Vulnerability is currently a hot topic in education. I find it’s commonly viewed in one of two ways: either people believe it’s the way to create deep connections and forge relationships built on trust or they feel that showing vulnerability is the equivalent to waiving your Achille’s heel in front of everyone while daring them to take a shot. I’ve been thrilled that most people are beginning to believe the former, and even if they find that vulnerability is a difficult concept, they see the value. For anyone who is working on their own vulnerability – I am so proud of you. It’s not an easy task to take on and at first, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also describes it as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity (Daring Greatly). If we dig down the root of so many of our social and culture/climate challenges, we will find the issue typically begins with the absence of one of these emotional connections. Many times, teachers or students will shut down from communicating when they feel like they don’t belong. When they lose their joy they become disengaged. When they forget to employ empathy they break connection. Showing vulnerability to another person who is receptive to that kind of emotion creates a connection that is not easily severed.
Maybe you understand this already. Or, maybe you’re working on being more vulnerable with the people around you. This is a worthwhile way to spend your energy. Vulnerability is a choice. A good one. But, it’s also a risk. And unfortunately, eventually, you may have your vulnerability used against you. It’s an unfortunate side effect of showing your soft inner belly while so many people still believe that vulnerability equals weakness or they don’t understand how showing vulnerability impacts a person on a deeper, personal level than just about any other emotion. This is not a warning issued against working toward this particular goal. Instead, by recognizing the potential for the situation you can be more prepared for it to happen and understand that just because someone doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.
In the past, when vulnerability has been used against me, this has looked like leaders questioning my abilities when I admit that I don’t know. It has looked like taking a risk just to be reprimanded when I failed. It has also been the perception of weakness when I show my vulnerable side. But, perhaps the most daring way I have had my vulnerability used against me is by someone who pointed out that I may have relationships that are forged and continued by people who pity me because I talk about my depression and former thoughts of suicide. All of these instances have angered me and absolutely gave me the right to armor up and protect myself from those situations happening again. Particularly the incident regarding mental health and the deep wound that it created in an area that I work so hard to expose and destigmatize, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would close myself off and change the way I operate. That would definitely be the easier choice and it’s natural to want to crawl into a hole and protect your wounds, especially after exposing yourself expecting connection and instead needing to retreat to attend to the unexpected damage.
Here’s the part that’s important to understand in these circumstances: when people themselves are not vulnerable they don’t understand vulnerability. Until they are able to change and accept the power of this connection, they will always look at humanity as a weakness. In some cases, I believe that one person showing vulnerability actually causes emotions in people that are too intense for them to handle so they armor up to avoid that discomfort. Either way, that is not about you. That is about them and where they are in their stories; their own life journeys. That is not a time to decide to be “tougher” and avoid being vulnerable. That is a time to continue to model and show others how it’s done.
There will always one person who is ready to push back against anything that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes that comes out as adult bullying or snide remarks or looks of dissatisfaction or disapproval. Sometimes, it’s a person who seems to feel like your vulnerability is a liability. There will always be these people. However, allowing that to bother you, or worse, change you, gives those people more control in your life than they’re probably entitled to. Part of owning your vulnerability is becoming comfortable with opening yourself up when you know there is the potential for someone to equate your actions with your Achille’s heel. When Brown speaks of vulnerability and courage, I believe it’s at the point where the courage is born.
We are reminded everywhere we turn in education that we need to be reflective professionals. This means thinking about our practice, our attitude, our relationships, weaknesses, and strengths and constantly reassessing if we are doing what’s best for the people around us. If we combine that with the empathy that we are told to have, it can mean that we spend a lot of time stewing about things we’ve done wrong. It can even make us feel guilty about the things we don’t know how to do yet. Feel guilty enough and all of a sudden we are miserable and trying to figure out how we can be better constantly with no rest to appreciate where we are.
Growth is a journey. There is a continuum of feeling accomplished and looking for the next thing. It doesn’t need to be that you are either growing or happy like there is some invisible point where all of a sudden you’ve gone as far as you can and you can look back and be satisfied with everything you’ve done. You can do both. You can be both happy and have the desire to grow. You can both appreciate how far you’ve come with understanding how far you need to grow. It’s not selfish or boastful to be appreciative of how far you’ve come, and it doesn’t hold you back from growing any faster when you don’t take the time to celebrate little accomplishments.
Here are five ways to feel better about where you are:
Appreciate the now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m terrible at taking a moment to appreciate how far I’ve come. When I accomplish a goal I immediately look forward to the next one which means I’m constantly wondering what I need to do next. Not only is that a source of stress that I’m placing on myself, but what is the point in setting goals and reaching them if you never take a moment to reflect on the journey to get there? Allow the positive feelings of reaching something you’ve worked hard for to fill you up and enjoy the moment? While looking forward is valuable, keeping an eye on the rear view mirror can remind us how far we’ve come and the mistakes and celebrations we had along the way, and living right in the moment helps us understand why we are doing the things we’re doing in the first place. It provides perspective we might otherwise lose.
Let go of the guilt There is a certain amount of guilt that accompanies educators when they feel like they are not learning enough, doing enough, moving forward fast enough for their students. We think that it’s all fine and dandy that we know what we know but there’s so much more out there to understand. And yet, because we are human we also have families to take care of and just the everyday logistics of teaching, and moving forward as quickly as we would like becomes nearly impossible. Cue the guilt. However, guilt for that reason is such a waste of energy for something that we have very little control over. Keep learning. Keep moving. Fight against becoming stagnant. Be happy with doing your absolute best and understand that one day you’ll get there. Take control of the things you actually have control over. You’re on your learning journey exactly where you’re supposed to be. Enjoy the journey instead of feeling guilty about not being further down the road.
Stop trying to be someone else For me, this one usually came in the context of social media. I’ve written about this before in We Allow the Way Social Media Makes Us Feel. I would watch everyone around me and wonder why I couldn’t be doing more. More podcasts. More blog posts. There’s always more that could make me better.
I’ve also experienced this with people that I’ve worked with. When I was a technology integrator I worked with an incredible team. We each brought something to the table (frankly, my contribution was usually to get everyone off task) but there were people I wanted to be just like. Well-spoken, ridiculously intelligent, knowledge in areas I had no idea about. No matter how much I tried I could never be them. When I left the team, a few of my teammates told me that the group wasn’t the same without me. My squirrel moments were the things that forged relationships between the members and gave us opportunities to laugh. I didn’t need to be someone else to contribute to the group. My strengths were mine, and come to find out, there were people on the team who wished they were more like me. While I was wishing I had their intelligence or vast vocabulary, they were wishing they were better at forming relationships and all along they were watching me to figure out better ways to do that. The only people we can be is ourselves. We all have something to contribute, and if we are always trying to be someone else, who will be us? Who will fill the gap that only we can fill? While it’s important to keep growing, our current strengths can be what is needed right in the moment.
Set mini-goals Set goals within goals and then take the time to celebrate meeting them. Setting a large goal without mini-goals can feel like you’re always looking forward without ever getting the opportunity to celebrate the journey. If you’re working towards a graduate degree celebrate finishing another class. If you’re writing a book, appreciate the chapter you just knocked out. If you are trying to improve your practice, celebrate the day your newly planned lesson goes smashingly well even if you have so much more that you want to implement. Just take the day to live in that feeling and feel good about yourself and what you just did. Bask in the glory of feeling awesome. You can start looking forward again tomorrow.
Share what you know with others One of the most effective ways to celebrate how far you’ve come is to actually share your knowledge with others who are still working on their own journeys. Not only does it help them move forward to where they want to be, but re-living what you’ve learned and proudly teaching it to someone else is a great way to appreciate your growth. Also, one day someone else who is a little farther along than you in an area is likely to pay it forward and do the same for you.
Learning and growth should always be the goal. Consistently moving forward and aiming to be the best person we can is an appropriate way to show respect to our colleagues and ourselves. However, being so focused on goals that we lose sight of the awesomeness that we have accomplished on the way only sets us up for constant guilt and possible feelings of inadequacy when there’s no reason for it. Taking the time to both be happy with ourselves in the present while continuing to look forward to be better allows us time for reflection and celebration before taking another step in that direction.
Our brains love stories. Especially stories filled with drama and intrigue, a villain, a hero and other pieces that make us talk excitedly and retell the story to others. It’s why so much of our history is built in stories. But stories can be like playing telephone. The first story that is told is often not how it’s told the 22nd time as it tends to change a little bit every time somebody gets a hold of it. When stories are told for entertainment value, this can make the stories more interesting and engaging, but when their purpose is to pass information, this can make them unreliable and potentially dangerous.
I’ve spoken about the importance of communication before in The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture. Communication and transparency are imperative for an organization not only because it provides people with a common ground for building a strong culture but also because trust is the foundation for relationships and part of building trust is having clear communication.
When communication is lacking, people will take a little pieces of information that they do have and they will create their own story. It’s human nature. We pull pieces and create a whole picture with any bits we have. Usually, because our brains tend to think in the negative, the stories will not be complementary and sometimes the people that end up the hero and the villains are maybe not the people who should be in those places at all. But our brains love stories and all the pieces of the hero’s journey and if we’re not communicated with we will make up that story with the information we do have instead of seeking to understand. These stories may then include biases and assumptions and create a single story that may not include actual facts.
As an educator and an entrepreneur I am a huge fan of branding for this very reason. I don’t believe branding to be as much of a marketing ploy as it is a way to communicate. For example, the reason that I wrote Divergent EDU was because I was so afraid of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking to be used as a compliance tool for teachers when it was really meant as a way to provide support. My brand is how I tell people what I believe in and how I operate. It’s based on my purpose and my core beliefs. And if I did not communicate this information I would run the risk of people making up stories about me that weren’t true and it would be my own fault for not communicating because I failed to give them the information they needed for a complete story and instead set them up to use their assumptions and biases to fill in those holes instead.
The same premise holds true for any individual whether it be a teacher leader, student or any organization, classroom, school or district. If you don’t find a way to communicate who you are and what you are about or why you do the things you do, be prepared for people to make up their own stories. Then, be prepared for a game of telephone where the first story that is told is made a little bit more dramatic and misunderstood a little bit more until it has reaches a group of people. What we want people to believe can be hampered by the desire for a good story with heroes and villains and monsters and drama. Clear communication that builds trust and maintains relationships and allows for asking questions and challenging assumptions and biases is the best way to make sure that if a story is told it’s the story that we want told because it truly represents who we are and what we do.
I was asked to work on a new project where I was to design and develop a resource website for a school district’s technology department. When I first agreed to take on the project I was unconcerned about what I was supposed to be doing. Resource website. Pffffttttttt. Even though I would consider myself to be far from a pro, I could build a simple website in my sleep. Not even an issue. Then my contact said these alarming words: You must build it in Sharepoint.
My response: I’m sorry, what now?
I have my fair share of technology background. I’ve been a teacher who heavily used tech, I was a technology integrator, then a technology director. One of my Master’s degrees is even in Information and Communications Technologies. I can work it or learn it with the best of them and I will push every button there is until I can figure it out. Usually.
If he had said Wix or Webs or WordPress or Google Sites we could have just kept moving, but he didn’t. He said Sharepoint. And laugh at me all you want, even though I appreciate Office 365, I’ve always been a Google girl. I didn’t even know at first that Sharepoint was a Microsoft thing. I literally had no idea what it was. When it comes to technology, I can’t remember the last time that I couldn’t even come up with a reference for something new. The only way I could describe my feelings was that of sheer terror.
I didn’t have the time for someone to teach me and I didn’t have a lot of extra time to learn. I was on my own with no direction and I was astounded at how much panic I felt. And like any good reflective professional, I started thinking about all the times I had asked teachers to learn something new that we didn’t have the time to properly train them on or they didn’t have the background knowledge to even begin to move forward. It made me cringe at how many times I had been a part of that process just because of my position. When I discuss the need for professional learning opportunities for educators, which I do often, I’ve always thought of it in terms of responsibility. As in it’s our responsibility as a district to provide educators with these opportunities otherwise we are asking them to do something we have never taught them to do. While this is true, what I was missing was the feeling of being behind and missing something. Of there being expectations that I didn’t know I could make. The emotions: fear, uncertainty, embarrassment, disconnection.
In order to move on, I had to remind myself of what I did know how to do. I knew how to Google. I knew how to find YouTube videos. I went to the Sharepoint site and began to click buttons. I have always believed that the only differences between people who learn technology easily and the ones who don’t are A) they are willing to push buttons knowing it won’t break and B) they rely on what they already know to get started.
It took me weeks to figure out Sharepoint to the extent that I needed to in order to finish the project, but when I was done I felt accomplished and proud of myself that I was able to create what they needed out of something new. It was a risk taking on a project on a platform I wasn’t familiar with. I recognized the possibility that I would need to admit to someone that I couldn’t do the job they asked me to do which added to my panic. If I claim to be a lifelong learner, I better be one. If I want to model growing in an area that I’m unfamiliar with, I better be willing to take risks. That feeling – the one of shock and nervousness and doubtfulness that I would be able to learn something – will not be forgotten anytime soon. I believe these kinds of experiences, when we notice them and do our due diligence to reflect, is what keeps us grounded and connected with others in our field. It generates empathy. It guides us and helps remind us how we want to treat others and provide a supportive environment so we don’t need to go to school feeling bad about ourselves because we just don’t know.
A friend of mine told me the other day that I have a really positive outlook. I nearly laughed out loud. My go-to defense mechanism for anything happy, anything sad, pretty much anything in life has always been sarcasm and negativity. I could blame this on a lot of things. It could be my self-esteem or the way that just being was modeled growing up. The fact of the matter is it really doesn’t matter what caused me to be like that. A few years ago I made the choice to not be like that any longer. I decided one day I didn’t like the way it felt. And it may seem like it was an easy choice. Something that would only make sense if you want to be happy you need to be more positive. But it actually took a lot of work. I had to change the people I surround myself with. I had to decide how much negativity I was going to allow affect me. I’m still learning. One of the ways that I’ve been continuing my journey to become more positive is focusing on my self-talk.
If you would have told me even five years ago that I would be trying a gratitude journal or that I would be talking about positive self-talk in any other way besides how ridiculous it was I wouldn’t have believed you. I really thought it was a bunch of hooey. But when I’m unsure about how something makes me feel I go back to the Neuroscience of it. Also, it just makes sense. If you tell yourself positive things you’re more likely to be positive. The concept really isn’t that hard. Yet, when I was starting out it seemed silly and an insurmountable task. There are a few things I’ve learned that I thought I could pass on.
You talk to your kids with that attitude?
In last week’s post I discuss how I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. When she was discussing positive self-talk she said you should never say anything to yourself that you would not say to your kids. Why would you treat yourself any differently than you would treat your own children or students. Sometimes, we get down on ourselves and think about all of the ways that we screwed up and how we should be better. But would you ever say to your kids You’re such an idiot! How could you not have done better? Or would you ever look at your daughter and say Holy crap you look fat in that dress. It sounds ridiculous when we say it that way yet I promise you my self-talk has said those very things. I even spend an exorbitant amount of time telling my dog how pretty she is. Yet, I don’t talk to myself with that same respect.
Humility vs. Self-deprecation
There’s a fine line between self-deprecation and humility, but there is still a line. I feel like so many people are afraid of seeming boastful that they error on the side of self-deprecation in order to seem humble. Learn to accept the compliment instead of excusing it. Appreciate it. Believe that it’s true. Feel gratitude for the person who went out of their way to tell you. There’s no reason to balance that out with saying anything negative about yourself -either to the other person or to yourself. Humble people still understand how to appreciate themselves. There is nothing saying that you have to believe negative things in order to seem humble and kind.
I actually understand why some people do this. I can be incredibly self-deprecating and I can tell you that it makes me feel good when people then call me humble. I like being called humble. It makes me feel kind. But the ironic part of it is that by being self-deprecating I’m actually not being kind to myself, and I would much rather be kind than just give the illusion that I am.
Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that mimic what the brain senses going on around it. They allow you to fit in with your surroundings and behave in what your brain perceives is a socially acceptable way in order to survive and thrive. They’re how you pick up the mannerisms of the people you are with the most or develop an accent if you move to a new place. When you know that your brain is constantly trying to mimic what is around you, you become very aware of what you surround yourself with and what the people around you experience when they’re with you. With positive self-talk, mirror neurons can work both ways. If you are around people who model positivity, a healthy self-worth, or even positive self-talk you are more likely to do the same. On the flip side, if you are practicing negative self-talk and it shows in your emotions other people are likely to pick up on that as well. This includes our own children, our students, or our colleagues.
I’m lying to myself
Dr. Jantz on Psychology Today says, “Positive self-talk is not self-deception. It is not mentally looking at circumstances with eyes that see only what you want to see. Rather, positive self-talk is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself. One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes. To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic. To expect no difficulties in life, whether through your own actions or sheer circumstances, is also unrealistic.”
Let’s pretend for a second that you doubt Dr. Jantz and you believe that positive self-talk is just trying to convince yourself that you’re a certain way. Who cares? Being able to imagine yourself how you’d like to be is one powerful way of making it happen.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about going through any kind of adversity is you can absolutely choose to live within that space and allow it to dictate how you feel about yourself. Adversity, trauma, depression, anxiety… None of those are a choice. The choices lie in how you decide to heal and create the life that you envision. If becoming more positive and thinking about yourself in a healthy way is one of those goals, then choosing to work on your positive self-talk may be one place to start.
Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is one of my top five must read books. As I’ve always been a huge fan of talking about the uncomfortable things to make them more comfortable and dispeling the myths that they shouldn’t be spoken about, I think Brown’s take on emotional topics and relating them back to leadership is nothing short of awesome. You want the psychology behind why you armor up and treat people a certain way that you may later regret? Let’s grapple with vulnerability, trust, shame, and empathy. Don’t like speaking of such topics? Gives you a little heartburn and feeling of anxiousness in your heart? You are not alone. All the more reason to recognize and accept the feelings and their impact on the way we relate to others.
One of the areas that stuck out to me was her discussion on armored leadership (leading from hurt) versus daring leadership (leading from heart). She says:
Armored Leadership (Leading from Hurt) One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap.
She goes on to say:
Daring Leadership (Leading from Heart) Like most of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences – from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.
I wrote about adversity and trauma with a similar message in The Fire Within. So many of us have struggles. We have gone through adversities or trauma and have either decided not to allow it to define us or we have struggled to see how the way we feel about ourselves can projected onto others and cause them pain. Even if the adversities are similar, the experiences very real and raw, it is not the adversity itself that defines us. It’s the way that we choose to live our everyday and if we understand that we have the power to write the end of our stories. When we decide to embrace the fact that we have that power, it’s the first step to moving toward healing.
Even with this understanding, however, there can still be underlying issues to address. The challenge with self-worth is that it cannot be filled with or by someone else. Nor can exerting power over someone else fill that gap. I think many of us struggle with finding it within ourselves to give ourselves grace and not base our self-worth on the people we work for or even on the people we love. The people around us, their successes or failures, do not give us self-worth. Our loved ones and how the praise us or ridicule us, do not give us self-worth. It may impact how we feel, but it is not the same as how we value ourselves. When we can’t find it within ourselves, we don’t know where else to go to get it so we look outside ourselves for someone, anyone to fill that hole. But self-worth is an internal struggle. And typically I’ve found that if someone is treating you poorly, it’s more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about you.
And this holds true for leadership. Leadership that is based on compliance and micromanaging is typically, deep down, unsure of themselves and the job they do as leaders and is scared to have difficult discussions with the people that need them for the culture to be stable and positive. Leadership that operates from a space where they are at a minimum comfortable in their ability to utilize their teams to make sound decisions and in their willingness to learn from failure and grow are more likely to support and empower than try to create a culture of compliance and control. Effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and do something about it. They value their own self-worth enough to know that the areas where they are weak will only get stronger with growth and not that it is a hole that needs to be covered so nobody notices it’s there.
Grappling with any emotion that will make us better humans can put us in a vulnerable position that has the potential of making us uncomfortable. However, especially in education, we are constantly, repeatedly asking all the people around us, adults and students, to be better. And if we are not able to deal with the rawness and uncomfortableness of that, how can we expect to give other’s feedback on their growth and expect them to take to heart what we say? It brings me to possibly my favorite quote in the book by Brown (based off a quote by Theodore Roosevelt):
If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’e not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.
We often say in education that we need to be modeling behavior. It’s the nice way of saying putting ourselves out there and being ready for our own butts to be kicked because as any risk-taker knows, if you put yourself out there, that will eventually happen. If we are going to ask for vulnerability, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be in the arena. And if we are not, we better quickly find out how to get ourselves there instead of hurdling advice from the sidelines. Ironically, finding our way to this place may involve looking within ourselves at our own self-worth and dealing with our own stories so we are able to grow and move forward.
Any kind of adversity and certainly trauma can impact the way we feel about ourselves. Building resilience, practicing positive self-talk (my next blog post), and becoming aware of how our own thoughts and feelings impact others is not only an important way to begin to heal, but also can create opportunities for us to be better educators, mentors, and leaders.
You read about a new technology on Twitter. You love how the teacher used the tech to support learning and empower students. You decide to do a little research; you look at other examples of people using this same technology, gather information about the lessons that went well and discard the ones that don’t align to your philosophy of teaching. You decide to move forward, reinventing a lesson you’ve been doing for 12 years and replacing it with the new, innovative one. The first day you try the lesson it bombs horribly. Half the students couldn’t access what you needed them to and when everyone was finally able to log on, the fire drill went off taking up the rest of the time allotted to that lesson. Frustrated, you spend your prep planning a better way for the students to access what you need them to. The next day you try again and with the help of the Library Media Specialist for some extra hands, the lesson goes smashingly well.
This is an example of the entire risk-taking cycle. The act of risk-taking is not an event. It is a cycle of planning with a final determination if the risk is worth the reward, moving forward, and reflecting afterward. Because risk-taking is a cycle there needs to be support in all the different stages. A thumbs-up and a pat on the back at the end of a successful try isn’t enough. Also, risk-takers need to understand their role in calculated risk-taking and do their due diligence in creating opportunities for themselves or students by thinking through and researching whatever they are trying to accomplish. This understanding should come from building a culture of risk-taking support to enhance any innovative and divergent teaching that might be happening already.
Like with anything, the impact of a risk is on a continuum. There are some risks that we take everyday that require some forethought and planning but not necessarily research and extra time. These risks are smaller and have less impact. Implementing a technology into a lesson, for example. Then there are huge risks that have a higher impact. The decisions impact a higher number of people in a more significant way. For example, creating a blended class where students can choose to come to class or work online most of the time throughout a semester. The amount of time that is spent in the cycle should depend on the impact of the risk. Also, the amount of support given during the cycle may also depend on the significance of the outcome to the risk-taker. In other words, how much of their heart do they have wrapped up in the outcome of the risk?
As I work with more and more district leadership, I see a few different types of risk-taking supporters. As with risk-taking, the amount of support that leadership gives is on a continuum as is the amount of support that the risk-taker needs depending on their confidence level. Many leaders are beginning to see the value in supporting risk-taking but where things get hazy is when a risk isn’t calculated, the outcome is negative and everyone is looking at each other like, “how did that happen?”, especially if the impact is high. From the standpoint of leadership, it is in a leader’s best interest to be involved enough with their staff that they know when a risk that falls into the higher impact category is going to happen so they can support from the get-go. From the standpoint of the risk-taker, having the support of leadership should increase confidence.
Leadership who supports throughout the risk-taking cycle will:
Be curious about the new idea. Ask questions. Offer any potential insight or experts in the topic they may know.
Be collaborative while the impact of the risk is assessed and researched. During this time, if leadership pushes back with questions, it is a great opportunity for the risk-taker to embrace their ideas as potential roadblocks and be proactive in planning for those potential failure points.
Be encouraging. There are times when being a cheerleader is appropriate.
Be proud. If you have teachers trying new things that are amazing, be grateful for your ability to support a culture that supports and encourages, and for the teachers that you have who are willing to take those risks and be innovative. Tell them you’re proud of them before they have even gone through with the risk.
Be a model. Take calculated risks. Be open about your worries. Be vulnerable when you fail. Show the people who are afraid what it’s like to do it anyway.
Many times when I discuss leadership “should dos” I will be approached by teachers that their leadership doesn’t act that way and there’s nothing they can do. But, there is. If we believe that leadership isn’t a role, I would challenge those teachers by saying they are the leaders, too. They can be the role models and support their colleagues through the risk-taking process. We all have control over the culture that we desire in our organizations. Teachers can also be those five characteristics listed above. So, if you believe your administration doesn’t do it this way, then show them how it’s done.
The more support that we are able to offer each other during the risk-taking cycle, the more likely we are going to be successful in the new, innovative and divergent teaching methods we want to try. The more we take calculated risks, the more practice we get at being a risk-taker and conquering our fear that something major will go wrong. Risk-taking is more than just celebrating the successes. It’s more about the learning that happened during the process before the success occurred.
After I retired from my district position, I was a little lost. It didn’t matter that I had made the choice to leave, there were pieces of leaving that made me feel like a failure. Like I didn’t finish something I was meant to finish. And I’m anything but a quitter. Quitting makes me crazy. In fact, I’m more likely to hang onto something for too long convincing myself that hard work makes everything OK than understand the value of letting it go. I knew I could consider doing all the things that kept me working long hours the last few years: consulting, EduMatch, writing, the Teachers Aid podcast, teaching at the university…and whatever else consistently found its way on my laundry list of to dos. I didn’t honestly know what my problem was.
I went to all my summer conferences feeling anxious and unsure. To top it off, for the first time in years I didn’t get a session accepted for ISTE (I mean, it didn’t stop me. I just made my own). I felt like the professional God’s were punishing me for quitting and taking their anger out on my ISTE submission list. What were people going to think of me? Were they going to think I was inept? Was I inept? My self-talk was horribly negative.
But I continued to do what I do relying heavily on the fake it til you make it strategy and I smiled and chatted with people about education and I struggled to get through my sessions talking about my own mental health knowing the sharp pinning of the road I was on was reeking havoc on me emotionally. I’ve spoken so many times on this blog about my mental health issues. Maybe some are tired of hearing it. I know I’m tired of feeling it.
I’ve spent a lot of my time since I have been speaking about mental health issues defending people who come out with their own stories and trying to give away some of my strength when others would come to me crying after a presentation. I felt like I was completely drained at this point questioning my very purpose and core beliefs that I have worked so hard to develop and live by.
Then something miraculous happened.
There was a person who reached out to me and said, “What can I do to help?” And then another with “What do you need?” And then from another “I got you. Tell me what to do.” And while some of these people were my best friends, some of them I had never met before in my life. Like seriously, never. I bet I heard a version of these words 100 times. Some would say, “I know we don’t know each other well, but I believe in what you do. If you need me, I’m there.”
And with each person’s support I felt like one was picking me up, one was dusting me off, one was getting me a glass of water, until I was able to finish on my own. If you want to know the power of a PLN, there it is.
Last week I was speaking to someone who was struggling with a tough situation and I said, “Tell me what I need to do to help you,” because when I needed it, complete strangers did it for me. Even if they did nothing else for me but just say those words with complete sincerity in their eyes, I will be forever loyal to these people. We can create kindness. We have the ability to ensure we have support systems that are empathetic and ready to pick us up when we need it. We are so much more than the situations that pull us down, and thank goodness for people who for no real reason say, “Tell me what I can do to help.”
One of my favorite Ted Talks of all time is titled Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator by Tim Urban. Being a master procrastinator myself, I appreciate his description of how my brain is different from a non-procrastinator. Please, take a moment to view the video if you haven’t already. This post will mean so much more if you do.
His sense of humor cracks me up but whenever I watch the video (which I’ve done multiple times) I find myself getting serious at the end when he describes the type of procrastination that happens when there’s no deadlines. Life goals and bucket list items that remain untouched because you never began. He surmises that for this reason we all have a bit of procrastinator in us.
And while I agree that some of it might be procrastination (I’ll go back to school when the kids are older, I’ll learn to fly when things settle down at my job, I’d love to advance but I just don’t have the time) I think a major part of that issue is fear. Fear that you may do something to throw your life so off course that you mess with what is “just fine.” Wherever you are is so much more comfortable than where you might be. There are very few things more powerful at stopping us in our tracks than the unknown, even if that unknown promises to be something amazing.
I’ve spoken randomly on this blog of my public speaking fear. I have a feeling that when I speak and admit the fear to people that they think I might be lying. After all, I’m literally standing right in front of them speaking with what seems to be “confidence”. But, if you watch me closely you’ll see all the tell tale signs of someone who is fighting through nervousness to the point of nausea. Over many years, multiple pieces of feedback, watching myself on video, learning breathing techniques, and taking hold of something that seems so uncontrollable, I have learned to control it. I put my hands behind my back or on my hips so I don’t ring my hands. I go into the bathroom before speaking to take a deep breath. That’s where I recognize my fear and put it in the corner. I know it’s there, I’ll just deal with it after.
This is a tactic that I started on my own without anyone telling me to do it. At first, I had to fake it until I made it. So, I’m writing this blog post to tell you that if you wait for your fear to go away, it probably never will. When people say, “Get over your fear so you can move on” this implies that there is a way to completely defeat fears. If you think you can’t do whatever it is until you move past your fear, you may never try what you were afraid of. And as much as I fear public speaking, I rejoice in just the chance that I may change the mindset or the thinking of someone in the audience which in turn creates a healthier piece of the education ecosystem I am so determined to support. I fight my fear for just the chance of creating a change. A new way of thinking. A new opportunity.
So whether you call it procrastination or fear, there is so much opportunity in moving beyond each of those blockades. Soon after watching the master procrastinator video, I fell upon a video of a 12-year-old little girl who was on America’s Got Talent. She was signing Aretha Franklin and to her utter dismay, Simon stops her in the middle and asks her to sing acapella, in front of the whole audience, which she clearly was not expecting. When you watch the video, her face goes through so many emotions in a short period of time, all of which you may have also felt if you have ever been challenged and scared. But, at 12-years-old, on television, in front of an audience, she takes a few deep breaths and belts out Think. And sometimes I think that when we are trying so hard to be great teachers to our students, there are so many life lessons, like taking control of a situation and addressing you fears, that they could be teaching us if we really paid attention.
As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.
When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.
What types of relationships are there? Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.
There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.
What does support mean? Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.
Do I really need to love everyone? Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.
I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.
5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships
Be consistent The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.
Be vulnerable I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.
Be available When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.
Be non-judgmental It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.
When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.
Be the person you’d like to talk to Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.
There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.