Saturday, February 17, 2018

No interruptions, please...

I’ve always been a talker.  I'm one of those people who process my thinking with talk.  I'm not proud of it; I admire—so admire—those quiet, introspective people who save talk until thoughts have been carefully processed.  The people who talk with articulate, wise eloquence after beautifully arranging their words into sequential order.

That’s not me.  Let’s just say I am working on it.

By which I mean I really do try.   I think about it before going into meetings.  I try, try, try to keep quiet when I have nothing to say.  

And I remember this one time.  When I was firmly, effortlessly hushed by five little words from a colleague.

I use past tense when I describe this guy, although he is very much alive and well; in fact, he has moved on to an important position in a neighboring district.  A few years ago, when I worked with him, he was our technology director.  He was smart, kind, and impressively innovative.  I really liked him.  Everyone did.  He pushed us to think differently about technology, and taught us a lot about efficiency, cost vs. benefits, and about technology as a tool to access content, not as its own stand-alone content.

One day, he met with a group of us to talk through re-allocating computers to serve more students in less time.  As he started talking, I grew antsy; I didn’t agree with his proposal, thinking it cumbersome and difficult to implement.  I interrupted with a couple questions.  Ever graceful, he answered them, and then went on. 

“Listen, Mike,” I interrupted, all hoity, some sort of cross-examiner, “I understand your point.  I do.  I just—“

He raised his hand to stop me and looked me square in the eye.  I haven’t made my point.”

So, then.

Duly chastised, I shut my mouth.

He continued, and it didn’t take me long to realize his point was —a-hem—a very, very good one.  A reasonable, well-researched one.  Backed by innovation and efficiency and fiscal responsibility.  Ashamed, disappointed in myself, I realized I’d been impulsive, obnoxious, and borderline disrespectful.

That afternoon, I called Mike with a humble and embarrassed apology.  As was typical for him, he didn’t seem ruffled, and responded with grace and humor.  

"I continue to work on my input in large groups," I told him.  “It’s a lifelong challenge."

“Good thing life is long,” he quipped.  And just like that, I felt forgiven.

But I've not forgotten Mike's chastisement that day, especially when I feel that itch to jump in and interrupt.  I remind myself that I can’t respond to a point if it hasn’t yet been made.  Doing so is like making decisions with only partial information, or without the most important voice being heard.  It’s not fair, for one thing, nor, of course, does it make any professional sense. 

As this school year turns into our final trimester, that’s (again!) my goal.  Display restraint, patience, and be an active listener.  And, most of all, avoid stomping on any conversations. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"While I have you..."

My husband pulled up to Starbucks; I skipped out to pick up our mobile order.  We were treating ourselves to hot chocolate.  My kids were grumbling because they weren’t getting anything.

Two steps in the door, I there it was:  “Oh, hellllloooooooo, Mrs. Schwanke!” 

I live reallllllllly close to my school.  By choice.  And I mostly love it.  I live in a great neighborhood, super-close to work, and my commute is virtually nonexistent.  I wouldn’t change it for anything. 

But there is a big fat downside:  Anything can turn into a meeting— a meeting I’m not ready to have.  A trip to the grocery store, a haircut, even just picking up the dry cleaning can turn into an unexpected meeting.  Without exception, they are uncomfortable and awkward, in no small part because I’m simmering inside when I hear my name called out that way, sing-songed: “Mrs. Schwaaaaanke!”  Every time I hear it, my mind twists with all the realizations.  I’m going to have to stop and slip into principal mode—right now.  There will be complaints.  Requests.  This person just has to tell me this thing right this very minute.  It’s parent conference time, right here, with my family waiting in the car, and all I want is my hot chocolate.

So this one was all that and more.  The mother of two students at my school, at the very first table, all spread out with her laptop and a mess of papers. 

“Your timing is perrrrrfect, Mrs. Schwanke!”  She grinned.  “I’m sitting here catching people I know and asking if they want to buy some Girl Scout Cookies.  Isha is selling them.” 

I couldn’t believe she was allowed to do that, right there in Starbucks.  But:  Whatever. I have the Girl-Scout cookies answer ready.   I’ve bought eight thousand boxes of those damned things in my career. 

“I’m so sorry," I cooed.  "I’ve just spent way too much money buying them from the little neighbor girl."  And then,  "Besides, I have learned I have to limit the purchases from students or I’ll go broke.”  Deliberate one-beat pause.  “It’s great to see you, though.  Have a great Saturda—“

“Oh, I understand,” she smiled again.  “But… Do you have a moment?  You know.  While I have you and all?” 

You don’t have me, I thought fiercely.

But she was off and running—she wanted to know about attendance areas, if we were going to have another Movie Night this year, what the Valentine parties are going to look like, if there was any talk about next year and how many classes….

I answered her questions quickly, scooting backwards, removing myself slowly, and finally managed to slip myself out of the conversation web.  I grabbed the drinks and hustled, criminal-style, to the van.  My husband didn’t even have to ask what took so long. 


I rolled my eyes.  “Standard-issue,” I said.  He slipped the van into reverse with a sympathetic nod, and we were off. 

Being a principal (and, yes, a teacher) requires this of us.  It just is.  If we live where we work, we’re always on call.  We can’t say, “No.  Not now.”  We can’t be rude or dismissive.  We can’t go to the 7-Eleven in pajamas and nappy hair—not if we want to uphold a perception of ourselves for the families who trust us.  We have to be stewards of our schools and districts. 

We can wish other people didn’t put us in this position, but that’s like wishing for stars at noontime:  It’s just not going to happen. 

In the end, my hot chocolate still tasted delicious, and I was able to answer questions from a parent that, quite honestly, probably saved myself (or the teachers of her children) from a long email on Monday morning.  And she felt heard and supported.  It’s an investment, and I understand it as such.  So I’m not resentful or grumpy about it, not longer than a few flashes of fury when I first hear my name.  I get over it quickly, and move my way toward gratitude that I get to do this work in a place I call home. 

Just for the record, though:  I’m not buying any more Girl Scout cookies.  Not doing it.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Six Word Memoirs

I recently attended a reading by Larry Smith, he of the “Six Word Memoir” phenomenon, and I’ve been thinking in sixes ever since. 

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it started with the idea of a piece of sudden fiction.  Like this “novel,” told in just six words:

For sale:  Baby shoes.  Never worn.

Ernest Hemingway is often credited with this particularly powerful story, though it has not been verified that he actually wrote it.  Doesn’t matter, to my heart and mind; I’ve thought of this teeny-tiny story hundreds of times, and each time I do, my eyes get fizzy and my insides twist.  I imagine the face of the person selling the shoes; I go through all the events and feels that led up to the decision and the sale.

The six word memoir project grew from Smith’s commitment to it, starting with his first compilation titled Not Quite What I was Planning.  He has published several books since, each one filled with the six word memoirs of other people.  Two of my favorites are I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, six-word memoirs written by teens, and Fresh Off the Boat:  Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America.   These books need digested slowly, carefully, sometimes just one or two at a time, because they force a depth of thought and imagination, and, more notably, oftentimes the text-to-self connections require a few minutes to breathe. 

Smith and his people have developed a delightful website, too, that highlights stories, contests, and profiles of the memoirists who found significant value in using their six words.  Be careful, though:  It is easy to sink deeply into the website and not come back up for a long time.  I know, because these things grab me by the throat and I get good and lost in reading them.

I love writing them, too, for the chapters of my so-far life.

The ones that flow easily are the sad ones, which is interesting to me, because I tend to slide old sadnesses into containers—with lids—because I know they would imprison me if I let them.  But those sadnesses come out easily in six-word increments.

Such as:

I never talk about the miscarriages.

My sister’s anger holds us hostage.

I’m habitually hamstrung by self-doubt.

My grandfather’s suicide lives beside me.

There are happy ones, too, the love letters to my life:

Sometimes I feel childhood joy, untethered.

This husband:  my wise, wise choice. 

Obliged to this precise, perfect life.

All is as it should be.

These children.  Smells, smiles, tears, triumphs.

The coexistence of these six-word stories in my one single life is a miracle of sorts.  How can struggle and angst live simultaneously with satisfaction and joy?  I don't know—but it does.

Okay.  So.  Connection to teaching and learning—?  Ah, yes. 

Mannnnnnnny teachers have incorporated the six-word memoir idea into their classroom.  It’s a natural and effective teaching tool, and heaps of teachers have used it, with good reason:  Having only six words forces you to tear away all the gobblygook that comes with writing, all the unnecessary phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that might gum up the message behind the essential words. 

It also forces careful consideration of punctuation.  No matter how hard we try, sometimes our six words don’t float along without help; they need some starts and stops and pauses to work correctly.  Suddenly, the power of a comma or semicolon takes on new meaning, because it enhances the connotation and significance of every.single.word.

Teachers can take a look at this site for a whole bunch of ideas, inspiration, and advice about making this project part of your teaching. 

What chapters of your life might beget a six-word summary? Are there ways students in your class might be able to study this concept? 

Because, after all... 

There is joy in writing well.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Languishing Teacher, Part Two

If you skimmed my last blog post, you know that I wrote about all the reasons a teacher might get really tired of... well, of being a teacher.  I wrote about the risk for the weariness to turn into frustration and bitterness—which, in the world of education, is a crappy ending for everyone and everything.  Today, I'm writing about ways to avoid that slump. 

It starts with one thing:  Changing things up.  Somehow, and in some way, scattering the chards of predictability is the best way to renew the excitement and enthusiasm we felt when we first started teaching.  Remember that?  It was nice, right?

Let it be said that I know how difficult it is.  Change hurts.  Change is scary, in a grumpy, childish I don’t wanna way.   It’s like being the new kid in someone else’s well-established routine; no one wants that, right?  We want to be comfortable and confident and stay put.  That’s our instinct, no?

Truth:  For some of us, sometimes, change is exactly what we need.  And if it’s time for a change, there are lots of ways to find it.  Here are a few ideas.

Try a new grade level.
Many, many times, I’ve seen a teacher move to a different grade level and re-discover passion for teaching.  A friend of mine taught fourth graders for twelve years before plunging into a seventh grade role.  Shoulda done this 5 yrs ago, his text read after the first day in his new role.  LOVE IT.   Moving out of a comforting job and into a new one never feels good, there at the start—but I've found it almost always ends well.  

Look to instructional coaching. 
Many districts have coaching roles in place, and though the jobs are not always easy to get, they can be a fabulous change.  Instructional coaching moves a teacher to a place to consider pedagogy, practice, and purpose.   Which is so fun… and brings lift to a languishing career. 

Do something extra-curricular. 
You know what’s fun?  Leading a club.  Directing a play.  Organizing a school-wide program, assembly or activity.  Coaching a team.  In my career, I've coached track, cross country, and basketball—it was great fun and it made me a much better teacher.  

I know, I know, I know—mid-career, there are children and after-school real-life commitments beyond the school day.  But if you can swing it, adding something to your responsibilities— in a way that lifts your school, or lifts up some kids who need a great experience— can feel really, really good.  It can remind you why you went into teaching in the first place.

Get involved in your bargaining unit.  I was a building and district union representative for several years before I moved into administration, and let me tell you something:  It was a gift to spend so much time with people who were out there defending the work of teachers.  I’d never been surrounded by such passion and purpose as when I attended NEA events.  I’d never had my beliefs about teaching so clearly articulated and defended.  I’ll go to the grave defending public education because of the time I spent doing union work. 

Go back to school.  Sometimes career rejuvenation requires a different degree.  But that’s fun, right?  It starts with setting the goal of landing a particular supporting role and then finding the appropriate program to help you get it done.  Counselor.  Administrator.  Reading teacher.  ELL teacher.  Special Education Supervisor.   The caveat here—or, more accurately, the truth—is that there are limited positions that come available.  For every school, there is only one counselor, one or two administrators, and one or two coaches.  But if it’s something you’d like to do, you can start working toward this goal by establishing yourself as someone who knows a little something about being a whatever-you-want-to-be.  With the right degree and the right frontloading, you’ll find yourself with a whole new career.

Fire up the professional networking.  I swear I’ve found a renewed energy and enthusiasm just by participating in a simple Twitter chat.  Really.  One hour, on the couch with a cup of coffee and a snack, reading the rapid-fire responses of other professionals—that’s all it takes for me to feel a burst of renewed focus.  And there are hundreds of ways to connect with other professionals—social media, professional organizations, curricular study groups, book studies, committee work, and advocacy work.  Throw yourself out there and watch your professional network grow, grow, grow.

Attend a national conference.  It ain’t cheap, I know.  But it doesn’t cost as much as years spent dragging out of bed to go to a job you hate.  So start saving your pennies, book the plane ticket to somewhere new and different, and listen to presentations by people who have passion seeping from their pores.  It'll be awesome, I tell you. 

Present your expertise to others.  Presenting your knowledge can be as simple as sharing an idea with your department—or as complicated as filling out a presentation proposal and being a speaker at a big conference.  There’s a unique excitement to standing in front of colleagues with the opportunity to share what you know.  It’s a confidence builder and, paradoxically, simultaneously, a humbler.  It will spur you to dig deeper into yourself and be fabulous.

Consume.  Read, read, read the work of other people.  Consume their words and seek more.  Absorb it all and think about what it means for you.

Produce materials.  If your ideas are good and you feel confident, think about ways you can create something to share with other teachers.  Maybe a blog with some your best teaching ideas?  A new method or experiment you can load up on Pintrest for others to use?  An article for a publisher?  Or maybe, to start, just a tweet to advocate for you and your teaching bretheren.  Doesn’t have to be much—but it will help you feel like you’re giving back. 

And then, if none of these ideas seem to be a good idea, there is always this:

Be the very best at what you are already doing.  Seek to be fantastic.  Using some of the other ideas listed here—improving social networking, trying new instructional practices and classroom management tricks, or becoming a master of content—you can find yourself being one of the most masterful teachers in your building.  The reputation will build on excellence, and with a bit of time, you’ll be known as an expert to others. 

Okay—I’m going to stop here, though I could go on and on.  As I said last week, I feel like this is an important conversation to have—why should the energy and dreams of teachers ever wilt away?  I love encouraging teachers to think about other things they can do to keep themselves sharp, and talking with them about staying committed to excellence—no matter where, when, and how they end up doing what they do.

No interruptions, please...

I’ve always been a talker.   I 'm one of those people who process my thinking with talk.   I'm not proud of it; I admire— so admir...