“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

… and, if you’re in a movie, some unbelievably heroic character will arrive in the nick of time and pull you up to safety! However, this is real life, and the end of the rope arrives sometimes before you have even thought about tying a knot!

Sometimes I wish I had super powers, or even some magic dust. It’s tough to see people working through change and not be able to fix their issues, or better still, help them figure a way out of the things that challenge them. In this week’s ‘Campus Update’ (a weekly message to my staff that includes reflections, important information and upcoming calendar items), I wrote about seeking that elusive notion of balance. It seemed to me that my team was working ’round the clock and quite likely their balance was tilted more heavily on the ‘work’ side and not the ‘family’ and ‘play’ side. So, why should that matter? When we’re stressed, our immune systems become weak, our health is affected, eating and sleeping are not a priority, we are more likely to make mistakes, fatigue wipes us out and our families can only hope that we’ll connect back with them (understatement of the year). I should know… I’ve been quite a workaholic for several years. I think I’m much better at making balance a priority now, but I’m not quite there. My husband is my compass at home on this topic – and I’m trying to pass on his message to my team!

We constantly juggle the dynamics and demands of multiple roles that we play and search for a way to become more effective and efficient in what we do. I’ve learned that people typically want to do their best, and as they struggle to do this they may sometimes find themselves in a stalemate. One of those, “I know what I need to do and if only I had a few extra hours in the day to do it…” kind of situations.

As a school leader I see myself working to remove obstacles – problem solving to help us get past the things that keep our feet on the brakes. I ask for their ideas, they share their thoughts and for the most part we can find common ground. I’m fine with making changes to streamline our work, and it’s quite powerful when the changes come from their ideas. However, there are times when the very structure of what we deal with prevents us from shifting the dynamic. And… you just have to hang on!

In my experience, this doesn’t happen often – typically educators are a very creative bunch and we tend to find ways to work through, or around issues. But what if the issue is the box we inhabit – there are boundaries that symbolize limits within which we have to function. For e.g. we only have a fixed number of hours to work with each day – even with very little sleep! And a certain number of days within which we must accomplish our goals. Thinking outside the box is well and good, but when you have to work inside it, you have to learn to persist with what you have. “Take what you have and make it what you need.” said Carol Dantley, a pastor, and wife of one of my professors, when she spoke in a leadership class over a decade ago at Miami University. Her words stayed with me. Sometimes you just have to work with what is available to you. And, wishful thinking… well, that’s available but not much help, right?

“Don’t be discouraged. It’s often the last key in the bunch that opens the lock.” ~~ Author Unknown

Hmm! Easier said than done! Isn’t it annoying to work with a bunch of keys to open a lock? I was in that situation today and it seemed like the last key was elusive. I tried and tried and tried… and then someone else managed to open the lock! It is hard to persist when all you feel is a sense of frustration. I know one of these keys will open the lock, but which one is it? Hopefully, we all will take turns feeling discouraged so that some of us will always hold the key to lift up others!

Sometimes, when I don’t have a solution for the issues that bug my team, and when problem-solving will not shift the boundaries we have to work within, I have to remind myself that perhaps my role is to simply be there for them. To listen, support and guide when possible and lift them up. To help them see that there are things we sometimes have to figure out on our own because someone else cannot move them or make them go away. If we stick with it and hang on, then eventually we’ll find a way to work within the boundaries that are immovable before figuring out a way to move the ones that are easier to shift. The tug-of-war between the concrete vs. drywall partitions in our lives!

A leader plays multiple roles – cheerleader, director, conductor, coach, chef, counselor, nurse, parental figure, stand-up-comedian… the list can go on. The foundation of these roles is clear today – doing what it takes to keep the team moving – encouraging, complimenting, guiding, coaching, listening, supporting – basically being there for them. Would a cape and wand be at the top of my wish list? Yes, absolutely! But, I know those items will always remain only on my list. I have to rely on other tools – and most of them are inside me. They all start with caring enough about my team to stick with them as we continue to march toward our goals, convinced that we will get there together!

Keep on going, and the chances are that you will stumble on something, perhaps when you are least expecting it. I never heard of anyone ever stumbling on something sitting down. ~~ Charles F. Kettering 

Giving up is not an option.  If we persist, today’s boundaries will become tomorrow’s home, and eventually we will begin to focus on some other new challenge because we would have figured out a way to work with what we have. I work in an urban school with incredible diversity and a host of what some would consider to be challenges. In the midst of this, I have seen teams of people move mountains to find ways to support children. I think sometimes they are so dedicated and focused on moving other people’s mountains that occasionally, when they see their own mountains the climb seems steeper. We all know what we want to do for others, but rarely do we place enough value on caring about ourselves.

If some of our obstacles wake us up to the notion of finding balance in our lives, well, then, this bump in the road might just be worthwhile!

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.

As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.

It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.

In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?

As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.

My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.

“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”

“I want you to be the best you can be!”

“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”

“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?” 

“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”

“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”

(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)

And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.” 

Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.

Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?

Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.

The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?

“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”

He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit.  I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.” 

And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.

Do You See What I See?

It’s fun to be around kids. They entertain us with their curiosity and irrepressible comments. They are so engaged in the world and their experiences. It would be difficult as an educator to avoid picturing them as adults. At school, we don’t just see little kids… we see future scientists, mathematicians, authors, police officers, fire-fighters, educators, musicians, artists, leaders of the world… and we can’t resist talking to them about these roles and how their skills and knowledge might lead them to interesting careers in the years ahead.

So, here I am, a school principal, working with people who have already selected their careers… people who I hope will remain in the field of education, and continue to influence and strengthen it. I can’t resist thinking about where they will be five or ten years down the road. My own career has taken so many twists and turns. I started out in fine arts and soon realized I wasn’t good enough at art to make a career of it. I then became a travel agent and in about three months switched to volunteering at a school for kids with disabilities. That led to several years as a special education teacher before I found my niche in assistive technology. Some years later I knew I wanted to make a greater difference and aspired to the role of an elementary principal. So much has changed for me in just over a couple of decades. Who knows what lies ahead! I’ve learned that careers do not have to be static.

I have also learned that the most important part of my job is to help teachers be the best they can be. I see strengths in my teachers and can’t help dreaming about the things they can aspire to. I talk to them about their role as teacher leaders. I ask about where they see themselves in five to ten years, and how I can help them get to their goals. Granted, if they take on some roles, they may move away from our school, however, they will have a bigger impact in the world of education as future principals, curriculum directors, workshop presenters and school leaders. Sadly, there are teachers who sometimes turn away from their dreams and new opportunities because they fear how their principals will react to their thoughts about moving out of their current situations. “What if I don’t get that job? How will my principal treat me knowing I wanted to leave?”

I hope my teachers know that I will not hold them back – they are free to dream and grow. I have talked to many of them about this. When they seek new opportunities, I want to support them. I try to link them up with resources, nudge them in conversations and provide them with experiences that will help should a new role materialize. If someone wants to become a principal in the future and has experience only in primary grades, I try to suggest that they teach in an intermediate grade to gain experiences that will help them in that role. If someone is interested in taking graduate courses, I love to talk to them about where they see themselves in the future and how the courses may have an impact on their goals. I share books and resources that might inspire them. I talk about qualities I see in them that will be an asset when they are ready to make the leap. I talk about their leadership skills to people at the helm of our organization – perhaps this will open some doors for them for leadership within our organization. I know that the years will pass quickly and when they get the itch to spread their wings, seeds of leadership would already have been planted in their minds. I am delighted when teachers with whom I have worked in the past call out of the blue saying they are considering a new opportunity, and ask my opinion about it. What a great experience it is to be trusted so, and indeed, to spend time talking with them about their dreams.

I was fortunate to be at the receiving end of such attention. Long before I aspired to a leadership role, my husband had taken a peek into my future. He would strike up conversations where he nudged me to consider looking past my role as a teacher, and consider becoming a school administrator. “Never!” I would say vehemently. “Are you kidding me? I couldn’t do that.” But, that didn’t stop him at all – look where I am today! He saw something in me long before I recognized it in myself. Some years later, taking the step towards being a school leader seemed like a natural thing to do. As Christopher Reeve said, “So many of our dreams seem impossible, then improbable, then inevitable.” I guess Superman knew what he was talking about!

But it doesn’t have to end there. We are sustained by those who still see something in us and dream about what we can do in the future. I am fortunate to have people in my family, school community and circle of friends who stand by me, share words of encouragement, offer wise counsel, give me pep talks, offer constructive criticism and reiterate their belief in me. They see something in me that I might fail to recognize sometimes, and through their voices I continue to learn and grow.

So, what do YOU see in the future of the people around you? Your colleagues? Your friends and family? Your kids? How do you nurture and encourage them? Undoubtedly, there is immeasurable joy in growing the leaders of tomorrow. The fun begins when they begin to see what we have seen all along!

“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” — David Gergen

“And when we think we lead, we are most led.” —Lord Byron

One of the hardest questions to answer is, “What is the most important aspect of my role?” It doesn’t matter what our professions might be – it is easier to create a list of things we believe our roles entail, rather than define what our most important charge is. A leadership role is complicated. There are multiple dimensions that cannot be ignored, stakeholders who are integral to the organization’s well-being, goals that need to be achieved, challenges that must be addressed and resolved, a vision that needs to be defined. Where does one begin? How do we identify one critical aspect that connects to all the others? I did not set out to ask myself this question, but my teachers led me to the answer.

As a special education teacher who supported students in different buildings, I had worked with multiple principals. I knew how they ran meetings but did not see the nuances of their work. As a result, when I became a principal, I quickly realized that there were things people needed of me that I was not even aware of. My head was full of ideas about leadership, but I needed to begin with the nuts and bolts. Somehow, the packing list for those was incomplete!

Having worked in this role at four schools by now, I have realized that what people want of a principal at one school may be completely different from what people want at another. I expect this is true in most organizations. Thankfully, a kindergarten teacher came to see me one day, and offered to let me know what people were used to, what they needed and when. This was a really big deal. Here was a teacher, who had the presence of mind to see that there was a problem, and the wisdom to speak to a newly hired principal and say euphemistically, what would bluntly have been something like, “Hey Subha, you’re messing up royally, and you’re not even aware of it!” She offered her help and I took it gratefully. Anybody in a new role knows that you can only ask questions about the things you know. How does one figure out what one needs to do if it’s not even on our radar? We wait for other leaders to step up to the plate! One of them had graciously led me to the first turn in  my journey as a school principal and pointed me in the right direction.

I am happy to be called a bookworm. I love to learn! A great deal of learning happens when we deal with challenges – good and bad – and my mind is restless when it comes to ideas. Some of my best learning has come from conversations where my colleagues (yes, my teachers are my colleagues) and I have wrestled with ideas, often looking at things through different lenses. Sometimes we’ve pushed and pulled and then revisited ideas, and each conversation has stretched us. I like to share resources with teachers and during our conversations I’ll often share a book I’ve read, point out a strategy or link one educator with another. It’s fun to reflect on what is happening around our school, share and see the ideas grow. Early in my leadership role, I had the privilege of working with a couple of teachers who were masterful at their craft. I watched them and learned something new every time I stepped into their classrooms. We often talked about education and I would mention authors and share books and articles that connected to what they were doing. They had strong opinions and so did I. Our conversations were sheltered by an umbrella of mutual respect. And then, at the end of our first year together, both of them came to me, independently of each other and said that in one year, they had grown more as teachers than they had in years before. They said they were better teachers as a result of our engagement, the resources I had shared and the support I had provided. I was embarrassed – never having been very good at being on the receiving end of a compliment. I felt I had done nothing special – in fact, they were the ones who had made my work very rewarding.

That summer, I reflected on their comments and realized that they had brought new meaning to my work. They had defined something I was already doing and given it tremendous importance. I realized that if I asked myself what the most important part of my work was, it would be to help teachers be the very best they could be. That, in itself, had the potential to influence just about everything that happened at our school. It would have a ripple effect on all the other things I did as a principal. Dr. Terrell used to say, “Take care of teachers, and they’ll take care of kids.” This was about taking care of their growth to strengthen our school.

I continue to be fascinated by where my teachers and other stakeholders at our school lead me. Through their eyes, their ideas and questions, my role continues to be influenced and defined. Staying open to their voices and creating a space for our engagement is something I strive to do deliberately. Reflecting on our conversations keeps my role exciting and fluid even though the beliefs that undergird my work are firm. Bringing out the best in others is not easy but it is a critical part of my role. It keeps me learning, and helps me constantly strive to be better than I am!

Byron was right. Here’s to many more years of learning, leading and being led!

Being in Sync with One’s Life

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” — Thomas Merton

Ah! This must be one of those BIG lessons I have to learn. Some time ago, seeing me surrounded by piles of work on a weekend, my husband asked, “When are you planning to catch up?” Great question! I’ve never given it a right or definite answer because it seems like I’ve been playing catch up for a long time. As a teacher, I cut out and organized materials in front of the TV. I don’t think I’m alone in this – does cutting yards of laminating film ring a bell for teachers? I typed up IEPs at home and worked long hours on weekends organizing paperwork. Whoever said that technology would lead to a paperless world was clueless… we seem to have more paper now than before! As a principal now, the paperwork remains, data is collected, reviewed and organized, there are evaluation reports to type and so much more. One continues to feel like the gerbil inside the wheel – you spin, and spin, and spin and are back in the same spot in no time at all. You get a lot done and there’s tons more to do. Does this sound familiar? In the fall, one thinks about things to fine-tune in the spring. Come spring and my brain is looking forward to the new school year. It’s exciting to plan for the things I want to accomplish. Have I caught up by now? That’s a million dollar question!

I’m starting to think that my focus should really be on attaining a sense of balance between the different things that are important to me – my family, my work, my hobbies and interests, taking time to read and learn, meet friends and travel to new places. It seems just right to put my family first on that list, but I’m not sure I’ve acted that way in recent years. Somehow all that needs to be accomplished at work seems to steal first place in life. But then Merton’s quote above makes me think that perhaps it’s not about what’s first or second on the list, but really about finding a place in my life for the things that are important to me so that they are not constantly bumping into each other. If I’d acted on this some years back, a nine year-old would not have spent time cooling his heels in my office after school while ‘mommy’ finished her work, or meeting, or…

I see young leaders starting out in new roles as principals – they have little kids at home often younger than nine – and I hope they are better than I was in this aspect. Merton’s idea of ‘intensity’ rings true – when one is ‘catching up’ then things of priority and ‘intensity’ at work or otherwise are the things that get one’s attention. It’s like not carving time for preventive dental appointments and rushing to the dentist when the pain hits! When one is particular about doing things at a high level of quality, as I am, things again take time. I find my job extremely exciting and energizing, and don’t want to take that away. But what I want (need) to do is carve out more time for things other than my job! Find balance between home, work and play!

So I’ve decided that my summer vacation resolution is not going to be about catching up! Somehow, the notion of ‘catching up’ suggests that I am behind what I want to accomplish. I am realizing that it’s really about doing things with the appropriate level of intensity they require. Life is about learning and growing – and that quest is sometimes uncomfortable – it requires us to look inside ourselves to see where we are and where we are going and whether we really should be getting ready to take a different fork from that straight road we’ve been traveling on. Figuring out what is important to me, charting a path and setting sail is my big goal for the years (yes, in plural) ahead. I’m sure the water will get choppy at times but I hope to keep moving to reach calmer waters.

This summer, I plan to read, dabble with clay and beads, listen to a lot of music, watch movies, have fun in general with my family, and spend some time thinking about the things that are important to me and what I plan to do to bring balance, order, rhythm and harmony between them. Finally, I’m getting comfortable with the notion of focusing on ME time! I’ll let you know if my husband ever ends up having to ask me that question again!

Onward Ho!

Be a Compass… Be an Anchor…

Eight years ago, I picked up the phone to hear a superintendent offer me my first job as a principal. I was absolutely elated! This was what I’d been waiting for. Within minutes after I put the phone down, I was hit with the realization of the responsibility that came with the job. What was I thinking? I would be responsible for close to three hundred kids, about fifty staff members. I would be connecting with all of them plus the families at the school, people in multiple departments including our central office, the community at large… what was I thinking? Was I ready?

And then I remembered the quote that had jumped out from one of the first leadership texts I’d read, “We are crew, not passengers.” The words of Kurt Hahn reminded me that I was not alone – I now had the opportunity to partner with a larger community. The excitement built up again. Something about making a difference in the lives of others allows me to bounce back time and again. This quote fits my vision of schools perfectly – we have a collective responsibility to influence the future, and the ‘we’ does not refer to educators alone. The ‘crew’ includes educators, families, students, and the community. Our voices have to come together to shape our vision of what schools can and should be.

These notions of bringing voices together, fostering dialogue, creating conversations and finding common ground are wonderful, but easier said than done! One more important thing to do that comes with no formula, right? (This is probably the biggest theme in this blog… hence the constant learning and growing!) I’ve stumbled and bumbled through this, but never given up on perfecting this goal of inviting more voices and perspectives to the table.

In my first year, I tried setting up ‘town meetings’ to invite members of the school community to come and build a collective vision. I asked them, if someone like Bill Gates said that we could have any amount of money to build our dream school, what would it look like? It was wonderful to listen to the hopes and dreams of people from different walks of life. I invited teachers to share their perspectives. The initial staff meetings were rather one-sided – my side was always present and most of the teachers were quiet participants. However, conversations with individuals or small groups of staff were different. People felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts in these settings. I remember with great joy, a staff meeting three months down the road when this changed and the teachers started asking questions and adding their ideas. I didn’t recognize it until I was reflecting on the meeting later – but we were definitely shifting gears. Over time, I learned to hold back on sharing my observations and instead started asking questions.

A couple of years ago, I handed out cards to parents at Back to School Night, inviting them to be a compass for our school and an anchor – to bring their voices to our school and always help us focus on our vision and goals for kids (our true north), and to partner with us to sustain a sense of stability over time. Parents are sometimes unsure of how school staff may receive their questions or concerns. I said they could always put the card down on the table and say, “Hey, you said I could share my thoughts.” The giraffe was a symbol from the IPLA (Indiana Principals’ Leadership Academy) where the cohort leaders encouraged us to stick our necks out and take a strong stance on issues as school leaders. I invited parents to stick their necks out and engage within our school community.

What I’ve learned is that setting an invitational tone is very important. Yet, patience is also an important ingredient. I used to think that because people spoke about wanting a voice in the process, they would jump up and take advantage of the opportunity to do so. However, it’s not that easy. When varied perspectives are invited, not everyone is comfortable. People may be unsure of how to navigate the waters. Some are not used to it, while others jump in readily. One can seek input, but it is really up to others to give it. Building trust and relationships helps in a huge way, but this may take time (less time with some people and a lot of time with others). In the meantime, it is important to find ways to make sure that while we seek input, we don’t set the stage to listen only to those who walk through our door. There are processes and structures we can put in place (more in future blogs) to involve greater numbers of people and perspectives and build collective momentum toward the things we need to accomplish.

The most important thing I learned has been that great ideas and beliefs do not always translate easily into application. Just because I believe in something does not mean that others will see that I believe in it and jump on board readily! This can be incredibly frustrating. However, what keeps the fire burning is the joy of learning and growing, stumbling and figuring out how to avoid falling the next time, thinking of an idea and then refining it over time… knowing that while the job is not simple, it is worth doing because the school community can be an important anchor and compass for all that we are and hope to accomplish.

“It’s not a better way, it’s a different way.” – Dr. Raymond Terrell

I remember standing outside Churchgate Station in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, waiting to meet a friend. It was 1986. I had just graduated from college and was beginning my training in special education. I was new to Bombay – a BIG city teeming with life. Perhaps being on my own for the first time made the city seem bigger, but maybe not! I stood opposite Churchgate, facing it and watching a sea of human beings cross the road. I don’t remember if there was a light for pedestrians – if there was one, it would have quickly become meaningless. A pair of police officers stood on either side of the road, creatively tackling the challenge of holding pedestrians back and allowing traffic to flow on the road. Every few minutes, they would drop a long rope they were holding up, and hundreds of people would cross the road. I watched, mesmerized by the repetitive pattern of their actions. At intervals they would blow a whistle and raise a long rope and pedestrians actually stopped on the sidewalk… filling it up until you couldn’t see the concrete any more (here’s a recent picture of the area outside Churchgate that I found on the web). There was no pushing or shoving. Just an orderly wave of people on their way to work in a busy city, stopping and surging forward as the rope dropped! At first I smiled, thinking how creative the cops were. They had found a different solution to dealing with traffic in an area congested with vehicles and people. Was there a better alternative? Who cared! This was working pretty well. I stood there and the minutes ticked by. There is nothing like watching hundreds of people walk by in the span of minutes to realize how insignificant one is in this vast world. The realization was unnerving at first. Until then, my world had revolved around me – the things Subha had done… the places Subha had visited… the people Subha knew… and then there was the sidewalk outside Churchgate reminding me that there was more to the world than I had imagined. I was looking at the world a little differently.

Such moments have crept up on me at intervals – moments when I realized something about myself and felt puzzled about the world we live in. Three years ago, working at a high poverty school in Indianapolis, I noticed that in the cafeteria there was hardly any wastage of food. Kids ate and drank everything that was on their trays. I soon learned that these were probably the only meals each day for some students. One incident stands out in my memory – a child writhing in pain in the nurse’s clinic a few minutes after school had started, clutching his stomach and crying unbearably. We called for his mother and she took him to a nearby hospital. We were surprised when he returned a short while later. The diagnosis – hunger pangs. I told my family this story at dinner time that night and all three of us cried. Sometime later, before a long weekend, as I attempted to calm a student who had been acting out, a wise teacher called me to the side and let me know that this child (and others) had difficulty coping with upcoming vacations. School provided a semblance of stability in their young lives filled with stresses I could not imagine. She asked the child if he would like to join her in her classroom to help her little kids and he quickly calmed down and left with her. Her kindness and thoughtfulness is an indelible memory, but I wondered how I was to ever understand the experiences of my students. I didn’t have a reference point. Poverty at this school was not something one could point to as kids walked down the hallways -unlike in India where poor kids often had no clothes, food, shelter, bathrooms or clean water to drink. My husband often says, “The worst that can happen to you and me is better than the best that can happen to 90% of the world.” This is one of my favorite quotes. I am glad that he shared this thought with me. He is someone with an admirable ability of looking at the world just a little differently while somehow always remaining objective. I haven’t mastered this like he has, but he has been around consistently and unconditionally, to keep me grounded! When I remember it, this quote shakes me out of the rut of wallowing in problems, and allows me to focus on important things. Would keeping my eyes open to the different ways of the world allow me to notice things that I must act to change?

How fortunate we are as educators, that we can attempt to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Dr. Michael Dantley, one of my professors at MU, guided our conversations about different types of leadership always pushing us to think about issues in a deeper way. He invited his wife, Carol Dantley, to our class one day to talk about her leadership at her school.  I will never forget her words: “Take what you have and make it what you need.” As school leaders we often juggle various needs tied to resources – people, money and things. It is so easy to think about all that we do not have, and if only we had it, what a difference we could make! It is so much harder to look at what we already have and think about using it differently to maximize our work. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is something I try to do. It allows me to deal with challenges at work positively and flexibly when resources are tight. I can sweat and whine about all that is out of my reach, or work with a creative team to do the most with what we have. I continue to learn to view the world differently and thank her for her concise and incredibly powerful message.

Dr. Raymond Terrell, an incredible educator and mentor always gave a big grin when our cohort of aspiring principals asked him how we could resolve issues. He simply repeated a refrain that we would have to figure it out ourselves by wrestling with ideas. At that time we were not happy with his response… we felt he was holding back. Today, I realize he was teaching us the most important thing we need to do as leaders – reflect and wrestle with ideas to get to the point where we can jump in and do what we believe is right and necessary. He often said, “It’s not a better way, it’s a different way.” And he’s right! If we knew something was the ‘better’ thing to do, none of us would shirk from doing it, would we? However, decisions don’t come with labels like ‘better way’ or ‘not a great thing to do’. So, we must have the courage to notice and name things that exist in our world, that may be different from what we know, understand, experience and believe. We also have to rise to the challenge of doing things differently if in doing so we are tackling something that needs reworking.

Leadership takes some guts, a lot of creativity and a willingness to open our eyes and see our world as it is, and all that it can be if we are willing to act! May we always have the strength and courage to look for ‘a different way’!