Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

There are certain jobs that I think everybody ought to do once in their lives. I think everyone should give at least a week of their lives waiting tables. I think people should give any janitorial endeavor a try. And I think everyone, at some point, should stand in front of a classroom ready with an activity or lesson for whatever skill they’d like to teach and manage about 35 middle schoolers. Get them to buy in to what you’re selling. Have them master some state standard and understand why it’s so critical for them to do so. Laugh off the smart aleck remarks and retort with something witty that will instantly win over the most reluctant learners. Differentiate your instruction (doesn’t THAT sound fancy?) to reach every child, no matter what level they’re at and have a smile on your face and a song in your heart the entire time.

After all, it’s what we do—unless you happen to catch us in a human moment, threatening to take some little monster by the ankles and throw him into a fan.

It happens. I’m not gonna lie.

So, I’ve decided to teach summer school this year. I’ve never done it before. Not sure I’ll do it again. It’s not that I don’t love my kids. Most of them are wonderful—very delayed and very low performing—but largely delightful. Patience is never a problem. They struggle. That’s why most of them are there. Most of them.

Then there are the ones who just need a spanking.

Or, maybe their lives are so broken—so fragmented—that all they know is successful failure. They’ve learned to sabotage their own lives. It’s heart wrenching on several levels. It seems that no amount of sugar, coercing, or reiterating the precarious reality of their situation will convince them to put forth any amount of effort or to prevent them from being flat out incorrigible since all they know of power is simply to demolish.

I have a select group of gentlemen, and I say that word VERY loosely, who seem to be of the persuasion that being the biggest dicks they can be is what makes them men. I say, whatever assholes are teaching them to BE men are doing a pretty shitty job. I operate from a place of compassion and hope; yet, those qualities are cruel jokes to these guys who repel love like it is the plague. Maybe it is for them. Maybe, most likely—OK, I’d be willing to bet the BANK on the fact that the people who were in charge of loving them have irreparably hurt them. So, for me to stand up in front of the class and declare my love and concern for them is summarily and understandably rejected. In fact, I can shove all that warm-fuzzy crap straight up my ass as far as they're concerned. They've made that much crystal clear. And don’t even talk to them about hope. That’s the cruelest joke of all. They have no hope.

I think: OK. Fine. Let’s just get through this. It’s not like we have to cuddle. Just do what you’re supposed to do so you can go on to high school. Surely, you’re not so smitten with these uniforms we make you wear every day that you want to hang out and wear them for another shot at eighth grade while the rest of your friends go to high school, right?

Uhhhhh… No. That won’t be happening.

Their apparent response: Your plan is not my plan. I’m not doing anything except for screwing up my life as fast as I possibly can. All I’ve ever known is pain, and it’s what is now comfortable for me. It’s what is familiar. It’s what I know. It’s what I do. So, if I can make the biggest parking lot out of this situation, then that’s what I’m after. You can’t stop me. I’ll show you just how in control of this whole thing I really am. Watch this…

But I do have hope. And I do have compassion for them and the pain they carry on their shoulders. I look to their parents and wonder, “What in the hell are you DOING? What are you NOT doing?” Because I shudder to think what these precious souls have seen—what they’ve been forced to endure at home. The horror stories that we hear on the news are just a “day in the life” of children everywhere.

And then they come to us. And we’re supposed to do what?

Well? I’m not going to relinquish my love, my compassion, and my hope for all children. I don’t just love the “good ones.” I am who I am. These 25 days won’t even put a dent in that. I’m someone who has seen plenty of miracles, and it’s nothing for me to look for them under every rock. I expect them most days because my whole life is just one great big miracle after another. But believe me when I say that this is exhausting to look into the lives of despair and self-hatred that invariably spills out onto everyone else. Every day.

I look at burned out teachers, and I get it. And I pray that never happens to me because it’s an alarmingly thin line between love and exasperation. You can’t even BECOME exasperated unless you have FIRST loved and been VESTED in a worthy effort that means the world to you. It's impossible. I am not so arrogant that I believe for one minute that I could never end up bitter and perfectly able to write off a child like he’s nothing to me. I know teachers who have reached that wretched place, and I think, “There, but for the grace of God, go any one of us…” And I am sobered by that knowledge.

People respond with, “Then those people should get out of teaching.” I don’t necessarily disagree, but it’s easier said than done. You try walking away from your whole life. You try walking away from something you’ve wanted to do forever—before your college loans are even paid off. Don’t be so quick to throw stones or render a solution so monumental as that. I have worked with ineffective teachers and, believe me, no one is more frustrated with them than those of us who consider ourselves effective teachers and who still love children. I hope I would have the courage to walk away from education if/when I am no longer good at what I do and have learned somewhere, somehow to loath getting up in the morning. But there are a lot of components in this scenario. A lot. Everyone has a story.

At the end of all this, I hope I teach some important lessons to all of my kids in this summer session. I also hope to learn what I’m supposed to in these 25 days as well. And perhaps that is how to preserve who I am and what I have to offer anyone who is in a place to receive it.

And, yes, hope DOES spring eternal…

Monday, May 24, 2010

My Sister, Tabitha, Said Hello to Me Today...

My sister said hello to me today. I haven’t heard from her in a while. She died Memorial Day weekend in 1996. She left behind a husband and two baby girls. Those baby girls are almost grown now—her oldest graduates from high school this year and her youngest is right behind her big sister. They’re both beautiful and smart and loving, and we can see my sister in their smiles. In their eyes. She’s there.

It was so great to hear from her.

The phone rang. It wasn’t my sister. It was my friend, Michelle, who works at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas. She got an email from the band director who sent a school-wide query in regard to a ring he’d found. It was a class ring from Western High School, where my sister and I attended, from the year 1987. The inscription on the inside read, “Tabitha J. Arrowood.” Michelle asked me if Tab had ever been in the Bonanza High School band room. (Honestly, it was anybody’s guess.) Of course, my friend emailed the band director immediately and said, “I know that family! I’ll come get that ring.” She’s sending it to me in tomorrow’s mail.

I put my head in my hands and cried when I hung up the phone with her. I was literally shaking. The way I figured it, this ring had been missing for years and, by some miracle, had suddenly reappeared just in time for her oldest daughter’s graduation. What a treasure! My sister seemed to be saying to her girls, “I’m here. I’m watching. I’m proud of you. Here’s a little piece of me.” I would hold her ring to my heart, wear it on my hand for a day, and then send this precious gift to my nieces.

I called their parents right away—yes, their parents. God sent a wonderful mother to my nieces and wife for my brother-in-law when the girls were still small, and we are so grateful. They’ve blessed us with two more children who are just as beautiful and smart and loving as the older two. However, they were not AS bowled over as I was. You see, I was under the impression that my nieces went to Valley High. As it turns out, the oldest does go to Valley since she is in their magnet program. Their youngest goes to Bonanza. And she’s in the color guard, which means she is in the band room at Bonanza all the time.

The pieces of this puzzle were quickly coming together.

I had assumed that my sister was looking down from Heaven and orchestrating this beautiful miracle of a long, lost ring—a gift that her girls would cherish. But that was not the case. She was, in fact, taking care of her youngest (albeit long-distance) who had taken the ring to school with her and accidentally dropped it, by not allowing her ring to be lost. She prevented such inevitable guilt and devastation that the loss of that ring would bring—falling on the shoulders of her sweet girl, who only wanted to hold a piece of her mother and keep this token close to her heart. Imagine the dread that could have ensued! She’s a good mother.

And yet, Tabitha is taking care of me too. Because her ring will be on it’s way to me tomorrow. I will place that gold circle around my finger and wear it this Memorial Day weekend—the very weekend she left us. When the holiday is over, and I have cried and remembered and centered my heart once more, I will put it in a box and send it back to my nieces for safe keeping with a note expressing my deepest gratitude that I have gotten to share this ring with them.

But mostly, I think Tabitha is letting us know how happy she is that we are all together, loving each other, and being grateful for the little miracles that seem to come out of nowhere.

And it really was great to hear from her. I’ll be checking the mailbox every day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Leadership Interview

My dear friend Rialin wanted to interview me about LEADERSHIP! Here is the interview:

#1 How would you define leadership?

This is a huge question. Shelves of books have been written on leadership. I've read a lot of John Maxwell's thoughts about leadership. He believes that there are certain "Irrefutable Laws" of leadership, and I tend to agree. The Law of the Lid states that an organization will never rise above the level of its leader. The Law of Solid Ground emphasizes how a leader MUST possess competence, connection (to those in the organization) and character. Other laws are self-explanatory: The Laws of Navigation, Respect, Intuition, Empowerment, Buy-In, Priorities, and Sacrifice. I believe an effective leader demonstrates all of these characteristics, and I strive to do the same.

My "leadership love-language," though, is competence with a strong dose of compassion thrown in. I can't follow idiots. I WON'T follow idiots. And if someone doesn't truly care about their people or their organization, I will check out quicker than green grass through a goose. I'm DONE!

Let me also say that the power of position is the weakest form of power there is. Many leaders are so weak that they must solely rely on their position as "the boss" to compel people to do what they are told. I have been in organizations where I had more power in my little finger than "the boss" had with his/her title. So, "position" does not equal "leadership" no matter how much ineffective leaders wish it were true.

#2 How do you influence people?

In light of the fact that I mostly spend my time influencing 14-year-olds, I might not be the best person to ask...

I love the saying, "I'm a human BEing, NOT a human DOing." I think the most powerful way we can influence others is to BE. We can spin in circles and appear very busy doing for our people, our organization, and our world. But that could mean one is anything from a leader to a doormat. Leaders do serve (i.e. teachers), and servants CAN lead (i.e. teachers and Mother Teresa.) But what you DO does not define you as much as who you ARE, and I believe people know pretty quickly whether or not there is any depth in their leaders. My students, sadly, may not remember that one can never find a subject in a prepositional phrase, but they'll sure remember the time I put my arms around them, squeezed them tightly, and told them if they didn't study for a test I was going rip their arms out of their sockets and beat them with the bloody stubs. THIS, they absorb: They know they're loved, and they know they better bust a hump. That's leadership.

#3 Why are people a pivotal part of leadership?

What else are we going to follow if not people? I think what's interesting, though, is to analyze an organization from top to bottom and see who is REALLY in charge. Power is not linear from the top down. Your leaders will rise to the top, and they could potentially come from anywhere--it's what they do. Every time. It makes us realize that a collective group of people--an organization--is a living, breathing entity. It's born, it grows, it thrives, it declines, and it can certainly die. When different people emerge as leaders, they play those "pivotal" roles in the success or the demise of their group.

#4 Is there a difference between leadership and management?

There is. Management is the DOing. Leadership is the BEing.

#5 Are there times when you're a follower?

No. I insist on leading. It's all I ever do. I have to be in charge, or I can't be part of the organization.

Sense the sarcasm? Of COURSE, I follow. I follow all the time. All good leaders do. In fact, the "following" thing had to precipitate the "leading" thing. I didn't pop out of the womb and scream, "Hey, follow ME, everybody!" In fact, I'm such a fan of strong and effective leadership, I will gladly follow someone who is in 8th grade IF they inspire confidence in me by being competent and compassionate. I will gladly follow someone who proves effective leadership, and when it's my turn to lead, I'll step right up and know there are people giving me the same respect.

#6 What's the transition?

I think the transition occurs all the time. If the organization is living and breathing and moving and being, then it's almost like a well-orchestrated dance between various leaders who emerge and then step aside for someone else for the good of the organization--to fulfill a purpose bigger than any one person.

#7 Why is empathy important to leadership.

Very simple: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. An old cliche, but true. Personally, I'd like to believe that I would have bolted or revolted in Germany with Hitler at the helm. I cannot follow anyone who is lacking in the heart-department. I know that I am a valuable component in any organization, and I will NOT invest my time and talent and energy in one whose leader is missing some kind of "sensitivity-chip." (Ode to Jennifer Aniston there.) I do not wish to make these people more successful by my contributions, not to mention the fact that I cannot respect anyone who does not love deeply and deeply love. Likewise, I will not lead without compassion. Life is too short, and God is too great.

#8 Why is communication important to leadership?

Here is my answer:

Enough said?

#9 Why is assertiveness important to leadership?

I'm not sure it necessarily is. If assertiveness inspires confidence, then when a leader steps out, his/her organization will follow. Otherwise, he/she is just taking a walk.

Assertiveness can be effective--don't get me wrong. But I think subtlety can be effective too. And offering some incentives can do the trick sometimes. Sometimes a firm hand is what is needed, and sometimes a leader has to pour a little sugar on a situation. It just depends. I think the string that runs through all these scenarios is confidence. Perhaps the better question here is "Why is CONFIDENCE important to leadership?" And I'm not talking about the kind of confidence that "Bikini Girl" showed up with to the American Idol auditions. And I quote, "I'm going to be the next American Idol because... because... because... I AM!" to which I responded in a loud voice to my television, "Honey, somebody in that room is going to be the next American Idol because THEY CAN SING!" Eventually the poor girl had to put some clothes on and sing a song--when she did, she went immediately home. She was not confident. She was a dipshit. (Can I say that here? Feel free to edit...) Anyway, people know the difference. She was VERY, VERY, VERY assertive! She gave Ryan Seacrest a kiss on the lips that could've made a gay man straight, but compelling she was NOT!

I think assertiveness is really overrated. And I think people try to show up to situations with confidence they don't really have. Confidence cannot be conjured. It must be developed. It takes time, and it takes WAY more than a bikini and stiletto pumps.

#10 Are leaders born or made?

Ah, the million dollar question! I have no freaking clue. I think there is some natural ability involved. Leaders, for the most part, have just a little bit of "rock star" in them. Maybe not Mother Teresa, but... maybe she did? I'm usually a big believer in environmental formation--I'm a teacher, after all. I see it all the time where individuals are products and sometimes victims of their surroundings. But maybe it is the leaders who emerge and rise above their surroundings and that IS the definition of a leader? I don't know. It's just a thought. I do not know the answer to this question.

#11 What are your top 3 traits that make you a good leader?

Three, huh? I usually try to show up to my life with two: excellence and compassion. Those two are part of my life's mission statement, and I try to keep them forefront in my mind in all that I do. Other than those? Organization? Ambition? Humor? Comfortable shoes? I know where every comma goes? What? I don't know.

I think I'm still in development. Maybe there IS a third trait, and I'm still working on it. Maybe that's it: I'm open to personal growth. I'll have to get back with you on this one.

#12 What is your leadership style?

This question is akin to the previous one. I'm sure I HAVE a style... I don't like to get locked in to any one definition. Do I HAVE to answer this one?

#13 How do you resolve conflict?

Funny you should ask. Being married, I have a plethora of examples. My husband not-so-great at resolving conflict. I, however, am STELLAR at it. (Insert laughter here...) I will tell you this with conviction: Everything that I do and everything that comes out of my mouth in the midst of a conflict is intended to bring the situation toward resolution--not dissolution.

I don't think conflict is an innately bad thing. From it comes growth and new perspectives and change. But I don't like disrespect. I don't like when situations get nasty. I don't LIKE to fight, but I won't necessarily back down from one either. I'm not a fighter who has learned to make peace. I'm a peacemaker who has learned how and when to strategically step up and lay a situation out if I have to. It's not my favorite, but I'll do it when I believe that my efforts will improve the life of an organization.

#14 How do you stay organized?

Cleanliness is next to Godliness and clutter is from the devil and his minions. Period. Keep it CLEAN! Lists are good. Prioritizing is important. A good filing system is handy. And none of it means anything if your desk looks like somebody dropped a grenade on it and shut the door.

#15 How do you empower others?

My job description is empowering others, and there are as many ways to go about it as there are people to empower. I, specifically, deal with individuals who do not feel particular empowered in any academic arena and who are already behind the eight ball, so to speak. I teach mostly at-risk kids whose heads are not normally in the right "place" for success. This goes back to the question about assertiveness. Sometimes I have to be assertive. Sometimes I have to be subtle. Or the balance between that firm hand with a little bit of sugar. The flexibility and a quick mind is key.

I think the hardest part of empowering people is "turning the lights on" for them. If I can't get them to see themselves how I see them, they're not going to be fully empowered. And you know what I think rocks that boat more than anything else?


People can't be empowered until they improve their self-perceptions and one way I can help people improve their self-perceptions is helping them produce something of value. Maybe it's figuring out where all the commas go, or maybe it's helping the kids at the elementary school learn to read. Whatever a person's strengths are, I know that we need them on this planet which is why God gives those strengths to different people, and it's a sin to waste them. I help people not waste their lives.

#16 How do you stay refreshed as a leader when the enthusiasm fades?

I don't run on enthusiasm--my own or anyone else's. It's nice, I'm not disputing that. But I'm pretty principled by nature, and I do what I do because that's what I believe is right. I refrain if I believe that it's wrong. Of course, this is the gospel according to ME, and there are times that I lack perspective and make decisions based on what I BELIEVE to be right when some time and patience proves that I wasn't right at all. When that happens, a leader must walk through her own shortcomings. THAT can really bum a girl out! And sometimes leaders do get tired. Just sheer exhaustion can break a leader in half. I know I get to a "saturation" point where I start dropping the ball in significant areas of my life, and suddenly I don't seem to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. When that happens, it's important to set some boundaries, delegate responsibility to the key people that you have empowered, and take a powder. Go on a retreat to renew your mind and your body and your spirit. Give up the whole "Messiah Complex" BS. There was only one of those--you're not it. And speaking of which, believing in redemption outside yourself gives you someplace to go for renewal. I hear people say a lot, "Your strength is within you! Find your peace inside yourself!" Hmm. That's an interesting perspective, but I know when I'm tapped. I know when I've got nothing. My faith tells me that there is Someone a little bit bigger than I am, and I try to tap into that. Ultimately, I try to STAY tapped into that. But leaders have to remember that sometimes that's the very Voice telling you to get the rest you need.

#17 How important is work-life balance and how do you maintain it?

I don't let work spill into my life, and I don't let life spill into my work. Balance is extraordinarily important, and I think this question piggy-backs off the last one. When one's life is out of balance, every part suffers. This balance must be protected. A good leader knows how to set boundaries and how to "refresh" as aforementioned. Being effective, in and of itself, is enough to fuel a good leader for the most part and lends natural energy to his/her efforts. I believe a good leader can anticipate when life starts to throw curve balls, but a good leader can also navigate through those inevitable times and put his/her life back in balance when necessary. That's part of what makes a person a leader.

#18 What do you hope your legacy to be?

Tradition tells us that John, the "disciple Jesus loved" as he's described in the Bible, was not martyred as the other disciples were. Instead, he was supposed to have lived well into his golden years--long enough to bend his body and allow his mind to become clouded. He walked with a shuffle and muttered one thing continually: "Love one another. Love one another." It is all he would say. "Love one another." During a rare and lucid moment, his caretakers asked him, "John, why do you repeat 'Love one another' and nothing else?" He replied, "Because if it is all we do, it is enough."

I think I would be happy if the legacy I leave is to teach people to 'Love one another.' Indeed, if it is all I can accomplish in this life, it is enough.

#19 What will your gravestone say when you pass?

Daisy Rain Martin
Beloved Wife, Mother, Friend
She loved well.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What Good At All?

I am heartsick this morning.

With Twitter technology and online communities such as Facebook, we all have a platform now on which to declare our thoughts, opinions, and a daily snapshot of our lives. All of us are published. We also have a “bird’s eye” view into each others’ lives when those on our friends’ list post a daily status. From the heart the mouth speaks, and the whole world knows about it in real time.

Most of the time, I enjoy these updates. It’s always fun to connect with those who are too far away to be with all the time. I love it. But sometimes these declarations make my heart stop. I recently had one of my former students post a message that basically asked why we should give a shit about Haiti, a country that has been hit with a devastating 7.0 earthquake, especially since that country doesn’t contribute anything to the United States? Really?


Not only was I left reeling at his apparent lack of human empathy, I was shocked by his classmates, also my babies, who “liked” his post, who left comments supporting what I believe to be self-absorbed and ignorant disregard. How many of them would be so quick to jump on this bandwagon if they were suddenly dropped into the middle of this horrific disaster and actually had to look into the eyes of the destitute and dying?

Surely they could not be so callous then. Could they?

I wanted to post, I wanted to SCREAM, “How about compassion?” but I’m pretty sure that would only result in a barrage of hateful responses from their friends and relatives criticizing me for being one of those “bleeding hearts” because that’s usually the mode of operation for anybody who dares to disagree online. Attack. Lash out. Don’t pause. Don’t ponder. Never contemplate criticism. That would show weakness. But my heart does bleed. It seems like there are people who think I should be ashamed for my bleeding heart, but I am not. If no one else is going to apologize for being caustic, then I’m certainly not going to apologize for crying out for mercy.

Perhaps I should have posted something sarcastic like, “THEN LET THEM EAT CAKE!” but somehow, I just don’t think they’d get it. So I posted nothing.

I am sad today. I’m sad. How can my babies, who have spent an entire year of their lives in my loving arms, walk away from the real-life lessons of love and compassion that I’ve tried to teach them? It makes me wonder what good I was to them.

What good at all?