ITRT, kindness

Leader By Action

Last week at our Region 1 Superintendent’s Professional Development Series, I had the privilege of hearing Tom Murray speak to district leaders in our surrounding area, highlighting the 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools from the book Learning Transformed that he co-wrote with Eric Sheninger. It’s always a joy to reconnect with Tom; he is approachable and genuine in his sentiments and a great presenter with an inspiring message to share. In fact, we were so excited to see him again that we crowded around to snap our customary “We are so happy to have you here!” selfie at the conclusion of his presentation:

One of the slides in his presentation lingered with me throughout the week and gave me pause: Am I a Leader by Title or a Leader by Action?

I began my journey as an educator twenty-one years ago. Since that time, I’ve held many titles:

  • Second grade teacher
  • Third grade teacher
  • Fourth grade teacher
  • Differentiation Specialist
  • Instructional Technology Resource Teacher
Just last month I added another title to that list: Mechanicsville Elementary Teacher of the Year.
I’ve also held other titles throughout the past two decades:
  • Secretary
  • Assistant Manager
  • Small Business Owner
  • Singer
  • Writer
  • Blogger
  • Screencaster
  • Course Instructor
  • Webmaster
  • Key Communicator
  • Communication Secretary
  • Grade Level Chair
  • Committee Chair
  • Social Media Conference Chair
  • Conference Presenter
  • Keynote Presenter
  • Licensed Administrator
(and I can add author to that list soon thanks to Shelley and Dave Burgess!)
Then I reflect on my non-professional life and the titles I’ve held there:
  • Daughter
  • Cousin
  • Aunt
  • Sister
  • Wife
  • Mom
  • Friend
Each title has its own set of qualifiers and each is prominent in its own right. But does a title alone make me a leader to inspire others to learn more, dream more, become more?
In one word: No.
Leaders by Title rely on the history of their position to set the trajectory of their path. Their title affords certain privileges automatically and they work within these parameters. They usually have other people who fall under their realm of management and dutifully provide direction to set the course ahead. The work gets done, and often done well, but when the task is complete the work ends. Personal growth is not a priority from a task that is guided by a Leader by Title.
There are some Leaders by Title who take their position to the extreme and abuse the automatic rights given to their position. They invoke fear in others to get the work done or, even worse, dictate the mandates for work then take all the credit, never offering so much as a “thank you” to those who gave of their time, energy, and knowledge. These types of leaders are the ones who unknowingly undermine culture, making rifts that eventually split and divide.
Leaders by Action create their own legacy. While their role specifies the path, each day is defined by what they do and whom they serve. They are willing to get in the muck and the mire with others and redefine their role depending on circumstances that arise. They uplift. They inspire. They empower. They model true leadership for others and encourage them along the way. They celebrate the accomplishments of others and give credit where credit is due.
Yesterday I attended our district’s Arts & Science Festival, an annual celebration of the amazing work the students in our district create through the year. This event is a long-standing tradition in our community and for those who have lived here a long time, it becomes a family reunion of sorts. No matter where you walk, you will most likely see a familiar face smiling back.
This event would not be possible without the tireless dedication of many Leaders by Action. Dozens of teachers and administrators have spent the past few weeks compiling student projects, printing labels, creating personalized letters for parents, all in preparation for this event. Some spent late nights double-checking digital projects, making sure nothing was misspelled and all the links were active. Friday afternoon, those same volunteers delivered all the projects to one location, set up displays, taped artwork to walls, and created interactive areas for independent exploration.
From the hours of 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Leaders by Action arrived and volunteered their time (on a Saturday!) to do the work that most definitely didn’t align with their role as a Leader by Title.
They greeted guests at the door with a smile.
They distributed maps of the school and guided parents to student projects.
They arrived early to practice with students before their performances.
They walked the halls and interacted with guests.
They were visible. They were smiling. They showed us by their actions the joys of servant leadership.
Since my youngest son had a soccer game that morning and my oldest son had plans for the afternoon, we went to the Arts & Science Festival in the middle of the day. I was there as a mom, but as many of you know, we never quite lose our “teacher title” when out in public.
Both boys had projects displayed in the festival, so we meandered through the school, enjoying the work of other students as we walked. We were awestruck by the gallery of greatness displayed by so many students in our district.
As we made our way back to the main lobby, I saw one of my students running towards me. The smile on her face could light up a room and the surprise in her voice when she caught my eye was priceless. She embraced me in a hug and turned her head to call to her mom.
“Mommy! Look! It’s Mrs. Letter! She’s my kindness teacher!”
Kindness teacher.
 
It’s a title I never included in my list because, up until that moment, I hadn’t even considered it a possibility.
Kindness teacher. 
 
Leader by Action.
Me.
As we finished our embrace and she walked back to her mom, I heard her add as an afterthought, “Oh, and she teaches technology, too.”
Her final comment made me laugh out loud. It also made me realize what title I hold in this little girl’s heart. Being the “kindness teacher” ranked higher than my title of technology integrator, one I’ve proudly held for the past ten years.
WOW.
Let us all embrace the qualities of a Leader by Action and redefine our role to others. Don’t allow your title to limit your potential for greatness! Shine in your skills and inspire others with words and actions each day!
Each and every one of us can be a Leader by Action – dive in and lead the way!

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kindness

The Sweetest Surprise

Today I received the sweetest surprise! My doorbell rang and I saw an Amazon box sitting on my front porch. I was a little perplexed because I couldn’t remember ordering anything, but my name was on the label, so I went ahead and opened the box.

Oh my goodness! Inside the box was a sparkled, spotted gift bag shimmering in silver and grey with a perfectly tied bow at the top. Who on earth would send me a gift… and why?

It’s not my birthday.

It’s not my anniversary.

It’s not Mother’s Day, Teacher Appreciation Week, or even Christmas.

I stood there for a moment, savoring the anticipation, pondering what could be inside and who might be the giver. I almost didn’t open the bag because the thrill of suspense was so great!

When was the last time YOU received a surprise? No, not a birthday or Christmas gift. A surprise. A completely unexpected, unanticipated, little something just for you with no holiday or season attached. Did you feel a range of emotions? Did it make you smile? Did it make you want to do something nice for someone else?

I absolutely LOVE surprises, but they are few and far between. We all lead such busy lives and it’s easy to just go about our business assuming people know we appreciate them.

Today’s surprise today filled me with pure delight. I immediately felt childlike joy, knowing that someone, somewhere was thinking of me.

But who? And why?

It was then that I read the note attached to the bag.


It was a gift from a dear friend, Courtney, who used to work at my school several years ago. We’ve kept in touch through social media and even met for lunch last summer. Her note thanked me for our friendship and inspiration as a kindness ambassador.

What?? I was floored! She sent me a gift for being… kind? What in the world? Then I had to laugh at myself because I could hear her words in my ear: “Umm, that’s what YOU do, you know. You give gifts to people for being kind.”

I have to admit, it is much easier to give than to receive!

I carefully untied the bow and peeked inside the bag, my heart already bursting at this random act of kindness so thoughtfully chosen for me. Then I felt tears in my eyes as I saw what was inside.

I immediately thought of Todd Nesloney, who purchased this book as a surprise for his mom, but it was delivered after she passed away. Then I thought of the blog post I wrote back in November, reflecting on the ways we can be an umbrella in someone else’s rain.

Just yesterday I shared reflections about my mom and how the date marked 11 months since her passing. With each new month, I am reminded of loss, grief, and resilience to keep pressing on.

I opened the book and started to read, my excitement growing with each page turned. It was when I got near the end of the book that I realized this is the exact message our students (and we!) need to hear:

 

 

“Maybe I can only do small things.
But my small things might join small things other people do.
And together, they could grow into something big.”

Friends, your small things matter. Oh, they matter so much! This thoughtful gift from my friend reminded me of my purpose and her umbrella of kindness did indeed shelter me from the storms of my heart.

Go out there and be the good. Do your small acts of kindness and know that you are scattering seeds that will bloom in people’s hearts brighter and bolder than you can even imagine! And when your small things and my small things and their small things all join together… this is what changes the world!

Be blessed and share a surprise with someone you know. I guarantee it will absolutely make their day just as this surprise made mine!


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grief, mom, reflection

11 Months

 

Today marks 11 months since I sat on my mom’s bedside, held her hand, and watched helplessly as she took her last breath.

11 months since eyes that sparkle,

11 months since squeals of delight;

11 months of silent stillness,

11 months to write.

This time last year was the beginning of the end. My mom was in her final battle of a two-year war with lung cancer, trying desperately to fight with every ounce of strength in her soul. She was taking immunotherapy in a last-ditch effort to minimize the cancerous growth invading her vital organs, but with each treatment she endured, it made her body weaker and harder to breathe.

When my mom had her scheduled appointment in mid-April, the doctor recommended that she go straight to the hospital. “I’m a little concerned about your breathing,” he said. “I think you need to get that checked out right now.”

So my mom dutifully followed the doctor’s orders, her husband, Bob, driving her directly to the hospital following the appointment. Everyone expected her to have a breathing treatment or two, then to be released and go about her way.

My mom never returned home.

I started to write about our journey, even as death was slowly slipping from possibility to reality. It was a story told with words and photographs, capturing the turmoil of “not so great news” mingled with kindness, love, and memories.

As one week in the hospital lapsed into two, and my mom’s condition diminished from bad to worse, I took photos. Lots and lots of photos. I wanted to capture every memory possible.

I took photos as friends and family visited with my mom. I took photos of flowers delivered to her room. I took photos of her so I could hold on to one more smile, one more moment of joy. I took photos of us together.

On Monday of her final week, my mom suffered unimaginable pain. Her throat was closing in, every swallow “like rubbing alcohol poured over an open wound.” Those were the doctor’s words because at that point, my mom couldn’t speak.

Actually, she couldn’t do much at all as her movements were hindered from the pain medicine and her lucid moments were becoming nonsensical. She had lost the dexterity to hold a cup in her hands so we were feeding her tiny ice cubes from Sonic and hoping she wouldn’t choke in the process. We finally had to resort to swabbing the inside of her mouth with a small sponge soaked in water.

The evening before, I asked if she wanted me to sing to her, reaching for an old hymnal I had used in my days of singing with a church choir. She closed her eyes and nodded, so I sang. By the time I finished the second verse of Amazing Grace, she had fallen back to sleep.
It was the first and last time I ever sang to my mother, just me and her. It’s a memory I will never forget.

That Monday was a horrible, horrendous day. The doctors told us there wasn’t much more they could do, but hospice couldn’t take over until we agreed to have my mom moved to another facility for care. We were at a crossroads, an impasse. My mom was on high flow oxygen, maxed out to the greatest level she could endure. To remove her from this machine for transport would most likely end in fatality. They wanted us to make the final decision.

We were caught in the quagmire of one department committed to helping people heal and renew with the other committed to helping people die with dignity. All the while, my mom suffered in the bed before our eyes. It was by far one of the most excruciating days I have experienced as a child caring for a parent.

That evening, as I was about to leave for the night, not knowing if I would ever see my mom again, she sat up in bed as if struck by a bolt of lightning. She opened her eyes and lifted her shaking hand, pointing at the notepad and pen lying on the table near her bed.

My mom was always a note taker. As a secretary, she had taken countless notes of tasks to complete, documents to preserve, and general notes of this and that. She loved little spiral journals with colorful pens that could easily glide across the paper. She was extremely proud of her meticulous handwriting.

Over the years I’ve received several letters from my mom. Some were penned in anger and frustration; others filled with passionate perspectives she needed to share.

But my mom couldn’t write anymore. She couldn’t even hold a pen.

And yet… there she was. Sitting straight up in bed, pointing to her pen and paper. I opened the journal to a blank page and uncapped a pen. She grasped it, her hands continuing to shake as she scrawled lines across the page.

I leaned over to catch a glimpse of what she was writing, still in shock and amazement that she was sitting up with the pen in her hand, when I realized she was actually writing words. They were disjointed and repeated, the pain meds and cancer-ridden body struggling to get the thoughts on paper, but they were there.

Words.

Real words.

With real purpose.

My mom was writing one final letter to me.

 

 

 

 
“I love you more than anything, if these are my last words. Love, your Mama.”
 
This is when I broke.
I hugged her and thanked her for being my mom and choosing to bring me into this world so many years ago. She whispered three simple words as I took another selfie with her. My heart was paradoxically broken and complete.
These were the last words my mom ever wrote on paper.
 
Three days later she was gone.
 
Today, as I mark the milestone of 11 months on the calendar, I remember the power of words and the incredible gift of photos to capture all of life’s moments for generations to come.
Never underestimate the gifts you have to share with your loved ones and the world around you.
Take your photos.
Write your letters.
Make sure people know they are loved.
For these are the moments that matter.
 
These are the moments that live on.

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