Problems as Opportunities

I was looking forward to Jury Duty last week, for the opportunity to have time to read. At the top of my pile was, Leading Well by Lucy Calkins. As a literacy coach, I’m always striving towards this vision of what I know our school can look like. We are making gains every day, yet I welcome the chance to continue to take in new ideas and methods to consider. Since our schools are immersed in the Teachers College Units of Study, Lucy Calkins seems like a voice that might be able to help us continue to deepen our understanding of the work.

Sitting in the big jury room, I didn’t waste a minute of my reading time. I tried to block out the blaring TVs, showcasing Chip and Joanna Gaines and the ridiculously beautiful homes they were creating. Reading Leading Well felt like sitting in Riverside Church for a keynote with Lucy Calkins. Her voice shines through her writing, beautifully woven together with anecdotes and research.

When I got to page 88, in the chapter entitled “From Good to Great: Supporting Teachers’ Continued Growth”, I was struck with the need to write. I purposefully didn’t bring a device, other than my phone, to Jury Duty because I didn’t want to be distracted from my reading. I reached into my bag and grabbed my journal and rewrote Lucy’s words from a section on prioritizing studying student work:

 When teachers engage in an effective child study, you’ll often notice:

Teachers are excited to study a problem that occurs in the work of many of their students, and they welcome the idea that this problem is a reflection of their teaching. One senses that these teachers feel that pinpointing the problem is a big step toward not only helping their students but also improving their own teaching.

Sitting there in the jury room, I could hardly contain my excitement. In that moment, this tiny bullet within nearly 300 pages of text gave me a renewed focus and energy.

This has been something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now, how to shift mindsets. Somehow reading Lucy Calkin’s words validated my thoughts. How many times have we sat in a meeting, talked about a student, vented about a situation with colleagues and been bogged down in the “they can’t,” “I already tried…” and the “nothing works?”

How much more productive and powerful would those moments become if we instead chose too look at these situations as opportunities to research, to study and pinpoint a solution. Of course, the solutions may not always be successful, but trying something feels a whole lot better than throwing our hands up.

A small example. I was working in a classroom, a room I had spent some time in. Each visit left me thinking about a particular student who seemed to spend more time doing everything but reading during reading time. I’d heard, from various people, that “she just can’t focus”-something we had come to expect. As I watched this particular student settle in to read, I saw her try to get into her book. But as soon as someone walked by to talk to the teacher, her eyes followed. She was then busy listening into the conversation. Then again, she tried to get back to her reading. The voices of reading partners whispering near by once again derailed her. In that moment, I stood up, marched out of the room on a mission to find a pair of noise cancelling headphones. A few minutes later, I returned. I asked the student if she wanted to try them and then I sat back and watched her read for 20 minutes straight.

The headphones could have very well failed and maybe they won’t do the trick every day, but the point is, I didn’t settle for distraction. I was determined to find a way to help this child be successful.

I want more of this.

On page 89, Lucy lays another gem when she says, “It is important to embrace those areas for growth and to resist making them invitations to blame. Remember that people grow by embracing the struggle, by tackling things that are hard for them.”

So here’s to that. Let’s work to solve problems. Let’s struggle more and watch what happens…

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18 thoughts on “Problems as Opportunities

  1. Thank you for your insight. The quote from Lucy, “It is important to embrace those areas for growth and to resist making them invitations to blame. Remember that people grow by embracing the struggle, by tacking things that are hard for them.” is so vital to school change and growth within each student. I’m glad you put this quote near the end so it stuck with me.

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  2. Most people see jury duty as an onerous responsibility, a problem. You found an opportunity for growth within it. I love how that mirrors Lucy’s words and reflects your determination to see problems as opportunities. Powerful quotes and reflections here! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Amen! “Let’s work to solve the problems” and let’s see these problems as opportunities to be CREATIVE in the name of each child! Some moan about the lack of creativity in teaching – these problems are a perfect place to get our creative juices flowing AND we can approach them as researchers – “What happens when I give ….. noise cancelling headphones” “What happens when I …..” Glad you had jury duty and used your time the way you wanted to! Thanks for sharing and keeping me thinking!

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  4. The best teacher I ever had in college told us that we wouldn’t make less than a B in his class. He said his job was to teach us how to write, and so we would rewrite any paper that scored less than a B until it made the grade. Your post echoes that sentiment; our job is to help students overcome their difficulties. Their problems are our opportunities to expand our toolbox.

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  5. I absolutely agree that we can’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good.” I believe in trying over and over again, because we owe it to our students to do that. Who knows what will work “for sure.” Nobody. That’s what makes research so important. Keep it up!

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  6. “So here’s to that. Let’s work to solve problems. Let’s struggle more and watch what happens…” You are definitely a problem solver, very creative at that. I love how you weave together your jury duty reading experience with the snippet for time with the headphones.

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  7. I love this post so much! This question: “How much more productive and powerful would those moments become if we instead chose to look at these situations as opportunities to research, to study and pinpoint a solution.” This stance of researcher positions you so well to brainstorm possible solutions and make a real difference for students, rather than label and create excuses for why students don’t succeed. Thanks for such an inspirational slice today!

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  8. Here’s to you! Thank you for sharing your reflections — it is a powerful read. One that will take many reads and rereads to fully digest. Did you listen to her podcast with Heinemann – it was incredible. Look forward to connecting with you this month.

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  9. Great entry. I agree…and I just recently had a similar aha with a student who had trouble tuning out the conversations around her. Interesting. I’ve also learned that I have the same issue. My daughter introduced me to something on spotify that I can play while I write. It’s this new age kind of music that has no lyrics, and really no jingly kind of tune either. It’s called Deep Focus. It’s a whole long playlist. I play it. I don’t really “listen.” And I write. It works. She, too, has had issues with attention, and she, too, is a problem solver. Thanks for this entry. I now have another book to read!!

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  10. I love the idea of looking at problems as opportunities. That idea alone is a powerful mindset shift. Maybe we need to keep asking, “Where is the opportunity?” when all we here are problems. I’ve been reading Leading Well too. It is filled with ideas for us to consider and try.
    Maybe I’ll be called for jury duty soon???

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  11. I love this post. In my school I work as a Special Education teacher, but we have no Spec Ed classes – all the students are fully integrated & we work with teachers to support their various needs – from ADHD to autism. This post – both your experience and Calkins’ quotations – support the kind of shift we’re trying to create: let’s look at what’s happening and then look for opportunities and solutions, not blame. I love this. And now, clearly, I have another book to add to my list!

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