That We Know of… YET

Karen and I met in and supported each other through graduate school, each acting as guide, confidant, editor, and cheerleader for the other. When I think of driving back and forth to Urbana during a hot summer in the mid ’90s, trying to figure out how we would get all of the work done, I think of Karen. And then our lives went in separate directions, and we lost track of each other. All of this was before Facebook and Twitter and texts and it was flat-out easier to fall out of touch, and so we did. This was indeed a terrible loss for me, one I let happen.

Then recently, I had reason to reconnect with Karen: I have accepted a new position in the school district where she worked back when we were in graduate school, and letting her know this was the perfect reason to find her again. And then, just as I was getting ready to send a message to her, I learned that a teacher I know had been a student of Karen’s, just around the same time when the two of us were such close friends. The teacher told me with excitement that having Karen to guide her was one of the reasons that she chose to become an educator. Karen is strong, smart, and passionate about education and making a difference, and so is the teacher who was her student. Amazing – both women whom I admire and respect, connected so long ago. Yet another reason to reach out. And so I did.

Karen’s response to me was lovely, no surprise, and it included this, about her former student: She was a bright young woman, a great athlete, strong sense of empathy… I always saw in her a bit more than she was ready to hear. In one phrase, Karen had summed up the essence of what we should all be doing with our students: seeing what is possible, seeing the greatness that glimmers around the edges of our students’ poor choices and fears. Really, now, think back to your best teachers. Is that what they did for you? Probably, in some way, yes. Karen is currently the director of a regional Safe Schools program, serving young men and women who need something extra to be successful in a school setting. So, you know she is still seeing more in students than they are ready to hear.

This brings me to Ladybird, the beautiful Greta Gerwig film that I saw separately with each of my young adult daughters over the past year or so. This movie hooked me as a mom who raised teenage girls (What did I get right? What did I get wrong? HOW wrong?), and also caused me to think deeply about the messages of empowerment and positive risk-taking that we give (or, sadly, sometimes don’t give) to our young people. High school senior “Ladybird”, who renamed herself as she was becoming who she was becoming, is faced over and over again with adults who do not believe in her, or who are afraid to show that they believe in her. Her guidance counselor outright laughs at her college dreams. Adults fail Ladybird all of the time.

One of my favorite moments in the film occurs between Ladybird and her principal, a good-humored nun who actually does support her, who sees and celebrates Ladybird’s spirit and strength. “What I’d really like,” Ladybird says, “is to be on Math Olympiad.” The nun answers, with some kindness, “But math isn’t something that you’re terribly strong in.” And wait for it… Ladybird responds with, “That we know of YET.” (Want to see the scene? It is at the end of the trailer.) That phrase has stuck for me, and I keep trying to find ways to sneak it into encouraging conversations. It is a spark of hope. It is breaking through. It is believing that something else is possible. It is what we need to give to our students. For sure, it is what many of the adults in Ladybird’s life did not give to her — she had to give it to herself. It’s what Karen clearly gave/gives to her students.

Personal development for all people, at all ages, has been on my mind a lot lately. Stretching. People trying things out, doing things that they haven’t done before. And that’s where Honky Tonk Angels comes in. (What now?) If you happen to have read any of my other blog posts, you may already know that my husband has been taking guitar classes for many years, and that sometimes I hang out with him at the music school, or at a nearby coffee shop. And that last year I even took a vocal ensemble class while he was strumming away in another room. This winter, however, Larry cajoled me into taking a class WITH him — we are both signed up for an ensemble class called, you guessed it, Honky Tonk Angels, where we are, in essence, a band that practices (and eventually performs) a set of songs written by female country/western musicians. There are a few guitar players, a guy who plays fiddle and bass, and me, a “vocalist”. Look at that, I had to put it in quotation marks. Say it, a vocalist! But the thing is, unlike the rest of the group, I don’t really play an instrument. I played guitar in college, very, very badly. I can play piano, just a little. But secretly, for the past few years, I’ve craved the drums.

Now, just the vocalist part is already basically new for me. I have plenty of past singing experience, but it has all been more musical theater and choral singing. I have never actually FRONTED a band before. (Never mind that I’m paying for the pleasure of doing so – that’s just a side detail, right?) And then, today, I nudged myself even further out of my comfort zone. After harmonizing on one song in the background while someone else was singing lead, I thought, “Why not?” and quietly spoke up, “Could this song maybe use someone on the drum kit?” And it was YES. And I DID.

Here’s what I’ll say: Drumming isn’t something I’m terribly strong in. That we know of YET! Ladybird would be proud. And Karen would believe in me! I’ll have to tell her about it the next time I see her.

Reference Calls — Listen for the Truth (8 Tips)

I was a newer principal, and I had recently dismissed a pre-tenured teacher. She wasn’t terrible, just not good enough for my students. I had written her a reference letter, the kind you write for just this type of situation — strengths, as everyone has them, with lots of holes that I hoped other interviewing administrators would find. Then I took a call from a principal in a nearby district. We knew each other by association, but that’s all. He was eager to hire her, and this call was his final stop. I answered his questions, and thought, “I hope he listened carefully, and realized that I wasn’t really recommending her.”

Years later, this principal and I landed together in a new district. Early in our professional relationship, he told me, “You know, I had to let that teacher go after one year. I couldn’t believe you had recommended her to me – I was always so annoyed about that!” “What?” I said. “I didn’t recommend her! I was trying to tell you NOT to hire her!” It was a perfect example of what happens over and over again. He was listening only to confirm his decision to hire her, and I was being positive, and hoping he could read my mind.

I share this story often in my current role as Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. Administrators (and hiring executives in other organizations, I am sure) work diligently to find the very best person for their opening. They carefully comb through applications and resumes, conduct screening interviews, 1:1 interviews, and often team interviews. By the time they get to the reference checks — well, that’s what they are often doing — checking a box. This is the last step in the process of finding the Perfect Person. They are already sold on the candidate, and, if they brought in a team to interview, so is the team! Who wants bad news at this point? And so, like my principal friend from many years ago, they miss what a reference might be trying to convey in an oh-so-indirect way.

Hiring is one of our most important administrative tasks, particularly when hiring teachers and principals. This is the time when we really need to get it right, because getting it wrong can make for a very, very bad year. (And, depending on a whole bunch of variables, one mistake can be prolonged for much longer than a year.) So, how do we get it right? Here are a few tips:

phone-call-two-people

  1. Before starting to make those calls, promise yourself that you are open to hearing bad news. Honestly, that’s what is most important. In fact, when I interview with a team, I ALWAYS talk about how important reference calls are, and let team members know that sometimes we have to go another way after we’ve made those calls. Experienced interview teams know that the person who came to the interview is not always the person who “shows up” at work, even if it is the same person! When I remind my team of that, they are understanding if we end up going with our #2 choice, or even if we have to interview more candidates.
  2. Try to establish rapport with your reference at the start of the call. Yes, yes, everyone is busy, but find a way to connect with the reference as a person. It will be harder for your reference to evade your questions or straight out lie to you if he/she likes you on the phone — even a little bit!
  3. Do you have flexibility with your questions? If so, make sure to ask, “Would you re-hire this person?” Or, if you are speaking with a colleague, you may get useful information with, “Why do you think X would be interested in coming to a new school/district/organization?” And if the first answer you get seems bogus, find a way to dig a little.
  4. Even if you have to use a standard set of questions, surely you can ask follow-ups. When I sense that someone is choosing words very carefully, or is trying to brush past a question with a pat answer, I may ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” Often, they will.
  5. Pay attention to the reference’s tone of voice, and listen for the pauses. Your reference may be trying to figure out how to answer a question in a way that is semi-truthful without hurting the person’s chances for getting the job. This is the perfect place for those follow-up questions.
  6. What about those references who ask you to simply email them the questions, and they’ll email you the answers? Yes, they might just be really busy, but they MIGHT be trying to control the situation by carefully wording their answers. You can’t see pauses in an email, you can’t hear tone of voice, and asking follow-up questions is then even more time-consuming. I try very hard to get people to talk to me on the phone. When they won’t, I don’t necessarily decide that there is a problem with the candidate, but I don’t put much stock in that particular reference.
  7. Think carefully about who you are calling. For the most part, avoid calling your candidates’ colleagues, or only do so if you are also calling a supervisor or two. A teacher’s teammate is rarely going to tell you that his/her colleague had classroom management problems or didn’t communicate well with parents, and an¬†administrator’s lateral co-worker is unlikely to tell you that projects were not finished on time. I won’t hire anyone without speaking with his/her current supervisor, although certainly I will agree to make that call last, after I’m satisfied with the results of other calls. Also, you may be able to glean quite a lot of information from a supervisor from 2-3 years ago. Sometimes, the supervisor won’t remember much — but sometimes he/she will remember A LOT, and will be ready to talk when no longer in regular contact with the candidate.
  8. Finally, use your resources. The best reference call is with someone you know. Even if you don’t know any of your candidate’s references, someone else who is part of the hiring process might! If so, hand that call over to your colleague to get the most truthful information.

I still enjoy a friendship with that principal colleague who hired that marginal teacher. We still talk about this. We both learned. We are both still learning.