The Discomfort of Learning

I came across the graphic below in a leadership session at a conference. We were learning about teacher growth and nurturing the growth mindset in staff. The discussion centered on how getting out of one’s comfort zone is necessary for learning.  I have found that awareness and understanding of this graphic is particularly helpful in my own social emotional learning.  Reflecting on my progress through the zones is helping me develop resilience and find meaning in stressful situations.

When I transitioned from Assistant Principal to Principal, I started in the Fear Zone.  As challenges and situations were thrown at me, I had no choice but to go into the learning zone in order to survive.  Now, I probably spend most of my time in the learning zone, but I do find that there are some situations that cause the Fear Zone to creep back in.  As I work to nurture or build relationships with teachers, I find it difficult in not to be affected by others’ opinions.  How do you create trusting relationships built on respect and not be affected by others’ opinions?  Are these two ideas mutually exclusive? 

As I move periodically into the growth zone, I struggle to find a balance between conquering objectives and being affected by others’ opinions.  I take the necessary steps to do what I feel is right even if I know that the action might upset people, but I can’t seem to turn off that nagging voice in my head that tells me that a person I care about (a staff member) is unhappy with a decision I made. For example, last spring I was in the growth zone. I set new goals, made decisions for the upcoming school year that were based on students’ needs, research, and data. I proposed changes that were what I thought to be the right shifts to make. I felt uncomfortable, yet empowered. As I rolled out my ideas, I found that these decisions made a few of my staff members uncomfortable and unhappy.  I take the necessary steps to do what I feel is right even if I know that the action might upset people, but I can’t seem to turn off that nagging voice in my head that tells me that a person I care about (a staff member) is unhappy with a decision I made.

Just knowing about this graphic and understanding that discomfort is necessary to growth helps me deal with the stress.  I know that through my discomfort I am learning, growing, and getting better.  As I reflect, I develop empathy for my staff as I wonder what stage individuals are in right now.  I think about those who have difficulty adapting to change, those who have experienced recent loss, those with large classes, those who have switched grade levels and those who have classes with high needs.  I wonder if they know they are on my heart and that I worry about them.  The best thing I know to do right now is to check in with them and let them know I care.  Perhaps sharing this graphic with my staff members will help them find meaning in their stressful situations.

Making a Difference

As I look back on one of the most stressful years many of us have experienced in this profession, I realize that while the fear of the unknown, the addition of numerous safety and cleaning protocols, and the onslaught of constant changes were sources of incredible stress for my staff, there was one stressor that far outweighed them all…

The Fear of Not Making a Difference

That feeling that you are making a difference in the lives of children is one of the most rewarding aspects of being an educator. Sometimes you can see the difference through academic growth. You can see the gains a student has made in reading level or math competency. Other times, the differences are harder to spot, but either way, few teachers enter the profession without the goal of making a difference.

As our students were learning from a distance this year, it was harder to see the gains the students were making like you can when they are right beside you, reading to your or showing you their analysis of a science phenomenon. This was really hard on the teachers. Now that we have achieved a small sense of “normalcy” during this last month, instead of seeing teaching tiredly trudging to the end of May, I see a new spring in teachers’ step and can feel a renewed excitement.

Our staff is beginning to discuss plans for how to “catch kids up.” They are getting creative, thinking of new ways to teach basic skills while integrating a personal passion. While this pandemic has left us all reeling, it also has afforded us incredible resources (monetary and internal) for creating school experiences we’ve never been able to before! I personally hope I never take for granted the privilege I have been blessed with in getting to work with children IN PERSON. As we plan for what comes next, it’s exciting to dream about what we can do for the children and families in our community and how we can make a difference.

Let it go…

This pandemic has taught me that in order to embrace new ways of reaching our students we have to let go of practices and ways of teaching that, frankly, do not work and will not take us where we want to go with kids. Reliance on teachers’ ability to connect with students based on likability of the teacher doesn’t work as well in a virtual environment. Much of the humor and relationship building strategies that some teachers excel at in person, fall flat in Google Meets. Reliance on higher level students to keep a class discussion going doesn’t work when your class only has six hesitant and shy students because the rest of your students attend on the other hybrid days or are distance learners.

In turn, I’ve had to let go of prior thinking of what constitutes quality teaching and learning. If teachers aren’t getting the results they expect to get with a strategy, then those teaching strategies are no longer acceptable. I’ve also had to accept that our teachers and students will be forever changed by the experience they have had this year. School as we know it will never be the same. In some ways that will be good, in other ways, not so much. Regardless, this change points to the need for me to revise my vision for where we need to head as a school. When considering where our school needs to head in terms of teaching practice and expectations, we must consider the ultimate question–What do our students really need to know and be able to do when they leave us?

When considering the question of the competencies we want our students to have, I see the need more than ever for us to let go. As we think about what is on the horizon for our students just in how they will be asked to demonstrate learning on changing state assessments, I am feeling the pull to provide deeper learning experiences for our students in our school. This will demand more than the DOK Level 1 and 2 knowledge that we have been able to get by with providing our students to enjoy the level of success we have had. It will be fortunate that we have all had lots of practice this year letting strategies that no longer work go. We will need that flexibility and willingness as we look toward what will be required from our Generation P (pandemic) students in our post-pandemic world.

Gaining Altitude

You don’t just have every right to work on your mental and emotional health, but you have the responsibility to do it.  Get over any feelings of embarrassment or vulnerability and work on yourself so you can better show up for your people and lead your school more effectively.  

Principals As First Responders, February 28, 2020

A year ago I wrote those words.  I shared how the stress of our jobs can be overwhelming and take a significant toll on our health.  In that post, I emphasized how we had the responsibility to seek out mental and emotional support so that we could lead better.  That was prior to the country shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I never in a million years could have imagined the year that would follow.  When I began my career as a principal, I was embarrassed to share the struggles I was having in my thought-life.  One positive that has come from this pandemic is the positive light that has been cast on the importance of taking care of one’s mental and emotional health.

When I sought help during my stressful first days as principal, my goal was to like my job better–to find peace with the tough situations I was bombarded with.  I had no idea that the incredible tools and techniques I would learn would IMPROVE the way I do my job.  In this post, I’ll be sharing one of the techniques I learned and how it helps me not just to deal effectively with situations as they came along, but truly LEAD through them.

The Situation: When someone shares a concern, or I am made an aware of an issue, it weighs heavily on me.  The sense of responsibility and need to fix it can be overwhelming at times.  Additionally, when I am faced with an issue that triggers me, perhaps because it angers me or is just emotionally-charged, I get thrown into fight or flight mode.  It’s a very uncomfortable place for me and one that I want out of.

The Problem:  Logical thought is replaced with emotional reaction.  When I am in this mode, if I act then I run the risk of making poor decisions in an attempt to get out of that place of discomfort.

The Tool:  Gain altitude...If I can stop and lead myself then I can more effectively lead others. The way I do this is by “gaining some altitude, ” which means some space to look down upon the situation from the eyes of someone else.   Some in Adaptive Leadership refer to this as “getting in the balcony.”  Instead of staying on the dance floor where you are in the midst of the action, it’s helpful to get above the fray at times, and get a little distance.

  • The How:  Climb into the Balcony…
    Notice becoming triggered.  I am learning to become aware of how I am feeling.
    Stop. I am learning to not react and just sit with my emotions.
    Remember.  I have to remind myself that my joy comes from fulfilling my purpose, not making people happy, or proving that I am right.
  • Look Down on the Dance Floor…
    Understand the situation and respond with intention.  I ask myself questions like, How can I act in this situation that keeps me on purpose?  How can I see this situation as an opportunity to show active listening and empathy?

The real work for me is climbing into the balcony.  Once I am up there, I can stop and breathe and act on purpose, but sometimes it’s hard to get off the dance floor.

Advancing Mission through Process

When we are planning and creating systems and structures together I want to be sure that I involve everyone, that I consider all angles, and that I make the most informed decision based on what is best for the students, rather than trying to “make people happy.” If you are a pleaser, like I am, you know the internal struggle is real as far as that is concerned. Of course, while being inclusive, I want to be decisive and efficient. I want everyone to feel like his or her voice is heard, but bottom line–the best interests of our students are put first. 

Believe me, this is a tricky process.  Lots of times this planning takes place in the spring.  I’ve heard some administrators call that time the “mean season.”  All the adults are stressed and tired just coming out of winter, on edge because end-of-the-year testing is coming up, and then we start talking about staffing, schedules, and CHANGE. SHEEWW..Emotions are high, people become anxious, territorial, in self preservation mode, and can even lash out at others.

Right now, I am in the midst of making plans for when an additional 60 plus students enter the building in another week. Now that I am going through the planning process for the FOURTH time this year, I have gained a couple of take-aways that will continue to guide my work through this process and so the NEXT TIME I make a new master schedule, class lists, and the like, I will be ready.

  • Assume positive intent in others. When we work on coordinating schedules or class lists, there is nothing to be gained by assuming a colleague is driven by selfish motivations. Even if the person’s past behavior would indicate that this person might be motivated by adult rather than student concerns, if I put myself in a positive or even neutral mindset regarding their decisions, my questioning will be clarifying and solution-focused in nature rather than accusatory. If I keep the focus on how the decision or suggestion helps or hurts children, I will better understand everyone’s perspectives, what they want or need, and help to build trust within the group.

    These question starters may be helpful: How did you decide…? Why do you think this is the case? What impact do you think…”
  • Remember people can not process and problem solve if they are caught off guard and/or fearful. If I propose something new or different I need to remember that just the simple act of receiving information about an impending change will trigger some people. If they immediately come back with a comment, question, or rebuttal, it’s not necessarily because they oppose the change. I need to not get defensive. I need use active listening and hold space for people until they are able to express their emotions.

When making decisions that alter what each person’s daily work life will look like, I have learned that the process is as important as the product. I can’t control how many co-vid cases we have or how people will react to each situation, but I can control the process. By being intentional, I hope to supporting my mission–

To use my positivity and enthusiasm to support a collaborative environment of continuous growth and improvement where students want to learn and staff want to teach.

Grief and Hope

This year the Easter message is even more profound to me.  This morning our Priest talked about how both grief and hope are present in the Easter story.  We can’t have the Easter story without the grief.  We can’t have the resurrection without the sacrifice.  I feel both grief and hope in our current circumstances; sometimes at the same time, sometimes one more than the other.  I am realizing that like fully appreciating the Easter story, acknowledging the pain, the worry, the grief, and the fear is just as important as and a precursor to leaning into the hope.

I was reminded the other day of the importance of this concept when I heard the story of Jim Stockdale told in Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  He endured suffering and torture for seven years and came out of the prison camp “even stronger than he went in.” He said the secret to his survival was that he confronted the “brutal facts” of his situation.  He never wavered in his faith that he not only would survive, but would prevail and come out stronger.

By contrast, Stockdale said it was the optimists that didn’t make it out.  The prisoners that would optimistically say things like, “we will get out of here by Christmas” were the ones who didn’t survive, because Christmas would come and go and they would succumb to the depression of unmet expectations and ultimately die.

What does this mean for me and my leadership during the pandemic?  I need to confront the brutal facts of this situation.  Instead of optimistically saying, “we will be out by…” or “our students won’t fall behind” or even “this too will pass.” I need to lean into the challenges and grief my students, staff and I are feeling, and the challenges we will all face upon return to school. Only then can I pair it all with the faith that not only will we overcome this, but we will prevail.



Distance Leading Week 2

Invest now, so we will thrive later!  See this situation as an opportunity!  This sounded really good at first.  I was pumped the first week, but the reality of the situation had not hit me.  I don’t know what I was thinking, but I guess I saw this pandemic situation just as a short term challenge to be overcome.  I suppose I figured we would have a couple of weeks where we educators could recharge, use the time away to learn more to make us better at what we do, and then come back more tech savvy and ready to see our kids again. Wow. I definitely was in denial.

Personally, I thought this time would be a fantastic opportunity for me to hone my skills.  I thought I would have tons of time to learn, grow, and reflect–a type of sabbatical.  Our kids would be okay, our teachers would thrive, and we would come out stronger as a result…like I said, the reality had not hit me.  Now I find that if I’m not careful I can become consumed with worry–worry for our students, staff, my own family, and all those who are touched by the illness.

Last week I realized that I needed to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  I had to recognize it for what it is, grieve the losses we are experiencing, but not stay there.  School has changed.  Distance Learning means Distance Leading, so now I am trying to figure out what that really means for me.  What does being a good leader look like when you are leading from afar? How can I structure my days to make that happen?

This week I’ll be working hard on fine-tuning my focus, goals, rituals, and routines.  I know focus and discipline are important, especially when trying to be productive when working at home.  The challenge will come when balancing being responsive to staff and families with productivity on work projects AND taking advantage of spontaneous learning opportunities.  I’ve got my schedule set, now I’ll just take it one day at a time.



Leading from a Distance Week 1

The situation we are facing with the Corona Virus is devastating.  I can’t imagine what it is like for those who have been laid off or whose income has been cut. I’m worried about the most vulnerable getting sick.  I am worried about my students who count on school to get their most basic needs met and for connection to loving adults.  My heart aches for the disappointment students are feeling due to missing out on school and sporting events, activities with friends, and social connection.  There’s a lot to worry and feel sad about, but I have a choice.  I can talk about how awful it is and lament about everything our students will be losing, or I can focus on what I can control–the use of the time I have been given.

The first week I was bombarded with information and resources.  I was on information overload.  In addition to dealing with and responding to the realities of the situation and trying to communicate constantly changing information to my community,  I felt like I needed to be a step ahead and analyze and problem-solve this new reality of distance learning and how it would look at my school.  I had to organize both the logistics of what was happening in the present and what might happen in the weeks to come.  One of my first tasks was to sort through all the resources coming at me for distance learning.  I had to figure out a way to both organize and house access to the materials, and make them accessible to the staff and to the school community.  I used my school and staff blog pages as the hubs for the resources and then used social media and school communication channels to share them.  I also had to unsubscribe to a bunch of companies who apparently launched email campaigns to let principals know of their resources they were offering free during this time.  This management took most of the week, but was important for me in order to position myself better mentally moving forward.

As I went throughout last week, not only did I have to take on the roles of sorter and sifter as I went through the resources, deciding what we could use and what would work for our school, but I also had to do that with the Professional Development Opportunities that were coming my way.  Many of the leaders I follow were offering free webinars and mastermind opportunities.   I had this nagging anxiety that plagued me…much like Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) that some face when looking at social media.  I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities.  I signed up for what I could and quickly deleted what seemed less important for this time.

As I enter into the second week, I don’t feel as overwhelmed by what is coming at me, but I feel a pressure to do well with what I have been given.  I am very fortunate to have a career in which my income won’t be affected by the shutdown of school and businesses and therefore, I feel that I owe it to my community to make something good come out of a bad situation.   I plan to apply the strategies I use to manage my time during school to “Distance Leading.” I will set my “Big Three” Most Important Things to focus on each week then build my calendar with routines that support and connect to my “Big Three.”  I know if I see this time as an opportunity for our school instead of a setback, not only will I be in a better state of mind to lead my school during this crisis, but we may emerge stronger.




Principals as First Responders

During my first year as a principal, I had a few student situations that required me to intervene daily with de-escalation or safe crisis management.  My administrative team consisted of me, myself, and I.  With no assistant principal or counselor that could help me, I had to be the first-responder every time a student safe crisis management situation arose.  It got to the point that whenever my walkie-talkie would crackle, I would tense up and my brain would shift into fight or flight.

This was NOT what I had envisioned my job would be like, and I could see no resolution, end to the daily battle, nor good that could come of what I was experiencing.  I felt like we weren’t helping the children and that there wasn’t a solution.  Not only did I have to deal with the situation at hand and all of the emotions associated with that each and every day, but I also had to battle the tension between having a set of expectations about becoming a principal and the disappointment I was feeling because my expectations did not match my reality.  I kept thinking, “This is what I wanted? What was I thinking?”

I did not handle my stress well that first year.  I was struggling with “hating” my job, but not wanting to look for something else because I would be letting others down and would ultimately be (in my mind) a failure.  I numbed my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety with food and wine.  I gained 30 pounds and knew I needed help with my mindset. I needed to find ways that I could be happy and healthy right where I was.  About halfway through that first year, I started seeing a therapist.   I find it hard to write about because I feel a sense of embarrassment about seeking help with my mental health.  Logically, I know I shouldn’t feel that way.  I wouldn’t judge someone else for seeking the same help, but I guess I STILL feel like I should be able to handle all of this on my own–that it is a sign of weakness to go to therapy.

As I get ready to end my third year, if I could give only one piece of advice to principals it would be to get over feeling like you should be able to “handle it all on your own” and work on your mental/emotional health.  Therapy was a game-changer for me.  It helped me to deal with the really tough situations happening then and gave me tools to more effectively deal with future situations.  Not only did my therapist help me with finding peace in my position, but also with understanding myself so that I could more effectively lead others.

Therapy may not be feasible for everyone, but I encourage you to find tools to help you increase your awareness of your thinking and behaviors and how they impact your leadership.  The Mastering Leadership Dynamics for Educational Leaders Academy from The BB&T Leadership is an AMAZING experience that will do just that.  I’ve been taking part in this life-changing experience this past year.  A core belief of the program is “Leaders who understand and manage themselves can more effectively lead others.”  This internal work has been KEY to improving my leadership.  Another great source is the Empowered Principal Podcast.  In this podcast, former principal turned life coach, Angela Kelly, shares tools and strategies for helping principals “navigate the demands of school leadership.” Her perspective is also based on self-understanding and applies this awareness to real-life school situations.

Whether you are dealing with emotionally-charged student situations, negative feedback from parents or teachers, or just bearing the burden of the worries of running a school, as a principal, you are a first responder.  You don’t just have every right to work on your mental and emotional health, but you have the responsibility to do it.  Get over any feelings of embarrassment or vulnerability and work on yourself so you can better show up for your people and lead your school more effectively.

Planning for Active Engagement

Regardless of the level of active engagement measured while students are in the classroom, those classrooms in which there is an expectation of student performance aligned to the standards achieve high levels of academic success.  Because of that, I have been focused on making sure classroom instruction  is aligned with the “right content” at the appropriate level before even touching active engagement.  

Once the appropriate foundation has been laid, however; it’s time to tackle students’ active engagement with the content.  I have found it to be quite challenging to scale practices that enhance student engagement across a school.    Some classrooms seem to just “have it” while others tend to be more passive.  No matter how many times it is suggested that teachers use a cooperative learning structures or a simple “turn and talk,” before having students raise their hands, it seems that many classrooms are resistant to changing whole group practices.

This is the challenge I face as I take on this initiative.  I decided to start by building on our teacher strengths in clarity of standards/content and rigor of instruction.  I created a planning checklist that I hope will help the teachers incorporate student engagement strategies as they plan their upcoming lessons.

We will be breaking this down this month through highlighting examples from classrooms in the staff blog, following up in our PLC team meetings, and through sharing results from walkthroughs at the end of the month.  I am hopeful that by emphasizing how the engagement strategies would fit within standards-based planning the teachers are already doing, we will be able to gain some traction on leveling up in student engagement throughout the school.  #levelup