A Randomly Dropped Compliment Ripples Out

It’s been a year or two since I met Thomas at a Costco Wholesale warehouse in Indianapolis. He always had a cheery smile and would politely nod or greet customers walking by as he went about his duties – returning carts from the parking lot to the store, helping customers at the gas station… Each brief encounter left an impression. So, one day I spoke to him and complimented him on his positive spirit.

You see, wherever I go, I tend to notice people who stand out. Sometimes it’s people who seem irritable or look like they’ve had a rough day. At other times I notice individuals who look indifferent while going about their duties – no eye-contact, no smiles – just looking like they’re there just because they have to be there. My happiest ‘people-watching’ happens when individuals look like they’re enjoying what they do. They connect with colleagues and customers – smiling, making cheery comments, helping – caring in their own simple way about their work and the people they meet. Nothing flashy, but it shows! They just bring sunshine into that moment in which you meet them. Sometimes it’s the first impression you have of them. At other times, you see them more often because they work in an establishment you frequent and you start noticing the consistency in their attitude.

The last group is one that I love to acknowledge. Wouldn’t our days be brightened if we were just going about our routine and someone complimented us? A randomly dropped compliment just might ripple out from one stranger to another, and from there to more people, because happiness has a habit of spreading.

So, as I do sometimes, I complimented Thomas on being consistently cheerful and positive. I may have added that his positive spirit was just the kind of quality I looked for while hiring my team. I say ‘probably’ because that was several months ago, and it’s a compliment I’ve shared with many employees of stores and restaurants so it’s quite likely an honest version of what I might have said to him. I probably also mentioned that an employee like him would be an asset to Costco. Thomas graciously accepted my comments. Every now and then when I shopped at Costco, I’d run into him. We always exchanged friendly greetings.

Thomas was working at Costco’s gas station one day, and as I waited for the tank to fill up, I had a longer conversation with him. I learned that this young man had worked at Costco for a few years. He hoped to go to college some day. He wasn’t sure when it would happen, but it was something he was definitely aiming for. In the meantime, here he was at Costco, working diligently each day. I told Thomas that if he needed any guidance about college, my husband, a college professor, could help him. (It’s great to just volunteer my husband’s support without asking him – he truly loves mentoring students!) I learned this young man’s name that day – and I left after telling him how he could contact us.

I ran into him once in a while after that day. I’d ask him how he was doing. I’d mention college and inquire about how he was doing with that goal. Thomas always smiled enthusiastically and responded that he hoped it would be soon. It was still part of his life plan. The time would be right some day! I’d tell him not to forget that my husband could guide him if he wished. He would tell me a little about his work in the minute or two that we greeted each other and chatted. He was proud about how well he was doing promoting the Costco credit card. Once, he mentioned that his credit card table had been moved to a new location but he was still pretty confident that he would do a great job from that spot. Thomas’ smile was infectious, and his enthusiasm made me think Costco was lucky to have such an employee on their crew. Friendly, cheerful, positive and professional – I would gladly hire a Thomas-clone anytime!

This evening I saw Thomas again. I was at the cash register and he was talking to another Costco employee nearby. I waved hello and he asked if I would wait a moment. He wanted to talk to me. Thomas came over a couple of minutes later and I jokingly asked where his credit card table was stationed this time! He pointed to his red jacket and asked me to read what was on it. I thought he had a new name tag, but when I checked it was actually an embroidered word – ‘Supervisor’. Wow! That was fabulous! I said that just made my day! Very sweetly, he said he felt the same way!

With quiet excitement, Thomas explained that he was one of four employees selected to be a supervisor during the seasonal sales. I joked that I’ve lived in America only for about 25 years, but it’s been long enough to know that seasonal sales are a big deal here! Thomas laughed out, and then he looked more serious. When the seasonal sales were over, Costco would likely select two of the four new supervisors, to continue in that role.  He added that just as he had done before at the credit card table, he was determined to do his very best to earn the supervisor’s role for the long run.

I asked about his college plans! Thomas smiled again (I don’t think he ever stops smiling) and said he might have to delay that dream because of the new responsibilities. The supervisory role would take up a lot of his time, but he was thrilled with the pay raise that came with the new role. I asked if I could give him a little advice… put away a small part of his new salary as savings. “Pretend it doesn’t belong to you. It’s good to have something to fall back on if ‘life happens’ sometime in the future.”  I was so proud of him. This kid (I dye my hair grey these days) had just made my day! He was so proud of his accomplishment, and I was touched that he had shared it with me.

Yes, his name is really Thomas. I don’t want to mention his last name without checking with him. But, if you are at the Michigan Road Costco in Indianapolis and you see a cheerful young man in a red jacket with ‘Thomas’ on his name tag and an embroidered ‘Supervisor’ label, tell him you’ve heard about him! Costco is lucky to have an employee like Thomas – a team member who cares tremendously about doing his job, doing it well, and more importantly demonstrating positive qualities that help set the tone of an organization.

Do take the time to compliment someone who is going the extra mile – someone you know or a complete stranger. Show them you care by telling them what you noticed. You never know how a randomly dropped compliment will ripple out. Some day, if you’re lucky (as I was today), you’ll be standing far away from where the compliment was dropped and the ripples will reach you.

P.S. Thomas, I’m still smiling! So very proud of you!

The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

Learning & Leading

I changed the tag line of my blog today. It used to be… ‘Thoughts About Learning and Growing’. I had those words on the covers of binders, journals and notebooks. It feels like I started just yesterday as a principal, yet all the trials, challenges and successes make me realize that I’ve spent almost a decade as a school leader. Right from the start, I knew I would be learning and growing. I had trained for this role when, as a teacher, I felt my job was on auto-pilot. I was ready for new challenges.

“Leadership is a scary thing. That’s why few people want to stand up to the plate… There are many people who want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with 2,000 pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar” — Steve Farber

Oh! I know what that feels like! I said I wanted challenges and they came my way! There are all kinds of issues that crop up on a regular basis. A principal connects with a variety of stakeholders and each group has its own take on what is needed from the school. So the school leader is pulled in different directions while always having to maintain a steady focus on what is important (our goals), and remembering that all of these stakeholders are important to the school.

When I took this job, I had some things that were important – relationships, respect and responsibility, then after some years on the job I added rigor and resilience. These five R’s still ground my work. I’ve always loved a challenge. It gets me into problem-solving mode. Throw something tough at me and I’ll tackle it. Sometimes, it may feel like I have 2000 pounds of bull charging after me, but I always walk away, perhaps not unscathed, but each time having learned how to be a better matador!

“Leadership is a personal quest you undertake, based on mission that troubles your heart.” — Harriet Rubin

Yes, it was a personal quest – to advocate for children and educators. I enjoyed engaging with problems and finding solutions. I was directly involved in making the learning environment more effective. I partnered with my team to streamline our work. Reviewing, reflecting and revising what we did became second nature. At the same time I was starting to learn about leadership. I read books by people in the business world and happily enough, I learned that their work was in sync with my R’s. In addition to learning about curriculum and instruction, I was learning about how other people led their organizations, and their work influenced my role as a leader. I was learning and growing.

Today, the world of education is shifting and changing. I don’t have a problem with standards and accountability, however, now there are regulations that affect what educators do – it feels like we’re working inside a box. Merit pay is now part of our world and the relationships I worked hard to build over the years seem to be disintegrating. I have always seen myself as one among the team, and it feels like that’s changing. Now I am the evaluator whose hand is on the livelihood of the state’s employees! So much for shared leadership and connecting with my team, huh? I still believe in those things. They now see me differently. They see the role, not the person – I am the principal, not a colleague who can partner with them. There is less that I can do directly as a leader on a curricular and instructional level as well. My job is less about charting the course, and more about following the Trip Tik. I can determine the stops along the way but the path is set.

Well, not everything is wrong about this… in many cases, what is determined is good for students. Yet, what drew me to my work – my interest in engaging with challenges and finding solutions to address them – has morphed into something where the solutions are set by others. As someone reminded me, this is how many teachers feel across the country. No doubt, leaders of districts feel hemmed in as well, because what’s happening in the field of education affects them too.

There are days when this gets me down and I have to remind myself to keep my chin up! I wondered one day about the notion of learning and growing… how would growing help me in an arena where I have responsibility without much authority to do more than influence? What was my new challenge now and how could I tackle it?

“When we are doing something we’re passionate about, failure becomes a non-issue… Pursuit of a dream rarely leads to regrets… Too many of those with unrealized aspirations have set them aside due to fear of failure” — Farson and Keyes

It’s a long weekend, thanks to Presidents’ Day, and my thoughts kept me company as I puttered about the house doing the things I don’t get a chance to do on school days. Mulling over the lay of the land in education and seeing how I still fit in it was a helpful exercise. After the required whining (to self) about the things that bug me, I thought about what had not changed. I still love my job as a school principal. I still want to advocate for students and help them see the possibilities that lie ahead. I still love connecting with the people in my ‘school’ life. I still want to partner with my team to meet and exceed our goals. I still thrive on challenges and will always love learning.

I realized that to feel I can contribute in education I now have to redefine how I see my job. It’s no longer sufficient to think that building relationships will be a stepping stone towards partnering with my team in this arena of merit pay. I have to learn how to lead in a new atmosphere where educators feel like they are collectively under fire. It’s now about finding a way to ensure that the people at my school feel challenged to do their best every day and believe they’re getting a fair shake – I need to remember that time is an important variable in this. It’s about maintaining the R’s that ground my work and making them more transparent. It’s about realizing that when I feel boxed in, I have an even more important challenge – leading with my beliefs intact in an atmosphere where what I did before might not work. It’s about finding a way to solidify the trust I have earned over time, which now seems to be on shaky ground because of circumstances over which I have no control.

Therein lies the story of the change in the name of my blog. It now reads: From the Principal’s Pen… Thoughts About Learning and Leading. The learning still comes first. And leading… well it’s a fascinating challenge with new dimensions and I will continue to tackle it!

Giving Kids a Chance

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When I started out as a special education teacher, people often said things like, “That is such a noble thing to do.” “You must be such a patient person.” I loved my job. I was trained for it and gained expertise over time. Noble? I didn’t subscribe to that notion. And as far as being patient, I would respond that I was actually quite impatient when it came to wanting my students to learn and succeed!

Teaching is not an easy job. There is a lot that educators want to accomplish and many hurdles stand in the way of our students as they engage in learning experiences. There are hurdles that educators can control and others that they can influence. Still other hurdles persist stubbornly. There are times when we feel like we’re hitting our heads against the proverbial wall and other times when we would like to wave a magic wand and level the playing field for our students.

School reopened yesterday. I love the spring semester because it’s a time when my team works towards wrapping up the year on a successful note while also beginning to prepare for the next school year. At this point, we are gauging how our students have performed since the fall, and we make important decisions to channel their learning and get them ready for a strong finish. We’re halfway through our school year marathon!

My theme for this semester is going to be “Give the kids a chance!” It’s not about diluting the learning environment for kids… it’s about keeping the bar high but being more thoughtful about them as learners. Where did this come from? Well, I’ve been involved in learning something new over break and as a result, received an important, impromptu orientation to the challenges associated with the concept of ‘learning’.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A month ago, I told my husband that in my next life, I’d like to learn to play this wonderful instrument. In his inimitable style, he asked me what was wrong with this life! So, a couple of weeks ago, I ordered Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method and a few days after it arrived, I bought my very first guitar – a used guitar with a lovely sound. Now, I’m learning to figure out notes on the staff, and saying “ouch” as my fingers experience the joy of developing callouses on the guitar strings! Over the weekend, I found myself putting off practicing… I had remembered the pain from the last time I’d picked up the guitar! Thankfully, I recognized that this avoidance was a temporary phase. I chose to purchase the guitar because I wanted to play it, knowing well that it wouldn’t be easy. I also knew that I would persevere.

When I think of the kids who walk into our school every day, I wonder about their learning experiences. They may not literally develop callouses but they still experience challenges. I found myself wondering if, as adults, we are a little removed from the actual experience of learning. Yes, we continue to learn in many ways and now recognize the joys of small and big gains. But do we remember and understand the angst that often accompanies new learning? A sense of avoidance, feeling of monotony, struggle of repetitive practice, awareness of defeat, the effort to persevere, the challenge of seeing connections and figuring things out, impatience with small gains… all of this and more show up before learners experience success. I’ve forgotten how much easier it was for the younger Subha to understand and figure out geometry vs. chemistry, how writing was so much more enjoyable for me than math. There are things that we have an aptitude for and other things we can master if we sweat over them. Oh, how I hate sweating!

As educators, we know a lot about what works in education, but, do we remember the struggles learners experience along the way? Growing up in India, I learned music for about 15 years. I used to perform on stage and I was pretty good at it. Yet, western musical notations make me feel completely ignorant about music. So much for background knowledge, huh? Not exactly, because background knowledge becomes useful if we can find a way to connect it to the new concepts we are learning. So, I’m working on creating connections to bridge what I knew then with what I am learning now. I know it will work for me because now I know more about how I learn and what works for me in the learning process. It won’t be easy, but I know I will make progress.

As adults we all know how tough change is – changes in curriculum, changes in team members, changes in routine – they can all shake our world, cause high levels of stress and put us in a situation where we have to shift gears and learn. Adults often protest ‘change’. But isn’t change after all simply about learning? Learning to adapt in a situation that is new or different, learning to respond to new circumstances or ideas, learning to deal with the new dynamics within our teams. Change seems tough when we have to ‘change’ what we are used to doing. It requires us to learn something new or respond in a different way than we have in the past. Yet, interestingly enough, we don’t call it a ‘learning’ experience. We use the term ‘change’ as though it is an obstacle that we adults have to work through – something that is done to us.

However, when it comes to the world of our students, we don’t call what they experience ‘change’. We speak about ‘learning’ when they are part of the context, as though it is something natural that they should experience and be able to handle because we have taught them what they need to know. The truth is that it’s not so simple. Kids have to deal with ‘change’ in their learning environment – new subjects, new concepts, new friends, new teachers every year who introduce new routines, new contexts and experiences as well as new struggles that will hopefully translate into success.

Learning does not have to be a negative experience. It’s worth remembering that ‘growing pains’ affect kids well beyond the muscle pain associated with this term. ‘Giving the kids a chance’ is something that has new meaning for me right now. I want my team to continue to push our students to aim higher and excel. I also hope that we will be thoughtful and more purposeful about working to help children experience success more frequently, so that they see learning as more than just a collection of struggles and challenges to avoid. Learning is an incredibly rewarding experience, yet it is also pretty complicated given that students arrive at their learning experiences from different places.

As we move towards the outcomes we seek for the end of the year – students attaining and exceeding the goals we have set for them – it becomes important for us to pause and reflect on how learning experiences do not unfold smoothly and effortlessly for students despite our best efforts. Indeed, our aim does not have to be about making learning ‘easy’. It has to be about making learning meaningful. For me, that happens when educators remember that students experience learning in different ways, and often travel on tough and bumpy roads. Our role is to read their journey and help them keep moving in the right direction until their reach first one destination and then another.

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” — Plato

I hope that my team and I will keep this theme in mind as the high we’re feeling now with batteries recharged after a restful winter break slides into moments when we feel like the climb uphill is getting steeper – when we’re hitting our heads against the wall. It would be useful to pause and recognize what students experience as they engage with learning in our classrooms, and respond sensitively to their experiences before we judge them negatively (as unmotivated, apathetic, careless, inattentive and indifferent). I hope in those moments we will look inward and try to remember how we feel when we are learning something new that doesn’t come easily for us. Perhaps, a sense of empathy will allow us to give a new lease to the learning environment in our classrooms,  stretch our students and help them excel.

“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!

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants… Covey’s Influence on My Work

This post has been brewing in my mind for sometime now, but it brought me to the keyboard today as I look back on the influence Stephen Covey has had on my work as a school leader. Covey, author of  several books on leadership, passed away on July 16th, 2012. On the news today I heard several people mention his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, yet, I remember him for a different book.

I am not sure where I first heard his name but it was about a decade ago when I had just started my training to become a principal. I think I stumbled across a book authored by him as I wandered through the bookstore at Miami University in Ohio. While buying textbooks, I used to enjoy browsing the shelves to see what was on display for other courses. Often I left with used copies of titles which piqued my interest.  That is how I found a copy of Covey’s ‘Principle Centered Leadership’. It seemed to fall right into the realm of the overarching leadership themes and focus on vision that played through the educational leadership program. When we talked about ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘administration’ I was fascinated by the ideas I was learning, but it was Covey’s book which gave me a picture of how this notion of leadership within a community could play out. His book opened my eyes to new possibilities were I to have the privilege of leading a school.

I was fascinated. The world of business seemed to have more warmth and connections through Covey’s lens than I had realized. He emphasized building relationships and I was keen to consider his perspective within a school setting. Today, I spent a few minutes skimming through my portfolio, created at the end of my leadership program, and sure enough I had multiple references in my writing to what I had learned from his work – I had reiterated his idea of ‘Principle-Centered Leadership’ and his notion of life-long learning.

“If you don’t experience your life, you’re not going to come up with solutions for anything. Every intention, every achievement has come out of dissatisfaction, not serenity. No one ever said, “Things are perfect, let’s invent fire.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

There was a time when I used to shy away from conflict, but then I learned from him that it is in airing our disagreements and different perspectives that we can be stretched in our thinking. Covey emphasized that to move ahead, we have to deal with restraining forces before addressing the driving forces. He spoke of how just pressing down on the gas pedal will not allow us to move forward unless we take our feet off the brake. As a school leader, I see that change is always ’round the corner, and I also see that my crew members have different reactions to the changes we encounter. We will not be able to move forward unless we engage with each other about the things that hold us back from ‘implementing’ the change sincerely, or as we say these days in education, ‘with fidelity’. In my book, engaging is about about ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing to’. And that cannot happen without taking the time to build relationships.

In an era of accountability in education, another notion of Covey’s resonates for me. He said that proactive people would take responsibility for their choices without placing blame on external factors. That is something I have tried to emphasize with my team – a sense of taking responsibility for our charge, learning from our mistakes and moving forward. I started my career with my 3 R’s – and now I recognize that two of them, Relationships and Responsibility, quite likely grew out of my meanderings in Covey’s books . A vision can unfold more meaningfully when there is a collective sense of responsibility, and that cannot grow in a vacuum without relationships either.

I wonder if some might read my blog and think to themselves, “OK, Subha, this relationship building, warm and fuzzy stuff you speak of is well and good but what about raising student achievement? Isn’t that your bigger job?” If I heard that question, my response would be that both can co-exist, and actually need to co-exist. Using tough tactics to require the implementation of instructional ‘best practices’ without building relationships might allow us to see the ‘actions’ and ‘behaviors’ we want to see, but they will probably be inconsistently implemented and will likely not be sustainable over time. If people don’t believe in something and if they feel like it’s being ‘done to them’ they’re going to be in fight or flight mode for the most part.  On the flip side, if a school is all about being warm and fuzzy and building a sense of community without  focusing on rigorous and sound curricular practices, then yes, we will have a caring community but student achievement will not go off the charts upwards.

Strong relationships and rigor in instructional practices can help build successful educational organizations. It takes time for good practices to ‘stick’. People will be more willing to work at something if they understand the rationale for it, and if there is an atmosphere of trust and relationships to cushion their journey as new learning takes place. Covey has written a lot about building and regaining trust. Trust is something we cannot expect as leaders. It is something we have to earn. And trust cannot be fostered without relationships.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants – people who came before us, stumbled and reflected, then took the time to share their learning and influence others. We get to hear and read what they experienced and make sense of it all by adding our perspectives and experiences to the mix. Covey opened my eyes to the big things that one wrestles with over time. I have learned to reflect on and refine the ideas, see how things fit and where they fit in my life and work. I can question big ideas and make new meaning for myself. Covey is one among many who influenced what I do and in some sense he and others have made my work exciting – it is not in auto-pilot mode and I do wrestle daily with the issues that come my way because these giants have given me food for thought. They have taught me that there is no quick formula in my work… that I have to be willing to work hard, keep my compass steady and build connections because leadership is a ‘people’ business.

I remember listening to Covey narrating one of his audio books some years back and thinking that this was someone who was passionate about his work. In his voice, I could sense his excitement and his respect for the work we do. People are fortunate when they have the opportunity to work on something they love. He seemed to be some who thoroughly enjoyed his work and connecting with others even more. Covey’s ideas are beyond warm and fuzzy – they’re easy to accept and challenging to implement. I am grateful to have engaged with his ideas so far through the lens that he shared. I do believe that in the years ahead, many more leaders will continue to stand on his shoulders as they take responsibility for building relationships and a shared vision with their crew.

“Are You Wearing Your Seat Belt?” ~ Tips for New Principals

It was around this time nine years ago that I got my first job as an elementary school principal. After a few moments of excitement I wondered if I was ready for the task. Someone had enough faith in me that they were going to put me at the helm of a school with a few hundred kids and educators. I hoped I would do a great job! I’m now in my fourth school as a principal. I am beginning my fifth year in the same school. What a luxury that is! So much has happened on the journey I’ve taken in this role — things I was prepared for and others that caught me completely off guard.

Getting a new school year started is a lot of fun and yes, a lot of work too! As a novice principal, I had my rose-tinted glasses on. They allowed me to see things as they should be and keep me moving towards the utopian notion of education in my head. Figuratively speaking, my glasses are now a little dented and scratched but thankfully, the rosy tint remains and my enthusiasm has not waned! As I think about new school leaders getting ready to step into their big roles, my reflections lead me to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing lessons I have learned on my journey.

Know that your tone speaks louder than your words. You have the privilege of setting the tone for your school and your organization. You are like the mood to the mood ring of your stakeholders. Be positive and your tone will be mirrored back within your organization. Be negative and critical and watch that tone swirl around in your school. This should be your most important non-negotiable ingredient. Don’t go to work without it! Be thoughtful when you communicate verbally or in writing. Don’t say the tough stuff via e-mail – it is quick and certainly easy to hide behind an e-mail message but it will hurt your efforts to build relationships. Saying the tough stuff face-to-face is difficult, but if it is done honestly, respectfully and objectively, it will reflect the culture you value. Take time to think through what you want to say before you say it. And, don’t forget about the tone of your school. Is it invitational and welcoming? Do joy, humor and laughter ring through the building? How does your team respond to people who come with issues and concerns? Is there a happy and warm feeling in the school? Is the learning of children celebrated in hallway displays? When someone steps in, will they sense that kids are important in your school? Will they sense that kids will always be treated respectfully? Take the time to make this an important part of the culture of your school. It begins with you!

Keep your 3 R’s in your toolkit. These are more than reading, writing and arithmetic! I carried respect, relationships and responsibility with me to school and talked a lot about my 3 R’s. Accountability and high achievement are big buzz words in education and these R’s will help you take your school there. No one works hard when they are hit on the head and told to do things. People do what it takes when they know that their strengths are respected and their contributions acknowledged. Trust does not just arrive on a silver platter. It has to be earned. These R’s will help you translate your tone into action, establish trust and create a culture where people take responsibility for the success of students.

Build connections with your stakeholders. This is a huge group and they all need something from you. Their needs should be at the top of your ‘plate’ and your interactions with them will help strengthen your school. In a leadership role, it is easy to feel tugged and pulled from different directions. Take time to understand what’s on their minds and focus on building a shared vision. A leader’s vision might be profound but it is meaningless if it is not shared by others and communicated within the organization. For this to happen, you have to cultivate a culture when people know they can share what’s on their minds openly and honestly. And you can cultivate this with ‘consistency’ – consistency in the way you respond, regardless of what they have to say to you.

Be clear about what is non-negotiable. Safety and supervision in the classroom, on the playground, on the bus, on the sidewalks, in the parking lot, etc. are non-negotiable. What structures do you have to make them a priority? As a special education teacher I used to work with children who had spinal cord and head injuries from accidents. That put safety very high on my list of things to accomplish very early in my career. In every school that was one of the first things I tackled – I reviewed procedures and made sure we had adequate supervision. Yet I learned, sadly from experience, that despite our best efforts, as a wise colleague said, we’re all just one heartbeat away from our own accidents. Learn about what is in place, and involve your central office staff to resolve any red flag issues.

Reflect! Reflect! Reflect! Make it second nature! As I looked back on the posts I wrote over the past year, (wow, it’s a year since I started blogging) I realized that the tips shared here have been reflections that unfolded in my writing. The title of my blog includes the words ‘Thoughts About Learning & Leading’ – words I put on many a journal and binder cover. Learning and growing happens when we are stretched, when we deal with challenges and engage with problems – and you’ll get a lot of practice with these things on the job! I assure you, the growing pains will just make you a little stronger and figuratively taller after each bout! My reflections typically float around in my head, but sometimes I share them with colleagues and now some have spilled into this blog. Whether you think, write or talk about the things you experience as you wrestle with the choices and decisions you make everyday, the important thing is taking the time to reflect. Don’t see it as one more thing to do – start with whatever plays in your mind and take a few minutes to engage with your thoughts and ideas. You will find this incredibly valuable.

Don’t second guess yourself. In your job, you will go from one situation to the next, sometimes at breakneck speed. You will tackle issues, make decisions, listen, nurture and actively care about others. Leadership is about people, not things, and so emotions are involved – yours and those of others. It’s easy to take things personally. It’s also easy for me to tell you not to take things personally, yet struggle with this in my work. We have to grow a thick skin without falling into the trap of becoming jaded and cynical about the things we deal with. I am learning to draw my sunshine from those who share constructive criticism respectfully, support me and want to see me get better at what I do. I am learning to not struggle with what one of my friends calls ‘immovable barges’ while knowing that they are an important part of my work and I have to engage with them. A former superintendent, who was an incredible mentor, shared with me words of wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt. An excerpt from ‘The Man in the Arena’ now sits in front of my desk and helps me find my centering. Remember that you were hired for your strengths, and over time you will continue to gain strength. Keep your chin up!

Make learning a priority. Learn with others, learn for yourself. You are in an organization with a mission tied to learning. That mission should be embraced by adult learners as much as it is a goal for students. Engage in professional development with your team. Your most important role is to help your teachers be the best they can be. For that to happen, you have to stay tuned-in to what’s happening in the field of education. Take a few minutes every day or every week to read from a book, an article, a blog in the field. When you model this interest in learning, it will permeate into the culture of your organization.

Tap into the pulse of your school. There is a lot to accomplish in schools, yet, rushing things might end up slowing down the very change you want to see happen. Or if the change happens, it might not be sustainable. Oh, how I wish someone had given me this advice before I stepped into my office the first time! I tend to be flexible, am willing to try new things if they seem worthwhile and I welcome change. I soon met individuals who were not on the same wavelength with me. As I worked to put into place things that I thought ‘needed to happen’, people pushed back. I had a sense of urgency about the things we needed to accomplish for kids. Others didn’t read it the same way. Yogi Berra wisely said, “You can see a lot just by observing.” It is prudent to be an observer in the first few months as you engage with your stakeholders. Learn how they ‘read’ the organization, take time to gauge their interests and needs and generally tap into the pulse of your school before you make changes. When one steps into a new leadership role there is a lot of excitement and energy in the air. However, once the ‘work’ begins, suddenly the newness of the leader and the way she does things differently from her predecessor become a big deal. Whether or not people are happy with their bosses, there is comfort in familiar expectations – what I call going into ‘auto-pilot’ mode or knowing what is expected and how things will unfold. With a new leader, people are less sure of the expectations and they don’t know how you will respond or react. The way in which you do things is new for them (not just for 3 office staff but for all the teachers, support staff, students, families, etc.). They have an idea in their minds of how their school works, and because you can’t do things exactly like the person before you, you are bound to step into this landmine where they think you want to ‘change’ things. It is helpful to reach out and ask them to tell you what they need, and to cultivate connections and invite them to tell you what’s not working for them or what is difficult. There was a time when I might have looked at this as putting the brakes on but now I see that it is a critical step if I want the changes we make to be sustainable.

Be visible. It’s easy to spend most of your day putting out fires – dealing with discipline issues and other problems, meeting with people who want to see you right then and there. There are meetings to attend, phone calls to return, reports to complete, paperwork to be done, data to collect and analyze, evaluations to be scheduled and completed, professional development to be planned and so much more. As an instructional leader, staying engaged with kids and their learning means we have to make being in classrooms and engaging with kids and educators a priority. Carving out time to do this given all the other things tugging at us means we have to make this tug at us harder. It’s something I’ve improved over the years but it remains on my ‘things to improve next year’ list. The important thing is that you keep building from one year to the next.  And, remember that being visible to your community is also critical and it can be accomplished in many ways. I supervise car-rider drop off and pick-ups where a smile and wave to parents as they drive off has helped me build many relationships. I write a letter to families in our monthly newsletter, take part in school events,  share comments with parents about the things I’ve seen their kids do and sometimes meet families in their neighborhoods to connect with them. These opportunities have given me a big boost in getting to know a lot of parents at my school, several on a first name basis. I ask them to use my first name – it helps break the ice and hopefully ‘meeting with the principal’ then becomes a less intimidating experience for them. If they know you care, they will be more willing to partner with your school.

Find a mentor whether or not your organization assigns one to you. Ask this person to make the culture and routine of your organization more transparent to you. When you are new, you may not be aware of the ‘things’ that are traditionally a part of your school. And when you don’t know, it’s difficult to figure out what questions you should ask. Your mentor can alert you to things you should be doing at different points of time during the year. Also, enlist some teachers, parents and other support staff to put similar things that they see as relevant on your radar. Don’t assume this will happen automatically – seek it out. This is helpful for the school to run smoothly as you transition.

Take care of yourself. You have to recharge your batteries so that you can continue to give to your school community. I’ve struggled with finding balance between work and home. Each time I switched schools I had to start from scratch – building relationships, earning trust, learning and growing with my new school community. Sometimes it was easy and at other times tough. It’s so easy to become a workaholic. All the paperwork you didn’t get to during the day has to be done sometime… and that spills over when the school day ends. The emotional stuff floats about in your head and can be a drain on your energy. Then you come home and switch to the role of spouse or parent and navigate the responsibilities on that front. It’s easy to end up in a situation where you seem like you’re taking your family for granted as you get ‘caught up’ with your work. Carve out time for your family and time for your work. Take time for your hobbies, to exercise… even small chunks of time will calm your mind and help you feel better able to give more of yourself at home and at school. Know that this is not easy to do (no wonder lots of books on time management get written) but remember to make it a priority. Also remember that it is important for your staff as well and see what you can do to help them find balance.

Celebrate little and big moments. We all need to know that we’re making a difference. Find ways to compliment and celebrate children and staff, volunteers, people in different departments who support your school, etc. Say something meaningful, write a note, share lots of smiles and you’ll touch the lives of others. Do something for yourself too. Set up a treasure box and save notes, cards, e-mails, and other things that come your way when people acknowledge your work. When I’m feeling down I will sometimes open a box where I save these and reading them helps me bounce back.

And, my ‘seat belt’ for principals… it’s the beliefs that ground my work. We all know that wearing a seat belt is important and can save our lives. And yes, it is a law in many places but not everywhere. Either way, it seems like people choose whether to wear it. We can wear it for short trips or long ones; when the drive is slow and bumpy or when we’re traveling at high speeds down the highway. I often don’t even remember that it’s on while I’m driving – I just know that I will not move my car without clicking it on. The beliefs that undergird my work are similar to a seat belt – I take them with me to school everyday. They are there when I chart my course, when I interact with stakeholders, when I navigate myriad decisions everyday and especially when I am on rough roads. They are always in the back of my mind – the white noise of my work day. I do know that in crucial moments they will help me like my seat belt. They tighten up as I am navigating a sudden turn or when I have to slam down on my brakes. They help me think about what I might do differently the next time. I choose to wear my seat belt at all times – law or not. It is a useful habit. And yes, there are no laws governing the carrying of beliefs by leaders in any organization, yet, they can be our conscience and our ethical compass so it’s useful to be clear about our beliefs and hold them close.

It is an honor to be at the helm of a ship full of learners (kids and grown-ups). I hope you will love your job, work hard and learn a lot! I wish you the best of luck in your adventures ahead and hope you get to take the best turns at crossroads as you continue your journey. More importantly, I hope you stick with it and stay on for the ride! Stay engaged, enjoy what you do and always remember to wear your seat belt!