Category Archives: Coaching & Mentoring

Real Talk

Where have two weeks gone? Since Memorial Day weekend, summer has arrived; we finally became first-time homeowners (hurrah!); I took my first writing class since college days; my parents bought their ticket to visit over the Fourth of July (hurrah again!); we made our inaugural visit to Sam’s Club… the list goes on and on. While I actually have a gazillion things to write about and think about lately, the practical part of me has been focused on the need to organize as much as is humanly possible. Thus writing quickly gets pushed to the bottom of my to-do list, ironically when I need to process the most.

Of all things to inspire me, it had to be watching an episode of The Next Food Network Star last night. This season they modified the format: the finalists are broken up into teams being coached by Alton Brown, Giada de Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay, respectively. Every week, they are faced with two-part challenges, because they are expected to cook well and be able to be themselves (budding stars) on camera, too — obviously, the latter tends to be the far more difficult part. So I’m watching this episode, and by now the finalists are expected to have a very clear sense of their individual points of view, food-wise and personality-wise. Listening to the coaches, they all had the same message for each person: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell. It will translate positively on camera, we promise, because people want to connect to Who You Really Are.

Last week in my 5-day writing class, we all walked in on Monday as strangers. The first sharing we had to do was read aloud an informal piece of writing that we had to bring with us: metaphors for our writing process. What floored me — and maybe what I should have expected, having been in writing workshops before — was how much we revealed about ourselves through our writing as the week went on. On Wednesday our instructors put us into workshop groups based on our chosen genres (we had three non-fiction pieces and one poem in mine). My personal essay was about three different writing experiences at various points in my life. Immediately after reading my work, the poet in our group said, “This piece is about the narrator reclaiming joy in her life that she used to feel when she was a child.” What?! That’s what I wrote about? I thought I had been taking a walk down memory lane with myself. But there I was, naked like a baby in the words on the paper, and this semi-stranger called it out.

So it was as we workshopped everyone’s piece – the “cheapest therapy” available, our instructors called it. Each of us — in our small groups and in our class overall — uncovered (re-discovered?) parts of ourselves that we didn’t realize were there. It’s a very disconcerting and simultaneously liberating experience to meet yourself on a piece of paper. Even when you want to or try to lie to yourself (or about yourself), people who are paying close attention will recognize what’s going on below the surface. Real talk. No hiding from that. By the end of the week we couldn’t help but be engaged authentically with each other, as was made apparent in the notes people shared after reading portfolios and the meaningful, no-cost gifts we exchanged (including the priceless gifts of honesty and actively listening to each other throughout the week).

If you’ve never had a Moleskine journal, I promise it’s inspiring.

The other best part of class for me was doing free writes in my  (unlined) journal for the class. I truly love seeing people’s handwriting — including my own — because there is energy and emotion there, and I like to imagine the person doing the action of writing. Again, there is an individuality and concrete-ness to ink on paper that doesn’t exist on a computer, where I can cut/paste/delete at will, even dictate words to a smart computer, and everyone turns into Times New Roman. Now, by my own hand, I have this small collection of beginnings of things, some attempts at poetry, and some reflections all in one place. I can’t say specifically why it’s more special to me to have it handwritten (it would be more practical to have them typed already); it just is.

Last week I also thought often of why we need things like art and music and writing in the world: it teaches us empathy and reminds us that we all have our human imperfection in common. For the entire week I kept thinking about the stories behind the people at the grocery store, or why the checkout girl had a certain tattoo on her arm. I was mindful in a way that I forget to be sometimes when I’m with people I love the most, like Husband and family. I want to be that way more often — to be more aware that I am living my own story and in the stories of countless other people’s lives. What will we remember about each other when we meet again in the next life?

I find that when I really need guidance, God has this way of being super didactic in my life. But I’ll remind myself one more time to be sure: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell.

Yes. I will.

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Talent Show!

Last year I heard an educational speaker explain why the American phenomenon of school talent shows is incredibly important. While across the oceans other countries and cultures demand perfection and precision in all things, we here in the U.S. try to encourage kids’ creativity. It is not a prerequisite to be the best of the very best if you want to perform; you simply have to be brave and try.

When I was in second grade and fourth grade, I participated in the school talent show with my childhood best friend. We used to love to sing together on the school bus, and one of our favorite play games was “traveling” around her backyard to make it to our singing gigs. The stage, of course, was none other than the green electric box in her front yard, where we sang to our adoring imaginary fans. In second grade we delivered the well-known hit “Talk to Me,” as performed by Justine Bateman in the movie Satisfaction. (If you’ve never seen that movie or heard that song… don’t worry about it.) I can’t actually remember what we sang in fourth grade, and then maybe our school stopped having talent shows?? I can’t imagine why I would have stopped trying out.

Today the school where I work had its Talent Show 2012, an every-other-year event. It opened with a 3rd grader’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as sung in a key that got close to the octaves only dogs can hear but remained perfectly on pitch throughout. Demonstrations of gymnastics and taekwondo followed, along with more musical performances — even another 3rd grader’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” Preceded a few acts earlier by a rousing rendition of “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” sung by a kindergarten student in a lavender leotard. Awesome.

One of my favorite acts was the pre-school kiddo who did his gymnastics demo with the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” playing in the background. When he jumped and landed in the splits during the intro guitar solo, I was hooked.  I also loved the little first grader who demonstrated her ability to make a paper airplane. A little bit of physics for the masses, if you will.

Watching all of the students give the performers their full attention and seeing all of the parents and family members who showed up in the middle of the day was kind of incredible. Sure there were kids who sang off key and couldn’t sing on the beat. Yes the highlight of the sixth grade dance routine was watching the two girls crawl through the other’s bridge-up. And when it was all over, a sweet 3rd grader looked at me with her eyes shining and said, “There were some really awesome acts today.”

Even though the sometimes sarcastic and critical type-A part of me wanted to laugh a little at her earnest comment, I knew she was right. There were some extremely talented kids who performed, no doubt. And there were some average kids who performed. The “incredible” part for me was thinking about how much courage it takes to get up in front of one’s peers and perform, regardless of skill level. Public speaking, after all, still ranks as people’s #1 fear (at least in 2011), so I imagine that dancing, singing a solo, or doing anything else alone on a stage provokes a similar level of fear in most folks. All of the kids who performed today chose to share some other part of themselves that isn’t always highlighted in a classroom setting. I bet the singers — though nervous — were totally excited to sing in front of an audience. (I know from experience: I used to love to sing in front of my mirror at home with a hairbrush microphone. A jump rope also worked, as it imitated having to deal with a microphone cord.)

For all its varied level of “talent,” I absolutely loved the hour of my day spent watching the students perform. I’m also going to have to agree with the ed school professor who believes in talent shows. The band teacher/Talent Show MC summed it up best during his closing remarks: he encouraged all of the kids to explore all of their talents, to find out what they may like or be good at beyond academics because, he said, “you never know.” I think that we all want students to be original, to be open to new ideas, to feel like they have the permission to try anything at least once.

In this digital age, YouTube is like one huge international talent show; post a video and have an instant world-wide audience. But nothing quite compares to being live in front of your school, your classmates, and your parents all at once, because there are no edits or re-dos then.

So bring on the talent shows, I say. We’ve got some creativity to foster.


Curling Notes

Monday – Just for Fun League: I like playing on Monday nights. It’s low-pressure, has a wide range of ability on the ice, and gives me much-needed practice. This week I let the competitive part of me get in the way of having fun… And I don’t think the only other woman on my team enjoyed me as a teammate. Whenever I tried to help her sweep the rock harder, she seemed to get frustrated and give up, which in turn annoyed me more because I felt like I was doing more work. And I couldn’t get out of my own head after missing a few shots. Instead of focusing on the next round, I continued to anticipate repeating my mistakes. Shockingly, I repeated my mistakes. (sigh)

Wednesday – Dinner League: We only had three players instead of four. Our communication level was much better, but our execution was lacking. We got down early, stayed down, and spent too much time lamenting the fact that we were losing to this particular team instead of doing what we needed to do. Lesson learned on the ice, but thankfully socializing before dinner was lovely.

Thursday – Competitive League: I was invited to play as a sub tonight, which meant I was throwing lead. It is possibly my favorite position because I either have to shoot draws or relatively simple take-outs, and the rest of the time I’m a good soldier who sweeps as I’m told to by the skip. The competition level is much higher on Thursday nights, and the strategy of the game is much clearer when everyone on the ice executes well. Not wanting to stick out as the weak link on my team, I definitely had to step it up. Tonight was by far my best performance, even though it was my 3rd loss of the week. We were competitive as a team, and we all felt good about how it went. A few different decisions here and there could have turned it in our favor, but that’s part of playing the game.

Curling is a funny sport — throwing rocks down sheets of ice while teammates sweep the rock. It’s one of those sports that you have to watch to understand, and it got a ton of coverage in the 2010 Olympics. Since moving to Alaska, we started curling in the fall, and I think I have found my new lifetime sport. It is, perhaps, one of the most team-oriented team sports I have ever experienced. Why? Because no one can hide. Every person on the team has to throw two rocks every single end, and everyone on the team (other than the skip) has to sweep. In other words, there is no hiding the weak link, and one really excellent player can’t carry an entire team. As I learned in my Curling 101 session, there are only two things under my control during each end: the two rocks I get to throw and my attitude.

It’s going to take time to develop control over the rocks I throw, and I’m practicing that every week, obviously. It sort of amazes me that I spend my days at work trying to have a good attitude and trying to teach kids about having excellent social skills, yet I can still manage to be a lame teammate sometimes because I want so much to win. I know that goes back to my desire for “best” status, but tonight I managed to find the right balance between focus and enjoyment.

Maybe curling is just a game, but I have always thought that sports offer clear metaphors for life. Stay in each moment, enjoy the process, do your part to support the team… and always come out a winner, regardless of the final score.


A Happiness Talk

I don’t remember where I stumbled across this recently, but it speaks to me. If we can shift our perspective toward what is positive in our lives, the possibilities that open up before us are beyond what we can imagine.

TED talk from Shawn Achor

If this mentality can impact individuals, I get inspired thinking about how it can affect whole teams and groups.


Re-vision

I was an English major in college, so I can’t even begin to think about how many papers I have written over the course of a lifetime, especially when I factor in that I also took more than my fair share of other Humanities courses. But being the procrastinating creature that I am, it was very typical that I would write papers the night before or in the hours before they were due in class. My strategy was that I could produce one quality page an hour, so if I started a five-page paper at midnight for a class that didn’t start until 11am the next day, no stress. What I didn’t comprehend until later was that I was mashing all of the steps of the writing process – you know, the ones I would eventually have to teach high school and middle school kids as an English teacher — into one: brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit all at the same time. I’d jot down quotes I liked from the text or texts (that’s how I do outlines), ponder them, start writing, re-read, make some changes, and eventually jump back to the beginning and write an introduction with a thesis once I had some paragraphs written. A weirdly advanced skill.

When I became a teacher, I learned quickly that teaching students how to revise their own writing was tough. For a lot of students, producing a draft is hard enough. Revising is that much harder. Make changes? Re-read my work to see if it makes sense before I publish it? Find a different supportive quote? Delete stuff? Ugh. Most of my students, in our first go-rounds of writing some kind of narrative or essay, would think that fixing some capital letters and punctuation was enough. I realized that I needed to make a clearer distinction, then, between revision and editing/proofreading. Revision, I told them,  literally means “the act of seeing again” — that is, to look at your work through fresh eyes and make changes for the better as needed.

Lately I think I’ve been in the process of revision for the draft of my life and probably always will be. When I was fresh out of grad school and in my first year of teaching, I was completely idealistic and fully prepared to “teach to change the world,” as my grad program encouraged. I wanted to be someone who made a difference for that one starfish, as the parable goes. Thus I spent millions of hours at school, prepping and grading and figuring out how to plan curriculum, and I did that alongside fellow young teachers who were equally dedicated. And for a long time I believe that we did make a difference for more than one starfish, just by being teachers who really cared. Many of our students became the first in their respective families to graduate from high school, and some went on to finish college. Some are still working on finishing their college degrees and grinding away with gusto. By being at our school, many students started to revise their views of their lives and what was possible.

In my sixth year of teaching, I became really unhappy. I still deeply loved my students and pushed them to reach for my very high expectations. In fact, I will always remember one of my sixth graders sharing out her reflection (a requirement of mine on the day that they turned in final drafts): she said she felt so proud of herself for turning in work that looked like a college student’s, as she had taken the time to type it and format it exactly as I had shown them. It was, in retrospect, a very rewarding year from a teaching perspective. But around this time of the year — February — I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go back in the fall. I loved them, but I loved myself and valued my own well-being more. I couldn’t go back to school and be what I call a paycheck teacher; I believe that all students deserve more than that. So I had to start revising: what was I going to do now?

I think that leaving that position behind gave me fresh eyes. I had to think about what my priorities were in life and what other directions or paths I could take. Go back to school? Try to have kids while contemplating a career move? Do nothing for a while and just work retail for fun? In the end, landing in a mentoring position was right for me because I could still have an impact on students by working with new teachers. It was sort of an exponential increase in size of impact, because now I was working with three teachers who each had at least four different sections of students. A revision of my role in education.

Since we moved, though, that position only lasted for one school year. Now I am in an elementary school and essentially working as a mentor, even though that is not my official title. I have spent my time there since September constantly trying to revise my role and shape it into something that fits me and the school. I don’t think I’ve fully figured it out yet, but it’s getting there. It’s evolving. Who knows how/if they’ll want me back next year, or if I will want to be there next year.  In the meantime, I’m still trying to revise how I see these next few years of my life here in Alaska. Are we going to be lifers here? Will one of us stumble across an opportunity that will move us somewhere else in the world for a time? Will we — fingers crossed — start to raise a family in the next few years? I’m trying to look at myself and my life with fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the real reason why I’m writing now.

What I know for certain is that revision, or re-vision, is not just about writing a paper. So far, I’m thinking that the 30-year-old draft of me is solid, but we all know that good is the step before better or great.


All You Need Is…

Today is Valentine’s Day Eve, if you will, and I am preparing myself for delighting in many more homemade heart-shaped cookies.. They started arriving last week and there were some in the staff lounge today, and I imagine there will be more tomorrow to share. As a married lady, I am happy to say that this is not a big “holiday” for us, because we’d have far bigger issues if we didn’t express how much we love each other more than annually. (And if you happen to be someone who is currently measuring the health of your relationship by what happens tomorrow, then I am worried for you.) I will be giving Husband a Valentine card, of course, because my preferred form of love-giving in the form of a present is through writing.

But back to Valentine’s Day Eve. Today I spent my afternoon in two different classes, where both of the teachers at different times had told me that their classes are needing a renewal of community. One teacher said recently that her students requested more “bonding time,” and the other teacher said that her kiddos are getting to a point where they get visibly disappointed if they don’t end up pairing with one of their so-called “best friends” in the class.

In both classes we warmed up with some improv exercises and some sharing in partners, but in the end I got the most traction with talking about the Golden Rule. I will forever remember my mom saying things like, “You know, I may not go to church, but I follow the Golden Rule.” (She is what I heard a priest call a Chreaster — a regular major religious holiday-going Catholic.) I asked the kiddos if they had heard of it — they had, thankfully — and we wrote out a few forms of it on the board. “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I explained that every major world religion has a form of this rule at the heart of their teaching, and then I asked the questions: Does this rule say you have to be best friends with everybody? Does this rule say that you have to like every single person you meet every single second of the day? What does it mean?

They cut to the chase right away: Be kind to others if you want them to be kind to you. Don’t be surprised if people are mean to you if you say mean things. Ah, yes. All we need is a little more community love, right? They each wrote the one thing they will try to do to be a better community member on a Post-it note before I left, saying things like “I will not laugh when ____ talks” and “I will try to work hard with my partner even when I wish my partner was someone else.” Gotta love kids for being honest. And I hope that today gave them some food for thought. It’s not easy to follow the Golden Rule, especially with people who work so hard at being Negative Nellies and Debbie Downers and take it out on other people. Or, in the land of middle school, it’s hard to follow the Golden Rule when the novelty of cliques is starting to become a reality in the classroom. So I’m hoping that they’re going to work on it, though I know they won’t fix it in a day. But on this Valentine’s Day Eve, I thought it was more than appropriate to focus on a different kind of love than the kind that we associate with a heart-shaped box of chocolates and teddy bears. I was reminded too that I am not exempt from this rule, either. Working in a community isn’t the same as having a strong feeling of community, and we can all certainly afford to plug into that feeling of connectedness with each other.


The Secret Word

As a child of the ’80s, I loved watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on Saturday mornings. I especially loved the “secret word” that was a cue for everyone in the Playhouse to scream every time someone said it. I am convinced that in the past 24 hours of my life, the secret word has been mentor.

1. In yesterday’s local paper, there was an article explaining how Big Brothers Big Sisters is trying to quantify the impact of high-quality mentoring.

2. Toward the end of the school day yesterday, one of the veteran teachers stopped me in a moment of stress. She said she mentored the teacher next door and needed some help around approaching a difficult conversation that they’ve been trying to have during their last few meetings. I said, “So you as a mentor kind of need a mentor right now?”

3. I had a great, long-overdue catch-up phone session with my mom yesterday afternoon. She always asks about work, and I explained to her some of the positives of late and how I think my role has really evolved into the mentoring position that I was looking for before we moved to AK.

4. Last night was Dinner League, our regular Wednesday night curling session followed by a home-cooked dinner with everyone there. I was chatting with a fellow curler who is a high school history teacher up here, and I asked her if she had heard of some of the different free online history resources available. While I was describing the site, she stopped and said, “Hey, are you a content mentor?”

5. This morning I wrote an email to my most recent mentors, the two women who led all of my professional development training last year in northern California. I just wanted to thank them again for being such professionals and role models, masters of the art of mentoring. One of them responded immediately, and she wrote that she has a feeling we will work together again someday. I love that thought!

6. The veteran teacher (see #2) and I met this afternoon in a follow-up conversation to strategize about how best to mentor all of her mentees (she has three). I explained that I am a total dork and love talking about mentoring as a practice, so she can tap my shoulder whenever needed.

7. Icing on the cake? I’m catching up on last night’s episode of Top Chef this evening, and the episode is titled “Mentors.” Whaaat? For the elimination challenge that determines the Final Four, each contestant had to cook a dish that would make their respective mentors proud. Yes, all of the mentors appeared as a surprise to the contestants, and all of them — mentors and mentees alike — were very emotional seeing each other.

Conclusion: The secret word is mentor.  [insert long, extended, joyful scream here] (Did I mention that currently my sister is mentoring a high school student? And that one of my best friends is a life coach (aka a mentor)?) My ears are peeled for the next Secret Word; I only hope it wil be as obvious as this one.