Monday, 29 April 2013

Blizzards in April, Adventures In Adversity

Spring is often late in the north Peace. This year winter has lingered longer than most and all of us were relieved when warmer temperatures finally began to erode the snow banks and the grass began to re-emerge! This morning Mother Nature, in a particularly cruel twist, brought back winter  for one last blast. Five centimeters of snow fell over freezing rain with 50 km winds and blowing snow making driving a nasty challenge. All this on the second to last day of April!

Our district people took the event in stride. Buses were cancelled. Contingency plans were rolled out as staff, students and parents dealt with the situation. We're a resilient bunch up here. In my 24 years working in the district I have witnessed snowfalls in every month on the calendar. Our ability to cope with such events is one of the things that makes working here so interesting.

Not everyone appreciated the challenge. Quite frankly, snow in late April is quite hard to take, even for me, and as anyone who's seen my penguin presentations knows, I like it cold. For the most part, however folks took the event in stride. By tomorrow, the sun will (hopefully) be back and today's event will be just another story about living in the north.

Being resilient helps with more than coping with adverse unseasonable weather.  Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor identifies several strategies for dealing with life's challenges. Amongst them are ideas like: no matter how bad things are; always try to identify a positive outcome or a way to find an opportunity, even if it’s just to acknowledge that the challenge can be seen as an opportunity to grow. Find ways to keep motivated, even if it means getting motivation from different parts of one's life. Focus on what's within our control. We might not be in a position to decide what the outcome will be, or to have any control over the situation but at the very least we can choose our attitudes and reactions.

I'll admit, looking outside first thing in the morning to encounter a howling blizzard is not my preferred way to start the week. Seeing how well our people coped with the challenge, however was great. I feel fortunate to be working with and for such resilient and optimistic people.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Up Up and Away!

Friday I accepted the superintendent's position within my district. The congratulations and good wishes from colleagues, trustees, staff, parents, former students and people I didn't even know, was both gratifying and humbling. Its nice to know the board's decision was a popular one, and I will do my best to prove worthy of such support.

Now the real work begins. Not that I was wasn't working before, but as the Assistant Superintendent, and the Director of Instruction before that, there was always at least one more door I could bring questions to. Its a bit intimidating to think that that last door is now mine. Its not like there's about to be wholesale change. I did work as part of the outgoing superintendent's senior management team for over six years. I had a big part in creating the circumstances he's handing off, and that should help make the change over a little easier.

There will be differences though. The previous superintendent and I have our similarities but there are significant differences too! So the future will bring a combination of new and old. A guest column blog entry at The Ratrace by Mario Taylor, entitled "You Have A Dream, So Now What?" summarizes this situation well. Everyone learns from those who've come before them. The key is to do the legwork  and "maven up". 

Valuing past learning needs to be combined with forward looking action. As identified by Sources of Insight, and other advisors for personal efficacy, fresh starts need to focus on opportunities and not getting bogged down in the enormity of the tasks at hand. An emphasis on valuing up the opportunity can help combat feelings of backlog burnout. To do lists are suddenly a bigger part of my life.

So onwards and upwards. The road ahead is daunting and the tasks varied and many, but exciting none the less. Paraphrasing Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroine, Anne Shirley only slightly, I can say "Before my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don't know what lies around the bend, but I'm going to believe that the best does!"  Bringing out the best in people is really what education strives for. Our district's motto is "Together We Learn".  I'm certain there are going to be lots of learning opportunities ahead for everyone. 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Transitions: Dealing With Seasons of Change

Last month our superintendent retired. The timing of his announcement caught many within our organization by surprise. Expressions of congratulations on a great career and excitement for the opportunities that lie ahead for him poured into the district office. And then? Then came the realization that things were about to change.  A period of transition has been thrust upon us.

Transitions can be both interesting and challenging. There is a subtle but important difference between change and transition. Change is situational; it can be an event: something that happens. Transitions are  psychological. A transition evolves out of how one feels about and reacts to a change. It's not the just the event alone that causes the transition; it's the inner-reorientation and meaning-redefinitions people make as they incorporate those changes into their lives.  Paradoxically education is a field where change and transition seem almost constant. Having effective strategies to deal with transitions is a valuable 21st century skill.

Colorado State University authors S. Quick, R.J. Fetsch and M. Rupured offer many strategies for coping with transitions. One strategy that resonates with me is taking a seasons approach to transitions, likening different types of response to fall, winter and spring. Fall transitions break old patterns. They involve saying farewell to familiar people, places and routines. Transitions that evoke winter bring feelings of emptiness, numbness, and confusion. Such transitions occurs when people haven't yet connected to new situations and aren't yet completely disconnected from the past. Springlike transitions require the letting go of the old relationships, situations or events and starting anew. Just as spring leaves bud and flowers bloom, in a spring transition, people find new energy to make a new beginning. (For a more in depth look at this analogy see William Bridges book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes)

Research suggests resilient people handle transitions better. Building resilience involves maintaining an optimistic outlook, taking steps to positively influence the things one can control and having the wisdom and confidence not to worry or fixate on the things over which one has no control. Developing a good network of friends both at work and away from the office always helps one navigate the choppy periods of uncertainty that accompany transitions. One should also look after their health and well being by getting enough sleep and exercise. 

Its important to remember that transitions. no matter how challenging, don't last forever. Just like the seasons, transitions do pass. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Richard III there may be no guarantees that our winters of discontent will be made glorious summer, but through awareness and positive response our stern alarums may be changed to merry meetings and our dreadful marches to delightful measures. Recognizing a transition for what it is and moving forward with resilience and a positive attitude can dispel or lessen feelings of anxiety and uncertainty and help us welcome a new season of change.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Challenge, Crisis and Opportunity

Finding opportunity in a challenge is often easier said than done. Challenges left unattended have a way of growing into crises, real or imagined. Last week our family experienced a small scale domestic crisis first hand. Hours before I was due to leave on a trip, my son discovered a puddle in the middle of his basement bedroom. Closer examination revealed the challenge was a  bathroom pipe that had been leaking  through the wall and under his carpet for some time. In the past this situation might have set our whole family into a tailspin, but not this time. Once we'd shut off the water,  removed the sopping carpet and called the plumber the worst was over. While I was away, other family members collaborated on solutions. By the time I returned, plumbing repairs were complete and a re-modelling plan had begun to take shape. My son and I now have an opportunity to build something better together together.

Finding opportunity in crisis has a long history as a business strategy.  Forbes Magazine succinctly summarizes the traditional view that crisis can be leveraged to get more from people within an organization. The idea that a crisis can help managers find inner strengths and new levels of productivity in their employees has some validity, but seems cold and and a bit manipulative.  Bruce Evan Goldstein's book Collaborative Resilience takes a different tack, presenting a series of essays that describe how groups and organizations have pulled together to cope and come back stronger from real life altering crises.

The wave of change coming through public education may still be more of a challenge than a crisis, but just like our plumbing issue, it does have potential for setting people and districts into a tizzy. Calm and resilient response, that generates clear and collaborative solutions that value all stakeholders is the best way forward. Keeping education engaging, effective and  relevant in the face of rapid change and ever tightening resources isn't easy. Simply exploiting a challenge by driving people to work harder only burns them out or feeds a sense of crisis and impending doom. Recognizing a need for change and redesigning systems, or effecting solutions that leave things better than we found them, takes the sting out of challenges and turn them into a real opportunities.