Lost in the Forest

Maybe it is just me, but I doubt it.  I have been told I have this tendency in the past, and despite knowing better, I find myself “lost in the forest for the trees”.  I know it is a weakness, and I am choosing from here on out, to be more deliberate in overcoming it.  It is a joy thief, a success thief, and certainly a waste of time. I was graciously rescued this week, having sent out flares unwittingly. I have a student whose journey in school has caused me many sleepless nights and on whom I have spent much physical and emotional energy and time.  We all have those, right?  However, I was so caught up in trying to get him to a destination, that I had lost focus on where we actually were.


Having backpacked and hiked as a young girl in scouts, I can tell you right now that this is a sure plan for getting lost.  It is important to stop, assess your surroundings, look at things from other perspectives and glimps the trail from where you stand, looking back.  That way, if for some reason you find yourself off the trail or uncertain of the trail, you won’t truly be lost.  You can always backtrack if you know what the path back looks like or enjoy the feelings of having come as far as you have.  On the other hand, if you only look forward the entire time and find yourself heading the wrong way or uncertain of the trail, when you turn around and see nothing familiar, you will feel fear and despair – perhaps even panic.

All I could see in my exhaustion was forward, and I was spinning. So there I was, panicked that I had not gone anywhere for months, only having traveled in circles and uncertain as to how I could carry him forward without knowing for sure which way forward was. The second SST meeting was imminent, and I could not see behind me.  Luckily, I have remembered to never hike alone.  When the specialists on the team came to observe and debrief, they were amazed at the progress of our journey.  They were excited and celebratory. They brought out the map that reminded me where we started. Despite having looked at it myself, I had not been able revel in our success because I was using one distance scale to measure our progress and another to measure how far we still have to go. They rescued us.

What broke my heart about this was that because I had been so focused on the distance ahead, I hadn’t celebrated how far we’d come. I had NO IDEA how far we had come. Sadly, what that translates to is that I hadn’t shared joy with my student or his concerned family.  I hadn’t been a good leader. I got us lost. Luckily, we had the meeting which provided me an opportunity to be honest about the mistake I had made and give his mother a chance to turn around and see how beautiful the forest looked from this new vantage point. I could point out rivers we’d crossed, steep climbs we had made and sit with her, sipping water from the cool creek running past to quench our thirst.

We do have many miles to go, but we are not travelling alone.  And going forward, I am going to remember to keep looking back and celebrating our journey along the way instead of waiting until we get to the peak to raise our arms in triumph. My little guy deserves as much, and if I am going to stay in this profession, so do I.


Modulating My Voice

Moving back to kindergarten after two years in fourth grade has created a lot of change in how I see myself, what my strengths and weaknesses are and how I can impact my site.  In the past week the term “Sphere of Influence” has popped up too many times to be coincidental.  It is clearly where I need to focus my attention right now.

I previously believed that I had a large sphere of influence on my campus and even reaching outward.  Slowly, over the course of this school year, I have felt that diminish and am now forced to look at why.  What part of that is the practcal logistics of my placement , what is the wider culture and what part is mine to own and alter?

There are many factors to consider, but what is playing in my head the loudest is how I use my voice and energy.  Am I being as effective as I can be? I feel a sense of urgency for change, a passion to teach and reach students as deeply as possible, to shift how we view school and education.  I am on fire about these things.  The problem is that I haven’t been able to recognize that not everyone reacts to data and trends the same way I do. I haven’t acknowledged that people react to change the same way I do.  I haven’t responded to my colleagues in the same manner I would react to my students by meeting them where they are.  It was a mistake.

I come out excited, voice pitch elevated, adrenaline pumping and that either gets others to jump in or to run the other way.  I was confused by those running away from me.  I was perhaps even judgmental about it while I was simultaneously hurt by not being “taken in” by many colleagues as part of their team.  What I am learning, reluctantly at first, is that the problem has never been them. It has been me all along.  I need to modulate my voice to fit my audience when talking to my peers in the same way I do with students.

No one is going to jump on my bandwagon if I don’t learn to adjust my approach. In Michael Fullan and Joanne Quinn’s book Coherence , they outline how effective leaders foster a moral imperative like this:

  • Build relationships with everyone, including those who disagree, are skeptical or even cynical.
  • Listen and understand the perspective of others.
  • Demonstrate respect for all.
  • Create conditions to connect others around that purpose.
  • Examine with staff, evidence of progress

I had a meaningful conversation with my superintendent earlier this week about how I perceived my sphere of influence and what I was going to do about it.  He reiterated to me that maintaining my passion while working to find the right balance between push and pull, another concept in Fullan and Quinn’s book, takes time and intention.  Leaders who don’t recognize when to step back and build capacity face push-back – some outright and some passive.

I have never intended to be too “pushy” and move people further away than closer in. I never intended to appear as though I was not being respectful or considering the perspective of others.  But what I do know is that perception trumps intention every time.  It is time to take a deep breath, listen openly and meet people where they are, not where I want them to be.  Only then I can I increase my sphere of influence and be the leader I want to be.

Why Culture is Everything

I was so worried at the start of this year that the interruptions by fires would burn down the community I was trying to create.  I didn’t know if our chance to bond had been erased by the school closures.  I was sad and disappointed, but each new “first day of school”, I started over. I learned that it doesn’t take a certain number of consecutive days. It takes a consistent heart.

A funny and sweet thing happened on Friday. One of my favorite books to read is There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar. My students “get” this story about a fifth grade boy, Bradley Chalkers, who is “the bad kid” at school, has no friends, is comfortable with failure, etc.  In this story, with the help of a new kid who doesn’t buy into Bradley’s version of himself and a new school counselor, Bradley begins to change how he views himself and takes the risk of changing his persona.  We are in the last pages now, and Bradley has to face the heartache of losing the counselor due to school politics.  It is devastating to Bradley and to the readers who have come to love him and root for him.  So I warn my students – this is the part that makes me cry EVERY TIME. Sure enough, as I’m reading, the tears start to flow down my face and the faces of several students. At this point, one of my boys goes to the tissue box and dispenses tissue to me and his classmates. Then he came to my side and started gently patting my back as I read.  He was so sweet and caring.

Previously, as I gathered them from the cafeteria, he told me his stomach hurt after he ate.  He didn’t want to see the nurse. He was going to wait and see how he felt later.  When I inquired later he said, “No, the question is ‘Do YOU feel better’?” Well, I most certainly did. (He did as well.) When I read his blog post (I will write about that another time.) at the end of the day he had written, “Mrs. G. is very kind. It is our time to be the same.”

Through this story, my interactions with my students and the reminders around our classroom that “Kindness Matters” and The Golden Rule, they are learning the most important lessons of all.  We are not defined by our past mistakes; we are all worthy of love; and being kind can make a difference in the lives of the people around us.

I see the kindness in my students every day, throughout the day, in how they support and interact with one another. It starts with our Celebrations and Concerns time in the morning and ripples throughout the day. We don’t spend time reciting and reviewing the rules, because we are invested in each other’s success and happiness. Following the rules is a natural consequence.

With this is in place, we are ready to take on all the challenges learning brings to us. It doesn’t take clip charts or points, treasure boxes or threats. It just takes kindness. We have it at our disposal. It is free. It requires no storage. It is transformational. Just be kind.



To Blog or Not to Blog: A Willingness to Be Crap

The encouragement to start a blog (or simply to write and share) has come from a few different parts of my life. I had tried before, but I gave up quickly after one or two posts – I couldn’t take the pressure to not be crap. I couldn’t let go of the feeling that no one cared what I had to say or that sharing a success seemed like humble bragging or sharing a defeat felt like a pity party people were forced to attend.  I have also seen how “haters” are out there and thrive on attacking by seeing the “comments” my daughter received on her blog about growing up and living with Sensory Processing Disorder.  She too, ultimately took a step back from sharing.

The irony is, I love reading blogs. I don’t judge the writer with the same criticism I throw at myself.  What is actually arrogant is assuming that my readers will be less kind or less gracious than I am.  There will be some detractors, but overall, people do want to love and support one another.  I am confident in this position because one of my greatest accomplishments this summer has been reaching out to other educators through Twitter and professional development opportunities – starting to build a Professional Learning Network, PLN, outside of my school site and friends. What I have discovered outside my bubble is a community of passionate, inspired and inspiring educators eager to share, learn, celebrate and grieve together.

Aside from becoming part of a larger network of educators, my second goal is become publicly reflective about my teaching practice. Steve Wyborney, author the book The Writing on the Classroom Wall, includes this practice as part of being a public learner. To be honest, being vulnerable in public is not something most people will sign up for – including me.  Our social media lives are generally our times of family unity and meals not obtained through a drive-thru window. The airing of “dirty laundry” is frowned upon even though it is in the fertile valleys, in the shadows, where the most growth occurs and deepest ties are bound among us.

Ultimately, it is about growth. Blogging is a time to be introspective of my practices, process intentions and outcomes to evaluate if they match, attain support and guidance for flops, share successes for the benefit of others, and demonstrate to my students that I will not ask them to take risks I am not willing to take. Bono (from U2 for younger people) says “The fear of being crap is what makes you great.”  Well, if it an actual algorithm, I’m off to a fabulous start.