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.