What’s Your “It”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Mean I Can’t Campout at the Scenic Pullout?

This week marks one of those milestones in our family. Our youngest son – the Math Genius Airman – turns 21. OMG! How did that happen so fast? I swear he was just born last week! I blinked and 21 years flew by. I heard it said once that the days are long but the years are fast with kids. I totally get that now. But wait – how can I be old enough to have 21 and 23-year-old sons?! I clearly remember being 21 myself, so that just can’t be right. I don’t feel that old. And what about all those great times we’ve had as they grew up? Are they over now? I don’t want it to be in the rearview mirror. Maybe I can find a way to hang out here a little longer.

That ship started sailing this past summer when we went to Nova Scotia as a family. We were running out of time to get this trip planned and booked (4 work / school schedules weren’t solid until almost a month out from departure – yikes!) and the travel agency must have thought we were millionaires with the prices they were quoting us. The guys were determined we were going to take this trip so they jumped in and put their travelling know-how to work. One researched and booked the flights, one researched and got hotel rooms, I researched places to see and things to do, and my husband got transportation arranged. And it didn’t cost us millions.  Go team! That didn’t happen when they were kids!

We started the vacation as though we were still parents and children. We quickly realized we were either being too polite (like we hadn’t just spent the last 20+ years together) or we reverted to parent – child hierarchy rather than more adult equals. We had a family meeting (like times of old), talked plainly (that was a little new), and dared to change-up the vacation plan in the middle of the vacation (that was WAY new). We called an audible, learned some things about ourselves, and had a great rest of the vacation. We did an After Action Review (we are all military after all – LOL!) and realized something:  You can keep having the same fun, even when everything is completely different.

That was a really important realization for me. Milestones have a tendency to make me sad (it’s probably the Irish in me) because they force me come to terms with the passage of time. I’m always a little leery of letting go and walking away from that idyllic spot. What if that was it? What if I never see that spot again?  Can’t I just campout here?

I’m learning that milestones are great opportunities to take a little time to savor – the achievement, the moment, the passage of time, the “scenic view” – and pause to reflect on what has come before to bring me here. It’s good to rest, celebrate, and be grateful for the chance to be here in this experience. But I have to remember – it’s a scenic pullout, not a campground. If I campout at one spot in my life, I run the risk of getting stuck there and missing out on even more great scenic pullouts down the road.   I remember one of my former Principals used to encourage us to enjoy the scenic vista for a moment, but to get back out on the road soon so we could be on our way to the next scenic vista. Pause – don’t Park! (Thanks Geri!) I’ve kept hold of that thought over the years when I’m tempted to park. I’ve got to keep moving forward.

My sons are grateful I’m learning this early in their twenties, although maybe not as quickly as they would always prefer! But as I’ve started letting some things go and figuring out how to re-imagine others, I’ve seen how that’s already started opening up new adventures, new opportunities, and new ways for us to still be a family in this new season of our lives. I’m seeing that milestones are more like water stations in the race of life, rather than finish lines. And that’s good! ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of race left in me, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the race with my team. Guess it’s time to get back out there on the road and find out what’s at the end of the next rainbow!

Work the Problem in front of You

This little gem of a phrase was put to good use while I pursued my doctorate. Trust me – it didn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m a “big picture” person by nature and focusing on isolated details or individual issues without plugging them back into the big picture is just . . . not me. Doing that feels like I’m wearing my shoes on the wrong feet. Weird. However during that time, I learned I was not only earning a doctorate, but I was learning how to be flexible, think differently, and do things that didn’t feel normal when that course of action was actually the best way to go for overall success. I applied this idea of “work the problem in front you” as I realized sometimes I had to get out of my natural way of thinking to keep moving forward and do right by those who depended on me to figure it out. But a professor in a university didn’t actually teach that little gem to me; my youngest son taught it to me several years earlier.

My youngest son – the Math genius Airman – always loved solving puzzles and riddles as a kid, and he still does. One summer we discovered the computer game “Sherlock Holmes: Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb”. The game was filled with clues, riddles, puzzles, and hidden things that had to be found and combined to solve other problems.   We loved it! We were hooked. The extraordinary thing was how we worked together. We looked at things very differently, but together we saw possible connections and solutions that built on each other’s thinking. However, we both discovered that in our quest to solve the overall mystery, we often overlooked obvious clues and solutions that were right in front of us, forcing us to go back, relook, and then feel stupid because we’d missed something so simple. He was better at the math puzzles (of course) and I remember asking him how he figured out where to start. He said, “Work the problem in front of you – assess what you know or are given, figure out what the outcome is supposed to be, and start solving problems.” Sounds so simple, and yet it’s so hard to remember to do it when life is coming at you in real time.

A few years ago we started taking on Escape Rooms (I highly recommend them – so fun!). We did them as a family and after the first failure we realized we’d forgotten the cardinal rule – work the problem in front of you. We also realized that everyone needed to pick a problem and solve it. Divide and conquer. We hadn’t done either. We got distracted, went off on tangents, tried to look at too much and made erroneous connections with really no evidence to support them. We did everything BUT solve the problems in front of us.

We’ve gotten better and even tackled a level 5 room over the holidays. We got out with 3 seconds to spare!! We were sure we weren’t going to make it, but we stayed calm and kept working the problems until – voila! We unlocked the door! We were shocked we’d actually done it. It reminded me of one of the last scenes from “The Martian” when Matt Damon is explaining to astronauts-in-training that there will be moments when you can either give up or start solving problems. And if you solve enough problems, before time runs out, you get to go home. I get it.

So that gem has been given a workout the last two weeks. It started two weeks ago when we were out of school due to the extreme cold temperatures. We went back on a Wednesday to a pipe bursting and flooding the office plus 3 classrooms. The classrooms are back but the “office” has been reduced to a computer, a phone, 4 walkie-talkies, a folding table, and 4 folding chairs in the back hallway. OMG! The staff has been phenomenal in pulling together, being flexible, and having patience with all the craziness. But for me – I’ve been reduced to “work the problem in front of you.” The new normal – until the office is restored – is steering the ship with a paddle. I work the problem in front of me and then move on to the next. It’s not in my comfort zone at all, but it’s not unfamiliar either. I’ve been here before; I recognize the setup. I know if I stick to the plan, we’ll solve it all and be successful in the end. In the meantime, the new wrinkle to the familiar setup is we’re exhausted, our patience is thin, we can’t get to half the documents we need on a daily basis, and yet school must go on as normally as possible for the staff and students. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the main problem – no office – and I can’t do anything about the on-going deadlines, reports, and building goals that are all limping along at half speed. (You know that’s killing me.) Hopefully, we’ll get to go home before I run out of energy or patience or both.

Then today was the Groundhog Run. We’ve been running this race for the last seven years, and it’s always a high water mark for me. Ok – after today I’m thinking this race is cursed for me. I’ve never been able to run it without some catastrophe befalling me. I’ve been training, I was working the plan, and when I checked my watch I was on target to get a PR. I was closing in on mile 3, everything was going great one moment and the next my left hip felt like someone just took a hot poker to it. The pain was so bad I couldn’t breathe for a moment as I staggered to the side of the course. I took a couple of seconds to catch my breath and that scene came back to me: I can quit or I can start solving problems. Freak out and figure out what the hell just happened later. Right now I’m in a race so – think. It’s not over yet. I try running normally but slow. Oh hell no – white hot pain again. Ok – plan C. Can I do anything that lets me sort of run on that leg? I try this zombie / lurching limp gate where my right leg pulls and my left leg comes alongside, weight on the ball of my foot to stabilize long enough for my right leg to pull forward again. It’s slower than I want, but it’s doable. The pain is just OMG rather than throw up and pass out so I decide this is the plan until I can’t do it anymore – then I’ll think of something else. I limped / lurched my way to the finish line and promptly crumbled into my husband’s waiting arms from there. He’d done great in the race, but he knew something was very wrong when I didn’t show up right behind him. It was frustrating and disappointing for me, but I made it. I finished under my own power. And the most ironic thing? When I checked the stats later, I’d actually finished almost 2 minutes faster than I had two years ago. Go figure.

So what’s the moral of the story for me today? Working the problem in front of me is still usually the best course of action when all around me is unclear. Sometimes, the lessons we learn in completely unrelated areas of our life come to our rescue when we need them most. And sometimes, we learn those lessons from the least expected sources so be open to all the lessons that come to us, from wherever they come. You never know when you’re going to need to apply it to your own life in real time.

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!