m looking for? What if the things I can’t bring myself to do (or stop doing) are the very things that are getting in the way of further progress? What if I’m getting in my own way, or getting in the way of someone else’s progress? Hmm. Now that’s got a ring of truth to it. Bad word.

So I’m going to give this formative a go in my own life. My plan for the next two weeks is to “start” listening more to those around me; “stop” getting in the way of progress because I’m too committed to doing it my own way; and “continue” supporting the work of those around me any way I am able.   I’ll let you know what I discover in two weeks. Action research – I love it!

Have you done a similar cycle with yourself?  What have you discovered?  I’d love to hear what you learned!

What’s Your “It”?

I was reading an article earlier this week – one of those rare moments when nothing is on fire and nobody desperately needs you for anything – and I had one of those experiences where the words just jump off the page and smack you upside the head. The thought that jumped out at me was that everyone has an “it”; a moment in time where things were one way before “it” and things were never quite the same way after “it”. The article went on to discuss different responses to “it” and how that can be a deciding factor in how our life is going right now. Wow. I’d never quite looked at things from that perspective before. I wonder what my “it” is?

I thought of plenty of “it” moments in my life – my grandmother passing away (we were very close); getting married (28 years strong!); the birth of both sons; my husband’s one year deployment to Korea. Those were all personal and family milestones that forever changed the structure and path of more than just one life. But what was MY “it”? What was the one thing that fundamentally shifted the way I go about seeing and living my life because of “it”? Well, there’s really only one so far.   That would be my year from hell.

It was the year I was finishing up my doctorate, and I was teaching sixth grade. By fate or by design – I’ll never know – I had 9 students who couldn’t get along or keep it together for 5 minutes at a time and 9 students who were ordinary kids just trying to do a good job in school. I’d never had a class like that before. Nothing in my years of teaching or teacher prep had prepared me professionally or personally for the daily onslaught of over the top disrespect, out of control behavior, bullying, physical intimidation and fighting, and complete chaos that those nine challenging students dialed up everyday in my room. That was challenging enough, but the complete lack of support from those whose job it was to ensure a safe learning environment for all was the final disillusionment. When it was suggested that their behavior was somehow my fault, I felt frustrated and broken. I read every book I could find, sought out every person that might shed some light on what to do and where I was going wrong, and tried anything anyone suggested. The other parents spoke on my behalf and their own student’s to try to get support, but all to no avail. The year rolled on and eventually one of the parents went to the school board regarding the intensive bullying going on towards her student by another, and the school’s lack of ability to respond effectively. I finished the last three weeks of school with the equivalent of an SRO (school resource officer) in my room everyday. Although the year passed, the die was cast. Nothing was ever the same. I had spoken up and spoken out about those situations. I had advocated for my students – all of them – and in the end I was cast as the villain of the piece.  How had it all gone so wrong?  I was completely off my original course, casting about desperately for some meaning in this swift-moving, raging torrent of events that had swept me far from everything I thought I once knew.  I felt like I was drowning in self-doubt, self-pity, and a complete lack of self-worth.  Dark days indeed.

The person I had to become to endure that year was not someone I would have chosen to become. I learned skills I never thought I’d need to learn, and I learned more about behaviorism than I ever wanted to know. I learned on a personal level what it meant about it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, but how many times you stand back up.  I’d always been a strong person, but now I was labeled a “tough cookie”, “Snape with pearls”, and “Darth Vadar” to name a few, simply because I refused to stay down on the mat. Ironic, really.  I never saw myself that way (seriously? I felt like I was one moment away from being a puddle on the floor every day) – even now – but that’s what others labeled me.  I moved to the middle school level as an Instructional Coach, and I got the reputation for being someone who could “handle the hard kids”. What does that even mean?  Being able to deal with some tough kids was categorized as something undesirable; the “dirty job” no one wanted. And I got them all. It was done to punish me, but somewhere in there I discovered I was already on a bridge (remember that bridge from a few posts ago? This would be that same one) and I decided to just stay on it and see if I could look at all of this in a different way. Maybe I could pull a Briar Rabbit out of my hat and actually come to embrace this.  My grandmother used to say that “It’s a poor situation indeed when you can’t learn something from it.” So true, Nanny.

I’ve always been one to champion the underdog, mainly because my dad always told me that when you don’t understand something try seeing it from a different perspective; sort of the “walk a mile in my shoes before you judge” idea. So I intentionally started trying to build relationships with the kids who were the hardest to like. These were the kids no one seemed to care about. They were rude, disrespectful, sometimes scary, used physical intimidation to push people away, and generally just annoyed the hell out of most everyone at school. I had to understand why they acted this way. I had to make sense of it for myself. My quest for knowledge was deeply personal.

I learned that a lot of these kids had some heart-breaking stories. They needed someone to try to understand them, but they had no idea how to go about making that happen. They needed someone to see them as kids, not just monsters. They needed someone to believe in them, even when they did things that made that nearly impossible. They needed someone to help them unravel the mess they frequently got themselves into. Sometimes, they even needed me! LOL! Who’d have guessed that?! Not me.  Not in a million years.

Although that year was one of the hardest on me both professionally and personally (it’s been hard writing this, even after all these years), I have to say it set me on a course and taught me things in a manner I never would have chosen for myself. From a coaching standpoint, it took me all the way down to the studs and then completely rebuilt me as an educator. For me, it’s my personal example of what “grit” means. It’s my bar for how bad things are in my life. If it’s not “that year” level of bad, then it’s all good; I can do this. And if it looks like it’s even thinking about getting close to “that year”, I now turn into the threat and meet it head on, problem solving and fixing as I go. I don’t wait; I act. I learned the hard way. I also learned I have more in me then I once thought – more perseverance, more patience, more compassion, more strength, more resiliency, more vulnerability, and more capacity to accept help and support from others. All good stuff, and none of it looks the same in my mind as it did before “it”. On a personal level, whenever I think something is too hard, too intimidating, too scary, I use “it” as the bar for measuring my hesitation. If I can live through all that, I can do damn near anything I set my mind to. My mantra – If you can live through that, then don’t crouch in fear – get going!

The irony is that once I got across the bridge and made peace with a lot of things, I ended up in a school that is filled with kids who need high expectations, firm boundaries, and lots of understanding. Kids that need me to help them learn behavior skills and limits, teachers who need support with strategies and understanding these kids and their challenges, and parents who struggle to know what to do and look to us for help. My “it” wasn’t anything I would have chosen to go through, but the things I learned from my “it” might just be the something that I can use to help someone else.

And if that was the point of going through all that, . . . then I’m ok with “it”.

And I NEVER thought I’d say that.  Guess my “it” is still teaching me new things, even now.

What’s your “it” and how’s it driving your life these days? Please share! I’d love to hear from you.

Why is Education on a Bus to Abilene?

If you’ve never heard of this metaphor, check out this quick video to find out more. (It’s only 2 minutes.) http://youtu.be/PKoa4d5NWLE

The Spark note version is somebody suggests getting on a bus and driving 4 hours to Abilene to eat at this diner. No one wants to go, but they’re not willing to speak up so they go, it’s long, the food is awful, and in the end they can’t believe they all just did something no one wanted to do in the first place. Jerry B. Harvey, Management expert, introduced this idea back in 1974 and his conclusion was that when people don’t speak up about their honest opinion, then the whole group is not served well. Sounds pretty straightforward – so why don’t we speak our mind? We may think we’re “keeping the peace” or “being a team player” but really we’re just doing a modern version of “the Emperor has not clothes”. So how do we get ourselves into that situation? Well, sometimes we don’t feel like we can (the space isn’t safe), or we don’t think we’ll be heard, or our contribution is way out of the box, and we’re afraid we’ll be ridiculed. They’re all viable reasons to stay quiet, but not helpful in the end.

So what’s this got to do with education? (Spoiler alert – this is one of my soap boxes. Hope you can bear with me for a bit!) First, let’s look at the bus we’re on. Don’t get me wrong – how we do things is the engine, so to speak, in this bus. But that’s a whole separate topic on its own and frankly, that’s like debating the merits of electric vs. alternative fuel engines when you don’t even know what vehicle you’re putting it in to begin with. That’s my point. Where are we going? What do we need to have when we reach our destination? What “bus” is the right one to get us where we’re headed? What engine will get us there? We spend a lot of time talking about the “how” but we’re ignoring the obvious question that really needs to come first – At the end of this ride, where are the students supposed to end up? We keep putting our students on these “buses”, but they don’t all reach a common destination. Are they supposed to? Is that desirable? Do the students get to have a say in what bus they get on? Is that important? Are we thinking about any of this before we start them on their educational journey? We need divergent thinking. We need all voices. We need the pros AND the cons. We need to speak plainly – and respectfully – about these considerations and have honest conversations about how they fit into the needs and reality of the 21st century. But we don’t. Not really.

So what’s sparking this tirade? I’ve just spent several months as part of a team working to solve a challenging situation only to find out that no one has been speaking plainly this whole time. Months wasted, conversations that now feel meaningless were for not, and we’re no closer to a viable solution that actually supports students, staff, families, and the school community itself than we were when we started. And that feels a lot like the place we’re in as a country on this subject. We all know things aren’t working in our educational delivery system, but no one speaks up with a viable solution and – even worse – I’m not sure those that could make it happen are listening. So what can dedicated educators in the trenches everyday do to change things?

I think we all have to answer that in our own way. For me, I’m going back into the fray and keeping my focus on what really matters – what’s always been the only thing that does matter – the students. I’ve always stood for students, and their best interest should always be the thing that guides my decisions at the end of the day. If that rocks the boat – so be it.   If my thoughts diverge from the groupthink – ok. If I’m not the most popular person in the conversation because I bring up uncomfortable questions – I’ll live. And why do I know this is the right thing to do? Because one of my students gave me a note Friday that said, “Thanks for always being on my side. Thanks for believing in me.” And that’s why all teachers, coaches, and leaders do what they do – because what we do and what we fight for makes a difference and every now and then, someone lets us know it does. And we have all the fuel we need to keep going a little longer.

What Do You Mean I Can’t Campout at the Scenic Pullout?

This week marks one of those milestones in our family. Our youngest son – the Math Genius Airman – turns 21. OMG! How did that happen so fast? I swear he was just born last week! I blinked and 21 years flew by. I heard it said once that the days are long but the years are fast with kids. I totally get that now. But wait – how can I be old enough to have 21 and 23-year-old sons?! I clearly remember being 21 myself, so that just can’t be right. I don’t feel that old. And what about all those great times we’ve had as they grew up? Are they over now? I don’t want it to be in the rearview mirror. Maybe I can find a way to hang out here a little longer.

That ship started sailing this past summer when we went to Nova Scotia as a family. We were running out of time to get this trip planned and booked (4 work / school schedules weren’t solid until almost a month out from departure – yikes!) and the travel agency must have thought we were millionaires with the prices they were quoting us. The guys were determined we were going to take this trip so they jumped in and put their travelling know-how to work. One researched and booked the flights, one researched and got hotel rooms, I researched places to see and things to do, and my husband got transportation arranged. And it didn’t cost us millions.  Go team! That didn’t happen when they were kids!

We started the vacation as though we were still parents and children. We quickly realized we were either being too polite (like we hadn’t just spent the last 20+ years together) or we reverted to parent – child hierarchy rather than more adult equals. We had a family meeting (like times of old), talked plainly (that was a little new), and dared to change-up the vacation plan in the middle of the vacation (that was WAY new). We called an audible, learned some things about ourselves, and had a great rest of the vacation. We did an After Action Review (we are all military after all – LOL!) and realized something:  You can keep having the same fun, even when everything is completely different.

That was a really important realization for me. Milestones have a tendency to make me sad (it’s probably the Irish in me) because they force me come to terms with the passage of time. I’m always a little leery of letting go and walking away from that idyllic spot. What if that was it? What if I never see that spot again?  Can’t I just campout here?

I’m learning that milestones are great opportunities to take a little time to savor – the achievement, the moment, the passage of time, the “scenic view” – and pause to reflect on what has come before to bring me here. It’s good to rest, celebrate, and be grateful for the chance to be here in this experience. But I have to remember – it’s a scenic pullout, not a campground. If I campout at one spot in my life, I run the risk of getting stuck there and missing out on even more great scenic pullouts down the road.   I remember one of my former Principals used to encourage us to enjoy the scenic vista for a moment, but to get back out on the road soon so we could be on our way to the next scenic vista. Pause – don’t Park! (Thanks Geri!) I’ve kept hold of that thought over the years when I’m tempted to park. I’ve got to keep moving forward.

My sons are grateful I’m learning this early in their twenties, although maybe not as quickly as they would always prefer! But as I’ve started letting some things go and figuring out how to re-imagine others, I’ve seen how that’s already started opening up new adventures, new opportunities, and new ways for us to still be a family in this new season of our lives. I’m seeing that milestones are more like water stations in the race of life, rather than finish lines. And that’s good! ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of race left in me, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the race with my team. Guess it’s time to get back out there on the road and find out what’s at the end of the next rainbow!

Work the Problem in front of You

This little gem of a phrase was put to good use while I pursued my doctorate. Trust me – it didn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m a “big picture” person by nature and focusing on isolated details or individual issues without plugging them back into the big picture is just . . . not me. Doing that feels like I’m wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Weird. However during that time, I learned I was not only earning a doctorate, but I was learning how to be flexible, think differently, and do things that didn’t feel normal when that course of action was actually the best way to go for overall success. I applied this idea of “work the problem in front you” as I realized sometimes I had to get out of my natural way of thinking to keep moving forward and do right by those who depended on me to figure it out. But a professor in a university didn’t actually teach that little gem to me; my youngest son taught it to me several years earlier.

My youngest son – the Math genius Airman – always loved solving puzzles and riddles as a kid, and he still does. One summer we discovered the computer game “Sherlock Holmes: Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb”. The game was filled with clues, riddles, puzzles, and hidden things that had to be found and combined to solve other problems.   We loved it! We were hooked. The extraordinary thing was how we worked together. We looked at things very differently, but together we saw possible connections and solutions that built on each other’s thinking. However, we both discovered that in our quest to solve the overall mystery, we often overlooked obvious clues and solutions that were right in front of us, forcing us to go back, relook, and then feel stupid because we’d missed something so simple. He was better at the math puzzles (of course) and I remember asking him how he figured out where to start. He said, “Work the problem in front of you – assess what you know or are given, figure out what the outcome is supposed to be, and start solving problems.” Sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard to remember to do it when life is coming at you in real time.

A few years ago we started taking on Escape Rooms (I highly recommend them – so fun!). We did them as a family and after the first failure we realized we’d forgotten the cardinal rule – work the problem in front of you. We also realized that everyone needed to pick a problem and solve it. Divide and conquer. We hadn’t done either. We got distracted, went off on tangents, tried to look at too much and made erroneous connections with really no evidence to support them. We did everything BUT solve the problems in front of us.

We’ve gotten better and even tackled a level 5 room over the holidays. We got out with 3 seconds to spare!! We were sure we weren’t going to make it, but we stayed calm and kept working the problems until – voila! We unlocked the door! We were shocked we’d actually done it. It reminded me of one of the last scenes from “The Martian” when Matt Damon is explaining to astronauts-in-training that there will be moments when you can either give up or start solving problems. And if you solve enough problems, before time runs out, you get to go home. I get it.

So that gem has been given a workout the last two weeks. It started two weeks ago when we were out of school due to the extreme cold temperatures. We went back on a Wednesday to a pipe bursting and flooding the office plus 3 classrooms. The classrooms are back but the “office” has been reduced to a computer, a phone, 4 walkie-talkies, a folding table, and 4 folding chairs in the back hallway. OMG! The staff has been phenomenal in pulling together, being flexible, and having patience with all the craziness. But for me – I’ve been reduced to “work the problem in front of you.” The new normal – until the office is restored – is steering the ship with a paddle. I work the problem in front of me and then move on to the next. It’s not in my comfort zone at all, but it’s not unfamiliar either. I’ve been here before; I recognize the setup. I know if I stick to the plan, we’ll solve it all and be successful in the end. In the meantime, the new wrinkle to the familiar setup is we’re exhausted, our patience is thin, we can’t get to half the documents we need on a daily basis, and yet school must go on as normally as possible for the staff and students. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the main problem – no office – and I can’t do anything about the on-going deadlines, reports, and building goals that are all limping along at half speed. (You know that’s killing me.) Hopefully, we’ll get to go home before I run out of energy or patience or both.

Then today was the Groundhog Run. We’ve been running this race for the last seven years, and it’s always a high water mark for me. Ok – after today I’m thinking this race is cursed for me. I’ve never been able to run it without some catastrophe befalling me. I’ve been training, I was working the plan, and when I checked my watch I was on target to get a PR. I was closing in on mile 3, everything was going great one moment and the next my left hip felt like someone just took a hot poker to it. The pain was so bad I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I staggered to the side of the course. I took a couple of seconds to catch my breath and that scene came back to me: I can quit or I can start solving problems. Freak out and figure out what the hell just happened later. Right now I’m in a race so – think. It’s not over yet. I try running normally but slow. Oh hell no – white hot pain again. Ok – plan C. Can I do anything that lets me sort of run on that leg? I try this zombie / lurching limp gate where my right leg pulls and my left leg comes alongside, weight on the ball of my foot to stabilize long enough for my right leg to pull forward again. It’s slower than I want, but it’s doable. The pain is just OMG rather than throw up and pass out so I decide this is the plan until I can’t do it anymore – then I’ll think of something else. I limped / lurched my way to the finish line and promptly crumbled into my husband’s waiting arms from there. He’d done great in the race, but he knew something was very wrong when I didn’t show up right behind him. It was frustrating and disappointing for me, but I made it. I finished under my own power. And the most ironic thing? When I checked the stats later, I’d actually finished almost 2 minutes faster than I had two years ago. Go figure.

So what’s the moral of the story for me today? Working the problem in front of me is still usually the best course of action when all around me is unclear. Sometimes, the lessons we learn in completely unrelated areas of our life come to our rescue when we need them most. And sometimes, we learn those lessons from the least expected sources so be open to all the lessons that come to us, from wherever they come. You never know when you’re going to need to apply it to your own life in real time.