Saturday, January 8, 2022

Roller Coaster

What a week this has been! Figuring out how to support a community through a wildfire that took out 1000+ homes in the community is intense. There is so much to do (tasks) and so much to hold (emotionally). It's been a bit of a roller coaster, and as I often write to process, this blog reflects that.

Thinking about 1,084 homes destroyed and 149 homes damaged (along with several commercial properties) is staggering in and of itself. Add in the thousands of homeowners who are dealing with smoke damage and limited utilities (although I think most are back now), who were displaced for several days. And then you go to the ~35,000 residents who were evacuated, many who left through thick smoke, seeing flames in the vicinity of their houses. The collective trauma is huge. Even those who were not directly impacted by the fire are feeling it.

Oh yeah, and it was less than a year ago that we had a shooting at a local grocery store, just down the road from several schools, where ten people lost their lives. Another incidence of collective trauma.

And there's this little thing called COVID-19...and all that comes with it.

It's all too much. I'm seeing big, red, flashing warning lights. We don't have much left to give. Call it compassion fatigue, call it a mental health crisis...but teachers/educators are BURNED OUT. I've talked to more people considering taking a leave of absence for their own mental health in the past week than I have in the past five years. I'm seeing people desperately to figure out their sick days because, three days after the semester started, they need a day...or two...or three...to breathe. It's not unusual to hear that someone isn't sure they can make it through the day. We hired 6 new teachers in my areas at semester because people resigned or retired midyear, and probably have 2 more in the next week or two. We're at the end of what we can handle, and it's showing.

And yet, while I deal with that existential crisis in my mind, I also see incredible moments of joy. Kids being kids, even after everything they have is gone. Kids loving each other, caring for each other, helping each other in the most precious of ways. A community that is surrounding us, being so generous, giving more than I ever imagined possible. Miracles happening all over. For me, it was some sweet friends who brought me food this week to make sure I am taking care of myself as I spend time taking care of others.

How do you reconcile these highs and lows? I don't exactly know, but here are two things I am focusing on this week:

1) Basic self-care. Making sure I eat at reasonable hours (which didn't always happen last week). Getting outside for some fresh air. Moving my body and exercising. Going to bed at a good time. Making sure I have at least a waking hour or two per day that is not focused on work or fire stuff.

2) Self-compassion. As I walked into a school to sub on Friday, I was thinking, "I don't know what I have to give, but I'm here with whatever I have for these kids today." I'm not at my best...and that's okay. I can be gentle with myself and know that doing something is better than doing nothing, and that is enough.

To those in our community: We're in this together.

To those at a distance: Please pray for us. And show some love to a teacher or educator in your life - this has been a tough year, regardless of fires or shootings or anything else!

Sunday, January 2, 2022

#oneword2022 & 🔥 Fires 🔥 in My Community

Last year, my #oneword was ATTENTIVE. I went into the year aspiring to be attentive to myself and the world around me, and to be present. And was I? In some ways, yes. Compared to a couple of years ago, I see huge differences in the way I make time to process and validate my own thoughts and feelings, and I definitely have continued to engage in societal issues and find my voice. But would I say this word defined my year? Not really - I think it got buried through everything going on!

As I thought about 2022, I wondered if I should even choose a word this year. To be honest, I'm ending 2021 on a bit of a low. It's been a hard year on so many levels, and just before the new year, fires ripped through my community, destroying nearly 1000 homes and damaging over 100 more. These are friends, teachers, students, administrators in my district - and the thought of how to move forward is daunting. It felt like we (collectively) were already trying to pour from an empty cup by the end of the semester; how are we going to add even more trauma and need?

Yet I am still drawn back here to my blog, and the word that pops out is one I had several years ago: LEAD. The first time I chose the word LEAD, it was almost prophetic. I was heading into my first time being in major leadership roles, from being a principal of summer school to moving to the district office from being a classroom teacher. I learned so much as a new leader that year.

This time, I'm coming at it with a little more experience and a lot of thoughts about different styles or characteristics of leadership I have seen through the past several years. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my own leadership, both the leader I am and the leader I want to be. I don't have a nice sketchnote, and my thoughts are pretty consumed by the events of the past couple of days, but here are some of my current reflections on leadership.

I want to be an authentic, honest, and vulnerable leader.
I think that there is an unwritten chapter in leadership school that says that when you step into a leadership role, you have to have it together all of the time and not show weakness. That's simply not true! I find that it's a rare thing to have a leader who is truly authentic, but it's a huge blessing when it happens, and leads to deeper connection and community. I sent an email to my teacher leaders yesterday addressing the fires, and I won't lie, it was hard to write. I know that some of the people I was writing to just lost their homes. I wanted to strike the balance between looking forward with hope and acknowledging the devastation...and that, in many ways, I didn't know what to do or say. After hitting send, it was nice to get some texts and emails back, all checking in on each other, and then to see these teacher leaders send emails to their respective groups with a similar sentiment. When we are real, we are all a little more human.

I want to be a people-first, caring leader.
There is so much to do - all of the time! And I have ideas or programs or tasks or projects that I work on that I think are pretty great ;-). But, ultimately, my leadership needs to be about people first. I think of one of my leaders who always seems to find a moment to check in on me as a person, especially when I need it the most. With these fires, I've been trying to reach out and email and text teachers and some community partners who I know, just to ask how they are doing. Truth be told, it feels awkward at times. I don't know them particularly well, and sometimes it feels like I am going past the bounds of a professional relationship, but I have made a commitment to myself to err on the side of caring for people. And you know what? It has been appreciated. People need people - and that is true whether both at work and in our personal lives, and even more when disaster hits the community.

I want to be an advocate as a leader.
One of the most important things I can do, I am learning, is advocate for my people. That doesn't always mean I have to agree with them or support less-than-stellar work. But I can help set them up for success by thinking proactively about their needs and being aware of those who are looking for a different situation or who would do better in a different environment. I can advise them about what I know (and am allowed to share, whether good or bad) as they make career decisions or even just try to figure out how to problem-solve a specific issue. And I can share their great work with the world and quietly steer them in the right direction when needed. Advocacy is turning into one of my favorite parts of the job - the ability to help others create successful situations is wonderful, and benefits us all!

How closely will I pay attention to my #oneword2022? I'm not sure. I'm trying to go easy on myself right now and take things as they come. But I am confident that leadership will continue to be a part of my journey, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out over the year!

Finally, please keep our community in your prayers - with 1000 families who have lost their homes, I can't imagine how that will play out in the classroom ❤️.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Time I Asked for What I Needed

Hi everyone! It's been pretty quiet on the blog front lately, because:
1) This year is crazy...I can barely keep up!
2) Work this year has been hard, and I'm not sure how to capture it in words.

There are so many reasons that working in education is hard right now - staffing shortages, polarized viewpoints, a wider range of student skills than in previous years, HUGE SEL needs, pandemic fatigue, and I could go on and on. Some of my "hard" is definitely all of this - the whole system is under a huge strain, and it's hitting me too. But, beyond that, I've been struggling with my job - more specifically figuring out what my job really is and how it fits into the system.

Brene Brown says that, "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind." My job, currently, is a little bit of everything, and it's not well-defined. The problem is that when you don't have a clear job description, your job becomes everything...and THAT gets overwhelming really fast! For the most part, I like the things I'm doing - it's not that I am unhappy with the work itself. The issue is that it's adding up to be so much and I don't have any good way to prioritize or say no to things because I don't really know what my job is supposed to be, and the more that gets added to my plate, the more things are falling through the cracks. Furthermore, specials and electives are rarely focused on in any strategic plan or data meeting...so it's been hard to see how I (and, consequently, all of the teachers and content areas that I work with) fit into any of it.

Fast forward to this last week. As much as I like to try to be independent and figure things out, I knew I was hitting a breaking point. Even though the holiday breaks would help me, something needed to change. So I took a deep breath and sent an email and asked for time to meet to figure this out. I'm not always good at asking for help, and it definitely took some courage to reach out...but once I did, it was easier to be honest about other (small) things that would help me in the conversations that followed. That whole "clear is kind" thing goes both ways - if there is something that I am looking for, hinting at it is not as effective as just saying it. I'm working on it!

So I'm heading into this next week with some intentional time on my calendar to try to figure out how to manage my workload, hoping that some of the tweaks I asked for will actually take place, and a continuing my mission to figure out how to bring more value to specials and electives in my district. I know it won't be quick and easy and there will be bumps in the road, but I finally feel like I've shared what I needed to and done my part in asking for what I need (yes, it took far longer than it should have). It feels selfish, but it's also a relief! I keep reminding myself that helping me be in a better place as a leader will undoubtedly trickle down to the teachers and students I work with.

My final encouragement is to not be afraid to ask for what YOU need. Reach out. Have courage. Don't just drop hints, be clear. It may be hard, but you are worth it. And it will have ripple effects on the people around you too!

Hang in there, my friends - we can do this!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

All Teachers Deserve Support

I've taken a long blog hiatus here - between moving (not far, but still) and starting a new school year, my time and energy have been consumed! But I am back, and I want to share something that has been on my mind lately.

All teachers deserve support.


Seems pretty simple, doesn't it? Our district strategic plan motto is "All together for all students." There's a lot of all in there, and I wish we could extend it to teachers. But the problem is, both locally and nationally, teachers' level of support varies greatly. There are a lot of different reasons for this, but I want to focus on one that has popped up in my world a lot: teachers get different support based on what subject they teach.

It's no secret that I spend a lot of time advocating for "specials" or "electives" - art, music, PE, theatre, and dance. You could even add other electives such as world languages and CTE courses in there! I believe that these classes are incredibly important to develop well-rounded human beings, and beyond that, they often are engagement hooks and the reason students are in school. After graduation, many students will follow these paths as hobbies or things they do in their free time - their education in these classes really influences their lives, and should be valued!

Yet we don't see a lot of that when it comes to teacher support.
  • How many times has a whole staff been required to sit through a professional development meeting on LA or math? What about art or PE? (I can't count the number of times I was trained on a system or told I have to use it, only to find out it offered nothing for my subject area.)
  • How many districts invest heavily in materials for science classes? What about for music class? Are instruments provided or only for the "elite" who can afford to get them? (True story: I applied for a job and was told that a prerequisite for registering for an instrumental music class was that the student could afford to rent or purchase an instrument because the school couldn't financially support that for students. I declined the job offer.)
  • Have you ever seen a message, especially during the pandemic, that sounded like, "We are providing xxx support/lesson plans/curriculum resources for all teachers!" only to find out that "all" meant LA/math/science/SS only. (Yes. All the time.)
As a person who advocates for these often-forgotten areas at the district level, it's exhausting. I don't know how anyone does it for long without getting burned out. How can we change the status quo?
  • What if we offered more flexible, customized professional development? Not only would it help specials and electives teachers, but I think all teachers could benefit from this! Some need exactly the training we have been offering. But some need something totally different.
  • What if we gave teachers the tools they needed to do their job and let them focus on the instruction? I know, this is a pie in the sky ideal because budgets are involved, and money is tight. But I wish that my teachers could focus on how to best instruct the kids in their class rather than spending hours looking for or putting together their own materials because my district can't afford (or is not prioritizing) money to purchase materials for them. Somehow, it just never seems to be a priority for these subject areas.
  • What if, when we say all, we truly meant all? This is just my plea to be careful in your communications. I don't believe we always need the same things, and sometimes it makes sense not to do the same thing for everyone - but please don't say all unless you truly mean all.
I feel like I spend every day as an advocate, and it's exhausting. As I recently told my coworkers, I can't do it alone. I need others to jump on board. I feel an incredible weight of responsibility as the one person on the instructional team with this type of background, and I feel like I carry so many voices of amazing teachers who just want to feel supported. I hope we can all come together to make it happen.

*I realize that this is just one of many issues - we could talk about so many other categories of people who experience similar disenfranchisement for other reasons, some even more serious. I by no means want to ignore that, but this is what is on my mind right here, right now, so it's what I'm writing about!

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Joy of Being Back with Kids!

As we look toward next year, I am continuing in my district role, and I'm grateful for that. I enjoy my job (mostly), and I like being able to affect change on the system. But my heart will always be the heart of a teacher. One of my colleagues recently told me, "You still are a teacher, you just teach teachers." It's true, but there's nothing quite like being with kids all day, and I miss it!

That's why, when the opportunity came up for me to run a week-long music camp for some friends' kids this summer, I jumped at the chance! The majority of my time in the classroom was with 5th-8th graders, but this was with 3-8 year olds. Still, it was a golden opportunity for me to feed my teaching heart and have some musical fun with these kids, so I jumped at it!

We had a great time. From music games to musical books to drawing how music makes us feel to exploring different instruments to making our own instruments, the week was a blast! I forgot how much planning it takes to really create good lessons - especially with younger kids - but it was worth it.

As much as anything, this brought me confidence (I can still hop in front of kids and teach music!), but it also back to the day-to-day grind of teaching. Planning, lugging materials around, management...it was a good reminder of everything our teachers do every day. I'm grateful for these opportunities to keep myself grounded, and I fully believe it gives me more understanding and makes me a better leader.

I had fun teaching. They had fun learning. We all enjoyed the music. What more can you ask for?

Our crew on "Make Your Own Instrument" Day!

Educational leaders: I challenge you to take opportunities to get in front of kids and TEACH! It is more than worth it for everyone involved!

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Lessons in Leadership: 2020-2021 Wrap-Up

I've been struggling to write this blog post for a couple of weeks now, because, really, what can you say to wrap up this school year? It's been an adventure, to be sure. As we get a bit further out from the actual last day of school, I find myself thinking about how we are moving forward -- specifically, how to balance all of the different needs coming out of this year.

Let's start with students. They certainly had an unplanned curriculum this year involving how to use technology in new ways, how to be more independent, and how to be flexible. These are all great skills for our students to learn! Yet at the same time, we know that many of them didn't make as much "traditional" academic progress this year as we would expect in a more normal environment. The gap has widened - the students who did well often continued to do well while those who struggled, for whatever reason, struggled even more in a distance learning environment. Next year will be full of different needs for our students.

Now let's talk about teachers. The summer always brings a much-needed break to rest and recharge, and teachers need to recharge more than ever after this year! The adults in our system are tired. Drained. Exhausted. Burned out. This is why we really struggled to find people to teach summer school. The adage, "You can't pour from an empty cup" is true, and we, as a system, are dangerously close to empty right now.

Balancing these two is where the challenge lies. My district is engaging in a lot of work this summer to prepare for next year, and to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. I see the need, and I see how it will be a support for teachers. It's worthwhile work! At the same time, it's hard to push down the gas pedal and accelerate our plans in a time when people are so tired. We know the students need it, and as educators, we are trained to put students first! Yet the law of diminishing returns will definitely kick in at some point - when will we start to lose our effectiveness due to exhaustion? I'm personally struggling with this balance, and I know it's something every district is probably dealing with right now! There's no one perfect answer, but I think it's important to hold both student needs and teacher needs in tension as we approach the summer.

One thing I do know for sure is that we are all committed to doing the best we can to serve our students, whatever that looks like. I hope that you all get the chance to relax, play, read a book for fun, lay out in the sun, be creative, spend time with loved ones, and indulge in something exciting this summer! I'm trying to do the same in between the work to set our students up for success next school year too!

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Lessons in Leadership: Then and Now

Two years ago, I had my first foray into my current position of leading the arts in my district. I enjoyed it, but it was definitely challenging to make the switch from being a peer to being in charge, with so many of my friends being music teachers! Due to some district restructuring and personnel changes, I took on a somewhat different role last year, but I am (happily) back in a similar position this year. The silver lining is that it has really allowed me to see my own growth as a leader over the past couple of years!

Then, I really approached things as a teacher. I will never forget my supervisor asking me, "How do you think a principal would describe this situation?" It turned on a lightbulb for me!
Now, I find myself thinking more as an administrator. In some ways, this is a good thing, but in other ways, I never want to get too far from a teacher point of view, so I try to talk to several current teachers to stay grounded in everyday classroom life.

Then, I really feared and shied away from conflict. It's hard to stand up and say no to people who are your friends, who were recently your peers! I was so uncomfortable with this role.
Now, I still don't like conflict very much, but I'm more willing to step into it. I feel more strongly grounded in what I believe is best for our students, and I can articulate it when needed.

Then, I was learning so much, and asked so many questions! I remember needing a lot of help to walk through HR processes, budgets, etc. It was a steep learning curve, and I had to learn how all of these things worked before I could really figure out how to approach them.
Now, I am still learning a lot, but it is getting easier! After taking a year "off" from doing this, I'm re-learning a lot, but it is coming back more quickly and I have a much better sense of the big picture. I've been pleasantly surprised at not only how much I remember, but how much I am able to put other pieces into place after seeing different parts of the organization!

Then, I was new. Almost every big decision I made was in conjunction with someone, because I didn't feel very confident and needed other people's perspective to help me develop my own.
Now, I'm still pretty new. I still look for other perspectives, but I don't feel like I am completely missing something, and that in turn gives me more confidence in my decisions. One of the biggest differences I have noticed is in how people treat me - I feel like there is so much more trust! I have asked in a couple of different instances if people want to double-check my work before I finalize it, and the answer is, "No, if you feel good about it, that's fine." This is both affirming and a little scary :-).

Then, I accepted what I was told. If a supervisor or peer said that something should be a certain way, I took it for granted, whether I agreed or not.
Now, I have learned that I can push back a little if it's something I feel strongly about. I definitely have to choose my battles, but I am not so quick to accept "no" for an answer.

It's amazing to me to look back and see my own growth over only two years. I still have a long way to go, but I hope and pray that I will continue to develop into a leader worth following, no matter where my career takes me!

How have you grown in the past couple of years?

What do you think are the most important qualities in a leader?