When I was little, I remember my grandma, Nana, telling me how much her and my Bupa loved dancing when they were younger. Being that they weren’t a naturally affectionate couple, I loved picturing them doing something that was just for them in that moment before the momentum of life took over. I had to imagine it because I never actually witnessed them doing it. I never once saw them dance.
A few days prior to my grandfather passing away, we had a benefit to help pay for his failed lung transplant. My Bupa struggled with breathing from his Pulmonary Fibrosis and didn’t have the energy to try to walk so he spent most of his time tied to a wheelchair and oxygen. But, that night his one wish was to dance one more time with my grandmother. He got up out of the wheelchair and was able to stand long enough to do it for one song and the entire time I remember wondering why this wasn’t done a million times over their lifetime if it was the one thing he wished for before he passed away.
But as adults we know exactly this happens. There’s work and kids and pets and sports and…and…and…and the last thing we think about is the stuff we really wish we could be doing instead. The little things that we used to do but life got in the way.
This time we are forced to spend at home has been difficult for so many reasons. There is so much to do and yet nothing we can do all at the same time. We are trying to take on multiple jobs: parents, teachers, workers. It’s far from the vacation you may look forward to normally. We are trying to live our entire lives inside the square feet of our homes. I know that I have been on an emotional rollercoaster – laughing hysterically at my dog tripping in the kitchen and giving me a dirty look one minute to five minutes later nearly sobbing when Michael Scott left The Office when I don’t even like the show let alone watch TV. Even if I wanted to leave my house there’s nowhere to go, and being in Wisconsin doesn’t afford us many days to get outside. I feel lonely even though I’m surrounded by people. I feel like I have major cabin fever and can do nothing about it.
However, this time we have is unprecedented time to spend with our families that we don’t normally have and may never get again. I feel like the Universe has been flashing the yield sign and when we didn’t, it decided to do it for us. Something to make us look at each other again in the eyes and remember who we are as individuals, families, and communities. Time to be still. Recalibrate. To do the little things that we haven’t done because we have been so busy that we forgot we even enjoyed it. Time to do the things we love to do with our families so we don’t need to wait our whole lives to do it again, like dance.
In some of the long term contract work I do with districts, I have the honor of helping them set up virtual learning environments and coach teachers and administrators in best practices for the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that virtual learning requires. Coming from the realm of being a technology director, I can also look at the situation from that lens. Some districts have been working on virtual programs or charter schools for years already, and I’ve been able to see what has gone well and not so well.
In crazy world we live in and have had to adapt to in a short period of time, I have never been more proud to say that I’m an educator. I’ve watched districts with no plans for this type of emergency whatsoever (I mean, how could you possibly anticipate something like this) jump full-force into meeting the various needs of their students. Even my own kids’ district sent out multiple emails from the guidance department with support numbers and also had a plan for students to pick up meals or have them delivered in record time. Teachers have been resilient and persistent in doing what is best for their students and quickly taking on learning management systems and online assessing with all the creativity and awesomeness that educators consistently exhibit. I really am seriously so incredibly proud.
I’ve also seen some of the mistakes that in a well-planned rollout will still sometimes happen, forget that this endeavor was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants implementation. I thought that I would answer some of the most common questions that I get from teachers as they are going through a virtual implementation hoping that they will help anyone still struggling.
How much work do I give?
When moving to an online course, this is probably one of the most common questions I get from teachers who have a difficult time imagining how their classes should look and how much work their students should have. While typically I would highly recommend to backwards plan a unit, match the plan to the allotted timeframe, and break it up for online, in this sometimes day-to-day planning that we are doing right now because of the situation can make planning look a little different. My next recommendation is to plan what you would typically do in one week in class and migrate that work online while replicating the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that would be happening in class (for more info, keep reading to How do I teach?). My friend, Anne Stanislawski, created this website for her teachers and students to help guide parents and students weekly in their learning. Teachers meet in their PLCs via Zoom and plan a week at a time. As of this blog post, the first grade page is complete and the rest is still under construction.
Common misconception: Worksheets for the class – A common misconception I see in the assigning of work is a teacher will divide the number of minutes of the class by how long worksheets will take to get done (ex: I have 60 minutes and each worksheet I have will take 10 minutes so I will assign six worksheets). In reality, that number of worksheets wouldn’t get done within that timeframe with any direct instruction and student questions, and you most likely wouldn’t assign six worksheets normally anyway. Plus, creating interactive lessons in a variety of other ways will help students gain a deeper understanding of the content you’re teaching.
Common misconception: They have more time – Another common misconception I’ve seen is assigning work that would not be able to be done within one day’s time. For example, it’s unreasonable to assign a student to watch a two hour video and then do a worksheet with it as well. That wouldn’t be able to be done within one day at school, and keep in mind that in secondary this is only one of multiple classes.
Where do I focus?
On yourself and on your students. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. This is like the beginning of the year all over again. You know your students as learners, but you may not know them as virtual learners which can be very, very different. Focus on establishing norms and expectations online. Create a new classroom culture by building off the ones you were fortunate enough to establish in the face-to-face environment first. The content will come and the more time you spend easing everyone into this new reality the faster you will be able to move later.
How do I teach?
Many times when I get asked this question, it is really about how the teacher provides direct instruction. This is an easy fix. If you would like to provide DI to your students, that can be done either by creating a screencast of a presentation (I’d recommend Screencastify) or whiteboard for students to watch on their own or via a video conferencing system like Google Meet or Zoom. Created videos should be kept to under five minutes.
In looking at creating other activities for students, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Want your students to do a Socratic Seminar? You can still do that using Google Meet or Zoom. Want to listen to your students speak in Spanish or play their instruments? You can. Use Flipgrid. Want your students to experience creating their own podcast about how the world is changing and predicting how their life might be different after the virus? Have them create a micro-podcast on Synth.
Practically speaking, there are ways to add accountability to your teaching as well. This tends to be one of the areas that teachers struggle with the most because you can’t actually see and monitor what your students are doing. For example, add interactivity to instructional videos (either self-made or from a variety of sources) with EdPuzzle or Playposit. Add instructional content to any webpage with Insert Learning. Curate information with Wakelet or have students use Padlet for a variety of purposes (including timeline and mapmaking and creating video and voice notes). Also, this is a Symbaloo of digital assessment tools that might be helpful.
There are teams of educators online collecting resources to help with this transition. Rachelle Dene Poth writes amazing tech blogs that are student-centered and focused on collaboration. Jen Casa-Todd, the mother of social media leadership, has been curating resources for online learning. Katie Martin always has phenomenally put-together blog posts with tons of information and resources.
How do I still allow for personalized learning?
I know that the initial reaction for the transfer online was quick and I would imagine, relatively painful. Some educators had never used Google Classroom or any other learning management system before, and teaching and learning online is different than teaching and learning in a brick and mortar classroom. The goal, however, should be to get to a place where we are offering students voice, choice, and pacing options so they are able to customize their learning as much as possible. THIS is an ideal time to allow more autonomy in pacing. Even if it is week-by-week to begin with, removing the constraint where students need to be given the work by 8am and finish by 3pm each day would be an easy step forward.
Also, creating opportunities for students to have voice and choice in their learning is still important. Even baby steps like giving students the choice between three different critical thinking questions to answer in a discussion would be appropriate. Still allow them to show their learning in a variety of ways. Some students might enjoy creating a media project or podcast, and some students might still want to work with their hands. HANDS ON PROJECTS ARE STILL APPROPRIATE! One school district I was working with to move to a virtual program was setting up a maker-like space that had project supplies that students could pick up or get shipped to them if they didn’t have them at home.
What else do we need to remember?And how is this specific to NOW?
Digital Equity The inequality in digital access goes beyond the number of WIFI hotspots and Chromebooks available. We now are adding in the ability for parents to be able to teach and learn online themselves and the support that they are able to give students both online and offline. All of a sudden, some students may not have anything to eat all day (not even a school lunch). There will be a difference between parents who are able to support students if they have a third grade education or a graduate degree. I have two graduate degrees and cannot do math over an 8th grade level! Some students will have parents who are at home, some will have parents working at home, and some will be spending their days with babysitters or AS babysitters if their parents are still working. The disparity in how students will be operating in the most basic level throughout the days could be vast.
Family time is valuable Students may have an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with their families at home. This time is valuable and I feel like if they have that availability, it should be respected. I have also seen some people make mention of assigning tasks that the whole family could do. Please be aware that some parents are now unexpectedly homeschooling multiple children plus they may be trying to work from home. In the past having families as part of the learning may have seemed like a reason to give them togetherness time, but being sensitive to the unique situation that might be happening now is imperative.
Students are scared Students have never seen anything like this in their time on Earth. Neither have most of us. They don’t have a lot of reliable information when it comes to navigating what is going on. If you’re discussing Maslow’s and bringing in the Hierarchy of Needs, school content is going to take a low priority with them if they are really scared as to what is going on. This can be intensified if their parents are suffering any kind of additional economic hardship because of the virus.
As I said, in the long-term consulting contracts that I do, part of my work is with virtual programs and charter schools to plan and implement this new type of learning. If there is anything I can do to help right now, please use the contact me button at the top of the page and let me know.
Our students need us the most right now as humans. As the people they want to connect with. As the ones who remember them every day and talk to them and look them in the eyes. Now, this has become more of a challenge, but it can absolutely be done. Noticing our students and maintaining those relationships with them needs to be our main focus right now. The rest will come.
When I work with districts in virtual learning and setting up virtual environments, one of the areas that is often overlooked is the potential for loneliness in the isolation that comes along with being at home. Even if there are people there, there is a loneliness that can set in as we are more cut off from being around other people besides our families. Two weeks may seem like a nice add-on to spring break. But, in the latest CDC recommendation, eight weeks could begin to feel like an eternity especially when, as professionals, we are not able to do some of the things we would normally do to stay in touch because of the potential of getting sick. EdCamps? Nope. Book clubs? You shouldn’t. Sitting in a coffee shop? Well, it’s at your own risk. There’s a difference between having time off and being isolated at home. We will be feeling it. Our students will be feeling it.
There is no perfect way to substitute for human interaction. Whether your district has decided to implement online learning or you just simply have school cancelled, below are some ways to combat the isolation and loneliness that can accompany these situations:
Marco Polo and Voxer Marco Polo is an app that allows you to leave video messages for people. It’s a fantastic way to pop in and have a conversation, either in semi-real-time (it will play as they record) or to be able to check it later. I love to be able to see facial expressions and hear the inflection in people’s voices as we chat. It also allows me the freedom to walk away from my phone and get the message later.
Similarly to Marco Polo, Voxer allows the user to leave voice-only messages for up to 15 minutes. It also allows for photos and regular chats. You may listen in real-time or get the messages when it’s convenient.
Both apps can allow for personal connection, but I’ve also seen them used for book studies, as options for online EdCamps, and to collaborate on professional projects. I personally use them for all of these, but also to connect with my peers who are in other states or countries.
SnapChat Singoff The SnapChat Singoff is something that myself, Rodney Turner, and Tisha Richmond began years ago. In a quest to learn how to use SnapChat, we began playing music and doing our own version of karaoke. We started a group, record ourselves singing, and send it to the group. The group now is a larger version of some of our best friends. A requirement for our group? You must be a terrible singer. It’s a silly way to connect and laugh during a time when we really need it. Also, it’s crazy how this little activity will challenge you and make you uncomfortable, but after awhile give you confidence to try other activities that may be doing the same. Tara Martin recently mentioned it on Twitter here.
Video Conferencing Video conferencing via Zoom, Google Hangouts, or your conferencing platform of choice could be a go-to way to connect. Have the desire to get coffee with a friend but don’t want to take the chance of catching a virus? Fire up the video conferencing software, brew yourself a cup, and have a chat. This is also a way to connect for online educational conferences who may have decided to go virtual as well as those book studies where Marco Polo or Voxer are an option except you’d like them done in real-time.
Take a Course There are so many options for courses online now that can fulfill either a personal interest or professional one. One of my favorite sites is Udemy where I recently took courses on neuroscience and other passion areas of mine, but there are multiple other options like Thinkific or the educator focused Grassroots Workshops. For example, my friend, Tisha Richmond, released the sign-up for her course on Making Learning Magical yesterday, and you can find my free course on Educator Self-Care here. The communication and collaboration that can happen in an online course should help keep the isolation away and the ability to follow a passion areas when otherwise you might not have the time can keep spirits high.
Read Again, for both professional knowledge and personal enjoyment. There is something about getting lost in a story that should make you feel not alone. And when you can connect with professional readings that help you grow it will help with the part of all educators that need to learn and solidify their professional identity. Look for Twitter chats on books you read to find even more of a connection. Can’t find one? Make one. Get a group together to read any book, create a hashtag, and start a book study Twitter chat.
Isolation in the typical online learning environment is a very real thing for both teachers and students. Without a true virtual learning background, it might be easy to forget that our focus with students is relationships first and content second because the content is so much easier to push out and leave online. The same goes for us as adults, however. Being at home can lead to feelings of loneliness and sometimes it can hit when we least expect it. Try to be proactive in conversations and connections. Reach out to others – especially those who may be dealing with depression and have now had their routines interrupted and more alone and thinking time. During times of uncertainty, humans feel the need to come together and right now that’s exactly what we cannot do. But, there are ways to combat loneliness and isolation and keep the relationships and conversations going.
I swore when I left the classroom that I would not forget what it was like to be a teacher. It’s one of the main complaints I hear about administrators; “they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be us.” It was a goal of mine to never forget and to always remember that teaching is one of the most challenging (but rewarding) positions out there.
But I did. I forgot.
I always thought that for an administrator I spent my fair share of time in classrooms. I loved it. It felt like being a grandmother. I was able to go into classrooms, spend some time with the kids, even co-teach sometimes and it made me happy and then I was able to “give them back.” I always have loved the kids and felt like, especially as a tech director, I was able to see the best side of them (when I wasn’t dealing with technology infractions, that is).
But I didn’t get into classrooms nearly enough. I see that now.
My job now has me working in classrooms when I’m coaching more than I ever have and it has reminded me of all the reasons I became a teacher to begin with. The sense of vicarious accomplishment when students succeeded. The laughter that accompanies tangents from the curriculum that tend to happen when kids are comfortable and feel safe. The brief connections in the hallway that will earn you a smile later. There are so many things to love about working with kids. These things are still in existence every school I go to.
But I see now what I may have been missing before.
A first-grader beating his head against the desks and walls repeatedly because he didn’t know how else to express his frustration. A little girl screaming about how much she hates herself and how stupid she is because she couldn’t remember that after 19 is 20. A middle schooler with literally hundreds of permanent scars on his arms and legs from cutting. The boy sent out into the hall with his head in his hands between his legs looking defeated and like he didn’t want to be there. The school where the pick your battles management means that profanity in the hallways is a norm because at least they’re not fighting.
Good Lord, you guys. How did we get here?
Different districts across the country. This is not “those kinds of schools” or “those kinds of kids.” It’s not because of disengaged, lazy teachers.
We talk a good game about trauma and trying to recognize it, but even I wasn’t prepared for some of the blatantness of the issues. The boy who was beating his head against the wall, know the only thing that stopped him? A hug by an adult. A freakin’ hug.
What I forgot about being a teacher is how you’re everything to the students but aren’t provided with the professional know-how of being a child psychologist and doctor and some days flippin’ lion tamer. I forgot what it’s like to not be the grandparent but acting instead in loco parentis. And I’m sure that as a technology integrator and technology director and a consultant I’ve pushed my own agenda into classrooms where innovation and technology may have been the last thing on that teacher’s mind and yet they’ve still welcomed me and have asked me questions to grow. I knew this in my head. I had forgotten it in my teacher’s heart.
The way we have always done it isn’t working. It doesn’t address the current emotional needs of our kids. And I almost understand the desire to teach like it’s 30 years ago because I don’t remember things being like this when I was in school. Was I just that sheltered? I have no idea. But even though it may have been working back then doesn’t mean it is working now. And it doesn’t matter if it’s “not our fault” or if people think it’s parents or technology or disengaged employees or whatever it is. The fact is that our students are showing behaviors that I would venture to say we haven’t seen in this capacity before, and we have the responsibility to change what we are doing to support their needs. We need more professional learning in trauma in what has become a new era of behavior management and support to help teachers know what they need to do. We need support for teachers so they know that their mental health matters, too and they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We need more support for administrators who are giving themselves over and trying to provide support but the very nature of how education operates can work against them.
And I don’t want to hear “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s too hard/sad/much.” There’s no room for that anymore. I’m so sorry it’s difficult for you. Imagine how it is for them.
I believe there is a direct correlation between teacher burnout, demoralization, and trauma to the amount of trauma behaviors that students are exhibiting. You cannot work on one without working on the other. As educators, we go to work prepared to protect students in a school shooting. We are prepared for the potential for students who are having meltdowns hitting us. We are prepared for things that nobody should need to go to work and experience. And within all this, we have students who can’t stop physically harming themselves because as a society we have ignored mental health for so long that it’s now an epidemic.
I consistently have both this hopeful gratitude towards administration and teachers for everything they do every day for kids. I believe that no matter where I go, people are doing the best they can with the energy and resources that they possess at that moment. I absolutely recognize that. But, until we are willing to take drastic steps to upend the way we have always done things, they are not going to change. Being reactive to behaviors instead of offering proactive support will constantly keep everyone in a state of being stressed and feeling behind.
I feel passionate and desperate for this message to get through. There needs to be more support and learning in the area of trauma and mental health and it need to be an all-encompassing priority. When THOSE supports are in place, then we will be able to better understand both our students and teachers and how to combat this issue in a more proactive environment. I don’t want to talk to exhausted, disengaged teachers anymore. They deserve to be engaged and happy. I don’t want to see kids with bruises on their heads and cutting scars on their arms and legs. Nobody should ever feel so bad and be in such crisis that they hurt themselves. I don’t want to worry about my own children and if there might be a gunman that decides to end their life at my kids’ schools and takes children and teachers down with them. This shouldn’t even be a thing.
We have passed the time for this to be a priority. We sat back for too long worrying about math and literacy scores and in the process have ignored how hard it is to be a human. I’m sorry I forgot what it’s like to be a teacher. It definitely won’t happen again.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.