Go Upstream

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” – Alexander Den Heijer

I have four plants in my office. One of them is a Peace Lily, and I’ve noticed she’s been a bit droopy lately. I mean, it’s February in the Midwest, so many of us are feeling a bit low.

Late last week, I looked at my other plants to see how they were doing. I noticed the one closest to the window seemed to be thriving. I also noticed that the blinds had been pulled due to a virtual meeting from a few days prior. I started to wonder if my Peace Lily was struggling because she wasn’t getting enough sunlight. So, I opened the blinds. Since doing so, she seems to be perking up and drinking more water. After making that change, however, the previously thriving plant seems to be drying out. Sigh. So, now I’m going to make adjustments to her care, including more water.

All of this to say, not once in this entire scenario did I think that I had “bad plants.” Not once. I know these plants want to grow. I know they want to be green and to push out thick, healthy leaves. These plants want to thrive.

The same is true for people. Very rarely does someone show up to school to think, “I’m going to do a bad job today. I’m going to make everyone’s life harder.” And yet, it’s very easy for us to make assumptions about people and the WHY behind their decisions and behavior. We can learn a lot from this analogy of nurturing plants. In fact, I’ve been so inspired by plants and nurturing the conditions where plants thrive that I wrote a chapter in my upcoming book about it titled, “Nurturing Blooms.”

Often whether we are leading classrooms, schools, or districts, we see leadership as a willingness to make decisions. Being willing to make the hard calls. Certainly, hard calls must be made and tough conversations must be had. I’ve made my fair share of tough decisions. I’ve had meetings where I’ve shut my door after everyone left and sobbed. I’ve experienced the sleepless nights that haunt many of us when we have something really hard waiting for us the next day at work. I can and continue to do hard things like all of us.

In fact, last Friday was supposed to be a really lighthearted, inspirational day of professional learning in our district. And it was! And yet, I found myself in an unexpected, difficult 1:1 conversation. Emotions were running high for this individual, and I was on the receiving end of those emotions. When that person left the room, I shut the door and ate a King Size Butterfinger in probably three bites. Then, I contemplated staying in that office all day by myself with the door shut.

However, sometimes what we need is the very thing we don’t feel like doing in the moment. I was wilting like that Peace Lily, and I needed light. I wasn’t going to get light sitting in that office by myself. The candy bars couldn’t love me back. No, I needed to be brave enough to show up and spend time with people. I was so glad I did. I got to hear amazingly articulate high school students lead themselves in a panel, talking about their experience in our Teacher Academy. That intersection between being a K-12 student and interning with our elementary and middle schools is rich with learning and insights. The first sentence from one of the students was very validating for our staff, “Wow, your jobs are hard. We had no idea!” Followed by stories that brought tears to our eyes about the positive impact teachers make on students.

Students don’t just wake up one day and think, “I’m going to lead a panel and speak about my experience in front of 120 teachers.” No, they spend time in an environment that brings out the best in them and validates how deeply their voices matter. We also had teachers leading learning sessions for other teachers. No outside presenters. All current staff leading learning for current staff. Some of the best professional learning happens by teachers for teachers. That doesn’t happen overnight either. I’m proud to work in a school district that cares about nurturing and growing the greatness in others. We aren’t perfect, but we care.

So, yes, part of leadership is having the difficult conversation and making the hard calls. But another absolutely critical component of being a leader is nourishing environments where people can do their best work. Instead of judging and blaming people, many situations would benefit from genuine curiosity about the conditions and environment and how that may be contributing to behaviors and outcomes. I’m not saying people shouldn’t take responsibility for their behavior and impact on other people. But what I’m saying is people are…people, and there is often more to situations than meets the eye.

I love this quote from Desmond Tutu, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Every interaction is an opportunity to nourish an environment that supports people in doing their best work. What are the conditions that make great teaching and learning possible? What are the conditions that support deeper levels of collaboration? What are the conditions that make risk-taking less scary? What are the conditions that make people excited to come to school every day?

The answers to these questions matter. The answers to these questions require leadership from all of us. The answers to these questions require meaningful relationships with others but start with an honest relationship with ourselves. How we show up for every conversation, interaction, lesson, and meeting matters in a big way. We are either growing the culture we want to see in our schools and districts or we are taking way from it.

For far too long, school and the systems of school have been designed to sort and rank us and in doing so, we’ve placed more emphasis on personal competition and success and not enough emphasis on our interconnectedness and success as a community.

We are an ecosystem. We are interdependent. Just like different plants need different amounts of sunlight and water, so do we as people need different things as do our students. People getting what they need impacts how they can show up for the work, learning, and each other. The key is understanding ourselves and others so deeply that we can utilize each other’s strengths. AND take great care of each other in the ways that each of us uniquely need and accept care.

We need to spend less energy trying to make people more of the same kind of good, and more energy creating the conditions that allow people to leverage their unique strengths for the greater good.

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