The New Meaning of "Meeting Them Where They're At"

When I first started teaching “meet them where they’re at” was becoming more and more of a common phrase as workshops and differentiation was becoming the norm. At that time, when the phrase was used it was in reference to making sure that in literacy, for example, you were teaching to the level of the student and adjusting to their needs academically. The idea that they will learn best inside the zone of proximal development but in our education world, always in the academics. So, we would adjust and create groups and workshops and flip/blend classes in order to work with students that needed more assistance and we tried projects and other strategies to challenge our high flyers.

When I became a technology integration coach and subsequently a Director of Innovation and Technology, the message was close to the same. “Meeting (teachers) where they’re at” meant determining their level of technology integration know-how and moving forward from there. We worked on providing a more personalized professional development experience and differentiated our professional learning in order to meet their needs. Sometimes that meant individual coaching cycles, sometimes that meant pushing their level in innovation teams. It meant meeting them at their technology level.

However, since developing the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking and in writing my book on educator engagement and mental health, I’ve determined that “meeting them where they’re at” doesn’t necessarily have the same connotation as it did before. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means social-emotional support.

When I work with districts and coach teachers or instructional coaches, inevitably I have an administrator who says, “How do I make my teachers think more innovatively?” My answer is that you don’t. You can’t make someone think innovatively anymore than you can force creativity. You can support them in that endeavor, but if you’re only focusing on technology and innovation, your focus might be off. Allow me to give an example.

In working with one technology coach she was frustrated because she was working her tail off trying to figure out how to connect with teachers who seemed completely uninterested in what she had to offer. I asked her to tell me about the school. She described the teachers as exhausted (common). When she described the makeup of the school, she said that it was in an area where violence was common and students would often hear gunshots at night. Meltdowns in the classroom were common and teachers were at a loss.

This is where, even as having positions with a technology focus, I would say that a new definition of “meeting them where they’re at” prevails. In this case, we can throw technology and innovative ideas at them all we want, but the reality is that they are in survival mode. And while this example is specifically geared towards technology coaches, I would say the same to any other instructional coach out there. Sometimes, meeting them where they’re at means helping them with exactly where they are no matter if it is content focused or emotionally focused. If they are dealing with this kind of professional adversity, they do not have the capacity to want to try something new. They might do it out of compliance, but they will not do it because they want to.

For this particular technology coach, we developed a goal of learning more about social-emotional learning. From there, they will be developing ways that technology could support, for example, the Calm or Headspace Apps and implementing some sort of meditation time in those classrooms. But the initial goal isn’t to push Google, it’s not to get them to try AR/VR or learn the new learning management system being implemented. It’s to help the teachers feel safe and supported in their classrooms so they can move out of survival and find the desire to try the new fangled ideas again.

There were many times when I was a technology coach or director that I would walk into a coaching session with a teacher and they would start to unload or cry. As uncomfortable as that was, sometimes that needed to be the focus as that’s where they were. Had I tried to force my intentions for coaching or my goals for that teacher upon them in that moment the only thing it would have accomplished was to make the teacher feel like they couldn’t do as I asked, made me feel like I wasn’t effective, and damaged the relationship.

Recently, I spoke with a technology integrator who was feeling demoralized. She felt like she wasn’t making a difference and was thinking about leaving the profession. My challenge to her was to really look at her teachers and to meet them where they’re at. They may not be ready to meet her goals, but in helping them get to a place where they are ready to do that, you’ve forged a much deeper bond that will allow you to fly through goals going forward.

In Reignite the Flames, my book coming out soon on educator engagement, I open with this and challenge anyone to do this with eyes wide open:

“Walk down the halls and look at your staff. Really see your colleagues. Look at their faces, the slump in their shoulders, their half-smile in greeting, their eyes…can you even see them? Or are they downcast? Look at them when they don’t think anyone is watching. What do you see? What is that perpetually grumpy fourth-grade teacher doing? The Calculus teacher who has had to be spoken to multiple times for the way they treat students? The instructional coach who spends professional learning time scrolling their personal social media accounts and complaining about the district? The principal with their forehead in their hands anxiously waiting for the next fire to start?  Look at them in their quiet moments. Study them.”

What do you see? If you see disengagement, do Google Apps really seem that important anymore?

The Relationship We Hold With Education

When I was younger I would fall in and out of “love” easily. A new relationship was fun and exciting and the adrenaline from the newness made me feel happy and alive. But, eventually the shiny distractions of what my friends were doing or my current hobbies (which I also fell in and out of love with easily) would distract me until the relationship was little more than routine and compliance. I went from calling when I wanted to to calling when I needed to. I dragged myself to the places I was supposed to go instead of excitedly suggesting a place to go out. Eventually, one day I’d wake up and realize that I had come so far from the original feeling of happiness and joy that I didn’t even recognize the relationship anymore. Then there would be unhappiness. Breaking up. Crying. Moving on.

This is common for me in more than just romantic relationships. That initial burst of excitement for something new that eventually dies off has been a theme for me. When I was a kid it manifested itself in my interest in gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, soccer, piano lessons, rollerskating, colorguard, band…the list goes on. I’d start with gusto and quit when it became work and lost it’s appeal. What I didn’t realize then was that a relationship of any kind takes an extraordinary amount of work. While beginnings can be exciting and fun and have passion, when that initial adrenaline wears off there still needs to a drive to keep the connection. Relationships with anything – people, ourselves, our passions or our jobs – are work. Hard work. And if you don’t maintain the relationships with any of these pieces they will become routine and compliance driven and eventually lose the happiness and joy they once brought to your life as well.

We see this all the time. For example, if you don’t maintain the relationship you have with yourself (self-care, self-love/acceptance), you eventually lose your identity, your fire or drive, and may feel a little lost or burnt-out. It’s also what happens in the relationship you have with your profession. As first year teachers we go in excited and passionate and driven, but if we don’t do something to maintain that connection we will wake up one day and find ourselves in a place of disengagement. Unhappy, driven by the need for a paycheck or health insurance instead of our joy and purpose we will get up and do our jobs and come home and questions what in the world we are doing there. If you don’t maintain a relationship it will die. This includes the relationship with you have with your job. That connection needs to be maintained and nurtured.

I often speak about disengagement because I find so many educators somewhere on the continuum of disengagement sliding backwards. My purpose is to give those people a word to describe their feelings and name it so they can begin to heal and move forward. However, while re-engagement is the goal, staying engaged takes work. Understanding what you bring to the table, identifying your purpose, core beliefs, and passions (and living within them and following them), creating a supportive professional learning network, maintaining appropriate boundaries for balance between home and work are all strategies to stay engaged. They also take time, energy, and intention to do them well. However, the alternative is to watch your passion fade and potentially develop the desire to leave the profession you once loved.

I’ve had to take the time to evaluate the relationships in my life many times. Usually, I focus on the people relationships. Do they make me happy more than they make me sad? But this same holds true for relationships that I have that might not follow the most common definition. I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with myself. Do I treat myself the way that I expect others to treat me? After all, if I am disrespectful and unloving to myself and modeling that for others, how can I expect anything different? I’ve had to be evaluative of the relationship I have with my job and work related activities. Does it align with my passions and purpose? Am I putting effort into its maintenance by learning, growing, and challenging myself? Am I happy? And all of these relationship questions come down to: am I doing everything I can to support myself in maintaining this relationship?

If we want to love what we do, which we deserve to be able to, it takes the same amount of effort as your best relationship. The same amount as the best marriage or partnership should be or the passion you have for your favorite hobby; the love and compassion and connection that you should feel for yourself. It’s all an amazing amount of work to maintain. However, the alternative of disconnecting from that relationship and “breaking up” can detrimental to our happiness and fulfilling our purpose in life.

Why I'm Not Choosing A #OneWord

Because it’s the beginning of the new year I have been watching everyone put out tweets and posts about New Year’s resolutions and participating in the One Word movement. I’ve never done New Year’s resolutions. I’ve always felt that, for me and because I’m a major ongoing project, creating goals and meeting them and creating new ones were also ongoing in order to be the most effective. If I did create a goal at a specific time, it was at the beginning of the school year as that is how my internal calendar works. Because I’m a teacher. And New Years is in September.

The #OneWord movement, however, I had been participating in for years. I had even joked about having one of my one words, relentless, tattooed on my body because I was so serious about my choice. And it helped me that year. Whenever I felt like I wanted to give up I started thinking about living up to the potency of that word and did what I needed to do anyway. I do think it can be a great practice and really reminds me of setting a year-long intention which would be essentially practicing mindfulness. Ideally, as long as everything you do is sent through the lens of your one word then you are staying in the moment and reflecting on your actions. Therefore, mindfulness.

Last year, I started to feel irritated about trying to find my one word and I wasn’t sure why. I tried stepping into the feeling to find the reason and when I asked myself why I was doing it, the first thought that came to mind was because everyone else was. Yikes. While doing something because everyone else is can be a reason, it shouldn’t ever be the only or first one. I also realized the feeling wasn’t about picking one word, it was about picking only that one word. Basically, I wanted more. More direction. More impact. More of a chance to punt or adjust my sails if needed. I felt like choosing the one word was the equivalent to putting me in a box for a year and I didn’t want to feel that way about something that I’d spend so much time choosing. Also, I wanted to be able to move forward from that growth prior to a year. I wanted to master that way before a year. What was the hangup then? Time. The energy it took to choose that one special word. The feeling that by choosing one word I may be held back. I am not the same person I was a year ago, and I won’t be the same person I am now a year from this day. The idea that one word will fit me 365 days from now feels uncomfortable mainly because I hope to goodness that I’m different then than I am now. Different because I’ve grown.

I feel like the #OneWord movement was what I needed when I needed it. There are a lot of different movements that fit me like this. Some people are still practicing it and I think it’s awesome because it is clearly what they need when they need it. However, I know there are some of us that are watching those people on social media wondering why we are failing at having the interest and dedication that the one word people have. My friends, it’s not that we are failing. We are simply doing different things that work for us at this time and that is totally okay.

I recently came across a graphic that had a different way to create a great year, and I thought I’d pass it on in case it was an alternative to the one word that could be used. It used a 3-2-1-2-3 pattern:

3 Places I want to go
2 Ways I can help others
1 Thing I want to get better at
2 Things I am looking forward to
3 New things I want to try

Although I haven’t done this yet, it feels a little more fitting for me at this time. Maybe it’s because I have so much changing in my life right now that one year from today feels like an eternity. Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m working toward living according to my purpose and my one word can’t compete with that. Whatever the reason, for now, I’m going to enjoy watching everyone else’s one words, celebrate their victories in discovering them because it’s such an awesome feeling, and continue looking for the thing that will work for me.

Living On The Edge

I recently came across this quote:

Life happens on the edges. We can’t find the next place on our journey until we discover the edge between the place we are and the place we need to go. Something ends and something else can begin only along an edge. Along edges we find and feel the penetrating and incisive qualities that give definition to our life. Our interface with life is sharpened at the edge. We discover our greatest zest and our most keen desires at the edge.”

Pilgrim Wheels: Reflections of a Cyclist Crossing America

I decided a long time ago to stop living a life of meh. I actually disliked it when people would ask me how I was and that was the first word that came to mind. It’s not even a word. It’s just a sound that doesn’t even take much effort to make. I knew that if I was going to stop living both my personal and professional life as someone just trying to get through versus someone who was making it happen, I needed to live more on the edge. I needed to become more willing to take risks, put myself out there when it was scary, and learn to live with more heart. I also needed to make changes to some of the negativity in my life by switching out the people who brought me more pain than happiness with people who brought me more happiness than pain. I needed to learn to create boundaries (still working on that). This was all in favor of changing so I was walking in my purpose and so I could look back on my life and feel like I did everything I could to make it something I would do all over again. I feel like struggle is necessary for amazing things to happen. Along the edge we are toeing the line between the danger of falling and the beauty of what we can see in front of us.

None of this was easy and I continue to work on it because it’s constantly changing. My edge continues to expand…first my edge was my first classroom, then it was my greatest year, then it was overcoming my worst, then it was changing roles, and then it was becoming an administrator. Currently, my edge is figuring where I belong and pushing myself to remember that I’m living in my purpose when I feel like I’m in a whirlwind of not knowing what I’m doing. As a self-diagnosed Glossophobiac (fear of public speaking) my edge has been expanded from speaking to a group of more than three people to groups of thousands.

There’s also a mounting pressure to continue to do more when you begin taking more risks and your risk-taking actually becomes a norm. You may be able to relate to this if you’re the teacher who is always trying something new with technology in your classroom and it’s gotten to the point where when your administrator says, “Who has something new and awesome to share?” the room turns and looks to you. It’s no longer novelty, it’s expected. And yes, it may be slightly irritating that you’re always the one trying new things, but on the other hand, take a quick second to appreciate that you’re choosing to teach and live in a way that not everyone else has the dedication to choose.

There hasn’t been a single time where the edge has been comfortable. It’s not supposed to be. If you’re too far back to see the edge, you’re missing most of the beauty. You’re never expanding where you can possibly go.

Something ends and something else can begin only along an edge.

How far back have you been standing all this time?

Five Ways To Engage in Impactful Mentorship

One of the most powerful professional decisions I ever made was to develop relationships with mentors. I have a few different mentors to fill areas where their strengths make me better (read more in Five Things My Mentors Taught Me). I never believed in having only one mentor, but instead I have multiple mentors so I can learn the best from a few people who are smarter in areas where I’m still growing. Like with any learning experience, having multiple mentors has lead me to see what works and doesn’t work for being the mentor and the mentee. While sometimes I believe issues can just be a personality difference, there seems to be a few common threads that can make a healthy relationship more powerful.

Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I wrote about in Five Characteristics of the Divergent Teacher post, which later ended up being addressed in Divergent EDU.

Understand Your Mentee
My best mentors have taken the time to understand how I tick. They have figured out how I learn and the most effective ways to communicate with me. Much like a teacher who needs to know how their students learn best as individuals, mentees have specific learning and communication styles that need to be fulfilled by the mentor. Good mentors take the time to know this because they understand that while mentorship could be considered a favor being done, they possess a greater understanding that they are growing leaders who may be a catalyst for a great change that they may not have gotten the chance to make. Being a mentor is leaving a legacy.

There are times as a mentee when you need unyielding support and sometimes when you need your butt kicked to move forward. Good mentors know this balance and use the communication style that best fits the mentee to do so. They know when it’s appropriate to blatantly tell their mentee something or when it’s appropriate to ask guiding questions so they can come to a conclusion on their own.

My mentor that is best at allowing me to draw my own conclusions uses the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks to guide his mentees through the conversation. By the time you’ve come to an answer you’re not sure how you got there but feel really good about coming to it on your own. In return, he’ll give me a sly smile as he knew the answer all along. While I’ve become such a perceptive mentee that I’ve started to notice when he’s channeling Yoda, the strategy of knowing the right questions to ask to get me to come to my own conclusions is powerful. It allows me to maintain ownership of my thoughts, feelings, and decisions while still getting guidance on what would be the best choice for me.

Know Their Story
Mentors need to understand some of the personal aspects of their mentees. I believe this is one of the most difficult pieces to understand because some mentors believe there should be a clear line between personal and professional. While I agree to a point, there still needs to be the basic understanding of a mentees story. Understanding the mentee personally does two things. First, it helps to know what they have going on outside of work to understand what energy they can devote to work. For example, people who are taking care of ailing parents, a married mom with four kids, a single dad with eight kids, a first-year teacher who’s struggling are all going to have a different amount of energy and time to devote to what needs to be done to move forward particularly if we are going to preach self-care and balance and time with family. Understanding their story and situation is imperative to knowing when to push and pull on the mentee.

Second, there is a special bond that is created when a mentor takes the time to ask about family or interests similarly to how we ask students about personal interests to create a tighter student-teacher bond. No matter how engaged or passionate you are about your profession, your personal life is just as important if not more important than what you are doing professionally. A professional-only connection can feel more sterile and surface level than a connection that is based on at least some personal knowledge. We speak all the time about there needing to be a deep connection to create real change, and even in mentorship if we are only focused on what is happening professionally we are missing out on an opportunity to connect with mentees on a deeper level to aid in their growth. To put it simply – as a mentee I am more likely to listen to your opinion and guidance if you take an interest in me outside the world of education even though I am completely passionate and engaged in my work.

Listen With Purpose
Practicing active listening skills as a mentor is important but not enough. If a mentee communicates it will always be for a reason. Sometimes it may be that they are looking for advice, sometimes it will be to vent, sometimes it will be to increase that personal connection, sometimes it might be that they just need a person to hear what they’re thinking. My best mentors understand that I process out loud to someone else. That means that sometimes when I communicate it is simply to process through an issue and not that I necessarily need advice. Knowing what the intentions are for communication is important for knowing what kind of guidance to give. Listening with purpose and intention and understanding the mentee helps to know what response is necessary.

Understand It’s Not About You
I look at mentorship as the ultimate pay-it-forward opportunity. Similarly to how we may make an impact on a student’s life that we may never actually see or hear about, mentorship is about developing a human personally or professionally in which if you ever get to see everything they accomplish it’s a gift. Also, ideally, a mentorship is a symbiotic relationship. I believe there have been times that my mentors have learned from me as well. Sometimes, when I am asking for mentorship in an area from one person who has that strength, some of my strengths are actually areas where they need to grow.

Also, a mentor being able to separate themselves from the situation and focus on the mentee is important. Mentors need to recognize that their mentees may not respond to the same type of mentorship strategies that they did. Again, each individual is going to respond to critiques and pushback and guidance in a different way, and in going back to the individualization, mentors recognize that the difference is okay because it’s not about them. It’s about helping the mentee reach their potential and do great things by getting the support how they need it which may not be how the mentor prefers it.

Be Proud
Be proud of your mentee and tell them so. Don’t hold back. Being proud of someone that you’re working with when they do amazing things is not going to make them work less or lazy. When you are a mentee and asking someone to mentor you, you’re putting yourself in a highly vulnerable place by saying, “I know I could be better in this area and I know you rock at it and I know I’m asking you to spend valuable time on me but I feel like I might be worth it.” That is an uncomfortable place to be for just about anyone. By showing pride in their work you’re saying, “Yes, you are worth my time and are living up or exceeding every expectation I had when I took you on.” I had a mentor who was awesome at telling me at just the right times how proud he was. I had another mentor who would look at me with it written all over his face. Another mentor I had would take me to lunch and blatantly tell me how proud she was. Mentees need this positive reinforcement because growth can be scary and moving outside your comfort zone is always unsettling.

If there is one area where I have been exceedingly fortunate professionally it has been in the people who have taken me under their wings and helped me grow into the educator that I am today. Each one of them have picked me up and brushed me off and kicked my butt as needed. However, they have also formed a tight connection that has raised me up and made me a better person and educator. Being a mentor for others is one of the characteristics of a Divergent Teacher. Doing it well is a characteristic of an empathetic, compassionate person who understands that leadership is about lifting others up and legacy is about the passion and growth you’ve left behind.

The Comfort of Coping versus the Discomfort of Healing

I’ve gone back into therapy.

I’m not embarrassed. If my arm was broken I’d go to the doctor. I’m proud that I make decisions that get me the help I need when I need it.

However, for years, therapy has not worked for me. Being that I am a pretty reflective individual, what would basically happen is the therapist would repeat back what I said, would ask if I had strategies to cope, I would describe my strategies, and they would end the session with, “Keep doing that.” It’s been a source of irritation for me but whenever I begin to really struggle I know my other choices are limited. So, in the times where I struggle most, I still try to have hope that whatever new counselor I’ve found will work.

What prompted my therapy this time were periodic bouts of intense anger that I’ve been having for a year and a half. They come on when certain things are triggered inside me. I know what these triggers are, with all the reflectiveness and such, so it’s always like standing outside a situation watching it without knowing what to do about it. If you have met me, you may say, there’s no way this can be true. You’re about the most level person I’ve met. That’s only because my self-management and coping skills are really, really solid. I haven’t had these bouts of anger since I was a kid and I’d go into my room and yelling and screaming to myself were my only option. I don’t ever get violent during these episodes, but I do blackout and say things that I don’t remember and when I’m told later what I said, I don’t typically mean what I’ve spewed. And as with many mental health issues, it has been the people I love the most who have gotten the brunt of this issue. I can eventually grasp control of it. I can realize I’m in that space, take deep breaths, walk away, calm down, but by that time the damage is done. In this case, the coping strategies don’t stop it from happening in the first place. That’s when I realized I needed more than coping. I needed healing.

After listening to some of what has been happening, going over timelines, my work, my relationships, and my episodes, my new counselor basically blew my mind.

“Mandy, I really think you are suffering from Secondary Trauma.”

Oh, you have got to be freaking kidding me.

I started speaking about secondary traumatic stress (aka secondary trauma or compassion fatigue) not because I ever experienced it but because I learned about the concept and realized how important it was in the education field and how it could negatively affect teachers and their engagement. I spoke on the topic during my mental health session no less than two weeks ago. Speaking about secondary traumatic stress has brought me pride in my job as I have always felt like I was bringing something to the forefront that not many other people were talking about. It fit my purpose. I was supporting teachers by educating them about that particular mental health issue, how to recognize it, where to find help, and how to support each other. But, I never had it. I would have recognized it if I did since I speak about it all of the time.

There is just no way, I thought. Maybe if I start talking about losing weight or winning the lottery I’ll contract that, too. This is ridiculous.

But, the fact is that all the puzzle pieces fit together. Secondary traumatic stress mimics the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Angry outbursts are a symptom of PTSD. I had not only been helping a good friend through difficult times when it started without any true way to fix what was happening to them, but I was also meeting amazing people who had gone through trauma and had mental issues who would tell me their stories because I had set up a safe space by showing my own vulnerability. It compounded my own issues. I took everything in and didn’t have any place for the emotional guck that had balled up to be released. I want to be sure to say here: this issue is no one’s fault. Not even mine. While I’m disappointed I missed the signs earlier, this is what I do for a living, who I am, involves those I care about, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

The type of counseling is non-traditional and I’m not ready to talk specifically about it yet, but the focus is healing not only the secondary trauma but also my other issues and not just coping. I have been coping a really long time. I sought her out because of the healing and while my brain tells me that this is the best thing for me that I’ve done in a while, I’m scared. I have lived my whole life in this state of feeling broken that I may be a different person when I’m healed. It reminds me of the concept of an abused spouse and everyone wonders why they don’t leave the abuser, only in this case I’ve been beating myself up for years. The feeling of being broken in itself can feel like a comfort zone because anything outside it feels uncomfortable. Even the feeling of being healed would be different. And I don’t know if people are going to like the person I’ll be in the after. I don’t know if I’ll like that person. What if I am literally a better person because I have these issues than I would be if I didn’t. What if everything is colored right now with my struggle and when I’m healed it’s nothing but grayscale? I discuss resilience as not being the same person you were before, but instead being okay and loving the person you’ve become. What if I’m simply not built with that kind of resilience? Those are the (probably irrational) thoughts that constantly run through my head. I am comfortable here. The thought of being healed is way outside my comfort zone because it’s a place I’ve never been. It doesn’t matter that logically it seems like the better place to be.

The thing is, up until I began having the angry outbursts, I didn’t think I was hurting anyone. Even when I was young the only person I ever yelled at was myself. I lived in my own head and kept telling myself that all my issues helped me to understand other people who are broken, too. The problem with that is that if there is a way for none of us to live in that space, it’s worth a try. It was really just a way to stay inside that comfort zone and not worry if people liked me or not because I could always fall back on the excuse that they just didn’t like me because of issues I couldn’t help. It’s so much easier to use other people as an excuse to keep the status quo. The truth is, I do care if people like me. I care what they think and I want to belong. Desperately. And that’s why it’s so scary at the prospect of becoming a different, healed person because what if my inner healed self is useless?

I speak about so many emotional issues on this blog. Forgiveness, vulnerability, empathy, mental health issues…and I hope I never give anyone the impression that growth in these areas doesn’t take determination and relentlessness because it is extremely hard. Sometimes, it’s scary and our own thoughts can be unforgiving. But, I believe we can do hard things. We can’t preach moving outside our comfort zones if we are not willing to do that in the most intimate of ways. If we want to love others fully we need to take care of our own issues so we have the capacity to do so, and sometimes that means acknowledging how scary some places are and going there anyway. If you need a reason outside of yourself to grow and move outside your comfort zone, tell yourself you’re doing it for the children. But, please, consider doing it just for yourself, too. You are also worth it.

The Feels of Learning Something New

I was asked to work on a new project where I was to design and develop a resource website for a school district’s technology department. When I first agreed to take on the project I was unconcerned about what I was supposed to be doing. Resource website. Pffffttttttt. Even though I would consider myself to be far from a pro, I could build a simple website in my sleep. Not even an issue. Then my contact said these alarming words: You must build it in Sharepoint.

My response: I’m sorry, what now?

I have my fair share of technology background. I’ve been a teacher who heavily used tech, I was a technology integrator, then a technology director. One of my Master’s degrees is even in Information and Communications Technologies. I can work it or learn it with the best of them and I will push every button there is until I can figure it out. Usually.

If he had said Wix or Webs or WordPress or Google Sites we could have just kept moving, but he didn’t. He said Sharepoint. And laugh at me all you want, even though I appreciate Office 365, I’ve always been a Google girl. I didn’t even know at first that Sharepoint was a Microsoft thing. I literally had no idea what it was. When it comes to technology, I can’t remember the last time that I couldn’t even come up with a reference for something new. The only way I could describe my feelings was that of sheer terror.

I didn’t have the time for someone to teach me and I didn’t have a lot of extra time to learn. I was on my own with no direction and I was astounded at how much panic I felt. And like any good reflective professional, I started thinking about all the times I had asked teachers to learn something new that we didn’t have the time to properly train them on or they didn’t have the background knowledge to even begin to move forward. It made me cringe at how many times I had been a part of that process just because of my position. When I discuss the need for professional learning opportunities for educators, which I do often, I’ve always thought of it in terms of responsibility. As in it’s our responsibility as a district to provide educators with these opportunities otherwise we are asking them to do something we have never taught them to do. While this is true, what I was missing was the feeling of being behind and missing something. Of there being expectations that I didn’t know I could make. The emotions: fear, uncertainty, embarrassment, disconnection.

In order to move on, I had to remind myself of what I did know how to do. I knew how to Google. I knew how to find YouTube videos. I went to the Sharepoint site and began to click buttons. I have always believed that the only differences between people who learn technology easily and the ones who don’t are A) they are willing to push buttons knowing it won’t break and B) they rely on what they already know to get started.

It took me weeks to figure out Sharepoint to the extent that I needed to in order to finish the project, but when I was done I felt accomplished and proud of myself that I was able to create what they needed out of something new. It was a risk taking on a project on a platform I wasn’t familiar with. I recognized the possibility that I would need to admit to someone that I couldn’t do the job they asked me to do which added to my panic. If I claim to be a lifelong learner, I better be one. If I want to model growing in an area that I’m unfamiliar with, I better be willing to take risks. That feeling – the one of shock and nervousness and doubtfulness that I would be able to learn something – will not be forgotten anytime soon. I believe these kinds of experiences, when we notice them and do our due diligence to reflect, is what keeps us grounded and connected with others in our field. It generates empathy. It guides us and helps remind us how we want to treat others and provide a supportive environment so we don’t need to go to school feeling bad about ourselves because we just don’t know.

Image from Smartandrelentless.com

Why Procrastination and Fear Shouldn’t Derail Our Goals

One of my favorite Ted Talks of all time is titled Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator by Tim Urban. Being a master procrastinator myself, I appreciate his description of how my brain is different from a non-procrastinator. Please, take a moment to view the video if you haven’t already. This post will mean so much more if you do.

His sense of humor cracks me up but whenever I watch the video (which I’ve done multiple times) I find myself getting serious at the end when he describes the type of procrastination that happens when there’s no deadlines. Life goals and bucket list items that remain untouched because you never began. He surmises that for this reason we all have a bit of procrastinator in us.

And while I agree that some of it might be procrastination (I’ll go back to school when the kids are older, I’ll learn to fly when things settle down at my job, I’d love to advance but I just don’t have the time) I think a major part of that issue is fear. Fear that you may do something to throw your life so off course that you mess with what is “just fine.” Wherever you are is so much more comfortable than where you might be. There are very few things more powerful at stopping us in our tracks than the unknown, even if that unknown promises to be something amazing.

I’ve spoken randomly on this blog of my public speaking fear. I have a feeling that when I speak and admit the fear to people that they think I might be lying. After all, I’m literally standing right in front of them speaking with what seems to be “confidence”. But, if you watch me closely you’ll see all the tell tale signs of someone who is fighting through nervousness to the point of nausea. Over many years, multiple pieces of feedback, watching myself on video, learning breathing techniques, and taking hold of something that seems so uncontrollable, I have learned to control it. I put my hands behind my back or on my hips so I don’t ring my hands. I go into the bathroom before speaking to take a deep breath. That’s where I recognize my fear and put it in the corner. I know it’s there, I’ll just deal with it after.

This is a tactic that I started on my own without anyone telling me to do it. At first, I had to fake it until I made it. So, I’m writing this blog post to tell you that if you wait for your fear to go away, it probably never will. When people say, “Get over your fear so you can move on” this implies that there is a way to completely defeat fears. If you think you can’t do whatever it is until you move past your fear, you may never try what you were afraid of. And as much as I fear public speaking, I rejoice in just the chance that I may change the mindset or the thinking of someone in the audience which in turn creates a healthier piece of the education ecosystem I am so determined to support. I fight my fear for just the chance of creating a change. A new way of thinking. A new opportunity.

So whether you call it procrastination or fear, there is so much opportunity in moving beyond each of those blockades. Soon after watching the master procrastinator video, I fell upon a video of a 12-year-old little girl who was on America’s Got Talent. She was signing Aretha Franklin and to her utter dismay, Simon stops her in the middle and asks her to sing acapella, in front of the whole audience, which she clearly was not expecting. When you watch the video, her face goes through so many emotions in a short period of time, all of which you may have also felt if you have ever been challenged and scared. But, at 12-years-old, on television, in front of an audience, she takes a few deep breaths and belts out Think. And sometimes I think that when we are trying so hard to be great teachers to our students, there are so many life lessons, like taking control of a situation and addressing you fears, that they could be teaching us if we really paid attention.

5 Ways to Create Professional, Supportive Relationships

As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.

When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.

What types of relationships are there?
Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.

There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.

What does support mean?
Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.

Do I really need to love everyone?
Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.

I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.

5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships

Be consistent
The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.

Be vulnerable
I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.

Be available
When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.

Be non-judgmental
It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.

When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.

Be the person you’d like to talk to
Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.

There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.

Related Teacher’s Aid Podcast
Teacher Isolation: The Elephant in the Room with Dr. Valerie King

Four Types of Self-care

Watch the video review of the Four Types of Self-Care here.

Self-care is becoming as much of a buzzword as social-emotional learning, yet we are really in the beginning stages of this new “initiative” where we use the buzzwords but really don’t have a good grasp on what they mean or how to put them into practice. So currently, we look at each other in staff meetings and when we find someone who is particularly exhausted we ask them what they are doing to practice self-care. Inevitably, they look at us with exhausted eyes and mentally scan their days for proof of anything that may resemble their ability to take care of themselves. When they come up empty they make a joke about drinking wine or emphatically say, “I DO practice self-care” *cue guilty look* probably trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else.

There are a few aspects of self-care that make it difficult to practice. First, self-care can’t be done for you and when you’re most exhausted you’d do just about anything for someone else to be able to help. Unfortunately, self-care at its core is about bringing you back to feeling like you and you are the only one who can do that. It’s that fleeting feeling you get when you’ve settled into a moment and it feels like home. Nobody can do that for you. Second, it’s difficult working in a profession where our entire efficacy is wrapped up in how someone else is doing yet we need to move from focusing on them to focusing on us. Third, we don’t know what to do. This is especially the case if it has been a significant amount of time since we have taken time for ourselves. We forget. Literally, we have no idea what to do.

Self-care needs a proactive approach. Figuring out what works for you and practicing those activities will keep you healthy on a daily basis. Knowing what works before a very stressful time will help you fall into these routines when it may seem like too much work to think about self-care. Also, understanding the different kinds of self-care can help to create a holistic self-care routine that hits multiple areas. Below are the four areas that I’ve identified:

Emotional
Emotional self-care includes things that help you feel balanced. This can be seeing a counselor (which is appropriate even when you’re not struggling), keeping a journal, spending time with friends who build you up and make you laugh, meditation, or focusing on the little things that bring you joy. It can also be practical activities like improving your organizational or budgeting skills which can help reduce stress. For this type of self-care, it’s important to reflect on what makes you happy. Sometimes we fall back on what other people tell us will make us happy instead of reflecting on what actually does.

Physical
Physical self-care is anything you do to support the way your body functions. The most common recommendations I hear for self-care are yoga or running. Exercise is so important and if you’ve never tried yoga or running, I highly recommend finding out if that is something that would work for you. However, there are so many other types of exercise and physical activities for self-care like walking the dog, dancing, swimming, horseback riding, gardening, hiking or water skiing for example. What type of activity you’re doing is less important than the way it makes you feel. I enjoy mowing the lawn with the push mower. It makes me feel accomplished and I enjoy the sound of the mower. While mowing the lawn might be work for others, for me the peace I have while I’m mowing is a type of self-care.

Physical self-care can also be taking care of your body in ways besides moving. Attending to dental needs, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and getting regular physicals are practical ways to attend to self-care.

Intellectual
If physical self-care is supporting your body and the way it functions, intellectual self-care is doing the same for your brain and thought processes. Examples of intellectual self-care are playing board games, reading a newspaper or the news online, doing a crossword, participating in a stimulating conversation with another person about something you find fascinating, or learning something new. When you feel like your mind is expanding and you are thinking deeper about a topic that you enjoy, that activity would probably fall under intellectual self-care.

Spiritual
I often think of spiritual self-care as the things I do that help me feel like I’m striving to be a better person. Usually, these are activities that center me and allow me reflection time to see my growth in any area over a period of time. I also think that self-care in this area can remind us of our purpose or guide us down the path to finding it. Some people may practice their religion as a part of spiritual self-care, but doing activities like taking a moment to feel gratitude, communing with nature, or volunteering for a cause you love can also fill your spiritual cup.

It helps to make lists of what definitely works for you and anything new you would like to try. When you’re feeling good try something new to see if you can add the activity to the “works for me” column. When you’re stressed, you’ll have the list of activities that you know will provide the self-care you need to get back on track. Some activities hit multiple areas of self-care. For example, if you’ve never been kayaking and you try it, you are supporting the way your body functions (physical), learning a new skill (intellectual), and if it makes you happy (emotional) it fulfills three types of self-care.

When we understand how to provide ourselves with what we need to be ourselves, we are more likely to do those things. Yet, there still has to be a high amount of intentionality to ensure we are fulfilling all areas. Creating lists and being prepared will help us continue the self-care when adversity strikes and we’re not sure how we’re going to fit it in. We must promise ourselves that we will take care of us, and it can no longer be acceptable that we are the first ones that we break our promises to. In any profession where other people are the focus, like education, we must be strong in order to provide the best care for the ones we work with.