Although still in the midst of a global pandemic, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I can't help but feel my mindset shifting from what was taken to what we have collectively gained. In the unasked for space, in the unwelcomed void, perhaps we haven't done without, but rather, have built an invisible abundance within.
You see, in 2020, we took the trip. First to Ireland, then to Indiana, then home again and in December, one time more. In 2020, we courageously plowed forward into the unknown, and then, quietly back into all things old, familiar, and true. We hiked beautiful cliffs and bathed in seaweed alongside the Irish Sea. And then, we sat on comfortable old porches and lawn steps and tree stumps as we smelled of dirt and timeless memories oozing from our pores. In 2020, we took the trip.
In 2020, I called Dad. Sometimes early, sometimes late. Sometimes we talked with friends, but more often, just us. Sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes, hours into the night. I don't know if I would have called so frequently if my heart hadn't been breaking. In 2020, I called Dad.
In 2020, before we added, we learned to subtract. Before I thought about baking bread or painting by number, I thought deeply about how I was spending my time. We gave items away before we whimsically bought. We lessened the load before we took on more. We made a budget. We paid off a truck. Before I made a commitment, I made space to decipher whether or not the commitment aligned to my values and to my goals. I didn't do anything haphazardly in 2020. In 2020, before we carelessly added, we learned to subtract.
In 2020, we built the fire. We built it when it wasn't quite chilly, and then we built it again when it became cold. We built it with friends and we built it family. Sometimes, we built it in love, and other times, we built it in pain. Sometimes we built it early, and sometimes, we built it late. In 2020, we built the fire.
In 2020, we learned to pray. Sometimes early, sometimes late. Sometimes while getting ready, and sometimes, before a meeting would start. Sometimes to the sky, and sometimes in a dark room by myself. Sometimes for our suffering. Sometimes for our peace. Sometimes with hopefulness, and sometimes when there was seemingly no hope to be found. In 2020, we learned to pray.
In 2020, we dared to dream and we dared to hope despite all odds. As we adapted to the new normal, I also decided that the old normal wasn't a place I should ever wish to return. It's in the daily, in the mundane, where God is most likely to whisper. In 2020, God whispered. In 2020, I heard him speak.
I am an avid taskmaster. As an Enneagram 3, success (however I choose to define it that day) is important to me. I want to be highly regarded and respected by others (whether I want to admit it or not), and thus, much of my attention is achievement-oriented. The structure of my day is built to ensure productivity and high levels of performance. My mental energy emphasizes deliverables. I clearly define my goals and what it takes to achieve them. In short, I have a tendency to over-identify with work and my job title (high school principal) to the point where I have been guilty of letting my job define me. I’m a work in progress, friends. God made me this way.
Within my role as high school principal, you might imagine that these highly-driven traits are assets. In many ways, they can be and often are. However, I quickly noticed during my first year navigating the intricacies of the principalship that I wasn’t quite the taskmaster that I used to be. I was actually interrupted so frequently at work that I changed location and holed up in the (slightly smaller) corner office (more about this in a future post). I simply could not be front and center in our hallway and get anything done.
Then, as He so often does, God whispered.
The interruptions are the work.
Y’all, I regretted this whisper vehemently. How could I utilize my core gifts God had given me if I was constantly being interrupted from my inborn efficiency and goal orientation? (Yes, I realize that this is a lame paradox. God whispers, and I offer a weak rebuttal about my lame inborn efficiency. Does anyone else have a pattern of God whispers, forced rebuttals and God laughter in their lives? I digress.) This is perhaps the most valuable leadership lesson I could have learned as a young school administrator. Here, we will dissect three reasons why the interruptions are the work.
Relationships are the foundation of any thriving organization
The sooner we acknowledge that nothing worthwhile can happen in a school (or any organization) without deep and meaningful relationships, the more quickly we can influence outcomes. The first task of any leader of an organization should be to build strong, healthy relationships with constituents, both inside and outside of the organization’s physical walls. When new leaders are introduced to a company or a school, there is underlying doubt about the employee’s future (whether well-based or otherwise). The sooner an industry leader can acknowledge that he/she cannot go it alone in an organization, the sooner everyone involved can come together as a team and commit to the collective work to be done.
Let me preface this by saying that driving home mission and vision statements, programs and policies do not shape culture (Helgesen, 2020). While important to the cohesiveness of the work to be done, none of our fancy phrasing or excessive handbook taglines can create the culture of a school. Relationships engage in this work. When relationships and trust are lacking, full engagement of the work is impossible. And guess what? You can’t build relationships sitting behind your desk.
What I failed to realize in the first few months of my new position is that although I was known on campus prior to my leadership appointment (first as a teacher, later as a mentor, and eventually as a curriculum and instruction specialist, aka Master Teacher), my staff did not yet know me as a school principal. How would I act? Who would I become? Although strong relationships and trust already existed with most of my colleagues, there was still doubt. How would I lead? How would my leadership decisions impact my employees, students, and school as a whole? Sitting behind my desk vainly attempting to smile when someone popped their head in the door, half-listening to their laments as I finished an email only allowed others to experience me as impatient, rushed, and dismissive of their needs. I needed to get up from my desk, join them at the table, and attentively listen, lament alongside them, and offer easily implementable solutions if I was going to maintain my relationships in this new role.
Principal Pro Tip: Get out from behind your desk.
Valued individuals drive the work home
When an individual feels valued, they trust their leadership. When individuals trust their leadership, they trust their organization. And when individuals trust their organization, they have strong relationships with members who make up that organization. And when we have strong relationships within an organization, we know that an organization can thrive.
All leaders should have an internal desire to treat each person within their organization as a member of their team. Teams do the work, and the work propels an organization forward. Whether you are new to an organization, or have been around for a while, there are various individuals in power positions within the company that can make an organization thrive. Beyond the obvious leadership personnel, there are also people with personal authority, trusted by staff, who have the ability to inspire the work. There are people with the power of connections - they have influence with other individuals on the team who might not be on board just yet. They have street cred, if you will. There are also people who have expertise that you do not have. You need people on your team who know what you do not know. If you can value each of these individuals by tossing aside your taskmaster mentality, you will further the work of the organization more swiftly than any individual actions you could accomplish on your own.
There will always be a list of to-dos. There will always be one more email, one more report, and one more deadline to meet. However, if you can build in strategic times and places for the paper to take precedence, you can build in strategic time for people before paper, too.
Principal Pro Tip: People before paper.
Interruptions create opportunities
Remember that goal-orientation I was lamenting about at the beginning of this post? Something I didn’t think about in my early days in leadership was how to leverage dialogues to drive the work of our organization forward. I saw the interruptions as nuisances during the day, rather than opportunities to shift the focus from problems and complaints back to solutions-orientated discussions related to the vision and mission of our school. I was a great sounding board for people who wanted to complain, but I would walk away drained and feeling like I hadn’t accomplished anything actively related to fulfilling our vision and mission at the end of the day.
Somewhere along the way, as I became more laser-focused on the what (having already clearly established our why), I realized that I needed to maximize every face-to-face opportunity I had with my staff to drive our work home. Our vision of “every child, every day, prepared to meet life’s challenges” and our mission to ensure high levels of learning for all students through an intensive cycle of remediation and enrichment had to be at the core of every dialogue we had about kids. Thus, when a teacher popped her head in to complain about an unmotivated child, instead of listening to an endless lament, we began to break down the why behind the behavior. Did we have a relationship with the student? What did we know about the student outside of class? What types of patterns could we identify in the grade book? What did we really know about this kid? The same went for other interruptions as well. If we could continuously shift our focus back to our kids, we were suddenly talking strategy rather than stress. Friends, this is a great place to be as a leader of a school!
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, people simply need to be heard. We all need a safe place to vent every now and then. But if we can take those interruptions as opportunities to improve our mindset and our skillset, the interruptions become just another part of doing the work.
Principal Pro Tip: Leverage every opportunity to drive home the work.
Putting it into Action
Recognizing why the interruptions are the work are all good and well; however, what does this look like in practice? Here are a few tried and true tips for leveraging interruptions for good during a busy professional day.
Gail Hyatt tells us that "people lose their way when they lose their why." If we can remember that the interruptions are the work - that people deserve our attention before paper - we can take one next step toward fulfilling the what by paying attention to our why.
How did we get here?
If you are like me, you may be wondering how we arrived at this point. Until recently, I truly believed that the concept of racism, although still prevalent in our society, was not truly at the core of our issues as a school, as a city, and definitely not as a nation. I mistakenly believed that we were simply more evolved as a society. As a white female with a biracial niece and nephew, young kids in my life of color and a social media following of diverse perspectives and experiences, I felt that we were beyond a time period when we were considered more than or less than because of the color of our skin. As 2020 progressed, however, I realized that perhaps the question isn’t, "How did we get here?", but rather, "Why are we still here today?"
Like any good educator, I sought out to do some work. Realizing that the fate of an entire school community fell into my hands, I had to dig in and start grappling with the truth. Let me tell you friends, the work thus far has been rough. I don’t consider myself ignorant in many areas of life (outside of cooking, y’all - I can barely crack an egg), so digging into the deep racial divide that exists in our country, in our state, in our city, in our school, and yes, even among my family and friends, was insightful. Hurtful. Riveting. Dreadful. Suddenly, the processing I was doing on a daily basis as I read the next book, followed the next advocate or talked with my fellow friends was exhausting. Exhilarating. All-consuming. Shameful. I have never questioned my identity to this extent in my entire life. This work is legit. It is difficult. It is transformational, if you will allow the discomfort that true transformation and evolution requires.
I am setting out to prepare a reflective series that is going to marry historical fact with scientific reasoning and Biblical truth. To be honest, I am not sure that I am the person equipped to lead you all on a journey such as this; however, I feel compelled, and I am learning not to argue when I am called. Please do me a favor and note, however, that I am simply an imperfect human who is evolving and striving just like you. I am not an industry expert. I have no credentials and no merits other than my meager humanity and hungry curiosity to seek the truth. I definitely haven’t uncovered it all just yet, but I am honored that you are joining me in the deep, rich soul work I have been engaging with over the course of several texts, many late nights, and more than a few heartbroken sobs.
The section that follows is my preliminary attempt to make sense of how we got here. And I am starting at the very beginning of mankind.
As we end our week-long reflection on unity, I find that this evening, as the sun slumps behind the mountains to my west, my heart is at peace. I don't believe that much in the outside world has changed over the past seven days. In fact, as we draw closer to November 3 - Election Day - I feel that the state of the world is actually growing more chaotic. More toxic. Less sensitive. Less humane. However, what I have found after a week of reflecting on unity and the individual state of my soul is this: When I meditate on the word of God, I improve my heart.
As we end our time together on this theme, I want to leave you with some final verses on unity to meditate on this evening as you open your arms to embrace this new week.
It feels good to live in peace with one another, doesn't it friend? How are you living in unity with those around you right now? Name what is pleasant. Name what is good!
"Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God?” (Malachi 2:10).
How can we live more harmoniously alongside one another when we recognize that we are all children from the same Father? We are all residents of this Earth created by the same loving Creator. He made every one of us. He knit us together in the womb.
“I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me," (John 17:23).
In this section of the gospel, Jesus prays for all believers. Although we weren't there with him, I have to believe that with these words, Jesus was praying for us, too. If we spend some time personalizing this scripture, we can read it as if Jesus is speaking to us. I am in you all and God is in me. May you all experience such perfect unity that the world will know that God sent me and that God loves you all as much as He loves me. Jesus prayed for us before he laid down his life for us, friends. I don't know if it gets any more powerful than that.
“Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone,” (Romans 12:16-18).
I am sensing a theme between unity and harmony, aren't you, friends? May we not be too proud, regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs or cultural norms, to enjoy the company of one another - especially during these long days of quarantine. May we not speak ill of one another. May we not respond to sin with more sin or evil with more evil. May we try to hold our tongue and live in peace with all of friends, with all of our family, and yes, with all of our foes.
“Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude,” (1 Peter 3:8).
May this next week we try to turn together and face the same direction. May be try to see the world through a different lens, with neither being better than the other, but simply unique. May we love each other as we love family. May we approach one another with tenderness and grace. May we take on a posture of humility in our work this week, knowing God's got us in his capable hands.
As we find ourselves on the back end of a beautiful month where we have been exploring the theme of unity, we reflect on the goodness of our God. It seems that we have only needed a new moon, a change in perspective, and perhaps a fresh focus in order to feel the energy shift beneath our feet. This morning, under the glow of that new moon, I woke up feeling revitalized, refreshed, and once again ready to tackle the tasks ahead of me as we prepare for the reopening of our school on Wednesday of this week. After a week of rest via the blessing of a Fall Break, we have regained the strength necessary to continue on our journey. The rest of this week will be about new beginnings, fresh starts, and perhaps, even clean slates.
Reflecting on the past seven days, one of the most beautiful pieces of this Fall Break was that we came together in a spirit of unity via an unanticipated path - that of humility, lack of energy, and pure, devout exhaustion. I feel compelled to dig a bit deeper into the theme of humility as a means of achieving unity. I believe it is a pathway that will take us far in the oncoming weeks. As we go back to in-person schooling, as we strive onwards to Election Day, and as we deal with the aftermath beyond, if we approach our work and the people we love most with a posture of humility, I think we can remain united rather than divisive, regardless of personal beliefs or political views. As my pastor so frequently says, "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you aren't entitled to your own Bible." May we remember to see Biblical truths together in the days ahead.
I awake and the house is abuzz and jittery. As I stumble sleepily down the stairs, I can't help but grin as I wipe the sleepybugs into my fists and catch a glimpse of the kitchen. Dad is pouring steaming coffee from a French press and Mama is wrapping him in a bearhug from behind, nuzzling his neck and laughing into his cheek. I smell pancakes and rich, maple syrup and hear the sizzle of crackling bacon on the stove. As I enter the room, my parents turn around and suddenly, there is an outburst of confetti - red, white, and blue - all over the countertops as their noisemakers blow. Mama is wearing a hat that resembles Uncle Sam's and big, bold, American flag pajamas. "Happy Election Day!" she screams.
As we bunch together in a family hug, Mama kisses my hair. Dad urges me into a seat at the counter, plopping a heaping plate of steaming pancakes in front of me, and then, he flips on the T.V. Live coverage of the nation's numerous polling centers fills the screen. The reporter, relaxed and vibrant, mouths excited words from her pretty red lips. The people in line to vote around her wiggle with excitement and try to get a peek into the camera shot. Signs of peace, love, and ripples of our nation's flag are everywhere. Citizens young and old, Black and White, gay and straight are bound together in unity in one significant act. They are going to vote, and then they are going to wait, honoring a civic duty and anticipating an even better tomorrow than they have today.
Mama tells me it wasn't always like this. In fact, just before I was born, our nation was in upheaval, segregated by hate, poor reporting and a general loss of decency and respect. If you were a Republican you were dubbed a racist and if you were a Democrat you didn't value human life. It was hard to be a school teacher and be conservative, and liberals had little place in church. There were riots over the presidency and you couldn't watch T.V. without witnessing the slander of our nation's leaders. Dad says that 2020 was one of the most unbiblical seasons of his life. And, people voted wearing masks! But, I guess, if I were behaving like Americans were in 2020, I would probably hide myself behind a mask, too.
Mama said I am lucky that I am growing up in a world that looks different than it did just a few short years ago. She said that something happened among the American people after the election of 2020 - something she still struggles to believe. She said that people who were empowered to raise their voices began to use their voices to uplift humanity rather than cutting down those who struggled with their biases and implicit beliefs. She said people began to become educated and vowed to learn about diverse perspectives rather than simply say, "Well those weren't my ancestors who [took the land, owned slaves, created discriminatory policies, etc.]." She said that women started applauding one another for their accomplishments and bound together in this united front that stopped them from demeaning others and instead propelled their movement forward. She said that White people and Black people started seeing humanity differently and considered racism to be a product of racist policies and started focusing on eliminating those policies in order to create a more equitable humanity for all. Dad said the nation stopped idolizing people in power and started digging deeper into voting for policy that aligned with their character and their morals and not based on what some dated political party told them they should. Slowly, they said, the riots stopped, because the killing of innocent people stopped. Racism began to dwindle because racist policy became obsolete. Our communities became more diverse and harmonious because people were more informed about racism and colorism and privilege and prejudice - words I have read about in my history books and learned about from many BIPOC who are not only my teachers, but also our family friends.
They also said social media just one day went away. They refuse to talk about it much, but they said it made the world a quieter, more sensitive, safer place to live. "Family over phones," they sometimes quietly say.
As the coverage stops, I get ready to make my way back upstairs to get ready for the day ahead. We have a voting booth at school, and we have each been assigned a unique perspective to take on that will influence how we vote. Mama and Dad helped me understand that my vote may look different from other students', even if I consider them to be my friends. We all come to the table with a unique set of experiences, and it's okay if what I prioritize looks different from others - even my friends. Dad says we have two worthy candidates that will uphold American values regardless of which way the vote swings. Mama, who I get the feeling is voting differently from Dad, says the same. As I put on my backpack and go out the door to await the bus, I proudly announce that I have determined my vote. Mama and Dad look at each other, and then at me. Mama whispers, "We are so proud of you. Go serve your nation well. Either candidate is going to fight for your freedom and your well-being either way."
As I walk away, Dad looks up at the sky and I hear him whisper to Mama, wrapping an arm around her back. "One nation, under God." As I get on the bus, I murmur, "With liberty and justice for all."
It is with no uncertainty this morning as I linger in the pre-dawn hours that I can proclaim that 2020 is kind of a mess. Although my morn is dawning with its usual sense of Monday hope - a whole week yet to unravel and unfold in miraculous ways as a school leader, as a wife, daughter, sister and friend - I also sit here with wondering trepidation. What is waiting to unravel and unfold? 2020 doesn't do much to surprise me anymore. In these 80-something days we have left, yes, I am hopeful. But I have to place that hope in the one above, because this down here? Well, in short, it just ain't cutting it, friends!
In times like these, it is easy to choose to withdraw and retreat. And while this is looked favorably upon throughout scripture (Luke 5:16 tell us that Jesus often withdrew to pray), purposeful withdrawal from community is dangerous to Christian living. In fact, we learned in yesterday's post that living in community is Christian. It holds us accountable for our faith, creating a fellowship of believers who do life together, devoting themselves to good teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). Today, we will dig a bit deeper into this concept of community, and how we can live together in unity for peace during this tumultuous time in our nation's history.
Since March of this year, much of our nation has been living in isolation, doing life together, but separately. At first, ways to make new connections were novel. There were long distance game nights via Zoom and virtual novelties that made life seem new. (In no other reality would we have had a goat and a pig virtually join us for a staff meeting to improve employee morale.) As April turned into May, however, and scorching summer temperatures correlated with a rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19, our souls grew weary. Add race riots and protests and tumultuous pre-election negativity to our quarantine and it became easy to conclude that, as so many have publicly stated, our nation is a dumpster fire. While we were separate together, it suddenly seemed that we were isolated by terms such racism, privilege, anthem and flag.
Six months later, the world is not much different. It is still 105 degrees in the desert. Our students are still learning virtually (although thankfully for not much longer). Racial reconciliation is seemingly a term of the future. Political divides are greater than ever. Many of us are still reluctant to live our lives out loud, and with a sense of community once again. Tired, uncertain, and fearful are still common household and workplace terms.
What would it look like, however, if this October we chose to emphasize our relationships and our similarities instead of our differences? How could we love each other better, respect each other more, if we took a more Godly approach to this pre-election season in our lives? Could we begin to take strides toward reconciliation in all areas of our lives, whether it be racial or even our familial or workplace relationships in general? What would it look like to commune together in love once again?
This week, we will be exploring the concept of community through a lens of biblically based unity. What does the Bible tell us about living united, and living united together? I hope that you will open your hearts with me this week as we strive to dig deeper into our humanity as individuals and as a united human race.
Honoring the Sabbath as a school leader is perhaps the most difficult and most meaningful work a school leader can commit to both pre and post crisis. I will preface this post by saying that this work - the work of rest - is going to seem like the one thing that can take a back seat during a crisis event. When you are first starting out in a principalship, you will not want to honor a cycle of work and rest. You will feel that busyness is a badge indicative of strong leadership. You will feel the need to stroke your ego when you are the first to arrive in the morning and the last to close up shop at night. In fact, you will probably judge (and unconsciously begrudge) those who aren't grinding tirelessly alongside you. This is pre-burnout you, and unfortunately, it will probably take more than one burnout to get you to realize that this task is one of the most important things you can do not only for yourself, but for your constituents.
One of the most frequent questions I am asked about work-rest cycles is how? As a Principal, as a Realtor, as an aspiring author, wife, sister, daughter and friend, how do you find the time to rest? Although there is no magic formula, I will tell you what I know for sure. Take that which serves you. Toss aside that which does not. Formulate a plan of action and then revise when it doesn't work (and I promise, it will not work the first, second or maybe even third time around.) This is the hardest work you will commit to as a leader; however, repeat after me. This is the work.
For organizations to move effectively forward after a crisis, it is necessary for leadership to pay close attention to the climate and culture of the company. By conducting a needs assessment, prioritizing needs, and emphasizing relationships, leaders can minimize the short and long-term impact of a crisis and create sustainable energy moving forward. Post crisis energy, however, must be cultivated to move past surviving to thriving. Today we will examine some strategies for creating and sustaining energy in the post-crisis world.