Raising the Bar

I was never the sort of supervisor anyone wanted to work for when I worked in the corporate world. I had a reputation for being demanding and “all business”, as if that’s a negative quality in a manager. Given the choice, most people would prefer to work for someone who expects little and who is content to be perceived as “one of the gang.” I was never that boss, and I’m not that parent. Neither is my husband.

People will generally achieve whatever expectations you set for them, so you might as well set the bar high.

As both a supervisor and a parent, I have always subscribed to the philosophy that people will generally achieve whatever expectations you set for them. Whether you set the bar high or set it low, your staff or your kids will consistently be right on target; so you might as well set the bar high. There are always exceptions, of course. There will be the occasional overachiever who will consistently surpass your expectations. Likewise, there will be the odd underachiever who will rarely be on target. I have some ideas about how to deal with those exceptions, but that’s a topic for another post and another day.

I received a very interesting phone call from my daughter’s 6th grade math teacher this morning. Apparently my daughter’s name came up in the core education team’s weekly meeting, and the team agreed that my daughter should be bumped up to the advanced placement curriculum for all of her core courses. The chairman of the team just wanted to clear the move with us before they went ahead and placed her on the AP track.

When I replayed the voice message for my daughter, her eyes grew wide with amazement. She didn’t really know what to expect when I told her I’d received an interesting message from her math teacher, but a promotion to the AP track was clearly not on her radar.

The discussion that followed went something like this:

Me: Are you interested in moving up to all advanced courses?

Dear Daughter: Yes.

Me: You realize that this is going to mean more work, right? The classes are going to be more difficult, and you’re probably going to have more homework.

DD: That’s okay. I’m up for the challenge.

I’m up for the challenge.

Those words are sweet, sweet music to this mom’s ears, and here’s why: Two years ago, shortly after we got married, my husband and I discovered that our little girl was struggling in math. At the time, my husband didn’t have primary custody, so we only had her every other weekend. We know our daughter to be very bright, so we had no reason to suspect that she was struggling in school. As we began to test her understanding of math with simple problems involving money or distance, however, we realized that she didn’t have a solid understanding of basic math functions. And so began our quest to gain primary custody so we could have more control over her education.

We were incredibly lucky. Not all custody cases work out in the best interests of the child(ren), and so many dads face an uphill battle when it comes to convincing a court that they are the stronger custodial parent. If I had any doubts about the existence of God prior to our custody case, those doubts would have been obliterated by the time our case was settled because everything worked in our favor. From the timing and circumstances to the random assignment of a district judge, it all flowed seamlessly, as if guided through divine intervention.

And all the while, we were working overtime to get our daughter caught up academically. We had her tested through Sylvan Learning  in the middle of her 4th grade year. At that time, her math skills were somewhere in the 3rd grade range, while her language skills were a little above her current grade level.

She spent the summer between her 4th and 5th grade years learning her multiplication tables inside out and backwards. During her 5th grade year, she discovered the payoff for all that effort when her friends started referring to her as “the calculator”. We had her re-assessed at the end of her 5th grade year, and (not surprisingly) she tested well above grade level in both math and language skills. Today, she readily admits that she’s glad we forced her to memorize her multiplication tables, which brings me back to my original point that kids will hit whatever target you set for them.

What’s most rewarding for me after all the tears and frustration over the past two years of working to fill the gaps in our daughter’s education are the tremendous leaps she’s made in terms of her overall willingness to take risks and the ferocity with which she rises to a challenge. The growth in her academic performance, as remarkable as it is, pales in comparison to the growth we’ve seen in her self-confidence and her work ethic. School is fun for her again, and she’s back on track to achieving her full potential.

We don’t do our kids any favors by setting low to no expectations for them. Too many parents are disengaged and disinterested in their child’s education. As a society, we all complain about the quality of our education system, and we’re quick to blame teachers when our kids fail to be prepared for the next phase of their lives upon their high school graduation.

What my daughter has clearly demonstrated for me, however, is that it’s not the school’s fault that she was falling behind in the 4th grade. It was clearly our fault as parents. The Ex is the sort of parent who was never fully engaged in her daughter’s education while my husband and I took it for granted that our very bright child was breezing her way through elementary school. Once we took a more active role in her education (and once we set some very clear expectations) our daughter went from struggling to keep up in 4th grade to leading the pack in the 5th and 6th grades.

Whether you’re a supervisor or a parent, set your expectations high, and establish clear standards. It’s the greatest thing you’ll ever do for your organization or your children. They may grumble about it in the beginning, but there will undoubtedly come a time when they’ll be grateful that you cared enough to raise the bar.

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The First Year of the Rest of Our Lives

My husband and I have been celebrating our marriage in small ways pretty much daily since we tied the knot at the Jefferson County Courthouse on a cold, rainy October day last year. I’d only been living in our shared Denver apartment full time for a few days at that point, having severed my employment in Trinidad just a few days earlier. It was a tremendous relief for me to finally arrive home for good when I left my office after my last day at work and drove three hours north to Denver.

We didn’t plan to get married the following week, but it worked out that way because the county clerk’s office was empty when we arrived. No lines. No waiting. We were in and out in less than thirty minutes. We arrived as two single people looking forward to getting married within the next thirty days. We left as husband and wife, a little stunned by how quickly and easily we’d tied the knot, but thrilled nonetheless.

I hear all the time that marriage is difficult. That it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, next to parenting; and I wonder sometimes if there’s something wrong with me or my husband or our marriage because our union has been easy from the start. I think we’d both fully committed to spending the rest of our lives together before we ever talked about marriage. When we did have that conversation, the issue was settled in a matter of minutes.

Neither of us is particularly romantic. We’re both more practical, yet there’s something sort of romantic and magical about a union, such as ours, that works so smoothly and effortlessly. That’s not to say that we don’t put any effort into our marriage because we do. I’m prone to some pretty strong mood swings, and with our daughter now living with us full time, there are three of us crammed into a tiny 2-bedroom apartment. I occasionally feel fenced in, and when I need to withdraw and recharge (introvert that I am) there’s simply nowhere to go. Those days are pretty challenging, but my husband and I are unshakably united, so we know we’ll get through them.

All my life I’ve been accused of not being a team player, but what this past year has taught me is that I am absolutely a team player when I’m on the right team. This lesson is huge for me because I believed, like most people, that life would always be a struggle. That wherever I go, there would be strife and conflict, so I’d just have to learn to deal with it. We’re told from an early age that we need to grow a thick skin and learn to tolerate being treated poorly by others, and we’re supposed to silently endure the incompetence, ignorance, or inappropriate behavior of those closest to us for the sake of “getting along”.

All of that is nonsense, of course. Those are the lies people tell themselves in order to justify staying in bad marriages, toxic friendships, and unrewarding jobs. There’s a better way. It’s entirely possible to have relationships that are based on mutual respect and appreciation. It’s equally possible to find highly evolved, competent, and intelligent people with whom we’ll resonate. We can either find or build high-functioning teams where we’ll achieve more working together than we could possibly achieve alone. The key is that we have to learn to be a lot more discerning about the people we’re willing to allow into our lives. And we need to learn to say no to those who are unwilling or unable to rise to higher standards of conduct.

I’m not sure I can convince anyone that there really is a better way to live, but I’d like to. Had anyone told me I’d eventually find a man who is a perfect match for me, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. Yet I intuitively understood that the combative and dysfunctional relationships I’ve had with certain relatives, friends, and coworkers through the years may have been completely “normal” according to current social standards, but they certainly weren’t healthy. I secretly hoped to find better ways to relate with people, and I found glimpses of those better ways through a few rare individuals—an old boss, a handful of friends and even a couple of old boyfriends. It wasn’t until my husband and I started dating, though, that I fully understood that virtually all of the obstacles to lasting, happy, and healthy relationships would be obliterated if people would only choose their mates, friends, and business associates more carefully.

My husband and I are similar in many ways, but we’re also quite different in other ways. His strengths balance my weaknesses, yet we share the same core values. As a result, it is remarkably easy for us to map a course for our future and work together to achieve our long-term goals. While dividing the work of running our household, we take into consideration our individual preferences and strengths so neither of us gets stuck doing the things that we dislike most.

We argue infrequently, we rarely bicker, and the closest thing to nagging that happens in our household is that we occasionally have to remind our daughter to do her chores. The result is an overwhelmingly happy and almost effortless marriage and home life. My wish is that you, too, will find the sort of well-balanced relationship that my husband and I enjoy. Can you imagine what we could achieve as a society if we all held ourselves and those closest to us to higher standards of conduct, and if we were far more discerning when choosing those we allow into our inner circles?

Life is too short for all the drama and nonsense that most of us resignedly tolerate daily in our personal relationships and in the workplace. Choose your mate, friends, and coworkers more carefully so you can look forward, as I do, to a bright future beside someone you trust absolutely to have your back.

Thank you, Matt, for a wonderful first year of what I’m certain will be a very long and happy marriage. I love you.