Mistakes

As someone with a new job this year, mistakes are really inevitable: at various points I’m going to screw up, say the wrong thing, hesitate when I shouldn’t, etc.

What’s next? What do you do after the mistake? That’s what I’m working on getting better at.

First, say, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right?” That’s pretty easy. The next part is more complicated.

I’m a big believer in rational actions: people always act rationally. From the outside, it may not always seem like that is the case. However, with some empathy, I think we can get to a place where we may not agree with an action, but we can understand how it was a rational choice someone made in a moment.

When I make a mistake, it is the same thing: I made what I thought was a rational choice. However, when you let a teacher or student down, and you think you acted rationally, the impulse is to explain your decision. However, this explanation – “this is what I was thinking and why I did what I did” – isn’t needed in the moment. When you’ve got an upset party in front of you, they aren’t interested in your rationale. They are interested in solutions. And in attempting to explain why you made a certain choice, you can invalidate the feelings of the person you just wronged.

“If you just heard my side, you’d get it.”

That pushes back on the feelings they expressed. That isn’t a solution to the mistake you made. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reflect on what you did that left someone disappointed or upset. But the reflection doesn’t need to be public, in front of the aggrieved party. Figure out how to get it right the next time, and show that with your actions.

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As with most thoughts on this blog, this opinion is a work in progress. Might my thinking change? Sure. It almost certainly will. It is, however, where I’m at right now.

You Always Have Time

I intentionally made some time this summer to talk to a group of friends who were already administrators. I was looking for advice about how to best handle this coming school year: how could I minimize the mistakes I was inevitably going to make, and maybe even make a few good choices?

I got a lot of good advice, things I’m trying to do on a regular basis. Sometimes people have noticed the suggested actions and commented. That’s been a good thing, and something I owe my smart administrator friends for.

One of the pieces of advice I got – I don’t remember from whom right now, and my book of notes from these conversations isn’t with me at the moment – was that whenever a teacher walked into my office or walked by me in the hall and asked if I had a second, the answer was always yes. Not in a minute. Just yes. Now. Essentially, no matter what: barring an absolute emergency, this person said to always make time.

This is something I’ve tried to do: say yes when a teacher has a question or an issue. Make the time. I hope I’ve been reasonably successful at it.

On Tuesday, I had a student who I had checked in with about their attendance the previous week ask if we could chat at some point. I said sure.

You know where this is going.

Things happened. It was two days before I got back to the student. And they rightly called me out for it: why did it take two days for me to circle back to them? Good point. Then they went a step further: if it had been one of the higher risk students in the school, I wouldn’t have waited two days to chat with them. It would have happened right away. Good point number two.

Ouch. And dead on correct.

I apologized. Lesson learned, hopefully. But that’s something you can’t take back and undo. It’s also something that you can’t say you’re going to do. Like most of life, it is going to be something I am going to have to show – with my actions, not my words – that I am willing to do: make time for teachers AND students when they ask for it.

Now. Not in two days.

The Fortuitous Walk By

As I learn what doing my job actually entails – something I still don’t entirely know – I am often in the halls. Whether it is making sure kids are in class, looking for a staff member with a question, or trying to find a student to check in on, I get to walk by a lot of classrooms as a day progresses.

One of my favorite things from the last couple days has been an opportunity to walk by an amazing moment in a classroom. While on the way out for supervision duty, I wandered by a class that sounds like it had been a bit less than ideal. Instead of hearing a frustrated teacher, I got to hear encouragement. The teacher talked about how not everyone would love everyday in class, but that they would love to hear feedback from students about how to improve it. About how there would be varied activities in class, but they needed students to show up every day and do their best even if it wasn’t a day they were really excited about. I wasn’t there to observe the class – I just happened to wander by it. It was a great conversation to get to hear – positive in a time it would have been easy to be negative in.

A fortuitous walk by happened again yesterday afternoon. After a crazy couple of days, I was out looking for a student and wandered by a classroom. I heard what sounded like an improv game I recognized (called Rapid Fire Freeze on this website). Recognizing it, I turned around and went back to watch. And laughed my brains out for about five minutes. The students – and the teacher – were all over the place as they switched up scenes and players every 30 seconds or so. It was EXACTLY the laugh I needed at that point.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen and heard good learning and powerful conversations within a classroom that I was intentionally there to watch. But the choice to slow down and listen, or do a u-turn and go back listen and watch has been a really good one a couple of times this past week.

Comfort Zones

When I was in the classroom, I enjoyed watching students being out of their comfort zones. Sometimes it was around public speaking, other times it was around groupwork, other times it was around difficult content around issues of inequality. Regardless, it was neat to see students be pushed. They didn’t always like it, but it was amazing to see the growth that they had in the two years I got to spend with them. Hesitant public speakers became confident and polished. People who didn’t like groupwork became strong facilitators who brought the best out of their peers.

In the reading I’ve done recently, people refer over and over to powerful, profound growth happening when people are out of their comfort zones. Though I didn’t have that evidence at my fingertips in the classroom, intuitively that makes sense based on what I saw from my students.

With a new job this year, when I see people they ask how it is going. I don’t always have a good answer. I’m enjoying it. I know I’ll be back tomorrow and that I’ll learn something new. But I spend a lot of time out of my comfort zone. Which is good, I guess. I’m learning. I hope I’m growing.

But the shoe is on the other foot now. After years of asking kids to step out of their comfort zones, I’m now doing that. That’s not to say teaching was always easy or always comfortable, but there was a certain flow to how a day and a semester and a year went. What happened every day was known, more or less. Now? This year for me, in a new role? Not so much.

And as I bumble through days and make mistakes, it’s important to keep remembering that: being in your comfort zone is all well and good, but there’s a lot of growth and learning to be had outside of them. At least that’s what I’m telling myself 🙂

To Do List?

Week one and I didn’t get fired – plus I’m excited for week two. That’s what we’re here for, right?

It was a whirlwind of a first week with students. Lots of things happened, but two things come to the fore as I learn this job.

Something happens every day. That thing, where all of a sudden you were doing something and then you spend the next couple of hours dealing with whatever that thing is. I remember nervously looking at the clock on Friday at around 10am – when was the thing going to happen? Nervousness continued at 11:30 – where was the thing? Well, the thing Friday never happened. That meant that I got to keep working on the thing that happened Thursday, and needed to be followed up on. I was reminded, though, as I saw incidents happen that needed imminent attention on Wednesday and Thursday, of what my friend Catina Haugen said when I chatted with her for advice this summer. She said to always be three days ahead with the things that have to get done. Wise advice for sure, and it only took one week to see it as necessary.

I also realized with such an interactive job, that as an introvert I really need about ten minutes of uninterrupted quiet time at the end of the day to work on something to recharge. I ran out of work Thursday without that and felt stressed for the rest of the afternoon. This was true to a certain extent when I taught too, but I was usually able to grab a quiet moment during prep time to recharge at the end of the day. There’s no prep time as a VP – carving out that time will be an important self-care piece for me this year, I think.

There’s more to say, but those were the two big pieces that struck me from the past week. On to week 2!

Hindsight and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I blog for myself – to clarify things. When other people read posts and find them useful, hey – that’s a bonus. My fellow SD42 administrator Kristi Blakeway commented on the post I published Saturday that has made me think. She said this:

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It immediately got me thinking. The human mind’s love for stories as a way of making sense of life is pretty well known, and stretches back to the beginning of time. What about that love for stories though – do they always help us see things more clearly?

Do things always make sense in hindsight? Or do we blot out the possibility of other options to tell ourselves that there is no way we could have made any other choice? To make the present seem preordained certainly allows us to sleep easier. But could things have unfolded otherwise? Do we tell ourselves stories – the ‘in hindsight this all made sense’ – to make sense of things that seem out of place?

To make it a little bit more concrete… Sometime in the middle of my junior year of college a buddy called me up and told me he was volunteering in a middle school classroom a couple days per week – was I interested? I was a history major and hadn’t given much thought to education. But a volunteer opportunity was a good thing on the resume, and it might be fun. (Twenty-one year old Karl was pretty cynical, huh?) So off I went.

It was fun. Middle schoolers are a handful, but the individual tutoring I got to do was fun, and interacting with kids was really rewarding. Fast forward 1.5 years later to graduation – my friend and I continued to volunteer at the school. Some of the students even came to our graduation – I think we even got a shoutout in the speech our college president gave because of their presence at the ceremony!

Those 1.5 years in the classroom demonstrated enough interest, and the beginnings of a skill set, that I was accepted as an education volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had the privilege of spending two years teaching in northern Namibia. When I returned to the US, I still wasn’t sure on my path. On a whim, through the Peace Corps newsletter, I applied for a job doing environmental education on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Given that both the bosses were returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), and knew that RPCVs would work long hours for not a ton of pay, they were interested in me. Two years of environmental ed – and four years in education – was enough to get me into my teacher training and masters program at Stanford. (I can tell you it wasn’t my college grades that got me in.)

That led to the teaching job I had at Hillsdale High School. Fast forward a few years and an RPCV I served with told me I should apply for the MERIT program. The summer of 2011 was a head-first dive into the world of student-centered tech integration, and it was on. That led to Twitter, which was how I met my wife. MERIT also led to edcamp, which was how I got involved organizing edcamps and developed a belief in myself as a leader in education. Twitter was also how I got introduced to Grant Frend, who helped me as I applied for jobs in School District 42. Where I work now.

And yes, all that makes sense in hindsight. How could I have made other choices? It all seems clear.

Except that I applied for a summer fellowship to spend six weeks in South Africa with the National Endowment for the Humanities in the summer of 2011. I didn’t get in. Had I gotten in, I wouldn’t have done MERIT. What then?

What if I hadn’t said yes to that middle school volunteering opportunity in the fall of 2000? Would I even be in education?

I don’t know. I completely agree with Kristi’s comment – it all makes sense if you follow the string backwards. And to be clear, all the decisions that I made were the right ones: I love the life I get to live. Is that part of the reason all those choices make sense in hindsight – my privileged position in the world? But it could have gone other ways. I’m glad it didn’t, but it could have. What then? Would I be saying the same thing – that I ended up where I ended up and it all made sense in hindsight?

Clearly, I don’t have answers, but it was fun to start to parse all this out. Thanks, Kristi, for making me think on this for a while.

Out of Place?

I’ve been thinking more about that feeling competent piece I talked about last week; the feeling of being completely out of place, of what the heck am I doing here. It’s still a weird feeling, but one I am getting used to.

As I was thinking more about that feeling, I started to think back to other times I felt out of place – times where I wondered what the heck I was doing where I was.

The first time I felt that was after the vans dropped me and about 15 strangers off for the start of a National Outdoor Leadership School course in southeastern Alaska. We had everything we needed for the month we were going to be out sea kayaking: all the food, clothes, maps, etc. And I had just met these people. I VERY distinctly felt that ‘what the heck am I doing here’ feeling. However, that trip was one of the happiest months of my life. Bald eagles, bears, seeing no one else for weeks at a time, having a humpback whale come up for a breath ten yards from my kayak and scare the crud out of me: it was an amazing experience.

I also felt that what am I doing here feeling as I got dropped off in Olukonda, the village in Namibia where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was living with a family, speaking a language I had learned for two months, and walking into a teaching job – class sizes of 45, students who spoke English (the language of instruction) only at school – that I was distinctly unprepared for. But my time in Namibia was incredibly powerful: I fell in love with education and in my two years there came to know and understand the amazing people and culture of a country many people have very little knowledge of.

The third ‘what am I doing here’ time that came to mind as I reflected on this feeling was as I sat in my classroom about a half hour before school started on my first day teaching in California. Was I prepared? I didn’t know any of the students. Similar to my situation now, I didn’t know who to talk to about what at my school – who was in charge of supplies, field trips, etc. Following the pattern of the other two experiences, my eight years teaching at Hillsdale were a total and complete blast.

What’s the message here? A couple things, I think. Discomfort is good. Feeling overwhelmed – in the in over your head kind of way – has been a really positive experience for me. Despite the initial unpleasant feeling, all three of these times when I felt in over my head were amazing, transformative growth experiences for me. Hopefully the pattern holds and the same is true for what lies ahead. But regardless, in the moment, it’s good to remember how this feeling has turned out for me in the past.