Our brains love stories. Especially stories filled with drama and intrigue, a villain, a hero and other pieces that make us talk excitedly and retell the story to others. It’s why so much of our history is built in stories. But stories can be like playing telephone. The first story that is told is often not how it’s told the 22nd time as it tends to change a little bit every time somebody gets a hold of it. When stories are told for entertainment value, this can make the stories more interesting and engaging, but when their purpose is to pass information, this can make them unreliable and potentially dangerous.
I’ve spoken about the importance of communication before in The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture. Communication and transparency are imperative for an organization not only because it provides people with a common ground for building a strong culture but also because trust is the foundation for relationships and part of building trust is having clear communication.
When communication is lacking, people will take a little pieces of information that they do have and they will create their own story. It’s human nature. We pull pieces and create a whole picture with any bits we have. Usually, because our brains tend to think in the negative, the stories will not be complementary and sometimes the people that end up the hero and the villains are maybe not the people who should be in those places at all. But our brains love stories and all the pieces of the hero’s journey and if we’re not communicated with we will make up that story with the information we do have instead of seeking to understand. These stories may then include biases and assumptions and create a single story that may not include actual facts.
As an educator and an entrepreneur I am a huge fan of branding for this very reason. I don’t believe branding to be as much of a marketing ploy as it is a way to communicate. For example, the reason that I wrote Divergent EDU was because I was so afraid of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking to be used as a compliance tool for teachers when it was really meant as a way to provide support. My brand is how I tell people what I believe in and how I operate. It’s based on my purpose and my core beliefs. And if I did not communicate this information I would run the risk of people making up stories about me that weren’t true and it would be my own fault for not communicating because I failed to give them the information they needed for a complete story and instead set them up to use their assumptions and biases to fill in those holes instead.
The same premise holds true for any individual whether it be a teacher leader, student or any organization, classroom, school or district. If you don’t find a way to communicate who you are and what you are about or why you do the things you do, be prepared for people to make up their own stories. Then, be prepared for a game of telephone where the first story that is told is made a little bit more dramatic and misunderstood a little bit more until it has reaches a group of people. What we want people to believe can be hampered by the desire for a good story with heroes and villains and monsters and drama. Clear communication that builds trust and maintains relationships and allows for asking questions and challenging assumptions and biases is the best way to make sure that if a story is told it’s the story that we want told because it truly represents who we are and what we do.
Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead is one of my top five must read books. As I’ve always been a huge fan of talking about the uncomfortable things to make them more comfortable and dispeling the myths that they shouldn’t be spoken about, I think Brown’s take on emotional topics and relating them back to leadership is nothing short of awesome. You want the psychology behind why you armor up and treat people a certain way that you may later regret? Let’s grapple with vulnerability, trust, shame, and empathy. Don’t like speaking of such topics? Gives you a little heartburn and feeling of anxiousness in your heart? You are not alone. All the more reason to recognize and accept the feelings and their impact on the way we relate to others.
One of the areas that stuck out to me was her discussion on armored leadership (leading from hurt) versus daring leadership (leading from heart). She says:
Armored Leadership (Leading from Hurt) One of the patterns that I’ve observed in working with leaders is that many people lead from a place of hurt and smallness, and they use their position of power to try to fill that self-worth gap.
She goes on to say:
Daring Leadership (Leading from Heart) Like most of us, most of the daring, transformational leaders I’ve worked with have overcome hurtful experiences – from childhood illness and painful family histories to violence and trauma. Many are in the middle of deep struggles like marriages that are failing, children in rehab, or health crises. The difference between leading from hurt and leading from heart is not what you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing, it’s what you do with that pain and hurt.
I wrote about adversity and trauma with a similar message in The Fire Within. So many of us have struggles. We have gone through adversities or trauma and have either decided not to allow it to define us or we have struggled to see how the way we feel about ourselves can projected onto others and cause them pain. Even if the adversities are similar, the experiences very real and raw, it is not the adversity itself that defines us. It’s the way that we choose to live our everyday and if we understand that we have the power to write the end of our stories. When we decide to embrace the fact that we have that power, it’s the first step to moving toward healing.
Even with this understanding, however, there can still be underlying issues to address. The challenge with self-worth is that it cannot be filled with or by someone else. Nor can exerting power over someone else fill that gap. I think many of us struggle with finding it within ourselves to give ourselves grace and not base our self-worth on the people we work for or even on the people we love. The people around us, their successes or failures, do not give us self-worth. Our loved ones and how the praise us or ridicule us, do not give us self-worth. It may impact how we feel, but it is not the same as how we value ourselves. When we can’t find it within ourselves, we don’t know where else to go to get it so we look outside ourselves for someone, anyone to fill that hole. But self-worth is an internal struggle. And typically I’ve found that if someone is treating you poorly, it’s more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about you.
And this holds true for leadership. Leadership that is based on compliance and micromanaging is typically, deep down, unsure of themselves and the job they do as leaders and is scared to have difficult discussions with the people that need them for the culture to be stable and positive. Leadership that operates from a space where they are at a minimum comfortable in their ability to utilize their teams to make sound decisions and in their willingness to learn from failure and grow are more likely to support and empower than try to create a culture of compliance and control. Effective leaders understand their own weaknesses and do something about it. They value their own self-worth enough to know that the areas where they are weak will only get stronger with growth and not that it is a hole that needs to be covered so nobody notices it’s there.
Grappling with any emotion that will make us better humans can put us in a vulnerable position that has the potential of making us uncomfortable. However, especially in education, we are constantly, repeatedly asking all the people around us, adults and students, to be better. And if we are not able to deal with the rawness and uncomfortableness of that, how can we expect to give other’s feedback on their growth and expect them to take to heart what we say? It brings me to possibly my favorite quote in the book by Brown (based off a quote by Theodore Roosevelt):
If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback. There are a million cheap seats in the world today filled with people who will never be brave with their lives but who will spend every ounce of energy they have hurling advice and judgment at those who dare greatly. Their only contributions are criticism, cynicism, and fear-mongering. If you’re criticizing from a place where you’e not also putting yourself on the line, I’m not interested in what you have to say.
We often say in education that we need to be modeling behavior. It’s the nice way of saying putting ourselves out there and being ready for our own butts to be kicked because as any risk-taker knows, if you put yourself out there, that will eventually happen. If we are going to ask for vulnerability, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be in the arena. And if we are not, we better quickly find out how to get ourselves there instead of hurdling advice from the sidelines. Ironically, finding our way to this place may involve looking within ourselves at our own self-worth and dealing with our own stories so we are able to grow and move forward.
Any kind of adversity and certainly trauma can impact the way we feel about ourselves. Building resilience, practicing positive self-talk (my next blog post), and becoming aware of how our own thoughts and feelings impact others is not only an important way to begin to heal, but also can create opportunities for us to be better educators, mentors, and leaders.
You read about a new technology on Twitter. You love how the teacher used the tech to support learning and empower students. You decide to do a little research; you look at other examples of people using this same technology, gather information about the lessons that went well and discard the ones that don’t align to your philosophy of teaching. You decide to move forward, reinventing a lesson you’ve been doing for 12 years and replacing it with the new, innovative one. The first day you try the lesson it bombs horribly. Half the students couldn’t access what you needed them to and when everyone was finally able to log on, the fire drill went off taking up the rest of the time allotted to that lesson. Frustrated, you spend your prep planning a better way for the students to access what you need them to. The next day you try again and with the help of the Library Media Specialist for some extra hands, the lesson goes smashingly well.
This is an example of the entire risk-taking cycle. The act of risk-taking is not an event. It is a cycle of planning with a final determination if the risk is worth the reward, moving forward, and reflecting afterward. Because risk-taking is a cycle there needs to be support in all the different stages. A thumbs-up and a pat on the back at the end of a successful try isn’t enough. Also, risk-takers need to understand their role in calculated risk-taking and do their due diligence in creating opportunities for themselves or students by thinking through and researching whatever they are trying to accomplish. This understanding should come from building a culture of risk-taking support to enhance any innovative and divergent teaching that might be happening already.
Like with anything, the impact of a risk is on a continuum. There are some risks that we take everyday that require some forethought and planning but not necessarily research and extra time. These risks are smaller and have less impact. Implementing a technology into a lesson, for example. Then there are huge risks that have a higher impact. The decisions impact a higher number of people in a more significant way. For example, creating a blended class where students can choose to come to class or work online most of the time throughout a semester. The amount of time that is spent in the cycle should depend on the impact of the risk. Also, the amount of support given during the cycle may also depend on the significance of the outcome to the risk-taker. In other words, how much of their heart do they have wrapped up in the outcome of the risk?
As I work with more and more district leadership, I see a few different types of risk-taking supporters. As with risk-taking, the amount of support that leadership gives is on a continuum as is the amount of support that the risk-taker needs depending on their confidence level. Many leaders are beginning to see the value in supporting risk-taking but where things get hazy is when a risk isn’t calculated, the outcome is negative and everyone is looking at each other like, “how did that happen?”, especially if the impact is high. From the standpoint of leadership, it is in a leader’s best interest to be involved enough with their staff that they know when a risk that falls into the higher impact category is going to happen so they can support from the get-go. From the standpoint of the risk-taker, having the support of leadership should increase confidence.
Leadership who supports throughout the risk-taking cycle will:
Be curious about the new idea. Ask questions. Offer any potential insight or experts in the topic they may know.
Be collaborative while the impact of the risk is assessed and researched. During this time, if leadership pushes back with questions, it is a great opportunity for the risk-taker to embrace their ideas as potential roadblocks and be proactive in planning for those potential failure points.
Be encouraging. There are times when being a cheerleader is appropriate.
Be proud. If you have teachers trying new things that are amazing, be grateful for your ability to support a culture that supports and encourages, and for the teachers that you have who are willing to take those risks and be innovative. Tell them you’re proud of them before they have even gone through with the risk.
Be a model. Take calculated risks. Be open about your worries. Be vulnerable when you fail. Show the people who are afraid what it’s like to do it anyway.
Many times when I discuss leadership “should dos” I will be approached by teachers that their leadership doesn’t act that way and there’s nothing they can do. But, there is. If we believe that leadership isn’t a role, I would challenge those teachers by saying they are the leaders, too. They can be the role models and support their colleagues through the risk-taking process. We all have control over the culture that we desire in our organizations. Teachers can also be those five characteristics listed above. So, if you believe your administration doesn’t do it this way, then show them how it’s done.
The more support that we are able to offer each other during the risk-taking cycle, the more likely we are going to be successful in the new, innovative and divergent teaching methods we want to try. The more we take calculated risks, the more practice we get at being a risk-taker and conquering our fear that something major will go wrong. Risk-taking is more than just celebrating the successes. It’s more about the learning that happened during the process before the success occurred.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My friend, Jaime Donally, and I were out to lunch one day at a nicer restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses wear matching black uniforms and they give you fancy water in stemmed glasses. Our waitresses came up and took our drink order and when we asked for a few minutes she said, “I can give that to you but see that large group over there? If I don’t take it now you’ll have to wait.” I was a little surprised at her bluntness but considering Jaime and I were pressed for time, grateful that she warned us. We ordered our food, but we were slow and unsure, and she was clearly trying to hurry us along. I nearly told her what beautiful blue eyes she had (striking really) but she grabbed our menus away and sped off before I could. For the rest of the meal, we had to grab an alternative waiter to get the drinks she never brought and when we asked her to take the bills, she looked at them and walked away. Not knowing how to get our bills paid for, we ended up charging everything to our rooms. We never saw her again.
I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t turned off by the service and her attitude. It was a really nice restaurant. We were expecting extraordinary service.
We could assume that she was the worst waitress ever. It would have been easy to assume that she was not a very nice person. Or, we could assume that it was a couple hours out of her really bad day. It would be two very different ways to view the same situation which results in very different empathetic reactions.
What happened with the waitress isn’t much different than when we go into any other educational setting. Whether it’s us as teachers going to a professional learning opportunity, our students coming into our classroom, our parents sending their children to spend copious amounts of time with another adult (us), we all expect outstanding service. Yet, we sometimes judge people by their bad days. It’s so easy sometimes to focus on the negative, especially when what they do hurts us and we feel like we need to protect ourselves.
For example, how about that parent whose alarm didn’t go off and they run their child to school in their pajamas. Do we see the situation without knowing and think, “Yikes, wake up a little earlier and get your stuff together” or do we think, “Oh my gosh, I wonder if the alarm didn’t go off. That is the worst! Wonder if I can help get their child going?”
How about the co-worker that gets furious in a faculty meeting about a suggestion you make that seems relatively insignificant and you allow your irritation with the outburst to continue beyond the meeting, yet you didn’t know that she stubbed her toe trying to get to her two-year-old daughter that started throwing up that morning and she’s pretty sure it’s broken but didn’t have time to go to the doctor before work and she didn’t want to leave her students with a sub so she’s been hobbling around with the pain all day. Do you hold onto the irritation or go to her and ask if there is something up?
When I look at how I am perceived, I know that I wouldn’t want to be judged by my worst day. I think of days that I’ve flipped my lid when most days I’m fairly calm and even-keel. Or days that I’ve made poor choices due to other things that had happened earlier that day or being overcome with a stressful situation that had really nothing to do with what was happening in front of me when on any other typical day I have my head on relatively straight. What if the only encounter someone had with me was on one of these days? What if someone I know saw that side of me and determined that I was a fraud because they assumed that was my normal? I can’t imagine being judged on my worst day.
While we can’t control how someone perceives us and the judgment they cast, we can control how we internalize someone else’s behaviors and be that model for others. When our students have a bad day, whether it’s individually or collectively, we can wipe the slate for the next day. Because everyone has the right to having a bad day, and we have the power to give them that grace and assume positive intent.
I’ve been watching my boys play football since they were eight years old. Actually, before that, if you include flag football. And in all their sports I have seen a multitude of different types of coaching strategies, involved parents, athlete attitudes, and how the trajectory of a game can change depending on all of these things. Our high school football team in particular, for many years, had built a culture where the kids didn’t care if they lost because they did it so often that it was a surprise if they won. Therefore, they never played to win, they played to not lose, and there is a difference in mentality when you play that way. A change in coaching has shifted that entire mentality (proving, once again, that a change in leadership can make all the difference.)
Yesterday, I was at my eldest son’s college football game and in the first half, they were playing really well when everything began to go awry. With two minutes left in the half, we were winning, but not by much. Our team began running the ball, and even when it was third and long and obvious that an alternate play needed to be called, they continued to run. They were trying to run out the clock and just make to halftime. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the first down they needed to continue and the other team took the field with 50 seconds left. They marched down and even our own fans could feel their energy. They played hard, calling plays to win, trying to score prior to halftime. Unfortunately for them, they got close enough for a missed field goal, but that drive had effectively changed the momentum of the game even with only 50 seconds to go. One team played to score by halftime. The other team was just trying to hold their lead at halftime.
One team playing to win. The other playing to not lose.
While this seems like semantics, the mindset that comes with each is very different. And it’s a fine line, really. Just the slightest movement can shift you one way or the other. Are you doing one thing, or are you just trying to not do the opposite? Are you trying to be happy, or are you just trying not to be miserable? Are you trying to be positive or are you just trying not to be negative? Are you engaged in your profession, or are you just trying not to disengage from it?
I think it’s natural that our attitudes may shift from day to day depending on things we have going on, but I also think that it’s important to be self-aware enough to check our mindsets and realize where we are most of the time. Also, are we teaching our kids to think this way? Recognize where their mindsets are and learn how to shift them?
And maybe sometimes the line isn’t exactly the opposite but is about being great or good enough. For example, are you trying to empower learners, or are you just trying to teach? Do you recognize that you may be the one person in a child’s life that is consistent and cares, or are you just concerned with teaching the content?
There are no doubt some days where I am just trying to get through the massive amount of meetings I have and put out the fires I never saw coming. There are some days I’m just trying to be and thinking about how I can be better seems like an insurmountable struggle. It’s human to have these kinds of days. But, it’s important to recognize the challenge and try for better the majority of the time. I’d rather lose while trying to win than try not to lose and lose anyway.
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.