People Are More Than Their Roles

I am a Director of Innovation and Technology. That is my role title. For people who don’t know me in my “every day” position, that usually surprises them because in professional conversations or interactions on social media I rarely speak of technology. Why? Because I don’t believe it to be my biggest strength nor my only passion. To silo me into the role of a technology director (networks and Google admin panel and servers and even just technology integration) would be a very low-level use of what I consider to be my strengths.

Part of the reason for this is because I don’t consider myself to be particularly technology savvy. I listen to directions and pay attention and I’m not afraid to just push buttons and pray it works (particularly in the case of projectors and copiers – seriously, they hate me). If I need to know how to do something I reach out to my PLN or I Youtube it. I’m not technology savvy, I’m just not afraid to try something and fail in that arena because I know I can try again until I make it work. That’s not necessarily a skill, it’s a mindset.

The second half of this reasoning is because I don’t believe technology integration is about the devices or infrastructure even though I recognize the importance of having both of those that work. A discussion about technology integration should start with pedagogy, classroom management, and how it’s not the technology that makes the difference in learning, it’s the teacher. As a student, if my teacher has me complete an online worksheet on my Chromebook or they have me create a digital portfolio with a variety of multimedia and reflective pieces on my Chromebook, it’s not the technology that has made the difference in learning as the device hasn’t changed. It’s the teacher’s instructional choices. Therefore, my conversations typically center around good teaching, leadership, personalized professional learning, and supporting teachers in becoming innovative, divergent thinkers.

Therefore, if you look at me and think “technology only,” you are severely limiting not only my potential but also any kind of higher-level benefit I could bring to the district in general.

I’m using myself as an example, but I’ve seen this happen over and over when stringent perceptions of a role are placed on people without looking deeper into the person and their strengths and passions. I’ve seen phenomenal phys-ed teachers who seamlessly integrate technology into their students’ learning in ways that are real-world and make sense, but they are not thought of as being leaders in the area of technology because they teach phys-ed. I’ve worked with library media specialists who have an affinity for coding and robotics but aren’t looked at as having skills beyond choosing books and digital citizenship lessons. And when I see this, I think to myself what in the world are we missing out on by placing such limitations on people? Think of the wide variety of people we work with every day who bring so much more to their role than we give them credit for. Are we even taking the time to form relationships with people in such a way that we know when we are placing the limitations?

Recently, I had the pleasure of getting to know one of our teachers a little better as she stopped in our department over the summer and chatted with me about The Fire Within. I learned that she had a strength in creating connections with students, strategies to make that happen, knowledge and concern over mental health issues, and she believed wholeheartedly in the importance of deep, meaningful relationships that in a role may even seem more connected to what a high school counselor might encompass. In my head, I questioned why we hadn’t used this person, who is highly respected in the district, to speak to the rest of the staff on the topic. Why hadn’t we recognized this particular strength and utilized her passion and knowledge to improve everyone around her? Have we not taken the time to notice? Or were we just comfortable siloing her into her role?

I don’t think that this is done intentionally. I think that when this happens it’s typically just an oversight as we focus on our everyday tasks and to do our jobs to the very best of our ability. It takes time and energy to form the relationships deep enough to recognize strengths that go beyond the role. My programmer is a perfect example of this. In looking at a typical role of a programmer, you might think of someone who’s strength is coding, writing scripts, and good with the student information system, but their affinity for computers takes away from their people skills. To the contrary, it took me about a month of working with her every day to realize she has some of the best customer service skills I’ve ever seen in a technology department position. She loves people and people love her. I have learned so much from her as she sometimes schools me in this area even though I consider myself to be adept at customer service. Because of this, I have asked her to help me with new teacher training, I often ask her to read emails and listen to how I’m going to address issues with teachers or students to get her opinion on how I’m going to handle the situation. I may be her boss, but she is my mentor when it comes to improving my people skills. My computer programmer is my people skills mentor. Let that sink in a little. And had I not taken the time to recognize that, it would have been a major loss for both myself and my staff. It’s so important that we take the time to find what drives people. Their passions and strengths outside of their role need to be discovered and recognized so we can really support and appreciate the whole of the people we serve.

strength

Be an Upstander: When the effect we have collides with the choices we make

In my district, the district administrators (with the exception of the superintendent and the business administrator) are all housed in the buildings in which it makes the most sense for them to serve instead of residing in offices in the administration building. For example, the SPED director is in the elementary school, the curriculum director in the high school offices, and I am in an office suite that is outside our Genius Bar between our high school and middle school (one building). I have always loved this setup. I don’t miss out on the everyday interactions between myself and staff and students because I am right in the midst of the action. Do I have students coming randomly into my office more than a typical district administrator and they distract me and keep me from my work? Yep. It’s my favorite part.

But with this setup comes the lonely summer. We are not hunkered down in the administrative office together, we are spread out across the district. The buildings are quiet. The other day I was walking down the hall with one of my favorite custodians (they’re all my favorites) and this conversation transpired:

Me: “I can never get used to how quiet it is in here.”

Him: “I know. Kids and teachers will be back soon.”

Me: “I can’t wait. The halls are so lonely. It’s so strange to look down them and not see teachers chatting in the hall or students at their locker. I miss them.”

And he looked at me with the strangest look on his face and said, “Thank you for saying that. I think so, too.” Then he gave me the biggest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen.

It dawned on me right then he may have been expecting an array of snarky comments back from needing a longer vacation to how much easier our job would be without students. I, myself, have heard it all, so I can’t even imagine what the custodians have heard. In that moment I had the choice of saying something negative. I chose to say what I feel to be true, but he interpreted that as a positive. What made my heart sink was his surprise at my response. Have we really gotten in such a habit of complaining about the entire reason for our jobs that it has become the norm? What people expect? Are we trying to be funny? Because I am widely known for my sarcasm, but I don’t think that negativity against an entire group of people we serve is funny.

I started thinking about how many times I have fallen into this trap with others in conversation, and I was embarrassed that I had sometimes taken the negative road more commonly traveled. It is so much more difficult to be positive when everyone around you is negative, but it’s also so much more important to be so. But, this goes into the deeper conversation of how we really create change. Change, by its very nature, happens by someone doing something different. When we talk about anything that goes against the grain (being positive in a negative climate, building a robust, supportive culture, speaking about teacher mental health issues when some people don’t want to hear it) we will run into adversity. If changes were easy and happened without effort, we’d never need to speak of the hard work that goes into creating real, authentic, lasting change.

The other day I was being interviewed by Forbes for an article on the status of teacher mental health and the person interviewing me asked me what it takes to be an “upstander”. She said, “You know, someone who stands up for what they believe in.” I had to really think about this because my initial reaction was I have no idea. But, I do know that as cliche as it sounds, it often involves taking the road less traveled. I know that sometimes you need to do the things that go against what everyone else seems to be doing, thinking, and saying. People may get mad, they may even get mean (hello? Twitter anyone?), and you need to be able to accept that because those are the ones who need your change the most. Sometimes, those things are difficult and test our will and dedication because there will always be people who don’t agree with you, even on topics that would seem common sense. It takes an unwavering belief in what you believe, it takes resilience when people try to take you down,  and it takes a support system to remind you that you’re not wrong when things start to look grim. Many times, being an upstander involves taking the difficult road when everyone else seems to be taking the easy, more accepted one. That’s the difference between people who stand up for what they believe in and those that just don’t.

My Post (1)

Is it better to be kind or right?

I am on Twitter because my friends are there. The ones who push my thinking and who I want to see what they are doing professionally because they make me a better person. I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Hogan‘s famous quote, “Twitter won’t change your life, but the educators you meet there will.”

There are times, though, when I feel like Twitter is like being back in the school playground at recess. Realistically, most of us have the desire to get along with everyone, but there will always be people we gravitate toward because of similar interests, opinions, etc, but there are other groups of people who have similar beliefs who stick together, and hypothetically, (especially) because we work in a human-focused profession, we should be able to disagree respectfully and remain kind. Lately, I feel like the difference between pushing someone’s thinking and arguing in an unprofessional fashion have been separated by a very fine line. And I, honestly, don’t think that challenging thinking and rudeness should have a fine line. I think it should be very, very thick, in fact.

When someone challenges my thinking, I feel like I’ve had an ah-ha moment. I have found some way that I know I can change my own practice for the better. It leaves me feeling invigorated and ready to move forward. They have probably acknowledged what I’m doing right and have pointed out an area where I could grow with HOW I could change. Maybe they have kindly suggested a resource or person who might help me. I have probably asked more questions for clarification. Overall, it’s a good experience on both sides. This kind of push is why I get on social media. I am a better professional now than I was prior to Twitter.

What I don’t understand is when the need is so high to be right that the basics of human kindness are completely forgotten. In any argument, there is always an element of truth on both sides, even if that truth is the perception of being right. And as I’ve said before, in many instances, it is not our job to tell someone they are wrong, but instead to shift their perception. We will never shift perception with words that make people’s walls go up. The second they feel angry, resentful, backed into a corner, or like others are being unkind, they stop listening. So, if just being kind isn’t a good enough reason to push someone’s thinking versus being rude, the logical, reasonable expectation that you will not accomplish changing someone’s mind with unkind words should be. Because if you’re not trying to shift their perception, what are you trying to accomplish?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I understand that being kind is more important than being right.  I’m not going to lie, sometimes, that means I need to check my temper, bite my tongue, and take a break from a conversation because I really, really like to be right. Sometimes, I forget and need to apologize and try harder because I’m human. But, being right should never be more important than a relationship. And if I find I’m not being heard, then I need to either accept that it might not be the right time to change that person’s perception or that I’m not doing a good enough job at being persuasive. After all, we are modeling these behaviors for kids, and we shouldn’t expect any better behavior out of them than we exhibit ourselves.

Kindness

When Doing Nothing Causes Distrust

I believe that it is human nature to want to trust people, but it’s definitely a feeling that when broken, takes a great deal of time to mend. It’s imperative that we have trust in the people around us for support, kindness, empathy, and collaboration. Many times we associate the breaking of trust with something someone does to us. Their words or actions cause us to feel betrayed. For example, when your principal says they support risk-taking, but then chastise you for a failed lesson attempt. It’s like an action causes a reaction, and that reaction is distrust.

I also believe, however, that distrust can also be earned by not doing. The lack of action can cause just as much of a wave in a relationship (personal or professional) as an action.

When we don’t do what we say we are going to do
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “I’ll believe it when I see it” about someone, you’ve lost trust in that person to finish what they say they will do. A repeated lack of follow through, even if it’s not in the same area of assistance can cause trust to dwindle with every occurrence. The lack of action can be anything from not finishing assigned collaborations to not being available for support when needed. It can even be in the perception of someone not doing their job when their lack of assistance or attention affects the way that you do your job.

When we don’t anticipate needs
We obviously cannot anticipate everyone’s needs all the time, but I do believe that in this area people will award points for effort when they feel that the majority of the time people are being proactive versus reactive. Reactiveness causes anxiety and stress for many people and can cause a person to wonder why the situation couldn’t be seen coming (of course, depending on the situation). In terms of trust, if I feel you rely more on reactiveness than proactiveness, I may feel like I need to be more on point in order to catch situations for someone versus with someone because I don’t trust you to anticipate needs.

When we say nothing (or focus on the wrong feeling)
I recently saw a quote that said, “Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is nothing at all.” In regards to trust, I think of this saying more in the way of referencing when we need support. If I am asking for support and I’m not getting it, I will probably lose trust in that you will ever support me. Support also includes, however, the ability to have challenging conversations with people who need to improve their practice, so not only the positive feel-good support but holding people accountable as well. In focusing on the wrong feeling causing distrust, I worked in a school once where the principal refused to focus any energy on the issues that were plaguing the climate & culture of the building. Instead, she would point out only the good things that were happening but ignored the lack of positive relationships or accountability for everyone in the building which caused a major distrust of her.

Your choice in words and actions can convey a powerful message but your lack of them can as well. Remembering that not only our actions but our lack thereof can cause a lack of trust needs to be kept in mind when being purposeful in our leadership and communication with the people around us. Trust can be broken in an instant and takes patience, diligence, and dependability in order to rebuild.

trust

When The Ball Finally Drops

I was sitting in the car on my way to a doctor’s appointment this morning desperate, mentally willing my blood pressure to lower. I had a deep feeling of dread in my stomach. The moment that I knew was coming for the last few months had finally happened. Right before I left for the doctor’s appointment, I had found out I dropped a ball.

It wasn’t a large ball by any stretch, a medium one maybe, but the first major one I had dropped since being in my new role. I guess going into my third year, that’s not too bad, but I needed to get bailed out by my network administrator…while he was on vacation. And while I get along smashingly well with my network admin, his last words to me before he signed off were, “Try not to break anything.” Yea. It was a seriously stupid move on my part. He was very, very patient with me, which is a true testament to the amazing, working relationship that we have formed over the last couple years because believe me when I say, at that point he could have easily made me cry.

There has been a perfect storm brewing around me lately. I’ve been feeling it for months and have even spoken to my close group of friends about it. I have been saying yes too much, and I have had more and more balls in the air lately. As a result, I’ve been doing stuff halfway, and I know halfway is probably a compliment to my work. I was working hard. Always working. Continue to say yes. Put in more work. I do a fantastic job at preaching balance and a terrible job at finding it.

And the minute I try to find balance one of the balls drop because I feel like if I don’t keep working, something won’t get done. And I’m right, it won’t. What I’m trying to determine is how much it matters if it doesn’t.

Why was I going to the doctor? Stress. Oh, the irony.

I struggle with finding balance. I try to be everything to everyone. And I do really believe in balance, truly. It’s just that I wish better things for everyone else than I do myself. That’s a problem and I know it.

But one of the issues that I full on caused myself (besides consistently saying yes) was that I took this new role and was trying to push too much change. It annoys me how slow education moves and the benefit of working in a small district is how quickly the ship can be righted. However, I have been pushing my department too far too quickly. We have revamped the way we hand out devices to elementary and middle school, we reworked the Parent & Student Handbook, implemented a new way to follow our department strategic plan (along with writing one to begin with), implemented a completely new inventory system, I updated job descriptions and implemented a new system of evaluation, we went single sign-on as much as we could, refigured devices and pulled back on purchasing, pulled all old devices, implemented a device refresh, redid our district website (coming soon)…I could go on and on, and this has all been in two years. Even though I believe that our department, overall, has a positive climate, I have stressed out one of my members to the point of tears. Basically, in my quest to get logistics changed and procedures in line so I could really get to the heart of student learning, I have lead my team down a path where we were going 1000 miles per minute. I’m impressed they still allow me to lead them.

I do this to myself sometimes. Like that feeling from when you were a kid and you tried rolling down a hill and you can’t stop. The one light in the whole situation was that I found how quickly my team could rally to turn the tides on a mistake. And when I had to email my programmer, also on vacation, to do something for me asap to right the wrong, I apologized profusely for bothering her on vacation. Her response was, “You’ve done so much for me, it’s the least I can do.” I get that we all make mistakes, but my biggest error lately is not only working myself to death but dragging others along with me. Some changes aren’t immediate, and being cognizant of the way your actions affect the people around you is so much more important than a new inventory system or website. We have developed the culture in our department that when we make a mistake, we say we are sorry and we try again the next day with a clean slate. I guess I’ll be taking advantage of this belief system this time. There’s nothing that will stop you faster from rolling down the hill than hitting a tree. It hurts and you feel embarrassed, but you get up and dust yourself off and keep moving forward.


slow down

Leadership & The Depth of Relationships

The other day I was working with the administrative team at a school district near Chicago. We were dissecting the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation & Divergent Thinking and, like many times during this workshop, we began to talk about relationships. Because relationships are the foundation for so much of what we do in education, it should be the focus of any conversation regarding change or growing or improvement.

What we often don’t get specific enough about is the depth of relationships we have with our colleagues. I’ve always felt like I wanted to treat the people that I work closest with like family. It was the same way in my classroom…my students were like my children. Many times there is this unspoken uncertainty about how close a leader should get to their colleagues. I can say with certainty that I spend as much if not more time at work with department people than I do at home with my family. I want to care about these people. I want them to know the actual me. I want people at work to understand that if I ask them how they are doing, I legitimately care about their answer. They need to know that if they are having a bad day, I will stop what I’m doing and listen.

This morning, I was fortunate enough that my YouTube knew I wanted to listen to Simon Sinek (one of my faves) and brought me to this video (honestly, I have no idea why it’s called Do You Love Your Wife – don’t let that throw you off from watching).

There were two specific points he made that caught my attention in regards to the depth of leadership relationships.

I’ve got your back
He begins the video with speaking about how in the military, they refer to each other as brothers and sisters, and how these kinds of relationships indicate a unique level of closeness. You may bicker and argue things out and tease each other, but if anyone attacks each other, they know that they have each other’s backs. While I would say that I definitely do not have this kind of relationship with all the teachers in the district (not that I don’t want it, but I have yet to get to know them well enough), I do have it with my immediate charges in my department. I have bickered with them and we have disagreed and I have turned around and gone to bat for them if they have been treated unfairly. I am 110% positive that they would do the same for me at all times. We have needed to apologize to each other for things and it has never changed the way our relationships function. What else it means is that I trust them to do their job and they trust me to do mine, they always know that in every decision I make I will keep their interests in mind, and if they go along with one of my decisions it’s because they agree, because if they didn’t I trust they would tell me. That is the kind of relationship I want with my team.

I have cultivated these relationships by taking the time to get to know each member of my team. I know what makes them tick, know their little eccentricities and strengths and weaknesses. I support their weaknesses sometimes without them even knowing because I feel their weaknesses don’t need to be highlighted all the time as they are making growth. Sometimes we all just need support without the reminder of our pitfalls. I have attended funerals, laughed with them until I cried, and have been honest about areas that I need professional support as well and have asked them for it. I am forthcoming about what I don’t know and when I make a mistake, I tell them and I apologize. Creating these types of relationships isn’t rocket science, it’s just treating people like they’re human and in turn, acting like you are, too.

I will follow you no matter what
For me, the most powerful and inspiring piece from the video came near the end when he said this:

Courage is not some deep, internal fortitude. You don’t dig down deep and find the courage. It just doesn’t exist. Courage is external. Our courage comes from the support we feel from others. In other words, when you feel that someone has your back, when you know that the day you admit you can’t do it someone will be there and say, “I got you. You can do this.” That’s what gives you the courage to do the difficult thing…It’s the relationships that we foster. It’s the people around us that love us and care about us and believe in us, and when we have those relationships we will find the courage to do the right thing and when you act with courage, that in turn will inspire those in your organization to also act with courage…Those relationships that we foster over the course of a lifetime will not only make us the leaders that we need to be and hope we can be, but they will often save your life. They’ll save you from depression. They’ll save you from giving up. They’ll save you from any matter of negative feelings about your own capabilities, your own future, when someone just says, “I love you and I will follow you no matter what.”

One of my mentors often asks me in regards to anything I take on, “Do you want to be good or do you want to be great?” and I know that if I want to be a great leader someday, my focus needs to be on building these kinds of relationships because there is no way that when I leave my position anyone is going to say, “Wow, she was a great leader. Remember how she had us use that Trello board for organization? I’ll never forget that. It was fantastic.” They will remember the way I made them feel, the ways I showed them I cared, and how I always had their backs. I will remember about them how they gave me the courage to try to be a better leader and teammate and to pick battles I may not have otherwise picked because of the support I knew I had when I returned to our department. The amount of growth I’ve experienced in this position can be credited to the amount of support that I have received directly from the people on my team. We all took the time to cultivate those kinds of relationships together and it has made all the difference in the way our department functions and more importantly, the positive feelings we have toward everything we are able to accomplish together.

simon sinek

My Core Beliefs: I’m Only as Good as the People I Surround Myself With

This is a post in the Core Beliefs Series. To read the introductory post, click here.

In other words, relationships are the most important investment I make.

When I was a first-year teacher, I took a one-year limited term contract job to teach cooking and Human Growth and Development to middle schoolers. I had no interest in teaching middle school. In fact, I believe that I had expressed this several times, but in an era where there were 800 applicants to every one teaching job, you didn’t turn an opportunity down. I’ll never forget walking into my office that first day. On the right of the office, on the high shelves, there were boxes of deodorant (a staple for every middle school classroom) and shaving cream. On the left, on the highest shelf, I could see laminated posters. With my elementary training, I conjured images of inspirational elephant posters or a “50 more interesting words than thing” chart. I reached up and brought them down only to discover they were posters of venereal diseases. Images I’ll never be able to erase from my brain. I slowly reached up and put them back on the shelf and wouldn’t go back in that office for a few weeks. Also, I was a terrible cook. I can’t imagine what those poor kids thought as I struggled to teach them even the basics of making an omelet. But, all of this teaching struggle taught me so many important lessons. I realized I loved middle schoolers, which taught me to never pre-judge opportunities. I also realized that many people can teach the content, after all, I had no idea what I was doing content-wise, but I knew I had to create relationships with the kids. How would I have spoken to middle schoolers about HG&D without creating a connection first? The relationships not only fulfilled that part of me that loved teaching kids, but also showed me that I could learn content if I wasn’t familiar with it but I couldn’t teach that content without the relationships.

I have also worked hard to grow my PLN, and when it comes down to it, I have really amazing friends. I know people who are very literally changing the face of education. They are caring, considerate, kind. They value students as I do and spend energy helping others as I believe in. I have been fortunate to meet these people, but it’s my desire to cultivate relationships that has kept me connected and continually learning from them. I do this by not only making time to listen when they are doing something incredible and want to share but also when they need support, even if it’s not advice they desire but just to vent. My PLN is literally world-wide. I have friends in Australia and England and Canada as well as all over the US. What I’m most proud of is when someone tells me they know they can count on me if they need me. That’s how I know I’ve done my job in that relationship, and it holds a very high value to me.

A few months ago, I read an article about Elon Musk and the Neuralink project he’s working on where he wants to have a chip planted into people’s brains. He wants to start with people who have a disability in order to assist them.  His goal is to have it available to the general public in eight to ten years.

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When I proposed this project to a group of teachers, I said to them, “Hypothetically, we could be discussing our current kindergarteners being high schoolers having chips in their brains that function like a computer. What will you do when you no longer teach facts?” The number one response was that teachers would be obsolete, but I disagree. If this would come to fruition, we would need a shift in education that focuses on real-world problem finding and solving, critical thinking skills, creativity, soft skills, innovative thinking and among other things, the ability to create positive relationships. Wait, but students have devices that function as a computer in their hands at all times now (cell phones)! While some people might be afraid of this shift, I celebrate it because our focus would become relationships. We would be able to spend more time getting to know our students and connecting with them, and THAT’S why I got into education in the first place. I wanted to teach kids first, content second.

And maybe I should be more specific, because we all create relationships with our students, but we want to focus on the positive ones. My second son had major speech issues and some small motor skills problems when he was younger. He had started early childhood two weeks after he turned three years old. When he was in an early grade, he liked his teacher. He came home one night and colored her a picture. Spent a lot of time coloring and drawing, which was really difficult for him. He got an envelope and decorated the envelope for her, stuffed the drawing in, and was so beyond excited to give it to her. When I picked him up from school the next day, I waited for him to tell me about the picture and he didn’t. So I asked. He told me that she instructed him to put the envelope on her desk. He didn’t see if she opened it or what she did with it, and she never said anything to him about it. He was heartbroken. In all the rest of his years in school, he never made a teacher another picture or wrote a teacher a note. Now I understand that the teacher was probably insanely busy and doing 100 things at once, but every move we make affects the kids around us and the relationships that we create. Kids won’t learn from people they don’t like. Positive, connected, deeply seeded relationships should be our focus, and every single small moment counts.

Relationships should be the fundamental reason that we are in education. I truly believe that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. Our PLN, our colleagues, and especially our students should make us better people. They should give us strength when it’s wavering and a high-five when something goes exceptionally well, just as we would do for them.

I have built my PLN through social media and have taken time to meet them or connect with them either at conferences or via apps like Voxer. It takes time, no doubt, to maintain these relationships, but anything worthwhile will take time. My friend, George Couros, always says that we make time for the things that are important to us. I have found that spending the time on relationships is the best investment I’ve made.

Getting-to-Know-Quote

 

My Core Beliefs: Focus on the Why

This is the second post in the series. You can find the first post on defining your core beliefs here.

There has been a lot of discussion about the power of why. Thanks to Simon Sinek and his discussions of starting with why, knowing and explaining the why has become the driver for learning and professional discussions (or at least it should be). I truly believe these things about the why:

  • Educators need to know their why to be engaged and have buy-in
  • While “for the students” is an important (and should be obvious) why, it’s not always the only one necessary and sometimes needs to be taken a step further
  • How connected you are with your own why determines your engagement (personally or professionally)
  • When you help students know their why, it will increase their engagement in school
  • When people don’t know their why, they sometimes need to be lead down the path to finding it

Your Why and Purpose
Last summer I saw a video in a session at the FIRST Conference that summarized my feelings better than I could have ever explained. If you haven’t seen this video called Know Your Why by Michael Jr, you need to watch it.

When you know your why your what has more impact because you’re walking in and toward your purpose. – Michael Jr.

I could watch that video over and over it’s so powerful.

I was recently listening to the book The Power of Moments by Heath (which I highly recommend – it has been my reading of the year). They compare knowing your why to understanding your purpose and define purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning.¹” In studies that they discuss in the book, they found that when people were only passionate about what they did, it did not necessarily equate to higher achievement in their jobs even though they were happy. However, if they knew their purpose or meaning (or why), they were found to be more likely to go above and beyond the expectations of their positions.

To me, this makes total sense. I know that if a teacher has buy-in into an initiative, they will do everything they can to make it happen. How do you create buy-in? You tell people their why. You show them the purpose, and this has to be one of the cases where the why goes beyond just “it’s what’s best for kids”. They need specifics. For example:

“We are beginning trauma-informed training and implementing social-emotional learning curriculum into the school day to help alleviate some of the trauma-related behaviors. This is better for students because it will help their stress levels, allow their brains to understand that they do not always need to be in fight or flight mode, and will allow them to use more of their brain to focus on learning.”

This is a why that goes beyond this is what’s best for students and gives purpose to the initiative. Our why for teaching is students and their learning. Teachers want to know how the new initiative is going to provide additional purpose and meaning beyond how they already care for their students. When teachers know this, they will attend the necessary professional development even if it’s after hours, they will implement the necessary components into their classroom, and they will tell their fellow teachers about their successes. They may even spend their prep times moving other teachers to get on the bandwagon. They will have complete buy-in. If an initiative hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it needs, I would guess that the majority of the time the purpose either hadn’t been identified or didn’t resonate with the staff.

Know Your Own Why
I don’t believe that there is going to be one driving force for everything we do, although there might be some that are overarching. My family, for example, is one of my driving forces for everything I do. When I taught, what drove me were the relationships that I created with students. Those times when students would come back from the middle school to see me were treasured not only because I knew they had thought enough of me to come and say hello, but because I missed them. I was aware that anyone could teach the content, but not everyone could recreate the same relationship I had with them.

When I moved into administration, my purpose shifted because I don’t have access to students in the same capacity I did as a teacher. Even though ultimately everything I do is to positively affect student learning, my focus is on educators and any and all support that I can offer. Similar to knowing my core beliefs, knowing my why and my purpose for being in education holds me up when I feel like I’m being pulled under. It drives me when I’m tired and drained and don’t feel like I have much more to give.

Also similar to my core beliefs, my meaning might be different than other’s, and that’s ok. What drives a person is incredibly personal, and it will never work for one to just adopt another’s why as their own unless they truly believe it. I have found many times that when educators have become disengaged from teaching, they have often forgotten why they became teachers in the first place. They have lost their purpose.

Students need a why, too
I’ve told this story before, but it is one of my favorites. My son, Goose, incredibly witty and intelligent and finds school a bore, came home from school last year and asked me, “Wanna know the dumbest thing I learned in school today, Mom?” (insert educator mom cringe) “I learned about imaginary numbers, Mom. IMAGINARY. As in they don’t exist. Next, we are going to be learning about unicorns in animal biology. When am I ever going to use this?” I couldn’t even argue with him. I have no idea why we teach imaginary numbers, and clearly, he didn’t either. Did he do the homework? Yes, two hours of it. Was he irritated by the experience? Yes, I believe he actually liked school a little less, even. I wanted to be able to give him a reason, but the only thing I could think of was that he had to take that class, which was enough meaning for him to finish the class with a good grade but not enough to care.

More recently, my daughter told me that her math teacher answered a similar question to a lack of real-world application like this: “I understand that you may not use this concept in your everyday life, but doing math like this exercises your brains. Just like your bodies need exercise, this math makes your brain work harder.” The answer made me smile. The teacher had at least taken the time to find a purpose for what seemed like useless math problems that did make sense. Now, whether that why resonated with the kids or not, I don’t know. But, I feel like she at least attempted to give the kids a greater purpose for doing something that felt useless.

Many times our kids’ purpose for finishing work is getting a grade so they can graduate and possibly pursue post-secondary learning, but that purpose excludes any kind of passion or desire to learn. It’s the reason that students seem so apathetic towards classes, especially in high school. Many times in elementary, they are still excited to learn, particularly about topics they’re interested in, but I think by the time high school rolls around their why shifts from learning to grades, and grades aren’t enough of a driver to keep them engaged. They can certainly have good grades and graduation as one of their purposes, but our jobs as teachers are to help them find their meaning, help them find their why, so they can be fully engaged in learning as well.

knwowhy

 

¹Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (p. 217). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.”

Teacher Demo Days: Trying for a more personalized PD experience

Since beginning my administrative position, I am responsible for more professional development days and have been attempting to provide more choice and opportunity in professional development versus the traditional sit-and-get. Realistically, it’s not always easy. Time is always an issue and a lot of information needs to be disseminated in a short period of time. I know I could flip some of it, but I also know that some people need me next to them to learn technology (which is the way they learn and totally fine) and I also know that while we would love everyone to be a professional and watch the video we ask them to, not everyone will, and usually, it’s the people who need to do it the most that don’t. I could send some information in an email, but I find that if the email is longer than about three sentences, people might not read it. So, realistically, I’m moving toward more personalization for professional development, and so it’s a common topic between myself and my PLN that also plan PD. In one of those discussions with my friend Lisa Lamont (who is amazing and you should definitely follow) she had mentioned she was thinking about a poster session PD similar to what you’d see at a conference with her teachers, and I thought it was a great idea. From there, I pitched it to one of our high school teachers who helped me think through the logistics (I wanted a teacher’s point of view in case I was missing something), and it was a go!

I took the poster session idea and built on it. My goal was to give teachers a glimpse into what other teachers are doing with their students when we don’t have the subs or time that are necessary to actually spend time in classrooms for shared professional practice experiences. I hoped that they would be able to take lessons or strategies from the presentations to use in their own classroom. It’s important to note here that even though I’m the Tech Director, I was not requiring anyone to show anything to do with technology. It was about good teaching strategies and activities. Did some people feature technology? Yes, but only because it supported what/how they were teaching. As a group, we discussed the importance of picking out tidbits they could use even if it seemed initially that the topic wouldn’t fit their content area. They were given this sheet of directions at a half-day in-service in January:


Purpose

To give you a chance to showcase awesome things you’re doing in your classroom with students and learn what others are doing as well.

Vision

We will be using our morning in-service on February 9th to view a lesson, teaching strategy, or teaching tool that everyone will be showcasing. You will be working with a partner, so while your partner explains the activity that you’re showing, you will be walking around, and curating ideas for your own students. You will then switch so there is always someone at your station.

Directions

  1. Choose a partner. That partner should have completed the same or similar activity/concept in the classroom that you can both speak about it from experience.
  2. Choose the idea you’d like to talk about.
  3. Choose the way you’d like to showcase it.
    1. Your choice, examples below
      1. Multimedia: Presentation, using green screen, presenting by modeling examples (digital version of hands-on)
      2. Posters, printouts, tri-folds, models
    2. Jason H can print out posters if needed
    3. Chrissy has tri-folds
  4. Fill out this form (they had a Google Form linked) to tell me what you need set up that day.
  5. Begin working!

Teachers had roughly an hour and forty-five minutes to find a partner and begin planning. Their partner needed to have tried a similar strategy in their classroom so both of them could discuss how it worked. It didn’t need to be exactly the same, but similar enough that other teachers would be able to get their questions answered by either presenter. Teachers had to have a partner because we scheduled the day so one partner would walk the presentations while the other presented, and then they would switch. That way everyone was able to both present and see other presentations. While a few groups did take on three people, I discouraged this. For every two groups that had three people, we were down one presentation, which made for less information being shared.

The partners could choose how they would like to present. They could do an actual poster, do a digital presentation of some kind, or demo an idea like the use of a green screen. They could really present the information in any way that they thought was the best fit. This was my attempt at modeling voice and choice since I believe we should be modeling in professional development the kind of learning we would like to see in the classroom.

Because the actual Demo Day was in February, teachers had a few weeks to perfect their presentations. They were not required to be done that day in January. In looking back, this was a good idea. Because they had more time to work, they were able to think through and create quality presentations rather than just throwing something together. It also gave us time to prepare any apps or devices that they needed.

The day of presenting was structured as follows:

9:30am-9:50am Teacher Set-up
9:50am-10:00am Review of how the morning would look
10:00am-11:00am First presenter round
11:00am-noon Second presenter round
Noon-12:20 Discussion and reflection on the morning

When we came back together, I asked for overall feedback for the day. For the most part, I received positive comments. Teachers legitimately loved both sharing and seeing what others were doing, and many pulled me aside and mentioned specifics on how they might use some of the information from the day.  Here were some takeaways from the feedback:

  • Some teachers would have liked to run their presentations differently. For example, have a fixed time when their presentation would start (more structured) or run their topic as a round-table discussion.
  • There were a few teachers commended for innovative, fantastic learning opportunities for their students, but even from these awesome activities, we were able to find ways that teachers could collaborate to bring it one step further.
  • Some would have liked a “heads-up” to the activity prior to the January day so they could have spent more time looking for a partner and finding common activities.
  • A few said that an hour was too long to view the presentations, but we have a small staff, so I think the larger staff that you have the more time you might need.

I was so excited when some people began to compliment others on their topics and presentations. It was a great way to create some community between our middle and high schools who are in the same building but don’t typically work together. Overall, it was a great experience for both me and the teachers who participated. I was able to see them get excited over what their students had learned and accomplished, and give them a chance to showcase the amazing things I know that they’re doing every day. If I’ve missed information or you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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Building Trust with Challenging Conversations

Educators are nice people. We are taught to be positive and complementary and to give feedback that people can feel good about. What we often miss, though, is the importance of having challenging conversations. I see this most often with administrators, but it is certainly a problem across the board. Teachers, too, need to be able to have conversations with disengaged students or unprofessional colleagues. We all need to be willing, at some point, to have conversations that might make ourselves or the other person uncomfortable. And it’s not only about addressing issues that are seen, it’s also about building trust between the people we work with. The ability to have and to positively receive a challenging conversation helps to build this trust.

When speaking about the need for a challenging conversation, some people will do anything to avoid having it, including allowing whatever behavior to continue. However, the lack of these conversations results in consequences for all stakeholders.

  • The behavior, whatever it might be, will continue
  • Some educators might notice the behavior and begin to see it as acceptable (after all, it’s not being addressed) so they may do it as well
  • The educators that don’t see it as acceptable will be irritated that it’s not addressed
  • These differences create an “us vs them” climate
  • The trust between colleagues could be broken
  • The behavior is no doubt affecting student learning and/or the students may see the behavior

Challenging conversations also need to be had when there is a question as to why something is being done. For example, the way budget money is spent, or the implementation of a new initiative. There is definitely a level of maturity and respect that comes with being able to approach a colleague and ask them why something is happening. The ability to have these challenging conversations will get people facts instead of gossip, increase trust and transparency, and lessen negativity from a lack of information. Although challenging conversations are difficult to have, it is more difficult to work in an environment where gossip and negativity reign due to the inability to ask questions for information.

This kind of conversation holds everybody accountable. I typically find that most people want challenging conversations to happen when someone they work with is not pulling their own weight or doing what’s best for kids. Some people want it to happen, but just not to them. However, if trust is built and the climate and culture support feedback for growth, challenging conversations are more likely to be accepted as what they are… a way for everybody to be working toward the best learning environment possible for kids.

So, the ability and willingness to not only have a challenging conversation but accept the feedback given to the recipient is important in building trust. What does the willingness to have a challenging conversations say:

There is trust between us 
I trust that you will understand, process, and employ my feedback and put it to good use.
Likewise, you trust me to give you feedback when you need to improve, along with asking clarifying questions and for additional explanations.

There is transparency between us
I know I can ask you a question when I feel I need more information.
I know that you will promote a positive climate by asking instead of assuming.

You believe in me
That I can change, I can improve, and I can be better and you’re helping me do that.
I believe you have the potential to grow and be even more amazing.

If I lose my way, you’ll help me find it

Challenging conversations are sometimes necessary to support the people around us. Although they are often looked at with a negative connotation, they don’t need to be a negative experience. They can be based on a solid relationship, trust, and transparency, and result in growth and change for all involved. Moreover, they are necessary in order to create an environment where everyone feels supported and is working toward what is best for students.

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