What’s My Story?

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Helsinki Airport Baggage Claim. Surprise representation.

 

Truth: I’m at a 2-day seminar for women educators interested in leadership. It is being led by a dynamic current head of school who has made it her mission to help stock the pipeline with capable women who belong in international school leadership.

We’re talking about the power of storytelling. Strong stories, told well and with intent create connections. The premise makes sense. Neurological research suggests that our emotional responses to stories feed and change our social brain. Being inspired has physiological consequences.

Our stories matter. How we receive and process stories matter.

And I am stumped. Because I consider exactly this – storytelling – to be an area of weakness. It’s why I never try to retell a joke or describe a supposedly funny thing I did. I’m willing to read fiction but not create it. Even true stories from my life feel odd to relate. To think of a story that is of emotional heft for me that then bears out some truth about my larger message feels like a significant hurdle that shouldn’t be.

Which is why I have taken on the expense of coming here, of taking part, of learning from fresh voices. As I run through my mental files, searching for the story I might need or that might do the job, I keep coming up with a blank. Or with stories I can’t find a connecting thread to. This is the point: facing the challenge of not knowing, of feeling off-base. By tomorrow, something will emerge. And it will be the right thing because it will be what I have at the moment.

From there I can build.

Right this moment I don’t know what my story is. Or which story is mine. Tomorrow I’ll know. I can hardly wait.

I used to think…

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I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

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No Stranger’s Words

Through the marvels of technology, I am now in the habit of listening to strangers talk about education: how to teach, how to learn, how to teach students how to learn, and so on. That said, I am thinking now about reading the words of someone whom I know and work with.

Listen to this:

Our Elementary School

“In the Elementary School we strive to ensure that each year at AIS is the best year in every child’s life. As educators we make decisions based on the understanding that we are not only guiding children towards learning but building experiences and creating memories that will serve to inform futures not yet imagined. At AIS our goal is for children to love school and for this love to translate into lifelong learning.”

This quote is taken from a recent proposal submitted by our principal, Sacha McVean, to the school’s Executive Board in support of the construction of a full elementary science lab and library extension. (A full introduction to the elementary school can be found here.) In the document, she describes the history of facilities decisions taken over the years which have led to the current project proposal and provides a brief overview of global education trends which speak in favor of this bold step. She draws attention to recent shifts in education practice which require our active response: from knowing to doing, from teacher centered instruction to student directed learning, from one right answer to multiple possibilities and from independent work to teamwork.

She concludes with this:

“While you learn to read in the classroom, you go the the library to instill a love of reading. In this same way, the construction of a new Science lab will instill a love of science in our students and this will help them meet the challenges that tomorrow promises.”

Every day I read the words of so many strangers on all things education. Yet this document, written by my own principal, gave me pause in a new way.  She was talking about education and she was talking about us – what we offer, what we strive for, what we value. And in these words, especially in those opening sentences describing Our Elementary School, I could in fact see myself and my colleagues and all of our students.

That, my friends, is a rare and wonderful gift. In reading the full document which included great visual contrasts illustrating other facility changes which would take place and further reinforce the goals of meeting student needs to an even greater degree, I was surprised by my own sense of pride at being a member of this school, our school. I was struck by the sense that the planning, persistence, and ultimately, the pay-off (the board approved the plan for the science lab construction) is fully in service to current and future students. Maybe that is, in truth, the real miracle – knowing that at the center of the vision, the plan and the decisions – are kids: their needs, aspirations and curiosity.

Alas, this episode captures a slice of the miracle so many of us in education are striving for: visions, plans and decisions which place children and their needs at the center – and then deliver.

Chief Enthusiasm Officer

Just at the end of a six month tenure with the official title of “Project Leader,” I am feeling a great deal of pride, relief, exhaustion and wonder. As part of a volunteer organization, I had the pleasure of leading a fantastic group of  8 professional women. In total we represented 8 different nationalities and our charge was to undertake the process of re-branding our network.

Now that we have celebrated our accomplishments with a culminating event, I feel compelled to look back and try to capture my very personal gains from the process, especially in experiencing myself as “the leader.”

  • I was invited to lead the project.

An invitation is a powerful thing. I had the power of choice. I enjoyed the sense of trust and confidence which others were willing to place in me. As a result I felt honored and pleased and eager to serve.  Think about that for a moment: eager to serve. I could find no other response beyond  “yes” – a “yes” expressive of the desire to contribute primarily because I was asked to. And because the requested contribution was not for money but for my time and skills.

  • I am no expert in marketing or branding. I do have a good grasp of team building.

Knowing this freed me from having to pretend like I did know and opened me up to investigating the diverse and multiple talents and skill sets in the team. Getting to know my teammates was by far the most rewarding aspect of the whole enterprise and that felt like my strength: finding out what others were good at, learning how each wanted to apply her talents, and locating that sweet spot between task, talent and availability for each of us.

  • As the “leader” I got to set the tone.

And the tone I decided to go for was fun, personal, and optimistically realistic. I kept reminding the team and myself that we were all volunteers. We were electing to take on these tasks out of the goodness of our hearts. Therefore I put a high premium on making sure that as much of our journey together was enjoyable and productive.

  • I value other people’s time like I value my own.

 We kept face to face meetings to a minimum – 4 all-team meetings in the whole 6 months. Intra-group communication worked really well using a teamwork platform, Glip.com. When we did meet, we chose comfortable locations with a suitable selection of beverages. I planned interactive meetings to insure that all voices could be heard and a variety of ideas expressed. Several teammates commented on how much they enjoyed and looked forward to our meetings!

  • I have a great deal of faith in humanity in general and gladly placed a huge amount of trust in the women with whom I shared this project. (As they also placed in me.)

Trust means that I believed people when they told me they would complete this or that task by a certain deadline. Trust means that when we wondered about our capacity to meet our final deadline in mid October, I emphasized my belief that we could accomplish the necessary tasks in time. And I assured everyone that our best in mid-October would be our best in mid-October – meaning that we would get as much done as possible by focusing completing the non-negotiables to the best of our abilities and worry about what’s left after that. By the end of our project and leading up to the finale, the degree of mutual trust and cooperation showed up in every e-mail, each phone call. We felt like a real team.

 

  • Optimistically Realistic

I need to say a little more about this. While the tasks before us seemed formidable – a website redesign, a whole slate of new graphic design products, strategies for communicating the change – they also struck me as doable within the frame of trying not to do too much. (I will say that our graphic designer had already prepared most of the elements in line with our global umbrella organization, so that gave us a significant head start on the remainder of the graphic tasks.)

 

That said, I lacked the experience to estimate exactly how much time it might take us as volunteers to build a new website and populate it with updated, fresh content. In the end, the team put together an informative, engaging and user-friendly website complete with all the essential pieces and some added features to boot. I like to think that that was possible in part thanks to a shared capacity to stay optimistically realistic.

 

  • I was able to test my theories about leading by example, with heart and head.

I wasn’t the boss of anyone and didn’t need to be. I did make some decisions for our group along the way and delivered on the promises I made. While I had many jobs on this team, one of the most valuable was the ability to tie up loose ends without resentment. I had the benefit of the overview (mostly) and understanding how to use that to lighten one person’s load here or boost someone else’s involvement there seemed to make a positive difference in how members experienced their individual roles and impact. In my mind, I could only expect and ask of others what I was also modeling: meeting deadlines, keeping appointments, sharing information freely.

  • Questions get great mileage.

My favorite questions were: How can I help? What do you/we need?

  • It struck me that saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ sometimes matters more than the actual content of the request or statement.
  • My most effective leadership tool turned out to be: (drum roll, please) Showing up as myself.

After the many tomes, pamphlets and essays I have read on leadership, what served me and our team best proved to be the gift of daring to be myself. I fell in love with my team, with their individual enthusiasms and desire to be a part of something positive. I felt tremendous gratitude for their trust in me and used as many opportunities as possible to express that in word and deed. We had a great time with each other and when we celebrated at our culminating event, ours was a shared victory.

image: owned by PWN Vienna

image: owned by PWN Vienna

It’s fascinating to me that this all happened within the frame of volunteering within a women’s organization which boasts its many opportunities for members to gain valuable leadership experiences by getting involved. As a relative newcomer I suppose I was waiting for the magic to take its effect. With the completion of this project, my learning has been significant and the spell has been cast. All the language around empowerment, initiative, growth and support which appears widely in our publications has now been evidenced for me in a deeply personal way. The network works and the process helped me see ways to indeed “advance the way we work together.”

What still amazes me in this process is how much I enjoyed both the role of leader and the opportunity to enact it in ways that felt authentic, effective and joyful. “Chief Enthusiasm Officer” might capture how I experienced my role much of the time. My enthusiasm for the project was only outdone by the enthusiasm I felt in working with my team of dynamic and accomplished women.

On Becoming Adaptive

...and I'm in.  CC via pixabay.com

…and I’m in.       (CC via pixabay.com)

When we experience new learning that is exciting and valuable, we are often bubbling over with the desire to share and to envelop others in our heartfelt enthusiasm. I’ve recently returned from exactly that kind of learning experience.  A seminar where I left feeling love and gratitude for everyone in the room, where I had daily “a-ha” moments which nearly knocked me off my seat, where the teaching was so good that it often felt more like magic than learnable practice –  that’s the kind of experience it was.

I attended the Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar (http://www.thinkingcollaborative.com/) which was hosted by the Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan (TIS). The 4-day training which focuses on developing individual and group capacities in leadership and collaboration was sponsored by the Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) of which my school is a member. A small contingent of international educators from Delhi, Dubai, Bangkok, Vienna and Vilnius joined the TIS staff in creating a tremendously trustful atmosphere for exchange and community. Our facilitators, Carolyn McKanders and Fran Prolman,  guided us expertly through a rich program of awareness raising, skill building and actionable next steps. And yet, the content, as compelling and applicable it may be in its own right, was not the star of the show. No, the real star, the giant outcome for me, was the overarching process which I would dare to call a transformation.

In four days it’s possible to cover a lot of content. And we did that. What was different was that at every stage we were consistently exposed to these four things:

  • Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.
  • There was 100% transparency on the What, Why and How of each step.
  • We received both modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced
  • Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

Our facilitators maintained a fully relational approach to the group.

Both facilitators engaged participants by being authentic, welcoming and approachable. Questions were encouraged. Attention to feedback was meticulous, so that small changes in the program which better served the group’s understanding were honored and carried out. As a participant, I felt empowered to participate fully without fear of stepping on the facilitators’ toes. In the Adaptive Schools framework, I believe this might fall under the heading of “promoting a spirit of inquiry.”

100% transparency of the What, Why and How of each step

Skilled educators understand the value of making it clear to students, participants and group members why something is going to be done, exactly what it is that is going to be done, and how it will be done. Throughout the training every strategy, reference point and skill was described, explained and recorded, so that the information was consistently visibly available – posted on the walls all around our meeting space. By the last day we were literally surrounded by the fruits of our learning. If I was ever unclear as to what we were doing and why, all I needed to do was look around or ask a question. I never needed to leave thirsty for an answer.

Our facilitators provided modeling of and practice in every strategy that was introduced.

This practice really hit home for me. “What? Why? How?” is in fact a strategy which says that you answer these three questions for the group before asking group members to do something.  You play with an open hand by providing clear rationale and reliable instructions. This frees group members up to actually focus on the task at hand rather than second guessing the possible motivations or likely outcomes.  This piece is so important because it, demonstrates and reinforces an uncontested respect for group members’ time, presence and energy.  And the effect of seeing the strategy in action and then actually practicing it in real time builds a participant’s sense of efficacy. Seeing is believing – believing that, “yes, I could try this, too.”

Reflection was built into the instructional plan at every turn.

The oft repeated sentences offered by our facilitators spell it out: “The learning is not in doing the activity, it is in the reflection” and “any group that is too busy to reflect on process is too busy to grow.”  We don’t get smarter by simply doing, we need to reflect on what happened and how, in order to make sense of it on our own terms and eventually internalize what holds meaning. In the space of 4 days, there were no superfluous activities. All of our doings had a purpose and at each stage we were given opportunities to process our thinking sometimes silently, or by talking with a partner or in a small group; sometimes in writing and in pictures. This habit of reflection steadily contributed to group trust, participant efficacy and enthusiasm, and a gradual anchoring of the content in our lived experiences.  Brilliant!

While there may be plenty of resources, agencies and consultants out there that offer to teach a group how to run more successful meetings, boost employee morale or even how to build and sustain professional learning communities, the capacity to stimulate genuine transformation remains rare.  The Adaptive Schools Leadership Seminar achieved more than most by attending to the needs of adult learners in fundamentally deep ways. Rather than focusing exclusively on tips, tricks and raw skills, we addressed the significance and contribution of identity, mission and values in the mix. In order to do that we had to make ourselves a little vulnerable from time to time. In some cases we had to let go of a few long held ideas while making friends with new ones. Carolyn and Fran, by applying the four characteristics mentioned above provided the space, structure and atmosphere for the group to feel capable and prepared for true transformation to take place.

 

For more information on the work of Adaptive Schools, please visit the thinking collaborative website (see above) and consider getting a hold of the sourcebook: The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman, 2009, Christopher Gordon Publishers, Norwood, MA.

 

 

More questions than answers

Several months ago I jumped at the opportunity to write a guest blog post on emotional intelligence and educational leadership. Of course that’s a very broad area on which much has already been written. As I began to delve into the world of educator connectedness through twitter and a variety of blogs, I got very curious about how all this e-connectivity is playing itself out at the intersection of leadership and EQ (the borrowed shorthand for emotional intelligence).

Here are the questions I came up with:
How are our professional relationships changed through increased use (and reliance on) social media, e-mail, and other forms of digital communication?

How can leaders make use of media and technology to underscore their commitment to building and supporting emotionally intelligent learning environments?

What are you experiencing at the intersection of school leadership, technology use and emotional intelligence?

Finding and forming questions which get to the heart of what I want to find out has proved challenging thus far. Locating specific articles or posts which speak to this topic in the realm of schools and their leaders has also been surprisingly difficult. There’s plenty of talk about SEL (social emotional learning), best methods for all manner of tech integration in the classroom, a fair amount on meeting admin challenges in the trenches and yet an unbelievable dearth of voices on the intersection of EQ, leadership and tech use.

Just yesterday I was fortunate to find a post which offered a great window into one administrator’s practice and gave clues as to how this might be interpreted as insight into his particular understanding and application of EQ:
http://johnfalino.com/2013/10/06/the-principalship-how-have-smartphones-changed-the-landscape/

So what’s the big deal? It’s tough to say. However fascinating and enriching the possibilities are for instant and far flung connection through our wonderful gadgetry and ever expanding digital capabilities, I still maintain a fundamental concern about the implications for our communicative existences – for better, worse and for the entirely unknown and unanticipated.

So I find myself asking more and more questions and seeking the widest variety of responses. What does it mean for administrators to be potentially accessible to their school communities via their phones 24/7? Where do school leaders draw the line and insist that certain forms of communication take place face to face? What kinds of presence are possible and desirable for school leaders and in which contexts?

Considering the four categories of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management – all of these can show up in any of our day-to-day communications and interactions and they are critical to the success of any leader. And with our increased use of and reliance on electronic media, there is so much more room for ambiguity, misunderstanding and mixed signals. This is perhaps the root of my concern: how do we, can we, actively mitigate this gap in perception that comes along with our use of new media? When it is done well, how can we recognize it?

So many questions in search of many responses. I need help on this one. Please share these questions with others, respond to them yourself. Let’s get this conversation going. Thanks.

It’s you

When was the last time you entered a conversation with the deliberate intent to focus your attention on the interests, needs and desires of your partner?  Usually we are motivated to speech in order to meet our own immediate needs:  to gain someone’s attention or to get something done.  I tell my spouse about my work day because I need to vent.  My son reminds me that he’s due for a play date with his friend this week. My students ask me where we will be having class. 

What happens, however, when we take the opportunity to turn the norm on it’s head.  What if, we entered the conversation wanting to find out not just how our conversation partner is doing and we also took the time to listen fully to his response?  What would happen if, when my son reminds me about wanting to see his friend, that I took the time to acknowledge how important this is to him and perhaps asked him to tell me more about this friend? What if, instead of bowling over my husband with my incredible “news of the day” as soon as he has a chance to sit down, I instead, offer him something to drink and ask him about whatever is on his mind (or maybe just let him choose not to share…)?

I raise these questions because I recently ran across a text I wrote several years ago in which I describe this outlook: “It’s you” or “It’s about you.” The text surprised me with both its clarity and passion.  I offer it here as food for thought from which we can all benefit:

When we have a conversation and my attitude says, “it’s about you,” then my focus, my presence, my eyes even are centered on you and your feelings, thoughts, expressions.  “It’s you” involves putting our own judgments, sentiments and opinions on hold while we address our full attention to the other.  We not only listen, we take in, duplicate, and create space for our partner to express what is most important to him or her.  We not only make eye contact with our partner but show through our eyes, facial expression and body language that we are with him or her, present for whatever he or she needs to communicate. 

When we are sincere in our perspective of “it’s about you,” miracles can happen.  We open the floodgates of possibility by shifting the spotlight from ourselves to our partners.  We can create space for the other to feel valued, appreciated, understood.  We can open ourselves to the love, generosity, and warmth that reside in each of us and in turn offer it to those with whom we come in contact.  We can create a state of inner abundance by recognizing that our capacity to give increases as we assist, support and accompany others on their journeys.

A short fairy tale illustrates this beautifully:

A young prince sought to meet his beloved maiden and knocked on the door of her chamber.  “Who’s there?” asked a female voice from inside.  “It’s me,” the young prince replied.

“In this room there is not enough space for you and me,” came the response and the door remained quite closed.

The young prince went away and traveled for many months.  He contemplated the maiden’s answer and when he believed to have found the better response he returned to her door.  He knocked.

“Who’s there?” came the query from inside.  The prince responded: “It’s you,” and the door was opened and he entered.

Try working with this perspective.  Consider it an avenue on the way to full presence for others, a means to seek the best possible in people and situations.  Be prepared to find out how much more you can be when you focus your precious attention on others.  There is hardly a greater gift we have to offer the people we know and care about.