Leaving it on the Field

Recently my grandmother passed away at the ripe old age of 92. Ninety-two is a long time to live, but it’s still a sad thing to watch someone’s life come to an end.  I have a lot of respect for my grandmother. I don’t ever recall her making a big deal about the fact that her first husband died from leukemia when my mom was ten years old, and that she was left to raise eight kids. Nor do I remember there being anything particularly emotional in the way she told me about the death of her little girl, Trudy. And she never seemed to think it was odd or unique that she outlived three husbands. These were just the cards she’d been dealt.

What’s really great about someone like that is that they are the people you want to have around during the war room discussions when you’re trying to make tough decisions. They look coldly at the facts, quickly figure out what needs to be done, and then they get on with it. No need to mess around with the crying. We can save that for later when we have time and noone is looking. What’s not great about them is that they can be crappy at relationships, because in their efficiency and objectivity and excitement for the work, they forget to think about how others might be feeling about things in the process. All they care about is that the right work happens or the right decision gets made. In the moment.

What made me think about this is that I was recently asked to send out a survey to my peers about my ability to build trust. As I was doing the self-evaluation, I realized that I had a fair bit in common with Grandma. When it came to knowing stuff about pedagogy and making decisions, I felt pretty confident. I find it fascinating to think about how the brain works and how kids are interesting puzzles, and I usually see what path we need to take pretty quickly. But when it came to the relationship stuff, I had to hesitate a bit. I know that sometimes I can go a little too quickly for the jugular, or get caught up in the moment and forget how someone might be utterly offended by me picking away at their lesson. After all, teachers put their hearts and souls into their lessons. It’s an utterly personal and private act.

But for me, the highest degree of trust is shown when professional colleagues are able to have those knock down, drag out discussions about that in which they passionately believe. When I was filling out the survey for a principal with whom I had worked closely over the last couple of years (we were two rural K-9 schools out in the wild western frontier of the school division), I said that there was nothing that person could do to increase his trust with me. I could say anything to him and know that we could always walk away with the relationship intact. In sports, we call it “leavin’ it on the field”. No matter how much we might fight and scrap it out during the game, we still respect each other when we line up to shake hands. In fact, the scrappier it is, the more respect we begrudgingly hold for each other.

However, thinking back to my mom’s life growing up with my steely grandmother, I suspect she didn’t get many warm fuzzies while Grandma was holding down multiple jobs just to put food on the table for eight kids. And it certainly explains the homemade cut out birthday cakes she used to make for us kids, and the big deal she’s always made about the holidays. Myself, I’m not really a big fan of doing things for the sake of tradition. I figure that the meaningful things need to happen on a daily basis, and not because it’s December 25. Rationally, she can accept that, but try to play that card when you forget to call her on Mother’s Day. Not okay. Even when I tried to tell her that it was because I was altruistically supervising a few hundred kids at the Vancouver Sun Run. Still not okay.

And really, it wasn’t. But when my brother sent me an email reprimanding me for not calling my mom on Mother’s Day, I was pretty angry. So angry I didn’t go see him that weekend when he brought his new baby girl out from Toronto.  But I was angry because I don’t think my family gets how committed I am to my job, and that I do things like that to give kids experiences that will shape them in ways they cannot begin to imagine. They don’t get that I am always thinking about how we can do our jobs better as educators, so that kids can be smarter and happier. They don’t get it. But that doesn’t matter. I should have still called her. Because when she’s ninety-two and about to be done with this world, I want her to know how much I loved her.

So, when my brother flew out for my grandmother’s funeral, I wondered how it might be between the two of us since we hadn’t really spoken since then. But I guess I really knew how it would be. I saw him across the room as we were waiting for the memorial to begin. I looked at him. He looked at me. We nodded, and started a conversation that was like we had just finished talking the day before. We had left it on the field, because we respected and trusted one another.  

And so I hope for it to be with all of the teachers with whom I have the privilege of working. But it’s challenging to go from a place where I knew every staff member, student, their families, and head of cattle they owned – to a place where I’m still struggling to learn people’s names.  There just isn’t the same level of trust, yet. But I’m looking forward to getting there. And it’s going to be so much fun.

    • Jill Melnyk
    • January 4th, 2011

    Kathy, I have had similar experiences to yours. A Dad who was raised in foster homes with his 8 siblings because once his mom died his father was not viewed as capable of raising 9 children. Therefore, family is everything to him and my mother as well.

    Our passion and commitment to our jobs often do impact our families and extended families. I have been very fortunate to have worked in schools where I have been able to include my family so that they could better understand why I work so hard. I think PV probably misses my family due to their involvement (Santa Claus, sewing Christmas costumes, bird house building, participating in the Amazing Challenge and raising PV over 10 thousand dollars). Now they are far more understanding and even try to help me when I am stretched. Mom did my Christmas baking and my sisters helped keep my kids happy and busy while I did my Christmas shopped the week before Christmas.

    I am finding that it is definitely more of a challenge in connecting in a large school, and certainly in learning about your colleagues. In order to build these relationships and be able to “leave it on the field” you must first be able to open yourself up to them, take some risks, and build trust. I have found that the sooner we become interdependent (we can’t do it alone- all of us are teaching all of the children in the building – and allowing yourself to continue to learn from others realizing that none of us have all the answers) and think “win-win” (Covey) or agree to disagree the easier it is. When you spend this much time in one place it is nice to have it feel like a second home or a family with a common vision and purpose, and I do think that it is possible one person and relationship at a time.

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