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Week 15 – Leadership Mindset: Grace, Grit, and Gratitude

View from the drive up Pike’s Peak, Colorado.

“So what are you going to do about this situation? Your decision can’t be only about how you feel,” my mother asked me on a sunny morning. I believe she had asked me this question many times because my initial reaction was to roll my eyes even though we were talking on the phone and she couldn’t actually see my response.  Despite the bright sunshine outside, my professional world was falling apart. The K-12 school where I taught Language Arts had just received its third F in a row. Even though it was only my second year at the school and my third year teaching, I knew what this meant. It meant tomorrow would be a devastating day for my school community. It meant the state would be sending people in to coach us and meet with us regularly, and explain to us why our students kept failing. It meant a change in administration. I understood this in a vague way but heard enough from my colleagues to know that life would be different as a result. 

My mother’s question was in response to all of my excuses why it wasn’t fair that a single test score could impact so many so negatively. It wasn’t fair to me that the context of the community that supported the school wasn’t considered. It wasn’t fair that teachers who not only lived in the community but attended school there themselves and taught their own children there were turned away, and told they weren’t good enough to be teachers there any more. I couldn’t understand why our county office was no longer supportive but were now placing blame on our shoulders. It’s not as if we were quiet about our challenges. It’s not like we didn’t ask for support and seek ways to meet the needs of our unique community. However, the nagging question in the back of my head, that I only dared to ask my mother, was what was my part in my students’ failing? What could I have done differently? After all, I was the only middle school Language Arts teacher. With a total of 44 middle and high school students, I taught four different levels of Language Arts each class period. I knew this before accepting the position. What I didn’t realize before accepting the position was the fact that my students needed to learn how to be kind to one another, how to learn the basics and how to read, when most of their parents were in jail or simply unavailable. What was I going to do? What could I do? I remember feeling hopeless and desperate.

Fast forward a week from that conversation with my mother. My principal was gone. The assistant principal was gone. Half the teachers were sent to teach at other schools in the district. Each week, we met with state instructional coaches for each content area. We had parents storming the school on a regular basis demanding this and that. We had armed police officers positioned outside the building. And we had mosquitoes. Lots and lots of mosquitoes. Those of us that remained understood that grace would allow us to still connect with our students and grit would be required for us to rebound. The answer to my question was to keep showing up and keep teaching. What could I do? I could extend grace and face our reality with grit and gratitude. 

Grace as a noun means to live with kindness, to portray calmness and elegance or to be courteousness. Grace conveys peace and joy. It holds a feminine element that at one time meant fragile. I find grace today means more strength than frailty.  To live with grace and to embody grace is more than being kind or being quiet. It means extending forgiveness even when it isn’t asked for; it means being patient when irritated; it means relying on faith for confidence. When I think of grace in education, I am reminded that my calling to education grew out of a desire to help children learn how to live. It was not a passion for content; it was a desire to mold and guide students to face challenges, be kind even when scared, and to make decisions that will ultimately create a better world.

Grace itself embodies fear. It is recognizing the fear in our lives and seeking truth anyway. It is knowing that in the quest for truth, we will fail. We will face frustration and doubt. At times we will sacrifice our happiness in order to pursue the right path. Grace cannot be recognized without grit; and grit cannot be appreciated without gratitude. These three qualities, grace, grit and gratitude, when woven together help support a strong leader. 

Thanks to Angela Duckworth and her research and book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, educators have paid more attention to what it means to have grit when students face challenges. Grit defined by Duckworth is “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.” Duckworth discusses grit primarily in the context of students. 

What is grit in the context of leadership? It is more than perseverance. It is more than grace. I believe it is a mix of both plus gratitude.  “Grit is not just a simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest and do it again and again,” said Sarah Lewis, author, and Assistant Professor at Harvard University, and TED speaker. Grit implies stamina of will despite being uncomfortable. It is a willingness to look at all aspects of life, whether professional or personal, which are murky and lack clarity. It is often doing what we don’t want to do. Facing difficult conversations, confrontations, hurt feelings, failures, falling and rising again and again – all are gritty. All provide ways for us to grow in our grace; yet, many times we would simply rather not. Our anticipated fear of these moments allows us to avoid them. Grit is that quality within us which empowers us to embrace these challenges instead of avoiding them.

Grit is a decision we make every day in moments we choose to stay engaged, despite the discomfort. Upon reflection, my experience during my third year of teaching provides many examples of grit, grace, and gratitude. I saw grace and gratitude when the teachers transferred to other schools still lived in the community and participated in a positive way. I saw grit when students eagerly attended school even when the state deemed the school unfit. I saw grit when parents still volunteered their time when support staff went on strike. Students were still able to learn important life skills even when they failed an assignment. In our most defining moments, grace, grit, and gratitude can lead us to become our best selves because they create together a leadership mindset.  

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Week 14 – Facing Challenges

Above is the view from the top of Tray Mountain, elevation 4, 430 feet. Tray is the 7th highest peak in Georgia.
One of my favorite places to find stillness.

My principal always reminds me that the challenges inherent in schools are merely microcosms of our society at large. The struggles students face within the context of schools and social groups mirror the same struggles adults face in the context of their lives. When our country and those in power lead with fear, as educators, we can see the impact of that fear in our schools. Sometimes this looks like students’ anger and more discipline referrals, sometimes it looks like students’ social/emotional struggle, sometimes it looks like students’ increased anxiety or lack of focus and performance in academics. Challenges give us meaning and connect us to the very struggles that frame our journey. These are how we grow and how we come to find our purpose. Teaching students to embrace challenges is as important as teaching them content standards. 

Life’s challenges provide opportunities to stretch, bend, change, learn and ultimately lead. I love the fable of the mighty oak tree and the willow tree. The mighty oak, while strong and proud, falls when the winds pick up and storms arise. The willow tree is able to bend and sway with the wind; and, therefore survives. Throughout our lives we can recall moments when challenges almost break us. Sometimes we are able to bend, but sometimes our own pride causes us to break. Breaking means the challenge reshaped our experience as time moves us further and further from our darkest moments. The challenges we face hold the wisdom we seek. “Do not mistake the pursuit of wisdom for an endless parade of sunshine and kittens. Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear – make them darker before the dawn,” wrote Ryan Holiday in Stillness is the Key

As leaders, we get to choose how we lead others within our storms.  It is in these moments of uncertainty, when no one is telling us how to proceed or when everyone is telling us how to proceed, that our ability to lead presents itself. Can we lead with confidence when people disagree with us? Can we recognize the emotions and frustration that mask the truth we must uncover? Are we willing to endure uncomfortable situations? Can we slow down enough to find clarity within confusion?

In the most stressful moments, everyone has his/her own solutions for problems. When these problems are emotionally fueled, listening to others proves difficult but necessary. We are a culture based on taking action. Often we want to find solutions before we clearly identify the problem. We schedule, plan, research, and talk in circles. And many times, most times, decisions made in this mode fail. Stillness is hard. When we allow ourselves to sit in doubt and actually find gratitude for the uncertainty, only then do we recognize our choice. We can panic and act without intention, or we can embrace the doubt. Actions rooted in fear can lead to more fear and more purposeless measures. This creates a cycle which, once begun, adds layers of mistakes. If we slow down and seek stillness while embracing this doubt, we can find guidance and direction.

The other extreme allows our fear to paralyze us. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stillness is not the same as doing nothing. It is recognizing our fears and allowing ourselves to experience them wholly.  “To escape fear, you have to go through it, not around it,” according to Richie Norton, author. When we avoid facing our fear we simply prolong it. Fears we dodge seem to gather traction and quickly return for us to face in another setting, with another situation, disguised as a separate challenge. Bravery is not the absence of fear but the willingness to face it and recognize it. Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers it.” 

“Behind every struggle is a blessing,” said a parent to me this week. When a school community grapples with societal issues, emotions run high. All stakeholders have an opinion; and, all want a platform to share that opinion, as they should when there is a vested interest in the outcome. Our children are always the vested interest which connects us and demands that we join together to face our challenges directly. Yet when everyone at the table is shouting and proving and defending and arguing, then who is listening? Emotions provide the fuel that drives change. To ensure this change is in the best interests of students, we have to face the emotions, embrace the hurt and sometimes the anger, yet still commit to support, teach, guide, love and, ultimately, be grateful for the struggle.  This is what stillness, space, and gratitude can provide us: a place to struggle, a place to stretch, and a framework to guide us in the direction our students need.  

Holiday wrote in Stillness is the Key, “…we must choose to drive out anger and replace it with love and gratitude- and purpose. Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that helps us win and build, and doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.” This sentiment  shows the value of emotions and the power of recognizing their place.

I remember learning and studying about our country’s great leaders. My teachers taught me that the beautiful piece of our country is we are judged by our actions, not by the mistakes of those before us or around us. However, with that said, we are a product of our society at large. We cannot ignore the lessons learned by our forefathers and have a moral responsibility to strive for more transparency, more clarity, and more ways to teach the next generation to find stillness in order to discover their truth. We must find ways to teach our children to connect together for a greater cause and purpose. It is always a choice to perpetuate fear or trust in faith. Hate is not something that is natural to anyone, it is taught through unfaced fear, sometimes intentionally, but often unintentionally as well. These challenges and this conversation must be had by leaders of all schools and all people; within the contexts of families and communities. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” As a school and community we all come with our own bias, with our own set of experiences, and these experiences naturally influence how we lead through turmoil.  We have experiences when we acted too quickly out of fear. We also have experiences where our fear paralyzed us. This week has provided the challenge – can we lean together into the love that allows the light of awareness to drive out hate? Only together can we find that common ground, can we find the stillness we need to seek love. That love will lead us, heal us, and inspire us to be better, do better, and find the grace within the grit of our differences. Our love for students promises one thing only. We will never stop trying. When we fail, we will get back up. No matter what. Sometimes, that alone is enough.

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Week 13 – The Art of Self-Discipline

All of us have the experience of quitting an activity because it was too time-consuming, too costly in either effort or money, or because we were just over it. I remember when my children took Tae-kwon-do. We got involved initially because my youngest needed an activity. My oldest liked the class too, so we signed them both up. As they progressed through the belts, the class time and requirements increased. The cost of each test and belt continued to increase, the time commitment both in class and out of class increased. And while logically we wanted our children to finish what they started, we let them quit. And honestly, we never regretted the decision because we recovered something more valuable – our precious time. 

Take another example – piano and guitar lessons. The kids have been taking music for a few years now. When my daughter moved into middle school, we talked about her giving up lessons. She resisted regular practice, and I was sick of making her do it. After many discussions, she decided to stick with it. And it was the turning point she needed. As a result of her decision, she has invested more of herself into learning. She has found opportunities to perform and grow this skill. Now she decides when and how long she practices; and, although there are days she doesn’t want to do this, the majority of the time she chooses to practice without my insistence.

The hardest part of learning is self-discipline –  doing something when you do not feel like it, continuing with something when it no longer shines, when the “newness” has worn off. Learning a new skill for the simple purpose of understanding something better is one thing. Learning it in application to our lives is entirely something else. There is an art to moving beyond something new and fun into something meaningful and significant. Meaningful skills such as learning a new language, playing an instrument or a sport, regular yoga practice, exercise, saving money, – all require discipline and struggle. 

Think about an exercise plan. We join gyms, enroll in programs geared to help us change something, invest money in memberships, coaches and gear. Just recently I joined Crossfit and began a 6-week challenge. While I have reaped some health benefits, there are days I simply don’t want to go. Yet showing up is the hardest part. My mental battle begins prior to arriving at the gym. The energy I spend trying to convince myself I don’t need to go would be more beneficial spent at the gym. Self-discipline helps me resist this battle. Once there, I’ve committed. 

Diet is another timely example. We buy books and join online platforms to figure out how to eat well, yet within reason. We sign up for meal plans and grocery pick-up and delivery. We join 30-day detox and restrict food groups to reach our goals. We track calories, protein, and amounts in order to stay within our limits. 

Think about faith. Do you meditate or pray daily? Do you journal? Practice yoga? Read daily? All of these, if done regularly and long-term, require one common trait: self-discipline. To take on new learning demands taking a step back. That initial step asks you to think through decisions. We have all made decisions hastily, only to regret it later. Practicing patience requires self-discipline. 

Ryan Holiday, author of Stillness is the Key connects the investment in stillness to clarity of mind. He recognizes the common quality between the most successful leaders is their self-discipline. In a range of professions, experiences, time periods and occupations, he points out that quieting the mind enough to focus, allows us to hear our truth. “Each of us needs to cultivate those moments in our lives. Where we limit our inputs and turn down the volume so that we can access a deeper awareness of what’s going on around us. In shutting up – even if only for a short period – we can finally hear what the world has been trying to tell us. Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves.”

Many of us go through phases with routines. Being consistent with these routines requires a deeper understanding of their purpose and place in our lives. Why did I begin the task in the first place? Does it make me better? Does it add value? What is the value? Bottom line – consistency is hard. If change were easy, we would reach goals and move on without struggle. The struggle challenges us to follow through on our routines even when we feel uncomfortable. Then we allow ourselves to grow and better understand our purpose. Many times we think of quitting. But the times we struggle and pursue our routines successfully, the reward is worth it. 

As Xunzi said, “If a person puts even one measure of effort into following ritual and the standards of righteousness, he will get back twice as much.” Most great philosophers and thinkers practice some rituals to think clearly, whether it involves stillness through meditation or yoga or if it involved a hobby like fishing or running – something that allows the mind to escape. 

How do we teach the art of self-discipline? How do we lead with this trait? The important routines in my life, the ones that center me and help me show up at my best, are the ones I’ve tried, changed, quit, and returned to, because I recognize their value. It’s why I have such planned mornings. I know that this time of day is one I control fully. When I wake up early, I get to choose how I start my day. When one of my children wakes me up, I begin my day reacting. I know that I am centered when I have some stillness early in the day. These are the moments when I intentionally decide what mindset I will have for the day ahead. I get to choose gratitude. I get to choose patience. I get to choose joy. 

I remember the Folger’s coffee commercial where the mom is in bed, cozily sleeping, and her husband or children wake her with a steaming cup of coffee. The sunlight is streaming across her bed, and everyone is smiling all around. I love this vision. The reality in my home is very different. When I sleep in, I’m often awakened by running feet jumping into bed followed by lots of questions about the day ahead. While I smile and enjoy the snuggles – my day started on someone else’s timetable. 

Caring for others is part of having a family and being a mom. It’s a huge part of my life as a leader with students and teachers as well. In order for me to be able to care for others, I must practice the art of self-discipline, I must wake up a little earlier than my family. I read, meditate, and practice yoga as part of my morning routine.  I get to choose how long I do these things; and, the amount of time isn’t nearly as important as simply the act of doing. This self-discipline empowers me to slow down, arrange my day, and ultimately be the kind of care-giver I want to be, in all my roles.

With each goal we pursue throughout our lives, personal and professional, self-discipline plays a part. Once we have allowed ourselves to be still enough to understand what we have to give and want to pursue, our routines to support those activities are the framework to achieve them. Leading others means we live what we advise, it means we listen before we react, it means we are always learning. It also means we make mistakes, we take on too much or deny what is important. It means we recognize that self-discipline in our lives leads us to fulfillment.

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Weekend of Reset

How I enjoyed this weekend! The Hemlock Festival (HemlockFest) is a weekend celebration of music, food, vendors, and awareness about ways to protect the Eastern Hemlock Tree and bring back the American Chestnut tree. It is in North Georgia and one way my family and I give back to something we care about deeply. It is held the first weekend in November every year. We camp the entire festival and it seems to come at a time during the year when a reset couldn’t be needed more. No phone, no computer, no rushing around from activity to activity. It is an intentional break from it all and an opportunity to simply enjoy the mountains in the crisp Fall air.

It is also a time I learn. I learn about something I care about, our forests, and I listen to others as they explain, teach and offer solutions on ways we can fight the Woolly Adelgid, the parasite that destroys the Eastern Hemlock trees. For more information on this, click here. Taking time to learn something outside of education, something that I care about and can give my time and service to, allows me to experience and learn in a different context than what I do every day. It invites into my heart humility and wonder, curiosity and appreciation, focus and play.

This was the second HemlockFest we attended and the second time I got to volunteer by selling HemlockFest merchandise. The “merch” tent is located in a prime spot to hear the music, see the people dancing, and the one tent everyone will visit at some point during the 3-day festival.

The feel is somewhere between the Renaissance Festival and an Allman Brothers Band concert.

The difference is the family vibe. Children’s activities include tree climbing, arts and crafts, toys, a parade, and the climax of throwing fire to burn the Wolly Adelgid in the lake. Clearly, the roots of the festival are locally connected. With students from University of North Georgia volunteering and vendors from Dahlonega, Cumming, Lumpkin County, and Young Harris, Georgia – the flavor of the area is evident. Hundreds of people of all ages and all walks of life came to enjoy the atmosphere. The joy that sparks when people come to support a cause bigger than them proved true this weekend. For more information on the event, see the link on my page under the Thank You tab.

I’m grateful for the break and the reset around the campfire with my family. I am grateful for the time to learn, listen, and soak in the stillness. I am grateful for the outdoors and the warm fire and cozy tent.

Join me next week as I look at self-discipline and its place in our lives. With November beginning, the month’s daily posts will focus on how we spark gratitude and what that spark can generate in our lives and those lives around us.

Thanks for reading!

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Week 12 – The Courage to Love

I remember hearing the statement, “If your heart can take it, come fly,” in the context of courageous love. Courageous love means showing a willingness to love another despite mistakes, despite unknown outcomes, despite fears of failure. It means taking actions rooted in faith and not fear, forgiveness and not anger, hope and not pity. As leaders, as parents, as friends, and as children we will face struggles. We will be insecure. We will often be unsure of our choices and question past decisions. We will fail. We must choose how we will respond when we face these challenges. Will we courageously love ourselves, or will we feel sorry for ourselves? Will we allow our hearts to find new depths of both pain and joy in order to fly? Sometimes we will, and sometimes we won’t. One finds courage in recognizing that both choices are acceptable.  Passion will ultimately drive our choices. Our love for others bolsters the courage needed to reach new levels of learning.

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion,” wrote Simon Sinek.

Through life, we learn that to love is to be vulnerable and open to a connection which is not guaranteed to be reciprocated. We learn that love does not always mean one will feel good or feel happy. We learn through life lessons that those who love us most are the same ones we push away. These are the people in our lives willing to be uncomfortable by being honest with us. This honesty comes with risk and courage. 

In education, relationships are part of the learning experience in every classroom and in every school. Learning is more meaningful when it is acquired through love. When you ask anyone to share their most valued learning experience, most will begin by telling you about their favorite teacher. Teaching with love is about having high expectations, not accepting wrong behavior, and investing in relationships to build trust.

Research points to the power of relationships in the context of learning. According to Shelley Burgess, author of Lead Like A Pirate, “That’s the magic of schools. This is a people business. And we’ve got to take care of our people. And we have to take care of each other. And we have to build each other up, not tear each other down.” I believe the way we do this is through love – loving each other enough to be honest, enough to be present, enough to truly listen and ask questions instead of assuming and judging. In order to teach students to love learning, we must allow ourselves to love learning as adults. 

“As a leader, I want to be a chief encourager. I want people to know that they are appreciated, admired and even loved,” wrote Daniel Bauer in Better Leaders Better Schools. To lead with this sentiment at the front and center of what we do is critical to our effectiveness. To have the title of a leader is not what makes you a leader. The courage you display and the love you give to those you serve defines the leader you are each moment of each day. It takes courage to recognize when you are falling short of this goal. The only way we can improve is through awareness. 

Busy and fearful leaders create busy and fearful teachers. Leaders often ask teachers to take care of themselves; but, this is only done when leaders live this through their actions. We want teachers to build loving relationships with students; however, as leaders we must build loving relationships with teachers first. In order to see the good in others, we must see the good in ourselves. It takes courage to love ourselves. I believe this is the key to supporting a school culture based on love. “…for teachers to have loving relationships with their students, they must first love themselves. This requires acknowledging who we are through critical self-reflection. We each have insecurities, communication styles, and implicit biases that shape how we engage with others. When we lean into our strengths, own our imperfections, and strive to live in a manner aligned with our values, we embrace our own humanity,” wrote Robin Pendoley in the article The Essential Role of Love in Learning and Teaching.

Why did I name this blog Courage to Love? For one to truly love takes courage to risk vulnerability. “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage,” according to Brene Brown. It takes courage to emotionally connect with those in our lives. When I am fully present in conversations, especially emotionally charged ones, I give up control of the outcome.  When I’m sitting across from a parent in pain, a student struggling, or a colleague at a crossroad, it doesn’t matter how much I have prepared, how many facts I have gathered, or how much research I have conducted. When I allow myself to emotionally connect with them, I risk my own security. I stand beside them without judgement. Sometimes I cry with them. Sometimes I get angry with them. Sometimes I don’t find the right words. Sometimes I simply listen and hear their struggle. Sometimes these moments leave me raw, depleted, or sad. Sometimes they leave me uncertain, frustrated or confused. But every time, every single time, these moments leave me with more love, love for the personal connection and love for the shared struggle, and love for the chance to see things in a different light. When I now think about the saying “if your heart can take it, come fly,” I remember those conversations and my willingness to empathize with those sitting in front of me. 

Thank you for reading. I hope you find the courage to do things with love for yourself and others as you lead and learn this week. 

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Week 11 – 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.

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Week 10 – 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. 

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Week 9 – 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. 

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Week 8 – 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. 

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Week 7 – 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. 

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Week 6 – 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.

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Week 5 – 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.

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Week 4 – 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.

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Week 3 – 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.

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My First Blog Post

Welcome.

My name is Elizabeth Ihle. This is my first blog. Although I have thought about writing online and have read countless others ideas, this is my first. This blog is titled, Leading through Learning. It will be based around my experience in education. I am embarking on my 12th year in education and have experienced this field through the eyes of a teacher, instructional coach, literacy specialist and currently an assistant principal. Throughout all of these roles, the common thread is I am always a learner. I am writing this blog with the hope that it will clarify my own direction, my vision for both my personal and professional journey, and to have a bit more awareness of how the principles I value shape my life as a leader and a learner. So here we go.

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.

The North Star

The North Star represents our direction. It guides us. Sometimes it is referred to as our “why” – the reason we do what we do, the fuel behind our choices, the motivation and promise that push us to risk our comfort zone in search of greater meaning and purpose in our lives. 

According to astronomy, the North Star is also called Polaris. It is the anchor of the northern sky. This star is located at the north celestial pole. Many people think this star is the brightest star in the sky. But according to Astronomy Essentials, the star ranks 50th in terms of brightness. Despite this, the North Star is easy to locate. If you find the Big Dipper, you can simply follow the two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper and they always point to The North Star.

 For centuries, travelers have relied on this star to guide them North. According to biblical stories, this star guided the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus. Sailors used this star to guide their ships. Harriet Tubman famously used this star to guide her and others to freedom. In a recent article published by The Weekly Challenger, author Jennifer Thread, M.Ed., ASALH Historian, reminds readers of the vital role the North Star served as a beacon of hope, “…for the North Star depicts a beacon of inspiration and hope to many. It means different things to individuals, populations of people and cultures.” 

The North Star was the name of Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery newspaper published in 1847. Peter R. Reynolds also used that title for his children’s book published in 2009 about a boy who learns to follow his own dreams. According to Goodreads, authors Robert Morgan, Vaino Linna, Buronson, Katie Lopez, Killian Carter, Douglas J. Penick, and Ted Hughes all titled their books with the North Star somewhere in the name. Clearly, the North Star represents direction, purpose, guidance and hope for our current culture as it did for those past. 

In Tonya Dalton’s book, The Joy of Missing Out she writes about this concept of the North Star. She stresses the importance of clearly knowing which direction we are headed and why. She points out that without a defined North Star (even if it changes, which it will, inevitably), we easily get bogged down with commitments that do not align with our North Star. It is the difference between being good versus being great. If we are good at everything we are great at nothing. 

Our North Star and the path to move towards it is always changing, realigning, resetting and guiding us in ways we may not predict. The most important thing for us as we grow isn’t to stay the same but to recognize the change within our own ideas. Can we grant ourselves the freedom to take risks which will move us closer to our North Star?

Dalton reminds me of the importance of saying “no” to things that don’t align with my why. I began my school year with this same critical message. Essentialism by Greg McKeown and Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday both emphasize the importance of recognizing that when we are not aware of our path towards our North Star,  we will create a watered-down approach to life. The path of least resistance becomes the norm. 

Keeping our focus on our path towards our North Star can be challenging in today’s culture. Many choices compete for our time, money and focus. For example, look at the community that has boomed around the concept of minimalist living. Marie Konde’s book The life-changing magic of tidying up is an international best seller. Although minimalism emerged in the 1960’s, it has gained significant traction recently through publications, media, blogs and articles depicting its value for essentially finding and keeping your North Star in view. 

As teachers, we are called to help others find and seek their North Star. We do this by sharing our knowledge and experience as we guide others. And often, our own path shifts as a result. Sometimes that guidance is joyful and hopeful. Other times it involves having difficult conversations to promote change. 

Leading always involves taking risks, making mistakes, failing, learning and trying again. In order for us to grow in our wisdom, we must learn from those who lead us. Hopefully, that learning serves as an example of the values we hope to live by. Other times, it can have the opposite effect: an example of what happens when we lose sight of our values and our North Star. 

Ultimately, we play only one tiny part of another’s journey toward their North Star. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of that impact. More often, we do not. What is ours to influence? I believe it is how we choose to listen, how we choose to face our fear, and how we choose the roads we pursue. 

The next time you find yourself looking up at the night sky, see if you can find Polaris. Take a minute and be still as you think about how your North Star is guiding you in this moment of your life. What do you think about?“Your life purpose is your north star in the dark night as you navigate your canoe. It is the compass your soul directs your life journey.” -Itzhak Beery.

The Etowah River in January. This river is 164 miles long and flows west – southwest beginning northwest of Dahlonega, Georgia and flowing through Canton, Georgia and eventually ending in Lake Allatoona, Georgia. The name “Etowah” is a Creek (Muskogee) word meaning “town”. The river itself is home to over 76 fish species.

The One Word

This picture was taken from the top of Blood Mountain. In the distance you can see Lake Lanier.

Thanks to Jon Gordon and his book One Word, each year many of my colleagues choose one word to be their focus for the year. I’ve been thinking about this word over winter break and as we begin a new year. I’ve never fully committed to this practice but feel it may be a useful tool as a theme around my blog. I’m currently reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is a laugh-out-loud, truly inspiring book about creative living. It has inspired me to choose this as my word. CREATIVE. I want my word to encompass all of my life but especially that which is most important: family, health, and spirit. These three things are the foundational blocks for my values, my choices, my focus. I don’t want to forget my word. I want to think of it as I sit and reflect on my intentions, both long term and short term ones. 

I am putting a lot of responsibility on this one word-big shoes to fill-to be a focus for an entire year. Almost like a New Year’s resolution. For many years, I valiantly set resolutions -ranging from eating healthier to regular exercise to no longer picking my nails to running races.  I am no stranger to the lure of setting ridiculous resolutions that seem to inevitably fail. Last year I focused on my eating. I began the year with Whole 30. While I gained some new recipes, I was miserable trying to meet the requirements. And for what? I didn’t value the payoff because the time I spent meeting the goal lacked gratitude. Armed with all the awareness and experience of the past, I still feel the tug to set a resolution each year.

BUT-not  this year. And for no other reason than I don’t want to change anything at this point. Do I need to eat healthier? Yes. Do I need to exercise consistently? Yes. Could I afford to lose a few pounds or meditate more regularly or run races? All yes. But this year I don’t want to do something just because I said I would. The value of harmony – that agreement between what I think, say and do, is one that is important to me. If I say I’m going to do something, and then don’t do it, I lose the integrity that comes from living with the harmony by which I strive to live. And I am very familiar with setting really inspiring and drastic goals that mostly end before they have become routine or had the time for me to really determine whether they are purposeful and worth the addition to my life.

In order to avoid adding one more task to my schedule, I’m simply not going to make a resolution. Instead, I’m going to set this word, CREATIVE, around my intentions. I want to thoughtfully shift the way I measure my successes to reflect the way I approach life, and to reflect the effort I put forth to align my values. As Gilbert wrote in Big Magic, “You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes and failures.” So if I remove assigning success and failures to tasks accomplished and instead look to successes of effort; then the most important thing I can do is be very intentional and specific when it comes to how I best show up. Therefore if I add something, it needs to connect back to those three blocks I’ve determined are the most important.

Thanks to the regular writing I am able to recognize this default trait of saying yes to things without thinking them through. I do this when I’m stressed or overwhelmed and then overwhelem and stress myself even more. It quickly becomes a cycle that only I can stop. Writing has helped me see this trait quicker and the  Since school has begun I’ve added a daily quote around a monthly theme on my blog. It is a great way for me to use the countless photographs I love to take when outdoors with my family. It provides a creative outlet for me. Each month has a different focus but always beginning with Spark. This is something I enjoy doing to start my day. The month of January is Spark Creativity.

As second semester starts and I reflect on my mindset and goals from the beginning of the year, I can already see how regular writing has provided more than just a creative outlet for me. It has created a space to reflect. It has made me think differently and this serves as a  me to pause in my day-to-day activities. It reminds me to connect to my values and mission. It has forced me to slow down and check myself against, well, myself. It has invited me to dive into the parts of my belief system that need revisiting and maybe a tune-up. 

This regular writing has helped me recognize that by identifying that which is most important provides clarity to eliminate that which distracts. As I continue this practice, I can see how the act of simply sitting down to write, of honoring the routine that I’ve determined is important to me, is where the struggle lies. The actual writing is the easy part! Just like showing up at the gym is more of a struggle than the actual workout. Getting my yoga mat out every day, no matter what, is harder than actually doing the yoga once there. 

As Ryan Holiday wrote, “Routine, done long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual – it becomes sanctified and holy.” I want to get there with these routines I’ve only added regularly in the past six months. Sticking with it long enough and consistent enough to truly be able to gauge the value is my goal for the year. There is power in saying no to those things that while good or interesting to me do not support those foundational blocks. As we journey into another decade, and another trip around the sun, I invite you to embrace your creative life as I embrace mine through routine, effort and reflection.  

Week 17 – Braving Bias

Our forefathers laid the framework for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Despite the irony of their own lives, the inequality and lack of inclusion they modeled, their collective wisdom forged a path for us to seek the truths that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair. We all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, – and perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace,” wrote Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy

I had the distinct pleasure of attending Learning Forward’s Annual Conference in St. Louis at the beginning of December. The time frame was one of the busiest in the year, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas – my life was a whirlwind of holiday celebrations, mid-year evaluations, mid-term prep, holiday recitals, throw a trip to Philadelphia in there, basketball games (both for my school and my own children), and other work/school/family demands. However, the conference did provide a break – not a break to rest, but a break to be a student and learn. My learning primarily focused around diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as a framework for change.

Bias is one of those topics that I only engage in when it is in front of me. This statement alone is a testament to the privilege and the  abundance of opportunities I’ve had in my life. I live and work in a community very similar to my own. My assumptions and experiences are similar to those around me. Therefore, while I know everyone has biases, it is still something I’ve only had to look at closely as I’ve chosen to. It is a conversation and discussion that I can engage in or not. “When we know better, we do better,” wrote Maya Angelou. I believe this statement to be true. Now that I am more aware of the complexities of cultural bias, I want to do better. But how? By braving bias. 

During the conference, I attended Val Brown’s Social Justice 101 training by Teaching Tolerance. I was prompted to reflect on all the things that make up my identity. These are not roles I have but cultural definitions.  I am white. I am Christian. I am able-bodied. I am educated. I am heterosexual. I am female and identify as a female. I am literate and well-traveled. This is where my identity stopped about three months ago. However, now I would add one more. I am privileged. And while I am grateful and do recognize so many blessings in my life,  I understand better that the blessings of my life are rooted in opportunities and privilege inherent in a racist society and having an unfair advantage. This makes me feel uncomfortable.

During the conference I also heard Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain speak. Her talk was powerful. It took this newfound awareness and provided me more fluent language when discussing race and diversity. She pushed me to reflect on ways I have handled circumstances that arise around race – whether ignorance or explicit racial discrimination.  I can see how I attempted to address each circumstance as a stand alone event. While on the surface, this is how we handle all discipline and disrespect, I know in my heart that I felt different. Often in conversations around discrimination, I feel either extreme guilt or embarassement. I feel unsure of how to speak and what exactly to say. It is an area that I lack confidence and therefore stumble with my words. I simply want to be done with it. My lack of fluency made me feel like I was hiding from the conversation instead of using it as an opportunity to be brave. Since I couldn’t name what I was feeling, I didn’t know how to learn from these moments. 

Since logically I didn’t understand my emotions, the one thing I did think was that this was my issue and not anyone else’s. Did these feelings mean I lack the understanding and therefore don’t know what I was doing? Does this mean I’m not a good administrator?  Now I’ve tapped into more than a simple lack of racial language fluency but am talking about my own fears of inadequacy. It’s no wonder that I choose to not even engage in the conversation when the initial discussion requires a level of vulnerability I would rather avoid. 

At least, until now. 

Braving bias means saying these things aloud and learning with others that I’m not alone in these feelings.  It means not avoiding the conversation any longer. To get clearer about how and where bias lurks in my life I need to be willing to discuss it with others. 

I learned from both Hammond and Brown in St. Louis and others since how implicit bias differs from explicit bias. Just like implicit bias differs from implicit racism. While I have heard these terms before, only recently did I better understand the differences. Explicit means with awareness, intentional. Implicit means the opposite. It means without awareness or knowledge but something so ingrained in our lives that it is easy to overlook and just think of as “normal”.  I can see now that in the past whenever the conversation of race differences arises, I come from a place of defending myself from explicit bias. I don’t say harmful terms or pass judgement based on race/culture/religious beliefs/ability/gender/etc. Implicit bias helps me understand those feelings of inadequacy and recognize that the system is inherent in racial discrimination and not my specific actions. 

This new understanding gives me a sturdy platform to grow from and better understand my own feelings. When confronted with implicit bias – bias that is rooted in unconscious attitudes and stereotypes formed from each person’s deep culture – it is critical we understand that we must learn how to reframe our beliefs. This is a process that requires honesty, a willingness to suspend our beliefs, and time to internalize new information in order to continue braving bias each and every time we feel it arise in our lives. Now I know that when I feel this loss for words or emotion around these situations or conversations that by asking more questions and recognizing my own feelings, I will learn to face and acknowledge my own bias. Only then can I serve others and lead with unmerited grace. 

Daniel Bauer, author and podcast host, was featured on Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D and podcast host of Leading Equity in December 2018. While listening recently, I heard something that resonated deeply for me. If we want our schools to be the best – then we must fill in our gaps – and all schools have gaps. All schools have pockets of students who are not the majority and; therefore, require more listening on the part of the adults. This listening will provide us with a better understanding of how those gaps impact and distract from learning. Once we have those relationships and that insight, we will be stronger and more equipped to provide rich learning experiences all students need and deserve.

Why look? Why be uncomfortable? Why be knowledgeable? Because of something I read in Robin Diangelo’s work White Fragility. “It is a messy, lifelong process, but one that is necessary to align my professed values with my real actions.” Values I strive for and attempt to teach my children include (1) harmony with others (2) finding balance of self (3) having the courage to speak up and courage to remain silent (4) finding value in service  (5) being compassionate (6) cultivating wisdom to act and wisdom to wait (7) practicing self-discipline and (8) seeking the joy found in truth. I firmly believe that because I have added reflection into my life, through writing, I can bravely look into the shadows and uncover the truths that will continue to guide me to pursue and align my values. Bias is one of those shadows.

As humans, we cannot have a conversation around bias, race, diversity, equity, and equality without recognizing our own beliefs and acknowledging how we arrived at the table. We must understand our role in the conversation. Despite the emotions and discomfort this often invokes, the only way to grow beyond our feelings and our own sense of inadequacy is to stay in the conversation. We must brave our own bias first to become culturally aware enough to help those we serve. As Hammond wrote, “ Culture is like the air we breathe, permeating all we do. And the hardest culture to examine is often our own, because it shapes our actions in ways that seem invisible and normal.” Her book goes on to provide real, concrete steps to help us become aware of our own bias. She provides a framework to push through our fear and learn how to use our triggers to become tools to help us change. The steps are specific activities to help grow our own fluency and ability to engage in this conversation. Once we gain new insight, we gain new understanding. “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” – Marcel Proust.

 I am thankful I used this holiday break to read, listen and ask questions.  It helped me to better shape my own understanding regarding cultural differences. As with any new insight, the first step for me is learning. I want to be the kind of leader who is confident about how to create a school culture that celebrates diversity, fosters equity for all students and teachers, and includes each and every person. I want to be the kind of leader who invites conversations around race and misunderstandings. I want to be the kind of leader that helps others recognize that we all have bias and once we embrace that truth only then can we find and live the solution. 

The conference in December and the rich resources I’ve found sense have provided new ideas, mentors, connections, and ways for me to continue to grow in this arena. I am grateful for the new perspective, a bit fearful of where this will take me but excited as well. I want to be confident in this conversation and I want to serve others in a way that honors their truth and yet provides hope for their journey in this work. I believe what Bryan Stevenson wrote about the need for unmerited grace. Braving bias is, perhaps, the first step to tap into that compassion, to look closer at the mercy we all need. 

“There are no guarantees in the arena. We will struggle. We will even fail. There will be darkness. But if we are clear about the values that guide us in our efforts to show up and be seen, we will always be able to find the light. We will know what in means to live brave.” – Brene Brown

Join me in learning more on this topic during the Leading Equity Virtual Summit beginning January 2nd, 2020 hosted by Sheldon L. Eakins. For more information click here. If you are interested in reading more about this topic, check out my book list here. If you are a leader in Forsyth County and would like to join a group of other like-minded educators helping empower teachers to build the awareness and fluency around diversity, equity, and inclusion, please click here.

Week 16 – New Perspectives

Birds of a feather, flock together. You are who your friends are. Two peas in a pod. Cut from the same cloth. If everyone jumped off the bridge would you, too? These sayings we all have heard to essentially imply that who you spend time with is a reflection of who you are and the decisions you make. Most of us hear these comments during adolescence and usually in response to being corrected, disciplined, or lectured.

I remember my own mother asking me why I wanted to be friends with those who were “up to no good”? I remember struggling with my answer because, in my mind, they were “cool” or funny or something my mother just wouldn’t understand. 

I’ve made these comments to my own children. I want them to think about what they are doing instead of the attention they may or may not receive from their peers. When my daughter talked her friend into climbing out of her window so they could sit on the roof at her friend’s house, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. Her response was that her friend would only do it if my daughter did it first. Hence, that was a good enough reason for her to make a potentially dangerous decision. 

Sometimes, the context of these sayings occur when we talk with students about their decisions. At the middle school age, students make choices to impress others, gain peer attention (positive or negative).  Many times they do this without thinking of the repercussions. Recently, I discussed with two students their decision to run down the hallway and slide into lockers. As they tried to explain their actions, it was apparent that the strongest pull to engage in this potentially harmful behavior, was the approval and attention from their friends. 

As I was thinking about this, I wondered – how different are we as adults? Granted, most of us understand and refrain from climbing out on our roofs without good cause or sliding down hallways (maybe due to the physical limitations). But the power of peer recognition and attention still drives adult decisions. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Beliefs we hold are strengthened when we are around others who share our own beliefs.” 

I know I’m a reflection of the world around me. From the clothes I wear, to the vacations I plan, to the books I read – all are influenced and driven by society. This past week I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Saint Louis and attend the 50th Learning Forward Annual Conference. At times, I felt like a teenager going to a concert and getting the chance to meet the performers backstage. I met current practitioners in the field of education whose work has and continues to inspire me. I learned with other educators from across the country who are doing and leading initiatives that are changing the face of education in our nation. Each night after a full day of learning I was exhausted. 

Many students seldom stray from their school community which provides their social comfort zones. One key component that is unique to a situation like attending a conference is that we are forced out of our normal routines and are able to gain new perspectives. We are not hearing the same messages we hear during our normal day-to-day lives. Students often lack a frame of reference beyond their social reality. They have not spent much time in other regions of the country or world interacting with students who may have different ideas or perspectives. Students fully rely on their parents/guardians and teachers to expose them to societies different from their own.

Research abounds connecting peer pressure and its influence on decisions for all ages. Two professors from the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled Social Pressure Can Change Minds, Even on Divisive Issues. The authors argue that according to their research the technique needed to change minds is to present the facts and “exert intense peer pressure.” 

Robert Cialdini, author of the best selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion notes how advertisers lean on terms like “fastest-growing” or “best-selling” to imply popular. According to his research, popular sells because following the crowd allows people to function in a complicated environment.

Do we actually learn anything new when those around us think the same way we think, look the same way we look, and act the same way we act? Many of the sessions I attended in Saint Louis pushed me out of my comfort zone. Why? Because I learned from those who looked different, lived in different parts of the country, and whose experience in education and life contrasts mine. I was insecure; I was doubtful of my own ideas. At one point in my life, I may have left the conversation because I didn’t know my place in the discussion. But this time I didn’t. I stayed. I let myself be uncomfortable and unsure. I asked questions and recognized that the only way to learn was to struggle with new perspectives.

“Remembrance is about the past. Witnessing has to do with the present. Action is movement into the future. Action is the way we live into a new reality, and when we act out of authenticity of who we are as people, as leaders, as human beings, we help create that new reality,” wrote Mary Douglas Glasspool. Maybe looking into the uncomfortable parts of who we are is the key to better understanding our potential and our direction. Maybe when we don’t run away, we learn through listening. Thus, I am better equipped to serve and to lead. 

Join me next week as I look closer at diversity, equity, and inclusion and our role in education in promoting a deeper understanding of supporting our ever-changing demographics. 

View from the airplane on the way to Saint Louis for Learning Forward’s 50th Annual Conference.