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.

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.