The One About Vulnerability, Change and Growth

When I was 18 and moving on to college, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. It was brought on by years of being told I was worthless and stupid by one parent and abandonment issues by the other, and this discomfort kept me from doing just about anything that took me even more outside my comfort zone. Forget risk-taking, I was just trying to get through my day and figure out who I was. That was uncomfortable enough. I didn’t like going places alone. I wanted someone with me so I could imitate them if I didn’t know what to do. I never wanted to stick out or feel like I was different than anyone else around me.

I married when I was 20 and had my first child by the time I was 21. I have never lived alone. I went from my parent’s house to my college roommate to my husband. All of these experiences always left me with someone I could look at to get the answers. I wasn’t enabled in the way that I’d ask them to do it for me (because I never wanted to appear inept), but I was able to watch and learn and ask a question if I felt really brave. If I didn’t have the courage, I would go without until I figured it out myself. I have yet to determine if I understood at that age that it was fear holding me back or stubbornness and the desire to never look stupid or worthless. Probably a little of both.

When I really began presenting and traveling in education, talking about the things I knew how to do, it began to take me even more outside that zone. The first time I called an Uber by myself or got on a flight by myself was scary. Getting a rental vehicle, driving in unknown cities, constantly meeting people for the first time and wondering if my social cues were correct…all daunting. Then there was the first time I cried in an airport because my flight was cancelled and there were no cars to get home and I had nobody to talk me through that could help me take the steps I needed to move on. While it may seem silly to some, these were actual anxiety ridden moments for me. But, I made it through each one, and every time I did I took a moment to feel proud of myself and I eventually began to understand that the moment of anxiety lasts for just that: a moment, but the understanding that I can get through these challenges and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable was the greatest lesson. Understanding my fear. Putting her in a corner. Patting her on the head and telling her to pipe down.

I was in an interview recently where the candidate brazenly admitted that she was afraid of change so she has to be cognizant that when change is coming that she works very hard on moving herself forward. While some types people will think this is a weakness, I was silently chuckling as I have written blog posts about this very thing and my own struggles with change even though I have worked for so long with “Innovation” right in my title. As far as I was concerned, that was the moment I wanted to hire her. I would so much rather work with someone who is vulnerable and self-aware than someone who either truly feels like they are perfect or knows the right words to hide their weaknesses. For example, the people who say there’s always room to grow but then when a topic is mentioned, they’ve already “been there, done that” and have learned all they need to know. I’d take the one willing to admit their faults and how they’re trying to grow in a heartbeat. There’s no competition. Because I have been there and I understand that putting yourself in a place of high vulnerability and facing your fears puts you at a level of self-awareness and personal growth that being “born perfect” will never do.

This week I am in Washington DC with my youngest daughter. We were in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum yesterday and I was watching her walk around in awe at the huge, historic planes and thought how I would have never had the courage I would have needed to have this experience with her had I not taken those steps to move forward so long ago. Sometimes, when people talk about risk-taking, it’s not about the planning a jump off a cliff. Sometimes the risk-taking needs to be whatever it is you need to do to allow yourself the freedom to do the things that set you up for growth and having the tools to move forward. Sometimes it’s baby steps, like summoning your first Uber, that will eventually lead you to a larger reward. There is always a fine line between “I can’t” and “I won’t”. It’s easier to blame others for holding us back than recognizing and dealing with our own losses and fears. However, it’s so much more rewarding to do it anyway.

What Can Divergent Thinking Do For You (The Teacher)?

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.

Building Trust with Challenging Conversations

Educators are nice people. We are taught to be positive and complementary and to give feedback that people can feel good about. What we often miss, though, is the importance of having challenging conversations. I see this most often with administrators, but it is certainly a problem across the board. Teachers, too, need to be able to have conversations with disengaged students or unprofessional colleagues. We all need to be willing, at some point, to have conversations that might make ourselves or the other person uncomfortable. And it’s not only about addressing issues that are seen, it’s also about building trust between the people we work with. The ability to have and to positively receive a challenging conversation helps to build this trust.

When speaking about the need for a challenging conversation, some people will do anything to avoid having it, including allowing whatever behavior to continue. However, the lack of these conversations results in consequences for all stakeholders.

  • The behavior, whatever it might be, will continue
  • Some educators might notice the behavior and begin to see it as acceptable (after all, it’s not being addressed) so they may do it as well
  • The educators that don’t see it as acceptable will be irritated that it’s not addressed
  • These differences create an “us vs them” climate
  • The trust between colleagues could be broken
  • The behavior is no doubt affecting student learning and/or the students may see the behavior

Challenging conversations also need to be had when there is a question as to why something is being done. For example, the way budget money is spent, or the implementation of a new initiative. There is definitely a level of maturity and respect that comes with being able to approach a colleague and ask them why something is happening. The ability to have these challenging conversations will get people facts instead of gossip, increase trust and transparency, and lessen negativity from a lack of information. Although challenging conversations are difficult to have, it is more difficult to work in an environment where gossip and negativity reign due to the inability to ask questions for information.

This kind of conversation holds everybody accountable. I typically find that most people want challenging conversations to happen when someone they work with is not pulling their own weight or doing what’s best for kids. Some people want it to happen, but just not to them. However, if trust is built and the climate and culture support feedback for growth, challenging conversations are more likely to be accepted as what they are… a way for everybody to be working toward the best learning environment possible for kids.

So, the ability and willingness to not only have a challenging conversation but accept the feedback given to the recipient is important in building trust. What does the willingness to have a challenging conversations say:

There is trust between us 
I trust that you will understand, process, and employ my feedback and put it to good use.
Likewise, you trust me to give you feedback when you need to improve, along with asking clarifying questions and for additional explanations.

There is transparency between us
I know I can ask you a question when I feel I need more information.
I know that you will promote a positive climate by asking instead of assuming.

You believe in me
That I can change, I can improve, and I can be better and you’re helping me do that.
I believe you have the potential to grow and be even more amazing.

If I lose my way, you’ll help me find it

Challenging conversations are sometimes necessary to support the people around us. Although they are often looked at with a negative connotation, they don’t need to be a negative experience. They can be based on a solid relationship, trust, and transparency, and result in growth and change for all involved. Moreover, they are necessary in order to create an environment where everyone feels supported and is working toward what is best for students.

difficult conversations

 

When Setting a Goal Isn’t Enough

When you set a goal, what does that look like for you? Do you write it down? Tell the world on Facebook or Twitter to hold yourself accountable? Or do you keep it as a secret and just keep hoping that it works out? Praying that things fall into place? Someone figures out what your goal might be and helps you? Do you take it on like a challenge? Full steam ahead?

My relentlessness and tenacity have always pushed me to continue to work toward something that seems impossible. It is not that the vast possibilities of outcomes of my decisions don’t frighten me, it’s that the fear of not achieving something that I’ve set my mind to is greater than my fear of trying. I am petrified of missing out on something that might be amazing and beautiful and phenomenal because I was afraid to put myself out there. That fear drives me every day.

This does not hold true for everyone, however.

I have a friend who is a teacher. He recently expressed a professional goal to me and at first, I was so excited for him because I could see his passion and the potential he had for reaching it. But, as I’ve further discussed reaching this goal and other issues with him, I’ve come to realize that he has set up every roadblock imaginable for himself to not reach the goals. If you can’t see yourself reaching the goal you set, how do you expect anyone else to? I look at him and see the potential for growth and happiness and it kills me. I see how changes that he might make could make him a happier person, but he is too afraid to take the steps needed to reach the goals necessary to make that happen. He has the tools, has everything he needs, but his fear of making a mistake is greater than his desire to reach his goal. Greater than the fear of not becoming the person he wants to be. So, for the time being, the potential stays only potential. Potential to reach his goal. Potential to be happier. Potential to change his life. But, you can’t create meaningful change on potential alone. At some point, action needs to be taken.

My friend, Melody McAllister, recently sent me this quote:

fb_img_15143362220423053116879138583849.jpg

This quote sums up why I embrace my relentlessness like a good friend. Why I put myself out there, why I make difficult changes and decisions, why I do what I say I’m going to do. Why I work hard and move forward even when what needs to be done ranges from “not exactly what I wanted to do” to “one of the most difficult decisions of my life”. Because at the end of the day, when I look back at everything I’ve accomplished, I would rather be a little bruised than to know that I never showed up in the first place. And when people say it can’t be done, I want to giggle and show them how I did it. The best way to entice me to accomplish something is to tell me I can’t.

I would venture to say that fear is one of the most powerful drivers of our decisions whether it is stopping us from something or begging us to keep going. To say that I continue on my path because I don’t fear failure, fear looking like a fool, or fear making a mistake so gigantic that I can’t go back would be completely inaccurate. I am typically scared as hell that I’m going to do all these things several times over. The difference is that I don’t allow my fear of those things be the driver of my decisions. As I work with more people in the education world, I’m finding that this is a common characteristic of people who have created change in the face of adversity when others said that they couldn’t, regardless if it’s a teacher in a classroom, an administrator of a school district, or a keynote speaker at conferences. We could all use a little more tenacity, a little more grit. After all, what is the point in becoming passionate about goals we set if we are not willing to do what needs to be done to reach them?