I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

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Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

a chat with our Hogwarts prefect on leadership styles

Today, our favorite Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley (read about him here), is taking some time away from studying for his N.E.W.T. exams to chat with me about leadership styles.

Me: Patrick, you’ve said before that you don’t feel like your leadership style is very active. What do you mean by that?

Patrick: Well, other than when we do the Hufflepuff History lectures, I’m really not up in front of people that often. I’m not really into organizing group events or dropping in for visits when people are studying or trying to get ready for bed. That’s just not my style; I feel like I’m bothering people if I do that kind of stuff. But it’s amazing how often the younger students, especially, will come find me when I’m doing my own homework or relaxing. I kind of have “office hours” out in the common room–I don’t advertise them, but a lot of times I’ll be writing an essay or whatever, and a first-year will come tell me he’s homesick or somebody in one of his classes is being mean to him. Or her. Or they might just want help with homework. And we talk for a little while, or we go to the kitchens and see if the house-elves have a piece of cake we can take.

Me: So the answer to all problems is cake?

Patrick: Well, kind of. [laughs] I mean, there’s a reason why there’s that saying about tea and sympathy. Drinking tea, or eating cake, by yourself is okay, but it’s even better when you share it with someone who has the patience to just sit there and listen to you for a little while. Or a long while, if necessary. And I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest at this…

Me: You’re pretty good, from what I hear.

Patrick: It’s not that hard, though. [embarrassed laughter]

Me: It is hard, though! Listening can be exhausting. I know this from personal experience. But what about those times when being available and willing to listen doesn’t really address the problem–when you have to confront someone?

Patrick: I haaaaate it. I think this is the real reason why I’m in Hufflepuff! I never understood why Gryffindors and Slytherins seem to enjoy conflict. Conflict makes me want to hide under a rock.

Me: And eat cake?

Patrick: Yeah, for sure! But as much as I hate conflict, I’ve seen what happens when people avoid confronting each other about stuff. Roommates get bitter and quit talking to each other; people carry around all this worry about how so-and-so probably hates them…

Me: I’ve seen that too. It’s ugly. But I just realized something: You’ve conflated the word “confrontation” with the word “conflict.” I do it too; that’s why I didn’t even notice until now. Confrontation–facing misunderstandings head-on–doesn’t always lead to conflict, does it?

Patrick: You’re right; it doesn’t. Sometimes it leads to really great conversations. I’ve even seen it lead to friendships. But getting past that initial awkwardness and fear–that’s really hard. I don’t think it’ll ever be easy for me. I just have to trust that the other person is a human being who’s as willing to listen and understand as I am. Most of the time I’m right; if I’m wrong, and the person is a jerk–

Me: That does happen sometimes!

Patrick: Or if we just can’t see eye-to-eye…at least we tried. And it’s helped me to be braver, or whatever. And maybe it’s helped the other person in some way that I can’t see yet.

Me: Patrick Weasley, you’re a very wise young man. I should let you get back to your studying.

Patrick: It was nice to have a break. Before you go, we should go check the kitchens and see if there’s any cake.

Me: Definitely.

Stay tuned for more leadership discussions with Patrick, as well as his aunt Becky, Hogwarts professor and Hufflepuff alum!

weekend update: leadership edition

Since this is a leadership blog (and one of my summer projects is to rebrand it as such), today I’d like to highlight a few examples of good leadership I witnessed over the weekend.

  • Our commencement speaker at Liberty University was former President Jimmy Carter, and it was one of the best commencement addresses I’d ever heard. I love graduations with all their pomp and ceremony and familial pride, but normally I tune out during the speech. During my own college graduation, I read a book. Maybe it was because I had to hang on his every word or I would have missed what he was saying (President Carter is nearly 94 years old and speaks slowly and quietly), but I was riveted. He didn’t shy away from social issues; his whole address was about the challenges facing our world, and in that sense, it was absolutely a charge to the graduates even though he rarely referred to them directly. But unlike in many other speeches I’ve heard by politicians (including some commencement addresses), Carter didn’t propose himself or his party as the solution to these problems. Knowing that he was speaking to Christians who would understand what he meant, he proposed behaving like Jesus: treating all people as if they have value, walking in humility rather than self-promotion, speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Although it’s been many years since he was president, Carter is still a leader, from heading up an international humanitarian organization to teaching Sunday school in his tiny hometown church. And even though I haven’t followed his career, I know from what I heard on Saturday that he’s a good leader, mainly because he’s a compassionate leader. There were tears streaming down my face (yes, it was raining, but I was also crying) when I heard him talk about the crisis of human trafficking in his home state of Georgia, not only because of the facts he cited but also because I could hear in his voice that he cared. I, too, want to be a leader who cares.
  • I can’t remember the exact quote, but I heard a good leadership statement last night on Talking Dead, when Garrett Dillahunt, the actor who plays the new Fear the Walking Dead character John Dorie, said that he likes characters who don’t feel the need to force themselves into leadership roles or to clamor for attention–who are, in fact, reluctant to lead but will do so if it’s necessary. This brought to my mind a lot of great leadership examples, from George Washington to Rick Grimes.
  • Also last night, I finally went to see Avengers: Infinity War. I have a lot of thoughts, but some of them are spoilers, so I’ll restrict myself to comments about leadership (and also to this: Captain American looks really good with that beard and longer hair. Can I get a witness?). First of all, too many leaders spoil the soup–or something like that. There were too many characters in that movie, period, and that’s a storytelling issue, but if we can suspend our disbelief for a minute and pretend it was a documentary, the more important issue is that there were too many people trying to be leaders. This concept was used for comic potential with Thor (the pirate angel!) and Starlord, and it had more serious consequences in the disagreement between Ironman and Dr. Strange. (We’re using our made-up names, as Spiderman said.) One of the ongoing themes of the Avengers movies is that it’s hard for superheroes to act like sidekicks. But sometimes success requires taking a back seat to someone we may not even like. Second, leadership sometimes requires self-sacrifice. Again, we’ve been exploring this in the Avengers movies ever since Captain America #1, but the concept finally hit critical mass in this one–it almost seemed like this was a competition going on to see who could be the most self-sacrificial. And I’ll stop there, because of spoilers. But I guess my overall point is that if we can keep these two principles in balance–being willing to lay down our lives but also being okay with being the loyal comic relief guy who doesn’t have to, or get to, do anything so dramatic–then we will be good leaders. No capes, masks, or metal suits required.

my leadership role model

Today’s post is about a person who appears in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, so to start us off I thought I’d share something fun I discovered this morning. I am reading the Bible chronologically, and this morning my reading was 1 Samuel 4-8. Did you know that the names of two famous characters from 19th-century fiction appear in these chapters? They are Ichabod (as in Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and Ebenezer (as in Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). I think these characters’ creators chose the names because they sound funny and quaint to modern English-speakers and may invoke a harsh brand of Protestantism, not, or not primarily, because of their Hebrew meanings: Ichabod means “inglorious” and was the name of a baby (poor little guy!) born just after the Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines, and Ebenezer means “thus far has the LORD helped us” and was the name of a memorial stone set up to commemorate a victory against the Philistines.  (I have written a post about Ebenezer Scrooge’s association with memorial stones–I’m not sure if this was deliberate or unconscious on Dickens’s part.) Anyway, there’s your fun fact for the day.

Later in 1 Samuel, we meet the young man who will become Israel’s greatest king, David. Many of the people who appear in the pages of the Old Testament are roughly sketched and hard to relate to, but David is what we would call in literature a well-developed character. Not only from the historical accounts but also from the many psalms he wrote, we learn about David’s bold frankness, his concern for those under his care (first his father’s sheep, then the rebels who fought under him during his outlaw years, then finally his subjects and his many children), and his ardent love for God. David’s emotions are always near the surface in these accounts–he has a warm heart and, often, a hot head. As an F (feeling) on the Myers-Briggs scale, I can relate to David.

David made many mistakes, some ugly and inexcusable (murder by proxy, adultery, bad parenting). But the reason he’s my leadership role model is that, throughout his life, David remained teachable and open to correction. A prophet named Nathan keeps showing up in the accounts of David’s kingship, and nearly every time we see him, he’s calling out David for some sin. The fact that David not only tolerates but welcomes Nathan’s correction is amazing considering what David’s descendants, the increasingly bad kings, will do to prophets who tell them the truth (e.g. throw them in a pit, kill them). David could say, “I’m the king; I can do whatever I want!” Instead, he responds to Nathan’s truth-telling, not with a political “Hmm, I’ll consider that,” but with repentance, confessing his sin against God and immediately doing what he can to restore fellowship with God and the people he has wronged.

One of my greatest leadership fears is becoming the person who is too imperious or even just too sensitive to be corrected–the person everyone else is reluctant to confront. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I’m thankful that I work with people who kindly tell me about things I need to do better, and I hope I will always have people like this.

Another thing I love about David is that once he’s confessed his sin, he doesn’t wallow in it. Once fellowship has been restored with God (see Psalm 51, a painful and beautiful expression of this process), David is able to move on with joy and confidence that he’s been forgiven. Of course, his actions have consequences, and he recognizes this and grieves the harm he’s done to others. But this is another necessary leadership quality: the ability to walk forward.

I’d love to hear about your leadership role models!

safer and friendlier schools

At the end of my last post, I mentioned that my fan-fictional Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley, wants to go into the Ministry of Magic and work toward making school a safer and friendlier place for students. I didn’t get to clarify what I meant by “safer and friendlier,” so I want to take a moment to do that now. I fear that when some people read that phrase, their immediate reaction may be to grumble about how we make things so easy for kids these days and how we should be teaching them to grow up instead of coddling them. I’m glad these hypothetical curmudgeons brought this up because teaching kids to grow up and to thrive–i.e. teaching them resilience–is exactly what I’m concerned about too. 🙂

Before we can even have a conversation about resilience, we first need to understand that it’s necessary and acknowledge that childhood is hard. I wrote a post about this last fall, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that childhood is hard for everyone–you’re figuring out who you are and who everybody else is and how the world works–but it’s especially difficult for children who experience major forms of trauma. I just watched an excellent webinar by Dr. Allison Jackson and sponsored by Emote, and I’ve been given permission to share it, which I’ll do as soon as the recording is available. It’s the first in a series on identifying and addressing trauma for educators and anyone who works with children; for me, it’s relevant to both my children’s literature teaching and my volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children. Normally the word “webinar” doesn’t suggest engaging viewing, but I had tears in my eyes at one point during this one, and they weren’t tears of boredom.

When I talk about making schools safer and friendlier for kids, I’m not talking about making everything cheerful; I’m not talking about making everything easy–those things are impossible. I’m talking about letting kids know that they’re acceptable, even if they don’t have designer clothes and fancy lunches, even if they are a different size/shape/skin color from everyone else in the class. And then I’m talking about teaching them that they have the responsibility and the power to be kind to others. I will say more about this in future posts–or maybe Patrick will!

Becky and Patrick, our Hufflepuff correspondants

When I first pitched the idea of a Hufflepuff leadership blog to you, I mentioned that I would sometimes refer to two characters I had created: Becky Weasley, a Hufflepuff alum, and her nephew Patrick Weasley, a seventh-year student and Hufflepuff prefect. I haven’t ended up using this device much, but I have given these characters a great deal of thought, so today I’m going to tell you more about them. I would love your feedback about these characters and whether you think they would be useful and likable guides on your leadership journey.

Rebecca, or Becky, Weasley was Rebecca Durbyfield before she married Charlie. (“Rebecca Durbyfield” is sort of a pun on my own name: Rebecca is my middle name, and Durbyfield is the last name of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s novel.) She has one American parent and lived in the United States until she was old enough to go to Hogwarts, where she had always dreamed of attending. On her American side, she is the granddaughter of Queenie and Jacob from Fantastic Beasts, and the fact that her grandfather was a very famous baker gives her a lot of cred with her mother-in-law, Molly Weasley. At Hogwarts, Becky was in Hufflepuff but was best friends with Penelope Clearwater; they were part of a glorified study group called the Tri-House Transfiguration League that also included people you may have heard of such as Cedric Diggory, Oliver Wood (before he got kicked out of the club because he focused too much on Quidditch–not Becky’s idea), and Percy Weasley, another good friend of Becky’s. Becky always had a crush on Percy’s older brother Bill; she barely thought of the sporty second brother Charlie until years later when she met him at a wedding, realized he was a really great guy, and eventually married him. Now Charlie is the Hogwarts gamekeeper and Care of Magical Creatures professor, and Becky teaches Muggle Studies, which she knows a lot about from her grandpa Jacob. The Professor Weasleys’ cottage is a welcoming place for students who want to get away from the noise and drama of the castle and have a nice homecooked meal.

One such student is their nephew, Patrick, who is the only child of Percy and Penelope. (Of COURSE they ended up together, though I also have a whole story about their ugly seventh-year breakup and post-Hogwarts estrangement.) Patrick was a shy child who was overwhelmed by all his cousins and confused by his parents, who tried very hard to be good parents but couldn’t help being a little overbearing. When he got sorted into Hufflepuff, everyone was surprised (since he was the first Weasley in that house) but agreed it was for the best, since Percy and Penelope would never have stopped arguing if he’d been sorted into either Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. His own experiences during his first few years at school with homesickness and bullying made him want to help younger students, and his academic achievements helped him become confident, so he was happy to take on the role of prefect in his fifth year. Today, he is one of the most popular prefects in recent Hogwarts history, due no doubt to his empathetic approach. One tradition that Patrick and his prefectural partners have initiated is the weekly “Hufflepuff History” discussions, in which students learn about notable people from their house and begin to see themselves as part of this legacy. (Patrick’s Aunt Becky has helped to lead some of these discussions.) Patrick also likes to cook and is particularly good at making piecrusts, but his career goal is to work in the education department of the Ministry of Magic, with the platform of making school a safer and friendlier place for students.