There are about thirty of us in this Starbucks in the Chicago neighborhood where I’m spending my afternoon, and it seems that we are all engaged in something important to us. Some of us are reading, many of us are studying or doing some type of homework. Some are writing, and some are deeply immersed in conversation. A mom snuggles the toddler on her lap while she reads the newspaper. One lady is gripping a highlighter and pouring though stacks of papers filled with text, and I feel certain that she is pulling themes for qualitative research, just as I was doing a few years ago when I was writing my dissertation. And I am sipping tea, grateful to be enjoying self-directed professional learning time for a few hours.
When do you find time for professional learning? I don’t mean when do you go to workshops or discuss and share at meetings or (for Illinois administrators) attend Administrator Academies? I mean when do you read/watch/write/talk/create/learn because doing so is meaningful to you as a learner and leader and teacher of others? I’ve tried all sorts of things… I’ve blocked out dedicated time on my calendar during the work day, but have usually not lasted past a week or so. I simply cannot ignore the ringing phone or knock on the door, and well, let’s just say that I’m still on the road to recovery when it comes to the whole Checking Your Email Thing. Bottom line: at work, work distracts me from work. Or I’ve decided that I’ll focus on professional learning while I have lunch, but then I don’t have lunch, or I meet during lunch, or I actually catch up with someone at lunch. For me, my best self-directed professional learning happens outside of the work day. It happens as I listen to an audio book or podcast in the car or on the treadmill (currently enjoying HBR’s podcast Women at Work). It happens when I read an article on Twitter while my husband drives. It happens when I dive into a book on leadership or learning on a weekend afternoon. (Recent good read: Daniel Pink’s When, which fed my nerdy interest in the topic of Time.)
Enter: The Starbucks in Lincoln Square.
My husband Larry has been taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music for years now, and I enjoy coming down here to Lincoln Square with him, pretending I’m cool enough to actually live out here. (I’m not. I don’t.) Last spring, I even took a class myself, enjoying thinking about teamwork while singing with a nice group of people. (Curious? I wrote about it… Work Team Lessons While Singing Doo Wop… Who Knew?) However, this autumn the electric guitar class that Larry wanted to take didn’t match up with any vocal classes, and so I’ve dedicated the time to my own professional learning.
Here I sit in Starbucks down the street from the Old Town School, sipping on my hot drink, reading, writing, maybe watching, and learning. There is one simple rule: I deny the urge to do any of the work that is specific to my job description as a school district administrator. I’m not answering email and I’m not completing a project that is staring at me from my Google Task List. I have been a working adult long enough to know that the email will never be to zero, and neither will the task list. So it is up to me to save myself! This is time that I use to develop myself as a learner, teacher, and leader so that I may be useful to others in ways that may not be described within that job description. I may be reading articles, possibly those shared by people I respect in my PLN, or retrieved elsewhere. (The newest issue of Ed Leadership showed up in my email box yesterday, and I’m itching to get to those articles on Social Emotional Learning. Also, our Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Learning just shared an article about listening with compassion in the classroom… looking forward to reading that today, too!) I might use the time for reflective writing. (Does this blog post count? Yes, I think so. I’m thinking about thinking. Very “meta”.) I may be reading a book. (Next week, I plan to dig into Rath’s Strength’s Based Leadership, lent to me by colleague and Learning Leader Alicia Duell!) I may be watching a Ted Talk; I may be digging into the Illinois State Board of Education website, reading about something that is coming down the pike. Sometimes, a muffin may be involved.
Today, I’m reflecting on how my professional learning has intersected with Starbucks. You see, back in the the late ’80s, I was a barista in one of the first Starbucks in Chicago. I was experiencing my first real job as a half-time teacher in Oak Park, IL, and making up the other half of my rent by pouring coffee. There were no Frappuccinos then, there was no Iced Peach Citrus White Tea Infusion Lemonade. There was coffee, there was espresso, there was cappuccino, there was tea. And there was this 23 year old newbie, steaming milk and thinking about how to teach my third graders how to read. I love that I’m sitting here, so many years later, enjoying this same space (well, a few neighborhoods away), still thinking about how children (and adults) learn, and where my place is in it all.
Why this blog post? In John Stepper’s Working Out Loud, Stepper explains that Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. Perhaps my Starbucks strategy might help someone carve out that time for professional learning. And perhaps some of you will share with me your own strategies for finding the time – I would love that! Stepper also guides people towards accountability through goal setting that is shared with others. In some ways, then, this blog post keeps me honest. If I’m writing about it today, I sure better still be doing it next week!
My colleague Catherine Joy is my model for professional learning. She always has a new book or article, and she fits learning in anywhere/anytime: she is known to watch a Ted Talk while getting ready for work in the morning. Now that is dedication! I’m still working on it all. Today, Larry told me it was time to sign up for the next set of guitar classes — did the time frame still work for me? Indeed it does. Hey, nice barista behind the counter, I’ll see you next week!