Saturday, September 24, 2016

Reflection or Blame?

In education, we’re constantly talking about the need to reflect upon our work.  The reflection, we know, will make us consider what we could do differently; lead us to make necessary changes; and come out, the next time, better than before. 

But reflection can easily begin—and end—with assigning blame.  Which doesn’t help anything.

It doesn’t reflect.  It deflects. 

Let’s say I’m running a staff meeting that quickly devolves into a mess.  It’s disorganized and cluttered and disjointed.  Not knowing what else to do, I stutter and stumble through.  Later, back in my office, I admit to myself, “Wow.  That didn’t go well… at all.” I might think to myself:
  • The people in the back weren’t paying attention.
  • They didn’t even bring the agenda I sent them.
  • We have GOT to re-configure the space in the room.
  • They don’t realize that this stuff I’m telling them is important.
  • They show zero respect for me, as their leader.

But these things?  These are not reflection.  Instead, they just assign blame to the things that led to a crappy meeting.

So how could I ask some questions that would lead to genuine change?  Simply twisting the questions to include the word “I” might help:

  • What could I do to engage the people in the back of the room?
  • The agendas I create aren’t valued.  What is their value?  Should I re-think why and how I create them?
  • Am I utilizing the space well? 
  • Why do I feel I am not respected?  What action steps could I put into place to work through this?

Problems are never solved well with a pointed finger… unless the finger is pointed directly, squarely, and aggressively right to our own chests.  Just like looking in a mirror shows us ourselves, that’s what we should see when we try to work through challenges.  That,  (said the mirror), is real reflection.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

I'm Old Here

A few weeks back, I was reminded of something:  How easy it is, when we think we’ve planned for everything and everyone, to forget someone or something really important.

It was the first week of school, and I was doing what I always do—I scheduled a visit with every classroom to read a book.  This year, it was I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien.  It tells the individual story of three students who are new to their school—and, also, new to the English language.  Each of the three children feels lonely and confused at the beginning; finally, though, the language begins to make sense and the kindness of others makes them feel part of their school community.

It was the perfect book for me to read aloud, because we have a lot of new students this year.  We did some re-drawing of our elementary school lines, and to summarize a long and complicated story, we’ve got over 100 new little people added to our community. 

From the very beginning—last winter, even, when we learned who our new students would be—we were so careful, so thoughtful, so focused on making sure our new students felt welcome.  We did everything we could think of.  We hosted a Welcome Night.  We posted FAQ’s on our website.  We met, one by one by one, with anxious parents and students.  We sent letters and emails and gave a gift to each new student.  We bet over backwards to make sure each new student felt part of our community. 

Our hard work paid off.  Everything went beautifully.  

So I was proud and confident each time I went to visit a classroom with my copy of I’m New Here.  I always started the same way.  “As you know, we have lots and lots of new student this year,” I would say, opening the book.   “That’s why I’m reading this book.  Let me ask:  Who is new here?”  

A handful of students would raise their hands. 

But one time, when I asked this question, I heard a little boy sigh.  I looked at him.  “What is it?”

“I’m not new,” he said.  “Actually, I’m old here.”

His eyes were downcast.

Oh, my.

For months, all we’ve been talking about?  The new kids.  We’d been making them feel welcome.  We’d been smiling extra-wide; wiping tears before they sprung; connecting, empathizing, and whooping it up. 

And in all that whooping, we hadn’t thought enough about the “veterans.”  The kids who had been enrolled with us all along.  Because in a lot of ways, those kids were still new—they had a new teacher, new year, new class, new friends they needed to make.  They were having a new experience and felt vulnerable, too.

Once again, I was reminded of the truth of leadership:  It’s so easy to over-plan, making sure we meet every single need of a certain group.  But in doing so, we sometimes forget others.  Looking back, I wish we had celebrated the students who weren’t new just as much.  I don’t think there was harm done, but it’s an important lesson.  In overplanning for one group, we might be underplanning for another.

Just something to keep in mind.    

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How to Name a Cat

Yeah.  We got a kitten.

This was never in the plans.  Despite being a cat lover as a child, I came home from college with, inexplicably, a wild allergy to cats.  If I touched a cat, I would spend the rest of the day clawing and scratching at my eyes and face, tears streaming from ducts I didn’t know I had, and red, blotchy streaks across my cheeks. 

So.  No more cats for me.

When I started dating my now-husband, he had two great cats.  Gary and Newman.  He loved those cats, too, but if I were within ten feet of either one, I’d transform into a blowfish.  When we decided to get married, my poor fiancĂ© said goodbye to his beloved cats; we found homes for the two and proceeded with our cat-free life.

And then.

About six weeks ago, my Dad stumbled across an abandoned baby kitten in his barn.   She was alone, and so very young:  Her skin was still translucent.  She looked more like a mouse than a cat.  Her siblings—almost certainly, there had been siblings—had been eaten up by a raccoon or dog or something, and her mama had fled the scene.  All that was left was this tiny thing, nestled in some straw way back in the dark corners of the barn.  Half dead, she was, with little hope of making it to cat hood.

But my father wanted to try.  You have to, really.  Because everything deserves a fighting chance.

So.  Assisted by my nieces and nephews, he made her a safe little home out of a cardboard box and checked in on her hourly.  He fed her with a medicine dropper.  He fed her a serum of water and Karo syrup, hoping it would be enough to keep her alive.

And she grew.  She found a personality and some spunk.  She found her purr.  And she used it, a lot, and more and more each day.

My reserved, gruff father turned into this unrecognizable softie around the kitten.  “I’ve grown exceedingly fond of her,” he admitted.  He carved out a couple hours of each too-busy day to pet her.  He transitioned her to milk and, then, soft food.  He trained her how to use a litter box.

I couldn’t help thinking about it. 

I did a bunch of research, trying to figure out how, 25-some years earlier, I could have gone from very not allergic to cats (as a kid, I slept with my cat on my neck, for cryin’ out loud) to very allergic.  I read about the likelihood of building immunity to cat dander.  I learned that sometimes allergies come and go and change.  I learned that cat dander might be managed with hyper-vigilant cleaning and lots of hand washing. 

I studied.  I asked questions.  I started to figure I could do this.  That we should.  Our family should adopt the cat.

I announced my thinking to my husband. 

“You’re crazy,” he said.

“We can just try,” I told him.  “Let’s see if I can build an immunity.  If not, we’ll find a good home for her, and she’ll live a very fat, happy suburban life.”

He thought about it.  A lot.  That’s what he does.

“It just seemed like a bad idea,” he told me, shaking his head.

“The kids need this,” I said.  “They need to see a young animal grow into our family.”

He sighed.

“So… “  I decided to drop the mic.  “It’s either this, or a puppy.”  

“I don’t like dogs.”

“I know.  Which is why we should try a cat.”

So last Sunday, the kitten arrived.  It was a trial basis, we said:  We’d see how things went, with me.  We wouldn’t name the kitten until and unless we were certain she could continue to live with us. 

The kids fell immediately into a deep, adoring love.  So did my husband.  I began catching him, late at night, snuggling and smooching with the kitten. 

I approached it very laboratory-like:  careful and with baby steps.  I spent a few minutes with the kitten every morning.  I first pet her gingerly, then more assertively, and then plunged in, sticking my nose right down to match her nose.  I breathed. 

Then I waited, fending off the dread, to see if I’d start to itch.

I haven’t, yet.  It seems like it’s going to be okay.  I had a flare-up once when she scratched me, but otherwise it’s been just fine.

So now we name her. 

I titled this piece, “How to Name a Cat,” but I have no idea how to name a cat.  We can’t agree, the husband and kids and I.  We’ve considered every name from Softie to Farcus (that from the husband).  We can’t agree, yet.  But what we are agreeing on is that this cat had a helluva start, in life, and a whole bunch of people who were at the right place in the right time to make sure she has a good life.  We love her already.

Maybe we’ll call her Lucky. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016


Most of us have a time of our workday that is our favorite.  It may be the first pour of coffee from the staff lounge; the moment the “inbox” is empty; lunch shared with colleagues; maybe even the slam of the door in our car as we’re leaving for the day.  It’s the moment we breathe.  Deeply.

Mine is 9:30 a.m.

My friend Scott pointed this out to me; I’d never heard it so clearly articulated.  We were talking about the first day of school, and the frantic, rushed, confusing time it can be as all the students stream off the school bus and into the building.  Phones are ringing; buses are late; there may even be tears from particularly sensitive or anxious children.  It seems there are one hundred places to be and one hundred problems to fix.  Go-go-go-go.

“But then nine thirty will come,” he said, dreamy-like.  His voice actually lilted:  Nine. Thir. Tee. 

Nine thirty is a great time of day on the first day, and on every other day, too.  It is the magic time when all the students are in their classrooms, meeting together as a class.  Teachers have settled into their routine.  All the preparation is being put into practice.  No one is in trouble—yet.  No parents have complained. All of the morning questions have been answered.  Everyone is safe, secure, and where they are supposed to be.  PD has been delivered; IEP meetings have concluded; announcements and attendance and lunch counts and parent phone calls have been finished. 
So, for a principal, it is the most calm, quiet, productive time of day.

No one needs us to be anywhere. In fact, no one wants us to be around. 

It’s time to breathe. 

I get more done in the time slot starting at 9:30 than any other time, because I’m super-focused.  I work quickly and efficiently, because I know my window of time for productivity is small.  Shit’s gonna start hitting the fan, for sure, and it might happen any moment.   So I revel in the quiet, in the productivity, in the time I can breathe differently.

Think about it:  What’s the time in your day you breathe differently? 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

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