Everything Is Cool When You’re Part Of A Team

I am an educator by trade, though I have been a learner and a leader all of my life. Years ago, I wrote a blog post called Learning to Lead Learning Since 1979 that goes into this topic in more depth, though I think the sentiment comes through just fine in my personal mission statement. My purpose, as I see it: to cultivate communities of learners and learning by connecting with people, bringing shape to ideas, and seeking to understand.

Thankfully at this point in time, I have found myself professionally tied to a merry band of travelers who each seem to share at least a modicum of that mission in his or her own heart and mind. Together, we canvas the country seeking to be the learning partners that educators and school districts deserve as they venture into the unexplored reaches of their professional identities. In this team, I feel that I have found my tribe. We embody the feeling of a family- a feeling that I experienced to some extent in my previous career points, though has been amplified with this group in recent months to levels unexperienced to date.

That said, within the construct of this job I get the opportunity to visit cities all across these United States, and usually do so all by my lonesome. While I am traveling independently, I do interact with countless numbers of people while on the journey. In those travels, I have noticed that I tend to operate in slightly strange ways. At least strange relative to your average person.

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Mr Glasses Visitor

I am always a visitor, everywhere I go. I find myself walking through downtown streets and across suburban highways, meandering, seemingly aimlessly, because I can. I am a visitor here- I am not permanent. I end up in conversations with strangers, listening for the soul of the city while also attempting to help that person know that they have a friend for today- someone who will listen and help them find that they can in fact take that next step (terrifying as it may be). I do all of this because if I start the trip as a visitor everywhere I go, I need to end with that new place feeling like home. if I have to be away from my home in order to serve as this learning partner, then I figure I might as well try to help home feel like it came with me.

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I had another realization that has come to hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been talking with one of my teammates about my way of being and the various people I have met along the way, and as I shared she sat in silence on the other end of the phone. When she finally did speak, her first words were, “Wow. THAT is why we need you on our team, because we do not have anyone else like you on it.” (Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, my response: “That’s the beauty of it- we do not have anybody like anybody on our team. That’s what makes us a good team.”)

Her response got me thinking. Not even my teammates- those who “get it” more than any other due to our shared experiences out in the field- not even they necessarily understand my way of being. I felt as if I needed a way of communicating the why of my approach to life such that it could be understood- not only by them, but also a little bit better by me.

The More We Work Together, The Happier We’ll Be

Teacher Leader In You

Several days ago while waiting for a haircut, I found these words:

Imagine for a moment that one day, you decided to live as if every person you have ever met or will ever meet is on your team. You are here for them, they are here for you, and we are all moving forward together in the same direction for a common purpose. How might that mindset change the way in which you live your life from that day forward?

What I realized is, this is how I live. This is what I do. It resonated so closely with my own experiences, and like a lens brought everything into focus.

Imagine for a moment that it was true, that everyone was on your team. That would include Stephanie, a waitress in North Carolina who is 5 months pregnant with her first child, and her boyfriend, whose name I can’t remember though is no less central to the next steps within their family unit. If they were on my team, I would want to help them process their excitements and their fears about this huge step in their life. If they were on my team, I would want them to embrace the size and scope of this step. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how much their lives are going to change, and take steps from here on out that would help them prepare a world for that new little boy in which he will be successful. I have never been brave enough to consider taking a similar leap, so I applaud anyone who is willing and able to do so, so long as they take the responsibility of that leap as seriously as it is. While I will never meet them again, I hope that one evening’s conversation proves to be a helpful one for that new life entering the world and the parents that will help to grow it.

If everyone was on your team, that would include a team of researchers on a business retreat that I just happened to walk by one evening. They were sitting in a 25-person circle out on a restaurant’s patio, enjoying each other’s company as one whole after a hard day’s work. If they were on my team, I would want them to recognize how special it is that they elected to circle up as one whole versus sitting separately in several small groups, as such a way of being promotes team unity in ways unimaginable without it. It’s a rarity I do not often see, and if they’re able to name it, then they can replicate it. While I will never meet them again, I hope they keep on making circles of conversation from here on out.

If everyone was on your team, that would include Linda, a customer service representative for the airline of my flight for my very first event as a full-time employee, which was cancelled due to a mechanical malfunction. In talking with my boss about how to go about rescheduling the flight, he referenced the concept of “my fault, their fault, and God’s fault,” meaning that a mechanical failure is “their fault” and as such they need to do everything in their power to make it right. His direction to me: “Give them the business.” (And rereading it, I do not think he meant that I should buy more tickets.)

But if everyone is on your team, how do you “give them the business” in a way that is not destructive while also getting the outcomes you seek? Thankfully, Linda picked up the phone and asked how she could help me. I told Linda what I needed in no uncertain terms, “Linda, I am looking for a teammate and a partner. I had a flight cancelled tonight due to mechanical failure, and I desperately need to have my wheels down in Chicago by tomorrow morning for this professional learning session. Will you be that teammate?”

She jumped onto the team with open arms.

What she found was that the earliest trip out of Richmond left by 10:30am the next day, landing eventually in Chicago by 2pm CDT. My response to Linda: “I think you misunderstood me. I never said I needed to leave Richmond. I said that I needed wheels down in Chicago. I’m talking planes, trains, and automobiles here- if you can get me a flight, I can get to that flight.”

Her response: “Oh! That changes everything- let me see what I can do.”

We found a flight out of Reagan International in Washington DC that was scheduled to leave by 5am the next morning. With it being only a 2-hour drive, and current local time of 10:30pm, I had plenty of time to make it there before the flight. (Unfortunately, a 12am traffic jam on 95 North delayed me pretty significantly, and after gassing up the rental I only just barely made it in time. I will say that DC at 3:30am is beautiful- the memorial for Iwo Jima has never looked so breathtaking.)

Linda was a fantastic teammate. And if she were on my team, I would want those who work with her to know the lengths she went through to help me such that we could reinforce that behavior. So I made sure to fill out the survey at the end. It’s a small gesture, I know- but it’s the thought that counts.

The number of customer service representatives I have since been able to help in that way (because of their dedication to helping me) is moderately staggering. One night, I had been struggling to get access to my bank login and password in order to print out some statements, and finally decided to call customer service. The teammate on the other end of the line (ironically also named Linda- what is it with people named Linda and their willingness to help?) stayed on the line with me at 1:30am CDT for over an hour trying to figure out the issue. Once we finally got it figured out, I asked if there was any way I could be as helpful to her as she had been to me, to which she responded that I could share my thoughts with her supervisor. I did so happily and with fervor, even with it being almost 3am by that time.

These people are all on my team. We are here to help each other move forward, and as I come to embrace that role, I realize that it will take a constant level of personal vigilance to ensure that I continue to make decisions in my life such that I can continue to serve in this way.

What’s amazing to me- none of the stories above about the people I’ve met and joined on my team include any of the incredible educators I have had the privilege to serve. I could tell stories about them for days- I am blessed to have played a small part in their professional journeys, as they have played a large part in mine. They are by default part of my extended family, which grows exponentially by the week. Of course, that level of commitment to service isn’t really all that strange, and frankly I have plenty of real estate to tell those stories in the context that they deserve in order to help others learn from those practices.

This way of thinking was highly influenced by one of my former and forever teammates- a lead coach who has since taken a role as a site-based leader. When I elected to take on this role full-time starting last year, she asked me, “Where will you find your team?” Knowing that being part of a team was important to me, she worried that being out all on my lonesome would end up causing some level of angst. Little did she know the mindset that would emerge as a result.

My Mission, Should I Choose To Accept It

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Spider-Man is one of my many personal influences. My dad used to end each day with me by reading a few pages of a comic as a bedtime story, so I always tell kids that Spider-Man taught me how to read. And if they’re kindergartners, they say, “Mr Glasses…you know Spider-Man?” #kidssaythedarnedestthings

That said, Spider-Man also taught me and everyone else something important- that with great power comes great responsibility.

I do think (as my teammate mentioned) that I have a gift. A gift for connecting with people. A gift for bringing shape to ideas. A gift for seeking to understand. And I think I also have the responsibility to use that gift in service of others in order to cultivate communities of learning. That responsibility brings with it the importance of ensuring that every choice I make in my personal and professional life is also in service of that mission. To do otherwise could potentially cause irreparable harm that would derail that mission, and that mission is far too important to run off track.

O Captain My Captain: Lessons in Leadership from Derek Jeter

It’s official. After 20 years on the diamond, Yankee captain Derek Jeter has officially played his last Major League game. (Note that I didn’t say, “his last game in pinstripes,” as he’ll surely be back on the field for Old Timers’ Day one of these days.) We can all ask that he “say it ain’t so,” but it’s so.

That all being said, there’s a lot to learn about leadership from diving just a little bit into this one man’s career. It should go without saying, I guess…I mean, his nickname is The Captain, after all. And it must be true if Forbes has beaten me to the punch. I’ll leave a few of the easy ones alone for right now (e.g. Dive in head first, Be in the right place at the right time even if it’s not the right place to be, etc.) and focus on a couple that have jumped out at me over the last few weeks/months:

Sometimes you’re born with it: Joe Torre has told some great stories over the last few months about Derek Jeter, in particular his ever-present leadership skills as noted over the course of his career:
  • What will the Yankees miss most when Jeter is gone? “Leadership is [generally] something that has to be nurtured. It doesn’t happen right away. Derek was very unusual. Someone like Derek doesn’t come down the pike very often. To be at a young age very responsible and very comfortable in your own skin doesn’t happen very often.”
  • Joe Torre on Derek Jeter’s legacy: “He was a lot more mature at 21 than I was. That’s the one thing that hits me first. He had great parenting…he’s a remarkable human being. I used the one word, which is ‘trustworthy’ to describe him, based on the fact that everybody around him was better because of him and he’d always be there for them.”
  • During an interview during today’s game: “When did we start looking to Jeter for his leadership? Guys like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, everyone- we started looking to him during the 1996 season – his rookie season.”

All of these stories remind me: each of us has to be the type of leader that we are. As much as leadership practices can be learned, it’s also something that’s a part of you- and so much of that success is just about being comfortable in your own skin.

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My dad and me nerding out at a NYY@BAL game this year. Yes, we’re wearing the same Jeter shirt. No, it wasn’t planned.

Every team member matters: On my own family’s visit to see Jeter’s “Farewell Tour,” my father shot this video capturing Jeter’s pre-game dugout ritual. In it, you see Jeter walk from one end of the dugout to the other, giving a fist-bump to each and every one of the players, coaches, and batboys prepping for the game. No one gets left out- I even see him try to “dap” the security guard at one point, though my guess is they’re generally supposed to avoid that kind of contact with the players (especially the visiting team).

What it shows me: it’s important to this leader that every member of the team get that show of support, that reminder that they’re all part of something bigger. Their captain is the one who connects them together.

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“Hate the Yankees, love the Captain.” –Trevor Przyuski (photo credit Jude Przyuski)

You might be The Captain, but it’s really about everybody else: A good friend of mine went on a baseball trip with his son in 2012 to see the Nationals play the Yankees. During the game, his son was able to take this photo to the right. According to my friend, Jeter “noticed [the young boy] with the camera, stopped, took off his helmet, and smiled – in the middle of the game.” Life is full of these little moments- I had one of my own with my childhood hero Michael Jordan at a pre-season Bulls’ game- and it’s incredible when these larger-than-life figures notice that you’re there, and that you’re connected.

That’s a huge lesson for leaders: Notice people. Stay connected. No matter how busy the world gets in your specific sphere, recognize that ultimately it’s not all about you and your experience- it’s about everyone else. These seemingly small connections on your own part may last a lifetime for all of those with whom you are connected.

Note: Published just a few weeks ago, this Gatorade ad pretty much summed up that same idea:

Find out what people are thinking: I ran across a series on MLB.com called “One Word For 2”, where they shared what amounts to a 360 evaluation on Jeter just by asking a simple question of players in the league: “What’s one word that comes to mind when you think of Derek Jeter?” I love that you can disaggregate responses from his teammates, from his opponents, and from alumni of the game. Their variety of responses tells you all you need to know about who this leader is and what he’s about.

This little post reminds me to consider how you’re known in the eyes of those around you, not just how you think you are. However you’re remembered in those people’s eyes, that’s ultimately how you’ll live on. I wrote a post once before about that concept called Gone, But Not Forgotten that might be an appropriately interesting reflective piece in the same vein.

Lessons from his last at-bat: Jeter’s last at-bats (both home and away) are tough acts to follow, but I’ll try:

  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over. You have to come through in the clutch. Over the course of Jeter’s career, he has come through when it counted for his team, and his last home at-bat was no exception.
  • It doesn’t have to be pretty. In his last home at-bat, Jeets hit a standard, run-of-the-mill single to right field. His last at-bat in Boston was even less picturesque: a real Baltimore chop that bounced off of home plate and stayed in play just long enough to allow him to reach first (and drive in a run). Neither were especially pretty, and both got the job done for the team.
  • It’s not about the accolades. Jeter took himself out of the game after that infield single, accepting the cheers that would follow his last moment on the field. What’s unique: exiting the game at that time left him with 149 hits for the year, which with one more hit would have tied him with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Pete Rose for the most all-time seasons with 150 or more base hits. His response? “I’ve never played this game for numbers, so why start now?”
  • Everything ends, and everything begins anew. One of the most moving parts of the last home at-bat is the sight of the rest of the Core Four waiting alongside former manager Joe Torre for Jeter to join the fold. It moved me on a variety of levels, but I hadn’t landed on the full extent of why. I read that this Core Four had played together for 17 seasons. Through good times and bad. Through championships and early exits. Through it all, they are family. And seeing Jeter walk off that field into their arms meant that the days of that family on the field have officially come to an end, so that a new era can officially begin.

Those shared moments during the last at-bats reminded me of something a mentor of mine once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Every once in a while, these special moments in time happen when everything and everyone just fits together. You get this level of collaboration and synergy that is so infectious and energizing, and you never want it to stop. And eventually, like everything, there comes a time when that moment passes. What’s powerful about it is, once you’ve experienced it, you’ll look for it everywhere you go, no matter where it is that you end up.”

What sticks with me is ultimately that’s a leader’s job: to shape the spaces for these potential moments of seeming perfection, and help people realize that moment and “seize the day” while it’s there. Here’s to hoping we can learn from Jeter’s example.

#RE2PECT.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Since taking a position outside of the classroom three years ago, I always get a little antsy as the school year approaches. No matter how much I enjoy my current role (and I enjoy it very much), I can’t help but miss the buzz of the year’s beginning in a school. Wide eyes of incoming students starting a brand new year of physics classes, smiles and high-fives from colleagues in the hallway, energizing exhaustion from organizing and re-organizing the classroom space: few experiences match the energy of those moments in the year.

In that vein, I was driving home this afternoon reflecting on an old adage: “Gone, but not forgotten.” It’s a sentiment often saved for retirements and funerals, but it could be applied for any of us that have moved to a new role, a new school, a new profession. I started hoping that while I may be gone from the classroom I “lived in” for 7 years, I am not forgotten in the eyes of those former students and co-workers. 

I ruminated on that sentiment for a few minutes…and then I considered its opposite:

“Here, but not remembered.”

I’m guessing it goes without saying that the former would easily trump the latter. But how many of us have considered whether or not we will be remembered for what we do right now?

Another adage comes to mind, one which was debatably coined by either Confucius, the Buddha, or my Uncle Jim: “No matter where you go…once you get there, you look around, and there you are.” And just like the mall directory always points out for us:

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What will you do today, while you are wherever “here” is for you, to ensure that you are remembered? That one day, you will be gone, but not forgotten?

I’m hopeful that every day, each of us can drive home thinking, “If I’m remembered for that, I have lived a good life.” The question is, how did today stack up against that vision?

Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:

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About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?