Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Off Day

Recently, I was having a bad day at work.

It wasn't any one thing—it was more just a feeling of being off-kilter.  Off my game.  I was unsure if my decisions were good ones.  I didn't communicate accurately or clearly.  I seemed to make people feel frustrated or confused.  And on top of all that, I was worn out and had a headache.  I was hungry—like, all day long.  I wanted to go home, order a big ol’ pizza, eat it sloppily on my couch, and watch stupid TV all by myself. 

Since that wasn't an option, I wanted to just walk around and apologize to everyone for totally sucking.  Just a general apology:  “I’m sorry.  That’s all.” 

Yeah.  I was feeling realllllllllly insecure about my leadership abilities. 

Which happens, every now and then.  To everyone, perhaps, but certainly for me.  

What do I do when it happens? 

I call a friend. 

I’ve got a handful of colleagues who, like me, are always evaluating their effectiveness in what feels like a constant state of self-reflection.  They, too, have days that just don't feel right.  So when I call and tell them I’m having a moment, they know what to do.  “Hold on a sec,” they say, and I hear them place the phone down and go shut their office door.  “Okay,” they say.  “What’s up?”

And then I tell them what’s bugging me.  They make little reassuring sounds as they listen.  They tell me everyone has days they can’t seem to hit a groove, and remind me that working as a leader in a field that involves human beings—young ones, old ones, medium ones—is really tricky to manage sometimes.  They tell me I’ll feel better and do better and be better tomorrow.  And they are always right. 

It’s often stated, accurately, that being a principal can be lonely.  And it can.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Having a little web of people to call can alleviate the loneliness immediately—and keep it from making a bad day that. much. worse.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Do you have a Rhonda?

Do you have a Rhonda?

Wait.  Let me back up. 

In our work as educators, most of us realize, and often articulate, this truth:  The world is changing rapidly, and kids are learning differently than they even a decade ago.  To be successful, our students need different skills and approaches to thinking.  The jobs our children will hold haven’t even been invented yet, we say. 

And it’s true.  Here some of the things we need them to be: 

  • Literate in many different genres, from text to technology
  • Self-navigators
  • Professional learners
  • Media critics
  • Savvy media makers
  • Mindful citizens
  • Social contractors
  • Global ambassadors
  • Innovative designers
  • Protectors of self and identity
  • Sharers
  • Seekers
  • Flexible problem-solvers
And other things, too.  Things I can't even think of. 

But here’s the thing:  if we want to teach young people to be these things, we’ve got to be doing them ourselves.   We need to stretch, grow, and change in our thinking habits. 

Which is really, really hard.  For me, at least. 

For me, it’s not natural.    I’m a routine kind of girl.  I don't seek and discover.  I tend to rely on patterns and processes that have worked well, turning a blind eye to new technology and systems.  Which means it’s easy for me to get caught in old and inefficient routines.

A few weeks ago, I sent off a tantrum text to my friend Rhonda.  I needed help.  I'd arrived at an apex of frustration—all my devices and accounts and photos were all gobblygooked up together, and I didn’t know how to manage them, or even think about ways to organize them neatly.  Rhonda was the perfect person to help me work through the problem, because she is a whiz with all things technology.  (She's a whiz at lots of other stuff, too, like singing, and managing people, and advocating for what's right, and being a friend, just to name a few.  Which is why everyone adores her.  Including me.)  The other thing about Rhonda is she is always learning new things.  So that's why I shot off this text:  HELP ME!!!  I have no idea how to manage my picts or calendar or even my texts.  And Twitter!  Website!  Blog!  Help.  Oh, and there’s no more memory on my phone and I don’t know why… hateithateithateithateit. 

She wrote back, “At Starbucks.  Be there in five.” 

I’ve always been happy Starbucks is so close, but on that day, I was super-glad.

She came into my office, handed me a latte, and put down her computer bag.  She pulled up a chair.  “Okay.  Talk to me.”  She grinned, all reassuring and confident.  I breathed out.

In less than an hour, my school’s Twitter account was updated— and I understood how to work it.  The piles of photos I take of our students and teachers were all in a neat Google folder, separate from personal photographs, which were stowed in a dropbox on my personal computer.  I’d learned how to stream a Twitter feed, manage our school's website and Facebook page, and even how to toggle between devices and accounts with no angst or confusion.

See, Rhonda’s a learner.  She’s calm about it.  She doesn’t look at confusing things and see an obstacle; she simply sees a twisted path toward mastery.  When I whine to her, she nods with a little crinkle between her eyes and says, “Okay.”   And then she figures it out. 

All of those qualities I talked about earlier?  They come naturally to her. 

But she’s also a natural teacher, which makes her inherent curiosity doubly valuable.  She doesn’t just learn stuff—she helps other people gather information and figure out how to use it.  That’s why working with someone like Rhonda can be so helpful. 

In other words, for those of us who don’t naturally discover, we’ve got to seek it out.  We’ve got to find a Rhonda and learn from her—not just from her knowledge, but also from her natural approach to solving problems.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Think Like a Guy

“Think like a guy, Jen,” my husband tells me. 

He says it when I’m overthinking something.  When I’m assigning too much value to a comment made to me, or when I’m regretting something I should have said, didn’t say, should have done, didn’t do, or any other number of things that have the ability to make me anxious.

“Guys just assess the situation, evaluate how much it affects them, and move on,” he shrugs.  “You’ve gotta learn to think more like us.”

I like the simplicity of this perspective, even from a man who doesn’t necessarily follow his own advice all the time.  In spite of his flippant dismissal of certain things, my husband is a very intelligent and thought-filled man and there are times he, too, overthinks situations.  But mostly he handles things in a simple, matter-of-fact manner:  where I would worry or fret, he just moves on.

Arianna Huffington, author and founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Huffington Post, talks about how she used to replay things in her mind over and over again, but has found it helpful to remember her mother’s words: “Change the channel, darling.  You’re in control of the clicker.” 

Maybe that’s another way to phrase my husband’s advice to “think like a guy.”  If the show stinks, change it.  If the game’s over, find a new one.  If the channel isn’t interesting or doesn’t need your attention, move on.

In the past few years, I’ve been experimenting with this approach, with varying levels of success.  When it works, I find it wildly liberating.  Turns out I like being in charge of my own clicker.  When I find myself obsessing or over-analyzing something, I literally imagine a little remote control in my head, and I decide if the show is one I need to keep watching, or whether it’s time to change the channel.  It really works.  There’s intense relief in evaluating my role in a situation, deciding I really don’t have one, and letting go.    

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Just a story...

A little girl marched into the office today with a big fling of the main door and this announcement: "I don't feew vewy good!" she said.

The little-girl voice and missing "r" sound melted my heart—it always does.

I ushered her inside the clinic.

"What hurts, honey?" I asked.

She shrugged.  She was adorable—six years old with black bouncy curls and freckles scattered over her sweet little face.

"Let me take your temperature," I said, modeling how to lift her tongue and then close her mouth over the plastic-covered thermometer.  We waited till we heard a little beep.

"98.4," I told her.  "No fever."

She shrugged again, dismissing my non-diagnosis.

"Why don't you sit down for a few minutes and see if you feel better," I said, gesturing to the hospital-grade cots we have in our clinic.  They're covered with blue plastic-y leather-y stuff—the kind of material we can wipe down with disinfectant on a near-constant basis.

She shook her head.  "When I way down on a soft and furry pwace, it makes me feel bettow," she informed me.  "It won't make me feel bettow to lie down there."

So earnest!  So honest!  So true!

"Well, sweetie, this is all we have for you," I said, trying not to laugh.  "We don't really have anything soft and furry to lie on."

"Then I will just go on back to cwass," she told me with yet another shrug.  And off she was, out the door, curls bouncing along behind.

Children are so very, very dear.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Goals vs. Habits

I truly think every principal—every leader—should red this.  Mark Manson is a pretty smart and candid guy, and he often writes about things that speak to leaders and leadership.  Fair warning:  He offends some people because he has what he calls a “potty mouth.” Not me.  I certainly can’t hurl any stones at that glass house. 

This one, titled, “Your Goals are Overrated,” had me simultaneously cracking up and emphatically nodding my head. 

In the article, Manson speaks to the difference between goals and habits.  He discusses how “goals are a one-time bargain,” but with habits, “there is no single endpoint that must be reached.  The only goal of habits is that the goal is never over.” 

Here's the thing:  I feel like every time I set a personal goal, I fail.  I feel like I have a goal allergy.  I almost rebel against my goals—like I want to fail, almost, in retaliation for the very existence of the stupid goal.

Luckily, habits are more in my wheelhouse.  I like habits.  They work for me.  If I just do something, every day, day after day, it becomes pretty entrenched in whoever I am.  Like exercise.  I’ve done it every day since I was, like, 12.  So it’s never a struggle.  As Manson points out, for me, “it feels harder to not go the gym than it does to go.”  

Manson goes into detail about six fundamental habits to focus on—exercise, cooking, meditation, reading, writing, and socializing—because these habits provide a “nice foundation for a healthy life in all domains:  physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially.” 


I think these things are especially important for leaders, because leaders often fall into unexpected situations in which they may easily abandon habits.  We don’t exercise right; we don’t take time to eat slowly or cook for ourselves; we don’t prioritize reading and writing and socializing outside of work.  We really need to, though.  We’ve got to just keep doing it, as purely and with the same mindlessness we give to getting up in the morning. 

There’s time for these things, I promise.  There’s always time for a good habits.

Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Manson.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Being Nice

My first experience with school was pretty crappy.

It wasn't supposed to be that way.  Before I actually went to school, I thought it was going to be fantastic.  I played school in my bedroom nonstop; I dreamed of riding the bus; I imagined all of the fabulousness of my teachers.  I looked forward to it like a puppy awaiting a home.

But then I went.  I got on the bus, rode it the 30 minutes to our local elementary school, and I got off the bus.  It was all downhill from there.

My teacher was a nasty old cow.  She didn't like kids, certainly, but she really didn't like the stuff that kids bring along with them.  Mess.  Noise.  Unruliness.  And unforgivable things like, say, not know how to read or write or add.  At five years old.

I remember her teaching our class to make the number 8.  She made it very clear that the 8 should be made with one nonstop, continuous line.  "No snowmen," she snapped, making two circles resting on one another on the board and then crossing through it in a thick, formidable "X."  "No snowmen.  Only one continuous line."

Then she handed out lined paper and told us to practice.  I was dismayed to find that my one continuous line looked terrible.  No matter how carefully I gripped my pencil or how hard I bit my cheek in concentration, my 8's were wobbly and weird.  Eager to please my teacher—and equally frightened to anger her—I did the only thing I thought I could do:  I made my 8's like snowmen.

I was sure she wouldn't know.

But of course she did.  Nothing got by that woman.

I heard her coming up the aisle of desks with slow clomps of her dreadful black pumps—and then she stopped right next to me.  I thought I might vomit.

She yanked my paper from my desk, cracking the tip clean off my pencil.  She ripped the paper into two, then four, then six pieces.  "No snowmen," she hissed.  "How many times must I say it?"

God, she was horrid.

Single-handedly, she managed to make me dread school instead of love it, like I'd thought I would.  Every day was a daunting and losing battle.  I slogged my way through the year, and mercifully had several kind and compassionate teachers in the next couple years.  But I never, ever, ever forget that first school experience.

Even now.  I think about it a lot, in my work as a principal.

I thought about it last week as I greeted students back from their holiday break.  I stood at the door and watched them flow in.  They wore gigantic grins and did a lot of whooping and hollering at one another.  It was lovely; they were thrilled to get back.  They love re-connecting with their friends; seeing their teachers again; and falling into the familiar routine of a schooldays.

As I watched them come in, I hoped with all my heart that there was not one—not a single child—who had a sinking feeling walking in the doors.  I hoped they were all happy to be coming to school.  I hoped there is a friend for each one of them.  I hoped their grins were genuine, from their faces down to the innards of their emotional guts.

That is why I feel that the biggest responsibility we have as educators is to be nice.  To be welcoming.  To open our arms and support kids socially and emotionally.  Academic rigor—and everything else—can follow.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Who IS a Principal?

On the last Saturday of holiday break, my two sisters and their families came for to visit before they closed the door on two weeks of holiday shuffling, eating, sleeping, and exchanging kids from house to house.  They were going back to their regular lives.  Which aren't regular at all, by the way, but that's a different post for a different time.

My two sisters' children combine with my children to make ten kids under eleven years old.

My children make up only 20% of this equation.  They're outnumbered.

But it all tumbles together when all these cousins combine.  The pieces become a whole, then parts, then a whole again. It reminds me of a flock of swallows who fly wildly together, swooping and dipping and splitting apart into a whole bunch of indiscernible combinations.  It's fun to watch.

Because they are such a gaggle of play when they're together, though, the time I get to talk with each one is fleeting—just a moment, just a breath— as  as they race from trampoline to Shopkins to Minecraft to a pickup football game.

When I do get a moment alone with one of them, I ask them about school.  My nieces and nephews attend school 5,000 miles apart from each other, so their experiences are indescribably different.  Still, though, they usually cut right to the chase and tell me about their principal.  They all have an opinion.  A strong one.

My nephew sniffs and snorts when he talks about his school's principal.

Another nephew—brother to the sniffer and snorter—is quiet and dismissive when talking about the principal.

A niece isn't sure she has a principal.

Another niece tells me her principal is nice.  And pretty.

Another niece declares she is scared of her principal.  I ask why.  "Um..." she simultaneously raises her eyebrow and her lip, as if I have missed the point completely.  Which point, I'm not sure—but I've missed it.

"What?" I ask her.  "Why would you be scared?"

"She's the principal," she says.

It occurs to me with a start that every child—every single one— from schools all over the world—has a schema to classify the principal.  If we asked any kid, anywhere, "Tell me about your principal," they'd have an answer.  The specifics of each story would be different, but each student would have a definition of "principal" that sits there in his or her little mind, large and true.

Just something to think about.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Philosophy of Management

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life, and therefore I’ve had a lot of bosses.  Awesome ones, crappy ones, and everything in between.

Like the bar manager who was half-nuts and undoubtedly quite crooked, but everyone loved him because he was so laid back.  He was unmoved by—well, pretty much everything.  He spent every evening just leaning against the bar, telling hilarious inappropriate jokes and giving us complete autonomy to do whatever we wished.

There was the retail manager who marched around military-style on sky-high heels and made commands to everyone in her way, looking so formitable and terrifying that we all did exactly as we were told.  Customers included.

And the catering chef who wouldn’t let us servers eat any of the leftover food at the end of an event; instead, she packed it up and took it home to her family.  When we protested, she suggested we eat at home before arriving.  “That way you won’t be hungry at the end of the night,” she said slowly, using the tone a parent uses with a particularly dense child. 

And the principal who had something in her personality—I’m still trying to figure it out— that made people want to please her.  Everyone seemed to fall all over themselves volunteering to help, do, produce, present.  Whatever she needed, there were five people behind her begging to do it. 

And many more.  I could write fifty blog posts about bosses I've had.  

Each one of my supervisors has contributed to who I am as a leader.  I’ve cobbled together little bits and pieces of each of them, and I’ll continue to do so when working with my future bosses.   And I’ll continue to think about things other successful leaders say about their work.  Like this gem: 

I really like that—the idea that there are things we can buy and things we have to earn.  I'm going to spend some time thinking about what I've earned, and how to earn more of it.  

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...