Weak Ties

As 2018 arrived, I spent some time thinking about weak ties and the pretty profound impact they’ve had on my life. Weak ties aren’t close friends. They aren’t colleagues or family. They’re loose connections who might share an interest or mutual friend group, but aren’t people you are tight with or know well. Interested in more on weak ties? If so, there are a couple links on the bottom of this post for you to read more about them.

What prompted this reflection was that I was lucky enough to get to spend an amazing 72 hours over the New Year on Oahu, staying with and getting toured around by people I had never met. While that might sound weird, it isn’t. Kind of. My wife met Ben Mountz at the Apple Distinguished Educator program in Miami in 2015. They hung out some, prepped for short talks they had to give, and got along well. Turns out Ben and his wife Jess were talking about moving to Hawaii.

Well, fast forward a couple years. Ben and Jess have moved to Oahu. We were headed to Maui but wanted to visit other islands at some point. Victoria and Ben chatted, we invited ourselves for New Years, and got to hang out with some amazing local tour guides – and educators – on Oahu for the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.

I had never met either Ben or Jess. We had something in common – education – and some mutual friends, but had never hung out.

Ben and Jess were weak ties. They clearly aren’t weak ties anymore, but before hanging out for a few days? Yes.

And that weak tie connection? Well, I got to see a huge chunk of Oahu, eat some great food, chat about education, and hang out with Jess and Ben (and their dogs!).

And all that was pretty awesome, actually. But it made me think about the impact that weak ties have had on my life.

My job as a secondary vice principal? I happened upon Grant Frend, a secondary principal, through the design thinking and education chat – the #dtk12chat – about 18 months ago. Grant was excited to see someone interested in the connection between DT and education. A weak tie.

We got to chatting. He invited me to come by and check out his school. We kept in contact, and when I was applying for administrative positions in districts around where I live – including in Grant’s district – I reached out to him for a hand with the application. I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t have the job I have now were it not for Grant. Is he a weak tie today? Not at all – I now consider him a friend and a mentor. But Grant was a weak tie who helped me get a job in a new part of the world for me.

My family – married, with a kid on the way? My wife was a weak tie, someone who I followed on Twitter because she was an educator and was a part of my buddy Sam Patterson’s old #patue chat. We met briefly when she headed to the Bay Area for a #cuerockstar event. We kept in touch, coplanned a conference presentation with my favorite crazy (but the good kind of crazy) Southern California educator John Stevens, and here we are 4.5 years later.

Oahu NS sunset
Jess and Victoria checking out a sunset on the North Shore of Oahu

That’s where I ended up as I was thinking about weak ties and three great days on Oahu: so much of what I’m doing today, both personally and professionally, is because of weak ties. Friends who knew people and connected me to them, or people that shared a common interest with me and reached out: weak ties. But also weak ties that led to amazing personal and professional opportunities. And weak ties that subsequently became strong ties.

It turns out that 72 hours in Oahu was a great time to prompt this reflection.

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Interested in more on this weak ties thing? There’s a really good article about the importance of weak ties from TechCrunch here. It gets a bit into the weeds when talking about retention of people when hiring through weak ties, but the big ideas are there, Worth a read. And if you’re interested, the originator who pointed to the importance of weak ties was Mark Granovetter, who wrote this paper in 1973 (!!!).

Turning Off Your Brain

Back in the day, as a new teacher, I found myself waking up at night, unable to go back to sleep. Student dealing with big issues at home? Or a different student making bad choices at school? Or what to do about that class that is spinning in the wrong direction?

My brain would click on and start spinning. And for the most part, it would be fixated on things that were beyond my control. But, for a while, that wouldn’t matter: my lack of control – something I could acknowledge at 3am as my brain was spinning – wasn’t enough to stop the ideas bouncing around my head early in the morning.

Eventually, I got to a place where I knew that my brain was wrapping around things beyond my control. I was able to train my brain to let things like these go, to trust that I was doing what I could and the rest would take care of itself.

And I slept better. Woke up and went back to sleep. Didn’t spend a couple hours with my brain unable to turn off, despite the early morning hour.

Now, as a new administrator, I’m feeling those same things I felt as a new teacher. I’ll roll over at some ridiculous hour and my brain will start turning and not power down. Usually, it’ll be stuff beyond my control. But I haven’t trained my brain to let that stuff go. Yet. It’s not awful – one or two nights a week. But dangit, I want my sleep!

I’m working on it. Now, I wish I remembered how long I dealt with this as a new teacher. Weeks? Months? When will it disappear? It’s coming, I’m sure. Hopefully sooner, rather than later.

Reps

One of my favorite crazy educators – but the good, ‘go run through a wall after you talk to him’ kind of crazy – Jon Corippo has a lot of interesting ideas. One of the things I’ve chatted with him about over the years is the idea of reps for students. Jon talks about how students will struggle with new structures and ideas to start with. An open ended project that should take half a week? The first time you do it may take two weeks. But get kids reps, get them familiar with structures and how something in your classroom works, and later in the year you’ll get that two week project down to a three day project.

That’s reps. Practice. What are the structures of your classroom that kids have to master? Give them reps and they’ll get better. My wife sees it in her grade six classroom with the Daily 5: students who struggle in September to self-direct through thirty minutes of Daily 5 have no problem with ninety minutes of self-directed Daily 5 come April.

Reps.

It’s the same with hard conversations we have to have as educators. The first time you deal with something? A student – or a parent – who is furious at you? Yikes. I need a hand. Can I practice the conversation I’m going to have with them with you? The third time? The fifth time? I’ve got this.

I’ve seen this be true as an administrator as well. First fight? Walk me through how we deal with this. It’s easier the next time. Need to find out what a student knows? I WAY overplayed my hand in a conversation earlier this year. Hopefully, I’ll learn from it and do better the next time.

That idea of reps, what Jon talks about with students, holds true for the adults in schools as well. If you’re going to build competence, you need practice. You need to be bad at something in order to reflect and learn to be good.

You need – we all need – reps.

Seeing An Impact

One of my favorite parts of teaching world history was watching students grow. Getting to spend two years with a group of students allowed me to see skills and confidence develop over a longer period of time than over just one year together in a classroom.

If you looked at an incoming grade nine in September, then compared them to what they could do in December there were visible differences. Give them another year and a half? Huge growth. Students could find better evidence. Write more convincing analysis. Read more complex documents. Self-regulate for extended periods of project time. Present publicly with grace and poise.

Those things were all visible. Even over shorter arcs like a month you could see growth from students.

One of the things that I’ve struggled with this year is the lack of a visible impact. I don’t see students in class every day. I don’t get to watch a skillset grow and blossom. The things I was used to seeing in the classroom aren’t metrics I see anymore.

This isn’t a complaint. But it is different. I’m sure as I learn the job of VP those growth areas I got accustomed to seeing in the classroom will show up in my new job as well. But for now, I don’t immediately see those growth areas; I’m not sure yet where I should be looking. And because of that things feel a little different, a little less measurable. I can’t see the impact that I’m having.

But in time…

This is where you, the administrator, comes in. How do you see your impact in your school? What are you looking for? What are you watching? I’m curious!

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.