When I taught I used to joke about how I wished I would have kept a book all along about putting together words that I never thought I’d have to say to students. For example, “Please stop cleaning out your ear with your pencil. It’s not safe nor sanitary” or “Do we really need to laugh every time I say lunch duty” (the answer is yes, we did – ALL of us). In these cases though, even when I had to speak with students about things that I never thought I’d say but in a more serious conversation, I had a relationship with them first. I relied on the trust I had already built to be able to talk to them about hard things. Those kinds of relationships don’t happen easily nor do they happen overnight.
In my current role, and I don’t know if it’s a small district thing, but as the Tech Director, I am responsible for speaking to students about when they break the rules in the handbook regarding technology. Many times, these are not small infractions and can be serious in their nature and truly do require adult intervention. And I do it because it’s my job but I hate every minute of it for a few reasons. One, I have not had the time to create relationships with these students as at the district level I am not in every classroom every day. Second, I know that in the small interaction I have with these students it’s not going to change their behavior. Third, with every word that escapes my mouth during these exchanges I know that I am destroying any chance of trust in the future. And with everything I believe I am at the core of being an educator, how much I truly believe that relationships are everything and getting to the bottom of students’ behavior is so much more important than punishment, this piece of my job goes against every reason I got into education in the first place.
I swear it’s going to break me.
I spoke to a student the other day and he couldn’t even look at me. Not even once did he make eye contact. I never yell, I simply speak calmly to them about their choices, why they made them, blah blah blah. Honestly, some of them would probably rather I yell. As I was speaking to him, and again in a situation that did require adult intervention, I could hear my words in my own ears and could see him struggling and not looking at me, and I thought what in the world am I doing? I never thought I’d say these words to students. I don’t know if I can do this anymore.
I’m doing most things that I believe anyone would tell me. I’m trying to be proactive in enlisting people to focus on digital citizenship and we have spoken openly about digital leadership (not enough, but we are growing). I try my best to create relationships as much as I can with the students by speaking to them in the halls and greeting them when I pass. I try to get into their class meetings in the high school and speak to them so they know who I am and they know I’m there to support them in good times and in bad. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t nearly enough to create a lasting relationship nor is it enough to keep every student from making a poor choice that needs to result in a consequence. What I’m doing is not enough. In these cases, I’m not enough. I know it. I don’t know how to fix it.
Sometimes we put out these blanket statements in education as a way to encourage us and light our fires…things to remember when we are interacting with kids. Quotes that can simultaneously light me up and make me feel guilty and want to try harder. Even in my book Divergent EDU I mention how we create relationships in every interaction that we have, but our focus should be creating positive relationships versus negative ones and I realize that I am absolutely sucking at this when I need to speak with students about some of the choices they make. With some students, I am only creating negative relationships. I am going against my own advice, for the love of God.
So, I am resolving to get better at this. To try to find a way to flip the story when it comes to these interactions and make time to have more positive relationships with the students from a place where I’m not working with them every day nor do I see them on a regular basis as a district administrator. Those relationships are what I’ve always wanted anyway. It’s what I got into teaching for, and I’m not sure that my EDU heart would be able to take much more of what I’m doing now.
We are beginning to recognize the value of balance in education. Finally, people are starting to understand that handing yourself over fully to the education profession doesn’t end well for anyone. There is no gold star for being a martyr. Throwing yourself in whole hog without balance only leads to burnt out educators who are too tired to do what’s best for students because they never took the time to do what was best for themselves. Now, this can be different in practice than it is in theory. While we understand in theory the need for balance, practicing it ourselves and allowing others to practice it can be another story.
As I have begun to try to find the best way for me to find this (what seems to be elusive) balance, I have discovered a few challenges along the way. Once I finally realized that I couldn’t just wish balance for others but actually needed to model and find it myself, I needed to figure out exactly how I was going to do that. People would ask me my “professional opinion” on what they could do to find it because I often preach it more than I practice…and I never really have any idea because I haven’t tried to find it myself. Another issue I discovered was that in order for me to find my balance, I needed to either quit doing some of the projects I had been doing or I necessitated others help on finishing things I would normally do myself. Which, in turn, caused upheaval in their balance. This became obvious to me when it happened to me on the flip side. People would say no that they couldn’t help with something because they couldn’t take more on. It would cause me to frantically search for someone else to help and fill that spot, so I knew when I told other people the same thing they would be in the same predicament. Yet, if I was trying to find a balance I needed to be okay with saying no AND with others saying no as they tried to find theirs.
Early in this journey, I’ve already learned a few things about attempting to create a more harmonious existence between what I love to do in my work and what I love to do in my personal life. Honestly, the latter has been a learning curve. I have been so obsessed with education for so long that I honestly don’t remember what I like to do when I’m not working. And not knowing or not remembering what should be a fundamental part of yourself is difficult and scary.
My realizations in balancing myself:
Be as nice to yourself as you are to other people (and if you’re not nice to other people, work on that, too) We need to be nicer to ourselves and give each other grace in everything we do: how we work, what we ask of ourselves, even our internal dialogue. I have a bad habit of taking on more because I want other people around me to do less when the reality is that when I take on more then they take on more of other things and we both end up unbalanced. One of my core beliefs is not to ask anyone to do anything that you wouldn’t do yourself. Well, this works for balance as well. If you wouldn’t ask anyone else to take on extra duties that unbalance them, why would you?
Also, taking moments to celebrate goals that are accomplished is important. Take time, no matter how much you have going on, to be happy about things that have gone well. Part of balance is about balancing emotions and feelings. It’s awesome to have the drive but if we never celebrate the accomplishments from our hard work we will never balance the blood, sweat, and tears with the feeling of elation when it all pays off. You would (should) take the time to celebrate your students and other educators. Why wouldn’t you do that for yourself?
Realize that balance is an average I actually think that the word balance is a misnomer. If we are looking for our work and personal life to be perfectly balanced at 50/50 all the time we will continually feel like we are failing because it simply doesn’t work that way. I consider the word harmony to be a better description of what should be happening. Sometimes work will require more of our energy and our personal life will need to take more of a backseat. Other times our personal life will be our focus and work will need to wait. What we need is for these times to average out. Our challenge is recognizing when it’s okay for the switch between work and personal to happen. For some of us, we feel guilty when we move from focusing on work and so we stay there because not working feels uncomfortable.
Quit equating self-care with being lazy or selfish I think this is a shift that’s beginning to happen. It’s difficult, especially for educators who by nature put everyone else first, to both prioritize themselves and understand when someone else is prioritizing themselves because it feels selfish. In reality, when we take care of ourselves and have harmony between work and our personal life, it gives us the energy and stamina to be the best we can be for the people we serve in both worlds. We may need to take on five projects that we do really well instead of ten projects that we do half-way. This isn’t being lazy or selfish, it’s working smarter to do the best job we can.
Balance isn’t just time, it’s about how you spend it I used to think I was better at balance than I actually was because I would come home from work at a decent time and I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I would be home. Working. I would leave work and I would go home to work. I still stink at this and it is my biggest battle. It’s nothing for me to work before I go to work, go to work, come home, work through dinner until I go to bed five days a week and then work all weekend. I would reason that I love what I do so when I was working at home it wasn’t like work. “Work IS my hobby,” I would say. But, I’m wrong. It’s still working.
My new tactic is to choose two days out of the week and one day on the weekend to not work. It is a challenge every minute that I’m not. I practically shake. I imagine all the things I could be doing. Tell myself that watching TV is ridiculous when I could be finishing something important. In order to do this, I had to realize that some things would not get done and I need to be okay with that. I almost feel like it’s a natural selection-like way of prioritizing. What I get done is clearly a priority. What I don’t needs to fall off my plate. Work will always be there. There will never be a shortage and I will never finish everything.
In this journey, I know I am going to have to start saying no to other’s projects, which is going to be difficult. I also know that in finding my own balance, I have a responsibility to others to help them find theirs by being aware of what I’m asking others to do.
My realizations in being respectful of other’s balance
Allow others to set their own priorities Especially in education when we are working so hard to make a difference, anyone who is truly engaged gets excited at the prospect of a new project and the people they have the potential to connect. And rightfully so. The movers and shakers know that they need their PLNs both within their schools and on social media to make most ideas come alive. My challenge is to allow people to set their own priorities. If anyone thinks like me and they are allowing things to fall off their plate and my project needs to be one of those things, I need to keep in mind that my project is my priority but doesn’t mean it’s everyone else’s. It doesn’t mean that my project is of lessvalue because someone doesn’t make it one of their priorities, it simply means I need to find other people to be involved.
Be okay with people saying no This one is a difficult one especially when we’re so excited about something but just as important. I’ve seen on social media where someone has asked for help and there have been two subsequent tweets: the first saying that they think it’s an awesome project but in the spirit of balance they are not going to take it on and second someone responding with that they think it’s such an awesome, worthwhile idea so they will make time. The important realization I had to come to was just because someone decided not to take an idea on, again, doesn’t make the idea less worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the people who are passing on what we think is an opportunity are not working as hard as everyone else. This is one of the areas where we need to recognize and sometimes challenge our own assumptions and accept that I need to be okay with people saying no and even support them in that decision. I have as much responsibility in creating an environment where people have the right to say no to me for their own well-being without consequence as I have in recognizing the need for my own self-care.
The most difficult part of trying to find balance, for me, is the fact that it would seem like taking care of myself and making myself a priority directly contradicts my need to take care of others first. On the contrary, taking care of ourselves allows us to have our best selves ready for the people in both our personal and professional lives. Being able to give 100% to everyone because we have taken care of ourselves is the best thing we can do for the people around us that we care for and serve.
I was reading through this guide by the University of Texas at Austin on thinking and teaching divergently and I came across these reasons as to why divergent thinking is important:
● Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex problems, overcoming the tendency of many learners to only work within the confines of first impressions or latent assumptions. ● Fosters empathic understanding of difference and appreciation of varying perspectives. ● Builds on learners’ curiosity, encouraging experimentation, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and self-expression. ● Develops creativity, which is often cited as one of the most in-demand skills by employers.
How to Teach: Divergent Thinking
I was considering how this connects to my definition of a divergent teacher in Divergent EDU and I believe that if all of these characteristics can develop from divergent thinking for students, the same could be said for divergent teachers (who then, of course, model the traits for students). I’ve found that defining how something will affect students will many times get buy-in, but ultimately people also want to know how some of those same ideas can drive them forward as well. The definition of divergent teachers that I developed from the psychological definition of divergence is “the ability to recognize our own assumptions, look for limitations and challenge our own thinking in regards to teaching and learning. It’s taking an idea and creating new thinking that will facilitate student learning in new, innovative directions for deeper understanding. It is diverging from the norm, challenging current ideas, looking for a variety of solutions, and being willing to fail and grow” (Divergent EDU, 2018). The practice of the definition and the outcomes for divergent thinking for students are very similar. If we had to reframe the question as, “What can divergent thinking do for teachers?” we might see:
Opens possibilities of innovative ways to solve more complex teaching challenges, overcoming the tendency of educators to only work within the perceived confines of district initiatives, first impressions, a fixed mindset or generalized assumptions.
Fosters empathic understanding of differences, varying opinions, and an openness and appreciation of varying perspectives, cultures, and backgrounds.
Builds on educators’ curiosity about both their content and the learning of their students, encouraging branching out in lessons, risk-taking, perseverance through failure, and a heightened awareness of how their own passions and interests drive their teaching and professional learning.
Develops creativity, which has sometimes been diminished by the implementation of canned curriculum and compliance measures.
But moreover, if these aren’t a reason to buy into how divergent teaching and thinking can support your teaching, recently I was moderating a panel on this exact topic (find it here). One of my dear friends and panelists, Rachelle Dene Poth, cited divergent teaching as one of the reasons she was reinvigorated in the classroom and engaged in her profession. In turn, her students were happier, learning, and more engaged in the classroom. This correlation makes sense. When teachers are more curious about their own content and how their students are learning, when they challenge their own assumptions and biases in favor of exploring, when they model taking calculated risks, failing, and adjusting their course, they become more excited about their own journeys and their students follow suit ultimately creating a more enriched learning experience for both the teacher and their students.
While going through the editing process for Divergent EDU my editor left me a comment in an area where I alluded to divergent thinkers using deep reflection to develop their core beliefs. She told me to give readers examples of questions that they could ask themselves to drive deep reflection. My first thought was that deep reflection is so personal, how could I give anyone directions on how to do it? But I started to pay attention to my own line of thinking while I reflect, and I think there are some questions that can be used to guide deep reflection in a variety of situations, even though the path of the reflection is very personal to the one doing it. It took me until I was an adult to figure out how to deeply reflect. Nobody taught me how to do it and the only reason I know now is that I made it a mission to discover what deep reflection could do for me. Deep reflection is also one of the five characteristics of a divergent teacher that Elisabeth Bostwick and I laid out in this blog post.
Deeply Reflective – Divergent teachers recognize that significant growth cannot happen without taking time for deep reflection. They know how they reflect best, whether it’s through writing, meditating, or driving quietly in their car on the way home. They have strategies in place to allow them to take the time and hold reflection in high regards as one of the reasons they are who they are professionally. Deep reflection goes beyond what could go differently in a recent lesson. It also leads an educator down the path of discovering how their own beliefs and assumptions affect what they do in the classroom or how they perceive and communicate with others. Understanding the difference between surface-level reflection and deep reflection is an integral part of divergent thought. Once you understand what you believe, how it affects what you do and how you are perceived, it is easier to change your behavior and push yourself forward.
So often we regard the question, “How could things have gone differently/better?” as the be-all and end-all of reflective thought. It’s a fine place to start but does not necessarily lead us down a path of reflection that will end with how our involvement affected the ending. It still gives us the room to blame other people or things for anything that may have gone wrong. Deep reflection begins with questions that force us to think deeper about a situation. We may use just one of these questions or a few, but the result will be our discovery of adjustments or changes we can make within ourselves to change the trajectory of similar situations moving forward.
Is there something in my own personal or professional journey that is creating an assumption or bias? Lately, there has been special attention brought to how our journeys and personal stories affect the way we act, believe, and teach. I am 100% in support of that being the case (as proven by my book The Fire Within). After all, it’s our differences that make us stronger together. However, it’s also our journeys that have embedded certain assumptions and biases into our thinking. It is nearly impossible to operate completely without them, but it is important that we recognize if there are internal drivers for decisions we make and the interactions we have that may be affecting them in a negative way. Recognizing assumptions and biases and opening ourselves up to testing them in favor of finding alternative ways of handling situations will move us to more effective decision-making and divergent thought.
Are my expectations appropriate? This reflection path will most likely be followed up with additional questions that can range from logistical (Have I provided them with the professional learning opportunities they need to do what I’m asking them to do?) to spiritual (Is there something in their past/current situation that makes this change/decision/action difficult and they may need more emotional support?). In order to answer this question completely, you may need to gather additional information and return to the reflection. Another question that would fit into this category: Do I have the right to have my expectation of this person, or should it be up to them to set their own expectations upon themselves?
What could I have adjusted to create a possible alternative ending? In Wisconsin, if you are in a motor vehicle accident and you have gotten rear-ended, you are still partially at fault. Why? How could this be when you were just sitting there waiting for the light or parked legally minding your own business? Because you were there. Because had you not been in that spot, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Every situation that we reflect on is similar to this concept. We have had a part in the outcome. Sometimes, it’s something major that affects relationships, breaks trust, or perpetuates a negative feeling. Sometimes it’s as little as an unintended initial reaction or facial expression. There is always something that we can adjust in order to adapt to any situation and possibly change the ending. Deep reflection allows to see these things and create an alternative ending when it happens again in the future.
Do I have something to apologize for? A friend once told me, “I don’t like to apologize because it’s hard.” But I feel like if it’s really that difficult, that usually means it’s the right thing to do. Something being hard should never stop us from doing the right thing and sometimes that means swallowing our pride and apologizing. An important follow-up question is: Am I really sorry or am I just saying it to move on? Also, just saying I’m sorry really isn’t enough. When the apology isn’t specific, it loses some of its power. It needs to be truly authentic and the added specificity will help the person know that you’ve given it thought and you know where you went wrong. If you just apologize just to satisfy someone or move past a bad situation, people will know. I have actually said these words: “I’m sorry that I made a decision that didn’t make sense to you at the time. Not only did I allow other situations around me influence the decision that affected you, but I didn’t give you the information you needed to see why I was making the decision. For all that, I am sorry.” Also, just because you reflect and process and decide an apology is necessary, don’t forget that the person you’re apologizing to may need additional time to reflect and process the apology depending on the severity of the situation. Be reflective enough to understand that just because you’ve decided to say you’re sorry doesn’t mean that the other person is ready to accept it.
What did I do that went really right? Deep reflection doesn’t always mean we are looking for ways we have screwed up. It’s just as important to remember and celebrate what went well so we can replicate it if similar situations would come up in the future. If we never celebrate the great things we do we will live with the anxiety that nothing we ever do is right and that’s certainly not true of anyone. The trick is to find the balance between recognizing what went right and what could be adjusted in order to find our areas for growth while still remaining positive about what we accomplish.
True, deep reflection is a skill that needs to be practiced. Some people do it during quiet, alone time and some need to write it down to work through it. It’s not always a fun process as we are looking for ways we can improve or situations we may have negatively impacted, but the amount of personal and professional growth that can be experienced is exceedingly rewarding. There are few other activities that can have such a lasting impact on how our relationships function and our decision-making process.
I have been paying special attention lately to what I need to do to be a good leader and in order to do that, I need to reflect on the leadership around me, the leadership I see online, and on the qualities that I possess within myself. This seems obvious, right? But many times we do not pay attention to the leadership qualities that others need from us. I believe that good leaders find the qualities that others need from them and adjust to those people rather than remain stagnant.
Within this reflection and in the experiences I’ve had both in being a leader and being lead (or managed, depending) I’ve realized that I value trust first (as most people do, I think), but more than anything else, I need to know that my leader has my back all the time. If I don’t have that, the rest of their strengths in leadership become a lot less effective to me. When speaking to one of my mentors I asked him the same question. He said he values open communication above all else and a leader having his back is less important to him. Ironically, for me “having someone’s back” is a strength of mine and for him, open communication is one of his strengths. So, two questions have come out of this for me: 1) How can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics and 2) Do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)?
I believe that our ultimate goal should be able to encompass all leadership qualities and then adjust to what others need in a leader by focusing in on those specific needs. In my book Divergent EDU (coming soon), I describe both characteristics of a great leader from 10 Powerful Habits of Highly Effective Leaders (Peter Economy, INC) and my added characteristics of a great educational leader. Some of the traits described in the book are:
Highly Effective Leaders
Confident but not arrogant
Sensitive and responsive to others
Additional Characteristics for Edu Leaders Empathetic and compassionate
Understands appropriate communicative differences Recognizes themselves as a servant
Truly and authentically reflective
Recognizes trust as essential
So, back to question number one: how can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics? I think there are a few things we can do. First, we need to be reflective and know what it is we truly value in a leader and if there are certain leadership qualities we hold above all others. Second, we need to be able to effectively communicate that to our leaders. I truly believe this can be as blatant as “One leadership quality I really value above all else is…” Third, as leaders, we need to be aware enough that the people we lead may need things from us that will take more effort for us to discover and more time on relationships to discover them. And that isn’t their fault for valuing other things, it’s just our responsibility if we want to be servant leaders. It is also our responsibility to ask if we don’t understand what someone needs when they express what is important to them. If you don’t know what I mean by having my back, ask me for examples.
As far as question two: do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)? That I don’t have an answer to. I think that we the reason we develop certain thoughts and ideas is very personal and has more to do with our journey than we might even realize. I know for both myself and my mentor the value we placed on certain characteristics had to do with being lead by people who did not do those things for us. The absence of those qualities made it obvious to us that that’s what we needed. In this case, knowing how you feel best supported and communicating that to your leadership may be more important than knowing how we got there.
I’ve found that, in general, usually when people have specific needs it’s because there was a hole that was created there at some point. Leadership is really no different. I believe we all value certain qualities more than others. The important part is knowing what those are and how we can make sure we are both giving what we can and communicating what we need to really build those trusting relationships that leadership relies on.
I have a 1-hour commute each day to work. I despise it more than words can describe. It is roughly an additional 10 hours out of my week that I can get very little done. It is a true hour-long commute. Any traffic simply makes it longer. Last summer there was construction on one of the main roads that I couldn’t avoid which added an additional 15 to 20 minutes to the commute. I was so glad this year when the construction seemed to be finished and my commute went back to being only an hour-until they started putting up signs that they were doing more construction. Again, this added 15 to 20 minutes of additional time as the construction workers stop us and wait for oncoming traffic as the two-lane road went down to one. It has made me late to appointments and meetings more than once as it’s never consistent as to when they will stop you and for how long. For someone who already despises her hour-long commute, this can be super frustrating.
Two weeks ago I was on the road for construction and one of the people who was holding the stop sign was all bundled up and looked like she was freezing. We had a freeze warning the night before and after all, this is Wisconsin. I believe it was a balmy 38 degrees that morning. I was crabby, I’m not going to lie. I was running late already. It was cold and even though I’ve never lived there, I’m a Florida girl at heart. I had been sitting in line for 10 minutes waiting for our chance to be able to pass the first section knowing there were at least two more coming up. When I passed the stop sign construction worker I noticed she was intentionally looking at every car, at every driver, and smiling and waving. And this little act seemed so out of character for the workers I had seen previously, so random, that it made me smile. Smile at a time where I began to seriously wonder if the frown creases on my face we’re going to be permanent. It lifted my spirits for a moment. But honestly, I didn’t think of it again for the rest of the day.
The next day I came to that patch of construction and noticed the same lady was there. Again, she looked at every driver and smiled and waved in her stocking cap and her thick coat and scarf – bundled up like it was the dead of winter but still with a warm smile and a wave. I thought to myself I would absolutely hate that job. I would be miserable out there standing for hours moving a sign in the cold just watching people get angry at me. Her actions made it so obvious that happiness in our everyday life is so often a choice. And spreading that happiness to other people is also a choice. I’m not talking about in our worst of times because everyone has the right to feel what they do when something bad happens, but I’m talking about the times in our day when we are put in regular situations that we have little to no control over, we still do have a choice in how we react. Considering her job standing on the highway in the freezing cold inadvertently making people late for they’re morning meetings and things to do, she chose a simple gesture of smiling and waving hoping that it might make one person smile and wave back.
For the last 2 weeks, I’ve watched for that woman because I find her amazing. And I feel a little bit of disappointment when she isn’t there because there are some days that I feel like I really need someone to smile and wave at me.
My friend, Jeff Kubiak, often does something similar to this on Twitter. He does the equivalent of a construction wave when he posts an inspirational saying and there are times that the inspiration is exactly what I need when I need it. His quirky and loveable “Yo” he uses after many of his sentences always makes me smile. Jeff does this for many of us, I’m sure. And if Jeff is anything like me (because I released The Fire Within for much of the same reason) you do something like that and you just pray but it makes a positive difference in one person’s day. Especially when we all know that our days in education don’t always feel like we’re making a positive difference and people don’t always tell us when we are.
Sometimes it’s easy to slip into a pattern where we feel a little numb because we’re so busy and just trying to get through, but those little feels of kindness and positivity and a smile we get throughout the day can make the difference in how our day turns out. And ideally, that positivity would not be something that comes as a surprise or catches us off-guard but would be something that we feel so wrapped up in all the time that we notice when we don’t feel it.
I don’t shy away from taking an opportunity that I see to bring positivity to someone’s day, but I am going to put forth more effort to be proactive in finding those opportunities. If we want to talk about being a change agent or a catalyst for change we have to be the ones to put the effort in that maybe others aren’t willing, but when they see the impact it makes they will be more likely to put forth the effort themselves. Everybody could be a little bit more construction lady; a little bit more Jeff.