January 10, 2018
“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” -Mo Willems
On Facebook these past few weeks, there has been a posting going around that asks, “What is your word for 2018?” My word is ‘Agency.’ Being in charge of my own choices. Finding my voice. Speaking up. Being responsible for my life. This awareness of my agency started twenty years ago and it wasn’t a pretty lesson to learn.
In the mid-1990s, I found myself in a frustrating position. I didn’t like what was going on at my school. I was in my late 20s and I was mad. The principal, in my opinion, wasn’t effective. Don’t ask me for details on the actions that I interpreted as ‘ineffective’ as I don’t remember them, but I do remember making an appointment with the superintendent and driving down to the district office to make my feelings known. You called up the superintendent and drove to the D.O.? I must have been truly irritated.
I went in to talk to the superintendent in one of my best outfits. I kvetched, complained and shared my feelings. Dr. Don Phillips, the superintendent at the time, looked at me and said straight up, “It doesn’t sound like you are happy at the school. Maybe you should leave.”
I was shocked. Stupefied. Hurt. I could not absorb that Dr. P. was putting it back on ME. What?? I walked down to the HR assistant superintendent’s office and sobbed. And the then assistant superintendent, Candace Simpson, let me. I cried a lot. I blew my nose from all the crying. I was devastated. My principal was bad and I should leave? It made no sense.
Fast forward with gratitude. Dr. Phillips response to my complaint put me on a path that I have been grateful to have been ‘put on’ ever since. I realized I was in charge of my life. That is heavy stuff. Deep end of the pool stuff.
Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust by Adam Kahane is a good and deep read. It actually has a title of a chapter that states, “Collaboration Is Not the Only Option.” Kahane talks about four ways to manage situations of discomfort. Collaboration is but one of them. The others include Force, Adaptation and Exiting. All of them are actions; they are decisions that require engagement. You can also choose to not engage and exit – and that, too, is a choice.
I spend a lot of time talking to educators who share that they are at their wit’s end. They have put up with too much adaptation. They have felt forced. They don’t feel they are living lives of integrity. It is painful to hear the stories. And, in a humane way, I tell them they might choose to leave. Like Mo Willems says, “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” It will take psychic energy and strength. It might cost you financially and be painful. But, you can, in most situations, leave. That, right there, is a hard conversation.
I cannot thank Dr. Phillips enough for kick-starting me on this path of agency, voice and living a life of integrity. It wasn’t a journey I expected to be on. (He was supposed to fire the principal, darn it.) Yet, it was the greatest gift I could have been given. So my word this year is Agency. Living with a sense of ownership for my choices, trusting my gut, being responsible for my actions and being an agent in my development.
What’s your word this year?
This post was originally published on the edCircuit blog where Jennifer is a featured columnist.
About Jennifer Abrams
Jennifer Abrams considers herself a "voice coach," helping others learn how to best use their voices – be it collaborating on a team, presenting in front of an audience, coaching a colleague and supervising an employee. Jennifer holds a Master's degree in Education from Stanford University and a Bachelor's degree in English from Tufts University. She lives in Palo Alto, California. Jennifer's publications include Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating & Creating Community and Hard Conversations Unpacked – the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs. She has also created a Corwin Press e-course by the same name.
Work with Jennifer
Praise for Jennifer
“Our school’s work with Jennifer Abrams has sown the seeds of stronger communication skills among the adults in the building. This has only served to strengthen the integrity of communication between staff and students as well. We’ve added her language to our expectations: honest, humane, and growth-producing conversations occur regularly.”