I know you and you know me. We couldn't be more opposite. I believe that I may scare you (or maybe annoy you) as much as you intimidate me. I believe in the realm of education, we both have students at the heart of all we do, we just have different methods to get there. I am writing to you because I care about you and I care about our students. I want to plead my case to you. I have observed you as you get anxious when lessons don't go as planned. I have been the receiver of your comments when you are uncomfortable with learning something new. I have witnessed you put up roadblocks against change and risk. I have seen students react as you off put your need for perfect; on to them.
I know you are a good person, with a good heart...why else would you be in education? Please don't get me wrong, I do not believe that I am any better or wiser than you, I'm just different. I have never tried to seek perfection because I know I can never find it. This does not mean that I don't put full effort into everything I do...it does not mean that I don't care about process or outcomes...it just means that I know that "perfect" is an unattainable goal. I know that every success I have had, was not built on a foundation of perfect, but a foundation of iteration. The process is messy, crooked, bumpy and unknown. If I went into these processes with the goal of perfect, I would have failed and given up right out of the gate. And that's not me, and that's not good for anyone.
What does this look like for our students? If we are planning and executing our lessons with "perfect" in mind, where do the students fit into the equation? There is no perfect, when working with humans, especially young ones. We are unpredictable creatures. Zoom out and see who is the focus of the "perfect" lesson. Is it us or those we teach? We very well could execute the perfect lesson, in our mind...but what about the students? Is it the perfect lesson for them? That is impossible because every student is different. Nothing is received or interpreted the same. We must plan to meet our students, not the other way around. So many times I have heard teachers say "Well I taught it...it's their fault they don't know it.". My heart crumbled every time I heard that. Back then, I didn't have the strength in myself to speak up for those students...now I do.
If perfect is the goal...think about all of the other goals that fall by the waist side. We need to prepare our students for a future that is unknown. To me, that is the opposite of "perfect". If we plan for perfect, we will be disappointed, every time. We need to be models for our students on how to think...critically. How to turn on a dime when there is a hiccup, a mistake, a fail. OR to run with something that works, that was not a part of the plan. Students need to learn how to look at all perspectives, to plan...risk...try...fail (yes fail)...rethink, redo...and repeat. We need them to not crumble or freeze when they are thrown a plot twist. That does not fit into perfect.
I always remember the story of my friend who broke out the watercolors and brushes for the first time at her new school. The students just stared at her...frozen. She had no clue what was going on. They asked her what she wanted them to paint, how she wanted them to paint it. She was stunned. She said "Just paint...whatever you want." Frozen. They were panicked...they asked "What if I make a mistake?" Their paint brushes did not move! (This was fourth grade!). She was baffled and saddened, but she worked really hard with that class to de-program the perfection out of them.
We want students that can think for themselves, be creative, solve problems, create solutions...multiple solutions. There is no "one way". When I hear a student say, "But I have to do it the way my teacher does it." That kills me. That closes the door on so many. There is more than one way to solve a problem, there is more than one path to get to a destination. THAT is what makes learning beautiful.
So please, I am asking you. Try..try...try to put your perfection aside. Look up and look around at what is happening while you are planning perfection...if you are waiting until you perfect something before you share it with your students, that something will be long gone by the time you think you are ready. Life and especially education is changing so quickly. As soon as we think we have something "mastered"; it changes and I want you to be able to change with it. I'm looking out for you, for your health...but I am also looking out for your students and their future...our future.
I like to think that I have instilled great values within my kids. They both are very kind souls with huge helping hearts. But in all other aspects, my daughter Leslie and I could not be more opposite! When we go away for her dance competitions, I'm lucky if I packed a toothbrush...where she has an itemized checklist of everything she needs to bring. When we get to the hotel, first thing I want to do is relax on the bed, while she hangs up all of her clothes and costumes and lays out all of her makeup.
On a whim, I decided we needed some time away and planned a last minute trip to Sea World (I had tickets for us...a perk of being a California teacher). I secured a nice hotel for a decent price and we were ready to roll! When I pulled up the Sea World tickets, I realized that they needed to be "activated" two weeks prior...change in plans. So I simply Googled "Fun things to do in San Diego" and began making a list of alternative adventures. To me, this was exciting...no plan! To Leslie, this was nerve racking. She didn't want to go. I said "We are going...we have no plan...we are just going to see what happens and have fun." She wasn't buying it. But this was good for her. She needs to be OK with plans changing, the unknowns and being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Anyone that knows me, knows that one of my biggest flaws is I am severely directionally challenged. I get lost, even with my GPS. This trip was no different. The most heard phrase on our adventure was "Route Recalculation". We heard it so frequently, that it just became comical (at one point, she was tallying how many times we heard it). This was good for Leslie. She was learning that things don't always go as planned, but there is always another way. She was witnessing us course correct, in real time. AND she realized that we were OK.
We decided to go to a recommended restaurant and after a few "Route Recalculations" we made it. But when we got there, the line was out the door and around the building. We needed to make a decision. We decided to forgo that restaurant and find another. The hole in the wall restaurant we stumbled in to turned out to be fantastic. This showed Leslie that when something doesn't quite go as planned, there is always another option, and often that option turns out better than the planned.
Our next stop was the mall (not my favorite). This was really comical. We were looking for the Vans store. We found it on the directory and I followed Leslie's lead as she is the one with the direction skills. Well what we found was, we just kept going in circles. My first inclination was to just go ask someone, or leave. Leslie's response was "No, we can figure this out on our own, let's go back to the map." It was interesting to see her tenacity and grit. Where I was ready to give up and give in, she wanted to continue and figure it out for herself. I learned from her on this one. But, as we were on this mall adventure she turned and said to me "See, mom, there is more than one path to get where we are going." THAT was worth her dragging me to the mall.
There were many more such mistakes, route recalculations and a lot of laughing. But in that trip, I believe we both learned and grew.
Here are the lessons learned:
1) Things don't usually go as planned. We need to be agile and learn to pivot and continue.
2) Persevere, don't give up...stay the course, even if the course is corrected.
3) There is more than one path, find yours.
4) Laugh at yourself...you just have to.
5) Always look for the learning.
These are great lessons that we need to be teaching and modeling for our students. It is important for them to be able to make quick decisions, redirect, go back to the drawing board, try, fail, learn and grow. They are growing up in an ever changing world and they need to be able to adapt to it. They must be prepared for the unprepared...the plot twist...the plan B.
In my own life...I have goals, and a path to get there. It has not been a straight path. There have been many "route recalculations". Just when something seems like it is going south, another opportunity opens up. And vice versa, just as things seem to be lining up, plans change. We just need to be open to see all of those different routes. We need to be flexible and willing to take risks, because the gains far out weigh the losses. In the long run, it doesn't matter which path we take on our journey...whatever path we take is the one that is meant for us.
"We are all leaders in our own right"- There they are...my words. I've said them, I've written them, but do I believe them? Often times, I write to convince myself of such things. This is one such time. Are we all leaders? Am I a leader? Can one be a leader, without an official leadership title?
As I ponder this, I reflect on what I believe the anatomy of a leader is. I think about all of my friends that I consider great leaders. I think of the many traits and actions, that I admire in them. It is who I strive to be, every day. I believe a leader is someone who rallies the troops, someone who includes others on the journey, someone who encourages and celebrates and walks along side of their people.
I'm a visual learner...so I needed to make a graphic to help me hone in on this.
What is the anatomy of a leader?
Innovator's Brain: This is someone who is always thinking: "How can we make this better?" not just "different" for "different's" sake...but create change for the better. This is an outside of the box thinker, someone whose mind can stretch and see possibilities. Someone who is not afraid to risk themselves and encourage risk in others.
Learner's Mind: I love when people call themselves "Lead Learner" rather than "Administrator". That shows that they know the importance of continued learning and growing oneself. Things change so quickly, if we are not in constant learning mode, we will be left behind. A learner's mind also includes sharing that learning with others.
Hearing Ears: Another thing I say often is "We need to not only listen to others, but we need to HEAR them." I believe there is a difference. We need to make sure we hear, we understand and we do. We need to make sure to do something with what we have heard. This is how we build trust within others.
Observer's Eyes: Our eyes are always taking in information. There are things that we see overtly, but we also need to observe what is happening covertly. We can only do this if we are WITH, really with, those on our team, or those that we support. We need to be watching and learning. We need to know context in which our team is working. We need to also see the strengths and areas of growth in others and use that information to help all move forward.
Empowering Mouth: Words matter...a lot! We need to be conscious of not only the words we speak, but the way in which we speak them. As a leader, I believe we should be building others up, growing them, empowering them. This doesn't mean there shouldn't be constructive feedback, this means just the opposite. In order to empower others, they need to have feedback, authentic feedback, actionable feedback. They then need the supports, plan and/or tools to help them grow.
Empathetic Heart: In order to lead others, one needs to be able to see things from other people's perspectives. These can't be "guesses", but based on knowledge gained from knowing our people. Before acting, it is important to think through how it will effect all parts of the team. If we don't know, it is important to ask, to have conversations...discussions.
Working Hands: The best leaders I know roll up their sleeves and jump in the trenches with their team. They are on the floor with the students, they are in the rooms teaching, they are taking risks along side of their staff. They literally do the heavy lift, if needed. They look at their school staff as a team, no one job is more important than the others. They pitch in when needed, without a second thought...they lead from the middle.
Walking Feet: I believe in order to be an effective leader, one needs to BE with those they lead. This means they are in the classrooms...really in them. Not doing a drive by, check in. They spend time with the students and the teachers. They know the students and the students know them. They are a normal fixture in the classrooms, on the playground, in the halls and the parking lot.
My friend Tony Sinanis moved up to the Central Office this past year as an Assistant Superintendent. He made it a point to schedule meetings later in the day, so he could spend his mornings in classrooms. It was fun to watch him on his daily journeys via Twitter. What was more amazing to see was at the end of the year, how many students' lives he had impacted. They know him, they love him and they are going to miss him as he moves on to a new district as Superintendent. He works hard to redefine his role...that is the kind of leader I wish to be.
So...can someone be a leader without the "title"? Absolutely! I DO believe we are all leaders in our own right. I know I try to emulate all of the above, every day. What does YOUR anatomy of a leader look like?
I talk a lot about leading with an empathetic heart AND looking at the circle of viewpoints in a situation. I thought I had that down. I, apparently, was wrong. There have been a few recent incidents in which my actions or words were misinterpreted and there were consequences. I always, always have the best of intentions in everything I do. I try to think things through before I do them or say them. I try to look at how these things will effect others involved. I only have the truest of intentions...I know this. So when things I have done, actually turn out to cause something negative to someone else...it kills me. It literally breaks my heart. My heart breaks when something that I have done, is taken in as the exact opposite of my intention.
It is even harder, when I can't make amends. In some cases, I am still unsure if I am in the wrong, but does that matter? If it is received, perceived that way, I can only try to explain. Sometimes the person doesn't want to hear it. Or they hear it and they don't want to listen. Sometimes there is not an opportunity to discuss...things just are...they just need to be. So what do you do? You take responsibility. You own up to the fact that you didn't think things through completely. You learn, you grow and you change your behavior.
My purpose, I have written before, is to support others. THAT IS IT. It is not something I just say, it something that I whole heartedly believe and the code by which I live. But what happens sometimes is something that I believe is helpful, another might see as over-stepping. Something that I might believe is for the good of many, may be looked at as outside-stepping. Sharing something that I believe is a positive, may just be misconstrued as something different. In these instances, when these perceptions are brought to my attention, I wilt. I feel terrible that I have caused uneasiness in others.
But I have learned that life and people are unpredictable. We can not control other people's actions, we can not control other people's emotions, and we can not control other people's thoughts. There are so many layers that go into each of those, that makes them so unpredictable. So when I try to see things from the view points of others...I can only guess. My guess can only have roots in MY experiences, MY emotions and MY thoughts. So in essence, I guess there is no "circle of viewpoints" in which to consider. We are a complicated species.
This realization has thrown me for a loop. It has caused me to want to recoil, to be quiet and to be small. It has made me rethink everything I have thought. I have no way of knowing how something I say or do will affect someone else. So does intent really matter? I always thought it did. Be intentional...but what does that even mean?
So all I can do...is what I always do. Think...deeply. Reflect...deeply. And find the learning...find the growth.
All I can say to you (and in this, I am writing to myself)...just stay true to you...keep that focus on the good...continue on the positive path. There may be bumps and unexpected obstacles...but you can handle them and just keep on going. Be cognizant...extremely cognizant of those around you. Our actions and words matter.
I have talked before about the sad truth that I do not remember much of my schooling. It is one of the reasons I am so passionate about making school relevant and "sticky" for kids. There is ONE memory that does pop into my mind often. I don't know the grade, I don't know the subject, I can't remember the teacher...but I remember the activity. We were tasked to write a letter to our future self, on the premise that it would be mailed back to us at a later date (I want to say upon high school graduation). Well...the letter never came. It is quite disappointing, because I would have loved to see where I was in relationship to where I am.
Earlier this week, something sparked me to look back at one of my very first blog posts. I don't go back and read my own writings, often...but I sure am glad I did! Before I even began reading, my mind was taken right back to the time and space where I wrote it. I knew exactly where both my head and my heart were at in that moment. I remember that I was at a cross-roads. The purpose of writing that blog, was solely for me. I needed to decide if my current situation was going to lead me down a rabbit hole or be the foundation on to which I could build a sandcastle. The fact that it is chronicled for me, kind of blew my mind: "Rabbit Holes and Sandcastles".
I learned a lot from reading that post and reflecting back. The first thing that stood out was, "Boy, I hope I have grown as a writer since then". But what seriously stood out and caused me to pause, was the fact that in that post, I spelled out the kind of leader I wanted to be.
I believe in order to grow forward, we must reflect back. Looking back at that post actually made me smile. It helped me realize that even though that "plan" was never looked at again, I tried to stay true to it. I subconsciously must have had those "leadership goals" in mind as I conducted myself this year. Was I successful? I do not know...that would have to come in the form of feedback from the people I support. What I can do, is feel good in the fact that every day...I worked hard to be that kind of leader. Here are just a few of the traits from that post, that I work on daily:
-Build up others
-Be approachable and helpful
-Enhance people's strengths and help them grow in their weaknesses
-Be a constant learner who shares my learning
-Take risks and fail forward
-Do what I say and say what I do
I read that blog a few days ago, and just can't shake it. There is power in being able to go back, sit back in that moment and be able to then track that journey. I can check myself and course correct if needed. Isn't that what we want to build in our students? But, oh my gosh, isn't that what we want to build within our adults?
Imagine the impact of having your team do a similar activity at the beginning of the year? Have them sketch, write, video...somehow record their thoughts, ideas, goals, fears and excitement for the upcoming school year. They then pass it off to their trusted person, to be returned on the last day of school. I would love to see that! I would love for them to be able to track their journey over the year...see their growth. Often times, we don't see the big picture when we are in the middle of it.
I have been extremely fortunate to be able to watch many teachers' journeys over this year. I don't know if they realize their growth...but I do! So I share it with them, in the hopes that they can then reflect and see it for themselves. I hope to share another teacher's journey in my next post.
So, as the school year comes to an end...I task you with reflecting back. It has power in helping you grow forward.
Mother, teacher, TOSA, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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