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.

 

On Connection, Devices, & Empathy

A recent New York Times article titled “Stop Googling. Lets Talk.” lays out a compelling case for greater intentionality in how and when we make use of our portable devices.

How can we purposefully create environments where children learn to make decisions about these tools and use them (or NOT!) for the good of themselves and others?

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

In schools and at home, how do we recommit ourselves to the priceless value of authentic human connection?

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

More than anything, our children and students need to know who they are and who those around them are. Without self-knowledge and awareness of others no meaningful or lasting difference can be made in the world.

What if we asked questions instead of setting goals?

As a faculty we’ve been exploring the idea of abandoning goal statements in favor of rephrasing them as thoughtful questions. This emphasizes the process rather than the product, invites the learning community into the conversation, and opens up the question-asker to a variety of possible answers that might otherwise have remained unexplored.

I encourage you to click through this engaging presentation that distills Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas into a digestible fifteen-minutes.

Where is there space for questions in your work/life?

“Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question.”

—e.e. cummings

The Innovation School

I had the opportunity to visit NuVu Studio: The Innovation School last week in Cambridge, MA. NuVu is doing a number of remarkable things in partnership with Beaver Country Day School, which sends approximately 30 high school students each trimester to the NuVu campus to spend 8 weeks deeply engaged in the innovation & design thinking process.

design thinkingEach session has a theme. The theme for this past winter session was “health”. Students engaged in 2-week-long projects that explored different problematic prompts. I had the opportunity to speak with Laurel and hear her share about an incredibly innovative product designed to promote health by servicing a need that people face when they are on the brink of death. backcountryIVLaurel and her group engaged in the complete design thinking process (as depicted in the above graphic) multiple times over to ultimately produce a functional and portable IV kit that attaches to a nalgene bottle and is able to filter, sterilize, and heat a water solution for combating hypothermia in backcountry or high altitude circumstances when emergency responders may be a long way off. I invite you to learn, through text and images, more about her group’s project by viewing their online portfolio.

While the product itself was captivating to me given my love of the outdoors and penchant for mountaineering, what was even more riveting was unique and transferable skill set these high school students had gained in a few short weeks (and those heavily interrupted by winter weather at that!). The NuVu students learned and practiced the skills of:

  • Asking thought provoking questions of each other and relevant experts.
  • Collaboratively approaching a problem, learning to leverage the strengths of each group member for the success of the team and the project.
  • Navigating obstacles, whether they be challenges in design, technology, group dynamics, or thought…persevering through the iterative process of design thinking to the resultant end of a workable prototype.
  • Increasing facility with a wide variety of different tools and skills that traditionally take full high school or college courses to master. Students did not enter the doors of NuVu with the ability to use 3D printers and its associated software, wield laser cutters, examine swaths of computer code for errors, complete wiring and electrical circuits, discuss medical diagnoses, and more. However they left with confidence and competence to use their resources to get the answers they need to continue moving the design thinking process forward.
  • Confidently advocating for their perspective and approach.
  • Communicating their thinking verbally, via a variety of multimedia tools, and in articulate text to convey process, possibilities, and product.

When given the time, the freedom, and the tools to focus on a single problem the ideas nuvugenerated by these young minds were unbelievably impressive. These students used high-level skills in all curriculum areas (mathematics, programming, writing, reading, science, history, communications, etc.) throughout their work.  It begs the question, how can we make this incredibly valuable, transformative, and applicable-to-the-future experience more broadly available in independent schools? What creativity is lost by requiring completion of a set course of study before students are presented with real-world dilemmas? What lives could be saved or bettered if children, who are often deep wells of empathy, were given meaningfully structured opportunities in their education to truly unleash the power of their intellect and creativity? What lessons does the NuVu Studio have for us that we can apply to ensure that our children are prepared for THEIR future…and not our past?

Everything in Moderation

Since the proliferation of screens (big and small) began to sky rocket, health and science professionals have been trying to get a handle on the impacts of screen time on the health, wellness, and development of children and adults. As screens take hold in classrooms as well, being abreast of the most recent research and up-to-date findings (positive and negative) regarding screen time is necessary. Best parenting and teaching practices are constantly evolving – and though rules or recommended restrictions may shift in small and large ways…the take away should really be quality over quantity and everything in moderation.

An Update on Screen Time – NPR

“Zero to Three, a nonprofit research organization focused on infants, toddlers and their families, published Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight. The report summarized existing research and encouraged child-adult interactions. Screen time is most effective when adults and children use electronic devices together, it said…There is no definitive set of rules — the research and our perception is evolving.”

Common Sense, Science-based Advice on Toddler Screen Time
Small Screens Mess With Children’s Sleep, Study Finds

“The issue seems to be that children with screens (large or small) present in the bedroom go to bed later than those without. The children all woke up at the same time to go to school. The study doesn’t go as far as figuring out what specifically about the screens kept the the children from sleeping. NPR explains: This study wasn’t designed in a way that could figure out what was causing the sleep loss and tiredness — whether the kids were actually using the devices thus exposing themselves to light and stimulating content, say, or whether getting calls or alerts during the night interrupted sleep”

 

 

Believe in Possibilities, Get Happy, & Slow Down

There’s nothing like the impending New Year to send the web into a fierce storm of retrospectives and Top Ten (or any other number) lists reflecting on the highlights of 2014. So, I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Here are some (six, if you’re counting) of my favorite things worth noodling on as we hit the “refresh” button for another year.

2014: The Year in Ideas – An 8 minute recap of the most watched, most powerful, most moving TED talks of 2014. Prepare to have your curiosity piqued and your excitement ignited for the ideas ahead in 2015.

NASA Emails Working Wrench to Space Station – Wait, what?! This is just too cool. 3-D printers are being used to manufacture tools to suit the need-of-the-minute for astronauts troubleshooting in space. Need a tool? No problem – have that to you in an e-jiffy. Another reason to think carefully and innovatively about the future we are preparing our children/students for.

What Believing in the Possibilities can Do for Teaching & Learning – Meaningful, connected relationships and positive, authentic beliefs matter. Growth mindset. Growth mindset. Growth mindset.

TED Talk: The Surprising Science of Happiness – Whoa….a person can be happy when they don’t get what they want? Equally happy? EVEN MORE HAPPY?! Amazing stuff about the power you have to define and actualize your own happiness.

Women In Science Illustrations – An incredible look at one artist’s representation of key female figures in the history of science. Graphic design + inspiring women advancing the field of science = even more reasons to go forth into the new year ready to meet what comes.

Why We Need to Slow Down – Pause. Read it. Go slower.

Do you have what it takes to be hired?

When our students/children begin their post-schooling job search it will without a doubt look/feel differently than it does today. The landscape of types of careers, companies hiring, and qualifications needed will have changed (multiple times over, even). It is difficult to predict, and thus imperative that we prepare children who are versatile, creative, and confident thinkers, collaborators, and communicators. An article published by Forbes earlier this year, How Google Picks New Employees (Hint: It’s Not About Your Degree), highlights the changing nature of career paths and the nature of skills we deem most “employable.” The article references How To Get a Job at Google written by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times. In order of least to greatest importance the currently most employable qualities according to Google (and transferably to other cutting edge companies) are:

5. Expertise: However, Google executives have found expertise pales in comparison to the other attributes below.

“Experts are more likely to simply default to the tried-and-true…there’s a much higher likelihood that they will strongly defend their existing point of view when questioned, rather than being curious…their identity is all too often wrapped up in being the authority, vs. finding a better solution.”

 

4. Ownership: This means individuals who are proactive and navigate obstacles innovatively and confidently go beyond a mindset of “Just tell me what to do.”

“They look for people who take responsibility for solving problems and moving the enterprise forward – who feel passionate about making things work…it’s a huge disadvantage to have employees who are passive doers of tasks and order-takers.  You need people who are internally motivated to figure out how to make things better.”

 

3. Humility:

“You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time…when someone has both these qualities – a fierce drive to make things better combined with a welcoming attitude, an assumption that others have as much to offer, or more – that person tends to be both enormously effective individually and a wonderfully useful member of any team.”

2. Leadership: At every level and in both small everyday and larger significant ways.

1. Ability to Learn:

“Pure learning ability – the ability to pick up new things, to learn on the fly, to find patterns in disparate pieces of information and take the next step – is the number one thing hiring managers at Google have learned to look for in candidates. In the very wise and prescient words of Ari De Geus (he said this in the mid 90s): “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

To be clear, I don’t want jobs at Google for all, or even most, of our students/children. Google is representative of an innovative company that has successfully navigated the tricky waters of a changing global market and community. There will be many such innovative companies in the near and distant future.

I want our students/children to be as prepared as possible for the future that awaits them. I want our students/children to have the opportunity to choose a career (or maybe many over their working years) that inspires them and is fulfilling. I want them to have the freedom as highly skilled learners & doers to walk through a variety of doors that are open to them, rather than being restricted as specialists to permanently walk a narrowly defined path. These hopes & dreams I have for the future of our students includes looking at how innovative companies are approaching hiring NOW, and trying to predict how that will shift in the coming years…adjusting what we value and how we instill excellence of knowledge, character, and habits in our current student population. It means becoming more skilled learners and generalists ourselves as adults