Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Take a Chance

I remember the day very well. It was 2002, and my husband and I lived and worked in a small community in southern Indiana. I had just finished my English teaching licensure after I had received my Bachelor’s degree two years prior, substitute teaching as much as I could, and I was looking for a permanent teaching position. There were no open positions in the area, and since we were young, without children at that time, we decided to go to a job fair to see what was out there in the state of Indiana. While at that job fair, we met Ben.

Ben was a former Hoosier, now living and working in Pasadena, California, as the human resources director for Pasadena Unified School District, and he told us that he always made a trip to Indiana to recruit teachers, as there was a shortage of teachers where he was and he loved Indiana teachers. He was a former teacher and building administrator himself.

At the job fair, we stopped by his booth, just curious. What we didn’t realize was that Ben was about to change our lives.

He wanted to interview both of us that same afternoon. What?!?! I had my resume and a short version of my portfolio with me. My husband had the same. I did not feel prepared for this at all! We interviewed with him together - not separate interviews - and he drilled us. We answered question after question, truly walking away feeling like we were not ready for this job hunting process to begin! We started the drive home, both concluding that that was good practice, and we would continue to see what opportunities may arise.

After the two-hour drive home, I went about my business unpacking our suitcase and getting laundry going. Then, the shout came from upstairs. “Amy, you need come listen to this.”

Since we lived in a small farm house in the country, we had only one phone, a landline, sitting on an end table in our bedroom. I went upstairs to our bedroom, quite apprehensive, because I wasn’t sure what was going on. On our answering machine, (yes, answering machine because that was 2002), Ben left us a message.

(Not exact quote): “Amy and Travis, thank you so much for talking with me at the job fair. I would like to offer both of you a teaching position at Pasadena Unified School District. Please come out to Pasadena to visit our schools and we can talk the specifics.”

We sat on the floor in disbelief. I remember my husband’s face like it was yesterday. I’m sure my face looked the same. Was this for real? Were we just offered positions to teach in California? That interview was “just supposed to be fun”, a “what if”, not a reality. Now the big question, what do we do? Were we really going to consider this offer?

We talked for hours. We had no children at the time. We were both young. But our families were in the Midwest, which would mean leaving everyone we knew. We only knew two people in California, Ben being one of them. But, we always went back to the question, “But what if we never tried? Would we regret not trying this experience?”

It was not an easy decision, but we hopped a plane to Pasadena, eventually taking the positions at different schools, living and teaching there for two years. While it was only two years, I have to say that I will NEVER regret taking the chance and enjoying every moment of the experience. It was an AMAZING opportunity, truly making me a better educator right out of the gates. It was life-changing.

Many of our decisions are calculated and well-thought out. We have data to support our decision, we have talked with many people, and the decision to make is quite clear.

And sometimes, there is uncertainty. Sometimes, there is no clear answer. We are unsure of the outcome. We have the vision, but the path is not always paved for us.

Yet, we have to take a chance. We say, “Yes”.

Whether the opportunity is a big chance, like a new job, or small, like a new activity in the classroom, opportunities are all around us. In some, we play it safe because that may be best in that circumstance. But in others, we take a chance, because it may reap more rewards in the end. We have all taken a chance or two in our lives, a chance that we truly did not know the outcome, or are still awaiting the finality. I know I have taken a few chances in my classroom or at my school, planning and calculating the activity or decision making sure it aligned with my vision, and finally carrying it out, not knowing if it really would work.

We have all had those lessons as well. Will this go as planned? I could play it safe, following the plan from last year or the prescribed outline from the textbook, because it seemed to work before. Or, I could take a chance, try a different activity or set up, or even venture on a new outlook on how I want to build my lessons all together, taking a chance, not knowing if it will work or not.

In my professional career...
I took a chance jumping into a Twitter chat for the first time.
I took a chance joining the #leadupnow Voxer group.
I took a chance starting my own blog.
I took a chance becoming a principal and even changing school districts.
I took a chance gutting our computer lab.
And this is just a short list of chances I have taken in the last few years, let alone those from before this and those I will continue to take from this point forward.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what is best for our students and our schools? Will playing it safe all the time be best for them? Or, should we start taking more chances, pushing boundaries to try something new? Will that reach the goal of building skills for our students’ futures?

Playing it safe may be easier, but it is not always the best way, especially in the global economy that we live in today. Great inventions were not created by playing it safe. And this is the same in our classrooms and schools today. Innovation and change comes with taking a chance. Any time we begin a new initiative or venture, while there is a vision in place for the outcome, the path to that outcome is not crystal clear. It may mean taking a different path, one not traveled, taking a chance to try something new to accomplish the goal.

If we continue to play it safe, never taking that chance, we will continue to build compliance-ridden tasks that do not meet every child’s needs at that point in time, never truly capitalizing on the opportunity we have in building skills for OUR student’s futures. Compliance is not engagement, and no where close to empowering lifelong learning in our children.

You see, their future is different than ours. Yet, in many ways, we are preparing them in the same way we were prepared. This is not good enough any more. We must start taking chances, pushing our comfort zones, trying new approaches, bringing new experiences and opportunities to our classrooms and schools, seeing classrooms and learning differently. We must learn differently as well, taking it upon ourselves to grow, pushing our own selves to be better than the day before.

When my husband and I took the positions in Pasadena, we did not know the outcome, but took a chance. We took a big chance on our careers, and in the end, it made us better. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. But we learned, grew in our skills as educators, and have learned that taking risks, when designed with a clear vision, can truly reap rewards.

In our classrooms and schools, this is the mindset we need to shift toward. Standards, accountability, and standardized tests are there and always will be. But, I do not plan to allow this to dictate how we educate our children. That is playing it safe to an extreme. With a clear vision for what we want for our students, our why for being educators, we will take some chances along the way, learning and growing WITH our students, learning the skills necessary to be successful for a future we have yet to see.

Take a chance on an activity. Take a chance on a lesson. Take a chance on a new classroom configuration or “schedule”. Take a chance on your own professional learning journey. These chances may not work out perfectly. But, our students will benefit in not only seeing you take a chance with them, learning with them, but may grab ahold of some of the most necessary life skills you can share with them - the perseverance, fortitude, and empowerment to take a chance.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Opening Doors to Sharing

Growing up, I remember some key phrases my mom and dad would tell my brother and me, the most common being, "Amy! Share with your brother!"

Today, as a parent, I find myself using that same phrase daily. Whether it be telling my boys to share their toys, share the game, or share a crayon, I am always teaching them the concept of sharing.  During this past holiday break, I felt as though I had been teaching this element of sharing every waking hour of the day!

In theory, the concept of sharing is not difficult. By definition, the Merriam-Webster dictionary simply defines sharing as, "to have or use something with others; to divide something into parts and each take or use a part; to let someone else have or use a part of something that belongs to you”.

In our own terms, sharing is the giving of one's item to another to use themselves. We share in order for others to borrow an item or even an idea. From an early age, we teach our children to share. Share toys. Share books. Share pencils. Share games. We even teach our children to share their learning. Turn and talk to a partner to share your thinking. Share your thoughts in your reading journal on this chapter we just read. Show your math work to share your thought process while working through the problem.

Sharing is a two-way process. One gives, and another receives. Many times, this is reciprocal, going back and forth between two individuals. Think of a conversation between two students who are sharing their writing. One reads his piece while the other listens, giving feedback after he is done. Then they switch. They share their work and their learning, deepening thinking and ideas, helping each other through the process. Sharing is an imperative part of learning.

Let’s even go back further. Think about two preschool children learning how to play together. They both want to play with the toy truck. Through sharing, they each learn to take turns. While one plays, the other may look on with a bit of anx but will eventually light up and smile, enthused to see the other imagine the road the truck is driving along. And then they switch! The first child gives feedback, sharing the story of the road the truck was just on, while the other child continues the journey.

Students are expected to share daily. And this must be the case for adults, for all educators. Right?

As a connected educator, I am surrounded by adults who share every day. While we are not physically sharing “our toys”, we are sharing our ideas, articles, resources, and our thinking. The sharing that occurs in my PLN on a daily basis is sometimes overwhelming, with so many great thinking being shared with me. I grow because of this, helping me to become a better leader.

But it is not just about being a consumer of all of this information. Yes, it is being shared with me, but what am I sharing with them? Will I be able to contribute anything of value to the group? My perspective might be different, my experiences might be another adventure altogether, but they are worth sharing, as the conversation that ensues because of it will deepen my understanding of those happenings, shedding new light on how I can grow and push myself to be better. In the long run, all parties grow because of our sharing back and forth, give and take.

We no longer live in an adult world of just taking and consuming. When we view our students in our classrooms as only our students, we seclude our ideas to our four walls, never sharing what we are doing to help our students grow. We become isolated in our silos, only consumers of information and ideas, and thus abandoning the deeper meaning that can be derived from conversations with others. We are stuck with our own ideas and thinking, never being pushed by others, ultimately hurting our students.

Sharing our instructional practices and ideas as well as our philosophies, barriers, and opportunities are not just saved for those who are physically nearby either. We must grow our sharing network, with every educator becoming connected, building networks of thought partners who we can always lean on and share with in order to grow and learn. And not only is the learning for ourselves important, but the ideas and thoughts we gain from others who share with us, that give and take, will result in better opportunities for our students, giving us ambition to transform what we do in our classrooms, innovating and creating new experiences for our students so that they will learn and grow as well. We want to be models for our students. In doing so, we must model sharing.

So, how can we share more throughout our day?
  • First and foremost, EVERY educator needs to join Twitter and be ACTIVE. It is fine to lurk on Twitter to start, but follow new people each day, and then start jumping into the conversation. Join a Twitter chat. Share an article or video. Build your PLN daily so that your network of sharing grows. You will never run out of ideas.
  • Open the doors to your classroom. Invite colleagues to pop in during a lesson and seek feedback from them. Start a conversation. What did you see that went well? What was one thing you might change or do differently? What have you done in the past to teach that topic? May I see that lesson? When we open the doors of our classrooms voluntary, we invite sharing and feedback. We share our experiences, which will break down so many barriers of isolation in the long run. Start with a trusted colleague and set parameters for the visit. Be the initiator. It will reap rewards in the end when you can visit another classroom to do the same for someone else.
  • During a grade level or department collaboration/meeting, share a lesson plan, including the ready-made activity, assessment, and the data that follows it. This is in true PLC form. When our data becomes transparent for others to see, we share. We share what went well and what didn’t, seeking ideas of how to make it better so we can make those adjustments for our students benefit. We must set our pride aside during these moments, humbled by the feedback we receive so that we can grow.
  • Participate in a book study. It is so wonderful to find time to read a book, particularly one that can push your thinking or your practice. While reading by yourself is wonderful, we can only glean so much insight on our own. When we share our thinking, our “aha’s” with others, we deepen meaning within our own minds and also in others. There is nothing better than sharing the ideas from a great book.

We ask our students to be vulnerable when sharing their thinking and their learning. We ask children to be vulnerable when they are asked to let the other child play with the toy truck first. As adults, we must be vulnerable too in our efforts to share, putting ourselves out there so that we can grow and learn too, becoming better for our students and our schools. We are no longer isolated consumers of information and ideas. We must be contributors as well.

That is what true sharing is about. Give and take. Let's open these doors of sharing.

Image credit: http://www.searchenginemag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/social-sharing.jpg

Monday, January 4, 2016

FOCUS - My #OneWord for 2016

2016. A new year. It is a time where many set goals, make resolutions, and aim for something more. I am no different, although, over the years, I have come to despise this annual tradition.

Most years, I make promises to exercise, eat healthier, rest more, read more, do more than the year before. By mid-January, that is all lost as I find myself back in the same old situation. I am not upset that I did not attain my goal or resolution. How could I do more than before when my plate was already full? I needed to find a different outlook on the new year, one which would not add to this plate or take anything away, but just reorganize it.

Last January, I saw a lot of wonderful blog posts and tweets, all with the hashtag #OneWord. One word to concentrate on during the course of the year, to center one’s energy toward, originating from Jon Gordon’s book One Word that Will Change Your Life. A simple concept, yet so powerful. No more goals or resolutions. Just One Word.

So, when the clock struck 12 this year, I started to ponder my #OneWord. So many to choose from! What was one word that would help me shape my year, focus my attention to become better than the year before, harnessing attributes I want to see in my leadership as well as in my school? One word that would define it all for me this year.

As a former English teacher, I had a lot of words swirling around my head. Passion. Determination. Positivity. Perseverance. Grit. Fortitude. I looked up definitions, synonyms, searching for a word that would clearly define where I wanted to go this year. While all of the words I looked at, read from others’ blogs, and thought about are truly wonderful words and meanings I resonate with, these words did not strike that deep chord that I wanted to feel when thinking of my #OneWord.

So, I put the idea aside for a while.

However, before I could completely change my train of thought, my #OneWord hit me like a ton of bricks.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines focus as: “...a state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding; a point of concentration; directed attention”. In essence, focus is an emphasis on clarity, honing in on one particular task or attribute.

In another definition, focus is not simply just an emphasis on a particular task, but it is also about a visual perception of being clear. For instance, I am as blind as a bat without my glasses or contacts, the world of fuzz surrounding me. While I can see movement and objects, they are not clear until I use my lens to focus on my surroundings. So, with my lens, I now can focus on what is around me, bringing clarity to an otherwise fuzzy world.

With my fast-paced life as a principal/lead learner and a mom of 3 growing boys, there is quite a bit that swirls around me daily. I want to be my best at all I do, but often times, I feel pulled in so many directions that I am not doing anyone any service, including myself. I enjoy being busy. I enjoy learning and dabbling in many projects at one time. However, if I am to be my best, I must focus in the moment, working through the task at hand well before moving on to the next moment. Thus, my #OneWord for 2016 must be FOCUS.

Focus At Home
There is nothing quiet about my home, but that is what I love about it. A high school principal husband, and three loud, wrestling boys are always busy at home. With that said, I will focus my attention more this year on what is happening when my boys are awake, giving my full attention to them instead of trying to multitask all the school business that awaits my attention. My focus needs to be on their needs in those moments, being full present in their happenings. That will mean I will be grabbing a Nerf gun for a family Nerf battle from time to time and being the wrestling dummy for the new moves they just learned at practice. My family is most important in my life, and I want to remain focused on this while I am with them.

Focus At School
So much has changed and has been changing in education in recent years. While it is always important to be moving forward, using your vision to guide and drive outcomes, it is also important not to be trying to implement so many changes at one time that the transformational efforts are lost at sea. Growth and change in what we do for the betterment of our schools and our students comes with time and does not need to be done at once, nor is it effective to try to accomplish all tasks at once. So, my focus at school will be clear - use our school’s vision to implement a clear action plan, focused on instruction and growth efforts for all. We will focus on one action step at a time, building our own questions and seeking our own answers with discussion and using our resources. And with this focus, I hope to bring more clarity in our mission throughout our school, streamlining to our staff, students, parents, and community what our school is all about.

Focus Professionally
As a leader, I am continually trying to grow, learn, and be better than the day before. Yet, this can pull me in multiple directions because there are so many great books, blogs, articles, and resources out there to read. Right now, I can honestly say I have started 7 different books. None of these I started in the last few months are finished. So, I must remain focused. I want to focus on one growth aspect at a time, one book a month. In addition, I will remain focused on building my PLN, using social media to guide me through my journey of becoming a better leader. Instead of trying to do as much as possible in my growth, I will focus on one attribute, one path at a time so I can continue my journey, but keep focused while doing so.

Focus Personally
With all that I continually work toward, I must find time for myself. I pride myself as a multi-tasker. Yet at times, I wear myself too thin, taking an emotional and physical toll on my body. There have been moments in the last year where I have attempted to tackle too much at once. Thus my real intention behind the word FOCUS. In keeping focused on the tasks for others, I must keep focused for my own sanity as well, being intentional with building whitespace into my daily routine, and keeping myself focused on one task at a time. If I cannot focus personally, none of my professional focus will ever be attained.

To Begin...
My first task to remain focused will be to update my Google Keep lists, creating one for each area I have listed, then keeping only one item on each list at a time to stay on track. It is time for me to stay focused!

“Focus, Amy.”
Keep your eyes forward, glancing back for reflection, but using that compass to guide your path, one step at a time. Focus Forward.