Saturday, April 20, 2019

I Remember

These are new shoes. Are they going to get all scuffed up?

On Wednesday, my district, along with several other districts in the state, cancelled school. Not for a snow storm or other weather-related issue, but because of the threat of school violence.

It's hard to describe my thoughts and feelings about that. I'm grateful to everyone who keeps us safe, and I'm grateful that the decision was made to put safety first. But I'm also sad and mad that this is our reality. That a threat of violence can shut down the schools of an entire metro area, because we can't risk sending our kids to school.

It COULD happen here. It is happening here.

It also makes me remember an incident of school violence I experienced a few years ago. It wasn't a shooting, nobody died, and it quickly faded from the news. But something like this brings back the details, sharp and clear in my mind. The shoes I was wearing. The calmness that blanketed me during the day, as we took care of all of the kiddos in the school, and the shock that came later, after they were all home with their parents. The realization that it could happen anywhere, anytime. And the decision that, even knowing that there is never a 100% guarantee of safety, I don't want to live in fear.

"As teachers, we are so wired to take care of the kids. Don't be surprised if this hits you harder weeks or months down the road. It's normal."

That quote above, from a principal at another school, was some of the best advice I received when it happened. She was right - that was my experience. I'm just dropping her words here in case somebody else needs to hear it.

Back to the present: returning to work on Thursday, after they found the person who was making these threats, was weird. Everything just felt off. They found her dead, an apparent suicide. I was glad that the threat was over, but can you ever really rejoice in someone else's death? Especially an 18-year-old girl who clearly had a lot going on?

I'm not really sure where I am going with this post, other than putting my thoughts out there, but I do want to end with a few takeaways I am thinking about:

  • Watch out for each other. We are built for relationships & connection, and it makes a big difference in life.
  • Reach out. I was so grateful for a friend who texted me, following the school closure, to share her experience (she was also at the school I was at when the incident happened a few years ago). We had a good little texting conversation about some of what we remember and how it changes how we process/experience events like the one that happened this week.
  • Be real. Don't pretend nothing is happening. Acknowledge it with your kids (in an age-appropriate way), your co-workers, and parents who are around. We are all feeling it, and hiding it makes things even worse.
  • Live life. Don't let fear take over. We can't control everything (nor should we). So don't get caught up in trying to be in control. Just live!
  • Finally, if you ever find yourself in a situation like this and want/need to talk, please know that I'm willing. It's such a taboo subject in our culture, but holding it in can make it even worse! So whether we've met IRL or are PLN friends, know that you are not alone <3.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Words Can Hurt; Words Can Heal

A couple of years ago, somebody made a comment comparing my cello playing to my violin playing. I didn't think anything of it at the time - I am a violinist, and play cello as secondary instrument. I am nowhere near as skilled or as comfortable playing cello, and it didn't surprise me when this person alluded to that!

Fast forward a couple of years, and I realized that I was feeling significant anxiety around playing cello in certain environments (especially on worship team at church).

This weekend, as I was preparing to do just that, I said something at practice about not being very confident on cello. And was met with this response: "Well, we're all confident in your cello skills!" I was amazed at how much that single comment made me relax. 

As I reflect, I wonder, did I let an offhand comment, said innocently, grow into a cloud of doubt about my own musical skills? I want to be clear - I don't blame the person who originally said it to me - it was a completely fair assessment! But something about it affected me far more than intended.

***

How do words our students? I was fascinated when I was reading a book by Brene Brown, and she shared, "When I started the research on shame, you know, 13 years ago, I found that 85% of the men and women who I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. But wait – this is good – fifty percent of that 85% percent, half of those people: those shame wounds were around creativity. So fifty percent of those people have art scars. Have creativity scars.
(TBH, I don't remember which book I first read that stat in, so I Googled it...the quote here is from a podcast.)

As teachers, our words can have a huge impact. They can hurt, but they can also heal. So how can we give constructive criticism in a way that builds, rather than squashes, creativity? The following is a list that comes to my mind - feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments!

  • Balance is important - this feels like something we hear all of the time in teacher prep courses and PD sessions, but pay attention to what kind of feedback you are giving to each individual over time, and make sure it includes both positive feedback and feedback for growth.
  • Specific suggestions - "This needs to be better," feels hopeless, but "This needs to be better, and I think you can work on it by _______," instills a sense of confidence and expectation that they can get there.
  • Recognize the growth - if you give feedback to somebody and see them follow through on it, follow up with a compliment about how they improved! This strengthens not only the relationship of working hard = getting better, but your personal connection as well, because you noticed something specific about the way they have improved!
  • Ask questions - Particularly in creative subjects, what might look or sound like a blob or a mess to me might have significant meaning to the creator. Ask them questions about their intentions and the meaning of their work, and then give feedback to help them more clearly get their message across (if appropriate).
  • Be vulnerable with your own creativity, too - Being creative is risky. It is vulnerable. You are putting yourself out there in a way that is more individual and personal than something where there is a right & wrong answer. When we model our own triumphs and successes with creativity, we give our kids the freedom to do the same.
***

This weekend, I was able to play with freedom. Instead of spending the whole time worrying about getting this note in tune, staying solidly on the bass line, or balancing with the rest of the group, I was able to just play and have fun! Words can hurt, but words can also heal. Which words will you speak to your students with this week?

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Grace in the Moment

This week, I have had lots of tough conversations.
But I have also witnessed incredible grace.

Nothing sticks out to me more than when I was delivering bad news to a friend and colleague this week, and she was clearly very upset (with good reason). But then she turned it around on me and said, "I'm sorry, it's probably been a hard week for you, delivering bad news to so many different people." Wow, talk about empathy - thinking about how I feel in a time like this?

Her comment reminded me of the humanity of this profession. Sure, we are workers, but we are people first. And people can love and support each other, no matter what the circumstances are.

It also made me think that, while I hate the fact that I have to have some of these conversations, it's also an honor to be able to stand with people in tough times. I can handle the news with as much compassion, kindness, and care as I can. There's something so beautifully human about being with people in their brokenness and vulnerability, and mine as well - it creates a bond. A human connection. An authentic relationship.

So, while it stinks to deliver bad news, it comes with an opportunity. Whatever the news or relationship may be professionally, in that moment, we are two people on the same ground, connecting with each other. And that's worth something.

I guess it hasn't been such a bad week after all!

Inspired by Brene Brown's video on empathy - watch it here!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Trust

Trust.


This word has been on my mind a lot lately, as I have been thinking about leadership in education. A #hacklearning chat last week. Interviewing candidates for a principal position. Going through a reorganization in our department at work. Figuring out a schedule for the art, music, and PE teachers in the district for next year. All require...

Trust.


Our #hacklearning chat was about the trust between teachers and administrators, but I think the same concept can be applied to students and teachers, or anywhere there is a power differential. It is important for administrators to be trustworthy, because they often are the ultimate decision-makers. It is important for teachers to trust them, because they often have a perspective and have more information than teachers. Yet trust is not blindly given, it is earned. One of the ways to earn trust is for administrators to trust their teachers by empowering them and giving them freedom when possible. It goes both ways.

Trust.


Interviews are an interesting exercise in trust. You have to trust that candidates are putting their true selves out there, not just spinning a great story for the committee. You have to trust the process of screenings and earlier rounds, and believe that once you get to interviews, the best candidates have truly been brought forward. And, in a process like the one I participated in, the committee doesn't make the final decision...so you have to trust that your input will be heard, considered, and brought together with all of the other voices to make the best decision possible. That becomes easier if you trust the people ultimately doing the hiring.

Trust.


I'm going to be honest, here - this reorg has been the source of many questions and fears (along with excitement & potential for things to improve). There are so many little details that I wonder about! And I really like to know what is going on...all of the time. Yet the thing that I fall back on is trust. I trust that our leaders who have envisioned this change really believe it will help, and I trust that they will figure out the details. I trust that our leadership has the 3 Cs - they are capable, competent, and caring. This trust means that I can let go of my need to know, my desire to advocate at every turn, and my own ideas of how things should be. There is still a time and place to share all of that - and I do - but then I can leave it be and let them take my ideas along with all of the other ones and choose the best path to move forward. One of the big reasons I feel comfortable doing this is because I have seen, many times, these leaders choose to do what is right rather than what is easy. That gives me confidence that it is not only the loudest voices that will be heard! It's freeing to let go, but it's only possible because of the trust that has been earned.

Trust.


And now I come to a place where I have to ask for trust from others. As I develop the schedule for next year, I am acutely aware that the decisions I make will have a significant impact on the lives of my teachers and their students. I worry about making the right call, and I am asking for a lot of input. Now, don't get me wrong, I think it is essential to involve as many voices as possible in the process, but I was struck when one of my teachers and friends said to me, "We trust you to make good decisions, even if they aren't always what we would have wanted." Being on the flip side made me realize that it is so much easier for me to give trust than to feel like I have earned it from others. It's affirming to know feel like my teachers trust me, and I want to live up to that! In a time where I am having to make some hard decisions, it has encouraged me to reflect on my relationships with leaders I have trusted - and, as mentioned above, something that means a lot to me is when leaders prioritize what is RIGHT over what is EASY. This tidbit has given me confidence to move forward on some things that may or may not be popular with everyone, but I believe they are the right thing for our kids and our district. As a person in a leadership position, it is my job to make these choices, even when it is uncomfortable. But hopefully, the thousands of other little decisions that have been made along the way have laid a foundation of trust for those who are affected.

Trust.


I could on and on, but one thing is clear: trust is foundational to all of our relationships, including those in schools.

How do you go about building trust with those around you? What makes (or breaks) trust in a relationship?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

It's Time for a Break!

Bitmoji Image


It is definitely time for spring break!



The funny thing about working at the district office is...you don't really get these breaks. A lot of people take days off, but it's not like being a teacher where your week is defined for you. It's a bit of an adjustment!

It's been a month of very hard work, and I feel so good about what we have accomplished! But I feel my brain getting fuzzy. I'm just not as sharp after weeks of thinking, planning, and doing. It's a bit hard to describe - I just know that I need to ease up a little bit to be able to come back fresh to continue to tackle the challenges & opportunities that exist.





To that end, I'm taking Monday & Tuesday off. My plans include:


  • Going to see my old high school (and several other schools) compete in the regional robotics competition (& meeting my family & some friends there)
  • Going to see a symphony concert where they play the movie score to Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back) while the movie plays on the big screen
  • Reading a book. Not a professional book, not one for my #GoogleEI project, but something just for fun. Which book? TBD.
  • Spending a couple of days with my family - my brother is a teacher and my sister is home from college, so we will all be together!
  • Getting my taxes done. Yep, it needs to happen.
Really, more than anything, this is a #selfcare and accountability post. It's hard for me to take time off, especially when I feel like there is a lot that needs to be done, but it is so needed!

What are you doing to rejuvenate this spring?

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Cooperative Problem-Solving

My work, at the central district office, has been pretty busy lately. I've been charged with taking point on a big puzzle...

...dun dun dun...

The master schedule for specialists! 


In my district (of 56 schools), elementary art, music, & PE are on a 3-day rotation, so they teach each class every 3rd day. 5th graders also have instrumental music, which happens 2x/week (not on the 3-day rotation). 6th-12th graders have class most days, but these schools often employ a modified block schedule or regular late start or early release schedule (one day per week).

Figuring out how to fit all of the teachers (and fill their contracts, which are all different) together with all of our school buildings (which all have different schedules) with the number of students requesting each class (which is different in every place) is no easy task. Many teachers work at anywhere from 2-7 schools, and it all has to work out, and not just on regular days, but also block days, late start days, early release days. It requires so much information and so many different perspectives!

Luckily, I don't have to do it alone.


When I started thinking about how to approach this "problem" (as in, a problem to be solved, not something that is bad), I imagined getting a bunch of stakeholders in a room and going through a design thinking process. While that sounds great, it would probably take a couple of days, and that is too long to be taking teachers & principals out of their buildings.

Image result for stanford design thinking process

As a result, we are going through a shortened, modified version. I started with a small group of stakeholders for one afternoon to all share our perspectives and help figure out our priorities & design constraints. This helped us empathize and define what we wanted to solve.

Next, I asked teachers to create the perfect schedule in their perfect world. I was actually inclined to start with principals, but in our small group, the principals said it would be better for the teachers to try a first draft. This gave us the chance to ideate and dream about what could be! What I love is that teachers gave me their best thinking, which highlights things that I wasn't thinking about (for example, logical driving routes including right turns rather than left turns during tight commutes).

I've been able to take the teacher's schedules as a starting point and combine it with things I know & see from the district lens, and make adjustments. The next step has been calling principals to see if this prototype might work in their individual buildings. Sometimes the answer is yes; other times, we have to pivot and explore alternate options. What's great about this process, though, is that it is not happening in isolation. I ran into a bump in one school after talking with a principal. I mentioned it to a teacher, and less than an hour later, I had a text from her with a possible solution. I ran it by the principal, and it will work! I love having so many people around who can help me with this thinking, because honestly, it is daunting and overwhelming!

The great news? It feels like it's finally coming together! This coming week, I will bring it to all of the principals to test the idea out and see what issues we still have. There are still approximately a hundred details to be worked out, but if we have the big pieces in place, I trust that the rest will follow. It feels like we really hit a turning point last week where we could place enough pieces to start to see the big picture.

I am thrilled that this project is coming along, but even more thrilled that we are doing it together. I know this phrase gets thrown around a lot, but this process has truly been an example of being #bettertogether. We each have a piece of the puzzle, and when everybody gets to share their thinking and take ownership over a small part, it comes together much better than if one person (me!) was trying to figure it all out by themselves.

And that, my friends, is my leadership lesson & takeaway for the week.

Is there something that you are in charge of where collaboration needs to be expanded? What steps can you take to bring people together to problem-solve?

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Create!

The theme of my past week or so has been collaborative creation. There are so many fun ways to insert creative, collaborative activities into your day-to-day life! Here are a few that I've engaged in over the past week - what will they spark in your mind?

Creating a public art piece for our new building




What better way to celebrate our district culture and diversity than creating an art piece to go in our new district building? Each person got a cube to work with, painted the top & bottom black, and then went to town with the other four sides:
  • One painted in black and white
  • One painted in color
  • One created with collage
  • One created with woodworking or wood burning tools
It was amazing to see what people came up with! I felt a little out of my league as a former music teacher in a room full of art teachers, but don't we tell our students to take risks? Especially in creation? How could I not do the same thing? Everyone was helpful as I figured out how to use the tools & materials, and while my cube was no masterpiece, it will be woven into the art piece, signaling a welcoming community for all.

Kids creating "Humans of Our District" displays to be hung in a local museum








My favorite two pictures from above are the ones where kids are interacting with their parents. We talk about family engagement and authentic learning experiences, and this is a great example of project-based learning done well! Students began with a driving question about telling the stories of our community, and then went through a variety of steps to tell those stories. The 1st-3rd graders from four schools that participated all did something a little different, and we ended up with autobiographies, biographies of community members, books, posters, weavings, and 3D sculptures representing the humans of our community. At the grand opening of the exhibit, the room was packed with parents and friends, excited to see the students' work. Creative power + community engagement = an amazing, real-world learning experience! For more information, see this newspaper article.


Nerdy Creation in the office


I can't hide it - I am really a nerd in disguise. Something I've loved doing since my middle school days is solving Rubik's Cubes. My friends and I even joked that we had RCS in high school - "Rubik's Cube Syndrome"! This creation activity appeals more to those who are strong in problem-solving - a cube mosaic! You can print a picture (or make your own), and it basically works like pixel art. The top of each cube needs to be solved to match its place in the mosaic, and when put together, it will make a picture. Because you only need to solve the top side of the cube, it's pretty accessible, and anyone with a bit of time and patience can do it (with the help of the instruction manuals included in the kit). And the best part? This set, and others, can be rented for free from You CAN Do the Cube - all you have to pay is return shipping! This has been a fun way to build office community and engage the left and right sides of our brains in a different way!

Collaborative creation - I believe this is a crucial skill for students to be prepared for life after school. And everything is more fun with friends. What will you (and your students) create today?