I need time to think

Thinking is one of the things I neglect most often.  I don’t mean the kind of thinking one does in the moment to solve a problem at hand.  I mean the kind of quiet contemplation that leads you down paths you didn’t know were there. In most jobs, there’s just not time to think, unless you make that time.  One thing that’s nice about summer when one works in education is that, in theory, you have time to think.  But you still have to make time.

I said to a colleague today that I thought summer was supposed to be less busy. I’ve spent the last few days tying up loose ends and plowing through to-do lists. It doesn’t feel less busy.

But I spent some time in conversation, reflecting on the past year and really thinking about what went well, what didn’t and why. I’ll admit the caffeine hadn’t fully soaked in yet for that conversation, but I thought about parts of it throughout the day and am still thinking about it.  And that’s the kind of thinking I need to do.  It’s “chess thinking” and “daydreaming” together.  Chess thinking because I’m taking a step back, assessing, and looking at next moves from a broader perspective.  And it’s daydreaming because I can dream a little, ask myself a few “What if” questions and see if any of them play out.

Everyone, really, should take time to think more deeply, whether it’s about their work or their personal lives.  Too often, we just plow through the to-do list without thinking about why we’re doing those things in the first place or what we might be doing instead.  Summer might grant me more time to do that, but I need to seize on it before it passes.

About graduation

One of my favorite pictures of Geeky Girl (right) from graduation week.

So it’s true.  Geeky Girl graduated.  In theory, we’re empty nesters, though Geeky Boy boomeranged back home, so . . . not.

Because I work at the school that Geeky Girl graduated from, I was part of the graduation ceremony.  We all wear our robes, process in.  It’s a really nice ceremony.  When diplomas are handed out, faculty, staff, and trustees who have daughters in the graduating class are invited to the stage, and get to hug their daughters after they receive their diploma.  It’s very cool.  A fellow teacher and I sat together.  And we didn’t cry.  Because we were worried about doing it wrong.  Crying happened the day before and will happen later.

There was lots of hugging after as well. I know so many of the girls not just as students, but as friends of Geeky Girl.  I hugged the parents and the girls.  Colleagues hugged me and congratulated me.  Lots of hugging.  Which reminded me of how awesome the community is.  We had all been in this together–parents, students, colleagues–and here we were together at the end.

And this plays out every year, not just at the main graduation for seniors, but at 8th grade moving up, and 5th grade moving up.  Across the school at the end of the year, we all stand back and feel a sense of pride.  Yep, we say, that kid there, and that girl there, they grew up a lot.  They aren’t shy anymore.  They are great at math now.  They are a school leader.  They’ve become a great runner.  And that girl there, she faced down challenges most can’t imagine, and we were there to help.  At every ceremony, that’s what I feel.  It’s what teachers around me feel.  That they had some hand in getting every kid on that stage to this point, directly or indirectly.

I said to my colleagues gathered before graduation, that I had cried the day before, during an interview, as another colleague talked about how wonderful the students we had in our charge were.  It wasn’t just about my own daughter.  It was about all of them, about missing them, yes, but also about the ones still there, and the work still ahead, and how wonderful it is to get to be part of that work.  The tears weren’t sadness so much as an overwhelming sense of joy, an overwhelming sense of how lucky I’ve been to be part of something this special.

Summer Goals

Today is the first day of summer for us.  Thursday, we graduated the class of 2017 including my daughter (more on that in another post).  And Friday, we had a day of professional development.  I came in this morning to a quiet building, and a pile of papers on my desk as the last couple of weeks have involved throwing things on my desk and running to the next meeting or event.  Today it’s time to regroup and think through what I want to get done this summer.

Someone asked me a while back what I do in the summer.  Every teacher and professor hates this question because the implication is that we don’t work.  I’m on the clock unlike teachers and professors, but it’s still a mystery, I think, as to what needs to get done over the summer so that the school year is off to a good start in the fall.

I would group my goals in three categories: professional strategic goals (things that move forward ideas for larger goals), professional tactical goals (just stuff that has to get done and for which there’s no time when school is in session), and personal goals.  My professional goals are in flux and somewhat complex at the moment.  Here I’ll just mention what I’m up to personally.

My biggest goal that overlaps personal and professional is to read a book a week.  I’ve already got a list of 8-10 books.  Most of these are non-fiction, related to leadership and/or education.  I am hoping to blog these as I finish.  Both Mr. Geeky and I hope to finish up some house projects.  I might have a yard sale soon and we have some small and big repairs to do.  And now that Geeky Girl will be off to college, Mr. Geeky and I have some thinking to do about next steps for us.

First on my list at work is simply to get things organized and set up some systems that can carry into the fall.  This means going through files (both physical and digital) and bringing order to the chaos.  We’ll see how that goes.

I Don’t Believe in Talent

The field of Computer Science is filled with people who believe there’s some sort of CS or programming gene.  Some people have talent for computing.  Others don’t.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe it for CS, and I don’t believe it for anything else one might pursue.  If such a thing existed, if people were born with a talent for say, biology, what would we need schools for?

I believe, as many psychologists, educational researchers, and neuroscientists do, that skill in a field comes from practice and hard work.  I would say I’m pretty good at writing.  I’ve been practicing since I was 8 or 9.  I wrote stories and poems in my spare time.  I read lots of books (which are models for writing), and even now, I still read and write a lot.  I ask for feedback on my writing from others, so I can improve.

I approach teaching and mentoring the same way.  I never look at someone and think, “they can’t do this.”  They may not want to do what I’m asking them to do.  They may not put in the work and practice necessary to get better, but I always believe that if they did, they could get good at anything they wanted.  The hard part is figuring out how to practice effectively and being motivated to do so.  For a teacher, this means putting the right kinds of activities in place that will truly build skills, and it means having activities and incentives that motivate students to put in the work.  While, yes, the student bears responsibility for putting in effort, the teacher needs to figure out how to structure a class such that the student sees the pay off fairly clearly.

When I’m on the learning end of things, I find ways to motivate myself.  Games often work for me.  Or gamification.  Structured work like telling myself I’m going to do something for x amount of time and then have a cup of tea will often get me through things that are challenging.  Applying what I’m learning to real things is also motivating.  If I can take something I learned and use it almost immediately, I’m compelled to learn more.

There are certain things I’ve never been good at because I’ve never tried to be.  But there are lots of things that I’ve gotten a lot better at because I work at them.  We may all have different skills, but it’s not due to natural talent.  It’s due to hard work, and saying it’s talent devalues the work that we all put into building our skills.

Utter Exhaustion

The last week or so I’ve been flat out beat.  I’ve been coming home, putting my feet up and digging into ice cream and/or wine.  It’s not healthy, I know, but it is what it is.  Earlier this week, the whole family was gone for the evening, so on the way home, I picked up a BBQ sandwich and a six-pack of beer.  I came home, set myself up with my sandwich and a beer, put the tv on what I wanted to watch and just chilled out.  I was asleep by 9 or 9:30.

The next morning, I got up, got dressed, headed out to the car, and noticed that it was unlocked. Weird, I thought.  Then I looked down, and my keys were still in the console.  That’s how tired I was.

It didn’t help that I had a cold last week, but mostly, I’m just plowing through all those things that have to get done at the end of the year.  My colleagues are feeling the same.  The teachers are knee-deep in grading final papers and projects and are headed into exams.  Plus, they have other things to wrap up for the year.

I didn’t plan as well this year as I had wanted and it’s been busier than I expected, so a few things that I had wanted to wrap up earlier I’m just now getting to.

And that’s just the work stuff.  In a little over a week, my parents (both sets) and Mr. Geeky’s parents will show up to celebrate Geeky Girl’s graduation.  The house situation is not good (See ice cream/wine situation above).  I’m planning to dig in this weekend and I’m taking a day off next week to work on some things.  Keeping house has never been my forté (or Mr. Geeky’s), so when big events come around, we both go into a bit of a panic.  It’s not pretty.

June 12th it will all be over, and I might get some respite.  Until then, I’m just plowing through as best I can.

Winding Down and Gearing Up

The school year is wrapping up.  Today is the last day seniors, including Geeky Girl, will be on campus.  Exams begin in a couple of weeks and then begin the various celebrations.  Awards day, moving up ceremonies and graduation.  The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, and given that my own daughter is graduating this year, I don’t see things slowing down until the very end.

I have taken exactly one day off this whole school year, and that was to recover from foot surgery, so I’ve decided to take next Friday off for a long Mother’s Day weekend camping.  It may be a little chilly, but I thought before the end of the year gets into full swing, I’d needed to take a break.

I’ve been especially close to this year’s seniors, of course, so graduation is going to be full of emotion, more so than it would be if it were just my daughter.  The girls in her class have been great friends to her and I’ve taught many of them since sixth grade.  I’ve literally watched them grow up.  A couple of years ago, my first advising group graduated.  This year, my youngest class graduates.  I’ve already had students stop by to thank me for things.  I got to chaperone prom and see how grown up they all look now.

The seniors will be off doing externships for the next three weeks, getting a feel for work and seeing what it will be like to be away from the school.  And then it will start to hit them, start to hit us all.

The summer will be unbelievably short, I know.  We have a couple of trips planned and at the end, of course, we take Geeky Girl to college.  She’s going all the way out to California, which has me a little worried, but I’m proud of her for doing what I think you should do with your college years, explore a whole other area of the country.

I like change, but this is going to be the end of an era.  We’re not done as parents by any means, but our kids are both truly on the road to adulthood, and that feels a little weird.


Sustaining change

As I’ve been making some changes, big and small, in my personal life (as outlined in my New Year’s post), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to maintain that change over time.  So, for example, I vowed to work on my finances, and one of the things I promised myself was to check all my accounts daily.  I did that for 30 days, and it was helpful to give me a sense of the ebbs and flows of my balances.  But I didn’t need to continue doing that forever.  So now, I’m scaling back to something more scalable.  I’m checking about once a week. A long time ago, I tried to set a specific day for this, but that didn’t really work since other things in my life regularly get in the way.  So now, I just try to check that item off once a week.

I’ve also been working on getting my house back in shape (goal #2 from the post above).  I started over spring break by tackling the kitchen.  I spent a large chunk of time getting started and then a little bit every day after that.  And then, I’ve been diligent about taking 5 minutes when I get home to straighten anything that’s out of place.  I started tackling the basement a couple of weekends ago.  Originally, I had planned on tackling this a little bit every day, but it’s really dirty down there, so I’ve decided it’s okay if that’s a weekend project.

I’ve had success in the past in starting new habits and sticking with them.  But real change is hard.  I read somewhere (or maybe saw it in a TED talk) that in order to really change behavior, you have to be able to say, I’m the kind of person who . . . fill in whatever action you want.  So, I would like to be able to say, “I’m the kind of person who has a clean house.”  But I don’t think I really believe that.  I know people with clean houses, and I’m not sure I identify with them or aspire to be them.  No offense to those of  you out there who have perfectly neat houses, but some people I’ve met with really neat houses seem to have nothing much else to do except clean.  And some, of course, just hire others to clean for them.

Other changes I’ve been contemplating have to do with how I spend my free time–too much tv watching, not enough book reading.  Or too much tv watching, not enough exercise.  I used to be the kind of person who read lots of books, so going back to that wouldn’t be that hard (I still read a lot in the summer; it’s the school year that gets me).  But I’ve never been the kind of person who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to exercise, or who throws on gym clothes right after work.  If I want to become the kind of person who exercises regularly, the latter scenario is more likely because I’ve never gotten up at 5:00 a.m. regularly for anything, not even something I wanted to do.

So sustaining change, ultimately requires changing who you think you are.  Your habits, what you do day in and day out reflect who you are, so changing those things does change you.  I think I’d need to find a way to seamlessly incorporate the change into my life.  Dealing with the finance stuff, for example, has been easy, thanks to technology.  I can just log in periodically, move stuff around, and I’m done.  Exercise is harder.  No 5:00 a.m., and after work can be unpredictable.  Some days I’m home by 4:30.  Other days I’m stuck until 7:00 or later.  And that’s often enough that I can’t create a pattern.  But if I can find a way to exercise regularly and that becomes a habit, now I’m a person who exercises regularly.

Also, I need to see some real benefit fairly quickly.  I do often feel better after exercise, and I have lost weight as a result of sustained exercise.  But that’s not quite enough to make it feel worth my while.  It’s not quite part of who I am and what I do. Likewise, I like seeing the basement start to look better, but I don’t have to go down there and see it–good or bad–so I’m not inclined to work on it.  The areas I spend time in are mostly neat.

So, change in my life needs to fit in with what I’m already doing–at least at first–and I need to see some immediate benefit.  The latter, I think I have to trick myself into a little, because most of what I want to accomplish takes longer and most have no end date–I will always need to exercise and always need to manage finances. Though, maybe the basement will eventually be clean.  Ultimately, change is pretty hard.  But I’m not giving up yet!

I wonder what lessons might exist in my own personal journey toward making change and how change happens in organizations and cultures.  It’s sort of about ritualizing something new. Or about having organizations believe (can organizations believe?) that they are the type of places where x happens. Something to think about.

Spring break

I’m halfway through spring break which so far has been about 40% productive and 60% complete sloth.  I completely took Friday off and went shopping with Geeky Girl.  Saturday, I dove into a bunch of house projects.  I think that was a mistake because although I had planned to do more projects on Sunday, I couldn’t bring myself to do them.  Monday I returned to partial productivity, but Tuesday it rained and well, what else do you do on a rainy day?

As I type this, though, I’m sitting in my workout clothes about to head to the gym.  So I’m an every other day productive person. Sort of.

When I had summers off, and wide open days, I managed pretty well getting things done.  I usually split my day between things I needed to get done for school and things I needed to do around the house.  But these shorter bursts of free time I’m finding are more likely to be filled with Internet surfing and tv watching.  My Puritan genetics are causing me guilt over that.

My school work will be waiting for me when I get back.  While there are things to do, there is nothing pressing that needs to happen before I get back.

Around the house is another story.  I’d like to do some decluttering and the busyness of my schedule over the last 6 months has also meant that basic maintenance takes time.  I’m easily overwhelmed.  Saturday, when I tackled a project, I thought it would take an hour or so.  Three hours later, I wasn’t close to finished.  That kind of thing keeps happening.  It’s disheartening to jump into something and think you’re going to see a great end result and then you can’t even get to the end.

So I’m focused on smaller chunks, and I am thinking about ways to tackle those smaller chunks daily, even once school gets going again.  I might have to do a little design thinking project on myself.  Could work.

For now, I’m going to the gym, trying to kick start something at least.

Every time I’m down

Something brings me back up again.  The cookies, they kind of worked.  There were a handful of people in the lounge when I brought them in, and we chatted, which felt great.  At the very end of the day, I swung by an office because I saw people talking and I had a fantastic conversation.  We tossed around ideas, complained about how we have to shave our legs (gender norms suck sometimes!), and talked about a bunch of random other things.  And that was the last conversation of the day.  I had a number of other spontaneous or planned conversations that reminded me how great some of my colleagues are.

I do know that most of my colleagues care a great deal about what they do.  I just think that we all get bogged down sometimes and don’t have the time to talk to each other and share what we’re thinking about.  As one of my colleagues said of my plans to create more opportunities for just this kind of thing, these things are organic, you can’t always control them or make them happen.

But like my classroom, I can at least make sure conditions are in place for that to happen.

How Might We


I’ve been taking an online class offered by IDEO on Creative Leadership.  It’s been interesting, and of course, because it’s IDEO, Design Thinking is part of the process.  I have to admit I’ve gotten a little stuck in my thinking at points as my “How might we” questions have hit the wall of constraints.  It is true that adults, including me, have a tendency to shut down ideas by thinking about how they won’t work or why they can’t be tried.

So, for example, I wanted to create time and space for faculty collaboration and conversation around teaching, but my colleagues and I kept coming up with reasons why we couldn’t do that.  It had to be during the school day, not after.  It couldn’t feel cheesey.  It couldn’t involve too much work on anyone’s part.  What I ended up with was putting cookies in the faculty lounge.  And then hope for the best.  Which, well, didn’t sound as fun as what I had in mind.

I know I’m a little on the extreme–okay a lot–when it comes to generating ideas and learning about my work.  I really don’t spend 24/7 doing this.  Any reader of my blog knows there’s video gaming, binge watching, and pleasure reading aplenty.  But it is true that I spend some of my off time–not every day–thinking about and doing things work-related that aren’t “tasks” to be accomplished.  I have class prep and grading and emails to respond to and sometimes that has to be done outside the parameters of the day.  No, I mean following a Twitter hashtag or reading education-related blogs.  I do that most days.  And my department members do too.  But I don’t know how many others do.

But I do know most of my colleagues think about their work a lot.  They have ideas.  They’re struggling with lessons.  And my idea was to try to create space for them to share and learn from each other and for those who might be doing what I do, perhaps space to share what they learned on Twitter the night before.

But apparently, this can’t be done and cookies aren’t going to be enough.  Ideas I have now to accomplish this involve changes that are pretty dramatic.  Things like setting aside a half period where all faculty are free but students are occupied somehow.  Or starting school a little later once a week for students but faculty come in.

I’m sad that my well-intentioned “How might we . . .” has turned into “This is why we can’t.”