You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Power of Teams

I have been thinking about the power of teams. One of the most overused phrases around is "there is no I in team.". This phrase a ridiculous cliche that completely understates the incredible benefits of being part of a team. The power of teams goes so far beyond words and images. When a group of people gather together with a common purpose in mind, amazing things happen.

I feel very fortunate to have spent most of my life as a part of different types of teams. Early in my life, I played sports and was involved in group activities like Cubs. These opportunities exposed me to incredible role models and leaders. I wrote about many of these people in Things I've Learned From People I Admire. All of my closest friends, the people I wrote about in Stand By Me are people who have been my teammates in some shape or form. There is something galvanizing and life changing about being part of a team. Your shared experiences build memories that become permanently imprinted in who you are.

The vast majority of my team experiences come from being involved in sports. Over the years, I have played and/or coached hockey, rugby, soccer, volleyball, basketball, slow-pitch softball, skiing, cross-country running and track. I have watched major sporting events live and on television. Sports and competition speak to a primordial impulse, the survival of the fittest. For me, it does not matter whether I am playing, coaching or watching. When I identify with a team, there is nothing I want more than the success of that team. I wrote about my passion for hockey in The Game I Love but I can think of parallel experiences in many other aspects of my life.

Early in my teaching career, I spent my entire life in the school. I taught, coached, stayed late, played floor hockey and hung out with the caretakers. I spent evenings and weekends in the school marking, planning and simply hanging around. I was a rookie teacher and great people like Brad Anderson, Phil Penner, Jim Schlachter, Rob Willms and Daryl Zilinski took me under their wing. They helped me learn, relax and served as tremendous role models. Our school's administration team of Barrie Wilson, Sue Peters and Murray Saul were very much like our coaching staff. They led by example and taught me many great lessons about what it takes to be a successful teacher. My success was very much a result of the support and guidance from the people around me. 

Ultimately, my experience as a beginning teacher was analogous to my experience as an athlete. Just as an individual athlete cannot play a game without teammates, an individual teacher cannot reach their potential without the support of colleagues and administration. In a previous post called What Makes a Great School Great? I wrote about the strengths of the school I currently work at. In so many ways, our school is like a powerhouse hockey team. We have seasoned veterans, talented rookies, and an overall sense of unity. The students and parents in our school have high expectations and our staff rise to meet those expectations to the best of their ability. As a teacher, leader, administrator and parent of children who have attended our school, I can say with certainty that it is an amazing and high-performing team.

People who understand teams understand that individual success IS important. If team members do not feel the "I" component of contributing to the team, they don't reach their potential. The precise formula for success is never the same. Success might look like Don Cherry's 1977-78 Boston Bruins with 11 players who scored 20 or more goals. It might look like the Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s, with 6 future Hall of Famers. Achieving the ultimate goal requires all team members to move in the same direction toward a common goal. There is a balance between "we" and "me", but both aspects need to be nurtured. 

In the end, I am a better person thanks to my involvement in teams. I understand that my personal goals need to fall within the framework of the place I work. I am not more important or less important than the people around me. I need them and they need me to be my best. This is true in my workplace, in athletics and in my family life. Teams have given me my best memories, my most powerful lessons and my best friends. Teams can make you jump in the air, punch walls, howl like a banshee and cry like prairie storm. They energize your limbs with excitement and can paralyze you with gut-wrenching anticipation.

We need to understand that the greatest things are achieved by teams. We may not always win and we may not always fulfill expectations, but when we feel a responsibility to those around us, our achievement is always greater. It is in the collective push that we find the power of teams.

Friday, April 5, 2013

People on the Edges of Your Life

We all have people on the edges of our lives. They are people we know, people we like, people we have spent time with. Usually, we connect with these people intermittently. We know who they are, we know their life story, and we genuinely enjoy their company. To draw a fishing analogy, we get swept up in the main current of our lives, so we miss connecting with these people because they live in the eddies and side channels. As any good fisherman (and Robert Frost) knows, it is important to explore beyond the main current. Often, the most pleasant surprises can be found on the path less travelled.

These people may be co-workers, people we don't know despite spending most of our day with them . Sometimes, they are people we meet through teams, groups, school, or our children. They might be neighbours, colleagues or friends of a friend. Sometimes, they are the siblings of close friends. They could be people you meet on a trip or a weekend getaway. We all have people like this in our lives and when something happens to them, it has a distinct impact. One of my lifelong friends lost his brother last week and pushed me to think deeply about the connections we make with the people who move in and out of our lives.

I knew Darren as long as I knew his brother, Warren. We grew up in the same places - Fultonvale Arena, Ardrossan Arena, the Moyer Recreation Center at Josephburg, and Wye Elementary School. Darren, Warren, Jackie and Gary Williams are a huge part of my best childhood memories. As a classmate, teammate, and lifelong friend of Warren's, it seems obvious to say that Dee was my friend's younger brother. Somehow, though, that is an inadequate description. He was much more than a little brother.

I have so many great memories of Darren. Thanks to hockey, we travelled across Canada together. Dee was one of those rare people who are impossible to dislike. He was friendly, outgoing and selfless. Dee was always kind to me and called me Bun, a nickname the persists with many of my closest and dearest friends. I always admired his passion for vehicles and having a good time. In lots of ways, he reminded me of a child's favourite stuffed animal - larger than life, easy to talk to and always there when you needed him. We crossed paths on a fairly regular basis because Warren's house is where our group of friends meets every year, usually at Christmas. Darren is the same age as my sister, so when we were younger, he could often  be found at the same parties and social events. In over thirty years, I never met a person who had anything  bad to say about Darren Williams.

One memory stands out from the rest. One of our friends got married at a golf course in Edmonton. When we went to leave the wedding, it seemed like a good idea to blast a few golf  balls into the pond near the parking lot. It was late and our swings were hampered by dress shoes, the dark and possibly the open bar at the wedding. It was a lot of fun, though, and as usual, Dee was in the thick of it. We were so into it that we got left behind and had to call a cab to catch up with the post-wedding party crowd. As we waited for the cab, we had a great conversation and reminisced about the good times we shared as kids. When the cab arrived, I realized I had no cash, but Darren paid with his usual "no problem" approach.

I can say with certainty that Darren was a good friend, a loyal brother, a loved uncle and everything a parent could ask for in a son. I am very sad that I cannot be there to celebrate his life due to a family vacation. It seems unreal that he won't be there the next time our friends gather for Christmas. I missed the last gathering because I was caught in the rush of my life and kids' activities, and I recognize that I missed a last chance to have my yearly conversation with Darren, whose company I genuinely enjoyed. My heart aches for those who were close to him.

In the coming months, I am going to try harder to slow down and pull myself out of the main current. Hopefully, I will get the chance to spend more time with people on the edges of my life.