Do you want to build a Tower?

Parenting a toddler is like being on a roller coaster. There’s the anxiety that comes with the climb (when a tantrum is looming or an almost slow-motion fall is about to happen). This is followed by the thrill of the ride itself (including some laughing, crying, and the occasional vomit). The ride is both fun and scary as hell. This particular ride just happens to come with many lessons along the way.

One such recent lesson came while playing with building blocks. My daughter can play with these little plastic accidents-waiting-to-happen for hours. Our simple process for playtime with blocks is this:

  • In an homage to her favorite Disney Princess, Anna, I emphatically sing my adaptation of “Do you want to build a snowman?” called “Do you want to build a tower?”
  • She proceeds to dump the blocks out in one, big, messy pile.
  • Daddy is responsible for building the base, as evidenced by the screaming of “DADDA” until the base is constructed.
  • Daughter stacks as many blocks as her little self can physically manage.
  • Like a baby version of Godzilla, she knocks them down when it is no longer possible to go higher.
  • She proceeds to laugh maniacally like a cartoon villain.
  • Repeat (about 20 times).

blocks

As an educator without an off-switch, I can’t help but want to help her. I try to build a base around her stack of blocks. I take blocks from the pile and suggest an order. She, of course as a budding independent toddler also lacking an off-switch, wants nothing to do with any of daddy’s suggestions. Sometimes, I have to tilt the stack, so she can stretch and reach one more. When she’s done, we usually celebrate. When she knocks them over, I want to be frustrated. I wonder how such excitement can come from destroying something you have worked hard at forever (or in toddler terms – 3 minutes). However, my daughter meets the knocking or falling down of her colored blocks with an enthusiastic scream and cackle. I can’t help but, eventually, join her in that laughter.

This whole process and subsequent reflection has taught me something about my work with students. How often do I try to dictate how they build their tower? How often do I get frustrated for them, when they are OK with the result? Maybe my role is simply to build and hold that base, let them build, cheer emphatically, and support them when they want to tear it all down and start over. Many people in helping professions, education specifically, often get too fixated on the end result (passing the test, getting the job, walking across the stage with diploma proudly in hand) and less on the process and the learning that comes from it. Either way, a tower is getting built. Let’s allow students the freedom to choose their blocks and their structure, instead of us carefully handing them the blocks one by one and prescribing to them what comes next. This way, they get the tower that they want – and all the laughter and learning that comes with it.

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Hacking professional development: one year later

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

One year ago today, I launched a seemingly simple idea based on a single tweet:

If I had the $ and time, I’d go on an #sachat road trip. So many friends I’ve yet to meet in person.

— Tim St. John (@timstjohn) January 14, 2014

What has resulted since has been the most important, helpful, and meaningful year of professional development in learning in my entire career. The best part: it was completely FREE.

It seems like our community has been talking a lot lately again about professional associations, conference rates and the lack of accessibility that comes with ridiculously high fees. Here’s the thing – professional involvement and development is about the people, not an acronym, program, or conference in a fancy hotel with high profile keynote speakers. We learn from each other in presentations. We build our network through connecting with others online or in person. How is a Google Hangout any different? I have learned over the last year it is not much different, but a whole lot better.

When I started this project, I thought I would maybe chat with a few people. I did very little reaching out. I put this out there for the world and was at the mercy of people interested in taking the chance on an agenda free chat with a person they maybe had met before, never met but seen on Twitter, or never heard of at all. I was overwhelmed by the response.

What followed was 23 one hour chats, either through Google Hangout or in person (photos below). Many of the colleagues I met have become friends. Many of us still chat regularly. Folks I chatted with ranged from senior level to an undergraduate interested in the field and covered all functional areas. My trip took me from Canada to Texas, from New Jersey to Colorado and everywhere in between. We had no agenda and the topics ranged from the value of a PhD, how we recruit in our field, innovative educators, the trouble with how we overvalue social media in our field, running, family, starting a new job, and so much more. I am not exaggerating when I say that no single project has impacted my network, learning, and sense of belonging to my profession as this has.

Amma visits Clark!

Amma visits Clark!

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Hanging out with Courtney and Amma in Boston!

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Dinner with my #sabestie and queen of #sabullshit, Mallory Bower

It also led to some pretty amazing opportunities to be a guest on a podcast, contribute to an online course, and write for a prominent student affairs blog (the blog post I am most proud of).

What I have learned from this experience, above all else, is that we are a field of good people with incredible ideas that will are changing the course of education and the lives/experiences of the students we touch. You can only see this partially through Twitter or a conference meetup. These hour chats were everything that is great in a presentation, tweetup, informal coffee chat, and roundtable all in one.

My goals for year 2 of this continuous journey are as follows:

  • Pay it forward: help others see the potential in taking a hold of their own professional development and taking the steps to do so
  • Write more about the amazing people I have met and the profound impact they have had on my learning
  • Do more outreach and ask some people to connect
  • Bigger and better: take this to the next level by hanging out with an entire department, grad class, or even feed into a conference.

Who’s up for joining me on year two of my journey?

Parenting and a new perspective on balance

We live and work in a culture where our work defines many of us. Vacation days go unused, parental leave is worse than in most other countries, we are connected to work 24/7 with mobile technology, and the 9-5 is no longer the norm.

I am currently in the final stages of building a house, am still less than a year into a new job, and have a 1 month old. These are, as they say, 3 of the top 5 most stressful things a person can endure during his lifetime, yet I am the least stressed I can ever remember being. Here’s why; it all comes down to perspective.

My perspective on balance changed a month ago when my daughter was born. I quickly have switched from living to work from working to live. My job, though it provides me with tremendous meaning, pales in comparison to the sense of joy, responsibility and meaning I get when I am at home with my family. Parenting as taught me to be selfish. I say no, regularly. If it is outside the scope of my job and/or it takes away from my family, it is not important enough for me to say yes to. You would think this makes me less available and “worse” at my job. However, the opposite appears to be true. I am overall happier, more focused, and better at prioritizing because my time is more precious. I no longer live for my work, which really helps me to see things more clearly, not take things too personally, and to set healthy boundaries. These all make me a better professional and a better dad. I don’t bring my stress and problems from work home the way I used to.

Before I was a parent, I lived for my work. It is what gave me my greatest meaning. Working with college students, I feel that my work matters. The growth and development of my students came before my own needs and caused me many late nights, long weeks, taking things too personally, and lack of sleep. The crazy thing is I did not seem to mind. I was driven by this sense of being a part of something bigger than myself and by playing that important role in the lives of students. I am still driven by this, but it’s different now. I have a new found drive at work. I work with some incredible students who will one day change this world and impact it in profound ways, all of which my daughter will be the beneficiary of. I get out of bed and leave my family every morning to work with these students, so that they can grow and develop into future teachers, psychologists, activists, researchers, doctors, etc. that will make this world a better place. Not only has becoming a dad taught me how to be better balanced, it has also reinvigorated my sense of purpose for working in higher education. The two things (work and home) are mutually beneficial to each other and are firing on all cylinders.

I think working parents are often accused of having a “convenient excuse” and that expectations of parents in terms of balance may be unfair in comparison to those of non-parents. I can’t definitively say that either is or is not true across the board, but I can say this: balance is as much, if not more, about the person and not about the system. You are in control of much of your own balance. Don’t believe me? Look at your calendar right now. How many of the obligations (especially outside of “normal” work hours) are necessary for the successful fulfillment of your job duties? Struggling? Try this question instead: “Will I be fired for not going to this?” I am willing to bet that you can eliminate at least an hour or two of obligations by taking that perspective. It should not take becoming a parent to see this. I should have learned this a long time ago. Being overtired and busy, because I chose to, did not make me better at my job; it made me worse. When we are healthy and balanced, we are our best selves at work.

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What could you eliminate from your schedule and what would you do for yourself with that time?

Simple phrases that have a profound impact

Great leaders know how to say the right things, and when to say them.  When you are in a position of leadership, what you say matters. However, it is often the simplest of phrases that matter the most. Below is a list of things that great leaders say often and mean it. These can be especially powerful with students.

“Thank you.”

“I made a mistake” or “You’re right.”

“I believe in (or am confident in) you/your abilities/decision-making.”

“I know you can.”

“Great job!”

“I am proud of you.”

“I think you are ready to take on [project].”

“I support your decision.”

“What do you think?”

“Give it a shot!”

“What if?”

“I understand.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

“I trust you.”

“Be creative!”

“How can I help?”

“Can you give me some feedback on…?”

What would you add to this list?