The Teacher’s High – Unicorns or Easter Eggs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Improving on Our Worst-Case Scenario

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

So what is grit and can we learn it?

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

Not many.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I the Obstacle? The Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I the Obstacle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Your “It”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is Education on a Bus to Abilene?

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

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

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

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

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