Let’s Stop.

Let’s stop emailing.

This isn’t a soap box or sanctimonious lecture. It’s an earnest plea, to myself as well, for reconnection. Obviously I don’t mean let’s never, ever use email. Email can certainly be a useful tool, and it is an innovation we can be grateful for. It speeds up the exchange of information and makes certain kind of work easier. It has saved us time. But the fuzzy boundaries that have always existed between the land of “useful” and “exhausting and harmful” are only getting fuzzier. 

When I began my career as an educator email was a part of my world. But in the past 5 years email is ever closer to becoming my whole professional world. Early in my work as both a teacher and administrator, it was a sign of professionalism if you were “on top of” your email inbox. Prompt, thorough, warm responsiveness was a hallmark of an efficient, well-rounded, attentive teacher and leader. I prided myself on my attention to detail and my ability to both manage communication on screen, and show up as a competent, kind teacher/leader in person with my students and faculty.

Today, I could easily spend my whole work day managing email. Responding to email, following up on email, initiating new emails. It’s endless. And it is NOT why I chose the work of education or leadership.

I chose this work because I care deeply about people. I care about the dignity of children, and the right they have to a joyful childhood that equips them with necessary skills for navigating the intellectual, emotional, and social world that they are growing up in. I believe in the power and necessity of human connection for individuals and communities to thrive, and I chose this work because I want to give my time and energy to shaping communities and cultures that care for children.   

In recent years – this part of my job…the part that fills me and that I love most, the humans, is at risk of being subsumed by the constant pressure and cloud of urgency that can surround email. It arrives at will, demands attention, and provokes feelings. It’s a problem I participate in and I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.

Why are we up at 10:00pm, 12:00am, 3:00am emailing multi-paragraph descriptions of worries, fears, concerns, or rebuttals to one another?

Why are we spilling out, in typed words, the worries of our hearts and sending them off to someone else who can’t or won’t respond for hours? 

Why are we sitting at tables, lying in bed, or relaxing in our living room with our heads down and our fingers flying over the screen composing these missives (“sent from my iPhone”)…at the expense of time with the people right next to us? Or of time with ourselves?

I bet we can all tell a story of a long, unexpected email that knocked us off balance. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all tell a story about a time we wrote an email like that to someone else. I would suggest that one of the reasons we’re doing it is because the human experience is fraught with feelings. And sometimes those feelings are uncomfortable ones (sadness, hurt, disappointment, anger, frustration, confusion, jealousy, etc.). When I get an uncomfortable feeling I just want it to STOP. I want to make it go away. Quickly. I want to solve it, conquer it, vanquish it, soothe it. And email is a tempting escape hatch. I’ve used it (and I’m sorry if it was with you). I can respond to (or generate) an email that temporarily takes that uncomfortable feeling and, with the clickity-clack of some keystrokes and the press of the “send” button – puts that uncomfortable feeling in someone else’s court (or inbox, as it were).

And therein lies the cycle. Now someone else probably has an uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it’s surprise, confusion, exhaustion, or a deepening sense of feeling misunderstood. And now they want that uncomfortable feeling gone too. So……they see email as the same escape hatch. *Phew!* Now they, with the power of email, can quickly and temporarily soothe their uncomfortable feeling as well.

Stop.

We can stop. You, or I or anyone, can be the one who interrupts the cycle. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, instead of pulling out the computer, phone, or tablet what if we each asked ourselves:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • Why am I feeling this way?
  • What other things (my own history, other experiences I had today, etc.) might be influencing how I’m feeling in response to this moment?
  • What is it I want to do? 
  • Does that response embody the core values I believe in? If not, what might I do instead?

To be sure, in-person conversations are slower. They take more time to arrange and schedule. They don’t immediately assuage the mounting urgency that pounds against our chests and presses at the back of our eyes when we’re feeling uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the solace they offer is deeper and ultimately more genuinely soothing. They offer connection and the chance of empathy, of truly being seen and seeing someone else. Interpersonal conversations can be harder, for many reasons, but ultimately the reward they offer is much greater. 

It is imperative that we do a better job for children and for each other in navigating our feelings. We are burying them under apps and distractions and texts and emails. And even as we may temporarily dodge or escape uncomfortable feelings, we ultimately also miss out on joyful ones through these behaviors. Children are learning from us. I want more for them then learning that email is the first coping mechanism to lean on when things (feelings) get rocky or unpredictable. I think you want more for them too. I want to know and understand people: children and adults. Email isn’t helping with that. There is another way. Let’s find our way back to each other.

In Stories, Endings Matter: The Experiencing Self & The Remembering Self

I just finished reading Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. His book, and all his writing I’ve read thus far, is both rich with research and elegant in its storytelling. Being Mortal is largely about how we grapple with mortality, both as people who will ourselves confront it at some point…and people who will likely have to journey alongside loved ones as they confront it. It’s a beautiful, raw, and important book.

I’ve been really stuck on a portion of the book towards the end, the irony of which is not lost on me (keep reading and you’ll see why). Gawande explains some research that led scientists to understand more clearly how humans both experience moments, and how they remember them. He writes about something called The Peak-End Rule. Essentially, the research shows that an individual’s overall impression of an experience, from something as consequential as surgery to something as commonplace as watching a sports game, is the average of the most intense moment (the “peak”, and this can be positive or negative) and the feeling they have at the end. Gawande writes,

“People seemed to have two different selves–an experiencing self who endures every moment equally and a remembering self who gives almost all the weight of judgment afterward to two single points in time, the worst moment and the last one. The remembering self seems to stick to the Peak-End rule even when the ending is an anomaly.”

So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: What implications does the Peak-End Rule have for my work with children? In my role as Division Head I deal mostly with problems. Rarely are faculty, children, or parents stopping in to chat about “That decision you made that I love!” or “That student who made a great choice!” or “That really great feeling I have about everything the school is doing!” Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positive moments and people do make efforts to share what’s going well. It’s just the exception rather than the rule. I don’t love that the feeling connoted with my role is that of “in trouble” (with both adults and children!). In fact, my husband tells me “In Trouble” should be the title of a book I write. Contrary to popular wish, I do not have a magic wand or a hidden easy button in my office that will remove, cure, or discipline away what is hard about growing up and learning. I did not get or take this job because my angry eyebrows and disappointed voice are stronger or more influential than yours. They aren’t.

What I do have is a deep, abiding, and passionately held belief that, as Ross Greene writes, “Children do well if they can.” If they can’t or aren’t, there’s always a whole lot more complexity to the why behind it than the angry eyebrows or disappointed voice would ever facilitate uncovering. In my role I have the privilege of trying every day to make decisions and act in a way that preserves and protects the dignity of each child. I am not in the business of “trouble.” Rather, I am in the business of assisting little humans through childhood. I’ve had a lot of intense, difficult moments with children and families in my years as a division head. There’s ones I’ve handled well, and moments I wish I could do-over. I’m encouraged by the Peak-End Rule and what it might mean for how children, particularly those for whom the rules and rituals of school do not come easily, ultimately walk away from their school experience feeling about themselves, about our school, and, yes, even about me. Gawande writes,

“In the end, people don’t view their life merely as the average of all its moments — which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story.  A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens..we have purposes larger than ourselves. Unlike your experiencing self–which is absorbed in the moment–your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery, but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Why would a football fan let a few flubbed minutes at the end of the game ruin three hours of bliss? Because a football game is a story. And in stories, endings matter.”

CMS reading to kinderI hope the idea that Gawande is sharing, as it might pertain to education and growing up, means that when we’re in our hardest moments with a student, a family, a whole class, a colleague…that our Experiencing Self can acknowledge “Ouch, this is hard and it hurts,” but that we can also take comfort that the story continues, we haven’t arrived at the ending yet. And the reality that an ending remains unwritten is such a cause for hope! In fact, according to the Peak-End Rule, endings are so powerful they have the capacity to counter-balance even the hardest of journeys. Gawande finishes his reflections on the role of the Peak-End Rule in living, and in dying, by writing,

I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But the point is we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories.”

As an educator, I have the privilege to walk with each child and their family through this growing up journey. Our Experiencing Selves endure every moment of that journey equally, all the joyful highs and all the excruciating and confusing lows. The Peak-End Rule reminds me that it is, in fact, a journey. And as all great journeys do, childhood eventually comes to an end. It is my hope, with each child and family I walk with along the way, that when my involvement in the story comes to an end we’ll be able to look at each other with warmth and trust as we pass the reins to our Remembering Selves and cheer, “We made it!”

Wayfinding: An Antidote to Fast & Distracted

I’m sitting outside on our 14 acre campus at Hillbrook School. I see a pair of Kindergarten girls walking to the office together. I say hello. They wave and smile and one of them says “I’m going to get my jacket I forgot in the music room, but first my teacher asked me to deliver this note to the front desk.” They go on their way. As they walk the next stretch of their journey they amble along. One of the girls takes a little skip and speeds up her step. The other matches it…and within moments they are sprinting towards the music room. On their journey back to their classroom they take a different route. A group of 8th graders (giants!) crosses their path and they freeze, staring. They get a couple high fives and hellos, and then they resume their journey.

Two 2nd grade students are walking down a small hill with a tote bag full of books. They share the load, each carrying one handle, and struggle with it a bit. Sometimes one of them moves faster than the other. Sometimes one of them loses their grip. They make it to the library, deliver the books, and start to walk back towards their classroom. They take a wrong turn towards a fenced off construction area. They realize, turn around, and get back on track.

A group of 6th grade students sit at a picnic table working together. Every now and again there is some screechy laughter, or one of them rolls off the bench and flops on the ground, but they are flipping through books and making progress on their work. They are keeping an eye on the clock, and pack up their things and move to the next class at the appropriate time.

None of these children are accompanied by adults. And that independence is a gift.

I’ve been mentally tending to a theory for some time now. My theory, in brief, is as follows: Children are showing up to school differently than they have in decades past. Most notably, they are showing up with underdeveloped self-regulation skills. The experience of childhood is changing, and that is having some concrete effects on child development.

I have some hypotheses on why this is happening, none of which are yet backed by any data beyond anecdotal, qualitative observation. I think there is a complex interplay between the increasingly fast paced nature of our world and the way we as adults interact with screens and devices. As adults we are FAST and we are DISTRACTED. We are leading largely unexamined lives around how the speed of living, and the inattention we give it as it passes us by, is profoundly impacting the way we interact with children and alters the types of experiences we provide for and share with them. We are trying to raise children, as parents and as schools, in the same way we navigate from place to place: by typing a destination in to our phone and waiting for that phone to tell us when and where to turn and how long it will take to get there.

We are thoughtlessly overscheduling and overprotecting little human beings through childhood, because it’s how we are living our own lives….and as a result the journey we (and by extension they) are on is less fruitful, more frenetic, and highly reactive.

Which brings me to the question at hand: What if schools were more like wayfinding and less like GPS navigation?

Wikipedia offers an interesting look at the term “wayfinding”. In addition, I like to describe it as the experience of moving about the world with open eyes, a present mind, and a willingness to embrace serendipity. What if school, what if childhood, were more like that?boy_and_girl_hiking_along_sunlit_path_in_woods_with_walking_sticks_and_backpack

True moments of wayfinding require time. They require parents, teachers, and leaders to prioritize possibility, ambiguity, and some uncertainty over what is predictable and scheduled. Wayfinding requires a firmly held belief that there is power in the emergent, and that when learning and living are supple in response to what shows up they can be that much more transformative and lasting. Opening up the world to children through a wayfinder’s mindset requires that we (as adults) be comfortable with reasonable risk and relinquish some of our much treasured illusion of control.  

In a 2011 issue of Evolutionary Psychology an article titled “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Antiphobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences” was published. The authors write,

“Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous physical activities, children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the borderline of the feeling of being out of control (often because of height or speed) and overcoming fear…Most of the time risky play occurs in children’s free play as opposed to play organized by adults. In modern western society there is a growing focus on the safety of children in all areas, including situations involving playing. An exaggerated safety focus of children’s play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally.”

One of the types of risky play that the authors identify is “Exploring on one’s own.” In other words: wayfinding. Children NEED it. And we are increasingly seeing children who are either unusually fearful or unusually unable to manage themselves when afforded age-appropriate freedom…because they haven’t had any practice.

You might have started reading this article because you were hoping I would give you “7 Strategies to Make Schools More Like Wayfinding and Less Like GPS Navigation”…but I’m going to disappoint you. Not only do I not know what those strategies are…but making a list like that would be doing the thing that I’m suggesting we resist: prescribing concrete strategies and sequences of steps towards the mythology of a sure outcome.

The only suggestion I have is, instead of looking at what adults (whether they are parents, leaders, or teachers) can do to control, change, adjust, innovate, or adapt the landscape of schools and parenting…I think we should take some time to turn the microscope on ourselves. How can you be more of a wayfinder? How can you disconnect (literally or figuratively) from the GPS systems in your life? What might emerge when you do?

Children will follow our lead.

Par For The Course

Image

In a departure from my typical posts about education, leadership, and children….today I’m going to write a bit about my experience learning to play golf. Thus far it has been one of two things:

Absolute satisfaction.

or

Muddled confusion laced with fury.

The smallest thing can turn a swing from smooth to clunky, and making adjustments on the course is difficult. My husband often jokes around saying, “Golf is an easy game!” The humorous irony being the moment you start thinking that I give you about two holes until you’re melting into a puddle of grumbly, confused sadness. As Arnold Palmer said,

“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.”

I have found golf to be a gratifying way to spend the day outside, it’s a sport that keeps you in the moment. Recently I’ve had a few rounds that I felt really good about and proud of. There’s nothing like pride to make a golf ball want to humble the hell out of you. I was not proud of yesterday’s round, I was inconsistent and I couldn’t hit anything longer than my 7 iron without topping it. After the front 9 I decided that keeping score was increasing my frustration, and stress is a silly thing to pay money for….so I decided to try keeping score with emojis. What if, instead of counting strokes, I qualified my play with everyone’s favorite emotive graphics?

🤬- After a frustrating front 9, I finally had a grilled cheese sandwich and thought the subsiding hanger might give way to more consistent play. It did not. I swore. A lot.

😡- This is when I made two decisions: this round sucks, so I’m done keeping score since that’s only making it worse. And secondly: It must really suck to be my husband right now because I am no fun at all.

😱- Screeeeaaaaaaaaaaam.

😏- Oh hey golf skills, nice to see you again.

🤷🏼‍- Excellent tee shot, terrible putting…meh.

🌾- After a lot of walking around in the pokey dried out brush on this hole to try and find my ball my legs were all itchy.

🤞🏻- At this point, every time I swing I’m holding my breath because who knows what will happen.

🌬- This hole was very windy.cms golf

🚗- Crushed a 220 yard drive (downhill….but still).

And that’s the thing about golf….it just takes one good hole to keep you coming back. If you’re a golfer…and your game is falling apart and you’re wondering when you forgot how to play…try emojis sometime, if only for the opportunity to tell a story that’s better than the numbers.

Want to hear a joke?

flag photo

One of the first memories I have of visiting Hillbrook School, where I now work as Head of Lower School, was learning about the rituals and traditions of what is called “Flag” during my initial tour of campus. On Monday mornings, the whole school community (children, faculty, parents, etc.) comes together to share announcements, sing Happy Birthday to those celebrating that week, and start the week. It naturally struck me as a beautiful way for a community to mark time together through connection and celebration. And then I learned that at the end of Flag there is the invitation for children to tell JOKES, and I fell head over heels in love with the school.

In her book Voice Lessons, social-clinical psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel writes,

“The first time you make your baby laugh is a delight. But the first time your child makes you laugh out loud is cosmic: a reward for your years of toil and a reliable bellwether of the quality of his life ahead…Laughter is our consolation prize for the indignities and cruel plot twists we all endure, beginning in childhood…it is the best relief valve for our culture of relentless striving, and children learn how to use it by watching you.”

If you’re not familiar with Hillbrook, some of what’s written below will be idiosyncratic to the rituals and rhythms of our school culture (and you should come visit!). That said, much of it is transferable to all children and their development. It is such a joy to watch children try on humor through joke-telling, and a privilege to reward them with our laughter. I find that there are a few recurring archetypes of joke experiences, and every time one of them makes an appearance during Flag I get a little giddy.

The one where the joke’s not really funny.

This happens almost every Flag, and I know there are people (mostly grown ups) in the audience who just don’t get (yet) why this archetype is the greatest of them all. I often get asked why I let kids go to the microphone to tell a joke that doesn’t make any sense. I do it because in that moment, the act of joke-telling isn’t about me or any adult, it’s about the risk that child is taking and the reward they deserve for that risk (the applause and appreciation of a crowd). The unfunny joke reminds me of how wondrous and mysterious child development is. When those 5-7 year olds (because that’s usually the age range the non-funny jokes come from) get up in front of 400+ people to introduce themselves and share a joke….they don’t know it’s not funny. Honestly, most of the things we find funny don’t really make sense to them yet. As their brains develop, the intricacies and nuances of language are just beginning to sprout. Most humor, and especially most jokes, are based on knowing these subtle nuances and double-meanings of words and phrases. In spite of that, these children have learned a few critical things:

  • Making people laugh with you feels good. It feels good to them and it feels good to you.
  • Words and language can be used to communicate needs and to elicit emotions (like joy and delight), this makes words powerful.
  • Jokes (and humor) have a rhythm to them. There is often a question posed, and there is a punchline. The punchline is what makes people smile.
  • Anyone can tell a joke to anyone (or hundreds of anyones at the same time!)

So they stand up and introduce themselves to all of the Hillbrook community, and tell a joke. And every time they are rewarded for their efforts. And I promise, they all learn how to tell truly funny jokes eventually. Stick it out with them. In the meantime, don’t shut down their non-funny jokes. They are trying on a lot of behaviors, and their motivation is to delight and captivate you. A laugh is a small price to pay in exchange for the gift they are giving you by trusting you with their developing sense of humor.

The one where they refuse to tell me their joke before going to the microphone.

This usually happens towards the beginning of the year, when the routine of needing to “practice” (read: pre-approve) their joke with me before going to the microphone isn’t fully understood yet. There have been a handful of time over the years when a child has flat out refused to tell me their joke before going to the stage. They look at me like I’m a thief, like I’m going to steal their joke or am cutting in line by not waiting to listen to it at the right time. Eventually I can usually get them to practice, but they still look at me like I just don’t get how this Flag and joke-telling thing works. Which brings me to….

The one where they practice one joke with me and then tell another one from on stage.

Like the two archetypes before it, this one also stems from a not-yet-fully-formed understanding of how jokes work. They seem to think that once they tell a joke, they can’t repeat that same joke at the microphone. They’ve used it up! So somewhere between whispering to me a joke and when they get to the stage, they invent a NEW joke (usually unfunny or nonsensical, see above). Common themes of invented jokes include: puppies, kittens, chickens, cookies, and anything with the knock-knock format.

The one where they try to tell the knock-knock joke with the banana & orange and botch the delivery.

I’ve been an educator for nearly 15 years and this happens multiple times every single year, even at schools that don’t have Flag and don’t do jokes! The joke is supposed to go like this:

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

Who’s there?

Banana.

Banana who?

Knock, knock!

WHO’S THERE?!

Banana.

Banana WHOOOO?

Knock, knock!

Ugh! WHO’S THERE?!

Orange.

Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn’t say banana!

Kids love this joke, and even very young children understand it. There’s suspense. Confusion. Frustration. And the inevitable dawning of comprehension and ensuing hilarity. It is an automatic home run. So naturally, they want to give this gift of extraordinary humor to the Hillbrook community at Flag. They want to be the deliverers of such hilariousness! Who wouldn’t?

But almost always, in their eagerness to get to that moment where they bask in the glorious laughter and appreciation of the audience…they switch the fruits. They start with orange (instead of banana). You can see a little furrow of confusion on their face as they realize that something is off, but they can’t quite put their finger on what. Sometimes they even get to the end and sort of mumble through an uncertain “Banana…you glad I didn’t…say…orange?” And they walk off looking at each other like “Why didn’t that work quite right?” Nevertheless, the community always applauds and cheers.

The one with the chicken that crosses something to do something else.

I admit, I don’t particularly like this joke. However, there is something comforting about it. It’s like a warm blanket or a comfort food. It shows up when you need it and it’s always there to fall back on. Because, at the heart of it, getting up to tell a joke at Flag isn’t really about funny. It’s about community. It’s about exemplifying our core values through a shared experience. I find that more often than any other age group it’s our older students who most often pull out the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke during their last years at Hillbrook. I know it’s not because they’ve run out of ideas or sources. I like to think it’s because they are rehearsing the parts of Hillbrook that are most beloved to them through laughing at Flag and semi-funny tried and true chicken jokes.

I invite you to watch for and delight in these archetypes at Flag throughout the year. If you aren’t fortunate enough to join us every week, I imagine many of these archetypes play out in front of you from the children in your own life, and now you know to look for it. These are little morsels of childhood, clues to where their brains are growing and signposts for the road ahead. I am sure there are more I have missed and will continue to uncover in the years ahead. Jokes remains my favorite Hillbrook tradition because no matter how bad your case of the Mondays is, you can come to Flag knowing you will be treated to a display of courage, humor, risk-taking, delight, teamwork, and joy. Flag, and the tradition of jokes, is about belonging – and that’s why we show up and laugh and applaud and cheer no matter what.

Practices of Resilient Leaders & Teachers

Originally published on the Leadership + Design Blog on April 25, 2018

Let me set the scene for you. It’s 11:30am on the Friday before Spring Break. The sky is clouded over and the trees are rustling overhead. Leaves shake raindrops that have collected during the day’s sporadic downpours onto the ground below. On the sidewalk, two grown adults sit on the ground. I am one of them. I am aware we look ridiculous and out of place. I am aware this is not the best spot for a strategy session…but here we are. Behind me is a classroom of 11-13 year olds I am responsible for. They are busy trying to compile short videos that tell the story of their expeditionary learning experience that week. A short distance away is a young child who desperately wants to be successful, but for many reasons on this particular day is not. A series of bad choices have resulted in removal from the classroom….and now my colleague and I are stuck. What does this child need right now? What do the classmates need? What does the teacher need? What decision best balances the tension between necessary logical consequences and compassion? How will we enact our decision in a way that protects the child’s dignity? Also, how am I going to help my group of middle schoolers finish their summative project when we can’t properly format the video files? How many emails are piling up in my inbox that will need attention and thought after these things are done? Did I forget to eat something today? Are my jeans going to be all wet when I stand up from this concrete sidewalk? Is it Spring Break yet?

reeds

This scene, while unique in specifics to me on April 6, is representative in nature of the challenges of teaching and educational leadership today. Working with humans in community has always been both incredibly rewarding and (unsurprisingly) complicated and sticky. Add to that the proliferation of email and smart devices that, while making many aspects of life and work easier and more efficient, have also made everything faster. It is increasingly difficult to do just one thing at a time. It is increasingly complicated to prioritize tasks when there are so many avenues by which a new potential problem or proverbial fire might present itself. As leaders and teachers, how do we survive the fast-paced, ever-evolving, and multifaceted nature of our work? The authors of Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, suggest that the answer is resilience over strength. They write, “The classic illustration of resilience over strength is the story of the reed and the oak tree. When hurricane winds blow, the steel-strong oak shatters, while the supple resilient reed bows low and springs up again when the storm has passed. In trying to resist failure, the oak has instead guaranteed it.”

I would add that in order to truly be of service to children as educational leaders and teachers we need to cultivate a form of resilience that allows us to do more than just survive the work. The day I described above is excruciating and exhausting if I am merely seeking to survive it. Instead, I propose that there are 5 key behaviors that resilient leaders and teachers can practice to maintain balance and thrive in our profession.

Resilient leaders and teachers anticipate disruption. We expect that things will not always go according to plan and are agile enough to pivot quickly. We start “from the assumption that however strong your system is, it will be compromised…Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean anticipating failure; it means anticipating that you can’t anticipate what’s next, and working instead on a sort of situational awareness.” We recognize that no matter how skillful a leader or teacher we are, we WILL face opposition, challenge, and people who just plain don’t like us. There will be difficult parent meetings, students who challenge and confuse us in new ways, and lessons, meetings, or projects that don’t go quite according to plan.

This means that resilient leaders and teachers also normalize discomfort. They accept that in life and work they will encounter the disruptiveness of friction, frustration, and challenging emotions. They do not lead, plan, teach, or coach with the goal of avoiding or preventing uncomfortable moments. As Jeff Howe writes, “By trying to win, I’ll always lose. Only when I accept that there will be no winning or losing, just events unfolding and the way I choose to react to them, do I succeed.” Resilience is not an easy muscle to build. Like everything it requires practice and, by nature, truly practicing the art of resilience requires discomfort. Growth requires feedback and feedback requires a healthy level of familiarity with uncomfortable moments and feelings. Brené Brown puts it best in her book Daring Greatly:

“I believe that feedback thrives in cultures where the goal is not ‘getting comfortable with hard conversations’ but normalizing discomfort. If leaders expect real learning, critical thinking, and change, then discomfort should be normalized: ‘We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here — you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.’”

Accepting and normalizing the sometimes uncomfortable nature of existence allows resilient leaders and teachers to cultivate mindsets that are open to possibility. This is the heart of the “teachable moment”, the opportunity that presents itself that is, at best, peripherally related to the original plan but more often than not is completely tangential. An openness to possibility allows for creative, positive, and unforeseen new strategies, connections, insights, and more.

As Ito and Howe point out, “A resilient organization learns…and adapts to its environment.” When we are open to possibility, resilient teachers and leaders are able to adapt through listening and reflection. As poet Alice Duer Miller writes, “Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us.’ When we are careful, vigorously interested, present listeners we are able to more deeply understand and empathize with those in our care. Habits of reflection keep us from stagnancy and reflection is the practice most likely to safeguard against repeating the same mistakes and failures time and again.

Finally, resilient leaders and teachers need to prioritize effective self-care. This means something different for every individual, but I firmly believe that unless we take care of ourselves by setting and respecting the boundaries we need for wholeness, rest, well-being, and joy then the siren song of notifications and news feeds and updates and email and other people’s “emergencies” will almost always end up dictating your inner world and priorities, and at worst color your perception of your own effectiveness. Intentionality has impact. Resilient leaders and teachers are intentional about what we give our life’s time and energy to.

These practices don’t promise resilience, but I do believe, as with all things, that practice makes better and will result in a steadily replenished well of stamina to joyfully, thoughtfully persevere in the profession. Empathy, flexibility, and gratitude are more powerful sources of fuel for the journey than rigid, uncompromising rules and systems.

 

Advice to My Younger Self

This week, at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, I have the opportunity to co-present on women in leadership. I have spent a lot of time reflecting, revisiting notes from conferences and seminars I’ve attended, and attempting to synthesize my own thoughts as I dig deeper into the research on women in leadership. The work of educational leadership is something I’ve been doing for seven years now and in that time my job has changed, the world has changed, and I’ve changed. I stand at this moment in time, preparing to share what research shows about the obstacles that exist to women in leadership (both systemic and of our own making), and what my experience as a female leader has been…and I started thinking about what I wish I knew at the beginning of my road. And while that list is extensive, there are a four gifts of insight I would give my younger self if I could.

Lesson #1: Did you leave things better than you found them?

I’ve been very fortunate in my school career, both as a child and as an adult. Learning and the rhythms and routines of school have generally come very easy to me, which meant that, if and when I added a strong work ethic to the mix, I experienced a great deal of success more often than not. The work of leadership is frequently complex, sticky, and ambiguous. There is rarely a clear, right answer and even when there is, navigating relationships amongst many constituents is very public and humans are, by nature, opinion-prone creatures. Early on in my leadership journey I too often evaluated my effectiveness by whether or not other people approved of my decisions, work, and performance. Don’t get me wrong, in a heavily interpersonal career garnering trust, respect, and confidence from those I am bound to serve (children, families, and faculty) is critical. I believe in striving for excellence. However, my measuring stick is no longer “Did everyone think I made the right call, or led a great meeting, or handled that conflict appropriately? Did I get everything done on my to-do list today?” Instead, my “bullseye” is creating and contributing to a culture and an educational experience for children that will last long after I am gone: day by day, conversation by conversation, through all the seemingly inconsequential moments of interaction and care that slowly, over time, change the course of children’s lives.

Lesson #2: Own your value. Know your limitations.

One of the patterns that you see as you begin to look at qualitative, empirical data collected from women in or aspiring to leadership roles is that we are often our own worst critics. It is absolutely a systemic problem that women are frequently passed over for leadership roles that equally qualified (on paper) males are asked to fill. What I/we can get better at is developing the skill of confidently, articulately, compellingly speaking to what makes us excellent. We have a lot to offer, and too often women (self included) wait too long to decide we’re ready for leadership or we wait for others to reaffirm that we are. It’s time to step out and own it. It is unfortunate that culturally we have equated women publicly speaking to our own strengths as brazen or arrogant. Self-awareness is powerful. We also have limitations, and I can speak to mine with equal clarity, including how I continue to seek to understand the nature of them, investigate where blind spots exist, and expand upon my skill set.

Lesson #3: Listen to what other people value about you.

As I have grown as an educator, leader, and person the things that people tell me they appreciate about me have grown and changed as well. In recent years, I have often been told how calm I am in the midst of what seem to be anxiety-filled, complicated, contentious, or stressful situations. Until recently this feedback has often confused me. First off, because I definitely do not always feel that way inside. Secondly, because this was not the feedback I received early on in my leadership career. I was much more apt to wear my stress and worry on my sleeve…and for many reasons that was not helpful. I’ve decided to believe people. This must be something I am much better at now. I’ve decided to believe them because in doing so I can name and nurture strength (see above), I can celebrate the growth I made in what used to be a relative area of weakness, and I can put my energies towards other areas of leadership development with confidence that growth is possible. Women often avoid accepting high quality positive feedback by dismissing it as invalid (“Oh, you’re too kind.”), diminishing it’s value (“It’s nothing, really.”), or deflecting it with self-deprecating humor (“Non-anxious! That makes up for what a nightmare I am when I’m hangry!”). I am most often guilty of the latter. We get in our own way by failing to graciously accept, appreciate, and reflect on positive feedback.

Lesson #4: This is your job, not your life.

In education, as with many “helping” professions, it can be easy to over-identify with your work. I am increasingly aware that it is possible to do a job well and with strong heart without it becoming the whole, or even the majority, of who I am. I am also a wife, an artist, a writer, a lover-of-mountain-sports, a beginning golfer, a daughter, a surprisingly skilled foosball player, a sister, an athlete, and more. These parts of who I am deserve care, attention, and effort as well. In my work I can take ownership of problems and mistakes without personally tying them to my identity or self-worth. I can say “This went wrong, let’s fix it. I have the skills to help us do that.” In doing so, I am motivated to look forward rather than backward and to seek resolution and growth. I believe in working hard and playing hard, and regularly work to remind myself that philosophy only thrives when I maintain balance.

If you are a woman at some phase along your own leadership journey, remember that someday Today’s You will be the Younger Self that you have wisdom for. And since you can’t actually share your wisdom gained with Younger Self…maybe there’s a woman around you who is hungry for it. Let’s lift each other up.