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.

What Story is Your Communication Telling

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.

Leading From the Heart

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.

Support and the Risk-Taking Cycle

You read about a new technology on Twitter. You love how the teacher used the tech to support learning and empower students. You decide to do a little research; you look at other examples of people using this same technology, gather information about the lessons that went well and discard the ones that don’t align to your philosophy of teaching. You decide to move forward, reinventing a lesson you’ve been doing for 12 years and replacing it with the new, innovative one. The first day you try the lesson it bombs horribly. Half the students couldn’t access what you needed them to and when everyone was finally able to log on, the fire drill went off taking up the rest of the time allotted to that lesson. Frustrated, you spend your prep planning a better way for the students to access what you need them to. The next day you try again and with the help of the Library Media Specialist for some extra hands, the lesson goes smashingly well.

This is an example of the entire risk-taking cycle. The act of risk-taking is not an event. It is a cycle of planning with a final determination if the risk is worth the reward, moving forward, and reflecting afterward. Because risk-taking is a cycle there needs to be support in all the different stages. A thumbs-up and a pat on the back at the end of a successful try isn’t enough. Also, risk-takers need to understand their role in calculated risk-taking and do their due diligence in creating opportunities for themselves or students by thinking through and researching whatever they are trying to accomplish. This understanding should come from building a culture of risk-taking support to enhance any innovative and divergent teaching that might be happening already.

Like with anything, the impact of a risk is on a continuum. There are some risks that we take everyday that require some forethought and planning but not necessarily research and extra time. These risks are smaller and have less impact. Implementing a technology into a lesson, for example. Then there are huge risks that have a higher impact. The decisions impact a higher number of people in a more significant way. For example, creating a blended class where students can choose to come to class or work online most of the time throughout a semester. The amount of time that is spent in the cycle should depend on the impact of the risk. Also, the amount of support given during the cycle may also depend on the significance of the outcome to the risk-taker. In other words, how much of their heart do they have wrapped up in the outcome of the risk?

Risk vs Impact: BC Campus Risk Management Planning

As I work with more and more district leadership, I see a few different types of risk-taking supporters. As with risk-taking, the amount of support that leadership gives is on a continuum as is the amount of support that the risk-taker needs depending on their confidence level. Many leaders are beginning to see the value in supporting risk-taking but where things get hazy is when a risk isn’t calculated, the outcome is negative and everyone is looking at each other like, “how did that happen?”, especially if the impact is high. From the standpoint of leadership, it is in a leader’s best interest to be involved enough with their staff that they know when a risk that falls into the higher impact category is going to happen so they can support from the get-go. From the standpoint of the risk-taker, having the support of leadership should increase confidence.

Leadership who supports throughout the risk-taking cycle will:

  1. Be curious about the new idea. Ask questions. Offer any potential insight or experts in the topic they may know.
  2. Be collaborative while the impact of the risk is assessed and researched. During this time, if leadership pushes back with questions, it is a great opportunity for the risk-taker to embrace their ideas as potential roadblocks and be proactive in planning for those potential failure points.
  3. Be encouraging. There are times when being a cheerleader is appropriate.
  4. Be proud. If you have teachers trying new things that are amazing, be grateful for your ability to support a culture that supports and encourages, and for the teachers that you have who are willing to take those risks and be innovative. Tell them you’re proud of them before they have even gone through with the risk.
  5. Be a model. Take calculated risks. Be open about your worries. Be vulnerable when you fail. Show the people who are afraid what it’s like to do it anyway.

Many times when I discuss leadership “should dos” I will be approached by teachers that their leadership doesn’t act that way and there’s nothing they can do. But, there is. If we believe that leadership isn’t a role, I would challenge those teachers by saying they are the leaders, too. They can be the role models and support their colleagues through the risk-taking process. We all have control over the culture that we desire in our organizations. Teachers can also be those five characteristics listed above. So, if you believe your administration doesn’t do it this way, then show them how it’s done.

The more support that we are able to offer each other during the risk-taking cycle, the more likely we are going to be successful in the new, innovative and divergent teaching methods we want to try. The more we take calculated risks, the more practice we get at being a risk-taker and conquering our fear that something major will go wrong. Risk-taking is more than just celebrating the successes. It’s more about the learning that happened during the process before the success occurred.

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

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.

The Importance of Feeling Valued

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, there’s a personal responsibility as well

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

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

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

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

My Measure of Success Makes Me a Failure

I really believe that in education one of the most fundamental feelings we need to have is efficacy; the need to feel like we make a difference. The need to feel like what we say and do matters. We get into education for this moral obligation to make the world a better place. This is so incredibly important to what we do that when it’s challenged it can throw us off our hinges. No matter the role you’re in, the need for impact is nearly visceral.

To increase the chance that I’ll make an impact, I have developed my core beliefs. This is something that has taken me time, effort, and deep reflection. In short, I have worked REALLY hard on it. My core beliefs are everything I value about education. I also have beliefs that stem off from those core beliefs. Things like “change agents aren’t just the person who does something different…it’s the person who keeps on moving forward when something gets hard.” I have so far been measuring success by my impact, and I’ve been defining impact as moving people forward, making them think new thoughts, and changing their minds when they’re decisions are questionable for teacher support and student learning. The issue is that ultimately, these things require people to take action and change their ways which is something they only have control over.

I’ve discovered there are some semantics at play when you begin to use “success” and “control” and “influence” and you judge yourself by things. What happens when your beliefs aren’t someone else’s, yet you’re measuring your success on their changed mind or actions?

I feel like there are situations where I have been banging my head against the wall. I have employed every tactic I know to try to get through. I have adjusted my communication style. I have taken time to reflect instead of react when I’ve seen red. I have stood by my beliefs but have worked hard to find the things I can do instead of can’t. I have had the courage to advocate for the people who need advocating for. I’ve had difficult conversations. I’ve had to deafeningly accept that my very best effort wasn’t good enough to make an impact. And with that difficult realization, I’ve felt like a failure. I’ve questioned whether I’m a change agent if I can’t make it through the hard parts when that’s what I claim they need to do. Which in turn, makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a complete downward spiral into have I ever made any difference at all?

Then anger. Tears. Anger again. Indifference and acceptance.

The path to disengagement.

What I realized today in a conversation with a supportive friend was that I am measuring my success not by my impact or influence but instead by things I can’t control. I can’t control other people. I can try to influence them, but if I’m measuring my success by someone else’s reactions and actions then I’m going to come up short because I will fail nearly every time. There is a difference between control and influence. I’ve always known this in leadership but I’ve never thought of it in terms of success. To be more realistic, I’ve had to reflect on what I consider success because the feeling of being unsuccessful and a lack of efficacy is unhealthy for my own mental health and my ties to education.

What I can measure my success by is living my core beliefs. I have always worked diligently to uphold them in every way I possibly can because they are what make me up as an educator. They are literally the EDU version of me. Without my belief system, I am not the person I want to be in education. By measuring my success by my influence and the impact that living my core beliefs has, I am measuring myself against something I have control over; myself. I can continue to influence by modeling. My ability to move past my frustration into a healthy space – or just walk away from the situation entirely if my beliefs don’t align – is a form of success. And when I’m beginning to feel like I have no control in a situation, I always know that I have control over exercising the beliefs I hold dearly, and therefore finding a measure of success that makes me feel like I’m making a difference.

The Importance of Communication in Climate and Culture

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

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

Effective communication:

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

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

Impacts of Communication

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

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

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

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

When You Feel You’ve Lost Your Voice

I am a firm believer in blogging to organize my thoughts and create brainspace when I have 1000 ideas and a million thoughts all crowded in that tiny space. It helps me reflect and makes me a better person both professionally and personally as it provides me with some sanity and mental relief.

Recently, in a bout of what I have decided may be the beginning of a little burnout, I’ve found my voice a little harder to find. I sit in front of my computer with my hands on the keys and try to find two coherent thoughts to put together and repeatedly fail. I’ve come to the conclusion that it may be burnout as one of the symptoms of this affliction is disengaging from the things you love most and I love to practice deep reflection. Right now, it’s completely eluding me. I desperately want to. It’s just not there.

I’m struggling with several situations that have created a feeling where I’m not sure my voice matters. I believe that when we know better we should do better…but what happens when people’s versions of “doing better” don’t align? If I preach moving forward and being a change agent and feel that I’m not creating change myself, does that make me a fraud? If I believe that being a change agent isn’t only about doing something different but about continuing to doing better even when things get really hard and then I quit when it seems impossible, am I a hypocrite? And when I can’t find answers to these reflective questions, is it better for me to just not say anything at all?

Sometimes as a consultant and speaker people say to me that one of the surprising realizations about me is that when they read The Fire Within or listen to my The Show Must Go On (mental health) presentations that I seem to have it all together and they wouldn’t have guessed that I was dealing with mental health issues myself. Well, even the people who seem to have it all together have struggles that may not be obvious. Sometimes I feel demoralized. I do stupid things. Two weeks ago I dropped my phone in a public toilet and hurt my foot in the rush to fish it out. A few days ago I made a terrible snap judgment about an Uber driver that turned out to be completely wrong and I felt like a terrible person. Today I struggled for a full three minutes to open the twist cap to a bottle of water only to figure out it pulled off. I don’t always reach my goals and sometimes I cry when I don’t. Apparently, I also get burnt out and question my efficacy. I’m human like everyone else.

The best way I know to deal with bouts of any kind is to develop strategies to help me get through. I’m a concrete thinker and because I’m not naturally organized (a terrible combination), strategies give me the guidance to break out of situations.

My Strategy #1: Find what’s reasonable

When I begin to believe that nothing I do matters, it’s important for me to stop and think about what is reasonable and what is not, and attempt to take the drama out of my thinking. I need to remind myself that I’m not a fraud I’m just struggling. I’m not perfect but that’s being human. For me, this helps convince my brain to just calm down and quit blowing things out of proportion.

My Strategy #2: Write down what I know to be true

For whatever reason, this strategy seems simple but really works for me. It helps me calm my overactive, overthinking brain. I know, for example, that I have worked really hard professionally to get where I am. I know that I am dedicated. I also know that sometimes I equate success with “getting my own way” which isn’t always right. Remembering that part of my personality helps me to see successes beyond any kind of short-sided scope I may have employed.

My Strategy #3: Allowing for grace and forgiveness

My desire to create change and do better/be better for others can cause me to internalize failures that happen in rapid-fire succession where I don’t have time to build myself back up and create a sharp downhill spiral into am I able to do anything right? Allowing for grace and forgiveness for both myself and the people around me (even when they don’t ask or seem to want it) helps me to get out of the funk. It’s not easy to forgive people who don’t seem to “do anything” to deserve it, but the internal fortitude it takes and subsequent success of the forgiveness and moving forward is worth it.

I think strategies for moving forward in any situation are always very personal. Just the act of finding what works can feel like an upward battle. The fact that we are all human and are subjected to negative thoughts, incorrect assumptions, and dropping our phones in the toilet makes it necessary to find ways to be proactive in dealing with times we struggle. It’s important to remember we all bring something to the table and our imperfections make us stronger and better.

When Your Actions Are Misaligned With Your Core Beliefs

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.