I'm Not Your Ideal Graduate

When I was eight I decided that I wanted to go to Harvard. It was the mid-eighties, and not only were Harvard sweatshirts with the rolled cuffs the “in” thing to wear, but in my limited scope of the world I knew that it was an impressive school. I felt that if I went there people would say, “Wow, she went to Harvard! That’s amazing!” and I wanted people to think I was amazing more than anything. I wore that sweatshirt until it fell apart. I told anyone who would listen. It was what success looked like to me. 

Not long after my decision to get into Harvard, I decided that I wanted to go to law school. Criminal law interested me the most but I couldn’t stand violence, so I decided on corporate law instead. A lawyer that graduated Harvard law. That sounded like success to me. 

I never wanted kids. I spent my childhood taking care of other people’s kids. They were the last thing I wanted. I wanted to be consumed with my successful career. A single, childless, successful Harvard law graduate. 

I never made it into Harvard. I actually never even tried.

I never made it to law school. 

Instead, I became lost in what I really wanted to do with my life when all my goals began to fall apart. I tried to sell Mary Kay. I transferred to the tech school and started a medical transcription degree. I had a knack for medical terms and what they meant. When I became bored of that, I tried selling real estate. I worked at Walmart. I waitressed. I tried to start a photography business. I worked for a place called Deal Chicken. I quit when they tried to make me dress in a chicken costume and stand on the corner clucking. All of that felt wrong, and because of feeling wrong, that all felt like failure.

Then, I began to have children of my own and loved them more than I thought it was possible to love other humans. That felt like success.

They led me to desire a degree in education. I graduated when I was 27. It looked like success to me. 

I went on to my graduate degrees with four littles and working full-time. A successful, working mother, grad student and teacher. 

I was going to stay in the classroom forever because I loved it.

I didn’t. I left for a technology integration position. Then a technology director role. Then completely out of being employed by a district and speaking and consulting full-time. As I sit here on a flight to Philly for work, I know this isn’t my last position change. I will move on to something else that I’m not expecting. And yet, all of those places felt like success. 

My life isn’t anywhere near when I thought it would be. There have been so many times that I’ve felt success or I’ve felt less than anyone around me. So many times where I’ve cried because I’ve had to let go of dreams and goals that I was holding onto way too tightly that in the end weren’t meant for me. I’ve had to make tough decisions to move on and trust that my instincts were correct even when the plunge meant something like leaving a job without another one lined up. I’ve had to mourn the loss of experiences I’d never have. I’ve had to feel lost in order to find myself. Repeatedly.

Now, being much older than eight, I define success as if I would do the same thing all over again. My path hasn’t been a straight shot like others have had, but I would consider it a success anyway because I wouldn’t change a thing. Would I have been a good lawyer? Possibly. But that journey wasn’t meant to be mine.

I think about this often especially in the context of working with school districts when they are defining what a successful graduate looks like. While I understand the need for us as humans to categorize and label everything, I often ask myself who are we to define success for someone else? Five years out had my high school ever checked on me, they would have found that I was waitressing part-time and raising two kids. According to some of the college-bound focused descriptions of the “ideal graduate”, I would have come out on the negative side of the statistics. A college drop-out. No post-secondary education. Ironically, now I am often the facilitator of these discussions at the district level. Now, 24 years later, I would be considered a success. 24 years later, looking back, I would have considered myself a success even five years out. Even though I was still trying to make my way and find who I was, I was doing it happily and learning as I went. Even though that time of my life was difficult and it’s now over, I’d do it again. Success.

We can define the ideal graduate. It’s a good idea to know what characteristics we would love our students to graduate with so we can support them in their future success the best way we know how. Resilience. Tenacity. Agency. Self-advocacy. However, we also need to realize that sometimes these characteristics don’t show themselves in college graduates or how society views success. They might instead be found in the journey to get to wherever they belong, even if it’s not the one we would have chosen for them.

On The Inside vs On The Outside

I have alluded to my childhood turmoil before in blog posts and go into a bit more detail in The Fire Within, but I often keep the details of that experience under wraps. The little bits of information I allow to leak are meant to induce feelings of empathy for anyone where you really don’t know what they’re going through – students or adults. So much of our existence is wrapped up in cycles of joy, contentment, heartbreak, and forgiveness and sometimes just the act of being normal is a heroic feat of epic proportions.

My family was a prime example of this. From the outside, we were considered to be an exemplar family. We fostered and adopted kids and did respite care. We had a small hobby farm with horses, goats, pigs, foxes, raccoons…even a monkey. The eldest by seven years, I was well-behaved in school, didn’t say a lot when I was younger, and I worked hard and received good grades. I could survive in school without a lot of assistance, so I was either praised for my work ethic or ignored completely. I was involved in clubs and extracurriculars. As I got older, we were even recognized as a family of distinction in the city where we lived for all the good we did with foster kids.

At home, we were often on edge. My brother had to wear a dirty diaper on his head because he refused to get potty trained. My sister was told to stand up and hold her nose against the wall for hours for not listening. Later, in a moment of terrifying creativity, my mother decided to start giving kids shovels and telling them to go outside and dig their own graves. She said nobody would miss them anyway. My mother and stepfather were later arrested on multiple accounts of child trafficking and abuse.

The psychological warfare that exists in abusive homes is the part that I feel we underestimate. My home wasn’t always violence and chaos. We had birthday parties and cake fights. We had loads of Christmas presents (even though my mother’s compulsion with cleaning wouldn’t allow us to play much with them). We laughed sometimes. That’s the kicker. As a kid, you never know when it’s going to go south. You just never know. And worse, you can’t tell anyone. You absolutely cannot take the chance that you say something and are taken away for two reasons. First, you never know when you’ll be sent back and the consequences for that. Secondly, I wanted a family so bad. It took me until I was an adult to understand that while I wanted a mom, someone who told me they were proud of me and to love me unconditionally, I didn’t necessarily want my mom. I couldn’t help her enough to fit her into what I needed as a parent, and eventually to move on with my life I needed to be okay with that. There was no other way I could forgive.

When I was in high school, I did go to the school counselor and told her just a bit of what was going on. She sent me home because we were such an amazing family that I had to just be making it up. I never made that mistake again. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream into a pillow. Pray.

Here’s why I tell this story. Recently, I was in a younger classroom where a beautiful soul of little girl was struggling. She had already left the classroom once, and so I decided to pay special attention to her to try to get her to stay. As I watched her, I noticed she was all over the place. It could have been mistaken as ADHD as she nervously fidgeted and struggled to get her work together, but to me it screamed trauma and the effects of a constant state of fight/flight. The students were learning how to use a tech tool, and to do that they had to answer questions about themselves just to practice. One of the adults in the room asked this one simple question: “What did you have for dinner last night?”

I have absolutely no idea what the background was of this student, but I do know what it’s like to try to hide what’s happening at home. When I looked at her, her face dropped and her brow furrowed. I thought she might bolt, so I made my way to her and by the time I got there, her head was hung and her eyes were a bit watery. I asked her if maybe she didn’t have time to eat the night before and began to silently curse the question in my head. Right before I was going to ask her to change the question to answer for lunch instead, her head popped up and she looked at me with a determined smile, too hard of eyes for a second grader, and said, “I had pork chops and green beans and mashed potatoes and…and…and…” It’s possible that day that my heart actually broke. I felt like saying, “Oh my little love, you could do great things with that resilience and determination. Just hang on to it a little while longer.” I choke up just thinking about it. Even though I had never gone without dinner – my sister had become a master macaroni and cheese maker – I felt that little girl was me. Struggling to be just enough normal to fit in. Hide, hide, hide it. Cover it up. Scream inside. Pray.

We can say this is a sad story and we don’t want to read stuff like this. That would be irresponsible and negligent to the students who are experiencing it – our colleagues who have lived through or are living through it.

The lesson here is twofold.

  1. Adversity makes us who we are. We can choose live in anger and resentment. Lord knows I have enough reasons to do that. I don’t because I choose not to. That means I need to sometimes forgive people who have no intention of saying they’re sorry because I don’t want to allow them to have that much control in my life. That also means I can use what I learned in the classroom with students and hopefully give them the support they need.
  2. Our students are going through things that some of us can’t imagine. Look at them. It would have been easier to get irritated with her for bolting from the room. It would have felt reasonable to send her to the principal when she blew up because nobody knew how a question like that would trigger her. But, she’s a child. A little kid. And worth our time, attention, and love.

As my work has turned to be more with educators and I have been diligently supporting them, it has become easier for me to notice the students and how little they are. How much they may have experienced in their young lives. I sometimes missed this when I was still in the classroom because I was so wrapped up in all the management of the initiatives and teaching the content and classroom management. This moment with the little girl gave me a huge reminder of how so many people are going through things that nobody else knows, and how we could use a little more empathy and humility with each other.

"If One Only Remembers to Turn on the Light…"

If you’ve read my book The Fire Within, you may remember that the first quote in the book is from Harry Potter. Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” What I love about this quote is that it isn’t magic that turns on the light. It’s not a student or another magical creature. It’s not one of the people from the Ministry of Magic or some unicorn from the forest. One must remember to turn on the light themselves. When we discuss educator engagement, this same principle applies. If we are waiting around for someone else to re-engage us, it’s simply not going to happen. We are responsible for our own lights, if only we remember to find it and turn it on and watch for the moments that light us up.

I have been working with the School District of Philadelphia in a consultant role and recently spent a week in the district. I have an incredible amount of respect for the administrators and instructional coaches I work with, as well as the teachers and students I have been able to visit. They are seriously wonderful people with exceptional talents. As a consultant, it can be difficult to go into a district and have any hope of creating change. After all, I go in blind with no foundation of a relationship to guide me, but their openness to advice and growth and their accommodative nature has made my job easy. Even down to one of their awesome coaches, Desmond Hasty, going above and beyond, knocking on a food truck window to get me lunch when I hadn’t had time to eat anything all day.

My light-up moment came late in the week when I was walking out of a meeting and heading to a classroom. I hadn’t done anything spectacular that week, but the students had been exceptionally sweet. I had gotten compliments: “You look nice today, Miss” from a fourth grader and the most heartwarming smiles from kids ages kindergarten to seniors that I had never met. I was able to talk a second grader down from running from the classroom and listened to a technology integration coach tell me of a recent experience where she brought the students successfully through a five minute mindfulness practice and the difference it made after I had suggested she dig further into social-emotional learning.

But when I was walking out of the meeting and down the hall I became overwhelmed with emotion and I heard a little voice in my head that said this is why you’re here. And not here as in Philly, here as in the bigger question of why I’m on this Earth. That was the light, and I flipped it on when I was open to noticing it. This is one of the things that keeps me engaged in my job. I harness these feelings and when things get hard I take time to bring them back and balance out the negative with the positive.

There are so many negative things that are easy to get lost in day-to-day: the struggles of the students and how they get brought to school, the politics, building issues, contract negotiations, micromanagement…the list goes on and on. But, there are signs for us to watch for that we are doing the right thing. That we are exactly where we are supposed to be and we are making a difference that few people may be willing to recognize. They are there, but we need to be open to feeling them. And then, when they happen, you can just take a moment to bask in that light and remember why you’re in education to begin with.

The New Meaning of "Meeting Them Where They're At"

When I first started teaching “meet them where they’re at” was becoming more and more of a common phrase as workshops and differentiation was becoming the norm. At that time, when the phrase was used it was in reference to making sure that in literacy, for example, you were teaching to the level of the student and adjusting to their needs academically. The idea that they will learn best inside the zone of proximal development but in our education world, always in the academics. So, we would adjust and create groups and workshops and flip/blend classes in order to work with students that needed more assistance and we tried projects and other strategies to challenge our high flyers.

When I became a technology integration coach and subsequently a Director of Innovation and Technology, the message was close to the same. “Meeting (teachers) where they’re at” meant determining their level of technology integration know-how and moving forward from there. We worked on providing a more personalized professional development experience and differentiated our professional learning in order to meet their needs. Sometimes that meant individual coaching cycles, sometimes that meant pushing their level in innovation teams. It meant meeting them at their technology level.

However, since developing the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking and in writing my book on educator engagement and mental health, I’ve determined that “meeting them where they’re at” doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation as it did before. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means social-emotional support.

When I work with districts and coach teachers or instructional coaches, inevitably I have an administrator who says, “How do I make my teachers think more innovatively?” My answer is that you don’t. You can’t make someone think innovatively anymore than you can force creativity. You can support them in that endeavor, but if you’re only focusing on technology and innovation, your focus might be off. Allow me to give an example.

In working with one technology coach she was frustrated because she was working her tail off trying to figure out how to connect with teachers who seemed completely uninterested in what she had to offer. I asked her to tell me about the school. She described the teachers as exhausted (common). When she described the makeup of the school, she said that it was in an area where violence was common and students would often hear gunshots at night. Meltdowns in the classroom were common and teachers were at a loss.

This is where, even as having positions with a technology focus, I would say that a new definition of “meeting them where they’re at” prevails. In this case, we can throw technology and innovative ideas at them all we want, but the reality is that they are in survival mode. And while this example is specifically geared towards technology coaches, I would say the same to any other instructional coach out there. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means helping them with exactly where they are no matter if it is content focused or emotionally focused. If they are dealing with this kind of professional adversity, they do not have the capacity to want to try something new. They might do it out of compliance, but they will not do it because they want to.

For this particular technology coach, we developed a goal of learning more about social-emotional learning. From there, they will be developing ways that technology could support, for example, the Calm or Headspace Apps and implementing some sort of meditation time in those classrooms. But the initial goal isn’t to push Google, it’s not to get them to try AR/VR or learn the new learning management system being implemented. It’s to help the teachers feel safe and supported in their classrooms so they can move out of survival and find the desire to try the new fangled ideas again.

There were many times when I was a technology coach or director that I would walk into a coaching session with a teacher and they would start to unload or cry. As uncomfortable as that was, sometimes that needed to be the focus as that’s where they were. Had I tried to force my intentions for coaching or my goals for that teacher upon them in that moment the only thing it would have accomplished was to make the teacher feel like they couldn’t do as I asked, made me feel like I wasn’t effective, and damaged the relationship.

Recently, I spoke with a technology integrator who was feeling demoralized. She felt like she wasn’t making a difference and was thinking about leaving the profession. My challenge to her was to really look at her teachers and to meet them where they’re at. They may not be ready to meet her goals, but in helping them get to a place where they are ready to do that, you’ve forged a much deeper bond that will allow you to fly through goals going forward.

In Reignite the Flames, my book coming out soon on educator engagement, I open with this and challenge anyone to do this with eyes wide open:

“Walk down the halls and look at your staff. Really see your colleagues. Look at their faces, the slump in their shoulders, their half-smile in greeting, their eyes…can you even see them? Or are they downcast? Look at them when they don’t think anyone is watching. What do you see? What is that perpetually grumpy fourth-grade teacher doing? The Calculus teacher who has had to be spoken to multiple times for the way they treat students? The instructional coach who spends professional learning time scrolling their personal social media accounts and complaining about the district? The principal with their forehead in their hands anxiously waiting for the next fire to start?  Look at them in their quiet moments. Study them.”

What do you see? If you see disengagement, do Google Apps really seem that important anymore?

The Relationship We Hold With Education

When I was younger I would fall in and out of “love” easily. A new relationship was fun and exciting and the adrenaline from the newness made me feel happy and alive. But, eventually the shiny distractions of what my friends were doing or my current hobbies (which I also fell in and out of love with easily) would distract me until the relationship was little more than routine and compliance. I went from calling when I wanted to to calling when I needed to. I dragged myself to the places I was supposed to go instead of excitedly suggesting a place to go out. Eventually, one day I’d wake up and realize that I had come so far from the original feeling of happiness and joy that I didn’t even recognize the relationship anymore. Then there would be unhappiness. Breaking up. Crying. Moving on.

This is common for me in more than just romantic relationships. That initial burst of excitement for something new that eventually dies off has been a theme for me. When I was a kid it manifested itself in my interest in gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, soccer, piano lessons, rollerskating, colorguard, band…the list goes on. I’d start with gusto and quit when it became work and lost it’s appeal. What I didn’t realize then was that a relationship of any kind takes an extraordinary amount of work. While beginnings can be exciting and fun and have passion, when that initial adrenaline wears off there still needs to a drive to keep the connection. Relationships with anything – people, ourselves, our passions or our jobs – are work. Hard work. And if you don’t maintain the relationships with any of these pieces they will become routine and compliance driven and eventually lose the happiness and joy they once brought to your life as well.

We see this all the time. For example, if you don’t maintain the relationship you have with yourself (self-care, self-love/acceptance), you eventually lose your identity, your fire or drive, and may feel a little lost or burnt-out. It’s also what happens in the relationship you have with your profession. As first year teachers we go in excited and passionate and driven, but if we don’t do something to maintain that connection we will wake up one day and find ourselves in a place of disengagement. Unhappy, driven by the need for a paycheck or health insurance instead of our joy and purpose we will get up and do our jobs and come home and questions what in the world we are doing there. If you don’t maintain a relationship it will die. This includes the relationship with you have with your job. That connection needs to be maintained and nurtured.

I often speak about disengagement because I find so many educators somewhere on the continuum of disengagement sliding backwards. My purpose is to give those people a word to describe their feelings and name it so they can begin to heal and move forward. However, while re-engagement is the goal, staying engaged takes work. Understanding what you bring to the table, identifying your purpose, core beliefs, and passions (and living within them and following them), creating a supportive professional learning network, maintaining appropriate boundaries for balance between home and work are all strategies to stay engaged. They also take time, energy, and intention to do them well. However, the alternative is to watch your passion fade and potentially develop the desire to leave the profession you once loved.

I’ve had to take the time to evaluate the relationships in my life many times. Usually, I focus on the people relationships. Do they make me happy more than they make me sad? But this same holds true for relationships that I have that might not follow the most common definition. I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with myself. Do I treat myself the way that I expect others to treat me? After all, if I am disrespectful and unloving to myself and modeling that for others, how can I expect anything different? I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with my job and work related activities. Does it align with my passions and purpose? Am I putting effort into its maintenance by learning, growing, and challenging myself? Am I happy? And all of these relationship questions come down to: am I doing everything I can to support myself in maintaining this relationship?

If we want to love what we do, which we deserve to be able to, it takes the same amount of effort as your best relationship. The same amount as the best marriage or partnership should be or the passion you have for your favorite hobby; the love and compassion and connection that you should feel for yourself. It’s all an amazing amount of work to maintain. However, the alternative of disconnecting from that relationship and “breaking up” can detrimental to our happiness and fulfilling our purpose in life.

Why I'm Not Choosing A #OneWord

Because it’s the beginning of the new year I have been watching everyone put out tweets and posts about New Year’s resolutions and participating in the One Word movement. I’ve never done New Year’s resolutions. I’ve always felt that, for me and because I’m a major ongoing project, creating goals and meeting them and creating new ones were also ongoing in order to be the most effective. If I did create a goal at a specific time, it was at the beginning of the school year as that is how my internal calendar works. Because I’m a teacher. And New Years is in September.

The #OneWord movement, however, I had been participating in for years. I had even joked about having one of my one words, relentless, tattooed on my body because I was so serious about my choice. And it helped me that year. Whenever I felt like I wanted to give up I started thinking about living up to the potency of that word and did what I needed to do anyway. I do think it can be a great practice and really reminds me of setting a year-long intention which would be essentially practicing mindfulness. Ideally, as long as everything you do is sent through the lens of your one word then you are staying in the moment and reflecting on your actions. Therefore, mindfulness.

Last year, I started to feel irritated about trying to find my one word and I wasn’t sure why. I tried stepping into the feeling to find the reason and when I asked myself why I was doing it, the first thought that came to mind was because everyone else was. Yikes. While doing something because everyone else is can be a reason, it shouldn’t ever be the only or first one. I also realized the feeling wasn’t about picking one word, it was about picking only that one word. Basically, I wanted more. More direction. More impact. More of a chance to punt or adjust my sails if needed. I felt like choosing the one word was the equivalent to putting me in a box for a year and I didn’t want to feel that way about something that I’d spend so much time choosing. Also, I wanted to be able to move forward from that growth prior to a year. I wanted to master that way before a year. What was the hangup then? Time. The energy it took to choose that one special word. The feeling that by choosing one word I may be held back. I am not the same person I was a year ago, and I won’t be the same person I am now a year from this day. The idea that one word will fit me 365 days from now feels uncomfortable mainly because I hope to goodness that I’m different then than I am now. Different because I’ve grown.

I feel like the #OneWord movement was what I needed when I needed it. There are a lot of different movements that fit me like this. Some people are still practicing it and I think it’s awesome because it is clearly what they need when they need it. However, I know there are some of us that are watching those people on social media wondering why we are failing at having the interest and dedication that the one word people have. My friends, it’s not that we are failing. We are simply doing different things that work for us at this time and that is totally okay.

I recently came across a graphic that had a different way to create a great year, and I thought I’d pass it on in case it was an alternative to the one word that could be used. It used a 3-2-1-2-3 pattern:

3 Places I want to go
2 Ways I can help others
1 Thing I want to get better at
2 Things I am looking forward to
3 New things I want to try

Although I haven’t done this yet, it feels a little more fitting for me at this time. Maybe it’s because I have so much changing in my life right now that one year from today feels like an eternity. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m working toward living according to my purpose and my one word can’t compete with that. Whatever the reason, for now, I’m going to enjoy watching everyone else’s one words, celebrate their victories in discovering them because it’s such an awesome feeling, and continue looking for the thing that will work for me.

The Worth You Hold On Your Own

This is a more personal post than normal that I needed to work through.

My therapist/counselor is the best at dialing in on the root of my issues. After experiences with what seems like thousands of counselors who have done very little for me, she gives me what I like to call oh crap moments all the time. These are the moments where our conversation seems to be going in one direction and she will get me talking and randomly throw in a few questions or comments where I’m all of a sudden crying and I blurt out what the real root of the problem is. And as I’m sure you can guess, the lightbulb goes off and I literally say, “oh, crap” and then I’m left to ruminate on it for a week.

Recently, we were discussing my ability to create connections with other people, which is typically something I’m really proud of. The same ability to connect, however, is the catalyst for my diagnosis of Secondary Traumatic Stress as people feel comfortable enough with me to tell me their stories. A huge Catch-22 as I am here to make a difference and doing what I love, and what I love is also emotionally suffocating me at the same time. She’s been working with me on trying to understand how to not take on so much emotion so I am able to heal and then continue doing the work I’m convinced that I’m on this Earth to do. I told her I wasn’t sure about turning the connection off…what if my ability to work effectively was based almost solely on that ability to make connections. She asked if I felt like my financial stability was based on it. I said yes, but more importantly my purpose – my entire reason for being was wrapped up in my ability to make quick, deep connections. And then I said (in tears), “What if you strip all that away and I’m nothing without it. I’m literally worthless without that ability.” And she responded, “You need to understand you’re worthy on your own.”

Oh, crap.

You need to understand you’re worthy on your own.

When you strip everything else away… mother or father, daughter or son, teacher, administrator, podcaster, blogger, author, counselor, speaker – when you’re standing there label naked, do you still feel worthy?

I’ve always believed that who I am is what I’m made up of which is what I do, but at the core a person needs to have their own independent self-worth. The part where they’re not using what they do to fill the hole left by not understanding who they really are when they’re all alone. Where they could lose their job or a role and still understand that they are still enough even without that label. That the roles we take and how we choose to portray ourselves doesn’t always completely define who we are.

This is clearly something I’m working on, and if you’ve ever dealt with mental health issues you understand that no matter the respect I have for someone, nobody telling me I’m worthy is going to fix this. It is something that I need to work on and figure out myself. Being human and vulnerable can set ourselves up for so much pain, but at the same time that’s also the beauty of a journey like this. I can choose to continue to live in this space, but I can also make the choice to figure it out and heal and discover my worthiness that has nothing to do with anyone or anything else. And when I get there, I would imagine that it’s an amazing feeling.

Emotional Equity

I’ve been reflecting on several of the relationships in my life lately that are frankly emotionally uneven. Up until now, I’ve been ok with this simply because I understand that relationships are more like a teeter-toter than they are truly balanced. Sometimes, emotions are so heavy that people need help getting up off the ground. Sometimes that person is me and the tables are turned while I need help. So, I tend to overlook it when I can feel my own emotions squirming inside me because I’m struggling to balance that other person out and pick them up. I don’t think this is abnormal, except it gets a little much if you never get anything back, or if you find that you are always on the other side struggling to shift the weight. And we all know how a teeter-totter works, in order for someone to become lighter and move up, you need to become heavier to move down.

I have this gift of sniffing out people’s emotions. I used to have a friend who I didn’t speak to often, but when I reached out to him he would say, ” How do you always know when I need you?” But it means that a lot of people come to me for emotional advice. I pour my heart into it as there are very few things I wouldn’t do to make someone feel better. And then I pour some more. Then some more. And when I’m almost out, I tap the bucket to make sure every little bit is gone even if I am feeling completely drained. I feel like there are some people in my life who walk away never bothering to look back and see how they left me.

I don’t think this analogy is unusual for educators. We are giving people. We give to other people’s children and to our own if we have them. To our extended families. To our students families. To our colleagues. To our significant others. To our sick uncles and our best friends. And if we don’t have the people who understand that we need to be given as much as they take and that they can’t sit with their mouths open waiting for the last drop, it can deplete everything we have. 

In business, there is an interesting term called Emotional Equity (Cortel). It describes a similar concept in terms of banking: 

“Emotional equity is like banking. You either make deposits of positivity or withdrawals of negativity. The trick is to keep the emotional bank account balanced. Invest the time needed to build positive relationships and as a result, create higher emotional equity.
Having positive deposits in the emotional bank of others will outweigh negative interactions. As a result, the occasional oops that occurs is minimized and easily forgiven.”

The emotions and energy that people put into relationships is not unending. This energy is a finite resource if it is not replenished by positive interactions. 

When I was a teacher I actually found that my students were the ones who, for the most part, gave me the positive emotional equity I needed to deal with some of the adults who always needed me. Most children are so much better at balancing that out if we recognize when it’s happening and don’t overlook it because we are busy. 

There are multiple ways to replenish this account after the withdrawals, similar to how we hear about the concept of filling one’s bucket. They don’t need to be massive declarations of caring or apology. In fact, if you’ve ever listened to Simon Sinek speak about relationships and leadership, you’ll know he says that consistency is the key, not one and done events.

In the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account by Stephen Covey (Clark), he lists six ways to refill the bank.

  1. Understand the individual. Know them. Practice empathy and kindness.
  2. Keep commitments. Do what you say you’re going to do no matter how small it seems to be.
  3. Clarify expectations. We are more likely to get what we need when we blatantly communicate what that need is.
  4. Go the extra mile. The little things are what matter most. An unexpected hug, kindness, attention, text to let them know you’re thinking about them, giving them time.
  5. Showing personal integrity. Give people something to trust.
  6. Apologizing when you make a withdrawal. This one I’m not sure I agree with. If the withdrawal is because you’ve treated them poorly, then yes. An authentic, sincere apology may help. However, if the withdrawal is because they need emotional support, then an apology isn’t necessary.

Not only can negativity or a constant need for support drain us, but the mirror neurons in our brains can actually make us reflect the emotions we are seeing.

I don’t know if I have a good answer for all this. There are a million articles and memes on Pinterest that will support the cleansing of toxic people from your life. Sometimes, however, it’s not as easy as that. I am still struggling to understand the balancing act of the emotional teeter-totter and how to manage relationships that constantly keep me in the air. I do know that understanding information like this is always the first step to making positive changes in myself, and that I need to take better care of myself if I find that my ability to give more is coming to an end. Hopefully, in the process I’ll pass some of those strategies to others.

Reignite the Flames: Defining Educator Engagement and Disengagement

Listen to the Make Learning Magical Podcast by Tisha Richmond discussing this topic here.

As I gear up to complete the follow-up book to The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning, I’ve had to take a better look at my the definition of teacher engagement that I had developed for Divergent EDU. Even though The Fire Within addresses educator mental health, it’s also addressed in Divergent EDU because of the link to educator engagement/disengagement and climate and culture, which is one of the indicators in the base foundational level in the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking:

In Divergent EDU, I defined educator disengagement as an educator who has forgotten the why behind why they began teaching to begin with. That definition always felt like it was lacked any connection to the true essence and weight of educator disengagement. In order to really write Reignite the Flames, the follow-up to The Fire Within, I needed to spend a significant amount of time researching a definition that I felt really encompassed both educator disengagement and engagement. I also felt like I had written about the continuum of engagement, but never really defined what that looked like.

I didn’t think it would be that difficult to find a definition but everything I found was either lacking specificity (like my original definition) or didn’t address educators and our unique situation and relationships with our professions. Therefore, when I began to develop my definition, I decided to use the psychological definition of emotional engagement/disengagement and apply it to education, much like I did when I developed my definition of divergent teaching. The definitions that I’ve used to guide Reignite the Flames are as follows:

Educator engagement is intentionally seeking purpose and understanding our impact, living within that purpose, and creating opportunities for both ourselves and others to be happier, healthier, and more positively, emotionally engaged people in order to best serve those around us.

Mandy Froehlich (2019)

Educator disengagement is the unintentional detaching of oneself from the emotional connection to the why behind education and teaching due to negative factors and/or circumstances that feel out of one’s control. This results in an otherwise uncharacteristically negative view of their efficacy, jobs, and potentially their personal selves.

Mandy Froehlich (2019)

After I dialed in on the engagement definitions, I also needed to clearly define the Continuum of Educator Engagement, which is being represented like this:

As the graphic shows, engagement can be positive or negative, but fully disengaged has more to do with apathy than anger. If you’re angry you’re still passionate and you still care. When you’re apathetic, you don’t care enough to be angry or happy which means the fire for the difficult but rewarding work we do is out.

So why is this important?

Depending on where you or your colleagues are on the continuum, there are different strategies you can take to stay engaged or reengage.

Depending on why you’ve disengaged there are different strategies for reengaging (there is a short blog post here that is added to and expanded on in the book).

When our brains are able to label an emotion with language, we are more likely to be able to cope with what it is. Therefore, defining emotions is important for healing and moving forward.

Writing and working with emotions is a challenging task. Not everyone interprets their emotions the same way and not everyone reacts to the same situation in the same way. Emotions feel private and unless you have done work in the area of embracing vulnerability, that can be a scary place to go. Emotions also feel abstract, but they are processed in our brain and can be explained in more concrete terms that make them more tangible and therefore more manageable. We just need to find the right words.

But to me, the point in talking about educator engagement and disengagement isn’t some altruistic, big idea that needs to be complicated. For me, the reason to discuss educator engagement has always been pretty simple: I believe that all educators deserve to be happy in their jobs. I believe that happy educators will have a better chance at having happier classrooms and happier students. And I believe that happier, engaged students will learn. And while the happy, engaged, learning student is an awesome end-game, educators themselves deserve every happiness just because they’re human, too. So, while educator disengagement is a difficult conversation to have, it’s about time that we acknowledge that some people need more support than we are giving, and they deserve better than that.

Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement As A Teacher

One of the most important graces I gave myself when I began to reengage into the education profession after becoming burnt out was to let go of resentment towards others. This wasn’t an easy task, especially because I had been harboring it for so long. Letting go of resentment is a favor to yourself and letting go of the pent up negative energy is like taking Windex to the lens through which you view the world and cleaning it off. The world is still the same, but it’s so much more pleasant looking at it through a lens that’s not full of grime and negativity.

One of my biggest issues was that I held on to so much resentment that I got myself stuck in a place where I didn’t know how to move forward. I resented myself for not knowing something, and then I resented the people who did know it because I didn’t like that they knew more than me. It’s a tough spot to be in when you figure out that you’re the one holding yourself back. Letting go of this kind of resentment is about empowering yourself to choose the way you want to feel instead of just allowing negativity to take over.

I felt resentment towards myself.
When I was growing up I had this desire to be the best at anything. Not everything, mind you. Anything. I felt like I was never quite good enough to get there. I was friends with the cool kids but was never a part of their group. I worked my buns off in school to get all A’s…except for that one B+. I was never chosen last but never first either. Being mediocre became my nemesis, and to this day I struggle emotionally with the concept of never being anyone’s favorite anything.

That feeling followed me into the classroom only in a slightly different way. I resented myself because I didn’t want to be a mediocre teacher for my students and the focus was on them. I didn’t understand at the time that the students really just needed me to be good at loving them and the rest would come, and had I realized that, I would have known I was darn good at what I was doing as I did love my students like crazy. However, I wanted to be fresh and innovative and constantly felt like I was never the one with the first or best ideas. I resented my inability to be the best for my students no matter how hard I worked, and I worked really, really hard. This feeling of always being behind was part of what eventually contributed to my burnout.

Now I understand that the best isn’t the goal. The goal is to do the best I can possibly do and be happy with who I am and where I fall in the scheme of things. There are still moments where I feel an overwhelming disappointment in myself, but I’ve realized that the difference between being the best and doing my best can also be the difference between disliking myself and having a better chance at being happy in my job.

I felt resentment towards others.
Specifically, the ones who knew more than I did or were better at something than I was. The Art teacher who was always more positive, the fifth grade teacher who had better project ideas, the fourth grade teacher who was considered the innovative one, the second grade teacher who always brought in treats for everyone and food makes everybody happy. I didn’t resent them because of what they didn’t do, I resented them for being better people than I felt I was. And while I was always kind and appreciated them as well, I was jealous that I couldn’t be those people. This was also an issue because I didn’t appreciate what I brought to the table and I was so blinded by my own insecurities that it literally stunted my personal and professional growth. It was easier to be irritated and complain than it was to figure out what I needed to do to be the person that encompassed all the amazing qualities that I noticed in other people.

The biggest favor that I did for myself in this area was to let go of the resentment and begin working on who I wanted to be. I could sit back and see if it would happen to me or I could make tiny changes that would eventually add up to bigger ones. I had to understand that someone else’s success or talent did not diminish my own. On the contrary, keeping those people close enhanced any growth that I was trying to accomplish. Today, I understand that I don’t need to know everything because I have friends who can teach me. If I have a question about AR/VR I text Jaime Donally. If I want to discuss student digital leadership I call Jennifer Casa-Todd. If I want to dig deeper into innovation I message George Couros. The list could go on and on because I know amazingly intelligent people who are masters in their field. I don’t need to be the best because I surround myself with the people who make me better. And that’s what happens when you move from resenting the people around you to truly appreciating them.

I felt a special kind of resentment towards those who didn’t have my same job.
Principals, district administration, consultants, keynote speakers, instructional coaches, even classroom teachers at different levels (elementary vs. middle vs. high)…nobody understood my plight. I felt like they weren’t in my classroom and didn’t understand my kids and so why would anything that they say work? Well, the hard truth of it is that when someone tells me now that something won’t work it takes me only a few minutes to show them a school or classroom where it does. What I didn’t understand was that these people wanted to help me be the teacher I wanted to be not because they thought I was doing something wrong but because they recognized my limitless potential.

One of the gifts that I gave myself during this time was to let go of the resentment for different positions and understand that everyone brings something to education to make it better, we all play a part in supporting students, and I don’t need to know everything. Even Aaron Rodgers has a quarterback coach. Not everything everyone says should be held as gospel, but understanding that there are pieces that may work and ideas that I could try to be a better educator was a huge part of moving forward (and this still holds true).

When I disengaged, it was a keynote by George Couros that helped reenergize me.

When I disengaged it was sharing what I knew as a session presenter and learning from other presenters that helped me grow.

When I was disengaged, it was my PLN that helped me understand my place in education and develop my purpose.

In short, I couldn’t have reengaged without the help of people in all types of positions as each of them brought something to me that I couldn’t have gotten on my own. I see people complaining about others on social media and it reminds me of how I used to feel before I decided that the resentment I felt wasn’t worth the weight on my shoulders that was only being caused by my own inability to not let things go and appreciate people for who and what they are.

It’s okay to want to change parts of you that you don’t like and to rely on other people to help with that. It’s ok to want to be a more positive person. It’s okay to admire what someone else accomplishes. It doesn’t make your accomplishments less important. It’s okay to have the desire to be a happier human. But, on your way forward letting go of resentment for things that just don’t matter is going to be one of the ways you need to get there, and I hope it doesn’t take you a professional lifetime to realize that.