Elevator Speeches

Our students sometimes use an activity called “elevator speeches” to help practice public speaking and also distill the main idea of a topic into what they could say in the three minutes it takes an elevator to go from the lobby to the top floor. Never mind what the others riding in the elevator would think if someone began giving a speech to them, or the fact that buildings are all different sizes and elevators come in all different speeds. But I digress…it’s a useful activity in school.

I spent several days last week giving elevator speeches about my life. I was at a conference on board governance (never thought I’d be saying those words all together!) for like-minded schools from all over Asia and a few from Europe and Africa as well. The conference was held in Phnom Penh, which was interesting in and of itself. I did learn a lot, but what I am thinking about right now is those “elevator speeches” that fuel the dinner table conversations at conferences such as this.

“So, what school are you from?”

“CAJ, in Tokyo.”

“Oh, I know someone from my organization who used to send their kids to some school in Japan. Do you know ___?”

“Yes, actually, I taught all 3 of their kids!” (This probably wouldn’t happen in other conferences, but the world of international Christian schools, though multi-cultural and multi-national, is a very small town!)

“So what brought you to Japan and to being the head of school?” Here is where I needed that elevator speech, because how does one condense 35 years of life into something that can be said before the dinner gets cold? Coincidentally, the thrust of the themes of board governance focused us on thinking through what values and vision makes each of our schools unique and doing what we do best.

As I was thinking through how to explain the journey that brought me from a newlywed teacher on a Far East adventure to staying in one community for decades and taking on a job I swore I would never do, our board was thinking through what short phrases could describe our own DNA as a school. We are still working on the wording, but to paraphrase, we came up with a shared belief that “all truth is God’s truth”; a conviction that each student, staff member, and connected family member bears God’s image and is worthy of respect; and a passion that we are designed to live in community. These shared beliefs form the web that holds us together and creates the environment where we work and learn.

I was reminded of a family road trip where my husband challenged us to come up with a family mission statement. This assignment can put a real damper on playing the alphabet game with billboards and road signs, but we tossed around a few ideas with no real enthusiasm until the youngest of our tribe gave her own version of an elevator speech. She proposed, “I think we’re supposed to have fun serving Jesus and loving the people he brings to us.” The elevator had reached the top floor. There was nothing else to say.

There will always be plenty of time and room for the unpacking, describing, telling the long, unabridged version of our stories. Sometimes though, it is really helpful to think through the essence of why we do what we do. Of who we are, how we got here, and where we are going. I’m still working on my elevator speech of how I went from 6th grade teacher to head of school, but thinking through mission, vision, and values is helpful to focus me for now.

 

 

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Backwards Designed Leadership

I remember the first time I encountered the phrase “backwards design.” Teachers now live and breathe it when designing curriculum: we think carefully about what we want our students to know, do, or understand and we think backwards from that end point about how to get them there. The first time I heard educators talk about backwards design though, I feared it would lock me in, take away my flexibility, force me to ignore the teachable moments. With experience, I learned that it actually did the opposite. When I was clear about where my class was going, I could freely take the detours because I was confident about the destination.

When I first stepped into leadership, a good friend reminded me I would still be a teacher, just with a different sort of classroom. I’ve seen how this is true in many ways, but backwards design is one of those myriad occasions where teaching is teaching, no matter how old the students or how complex the content or skills. The concept of backwards design may even be more important in leadership than it was in classroom curriculum.

Living intentionally and leading well keeps coming back to the guiding principles. Sometimes the principle is so overarching it is archetypal: how do we target the school mission? Sometimes the principle we are aiming for is specific to a given situation: How do we keep students safe? How do we create a culture where staff members feel empowered to innovate? If the leadership team isn’t clear on the principle we are choosing to be guided by, we may do good things without ever really accomplishing what we need to do to be the best we can be.

Each of us is somewhere on a continuum between being task oriented and being socially motivated. A leadership team needs people on both ends of this spectrum, but understanding the mission that unites us is what brings the spreadsheet expert and the relational engineer together for the good of the organization. We are able to share our gifts, our experiences, and our creative ideas to chart the course to reach the goal.

 

 

 

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Principles, not Rules

Recently, a group of teachers took one of those personality tests based on the Meyers-Briggs categories. They found it helpful as they were learning more about each other and how to work as a team, and apparently, these professional conversations led to speculation about what personality type I am. The world is divided into 2 basic personality types: those who like personality tests and those who don’t. I actually get a kick out of all those little tests on Facebook; I can tell you which Disney Princess I am most like, which country I really should be living in, and which Harry Potter character I most resemble, so I jumped right into the test. You can take it if you like through this link: <https://www.16personalities.com/>.

No surprises. Even with a new test, I still come out as ENFP-A. I realize these Meyer-Briggs-type tests have a controversial basis in hard research, but I think they are interesting and fun. When I read these results, the letter that screamed “WARNING!!” as to my qualifications for my job was that “P” toward the end. People tend to fall into a “J” category (judging) or a “P” (in this test, prospecting). To quote the description that came with my tests, “People with the Judging (J) trait do not like to keep their options open – they would rather come up with five different contingency plans than just go ahead and deal with the challenges as they come. They prefer clarity and closure, always going with the plan rather than the flow…Judging types are much stricter when it comes to law and order.” This sounds like the principals or heads of school we always see in the movies. I picture the principal trying to catch Ferris Bueller in that iconic movie bearing his name.

Does one have to be a “J” to be a school leader? The description went on, “In contrast, Prospecting (P) individuals are much more flexible and relaxed when it comes to dealing with both expected and unexpected challenges. They are always scanning for opportunities and options, willing to jump at them at a moment’s notice. People with this trait are perfectly aware that life is full of possibilities, and they are reluctant to commit to something that might well prove to be an inferior option in the future.” Is there hope for a relaxed rule-breaker like me?

I have found that collaboratively coming up with the guiding principles that will govern decision-making about any given discussion, issue, or project can be a bridge between the judgers and the prospectors. For example, when we set out to create a Child Protection and Safety handbook, we formed a team that would research and read as much as we could on the subject. We brainstormed for several hours over several weeks, before seeing the patterns that provided us with three main guiding principles. We knew that we wanted staff members to be committed to being visible, accountable, and have appropriate use and balance of power when dealing with students. Once we had those three principles in place, we could apply them to a nearly endless stream of situations. We knew we couldn’t possibly list every potential scenario, but using these principles has certainly made deciding whether an action is appropriate or not much easier.

Now when our Leadership Team needs to create policy or make a decision, the first question we ask is, “What are the guiding principles?”

I suppose the practice of always using principles is something of a rule in itself, but I’m willing to live with that because it provides a balance between the clarity and closure my J friends need with the flexibility and options we Ps need.

 

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Patterns

I have lived my life by the patterns of the school year for over half a century. While I can wear party hats on New Years Eve and sing Old Lang Syne (who am I kidding–my husband and I usually go to bed at 10:30 on December 31 and say “It’s got to be New Year’s somewhere!”) the year really begins in the middle of August. I am now two days into new staff orientation at my school. I miss the lazy days of summer, the chance to read, walk, see friends, and visit family, yet there is something that just feels right about the school routines, the natural rhythm of such a familiar ritual that my body simply knows how to dance to it. Don’t get me wrong: I do miss the beach, but this is familiar.

Familiarity can be very dangerous.

Despite the fact that I have been participating in the world of academics for nearly a lifetime, I can never lose sight of the fact that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela said that, and he ought to know. Cynicism is an enemy I battle on a daily basis. So much of what I do gets undone; students sometimes don’t seem to care; parents can be unreasonable; teachers can be petty. It’s easy to go through the motions, to just stay the course through the familiar ruts, to respond to the inevitable criticism with sarcasm or contempt. When I do that, I fail to recognize the high and holy calling I have and I potentially misuse the powerful weapon of education.

We as teachers and school leaders need to maintain an attitude of wonder — at the content we teach and those with whom we learn, both students and colleagues. Elizabeth Barrett Browning caught this attitude in the poem “Aurora Leigh”, where she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

When we look at wonder at each student, at our colleagues, at the amazing knowledge that we explore, we have a choice to gasp in awe, take off our shoes in worship and delight, or to sit around and eat blackberries…or nachos. Socrates knew a thing or two, and he wrote, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

There is nothing wrong with having a comfort level with our jobs. If we are the right fit for education, it shouldn’t feel scratchy or prickly to our souls. But we do need to keep our sense of adventure and surprise, a willingness to try something new, and an excitement of all that lies ahead in this new year. As the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss wrote, “You’re off to great places, today is your day, your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”

 

 

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Science Dreams

Before I became immersed in the waters of educational leadership, there was teaching — English, Social Studies, Bible. But before that, deep in the dark recesses of my distant past, there was science. The first career I ever dreamed about pursuing was being a doctor — preferably bush piloting into the darkest jungles of the Congo, and curing all sorts of tropical diseases. This dream did not burn out with elementary school, but rather survived through high school biology all the way to college chemistry, where it spectacularly imploded. I found the path that was right for me, and I have no regrets. Still, I am fascinated by the order of the natural world, its curiosities and beauty, and I enjoy learning more about how bodies work and how the environment is so perfectly designed.

In some educational settings, that would be the end of it. We teach what we studied. We meet in our own department. We are the ruler of our own classroom. That gives a certain independence and sensation of power and control. However, we miss out on a whole lot of joy that comes with crossing borders, breaking down walls, and getting in on the delight that comes with collaboration.

It was collaboration that brought me back to science. I may not be an expert in the field, but do have some things I’m pretty good at! I am somewhat of an expert in our School Without Walls program, in which a week-long experience invites students to learn more about the environment in order to facilitate service learning. Our math department chair had the idea of highlighting how service learning contributes to a deeper understanding of environmental awareness. He read articles, researched current theories, and then he brought his idea to me. I was able to fill in some of the gaps as to how we developed our program, some anecdotal data about a growing interest in environmental issues among students conducting their own research, and my own love of writing.

The two of us created a shared Google Doc, and went back and forth sharing thoughts and what we were learning. We wrote drafts, added, edited, cut, started over a couple of times, and learned from each other. Through the process, we discovered some interesting facts and potential about our own program we hadn’t even thought of before. We brought others into the circle: an English teacher, a science teacher, and even someone outside the school to give us feedback and share a variety of opinions as to whether what we were writing made sense.

The fledgling draft has now been kicked out of our little nest, and sent off into the wide, wide world to see if an educational journal is interested in publishing it. I admit, that would be really cool! I’d love to see my name as a co-author of a well-researched, scientific article (even though I can’t take credit for any of the research!) But I am well aware that even if no one ever reads it, I learned so much from the process.

We need to experience how another person sees something familiar to us, and how a different discipline organizes the information. We need to share our own thoughts to help fill in the gaps in another’s thinking. When we cross the rather arbitrary, antiquated boundaries that make up a school schedule, our own learning deepens, and eventually, so will the learning of our students.

My dreams of science didn’t have to be completely buried. Now they resurrect with the fun and learning flowing out of professional collaboration.

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My Dear Seniors…

Another graduation over, another senior class sent off into the Great Unknown. Each year I write a letter to the graduating class, and this year’s goes like this:

My Dear Seniors,

Only a few months ago I remember being concerned that your class did not seem very excited about your upcoming Thailand trip. One of your classmates said to me, “Don’t worry. We just like to keep our expectations low, that way we won’t be disappointed!” I smiled at this comment, and sure enough, all of us were pleasantly surprised at what a great trip we had!

This perspective seems to work in certain situations. If you don’t expect much, you won’t be disappointed. On the other hand, avoiding disappointment is not our mission in life. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Sometimes daring to hope is risky. It takes courage, yet without it life lacks color, imagination, and joy.

As children of God, we, of all people, have cause to hope. Through Jesus’ triumph over death, we have a hope that assures us of eternity, and we know that he is working all things for our good and for his glory. We have hope that what we see now is not the way things have to be, and we can dare to make them different. We have hope that though our way may not always be easy or pleasant, “just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hope springing high, still [we’ll] rise” (Maya Angelou).

Hope is what fuels many of the people seated in the audience at your graduation ceremony. Your parents watched anxiously as you took your first steps, sacrificed to send you to a school like CAJ, held their breath through your games, concerts, plays, all the while believing that each new venture you undertook would bring you closer to who you are meant to be. Your teachers worked long hours planning courses, grading assignments, guiding your growth, and teaching you skills like reading, problem solving, writing, and thinking for yourself. They were hoping always that you would choose to form habits that would lead to lifetime of learning. Hope has brought you here.

As you encounter the gifts life will give you, you have a choice in how to receive them. You can keep expectations low, avoid disappointment, and never truly experience the thrill of diving headlong into joyful learning. Or you can live with hope. You can demand the most from yourself, believing that you have much to offer. You can trust in other people, realizing that even though you will occasionally be disappointed, you will also find love. You can live with hope, knowing that God is in control and he will take good care of you.

As you go from CAJ, my hope is that you will go forth in peace and justice, to love and serve the Lord and others. Please stay in touch as you do!

 

 

 

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Lessons

The title of this blog is “Lead Like Mom,” largely due to the fact that most of what I learned about leadership, I learned through motherhood. This title also reminds me to reflect on leadership through a female lens or from a feminist perspective. This year has not changed my attitude about leadership, but holding the job of Head of School while still retaining the job of high school principal has been more like being the mother of triplets. With colic. And diaper rash. And then finding another baby, so really it was quadruplets, but no one told me. Maybe quintuplets.

This is why I haven’t written in about three months, but more than that, I haven’t had much opportunity to reflect, because like a new parent, I have been moving frantically from one crisis to the next, putting out fires, soothing feelings, and trying to move forward while also figuring out which direction “forward” actually is. I suspect not everyone in school has that same sensation, because I try to move cautiously so as not to tip the boat, but all the while I have begun to realize how tippy the canoe really is. How many metaphors have I used so far? Only one can’t possibly suffice.

At the risk of reducing the drama, trauma, and intense learning of the past year into soundbites or easily digested tidbits, I am feeling the need of some level of reflection as the year draws to a close. So here, in no particular order, are some lessons I have learned through being immersed in leading like the mother of a herd.

1) It really does take a village.

I am more grateful than ever for this wonky and wonderful community I live and work in. It’s important to have organizational charts and job descriptions, but I also am thankful for people who just see what needs to be done and then jump in and help. By expanding our Leadership Team we accomplished more than we expected, and by putting people in partnerships working toward school improvement, the load is shared and people have more fun. Collaboration is vital.

2) You’ve got to find the comedy in the midst of the drama.

I had a student talking to me the other day about a personal crisis he was facing. We were deeply into his issues when a lizard scurried across my office floor. Both of us lifted our feet up and started laughing. Soon we were crawling around on the floor, trying to catch the lizard. It evaded us, and we delved back into the issues this young man was facing, until I realized the lizard was climbing up his leg. By this time, the challenge had more or less melted away, and we both gave up on being serious and howled together. Mark Twain once wrote, “The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” I’m not sure it’s the only weapon, but it sure works for me!

3) Keep the main thing the main thing.

When we are bound together by a unifying mission, we have harmony in the midst of differences. When we have to make hard choices about how to use space, how to spend money, what curriculum to teach, what activities we will offer, going back to the mission as a filter to sort what is good from what is best is the only way to make wise decisions.

4) You can accomplish so much if you don’t need the credit.

I have found great joy in empowering others to supervise, manage, and lead. Sometimes the idea I hear coming out of someone else’s mouth sounds remarkably similar to conversations I may have had with that person in the past, but the important thing is that the mission goes forward.

5) Schools are emotional places.

I have this sentence posted on the bulletin board above my desk, and its simple truth reminds me that this is just the way it is. Student will melt down, teachers will get frustrated, parents will be angry. It’s not about me — that’s just the nature of the beast we call school. Quiet reason sometimes helps, but more often than not, the emotions just need time to settle down.

6) It really helps to have encouragers and mentors.

I was able to seek advice from a long-distance mentor who pointed me to valuable reading and guiding principles. Even when I became so swamped that I did not communicate with him regularly, just knowing he was available was a support. I also gained a new appreciation for colleagues who are friends. I may be their supervisor in the way the arrows in our flow chart are drawn, but they encouraged me, laughed with me, cried with me, and told me I was doing a good job, even when that was highly doubtful.

7) Education has many faces.

I recently had a teacher tell me we aren’t emphasizing education enough, because students were missing classes to organize a student-led carnival raising money for street children in the Philippines. Not only was this a worthy cause, but the education these students received through their collaboration, problem solving, research, accounting, artistry, performing, and communication was beyond anything our organized classes could have offered. Not all education happens in the classroom.

8) Sometimes, it’s a “calendar thing.”

The school year has a rhythm and a flow. Now that I have been principal for nine years, I can anticipate when I am about to be buried in details, when students will grow fragile, when teachers will complain, when parents want to know. I had a whole new rhythm to get used to this year, and sometimes the two different jobs provided me with two different beats. I could either tear my hair out, or just try to dance. I choose dancing.

9) Communicate, communicate, communicate.

I thought this was a strength of mine, but I did not make it enough of a priority this year. It is almost impossible to communicate too much. When people feel like they know what is going on, they approach it with more confidence and comfort. Confident and comfortable people have a lot more joy.

10) Graduation does happen eventually!

June 2, 2017, fifty-three students will walk across that stage, give me a handshake or a hug, and they will be off into their bright and shining future. This day was almost  impossible to imagine only a few long weeks ago, but it is now upon me. T. S. Eliot wrote, in his “Four Quartets,”

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The seniors might understand that in many ways, they are back to where they started, and so am I, ready to begin exploring all over again.

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