How Does Gratitude Improve Mental Health?

Gratitude is one of those feel-good concepts that people are just beginning to pay attention to as a way to be more positive and mindful, but I’m not sure many people fully understand the profound impact that gratitude can have on the brain and body.

Gratitude is the “quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Dictionary.com). It can be shown externally and internally. Externally, gratitude can be shown by appreciating other people and what they bring to your life and telling them. It can be shown for the material things you have and the opportunities that you work for or are given. Internally, gratitude can be felt for the qualities that you possess and who you are as a person or that you have a healthy body and mind.

It needs to be felt with authenticity and realness, and should not be practiced in relation to what someone else doesn’t have. For example, it’s important to think, “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in” instead of “I am so thankful that I have a house to live in because I know that some people don’t.” If you think the latter, you may not feel as thankful if you see someone else has something better than you. Maybe TWO houses or a bigger one. Gratitude is about you and being appreciative of the things in your life. Not about what someone else has or doesn’t have.

Gratitude and the Brain
Our brains will do whatever it is we tell them to do most. One of the brain’s goals is to be as efficient as possible. It wants to save energy. So it creates connections to the things we do most in order to do them more automatically. That’s why the first time we do something we may be slow at it, but the more we practice it becomes more “natural”. The more we practice, the more connections our brain is making, and the longer we do it, the stronger the connections are. However, our brains have this amazing ability to rewire themselves – a process called neuroplasticity.

Our brains (different than our minds) have no moral compass. And because of this, if we are negative all the time or don’t appreciate the world around us, it will continue to make connections that perpetuate that kind of thinking. However, because of neuroplasticity, if we practice more positive types of thinking like gratitude, our brains can rewire to perpetuate that kind of thinking instead. Our brains cannot think of both negative and positive things at the same time, so which would you rather choose? It can take work and determination, especially if the connections are strong, but practice can make thinking in a more appreciative way your brain’s go to pathway.

Practicing gratitude can help regulate the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of hormones attributed to feeling happy. Also, because it helps regulate hormones and the autonomic nervous system, it can also reduce anxiety and depression. The article The Neuroscience of Gratitude (Chowdhury, 2020) says that studies have shown gratitude to have these #mentalhealth benefits:

  • Gratitude practices reduce cardiac diseases, inflammations, and neurodegeneration significantly
  • Daily journaling and gratitude jars can help individuals fighting with depression, anxiety, and burnout
  • Writing gratitude letters brings hope and evokes positivity in suicidal patients and those fighting terminal diseases
  • Gratitude improves the sleep-wake cycle and enhances mood. It helps people with insomnia, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Ways to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude journals are a popular way to practice gratitude because if forces the person to be intentional about who and what they are being appreciative about. Two tips for keeping a gratitude journal are:

  1. Withhold judgement over what you are writing down. Just write what you are thankful for. There are no wrong answers, so don’t try to make what you are doing negative (that defeats the purpose).
  2. Develop a habit by writing in the gratitude journal consistently. Maybe keep it by your bed to write at night or in the morning when you wake up. Developing a habit is where neuroplasticity is at work as well, so remember what you do the most is what your brain will want to continue to do. Help it out by keeping your journal in a handy spot and writing every day.

But, there are more ways to practice gratitude than writing in a journal. Any time you are truly appreciative you are practicing gratitude.

  • Tell others why you appreciate them and what they bring to the table, especially if it is something you normally take for granted
  • Be grateful for the dinner you are eating
  • Take time to appreciate nature during your walk
  • Be thankful for your work or opportunities
  • Make a gratitude collage – pictures of things you are grateful for or a gratitude kit where you fill it with trinkets that remind you of experiences you are grateful for
  • Don’t forget to be thankful for all of you, too. You can both be grateful for who you are and want to continue to want to grow or improve. They are not mutually exclusive.

Practicing gratitude can have more of a profound impact on the way we think and our mental health than we might even realize. There is a level of intentionality behind practicing it and it forces you to live in the moment as you’re feeling appreciative (a mindfulness technique). Try practicing gratitude daily for 30 days and see the difference it makes in the way you think. You may be surprised the impact it has on the way it changes the way you think and feel.

This is one blog post from a series on #mentalhealthawareness for May. Please sign up for my blog to receive the rest or find them here.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth and Defining Mental Health, Issues, and #SEL

A few weeks ago I was on a panel for mental health for #DigCitTO and about half-way through, one of the student panelists brought us back to basics. She said, “I just want to say that mental health and mental (health issues) are different. Everyone has mental health.” It reminded me of how we so often speak about this stuff and throw out these words, but I’m never confident that everyone is on the same page. This month, for Mental Health Awareness, I’m going to be moving from my once-a-week blog posts to one about every other day to address some common mental health and mental health issue topics. If you’d like to receive all of these posts to your email, please sign up for my blog.

My go-to whenever I start something new is to make sure that we have a common language around what we are discussing so we can be sure that when I refer to a topic, we all have a baseline of what it is. Right now, I’d like to define three common terms that I’ve seen used interchangeably that are actually very different: mental health, mental health issues, and social-emotional learning.

Mental Health
According to the WHO, mental health is defined as, “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Everyone has mental health. To address your mental health through self-care or mindfulness is the equivalent of addressing your physical health through diet and exercise. If you don’t take care of your physical health your body may start to fail to work as it’s meant to. The same happens with mental health which can lead to poor mental health or mental health issues.

Mental Health Issues
The term mental health issue has come about as a way to be more sensitive to those who struggle with them, but technically they are synonymous to mental illness, mental health disorders, or mental health conditions. They “affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors” (Mayo Clinic). Mental health issues can be developed from extreme, prolonged stress or trauma, but they can also be hereditary. In fact, having a family member with a mental health issue is the largest risk factor, although some argue that this is not only because of genes but also includes the repeated exposure (stress of living with, taking care of someone) to the mental health issue.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
According to CASEL (my favorite SEL organization for amazing information), social-emotional learning is defined as “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I often see SEL used synonymously with mental health and it is not the same although they may have a symbiotic relationship. I also see SEL used synonymously with student engagement. SEL and student engagement are not the same thing. Although there may be a small piece of engagement in SEL, to define SEL as engagement is largely ignoring the most important pieces of what it actually is. By focusing on social-emotional learning and helping students and adults understand their emotions, make positive, responsible decisions and focus on positive relationships, we are giving them the tools to make decisions and react in a way that will support their mental health.

We are in a place right now where we are willing to talk about social-emotional learning. We are a little resistant to speak about mental health, but we will do it. Mental health issues or illness feels like it’s still off the table. Defining what we are discussing is the first step to understanding what we are really talking about and de-stigmatizing mental health issues.

How a Pandemic Can Change the Way We Feel About Teaching (With tips for coping)

I have been passionately speaking about educator engagement and how connected they feel to their professions for several years, and I also address it extensively in my upcoming book, Reignite the Flames. The impact of educator engagement can be significant, and we could discuss how it affects climate and culture, innovative and divergent thinking, or even student achievement. However, for me, when I disengaged my decision to re-engage had its roots in a very basic human need: to be happy.

But those were normal times. And we aren’t in normal times right now.

Right now, during the pandemic, the goal is coping. Anything beyond that would be extra. And my fear is that along with all of the other impacts we will see from the pandemic, we will also see a sharp decline in educator engagement. People either emotionally or physically leaving the profession at record rates as the uncertainty and educational triage (coined by Philip Pulley) continues.

The first step to being able to cope or heal is to be able to name what is happening. Engagement and disengagement are on a continuum. A slide in disengagement is natural right now as we struggle through the variety of challenges that have been set before us. However, in knowing what and how it can happen we can begin to develop strategies so we don’t fall too far. Below are the five causes of disengagement and how they relate to the pandemic:

Personal adversity Personal adversity is defined as struggles that are a result of something that happens in your personal life. During the pandemic, there are multiple reasons that you may pull away from your profession because you simply don’t have the bandwidth to devote your energies to all areas of your life at once. Right now, there could be concerns about sick loved ones or family members that have passed away. Even the fear of getting the virus can be overwhelming for some people. Personal adversity can also categorize situations where there is a volatile home life. The consumption of alcohol may increase as well as the likelihood of abuse. For some people, educators and students alike, school was a safe haven from these situations and they may no longer have a place to hide.

Tip: Be sure to practice some sort of self-care, even though it may be difficult to fit it in. Do something you enjoy and take time to recharge even if you can only fit it in for five or ten minutes at a time. Find a free educator self-care course here. Of course, if you are in an abusive situation, please seek help immediately.

Professional adversity Professional adversity is defined as the struggles that happen that are in direct relation to our jobs. The move to online learning may be an example of professional adversity for many people, and the lower the comfort level with technology the more anxiety may be felt. Also, the complete uncertainty of not knowing when we are going back, what that will look like, having little control over what our students are accomplishing, and the dichotomy between what/how we know we should be teaching and what/how we are teaching are all concerns that could increase professional adversity.

Tip: Focus on what you do have control over. These are extraordinary times and circumstances. Assume everyone, including students, are doing the best they can.

Burnout With an increase in the number of hours that it takes to learn a new platform, learning a new way to teach, and the potential newness of being “always online” and available, some teachers are reporting working more hours than ever. Couple that with the possible responsibilities of child-rearing, providing learning opportunities for your own children, taking care of pets, or even having extended family members staying for the pandemic, burnout is a very real issue right now. Even being isolated can be exhausting. We are not made to try to juggle everything we are juggling right now.

Tip: Create “work hours” and stick to them. Any communication after 4pm, for example, gets answered the following day. Remove notifications.

Demoralization Most educators got into education with a moral obligation to make a difference in another person’s life and to create change. When something happens: politically, within the district, within the school, or a virus that is keeping everyone at home and any of these things make you question your efficacy, it can cause demoralization. The general way to begin healing from demoralization is to try to find your identity as an educator again. However, in these times, it may be developing your identity as an online educator. Demoralization can accompany burnout but is often overlooked as a reason and unfortunately, healing from demoralization is different than healing from burnout.

Tip: Spend time focusing on passion areas. Reflect on how your identity as an educator has morphed during the pandemic. What areas can you still feel passionate about?

Secondary traumatic stress Secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue, is when you work in a profession where you may hear about other’s traumas and be impacted by their stories and struggles. You may develop the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or trigger PTSD that you may already have. It can be more common for people who are particularly empathetic. Right now, we have spent part of a year with our students and know the struggles they may have at home. Now, we sit in our own homes and wonder how they are, if they are eating, or if they are safe. I have spoken to teachers who have students they haven’t heard from in weeks. This can all be a catalyst for developing secondary traumatic stress.

Tip: Compartmentalize. This is so difficult during these times, but learning to compartmentalize what your students are going through will keep you healthier in order to help them. Continue to reach out to them and offer your support, but understand ultimately that the only real thing you have control over right now is your own health.

Teacher Trauma Teacher trauma, in this case, can span several different types of struggles. I would say that there is a potential to experience teacher trauma if you had a sudden transition to online learning without a chance to say good-bye to your students. There could also be teacher trauma if you have had a student or co-worker pass away from the virus. Being in the times we are in, there is a chance that your grieving may be delayed as the reality doesn’t set in because you are not seeing these people every day and it’s difficult to comprehend. Even grief for the state that we are in right now may be significant.

Tip: My counselor says you need to “feel to heal” and step into the emotion. Recognize when you may be in a cycle of grief and actively work through it. Understand that it may be ongoing and reappear when we begin to enter our buildings again eventually.

My hope with this blog is two-fold. First, I hope that the information is a catalyst for addressing any disengagement that you may be feeling. Second, I hope that school districts choose to recognize the struggles, anxiety, and grief that people may be feeling and address it not only now, but understand that it will continue well into the school year when we get back to our brick and mortar settings. Whichever of these you are feeling, whatever you teach, and wherever you live, you are not alone.

Four Ways You “Should” Give Yourself Grace

It can be a bit overwhelming with all the “you shoulds” right now.

You should be working online, offline, harder, smarter, on technology, not on technology.

You should be connecting with parents, students, your teaching partners, teachers who know about technology and those that don’t, teachers who might be struggling, your professional learning network, lonely friends and family.

You should find time to disconnect.

You should work harder but don’t work too hard in case you burn out. You should make sure all the work still gets done though, regardless.

You should be positive.

You should practice self-care, gratitude, self-compassion. You should practice empathy for your students but not too much. You should understand what is within your control and let the rest go.

You should stick to a routine because that’s what’s best for everyone. You should be ok if the routine doesn’t get followed, even though it’s what’s best.

You should. You should. You should.

While so many of these statements are true, I find that the more I should be doing something, the more guilt I feel when I’m not doing it. With all of the things I should be doing right now, I’ve also discovered several ways I need to give myself grace when the “I should be doing…” turns into “I’m struggling to…”

Overwhelm
Being overwhelmed can show up with more symptoms than just the acute feeling of freaking out, although that can happen as well. Someone who is overwhelmed can procrastinate, avoid people, feel a lack of motivation, break their normal sleeping and eating patterns (particularly if they are a stress eater), and become easily angry or frustrated with things they may not have before. Pre-pandemic, my to-do list was a source of overwhelm, however, since the pandemic it’s not only my work that causes these feelings. It is the overall way that our life has shifted, the constant flood of information (especially since much of it is contradictory), and how I “should” be doing things that I am not.

When I get overwhelmed and find myself sitting on the couch staring into nothingness avoiding writing a blog post, I first try to let go of the guilt I feel for not getting everything done that I could possibly do. Then, I look at one thing I could get done on my to-do list. My deal with myself is that if I can check one piece off I can take a legitimate break and feel good about getting one piece done. It usually works for me and sometimes, once I get into doing the one task I feel the accomplishment with checking it off and I find a bit more motivation to get something else done.

Forgiveness
I have often spoken about my views on forgiveness of others but the additional time that I have had alone with my thoughts has made me keenly aware of areas that I need to forgive myself and my shortcomings as well. I’ve had to reflect on mistakes I’ve made and areas where I’ve failed, and let go of the guilt of letting people down or not being my best. Time wasted in being disappointed in myself is time that I could be improving myself, and the first step is forgiving myself when I believe I could have done better and realizing punishing myself won’t help anyone.

Also, forgiveness needs to come in the form of understanding that we are all doing the best we can do at any given time. If I need to take some time for myself because I am overwhelmed or burnt out, I need to be able to let go of my guilt in order to move forward.

Control
There are few things we have control over right now. We can’t control the pandemic. We can’t control when we go back to school. We can’t even control if students are doing their work, like, at all. And if you’re like me, if I can’t control something it feels out of control. While I would always recommend that we focus on the things we can control, the pandemic has made it even more important. We will drive ourselves crazy if we are trying to control the things that are out of our control right now. We do have control over the way we treat people. We have control over how cognizant we are of our safety and the safety of others. We have control over doing our best and recognizing that others are doing the same. We do not have control over other people and their actions. Let the guilt go when it centers around something someone else “should” be doing.

Uncertainty
I have been asked on several podcasts over the last couple of weeks what it is going to look like when we go back. My response is this: the sooner that we understand that nothing is going to be the same when we go back, the sooner we can be ready to adjust to the new normal. At the minimum, school at the beginning will not be the same. We will be grieving family members and school personnel that have passed away because we never had closure. We will be trying to acclimate students and educators back into day-to-day school and a structured, brick-and-mortar learning environment. We can guess what this is going to look like but we don’t really know. We don’t even have a good idea when we are going back. And when we do, will it be safe? How many more waves of sickness will happen before we can settle in and not worry about dying?

I have massive feelings of uncertainty toward the future and worse, how I can improve my own skills in order to help people adjust to a future we will be able to predict or have little preparation for. I sometimes feel guilty for wallowing in uncertainty and that I may not have what it takes to help educators and students when they need it. By letting go of this guilt and giving myself grace, I can focus on what I can do right now and have hope that I will be able to support others when the time comes.

There are so many things we should be doing and feeling right now. But, I think the most important thing we should do is allow ourselves room to be human. To grieve experiences that we will never have because of these unique times. To miss our students and co-workers. To understand that we are not superhuman and having a bad day is ok. To spend a few minutes wishing we could give someone we love a hug. Forgive ourselves for all the things we should be doing so we can move forward with less guilt about the things we are doing.

Time to Be Still

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.

Thanks to Roman Nowak for sharing this image with me.

Answers to Five Common Online/Virtual Learning Issues

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.

Five Ways to Fight Isolation and Loneliness

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.

It’s Past Time to Recognize the Supports We Desperately Need

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.

I’m Not Your Ideal Graduate

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

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

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

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

I never made it to law school. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Inside vs On The Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lesson here is twofold.

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

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