Friday, March 9, 2018

Work-Life Balance: It's your ship.

I got an email from a former student asking if I had time to talk this morning. After we agreed on a time and connected, I could hear immediately they were pretty tense.
After a bit of catch up time, personal details aside, he said he'd been in a new job for five months, on salary, and has been routinely asked to work over 80 hours a week 'to get the job done.' He'd been asked to work weekends, come in for meetings as early as 5 am, and stay late at the drop of a hat, sometimes as late as 1 am. Messages came in related to work 24/7 with expectations for 'timely response.' He also said he'd been asked to travel spontaneously with overnights four times so far with less than 24 hours notice. No matter how late you stay apparently, employees are asked to be at work the next day on-time at 8 am, no matter what the circumstances. The pay, he relayed, could be considered slightly above average for their position, but by no means would it be considered extraordinary or even exceptional. He said the office has some modern trends: a ping pong table, free coffee, free sandwiches and salads on Friday's, and free 15-minute employee massages in-house once per month.
I asked how he was doing and if he loved the work. "I did," he said. "But, I'm burning out. I can't get away from it and take a break at this pace. I feel exhausted every single day. By the time I do get a few hours off, I don't feel like doing anything. I have no time to see my wife and son or friends. I haven't done anything for so long except come home, eat and sleep. Things are getting tense at home because I'm literally never there to do anything."
He said it all hit wall recently because he requested a total of four hours off last week to bring his five-year-old son to two dentist appointments and was told he had to file and take CTO (Combined Time Off) to do so. Taking this time, he explained, means less vacation, later on, something he already feels he sorely needs because of burnout.
Then he asked what advice I had for him.
I asked him if he had any mentors at work. "What?" he replied. I asked if he'd been assigned any mentors at work, someone he could talk to about challenges in this new positions, expectations, if their take on if this was normal, etc. "No,'" he responded. "Someone showed me the ropes of my job for about a week, where to find things, where files go, and training on one application we use, but nothing like you're talking about."
I reminded him that in five months of employment, he'd worked over ten months already - "you've doubled your hours per week, each week, for five months."
I shared some of my trials over the years. I wish I could say I've always managed work-life balance well in my career, but I haven't. It's a constant juggling act. I've worked myself to the point of exhaustion a few times and also crossed that threshold twice over 25 years and into health problems. I decided in a couple of those instances to 'press on' and slowly make the adjustments I needed to restore work-life balance. In a couple of others, I felt it was just necessary to move on because stress/dysfunction and 'end game' didn't make sense. In all those cases, 'real' mentorship programs were non-existent and left me thinking how valuable they could have been to change the culture.
So I gave him the following advice: "Strike up a conversation with a peer who's been there for a bit, explain your question, and ask how they address these issues. Leave the stress out of it, just stay factual. It'll help you gain some perspective. Then talk to your supervisor and explain your situation and circumstances. Ask them to clarify their stance on your question and see what they say. If the answer remains to take CTO time to bring your child to the dentist, and 'do whatever it takes to do your job,' as in 80+ hours per week, and 24/7 availability, then analyze the end game.
End-game, meaning, 'what are you getting out of this and what's the projection of how this will play out over time?' That will likely lead to three options: 1. You love the money and think it's worth it as long as you can put up with it. 2. You love the job, see this demand as temporary, and that it will or can improve. 3. Endure it for the time being and it'll give you time to start polishing your resume and move on if you don't want to live this way.
I often think of the mentorship programs I saw available to new teachers when I was in New Zealand. You taught with a mentor in year one, were mentored half-time in year two, and then in year three were turned loose. Faculty, department, and mentor meetings were part of the weekly culture no matter what year you were in and the school schedule was built to promote this level of collaboration. I interviewed more than 25 teachers, a small but effective sample group over many schools; I didn't meet a single person who didn't think this type of mentorship program was instrumental to success, teacher retention, and overall creativity. In all, they felt the program led to less burnout, better collaboration and camaraderie, and improvements in instruction and services to students. Go figure.
In a high percentage of schools and businesses I've worked with, ongoing mentorship programs, save a bit of training at the onset, didn't exist.
What if we valued mentorship programs more readily in schools and businesses? What dividends can bloom from a robust mentorship program?
Mining people's well being, their health, and destroying their family lives won't lead to more productive employees or, I'd dare say, a functional society, company or school in the long run. The perks of a ping pong table, free coffee, or 15-minute massages for employees once per month might not compensate for the dysfunction that brews at home from working two full-time jobs, the mental and physical health challenge of being on call 24/7 and disconnecting from your home life.
We all hear stories about 'the corporate life.' More, faster, and sacrificing nearly any and all personal time for 'the work you love.' It's a choice, really. That's all it is.
I know people who work two full-time jobs or close to it just to make ends meet. Some work incredible hours because it's truly, what they love to do and are able to find some balance in the immersive hours that 'floats their boat.' Some others I know commit to this schedule by choice banking on the financial rewards later on. Some others still who work part-time, cover their expenses, and explore more freedom. One thing is for certain though, the weather patterns will change. Choices of how to live, how much you spend, and what 'bs' you can and are willing to put up with are all important considerations. Your mental and emotional health are important to monitor. Burnout won't help you or anyone in your life. Regardless, it all comes down to a series of analysis, reflection, and charting a course.
The demands will keep coming. The changes will keep coming. It's up to you to decide how much rough weather your ship can take, how much sail to put up based on the wind, which direction to go, set a course, and grab the rudder.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Inventing, Reinventing, Sustainability... and Leadership

I've helped a lot of schools and districts explore this question:

"What's not working?"

...and then:

"Why isn't it working?"

When things get busy though, it's easy to ignore those simple questions and go into triage mode for long periods of time.

Identify the most pressing, recurring problems the organization has by talking with people. I find that strong themes always emerge from those conversations.

Take that data and map it out.

Take the top item and then explore the root cause of that problem.

The root cause.

Then dive into fixing it. Set things in motion. One. Problem. At. A. Time.

It's amazing how quickly a pile of problems can disappear, how much morale can improve, and how it can open the doors to new growth.

That's how you grow. That's how you gain momentum and inspire collaboration. That's how you build trust. That's how you inspire a 'keep moving forward' mindset and avoid stagnation. That's how you open the doors to innovation.

Then repeat that process as you keep growing. Don't grow stagnant in current routine or knowledge. As innovation changes things, process and operations must be reviewed again and again.

If schools continue to grow... so must the mechanisms and roles within them. Constantly.

Leaders need support to do this work. Without that support... ills will linger. Morale will drop. Support systems will get stressed. Core values and mission will drift, and innovation... will become just 'another thing to do' and so much potential will be lost.

#vted #education #business #growth

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Charlie Wilson

I'm so sad to learn that my friend and colleague at VITA-Learn, Charlie Wilson, passed away yesterday.

Over the last 25 years, I've admired Charlie's tireless advocacy for students, innovation, and creativity in schools.

Charlie's been a mentor to countless people in Vermont education over many decades. All Charlie's work was threaded with genuine compassion.

I found myself laughing, just once today, as I remembered...

Charlie joked with me a few years ago that not hiring me back in 1993 for a Network Administrator position at Shelburne Community School was one of the worst mistakes he ever made in education. I told him "if that's the worst mistake you ever made, you've done really well over the years." I'll never forget how he laughed that day, and how fun it was to listen to the stories that followed about his paths in education, the triumphs, the trials, and the ideas he was still hoping to work on.

I had another great conversation with Charlie this past November at VT Fest. As usual, he was full of ideas and bouncing new ones about what we could do to expand learning opportunities for kids.

Rest in peace, Charlie. Thanks for all your work here, kindness, friendship, and innovative spirit.

We're going to miss you here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Student Voice and Real Publishing

I get often asked what blog platform is best for students, and why I chose Blogger for this website.

As for what blog/web platform is best for students... I think that depends on what age group we're talking about.

Evaluating what your schools 'Digital Policy,' whatever schools call it at your site, says is worthwhile. Many schools haven't updated these docs in a while, and quite a few others I've read are, well, insanely restrictive. 

Here's the rub, I think... promoting kids, especially high school kids, to publish their work to a real audience in blogs/websites.

In our work in the rLab from 2005 - 2013, students created 'real' blogs to showcase their work. It was a meaningful portfolio of their work, resume, professional website... and story. Publishing to a worldwide audience rather than creating a portfolio jammed with work they would throw away when they graduated always made sense to me... and to students. Students had platform choice in the lab, and most students chose WordPress.

'Real' blogging for students created natural interdisciplinary threads to explore. Theme/s, layout, visual, writing, featured content, audio, video... it's a long list all centered around design and finding a voice.

I read a post on this topic from Audrey Watters a couple years ago about called The Web We Need to Give to Students, and, like all of her writing, it's well worth a read. I wish more High Schools, Technical Centers, and Colleges / Universities would follow suit.

So... why did I choose Blogger for creativeStir?

Bluntly, it was a quick solution way back in the day.  For basic functions, post and make a page type stuff, it works well, but it certainly has limitations. Blogger shares it's login under the Google Apps umbrella which I still find convenient, and it's mobile app back in the day worked quite well. I've learned some workarounds to increase Blogger capability, but it still isn't pretty, or a modern publishing platform by any means. I used Blogger for the Vermont State Baseball Coaches Association for all the same reasons. WordPress and other platforms have always far outmatched Blogger capabilities. I loved helping students learn to support each other using WordPress.

WordPress was the ticket for work at VITA-Learn, conference websites for Dynamic Landscapes and VT Fest, and for Burlington Technical Center.

Here's an updated rundown of the basic differences between Blogger and WordPress rather than rehash it here.

I'll move creativeStir from Blogger to WordPress at some point. It's time. Actually, it's been the for a while, but I haven't made it a priority.

So back to that Ed portfolio discussion... 

What if schools revisited how they are asking students to 'present' their learning? What are your thoughts about each student could benefit from their own website/domain?

#vted #education

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tim Comolli

I received word yesterday that my dear friend, mentor, and educator extraordinaire, Tim Comolli, passed away.

Tim was an innovator, a pioneer in education and student mentorship. His work in the Imaging Lab at South Burlington High School here in Vermont, the awards and grant writing are all eloquently recapped here by Sandy Lathem far better than I could.

I've spent countless hours seeking Tim's council and friendship over the years. We spent a lot of time... laughed, cried, talked through our faults, and counseled each other on the difficulties of innovating in education, especially in public education.

Tim helped me immeasurably over my career and life. He encouraged me to follow my heart and teach full time. His jovial personality, hearty and infectious laugh and radio voice were only outmeasured by the genuine compassion that came through in every conversation. I gained strength and perspective from his insight, humor and generosity, endlessly.

I couldn't count the number of times I left Tim's office, lab, or home with my sides aching from laughing so much.

Since I got this news... I've been reading again the countless emails and handwritten thank you cards Tim has sent me over the last 20 years. It's a recipe to laugh, cry, and above all... I'm so profoundly sad that these times with Tim have now come to pass.

Tim used this footer at the end of every email he sent, and it speaks volumes I think about his life.

"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, 
Saw a vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be..." 

I'll miss our talks about life, my old friend. I'll miss seeing the joy in your face when I tell you about my kids. I'll miss talking about education, the future, and how our past shaped our lives. I'll miss our debates on where the best pizza is these days in the area, and hearing what movies really taxed all the speakers in your house.

Rest in peace, Tim. Thanks for your friendship, kindness, and all your innovative work here.

We've all been so very fortunate to have you in our lives.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What's Your Message?

Building Better Ideas...

through ideation.

Building possibilities = building learning. 

It's about more than posting information with tools. 

It's about...

... people. 

... listening.

... collaborating.

... exploring connections.

... storytelling.

... showing people hope.

What can you offer in your message that inspires curiosity?

Be brief.

I love exploring these challenges. 

Love it.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Presidency of VITA-Learn 2011-2017

After six incredible years, I decided to wrap up my Presidency of VITA-Learn (VL) at VT Fest 2017.

I knew I'd been far too busy over the last year and a half and it was time to make some changes. New directions were unfolding, and with that, new opportunities. And... creating new opportunities for people is what VL is about when it's at it's best, so it's time to open this opportunity for another person to step into this role.

My friend, colleague, and board member, Patricia Aigner, takes the Presidency now.  Patricia has been involved with VL as a board member for many years, has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and so many great ideas.

I'll still be involved with VL, and will still be helping this great group innovate.  I'm moving back to the board in an 'ex-officio' position to help with marketing and outreach, ideation, conference innovation, and some special projects.

As for the conference emcee bit, my thanks to all who've given me so many compliments in my work there over the last 6 years (12 major conferences).  I'm hearing interest from the board that they may have me continue in that role in some fashion. We'll see where things land over the next months.

I need to thanks so many...  the board of directors, Paul Irish, Patricia Aigner, Lucie deLaBruere and Craig Lyndes, Mike Lambert, Steve Jarrett, Fred Wadlington, John Craig, Jen Burton, Caleb Clark, Dan French, Jay Nichols, Jess & Charlie Wilson, Ed Barry & Sue Hoffer, Peter Drescher, Rebecca Holcombe, Jeff Renard and the folks at VTVLC, the Tarrant Foundation, Chuck Scranton and the Rowland Foundation, and all the students, attendees, vendors, presenters, and our incredible immersive workshop leaders. A special thank you to my these immersive workshop leaders... Diana Laufenberg, David Jakes, Chris Lehmann, Kristina Ishmael-Peters, Brad Latimer, Zac Chase, Mary Beth Hertz, Andrew Marcinek, Zephyrus Todd, Matt Kay, and Gary Stager.

Working with all of you has inspired me in so many ways, helped me recharge, and helped me forge new ideas and connections. I feel very fortunate that I've developed friendships with so many as a result of this work and am looking forward to the next phase.

We did it. Together we restructured the organization to promote more innovation. We created more opportunities for PD in Vermont and abroad. We remapped and implemented a new marketing and outreach plan to help people connect and share. We rebuilt all the VL websites. We spiced up the conferences and created new opportunities within them. We introduced more student voice... student keynotes - the first in VT history. We built Project IGNITE. We built hands-on makerspaces at our conferences. We introduced alternative conference schedules to promote more diverse learning. We added some great social events to help people connect. We helped people connect to a larger audience in Vermont and abroad. In all, we opened new pathways to promote innovation in schools.

Other conferences and organizations took notice, especially in New England. So many abroad have been in contact with me to see how we did it, why, and what results it provided... and they have made similar shifts.

And VL is just getting started ; )

Three projects I'm looking forward to working on... promoting more diversity and discussions therein to VL conferences, continuing to grow partnerships with other organizations, and promoting more student voice.

My sincere thanks for all the kind words and encouragement, and thanks for attending all these great VL events and sharing your work and expertise. Keep doing great things. Keep sharing ideas.  And keep supporting each other.  We do our best work when we do it together.  I'm looking forward to seeing you around the shop.

We win...