Professional Learning at Starbucks

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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 LoudStepper 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!

On Routine

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I’ve been feeling kind of out of balance this summer. Surprised by things in unusual ways. A bit out of sorts, not quite myself. And I think this morning, I figured out why.

It’s about lack of routine. In the middle of yoga class this morning, I realized that every single week this summer has brought with it something that changed the flow of my days in some way. (Even my yoga routine hasn’t been… routine.) The Data Fiend in me came home and made a timeline of the summer, and listed what changed each week. Starting early in June, each week something either in my personal or work life rerouted my thoughts, my plan, or my typical daily experiences. I know I’ve drunk coffee each morning, and I know I’ve spent time with someone I love every day (how blessed am I to be able to say that!), but otherwise, well, it’s all kind of been up for grabs. No worries, my family is healthy and safe! And in fact, many of those disruptions were purely positive, such as a beautiful California vacation with my husband, and a fun Galena weekend with my daughter. And without question, the more challenging disruptions are extremely manageable. Nonetheless, without a regular routine, I’ve just been a bit off my game. Educators talk a lot about how important it is for children to have predictability in their days, and it’s important for adults to know what to expect, too. (For more on why routine is important for adults, you may want to check out this article.)

In the middle of my little ups and downs this summer, small irritations and re-routes, something huge happened in my community when a fire ripped through a housing complex sitting in the middle of my school district. Although injuries were few and relatively minor, the fire displaced many families. All belongings and important documents of some families were burnt to ash. Children spent nights sleeping on cots in a church or school, and then using showers provided by the Red Cross. People are trying to rebuild lives. They are more than “out of balance” and “out of sorts”, they are starting over from scratch.

So, as I think about the disruptions in my own routine, I try to re-focus on those children and families, consider the fear they face daily. And as students walk through the doors of our schools in less than a month, I will remember that all children, whether their homes, clothes, toys, and special mementos all disappeared this summer, or whether they come to school each day from homes of great comfort, still lack control over so many of their circumstances. They all need the emotional safety that a predictable routine can offer them. They may not have it at home; we need to commit to giving it to them at school, to the best of our ability.

I found comfort in charting the changes of my summer, and in accepting that I have more transitions ahead in the coming weeks. Having let expectation of predictability go for the next month, I have committed to enjoying my summer for what it really is, and not what I expect it to be. That will need to be my balance for awhile.

It Turns Out that Falling In Was No Biggie

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I’m not exactly sure what made me feel that I must try surfing. This happens to me sometimes. I’ve never really been a “bucket list” type of person, but when I have it in my head that I need to try something new, either personally or professionally, well, then, I’m suddenly quite ready. I do my research about the challenge or change, and then I jump in.

Quite possibly, the surfing idea came as a result of completing my dissertation. While writing, I often thought about the Learn to Surf scene in the movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, as it felt as though my dissertation chair was much like the surf instructor, constantly telling me that I was doing it wrong, but not telling me how to do it. (Although she was not quite as sunny about it as Paul Rudd’s character… but that is a story for another day.) Anyway, surfing may have lodged itself into my head during the lengthy writing process, only to reveal itself as a full-blown itch this summer, now that writing is done and I have time for other endeavors.

It is noted that the above photo shows paddle boarding, not surfing. And if you are wondering which of those women is me, the answer is NONE. Are you kidding? But indeed I did paddle board yesterday, as that was part of my surfing research for my upcoming trip to the California coast. I figured that before I tried surfing, I should check to see if I could even stand up on some type of floating board. So off I went to Stand Up and Flow on Bangs Lake in Wauconda to take a “Basic Stand Up Paddle Boarding Lesson”. Never mind that I have lived 30 minutes from this lake for the past 19 years and didn’t know that it existed until last weekend… that is just shameful, and helped me to realize that I need to do a better job of checking out my 30 minute radius. But anyway.

So here’s how the whole thing turned out: First of all, there were a LOT of technical instructions given back on the beach. This made me very nervous, as I didn’t know if all of the information was really sinking in, and I headed into the water thinking, “Well, I really hope that this will be pretty intuitive.” In fact, it WAS, and soon my goal was less about standing, and more about not falling.  So, there I was, gliding along, feeling pretty good about myself. (“Look at me! I’m GREAT at this! So graceful! Not falling! I was MADE for paddle board!) And then, mid-Positive Image Moment, the motorboat came along and provided a bumpier wake, and BAM – I was in the water. And I had to get myself out of the water, back on the board, alone. Which I did, of course, hardly worse for the wear, and definitely wiser.

It turns out that falling in was no biggie, and in fact enhanced my experience. It cooled me off, brought me back to humility, and gave me a chance to prove to myself that I could pull myself back up on the board. Next up will be surfing in California, and then I intend to do Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga and a Night Paddle back at Bangs Lake later in the summer. And of course there are professional challenges ahead as well, as the new school year brings new programs and opportunities to grow. Because why not? Falling in is no big deal.

 

 

 

I See You, Spiderman Dad!

 

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It is Father’s Day, and I’m thinking about Spiderman Dad. I’m also thinking about my own dad, who taught me through his actions to always do what I believe is right, about my two wonderful fathers-in-law, and about my husband (more on him later). But right now I’m thinking a lot about Spiderman Dad.

I met Spiderman Dad at school drop-off one morning this past spring. In my school district, our central office administrators serve as back-ups when principals are absent, so I was at one of our elementary schools early one morning, wearing a safety vest and greeting students as they exited cars. There he was, a man in a Spiderman hoodie, cheerfully hustling his kids out of the car. We shared a smile, and I told him that I liked his sweatshirt. He grinned sheepishly and told me, “Yeah! I’m Spiderman before he got into shape!” and off he went to start his day.

Why did the moment stay with me? I think it was because I felt that I learned a few things about this guy in that short interaction. First, I had the chance to peek at the warmth shared between Dad and children. Surely, these kids’ day was going to go better because it started with some loving communication with their dad. How lucky he and his children are that they had this time together — as much as we’d like to, many of us can’t drive our kids to school, and instead find other ways to help our children start off with love from us. Of course, there is a lot I don’t know here… maybe he doesn’t usually drive them, but that day they missed the bus. If so, then his annoyance at the situation didn’t show, so bravo for him! Maybe the kids would rather be on the bus with their friends. I don’t think so, though — they seemed pretty comfortable to be arriving with a send-off from Dad. In any case, the warmth between them was very present.

Also, Dad is approaching life with a sense of humor, as indeed he was maybe not as “in shape” as Movie and Comics Spiderman. As we all know, that sense of humor goes far when getting through the day, week, and year with children!

And then there was this: Spiderman Dad appears to be willing to be Embarrassing Dad. Well, maybe not yet. Right now, the young school-age children are probably delighted that their dad wears a Spiderman hoodie. But give it a few years, and I guarantee that middle-schoolers will be shrinking in their seats and hoping to be dropped off half a block down. Yet, somehow I think that Spiderman Dad may still be wearing that hoodie during those adolescent years, either oblivious or purposeful about the temporary humiliation that he is bringing to his pre-teens. There is, as we all know, a long and rich history to Embarrassing Dad.

And this brings me to my husband, Larry, who brings grace and beauty to being Embarrassing Dad. Ever since my now young adult daughters were teenagers, the girls have been proud to connect their dad with their friends, and the friends adore him. He is not purposeful about being embarrassing, he just plain does not care. He appears to be completely un-self-conscious about dorky dancing and off-key singing and kindly lecturing and music sharing. Below is a picture taken today when Larry visited Sophie, our twenty year old (top left), in Boulder. She and her college roommates made him Father’s Day brunch after he suggested it — who gets away with such a bold move and everyone is happy? My fabulous Embarrassing Dad husband, that’s who!

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Back to Spiderman Dad, though. In truth, I don’t know him, not at all. If I saw him again without his hoodie, I probably wouldn’t even recognize him. And yet, I’ve built a positive story about him from just a few cues. And perhaps that’s my biggest take-away, a reminder about an idea that I discuss with newer teachers whenever I have the right moment: we have to assume that the parents in our schools are indeed doing their very best with their children. When we talk with them, even if we are not in agreement about something, we must remember that our parents are entrusting us with all that is most precious to them. We also have to remember that it is brash of us to believe that we always know what is right for a child. Yes, we bring research and experience to our opinions, but parents live in a whole other realm of knowledge about their children, because they are the PARENTS!

So anyway, yeah, I see you, Spiderman Dad. I hope you had a Happy’s Fathers Day! As far as I’m concerned, you’re crushing it.

 

What’s in Your JunePile?

It started when I was a teacher. Every year, every May, there would come a day when I would just start tossing things in a pile to deal with “later”. Later meant after the last smile was shared with a student, after the last grade was given, after Field Day. After the last day of school. I never knew when the day would come — just one afternoon I would realize that there were only a few weeks and lot left to do with my class, and I could only spend precious time on papers, projects, and tasks that would really mean something to my students. The rest would have to wait until school ended, in June. The JunePile.

It continued when I was a principal. I tried to keep an organized office, so the JunePile became a JuneBox which was stashed under my desk. And if something wasn’t important to others before the end of school, well, then, it wasn’t getting done until everybody went home.

Of course, now, most of my JunePile is electronic — more of a JuneList, if you will. And as an assistant superintendent, I have many projects that are best done in the quieter summer months, anyway. But nonetheless, the habit continues. I’ll get very stressed about how quickly the end of school is coming, and one day will breathe a little sigh of relief when I remember that there are SOME things on my list that don’t have to get done right away. And anything that won’t directly affect students, families, or staff gets put in the JunePile to be dealt with after the school bus pulls away for the last time.

The end of the school year is always such a rush, isn’t it? Educators are amused when folks who have not devoted their lives to school ask in May, “So, is school winding down?” Winding down? Winding DOWN? Hilarious! School does not wind down. We run like crazy to the edge of the cliff, and try very, very hard not to fall off of it. That’s it, and everyone who lives by the rhythm of school knows it.

But that last day of school WILL come, and then indeed it will be time for me to dig into my JunePile. This year I’m wondering, though, why am I even considering doing things that don’t have a direct impact on students, families, staff, or other administrators? So, perhaps my primary responsibility on my first day after school lets out should be to cull the pile, continuing my commitment to spend time on work that is important. Yes, there is filing that went undone this year, and I’d eventually be sorry if I couldn’t find something I need. Ok, I’ll crank the music up in my office and file. But I’ll hold myself accountable for ensuring that everything else enhances the work or life of someone, or supports my own learning and reflection.

Truth be told, writing this blogpost was indeed in my JunePile. It definitely did not have to get done prior to school ending! But then it was Memorial Day weekend, and I had some time, and was in the mood for reflecting. So I went for it.

Of course, summer is much, much more than a time to catch up with work. For me, it is also reading in a hammock and walking after dinner with my husband and exploring Chicago neighborhoods with my daughters and going to Botanic Gardens with my parents and eating on a patio with friends and completing the Summer Challenge at my yoga studio and if I’m lucky, some traveling. Many years ago, inspired by a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich (or perhaps Eric Zorn? — I cannot find the column, I’ve tried!), I was motivated to capture my summer memories by buying a pack of notecards, numbering and dating them, and every day of the summer writing down at least one summer activity that I enjoyed that day. I still have those cards in my nightstand, and occasionally use one for a bookmark, finding peace, adventure, or luxury in a summer memory. I just pulled one out; it reads, “7/3: Getaway to Wisconsin — Lazy Nap, Lovely Anniversary Dinner, Movie — Spiderman!”

And there you have it — those summer pleasures are what really belong in the JunePile. So, what’s in yours?