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!

The Practical Researcher – Part 1

Data.  Research.  Math.  Science.  Probability.  Statistics, trend lines, standard deviation, correlations – oh, be still my heart!! I look on those words with the same kind of intense interest that equals the drooling lust I bestow upon Corvettes.  Yeah, I know.  I’m not normal in that regard.  However, those same words don’t need to conjure up feelings of revulsion or fear, either.  For data and research to be so much a part of our lives and our work these days, it’s kind of odd how truly paralyzed professional, degree-holding people get about this topic.  I know I can’t convert everyone to my love affair with data and research, but I can try!  So let’s demystify this a bit and see if I can at least help you not want to run screaming in the opposite direction when the subject comes up.  This month I’m focusing on all things data so we can all feel empowered to use it to drive our professional decisions.  This week’s focus starts with demystifying some vocabulary.
Data – it sounds so ominous, clinical, and mathematical.  It can be all of those things, but at its core it’s just information.  It’s facts that are simply indicators of reality at certain points in time.  Data is clinical in that it’s objective and plays no favorites; it just IS.  You can use math to collect or analyze it, but you don’t have to.  Data is anything that can be collected in some way, like observations, tests, tally marks, rubrics, conversations, measurements, or frequency.  If you capture, collect, or compile it in some way, then it’s data.  As a teacher, leader, or coach you do this dozens of times a day, officially and unofficially.  You’re probably a real pro at this already (and you just don’t know it)!
Science – applying the scientific method (remember that from your youth?) is just being methodical and thoughtful about what you want to know, how you want to gather evidence, and determining how you will look at it so that some facts emerge.  When you apply a little science to your process, you’re probably trying to eliminate your own biases, preferences, or opinions on the subject so that you’re not just going with your gut or your knee-jerk reaction.  You want some objective information.  Don’t get me wrong here – both your gut and your reflexes are powerful guides and guardians.  Good researchers pay attention to both to guide their work.  Sometimes, they end up being right on the money and both your instincts and the evidence point to the same conclusion.  But sometimes, those outcomes are different – and that’s powerful knowledge, too.  Either way, you know more than you did when you began, so that’s a good thing.
Math – Math didn’t start out being my best friend.  Yes, there’s a separate story there and I’ll share it with you in a future post.  Suffice it to say that we made up over the years, and I learned that Math, like Professor Snape in Harry Potter, just looks menacing but is really a good guy.  Math can be practical and straight-forward or very deep and complex, but all of it is in support of illuminating the truth and helping, in some cases, point to possible outcomes.  Math just wants to be friends; he can’t help it that some people find him scary.  In the end, Math is just a humble servant trying to help us organize our information to come up with a solution that makes sense.
Research – that sounds scientific, hard, and destined to make your brain do the equivalent of advanced yoga poses.  In reality, research is nothing more than wondering something and posing a question you’d like to know the answer to.  It mimics the scientific process.  You conduct some sort of activity and collect the results (data) to shed light on what’s going on.  You gather all your data and look at it all together (analyze) to see what story it’s telling you.  You might do some math to clarify or help organize the data so that it’s easier to see connections.  You add all that to your own knowledge and expertise and you draw a conclusion.  From there, you take some kind of action based on what you learned.  Simple, right?  Again, I bet you do this often and you didn’t even realize you were doing research.
And finally, there’s Probability.  When you do the research, maybe apply the scientific method, collect some data, and perhaps even do a little math, the process begins to paint a picture.  Probability is then seeing where the weight of the evidence points.  Probability is the strong likelihood of something happening – or not.  Of course, you have to be careful of garbage in, garbage out, too.  The better, more reliable your data, the more confident you can be about the likelihood of the outcome the data is suggesting.  There are ways to quantify this likelihood by turning it into Math’s language, taking it to a whole other level of certainty and verification of facts.  However, most of the work we do doesn’t really require this level of scrutiny of the details.  We all are pretty capable of putting information together and seeing where it’s leading, and that’s all that’s needed most of the time.

Put these terms together and – Voila!  You have the foundation you need to get started doing some action research on your students’ progress to help them – and you – reach those goals you both want to reach.  So maybe give it a try?  Take it out for a coffee and see what develops?  You might just find that you both have a lot to say to each other.