We are back and we have themes!: September 2022 we delve deep into “Best Intentions”

Our esSAy is back for the 22-23 school year, and we are fresh-faced.  Welcome (from left to right) to Hollie Marjanovic (US), Kim Sewell (ECC), Michelle Portera (LS), Rachel Scott (LS), and Brad P–. ..I mean Buck Cooper (MS). (I promise to replace this image with the real Buck ASAP!)

We are also fresh-themed.  And for the month of September we share stories from faculty and community members that all point to “Good Intentions.”  It’s an apt-theme for any school-based blog, really, because what could possibly push us more as teachers, more as a school, than our unfailing, unwavering, sometimes blindingly GOOD intentions?

In this month’s set of content we explore what good intentions fuel us, which good intentions blind us, and which ones (ahem) sometimes pave the way to  h-e-double-hockey-sticks.  We accept the fact that there is never a simple fix, a silver bullet, a one size fits all.  For those of us who tend to be people-pleasers (I mean I have NO experience with this), we may even begin the first stage of realizing . . .

And, perhaps, most importantly, we explore a oh-so-tentative but hopeful thesis that, even if good intentions don’t always equal perfect results . . . they produce something even better than pure success.  With the right mindset and space for reflection, they can result in learning a thing or two, getting knocked down a peg or two (surprisingly good for most of us), and understanding one or two more perspectives than you did before.  

Exhibit A: Our 8/11 Workshop Week Day of Incredible Breakout Sessions. (Link to schedule)

Ya’ll.  Those sessions were FIRE.  The whole day of things and people, collectively and individually, made me so proud my heart coulda burst.  

I promise you that stuff we pulled off rivaled the breakout sessions of any national/international conference I’ve been to.  You can try to convince me otherwise.  I dare you.  

Besides that, faculty as attendees were ROCK STARS.  Actively engaged, you asked probing questions, you provided super helpful strategies in small groups.

But wow that day was fraught.  Despite the fact that I built the day with feedback from faculty reps, despite the fact that faculty assured me it would be a good, practical use of their time in setting up the school year, about a week before the event, the complaints started coming in. Most of them centered around the need for more time to get classrooms set up for the school year, the sense that sessions wouldn’t apply across the board, the sense that two days together as whole-faculty wasn’t a thoughtful use of their time.  

Some, in fact, felt like the workshop week schedule was outrightly disrespectful and a flagrant disregard of their lived reality as teachers. Others were more gentle in their language. I was grateful for all the feedback in the way I am grateful for a vaccination: painful in the moment, helpful in the long run. After all,  I have never set up a classroom for four year olds.  When faculty speak, I believe them. 

So . . . men plan, and God laughs?

Let me make something visible, in case you don’t know.  The current administrators that I work with are incredibly sensitive to faculty feedback.  The pre-event outrage was enough to result in no fewer than 3 conversations with leadership and a flurried string of emails.  “Should we cancel the day? Make it optional? Tell people to just come for half the day? Explicitly tell everyone they can skip at least a session?  Tell this division it is optional and that division it isn’t?” We went back and forth so many times about the pros and cons of all of the things.  

 But I could not stop thinking about the sessions we had lined up, the faculty who expressed excitement about sharing something on their mind, and our original impetus for the day.  So many of the things that plague us in teaching/learning/setting up positive cultures are mistakes made the first few weeks of school.  Many of the topics felt urgent.  If we pushed them off to October, would it be too late? And if we told everyone to skip the sessions they needed to, would that mean none of the five presenters in the last session would have an audience? That certainly felt disrespectful to the time they had put into proposing and planning their sessions.

So we proceeded, tentatively, as planned.  But even two minutes before the morning began I was having hurried conversations with folks in different divisions about whether Kevin or  I should address the elephant in the room of faculty discontent about the day.  I feared, though, that for folks NOT feeling preemptively angry about the day that would set them off on the wrong foot. (To be fair, there were also faculty in a very different place, interested in the experiences the day would hold.)  And mostly at the center of my vision were those generous, brilliant faculty that had stepped up to be presenters. I felt responsible in some way to avoid ripping the carpet out from under them.

So we proceeded.  Maybe it was the right decision.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  It was not made thoughtlessly.  And it was not made with a dismissive attitude toward faculty’s lived experiences of real stress that week.  

I fall short.  I fall short.  I fall short.  

Maybe it’s time to bring back that meme again. 

I will spare you the speech about how many hours it took us to shape the program for that day. I will spare you the speech about how rarely we have entire days dedicated to the art and science of teaching/learning together as a collective.  I will spare you the speech about how EVERY PD day I have ever helped organize has been filled with complaints (in August, in October, in February, in May) about how poorly timed it feels: we are working on report cards and need to do comments, we are trying to set up classes, we are planning for midterms, etc . . . I will spare you the speech about the fact that admin are not evil people trying to ruin lives, but we are most certainly imperfect and sometimes miss the trees for the forest. (On the other hand, I suspect sometimes faculty miss the forest for the trees.)  I will spare you the speech about the wild sinus infection I developed that week and how badly I felt throughout the day racing from session to session.  

Whoops. I guess I didn’t spare you the speech; sparing people speeches is not one of my fortes.

I sent out a feedback form.  I knew it was gonna be ugly, but usually it is just those hunches that mean the information will be valuable, will teach me something. 

Lemme be real for a minute: I cried all weekend. Like, faucet tears every few moments.  Like, Alianna Rust sitting beside me on the couch rubbing my arm asking me if I was okay and I may have said at some point “I ruined my life when I stopped being a professor.”  Ya’ll I was a GREAT professor.  Like a really good one.  I promise. People loved me.  I loved being loved.

It was irrational, it was steeped in a combo of my oversized ego and sinus infection and overarching exhaustion, and it was the culmination of a month of planning mentor program and workshop week stuff and accreditation and going to a conference and etc. etc. Dude, the feedback wasn’t even that harsh.  People mostly said they were exhausted by the day and needed less.  A few got a bit more heated in their reply about the uselessness and utter disrespect they felt that day, but they too spoke their truth.  When faculty speak, I listen.

Here is one thing that bugged me.  When we gathered as senior leadership to reflect on workshop week, the conversation centered mostly around the 8/11 day of sessions.. . in not a good way.  Very few faculty had feedback about the Tuesday (first day) of meetings, and it is clear that divisional meetings are really needed for nuts and bolts things.  I’m also the only one dumb enough to send out a formal survey soliciting faculty feedback about what I planned. Ha! I suspect there was also just something about the timing of that Thursday that set people off.  I worry that Kevin and others may have gotten the message that faculty don’t like faculty-led PD.  I worry that I won’t have the courage to propose something similar again.  I worry because that kind of day is my favorite version of my job, and I want to love my job. 

I never shared with folks the kind, positive words I got about that day.  There were 3-5 thank you emails and a few “let’s walk together and lemme tell you what an incredibly valuable, power-packed day it was.”

The bad sticks with us and the good slides right off of us.  Perhaps this isn’t great. Or perhaps this is distinctly human in an evolutionary sort of way.  We have to pay most attention when we are in danger, threatened.  We are in peak performance when the defensive adrenaline kicks in.  “HEY JULIE” the bad feedback yells, “THIS FEELS BAD, SO THIS MUST BE A LEARNING MOMENT!  BUCK UP AND LISTEN!”

So what, exactly, did I learn?

  1. I will never ask for a whole school day dedicated to whole-school teaching and learning during workshop week again.
  2. Those sessions and presenters were FIRE.  
  3. I need to get over myself.
  4. Tell people they have permission to take a break during the day, and trust that they won’t all skip the last session.  Fatigue is REAL.  Info-overload is real too. 
  5. Just because sessions are fire to me doesn’t mean there will be unanimous agreement all around.
  6. Different divisions have different divisional needs; sure we can all learn together, but it takes a lot of work and thoughtfulness for that to go down well.
  7. Many faculty really do feel ignored and dismissed by admin decisions, despite all of the work we have poured into  this very issue of faculty leadership and admin listening. We need to keep digging to figure out why and make changes so they don’t feel this way. 
  8. Less is rarely less.  Less is usually more. 
  9. I shouldn’t come to school and work when I am sick. I am not that important.
  10.  I am not what I do.  I am not what I do.  I am not what I do. (Neither are you.)

I told our TEAM folks I needed to write about this topic on the blog because writing, for me, is sense-making, and I still can’t see my way clear on the Great 8/11 Breakout Session Day of 2022.  I think it was the simultaneously the grandest success and the most spectacular failure of my career at St. Andrew’s.  I reminded myself as I cried my way through that weekend that I am only three years into this career.  My grad school mentor had to remind me this when I got like one negative comment on my student evaluations in my first English Education class for undergrads.  She was shocked when she heard how high my eval numbers were (“I’ve never gotten numbers that high!”) and she followed it up with an appropriately patronizing tone: “Baby- you are just STARTING your career.”

I’m an impatient one. Three years in,  I feel old, seasoned, veteran.  This is absurd. I am a brand new baby administrator. I am going on four years old.  I still benefit from sippy cups generally, and naptime is still needed to get through the rigors of the day.  Sometimes I can navigate complex situations like a pro, and sometimes I find myself reaching for a pacifier and crying myself to sleep.  I am grateful for a faculty and admin community at St. Andrew’s that is willing to tolerate me and my flurry of ideas, despite all of this.

My  intentions were good.  And so were all of yours. And I am grateful for all of you who have tried, gently and not-so-gently, to show me how good intentions are not all that matters.  

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