All Roads Lead to Empathy and Community #IMMOOC

It’s week two in #IMMOOC with George Couros, and I’ve been reflecting upon the 8 Characteristics of an Innovator’s Mindset.

I keep thinking that all roads lead to empathy and community.

I’ve been on a search for true belonging for the past few years. I’ve stolen this phrase “true belonging” from Brene Brown. If you haven’t read her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, I highly recommend it.

By true belonging, I mean the innate need a part of a community, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to be a part of an interdependent system of awesome people who deeply care about each other, support one another, and advance a common mission.

A few years ago, I became a central office administrator in a large-ish district. Prior to this, I was an assistant principal where my value and sense of true belonging came from being in the midst of the action with others. All day long I got to wear the cape, solving problems for people, and taking care of kids and teachers. Somehow, my self-worth and value became wrapped up in my ability to activate in a crisis. And I lived my life that way for a couple of years.

So, when I left the building and came to a central office, my self-esteem took a surprising nosedive. Because let me just tell you, rarely is ANYTHING “on fire” in the world of curriculum. Now, to clarify, we work very hard and do great work, but no one is setting bathroom stalls on fire or lighting firecrackers on buses. People aren’t standing outside of our offices in tears, in need of a shoulder to cry on. No one is waiting for us to do the daily announcements or asking us to cut the tops of their yogurts.

And so, it’s taken me 4 years in a central office role to realize that my value, self-worth, and sense of belonging must come from a very different place.

Truth be told, there have been many dark moments. Times when I felt invisible or like I didn’t matter, but out of that darkness, I’ve risen stronger than before. And my evolving self is able to truly feel with others who are feeling invisible or small. I’m able to feel alongside people who feel like their work doesn’t matter. Like their voice doesn’t matter. The knowing of that terrible feeling has given me the ability to crawl inside that experience and be with them.

Not fix them.

Not fix it for them.

Be with them in the feeling.

And there is something about that togetherness that is pure magic. And after we have felt what we need to feel, we are compelled to act. We identify the things that we can control, and we take action. Together. This us-ness is able to move mountains we could have never moved alone.

Now my sense of belonging comes from being in teachers’ classrooms. It comes from bringing them coffee during plan periods to talk through joys, struggles, and needs. It comes from truly and empathetically listening and finding ways to improve professional lives- together. It comes from design thinking challenges with students in our schools, elevating the student voice and co-creating amazing new and improved opportunities for kids.

My sense of belonging comes from building something I believe in with people I believe in.

So, I celebrate the struggle. Because without it, I may not have connected with the hearts and minds of so many beautiful people who have bravely shared their stories with me. Without that connection, we may not have had the opportunity to do good work together.

And to celebrate. Together.

In retrospect, that’s the real work. Even in my “firefighting” days, this was the work that mattered most. I just didn’t see it at the time.

If “every accomplishment starts with the decision to try” (Gail Devers) then every innovation starts with the decision care

Let’s care enough to truly feel with others.

And then build something that makes the world even a little bit better.