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.

Mistakes – fix them, carry them through, or just appreciate them?

Last week I resolved to fix a mistake in my life – namely abandoning whole creative pieces of myself in pursuit of a life dream – and go back to bring these pieces home to 2018. One of those mistakes was putting the t-shirt quilts on hold until “later” – and later is finally now, almost eight years down the road. I’m noticing that fixing this mistake is both rewarding and testing my patience, not to mention my resolve. But as usual, there are some interesting things to think about along the way.

I’m starting with my marathoning Airman’s running quilt first because I stupidly thought it would be the easiest to tackle. I make decisions and God has a good laugh over how silly I am. I swear no two shirts are the same size square – OMG! At some point I had started cutting out the designs / fronts of some of these t-shirts in preparation for the quilts, but whatever plan I was looking at then is long gone now. I found a great t-shirt quilt book by Martha Deleonardis and collaborated with my son about what he envisioned for his running quilt. (I was really hoping he’d go for one of the more freestyle formats that would allow me to put all these odd-sized shirts together easily. Hilarious that thought even went through my head!) He likes symmetry and balance so of course he wanted the overall effect of the design to be traditional squares all the same size. Insert first test of patience, resolve and calming breathing here.

But I found a basic design he liked, we decided on the color palette, I found the fabric and off I went. Of course, I cut the border sashing pieces at two different times – and promptly forgot on the second go around that I’d changed the size. I merrily cut out half the sashing 2½ inches too short! I belatedly realized my mistake when I went to start sewing the squares. My heart stuttered and dropped down somewhere around my knees. What had I done?! That’s a lot of fabric; I can’t just throw it away! Insert second test of patience, resolve, and calming breathing here.

As I calmed down and thought, an old useful lesson from my doctorate class days floated to the surface, so I applied it again here: A mistake is just an opportunity to look at things in a different way. Quit freaking out and fix the problem in front of you. Ok – my problem is my sashing is too short FOR EVERY BLOCK! Ok – so we add the needed fabric onto every piece of sashing and carry the mistake through the quilt as though I meant to do that. I get to use the fabric and I keep going on the quilt – problem solved. Whew! Of course that means I just added an extra step to every piece of sashing I sew together. Sigh. So be it – it’s a small price to pay for my lack of attention to detail. Maybe if it is annoying enough I’ll remember not to do that again . . . I hope.

So on I go and get the first row done. I’m so proud of myself I feel like I just ran a marathon at the Olympics! Feeling pretty confident, I started on row 2, and that’s when all the happy in my balloon poured out and I landed back in reality with a thud. I realized I’d made the first square with one of the smaller t-shirts and hadn’t added the extra width that I had to every other block in the row. NOOO!! I messed it up again! What the heck?! Insert third test of patience, resolve, and more breathing (and a couple of bad words) here. Ok – I got this. I’ll just carry that mistake through as well. It’s not obvious to any but a serious quilter. Adjust which shirt goes first in all the other rows and we’re still good to go. And for heaven’s sake – PAY ATTENTION from now on!

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I’m over halfway done with the top now and as I meticulously measure, pin, and re-check everything twice, I’m realizing that this quilt is a lot like the profession I’m in and the students I work with everyday. The quilt wasn’t going well when I tried to rush through it. I couldn’t rush because EVERY SQUARE IS UNIQUE. Each one has its own quirks, its own challenges as it tries to connect with its peers and into the larger overall community. When I didn’t take time to really see and work with each block on its own, I ended up messing up the whole quilt. If I give every block my full attention, the quilt takes care of itself; it comes together because each block works, mistakes and all. Sometimes fixing the mistake in the form of starting over just isn’t feasible or doable; it is what it is now. Sometimes, you just have to adjust and carry the mistake throughout the entire quilt. However, now that I’m many rows into the quilt, the mistakes are actually adding character to the overall design, not unlike the actual mistakes and work-arounds my son encountered in his middle and high school running days. There’s a symbolism and beauty to that which I couldn’t have planned for intentionally; the metaphor emerged because of the mistakes, and a deeper beauty emerged because of the response to them.

So where does that leave us as teachers, leaders, and coaches? Maybe we can draw from ancient Japanese Zen culture in its appreciation of that which is not perfect. There is beauty and harmony to be found when we appreciate the perfect alongside the imperfect. Together, they provide a deeper meaning and poignancy than when we look at either separately. Everyone is a mix of mistakes, triumphs, hard times, and unplanned outcomes. Every block deserves our full attention – whether it be the easy one or the one that challenges us at every turn – so that together we create something not perfect, but beautiful in its own imperfect way, nonetheless. Maybe we need to remember that our students’ stories are made up of many small blocks – perfect and imperfect – and remaining calm and appreciating where we all are at in any given moment is just as important as the end product we are striving to achieve.

Tomorrow’s another opportunity to decide again – fix them, carry them through, or just appreciate them? For me, I’m going to try to focus a little more on giving my full attention to the quilt blocks and yell at myself a little less about making mistakes. The mistakes might just be opportunities to see things in a different way.

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.

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.

Building Relationships: The Rules of the Game

I love games.  I especially like the beginning of games, when the whole adventure is about to begin.  You’re not sure how it will all turn out, but you’re looking forward to the brilliant moves, shocking turns, and brain aerobics needed to solve frustrating conundrums.  However, most folks don’t approach building new relationships with quite the same feeling of glee.  Frankly, many people feel the same way about building new relationships as they do . . . say . . . cleaning out the cat box or going to the dentist – not a barrel of laughs but necessary none the less.  But whether we’re talking games or cat boxes, there are always some guidelines to follow so the outcome is hopefully positive and beneficial for all involved.
There are so many helpful and insightful books, articles, and blog posts out there about what these guidelines, habits, and rules are to help us build meaningful relationships.  They all have something to teach us.  And yet, at the end of all this advice, I find that most of it boils down to a few key pieces.  I call it the Law of Relationships.  My law states:
For a healthy, positive relationship to exist between 2 or more people, respect, trust, and caring must be present first.
Just like scientific laws act as the rules of the game of our existence, the law of relationships acts as the underlying principle that underpins all of the other actions we take when we build and maintain our relationships.  When I look at all my varied relationships across the span of my life so far, I see they generally fall into two categories – good and not so much.  Within the “not so much” category, usually respect, trust, and caring are all on the slim side.  Bottom line – If the other person has proven themselves to be untrustworthy, not respectful of me or others (and therefore not earning my respect), and does not inspire me to care about them on a personal level, all the advice and techniques in the world will not turn that relationship into a solid foundation upon which we can build a future.  There’s the rub.
So how do these rules of the game help us, even in these situations?  Particularly when the way is challenging, I think of these relationship rules as the Minecraft approach to relationship building.  In Minecraft, you develop a vision of what you want to create and then you build and create it – resource, by block, by crafting formula – within a controlled environment.  Although you have endless options in what you create, the building blocks and rules of how to use them are finite and set.  When it comes to building relationships, especially new or challenging ones, most of the advice takes the Minecraft approach.  You mine for information, collect personal details, use your tools to intentionally craft a relationship for a specific purpose.  It’s very practical and helpful when you’re not sure how to start. However, like the Law of Relationships states, at some point you need to actually respect and care for someone if you want a real relationship to develop.  Those are the rules of the game.
So let’s be honest – respect usually comes as a result of watching someone’s actions to see if what they say and do are in sync.  Do they do what they say when they think no one is watching or when their effort won’t gain them anything?  You come to respect their judgment and coupled with their consistency of action, it begins to build trust.  Once you have those two things, caring usually comes along because you are now invested in each other and you want to help sustain them.  Before you know it, you’ve got a real relationship growing.  That formula needs to work both ways, however.  Are you a person whose actions and words are in sync?  Do you do the right thing even when it isn’t going to be noticed or the effort won’t gain you a thing personally?  Do your actions inspire trust and respect? And there’s the first step in building a quality relationship – be a person with whom you would want to build a relationship.  Start with yourself, be genuine in your care and assistance of others, and you’ll find yourself on your way to establishing new relationships with those around you and with those whom you support.
But for all of this to be true, and for our relationships to be real, it really can’t be a game.  It has to be sincere.  Ironic, isn’t it?

And there’s the adventure in our game called real life.   We might have rules and guidelines, and we might intentionally work on ourselves to be our best selves, but it’s all very real; it’s not a game.  The brilliant moves, shocking turns, and brain aerobics needed to solve frustrating conundrums takes on a new level of intensity when “the game” is actually real life – your life.  So use the advice and the techniques to craft your own vision of good relationships as you strive to keep it real in a world that wants you to believe it’s all just a game.   

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.