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.

I’ll Meet You There – Easier Said Than Done

You plan to go out with a friend and you agree to meet up in specific location. The plan assumes that each of you will travel some distance to reach the common meeting point. In teaching we may operate on a similar assumption.  I, the teacher, will travel a ways to meet my students where they are in their understanding. And in turn my students will use their skills, effort and drive to strive in the direction of that designated learning goal.  So much for the plan.

pixabay.com
pixabay.com

Anyone who has ever tried to instruct, teach or impart anything to anyone, will know that the reality is always much murkier and messier  than “the plan.”  Learning anything is rarely cut and dried. And the notion of teaching as a process through which knowledge is given or passed on to someone  misses the point of the interaction.  When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and what I believe my students are supposed to learn, then I will have to travel. Building that bridge may well become an extremely arduous process.  While I am planning, engineering, and constructing,  what are my students up to?  Some of them are watching me work up a sweat, as I run back and forth gathering materials and begin putting in the foundation. Many of them, however, are talking to each other or staring into their gadgets or generally just hanging out. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest in my bridge.

And there’s the catch. It’s my bridge. I have to build it, right? To get to where they are…  What kind of traveling are my students doing in this scenario? How are they moving to meet me? Well, they’re not. They are spectators at my teaching show. They have not been asked to help build the bridge. They’re just going to wait until the bridge is done and see what happens.

Let’s do this differently: When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and the understanding that my students have shown me they are seeking, then they and I will need to travel, and gather resources, and put in some effort to meet up at the designated learning goal. The planning, engineering and constructing will look different than when I chose to do it all on my own. The process will likely take longer and guess what? My students and I will learn not only how to build bridges, we will have learned much more about each other – our individual strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations in addition to discovering what we are capable of as a group.

Shifting my role from teacher, in the traditional sense, to lead learner requires some important steps on my part:

Before:

  • I need to have awareness about where I am in my development as a person and as a professional. How comfortable am I with sharing leadership?  How do I cope with ambiguity and uncertainty? Who do my students need me to be in order to be able to embrace this kind of approach to learning?

During:

  • patience and more patience.
  • openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, confusion
  • Staying connected to the vision which led me to venture down this road
  • Heaps of faith in myself and my students in what we are undertaking together
  • Humor

After:

  • ample opportunities to celebrate as a group and as individuals
  • time to step back and really take in the scope and magnitude of accomplishment. That is, not just looking at the finished products, rather, reflecting on the many steps it took to get there and all the mini victories those steps represent.
  • Closure: How do we want to remember what we did here?  Where are we headed next?

While it appears that I have replaced one “plan” with another. The real shift has less to do with the format and much more to do with what has happened in me. In order to shift from control and command “teaching” to the shared responsibility and distributed leadership stance of a lead learner, I, as a person, need to be aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities and be able to acknowledge them openly.  That is real travel. It is the journey of a lifetime and it never ends. The gift we can offer our students is to respect where they are on their unique journeys even as we acknowledge the twists and turns of our own expeditions.  As the lead learners, we are then in a position to accompany and support them as they get acquainted with new terrain and increase stamina. That’s when we can confidently say to our students, “I’ll meet you there” and mean it.

Team Building and Reflective Conversations

Team Building and Reflective Conversations

Other possible titles: Building Reflective Teams through Conversation, Building conversations reflective of teams… At any rate, the workshop itself offered a rare chance to mix and mingle with brave educators willing to take risks, have fun and be open. Creating space for learning, connection and laughter – this is my vision for professional personal real human development. This group helped me to recognize that. For that and their cheerful collegiality I remain deeply grateful.

“Could you make the teams, please?!”

This blog post is dedicated to all my colleagues who are willing to sacrifice the time and endure the messiness of allowing students to solve their own problems in the classroom and beyond.
The Agenda
It never fails. On the whiteboard my 4th and 5th grade students read: speedball mini-games. They know what we’re going to play and most have a good sense of what that will look like. Then comes the challenge:
“Please get into co-ed groups of 4-5 and make sure that the teams are balanced in terms of skill levels, enthusiasm, boys/girls, etc.” They know the routine.
They get started. Friends grab friends and migrate towards a pair of the opposite gender who present the most favorable option (or least objectionable possibility). There are complaints: “They’re always together.” “They’re too good.” “We don’t have any girls.” “We don’t have any boys.” They keep trying – sending individual students to and fro: “You go to that team…” “No, we already have our team.”* I stop them and ask if they are finished.
There’s a sigh of frustration. “Are the teams co-ed?” “Are they fair?” I ask.  Hands go up and it doesn’t take long for the plea to arrive: “Will you please make the teams?”

One of my favorite teaching moments has arrived and it is gift wrapped.

“To answer your question: yes, I could make the teams, sure. But, what would you be learning?”
Aha. They sensed it. Another grown-up lesson they unwittingly walked into.

I persist: “What is it that I want you to learn and practice by making your own teams?”

They begin to respond: “To be fair.” “So that we learn how to solve our own problems.” “Teamwork?”

“Who’s going to play the game?”

“We are.”
“What kind of games do you want to have?”

“Fair games.”

”So, do you see what I’m saying here? The games are in your hands. You get to decide what kind of games you want to have. If you want fair games, then you have to make fair teams and I think you know how to do that.”
“But people want to be with their friends,” a student interjects. Several nod.

“Aha. So you may want more than one thing when you get into a group. You want to be with your friend and you want the teams to be fair. I guess you have to know which is more important to you and if you can make it work within the group. So what do you want now?”
“We want to play the games.”
“Okay, so let’s see your groups.”
There is renewed shuffling and within 40 seconds we have four groups that look a little different than before. I ask everyone to look around. “Satisfied with these teams? Do they look balanced and fair?” Nods and expressions of relief.
“Okay. Let’s play.”

*One added caveat: When students begin to order each other around while forming groups, I use this maxim: “Before you send someone else, you go yourself.” And I explain that it’s usually easier to tell someone else to do the thing that we don’t want or are afraid to do on our own. And many of us do not like being told by our peers where to go and what to do. So the responsible solution is to move yourself. This has been a very useful tool in helping students see that our actions often express more than we realize.

Step 4: Celebrate and Reflect

 

Although I have been teaching team building to elementary students for many years, my learning in this area just never quits.  So this year when pulling out my favorite group challenges and rounding up the necessary equipment, through conversation with my partner colleague I realized what I felt I was missing in the process: not enough time and attention dedicated to reflection at the end of a challenge.  In response to that need I drew up a plan outlining 4 steps for the team-building process which my colleague and I posted in our teaching areas:

  1. Form a group.
  2. Understand the task.
  3. Solve the challenge. Try and try again.
  4. Celebrate and reflect: Talk about it.

Team Building Blocks

This way it was clear to my students and to me that reflecting on what happened, how it happened, and what we learned from it was as important as solving the challenge itself.  What I also realized was that certain structures and tools needed to be in place to allow the process to run smoothly and to have a sustainable impact.  Successful student reflection requires:

  • Time, especially for listening and for each person to have a voice.
  • Conversation norms  (i.e.,  raising hands, listening to each other, taking turns)
  • Use of open questions starting with what, how, who, when. Use “Why” sparingly or not at all.
  • Paraphrasing or duplication: relating back what someone just said.
  • A reference point or points of how this learning relates to other topics
  • Opportunities to practice reflection in the short term and one on one (i.e., after correcting or redirecting a negative behavior).
  • Varied means and formats of expression (i.e., verbal, written, through art; publicly or privately)

What my colleague and I have found is that the conversations among students have grown increasingly layered over time. Our students can recognize and name behaviors such as blaming and supporting.  They are able to acknowledge each other’s specific contributions to their collective success. They can also identify where they experienced roadblocks and define what got in their way.  They learn to listen to each other. As they have grown accustomed to the types of questions which require them to actively recall, name and interpret their actions, their responses have become increasingly nuanced.  Also, as I experimented with gathering feedback privately from individuals, my ELL students were able to share their thoughts with greater confidence.

Now, as our groups have moved on to other movement topics, the benefit of this approach is paying further dividends. After struggling to make co-ed groups for a game, I stop the class and ask: “What seems to be the trouble?”  The responses often hit the nail on the head without much probing. Or before I release a class to go change, I ask them to tell me on their way out: “two things that made your team successful.”  In both cases, students are able to articulate and safely share their take on a given situation.  While not every child is anxious to speak up, I feel confident that every child is creating their own internal response; a process  we call “thinking.”

Powerful Questions, Brave Responses

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I’m currently enrolled in a life coaching course and we have been exploring and experimenting with powerful questions. Which questions are powerful? you ask. They are the questions which force you to stop and think. Powerful questions can startle you out of autopilot and make you grab the steering wheel of your random thoughts. You can feel them land. They can catch you off guard and cause you to prick up your ears. They may confound and exhilirate you. Powerful questions tend to find you when you least expect them. They’ve got your number and when they come calling, you’ll be compelled to answer.

What I like about powerful questions is that they are not powerful according to formula. Depending on who you are, what you need and how you function, the power of the question lies in its reception. That makes powerful questions both a gamble and surprise. I like to raise all sorts of questions with my students. Many questions are closed – require a yes or no answer – and yet are often asked in service to a deeper learning: “Was that kind?” ” Were you respectful?” With these queries I often want to draw students’ attention to their behavior and the impact their behavior may be having on others. On the other hand, when time allows, I can create open questions to stimulate a different student response: “What did you do that was kind?” “How were you and your teammates respectful of each other?” In these cases I am encouraging students to dig a little deeper into the topic and give me some specifics from their thinking.

It can be an inspiration when my students respond to a well posed open question. Their answers are often amazingly articulate and plain. They cut to the chase and get to the point. Following a round of challenging team building activities, I asked my 5th graders silently to ask themselves this question: What am I learning? Then I asked them to share their answers with me individually and I noted them on a sheet of paper. Here’s what some of them said:

“We should be safer, be more respectful and cooperate more.”

“We need to have teamwork which is kinda hard, but we learn to problem solve.”

“I need to rely on others.”

“Working with teamwork means that you have to put in effort.”

“If we yell at each other, people get discouraged and feel under pressure and then can’t do their best.”

“It’s basically a trust exercise. You have to trust others…”

“When you work as a team, winning isn’t what matters.”

“I am learning about the word challenge. You have to keep on trying and challenge yourself.”

“Maybe we don’t have to fix it every time, maybe sometimes we should go with the flow.”

“To listen to others more carefully.”

“It was better when more people gave ideas. We had more brains thinking.”

“We shouldn’t scream. We should be more helpful and give support.”

Those are some powerful responses. I felt each of them land. They hit the nail on the head and gave me pause. In my students’ answers I find fuel for my own ongoing inquiry: What am I learning?

Teaching to learn

If you spend any time around children, the pace, variety and magnitude of their learning can be downright dizzying. But it is often only partly (or not at all) related to school learning. Kids watch other kids, watch grown-ups, pay attention to anything, everything and what sometimes appears to be nothing at all. They are learning. Putting two and two together. Figuring. Making guesses. Picking up. Gathering. Witnessing. Taking in. Saving it for later or using it right now. 

I have the privilege of observing these processes on a daily basis, at work and at home. My students surprise, fascinate and at times also exasperate me and I am humbled again and again by their thirst for making meaning. Much of my day seems to proceed in a blur and yet I cherish those moments when time slows down and I can listen to what my students have to tell me. I hear quite a bit about sore muscles, recent scrapes, sudden tummy aches and of course, hurt feelings. What I have found is that few of these ailments require more treatment at that moment than a simple airing followed by an empathic response. When my students feel heard and sufficiently attended to, they are, in a manner, “healed.” (A good game of tag is also helpful.)

My oldest students (4th and 5th graders) are working on team building challenges these days and my greatest challenge as the teacher is to stay out of the way of their learning. I hand over the responsibility to them for attempting and completing the challenge. I invite them to struggle, to endure some frustration, overcome setbacks and practice remaining positive even when progress seems slow. Of course, a part of me wants to speed them along by offering a critical hint and a stray piece of advice. It is hard to watch them stumble, get stuck and fail. And yet, with each new session they get better: they develop patience (a little at least), they begin to strategize before diving in, they stop blaming each other and before long they are celebrating increased success. When they celebrate, they fully own their accomplishments and can articulate what made the difference and why. These are the classes where I talk the least and learn the most: about my students and their capabilities and about the importance of keeping them in the spotlight.

My best work as a “teacher” lies less in the act of teaching as telling and much more in the realm of opening doors and creating space for learning to take place. My students, it turns out, are remarkably patient teachers and for that I am tremendously grateful.