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. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Even After We're Gone

Not long ago, I had a couple delicious hours alone and spent it with a fun romantic comedy called The Proposal. 

There is a great scene where Betty White’s character, the feisty and hilarious Grandma Annie, wants to give her wedding dress to Margaret (Sandra Bullock). 

“I can’t.  I can’t take this,” Margaret says, in an unexpected display of humble unselfishness.

Grandma Annie insists.  “Grandmothers love to give their stuff to their grandchildren.  It makes us feel like we’ll still be part of your lives even after we’re gone.  Take it.”

Instantly, I thought of my late grandmother.  In the last five years of her life, she drove us all bonkers because she talked incessantly about who would get what after she was gone.   Everything was up for discussion: her Spode china, her stacks of valuable books, her silver, her engagement and wedding rings, which grew increasingly loose and clink-y on her finger as she aged and thinned.  My siblings and I rolled our eyes each time it came up, and my cousins were similarly annoyed.  It became a joke amongst us, especially when my grandmother took to labeling things with index cards so we’d know who was supposed to get particular items—and then frequently moved these assignments around.  On one visit, I was slated to get her antique silverware; on the next visit, it was now labeled for my sister.  The Greek brass drawings she’d acquired overseas were assigned to my aunt, then to my mother, then to my cousin, and then back to my aunt.  It was by turns hilarious and infuriating—hilarious because we thought she was acting like lunatic, and infuriating because it felt like she was using her stuff (her “stupid stuff,” I believe I called them in my surly teenaged years) to manipulate us.

With time and reflection, though, my understanding has changed.  Now I know that she wasn’t being a lunatic at all.  On the contrary, she was clear-eyed, focusing on passing on her things because she needed to know they would continue to tell her story, and would remind the world that she was here.  And she moved her assignments around because she wanted to make sure they were honored appropriately, and worried about them landing in the right spot.

My grandmother assumed she would pass quietly in her sleep, dignified and elegant, and her things would be taken, as assigned, in a somber and grateful post-funeral walk through her house.  Circumstances never play out the way they are supposed to, though; her old-age illnesses drained her money, and many of her things were sold.  Others ended up in boxes in a storage facility and, when it was finally cleaned out months after her death, no one had the emotional or physical energy to allocate things with the care we should have.

So in spite of my grandmother’s plans, I do not have her high-heeled pumps or her tea set from Cairo, her English hats or her collection of rare books. I ended up with just one thing:  a single gold wedding band.

And I value it like nothing else.  I wear it every day, on the ring finger of my right hand.  I catch an unplanned glance at it a hundred times a day, and when it happens, I have a milli-flash of memory of my grandmother.  Just a snapshot, there and then gone, sometimes practically unconsciously:  A memory of the time we made donuts together, the most simple and delicious donuts I’d ever tasted.  How she scolded me for sock-skating across her hardwood floors.  How she always ate a breakfast of oatmeal with half a banana sliced on top, saving the other half for the next day.  How her words slurred a little after too many vodka tonics.  How she pressed a $10 bill in my hand and told me to go buy myself a “nice suit” for my graduate school intake interview.  Her final months, when she insisted on a glass of water by her bed at night with two—no more, no less—ice cubes in the glass, refusing to reason with us about inevitable melting.

The gold band brings all of that back.  Just this—this slim, indestructible, shining reminder—opens up a slew of snapshots of a good woman’s life and the connections she made with her granddaughter.

Here’s the thing:  As we go through this life, we never know when we’re taking a snapshot for someone else’s memory, and we never know how many years will pass before it is seen again.  But it’s a good reminder to work hard to build a gallery of positive snapshots, so no matter what we leave behind, we’ll still be part of the memories our loved ones keep. 

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 .   ...