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.

A Vinyl Sticker With Big Black Letters

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.

#ProTips From A Year On The Road

It has been a long, long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Far too long.

In taking on a new role as a team member with Advanced Learning Partnerships over this past year, I have been doing a lot of partnering, a lot of advancing, and, of course, a lot of learning. So much learning in fact that most of my reflection has been of the total internal variety– lots of light coming in, and much of it has been absorbed so as to advance my own understanding instead of reflected in order to advance us all.

That internal reflection stops today. It’s time to  get it out.

As the year comes to a close, it seemed fitting to share some stories through a list of #ProTips, an inside joke we have in our profession for the comment made just before a small but extremely useful piece of information is shared (usually one that has been right in front of you all along).

The audience I had in mind is my former and forever teammates, the Lead Coach crew in Albemarle County to whom I wrote my last post last year. I have a slide deck that I’ll finish and share with them (and you) someday, but for now these #ProTips seemed ready to get out of my head and into ours.

#ProTips from a Year on the Road

Drive carefully. You’ve never seen humidity until you’ve seen it near the gulf in Houston. Seriously- sometimes it’s like swimming where you walk. One night during a fog advisory I couldn’t see the traffic lights until they were right in front of me.

Get there early. If you want to get barbecue in Austin before they run out of the supply for the day, you’d better get there early. And surprisingly enough, they don’t really do coleslaw.

It’s a long way to Childersburg. Talladega Superspeedway isn’t the only mega-sized road in the county of the same name. In a district with 17 schools and 7500 students, the 760-square-mile span makes a drive to Yancey feel like a hop, skip, and a jump away. And if your plane happens to get grounded in Birmingham, a 10-hour drive home can feel both endless and freeing at the same time.

There are perks of being a traveler. If you’re going to be on the road a lot, find your brands of choice and stick to them. The points add up, and the perks are generally worth it. And if a hotel has morning breakfast and evening socials built into the cost of the room, go back there the next time you visit.

It’s either my fault, their fault, or God’s fault. It turns out there are three reasons for travel delays when it comes to missed airline connections. Until the writing of this post, I’d had several instances of two of the three. Well, now I’ve had all three. Turns out you probably shouldn’t try to rest your eyes outside the gate of your flight if it’s a redeye leaving at 11pm Pacific time, as it just may well leave without you. Man, sleeping overnight in airports sucks.

Kids are kids, no matter where you go. Kindergartners in South Texas talk with no filter, hug your leg without thinking about it, and give you funny nicknames like Mr. Glasses. Even in Phoenix’s 100-degree “dry” heat, 6th graders come to class smiling and drenched in sweat from running around way too much during PE. And like so many, high schoolers in Chicago are way too cool for school- unless of course you tell them you remembered meeting them in one of their classes and noticed the incredible work they were doing, and then they brim with pride. Kids are kids, and they’re why we do what we do in service of their learning and their future.

Teachers are teachers, no matter where you go. While they may use different words, teachers everywhere have the same stressors, the same sources of excitement, the same motivations for growth. There are incredible educators all over this country dedicated to pushing themselves in order to affect the lives of young people- they remind me of the dedicated teachers I strived to serve alongside with you in Albemarle each day.

Leaders are leaders, no matter where you go. They have way too much on their plates, often because they don’t want to burden others with it. They have the same competing concerns for people and for production, the degree of each of which drives their approach to leading. And above all, they desperately want to do a good job on behalf of the communities they serve. I feel blessed to be able to try to do a small part to help them keep the main thing the main thing.

Teams makes all the difference. I had forgotten about the Forming and Storming we did all those years ago as a seminal Lead Coach team before we started our Norming and Performing together. The successes we experienced lulled me into believing that things had always run so smoothly. My new team has undergone various moments of growing pains over the year, each of which takes me back to those early days when we as a Lead Coach team didn’t yet know how each other worked, let alone how we worked as one entity. On the flip side, my new team members and I have hit more than our fair share of strides that remind me to time spent running with each of you. Hope things are progressing in your new team endeavors as well- definitely miss the times around the table and in the circle together, though also loving my new team very much.

There really is no place like home. This one needs no story- it pretty much says it all. I try to make every new city I visit feel a little bit more like home by the time I leave, though it is never a substitute for the real thing.

Here’s to a ton more #ProTips in the weeks and months to come. Thanks for learning with me.

 

Row, Row, Row Your Boats

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This week, teachers and staff in my school division took a breath from the daily grind for Making Connections, the annual home-grown professional development conference where we come together to learn with and from each other. As this news story highlights, a quarter of our district’s teachers put together over 200 unique learning opportunities where our community of learners could continue to grow.

The conference itself could not come at a better time of year. While the graph below refers specifically to a beginning teacher’s well-chronicled experience during her first year on the job, in many ways it reflects each of us as educators on our yearly journey.

Phases

The end of October has signaled the end of the 1st quarter, the end of the first laps on the long race that is our school year. Like many distance swimmers, we likely put a lot of energy into those first laps. As well as things have turned out up to now, there are still three times as many laps left to go. Where will we get the energy to finish the race?

I am reminded of a quote from a colleague I overheard several years ago, and think about every year at this time:

I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always felt like I had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.

The fact is, if the graph above holds true, many educators may be drowning (figuratively speaking) as the quarter comes to a close. Times like Making Connections become an opportunity to row your folks ashore. These development opportunities and similarly large chunks of time and resources are “rescue boats” that a school district can row out into the surf, getting close enough so that those who are struggling to stay afloat can grab hold. Of course, there is only so much room around the boat’s edge for people to grasp – the only way that we can all make it to safety is to connect to each other while those closest to the boat hold tight.

I appreciated the opportunity to make connections today. I thank those who were willing to reach out with the stories of their learning, and I look forward to many more reconnections over the next laps of the race. I am especially thankful to be part of a school division who recognizes the importance of rowing out the boats, right on time.

What’s Working? Making Practice Public!

As a response to the MSNBC Teacher Town Hall on September 26, 2010, ACPS teacher Paula White (@paulawhite) suggested that we all go write a blog about what’s working in education, and share our stories with the hashtag #educationnation. Here’s mine:

What’s working right now for me in my practice as an educator is the unprecedented access I have to discuss teaching and learning (within my school division, nationwide, and across the globe), and the growth opportunities that this level of public practice presents to me every day.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me in my school.  During lunch, my former teammate and I would talk about our upcoming plans for classes, and would often discuss a new practice we were planning to do with our students.  When I asked if I could watch and see how it worked out in his class, he welcomed me in.  The trust paid off, and I grew as a result – seeing his classroom sparked ideas for me related to the little nuances of our craft…ideas I may never have had without the opportunity to see him practice.  I like to think that he grew as well – in our follow-up conversations, he would talk about his impressions of the class and ask for my thoughts and feedback, which led to adjustments in his future class periods.  If something I said sparked a curiosity in him, he would come by to see my class as well, and the cycle of growth continued.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me across my division.  As a group of instructional coaches in our county, we seek to replicate the opportunities for these reflective partnerships that promote professional growth.  Since the beginning of the school year, I have started several new connections with teachers who have e-mailed looking for a reflective partner in practices as diverse as starting experimental design projects, gauging student progress, or planning learning opportunities during a field trip.  With each opportunity, I help the teacher see their practice through a new set of eyes, usually finding ways to connect them with other teachers.  Some of those teachers are wrestling with these same topics, while others have found a way that works for them (but are looking for ideas just as well).  When we make our practice public, we can learn from the connections that follow.

I have colleagues that open their classrooms to me across the world.  Just this week, I have read new blog posts written by educators who are inviting me into their classroom practice.  Their thoughts spark ideas in me, and their questions inspire me to seek new answers. I learned from two teachers in Iowa in Riley Lark’s (@rileylark) practice of standards-based grading, and Shawn Cornally’s (@ThinkThankThunk) continued goal to promote truly student-centered learning.  John Sowash (@jrsowash) pushed my practice from Cincinnati by sharing his lessons learned from “flipping his classroom,” while stories from Kansas’ Jim Knight (@jimknight99) about recognizing the fear inherent to professional growth helped me to recognize how the fear vs growth relationship applies to my own work.  I even had a chance to help, responding to Brooklyn’s Sam Shah (@samjshah) in his desire to find ways to get his kids to think about graphs differently, all because he had both the trust and the desire to tell everyone about it.  By sharing his practice with me, both he and I have grown in our profession.

Like any art, skill or science, I grow when I see and hear about the practice of others.  As I continue to grow as an educator, I will seek out more opportunities to make my practice public, and I hope to inspire others to do the same – that is what is working for me right now!

Planning for Engagement

(Inspired by today’s ACPS Tech Plan conversation w/the DART Advisory Committee.)

As a teacher, anytime I ran into reluctant learners in the classroom, I started to think: “Did I plan for engagement?  Did I strategically include engaging qualities in my plan for their learning?”  Similarly, I’m drawn to the same qualities when thinking about those teachers who may be reluctant to try out new technology tools in meeting their students’ needs.

Below are those 8 qualities that our county uses as ‘look-fors’ in work that promotes student engagement.  Next to those qualities, I’ve written a few questions related to a teacher’s perspective in learning something new that leaders might consider so as to “plan for engagement:”

  • Personal Response – Do teachers have their own voice in the learning process?
  • Clear/Modeled Expectations – Do teachers know what their leaders, colleagues and students expect of me in terms of their learning?  Do they really know what it looks like to use this tool well?  Have they seen it?
  • Emotional/Intellectual Safety – Are teachers in an environment where they feel safe to try something new, to take a risk without feeling as if failure in that attempt will cause them harm?
  • Affiliation – Do teachers have opportunities to learn collaboratively with others?
  • Sense of Audience – Are teachers expected to share evidence of their learning with others outside of the classroom?  Outside of the school?
  • Choice – Are teachers able to choose what it is that they are interested in learning, or how, when, and/or with whom they are interested in learning it?  Are teachers able to choose how to show that they have learned it?
  • Novelty & Variety – Is the process of learning this tool set up in an interesting, unexpected or unusual way?
  • Authenticity – Are teachers learning this new tool in a way that mirrors what it will look like to use it with my students?

What’s going around in my head is: in answering any of these questions above related to tech learning opportunities, how many of those “reluctant learners” teachers would respond, “No”? How many would say things like: “I don’t have a voice.” “I’m not allowed to choose.” “It’s not safe to try something new.” “I don’t know what’s expected of me.” In leading the work, have we planned for engagement? If not, how about we get started now?