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.

The Pain of Patience

We live in an era where there is very little that we have to wait for. With the advent of the smartphone we can summon any knowledge almost instantaneously. Lately, we don’t even need to pick up the phone we can just say “Hey Siri, what is 276 divided by 3?” or “Google, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?, or “Alexa, order me some more paper towels.” I can have almost anything I could ever think of needing or wanting delivered to my door in 2 days. Patience is becoming an increasingly untested and under-practiced virtue. More and more we are able to quickly eliminate the feeling of discomfort that comes from not knowing, not having, or not doing. As a culture, we are increasingly unable to tolerate uncertainty and the unsettled moment.

I wonder what the impact of this is on children. I wonder how our culture’s relatively new discomfort-avoidant habits, ones we are largely still unaware of, are subconsciously governing the way we design educational experiences and make decisions.

I am growing more confident each year that, as parents and teachers, we are inflicting unnecessary discomfort on our children because WE are feeling uncomfortable. We are demanding that children master skills sooner and faster when research shows that children’s brains are not developing any more quickly than they were twenty years ago. The lie we are telling ourselves? If we require them to show mastery sooner, then it is good for them. When we approach sticky and complex developmental milestones (walking, speaking, reading, numeracy, etc.) by trying to get it out of the way more quickly we run the risk of limiting the development of a growth-mindset and we rush childhood, at potentially great loss to the child.

We are afraid of the discomfort that comes with setting a boundary that a child is unhappy with…so we agree to let them keep their iPad in their bedroom or get them their own phone – giving them unmonitored access to images and words they might not have the skills to process. We are afraid of the discomfort that comes with choosing to slow down when the world around us is speeding up…so we sign them up for another activity – increasing exhaustion and the inability to enjoy and sit with “down time”. We are afraid of the discomfort we feel when a neighbor’s son or brother’s daughter is reading more advanced books than our same-age child…so we send them to a tutor after school even though they are still well within the developmental norms for progress and growth – increasing anxiety and a fixed mindset around learning.

There is nothing inherently wrong with screens, after-school activities, or tutoring. There are many wise, thoughtful reasons to include them in our lives and our children’s lives. I am urging us to examine our motives. We want to do right by our child, but many times we falsely equate that with ourselves feeling comfortable and confident. In doing so, in many instances, the discomfort of the child is increased as their brain and body are overloaded in our increasingly fast-paced and achievement driven world. And the additional truth is: we are not any more comfortable as parents or teachers.

What if we did things differently?

Parenting, and teaching – but more-so parenting, is incredibly vulnerable. Being a parent is public, and with that comes a fear of judgment and the desire to “parent” correctly so that your child will never needlessly struggle or suffer or hurt. This is an impossible standard. Life will always show up, and what shows up at some point will always include some measure of struggle and hurt. We can all agree on this, because we have all experienced it in our own lives. Not one of us has had a bump free road.

What if, instead of rushing to act and make the uncomfortable thing go away (whatever it is)….we paused…to breath and to wait? What if we, as adults, took on the hand-wringingly difficult and uncomfortable task of being patient as a child reveals to us who they are and how their brain works? What if, instead of giving lip-service to the belief that we “prepare the child for the path and not the path for the child” we actually let the child experience the path…and walked it with them (instead of trying to do it FOR them) when it gets hard and uncomfortable? What if we collectively acknowledge that patience is painful….and agreed to try and practice it so that someday our kids will have models of patience to look up to?

I think we would be giving our children the incredible gift of an un-rushed childhood. Patience might be painful….but I think it could also be culturally transformative.

When was the last time you “wiped out”…and talked about it?

 

I can be incredibly clumsy. Anyone who is around me long enough knows I’m bound to run into something, fall off something, trip over something, or drop something. I’ve learned to embrace this aspect of myself and brush off the dust and ignore the bumps. I recently fell off my bike (ok…I fell off twice) – and while neither fall was serious or even stick-fallingwitnessed by many others….it was still horribly embarrassing. Getting back up on the bike still required a couple deep breaths and some inward self coaching. Other kinds of mistakes and failure (professional, relational, etc.) are no less comfortable, and they certainly aren’t welcome to the extent that I would willingly seek them out.

There are numerous articles citing abundant research about the growth mindset and the benefits gained when children make mistakes and experience failure. Research shows that when children are raised in reflective, supportive environments (at home and at school) they develop resilience and learn to view these challenges as learning opportunities. A recent article from Time called “Why Every Parent Should Suffer a Total Wipeout” goes a step farther by illuminating how little we may practice what we preach in a way that is transparent for children. Though the article is written with parents in mind, it’s not difficult to extend the message to teachers and any adults that interact with children in a nurturing capacity.

Do we recognize and appreciate the difficulty of what we are asking children to do when we urge them to persevere, try again, and keep their chin up? Do we empathize with how emotionally and physically exhausting it is to keep picking yourself up (literally or metaphorically) and throwing yourself into something again? Even if that thing is something you desperately love and want to improve at? How often do we truly try something that we have no idea how to do as adults? The author’s own experience of trying something new and finding it extremely difficult, watching others (even her own children) succeed more quickly around her, and needing to push through challenging emotions was a powerful opportunity for her to grow empathy for what we ask children to experience on a daily basis. Most, if not all, of their days involve encountering something completely new (a new math skill, book, idea, friend, game, conflict resolution skill, sport, and more). We ask them to try….and try again! We ask them to trust us that with trying and with time they will grow. We know this to be true…..but what if we also SHOWED them how it’s true for us as well?

When we’ve learned so much and spent so much of our lives trying, failing forward, and developing our skills, talents, and passions….it’s easier to stick to what we’re already good at and comfortable with than it is to try something completely new. But what is lost if our children and students never have a confident, articulate model to show them the healthy way through failure and challenge? What is the cost if we leave them with the false idea that perseverance is something only children need and failure when trying something new is only something kids encounter?

What Does Your Face Say?

Video

“Interesting to see, when a kid walks in the room – your child or anybody’s child – does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for! When my children used to walk in the room, when they were little, I would look at them to see if they had buckled their trousers or if their hair was combed. You think your affection and deep love is on display because you are caring for them. But when they see you, they see the critical face. “What’s wrong now?” But then, if you let your face speak what’s in your heart, as I tried to do from then on…when they walk in the room they know you are just glad to see them.” – Toni Morrison

This is such a powerful clip to listen to and think on for teachers and parents alike. What does each child sense of their value from my face, tone of voice, and body language? What does each child learn about how they matter as a result of the quality of my presence? In the hustle and bustle (and sometimes chaos and pressure) of the holiday season (traveling! gifts! dinners! special events!)…who in your life (child or adult) needs to see your face light up? Who needs to see on your face that they matter to you?

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.

Children Have Big Feelings

Children’s book author Kevin Henkes has a new book out called Waiting. This NPR article/interview with him is a beautiful window into the mind of an author who is transparent about his work, deeply aware of the human experience that children share with adults, and able to translate that experience into story and picture. This quote from the interview resonates deeply with me, and I find in my experience to be profoundly true:

Sometimes I think as adults we think of [children] as — because they’re small in size that they’re small in all ways — and they’re not. They have big feelings, and they have big eyes, they see things, they hear things, they’re living life just the way an adult does and I think sometimes as adults we forget that.

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.