Monday, June 19, 2017

Innovation over Complacency

The word “innovation” is all over the place in the world of education right now.  We are all pushing teachers, students, and school communities to embrace creative, novel ways “do school.”  

Of course, as with any “trending” terms, I refuse to obsess about it.  There are too many tried-and-true tactics to abandon the good stuff, just for the sake of innovation.  We’ve got to innovate, sure, but that doesn’t mean we should be impulsive or over-the-top about it all.

With that said, innovation really is an exciting thing. Personally, I find it thrilling; I love re-examining our traditional ways of teaching, leading, and learning—considering how to do it better, more efficiently, and with a bigger impact.

In that spirit, I would argue that innovation has an enemy:  Complacency. And after being an educator for some time, it really is easy to become complacent.  We evolve into relative masters of our content and then slide into a routine in which everything is going swimmingly.  Everyone seems happy.  Ehe ebbs and flows of a school year are identifiable and sensible.  Everything is fine.  Right? 

Which is precisely when complacency can settle in, subtle and unnoticeable. Just.  Like. That.

To stave it off, I am going to do some sniffing around this next school year to see if there are ways I can incorporate innovative thinking into my own professional practices.  In that spirit, here are three things I’m committing myself to do in the upcoming year in my attempt fight off complacency. 

Actively seek ways to learn new things.  I have begun to target specific areas where I can refine and improve.  As an example, it’s been ten years since I sat down and actually administered a particular reading assessment required by our district.  I did it hundreds and hundreds of times before going into building leadership; I speak about the data like it’s my own; and I can use the numbers to determine a student’s reading progress. But I haven’t actually administered one in over a decade.  Yikes.  So when I identified this as an area of potential complacency, I sought a counter action:  I called our district reading specialist and asked her to re-train me and then supervise me while I administered the test to multiple students.  Hopefully, when school starts up again in August, I’ll be sharp as ever when using this assessment to make decisions for students.

Grasp at unexpected learning opportunities.  This spring, we were interviewing multiple candidates for teaching openings.  Among other things, we asked candidates, “What are some of the resources you rely upon when intervening or enriching the literacy experience for your kids?”  The answers were full of learning opportunities for me.  Often the candidates would spout out the acronym of a particular program or resource; in those cases, I’d stop them and ask them to explain further.   I’d jot down some ideas and then, later, snuggled on my couch with my perched laptop, I’d search through apps, programs, and resources to see if any seemed they could make our school more efficient and effective.  I'm going to continue to do that—find new ideas and find ways to incorporate them into our daily work.

Re-boot areas that foster complacency.  Complacency is a close, close cousin to weariness.  There are things in my job that certainly make me weary—but, alas, they must be done and they must be done well.   School safety drills; staff evaluations; daily duties; parent-teacher conferences; IEP and 504 meetings—all of these things were exciting and fostered my full engagement when I first started my job.  Now, though, I find myself feeling dragged down with the time and energy they require.  To combat this (unacceptable) feeling, I plan to actively search for a “restart” button and find ways to become better at leading each one.  Can I make our drills more efficient and streamlined?  During evaluations, how can I give feedback that will really make a difference to staff and, therefore, their students?  How can I bring back the fun and energy to covering a standard bus or recess duty?

So.  That's my goal for the upcoming year.  I have three things to focus on as I work to be a better principal and leader.  Call it innovation, call it evolution, call it whatever fits best.  I call it choosing innovation over complacency.  

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Showing Who We Are

A friend of mine shares a Netflix account with her ex-husband.  Their divorce is final, and as they feel their way around new, independent lives, they haven’t gotten around to dealing with some of the things they developed together—a joint account at a food co-op, a gym membership, and a sweet yellow lab they shift back and forth between apartments.   And Netflix.

“It’s fine,” she shrugs.  “Well, all except the Netflix thing.”  It is convenient and certainly financially beneficial—but can get a little awkward.  “I can click on his profile at any time and see what he’s been watching… and he can do the same to me,” she says.  “The other night, I wanted to watch something I never would have watched with him, because he would have hated it and been uncomfortable, and he would have disapproved.”  She laughs, a little bitter.  “Which is why we’re divorced.”  And then, slowly, as if just realizing it, she says, “It’s shocking, really, how intimate it is to share a Netflix account with someone.”

Intimacy creeps up in surprising places.  Working in my office a few days ago, I took some time to clear out some of my files from the school year. I paused to go through my “memories” box, a plastic tub full of photographs, notes and cards I want to keep forever.  The things in this box tell the story of who I am and what I value.  It’s not just work stuff, either; in an effort to streamline my mementos, I’ve tucked some other things into the box, too.  A letter my grandfather wrote to me, years ago, when I tried to patch up an argument between he and my father.  Sonograms of two babies I lost to miscarriage, just weeks after hearing their heartbeats for the first time.  The note that accompanied the flowers my editor sent the day my book came out.  A rejection letter from the only graduate school to which I applied my last year of college—a letter that propelled me into two restless, lost years of silent raging against The System, living in disgusting apartments, and paying the rent as a bartender, slinging cocktails and 32-ounce beer.
As I poked through the box, I felt like we all do when we remember these things—nostalgic, sad, grateful, vulnerable.  Then, this thought flashed at me:  I wonder if anyone else has seen the things in this box?

Because people are in and out of my office all the time when I’m not there.  I don’t mind at all; in fact, when someone needs space to work, or a moment with the door closed, I always offer it up.  It’s a space available to anyone, anytime.  It’s only locked at night, and even then, night custodians could poke around all they wanted, and I’d never know it.  I literally have no idea how many people go in and out of my office over the course of a day, week, or year.

Which made me realize that at any point, anyone could come in and poke around in my stuff.  This box, sure, but also anything else I have strewn about:  My notebook with my to-do list; the bulletin board, pinned with cards and quotes; cards I prop up on my bookshelf.  There is my computer desktop itself, and any application I might accidentally leave open; there’s a stack of papers and emails I’ve printed into a stack to deal with when I get a moment.  My office is like a social media page I can’t control, unless I shred everything and make my work area sterile and empty.  Which I don’t want to do.  So, it offers constant glimpses of what I’m thinking and doing, what I’ve thought and done in the past.

To be clear, none of this bothers me, and I am not ashamed of anything in my memory box, or in my office, or anywhere else, for that matter.  And I genuinely wouldn’t even care if someone saw everything in it.  But, like my friend’s Netflix account, it’s jarringly intimate, the way the things we keep around us serve as a mirror to who we have grown to be—and cannot ever really be ours alone. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Principal's Confession

You know all those mommy blogs out there, where a harried and exhausted mother admits she abhors  something she knows she's supposed to love?  I secretly hate packing my child's lunch.  Or, I actually don't like nursing.  It hurts and it's exhausting.  Or perhaps, I skip pages when I read my child to sleep, because the stories are stupid and I'm tired.  

I've got a guilty admission, too, but it's not about being a mother. Mine is a confession about being a principal, one I hesitate to even mention because only a bad person and crappy principal would feel this way.  It's this:  Yearbook day.  

This is the day in late May when kids get the yearbook they ordered way back in October, and the manic, free-for-all flurry of yearbook signing begins.

That's what I hate.  I hate, hate, hate signing yearbooks.

I should love it, and treasure the honor, just like all mothers should love and honor packing a child's lunch, right?  But I don't.  Instead, I feel anxious and unable, all discombobulated with all the eager faces peering up at me, the Sharpies thrust in my face, all the, "Mrs. Schwanke Mrs. Schwanke Mrs. Schwanke Mrs. Schwanke."  Of course, I force a smile and say, "I'd love to!"  And then I awkwardly find a wall or use the kid's back as a flat surface, and open the book, all crooked and off-kilter, and the pen is in my hand, and I try to take the lid off and invariably drop it, and I start to write something, but I can't think of something concise and eloquent to say, something that will live on that back cover FOREVER, something that will mean something personal.  So I end up just making a stupid little heart shape and signing my name, which doesn't seem enough, somehow, because each kid should get a little more from me, shouldn't they?  Shouldn't every child get a message from their principal, written with love and care?  A long and heart-tugging note to wrap up a great year?

So on yearbook day, all day long, I feel inadequate and crappy.  Each time I am asked to sign a yearbook, I do it poorly, and then I'm disappointed in myself.  Each time, I scold myself to change my attitude, and I make  one of those feeble self-promises to do better next time, and then I don't— another gaggle of kids comes up to me, herd-like, and shoves a Sharpie in my personal space and I go through the whole thing again.  And the whole time, I'm feeling on edge because there are fifty other things I should be doing with my time—big end-of-year tasks and questions and problems to deal with.

And then the day ends, and the last day of school comes, and the problem goes away for another year.  But I still feel kinda bad about it, every time I see my copy of the yearbook sitting on my desk.

Next year, by God, I'm going to find a way to love it.  I don't know how—maybe I'll reward myself with a M-n-M every time I do it right.  Or maybe I'll just block the whole day off my calendar and walk around with my own Sharpie and sign every book, unprompted.  Maybe I'll sign each one before they even get distributed.  I don't know.  But there has to be a better way, right?  I am determined to find it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

It's May, people...

I haven’t posted in a few weeks because, well, it’s May, people.

And this post will be crazy short because, well, it's May.  

May brings conflicting feelings we all experience, us principals and teachers and parents.  There is so. much. going. on.  There are athletic championships, and music concerts, and Arts Night, and celebrations and awards shows and parent events.  For us at the elementary level, there are field trips and popsicle parties and student-to-parent performances, and there is Field Day.  (Need I say more?  Such a happy, exciting, energy-filled day—that leaves us flopped on the couch like a dried up old sponge at day’s end.)  Middle and high school people have awards ceremonies and graduations and parties.  Tons and tons of those things.  My comrades at the secondary level have zero control of their schedules right now; they’re just waking up every day and determining how many events they need to get to before the day turns into another day and it all happens again.

None of which is a complaint, though.  There's nothing to complain about, really, except being tired.  Which isn't a bad place to be.  Tired is uncomfortable, maybe, but it's also triumphant.  After all, by now we’ve spent a lot of time with our students, so we know them really well.  We’ve grown fond of them.  Exceedingly fond, in fact.  So we’re a little sad that it’s all going to end and fade off into memory.

That's the thing.  May brings a complicated mixture of twinges—pride, sadness, nostalgia, giddiness, celebration, and that lovely relief in knowing it's almost time to close one book and open another. 

So it’s not just hanging on throughout these last few weeks.  Saying, “I’m just getting through” would diminish the fabulousness of this time of year.  Because the truth is this: May is not something to endure.  It is a time to be really freakin’ proud of ourselves for what we’ve done for the past ten months—the energy we’ve given, the triumphs we’ve experienced, the challenges we’ve handled.  It’s also a time we can give everything that’s left, because in a few weeks the pace will change and we can fill our emotional gas tanks again.

We can see summer's light, and we're propelled by its pull.

I'm feeling very, very grateful to be in a job and a world where I get May.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Reflect Forward

Not long ago, I started thinking about the concept of “reflecting forward.”  I’m sure this idea has a fancier name somewhere with someone more eloquent than myself, but to me, reflecting forward is the idea that we can take what we have learned along the way and use it to plan next steps.  It’s not just learning from mistakes; instead, this would be deliberately planning future events by reflecting on what did or didn’t work in the past or, even, the present. 

You know that quote from Albert Einstein?  It’s the one that points out, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So, then, reflecting forward is the opposite of insanity—it is very, very sane.

I’m not talking about bigger issues like bad habits or relationship fails or anything that happens to us because we’re human and therefore very, very flawed.  I’m talking about the things we do as teachers and principals, as leaders and decision-makers, as people who are in charge of something.  How can we reflect forward and plan for different, more favorable outcomes in what we do?

Here’s an example.  I struggle with remembering the specifics of events that happen throughout a school year.  For example, every stinkin’ year we have a schoolwide celebration in late October.  I always remember the vague details, but I didn’t do a good job remembering exactly how to prepare for the event.  As a result, the days leading up the celebration were a little frantic and scattered.  This past year, though, I finally reflected forward—I sat down and made a specific, point-by-point list of things we’d done to prepare, things that had been successful, and things we needed to change.  Then, I got into my Google calendar and added an event for a few weeks prior to next year’s party.  I copied-and-pasted my list right in the “description” window of the event.  Now, I have it on my calendar to plan differently in the future based on my reflections from today.   
Then I took it one step further.  I added an event a few days after next year’s event titled, “Considerations.”  In the description window, I again copied-and-pasted the list, but headed it, “Any changes for next time?”  Then, in both calendar events, I clicked the “repeat” feature for several upcoming years.  By doing so, I have set up a structure that will force me to consider improvements for several years to come—and I can always click backwards if I want to remember what changes I made and why I made them.

Google calendar is a natural and effective tool for us to reflect forward, because we can document and plan our evolution of improvement.  There are other ways, too; notebooks, list systems, audio recordings, and even those simple manilla file folders of yesteryear work well.  It doesn’t matter what tool we use—just so we plan for improvement by reflecting forward.        

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Overwhelmed? A Look Within

A few weeks ago, I spent the afternoon with a team of teachers interviewing applicants for an open teaching position. While I am relentlessly resolute that interviews should only be a fraction of the decision to hire (or not hire) someone, they do reveal a glimpse into the mind and heart of the candidate.  It offers a snapshot of their story and tells me about the journey to here and now.

And I always learn something from interviewees.  Each time, I hear something that resonates deeply, something that challenges me to reflect upon how and why we do what we do.  As an example, I like asking candidates, “Tell me about your areas for growth.”  Their answers reveal what they think about when they look ahead. 

This time, we were interviewing a young woman who was confident and well spoken, in spite of her palpable nervousness.  When asked how she wanted to grow, responded in a way I’d not heard before. 

Speaking slowly, as if figuring something out for the first time, she said,  “I think my biggest area for growth is finding how to not overwhelm myself.”  

She paused. 

“Here’s the thing,” she explained.  “I’ll get an idea, and then I’ll start to think of all the ways it could be really fabulous.  I consider what I could do to make it work really well.  I think of children who would benefit from the idea, and then I start to worry about how to turn the idea into a big, beautiful experience for every one of them.  And then I think about the complications and the resistance, and how to keep it all together.  About how to grade it, and communicate my purpose to the kids, their parents, and my teammates.  And then I’m almost too overwhelmed with it all to understand how to get started.” 
We all nodded, identifying, understanding—we were right there with her. 

It’s so easy to do, isn’t it?  Being overwhelmed can be self-inflicted.  We let too much in.  We make our lists and plans.  We checklist through all the things we want to do, the things we have to do, the things we should do.  And then suddenly we’re breathless with the I-just-can’t—that wave of feeling we can’t possibly­ it all and do it right.  

What impressed me was this interviewee’s ability to take responsibility for the feeling of being overwhelmed.  She wasn’t looking to blame; instead, she looked firmly at herself.   With complete, unapologetic honesty.  It was impressive.  After all, it's  hard to admit that it isn't the world conspiring to overwhelm—it is our approach to it that overwhelms.  

That’s a pretty mature way of thinking, there.  I betcha we could all be better if we look honestly at we’re doing to ourselves that might be making our work more difficult.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017


I go to a hot yoga class six or seven days a week.  Not because I love it, because I would never put the word “love” together with that kind of heat.  And it is hard work.  But I do love how I feel afterwards—strong, and confident, and able.  And, too, I don’t ache like it did back when I ran millions of miles—that was me, the feeble and never-blossomed marathoner.

So I’m all in on the hot yoga thing.  The past couple years, I’ve even gotten a little playful with it.  A little gymnastic-y.  Which makes me feel fancy, and kind of legit.  

This morning, I fell into a nice rhythm, sneaking in a couple of great handstands and headstands.  I was sweating from every pore, cleansing my toxins; I was looking toward a good day. I felt like a badass.  A badass in charge of stuff.  I felt good.

Then, the teacher directed us into a pose that naturally led to a headstand.  Legs gracefully in the air, I did a couple of curls and turns (fancy me, right?), and then—whoops—I wobbled a bit.  No big thing, I thought. My mat was near a wall, right? —So I’d just tap on it and get back upright again.  You have the wall.  Tilt toward the wall.  Reach.  Toes.  Reach.  Reach--? 

And then:  Oh, no. You were working from the back of the mat, you dolt.  You forgot where you were.  There’s no wall.

I floundered and fumbled, legs all flopping and flailing, down down down, and then:  Splat.  Flat on my back.  Loudly.  It sounded like a sweaty, middle-aged body crashing to the floor, which of course is exactly what it was.

I scrambled up and around, excusing and apologizing, saying something about a wall, and there was awkward laughter from the other (heretofore stoic) faces in the room, and the teacher asked if I was okay, and everyone was all ha, ha, ha.  And then, blessedly, everyone went back to business, serious and focused as before.  Upright again in body and mind, I closed my eyes, marveling at the speed with which my confidence had turned into a clumsy fall, and how quickly I’d gone from feeling like a ballerina to a one-legged goat.

I thought about it as I went through my day—about being confident and still having humiliating, inevitable crashes.  Confidence is, after all, a funny thing.  Leaders need confidence.  We’re weak and untrustworthy without it.  People need to know we can stand up and be freakin’ awesome.  But the minute we think we’ve really got it—that we’ve mastered it—that we're done—our confidence may splat itself into bits on the floor.

And then—?

Each time we splat, we need to get up again.  That's the secret:  Get back into the pose, the groove, the rhythm.  Avoid pouting or feeling downtrodden along the way; just accept the collapses and move on.  If we plan on the wall, and there’s no wall, well, then, there’s no wall.  Reaching for it won’t do a bit of good.  Fall... and stand up again.  That's all.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Being a Feeling Person

I used to think I’d grow into a person who goes to the movies a lot.  I didn’t go as a young person—only two times, by my memory.  Annie was my first in an actual movie theater.  My grandmother was visiting and took me, buying me a gigantic box of Dots that were so deliciously sweet my teeth ached.  A few years later my father took me to see Rainman.  There were no Dots—just the aftermath of an emotional brick thrown into my face as I worked my adolescent self through all the stuff in that movie. 

I fell in love with going to the movies in my late twenties.  I finally had the money and time to give to really dedicate to movie watching.  Together with a friend of mine, I made it my mission to see all the movies nominated for Oscars.  I loved how indulgent and arty I felt, being such an expert moviegoer. I even went alone sometimes, unapologetically buying myself the big tub of popcorn and munching away until the salt made my tongue dry. 

And then, two things cut my movie attendance to zero.  For one, I was too busy with work and building my family.  But I also stopped enjoying movies.  They got too loud and frightening, too mired in crime and death—impossible car chases, guns and bombs, people blown to bits in the name of a plotline.  Even the previews—“trailers,” they’re now called, which I just don’t understand—even those 2-minute clips would make me tremble.  Far from enticing me to see the movie, I’d feel nauseous and overwhelmed and turned off.  Too much CGI.  Noise.  Bombs and guns and blood.  Death, death, death, and more death. 

So I stopped.  I didn’t see movies for a long time.  I was embarrassed about it, actually, because I thought it revealed a shameful truth about myself—that I was too sensitive, too raw, too open to injury, too unable to shut off my feeling-ness.  Other people could do it, after all; they could watch horrific movies and still get up afterwards to go out for a cheeseburger and a beer. 

Recently, though, I gave it another go, and I’m so glad I did, because it helped me make sense of why so many movies are so difficult for me to watch

My husband and I had planned a rare night out, but, restricted by crappy weather and bound by time constraints, we decided we’d see a movie.  Skimming the listings, we only had one option I thought I could stomach:  La La Land.  Okay, then.  That would be it. 

We bought tickets. 

And there it was, once again, in that sweet and lovely movie:  The magic of going to the movies, of losing myself in a simple love story in which there is heartbreak and sadness, but it’s actually okay, and I understood why it was okay.  Because I wasn’t slammed in the face with murder or betrayal or bad guys; it was just a snapshot of life happening, and it made me think about the choices we make and what we gain and lose by each choice.

I sought a more clearly articulated explanation by perusing movie reviews of La La Land.  The best came from Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle (brilliant writer, by the way).  Mr. LaSalle said it beautifully, which is why I quote him directly here.  He says the movie whispers, and, “What it whispers is not the usual musical thing, or the usual movie message.  It’s saying that a very good path in life cuts off another good path, and that every gain in life, however wonderful, comes with a loss.  It’s saying that this is what it’s like to be a feeling person, but that being a feeling person is the only way to go through life.” 



Being a feeling person is the only way to go through life.

That’s pretty beautiful, no?  That makes me feel a lot better about... well, a lot of things. 

Innovation over Complacency

The word “innovation” is all over the place in the world of education right now.   We are all pushing teachers, students, and school commun...