Thinking on “Leadership”

For an optional seminar I’m attending later this week I have been asked to pre-flect in 250 words about leadership means to me, where I learned about it, and whether I see myself as a leader. So here it goes…

 

I believe leadership is a kind of speaking and listening that causes movement towards a shared goal and larger purpose. It requires a sense of empowerment, unity, and respect amongst a community. When you see people working collaboratively, actively listening to one another (leaning forward, nodding heads, snaps in agreement), and discussing a vision for the future, then you know there is leadership present despite there being an identified “leader” or not. 

There isn’t any one particular place or time that I can attribute to being where/when I “learned leadership.” My opinions have been formed through observation, experience, and thoughtful discussions throughout my life. I was, however, deeply impacted by one particular leadership conversation I had during my senior year of high school when I attended the first annual SparkHouse gathering with the organization Education Reimagined. At this gathering, we, young learners from around the country, spent a few hours distinguishing what leadership meant to us and how we would identify it in a room. I found this activity extremely engaging and intriguing and every year I’ve attended SparkHouse, it’s my favorite conversation. In fact, my first sentence represents the latest outcome of this conversation. 

I do see myself as a leader in some contexts, though I also believe that everyone is a leader if given the right contexts. Everyone has the ability to help move people towards a shared goal through their speaking and listening, and I believe at some point or another everyone has demonstrated this quality.

Proud Alum

I’m always so proud of the great work the MVAllstars put on! (My former high school theater troupe.) Even in the midst of a pandemic and school closing, the show must go on!

Today has felt like a really long day for me going between meeting calls, classes, and studying for a midterm test tomorrow – I’ve been going fairly non-stop from 10am-8pm including a meeting during lunch. And after a long day of work, I was happy to then get to eat dinner and relax while watching the MVAllstars virtual production of Matilda the Musical.

I’ve been teaching dance classes once a week online and that’s had all sorts of challenges, so I can only imagine the amount of hard work everyone had to put into this project in order to pull off a full virtual musical. Super impressive work by the entire cast and crew. Truly a theatrical feat that will go down in MVAllstars history.

I’m honored to call myself an alum of such an adventurous and imaginative group that’s eager to face any challenge with open minds and willing hearts. Brava Allstars!

Word Count

Most people would agree, the hardest part about writing an essay is often the word count. It’s harder to write something short because, in order to write something that’s short, you have to know exactly what it is that you are trying to say and figure out the most direct way to say it. I often don’t know exactly what it is that I’m trying to say. Thus I have a hard time keeping things short; I think a lot, talk a lot, and write a lot. It’s something I want to work on. So this post is only 100 words.

The Evolution of an Idea

As a follow up to last night, where I choose to read old blog posts instead of writing a long new post, it seemed only right to reflect today on what I read.

One of the posts I revisited I call “The Gymnastics Theory.” I wrote this post back in 2014 but the concept of how the future of education could be influenced by the world of competitive gymnastics is something I frequently come back to. It was interesting to read this post that outlined some of my original thoughts on the topic, and because it’s a topic that comes up often for me I thought it would be good to reflect on what’s changed since my 2014 version of this theory.

Since 2014 I’ve definitely built on the theory quite a bit. In particular, a big difference is simply in my terminology. In this post from 2014, I talk about learning being “skill-based” and I’ve now realized this was my simplified way of saying that gymnastics is an example of an already existing, successful model of systemic competency-based learning. In fact, the main reason The Gymnastics Theory continues to come up for me is because I’ve found that it’s a helpful example when trying to explain what competency-based learning could look like. At a few conferences now, I’ve been given feedback that even for someone with practically no understanding of gymnastics, (ie. you maybe watch it in the Olympics and that’s about it) this was an easy to understand example for contextualizing competency-based learning for people just learning about this concept.

Furthermore, I’ve done a lot more thought into the division of groups in gymnastics versus traditional schools. In my old post, I simply mention how gymnastics levels are not determined by age and how practice groups may not be the same as competition groups because by practicing with levels above and below you there are more opportunities for peer-peer mentorship and leadership. All of these facts are still very true and relevant, but now I’ve taken this a bit deeper and started to imagine how the entire structure of gymnastics levels and transitioning between levels works and how it’s comparable with education.

I don’t want to go too in-depth into this right now, maybe I’ll finally get around to making a more official written update on my entire theory sometime soon… but for now, I want to focus big picture on what’s changed not all the specifics of my thinking. The summarized idea though is that gymnastics actually has two somewhat parallel tracks that gymnast can take depending on their needs/what they hope to get out of the sport, and between the two tracks there are three different types of levels designed to more efficiently test skill proficiency at different points in a gymnast career. I’ve done a lot of imagining about what it might look like if education followed a similar structure.

Finally, I think the biggest change in my thinking in my commentary on school not being a competition. Now that I’ve had 6 more years being in school and gone through the college process, I totally disagree with 2014 Anya. School is a competition. It might not be advertised that way, and we might even be explicitly told sometimes to not think of it that way, but at the end of the day, we’re always competing. This semester even, my Marketing 101 professor spent the first 10 minutes of class emphasizing how we are always competing for grades, jobs, promotions, etc so we might as well get in that mindset now and be ready to fight for the win. People are always being compared to others because everyone wants the best candidates for their team. School might not have formal competition events for assessment purposes, but it’s definitely a competitive atmosphere. I don’t think that has to be a bad thing, personally, I find competitions to sometimes be a great motivator, but it has to be healthy competition in order to be motivating and that’s something that school isn’t always great about creating the environment for. Again, I’ve done a lot more thinking in the realm of what “healthy school competition” looks like, but my thoughts are not fully formed yet so that’s as much as I’ll say for now.

Overall, I’m very amused by how much has grown and changed with my thinking since this original idea came about in 2014. These two worlds of gymnastics and education are both very close to me and it’s always fun to make connections between the two. Maybe re-reading this old post is the prompt I’ve been waiting for to finally attempt writing out all of my thoughts on the topic – and figure out a more articulate way to write them, because I’m sure this post is kind of funky just due to the fact that I’ve been thinking about this concept for so long that it’s getting all jumbled trying to come out of my head now.

(I drafted about three more paragraphs on my “summarized” version of the levels structure description alone before realizing that was way too much for this post… so trust me when I say there is lot’s more. I mean I didn’t even mention the scoring system.)

Revisiting

After about 20 minutes of trying to think about what I’d write about today. I was still drawing a blank. So I decided, maybe I need to read instead of write tonight. Therefore, instead of writing some long blog post, I’m going to spend the time I would’ve been writing to go back and revisit some old blog posts. While reflecting during the moment of the event is good, the best part of keeping written records of reflections is when you get to go back and re-visit old thoughts and reflect on what’s changed since you wrote them.

“Kicking & Screaming”

I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations lately around how powerful it’s been to see students speaking out for changes to education because the traditional model doesn’t work online. Many also express their hope to see this sudden uprise of student voice and agency in education continue once we are allowed back in school buildings. Furthermore, people are hoping if learners come back “kicking and screaming, and demanding change” then things might actually start to look different long term.

However, my fear is that students that may be proving more feedback than usual right now aren’t going to realize that the newfound power of their voice isn’t just due to distance learning. Student voice has always been powerful, but I fear when we get back into classrooms, students will think, “Okay, now things are back to ‘normal’, therefore, my opinions on how school should be run no longer matter.”

It’s invaluable to have student voice to better re-design the learning process and make sure we’re meeting user needs. And it’s inspiring it is to see students having agency during a time when there isn’t really accountability- there aren’t many viable punishments right now, so you can’t scare students into coming to class and participating, they have to actually want to learn. So everyone is wondering, “How might we continue to see student voice and learner agency when we return to our schools?”

Well, I propose that step 1 is that we have to make sure students even realize what student voice and agency mean and help them be able to identify that they have it.

I think we are currently seeing a rise in student voice and agency out of obligation. I know from personal experience that I’ve had several moments in the past few weeks were I’ve participated in school-related feedback sessions just because I feel like it’s one of the few things I can do so I should be doing it. Things are so new and different that, even if they can’t articulate it, learners realize they have to have agency if they want to keep from getting bored or mentally unstable. Furthermore, they acknowledge that with these changes it makes sense that school leaders want to hear student stories and opinions because everyone is flying blind so the more help the better. It’s easy to accept these concepts as being necessary and normal right now. But student voice and agency were already invaluable before we moved to distance learning, most students just didn’t realize it.

Student voice I think is a bit more straight forward in terms of meaning, but I don’t think most students realize just how powerful it is in the eyes of educators to get true feedback directly from the users, ie. students. I also believe this is in part because most students don’t think their thoughts will really be taken seriously – I’ve pretty much been directly told this before. Anyone who knew me in high school would say I was part of the “smart people group” – the same group some people may refer to as “teacher’s pets” – and yet even some of my closest friends would sometimes make comments about not thinking administration really cared about student opinions. Not to mention students who weren’t typically thought of as being part of the “smart people group” would make snide remarks about feeling like they weren’t one of the “chosen ones” so why should they even bother to share their opinions.

Right now everything about school is different, and so it’s easier to grapple with the idea that teachers and administrators might care a little more about all student opinions right now. If we want to continue to see student voice upon returning to our usual learning environments, there has to be more transparency with students so they know if they speak up they’re actually being heard.

When it comes to learner agency, I bet 9/10 learners couldn’t articulate what it means to have “agency.” I mean even as I’m writing this post my computer keeps underlining the word agency thinking I’m using it incorrectly because it thinks I’m talking about a corporate agency. Additionally, I’ve been to at least a dozen education conferences at this point that talk about learner agency, and even I sometimes wonder about how to best describe it which is what makes me really doubt students without a particular passion for transforming education can actually tell you what agency is.  Learners can have agency without understanding it, but if we really expect students to come back to school and “demand” that they have agency, they have to know what it is.

We can’t just keep hoping that learners will all of a sudden start “kicking and screaming” for education change and that’s what will make the difference. Some learners, I believe myself to be one of these learners, will have an amazing experience with learner-centered education, realize that the experience was partly due to feeling like they had a voice and agency in their learning, and then start advocating for change. But I know I’m not the normal student, and most learners don’t have this reaction even after a crazy out of the box experiences.

My first of a series of “ah-ha experiences” happened at the 2013 Council on Innovation. I was one of twenty students asked to spend an entire day not going to classes and instead partake in this day-long design thinking event alongside twenty community experts and visionaries. Of those twenty students that participated, I was the only one that after the experience decided I needed to start “demanding change,” and I wouldn’t even call it demanding per-say, I just started conversations. Later in time others began to agree that things could be better if they changed, but I wouldn’t say they were “kicking and screaming” about the necessity of these changes. Now obviously this one-day event is not as big of a change in the learning environment as the weeks we have already and are still yet to experience online during this pandemic, but I don’t expect the results to be much different in terms of how many students are going to come out of this wanting immediate permanent change. Honestly, from what I keep hearing from my friends and the kids I coach, I’m expecting most students will just want to feel like things are “normal” again and want to stop dealing with so much change.

So yes it’s great and inspiring to see how learners are reacting during these challenging times, and I would love to see more learners speaking up for long-term education change, but if we want to see this happen I think it’s going to take a lot more than just hope. We can’t just expect to have this big unique learning experience (if that’s how you want to describe the current circumstances) and then have dozens of learners suddenly come back as reborn advocates of learner-centered education. We need action not just hope. We need to be open and honest to learners about how much influence they currently have over education, and then guide them in the process of reflecting on how this might factor into what they expect/want out of school upon returning to our buildings. Most importantly though, we have to make sure learners realize that they even have voice and agency and that it matters far beyond the scope of distance learning.

 

We Are One Planet

Today, as part of my work with the Wellington International Leadership Program, I participated in a webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Planning for this anniversary was clearly intense with hundreds of people around the world organizing to speak out specifically around the need to take action in regards to climate change. And then the pandemic hit…

Guest speaker and founding Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes expressed his devastation and frustration about two years’ worth of work now being illegal to execute in most countries. But what was most inspiring to me, and my biggest take away from the event, was his hope, despite everything, for what this could mean in terms of how we think about global challenges in the future. Hayes’ said it would make up for all the lost work if we come out of this crisis realizing that global threats need global cooperation and collaborative solutions that actually eliminate threats worldwide, because if only some people, some states, or even some countries take action – if it’s only “some” – then there is always a threat of the issue coming back. “We are one planet,” Hayes’ exclaimed, and so we need to work together cross-culturally to make change happen. This goes for all global threats from pandemics to climate change.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t even remember that it was Earth Day this week before I signed up for the event, let alone know that it was the 50th anniversary. I support Earth Day, but it’s never been a holiday I go out of my way to figure out how I can get involved with. But there are other global threats that I more actively work to find solutions to, like access to education and safe water, sanitation, and hygiene options. That’s why this conversation around global cooperation was so powerful to me because it’s relevant beyond the scope of just Earth Day; there are dozens of global threats out there no matter how directly we notice them impacting our lives.

For obvious reasons, the threat of climate change was compared frequently with the threat of Covid19 on today’s webinar. All of the panelists discussed how the virus is impacting their daily operations now and how they expect it to impact the future. A key idea that came up throughout the session was that even with Covid19 until people saw their neighbors rushed to hospitals, they weren’t taking the threat seriously. So the webinar left me thinking: “How might we get people to take threats like climate change and other global sustainability goals seriously when it’s even harder for the average person to visualize the direct impact these threats have on the world and the individual?”

The answer is unclear. However, from experience, we know that when people are actively involved in the process of planning and creating change, they believe in it more and care about pulling society along with them. So really the question is, “How might we get the average person to actively engage in processes to overcome global threats?” This is still a lofty question, and there could be hours spent on unpacking the meaning of “average person” alone, but it’s encouraging to have heard from several social entrepreneurs today who seem to really be thinking about this question daily.

Furthermore, panelist Molly Morse with Mango Materials suggests that there is already a demand for solutions to some of these sustainability threats like climate change. The key for social entrepreneurs to keep in mind is targeting the right market; markets need to be focused and specific that way every user feels that the issue is truly relevant to them as an individual.

So my take away from Earth Day amidst the Covid19 crisis is that no matter your area of passion, global threats exist, demands for solutions exist, and people tackling the big questions to create solutions exist. Now we just need to put it all together by working in collaboration with each other across sectors, political affiliations, and borders in order for change to actually happen. We are one planet – let’s make it one worth living on.

Missing Schedules

Today was one of those days where I feel like I did a lot and yet nothing at all.

I have found that sometimes the combo of extra time and being aware of so many things that need to be done just creates disfunction and lots of circling between different projects. Today I worked a bit on a research paper, a bit on school assignments, a bit on choreography, a bit on conditioning, a bit on organizing old videos, a bit on a graduation thing for my sister, and a bit on my global leadership program work, but while I know I dabbled in a lot I didn’t complete anything which makes it feel weirdly not productive of a day even though I did so much.

I’ve always had this issue. I think it’s because I’m a very associative thinker so I make connections between different projects I’m doing and then it makes me want to work on that other project while the new idea is fresh in my head. I struggle to find a balance between working on a lot and working intensely on one thing.

I think there is value in working a little bit on a lot sometimes because it helps keep me stay engaged in working in general when the topic and medium change, versus getting bored with working on something and then feeling too burnt out to work on anything else. However, there can also be value in just sitting down and finishing one thing, because then it’s not constantly looming over you as something that still needs to be done and energy and happiness can come from the achievement of completing a task that needs to be done.

I miss having a bit more of a schedule dictated by someone other than just me because schedules can help manage this balance since more often than not there is a specific time to work on a specific project. This is why I like working in teams and constantly stay busy and involved, because with teams/clubs we have to make specific meeting times for everyone to be together and then I have a designated time to make sure certain work gets done rather than letting my mind wander on its own.

I knew I always liked to stay busy, but I think isolation has helped me realize how a big part of why I like staying busy is because of the structure it provides to my everyday life. I mean I love time every now and then to just go off on mental tangents and work on the weird projects you wouldn’t usually think about, but now 3.5 weeks of mental wandering makes me miss schedules and structure.

The Lead-Up

We have one week left of our four weeks of lockdown, which also means one week left until my classes start again but now online. Since lockdown has begun time has moved in a weird way. Every day seems particularly long but every week seems to go by weirdly quickly since I have trouble keeping track of what day it is, so it seems like the break before re-starting school has kind of snuck up on me in a quick way.

It honestly seems crazy to think about going back to classes at this point. I was only in school for three weeks before everything shut down, and by the time I go back, it will have been four weeks off school, making for a longer break than school time thus far. This much time off from school and stuck inside has made for a very odd sense of reality and it’s hard to imagine school now restarting but isolation not ending. It’s been fine so far staying amused and relatively decent mentally during isolation, but I’m concerned adding school into this mix is going to make things much more difficult.

I think it’s going to be very challenging to find motivation to do school assignments for 9 more weeks while still in some variation of social-distancing. I’m basically going to be doing an entire semester of online classes which is something I’ve always intentionally tried to avoid so this is slightly terrifying to think it’s just about actually here. Plus this time of year is when all of my friends in the US are just finishing up the end of their classes, but I’m basically just starting the semester still. It’s going to be extremely hard to stay focused while all of my friends are done with classes, and I wasn’t really around people here long enough to make any close friends still in New Zealand who will also be in classes at this time of year. 

I’ve also really not taken advantage of this time off in terms of trying to get ahead on school work. I did some work, but mainly just for the assignments I know are due relatively soon after we get back since they were originally due for the week everything shut down. Most of our professors encouraged taking time to relax and assured us we’d have enough time to complete our assignments even if we waited until classes re-started to begin working on them, but at the same time they clearly were encouraging the people who did choose to get started early so very mixed signals were being sent… I wanted to be okay with not working on much school work during the break, but now that it’s almost time to start again the “over-achiever” in me is getting anxious about the fact that maybe I should’ve done more to take advantage of this “extra time.”

I’m worried now it’s going to be a decent bit of a reality shock going back to classes in terms of going from doing so little that I get bored and tired of watching TV even to now having to do daily work but still being at home. At least on a typical break, you’re still getting out of the house and doing stuff so when you go back to school it’s not literally going from 0-100 in average daily energy level. Plus the change of environment with actually going to school usually helps with the mind-shift, but that’s a luxury we don’t have right now.

I don’t have any sort of formal plan at this point for how I’m going to try and adjust to going “back to school” but still from home after four weeks of nothing. I wish this post could be about my fears and how I plan to overcome them, but that’s just not the case at this point. The best I’ve got is the hope that hearing from my professors again with our video lectures will help get me in a working mood, but I’m not exactly convinced this will be the case.

At first, when the announcement was made about everything moving online, it made me think that this would make the semester easier since all of the online courses I’ve ever taken have been the easiest classes I’ve been in, but now with every class being online, I’m actually thinking it’s going to be harder than a traditional semester. It’s pretty much all the same amount of work, but without the usual fun aspects of school – no random conversations with new classmates you’re meeting, no clubs, no group projects, no late hour study sessions, (for the lectures that are entirely pre-recorded) no wacky tangents based on a slighly off-topic question, and I’m sure there are more things that will be missed out on that I’m not thinking of at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, I like most of my classes (I wouldn’t be in Econ if I didn’t have to be…), it’s just the thought of the assignments that are daunting considering I have an average of two big research papers in each of my 5 classes and I’m really just not a fan of research papers even though I know that’s a big part of college. I think this is because I prefer thinking through ideas in collaborative environments opposed to independent research. And now with classes being taught digitally, I know there are going to be even fewer ways to make new connections with peers in my classes and group projects were pretty much all canceled so even more is now riding on the research papers – my not preferred method of communication – which is just very stressful to think about.

But I’ve got one more week to figure out how to get motivated I suppose, because like it or not and believe it or not it’s almost time to start the semester again.

 

 

(Just to clarify, I probably wouldn’t write about anything I really thought I couldn’t manage, but part of that management process for me is being able to list out concerns honestly, thus the more pessimistic tone to this particular post.)

Boring But Good Rest

Two days ago I challenged myself to take a real break – “No meetings, no school work, no gym work, and I’m not even going to blog.”

Well, the break is over and I can honestly say: It was really boring.

Turns out watching TV and reading all day get’s old after a while – maybe it’s because even though the last few weeks haven’t been a full-on break, it’s been enough of a break for me to have watched far more shows and movies than I ever would in the past.

I realized that one of the nice things about working is that it distracts me from the fact that I don’t have daily interactions with people. Perhaps had I been taking my break with other people it would have been more amusing. Day two of break I had a video chat with my fam and my best friend and that definitely made day two more interesting than the TV all-day approach. I even tried pulling an all-nighter because I realize I never had before and this was a no-risk environment, but around 5am I realized there was nothing actually motivating me to stay awake because it wasn’t fun and I didn’t have to be awake so instead I went to bed and slept till noon.

I will say though, the break was good for one thing, because I took a mental break all weekend, I was far more motivated to actually be productive today now post-break. After I woke up and ate breakfast I had two meetings, family game night, updated gymnastics files, drafted the flow of a three-hour workshop, choreographed a gymnastics routine, and found seven new songs that have potential to become routines. Getting bored made me want to do work, even the work I don’t normally enjoy like researching for various papers I’m in the process of writing so I suppose that’s a good thing. (I didn’t get to those papers today because other things were more time concerning after my meetings, but I thought about wanting to during the weekend when I accidentally opened a tab one was on.)

And at least at the beginning of the break it felt nice to just do nothing and try and accept that work could wait. And I definitely feel well-rested physically and mentally, though this isn’t normally a big issue for me.

So overall I’m a bit undecided on the whole “true break” thing. It had nice moments, but I really don’t like being bored, but again I feel like my experiment was potentially compromised by the scenario of quarantine. Alternatively, maybe it would’ve been better just to have one “do-nothing day” rather than two.

I’m kind of sad there weren’t bigger takeaways, but that’s about all I got on the subject of taking a mental break – boring but good rest.