I went with reading as my first challenge. I’m starting with reading a minimum of 1/2 hour. I figure that’s manageable even on the busiest of days. I have a virtual pile of books that I either actually started over the summer or bought and intended to start that I thought would be good to get through. Plus, I wanted to get myself away from the computer screen and the quick reading I do fairly regularly for both work and pleasure. I thought this might be a good way to retrain my focus on longer form reading.
I mentioned at my department meeting yesterday that I was trying this out and at least one colleague joined me. He’s planning to play the banjo. Way ambitious I’d say, but I’m happy to have the company. We’ll see if we both make it. And then see what’s next!
Over the weekend, it occurred to me that I could use some random inspiration to try to motivate myself to get some things done. Mostly, I’m busy, but I still want to be healthy, keep up with certain activities, or maybe try something new. But it’s easy to come home, bemoan the hard and/or long day at work, and not do anything that doesn’t absolutely *have* to be done. So I decided to take on a 30-day challenge of some kind. I haven’t decided yet what it’s going to be but I got a lot of ideas from this post. I was thinking of taking on something related to things that tend to fall by the wayside when school starts–cleaning, reading, exercise. Exercise is out for right now, as I’m in a boot again for another couple of days. And cleaning, bleh. But reading or some other intellectual activity seems manageable. I tend to watch tv or surf the Internet. I’d also potentially like to acquire or reacquire a new skill–musical instrument or sewing, maybe.
In my mind, I envision this challenge enriching my life in some way, perhaps really embedding itself as a lifelong habit. Seems a lot of pressure for picking the right thing, then. Make your suggestions in the comments, and maybe you’ll join me along the way.
I have somewhat of an obsession with productivity. And that doesn’t mean that I’m super productive. In fact, I more often chide myself for not being more productive. If I’m relaxing at home, soaking in quiet, or spending time with friends and family, I’m likely to feel guilty. Surely, there’s something productive I could be doing. But, I’ve learned that my productivity ebbs and flows. I often can’t be super productive for days on end, packing every last minute with some kind of work. Eventually, my brain gives out, and I can’t think straight anymore. Any “work” that might be getting done is not going to be the same quality as work done when I’m fresher.
Mondays tend to be productive since I tend to spend weekends in a kind of half hibernation state. Or at least one day on the weekend. For me, that means, several hours on the couch watching bad tv or playing video games, basically doing anything that doesn’t really require thought, or decisions. A colleague of mine once used the term “decision fatigue” to describe how she felt when she got home. Yep, yep, exactly how I feel. And by Friday, that fatigue has really set in.
I also find the need to take short breaks during the day. Increasingly, I don’t always have time for lunch. Meetings of various kinds have encroached on that time, but when I do have time, I spend at least 1/2 hour if I can, and more if there’s room in the schedule. I find that 1/2 hour-an hour can be productive in a different way. It’s often an opportunity to have conversations with people I don’t see that often. Pretty frequently, I find out about an issue that needs to be resolved through a lunch conversation, or I learn something cool about teaching, about something someone is doing in the classroom, or just get a general sense of how everyone is doing. That’s pretty important. If lunch isn’t a possibility, there are 3 coffee pots in the building. A visit to one of them for tea or coffee also ends up in good conversations.
This past week, I adopted a new to-do list format, which I think might have changed my life. I’ve always had a combo digital/paper to-do list. The problem with digital lists was that I had to remember to actually look at them, even when I had them notify me via various methods. I learned to ignore the notifications. The paper lists, which were index cards, got messy pretty quickly. They were effective if I got everything on them done during the day, which was my goal, but if something didn’t get done, I sometimes lost track of it. My new paper list is pretty awesome. There are a couple of things I like about it. One, it’s simple. Two, I like tracking my work every hour. It’s allowed me to see how much time different tasks really take. It’s been quite revealing. I also like summarizing the day, though I don’t do that every day, and it doesn’t feel crucial to the system.
I am trying to work off of a set of goals I set for myself and create to-do items that are both proactive and reactive. Today, for example, I read 3 or 4 articles on girls’ education. I’ve set a goal for myself to have more solid information about girls’ education. And I planned meetings and responded to email, both more reactive items. I’ve cut way down on checking email, which now happens about twice a day. And once a week, I cull through my email, which I label fairly carefully, to make sure I’ve captured everything I need to do.
Now if I could just apply this to my housecleaning activities . . .
I find myself sitting in my office on a late Friday afternoon. Everyone is gone. On another weekday, there might be a straggling student or faculty member, but on a Friday, everyone takes off quickly. I realize how rare these truly quiet moments are and not just external quiet moments, but internal ones. There’s a constant stream, sometimes, in my head, of to-do lists and random thoughts, like a social media feed. I like these quiet moments, but I’m unpracticed in how to use them.
You might blame technology, from tv to the Internet, but I don’t think quiet moments were that frequent before the dawn of social media. Aloneness is not something most people seek. There is noise where there are people, whether they are present or accessed via a screen. And that noise is comforting to most of us. It says, “I’m connected to something. I mean something to someone.”
I often joke about my Protestant work ethic, and I think that intrudes even on my moments of silence. If things are quiet, then shouldn’t I be getting some work done? I can’t just sit here and stare, can I? I’m not a meditator. It seems like too much to plan quiet moments. And the way my life works, something inevitably interrupts whatever I have planned.
I was thinking about quiet just now because it is quiet, but also because I was reading some old poems and they felt quiet. I remembered reading and writing poetry and it felt still to do so. It was a way of organizing my thoughts, quietly, into lines and stanzas. I don’t read poetry much anymore and haven’t written poetry in years. And maybe it’s not just poetry, but any reading or writing, thoughtful reading and writing, that creates a kind of quiet that allows thoughts to go where they need to go, or to be calmly put down onto paper or onto the screen.
At any rate, I’ve actually been thinking about creating some new habits, and seeking quiet just might have to be one of them.
If there’s one skill that might not ever go away, I think it might be writing. Sure, other forms of communication have taken precedence. Video, for example, or podcasting. But there’s usually writing behind all those forms. Most people don’t just speak into the camera or microphone. They write something out.
I majored in Creative Writing, pursued an MFA, shifted gears to a Ph.D. in Literature, then shifted again to focus on Rhetoric and Composition, because I was drawn to writing as a craft. Poetry wasn’t quite the right genre for me. Instead, I was fascinated by more quotidien forms of communication, and in fact, wrote my dissertation on this new form of writing online called blogs and their place in the writing classroom. Since then, we’ve seen Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, among many other forms of communication. Blogs are, in fact, somewhat in decline. And yet, there’s still plenty of writing going on.
Besides writing here, which happens less frequently than I’d like, I write a ton for work. I’m constantly surprised by how much I write and how substantial most of it is. Sure there are quick emails, but also there are pieces for our blog, for marketing, longer communications to faculty, students, or parents. There’s a lot! And all of it is important. I know that not everyone is going to read everything I write, but a good many will not only read it, but analyze it, try to decry its meaning outside of the words on the screen. So many an email gets crafted with care, even though it might seem silly to some.
Communication in all its forms is what we do as humans. And if we’re doing it poorly, we’re not relating well to each other and that disconnect can lead to real problems. I work hard every day to write and speak in ways that communicate clearly. I find it to be one of the most challenging aspects of my work, but also one of the most rewarding. A brief conversation or well-worded email can clear up days of lack of clarity and can open up possibilities for greater understanding. I feel that keenly in my writing and speaking. I think we all should.
Our theme for professional development this year is leadership, and we’re coming at it from two different angles. First, we’re talking about being leaders ourselves. And then, we want to talk about building leadership skills in our students. Way back in 2007, I wrote about being a leader without the official title. That idea has stuck with me and I’ve built on it over the years. I think the following still describes much of how I see myself as a leader:
I see myself in a quieter, smaller role, leading a smaller group of people. I see myself doing what I did as president of the GSA: having conversations, guiding people, offering advice, saying what I think to people in power. I hope in some small way that what I do inspires and motivates others. I see some evidence that it does. I see students pursuing technology careers as a consequence of their working with me. I ran a successful conference last week. I’ve written articles that have gotten a good response. I get regular emails from people around the country asking for advice. And I tend to forge ahead into new frontiers fairly regularly. I try to be generous with what I have to give–knowledge, information, assistance, connections. I believe that generosity is an important aspect of leadership
When I wrote that, I remember feeling the need to dig into myself and figure out in what way I believed myself to be a leader, because I was being told, directly and indirectly, not just that I wasn’t a leader, but that I couldn’t become one. As a teacher, I would never tell a student that they couldn’t learn a skill. And leadership is a skill, a skill that takes practice. And leadership comes in lots of forms and styles. I joked with someone the other day that I liken myself to Joe Biden, or even Al Gore, if you will, the Vice President who never becomes president. But both of those men are leaders. No one would say they didn’t accomplish enough just because they didn’t make it the next rung up the ladder.
The task before us for this year is to convince everyone that they have leadership qualities within them and to help them build those leadership qualities. Some people say that if everyone is a leader, then you have no followers (and so no real leaders, I guess). I disagree. For two reasons. One, everyone leads differently. Some may be the kind of leader who quietly gets stuff done while another is someone who’s good at rallying the troops. Two, everyone leads at different times. In my daily activities, there are times when I’m clearly in a leadership role and times when someone else is. Different activities need different kinds of people to lead them. That said, I bring my leadership qualities with me wherever I go. If one of my qualities is about facilitating conversations between people with differing points of view and bringing people to a decision, then I’m going to use that skill whether or not I’m the person at the front of the room.
In my mind, if everyone comes to the table with a sense of leadership, of leading a community toward a common mission and goal, in whatever way they can with their particular skills, then we are all better off. And we all have ownership of our work and goals. It seems to me that that creates a pretty powerful organization.
Ironic that my last post was about self care and then almost two weeks go by. The first two weeks of school are like a freight train. I forget. Actually, I think a more accurate description is it’s like the downhill of a roller coaster. We spend a lot of time prepping, chugging up the hill, and then wheeeeee. It’s not all downhill, for sure, but the pace is pretty breakneck until winter break.
Following on the heels of a big opening week that ended with the installation of our new head of school, this past Thursday and Friday, we traveled to Baltimore for a bonding/service trip. It was exhausting, but I think the kids had a great time. I personally enjoyed going to the Orioles game. It had been a long time since I’d been to a baseball game. There were kids among us and one adult, even, who’d never been to a baseball game, so that was fun, too. As usual, I enjoyed the company of kids and adults alike. My advisees and I took a selfie, and had a realization that this was our last class trip together. I went with them to Italy in 9th grade, to DC last year and to Baltimore this year. Next year, they’ll be going on college visits instead of a class trip. We lost a classmate when she moved last year, but we gained an exchange student this year. We (really they) are pretty close at this point.
Last night I attended the new parents cocktail party and had some wonderful conversations with new and not so new parents alike. And of course, got to see some colleagues and chat with them as well. I’m an extrovert, so I find these kinds of things energizing, but I still need my rest.
And today, I had a day where I had two pieces of string cheese and some sliced apples for lunch. But I had the pleasure of ending my day working with a group of colleagues who are the leaders within the school, mostly department chairs, but also some program coordinators and representatives from other parts of the school. I really like working with them because I can put a challenging question or problem in front of them, and we will work through it together. They are thoughtful and empathetic. They have the best interests of the school, especially students and faculty, at heart.
These days are a roller coaster ride for sure. But it’s worth it. It reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Parenthood. No, working at a school isn’t quite like parenting, but I think grandma’s story here applies.
When you love your job, and you have responsibility as one of your strengths, it’s easy to put yourself last. That’s kind of happened this first week of school. I had every intention of going to work out in the afternoons. Not so much. I was going to have that glass of wine with dinner on weeknights as a weight loss strategy.* Not so much. And I did some work every night. I did manage to eat relatively healthily and I met my step goal every day. So there’s that.
The first week of school is always hard. In addition to just being “on” for 8 hours a day, there are a lot of extra activities. We had conferences with parents yesterday afternoon, and there were two evening events. Tomorrow is a super big deal day as we celebrate the Installation of our new head of school. We always have a big opening assembly the first week, but this one is going to be really special. It’s also Geeky Girl’s senior year and the seniors have a special place during the installation tomorrow (as they do at every big assembly). So that will make it even more special for me personally.
I’m holding on to the energy of these events to keep me afloat. And, there are more to come. Parent evenings. Cocktail parties. Class trips. It’s more than usual, and it’s really challenging to get through in one piece sometimes. But next week I’m going to try to hit a routine. Some of it is planning, working with my family to schedule things, and just closing the laptop. Some of it is forcing myself to not worry about stuff so much. Yes, there will be deadlines to hit, and there will be times during the year when there’s a lot going on, but when there isn’t the pressure of a deadline, or when time isn’t squeezed because of an event, I need to just take time out for myself. I often tell other people, “It’s all going to be okay.” I need to tell that to myself, too.
Classes begin tomorrow. I guess I’m ready. I actually don’t have a class until Wednesday, but like all my colleagues, I’ve been prepping and thinking about the new school year. Our leadership team has been talking a lot about scene setting, about creating the conditions for success, mostly at the school level, of course, but I’ve come to think that setting the scene is important at every level.
Our challenge for the year is to create a sense of community. That’s a challenge for any school in any year, but it feels especially important for us this year as we welcome a new head of school. While I’ve always felt it’s important to create a sense of community within my classroom, it’s easy to let that go after a while, to just assume in a small community everyone knows each other. So I’m working on some deliberate ways to focus on community building in all the activities I’m involved in. In my classroom, I’m opening with some activities for us to get to know each other and will continue to create opportunities for students to get to know each other.
For a committee I chair, I’m doing some mission-setting activities and I’ve moved a retreat that used to take place in April up to October, so that we can set the scene for the year(s) to come. And I’m hoping to continue to do work to bring this group closer together.
In general, I’m thinking more about creating community in everyday interactions as well. It’s hard sometimes to work on bigger picture issues when you get bogged down in daily work. You think you don’t have time to eat lunch with people, chat in the hallway, etc. You think you need to get down to business rather than do things that build relationships and camaraderie. But these are the things on which you build not just community but a functional institution. I’ve always believed that people are the most important aspect of any institution. We ignore that at our peril. It can be messy and hard to work on these issues. It’s easier to buy new software or create new spaces. People, though, use that software and those spaces. It’s always about the people.
School begins on Tuesday, so this is the last summer weekend. Of course, as I just said to Mr. Geeky, the weekend before school starts isn’t quite a weekend. This past week has been exhausting, but really great. On Monday, we welcomed the new faculty and staff. I had the pleasure of being a discussion leader and got to hear our new faculty and staff and their mentors discuss their experience with school, how they feel about girls’ education, and their strategies for dealing with the school year. One woman noted that it was not just important for us to support each other to ease each other’s stress, but also because we are modeling collegiality and collaboration for our students. If we aren’t willing to work together and help each other, then there’s no way our students will. Two student leaders came and talked about their Baldwin experience, and one started by thanking all of us and telling us that it was our support and guidance that meant the most to her. I cried.
On Tuesday, the rest of the faculty showed up and our new head of school opened up our faculty meeting with an activity that allowed all of us to get to know each other better. Again, I had the privilege of facilitating that conversation. Then our head interviewed two of our most senior people, a maintenance crew member and a Latin teacher. The maintenance crew guy talked about how he felt Baldwin was a second home to him and that he loved coming to work every day and so appreciated the sense of community here. I cried again (this is a theme).
On Wednesday, we had mostly nitty gritty meetings, but it was still great to have everyone together, and we ended the day with our faculty/staff BBQ, the picture seen here. And yesterday, I got to meet with my department, which just reminded me of how many great ideas they have and how wonderful it is to work with them. It really is going to be a great year.