on confidence

Don’t you love those trainings that actually get you thinking? Not the ones that waste your time, the ones that leave you with a kink in the neck because you’re constantly glancing at the clock, but the ones that hit you… “in the feels?” (as my kiddos would say). Yesterday I had the blessing of just such a training about leadership in presence and presentation. And what crystallized in mind was moment of clarity about my year.

I am a good teacher. My presence in the classroom is at once formidable yet also friendly. I know, so deep in my core it is a part of my anatomy, that what I have to offer matters to students’ lives: it is a source of empowerment to them. I believe truly that kiddos will leave my classroom better than they arrived…and not because of my endless stream of knowledge (dead end) or my wealth of facts (it’s poor) or the sound of my voice (eww), but rather because I know without a doubt that I have the ability to help students unlock their own knowledge, their own wealth, and their own voice. Because of this deep and authentic sense of assurance, my presence in the classroom is grounded and anchored…confident. And with confidence comes success.

Now, coaching, on the other hand. For all my career, I knew I did not want to be an administrator. But leadership came naturally to me; it always has. And I thought due to this, I could easily transition into a role with a title that made a difference on a larger scale. But in reflection on this year, I have always felt on shaky ground in this new role. Sure I had good intentions. I had good ideas. I had good insights. But none of those qualities fused together, anchored together, in a deep assurance that what I had to offer mattered. I lacked the confidence, confounded by a number of other internal and external challenges (that beg more reflection in another post at another time). And without confidence, my authentic presence suffered, hindering the presents I could offer.

It is hard not to feel like a failure. My heart breaks for all the could-ofs and would-ofs and should-ofs. But, ultimately, I know the greater value lies in non-attachment: replacing self-evaluation with self-reflection. And the lessons I learned this year solidify and fertilize the ground in which I will root myself upon return to the full-time classroom.

what I learned about facilitating while being a student

Recently I had the opportunity of attending the Advanced Placement Summer Institute just outside Seattle. 3 and 1/2 long days of non-stop seat time sure provides clarity on what and what not to do as a facilitator of learning–whether it be snotty little toddler students to scary big adult students.

  • The facilitator’s preparation sets the tone for the entire learning experience. If frazzled, students will be rushed. If disorganized, students will be disengaged. If insecure, students will be rambunctious. If unintentional, students will be misguided. Some surefire ways to set a focused tone: a quality-crafted agenda with clear outcomes that are reviewed consistently; strict reining in of tangents; a quick but clear pace.
  • Everyone doesn’t just need norms, they want norms…even if they are putting off that “I’m too cool for norms” vibe. In a room of competent and experienced Language Arts teachers, one would think we could move forward in a timely and purposeful manner that honors all parties in the room. But, even with grown adults, “honor” needs to be defined and normed at the beginning of every single birth of a new group dynamic.  Such norming prevents behaviors like this (which are not malicious but nonetheless annoying): computer Christie (names are alliterative but not authentic) in the corner who does everything online to avoid actually giving the time of day to the human adults beside her and the facilitator in front of her; galloping groupies who are too consumed finishing their preparation for their presentation to be respectful and attentive to the current group actually presenting; cocky Christopher who is dead set on the canon and consistently insists we are dying a slow death from cultural–read dead white guys–illiteracy…even when we’re talking about multiple choice strategies; tardy Tiffany who just can’t seem to make it on time; demanding Daniel who consistently usurps the (non-existent) agenda with his own directions. Yada yada…if you have ever been a part of a learning dynamic, you can name a hundred of your own pet peeves that, with just a little norming, could be alleviated.
  • It is the facilitator’s job to manage equitable access to processing and participation strategies. I am a verbal processor. I like to talk aloud through all parts of learning: introduction, competence, mastery. In all reality, not just do I like to talk aloud, I must. When there are opportunities embedded throughout instruction for me to turn and talk (gag at the dropping of a buzz word), I do learn more broadly, more deeply, and more permanently. I need that from a facilitator. Just as much as the non-verbal processor next to me needs some think time, in quiet, in peace, without the banter of dominating voices, well, dominating everyone’s thoughts. Speaking of that dominating voice, I’d like to get a word in edge-wise. But without a facilitator who is attentive to the pre-established norms, as well as the shared weight of participation across all members, the loud flies just keep buzzing while the quiet flies sit patiently–or not so patiently–on their shit. And that just stinks.
  • The best facilitators maximize space, place, and pace. Yes I am a “mature” adult learner. But no thank you, I do not want to sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair for several hours in the row looking at the same blank wall next to the same colleagues. Let’s put up some anchor charts that remind us this is our space. Let’s move the chairs around to reengage our numb glutes. Let’s take a brain break every hour to reinvigorate our minds. Let’s try something different than the traditional and easy sit and get. Variety is the spice of life, and the preservative of learning.

Of course at this training, I learned so much about how to be a better Advanced Placement English Lit teacher. But I also inadvertently learned a plethora of lessons on how to be an effective facilitator.

Let’s hope the learners I lead would never write a blog like this!

take your vitamins: boosting school immunity in the treatment against teacher turnover

There is an epidemic eating at the bloodlines of our educational system: teacher turnover. Not only is teacher attrition expensive (wasted expenses), it is also detrimental to student achievement and school culture.

I personally have seen the symptoms of this deadly disease. I have spent my entire teaching career (to date, I’m in my eighth year, which you’ll see by the end of this piece makes me Jurassic) in at-risk schools: urban, poor, underserved, underestimated, at-risk, traumatized, overwhelmed, overtested. And in both schools, the teachers are predominantly young and inexperienced–me included. And if they’re not currently, just wait another year… because sadly the teacher attrition rate in high-need schools is an atrocious and powerful illness.

Nearly 20 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools leave every year, a rate 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools. That’s one of every five teachers, gone by next September.

But far more than research, this sickness is personal to me. I have left friends and have been left by my friends in both schools I have worked. I have been interviewed by people looking for teachers in it for the long haul, and I have sat on the other end of that interview table, hoping for the same thing. The eradication of teacher attrition–teacher sustainability and investment–weighs heavy on my heart… every. single. day. To that avail, I’d like to prescribe some treatments for schools like mine…and schools like yours.

  1. Vitamin C–school Culture: Teachers, students, parents, and administration all want the same thing: community…a place where all stakeholders come together for the sake of a vision which, though inclusive of achievement, is bigger than a number. This requires adults who act like adults, professionals who treat each other as such. This also demands a group of people who want to be together and who spend time together in and out of the workplace. To swallow this vitamin, there must also be a focus on the social-emotional health of ALL members of the culture.
  2. Vitamin D–Dissemination: There is no Vitamin C without open communication and transparency. This means all parties have an open-door policy…from the top to the bottom and back up again. People want to be heard, and this doesn’t stop when they go into their places of business. In order for Vitamin D to permeate the organism, there has to be veins: emails, meetings, hang-outs, collaboration. An essential nutrient to pair with Vitamin D is humble questions. Questions are the antibody to assumptions–and assumptions are toxic. Dissemination of information is also critical for a group of people to be moving forward toward a common goal in unity.
  3. Vitamin A–Autonomy: Teachers will want to stay in a school where their professional judgement is trusted implicitly and explicitly. With this Vitamin, they have the creative license to “make things work” inside of the system–whatever that system may be. Schools who regularly take their Vitamin A hire the best there is, and then provide space and inspiration for those employees to do just that–their best.
  4. Vitamin E–Expectations: In a school fighting teacher turnover, there must be equal and fair accountability. Staff should expect the best from themselves, and those around them. But instead of expecting this in a passive-aggressive way (gossip, slander, playing the mom vs dad game with the students, popularity contests), staff should be held accountable to having courageous conversations with each other, talking to instead of about. The same goes for administration. Especially in at-risk schools, there is no time to waste with mediocrity. Each stakeholder should be putting their best foot forward, and each stakeholder should expect that from themselves and each other. A staff healthy in Vitamin E is committed enough to call each other out on the carpet in a loving way, and humble enough to be called out.
  5. Vitamin S–Synergy: In many articles about teacher turnover, a common cause is teacher isolation and lack of support. The remedy for this is collaboration. Collaboration should be both top-down (delegated by administration) and grassroots (teacher to teacher, organic and informal). It should be across grades, content, and staff role. The more teachers reach out to each other as experts, the more synergy builds inside of a school, and synergy neutralizes teacher attrition’s poison. This synergistic collaboration must also exist between the administration and the teachers. Schools where there is an “us vs them” mindset provide the perfect breeding ground for teacher attrition. Instead, Vitamin S is most effective when coupled with a entire staff of innovative, problem-solvers who want to make progress.
  6. Vitamin G–Growth: Another critical part of the treatment against teacher attrition is creating a place where teachers can grow inside of the building, as opposed to beyond it. There must be more paths to teacher leadership than just pursuing an admin license. Teachers must have a place at the table…whatever that table looks like.

Before I conclude, I want to draw attention to what’s not on the list: student demographics, funding, amount of testing, teacher evaluations, etc. Though overwhelming, these are not the issues; they are the system. Urban schools are always going to be challenging places to work. But what’s important is how a group of people comes together, inside the broken system, to make it better, to make it sustainable, to make it a place all parties want to be.

And stay.

growth vs. fixed mindset: it’s not just for the students

Allow me to step into the confessional.

One thing I struggle with is loving people unconditionally, accepting them in their weakness. I expect the best from people, immediately, consistently. This is a universal application that haunts my students, my friendships, my colleagues, and my marriage.

Of course, I am not off the hook. I am my own worst critic, my most insistent demander, my harshest judge. I live in an internal world where it is hard to accept grace for myself…and thus–either as a cause or an effect–hard to offer it authentically and organically to others.

I am no blind fool: this leads to a lack of peace within myself…and with others.

At school, we’ve excitedly moved into a focus on rigor. Many voices expressed the idea that there can be no rigor without risk, and no risk without struggle. I wholeheartedly agree. At the most foundational level of this struggle comes the idea that it is worth it, that struggle can lead to something better. This conviction grows and blooms only in the soil of a growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset; for more information). Educators today are very familiar with these concepts and understand the critical value of fostering not just information in students, but a kind of mindset, a mindset that is pliable rather than set, questioning rather than settling, seeking rather than content, hopeful rather than definite. Only when we encourage this in students can they grow beyond their potential–which is really just a euphemism for fixed mindset.

mindsetBut, as always, what happens in the student cafeteria is mimicked (perhaps pioneered) in the adult lounge. I have come to realize lately that though I approach students in a growth mindset paradigm, I do not extend the same courtesy to my colleagues. For whatever reason, something in me operates under the idea that adults in schools have arrived, are set in their ways, are settled into their potential, are who they are, well, because that’s who they are. The end. This ugly monster rears its head most frequently in the realm of assumptions. I make assumptions about people… and by doing so, I limit them to a quaint box that is formed nicely and neatly in my own finite head. How arrogant! How presumptuous! How fallacious!

A few times lately, I’ve been surprised by colleagues–a delicious and humbling and didactic surprise. And in reflection, I wondered why I was so surprised? And of course, it was rooted in my faulty assumptions.

Ultimately, both my perspective of others and myself as well as Carol Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets distill down to the idea of absolutes. For all my life, I have felt more comfortable existing in a worldview of absolutes: good or bad; black or white; holy or profane; worthy or detestable. Just like it’s easier to shop in a supermarket where everything is labeled, it is more convenient to live in a world where everyone is categorized. But…though easier…it is more limiting. And more destructive.

But thankfully, I don’t have to stay here. I can change, grow, evolve. And so can anyone and everyone around me.

I just have to perpetually cultivate the gracious space for that personal and communal shifting.

cafeteria cliques and middle school melodrama: adult culture in schools

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For the last few months, I have had the opportunity of being on my school’s hiring committee. In countless interviews, this question has risen from the mouths of the candidates: “How is the culture in this building?” As well it should. Though the work we do is with students, often the fuel to be successful there comes from the environment in which we exist, from the adults with which we collaborate. As in any school, our adult culture is defined by both strengths and weaknesses. Typically, when I answer this question, I say something along the lines: “Each of us creates the culture; it is a matter of aligning with those who are moving forward.” Today I write to attempt to define what “moving forward” looks like.

I recognize that the idea of “adult culture” is not unique to those who work in a school environment. Nor is gossip–the life blood of water cooler meet-ups and front porch rocking sessions. After all, over the past few months, as I’ve been ruminating about this very topic, I’ve read several articles I found in a generous Google search: “The Danger of Workplace Gossip” and “10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Gossip at Work.” But, what I do think is critically different, is that there is far more riding on a school’s adult culture. Every day, every interaction in the hall, every group of adults gathered in a corner chatting, every isolated teacher, every closed door “meeting” is watched closely by little, learning sponges: children, becoming adults, who are in the process of figuring out how to navigate the world of obvious and subtle social cues, the minefield of trust and betrayal, the dynamics of inner circle versus outer circle, the challenges of conflict resolution. They are the true sentinels of social maneuvering–always observing, always forming.

As I define what “moving forward” looks like, I also treat this as a confession of sorts, to those who have watched my model and learned unhealthy community approaches. This is how I want to move forward. This is how I want to be at work. This is how I want be as an honorable woman trying to love God.

  • Moving forward means emptying your cup–a much needed part of life–in your most inner, trusted circle. Find your people, and keep it there.
  • Moving forward also means deconstructing the contents of that cup. Many times this year, I have talked with my students about the cycle of oppression. Those who are oppressed oppress others. Those who are insecure break down others. Those who need validation invalidate others. When I am emptying my cup…what is really going on? What do I need to look at in myself, first and foremost?
  • Moving forward means holding closely your inner circle, while still being inclusive. Love is boundless and can, and should, go beyond my people.
  • Moving forward means surrendering the power of being “in the know.” Sometimes I want to know, just because I’m curious. Sometimes I want to know, just because I want to be in the “in group.” Sometimes I want to know, just because sharing it gives me power.
  • Moving forward means being mindful of time. It saddens me how easy it is to complain of “having no time,” when that very time complaining could be used for something productive. It falls on my shoulders to know when to empty my cup, and when to put it aside to get sh** done. It also empowers me. So often I complain of all the things I cannot control, but if I just made use of my time controlling what I can, I would feel so much better.
  • Moving forward means emptying your cup, then washing it–at least most of the time. If I complain for complaints’ sake, that is wasted time. But, if I complain to move forward, to figure things out, to have solutions, that is productive, that is honorable. That is what I want my students to see. How can I speak out against what is wrong and/or bothering me, while also having a hand–however insignificant–in creating a more positive outcome?

Ultimately, moving forward at its core is about energy. What kind of energy do I cultivate within me? What kind of energy to I radiate? What kind of energy do I surround myself with?

Recently, a colleague and friend recommended the documentary I AM. Watching a mere once has rocked my world, specifically the research done at The Institute of HeartMath. One of their explorations is the idea that the emotions I feel affect YOU… yes, symbolically of course, but lit.er.al.ly. My emotions affect you emotionally, physically. There is some sort of invisible, scientific, spiritual connection among those around me. So in school, my very being affects the beings around me.

What a call to be a better being.

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