Seasons

The seasons of school are just as real as the 4 seasons of our orbiting planet. Though the weather and the colors of nature play a role, they are secondary to ceremonies, exams, bells, and routines. This is now that season we call graduation, and with it comes a whole set of emotions and practices that are as predictable as temperatures and phases of the moon. At least they are at our school, a place where doing something twice qualifies it as a tradition and it must be repeated until the end of time as we know it. Changing one of these traditions is like breaking a law of physics: it can be done, but only with much planning and great peril.

For the month of May we go through a litany of “lasts.” We have the last orchestra concert, the last band concert, the last choir and hand-bell concert. We have the last Far East tournament and the last award’s assembly. We have 8th grade graduation and their Encapsulating Extravaganza. We have Senior Comprehensives, the capstone of high school requiring research, writing, a project and a presentation. These presentations are attended by all middle school and high school students and presided over by panels including all our teachers. The whole school celebrates what the seniors have learned and how they are now equipped (we hope) to go from here, equipped to make a difference.

This week held our last chapel, followed by graduation rehearsal. This year we initiated a new tradition, with the graduates marching through the whole school, walking the halls where they attended kindergarten, grade three, grade six, or grade nine. They paraded through places where they created art, shot baskets, practiced equations, wrote papers, sang, played, presented, read, and learned. We all clapped for them and admired their progress, some of us remembering when we were their age and others wondering when they will ever be that tall and strong and smart. We become that “great cloud of witnesses for them.

This weekend we celebrated graduation complete with processionals, speeches, hugs, and photos. We challenged the graduates to go forth in peace and justice to love and serve the Lord, and waved goodbye as they tearfully said their goodbyes. Now we go through the anticlimactic week of underclassmen exams, staff meetings, room cleanings, and more farewells. Even these are part of the rhythm of the school year. A novel rarely ends with the climax, but coasts to the necessary conclusion that slows the reader to a gentle stop. Then the well-earned reward at the end: summer vacation. It’s not just the kids singing, “Schools out for summer!” (Do they still know that song?), but the adults in the building who so desperately need respite from being responsible for fragile emotions, unpredictable hormones, weighty responsibilities, intense preparation, tedious grading, and the precious burden of caring so much for each student they have under their watch. In measuring time in schools, every day equals 5 days of “other occupation” days. Sort of like dog years.

The thing is, I love the seasons of school. They are more ingrained in me that the four seasons pictured on calendars with frozen ponds, budding trees, bubbling waterfalls and vivid leaves. This may be June, but it’s the end of a year. I’m about to hibernate for a few weeks, and will be waking up for a new beginning in the middle of August.

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Go Team!

Articles and books abound about team leadership. If the amount of people talking and writing about leading in teams is any indication about the numbers of people actually doing it, then hardly anyone is leading alone! Somehow I doubt that is the case. Collaborative leadership is something that sounds good, it feels like something that fits with what we want to believe is true, but actually doing it is hard work. In fact, some days it feels impossible, like the universe conspires against it and the very people you are working with have different ideas about what this is supposed to look like. Like many difficult things — 21 hours of labor, starting an exercise program, or raising teenagers — it is worth the effort. And like other hard things, it is not something we ever master. There are always more lessons to learn.

Two years ago, when we reorganized and expanded our school leadership team to include more voices and additional perspectives, I naively believed that we were now practicing team leadership. It was true, in the sense that we did have a team. But getting 11 very diverse people from different countries, backgrounds, and personality types together, especially when they all have strong opinions about — well — everything, I realized what a challenging adventure we were embarking on. This was easier said than done!

We had a team…and that may be about as far as team leadership goes in many settings. We were all quickly learning that forming teams does not mean collaboration is really taking place; rather it’s only the first step toward effective team leadership. Our first meetings involved a lot of talking over each other, arguing, engaging in some productive discussion, but then not necessarily following through as we hoped to. As a result, some days I ended up feeling inadequate and even hurt. I place a high value on harmony and unity, so those days when it seemed we were heading in as many different directions as people on the team were exhausting. Would we survive as a team?

The thing we had going for us though, was that these 11 people all had a deep love for the school and an unflagging commitment to doing what was best in order for us to achieve our mission to “equip students to serve Japan and the world for Christ.” I am beyond grateful to have a team who teaches me every day what it means to embody collaboration. Who takes me to the limits of my own leadership capacity, but helps me go a little further than I thought I could go. Who patiently believe in this crazy dream. Along the way, we are learning a few principles that are helping mark the path we are traveling.

1) We commit to building trust by really learning to know each other. This means spending time not only talking about policy and preparing for initiatives, but also learning about what motivates us, what has hurt us, what is going on in our families, what brings us joy. We take time to talk, to laugh, and in our case, to pray together about more than school.

2) We honor each other’s differences, while being committed to the unifying mission. It’s like the tale about the blind men and the elephant. Someone has to be the one in touch with the elephant’s hind end, and more often than not, that feels like me. But someone has to understand each part of that elephant and this unique perspective impacts various roles we play. Still, it’s the whole body that unites us. Keeping the focus is hard work. We have to remind each other often why we are here and what is truly important.

3) We assume good motives from each other. Have each other’s backs. Each of us comes to leadership by a different path, and our unique strength will also mean we have equally unique weaknesses. When someone makes a mistake, we can’t assume they have it in for us or that they are evil and must destroyed. We take the time to learn the back-story and help tell the story to others when that might be necessary. It also means sometimes being willing to confront each other, but with grace and forgiveness. I’m still working on that one.

4) We decide on the guiding principles for any decisions or policies being created. It’s easy to create a list of rules, but then there are exceptions, opinions, individual experiences and interpretations, and it’s so easy to get mired in a swamp of increasingly specific regulations that the team begins to lose focus. If we identify the guiding principles that we will target and that provide the rationale for what we want to accomplish, then the decision or policy becomes clearer and more attainable. Not easy, but clearer.

5) We focus on the core, but don’t stop there. Empower others to replicate team leadership at all levels. If collaboration is only occurring in the leadership team meetings, it’s not really collaborative leadership. We need to empower other leaders to lead at every level of school operations. We are responsible to not only listen to each other, but to allow others to use their voices and to lead with their own teams, so collaboration becomes a 3-dimensional, living, breathing, whirling organism, not a flat, fixed, multi-tiered organizational chart.

Team leadership is hard. Even the metaphor of “team” brings different models to mind. I like basketball, and even in the NBA playoffs, we have examples of different kinds of teams. The ones most fun for me to watch are the teams where the bench is deep and all the starters are scoring in double-digits, not the teams where a superstar carries the others on his back. Let me be specific: I don’t like the Cavs.

I am no superstar, and I would far prefer being part of a team where each member is fully empowered to rebound, defend, assist, and score. Where the whole body of the elephant lumbers beautifully along. Where each leader looks to the needs of each other and to the needs of others we work with, functioning as a healthy, vibrant, collaborative community.

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PS: I’m working together with one of my colleagues from our leadership team on a presentation about collaborative leadership for an education conference. If you have any suggestions or questions, or if you want to share positive or negative experiences, please comment.

 

 

 

 

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Student Protests

Over the past weeks, I’ve followed the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their peers from other high schools as they have stood up for a change in the gun culture of America. I watch them with admiration, but not with surprise. To the cynical adults who say they must be actors, I say, “Shame on you.” These teenagers remind me of why I am proud to be an educator. The students are refusing to be silent in a world where justice and values seem to have gone mad. They do this with poise, logic, passion, and exuberance, but I’ve seen scores of young people do this over the course of many years. The Parkland teens’ experience is unique, but the ability of young people to take a stand is not.

I’ve watched my students over the decades stand up against disease, disaster, injustice, and corruption. I’ve learned from them as they have researched issues I never even heard of, and through their discoveries, my understanding has been expanded. Sometimes these students I’ve worked with become passionate about causes I’ve known about for ages: racism, sexism, hypocrisy, lack of education or health care or opportunities. I occasionally have to push away my cynicism at their youthful zeal, as they charge forward with fervor uncontaminated with what has been tried before or with the failures of the past.

I don’t know these kids from Parkland, Florida, but I know other kids remarkably similar. These are not actors, but ordinary teens choosing to stand for what they believe rather than drift on the currents of passivity. It’s true that many might be pulled along in the wake of protest movements becoming popular — after all, who wouldn’t relish walking out of school, right? But whatever the motives of each individual, or whatever the reasons each student gets involved in standing up against the high profile, big money, self-seeking political machinery of the adult world, they could just be staying home playing video games…and they aren’t.

I feel proud to be an educator when I watch these kids. Their teachers kept them safe in the line of fire. But they also taught them the skills of rhetoric and debate, of research and logic, of organizing and problem-solving. I can facilitate these skills as well with the students at my school, and also provide students with opportunities to serve, to inform, to mobilize, to protest what is wrong and stand for what is right. To not punish students when they speak the truth, but listen to their voice and to engage in the conversation.

There may be times when youthful enthusiasm sprays out sideways and makes messes. That’s life. Working with kids is never neat and tidy. For that matter, neither is working with grown-ups! If we stand on the sidelines and criticize, we miss so much of what really matters.

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Serving Leadership

Sometimes when I am trying to define what we mean by “service learning” for our students, I’m confronted with what it means for school leaders…for me. These discoveries are most definitely not new or original, in fact they seem almost trivial. I know I am still in the process of learning each lesson, and still much in need of practice. As I was reading what smart people than I say about servant leadership, here are a few principles that kept surfacing.

1) It’s not about me. I know it’s been said before (Purpose Driven everything!), but it’s really not. When those reporting to me, or others I’m responsible for, have succeeded, I did my job…I have succeeded. It doesn’t really matter how much time I invest, how clever an idea sounds in my mind, how passionate I feel, or who gets the credit. My job is serving others. For a teacher, the job is about the students. For a Leadership Team — guess what — it’s still all about the students! We are all here to equip students. If they are learning and growing in a nurturing and inspiring environment and applying what they learn to serve others, we are doing our job. If they aren’t, then we need to address how to fix that. Our jobs are not about our own career development or about building our own program or having a school of influence. I am here to serve God by serving this community he loves, and that means everything I do is not about my own gratification, but about others.

2) Appreciate others. Of course, this applies to students, but also to parents, to colleagues, to our community, to whomever God brings into our lives. People are weird, but they are fascinating! When we look for those aspects of others that reflect God’s image and are unique from all others, we can be thankful for even the oddest or most irritating person, and find something good in them. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” We need to find ways to celebrate this weird and wonderful place filled with people with their own stories, their own cultures, their own backgrounds. We need to let people know how much we value them and how really interesting they are. We can be generous with praise and try to assume good motives when someone behaves in a way that annoys us.

3) Know people. Of course, we struggle to know all our students’ names, and some of those do not come easily. We might know when they are late and who might be failing or getting into trouble. But do we know what motivates them? What fills them with joy? What makes them angry? What do they do when they aren’t on campus? This is not just limited to teachers knowing students though. Do we take the time to know more about the people we work with than the job we do? Of course, we need to be professional and respect each other’s privacy, but we can demonstrate a sincere love and interest that goes beyond the roles we play in a limited time and place, and goes deeply into who we are as people.

4) Empower others. Our jobs involve discipling, mentoring, equipping. We do what we do, so that the students leave our schools to make their mark on the world, so young teachers learn their craft, so parents are supported in their challenging roles. Sometimes this means we allow others to make mistakes and to refrain from criticizing when they do. We set the example of fearlessness by being energized by learning and by trying new things. When we allow others to shine while letting them know they are safe, valued, and loved, we create a nurturing place for students — and also our colleagues — to try, fail, pick themselves up, and try again. Then we celebrate when learning happens!

5) Be quick to forgive. When people have the freedom to fail, they will sometimes make trouble or knock into those of us standing next to them or cause us inconvenience. Sometimes this happens even when they aren’t doing something noble like attempting some grand new thing; sometimes people are just annoying. It’s important for us to remember that we are too. Sometimes I am grumpy or sharp-tongued or forgetful or do really stupid things. I always see the reasons for these unpleasant traits: not enough sleep, a growling stomach because I missed lunch, feeling misunderstood, someone else’s lateness that makes my job harder…there’s always some greater context for myself, and I easily make allowances for my own bad behavior. The thing is, everyone has their own context and their own story of why they do the things they do. Of course, we want to hold each other accountable, but we also can assume good motives when describing bad behavior. We can be quick to forgive, even when we might need to confront.

No rocket science here, but sometimes being a school leader means going back to the simply complex matter of loving and serving other people.

 

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Core Values

Defining a culture while immersed in that culture is harder than it looks. It’s a little like describing what it feels like to breathe air, when breathing air is the only thing we know. We have nothing to compare it to, so no obvious way to describe its taste or smell. On the other hand, identifying and describing the values that create our culture is vital if we want to be sure we preserve those values.

Dipping a toe into current politics (with fear and trepidation) we have heard the slogan “Make America Great Again,” shouted from stages and seen it printed on baseball caps. There is an enormous gap, however, between opinions over when that greatness actually existed. Was it prior to women being able to vote? Before the Civil Rights movement? During the Slave Era? To know what makes a specific culture or time period great requires taking a close look at the values during that time period. The goals an organization (or a country) is trying to reach need to be supported by, and consequently sustain, the values it espouses. “Being great” sounds like a reasonable goal until we take a closer look at the values it might mean embracing again. After a closer look, I’m positive I don’t want a past definition of greatness!

I am relieved I am not the leader of a country, but as a school leader, I still need to be careful we aren’t imagining some ridiculous, outdated, or even dangerous values we are trying to attain or maintain. With many new initiatives on our horizon, it was a really a helpful exercise for us to take a close look at the core values we hold, to name them, and consequently, to be more intentional about basing decisions on what would help to preserve those important ideals.

I stepped into this position when our school board was already examining the values recorded in school documents. I did not even know what this list of words was until my first board meeting, so an awareness of our values was obviously not part of the daily life of teaching, learning and working at my school. It was actually a good list, but as we looked closer, they might have described any well-intentioned organization. How could we identify and clarify the values that were implicit and make them more explicit? As a novice, I needed some information, so first I looked back at some of the required reading for my Masters of Educational Leadership program. I researched online. I talked to smart people. I still kept thinking in circles, trying to figure what our values were and what we wanted them to be.

Then last spring, I was sitting on the floor in the back of a meeting room at a camp where our student leaders were involved in a leadership retreat. I watched as they were putting into practice the ways they had been taught and trained while attending our school. They were clarifying facts, listening to each other, sharing ideas, engaging in a healthy exchange of ideas, and allowing their thinking to soar beyond boundaries. My colleague and I began conversing about what we were watching, and how it seemed to epitomize the best of what we were trying to achieve in the lives of our students.

Suddenly, an epiphany smashed into my consciousness with a blinding flash: what we were observing were our values in action. These students were closely examining truth. They were seeing the best in each other. They were practicing community in a collaborative and cooperative spirit while moving in a clear direction. As my friend and I began identifying the behaviors we were seeing, I furiously scribbled notes.

As a Christian school leader, I needed to be sure that what I thought were examples of the strong values of our school in front of me, were indeed grounded in scripture and growing out of our statement of faith, and also naturally contributing to our school mission. As I researched, each ideal did seem to have a basis in God’s Word and seemed to be practices we already valued and were also genuinely striving to attain, though perhaps we hadn’t ever quite identified them in a formal list.

From this point, the collaborative process continued. I sought advice from fellow Leadership Team members. Were we on the right track? Did these make sense? Did it matter that they were not a list of character qualities as in many organizations, but rather a set of strongly held beliefs? The edges of the phrases were sanded; the picture they created was adjusted and balanced. Then I shared them with the board. The core values had to come from the heart of who we were as a school, and the board needed to be able to support them and own them completely. I clarified that this was only a proposal, and we took them apart piece by piece and put them back together as a team. We made a few changes, but experienced a high level of unity and agreement, as we all felt a strong sense that these did describe who we were and what we held dear. The board felt a sense of resonance with the three values and they approved them unanimously.

Since we agreed on this set of core values, they have immediately felt comfortable, like finding shoes that fit perfectly or being able to sleep in my own bed after a long journey. We have organized communication about school around them. They have been a way to structure all staff meetings. They have already been a way to test ideas and think about unifying themes.

The process of identifying core values has been a helpful step in understanding what makes us unique as a school, to celebrate the good qualities that define us, to know how we need to make an effort to maintain these values and not slip into carelessness, and to make decisions that will bring us closer to the ideals that we know we want to be ours. We don’t want to be looking back to some era that seems “great” in the light of nostalgia, but to be the place right now that God wants us to be.

 

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Happy New Year

I doubt anyone has been waiting with baited breath for the latest episode in “Lead Like Mom”, but 2017 was not a year for reflection or writing for me, and the postings have ranged from sparse to nonexistent. Here is evidence of my New Year’s resolution for 2018: TA-DA — I’m back!!

Journaling was never a natural practice for me, partly because I carried this irrational notion that to start a journal, I had to update the journal on everything that had happened in my life up until that point of writing; I always ran out of steam after a few paragraphs describing my early childhood. Over the past few months, the challenge has been more along the lines of time management pressures and a change in the nature of work, producing a struggle over when I should write and in knowing what is still fair game to share, but I don’t want to be looking backward as I begin again. 2017 is now my early childhood…on to the present!

Learning to lead leaders is taking me to a new level of leadership learning. Every educator, perhaps every person, leads someone, but finding the points in common between leading others ranging from my kids at home, a classroom of children or teenagers, a division of high school teachers, or a conference room of school leaders has been truly both stretching and rewarding. I strongly desire to lead from who I am, not pretending to wear someone else’s dress-up clothes. On the other hand, I want to continue to learn and grow in my leadership skills, maximizing my own strengths and never being too old to try new strategies. To lead with integrity.

I truly believe that team leadership is not only the most effective way to move a school forward, but it is also the most fulfilling way to do it. I love working with our team! The positive aspects of collaboration do come at a price: it is hard work! I am reminded of the expanding growth of families. When a young couple goes through their first Christmas together, everything is sparkly and exciting, until one of them realizes: you do THAT on Christmas Eve? And the long line of compromises begins. As children arrive, each with their different ways of processing, their diverse needs and strengths, their various likes and dislikes, the negotiations and concessions continue. Then come the in-laws. One may be a vegan while another is militantly carnivorous. One is an adventurer while another reads the biographies of those exploring new frontiers. There is no good or bad in these contrasts, but there seems to be no end to the give and take and finding common ground.

So it is in forging new leadership teams. Misunderstandings happen easily and it is all too common to lack clarity in the way we work toward what we think is the same goal. Something may seem obvious to me, until I hear another’s interpretation.

Our team took the time to take the Enneagram test this fall, and to have a facilitated discussion of what our different personality traits mean in the way we work together as a team. There are many tools available to assess the ways we think and behave, but we found this one to be particularly helpful. Our team spans the spectrum of different styles of processing and diverse motives that drive us. We have rule followers and rule challengers. We have members who strive for achievement and those who strive for peace and unity. As we are able to see another’s surprising reactions to an issue, we are better able to process it through a filter that allows us to remember each person’s motivation and the things they might struggle with. We are able to frame communication in a way that others are better able to understand and respond to us. We can interpret comments in a way that allows us to see the best in each other, rather than to be hurt or shocked.

Living by a school calendar means we get two starts to the year: one in September and one when the rest of the world celebrates. Lofty, unrealistic resolutions are usually a wash up by February, but resolving to continue to learn, to grow, to reflect and to continue to forge ahead in cultivating a team that loves and leads together seems possible. Happy New Year!

 

 

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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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