I Choose to See the Best in the World

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I had a great week!  Some amazing and fun things are falling into place at work.  I got to hear one of my favorite educational thinkers in person, and she was as good as I’d always hoped she would be.  Two of our district’s football teams won in the semi-finals and are headed to state.  And best of all, my niece Logan was born.  It was a terrific week!

Then I got home from football Friday night and turned on the news.  I’d seen glimpses of what was happening in Paris, but I had not slowed down to absorb the full weight of the attacks.  My heart broke, like it does every time I see the devastation wrought when evil and anger and ignorance manifest themselves in our world.

I am overwhelmed with sadness and fear and anger at the hate.  I am grief-stricken for the family and friends of those who lost their lives.  And I am worried for the wounded, in body and in spirit, whose journey to healing will be difficult and long.

The world can be a hard place.

Life ebbs and flows in even an average week.  And we’ve all had days that were anything but average when things went wrong and life got hard…sometimes very hard.  I have had bad things happen in my life.  My friends have had worse.

But for every story of pain and loss, there is a story of strength and resilience.

“The heart of life is good.”  (John Mayer)

I am resisting the urge to be fearful of the world our precious Logan has just entered.  I do not want her life to be about fear.  I want her life to be about joy!

According to the US Census Bureau, about 251 babies are born every minute.  Every minute!  That’s 251 opportunities every 60 seconds to change the world.

As I’ve said in the past, I am not burying my head in the sand and ignoring the very real threats to our physical, psychological, and societal well-being.  The world can be a terrible place, but if I choose to see the worst in it, I am doomed to a life of fear. I am of little use to the people who need me most.  I will not let that be Logan’s reality.

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I choose to see the best in the world.  I choose to embrace the stories of compassion and support that were being reported alongside the devastation in Paris.  I choose think about the heroes who ran toward the violence in an attempt to save lives. I choose to celebrate the people in my own life who have overcome horrific events with grace and positivity.  I choose to think about the 251 babies born every minute who can be loved and nurtured and taught to care for our world.

I am a change agent.  You are a change agent.  Our world can be changed.  And in the meantime, there is more right than wrong with people.  There is more good than bad in the world.  There is more love than hate.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” (Marianne Williamson)  That’s what I’ll teach Logan!

You are causing ripples, intended or not

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It was a rough week for our school.  Teachers were negative and impatient.  Students were edgy and misbehaving.  Parents were irritated.  We didn’t teach like we usually do, and we probably didn’t inspire anyone.  And it was my fault.

It was a rough week for me.  I was sick, and I was overwhelmed by personal issues and professional frustrations.  My stress level was high, and there is no doubt that my emotions had an impact on our whole school.  Todd Whitaker says it like this, “when the principal sneezes, the school catches a cold.”

I can remember that week clearly.  Even now, years later, I feel guilty about it.  As leaders we have to accept that our emotions will impact everyone else working in our organization.  We set the tone.  The superintendent sets the tone for the district.  The principal sets the tone for the school.  The teacher sets the tone for the classroom.  It is an awesome responsibility, and one for which I’m not sure I was always adequately prepared.

Susan Scott talks about the need to be aware of our emotional wake.  Like a boat in calm water, you are causing ripples whether intended or not. Every interaction, every conversation, every look leaves an impression on the other person.  It is unavoidable.  There will be times when we have to make unpopular decisions and have difficult conversations.  It will leave a wake.  It is unavoidable.  But we need to be mindful that even informal, casual interactions leave an impression.

It’s not really fair that the culture and climate of our schools are tied so closely to our emotions, but they are.  The more aware of this fact a leader can be, the more successful they will be in addressing it.  Our superintendent calls it “getting back to zero”.  When something happens that impacts your positivity, recognize it, and get back to zero as quickly as possible.  Don’t rehash the negative.  Don’t relive the event. It happened.  Move on.  Your emotions, your attitude, your wake is impacting others.  It is a reality you accepted when you chose to become a leader…in your classroom, in your school, in your district.

Positivity is not always easy.  There are times when real, significant issues occur in our lives.  There are times when we need to seek help and find comfort and wisdom from others.  Seek it.  Find it.  Get better and move on.

When things in the organization aren’t going well, start by looking in the mirror.  Could you be having an unintended impact?  Have you been sneezing?

The October Letter

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Fall is my favorite season.  Decorating the house for Halloween, curling up with a book in comfy clothes, and burning Yankee Candles bring me joy.  I love October.  But in schools across our district, October is a busy month.

I was walking the hallways of our school late one afternoon, returning to my office from a meeting.  As I passed a classroom, I heard a teacher crying.  Our conversation was long, and she shared all of the stress she was feeling: papers to grade, lesson plans to write, conferences to prepare.  She felt overwhelmed, and she was sure that everybody was feeling like this was the most stressful year they’d ever had.

Someday I will write a whole blog on the dangers of indefinite pronouns (like “everybody”) and superlatives (like “most stressful”), but for now, I’ll concede that after some probing, we agreed that people were feeling swamped.

As our admin team processed how we might support the teacher (and the rest of the staff), we decided to make our weekly grade level meeting about fun.  We crafted a fantastically motivating letter reassuring the staff that things would get better, and we shared positive quotes about the impact they were having on students.  It was good stuff.

We did a “save as”, called it The October Letter, and then discovered that we, in fact, had created an October Letter the year before.  Seriously!  There was a letter on our server with the same title and eerily similar content.  Apparently we had forgotten that our school was feeling the same way exactly a year earlier.

When we reflected on the school year, it made total sense.  We had been working for almost 12 weeks with only one day of vacation.  We had kicked off a new year, gone through an entire grading period, moved past the honeymoon phase and into the reality of our students’ many, many needs.  People were worn out.  And just when they were at their most tired, we asked them to be “on” for two nights of conferences and a day of professional development. It’s no wonder there were some tears.

School years have cycles.  Every school is unique.  In our school, October was the low.  Once we became aware of it, we could plan for it rather than reacting to it.  Effective leaders have emotional intelligence.  They recognize that the social and emotional health of students and staff is as important as effective instruction.

Plan Ahead

Get good at looking ahead and assessing when things may be too much for staff.  Plan systematically to roll things out over time.

Recognize the Signs

Pay attention to the climate in your building.  Ask and listen, so you can address issues as they arise.

Go Quiet

There is a time to push and a time to sit back.  Effective leaders recognize each of those times.

October is a gift.  Enjoy it!  The sunsets are glorious, and the weather is still nice enough to go for walks to enjoy them.

And if your school year cycle means you’re feeling some stress, take notice.  Get yourself back into balance by inserting fun where you can.  Look around, who needs a zip-lock bag of candy corn?  We can each chose to lead from our seat on the bus.

How will the world be different because you were in it?

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The world will be happier because I was in it.  At least that’s my plan.

Contemplating your own mortality is not something I’d suggest anyone spend much time doing.  But the reality is that life is short, and we would be wise to put some thought into the way we are spending it.

I have a friend who is focusing her energy right now on the crisis with Syrian refugees.  She has identified concrete ways that people can get involved and make a difference.  She is spreading that word, and she is working to improve the situation for people in great need.

I have another friend who has worked for the military and in the public sector.  She has lived in some of the most dangerous places on the planet.  Her work has shaped public policy, and she has risked her life for our safety.

I have a friend who is a Superintendent.  One who spent time working with the recovery efforts in Haiti and New Orleans.  My high school classmates are doctors and lawyers and executives.

I sometimes feel like my impact on the world will be small.  Maybe you have felt the same way.  History is full of examples of people who have sacrificed and served to make our world better.  There are people dedicating their whole lives right now to addressing social injustices.  How will the world be different because I was in it?

I’ve spent more time than I should wondering if I have done enough good, wondering if I have taken enough risks to make a real contribution, wondering if I have made any lasting impression.  I know some of you wonder the same thing.

We have.  Our lives have made a difference.  My life has made a difference.

There is the very real contribution that I’ve made in terms of my children.  They are smart and compassionate and positive.  The world is better because they are in it.

As a teacher, I also feel like I have had the chance to influence others.  There are mature, confident, wonderful adults out there with whom I was able to connect when they were students.  I’m still in touch with many of them today.  The world is better because they are in it.

The world may not know my name, but my life has mattered.

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It feels small to say this, but I hope the world will be happier because I was in it.   If there is a “legacy” that I’d like to leave, it is happiness.

Happiness is not a buzzword.  It is not a fad.  It is not shallow.   Brightening the day for someone can have an impact on every other person they encounter that day.  I want to be the face, the voice, the message that spreads positivity.

I’ve recently become an Optimist.  Part of the Optimist Creed is to “look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true”.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t see the atrocities in the world.  This doesn’t mean that I’ve buried my head in the sand.  It means that in the midst of those things, I choose to believe that staying positive is a stronger way to live.

How will the world be different because you were in it?

Just for Fun…a Few of My Favorite Videos about Happiness

The Science of Happiness- Soul Pancake

The Happy Secret to Better Work- Shawn Achor

Kid President Pep Talk

The Beautiful Caterpillar 

What is our fascination with butterflies?  Oh I understand, they are beautiful.  In my family we love monarchs.  My children hunted for milkweeds with their grandma to find the caterpillars that would someday become the monarchs.

But what’s wrong with the caterpillar?

It’s as if the potential for something more beautiful, more appreciated is instinctive.  “What if” sometimes seems more important than “what is”.

I’m guilty of it myself.  I wrote about the butterfly and asked Whose Wings are You Seeing.

But the caterpillar is valuable and beautiful in and of itself.  It does not need to transform to have value.

Helping our students see their potential is important.  We build lessons and design activities to help them imagine success in high school, a college experience, or a future career. All great things to do. But it is equally important to ensure they know they are wonderful right now.

As educators it is our privilege and our awesome responsibility to ensure that every child in our care knows they matter.  Right now, in their current condition, in their current state, they are wonderfully and perfectly made.  Will they grow?  Of course.  When they know better, will they do better?  I hope.

But I am trying to focus on appreciating people, and appreciating myself, for who we are right now.