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.

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.

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.

Transitions – The Goat, the bridge, and the Troll

There’s been a lot of transitioning going on in my life the last 6 months, and so naturally it’s been on my mind.  And when I say “on my mind”, that can be interpreted as I’ve been playing with it, studying it, and batting it around like a cat with a mouse until there’s not much left.  Like most cats, I’m extremely curious, and this tends to take me on more than a few thought journeys as I try to puzzle out the whys and wherefores of whatever has caught my interest.  Enter transitions.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never really considered them until recently.  All I really know about them is that they’re hard.  Whether it’s the attainment of a long strived for goal or something you don’t see coming that flies out of left field and knocks you on your butt, change and the inevitable transition that goes with it is just rough.  Heaven knows there’s a lot out there on change – how to create it, manage it, survive it, lead it or sustain it – but it’s all focused on getting something to go from where it is to someplace new, whether it wants to or not.  Most don’t consider what’s supporting the effort between what was the old normal and what’s the new.  However, I stumbled upon the book Managing Transitions by William and Susan Bridges (2009). It’s a great read and I highly recommend it for those of you who really want to dig deep on this topic.  One thought that really captured my attention was their idea that transition is psychological and one of the pieces of this process is a neutral zone or “emotional wilderness” when you have an opportunity to create the thing you are trying to become, get to, etc; it’s where the magic of innovation happens.  They urge you not to rush through it but embrace it (chapter 1).

On first hearing I thought, “Embrace the messy, feel like a newbie idiot with my shoes on the wrong feet, haven’t got a clue what to do next feeling?  Are they nuts?” That sounds very Zen and I don’t know if I have it in me to be that amazing. Enter the cat.  But what if they’re right?  What would that mean?  Why does embracing this feel more than a little scary?

After spending a lot of time batting that idea around (ok – it fueled more than one morning run), I came up with this analogy.  Remember the Three Billy Goats?  What if we’re the goats and the transition is the bridge we’re using to get to the other side – the new normal.  Applying the Bridges’ idea to this analogy, we, as the goats, should take our time going across the bridge and savor the experience, taking time to try new things, embrace innovative perspectives, and take in the whole re-imagining process.  But wait a minute – wasn’t there a troll somewhere, maybe under that bridge, just waiting to jump out and eat us?!  Ah. Enter the real reason we fear change and transitions: we don’t have total control over the process.  If we’re going to embrace the transition then that means we have to accept that we might  be the thing that gets reimagined by the time we get to the other side.  We have to be brave enough to face the troll – however it appears to us – and have faith that we will make it to other side, one way or another.  Daring to think of yourself as something new and different – gulp – is more than a little scary.

So where does this leave me, and maybe you?  I’m kinda in the middle of the bridge and I’ve faced a couple of trolls so far but if I’m being honest, it’s a little exhilarating to re-imagine and “breathe into it”.  I don’t know how long the bridge is, but I think I’m going to try enjoying the view – and the trolls – a little more moving forward.  Who knows – I might just be different by the time I get to the new normal.

See ya on the bridge!

Melissa

 

To do or not to do – are these my only options?

I’m on day 35 of the Runner’s World Streak #rwrunstreak winter 2017 (I started 4 days late due to company in my house over Thanksgiving) and as much as I love running, I have to say I’m looking forward to it being in the “Accomplished!” column.  I’ve learned so much about myself, about self-coaching (I can be kinda bitchy to myself), and the rewards of not listening to my inner slacker (I ran with Charity Miles to earn donations to charities through my running.  Great motivator!).  HOWEVER . . . it’s hard to keep the love affair going when I never get away from it.  Everyday – whether I want to or not, whether I’m feeling sick, still healing from bruises, my muscles ache, my sinuses are throbbing and my eyeball feels like it’s about to pop out, or it’s Christmas day – I run.  I’d say “OMG” but I’m too tired and sore to bother.

On the flip side, I’ve gotten a lot stronger, both physically and mentally.  I’ve learned I can do things and reap benefits even when I’m not enjoying the activity at the moment.  I’ve learned I need to be kinder to myself – and I can still kick butt even though I’m not necessarily kicking my own all the time – and I learned determination sometimes means you choose to show up and follow through – everyday, no matter what.  Period.

So as I prep to go back to school, staff, students, and parents, my new learnings are speaking to me.  Let’s be honest – whether you’re a teacher, coach, leader, administration, or just a life-long learner – going back to the daily “treadmill” of work and dilemmas looks about as appetizing as my real-life treadmill looks at 5 A.M. in the cold dark basement.  But taking my new insights with me as I move forward, I know a few things:

  1. It won’t be dark once I turn the lights on; it will be cozy.
  2. Getting started is the worst part; once I get going, I actually begin to enjoy it.
  3. Whether I enjoy it or not isn’t important; doing it is.
  4.  I will feel better about myself at the end of the day because I did what was important and necessary – for me and maybe for others as well – and I might have just helped someone else along the way.
  5. In the end, it doesn’t matter how fast or brilliant of a job you do on any one day; what matters is how you finish the course.  Showing up and finishing are half the battle.

Runners take your marks! The second semester race is about to begin – good luck and I’ll see you along the course on the way to the finish line!

 

 

Detours Don’t Equal Disaster

When I started this blog last summer, everything was on track and going great.  I was on a terrific leadership team, I had a work plan all figured out for the coming year, and I had a manageable schedule for fitness.  My personal life was rockin’ and I was ready to take on some new horizons in the personal growth department – enter this blog.  Everything was awesome!

Then I went back to work.  The district restructured the Instructional Coach assignment / work format effective immediately.  Oh no.

Like a Kansas twister moving across the land, everything we were used to was blown apart in a few intense moments, and when the dust settled, not much was left that looked as it had before.  Major detour.  Now what?

It looked like a disaster.  Those first days and weeks were painful and stressful as we worked to figure out what our new normal was to be.  We mourned what was, and we weren’t always sure how best to rebuild, but rebuilding and moving forward was always the plan.  We finally decided to gather together what was left, including the team, and go to work figuring out how to get back to the road we were on before the detour.

And there’s the fulcrum point between detour or disaster – our attitude towards the unexpected new reality.  When circumstances drop in on us like uninvited company, the decision to see it as a life-stopping disaster or an unplanned detour with possibilities lies within each of us.  The decision we make will not only determine how we proceed, but will  define us in the end.  It’s how we choose to respond in the midst of struggle, confusion, and uncertainty that shapes our character and our future, one decision and one event at a time.

The bottom line – the detour gave us a required opportunity to grow, and grow we have.  So how will you respond to your detour?  I encourage you to embrace the unappealing challenge in front of you.  You just might be surprised what rewards you’ll find along that path.

Coming soon – things learned as a result of detouring.

First Encounters

 

 We’re heading back into the regular school year rhythm and there are quite a few folks facing some first day jitters – students, staff, and even school leaders.  Those first moments – and what happens in them – have ripples beyond the immediate moment.  Let me share a few of my own examples with you.
It was 1971, and I stood at the door to my new nursery school room wondering if anyone would want to talk to me, eat lunch with me, or even play with me.  The teachers took me to a group of girls who were laughing and playing together, obviously great friends.  Introductions were made and the teacher left, but I didn’t look quite as cute or act quite as perky as the other girls and they quickly excluded me from their game.  Confused and sad, I stood there wondering what to do.  A little boy at the next table looked over at me and smiled.  He was finger painting with the old stand by of liquid starch and tempura paint on butcher paper.
“Want to finger paint with me?” he asked, looking friendly.
“Sure!” I smiled back gratefully as I pulled up a chair next to him.  He nodded toward the paper and paint.
“Grab some paper and stick your fingers in the paint,” he explained.  “I’m trying to draw my dog, but I’m not very good.  Kinda looks like a pig,” he said as he frowned critically at his picture.
I was inclined to agree with his assessment, but I grabbed some butcher paper and said instead, “It looks just like a dog to me,” and sat down next to him at the table.
We remained friends through junior high until he moved away.
Fast-forward to second grade and it was my first day of ballet class.  The teacher looked like the epitome of the ethereal ballet dancer and the other girls looked like beautiful wisps of grace.  I didn’t know anyone and by contrast I looked more athletic than willowy (I think it’s those sturdy Irish genes).  As I looked around, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, I noticed a girl coming towards me with a smile that lit up her whole face and an energy that just radiated enthusiasm and pizzazz.
“Hi! Are you new too?” she gushed in her dramatic yet charming way.
I nodded shyly, smiling hopefully.
“Great! I’m new too!  Let’s stand at the barre together.  That way, if we mess up, at least we’ll be together!” she laughed with gusto as she grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her.
She is still my oldest friend.
Fast-forward to two years ago when I joined my new school district after spending eleven years in my previous one.  It was my first professional development with my new colleagues, and I paused as I walked into that big room alone.  Although I’m quite a ways from my childhood, those old familiar jitters floated to the surface like the ghosts of first encounters past.  Will anyone want to talk to me?  Will I make new friends?  Will I find my place in this new community?  I put on my cheerful, brave face and was prepared to go it alone, at first, when I saw a kind, smiling face wave me over to her table.
“Hi!  Come sit here with us.  I’m Becky.  Are you new?” she asked kindly.
“Yes – thank you.  I’m one of the new elementary instructional coaches.  I’m new to the district – this is my first day!” I shared in what I hoped was a confident and cheerful voice (because my insides felt a lot like they were in a blender).
“Great!  I’m an elementary coach too!  Don’t worry about a thing – we’ll get you all squared away.  Welcome to our district!”
And just like that, I felt like a weight had been lifted off and the day was just a little less scary.  With a few kind words, I felt like I was a welcomed member of a team and maybe I’d found a new home.  Thanks, Becky!
So what do all these stories have in common?  They’re all about how a smile, a kind word, a coming alongside, can make scary or anxious moments feel a little less so.  And the more experiences we have where we are on the receiving end of those actions, the more compelled we feel to pay it forward and provide those moments for someone else.  Never underestimate the power of those small acts of kindness or those few words of camaraderie – they are powerful beyond measure and can echo over decades.  Those moments – giving and receiving – change who we are, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves.  They help us define ourselves and our place in the world.

As we start this new season, I encourage you to keep an eye out for those opportunities to be that ray of sunlight, that voice of kindness, that breath of relief and hope to those you serve and with whom you work.  Though the seed is small, the tendrils that extend out from it can and will reach far beyond that single moment.  So when you see one of those moments this season, smile . . . be friendly . . . and see what blooms – for both of you.

My First Lessons in Leadership came from STAR TREK

My earliest and fondest memories include watching #STAR TREK with my mom.  I remember being riveted by how the crew would manage to solve an episode’s challenges, and as I grew, fascinated by the subtle interpersonal relationships that formed the foundation for just about every decision they made. Through the stories of the USS Enterprise, the crew presented solid lessons in teamwork and leadership.  That melding of personal connection, teamwork, and leadership is what makes STAR TREK’s crew such a unique study in how to be leaders. Let me share what the crew has taught me over the years.


  • When the way forward is uncertain, the Captain goes first.
The Captain never asks others to do the hard, dangerous, or potentially career-ending work for him. Instead, he goes first and takes on the uncertainty to secure a way forward for his team and the mission.


  • When safety is compromised, the Captain goes last.
The Captain makes sure everyone else is safe or getting out of harm’s way before he works to save himself.  The crew’s safety is his top priority.


  • Duty first.
Every member of the crew – from the Captain on down – always does their best to do their duty under all circumstances, whether they personally feel it’s a great idea or not.  Their commitment to follow-through on the principles, beliefs, and missions of the Federation allow the Captain to trust in their mutual loyalty and determination to see it through when it comes time to give an order and set a course of action for them all.


  • Never give up – fight to the end.
Although there are times when the crew has to take a passive mien in order to gain a tactical advantage, the intention is always to go down fighting in order to triumph in the end.  When one of the members of the leadership team knows something is not right, they battle on to set it right, no matter what the obstacle or personal cost.  Never give up, never surrender to make it easier on yourself.


  • Your team is the most important thing.
When the crew has to do battle, they make sure they fight for their team, with their team, as a team.  The team knows they are stronger together and the odds of success are much higher when they each use their unique abilities to work together to win the day for others, as well as themselves.


  • Keep your composure – always.
When all hell is breaking loose around them and the situation is grim at best, the crew keeps their composure and remains steady in the face of chaos.  They keep thinking and moving their way through it – to the last person, the last resource, the last second if need be – until they bring the situation under control.  There is no room for panic, indecision, or weakness; they just stay calm and lead on.


  • Keep it personal.
Although the work they do might be “just business”, the reason they do it is very personal.  If they have any success at all, it is because of the personal connections they have with each other that sustain and back them along the way.  When the crisis is over, the crew always reconnects on a personal level.  It’s in those moments of recovery that they not only make sense of what happened, but they strengthen their bonds and commitments to each other.  Celebrating success and acknowledging everyone’s contributions to that success is what recements everyone’s commitment to make it happen again when faced with the next challenge.  And there will always be another challenge.


Although I have learned many things about leadership over the years and even earned a doctorate in educational leadership, there’s always more to learn and experience.  And yet – if STAR TREK’s crew had been my only reference point for how to be a leader, it wouldn’t have been the worst teacher on the subject.


As we head out to our continuing missions, to seek out new people and new frontiers, we will boldly go where no one has gone before . . . because the crew of the Enterprise showed us the way.
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Gear Up for a New Season

As the summer “pause” button approaches “play” again, my thoughts begin to turn towards getting organized for another season’s goals, plans, challenges, and triumphs.  So where to start?  How do you know how to move forward?  A great place to start is always with a reflection on the results of last season’s work, and a review of the data and evidence that points to what is working – and what’s not.  I’ve got 5 steps for getting myself ready for the starting line. I thought I’d share them with you, and I hope it gives you some ideas that help you get to your starting line this season, too.


Step 1:  Where did I leave off?
I start by looking at the goals and targets I set for myself last season.
Did I meet them?
If not, were they realistic to begin with? Too big or off target?
What worked that I need to keep doing this season?
What didn’t work that I need to rethink?


As I reflect back on last season, I see I met all my goals but two.  One I need to continue focusing on is finding ways to better utilize and integrate technology into my work and the work of my teachers.  I see I set the goal, but I didn’t quantify it nor did I put it in my schedule / work plan so I’d make time to actually do it consistently.  There’s a piece to add to this season’s goals and targets.  The other goal that didn’t quite get met was improving communication with my teachers when I wasn’t physically with them.  Although I tried several things, nothing got me where I wanted to be.  The things I tried were too static and not interactive enough.  There’s another piece to add.  Overall, I ended the season on an upward trend.  Now the challenge will be to sustain and improve on it this season.  There’s another one to add.

 

Step 2: Where do I want to go?

This is where I dream and aspire – and scare myself a little with those visions.  On a personal level, I try to set one goal for myself that takes me out of my comfort zone and will undoubtedly be personally challenging to achieve.  A few years ago, it was earning my doctorate.  This year it’s getting this blog going.  As I looked at last season’s goals, this goal was still sitting there, patiently waiting for me to put my courage to the sticking place and jump in.  So I decided to do just that.  Already I’m seeing how this new adventure is taking me to new places – personally AND professionally – and giving me fresh ideas to bring to my coaching. I’m still not in my comfort zone, but I’m loving learning new things, so that balances it out a little.


Other professional goals include wanting to digitize my coaching binder / log to make my work more efficient and hopefully more effective as well.  I also want to sustain and improve my default schedule, for those times when I suddenly find myself with an unexpected hour-long hole in my day.


So what might you take on this year?  Is there something you’ve wanted to try for a while but felt hesitant about starting?  Maybe this is the year to plunge in!

 

Step 3:  Let’s write a plan!

I usually post my goals and targets somewhere in my work space so I see them everyday and then long-term plan things like Professional Development (PD), Professional Learning Community (PLC) topics to explore, synchronizing dates and hard deadlines in my calendar, and setting goals and targets with my teachers.  But somehow there were still professional activities important to me that still either weren’t getting addressed consistently or as effectively as I’d like.


As a running coach, I always start the new season with a plan.  I take into account the goals we’re trying to achieve by the end of the season, strengths the runners have I want to sustain and weaknesses we need to address through training and conditioning.  Balancing all that over a specific period of time is what makes up the plan.  I make similar plans for my own training and use it as a benchmark to assess how my training is progressing – or not – as I implement it.  It’s a great tool.   And then LIGHTBULB!  Why not adapt what I do for running to my work as an instructional coach?  (Ok – apparently CPT Obvious hadn’t visited me before now.)


As I start developing this new kind of plan, I need to consider making time for planning quality, relevant PD each week, engaging in professional reading to stay current, learning new technology and trying it out, scheduling communicating with teachers when I’m not with them, and setting time aside to review the week’s work in order to set targets for the following week and build that into my schedule and coaching plans.  Merging that with my usual duties, weekly tasks, and the long term objectives set by my district is where my thinking is currently in progress.


What system do you use to plan out your work?  How might you develop your own plan to intentionally capture all those important things that sometimes fall through the cracks?

 

Step 4:  Get organized.
I admit – I’m a school supply nerd.  I LOVE back to school time!  Brand new Crayola markers, colored pencils and crayons, fresh notebooks, sticky notes, tabs, folders, writing pens – oh, I’m in heaven.  But all that can become a finger-wagging school teacher to you as you see it still sitting there on your desk collecting dust a month later.  Whatever organizational system you choose to use, my advice is to keep it simple – easy to setup and easy to maintain.


Generally I color-code my schedule and files for quick identification and filing, whether it’s digitally or old school traditional.  Things I need all the time I keep nearby and easily accessible.  Work in progress goes into a prioritized pipeline on the long counter next to my desk using a 4 Quadrant priority system inspired by Dr. Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).  From there, those tasks and projects translate onto the whiteboard on the wall so I can see at a glance what’s critical, what’s looming, and how to manage my time and tasks.  This then drifts into my weekly and daily schedule so I stay in control of all the shiny objects I juggle.

Do you have an organizational system?  If so, is it still working for you?

Step 5:  Run it!

Put the plan and tools in place, gear up, and start implementing your plan.


Hope this gets your head in the zone!
 Melissa