I was recently listening to an episode of How I Built This, an NPR podcast hosted by Guy Raz. In a typical episode, Guy dives into a conversation with innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists to learn about the stories behind some of the world’s best-known companies. In a typical year, there would be a How I Built This summit that would bring together some of the great minds in business and innovation. As we know, life for the past 18ish months has not been normal. As a result, the 2021 version was hosted online. This month they have been releasing some of the interviews from the online summit in the podcast feed. One of the recent episodes was a conversation with Brené Brown (You should really take a half-hour and give it a listen! It is phenomenal!)
This is not the first time that I have referred to Brené on my blog, but it seems that no matter how much I read by and about her, or how much I listen to her speak, I walk away with something new. In this episode, the conversation revolved primarily around the topic of leadership. According to Brené, good leadership means practicing four key skills: Bravery; Trust; Gratitude; and Vulnerability. Now I know that this blog is written primarily for educators and that most of the readers are classroom teachers. It might not always be easy to see the connection between being the teacher in a classroom and being a leader, but the connection is undoubtedly there. As a classroom teacher, you set the standard of learning and success for the students in your classroom. You build trust with and between your students. You practice gratitude with your students and their families on a typical day. And I really do not know any teacher who has not had to model some vulnerability with their students.
In traditional leadership, we often think of businesspeople who led massive companies from a position of absolute power. They make the rules, hand them down to their managers, and then managers enforce those rules upon employees. There are lots of real businesspeople out there that might fit in this category, but one of the TV shows that I found during Covid quarantine was Succession on HBO. The show centers around the Roy family, the owners of Waystor RoyCo, which is an imaginary global media and entertainment business. Logan Roy is the patriarch of the family and the CEO of Waystar. His leadership could never be described as meeting the four key skills that Brené shares. In contrast, traditional business leaders (including Logan Roy in Succession), lead through fear-inducing, hard-driving, fist-pounding attitudes. Large corporations are also not particularly good at celebrating success. Often when we think about large corporations, the focus is on the bottom line. How much profit did we bring in? What percentage of the market do we control? There is seldom time in these types of businesses to be happy about small successes. Did we make a customer happy today? Did one of our employees produce a solution to a problem that existed in our company?
What I loved in listening to Brené speak was hearing her perspective on the importance of celebration. She went on to talk about how sometimes we only want to celebrate the important things because there is this belief (that is not backed up by any kind of research) that if we celebrate the little things, we will never make it to the important things because people will “take their foot off the gas.” But in the research that Brené has done as a research professor at the University of Houston, she has found the opposite to be true.
Often in moments that should bring us pure joy or happiness, our brains take us to a place of sadness. Let me give you an example from my own life: I love to ride my bike. In the summertime, I rode 3 to 4 days per week. On one of my routes, there is a bridge that goes over the interstate near my house. When it was built, the side rail of the bridge was designed to be low. Since there is not a sidewalk along the road, the designers probably wanted to save some money. But when I ride across that bridge on my bike, I have this irrational fear that if I get too close to the edge of the bridge, my bike and I will fall over onto the interstate. You might have your own version of irrational fear in your own life.
For whatever reason, our brains seem to dress rehearse tragedies. Some might say that these moments help us to adapt, to do things that are less dangerous, but I would say that is bunk in this case. While I have fallen off my bike before, it has never happened when I was riding intensely. It only happens when I am relaxed, when I am not really paying attention, and typically also when I am moving slowly. I ride my bike because I love it. Because it brings me joy. But this irrational fear causes me to not be able to enjoy my ride as much as I should. If I lean into that irrational fear, I might stop riding my bike as much. I might become stagnant in my own progression as a cyclist (not that I would be going pro anytime soon).
One of the key messages that I take away from this podcast is that we must take the time to celebrate victories – and not just the big ones! We must celebrate the small victories as well! When we lean into small moments of joy, when we celebrate that success as a class, then we prevent burnout for ourselves. We keep excitement for learning and growth alive for our students. We help build environments of greater innovation and creativity.
What small victories can you celebrate? Is there something that has gone particularly well in your classroom recently? Or your celebration might come from something that is happening in your personal life outside of school and the classroom. Work on recognizing those victories – big or small. Lean into them. We must be grateful for every moment of good that comes to us!