5 Ways to Create Professional, Supportive Relationships

As I’ve worked with more and more people and my PLN has grown, I’ve realized that I have knack for creating quick, deep relationships with people. I didn’t know I was doing it at first. People would tell me that they felt such a connection to me and I thought it was just because I was friendly. My closer friends would actually ask me how I do it. They didn’t understand why people would reach out to me that I really didn’t know very well and talk to me like we had been close-knit friends in another life. They wanted those kinds of relationships, too. “I’m super funny” I’d tell them. They’d vehemently disagree and want to know the real answer. As I’ve paid more attention to the things that I do both when I work with people in districts and my PLN, I’ve noticed that there are certain characteristics of relationship building that create deeper connections than just being friendly.

When we address the engagement of educators there will always be a piece of engagement that has to do with how people feel about the relationships around them. People stay in an organization for the people. Honestly, you can teach anywhere. You become loyal when the relationships with your colleagues are strong. When we discuss self-care or the need for additional support due to burnout or secondary traumatic stress, there is a need for caring, supportive relationships with people who understand our profession. These relationships need to be built before we need them so they are in place and a foundation of support.

What types of relationships are there?
Your professional learning network are the people that you connect with, both inside your buildings and virtually, who support your goals and aspirations. Sarah Thomas coined the term PLF for Professional Learning Family which, to me, is a subset of PLN. Your professional learning family supports you both personally and professionally and you have tighter relationships with these people than you do your PLN. Beyond that, I also have a smaller group of friends that developed out of my PLN that are more like the family in conjunction with the professional. While we talk about professional topics, we are able to switch from professional to personal and back again easily without issue. They are like my sisters and brothers. I lean on them for support and while some days they might drive me crazy I would go to bat for them at any point for any reason without even being asked.

There are also different purposes for relationships and that’s okay. I have people I’m close to that I know I can have a serious conversation with. I have my go-to people that I need when I’m having an anxiety attack. There are a few people that make me smile just by hearing their voices. Sometimes I need people who can support me through a tough time and sometimes I need people to help me celebrate an accomplishment. They can be the same people, but sometimes they’re not. Different relationships have different purposes.

What does support mean?
Dictionary.com has my favorite meaning of support: To bear the weight of something; hold up. Overall, this is what your PLN does for you. However, support can look a few different ways. It can be the need for someone to vent to when things get hard without needing advice. It can be collaborative in nature, maybe when a risk fails and you need someone to help you figure out where you went wrong before you try it again. It can also be when we have a celebration and just want someone to tell us “congratulations” and validate the hard work we are putting into our goals. It can also be holding someone up when adversity strikes and they don’t know how to get through and the feeling of giving up is the most attractive option.

Do I really need to love everyone?
Education really is such a strange profession. In any other job, you may not be asked to create relationships where there is a great deal of emotion involved, however, in education everything we do is based on emotion: love of learning, love of kids, love of relationships. And while I’m definitely not suggesting you fall in love with your co-workers, there is a level of emotional stress that requires someone who understands how we feel. There is a type of connection that comes with that understanding that is unique.

I also don’t believe that you need to be best friends with all your co-workers, but instead in a caring professional relationship. Even if your personalities do not typically jive, the best cultures in a school are partially based on the educators understanding that they have each other’s backs. This includes administration as well going both ways. The teachers need to believe that the administrator has their back, but the administrator should feel the same from the staff.

5 Ways to Create Supportive Relationships

Be consistent
The first time that consistency was brought to my attention was in the Simon Sinek video Do You Love Your Wife where he speaks of consistency in leadership as being similar to the consistency that one would show in a relationship. It’s not about the extravagant showings but rather of the consistent way you show someone you care that matters. Someone who shows consistency in a positive way is typically reliable and they do the things they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do them. As human beings who crave routine and reliability, a person who is consistent feels safe. Of course, I’m speaking of the ways we can be positively consistent. Someone can also be consistently late, consistently a complainer, or consistently do things that are hurtful. That is not the kind of consistency that breeds healthy, supportive relationships.

Be vulnerable
I am a person who naturally shares their vulnerability. I believe this comes from being extremely empathetic, almost to my own detriment sometimes. When I feel like someone is struggling I will share my own struggles. This does a few things. 1) It models that vulnerability is accepted between myself and the other person 2) It represents me extending trust to the other person and hoping for a safe space and 3) It communicates that not only am I not perfect but I know I’m not perfect. When I have shared vulnerabilities with others I have noticed the look of relief as the acknowledgement that they’re not alone spreads across their face. In one simple gesture, I have created a connection that will be remembered. While the moment may pass with the person not reciprocating the openness, I believe it plants a seed and the connection is there regardless.

Be available
When I was a teacher, I was fortunate to have two principals who had a true open-door policy. The only time the door was closed was if there was a private conversation or a child was melting down. I would waltz in their office with needs that in the grand scheme of things could have been put in an email. If I was honest, it was more about the fact that I needed adult interaction after being with 10-year-olds all day and I was using them for that purpose. When I became a Tech Director, I tried to model this same availability and noticed right away how difficult it was to get back into what you were doing after you were interrupted. I reflected on my principals and how often I did it to them and marveled at how they never seem rattled when I walked in. If they ever had acted that way, I may have been turned off and not gone to them when it really mattered. Part of being available means that you make time even when it’s inconvenient. If you’re walking down the hall and you ask how someone is, you better be ready to stop and listen.

Be non-judgmental
It is very difficult (but possible) to be non-judgmental all the time. Our judgments are based on our biases and assumptions and if we are not constantly checking them, they get in the way of our relationships. When you compound that with our desire for everyone to be doing the best jobs they can for students and that our profession entails giving feedback, it’s easy to slip into judging based only on the information we have.

When we are judgmental the perception is that we feel we are better than whoever we are judging. The fact is that the negativity really starts within us and we are spreading it like a disease to others. Instead, a better option is to seek to understand why someone is the way they are or why they do what they do. Even with this information you still may not understand it, however you can make a more informed decision as to if there is a way to help or how you can be more respectful of their decisions. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten better at this I’ve been able to let go of a lot of animosity and irritation about things that in the long run never really mattered.

Be the person you’d like to talk to
Be open. Be kind. Say things like, “What can I do to help you” or “I’m so sorry that’s happening” or “That is incredible! I’m so happy for you!” Think about what you need when you’re celebrating or your struggling and be the person that you’d want to have next to you. You never know when you’re going to be the difference-maker for someone or if you’re the only person they have to go to. Always assume that they’ve come to you for a reason. One day, it’s possible you might need the favor returned.

There may be times you don’t get along with someone or you have disagreement (or 20) or you feel like all they do is complain and you can only take so much of their negativity, but it’s imperative for the sake of our professional engagement and modeling healthy relationships for our students that we make the effort to have caring professional relationships. Creating these kinds of relationships isn’t always easy. There are times where people reach out to me where it’s not convenient or maybe I’m having a bad day and I honestly don’t know if I can listen to someone else’s bad day. But, I do it anyway and I muster everything I’ve got to provide them with that support. And that is one of the major differences between people who create deeper relationships. The moment you choose to do it anyway means you’re invested. Some of my relationships don’t look the same. There are people I hear from once every six months. There are people I speak with several times a day. Sometimes I reach out to people randomly to tell them I’m thinking about them and wish them well. Sometimes I see someone once a year and we chat like we were never apart. The differences in these relationships don’t make them less deep or rich. They all serve their purpose. I wouldn’t go to all of them with my deepest fears and that’s okay. It’s about making sure that the people around us (both in person and virtually) feel supported and know that there is always someone there who has their back.

Related Teacher’s Aid Podcast
Teacher Isolation: The Elephant in the Room with Dr. Valerie King

When things feel off, it’s time for self-reflection

I have been unhappy lately and I don’t know why. I know I often discuss my depression and anxiety openly but this is not that. It is a general unhappiness, irritability… a constant uneasyness that is difficult to put into words. It’s entirely possible that it’s just getting to that time of the school year. We have spent so much time with our students and colleagues that like any family, we need a break from looking at each other’s faces, no matter how much we love each other. Regardless, whenever I begin to feel this way I know it’s time to take some time for deep reflection and set some personal goals for change. If I can feel that something is off, it’s my job to figure out what it is and change it.

I’m evaluating what I want for my legacy
I have had countless discussions with various friends about legacies and what they mean. I actually believe, especially in education, that we all leave profound legacies. We literally, deeply affect other humans’ lives. There are very few other adults in a child’s life outside their families that have the potential to mold their experience as much. As an administrator, my job is to support teachers so they can support students. But I’ve always believed that leaving a legacy doesn’t equate to people knowing who made the change, just that it was something that improved their experience. I don’t need you to know who I am, I just need you to feel my support. It’s why I have always made sure that credit is given where it’s due. The consulting work I do, one of my great loves because I am able to affect a wider population of teachers and students, is a direct contradiction to that idea. I need people to know my name in order to get hired and spread the support. Deep down, I don’t care if you know who I am as long as I’m impacting your life for the better. The disconnection between my belief that legacies don’t need to be connected to a name and my passion that requires me to sell myself with my name is causing an internal struggle.

I’m sick of complaining
Three times in the last day I have caught myself beginning a sentence with, “You know what really ticked me off today?” By the third time, I was tired of listening to myself say it. I am positive that my attitude affects the people around me and there are times when my energy can change a room (for better or worse). Even as a leader, it’s my job to set the tone, and I’m positive that the tone I want is not one of negativity. While we do need to show ourselves some grace when we need to vent to someone, the venting and griping on my end has been more than I care to admit. My new goal to control this is to determine how much the complaint bothers me and/or if the person I’m going to tell can help me to find a solution. If it doesn’t fit that criterion, I’m going to need to learn how to mentally let it go.  

I need to learn to let go of things I can’t control
This has been a tough one for me. I am not a control freak in the way that I feel like everything needs to be done my way or I need to do everything because nobody else can do it as well as I can. That’s not me. I do, however, have an issue when things happen that are against my core beliefs about education or the way I lead. It irritates me when I see clear violations of these beliefs and I can do nothing to control the situation that’s causing it. The practice of being reactive versus proactive, for example, nearly puts me over the edge. I’d rather go slow to go fast, and when I find myself in a situation where I’m playing cleanup to someone else’s plowing forward, I need to realize that it is a situation I can try to influence for the better the next time but at that exact moment, I can’t control. I can only control the way I react and influence the processes that get put in place for the future.

The greatest power I have is the ability to reflect and find what needs to be changed both for myself to be happier and to be a better educator, worker, and leader. I know that when things seem “off” it is the one part of myself that I can always go back to and find areas to change. It’s important to reflect on situations and the people around us, but the greatest change that we can initiate can actually be found by looking inside ourselves for better, healthier, and positive ways that we can create an impact.


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.

Find the Thing That Feeds Your Soul

I often get asked how I re-engaged back into loving education. And I do love it. Like everyone, I have difficult weeks. Loving what you do doesn’t mean it’s always easy. I sometimes just want to sleep in past 4:30am and some weeks make me question my ability to make a solid decision. I do, however, overall, love it. But while I can tell people how I re-engaged, I can’t tell anyone else what will be the thing that works for them. It’s personal. The book and person who re-engaged me might not do that for everyone. I also think that what works once might not work again. Let’s face it, teaching is hard. To re-engage yourself you need to find the thing that feeds your soul.

I heard this recently from my good friend Jen Casa-Todd and it really made me reflect: what is it that feeds my soul? I would think that would be an important question to have the answer to so you can get more of it. This has been a rough year and an even rougher week prior to the holidays. I have questioned everything from my sanity to my ability to be as supportive as I know I have the potential to be as a leader. I was somewhere between praying Friday would come and feeling guilty for wishing Friday was here because I usually speak out against any kind of countdowns that would make students believe that our happiest of times are spent outside of school.

And then, completely unexpectedly, today one of my former fourth-grade students from the 2011 school year reached out to me via my website to say hello and ask me how I was. She was a sweet, quiet girl with a huge heart and I was thrilled to hear from her.

And I can’t express how much I needed that right at that moment.

There are different types of things that can feed our souls. Maybe it’s spending time with our families or our PLN tribe. Maybe it’s reading a certain quote or book at the right time. It could be diving deeper into a passion or being successful when taking a risk. It can shift depending on what we need in that moment.

Part of what feeds my soul is remembering the students that I taught and how happy they made me. What drives me is knowing I support the people who are having a positive impact on students every day. You want to know how to re-engage? Find that.

I hope I was what that student needed when she needed it in fourth grade, because today, without even knowing, she returned the favor.

Student Managed School Social Media Accounts

Recently, one of my favorite teachers in the high school approached me about students starting student managed social media accounts for the Art Club. My teacher side was ready to go, but my Director of Innovation and Technology side had red flags and alarm bells going off…not because I didn’t want the students to do it but because we often have situations where teachers are asking to do things that are actually against privacy and other technology regulations. I wanted to make sure that the students were set up for success which meant I needed to do a little bit of research first.

As a leader, I’m a big fan of creating a Culture of Yes, but I think sometimes people think that a Culture of Yes means that we can do whatever we want. That’s not the case, which to me, makes a phrase like Culture of Yes a little misleading. It’s really a culture of let’s see how we can make this work, although I understand that phrase isn’t quite as catchy. In technology, in particular, there are rules and regulations that sometimes stop us from being able to do the things that we want to do whether those are district regulations or state/national laws. It’s my job to know those and see how we can still provide a top-notch level of service while working within those constraints. It’s also my job to help others understand an overview of these things so they get why exactly what they want to do may not be able to be done. 

I was so fortunate that the first time I was asked to do this type of thing was with this particular teacher because she may be the easiest person to work with ever. She wholeheartedly trusts what I have to say and knows that if I say it can’t be done there is a legitimate reason. I asked her to give me a few days to do some research and headed to the Twitterverse to see if I could find others who were doing this same thing. I received lots of “go for it!” messages which were awesome, but I needed to know how. Another tech director, George Sorrells, responded to me that warning bells would be going off for him as well, which validated that I had reason to try to frontload this project as much as possible. Again, this wasn’t about finding a way to say no, this was about finding a way to say yes and set students up for success. His idea to set the teacher up with an alias in Google was genius. That way the students wouldn’t have access to another Gmail account and the teacher could monitor all emails/messages/notifications from her own email instead of logging into something else. The students would use the alias account in conjunction with the teacher’s support to set up the accounts. 

The next order of business that I knew needed to happen was to have a meeting with the students along with getting a contract signed, which was another idea that I received from Twitter and Steven Anderson. I set up the students with a meeting. Ideally, the teacher/advisor would have been there as well, but finding a time where four people can meet throughout the day is nearly impossible. I met with her separately. 

During the meeting we discussed these additional points beyond going over the contract:

  • I gave the “with great power comes great responsibility speech.” It’s literally written in the contract as well.
  • Discussed how school districts were held to higher standards than other businesses because we work with children. Reiterated that they were representing the school district and anything that may typically seem ok on a personal account needed to be thought about extra hard.
  • Stressed the importance of staying away from sarcasm or anything that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
  • Most importantly: I told them we wanted them to do this. That it is an amazing opportunity to showcase the amazing things we know they do. That the guidelines that I was going through were to set them up for success. 

The students repeatedly thanked me for helping them and I really wanted to make sure they understood that we were in support of their positive and proper sharing 100%. I wanted them to simultaneously feel proud that they were chosen for this honor, but also know that we were proud of them for taking the leap and sharing their awesomeness. 

In some ways, this may have a follow-up post… something like, “What I’ve learned from allowing students to manage a district social media account.” As this hasn’t been done before in our district before, I am also putting myself knowingly on the line and taking a risk with something I have very little control over. However, we will learn together and move forward, and I am hopeful that this turns out to be an amazing experience for all of us. 

**You can find a copy of the contract here. Feel free to use as you wish. Please give credit when sharing out.

***Also on Twitter, Jennifer Casa-Todd, author of Social LEADia, recommended co-creating a contract with students. I think that is an amazing idea. Unfortunately, due to a time crunch, we weren’t able to do this together, but should definitely be the ultimate goal. I highly recommend if you do this that you get your district Technology Director involved in the process so they can not only be aware but they also will have some input as to certain pieces that need to be in the contract through their specific lens.

 

Leadership and the Art of Quiet Redirect

Yes, I know I had the phone the wrong way. 🙂

The Value We Place on Leadership Traits

I have been paying special attention lately to what I need to do to be a good leader and in order to do that, I need to reflect on the leadership around me, the leadership I see online, and on the qualities that I possess within myself. This seems obvious, right? But many times we do not pay attention to the leadership qualities that others need from us. I believe that good leaders find the qualities that others need from them and adjust to those people rather than remain stagnant.

Within this reflection and in the experiences I’ve had both in being a leader and being lead (or managed, depending) I’ve realized that I value trust first (as most people do, I think), but more than anything else, I need to know that my leader has my back all the time.  If I don’t have that, the rest of their strengths in leadership become a lot less effective to me. When speaking to one of my mentors I asked him the same question. He said he values open communication above all else and a leader having his back is less important to him. Ironically, for me “having someone’s back” is a strength of mine and for him, open communication is one of his strengths. So, two questions have come out of this for me: 1) How can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics and 2) Do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)?

I believe that our ultimate goal should be able to encompass all leadership qualities and then adjust to what others need in a leader by focusing in on those specific needs. In my book Divergent EDU (coming soon), I describe both characteristics of a great leader from 10 Powerful Habits of Highly Effective Leaders (Peter Economy, INC) and my added characteristics of a great educational leader. Some of the traits described in the book are:

Highly Effective Leaders
Confident but not arrogant
Sensitive and responsive to others
Determined
Supportive
Persuasive communicator

Additional Characteristics for Edu Leaders
Empathetic and compassionate
Understands appropriate communicative differences
Recognizes themselves as a servant
Truly and authentically reflective
Recognizes trust as essential

So, back to question number one: how can we be more effective leaders if everyone places a varying amount of value on certain characteristics? I think there are a few things we can do. First, we need to be reflective and know what it is we truly value in a leader and if there are certain leadership qualities we hold above all others. Second, we need to be able to effectively communicate that to our leaders. I truly believe this can be as blatant as “One leadership quality I really value above all else is…” Third, as leaders, we need to be aware enough that the people we lead may need things from us that will take more effort for us to discover and more time on relationships to discover them. And that isn’t their fault for valuing other things, it’s just our responsibility if we want to be servant leaders. It is also our responsibility to ask if we don’t understand what someone needs when they express what is important to them. If you don’t know what I mean by having my back, ask me for examples.

As far as question two: do we value leadership characteristics based on our strengths OR do we value them based on our own past experiences with other leaders (or both)? That I don’t have an answer to. I think that we the reason we develop certain thoughts and ideas is very personal and has more to do with our journey than we might even realize. I know for both myself and my mentor the value we placed on certain characteristics had to do with being lead by people who did not do those things for us. The absence of those qualities made it obvious to us that that’s what we needed. In this case, knowing how you feel best supported and communicating that to your leadership may be more important than knowing how we got there.

I’ve found that, in general, usually when people have specific needs it’s because there was a hole that was created there at some point. Leadership is really no different. I believe we all value certain qualities more than others. The important part is knowing what those are and how we can make sure we are both giving what we can and communicating what we need to really build those trusting relationships that leadership relies on.

leadership quote

When Distrust Follows the Position

I’ve been the Director of Innovation and Technology for two full years in my district and I’m a few months into my third. When I began my position in this new-to-me district, I went in wide-eyed, naive and excited. I had finally made it into an administrative role where I could develop my own leadership style and support teachers which in turn would positively affect the learning for so many students.  I was convinced that everyone would see the passion and excitement I felt, but it didn’t exactly work that way. I immediately ran into a roadblock; I wasn’t trusted by the staff because the position itself wasn’t trusted. I came in looking to move forward, but I was actually already behind the 8-ball.

I don’t honestly know why, and although I can speculate some of the reasonings, spending time doing that does little more than give me something to blame, which isn’t useful. I do know that the majority of the mistrust didn’t have much to do with me personally because nobody knew me. If anything, it had more to do with my outsiderness. When I’ve reflected on the experience, I know that there were a few necessary but unpopular decisions that the previous tech director made that I had to initiate, which fell back onto me and didn’t help the trust factor. That being said, when I began this job, there was an obvious distrust for me that was initially attached to the position I held.

There are definitely times when a new person comes into a district where they inherit the trust (or lack thereof) that was built by someone else. While this definitely isn’t fair, the unfairness doesn’t make it less true. If an administrator (and I’ll pick on them because these are often the positions we see this happen to the most) comes in and their predecessor has been weak in leadership qualities, didn’t spend much time in the classroom, or treated people poorly, the new administrator will have a more difficult time changing the perception of them in that position than an administrator who is replacing someone who had built up the trust already. If a new person replaces someone who was not trusted, there may be camps of people who are anywhere from cautiously optimistic to downright mistrustful, no matter the background or previous track record of the newbie. They will rarely come into the position with the trust they had earned elsewhere or even the trust they deserve.

Again, unfair? Maybe. But, I guarantee that if this happens to you, the best course of action is first to get over the unfairness of it all. Living in that feeling will only grate on your nerves and cause you stress and will do nothing to build up the trust you so desperately want. If anything, the attitude that accompanies that feeling will do quite the opposite.

I read this quote by Patrick Lencioni (author of books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) today:

The key ingredient to building trust is not time. It’s courage.

I slightly (and respectfully) disagree but only because I think you need both.

Have the courage to do the opposite of what you might feel and begin doing all the things you know that good leaders should do. Be kind to people even if they aren’t always kind to you. Let go of negative interactions, be reflective on how communication can be more positive the next time, and try again. And again. And again. Assume positive intent. Surprise people with your proactiveness, your ability to appear when they need you most, and show compassion where others might not. Have difficult conversations as they are a way of building trust (see this blog post). Apologize when you’re wrong, no matter how difficult and pride swallowing that might be. Be strong. Be supportive. Be the leader you would want to have in a difficult time. And just when you’re exhausted and you start to wonder what you’re doing wrong, you will begin to see little changes; more people saying hi to you in the halls or people asking you to join them for lunch just because they enjoy your company. Building trust takes time and being courageous enough to fight our initial negative emotions and do what’s right. We want it to be fast, especially when we don’t believe ourselves to be the initial cause, but the only control we have over when others change their perceptions is the relentless fight we put up in convincing them to change. It has to be us that keeps on a steady path doing the right things and being a foundational support to make that happen. It has taken me two years and three-and-a-half months, and I’m just beginning to getting there.

trust

Are You Playing to Win or Playing Not to Lose?

I’ve been watching my boys play football since they were eight years old. Actually, before that, if you include flag football. And in all their sports I have seen a multitude of different types of coaching strategies, involved parents, athlete attitudes, and how the trajectory of a game can change depending on all of these things. Our high school football team in particular, for many years, had built a culture where the kids didn’t care if they lost because they did it so often that it was a surprise if they won. Therefore, they never played to win, they played to not lose, and there is a difference in mentality when you play that way. A change in coaching has shifted that entire mentality (proving, once again, that a change in leadership can make all the difference.)

Yesterday, I was at my eldest son’s college football game and in the first half, they were playing really well when everything began to go awry. With two minutes left in the half, we were winning, but not by much. Our team began running the ball, and even when it was third and long and obvious that an alternate play needed to be called, they continued to run. They were trying to run out the clock and just make to halftime. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the first down they needed to continue and the other team took the field with 50 seconds left. They marched down and even our own fans could feel their energy. They played hard, calling plays to win, trying to score prior to halftime. Unfortunately for them, they got close enough for a missed field goal, but that drive had effectively changed the momentum of the game even with only 50 seconds to go. One team played to score by halftime. The other team was just trying to hold their lead at halftime.

One team playing to win. The other playing to not lose.

While this seems like semantics, the mindset that comes with each is very different. And it’s a fine line, really. Just the slightest movement can shift you one way or the other. Are you doing one thing, or are you just trying to not do the opposite? Are you trying to be happy, or are you just trying not to be miserable? Are you trying to be positive or are you just trying not to be negative? Are you engaged in your profession, or are you just trying not to disengage from it?

I think it’s natural that our attitudes may shift from day to day depending on things we have going on, but I also think that it’s important to be self-aware enough to check our mindsets and realize where we are most of the time. Also, are we teaching our kids to think this way? Recognize where their mindsets are and learn how to shift them?

And maybe sometimes the line isn’t exactly the opposite but is about being great or good enough. For example, are you trying to empower learners, or are you just trying to teach? Do you recognize that you may be the one person in a child’s life that is consistent and cares, or are you just concerned with teaching the content?

There are no doubt some days where I am just trying to get through the massive amount of meetings I have and put out the fires I never saw coming. There are some days I’m just trying to be and thinking about how I can be better seems like an insurmountable struggle. It’s human to have these kinds of days. But, it’s important to recognize the challenge and try for better the majority of the time. I’d rather lose while trying to win than try not to lose and lose anyway.

 

courage

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.