Take A Break!

-by Jack M. Jose

I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I left open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer, or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.

July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.

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We had a cottage on a Florida inlet for a week. “No email.” I swore. “No projects.” And I was solid. I accessed the computer only to stream Netflix as the family gathered in the evening and sprawled on the couches in the living room. In the morning I wandered out to the porch with a guitar and left my phone on the dresser. On Wednesday, however, I slipped up, and saw on my phone that I had over 150 unread emails. “Stay strong,” I told myself. “A promise is a promise.” But it was too late. I did the math. We had left on Sunday. Surely no one sent emails on a Sunday in July. Just over two days had generated 150 emails! In the summer! I played out a full week in my head, imagined the steady stream of notes requesting my attention, and added a weekend before I got back to the office … I was looking at more than 400 unread emails at my next log-in. It would take a week of just answering emails to get caught up, but I had other work to do. The tension became physical.

That afternoon when my family went to a local arcade and trampoline “Party Zone” to escape the heat, I felt like I had a softball-sized knot between my shoulder blades. I had to rotate my whole torso when I looked to the right, or else a sharp pain would course through my entire upper body. “Must have pulled something,” I explained as I bounced on the trampoline halfheartedly then walked to the dismount ledge to play some fine-motor skill video games. Later I excused myself from a game of laser tag and instead sat in the cafeteria watching CNN Headline news, eating a greasy slice of pizza and steadfastly refusing to look at my phone. But I knew the truth. My work anxiety had created this tension knot. And only working would fix it.

For the rest of the vacation, I took various over-the-counter pain killers while trying to enjoy “getting away from it all.” A part of me spent the second half of the vacation longing to return to the office. Finally, the vacation was over, and we returned home. (Who else says “Finally, the vacation was over?”) 

My symptoms disappeared Tuesday, our third day home. “You should go see a doctor,” my wife had suggested Sunday night, and again Monday night, because I had propped my pillows just right to keep my head from rolling, preventing a sharp pain from waking me in the middle of the night. She repeated this on Tuesday when I came into the kitchen in the morning. “No, I’m fine.” I rolled my neck around and raised my right arm, an impossible combination just two days earlier. “Huh,” she observed. “Like a miracle.”

“Something like that,” I agreed. It was really the result of a Herculean Sunday-Monday email binge that reassured me I was still on top of what had happened in my absence. No crisis here.

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The vacation / anxiety spiral.

A Forbes magazine summary of a study by the Center for Economic and Policy research showed that Americans take far fewer holidays than the rest of the industrialized world. The vacation gap is even greater for lower income workers, where even unpaid vacations are frowned upon, and of course time away from hourly work means putting a dent in the family finances. Vacation is often optional here, where other developed countries require between 5 and 13 paid vacation days a year, with some countries paying a vacation bonus to cover unusual expenses, and the EU establishing a minimum of 20 paid vacation days for member countries. This is potentially bad news for those experiencing Brexit!

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Vacation is often optional in the United States, and many workers let annual vacation days expire.

Research shows, however, that a vacation is truly good for you. Two widely-cited studies, the NIH Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial for the Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease, and the Framington Heart Study, showed that non-vacationers faced a 32% greater risk of dying from heart disease and a 30% greater chance of having a heart attack. Non-vacationing women were 8 times more likely to develop these conditions than their vacationing counterparts.

Not only can a vacation save your life, it is clinically proven to reduce your stress level, and decrease depression. Both of these correlate to longer life.

But there is more. And I put it here because I need to hear it as much as some of you. Vacations actually improve your productivity. Among the European Union nations, Germany has the second highest number of required days of vacation, even as it serves as the economic powerhouse for the EU.

“Sharpen the Saw” – In his seminal self-leadership book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey touts the benefits of a good vacation. He uses the analogy of a person sawing wood. The lumberjack who labors on finds himself more and more tired, and he finds his tools are less and less useful. His vacationing alter ego is instead stopping to “sharpen the saw”, and when he returns to work he finds that the teeth bite through the wood at a new, more effective rate, and he is able to get more done more quickly than he was before.

In a profession like teaching, where science and art meet daily, and we find ourselves constant cheerleaders and emotional supporters of our students and co-workers, our “saw” is our creativity and emotional resilience. Sharpening it, by allowing it to rest and reset, can lead to deeper understanding and better facility with our own emotions. The teacher or administrator who has not rested his brain risks being a victim of his own overstressed amygdala, and instead of being a nurturing adult, he may well turn into a saber-toothed tiger. Or he may just roar needlessly at a bewildered student or co-worker making a simple request.

 

That’s the why. What about How?

So we all know how to vacation, right? Well, maybe not. The fact is, there are many different types of vacations, from the one-tank out-of-town trip to a nearby attraction, to the week at a cabin, to an extended trip to a continent holding many mysteries and cultures. Our vacationing style was passed on to us by our own family, and is restricted by our incomes and work schedules. Here’s how to make the most of your time away.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree blogger Eric Barker passes on a suggestion that you plan a trip of 3 to 6 days, with a major highlight coming right at the end. I recommend you read his post Are There Easy Ways to Improve Your Next Vacation. This is one of the ways you can sort of psych yourself into a great vacation. The last impression of your vacation is often the strongest, and planning the emotional high at the end makes your vacation even more satisfying, and perhaps healthier.

We know that a well-planned lesson goes better than a poorly planned one, or that an unstructured field experience can often lead to strife between students. The human mind craves organization. Even in vacation. Especially in vacation. With organization, our sense of time passing slows down, and it allows us to savor moments instead of wasting them. So take time to plan your days. Perhaps not hourly, but quarterly. My wife Kathy and I start with the “big rocks” of the vacation – Stephen Covey’s language for “the most important things.” [Alright, she is going to read this and I will be forced to admit it: she does the planning. All of it. About two weeks before the vacation, which she has already planned, I see it coming up on my schedule and I engage by providing helpful suggestions: “I’ve never been to Kansas City’s Kauffman stadium,” or “California sounds beautiful.” I get a quick summary of airline prices, and we’re soon on our way to Florida, or New York City. Once there, I get to make daily suggestions to influence where we eat, or which attractions we visit. It works for us.]

Whether it is a tour of a bourbon factory on a purposeful weekend getaway, or long walks on the beach in a leisurely week-long trip, or a horseback ride through the mountains on an anniversary trip without the kids, the primary attraction gets planned first. When we are on location at our destination, we then plan the details of our vacation days by forming an idea of where we would like to eat, and scheduling the four periods in between meals. Pre-breakfast: work check-in, which can include email, reading blogs or books, and writing. Then breakfast. After that a walk on the beach, and a drive to a nearby attraction. Then lunch. Tour the attraction, return, perhaps swim and shower. Then dinner. And finally, we have an after-dinner wind-down, which might include a second walk, a movie, or a Netflix series binge.

Michael Hyatt, whose “This is Your Life” podcast has been downloaded over 10 million times, and who also writes a tremendously popular productivity blog, offers many vacationing insights in a recent post entitled How to Vacation Like a Pro. He suggests that before you leave, you work intentionally to get completely caught up. The vacationer with a big incomplete project looming over her head will not truly be vacationing. She will be hiding. More a fugitive than a tourist. Solution: Finish that first quarter unit plan. Turn in those last papers for your master’s class. Update your back-to-school letter to parents, and save it in a safe place.

Hyatt goes on to offer a series of tips that are controversial and nothing short of revolutionary – and which definitely benefit from his position atop his own company. His suggestion is to leave a message on auto-reply in your work email letting people know you’re away. He then takes it a step further – deleting those emails and requesting people get back with him later. To quote Bart Simpson, “Aye Carumba!” Or, more accurately, “Oy vey!”

We do not advocate that particular position!

That is not our style. Instead, we leave lines of communication open. Being in communication does not have to be 24/7, however. My auto reply message for my next vacation will include information about when in the day people can expect a reply from me or can expect to reach me. Most of those people trying to contact us will gladly – and voluntarily – wait, rather than interrupt a vacation. It is my hope they will exclude me from a round of replies when an email discussion becomes a conversation thread. Krista, on the other hand, thrives on being in constant communication with her team, and will even manage a little work on Marathon Pool Day®. While Michael Hyatt will help himself get away by indicating who is in charge of making key decisions in his absence, this is a luxury not available to many of us, who are work teams of one.

A third suggestion Hyatt makes is to block out the whole day when you return to focus on getting caught up. Schedule time with you, for you. This way, you don’t have meetings and new business cluttering up your efforts to re-live the previous week. Tell people you will be back on Tuesday, but spend Monday in your office following your own make-up schedule.

 

Small Steps

This spring, with memories of my immobile neck fresh in my memory, I charted a new course for a brief getaway with my wife. A compromise position. I told her that each morning, before or after our walk on the beach, I was going to take 30 minutes to an hour – with the maximum of 60 minutes – to work. I was going to research or write an upcoming post, check email, make a phone call or text as necessary. I promised then that I would be present in every other moment of the vacation. This way, I knew I could stay on top of the things that had to get done, and work toward my own goals of what I wanted to get done at work, without guilt. I could keep my commitment to being on vacation, without the giant crick in my neck.

For her part, Kathy was willing to go along with this. She knew that I would keep my word about the rest of the time with her, and that being away from work really made me miserable. Additionally, she had a book she wanted to read, and could use a little time for herself. In many ways, it was one of our most enjoyable vacations – and not just because it was a rare getaway without the kids! We had structure for our time together, and rules for “solo time”. With these boundaries in place, we were able to be totally “in the moment.”

[Of course, in my typical fashion, I decided I would also stop drinking caffeinated drinks while I was away on vacation. I had read that it was easier to form new habits when you were outside of your usual patterns. So I had a headache the first three days of the trip. I am classically bad at vacations.]

Please comment by sharing your own travel tips, big or small, that help make the vacation a true rest and reset opportunity. Or, share your anxieties around vacationing. Can’t get your mojo back? Can’t even think about a long vacation without heart palpitations? Tell us about it!

 

The Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

-by Krista Taylor

Seeking Courage

The day before winter break this year, I found myself pacing back and forth in the hallway outside of Sylvia’s classroom just before first bell, trying to muster up the courage to go in. I didn’t do it.

I returned to that same spot during my planning bell. This time I managed to get through the classroom door, but wound up just having some silly conversation about something random, and then exiting.

I tried again at lunch thinking surely that the third time would be the charm. I had no greater success.

The night before, I had resolved to have a Difficult Conversation. (see Jack’s post on this topic linked here)

A few days earlier I had popped into Sylvia’s classroom to ask a question, but in the brief time I was there, I had observed students in this class violating several of our basic Building-Wide Expectations. When I corrected them, they told me that they were allowed to do these things in this class.

It bothered me. Not because the students’ behavior was particularly disruptive. It wasn’t. (The rule-breaking in question was about dress code, headphones, and the food and drink policy.) It bothered me because our Building-Wide Expectations are supposed to be just that, “Building-Wide;” they are supposed to be “What We Do Here.”

It would have been easy to just ignore it. Ignoring it was especially tempting because Sylvia was someone who had regularly supported me, helped me out on many occasions, and someone I consider a friend. I wanted to choose what was easy.

Besides, correcting a fellow teacher isn’t even my job, is it? Isn’t that the work of an administrator? Co-workers are under no obligation to hold each other accountable to expectations. Right . . .

This was the argument I had tried to hide behind for days, but it just wasn’t sitting properly with me. How was I helping things by being privately irritated by the actions of someone I like and respect? How was I helping things by not addressing my concerns directly? By failing to do so, I was potentially setting my colleague up for being corrected by an administrator – how was that helpful to her?

Avoiding the Difficult Conversation certainly felt better for me, and likely for Sylvia as well, but was it really better? Was I really being supportive by not saying anything? Was I really being a friend? Was I advocating for the needs of students? Was I really doing my job? Ultimately I decided that I was not, because when it comes right down to it, I do believe that it’s the job of co-workers to hold each other accountable. I believe this, in part, because it is a component of what we agreed as a staff to do for one another back in August of 2013 when, together, we wrote our Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement.

Developing the Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

Each year, Gamble holds a two-day staff retreat during the summer. The retreat is a combination of professional development and team-building activities. Participation is purely voluntary and unpaid, yet almost our entire faculty attends. This is, in part, because each year, the retreat is led by Gamble staff and is structured around the specific needs of our building. However, I believe that the primary reason for the high-level of attendance is the tremendous commitment of our faculty to honing their craft and to developing our program.

At our retreat in 2013, we had to address the elephant in the room.

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The 2012-2013 school year had been challenging. We were preparing for a significant expansion in our junior high – this meant that our existing junior high teams were being disbanded and reformed as new teams. Our ninth and tenth grade team was experiencing partial staff turn-over, and our high school program as a whole was exploring new ways to increase inclusion of students with disabilities. Add to all that the challenges of moving our entire program from one building to another across town, and it is little wonder that we were experiencing stress on a building-wide level. On virtually every team, teachers were angry with one-another. It felt almost like a contagion. Arguments were popping up in committee meetings. Regular “venting” sessions were happening behind closed doors. It didn’t feel good. Anxiety was high. Tempers were short. Frustration was increasing. We were talking about each other rather than to each other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.

As a team-based school, there is very little that is ever done at Gamble by anyone operating in isolation, and this makes us heavily interdependent with one another. Team functionality is critical to our success and well-being as an institution. Part of the natural cycle of teaming is “Storming” – a period of time when conflict and discord emerges within groups. This is not a problem per se – conflict is often what moves us forward, and it can be a powerful part of the growth process. However, we were being profoundly impacted by the storming we were experiencing, and we had become a bit stuck. We needed help navigating through this storming phase.

The summer staff retreat seemed to be the right time and place to talk about our resident pachyderm. As a member of the retreat planning committee, I asked Jack to allow me to lead our staff through a problem-solving process. To this day, I have no idea why he trusted me enough to let me do this.

Once I had the go-ahead, I had to figure out how to guide our entire faculty through one giant, whole-group Difficult Conversation. There was no existing blueprint for this.

After significant reflection, I developed a plan that ensured each of the following:

  • Focus on solutions, not problems: Getting bogged down in identifying problems would only serve to distance us from one another and keep us focused on the negative.
  • Engage all participants in order to enhance buy-in: If we want people to implement change, they must believe in what they are being asked to do; this is easiest when they have had the opportunity to give input.
  • Find a path to consensus: In some situations, making decisions by majority vote is appropriate, but something like this requires that everyone is on board.
  • Provide enough time to allow for a thorough process: It is not helpful, and can be detrimental, to open up a sensitive topic without the resources of time and energy to see the conversation through to resolution.
  • Generate something substantive: It is not enough just to come up with good ideas; there must be some kind of visual repository or tangible product that is developed from those ideas. 

Here is the specific step-by-step process we used to help extricate ourselves from the whole-building storming we were experiencing.

Step 1.) Name the elephant. Like most schools, we have all kindsGSA slide 1 of rules and processes for helping students understand how to interact with one another, but we had nothing that guided our adults. This meant that when we were under stress, we had no protocols to turn to for assistance. We needed to create expectations for ourselves. The first step was simply to identify this as a need and as something that we would all benefit from developing.

Step 2.) Brainstorm. Each participant was asked to record on notecards three explicit actions or behaviors that they believed they needed or wanted from their colleagues.  GSA slide 2The provided prompt was, “What do you most want/need from your colleagues?” The specific process directions were to record up to 3 specific actions or behaviors, phrased positively, that each individual wanted from their colleagues. Each suggestion was to be written on a separate on a separate index card to allow for sorting in the next step.

Step 3.) Identify commonalities. All of the index cards were then collected, shuffled, and redistributed to small groups. Each group went throuGSA slide 3gh their stack of cards identifying responses that were similar, and determining the weight of each category based on the number of comments on that topic. This served several purposes. It gave participants the opportunity to anonymously see each other’s responses. It allowed common threads to begin to emerge. And, most importantly, it got everyone engaged in working collectively on the task.

Step 4.) Consolidate and find common language. Each group reported out and those things that had been identified as important to the majority of people became apparent based on the number of responses. We worked to ensure that individual voices were heard and honored, while still maintaining the value of seeking consensus from the group. We debated word choice. We argued about the importance of specific components. We touched on old, long-buried arguments, and, at times, we stepped on one another’s feelings. This part of the process felt much like tiptoeing through a minefield.

minefield

There was angry debate over the importance of including a statement about cultural differences. Several staff members felt that it was critical to have this explicitly stated, while others believed that it was implied in the components we had already agreed upon and was an unnecessary addition. This argument was indicative of the struggles we were experiencing. Of course a statement on cultural awareness was an appropriate thing to include in our agreement. With hindsight, I can’t believe that we were arguing over such a thing. It seems utterly ridiculous now, but at the time it was hotly contested.

As the facilitator, it was challenging to allow the discomfort to be felt and to use it as a catalyst, while not becoming side-tracked from the task, or allowing the work to devolve into a battle between competing agendas. I had to listen hard, carefully re-state, negotiate personalities and old conflicts, and keep pushing toward the goal of establishing shared expectations.

Step 5.) Create a tangible product. Somehow, we made it through – we clarified, we compromised, and we came up with the following statement to identify what was most critical to establishing and sustaining beneficial interactions with one another.

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“Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement for working collaboratively and supporting each other.  We will utilize effective communication, which is grounded in respectful and professional conversations.  We will strive for excellence while maintaining positive interactions and attitudes and providing each other with instructional support.  We will have empathy for each other, and be open to seeing and celebrating each other’s unique and different perspectives — including cultural ones. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions.”

 Implementation: So we have a Staff Agreement, now what?

 Developing our Staff Agreement was the easy part. Using it to actually guide how we interact is much harder.

This year, on that day before winter break, I never did get brave enough to start the discussion with Sylvia in person. I regret that. Instead I retreated to the safety of electronic communication, and I sent this.

Dear Sylvia,

I feel incredibly uncomfortable about having this difficult conversation.  In fact, I have lurked outside your classroom on 3 different occasions today just trying to get up the courage to address you in person, but I can’t do it.

Here is my concern. When I was in your classroom earlier this week, I saw several things, which are in violation of our school policies — hats, headphones, food that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable.  When I redirected your students, they indicated that this is something that is allowable in your classroom.  Can you help me to understand? Even though you and I don’t teach the same students, it’s really hard and frustrating to uphold the expectations in my classroom when others don’t do the same because it sends a message that the expectations really aren’t that important.

My intention is not to come across as hyper-critical, but rather to seek understanding and solutions. Please know that I stand on no pedestal here.  My classroom is not a perfect place; we are all “works in progress.”  I express my concerns to you based on the understanding that part of each of our jobs here is to push each other to get better at what we do.

I love working with you, and I love the ways you provide me with assistance and support.   I just didn’t feel like I could let this concern go un-discussed, and I apologize for not having the courage to do so in person.

I hope you have a wonderful break, and I look forward to seeing you next semester.

This was what I received in response:

Thank you for your candor, and you are always welcomed and invited to share your opinions and concerns with me.  I respect you and your opinions perhaps more than anyone else at this school.

Let me address your concerns although it really is just a matter of my shortcomings.

I do not allow headphones in my class, at least not normally.  On the day you were here, before your arrival, a student had asked if they could listen to headphones that day, and I said “Yes.”  Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I felt like on that particular day it was okay for them to carve out some space for themselves to review.

As far as hats go, the problem is that I generally do not notice them.  It is like someone’s shoes, or socks, or belt–they just don’t seem to register in my active attention.  When I do notice them, I ask them to be removed.

Food is another one I struggle with.  Since Cincinnati has a 53% teen poverty rate (the second highest in the United States), I feel like I never know if a student has eaten on any given day.  Even if the school provides them with breakfast and lunch, a student may not have eaten enough calories in a 24-hour period.  Because of these things, I am always hesitant as to what I should do.

Rest assured I appreciate your input.  Out of the 20 emails that were unopened when I logged into my Inbox, yours was the first I read.  I am taking your concerns to heart.

This wasn’t an easy exchange – they’re called “difficult conversations” for a reason. I felt a lingering sense of awkwardness in this relationship for months afterward, but it was an honest awkwardness. There was no hostile residue of unspoken concerns, nor was there any venting to others. (We all know what that sounds like, “You’ll never believe what I saw going on in so-and-so’s classroom!”) Ultimately, I may never know whether or not the issues were resolved, but that matters less to me than knowing that I directly expressed my concerns. Was it my job to address this? Some would say no. I don’t think it’s always clear, but I find myself guided by what Jack says about things like this: We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.”

That’s the goal, of course, to get better at what we do.   Sometimes helping each other to do this feels good. Sometimes it doesn’t. The staff agreement provides guidance regarding how it is we’re supposed to “empower each other to help us get better at what we do;” it gives us parameters to fall back on when we forget what it is we are supposed to do for one another.

The Staff Agreement reminds us that . . .

  • We need to talk to each other, not about each other
  • Rather than allowing colleagues to vent to us, we need to gently prompt them to address their concerns directly
  • Much of the time when feelings are hurt, it isn’t intentional
  • Our differences make us stronger, and better able to do our jobs
  • We have a responsibility to support each other and to maintain high expectations
  • When we focus on the positive, it improves the environment for each of us

We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.

These things are not easy to do. But they are the foundation of institutional integrity.