Queen Bee? Mean Girl? Leader.

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This blog post has been brewing in my brain for a few months now. Sometimes it takes a while for experience to gel into words. It is International Women’s Day so I decided it was time to put this into the almost right words. After all, imperfect is the new ideal so I will make this post “good enough.”

I am a woman who is also a leader. However, it took many years for “bossy” to turn into “innovative leader” and I often wonder what could have been different if I didn’t feel as though being a leader were a shameful thing because I was a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I still hear “bossy” and other choice words but it is far less often.

I am also the mother of three amazing daughters (I am completely biased but it is also true!). Their journeys are varied and their life experiences run the gambit. Being a mother to daughters, I often think about how a male-dominant world shapes the lens through which they see themselves. I don’t want them to feel ashamed for having natural leadership abilities and this often dominates my thoughts on how we can do better. I see the difference in how female leaders are described and male leaders are described. Female leaders are “bossy” but male leaders are “assertive” and this isn’t just in adulthood. This labeling begins in childhood: “Queen Bee”, “Mean Girl”, “Bossy”….but where is “assertive” or “leadership qualities”? After all, these girls are showing an ability, at a very young age, to influence those around them and to organize teams. What if we harnessed and nurtured these abilities instead of squashing them or labeling them as negative or worse….we allow them to become bullies? What if we nurtured the Queen Bee and taught her to use her ability to influence her peers in a positive manner? What if we nurtured the Mean Girl’s ability to influence peer groups and taught her how to manage teams and collaborate? We have this amazing amount of raw talent and we allow it to run amok because we are too afraid for girls to be assertive leaders. We are throwing away more than half of our country’s most precious commodity: Innovation.

All because we are afraid of women who are leaders. We are afraid of the strong girls. We are afraid of the girls who don’t want to be placed in any box. We don’t have to raise our girls to feel shame for being a leader.

There are places we can see female leadership being nurtured. It isn’t impossible. For example, I have had the amazing opportunity to work with a school who drops most of the labels we weigh our children down with. Talent Unbound provides a safe and nurturing environment for their “Heroes” (what they call their students) to thrive. When provided with an environment where unnecessary social mantles are left at the door; the students are self-directed, and leadership is a core skill to learn…..well, something truly incredible happens: There are no mean girls. There are no bullies. In fact, it is easily the most positive learning environment I have ever encountered. It isn’t that there has never been a mean girl or a bully to walk through the doors of Talent Unbound because bullies exist in all environments. Because the Heroes hold each other accountable and create their own learning environment, there is no place for a bully to thrive. Bullying is a weed unable to grow in a well-tended garden. For me, this is what makes Talent Unbound a truly special place. (Caveat: I do handle their marketing & communications but it is because I begged them to let me be part of the team!)

Let’s celebrate our girls who are smart, funny, innovative, amazing leaders at all ages. On this International Women’s Day, I want to thank my fellow female leader friends and colleagues. You are amazing women who teach me new ways to innovate and lead every day.canstockphoto22547106

Think Outside the Box

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When given a practice standardized essay prompt “Write an opinion on whether conformity or individuality is better,” Jacob S. (Klein Oak High) wrote the following:

Jacob Spenser 10/2015

“Hook. Introduction. Thesis. Transition. Body paragraph. Transition. Body paragraph. Transition. Conclusion. Restate thesis. Call to action. All the predecessors and all the heirs of this composition have likely used this same mind-numbing
format. I don’t intend to waste your time or mine, however.

Even now, I draw closer to asphyxiation with every line, every word, every letter. My words sit cramped like sparrows resting atop horizontal prison bars, every note of every song snuffed and silenced before it can escape this maddening box. The Black Mamba slithers endlessly, inexhaustibly it tightens every corner, ready to strike any stray mark that wanders beyond it’s coils. Overseeing it all, the warden. The octagonal antagonist with an ashen face, tatooed with the only word in his lexicon. STOP.

You ask my opinion of conformity, but you don’t care, you don’t really care. Your own opinion is clearly stated in a comfy box all its own. Shrieking, screeching, screaming at all of us in capital letters.

STUDENTS MAY NOT WRITE OUTSIDE THE BOX

Conformity constricts. Conformity coerces.

Conformity Kills.”

This is a call to action for those of us in education. It is time to let students out of the box. Kids are not standardized beings and it is time we recognize and honor them as learning individuals. We have the ability. Change is hard but the cost of not changing is too high.

I know, I know some of you will invalidate this student’s experience with cries of “But we all have to learn to follow the rules!” Yes, this student clearly demonstrates he has learned the rules and has mastered them. Why are we still asking this student to prove he can conform and comply?

It is time to stop the standardized madness for all of us.

The very long road to okay.

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This post is going to be very personal and open you up to a part of my family that I have felt too much shame to speak of. It has been years in the making so please excuse the length. I’m not even going to proofread this because, if I do, I won’t post it. But that’s why I am doing it. The shame is holding me back and it is a lie. There is nothing to be ashamed of. I am going to open a giant can of worms: parenting a child with a serious psychiatric illness. Yes, the child I am writing about knows and is on board. She thinks people should be aware and quit treating mental illness as everything but what it is: chronic and debilitating.

Over 22 years ago, I gave birth to the most amazing child. I remember physically seeing the world differently the day she was born. I vowed to be the best parent to her that I could be. I was going to research everything. I was going to be thoughtful in every aspect of being a Mom. I was going to get it right. In a lot of ways I did and in an equal number of ways I didn’t. What I know today is the biggest mistake I ever made was not listening to my intuition. It is there for a reason. It is there to warn us when something is wrong. This incredible child was beautiful, brilliant, slept well, ate well, laughed and was generally wonderful. We were off to a great start.

When she began puberty, things began to really change. She had always been headstrong but headstrong was turning into wreckless and adversarial. She began to have insomnia. She was failing in school. Things were not okay. I began to research. Because this was my first time to raise a child, I wasn’t confident in my abilities. I was sure all those older parents knew better than I even about my own child. I was assured it was just puberty. I was told to give her more vitamins or to spray her pillow with lavender or to begin homeschooling her because a better school environment would cure everything. I listened. I did everything I was told. Things weren’t better. All of these veteran parents had given me all the solutions so I blamed myself.

If I weren’t a terrible mother….If I knew more about raising children…..If I read another book….Maybe I could find the answers. The shame I felt for being her mother and not having the ability to make things better was so tremendous. It was debilitating. Piled on top was the shame I was feeling for spending so much energy on what might be wrong with my eldest, I wasn’t fully there for my younger two daughters. I regularly mentally flogged myself for failing all three of them.

We came to a fork in the road. A place where I had to choose whether all of those people were right or if that niggling voice in my head knew something was really wrong. I began researching therapists and she hated all of them. She would run circles around them and challenge their knowledge. This was not going well. I was so tired.

Friends and family blamed my permissive parenting. Others blamed homeschooling. Still others blamed my lack of leading a fully organic lifestyle. Obviously, I was doing everything wrong. 

I eventually came across Dialectical Behavior Therapy and my eldest was diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. I cried because this dragon finally had a name. In my exhausted state, I convinced myself we could slay any dragon that had a name. Names were powerful.

It wasn’t that easy. Sure, the dragon had a name but this dragon was a liar and a cheater. This dragon would steal my daughter from my arms.

The lowest point of my entire parenting journey was the day my daughter had to be hospitalized. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t will things to be better. She was on a fast downward spiral and I knew I couldn’t keep her safe. The hospital was horrible. I almost walked out with her. I won’t go down the road of how ridiculously bad mental care facilities in the USA are, but, trust me, when I tell you that you wouldn’t put your child there unless you had no other choice. I can’t tell you how horrible I felt. I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t make it better. Piled on to this was the litany of supposed friends who either quit speaking to me or only spoke to me to tell me what a bad decision I was making. I had *two* friends left and that didn’t even include my spouse. 

In that low point as I sobbed for my baby because she was hurting so deeply, I had never felt more calm because I knew I had listened to my intuition and I knew as bad as this was, she was safe and I was….at the very least….now on the right track. I would move heaven and earth to help my daughters and some days it felt as though I had.

Borderline is very difficult to treat. The medicines are mediocre at best. They either made her feel tired or nauseous or fuzzy-headed. She no longer felt her muse and couldn’t paint or write songs. Taking the meds was a fight because she wanted to feel okay but that wasn’t happening. We also went through periods where she felt okay on the meds so her illness would lie to her and tell her she no longer needed them.

She quit taking her meds. She decided she was going to just will herself to not have borderline. She would just decide she didn’t have it. She was now an adult and there was nothing I could do but beg her to think this through.

We began a slow downhill spiral that spanned several years. She wasn’t going to go back to the meds. She was going to be fine but she couldn’t finish her classes and she couldn’t focus. She had trouble holding down a job. She moved out of our home because she no longer wanted me to give her advice. She was angry with me. Angry I hadn’t done more. Angry I hadn’t fixed it. I always fixed everything so why not this. I was angry for the very same reasons. Why couldn’t I fix this?

We reached a new low the day I received a call that my eldest had swallowed a bottle of pills and was hospitalized. My mind was racing. How could I not have known she was suicidal? How could I not have seen the signs? The horrible truth is there were no signs. She wanted to see what would happen if she swallowed the bottle of pills. This couldn’t be happening. It was too horrible for words. How would we know if she was going to attempt something like this again? How could we stop such a dangerous whim? I forced the issue to have her hospitalized. I was terrified for her. She was livid with me. That dragon was telling her lies again. That dragon was telling her she could just pretend she was okay.

I hate that Borderline dragon. I feel a deep anger for all it has stolen from my daughter. It has taken years away from her. It has hurt her relationships with friends and family. It harmed her ability to do well in school or easily hold down a job. Borderline is an abusive bastard.

She has now reached a place where she has decided that she needs the medication. She reached her own low that let her know there was no turning back and there was no willing the borderline to go away. I am thrilled to say she is doing okay now.

It is funny, when my eldest was a baby, I wanted everything for her. I wanted her to go to the best schools and have an Ivy education and take on the world. I loved her more than life so I wanted the best for her. It took a long time to realize sometimes okay is the best.

Through all of these years, I learned the simplest but most important virtue of being a parent: I learned to be content and peaceful when things were just okay. I don’t know if things will always be okay, so I hold on to the good days for everything I have.

Listen to your inner voice if it is telling you something is really wrong. Intuition exists for a reason. Feel peace and contentment when your children are just okay. Let go of guilt and shame. They will find their way to better than okay if they want it.

If you have a friend who is walking a similar journey, check in on them. Don’t turn your back when they need their village the most.

I hope this post is helpful to someone out there.

The Ukulele Parade

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The Ukulele Parade

*I know what you are thinking,”It has been a year since she posted!” Rub it in, why don’t you? Yeah, it has been a year since I wrote here. Let’s just chalk this up to not being a terribly prolific writer or ADHD or raising three daughters or some combination thereof. I had something really important to share and this is the best venue so I. Am. Back.

I had the opportunity to receive some perspective last week. A bit of background is necessary here: My daughters attend different schools because they are very different people and require different types of environments. My middle daughter attends our locally zoned public school, Wunderlich Intermediate. She enjoys the large, diverse school because it has many competitive opportunities. My youngest daughter attends The Banff School which is a small, culturally diverse, private school. She enjoys the ability to work with her teachers more closely and the fact that the school is multi-age/multi-grade allows her to work more at ability rather than her age/grade correlation. In her words,”I like that everyone gets their work done without all the drama.” No middle school is drama free but it is a more comfortable level for youngest. I am all for utilizing the environment that works.

Last Tuesday, I received a call from O (middle daughter) saying she had missed the bus through sobs of sadness. Now O is incredibly private and not one to cry easily so my alarm bells immediately began ringing and my inner Mama Bear was on the move. Upon arriving at school, I was fairly horrified to find out that a teacher (who doesn’t even teach O) had caused her to not only miss her bus but had also bullied and shamed her in front of another teacher for not being conversational. Important to note here, the incident she was referring to occurred at the local grocery store over one month before. O wasn’t rude, just chose not to converse which is her right outside of a school setting. O hadn’t done anything dangerous or broken any school rule yet this teacher chose to flex her authority and detain her. I was amazed to hear the assistant principal helped to stop O from getting on the bus and to hear him say that because O isn’t an adult she needs to learn to respect adults simply because they exist and are older than she. I reminded the assistant principal that respect can not be taught through fear and intimidation. You may reach compliance but that is far and away different from respect. Respect is earned and not just because you reach the age of majority. Respect is taught by modeling respectful behavior. We didn’t demand this assistant principal and teacher see negative repercussions, rather we asked they be trained in the research that we know to be true: Teachers who bully students are more likely to be bullied themselves. This Twemlow research shows the negative outcome of teachers and administrators who bully students. Please bear in mind, I do not think these adults were being malicious; I believe they were unaware.

Fast forward to Friday!

I received this photo in E’s (youngest daughter) school newsletter with the following caption: ‘The most exciting event of the week for 6th and 7th grade is a little hard to understand if you are not part of the Banff culture. If no one “signs the sheet” for an entire week in Mr. Crump’s World Culture class, he leads the class on a ukulele parade around the building.  Fun and quirky, but if it works…’

Ukulele Parade

I asked E about the Ukulele Parade and she says,”Oh! If no one has to sign the sheet (gets in trouble) then Mr. Crump takes us on a Ukulele Parade where we march, dance and sing through the school.” I couldn’t believe the timing of this information. You see, Mr. Joe Crump is doing something wonderful here. He is using a currency that is meaningful to the students rather than imposing his currency upon them. There is mutual respect happening here and the kids are responding positively. Now don’t get me wrong, I am aware that large schools don’t necessarily have the ability to have a ukulele parade but the teachers do have the ability to use currency which is important to the students. Then the teacher is part of what builds students up and not part of what tears them down or makes them feel inadequate or embarrassed.

I know many teachers practice positive classroom and student management. I love having the opportunity to showcase teachers doing awesome things. Mr. Crump renewed my spirit with his ukulele parade and I wasn’t even there.

We adults have the power to be a positive or negative influence on the children we are involved with. Childhood is hard; people can be mean. Be one of the people who builds up instead of destroys.

Gratitude and Giving Thanks

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This photo was taken in 2011 at the National Association for Gifted Children conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is a photo of my eldest daughter with her first gifted teacher, Miriam Ellis of Woodvale Elementary School in Lafayette, LA. Mrs. Ellis is not only an amazing support system for the gifted learners in her class but also to the parents who are new to the gifted and talented universe. I have often thought of Mrs. Ellis as my years as a gifted advocate go by and I had hoped to see her one day to express my gratitude.

See, Mrs. Ellis had shown me it was possible to support a gifted learner academically, socially and emotionally. Mrs. Ellis had shown me simple acts of supporting the parents of gifted learners helped them to be more supportive of their children. She showed me how well teachers, students and parents can collaborate. A parent of gifted children herself, she knew how important it was for the parents of gifted students to feel supported. What Miriam Ellis didn’t know was she had been the catalyst for all my years as an advocate. I was fortunate because I had experienced gifted education could support the whole child and a great teacher could be a shining light for parents. We only had Mrs. Ellis for one year as we moved the next summer. Our experience the next fall was quite a departure from having Mrs. Ellis. The teacher didn’t understand our eldest and didn’t want to. The administration didn’t want to talk to us. I could not wrap my mind around how much our world had been turned upside down. I knew it didn’t have to be this way and I knew I would work to do something about it and I hope I have made some small dent along the way.

So back to the story…..

The 2011 NAGC conference was in full swing. I found a comfy chair to sit between sessions and a plug to charge my phone as I was tweeting from the sessions I was attending. I was wholly ignoring the world around me as I planned my schedule and made sure I was everywhere I was supposed to be. Then I heard a couple of teachers discussing gifted in Lafayette, LA. My ears perked up and I yanked my brain away from my thoughts to listen to the conversation. That’s right, I was eavesdropping. I own it. It happens. I looked over only to realize Miriam Ellis was sitting on the couch across from me. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! After ten years I was going to have the opportunity to tell her what she meant to me and what a guiding force she had been. It was an amazing feeling. It was important to let her know how important she had been and in ways she hadn’t anticipated. I have been paying forward her kindness and knowledge for many years since. Her reply to me was simple,”You’re welcome. I was just doing what needed to be done.” Profound in its simplicity. Mrs. Ellis’ idea of doing what needed to be done had a breadth and depth that positively impacted our entire family. Miriam Ellis is a great educator and I am very grateful she taught my eldest daughter.

We met up with Mrs. Ellis at the end of the NAGC conference and took this picture. Kristin, my eldest daughter, was thrilled to see her again and they talked for a long time. Kristin had often thought of her time in Mrs. Ellis’ class with great fondness. It was a nice full circle moment. 

Thank you Miriam Ellis. You make a difference.

Go to Japan without leaving Houston

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Developing Talent – What should society expect from brilliance?

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I often find myself listening to conversations about talent development for gifted children. Now, I actually believe altruistic talent development is a great thing for kids: take their areas of strength and help them grow. What’s not to love, right? As with any altruistic notion, implementation and the need to pay for said altruism often takes away from the vision. What troubles me most is a sense of entitlement society seems to feel toward a child’s brilliance and how this entitlement infects the idea of talent development and twists it. I don’t mean holding high expectations of meeting your potential. I have high expectations for my girls but I don’t have expectations of what meeting their potential looks like or how they will “owe me” for supporting and helping them develop. I mean the notion that society feels ownership toward an individual’s intellectual gifts. For instance, it makes me pretty crazed when people tell my eldest daughter,”Don’t be a philosopher. You are so smart, you should be a doctor and cure cancer.” As her parent, my first thought is,”Have you ever seen her artwork or listened to her music? My goodness, I wish she would quit taking art off the table of viable career paths.” My second thought runs along the lines of,”You don’t own her intellect. Why are you telling her what to do? You don’t even know her well.” This is followed closely with the thought,”She has never been on the path to be a doctor and has shown no interest in medical research. Is she smart enough to pass the courses? Sure. Does she have the passion for medicine? No.” These “well-meaning” adults don’t realize the damaging message they have just given her: “What you want to do is meaningless. You owe us a cure for cancer because you are wicked smart. Any other path is a waste.” Now, if this had only happened once, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. It has happened a countless and depressing number of times. This brings me to my worry about the movement toward talent development with gifted children. If I felt like we wanted to develop talent because supporting and encouraging our children is beneficial for society then I would be the first passenger on the ship. That isn’t what the conversation has been, in the United States. The conversation is,”If we develop the talents of academically gifted children, imagine what they can produce for our society.” It is subtle but the message is,”In return for developing your talent, you owe us.” Our society has also begun to send a second message,”Artists and philosophers are not as important to society as scientists and mathematicians.” I beg to differ. There is balance in all things. The great minds of science and mathematics were often also philosophers and artists. We can’t separate out talents like we are separating the wheat from the chaff because art and philosophy are not chaff. They are wheat just like science and mathematics.

Here is my opinion: We should develop talent because it is the best practice for growing well-rounded children. It is the fertilizer for the seeds. We should be ecstatic for the wheat we receive but not become angry with the seed if it didn’t produce enough wheat or maybe wasn’t the variety we thought we wanted. We enjoy the wheat we have and are grateful. The same holds true for talented children. They don’t owe society their gifts and we should be grateful when they share their great gifts with us in whichever form those gifts take. My daughters don’t owe society another *Sputnik moment. Society owes my daughters the support needed for their growth with no expectation of what that result will be. When support is freely given, people feel more inclined to give back. When support is given with demands, people feel protective of their gifts.

Think about it. Won’t our society be better for creating happy, supported children over creating the next Sputnik moment?

*This post is somewhat in response to Paula Olszewski-Kubilius’ opinion piece in The Hill on May 13, 2012 but it is mostly an aggregate of things I have pondered over the years. The article can be found here: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/225289-stop-short-changing-our-most-gifted-children