Are You Really Open?

Thinking aloud here…

Throughout my career I’ve heard many professionals define themselves as lifelong learners and make reference to the fact that they don’t have all of the answers. Now, I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks, however, I wonder sometimes how many of us are actually open to being wrong…I mean really wrong…so wrong that you’re willing to change your mind about something you’ve made definitive remarks about perviously.

Now I get that your definitive positions are research-based, however, those that hold the opposite view likely have research to support their position as well. Okay, now what? Does research actually drive our positions/opinions or do our positions/opinions lead us to giving greater credence to the research that supports our perspective? In other words, if a series of studies points to a particular practice (one which we philosophically disagree with) as being the most favorable course of action, are we truly open & willing to be swayed or will we begin to dismiss the validity of the results or question the character/hidden agenda of the researchers themselves?

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t have all of the answers” but it’s quite another to say, “I was wrong.” No one wants to be wrong, but it would seem that the more definitive we are about a position the less likely we are to admit that maybe we got it wrong, even partially wrong. When was the last time you changed your mind about an issue? I know in this era of instant-response-140-character-definitive-provocative-followers-retweets culture it is hard to admit we were wrong as it might threaten our credibility if we’ve made a definitive statement in the past only to change our minds at a later date. In politics it’s labelled a flip-flop, which is a term I’ve come to loathe. Changing our minds as a result of new information should be seen as being mature and thoughtful, rather than being wishy-washy.

If you have ever thought/said, “I’m not always right about everything” then reflect on when exactly you were wrong and changed your mind? If we say we’re not always right – but act as if we are – then others will quickly recognize our false humility and insincerity.

Being truly open means setting aside our biases and considering new information, research, or practices with a fresh perspective………………..or not………………..after-all, I could be wrong.

…just thinking aloud.

Inspired by Anna

This is Anna.  My family and I met Anna during our 10 day trip to Vietnam this past August.  We were in Vietnam as part of a working vacation.  I had conducted a 2-day workshop for the East Asia Regional Council of Schools (EARCOS) and also worked specifically with the Saigon South International School.  After four days in Ho Chi Minh City we flew up to the resort town of Hoi An to fully immerse ourselves in the vacation part of this trip…it was in Hoi An where we met Anna.

Anna lives at the Hoi An Orphanage.  We had decided long before our departure that we were going to visit this orphanage as part of our trip.  We brought an oversized duffel bag full of clothing, toys, and other needed items to donate to the children. Many (but not all) of the children at the orphanage have special needs; others are even bed-ridden with permanent illnesses that, for some, stemmed from the residuals of Agent Orange.  Visiting an orphanage like this is a humbling experience for anyone, but we felt it was important for our kids (14 & 11) to see how these children lived and, obviously, to gain some perspective and appreciation for the life we enjoy in Canada.  What was clear to us the minute we walked into the orphanage was there was an abundance of love surrounding these children by a staff that was so caring and dedicated to making the children’s lives as comfortable as possible.  We did not know we would meet someone like Anna and I didn’t know she would become my role model and inspiration to become the best version of ‘me’ I could be.

What I learned most from Anna is that happiness is a choice; that no matter what our circumstance, we have a fundamental choice each day whether to be happy or not.  If anyone had an excuse to be sad or withdrawn it was Anna.  While it may be true that her age and naivety keeps her from fully understanding her circumstance, I can tell you that there was something special about this young girl…she was unlike any of the other children. There is a spirit within Anna that is unmistakable and an energy that was infectious.  You knew when she was in the room; at times it felt like she was running the place! Being around Anna made you smile, even if she was interacting with other adults or children.  You wanted to be around her, talk to her, play with her – she was a magnet…she was happy!

I want to live in the moment like Anna.  I want to continue to choose to be happy & positive no matter what life brings my way.  I want to choose to be grateful for what my life is.  That doesn’t mean I/we don’t have goals and shouldn’t strive for more (whatever more means to you).  It means that while we are striving and learning and growing we should be grateful for what we have, are, or do now.  Happiness is a mindset that will never be fully realized by the next promotion, raise, relationship, or circumstance. There is always more – more money, better vehicles, nicer homes, a new job – but the happiness that comes of these things is only temporary.  Remember how happy you were when you finally got your first permanent teaching contract or full-time job? At the time you may have even thought “If I could only get a permanent contract then I’d be happy.”  Are you still that happy or has the target moved?

When happiness comes from within I think we see the world differently.  It’s not as though we aren’t going to experience difficulties, set-backs and/or losses – we all will.  However, our chosen happiness will allow us to make the best of any circumstance.  We get out of life what we are since life is always about our perspective.  If we are continually feeling unhappy and negative then that will be our experience since you can always find something ‘wrong’ with just about anything.  Choose to be happy, positive, and inspired on the inside first and the world will change its color; it will become exactly what you want it to become because that’s how you see it.

Thank-you Anna for being my inspiration and for reminding me that happiness is a decision, not an outcome.

Kickin’ it Old School

This post is being written from the Portland International Airport as I await my flight back to Penticton via Vancouver.  I am returning after spending three days at the Pearson ATI Summer Conference.  Even though the traditional so-called “Conference” seems a bit old school in the twitter/PLN world, I have a confession to make…I still like them.

There is just something about meeting people face-to-face, finding out where they are from, what their story is, and where along their journey (in this case assessment journey) they are.  I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the United States and Canada and doubt that I could have engaged in the depth of conversation I was able to experience in 140 characters.  The interactions during the sessions and the social interaction in-between all created a positive energy that permeated the meeting rooms for three days.  As people left the conference they were excited, motivated, focused, and renewed to go home, create a new or improved assessment plan for their classroom, school, or district.

I loved Edcamp Vancouver back in April and have really come to value all of the #chats on twitter.  I think that kind of professional learning is long overdue and has increased the on-goingness of professional learning once left to the sporadic events.  At their worst, traditional conferences are a complete waste of money, but at their best, they create a synergy unrivaled by any other experience.

My hope is that we don’t swing the pendulum so far in the other direction that conferences disintegrate.  I get that money is tight, that it isn’t always easy to leave out families for a few days, and that professional learning is not limited to 1 or 2 events per year. But, people like to be inspired and see the big picture. After all, we are human and need – not want, need – live contact with other human beings to share our struggles, successes, triumphs, and roadblocks.

Are traditional conferences sometimes too passive for the participants? Yup. Could presenters make them more interactive and fluid? You bet! Do we need to push the limits of on-going professional learning via social media? Absolutely.  But as I sit here waiting for my flight I realize that I had a very positive, productive, and inspiring few days which tells me that traditional conferences, while they might change their style, format, or routine, still have value and should still continue to serve a purpose for professional learning.

I Trust your Intentions

Over the better part of the last decade I have had the good fortune of presenting in schools & school districts, and at a variety of workshops & conferences across North America. The topics have varied, but the message has always been similar: Some things in our system need to change or improve and here are some ways in which I think we can accomplish that goal.

Anyone who knows me knows that my presentation style is fairly direct, clear, honest, and focused on what I perceive to be the job at hand.  I believe what I believe, I try to show credible research and examples of why I believe it, and help others understand what it might look like if applied within their context.  Even as a school leader, I’ve never been one to avoid having the conversations, debating the merits of an issue, or guiding someone to feel compelled to move in what I think is the more appropriate direction.

With all of that, there is one thing I try to avoid at all costs and that is questioning a teacher’s intent and telling them how wrong their career has been up until that moment.

I trust your intentions.

While I might not agree with you and we may – fundamentally – have a completely different view of what is best for our students, I try to avoid being right by proving how wrong you are. I believe that every teacher has the students’ best interest at heart. Whether it is how you develop a positive school climate, how you support students with behavioural challenges, how you assess, grade, and report student progress, or design the instructional experiences for your students, I believe that you believe it is the most effective way to maximize learning. Again, I might not agree with you, but to question your intent, for me, crosses the line. I want what I believe to stand on its own and not rely on simply being the best of the worst; teachers are not inspired by that.

Occasionally, and especially on twitter, I come across 140 character attacks that question the intent of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching and supporting their students.  Words such as malpractice, dangerous, control, power, manipulative, bribery, conspire, and coerce, are thrown around (I’m guessing) for their definitiveness and their shock value.  Bribery as an example, is about coercing people to act in an illegal or immoral way; I don’t know any teachers who do that. It’s easy to have keyboard courage but it’s something else to look people in the eye and inspire them to learn, move, or grow. I’ve come to know – and have experienced several times firsthand – that you don’t need to browbeat people and put them on the defensive in order to create the optimum conditions for change and growth.  Browbeating people through inflammatory language only serves to expose our own insecurities about our convictions, create animosity, and drive people away from the messenger who, in fact, may have a compelling message worth listening to.

Questioning teacher’s intentions cuts to their character and none of us – none – are fully qualified to judge that invisible entity.  I believe many things in our system do need to change and/or evolve, BUT I also believe that 99.99% of the teachers, administrators, district staff, support workers, custodians, secretaries, etc. are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the students in our schools.

Push their thinking, challenge their widely held beliefs, and show them there is a more effective way and they might just feel compelled to listen and follow. Attacking their character and questioning their intent will only lead to them tuning you out and to you becoming white noise.

Who do I choose to be?

This past week was brutal.  The transmission on my truck has to be completely re-built…here are the details.

I drive a 2006 Ford F-150 (purchased in 2008). All you Chevy owners will, of course, tell me that was my first mistake!! When I bought the truck I purchased the extended warranty which I have been able to utilize on a couple of occasions.  Here’s the timeline from the last week-and-a-half.

  • WED. APRIL 27 – Truck is absolutely fine…no issues.
  • THURS. APRIL 28 – I notice a little hesitation as I press the accelerator.
  • FRI. APRIL 29 – Noticeable hesitation in reverse and accelerating.  There is definitely a problem.  I’m going to take my truck in tomorrow.
  • SAT. APRIL 30 – “Transmission Malfunction” light comes on as a drive to FORD.  I pull over, call BCAA, and have the tow my truck the rest of the way.
  • MON. MAY 2 – I find out my transmission needs to be completely rebuilt.

Here’s the best part!? I took my truck in on April 30, 2011….my extended warranty expired April 23, 2011…7 days earlier.  The repair on my truck will be somewhere in the $4500 range!

Now, it’s at this point that I have a choice to make; who do I choose to be?

On the one hand, my warranty had expired and while it had only been a week, it had been a week.  Try telling the insurance company after a car accident that your car insurance has only been expired for a week…I think we all know how that would turn out.  However, my truck has been well maintained and my warranty had only been expired for a week – we’ve all heard the stories about things going wrong after the warranty expires…now I am one of those stories!

While I was obviously not thrilled with the prospect of paying for the repair, I kept my perspective on what was happening.  Was there anything I could do to change the circumstances? No. Would getting upset, ranting, or pouting change anything about my truck? No. Would all of this matter a year from now? No. Would the way I treat people during this process matter? You bet! 

I made a conscious decision almost immediately that I wasn’t going to damage any relationships or my self-respect during this process. It is easy to treat people well when you feel good; much more difficult during a time of stress.  Being aware of how I was feeling made it a lot easier to be mindful of my emotions.  This situation could either get the best of me or I could keep it in its proper place. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an extra $4500 lying around waiting to be spent, but it’s only money, there is nothing I can do to change the situation, and I was convinced that something was going to be done in my favor.

 The local Ford dealer was sympathetic and “made my case” to the warranty dept. at Ford Canada.  After a couple of days of silence I heard back on Friday; Ford is prepared to cover 50% of the repair.  I thought that was fair.  They didn’t have to do anything to help me out, but they did I was grateful for it.  Could I have got a better deal? Maybe. Would Ford have eventually covered the entire cost of the repair? It’s possible. Could I have pushed it? Probably.

However, to do all of that I would have had to choose to be someone else, and in the end, I wasn’t prepared to be the kind of person I don’t want to be.  Adversity, I once read, introduces you to yourself. I continue to learn about perspective and what truly matters in life.  Five years ago I think I would have handled this situation much differently; far worse from where I sit now. I don’t think there is ever a time where it’s okay to compromise who you are.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues (much bigger than a transmission) that aren’t worth fighting for.  I think that while we are fighting we still have a choice.  You can never take a timeout from being you – there is no fee pass. I was happy with the way things turned out and, through it all, more happy with the person I was during the entire process.

Envision the “Best-Case” Scenario

Image via charlottesvillerealestate.posterous.com

I’ve often wondered why – when faced with the prospect of professional or personal change – people often defer to the worst-case scenario or predominantly envision why something won’t work.

Now, while I don’t pretend to be an expert on all of humanity, I do believe that it is primarily a way to prevent ourselves from looking foolish.  There are few things in life more aversive than the idea that you didn’t think it through or were, in some way, naive about the potential downsides.  It seems as though we spend most (if not all) of our energy contemplating why something won’t work or envisioning the worst-case scenario, which really means we spend very little time contemplating why something will work or envisioning the best-case scenario.

The future, from where I sit, is really an illusion that we construct based upon our past experiences, successes, and failures.  Of course, some of those experiences are valid and do provide us with the necessary background to not repeat any mistakes we’ve made.  That said, we still can’t predict the future and don’t know for sure that something will or won’t work.

Think about it for a moment…do I not box myself in when I predict something won’t work? I mean, to predict failure, only to then try something and succeed would prove myself to be wrong…we don’t typically like that. However, to prove you were right you would have to try – and fail – at something that other people have succeeded at doing…we don’t typically like that either.  It’s a lose-lose scenario.

What if we spent an equal amount – or better yet more – energy contemplating the best-case scenario.  Since we can’t predict the future and don’t know for sure that something will/won’t work, why not develop a positive mindset of possibility and success.  Why not, at the very least, put yourself in the frame of mind that best reflects what it is that you actually want.  Predicting failure is negative; negative thoughts produce negative outcomes. Will it succeed or fail? Who knows, but envisioning the best-case scenario will at least create within you the kind of conditions you wish to produce.

The Strength in being Soft

 

Over the last few years I have spent a fair amount of time reading the Tao Te Ching, a collection of verses authored by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Now I have been aware of this book for a long time, however, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve really come to know it, study it, and reflect on the profound messages within it.  It is a very short book – it can be read in one sitting – but the messages last forever.  This is a book written 2500 years ago that is still relevant today.

This past weekend, the 76th verse caught my attention:

A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death.

Stiffness is thus a companion of death; flexibility a companion of life.  An army that cannot yield will be defeated. A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind.

The hard and the stiff will be broken; the soft and the supple will prevail.

Being soft and pliable in life is something I’ve come to realize is much more important and effective in my role as a leader.  In some ways this contradicts what we’ve all been taught about leadership. Leaders are supposed to set the course, have a definitive vision for success, stay on track, and never waver from the original goal or perspective.  If you don’t have a strong opinion or a definitive vision you might be labelled a fence-sitter; if a politician changes his/her mind it’s called a flip-flop. Imagine that we’ve come to a point in our society where changing your mind is a sign of weakness…come again? And don’t ever be soft as people will not respect you and will take advantage. Unfortunately, the word soft has a negative connotation in so many of our societal arenas.

Now I’m not saying that as leader you should flounder and never form an opinion or vision. You have to have strength in order to be an effective leader.  The question here is not as much about being strong as it is about how you exert that strength.  We can either exert our strength through strength or we can do it through being soft.

Sometimes we have to know when to yield or bend with the wind.  Sometimes we have to know when NOT to voice an opinion; when we DON’T need to be heard or when we’ve said too much.  The allure of leadership and all that it can feed the ego is not easy to resist, but when we retreat and allow ourselves to be influenced our leadership is much more effective.

Having an opinion at all costs serves no one well; developing an unwillingness to reflect and change your mind reveals a stiffness that will be the companion of the death of your leadership.

I want to be a leader who changes his mind when new information is made available; when new research shows that what used to be true is no longer relevant. I want to be a leader who is open and willing – soft and supple.

There is a strength in being soft – in being able to bend with the wind – because once the storm is over you will be the one still standing.