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?

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Light and Darkness

Have you heard about what happened this week in Boulder, CO? Yep, that's my community. Although I don't live right in the neighborhood anymore, I've been to that King Soopers hundreds of times, often as an outing with kids with disabilities, and I can picture the entire store very clearly in my mind's eye. It hits differently when it is in your community.

My district is on spring break this week, and I'm very thankful. Apart from the need for every bit of relaxation we can get this year, it also means that our schools (some mere blocks away from the store) were not in session while this was happening. And we, as adults, have a little bit of time to breathe and process and take care of our own emotions before we welcome students back to their normal routines. Not to say it'll all be tied up in a bow by Monday, but it won't be quite as raw.

As I've been working through my own thoughts and feelings, I'm struck by the fact that we are approaching Easter Sunday, the biggest juxtaposition of light and darkness in history. Darkness when Jesus was betrayed by a friend and killed. Light when He rose again and conquered death. Whether you share my beliefs or not, I think this same mix of light and darkness can be seen through recent events in our community. The darkness is obvious: a person entering a grocery store and killing ten people. I think about the circles of those ten people, their families and friends and neighbors, and know that their lives are forever altered. I know several teachers in my district who taught one of the victims, and they are struggling right now. I also think about the family and friends and neighbors and teachers of the suspect...their lives are altered too, as they have to reconcile what happened with what they (thought they) knew about him. I think about everyone who was in that store or parking lot or lived across the streets and saw it happen (I know people in this situation as well). That trauma doesn't go away easily. And I think about the wider community, those who regularly frequent this King Soopers and are likely plagued with the thought, "It could have been me." The impact is great.

But I have to believe that the light is even greater. Stories of people helping others in the moment, both those who died and those who lived. A community coming together to honor the victims and support each other and heal. After a year of loneliness and isolation for many, perhaps this was a nudge to reach back out to others. A reminder that we are never alone. 

I don't know why this happened, and the pain and trauma will continue. But I want to hold that in balance with the hope that will outlast everything. Light and darkness can coexist, but light will win in the end. I hope that we all can do our part to spread a little more of that light to the rest of the world, whether that means texting a friend you haven't talked to in awhile, holding a door for someone, or unexpectedly doing something nice (my mind is on shoveling from our recent storms) for someone else. And I hope that our kids will also feel empowered to spread that light, because we can all do something for others, no matter how old they are.

Be the light!

(And please pray for my community)

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Nightmares

As a teacher, it wasn't unusual for me to start dreaming about my classroom in August as we returned from summer break, or right before a concert. Every now and then, a nightmare would pop up where I had lost children or where everything broke or some other absurd variation on what could go wrong. It's a common experience among teachers!

Although my position has changed, these nightmares still have a way of sneaking up on you. I can tell I've been more stressed about things lately, because I had my first "FTE nightmare" this week! And in keeping with my attentive #oneword2021, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on where this stress is coming from. Here are some of the things keeping me up at night...

  • I'm worried about the future of all electives. Will we double down on math & literacy in an effort to "catch students up" and do so at the expense of the classes that round out their education?
  • In particular, I'm worried about the future of music education. Singing events have led to the spread of the virus (although there are many factors to these events), and I fear that, in the court of public opinion, the risk just won't be worth it. Will students not sign up, or will schools not offer these classes?
  • Then we come to the numbers game. In the electives world, your job is often determined by how many students sign up for your classes. Our enrollment is down across the board. Many students did not get the classes they signed up for this year due to schedule changes to make cohorts happen (they were just shoved into whatever elective class fit into their schedule). What impact will that have on next year?
  • Speaking of that, budgets. What will the federal and state funding for public education look like? My state is known for the B.S. Factor (yes, that's what it's called, the Budget Stabilization Factor, or B.S. factor for short) which creates a deficit in funding public education in order to balance the budget. Less money from the state = hard decisions about what that means in schools.
  • Which led to my nightmare. Of having to tell teachers that they are being let go or reassigned. And because our contract (similar to most) works on the basis of seniority, I dreamed about having to let go of some of our awesome teachers, who have created resources and shared and collaborated and worked like crazy to bring amazing content to our kids this year, because they happen to be lowest on the totem pole.
  • I worry about the teachers I have the privilege to serve and lead. People are exhausted. Hanging on by a thread. Burned out. The spark, the joy of teaching is often muffled these days because teaching at boxes with profile pictures just isn't the same. And the asks are mounting. Vaccine distribution seems to be bringing hope, but we are continuing to exist in this heightened state of fear and alertness, and our bodies can only take so much of that. And then you add in concerns about job security. Will we make it?
  • Ultimately, it comes back to our kids. I worry about their isolation, and also about the pressure they feel. These classes are connectors, they are places for kids who doesn't always do so well in academia to shine. They are often the highlight of a student's day. And with more information coming out about the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and teens, with every new story about a suicide or overdose, I think about how important it is that we don't just push our kids back into an environment of focusing solely on academics. There are other, perhaps greater, needs that we must attend to as well.
Usually, I try to be pretty positive on this blog, and I don't mean to say that it is all gloom and doom. I have seen amazing things happen this year, and I know that some good has come out of all of this! But I can't deny that these concerns are a constant rumble of low-level stress, and as planning for next year begins, they are starting to bubble up more.

As I reflect personally, I think that my goal is to hold all of this in balance. It is important for me to have these thoughts and acknowledge them, because they lead to advocating for what I believe is right and making wise decisions for the things under my control. But I can't let the fears overtake my life or drown out the joy of a profession where we truly get to impact lives. My hope for all of you is that, whatever your nightmares and dreams are, you will be able to balance it and still find the joy!