Mentoring Matters

As I begin my 3rd month in my new position, I am reminded of just how important mentoring is in the development of all people, especially those in leadership.

Today, as I write this, I’m on day 2 of a 3-day weekend. I’m thankful for the extra day to rest and also to reflect. I began this weekend with my mind consumed with thoughts about work. I have soooo much to do. It feels like I’ll never catch up sometimes. But I know that’s just a feeling. So as I sat on my couch, thoughts racing, I had a moment when I realized exactly what was missing. I hadn’t spoken to my mentor about the work things that occupy my thoughts the most. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve talked. We’ve shared lunch and caught up on all things new. But we hadn’t talked the way I really needed to talk. I’m so thankful for the authenticity of our relationship. Saturday morning I didn’t send her a fluff message, and I didn’t ask for coaching session. My text literally said “I need your advice on how to handle some things at work. When can you talk?” She graciously replied with, “Call me now.” It was honestly the best 45 minutes of my professional week.

I’ve written on this blog before about the necessity of self-awareness (linked here and here ). I’ve written about mentorship, too (linked here). I still believe self-awareness is a critical skill everyone should develop. And I also believe that there comes a time when self-awareness isn’t enough. The problem is simply this: when we see ourselves, it’s always through our own lens. As humans, try as we may, it’s extremely difficult to have an objective opinion of our own situation(s). That’s where having a good mentor (or a few) comes in. It was so valuable to see things from another perspective. It was also insightful to see where I could modify my own behaviors to possibly yield different results.

This post is not meant to be a comparison between self-awareness & mentorship. It’s a testament to both. Self-awareness keeps you reflective and in a position to change. Mentorship, when experienced correctly, gets you out of your echo chamber. It prods you to reflect even more than you could do on your own. The connection with others who can see our lives and our actions from a neutral, objective place is an invaluable component of our growth. From the careful insertion of a different view point to the subtle suggestion to handle something slightly differently than our instinct may have told us, mentorship has the power to change our trajectory for the better.

My mentoring village continues to grow and change as I grow and change. But one constant remains, the village. I encourage you to surround yourself with others who will continue to push you outside of your comfort zone, support you while you’re there, encourage you, and hold you accountable. And a special thanks goes to the ladies and gentlemen in my village. I am who I am because you are who you are. Thank you for selflessly pouring into me. I promise to continue to pay it forward…

First Days, Reflections and Some Other Third Thing

On paper, I’m almost two full months into my new position. In reality, it’s exactly 32 days. I’ve been running since my feet hit the ground. And though I know the value of reflection, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that written reflection has not been a priority over the last month or so. Moving into this position without the chance to take a break and catch my breath has been quite the whirlwind experience. I know that rest doesn’t change everything, but I’d still like the opportunity to test that theory out personally.

For the time being, I’m trying to focus as much as possible on spending my weekends resting. I’d give myself a solid B, maybe even a B+ for effort. There’s definitely room for improvement in that category. It’s difficult. I spend my weekdays learning the new system and navigating the new normal of a “post Covid” world. (I have that in quotation marks because I don’t personally believe that we are in the post stage yet, nor do I think any of this is normal, but that another post for another day.) Weekends should be for rest, but they are mostly for daydreaming & planning. I have so many thoughts & ideas racing through my head. Sometimes I have to grab my phone to try to capture them, and I still don’t get them all down. But I know that in due time, they will come back to me.

As usual, there have been many lessons in this new role that were not included in any textbook or scenario-based response from graduate school. I’ve had to draw on my experiences from my previous school district and reach out to my network of support. I expect that will continue over the duration of this transition, and I’m not overly concerned. I know that it is all a part of the process. Transitioning into a a new leadership role as an external hire is a unique experience that is quite different than transitioning as an internal hire. There are relationships to navigate, unspoken expectations, and the general awkwardness of the unknown. Even in the differences, it still somehow feels familiar. It’s very reminiscent of my experiences during the 2017-2018 school year. I survived then, and I’ll definitely survive now.

I know that I’m here for a reason, and I believe wholeheartedly that it will be a great experience. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks, as I venture into more direct campus support & I have an opportunity to begin to engage more with our teachers, staff, students & community members. There is also the added bonus of reconnecting with some old teaching buddies & reliving the good old days… back when we were so new we didn’t even realize what we didn’t know. I’m looking forward to the laughter, and I’m also looking forward to realizing just how much we’ve grown. I’ve already had the chance to reconnect with a few of my old students, and my heart is just about ready to burst every time I hear “Ms. May is that you?” floating through the air. There are so many amazing educators & students who helped shape me into the person that I am today. We may be spread out all over the Houston metro area, but I hope that I continue to make all of them proud.

I must admit, this felt good. I needed this time to openly reflect, and my faithful readers now know that I’m still alive and well, lol. I am going to hold myself accountable for pausing to do this more often. One of the hallmarks of my leadership style has always been transparency. If sharing my experiences can help just one other person, then it’s all wort it. If that’s you, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time….

~Ashley

Note to Self:

This image was found on The Teacher’s Devotional Blog in a post from Sept. 2016. I loved the image, but I loved the post & corresponding message even more. If you’re interested, take a moment and read this post for yourself. You won’t regret it!

Gems, Reflections, and Lessons

Pictured: Ashley May
Photo by: Maurice May, August 5, 2020

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I agree. I’ll try not to use the entire 1,000 in this post, but I make you no promises. This picture holds such a symbolic meaning for me. I have written and rewritten this post several times to try to be sure not to offend anyone, accidentally burn any bridges, or generally make anyone feel uncomfortable. But that doesn’t do the picture any justice. So I’ll start the way I tend to start all of my explanations…with the back story.

Love Does.

That was the charge and the call. That was the mantra of the entirety of my work from March-September 2020. I love teachers. I love students. And Love does. Love is an action, not a feeling. And I love the people that I serve. I repeated this to myself so many times that I can still feel chills when I hear myself say it aloud. This picture is the embodiment and culmination of everything I had been saying for months.

I’ve been stressed before. I’ve been panicked before. But I had never been stressed, panicked & terrified simultaneously in a professional setting before August 5, 2020. Early that evening, around 6 or 7 PM, I reached out to my executive director, and when she heard my voice she immediately said “I’ve never heard you sound like this; how can I help?” My response…”I have no idea”. I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t know how to fix it. I just knew it had to be done. We were the first school district in the Houston metropolitan area to start school (and announce a 100% virtual start). We reassured all of our stakeholders we were ready. We told all the news outlets we were ready. So…we had to be ready. I don’t remember our entire conversation. What do I remember is her saying “I’ll keep the executive leadership team in the loop. I have your back. Call or text me whenever you need me.”

Murphy’s Law

Imagine, school starts in less than 24 hours, your LMS is on the fritz, and your premium support from the vendor has been anything & everything but premium. Your superintendent has been on the news telling everyone, “We’re starting virtually, we’re starting earlier than everyone else, and we are ready to receive our students.” As you replay his words in your mind, all you see is the hodgepodge of defunct courses, incorrect instructors, students in the wrong classes, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everything that could go wrong did. And it all needed to be corrected by 6:00 AM.

After racking my brain, phoning a friend, and using every other lifeline at my disposal I finally figured out the way forward. I just needed to test it. Thank God for bold campus leadership: a building principal who trusted me, a former technology specialist now in her 1st year as AP, and the communication structures they already had in place for their campus. I used my final lifeline to ask them if I could test the solution at their campus and they quickly obliged. I wrote the script, pressed play, and began to hold my breath.

“Your request is being processed. You may resume your regular activities until the process completes. We will send an email when the sync is finished.”

That might not be exactly what the message said, but it’s close enough.

I couldn’t just sit there and wait, so I did the only thing I know to do when stress is high and pressure is mounting; I went for a run. I put on my safety vest (Noxgear Tracer360), reviewed my planned route with my husband, and let him know, “If I’m not back in 15-20 minutes, come looking for me.”

Right around minute 18, I rounded the corner onto our cul-de-sac, and there he was waiting. Not surprisingly, he had his camera in hand. Now while that might be strange to you, I married a photographer. When does he not have a camera in hand? (I’ve learned to love that about him too!) He took these amazing pictures of me drinking water, talking to my sons, squirting water into my son’s mouth, and a bunch of other silly, family shots. But this picture is by far my favorite. This is the gem. This is the picture that will hang in my new office.

The Lesson(s)

I can do difficult things. I would say I can do hard things, but I have grammar police for friends who would rip me to shreds if I dared utter those words. (See the footnote for a full explanation). I repeat, I can do difficult things. And I can do them afraid. Stress, panic and fear are a combination that is potent enough to stop anyone in their tracks. But rather than allow myself to be paralyzed, I took some small actions that you can take in your situation, too!

  1. Ask for Help – I didn’t know what help I needed. But I knew I needed it. I will be forever grateful to K.J. for her listening ear, tangible support, and kind words.
  2. Brainstorm Solutions – When in crisis, you have to consider all possibilities. Gather the smartest people you know, talk it through, and come up with options. By the way, perfection is not an option.
  3. Reach out to your Support System – I called a principal who I knew would understand and support my efforts. I had a long-standing, existing relationship with her, and because of that I knew she trusted me. Thank you a thousand times to G.H-P. & F.M.; them speaking my language made it so much easier to explain what I was trying to do. Have you built the relationships & support system that it will take to be effective in your role?
  4. Execute the Best Available Option – This is where the agile methodologies really came into play in my work. It’s not about perfection. It’s about the best available option in that moment. What has the greatest chance of success? Move forward with that idea/option.
  5. Take Care of Yourself – Sure, I could have sat there at 11:00pm and held my breath. I could have let the toxic swirl of stress and panic hormones flood my system as I awaited resolution. Instead, I chose practice self-care in the midst of a crisis. When you have to choose between stress & taking care of yourself, I encourage you to do the same.

Resolution

If you’ve made it this far, I’m going to assume that means you’d like to know how this all ended. After I stretched I headed in to check the status of the syncing update. I’m happy to report that the fix worked. I ran the script for the remaining 46 campuses, and headed to take a shower. I checked again before bed, and all was well. Crisis averted. Nothing was reported on the morning news other than the smooth start that our district had, with positive accounts from students and parents. Apparently, I even made a cameo in a segment on our local ABC affiliate, though I didn’t see it live because I was asleep. Instead, I woke up to countless texts about my 25 seconds of fame, lol. I did see the story on their website later that morning, and I just kept thinking, “if they only knew…”.

The Road Forward

As I prepare to transition to my new role in T-24 hours, I again stand in an unfamiliar intersection. But here’s what I know; I can do difficult things. And I can do them even if I am afraid. What I’m feeling today is not fear. It’s a mix of hope, rejuvenation, excitement and the air of possibility. And even when the newness wears off, I will remember my lessons learned and follow my own advice.

I’m so grateful for the last eight years in this department, and the last four years as coordinator. There is no me without this part of my story. And as this chapter closes, I look back with a full heart, knowing that love always does.

Footnote (for those interested): The reason why my grammar police pals would get me for the statement “I can do hard things” is simple. The opposite of hard is soft. The opposite of difficult is easy. So if you can do hard things, you can do soft things. If you can do difficult things, you can do easy things. See…not that hard to understand. Now help me convince the rest of the culture that they’ve been using this phrase wrong the whole time!