The Power of Play

Playful moments keep us young and remind us of wonder.
To laugh is to live fully in playful appreciation of life.

I became a teacher before I became a mom. I can split my professional experience in education as: (1) before children section and (2) after children section. When I had children, my priorities shifted, not only with my family, but also with my career. I prepared extensively to become a mom. My husband and I read plenty of books and articles on parenting best practices. We attended classes, talked to friends and family, purchased all kinds of items to assist with this transition. We went to no ends to be the best parents once our family grew. Of course, none of this prepared us for how our lives would change. Although we didn’t know exactly how it would change, nevertheless, we knew it would change and did our best to prepare. 

I did nothing to prepare for the change that would happen to me as an educator. 

I did not realize that everything I did as an educator would change as well. The fact that I was now a parent meant that I was different. Everything, every single area of my life would change; and, that included my role as an educator. From grading to assessing, to discipling, to supporting, to connecting with parents and colleagues, all of these practices would look different due to my shift in perspective.

But the change which had the most impact on me was the addition of play and laughter to all areas of my life. Again, not what I anticipated. Play makes us vulnerable. To allow ourselves to laugh and be present enough to find the humor in so many situations, not only pushes us to connect authentically with others, but allows our hearts to expand. “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” wrote Charles Dickens. And how right he was. The honest laughter of children always delights the adults who are lucky enough to witness it. I watched my own parents light up with wonder as they played on the floor with my children. The laughter they heard infected all of us. Becoming a parent increased my capacity to laugh, to find joy in the smallest wonders, to love in a way I could not have predicted. 

Laughter heals. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter does more than just help you clear mentally, but physically, it provides oxygen-rich air, stimulates your lungs, muscles, and heart and increases healing endorphins into your body.

David DiSalvo, author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do The Opposite, published an article in Forbes Magazine identifying six science based reasons laughter is the best medicine. I especially recognize two of these in the school setting. The first is that laughter has a similar impact on the brain, just as antidepressants do. When you laugh, you release neurotransmitter serotonin which is the same chemical in the brain that is affected by the common type of antidepressants, SSRIs. While the length of time differs between the medicine and laughter, the potent power of laughter is evident. 

The other reason is that “laughter is central to relationships,” according to DiSalvo. When I walk through the school hallways in the morning, I see plenty of evidence that this last reason rings true: students surprising their friends by jumping in their face to feign shock, a student tapping on the shoulder of another student and then acting like they didn’t (adults do this as well), a teacher laughing with a colleague about a story shared, two students practicing a hand shake. When we take the time to play with one another, we are connecting through laughter. Laughter frees us to: enjoy one another, relax when overwhelmed, and appreciate our lives. The connection that laughter provides builds relationships between people.  It allows the spark in me to understand the spark in you. 

It is obvious to me that students and teachers who are able to find humor with their friends and colleagues are more easily able to maintain a balanced life. They healthy perspective on their lives. Students who struggle with anxiety and insecurity are often the same ones who rarely laugh; these are the students who have trouble connecting with peers. Teaching students to laugh and play provides them a lifelong tool to combat stress and worry. As Annie Keys said, “That ability to laugh at myself takes me from being a victim to being a victor.” As educators and parents we must teach students today to recognize and find the humor in their mistakes.  The best way to do this is to recognize and find humor in our own mistakes and share this with those we lead.

Our students today take on the world. They are our offspring – the generation which thinks we can do everything and be everything.  We are the generation owho grew up slowly, and yet, can thrive within the fast pace of today. We are the generation who did not build relationships and connections with technology, but fully work within it now. Our children’s childhoods are busier and fuller than ever. Never before have children had so many options, so much information, and so many ways to connect with others. I  wonder, do my own children laugh as much as I did when I was their age? Do they play enough?

 “Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.” Greg McKeown. This quote says it all to me. 

Play and laughter are essential. They help clear our minds and our hearts. They foster appreciation and wonder, joy and love. They calm us and heal us. As W.E.B Dubois said, “I am especially glad of the divine gift of laughter; it has made the world human and lovable, despite all it’s pain and wrong.” 

I hope you find time this week to play. I hope you hear the laughter in the hallways you walk, whether they are in a school building, a grocery store, business office, or out in nature. I hope you recognize it and are better for it. I hope you seize the moment to connect through play. You will gain more from those precious moments than from many others during your week. Thanks for reading.

The Impact of Beliefs

The Snake River, winding through Yellowstone National Park.

“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by belief.” – Gerry Spence, trial lawyer who did not lose a case between the years of 1969-2010. In this quote, beliefs and wonder serve as opposite forces. 

When you look at beliefs by themselves, what are they? According to Michael Shermer, “we form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow,” quoted from his book, The Believing Brain.

Looking at history, beliefs are the founding blocks of humanity’s greatest and most tragic moments. Beliefs fueled Julius Caesar and the building of the Roman Empire. The single belief in freedom founded America. The belief in equality empowered a woman to say no to moving to the back of the bus. The belief in inequality fueled a war between brothers which split a young country in half; but, ultimately, the belief in unity made it stronger. The belief in blame and hatred enabled over six million  humans to perish at the hands of a dictator who believed in racial cleansing. The belief in health and medicine have cured ailments through the centuries from polio, plague, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and other illnesses.The belief in science not only discovered new planets, galaxies and universes, but also gave man the ability to explore them. The belief in religion provides faith, ethics and foundations for millions. The belief in peace founded numerous organizations and fueled an entire generational movement. John Lennon inspired millions with his music and belief in peace. This belief he died for, as many others have: Joan of Arc,  Dietrich Bonhoffer, Gandhi, Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. Beliefs shape our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

So how do we lead with beliefs? How do we learn and find wonder when we do not share the same beliefs as those we serve? Wonder. Focus. Curiosity.

We are attracted to others who share similar beliefs. We seek experiences to further support our belief system. Beliefs provide foundations in our lives. Our religions and faiths are founded on belief systems. Our moral compass and the integrity by which we live, are rooted in our belief system. 

Joe Vitale, author of numerous books and programs, argues what we believe about ourselves and our world is what we will continue to get. He supports the idea that what you think is what you create. Through his own life experience, he has seen how his focus and movement toward what inspires him has changed his reality and continues to. Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, believes that by being aware of your thoughts you can recognize and then change limiting beliefs about your life. You, she argues, are the only one who can change your reality. 

Let’s bring this into the educational perspective. Isn’t this what we want to teach students? How often in student conferences do I say or hear a colleague remind a student that the choice is theirs? If they want to be successful _________ (fill in the blank, academically, socially, athletically, emotionally) they must put forth the effort to in order to grow and learn. Our beliefs will either allow us to look at our lives and choices honestly, in order to grow to become our best selves, or keep us stagnant. 

The line between belief and self-righteousness frequently blurs. As leaders, and as learners, we have to be aware of how much we rely on our personal beliefs when making decisions. When our beliefs seem better than the next person’s beliefs, we become self-righteous. Self- righteousness promotes judgement. Judgement leads to fear. Often our fear begins as more of an uncertainty in our own beliefs, than it is a criticism of another’s beliefs. But, it is safer and less risky to judge than to ask questions. If we already have the answers, then we don’t have to listen to anyone else. Our assumptions become truths with or without the facts to support them. 

Many of the harmful moments in our history, like the ones mentioned above, are the direct result of extreme, self-righteous beliefs. This judgement begins in a conviction. For example, as parents, we believe and see the best in our children. Our love for them can sometimes blind us. When I call a parent about a student behavior resulting in a consequence, and that parent reacts angrily to me about the consequence, I am reminded that this reaction is one rooted in love for his/her child. Helping parents understand that this is not a challenge to their belief about their child, but a guiding moment to help their child connect their choice to the consequence, often helps. Without our willingness to understand where this anger comes from, a learning moment can easily become a battle between egos, resulting in perpetuating anger and frustration for both parties.

Teenagers often test boundaries to determine what beliefs truly resonate with them- this constitutes the human experience. This is a part of how we define ourselves and our own dreams, limitations and paths. Making crucial decisions about what we want to study, where we want to live, who we want to call our friends – all are created by our own values and beliefs. When we first acquire beliefs we do so  because we have learned it from the adults in our lives. Later, these beliefs become ours based on the experiences we live. Our parents guide us, as do our teachers, as we develop the character and choices that form our own beliefs. We test these beliefs and change them as we grow into adults. 

According to Graham Lawton, contributor to Post magazine, beliefs are how we see the world and act within it.  “Taken together they form a personal guidebook to reality, telling us not just what is factually correct but also what is right and good, and hence how to behave towards one another and the natural world. This makes them arguably not just the most mental thing our brains do but also the most important,” Why is this? 

When we lead others and remain curious, we allow ourselves to wonder about beliefs we may not have in our own lives. We learn about the experiences of others; and often, I’ve learned that my beliefs about that person or that situation were simply wrong. I was operating from my own perspective; and while my view isn’t wrong, it is lacking the context and larger picture which helps me truly gain clarity. It is essential that if we are going to lead others to change, we have to be willing to wonder about their experience, their ideas, their beliefs and their values. Through this wonder, we learn. Yet this wonder also invites risk. We risk being wrong, and that can be scary.

Life is full of risk. We take risks from the moment we are born. We risk falling when we learn to walk.We risk heartache when we love. We risk failure when we try for something beyond our ability. We risk belonging when we speak our story. We risk being on time when we hit snooze. We risk missing out when we say no. We risk our perspective when we don’t ask and when we do. We risk our conviction when we listen to others. We risk our “rightness” when we seek to understand how we could be “wrong”. We risk conflict when we stand for our beliefs.

  As we travel this week together, let’s be aware of the impact of our beliefs and how they can open and close opportunities for us. Do we believe we are so right that we are missing a different picture available for us to see, if we simply wonder? When we do allow ourselves to suspend our beliefs for just a moment, to live by the quote of Gerry Spence, “I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by belief,” what happens? 

We risk, and we learn. 

The Curiosity of Wonder

View of the Grand Tetons at dawn. Summer 2017

I am reading the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio to my 9-year-old son. Although Isaac is a great reader, he doesn’t love to read like I do or like his sister does. He’s more like his father – he wants to read in order to learn how to do something or for a purpose. Works of fiction seldom impress him.  Yet with Wonder, he is hooked. He pays attention to every word. He stops and asks  me to clarify something he doesn’t fully understand. He loves Auggie, the main character, and emotionally reacts when Auggie struggles. I see a sense of awe in my son which show the same qualities of wonder I feel are vital to learning and leadership. 

What exactly is wonder? According to Webster’s, as a noun, wonder is “a cause of astonishment or admiration,” and “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience”. As a verb, wonder means “to feel surprise, curiosity or doubt.” I remember the wonder I felt as a child, breathing in the sea air or looking out from the top of a mountain, the magic of Christmas morning, and the awe I felt when I saw my first shooting star.  This sense of amazement resonates in songs we sing, nature we witness, and moments that change us. 

As children, we seek to understand, as we yearn for experiences which allow us to grow. We want to visit places, go to concerts, meet new people , and explore our world. And, through these interactions we continue to experience wonder.  Wonder requires an inherent understanding that we simply don’t have the answers, yet do have the curiosity to ask the questions. 

At some point as we transition from child to young adult, we acquire the experiences to help us develop our beliefs. Often, as we gain confidence in our beliefs, our sense of wonder starts to diminish, and not as a result of beliefs but as a result of growing up. As we become adults, the sense of wonder so easily found as children becomes more challenging to find. With careers and families, we get busy, stressed, and consumed with the exact topics mentioned in this blog in earlier posts. Our own energy and intuition, our space and balance, our ability to focus – all are real issues we face. All also get in the way of wonder at times. Stress blocks wonder. The idea of chores, doing the things we don’t enjoy, frustrations, irritations, and fears, cloud our ability to see the wonder around us. 

According to a study published in Psychological Science, those who experienced wonder and awe actually had more time to spend with others, were less impatient, and experienced greater life satisfaction. Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker, one of the study’s authors, said, “When you feel awe, you are experiencing a positive emotion that feels vast and big, and as a result is capable of altering one’s view of the world” (Psychological Science. 2012, Vol. 23, Issue 10, Pages 1130-1136). Another finding of the study was that participants who experienced more awe were more interested in experiences than material items because more moments of wonder created more moments in the present. 

Wonder is a skill. Research shows that educators have great impact on revealing and cultivating wonder in students. Wonder is more than just curiosity – it is an actual experience. “Curiosity implies the realization that there is some particular thing one does not yet know, but it doesn’t foreground the question of the general extent of one’s current knowledge (or ignorance) the way wonder does,” states author Anders Schinkel. Schinkel goes on to explain that there are two different types of wonder – active wonder(ing), which entails a drive to explore, to find out, to explain; and deep or contemplative wonder, which is not inherently inquisitive like active wonder and, as a response to mystery, may leave us at a loss for words.

To harness wonder in our daily lives is a mindset – a perspective that as leaders, and as learners, we must be able to tap into in order to remain free from limiting beliefs. To maintain the skill to “think outside the box” we need wonder. Thrive Global, a company created by Arianna Huffington, sole’s purpose is to “help individuals, companies, and communities to improve their well-being and performance and unlock their greatest potential. An article published July 2018 by Thrive Global Staff claims that “no matter what profession you’re in, there are steps you can take to connect with that larger sense, and in doing so enable yourself to find more success and satisfaction.” They even provide steps to tap into a sense of wonder, including making time to go outdoors and visiting museums for inspiration. 

Wonder cultivates a feeling of amazement. It resonates with gratitude, awe and humility. As humans, when we feel a true sense of wonder, we learn on an emotional level. Because we are emotional beings, feeling wonder allows us to change easier than knowledge alone will. As Dr. Suess said, “Think and wonder, wonder and think,” and according to Socrates, “Wisdom begins in wonder.” 

For me, I believe wonder is as much a state of mind as gratitude. During my morning meditation lately, I’ve been thinking about wonder. I’ve tried to seek wonder and gratitude each day. It needs to go beyond our quiet time in the morning. As we go about our days, we interact with many students and teachers. Before an encounter, ask yourself to look for wonder. Can you find it? Any time I look for wonder, I almost always find it. The key is to remember to look for it in the first place. It could be as simple as someone’s smile or an unanticipated connection. Wonder can be found in moments when you learn something new about someone you’ve known for awhile. 

As a leader, how do you continue to invite wonder into your life to inspire your learning? Join me next week as we explore how our beliefs impact our ability to wonder. As we begin this week, let’s try to allow ourselves to ask the curious questions that can spark wonder and perhaps allow us to lead that way, too. 

To Tell A Different Story

LEADING THROUGH LEARNING

I took the above picture in Yellowstone National Park, summer of 2017. I like how the powerful water leaves the smooth moss on the rocks. Just looking at the water you see one story, but when you notice the impact on the rock – the story changes.

It is an interesting irony how this blog is working in my life. Last week, I talked about focus and how important it is (and difficult it is) to stay focused when in the throws of life. I’ve found real value in some of the new strategies I’ve read about these past few months, like scheduling “Deep Work” and color coding my calendar to help keep my priorities straight. Putting my cell phone away when I’m with my family, pausing when asked to commit to something until I give myself time to think it through, writing more to reflect – all great strategies and beneficial ways I have created more space in my life. 

And then this week happened. 

Every single day of my calendar changed based on what was waiting for me at school this week. I missed long-scheduled meetings due to short-term need. This is the first week of this school year that student issues-discipline, crisis, and perceived threats, needed my immediate and undivided attention. When I reflect, I see that when I became emotionally involved, my blood pressure rose, and my pace quickened, I did not doubt my path or my choice of where I needed to be. Maybe, because the things I do in the morning to check in with the universe, were consistent, or maybe because I work with such an incredible group of people – whatever the reason, I end this week confident that I made the right decisions, and grateful I showed up and chose to participate. 

I love Brene Brown’s work. Dare to Lead changed my awareness of how vulnerability impacts my ability to lead effectively. Some days (or weeks), school leadership is all about grappling with the heartache that some students live with daily. When these students hit bottom, many times we school personnel are the ones to provide them boundaries and comfort. Yet, to provide those safety items, we must be able to be present in the moment; and,  to have the space in our lives to be able to focus on where we are needed. How can we possibly see this, if we aren’t taking care of ourselves? If we don’t allow for this reflection, then we simply miss it and go about our day, not knowing what we could have provided or what our impact truly could have been.

Often, we find ourselves in moments like these when we are so consumed with our own agenda/worry/fear that our focus is sidetracked. The human experience is to walk through these times and learn from them. The point is not to avoid them altogether.  But, I wonder, can we tell a different story? Daniel Bauer, author of Better Leaders Better Schools, proposed this in one of his podcasts. It really made me think about the stories I tell to justify others or my own decisions. To do this we often, naturally,  fill in the empty spots with our own script of why something has happened or why someone has acted a certain way – but can we tell it another way? Perspective can be unreliable, especially our own, when we are moving in many directions at once or when we have our own agendas-agendas, which are fueled by to-do lists, past experiences and assumptions about what will happen. 

To tell a different story, I participated in a twitter chat with colleagues about focus, and learned that many of us struggle more with focus at home than at work. This was a different way to look at something I had never differentiated before yet a topic I have thought about awhile lately. We all are aware of the many distractions which compete for our attention, yet still struggle with that choice. And for me to make no choice, means I am choosing to attempt to accomplish it all, which essentially, is choosing to fail. 

But, this week, my different story meant that I paid attention. Despite my overturned calendar and unexpected situations, I struggled alongside students as they made peace cranes to celebrate 2019 International Day of Peace. I cried with a parent, whose son made a poor choice and suffered the consequences. Because I answered an after-hours call, I was able to help a student in crisis. For me, the story shifted from one of frantic distractions to one of purposeful decisions allowing me to be present and therefore useful. 

This concept to tell a different story is something that pushes against my comfort zone. When I respond to something and feel a sense of “rightness,” I need to pause and see if I can tell a different story. Are my own assumptions keeping me from connecting to others? Is my own sense of right ruining an opportunity to extend grace? Am I using my judgements to focus on the why that in that moment doesn’t really matter instead of imagining the possibility to help understand and help? 

Many times when I address a discipline issue between two students, the students’ perspectives differ. This difference is not based on one being dishonest (although that sometimes does happen). More than likely, the story they see as their truth is based on misconstrued information.  And the actions they take against each other is dependent on misunderstanding of motives-for example, two boys who were picking on another student, which is a common situation among 12 year olds. The student being picked on reports the incident to someone (often a parent). And, when I hear about it and dig a little deeper, it is apparent that while this student clearly feels he was the target, in many cases, the other boys thought the insults were mutual. The target responded or did something that the other boys read as a similar slight or an acceptance of their behavior. So often when all of the boys start to talk, they bring up another incident or something else that fueled their own assumptions. When I bring the conversation back to their present action, it is a struggle for students to simply focus on that, since so much of the story in their head has nothing to do with what they did or how they responded. 

To tell a different story means we suspend our own beliefs long enough to see through someone else’s eyes. It means emotionally detaching from our own ideas in order to imagine a different reality. Children have an easier time doing this than adults. They don’t have the life experience fueled by emotional turmoil and triumph to lose the ability to shift viewpoints.The bravest leaders must be able to do this. They must be able to relate to those who don’t always share the same priorities, yet who strive for the same end goal. They must be confident enough to know that by allowing a different story, they give themselves permission to wonder and to risk. And to wonder, is to tell a different story -a story full of risk and uncertainty; possibility and joy, a story of leading through learning. 

Join me next week as I explore wonder and how it both empowers and terrifies us. How it allows us to remain vulnerable by opening us up to the possibility of a different story. Wonder makes us brave, empathetic and curious. Wonder keeps us learning and empowers our leading.  Thanks for reading this week’s blog. I’d love to hear your different story. 

Freedom Focus

View off Bentley Road toward Campground Road.

We have a class called Junior Leadership. It is a connection class, or a middle school version of an elective class. Students have two electives per quarter and these classes rotate. At the end of last year, teachers in this class conducted an experiment. They wanted to see how many times students’ phones dinged, buzzed, vibrated, or alerted in any way during a given class period (approximately 47 minutes). The results were shocking. The average disruption via technology for a 7th grade class was 200. 200 times in one class period of 31 students some kind of device went off that attempted to hijack students’ attention from the teacher. 

As we digested this information, it became appallingly apparent we needed to provide classrooms free from technology. This prompted a stricter cell phone/device policy this year. This policy allows students to focus specifically and freely on the content they are learning, instead of who is posting on social media, texting them or alerting them in any other way via technology. 

What about adults! Never before is the impact of technology more apparent than right now in our culture. Go into any restaurant, public place or setting and just observe. You will see a majority of adults on their phones. Never before has boredom been as banished as it is today. Standing in line, waiting in traffic, waiting for busses, planes or in line for, well, anything. There is no longer any need to be impatient since there is information literally at your fingertips. All. The. Time. 

I am as guilty as the next person. I am not proud to admit I have chosen to plug in over watching my own children play sports. I have plugged in when out at a restaurant with someone I love. And I can honestly say that I didn’t even think about the trade off at the time. It was something I did not process in that way nor do I believe others do either. Because when I did start paying attention to it I changed. Like Maya Angelou said, “When we know better we do better.” And I noticed more and more that often engaging in our technology is easier to engage in sometimes than those in front of us. Now I have to intentionally put my phone away or leave it in the car in order to not be distracted by the ease of plugging into my phone.

Cal Newport author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World that specifically addresses higher education and the role technology plays. He recognizes that while the issues aren’t isolated to college classrooms, it is just one more area impacted by distraction, and a choice made by the student to check his phone instead of being present in the moment. No different from a parent choosing to check their phones while sitting with their children, or a teacher checking his phone while in a staff meeting. Bottom line – when we are not being actively engaged, we have a tool that will actively engage us.

Another point of research is found in the recently published Harvard Business Review article, “4 Ways to Help Your Team Avoid Digital Distractions,” by Amy Blankson. Blankson points out that the long term impacts of constant distractions may outweigh the short-term efficiency that being connected all the time provides. In this article Blankson notes our phones have moved from a tool of efficiency to a tool of compulsion. I believe this compulsion is robbing us of valuable time with those who matter most in our lives.

I also believe there is a price we pay for this lack of time, for this lack of boredom. It is subtle but present, nonetheless. The impact is directly on our ability to focus. Focus is becoming a scarcity. Focusing on one thing for a prolonged period of time, uninterrupted, is rare and often has to be very intentional. According to Michael Hyatt, author of Free to Focus, he points out that, “focusing on everything means focusing on nothing.” 

And how true! He continues by saying that information is no longer scarce, but attention is. Think about it – many have had to resort to medication to not feel overwhelmed, distracted and panicked. If we don’t choose to use medication, we look to meditation and mindfulness or essential oils. We look for ways to simply slow down enough to remember to focus. 

Let’s look for a moment at a bigger picture and one outside of education. Many well-renowned and well-respected leaders in our world today carve out time to focus. Look at Bill Gates, who actually schedules time alone for months to focus on what is important in his life. Newport also published  Deep Work, and shares the impact of building in time to focus on his calendar every day. 

More recently, The New York Times published an article, “Stop Letting Modern Distractions Steal Your Attention,” by Anna Goldfarb. She highlights how David Roth, CEO of The Neuroleadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, credits long periods of uninterrupted time the key in focusing enough to write his books. He claims that “making ourselves inaccessible from time to time is essential to boosting our focus.” According to the article, checking emails work, circling social media feeds, responding to text messages all the time – all are associated with higher levels of stress. Linda Stone has coined this as “continuous partial attention.” Stone is a former Apple and Microsoft executive who speaks about this phenomenon. She describes this continuous partial attention as an “always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” 

I can relate to this while at school sometimes. I know that when I am jumping from email to email, text to text, issue to issue, I get stressed. I wonder how to handle certain things and before I come up with a solution, I’m onto the next issue. Before long, I’ve circled many issues and solved none of them. I’ve focused so little on any one that I’ve created a sense of panic in all that hasn’t been done. It is a cycle that usually leaves me feeling stressed out, unsure of myself and irritated. 

For those of us in educational leadership – we know that there are days that these are simply unavoidable. The angry parent demanding your attention, the student crisis that must take precedence over everything else, the sick teacher who needs immediate coverage, the testing materials that need to be verified, the upcoming IEP meeting that is wrought with unhappy stakeholders, the PLC meeting you really want to attend but can’t – all are easily found within a day. And let’s face it, in those days, the best we can hope for is to face each situation with the ability to extend clarity and grace to those we serve and to ourselves. 

The excitement, unpredictability, emotional rollercoaster, all are what make leadership in the school setting thrilling… and frustrating… and exhausting…. And the most rewarding job ever. The solution to this? For me, I hope to learn from this awareness in order to lead more effectively and focus on what is in front of me authentically despite what else may be pulling at my focus.  Because the present moment is where the growth is; the person in front of me is where I have the opportunity to be vulnerable, to be honest and to give grace. Anyone can quote research and recognize the challenge with technology. This is not new. I have found since my awareness has increased around this reality in my life, that changing it is not so easy. While I still fall into being distracted and sucked into technology, I am more aware and therefore, catch myself and recognize it quicker. It allows me to make a different choice. The irony is not lost on me that, while at night and away from school on the weekends, I am writing about focus and the impact of distraction, and creating space and intentions and, then by day I am running around at school in a role where I am continually providing student and teacher support, putting out fires, trying to calm emotions or trying to catch up on some deadline that is either quickly approaching or just passed. Some days, my entire day and calendar is simply not met. Student needs trump meetings. Teacher needs trump other items that may be on my calendar, like meetings or observations. This reality of educational administration is not going to change, no matter how much I practice newly learned techniques to focus, allow for space in my day or increase my energy by getting more sleep. However, I can change the way I look at these important, yet at times, distracting tasks. Can I tell a different story? Tune in next week to see. 

Keep learning. Keep leading. Keep inspiring, and thank you for you. 

The Myth of Busy

LEADING THROUGH LEARNING

Pictured above are the roses still blooming outside my home. This was right after the rain. Sometimes it is the smallest raindrop that speaks the loudest.

“Hey! How are you?” asks the teacher to her colleague as she walks into school on a Monday morning.

“Good. Busy! But good,” her colleague responds as she unlocks her door. “I know, right? Never enough time in the day, it seems. Have a great day!” the teacher replies, rushing into her own room. She is already thinking about her lesson plans for the day, the papers she almost finished grading over the weekend, and how she forgot that she has morning duty this week. As she grabs her coffee and heads back out her door toward the hallway, she runs into a student going to a club meeting. 

She greets him, “Good morning! Good weekend?” she asks. The student nods and proceeds to tell her how he had a basketball game, then a birthday party, and then went swimming after church. “Sounds busy,” the teacher says to the student. The student nods and heads down the hallway. 

The teacher then arrives at her Monday morning duty station and sees her administrator who greets her warmly and asks how her weekend went. The teacher smiles and says “Good! Never long enough,” she replies. “It’s such a busy time right now! I can hardly believe we are almost through the first quarter of school. Everything just feels so fast.” The administrator nods in agreement. The administrator then asks the teacher if she plans on joining the Beautification Squad as they had talked about earlier in the year. The teacher shakes her head, “I would love to, but I just can’t. I’m too busy right now.” The administrator says, “What else do you have going on? Anything I can help with? I think you would really be an asset to that group.” The teacher remains quiet. “Well, maybe I can join. I don’t know. Let me look at my calendar and I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“Sounds great! I sure hope you can. You’d be great,” the administrator says. 

I want to point out here that in the above brief exchanges, exchanges you can probably relate to in some way, the implication of rush and busy is a part of each interaction. Busy easily replaces genuine connection with others. It has become a common way of talking about our moments and our days. It can also be an easy way to say “no”without ownership. 

Don’t get me wrong. There is truth to being busy. And in some ways with the speed of communication and information retrieval, we are busier than any other people at any other time. Never have we been able to buy, research, or access information so quickly. And one can appreciate being busy. Busy reflects the many roles educators, humans, often wear-parent, friend, daughter,  caretaker, spouse, coach, mentor, mentee, to name a few. Yet, busy also reflects this culture of speed, implies value in more stuff instead of deeper meaning. Busy does not always mean better.

At some point, we have to stop and breathe. At some point we have to create space in our lives for authentic connection. At some point busy becomes chaos. There is a fine line between the two. 

When we use busy as a reason to say no, more often than not, it means we do not value that request above the responsibilities that currently take up space in our lives. Let’s face it – we all say it! I used this phrase so much that it felt like a greeting to others last year. I would find myself starting conversations about how busy I was as if it were a bad thing.  This would always open a door to simply allow me to complain, or invite complaints from others. I actually think I irritated myself with how often this happened. After reading The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, I became more aware of what I was saying. In this book, she emphasizes the importance of paying attention to our thoughts and our words; because, as we say these things out loud, we are essentially calling more of it into our lives. And sure enough, the more I spoke the words, the busier I felt.  I would acquire more tasks. And, I would really be busy but no better for it. 

In the field of education, we see the collective result of having so many more choices available to us, and for society in general. We see the increase in ADHD diagnosis, anxiety and other issues which students and adults face. Anyone who feels overwhelmed knows that often, it is a result of simply taking on too much without enough time or ability to do these tasks completely and correctly. As a result, we may be a part of more groups, or committees, or clubs or sports or activities, but we are not very successful in any of them. We become jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. One of two things will happen as we continue at this pace. The first is we start to fumble. We either get physically sick and have to take a step back to heal or we start to make mistakes and miss commitments, do poorly in school or work, or fail those we love most by not following through or being present when needed. I believe there is a simple answer to this problem of “busy”. I believe the answer lies in our focus. 

If we focus on what matters most in our lives, and the major goals we hope to achieve each day, and let these influence all our decisions, what would happen? What if we said “no’ instead of “I’m too busy?”  What if we practiced honesty and vulnerability and stood firmly by our answer without an excuse and without leaving the door open? It would force us to make choices. And those choices would be heard clearly by others. I believe there is a way to communicate this without closing doors but by explaining the reason. We would have to choose what we value and what we don’t. Life is full of choices. We have all heard the saying, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” So when we claim “too busy” over being honest, then we are allowing ourselves to be asked again and again. At some point, the busy excuse won’t work. And, then we have damaged a relationship, because it will become apparent that we simply don’t want to do that, or don’t value the request/purpose. 

Let’s look at Greg McKeown’s work on essentialism. He points out some obvious facts. The way of the essentialist means “living by design, not by default.” He goes on to explain that essentialism is a way to determine where we want our energy focused. And how, by doing so, means we have to choose wisely. We have to choose to say no to that which does not please us. He also says as a society, we easily fall into this “undisciplined pursuit of more.” And don’t we? If we are not extremely clear about what it is we are seeking or what we are focused on, we are likely to be overwhelmed with many options. How many times have you gone to Walmart with a list of 4 items, and ultimately leave with 15 or more? How many times have you shopped on Amazon only to find your cart full of items you did not set out to buy? How many times have you done a Google search, only to get sidetracked by that pop-up ad? Our society functions with an endless supply of opportunities to be unfocused, simply by the vast choices alone.

I remember a time when information and products were not so easily accessible. And while it may have been a slower way of life, the choices were clearer and easier to make. This idea that we can have it all, do it all, be it all, in reality, means that we function without focus. When we are focused we are aware we can’t have it all, do it all, be it all and this fact is not limiting – in fact it is empowering. We are able to work within the framework of our passion and priorities. What matters most moves from cloudy to clear. We are not limiting our scope, we are choosing our pursuit. It simply means we must recognize the choices and decide what we can say no to in order to commit to our YES. 

Rewind the conversation that began this blog post. 

“Hey! How are you?” asks the teacher to her colleague as she is walking into school on a Monday morning.

“Good. Busy! But good,” her colleague responds as she unlocks her door. 

“I’m glad you had a good weekend. Do anything exciting?” the teacher replies, stopping before walking into her own room. 

“Well, my husband and I went to a Braves game and then we worked on painting the house,” her colleague says. 

The teacher walks through her classroom door thinking about that Braves game. She saw it as well and is debating how to incorporate batting averages into today’s lesson. She remembers she has morning duty this week and heads back out her door toward the hallway, she runs into a student going to a club meeting. 

She greets him, “Good morning! Good weekend?” she asks. The student nods and proceeds to tell her how he had a basketball game, then a birthday party, and then went swimming after church. “Sounds like you had a lot of fun,” the teacher says to the student. The student nods but pauses, and replies, “I did, but I was hoping my brother would come home this weekend from his base but he didn’t.” The teacher looks at the student and says, “I know you must feel sad about that. I’m sure your brother wanted to be with you and your family. I sure do appreciate your brother’s service.” 

The student smiles sadly and says, “Thanks,” and heads on down the hallway. 

The teacher then arrives at her Monday morning duty station thinking about the student and his brother and makes a mental note to say something to the counselor later. Then, she sees her administrator who greets her warmly and asks how her weekend went. The teacher smiles and says, “I had a great weekend,” she replies. “How about you?” The administrator shares she rested most of the weekend and it was pretty low key. The administrator then asks the teacher if she plans on joining the Beautification Squad as they had talked about earlier in the year. The teacher shakes her head, “I would love to, but I really want to stay focused on the new club I am sponsoring this year. We had a great turnout the first meeting, and I’m excited to see what the kids create during this time together.” The administrator says, “I understand and respect your choice. I can’t wait to hear more about this club.” 

Focus. Connection. Honesty. All ways to learn and therefore authentically lead. Hope your week is filled with what matters most to you. I hope the busy becomes the purposeful and the rush becomes the focus.

Creating Space

Leading through learning

“Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question…” ~Brene Brown

This week we had three large trees removed from our backyard. They were dead and we have been discussing removing them for awhile now. I never anticipated the physical space this would create in my yard. I’ve been looking at my yard since I’ve lived here and grown accustomed to the way the branches touch the sky; to how the trees shape the boundary of my yard from my neighbors. As I watched them fall, I cheered (mainly because they didn’t hurt my Dogwoods). When I gazed at the space, I was surprised at how different the yard appeared. I can now see into my neighbors back yard a little better. I can see how the space allows for something new and different and good. How ironic that I couldn’t see the space prior and now it seems empty.

This is directly proportional to the space in our lives, too. Sometimes the things we choose to fill up the space in our lives becomes too much. Sometimes we hang onto things that have lived past their value simply because we are used to them taking that space. Other examples of physical space hogs: old clothes that I no longer wear, books that I’ve read and loved and just can’t seem to let go of, my children’s school work (how much do they really want to see once they’ve grow up?) furniture that was given but doesn’t really fit well in the space it lives. Then there is the mental space that we fill. It is either filled with thoughts that lead to gratitude, hope and joy or the thoughts lead to fear and worry and sickness. The choice is always ours.

The field of education is unique, because the school calendar provides built-in space.  Naturally, each Fall and Spring Break, Thanksgiving and Winter Break, and summer break is an opportunity for space-space to relax or clean or travel or simply be. Because of this inherent space, the daily space during the school year feels less available-everything feels more urgent, more time sensitive, more jam-packed, which leaves less time to think. I cringe each time I hear someone talking about wishing it were already the next break or longing for the last one (and sometimes, I am that someone).  I don’t think the vacation or being away from school is what we long for – I think it is the space.

Because to think things through, you have to have space.

My calendar can take up all the space in my day if I let it. If I’m not careful, the time I do have during the day to utilize the space in a useful way can get swallowed by meaningless talk or unproductive email cleansing. On the best days, that time is spent in classrooms, talking to students, teachers, parents, or creating something great.

With this in mind, I’ve taken Daniel Bauer’s and Cal Newport’s advice and built my calendar this year with appointments of “Think Time” or “Deep Work”. I actually make it a point to build in time and space to think and reflect on the day or the project or something that is meaningful and requiring more than just a checkbox. And while I may not get that much time, the time I do honor I’m better for it afterwards. I feel I’ve done something that is mine.

I’ve also scheduled space to do the things I need to do at home in order to be at my best. I’ve begun to purposely put on my calendar time for reading, writing, yoga and meditation. All of these activities create space in my life. Yoga provides space I can expand and move in ways that respect and honor my body. Meditation creates space in my mind for me to think. Writing allows me time for reflection; and, reading creates mind space for new perspectives.

And, you know what has happened as a result? I have found I do have time. I’m not too busy. I have space for what matters most – my sanity. We’ve all heard that if we aren’t taking care of ourselves, then we aren’t doing much for others, either. With this intention, I’m better at all of the other things I have to do.  It seems as if my attitude about those things is more positive, too.

This week, I paid closer attention to what my children do while I’m usually cooking or cleaning. And wouldn’t you know it, they CREATE SPACE for themselves to do what they enjoy doing the most-being creative, thinking about something they find exciting, and doing just that. They are unencumbered by responsibilities yet,  and easily, naturally, seek ways to find space to explore what peaks their interest.

By writing this blog, I’ve created this new space in which to reflect on the values and principals that I have deemed important. It is also the space I get to have more empathy, gain more clarity, and ultimately connect to more joy. This space can feel so scary; because the space is unknown and therefore as exciting as it is terrifying. But I have found that the risk is worth the reward. Not knowing exactly how the space will add value is the risk of the human experience. Allowing love in doesn’t mean it will stay; embracing vulnerability doesn’t mean there won’t be some hurt; facing challenges doesn’t mean there won’t be failures – in fact, by daring risk, guarantees failure according to Theodore Roosevelt, Michael Jordan and Brene Brown. My willingness to be present in this fear is the first step to seeing the joy within the pain.Thank you for reading this blog. Please let me know what you think and ways you create space in your life which adds value to it.

Find the joy, Today

Morning is the time of day I set my intentions. Every day, connecting to joy is the priority. Short reminders will be posted each morning to help you and me find the joy, today.

April 16th, 2020

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

  • J.R.R. Tolkien

As time slows down for all of us, we are faced with the silence of now. Within that quiet is the answer we seek to be present to be still and to simply be. This can be the hardest thing in the world. Even without the busy schedule, we can still fill up our moments and our days with meetings. The calm only comes when we quiet our minds and simply be.

Balance

Leading through learning

Week 4: Balance

There have been points along my journey when I think balance is my ultimate life lesson. Over and over and over, I am aware that balance brings calmness and clarity to most, if not all, issues. Sometimes this awareness comes at the price of losing balance in my life in order to regain it. This cycle can be as painless or painful as I allow it to be. When I recognize the small warning signs: a missed appointment, a lost something, a scattered moment – these are all opportunities to take a moment and adjust the scales.

When I was younger, balance was between socializing and working – had to work to earn money, but wanted to socialize to make friends. As I grew in age and experience, balance became a juggling act between the many wonderful roles I acquired. I was already a learner, daughter, sister and friend, teacher, coach. Then I added wife, mother, leader, homeowner, community member, etc. Each time I added a role, I had to adjust to find balance. Sometimes, I did well; and, sometimes, everything falls so I can readjust not only the roles but my perspective as well.

At some point over the last few years, I learned that there was no point in trying to separate the many roles of my life. I am me. And my roles are ever changing and adjusting as time passes. 

When I first became a mother, the scales had to completely reset. My life was no longer about me. I had no idea how much this addition to my life would change not only the balance but the way I looked at everything in the world. I had to rebalance and redefine my purpose due to the impact of this tiny 4.2 pound miracle. And when my second baby was born, although I was a little more ready for the shift – the scales of my life had to realign again.

My first year as an assistant principal was all-consuming – similar to my first year as a teacher.  It was difficult for me to separate work and home. I thought about conversations, upcoming lessons, upcoming meetings.  I was on my phone or computer after hours checking emails and preparing for the next day. This was draining and created an imbalance within my life. The warning signs were small but clear: a missed promised lunch with my son at school, car repair costs due to not getting tires rotated when they needed it, a missed water bill payment, a messy house and loads of laundry to clean and put up. These things were not life-altering,  but clear warning signs of my inattention and my need for balance. So I had to change things. It is funny how in the moment, our minds can justify the mess, the miss, the neglect, as necessary.

This is when my family members serve to ground me. These relationships – this love – prevent the warning signs from growing into full blown chaos. Our shared love allows me to readjust with grace and humility. The only choice is whether I am open to them and the love. Can I hear the feedback without shutting down and drowning them out with my own rightness? They point out these signs and provide a different perspective. And half the time, simply the act of recognizing, being willing to look at the reality through their eyes, is all that I need to find my lost balance.Each time this realignment happens, it creates space in my life. 

This is where I will end this week’s post. Next week will be about looking at this space and how it is created and lost. Without creating space to reflect, to listen, and to pause, am I learning? Am I effectively leading? Space allows for new learning, new appreciation, new joy, and ultimately, new leading.

Intuition

Leading Through Learning

As I’m looking over my first two blog posts, I realize the purpose for this blog is not clear. So to clarify, this blog will serve as my time for reflection. As I use writing all during the week as a way to refocus, clarify and gather my thoughts, these entries will help me determine my focus in this blog. Sometimes these writings will connect with one another; and, at other times, they will be responses to challenges I face,  I hope to grow within this experience. Reflection is the goal. If I am going to continue to lead others, then, I have to continue to learn. If I’m going to learn about the ways I lead, and how others lead, I need to read, write, and listen.

Last week my intention was to focus on gratitude and energy. I can see how my deliberate choice of being positive and thankful impacted my week-from handing out a number of PBIS??? tickets, to writing a few thank you cards, to an opportunity to share my “why” with student leaders,  I made a conscious effort to seek joy daily. And it is the little things- like walking out of my office and seeing a group of teachers talking around the copy machine. Choice: go join them and build those relationships, or continue down the hallway to see students. Either could be justified; and, both could be beneficial. But the group of teachers were speaking quietly, and the bell had just rung. One of my goals was to be more available to students. So, I decided that  it would bring me more joy to continue down the hallway. This choice allowed me to see a student who had been upset the previous day. I was able to connect with him and follow up – something I had planned to do anyway but this way was more natural, and therefore, more joyful.

Another theme throughout my week was recognizing how often I was called upon to rely on my intuition. As a school leader, I often serve as a mediator. Whenever faculty, students, or parents have an unsolvable problem, they bring it to me for direction and for a solution. I know this is part of my role.  And, I understand that, while many times I don’t have an answer, the answer is often not what they need. What they need is someone to bring further clarity or a different perspective. And many times their challenge is surrounded by their own strong emotions.

I try to handle these conversations by using the principle of wisdom. I believe wisdom is the ability to make the right decision at the right time. When I am clear on how to proceed when no clear path is evident, that is directly related to intuition and connection to my inner voice. As I grow older, I have learned that I cannot be used as merely a dumping ground for the challenges and emotions of other people. When I find myself dreading to meet certain individuals, it is a signal that I have allowed myself to be used in ways that are unproductive to everyone. Setting these boundaries at the beginnings of meetings gets easier as I listen to my own intuition. Wisdom allows boundaries to be built in a loving, yet clear, way.

Intuition is an interesting thing, too. When I’m distracted, overwhelmed or stressed, I feel  that my intuition is weak. That is why decisions made in those moments are usually hasty and eventually become mistakes. Sometimes my most difficult challenge is simply recognizing the need to wait.

My learning this week involved listening to others. It involved my moving toward joy and recognizing the thoughts that take me away from that joy. My leading this week began with recognizing student needs, trusting my intuition, even when the decision resulted in some disagreement, and knowing that next week will hold entirely new opportunities to learn and lead.

Let me know what you think! Thanks for reading. I hope your week is full of joy and learning.