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. 

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...