Where Vulnerability Becomes a Liability (hint: it’s the place where courage is born)

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.

Support and the Risk-Taking Cycle

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?

Risk vs Impact: BC Campus Risk Management Planning

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:

  1. Be curious about the new idea. Ask questions. Offer any potential insight or experts in the topic they may know.
  2. 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.
  3. Be encouraging. There are times when being a cheerleader is appropriate.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Bam Radio Network Teacher’s Aid related podcast: Overcoming the Fears That Limit Our Teaching and Learning with Trevor Ragan.

The Importance of Feeling Valued

One of the consistent aspects of any positive climate and robust, supportive culture is the feeling of being valued. When you feel that you are valued there are other human-group feelings that accompany it: belonging, cooperation and collaboration, pride, all of which contribute back to the positive climate and culture of a building or organization.

The opposite is, of course, feeling dispensable or replaceable. This perception can be induced in a few ways:

Blatantly: “Do as instructed or we will find someone else who will.”
Message: It doesn’t matter if you agree with us or not, there are plenty of others just as qualified that can do what you do.
To change the narrative: “How can we help you be on board with what we are doing? What do you need from us?”

Implicitly: Ignoring individual strengths.
Message: By not recognizing what each individual brings to the table, we are implying that everyone brings the same thing and can be replaced with anyone else at any time.
To change the narrative: “I would like to support you in understanding your own individual value, and as a group, utilizing our individual strengths so we can be better as a whole. Our team would not have the same strengths without each individual that’s in this room.”

In the way we hire: “Offer them (the least amount that we can/change the benefits/adjust a benefit that we told them would be true). If they won’t take it we will just go on to find a candidate that will.”
Message: The devaluation of an individual in the hiring practices I’ve seen is a whole blog post in itself. From the moment a position is posted how you post that position, go through the hiring process, and offer the position says a great deal about how the organization runs and how it treats its people. If you devalue an employee from the get-go, they will likely not go into the position on a positive note. The same can be said for when an individual leaves. If a good person who resigns isn’t given the courtesy of being wished well and thanked for their hard work on their way out the door, regardless of the fact that they’re resigning, it says more about the organization than it does about the person leaving.
To change the narrative: Treat a new hire as though they are exactly the person you wanted for that position. Be excited that they are coming on board and spend more time celebrating their acceptance than calculating their cost.

I truly believe that we don’t get into the habit of devaluing people on purpose. I think that in running an organization (whether it’s at a district, school, or classroom level) we get so bogged down in the policy and procedure that we forget we are working with people who are human and have emotional needs. Regardless of if one believes that there should be so much emotion in the business of education, it’s difficult to ask educators at any level to go to work and care and love their students and then turn all emotion off when it comes to their own well-being and feeling valued. One of the strengths that educators as a whole bring to the table is the compassion and attention they pour into their jobs and asking them to turn that off causes a disconnect. 

Yet, there’s a personal responsibility as well

When it comes to climate and culture we all have a role in the way it looks in our organizations. Administration is not the only driver of climate and culture. Another aspect of being valued is understanding your value and exercising that knowledge. You can’t expect other people to value you if you do not embrace your value and presume that people will treat you with respect. Understanding your value is not boastful or conceited. You can understand what you bring to the table and still be humble and kind because people who have a good understanding of their strengths don’t need to be boastful, they just show their awesome in their actions, relentlessness, and accomplishments.

There many ways of understanding your value. There are strengths you bring in what you know and what you’ve learned. Content knowledge is helpful when expertise is needed on a topic in order to give a new initiative or project a deeper understanding. Having a deep understanding on a topic is definitely a value. And being in education, we all should get that knowledge is valuable.

There is another kind of strength that is valuable as well but takes time and deep reflection to develop, and that is the value you bring in the knowledge of yourself. Developing core beliefs, for example, is one way to understand what drives you and moderates your behavior. Discovering how you work within a team and the benefits you bring that other people might struggle with is another value. For example, I have discovered through working in teams that I excel at putting thoughts into action. Procedures, tasks, get it done attitude…that’s me. I am not and probably will never be the big idea person. That is why I work best when I collaborate. I can help others put their big ideas into action. Knowing this means that I am valuable to people when they don’t know how to move forward. Also, the ability to articulate my value to others in a way that is socially acceptable means that if I am in a situation where someone doesn’t know my strengths, they will be able to recognize them after we have worked together and I’m not expecting them to read my mind.

The feeling of being valued and the connected feelings of belonging and pride are not only ways to enhance climate and culture but also to keep educators engaged and supported. Being more intentional about the messages we send can change the way that educators feel regarding the organization and what they bring to the table. However, we all need to reflect and recognize our own value and know that we deserve the place at the table that we have earned.

The Things People Do When They Don’t Know You’re Watching

Since I’ve been in my current role, I have focused my efforts on what I have believed to be important supports for my department and the teachers believing that when I support my department they are better able to support teachers who then in turn are better equipped to support students. In the last couple of years we have clarified roles. We have worked on new policies and procedures. I’ve worked hard on creating trust and relationships and I believe that while we always have ways that we can grow, we have an amazing group of highly qualified, hardworking, tech people that do their jobs really, really well.

But that’s not even close to what I love best about them.

Our department is a little different than other departments in our district or even in other districts because the physical location of our office space is in the middle of the building between the middle and high schools. Unlike many other district level departments, we have students in our offices all the time. While sometimes they are in for actual technology assistance, many times they just come in to chat with my device manager and programmer.

Like, the teenagers. Come in. Just to talk.

It began a couple years ago when we started our student led Genius Bar (tech support). The GB students would come in and eventually began opening up with us; sometimes joking, sometimes telling us serious news. Then they began bringing other students in to grab a piece of candy and “say ‘hi’ to the tech ladies.” Each and every time, no matter how busy they are, my device manager and programmer will drop what they’re doing and listen to the students. They often have to scramble at the end of the day to get their work done because they took time out for the students. I’ve heard them tell the students how smart they are. I’ve watched them cry with the students when something bad happens. They work with the guidance counselors to get extra help for the students when necessary. Sometimes they hug them and hand them tissues and other times they high-five over things that to anyone else would seem like an innocuous accomplishment. I have seen it countless times. And while many might say this is how it’s supposed to be, realistically, how often is it that it’s not?

While I believe that relationships are not going to “fix” every issue you have with students, they certainly are the foundation for anything else that’s going help move a student forward. It’s definitely where we need to start. Students, especially ones in crisis, need at least one caring adult to believe in them when they have difficulty believing in themselves. For goodness sakes, I would hope at any given time students have more than one person doing this for them.

I sit back and watch the interactions in my department with a huge amount of pride. Yep, that’s our tech department. I’m so proud that we have been able to build a place where students feel comfortable to come and share their stories. And I feel a bit like if those “tech ladies” can do it, then anyone can.

The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture

When I work with districts on the ideas in #DivergentEDU, communication is one of the most common areas recited as either supporting the positive climate and culture or being the hole in the climate and culture foundational level. Communication is so much more than telling people stuff or giving them information.

Divergent EDU is based on the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking. Climate and culture is the bottom foundational level of the hierarchy.

Effective communication:

  • Includes a variety of ways to articulate thoughts
  • Practices effective listening strategies
  • Adapts to a variety of situations and purposes
  • Uses media/technology to effectively send messages
  • Comes from a place of empathy
  • Includes an awareness of non-verbals and their impact

Then there are the things that communication does. While the list above includes ways to be an effective communicator, the act of communicating (or a lack thereof) sends a message to anyone involved in the situation. Sometimes the message is an unintended perception and sometimes it’s intentional, but the impact is unmistakable. Communication can determine everything from the lens in which we look at a situation or the feelings we have toward a person or role.

Impacts of Communication

Transparency, Trust and Communication
I’ve written about the correlation between transparency, trust, and communication before in The Art of Transparency. Effective communicators understand the balance between what people need and want to know and what is too much information, but still open the door for discussion about anything that may be in question. However, when there is a lack of trust more transparency and communication is needed as one of the ways to rebuild trust. When I do what I say I’m going to do or situations turn out positively based on information I’ve given that increases trust. In the same vein, if there is a high level of trust, there is less information needed. Think of a person you trust and a person you don’t. Who are you going to need more information from in order to believe what they’re telling you? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the untrusted person has outright lied to you. It could mean that they broke your trust in other ways, but transparency and communication still needs to be there in order to rebuild the relationship.

Allowing People the Right to a Decision
Communication and providing people information and answers allows them to have what they need in order to make decisions that make sense for their situation. I’ve been in situations where a lack of communication has been the catalyst for decisions being made that didn’t make sense for my role/department and left me scrambling to fix the issue which could have been avoided if I would have been a part of the conversation. A lack of communication in these circumstances leaves people no choice but to be reactive instead of proactive, and when the lack of communication continues, can result in a climate with anxiety (what’s coming around the corner next?) and a culture of playing “clean-up” to avoidable messes. Clear communication with the right people ensures a proactive approach with the decision-makers that make sense for the circumstances.

Valuing the Opinions/Decisions of Others
Communicating with others also ensures that the people who should be in on a conversation or decision have a seat at that table and their opinions are valued. Not only are we all #bettertogether and have a variety of experiences that we bring to any issue but showing someone that their opinion is valued builds and strengthens relationships. By intentionally or unintentionally (doesn’t matter which) not communicating, the message being sent is that the opinions or decisions of that person are not valued because they were not taken into account.

We should always be working to be more effective communicators, but sometimes we forget that even the act of communicating has an impact on the people around us. Communication can have a direct and deep effect on trust and relationships, therefore affecting the climate and culture of a school or district as so much of climate and culture rests on the relationships we have and our ability to problem solve as a team.

Be an Upstander: When the effect we have collides with the choices we make

In my district, the district administrators (with the exception of the superintendent and the business administrator) are all housed in the buildings in which it makes the most sense for them to serve instead of residing in offices in the administration building. For example, the SPED director is in the elementary school, the curriculum director in the high school offices, and I am in an office suite that is outside our Genius Bar between our high school and middle school (one building). I have always loved this setup. I don’t miss out on the everyday interactions between myself and staff and students because I am right in the midst of the action. Do I have students coming randomly into my office more than a typical district administrator and they distract me and keep me from my work? Yep. It’s my favorite part.

But with this setup comes the lonely summer. We are not hunkered down in the administrative office together, we are spread out across the district. The buildings are quiet. The other day I was walking down the hall with one of my favorite custodians (they’re all my favorites) and this conversation transpired:

Me: “I can never get used to how quiet it is in here.”

Him: “I know. Kids and teachers will be back soon.”

Me: “I can’t wait. The halls are so lonely. It’s so strange to look down them and not see teachers chatting in the hall or students at their locker. I miss them.”

And he looked at me with the strangest look on his face and said, “Thank you for saying that. I think so, too.” Then he gave me the biggest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen.

It dawned on me right then he may have been expecting an array of snarky comments back from needing a longer vacation to how much easier our job would be without students. I, myself, have heard it all, so I can’t even imagine what the custodians have heard. In that moment I had the choice of saying something negative. I chose to say what I feel to be true, but he interpreted that as a positive. What made my heart sink was his surprise at my response. Have we really gotten in such a habit of complaining about the entire reason for our jobs that it has become the norm? What people expect? Are we trying to be funny? Because I am widely known for my sarcasm, but I don’t think that negativity against an entire group of people we serve is funny.

I started thinking about how many times I have fallen into this trap with others in conversation, and I was embarrassed that I had sometimes taken the negative road more commonly traveled. It is so much more difficult to be positive when everyone around you is negative, but it’s also so much more important to be so. But, this goes into the deeper conversation of how we really create change. Change, by its very nature, happens by someone doing something different. When we talk about anything that goes against the grain (being positive in a negative climate, building a robust, supportive culture, speaking about teacher mental health issues when some people don’t want to hear it) we will run into adversity. If changes were easy and happened without effort, we’d never need to speak of the hard work that goes into creating real, authentic, lasting change.

The other day I was being interviewed by Forbes for an article on the status of teacher mental health and the person interviewing me asked me what it takes to be an “upstander”. She said, “You know, someone who stands up for what they believe in.” I had to really think about this because my initial reaction was I have no idea. But, I do know that as cliche as it sounds, it often involves taking the road less traveled. I know that sometimes you need to do the things that go against what everyone else seems to be doing, thinking, and saying. People may get mad, they may even get mean (hello? Twitter anyone?), and you need to be able to accept that because those are the ones who need your change the most. Sometimes, those things are difficult and test our will and dedication because there will always be people who don’t agree with you, even on topics that would seem common sense. It takes an unwavering belief in what you believe, it takes resilience when people try to take you down,  and it takes a support system to remind you that you’re not wrong when things start to look grim. Many times, being an upstander involves taking the difficult road when everyone else seems to be taking the easy, more accepted one. That’s the difference between people who stand up for what they believe in and those that just don’t.

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Is it better to be kind or right?

I am on Twitter because my friends are there. The ones who push my thinking and who I want to see what they are doing professionally because they make me a better person. I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Hogan‘s famous quote, “Twitter won’t change your life, but the educators you meet there will.”

There are times, though, when I feel like Twitter is like being back in the school playground at recess. Realistically, most of us have the desire to get along with everyone, but there will always be people we gravitate toward because of similar interests, opinions, etc, but there are other groups of people who have similar beliefs who stick together, and hypothetically, (especially) because we work in a human-focused profession, we should be able to disagree respectfully and remain kind. Lately, I feel like the difference between pushing someone’s thinking and arguing in an unprofessional fashion have been separated by a very fine line. And I, honestly, don’t think that challenging thinking and rudeness should have a fine line. I think it should be very, very thick, in fact.

When someone challenges my thinking, I feel like I’ve had an ah-ha moment. I have found some way that I know I can change my own practice for the better. It leaves me feeling invigorated and ready to move forward. They have probably acknowledged what I’m doing right and have pointed out an area where I could grow with HOW I could change. Maybe they have kindly suggested a resource or person who might help me. I have probably asked more questions for clarification. Overall, it’s a good experience on both sides. This kind of push is why I get on social media. I am a better professional now than I was prior to Twitter.

What I don’t understand is when the need is so high to be right that the basics of human kindness are completely forgotten. In any argument, there is always an element of truth on both sides, even if that truth is the perception of being right. And as I’ve said before, in many instances, it is not our job to tell someone they are wrong, but instead to shift their perception. We will never shift perception with words that make people’s walls go up. The second they feel angry, resentful, backed into a corner, or like others are being unkind, they stop listening. So, if just being kind isn’t a good enough reason to push someone’s thinking versus being rude, the logical, reasonable expectation that you will not accomplish changing someone’s mind with unkind words should be. Because if you’re not trying to shift their perception, what are you trying to accomplish?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I understand that being kind is more important than being right.  I’m not going to lie, sometimes, that means I need to check my temper, bite my tongue, and take a break from a conversation because I really, really like to be right. Sometimes, I forget and need to apologize and try harder because I’m human. But, being right should never be more important than a relationship. And if I find I’m not being heard, then I need to either accept that it might not be the right time to change that person’s perception or that I’m not doing a good enough job at being persuasive. After all, we are modeling these behaviors for kids, and we shouldn’t expect any better behavior out of them than we exhibit ourselves.

Kindness

When Doing Nothing Causes Distrust

I believe that it is human nature to want to trust people, but it’s definitely a feeling that when broken, takes a great deal of time to mend. It’s imperative that we have trust in the people around us for support, kindness, empathy, and collaboration. Many times we associate the breaking of trust with something someone does to us. Their words or actions cause us to feel betrayed. For example, when your principal says they support risk-taking, but then chastise you for a failed lesson attempt. It’s like an action causes a reaction, and that reaction is distrust.

I also believe, however, that distrust can also be earned by not doing. The lack of action can cause just as much of a wave in a relationship (personal or professional) as an action.

When we don’t do what we say we are going to do
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “I’ll believe it when I see it” about someone, you’ve lost trust in that person to finish what they say they will do. A repeated lack of follow through, even if it’s not in the same area of assistance can cause trust to dwindle with every occurrence. The lack of action can be anything from not finishing assigned collaborations to not being available for support when needed. It can even be in the perception of someone not doing their job when their lack of assistance or attention affects the way that you do your job.

When we don’t anticipate needs
We obviously cannot anticipate everyone’s needs all the time, but I do believe that in this area people will award points for effort when they feel that the majority of the time people are being proactive versus reactive. Reactiveness causes anxiety and stress for many people and can cause a person to wonder why the situation couldn’t be seen coming (of course, depending on the situation). In terms of trust, if I feel you rely more on reactiveness than proactiveness, I may feel like I need to be more on point in order to catch situations for someone versus with someone because I don’t trust you to anticipate needs.

When we say nothing (or focus on the wrong feeling)
I recently saw a quote that said, “Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is nothing at all.” In regards to trust, I think of this saying more in the way of referencing when we need support. If I am asking for support and I’m not getting it, I will probably lose trust in that you will ever support me. Support also includes, however, the ability to have challenging conversations with people who need to improve their practice, so not only the positive feel-good support but holding people accountable as well. In focusing on the wrong feeling causing distrust, I worked in a school once where the principal refused to focus any energy on the issues that were plaguing the climate & culture of the building. Instead, she would point out only the good things that were happening but ignored the lack of positive relationships or accountability for everyone in the building which caused a major distrust of her.

Your choice in words and actions can convey a powerful message but your lack of them can as well. Remembering that not only our actions but our lack thereof can cause a lack of trust needs to be kept in mind when being purposeful in our leadership and communication with the people around us. Trust can be broken in an instant and takes patience, diligence, and dependability in order to rebuild.

trust

When The Ball Finally Drops

I was sitting in the car on my way to a doctor’s appointment this morning desperate, mentally willing my blood pressure to lower. I had a deep feeling of dread in my stomach. The moment that I knew was coming for the last few months had finally happened. Right before I left for the doctor’s appointment, I had found out I dropped a ball.

It wasn’t a large ball by any stretch, a medium one maybe, but the first major one I had dropped since being in my new role. I guess going into my third year, that’s not too bad, but I needed to get bailed out by my network administrator…while he was on vacation. And while I get along smashingly well with my network admin, his last words to me before he signed off were, “Try not to break anything.” Yea. It was a seriously stupid move on my part. He was very, very patient with me, which is a true testament to the amazing, working relationship that we have formed over the last couple years because believe me when I say, at that point he could have easily made me cry.

There has been a perfect storm brewing around me lately. I’ve been feeling it for months and have even spoken to my close group of friends about it. I have been saying yes too much, and I have had more and more balls in the air lately. As a result, I’ve been doing stuff halfway, and I know halfway is probably a compliment to my work. I was working hard. Always working. Continue to say yes. Put in more work. I do a fantastic job at preaching balance and a terrible job at finding it.

And the minute I try to find balance one of the balls drop because I feel like if I don’t keep working, something won’t get done. And I’m right, it won’t. What I’m trying to determine is how much it matters if it doesn’t.

Why was I going to the doctor? Stress. Oh, the irony.

I struggle with finding balance. I try to be everything to everyone. And I do really believe in balance, truly. It’s just that I wish better things for everyone else than I do myself. That’s a problem and I know it.

But one of the issues that I full on caused myself (besides consistently saying yes) was that I took this new role and was trying to push too much change. It annoys me how slow education moves and the benefit of working in a small district is how quickly the ship can be righted. However, I have been pushing my department too far too quickly. We have revamped the way we hand out devices to elementary and middle school, we reworked the Parent & Student Handbook, implemented a new way to follow our department strategic plan (along with writing one to begin with), implemented a completely new inventory system, I updated job descriptions and implemented a new system of evaluation, we went single sign-on as much as we could, refigured devices and pulled back on purchasing, pulled all old devices, implemented a device refresh, redid our district website (coming soon)…I could go on and on, and this has all been in two years. Even though I believe that our department, overall, has a positive climate, I have stressed out one of my members to the point of tears. Basically, in my quest to get logistics changed and procedures in line so I could really get to the heart of student learning, I have lead my team down a path where we were going 1000 miles per minute. I’m impressed they still allow me to lead them.

I do this to myself sometimes. Like that feeling from when you were a kid and you tried rolling down a hill and you can’t stop. The one light in the whole situation was that I found how quickly my team could rally to turn the tides on a mistake. And when I had to email my programmer, also on vacation, to do something for me asap to right the wrong, I apologized profusely for bothering her on vacation. Her response was, “You’ve done so much for me, it’s the least I can do.” I get that we all make mistakes, but my biggest error lately is not only working myself to death but dragging others along with me. Some changes aren’t immediate, and being cognizant of the way your actions affect the people around you is so much more important than a new inventory system or website. We have developed the culture in our department that when we make a mistake, we say we are sorry and we try again the next day with a clean slate. I guess I’ll be taking advantage of this belief system this time. There’s nothing that will stop you faster from rolling down the hill than hitting a tree. It hurts and you feel embarrassed, but you get up and dust yourself off and keep moving forward.


slow down

Who Do You Want to Mirror?

I am absolutely hooked on the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. It is not a book based solely in education, but it has so many educational implications. From an academic standpoint, the material interests me because I think that the brain is fascinating. From a personal standpoint, I would like to learn more about myself and the people around me. The book is fantastic on all levels.

One of the many concepts discussed in the book is a specialized group of cells in the brain’s cortex called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are the cause of why sometimes when we spend time with someone we begin to pick up the cadence of their voice or the specific way they move. It’s the part of the brain that causes mimicking even if it is subconscious. The part of the chapter that stood out to me was:

“But our mirror neurons also make us vulnerable to others’ negativity, so that we respond to their anger with fury or are dragged down by their depression.”

The author also discusses the need for traumatized people to learn to control this mirroring as to not have their emotions “hijacked” by negative people around them.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’ve seen it in action. In one of the districts I worked in, there was a school that had an incredibly negative climate. I was between several schools at the time in the position I was in, and this school was the only one that was so negative. I found that if I spent more than three days in a row at that school, I began hating my job. I would complain nonstop. I would want out of the building as soon as possible. I just felt all ugly and yucky inside. After reading this part of the chapter, I’m wondering if that was my mirroring neurons at work reflecting what I was seeing in the teachers I was working with.

This experience made me very aware of how the people I surround myself affect me. I began to connect with more positive people and noticed a huge change in my own personality. I didn’t want to be negative anymore. It was so much more rewarding to be positive. Sometimes, even still, I get looked at funny by people who previously knew the me that was more sarcastic and negative, but I don’t allow them to affect me. There are times that I feel like I’m surrounded by people like this:

 

but that’s when I know I need to move on to being with my more positive colleagues and friends. I’ve always said that I am only as good as the people I surround myself with and that doesn’t only mean professionally. It also affects everything from my positivity to my self-worth. Everyone should have people around them that makes them feel good, and our brain even functions in the way to mirror those people. So, when you find yourself in a group of people, the questions are: are these the people you want to mirror and are we being the person that others would want to mirror? By being aware of the mirroring phenomenon, we have the ability to change the climate just by making the decision to not be like the negative people around us. Then, ideally, people might see the positives as something they’d want to mirror instead eventually breaking the cycle of negativity.

reflect