Growing your PLN is one of the most powerful things you can do for your own professional learning. Period. But, I find that people don’t always know what it truly means to “grow it” and how to maintain it. It is more than a numbers game. It is more than connecting with the people who can “do the most/best” or who are perceived as knowing more or better. When done right, there is no doubt that it’s a lot of work, but it’s also, for me, one of the most rewarding parts of being an educator.
Growing your PLN is more than how many people follow you There is no doubt that in order to grow your PLN you need to connect with lots of people but is not the numbers that you have as much as it is that the more people you connect with the better chance you have of finding the people you have a connection with. There is a difference. So while you should go out and follow who you can that would seem like you may have similar interests, do it with the idea that you are not trying to increase followers/following as it is that you are looking for the right people.
A connection doesn’t maintain itself Once that you have found people that you connect with, it takes an effort to maintain those connections. It means that sometimes you have conversations that are silly or seem unsubstantial in order to maintain a relationship. A PLN is all about relationships and putting forth the effort to keep them strong. It may mean sharing your story or showing your vulnerable side, but it definitely means that it is not something that will naturally happen on its own without focus.
Build it before you need it In regards to PLNs, one scenario I see happen often is that people have a lot of followers or follow a lot of people but fail to maintain any kind of connection with people. Then, when they need help or support, they cannot figure out why their PLN doesn’t seem to notice and therefore lose faith in the process of building it. Missing the step of maintaining the PLN and building deep seeded relationships will result in people being unfamiliar with you and your needs and therefore not as supportive as they could be in a time of need. This isn’t an issue with PLNs, it’s missing part of the process. If you’ve spent time building before you need it, you’ll have no issue finding support when it’s time.
Give as much as you get To maintain your relationship with your PLN, you need to be willing to give as much as you get. This can be looked at both from an individual standpoint and a group standpoint. It is as important to share your ideas and the amazing things you do with the people in your PLN. Even if you think that your ideas aren’t as good as someone else’s, there will always be someone that will hear your thoughts and resonate with what you say. If you find yourself always just drinking in what your PLN says, it’s time to buck up and give back. From the standpoint of the individual, support must go both ways. You must give as much support as you seek, and support doesn’t necessarily mean only sharing someone else’s posts. Sometimes it means listening to Voxes or doing a hangout solely for the purpose of emotional support.
Sounds like work? It is. But if we seriously value relationships in education, we value ALL relationships. I have learned more from my PLN than I have learned in any class, any Tweet, any session at a conference. I am only as smart as the people I surround myself and only as talented as I am open to their strengths. The amount of effort that I put into these relationships is a direct correlation to what I get back from them and the effort is so worth it.
When I taught I used to joke about how I wished I would have kept a book all along about putting together words that I never thought I’d have to say to students. For example, “Please stop cleaning out your ear with your pencil. It’s not safe nor sanitary” or “Do we really need to laugh every time I say lunch duty” (the answer is yes, we did – ALL of us). In these cases though, even when I had to speak with students about things that I never thought I’d say but in a more serious conversation, I had a relationship with them first. I relied on the trust I had already built to be able to talk to them about hard things. Those kinds of relationships don’t happen easily nor do they happen overnight.
In my current role, and I don’t know if it’s a small district thing, but as the Tech Director, I am responsible for speaking to students about when they break the rules in the handbook regarding technology. Many times, these are not small infractions and can be serious in their nature and truly do require adult intervention. And I do it because it’s my job but I hate every minute of it for a few reasons. One, I have not had the time to create relationships with these students as at the district level I am not in every classroom every day. Second, I know that in the small interaction I have with these students it’s not going to change their behavior. Third, with every word that escapes my mouth during these exchanges I know that I am destroying any chance of trust in the future. And with everything I believe I am at the core of being an educator, how much I truly believe that relationships are everything and getting to the bottom of students’ behavior is so much more important than punishment, this piece of my job goes against every reason I got into education in the first place.
I swear it’s going to break me.
I spoke to a student the other day and he couldn’t even look at me. Not even once did he make eye contact. I never yell, I simply speak calmly to them about their choices, why they made them, blah blah blah. Honestly, some of them would probably rather I yell. As I was speaking to him, and again in a situation that did require adult intervention, I could hear my words in my own ears and could see him struggling and not looking at me, and I thought what in the world am I doing? I never thought I’d say these words to students. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.
I’m doing most things that I believe anyone would tell me. I’m trying to be proactive in enlisting people to focus on digital citizenship and we have spoken openly about digital leadership (not enough, but we are growing). I try my best to create relationships as much as I can with the students by speaking to them in the halls and greeting them when I pass. I try to get into their class meetings in the high school and speak to them so they know who I am and they know I’m there to support them in good times and in bad. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t nearly enough to create a lasting relationship nor is it enough to keep every student from making a poor choice that needs to result in a consequence. What I’m doing is not enough. In these cases, I’m not enough. I know it. I don’t know how to fix it.
Sometimes we put out these blanket statements in education as a way to encourage us and light our fires…things to remember when we are interacting with kids. Quotes that can simultaneously light me up and make me feel guilty and want to try harder. Even in my book Divergent EDU I mention how we create relationships in every interaction that we have, but our focus should be creating positive relationships versus negative ones and I realize that I am absolutely sucking at this when I need to speak with students about some of the choices they make. With some students, I am only creating negative relationships. I am going against my own advice, for the love of God.
So, I am resolving to get better at this. To try to find a way to flip the story when it comes to these interactions and make time to have more positive relationships with the students from a place where I’m not working with them every day nor do I see them on a regular basis as a district administrator. Those relationships are what I’ve always wanted anyway. It’s what I got into teaching for, and I’m not sure that my EDU heart would be able to take much more of what I’m doing now.
We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.
As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.
Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.
My realizations in balancing myself:
Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people (and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too) We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?
Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?
Realize that balance is an average I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.
Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.
Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.
My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.
In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.
My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance
Allow others to set their own priorities Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of lessvalue because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.
Be okay with people saying no This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.
The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.
I often get asked how I re-engaged back into loving education. And I do love it. Like everyone, I have difficult weeks. Loving what you do doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I sometimes just want to sleep in past 4:30am and some weeks make me question my ability to make a solid decision. I do, however, overall, love it. But while I can tell people how I re-engaged, I can’t tell anyone else what will be the thing that works for them. It’s personal. The book and person who re-engaged me might not do that for everyone. I also think that what works once might not work again. Let’s face it, teaching is hard. To re-engage yourself you need to find the thing that feeds your soul.
I heard this recently from my good friend Jen Casa-Todd and it really made me reflect: what is it that feeds my soul? I would think that would be an important question to have the answer to so you can get more of it. This has been a rough year and an even rougher week prior to the holidays. I have questioned everything from my sanity to my ability to be as supportive as I know I have the potential to be as a leader. I was somewhere between praying Friday would come and feeling guilty for wishing Friday was here because I usually speak out against any kind of countdowns that would make students believe that our happiest of times are spent outside of school.
And then, completely unexpectedly, today one of my former fourth-grade students from the 2011 school year reached out to me via my website to say hello and ask me how I was. She was a sweet, quiet girl with a huge heart and I was thrilled to hear from her.
And I can’t express how much I needed that right at that moment.
There are different types of things that can feed our souls. Maybe it’s spending time with our families or our PLN tribe. Maybe it’s reading a certain quote or book at the right time. It could be diving deeper into a passion or being successful when taking a risk. It can shift depending on what we need in that moment.
Part of what feeds my soul is remembering the students that I taught and how happy they made me. What drives me is knowing I support the people who are having a positive impact on students every day. You want to know how to re-engage? Find that.
I hope I was what that student needed when she needed it in fourth grade, because today, without even knowing, she returned the favor.
I’ve had the privilege of being a featured speaker a number of times, but I finally reached my personal professional goal of being one at the TIES conference in Minnesota last week. The reason it meant so much to me was because this was the conference that was the beginning of me re-engaging back into education. With a little help from George Couros and his book Innovator’s Mindset and my choice to want to be happy in my job again, I began the journey of coming back fully to education. For me, this was a huge goal to reach.
Ironically, since recommitting to the profession, one of my platforms has become educator re-engagement and mental health, which was part of what disengaged me to begin with. The TIES conference is a technology and learning conference, yet they still allowed me to do my session on educator mental health called The Show Must Go On. I was nervous being that I had presented there for the last four years and had always stuck to technology tools and learning and this was waaaaay out of the comfort zone for many people, especially being they were at a technology conference.
What shocked me was that these were my most full sessions. What then angered me was that they were so desperate to hear what I had to say about educator mental health that they prioritized it over the technology-focused learning they had been there for because we still aren’t talking about it enough to make talking about it okay. I even had a participant come up to me afterward and say, “I kept asking myself all the way here, ‘Why am I going to a mental health session at a technology conference?’ but I’m so glad I did.” I felt like the number of people who showed up for these sessions was a good indication of how we need to continue the journey of bringing awareness and support.
The thing is, I don’t have all the answers about mental health. Most of us don’t because we were never trained as mental health professionals. I can only tell you what we are doing in our district and what I have experienced. My goal is always awareness and education with the hope that we can take things on together. I do know that the more we talk about it with a solutions-based approach, we will destigmatize it enough to be able to move forward. We need to be comfortable saying the words depression and anxiety and psychiatric treatment and counseling. If I broke my leg and told anyone that I wasn’t going to the doctor, they’d tell me that is ridiculous and to go, so why don’t we do that same thing with counseling? What if when someone whispered to us that they were seeing a counselor we responded with, “I’m so glad that you’re taking control and seeing someone who can help you! That’s amazing!” instead of whispering back helplessly, “I’m so sorry you need to do that.” I’m not saying that having mental health issues is a good thing and should be celebrated, but I am saying that being brave enough to seek help for the places you need help (no matter what those are) is.
Currently, our district has set up a committee to work on mental health for both students and educators thanks to a state grant for mental health that we received. We were able to hire (part-time) a mindfulness coach and a mental health coordinator. We are in the process of adopting a mindfulness curriculum while still understanding that while mindfulness is amazing for the masses, it is not always going to be enough for adults and children with traumatic backgrounds and mental health issues. Therefore, we are learning more about trauma and what that means. And while we are working on screeners and supports for students and families like many districts, we are also working on support for educators which seems to be the piece some districts are missing. Our first challenge is pretty universal: how we get people to buy-in to the process if they don’t understand mental health and the impact it has on learning. Changing people’s minds is always a difficult undertaking, but if we want to be change agents we need to do the things that other people don’t want to do especiallywhen they are difficult because that is how you create change.
One website that I wanted to pass on is called Anxiety Canada (those Canadians always seem to have it together). Not only is the information fantastic but the way it is laid out is amazing as well. They awareness, education, and strategies including how to create a MAP, or anxiety plan. While the site focuses solely on the different types of anxiety, as a district this may be what we use to model our own educator-focused support site on mental health issues.
I’m hoping as we get further down the road in this journey that I can continue to share what we are going, what we have done, what has worked and what hasn’t. In the arena of mental health, this is not a competition to out-do the district next to us in order to gain more students and therefore more funding. This is about being human and supporting people when and where they need it most.
If you’d like to read more blog posts on mental health, you can find them here.
Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.
As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done.
I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts.
The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately.
During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:
I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success.
The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness.
In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us.
***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.
I was reading through this guide by the University of Texas at Austin on thinking and teaching divergently and I came across these reasons as to why divergent thinking is important:
● Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex problems, overcoming the tendency of many learners to only work within the confines of first impressions or latent assumptions. ● Fosters empathic understanding of difference and appreciation of varying perspectives. ● Builds on learners’ curiosity, encouraging experimentation, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and self-expression. ● Develops creativity, which is often cited as one of the most in-demand skills by employers.
How to Teach: Divergent Thinking
I was considering how this connects to my definition of a divergent teacher in Divergent EDU and I believe that if all of these characteristics can develop from divergent thinking for students, the same could be said for divergent teachers (who then, of course, model the traits for students). I’ve found that defining how something will affect students will many times get buy-in, but ultimately people also want to know how some of those same ideas can drive them forward as well. The definition of divergent teachers that I developed from the psychological definition of divergence is “the ability to recognize our own assumptions, look for limitations and challenge our own thinking in regards to teaching and learning. It’s taking an idea and creating new thinking that will facilitate student learning in new, innovative directions for deeper understanding. It is diverging from the norm, challenging current ideas, looking for a variety of solutions, and being willing to fail and grow” (Divergent EDU, 2018). The practice of the definition and the outcomes for divergent thinking for students are very similar. If we had to reframe the question as, “What can divergent thinking do for teachers?” we might see:
Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex teaching challenges, overcoming the tendency of educators to only work within the perceived confines of district initiatives, first impressions, a fixed mindset or generalized assumptions.
Fosters empathic understanding of differences, varying opinions, and an openness and appreciation of varying perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds.
Builds on educators’ curiosity about both their content and the learning of their students, encouraging branching out in lessons, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and a heightened awareness of how their own passions and interests drive their teaching and professional learning.
Develops creativity, which has sometimes been diminished by the implementation of canned curriculum and compliance measures.
But moreover, if these aren’t a reason to buy into how divergent teaching and thinking can support your teaching, recently I was moderating a panel on this exact topic (find it here). One of my dear friends and panelists, Rachelle Dene Poth, cited divergent teaching as one of the reasons she was reinvigorated in the classroom and engaged in her profession. In turn, her students were happier, learning, and more engaged in the classroom. This correlation makes sense. When teachers are more curious about their own content and how their students are learning, when they challenge their own assumptions and biases in favor of exploring, when they model taking calculated risks, failing, and adjusting their course, they become more excited about their own journeys and their students follow suit ultimately creating a more enriched learning experience for both the teacher and their students.
Tomorrow one of my favorite students ever leaves for the Air Force. He has spent the last couple of summers working for our department. He also managed our Genius Bar and helped me fix random tech issues. He made me laugh and never flinched when I would ask him a favor. He is the kind of kid you pray your own children to grow up to be like. Kind-hearted, and sweet, he never failed to make me smile.
When his summer tech position ended through the department, he asked if he could continue working for us. I wanted to allow it so badly, unfortunately, we didn’t have a board-approved position for him to take. So instead of being irritated that he did all that work and couldn’t continue, he came back to volunteer and would spend nearly every day at the elementary working with kids, reading to them, and fixing their tech. For free. He has no interest in education, no reason to be there besides just to help. When he could have been playing XBox for the last few months before leaving for boot camp, he gave back to the schools with expecting nothing in return.
Tomorrow he leaves and today I spent trying not to cry. I used every strategy I knew during the Veteran’s Day Celebration when they recognized him for everything he has done for the school. I bit my lip. I took deep breaths until I thought I would pass out. It didn’t matter. Crying was inevitable. I think about the people who don’t come back from military service the same physically and mentally. I think about his sweet personality and how I don’t want it to change. And knowing it possibly will, I am crushed. So proud of the boy who is making a choice that I would never have the guts to do, but still so devastated.
As I was thinking about this on the way home and how deeply wounded I felt by this former student leaving, I was thankful for the discomfort and sadness because it meant that even through some of the irritation with my position or the areas where our system lacks in general or the constant, exhausting work of being an educator, I know I still belong here because anything that affects a person this deeply means you really care. When you have students that leave and you cry, it also means that at points they made you equally as happy. While you hope that you have affected their lives, you know they have affected yours. And this raw emotion that students can cause…that is why we teach: those connections that are so deep that it causes physical pain when you’re afraid something may happen to them. We are so lucky to work in an environment where we have the chance to make connections that can cause such an emotional effect because the alternative is working through our days feeling numb, and I would choose to feel any day.
So tomorrow he’ll leave and today I’ll be sad, but I’ll also try to find some solace in the knowledge that the pain is there because I made a connection, and without those feelings, I wouldn’t be an educator.
While going through the editing process for Divergent EDU my editor left me a comment in an area where I alluded to divergent thinkers using deep reflection to develop their core beliefs. She told me to give readers examples of questions that they could ask themselves to drive deep reflection. My first thought was that deep reflection is so personal, how could I give anyone directions on how to do it? But I started to pay attention to my own line of thinking while I reflect, and I think there are some questions that can be used to guide deep reflection in a variety of situations, even though the path of the reflection is very personal to the one doing it. It took me until I was an adult to figure out how to deeply reflect. Nobody taught me how to do it and the only reason I know now is that I made it a mission to discover what deep reflection could do for me. Deep reflection is also one of the five characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I laid out in this blog post.
Deeply Reflective – Divergent teachers recognize that significant growth cannot happen without taking time for deep reflection. They know how they reflect best, whether it’s through writing, meditating, or driving quietly in their car on the way home. They have strategies in place to allow them to take the time and hold reflection in high regards as one of the reasons they are who they are professionally. Deep reflection goes beyond what could go differently in a recent lesson. It also leads an educator down the path of discovering how their own beliefs and assumptions affect what they do in the classroom or how they perceive and communicate with others. Understanding the difference between surface-level reflection and deep reflection is an integral part of divergent thought. Once you understand what you believe, how it affects what you do and how you are perceived, it is easier to change your behavior and push yourself forward.
So often we regard the question, “How could things have gone differently/better?” as the be-all and end-all of reflective thought. It’s a fine place to start but does not necessarily lead us down a path of reflection that will end with how our involvement affected the ending. It still gives us the room to blame other people or things for anything that may have gone wrong. Deep reflection begins with questions that force us to think deeper about a situation. We may use just one of these questions or a few, but the result will be our discovery of adjustments or changes we can make within ourselves to change the trajectory of similar situations moving forward.
Is there something in my own personal or professional journey that is creating an assumption or bias? Lately, there has been special attention brought to how our journeys and personal stories affect the way we act, believe, and teach. I am 100% in support of that being the case (as proven by my book The Fire Within). After all, it’s our differences that make us stronger together. However, it’s also our journeys that have embedded certain assumptions and biases into our thinking. It is nearly impossible to operate completely without them, but it is important that we recognize if there are internal drivers for decisions we make and the interactions we have that may be affecting them in a negative way. Recognizing assumptions and biases and opening ourselves up to testing them in favor of finding alternative ways of handling situations will move us to more effective decision-making and divergent thought.
Are my expectations appropriate? This reflection path will most likely be followed up with additional questions that can range from logistical (Have I provided them with the professional learning opportunities they need to do what I’m asking them to do?) to spiritual (Is there something in their past/current situation that makes this change/decision/action difficult and they may need more emotional support?). In order to answer this question completely, you may need to gather additional information and return to the reflection. Another question that would fit into this category: Do I have the right to have my expectation of this person, or should it be up to them to set their own expectations upon themselves?
What could I have adjusted to create a possible alternative ending? In Wisconsin, if you are in a motor vehicle accident and you have gotten rear-ended, you are still partially at fault. Why? How could this be when you were just sitting there waiting for the light or parked legally minding your own business? Because you were there. Because had you not been in that spot, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Every situation that we reflect on is similar to this concept. We have had a part in the outcome. Sometimes, it’s something major that affects relationships, breaks trust, or perpetuates a negative feeling. Sometimes it’s as little as an unintended initial reaction or facial expression. There is always something that we can adjust in order to adapt to any situation and possibly change the ending. Deep reflection allows to see these things and create an alternative ending when it happens again in the future.
Do I have something to apologize for? A friend once told me, “I don’t like to apologize because it’s hard.” But I feel like if it’s really that difficult, that usually means it’s the right thing to do. Something being hard should never stop us from doing the right thing and sometimes that means swallowing our pride and apologizing. An important follow-up question is: Am I really sorry or am I just saying it to move on? Also, just saying I’m sorry really isn’t enough. When the apology isn’t specific, it loses some of its power. It needs to be truly authentic and the added specificity will help the person know that you’ve given it thought and you know where you went wrong. If you just apologize just to satisfy someone or move past a bad situation, people will know. I have actually said these words: “I’m sorry that I made a decision that didn’t make sense to you at the time. Not only did I allow other situations around me influence the decision that affected you, but I didn’t give you the information you needed to see why I was making the decision. For all that, I am sorry.” Also, just because you reflect and process and decide an apology is necessary, don’t forget that the person you’re apologizing to may need additional time to reflect and process the apology depending on the severity of the situation. Be reflective enough to understand that just because you’ve decided to say you’re sorry doesn’t mean that the other person is ready to accept it.
What did I do that went really right? Deep reflection doesn’t always mean we are looking for ways we have screwed up. It’s just as important to remember and celebrate what went well so we can replicate it if similar situations would come up in the future. If we never celebrate the great things we do we will live with the anxiety that nothing we ever do is right and that’s certainly not true of anyone. The trick is to find the balance between recognizing what went right and what could be adjusted in order to find our areas for growth while still remaining positive about what we accomplish.
True, deep reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced. Some people do it during quiet, alone time and some need to write it down to work through it. It’s not always a fun process as we are looking for ways we can improve or situations we may have negatively impacted, but the amount of personal and professional growth that can be experienced is exceedingly rewarding. There are few other activities that can have such a lasting impact on how our relationships function and our decision-making process.