Monday, August 26, 2013

Whose Team Are You On? (#SAVMP)

PPPCS Middle School Team (2013)

What makes a team special?  Is it communication? A common goal?  The ability and determination to work hard and band together to rise above the rest?  I would say all of these qualities make a team effective and powerful, but they are not what makes a team special.  You know, the type of team that is the best at what they do but also has fun doing it.  That is a team built upon layers of trust.

In teaching, we talk a lot about relationships. It is important to let people know who you are, to listen and communicate, and to support one another.  Do these things build trust within a team?  I think so, but it is deeper than that.

Trust is developed when members of a team all collectively choose to be vulnerable with one another. It starts with honesty, sometimes about work-related issues, sometimes personal matters.  It is built upon when the members of a group start to reveal aspects of themselves, honestly and openly, realizing that they can be themselves,100%, without fear of it ever being held against them.  

This doesn't happen overnight; it is a process. 

Together, that team builds upon a layer of honesty and openness.  This allows teams to to grow and support one another.  It encourages trust in the most loving form.  Once there is this bond, a team can push its members, even when it means having tough conversations and addressing weaknesses and failures. The foundational trust allows people to know that they must look at themselves and improve because the people on their team need them to be better and to grow. They grow together and trust that the people around them will push themselves to be their best, even when it feels the worst.

These teams, the special ones, tend to stay together.  They grow and change together.  The years go by, they celebrate and grieve together, they lean on one another. They laugh together and they cry with one another. At times, feelings are hurt, but not for long, because the well-being of this group is superior to individual egos. Humility overpowers in even the toughest times.

The teams I am describing here, they can be found everywhere, in schools all over the country.  Yet, these teams are special because each is comprised of a group of people that not only enjoy what they do and trust one another, but have a deep and growing love for one another.  They have become a family. The trust they built back in the beginning, it grew into so much more. 

What are you doing to build your team?  How are your actions encouraging honesty, trust, and vulnerability? What are you doing to make your team special?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Starting Off Right: Ready...or Not (#SAVMP)

(Photo by KB)

I came to a hard realization about myself this week.  I had time to think, reflect, and talk through some of these things with people I trust and respect.  In the end, I have to admit to myself I am not ready to be a leader.

This week I had two situations, interactions with others, where I was overly emotional.  I didn't listen well, and I felt like I had to push my ideas and thoughts about the topics instead of considering other points of view.  I was too pushy and it made people uncomfortable.  I was more worried about my opinions then trying to understanding the impact these situations would have on others. I should have stopped, stepped back, thought.  Instead I just bulldozed forward.

Overall, I acted poorly. 

I have a tendency to beat myself up when I feel I have not acted as my best self.  It can get pretty ugly. I  decided to try something different this time, though. I reached out for help.  I needed mentorship, and I called upon an experienced leader that I have connected with through Twitter; someone I consider both a mentor and a friend.  I am supremely jealous of anyone that gets the pleasure of working with Jimmy Casas on a daily basis; I can only imagine how wonderful he is to have as a leader.

I was able to leave that conversation feeling much more level headed, optimistic, and with a better understanding of how I need to act going forward. Jimmy also reminded me that I am going to have failures, now and along the way, and I need to be aware of this so I can learn and continue forward movement. The negative emotions were washed away with action steps and an attitude of positive modeling.  And I felt relief that I did not have to figure all this out on my own. 

I have so much to learn. As I navigate my way through this next year, my goals are to stay attuned to my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. My reflections will focus upon where I can improve and strengthen my weaknesses. I am determined to grow in all areas of my job, not just in leadership, but as a teacher and with my students (of course). I am going into this year knowing I do not have to maneuver these challenges alone, and similarly I have an incredible support system with whom I can celebrate successes.

What changes of mind, action, and attitude might you need to change to have a successful start of the school year? What reflection goals might you think about focusing on to ensure honest inventory of your growth? How can you help yourself and your staff move through times of struggle to a stronger, more powerful place of trust and community?

How will you start the year off right?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hope and Heartbreak: Building a Tribes Community

(Photo used by permission: Broken Whisker Photography)

Training Reflection: Day 2

In continuing our training to build a better culture and community within our school, we completed day two of training with Tribes.  We were put into tribes, or small groups, with a few of our colleagues and Nancy, our facilitator, told us it was time to deep deeper.  Things were about to get personal.

First she asked us to pull out our phones and choose a picture to share with our tribes.  This was fun and I learned something new about each of my colleagues.  I got teary-eyed sharing my image during the first image, but I pulled it together, and we moved.  No problem...

Next, we were given a piece of wire and asked to manipulate it in a way that would represent the course of our lives.  This "Live Wire" activity seemed harmless enough.  Nancy put on some music and everyone worked intently to twist, bend, and twirl their wire into their own story. Then we shared our stories with our tribe groups.  

That is when things got uncomfortable for me. Today was the first time I was brought to tears in front of my coworkers.  Today I was open and vulnerable enough to be moved deeply by stories of personal pain and struggle. I felt silly, dramatic, a little out of control of my emotions.  I didn't like it and fought to stop it.

But while one of my co-workers told his story, through a beautifully designed wire, he shared about heartbreak and hope. He was so honest and brave and trusting. What I respected most was he took advantage of what Nancy has been calling the "right to pass." He simply stated that of the three most tumultuous events represented on his wire, he would share only one with us. He showed how it was simultaneously safe for our group to trust each other with these histories and to not share everything.  

Live Wire: Personal Histories

The training touched on many other aspects of building a community, including 21st century skills, multiple intelligences, and building reflective practices. While all of this was important for our understanding of this program, I will be taking away our experience in our own tribes, the influence this had on my overall well-being as a part of this team, and how I can reflect on my emotions to this experience.

Tribes, unlike many of other character programs, focuses on building and changing the culture within a school. It is not about a specific lesson or skill, but about a community. Together, we want our students, parents, and teachers to feel as if they work in the most amazing community, one that will support them through anything they may encounter.  

The focus is to build a community that is strong in times of both hope and heartbreak.

Yesterday I trusted the process.  Today I trusted my community.  Tomorrow, I remain open-minded and willing to learn, for I have the greatest trust that together we can only continue to grow in this experience. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trusting the Process: Tribes Training Reflection (Day 1)

(Photo by KB)

Today was an incredibly full day of learning and growing for me as a teacher.  As I reflect upon all the information I consumed today, I must admit that one word comes to my mind. Trust.  I engaged in Tribes training, which is a character education and culture development program my school is adopting. I also attended David Culberhouse's webinar focusing on the four pillars of leadership.  To end my night, I engaged in the Seth Godin TED talk, "The Tribes We Lead."  This talk really brought together my two earlier experiences from the day!

The Tribes character program is unique in so many ways.  Our school completed a rigorous meta-analysis of many different character programs before deciding on Tribes.  One of the important factors in our decision was that the program was tailored to the different needs of middle school students and elementary students.  Tribes realizes that middle schoolers need a different approach and their teachers need different training.  Anyone that has taught middle school, has middle school children, or sat next to a middle schooler at the movies one time, knows this to be true.

Additionally, Tribes focuses on the exact topics addressed in Godin's talk, connecting people to lead a movement.   Our school focuses on educating the whole child and needed a program that offered more than scripted lessons or a curriculum; we needed a way to lead and build relationships.  Tribes is a way of teaching and building culture through relationships and developmentally appropriate learning, which made it a better fit than most other programs we researched.

The training was really enlightening and a very powerful experience for me as a middle school teacher. While we learned and practiced a number of "energizers" to build community, the afternoon was focused on diving deeply into the developmental factors of adolescents.  The social, moral, physical, intellectual, and emotional needs of our students were explored.  Our group also discussed the competencies we need to build and the processes for creating a culture of purpose, autonomy, and problem solving (sound familiar Dan Pink fans?). When dealing with this age group, we don't often examine these factors in much detail, so I found this to be a complete change in the way I view our students' needs and addressing their behaviors. Our students need us to understand their developmental needs in order to help them both mature and learn.  Additionally, this reaches far beyond the classroom and into their lives at home and in the community.

Later, while listening to David Culberhouse discussion the pillars of leadership, he talked about his concept of the Family Footprint.  He stated that we often look at organizations as a small part of who we are, but in reality the organization doesn't stop when we leave.  That organization travels with us. This is the Family Footprint. The culture we create is based around individual encounters. We leave imprints that echo past each interaction. Our imprint ripples. Our organizational culture follows people into their homes and families, and therefore we must reflect upon what we are offering the people around us when we lead them.

I couldn't help but relate this to my students and today's training.  Our school is so special in the fact that understand the Family Footprint and how we impact our students both at school and beyond.  We are now working to lead them in a culture that recognizes, celebrates, and fosters their needs in all developmental areas. What an amazing opportunity for us as a school!

This brings to Seth Godin, as he states that leaders must challenge the status quo, build a culture and connect people to one another. He brings up an important point that leaders don't need everyone to follow them. Even though our school's culture is everyone's responsibility, as we don't need everyone in our school to love the Tribes movement we are creating.  We just need enough people to connect and believe in the movement.  I walked out of our training today truly believing in our team to challenge ourselves and move out of what is "usual" in our practice because we believe the connections we make with our students and our culture is more important than us being comfortable.

Tomorrow, we build our tribes within our staff.  I am not sure what this will entail or look like, but I am extremely excited to connect with my colleagues in this way.  I will remember that tribes are formed when a group that is disconnected but already have a yearning for something bigger and better. This is how a movement is formed.  Leaders organize and connect people. 

Tomorrow, I will trust the process, connect, and lead.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Be Gentle With Yourself

(Photo by KB)

As I prepare to start back to school this week, I feel slapped in the face with the overwhelming reality that the rubber is about to meet the road.  All the great ideas, conversations, collaboration, and curriculum writing I engaged in this summer must now be applied. I feel more than ready to step up and meet these challenges. In fact, I am ready to sacrifice a lot to make this our most successful year. 

I am not scared or overwhelmed by the work that must be done. The most frightening thing for me this year is balance. This concept that the scale can't swing too far in either direction. The notion of balance, particularly in relationship to my work and personal life, is a terrifying concept to me.

I am no good at this; I become immersed in my work and I let everything else fall to the side.  For me, this is so hard because I am a perfectionist.  I am willing to discard things that are important to me in order to perfect a task, job, or plan (or, honestly, your image of me).  I am too hard on myself most of the time and I have trouble stepping back and prioritizing when I am in the middle of a project.

As I have thought about my summer and the tasks ahead for this school year, I have been hyper-focused on my students, team-building, innovation, passion, and creativity.  These are so important and build a foundation for me and my pedagogy.  If I am honest with myself, I know none of those things are sustainable in my practice if I don't care of myself first.

I realized this summer how much my passions had been cast aside, and I vowed to never let this happen again. I can never again let so much of myself fall away. In an effort and mantra to never forget to take care of myself, I will be posting this simple image above my desk this year. I am willing to bet I am not the only teacher that needs to remember this!

As we all venture into another exciting school year, I hope to be gentle with myself. I will make a concerted effort to take care of my needs, listen to my body, and nurture my passions. I will make a commitment to choose my sacrifices carefully, for I will never get that time back. This year, I will strive for balance, allowing myself to be imperfect and trusting those around to love me despite my flaws, as I would with them.  This year, I will not lose myself, but instead grow more completely.

How will you be gentle with yourself this year?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Believing in Bravery

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

The opposite of bravery is not cowardice but conformity.
-Robert Anthony

As I started to build my PLN this summer I was introduced to so many educators that have stunningly inspiring blogs.  I have been following a few people regularly and jumping into others when I see posts linked on twitter.  Since becoming a part of the School Administrator Virtual Leadership Program (#SAVMP) I have discovered some of the most moving, heartfelt blog posts I have ever read. Several times I have been moved to tears while reading personal descriptions and reflections on life and leadership.

I have also begun blogging this summer, and it has been an emotional experience for me. As an English major in college, and language arts teacher, I am no stranger to writing. I have always felt very comfortable expressing myself through my writing, though I have never, ever, liked sharing my writing. Aside from being a seriously lazy proofreader, I write my heart on my sleeve. My writing is more honest and raw than what I am able to verbalize in conversations, which makes it nerve racking to share. The saving grace is that I have gotten an overwhelmingly positive response, and every person that can relate or finds meaning in my writing is a little reminder that it is okay to expose myself in this way. 

Our second point of discussion for #SAVMP focuses on our philosophy.  My personal reflections of my philosophy have been on my mind lately, and I blogged about this recentlyGeorge Couros asked us to consider what Simon Sinek says about leadership.  I discovered Sinek's talk earlier in the summer and found it to be extremely powerful in reflecting about my own why. Sinek's idea of the Golden Circle and why we lead is a question I pondered when trying to understand my own passions this summer.

Today as I was wondering around Twitter, I came upon the blog post Be Brave by Matt Gomez.  This concept, this one rule, perfectly encompasses what I strived to do this summer.  It is also exactly what I hope to transfer to my students this year.  Really, I hope my students, colleagues, and I can all be brave together.  This year, more than any other, I need bravery both personally and professionally.  This year, I will ask my students and our staff to push themselves beyond what they know, moving from where we are comfortable into the unknown.  I will ask them to share themselves, to expose their practice and reflect deeply on the work we do together.  It is very exciting work, but let's be honest, it is scary to be exposed.  

If we are to be courageous, we must first be brave.

So this year my philosophical shift will be cemented in the one rule Matt has for his kindergarteners: Be Brave.  Be brave in new situations, be brave enough to try new things. Be brave in believing in myself and trusting other.  When I am wrong and need to pivot or change, I will be brave. I will try to be brave even when I am fearful.  

What does bravery look like for you? How will you lead those around you to be brave?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Could I Lead? #SAVMP

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

When I saw the #SAVMP description I thought, "That is amazing, I wish I could be a part of this!"  Getting connected with teachers using social media has been the highlight of my summer, and I was extremely jealous of all the administrators that would get a chance to "organize" around the principles of mentoring and connecting.  

Always looking to stretch the limits, I signed-up even though I am not an administrator.

I have spent the last year trying to figure out my place in education.  I am a teacher, but I have been involved in a number of different projects allowed me to expand professional roles. I worked with the non-profit Digital Harbor Foundation, working hard to be a digital leader and take innovative risks in my classroom.  This allowed me to see myself in leadership roles such as organizing professional development and influencing the practice of other teachers.  I also started mentoring student teachers and found this to be extremely rewarding and really stretched me to become a better teacher in so many ways.

I have always said that I would never become an administrator.  As I read so many blogs from #SAVMP mentors and mentees about why they lead, I keep seeing mentions and tributes to the leaders that have come before them- the influencers, the outstanding mentors that inspired them to do more and lead the way for others.

Early in my career I was so afraid of administrators and people in leadership.  This probably stemmed from my first interview ever as a teacher.  Nervous and unsure, at 22 years old and one month out of college, I arrived to my interview early, with my high heels and a smile. 

When the principal came out of his office, I stood and introduced myself.  He did not hold out his hand to shake mine, and in fact took a step back.  He frowned and said, "You could never teach here.  You are too young and way too small." He turned around, walked back into his office, and shut his door.

As ridiculous as this was, I would find that the sentiments of principals during my next few interviews would be strikingly similar. I went on to have an array of experiences with my administrators, ranging from disengaged to intimidating, some all together frightening in their approach to leadership. 

Until I started working at Patterson Park Public Charter School, I had never gotten the chance to work in a school community that believed in shared leadership and encouraged, even fostered, all staff to be leaders. PPPCS has amazing leadership, and equally as important, a strong community among the staff.  Everyone looks out for one another, there is shared support, and everyone's strengths are valued.  

This is where I learned what true leadership could be like, when a community forms around a common goal, and the leader is not as important as the communal effort.  For our team, it is about supporting everyone to ensure our students get the best our school can offer them.

I joined #SAVMP because I am at a crossroads.  I love teaching and being in the classroom, but I am starting to gain the courage to think that there may be a place for me outside of that space. The reality is that I want to lead for the same reasons I want to teach.  With my students, I lead them to discovery, understanding, and growth. I would want to lead for those same exact goals.  Rather than why do I lead, often I am thinking could I lead?

So while I figure this out, I am here as a mentee, in the most green form.  I hope to discover, gain new understandings, and grow.  The most exciting part is that there are so many people in this community that have been in the place that I stand, trying to figure out their direction and path.  Lucky for me, I don't have to do it alone.  

And hopefully, in the process, I can add something of value to the experiences of others.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Why I Teach #SAVMP

Photo taken in Khayelitsha, South Africa (2008)

This year, I will have a connected classroom.  I reached out on Twitter and was overjoyed when I got responses from teachers all over the US wanting to connect our students.  I thought this would be a great way to allow my students to learn outside the wall of our classroom, become global citizens, and teach digital citizenship.  It is exciting and different from anything we have ever done in my class.

I connected with Jared, a teacher from Utah, and we sent a few emails right away.  I was pleased to hear he had done this before. He suggested a lot of great activities we could do together while also detailing some logistics and planning details that would make all this run smoothly.

Perfect!  I was ready.  But then he sent me this...
Of note my students come from a very conservative religious suburban white area, it will be good for them to interact and get some perspective from a more diverse east coast point of view. Can't tell you how valuable this is. During the election last year we worked with a school in New Jersey and one in Iowa and it was nice for my students to hear a different point of view from what they got at home and the community.  
I teach at a charter school in Baltimore City.  Our school is an extremely diverse setting with kids that represent almost every population of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  It had never occurred to me that my kids could be a vital part of other classrooms building cultural awareness.  What a powerful experience for all of us.  We are breaking barriers and building a more understanding global community. This is why I teach!

And then, all of a sudden, I had this thought:

What if George Zimmerman had been in Jared's class?  

This was so overwhelming for me I cried, in public, while I was feverishly jotting down notes for this blog post.

Our jobs as teachers are so important.  With the resources and tools available to us with technology it is no longer about changing our students' lives, but about being a part of absolutely creating the most wonderfully connected and understanding society of people to ever be a part of our world.  Our students can understand other people in a way that has never been afforded to any other generation. There is no reason for anyone to be an outsider or isolated from people that are different from themselves as long as they have brave teachers willing to help guide them through these vitally importantly connections.

So today, I realized why I really teach.

I teach because I want our children to be brave, compassionate, strong, and loving.  I want to live in a world where people understand each other's hearts because they can connect with others that are nothing like them on the outside, but realize they internally share everything. I teach because I know, now more than ever, this is possible.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Moving From Teacher to Helper

Photo by Richard Shaw

As August rolls in, I can't help but feel the summer slowly slipping through my fingertips. Like each school year, I feel like each summer I have "off" as a teacher gets better and better. This year I have become more connected to other teachers in Baltimore and beyond the boundaries of our city.  I engaged in a deep reworking of my school's curriculum and instructional practice, and I got to do this with my talented colleagues, some of which I rarely get a chance to collaborate. It has been a great summer for learning.

I am incredibly lucky that I also celebrated my second wedding anniversary, while simultaneously celebrating a full year as a homeowner and dog owner.  This was also the seventh summer my husband and I spent together. And this got me thinking...

Let me take a minute to tell you a little bit about Richard, my husband, and I promise it will make sense why in the end.

Richard hates school.  He doesn't read books.  He is introverted and soft spoken.


Richard is a real life google (ask him anything, he knows the answers!).  He loves literature and nonfiction, and is extremely well read.  He can also engage in conversations with anyone, around just about any topic (see the first comment in this paragraph).

What I have learned from my husband is an insight that has deeply affected how I interact with my students.  Richard hated school because there wasn't a single thing going on there that he couldn't teach himself.  He decided that is exactly what he would do, and he didn't receive a formal education after 9th grade.  Yet, ask him about politics, agriculture, technology, law, history-- yup, he knows all about it. He didn't need a teacher or a school to teach him that stuff.  

Have you ever taught a kid like Richard?  I most certainly have.

So as a teacher, where does that leave me? Do my students need me or can they do okay with all these resources available around them?  Well, of course students need teachers, but they don't need us to learn.  Really, they need us to help them discover what is available, to help give them the confidence to follow their interests and passions, and to believe in themselves.  

My job, really, is to help-- not teach. So I am moving from "What can I teach you?" to "What can I help you learn?"  Let me help my students understand the world around them, find the answers to their questions, and explore things that don't make sense.  Let's help one another make sense of all the confusing, complex, and amazingly beautiful situations surrounding us.  My goal this year is to move from a place of teacher to that of communal helper, where everyone in my classroom has this same job title.

What have you learned this summer?  What lessons and new understandings will you carry back to your students?  And, most importantly, who in your life is helping you?

(Thanks to my husband for always helping me make sense of my world.  It is a lesson I'll be taking back to school with me this year.)