It wasn’t just about the posters. Yes, I had turned my basement upside down preparing and although scored with the square inch requirement, neglected to double check the length. As a result, my posters representing the brilliant work of the SuperYou FUNdation were extremely large and stood out to say the least. I had indeed supersized SuperYou. What I realized, however, after three days filled with laughter, crying, deep thinking, and even soul searching, was that my whole experience at #Empower18 was larger than life.
We ache to learn about the cutting edge approaches changing the lives of students and educators, and #Empower18 certainly did not fall short. Full of heartfelt sessions, keynotes, and interactions with passionate people, any expectation was completely surpassed. I had the honor of meeting amazing leaders like Alex Kajitani (the Rappin’ Mathametician), who not only titled his session, “Culture of Compassion,” but created one right in the moment. And the second Manny Scott (an original Freedom Writer!) took the stage for a once in a lifetime keynote, I knew I would leave changed. In fact, I believe this larger than life experience felt so big, because I unexpectedly learned about myself.
A Supersized Session
I chose to park in a garage a mile away from the Boston Convention Center, which meant I had to wake up even earlier, all to save a few dollars. Waiting for an Uber, trying to keep my posters from flying away, I couldn’t wait for the 8:00 session with Tacoma Schools and LaVonna Roth. I had the privilege of meeting LaVonna in December, and although we talked A LOT, I had never seen her in action. I could only anticipate what it would be like, but I knew it would be worth every second.
When I found LaVonna bright and early outside of her session doors, she noticed my favorite shirt in the whole world, one I had randomly found in Walmart a few years before. Printed nice and large is the phrase, “I NEED A HERO.” She looked at me with a smile and said, “What do you mean you NEED a hero? You ARE a hero.” It seemed so easy for her, like the words just flew out of her mouth. I love that shirt as does every student who sees it. Kids literally run up to me announcing they are up to the task. Teachers typically break out into song as soon as I walk by and this always leads to bonding over the decade in which we grew up. I’ve actually written before about this very shirt and how everyone needs a hero, but not once has anyone reacted as LaVonna did. My mind and heart were reached before I even walked in.
When she took the mic, there wasn’t a second that lacked engagement and connection. We were captivated by her stories (and music), reflected on the importance of teaching children and adults to not only discover their strengths and passions, but use them as one powerful package, and even found mindfulness in blowing bubbles. Yet we were also pushed out of our comfort zone, forced to talk to strangers, and met vulnerability head on as we pondered whether our brains sprint to the negative or positive when reacting to a situation. I learned so much in less than an hour that this eye opening session would have been enough. (And I definitely go to the negative first a lot!)
As LaVonna was wrapping up what felt like just scratching the surface, Andrew Gardner, Vice President of Professional Learning at BrainPOP and friend, got in touch and asked where I was. I responded with, “I’m in 102B at best session ever and I have a seat for you!” Of course he came immediately. Who wouldn’t after a description like that? It’s a good thing, because the final challenge was to turn to the person next to us and share something we are celebrating. I was relieved as this person was Andrew, but I froze. I am writing the third book in the Lead Like a PIRATE series and I couldn’t even say it out loud. He was the one who reminded me that this could have easily been the first thing to come out of my mouth. I consider myself a PIRATE educator, one who has gained confidence over the last several years as well as taken risks I never thought possible. Yet as I walked out with Andrew, I realized I still have some work to do. This realization stayed with me for the whole weekend and is still brewing.
A Supersized Atmosphere
Anyone who saw the poster area at #Empower18 might agree that it was a bit of a tightly squeezed maze. Ironically, the close proximity of one presenter to the next forced us to become fast friends. The Saturday session was a bit slow, so we had a chance to bond and as a result, had a blast. The few “outsiders” that did in fact stop by my poster were kind enough to show up and support me. Without my friends, Lourds Lane and Jay Billy by my side, (who I truly missed!) I was a bit nervous. So, I made a conscious decision to grab some courage, my “wish superpower,” and let it take the lead right along with enthusiasm. It turns out a little music, art, and a whole lot of superhero empowerment is incredibly appealing, and I’m proud that some crazy awesome leaders came to listen.
My second poster session was completely different as I didn’t know most people who decided to venture over to our little neck of the woods. I buckled up and enjoyed the ride. Instead of trying to draw a crowd, as was the goal at ISTE a couple of years ago, I spoke with one or two people for half an hour at a time. I learned so much about the educators I spoke with, I could list their names, states, countries, roles, and why they listened when I encouraged them to stop by. We embraced each other with hugs and some were even brought to tears. What was supposed to be one hour quickly turned into two. In an atmosphere that appeared to encourage a walkthrough, connections were made and relationships were sparked. I learned we can never underestimate the size of an experience based on the size of its space.
A Supersized Conversation
If anything was clear at #Empower18 it was leading with why. I saw this come to life unexpectedly walking by the vendor booths before my Sunday morning poster session. I was honestly exhausted and with a large coffee in hand. The evening before was filled with fun events and people and there was even some dancing, which I happen to love. I unintentionally let out a sigh. I’m pretty sure I was contemplating in my head the best way to re-energize.
A vendor representing a start up called Leaderally politely stopped me. She let me know whatever it was I was going through, she could relate and it was cool. Our interaction immediately put a smile on my face and we began to talk in true Lead Like a PIRATE fashion, with complete transparency. I felt badly as I needed to run, but I promised I would be back. After my poster session, Leaderally was my first destination. As I spoke with Liz, Tara, and Kimberly for a whole hour, I learned they were on a mission to revolutionize online PD based on what teachers want. They revealed how PIRATE they are, diving into uncharted territory, and taking one huge risk with their careers. I was intrigued by their product, but I was even more intrigued by them.
I came back after hearing Manny Scott speak and we talked again. They fed me jelly beans numerous times, cried as we relived the power of Manny’s words, and next thing I knew we were exchanging phone numbers and making plans to attend the same conference. This was a conversation I never intended to have, yet one that kept me running back for more. Of course the what came up. These amazing leaders are, after all, highly intelligent. But the what was not our major focus. We shared our stories and how we’re trying to bring something to the world in our own unique way. The energy resembled one of friends getting together and I can say with much certainty I have never spoken to vendors anywhere close to the amount of time I spent speaking with Liz, Tara, and Kimberly. It’s weeks later, we’re still in touch, and they’re even reading my posts! And it all started with a sigh that transpired into a very real moment. It seems that as human beings we crave real sometimes even more than coffee.
A Supersized Conclusion
A few weeks ago I contributed to “A Wicked Good Conference,” a post Beth Houf, Jay Billy, and I wrote together about the Massachusetts Leadership Conference which we experienced side by side. Jay and Beth were my people and it’s awesome to have your people at a conference, those you know you will be spending time with and even collaborating with in a post. Unlike #Maleads18, I attended #Empower18 all by myself, yet never once felt alone.
As Beth Houf stated, it’s about the people and I believe it always will be. I thrive when I’m around educators who are real, embrace who they are, and push those around them to do the same. At #Empower18, I was able to spend time with a different group of my people, a group that formed a long the way and changed daily. Some folks I knew pretty well, some I didn’t, and because I had time alone, I got to know one even better; me. I came to the conclusion that to truly be comfortable in my own skin and fulfill my shirt’s request, I have to be my people first. Although it might sound easy and even obvious, I believe sometimes as educators we get so caught up in recognizing the awesome in others, we neglect to recognize ourselves.
I have revised countless tweets (or just not written them!) in fear that it might sound like bragging. I have put a hold on certain initiatives I felt passionate about because I received pushback. I have celebrated more times than one could imagine the successes of others, yet I couldn’t even say out loud to my friend that I had finished a first draft about leading beyond our titles. At #Empower18 I learned that without your people attending a conference with you every step of the way, you’re left to push yourself to thrive. Ironically when you find the courage to show who you are, it’s not just about finding your people. Magically, whether in a session, exhibit hall, or even the dance floor, others seem to find you.
I never ordered a supersized experience at #Empower18. In fact, I had no idea it was on the menu. Yet from the first moment to the last, supersized is what I got. Sometimes it’s the item we don’t order that makes one huge impact.