Problem-Solving Limbo

The end of this year has been a challenge, in a few ways. One is the fact that schools seem to love to squeeze in as much as possible into the last few weeks of school. Yet, at the same time we want to be able to appreciate the year, reflect on what we’ve accomplished and what we need to improve. Paired with unpredictable event that should definitely be expected and I find myself hoping both that the end of year arrives soon, and not too soon so we can accomplish so much more.

Fortunately, I occasionally find moments like today, when the weather cleared up for the first time in a week, and I was able to reflect. Granted, this reflection took place while I was mowing the lawn, but lawn mowing, folding laundry, or doing the dishes are often my most effective reflection time. So, here is today’s epiphany:

There are very few problems I can solve on my own, and even fewer that someone else can solve for me.

I know this idea isn’t new, but for me it shed light on my current experience. Credit is also due to the Leader of Learning podcast’s episode with Jethro Jones, hosted by Dan Kreiness. Something about their conversation helped me reach this idea. Honestly, I will be working through this statement for some time, and I hope you might even provide feedback about this statement. For now, it represents how I am feeling about this past year, my first in an administrative position.

This year, I often found myself in problem-solving mode. It is true that I could solve a few on my own – like when the preschool design thinking display fell down this week, I took off the tape, returned the posters to their classroom, and felt productive. However, most fall into another category – I can find a solution, but it’s success isn’t up to me.

For example, students are arguing over something at recess and the teacher needs a second set of eyes and ears. I can talk with students, develop a plan, and take it back to the teacher. I could even follow up later and ask how it’s working. Teachers might feel similarly as they work with a student through a concept in class. We know that we need to be there to provide feedback, moral support, or other guidance, but if the student doesn’t feel ownership over the solution, it won’t stick. In any problem-solving scenario, if the stakeholders who have to live with this plan from day to day don’t feel empowered, neither solution will  ultimately be successful.

The other side of the problem-solving limbo is when you know you need help, and might even want someone else to solve the problem for you. It might be a challenging student to whom I was struggling to connect. It could be a set of lessons that my students just couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around, despite the fact that the same lessons had worked the year before. No matter how hard I tried to adjust and revise my approach, things just weren’t working the way I wanted. The solution can’t be mine alone, but it has to feel like I own it.

As I look back on this year, I realize that I often made attempts to solve other’s problems, and maybe even looked for others to find a solution to my problem.

“A vicious cycle of empowerment”

Jethro Jones gave me my new mantra. In a school building, with so many caring individuals, we should never feel alone. While we might constantly work to solve problems on our own, it is never a requirement. When I look back on my most successful teaching, it was never done alone. It may have been asking a colleague to be a sounding board, or listening more carefully to a student to gain empathy, or even letting a less experienced teacher show me the way.

Whether it is in the classroom or work between colleagues, we should be creating vicious cycles of empowerment.  Rather than trying to solve other’s problems, I need to focus on empowering teachers to solve their problems. In turn teachers can empower students to own their solutions. Easier said than done, but I already know it will be worth the effort, and a path I can’t go down alone.

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