Random thoughts, week-before-classes-start edition

I attended my first in-person retreat yesterday — our annual Department Retreat. I was surprised by two things in particular:

  1. How much I didn’t know I missed meeting with, and discussing things with, my colleagues in person. While we’ve certainly had our share of deep and important discussions over Zoom and Slack over the past year and a half, there’s just a different level of engagement, particularly around difficult topics, that occurs when you’re all sitting in a circle in the same physical space.
  2. How draining meeting with people in person is, after a year and a half of meeting online. I had a few things I meant to tackle post-retreat, but instead I found myself looking at everyone’s first day of school pictures (school started in my kids’ district yesterday) and tackling my email backlog. I have another retreat today, and will try to remember to give myself some grace if I’m mostly brain-dead and unproductive afterwards.

I have a longer post brewing about my goals for the year, including (especially) my leadership goals. I spent a lot of unproductive time this summer beating myself up for all the things I wanted to do as STEM Director this year that…just didn’t get done. Conveniently forgetting, of course, that perhaps leading and shaping a brand-new collaborative model among independently-operating departments DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC and *waves hand at everything going on in the world* is, perhaps, an accomplishment in its own right. And, after taking a few weeks “off” from STEM Board stuff, I am able to reframe some of the past year as “growing pains” for this new model.


As I alluded to above, the kiddos started school yesterday. 9th grade and 5th grade. One kid was excited / nervous, the other more of the “let’s get this first day over with” mentality. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the readers who know my kids in real life which kid was which.) By all reports, the first day went well. I’ll admit that I feel less panicked about the school year now that our district requires masks in all the elementary and middle schools. (Do I wish they’d included the high schools? Yes. But this is better than nothing.) Fingers crossed that we get through at least a few months of “normalcy”.


What I’m reading: We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker. I got this recommendation from What I’m listening to, which is Episode 251 of the You’ve Got This podcast. I’m still on the fence as to how I feel about this book, because it’s not exactly a light-hearted romp, but it’s so far managed to suck me in.

Fridays off

Even though it’s already summer — spring term is done, graduation happened, grades are in, and my research students started this week — I’m still digging out of my spring term hole. Which means I haven’t had a chance to set my summer goals, figure out my summer schedule, and do my normal summer / Q3 planning. (I should be able to do all of that this weekend, fingers crossed!) That said, there is one key part of summer that’s already penciled in:

Fridays off.

I’ve been taking, or at least trying to take, summer Fridays off for quite some time now, as I explain in this post. I do it to stave off burnout and to nurture the non-academic parts of my life. I do it to spend time with my kids — or, at times when the kids are in some kind of camp program, to spend solo time doing whatever I want. I do it so that I can spend time outdoors, where I’m happiest.

This summer, Fridays off seem more necessary than ever. I did not get much of a break last summer, or really since the pandemic started. The end of spring term was very difficult for me, for various reasons (some family, some professional). And an already full summer plate became even fuller when the person I work most closely with in my STEM Director role, the STEM Program Manager, left at the end of last week, leaving that position vacant for the foreseeable future. I need this type of a regular break more than ever, if I don’t want to start the next academic year depleted.

There will be a couple of Fridays that I won’t be able to take completely off, but outside of those I will do my best to keep those days completely free. Both kiddos are (mostly) unscheduled on Fridays too, so there will likely be lots of adventures with them. We bought a season pass for a nearby amusement park towards the end of summer 2019 for summer 2020, which is now good this year, so I’m sure we’ll spend at least a few of our Fridays there. We have a state parks pass and will likely explore some old favorites and some new-to-us places. I can usually convince one kiddo to go on bike rides and the other kiddo to go to the beach. And this might just be the summer we make a bucket list of ice cream places to try….

Of course, now that my kids are in the teen and tween years, they (shockingly!) don’t want to spend every waking moment with me. So I’ll likely have some time for solo fun, too. I’m looking forward to revisiting my favorite local lakes on my kayak, and maybe exploring a new-to-me lake, too. I plan on spending plenty of quality time curled up with a book on our back deck in the heat of the afternoon.

Do you take time off in the summer? How do you spend that time?

Routines and the first week of classes

After an extra week of spring break, after all of the planning and worrying and scrambling and course-modifying, spring term classes started on Monday.

So far, it’s going….ok. I have my first synchronous meeting with my class later today, so I’ve only interacted with some of them via email and Slack at this point. I have a short activity planned that sets up the next asynchronous activity they’ll complete, but I suspect that most of the meeting will involve all of us getting used to being online together, and answering questions about the class. And we’re only meeting for 30 minutes, which is not a lot of time.

I’m still trying to figure out what an “appropriate” amount of asynchronous work is per week. I doubt I will get this exactly right at any point this term. I am trying to be ok with that.

I managed to put all of my students on teams, based on time zone and working hours preferences. There were 2 students who didn’t respond to my pre-term survey (and, I just checked, who haven’t even accessed the Moodle page for the course yet), so I had to make my best guesses for them. (Note to self: reach out to them after finishing this post!) One student dropped the course immediately after I made the team assignments (I am pretty sure those events were independent), and I suspect I may have to do a bit of team-shuffling if others drop. I’ll admit: this part of course administration was difficult for me, because I’ve developed a team formation activity that I adore that I had to abandon this term. There isn’t the time, or the space, or the ability to carry out this exercise virtually, so I had to make do with imperfect data. Which, come to think of it, is kind of the theme of this term.

So far, I’m giving my video lecturing skills a C+. My least favorite, and least effective, ways of teaching are (a) lecture and (b) slides, so this is not a shock. I may have found a compromise: slides, but presented using Explain Everything so that I can scribble on them to my heart’s content. (And now that I have a decent stylus, scribbling should be easier for me to do and for my students to read.)

My kids, who also got a bonus week of spring break as their school district moved learning online, started back last week, so they’ve had a week to find and settle in to a routine of sorts. Having their routine set is helping me immensely as I try to figure out my routine for the term.

One thing that works in my favor: everyone else in my family is a night owl, and I’m a morning person. So I have a couple of hours of reliable, uninterrupted work time in the mornings. I’ve started doing some screencasts and other recordings since the house is quiet and I won’t be interrupted during part of that block (the other part I reserve for research). But since I’m still in my pajamas, I haven’t done any recordings with me on video during that time.

Last week, as the kiddos started online learning, we quickly learned that one of us needs to be actively supervising the 3rd grader, who struggles with attention and focus and has some combination of IEP and 504 plans in place for a variety of reasons. 10am to noon is “school time” for the kids. During that time slot I work in the same room as the 3rd grader, so that I can help him stay on track, plan what to do and in what order, answer questions about what his teacher likely means, and provide some semblance of quality control. The 7th grader has started hanging out with us in that room, too, so it’s like a little homeschool party in the mornings. This means, however, that I can’t get any deep work done, so I reserve that time to catch up on email and do some of the less taxing administrative work for my course and for my STEM Director job.

My spouse, in turn, takes the kiddos outside in the afternoon between his meetings, so that I get a bit of an uninterrupted break to work on deeper tasks. Or, increasingly, to attend my own online meetings. The kids are pretty self-directed, but left to their own devices they tend to…spend all their time on devices. So we do have to do some redirection during their free time, because there is such a thing as too much TikTok and too much Minecraft.

The uncertainty is the toughest thing to deal with at this point. We have a routine that mostly works. Will we be doing this for a couple more weeks? The rest of the school year? Next fall? It’s that sense of not knowing that makes it difficult to fully settle into our ways of working and spending our free time. And the uncertainty definitely casts a pall over everything we’re doing right now.

I’m curious to see how the rest of the week goes, and particularly how my first synchronous class goes. I suspect that next week will feel different from this week, as the novelty wears off and as reality sets in. I wonder about sustaining our energy and engagement levels, with this degree of change and angst and worry.

I hope I’m up to the challenge.

2019-20 academic year theme: Doing my best

Despite my faulty memory to the contrary, Fall Term always starts out with a bang and keeps its foot firmly on the gas pedal. Those well-rested feelings from the summer last approximately 48 hours in a good year, replaced quickly by the franticness and panic that is the ten week academic term. Before the term starts, it seems, I am already behind — yes, even with the extra bonus week we got before classes started this year, thanks to a very early Labor Day and a very late Thanksgiving.

I expected going in that this fall would be a bit more frantic than usual, with my new part-time administrative position. But things have also been, frankly, chaos on the home side. Fall is middle school girls swim season, which means 6 intense weeks of daily practices for the 7th grader starting the first day of school, and 5-ish meets (2 this week, whee!). It’s all over at the end of this week, but it effects the rhythms of the entire family. Fall is also cyclocross season for my partner, which pretty much means races every weekend, and lots of moving pieces to get everyone where they need to be. On top of everything else, the 3rd grader has some new additional diagnoses in his cocktail of special needs, and thus the transition back to school for him has been … less than ideal. There are days where I’ve used up all of my cognitive/emotional/coping resources by 8am … and I still need to put in a full day at my day job as well as the evening second shift that is parenting.

Sigh. I’m exhausted, and it’s only Week 4 of the term.

The other day, a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while asked how I was doing, and I replied, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can hope for right now.” And it hit me: THIS needs to be my mantra, my theme for the academic year:

Doing my best.

At the start of every sparring match we do in taekwondo (we spar at the start of every class), we look our opponent in the eye, shake their hand, and say “Do your best sir/ma’am”. We don’t say, “Spar perfectly.” We don’t say, “Perform at the same level you did the day before.” We say, “do your best” as a way of acknowledging that we’re in different places each day, we have different needs and pressures each day, and our only ask of each other is that we bring whatever our best is today to the match. We execute, and learn, from wherever we are.

I want to do this in everyday life. I’m not in the same mind space everyday, and neither are those around me. The way I live should acknowledge this fact.

Doing my best means extending myself some grace on the mornings where the 3rd grader tantrums from the time he gets up until he gets on the bus, and being ok with moving priorities around to focus on those that don’t require as much mental energy.

Doing my best means continuing to take professional risks, whether that’s sending out a paper before I feel it’s “ready” for review, or taking a possibly unpopular stand and pissing people off, because those risks are meaningful to me, and being ok with whatever outcome happens.

Doing my best means being thoughtful about the priorities I set and the activities and tasks I chose to pursue, and chose to let go. And about communicating my boundaries effectively and compassionately to others. (And respecting the boundaries of others!)

Doing my best means being willing to play the long game in terms of fostering the changes I want to see in my institution and department, so that I have the resources and people on my side that I need when I decide to push for a specific change.

Doing my best means being honest, with myself and with others, about my reservoir of resources, capitalizing on my high-energy days and retreating/reflecting on low-energy days.

Fall term is still going to be chaotic and frenzied and often panic-inducing, but this term and in subsequent terms, I can always do my best. That is something I can always control, no matter what life throws at me.

How will you do your best this academic year?

Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 3: Playing outdoors

Continuing in the series on “what I’m doing on sabbatical other than work” (parts 1 and 2 here), in today’s post I’ll talk about the athletic stuff I’ve been up to this year.

Physical activity has always been vitally important to my well being. As I’ve discussed on the blog before, it’s a really important strategy for helping me manage my depression and anxiety. It also helps me focus and, many days, is the only time all day I can count on having all to myself. What’s different about physical activity during sabbatical is that I have more flexible time to devote to the activities I love, which allows me to explore them in ways I can’t often do.

I’ll focus on three activities here — two which I do already, and one which I started this year.

Running

running clothes and bib number

Flat Amy the night before the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon.

Long time readers of this blog know that I love to run, especially long distances. I ran my first marathon in 2014 and immediately upon finishing said “I can’t wait to do this again!” I ran marathon #2 last October, which meant that I trained through the summer and the first few weeks of fall, when my schedule was light. While I found the training in 2014 to be manageable enough even with my summer schedule and fall teaching, it was really nice to have a pretty free schedule for this round of training, so that I could, say, do my long runs on weekday mornings and not have to spend a few hours away from my family on a Saturday or Sunday.

I’m currently training for marathon #3, which I’ll run in June. Again, it’s nice to have the freedom to do my long runs during the week, so that I can spend time with the family on the weekends. Training through the winter has been challenging — black ice! strong winds! cold temps! — but thanks to the relative lack of snow, I’ve managed to do most of my training outside and avoided the dreaded treadmill.

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One of my favorite nearby trails.

One aspect of running that I’ve really indulged in, taking advantage of my flexible time, is trail running. I am lucky in that I have a number of great trails minutes from my house. Trail running in the fall is one of my absolute favorite things, and I made sure to do quite a bit of it this past fall (after the marathon, of course!).

Mom and daughter trail running.

My occasional running buddy. I introduced her to trail running this year.

My kiddos are starting to catch the running bug, too. My daughter and I have run two 5Ks together, and she’s on my case to run another one together this spring. (She’s between sports right now — basketball just ended and swimming doesn’t start up until April — and wants to run more with me in the interim.) My son asked us to sign him up for track this year, which shocked us since he usually fights us on any attempt at organized sports. It will be fun to see how this goes.

Cross-country skiing

My philosophy about winter is, if you’re going to live in a cold climate, get out there and enjoy it! (And bundle up!) So after living here for about 6 years, I learned to cross-country ski. I started off with classic but eventually switched to skate. Which is hard and frustrating but fun and beautiful all at the same time.

Unfortunately, we’ve had a string of mild winters so there hasn’t been much snow worth skiing lately. Luckily one of the parks nearby makes their own snow, so this year my better half and I sprung for the “all parks” pass so that we could ski whenever we wanted. (I still didn’t get out as much as I’d hoped, but at least I got out there a few times.) One of these days I’ll get the hang of it enough so that I won’t feel like Drunk Frankenstein while skiing. Maybe.

Taekwondo

We signed our son up for taekwondo this fall. He’s not into playing team sports, but we wanted something that would give him some exercise and also help with his focus and self-control. I ended up taking him to class most of the time, and sitting there watching him. It looked like fun. In December, his studio let parents practice for free. (Genius, right?) So I thought, why not? I could sit here and watch, or participate. So I participated.

Mom and son showing off their orange belts.

Newly-minted orange belts!

Well, their marketing ploy worked, and even though I swore up and down I didn’t have time to pick up another hobby, I jumped in. Now my son and I take classes 2-3 days a week together. We’ll earn our yellow belts in May and by mid-August will be camo belts. (And then we’ll start SPARRING in class! Woo hoo!) It’s been a fun and interesting challenge — as much mental as it is physical. I treasure the fact that this is time my son and I get to spend together. I like that I’m modeling behaviors for him like perseverance, dealing with failure, etc. And I like that I get to show young kids that moms/women can be powerful and strong, too!*

Taking part in these activities — particularly the outdoor ones — reminds me of the importance of “getting outside to play”, as I call it. While I’ve always found ways to fit physical activity into my busy schedule (pre-dawn runs, anyone?), it’s been a real treat having the choice to, say, run at mid-morning when the sun is up and it’s a bit warmer, or ski in the afternoon before picking up the kids, or explore new-to-me trails. I’m encouraged to find ways to continue to incorporate these activities into my life after I return from sabbatical next year.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll talk about travel: what I expected, and what actually happened. (Spoiler alert: even with flexible time, when you have young kids at home traveling is hard.)

*For most of the time I’ve been practicing, I’ve been the only mom in my class. But recently, two other moms have started coming to classes. I don’t know if seeing me practice influenced their decisions at all, but it’s nice to have more adult women in the class.