The Return to School: Asking the Great Questions

When we think about this fall, the only thing we know for sure is that nothing is going to be the same. Our choices to begin school and determining the way we want to go can vary depending on everything from the number of community Covid-19 cases to typical class size versus the room size to the availability of technology. We had pandemic learning spotlight areas of equity that have always been present in education. Socio-economic disparity, the technology know-how/attitude toward education and background of caregivers, the tech-savviness and prior innovation background of administrators and teachers, and wifi access to rural areas, as examples, have always been challenges that we have needed to address. With pandemic learning, they just became more pronounced and now districts know they need to be considerations moving forward. We have learned a lot about what not to do, but are still unsure what the right answers are. Unchartered territory calls for unchartered answers.

I’ve spoken with districts who are trying to be as innovative as possible moving forward and who recognize that there is a fine line between changing everything up and overwhelming staff and students, and having the desire not to go back to the way things used to be. They understand that this could be our opportunity to do exactly what we have wanted to do in education: disrupt. When I think about our world right now in so many areas, I look at it as if we have taken everything we have and tossed it in the air. We have the opportunity to pull down only the best parts and put them back into place, and replace anything we don’t want with something better. The issue is that “better” can look different depending on the eyes of the beholder, and humanity doesn’t have the best track record of making awesome decisions when the stuff hits the fan.

In search of this something better, I have heard questions being asked that may indicate what seems to be the driving factor going into next year for some people. But as we seek answers to our wonderings, I suggest we also put our own personal-professional agendas aside and take some quiet time to really reflect on what our world has been for the last few months (and foreseeable future). Ask yourself if the questions you’ve been asking are the ones you want to drive the district/your classroom into next year.

Good Questions

There are definitely questions that still need to be addressed. These questions would be ones I’ve heard that sound like:

How can we get more devices to our students? More Wifi?

How are we going to fill the learning gaps for students who struggled/never attended pandemic learning?

What online platform/tools should we be purchasing in case we need to continue online?

How can we create buy-in for teachers to want to be Google EDU certified?

These questions are good. I feel like they are ones that can and should be answered after the great questions have been asked.

Great Questions

The great questions are the ones that pop into your head when you stop thinking like an organizer and start looking at the people around you and asking them how they are and how the decisions of the organization are impacting them. I have spoken with teachers and administrators who took pandemic learning by the horns and enjoyed the challenge of owning it. I’ve spoken to many more teachers and administrators, however, who were exhausted and overwhelmed by the end of the year. Teachers who have said that they can’t do that again and are thinking about leaving the profession because that’s not what they signed up for. Teachers and administrators who were working 17 hour days because they didn’t know how and weren’t equipped to set boundaries for online learning. Students who dropped out of school the second it went online. Frustrated and exhausted parents, especially if those parents were also teachers or admin. So, great questions, in my opinion, address these issues. The human issues.

How is the staff holding up?
I have spoken to very few teachers who haven’t said to me, “I finally got the chance to try (insert tech tool here) and was able to learn it, and I’m so (happy, excited, proud of myself) and that is absolutely AMAZING. If you had that experience I’m so happy for you. All things considered, that truly is quite an accomplishment. My concern is for the people who are also exhausted, and even if they enjoyed learning something new, have a bit of struggle in their heart for education after the massive shift that had to happen in a moment’s notice. I’ve written a few posts about it that can be found here and here. This is one of the questions that may need to be answered by actually looking at people. We don’t take the time to stop and notice very often.

How do we make people feel safe going forward?
It’s interesting to me how the meaning of safe has morphed within the last few months. We haven’t had to worry about active shooter incidents as much, but have had to worry about catching a virus. If a choice is made to return to schools in the fall, we will need to worry about both, unfortunately. This question is going to need to be broken down into many more questions, all of which are imperative to answer. How many students can fit on a bus if they are not wearing masks. If they are? What about the students who ride public transportation typically? Will parents be able to choose to have their child continue to attend school online if they are feeling too unsafe to send them? If so, what happens if the parents need to go back to work and the child must go to daycare? Are they going to be required to attend online sessions/get work done with a daycare provider? Will parents be required to wear masks in schools, and if so, where will they get one if they don’t have one? How are teachers going to teach classes if they have a pre-existing health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus should they get it? How will our decisions impact our staff and students personally? As examples.

How are you going to increase staff’s baseline knowledge of trauma and incorporate embedded SEL competencies into online learning?
I was speaking to one of the districts that I consult with on a regular basis and brought up how SEL was going to be addressed in their online environment if either they needed to be online for next semester OR at minimum in the online program that they are creating. I was excited to hear that they had already contacted their purchased SEL curriculum company to find out how it could be morphed to being online (some of the videos were still VHS, for example). My question is, however, how can we embed SEL experiences into what we already do? I find that if a program isn’t embedded in learning that is already happening, it becomes the next typing program where it’s done when we have an extra 15 minutes to spare only. Also, understanding that SEL and “student engagement” are not synonymous terms and that SEL incorporates deeper competencies (see CASEL.org) is imperative.

In addition, if we return to the brick-and-mortar setting, the level of trauma experienced by some of our students along with the behaviors they might exhibit because of it may be increased. It is also important for educators to be able to recognize some issues with trauma within themselves or understand what vicarious trauma is so they don’t start to detach.

How are you going to fill the learning gaps in educator’s knowledge of online learning so they are more comfortable with online/blended learning?
And some of you may be saying, “Um, you just said asking for buy-in for learning was only a good question.” I sort of did. The difference being that sometimes this question is correlated to how can we make people better instead of the great question of how can we fill in the learning gaps of educators so they are more comfortable and less stressed in what they do. When we do the latter the former will follow as well as people will feel supported. While some may complain about mandatory PDs, the truth is that good professional learning opportunities teach educators what they need to do to do their jobs well, therefore taking some of the stress off the educator from the alternative of “figure out how to do it well because you’re a professional.” Professional learning should support areas for healthy growth and innovative thinking therefore making educators less nervous and apprehensive about getting online again or the necessity of offering a blended option in the fall.

The best questions we ask will always be human-centered. This is especially important in the midst of a crisis. I do believe that there is value in all questions we ask as all of them will provide a more proactive approach to any issue. The questions we ask and focus on, though, will not only drive our decisions but will also send a message as to what we value as a district, school, and classroom. By beginning with and focusing on human-focused questions we will not only be sending the message that our people are cared for and safe and we believe the best learning will grow from that, but we will be setting up an environment where educators and students believe that message to be true.

To learn more about educator engagement and mental health, check out my newly released book Reignite the Flames: Finding our passion and purpose for learning among the embers, the follow-up to my first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning.

Answers to Five Common Online/Virtual Learning Issues

In some of the long term contract work I do with districts, I have the honor of helping them set up virtual learning environments and coach teachers and administrators in best practices for the planning, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that virtual learning requires. Coming from the realm of being a technology director, I can also look at the situation from that lens. Some districts have been working on virtual programs or charter schools for years already, and I’ve been able to see what has gone well and not so well.

In crazy world we live in and have had to adapt to in a short period of time, I have never been more proud to say that I’m an educator. I’ve watched districts with no plans for this type of emergency whatsoever (I mean, how could you possibly anticipate something like this) jump full-force into meeting the various needs of their students. Even my own kids’ district sent out multiple emails from the guidance department with support numbers and also had a plan for students to pick up meals or have them delivered in record time. Teachers have been resilient and persistent in doing what is best for their students and quickly taking on learning management systems and online assessing with all the creativity and awesomeness that educators consistently exhibit. I really am seriously so incredibly proud.

I’ve also seen some of the mistakes that in a well-planned rollout will still sometimes happen, forget that this endeavor was a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants implementation. I thought that I would answer some of the most common questions that I get from teachers as they are going through a virtual implementation hoping that they will help anyone still struggling.

How much work do I give?

When moving to an online course, this is probably one of the most common questions I get from teachers who have a difficult time imagining how their classes should look and how much work their students should have. While typically I would highly recommend to backwards plan a unit, match the plan to the allotted timeframe, and break it up for online, in this sometimes day-to-day planning that we are doing right now because of the situation can make planning look a little different. My next recommendation is to plan what you would typically do in one week in class and migrate that work online while replicating the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that would be happening in class (for more info, keep reading to How do I teach?). My friend, Anne Stanislawski, created this website for her teachers and students to help guide parents and students weekly in their learning. Teachers meet in their PLCs via Zoom and plan a week at a time. As of this blog post, the first grade page is complete and the rest is still under construction.

Common misconception: Worksheets for the class – A common misconception I see in the assigning of work is a teacher will divide the number of minutes of the class by how long worksheets will take to get done (ex: I have 60 minutes and each worksheet I have will take 10 minutes so I will assign six worksheets). In reality, that number of worksheets wouldn’t get done within that timeframe with any direct instruction and student questions, and you most likely wouldn’t assign six worksheets normally anyway. Plus, creating interactive lessons in a variety of other ways will help students gain a deeper understanding of the content you’re teaching.

Common misconception: They have more time – Another common misconception I’ve seen is assigning work that would not be able to be done within one day’s time. For example, it’s unreasonable to assign a student to watch a two hour video and then do a worksheet with it as well. That wouldn’t be able to be done within one day at school, and keep in mind that in secondary this is only one of multiple classes.

Where do I focus?

On yourself and on your students. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace. This is like the beginning of the year all over again. You know your students as learners, but you may not know them as virtual learners which can be very, very different. Focus on establishing norms and expectations online. Create a new classroom culture by building off the ones you were fortunate enough to establish in the face-to-face environment first. The content will come and the more time you spend easing everyone into this new reality the faster you will be able to move later.

How do I teach?

Many times when I get asked this question, it is really about how the teacher provides direct instruction. This is an easy fix. If you would like to provide DI to your students, that can be done either by creating a screencast of a presentation (I’d recommend Screencastify) or whiteboard for students to watch on their own or via a video conferencing system like Google Meet or Zoom. Created videos should be kept to under five minutes.

In looking at creating other activities for students, it’s important to create opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. Want your students to do a Socratic Seminar? You can still do that using Google Meet or Zoom. Want to listen to your students speak in Spanish or play their instruments? You can. Use Flipgrid. Want your students to experience creating their own podcast about how the world is changing and predicting how their life might be different after the virus? Have them create a micro-podcast on Synth.

Practically speaking, there are ways to add accountability to your teaching as well. This tends to be one of the areas that teachers struggle with the most because you can’t actually see and monitor what your students are doing. For example, add interactivity to instructional videos (either self-made or from a variety of sources) with EdPuzzle or Playposit. Add instructional content to any webpage with Insert Learning. Curate information with Wakelet or have students use Padlet for a variety of purposes (including timeline and mapmaking and creating video and voice notes). Also, this is a Symbaloo of digital assessment tools that might be helpful.

There are teams of educators online collecting resources to help with this transition. Rachelle Dene Poth writes amazing tech blogs that are student-centered and focused on collaboration. Jen Casa-Todd, the mother of social media leadership, has been curating resources for online learning. Katie Martin always has phenomenally put-together blog posts with tons of information and resources.

How do I still allow for personalized learning?

I know that the initial reaction for the transfer online was quick and I would imagine, relatively painful. Some educators had never used Google Classroom or any other learning management system before, and teaching and learning online is different than teaching and learning in a brick and mortar classroom. The goal, however, should be to get to a place where we are offering students voice, choice, and pacing options so they are able to customize their learning as much as possible. THIS is an ideal time to allow more autonomy in pacing. Even if it is week-by-week to begin with, removing the constraint where students need to be given the work by 8am and finish by 3pm each day would be an easy step forward.

Also, creating opportunities for students to have voice and choice in their learning is still important. Even baby steps like giving students the choice between three different critical thinking questions to answer in a discussion would be appropriate. Still allow them to show their learning in a variety of ways. Some students might enjoy creating a media project or podcast, and some students might still want to work with their hands. HANDS ON PROJECTS ARE STILL APPROPRIATE! One school district I was working with to move to a virtual program was setting up a maker-like space that had project supplies that students could pick up or get shipped to them if they didn’t have them at home.

What else do we need to remember? And how is this specific to NOW?

Digital Equity
The inequality in digital access goes beyond the number of WIFI hotspots and Chromebooks available. We now are adding in the ability for parents to be able to teach and learn online themselves and the support that they are able to give students both online and offline. All of a sudden, some students may not have anything to eat all day (not even a school lunch). There will be a difference between parents who are able to support students if they have a third grade education or a graduate degree. I have two graduate degrees and cannot do math over an 8th grade level! Some students will have parents who are at home, some will have parents working at home, and some will be spending their days with babysitters or AS babysitters if their parents are still working. The disparity in how students will be operating in the most basic level throughout the days could be vast.

Family time is valuable
Students may have an unprecedented opportunity to spend time with their families at home. This time is valuable and I feel like if they have that availability, it should be respected. I have also seen some people make mention of assigning tasks that the whole family could do. Please be aware that some parents are now unexpectedly homeschooling multiple children plus they may be trying to work from home. In the past having families as part of the learning may have seemed like a reason to give them togetherness time, but being sensitive to the unique situation that might be happening now is imperative.

Students are scared
Students have never seen anything like this in their time on Earth. Neither have most of us. They don’t have a lot of reliable information when it comes to navigating what is going on. If you’re discussing Maslow’s and bringing in the Hierarchy of Needs, school content is going to take a low priority with them if they are really scared as to what is going on. This can be intensified if their parents are suffering any kind of additional economic hardship because of the virus.

As I said, in the long-term consulting contracts that I do, part of my work is with virtual programs and charter schools to plan and implement this new type of learning. If there is anything I can do to help right now, please use the contact me button at the top of the page and let me know.

Our students need us the most right now as humans. As the people they want to connect with. As the ones who remember them every day and talk to them and look them in the eyes. Now, this has become more of a challenge, but it can absolutely be done. Noticing our students and maintaining those relationships with them needs to be our main focus right now. The rest will come.

“If One Only Remembers to Turn on the Light…”

If you’ve read my book The Fire Within, you may remember that the first quote in the book is from Harry Potter. Dumbledore says, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” What I love about this quote is that it isn’t magic that turns on the light. It’s not a student or another magical creature. It’s not one of the people from the Ministry of Magic or some unicorn from the forest. One must remember to turn on the light themselves. When we discuss educator engagement, this same principle applies. If we are waiting around for someone else to re-engage us, it’s simply not going to happen. We are responsible for our own lights, if only we remember to find it and turn it on and watch for the moments that light us up.

I have been working with the School District of Philadelphia in a consultant role and recently spent a week in the district. I have an incredible amount of respect for the administrators and instructional coaches I work with, as well as the teachers and students I have been able to visit. They are seriously wonderful people with exceptional talents. As a consultant, it can be difficult to go into a district and have any hope of creating change. After all, I go in blind with no foundation of a relationship to guide me, but their openness to advice and growth and their accommodative nature has made my job easy. Even down to one of their awesome coaches, Desmond Hasty, going above and beyond, knocking on a food truck window to get me lunch when I hadn’t had time to eat anything all day.

My light-up moment came late in the week when I was walking out of a meeting and heading to a classroom. I hadn’t done anything spectacular that week, but the students had been exceptionally sweet. I had gotten compliments: “You look nice today, Miss” from a fourth grader and the most heartwarming smiles from kids ages kindergarten to seniors that I had never met. I was able to talk a second grader down from running from the classroom and listened to a technology integration coach tell me of a recent experience where she brought the students successfully through a five minute mindfulness practice and the difference it made after I had suggested she dig further into social-emotional learning.

But when I was walking out of the meeting and down the hall I became overwhelmed with emotion and I heard a little voice in my head that said this is why you’re here. And not here as in Philly, here as in the bigger question of why I’m on this Earth. That was the light, and I flipped it on when I was open to noticing it. This is one of the things that keeps me engaged in my job. I harness these feelings and when things get hard I take time to bring them back and balance out the negative with the positive.

There are so many negative things that are easy to get lost in day-to-day: the struggles of the students and how they get brought to school, the politics, building issues, contract negotiations, micromanagement…the list goes on and on. But, there are signs for us to watch for that we are doing the right thing. That we are exactly where we are supposed to be and we are making a difference that few people may be willing to recognize. They are there, but we need to be open to feeling them. And then, when they happen, you can just take a moment to bask in that light and remember why you’re in education to begin with.

Three Ways Resentment Impacted My Engagement As A Teacher

One of the most important graces I gave myself when I began to reengage into the education profession after becoming burnt out was to let go of resentment towards others. This wasn’t an easy task, especially because I had been harboring it for so long. Letting go of resentment is a favor to yourself and letting go of the pent up negative energy is like taking Windex to the lens through which you view the world and cleaning it off. The world is still the same, but it’s so much more pleasant looking at it through a lens that’s not full of grime and negativity.

One of my biggest issues was that I held on to so much resentment that I got myself stuck in a place where I didn’t know how to move forward. I resented myself for not knowing something, and then I resented the people who did know it because I didn’t like that they knew more than me. It’s a tough spot to be in when you figure out that you’re the one holding yourself back. Letting go of this kind of resentment is about empowering yourself to choose the way you want to feel instead of just allowing negativity to take over.

I felt resentment towards myself.
When I was growing up I had this desire to be the best at anything. Not everything, mind you. Anything. I felt like I was never quite good enough to get there. I was friends with the cool kids but was never a part of their group. I worked my buns off in school to get all A’s…except for that one B+. I was never chosen last but never first either. Being mediocre became my nemesis, and to this day I struggle emotionally with the concept of never being anyone’s favorite anything.

That feeling followed me into the classroom only in a slightly different way. I resented myself because I didn’t want to be a mediocre teacher for my students and the focus was on them. I didn’t understand at the time that the students really just needed me to be good at loving them and the rest would come, and had I realized that, I would have known I was darn good at what I was doing as I did love my students like crazy. However, I wanted to be fresh and innovative and constantly felt like I was never the one with the first or best ideas. I resented my inability to be the best for my students no matter how hard I worked, and I worked really, really hard. This feeling of always being behind was part of what eventually contributed to my burnout.

Now I understand that the best isn’t the goal. The goal is to do the best I can possibly do and be happy with who I am and where I fall in the scheme of things. There are still moments where I feel an overwhelming disappointment in myself, but I’ve realized that the difference between being the best and doing my best can also be the difference between disliking myself and having a better chance at being happy in my job.

I felt resentment towards others.
Specifically, the ones who knew more than I did or were better at something than I was. The Art teacher who was always more positive, the fifth grade teacher who had better project ideas, the fourth grade teacher who was considered the innovative one, the second grade teacher who always brought in treats for everyone and food makes everybody happy. I didn’t resent them because of what they didn’t do, I resented them for being better people than I felt I was. And while I was always kind and appreciated them as well, I was jealous that I couldn’t be those people. This was also an issue because I didn’t appreciate what I brought to the table and I was so blinded by my own insecurities that it literally stunted my personal and professional growth. It was easier to be irritated and complain than it was to figure out what I needed to do to be the person that encompassed all the amazing qualities that I noticed in other people.

The biggest favor that I did for myself in this area was to let go of the resentment and begin working on who I wanted to be. I could sit back and see if it would happen to me or I could make tiny changes that would eventually add up to bigger ones. I had to understand that someone else’s success or talent did not diminish my own. On the contrary, keeping those people close enhanced any growth that I was trying to accomplish. Today, I understand that I don’t need to know everything because I have friends who can teach me. If I have a question about AR/VR I text Jaime Donally. If I want to discuss student digital leadership I call Jennifer Casa-Todd. If I want to dig deeper into innovation I message George Couros. The list could go on and on because I know amazingly intelligent people who are masters in their field. I don’t need to be the best because I surround myself with the people who make me better. And that’s what happens when you move from resenting the people around you to truly appreciating them.

I felt a special kind of resentment towards those who didn’t have my same job.
Principals, district administration, consultants, keynote speakers, instructional coaches, even classroom teachers at different levels (elementary vs. middle vs. high)…nobody understood my plight. I felt like they weren’t in my classroom and didn’t understand my kids and so why would anything that they say work? Well, the hard truth of it is that when someone tells me now that something won’t work it takes me only a few minutes to show them a school or classroom where it does. What I didn’t understand was that these people wanted to help me be the teacher I wanted to be not because they thought I was doing something wrong but because they recognized my limitless potential.

One of the gifts that I gave myself during this time was to let go of the resentment for different positions and understand that everyone brings something to education to make it better, we all play a part in supporting students, and I don’t need to know everything. Even Aaron Rodgers has a quarterback coach. Not everything everyone says should be held as gospel, but understanding that there are pieces that may work and ideas that I could try to be a better educator was a huge part of moving forward (and this still holds true).

When I disengaged, it was a keynote by George Couros that helped reenergize me.

When I disengaged it was sharing what I knew as a session presenter and learning from other presenters that helped me grow.

When I was disengaged, it was my PLN that helped me understand my place in education and develop my purpose.

In short, I couldn’t have reengaged without the help of people in all types of positions as each of them brought something to me that I couldn’t have gotten on my own. I see people complaining about others on social media and it reminds me of how I used to feel before I decided that the resentment I felt wasn’t worth the weight on my shoulders that was only being caused by my own inability to not let things go and appreciate people for who and what they are.

It’s okay to want to change parts of you that you don’t like and to rely on other people to help with that. It’s ok to want to be a more positive person. It’s okay to admire what someone else accomplishes. It doesn’t make your accomplishments less important. It’s okay to have the desire to be a happier human. But, on your way forward letting go of resentment for things that just don’t matter is going to be one of the ways you need to get there, and I hope it doesn’t take you a professional lifetime to realize that.

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.

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.

Five Characteristics of the Divergent Teacher

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The idea of divergence is occasionally envisioned as two paths diverging in the wood, perhaps thanks to our friend Robert Frost. However, the idea of divergent teaching is much more than choosing the road less traveled. To clearly define what a divergent teacher is, I (Mandy) adapted the psychological definition of divergent: (of thought) using a variety of premises, especially unfamiliar premises, as bases for inference, and avoiding common limiting assumptions in making deductions. Therefore, the definition I’ve developed for divergent teaching 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)

Divergent teachers create experiences that encourage learners to consider and explore new ideas within a culture where all individuals (educators and students) are supported to step beyond their zone of comfort by developing new ways of thinking and promoting more in-depth learning. In education, we often place emphasis on convergent as opposed to divergent thinking. Although both are critical to the process of learning, fostering divergent thinking promotes the creation of new ideas or unique wonderings, while convergent thinking is necessary for engaging in critical thinking and being able to analyze problems using information and logic. More than ever, in today’s world, we need to empower learners to explore new possibilities and ideas by fostering divergent thinking, expanding on creativity. Carving out time for learners to ponder their curiosities and explore their wonderings inspires our youth to stretch their thinking to ideate. Following ample time to consider various ideas, learners then benefit from reflecting and retooling their work which entails convergent thinking. In my (Elisabeth) book, Take the L.E.A.P., Ignite a Culture of Innovation (to be released in January 2019), we will explore this concept more deeply in addition to how we can foster the conditions to empower learning and inspire a culture of innovation.

We (Mandy and Elisabeth) came together as a result of our shared passion for challenging conventional thinking and sparking innovation through fostering a growth and an innovator’s mindset within a supportive culture that embraces responsible risk-taking, deep reflection, and the ability to demonstrate tenacity as we experience and overcome failure, leading toward improvement.

Divergent teachers have certain characteristics that differentiate them from others. While the definition requires them to challenge current ideas and their own assumptions, there are additional qualities that are ingrained in their divergence. The combination of these attributes results in a well-rounded, innovative and divergent thinker.

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.

Voracious Learner – At all stages of our journey, we embrace learning as an ongoing process. There is no finality, but instead continuous growth. Divergent teachers learn in multiple ways; through reading, reflective writing, peer observations, collaborative conversations, seeking meaningful feedback, and considering how they can improve through goal setting. They are cognizant to learn from their mistakes and retool to move toward growth. With the understanding that transformation doesn’t happen overnight, they frequently immerse themselves in opportunities that foster 

deep learning and then employ new findings to the classroom. In doing so, they identify what works best for their learners and share with colleagues to contribute to the culture of learning.

Tenacious – Tenacity is a hallmark of anyone who assumes the risk and is passionate about moving forward. To fail and repeatedly get back up and try again takes the kind of tenacity that requires a significant amount of strength, reflection and personal growth to achieve. Sometimes failing can be difficult especially if what we tried is particularly far out of our comfort zone or something we really wanted to go right. This trait of a divergent teacher keeps them moving forward when others might quit. Demonstrating tenacity inspires others to understand that just because something is challenging, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth our continued effort. Our goal is to persevere while lending encouragement and support to others as well.

Mentor – Divergent teachers have a sincere appreciation for uplifting and adding value to others to elevate education. They grasp that it’s essential to inspire collective efficacy, producing a positive, long-lasting impact on learner achievement. In addition to providing support through developing trusting relationships, they demonstrate help-seeking as well, contributing to the understanding that we all have strengths to contribute. We often reference collaboration as a necessary component of effective teaching and it is. However, collaboration should be the baseline expectation. Mentorship brings an additional quality to collaboration that focuses on not only the give-and-take of collaboration, but also the guidance, support, and high expectations that only a mentor can provide

Courageous – Divergent teachers understand the importance of taking thoughtful risks. However, just because they understand the unmatched learning that can occur when risks are taken doesn’t mean that they don’t fear taking risks. They may still feel anxiety (especially if they work in a compliance-based culture) but they are courageous to move forward anyway because they understand the reward outweighs the risk. This characteristic often has the potential to spark courage in others too. When we are transparent and demonstrate the risks we’re taking, along with our vulnerabilities, we inspire others to join hands with us, collaboratively creating enhanced learning experiences for our youth.

As we strive to transform learning experiences, developing unique opportunities for students to engage in divergent thinking and leverage their strengths to shine, we benefit from employing the characteristics of the divergent teacher. Embracing these five characteristics has direct implications on the culture of learning, and we simply cannot afford to remain complacent. Innovation and divergence are more than an act, it is a way of thinking and being. Stretching ourselves encourages learners to do the same. As you move forward in your learning journey, which characteristic will you focus on and employ to grow as an educator? 

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Mandy Froehlich is the Director of Innovation and Technology for the Ripon Area School District in Ripon, Wisconsin where she supports and encourages educators to create innovative change in their classrooms. She consults with school districts and post-secondary institutions around the country in the effective use of technology to support great teaching, as a Google for Education Certified Trainer and has presented on similar topics at conferences such as CUE, TIES, FETC and ISTE. Her first book, The Fire Within: Lessons from defeat that have ignited a passion for learning (#FireWithinBook), discusses mental health awareness for teachers. Her book based on an organizational structure she developed to support teachers in innovative and divergent thinking, Divergent EDU: Challenging assumptions and limitations to create a culture of innovation (#divergentEDU), is set for release late 2018.

Elisabeth Bostwick is a teacher who’s passionate about sparking curiosity and unleashing creativity to empower learning. She continues to be a leader in education as she avidly seeks alternative methods to innovate in the classroom and support systemic change for learners to thrive. Driven to elevate education and support educators in their journey, she consults with school districts to support cultivating the maker mindset, leveraging technology to enhance learning, and fostering a culture of innovation. Elisabeth presents on these topics and more at conferences including ISTE, NYSCATE, and Model Schools. Her first book, Education Write Now Volume II, Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture, co-authored with nine other passionate educators, will release in December 2018. In early January 2019, her second book, Take the L.E.A.P., Ignite a Culture of Innovation (#LEAPeffect) will be released.

The Power of Mindset

As I’m working on the mindset chapter for my upcoming book, it has been bouncing around my brain how I can incorporate growth mindset and innovator’s mindset and use them to support divergent teaching and learning. I’ve always known that mindset seems to play a part in so much of what we do. It can make us feel better (or worse) about ourselves, our situations, or the people around us. It can make us believe we can do the impossible or convince us that whatever we try won’t work. The way we set our minds can either be one of our most powerful tools or cause destruction depending all on how we choose to think about something.

Case in point lately…when I took my Director of Innovation & Tech job two years ago, I began a commute that takes two hours a day. Over the course of a work week, I’m in the car for ten hours. With four kids, my day job, two books in the making, and presenting and traveling and such, it had become nearly impossible for me to workout. I gained a substantial amount of weight and have fought to take it off to no avail. I lived and died every morning by the scale just praying the salad I had the day before or the lunch protein shake I drank would help me take some weight off. I was so focused on losing weight I couldn’t see anything else. However, recently I began to think about how crappy I felt and began researching ways to make myself feel better. I started a new “diet” with the hopes that I would have more energy and frankly, be able to go to bed later than 9pm. I started thinking about how it was going to work long-term and changed my mindset about why I would eat healthier. It wasn’t about losing weight, it was about getting healthy. And when I could focus on feeling better and how the healthier food made me not sick, the weight began falling off. Now, I have a long way to go, and I’m not saying that if you change your mindset you’ll lose weight, but I am saying that the change in mindset allowed me to look at the reason I was eating food differently, and that has made all the difference.

Recently, I witnessed a conversation questioning the benefit of teaching a growth mindset to kids as it may not have a significant effect on student achievement. The conversation made me so glad that I believe that I teach all facets of being a person, not only student achievement. According to Carol Dweck’s website, these are definitions of growth and false mindsets:

Growth Mindset: “People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

Fixed Mindset: “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.”

According to George Couros‘s Innovator’s Mindset, the definition is:

Innovator’s Mindset: The belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are developed leading to the creation of new and better ideas.

As I think about the students I had and the teachers I now work with, I want two things for them:

1) The knowledge and awareness to go with mindset so they know how to change it and 2) the belief that they can develop into more than they ever thought they could.

I don’t need a study in student achievement to know how important it is for a person to believe in themselves. They need an awareness of their own thinking and strategies for changing their mindset should they fall closer to fixed on the mindset continuum. I need them to believe that changing the way they think about something, like a diet, can alter their entire outlook on a concept. I feel like the very foundation of what I do as a teacher is to help kids (and as an administrator…teachers) believe in themselves. To have the mindset that they can develop and grow and that they can have new ideas that can lead to better things is one of the most important ways I can support the kids and adults I work with.

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Teacher Demo Days: Trying for a more personalized PD experience

Since beginning my administrative position, I am responsible for more professional development days and have been attempting to provide more choice and opportunity in professional development versus the traditional sit-and-get. Realistically, it’s not always easy. Time is always an issue and a lot of information needs to be disseminated in a short period of time. I know I could flip some of it, but I also know that some people need me next to them to learn technology (which is the way they learn and totally fine) and I also know that while we would love everyone to be a professional and watch the video we ask them to, not everyone will, and usually, it’s the people who need to do it the most that don’t. I could send some information in an email, but I find that if the email is longer than about three sentences, people might not read it. So, realistically, I’m moving toward more personalization for professional development, and so it’s a common topic between myself and my PLN that also plan PD. In one of those discussions with my friend Lisa Lamont (who is amazing and you should definitely follow) she had mentioned she was thinking about a poster session PD similar to what you’d see at a conference with her teachers, and I thought it was a great idea. From there, I pitched it to one of our high school teachers who helped me think through the logistics (I wanted a teacher’s point of view in case I was missing something), and it was a go!

I took the poster session idea and built on it. My goal was to give teachers a glimpse into what other teachers are doing with their students when we don’t have the subs or time that are necessary to actually spend time in classrooms for shared professional practice experiences. I hoped that they would be able to take lessons or strategies from the presentations to use in their own classroom. It’s important to note here that even though I’m the Tech Director, I was not requiring anyone to show anything to do with technology. It was about good teaching strategies and activities. Did some people feature technology? Yes, but only because it supported what/how they were teaching. As a group, we discussed the importance of picking out tidbits they could use even if it seemed initially that the topic wouldn’t fit their content area. They were given this sheet of directions at a half-day in-service in January:


Purpose

To give you a chance to showcase awesome things you’re doing in your classroom with students and learn what others are doing as well.

Vision

We will be using our morning in-service on February 9th to view a lesson, teaching strategy, or teaching tool that everyone will be showcasing. You will be working with a partner, so while your partner explains the activity that you’re showing, you will be walking around, and curating ideas for your own students. You will then switch so there is always someone at your station.

Directions

  1. Choose a partner. That partner should have completed the same or similar activity/concept in the classroom that you can both speak about it from experience.
  2. Choose the idea you’d like to talk about.
  3. Choose the way you’d like to showcase it.
    1. Your choice, examples below
      1. Multimedia: Presentation, using green screen, presenting by modeling examples (digital version of hands-on)
      2. Posters, printouts, tri-folds, models
    2. Jason H can print out posters if needed
    3. Chrissy has tri-folds
  4. Fill out this form (they had a Google Form linked) to tell me what you need set up that day.
  5. Begin working!

Teachers had roughly an hour and forty-five minutes to find a partner and begin planning. Their partner needed to have tried a similar strategy in their classroom so both of them could discuss how it worked. It didn’t need to be exactly the same, but similar enough that other teachers would be able to get their questions answered by either presenter. Teachers had to have a partner because we scheduled the day so one partner would walk the presentations while the other presented, and then they would switch. That way everyone was able to both present and see other presentations. While a few groups did take on three people, I discouraged this. For every two groups that had three people, we were down one presentation, which made for less information being shared.

The partners could choose how they would like to present. They could do an actual poster, do a digital presentation of some kind, or demo an idea like the use of a green screen. They could really present the information in any way that they thought was the best fit. This was my attempt at modeling voice and choice since I believe we should be modeling in professional development the kind of learning we would like to see in the classroom.

Because the actual Demo Day was in February, teachers had a few weeks to perfect their presentations. They were not required to be done that day in January. In looking back, this was a good idea. Because they had more time to work, they were able to think through and create quality presentations rather than just throwing something together. It also gave us time to prepare any apps or devices that they needed.

The day of presenting was structured as follows:

9:30am-9:50am Teacher Set-up
9:50am-10:00am Review of how the morning would look
10:00am-11:00am First presenter round
11:00am-noon Second presenter round
Noon-12:20 Discussion and reflection on the morning

When we came back together, I asked for overall feedback for the day. For the most part, I received positive comments. Teachers legitimately loved both sharing and seeing what others were doing, and many pulled me aside and mentioned specifics on how they might use some of the information from the day.  Here were some takeaways from the feedback:

  • Some teachers would have liked to run their presentations differently. For example, have a fixed time when their presentation would start (more structured) or run their topic as a round-table discussion.
  • There were a few teachers commended for innovative, fantastic learning opportunities for their students, but even from these awesome activities, we were able to find ways that teachers could collaborate to bring it one step further.
  • Some would have liked a “heads-up” to the activity prior to the January day so they could have spent more time looking for a partner and finding common activities.
  • A few said that an hour was too long to view the presentations, but we have a small staff, so I think the larger staff that you have the more time you might need.

I was so excited when some people began to compliment others on their topics and presentations. It was a great way to create some community between our middle and high schools who are in the same building but don’t typically work together. Overall, it was a great experience for both me and the teachers who participated. I was able to see them get excited over what their students had learned and accomplished, and give them a chance to showcase the amazing things I know that they’re doing every day. If I’ve missed information or you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

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Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation & Divergent Thinking: When the supports are in place

This is the fifth installment of the #hierarchyseries. You can find the first post here.

Updated 10/9/2019

The purpose of the Hierarchy of Needs for Innovation and Divergent Thinking is to give a more concrete look at what supports need to be in place to give educators the best chance at thinking innovatively and divergently. Realistically, in looking at an organization, reflecting on these particular support systems is probably going to be more about plugging the holes that might be found in the foundational levels rather than creating them from scratch. For example, you may have teachers with a growth or innovator’s mindset already but may need to “patch” the areas that are predominately a fixed mindset by working with those educators on recognizing growth mindset and swinging their pendulum in that direction. While the idea of the hierarchy should help districts put the supports in place, it still does not “create” innovative and divergent thinkers and teachers. Instead, it gives the base support so educators can focus on new learning, thinking, and doing versus using brainspace for worrying about other issues around them.

The act of becoming innovative is not something you can be forced to do, nor is it something someone can give you. It is a personal choice to move outside your comfort zone and try or learn something new. Again, even with the Hierarchy complete and solid, that is only the support structure. A person still needs to make the decision personally to want to be innovative.

Innovation can be messy
As we move toward more innovative approaches, we need to learn, relearn, fail, try again, and use our knowledge to develop our new thinking. Rarely is true innovation a straight line to the end, and even when we get to the end, are we really done? Once an innovation continues to be used, doesn’t it just become part of the status quo? So, we need to continue the process of moving forward with innovation in order to not become stagnant.

Innovation is personal
I grabbed onto this idea from George Couros. Innovation is personal to each individual. What is innovative to one may not be innovative to another who has already been doing it, and that is ok. Everyone is on their own personal learning journey. Also, innovation is not “either you are or you are not innovative”. The idea of innovating and thinking divergently is a continuum, and each person falls somewhere on that continuum. That’s why when looking at the people around you, it’s best to try to discover what you can learn from that person and how they think differently than you versus trying to compare the amazing things you to do the amazing things they do.

Innovation involves failing
The quicker you accept that it is going to happen, the quicker you’ll begin your journey. Failing is not always easy, it’s not always fun, and sometimes you just want an idea to work. All of that is understandable. However, if failing stops someone from moving forward and trying again, then that’s where the problem lies. Our failures do teach us what doesn’t work. They are valuable and help us figure out what might work when we try again. That kind of learning cannot be replicated by being continuously successful all the time.

Divergent teaching will stem from divergent thinking
Divergence is the act of thinking and doing outside the box, moving outside your comfort zone, acknowledging and challenging assumptions, being forward-thinking, using known and recognizing/learning unknown information in decision-making. Divergent teaching uses divergent thinking in all aspects of teaching; from lesson planning to the moments working directly with kids. A teaching thinking divergently will try a new idea with their students instead of scrapping it because they wonder if they can handle it (assuming and forward-thinking). They will actively seek out new information on their own and not wait for the district to provide all their professional learning. They will allow students to try a new technology that they don’t know themselves because they trust their students will learn to use it without their help (recognizing unknown information in decision-making). They will be willing to make quick trajectory changes when they know that it will be better for student learning.

When the Hierarchy is in place, this gives educators the chance to move toward this kind of thinking and teaching. If they are worried about what their leadership will say if they fail (holes in climate/culture and effective leadership), they are less likely to try the new idea they had. They are less able to expend energy in bettering themselves as professionals because they are too busy with being concerned with the holes in their foundation. Providing people with the support they need in the foundational areas is imperative when expecting them to be innovative and divergent teachers.

The Hierarchy is not something that can be put to rest when most of the holes are filled. It is a structure to be constantly cognizant. One hole can create a host of issues in other levels. A change in leadership, for example, can create a domino effect hole throughout many foundations of the hierarchy, just as a change in leadership might be just what the organization needs in order to fill some of their holes. The Hierarchy is not a finished product, but rather a constant work in progress, similar to the way innovative and divergent thinking are never truly complete. We will always need to continuously improve to move forward, and that kind of innovation and divergence comes from our own motivation to be the best people we can for our students.