Relationships matter: the inspiration all around us

With the hustle and bustle of the 2016-17 school year now in the rear view mirror I find myself with time to catch up, take a breather and relax briefly prior to 2017-18 ramping up in full force in a matter of weeks. Time increases rapidly – and certainly never seems to slow down.

I just completed my 12th year in public education. From my humble beginnings as a first year teacher in small town Ohio to relocating very early in my career to the great unknown of the Triangle region of North Carolina, to obtaining my graduate degree in school administration and taking on leadership roles within the school I’ve always been invested heavily in relationships. Student to student, staff to staff, school community stakeholders, the list goes on. They’re genuine and ongoing as I’ve referred to in previous posts, its vital we are sincere as all those we serve, especially the kids, can spot a phony in an instant. Words and sincerity matter. Period.

This has always been my hallmark. Long before “relationships” became a buzzword in our profession. Long before my connections and eventual school partnership with Angela Maiers and Choose2Matter. Certainly before I met Mike Erwin and became involved with the Positivity Project beginning this past school year.

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At times we lose focus of how much our words matter. The students we all serve listen and hang on every word we say. As a younger 3rd grade teacher back in 2007-2008 I began branching out beyond the walls of my classroom. It was my third year teaching and I wanted to begin taking a bigger role. Looking back it was one of my first risks as a young, wide-eyed educator. I took time to get to know other students on the grade level outside of my classroom, their parents, getting to know them beyond student A, student B, etc. Having check-ins at lunch, or on the playground. The mentality shift from my students to our students had begun for me officially.

A month ago, that “wave” of third graders from my first elementary in Raleigh graduated from high school. In the months leading up to the big day I was amazed how many of these former third grade parents & students began reaching out to me via social media, phone, work email, etc. to ask for my address. They almost all had the same sort of blanket message “Mr. Fetters you made such a big impact on me/my child a decade ago we’d love for you to attend my/their high school graduation.” All told I received 10 invitations this year. Some were students I had in class, several were those I never taught but got to know through weekly check-ins. They were our third graders – clearly I made an impact.

I was able to attend a high school graduation this year that the bulk of students from my original WCPSS elementary school attended. Most of the students that invited me were there. It was amazing to see so many of them, hear of their accomplishments, aspirations, while also making me feel quite old in the process.

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I was able to attend one graduation party that day, a girl who I didn’t have as one of my students, but of course she was ours. Her mother reached out to me repeatedly and really wanted me to come to their house afterwards so I did. This young lady is incredible. Her exact words to me were “you always said you believed in me when I was in third grade – not a lot of people did but I knew you meant it. I wanted to prove you right.” I was taken back. Do words matter? Absolutely. Sincerity? Absolutely. This young lady has gone to places many never thought she would go. She’s going to move mountains. Just a small sliver of the impact we can and often do make on a daily basis within the profession regardless of our capacity.

These students have inspired me as much as I inspired them years ago. So powerful. Such an opportunity for rich reflection.

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Its easy to get caught up in the moment as educators. We all have tough days and the work we do is challenging. It truly takes a village. We all have a lot going on in our personal lives, career, homes, etc. but its essential we keep doing right by kids as the pinnacle of every decision we make as an educator. That should always be a nonnegotiable.

Walking the talk – taking leaps of faith to achieve personal and professional growth

Risk. Failing forward. Leaps of faith. If you follow my blog, Twitter feed or spend time with me you know I live and breathe these daily. I’m very motivation driven, feeding off positive people who inspire and encourage me to do my best as a professional and above all person.

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Growing up in rural south-central Ohio in a farming community I was exposed to the value of hard, physical work helping out on my family’s grain and livestock farm operation throughout the year growing up. Having a mother as a high school English, public speaking and journalism teacher I was exposed to the value of hard work within education. I watched as my mother spent so much of her free time making connections with her students – sacrificing sleep for her entire 30 year career to be the best mother she could to me while also providing above and beyond feedback for her students in the classroom. That inspired me. My maternal grandparents inspired me with their tales as educators.

When I think about risk my first substancial exposure relating specifically to me was back in 2006. While having been exposed to much of the country in the form of travel with family and friends, I really hadn’t left the general central and southern Ohio region. I went to college not far from my hometown and my first teaching job was a mere 15 minutes from my parents in the next school district over from the one I attended growing up and my mother spent her career teaching in. I was enjoying what I was doing career wise but I needed something different, a change. A significant break from small town Ohio. Perhaps a break from the heartland altogether was what I needed?

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I had an offer on the table from Wake County Public Schools to relocate and teach third grade in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every fiber in my being knew I should be scared. I had no connections to North Carolina. My aunt and uncle had done their medical residencies at Duke University when I was in elementary, were married in the Duke Gardens and even practiced in the area initially. My cousin Matt was even born in Durham. However, at the time, my uncle and aunt had relocated a decade prior from the state and I no longer had a connection.

My aunt and uncle were all in favor of me giving this a whirl. They loved their time in the Triangle and and at Duke and spoke highly of the area. My parents, despite me being the only child, encouraged me to give it a try. I could always come back home, right?

June 25, 2006 I took the leap. Not knowing anyone at all – my parents, one of my father’s work trucks, a pull behind U-Haul, my tiny “college car” loaded to the brim and I all made the journey from south-central Ohio to the great unknown of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Risk. Rewarded. 

I immediately fell in love with the area. The people. The district. I learned, grew, collaborated. Several years of teaching third grade turned into several years of fourth  grade which turned into going to graduate school to pursue an administrative degree.

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Everywhere I’ve been in the now 5 schools I’ve worked at in my career (counting my brief time in Ohio) have added insight to my life and career. I keep in touch with all of my past principals and at least a handful of former teachers from each school who have added significant value to my life and career. Several have become dear friends. Each one of these stops along my ride have helped mold, strengthen and sharpen the saw on my professional journey.

After a decade plus in my career I had spent my entire time at the elementary level and was becoming stale. I didn’t realize it yet –  but I was. My friend from grad school LaTeisha had encouraged me on several occasions to consider high school administration. While that wasn’t quite in my wheelhouse – yet… it opened the door to consideration of a big change. I was stubborn about leaving elementary but wasn’t even realizing it.

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My friend Michael and I had embarked on several collaborative partnerships with my now former elementary and his middle school down the road. The more I visited his middle school the more my eyes started opening. Ironically at this same time my friend Bethany from Charlotte had recently transitioned from an entire career in elementary both teaching and as an administrator going to middle school and was raving about it — how empowering the change was for her career.

I was ready for another leap but knew I needed the right opportunity. I’ve never been one to change for the sake of changing. It always has to be the right opportunity and situation for me personally and professionally.

A few months ago – when I wasn’t even looking, opportunity knocked. I opened the door, explored, liked what I saw and took that leap. Mid school year and all – I was leaping from elementary – all I’d known my entire career in education to middle school.

I go with my gut – always. I was so far out of my comfort zone I didn’t even know where to start — but I knew I was in the right place for me professionally. I was going to grow significantly and thrive. I took the offer – and I leapt.

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Several weeks into the new position and setting I’m loving it. Gaining my footing more and more daily and comfort level rising. Growth, growth, growth all around. Risk rewarded. Onward.

That leap in 2006 was significant. The leap I made in early 2017 is just as much. Both of these wouldn’t be possible without the strong support team I had in both situations and ongoing. We should always be learning, growing and improving together. Supporting one another through the ups, downs of life and career.

Some of us talk about risk, leaps of faith, fail forward and stepping out of our comfort zone but what do you do when opportunity knocks?

One of my favorite songs about risk is a lesser known early 90s country song by Lionel Cartwright from when I growing up. Leap of Faith has always inspired me and is a song I’ll turn to for inspiration from time to time. Lionel Cartwright – Leap of Faith

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Leap of Faith

Written and performed by Lionel Cartwright (1991 – MCA Nashville)

[Verse 1]
You want a no-risk guarantee before you take a chance
You wanna know how the song will end before you start to dance
Well I can’t foretell the future, but my heart clearly sees
Your hand in mine for a long, long time if you could just believe

[Chorus]
And take a leap of faith, cast away your doubt
Darling come what may, we can work it out
A love that’s real will always find a way
If you’ll trust in me like I trust in you
There’s no rain or fire that we can’t go through
The first step’s always the hardest one to take
It’s a leap of faith

[Verse 2]
I understand all your doubts and fears of laying your heart on the line
But aren’t you afraid of just throwing away a love like yours and mine
I know your heart’s been broken, you’ve been let down before
Though the stakes are high, give it one more try, this time you can be sure