Saturday, December 7, 2013

Confessions of An Unconfident Mind

I joined my ASCD state level executive board this past April. I hadn't planned on it. When I made the decision to pursue administrative openings, I thought I needed to take outside professional development. Make sure my mindset was globally relevant. Make certain my educational philosophy meshed with the current research on best practice. Maybe talk to educators outside my district, gain a different perspective, perhaps make a friend or two.

What I found from the two April professional development workshops I went to were people like me: looking to learn, passionate about education, and freely sharing their knowledge. There was no competition to get ahead, no elitism, just a common thread: let's learn together, share our thoughts, and then turnkey it back from whence we came. I needed more of this.

I reached out to the Executive Director of our state affiliate and was invited to attend the next executive board meeting. ASCD L2L was highlighted as an important way for us to continue to learn from other ASCD members, as well as share what we're doing (plus, they pay for your room and feed you a lot). I asked to attend, and my invitation was accepted. I didn't know what I was getting into.

Ben Shuldiner and Amy Brennan interacting with the audience.

I entered the hotel thinking, 'oh they have a 24 hour gym', and left two days later with my brain doing mental gymnastics and my workout clothes untouched. In between it seemed each person I met was highly credentialed, doing great work in education, and humble while discussing it (they were also likable, darn it). I thought to myself, 'big fish, big pond. Am I out of my element?' I met +Benjamin Shuldiner, the youngest principal ever in New York State, who dodged bullets in Crown Heights to visit each student's home, and created such buy-in during his 9 years there that his graduation rate (23%) and gang involvement (98%) flipped. I laughed with @BernsteinUSC about all ASCDL2L's sleeping in nearby 'unrooms' on whatever floor you happened to be in for the spirit of the unconference. I later found out Eric had a doctorate from Penn AND a law degree from UCONN, was a former principal, and a current faculty member at USC. Even my mentor and self-appointed guide, +Matthew Mingle, while reserved, was quietly driven: finishing his doctorate, about to move into a director of curriculum position, and highlighted by ASCD Executive Director, Gene R. Carter, in his keynote speech to all ASCD L2L attendees. I thought, 'why am I here?'

At two points in the conference I was able to answer that question. During our unconference brainstorming session, +Walter McKenzie, asked the attendees what were some essential questions to explore based on our morning learning session and our focus on whole child advocacy. After listening to others and channeling my anxiety, I shared my passion within education - soft skills. I asked Walter if we could consider that if the Common Core State Standards were the pinnacle, with the goal of preparing students to be successful in life as well as college and career ready, shouldn't we focus on the 1st level of that: being able to work as a member of a team, possessing a collaborative mindset, perseverance, grit, ability to learn from failure, etc.? I didn't see much reaction from my peers in the room when I shared this comment, so when Walter asked us to break into groups based on our essential questions, I didn't even go to my question group. I envisioned myself standing in an empty spot, me, next to my question posted on chart paper, just hanging out with each other. So, I hooked on with +Fred Ende and Jill Thompson, who had an interesting idea about reflecting on hiring practices for the future.

What a learning experience it was working with Fred AND not believing in my essential question. I engaged with the other members of the group on Fred's topic. We brainstormed together, and I found my voice. There were times when my thoughts were echoed, validated, or extended by others. Other times, disagreed with and explained why. I finally felt in my comfort zone, sitting around a round table, sharing out ideas with other passionate educators. Yeah, my resume wasn't as pretty, but that didn't matter to my peers at the table. They looked at me when they spoke, addressed what I said, and could care less about what stock I came from. They only cared if I had something to say, and probably were fine with me even if I didn't. So, why should it matter to me?

Meanwhile, my essential question group formed. They were the largest group of educators. They later presented an impassioned speech about what attendees would learn if we stopped by their unconference. I first thought to myself, 'Wow, that would have been a cool group to join, too!' I then thought, 'I guess I can trust my instincts as a future leader like I can as a current classroom teacher.'

What an empowering moment this was for me. My voice was heard and accepted. My essential question was validated by another group of ASCD educators I had never even met. And when we presented, my idea for us to share our brainstorm in a larger round table discussion when we had an iPad sound glitch was embraced and enacted beautifully by Ben and @amyrbrennan. When the presentations were over, all attendees clapped for one another. I clapped, too. Not just for what everyone had accomplished, but for my new friends, and the opportunities they gave me to feel a part of something bigger.

When we were asked to reflect on what we learned from the ASCDL2L Conference, I will remember one thing most of all: as I posed for a picture with the group of educators I had previously been in awe of and uncomfortable with, I realized I had reached a new level of learning: acceptance of self and others, willingness to show vulnerability, and a deeper ability to work as a collaborative member of a group. I had increased MY soft skills. And, I had made a group of friends I was determined to stay in touch with -- until the next L2L, when I could see them again.