Two-Word Challenge Accepted

I want to start by thanking my colleague and Elementary Math Curriculum Coordinator for Round Rock ISD, Brian Bushart for publishing a post challenging our teams to think about two words we should remove from vocabularies and ethoses going into 2020. Check it out here and then come back.


Several words or ideas come to mind looking back over my career as a special education teacher, assistant principal, and central office leader. For these purposes though we are going to focus on…”Late/Missing Work.” I may be bending the rules using a hyphenated/slashed first word so I appreciate your grace.

It’s been almost seven years since I was an assistant principal and roughly 12 years since I was in the classroom. Looking back at my students though – especially one whose self-portrait I’ve kept framed on my wall since the early 2000s – I believe they would agree that a never-ending cycle of late/missing work clouded everything.

Da’Vonte Lyon, 8th Grade DPMS 2006. Self-Portrait. Sold to Mr. Smith for an undisclosed price.

It usually went something like this:

The group of students I was responsible for – I’m hoping someone else chooses “Caseload” as one of their words to remove – would usually have one or two days at the beginning of a grading period where we were on a level playing field with everyone else. Birds were chirping, everyone was smiling, we all stood a little taller without the weight of “owing” something to a teacher.

I could see a physical difference in my students during these sweet times free of burden. I felt it too. My interactions with the other teachers on my team were progressive and optimistic during this narrow window. We talked about learning, and ways to better meet the overall needs of our students.

Inevitably though, my students would soon miss a deadline for an assignment. This would usually happen by the end of the first week of a grading period. Then, for five weeks we were caught in a growing maelstrom of missing assignments from 4-5 different classes. Our focus quickly shifted to managing time, negotiating with teachers, and valuing the completion of tasks above all else. My students would miss Tier 1 instruction from their classroom teacher, electives, and opportunities to learn from their peers as I guided them through their piles of missing work. Being behind became our culture.

And we would stumble our way to the end of a grading period not really sure what anyone learned, yet usually with passing grades.

My students were learning what it feels like to “owe” someone though. That feeling you get when you’re struggling financially and move debt from one credit card to another, or when you move apartments when the rent comes due must feel similar to how our students feel when they get stuck drowning in the cycle of being perpetually behind. You can’t escape that feeling. That weight. It may lessen until someone reminds you that you are in debt, but it doesn’t go away. It’s a low-level constant stream of anxiety.

I remember using the word “owe” often when I and everyone else reminded my students daily that they had missing/late work. I’m pretty sure I even wrote it up on the board.

But they didn’t really “owe” me or their classroom teacher anything. It’s not like I loaned them a sum of money with the agreement they would repay. If anything, I “owed” them for showing up every day. I “owed” their families for giving me their trust and the taxpayers who support public education. I’m adding the use of the word “owe” to my long list of things I’ll do differently if ever find myself in the classroom again.

That word has such power and assumptions behind it. To tell someone they “owe” you is heavy. If I tell someone I care for that they “owe” me something, and then repeatedly remind them about it, that fundamentally changes our relationship.

Maybe our students “owe” themselves or their families, but they don’t “owe” us anything.

I’m not recommending you stop assigning homework – that’s up to you. I am recommending that you take this spring semester and become more aware and mindful of the language you use and decision you make regarding your students who struggle to keep up with your assignment due dates. How does their daily experience change once they get behind? At the end of the grading period, what did they learn from you? What did they learn about you? What did they learn about themselves?

Take the answers to those questions and decide if you want to do anything differently. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Either way, you will be much more aware of your practice and the impact of your decisions. You will be more intentional about your use of terms such as “Late/Missing Work” and “owe.” If you continue to use them at all.


Thanks again Brian for pushing us in this direction and I hope others will share their thoughts and take the Two-Word Challenge in the comments here or on the RRISD Elementary Math blog.

Before You Go…

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Updated Personal User Manual 2020

It’s been about a year and a half since I started sharing the idea of using a personal user manual as a leader. The idea of clearly stating the nuts and bolts of how others should work with you resonated quickly with many other leaders in my organization. I spent most of the summer of 2018 speaking to campus and department leaders about the value, but I don’t think I spoke on the importance of it being a living document.

Like a river, we are changing minute to minute and we can’t expect those on our teams to keep up if we don’t communicate those changes. So, I decided to update my Personal User Manual for 2020 to share with my teams in Round Rock ISD and plan on making it an annual update.


Moving into my third year as the Executive Director of Teaching & Learning I think it’s important for those on my team to better understand how I work and what I’m hoping to get better at in 2020. So, I’m updating my Personal User Manual. Here it is:

Communication:

Email – If you email me, I’ll try to respond on the same workday, even if it’s just to let you know that I’ll give a more detailed response later. If I email you with a question, I expect a response/answer in 24 hours. If there is no question or ask in the email then don’t feel like you need to respond – I’ll assume you got it and are good to go. I’m continuing my practice of not checking my email from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am on workdays and not at all on non-work days. You may rarely get an email from me during these, but I don’t expect you to respond during non-work times. If we need to be in touch outside these times, I’ll call or text your cell phone. You can do the same and I’ll share more about talk/messaging below. 

Messaging/Voice – My cell-phone number is (512) 632-5062. Feel free to call or text during the workday. I’m not promising I’ll pick up, but it’s the quickest way to get in touch. I use Google Chat on my mobile device and the best way to get in touch with a quick question during the day. I like Google Chat because it allows us to capture ongoing work-related conversations in one place. 

Social Media – This is always a moving target for me. For lack of a better way to describe my current thoughts on friending and following colleagues, here is where I stand at the moment. It’s ok to friend/follow your boss, but it’s kind of weird for your boss to friend/follow you first. I don’t know if anyone else agrees with that, but it’s what I do. If you are on one of my teams feel free to friend/follow and I will reciprocate, but I’m not going to make the first move. 

Workplace – I’m excited about using Workplace and believe it can be a valuable tool for organizational communication and learning. Still in the early phase though and I will be focusing on the best way to use this in 2020.

What I’m Working On:

I’m working on getting better at building connections between teams in our organization. So, if I ask you a lot of questions about your job or ask for a brief 1-1 meeting to dig a little deeper, it’s for my own learning, not to put you on the spot.

Potpurri:

  • I’m not in my office much so don’t call my office phone number. Use the number above. 
  • I expect everyone to write professionally. Grammarly is your friend, use it for everything.
  • This video is a little lengthy, but it pretty much sums up how I view Organizational Communication.
  • I’ll share ideas often around your projects or plans. Some ideas may be good, many will be off-base. Please try not to take my ideas/comments as orders and I respect people who disagree. If I want you to do something, I’ll tell you to do it. Those directives, however, will likely be few and far between. 
  • I’m still working on smiling more. I’m happier at this point in my life than I have ever been, but for some reason, it does not always show on my face. Those that don’t know me well often assume that I’m upset or disengaged when I’m happy and fully engaged. If I’m not happy with something you are doing I promise to tell you. If you are curious, ask. 

I’m pretty open and go deeper into thoughts around leadership and education at ryansmith.blog


The Personal User Manual is one of my favorite tools to help teams communicate and cut through some of the assumptions we throw at one another. It’s not your manifesto. It’s the basics to help those you spend your days with better understand why you do what you do.

Questions? Ideas? Connections? Share them below in the comments.


Before you go…

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Our Constant Struggle to Make It Simpler

This is part 8 of my 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-7, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

We’ve come a long way and have made it to the seventh and final post in our look at Marc Lesser’s Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. This practice focuses on our ability to take a step back, remember our priority, and test some assumptions. Welcome to the seventh practice – Keep Making It Simpler.

It’s easier to take the complex road in our work as leaders. Keep adding tools, resources, ideas to our toolboxes and we want to play with them. We go to conferences or workshops and want to implement something new. Or we are striving to impress our own bosses and the people on our teams suffer the consequences.

Many of us work in industries driven by goals and plans. Key Performance Indicators, Campus/District Improvement, goals of more types than we can remember often shape our decision-making more than we like. And as leaders, we must remember that our goals shape the behavior of those on our teams. We can’t pretend we operate in a vacuum. Everything is connected and too often these goals and plans add unnecessary complexity or inject unintended consequences.

The complex path is easy but it’s also shallow, and it allows us to spread out accountability. It also provides us as leaders additional cover if the results do not pan out the way you were hoping. But, that is playing not to lose rather than to win. This often plays out by over-intervening. We add layer upon layer of programs so at the end of the day we can say, “we did everything we could,” or, “we covered everything.” We rarely are asked if by doing/covering everything, we made the system too complex and did nothing well.

So it’s the simple path that is hard, but lasting. It’s the simple path that provides our teams the space to do their best work and become mindful leaders themselves.

How then, do we protect our teams from the barrage of noise looking to invade their work, the anxiety that comes from a perception that they must do everything, and the fear that can permeate a culture driven by an annual performance measure?

Lesser takes us back to where we started so many weeks ago. We help our teams make things simpler by making things simpler ourselves. He suggests a meditative practice of “letting go.” The ideas he tells us to let go of are the exact things others in our lives are telling us to pay attention to, so there is an inherent societal conflict in making things simpler. Simple is rarely praised or rewarded. The practice outlined in the picture below does not tell us to permanently let go of our to-do lists and our expectations of others, but rather to lean into the feeling of how we would see our work without these burdens.

Another aspect of Keep Making it Simpler suggested by Lesser is responding to the expectation of others that, “we are all so busy.”

Does anyone else struggle with how to respond to colleagues who assume we are feeling as busy as they are? I’m never sure how to respond. I have as much to do as anyone else, but at the same time do everything I can to never feel busy. When I find myself feeling busy, that’s an internal message I’m doing something wrong – not a badge of honor. Yet, when someone asks me if, or assumes I’m busy, then I feel social pressure to make a heavy sigh, hitch up by belt, and say something like, “oh yea,” or “sure am.” But, am I doing something wrong or is my work less important if I’m not busy? I don’t think so. Some internal work to do there for sure.

Luckily Lesser shares my aversion to promoting busyness, “To me, busyness means becoming caught up in that complexity and losing sight of what’s important. Busyness equates to mindless rushing. For me, the antidote to busyness is remembering to be mindful and to practice being focused, engaged, and spacious.” Here’s what he means by focused, engaged, and spacious:

My final suggestion on this last practice of a mindful leader is to make seasonal assessments of where we can cut back. Cut back on programs, goals, initiatives, projects that aren’t moving, and anything else we can. This is easier said than done and also something I struggle with, but complexity relentlessly works its way into our lives everyday. And if we don’t stop at least four times a year and see where we can clean out and wash away some of the noise, we will drown as a leader. The easiest way to make things simpler is to do less. If you have thoughts on how to effectively work against the creep of complexity, please share them in the comments.


So there we have it. Over the last two months we dove deep into each of these practices of a mindful leader:

I hope you enjoyed the discussion and would love ideas on other books to take a closer look at in the comments. My key learning from spending a day with Marc Lesser back in September and his book is the value of making an appropriate and intentional response. Our ability to respond to any situation as a mindful leader is essential to provide the space for our teams and families to flourish.

And the way we cultivate our ability to make the mindful response is through practices such as these. The good news is that as a leader or family member we have countless opportunities to work on ourselves by practicing our thinking, listening, and ability to provide space.

Thanks for joining us on the journey. Did you miss a stop? Check out the whole series here.

Mindful Leaders Seek, Attract, and Accept the Help of Others

This is part 7 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-6, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

Dependence. It’s hard to even write that word. If I was going to categorize my default mode and identify an ethos that has probably been detrimental to relationships and is incredibly difficult to chip away at it would be – independence. I probably read too much Thoreau during my formative years or spent too much time alone running along the Pacific Crest Trail growing up in Big Bear. However it happened, I struggle the most with the sixth Practice of Being a Mindful Leader – Depend on Others.

We are fooling ourselves of course if we think we can be an effective leader without depending on others. The main part of being a leader is influencing others to do something. By definition, we depend on others to carry out the work. Yet, it’s so easy to think we can do it all ourselves.

Like most emotional struggles, Lesser reminds us that this inability to ask for help or even provide a space for others to give help comes down to our own fear.

Page 150

That sacrifice of richness for shallowness that Lesser refers to is an acceptable trade-off if we are being intentional about it. However, I’m afraid I often don’t recognize what I’m missing because of falling into the comfortable routine of individualism and independence.

Lesser defines, “Depend on Others,” in this context of leadership as follows:

When it comes time to lead and work with a group, we use and build upon all the practices introduced so far and apply them in order to work well together. This requires a high level of self-awareness and self-confidence, as well as humility, empathy,a nd openness, or approaching situations with beginner’s mind. In many ways, I would say that mindful leadership is really the art of depending on others.

Page 145

So why is it so hard? Just like each practice we’ve discussed the last few weeks, the act of depending on others comes down to our ability as a leader to make an appropriate response. Being mindful as a leader means we pause before we react and look for alignment with our intention prior to taking action.

I’m often asked, “Need any help with that?” or something related. Yet, without even thinking about it, my immediate habitual response is, “No, I’ve got it,” or “No, I’m good but will let you know if I do.” It’s similar to when someone asks us how we are doing? The habitual response is something superficial. Not only am I hoarding opportunities to perform valuable work, but I am again keeping others at a distance when our work as leaders is to bring them in. And then I’m falsely justifying it to myself by saying that I don’t want to add to anyone else’s workload.

A first step in working on this practice may be noticing that habitual response of turning down help. We can engage those on our teams or families in holding us accountable. And a second and more proactive approach could be looking at your upcoming projects or decision points and actively engaging the help of others before they even ask.

I’ve facilitated several workshops recently using Immunity to Change mapping to help my audience better understand why they struggle to ask other people in their lives for help. A key element of Immunity to Change is understanding your “Big Assumptions” and then testing them out in real life to see if those assumptions are accurate. The crippling and likely false assumptions we make around depending on others hold us back as leaders and keep us and those on our teams from better connecting with us and each other.

Alright, we are heading into the final week of our look at this book and Lesser saved my favorite principle for last. And not only is it my favorite, but it’s the principle I believe is the most valuable and difficult practice a leader can cultivate in our current world of family and work. The seventh and final practice of a mindful leader is…

Keep Making It Simpler

See you next week.

Finding Similarities and Offering Compassion

This is part 6 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-5, check them out here. Before we start, please take a moment and sign up for my newsletter.

Last week we looked inward at our own pain and how we can better connect with it to better understand why we are who we are. This week we are looking closer at how we make more mindful responses in our interactions with other people. The fifth practice of a mindful leader discussed by Lesser is, “connect with the pain of others.”

Often when we talk about “pain” at work we are talking about emotional unease. Lesser refers to “pain” in this practice as, “the universal experience of discomfort and loss.” It could be a loss of influence, decision-making authority, or power. It could be the loss of a relationship as we move throughout our careers or even the loss of confidence as the direction of our work changes.

The reality, of course, is that everything constantly changes. So we are always gaining and losing. The pain that comes from loss is always present and we all fall into our preferred mode of response whether we are noticing it or not.

Lesser shares Dr. John Gottman’s ideas around how we often avoid connecting to other people’s pain. Gottman’s context is personal relationships and marriages, but we probably tend to drift toward one of these behaviors in the workplace as well. They are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. I’ll have to spend more time thinking about this one, but my gut tells me I’m a stonewaller.

Another practice Lesser gives us to help connect to the pain of others is “seeing similarities and offering kindness.” As you can see in the images below, this set of statements can be delivered in person with a partner or in your head. The value in the exercise is the building of a habit. If we can learn to start looking at others in our lives through a lens of similarities we can then connect on a level that allows us to serve those we spend our time with. Even spending five minutes thinking through these statements before an interaction with someone will help us engage in that interaction as a more mindful leader.


This idea of connecting with the pain of others really comes down to understanding who they are and getting past the boxes that titles, reputations, and assumptions/stereotypes put us in. It’s about understanding that we all have anxiety and we all deal with imposter syndrome. Yet we display our worry in vastly different ways. And as a mindful leader the expectation is that we breathe and remember that just because someone expresses their anxiety differently than us, we must pause before making an appropriate response.

Next week we learn the importance of the seventh practice – Depend on Others. That’s right. We shouldn’t do everything and asking for help is not a weakness, but rather a strength! Who would have thunk it?

Let Pain Be Our Path to Connection

This is part 5 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-4, check them out here.

Hang on. It’s about to get real. The fourth practice of a mindful leader provides us the space to look inward and stew in our own fear, vulnerability, aloneness, regret, and other emotions we tend to bury down deep.

The fourth practice is “Connect to Your Pain,” and Lesser tells us that “Letting in our pain connects us with our common humanity and with all of life, it strengthens us, and it improves our ability to listen and act.”

I wonder what he means by “letting in.” Letting in where? I may be able to recognize my pain and even name it. I may be able to write about it, draw a picture of it, or even talk about it, but does that mean I’m letting it in? I’m still working on that one.

I do know that as many of us, I find it incredibly easy to bury my pain. So easy, that it becomes a habit. Dale Carnegie might tell us to put it in a “Day-Tight Compartment.” I can experience something, stash it away somewhere in my psyche, and move on to the next event. The reality though is the permeability of our day-tight compartments. Like a river cutting through rock, our compartments do not hold tight forever. And the longer we go without connecting to our pain, the higher the danger of a 40-year flood.

So Lesser recommends we connect to our pain through a couple different strategies. One is meditation of course. And another is to create a timeline of our lives – both the highs and the lows. Then journal about each major event, leaning into the emotions we remember feeling at the time and emotions we feel about those events now with some distance. Perhaps writing is an avenue to “letting in” the pain. Talking or thinking about our emotions sometimes keeps them at a distance. It’s amost as if we are an observer. Journaling often allows a closer and more personal connection to the feeling.

Page 116

Whether it is through creating a timeline or meditation or any other way you develop, a key take-away from this practice is to lean into the pain or discomfort. Rather than pretending it is not there, accepting that denial is not an option will allow us to take better care of ourselves so we can take better care of others. Perhaps it starts with accepting the fact that we are not as good at hiding our pain as we think we are. We can’t hide it from ourselves. And if our intention is to be an authentic leader, then we can’t believe that hiding from our pain won’t hinder our ability to serve others.


This fourth practice wraps up Part 1 of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. We’ve spent the last few weeks investigating ourselves and the impact our inner thoughts and actions have on our behavior as a leader. Next week, we move the work outward into the practices of connecting with those around us. In leading teams/classrooms and families it’s important to remember the mantra, “I before we.” If we did not spend the last three weeks looking inward we would not be fit to interact with others at the level they deserve.

Next week we dive into the fifth practice – Connect to the Pain of Others. Here’s a quick preview Lesser shares from the Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Thanks for reading, don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list if you have not already.

Don’t Be an Expert. Let’s Embrace the Paradox

This is part 4 of an 8-part series focusing on Marc Lesser’s latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. If you missed part 1-3, check them out here.

We left off the last two week talking about doing and loving the work. We learned that the “work” is cultivating our mindfulness and our context is leadership. Now as we jump into the third practice of a mindful leader, Marc Lesser challenges us to look even deeper into ourselves. This third practice speaks directly to our often insatiable appetite for striving and looking good in front of our peers.

The third practice of a mindful leader is: Don’t Be an Expert.

Don’t be an expert!? Isn’t that why I am a leader? Wasn’t I chosen for my current leadership position because I knew more than the other candidates for the job? Not very likely.

But, don’t those on my team now expect me to have answers when they come to me with questions? Don’t my kids want me to use my vast life experience to tell them what to do? Even less likely.

Lesser reminds us often that the mindful leader’s job is to think, listen, and hold space. Those are the things our team members and family members expect from us. They expect us to think with them when they are having a dilemma, listen with caring when they need to get something off their chest, and create space for presence and cooperation as we build shared cultures at work and at home. They don’t usually expect us to wow them with our brilliant solution to their problem.

It’s so hard to hold back though, isn’t it. Most of us have moved up in our careers because we were really good at certain aspects of our jobs and received regular praise for said performance. We received praise for “doing” something, usually not for our ability to think, listen, or hold space. We were praised for having the right answers.

And it’s so easy to get hooked on the dopamine hit when someone recognizes your intelligence. It’s not our fault though. We’ve been formally graded and judged since kindergarten – and even before that by our parents. Some of us excelled in that system and came out the other end addicted to pleasing. Others of us fought that system and came out ready to disengage and go our own ways.

But for our purposes here today, it’s the addiction to praise that interests me the most because it hits me right in the gut. I can look at missteps I’ve made as a leader and identify instances where I prioritized earning praise from my boss over coaching someone on my team. The irony lies in the fleeting nature of that praise versus the lasting impact on a damaged relationship with someone on my team. We can say the same about most addictions.

Lesser shares several practices in the chapter related to embracing a beginner’s mind in our work as leaders and I want to focus in on one in particular – Listen with Open Ears: Don’t Be a Relationship Expert. In all the different aspects of leadership, we can do the most lasting damage when we act like an expert in the aspect of our relationships with and between others.

Lesser urges us to recognize our filters and the stories we tell ourselves about other people and their actions. He quotes the opening lines of R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience, “I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. Therefore we are invisible to each other.” That invisibility remains in effect until we start to listen. Lesser goes on to say, “Therefore, it is useful to practice being attentive and curious in order to increase our understanding of others. Usually, the more familiar we become with others, the more we assume we ‘know’ them. We risk believing we are ‘relationship experts.'”

So let’s work on recognizing when our mental chatter is telling us a story about someone or something we have experienced in the past. If we recognize it, then we can choose whether or not to listen to that internal voice. We can choose not to assume and see the person or situation with a beginner’s mind. Easier said than done. I fail at this almost daily, but I’m getting better at recognizing my failure and every now and then catch myself before responding. As we talked about last week, it all comes down to an intentional response. And when we can make the response with the passion and curiosity of a beginner, we will likely see our experiences and relationships with renewed joy and wonder.

Before we move on to the fourth practice, Connect to Your Pain, I want to invite you to join my mailing list. By doing so, each update to this blog will be mindfully delivered to you inbox as soon as it’s published.


Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Here’s a preview from next week’s post:

Turning toward and connecting to my own pain has been essential in helping me discover what is most important, whether in leadership roles or in any part of my life. This is the benefit of the fourth practice, and I’ve found it true for me again and again.

Marc Lesser – Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

Thanks…