Saturday, March 30, 2019

Speak the Truth, and Speak it Well

When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was responding to their medical interventions. I was there, too, hesitant and wordless in the corner, hoping to help in some way—if only as another heart in a room full of broken ones.

We had no idea what the doctor was saying.  He talked and talked and talked, but his words were like a jumbled box of Legos—we knew they could be put together, if we really tried, and they’d amount to something legitimate.  But we didn’t try:  It was easier to let them land, scattered, and then be still. 

In the end, of course, the doctor was trying to tell us that my grandfather was old and sick and dying. On some level we understood this, even without the Lego words.  But he didn’t say it.  He seemed unwilling—or, more likely, unable—to use words we could understand.  Perhaps he wanted to soften the truth for us, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.

We needed him to say it. It would have helped, because it could have taken our hope to a different place, where it could bring peace, and relief, and a long-awaited celebration of a man and his well-lived life. 

Sometimes I fear we do the same in education.  The stakes aren’t as high as those of a physician standing over the grief of a dying patient’s family—not by any stretch—but we educators, too, often falter when we try speaking the truth.

Last year, at a leadership conference in Boston, one of my session’s attendees stayed afterwards to talk. He wanted my insight after an off-the-cuff remark I’d made about the unintentional consequences of complicated conversations.  He was only in his eighth month of being a principal, and he admitted he was floundering.  "I really struggle with sharing bad news," he said, especially  when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations. “I find myself apologizing, talking quickly, contradicting myself,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll be midway through my speech and realize the parent is confused—they have no idea what I’m trying to say.”  His instinct was to forge on, but:  “When I get to the part about consequences, and I refer to the Student Code of Conduct, it gets really serious, really fast—they are angry and shocked, and I realize everything I’d said leading up to that moment was wasted.   

We talked a long time.  I understood his frustration.  We all do, I think.  Later, on the plane home, I thought of three main reasons us educators avoid saying really hard things to parents about their kids. 

We don’t know how to say it.  Since we never know whether a parent will support us or fight us, we often don’t know how to approach our message.  Because we are well trained, we know what we should say.  We use words like “support” and “struggling” and “poor choice.”  But oftentimes those words don’t capture the difficulty or gravity of the scenario we are trying to address. 

Fear that we’re wrong.  Just like the doctor who didn’t say, “Your grandfather is dying,” we often avoid telling parents tough things about their kids.  We don’t want to say, “Your child can’t read” or “I am out of ideas to help her,” or “His behaviors are frightening others.”  Even typing those words here makes my fingers quiver, because I’ve been so trained not to say things that may cause hurt or wrath. We all have.  And… what if we are wrong?  What if there was a false accusation and our investigation was faulty?  What if the problem actually lies with us, or the teacher, or our school structure, or how we have connected to the child?  What if our professional judgment is off kilter?  

Fear of the response.  A few months ago, a principal pal of mine called a parent, one he knew to be volatile and accusatory, quick to defect blame to anyone and anything else.  He had to tell her about a scuffle involving her son.  Dialing, he felt sick.  His hands shook.  The moment he said the word “scuffle,” she interrupted him with an unstoppable rant. In the end, he was called names (“racist,” “incompetent,” and “bully” being the most hurtful of the lot), he was threatened, and he was left holding a dead phone line.  With that kind of treatment, no wonder he was scared to tell her the truth.  No wonder we all have felt—feel?—that way.

So what do we do? There isn’t a simple answer here, unfortunately.  The best we can do is acknowledge and understand the quandary we’re in.  We need to be honest but kind; we have a desire to help without hurting; we speak to an audience that might, or might not, be open to hearing the whole story in the first place.  We do our best.  We choose our words carefully and confidently.  We leave ourselves open to feedback and the inevitable emotional responses.  We admit when we are wrong.  We forge on, learning more each time we say something difficult.  That's what my grandfather's doctor did.  His best. And in the end, it was okay, and we understood, and we knewhe’d done his best.  

That’s all we can do, no? And as we stumble through missteps and mistakes as principals—communication being part of the package—we get better, each time, at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise.  We get closer and closer to our goal:  To speak the truth, and speak it well. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Particles: Actually a Thing. Really. For Sure.

What makes meaning in our words, our conversations, our writing and communication?  What serves as a "body language" or words, helping us really connect to others beyond the dry sequence of formal words?

Particles do.

Mary Norris wrote of particles when explaining her dive into the Greek language in her New Yorker piece, "To The Letter."

Who knew there was a word for the tools that help us enhance meaning, "...the small, indefinable, not strictly necessary words that linguists dryly call 'function words' and which are known in Greek grammar as particles... Particles help make a language a language.  They give it currency and connect you to the person you're speaking with.  English is loaded with particles, words and expressions that float up constantly in speech." Norris gives examples:

Like, totally, so, you know, O.K., really, actually, honestly, literally, in fact, at least, I mean, quite, of course, after all, hey, sure enough... know what I mean?  Just sayin'.

"Some people deplore the extra words as loose and repetitive, and complain that kids today are lazy and inarticulate and are destroying the beauty of the language," Norris says.  She's right.  I've heard that done.  But Norris explained their value, and summarized precisely why I actually really enjoy particles:  They "act like nudges, pokes, facial expressions."

I like a good conversational nudge.  A secret little word poke.  When words become a facial expression.  It's fun.

When I was a teenager, my father pointed out, gently, as he was wont to do, how often I was saying "like" in my conversations.  "Listen to yourself," he said. I did.  He was right; I was using "like," like, all the time.

Saying "like" wasn't wrong, in and of itself.  Using it as the only particle in my arsenal was my mistake.

Sorry, linguists:  I don't believe particles destroy the beauty of our language.  I don't think it is lazy to use, them, and I don't think it makes me inarticulate when I do.  Like most words or phrases, they can be fancied up and used perfectly—at the perfect place, time, pause, or thrust of conversation— to enhance meaning and drive a point home.  A good particle makes the listener or reader grin in recognition.

Which is why I'm never annoyed when I hear students using particles and experimenting with their meaning and effectiveness.  After all, all they're doing is connecting with others through words.  Who can dispute the benefits of a kid learning to communicate?

It's super-cool.  Truly.


*By the way, if you're into such things, track down this piece in The New Yorker.  The the effort—the will!— Norris puts into understanding ancient Greek language is unidentifiable to me, but is, among other things, indisputably impressive.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Finding Beauty in FebruMarch

A mentor once told me, "Every five or ten years, you'll have one that feels you might not survive."  That's this year for me.

So I'm writing a pep-talk blog post.  The pep talk may be for you, or it may be for me, or maybe both.  In the end, it doesn't matter—just so it serves a purpose for one of us.

This year's relentless array of challenges have grown almost comical.  Every single time I think there will be a quiet day, I'm blasted with an out-of-left-field problem I didn't see coming.  It's been a hard year.  Students struggling, staff struggling, an endless stream of parents finding fault, causing fault, raising all kinds of hell.

I've also felt cold for five straight months, and there aren't enough sweatshirts to take it away. My skin feels like a crinkled, worn parchment.  My house is crumb-y and my clothes all look the same.  Rut, rut, rut.

There should be some sort of law that if you live in Ohio, you go somewhere warm as winter wanes.  For a day or two, even.  That's all.

My sister lives in Mexico City.  Almost on a whim, my husband and I packed up our kids, tank tops, and sun hats, and flew there to see her and her family.  We spent three full days drinking in the stories of this rich, layered city.  I stepped back from myself and pictured an energy tank that was filling, filling, filling up. We were buoyed, giddy:  The colors!  The sun!  The tortillas!  The welcoming smiles of the people!  The blue of the sky!  For breakfast the first day, my niece squished up a fresh avocado and spread it on thick wheat toast with a drizzle of spicy sauce on top.  I ate it every day we were there, and have eaten it every day since.

Seasonal depression is a real thing, methinks.  I'm a relentlessly positive person, but there were many days this winter I wondered, "What is wrong with me?"  Blech and ick and meh and blah.

A few weeks ago, I presented to a group of principals about ways to avoid burnout.  The topic itself was an irony not lost on me, since there I was, presenting as some sort of expert, and I felt—had been feeling— like a wet, bedraggled rat trying to scurry and scrape my way out of dirty depths of seasonal doldrums.  I felt like a fraud:  Who had thought I could talk on avoiding burnout?

I started by being really honest about the internal fights of frustration in my own mind, reminding them multiple times, "I don't have answers.  I can only offer validation."  I felt the audience really sitting up.  Putting down their phones and closing their laptops.  Agreeing and relating.  When I finished, one raised his hand. "Why don't principals feel like they can talk about their dark times?"

We kept talking and talking, long after the session was scheduled to end, as we tried to answer his question.

"We have to be the strong ones."

"We're not paid to have bad days."

"There is no time to wallow."

"Everything just moves too quickly."

"We need to be unbreakable."

All these things are valid.  And it wouldn't be right or fair or productive to try to find a way out or around them.  We are paid to be the strong, positive, confident ones.  That's why we are leaders.

It's just what we need to do.

And, as they say, if we look around and see no one following, we're not leading.  If we're grumpy, we're making everyone else grumpy.  And that's not okay.

So let's pull our bootstraps—yank them, if needed—and bust through this month.  Stay strong, my Midwest friends.  The sun is coming out soon.  It's a promise, promise, promise!




**This, by the way, is a photograph of a tree we saw when walking to the Teotihuacan Pyramids.  I look at the colors and gasp a little.  This tree alone may be enough to get through

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Problems

I really should get to the work of writing down things my father says.  He is wise. 

Today he told me this: 

“A lot of people don’t really have any meaningful capacity to solve their own problems.  They just wallow around in them, flail around in them, blame them on somebody else, ignore them, run from them, and of course misidentify them.”  

He remembers becoming aware, and horrified, somewhere around the age of 20, that no matter what, problems were going to keep coming.  “When I solved one, there would be another one right behind it."  

When he'd been a kid, no one had ever mentioned that troublesome little detail about, you know... life.  

It was shocking, and depressing.  Rather than pout about it (which, incidentally, would be a common and reasonable and common), he decided to go ahead and approach this realization, and thus, yes, life, by attacking problems as they came, fast and fierce, so he’d be ready for the next one. And he decided to do it that way because, he reckoned, if he didn’t, he would ultimately and inevitably be overwhelmed, swamped, and hopelessly stuck.  And he didn’t want that. 

These are all his words, by the way.  This his how he thinks.  Logical.  Rational.

He says he decided, all those years ago, to make it a goal to choose the type of problems he’d have to deal with. His thinking was characteristically linear:  If he found life work he enjoyed, the constant stream of problems coming his way would likely be related to things he liked.  Right?  It didn’t always work flawlessly, of course, because we can’t completely control such things.  But control wasn’t the point.  Increasing the odds that he’d enjoy the inevitable lifelong stream of problems—that was the point.  So he focused on a life of doing what he enjoyed, which was build houses, run his hay and sheep farm, raise his kids, help people, and write music into songs so sweet they could—can— silence a room.
 
I’d wager most people never figure out about accepting and attacking problems.  They're too busy being pissed the problems even exist to actually get to solving them. 

Instead, they want someone else to solve them.  

Thank goodness, I suppose, because that’s what I get paid a nice salary to do.  

It’s Groundhog Day, which is a good day to think about this.  It’s the point, actually.  Problems come and keep coming and keep coming. All life long. It’s like cleaning the house. It’s never, ever, ever done. Ever.  I mean, it gets done, constantly, but then people come home and live here.  So then it starts over again.  

"Make sure your kids know this," my father advised.  "Children should grow up knowing problems will keep on coming, and they have a choice in whether they like the type of problems that come.  The only way to get through life is to attack, attack, attack the problems."

That's what I'll try to do.  






Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Impossibility of Blogging the Truth

Blogging the truth is impossible for a school principal.  90% of the stuff I want to cover really can't be told publicly, because most of it someone else's story, and, perhaps more importantly, all the stories are somehow tied to a kid—and I won't write about kids in any way that could be negatively misunderstood or misconstrued.

I could fictionalize some of the stuff, I guess, but that doesn't really work, because, you know, people aren't stupid.

The passage of time helps; I could write about some of the things I experienced years ago.  The question becomes:  How far back is safe?  A decade?  Certainly a decade.  Right?

Actually...  Probably not.

I guess I'm trying to blog without controversy.  Which is a lot like trying to eliminate stress:  It sounds do-able enough, right up until you try it.

A close friend of mine got another job last week.  It's a really good job— his dream job.  He will be teaching and heading up a department at a prestigious university.  His days will soon take on a different pace, pressure, and pull.  It won't be better or worse, necessarily—just a different universe for a guy who's worked his entire career as a public school teacher and administrator.  I envy him.  He's starting over, and he can take what he's seen and help others learn from it openly and honestly. I'm jealous, in the good-jealous way; I am so happy for him I could pop.  I'm glad he gets to do this thing.  He deserves it more than any human being on earth, and I'm rooting for him with all of the luck-bones in my body.  Not that he needs it.

Thinking about his new job reminded me of my consolation prize about not being able to blog the real truth about being an educator.  Even when things happen for teachers and principals we can't write about (especially on a public blog, of all things), there is intense learning in all of them, and they deserve to be told to others as learning tools.  All of my "day-in-the-life stories" tend to percolate inside my brain, and I'll often ask myself:  "What happened here that holds value in making me a better principal?  Is there something others can learn from it?  How can the story be changed to honor privacy but still demonstrate an important learning point?"

That's why I tell versions of stories to my graduate students.  They come to class after a loooong day of teaching, all slumpy and dull-eyed.  Their backpacks and bags thump heavy on the floor next to their desks.  This time of year, it's dark and gray and slushy, too, which is squelches the positivity of... well, anyone.  Which is why I always open class with, "I have a reallllllllly good one for you today..."

They sit up.  They attend.  They relate—their arms raise with a question or a story of their own, or they explain a similar experience.  We spend a chunk of time breaking it all apart:  How was the situation handled?  Did things turn out well or was the whole thing bungled?  What could have changed its course?  Stories grab my students' attention and, conveniently, demonstrate the applicability to key points on my syllabus.

There is so. much.to.be.learned. from stories.  So while I don't tell them here on this blog, they really are my best teaching tool.  With character names changed, and a few key detailed altered for privacy, I can give a story a brand new purpose and plan, multiplying its scope into supercharged real-life learning.




Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cyclical Gratitude

Not long ago, I was overboard on frustration and irritation; everything grated on me, and I felt very off-balance.  I couldn’t quite get myself together.  I was stumbling— and I knew it.

That’s progress, by the way: Sometimes, when I’m in a bad place, I spend a great deal of energy hissing to myself, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I’m fine.”  Until I believe it, or it actually comes true, or life smothers the issue.  It's only later I realize how not fine I'd been.  

This time, knowing I was off-kilter, I made the conscious decision to just keep on keepin’ on.  Everything balances out, no?

I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store, somewhere between the Oreos and the Cheez-its.  We did the “how-are-you” thing.  

When it was my turn to answer, I shrugged.  “It’s not an easy time of year,” I said.

“Oh, I know!”  She exclaimed.  “You know what you should do?” 

Ugh.

“No, seriously.  This really works,” she said.  “You should get a gratitude journal, and write in it every day. Just one thing.  Then, when you’re feeling down, read all the things you have to be grateful for.  It will fix you right up.”  

Let me tell you this: When things are challenging, and someone tells me to take a moment and feel gratitude, or—worse—to pull out my journal and count my blessings, I want to punch something. 

Gratitude doesn’t work like that.  Not for me, anyway.  I can’t flip a switch from genuine frustration or anxiety to—click!—instant, genuine gratitude for all the good things.  I can’t flush negative feelings easily, and I certainly can’t seamlessly float from unhappy places to happy places. 

Gratitude, for me, has to be built when everything doesn’t suck.  Recently, when taking a walk, there was a just-right-moment:  My mind was calm, my body felt good, the sunset was breath-stopping, my children were riding ahead on their bikes, and my husband said something super-funny—I had to stop walking so I could appropriately hoot. In that moment, it washed over me: I am so, so, so lucky. 

The feeling was extra-powerful because it was genuine, not just something I’d mustered up to replace something else.  And not because it was long or earth-shaking.  It was just real, is all.

Another thing I think about when I feel crappy:  O
ur school librarian sees every student in our school on a four-day rotation.  One of the things I appreciate most about his work is the genuine connection he makes with his students with simple conversation.  He doesn’t just say, “How was your day?”  He asks them what is happening, how they feel about it, and how they react to challenges.  He uses what they say to teach something important—not in a lecture-y way, but just asking the students to think about how their action and reaction contribute to their attitude.  A few weeks ago, I heard him talk about bad days.  “When things are hard, is it because you had a hard day—or because you had a hard five minutes?”  He wants them to identify the difference.  Because it's an important distinction.  If there are 17,000 minutes in a day, and only a fraction of those are icky, there’s certainly time to embrace the good that came to us in the other thousands of minutes.   

Gratitude is a cycle—it emerges, it fades, and it emerges again.  

I like to grab it when it’s there and, when it’s not, wait.  For me, it can’t be forced.  But time will bring it back around.  

Cyclical gratitude.  

If I feel it, and share it, then I feel it again.  It’s a nice promise that comes from universe, no? 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Precisely None

In a recent New Yorker profile, Hollywood supertalent Sam Mendes discussed the challenge of being a director, particularly in the beginning of a career.  “Actors see directors work all the time. Directors see precisely no directors at work.”

I read that line a hundred times.  I freakin' love it, with a key word substitution, of course:  Principals see precisely no principals at work.  (*Side note:  I love Mendes's use of the word precisely.  Geek-out moment for word-loving me).

There are a couple places I’d like to dig here. 

First, by the time principals get their first job and first office, they’ve seen the work of one or two, mayyyyyybe three principals.  If they are later in their career, they may have seen a couple more.  But then— it’s over.  As soon as they get their own keys, they will see precisely no more principals at work.  They’ll have a lot of collegial meetings with other principals, may even be lucky enough to have some sort of mentorship-visitation-thing going on with another principal, but that’s not the same—oh, Lordy, so not the same—as seeing one at work.   At real work.  

Another thing to consider:  Like actors working with directors, teachers see principals work all the time.  They are right smack in the center of all principal decisions; they live and breathe alongside the principal's approach to challenges and celebrations.  They have a lot to gain from a strong principal— and a lot to lose from a weak one.  Their emotions and pride and livelihood are wrapped up together and knotted tight with what's happening with the principal.

Like actors and directors. 

Students and parents see principals work, too, though they are the movie-goers in this analogy.  They don't know everything that happened in the making of the movie, but they experience the end result. They like it or they hate it.  Actors and movie-goers are hard-wired to evaluate and whisper their judgments and reproaches about the director.  It's perfectly socially acceptable to blast a director.  

Similarly, for students and teachers and parents, it's perfectly acceptable to blast a principal.  

They can't win, what with the constant judgment and censure.  I'm allowed to say that, because I'm one of them. 

The impossibility of it all, for us principals, is that criticism is based on emotional reactions to limited information.  I did it myself when I was a teacher:  Bolstered by the energy in the lounge, I'd sniff at decisions my principal made.  In climbing up on that critical high horse,  though, I had about ten percent of the information I needed.  It's not just the factual information I lacked—it was stuff about school climate, parent pressure, priorities, even the bone-deep weariness my principal was undoubtedly feeling.

All those things can make what seems like a boneheaded decision make, like, a lot of sense.

If I had a dime for the times I’ve gotten criticism for a discipline determination, a poorly planned meeting, a poor word choice, even a lapse in composure—?  Sheesh. I've heard it from everyone and anyone watching from many degrees removed, anyone who has a free pass to  criticize that which doesn't make visible sense.  Denigrate with gossip and speculation and snippy, snappy commentary—all just out of my earshot.

Noteworthy:  Every single principal I've ever met, from near and far, has one thing in common:  Trying their very best.
Noteworthy:  No principal I've ever met, anywhere, did better work because of the whispered scorn or disparagement.
Noteworthy:  Principals are a hopeful bunch.  We'll keep on keeping on, even knowing we can't see one another work or learn from one another, and we'll deflect the naysayers and stay focused on the work of helping kids.
Alllllll noteworthy.

With four weeks left until holiday break, it's going to be a tough month.  December is never easy.  For my principal brethren, I wish you all a good month of strength and composure.  And precisely no hurtful, unhelpful criticism.



Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Truth about Blogging

I started blogging about ten years ago after discovering Orangette.  The blog’s author, Molly Wizenberg, had written a book called A Homemade Life, which she followed with Delancey.  I was (and remain) enchanted.  I found her blog as my husband and I were driving home from getaway weekend in Chicago, and spent the length of Route 30—all the way from Gary, Indiana to Lima, Ohio—squinting down at Molly’s writing on my phone.  In both her book and on her blog, she describes her father’s influence on her life, framed with descriptions of the food they ate together. She writes in such a sweet, clear, and honest way.  I thought, Could I do this?  Use words to tell a story that feels this lovely?  A story of value and beauty? 

Inspired to the point of imitation, my first blog was about my grandmother’s proclivity in the kitchen. She had passed away by then, but as many grandchildren do after the loss of a grandparent, I was seeking to understand her and her role in my parents’ lives.  After a lovely service honoring my grandmother’s life, during which we feasted on favorite foods from her home-chef collection, my aunt gave me a lovely cookbook she’d created from my grandmother’s best recipes. I started cooking my way through each one and blogging about it.   I wrote about the challenges—some 1960s-era recipes don’t translate well to today’s groceries and kitchens—and I wrote about the way I remembered my mother’s mother. 

My grandmother was not easy. She drank way too much, judged others relentlessly, and snapped viciously when I left sloppy post-bath footprints on her hardwood floors.  She was mean to my grandfather.  In the end, she was mean to everyone. 

But she was also woman of immense toughness and experience, rich in knowledge and cultural understanding. She had a wide-open mind in a time it took guts to have one.  When I was little, she let me try on her high heels.  She had fabuloushigh heels.  She gave me my first typewriter and with learn-to-type handbooks, which launched this whole love-to-write thing in the first place. I wrote essays and sent them to her, and she mailed me a check; it was my first paid writing gig, and certainly the most lucrative, if you consider quality-to-cash ratio.  The summer before I started junior high, I visited her in D.C.  My parents were having a hard time—they had, truly, nomoney.  But at that particular point in my life, it realllllllly mattered to me that I not wear my sisters’ janky, worn hand-me-downs to the first day of seventh grade. My grandmother took me to a massive TJ Maxx on Rt. 50 and bought me new school clothes.  I’m still grateful.  

I wrote about those things, but I also wrote about the ugly things.  The stories were as I remembered them, sandwiched between recipes and grand kitchen experiments.

And then my aunt called. I’d upset her.  I’d written something harsh—about how my grandmother’s cold dismissiveness, I think, or about something hurtful she’d said in a Valium-and-vodka haze.

My aunt—how I love her!—was gentle.  She didn’t say, “You’re wrong.”  She didn’t say, “Take down this stupid blog and stop disrespecting my dead mother.” She didn’t even suggest I was out of line to tell one-sided stories on a public forum.  She was just quiet, and sad, when she said, “I wish you’d known her as I knew her.” 

I hung up the phone and breathed in shame and guilt. I deleted the blog, impulsively, perhaps, as an apology to my aunt, and to anyone else who’d loved my grandmother to the point of all-in, full-on forgiveness.  Including, suddenly, me.  

I started a new blog with a different focus and different goals—the primary one, I should note, being to avoid hurting or offending anyone. Which, it turns out, is impossible.  I’ve since learned writing on a public forum is practically begging someone to be hurt, give criticism, or take offense. 

Having a blog isn’t easy. There is always a nagging to-do list—you’ve got to find inspiration, sit down to write about it, wrestle it into a decent piece of work, publish it, and then hold your breath and hope you haven’t offended anyone. 

Blogs also get trolled. I spent time last weekend trying to take back comments from an alleged “Escorts Agency in Ilamabad” promising “client satisfaction” for “social events or party or your ideal objective along these lines.” It’s stupid-annoying.

It appears my girl Molly Wizenberg has tired of being a blogger.  Her last post was ten months ago.  She’s busy doing other things—a super-popular podcast, a new relationship, a young daughter, and maybe even a new book. I don’t blame her one little bit.  Blogs come and go; that’s why they are what they are, and why they do what they do.  They surge and ebb, starting with a excited writer and faltering when what needs said has been said.  Mine is on life support, and I know it, and it is actually fine with me, because no blogs last forever, and nor should they.  I’ll be looking for my next inspiration soon.  And maybe my next inspired project realllllllly won’t actually offend anyone, for realthis time.  

Ha. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

School and Home

Experts warn bloggers and speakers:  “Don’t give out too many links to external web pages or books.  It drives traffic away from you.”  True, certainly, but I can’t resist:  Frequently, I’m struck by something I read or hear and can’t help but snag the inspiration and explain its thing-ness when I write. 

Like this one:  Goodbye to All That:  Writers on Loving and Leaving New Yorkis a compilation of essays about… well, loving and leaving New York City.  It’s fabulous. Reading it, I dove into lives of other women who were startlingly like me with their dreams and stubborn stupid mistakes, and wrangling with questions of identity and dreams.  

They are not like me, though, because they love (or loved) New York City and felt, at some point along the way, that the city held the secret to success and happiness. 

I’ve only been to New York City two times.  Both trips are blurred and shadowy, for very different reasons, and so, in my mind, the city is unreachable in a formidable, sweet, untouchable way.  A whole universe I’ll never know.  A friendly taunt, too:  Maybe if you were a real writer.  Or,  C’Mon, girl.  You’d flounder and flop and fail, if you lived there.  And, Perhaps if one of those visits had turned out a little differently, you’d still be there, shopping in bodegas and waiting for the A Train.

But I’ve settled as a midwestern girl, an Ohioan, in the middlest part of the country in the middlest part of life.  “Your story’s not seldom told, sweetheart.”  So says Elisa Albert in my favorite essay in the book, titled, “Currency.” 

My story is certainly not seldom told.  

I harbor a little secret fantasy that I’ll have another chapter—one that involves a completely different way of being—a small farm, maybe, or a walk-up apartment in a trendy urban area, or a house with an ocean view.  

Many of us do, I think: We hold a door slightly open in case there’s another place who wants us to come there and fall in love with it.

But not now.  Instead, here I am, on one of the last weekends in August—on my patio, looking out at summery, sexy, sultry Ohio in August.  Everything is deeply green.  Sun and leafy shadows and blue skies.  One of those trademark storms quickly sneaks up and explodes everything for a while.  We scurry to put away the things that are strewn and scattered— flip-flops, my books, half-drunk lemonade, pool towels that have been drying in the sun. 

Albert says, “There’s something terrifically sad about growing up, which is why sometimes people refuse to do it.”   Growing up is what has me here.  At home. Some days—especially now, the school year has started and the days at home will become more precious—I don’t want to leave.  Not for anything.  For me, that is the most grown up I’ve ever been.  And there’s nothing sad about it.

Ten days ago, the doors opened up for another school year.  It has been a full, whirly-twirly time; I can’t even begin to process all the problems that needed solved and all the decisions that were made.  It happened, though, and happened well.  I’m always struck by how school becomes its own kind of home—for us, for the students, and for their parents.  Being a teacher or principal, and finding the place we most love when we go do the thing we do—that’s a special kind of lucky.  A special kind of home.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Picking Battles


As a kid, I ran out to the paper box every night to get The Daily Record.  It was as much local gossip as real news.  The last page contained my two favorite things—the comics and advice from Dear Abby.  I read every word of Abby’s column, a kid eavesdropping on adult questions and problems; what could be more delicious than that

Nowadays, I love the advice columnist Carolyn Hax.  She’s like Dear Abby, except modern and sassy and takes real-life difficult questions, and doesn’t feel like she has to be vague and symbolic all the time. She’s honest and clear, and doesn’t sugar-coat the mirror when she’s asking someone to hold it up and look into it.

In response to a recent question, Carolyn urged her reader to take some time to think about what was actually important.  She said, 

Figure out your own priorities.  You may know this by its street name:  “Picking your battles.”

That’s the heart of it all, isn’t it?  Because there are so many battles to fight—we can find them by simply walking down the street, scrolling through Twitter, waiting for a cup of coffee.  Why is this taking so long?  Why is that person being unkind?  Why can’t people park straight?  Why is the service so slow?  Is every.single.person a terrible driver?  Why is ordering a pound of sliced turkey at the deli worse than anything, ever, in the whole universe?  There are problems and issues everywhere, all the time.

One of my favorite phrases came from a friend, describing someone he knew who tried fighting every battle. “She’s a hammer—and everyone else is a nail,” he said.  He was laughing, but his point was well taken, especially for someone like me, who thinks she’s got to take on every woe or complaint of others. In my job, I like to be a problem solver.   I like to help make things better for everyone.  I feel my best when all battles are fought and won. 

But, then, isn’t there always a loser? 

The issue goes beyond picking battles—it is really about fighting them with the intent to win something.  Compromise and mutual understanding are certainly better goals than victory—whatever victory means, in any scenario where the word “battle” is thrown around—and this is especially true when working with people. 

There are some battles to pick--and some to let go.  Just another thing I'm working on.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Our Collective Selves

Last week, I teamed up with a dear friend of mine to present at a small learning conference hosted by (and for) teachers in my district.  The event helps teachers and administrators launch the new school year with some great professional learning.

All the attendees are colleagues and friends.  They are people I’ve worked with, in some capacity, over the past twenty years—some much more closely than others. As each one walked in the room, I couldn’t help my whoops and grins and hugs. It was more than just the back-to-school-so-good-to-see-you thing:  It was a celebration of many years of being colleagues.  It was a here-we-are-doing-this-together-again thing. 

I’ve presented at conferences all over the place these past few years, and 100% of the time, it has been to people I don’t know. 

And let me tell you something: Presenting to a room of colleagues and friends is a whole lot different. 

Because I know them.  I have known them.  Indeed, sometimes only on a surface level, but still:  I know some portion of their stories, their families, their career path, professional ebbs and flows.  Over there, in the corner:  The teacher who has lost a child.  Over there, against the window:  An experienced teacher starting a new job as an instructional coach, practically twitching with enthusiasm and nervousness.  There:  A heartbreaking divorce and the seeds of a new life rising from the ashes.  There:  Nursing a parent through old age, feeling failure every day.  There:  Listened me through losing a grandparent to suicide.  There:  My “perspective person,” the gal who can make laughter and wisdom rise out of anxiety and pain.  There, there, there.
 
Yes:  I know them, and they know me. 

When I stand in front of a group of people I don’t know, I am a few degrees removed.  I can tell stories about myself and it doesn’t matter one whit what they think, because I’ll be wheels up in a few hours and never see any of them again.

This time, with these people, I told stories of myself from the beginning of my leadership path, and some of them were unflattering indeed.

It was an unnerving type of vulnerability, standing in front of a room sharing what I‘ve learned—to people who’ve seen me learn it.

The bad decisions, the career missteps, the times when “bad hair day” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  

But it was super-fun, because we were all there, in it, together.  We laughed at our collective selves; asked and answered some great questions; found inspiration from one another.  It was more fun than I usually have as a presenter, perhaps because they smiled a lot more and seemed to “get” my jokes more quickly, but also because of the empowerment that comes with being in a tribe, encircled by a common purpose, inspired by the gift of longevity and time.  It felt like a part of something intimate—us, our district, our kids, our experiences as educators—and something bigger, too—the common commitment to being teachers and learners.

In a couple weeks’ time, our school hallways will be full of students and we’ll be neck-deep in another school year. I can’t wait. 

Speak the Truth, and Speak it Well

When my grandfather was very ill, the doctor came in the hospital room to explain to my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt how he was resp...