Sunday, May 6, 2018

Seeking to Speak 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.  He wanted to soften the truth for us, perhaps, so he walled us behind intricate medical terminology.

We needed him to say it, though; 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 month, 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 was floundering, he thought—mostly because he struggled with sharing bad news.  The worst was when he spoke to students’ parents during discipline investigations.  We talked a long time.  He told me he got physically nauseous when preparing to call parents. “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, as if everything I’ve just said was wasted.”

I understood his frustration.  We all do, I think.  

Later, on the plane home, I thought of three reasons educators struggle with saying really hard things to parents about their kids.

Fear of the how.  Since we never know if 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 was cruel to another person today” or “His behaviors are disturbing to others” or "We don't know how to help her."  Even typing those words here makes my fingers frightened, 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 the problem actually lies with us, and how we have connected to the child?  What if our professional judgment is off kilter? 

Fear of the response.  The colleague I spoke with explained a situation in which he had called a parent, known to be volatile and accusatory, known to defect blame to anyone and anything else, to tell her about a scuffle involving her son.  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.  No wonder he was scared to tell her the truth.   

So what do we do?

What should my grandfather’s doctor have done?

Nothing differently.  Not then.  He did his best.  And in the end, it was okay, because we knew he’d done his best.  That’s all we can do, no?  And as we grow our administrative skills—communication being part of the package—we get better at being simultaneously kind, honest, helpful, and concise.  After all, that is our goal, is it not?   Speak the truth, and speak it well.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Worn out by Twitter

No dispute:  Twitter can be a good venue for professional development.  It’s super-fun to find educational experts to follow—there are so many smart people in the Twitter universe, happy to offer short bits of inspiration and so, so many new ideas to implement. 

Or, wait:  So many new ideas we wish you had the time and energy to implement.

Not long ago, I found myself worn out by Twitter.  Beyond the obvious stuff—too many advertisements, too much political mumbo-jumbo—I was weary of the “professional development” part of it, too.

Yep.  I said it. 

It just felt so…  lecture-y.  Like a finger wagging at the things I should be doing.  To keep my feed clean, I had followed only prominent educator voices, but that meant it’s all I saw—many, many Tweets a day, all feeling like short little chastisements:   “We need to start…” or “If only everyone would…”  “Good teachers always…”

Of course I agree with the message of these tweets, but they felt, increasingly, like a gaggle of woodpeckers—relentless, ruthless, focused on chipping away at my confidence.  It made me feel inadequate, like I wasn’t doing anything right.  Especially on a bad day, where I felt I hadn’t done a bit of good that day, to scroll through Twitter and see my screen full of coulda-shoulda-woulda advice was like a kick in the face.  I’d think, “Is everyone else always doing awesome things?  Is every other educator out there is always offering fabulous choice books… always offering students a platform for voice… always advocating relentlessly for justice in our education system?” 

I’d wonder, Do any of these Tweeters ever have a bad day?  Are there any days they don’t trailblaze?  Are there any days they just do the best they can, and be grateful for it?  Do they ever go home exhausted and defeated? 

Resentment followed, because many of the people I followed weren’t actually doing the day-to-day work that I—and my colleagues—were trying to do.  Not every day, they weren’t.  They may have done it at some point in their careers, and when they did, they were undoubtedly excellent at the work, but they weren’t doing it now.  Not on the five thousandth rainy day of the year; not on the day there were sixteen interruptions or schedule changes; not on the day all students were bent over a Chromebook, squinting their way through yet another mandated standardized test.

I thought about taking a Twitter break, so as to give myself a rest from the judgy-ness.  Then my husband offered an alternative.  “You need to balance it out,” he said.  “For every educator you follow, find someone who isn’t an educator.  Find someone, perhaps, who tweets something super-funny every day.  Or something different or new.  Something that won’t hit you over the head with teaching and leadership stuff.”

What a great solution.  Now I follow just as many non-educator Tweets as I follow educator ones.  Comedians.  Musicians.  Chefs.  Athletes.  Bloggers and parents and artists and all sorts of people—anyone and anything that doesn’t saturate me with things I should be doing differently.   And when I find myself feeling inadequate, I just stop, because that’s when I know I’ve hit my saturation point, and it’s time for moderation. 

Social media continues to confront, contest, flummox, and frustrate me.  I haven’t yet found a place I feel comfortable in it.  As with anything, though, the answer is undoubtedly balance—lots and lots of balance.   

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Dreams, Possibilities, Choices

I wanted to be a cowgirl.

No, seriously.  I did.  The real deal, too:  Gold-tipped boots and leather chaps and a button-up pastel shirt to accent my long, beautiful neck and fabulous hat. 

My father had taken me to a rodeo when I was about ten, and every detail bulges crisp in my memory: The sun precise and perfect, the sky an untouched blue.  It was the type of summer day that was a gift, all by itself, existing to make magic.  At the rodeo, I watched the cowgirls especially closely, the big hats and confident footfalls; the dusty, glittery jeans; the red lips and shimmery hair.   

On the way home, we listened to a cassette of the Dan Seals song Everything that Glitters. We sang along—my father on harmony, me on melody at the very tip-top of my lungs.  The song was about a cowboy’s lost love, which sounded melodramatic and super-awesome.   I thought I’d like being the kind of efficacious cowgirl capable of eliciting that kind of country song.

So I decided I’d go ahead and be a cowgirl.

I had a horse, which gave the whole thing some oomph.  I got home and started working to turn her from a regular old horse into a rodeo horse.  My father was kind enough to find three big medal barrels, which we placed in the pasture, just so, and I put my horse through hours of barrel-racing practice.  I saved all my money for a good hat and a bridle with shiny silver trappings.  I didn’t bother saving for a saddle—good ones were hundreds of dollars—but I sure dreamed about it.  I did my best with the creaky, dried-out saddle I actually did own, rubbing Feibing’s saddle soap over it relentlessly, hoping it would turn into a something worthy of a rodeo queen.

The dream faded, as many dreams do, and before leaving for college, I sold my horse to an Amish kid who came to pick her up with a handful of twenties underneath his hat.  It was enough money to buy me a semester of textbooks.  He was impish; I was solemn. I ached to clutch my mare’s neck and sob.  Instead, awkwardly, I asked if he wanted to buy my saddle, too.  He said no.  He leapt on, clean and graceful, and rode away, bareback, which was something I thought she’d only let me do, but he did it nonchalantly, as if my horse had always been his, which broke my heart into a shattering of pieces. 
I bet that old saddle is still in the barn somewhere.   

I’m a long, long way from being a cowgirl these days.  I’m a suburban mom and a school principal and other things, too, instead.  This isn’t a lament; it’s just a remark on growing up.  It’s the way things are. 

Dreams turn into possibilities, which turn into options, which turn into choices. 

I like to think about those early dreams, though, because the imaginings of the young are so irresistibly inspiring.   I like thinking about kids and their dreams—the potential and promises of imagination without limitations.  I wish we could bottle all those dreams into the air and release it into the earth. 

Because wouldn’t that be something to see?  What would happen if it flipped?  If our choices could match our fiercest dreams?  It's something to think about, is it not?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

When On the Way Down

When I was 23, I climbed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.  It was the hardest physical challenge I’d ever faced, and that’s saying something—I’m the daughter of a hay farmer, so I grew up hurling hay bales in the 90-degree humidity.  I was a 3-sport athlete in high school.  I have run marathons.  I have biked and run and stood on my head and all sorts of other things that tested my physical and mental stamina.

But Half Dome was something else entirely.

And the thing was, I didn’t see it coming.  At all. 

I was volunteering for an organization that supported foreign students traveling through various regions of the United States.  I was the group’s leader.  It was a Band-Aid to fix my wanderlust (and, if we’re honest, zero career prospects).  We were based in San Francisco, but spent weekends exploring the northern California region.  On this particular weekend, were set to camp in Yosemite one night, hike to Half-Dome (however high each person chose to go), camp another night, and then head back to San Francisco.

I didn’t worry one little bit.  A breeze, I thought.  I’m in good shape, I thought.  

I left camp like a warrior, march-march-march up the path.  Fierce and strong.  The hours began to lose themselves.  The air got cooler and thinner.  Often overcome by the beauty around me, I felt tired, but wasn’t intimidated—if anything, I was smugly satisfied. 

I drank through my four bottles of water, rationalizing that I’d lose the weight of carrying the water, and thus my climbing would be more efficient.  Other hikers sipped.  Not me.

March-march-march-march.  Stomp and scrap and scuffle and spit.  No rest stops. 

Others in the group faded off, turning to head down.  In the end, there were only three of us still forging on. 

And forge did I:  All the way to the precarious, mind-bending, tippytippytop. 

The views.  The views!  I rested, achy and thirsty.

And then:  The realization.  You have to go back down.  You’re eight hours in, and you are only halfway there.

And then:   It’s okay.  It will be easy.  Everyone says going up is the hard part. 

Then:  Do they say that, actually? 

As I would, I reacted quickly:  Well, then.  Go.

I started down the mountain, flee-like.  I was in some inexplicable hurry, and I wanted to be alone to do this thing.

Down, down, down, I went, not realizing the rips and tears I was inflicting on my legs.  I grew so tired my body shook, even as I forced it to move.  I fell several times.  I was so thirsty I stopped thinking about anything but water.  At one point, I slipped on stones and skidded into a Sequoia tree, my legs buckling.  I knelt into myself and wept.   

Get up. My inner self-scold.

I got up.  Don’

I slipped and slid and ran and rattled my way down that mountain, one step at a time.  

Of all the things that are faded from that day, there is one clear and concise moment:  looking at my watch when I finally arrived at my tent.  It was 6:14 p.m.  I’d been hiking sixteen minutes shy of 12 hours.

I fell into my sleeping bag, begging the universe for sleep, but was kept awake by twitching muscles and that thing that happens when we’ve crossed over the wall of exhaustion and are in some whole new universe of fatigue.  Everything was whirly and twirly, but I couldn’t move one single millimeter.  I looked through the top of the tent as a crescent moon moved across the sky.  I heard my travel-mates drinking beer and laughing, late into the night.  When I finally slept, it was fitful and jagged.

I didn't walk right for a month—I looked like a 100-year-old bent-up mass of torn muscles.  

I’ve thought about that hike many times.  My ridiculous arrogance.  My blind assumptions about struggle.  This swiftness with which I was humbled.   My lack of planning.  The moment I realized I had to come back down—that slow, terrible, “Oh, man… you’re in trouble, girl.” 

Knowing there was just one thing I could do about it.  Head down.  One foot, then the other, then the other.

Sometimes we can’t possibly know how hard things will be.  Many of the things I do—principal, mom, writer, person in this complicated world—feel easy on the surface, but occasionally resemble a ginormous mountain:  they are bigger and harder than I'd planned.  

We can’t predict the scars and rips.  But we keep forging on, though, don’t we? 

What is it that makes us go?  Perhaps it’s just faith, or resiliency, or a desire to see a new view.  A new perspective.  Maybe it’s a hidden, unidentified drive to be uncomfortable as a gateway to growth. 

I do know this:  If asked to hike Yosemite again, I’d probably do it.  I’d go slower, certainly, and I would pace myself better.  I'd certainly bring more water, for God's sake, and ration it well.  I’d have to contend with age, now, and a more refined understanding of the elusiveness of common sense.  But I'd still be going in blind.  

It’s all blind, actually.  But we keep doing it. 

We’re rounding the corner into the last couple months of school. We’ve climbed the mountain and it’s time to come back down.  Blind or not, we can do it, because we can do really hard things, and we can come out on the other side—weary, embattled, yes—but also accomplished, triumphant, and infinitely wiser. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why Go? Professional Conferences, from Grump to Glee

What’s the deal with attending professional conferences?

I mean, why?

Lots of reasons.  Lots of whys.

My district puts on a fabulous literacy conference every February.  I’ve attended for 19 straight years.  It’s a Saturday morning thing, kicking off with noteworthy keynote speakers and then, throughout the day, piles of great presentations by all sorts of people from the teaching, leading, reading, and writing world.   It is one those heart-filling, spirit-filling, soul-filling days.  Star-studded, too:  This year, I got to learn from Linda Sue Park, George Couros, and Kate Roberts.  Geek out, man.  Geek. Out.  

But let’s not pretend.  It’s not like I always have a paper-chain countdown, especially not in the hours before the conference.  For one thing, the preceding Friday seems to always be a doozy; problems pop up like Whac-a-Mole.   Students get in all kinds of trouble, parents are grumpy and line up to share their grumps, and teachers’ shoulders seem to all be slumping a bit with the weight of their responsibilities.  My regular Friday tension headache hits new levels on February Fridays.  

So, every year, on the morning of the conference, I wake up feeling like a five-year-old.  I don’t wanna, I think.  I can’t do it.  Maybe this year I just won’t.  I have a long internal whine about wanting to stay home in my jammies and eat Golden Grahams and watch Netflix all day.

But I go.  Every year, I go.  And I find the same scene:  The check-in area is crammed with people chattering like magpies.  Many of the attendees know one another, so, early as it is, everyone is all huggy and happy.  It’s like someone sprinkled the room with energy dust.  This year, almost 800 attendees from nine different states joined in, and as it always does, the day left me excited and invigorated.

Sometimes we have to have faith that the fantastic things don’t always feel fantastic, there at the beginning.  It takes getting up, cleaning up, putting a good attitude, and getting in the moment.  It’s recognizing the apathy that is hiding in your pores, finding it and squishing it down and clomping on it until it’s gone.

In the end of the day, I walked away filled with things to think about.  I was overcome with the wisdom of so many educators and presenters.  As always, I was feeling, somehow, as if I were a more complete teacher, leader, thinker, and principal. 

Here are still things that are on my mind, even five weeks later:

  • ·      Libraries really are miracles.   
  • If all we do is watch video games and watch social media, we will get stupider.  But we can “stop the stupid” with books, smart media, and conversation.  And good teaching.
  • ·      You can’t talk about writing unless you talk a lot about reading.
  • ·      When you feel embattled, stop and consider the importance of what you do when you share books with students. 
  • ·      It’s okay to debate about things.  It’s okay to disagree.  We just need to come back to doing right by kids.
  • ·      We shouldn’t use writing to record thoughts; we should use it to inspire thoughts.
  • ·      Sometimes we want students to be much better writers than they really are.  Slow down, back up, and adjust expectations to fit the student, the situation, the prompt, and the developmental process.
Next week I’ll be in Boston at another professional conference, this time for ASCD at their Empower conference.  Presenting, even.  From where I sit today, this Saturday morning, right this very moment, I’m a little cranky about it.  I’d rather spend the start of spring break in yoga pants, drinking chai on my couch.  But once I get into the conference hall, I know I’ll forget that any other option exists except this one:  Rubbing elbows with people who care as much about teaching, leading, and learning as I do.  

All in.    

*Thank you, thank you, thank you to the committee who put the Dublin Lit Conference together.  Seriously. Tremendous.  

Seeking to Speak 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...