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

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.

“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – Gen. George S. Patton

A new school year is starting – well, it has already started at my school. We’re ending week three! What an exciting time it is – new opportunities, new ideas, new people all get to tangle together in another new beginning. It’s a time when leaders get to set the tone. An important aspect of that tone is welcoming different perspectives.

As we ‘tangle’ together, things can sometimes become messy. That’s not surprising. We have over 800 people in our school who spend more hours together during weekdays when they are awake than with their families. It would be naïve to think we’ll be sailing smoothly out of the harbor on most days. Conflicts are bound to arise and people will get miffed. Sometimes I want to just say, “People, get used to it… conflicts are OK.”

In a time when we worry so much about being politically correct at work, simply sharing a different opinion may feel like a challenge. If you think I am exaggerating, picture a meeting in your head. Someone says something and you realize that you have a different way of looking at the situation. In an atmosphere where people feel that everyone’s opinions must be validated, how are you going to air your difference of opinion? Is there a possibility that the person making the first comment might feel shut down when you present an opposing viewpoint? That others around the table might suddenly look uncomfortable? I do believe we have reached a point where airing disagreements is often seen as being disagreeable. And, if you’re in a leadership role while the person making the original comment is a member of your team, it may give the impression that the boss has spoken – so the employee must have said something wrong and now gears must shift. Ouch! How do you set the tone?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” 

–Aristotle, Greek philosopher

If professionals would consistently consider ideas, weigh them, reflect objectively and thoughtfully, then form opinions and make decisions there would be room to play with different ideas. It is not practical or honest sometimes to validate everything that is said. On the other hand, we are stretched when we consider perspectives different from our own and ultimately the organization benefits. So how do we foster a culture that honors this level of engagement?

As someone who has tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and… succeeded a little, I can share that it’s an idea worth believing in, yet is also one that is tough to put into practice. It’s what I’ve wanted for the past decade as a principal, yet the road has been bumpy and messy. It sounded like a good idea (after all who would ever disagree if I said all voices were welcome and valued) and I hoped it would work. I was wrong – it was not a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of scenario.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Relationships are important. We have the power to influence each other with what we say, when we are thoughtful about how we say it. However, even this is insufficient in itself. If our team members have relationships that foster trust and a collaborative spirit, this push and pull of influence will stretch perspectives in a healthy way. When conflicts are aired without the ties of relationships then there is no foundation upon which we can test the strength of ideas. A push and pull of ideas can potentially weaken the cohesiveness of a group. So, yes, having talented people is important but fostering relationships is critical to allow differing perspectives to stretch our thinking without hurting teams or our organizations.

Building trust is not easy, but it is a great first step. Sometimes we rush into things – projects, plans, activities – without stopping to see if we have strong ties to the people partnering with us. These ties come only when we trust each other. The knowledge that we can air our thoughts and do our work believing that the people around us are there for us, come rain or shine, is something that is fostered in an atmosphere of trust. Leaders have the opportunity to nurture this by giving trust to those who are on their team and modeling what they want to see in their team members. In other words, when the going gets tough, people want to know if the leader will be standing beside them. This step cannot be rushed. It takes time to earn the trust of others. And consistency in one’s tone helps to nurture it. When we are inconsistent in how we react to others on our team, we get ensnared in the game of moving one step forward and two steps back.

Encouraging and inviting voices is essential. However, just because you put out the invitation it doesn’t mean that voices will be shared. It will take time. When people realize that they will not be shut out because they have something different to say, they will be more likely to speak up. Initially it might only be a couple of people and then some more might join in. Do I feel confident that everyone on my team speaks up? No! But, do I believe that a good chunk of my team members air their opinions? Yes! It’s taken time, and it’s still not without bumpy potholes, but for the most part we try to work things out. We might miff each other at intervals, but we are typically able to straighten out such situations. I have to admit that for an impatient person like me, this is tough because I believe in the idea and I want it to happen ‘yesterday’ but it does take a long time. It is worthwhile, though, because it builds a culture that can be sustained even when you hit rough spots. When we are in the middle of one of those ‘spots’ – the kind where we might be in the middle of change with people feeling stressed out – things might seem frustrating or overwhelming. Yet, I feel we can work through these challenges if we share our thoughts with each other. It’s better for me to know than not know. Whether or not I can help them, I can at least try to understand what they’re dealing with. With more awareness, we can problem-solve together or for each other. Just as families hit rough patches and struggle to stay afloat, our teams (our families at work) have to face similar challenges and find a way to stick together to make things work. Hiding our thoughts from each other is not healthy!

Put issues on the table – air them out. One of my primary reasons for maintaining a consistent level of response to issues at work is because I need my team to alert me to issues (problems, mistakes) without hesitation. If they think I will bite (not literally, of course), they will likely hold back. If I am not aware of issues, I cannot lead my organization effectively. So I speak quite openly of my stance on how I will treat them (it’s written in stone for me). Every situation that is potentially negative (with a student, staff member, parent or visitor) is an opportunity for me to demonstrate whether or not my response pattern is really written in stone. Over time, as members of my team recognize that this is an important belief and that I will stick to it unconditionally, they become more willing to speak their minds. The more they do it with me, the more they may start doing it with each other. In my role, I need to know where the chips lie. It’s better for our organization if I know what’s really on their minds. It may not be pretty and I may not like it, but it’s a reality that my crew and I will need to engage with. If a storm is heading our way and we don’t have a way around it, we have to find a way through it. At my school, I wouldn’t say we have a perfect situation but we’ve made great gains. We’re in a good place now, and it took us a while to get here.

“A mind stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

In this case, I’m not sure that the word ‘never’ holds true. People who learn to value the sharing of multiple viewpoints and work through conflicts may turn tail if trust is broken, or if beliefs and actions are not in sync. This leadership business is a little like walking on eggshells or sometimes in a minefield. You make quick decisions numerous times a day on big and little issues, yet you must always be able to instinctively reflect on the ramifications of your actions. You may need to live with the consequences for a long time. So is this a ‘make people happy’ bandwagon? I doubt it. I learned a long time ago that my wanting people to be happy would not translate into their being happy! But, I do hope this is a bandwagon about engaging with people honestly.

Picture members of a team standing on different stripes of a beach ball (the departments of an organization). When they speak up honestly about what is happening on their stripe of the beach ball, they share with us perspectives from their slice of the organization. When I speak up about what is on my mind, I give them insights from my stripe of the beach ball. If we don’t do this, I might never know what’s happening on their blue stripe which is on the other side of the ball because I’m stuck on the red stripe and can only see part of the beach ball. I’m learning to share more about the view from my stripe too. I’ve shared this analogy with my team, and when things get tough, I remind them to let me know about what’s happening on their stripe.

If there is an inherent belief in an idea shared that goes against the grain of what the organization values, how should we challenge it? In public – to all? In private – with an individual or group? It depends on the circumstance and a leader may need to figure out when either or both are appropriate. However, if it is something that affects our core principles and requires us to take a stance, then it’s important to just step out and say what we believe. People need to know where someone in a leadership role stands on important issues. Setting the tone is not synonymous with creating ‘warm and fuzzy’ feelings. It’s about reflecting on the vision and mission and taking a stance on what is important to the organization. It is always better to be clear and transparent with the tough yet important statements and not create a fuzzy guessing game about what the leader thinks. These might be the moments when the leader is the one who is not ‘thinking alike’ but wants to reset the compass for the organization. How the leader communicates this will make a big difference as to whether the stance will influence people or not.

While we may not be able to resolve issues fully, leaders must work purposefully to create an environment where people are encouraged to share their thinking without being afraid of conflict, or getting mired in it. Organizations cannot be stretched if everybody is thinking alike. People cannot grow if organizations don’t invite honest and open communication. On the flip side, we do need to challenge opinions and perspectives when necessary, and do this with honesty. A leader always has the power to step out and speak his/her mind. The true test is whether others in the organization have the same opportunity.

Undoubtedly, a leader can foster a culture where thinking differently is valued or simply shut down. The former takes time, effort and tons of patience. An organization builder will value that and work towards it.

“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!

Lessons Learned From the Melting Pot

Last week, after over two decades of living, working and paying taxes in the United States on Student Visas, with Work Permits and then Green Cards (Permanent Resident cards which are actually pink), my husband and I became citizens. It was an interesting experience and one that made some simple things stand out in importance. If you’re wondering what ‘thoughts about learning and growing’ emerged from this event, do read on!

We sent our application for citizenship in January and in subsequent months went through biometric scanning (digital fingerprinting), a test of our knowledge of US history, civics and geography, a simple reading and writing test, and an interview. The Homeland Security officer interviewing me said that I was her ‘first principal’! Apparently she had interviewed other educators applying for citizenship but none in my professional role. She was pleasant and friendly as were the others who took us through all the steps of the process. In April we would have our swearing-in ceremony – and I pictured a formal bureaucratic ceremony that would unfold in a courthouse in Indianapolis.

One morning in April, during our morning ‘Bulldog Broadcast’ (our closed-circuit TV message) I told my students that I was going to become a citizen of the US. I said I was looking forward to sharing information about all the things I had to do to earn this privilege and as I spoke that day, the upcoming event seemed more real. And then, last Thursday, while my husband and I sat at the courthouse with 69 others who would be changing their status from ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ to ‘Citizen’, the monthly convocation unfolded at my school. Our wonderful art teacher announced to the 800 plus kids and grown-ups gathered in our gymnasium and cafeteria that in a few minutes, as they said the Pledge of Allegiance, with which we begin our school ceremonies, in another corner of Indianapolis, their principal would be taking an oath of citizenship and then saying the same Pledge.

I made it back to school late that morning and entered through a side door, carrying my books, bags and a little US flag. The first child I saw called out, “Welcome to America!” She was followed by several others throughout the day, and still more during dismissal wishing me the same in a chorus, sporting big smiles, as they filed out of school heading for their buses and cars. They seemed to have given it the kind of status reserved for special days like birthdays! I think I was grinning non-stop that day. It was delightful and I was receiving an incredible welcome! And today, several days later, the greetings are still coming my way. “Welcome to America, Ms. Balagopal!” “Welcome to your new home!” “We hope you like it here!” As I put it, even if I waited 23 years to be welcomed to the US, it was worth it! And all the good wishes from the grown-ups too – friends and family – have turned a simple change of status into a time when one realizes how much others care.

The event has played in my mind a lot of times since last week. What I had assumed would be a solemn, formal event had been anything but that. Yes, we did put our purses, belts and folders through a metal detector at the courthouse, and of course, my ear-rings set off some bells as I walked through the scanner! But the security staff were pleasant and cheerful as they directed us to the courtroom assigned for the function. We stood in a long hallway for a while as another security person walked from one person to another greeting us cheerfully, checking our paperwork and inviting guests to enter the courtroom without having to wait in the line. She was kidding around with people and answering all our questions. In a cheery voice, she even let us know that we would be able to step out for a few minutes before the ceremony started to ‘feed’ the parking meters!

The courtroom was large, and beautifully elegant, and everything started on time. After the formalities that took place as the judge entered, the rest of the ceremony was touching, sometimes a little emotional and often delightful. As they called out the names of the 71 new citizens-to-be, each of us stood up and named our country of origin. I was amazed that in a corner of the mid-west that is not usually known for its diversity, the courtroom now housed people from an incredible array of countries. My husband quickly wrote down most of the names of the countries on the back of an envelope holding our citizenship packet. You can see them in the Wordle image at the top of this post – the larger names represent multiple people from the same country. We did miss a few countries we couldn’t hear clearly enough, but, this was a memorable and touching part of a ceremony that accorded tremendous respect to the backgrounds of the people in the room.

The judge presiding over the ceremony was delightful. He regaled us with his sense of humor and anecdotes. As he spoke of valuing diversity in this land of immigrants, his invitational and welcoming tone was very apparent. He quipped that every time Andrew Luck made a touchdown in the future, we should remember that we became citizens on the day that the Indianapolis Colts had drafted him! The swearing-in ceremony was moving. There was a feeling of leaving one thing for another – both things one loves – not unlike the notion in the Indian context, of a bride leaving her family to begin a new life. At that moment I remembered what my brother-in-law had said to my parents at my wedding. He had asked them to look at it as not about ‘losing their daughter’ but ‘gaining a son’. While I feel privileged to now be a citizen in a place I’ve called my home for half of my life, I know my love for the land where I was born will still be a part of me. As my assistant principal later said, “We’ve adopted you, Subha!”

Representatives of the two senators and a local congressman gave brief speeches to welcome us to our new roles and encouraged us to actively participate and exercise our duties and responsibilities. The Daughters of the American Revolution gave us small flags, and we left the courtroom with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States as well as our new citizenship certificate, passport forms, and other documents we needed. Right outside were people waiting to give us the opportunity to complete voter registration paperwork. It was all very thoughtfully organized and a lot was accomplished in a short amount of time.

As I shared this experience with friends and family, one friend wrote back and said: “At my swearing-in, the judge said… ‘Even if the lady next door isn’t as welcoming as the Statue of Liberty, this process is built on welcoming each of you to your new home country. As this becomes your new country, remember your old home country with love, and remember to make this new home a better place. My grandfather came here as a construction worker, and here I am a federal judge. This is what this country is about.’ I was pretty psyched. I hope your swearing-in was special too.”

I read her words and knew that this blog post would ensue! I was impressed with the emphasis given to the simple notion of being welcoming and invitational during this process. Hearing about my friend’s experience from a different corner of the US led me to believe that perhaps this was not just about the mid-western, Indiana hospitality I love. It seemed like a welcoming tone was being set deliberately. I would not have been disappointed or surprised had I attended a formal, bare-bones ceremony, but the sweet, sometimes funny event I had experienced made me feel like this was about more than a ‘change of status’. As I think back, this tone was present even when I was being fingerprinted and interviewed! The respect given to where each of us came from was especially touching and gives me hope that the diversity of the people in this land we call a ‘melting pot’ will always be celebrated.

In our schools, and indeed, in any organization, each one of us has the power to make the simplest moments special and engaging. We have the power to be invitational and welcoming. Yes, we can be formal and serious and make things seem weighty and important, or cloud interactions with grumpy and brusque undertones and even sarcasm or irritation. But, where’s the joy in that? Who wants to work in a formal, serious, grumpy, weighty place? It would be so much more fun to step into the sunshine and warmth of a happy and caring organization, where people build relationships with colleagues and customers (our families and community). And the formula is not complex – the ingredients are simple: lots of smiles and good cheer, thoughtfulness in the smallest of actions focused on making things easy and less complicated for others, a willingness to make simple things more special, and a good dose of care, humor and joy. Whether it’s a teacher in a classroom seeking to engage students, office staff addressing the questions and needs of visitors, or school leaders serving a diverse group of stakeholders, each one of us has the power to make the little moments count. We often spend a lot of time and energy on the BIG things we need to accomplish that take hours of our attention, forgetting sometimes that it is in the small moments that we truly forge the relationships that strengthen and sustain our organizations.

I’ve always believed in the importance of the tone we set. If people sitting in governmental agencies, charged with poring over pages of documents to approve requests for citizenship can make the process unfold in such a thoughtful and special way, I do believe it shouldn’t be tough for us to do the same consistently in our schools (or any other organization). Our kids deserve nothing less!